Valmont Square was almost a relief from the rest of the Old Quarter. The streets opened up into a large, open area surrounded by some of the tallest houses I'd seen thus far in Chateaufaux. A statue of a mounted rider brandishing a saber dominated the plaza's center. The claustrophobic feeling that prevailed throughout le Quartier Rouge had eased, though my nerves were at a fever pitch. Renard's high-handed manner was getting to me, but I could tell that in my heart I believed him; the way the hairs on the back of my neck prickled were mute evidence of that.
"You wouldn't know, Jocelyn, but Valmont Square is the traditional dueling ground in Chateaufaux," he said conversationally. "These abandoned mansions all belonged to the greatest families of the city, and instead of slinking off to some quiet spot for their challenges of honor, they would brazenly walk out and face one another in open view. Of course, now that the former owners are gone, the square is a quiet spot to slink off to, but some poetic license is only natural."
He pointed with his stick across the square.
"We'll go that way."
We cut across the square at the sauntering pace of two idlers out and about. I didn't understand, but played along with what mush have been a ruse. It was not until we reached the far side of the square, directly beneath the edges of the crumbling townhouses, that he grabbed my arm and hurried me down two doors.
"This one," he said very softly, and went up to the door. I didn't know how he knew; there was nothing amiss, no marks or trails of blood. From across the square the house had seemed just another baroquely ornamented mansion irregularly studded with winged beasts.
The door was locked, but Renard had it open in moments with the aid of a skeleton key. I wondered idly what sort of friends he had, to be able to obtain a common thief's tool. He opened the door carefully, so that it did not creak, and we slipped into the house.
"That's better," he said, almost sighing.
"You acted like you were afraid of being seen."
"But anyone watching would have seen us slip along to this house as well, unless they were on the roof."
Renard nodded. He'd set down his satchel and was busy lighting a dark-lantern similar although smaller to the one the gendarme sergeant had carried.
"That's exactly right. It's the roof where our killer is waiting."
The light flared up, and Renard closed the door behind us.
"Though I suspect 'killers' is more accurate."
"More than one? A group? But how?" By the bright light of the lantern I could see that a thick layer of dust covered the floor, the ornamental table, and the door handles. "No one's been in here for years. We're the only ones who have disturbed the dust."
"That's what I'd hoped to find."
"Renard, if you know what's responsible for these crimes and you could establish it from the evidence, why didn't you bring the gendarmes with us?"
"Because they wouldn't have been any use, other than to waste their lives getting in the way."
Then, having played out the game for as long as he could without putting me in the direct path of danger, he explained everything to me. There was speculation, even guesswork involved, but...
"Now do you see why I couldn't bring along those militiamen?"
"You could have gone to St.-Denis and had him arrange a proper task force."
Renard's lip curled up in an arrogant sneer.
"That fool? Mme. de Langois may have some affection for his honesty, but I do not. After the way he treated you, I am surprised that you would, either. I find it quite fitting that we shall resolve in a day what he and his men have embarrassed themselves over for two weeks."
"Presuming that we survive."
"There is that, but what is life without a bit of sport?"
"Life," I replied dryly, and drew my pistol.
We proceeded through the foyer to the main hall and up the sweeping grand staircase. The house was as dark and close as a tomb, the atmosphere thick and foul from having been closed up for so long. The staircase stopped on the third floor; we had to hunt for the back stairs that led to the attics. It was fortunate that the house was in relatively good condition; a rotted-out floor or balustrade could have meant death in as certain if less melodramatic a way as at the hands of a killer.
The trapdoor to the roof was bolted on the inside; Renard slid it back and pushed the door open. I was so glad to be out of the choking dust that I took a deep breath of the cool night air and nearly gagged on the stench of putrefication. The corpses-or at least torn bits and pieces of them, amid cracked and stripped bones-were strewn across the roof.
Renard set down the lantern and drew his silver-chased dueling pistol.
"Four," he said softly. One for each corner of the house. Only the ornate gargoyles weren't perched at the four corners, but crouched at irregular intervals along the roof's edge. It was the asymmetry that had identified the house for Renard. He'd told me what to expect, and yet when the gargoyles turned to face us, eyes burning the sickly yellow of a hag's moon, I found myself frozen, unable to move. A rivulet of drool trailed from one fanged mouth as they slowly moved, flexing their claws as if waking. Horned and winged, each slightly different from the last, they looked as if they were carved from stone even as their bodies moved.
Renard raised his pistol, and the gargoyles exploded into motion, proving their slow movements to have been only a ruse. He pivoted out of the way to his left and fired as the creature hurtled towards him. The ball punched into the side of its head; despite its flexibility the rocklike hide cracked and shattered like chips of stone, the wound weeping a sickly yellowish ichor.
In the next instant I lost track of what was happening to him when one of the gargoyles reached me. Its claws ripped into my shoulder as it bore me to the ground. I nearly gagged on its reeking breath as it snapped its fangs, just missing my face, but the cold, sharp pain of the slashes broke the spell of fear and I fought desperately. My stick was gone, dropped in the rush of the gargoyle's attack, but I pushed with my injured arm and my legs, trying to create space. One of its hindclaws grazed my shin, but I managed to twist my right hand around and fire my pistol. The gargoyle shrieked in shock and pain as the silver ball opened a wound along its side, and I worked the muzzle of the gun up in under its jaw and dischargeded the second barrel.
With no time to relax, I squirmed out from under the monster. Its corpse was hard and stiff already, like a statue, but if so it was a hollow statue because it lacked the full weight of stone and I was able to get free.
Renard was engaged with one of the gargoyles, a light, slender sword in his hand. I recognized the hilt as being the handle of his walking stick; the weapon was a sword-cane. He was using it well to fend off one of the gargoyles, dodging the monster's claws and giving it a taste of the sword's stinging, biting tip whenever it tried to close. The last remaining monster, however, was stalking towards him from behind. I seized up my walking stick and brought the silver knob down hard on the back of the gargoyle's head, just to the left of a row of spines that ran from the crown of its head to the tailbone.
It was like trying to batter through a brick wall. Our pistols' effectiveness and that of Renard's cane had deceived me; the stick snapped off in my hand without making the slightest mark on the creature. My attack did serve the purpose of taking the gargoyle's attention away from Renard; it pivoted with a hateful screech and ripped its claws through my clothes and across my chest with a sweep of its arm.
Renard's sword pierced the throat of the gargoyle he faced and it staggered away, choking on its own ichor. He then turned and thrust, piercing the back of the final monster even as it was leaping upon me. Its weight bore me down to the roof, but it was dead weight.
"Jocelyn, are you all right?" Renard asked, pushing the dead gargoyle off me. He offered me a hand up, and I winced when I reached up with my injured arm, then lowered it and extended the right one instead.
"Largely," I said, breathing heavily. "They're flesh wounds, I think. Besides, you'd probably consider it a good thing. Between the claw slashes and the bloodstains, this coat is finished."
~X X X~
"It was really the most obvious answer," Renard said, leaning back lazily in his seat. "The bodies had to go somewhere. There are, of course, a variety of esoteric or genuinely supernatural ways of doing that, but I considered that unlikely."
"Why?" I asked, tossing the folded broadsheet onto the cafe table. If one was to believe the popular press, we were heroes, although there were also questions being asked about the effectiveness of the gendarmerie and their willingness to protect the ordinary citizens from something two people had dealt with in one night.
"The blood left at the scenes spoke to the brute physicality of the attacks. I could imagine some monster swallowing victims whole or a spirit taking a person into the ether, but not after spilling such amounts of blood. I therefore deduced the existence of a creature striking from above and claiming the bodies for food, but one capable of concealing its nest in the midst of the city, which is not so easy."
"Why didn't you tell me what you suspected?"
Renard sipped his coffee.
"Really, Jocelyn, do you genuinely expect me to prose on like I was Alanik Ray, plucking deductions from thin air, and then find that the evidence proves me wrong?"
"I suppose not. But you were confident enough to bring along enspelled ammunition, to say nothing of your sword-cane."
"The cane is a family heirloom," he dismissed it with a wave of his hand. "As for the ammunition, consider it a way for Professor Gerard to make amends."
"It was largely his fault, after all." Seeing my confusion, he prodded, "The magical duel he fought? In Valmont Square? We were chaffing Claudine about it at Victorine's salon. The killings began immediately after the duel. My suspicion is that those gargoyles had been perching on that abandoned mansion for decades, perhaps centuries, until a stray counterspell set them free. The professor, as has been noted, is an expert in counter-magical effects."
"Wait, but if that was the case, why were they entrapped there in the first place?"
"Well, one must keep up with architectural fashion when one is a leader in society. It's most important that a home in that passe baroque style have as lifelike gargoyles as possible."
I chuckled at the absurdity of the idea-but then again, given the extravagance of some Dementlieuse nobles, perhaps it wasn't absurd after all.
Across the street at the Silver Coach-House, a large stage was pulling from the stableyard around to the door.
"Well, I dare say that is your coach. The charms of Port-a-Lucine await. I suppose that after debauched noblewomen, brutish gendarmes, and feasting gargoyles, you will not be too displeased to bid our quaint little town farewell."
I stood and extended my hand to him.
"You forgot 'new friends,' Renard."
His face brightened, but he did not shake my hand, instead pressing a card into it. A name and address were printed there.
"Then please, with a friend's compliments."
"What is it?"
"My Port-a-Lucine tailor, Jocelyn. Friendship carries burdens, you know, and I'm sure you wouldn't want to embarrass me by the association."
~X X X~
A/N: The original inspiration for this story comes from an old AD&D 1st Edition product, The Book of Lairs. This consisted of one and two-page encounters with various creatures, for a DM to drop into a campaign (indeed, some even in an established adventure). Most of them were straightforward enough, but the "Gargoyle" encounter (written, I believe, by James R. Ward), caught my attention. A murder mystery in an urban setting, but one solved through a "wilderness" skill (essentially tracking the murderer) and one where the "killer" was a monster out for food rather than a madman with a scheme framed in human terms. (I do wonder if Clark Ashton Smith's "The Maker of Gargoyles" was part of the original author's inspiration for this story, though I hadn't read it back then, and the positive resolution of the encounter by heroic PCs is of course no part of Smith's story.) I actually wrote it into a story sometime around 1990, making it into a mystery starring Jocelyn Altariel, a half-elf Sherlock Holmes of his fantasy world. The less said about that the better, but The idea to turn it into a Ravenloft story came after I got a copy of Gazetteer III in 2006. The presence of Alanik Ray in Port-a-Lucine was probably the triggering act. The "Gargoyle" encounter has more than a little of "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" in it (murder mystery committed by non-sentient creature), and the idea of turning it into that kind of case, set in a crumbling, decaying Paris-like society, solved by a Dupin analogue came to me strongly. It got moved south to Chateaufaux simply because I couldn't have it in Port-a-Lucine or I'd have to explain why Alanik Ray hadn't solved it long before Jocelyn and Renard came to investigate (and "he was out of town on another investigation" seemed like such a cop-out...). Like the short stories of "Moonlight and Mists," "Quartier Rouge" was originally posted on the Fraternity of Shadows forum's fanfiction section; I hope the new audience here enjoys it...Happy Halloween!
(I do wonder if Clark Ashton Smith's "The Maker of Gargoyles" was part of the original author's inspiration for this story, though I hadn't read it back then, and the positive resolution of the encounter by heroic PCs is of course no part of Smith's story.)
I actually wrote it into a story sometime around 1990, making it into a mystery starring Jocelyn Altariel, a half-elf Sherlock Holmes of his fantasy world. The less said about that the better, butit is where Alec's last name comes from.
The idea to turn it into a Ravenloft story came after I got a copy of Gazetteer III in 2006. The presence of Alanik Ray in Port-a-Lucine was probably the triggering act. The "Gargoyle" encounter has more than a little of "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" in it (murder mystery committed by non-sentient creature), and the idea of turning it into that kind of case, set in a crumbling, decaying Paris-like society, solved by a Dupin analogue came to me strongly. It got moved south to Chateaufaux simply because I couldn't have it in Port-a-Lucine or I'd have to explain why Alanik Ray hadn't solved it long before Jocelyn and Renard came to investigate (and "he was out of town on another investigation" seemed like such a cop-out...). Like the short stories of "Moonlight and Mists," "Quartier Rouge" was originally posted on the Fraternity of Shadows forum's fanfiction section; I hope the new audience here enjoys it...Happy Halloween!