Fiction Archive | 1/16/2009
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Black Crusade: Prolouge
By Ari Marmell

The following begins a new serialized tale from Ari Marmell—author of the forthcoming Agents of Artifice. Be sure to check back each week for the next chapter in this ongoing tale of Ravenloft!


Author’s Note

While the majority of the details portrayed over the course of Chapters One through Three are purely fictionalized, the background circumstances are, alas, entirely factual.

On July 15, 1099, the "pilgrims" of the First Crusade—led by, among others, the Duke Godefroy de Bouillon of France—collapsed portions of the defensive walls of Jerusalem, putting an end to the siege of the city. The next twenty-four hours were among the bloodiest in the history of the Crusades, as seemingly-maddened knights and soldiers slaughtered an enormous portion of the Holy City’s population: Muslims, Jews, and even some Christians; men, women, and children. Nobody was spared the violence and anger of the crusaders; and while historical accounts claiming the soldiers waded in blood up to their ankles are almost certainly exaggerations, they still represent a chilling view of what happened that day.

This is not fiction, much as we might wish it were. This is history.

And if there are Dark Powers, scouring the many worlds for those "worthy" of their embrace, surely such horrors committed in the name of God would be exactly what they sought.

Prologue

They moved through a world of endless mist, and the mist moved around them in turn. It cradled them like a mother guarding an errant child — or a cyst forming defensively around an intruding splinter.

The vardos of Clan Hanza, late of Barovia, originally of gods-alone-knew-where, appeared single-file from the sea of white. Gypsies, they were called by some; Vistani by others, who pretended to know them. They trod the Mists via paths invisible to other mortals, heard the deep secrets of the world whispered on the winds, and Saw truths to which others remained blind.

Today they followed a road—if road it could be called—well known to them. Each of their great wagons swayed, the wheels running across divots and potholes unseen in the heavy fog. The bright paints that rendered each wagon distinct from the next were muted, as though viewed through cataracts. The creaking of the wheels and the jingle of the harness bells were muffled, barely audible from one vardo to the next. Even the scent of the horses seemed to waft from afar, as if carried by some distant wind, rather than from the animals a mere few feet away.

The horses shivered, and not just from the clinging cold and damp. They wore blinders so they might not realize that they moved through the proverbial kingdom of the blind. Before each team of two walked a young Vistani girl, one hand on her horses’ halters to guide them. Blouses and skirts of white blended perfectly with the surrounding haze. The girls went barefoot, that they might feel the path beneath them, and many walked with eyes firmly shut. It made no real difference in the Mists, and besides, these were Vistani. The Hanza always traveled thus, and they needed no eyes to See.

Atop the second wagon, with a bright red and purple shawl wrapped about her shoulders, Violca sat on a wooden bench. She cast the driver, Milosh, irritated glances with every bump and jolt. He, watching from behind the traditional long mustache of the clan, ignored her; his full attention was focused on the horses under his direction and the young girl who currently guided them.

Before her last birthday, Violca would have been down there with the other girls, one hand on the horse’s bridle guiding the wagon through the unseen byways. Now that she had come of age, however, her aunt had decreed it time for Violca to train her Sight toward other pursuits.

And so she sat, her long hair tied back from her face with a blood-red ribbon. Parchment and charcoal were spread across her lap. She sketched design after design, waiting for inspiration, for that one image out of a dozen—or a hundred—that resonated within her soul. Since time immemorial, every Vistani seer had crafted her own tarokka, her own little window—blurry and indistinct as it was—into the future. Alas, Violca might well be on the road to becoming a gifted Seer, but as an artist, she found herself sorely lacking—and the constant shifting of the wagon was not helping. She’d hoped the disruption might be less up here beside the driver, but if anything it was worse than it had been inside beneath the impatient gaze of her aunt. Violca couldn’t even form an acceptable tower to represent the Prison; how could she hope to produce the Hangman, the Dark Lord, the Mist, or any of the other major arcana?

A frustrated exhalation, somewhere between a sigh and a grunt, muffled the dull thump as Violca slammed the sketches down on the bench beside her. That, at least, was enough to draw a sidelong glance from Milosh; evidently he was not completely oblivious to her presence. In answer, Violca muttered, "Why don’t you try it for a while, and I’ll pretend to drive the horses?" The driver snorted and turned away once more.

Violca closed her eyes and breathed deeply, taking in the damp scent of the Mists. To most who dwelt in the domains through which the Vistani often passed, the Mists were a source of fear and awe, the mother of nightmares, bringer of death. To the Vistani... Well, to the Vistani they might sometimes be the same , but the seers knew enough, Saw enough, to traverse the Mists. The Vistani understood them—in their blood and in their souls, if not in their minds.

Or so they had always believed. Today, the Hanza learned otherwise.

It began with the wind, gusting without warning, tearing through the caravan, sending hair and shawls lashing out like whips. It howled in their ears, shrieked through the narrow windows of the vardos—the agonized cry of a world in pain. Reins fell unheeded to the earth or the drivers’ wooden benches as the Vistani clapped hands to ears in a futile effort to escape the hideous sound. Horses reared, snorting and whinnying in panic.

It was not a cold wind, but the warm breath of a fevered cough. Sand and grit, hot enough to burn exposed flesh, rode the air like a swarm of hornets, and stung as viciously. The Mists themselves did not move at all. Never so much as a single swirl, an eddy of haze, formed in the howling tempest.

Violca half-stood against the driver’s bench, leaning into the wind. Her eyes blurred, stung by the grit and the force of the gale, so that all she could see were the vaguest of shapes. Frantically she rubbed at her face, trying to clear her vision.

Over the voice of the wind, she heard another sound: soft, -sporadic. It seemed to build gradually, though it must, in truth, have taken only a few seconds.

Hoofbeats.

The lead wagon lurched into motion, its horses spooked into flight, fading into the Mist even as Violca watched. Her jaw dropped in horror as she heard a faint scream, silenced by the clattering hooves almost before it had begun. Her cousin Simza had walked as guide to those horses, had stood before them when they broke into a panicked gallop. Violca wanted to call out, to scream her cousin’s name, but her voice froze in her throat, leaving a lump of ice. She swore that she could smell Simza’s blood upon the road even through the gale, spilled by sharp hooves and unforgiving iron-sheathed wheels.

The lead vardo faded until it was little more than a deeper darkness in the Mists. But it did not simply vanish into the unending white: instead, at the very limits of vision, it lurched, shifting violently to the left. Horses shrieked, wood splintered, and the entire wagon began to topple out of sight as though plummeting down a steep incline. But the Hanza had driven this pathway many times before, from domain to domain. There was no slope anywhere near!

Violca’s eyes, unless they lied to her, told a different tale. She watched, her face numbed by the wind and the horror of what she saw, as a faint shape—the driver, it must be—attempted to hurl itself free of the teetering wagon. For an endless instant, he hung in the air as the vardo turned upside-down beneath him; then he fell, his feet snagging in the wheels as they rotated. His legs bent in unnatural directions, and he was dragged out of sight, flailing, along with the wagon itself. Violca could only offer her thanks that the howling wind drowned out the sound of screaming, the splintering of wood and bone.

In the days afterward, Violca could never remember actually making the decision to slide down from the driver’s bench. She remembered the sudden thought that her own vardo would be next over the incline. She remembered the crunch of grass under her feet—Grass? But the road had been dirt and mud!—as she landed. She remembered the stink of the horses, at least one of which had evacuated its bowels in fear, and the pink-tinged froth that covered the animals’ mouths. She ducked beneath a hoof even as the horses reared, and leaped for the harnesses, dragging them down with her own weight. The young Vistana who guided this team—a simpering girl named Aishe whom Violca had never much liked—hauled on the harness as well, as much to keep her feet as to control the beasts. The pair of them, along with the driver’s tug from above, accomplished what the poor souls on the first wagon could not: they kept the horses from bolting. The vardo remained in place, the wind whipping around it. Its presence prevented those behind from charging to their doom as well.

Leaving Aishe and Milosh to tend to the horses, Violca crept forward through the Mist, her steps tentative. She stretched out her hands to warn of any obstacles and maintain her balance. Still, she stumbled when the ground suddenly dropped away beneath her. She pitched forward with a sharp cry, and it was only the sudden clasp of a hand on her shoulder that prevented her from following the first wagon down the slope. She looked back, her expression a comical mixture of terror and gratitude, into the deeply lined, old-leather face of her aunt: Madam Tsura, raunie of Clan Hanza.

"Patience, child. I would lose no more family today."

The old woman shuffled forward to stand beside her niece; her heavy shawl and skirt hid her movements. Yet even those thick fabrics danced of their own accord in the powerful winds, giving Tsura the appearance of an inkblot spilled across the image of the world. Behind them, Loiza and Pesha, Tsura’s eldest nephews, clutched heavy cudgels to hand and glared about for any threat to their family.

The arrival of her aunt calmed Violca greatly, as did the realization that the horses no longer snorted and screamed behind her. Whatever Madam Tsura had done—or perhaps it was merely her presence—the beasts were as thoroughly relaxed as Violca herself.

"We will go together, and we will go with care," Madam Tsura announced.

Violca glanced meaningfully at her cousins, then looked away. All three were in agreement. Tsura was too old, too precious, to be risking herself by clambering down steep hills in search of answers to the mysteries of the Mists.

But not one of the three was about to try to tell her that.

Pesha silently offered up his cudgel as a walking stick—his only suggestion that the hillside might be too much for the raunie. Tsura took it with a smile of thanks—her only concession that he might be right. Then, with her nephews on either side to support her if she needed it, and Violca before her to warn of holes or slick terrain, the old woman proceeded after the lost wagon.

Two steps down the hillside, the shrieking wind ceased with as little warning as it had begun. Violca, braced against the constant pressure, nearly toppled forward once more, wrenching her back as she caught herself. Wincing against the pain, she glanced behind. The wind still blew across her aunt and cousins.

Skirt, shawl, and shirts flapped like sails at sea; hair stretched back as though reaching for something to which it might cling. Most disturbing of all, the gale that buffeted them clearly came from the direction in which they now walked. Yet despite the evidence that she could see, and the logic that the wind could not simply have stopped where it did, that it had to come from in front of her, Violca felt no trace of any breeze.

Turning, Violca saw that the Mists, too, abruptly stopped. For a long moment she stared at the clear view of what lay ahead, oblivious to those who traveled with her.

She did, indeed, stand on the incline of a steep hill, one covered in grasses beaten brown by a heavy, petulant sun. The land stretched out before her: rolling hills eventually gave way to wide plains of similarly scorched grass and shrubs. The sun, settling down beyond the horizon, stared her in the face, making her squint. But she thought she could see the burnt grasses smooth themselves to sand farther west, and the faintest hints of a forest in the distant north.

It was a land like any other—nothing special, nothing abnormal. Except that it couldn’t be here. It hadn’t been here! The Hanza had passed this way a dozen times—Violca herself on three or four occasions—and she knew that it should be many more miles before they reached the nearest domain. Here, there should be only the Mists.

Crunching dying grass beneath her feet, Madam Tsura was at her niece’s side. Even the simple effort of traversing a few feet of hillside had the old woman panting, and a few gray hairs had come loose from her scarf and were caught in the wrinkles of her face. For silent seconds she glanced about her, even as Violca had done, and then shook her head.

"It’s impossible, Aunt Tsura." Violca didn’t even realize she’d reverted to her childhood method of addressing the tribe matron. Tsura didn’t bother to reprimand her for it. "This cannot be here," she added.

"And yet it is, or so your eyes tell you And mine tell me. But forget what you see, child. Tell me what you See."

Violca drew in a deep breath and held it, taking into her a piece of the land’s essence. The air was warm, fragrant, thick with the scent of distant greenery and more distant sand. She knelt in the brown grass, reached out, and let the blades run through her fingers like a lover’s hair. Her eyes fluttered closed. The Vistani called it the Sight, for that was how best to describe it to outsiders, to giorgios. But the Sight was no more limited to a seer’s vision than were her dreams. Like them, the Sight traveled along whatever bridge of the senses it chose. Violca opened them all, waiting for this strange realm to speak to her in whatever language it might prefer.

It spoke in Silence.

Had the ground dropped away, the sky turned black, and all the world faded into oblivion, Violca could have felt no more alone than she did in that moment of open empathy. She felt nothing but gusts of heat, and a warm trickle on her face that reminded her disturbingly of blood; both were gone almost before she knew they were there. She tasted smoke, sand, and bile before her tongue went numb. Images flashed before her eyes. She Saw desert oases, rich green vales between parched mountains, a great city that reached for the heavens with debased, smoke-stained towers, while catacombs beneath it ran with blood. But the images held no substance, no depth. They were paintings on a flimsy canvas, masquerading as reality. And she heard...

Nothing.

It was not merely the wind that stood silent here, but the land itself. If a bird sang, a dog growled, a woman whispered, or a man laughed, Violca could not hear it. The land was empty. The land was hollow.

The land was waiting. The wind that marked its birth, howling through the Mists, was absent here because the land itself held its breath. And waited.

Violca shivered violently and opened her eyes. Her vision wavered briefly before the hillside snapped harshly, painfully, into focus. Only when she saw Pesha did the young Vistana realize that he held her upright, had clearly lifted her when she was not aware. Her skin was numb, as though she had danced naked through a snowstorm; she could not feel his touch.

"This place..." she whispered, staring at her aunt.

"Yes, child?"

"It’s empty. It has no—no..."

Tsura nodded slowly. "No soul."

"It has no people, then?" Loiza asked. Violca felt herself jump; she’d forgotten he was there.

"Oh, it has people," Tsura replied. "And it does not. The land stands before us, as real as we, and yet it is not."

"I do not understand, Madam Tsura."

"No, you wouldn’t. I am not certain I do, either. The land is here, but it is not... complete." The old woman stared into the distance, then turned her attention back to her niece. Violca brushed her cousin’s hand from her waist to stand, albeit trembling, on her own. "What else did you feel, Violca?" her aunt asked.

The younger woman had not been consciously aware of anything else, but once asked, she recognized precisely what her aunt meant. "Distance," she replied without hesitation. "Even as I felt the grass under my feet, it felt somehow far away. It is not like any domain I have ever entered."

"No, nor I. And I had almost come to believe I had seen all the Mists had to show us." Tsura gestured sharply with her free hand and began the trudge back up the slope. "We must discuss this with the others. These questions are beyond the wisdom of any one of us to solve."

Violca glanced back once, and once only, as they returned to the Mists. Even that single glance, though it revealed only the same -rolling hills and the same grass-covered plains, was nearly enough to send her tumbling. She had seen into the heart of the land, and found it hollow. Now she feared plummeting into endless depths from which she might never emerge.

Hours later, when she finally had time to catch her breath, she remembered why they had departed the Mists in the first place. And she realized, her palms sweating and her flesh shivering once more, that from her vantage point, she had held a clear view all the way to the base of the hill.

As far as the eye could see, there had been no trace of the fallen wagon, its team of horses, or the poor Vistani trapped within.

"You are mad!"

His name was Yoska, and as the oldest male Hanza, as well as Tsura’s brother, he was perhaps the only member of the clan who would have dared to speak to the raunie thus. He was certainly the only one who could do so without consequence. Nevertheless, the other Vistani who had gathered round each took a step or two back, as though denying that they had any part in his disrespectful outburst.

"I am not. Though after what I have seen, I might wish I were." Tsura looked sadly at her younger sibling. His snow-white hair was matted and tangled by the winds that had finally died down moments after she had returned from the hillside. His cheeks and beard were wet with tears. Already he had changed from the traditional bright tunic to one of gray, partly hidden beneath an old black vest.

Behind him, wrapped in scraps of white linen and placed ever so gently beside the family vardo, lay the reason for his mournful garb.

The drivers had circled the vardos while Tsura, Violca, and the two brothers had briefly explored the land beyond the Mists. At first they had intended the circle to provide some feeble shelter against the monstrous winds, but when those had finally faded, the Hanza chose to leave the wagons as they stood. It was, in part, an effort to defend against any danger that might take advantage of their confusion, but primarily it was for the sense of community. If the Hanza had ever needed to be a single extended family, surely it was now.

Violca stood at a respectful distance from the arguing elders; the clan’s other sons and daughters did the same in myriad groups and clusters. Her teary eyes continually strayed from the debate to Simza’s linen-wrapped corpse, and the trio of simple wreaths that substituted, however poorly, for the Vistani lost in the missing wagon.

"I have lost..." Yoska broke off with a sob, followed by a choking fit that rocked him back upon his heels. Had it not been for the steadying hand he braced against the vardo, he might well have fallen. Several of the younger men rose to assist, but he angrily waved them off. "I have lost my beloved Simza," he said, his voice made hoarse. "I have outlived my youngest child, Tsura. This place... This place should not be. It is an evil, a curse upon us. Why, by all we hold dear, would you have us stay?"

"Because it is a danger, Yoska." Tsura gestured at the wagons that stood around them, the borrowed cudgel still clasped in her fist. "Because we are Vistani, and we are supposed to know the ways of the Mists, and yet..." The raunie stepped slowly forward to place one gnarled hand on her brother’s shoulder. He stiffened briefly, then slumped.

"I grieve for Simza, Yoska, and for Marko, Emilian, and Nadya as well. Even for the Vistani, the Hanza are not many. It will be many years, I think, before we recover from this dark day.

"But"—and here she turned to address not merely her brother but all the elders, and indeed all the assembled Hanza of every age—"that is precisely why we must understand this new domain. We must learn how this has happened, so that we will know if it can happen again. We must know this domain, as thoroughly as we know Barovia, or Darkon, or Kartakass, lest some threat to the Vistani arise within and catch us unawares. To speak with the Wailing One or seek audience with the Devil Strahd carries great risk, but we are better for having done so. Can we afford to leave this realm behind without attempting the same?"

The elders muttered to one another, but Violca was only half listening. She knew that her aunt need not convince anyone of anything. She was raunie; she could simply order the Hanza to do as she wished, and though some might argue, inevitably all would obey. The weight of tradition was a heavy burden among the Vistani, but not one that any of them would willingly set down. Still, she understood why Madam Tsura sought some modicum of concurrence among the tribe: never had they faced a mystery such as this, and each needed to know that the Hanza brothers and sisters stood firmly together.

As though reading her mind—and who knew, perhaps she had been—Tsura appeared beside Violca. "Our oldest tales," she explained to her niece, "suggest that many of the lands of the core emerged from the Mists, just as this one seems to have done. I must confess, I dismissed such tales as legend; the land is the land, is it not? It cannot simply change."

Violca forced a smile, barely a quirk of the lip. "And yet..."

Tsura nodded, her gray hair falling in her face. "And yet. Besides, even if those tales are true, this is different. Never have I heard of anything so sudden, so violent. So tragic." As one, they turned to look again at Simza’s wrapped body. It looked smaller, Violca decided, and her cousin had never been a large girl to begin with. She feared that Simza’s remains would be whisked away if the wind kicked up again.

"They will argue for a while longer," Tsura said, yanking Violca’s attention back to the living. "They will rant, and debate, and wield guilt against one another like cudgels, and in the end they will come to me and agree, reluctantly, to what must be done. Thankfully, that offers me a bit of time."

"Time to do what, Aunt—that is, Madam Tsura?"

"I will Read, child. I would know all I can about this new land before I ask any of my family to set foot in it again. The tarokka, I hope, can provide me that knowledge."

"Are you sure...?" Violca bit down on her tongue. She knew a true reading of the cards could be taxing, and the day had hardly been restful—but it was hardly her place, a Vistana barely of age, to question the wisdom of her elders.

Tsura only smiled, rather than upbraiding her niece for the breach of propriety. "We cannot bury Simza here in the Mists, Violca. Even if I would prefer to rest, time is not our friend today. We have too much to do.

"Please wait by my door, if you would," the old woman continued as she mounted the three short steps to her vardo. "If I need you, I shall call, but otherwise please see that I remain undisturbed."

Violca paled at the notion of turning Yoska or the other elders away should they attempt to enter, but nodded. Tsura disappeared, her heavy shawl blending with the shadows inside the vardo, and the door slammed shut.

The young Vistana needn’t have worried—not, at least, about anyone interrupting her aunt. Mere minutes had passed when the air was rent with an ear-piercing shriek from within the wagon, followed by a terrible clatter.

Instantly the menfolk were up and running toward Madam Tsura’s vardo, cudgels and staves in hand, but it was Violca, her eyes wide but jaw clenched in determination, who was first up the steps. Calling the old woman’s name, she threw wide the door and stepped inside.

Violca knew the interior of her aunt’s wagon as well as she knew her own. Without so much as a conscious thought, she brushed aside the curtain Madam Tsura hung before the door to muffle the sound of conversation. She ducked beneath the bundles of medicinal and spiritual herbs that dangled from the vardo’s ceiling, and stared numbly at the sight before her.

The small table that normally occupied the center of the vardo lay on its side, one leg propped against the bed along the left wall. The cards of the tarokka deck lay scattered across the floor like autumn leaves, and the old woman herself huddled in the corner, a wooden stool clutched defensively to her breast.

"Aunt Tsura?" Violca knelt beside her, even as the doorway filled with the shapes of the Hanza men. "Aunt Tsura, what’s wrong?"

A single finger, shaking visibly, pointed toward the floor. It took Violca a moment to realize that Tsura indicated the nearest tarokka card. Seized by a sudden dread, Violca stared at it. Had it been a snake or a scorpion, she couldn’t have been more reluctant to reach for it.

But then, it was only a card, was it not?

Even if it had put a nightmarish fear into the one woman Violca had always believed fearless.

With a sudden lunge, determined to act before she could change her mind, the young woman lashed out and grabbed the card. Holding it in hands that suddenly trembled, she flipped it face-up.

She stared at the shape of a man hanging crucified atop a hill. His features were hidden by the locks of hair that fell across his face, but his body was gaunt, bruised, and broken. Blood—pictured richly despite the limitations of charcoal and ink—trickled from his wrists and ankles, poured from a great wound in his side, and matted his hair where his scalp was pierced by a wreath of thorns. Beneath the great cross on which he hung, two men, both covered in his falling blood, gutted one another with wicked knives. She could almost hear the grunts of pain and the patter of falling blood, could almost feel the dry heat of the day.

It was not a pleasant image, to be sure, but it was not the picture’s content that had sent the powerful Vistani seer to the corner, quivering like a frightened child, nor that caused Violca herself to tremble so fiercely she had to struggle not to drop the card.

No, it was the simple fact that Violca knew that neither Tsura, nor any other seer in the long history of the Vistani, had ever crafted such a card.


Next Week: Chapter One...

Even the ambient dust was bloody. It coated tongue, throat, and nostrils like bacon grease, refusing stubbornly to be dislodged. Every painful cough, every sip of precious water teased relief—relief that never lasted longer than a heartbeat.

There was always more blood.

About the Author

Ari Marmell was born in New York, moved to Houston when he was a year old, moved to Austin when he was 27, but has spent most of his life living in other worlds through a combination of writing and roleplaying games. He has been writing more or less constantly for the last dozen years, though he has only been paid for it the past five. He is the author of multiple roleplaying game supplements including work on Dungeons & Dragons. Ari lives in Austin with his wife, George, and two cats.

Next month, look for Agents of Artifice, the new novel from Ari Marmell.