The following continues the new serialized tale from Ari Marmell—author of Agents of Artifice. Be sure to check back each week for the next chapter in this ongoing tale of Ravenloft!
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.
He fell forever, and forever, until he seemed no longer to fall at all, but simply to float in an eternal emptiness. All around was white, an ever-shifting mist, with no sky above him, no earth below.
And he wondered… was this death?
Then he felt the tearing pain where the rope had frayed the skin from his neck, the trickle of blood from his ear, the dull ache of a nose broken days before. He sensed the rise and fall of his breast, the chill on his skin beneath his flimsy prisoner's tunic. No, this could not be death, not with so many of the pains and discomforts of the flesh clinging to him. This was… elsewhere.
And then the fog grew thin, and Lambrecht Raes tumbled, bruised and broken, to land with a crunch in the unforgiving snow.
Snow. For years he had traveled the world, a pilgrim and a priest in the armies of Pope Urban. He had known deprivation; he had known the bone-chilling cold of the desert nights. But not in half a decade or more had he known the touch of snow. It clung to his bare feet and legs, a merciless vampire sucking the warmth from his body. Lambrecht clasped his arms around him and shivered violently. His nose, irritated by the cold, dry air, began to bleed; already his toes grew numb.
He stumbled forward, his head bent against the whipping wind and the bits of icy white that swarmed about him like hungry insects. The ground sloped sharply beneath him, and he nearly tumbled off his feet. Was he atop a hill, then? On some mountain pass? It mattered little. If he failed to find shelter soon, the only difference it would make would be to those who eventually found his frozen corpse.
"Is that someone out there?"
Lambrecht almost cried with relief at the sound. He saw little more than a silhouette within the white, and imagined the other man saw him as the same. He did not recognize the accent, and knew he must be far from Jerusalem indeed—as if the snow had not told him as much!—but for the nonce, he cared not. "Yes! Yes, here! Please, I need help!"
The figure who emerged from the blinding snow was a young man, scarcely past his teens. His skin, rubbed red by the icy air, was too pale to mark him as a Saracen, and he was clad in heavy trousers and a thick coat of wool. He carried a shepherd's crook, and a well-worn sling hung from his belt. Lambrecht collapsed into his arms as he approached.
"God and Scions, man! What are you doing up here, clad like that!"
Distraught as he was, Lambrecht took note of the unusual oath, but now was hardly the time to question it. He knew, as well, that the truth was not the proper tool for this task. "B-Betrayed," he stuttered through trembling lips, his voice hoarse and rough from the bruising around his neck. "Guide attacked m-me as I s-slept. Left me with n-nothing. Sheltered in a c-cave, but I had to leave. N-no food…."
"Right bastard!" the young shepherd cursed in sympathy. "Come, I've plenty of food and shelter for both."
"B-Bless you, son."
The pair shuffled and limped deeper into the cold, until what Lambrecht took to be a heavy flurry of snow resolved itself into a rocky wall, a wall with a narrow crevice leading within. The air was warmer a mere few feet into the cave, and as the smell hit him, Lambrecht understood why. The sound of bleating and shuffling hooves only confirmed his suspicions.
Within the cave, a dozen sheep paced restlessly, voicing their unhappiness at the weather.
In their midst, a small fire burned erratically. The shepherd must be familiar indeed with the region to have located enough wood to burn in this weather. Lambrecht pushed through the milling sheep and sat beside the tiny flame, warming digits that had already turned an ugly blue.
"This cursed storm," the young man spat, sitting opposite him. "Came out of nowhere, it did, and damned early in the season too. We ought to have had another week or more of grazing before winter truly set in."
"Ill luck, truly," Lambrecht commented, grateful, but now wishing the fellow would shut up so he might think.
But the shepherd scoffed. "Luck has sod all to do with it, stranger. We've suffered greatly in these parts for years now. Damn witches are a plague on Malosia. The Inquisition cannot round them up fast enough, if you ask me."
Lambrecht raised his eyes. "Witchcraft, you say?"
"Aye. You must be coming from far indeed if you've not had trouble with them."
"Oh, I've had my share."
"Well, I don't mind telling you, I had my doubts at first. I mean, every land has its good years and its bad, right?"
"Right. But this year, my hometown's suffered too much to just call it a lean year. And not minutes before I found you, Scions strike me down if I didn't witness some witch's magic before my own eyes!"
"Did you now?" Lambrecht kept a straight face, but inside he smiled. He'd heard such tales from yokels before, ignorant folk who had no idea what true witchcraft looked like. What was it to be this time, he wondered. A monstrous shape in the snow? Sheep acting out of sorts?
"It was right outside this cave, it was," the shepherd continued. "I saw a burst of smoke and flame, where no fire could possibly light. And when I stepped out to investigate, I found this!"
And he held out, in his clenched fist, a handful of crumpled parchment, the edges faintly charred.
Lambrecht's breath quickened, and the world around him dropped away as his eyes tunneled in on the only thing that mattered.
Dear God, it had come with him! Wherever he was, it had come with him!
"Aye, I see you're as stunned as I," the young man said, mistaking Lambrecht's reaction. "I fear I cannot tell you what it says. I'm not lettered, myself. But I intend to turn it over to the Church first chance I get, and they can pass it along to the Redbreasts. Where there's witchcraft, there's witches, right?"
"Right…." Lambrecht muttered softly.
"You're lucky it appeared to me too, stranger. If I'd not been outside, investigating this, I'd never have seen you when the snow drifts parted."
"Praise be." Lambrecht tore his gaze from the parchments. "Son, I could take a look at it, if you'd like. I can read, and perhaps I could tell you the significance of what you've found, or help you to understand it."
For long moments, the shepherd peered at him. Then, "Forgive me, old man, I mean no offense. But I scarcely know you as yet. I'm uncomfortable handing over pages of dark magic—and I truly believe that must be what they are—to just anyone."
"Of course, son. I fully understand."
They chatted a bit further, over the warming fire and strips of dried meats, until darkness fell outside, transforming the endless white to endless black. Then, leaning back against a sleeping sheep, the young man allowed slumber to claim him.
It was easy enough for Lambrecht to work the shepherd's sling from his belt, place a stone within, and bring it crashing down upon the fellow's head. He hesitated, be it ever so briefly: the young man had saved his life after all. But Lambrecht had a purpose, and for all he was trapped in some unknown land—God alone knew how far from home—that purpose had not altered. In fact, if half of what the shepherd said of witches was true, Lambrecht was needed here more than anywhere.
And so he brought the weapon down and said a prayer for the young man's soul, even as his blood spilled onto the rocky floor, even as he stripped his heavy clothes from him. The sheep stirred, agitated by the smell of blood, but Lambrecht dragged the body to the cave mouth, pushed it out into the cold, and the beasts settled soon enough.
The snow still covered the earth, but it had ceased to fall, leaving the night cold and clear. Lambrecht stared at bright and twinkling stars, and he recognized none of them. He dropped his gaze, and saw the peaks of nearby mountains stretching out before him. So he was on a high pass, after all. It would be a long trek down, but with the proper clothes….
What was this? There, across the nearest vale, transformed by the night and the snow into a bottomless crevasse, a tiny light flickered. Another fire, perhaps, within another cave? He could think of nothing else it might be. Someone else, then, had found shelter on the mountainside tonight.
Lambrecht carefully marked the spot in his mind, and returned to huddle in the warmth of the fire and the congregated sheep. Carefully, reverently, he smoothed the parchments creased and crumpled by the yokel's careless grip. He sifted through them, slowly, spending many minutes on each.
It was all here. Every page of the Laginate Grimoire he had salvaged from the chambers beneath Jerusalem was here. Lambrecht felt tears of gratitude running down his face, and he shifted to his knees to pray. There he stayed for over an hour, offering thanks and seeking guidance. The remainder of the night he passed not in sleep, but in careful study of the Grimoire. That its magics were real, he already knew—but in this strange land, he had best master them swiftly.
And then, then he would learn of this land itself, and the witches who threatened it. Morning dawned a blinding white, gleaming off an endless carpet of snow. With one hand held high to shield his eyes, Lambrecht emerged from the cave. He wore the shepherd's clothes, and if they were a tad large, they were far preferable to frostbite. He leaned upon the man's crook, and he carried in a pouch at his belt the remainder of the fellow's rations, and the carefully folded pages of the Laginate Grimoire. He could see clearly that he indeed stood atop a mountain, albeit one not particularly tall. The trail winding down into the vale, and up other nearby peaks, was difficult to find beneath the snow, and likely even more difficult to traverse. But he would manage. With no better idea of where to go, or even which direction to choose, he set out to locate the cave he had spotted the night before. Perhaps whoever sheltered there might offer him directions.
The crisp air was both refreshing and painful. It cleared the mind but bit at his lungs, and on occasion his broken nose would shed a tiny rivulet of blood. He muttered under his breath as he marched, repeating over and over a chant from the Grimoire. According to the ancient Greeks, the litany granted strength, clarity, and comfort to the wanderer. Whether it actually worked or Lambrecht simply took comfort in the ritual, he felt strong and hale of limb as he climbed steep trails that should have left him winded. Indeed, he could have walked for hours more, as he crested a small rise on the neighboring slope, and found himself standing before what could only be the cave he sought.
Someone had been here, certainly. Even had he not seen the fire last night, the tracks in the snow made that clear enough. Shepherd's crook held defensively before him, Lambrecht ducked beneath an overhang, dripping with icicles like jagged fangs, and stepped inside. The light within was dim, but sufficient for him to function without torch or lantern—a good thing, as he had neither.
Whoever had inhabited the cave was gone, departed some time in the night or this morning, but evidence of their presence remained in plenty. A firepit, far larger than the one by which Lambrecht had spent the night, smoldered in the center of the cave. Above it, on a haphazard wooden framework, hung a kettle. Its base was scorched from the kiss of the fire, and whatever it once held had been allowed to boil away, leaving nothing but a residue of herbal scraps. Pentagrams, runic circles, and what appeared to be an eyelid or a rising sun turned upside down adorned the walls, painted in the blood of animals. Their bones and fur lay scattered about, their entrails splayed in ceremonial patterns. On the wall beside the kettle hug a length of barrel wire from which dangled half a dozen chicken's feet—all left ones—with various names scribbled over them in black ink.
Witchcraft, indeed. It was a primitive magic, amateurish and uneducated, but that didn't make it ineffective. For a time, Lambrecht looked it over, idly tapping his fingers on the pouch that held the Grimoire. Then he plucked a single foot from the framework as evidence of his find, stuck it in his pouch, and turned to go.
At the mouth of the cave, he discovered that perhaps he had not wasted his time climbing up here after all.
Near the base of the mountains far below, where the land stretched out into an open plain and winter had brought chilling winds but little snow, he saw the chimneys and the smoke of a thriving town. Several roads led through its borders and crossed one another within, and even from here he could see the occasional wagon upon those roads. Not too large, but clearly a center of trade and commerce. He would never have seen it from his shelter of the prior night, but from here it was as clear as still waters, in direct line of sight to the cave.
Ah. And that, in turn, might explain why the witch, whoever he or she might be, had chosen this shelter for the working of black magics. Were gambling not a sin—and had he any money—Lambrecht would have wagered many a coin that the victims of that sorcery dwelt in the town below.
He should hurry, then, if he would learn the nature of this iniquity in time to stop it.
He was but one of a handful of newcomers entering the town that afternoon, and no one offered him so much as a second glance. Firalene Down it was called, or so he overheard from the travelers on the road ahead. As he had surmised from above, it was a thriving place, busy and bustling for its relatively small size and awash in merchants and passersby. It had the feel of a hamlet that had grown faster than anyone had intended, and didn't entirely know what to do with itself. Inner roads, winding and organic, led to outer neighborhoods built with zealous adherence to right angles and grids. The older houses of simple wood were overshadowed by newer buildings, mostly whitewashed, and some even constructed of stone quarried from the nearby mountains.
No defensive wall surrounded Firalene Down, nor did any men-at-arms stand guard on the roads. Travelers came and went as they pleased, and Lambrecht, accustomed to years of siege and warfare, could not but marvel at how open and inviting a community it was.
Or so it seemed on the surface. The priest had not stood in the shadow of its buildings, smelling the rich aroma of wood smoke from its chimneys, for more than ten minutes before he knew that something was amiss. Men garbed for the road laughed boisterously with one another, exchanging tales of past exploits and prowess far more fiction than fact, but they were alone in their levity. The folk of Firalene Down went about their business with downcast eyes, hurrying on their way, and where conversation was unavoidable, their voices were clipped, their smiles wan.
It was not so constant as during a siege, nor so prevalent as in the midst of a plague. A man less discerning than he might have missed it entirely. But Lambrecht knew fear when he saw it, and in Firalene Down fear had made its home.
Lambrecht made the requisite small talk with his fellow travelers, commenting on the early winter, the icy breezes that battered everyone in the open, the heavy storms in the mountains. And slowly he learned of Firalene Down, and of Malosia entire.
He reached the eldest part of the Down, where the roads were winding and the houses growing old, as the slow-moving avalanche of twilight crept down the side of the nearby mountains. There, Lambrecht found the streets packed with townsfolk. Several cried as their friends and neighbors held them, and Lambrecht overheard fragments of many and varied prayers. Several fellows with clubs and axes—townsmen pressed into service, no doubt—stood guard around one of the largest and oldest homes. The windows were curtained all in black, and a procession of elders and official-seeming individuals moved through the open door.
Stepping to the rear of the crowd, the priest glanced about until he found a man standing alone. Perhaps a few years older than Lambrecht himself, his hair was dyed black with some herbal oil, and his coat boasted buttons of polished brass. A man who wished to look more important than he really was, then, probably a vendor or merchant. Perfect.
"What happened here?" Lambrecht asked, forcing a note of hushed awe into his voice.
The other man shook his head sadly. "Our town reeve, Jesmond… you know of him?"
"Only by reputation."
"Yes, well… he's dead, poor Jesmond, and his whole family with him!"
"How horrible!" Damn, but it seemed he was too late to prevent the culmination of whatever black work he had discovered. "Was it some accident?"
Glancing around, the fellow lowered his voice. "They say it looks like a pack of wolves somehow got inside. Chewed them all up."
Lambrecht's eyes narrowed. "Surely that's impossible, though? An entire pack, unseen in town?"
"Aye, impossible it is. It's the haunting, sure as we're standing here."
The priest weighed his options, and decided to take the risk. If he was a merchant, this man was accustomed to dealing with outsiders; he might not take further questioning amiss.
"Forgive me, friend, but as you must have surmised, I've only recently arrived in Firalene Down. I was told this was the best place for trade within many a league. If the town's haunted, I'd certainly like to know of it!"
"I shouldn't be telling you this," the vendor whispered, though his eyes announced that he relished the attention the tale could garner him. "You must swear to me that you'll not repeat it. We cannot afford to lose any of our outside trade to fear, on top of everything else."
"Of course. You've my word."
"It started some months back, you see. A young couple—as nice a pair as you could hope to meet, I'd spoken to him once or twice myself at Scions Mass—well, they were found near the edge of town, both dead. Stabbed a dozen times each or more, God strike me if I lie!"
"Monstrous!" Lambrecht commented, if only to reassure the man he was paying attention.
"Monstrous indeed! Well, as you might imagine, there was quite the fuss. We're a trading town, here. We've our share of brawls, and thefts, and aye, there's the occasional murder when a deal goes sour, but this? This, we could not have!
"Reeve Jesmond, he rounded up all the thief-takers in town, and some of our best hunters, too, and they set out to catch the man responsible. Nor did it take them long, seeing as how the girl had a jilted suitor whom she'd left to marry her young husband. A fellow by the name of Humphrey Lassiter."
"And was he guilty?"
"As sin. Oh, his father swore that Humphrey had been with him the night the poor couple was slaughtered, but old Remmy the herbalist, she saw Humphrey out and about that night. Swore it on the Septateuch. And they found a dagger buried in Humphrey's yard, dried blood all over. Humphrey swung within a week."
Lambrecht coughed once and rubbed painfully at the raw skin on his own neck, hidden by the coat.
"So you believe this Humphrey Lassiter is haunting Firalene Down?"
"The troubles all started a few days after he was hanged. First it was just a run of ill fortune: sick cattle, problems with the roadway slowing down trade, a building fire or two. Calamities and misfortune, but nothing that couldn't be coincidence. But then, one by one, the men involved in Humphrey's capture started to suffer. They found one thief-taker bleeding all over his floor, but when the surgeon examined the body, he found no wound! And Remmy, the herbalist? They found her, and her entire family, dead at the dinner table. It looked as though she'd mistaken one root for another and poisoned a meal she'd meant only to spice, but Remmy knew her plants better than a Friesian knows her spots.
"And now this…." The man shook his head again, and made a strange gesture before his breast. To Lambrecht, it looked much like he was crossing himself, but with six points rather than four.
"I see." For a time, Lambrecht watched the men move in and out of the house, like a trail of feasting ants. "I must say," he continued finally, "that I've heard of communities with similar problems, back where I come from. Those were attributed to the craft of witches and black sorcerers, not ghosts."
The merchant nodded. "Aye, a number of us suspected witchcraft at first. But Father Marten assured us that this was the work of no witch."
"Did he, now?"
"He did. He…." But the townsman had already lost his audience, for Lambrecht was gone.
He spent the night at a traveler's inn, so mundane that he had forgotten its name by the time he reached his room. That was fine; all he needed was a place to pass the night in privacy, to further study the pages of the Grimoire, until the next dawn.
The church, once he set out that morning, was easy enough to find. It was the only structure in the old neighborhood made of stone, and certainly one of the largest. Even as he approached, he could hear the voice of the congregation within, repeating portions of the litany. For a moment he closed his eyes and he was home, standing upon the dais rather than outside the walls, and the voice leading the service was his own.
Then, shaking off his reverie like rainwater, he stepped inside.
Father Marten, or so Lambrecht presumed, stood behind a simple podium, on which a heavy scroll lay open. The man was clean-shaven and boasted a head of startlingly blond hair. His face clung stubbornly to the appearance of a youth that must assuredly have left him some years ago, but the lines around his eyes were old. He wore a simple black cassock, trimmed in scarlet, and his voice was somehow pleading and comforting all at once.
He beseeched his flock, who sat rapt and attentive, to remain strong in the face of the evils that assailed them. Working together, they would find some means of exorcising the vindictive spirit that haunted them; in the interim they must cleave together, aiding one another, allowing their faith and their friendship to carry them through arduous times. Lambrecht, standing at the rear of the sanctuary, rolled his eyes. Well-meaning, yes, but naïve and unwilling to face either reality or necessity. Just like even the best of his fellow priests back home.
"This is no ghost you face," he announced firmly, striding down the aisle between the pews until he stood in the precise center of the church. He heard the whispers and the mutters, felt the eyes of the multitude upon him, watched a series of warring expressions flash across Marten's face. "And waiting for it to go away will earn you nothing but further grief."
"I'm uncertain who you are, traveler, or where you come from," Father Marten said sharply. "But here, it is considered inappropriate to interrupt a sermon."
"I apologize for my rudeness, then. But I am a man of the cloth too, though the Church I serve is far from here. Back home, I dealt with misfortune, malediction, and the servants of evil too. And I tell you: you face no ghost. What has happened to Firalene Down is witchcraft."
A second mutter fluttered through the crowd, and while many of the gazes cast upon him were angered and impatient, Lambrecht sensed more than a few that showed curiosity to hear more.
"Nonsense," Marten countered. "I appreciate that you think you're helping, friend, but all servants of the Empyrean Church are trained to recognize the black arts. We must be, in this day and age. And I assure you: we are haunted, not cursed or ensorcelled."
"Must a ghost use poisons, then? Must it use the beasts of the wild as its tools? Or do these sound more to you like the weapons of the witch, and less the wrath of a spirit wronged?" He thought to continue, but a glance around him showed a great many faces, even those formerly twisted in suspicion, nodding slowly in agreement. For now, it was enough. He bowed his head in apology.
"But I grant you this much, Father Marten. It was inappropriate of me to interrupt. I once more apologize for my lack of manners. Please, continue. Perhaps you will convince me, after all." So saying he took a seat in a nearby pew, and piously folded his hands.
Marten continued for a bit, but he knew full well he had lost his audience. His sermon concluded swiftly, and he blessed his flock before they filed out of the church to set about their day's activities. Lambrecht remained seated as they shuffled past, until he and Marten were the only souls remaining in the sanctuary. Marten stepped down from the podium and wandered over, seating himself on the pew beside the newcomer.
"You say you are a priest, Father…?"
"Lambrecht, Father Marten."
"Father Lambrecht, then. Tell me, was that truly necessary? My friends and congregants are frightened enough as it is."
"Why lie to them then, Father Marten? You know as well as I what you face. I can see it in your eyes. By ignoring this evil, you only give it strength to do more harm."
Marten sighed. "Perhaps. But I must balance one hurt against another, and choose the lesser for my people." He paused for a moment, measuring his words. "Tell me, Father Lambrecht, has the Church back in your homeland an arm like our own Inquisition?"
"It does not, though from what I have learned, perhaps it ought to. It seems a potent weapon against witchcraft and heresy."
Another sigh. "It was, at that. For a generation or more, Malosia has been beset by black magics. It seems that the demons and spirits of the world, and the underworld, have grown attentive. Calling them scarcely requires any ritual at all, or any knowledge of sorcery. The more potent witches are well learned in the occult, but anyone can call up some foul being to wreak his vengeance and curse his foes, if his desire and his hate are great enough. Against that, the Inquisition was—is—a necessary tool.
"But they have grown paranoid, Father Lambrecht, and overly zealous. They see witchcraft where there is only tradition, magic where there are only herbs or superstition. For every witch they have imprisoned in the past year, three or more innocents must suffer as well."
"A shame, truly. But if it is the only way to purge your land of this darkness…."
"Do you not see, Father Lambrecht? If I acknowledge the presence of a witch in Firalene Down, it becomes my solemn duty to summon the Inquisitors—and others would do so should I refuse. Should they come here, they may or may not find the witch responsible, but I can assure you, they will arrest many for crimes exaggerated or wholly imagined. More will suffer then, I fear, than suffer from the witch's work alone. I cannot do that, Lambrecht, not to men and women I've known for years, not only as congregants but as neighbors and friends."
Lambrecht nodded slowly. "I do not begrudge you your position, Father Marten. It is, indeed, a difficult one." He stood, glaring down at the local priest. "Alas, you have proved weak. You have chosen the wrong course, because it is easier. A true man of God does what is necessary, not what best assuages his guilt."
"I will find your witch for you, Marten. I will show your congregants that evil need not be ignored, nor hidden from. It can be fought."
"Lambrecht, please!" But Marten's entreaties were directed at the other man's back, for already he was at the door, and well upon his way.
Next Week: Chapter Twelve...
He had to wait for evening before he might begin his efforts, for he could not possibly sneak by the guards and into the reeve's home during daylight. So Lambrecht waited, impatient to be about his business, and reviewed the rites and incantations over and again. In this, above all else, he could afford no error.