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There were ashes everywhere.
The young squire stood in the gutted manor, her duster flapping in the breeze from the shattered windows. Her name was Thea Dorran and the scales round her crocodilian eyes marked the tainted blood she had inherited from her great grandmother. Her Hexanhounds roamed back and forth sniffing everything. The baron was so upset he was coming close to treason in his ranting.
“Before you say anything you'll regret; why don't you tell me what happened?” Thea began.
“My lady and I were… in bed when we felt the house shook.”
She already had a good idea what had happened and only asked to see if he had noticed any of the preamble. A glance on her approach to the manor had told her in broad strokes what had occurred. A spell had gone off and had been barely been contained by the wards.
“Any guests last night? Any one missing?”
“As I told the constable it was just me, my wife and our three daughters. The staff of course, but only my sweet little daughters are unaccounted for. By the founders do you people not talk to each other?”
“You be surprised how few willing talk to the order of the shattered moon.”
The baron paled. No-one wanted to come to the attention of the Mage-knights of the Emperor's own witch hunters. The hounds had converged on a point and sat staring into the air.
“Rosencrance, Guildenstern what have my boys found?” said Thea as she crossed to them.
She could only assume that this was the focal point of the spell. The walls of the room had been warded, poorly, but neither the floor nor the ceiling had. There had been a lot of power behind the spell but little art. Random half spells crackled at the edge of her perspective. It looked more and more like someone had gotten hold of a grimore and had cast a ritual. There an odd ripple in the air.
“Your daughters' room?”
“You're not saying...”
She picked a piece of the rubble and threw it at the distortion. The air rippled like a stone hitting water.
“It seems to be a transportation spell.”
“In that case; expect a ransom demand.”
Thea left the baron waiting with his comforting delusion for a ransom demand that would never come. She had no doubt that the magic had come from within the room and none of the exterior doors had been forced. Whatever had happened, the girls had done it to themselves.
The village was little more than a hamlet with delusions of grandeur, nestled at the confluence of two fast moving streams. The lack of farming told her that this was likely a pit village which had benefited from the demands of the new industries. The landscape had choked it, preventing it from ever becoming the town it wished to be.
The road down the valley was well used and maintained. It was an hour before noon so there were few people on the streets; still she was greeted by the constable.
“Woah there stranger, what business do you have in Zwillingstromdrof?”
“Greetings Constable; I am Squire Thea Dorran of the order of the Shattered Moon...”
“Here about the goings on at the manor.”
This was not the reply or reaction she had come to expect especially outside of her grandmother's lands. She looked at him quizzically.
“Yes; were you called to it?”
“Not for the first time.”
Thea quirked a eyebrow.
“Many animals go missing on the manor's lands,” he explained.
“If it is, they are the quietest and cleanest wolves I heard of.”
She recognised the pattern from some of her earliest lessons.
“The Baron's daughters; what are they like?”
“I had little to do with them, but I wouldn't be worth the badge if I didn't know how to keep my eyes and ears open; along with my mouth shut.” Pausing, he looked round looking for eavesdroppers. “Let me show you to the inn so that we can eat and talk.”
The inn was of two halves. One was the common inn for the locals and the itinerant labourers; the other was for the richer guests. The constable showed Thea to the common half. He ordered with a nod to the bartender. Whilst nothing compared to eating at her grandmother's table, it was at the top of its class and far from the worse that she had eaten.
“So constable, you were saying?”
“The younger two are not bad girls, the youngest Segen was even born on the feast of the Shattering. They're just easily lead. Agathe is the bad apple. She used to take all the naughty girls down to the woods; least until the blacksmith's eldest went missing.”
“Bad business that,” said the Innkeeper as he served their lunch. “The Baron's man said he'd run of to the city to make his fortune, but his sweetheart, Angelika, drowned herself.”
“She was with child.”
Thea pondered this as she watched the innkeeper stroll over to the bar.
“So why isn't this Baron's man dealing with this?”
“He was dismissed for inappropriate advances towards Agathe about a month back.”
“What was his side?”
“I heard talk of bewitchment.”
Thea nodded and did the maths. It has taken her a fortnight to ride from the temple to the manor. Thea was not the only one to do the maths.
“I'm not one to rush to judgement, but I can't help feeling that your appearance and their disappearance are connected.”
“Einige können Sie sparen, einige müssen Sie verbrennen. So where did these naughty girls use to go?”
Thea found it pleasant riding with company. She so rarely she got to do it even her fellow squires. This was not just down to the taint in her blood but also to the belief that what a Dorran saw, The Dorran saw. This could have been true in the old duke's day but her Grandmother was no lich.
The hounds started growling as they approached a hollow.
“Far as we can tell.”
The stench of untamed magic assaulted Thea's nose as she entered the hollow. She paused and breathed in deeply. It was the acrid smell of burnt cinnamon and thunder storms. It had an odd, tantalisingly familiar tang to it. The hollow showed clear sign of having been used recently as a camp. It had been abandoned recently, but there were no signs that the camper had been rushed.
“They spent the night here before moving on.”
Thea gave him a look by way of a reply.
He nodded and said, “This case seems to be leaving my jurisdiction. Can I be of any further assistance?”
“No; thank you.”
With that, the constable took his leave. Once alone, the young squire scoured the hollow, making a pile of all the stones on to which runes had been crudely carved. Most were just wards and lesser summonings. A few were for a more ambitious spell; a greater summoning. Those had been burnt by eldritch fire. Her search also uncovered, from within a concealed stone cyst, a well-thumbed notebook. Its pages were covered in the overly florid handwriting only employed by the lesser nobility. It quickly became apparent on reading that this was Agathe's.
Thea could have written twice as much in half the space. A brief skim revealed that it was full of the usual adolescent drivel but amongst the self aggrandising angst there were some interesting tidbits. Mention of the weirdness and good fortune that surrounded her youngest sister. The girl also seemed to be obsessed with someone she described as the beautiful one. It was the final entry which brought Thea up short.
I've finally found it. Oh by the founders now I know the beautiful one's name. I can bring back the true duchess and get my entitlement. It’s a wonderful name – Shiprah'aisha!!!
Thea was horrified to see the name of her great-grandmother written with such reverence by some naive girl. They had tried to summon her here and had unsurprisingly failed due to the old duke's wards. She had never dared ask what had happened to make the old lich disinherit and banish his own daughter. All see knew was that everyone both in the order and her family had the signs of her reappearance drilled into them. She had to stop the damned fools from attempting again. Not that there was any real chance of them succeeding this time, but each and every attempt would slowly wear away the wards. Eventually someone would succeed and given that her name was proscribed that could not be a good thing.
She let the hounds get the scent from the book then mounted her horse whilst they sniffed out the trail. It did not take them for Rosencrance to find the trail and Guildenstern to confirm it. With a click of of her tongue, Thea set them off.
At first they made good progress, but as the the day darkened into evening, the going became harder. The path became rougher and the forest thicker. The trail left the path and went into the forest.
“Well boys, it looks like we're going to have to do this the hard way. Best find somewhere to stay.”
She put her spurs to her horse and headed along the path. In the last scraps of twilight, she came across a farm with a light in the window. Leaving her menagerie at the gate, Thea walked up to the door and knocked. She could hear movement from within and the sound of something heavy being picked up.
“Just a weary traveller.”
“How many of you?”
“Just me and my animals.”
“Are you armed?”
“Of course. I said weary, not foolish.”
The door creaked open to reveal an older women whose body spoke of a life of hard labour. She gasped and made the ward against evil when she saw the squire’s face. Thea was expecting this reaction, so she pulled off her gloves then poured salt onto her palm and offered it to the old woman. Tentatively, she reached out and took a pinch of the salt to taste. Once she was satisfied, Thea poured the rest of the salt back into the pouch and offered it to the old woman. She carefully took it and offered a horse shoe in return. Despite the taint in her blood, Thea felt nothing as she took the gift. Her host nodded and stepped back. Her stepping over the threshold uninvited seemed to put the occupants at ease. Thea heard the man by the door releasing his breath. Movement in the shadows at the edge of the room revealed two young boys and an adolescent girl.
“You said you had animals. They can rest in the barn.”
Thea lead her animals into the barn before returning to the house. Her hosts had been busy in her absence, a bowl of stew had been prepared for her.
“So what brings you out so far?”
“Looking for some runaways.”
“That's unfortunate. There are bandits up in those hills; I dread to think what they'd do to runaways.”
“I hope to find them before that but if I don't they're noble born. So they'll be worth a good ransom.”
“Ah yes it would have been much worse in my grandmother's time...”
With a glance, the old women shooed the children to bed.
“My old granny told dark tales. Travellers on the old pass through the mountains told of dancing light and unearthly laughter beyond the trees any who went to find answers never returned.”
“This sounds like many tales I've heard on my travels. Keep to the path or the gentry will get you.”
“Ah, so it is, but there was a village not far from here, always bustling and getting bigger. They talked of becoming a town. I use to play in the ruins as a girl so asked old granny what happened to the people. She said one night all the unwed youths disappeared.”
“So what happened?”
“The Old duke sent a force lead by his most trusted man into the forest. There was a battle beyond the tree last from dawn through dusk and in the dawn's light the dukes men return battered but victorious. Old granny like to say that Malachi himself ate by this fire.”
Thea smiled, she had few memories of her grandfather. She had grown up listening to her grandmother's tails which had grown bawdier as she had gotten older.
“So what became of the unwed?”
“Granny never did say...”
It was getting dark, so they said the good nights and the couple retired to their room and Thea sat in the chair that her grandfather had allegedly sat. She stared into the embers and mused.
“So grandfather, where will your footsteps lead me?”
The household woke with the sun and Thea helped with breakfast. She left to continue her hunt when her host started work. She rode along the road which lead over the mountains all the while looking for the telltale signs of a camp. Ahead of her was a point which leant itself to an ambush. She readied her shotgun as she continued on. A breeze brought a whiff of sulphur and she sent the hounds out to flank any potential ambushers. Rounding the corner, her suspicions were confirmed. There had been an ambush. Which had not gone how the attackers expected. Their bodies laid scattered across the road. The rips in the bodies had been burnt. A hissing pop from behind her made Thea turn. Stood ready to pounce was a creature made of fire and claws. It hissed and lept. In a moment of panic, Thea discharged both barrels into it. The shot echoed round the pass as the beast hit the floor. It writhed in agony as the magics that held it together were torn apart by the Hexenbane rounds. Thea reloaded and breathed as her great uncle had taught her. There was a rustling in the trees at both sides of the road. Thea shouldered the gun. Her hounds stalked out. She breathed again. There was a whimpering coming from one of the bodies. She dismounted, swapping her shotgun for the healers kit and head over to the moaner. He was young and obviously a bandit. He laid face down with claw marks down his back.
“You ran; that makes you at least a little sensible. Don't do anything you'll regret.”
Thea quickly searched him taking his weapons and purse. The purse was mainly Barons and a couple of Counts which she pocketed. As none of the Barons were from the south, she returned them to the purse and dropped it with the weapons. His wounds were shallow and cauterised, so she rubbed in some ointment for the pain.
“Now let’s get started. I'm Thea Dorran squire of the order of the shattered moon. You are the young lad who's going to tell me what happened here.”
“Three little rich girls. Thought they'd be easy picking. The little'n; the beast.”
“Where did they go?”
“They talked about a temple... Big Tom might know.”
“Well then you're going to have to introduce us once I've dealt with your friends.”
Thea pulled the bodies of the rest of the bandits together. She searched the bodies for any valuables. After removing any silver, she added them to the pile of the survivor’s things. That done, she put a handful of salt in each of their mouths and covered the bodies with lamp oil.
“May the warrior welcome you into his hall and may the allfather forgive your misdeeds.”
With flint and steel, she put fire to the bodies.
“So let’s go meet Big Tom.”
The path was muddy and her guide reluctant, but eventually they came to what seemed to be a recently abandoned camp.
“Looks like they've already moved on boss.”
“It really does.”
With a sudden elbow to the ribs, Thea sent the young bandit tumbling to the floor. She dismounted and pinned him to the ground with a boot between the shoulders. She drew and pointed her revolver at him.
“I've brought your friend back, alive for now, so do me a favour and end this charade.”
There was silence for a moment so Thea pulled back the hammer. A branched snapped behind a bush. Thea drew and levelled her second revolver at it.
“Why don't ya put yur guns down missy before we 'ave to 'urt ya?”
“Oh let’s not get melodramatic here. If you believed you could take me, blood would have been spilt by now. Show yourselves and we can talk like the rational adults I am.”
A chuckle emerged from the bushes followed by a man made of muscle and scar tissue. Thea returned her guns to their holsters.
“I admire your moxy girl, so we'll talk.”
“Big Tom or are you handsom Rob?”
He walked until he was in her face. He was trying to be intimidating. It was a valiant effort given that he was desperately wanted to avoid eye-contact. There were times when her tainted blood worked to advantage.
“What do you want with Tom, girl?”
“Your boy here got himself messed up by some hexenkin, luckily I'm on the trail of the girls who summoned it.”
“With the All father.”
“Damn, the rites were preformed?”
“Then what can I do for you?”
“There's a temple nearby? I need directions.”
“That is a dark place. The enslavers built it and then a cult managed to debase it. Sure you want to go?”
“There is no want here. I need to stop them before they do something foolish.”
“You'll go alone. Take the road up mountain 'til you get t'blasted rock. A line of dragon bones will lead y'there. Go now, but if we see you again, we won't go easy on you.”
The blasted rock was hard to miss and stank of the ancient magic which had sundered it. Her animals were uneasy. Thea could understand why Tom had named this place accursed. The plants were surprisingly abundant, given the altitude, but they were tainted and unnatural. She surveyed the area. A series of alabaster-white menhir lead off into the trees. The dragon bones, they smelt like the cusp of a storm and were warm to the touch. She knew what it was, elfstone. The Imperial College of Magic was built of the stuff or at least built on a skeleton of it. A quick look at the path ahead told her she was going to be travelling on foot. She put the shotgun over her back and her axe through its belt loop.
“Wait here, Yorric, I'll be back or I'll be dead.”
Flanked by her hounds, she followed the dragon bones.
Elvish architecture was almost impossibly perfect. They had no seams and were impervious to weathering. The temple that stood before Thea would have been a prime example if it was not for the piles of mummified corpses hung as grotesque ornaments. The place had a musty smell. It was an ancient musk that spoke of a time before the great revolt. The corpses were much more recent, but still should have rotten or been scavenged away. The hounds stood close to their mistress; they did not like this place but were not going to leave her side. She crossed the threshold and entered the outer sanctum. The smell, both mystical and mundane, was that of death, both recent and ancient. There were piles of discarded clothes which reminded Thea of the dresses that she saw in paintings of her grandmother in her youth. Sconces had been crudely hammered into the walls. Three of them were missing their torches. Between the outer and inner sanctums was a shallow pool, the bottom of which was stained with blood. Blazing torch in hand, Thea ventured deeper.
The walls of the inner sanctum were covered with an insane clash of iconography. The overly floral elven inscriptions were overwritten by crude, in every sense of the word, images of winged female forms. Someone had then tried to make the forms decent by smearing mud to give the forms some decency. In a ring at the centre of the floor were thirteen piles of wax. The ring was completed by the recent addition of roughly formed runes which were somewhat childish in construction. They became particularly shaky when it came to writing Thea's Great-grandmother's name. She inhaled deeply then sighed with relief. They had not managed to actually summon her but something that masqueraded as her. Thea re-enforced the circle with some salt then pushed mana into the decaying remains of the girl's ritual. The room became uniformly gloomy and the images on the walls began cavorting.
“I'm not some naive and foolish girl easily impressed with phantasms; show yourself demon and don't bother pretending to be my great-grandmother.”
“Now why would I do that? Besssidessss, I really haven’t the figure.”
The figure stood in the circle was impeccably turned out in a manner reminiscent of the painting her grandmother had commissioned of her parents for their wedding.
“Who are you?”
“Now, now that would be telling, and I'm not welcome around here.”
“My don’t we jump to conclusssionsss.”
“Only two... beings are barred from the Empire by ducal decree: my Great-grandmother and her occasional companion de chamber.”
“Ahh yesss, Sssshiph did like having this bolt-hole until old Cypher took it away from her. Funny really, I would have thought ssshe'd have been far more dissspleasssed about it.”
“The actions and motivations of the old duke are not the issue here. What did you tell the girls who summoned you earlier want?”
He snorted a little. “You think I anssswer the sssumonsss of ssstupid little girlsss? I have an imp who does that ssssort of thing. I do however, know what they were told.”
“What'ssss in it for me?”
Thea pulled back the hammers on her shotgun.
“Before you start mocking, you should know these are spellbreaker rounds. Salt, silver, and cold iron one of those is going to sting and I'm sure both barrels to the face would put a dampener on your day.”
“You are definitely Molly'sss granddaughter,” he chuckled. “Very well. There isss an elfgate about a league north of here. The girlsss believe it will help them with their sssummoning.”
“Not within the boundariesss of your empire.”
“Thanks; don't let me detain you.”
Thea broke the circle and Hytar disappeared with a curt bow. With him gone, she set about quickly removing her great-grandmother's name. It occurred to her that a league was about an hour’s walk and north is a vague direction. She walked out of the temple and walked round to the northern side. As she expected, there was a trail heading away into to the forest. The trail seemed to have been overlooked by the girls, but they had too much of a head start for Thea to waste any time. With her hounds flanking her, she started to jog down the trail.
The hounds smelt it first, the acrid smell of miscast magic. The elfgate was near and leaking the effluent poured into the network from the Black Sump of Castle Dorran. They broke out of the tree line and could see the gate on an outcropping ahead of them. It did not seem like the gate had been fully opened, but any activity could bring unwanted attention. Thea paused to check that her weapons were ready before continuing to the gate. She gave quick commands to her hounds to flank her. There was no cover between the tree line and the menhir which surrounded the gate so she had to hope they would be too distracted to notice her approach.
“But I'm tired!” said the voice of a young girl.
“Stop being such a child, The Duchess will reward us,” said a voice on the cusp of womanhood.
Thea had made it up to behind one of the menhir. She could just make out the eldest and she assumed the youngest as she looked drained and was sparking with magic.
“Agathe; be nice. She's been waiting fifty years I think we can give Seg a minute to catch her breath,” said a third voice.
“You'll do what I say, unless you want me to tell father of your night time jaunts?”
“Let’s get started then.”
They started chanting; Thea took this as her cue to intervene. She stepped round the stone and levelled her shotgun.
“Playtime's over girls.”
“Maybe for you puny mortal!” said the being wearing Agathe's skin.
“Get out of that girl demon.”
It laughed and started to gather its power to strike. Without hesitation, Thea pulled the triggers and discharged both barrels into the fiend. The shots tore thought both the girl's flesh and the demon essence. The uncontrolled magic hurtled from the dissipating demon towards the younger sisters. Alfreda brought her forearms together in front of her face. The magic knocked her back and burnt away her sleeves leaving glowing tattoos visible. Segen had no such defences and was thrown clear of the circle, landing heavily in a heap. As the youngest was not moving, Thea quickly made her way to Alfreda's side and manacled the girl. After that, she was relieved to find that Segen was alive but out cold. The hounds were sent to recover her horse as she carried the youngest back to her sister's side.
“Segen! Is she going to be ok?” said Alfreda.
“Some you can save; some you have to burn.”