|Rikard Le Rich||Son of Baron LeRich of North Caravel||M 20|
|Ping Pong||Wizard of Noc, Native of Voisson||F 24|
|Nignog Gateaux||Knight of Gebong, Native of Voisson||M 18|
|Zar Queznel||Wizard of Noc, Son of Zarquon||M 17|
|Claude Bezieux||Adventurer, a big strong fighter||M 24|
|Jacques Musieur||Adventurer, a tall fighter||M 21|
|Marc Ragenielle||Adventurer, an assassin||M 28|
|Philippe Ecsisie||Adventurer, a fighter||M 18|
|Minuit Fistin||Adventurer, a wizard||M 55|
|Cornelius Armastax||The Necromancer||F 52|
|Balmorda Armastax||The Necromancer's Daughter||F 35|
|Helene Durant||Pretty barmaid||F 27|
|Father Depardeux||Cleric of the Church of Caravel||M 88|
31st May 2482
It is the middle of the night. Nak, Captain of Gnolls, peers into the darkness ahead. His back is pressed against a doorway on a street in the Sapien Town. He watches and waits. Behind him, his ten men are hiding against the side of the street in groups of three. In his arms is a wooden box containing what Lord Abacuscraft calls books. In these books are secrets that his lord wished to learn, and having learned them, by consulting the pages and studying the markings upon those pages, his lord has learned many secrets. But now the books must be returned to their home in the Sapien Town. That is the word of his lord.
The gibbous moon shines upon the Sapien Town, between scattered clouds. The buildings cast shadows across the streets. Ahead of him there is a space with grass and trees. On the other side is a large building made of stone. This building is the home of the books. His lord said that the sapiens would know of Nak's return with the books.
"Be wary, captain," his lord said. "They may be waiting for you. If you are attacked, put the box down and run. Do you understand?"
"I hear and obey, Lord."
His lord placed his hand upon Nak's shoulder. His lord is no taller than Nak, but broad and majestic, with black skin and white tusks. "Nak, you will not fight. Do you understand?"
"I hear and obey, Lord."
"You will run. If I wanted a fight, I would send a company of orcs, who can see in the dark. I do not want any fighting. That's why I am sending you, Nak, and your gnolls, who can outrun the wind."
"It will be dark, Lord. We cannot run well in the dark."
"Sapiens are blind in the dark also. You will escape them."
Nak blinks. His people are quick. But they are good fighters too. If he meets sapiens, he would like to fight and show his lord that it is not only the orcs who can make war. But his lord spoke clearly. Nak must obey. He turns and makes a clicking sound with his tongue. Three of his men move up the street, their clothes fluttering gently to hide their footfalls, black like shadows they move ahead and stop.
Three by three they move up the street until they are past the park. Three men go to the gate. Nak stares at the bushes and trees in the park. He thought he saw a glint of metal there in the moonlight, but he does not see it any more. It could have been the eyes of a cat. The gate rattles. The three men are doing their best to open the gate. It is kept shut by a device made by the sapiens out of metal. A difficult device with several parts to be moved in the right way in order to open it. But one of Nak's men knows how to open it if he has another man to help him, and that man is there now at the gate.
The gate opens. Nake moves forward with the box. He strides to a door in the building and places the box upon the steps. He returns to the gate and leads three men back across the street, away from the park.
A flash of light splits the darkness. A deafening bang echoes off the walls of the buildings. Nak falls to one knee. His heart pounds in his chest. He almost cries out. The sapiens are attacking. He can hardly see. The moonlight is so dim after the flash. He wants to fall upon the ground and claw the dirt. What kind of attack is this? How can he run from the white light?
Behind him, his men are crouched upon the dirt of the street. One is growling. One shouts the name of their lord. And their lord helps Nak now. His voice comes to Nak's mind. "You will run."
Nak stands. "Follow!" He moves along the side of the street. There is another white flash and a bang. "Follow!" he shouts. He raises his spear above his heat. "Follow!"
Nak runs, and his men run with him, their clothes rustling, eleven tall black, billowing shapes. Another flash behind him casts his own shadow and those of his men out in front of him. The bang is not as frightening this time. A window opens in a house and a sapien shouts.
Nak and his men are running through the moonlight and the shadows. The sapiens cannot follow them. Only a fast horse could follow them. They run out of the town and across the fields to the place where the river is wide and shallow with a bottom of firm gravel, and there they splash their way home to the Hills of Doom.
1st June 2482
Ping, Nignog, Zar, and Rikard open accounts for themselves in the Machay Bank. This bank is in fact The Bank of Caravel, Machay Branch. The Bank of Caravel is large and famous. The adventurers want their money to be safe. They talk to the manager, who assures them that the bank is insured, and that if anyone should manage to rob the place, which she says is absolutely impossible because their safe is unbreakable and they have guards in the bank all night, then even if the bank was robbed, the insurance would pay for the lost money. Ping deposits 68 gp, Zar 411 gp, Rikard 39 gp, and Nignog 95 gp.
As they leave the bank, Ping says, "You know why you have so much more money than us, Zar?"
Zar stares at his feet as he walks beside her. He does not answer.
"It's because Rikard and I bought a thunder-egg for us to use in emergencies. Nignog bought new armor. But you didn't buy anything."
"If we need something," Zar says, "I'll buy it."
They walk down the street towards the Spittoon Tavern. Nignog stops. "I'm going to the gym."
Nignog spends an hour a day in the gym, lifting weights.
"I will come too," Rikard says.
Ping and Zar go back to their rooms and study.
In the afternoon, all four of them go to the library and look for books about undead. They find many stories about vampires, ghouls, zombies, and many types of monsters made out of the bodies of dead people, or when people die but go on living without warmth in their bodies. There is one book that they trust more than the others, and in this book, it says that there is a disease called cannibalistic schizophrenia that infects people and makes them convinced that the only food they can eat without throwing up is the flesh of other people. Such people are often called ghouls.
"At the same time," Ping reads from the book, "the ghoul's body emits a diabolical stench, as of rotting corpses, and this stench makes him unwelcome in human company, so that he is driven out of society to hunger for human flesh alone, or in the company of other ghouls whose stench is equally vile. It appears that they do not hunger for one another's flesh, and their own stench may be the reason for this discrimination in their hunger. They long for the sweet-smelling flesh of healthy humans."
The book describes how ghouls file down their teeth so that they can better tear flesh from human bodies. They might kill to obtain their meals, but they certainly will dig up any freshly-buried bodies they can find.
"That is disgusting," Rikard says.
"Let's talk to Julia Childe about the ghouls," Ping says. "We should explain to her what's happening."
"I don't want to see her," Zar says, "She was mad at us for waking people up in the night and for not fighting the gnolls."
The next day, the second of June, they go visit the sheriff. She does not believe Ping's story about ghouls being people who are sick. She says ghouls are dead people come to life, and that they must be killed. "But you are not to go into the graveyard," she says. "Today I deputized five adventurers: Claude, Jacques, Philippe, Marc, and Minuit. I believe you know them. You faught a duel with them in Voisson, didn't you?"
"Yes," Ping says. "We won."
"They are going to try to find and kill the ghouls."
"When did they leave?"
Just before sunset, Claude, Jacques, Marc, and Minuit return to the Spittoon Tavern. They are tired, scratched by pushing their way through thorny bushes in the graveyard, and pale.
"We found the ghouls," Claude says. "There were dozens of them. They ambushed us in a crypt beneath the ground."
They sit around a table staring at their hands and the bowls of soup the pretty barmaid Helene has brought them.
"Where is Philippe?" Ping says.
"We ran," Minuit said. "I used my spells. There were too many of them. We became lost. We found one another, but we did not find Philippe. The ghouls were all around us, hiding in bushes. We could smell them. They smell awful."
"And there was a darkness in the graveyard," Marc says. "As if the sun were veiled by the stench of their undead bodies."
"Well," Minuit says. "That was a cloud over the sun."
"So where is Philippe?" Rikard says.
"We don't know," Claude says. He bangs the table with his mailed fist. "We don't know!"
"The ghouls got him," Marc said. "May god have mercy on his soul."
Several hours after dark, the door of the tavern bangs open and Philippe stands there panting. His face is cut in many places and his hands are bleeding. His armor is scratched and bloody. Claude rushes to him and catches him as he is about to fall.
Most of the blood on Philippe's armor is the blood of ghouls. But he has many scratches. Some of them are from thorns, but Zar examines and cleans the scratches, and later he tells his comrades that some of the scratches are from claws, like long nails.
"He might catch the disease," Zar says.
The next night, Helene brings Philippe his supper in bed and he bites her wrist. She screams and runs downstairs to the common room. There is blood on her skin. The adventurers rush to Philippe's room, but he is already gone. The window is open. He has jumped from the second story to the street and run off into the night.
"He goes to the graveyard," Minuit says, "To be with his brothers."
Rikard escorts Helene home. Zar, Ping and Nignog go to see Father Depardeux at the Church of Caravel. It is late, and the Reverend is having his port before bed, reading a book. His maid shows them into his study.
"What do you want?" the old man says. "I don't like being bothered at night."
Ping tells him what befell Philippe. "Father, have you heard of cannibalistic schizophrenia?"
"I have," he says. "It is a bacterial infection of the brain, otherwise known as ghoulism. It is deadly in a matter of months. It drives a man insane. I have heard of it. Whether or not it is responsible for the behavior of ghouls, I cannot say."
"Can the disease be cured?"
"Yes, but with difficulty. I recommend you don't catch it."
"If we do catch it," Ping says, "Can you cure it for us?"
Father Depardeux stares at his port. He is seated and they are standing. According to the bartender in the Spittoon Tavern, the reverend never married, hates women, and doesn't like fools. The only people he likes is clever young men and his old maid, who has served him for fifty years. And he does not like wizards either.
"It will cost you three hundred guineas for the cure, for one person alone."
"Thank you Father Depardeux," Ping says.
The fourth of June is a cloudy day, but warm. An old woman died two days before by falling down some stairs, and her relatives want to bury her. But the ghouls will dig her up at night. The talk of the town is the biting of Helene by Philippe.
Julia Childe deputizes Nignog, Ping, Zar, and Rikard, telling them to find and kill all the ghouls. She forbids Claude and his friends from returning to the graveyard, saying that they failed yesterday, and they might fight with Nignog, Ping, and Rikard.
"I'm going to find Philippe," Claude says, "I believe he can be saved."
"No, young man," Julia says, "He has passed from this life into the next. He is beyond hope by now."
Claude points at Ping Pong. "You're going to kill Philippe, aren't you."
Ping shakes her head, but Julia does not see. "They are going to destroy the ghouls," Julia says. "That is their mission."
"Pah!" Claude says. He spits at the ground. He scowls. For a moment he looks as if he's going to attach Julia. But he turns on his heal. His comrades follow him. They move off to the west, which is the direction of the graveyard.
"We will go," Ping says, "But first we must get a few things from our room."
Julia watches Claude moving away. "You will be able to follow their tracks. They will lead you to the crypt."
At the Spittoon Tavern, Zar tells them he does not want to go back into the graveyard.
"Why?" Nignog says.
"It's too scary," Zar says.
"But Zar," Ping says, "We need you."
Rikard puts his hand upon Ping's shoulder. "It's his choice."
And so they leave Zar behind, and the three of them enter the graveyard without him. Rikard finds the tracks of Claude and the others. He follows them. The tracks lead deep into the graveyard, where the yew trees grow thick, and the ground is poisoned by their needles. The ancient headstones lean beneath the twisted branches. Hardly a bird sings.
They have walked for almost an hour. They have seen no person. The graves and crypts are all around them.
"Is there no end to this place?" Rikard says.
"It is a famous and ancient graveyard," Ping says. "It has been used for thousands of years."
The ground is low and swampy as they follow the footprints farther into the cemetary. The yew trees give way to huge, ragged willows and other monstrous old trees that look like trees that Ping knows and loves, but they are rotten and bent and their branches stretch out too far and bend too close to the ground, as if they are trying to touch the gravestones or extend their leaves and twigs into the openings in the crypt doors.
The footprints lead to a low hill. There is an opening at the base of the hill, on the east side, with stone slabs upon either side, leaning towards one another and topped by another stone slab. Cracked stone steps lead to the opening, and within there are shadows.
Rikard crouches behind a bush. He is breathing deeply. Sweat drips down his nose from beneath his helmet. His face is pale. "That's the crypt they were talking about, where they were attacked. I think they are in there."
Nignog looks over the bush at the hill. Several huge, gnarled, oak trees grow upon it. He sees nothing moving in their branches, nor upon the ground. He stares into the shadows, looking for a face or a pair of eyes that might be staring back at him.
"What shall we do?" Ping says.
They leave the cover of the bush and approach the hill from the north side. They climb the fifty-meter slope to the top. Here they find an opening in the ground. The opening is a crack in the earth between the roots of the highest oak tree. Smoke is drifting from the hole, and a vile smell like rotten meat combined with stale old sheet. Ping kneels and looks down the hole. She can see nothing, but she can hear someone chanting.
"I'm not going to climb down there," Rikard says.
They descend the west side of the hill. Here they find another entrance, this one with stone doors set on metal hinges that still work. Nignog pushes one of the doors open and enters with his sword drawn, his shield on his arm, and a luminous stone held high. A passage leads into the hill and opens into a crypt with shelves all around the walls. Upon the shelves are skeletons with rotten cloth, lying among the fragile remains of their coffins. Half the bones, are on the floor, but the skulls are all sitting up on the shelves, facing the interior of the room. The bones on the floor have been cleared away to make a path across the crypt to a passage on the far side.
Ping and Nignog look about them. Rikard bends at the waist and leans his weight agains one knee. He takes several deep breaths.
"This way," Nignog says. He walks towards the passage on the far side. Ping follows him. Rikard stands up straight and grits his teeth. He is so frightened he can hardly stop his body from shaking. He wants to run away, but he is even more frightened of what will happen to Nignog and Ping if he deserts them. As he follows them along the passage and down some slimy, crumbling steps, he considers trying to persuade them to give up and go home before they all get turned into ghouls. But if he speaks, he might alert something hiding up ahead, and he is scared of what lies ahead, so he says nothing.
The stairs end in another crypt. This one is eight-sided, and instead of shelves for coffins it has holes dug in the all the walls, one above the other. In the holes there are bones and coffins. Many stones have fallen from the walls and ceiling, and someone has taken these stones and some cement and made a new wall on the far side of the crypt, from the floor almost to the ceiling. Nignog looks at the wall and wonders what it is for. He concludes that the wall is not finished yet. When it reaches the ceiling, it will be like a pillar.
All three of them move towards the wall. When they are up against it, they hear a grunt from the other side and the wall falls towards them. They jump aside. The stones and cement shatter upon the floor with a crash. The rocks roll about and dust fills the air. Standing before them is a tall, fat man wearing a crude wool shirt and trousers. There is no expression upon his face, but there are deep, dark rings around his eyes. He steps forward, his hands outstretched. He stops and coughs. His cough is a deep, dreadful wheezing sound. He clutches his own throat and gasps. Nignog swings his sword in a high, horizontal arch.
Rikard cries out and cowers away from the sad face and head that tumbles to the floor, and the astonishing amount of blood that sprays from the fat man's neck. The body falls forward and twitches. Nignog stands over the corps.
"I choked him with a spell, you know," Ping says.
Nignog says nothing. There is a wooden door in the wall of the crypt, where the big man had been hiding.
"I think he was a zombie," Ping says.
Nignog walks to the door and examines the wood and the handle. The door is new. He presses his ear against it. He hears nothing.
"They must have heard that crash," Ping says. "Whoever is chanting will send ghouls up the passage to attack us."
"Let's get out of here," Rikard says, "This place is all wrong. All wrong." He leans upon the wall of the crypt, then steps away from the sight of a skull grinning out at him. "Let's go back to the other entrance and surprize them by going in that way."
They go back up the steps and out of the stone doors. They make their way around the north side of the hill, through the trees. When they are half-way around, they see five people, four men and one woman, in ragged clothes with filthy, tangled heair, making their way around the base of the hill. They are gamboling along, bent at the waist, jumping more than running, but making good speed towards the west side of the hill.
"You see, Rikard says, "They would have trapped us in there with enemies on both sides."
They creep through the trees and approach the eastern entrance into the hill. The five ghouls return, coming around the base of the hill. The ghouls catch sight of the adventurers and charge forward. Ping casts Flash. The ghouls turn and run up the steps. One of them is blinded. He stumbles and falls. Nignog rushes forward and kills the ghoul before it can reach the steps leading to the eastern entrance. The other four ghouls disappear into the darkness.
"Well," Ping says. "Now they know we are here."
"They ran away from us," Rikard says.
"Let's follow them," Ping says.
Nignog walks up the steps. Ping and Rikard come behind him. The crypt within has no stone ceiling left, but instead a tangled mass of roots holds the dirt up off the floor. The sound of chanting comes out of a passage on the other side. They move into the darkness and keep close to the left wall. A voice comes from a dark space to their left. Rikard nearly screams, but whimpers quietly instead.
"Psst! Over here."
"Who's there?" Nignog says.
"Minuit and Mark." Nignog recongnises Minuit's voice.
The five adventurers come together in the darkness of the crypt and exchange their stories in whispers, while the sound of a man's voice chanting comes from deeper in the hill. The chanting rises in pitch and volume. The man appears to be in some kind of state of amazement or ecstasy, because his voice is shrill at times, and shrieking. Rikard closes his eyes and tries to stop himself from fainting with fear.
They learn that Claude and Jacques have been captured, stripped of their armor and weapons, and chained up in a cavern under the hill. The dark passage leading out of this crypt leads to a flight of steps down to the cavern. Philippe is also there, chained up at the bottom of a pit in the center of the cavern. In the cavern are roughly twenty ghouls.
"The leader of the ghouls is a man," Minuit says, "I do not believe he is a ghoul himself. But he has mastered them."
"He is a necromancer," Marc says, "A ruler of the living dead."
"They are not dead," Minuit says. Ping agrees, but Marc insists that the ghouls are no longer human. They might as well be dead.
"I have been wounded by them," Marc says. "I will kill myself before I turn into a ghoul. But first I will kill that foul man."
Before Ping can argue against his plan, Marc slips away into the darkness. For a moment they see him in the dim light, entering the passage.
"Let's go back to the other entrance," Ping says, "They think we are here, so we should be there."
Minuit comes with them. They go over the top of the hill, creeping from shadow to shadow. They enter the western crypt and descend to the new wooden door. The door is locked. Ping takes out her lock picks and sets to work. Within a few minutes, the lock is open.
No sooner has Ping put her lock picks away than Nignog opens the door. The chanting rises loudly towards them through the darkness. They put their lights away and descend with Nignog in the lead and Rikard at the back. There is flickering light before them. After thirty paces, they come to the cavern. Their view of the cavern is blocked by a new wall of stone, rather like the one the zombie pushed over onto them. Whoever is chanting is standing on the other side of the wall. They creep up behind the wall and look around the corner. On the right wall they see Claude and Jacques chained to the wall by their wrists, wearing only their underclothes. The walls are interrupted by many coffin-holes.
Ping hides behind the new wall and thinks. After a few seconds, she explains a simple plan to her comrades, and they agree to it.
"Ready?" Ping says.
"Ready," Nignog says. Rikard nods. Minuit stares at the walls of the cavern on the left. He scratches his little beard. "I'm ready," he says.
Nignog charges into the cavern along the right wall with Rikard behind him. A flash of blinding light and a deafening bang fill the cavern. Nignog opens his eyes. For a few seconds he cannot hear, but he can see, having closed his eyes at a command from Minuit. And he can smell. The stench in the room is almost unbearable. But he must breath or he will not be able to fight. So he breaths in the stench.
There is a pit on his left, and the pit is filled with ghouls. At their center is Philippe, huddled upon the ground. He is wearing his armor. There are more ghouls on the far side of the room. Some are armed with swords and sticks. A few wear fragments of leather and metal armor. On the right wall, with no ghouls nearby, Claude and Jacques are chained up. They are covered with hundreds of scratches and cuts.
"Thank God!" Jacques cries.
Ping stands at the right end of the new wall and Minuit stands at the left. Minuit casts the Flash spell. Ping looks to her left and sees the necromancer. He stands with his back to the new wall. In front of him is a large stone basin full of clear water. In the water are the human body parts. Ping does not look in the basin for more than the blink of an eye, but the image of the basin haunts her dreams for weeks to come. On either side of the Necromander are stone bowls full of burning, oily wood. The flames give off a foul black smoke and a flickering orange light. The necromancer himself wears a greasy black cloak that covers him from head to toe. His face is hidden behind by an elaborate black mask.
"Kill them!" he screams.
Nignog and Rikard stand in front of the prisoners. The ghouls jump and bound with inhuman speed and strength across and out of the pit towards them. Nignog clenches his teeth, holds up his shield and prepares to stand his ground. Rikard is so terrified he cannot stand the horror any longer. He yells and steps forward, swinging his sword with all his strength.
Ping casts Fear. She stares at the necromancer. He stares back. She has a spear in one hand and a shield in the other. She does not look like a wizard. The necromancer smiles behind his mask. But a moment later he grimaces. He staggers back from the sight of the ghouls bounding and leaping towards Nignog and Rikard. His hands tremble.
"Kill them!" he shouts. He rushes around the left side of the pit, behind the backs of the ravenous ghouls. They do not touch him. "Kill them all!"
Ping has no time to watch where the necromancer goes. A ghoul jumps out of the pit in front of her and lunges with a rusty dagger. She blocks his blow with her shield and strikes with her spear. The battle is on in earnest. She moves to her right, so that she is fighting beside Rikard.
Twice more the cavern resounds with a flash and a bang. Some ghouls are blinded, and also Jacques, Philippe, and Claude. But the ten or more ghouls pressed close up to Ningog, Rikard, and Ping are unaffected, and they fight on. Even the blinded ghouls press forwards, enraged and drooling. They jump over one another to get closer to the sound of Claude sobbing with horror against the wall.
Minuit, alone at one end of the new wall, is driven back by a ghoul. Ping sees another ghoul squeezing past the flaming bowl to get around her end of the new wall. She knows that Minuit will then be attacked on both sides. At this moment, Rikard, enraged by his own fear, jumps down into the pit and drives back the ghouls. Ping rushes towards the new wall and stabs the ghoul there in the back. He collapses to the ground. Another ghoul jumps out of the pit, and she must fight him. She does not know what has become of Minuit.
A horrid scream comes down the stairs from the east crypt. Even the ghouls pause in their attack as the scream rises and falls. Ping does not know who screamed, but it was a man.
Once more, the ghouls push forward. Rikard and Nignog have both been cut and scratched by the ghoul's nails. A puff of black smoke appears on the other side of the cavern, and Ping knows that Minuit lives. That was his Obscuring Cloud spell. Marc enters the cavern on the east side, creeps forward, and stabs one ghoul in the back and another. Nignog kills the last of the ghouls in front of him, and Rikard does the same. A final corps falls into the pit with Marc behind it.
The fight is over.
Marc walks around the hall killing any ghouls that show signs of life. Rikard consoles Claude and Jacques. Nignog stabs a ghoul that tries to rise and bite his ankle. Ping tries to get her breath back, leaning on her spear. Minuit comes out from behind the new wall and stares at the blood and the corpses.
Ping picks the locks on all the shackels. Nignog and Rikard tie up Philippe and gag him with a stinky piece of ghoul cloth. Marc recovers Claude and Jacques' armor and weapons from various ghoul corpses. As soon as Claude and Jacques can see, they put their armor on again, grimacing in pain as the pieces go over their bloody skin.
"We will go back to Machay and buy a cure for the ghoulish disease," Ping says. "Nobody should dispair. We will all be okay. Even Philippe. We will cure him too."
"I killed the necromancer," Marc says. "His body lies at the top of the stairs."
They ascend the stairs, leaving the carnage of the battle behind them. The necromancer's body is not there. But Nignog finds a trail of blood. They walk out of the crypt and breath deeply the clean air of the graveyard, which seems fresh and sweet in comparison to the cavern's stench.
Nignog follows the drops of blood to a bush a hundred meters from the crypt, and drags the necromancer out by one leg. The necromancer's mask has fallen off. His cape he still wears. His face is wide and scarred by some disease, with a big hook nose and deep-set, small eyes. He smells like a ghoul.
Marc wants to kill the necromancer right away. He scuffles with Nignog until Nignog punches him and knocks him out. Minuit and Rikard cut open the necromancer's greasy black cape and throw the foul thing to one side. It is the cape that stinks like a ghoul, not the necromancer himself. Minuit, they learn, is a healer, and he binds the terrible wound Marc made in the necromancer's back. Nignog puts the wounded man over his shoulder and starts to walk back the way they came. Marc gets to his feet and follows, grumbling to himself.
It takes an hour to reach the edge of the graveyard, and by now it is early afternoon. The necromancer's back is soaked with blood. He whispers in Nignog's ear. "Put me down. I am dying."
Nignog puts him down. The necromancer jestures for Nignog to lean closer. Nignog kneels beside him, but does not put his ear to the necromancer's mouth. The necromancer's whisper is barely audible. Ping kneels opposit and strains to listen.
"I am dying. It is given to me, as a master of the dead, to curse those who slay me. That is why I have lived this long, when all the blood in my body has long since poured out. I am even now undead."
He closes his eyes and breaths for a few seconds.
"But I will not curse you, young man, if you promise to do something for me. And I will give you half of my wealth also, if you do this thing."
"What do you want me to do?" Nignog says.
"I have a box in the Agamemnon bank in Machay. It contains the wealth of my family. I will give you the secret number that will allow you to enter the bank and take everything out of the box. I will do this if you promise to take half of the wealth and deliver it to my daughter, whose name is Balmorda. She works in the Loud Lady Lodge in Lutetia, Kiali. Take half of my fortune to my daughter, and I will not curse you."
Nignog looks at Ping. She nods. "I will do as you say," Nignog says.
And so it is that the necromancer tells them the secret number, which is 734666666, and then he dies.
They carry the body of the necromancer to the hospital. Ping and Minuit are the only ones who have suffered no scratches from the ghouls. Ping goes in search of Father Depardeux and Sheriff Julia. Minuit stays with the others at the hospital while the nurses spray water upon them and wash them with soap. A doctor injects Philippe with something that makes him go to sleep.
Claude, Jaques, Marc, Philippe, Nignog, and Rikard spend the week of 4th June to 11th June in Machay Hospital. Every day they receive injections of a powerful medicine from Father Depardeux. The cost of this treatment is 300 gp per person, for a total of 1,800 gp. After four days, Philippe appears to be better.
One of Julia Childe's policemen recognises the necromancer's body. The necromancer's name is Cornelius Armastax. He lived in a small arpartment on the graveyard side of the town. She and her police go to the apartment and take everything there that belonged to him, in accordance with a Caravelli law that awards the posessions of murderers to the local government. These posessions are not worth much, but the necromancer's relatives will be permitted to buy them back from the town. The town, meanwhile, pays for the cremation of the necromancer's body, this being regarded as the most reliable way of destroying an undead corpse. There is only one crematorium in town, and it is near the graveyard. The man who owns it is very old, and hardly ever uses it nowadays. But he fires it up and they load in the necromancer's body and burn it. Ping goes along as a witness for the sheriff. They put the ashes in a clay urn and bury them in the graveyard, several hundred meters from the entrance, beneath a tree beside a crypt.
On the 9th June, 2482, Minuit and Ping go to the Agamamnon Bank. They follow the necromancer's instructions and find themselves staring into a box full of gold and jewelry. They put it all into sacks and walk out of the bank with it. In Ping's room at the Spittoon Tavern, they put the treasure in two back-packs. They walk to the hospital and pay the bill in gold pieces. They carry the treasure around with them for the next two days, even sleeping with it in their beds.
On the 11th June, the rest of the adventurers leave the hospital feeling fit and well-rested. Julia Childe tells Philippe that he must never return to Machay, or she will throw him in jail. She tells Claude, Jacques, Marc, and Minuit that she will never deputize them again after their disbodience the week before. They shrug.
All eight adventurers leave Machay and go to Voisson, where they are reunited with Zar. The villagers are unhappy to see the return of Claude and his group, but Ping does not know where else to go with the treasure and Claude promises to behave himself.
Miss Demoir Broggs the jeweler says the necromancer's jewelry is worth 4,000 gp. In addition, they have 2,200 gp left in coins after paying the hospital bill. They set aside 2,000 gp worth of jewelry and 2,000 gp in coins for Balmorda Armastax. This they divide into five shares, each share to be carried to Lutetia by one of the five people who took part in the fight in the cavern: Mark, Minuit, Nignog, Ping, and Rikard. They divide the remaining 2,000 gp of jewelry and 200 gp of coins equally between the same five people. Marc, Minuit, Ping, Nignog, and Rikard each receive 440 gp of treasure for themselves.
"We could buy a nice house in the village," Ping says.
The Voisson Bank has been repaired and reinforced. The bank is now called The Bank of Caravel, Voisson Branch. Our heroes already have accounts with the Machay Branch of the same bank, so now they rent safe deposit boxes in the new bank and in these they place their 400 gp of jewelry. They put their 40 gp of coins in their pockets.
On the 13th June, the nine adventurers walk to Machay. Philippe waits outside the town while the rest of them go in and buy horses. They mount their new horses and ride to the bridge over the river Boome. They continue the next morning, crossing into Kiali and following the road to Lutetia. They stop to trade in Zar's horse, which is already lame, for another. After a journey of three days, they arrive in Lutetia on the 17th of June, 2482. Ping is disappointed with her horse, which is nearly exhausted at the end of the day, in contrast to Zar, Rikard, and Nignog's horses, all of whom are still walking proud.
The city is entirely on an island in the middle of a river. They cross one of the two bridges to the island and find themselves surrounded by two and three-story wood buildings. Marc, Philippe, Jaques, and Claude say they will not stay at the Loud Lady Lodge, but with some friends instead. They say they will come in the morning to deliver their shares of the treasure to Balmorda. Ping, Nignog, Zar, Rikard, and Minuit make their way to the Loud Lady Lodge. It is set in a space one hundred meters square on the south edge of the city, with a high wood fence all around. The two and three-story buildings of the hotel are made of brick and thatched with straw. Smoke rises from several chimneys. The travelers dismount and tie their horses outside the entrance. The large wood doors are open. The floor inside is varnished wood.
They rent three rooms and take their horses to the stables. There is one stable for horses and another for hippogriffs and wyverns. There are three hippogriffs in the stable now. The huge birds squat in their large pens watching the guests who come to stare at them. The groom says these three belong to the famous adventurers Quayam, Gristel, and Thristen.
The Loud Lady Lodge is not a luxury hotel. The water is in a jug by a bowl in your room. If you want a hot bath, the staff bring up the hot water and mix it with cold water in the tub for you. There are no toilets in the rooms. You can use a bed-pan at night, or you can go outside to the outhouses in the garden. But the sheets are clean, and the buckets under the seats in the outhouses are changed every day. And the Loud Lady Lodge is famous not for its food or its rooms, but for its Lounge.
The Lounge wraps around the center building of the Lodge, with windows looking out upon the shooting range, the stables, the sparring ring, and the bocce ball strips. The Lounge itself has several open areas filled with low tables and leather chairs, but mostly it is a warren of corners and cubbies where the guests can gather and confer among themselves in private. The walls are decorated with maps of Clarus and other planets, paintings of monsters battling with heroic warriors, and photographs of real men and women posing in their armor, robes, and weapons or on horseback. In the darker corners, luminous stones set in the walls and protected from theft by thick glass windows, provide enough light to read. Every cubby has shelves, and upon the shelves are books and magazines.
On this summer day, the Lounge is not crowded. Many of the guests are outside in the garden. Most of the guests are lean and fit. Their faces are tanned. They wear a short sword or a dagger at their belt, and their clothes are well-made. Ping sees two men with long fingernails smoking tobacco, and she suspects that both are wizards. One wears a silk hat with stars and moons on it.
Minuit leads Rikard, Ping, Zar, and Nignog through the Lounge until he finds a quiet corner. "As you can see," he says, "Crowded with adventurers seeking their fortune in the Old Hills."
Rikard pulls a magazine off a shelf. It is The Adventurer's Gazette, dated July 2478. There are advertizements for adventurer equipment, articles on camping, fighting, and keeping your rune-cards dry in a rain storm. There are short accounts of the exploits of various adventurers, and an account called Chapter Eleven: Up the River by Gristel Virage.
"This is written by one of the guys whose hippogriffs are in the stables," Rikard says.
Ping looks at the magazine. "Gristel Virage is a woman, not a man."
Ping reads a copy of The Adventuring Wizard, in which a reporter called Martha Howard writes an account of how a wizard called Hocus the Destroyer reduces a stone castle to rubble. It seems to Ping that he used six Fireball spells. She hopes to be able to prepare and cast Fireball soon.
That night, after the last guests of the Lodge have had their supper, the travelers meet Balmorda Armastax. She is one of the chefs in the kitchen at the Lodge. She sits with them in the Lounge, wearing her cooking apron. She is a stocky, short woman with a wide face like her father's, and the same nose. Nignog is the last person to say any woman is ugly, but he has to admit to himself that this woman is indeed ugly. She looks strong, though.
Balmorda listens to their story: her father is dead and here is half his fortune. She frowns. "When you cremated his body, did you see something unusual and alarming? Did you see some sign from the gods that his soul had risen?"
"No," Ping says. "I was inside the crematorium. Nothing unusual happened."
"I see," Balmorda says. "My father was a man of great ability. I am not sure I believe that he is dead." She reaches across the table and takes the four bags of treasure that Minuit, Ping, Nignog, and Rikard have placed before her. "But I thank you for the service that you have done him. You are good people to have kept your word. I will not forget it, and nor will he."
She bids them goodnight and walks back into the kitchen, carrying twenty kilograms of gold and jewelry.
"Now she's rich," Ping says.
The next morning, there is still no sign of Marc, Claude, Jaques and Philippe, nor of Marc's share of Balmorda's treasure. Minuit has gone into the city. Balmorda finds them in the Lodge. She is not smiling, but neither does she look distressed, so they are surprized to here her say, "Last night I was robbed on my way home. Three men stole the treasure I carried."
The three men were wearing masks, but from Balmorda's description, Ping concludes that they were none other than Marc, Jaques, and Claude. "But not Philippe," she says. "He would not do something like that."
"Before I left last night," Balmorda says, "I left half my father's money with a friend of mine, as a precaution. My father taught me never to carry all my jewels in one sack. So I have a great deal of money left. I would like to go to Machay. But I will need guards to protect me and my money. I will pay you eighty guineas to let me ride there under your protection."
Seeing as they are going back to Machay anyway, Zar, Ping, Rikard, and Nignog agree to guard her. They will earn twenty guineas each. They decide to leave the next day. They go with Balmorda to her apartment, which is in the north part of the city. Ping and Zar wait outside while Rikard and Nignog go in to carry out Balmorda's belongings. Ping notices someone watching her from the soup stall on the other side of the street. It is Philippe, trying to stay hidden in a hooded shirt. She waves at him, and after a moment he waves too, but then disappears into the soup shop and does not come out. Ping does not cross the street to find him.
They walk back to the Lodge and Balmorda rents a room. They feel that she will be safe in the Lodge with her treasure. Ping hires the groom of the Lodge's stable to buy her a better horse. The groom's name is Horax. She gives him twenty guineas and her existing horse and he returns three hours later with Redoak, a brown gelding. Ping rides him about the small paddock outside the stables and is pleased.
Minuit returns to the Lodge in the afternoon and is dismayed to hear of the robbery. "The others spoke poorly of us and our decision to give the necromancer's money to his daughter. They think you are doing a bad thing. I argued with them, but they were already drunk, and I left. I'll go back now and try again to persuade them."
He leaves. They expect him back in the evening, but he does not return. Outside, they hear thunder, and soon after, it starts to pour with rain. It pours all night.
The next morning, the 19th of June, 2482, it is raining steadily. Minuit has not returned. Ping is worried about him. They consider going to find him, but Balmorda reminds them that they have already agreed to escort her, so they mount their horses and leave the city. Balmorda, it turns out, owns a horse, a gray mare. She burdens it with several saddle bags of books and clothes. On her back is a pack with two stout leather straps containing her treasure.
Within a few minutes of leaving the city, their clothes are wet, and after an hour riding, they are all soaked to the skin. The forest presses close up to the road, so there is little to see on either side. Their plan is to ride from 8 am to 12 pm each day, rest for an hour and a half, and ride another four hours until late afternoon. In this way, they will cover forty kilometers per day and their journey to Machay will take five days. So they ride on through the rain until noon, when they come upon a tavern by the road with a dozen horses tied up outside.
The tavern is crowded and warm. They stand near a huge, roaring fire and eat bread, cheese, ham, and strawberries. The customers are pressed close together, and the air is steamy from drying clothes. Twelve monks come in, wearing brown robes. Zar watches them out of the corner of his eye.
"I don't trust the monks," he says.
But the monks leave after half an hour. Zar watches them set off through the wavey glass windows of the tavern. They are walking towards Lutetia in the rain.
After an hour and a half in the tavern, Balmorda and her guards are dry and hot. They ask the tavern-keeper for their bill, and pay in gold. They leave and mount their horses. Two other travelers are ahead of them by a couple of hundred meters. When they have gone a little way down the road, four more riders leave the tavern and set out in the same direction.
Ping and Rikard ride side by side in the lead, with Ping on the right. At the rear are Nignog and Zar, with Nignog on the right. In the center, guarded in front and behind, is Balmorda. The rain comes down steadily. They cross a creek that is rushing with water. They catch up with the two travelers in front, and after another ten minutes, the four riders behind them catch up, so that they are now a group of eleven proceeding together through the rain.
They descend a slope to a stream. There is a wood bridge with no side rails crossing the stream, but the stream is so flooded with the rain that the water is knee-deep on top of the bridge. The riders in front stop. They appear to be hesitant to cross the bridge. Ping and Rikard stop too, and all the riders behind, so that the eleven are in a close group in front of the water.
"Are you going to cross?" Rikard says, in Caravelli. He does not speak Kiali. Nobody seems to speak Kiali except the Kialis. But he hopes they will understand him anyway. They don't, or pretend not to. They look around. They seem nervous.
Nignog has had enough of waiting around. If nobody is brave enough to cross the water, he will. His horse is large and he and his armor are heavy. The water will not wash him away. He moves his horse out from behind Balmorda, pushes past his comrades and the two strangers, and sets out across the wooden bridge.
Ping is staring at Nignog and wondering why he has gone on ahead. Why didn't he ask before he went forward? He is already halfway across the river when she hears a grunt behind her. Ping turns and sees Balmorda slumping forward on her saddle. Ping cries out. One of the travelers has struck Balmorda upon the back of the head with the hilt of his dagger. Two other travelers attack Zar from behind.
Nignog looks back when he hears Ping cry out. In one instant he realises what he has done. He left his place at the back of their formation and now Balmorda has been attacked, and Zar too. There are six armed bandits and only three of his companions are able to fight. Even now, one of the bandits is dragging Balmorda off her horse and draping her tummy-down across his own horse's neck. Nignog is half-way across a flooded bridge that is too narrow for him to turn his horse. He urges his horse forwards. He will turn on the far bank and charge back.
Zar is facing two bandits armed with swords and protected by leather armor. Instead of defending himself with his sword, he dodges away from their weapons and casts spells. The two bandits by the river turn and attack Rikard and Ping. Rikard fights back. Ping holds up her shield to protect herself, but casts spells instead of using her spear.
As Nignog crosses the river, he hears one bang after another. Zar and Ping are casting their flash spells. He turns and charges back, drawing his sword. Ping is looking dismayed as she fights for her life. Rikard is fighting in a fury, but he is winning. One of Zar's enemies is galloping away. Balmorda's horse has disappeared. Nignog swings his sword at Ping's opponent as he rides past. The bandid with Balmorda across his saddle is spurring his horse, but the horse won't move. The bandit leaps from his horse to sit behind one of his comrades, and they ride away. The other bandits turn their horses to ride away with him. Nignog reaches Balmorda, draped over the frightened horse, and grabs its reins. The horse cannot see, and so will not run.
All the bandits have fled except for Rikard's opponent. The others turn and look down the road through the rain. Zar casts Will-o-Wisp and sends its ball of light rushing and flickering up the road towards the bandits. They turn and flee.
"Hah!" Zar says.
Zar, Ping, and Nignog watch Rikard duel with the last bandit. Rikard keeps him pinned up against the river. The bandit knows that he cannot turn his back upon Rikard to escape. He fights on. Rikard pounds upon his shield. The shield smashes against the bandit's helmet and he is stunned.
Rikard holds his sword ready, but he does not strike. "Go!" he says in Caravelli. "And next time think twice before you attack the likes of us. This time I will be mercifull, but next time I may think differently. Now go!"
The bandit appears to understand that he can flee across the river. He raises the pommel of his sword to his lips in some kind of salute, and rides over the flooded bridge and up the road on the other side.
Nignog lifts Balmorda off the bandit's blinded horse and sets her upon the ground beneath the forest. Zar revives her with some smelling salts.
"This horse is blind," Nignog says. He waves his hands in front of the animal's eyes.
"I know," Ping says, "I blinded him with a Grand Flash. He'll be okay in a few minutes."
"I blinded one of the bandits with a flash," Zar says, "And I scared another one away with Fear." He points to his forehead. There is a bright red burn in the center. "I burned myself with a flash right above my eyes so I could get my two guys at once."
"Nice work, Zar," Ping says. "Does it hurt?"
"Yes. And did you see my Will-o-Wisp? They ran away."
"That was good, Zar. Very good."
Balmorda sits up. She feels her pack. The treasure is still there. She looks around. "Where is my horse?"
"We were attacked and we lost your horse," Ping says. "But we have a better one here, as compensation."
Balmorda rubs the back of her head. "I am disappointed. I was hoping that you would protect me, but it appears that six bandits are too much for you."
Rikard stands over her. "Madame, we did our best. We fought hard, and you are alive and have your treasure."
"I have lost my books."
Ping pats the blinded horse on the neck. "Maybe the bandit leader will want his horse back and we can do a trade."
And Ping is right. On the night of the twenty-first, while staying at a roadside inn, the bandit leader from the fight at the bridge brings Balmorda's horse into the courtyard and offers it in exchange for his own. Ping agrees to the deal, and with the barmaid acting as translator, compliments the bandit upon his good effort to steal Balmorda's treasure. He assures Ping that he would never have tried had he known they were wizards. He gives his name as Tindell of the Radash Tribe of Lakh, to the north of Kiali. He says Ping and her friends will be his guests if they should go that way. Ping thanks him. Balmorda receives her horse gladly and goes through all her bags. Nothing is missing and nothing is damaged.
The Grand Aluzia Hotel sits back from the road, at the end of a gravel driveway. The Hotel was once the mansion of the Lord Aluzia, and still is in a manner of speaking. One hundred and thirty-six years ago, the Lord Aluzia converted his mansion into a hotel. There are various explanations for why he would do such a thing. One of the most popular explanations is that the Lord Aluzia owed money to merchants and adventurers, and they agreed to forgive his debts if he would turn his mansion into a hotel for them to stay in for free. Another story is that the Lord Aluzia was a vampire and had to drink the blood of young guests in order to stay alive.
After the fight at the bridge, in the late afternoon of the 19th June 2482, Nignog, Ping, Zar, and Rikard, cross the overflowing stream safely and ride on through the pouring rain until they come to the Grand Aluzia. Balmorda tells them to turn up the driveway beside the stone sign.
"This is a good place. I stayed here with my father when I was a girl," she says.
They tie up their horses and knock on the big iron-bound wooden doors of the hotel. After a minute, the door opens. A tall, thin man dressed in a black suit stands aside and jestures with one long-fingered hand that they should enter. They walk inside. The floor of the entrance hall is stone and the ceiling is six meters high. On the far side is a wide staircase rising to the second floor. On their left and right are doors. From behind the door on the left comes the sound of a church organ playing creepy music. From behind the door on the right comes the sound of laughing and talking.
The tall man closes the door behind them and bars it. His mouth stretches into a thin smile, but his eyes do not smile. There is a reception desk beside the stairs. We walks to stand behind it and smiles again. "Welcome to the Grand Aluzia Hotel."
"Good afternoon Lord Aluzia," Balmorda says. "I am Balmorda Armastax, daughter of Cornelius Armastax."
Now the Lord Aluzia's eyes do smile with his lips. He bows at his waist. "It is good to see you again, Miss Armastax. It has been many years. You were but seven at the time. Forgive me for not recongising you immediately."
"I am very glad to be here again," Balmorda says. "My father sends his well-wishes."
"I trust he is well," Aluzia says.
Balmorda frowns. "I am uncertain. There are those who believe he is dead. But I have heard from his spirit, and his spirit is well."
Aluzia stars at Balmorda for a few seconds. He nods slowly. "Your father was a man of great spirit. Trust your insticts in his regard. He will always be with you."
"Thank you, my Lord."
"Er," Ping says. "Are you the Lord Aluzia who founded the hotel?" She swallows. Could it be that this man is indeed a vampire? Vampires can live for hundreds of years, and look how Aluzia knows and favors the Necromancer's Daughter.
Aluzia half-closes his eyes, tilts his head back a little and emits a series of dry wheezing sounds. After a few seconds, Ping realizes that Aluzia is laughing.
"Indeed not, my dear woman," he says. "I am the grandson of the Lord Aluzia who founded the Grand Aluzia Hotel. My family has run the hotel since then. Every employee is a member of the Aluzia family, either directly or by marriage, including cousins but not second cousins by marriage, so every one of them you can trust to keep faith with our guests." He smiles with his mouth. "We are the hotel and the hotel is what we are."
"I see," Ping says. But she doesn't really. Refusing to hire anyone outside your family is a good way to keep your dark secrets from getting out.
"Do you have rooms for us?" Balmorda syas, "We are cold, wet, and hungry. We have been attacked upon the road, and I have been wounded. I need a bath, dry clothes, and a good meal."
Aluzia opens a large book and picks up a pen. "Of course we can accommodate you. How many rooms would you like?"
"Can we have one big room?" Ping says. "We would like to sleep in the same room."
And so they share a large room. Balmorda takes a bath behind a screen in the corner. They stoke up the fire and dry their clothes. Nignog oils their armor and sharpens their swords. Ping and Zar sit in one corner and prepare spells. They cast almost all the spells they had in the battle at the flooded bridge.
Supper in the hall is good. The other guests are merchants, wealthy travelers, a few adventurers and an ambassador from Caravel with her escort of soldiers, on their way to somewhere. Our heroes keep to themselves and enjoy their food.
That night, Zar sleeps on the floor.
It is the 20th of June, 2482. In the morning, Zar wakes up with a sore spot in his back. He lifts up the carpet he has been sleeping on and finds a small paper package. He opens it and gasps.
Balmorda rolls over in bed. "Quiet. I have only just fallen asleep."
Nignog gets out of bed and stumbles across the room in his underpants. Ping has been up for a while, and kneels beside Zar on the carpet. "Oh my gosh," she says.
Inside the package are ten freshly-printed cards with brightly-colored shapes. They are the calling cards of The Elementalist.
"Aluzia is the elementalist!" Zar says.
Balmorda looks at the cards. "Those are the four symbols for fire, water, air, and earth. The signs of the elements in alchemy."
The guest book of the Grand Aluzia contains the names and addresses of its guests. Everyone must sign it to stay at the hotel, but there is nothing to stop one from giving a false name and address. Nevertheless, Ping and her companions gave their correct names and addresses. They look in the guest book now, and see that a man called Gene Clairmont of Fairview Manor, Machay Town, Caravel, stayed in their large room for three nights, checking out on the 18th June.
Over breakfast, Ping says, "That's the elementalist. His name is Gene Clairmont. We should go and tell Sheriff Childe."
"No, I wouldn't do that," Rikard says. "I bet you this guy is rich and powerful. We don't have any proof that he's The Elmentalist. We could make fools of ourselves. We suspect him, but we have no proof."
They agree to keep the cards and the paper wrapping, but to keep their suspicions to themselves. Balmorda does not join in their discussion, but she is listening closely. They depart after breakfast. The rain stops and the sun comes out.
They arrive in Machay in the evening of the 23rd June, 2482 and check into the Spittoon Tavern with Balmorda. The next morning, the 24th June, they escort her to the Agamemnon Bank where she rents a safe deposit box and places her treasure within. She pays our heroes the second half of their fee and thanks them.
"What are you going to do now?" Rikard says.
"I am going to rent a room and a stable for my horse." She stares in the direction of the graveyard, which is just visible on the other side of the park beyond the Agamemon Bank. "And then," she says, "I'm going to start a charity of some sort. Perhaps an old people's home, in honor of my father's work." She looks at them. "But first I will visit his grave."
"Would you like me to show you where it is?" Ping says.
Balmorda smiles. "That will not be necessary. I already know where it is."
She unties her horse and mounts it. Without looking back, she trots down the street towards the graveyard.
"Spooky," Nignog says.
Balmorda turns the corner. Rikard stares after her. Nignog and Zar look at Ping.
"Well," Ping says, "I want to go home." She smiles. "We each have four hundred guineas worth of jewelry in the bank. I'm thinking about buying a house."
"I don't have any jewelry," Zar says.
Rikard unties his horse. "I am willing to share the expense of a house."