Call of Avoozl
Alexei Vistana sat outside his wagon, gazing up at the Mordavian stars. He always marveled at the stars. The gypsies were by nature a roving people. They were never content to rest for long in any one place. They traveled the world, trading those things they had for those things they needed, and in doing so, they were witness to all the world's wonders. Ever-changing was the life of a gypsy. But throughout all their travels, the stars remained constant to guide them.
He glanced down at the fire, and the several wolves who were gathered there to bask in its warmth on this chill autumn night. It was the older wolves, mostly, like himself. The younger ones were out on the hunt, gathering food for the clan. There had been good hunting in Mordavia since they had arrived two weeks ago. Trade in town had been good as well. But despite the clan's apparent good fortune, Alexei was concerned. Something was not right in Mordavia, and he was certain it had to do with that abominable monastery. A cult had arisen in the valley since last the clan had been here some years ago. Such things happened from time to time, Alexei knew, but there was something very dark here. Just to look upon that monastery awoke strange sensations in him.
Alexei was startled by the cry of a wolf from close by. The hunt had returned. He stood, brushing the dirt from his clothing, and awakened the wolves by the fire. They were all gathered together when the pack entered the campfire circle.
"How went the hunt?" asked Alexei.
Several of the wolves brought forth a large deer, freshly killed. Alexei couldn't keep his eyes from lighting up at the sight.
"Excellent! Tonight we feast!" he cried, and several of the wolves howled in agreement. Alexei was about to assume his wolf form in order to take the first bite, as was his right as a Gypsy King, but a movement caught his eye. One of the wolves, a young one named Janos, had assumed his human form.
"I have some news, Alexei. It is important. May we speak?" asked the young one. Alexei hated to wait for this meal, but something in Janos' eyes told him that this really was important, and should not be put off.
"Very well. The rest of you may feast. Come with me, Janos." Janos walked forward, and together they entered Alexei's grand wagon. Alexei motioned for Janos to sit, and he did so. Alexei sat as well. He looked at the young wolf.
"What is this news you have, Janos?" he asked. Janos seemed to hesitate, but finally spoke.
"I saw something in the woods tonight, Alexei. We were hunting to the south, and I had broken off from the pack for a moment to chase down a rabbit. I saw strange lights in the distance, and heard a sound like the chanting of many men. I looked closer, and saw that it was a group of cultists from the monastery. Sergei Borgov was leading them."
Alexei started at this. The Boyar? Was he involved with this cult? "Tell me more," he said.
"They came upon a tall grey stone, which was unmarked and stands near the cave at Mount Malign. The Boyar held up a flask in which he had trapped some will o' wisps. The stone glowed where the light of the wisps touched it. The light revealed a strange circle carved into the stone, which I am sure was not there before. The Boyar touched a strange metal disk to the circle and then twisted the disk. A section of the stone opened, and he placed a paper inside. He started to speak, but the hunt was moving on and I could not stay."
"This is very troubling, Janos," said Alexei, sitting back in his chair. "I knew this cult was powerful, but I did not know it extended so far as to include the Boyar. Something must be done."
"What can we do, Alexei?" asked Janos. "We are not warriors, we are traders. We cannot fight something like this."
"Then we must seek help from someone who can."
"Who? The townsfolk tolerate us, but you know they don't trust us; they think us thieves, or worse. Who would help us."
"Piotyr would," said Alexei. "We must turn to him."
"Ah, yes, the paladin," said Janos, his eyes lighting up with enthusiasm. "I have never met him, but I have heard stories. He will help us. But we must send someone to tell him of the danger. May I go, Alexei?"
Alexei frowned. He should have been expecting this. Janos was always a little too eager for adventure. It worried Alexei.
"I am not sure, Janos. As you say, the townspeople dislike us. What's more, Piotyr may need our aid in this matter, and whoever goes must be prepared to render it."
"Then who better than I, Alexei?" said Janos. "You know I'm the fastest wolf in the pack. I can take care of myself. Besides, I'm the one who saw the Boyar in the first place. I know more about this matter than any of the others."
Alexei sighed. There was no denying Janos was right. He was the fastest, and he was very skilled. Alexei worried at the danger he would be placed in, but in the end, he could see no other choice.
"Very well, Janos. You have my permission. Go to Piotyr, tell him what you know, and give him whatever help you can."
Janos practically leaped from his chair. "Thank you Alexei," he said. "I'll make you proud. Don't worry about me." He was positively beaming as he left the wagon. Alexei stayed in his chair, scowling now. This boded no good. Something evil was building in the valley, and he shuddered at the thought of the gypsies being entangled in it. He looked out the window at the other wolves feasting, but did not join them. He had lost his appetite.
Janos left early the next morning. He had felt little need to sleep, so he had spent his time packing and thinking about what awaited him. A paladin! He could scarcely believe it. All his life, the gypsies had told him stories of the paladins. They told how the paladins were true heroes all, giving selflessly to others, and as such they were always to be considered gypsy friends. They told also how the paladin was a terror on the field of battle, and that one could find no better ally should he find himself facing the forces of darkness. It was exhilarating! To actually meet such a person!
Janos began to whistle a little tune as he walked. The forest was tranquil this morning. The sun had not long ago risen above the eastern mountains, and a bit of the night's chill still lingered. Janos would have preferred to travel in wolf form, but a wolf can hardly carry a pack, and the pack contained Janos' necessities: a bedroll, some carefully packaged food, and a tin flask of water. Rarely was a gypsy allowed to stay at Mordavia's inn, so Janos assumed it best to be prepared. And of course, should anything really dangerous come up, he had several daggers tucked safely in his belt.
It was not long before Janos found himself within sight of the town. It was a small, rural place, nestled at the foot of the northern mountains. There were some fairly sizable farms to the south, and not far from the gates, the main road split. The eastern track, Janos knew, led to the castle of the Boyar, Sergei Borgov. Janos wondered what sort of man he could be to be involved in this cult. He had seen him before, to be sure, since Sergei was given to traveling throughout the forest when the mood struck him. But it would not do for a Boyar to be seen associating too closely with gypsies, so Janos had never spoken to the man.
Bah, such musings were useless. Janos had a task before him, and he intended to carry it out. Shifting his pack on his shoulder, he strode through the open gates and into the town of Mordavia. It was a small town, and could almost be considered quaint. Janos looked around. Most of the houses were still shut, but he could see some of the windows opening to greet the morning. The smell of roasting sausages with just a hint of garlic spice wafted down from the inn, and Janos' stomach began rumbling. He would have to see to breakfast, and soon. Some of the townsfolk, out for an early morning stroll, stared at him as he walked, but he paid them no mind. Instead, he set his sights for the building in the distance. A wooden sign over the door read "Burgomeister." That was where he wanted to go. He walked toward the building and up to the window. It was already open. Apparently, the Burgomeister liked to be up and around before everyone else. Janos rapped on one of the open shutters, and presently a stout man in a fur vest appeared. He walked to the window, and commenced to study Janos up and down. He then met Janos' gaze with a quizzical look tinged with annoyance. A lone gypsy in town was a rare occurrence.
"What do you want, gypsy?" asked the man, whom Janos knew to be Yuri Andropov.
"I have a name, you know," said Janos.
"I'm sure. What are you selling?" asked Andropov. Janos fumed. The man obviously felt a lone gypsy to be beneath his respect, and he was not afraid to show it.
"I am not selling anything. I am here to see someone," said Janos, trying to remain as calm as possible. Andropov glanced up with a bit more interest showing on his face.
"Ah, are you know? Who might you be looking for?" Andropov seemed slightly amused, but there was a definite hint of suspicion still in his eyes.
"The paladin Piotyr," replied Janos. Andropov's face darkened immediately. He leaned forward and spoke in a low hiss.
"Look here. I don't know why you've come here, but I'm certain it's for no good. If it weren't for Piotyr's specific instructions to let anyone see him, I'd have you thrown out of town and back to your filthy camp. As it is, since Piotyr is a friend, I will respect his wish and take you to him. But be warned. If I hear that even one kopek has disappeared from Piotyr's home, I'll find you and I'll have your throat!"
Janos kept his face calm, but inside he was raging. The man was insufferable! At this moment, Janos would have liked nothing more than to embed several of his daggers in the man's chest. It would have been a simple thing. Janos was nimble and strong, and Yuri Andropov was overweight and slow. Janos could be gone before Andropov even knew he was dead. The thought was... entertaining. But Janos had a job to do, and if it meant standing here and let this man insult his honor, then so be it.
"I... understand," he said. "Please take me to Piotyr."
Andropov grunted, and went back inside. He locked up his office, including his window, and pointed Janos in the direction of Piotyr's house. Janos noticed that he was careful to stay a few steps behind, so that he could watch Janos' movements. He was apparently taking no chances.
They came upon a small, unassuming house near the edge of town. Andropov walked up and rapped loudly on the door. In a few moments, it was answered by a tall, impressive looking man. His build indicated immediately that he was a warrior, but in his eyes there shone an intelligence that Janos had found lacking in most of the fighters he had ever run across. Such a man, Janos thought, could either be a great ally, or a terrible foe. There was no question he had found the paladin Piotyr.
"Yes, Yuri, what is it?" he asked, looking at the two men.
"This gypsy wishes to speak to you, Piotyr. I myself do not trust him, but you gave me specific instructions and..."
"Yes, yes, thank you Yuri. It's always nice to have guests. If I need anything else, I'll know just who to turn to," said Piotyr. Yuri, sensing he had been dismissed stalked off muttering softly to himself. Piotyr turned to face Janos.
"It is very nice to meet you," he said. "My name is Piotyr."
"You may call me Janos," replied Janos.
"It is a pleasure, Janos. Now then, please come inside." Piotyr stepped to one side and gestured for Janos to enter. Janos nodded, and walked through the open doorway. The house inside was cozy, if a bit small. There was little decoration, but there was a shelf filled with books. Janos scanned the titles, but found little to interest him. Most of them were about historical battles, or tactics of warfare.
Piotyr stepped inside and shut the door behind him. He motioned for Janos to sit, and Janos did so. Piotyr took a seat near him. "What can I do for you?" he asked. Janos related the story of last night's hunt, and the conclusions he had reached with Alexei. He tried to omit no detail. When he had finished, Piotyr seemed lost in thought.
"This is a grave matter, indeed," said Piotyr when he had collected his thoughts. "I have had my suspicions about the cult ever since they came to this valley, but I had no idea that their influence spread so far. Each time I walk near that monastery, I sense a deep, malevolent evil. I believe this Alexei is right. Something must be done."
"That is why we came to you, Piotyr. You are a paladin, a hero! Only you can rid the valley of this cursed evil."
Piotyr sighed softly, and for a moment, a look of sadness flashed across his face. "I had hoped it would not come to that. I had hoped that the cult would keep out of the affairs of the town. And then, perhaps after Magda and I..."
"Magda?" asked Janos.
"My fiancee," said Piotyr. "We are to be married before the year is out. I would never forgive myself if anything happened to me before the wedding. Magda would be devastated."
"I am sorry, Piotyr," said Janos, "but there are more important things at stake here. You said it yourself, there is something deeply evil about this cult. We gypsies have felt it as well. If something is not done soon, I know something terrible will happen. You must help us!"
Piotyr thought some more, then finally he relented. "I suppose you are right. I can't think only of myself. All right. We will do something."
"Wonderful!" said Janos. "If you need anything, you have only to ask."
"Oh, I'm certain I'll have need of you," replied Piotyr. "Now, the first thing we need is information. We cannot move against the cult until we know exactly what we're up against."
Janos had a sinking feeling. "What are you proposing?" he asked.
"The only place we can learn more about the cult is their monastery. We're going inside."
Janos had gratefully accepted Piotyr's offer of a place to stay the night. Piotyr knew that he would not be given a room at the Hotel Mordavia, and he saw no harm in letting the gypsy stay. His house was small, but it would do. Piotyr offered to make some supper, and Janos accepted that as well, despite Piotyr's warning that he was not a very good cook. The gypsy seemed, at least by Piotyr's estimation, to be a little awestruck. It was really no wonder. Some of the gypsy tales Janos had told him about paladins were fantastical. Fighting hordes of demons alone, with only a sword! It was ludicrous! Piotyr did what he could to set the stories straight without offending Janos, but he knew he was fighting a losing battle. Piotyr could still see stars in the young man's dark eyes.
Before retiring for the night, Janos asked Piotyr to elaborate a bit on his plan to enter the monastery. He did not seem terribly disturbed by the prospect of entering that building, but then the gypsies had had little contact with the cult.
"I cannot see any way of getting past that doorway unseen during the day," said Janos. "And as you said, the monastery will be swarming with people at night. I'm at a loss."
"There may be a way," replied Piotyr. "Some months ago, I met an adventurer at the guild. His name was Georg, and he was from Spielburg. He had come, as many do, to seek his fame here in the valley. When he heard of the cult, he thought that might be the way to do it. He tried for days, but he could find no way inside the monastery. Then one day, after apparently wandering off into the forest to do some exploring, he vanished. No one is entirely certain what happened to him. However, I found him the following day as I was returning to town from a visit to Erana's Garden. When I saw him, I almost didn't recognize him. His hair had gone completely white, and there was a horrible madness in his eyes. He ran at me and tried to attack me with his bare hands, but I finally subdued him. The man fought me like a wild animal!
"I brought him back into town and summoned Yuri. We tried to talk to him, to find out what had happened. He spoke little, but he spat and screamed and clawed at his eyes like a madman. He had to be tied down so that he wouldn't injure himself. After some time, he regained some measure of lucidity. Much of what he said was still gibberish, but I thought I heard him say something about the monastery, and a secret passage just outside of town. But that was all I could determine. We left him bound in one of the cells in Yuri's office, so he could keep an eye on the man. We found him there the next day. He had... killed himself."
"Gods! How did he do it, if he was bound in the cell?" asked Janos. It was a question Piotyr wished he had not asked.
"He did the only thing he could do. He brained himself upon the wall."
Janos' usually tan face went an ashen grey. Piotyr himself shuddered at the memory, which he saw as clearly as if it were yesterday. After a moment of silence, Janos composed himself.
"So you think there's a passage into the monastery somewhere in the forest?" he asked.
"I do. I've searched for it many times in the past few months, but I never found it. I thought the time might have come to search again. Perhaps the two of us will have better luck, don't you think?"
For some reason, Janos smiled at this. "Oh, yes," he said. "I imagine one of us will be able to sniff it out."
They set out the following afternoon, after a filling (if slightly undercooked) lunch at Piotyr's house. They agreed to split up once they had reached the forest just outside the town gates. Piotyr thought it best to begin his search at the place where he had found Georg, already a raving lunatic, months ago. He let his danger sense stretch out over the surrounding area. He felt nothing. The forests around Mordavia were usually safe, but one could never be too careful. He had been attacked once or twice by a wandering wyvern looking for a meal.
Confident that the forest was safe, Piotyr set out on his search. He had opted not to wear his chainmail on this expedition, but instead wore a heavy leather vest to protect him if he did run into trouble. And of course, he carried his sword with him. One of the very first lessons he had learned as a paladin was to never place oneself too far from one's sword. It was advice he always followed.
The search itself dragged on for some hours, but turned up nothing. Finally, as the sun was beginning to set over the western mountains, Piotyr heard a noise in the underbrush off to his right. It was difficult to tell, but he thought it sounded like an animal loping through the bushes. His hand went instinctively to the hilt of his sword, but when the bushes parted, he saw that it was Janos standing before him.
"Ah, Janos, you startled me," he said, releasing his sword's hilt. "How goes the search?"
"I believe I have found something, Piotyr. Please, follow me. I'll show you." Janos turned and began walking back through the underbrush. Piotyr quickly followed, excitement tinged with a vague apprehension filling him. They came eventually to a small clearing not far from the town wall. Piotyr looked around but saw nothing. Janos, however, seemed to know exactly where to look. He crossed the clearing, then knelt down and began running his hand through the piles of fallen leaves and pine needles on the ground. He grasped something, and then, to Piotyr's astonishment, seemed to pull a piece of the ground up. When Piotyr looked closer, though, he saw that it was a trapdoor, carefully disguised to blend perfectly with the surrounding forest. A set of stone stairs, of apparently recent construction led from the trapdoor down into the thickening blackness below.
"Do you think this is it?" asked Janos, peering down into the dark passageway. Piotyr leaned closer. He began to feel a vague tingling on his scalp. His danger sense was warning him of something, and he felt sure he knew what it was.
"Yes, this is it," he said. "If I'm right, this should lead us into the monastery." He turned to the young man. "You have done me a great service, Janos, and for that I thank you. If you wish to leave now, you are free to do so." Janos looked surprised.
"No, we're going to do this together! This matter affects everyone in Mordavia, and that includes the gypsies. And we gypsies are not accustomed to doing nothing when we are threatened. Besides, it will likely be dangerous down there. I will not make you face it alone."
Piotyr smiled. The gypsy was brave, he had to admit that. Though bravery had often been the death of good men. Still, he seemed able to take care of himself, and Piotyr could use an extra pair of hands if the situation got ugly.
"Very well, then. I welcome your company, Janos." Janos smiled. And with that, they descended into the darkness.
Piotyr moved cautiously down the dark corridor. He tried to make as little noise as possible, but he was failing miserably. Gods, but it was dark in here! He could barely make out Janos' shape in front of him. For his part, Janos seemed little impaired by the lack of light. He moved at a sure, steady pace, as if the darkness did not bother him in the slightest. Piotyr envied him.
"There's something up ahead, Piotyr," said Janos. "I think we've come to a wall."
"How can you tell?" asked Piotyr, incredulous. "I can't see a thing!"
"Gypsies have sharp eyes," replied Janos. He stopped at this point. "We've come to a blank wall. Now what?"
Piotyr stepped forward and ran his hand across the wall. He felt a tingle run down his spine. His danger sense had been buzzing ever since they found the trapdoor in the forest, but the sensation increased dramatically when he touched the stone wall. "This is it," he said. "There's probably a door or something here. We need to search the wall." He barely saw Janos nod in the gloom, and they set about inspecting the stone.
Piotyr used the spare moment to go over their plan again in his mind. Once they gained entrance to the monastery, they would have to find disguises. This probably meant ambushing some cultists, which Piotyr didn't think would be a problem. The hard part would be remaining inconspicuous until night, when, judging by the sounds which usually came out of the monastery at that time, the cult was most active.
"There!" cried Janos. Piotyr heard a soft grating sound, stone against stone, and part of the wall swung out toward them. Piotyr squinted at the sudden glare of light from beyond the door. Once he had recovered his sight, he stepped through the doorway and into the monastery.
They found themselves in a vestibule of sorts. The walls were lined with wooden hooks, upon which hung brown and black robes with cowls. The light that had momentarily blinded them was coming from an archway opposite the secret door, through which torchlight was streaming. As Piotyr and Janos studied their new surroundings, the stone door closed with a grinding noise. Janos went to the spot and felt around on the wall.
"Don't worry," he said. "I found the latch. We can get out this way if we need to." Piotyr nodded, and then took one of the robes down from a hook.
"It looks like fortune has smiled upon us, my friend," he said, pulling the robe on over his light leather armor. "We can avoid a fight after all." Janos nodded and pulled on a robe of his own. When they were dressed, they pulled up their hoods to obscure their faces. Piotyr led Janos through the archway and into the lower levels of the monastery proper.
They wandered through various rooms in search of a good hiding place. The monastery was ornate, but it had a disquieting quality. The tapestries, for example, were of excellent quality, but the images depicted on them were invariably bloody, and contained creatures that seemed strangely alien and terrifying. Piotyr had faced many monsters in his life, but even he shuddered at the sight of some of those horrors. The building itself seemed to be moving at times when Piotyr looked out of the corner of his eye. His danger sense was growing more active, and he was filled with a strong desire to leave this instant. He fought the feeling down.
They found some empty desks in the library, and passed the time pretending to write. Several times, cultists in the same brown and black robes walked past, but they said nothing. They apparently saw nothing out of the ordinary.
After indeterminate hours, Piotyr heard a bell sounding far off in the monastery. He looked at Janos, who shrugged. Neither knew what the bell signified, but they suspected it might be important. Piotyr motioned for Janos to stay silent, and he led them into the corridor outside the library. Several cultists were walking silently down the corridor. Trying to remain inconspicuous, Piotyr fell into step behind them, and Janos followed. Piotyr should have been excited. This was exactly the sort of break he had been waiting for; it was a chance to learn firsthand what the cult was doing, and if they were really a threat. Instead, he felt uneasy. His sense of danger was growing by the second, and this entire place seemed to be sapping his will. He turned and saw that Janos looked equally apprehensive.
They finally came upon a fairly large hall. It was grotesque. Stone columns carved in the shape of suffering men and women supported the ceiling, and the walls were covered in murals of dark, feral things bathing in the blood of their victims. There was an altar at the other end of the hall, which was adorned with skulls and covered in dried blood. Letters were painted on it, but Piotyr couldn't understand the language.
By now, Piotyr's sense of danger was like a thick, cloying fog clinging to his mind. He fought against it ask he and Janos took places near the back of the hall. The cultists had filed in, and were taking places facing the altar. There were many of them, far more than Piotyr had suspected. He estimated that there were at least a hundred in attendance, and there were probably more. That would make things difficult, should it become necessary to put them down.
Two men stood near the altar. One was wrapped in a black robe and cowl, and Piotyr could not determine anything about him. But the other one was familiar. He was tall, and vaguely regal-looking. He wore a full beard, and his brown hair was just graying slightly at the temples. But his eyes were pure malevolence. Piotyr knew this one well. It was the Boyar, Sergei Borgov.
Piotyr and Janos exchanged looks of dismay, but neither dared speak. The Boyar himself was speaking now, but in no language Piotyr had ever heard. He spoke several lines that seemed to rhyme, and the cultists replied in unison.
The Boyar motioned to the black robed man next to him, and the man stepped out a side door. He returned momentarily, now carrying a screaming infant. Piotyr heard Janos gasp as he saw this. The Boyar took the baby, and set it down on the altar. The cultists began a low chant, punctuated at intervals by the phrase "Yah, Avoozl!" The chant began to grow in intensity, as did Piotyr's premonition of danger. He was actually sweating now. The urge to run was almost overpowering.
Then Piotyr saw something that broke his will. Sergei Borgov was practically screaming in that other language, and little wisps of light were streaming from his outstretched fingertips. A shadow was growing around the altar. It was indistinct now, but it was gradually taking shape. Piotyr could just make out a mass of tentacles and eyes, and shapes within that seemed to defy reality. The shape was something that his mind simply would now allow him to see, lest he end up like poor Georg.
"We have to go," he hissed in a low voice. Janos turned, surprised, but he seemed to echo the sentiment. Quietly, they inched toward the doorway and slipped out. Behind them, they heard the child's screams rise to a crescendo, and then stop altogether.
"Gods, did you see that?" asked Janos. "That was diabolical! I've never seen anything so horrible!" Piotyr did not answer. The need to flee was pounding in his veins. Nothing else mattered now. The danger in this place was like nothing he had ever experienced. Without saying a word, he half-walked, half-ran back to the secret entrance. Janos ran after him, trying to keep pace.
Some time later, they emerged from the underground tunnels. They immediately began to walk back to Piotyr's house.
"What are we going to do?" asked Janos. "We cannot fight something like that. Not without help."
"You're right," said Piotyr, the overwhelming sense of danger finally beginning to subside. "We do need help. Powerful help. I'm certain no such aid will be found in Mordavia, especially with Sergei Borgov as Boyar. We'll need to look to another land for aid."
"Do you have anything in mind?" asked Janos.
"Yes, I think I just might."
Sergei Borgov quietly shut the door to his study. He removed his ceremonial robe and hung it on one of the waiting wall hooks. Another ritual completed, and another closer to the night of the Summoning. Yet, there was still so much to be done!
The study was spartan. Its only real furniture were a desk and chair, and a small couch in one corner. The walls were bare except for some wall hooks, a few torches, and a painted representation of the Dark One's Sign. Sergei sat down at his desk, intent on finishing his research. He scanned a few of his recent notes, then pushed the papers away in disgust. That madman Tillado! He was the cause of all these problems. Where in all of Gloriana had he hidden the Necrophilicon?
Sergei let his mind wander into the past. Amon Tillado had started the Cult of the Dark One. He was, in fact, the man who had recruited Sergei into the ranks. But he was inherently unstable. Oh, he was vastly intelligent, and utterly devoted to his purpose, but he was terribly eccentric. Things only got worse when he began pouring through the cult's copy of that rare, accursed book, the Necrophilicon. He penned the seven rituals that would summon Avoozl to this valley, and give him form and substance in this dimension. It would be a glorious moment, as the Shadows of Darkness covered all the lands of Gloriana, and the worshippers of the Dark One were granted powers undreamt of by mortal man.
But all that changed when Amon Tillado died. He left behind the seven rituals, but the Necrophilicon was never found. Sergei, upon ascending to the post of High Priest, had ordered the entire valley searched as discreetly as was possible. But there was no trace of the book. The rituals were useless without it! They required special preparations, preparations that could only be found in the Necrophilicon. Of the book's location there was only one clue. Among Tillado's notes was a passage from The Ebon Tome. Translated, it read:
The path to thy treasure shall be made clear by he who shines with the flame of glory.
No one had ever solved that puzzle, and the book still eluded Sergei's grasp. Time was running short. Within a month's time, the stars would be right, and the summoning must take place. Sergei had little choice but to pray to Avoozl for a miracle.
"Master?" came a voice from behind the Boyar. Its tones were soft, but they carried a hint of venom upon them. Sergei turned to see a shape wrapped in a black robe.
"Yes, what is it Mordel? I did not summon you." Mordel was a darkling, a creature summoned out of Avoozl's realm and bound magically to the High Priest. He customarily took human form when dealing with the cultists, but he could not fully disguise his otherworldly nature. His hair was jet black, and his skin was a pale grey color. His eyes were golden, and they gleamed like cat's eyes. He was an impressive personage, but he was magically forced to bend to the will of the High Priest.
"I have some news for you, Master, that I thought you might find interesting. The paladin was at the ceremony."
That caught Sergei off guard. Piotyr? What would possibly bring him here? Unless, of course, he was planning to move against them. Sergei was confident that Piotyr would be defeated and suffer horribly at their hands, but his actions could disrupt the timing of the Summoning, and that could not be allowed.
"Are you sure of this, Mordel? This is important."
"I am quite sure, Master. The stench of the paladin is quite clear to one such as I. It was him."
"This is not good. He could disrupt all of our work, should he decide to attack us now."
"Surely he would not attack the monastery, Master. He would be destroyed utterly. He must know that."
"His honor would demand it. No being of honor would suffer this cult to exist, and in the paladin, honor burns like a flame..."
Like a flame! A flame of glory! Sergei could not speak, so stunned was he by the realization. He laughed out loud.
"What is it, Master?" asked the darkling, his usually cocky face distorted by confusion at Sergei's outburst.
"Piotyr is the one, Mordel. The flame of glory! He shall lead us to the Necrophilicon!"
"That one? But he is an enemy! A mortal enemy! He should be destroyed right now!"
"No, no, no, Mordel. You will do no such thing. If you do, I will inflict such pain upon you as you have never known. Go now, and follow Piotyr. Find out his plans for me, and follow him to the book!"
Sergei savored the look of anger on the darkling's face. The creature despised being ordered by what it viewed as an inferior being, but the magic holding it was strong, and it could not disobey. "As you wish," it hissed, and melted back into the shadows of Sergei's study, vanishing from sight. Sergei leaned back in his chair, a wide smile upon his face. For the first time in a very long time, he was filled with joy.
Mordel melted out of the shadows that surrounded the house of Piotyr Ivanov. He was quite at home in the night, where he could come and go as he pleased. Despite what he had said to Sergei, he was actually intrigued by this possible revelation of the Ebon Tome's prophecy. If it would bring about the Summoning of Mordel's true master, then it was for the good. And once the Dark One was here, Mordel would have vengeance upon that insufferable Borgov.
Mordel peeked into Piotyr's window, wrapping himself so tightly in shadows that he was all but invisible. He stayed very still and listened closely as Piotyr and the gypsy discussed what to do next. He waited with thinning patience as they made side jokes, or engaged in pleasantries. Then finally, Piotyr named their next destination.
Mordel was surprised at this. What could Piotyr possibly want in that blazing ocean of sand? What aid would he find among those walking felines? Unless...
Oh no. This was worse than any of them had imagined. If what he suspected was true, the cult could waste no time. It must act now! Truly worried for the first time in his long existence, Mordel hurried back into the shadows and was gone.
The young lion cub stretched contentedly on the rock, warming itself in the savanna sun. It glanced around at a few of the smaller animals gathered around, but there was no hunger or malice in its eyes. It gazed for a short time at its own reflection in the pool. But most of all, it listened to Erana's song.
Erana danced slowly around the Pool of Peace, singing in her soft, clear voice. She sang from her heart, and her song was magic. She let her song flow out from her, to envelop the pool and the plants around it. Her song flowed through the water of the pool, and the water became pure. It touched the small trees near the water, and they bore sweet fruit. It wrapped itself around the animals, and they were content. As she sang, she felt all the life of the savanna around her, and she let it know love. She let it know the pure joy of life.
Eventually, her song died down, the magic spent. She sat near the water, dipping her fingers in and watching the ripples flow from them. She gazed up at the clear blue sky and felt herself relaxing further. This place was a place of comfort and healing, and there were no worries here.
"Erana?" called a voice. Erana was startled. She looked around, and was surprised to see a face which was not hers reflected in the water. She glanced around, but aside from the animals, she was alone. She looked at the face. It was a man, perhaps thirty, with light brown hair and deep green eyes. The face was handsome, and she found it very familiar despite the year they had been apart.
"Aster? Is that you?" she asked. Aster was the Grand Wizard of WIT, the youngest to ever hold that post. He was an exceptional magician, naturally gifted in the arts of magic. He had passed the tests of WIT with ease, and had become an Archmage, the title given to those of the High Council of WIT, at the unprecedented age of twenty-five. Some of the older wizards balked at such a blatant disregard of tradition, but Aster was well respected for his abilities, and he gradually won the council over. Erana had not seen him in a year, since she had left WIT to pursue her travels.
"It's me, Erana. I have something important I need to ask you."
"Aster, please," she said, "if this is about getting me to return to WIT, we've already had that discussion. I tried WIT. I learned much there. But I can't..."
"No, no, it's not that," replied Aster. "We need you, Erana. We need your help."
Erana was surprised. "Me?" she said. "I thought WIT was the most powerful collection of wizards in all of Gloriana. What help could one renegade wizard be?"
Aster looked hurt. "Erana, please," he said. "You know we wish you would return, but you're hardly a renegade. I'm asking you, personally, if you'll come to WIT for a short time and help us with this matter. You might be the only one who can."
Erana considered this. She had always had some affection for Aster. He was kind and generous. He was also completely taken with her, she knew. She was flattered, of course, but she did not feel the same about him. That had been part of the reason she left. She thought it best they remained apart. But he seemed genuinely disturbed by something, and it was only for a short time that she'd return. She supposed there would be no harm in at least hearing him out.
"All right, Aster. I'll come," she relented. He smiled politely, but she could see how his eyes lit up as she said it.
"Wonderful!" he said. "We're ready for you any time." The image on the water slowly faded, replaced by Erana's own reflection. She frowned a bit, wondering what he had gotten herself into. But she had given her word, and in all her long life she had never broken it.
She stood and stepped back from the water's edge. She raised her arms up and reached deep down inside herself into her nexus of power. She felt the magic rise up inside her, and it flowed forth from her outstretched hands. She saw the world grow misty around her, then fade away. In another moment, the mist began to clear, and she found herself in an entirely different location. She had arrived at WIT.
WIT did not entirely exist in Shapeir, or in Gloriana itself for that matter. It could be reached from there, but only by those with magic. WIT itself occupied another dimension, a dimension that could be molded to suit the tastes of the wizards. For this reason, WIT was limited only by the imagination of those who sustained it. No matter how many times Erana came here, she was always struck by its grand beauty. The architecture would be impossible for the buildings of Gloriana, but here there was no limit. Streams of color wound themselves gracefully around towering columns of marble. Murals of incredible intricacy covered the walls, the figures within seeming to dance joyously if looked at through the corner of one's eye. The temperature was maintained at the most comfortable level possible, and there were soft pillows upon the floor where several wizards could be found sitting and pouring over old leather-bound books or indulging in a pipe.
Erana turned to see Aster coming toward her, smiling. He extended his hand, and she took it. "It's so good to see you again, Erana," he said. "I've... We've all missed you."
"It is good to see you too, Aster. I see you haven't let your exalted position go to your head." Aster grinned.
"I try to stay my old, modest self. To be honest, the job is rather tedious. It mostly involves placating the Archmages. It's all politics."
"Aster," Erana interrupted. "You said this was urgent."
"Yes, yes, you're right," Aster replied. "Please, come this way. I have some people I'd like you to meet."
Aster led her into a spacious sitting room. Seated upon one of the couches were two men. One was a strong-looking man wearing a suit of fine chainmail. He had brown hair and eyes, and his face had the weathered look of one who had been through much. There was a certain noble aspect to it, though, and a kindness that Erana found reassuring. The other man was younger, perhaps nineteen years old, and was dressed in the colorful garb of the gypsies. He had short black hair and dark eyes, and he wore several pieces of jewelry, mostly small rings. He had an easy smile, and Erana could tell he was impressed by his new surroundings.
Aster walked over to the two men, who stood. He gestured to the mail-clad man. "This," he said, "is the paladin Piotyr Ivanov." Piotyr removed one of his gauntlets and extended his hand. Erana took it.
"It is an honor to meet you, my lady," he said.
"And you as well, worthy paladin," replied Erana.
"And this," said Aster, gesturing to the other man, "is Janos Vistana."
Janos extended his hand, and when Erana took it, he leaned forward and kissed the back of her palm. "It is a pleasure, my lady," he said with a disarming smile.
"The pleasure is all mine, my friend," replied Erana, unable to resist smiling back. The man was definitely charming.
"Please, everyone, have a seat," said Aster. As they seated themselves on the soft couches, Aster incanted a quick spell, and several cups of tea appeared before them. "Drink," he said, taking a cup and saucer for himself, "and make yourselves comfortable. We have much to discuss."
"Before we begin, Aster," said Erana, sipping at her tea, "I have a question for you. No disrespect to either of you gentlemen, but why did you let them enter WIT? Tradition forbids any non-spellcasters from entering. The Archmages will be furious when they find out."
Aster's face grew serious. "Some things are more important than tradition, Erana. Two days ago, I received a message from a Katta spellcaster in the city, an old friend of mine. I was somewhat surprised, as the Katta rarely have communication with WIT. My friend said that a stranger had come to him seeking entrance to WIT. I asked who it was, and what his reasons were for seeking entrance, and I met Piotyr. He... convinced me that I should allow him and his companion entrance."
Erana turned to Piotyr in surprise. "You certainly must have had a compelling reason," she said.
"Yes, my lady," said Piotyr, his voice grave. "As I have come to understand, it is a very serious matter."
Erana turned back to Aster. "Well," she said, "out with it. What could be so important as to make you break centuries of tradition?" Aster looked down at his tea, took a halfhearted sip, and placed the cup on the table.
"Nothing less," he said, "than the end of our existence."
"Avoozl?" cried Erana. "They're trying to summon Avoozl? It's madness!"
"This cult is overflowing with madmen, Erana," replied Piotyr. Erana had made it clear that she did not prefer the title 'my lady.'
"Agreed," said Aster, rising from his seat. "How much do any of you know about the Dark One?"
"The gypsies have always known of it," replied Janos, his face pensive, "but we prefer not to speak of it. Such things bring madness. All I really know is that it is a creature of vast power and darkness."
"Then you know more than most, my friend," said Aster. "Many throughout this world know nothing of the Dark One, and they are better for it. Before Erana arrived, I took the liberty of searching through the libraries, and I found some information that might be useful." Aster gestured at a far door, and a sparkle of light danced across his fingertips. The door swung open. "Tulan! Come in, please," called Aster. A man stepped into the sitting room, dark-haired and walking with a slight limp. He clutched an old book tightly under one arm, as if afraid someone might steal it from him. His dark eyes had a slightly haunted look that was disconcerting. Aster gestured for Tulan to take a seat, and he then sat down himself.
Aster turned to his guests. "This is Tulan, one of WIT's librarians. He has studied the subject of the Dark Ones to some extent. Please, Tulan, tell them what you told me."
Tulan nodded. "The Dark Ones," he began, "are an ancient race, far older than even the elven mind can imagine. They are beings of vast power, and they occupy dimensions unknown to us. They held dominion over this planet in aeons past, and it is said that they created life here as a plaything to amuse themselves. It is known, though, that eventually, the gods of Gloriana emerged and did battle with the Dark Ones, for they too claimed this world as theirs. After ages of battle, the gods threw down the Dark Ones and imprisoned them somehow. To this day they remain sealed away by the signs of the gods, which they cannot breach. Instead, they tempt the minds of mortals to breach the barriers for them and return them to this world."
"There are many Dark Ones, but the best known and perhaps most powerful is Avoozl. He is the greatest of them, and it is he that this cult wishes to release."
"Then this Avoozl is their leader?" asked Piotyr.
"Not exactly. The concept of a leader means nothing to creatures such as these. His status is more like that of a High Priest, or perhaps Grand Wizard. If he is released, he has the power to break the seals of the others, and this world is forever doomed."
"So how can we stop such a creature?" asked Erana, incredulous at what she was hearing. Such a creature was a threat like no other!
Tulan smiled wryly. "You don't. No mortal can defeat a creature like Avoozl. Your only hope is to stop the cult from performing their task. The only way to do that is to find the Necrophilicon and destroy it."
Piotyr raised an eyebrow. "Necrophilicon? What is that?"
"It is a dark book," replied Aster, "last seen in the hands of the Mad Monk Amon Tillado, who was once leader of that cult. The Necrophilicon contains preparations and spells that must be completed before the summoning can begin. Without it, the cult cannot succeed."
"If you knew about Tillado and the cult, why didn't you move to stop him? You knew what a danger he presented," said Erana.
"We were watching him for a time, but when he died we assumed his threat had ended. We were wrong. We do know, however, that Tillado hid the Necrophilicon before he died, and Sergei Borgov has been unable to find it." A smile flitted across Aster's face. "However, we have."
"You have?" cried Erana, surprised. "Where is it?"
"It lies in the Nightmare Lands, beyond the faerie mists. That is why we need you, Erana. Only you can guide Piotyr and Janos through the mists."
Erana's face fell. She felt torn. She could not let a threat such as this go unanswered, but also she knew that Tatiana and Oberon would not want to let two humans pass through the mists. It was possible they might listen to her, but with the faeries, one could never tell.
"It will be difficult," she said finally.
"I know," replied Aster, "but I have faith in you. I know you can do this."
Erana sighed. "Very well, Aster, I will do it. I just hope you know what you're getting us into."
"So do I, Erana," was the reply.
Tulan left the room at Aster's request, as the three of them got down to the actual planning of the quest. He walked down the corridors toward the library, where he could be at peace. He hated interruptions in his research. Vaguely, he remembered a time when his studies had not consumed his life, but when he had begun studying the Dark Ones, he felt has if he had fallen down a dark hole, and now he could not pull himself out again. His life was in his books now, and he had read of things that no one should know. He knew that he was drifting close to madness. He began to see plots everywhere, and strange sights out of the corners of his eyes.
And then there were the nightmares.
Tulan turned a corner and opened the door to the library. He stepped inside and went to light a candle, when the door slammed shut behind him. He spun around in the dark, trying desperately to adjust his eyes to the gloom. He saw a figure standing near the door, its pale grey face standing out in the darkness. It came toward him, and Tulan saw its eyes. They were gleaming gold, but they were cold, like death itself. He saw the figure's arm raise, its fingers elongating into razor-like claws, and then he saw the flash as they whistled toward his throat.
He didn't even have time to scream.
Mordel crouched over the body. He watched as the blood finally stopped running from its ruined throat. The eyes, still bulging in terror, were misting over. The man was dead for certain, but that did not mean he was no longer useful. Oh, certainly not.
The darkling reached out with a hand now reformed in the semblance of a human's and touched the dead man's forehead. He closed his eyes and concentrated on reaching the man's spirit. He heard it, quiet at first but gaining in volume. It was confused, as they all were just after death. The transition was disconcerting to say the least.
"Where am I?" asked Tulan, the fear ringing out in his voice. "Why is it so dark here?"
"You are dead," replied Mordel, grinning, "and this is Hell."
"Oh no!" cried Tulan's spirit. "It can't be!" Mordel heard the voice begin to whimper, and he quickly put a stop to it. He took one of the corpse's fingers and bent it back sharply, hearing the crack of the bone snapping. The spirit wailed in surprise and pain. Like most humans, he had assumed that the dead feel no pain. But then, he had never run across such an adept of necromancy as Mordel.
"Silence!" roared Mordel into the spirit's realm. "Silence or I shall do it again!" The voice quieted, but it was still whimpering slightly. "Now, worm, tell me about the paladin. I wish to know everything."
The voice was silent, hesitating, until Mordel tore a finger from the corpse's hand. The screams were exquisite, and Mordel let them run on for a moment before asking again. This time Tulan talked. He talked and he talked, and, whenever it suited the darkling, he screamed.
They moved as quickly as possible to prepare the teleportation spell. Janos knew they were all worried. He could sense it. The trip from Mordavia to Shapeir had taken months, and Aster had said that there was very little time left before, as he put it, 'the stars were right for the summoning.'
Aster told them that the rituals would take at least a few hours to prepare, and quarters were arranged for them in the meantime. The quarters were luxurious, and Janos enjoyed some good food and a change of clothes before they were finished. He was lying on his bed, staring off into space and thinking on the quest to come when there was a rapping at his door. He called for the person to enter, and was greeted by the sight of a young initiate.
"They are ready, master. If you will come with me?" he said, motioning down the hallway outside Janos' room. Janos smiled. Few times in his life had he been addressed as 'master.' He supposed that was the proper way to address a guest of the Grand Wizard, but he still found it humorous.
"Of course," he said, getting up and straightening out his clothes. They walked down WIT's winding corridors, the initiate seeming to know intuitively the way, until they finally reached a large chamber. Several wizards were present, including Aster, as well as Piotyr and Erana. A large pentagram was painted on the floor, surrounded by arcane symbols and sigils.
"Good," said Aster. "Everyone's here. We can begin. Please, step into the pentagram." They all three did so. The other mages took their places around the pentagram, and Aster walked up close to Erana. They began talking softly to each other, and Janos could not hear what they were saying. Gypsies had wolf-like hearing, true, but only when at least partially transformed, and Janos was extremely reluctant to shift even a little bit in this den of wizards. Gypsies had learned over the years to keep that part of their lives very secret, only to be shown to known friends on in extreme emergency.
Aster handed something small and shiny to Erana. A necklace, with some small green gem set in it. Erana placed the chain over her head, and spoke a few more words to Aster. They smiled, and Aster took his place with the other wizards. Erana drew them close around her.
"We're heading into the Faerie Mists now. It may be strange for you at first, but I'll try to make it as easy as possible. Just remember not to be afraid, and let me do the talking." They nodded, and the mages began to chant. The chant was low and rhythmic, and extremely soporific. Janos found his eyelids growing heavy, and he fought to stay awake out of instinct. From the floor, he saw that a soft mist was rising, swirling around them within the pentagram. Soon, Janos found that he could no longer keep his eyes open. He drifted off into darkness...
When he came to, they were in a completely alien place. The mist was everywhere. They seemed to be floating in it, with no gravity or points of reference. It was like being lost in a great vast ocean, and Janos felt afraid. He looked at Piotyr, and he also seemed completely out of his element. Neither had ever experienced anything like this. Erana, however, seemed very calm. She was concentrating, and she seemed to be sending small ripples into the mists around her. As Janos watched in amazement, he saw shapes beginning to form in the mist. Ground, trees, water, all of it began to fade into view. Soon, the three of them found themselves in a forest-like setting. It was utterly real, except for the sight of the swirling grey mists in the distance.
"What... what happened?" asked Piotyr. "Where are we?"
"These are the Faerie Mists," said Erana. "The faeries live in the mists of magic, which have no corporeal form. I've imposed a limited reality in this area. That way you will be more comfortable. Also, it will alert the faeries to our presence."
"So what do we do now?" asked Janos.
"Now, we wait," she answered.
As they waited, Janos struck up a conversation with Erana. He had to admit to being a little intimidated by her. She was already something of a legend in Gloriana and he was slightly awed. On the other hand, she was very beautiful and alluring. Janos found it difficult to resist her, so he figured there was no harm in talking to her.
"I'm curious," he said. "Before we left, Aster gave you something. What was it?"
She turned and looked at him. "Hmmm? Oh, this." She held up the necklace with the small amulet attached. "I think Aster was worried about me. This has a little bit of magic in it. If we're ever in dire trouble, it can take us back to WIT."
"He seems to care a lot about you, doesn't he," asked Janos.
"Yes, I think he does. But really, that's something between us. I'm more interested in hearing about you."
"Me? Well, there is little to tell. The gypsies roam the lands of Gloriana, trading with all the people of the world. Our life is the travel."
Erana sighed. "It sounds very similar to my own life," she mused. "I've traveled so much in Gloriana. I've seen much. But it might be nice to settle down in one place for a change. I just don't think WIT is the right place."
"You were in WIT once, weren't you?" Janos asked.
"Yes. But I left shortly after the business with the Dark Master." Janos looked puzzled, and Erana shook her head. "It's not important. I simply didn't feel right at WIT. I need to be out doing some good with my powers. I couldn't live with myself otherwise."
Janos was about to reply, but he was startled by the sounds of rustling in the trees. Piotyr was up instantly, his hand on the hilt of his sword. Erana placed a hand on his shoulder. "Wait, Piotyr," she said. "I think they're here."
Several figures emerged from the foliage. They looked like young girls, but their skin had a slight greenish tint. And they didn't look happy. They looked around the clearing with faces betraying obvious disgust.
"Why have you done this, sister?" asked one of them. "And why did you bring these dirty things here? You know it is against our laws for humans to enter the mists!"
"I am sorry, sister," said Erana, though it was clear she did not think of this girl as a sister. "But we are on a mission of utmost importance. It is vital that I speak to Tatiana and Oberon."
"Oh, you can be sure that you will, Erana," said the other. "We've been instructed to take you straight there."
"And what about us?" asked Piotyr.
The first girl sneered openly. "Oh, the law is very clear concerning you two, humans," she said. "You will both be put to death."
The Procestuousity begins here!