“What’s going on? We have to do something!” Tybald tan Throg was frantic. One minute he’d been ready to rush into the derelict manor house to rescue his sister from the raiders who’d carried her off, the next the sorceress Princess Aria was counting down as the life-signs she sensed inside the stronghold vanished.
Now she was down to one.
Aria looked up, pale and shivering. “Something just snuffed out eight lives in under thirty seconds,” she told the others.
Oglok groaned that nothing was ever simple – and unshipped his weapons.
“Ysilde!” breathed Tybald. “General Blackthorn, I’ll understand if you don’t want to go in there now, but I’ve got to go after my little sister!”
“We’re not backing out now,” the soldier assured him. “We made a deal with your father, his support in our revolution in exchange for you and Ysilde back safe and sound. Besides, who’s going to abandon a damsel in distress?”
“Nearly everyone but you,” Aria argued; but she smiled as well. “Come on. Time to be stupid again.”
Oglok the Mock-man pointed to the waning sun. Night was a dangerous time in the Hesperian Deadfields; the dead walked. Getting trapped in the fortified manor with something that could kill eight people in half a minute was not a smart idea.
“Let’s move,” ordered Blackthorn. “I’m on point. Oglok, rear. Tybald, be ready to support either of us. Aria, intel and diagnostics first. Combat magics only if we’re struggling. You’re our reserve.”
They moved as quickly towards the forbidding ruin as stealth would allow.
Aria winced again. “None,” she said, hanging her head. “I’m sorry, Tybald. The last life-sign has… no, wait.”
The noble’s son reached for the princess but restrained himself at the last moment. “Please! Is she alive or isn’t she?”
“We don’t know the last life-sign was her anyway,” Blackthorn warned the stricken young nobleman.
Aria frowned. “That wasn’t there before! A jamming field? Something’s blocking my probes.”
Oglok stamped uneasily. The only thing he liked less than Princess Aria’s magic was other people’s magic.
Blackthorn gestured that the time had come for mission silence. Non-essential chatter was out. He padded through the gateless entrance to the manor courtyard and scouted the way to the main house. The decayed front door had been kicked in – recently.
The others crossed the yard and trailed the General inside. They came up short after him in the main hall. He was staring up at a heavy gunmetal obelisk some fifteen feet high with an eight foot square base. It was stained with rust, riveted together like a bridge, with tight mesh grills on each face. It was completely out of place amid the rotting wood panelling and shattered elegant furniture of the country manor.
“What in Acheron is that?” whispered Tybald. “It looks like Lord Ruin’s technology.”
“Big, ugly, and very powerful,” Blackthorn summarised. “Yes, I think this tech was listed in the data-stuff I got jammed into my head when I first came to Mars. Aria, isn’t this an etheric containment module?”
“That’s exactly what it is,” the princess agreed. “The Black Sorcerer’s models are a bit more sleek and compact. They set up a force field that prevents disembodied spirits from passing through. It’s good to hold back cursemorts, shadowmen, pyscheforms, shadow-walking wights, that kind of thing. Mostly you see them protecting major strongholds of strategic significance. The Black Sorcerer’s Bastion has dozens of them.”
“This doesn’t look like it belongs here,” noted Tybald.
“You’re both missing the most important point,” Blackthorn told them. He tapped the clunky control interface where a charred circle indicated blown out components. “This thing has been shut down. Recently.”
Oglok slapped one massive hand to his forehead and said something indescribably rude.
“Yep,” Blackthorn agreed. He retrieved a mangled tin rectangle from the floor. Its gaudy plastic fascia had mostly melted away but the technology was unmistakable.
“One of Fatal Laughter’s toys,” Aria frowned. “A scrambler key, I think. It’s been used here to blow the console on this etheric barrier generator. Somebody wanted in.”
“Or out.” Blackthorn examined the antique scrape-marks on the parquet floor. “I reckon this thing must have been put here during the days there was still active conflict in Hesperia, back before it became the Deadfields. Lord Ruin’s boys dragged this thing in here and set a barrier round whatever’s below us. It’s been running ever since – until some bright boy nobbled it with one of Fatal Laughter’s joke-boxes and shut the etheric containment down.”
“And now people have died,” the princess concluded. “And a new jamming field’s in place.”
Tybald clutched at straws. “This etheric barrier thing. Could that mask a life-sign from a sorceress’ senses? I mean, perhaps Ysilde just stepped inside the field and you couldn’t see her any more?”
“It’s a practical as well as a spiritual barrier,” Blackthorn explained. “You couldn’t step through until the module was disabled, at least not without some very specialised kit or a really big gun. And this being a bit of Lord Ruin tech it’d be a devil to knock out.”
Oglok groaned that it would be really nice if Blackthorn stopped mentioning devils. And it was now twilight outside.
“So we have a possible spirit-form loose again after centuries that has probably already killed nine people,” Aria summarised. “I’m going to need a few moments.”
“We have to get downstairs,” insisted Tybald. “That last person might still be alive, masked by that new jamming signal.”
“Give the princess time to work,” Blackthorn advised. “She’s generally got good reasons for what she does, even if she won’t trouble to tell us mortals.”
Aria’s hands flickered with purple and green lights. Then she was done.
Oglok located the scullery steps. Blackthorn shifted his Sword of Light to its basic torch setting, amping out bright white luminescence as he led the way downstairs.
The basements of the manor smelled of old mould and dead things. Blackthorn moved cautiously amongst the broken wine barrels and racks of shattered jars.
Tybald wondered why there were no cobwebs, then realised that they would require living spiders preying on living insects. A whole eco-system had died with whatever the Lord of Night had done to this place.
“What happened to the walls?” Blackthorn asked. He swept his light around the cracked lath and plaster. Almost every surface was cover with tiny illegible scribbles.
“I recognise this character-set,” Aria declared. “Old Elysian. Often used for arcane calculations. Though if this is a spell-equation it’s a fiendishly complicated and powerful one. This work must have taken years – decades – maybe centuries.”
“You said something non-corporeal might have been trapped down here,” Tybald remembered. “Maybe it was awake? Maybe it was bored?”
“Maybe it’s looking for entertainment now?” Blackthorn offered. “Any idea what these calculations are about, Aria?”
“I’d need to scan them and study them,” the princess declared. “And work out where they join together. The formulae just seem to snake everywhere, randomly continuing from wall to door to ceiling.”
Tybald took a closer look at the jerky runes. “That’s not what bothers me, folks. This writing’s been made in plaster, wood, and stone. It’s not been inked. It’s scratched into the walls. Long hard nails did this.”
Blackthorn pushed forward. “Keep moving. We need to search this whole floor, to try and locate that muffled life-sign. Let’s head down…”
Oglok growled warning. He’d smelled the pungent scent of fresh blood.
Blackthorn gestured for Tybald and Aria to stand still. He made a motion directing the Mock-Man to shift counter-clockwise round the perimeter of the inner cellar while the General moved clockwise. Oglok moved with surprising stealth when he had to.
Tybald gripped his vibra-sword, ready for trouble, and watched from the doorway. Blackthorn halted when he found the red-stained flagstones where men had died. Arterial sprays on beams and ceiling showed the direction the victims had sprawled as they fell.
The corpses were not there. This was the Deadfields. The dead walked.
Tybald glimpsed something moving on the floor, snaking out towards Aria. At first he thought it a serpent, then a tentacle, red and mottled with dark clots. It squirmed over to the princess. “Watch out!” the lord’s son called, lashing down with his weapon to slice the end off the protuberance.
Aria danced aside. Another pair of appendages slashed from beneath the bottle-cabinet where the first had appeared. Tybald lunged for them too. He was so preoccupied with searing the loathsome whatever-they-were that he failed to spot the purple-pink tube wrapping round his own ankle. Then he was jerked from his feet and dragged into the darkness.
Oglok leaped after him. The great beastling’s snarl had never seemed more comforting. The Mock-Man grabbed one of the red threads in a massive hairy fist and pulled!
Twenty more twitching tubes stabbed from the shadows to enmesh Oglok. The Mock-Man dragged them out – and the creature to which they were attacked.
Tybald’s stomach churned. The red and pink tubes emanated from the slashed-open belly of a newly-killed raider. The dead man’s animated intestines squirmed like tentacles, seeking to kill!
He saw too late that there was more than one gut-warrior hiding there. A second undead overturned the heavy shelving. The cabinet toppled onto Princess Aria, crashing her to the floor, pinning her. A third monster sprayed its innards out to enmesh Tybald again.
A burst of orange laser-light carved through the tubing that reached for the lordling. Blackthorn tumble-rolled beneath a fourth set of killer entrails that sought a stranglehold on him. He stabbed his Sword of Light into the gut-warrior looming over Aria.
Oglok bit through the intestine-tubing that wrapped round him then tore off the head of the dead man it belonged to. The thing still struggled.
“Aria!” called Blackthorn. He heaved the cabinet away to check on the fallen princess.
“Just… winded,” she managed to gasp. “These bottles were… not a good vintage.”
Blackthorn turned to the monster closing on Tybald. “Hit the floor!” he called to the young lordling.
Tybald ignored his instincts to fend off the disgusting appendages that mauled him and dived to the ground. Blackthorn thumbed another of the five coloured buttons on his remarkable weapon – could it really be the legendary Hallow-sword? – and the silver cylinder spat out a blazing red plasma-ball. The sphere exploded on impact with the gut-warrior, detonating in a fireball that seared the creature to ashes and singed the back of Tybald’s coat.
The undead that had originally gone for Blackthorn attacked from behind and ran right onto the soldier’s reversed blade; the Sword of Light was now an energy dagger. The gut-warrior shuddered, glowed, then fell back inert and smouldering.
Oglok finished his adversary by the expedient of tearing it limb from limb and continuing until there was nothing left but mince.
Aria limped to her feet. “Those were not a natural consequence of the malefic necro-field around Hesperia,” she snarled. “Someone custom-tailored those. They were designer undead, crafted by a necromancer who knows what he’s doing.”
“Whoever was locked in here before,” Blackthorn surmised.
Tybald had another worry. “There were eight life-signs got snuffed out. We’ve met four of these things.” What if innocent Ysilde had been transformed, turned into another of these quartered and drawn monsters?
“We need to keep moving,” the General said. “These things might have been left as guard dogs.”
Tybald almost hoped so. The alternative was that this had been done to them for someone’s personal amusement.
Oglok searched the remains of the gut-warriors. They carried money pouches and weapons and their clothes were mostly Tyrhennan but there was no identification or other clues to their origin. The rest of the cellar proved empty apart from a few undead rats and a lot of rotted crates.
Aria wasn’t satisfied. “Crank up your Hallows-light again, John,” she asked Blackthorn. When the soldier switched his Sword of Light to its brightest she looked around again. “There!”
Tybald looked where she pointed. In the dazzling actinic glare of Blackthorn’s weapon a section of wall seemed to ripple when inspected closely. The texture and shading seemed subtly wrong – and there was no covering Elysian scrawl!
Oglok snarled that it had the stench of sorcery, of illusion.
“I’d say so,” Aria agreed. “Although really you have no right to talk about stench, Mock-man.” She shifted her fingers into a complicated position that helped her remember the right arcane keys and shut down the glamour that hid the doorway in the wall.
A granite-stone jamb appeared, with a heavy crossbeam and rounded side-pillars. There was no actual door, only a sheer black surface that reflected nothing.
“Okay,” said Blackthorn uncertainly. “And that is…?”
Aria had only experienced such a thing once before, an ancient magic in the lost kingdom of Daedalia that had clung on for eight hundred years before she had triggered it one last time. “This is a shadow-door,” she explained. “It’s a passageway to somewhere else, either a location in our world or some conceptual place created in the arcanosphere. It explains why I thought there was a jamming field. Nothing that passed beyond this threshold would be detectable.”
“Um…” Tybald was lost in talk of high sorcery.
“We’ve all been there,” Blackthorn sympathised with him. “We keep nodding ‘till she tells us what we need to do.”
Aria glared at him. “It’s a door. It’s been recently reopened, presumably by whatever was formerly trapped by that etheric barrier. The last lifesign undoubtedly went through there. Even a barbarian from Earth should be able to work out what to do with a door.”
“From Earth?” Tybald puzzled. He didn’t get the insult. Everyone knew that old Earth-that-was had been dead since the chaos times at the fall of the Ancients.
Blackthorn ignored him. “Fine,” he said.
And he strode through the shadow-door.