Next Day -- Skald

It's a funny thing when simply surviving can seem like a major triumph. We'd started our career as adventurers (most of us, anyway) with dreams of immense wealth and battles easily but splendidly won. We'd left the vampire's keep bruised and bloody, considerably weaker and barely alive. Thibor's goal of destroying the fiend had proven hopelessly beyond our reach. In fact, we are probably still in danger from the doubtlessly furious vampire.
But we have the Crown. And we rode back to Skald wonderfully elated simply because, though it had been a near thing, none of us died to get it.

And now we have time for rest and healing, which we all need badly. We found ourselves a little flea bag inn, renting one room for Lisha and Alanna while the rest of us hole up in the room next door. Assuming that nothing tries to kill us, we plan to stay here for four days.

Next day, Skald

Today was the first calm, quiet day we've had since coming to this horrible place. We spent it resting and talking quietly among ourselves. Didn't even leave the inn. Thibor made an attempt to cure Lisha's strange affliction (she's still eating raw meet and avoiding the sun -- gives me the creeps), but to no avail.
Over dinner, Thibor and Demetrius took the time to fill us in on the conversation they had with the vampire while the rest of us were waiting by the fountain. As he told the tale, Thibor's hands shook with rage and his eyes were filled with a deep sorrow. It was if he had failed somehow by letting the fiend live; failed not himself, but someone infinitely more important. His goddess, perhaps? As insane as he often acts, I was suddenly struck by the depth of Thibor's commitment to his faith. Even now, he would go back for the vampire but for the burden of the Crown. I thought of myself, a footloose bard who'd never been committed to anything, and I felt ashamed.
"The fiend tried to tempt us," Thibor began his story. "He wanted us to give him the Crown; to betray the rest of you."
"Big surprise," Lisha muttered.
"What did he offer you?" Alanna asked.
Thibor's eyes narrowed. "Power. Wealth. Immortality. He offered to make us like him. We would be generals of his undead army, ravaging the land and feeding off the blood of innocents."

Horrified, we stared at Thibor with wide eyes. "What did you say?" I asked.
Thibor sighed. "We had to stall for time. So we pretended to consider the fiend's diabolical bargain."
"Yeah," added Demetrius with a grin, "we spent a lot of time talking about how much fun it would be. You know, ordering goblyns around. Feeding on our friends."
"Thanks a lot," I grumbled.
"We didn't mean it."
"Sure about that?" Lisha remarked with raised eyebrows.
Thibor frowned. "Would you three shut up? I'm not finished."
"Temmer started it," said Lisha.
"Did not."
Thibor glared at us, and we shut up. "As I was saying," he continued, "we pretended to consider his offer. The fiend thought he had won -- I could see it in those lifeless eyes. He had so little respect for us that he actually thought we'd succumb to his infernal bribe and hand over the Crown that we'd all fought so hard for."
The albino pounded his fist on the table, making the cutlery rattle. Alanna jumped, spilling her wine.
"But he was wrong. When he stepped towards us, hand held out to receive the Crown of Souls, I stopped him by holding up the Horn of Hannah. I would rather die , I said, than become a filthy, maggot-ridden, blood-sucking insect like you. "
"Well said," Vanth remarked.
Inspired by Thibor's words, or perhaps by the ale he'd been drinking, Demetrius clapped Vanth on the back so hard the little thief nearly choked on his beer. "Well said, indeed," Demetrius repeated over Vanth's strangled coughing.
Our talk turned to other matters then. Everyone was determined to forget our troubles for a time, and no one mentioned vampires or crowns or anything else of import. We simply talked, as would any other group of friends over dinner. Alanna told fond stories of her mentor, an old illusionist who'd taught her the ways of magic, Demetrius and I spoke of the circus, and Lisha and Thibor evaded questions about their homelands.
It was a pleasant time, or would have been if it hadn't reminded me so much of similar times with my family. I realize now that, lacking Thibor's faith, my family is the only thing I had worth dedicating myself to. And I left them. As I drowned myself in my ale, barely listening to the conversation that went on without me, I found myself wondering if I have anything left worth living for.
Perhaps I drank too much at dinner. I needed some help from Demetrius to get up the stairs, but he's kind of used to that. But I've resolved that, in the morning when I am more clear-headed, I will speak to Thibor about these matters that trouble me so. Who better than a priest to explain the mysteries of life and death?]
This evening, Lisha and Demetrius insisted we needed a night out to lift our spirits. I didn't want to go, but they dragged me to some tavern with all these lumberjacks. They weren't friendly at first, but Lisha and Demetrius started drinking with them and they warmed up a bit. I played a few ballads about suicide and tragedy and unrequited love, and they started throwing things at me, so I left (after restocking my supply of ale). I hate this town.

Next day - Skald

To know the darkness is to love the light,
to welcome dawn and fear the coming night.

Woke up this morning and, after having a few mugs of ale to clear my head, I took Thibor aside and questioned him about the afterlife. I explained that I was having trouble finding any meaning in everything we'd gone through. Not only that, but there was something about my own death that still troubled me. After all, I had supposedly been to the afterlife. But I'd never been able to remember anything about it -- not one single thing. Did that mean that nothing happened after you died?
Thibor, unfortunately, claimed that he did not know the answers. As far as he was concerned, you lived to fight evil, and then you died. That was it. That's the only meaning to our existence he knows.

I'm so depressed.
Something very strange happened after we went to sleep tonight. Despite Demetrius's protest, I am leaving my candle burning long enough to record it.
The day passed normally enough. Lisha and Demetrius went off by themselves to practice fighting (?), Thibor prayed, Alanna studied her spells, Vanth does whatever it is he does; and I stayed in my room, practicing my flute, drinking ale, and trying to find some meaning to my miserable existence.
After dinner, Thibor made another attempt to cure Lisha but, even with my spell to alter reality and give her another chance, it didn't work. This was beginning to trouble us. So, after the women had gone to bed, the rest of us stayed up in our room to discuss the situation. We were all loathe to approach it at first, and I took the opportunity to point out to everyone my sudden but firm conviction that all the bards in this land were werewolves. After all, the bards sang, and so did the wolves. Everyone immediately agreed to my logic and vowed to be especially suspicious of bards hence forth.
But we couldn't avoid the Lisha problem forever.
"We had to practice in a goddamn stable," Demetrius cursed suddenly. "What are we supposed to do with a fighter who won't go out in the sunlight?"
"Or one that we can't trust," I pointed out. "I like Lisha and all. But what the Hell is happening to her? What if she turns into some kind of monster while she's on watch?"
"I can't stand watching her eat," said Vanth.
Thibor blinked at Vanth, then turned to answer my question. "I understand your concern. Lisha is our comrade, and she has fought bravely by our side. But she may be turning into something evil. So I tell you this -- if she vamps out in any way, I will not hesitate to stake her."
Demetrius looked troubled. But he and Vanth both nodded agreement.
"In fact," Thibor added, "perhaps we should kill her now. Before she has a chance to do us harm."
"Oh, come on Thibor," I protested. "We can't just kill her. Not after everything we've been through -- Lisha deserves better than that. Your powers will cure her eventually."
Thibor looked disappointed. "It was just a thought."
Something suddenly occurred to me. "You know, come to think of it, maybe it wasn't such a good idea to leave Alanna alone with her." I stood up. "I think I'll go check on them."
"Oh, quit worrying," said Thibor. "She's fine."
At that moment, Alanna's blood-curdling scream reached us. I spared an accusatory glance at Thibor before throwing open the door and bolting down the hall. The others followed, Thibor stopping long enough to pull a sharpened stake from his pack.
I opened their door to find Lisha bending over the still form of Alanna. Oh gods , I thought. We're too late. Lisha turned into a vampire and sucked out all her blood.
"Get away from her!" I cried. Rushing over to the bed, I pushed Lisha aside to examine Alanna. She was still breathing, and I as I watched she cried out and opened her eyes.
"Goblyns!" she screamed. Her eyes were wide, and she trembled. "Goblyns through the door. Blood everywhere."
"What the Hell is going on?" I heard Thibor asking.
Lisha was glaring at me. "I was trying to wake Alanna from her nightmare when the idiot bard rushed in here and pushed me out of the way."
"Sorry," I muttered.
Demetrius started chuckling, but Thibor was angry. "You mean we all came running down here prepared for battle because you were having a bad dream?" Disgusted, he threw down his wooden stake and stalked out of the room.
"What was that for?" Lisha asked, pointing at the stake. "Did you think Dominiani had come for us?"
"Something like that," lied Demetrius.
Alanna was still pale and shaking. Having had enough nightmares of my own lately, I felt bad for her. "Here," I said, sitting down next to her and pulling out my wine skin. "Have a sip of this."
She took the skin and drank. When she handed it back to me, she'd stopped shaking, and some of the color had returned to her face.
"Thanks, Temmer."
I smiled and hugged her, relieved to see that she was feeling better. "Don't mention it."
Demetrius sighed. "Come on, Temmer. Let's go get some sleep." He leered at Lisha. "Unless you want us to stay here and protect you?"
Scowling, the fighter promptly pushed us both out the door and slammed it. We went back to our room and fell asleep.

But a peaceful night's rest was not in the cards for us, either. Some time later, Thibor, Vanth and I awoke to a strange sight. We were lying on the floor in what seemed to be a place of worship. The sweet smell of spices and incense lingered in the cool air of the sanctuary, along with the smells of oils, wines and other sacraments. Rows of candles along the walls cast a dim, yellow light throughout the chamber.
As we stood up and looked around us, we saw that some sort of service was taking place. Slow, droning music issued from a macabre, black pipe organ in the front of the church. It filled us with a sense of ultimate evil and unchecked darkness. The pews were filled with robed figures whose attention was fixed on the hauntingly lovely organist.
"What the Hell?" said Vanth.
I looked around nervously, wondering where Demetrius was. "Where are we?"
Thibor shook his head. "This doesn't make sense. I don't believe this is happening."
But the music droned on. Exchanging glances, Vanth and I drew our weapons, and Thibor readied the Horn of Hannah. Cautiously, we began moving towards the front of the church.
But we did not get far. As we moved closer to the organist, the hooded figures stood and surrounded us. Throwing back their hoods, they revealed themselves as horrible skeletons with glowing, red eyes.
Screaming, Vanth hacked at one with his dagger, and I cut into another with my magic long swords. But we were horrified to see that our weapons had no effect, and soon we were helplessly pinned by the inhuman strength of many bony hands. All hope was finally lost as Thibor raised the Horn of Hannah, only to have it knocked from his grasp by a reaching skeleton.
I watched the precious Horn go skittering across the floor and slide under a pew. Gritting my teeth against the pain of the battering we were taking from the skeletons, I attempted to raise my flute to my lips and cast a spell. But one of the ghastly creatures suddenly clasped my hand in its own.
And crushed it. Screaming in agony, I watched my bones shoot through my fingers and palm, spattering blood everywhere. The pain seemed endless, and suddenly the skeletons were ripping into us everywhere, pulling our limbs from our bodies and literally tearing us to shreds...
We awoke screaming. As I sat up in my sheets, drenched with sweat, Demetrius peered at me over the glow of a lantern.
"What the Hell is wrong with you guys? Can't a guy get any sleep around here?"
Thibor and Vanth looked embarrassed. I, too, felt like a fool. But I worked the fingers of my hand thoroughly, just for reassurance.
Someone knocked at the door.
"What's going on in there?" Lisha yelled.
Demetrius opened the door, and the women peered in. Alanna looked concern, Lisha a bit suspicious.
"Nothing's wrong," said Thibor. "Go back to bed."
"We heard screaming," Alanna insisted.
"It was nothing."
"Um, I was just telling Demetrius a story," I lied. "And he got scared."
"I got scared?" Demetrius protested.
Lisha smirked. "That's funny. It didn't sound like Demetrius screaming to me."
"Er, well, Thibor and Vanth were helping me act out some of the parts in the story."
"Sure they were."
Demetrius pushed Lisha towards the door. "Aw, go to bed. I'm tired."
"Sure you don't want us to stay here and protect you?"
We all glared at her and, laughing, Alanna and Lisha left for their own room. It was only after they'd gone and Demetrius had shut the door that we suddenly noticed the Crown of Souls, lying alone in the middle of the room. And we'd all watched Thibor secure it in his pack before going to bed.

Next Day, Skald

Night has patterns that can be read
less by the living than by the dead.

Woke up this morning and, after having a skin of wine to chase away the bad dreams of last night, joined the others for breakfast. At the breakfast table, we were approached by a fair-skinned stranger wearing red robes.
"Good morning. My name is Telek. May I sit with you?"
We all peered at him suspiciously. "What do you want?" Thibor demanded.
The stranger appeared unconcerned with the albino's rude behavior. "Like yourselves, I am a stranger here. I thought perhaps we might be able to help one another."
Thibor frowned. "What makes you think we're strangers here?"
Glancing at the dusky-skinned, dark-haired natives around us, Telek only smiled.

"Oh, yeah, right. Well, sit down. It can't hurt to talk."
Telek gracefully took a seat, fussing with the hems of his red robe as if unaccustomed to their weight. He ordered breakfast while Thibor made curt introductions.
"Telek. I am Thibor. This is Temmer, Lisha, Demetrius, Vanth, and Alanna. We are... from a land called Hurva. Now where are you from, and what do you want?"
"I am a humble priest from a place called Amber. I had a vision of the Crown, and I know how to destroy it. And since I myself am committed to fighting evil, I wanted to help you."
Thibor's eyes had lit up at the mention of fighting evil. But he still seemed suspicious, and none of us were prepared to take the guy at his word.
"Help us do what?" I asked, wondering just how much this Telek knew of our plans. He could be a spy sent by Dr. Dominiani, the blood-sucking fiend of the north..
Telek seemed taken aback. "Er, help you on your quest to destroy the Crown, of course. To survive the dangers of this land and fight the evil creatures that plague it."
"And how do you know that we're planning to go somewhere?"
"Yeah," muttered Vanth. "Maybe we live at this inn."
Telek blinked at us in confusion.
"What exactly can you do to help us?" asked Alanna.
Telek seemed relieved to be talking to someone rational. "I am a priest," he replied. "I have powers befitting my calling."
"You can heal?" she asked excitedly.
Telek nodded.
"Oh, that would be helpful."
Thibor frowned, as if hurt that we were thinking of replacing him. "A lot of people can heal. What else can you do?"
"Can you cook?" asked Demetrius.
Telek spread his hands. "I can do many things. But you have not told me of yourselves."
"No, we haven't," said Thibor.
"Um, we're a little cautious around strangers," Alanna explained. "Why don't you give us some time to think about this? We can meet you back here for dinner."
Telek nodded, picked up his wine glass, and left us.

"I don't trust him," I said.
"None of us do," said Thibor.
"Can't trust anyone around here," said Demetrius.
"Except us," I added.
Thibor looked at Lisha. "Most of us, anyway."
Demetrius peered at me. "Hey, for all we know, you could be a werewolf. You are a bard."
"What?" asked Lisha and Alanna in unison.
"We've come to the conclusion that all the native bards are werewolves," Thibor explained. "So don't trust any of them."
"Oh, okay," said Alanna.
"I never trust anyone," Lisha muttered.
"Not even Demetrius?" I asked.
Lisha elbowed me in the side. Hard.
"Be nice if we could trust him," said Alanna. "We could use another healer."
Thibor frowned. "We don't need another healer."
The rest of us exchanged amused glances. Could Thibor be getting jealous?
"Why don't we discuss this later?" Thibor suggested. "Now that we're more or less healed, we should start buying supplies so we can get out of here."
"We are we going?" I asked.
Lisha grinned. "Didn't you pay attention to those books Alanna read to us? We have to go back to the Nasty Pit of Death and destroy the Crown."
Everyone looked uncomfortable. Even Thibor.
"We're not really sure about that," said Demetrius. "Are we?"
"No," I said, "we're not."
"Perhaps there is a better way," said Thibor. "There's got to be," I agreed.
Alanna looked thoughtful. "Maybe we should get more information before we do anything hasty."
"Good idea," I agreed.

"Enough talk," said Thibor. "We must make preparations." He handed Vanth a list. "This is what we will need to best use the deadly powder that Ontosh gave us. Take Demetrius and 5000 gold pieces. Buy as much as you can."
"5000 gold pieces!" Alanna exclaimed, alarmed by this use of the party treasury.
Thibor nodded. "We need more weapons. The powder will be fitted into lead casings which, when hurled, will explode much like my fireballs."
"Cool," said Demetrius.
Alanna frowned, "Well, I'm not carrying any."
"I'll take her share," I offered, cheered by the prospect of a weapon that would destroy the monsters before they could get close enough to sink their teeth into us.
Alanna still looked dubious. "What happens if somebody hits us with a fireball while we're carrying them?"
Thibor frowned. "You worry too much. Vanth, Demetrius, go get the supplies. Temmer and I have to check to see if we've gotten any response to our ad."
"What ad?" asked Lisha.
Alanna rolled her eyes. "The werewolf heads."
"Oh, right. Have fun."
Thibor frowned at her. "Alanna, why don't you... keep Lisha company while we're gone?"
Alanna agreed, if nervously, and we left on our errands. Thibor and I had no luck with the ads, but we did stop long enough to buy new clothing. As Thibor picked out a somber, black outfit that looked positively terrifying against his pale skin and hair, I glanced at my own blue and gold circus garb and realized that it was no longer appropriate. Bright, cheerful clothes were for people who still had a home, who were foolish enough to look for happiness in this dismal world. Clothes like that were for people who hadn't learned that the only important thing in life was learning how to kill it before it killed you. And so I exchanged my foppish minstrel garb for a suit of all black leather, and added two braces of throwing knives which I draped across my chest, as well as a dagger in each boot, one at my side and another up my sleeve. You can never have too many weapons.
We ran into Vanth and Demetrius, carrying the sacks full of pipe bomb supplies, in front of the Bard College. While Thibor double-checked to make sure they hadn't forgotten anything, I stared curiously at the college.
"You know, " I said at last, "they wouldn't let us in the last time we were here. I wonder what they're hiding."
Thibor looked at the building with eyes narrowed. I could guess what he was thinking. If all the bards were indeed werewolves, as we suspected, the gods only knew what unspeakable evil was being practiced behind those doors.
"I think it's time we found out," said Thibor. "Temmer, use your charm spells to get us in there. I would speak with these bards ."
I nodded and approached the door with flute in hand. The young apprentice who ushered us in was quite cooperative after I'd charmed him with my music, and he nervously ushered us inside.
"We have to be careful," he whispered. "If we get caught, I'll be in trouble. And you'll be arrested."
"We're always careful," said Vanth.
The boy stared at the thief, unconvinced. "Where do you want to go?" he asked me.
I looked at Thibor with a shrug. We needed to search the place fast, but I had no idea where we should start.
The albino loomed over the frightened apprentice and glared at him. "Take us to where your masters do their evil plotting against the innocent souls of this town."
I sighed. "Um, why don't you take us to the library?"
The boy's eyes widened. "You can't go there! It's not allowed."
I was surprised. Punishment must be pretty severe in this place if the boy resisted my requests even under the influence of a charm spell. "Aw, come on," I said in my kind older brother voice. "You can make an exception for us."
The apprentice grudgingly agreed and led us to the library. "Hurry," he said, closing the door behind us. "Find what you need before they catch us."
"What exactly are we looking for?" asked Vanth.
Thibor looked at me. "I don't know. What are we looking for?"
"Um... I don't know." It suddenly occurred to me that coming here was a very foolish thing to do. But it was too late now. Besides, it also occurred to me that the bards might have some spells stored here, and hunger for power made me greedy and reckless.
"Demetrius," I suggested, "see if you can detect any magic with Scray."
The fighter obliged, but could find nothing. Meanwhile, the rest of us searched among the books. We found many tomes on local legends and history, but nothing of immediate use.
"This is a waste of time," Thibor growled. "What did we expect to find -- a diary describing all the times they've turned into wolves and feasted on the townspeople? Let's get out of here."
Discouraged, we all followed Thibor and the nervous apprentice out of the library. And ran right into a group of bards -- elders by the look of them.
"Who are you?" demanded a distinguished-looking gentleman with salt and pepper hair. "What are you doing here?"
The apprentice paled. I noticed with some relief that none of the bards carried weapons or instruments.
"Um... um... we were looking for...," I stopped myself from finishing with proof that you're all werewolves , but I didn't know what else to say.
"Harkon," Thibor whispered in my ear.
"Harkon Lukas," I said a little too loudly. "We have a message for him from his daughter, Akriel."
The bards exchanged dubious glances. "How did you get in here?" asked a wiry-looking fellow with a shock of coal-black hair.
"That's not important," Thibor insisted. "Is Harkon here? Our message is vital."

A few of the men in the back of the group began whispering among themselves, and one left. "Why don't you give us the message?" suggested the wiry fellow with a gentle, soothing voice. We'll pass it along when next we see him."
"The message is private," Thibor insisted.
Vanth sidled up behind us. "They've sent for weapons and reinforcements," he whispered.
"We'll be going now," Thibor announced, and we left before anyone could stop us.

Before dinner we finally succeeded in curing Lisha, much to everyone's relief. Deciding that we could always kill the red-robed cleric when and if he betrayed us, we met Telek at dinner and told him that he could accompany us on our quest to destroy the Crown. But none of us were very happy when Telek told us that, in order to destroy the Crown, we had to return to the place where we got it. The very idea of returning to the place where I was killed horrifies me. There has to be another way. I just can't go back there.
After dinner, we came up here to our room. Alanna is sleeping in one of the beds, and the rest of us are making bombs from Thibor's precious powder. My job is to pour the black powder in after Vanth secures the little piece of string that Thibor calls a fuse. Then I hand it to Thibor, who seals the deadly weapon. Since Vanth's job is rather involved, I have lots of time to write in my journal while I wait for him to finish the next bomb.
It's kind of fun, actually. All of us together like this, our attention focused on the task at hand while we talk among ourselves, quietly lest we disturb Alanna. Moments like these are so rare for us, when all of us are healthy, nothing is trying to kill us at the moment, and all of our nightmares and even vengeful vampire are, temporarily at least, forgotten. A feeling of comfortable camaraderie grows up around us, and I am struck by the realization of how very much these people mean to me -- as much as my own family back in Hurva. My heart shrinks in terror as it occurs to me how easy it would be for one or even all of us to die. No matter what it takes, I am determined not to let that happen. One way or another, we're all getting back home alive.
"You know," said Demetrius, "when we get home, we can make a fortune selling these things. Temmer, you'll have that circus back in no time at all."
I smiled wistfully. Hurva and the circus seem so far away. But if I could get it all back, even the Hell I've been through wouldn't be too great a price to pay.
Lisha bit into an apple. It was nice to see her eating something besides raw meat for a change.
"Why settle for a circus?" she asked. "You could rule Hurva."
"Hurva has a king."
"What's a king?"
I blinked at her, then looked at Demetrius. He shrugged.
"If we get back to Hurva," said Thibor, "these will help us destroy Shifty Nicco."
Demetrius chuckled. "Shifty Nicco. I'd almost forgotten about him."
"I have not," said Thibor.
Somehow, I wasn't surprised.
"Who's Shifty Nicco?" Vanth asked.
Lisha grinned. "A thief they want to kill."
Vanth paled. But he relaxed when Demetrius told him the whole story.
"You know," Vanth pointed out when Demetrius had finished, "if Nicco tossed a fire ball at you now, what with all the bombs and oil this party carries, everyone within five miles would be toast."
I felt the cold touch of fear creep down my spine. Vanth was right. We were making targets of ourselves.
Thibor shook a pale finger at the thief. "As long as Nicco was within five miles, it would be worth it."
Demetrius and I exchanged nervous glances. No wonder Alanna refused to carry any bombs. "Um," said Demetrius, "maybe we should keep at least half of these bombs inactive. Just in case."
Thibor nodded. "If you wish. Though there is little danger of being fireballed here. Wizards seem rare in this land, and neither bards, werewolves nor vampires have that power."
"Bards, werewolves, and vampires," muttered Vanth. "Oh my."
Lisha tossed her apple core into the corner of the room and wiped her hands on a trouser leg. "You know, you people seem to attract enemies wherever you go. Maybe one of you is cursed, or something."
Thibor glared at her. "It is no curse. Evil always preys upon the righteous."
"I've noticed that myself," said Vanth.
I startled to chuckle, then yawned. It was very late. "Maybe we should get some sleep," I suggested. "These bombs are almost done, and we can finish during watches."
Everyone agreed. Vanth and Demetrius are taking the first watch.

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