Whispers of the Vampire’s Blade. Part VI

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Despite a brisk wind and an uncomfortable pillow, in the form of the sturdy wall of Sterngate, I soon fell asleep.

I don’t know how long I slept but I was awoken all too soon by a frightened whimpering noise. It took me a few moments to identify the source of the noise, it was Altera’s wolf and he looked absolutely terrified. I glanced around, trying to pick out by the moons’ light the source of the wolf’s unease. Altera spotted it first, a slow moving shape that eventually resolved itself into a cloaked figure. Slowly but steadily it approached the gatehouse. Perhaps it was the wolf’s demeanor but there was something about the stranger that made me very nervous. The three of us had bedded down for the night within a few feet of the gates but, by unspoken consent, we began edging along the wall until we had put some thirty feet between the gate and us.

Upon reaching the gate the figure gave a slow but heavy knock. He was answered inside by one of the gatekeepers. A short conversation followed but due to the distance and the wind I couldn’t make out a word. The gate swung open and, as our companions had some time before, the cloaked figure stepped in. No sooner was he out of sight when there was a short but blood curdling scream. For long seconds neither Altera nor I dared to move then slowly the ranger began to circle away from the wall until she was opposite the gatehouse but some thirty feet from it. When she showed no signs of approaching I summoned up the courage to edge slowly back along the wall. As I drew closer I could see that the smaller, person sized, door in the great outer door was still open. At about ten feet from the door I asked Altera, as best I could using hand signals, if it was safe. She seemed to indicate that it was so I steeled myself and moved to the doorway. The door was jammed open by the body of one of the guards lying on the floor. From a glance it looked like his head had been caved in with a single blow. Even with a mace it would have taken considerable strength to inflict a wound like that. If the attacker (and who could it have been but the cloaked figure) had been unarmed then he must have possessed superhuman strength.

There had been two guards earlier so with some trepidation I looked around for a second victim. I found the guardsman stuck some six feet off the ground up against the wall with no apparent means of support. It took my a few seconds to notice the strange deformity in his chest and a few more to realise that the dead man was impaled on one of the sconces had held the everburning torches that illuminated the area.

By now Altera had come over to join me, though she had to physically drag her wolf across the gate. I bent down, meaning to clear the first corpse from the doorway, when I noticed a strange detail that had till then escaped me, the guardsman’s body was withered and leathery. This made me reconsider and I left the dead man where he was.

Altera, the wolf and I headed forward along an arched tunnel that led through the gatehouse and the outer wall. It wasn’t very long and as we went I glanced upwards, scanning the shadows of the arch for signs of the murder-holes which were surely up there. At the other end of the tunnel we were in Sterngate proper. I could see three roads heading off. As I learnt the streets in Sterngate are broad but full of sharp turns, to handicap invading forces that got through the wall. The houses were free standing and the roads and alleys free of rubbish, both defensive measures against the spread of fire.

A few feet from were I stood was the top of a large, about three feet in diameter, hole in the ground. A few feet further was a massive and heavy looking iron grill that had presumably once covered it. It was not too much of leap of the imagination to conclude that the cloaked figure had lifted it aside and gone down the hole. The fact we hadn’t heard the grate being dragged was testament to the killer’s unnatural strength.

Directly opposite me I spotted an inn, The Sterngate Rest judging by the shield above the door. We headed over. As we did Altera commented that she could smell an odd, aromatic odour, though I could smell nothing.  A few swift bangs brought the innkeeper to the door. I quickly told him that we had witnessed a murder (which wasn’t quite true but avoided long explanations) and needed the watch. Predictably he suggested the watchmen at the gate. When I told him it was them who had been murdered the innkeeper threw the door shut in my face. Misunderstanding the action I moved along to the next premises, a baker, and was about to knock there when the door of The Sterngate Rest was thrown open again. A young man ran out and away down a road.

A few minutes later the young man returned with a small detachment of the guard. We took them to the scene of the crime, answering any questions as honesty and fully as we could.

Thankfully the guards didn’t seem to want to detain us, in fact they didn’t seem to mind Altera’s wolf as long as she kept it on a (metaphorical) short leash, and we made our way back to The Sterngate Rest. The inn keeper was more then happy to give us lodgings for the night for the princely sum of a gold coin each. I enquired if there was an elf, a war-forged and a pretty red-haired woman were staying with him, to which he replied yes.

Without more ado I headed up to my room and pretty much collapsed on my bed. Within moments I was sleep.

Morning came all too soon. The achieves and strains of the previous night’s adventured hadn’t entirely gone away and I was certain that I hadn’t had the necessary eight hours rest to be able to relearn my spells. So instead I headed downstairs for breakfast.

Pretty soon my four companions and I were reunited in the tap-room. Over breakfast I cast Read Magic on the scroll of Magic Missile that Bri had given me so I could use it in an emergency. Altera and I quickly filled our friends in about the cloaked figure. Toryil pronounced that, of the legions of the undead, both vampires and mummies were renowned for their monstrous strength. I pointed out that, given the many powers attributed to Lucan, he shouldn’t have needed to have the gated opened to get in. When Altera mentioned the strange smell she had encountered it seemed to convince Toryil that we had been in the presence of a mummy, the smell was the embalming fluids that permeated their undead flesh.

I was a little surprised that guards hadn’t appeared to escort as off to answer questions. It was lucky that they hadn’t as there was a Lightning Rail station in Sterngate and we were all certain that Lucan and Grilsha would attempt to continue their journey using it. This meant that we couldn’t hang around.

The first thing we did was find the Lightning Rail station. Just as we found it we were approached by two men, a human and a gnome.

The human was tall and broad shouldered. He wore a tabard bearing the symbol of the Sovereign Host over a finely crafted chain mail shirt. At his side hung a longsword and on his back was a blood red shield, suggesting that he was a devotee of Dol Dorn.

The gnome was an elderly gentlemen with a  white beard and an alert expression. He wore a studded leather jacket as armour and had a dagger tucked into his belt. It was he who did most of the talking for the pair, introduction himself as Roewyn and his friend as Erben. Roewyn informed us that he and Erben would be traveling with us. He stated it as if it were the simplest, most straight forward thing in the world even though he had no idea of who we were and where we were going. Roewyn was full of questions, most of which my companions and I were a little reluctant to answer at that point. These included the obvious, such as our names, and the more unusual, if we had Dragonmarks. I was in the mood to humour the old boy and was willing to let them tag along, particularly as Erben looked like he could handle himself in a fight.

There was a train waiting at the station and a quick enquiry revealed we had an hour to prepare before it departed. Quickly we found a Message Station where we arranged travel documents into Thrane. We sent a message back to Viorr in Sharn informing him of our discoveries about Lucan. Some of us, myself included, were a little uncomfortable about leaving Sterngate while there was a mummy on the loose so Toryil arranged for a note to be sent to the watch advising them of the situation. We then found the local officers of House Kundarak where we once again used our promissory note  to draw out the funds needed to buy our tickets. This left us with about twenty minutes before the train left. While most of us went back to the station Toryil, Bri and myself dashed off to see if we could find a seller of magical supplies. There Toryil purchased a pair of healing potions and Bri a scroll of Flaming Sphere. Bri looked like she would have chatted to the store keeper all morning but we were on a tight schedule and Toryil and I practically dragged her out of the shop and back to the station.

With surprising difficulty we managed, eventually, to purchase tickets to the first stop within the boarders of Thrane, our collective poor knowledge of geography almost giving the ticket seller a fit. Then, with what felt like seconds to spare, we dashed out on to the station platform. There was the Lightning Rail. It consisted of ten coaches each baring the insignia of House Orion. The whole thing hovered, suspended by air elementals, above a track-way consisting of softly glowing  blue pyramids.

No sooner had we stepped on to the platform when we were approached by two men in the uniform of House Orion guards. We produced our tickets . They produced their swords!

As one the pair lashed out at the nearest of our number with their heavy falchion swords. Unfortunately “the nearest of our number” happened to be me. The shock of the blows meant that I didn’t actually feel any pain but the world seemed to go into slow motion around me, with me as a detached observer.  I remember seeing Altera run past, sword in hand, to attack one of the guards. Then a dense swarm of screeching bats descended from the rafters of the platform roof and enveloped us. I was buffeted from side to side by the feeding frenzy of the bats and then passed out.

I woke up a few seconds later with War-Forged and Erben standing over me. War-Forged had dragged me out of the swarm and then, from what I later learnt from my companions, Erben had simply placed his hands upon me and without appearing to cast a spell healed my injuries sufficiently to bring we round. This could only be the famed healing touch of a paladin! Pulling myself to my feet, I was still pretty weak, I tried to judge the situation. This brought back memories of the wolves that had attacked us on the road to Zilargo and the gnomes on the docking tower. It could only be a surprise left behind by Lucan to kill or delay us. I could see Toryil and Altera fighting the guards. Suddenly there was a flare of clashing light as Bri used a scroll of Colour Spray on the guards, incapacitating the pair of them. We weren’t out of danger though. The swarm split into two halves, with one cloud of bats diving on Bri and Toryil while a second pounced on War-Forged, Erben and myself. The vicious little pests were everywhere and within seconds I was bleeding from a dozen, fresh wounds. Someone, War-Forged I think, ordered us to make for the train. I ran as fast as I could in that direction but with each step I was getting weaker and weaker from lose of blood. Just as I was feet from the safety of the train door my wounds overcame me and I passed out again.

I was awoken from unconsciousness by Toryil feeding me a healing potion. We were on the rail and I could hear what sounded like rain against the windows. My companions were clustered about, blood smeared on their exposed skin. Most were watching the windows with grim looks upon their faces. I followed their gaze and discovered that what I had mistaken for rain was in fact hundreds of bats dashing themselves against the sides of the carriage in a frenzied attempt to get inside. I thanked my friends for saving my life, thanking Erben twice when he used a Cure Light Wounds spell to further reinvigorate me. There was work to be done. The tiny wounds that my companions had suffered at the teeth of the bats were bleeding freely and Toryil and I worked quickly to clean and bandage them. Of course War-Forged didn’t bleed but he was leaking a strange and no doubt vital fluid that I did my best to stop.

Wearily we settled into the lounge as the train rise a few feet further into the air pulled out of the station, leaving the bats far behind. Leaning my head against the window and looking down I could see white arcing fire blazing beneath the length of the train as we were propelled along.

The brush with death had done nothing to curb Roewyn’s enthusiasm and he was full of questions.  He also seemed to know a surprising amount about the journey we were on, knowledge he rather vaguely attributed to a “prophesy”.  Roewyn had brought Erben to find us because if we “didn’t fall by the wayside” we could prevent some hideous event from occurring. He also claimed that dragon-marks were in our future, even War-Forged which seemed to be nonsense as the war-forged didn’t get dragon-marks. One particular comment of Roewyn’s got my attention. He stated that we were on a quest to find something and not just a vampire or a demonic sword. I thought of our involvement with the Schemas, could the gnome be alluding to them? I remembered that The Emerald Claw thought that there were Schema’s onboard The Cloud’s Destiny. Did they think we had them or perhaps that Lucan did?

On a more practical level Roewyn claimed that Lucan was going to Thrane to release something, although he couldn’t specify what or where.

Roewyn’s defence when we pressed him for details was that he was new to the whole business of prophecies so his information was vague and sometimes confusing. In addition he claimed that by revealing as much as he had he would get into trouble, although (predictably) he was vague as to who he would get into trouble with.

It was all rather a lot to take in. Was Roewyn on the level? Was he mad? Was he an enemy trying to misdirect us? The fact that he traveled with a paladin seemed to argue against the latter.

We would arrive in Starilaskur a little after midday tomorrow.

I was very, very tired, as were a number of my companions. Our tickets entitled us to use two, four birth cabins so most of us took the opportunity to catch up on lost sleep.

We met up again in the dining car some nine hours latter. This had given me plenty of time to have a good sleep and relearn my spells. Using a Repair Light Damage spell and the Pearl of Power I was able to fix most of War-Forged injuries. Toryil used the divine magics of The Undying Court to do the same for me.

Over the dining table we tried to pull together what we knew about vampires from first hand experience, Viorr’s briefing and bits and pieces of lore we had discovered. We already knew that Lucan possessed superhuman strength and agility. We had witnessed his ability to call upon bats and wolves to serve him, to this we were able to add rats too. He could dominate the weak-willed, turn into mist, take the shape of wolves and bats (both the common verity and the more fearsome “dire” species), could scale walls like a spider and regenerated wounds in seconds.

To this list we were able to add the fact that only the most grievous of blows would harm a vampire if not inflicted by a magical weapon, that they were highly resistant to channelled positive energy (“Turning” as it was generally known) and that the touch of a vampire drained the life-force from a living being. On this Roewyn pointed out that it in our favour that Lucan seemed to be at least partially in thrall to The Soul Blade. A wounded body was easier to heal then a wounded soul. Finally vampires retained all the memories they had in life and all the skills that went with then.

It was not all doom and gloom though. Vampires were repelled by the smell of garlic and would not approach someone holding a holy symbol or a mirror. If a stake was driven through a vampire’s heart it would be immobilised. Their greatest weakness, however, were the rays of the sun which were lethal to a vampire.

We whiled away the evening and into the night in conversation. We were convinced that Lucan was somewhere on the train but, as night seemed to be the time when a vampire’s power was unfettered, it didn’t seem a good idea to look for him till sun-up. Bri made a few discrete enquiries with the other passengers, predominantly gnomes and humans, and found someone who remembered seeing another red haired woman board the train.

Eventually it was time to turn in. Lucan and Grilsha had been pretty proactive in their defense so far and another attack didn’t seem out of the question so we decided to set watches as if we were in the wild. War-Forged, Erben, Roewyn and I all shared one cabin so we had the luxury of having War-Forged watch all night. Altera and her wolf plus Toryil and Bri had the cabin next door and they split the watches between them. We had two magic weapons between us; Altera’s sword and Talaen Kara. To make sure that both rooms had one magical weapon War-Forged took temporary custody of the former.

Before I describe the events of that night I think it would be helpful to describe the layout of the sleeping carriage we were in. At either end was a lounge. Between them ran a narrow passage-way, only five feet wide, along which were the doors to the sleeping compartments. From the lounge areas you could go forward to the next carriage or backwards to the one behind. There was also a long balcony that ran along each side of the carriage on which you could stand and watch the world go by. Access to these baloneys was, again, from the lounge areas.

The night began peacefully enough but then, while most of us slept, Altera’s wolf began to play up just as he had the night before. Fearing that the mummy had returned Altera tapped on the wall dividing our room form hers. Hearing this War-Forged woke me up and left me to wake Erben and Roewyn while he checked the passage way outside. No sooner had he stepped out when he stopped, facing something out of my line of sight up the passage, and demanded that whoever it was “stand your ground”.

A voice that could not have issued from any living throat announced that “Calderus demands The Soul Blade”. It was a voice so resonant with death and malice that I cast Mage Armour then and there. Erben heard the voice too and began scrabbling for his armour. Casting all common sense aside I wanted to see what was in the corridor but as I approached the door War-Forged checked me with a hand. He then began to fall back along the corridor. Latter War-Forged told me that he had intended to lure the mummy into the lounge area at the back of the carriage so we call use our greater numbers. Unfortunately it was not to be as Erben, giving up on his armour, grabbed his sword and shield and ran out to confront the mummy before it could advance. Not only that but Toryil, driven by a cultural hatred of all things unliving, ran into the corridor to fight too. As his sleeping quarters were closer to the mummy than Erbens he ended up with the paladin behind him and the creature in front of him.

Toryil called upon the divine might of the Undying Court to drive back the mummy but all he managed to do was annoy it. The mummy lunged forward, landing a bone-crushing blow on the elf. All Erben, who was behind Toryil in the narrow corridor, could do was look for a way to get into the fight while casting Bless Weapon upon his sword.

I saw Altera dash past me as she made for the lounge at the rear of the carriage where War-Forged was. I glanced out into the passage. In front of me were Erben and Toryil, who were trying to swap places without giving the mummy a chance to attack. Beyond them I could just make out the mummy itself, swathed in its heavy cloak.

I snapped off a couple of Magic Missiles, injuring the mummy but not even coming close to dropping the creature. I had memorised a couple of Scorching Rays plus a couple of Disrupt Undead spells but I needed a better view to use them. I remembered the balconies that ran along the outside of the carriage, if I could get to them I could get around to behind the mummy.

I ran down the corridor towards the lounge. As I did so Bri, who must have turned invisible at some point in the fight, appeared beside Altera and snapped off two Magic Missiles. They flashed past me, up the corridor and struck home on the mummy.

Clearly War-Forged had had the same idea as myself as, when I reached the lounge, one of the doors to the balconies was open and he was nowhere in sight. As I ran out after him I saw Altera and Bri going for the door on the opposite side.

Outside the night was cool, in fact the wind whipping along the balcony made it almost chilly. I could make out War-Forged at the far end of the balcony in the process of opening the door. I ran along the balcony and back into the carriage at the far end. War-Forged had already moved up behind the Mummy and was laying into it’s back. Fearing that this might come to close quarters I cast Mirror Image and moved to back War-Forged up, looking for an opening. At about the same time the door to the other balcony was thrown open and first Bri and then Altera piled in.

I spotted a good opening and unleashed a Scotching Ray. The angle was bad but my luck was in and the ray struck home. The result was spectacular, the mummy went up like a flask of alchemist’s fire. The smell was horrendous, a mix of burning flesh and embalming fluid. Unfortunately, as the mummy thrashed around, it’s burning cloak came loose revealing the monstrous relic that lay beneath. My vision swam as I fought to retain my wits. Both Altera and Bri were not so lucky and just stood there, paralysed by the horror that confronted them.

Toryil, Erben and War-Forged also managed to keep there wits and carried on the fight. Indeed later both War-Forged and Toryil admitted that Erben’s unwavering presence went some way to strengthen their resolve. I tried to finish the creature off with first another Scorching Ray and then a Disrupt Undead spell but both times my aim was off.

Toryil used his divine magic to heal the vicious wounds that Erben was taking as the mummy, who must have had the strength of a small giant, pounded away at him . He also conjured a Spiritual Weapon, a scimitar, that floated in the air attacking the creature. In the end though it came down to the strength of Erben and War-Forged swords arms to finish off the mummy, one blow at a time. As Erben delivered the final strike the creature collapsed. Perhaps as a result of the fire or perhaps because the necromantic force that had animated it’s ancient form had been dispelled, but within seconds of hitting the ground the mummy had crumbled into ash and was blown out of the door. It left almost no trace it had ever been there.

As Bri and Altera came to their senses we shut the doors to the balconies and returned to our rooms. I for one hoped that the night’s adventures were over.