An Acolyte in Grell

It was mid-afternoon when the Acolyte arrived in Grell. The little farming town seemed to peer out its own windows with a combined sense of fear and shame as the little horse, lent to him by the Temple of Iomedae, slowly cantered down the only thoroughfare. Eyes watched him from doorways, from garden plots beside thatched cottages, from behind fences.

He ignored them all. This was his lot, to be called upon in need and then sent away when the ugly task was through. The task was here, and it was the sort of task that for which he was eminently competent.

After visiting the local priest who commissioned him, the Acolyte interrogated the boy who’d discovered the creature. He’d run and survived; his friend had not run, and likely hadn’t survived. The Acolyte teased information out of the frightened young man, muscles shivering in the sun as he recollected the events: what did the temple grounds look like? How was the cemetery shaped? Was there a fence? How tall? What did the creatures look like? What condition were they in? What do you remember? What else can you tell me?

When he’d extracted every bit of useful knowledge from him, he let the boy go. He leaned back in his chair to think and plan. The lengthening shadows told him it would be tomorrow. Tonight, a joint from the mutton over the fire, a flagon or two of ale, and a restful night. No one spoke to him. The wench brought his requests to the otherwise empty table in guarded silence. She never asked for payment.

He set out on foot at sunrise, following the path they’d indicated. An hour’s walk, brisk and refreshing. Against his chest, in a small handmade box, slept a mouse, freshly caught by the merchant’s son for five silver coins. A bag of sunrods was across his back, plus the books the Abbot had loaned him. The Wand in his belt, behind his dark cloak. And hidden away in one of those books, a treasure: a secret weapon.

He followed the path as the sun rose higher. He was quiet. He was careful. He could feel the forest emptying as he neared the site; the birds as silent passersby, the underbrush bereft of hare, squirrel and raccoon. The silence of the forest matched the silence of the Acolyte matched the silence of the grave.

Against his chest, the mouse awoke and began struggling, with increasing desperation, against the confines of the box. He was close. He took out the box, slid it open, and released the little animal. It rushed into the forest in the direction from which they’d came, as if chased by fire.

The Acolyte was silent. He listened. He stayed amazingly still. Finally, he heard them, off to his right, in what had to be the cemetery. Lurching, untethered steps, the small thuds of rotted flesh against earth and itself. He moved off to the right, into the woods, at one point snapping a twig and then, with a strange calm, waiting fully 10 minutes stock still to see if he’d been heard. He hadn’t. Soon he has made the cemetery wall, and peered over to assess the numbers. Four, no five. There surely were more, hidden about. But they were scattered. This portion of the plan would work.

He vaulted the fence and kneeled behind a leaning tombstone. Most had not seen him; one had, and it came stumbling over, it’s jaw dropping to horrific depths, blood-limned saliva pouring over its rotted lips. The Acolyte let it come. His maces, shining in the freshening morning sun, flashed and returned it to the land of the truly dead.

The noise of the creature’s demise waked the rest from their stupor, and more than a dozen emerged – from behind stones, under tree limbs, who knew how these automatons hid – and slowly began converging on the Acolyte. They were vultures; but where they had expected carrion, they had instead found a wolf. He waited. They came closer. He beckoned them. Finally, two of the nearest had almost reached him when the Acolyte exploded with bright energy. It engulfed the creatures, tore at them, rent them and pummeled them to the ground. One stood, a blasted thing but somehow still on its feet, and the Acolyte took four short steps toward it and with swift motions dashed its pestilential brains onto the ground.

Three had avoided the blast, but the Acolyte’s maces sang a thumping dirge as he dispatched them each in turn with aplomb. After, he again grew quiet, treating his small wounds with strips of clean muslin and trilling spells and prayers. The cemetery resumed an appropriate silence. Nothing moved at the windows of the temple.

A reconnaissance circuit of the temple grounds showed a small door at the back of the building. The Acolyte cast a spell or two, muttered a brief thanks to Iomedae, and forced the door as quietly as he could. A sunrod from the pack lit the room as he close the door behind, scanning the walls, the ceiling, one mace low and ready to strike. The sunrod he laid on a nearby stone table, backing off and waiting to see what dangerous moths the light attracted.

All was quiet. The door to the temple main room opened inward and the Acolyte, confident in his disguise but eager to finish the commission, drew it back and waited behind, hoping to see the apparition as it entered. He did: the spectre flew in, passing through the half-opened door and the nearby wall as if they were imaginary, and flew to the table to examine the sunrod. He didn’t notice the mortal, hidden by dweomercraft. It was here that the Acolyte made what could have been a fatal mistake. He lashed out; a blaze of hot sunlight emerged from his fingertips with an ozone growl. The specter whirled and caught the brunt of the blast, mouth opening in a silent scream of rage and whatever passed for pain amongst the incorporeal dead. The spectre reached toward him and advanced with unnerving speed.

“You FOOL,” the Acolyte screamed at himself as he fumbled for the wand at his belt. Before he could retrieve it, the spectre’s icy hands reached into his chest and clutched at his heart, sending arctic chill throughout every portion of his body. The Acolyte rebelled against the soul-draining power that he knew would come, prayed to Iomedae for protection… and opened his eyes to see the blank, staring face of the spectre not inches from his own, lifeless yet malevolent.

The Acolyte chanted the command words and the wand emitted a shielding, almost perceptible wave of force that started at his core and expanded outward to his skin, pushing away the dense cold of the spectre. In response, it squeezed his heart again through his armor, clothing, flesh and bone. The Acolyte nearly choked with the force of it as he reached into his pouch, brought out a piece of rare vellum, and unfurled it to read.

He’d found the archaic spell within the folds of the Abbott’s books as he’d studied them at his makeshift camp three nights ago – a spell of prodigious healing puissance, beyond what powers Iomedae had granted him the past. But that spell, the books averred, was virulent proof against precisely the sort of creature he know faced. He read the ancient words aloud as the spectre retreated, releasing his bruised and gasping heart. The spell was short, and as the last words ebbed from the Acolyte’s lips, a wave of silver power appeared within the spectre’s center, and expanded outward. With a humid, earthy stillness, the creature evaporated and became nothing, returning to dust once again.

The Acolyte caught his breath, then remembered that his work might not be finished. He reapplied a spell, lit another sunrod and peered into the larger room beyond. The temple proper, dusty and full of detritus. He laid the sunrod on the altar to augment the light from the dilapidated roof, backed off a few steps, and watched.

Nothing stirred. His commission, he surmised, may indeed be complete. He searched the room, in hopes of discovering some remnant from the temple’s past to bring to the townspeople. He was disappointed – nought be a few leavings from the evil ones, which he took outside and destroyed. He circled the temple grounds again, slowly, loudly – whistling, thumping fenceposts – but no more of the dead appeared.

Back in the temple, he Consecrated the altar, gathered up his sunrods, and prepared to leave. In the cemetery, he found the townsman’s slower friend – what was left of him, anyway. The dead had feasted, and left little. He found a gravedigger’s shovel and prepared to bury the man’s riven bones, but reconsidered and instead wrapped the remains in some old vestments he’d found in the temple. Carrying the bundle in his arms, he began the slow walk back to town.

Some ways down the path, he heard rustling in the underbrush. Quietly, he set down the package, armed himself, found a nearby tree to put his back against, and waited to see what emerged. A small smile creased his face as a mouse – the Acolyte’s early warning system, surely, from earlier that morning – skittered across the path a few feet from him and dived into the brush on the other side.  

He left the man’s remains at the edge of the wood and walked to the town. He reported the commission completed and received his official thanks. He found the boy he’d interrogated earlier and brought him to the wood. The young man vomited, and acknowledged it was the face of his friend, underneath the bites and tears. The Acolyte carried the remains for him, to the place where they would build the pyre. He built a small cairn to keep the blood, now soaking the cloth wrappings, from attracting vermin. He ate another silent meal at the inn. He retrieved his horse from the stables, replenished his food and water, and departed.

The forthright trio of knocks came once again to the Priestess’ door, and she knew immediately who it was before her “Who goes?” elicited the simple response: “It is I, Priestess.”

“Come,” she said, hoping the distaste in her voice did not show. This man with no name had done them a great service, and it was shameful to cringe at his sight, though underneath her intellectual exterior, she recoiled from the rawboned, black-clad man who entered her room and took an open chair near the door.

He began without preamble. “My work here is done, milady. The vampires are dispatched, and ‘tis time I moved on.”

“You have done us, and Sir Balthazar, a tremendous service,” the priestess said through teeth that tried to clench on their own. “The archer’s family is complete again, and so due in no small part to your skills and actions in that accursed pit.” She cringed behind her eyes at the prospect of a returned Vespernius, and wondered whether this man, baleful though he might be, mightn’t be a better addition to the little group of mercenaries and questors she had managed to hold together as a fighting unit for so long.

“I thank you, milady, ‘twas my commission and I was pleased to complete it,” the man replied. He paused and looked at her meaningfully. “But complete it I have, and the road calls.”

“You have noticed, milady,” the man went on, despite the Priestess thinking ‘well, begone already then’ after he’d last spoken. “You have noticed, that I have not taken any of the coin or booty retrieved by your followers, nor asked for any boon. Now, upon my departure, I come to you for payment for my services.”

“Name it, and it shall be yours,” the Priestess said, eager now just to have the man out of her quarters and off to whatever repugnant chore he had next. She immediately regretted the words, knowing somehow that the price would be high.

“The wand you bear, milady,” the man said, pointing one bent finger at the Death Warder at her hip. “It is precious to me beyond your need, and key to my work. I ask only for it, and nothing else…”