Part III Chapter Seven
Sixth Moon, 398
I've left it too long, I thought. The bastard will be dead by now.
And I meant the epithet in its every sense, for literally and figuratively, all its varied meanings applied to Leo Dilisnya. Nearly fifty years had passed since that night of death, when he'd made his attempt to seize the rule of Barovia.
Those men he'd left behind in his haste to escape had paid heavily for their crimes, but it was past time that their master faced justice. If he still lived.
Now that I'd been moved to take action, I had little tolerance for further waiting... but found myself forced to do so, anyway. I paced up and down in the antechamber, hands clenched behind my back one minute, balled into fists and swinging in the air the next.
I've left it too long. Where have the years gone?
For gone they were, never to be retrieved. Not that I had much need to care about time in regard to myself, but, busy in my keep with dozens of fascinating projects, I'd forgotten about time's effect on others. So it was that, when I finally took it upon myself to visit the head of the Wachter family, I was unprepared to find Lovina Wachter was not the fragile-looking child I'd last seen, but a solid, energetic woman in her middle fifties. Indeed, there was no connection between the old image in my mind and the reality standing before me.
She extended her hand. "Welcome, Lord Vasili."
I briefly touched the tips of her fingers with my own and bowed. "You do me much honor, Lady."
After inquiries to my health and to whether I needed any refreshment - which I graciously declined - she asked me to be seated. We were in the receiving hall of the Wachter home, and it had changed little from those days when her father had been my host. Tapestries of old battles, gently faded, covered the walls; the same furniture, built to last generations, cluttered the floor. There seemed to be a lot more flowers and pillows than I remembered, but that was probably Lovina's influence. As she took her own seat, she started up almost immediately, as though having a sudden change of mind. She half-turned, dug under the cushion, and pulled forth a colorfully dressed doll with button eyes and a sewn-on smile.
"I see my granddaughters have been playing here again," she said ruefully.
Decades ago, her obliging husband had taken on the Wachter name so that it might be continued. Obviously this branch of the family tree had been fruitful. She finally settled herself with the doll in her lap and absently stroked its yarn hair. "Now, sir, may I ask why you have requested to see me?"
"I am here as an envoy for Strahd Von Zarovich," I said without the usual formal preamble required by an official visit.
Though the appearance of a messenger from Castle Ravenloft was something she must have been expecting, she went absolutely still at the announcement. Her eyes went first glassy, then hard like blue diamonds as they focused on my own.
I kept a bland face and hoped she had not remembered me; more likely it was my name alone that had inspired her reaction. The reputation of the castle and its now infamous lord had grown darker with each passing year. I had personally done nothing to correct the stories and rumors as it had been my experience that when one denies a falsehood, people then and there determine it must be entirely true. Lovina was not demonstrating fear, though - I'd have smelled it - but something resembling avidity... or hunger.
Lovina looked at me minutely, taking in every detail, from my well-tailored traveling clothes to the carefully made and slightly dusty riding boots. I had put myself to some trouble over my looks, and trusted she would find nothing out of the ordinary about me. My hair was combed to hide the points of my ears, and I'd even managed to cut my nails down to an acceptable length since, in certain social situations, it was considered rude to wear gloves.
Scrutiny over, she gave a stiff, seated bow. "Then I am the one who is honored, sir."
"My lady is very kind. Lord Strahd sends his warmest greetings to you and your house and, if it may not be considered too late, his condolences over the death of your good father. He is remembered as a great man and a valiant fighter."
"Thank you," she said, somewhat taken aback. Victor Wachter had died some twenty-six years ago. I'd have sent a message then, but Lady Ilona had still been alive, and it had not seemed... appropriate. "I hope that Lord Strahd is enjoying good health."
"He is, Lady. Remarkably so."
I could almost see her adding up sums in her head and working out that Lord Strahd was in his nineties. Ninety-two to be exact.
I drew out an oilcloth packet from my coat and opened it. "Here is a letter you wrote him and a letter of introduction for myself, which he was generous enough to pen in his own hand."
She took both sheets of parchment and read the introduction right through. As the head of an important house, she would know my writing well enough by now from past documents. This one told her that I was Lord Vasili Von Holtz (I had combined the given name of my great-grandfather with that of his wife's maiden name) and that she was to consider my voice the voice of Strahd in all matters and render me every reasonable assistance for my errand. The bottom of the sheet was properly stamped, and it carried a wax seal impressed with the Von Zarovich coat of arms. She studied it all at length, making me glad I had prepared things so fully.
"I have heard the Von Holtz name, but am not familiar with it," she said.
"We are an old house and, though loyal to Lord Strahd, have not been as visible in our service to him as have others." This was a diplomatic way of informing her I was not going to give a lecture on Vasili's personal genealogy. "However, the honor has fallen to me to make up for it, hence my journey here. Lord Strahd was very interested in your news."
She looked over her own letter as if to refresh her mind. It was tantalizingly brief, stating only that she was certain she'd located Leo and asking if Strahd was as anxious as she to bring the man to justice; she was prepared to cooperate with him to that end. "This sounds rather pompous, doesn't it?"
I made a gesture indicating that the thought had not occurred to me.
"What exactly is your errand, sir?"
"I am charged with finding and executing Leo Dilisnya. Here - " I gave her another sheet of parchment, " - is his death warrant, signed by my lord Strahd."
This inspired another study. "You will kill him?"
"If you but direct me to him."
She apparently decided I was more than capable of performing the task. "Do you know why he is condemned?"
"I am acquainted with the facts. It has been many years, but Strahd has never given up his hope of finding and dealing with the traitor."
This was true, though if I had not let myself get distracted, it wouldn't have gone on for so long. To be fair, in all that time the trail had grown quite cold. Barovia was not that large a place, but somehow Leo had managed to bury himself very thoroughly. It was logical to conclude he'd readied a sanctuary in case his coup failed. The only thing I was certain of was he hadn't escaped the country. Since the night of his betrayal, the borders of Barovia had been, for all purposes, closed.
Lovina set the parchments to one side. "Lord Vasili, before you were born, my mother, sister, and brothers were butchered by Leo Dilisnya. My aunts and uncles..." She broke off to put a hand to her mouth, then turned it into a fist and forced it away again.
"How much do you remember of it?" I asked, softly.
"Everything. They say you can sometimes forget bad things from childhood, but this has always been with me. Sometimes I can still hear their screams. Can you understand a memory like that?"
"I believe so, Lady."
"My father and I would have also died but for the intervention of Strahd Von Zarovich. For that debt, and to see justice finally served, I wrote this." She tapped the paper, then stared beyond my shoulder as if into the past. "My father was... haunted by Leo for years. His wife and children killed, and he unable to save them, he spent the rest of his life searching for Leo and died thinking himself a failure because he'd not found him. I promised father I would continue his quest. This year has seen the fulfillment of that promise, not, I regret to say, by my active efforts, but by accident. But no, surely it must be by the will of the gods. They've heard my prayers, and this was their answer."
And surely they must have been testing my nearly nonexistent patience. "Lady..."
She obligingly snapped back into the present. "But before I tell you more, we must have an agreement."
"Lord Strahd will not be ungrateful," I said cautiously.
"I don't want money. I want my family avenged."
"Then it is not enough that Leo simply be put to death?"
Her eyes glittered.
"You want him... punished."
She licked her lips and nodded. "Can you promise me that?"
"My voice is the voice of Strahd," I said truthfully. "If Leo still lives, he shall receive all that he deserves."
I smiled. "Yes, Lady."
Lovina took me to her study and, on a beautifully painted map of the country, pointed to a spot on the flanks of Mount Baratok overlooking Lake Baratok.
"This is absurd," I said, forgetting myself. "It's barely a three day's ride from Castle Ravenloft. He would not be such a fool as to live so close to - to Strahd."
She stiffened, her lips thinning at my lack of manners. In this case, she had the superior ranking and was entitled to a more respectful behavior from me.
Lord Vasili bowed slightly. "Forgive me, Lady, but I - "
"Never mind. Look at this map." She pulled out a detailed rendering of Baratok itself. It bore the name of every village and valley, cliff and cleft. She indicated a small rectangle representing a building of considerable size perched high on its northwestern spur, right at the border.
My spirits sank. "A monastery? You're certain?" From my point of view, Leo could not have picked a worse place for me to find him.
"I saw him. This month I was invited as a guest to their Festival of the White Sun. I was introduced to some of the residents who live there. They have students, artists, scholars - he was one of them, going under the name of Henrik Steinman."
"And you recognized him after all these years?"
She'd expected some doubt. "Yes, I was but a child then, but there are certain sights, certain images that are burned into my mind. I remember Leo standing over us and my being too afraid to look at his face, so I fastened my eyes on a gold chain he was wearing. Hanging from it was a pendant in the shape of a roaring lion. It had ivory teeth and ruby eyes worked into the gold. Steinman was wearing that pendant. He'd had it remade into a broach, but there cannot be another like it."
"If that is so, why keep something so identifiable? And why would he wear it if he knew you would be there?"
"I couldn't say. Perhaps he'd forgotten, or he may have thought I was too young to remember."
"Or it may be the wrong man."
"Then that is something you must determine for yourself, but I know the old man I saw was Leo."
And I was hoping she was mistaken. A monastery... the thought of even going near one, much less entering it, made my belly churn. Leo had most certainly realized the exact nature of my change that night. What better place of protection could he find from a creature like me than a house of holiness? It was also the very last place in Barovia where I would look for him.
"How long has he been there?"
"Several years, on and off. As a visiting dignitary, part of my duties included exchanging greetings with the lot of them, and I used it to ask questions. He was vague, of course, and I could not appear overly interested in him, or he'd become suspicious. I put the same general inquiries to a number of people to cover myself."
"Good. What do you mean 'on and off'?"
"Residents are not required to stay and may come and go as they please. I got the impression he'd bred a family somewhere."
"How delightful," I said, my sarcasm matching her own. "Just what Barovia needs: another crop of traitors like himself. You don't happen to know where they might be?"
"I wish I did," she said with an expression that would have made her gods think twice about blessing her with the information. "For then would my family be perfectly avenged: a wife for a wife, children for children... with Leo watching, of course."
"Of course," I agreed. It was the polite thing to do.
For the sake of appearance, I had traveled to the Wachter lands by coach, resting in the safety of its dark interior by day, and cantering along on one of the horses by night. It was a great black conveyance, bearing my coat of arms on the doors. These alone were enough to inspire either instant fawning service from the locals or their disappearance altogether whenever I passed through a village.
Lovina offered me hospitality readily enough, but I turned it down in favor of an immediate start on the last portion of my journey. The fact that it was well after sunset was of concern to her, and I had to give assurances that darkness was a decided advantage to me on this errand. She took this to mean that I had some subtle scheme in mind and was not planning to boldly present myself to the abbot of the monastery, which was essentially correct. In fact, avoiding contact with all members of that order was a most desirable course for me to follow.
My horses were still fresh, having rested during the day and not been driven far that night, so I instructed her grooms to hitch them up to the coach again, including a saddle for one of them. It was my habit to ride with the horses rather than to drive them, the seating being considerably more comfortable. The men wondered how I managed to brake the coach, but my story that I never went fast enough to justify its use seemed to satisfy as well as amuse them. As it happened, I could control the vehicle's workings as easily as the gates to my castle, and by the same magical means, but they had no need of such knowledge.
I oversaw their work, still impatient, but only became really irked when several barking and baying hounds objected to my presence. It was a relief to mount up and be off.
The coach rattling behind me (empty but for my baggage and a long, light-proof box), I guided the horses back onto the Old Svalich Road and followed it northwest for several miles, stopping short where it forded a broad river. Past the ford it turned due west, but my goal was on this bank, a rougher road that paralleled the path of the water and would take me north toward the monastery.
Lovina had given me careful directions to follow and clear and detailed information on the lay of the land, readily answering all my questions. My final query, though, startled her somewhat.
"Have you a crypt or a place of burial here?" I already knew the answer from my past visits decades ago, but "Lord Vasili" did not.
"Yes," she said, her wonderment extremely plain on her face. "We have a cemetery just south of the main house."
"With a mausoleum?"
"And does it have room left for additional occupants?"
"Excellent." I managed to avoid explaining myself on that one and left soon after.
The road made a steady climb and leveled. I now skirted the edges of Lake Baratok, the source of the river, with the water on my left and the mountain high and brooding on my right, passing the occasional hut of a fisherman or hunter. No lights showed, though I did catch movement when a shutter was cracked to allow those within to peep out. The road was in good condition, indicating traffic was not unknown here, but for anyone to be using it after dark was highly unusual. I supposed if I went knocking on one of the doors and asked for lodging, it might even be given. This was a corner of the country I'd not been in for a very long time, after all. The peasants closer to my castle had, with justification, become a tiresomely cautious lot over the years and never voluntarily opened their doors after the sun went down.
But I was not planning to seek out sustenance just yet. In fact, when I arrived at the monastery, I wanted to be hungry.
Within an hour, I was approaching the source of the lake, a fast-flowing river that began as a spring deep within the mountain. Some long-ago builder had constructed a stone bridge here with an arch high enough to put it out of reach of the heaviest spring flood. The monks maintained it since it now was their only real link to the rest of the country. There was another road on the north side of the monastery, but that was no longer used: it led only to a dead end at the border.
When I took the coach over the bridge, the trees thinned briefly to offer me a glimpse of a vast building perched on a steep tier of rock nearly as high as that of my own home. On her state visit, Lovina had gone up by way of a series of switchbacks carved into the rock, which had served the monks for centuries.
The horses and coach could manage without too much trouble, but it suited my plans to leave them here at the base of the cliff, where they were less likely to be noticed. Guiding the horses into a stand of pines, I dismounted and listened with all my senses to the woods around us.
Almost immediately, the wolves began to howl. They knew me. All the wolves of Barovia did.
The call of their many voices was too much for me to ignore. Before another minute passed, I had joyfully assumed their form (the horses, fortunately, were well used to this) and thrown back my head to join the chorus. My four-legged brothers heard me and rushed from their places in the shadows to give greetings.
Soon I was surrounded by their slightly smaller but no less shaggy forms, the mated leaders rolling onto their backs and licking my muzzle to show their respect. Others crowded in, whining, tails tucked down, also hoping for some scrap of attention. On any other night, I might have given it, but not this one.
I rose high and changed back into a man again and, by means I knew but could not readily explain, instructed them to guard the coach until my return.
Now it, the horses, and most importantly, my box were as safe as could be expected, given the circumstances.
I delayed just long enough to obtain some necessary items from my baggage and, with these tucked securely into my clothes, wasted no time in taking on the shape of a bat.
Wings lifting me above the trees, I got my bearings and began to beat my way up to the white building on the cliff. The air became colder and the wind more pronounced, but these were nothing compared to a gradual but unmistakable external pressure pushing against me. So far I was successful in fighting it, but the closer I came to my goal, the greater my dread of reaching it. I swung far out from the face of the cliff, so that once I was actually level with the monastery, I was still a quarter-mile distant. Circling wide to the east, I lighted on the forested ground and, panting, resumed my own form once more.
Panting, I say, not because I needed to breathe, but because of the awful aura of the place. Even this far away, I could feel it thundering all around me like a great drum. I sprawled, helpless for a moment while I gathered my strength and wits to resist it. Having always possessed a strong will, I was able to do so, but not without expending quite a lot of effort.
It would not get any better for me unless I acted. From my pockets I drew out a special tinderbox and a censer holding a piece of dry dung. With the help of one, I set fire to the other and waved it in a specific pattern before me while uttering the words of power.
Not many seconds later, the pressure decreased dramatically and was soon gone altogether, i sighed and rubbed my aching temples, then put away the tinderbox and shook the censer empty, shoving it into a pocket while it was still hot. I wasn't sure how long the spell would last and had to assume every second was precious. A bat once more, I flew as fast as I could toward the sheer walls of the monastery.
Crouched in a deep shadow in the angle of a staircase, I tried to make myself small; for a man of my height, this was no easy task, and I chafed at the discomfort. Little wonder I caught the attention of a lone monk as he padded down the stairs. I'd been hoping to find such a creature. He glanced into the patch of darkness, must have seen something of me, and stopped cold to stare. I gave him no chance to do anything else, but launched up and swept him right from the steps like a leaf in the wind.
He was young and still new to his vocation, otherwise I might have had some trouble with him. As it was, I got only a negligible crack in the shins from his foot before swinging him around and locking my eyes on his. My inner desperation must have lent greater strength to the mesmerization, for despite the depth of the shadows I was able to quickly subdue his will to mine. Make no mistake, I was getting desperate. This place was far larger than I'd expected, and I had only the vaguest idea where the visitors resided. I needed an ally to help me, and though I very much would have preferred someone other than a holy man, there was no time to wait for anyone else to come along.
"Henrik Steinman - where is he?" I snarled.
The young fellow's pupils were but pinpoints, even in the dark. Looking blind, he pointed without hesitation up the stairs he'd used. Deeper into the buildings. Exactly where I did not want to go.
"Take me to him. Quickly!"
I released my grip on his shoulders, and he complied with gratifying speed. If not for my long legs and unnatural strength, I'd have been hard put to keep up with the little man. The training for monks is highly rigorous; even an acolyte often has a surprising store of energy to call upon when needed. This one was not even breathing hard when we reached the top of several long flights and trotted down a lengthy walkway on the north wall of the building. I was concerned we might be spotted by others while out in the open, but I saw no one else. It was past midnight; perhaps everyone was in bed.
The walkway, which was part of the curtain wall, overlooked a vast number of structures in the keep. Some had an obvious use, like storage or shelter for livestock; the purpose of many others I could not readily determine, nor did I really care. All I wanted was to find Leo and get out again before my protective spell wore off.
On our right, the walls dropped at least a hundred feet straight down to a narrow ledge that dipped away at a sharp angle. Several yards beyond this chasm the rock resumed again at the same level as the foundations. It may have been a naturally formed defense, as was the case for my own castle, or not. Between their prayers and ceremonies, the monks must have had some free time, and cutting away whole sections of a mountain might have been just the sort of activity they'd enjoy - so long as it could somehow be said to serve their god.
Winding out from the monastery was the north road, which had once led to the Dilisnya estates. It lent some credence to Lovina's story, for Leo's initial choice of escape might have taken him in this direction, back to his home territories. But it also provided an excellent reason to discount her claim, for Leo would know I'd look this way first and try to cut him off before he could reach safety. He may have gambled on my lack of men and the burden of responsibilities to slow me down, for that was how things had turned out. In either case, the one factor he could not have known was that the dark magic that had changed me had also changed the land. It must have been a dreadful surprise to him to reach the borders and find them... closed.
In other lands the boundaries are marked by rivers, mountains, or by an invisible line on a map in the possession of whatever lord had claimed it. In Barovia, the line was less commonplace and highly visible to all. By day or night, stretching up to the limits of vision, the edges of my realm are marked by a great wall of mist. Mile after mile, it rings the entire country without break, following the contours of peak and valley, impervious to the hottest summer sun or the fiercest winter wind. It was a familiar sight by now, but still disturbing. I was there at its birth nearly half a century ago, when it rose from the earth itself to flow in a slow spiraling dance around me and my beloved Tatyana. From that moment, the mist had expanded out to the borders of the lands I'd conquered and there stopped.
I knew back then, in the same way that I knew how to talk with wolves, that Leo would never escape Barovia.
The borders were closed. No one would cross them. No one did. No one could.
Years ago I'd made an attempt to do so, plunging into the heavy air like a reckless ship entering a fog bank. I walked in a barren land, bereft of tree and grass, and somehow, no matter how far I walked, I always found myself turned and emerging from the mist into Barovia again. Once, I'd even tied a piece of thread to a tree on the edge of the border and, by the means of this child's trick, tried to stay on a straight line after I entered. Futile. Instead of coming out on the other side and into the next land, I found myself standing a bare twenty feet from my starting point, both ends of the thread stretched taut where they vanished into the gray air.
The mist was magical, of course, and its nature occupied a good part of my many studies over the years. If magic could create it, then magic might also dispel it, but in all that time I'd not been able to discover the right incantation.
Yet another distraction from dealing with Leo.
The monk made a turn toward the keep and went down another flight of stairs. The buildings here had many windows and more doors than the others, an indication that they were used as habitations, but what I found truly striking about the area was the lighting. Iron poles had been erected at intervals along the alleys. They were about ten feet tall and each terminated at the top with a brightly glowing ball. The light, I knew, would shine day and night forever, or until the magic cast on them was canceled or destroyed. Some of the priests had gone to considerable trouble over this. But, living as they were, so close to the border, they may have found the extra light a comfort that more than justified the effort of its creation.
Much to my disappointment, my guide headed straight toward this area. I had no choice but to follow.
He led me into the alleys, and though they were laid out in an orderly pattern, crossing one another like latticework, it was their very regularity that confused me. Each door looked exactly like its neighbor, and only by means of the names painted on them could one determine the identity of the tenant.
Without help, I might have wandered here all night looking for Steinman.
The monk came to a halt before a door bearing that name. My first thought was to let him continue with whatever errand he'd been on, but if my quarry were not at home, I would need the priest's assistance again. Besides, I had come hungry; he had other uses.
"Stand to one side and do not move," I told him.
It never occurred to me to knock; I simply grabbed the handle and began to push, then arrested all movement. There was no need to announce myself to the old man by barging through the door. He might start screaming for help out of sheer surprise, and what I needed to do required that we be undisturbed for a short period. No sense in having him in hysterics and making enough noise to raise the... Never mind.
I let myself relax - quite a feat, given the circumstances - and the burden of a solid body was no longer mine. I floated upon the wind like a wisp of smoke or a tendril broken away from the border mists. A spin and dive, and I was pouring under the door, flowing silently into Steinman's room like creeping death.
Resuming shape, I caught the barest glimpse of a windowless chamber before staggering and stumbling into something that felt solid but was not. It seared my skin and tore into my lungs like acid. Instinctively I raised my arms to ward it off, but touched nothing but air... air that was... poison. I gagged and clawed at my throat, but what was choking me had nothing to do with breathing.
Every corner from floor to ceiling was filled with half-visible tracings that grew brighter as they pulled at me. The room itself was under heavy protection, or I'd have sensed the threat and been wary of entering. Signs, sigils, holy symbols from a dozen different worships covered the walls. They'd been placed there by true believers, weaving a grasping net like a spider's web, and I'd blundered right into it. My own protective spell had been severely weakened, and when it was gone... Too late.
The onslaught of the latent magic in this chamber was too much. My inner strength was insufficient to hold it off. Like a garment whipped away in a tempest, so went my spell, leaving me enfeebled and naked before the raw forces around me. The initial shock was too great to bear; I fell to my knees - right into the fiery white center of a holy sign painted on the wood floor.
It was like sinking into burning quicksand: the more I struggled against it, the harder it dragged on me. Other magic was at work as well, pushing my limbs this way and that until I was flat on my back, my arms and legs stretched to their limits; I was helpless, unable to fight by gesture or word.
No voice of darkness held me this time and mocked my innermost desires. This was a different sort of force than that which had come to me decades ago. I was bound by sheer impersonal power now, not struck immobile by pain, though there was pain enough.
And as I lay there, straining against invisible bonds, I felt myself thrown back to that moment in the dining hall, my body weak and torn by many wounds as Leo Dilisnya came to stand over me. It seemed to be happening again, for a man of his height and build came near and peered down. He was not the old man that Lovina described, nor the young one I remembered, but rather the young one with only ten more years of life imprinted on his pale face. Was this Leo's son?
He stared for a long moment, then said, "Hail, Strahd, Lord of Barovia."
I knew for certain, then, for never would I forget the mocking timbre of his voice. Lovina had been right. Despite appearances, this was Leo Dilisnya.
"I've waited ages for you to come," he continued. "It took Lovina long enough to get you here."
Could she have been his - ? No, impossible. She'd have sooner strangled one of her own grandchildren as help Leo. His dupe, perhaps? That was more likely.
He made a gesture, muttering words I almost recognized. The unseen bonds holding me grew stronger, snaking over my limbs, sinking in and freezing fast like a tree root clutching hard at the earth.
"Stop," I whispered, hardly able to speak for the pain.
He paused and smiled. "That's good." He walked over to one corner and lifted up a long pole that I first took to be a walking staff. It was carved with words of power that glowed to my heightened sight. They writhed all down its length, moving as he moved. One end was blackened, charred by fire for strength. It came to a very sharp point.
"How you do stare," he said. "But what else is there for you?"
"How - ?" I asked, hoping he would explain himself.
He was more than willing. "Did you think I spent all this time skulking in holes in dread that the terrible Lord Strahd would find and kill me? You must have.
Arrogance was ever a failing with you. A good ruler should not hold too much of that quality. It clouds his judgment."
"Waited... for me... to come?"
"There's a difference between waiting and expecting, Strahd. I've had years to prepare for you. I put it to good use, to good work, studying the Art. I'm as much a master as you, now. What have you done? Frightened a few peasants with your walking corpses? Drained the blood from any wenches that took your fancy?
Yes, I've kept up with gossip about 'the devil Strahd.' Devil, indeed. You've wasted yourself. If I'd had your abilities, I'd have put them to more profitable use."
Had I been in a strategically better position, I might have offered an appropriate return comment to that.
"I suppose you pictured yourself just walking in and smothering me like a candle. What had you to fear from one old man, you thought? All you expected to worry about was getting into this place. It's that arrogance again."
My eyes fixed hard on the ceiling as I tried to concentrate. It was also painted with symbols, glowing with the force only true faith can impart. Leo could not have put them there, I was sure. His faith was in himself; he had none to spare for the gods. However, he was an expert at lies and must have spun a pretty tale to the many obliging holy people who had done the work. He'd have been careful to choose the ones with equal shares of belief and naivete, avoiding those who might ask awkward questions about such an elaborate project.
They'd been thorough; there was not a single niche in all the room that offered any respite for me. Very well. Do without.
He poked me in the ribs with the staff. I ignored him, but could concentrate for only a few seconds. The destructive spell latent in the wood was too disruptive to my thoughts. "None of that for you, now. I can tell when you try to summon magic, so don't even bother."
My summoning wasn't magic, though, but something older, more dangerous. Had it worked? I tried to sense it, but there was so much power running through the room, I couldn't tell.
"You should have died that day we entered the castle. It would have been so much better. I've always wondered... how did you know?"
I said nothing.
"No harm in telling me now. Who warned you?"
"Alek," I grated out.
"Yes, of course, but who warned Alek?"
Keep him busy. "Soldier... named Vlad."
His brows pinched. "Vlad? But I'd killed him."
"You - ?"
"He overheard some things he shouldn't. I thought I'd killed him, anyway. There was so much going on during that last battle I must have gotten careless and rushed things. So he lived long enough to..." He shook his head with disgust. "All my plans thrown off and spoiled because I was in too much of a hurry to see the job through. Well, Lord Strahd, the death I'd planned for you is fifty years late in coming, but catching you up at last."
Had it worked? I thought I felt movement beyond the door, but it might have been only wishful thinking.
"Trying for... the lordship again?" I gasped out, wanting - needing him to talk.
"Oh, yes. I'd never given up on that. You've been a help to me, did you know?
You crept about Castle Ravenloft with your stinking toys and stayed out of sight, so it was easy enough to spread rumors about you. Nothing really awful, of course, like the truth of what you'd become, but the sort of stories to keep the fear alive. Have you heard them? My favorite is the one about how you murdered your brother, drove his bride to her death, and then killed all the wedding guests the same night. That's quite a lot of work for one man, don't you think? Laughable, but the peasants believe it. They say the mists at the border are part of your punishment, to keep you imprisoned until a hero comes along to slay you and set the people free."
"And you are to be... that hero?"
He smiled. The magic played around his body like glittering smoke. That was what had slowed his aging. He must have used some sort of masking spell on himself when he'd talked to Lovina, insuring that he appear to be just what she'd expected: an old man. He might have even used the lion-shaped broach to jog her memory - or implant one. Such experiments were theoretically possible. If so, then he was as powerful as he claimed and thus extremely dangerous to me.
"How will you do it?"
"I don't think you need to worry about that. You'll be dead - truly dead - after all. So will Lovina and her brood. They're the only other threat to me here." He raised the pole and placed the point against my breast. Shutting his eyes, he murmured another spell.
He broke off without rancor. "Of what?"
"The land... changed... with me. You have the Art. You must feel it."
He paused to think. "Must I?"
" 'I am the land.' Remember?"
"I recall watching you perform an old rite. The symbolism was obvious enough, but don't expect me to believe there's more to it than that."
"I am the land. Destroy me and - "
Leo laughed. "I destroy the land? That's like saying the tree will die when you kill the bird nesting in it. Really, Strahd, you're not that important."
"The magic makes it so. You must realize."
He was not convinced, but that was to be anticipated. All I'd wanted was some time, and he'd given it to me. The door was slowly, soundlessly drifting open. I strove hard to look at Leo and not the small dark figure coming up behind him.
"You must... realize..."
"You never were a liar, Strahd, so there might be something to it, but then you'd say anything right now. I suppose I'll just have to find out the truth the hard way." He lifted the pole and set himself, but before he could plunge it into my heart, the monk seized a fistful of Leo's hair with one hand and, with a hard pull to expose the neck, smashed the other into his windpipe.
Leo gagged and dropped like a stone. The pole clattered over my knees and rolled away.
The power holding me... diminished.
Not by much. I was still held fast by the great symbol on the floor, but without Leo's additional magic pressing on me, I was able to find the strength to fight it.
Free the arms... push with the elbows... twist and heave: I squirmed like a dying insect to the edge of the circle. It was exhausting. The lines making up the symbol seemed to drain me, drain my will to fight. They covered every inch of my body, anchoring me to the floor. As I tore up a portion of the pattern and moved, it replanted itself all over again. The lines cut and burned, razoring into my flesh, sinking in down to the bone, yet not drawing blood. Each motion made it worse, but lying still made it no better, and I dared not lie still.
Half desperation, half exasperation prompted me to throw another silent command at the monk, who stood unmoving over my writhing form. Responding more slowly than my other servants, he finally stooped, grabbed my wrists, and dragged me clear of the circle.
It was enough. I crawled, but it was on my own. I was free only of the symbol on the floor, though, not from all the others. And Leo had recovered enough to cough out a word and augment it with a protective gesture. Whatever magic he used struck me with sufficient strength to almost knock me back into the symbol again. Had I been standing, it might have worked. Instead, the buffeting hitched me up against the monk, nearly sending him over.
No magic would work for me here, but something more basic might. The staff was just within my reach now; I grabbed it.
It was like holding a live coal. The agony shot up my arm and lanced into my brain. Ignore. Ignore and... Unbidden, the old drills of training returned to me. A soldier I'd been, and a soldier I would remain, despite the passage of years. The staff was a fighting weapon in my hands, and I knew well how to use it, despite the pain. I swung it hard to the side, slamming it into Leo's arm before he could form another spell, then rammed the blunt end into his belly. He doubled over, and I raised it one last time, cracking it down on the back of his skull. He dropped and moved no more.
My hand... I shook it loose and the staff clattered away. There was a black and smoking scar where I'd gripped it, and the stench of scorched wood and meat clogged the air. I could hardly see straight for the pain. All I wanted was escape before I succumbed. By getting away from this deathtrap of a room, I might ease some of the pressure. The door seemed impossibly far away, though. I crept toward it, inch by inch, the weariness so great that it was beyond me to even silently command the monk's help.
And then I crept over the threshold.
It was like stepping from an ice cold lake into freezing winter wind. Both will kill: the difference lay only in the time needed to do it. It was enough of a respite for me to recover a bit. I hugged my injured hand, braced my back against the wall of the building, and tried to ignore the unfamiliar feeling of fear that prickled at my mind. My presence in the monastery alone was not going to destroy me - before that happened I'd dissolve into mist and let the wind carry me to safety - but there was a good chance I would be noticed. Those holy people capable of doing so would certainly have sufficient training and knowledge to successfully deal with me. I had to leave, quickly, but not without Leo.
If he were still alive. I hoped so; after this, I would not get another chance at him.
Bring him to me, I told the monk, whispering the words into his mind.
A pause, then a grunt, and he was pulling Leo's limp body from the room. I glanced fearfully at the other doorways and windows, suddenly worried we might be watched. They appeared to be empty, but I wasn't disposed to trust anything in this place.
Leo still breathed, albeit hoarsely and with difficulty. He was partially conscious, but that was of no matter to me, not if I could get to him. The monk dragged him closer, closer, until my own hands reached out, and I fell on him as a man dying of thirst falls on a pool of water.
This was the reason I'd not fed before coming. I wanted him dead, but I'd promised Lovina he would pay for his past crimes, and I preferred to keep my word. For this man I'd planned something very special.
Hauling his head back much the same way as had the monk, I bent over his throat and bit hard. No need to worry about causing him pain. Pain for him meant an added boon for Lovina. His blood rushed up, but long practice prevented me from wasting a single drop. I enjoyed the deep drink, reveled in it, took strength, heart, and hope from it. My hand stopped hurting as the blackened flesh went red, then pink, then assumed its normal pale tone. Whole again. The hideous pressure of the monastery, pressure that weighed on me from all sides, did not lessen, but I was better able to withstand its sickening effect.
Toward the end of my drink, Leo fully wakened.
I drew back so he could see me. His eyes fastened on my lips, my teeth. I licked at the blood there and took much joy at the change in his expression, turning from bewilderment to utter terror when he realized it was his blood I was so freely drinking.
He choked on his rising bile and struggled feebly, a pointless exercise, but instincts die hard. I held him easily and resumed my meal, this time with his fear adding a piquant flavor to the blood. It lasted until the very end, when his laboring heart finally fluttered to a stop, and he lay unmoving in my arms.
The look of absolute, wide-eyed horror and revulsion frozen on his face would doubtless prove very satisfactory to Lovina when she saw it.
I rose, still rather shakily, and fixed my eye on the monk, ordering him back into the room again. He obeyed, though I questioned his ability to find what I wanted without my direct supervision. Ah, well, I'd just have to trust to luck.
There was nothing, not even the promise of finding Leo's spell-books, that could persuade me to enter that hideous trap again.
The fellow emerged with an armload of scrolls and tomes, some of which bore protective holy signs. I discarded those and scrabbled quickly through the rest as he made a second trip for more. Pocketing a few that looked promising was the work of but a moment. Fortunately, these were small; Leo had probably made them that way so as to more easily carry them when he traveled.
"Any others?" I demanded.
The monk, impassive through all of this, shook his head.
"Take me to the south wall."
He started off immediately. I hoisted Leo over one shoulder and followed, up more stairs, of course. Without magical protection around me, the climb was considerably harder than before. My feeding helped, but it wasn't the same as a spell. A soldier may have plenty of strength to use his sword, but without a shield to ward off an enemy's blows he wears down that much faster.
We reached the curtain wall. I peered over the edge and grimaced at the long drop into darkness. To a bat, it was nothing, but I needed to remain in human form for this last part.
"Return to your business," I ordered the monk. "Forget everything that's happened from the moment you saw me tonight."
Without so much as a blink to indicate he understood, he turned on his heel and marched off. Before he was quite out of sight, I was tying Leo's wrists tightly together with his own belt. This done, I looped his joined hands over my head and one arm. This put all of his weight on my left shoulder, but I'd just have to put up with it. Carefully, conscious of my need to maintain balance, I eased over the edge of the wall and began to descend.
It was anything but simple. His weight constantly pulled at me, threatening to pluck me from the wall each time I lifted a hand or foot to move down. Despite my ability to cling to the smoothest of surfaces, I slipped more than once, always with my feet. I might have fared better without my boots, but it was too late now to remove them.
Halfway down the cliff and needing to take a rest, I briefly considered dropping Leo, but decided it might prove too injurious to his corpse. I wanted to have something identifiable to present to Lovina; also, if the damage was too great, my final plan for him would be impossible to carry out. The delight I would take in that compelled me to put up with the present inconvenience a little longer.
One hand beneath the other, palms flat to the stone, boots scraping and sliding when my attention wandered, I went down another ten... twenty... fifty yards. Leo's body shifted with each move, tugging this way and that. The leather knot of his belt dug into my shoulder, rubbed the thin skin over my collarbone raw, made my neck ache from the strain. All my muscles felt it, fought it. I wasted energy cursing him.
Another hundred yards. Rest. I could probably drop him from this height without... no. It wouldn't do. He had to pay. Fate had taken away the one woman I would ever love, but Leo had deprived me of nearly everything else. All of it would have been lost but for my change. Had that not happened, he'd have killed us anyway, including Tatyana. Her death had been bad enough, but had things gone differently and she'd lived, the treatment she might have gotten from his men... My old anger - for this was not a new idea to me - gave me strength to finish the descent.
For all those that had died that night in my name, he would pay. For what might have happened to my beloved, he would pay dearly.
Most dearly, indeed.
My feet struck a ledge, then shards of rock, then level ground. I pushed his arms over my head and let him fall. It was wonderful to simply lean back on the base of the cliff and wait for the trembling fatigue to work itself out of my limbs. When I was ready, I sent forth a call for my horses to come to me. Almost instantly their guards, the wolves, began howling. Soon the lot of them would be here, and I could start back to the Wachter estate. I wouldn't make it tonight, but not long after sunset tomorrow Lovina would see my return.
Leo's body had rolled a little way off, ending face up. Something had changed about him. Walking over and looking close, I beheld the ravaged features of an old, old man. He looked much like his father, Gunther, now.
The magic had left him.
A day and a night later I stood with Lovina and looked at an unmarked square of stone set in the wall of the mausoleum she'd mentioned. This was a new structure, no more than twenty years old and with only two occupants in it, honored retainers of the Wachter house. It was a pity to have to defile their peace, but the peace of the indifferent dead is held most in the mind of the living, and Lovina was untroubled over the disturbance.
She glanced sideways at me, which I pretended not to notice. When I'd arrived earlier that evening bearing Leo's body, she'd been full of vindictive approval, but that had worn off quickly enough. Leo's face, still frozen in its terrible expression, told part of the tale of his death, but she had demanded more details and I had politely denied them. Her conclusion was that Leo had not suffered as much as she'd expected, and that I was unwilling to admit I'd bungled the job.
"My work is not yet finished, Lady."
"What's left to be done, then?" she asked, unable to hide her disappointment or curb her bitter tone.
"You will see. Now I must ask that he be interred according to my strict instructions."
"Interred? I'd rather hang him from the gates and watch him rot."
"Indeed, Lady, but I have my orders from my lord Strahd..."
With this reminder, she gave in, somewhat grudgingly, and things were carried out. The estate mason was called in along with others to assist, and long before dawn's approach, Leo had been pushed into one of the crypts, a heavy stone was laboriously shoved into the opening, and the cement troweled thickly into place.
"Beg pardon, my lord," said the mason, "but shouldn't this gentleman have been put in a coffin first?"
"He was no gentleman," I informed him.
Wisely deciding not to pursue the matter, he bowed, gathered his tools and assistants, and left. Quickly.
Lovina stole another glance my way; this time I met it.
"Why?" she demanded. That single word encompassed a dozen or more questions, none of which I was quite yet ready to answer.
"You will know why tomorrow night."
"Your patience will be amply rewarded, Lady. In the meantime, I suggest you go on to your bed, spend the day as usual, and meet me here tomorrow after the sun is down. Until then, I cannot tell you more."
It might have been easier had I concluded our association tonight and spared both of us this sort of wait, but the cement needed time to properly set. Better to err on the side of good sense and try her patience a bit, than face a miscalculation and invite disaster.
Lovina was not happy, but gathered her skirts to go back to the house. She paused briefly, expecting me to follow.
I offered a bow. "Forgive me, Lady, but I must stay here for the night and the day as well."
Her eyes narrowed. "For what?"
"Those are my orders."
A silence. Quite a long one. "Is it to do with magic?" she finally asked. She tried to sound collected, but some people find it difficult to be at ease on the subject, and she was one of them.
I spread my hands in a deprecating manner and smiled. She could draw whatever conclusions she chose from that as long as they remained erroneous.
They must not have been too pleasant; she finally left, not so quickly as her men, but with no less determination to get away. I continued to smile after her, partly out of admiration and partly out of relief. She'd grown into a handsome, interesting woman, a credit to her father. Out of memory for him I would not touch her, but it was good for us both that she was gone. Paying honor to a dead comrade was a laudable custom for me, but such civilized manners can be forgotten in the face of deadly hunger.
I resolved to hunt very much elsewhere for my remaining time abroad, and did.
Upon awakening the next night, I sensed a human outside my sanctuary and determined it was Lovina waiting for my arrival at the mausoleum. As I'd taken one of its empty chambers to rest in for the day, her early presence made things somewhat awkward, but not impossible. I should have told her to stay at the house until I came for her, but when the thirst is hard upon me, I cannot think of everything. In the end, I chose to leave as I'd entered, as mist, sieving through the many cracks in the unsealed stone of the crypt. It took a goodly time, for I was careful to spread myself very thin so she would be less likely to notice me. I curled to the roof and flowed out into the open air, assuming my own shape only when I was well away from the structure.
My return did not need any stealth, and I walked up boldly, making more noise than usual - in other words, performing a credible imitation of a living man.
Lovina was oblivious to my efforts, which was what I desired, after all.
She stood in the doorway, holding a lantern high to guide my steps. It had panels of red glass, throwing out a soft red light that gave illumination but would not destroy one's night vision. Courteous of her, though pretty much wasted on me. My eyes were always well accustomed to the dark. She said nothing as I approached, but gave an odd little start when the light struck me. Perhaps my hair had been disarrayed and the points of my ears were showing. I'd deal with it later, then.
"This way," I murmured, brushing past her.
We went to Leo's crypt. The cement was as solid as any rock by now and I checked it carefully for openings. There were none, thankfully. The mason had done an excellent job. After running a hand admiringly over the smooth joinings, I pressed an ear to the stone.
Yes... it was just beginning.
Lovina saw the change in my face. "What is it?"
"Come," I invited. "Listen."
She set down the lantern and also put her ear on the stone. Her hearing was no match for mine, but soon, when the sounds within started to grow, both fear and wonder took her. She straightened and stared at me.
"What have you done?"
"Fulfilled my lord Strahd's wishes and your own, Lady. Leo Dilisnya has just awakened to his true punishment."
"Is he alive?"
I gave her a hard look. "No. Nor is he really dead."
She made the protective sign of her faith. Its power buffeted against me like a gust of wind, but I'd braced for it and held my place.
"Tell me what - "
I raised my hand. "Just listen."
Reluctantly now, she resumed that activity, as did I. The little stirrings I'd heard but moments ago had developed into louder and more frantic thuds and cries. Before long he began to scream. I could imagine him futilely beating the stone sides, throwing his body against the ceiling and floor, stamping his feet on one end while pushing his hands at the other. No matter that he had the strength of the undead, he would not be able to shift the stone. No matter that he could change himself into mist, he would not find the least crack or pinhole to pour through and escape. No matter that he would soon use up his air, he had no need to breathe.
No matter, no matter... He went suddenly quiet. Thinking, probably. If he'd studied the subject - and by the thorough way in which he'd trapped me earlier, I knew he had - he would be considering all his knowledge now. He would know his strengths and weaknesses, but knowing is not the same as actually experiencing. He would feel the power of his changed body, feel the rage coursing through him as well as the savage joy of his dark rebirth, but most of all, he would feel the overwhelming, gut-tearing, blind madness of hunger.
"Strahd?" he called, his voice distant through the stone.
I said nothing.
"You're there. I know you're out there. I know you hear me."
Lovina hissed, "That's him. I know his voice."
I nodded, thinking I'd have to make her forget this since she'd heard my name.
"Strahd, you must let me out," Leo calmly pleaded. "You made me, you must free me."
This time I laughed. "Must I?"
"Yes, yes. I am your slave. You know that. I can do nothing but what you command. You are my master."
"You said if you had my abilities, you'd have put them to better use."
"I was wrong. Forgive me, my master. I spoke in ignorance. I was a child, a foolish child. I'm changed now, I know better. Let me serve you. You'll never have a more faithful servant."
"Hoping to play upon my arrogance, Leo?"
"Noooooo!" he wailed, losing control. It was a truly terrible sound, worse than any death scream I'd ever heard in battle, enough to move a heart of iron to pity. Lovina shivered from it and looked to me with the whites showing all around her eyes.
"You wanted him to suffer, Lady. When you hear him cry, remember your mother's cries, your sisters', your - "
Her hand jerked up to cut me off. "All right! Say no more. This is what I've wished for, and the gods have granted it through you."
"Free me!" Leo shrieked.
Lovina flinched, then forced herself to remain still.
"Please, lord! I will serve you, do whatever you wish."
"Then hear my wish, Leo. Live on for as long as you may and then be damned."
A lull, then more thuds as he beat the walls. His screams were without words again. He was as far beyond human anger as the sky is beyond human touch. No matter. If he could have beaten his way out, he'd have done so by now.
Lovina whispered. "Will he die?"
"The magic will keep him alive in such a place?"
In a gesture similar to my own, she ran her hands over the cement seal. The lantern threw the twin of her movement on the wall in the form of a harsh shadow. It angled away into darkness.
Leo became quiet again.
"It's utterly black in there," I said, knowing full well that he would hear me.
"He can't see anything except the phantoms in his own mind. He has little space around him: a handspan on either side, another above his face, only twice that beyond his head and feet. And he's hungry, Lovina. He's more hungry than you've ever been in all your life. Every moment he's in there it becomes worse. It's as if one great cat is clawing at his belly to get in and a second is inside him clawing to get out. He'll be doubled over by the pain of it, but nothing will help him. He'll gnaw on his own flesh, drink his own blood, but nothing will help him. He'll scream and beg and burn his tongue, calling on the names of the gods, but nothing will help him. He'll beat his head on the stone, hoping to kill himself, but will fail. Only the hunger will kill him. It will consume him like a slow fire consumes the wax of a candle."
Her voice was steady and soft. "How long will it take?"
We heard a long, sobbing groan from within.
"When three months have passed, come here in the full light of morning and have your men cut the crypt open again. Take out what you find there and burn it, then scatter the ashes."
She shut her eyes, lifting her chin a bit, and drew in a breath of cold air. A chill had entered this house of the dead... and the undead. "A month?"
"Perhaps a little more."
Opening her eyes again, she held them on mine. "Then I shall be here for as long as it takes. I shall be here and listen to him the whole time. I shall listen to him die and pray for peace to come at last to those he murdered that night."
I touched her cheek with one light finger. "And to those he was unable to murder, Lady."
"Yes. To them as well." She did not back away from me, but did stoop to pick up the lantern. Our skin and clothes were washed in red, echoing the color of its glass panes. "I have another memory of that night, of Lord Strand. I pretended to be asleep - or maybe I was asleep and only dreamed it, but I recall my father opening a door and Strand sweeping into the room. He was a tall man with black hair, and his eyes burned like hellfire. He was drenched from head to toe with blood. It covered him then as it seems to cover us now."
"It must have been very frightening for you."
"I was not frightened. Not then or now."
The silence stretched long between us, and I debated on what I should do next, stifle her memory or... She shook herself and gave out a sigh. "Well, Lord Vasili, you must have great patience to listen to talk about a childhood dream."
"A dream?" I questioned.
"A dream," she said firmly. "A dream out of the troubled past."
"My hope is that the past will not trouble you further."
She glanced at the smooth stone of the crypt.
"I think not. Not ever again. Please let Lord Strand know that I and my family shall ever be grateful to him for his justice."
Lord Vasili smiled... and bowed low.
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