• Holy Curses

    The four soldiers were riding home. They had been impressed into the king's army six years ago. When they survived being used as front line fodder they were trained as real fighters. Although they all fought differently they fought as brothers and sisters from the same village. They could not wait to get home and resume their interrupted lives. They craved peace again. They had had enough bloodshed. So much so that even though they had been warned that the Mountain pass was snowed in and impossible to cross until they next spring thaw they tried to cross anyway.

    Rood was the youngest of the four but he led the group. He had been promoted by the army beyond the other three but this is not why they followed his lead. He had proven himself in battle after battle as a very smart fighter. He wore no armor and carried finesse weapons. He never seemed to be tired by the end of any engagement and his kills seemed effortless. Rood knew a little magic and in these troubled and miserable times a little magic went a long way. Rood thought to protect them from the elements with this magic and at the base of the mountain his magic kept them warm. However, mother nature's breath proved to be a life leaching freeze. The magic kept them alive for now but the cold bit and gnawed at them.

    "We are lost Rood, we must turn back." Leeta was always of the opinion that a fair fight was idiocy. She always preferred to stab you in the back and finish a fight before it began than to test her skill against another warrior. She believed it was better to flee and fight another day. Rood expected her to break first but this was not a life or death fight. This was an attempt to defy nature and cross her hellish cold mountains. It truly was impassable. Home would have to wait another season. Rood nodded and the four of them turned about and were about to descend the mountain in disappointment.

    Brok was rear guard and he called for a halt immediately. A black garbed slip of a woman approached carrying a woven basket. The blizzard obscured her foot falls as soon as she cleared them so it was impossible to tell from where she had come. She wore no thick yak hides as they did. By all rights she should be dead if she followed them from the village.

    The three of them spread out, instinctively knowing the range of each others weapons. Leeta snuck around along the rocks behind the woman under the cover of wind driven snow.

    The basket steamed at the corners from some unknown heat and she clutched her cloak at her throat. This constricted the cloak around her features. Blue lips and a well defined jaw line were all Rood could make out before she spoke. "There is a monastery back there. Please come out of the wind before you catch your deaths." Rood nodded to the woman and she turned to lead them. She paused and waited for Leeta to move out of the way. The girl ducked her head so that she might look closer at the ground and led them back the way they had come. Rood was still leery of their guide. They had not seen a monastery or road or pass of any sort. The locals had not mentioned any such place when questioned about crossing the mountains. Surely they would have known about such a place.

    True to her word she took them to a place concealed by slanting rock. From a distance all one could see was a gray stone slab especially in driving snow. However, once one neared a white sliver of driving snow could be seen at the opposite end of a narrow crack in the mountains. The four of them squeezed through weapons scraping pommels and furs dragging against rough protrusions. When they emerged they were in the middle of a huge stone ringed snow covered valley. The air was just as chill as in the pass but here there was no wind to slice them and steal their warmth. At the top of a central hill lay a large monastery and they followed the girl inside.

    The walls and ceiling were painted black and were composed of master wood work. Black pews lined two sides of this chapel and at the forefront there was an altar. The girl left the basket "Help yourselves. It is warm bread. I shall go start a fire and ready your rooms." Rood had no time to protest or ask any questions before she was gone down a black stone corridor to the left of the altar.

    Rood, Leeta, Brok, and Nathan all sat removed their masks and head gear. They were warm with exertion. None disrobed their furs though. There was no fire here and the warriors knew well that their current warmth was simply the absence of the excess cold they felt before. As soon as their bones cooled they would need the furs to remain warm. They all caught their breath and Brok took a bun from the basket and ate it noisily. He had trouble chewing quietly with his two bottom tusks always protruding. His orcish blood meant that he had to eat often. Meat sated him the longest but orcs ate anything. The other three were used to it and paid no attention. Rood had time to look around and noticed the dust accumulated on everything. It seemed that no one had bothered to clean any part of the chapel in months maybe even years. The stained glass windows lining the walls in this chamber were also thick with cobwebs especially around small portals of missing colored glass. Birds watched them from the rafters and corners. Bird droppings lined the base of the walls and covered some of the pews where nests could be seen above.

    "Did she mean for us to follow?" Nathan peered down the dark hallway she had taken and listened with his left ear. "I hear nothing." Nathan prayed to his sun god and laid a prayer among the four. He was the most devout keeper of the religion of their village but he could cast no divine spells. Still they entered no battle, dungeon, or mission without his blessing.

    "Okay Brok, stay here and see what you can find that might be useful if we have to leave but don't touch anything yet. I don't want to offend our hosts. Leeta stay with Brok and see if you can tell what religion these people practice." Leeta grumbled and pulled off her gloves that she might be able to turn some of the pages on the hymm and devotional books scattered about.

    "Urgo Blak" a light appeared above Rood and illuminated the stone hallway before them. Nathan fell in behind Rood and drew his two short swords. The blades were menacing and the knuckle guards bore spikes for punching. The pommel too was spiked for stabbing. Nathan carried the main hand weapon at the ready and the off hand downward. The main weapon was for parrying, feinting and slicing. The offhand was for removing shields, stabbing, and with it's polished blade; a mirror for rear guard. If anything moved at them from behind Rood's spell would cast a light upon it and Nathan would see it in the blade's reflection.

    They came to a stone crossway. To the left and right there were stone arched halls. Lining the walls were stone doorways with no doors. Monastic cells. No sound or movement could be discerned. "Hello.......my lady?" No response. They moved further into the church. The next room was a large open space lined with tables and benches. It was a dining hall. There was the same thick dust on everything everywhere they looked. Behind them there were foot prints and the tips of their capes and cloaks disturbed the dust. But they could find no trace of the nun that had lead them there. They pressed on. Finally they came to the kitchen. The back door was open and the cook fire here was long extinguished. No fresh bread was baked here.

    Rood went to close the back door and noticed four men in the distance standing in full arms and armor. They did not move however and Rood breathed again when he saw that they were statues at the four corners of a small cemetery. Rood closed the door and looked about. More dust, a pantry door and a cellar stair well were all he found. No nun. Nathan sheathed his weapons and opened a sack of nuts and began to eat. “Was an angel. She knew we would die in the pass and brought us here. Yet there is no evidence of her dwelling here. I say an angel.” Rood wasn't convinced. “Don't smile so soon. This place does not look as if it was shut down and stowed properly. It looks more like it was simply left behind one day.” Rood couldn't think of any good reasons for that. There were plenty of bad reasons though.

    Roods light expired. He could still see from the small circular windows in the kitchen and he tossed wood into the cooking cairn. with another minor spell he ignited the fire. The entire pile combusted instantly as if it had been soaked in peat. Rood had to step back when it lit to avoid losing hair. Nathan dropped the sack of nuts and palmed his weapons but did not draw. He had felt a vibration with the ignition of the fireplace. They all smelled ash suddenly and Brok began to spit and sputter in the chapel.

    Leeta looked up from her studies to find Brok vomiting black ichor. She ran to the bread basket and found charred loaves of old dessicated bread. It was as if it had been there forever rotting and hardening into black briquettes. Brok was usually a pale green skin tone from his lineage. Leeta yelled for Rood and Nathan down the dark hallway then ran to Brok to catch him as his legs failed him. He was a pale white except for the black chunks still sticking to his lips and cheeks. Leeta tried to get him to drink from her wine skin but the wine simply dribbled off his lips. He was unconscious but still breathed. “That witch!” Leeta hissed between clenched teeth. She drew her daggers and slid them between two filing stones sewn into her leather armor at her legs. The stones were porous and could absorb liquids and poisons and such. If she stabbed anyone with them soon they would feel the sting of poison in their blood as well as the blade's cut. Leeta took to the shadows and waited for something to try and claim Brok or herself.

    Rood and Nathan drew their weapons and ran for the chapel. Rood was faster as he wore no armor. Nathan wore chain mail and metal boots, helm, and gauntlets. In a charge he always fell behind quickly. Rood was in the chapel when Nathan was crossing the monastic cells and something caught his good ear. Nathan put his back against a wall and stared down the hallway that the noise came from. He wasn't positive but he thought he heard a baby cry out. Seconds passed and then he heard it again. Nathan was good hearted and though he would normally be more careful he could not deny the cries of the innocent. Nathan looked about and took an unlit torch from a sconce and ran for the kitchen to light it. The fire still raged and the torch lit quickly. Nathan ran back again and checked both hallways before entering the row of quite cells.

    Rood entered the chapel and panicked for a second. He realized he'd lost Nathan. Brok and Leeta were no where to be seen. Rood could not see Leeta concealed in the shadows around Brok. Brok was on the ground breathing shallowly behind the pews. Leeta saw Rood but dared not give away her position if they were being stalked. Rood looked to the other door leaving the chapel and found the dressing rooms of the clergy. They were empty and undisturbed. Leeta worried after him going into unexplored rooms alone but felt the need to be a living trap to whatever poisoned Brok. Rood found a stone spiral staircase and climbed it with a rapier drawn and ready. He cocked his head up and watched for anything being thrust or thrown down at him from above. No attacks came.

    He entered the top floor and found an opulent study. The dome top of the monastery was this chamber. Its many faceted windows shone down snow light upon the many books lining the walls. A chandelier refracted the light and sent many colored globules floating about the room. There was a door between shelves and behind that a master bedroom. It too was opulent and well kept except for the dust. “No Leeta, no Brok.” He whispered to himself. Frustrated and angry Rood turned to go downstairs and then saw an infant on the study table. It was in a white sheet between a pile of scroll cases and a stack of books. Rood was sure it wasn't there when he passed it going in. He was looking for his friends and any sign of life and it was not there. Still it lay there cooing and looking about the room in curiosity helpless and alone. Rood came closer to it and felt a deep chill in his bones. The winter gear was no protection from this cold. Rood knew that if the baby was not there before it must not really be there now. If it's purpose was to distract him then he would deny its purpose. He left the child and moved to descend the stairs again. Rood never turned his back on the infant as he began to back down the stairs away from it. At the first sign of retreat the baby stood like a goblin and hissed at him with needle sharp teeth exposed. The baby's eyes burned red with hatred of life. It leapt at him with a hideous shriek. Rood still did not know what it was that attacked him and if weapons could even harm it or not so he side stepped and ran down the stairs to find Nathan. Whatever this thing was it was unholy and Nathan might be able to shed some light on it's origins or know how to kill one. Rood was shaken by the ambush to be sure but when the baby hit the wall with a wet glopping sound he thought for sure the creature had killed itself. Rood turned back only to see the infernal toddler chasing him by scampering at him along the walls. It grinned with wicked glee as it played a lethal game of chase with him. It's labored breathing sounded like the raspy cackling death throws of a pneumatic nonogenarian in her death throws.

    Leeta heard the creatures breathing and giggling before she saw Rood enter the chapel and begin to vault pews. Rood ran beneath her and collapsed to avoid stomping on Brok when he got to the main doors of the chapel. He could not retreat any longer if it meant leaving his friend helpless on the floor. He guessed that whatever chased him did this to Brok as well. Rood took vial of holy water form his belt and readied to toss it if the devil child followed. He could not see it anywhere. He crouched to look beneath the pews and then sped to either side of the church and could not see it on the floor or either of the walls. Leeta saw the creature crawl beneath her on one of the rafters directly above Brok and Rood. She couldn't believe what she was seeing and her breath caught in her throat. The creature stiffened and turned to look at her surprised. Without thinking she stuck both daggers into the creatures eyes. The devil baby cried out and clawed her gloved wrists and hands. The leather was thick and had lead weights sewn into them so they could double as fist loads. Even so, the creatures claws penetrated and hurt Leeta. Leta released her hold on the cross beam with her legs and fell towards a very surprised Rood.

    Rood was torn between catching Leeta and shielding Brok. At the last moment he caught her and heard her lose her breath “OOF!” The creature cried like a normal baby now and flailed helplessly on the floor next to Brok. Rood and Leeta regained their feet and watched it in amazement. Leeta stepped forward to see it more closely and the creature reverted to infernal form and moved to get up as quickly as it had upstairs. Leeta punted the vile thing through a stained glass window. It roared at them as it sailed through the air but they never heard it hit the ground outside.

    Nathan walked past the cells of absent nuns and found the infant in swaddling clothes upon a litter in the corner of a very chilly room. The infants lips and nipples were blue with cold. Nathan sheathed his sword and put the torch into a sconce in the room. He then took a blanket from the stone bed in the room and stooped to pick up the child. He lifted it and cradled the thing with both arms supporting it's weight. Nathan sat down and peered into the cold infants innocent face as it transformed into the face of a hungry devil. The babe inserted needle sharp claws into his ocular cavities and removed both eyes. Nathan screamed in agony but did not let the creature go. He did not see the creature any more so he dared not lose touch with it. Nathan crushed it's rib cage with both hands. Nathan did not see it when the creature popped both of his eyes into it's mouth and chewed rapidly as if at any moment someone would try and steal it's impromptu meal. With it's hands free it tried to claw at his hands and wrists but met only cold metal gauntlets. Nathan stood and pinned the demon child in the corner of the stone room with one hand and took the still burning torch in his other. Nathan lit the blanket and heard the child squeal. He felt the metal of his gloves begin to heat but still he did not let go. The creature still thrashed about and fought to break free. Nathan could smell his own flesh cooking but the creature would not stop trying to get away. Finally the smell of ash filled the room as the baby crumbled to ash and spent cinders all over the floor. With nothing to hang onto anymore Nathan walked in agony by memory past all the cells and turned to go to the chapel for help.

    “What the hell was that thing?” “It tried to get me to pick it up but when I came back down instead it tried to chase me down.” Nathan assumed correctly that they had finally seen him one hand along the wall and the other holding a torch. “Oh my god look at his eyes!” Feeling safe with his companions again Nathan stopped walking and slumped to his knees. The torch dropped and Nathan covered both eyes with his palms and wept out loud. “My greatest strength, was my greatest weakness!” Nathan said little after that and sank into despair.

    Rood got them all moving again. He broke apart a pew and created a litter for Brok. Nathan followed Rood towards the kitchen while pulling the litter. Leeta followed behind them as rear guard. The fire still raged in the kitchen whenever they returned. The room was warm and invited them to sleep. The floor was still very cold and Brok was laid on a preparation table. Rood scavenged among the stores in the pantry and found sealed jars of peaches and other unknown fruits. Cracking them open he tested each with one small bite and waited to see if it would devolve into poison. After an hour feeling fine he went ahead and shared with the rest. They were famished when they arrived fear was burning a hole in their stomachs. Leeta found ingredients for bread and baked some without leaven. The loaves she made were hard and tough to stomach but they were fresh and warm. Finally Rood gathered pots and pans with which to melt snow in and collected it while Leeta guarded the other two. Rood felt as if he was being watch all the while he was outside but all he could see were ravens flitting about in curiosity. They had probably never seen anyone living on these grounds before.

    When the water was ready they sat up Brok and fed him water. He began to groan and sputter but finally he drank. He woke up and spake with Nathan a while about his eyes and the days events. Then being a half-orc of little words he ate bread and fruit in noisy chomps. When he was through he said “I've slept enough. Now you sleep with your heads towards the fire. I will guard you.” Brok took his two handed axe in hand and then stood at their feet. Nathan stayed awake the longest and Brok noticed that his breathing never evened out and or got louder. “Sleep Nathan or I will knock you out.” Nathan either finally got tired or believed him because he slept shortly after.

    When they woke up Brok was still there. His eyes were menacing and he looked as if he'd seen a ghost. Leeta spoke first and Rood nodded to reinforce her concern. “What is it Brok what's the matter?” Brok pointed at the flames with his axe. “This fire place....I didn't have to throw wood into it all night. It burned hot and loud all night.” Rood reasoned that out the day before. “We've seen this before in army camps some kilns are enchanted with ever burning flames.” Brok took them all outside into the cold and they all walked around the other corner behind the kitchen. He swung his axe at a snow bank against the tall wall and the snow fell because of the vibrations. There was wood in a metal rack from the base of the building to the rooftop. It was three rows of logs deep. “What do they need so much wood for then?”

    The four of them went back inside. Rood looked into the flames and removed a large tub of thawed out water from beside the stove. “Help me with this Brok.” The two of them heaved water into the fire place and extinguished the flame as quickly as it was lit. The logs were long ago consumed and all that remained now was ashes. A low moan was heard by all of them when the flames were extinguished but none of them went to check on it. Brok kept watch on the hallway leading back into the church but made no move towards it. There weren't even any briquettes of burnt logs left in the fire place. Something was wrong with this fire place.

    Leeta acting on a hunch took out a large basket full of rotten potatoes and tossed them out into the snow. Then she took a large paddle for cooking and removing bread from the racks in the fire place. She scooped large paddle fulls of ash out of the kiln and deposited them into the basket. Then she began to shake the basket. Besides raising a large dust cloud and making a mess on the floor it revealed blackened infant bones. They weren't discernible as human remains at first but when small skulls began to come through it could not be denied.

    “There seems to be enough bones here, most likely, for two infants. Couldn't have been more than a day old.” Leeta wept a little as women are wont to do when children are involved in unthinkable crimes.

    “Well now we know the nature of the curse we've suffered. What could cause two demons to spring forth from the loins of the faithful?” Rood thought aloud not really asking anyone.

    “Who say this house is holy?” Brok asked. “I have never seen a worshiper of ravens heal anyone or raise any dead heroes. This is a black church with black beaks and feathers decorating the pews and altars. I don't know what religion it is but I don't like it.” Rood squinted in thought. “We need to know more about this religion and this curse if we are going to break it. We can't weather the blizzard in here if we have to constantly fear having our eyes ripped out in our sleep.” “Agreed.” “Aye.” “Hrmph.”

    “There is a library upstairs. The priests chambers. I didn't have a chance to look any of the writings in there as I was immediately attacked when I was there last. Perhaps together we can find some answers in there.” They party went back in as they had before with a rear guard, someone guiding Nathan, and a point guard.

    They found the library without incident. They enjoyed several hours of reading before finding themselves almost without light enough to read. “We dare not start the fire place again. Where shall we sleep this night?” Again Brok acted without consulting anyone. Taking his large axe he entered the priests private chambers and chopped the legs out from under the bed. Then he chopped the four posters and brought down the canopy. He then split the logs and made enough wood for one night's fire. “Tonight we sleep in a bed and warm ourselves from a fire that burns in a privy. An honest fire.”

    It was too late to argue so they enjoyed the fire and the bed. Again he took first watch and let the first person to wake on his own to relieve themselves before taking his turn to sleep. Just as a precaution though he removed his belt and strapped it to his head so that it's thickest point was covering his eyes and nose from his forehead to the top of his tusks. This made him snore loudly but it didn't wake anyone. They had camped with him for six years now. It was white noise that drowned out the sounds of the dying and the fitful dreams that ended so often with shrieking.

    When they woke they took the bedpans outside together. They ate the food they trusted one at a time. If the first fell ill the rest were spared. They took turns being the first to eat. It would seem a blessing at first but it was a duty to their friends. One day you would get sick and spare the other three. Others you simply ate first while it was warm. The reward was a larger portion for your risk. When they had their fill and were ready they all made their way back to the Library. Each of them took an armload of fire wood. Nathan loaded both arms with wood. They spent the rest of that day reading as well. Finally much was revealed to them.

    This church was indeed founded for a good cause. It was sanctified by a neutral deity of knowledge and magic and secrets. It was no wonder no one had heard if it. However it employed priests, nuns, and acolytes from all the good religions of the world. It's boarders were the most gifted in faith and divine talents in the world. Their job was to hide powerful magical items that were so powerful, or evil, or mysterious too that they could not be destroyed. There was supposed to be a vault somewhere on the grounds hiding just such objects. The worshipers were supposed to be the most devout from their own religions as some of these items had minds and purposes of their own. Some could steal into dreams and poison reasonable thought with suspicion and spite. Some could temp with dark enticements and intentions. The acolytes could not stay for more than a season. They came to achieve a goal and departed when they finished. Some memorized dark rituals and then destroyed the documentation about them. They became repositories for evil manuscripts so that if need ever arose for the foul magics within they could be accessed but could not be made readily available to others with bad intentions.

    For others they were sent to create clever forgeries of dark books of magic commonly reproduced within cults and black societies. Only these forgeries contained pages with power words of death. Page traps that would siphon souls. And flame traps that would incinerate the reader. These books then were put out into the black market as the real thing and through them put down dark cults before they could be born.

    This raised many different possibilities for the infant demons that attacked them but nothing solid. Three of them could read. Two of those could see. And one tired of standing guard for the little imps to attack. They rested back to back and dared not close both stinging eyes. Their stomachs complained but they dared not eat their limited stores again till the morrow.

    Nathan spoke first. “I wonder if Trinity will still marry me now maimed as I am?” Rood put his hand on Nathan's shoulder and knew not what to say. Leeta had a definite opinion on the matter though. “If she doesn't love you anymore because you are maimed then she never loved you. The loss of your eyes hasn't changed your substance. You are still the man you were.” Nathan smiled as he heard his own admonitions fired back at him. He'd told her as much when she had taken a liking to a soldier in camp. She fussed over her appearance. In their home town she was always about in the daytime in a dress with bows in her hair. True, by night she skulked around in leathers and dark cloaks filching anything that wasn't nailed down. But she cared what people thought of her public persona. She never felt presentable enough to speak with him until Nathan had bolstered her resolve. “You think that boy walks around his own home town in bronze and tin carrying weapons of death about him? No. He had a real name and wore normal clothes and did something for fun in his spare time. Perhaps you two share one of those things in common. Besides, you wont find a dress or make up in this war camp.” The boy turned out to be a handsome blathering idiot. One too many blows to the head. He was a good instinctive fighter but soon after having spoken with him she came back so disappointed. “Gah, at least he's pretty to look at. But I got tired of explaining every last one of my questions and statements and innuendos. The boy's lost.”

    She continued. “And, if she wont marry you then I will.” Rood and Brok looked at each other with cocked eybrows. Nathan blushed whether he knew it or not. “No, it would be a loveless marriage I would not burden you with that.” “Ha! It would not. It would save me from having to shoot down the barrage of suitors my father is bound to fling at me as soon as I come back home. You forget that I'm the richest daughter in town. I stand to inherit much and I have stolen a fortune to boot. You would never need to make a living. Also, it wouldn't be a loveless marriage. Your looks are nothing to scoff at even without your eyes. I love you three more than any relative in this world. You have no eyes now, you could imagine Trinity every night if you wished and I would never know the difference. Nor would I care; so long as you remained hard until I got what I wanted!” His eyebrows grew further and further up his forehead until that statement. “You go too far Leeta! That's no talk for a lady!” Brok and Rood laughed knowing that would make her fume at him. She was a lady to everyone who didn't know her. To the guys...she was like a brother. He could feel her grey eyes boring into him and her fuming hot breath as she squinted and thought of a retort. “Still I wont forget your words Leeta.”
    Rood “Nor I!”
    Brok “Me neither!” smiling.
    She pulled her cloak over her head and put her back to them again and fumed alone. Brok and Rood shook their heads and looked at her in a new light. Nathan held up the virtues of the sun god and honesty and piety. She worshiped the wine goddess of thieves and trickery and disguises. Yet it seemed she had developed a soft spot for the poor holy man.
    “I'll be your best man Nathan.” Chided Rood.
    “And I yours Leeta.” Brok said before being smacked hard with something metal she was hiding somewhere on her body. All of them laughed in spite of themselves.

    The next day Leeta began to climb the shelves. She sought hidden treasures, false books, and clues to the curse. She found a tome that held a powerful magical aura of transmutation. Her family were merchants as far back as their lineage could be tracked. Her first birthday present was a plain looking ring with a sapphire stone. It was pretty and plain but in reality its wielder could cast detect magic three times per day. With this she could better appraise wares and sales for hidden qualities some sellers didn't even know about. She brought the tome down and told the others about the aura. They were reticent to open it as it had no title and the purpose of the monastery meant that this book could be deceitful and full of dark intent. Nathan decided to open it first. If it was inscribed with power words of harm or death they would not activate as he could not discern the runes. His companions could see from the other room if they were runes. However, they would be too far to actually read them and again, not activate them.

    Nathan flipped through hundreds of pages without setting off any traps or revealing any runes. It appeared to be a journal. The majority of the pages were still white. Some pages were written somewhere else then inserted later with wax drippings. The others could see what appeared to be dates written along the tops of pages in the same penmanship.

    The others came closer and ripped the book in half. Rood began to read the first pages and Leeta began to read the back half. It was a journal but it read more like ledger. The priest kept track of the nuns and acolytes as if they were stock. He kept tabs on their emotional states as if they were quickly souring milk. He always worried about them finishing their individual projects before the corrupting influences forced them, in good conscience, to leave.

    There was a time over a year ago when the priest softened. He began to comment on mundane affairs such as the tended garden and kept animals. He reasoned with himself as to the usefulness of the sparse and uncomfortable accommodations. This year was the section of glued and unglued pages. The ledger portion of his writing became shorter and shorter and his personal reflections became more numerous and lengthy. He seemed like a different man. Then suddenly he just quit writing.

    Nathan was left with the thick leather bound cover. He was trying to get better and judging materials by touch. The book was leather bound the spine of the book was some kind of notched wood. He could smell the glue whenever he held up the book. The fabric holding the pages in was actually horse hair, maybe cow. Nathan, being curious, began to peal the leather cover off in order to feel the other side. When he did several removed journal pages slid out from against a cedar plank and the leather cover.

    Marginally hidden there the last of the King's Marauders found the dark secret. Pages for which the journal they had already read already had entries. The one's they read were more likely the forgeries. These were also written in the same hand and they were full of emotions; longing, lust, frustration, and fear.

    Lord Marshal was the priest who ran the monastery. He fell in love with a nun named Sabatha. He tried to keep to himself in his loft but always, somehow found himself again in her presence. They spoke innocently enough at first but friendship grew into interest and interest into want. Both of their religions required celibacy for the granting of divine magic. Both of them were equally wed to their deities. But one warm night on the grassy hill behind the cemetery they both lost the ability to cast even the simplest of divine spells.

    Marshal did not care and was about to announce his resignation but Sabatha repented fervently. She debased herself in her cell and refused anything but water. Sabatha's lost powers were too much she wanted her old life back but did not reveal the priest. Marshal became sorrowful, then perturbed by her and finally angry. She rejected him and everything they had shared. It was abomination to her. But to him it was the first year he actually felt alive. He foresaw a future with her farming or being a town official of some kind. He would do anything for her and their union. All she could think of was more and more ways to humble herself in order to regain her divine magic again. Magic that she could only keep if regained, by severing her ties to him completely.

    Months had passed as she was mourning the loss of her powers. Her project was forgotten. The other nuns and acolytes admonished Marshal for not releasing her and sending her home. They feared that she had succumbed to a dark influence. None of them suspected that it was he that had corrupted her. She mal-passed herself to the point that she still-bore the twins she was carrying unbeknown to any of them. When the children were found in her arms the next morning all their fears were confirmed and they looked at him accusingly. He raged at them inside. Some of them who had the power to detect auras and intentions shrank from him. In one instant he received divine magic again. However, he could not reach any spells he knew from the good, protection, law, or luck domains. All his magic was dark and evil and seductive. He stood at the precipice having access to a new font of power yet not having drunk yet. He searched for her eyes but she denied him even that and kept her face downcast behind her thick black hair. The casters with her began to mutter and gesticulate. They were casting on him and her. Protecting her from him and binding him in place. He cast no spell but resisted the binding with his own will. He called to her one more time to leave with him and all would be well. He would marry her and make things right. She neither moved nor replied. Without her, nothing else mattered to him. He died that day and she killed him. Marshal drank from the font of the dark divine until he was intoxicated. The first spell he cast killed the priests in the room with them. No one else saw what happened. Marshal turned and entered the other cells delivering death touch after death touch until only he and she remained.

    While he was gone on his killing spree she found her feet. She incinerated her children's remains in the kitchen furnace. Then she descended the cellar stairs and threw herself into the slime pit below. The slime was green and acidic to anything but the chamber it was magically bound to. All the monasteries privies and waste baskets were shunted to this pit. The slime devoured and dissolved anything dropped within.

    Marshal was going to raid his own vaults and gain powers. He was going to kill an evil deity and take his place with it. Then he would wage war on her deity until he killed her or made her submit to him. She would change her rules and resurrect his wife and children.

    You needed at least a fragment of remains in order to resurrect the dead and call their souls back to their repaired bodies. By burning the twins and flinging herself into the slime pit she had denied him the means to fulfill his plans. They could never be together now. He had risked and lost all. He was defeated before he could even begin. Black blood flowed through is black veins now. He did not know who his dark benefactor was but the black divine was still his to command and why not. In a single hour he had brought down one of the most sacred conclaves of the faithful. Whatever plan he took to action now could only further the cause of darkness.

    Marshal set to work creating bane dead. The recipe formulating in his head even as he prayed for it. He collected the bones of the acolytes and nuns he had slain. He crafted four bone golems roughly humanoid in shape and bound them within suits of armor. He called for demons to bind within the artifice and commanded them to obey only him. When he was through he had created an unflinchingly loyal cadre of bone knights in magic armor with demonic souls at his command.

    Finally he ordered them to dig a twenty foot pit, drop him in it, bury it, and prevent anyone from ever digging him out. Whatever malicious force had granted him its favor, he would use that power to prevent it from gaining any more hold on this plane of existence through himself. There were no other entries.

    “Well, he didn't prevent the reanimation of his offspring after he was buried” Reasoned Rood. Nathan circled himself above his head with his right hand in the holy gesture of the sun worshipers and whispered a prayer asking for protection of his party of accidental holy investigators. He whispered it but not so quietly the others could not hear it. He did not intend to conceal the prayer but only lowered his voice out of a solemn consideration for the former worshipers who lived there....who died there. “That might not have been the dark one's doing.” Leeta said with furrowed brows. “Without those things causing trouble what sign would there be that something wicked had this way come? We knew something had to have been amiss but would not have dug deeper had we been allowed to simply eat, sleep, warm ourselves and leave.” Brok pursed his lips and scratched his stubbled chin. “This cold is unnatural. The wind does not penetrate here yet the cold and snow remains. It is as if anyone who comes here is beckoned to light the fire and ignite the curse of the children. Everything that happened after we arrived had to happen. Over and over and over again until someone made it stop.”
    “Well that's us then.”
    “We know the truth....we haven't made it stop...yet.”
    From the stair well there came hissing. The demonic infants were reborn and seemed to try to enter the room. They kept slamming themselves into an invisible barrier. The three of them rose and backed away except Nathan. Nathan got up and moved towards them even blind as he was. The barrier they slammed themselves against extended itself past him at a set distance. They were forced away from him in agony and frustrated defeat. Nathan was calm and no longer fearful of them. Instead a look of pity entered his face.
    “I think we need to bury the bones on holy ground. There is a cemetery behind this church. I believe I can sanctify the burial too and if I can they can never be reanimated again.” “Are you sure Nate?” “No, but I have faith.”

    The four of them within the protective spell of Nathans prayer of protection from evil made their way to the infant bones. They found the real remains of the critters still there in the basket. They found the garden mentioned in journal and the shed with tools for tending the now frozen garden. There were only two shovels and some hand tools. The work would be cold and slow going but eventually they could dig a deep enough hole. The critters stayed behind when the party went outside. Apparently their ability to haunt extended only as far the the church walls. As they neared the closest corner of the cemetery they reached the first bane dead. It still appeared to be a statue until Rood moved to cross the low wrought iron fence. The undead guardian sprang at him like a desert cat after a hare. Rood pulled back his leg and the bone knight slowly backed into position and rested again. It was not going to grant them access to the burial ground without a fight.

    Rood reproduced his holy water. Brok loosened his armor and brandished his double bladed axe. Leeta produced three phials of alchemists fire. Nathan reached into his tunic and produced a holy symbol to the sun deity.

    He held this up before the undead behind the fence and admonished it in the name of his deity to quit the bones of the body it inhabited and return to the abyss from whence it came. There was no physical manifestation of the power Nathan's faith produced but the bone knight shielded it's eyes and hissed at them in rage. A lesser undead would have been blown to bits under the gaze of so much authoritative faith. They had seen whole squads of undead zombies and skeletons fragment before the gaze of a holy cleric on the field of battle. This infernally bolstered monstrosity simply cowered momentarily before Nathan's holy onslaught. This was no small feat considering that today was the first day Nathan had been granted divine powers. The momentary pause in the bane dead was all he needed. As soon as he lowered his forearm a phial of holy water burst upon his face. His eyes sockets blazed a blue ethereal flame. Three phials of alchemists fire broke on his chest, belt, and an upper thigh. Once making contact with air the slimy gel ignited the undead burning away bits of flesh and sinew where joints were exposed in the armor. The creature roared in agony as it's un-life was drained and it had to go to it's knees. Brok finished it off with an ear piercing swing from his axe. The blow sheared off the left shoulder guard and the top of the bone knight's breastplate along with it's head. The armor, although magical, was now ruined.

    A quick prayer over the remaining bones and the golem work crumbled into brittle bones and human offal. Rood crossed into the cemetery again and watched the other three bane dead. They left their posts and took up positions between them and a grave marked only with three rotting shovel handles protruding from the snow covered earth. They did not approach the party that was definitely capable of fighting with them. Rood took another few yards worth of steps towards them and stopped. The creatures drew their weapons but again did not approach. “Dig there behind me and complete your ceremony. Leeta took a position next to Rood and Nathan whenever Brok complained that they were crowding his efforts. Brok took no notice of the cold while he worked and shed his furs so that his swing was unrestricted. When the hole was dug he interred the remains unceremoniously. He saluted the bones as he did fallen warriors on the field of battle then took Nathan's place within the battle line that had been drawn in the snow. Nathan spoke the rites of the departed over the infants bones. He prayed for the forgiveness of sins and the guiding light of reason to reach the souls of the parents in the afterlife. The party could hear shreiks raised within the church walls. Whatever allowed the demonic spawn to exist that concerned these remains was now severed. They finally died the lasting death. When he was through he knelt and felt around the ground until he found the pile of earth and with a sweep of his arm filled the grave with the first earth. He regained his feet and circling himself prayed for protection in the battle to come with the remaining bane dead waiting with deathless patience for the to come. They all made mental preparations and steeled themselves when the cemetery filled with ravens. They lined the fence and sat upon the gravestones and every exposed piece of snowy earth. They found themselves in a black feathered blanket.

    Then the ravens spoke. “Risk not this fight good warriors.” They responded with silence and more than one of them had the hairs raise on the back of their necks. “You have done my church a great service this day. The curse you have lifted will allow the faithful to enter into here again. We have been blocked by great magic from entering for many months. Anyone with any divine power who entered was smitten with dark energy from the bowels of the monastery.” The words rose from the ravens distinctly but in a disjointed cacophony. The words weren't coming out from beaks in whole. But many different birds would squawk a tone or portion of a syllable as it was joined next by a few more birds in like fashion. Individually the animals made normal bird noises; together they spake intelligently. “My disciples will deal with the guards as well as the buried tyrant within when they arrive. Enter my church and rest now as nothing will disturb you. Help is already on the way.” They all looked at Rood and he nodded and turned to leave. As he did the normal birds parted and allowed them to move away. As they asended towards the church the bird voice rose again. “You owe me no fealty but I owe you much. I shall lend you my avatar the remainder of your days. I ask only that you never reveal the nature of your blessing to anyone; lest you lose it.” The three remaining guardians took up their former positions at the corners of the cemetery. With their first movements the ravens scattered to the wind; released of their divine presence. Four of the ravens landed, one on each of their right shoulders. The King's Marauders instinctively knew the names of the birds given to them by the Raven deity.

    Rood was granted a boon of an intelligent companion. He could communicate telepathically with his bird and get help with learning magic and discerning languages he had never heard or spoken before. Brok gained the Raven's bones and speed for a time each day. The hollow bones made him an agile swimmer, fleet footed runner, and quick climber whenever he had need. Leeta gained the bird's black feathers and could move in silence. When in shadows she absorbed any ambient light and was invisible if motionless. When in darkness she was completely invisible. Nathan gained the birds senses. He took to cocking his head form side to side at times and pecking at his food rapidly but he could see again even without his eyes. He was also particularly good at spotting shiny objects even at a distance. Once a day he could fly as a crow as long as he could stay awake. Before his feet touched the ground he was a man again.

    None of them ever spoke of their blessings to each other but guessed as much. If their own blessings were something each of them needed or prized most then of course it would be the same for the others.

    Raven priests arrived a week later and bound the holy wards and sigils again with faith. The friends were rewarded with magical arms and armor to replace their war torn relics. None of them discarded their old armor though. It had seen them through dark times mundane as they were. They had earned them as well as their current trappings. They were each given a monetary reward befitting their service. Nathan received a wealthier sum for the loss of his eyes. In a week they were wared against the cold and resumed their trek home.

    The land they dreamed of returning to had changed in their absence. While all the young and able bodied had been ripped away to fight a war they didn't understand monstrous humanoid warlords had taken control of out lands in the kingdom. The four of them were not home long before they each had to raise a rebel band of heroes to calm the wilderness. They forged new kingdoms for themselves and pushed the vile further into the darkness. Eventually in their old age they found themselves at odds with the same ancient king that had sent them to war as children. But those are whole stories to themselves. Perhaps I will tell them to you another time.

    The End.