Erika peered out the window of her room. It was getting dark and the town of Almwick was a bleak, barren place even in the day. The war raging to the south was bad enough, every able-bodied man had marched off days before she arrived, and likely died on a goblin spear at Tarrington Fields. It was worse for the women, children, and graybeards that had remained in Almwick. Her arrival was greeted by locked doors, closed lips, and cold stares, but the signs of carnage were obvious. Three stakes still stood in the center of town, charred corpses piled around there bases. At every entrance to the town was a pike, topped by the tar-soaked head of one old man or another, placards identifying them as traitors or heretics, or both.
She stared out the window of a small house on the southern edge of town in which she had taken up residence to await her friends. She had been here a week, and still no one would speak with her, but no one challenged her when she took a bed in the empty house. The house’s prior occupants were piled outside with the rest of the bodies, the mother burned at the stake and her child trampled under hoof by the rogue witch hunters as they rode away. She watched as the tell-tale dust cloud of fast-moving horses approached Almwick. She listened as the already hushed and frightened town grew even quieter.
Erika stepped out of the house and waved as her friends approached. Sir Richard rode at the head, followed closely by Sister Carthix and “Mad” Meinhard Mott. The three of them, heavily armed, clad in battered plate, and prominently displaying Mitra’s holy symbol and the eagle of the Knights of Alerion were likely not helping the villager’s frightened condition.
“Ho, Sir Richard!” she called as they reigned up, “welcome to Almwick, or what’s left of it.”
The knight pulled up his horse just before the pikes and stared intently at the town. “You certainly picked a dour place to wait for us, Ms. Varning. We came as soon as we got your letter…”
“Yes, Makalu told me you were on your way,” Erika said as a hawk swooped down from the housetop to perch on her arm. “Did you pass the wall on your way?”
“Aye Erika,” Meinhard interjected, “and a sea of goblins as well. Which we should be riding back to put an end to. This place looks bad, but Balentyne was worse…”
“Mott, there are hundreds of knights riding from all corners of Talingarde to deal with the goblins, but there is only us to bring justice for these people.”
“Ms. Varning’s right, Meinhard,” Sir Richard replied. “This was an atrocity the likes of which I’ve seldom seen. Even after so long these implements of slaughter still bear the trace of evil. This was no righteous purge, but base murder and terrorism.”
Meinhard and Sister Carthix dismounted, the mail-clad nun looking around at the shuttered houses. “So what have you learned?”
“No one has been willing to speak with me, but luckily the people have been too scared to move about much, so I was able to find plenty of tracks. At least a half-dozen men rode in on the south road from Balentyne and left by the north. Tracks around the fire indicate that they wore heavy mail and their horses were shod for war. Unfortunately, the tracks end quite abruptly about a half-mile outside of town in either direction. They must be using some magic to mask their movements when afield.” She gestured north and west. “Lhotse, went scouting as far as Longsheaf and found similar signs of slaughter in every village up the river. That’s at least eight other towns that were similarly terrorized.”
“Following the Trasik…” Sister Carlotta looked at the river, “do they seek refuge in Farholde?”
“Yes, they do!” came a voice from behind them.
They turned to see a man stumbling into town, wearing armor apparently taken piecemeal from knights and goblins, his left hand wrapped in bloodied bandages, his belt festooned with crude weapons of all kinds, and the silver and sapphire holy symbol of Mitra about his neck.
Meinhard’s hand went to his blade, but Sir Richard positioned his horse between them. “Who are you Sir, and what do you know of the ones who did this?”
The man laughed, “I am Sir Fallon Nightly, Special Inquisitor to the King, and, to some, the bane of Aldencross. I don’t know for sure who did this, but I can hazard a guess. Balentyne was destroyed by a band of witches, the day before the goblins attacked the wall. I have it on good report that they then left by the river, headed for Farholde…”
Sister Carthix stepped around Sir Richard’s horse, “A special inquisitor? This far north?” She stepped towards the man, “You hand Sir, what happened to it?”
“Sister, wait!” Erika said. “The refugees I spoke with on my way north said that Aldencross was set ablaze by one of Mitra’s Witch-Hounds…”
“That is true,” the man replied. “I smelled the witches when I got to Balentyne and searched Aldencross for them, unsuccessfully. When I reached the town’s inn I found that everyone there had been charmed and had the witch’s stink on them. A fight broke out and I was forced to call on Mitra’s Fire to defend myself, but ended up burning the inn and several of the people there in the process. The charmed villagers chased me from the town, and I assume the witches did a good job of spreading the tale of my failure…”
Sister Carthix looked hard into the man’s eyes, “I feel as if you’re not telling us everything…”
The man shrugged, “Fine. After escaping the villagers I was captured by the goblin warlord, Sakkarot Fireaxe, and learned that he was in league with the witches I was hunting. I also learned that the witches had been tracking me by means of a cursed ring I had been tricked into putting on when investigating a jail-break at Branderscar Prison. I took my own hand and the goblins left me for dead when they marched south…”
“You met the Fireaxe?” Sir Richard looked stunned, “and did not slay him?”
“I was outnumbered, unarmed, bound, and helpless…”
“Argh, that’s no excuse!” Meinhard growled. “If I’d been there I would have torn the blooder’s throat out with my teeth!”
“Whatever Mott,” Erika sighed. “As I said, we have more pressing business. If the people who did this are the same people who destroyed Balentyne, and, as Sir Fallon says, also witches and in league with the goblins, then we have to find them, and fast…”
“North then! To Farholde!” Sir Richard looked at Sir Fallon. “Will you ride with us, Sir?”
“I don’t trust him.” Erika and Meinhard said in unison.
“Trust him or not, we’d best take him with us,” Sister Carthix said. “The fact that Sir Richard has not yet taken his head tells us that he is not an evil man, and having a sniffer might be our best bet of finding these witches in knight’s clothing…”
“He’s on foot. He’ll slow us down…”
“Shot up Mott,” Erika sighed again. “If Sir Richard and the Sister have decided to bring him along, then Sir Fallon can ride with me. Rainier can easily carry the two of us.”
Just then another hawk flew in, shrieking.
“What’s that?” Sir Fallon asked, reaching for the axe on his back.
“Lhotse says there are several creatures approaching from the north. Man-like, shambling, smelling of death and smoke.” Erika climbed into her saddle, and pulled Sir Fallon behind her. “Come, quickly, before these poor townfolk have to face any more trauma…”
Within moments Erika and her, now four, were racing north out of town following the directions of her hawks. When they saw the things at a distance, she unleashed a blast of flame in their midst, to little effect. “They resist fire,” she told the others.
“Let see how they like steel!” Meinhard said, the familiar blood-red haze of a rage entering his eyes, and he and Sir Richard urged their horses into a charge. Just when they reached striking distance, Sir Richard’s Gray Lady faltered. Meinhard’s mount dropped dead instantly, sending him crashing to the ground. He stood up sputtering and looked at the things…and immediately went pale.
Sir Richard leaped from Gray Lady’s back, impaling one of the creature’s with his lance and shouting for the horse to continue on. “Bodaks!” he shouted to the others, “do not meet their gaze.” The one he impaled pulled itself forward on the lance and began pummeling him with its fists.
Erika dismounted and give Sir Fallon the reins. “Help them,” she said, aiming a lightning bolt at one of the creatures near Sir Richard. The bolt struck the creature and grounded out into the dirt, seemingly doing it no harm at all.
Sir Fallon drove her horse into the fray, pinning one of the bodak’s under Rainier’s body as the horse fell and stabbing into the creature’s foul eyes with a crude dagger of goblin make. The blade struck home, blinding the bodak, but causing Sir Fallon’s own eyes to seep blood. Sister Carthix rode in behind him, her armor glowing like the sun and blasted the bodak’s with a burst of holy energy.
The bodaks screamed and shrank back from Mitra’s holy light, their undead flesh melting away. Enraged the creatures focusing their dread gazes on Sister Carthix. She averted her eyes, holding her holy symbol firmly before her, but her friends saw her waver, her arms fell, by the time she thought to close her eyes, it was too late. The holy symbol fell from her hands and she collapsed, her eyes burning away into wifts of acrid smoke.
Sir Richard and Meinhard screamed in rage and laid about them with a fury. Meinhard cleaving the heads from two of the beasts that Sister Carthix had weakened, Sir Richard pulling out his holy symbol and destroying two with his own blast of holy positive energy. Still, even as they pressed the assault, Erkia could see them weakening. She thought back to everything she had heard about Bodak’s and suddenly remembered that the creatures lacked any defense against cold.
“Duck!” she shouted, as a cone of icy wind exploded outwards from her hands. Sir Fallon dove to the side, easily evading the blast, Meinhard gritted his teeth and shook off the cold, but Sir Richard and the bodaks took the full brunt of the icy assault. Sir Richard fell to his knees, shivering. The remaining bodaks froze in place.
Sir Fallon and Meinhard set about shattering the frozen bodaks as Erika rushed to help Sir Richard and Sister Carthix. Sir Richard was already healing himself, but the nun was dead.
“Burn her body,” Sir Fallon stated plainly. “This is clearly the work of the witches and anything their undead minions kill is sure to come back as such.”
Meinhard and Sir Richard nodded gravely. They stripped Sister Carthix’s body of any useful possessions, then stood back as Erika called up a gout of flames from her hands to destroy the remains of the nun and their undead assailants.
The cleanup done, Erika and Sir Fallon took Sister Carthix’s horse, Mitra’s Gift, and Meinhard climbed up behind Sir Richard.
“If these witches can summon such creatures to their aid, then we must hurry…” Sir Richard said.
And hurry they did.