Meandering Kane

The Devil's End

(PLAYED BY RIK:) Michael Ezekiel Tremayne hastened in despite of his wounds to take up the mace and half-carry, half-drag the inert form of Sam York towards safety.
    Two of the devil-monster’s tentacles snaked through the air after him, and others writhed about the berserkly dodging Kato as the great slimy mass of its body forced its way forward through the breach in the dungeon wall.

Snake eyes

    It tumbled several more blocks from the edge of the breach and then, suddenly lacking support, a mass of grinding masonry collapsed in upon the beast in a great commotion of sucking squelches. The nearest gaol cell was filled with rubble, instantly killing the several poor souls trapped there.
    Kato whirled about and dashed pell-mell from the dungeon chamber as everyone ahead of him struggled their way down the corridor. The echoes of the collapse subsided, but the screams of the girls in the cells behind us continued. Nevertheless, I also made out a clatter of movement from the other direction.
    “Soldiers coming down the stair!” I cried. “Don’t attack them straightways,” I added, but to judge by Kato’s murderous visage I misdoubted me that he even heard my words. Outdistancing everyone, he dove into the shadow beside the foot of the stair.
    Tremayne carefully set Sam York down against the wall and stood forth. “The Lady has been killed by her vile demon!” he called loudly in the soldiers’ own Polish tongue. “It turned on her and we were lucky to escape with our lives. Afford us passage from this hell and the forces of the Crown may forgive your black behaviour in this gród.” (CASTLE)
    The first soldier to reach the foot of the stairs saw beyond us the abomination slapping its biting tentacles down upon the bodies of the fallen and sucking. “Oh my God! Satan is among us!” he screamed, trying to force his way through the body of men still filing down. “Flee for your lives!” Evidently the account we had first heard was true, and only the hardest-hearted of the castle’s soldiery were privy to the secret of the dungeon.
    Nicholas Hat tried a different tack. “You’re in the nick of time!” he declared. “The spawn of Satan is come and we need your aid to fight it back and rescue the girls.” I gave this in the Polish, avoiding contradicting Tremayne’s command by phrasing it that the brave of heart must help us, and the rest must depart and clear the stairs.
    Kato remained still, his features contorted with an effort of control. Several more soldiers stepped out, glimpsed the monster and reacted with the same panic as the first. Confusion turned to a rout, soldiers seeking to thrust themselves ahead of one another in the desperate bid to escape. Then Kato abandoned restraint and charged up the stairs to take the hindmost brutally from behind, ramming his torturer’s knife into the man’s neck with a great gush of blood. He disregarded the matchlock musket that clattered to the stair but slid his victim’s sword from its scabbard and charged out of sight after the others.
    Nick sprang forward and seized up the dead man’s musket and powder flask.

Back in the dungeon, the monster continued its hideous feeding upon the half-smothered corpse of Jonas de Winkler and the fallen guards. Fighting the urge to gag, I asked, “What about the mace? It must be the means by which… she… cowed the monster.”
    “Unless it is itself of the Devil, and its destruction might harm the thing,” posited Tremayne. Looking down at the black, forged-steel weapon, he relented of that and acceded to Nick’s direction to carry Sam after Kato up the stairs.
    Nick inspected the matchlock musket, tucked it to his shoulder and used its smouldering match to fire it right at the monster in the middle of the dungeon. There was a small burst of crimson blood and other sickly fluids as the shot struck, but the thing was not moved to any reaction.

Kato emerged into chaos in the Great Hall. Fleeing soldiers clustered at the doors crying, The Devil is in the castle! and He attacks as one possessed! and The cellars are collapsing! But a handful of new-come veterans knelt and readied muskets to hold the doorway, and now glared across the hall at the fierce outlander warrior with his red-dripping blades.
    “Wha’ you thin’ you doin’?” Kato demanded. But seeing the grim set of their eyes he turned right about and sprinted berserkly back to the stairs.
    At the stairhead he was met by Tremayne, who passed Sam York’s body to the momentarily nonplussed Nipponese. Tremayne stepped forth and delivered his instructions once again. “The Devil Incarnate is in that dungeon. He has despatched your mistress, and we need you down here!”
    Much impressed by his manner, four of the musketeers stood up to come to his aid.
    “You must defend the doorway whilst we rescue the maidens from the dungeon itself,” he instructed them.

“You girls,” I called loudly, hoping some would hear me over the screams of their sisters, “where are the keys to your cells?”
    “The mistress has them,” came the reply. “She keeps the only keys upon her girdle.” But the body of the szlachcianka lay fatally close to the hideous mass of her monster.
    “Did any of you ever see this devilish Thing before?” I asked, hoping that if it ever issued from its lair by any other egress, we might ourselves use that to come at the keys from a safer angle. “Did you ever see the mistress command it? Or strike it? Perchance with her mace?” But alas, none had e’er witnessed the creature before, so it seemed to have been utterly immured in the space behind the iron maiden. No more did I glean any suggestion that the mace might afford its wielder mastery over the monster.
    As the four stalwarts preceded Tremayne down the stairs to join us, Nick finished reloading his musket, and demonstrated that the monster could be shot with impunity. He put the match to the pan, but cursed the foreign gun-powder as it gave only a soft report and his shot plopped into the monster’s mucilaginous bulk with no more force than a pebble falling into a pond. Regardless of Nick’s display of bravado, when the musketeers beheld the thing that Tremayne had bade them face they quailed and ran in blind terror, retaining only the wit not to drop their muskets in their flight.
    By the time Nick had his fire-arm re-charged once more, we had been rejoined by Kato and Tremayne. Kato seemed to have mastered his outburst and to be compos mentis once more. Tremayne’s face was now hidden in the great helm of a Teutonic knight, he wore steel gauntlets upon his hands and brandished an ancient broadsword. Nick, regarding him, commented with gallows humour that given the monster’s aim, a codpiece might offer more protection than a steel bucket on one’s head. Then turning back he fired his third, better-packed, shot into the foe. Still the monster failed so much as to twitch in response to his attacks, and Nick dashed the musket to the floor in frustration.
    “Whatever can we do? We must save these innocent girls,” he insisted. “And we cannot leave Jonas to that Thing.”

The monster fed on heedless, gorging itself on the blood of the fallen, but it would certes turn soon enough to the captive girls, and for all the iron strength of their cell doors we knew that it could pull down the very walls to get to them.
    We four formed another plan. I would call down the wrath of the angels to scourge the monster’s soul, and the fearless Nicholas Hat would steal forth into the dungeon chamber as it cowered or fled, to retrieve the keys from the szlachcianka’s body. I recharged the musket, and Kato and Michael stood ready to come to Nick’s aid at need.
    Having drawn me a circle of sanctified chalk and with blessèd candles lit, I o’ermastered the pain of my injuries and with a strong voice declaimed my supplication of the angels. “Sit timor Domini super eos qui contemnens. Sint autem commareantur iudicio iusti Angeli Domini.”
    The unseen wind of the angels swept forth, intimating to the monster the agony of eternal damnation, but it was unmoved; nary a flinch of a tentacle betrayed any reaction. Though thwarted, I gave silent thanks that this proved the so-called ‘Devil’ to be a mindless, even a soulless, brute.
    And undeterred by my set-back, Nick Hat stole bravely forth into the chamber. Breath bated, we three watched his progress as he painstakingly crouched along behind the torturer’s table and right up to the corpse of the szlachcianka. Reaching down, he retrieved the ring of keys without so much as a clink, and silently stole back without raising the monster’s attention.
    Nick turned the key in the cell door nearest the exit, opened it and slipped within. Long moments passed as he must needs have been calming the timorous souls within, but at length two young women emerged and on the tips of their toes made their way to us and salvation. Riding his luck, Nick moved to open the next cell, slipped within to calm the panic-stricken girls and repeat his whispered instructions to them. Crawling, such that no part of them would be show above the table, Nick and the three girls made their bid for safety. Alas! one girl could not but steal a glance over her shoulder at the Thing they so feared and her sudden gasp of horror was fatally audible.
    “Flee for your lives!” Nick shouted, his meaning clear without need of translation. Half the tentacles of the monstrous form writhed through the air to assail these four. Nick tried his trademark counter-attack upon a fang-mawed tentacle before it could strike him. It twitched aside and evaded his blow, but as it thrust forward Nick himself was gone. Two of the girls were up and taking to their heels, tentacle-bites closing on thin air behind them, but the third was not so swift. A tentacle smacked its biting attack onto the back of her neck and with a sickening crunch of bone she fell dead to the floor.
    Now roused from its feeding, the thing began to move. Tentacles straining towards we living souls just beyond its reach, its main body began to move by corpulent convulsions across the floor.

Nick Hat seized me up and threw me over his shoulder, more concerned with the wounds of my body than with wounding my dignity, and followed our fleeing companions to the stair. As we gained the Great Hall I heard a further crash of masonry from below, and then the walls of that chamber began to grind like a hundred millstones at the loss of their foundations below.
    We made it clear to the courtyard of the castle, where Exeter Bob bestrode the cart, warning off all comers with Jonas’ blunderbuss in one hand and one of Sam York’s fine wheellocks in the other.
    By the time Tremayne was in the saddle of York’s steed and the rest of us were aboard the cart with Kato whipping the mule towards the gatehouse and safety, half the keep caved in upon itself. A screaming and a roaring that offended our very ears was emitted by the mistress’ Devil amid the wreck of the Great Hall. And then a bartizan tower collapsed away from a wall to land not ten paces from us, and we were away and passing through the abandoned gatehouse thanking the Lord for our deliverance from evil.

Brandestonus

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The Devil of the Mistress

Jonas de Winkler, the Bishop of Bath and Wells, had the Szlachcianka Katya pressed bodily back against her beloved iron maiden, corps à corps as the fencing masters have it. Be it unwonted gallantry or some feeling he dare not acknowledge, he could not bring himself to harm her directly in despite of the threat she posed. He sought instead to wrestle from her grasp the frankly unlikely mediæval spiked mace.
    “Oh, you have such a firm, manly grip,” she crooned (and which I declined to translate), even as she drew the mace back and away from his clutches with a casual grace that betokened more than a woman’s natural strength. In the next moment she snarled bestially and brought it crashing round into his back, then pushed the big man reeling away.
    I sought to distract her. “Do not resist us,” I cried from the other end of the dungeon, “lest the Master deny you the Power of Blood!”
    “But that cannot be!” she insisted, though a frown upon her lovely features betrayed momentary doubt.

About me, the struggle to escape raged on. Nicholas Hat, having downed one of our two guards, dove to the cold stone floor to elude the sword of the other, tucking his shoulder under and rolling to his feet in a single motion, coming up with the fallen guard’s sword in the hands tied behind his back. A moment later his sheared bonds fell away.
    Michael Ezekiel Tremayne and Sam York were still within the arc of the other guard’s sword. York faked a move to the left to draw open the soldier’s guard, then span round to throw his weight into him, but neither this nor Michael’s kick harmed the armoured man.

“Save us, Kato! You’re our only hope,” wheezed Jonas.
    Racing to beat the guard bearing down on him, Kato reached the table of torture implements, cut his bonds and whirled about. The guard charged in upon him and swung, but Kato parried away the long sword by seizing up a pair of instruments that bore knife-like blades, amongst other things.
    The guard’s comrade, leaving Jonas to the tender mercies of his mistress, charged past these two to assail the rest of us clustered at the back of the dungeon. But as he charged, sword raised, Nick Hat was faster and a clanging stroke across the guard’s breastplate beat him back.
    Quick to react despite his bound hands, Tremayne hopped past Nick to throw himself at the staggered guard. He launched into a furious barrage of kicks with one boot and then the other, keeping his balance by sheer effort of will (BENNY, SNAKE-EYES, BENNY AGAIN) but each time the desperate guard stumbled beyond his reach or got up his sword to stop Tremayne from following through. And then Nick Hat came about and cut him down with a mighty double-handed blow that severed the guard’s arm at the shoulder.
    “And that’s how Nicholas Hat dis-arms his foes!” he cried with bloodthirsty glee.
    York gathered up that sword and sliced the ropes on his wrists, then swung out to fend off the last guard.

The Devil’s Mistress bore down on Jonas and with her spiked mace smote him a mighty, rupturing blow to the belly.
    “Ungh—” With a breathless grunt the big man was flung back and collapsed to the dungeon floor, blood pooling rapidly through his cassock.
    It was clear that I, with my not inconsiderable knowledge of anatomy, was the only one with a hope of saving his life. Behind York, I was clear of the last guard’s sword and ran to cut my bonds with a contraption on the table whose purpose I preferred not to conjecture. Kato and his opponent traded blows, the two torture implements of the Nipponese outclassing the guardsman’s sword, but foiled in turn by the steel of his helmet and breastplate. As I dodged past them my cursed knee gave out and I stumbled to the floor at Jonas’ side.
    “For God’s sake, get her!” I cried, reclining there defenceless as I sought to stop Jonas’ bleeding. (BENNY, SECOND BENNY)
    “Get the harlot!” York ordered Hat and Tremayne, employing an elegant bind to keep his opponent’s sword out of their path.

Teutonic spiked mace, angled

Nick Hat had needed no prompting and rushed to the attack. Pistol drawn, I held my shot as he passed in front of me.
    Loath as he was to mar the beauty of the Devil’s Mistress, he was more attracted to the massive red ruby that topped her mace. His stolen long sword looped around her futile parry and sliced her across the midriff, but the crazed witch seemed to know no pain. She replied by swinging that mace into Nick’s flank, sending him reeling in pain.
    Kato continued to best the other guard, fending off his sword with ease and punching his own bladed implement e’er harder, not piercing his breastplate, but driving him back. Beyond him, Sam York traded careful strokes, biding his time till he stepped aside to let his opponent overreach himself, and ran him through with a thrust to his unprotected armpit.
    Drawing a ragged breath, Jonas scoffed at the szlachcianka from the floor. “My decoy worked! Surrender yourself, or my servants will cut you down like the bitch in heat that you are!”
    And then Tremayne, spurning the need to cut his bonds, surged to the attack, surprising the woman with the virulence of his assault as he repeatedly kicked left and right, forcing her back into the corner between the iron maiden and the dungeon wall.
    Nick grimaced away the pain of his injury (BENNY) and struck at the perfectly-proportioned alabaster arm that held the mace, but scored only a light graze with the tip of his sword. The Devil’s Mistress responded with a torrent of mace-swings that battered down his guard, utterly disregarded a ferocious butt of the head delivered by the hand tied Tremayne as she passed, and struck Nick a blow across the crown that drove him to his knees.
    I discharged my pistol point blank, my shot passing through her gorgeous shoulder but scarcely causing her any more pause than the charging attack of Sam York, which struck only lightly as though he too could scarcely bring himself to harm her.

We were all ringing around the Devil’s Mistress save Kato, who fought on against the last of her dungeon guards behind us. He easily evaded the man’s every attack, but even with his strange features contorting with the greatest effort (BENNY) as he sought to put his opponent out of the fight, his blades merely rang again and again from the European steel of helmet and breastplate.
    “The master’s will is gone from you! I withdraw it!” I proclaimed, seeking to unnerve her further, and reversing my grip on my pistol to punctuate the statement with a swipe of its club-pommel. But my ruses had overreached themselves at last.
    “Only I know the Master’s will,” she gloated, “and it is I who command it!”
    Even as she uttered this, Michael Ezekiel Tremayne seized the moment and launched himself bodily into the air, suppressing his æsthetic reluctance to damage so beautiful a face and lashing out with his booted foot to kick her square upon the chin. The Devil’s Mistress crashed back into the stone of the wall.
    Then, spitting blood from mangled lips she pushed herself back up to her full height. “Master! We have need of thee!” she shrilled, even as Michael delivered a second kick and Sam York’s sword sliced across her leather bodice.
    The ruby upon her mace flashed with a scarlet light and with a thunder of noise the very wall beside her erupted open, massive stone blocks crashing into the dungeon in a cloud of mortar dust.

Mistress and Master

The light of the torches revealed a hideous abomination in the space beyond: a huge glabrous sac of pulsating matter, tinged in a clamouring motley of blood red, ichor green, putrefying blue and all manner of other vile colorations to offend the eye. Sprouting from this gelatinous mass were a waving throng of slimy tentacles, each ending impossibly in a gaping mouth of razor-sharp fangs.
    Existential dread emanated like a wave from the monster. Nick, Kato and Jonas were unmanned by it. But Tremayne, that seasoned hunter of monstrous beasts, if never so thoroughgoing a horror as this, kept his wits. He quickly took a lead by kicking out at the Devil’s Mistress once more, seeking to quell her before the monster would drive us back. Both feet struck her back against the wall, leaving her doubled up. With my knife I cut Tremayne’s bonds, then Sam and I cast off all gallantry, he striking at the woman with his sword and I with the pommel of my pistol, but she remained obdurate under our assault.
    And then the snaking tentacles swarmed forth in a rush, peremptorily swiping aside Sam’s and Nick’s extended swords and launching fanged maws to bite at each of us. Sam York gritted his teeth, refusing to yield to the pain of the bite (BENNY) and roared in defiance of a bruising swing of the szlachcianka witch’s mace.

Mace ruby flash red

    The glowing ruby at its tip waxed brighter with the stroke, and the truth flashed into my mind. “The gem on the mace! It is brighter when some part of the beast is near!”
    Given a free hand, Michael quickly seized up a vicious blade from the table and in despite of the bite of a tentacle-mouth bravely returned to attack the Devil’s Mistress in the shadow of her Master. Fighting off the pain of my own bite-wound, I sought in these direst circumstances to call the judgment of angels upon the mismatched pair of apostate creatures. For all the will I could pour into the effort, (BENNY) the angels’ response lacked the strength to overcome such trenchant evil and the two raged on undaunted. Despairing then myself, I turned about and fled but my traitor knee gave out, robbing me of speed, and the attack the monster sent after me bit through my garments and tore Lord only knows how great a bite of flesh from my back. Lurching forward in agony, I held myself up by clutching at the door jamb, only half aware that I was just beyond the reach of that dread thing.
    Nick Hat recoiled clear of the attack that lashed in past his upraised sword, but in fear of the huge monster he continued to back away. The next attack that came in at him he frantically parried away, and then he dashed past me to the safety of the stairway.
    A tentacle whipped past the last guard and its toothed maw bit flesh from Kato’s neck. Uncowed, the Nipponese was raised to greater deeds and a final mighty thrust of his torture implement pierced the steel of the guard’s breastplate, killing him on the instant.
    “All right, darling, this is it.” Sam York fought on beside Tremayne, applying all his concentration (BENNY) to strike the Devil’s Mistress, and was joined by Jonas de Winkler re-entering the fray with wild abandon despite his fearsome loss of blood, and stabbing some bladed implement down hard. Still the Devil’s Mistress fought on, though she swung more weakly now and Sam easily warded off her return blow.
    But the hideous devil that she called Master thrashed out with undimmed ferocity. Attacking mouths filled the air about them, striking Tremayne upon the wrist, biting deep into York’s thigh and worst of all closing about Jonas’ ankle. The bishop crashed in a heap on the floor but the tentacle forced itself onward, up inside his cassock. A shriek of agony we could scarce imagine escaped his throat and was abruptly cut short as the last vestige of consciousness mercifully deserted him.
    Kato, seeking at last to join the main assault, was momentarily taken aback by the bishop’s horrible fate. Then another tentacle flailed out at him, teeth closing in his side, and he was a warrior transformed. Blood streaming from his wound he literally threw himself at the Devil’s Mistress in a flurry of attacks too ferocious to counter. He stabbed low with one weapon, and brought the other smashing overhead, crunching through her skull and driving her lifeless to the floor. The dreaded mace fell from her grasp to clang upon the stone beside her.
    Scarce able to think for the pain of his wounded thigh, let alone defend himself, Sam York seized up the mace and backed away in roughly the direction of the door. Michael Tremayne was in no better shape, and the pair crossed half the distance to the door before a hail of waving, biting attacks left Tremayne reeling from a multitude of small wounds and brought York down next to him, his left leg laid open to the bone. For a second time, the mace of the Devil’s Mistress resounded upon the stone floor.

The mace, I thought, a mediæval knight’s weapon like those upon the walls of the great hall above us: arms of the Teutonic Knights who had suppressed the pagans of this chill land in former centuries. Could this monstrosity that imperils our souls be some demon formerly worshipped as a false god by the ancient pagans…?

Brandestonus

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The Devil's Dungeon

Our halting interrogation of the szlachcianka’s soldier had already taken quite some time when we withdrew to discuss the situation. Sam York was becoming concerned for his fine steed, if others of the ‘Devil’s Mistress’s’ soldiers might be patrolling the road, and Nick Hat muttered something about the armour of the other three soldiers. The pair returned to the horses and the mule cart down by the roadside, and Michael Ezekiel Tremayne and Bishop Jonas shortly rejoined us in the clearing by the woodcutter’s cottage.
    I related to these two that my interrogation had gleaned only a modicum of intelligence, and listed again the things we had yet to learn. Jonas boomed that he knew the minds of papists and that a spot of fire and brimstone would truly put the fear of God into the man. I yielded the role of translater to Michael Tremayne, that he and Jonas should have a clean slate. Where the man had previously defended his conscience by cause of having simply done his soldierly duty, a sermon from Jonas upon Satan’s demons tormenting his soul with fiery pitchforks throughout an eternity in hell promptly melted his resistance.
    We were soon apprised of the facts. The old szlachcic had been of advanced years and when death claimed him his daughter, Katya, a woman in her twenties, had succeeded to the title and assumed the rule of the demesne. But she immediately became haughty and cruel and given to sadistic punishments at the slightest provocation. She was driven by whatever was in the Dungeon, which from that day was off limits to all but a score of callous mercenaries.

We were painfully aware that if the return of the patrol was missed before we arrived, the castle might be on heightened alert, so we seven resolved to venture thither without further ado. Nick Hat was only persuaded by Jonas’ strongest imprecations to leave the plundered armour for the woodcutter to hide, rather than risk that any search of our cart discover it.
    We turned off the Warsaw road up onto the castle approach and as we neared we were challenged at point of muskets by the gatehouse detail. “Halt, strangers! Declare yourselves.”
    “Greetings, men of Poland,” proclaimed Jonas, translated again by Michael. “I am the Archbishop of Bath and Wells in England, and I am upon a pilgrimage with my retinue to a monastery a short distance hence. I would prevail upon the hospitality of your lord or lady this night. Please bid them come down and receive us.” (BENNY)
    The gate guards were somewhat taken aback and apparently revised their intent. They replied, with clearly unaccustomed deference, that an audience would be arranged. We were to enter the castle but must leave our arms in the cart before we proceeded. Our several swords of various descriptions, English bows, pistols and one large blunderbuss we left in Bob’s keeping upon the cart (the exception being my own Bohemian snaphaunce pistol which I had covertly transferred to the rear of my waistband).
    We were shown in through oaken doors to the great hall of the castle, a place steeped in a rich legacy, with many tapestries and mediæval weapons upon the walls, and suits of armour which I recognized as deriving from the heyday of the Order of the Teutonic Knights’ rule over these lands. But in despite of these trappings and the fire crackling in the great hearth, the hall felt strangely forbidding and cold, somehow devoid of the liveliness that such a place should have.
    Scarcely had we taken in the scene when the four guards drew steel. “Surrender or die!” grated their spokesman. As two of them held us at swords’ point, the other two produced ropes and indicated that they would bind our hands behind our backs. Jonas’ protests on our behalf were met grimly. “These are our orders. Shut your mouth or it will go the worse for you!”
    Not without misgivings, but painfully aware of the great number of soldiers within call, we complied trusting that we would be freed as soon as we were able to speak to the szlachcianka herself. We were led through a doorway and, at the end of a short passage, down rough-hewn steps into the infamous Dungeon itself. The dank walls seemed to leech all warmth from the air, and by the light of guttering torches wide-spaced upon the walls we beheld a large chamber with cells upon either side holding a dozen young women in meagre rags.

Iron maiden open Upon a central table were arrayed a great range of instruments of torture, an iron maiden stood against one wall, its spiked-lined door flung back, and opposite it stood another, ominously closed and with scarlet blood oozing into a bowl at its foot. Before this, caressing it like a lover, stood a peculiarly beautiful young woman, her porcelain skin contrasting with the rich black of her garment. This then was the szlachcianka Katya, ‘the Devil’s Mistress’. The szlachcianka80 Iron maiden closed

“Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee…” recited Jonas in the manner of the papists, expecting to gain the sympathy of his Polish audience, but cut short by a cuff across the mouth. Clearly no Church held sway in this godforsaken place.
   “Silence in our mistress’s’ presence!” barked the guard.
   “This is an outrage!” he protested. “I am a bish– an Archbishop.” Under the cold scrutiny of the Devil’s Mistress he sought to suck in his considerable girth and draw himself up to his full height, meeting her gaze with all the dignity he could muster.
   “Yes… a man will make a pleasing change to my Master’s tastes. Bring him.” She indicated the vacant iron maiden and turned away. Jonas gasped and briefly sought to resist as two of the guards roughly forced him forwards at the points of their swords.
   “Danger…” murmured Tremayne, beginning to peer urgently about the chamber.
   “Execute the others,” said the Devil’s Mistress coolly over her shoulder.

“No!” I gasped involuntarily, my reaction conveying as much to my companions as any translation. But then I recovered myself and feigned to command, “Stop! We are here from Countess Báthory of Hungary herself, the Master’s true chosen, who is displeased with you. Stop this, and thrown down your weapons!” I turned as I spoke, fixing my gaze especially upon the guard whose long sword was inches from my back. Though I gave the others in the Dungeon no pause, this one was daunted by the fierceness of my threat and his sword-tip sank to the ground as he looked to his mistress for directions.
    Beside me Sam York moved too fast for the second guard to stop him, and swung his full weight around behind a great kick, but it went too high and his boot clunked harmlessly upon the man’s breastplate. Then Nick Hat was on the man too, a furious knee ramming his codpiece into his body so hard that he gave a strangled yelp and passed out in a heap on the flagged floor. (LOOSE SWORD!)
    Tremayne twisted past the swordpoint of the other guard and flung himself upon him, ramming his forehead into the man’s face under the rim of his morion helmet. Kato meanwhile leapt in the air, his knees coming up practically to his ears, and when he landed lightly on his toes, his still-bound hands were now miraculously in front of him. But as he sprinted forward to garner a weapon of some sort from the grisly array of implements on the table the guard stepped away from Tremayne and lashed out, raking the tip of his long sword across Kato’s exposed back.

Jonas, meanwhile, took advantage of his two guards’ distraction and span his massive bulk around, sending one of them toppling back half into the waiting iron maiden. Unheeding of the other’s sword-stroke laying open his shoulder (BENNY) he tore across the room, bearing down upon the Devil’s Mistress. Given her surprise at this sudden resistance he was able to charge right into her before her snaking right hand could draw the cruel mace from her belt.
    But the bishop’s soft belly pressing her against her beloved iron maiden only raised the Devil’s Mistress to dreadful ire. Her eyes verily burned like scarlet flame in the dungeon gloom and she spat at Jonas full in the face before trying to slash her long, claw-like fingernails across his cheek. Held in the moment, her spittle warm on the skin of his face, even the god-fearing bishop could not help feeling a sudden attraction to this female that was most unnerving…

(I HAVE MY PISTOL IN THE BACK OF MY BELT. AND A KNIFE IN MY WALLET.)

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The Lands of the Devil’s Mistress

Eventually we did as best we might what Nicholas Hat had felt so strongly to be right. We found the iron-hard ground impossible to dig, so we laid the bodies in the roadside ditch and covered them over with rocks, the bishop offering a short service. By the time that had been done and the hateful cauldron roped onto our cart, we feared that we would not reach the next inn before night fall, and we durst not risk the cart on the rutted roads in the dark. We remained and spent a second watchful night in the desolate White Hart inn.

The Poor Folk

The next morning offered cold greeting, with driving winter rain which persisted throughout the morn and showed no sign of surcease as our cart trundled slowly on towards the grey outline of the mountains the road must cross.
    By midday we were cold and miserable enough to throw ourselves into a cauldron if it but promised to be warm, when we came upon a small hamlet. A couple of peasants scurrying between the huts hastened indoors at the sight of us, and before we drew nigh the first outbuilding we were met by a delegation of four men bravely grasping pitchforks and scythes.
    “Dark news from the north,” I called out in my halting Polish, met with stubborn silence. I said that we were English merchants and our guards, who had been attacked by a band of outlaws at the sign of the White Hart, but had won through. I gained a measure of sympathy and the makeshift weapons were lowered.
    “You are not who we thought,” said the leader in a rural dialect I found difficult. “We feared you were some of her soldiers,” he added, the pronoun somewhat mystifying. But, though still wary, he invited us to pull into a barn out of the rain. They watched in reticent silence as we shed our sodden cloaks and tended the mule and Sam’s and Jonas’ horses, but at an offer of sharing our meal if they could offer a hearth over which to cook it, and through the course of arranging same, they became more amenable.    But as I asked about the road southward, as we wished to know whether to journey on for the rest of this day, they crossed themselves in their papist fashion. The leader stepped to the doorway and pointed out into the rain at the dark ridge of mountains some leagues distant. “Her castle guards the pass,” he said, pointing, whereupon an ominous crack of lightning split the sky above it.
    “It will be safe for a party such as yours,” he said, not entirely without resentment, “for they prey only on the weak. But we poor folk live in the shadow of great evil – the Devil’s Mistress rules over our lives! We durst not oppose our szlachcianka’s soldiers, who punish any resistance.
    “The villages around these parts were normal once,” he sighed. “Yes, we were poor but we were free and even the serfs had three days a week to tend their own land. Then the Devil’s Mistress began taking girls. At first we thought it a blessing, for the soldiers told us the girls would be trained as servants. A lowly post to people such as yourselves, perhaps, but the money we were paid could feed a family for a whole year.
    “That was five years ago. We tried to visit to see our daughters, but were always refused. Then the next year the soldiers took more girls, and the next – as she hired more soldiers, the worst kind of men willing to commit any foul deed – still more. Last year they stopped paying, and took our children by force.
    “We began hiding our girls, but the soldiers burned down houses and killed livestock to force us to reveal where they were. Now we send our children away, to the town.
    “We would defy them, but they have our daughters! And the dark threats of the soldiers hint at the Devil’s Mistress inflicting punishments worse than death upon any who oppose her.” And none of their daughters had ever set foot outside the castle after they once went in through that gateway.

On hearing my translation, Kato said that such treatment of peasants in his own land would cause them to take up their rice flails and rise against the oppressors. But in truth he used many words I did not know, and I refrained from translating his ranting incitement that these Poles do the same.
    Too humble a fellow to speak on his own part, Sam York pointed out that a dignitary such as Bishop de Winkler should be welcome to the hospitality of the noblewoman’s castle, rather than being expected to endure the common inns of the road. Meeting the eye of Nick Hat, I said that we should pay this szlachcianka a visit, as it was clearly the right thing to do.

Rescuing the Woodcutter’s Daughter

Driving onward after our meal, by the middle of the afternoon our road was climbing steeply up the mountain pass, between a plunging pine-forested slope on one side and an open precipice over the river valley on the other. Rounding a bend we beheld a young woman sprawled in the roadway at the feet of four burly pikemen in breastplates and surcoats emblazoned with a black eagle whose talons dripped scarlet blood.
    The girl looked our way, revealing a large purple welt on the side of her face. “Help!” she cried, and at this one of the soldiers stepped forwards, raising a clenched fist and barking some order in Polish too rapid for me to follow.
    “Unhand that woman!” I demanded, undaunted, to their evident surprise.
    “You idiots should leave now,” was the leader’s retort. “This is official business.”
    Kato sprang from the footboard of the cart and sprinted forwards, his intention plain on his face. As two of the soldiers stood flanking their victim the other two came at Kato, but he danced easily aside from the tips of their lowered pikes, and tried to punch at the unprotected throat of the leader. An arrow from Nick Hat’s good English longbow struck the other in the armpit, felling him instantly and, fluidly drawing Grace Sam York shot from the saddle, taking the one who had spoken square in the chest. His breastplate was proof against the shot, but the brute reeled back from its force.
    Down from the cart myself, I persisted. “Back off, and leave the girl!” But they showed no inclination to comply so I hobbled forward, raised my cane and struck the dazed brute up under the chin, knocking him cold!
    Seeing their two comrades unceremoniously felled, the other two did belatedly start to back away up the road. I tried to demand that they escort us to their mistress, but in the heat of the moment faltered in my translation.
    Standing tall on the footboard with another arrow nocked, Nick Hat called out in English, “Drop your weapons or we shoot!” Sam York gave no corresponding pause, but dropped his reins and though confident with Favour in his left hand, narrowly missed as one of the soldiers cringed aside.
    “Tell them to surrender,” Nick urged me as Sam drew his curved sword and spurred forward. Kato drew both swords and fenced with the points of the two pikes confronting him, as the soldiers continued to try and withdraw.
    “Drop your weapons or we shoot!” I translated, showing my own pistol also. But the pair made no move to surrender to Kato’s unlikely mercy. Nick loosed, but only grazed the pikeman’s thigh, which scarcely seemed to slow him. He followed fluidly with a second shot, sacrificing finesse for full-draw force, and the second arrow punched through the centre of the solder’s breastplate to fell him instantly.
    Kato leaned away from the lunging pike-point of the last soldier standing, ran up inside his guard and past him, katana slicing out at arm’s length as he passed. He held his pose, not even looking back as the soldier’s head thumped to the roadway behind him, then smartly flicked the blood from his blade and sheathed it again.

Not the Spanish Inquisition

The peasant girl was all grateful tears, her thanks coming too thick and fast for me to catch every word. But then she collected herself and looked fearfully up and down the road. “Come away! More soldiers might come,” she said, gesturing to a path that climbed into the forest. “Our house is but a short way up this path.”

Morion

We bound, gagged and blindfolded our captive and concealed the bodies of his comrades in the undergrowth, that the scene of their demise need not lead to reprisals upon the homes of the nearest peasants. (No Christian burial for these, already identified as wilful ruffians rather than men pressed into service.) Nick Hat took as booty a morion helmet and the breast-and-back armour of the man nearest to him in size. I told Helga, the girl, to ensure that no one spoke in the soldier’s hearing, then we roughly woke him and marched him up the path, leaving Bishop de Winkler, Michael Tremayne and Bob with the mule cart rather than have an unoccupied cart attract unwanted attention from any other soldiers.

We arrived shortly at a level clearing in the steep forest, where smoke issued from a crude woodsman’s cottage, and took our captive aside to bind him to a distant tree trunk before approaching. We entreated him to silence, lest the next rope not be around his chest but around his neck.
    An old man emerged as we stepped into the clearing. “Child!” he cried. “I told you never to go out in the day! When I heard that soldiers were nearby I feared the worst. Praise to God for delivering you safely to me.”
    Helga released his grasp and indicated us. “Were it not for these brave travellers, I would have been on my way to… Well, they saved me, but they have killed three soldiers.”
    “Bah!” spat her father. “May the Devil take his own with speed. Please,” he gestured toward his house, “join us for something to eat. We are not rich, but we can offer hospitality.”
    We accepted the hospitality of Klaus the woodcutter, but more to get within doors and out of sight than to impose upon his and Helga’s no doubt meagre stock of bread, cheese and cold meat. After they had given their gratitudes a second time, they answered our questions about the castle of the Devil’s Mistress. They confirmed Nick Hat’s estimate that the garrison was fully fifty men, of whom all would be present bar maybe three or four squads out on ‘patrols’ preying on the countryfolk. Though only one squad of four men stood on watch in the gatehouse, the rest were housed in guardrooms well within earshot, and the alarm could easily be raised.

We returned then to the soldier tied to the tree, and loosed his gag. We told him brusquely that we could not suffer him to return to his szlachcianka’s castle, but that if he answered us truthfully he could hope to be set loose when we reached our journey’s end in Warsaw.
    I asked him why his mistress took so many young women from amongst the commoners in her demesne. Though cowed by our threats, he merely replied that they go to the dungeon, and when pressed claimed that he didn’t do dungeon duty, and that the guards who pulled that duty never spoke about what befell the young women there. They must still all be down there. At further questioning he reluctantly, almost vaguely, owned that not enough food was ever taken down into the dungeon for all the girls who had been taken in there, but that they never came back out either, living or dead.
    Disbelieving such apparent ignorance amongst the soldiers of the castle we threatened him with having to answer to God for his crimes, but he stubbornly replied only that he had done his duty to the szlachcianka, as he had served her father the szlachcic before her. We forcefully reminded him that that service was now over and that he would be in Warsaw before he next saw the light of day. He could not fear his mistress there. But even such distance seemed meaningless to him, and he maintained, in a voice devoid of emotion, that those who betrayed the mistress were ‘dealt with’.
    As for our party paying a visit to the castle, he replied that the mistress did not encourage visitors, and that even tradesmen only entered when their services had been invited.

We withdrew for a space to discuss the situation amongst ourselves. Clearly something here was terribly amiss, but we were unable to gain anything more than veiled hints of ‘fates worse than death’, and betrayers being ‘dealt with’. The inquisition lacked structure. We had not yet got this soldier’s name, nor a name or a description of the wicked noblewoman and her manner. We hadn’t yet asked whether there had been anything irregular in the fashion of the Devil’s Mistress’s succeeding her father, nor whether she was known to have a consort.
   I shared with my companions my hope that this was not some distant cousin of ‘the Blood Countess’, Elizabeth Báthory of Hungary who dwelt only a day’s journey from where I had stayed with the Count of Brno. That one sought immortality, and it was whispered that she bathed in the blood of virgins in the ridiculous but terrible belief that it would prolong her youth. I was minded that the Báthorys would have connections in Poland, as the szlachta of nobles of the realm had elected Stephen Báthory of Hungary to be King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania. He had been a popular ruler until his death not two decades ago, at which the current Sigismund III Vasa was voted to the throne.

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At the Sign of the White Hart

The stew  q50

The bloody white hart

   Nick Hat was a blur of action, up from his stool and flinging the table over as a barricade, spilling the treacherous tankards in every direction. He swung a fist, giving pause to the nearest attacker, though the drug deprived him of his aim.
   The tavern room swam before my eyes as the suddenly bestial-seeming Poles massed to rush our corner of the room. I saw that we had but one chance before they overran us with the sheer weight of their numbers.
   “Let the fear of the Lord be upon them whom he despiseth,” I declaimed (in the Latin), steadying my voice with an act of will as I chalked an angelic glyph upon the reverse of the table. I redoubled my concentration, forcing my hand to perform the strokes accurately in my urgent haste. “Let them quake before the judgment of the righteous angels of the Lord!”
   And Heaven be praised, the angels answered my plea. Unseen to mortal sight, their host scourged the souls of all the attackers before me. Some, against the walls of the room, escaped it but of the pack in the middle all save two quailed in recognition of their sinful intent and turned in headlong flight.
   “Et judicium omnibus,” I murmured in weary satisfaction, And justice for all. But I spoke too soon! The big innkeep himself, with the eyes of a very demoniac, drew on a hideous strength and forged onward through the tide of his fleeing comrades.

Kato darted between me and Jonas near the door, drawing his katana and striking an onrushing Pole an overhead stroke that clove his victim through the breastbone. With a kick he pushed the body clear of his blade.
   Jonas levelled Black Betty at the menacing innkeep, the blast of shot catching him full in the chest and shoulder and knocking him back against the wall. But insensible to injury the innkeep came on, launching over the bar and into the fray. Seeing this, Sam York drew his brace of pistols, Grace and Favour, and took careful aim. With fiendish strength the innkeep shouldered aside the pair of his accomplices at bay before Kato’s sword and swung a meat cleaver at his head. The Nipponese smoothly ducked it, but with redoubled frenzy the cleaver swung again on the backhand, faster than the eye could follow. Kato escaped only by the wildness of the attack, which chopped a great mass of plaster out of the wall behind him.
   Across the room a second desperate attacker leapt at Nicholas Hat, but had not seen the mercenary draw his long sword. Nick let the man’s own weight brutally spit him on the blade at the same time as sidestepping a clumsy swipe from the foul-breathed ghoul on his other side.
   The other half of our would-be attackers were still all but clawing at the walls in panic for the judgment of their souls. Two of them scrabbled open a door behind the bar and fled into the night.

And then, with Nick Hat buying us the time by stoutly holding the breach between his table-barricade and the wall, we concentrated a volley fusillade on the demoniac innkeep. His aim certain, Sam discharged both his pistols and both shot found their mark, but the monster was unstoppable.
   Jonas and I each pulled out our loaded pistols. Though fear of hitting Kato spoilt my shot, Jonas struck true. Drenched in an immense quantity of his own blood, the innkeep nevertheless roared on. His two accomplices on either flank failed to strike past the guard of Kato’s katana, as indeed he drew his kodachi in his left hand and redoubled his attack on the innkeep, dazzling swordplay pushing him reeling backwards.
   As the fear of the angels left them, the three remaining Poles saw the lethal defence we were mounting but nevertheless, in evident desperation, brandished their clubs and farm tools and joined the fray. The foremost charged down Nick Hat, batting aside his cold steel greeting and swinging down with its own attack. In evading that one, Nick took his eyes for just a moment off his first opponent who struck him in the ribs with his cudgel.

Katana  wakizashi cross horiz i

Our fire-power was now spent, and our grim struggle for survival against the man-monsters drew on. They were for the most part clumsy but desperate fighters and though the innkeep himself remained undaunted he was as much slowed from loss of blood as we were from the effects of his drugged ale.
   Already fighting off two opponents, Nick Hat avoided the clumsy charge of yet a third by the gruesome expedient of cutting his head clean off his shoulders even as he closed. Another reached over the table to strike at Sam York, who first clubbed the wretch back with his pistol-butt, then drew his scimitar and impaled it through the throat. As Jonas reloaded his pistol my own contribution was to beg the aid of a ruling angel of the element of air to distract the innkeep and hopefully gain Kato a final opening, but the effort proved ineffective against the brute.
   For a space Kato matched Nick’s accomplishment in battling three opponents at once, including the innkeep leader, but it took all his speed with both blades, and allowed no chance for a counter-attack. He was sorely pressed. Saving his neck with a crossed-blades block at the last instant, he was nevertheless swayed back by its force. And then he turned the tide of battle, baffling the innkeep with lightning-quick feints of the katana before stepping in and delivering a sweeping slash with his kodachi. The innkeep leaned desperately back out of its path, but not far enough. The tip of the weapon opened his throat and he collapsed to the floor with his life’s blood gushing from the wound.
   Jonas shot another one dead, and Nick, driven to vengeful fury cut down the man who had very nearly planted a rusty hatchet in his arm, before backing off to stand shoulder to shoulder with Sam York.

Nine of our attackers were down and, despite our swimming heads, still we five stood firm. An inkling of self-preservation finally dawned on the wretch facing Nick and Sam, and he backed away.

Severed hand 50pc

Of a sudden, though there had been no one behind him, only the great cauldron on the hearth, a pair of hands grasped him about the throat and began to strangle him. Prying at the hands, he reeled around and to our shock and horror we saw the jagged stumps at the wrists of these dis-bodied hands. And then it seemed we saw yet more severed hands ejecting themselves from the cauldron and proceeding to scuttle across the floor like crabs.
   Within moments Kato cut down his remaining opponent and, undeterred by the strangeness, Sam York decisively strode over and chopped down the last man, sending him sprawling back to upset the cauldron, whereupon the hands twitched their last and lay still.
   And then the only sounds were the wintry wind at the door and our own heaving breaths. We were the only ones left in the inn. “The drinks are on me!” declared an exhausted but suddenly elated Nicholas Hat.

The whole furious mêlée had taken less than a minute, and even now Michael Tremayne burst in with his rapier only to witness the scene.
   We had been drugged. These emaciated and desperate men appeared to us in this state as the living dead whilst they threatened us, but now on closer inspection simply looked pitiful in death. We reached the dark conclusion that they had been driven by starvation to waylay travellers and subsist on human flesh. They attacked in desperation, committed to fight to the death by the sure knowledge that they would be hanged if any victim escaped to tell of their crimes.
   But since we clearly could not trust our own senses during this nightmare episode, surely the hands in this cauldron of sickening human stew had merely been flung about the room when the cauldron was upset. They could not really have moved, like Sam York called them: “The lost travellers’ revenge”, could they? Though I know necromancers to work their spells with dead man’s candles, and even by the power of their twisted pacts to maintain the semblance of life in their own severed hands, the victims of these anthropophages could not all have been necromancers!
   But withal, it began to seem that strange evils, the forces of the Devil, were awakening in the world or even dogging our very own steps. Not for the first time did I rue the loss of my magical materials, and my pursuant inability to seek the counsel of higher intelligences.

Having tended to our only superficial injuries, and watching one another’s backs, we confirmed that the place was now empty. The two who escaped the fight had fled southwards into the forest and were now far beyond pursuit. A search of the building discovered such of their victims’ clothes as the wretches themselves had not already been wearing and a quantity of the zloty coin of Poland to a value of roughly £4. Nick Hat retained the innkeep’s cleaver and, ever practical, scavenged winter clothes from the fallen. I too took a cloak, and Kato a pair of boots better suited to the roads of the European winter than his strange wooden pattens. Nick was only reluctantly dissuaded from trying to claim the salvage price for a second-hand cauldron.
   The bodies of our attackers and the hands of their previous victims were unceremoniously removed outside. We secured the stable and the inn itself and Sam York took charge in assigning watches for the night, a swordsman and a pistolier in each shift.

We rose with the frozen dawn after a few hours’ restless sleep. Though I almost regret it, I expressed the sentiment that the hands from the stew were all that remained of good Christian men, and should be buried as such. Bishop Jonas was then prompted to propose a decent burial for all the man-eaters, to Sam York’s and my dismay. Sam preferred that they be hung from trees to dissuade others from imitating their crime. I pointed out that however crude, this was only the same as gibbeting them, which would have been the sentence for brigandage under English law, let alone murder and the eating of human flesh. And I added that with snow upon the iron-hard ground of the Polish winter, digging any sort of grave for eleven bodies would be the work of at least a day, even if there proved to be so much as a shovel remaining in this forlorn place. But then Nick Hat revealed a new side to his character, adamant that they should be buried, “Because it’s the right thing to do.” Every argument, however pragmatic, was met with the blank insistence that they must be buried “Because it’s the right thing to do.”

Brandestonus

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Pursuivants Ltd - Exeter, London, Gdansk

Heroes of Old Exeter Towne

£1 of loose change
Rat’s head the size of a pony’s. (£1)

No evidence of any source or cause of the rat’s gigantism, leaving me to conclude that the rat was a manifestation of the stirring evil of Satan, the Great Serpent of which N’Longa spoke, the third monstrous or supernatural encounter in less than three weeks since our paths crossed in Lincolneshire.
    On later conferring with monster-expert Michael Tremayne, he confessed to having never having heard of any beast such as that one we had faced and slain. He suggested that it might indeed have been the doing of the witch’s curse. But I had never learnt of any power of natural magick or talent of the cunning-folk that could cause a creature to attain such unnatural size…

We emerged from the culvert-grate, bespattered but victorious, and trudged our damp and weary way back to the street where Michael Tremayne was ably directing the frankly bewildered constables. Some good-hearted neighbour had rousted the nearby kin of the slaughtered family, and as we gave the orphaned girl-child, Catherine, into the arms of her aunt and uncle, the benighted folk of Exeter arose in spontaneous applause. A tavern was opened in despite of the hour, and we were feted like heroes.

On rising late the next morning, we found word of our deeds to have spread throughout the city, and the Exonians could not do enough for us.
    It remained to us that we must needs hie us to London to make rendez-vous with Sam York. As we made enquiries on the docks, a Captain Noakes was so taken with the word of our deed that he offered us free passage aboard his Sheppey Maid, sailing with the tide two days thence.
    Jonas led us in unabashedly drinking and dining like princes at the expense of countless wishers-well ‘as was only his due – and that of his retinue’. Over the two days Nick Hat and I quizzed many a ship’s captain as to any risings of evil in the world, or any word of the latter fate of Solomon Kane, that other one shown to us by the enigmatic dream-master of Africa. No one in Devonshire had any news of Kane since the old salts said he departed their shores many years ago, bound for Hamburg, the free imperial city-state that squats in the Germanies between Schleswig-Holstein and Lower Saxony. Asking about risings of evil in the world elicited only a succession of heartfelt oaths against papists and Spain, news of privateers and skirmishes in the Spanish War, including a hasty besieging of Spanish and Irish forces in a town beyond the Pale somewhere in County Cork. No merchantmen currently dared ply the shipping lanes between England and the Spanish Netherlands.

At high tide late on the second day we took ship for London. The going up the English Channel was typical for the season, euphemistically described by the captain as ‘choppy’. Our passage took fully eight days before we rounded the last bend of the Thames and entered the Port of London.
    Between bouts of sea-sickness, Nick Hat’s injuries had received Jonas’ ministrations, but he still failed to make a recovery.
    In Exeter I had bought me a woodcarver’s knife and a cord of Dartmoor rowan-wood, and I spent a good part of the voyage in carving a walking stick in a rudimentary likeness of the staff of Kane as seen in dreame. I am not completely ignorant of the exigencies of the grain in wood & cetera, and pride myself on my eye for detail, but the result was unsatisfactory.

Broken cane

London

Panorama of london and the thames  parts 2 3  c.1600 sepia

Though not relevant to this account, we had a high time at the famous Mermaid Taverne, and on the evening of the 11th day of January, Anno 1603, we were reunited with a saddle-weary Sam York.

Letters of introduction were penned by York, de Winkler and myself. In the following days York procured for Nick Hat the attentions a colleague of his physician father, one of the foremost medical men in the capital. Tremayne and Kato betook themselves to the Port and made enquiries about sailings to the Continent, should the European gem of power prove likely to lie beyond the shores of Merrie England.

Lambeth palace cropped

    Bishop de Winkler was received at Lambeth Palace by his primate, John Whitgift, the Archbishop of Canterbury (a Lincolneshire man), sympathetic to Winkler on account of their shared High Church leanings. After the formalities had been observed, Jonas related insouciantly that all was in order with the diocese of Bath and Wells, but he himself felt a higher calling. He had had a vision, which he humbly believed to have been sent by God, of encroaching evil, which he assured the Archbishop was not the mad rambling of a cider-sucking West Countryman, and which he felt honour-bound to pursue.
   

Archbishop of c  john whitgift

    Whitgift responded without acknowledging the truth of supernatural stirrings, such things having been impossible since the death of Christ, and invariably attributable to hysteria in the witnesses, the charlatanry of cunning-folk or the ranting of Romists. But the two piously concurred that the sovereignty of England was surrounded by popish plots taking many shapes. Whitgift agreed rather readily to Jonas’ taking three months’ sabbatical, and indeed told him that if the affair proved as grave as feared, Jonas need not hurry back even at the end of that time. Whitgift would keep his seat warm in the Synod. On being prompted as to the likelihood that costs would be incurred in this undertaking, Whitgift smoothly reassured Jonas that the Church was deeply appreciative of his personal sacrifices.
    Jonas just remembered at the last my counsel that he should seek access to the Lambeth Palace library, and the centuries of Church records that it contains. He was offhandedly referred to the librarian, who duly granted him leave to study there.

   
My own message to Lord Percy was also favourably received, and our party were invited to dine at Northumberland House. The first part of the evening was spent convivially with the Earl and a select party of courtiers, who found Kato and the tale of his journey from the Far East a great curiosity and marvelled at our incredulous tale of a rat the size of a horse in the ancient flooded cellars of Exeter. We in turn were introduced to a novelty that the earl’s close friend, Sir Walter Raleigh, was making popular with Good Queen Bess and her circles at the Court of St James’s: the “dry drink” consumed by inhaling the smoke of a leaf called tobah imported from the New World.

Henry percy 9th earl of northumberland

    Then by some unseen agreement the others excused themselves to go carousing in Southwarke, leaving the six of us alone in the company of Earl Henry. I apologized for the earlier showmanship, but felt sure that tall tales could be easily dismissed. For the eyes of the Earl alone, Nick Hat produced the head of the Beast of Exeter, and I affirmed the literal truth of our account.
    I proceeded to tell the earl the whole of our experiences. My companions were not without their misgivings at this, and I had already noted appraising gazes being exchanged with the earl by Bishop de Winkler and Sam York in particular, whom I subtly noted to address the earl as “Northumberland” without any of the deference due to a peer of the realm. But I persisted in sharing every detail with my former patron. I made the most of the manifest power of N’Longa to severally visit all our dreams and then to send us a dream which we all shared, without our needing to possess the Gift of conversing with spirits.
    Earl Henry was reluctant to attribute to N’Longa such magical power that he might have directly caused us all to be convened in Thornton Curtis. As well-versed in science and logic as in alchemy, he pointed out that as men of action and so forth, it was not unusual that we should each have been drawn to the site of the most notable event in the district. He cautioned that it were never safe to guess at the likelihood of things that have already come to pass. And he asked what I would have of him.
    “Our needs are two-fold, beyond fighting Evil wherever it rises” quoth I. “We are charged with searching the world to secure six long-hidden gems of power, the which are required for nothing less than to slay Satan, now unchained in this tumultuous age. And we also feel compelled to seek after a puritan by the name of Solomon Kane.”
    The earl knew the name of Kane, and observed that it seemed he must have been another instrument of the dream-speaker, but could offer no more as to his whereabouts than had the folk of Devonshire. As to these gems, he said that they were indeed hidden from his knowledge also. But to defy even magical inquiry down long ages they must be hidden under the auspices of places of power whose locations would by definition have been jealously guarded secrets. It remained possible that some hint of these places might be gleaned from a library specializing in the supernatural, but the earl was not optimistic. The finest such library in England, that collected by Doctor John Dee just up the Thames at Mortlake, had been plundered and divided in his absence and was no more. I was, however, welcome to peruse the earl’s own famously extensive library.

Syon house

And so I commenced my second course of esoteric study at the earl’s Syon House home, 10 miles upriver from London. Were my former materials not ruined in the wreck of the Polish merchantman, I might have made altogether different enquiries of the angels. But what remained to me was the challenge, not to simply to unearth the hints and clues as to places of power in the earl’s books, but to sift from the innumerable references to such places those which were too well-known, and then identify which amongst the many obscure, uncertain or glancing references might hold promise. Stonehenge, Glastonbury, Rosslyn, Karnak, Toledo: though fascinating, these places were not sufficiently secret. But the subtler references were so numerous that it was wellnigh impossible to identify a candidate site with any confidence.
    The answers came in conference over this week with my companions of N’Longa’s dream. Solomon Kane was not unknown to the Church of England, and Jonas’ researches came up with certain suggestions as to the places he might have ventured. Sam York also, though he would not be drawn to identify the sources of his intelligence, narrowed down other unconfirmed leads. And our three independent approaches, when we came together and compared notes, proved to cohere on three candidates.
    Not only did the Schwarzwald, the Black Forest of Bavaria in the Germanies, have a reputation for mystery and Walpurgisnacht witches, but we found records of a Baron Mülhoffer there having played host to Solomon Kane. Yet further into the Continent, in the lands of Wallachia in Transylvania that fell under the Ottoman Turk a century ago, a ‘Castle Dracula’ was the subject of so many wildly divers accounts first of heroism and then of notoriety that it seemed to manifest a power of misdirection that might qualify it as the secret repose of a gem of power. And a monastery in central Poland, the which was all but unknown even to its neighbours in the vale of the Vistula, also held promise. We knew this monastery to have received Kane as guest for a time, as our own Michael Tremayne remembered him there. We duly seized on this as the most promising place to visit, given the favourable reception Michael could expect from his Father Tutor.
    Earl Henry wished me well. He bade me keep him apprised of the progress in our quest, share with him anything of note that we might learn upon the way, and return to him with whatever maps of the wide world I might be able to make.

In the space of the week that had passed, the first class care had enabled Nicholas Hat to recover his full health and vitality once more.

We took ship in the middle of January and endured a wintry passage over the northward German Sea, beyond the threat of Spanish warships, and were unaccosted by any of their privateers. We passed through the straits of the Skagerrak to Copenhagen, onwards into the Baltic Sea and along the coast of Pomerania.
    I passed the time aboard ship in writing this account in a book that Sam York kindly purchased for the purpose. Also, having picked out a cord of bog oak, I betook me to try again to carve a walking stick that might achieve a resemblance to the staff of Kane. Poor light, cold hands and the tossing of the vessel conspired to render the piece scarcely less disappointing than my first attempt.

Broken cane

Poland

At length, after a voyage of more than 300 leagues, on 6 February Anno 1603 we reached the province of Royal Prussia in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and disembarked in the great Hanseatic port of Danzig, called Gdańsk by the Poles.

Gdansk

Tremayne could naturally get by in Polish, and I was myself not entirely ignorant of that tongue. Indeed it was not two months since I had travelled northward all through Poland to this very port to take that ill-fated ship for England. Between the fractious German states of the Holy Roman Empire to the west, and a Muscovy in the east in turmoil under Boris Godunov after the son of Ivan the Terrible had died without an heir, the Polish folk of Gdańsk proudly told us that Sigmund III Vasa, King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania, ruled a prosperous and thriving nation. But strangely, when we entered into serious negotiation with the merchants of that port, we were told of foul summers ruining two successive harvests, times being hard, prices high and travel dangerous. Furthermore, solicitous of the privacy of his monastery, Tremayne insisted that we not simply travel by boat up the Vistula and then cut inland to Sierpc, but must needs travel overland, threading the roadways from Gdańsk towards the new capital at Warsaw.
    We purchased a cart and a mule to draw it, and enough provisions that we would not starve if we failed to find an inn for the night. Sam York rather extravagantly purchased a splendid cartographer’s map, and Nick Hat purchased two outwardly identical decks of cards, one of which was marked. Adrift in a land where no one could understand his claims and demands, Jonas de Winkler promptly borrowed one of the decks and spent most of the day playing at Patience and quietly getting exceeding drunk.

On the Road to Warsaw

I drove the cart out of Gdańsk, 30 leagues of roadways ahead of us. The first day was uneventful, seeing us crossing the Vistula by ferry at Dirschau (Tczew) and climbing gently out of the river basin to reach the town Marienburg (Malborg) well before nightfall, its castle the former seat of the Order of Teutonic Knights.
    In the morning we took the Warsaw road towards Eylau (Ilawa), and reached a convenient roadside inn for the night. The inn was quiet and the innkeeper more talkative than the townsfolk of Marienburg, asking our reason to be upon the road. We smoothly supplied the story that Sam York had ably prepared, that we were English merchants on a trading mission seeking to take up a business proposition from certain parties in Warsaw. The innkeeper nodded frowningly, and related that he had concerns about the state of the road southwards. Messengers had lately come through, announcing travellers who had never arrived, including a nobleman of good name, cousin to the voivod. Nick Hat conjectured as to the prospect of a reward if we might perchance assist the nobleman through any straitened circumstances. We had some converse with the innkeeper about folk forced off their lands by the failure of the last two harvests and turning to banditry upon the roads. Forewarned, we journeyed on through the next day, through low-lying countryside with swamps upon either side of the road, and crossing a small river at a ford, but all without incident.

White stag sepia

We reached another inn that evening, the sign of the white hart (the Biały Jeleń). Reeking of unwashed beer spills, it was a far ruder place than our accommodation of the previous night, with ten or so other customers and a single hearth over which simmered a tawdry-looking pot of stew. Repeating our story as English merchants, we took care this time to stress that we carried no merchandise on this leg of our trading mission. We asked about the fates of travellers on this road and the innkeeper, close-mouthed and impossible to read, told us that a pass to the south might be a danger.
    Cold as the night was, we were all uneasy at the prospect of taking the single rooms which were the only accommodation offering a fire. And then the apologetic innkeeper said that, given the food shortages since the last two harvests had failed, he could only serve a cold supper of bread and cheese. Sam York in his munificence offered provender from our own stores, which the innkeeper greeted by offering the evening’s ale on the house.
    I took only as little ale as I might without offending the hospitality of our increasingly insistent fellow customers, as they persisted in the Polish custom of offering toast after toast. I nevertheless felt my thoughts begin to swim, and sensed that something was not right. With an effort of concentration I finally realized that they had lied about the bread and cheese, with that pot of stew sitting in plain view on the hearth.
    “The stew!” I uttered, clambering only with some effort to my feet and staring dumbly about at my companions. The Poles loomed in, their faces suddenly ghoulish in my befuddled sight, and with various crude knives and wooden clubs in their hands. “We are beset!” I managed, before they fell upon us!

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A Rodent of Unusual Size

Nicholas hat small

During the Meanwhilst

Nicholas Hat was not long upon the road with Samuel York. He must have failed to match the pace set by the Northern gentleman, either through a lack of horsemanship or by cause of the slow healing of the injuries he had sustained in the clutches of the living corpse of Lincolneshire. Relenting of the long ride to London, he recoursed to joining ourselves and taking ship from Exeter. Seeking us in the city streets on the night of 1 January, Anno 1603, he heard the report when I discharged my fire-arm, and ran towards the sound.
 

Slaughterhouse Carnage

As Jonas entered the rude house with lantern held high I noted several clawed gouges in the timber of the door, betokening some creature having burst it inwards. In the wake of Jonas’ cry of horror I steeled myself, stepped to the doorway and myself beheld the carnage within. The main room of the house was all disarrayed, the poor householders having lost their lives in a tempest of violence. Their mortal remains were mere tattered members and shreds of flesh, three severed heads lay hap-hazard ’bout the room and spattered blood still trickled down the walls.
    “Back here, back here!” bellowed Jonas to our companions at the end of the street before returning to the room and with his episcopal pistol aloft in one hand, performing a one-handed benediction over the departed with the other.
    By this time Tremayne and Bob were some way off to the left and Kato still pursued the right-hand turn. To our great surprise, Jonas’ command was answered by none other than Nicholas Hat bursting in behind us. Uttering a nautical oath at the sight within he drew out his sword and headed on through the second doorway into the householders’ bed room. He declared the place empty, and with the shutters at the window still securely fastened.
    I returned to the street and called out to the houses nearby, “The killer is on the loose! Keep your doors and shutters barred!”

Despite this imprecation, as Kato, Tremayne and Bob dejectedly returned, several of the good burghers of Exeter were emerging from their homes. Another murder? they were asking. Was it the Axe-Murderer?
    Jonas took control of the situation. “There has been a terrible crime this night. You, stay inside your home. You and you, you stay too. You, fetch the constables. But you,” (this to stoutest-looking of the fellows near by), “you come with us.” The fellow identified the householders as Joe and his wife, and their elder child. But most significantly he exclaimed that there was no sign of the younger. At Jonas’ prompting he told us this was Catherine, a little girl only seven or eight years old.

In ye Shytte Again

During this time, Michael Tremayne and Kato the Cathayan had been laboriously quartering the street, lanterns held low to the ground in search of the killer’s trail. Tremayne gave up and turned to organizing the locals but Kato found a blood-smear that had not been left by any human foot and was most insistent in driving us all to seek further signs. None of us shared his conviction, but as the life of a child might depend upon us we persisted against wanhope (incl. Branston BENNY)… until Nick Hat prevailed. He led us uncertainly through the streets until he discovered a large culvert-grate that had been forced outwards by some not inconsiderable strength.
    All eyes turned to Kato, who leant forward with his lantern to peer within before recoiling sharply. “This smell even worse than befo’,” he said, clapping a hand to his nose against an odour more sinister than the simple reek of human ordure.
    With wetted cloths knotted over our mouths and noses we lowered ourselves into the space below the level of the streets. Jonas was especially vocal in protesting about ‘lowering himself in such a fashion’. We found ourselves in a circular chamber no more than three strides across, constructed of ancient brickwork bearing occasional fragments of rotted plasterwork and mosaic upon the walls, and a solid flagged floor lay beneath the silt of vile muck. But the waste of the city had burst in, in small trickles from the walls and in fissures astir with sewage which must somewhere join the underground stream leading into the River Exe.
    The ordure made the whole place treacherous in the extreme, requiring me to test the purchase of my cane most carefully before trusting my weight to it. But it was not entirely unwelcome, as the soft stuff still showed the slot of our quarry, the which was clearly a four-footed beast at least the size of a large hound.

Rats!

We rounded a first corner roughly a chain from our ingress and came to a place where smaller tunnels led off to either side. At nearly the same instant, Jonas and I heard a mounting rush of pattering topped by a chorus of piercing squeaks. A writhing, chattering tide of teeth and fur rounded the further corner and we moved smartly aside into a side-tunnel. Nick Hat dived for the same safety, but before Kato could follow suit he was embroiled in a sudden wave of some hundreds of frantic rats, way more than he could fend off with his kodachi sword. The swarming rats seethed on and by, inflicting a bloody mess of bites and scratches upon Kato, but he remained unbowed and urged us all onwards in the direction whence the rats had come, saying that their panic was doubtless caused by the murderous beast that we pursued.
    He led us into a square chamber bestrewn with countless small bones, suggesting dozens of corpses of cats and dogs and including several human remains. We four were all stricken by the horror of this charnel house, but our resolve remained firm. By the light of his lantern Jonas pronounced the bones not to have been hacked by any mad man, but to have been gnawed upon by a beast with flat-cutting foreteeth the size of an axe or cleaver.
    “This must be a great King Rat,” quoth Jonas.
    “A giant rat of Sumatra,” gasped Kato. He passed me his lantern and drew his second, larger katana sword, to lead the way forward once more.

Katana  wakizashi cross horiz i

A Rodent of Unusual Size

A little further on the ancient brick tunnel debouched into a circular chamber larger than any space we had thus far encountered, the river-water ending in a stagnant pool of sewage at its centre. And just beyond this pool, our lantern light glinted redly back from the eyes of the beast.
    It came at us, a creature with the appearance of a rat but of a size greater than any hound, at least 10 hands at the shoulder.
    Jonas surged forward as fast as the monster, thrusting Nick and Kato aside to slip and stagger in the slime as he levelled Black Betty. Be it blind luck, desperation or divine inspiration (BENNY; RIGHTEOUS RAGE) he shot it squarely in the muzzle with the full load of his blunderbuss, halting the rat-monster in its tracks and eliciting an insane, hate-filled grimace as the thunder of the shot echoed through the sewer and brought dust sifting down from the ceiling.
    Nick Hat seized the moment and charged unerringly forwards into the chamber in despite of the treacherous muck and slime underfoot. His mighty overhead swing glanced from the matted fur of the monster’s scalp (BENNY). But to Nick’s shock the blow seemed only to bring the beast to its senses after Jonas’ shot. (MONSTER BENNY SOAKED, CLEARING SHAKEN STATUS) I too put my all into making the one shot of my snaphaunce pistol count. (BENNY) The ball struck true, but scarcely seemed to bother the brute. So I besought me to the higher powers, strewing blessed chalk dust in the crudest of circles and commencing an invocation of the angels.

Kato  nick n king rat 50

    “Uiyu-yu mofo’!” came Kato’s war-cry as he dashed past me, swinging both swords. His katana bit deep but the monstrous rat recked naught of the wound, glaring at Kato with an unholy intelligence in its eyes and responding by sinking its horrible yellow fore-teeth into the flesh of his arm.

    Kato gave his all in a barrage of slicing sword-strokes (LAST BENNY). The several cuts he gave it seemed to take no toll (MONSTER BENNY), but his very ferocity fought the advancing monster to a halt. Nick sidestepped away down the great rat’s flank until it could see only one of its assailants at a time, and took full advantage of Kato’s onslaught to land a great double-handed blow of his own long sword across its spine.
    The rat was tumbled, its hindquarters giving way under the weight of the blow (LAST MONSTER BENNY) but, kicking a spray of filth in every direction, the maddened beast surged forth anon. Reckless of Kato’s guard it threw itself upon him, those great teeth raking down his shoulder. (SHAKEN) The rat’s head drew back to bite again, the moment having come too soon for the angels yet to have heeded my call. But both the rat and I had forgotten Jonas de Winkler. Cool under pressure the bishop discharged the episcopal pistol at five paces, unerringly striking the rat full in the face and blasting it shrieking backwards (SHAKEN), winning Kato the moment he needed to regain himself (UNSHAKE).
    I struggled to keep the cadence of my invocation as the desperate brawl continued. The rat rolled about, just barely avoiding the fervent swipes of Nick’s sword left and (BENNY) right, but unable to gather itself to bite out again. Even Jonas waded in, reversing his grip on his fire-arm and attempting to club the pistol at the rat, but the fire in his belly had faltered, leaving his attacks inexpert. Then Kato threw himself into a final series of strikes, a feint of the kodachi overextending the rat and a perfect impaling blow burying the katana in the monster’s ribcage right up to its disk-shaped guard. I slowed on the last syllable of my invocation. The next swipe of Nick’s sword knocked the rat senseless, before a final blow took off its head.

Of a sudden, the loudest noise in the chamber was the heaving of our own breath. And then this was joined by an explosive sob of release. Lifting our lanterns we saw a dishevelled young girl standing with her back pressed back against the further wall.
    “Child, child, be not afraid. I am the archbishop of Bath and Wells and I have come to save you… Err, Catherine.”
    The eyes of Nicholas Hat began scanning the chamber for the remains of the beast’s former victims, he being aware that any wealth would be of no use to them now.
    Though we were bloodied and battered and up to our knees in shytte, there was a sense that evil had been vanquished and that our usual approximation of normal order reigned once more.

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Axe Murders in Exeter

Axe-murders in Exeter

Exeter 1563 50

As we reached Exeter in the middle of the next morning, Jonas fixed his gaze on the tower of St Peter’s and declared that he had no choice but to prevail upon the hospitality of his brother bishop. And off he hurried through the city gates.
    Tremayne, Kato-san and I turned aside into the dock quarter, looking to enquire about passage to London, when we arrived upon a scene at the quayside. A small agitated crowd was gathered about two constables who were using boathooks to drag out yet another body found floating in the docks.
    “Devil take my soul,” exclaimed one of the constables, “this is the fifth one in a week!”
    Whilst Kato and I held back, Tremayne pushed through the crowd and learnt that there had been a string of killings, the bodies found in the mornings in the weirs on the River Exe or in the Exeter Canal that led down to the estuary. Looking at the body before the constables could cover it he saw many deep wounds, as made by some wide, flat blade like an axe. When he remarked upon this, the more vocal constable muttered softly, “I blame that witch.” The first corpse had been found the morning after a condemned witch had died in the gibbet in the town square.

Flibberty gibbet cropped 67 50

Tremayne worked the crowd like a preacher, engaging their concerns and learning that the victims had been three men and two low women who frequented the docks. More alarmingly he learnt that the witch, who had been tried and sentenced to death in a gibbet a little more than a week ago, had gruesomely bitten open the veins in her own wrists and had been heard to curse the town as she died, shrieking “By my blood will I have revenge!” Tremayne was positive that this revenge was not being realized through the action of any supernatural creature.
    Unsurprisingly I found no blood about the corpse in the gibbet, a midwinter week since the witch’s death, but I did note that her blood might likely have drained through a small grate that gave onto some void below the streets themselves. After the horrific bloody manifestation of the vengeance of Roger Ivens, we were suspicious as to the fate of the witch’s blood if it might be the vehicle of her sorcerous power. We learned that grates in the streets give onto a subterranean tributary of the Exe and were able to locate its egress at the level of what might loosely be called water in the side of the quay. We thought the foetor and miasma were truly not to be endured, but we had not reckoned with Kato’s power of Endurance. Resisting all attempts to deter him, he stripped to nothing but an outlandish loin cloth and waded waist deep in frigid ordure into the sewer with a lantern in one hand and his kodachi sword in the other. I hurried to the gibbet grate and commenced to whistle a popular air. At length I descried Kato’s light below. Briefly he appeared beneath my feet, indicated with a mute grimace that there was nothing to be seen, and promptly staggered in desperation back towards the open air.

The remainder of the afternoon was spent in attempting to learn anything from the townsfolk of Exeter about the victims or their whereabouts when they were murdered, but all to no avail. Tremayne pointed out that women of ill repute might be expected to look out for one another’s wellbeing, and might only emerge after dark. But with nightfall the streets emptied and there was an air of fear in the few folk who were abroad. Eventually I located a pair of slatterns and managed to persuade them that it was in their interests to tell us anything they knew, but that proved all too little. They opined that any talk of a witch’s curse just showed the ignorance of menfolk, and that the murderer was surely some lunatic man with an axe.
    As the night drew on we continued to roam the town and the docks, more by way of a patrol now. I concluded that the killer’s weapon might be the tool of a particular craft, such as a shipwright’s axe, but all the dockyards were deserted and locked up. And then I realised that a butcher’s cleaver could equally have inflicted those wounds, and we concentrated our patrol in the vicinity of the shambles.
 

Bob

It was in the shambles sometime after midnight that Kato exclaimed, “Wha’ the fuh’?!” and pointed to a dark-clothed figure poised in mid-clamber out of a pair of shutters. Tremayne surged forward, manhandled the figure out of the window and bundled him to the cobbles.
    “Od’s blood!” came a breathless curse.
    “Give it up, man,” quoth I. “You’re under three guns!”
    Jonas rushed up to train his blunderbuss and his newly purchased episcopal pistol upon the miscreant.
    It soon became clear that our man was no cleaver-wielding murderer but a young footpad protesting that he had resorted to crime only because his family’s poverty required him to steal food, or maybe a candlestick upon occasion. I remarked that the candlestick-maker’s shop would be two doors down from the butcher’s where we’d caught him, but I think he failed to hear me. Kato was subjecting him to a torrent of criticism both of his moral failings in turning to crime, and then of his ineptitude in having emerged from that property empty-handed, a failing which would cost him a finger in Kato’s country. Our outlandish companion ended by charitably giving the captive a silver shilling.
    The lad, who gave his name as Bob (but wasn’t a lass), pleaded not to be handed over to the sheriff. I told him he was coming with us, thinking him likely to know the streets of Exeter better than we. But it was to Tremayne, who had first apprehended him, that Bob attached himself.
 

A Shadow in the Dark

Some hours later, a scream sliced through the winter night, seeming to come from immediately ahead of us. I saw a shape in the darkness and gave it the ultimatum, “Halt or I shoot!”
    The shape slunk on unabated, and I had no choice but to discharge my weapon into the air. “Uncover your lanterns!” I urged my companions, pointing where they should shine a light.

M tremayne and the dark shape cleaner flipped 15

Tremayne dashed forward, drawing steel and seeing in his lantern light a number of blood drops on the cobbles ahead. But 20 yards on, where the street turned left or right, no further drops showed which way the figure had gone. Tremayne went left, Bob following directly behind him, but they saw nothing that way. Kato ran up too and turned the other way, but also saw nothing.
    The slowest of our party, I myself had taken only a few paces as I hastened to re-charge my pistol, and the bulky figure of Jonas was only a little ahead of me as he held his lantern aloft and stepped through the doorway from which I’d seen the shadow emerge.

Snake eyes dice small

A second scream wrenched out into the Exeter night, this one coming from the throat of Jonas de Winkler as he beheld the slaughterhouse carnage within. But he rapidly mastered himself (BENNY) and looking about he descried fresh scratches in the floorboards several inches long, as though made by the claws of some animal.

Brandestonus

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Farewell to Torkertown

The Dream-speaker of Africa

As I endured the rough comforts of sleeping in the common room of The Lamb at Torkertown, that night brought me a second most remarkable dream.
    From a normal dream of boyhood exploration I found myself in a cave, and then the dream changed such that I was my adult self in another cave sitting at a camp fire with my five new travelling companions, Tremayne, York, Kato, Hat, and de Winkler.
    Before us sat a wizened being, the which appeared to be a man of indeterminable age with skin weathered like ancient parchment but black as night, and with eyes more alive than those of any person I have ever encountered. But in this his dream none of us had any power of speech to ask questions of him.

N longa90

    “Evil comes,” he said sadly, tracing a wiggling line in the dirt of the cave floor. “Children of Abraham know it as Satan, but this only one name. When Egypt was young, it was Apep. To Northmen it was World Serpent. In the land where sun sleeps, it Feathered Serpent. All men know of it, but none know it.
    “It has no name. N’Longa know it from old days as Great Serpent, Mother of Evil, and it grow big. Ancient magics held it, but they now gone.
    “Only one way to find where it sleeps and kill it. Find the six gems of power. Long hidden they are, masked by evil from N’Longa’s gaze. Search the world, listen to talk of evil and strike against darkness. One lies in the Old World, one in my homeland of Africa, two in the New World, and one in the lands of Cathay. Search the world.
    “N’Longa dream-speak you again when he knows more.”

After meeting in Lincolneshire and after having “struck against darkness” (to use the words of this ‘N’Longa’) it had been marvel enow that we six had each dreamed of Solomon Kane. But we now found that each of our dreamings had come to the same scene, which had played out identically in every detail.
    We had no doubt that this great being was the one who had drawn each of us by divers means into the group which he now directed, though we could not fathom his selection. Kato and I both misgave the circumstances that removed our previous commitments, if they were of N’Longa’s making, and Tremayne and I engaged in quite some speculation as to his possible nature.

Naturally I was familiar with many syncretistic aspects of Satan, such as the “Apep” or Apophis of the Ægyptians and Iormungand the Midgard Serpent of Snorri Sturluson, though the black wizard referred to others unknown to me. And in the matter of his charge to seek the six gems of power (of which I noted that he had mentioned only five), I humbly expressed my surprise not ever to have read of any such tradition. I suggested that our best course would be to take ship to London where I should be able to consult the library of Lord Percy at Syon House. For so high a calling as ours, the earl might even arrange an introduction to Dr. John Dee, owner of the greatest library of arcane works in England. Mayhap the famous Doctor and I were to meet at last.1
    Sam York approved of my notion and, with the unselfconscious air that his approval ended the discussion, announced that he must needs ride on business of his own and would join us in London. For sake of a ‘rendez-vous’ I suggested that both parties attend the Mermaid Tavern off Cheapside at sunset each day. By some agreement best known only to those two, Nick Hat also took horse with the deep-pocketed York.
 

Bishop’s Finger

Having risen late, a triumphant Jonas de Winkler bustled into The Lamb to join us, brandishing a package newly arrived for him care of the vicarage. He made a great show of breaking the elaborate wax seal and to everyone’s immense surprise produced a paper confirming his appointment as Bishop of Bath and Wells. This letter detailed his considerable stipend, the duties and responsibilities associated with that post, and some special dispensation whereby he was not required to take up residence in the diocese forthwith. The package also contained three episcopal rings and a roll of 30 golden nobles, a sum of fully £15.
    Our staggerment at the bearing out of the Right Reverend Jonas’ previous claims to said bishopric was only slightly allayed when, in plain contradiction to the word of this letter, he proceeded to describe himself in the third person pretentious as the Archbishop of &c. Whilst lording it in Wells Cathedral clearly appealed, on hearing our plan he was equally pleased to go to London and pay a visit to, as he said, “the other Archbishop”.

But to leave Torkertown immediately were to be hasty. Squire Hardwicke had promised to delve through the old records of his court proceedings for any note upon Solomon Kane and the landlord at The Lamb sent word to the former proprietor who now dwelt a day or more thence, asking whether he might recall anything of value to us.

Snake eyes dice small

Hardwicke was unable over two full days to unearth anything. I confess that my own efforts to assist were of little avail and my disdain at his disordered record-keeping may have deterred the man from giving the matter his full attention.

Tavern kane 50

    But at length word came back to The Lamb that the old landlord still vividly remembered the dour figure of Kane despite all the intervening years, and recalled him saying that after the horrible deaths in Torkertown back then, he was to leave England and to make for the Holy Roman Empire by way of the port of Kiel in the Germanies.
 
 
 
 
 
We took the moor road out of Torkertown, to return to the port of Exeter and take ship for London. Overnighting at the inn in the midst of the dismal moor we heard men new come from Exeter telling of horrible murders on the docks of that port. Truly we four, like Solomon Kane himself, wished to leave Devonshire as soon as we might.

Brandestonus

1 And yet sadly not. Branston’s information is out of date. History records that in 1602-3, John Dee is at Christ’s College in Manchester, the famous library in his house at Mortlake having already been plundered during his time overseas.

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Bloody Vengeance

Of the six travellers new come to this parish from Lincolneshire, Samuel York1, Michael Tremayne and Nicholas Hat2 were beset, caught up in the onslaught of the hideous red mist of death upon this Merchant Alfred Dawlish.
    At the sound of their anguished cries of pain, George Branston called out. “Hallowed ground! Make for the graveyard!”
    Jonas3 flung his ungainly frame over the low churchyard wall and came up on the other side, blunderbuss held level in both hands, but had to hold until he might have a clear shot.
    Kato joined the other three, plunging into the cloud that had inflicted the myriad tiny wounds upon them. The blades of the four men cut swathes through the red cloud about them, but met no resistance.
    “It’s no good!" exclaimed Nicholas Hat in desperation. “What can I—— What can I do?”
    Tremayne rolled expertly out of the cloud and over the wall to the prospective safety of God’s demesne, and the others had begun to doubt his suggestion to attack with good cold steel when it seemed a certain stroke of York’s scimitar caused the pricking assault to abate.

And then the cloud rolled over and away from them in pursuit of Dawlish, who stumbled mindlessly as Branston manhandled him back, managing to keep him for the moment just beyond the outer fringe of the mist.
    As this passed over Kato the outlander and failed to reach Branston and Dawlish, Jonas had his shot. He pulled the trigger on his blunderbuss, but hot lead had no more effect than the cold steel of his companions.

York followed up on the cloud and slashed at its outer margin, but had no sense of inflicting any harm upon it.
    “I think you’ve got to be in it,” he called out. (“To win it”?)
    Tremayne came back with a running jump over the wall into the heart of the cloud and laid about him with cut and thrust, but to no greater effect.
    “Gah!” he cried in frustration. “You must have to be in it for longer than I…”
    Meanwhile, with the hideous cloud gaining on Branston faster than he could move Dawlish away, the old scholar took his own advice. He hauled his charge aside, out of the lane down which the swirling red cloud advanced and bundled him over the wall into the churchyard. But the inexorable red vapour poured unhindered over the wall onto the consecrated ground and Branston could save only himself, managing to stumble just ahead of the tide that engulfed the helpless Dawlish.
    Kato selflessly rushed in to Dawlish’s side, half thinking the noblest deed might be to give him a merciful death in the manner of Nippon. More red weals started out all over his skin, and for a moment he was unmanned with the pain of it, but with an effort of will he collected himself.
    “Now is the time we can hurt it,” he cried out valiantly — through gritted teeth.

York ran in to the attack. Tremayne kept to the heart of the cloud, standing now astride the writhing body of Dawlish as he cast about him with the blade of his rapier, seeking any part of the cloud that would feel its bite.
    Branston surveyed the grave yard, looking for the grave of the wronged man, Roger Ivens.
    “Here!” he called. “A strand of the mist is drawn out behind it, threading between the gravestones!”
    And with that he threw himself upon it, but sought in vain to break the tenuous strand.
    Nick Hat, having lost hope of harming the cloud itself, hurdled the church yard wall and fell upon the misty thread, but his long sword had no more effect upon it than Branston’s grasp.

Kato laid about him with his katana. Jonas, his blunderbuss primed, switched it to his left hand and drew a knife, plunging into the cloud and stabbing in every direction. Hat, Tremayne and York each continued the attack, but none repeated Sam’s earlier success, as the cloud continued to pierce their skins with its tiny biting wounds. Sam York steeled himself (BENNY) against a moment of despair (••) in which he began to fear that this horror had a spirit mightier than any of theirs, and would be the death of them all.
    The fighters in the cloud began to sense that the evil of the cloud was somehow sapping them of the heart to truly deliver it any hurt. Jonas, with his claim that God was on his side, stabbed out with his steely knife, but still couldn’t kill the beast.
    Branston gained his feet and ran on amongst the graves, following the strand of mist to its source in the paupers’ section of the graveyard, where a crude headstone bore the name of the hapless Roger Ivens. As his comrades gave battle in vain he hurriedly deposited a rough circle of consecrated chalk powder about the grave.
    “Sit timor Domini super eos qui contemnens,” he intoned.

Sam York battled on with defiant determination and now seemed to strike true, he knew not why. The barrage of needling attacks abated, the cloud seeming fainter now.
    “Sint autem commareantur iudicio iusti Angeli Domini.”4 cried Branston with finality, and the fighters saw the redness of the cloud pale further.
    Nicholas Hat, in despite of his unhealed belly wound, battled on against the horror that had earlier so unmanned him. With an especial effort of defiance against the intangible will of the thing (BENNY) he swept his blade full-circle around his head, and in that instant the pricking attacks stopped and the unholy red mist faded into the night air and was no more.

“Ah, ah, where is it?” exclaimed Dawlish. “It’s gone! Oh, thank ’e, kind sirs, thank ’e!”

“What in heaven’s name was that?” asked a panting Sam York, of no one in particular.
    “That was, I think,” offered Tremayne, “a peculiar and especially pernicious, gaseous form of a creature known in the lands of Eastern Europe as a ‘vampire’. Vampirus miasmus, you might call it.”
    “I don’t know about that, but it was a pain-in-the-assmus all right,” blustered Nick Hat, who was in fact still clearly much shaken by the encounter.

Kato bent to Alfred Dawlish and helped him up to a sitting position. He asked him what happened, and the man explained that he’d been returning home to Torkertown when he beheld the red menace pouring over the grave yard wall toward him. He tried to get away but it was upon him like a thousand tiny teeth, and he had no memory of anything, apart from the odd moment where he was aware of being dragged down the lane, strangely light-headed, and the strangers’ blades flashing over his head as he lay on the ground.

Having spent these few minutes away across the graveyard, Branston now returned. Jonas asked him what he’d been doing, and he responded that he’d despaired of ‘killing’ the thing with weapons that passed harmlessly through it, and had sought to see if Ivens’ unquiet spirit remained at his grave and might be reasoned with.
    “Huh,” sniffed Tremayne, sensing that this was scarcely half the truth.
    “That cloud bore no resemblance to any haunting phenomenon that I’ve ever heard of,” said Branston.
    Tremayne repeated his conclusion that it was a form of vampire. “It was a cloud of red, which took a prick of blood with every wound it inflicted. Poetic justice upon those whose actions had ‘bled Ivens dry’.” He went on to explain that as a vampire, one way it could be banished would be to exhume Ivens’ body, decapitate it and stuff its mouth with garlic. Kato thought retrieving any body from burial was a good idea, but Branston was wary of the explanations they might have to make, and unconvinced by Jonas’ insistence that they could all place their faith in his religious authority over the Torkertown vicar.

The other way to prevent the vampire from reforming and attacking again, Tremayne suggested, would be to make Dawlish atone -– indeed to make reparations to Ivens’ widow. This seemed an altogether more satisfactory approach.
    Weak as he was, Dawlish resisted this. But they got him safely home, Jonas dressed his wounds as best he was able, bade the housekeeper fetch a revitalizing draught of warm ale, and gained a measure of his confidence. He admitted to having met with a dark figure, as had been said of the other victims of this horror, but this had been no stranger. It was only goodwife Ivens in the mourning black of her widow’s weeds begging him for coin, which of course he had refused.
    Tremayne noted that James Carter, Thomas Muchly, Nathaniel Drake and John Prestwick had all refused and were all dead, though this was through the protective ire of her dead husband rather than through any curse of widow Ivens’ own. Jonas seized the still-weak Dawlish and preached hellfire and brimstone in his face until he weakly conceded that he would make it right. He would go round and talk to the woman in the morning, apologize, and make her an offer of funds; indeed he had a sum in mind…
    None of the travellers greatly trusted that Dawlish would be as contrite by the morning, nor if they allowed him to speak to widow Ivens alone. Despite the hour, they roused the woman and looked on as Dawlish said his piece. With great dignity she expressed her relief not to have to sell her home, and not to have to go to Bristol to live on her sister’s charity.
    The six travellers went to their rest in The Lamb and their sleep was not disturbed till morning.

Brandestonus

 

 

Play for Today:

1 giles123

2 Osric_of_O; P.S. Nick Hat is still to acquire a phobia from this encounter.

3 Steve

4 “Let the fear of the Lord be upon them whom he despiseth. / Let them quake before the judgment of the righteous angels of the Lord.”

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