The irregulars awaken with a start to the sound of the hermitage bells ringing in the distance. Their dreams were burdened with the guilt and horror of having left Brother Agathon lying in a ditch overnight as they slept mere yards away. The only comfort was knowing that poor Brother Agathon lived to witness the dawn.
As the bells ceased their ringing, the sounds of the civitas stirring drew the group back to the concerns of the living – Burgolf calling for his daughter to go fetch some water from the well, the sound of people exchanging greetings in the street outside, roosters crowing, and mauls chopping wood for fireplaces. After their ordeal, these mundane sounds were as welcome as the choir of a host of angels.
They briefly discussed what to do with the black stone. In the end, it was decided that Hugo should carry it, but wrapped in fabric and leather so that it could not touch flesh. Then, they discussed what to do next. They decided that the first order of business was to speak to the local priest.
Coming down the stairs from the loft-room, they found Burgolf cooking eggs and bread over a raging fire in the fireplace. He grunted good-naturedly and gestured for them to take a seat at a nearby table. There, he fed them a hearty breakfast of eggs, a slice of ham, a thick slice of warm, crusty bread, and a cup of mulled cider. Bjork, in deference to her religion’s views about alcohol, asked for something non-alcoholic, but when she realized that water was the only alternative (and that water was less safe to drink than alcohol), she reasoned that perhaps she would be forgiven this trespass.
Burgolf’s daughter, Brun, entered through the back door, carrying two buckets of water, hanging from a pole across her shoulders. “Oh, you’re up!” she said, beaming. “Are you ready to have me show you around?” The clever Brun had already done her chores, so that Burgolf could not object to her going.
As they headed out into the street after breakfast, they saw that the rain clouds had dispersed, and the sun was shining down. Children, no doubt cooped up for days, were playing gleefully in the street. When they saw Brun, they all came running to her, surrounding her like a flock of butterflies. After they greeted her, she quieted them, and introduced the irregulars to them.
Immediately, they were peppered with questions about their experience in Asparn. “I heard you fought the Devil in Asparn!” “What did he look like?” “Did you kill him?” Clearly, word had gotten around about the tragedy in Asparn, and that already, exaggeration and distortion were taking hold of the legend.
Taking leave of the children, Brun escorted the group to the nearby church. They entered to find a long building with pews and a lectern in the near part of the structure, with the far end of the room closed off with a curtain. Sitting at a desk on one side of the wall was Zutto, the priest who had been advising Lord Brant the night before. “Can I help you?” he asked.
The irregulars said they wished to ask him some questions. He looked annoyed, and rather than getting up immediately, closed the books he was writing in, and placed them in a locker, behavior that piqued the interest of Bjork.
The group told the priest that they were at a loss as to how to continue their mission, seeing how their ranks of warrior-monks had been decimated, but that there seemed to be a dark presence brewing here.
After a bit of sizing up the party, Zutto declared that he did not have the authority to direct them; perhaps they could find that at the Hermitage, although even there, they would have trouble getting direction, since the brothers had all taken a vow of silence. But he agreed that something sinister may be afoot. He requested Hugo to accompany him behind the curtain to see something. Distrustful of Zutto, Hugo followed, but not without his hand on his sword hilt.
Beyond the curtain was a table, and lying across the table was the body of Brother Drogo. Zutto watched Hugo as he moved around the table to look at his companion. Hugo asked what the cause of death was, but Zutto demurred that he had no knowledge of such matters, and there was no obvious cause of death, such as a sword stroke. “But look at this,” he said, and pulled back the chainmail hauberk and tunic that covered the corpse’s stomach. Where the stomach used to be was a collapsed hollow, like an emptied wineskin, not merely of the sort caused by lack of nutrition, but of missing organs.
While Zutto was showing Hugo the remains, Bjork tried to quietly take a peek inside the locker where Zutto had stashed the book. She knew that the town priest, as both reliably honest and literate, was likely the town’s recordkeeper, but he had seemed a little too furtive about what he was writing. Unfortunately, it appeared that it was all written in Latin. However, her keen eye spotted a scrap of paper with some words written in German: “That our woods are well watched over; where there is an area to deforest, that our foresters who live in the forest deforest it… And where woods should be, that they do not permit to cut trees, and that they protect the wild beasts.”
Just as Bjork closed the locker, the curtain was pulled back, but it was Hugo who had poked his head out. He called for Gisla to come behind the curtain as well, as she was a healer and may be able to make sense of what had happened to the body.
Zutto looked on skeptically as Gisla examined the body more closely. Feeling the stomach, she felt her fingers go all the way back to the spine, a fact she found particularly distressing. Removing the clothes, she searched for more evidence of the cause of death. Within moments, she had discovered the probable exit point; a great ragged hole had been torn in the crotch area. Puzzled, the two wracked their brains for naturalistic or occult reasons why this might be, but the best they could come up with were the whispered tales of Magyar impaling their victims on long wooden spikes, but of course, if that were the case, there would be an exit wound for the spike, and even this would not hollow out the stomach in the manner seen.
While the corpse was being examined, Bjork spoke to Brun some more, and learned that the body of Brother Drogo had been found by a little girl named Dannika – not one of the children they had met outside, but one of the Slav children. Brun explained that she takes the German children outside the civitas to play with the Slav children sometimes, but that this is frowned on by some. It was her hope, however, that some of the children would eventually marry, something which would help cement the two communities – Slav and German – together, and put to an end the cultural tensions between them. When asked, Brun indicated that, yes, she could direct them to the homestead of the Slav family where Dannika lived.
In the end, they left the church with far more questions than answers. They arranged to attend the last rites for Brother Drogo; Zutto expected some slavs to come dig a grave for him sometime mid-morning. In the mean time, Zutto had suggested the group go speak to the monks at the hermitage to the north.
Brun was more than happy to show the group the way to the Hermitage. They left the confines of the civitas and walked northward along a trail that looked little more than a walking path. Despite the sunny daylight, the forest still felt thick with gloom. Halfway along the path, the keen ear of the irregulars heard a faint buzzing, humming noise. They could not immediately discern its source, and this made them nervous, so they hustled their way out of the forest towards the Hermitage.
They arrived at a clearing where several fields of grape crops grew. At the edge of the clearing where they emerged were some houses of some families who help the hermits tend the grape crops, and the people looked up from the fields where they were working as the irregulars emerged from the forest. In the center of the clearing was the hermitage, a long stone building with a few dependencies, plus a wooden building behind it. A hermit cleaning a wine barrel outside the hermitage looked up, and went inside to fetch a superior.
The group spoke to one of the men working the grape fields as they waited, a tall, lean man named Fromondin. It was clear that these were superstitious folks, as he asked them questions about the devil and the “white women” of the forest. Fromondin wasn’t aware of anything sinister going on, nor could he explain the buzzing sound they had heard on their way in.
They didn’t have much time to speak, however, as one of the hermits emerged from the stone building and approached them. Bjork scribbled on a piece of paper a greeting and handed it to the monk as he walked up, and both Brun and the field worker laughed. Fromondin leaned over and said, “It is he who has taken a vow of silence, not you. You may speak.”
They laughed at this, but the jovial moment was shattered when the brother spoke. “I believe we have matters of great import to discuss. If you’ll excuse us?” Fromondin’s jaw dropped, but he said nothing as the monk led the irregulars over to where the monks chop wood, so they could sit down on some logs.
“I beg the lord God to forgive me for speaking to you,” he said, “but I believe the situation warrants it. The body in the moat, and now your arrival – they are not unrelated, are they?”
When the irregulars said, “no”, the man nodded. “Very well then. Allow me to introduce myself. I am Senior Brother Christian. Now, please tell me, in your own words, what you have witnessed.” The group recounted what they had seen at Hanburg and Asparn, but leaving out the existence of the black stone, and Brother Christian listened with an ever-darkening expression. Finally, he addressed them.
“Well, it seems that the first order of business is to get some spiritual protection to the village of Hanburg. One moment.” He gestured over to one of the monks, who came over immediately. “I release you from your vow of silence, Brother Erik. The village of Hanburg needs to be ministered to, desperately. I want you to leave immediately and go fulfill that role until such time as a replacement may be found.” The body grinned, and turned back to the hermitage to pack.
“The second order of business is to find Brother Gudman, if he still lives. Unfortunately, Asparn is likely the best place to begin looking. But if you will escort Brother Erik to Hanburg, you can cover both in one trip.”
The group asked him his suspicions, but he declined to answer, saying that he was unable to back up his guesses with evidence, but that he would do some research. This reminded them of the things Brother Agathon had said, and they recounted his final murmurings. Brother Christian thought for a moment. “Akrios is Greek for locust, and scorpioi is Greek for scorpion. I wonder…”, and he excused himself to walk to the hermitage.
He returned with a Septuagint bible, which he cracked open and read Revelations 9:3: “He, the fifth angel, opened the bottomless pit, and smoke went up out of the pit, like the smoke of a great furnace, and the sun and the air were darkened by the smoke of the pit. Then out of the smoke came the locusts upon the earth, and power was given them, as the scorpions of the earth have power…” After speaking the words in Greek as well, and confirming that this is what the warrior monk had likely said, Brother Christian leaned back and wondered, “what did this martyr see that he would recite this verse upon his death?” Consulting through the Greek-language devotional book Brother Agathon had left behind, they found the verse, but no special attention had been paid to it, although the book was well-worn with use.
As Brother Christian sat pondering this, the irregulars consulted quickly, and asked if Brother Christian had knowledge of any dark artifacts, thinking to ask about the stone.
At this, Brother Christian said something curious. He said that he had travelled far in an official capacity as advisor to King Otto, and that he had witnessed things which were inconsistent with the world according to gospel, and that this is why he had resigned his post as advisor to King Otto, and now directs this hermitage. He seeks to regain that which he has lost, to reassure himself of the right order of God’s cosmos.
The group showed him the stone. He balked at the thing, but looked on it with interest. “Those markings…I cannot translate them, but I have seen their like, in Byzantium, in ruins more ancient than any know…” and he trailed his sentence off with a haunted look on his face.
Soon after, Brother Erik came back, ready to leave. Brother Christian stood to go. “Yes, I have research to do. We will speak again soon.”
Before leaving, Bjork wrote on a slip of paper “God be with you” in Arabic and handed it to him. Brother Christian smiled, and said, “And with you.” When Bjork looked surprised, he gestured to calm her, and explained, “As part of my role as advisor to King Otto, I spent time in Baghdad. I know that script well.”
They spoke for a while longer, arranging their individual roles, before taking their leave of the Hermitage. The group, one stronger with Brother Erik, left to return to the civitas.
After attending the funeral of Brother Drogo, the group collected their horses, ready to escort Brother Erik to Hanburg, and were discussing whether to take the road through Asparn, and risk meeting whatever had slain Brother Agathon, or take the eastern road back south, and risk a run-in with the Magyar, when they remembered they should go talk to Dannika, the girl who had found the body of Drogo. They decided to speak to her on the way out of town.
Heading southwest out of the civitas, the group entered a homestead near the edge of the forest, where more of the tall, whitewood crosses faced out into the forest like sentinels. Knocking on the door, Jan, the girl’s father came to the door. Gisla introduced herself and asked to speak to the girl. Jan at first declined, asking them to come back later, but Gisla told him they were on their way out of town and that this would be their only opportunity to speak to the girl. At this, Jan grudgingly called for his daughter.
The girl was nervous and reticent, saying little of use to Gisla, who suspected that the girl was hiding something, but was unable to draw her out. But Hugo had noticed something behind Jan when he opened the door. Glancing behind the man, he saw that a scene similar to the one in Hanburg was playing out. A child lay in a blanket pushed close to the fireplace, with figures bent over him in worry. With a hint to Gisla, they were able to get themselves invited in on Gisla’s claim of healing credentials.
Entering the long, low house, Gisla knelt next to the boy’s bed. “His name is Dragan,” said Jan, “and he’s been like this since yesterday afternoon.” The boy’s mother was on one side of the bed, and another brother from the Hermitage was also there, a tall Slav named Brother Kyril. Brother Erik told the group that Brother Kyril often ministered to the slavic homesteads, having both the familiarity with slavic culture and some medical knowledge.
Translating for Brother Kyril, Brother Erik relayed that the slav suspected the boy had swamp fever, and was doing poorly. Gisla confirmed this with a touch – the boy’s pulse was barely discernable, his breath shallow. The boy was dying. Gisla decided to perform her healing ritual on the boy, and enlisted the help of Brother Kyril to assist her.
The ritual caretaking dragged on through the afternoon and into the evening, during which time Hugo and Bjork looked around the homestead and tried to talk to the other tenants, of which only Jan was even remotely forthcoming. Jan confirmed for Bjork that these slavs were Christianized, but that old ways die hard, and that they were having difficulty reconciling the word of the Septuagint and the things they had been taught since childhood, the fears they felt instinctually from the darkness of the woods. He mentioned the white women of the woods, evil spirits that hide in streams and trees during the day and come out to seek victims on moonlit nights, and the “drac”, who lives under a black hill in the woods and hunts the white women. The similarities to other tales they’d heard were not lost on Bjork, and she pressed Jan for more detail. Jan said that the “drac” came in many forms, a dark creature, a crazy hunter, even a merchant who comes to buy the bodies of people who will soon die anyway. Bjork asked where this black hill might be, and Jan said that the location of the black hill had been lost; it was said to be a place where appeasement rites had been performed by the pagan Slavs for generations, but its location was of course lost when Lord Brant had ordered all the pagan Slavs rounded up and executed in the village square…
It wasn’t long before Brother Kyril stopped Gisla from her work, and advised the group to leave the family in peace, for the boy was not getting any better. The group said their farewells, and rode away from the homestead with the sobs of the mother echoing out silently from the house.
The group returned to Burgolf’s inn, surprising the man and Brun with their return. “I thought you’d left for Hanburg!” said Burgolf. The group explained their reason for delay, and Burgolf immediately set about accommodating them. Brun had some questions about Dragan, but when it was clear the news was bad, she decided to drop the topic of conversation, and let the group get to bed.
That night, there was a banging at the door. The group heard Burgolf cursing under his breath as he stumbled across the inn’s common room to open the door. One of the militia had come to the door, and was asking for all able-bodied men to come out – the boy Dragan had gone missing.
Burgolf roused Hugo and Brother Erik, and the three men got dressed as Gisla and Bjork stirred in their quarters. Hugo told them what was happening, and all of them went out into the courtyard, where the militiaman was directing the group of men who had come out of the buildings around the civitas. “We need you to form search parties to help look for the slav boy Dragan. We also need a volunteer to go to the Hermitage and fetch brother Kyril – Jan has specifically requested him to come.”
Hugo and Brother Erik volunteered to go fetch Brother Kyril, and Gisla and Bjork decided to come along. Burgolf went to join a search party, and Brun invited some of the women and children to the inn so they could all be together.
The walk through the forest to the Hermitage was more menacing at night than it had been during the day, and every once in a while, they thought they heard something moving out in the forest on their right, pacing them just beyond sight. They quickened their pace, swords drawn, and rushed to the hermitage.
There, they relayed to Brother Christian what had happened, and the man looked very concerned. Stepping into the hermitage for a moment, he returned with Brother Kyril by his side, but also a large Frankish sword at his belt! Brother Christian was clearly a man who knew how to defend himself. The two monks joined the party, and they plunged back into the forest to return to Laa.
Now with two more torches, Bjork caught a glimpse of the thing in the forest which had been pacing them! A quick blur of white, man-size, had appeared just at the edge of the torchlight for a brief moment and then was gone! Brother Christian drew his sword, and the others who had weapons followed suit, but no attack came. They hustled back to Laa, tense and weapons drawn.
Returning to Laa, Hugo recommended that they stop at the cemetery where Brother Drogo had been interred to ensure that the monk had not become restless. They entered the cemetery, where a cold mist hugged the ground. Finding the stone of Brother Drogo, they were unable to discern anything amiss, but they realized that they hadn’t actually seen Brother Drogo interred there; by the time they had returned from the hermitage that afternoon, the slavs had already buried the body. They had only attended the last rites.
It was too late to investigate that point, however, and they hustled past Laa towards the homesteads to the southwest. There, along the treeline of the forest, were several dozen men holding torches, preparing to sweep into the forest, having failed to locate the boy at the other homesteads or other known playing places of the children of Laa.
Jan came running up and embraced Brother Kyril in thanks, and began organizing them into new groups. Bjork, suspicious of Dannika, asked where the girl was, and Jan told her that she and her mother had been taken to one of the other homesteads during the search.
Brother Chrisitan took one group of men to the west. Brother Kyril and Brother Erik joined Jan’s group to the southwest, with Jan leading the way, holding the reins of his two large mastiffs. And Hugo, Bjork, and Gisla joined a group to the south. By then, many of the townsfolk’s women had come out to help look.
In the growing mist, the light of the torches didn’t throw far, and the oppressive silence punctuated by calls of “Dragan! Dragan!” gave the scene an eerie feel. As the teams spread into the forest, and each person getting further from their companions, the bright torchlight grew dimmer, and the blackness of the night grew stronger.
Suddenly, the sound of Jan’s mastiffs barking ferociously cut the silence. Everyone stopped to listen as the barking receded into the forest, as if they were chasing something. Soon after, a horrifying scream broke out, and the thickets were thrashing with the noise of people rushing to see what had happened.
The group emerged from the forest in time to see Jan, wild-eyed, run clumbsily out of the forest. Once amidst the group, he fell to the ground, half-sobbing, half-screaming. To see this large, burly man of action so reduced shook everyone. No one knew what to do.
Gisla took charge, ordering two of the men to pick him up and follow her back to his home, where she would try to calm him down. Bjork looked around at the stupefied men that had gathered around, and chastised them for just standing about. “What are you waiting for?”
Brother Christian echoed her statement by drawing his sword. This seemed to break the men out of their reticence, and they, as a group, headed into the forest to the southwest, from where Jan had come. Brother Christian leaned over and whispered to Hugo and Bjork, “that way is the old Slavic graveyard,” pointing directly in the direction they were going.
As they were walking towards the forest, Hugo realized that neither Brother Kyril nor Brother Erik were with them, a fact which gave the group pause, but Brother Christian urged them forward again.
They picked their way through the forest, staying close with weapons drawn – militiamen with their swords and spears, and foresters with their axes. There was no calling Dragan’s name this time; the men moved silently with their torches, and warily checked every shadow.
Eventually, they gained the slavic graveyard. Though they had heard of the strange customs that happened there, neither Bjork nor Hugo had ever been to one. Great biers of stacked stones lay scattered amidst the trees, where the stone was said to hold down the dead so that they may not rise. And despite their age, the graves looked fresh, thanks to the slavic custom of regularly disinterring the dead, washing and blessing the body, and reinterring it.
Bjork was the one who found Erik’s body, collapsed against the far side of one of the biers. Laid low with a sword stroke, he still held a crucifix in his hand, as if warding something evil before him. While kneeling beside the dead man, she felt raindrops. But looking around, the sky was clear. As she looked up, she discovered a horrifying sight: the mastiffs hanging from high up in the trees, decapitated.
Her startled cry brought Brother Christian, Hugo, and some other men. Looking up at the inscrutable carnage, Hugo said, “Whatever did that, did that fast.” Brother Christian whispered, “I submit to you that we should retreat for now and come back in the morning.”
Everyone agreed. Wary of every shadow, they formed a defensive circle, and slowly made their way back out of the forest, and retreated to the relative safety of the homestead.
There, they found Gisla still trying to coax Jan out of his catatonic state. The muscular man lay curled in a fetal position on the bed, babbling to himself. Gisla told them that she didn’t think he was under an evil spell. Instead, she thought the man’s mind had simply been broken in whatever ordeal he had endured in the forest. While she was an excellent tender of the flesh, the mind was beyond her ability to heal. The man was insane.
“What’s out there?” they wondered. Beyond the homestead, beyond the half-pagan, half-Christian wards which did no good, even beyond the graves of man, lay an evil that lurked in the forest, and the group were beginning to understand that their mission into the land of the Magyars had quite possibly been replaced with something far more terrifying.