Cthulhu Dark Ages

Overcast day
Mysteries turn and suspicions deepen

That night, they dreamed they had returned home from their crusade, greeted with a hero’s welcome to their home town. All cares were lost, to be back with friends and family, drinking, laughing. Children danced around the maypole, young girls with flowers braided in their hair chased each other about, and tables had been laid out in the clearing with colorful banners hung in their honor. The whole town had come out. They smelled the delightful, pungent smell of grapes and wine, and they sat outside in the sun, enjoying the company of those they love.

Then something out in the forest beyond the clearing caught their attention. It was the shadowed form of a little boy, watching from just beyond the edge of the forest. But the eyes…

They turn to ask their friends about it, and see them, filling their flagons with the blood of hanging corpses of dogs.

They awoke with a start at the first bell. It took a moment for them to remember where they were – the storage barn for the vineyard at the hermitage, where they had decided to spend the night.

The events of the last few days came rushing back again: the haunted priory at Hanburg, the devil-taken town of Asparn, the grisly autopsy of Brother Drogo, and the manhunt for a dying child in the old Celtic graveyard which turned the hunters into the hunted…

The bell pealed again, loud and insistent, far louder than back at the Civitas, and they were impossible to ignore. Dragging themselves out of slumber, they peered out the great wooden doors at the hermitage beyond.

It was as if the previous night hadn’t happened. The hermits were going about their daily routines – one man was feeding the pigs from a sack of corn, and another was carrying water from the well. With a loud crack, a third chopped the first in a pile of firewood using an awl. The peasants were already out in the fields.

But all was gray, especially after the cheery scene from their dreams. The sky was overcast, quiet but threatening rain. It was cold.

Closing the door again, they turn to each other in the dim light to decide how to proceed. They decide to wait a bit and speak to Brother Christian after he’s had a chance to awaken and set his hermitage in order for the day. While they waited, Hugo gave Gisla a quick lesson on how to use her new sword, just in case she needed it, and while her companions were so occupied, Bjork saw to her morning prayers.

When the hermitage was calmer, they approached and knocked on the door. Brother Addo came to the door, and when they asked to speak to Brother Christian, he nodded, invited them in, and went to fetch him.

When he emerged, it was clear he had been through a rough night. He looked dishevelled and weary, with great bags under his eyes. He looked like he hadn’t slept all night.

He led them out to the woodcutting area outside, and confirmed this in the ensuing conversation. He had stayed up all night consulting his library in the hopes of some passage shedding light on their situation. Unfortunately, he had nothing to share but his disdain for the vile, apocryphal texts he was perusing. He had acquired them in Persia, while traveling with a muslim scholar he had met named Abdul Alhazred, and their blasphemies were many, but he was beginning to think there was more truth to them than he had ever feared.

The irregulars explained that they were at a loss as to how to proceed, for it seemed like there were more mysteries to deal with than could be attacked. With his calm demeanor and thoughtful analysis, Brother Christian helped them narrow down their options. In particular, he admonished them not to put much stock in omens and portents, and to instead proceed on what they know, using facts and logic.

Ultimately, they decided that their first task would be to retrieve the body of Brother Erik from the woods, both to give him a decent Christian burial, but also to search for clues in daylight as to what had happened. Brother Christian admonished them not to go into the woods alone, to take some worthies with them. The obvious choice were militiamen from the civitas, but the group was not sure they trusted Lord Brant, and so Brother Christian suggested the foresters from the camp west of town; they were men of strength and also knew their way around the forest, unlike the militiamen.

As they concluded their conversation, Bjork offered to assist Brother Christian in his library should he need it, but Brother Christian demurred, saying that he wouldn’t wish reading pages from the Kitab Al-Azif on his worst enemy, and bid them farewell.

Brother Christian returned to the hermitage, and the group headed back to the wine storage building to collect their horses. Suddenly, they heard the sound of something rustling in the bushes nearby, and with a dash, ran into the forest, where they caught a peasant boy with a pig looking terrified of them. The boy called for his mother and father as Bjork tried to calm the boy down, and quickly got him calm enough for him to reveal why he ran: he had seen one of the White Women! Pointing into the woods, the boy gestured where he had seen her, and Bjork released the boy, telling him to run to his parents.

Hugo drew his sword and bounded headfirst into the woods, with Bjork and Gisla running quickly after him. They quickly found the place where the White Woman had been seen, but it was strange, for no such thing awaited them. They found only a human handprint in the moss, the size of an adult’s. Slowly, they traced a set of tracks that led from the handprint directly into the forest. They went several hundred yards, and ended in a series of strange tracks in the ground that looked like canvas bags were dragged back and forth.

Hugo suspected there may be something buried there, and began digging, while Bjork looked up to the skies and treetops, remembering the fate of the two dogs. They found nothing, but were quickly overcome by a throbbing, blinding pain that stabbed from behind their eyes The headache was searing, and they decided that the woods were likely unsafe, and they ran back to the hermitage.

Thankfully, the headache subsided, and they climbed on their horses and headed for Laa.

On the road, Hugo shared with his companions what he knew about the Kitab Al-Azif that Brother Christian had mentioned, that it was a book better known by it’s Latin title: Necronomicon. Worse, the “mad arab” Alhazred was its author, and Brother Christian claimed to have traveled with him. From what Hugo knew of the book, wise men sought it out only to burn it without even opening it, so dreadful were its contents. Even the most pious men had been known to turn away from the church upon reading it, and Brother Christian had already said that he was having trouble reconciling what he had seen on his travels in Persia with his love for God.

Suddenly, the one person they thought they could count on – Brother Christian – was seeming more sinister than any.

Still, they deemed the idea to use the foresters to retrieve Brother Erik to be sound. Upon reaching the clearing where Laa stood, they decided to avoid Laa altogether and head for the forester’s camp. Heading down the western path, they plunged again into the woods. Soon, they arrived at the forester’s camp, a small man-made clearing piled high with stacks of hewn logs. In the center of the clearing were a cluster of conical wooden lodges covered with moss and pelts. All around the camp, near the base of the trees, were carved strange little symbols which they later learned were to keep the White Women at bay by giving them a place to hide from the Dark Merchant.

Once there, they recruited a burly, strong man by the name of Aistulf, who in turn tapped Berenfrid and Erhard to accompany them into the woods to retreive the body of Brother Erik. Which Aistulf was ready to help, the rest of the camp seemed skittish on the idea, and only Aistulf’s prodding dragged them along.

On the return trip towards Laa, the group heard a strange buzzing sound, which they soon discovered to be hibernating bees in the wood, which were kept by the foresters for honey and wax. But they noticed that the sound of bees was quite different than the buzzing sound they’d heard before…

Once back at Laa, the group headed past the Slavic homestead and out into the old graveyard. Aistulf looked everywhere with his axe, while Berenfrid and Erhard looked ready to fly at any moment.

As they entered the old Slavic graveyard, they found things much the way they had been left. Brother Erik’s body still lay crumpled on the far side of one of the biers, and the grisly sight of the decapitated dogs remained.

Aistulf heaved the body onto the back of Gisla’s horse, then proceeded to help them look for clues. They found sets of tracks that helped shed some light on what had happened; the boy had entered the clearing and walked over to one of the biers. There, a struggle had happened, for there were some stones displaced and blood on the ground. From there, a pair of booted footprints ran towards another bier where Brother Erik had been struck down.

It had started to drizzle, and already the marks in the ground were eroding away, so they decided to leave, much to the relief of Aistulf’s two comrades. They made it out of the woods with little problem, and the foresters took their leave.

Though curious as to Jan’s condition, they decided to leave the homestead in peace and return to Laa. There, they went to the church to turn over the body of Brother Erik to Priest Zutto, but the man wasn’t there. As they banged on the door again, Brun, from the inn across the street, peeked her head out the door and came over, asking what news they had to share, but this was cut off as she came face to face with the corpse of Brother Erik. After only a little conversation, the group asked Brun to stable their horses, and she nodded, taking the horses away to their stables.

Indeed, the priest was nowhere to be seen, so the group placed Brother Erik on the same table they had examined Brother Drogo. Gisla did a quick perusal of the body, but found only the sword stroke, and they left the building just as Brun had finished stabling the horses.

“Zutto hasn’t been here all day. He’s been in counsel with Lord Brant,” she told them, and they decided that perhaps they needed to be in on this meeting. They went to the internal gate and asked for an audience with Lord Brant. As they stood there in the rain, one of the guards ran to the tower-house to ask, and came back. “Raise the portcullis,” he said.

As they walked into Brant’s throne room, they found him not on his throne, but sitting at a table with Zutto off to one side, talking quietly. They’d clearly been talking a long while, and Lord Brant invited them to tell what news they had.

There, after informing Zutto that they had brought Brother Erik’s body to his church, they discussed with Brant and Zutto the events of the previous days. The landlord and his advisor were understandably upset and at a loss what to do, for clearly, their community was under attack by dark forces beyond mortal capability.

Naturally, the conversation turned to the pagans and their magic. Zutto declared that there were no more of the pagan cult in their community, and that the location of the pagan shrine, somewhere deep in the forest to the northwest, had been lost forever when Brant had the remaining pagans executed in the town square.

While they talked, it seemed that Lord Brant had a warlike anger towards the Magyars, and was unwilling to listen to reasonable arguments about their possible innocence in the strange events at hand. When the topic of the prisoner came up, this became especially heated, when discussion turned to the idea that the Magyars were delving into black magic.

As a result, Bjork became wary of Brant’s motives, feeling that perhaps their mission was not in Brant’s best interests, that Brant wanted to solidify power by keeping the people scared and the group of warrior-monks who might upset his power base from gaining a foothold.

They took their leave, more suspicious than ever, and pondered what to do next. As it was getting on towards noon, Gisla suggested they retire to the inn for a while to have a meal, dry off, and discuss things. Once inside, they were greeted by Brun and Burgolf, and they sat down for a midday meal. Brun came over, eager to hear whether the child had been found. She was disappointed to hear that the boy had not been found, and told the group that she was going to go help watch the children at the homesteads that night.

They asked her about Lord Brant, and she told them he was a good leader, and explained that his extreme reaction about the Magyars was likely due to his wife and daughter dying in a Magyar attack a few years ago. The group was unsure whether this information exonerated Brant, but it seemed to explain his ire in the throne room earlier.

They asked Brun more, and she began speaking of the history of the civitas, the routing of the pagans, the disappearances which happen regularly around the ends of May and November, and the tales people tell about them. When Burgolf heard what she was speaking of, he snapped at her, and told her to be quiet, then instructed her to go fetch some well water. This uncharacteristic behavior by Burgolf, in turn, raised suspicions, but again, was there something there, or was it just that everyone was on edge after the events of the previous night?

Bjork decided to go speak with Brun a little longer, and snuck out when Burgolf wasn’t looking, and had a brief counsel with her, but she was unable to discern why Burgolf was so keen on ending that conversation. When she slipped back in, Burgolf questioned Bjork as to where she had been, and although she offered a plausible destination (to see if Zutto had returned to prepare the body of Brother Erik), Burgolf was clearly unconvinced. Still, he let the matter drop, and let the group finish their meal.

But when they left and began walking through the civitas in the rain for some privacy, they had become wary of Burgolf as well, worrying about an attack in the night if they stay at the inn, deciding that perhaps they needed to post a watch when they sleep from now on.

As they were walking, they saw Brun ride out of the stables and out the gates, on her way to the homesteads.

Walking in the rain, the group found the privacy they needed to discuss their impressions. In the rain, the streets were largely deserted, and the sound of the rain cloaked their conversation in noise. They went over their impressions, suspicions, and theories, but were quickly realizing that they had little evidence for any of their hypotheses, and that it was very dangerous to follow up any of their leads. They considered going back to Asparn to look for clues, but deemed that too dangerous. They considered going to look for the ruined pagan temple in the woods for clues, but dismissed that, as well. They considered trying to make contact with the Magyar, but deemed that dangerous as well. They didn’t trust Brant or Zutto, because of their insistence on the influence of the Magyar and their apparent need to retain the status quo. They didn’t trust Brother Christian, because of his associations with the Mad Arab and his book. It seemed like they were at a dead end.

Just then, Brun came riding back into the civitas, panting. “Help! You have to come! Brother Kyril has returned!”

The three ran up to her, asking what was wrong. “Brother Kyril said he saw the foresters kill Dragan! That they strung him up and sacrificed him! There’s a group of angry slavs marching towards the forester’s camp right now! We have to warn them!”

Rushing for their horses, the group started to saddle up. Hugo said that if they hurried, they might be able to talk them out of it. And that’s when Brun said the most startling thing: “No, Brother Kyril said you were their spies, and to kill you, too!”

View
Mysteries Compound
The first day in Laa sees multiple tragedies

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.

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Journey to Laa, Part Two

By the time they reached Asparn, it was too late.

They arrived at nightfall to the grisly sight of a wolf gnawing on a corpse in the middle of the deserted little village. Their companions were nowhere to be seen.

Entering the village, the group immediately began looking for clues as to where their companions had gone. They found disturbing patterns of tracks – the horses had fled at a gallop in all directions, and there were scuffles in the mud implying a struggle of some kind. Long, shallow furrows criss-crossed the mud in places, as if someone had dragged an empty burlap sack around, but there were no footprints around them.

The three travellers, already on edge from the unusual events in Hanburg, debated whether to stay in the damned down of Asparn, or to brave the woods. Ultimately, they decided that one of the deserted homes would be more defensible, and chose the sturdiest-looking of the homes (not the stone priory, thanks to the odd encounter at the priory in Hanburg) to hole up in for the night.

Entering the home, they found mouldering food on plates in the house, as if the previous tenants had left without warning. But they didn’t spend much time dwelling on this, instead spending their time barricading the door… just in case.

Gisla took first watch, and around midnight, she heard hoofbeats approaching town from a distance. She awoke Hugo and Bjork, and they listened to the sound of the beast growing ever near. When they heard urgings of “hyah, hyah!” on the galloping beast as it went by, they realized that it was unlikely of supernatural origin, and pulled back the barricade to look outside. They just barely caught glimpse of what looked like Brother Agathon riding his charger, sword raised, after a dark figure. A moment later, they realized who the dark figure was: brother Drogo!

What was happening? They didn’t have time to think much on it before the pair disappeared down the slope to the Zaya river. Moments later, they heard the pained whinneying of a horse, and then silence.

Though Hugo was a capable fighter, none of the irregulars were under the illusion that he would be a match for several of the warrior-monks, if they had gone mad and were attacking each other. Rather than investigate in the night, they barricaded themselves back up in the house, after concealing their horses in another of the houses lest they reveal their presence.

The rest of the night passed uneventfully, and after a quick meal, they emerged from the house to another day of drizzling rain. Looking about, none of the warrior-monks were to be seen, so they followed the tracks down to the Zaya river.

There, lying on the bank of the river next to his dead horse, was Brother Agathon, mortally wounded. Gisla tried to tend to his wounds, but ultimately could only provide comfort. He only managed to cough out the words “all dead…except Gudman…” before slipping into delirium. As they watched him dying, he whispered to himself in Greek. Gisla again grabbed her quill and parchment and tried to note down his final words, but caught only the words “akrides” and “skorpioi”.

Quickly rifling through Agathon’s effects for clues, they found nothing, but decided to take his gear – especially the sword, which Gisla hefted awkwardly. Hugo gave her a quick lesson in how to hold it and swing it, but it was clear that they would be relying heavily on him for protection should anything happen.

Despite their fear, and the obvious danger of staying in such a place, the three rendered the fallen monk a proper Christian burial before riding for Laa.

Dusk was falling when they arrived. The smell of smoke and the barking of dogs were a welcome change to the forbidding forest that they had been traveling through.

The settlement sat in the center of a great clearing dotted with copses of trees and outlying farmhouses. Water diverted from the river Zaya surrounded the fortified settlement, forming a moat, over which a plank bridge led towards a gatehouse. A great wooden stockade surrounded the settlement, which was bisected by an interior wall. The northern half of the settlement held the military buildings, including a three-story stone tower-house, while the southern half held a group of homes, stables, and a small church.

As the group walked between the rows of great Slavic crosses at the edge of the forest (used to fend off the spirits of the forest), they saw that there was a commotion at the gatehouse. Drawing nearer, they saw two guards pulling a corpse out of the water with poles, and to their shock, recognized the corpse as that of Brother Drogo!

Upon seeing them, the captain of the guard, a burly German named Hunman, rushed over and asked them their identities and business. Bjork quickly recounted the strange events in Asparn and Hanburg, and Hunman’s brow furrowed. “Come, Lord Brant will want to speak with you.”

The three were escorted through the gatehouse and into the tower-house. Climbing the stairs to the top story, they caught their first sight of Lord Brant. Sitting on a wooden throne over which were thrown three wolf pelts, Lord Brant glowered at them when they entered. A man of moderate build, his black hair was turning gray at the temples, but his eyes sparkled with intelligence…and distrust. He had apparently been consulting with a monk, who stepped aside as the group entered the room. A few guards stood along the walls, and an older noblewoman sat watching from the shadows.

Lord Brant questioned the group about their ordeal, and seemed satisfied. Bjork paid deference to both Brant and, wisely, his mother, the noblewoman. As the story unfolded, Brant’s demeanor changed little, but it was clear he was concerned. From the conversation, the irregulars learned that nothing out of the ordinary had been happening in the town, although he mentioned that once in a while someone will go missing. Brant seemed to think the likely culprits were the Magyars to the east, however. The monk whispered something in Brant’s ear at one point, but was waved away.

Eventually, Lord Brant called for Hunman to fetch Burgolf, the town’s innkeeper, so that the noble-born Bjork would have a place befitting a woman of her station to stay. Lord Brant sat thinking while the three irregulars talked amongst themselves while they waited. Then, one of them thought to address the monk.

The monk, it turned out, did not know Greek, but he did, of course, know Latin, and translated the term “Calx” to “stone” for them. The ghost of the prior in Hanburg had been speaking of a stone…

Suddenly, a loud, low groan erupted from below. As the three surprised newcomers looked up, they saw that none of the others seemed to care or notice. They ventured to ask Lord Brant about it, but he snapped at them, saying it was none of their concern. When they pressed him gently on the matter again, he said, “The man making those noises does not deserve your pity! Leave the matter to me.”

Thus chastened, the three quietly waited until Burgolf arrived, a heavyset man with a thick beard. Lord Brant instructed him that the party would be staying with him, on his coffers. This show of generosity by the landlord was met by only a harumph by Burgolf, who gruffly waved the party along to follow him downstairs.

They headed through the gatehouse in the inner wall, to the southern side of the stockade, and into Burgolf’s inn. Despite Burgolf’s less-than-friendly demeanor, the accommodations were very inviting. A warm fire blazed in the fireplace, and a young woman named Brun (Burgolf’s daughter, apparently) served them a delicious meal of salted ham and bread.

Over the course of the meal, Burgolf’s brusque attitude softened somewhat, and he sat down to speak to the party. Remembering the lack of a prior at Hanburg, and the inscrutable words they had encountered, they asked Burgolf if there were any learned holy men in the area. He replied that their best bet was the Hermitage and vinyard in the nearby woods. (At this, Hugo’s ears perked up – before long, Brun was bringing a sample of the Hermitage’s wine.)

Brun, herself, was very interested in the group. An eager sixteen-year-old girl, she peppered them with questions about their travels, and quickly offered her services to help the travellers acquaint themselves with the town, or to assist them in anything they needed.

At this, Bjork decided that, indeed, there was something Brun could do for her. She wrote a message to Lord Brant, saying that she’d had dealings with Magyars, and that if the man being tortured in the tower-house was a Magyar, perhaps she could assist them in interrogating him. Brun rushed out with the message, happy to be able to help, but came back empty-handed; Lord Brant had not deigned to send a reply.

After the group finished their wine, ale, and food, they retired to their room. After so much uncomfortable travel, and especially after the stressful time the night before, they were eager to get some sleep in a safe place. But as they were preparing to go to bed, they noticed something in Agathon’s effects they hadn’t found before.

Dropped in the shoe of one of the dead man’s spare boots was…a black stone. Could it be the Calx Oscura?

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Journey to Laa, Part One
Game session for January 5th, 2010

The party was soaked from the torrential rains coming down. Tugging their tunics closer did no good, for the cold was insidious; God had seen fit to test their mettle by blotting out the midday sun with dark gray clouds and sending down his tears from heaven.

Of the group, Senior Brother Gudman seemed the least bothered by the rain, and it is as it should be.  He is by far the most pious of the lot, and his standing with the church reflects it.  Though he has a strong, capable build, he seldom uses it, for diplomacy is his forte’... that, and sheer idealism.  It was he who volunteered for this mission that the rest of the group now found themselves on.

The mission was to use the little town of Laa, on the frontier of Germanic Christianity, as a base of operations to push further into the Infidel hungarian region to the east, in order to establish another outpost for Christ past the current border.  Senior Brother Gudman volunteered for the job, despite its lack of glory, wealth, or political value. This, despite frightening tales of the horrors Magyars visited upon good Christians in the area. This, despite stories of benighted monsters lurking in the forests. Truly, his aim is only to spread the word of Christ to the heathens in the east, and done bravely, by book or by sword.

But one man cannot establish an outpost alone. He pushed on through the rain with a retinue of warrior monks for protection and conversion, and a handful of irregulars for other necessary tasks for establishing the outpost.

At brother Gudman’s side was his bodyguard and personal friend, brother Drogo.  Though less pious than his friend, he overshadowed them all in terms of fighting prowess.  Broad-shouldered, with a thick mane of black hair, and a gaze as hard as iron, his eyes were alert, scanning the forest for possible danger.  A veteran of many battles, brother Drogo is deadly on the battlefield.  His job was to ensure that the new outpost did not suffer the same fate as the others which have ventured into the territories of the Magyar. Namely, ruin.

A complement of ten other warrior-monks followed along.  Most of them were green, barely trained in the sword, and unaccustomed to such urgent travel.  That were oblivious to the misted forest around them, staring just ahead of their horses.  Coughs, sneezes, and sniffles broke the relative silence often.

Behind the warrior-monks came the three irregulars. Bjork (played by Kurt), a low-level noble from Norway, had been charged by her mother to attend the group, so that she may serve in a capacity of meting out tariff penances, allod, and holding the ban the outpost is secured. A risky endeavor, but should it succeed, the family would enjoy a considerable boost in power. Secretly, she had converted to Islam after listening to stories of far-flung Constantinople and Spain by Muslim merchants visiting Norway by way of England, but of course she was wise enough to conceal this fact. Brother Gudman was unhappy to bring a noblewoman along with him, but, perhaps not surprisingly, there were no other nobles willing to volunteer for the duty.

Behind Bjork came Gisla (played by Larissa), a daughter of a midwife, taken along for her knowledge of the healing arts. Senior Brother Gudman wisely decided that a healer would be needed in the inhospitable wilds of the Magyar, and he had been ministered to by Gisla’s mother after receiving a wound to the shoulder.

Rounding out the irregulars was Hugo, a stalwart guard from the city who had volunteered for the duty. Knowing Hugo to be a trustworthy and capable man, Senior Brother Gudman had agreed to have him along. Though there would be many warrior-monks with them, another sword arm is always welcome, and there would be plenty of work for a capable layman on the frontier.

The sound of horse hooves approaches from ahead.  Brother Agathon came riding up to the group out of the mist.  Another close friend of brother Gudman, brother Agathon was a smart, capable Greek who had befriended Brother Gudman in the Byzantine campaign.  Though he largely kept to himself, he had demonstrated his sheer will time and again, serving as scout, advisor, and night guard more than his share, and spending his free time training the younger warrior-monks when he could have been resting.

The group clopped to a stop in the muddy road as brother Agathon conferred quietly with brother Gudman.  Brother Gudman nodded, gesturing up the road, and brother Agathon galloped back off into the mist ahead.  Brother Gudman turned and addressed the group.

“There is a vicus ahead, called Hanburg.  Down the slope from the village is a ferry across the Morava river. But the rains are swelling the river, so we must get across quickly.  Brother Agathon has ridden ahead to secure passage.  If we hurry, we can reach Asparn by nightfall.” With that, he turned his horse, and urged it forward, and the other worthies followed suit.

Breaking out of the forest, they saw a large clearing that sloped down to the winding Morava river.  The muddy trail, all that was left of the great Roman road slowly sliding into ruin, ran down the hill to a cluster of houses, the vicus of Hanburg.  The warmth of firelight glowed from the doorways, and the smell of burning firewood made them yearn for a dry bed.  Beyond the mass of homes, the road passed a small priory which appeared to be dark, then took a sharp right and followed the river a ways to a landing, where a rope was stretched across the river to another landing on the far side.  Brother Agathon could be seen following an elderly peasant carrying a long stick towards the near landing, having apparently roused the man from his home.

Nearing the vicus, an older woman came rushing out of one of the homes without even a shawl on. “Stop!  Please!  Please help us!” she cried.  Brother Drogo urged his horse forward, interposing himself between her and the group and spoke to her in gruff tones, making it clear he had little time to tarry. “Please,” she cried, “the devil has taken my daughter!”

Gisla urged her horse forward, however, and intervened, offering to help the woman, but Drogo pointed out that the river was swelling fast, and they had to get over it before it became impassable. Bjork interjected that the light of God must shine in all places, even the gloomiest, or else it shall shine nowhere, which seemed to cow Drogo a bit. “Very well then, if it is God’s will that you should help, then help. Catch up to us in Asparn, then,” he said, and urged his horse back onto the road towards the ferry. He ordered Hugo to stay with the women as a bodyguard.

The heavy wooden door squealed on its hinges, revealing a squalid interior. The cold dirt floor was bare, save for a single mud-tracked straw mat inside the doorway. A table and chairs next to a wooden pantry-cabinet stood to one side, and a curtain rope divided the room where the wood frame beds stood on the other side of the house. The curtain had been pulled back, and one of the frame beds had been dragged over near the fire. Lying on the bed, under all of the blankets in the house, was the frail form of a little girl, staring straight up at the ceiling. Her chest rose and fell quickly, the rapid sounds of her panting breath lending weight to the gloom of the place.

“Her name is Gisla,” murmured the mother. “She was found wandering the forest yesterday, and has gotten worse ever since. The devil must have accosted her there! Please, can you help her?”

Gisla tenderly moved forward and inspected the child. “She appears to be in shock,” she said, dismissing the old woman’s diagnosis, and raised the child’s feet under a blanket. Bjork, on the other hand, was more suspicious, and inspected the child for strange markings, but found none. Hugo watched from afar, standing in the doorway. After questioning the woman, they learned that the child had been speaking in “the language the monks use” – presumably Latin – and that there was no one in town who could perform an exorcism, because the prior had died several days before of a fever. (Which is why the priory was now dark.)

The three retreated a bit to confer, and Gisla resolved to set towards administering her healing care to the child. While she began her ministrations, Bjork and Hugo asked the mother to show them where the child had been found. Clearly agitated by being so close to the forest, the mother was reluctant to show them, but swallowed her fear long enough to walk them into the woods. There, they found the place where the child had been found, and the footprints in the mud told the tale: the child had wandered into the woods, collapsed, and was found and taken back to the village by another person – the ferryman, according to the old woman.

Back in the village, the girl suddenly sat up in bed, glaring at Gisla! The labored breathing had stopped, and she began speaking in a strong, male voice, in Latin! Gisla rushed to get out her quill and parchment to take down the bits she could remember. In the end, she caught only the emphatic syllables at the end: “Calx! Calx!” After this, the child laid back down and began panting again. Gisla, shaken by the strange behavior of the child, redoubled her efforts at healing her.

When Hugo and Bjork returned to the hut, Gisla recounted what had happened, and Bjork recalled hearing about an occult item called the “Calx oscura,” but had no idea what it meant – perhaps a tome. She then asked the old woman if she could show them the priory. Clearly uncomfortable with the idea, the woman assented for the sake of her child, and showed them in.

The stone structure was dark and mostly empty. A series of wooden benches stood by the walls, and a curtain was drawn partway over the sleeping quarters at the back of the room, just beyond a lectern. Against one wall was a large wooden cabinet with a lock. The pair noticed that the room was considerably colder than outside, and their breath billowed.

After some snooping, Bjork found the key to the cabinet under the prior’s mattress, and unlocked it. Inside was a well-worn, but well cared-for, copy of the Vulgate, a relatively new translation of the Bible into German.

Suddenly, there was a gust of wind that seemed to gust from the left side of the priory to the right, well away from the door! Hugo and Bjork examined the walls for possible explanations, but all they could come up with was Bjork’s observation that just beyond the left wall was the graveyard.

They decided to close the cupboard and leave, but Bjork decided to hold on to the key, slipping it into her pocket. Suddenly, the door slammed shut! Hugo worried that there might be a ghost among them, and as if to answer, the cabinet crashed to the ground as if pushed over! The wooden cabinet shattered, sending the Vulgate skidding across the floor.

Bjork snatched up the book and flipped to a passage about protection from evil, and began reciting from the book. Slowly, the wind died down, and the door creaked partway open again. Whatever was trying to trap them had vanished.

Leaving the priory, they returned to the hut to discover that the girl had recovered almost instantly. The mother was ecstatic, but the three travellers were not so happy. They questioned the girl and discovered that the last thing she remembered was being out in the woods, and seeing brother Otto, the prior who had died several days ago!

The mystery still unsolved, the three decided that they needed to catch up to the rest of their group. Advising the woman to steer clear of the graveyard and priory until a new prior arrives, they went to speak to the ferryman.

The ferryman took them across the river, and while doing so, confirmed the story the girl had told. He had found her in the woods and carried her back to town. He didn’t seem to have anything interesting to say…until the three travellers mentioned Asparn..

“Wait a moment, you’re not going to Asparn, are you?” asked the ferryman.

“Yes, why?” asked Hugo.

“That town has been taken by the devil. Do not go there!”

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