Tales from Talmarin

#1. The Curse of Earlfax Manor

"Gods burn all mages and their tempers," Sir Roland Cavalong grumbled as he and his black robed companion reached the summit of the steep, tree-lined hill. The blond bearded knight, longsword swinging freely at his hip, marched with a frown of deep irritation on his face and his eyes turn up towards the heavens as if asking for guidance.

"Language, Lord Paladin," the sorcerer Vladimir chided, as easy going as ever. Every so often he would turn his onyx colored eyes from the path ahead to gaze with admiration at the hall of well-groomed trees that flanked the marble walkway and the floral rainbow which covered much of the front lawn. "For a minor noble, this Lord Earlfax has quite the garden."

"Please be silent," snapped Roland, an uncharacteristic edge of steel lining his voice. "Why must you always be like this? You believe someone to be giving you an ill look, you think you hear them speak poorly of you; whether it be true or no, why can you not ignore it?"

"It's just the way I am," the other responded, the very image of calm. "Have you ever heard of a necromancer that wasn't a little vindictive? Hmm?"

Roland shook his head in disgust.

The pair had traveled many long miles together, leaving behind the border wars between their native Palanthanmus and the neighboring fragment nations of the former Gerabaldic Empire for the picturesque countryside of the commercial state of Prauge. While the journey in and of itself had not been altogether unpleasant, Vladimir's antics and the ambiguous nature of their mission had done much to ruin Roland's enjoyment of the warmer climate. Just that morning, the necromancer had set (illusory) fire to a priest who had made a sign of warding against evil at him and almost gotten into a brawl with a middle aged barmaid.

Paladin and necromancer climbed the steps of the nobleman's mansion, in truth a large house. In stark contrast to the well kept grounds, the mansion's exterior was quite shabby. The paint was weather grayed and peeling, many shingles were missing from the roof, and the veranda creaked ominously beneath the travelers' weight. Nevertheless, the double doors were well taken care of; both sturdy pieces of dwarven craftsmanship with fresh, crisp paint and decorated with coiling basilisks. The heads of screeching bronze gryphons formed the door handles, while a snarling manticore's effigy held the knocker ring in its serrated jaws.

With three resounding booms of the ring, the door swung out without sound. Upon the threshold stood a gaunt, gray-haired gentleman dressed all in black silk and sporting a thin lipped expression that made it look as if he had bitten into a strong lemon.

"Can I help you, sirs?" the man asked in the most stereotypical, stuck-up butler voice imaginable. The slightest hint of a sneer tugged at the domestic's all but nonexistent lips at the sight of Roland with his scarlet cloak and bleached leather jerkin, and Vlad in his night black robes.

"I am Sir Roland Cavalong, Paladin of Jinsas," said the knight, "And this is my wizard companion Vladimir Skolkof. I believe that your master was expecting us?"

Save for the tight lipped lemon expression, the butler's face went blank, but only for a moment.

"Ah, yes," he droned. "My master did not send for you. However, with circumstances what they are, he may be willing to have an audience. If you will follow me."

Without waiting for a reply, the butler turned briskly on his heel. With few other options, Vlad and Roland followed.

Despite the exterior, the house's interior was impressive. Rich, dark wood panels covered the floor and walls, with colorful Muharabic tapestry rugs providing traction on the waxed floors. The foyer alone was large enough to hold two carriages and a full team of horses. The hallways were narrow but well lit with expensive crystalline shine orbs. A subtle, pleasing odor of cedar and lilacs hung in the air, reminding Roland of the garden outside.

The butler led the two down a disorienting maze of halls and corridors, past dozens of doorways which as often as not blended in with the walls. A number of servants passed them by, some carrying sealed crates or chests, others weighed down with heavy stacks of books and parchment. All of them bore a harried manner to their movements and a distressed manner to their countenances. The pleasing scent gradually diminished the further they went into the house, replaced by a watchful and malicious presence strong enough cause the golden star-cross at his neck to twitch.

As they continued to march, Vlad's black eyes met Roland's blue ones and the paladin nodded, his face grim.

At last their guide called for them to halt before a door at the end of a portrait-filled corridor, distinguishable for its adornment in the Gatan cat-scratch style. Without bothering to close the door behind him, the butler entered alone for the usual formal announcements, "A Paladin Cavalong and Wizard Skolkof to see you, Sir," and upon receiving acknowledgement ushered the visitors inside.

The room beyond was like any other wealthy man's study: An impressive collection of books dominated the walls, while the bookshelves were decorated with paintings of family members, strange masks and heirloom weapons. Nevertheless, Roland noted that there was something different about the big mahogany desk, the wine cabinet, and even the shelves, a certain extra richness to their design and color that made them to stand out more. Sitting at the desk and surrounded by a hill and a half of official-looking papers was severe but distinguished- one could almost say regal looking- gentleman. He was only perhaps in his mid-forties but his short, slicked back hair was steel gray, complementing both his eyes and his expression. His clothes were of a simple design and somber color, but the material was of the finest quality silk.

"Sit down, gentlemen, if you please," the nobleman prompted, though it sounded more like a command than an invitation. With a gesture he sent the lemon lipped butler to the wine cabinet.

"Lord Earlfax-"

"Yes, I suppose that I am now," the steel haired man cut Roland off lazily, taking an unadorned pewter goblet from the butler and taking an absent sip. "Let us get straight to the matter, gentlemen. I am Marcus Grivaldi, chief minister to His Majesty, and no, I am not the man who sent for you. Rather, it was my half-brother Germaine who did so, and his funeral was three days ago."

"My condolences," spoke Roland, bowing slightly and raising his own goblet to touch his forehead in respect for the dead.

"Thank you, but I do not need them," the chief minister Grivaldi, the new Lord Earlfax, drawled. "Oh, excuse me. You are Palanthium, are you not, Sir Cavalong? I forget that in your country one is expected to be mournful at funerals. Here in Prauge they are just one more unnecessary hassle to clutter my schedule with."

"My, what an important person we are," Vlad sneered before Roland could stop him. "I hope that you haven't lost any more close relatives lately. I'd hate for you to be so inconvenienced."

"Lowborn scum! How dare you-?"

"Calm yourself, Jacopo," Marcus ordered without raising his voice. He regarded his butler with a cool expression until the domestic had backed away with downcast eyes.

"Forgive my companion," said Roland, "He often speaks without thought or wisdom. But if you will have us, Lord, I can hazard a guess as to why your brother sent for us, and, if you will have us, I would fulfill that duty."

The lord rubbed at his eyes and, for just a moment, appeared quite tired and careworn.

"Your aid I would gladly accept, Paladin," he said, regaining his stony composure, "Ever since my arrival I have learned far too well what my brother wanted."

"Will you please tell you what you do know?" To Roland's surprise it was Vlad who asked this, without sarcasm or scorn.

Marcus Grivaldi nodded.

"I received word a week ago at the capital that my brother had perished. Though I had not spoken with my brother for some years, I set out immediately with some of my own household to make for the arrangements and to divide the property. I am, or rather was, Germaine's closest living relative, after all."

The nobleman drained his cup and allowed Jacopo to refill it before continuing.

"We had the funeral here at the mansion on the day I arrived. Thankfully, what accounts for my brother's staff had already had the corpse embalmed."

"Who all attended?" questioned Roland.

"Myself and my staff, of course. I assume that my brother's staff was there as well, but having never met either of the two I cannot be sure. Whatever passes for the plebian authority was there as well, as were various distant relations who traveled here with me but are currently holed up in Verona somewhere."

With another vesuvial scowl Marcus took another measured sip of wine, choked and broke into a coughing spasm.

At this Jacopo dashed to his master's side. Roland glared at his partner to make sure that the necromancer did not laugh aloud, but Vlad simply sat with a satisfied smirk resting on his lips.

"As I was saying," Marcus continued once he was able to do so, "As my younger brother's next of kin, it is my duty as his," he grimaced, "heir to choose from amongst Germaine's property and possessions what I wish and auction off the rest. Though the latter is beginning to seem less likely every day," he ended with an anxious sigh.

"Let me guess," Vlad cackled, twirling his empty goblet about by its stem, "You've gone and inherited yourself a spook problem, haven't you?"

"Vladimir!"

"Yes, sorcerer, you guess correctly," Marcus spoke through clenched teeth, "No doubt you two were summoned to dispatch this specter, and I also ask that you do this. Apparently both the local clergymen and the parish in Verona have tried and failed to do this before, and the auction cannot take place until my kinsmen return from Verona. And this they will not do until the spirits are gone from this house. Not after that first night we tried to stay here."

Consternation showed for but an instant on the noble's face as he confided, "And I'm sure that even Jacopo here would have abandoned me long ago had I not swallowed my pride and opted for us to stay at the inn."

"Not so, Master!"

Ignoring the butler, Marcus concluded, "And so I promise you, sirs: Get rid of these spirits as soon as possible, and you have my word that I will insure that the Five Orders and whatever guild Wizard Skolkof is a member of shall receive a generous donation." In a mumbling afterthought he added, "Torren knows at this point I would not refuse aid from a necromancer."

Valiantly ignoring the final comment, Roland stood and announced, "Minister Grivaldi, as a Lord Paladin of the Knights of the Holy Order of Jinsas, I accept this quest and vow that, Jinsas willing, we shall do everything within our considerable power to vanquish the evil that threatens you. This I do solemnly swear.

***

The low buzz of concentrated energy filled the darkened hallways of the manor's second level. While many found the drone of the dowsing crystal irritating at best, Vladimir had always thought it rather soothing. He was alone, Roland having gone back to the village to speak with the late Lord Earlfax's servants once interviewing Geraldine and his staff had proved fruitless. All of their stories were the same: a growing sense of dread and foreboding throughout the day, coupled by occasional screaming, door banging and wall scratching. At night the house was abandoned completely in favor of the local inns. While at work in the daylight hours, everyone was either trying diligently to not notice anything out of the ordinary, or jumping at wisps. All-in-all, not particularly helpful.

Beginning with the most obvious place- the basement- Vlad had begun to dowse throughout the house, a crystal of a sinister shade of violet suspended from his middle finger. Though the dark awareness no doubt knew what he was and what he was capable, it had made no move against him since the paladin had departed. This could only mean that the creature or creatures could only move freely at night. Advantage: necromancer.

Nevertheless, Vlad was cautious. He did not yet know what dwelt within the shadows of the manor, but it was clearly something of great power. It had to have been, for how else could it have avoided either Vlad or Roland's immediate pinpointing of its hiding place? Against one immersed in the knowledge of the Shadow Arcana, however, no fiend of darkness could remain hidden forever.

The crystal's edges were now blurred, the ring of its vibrations at the very edge of human hearing. Excited perspiration dripped from the wizard's high brow ridge as he pushed aside a second story door and stepped into the creature's lair. It was a library, one much like the study directly below it, save for the greater number of bookcases and a few overstuffed armchairs. Unlike the rest of the house, this room's floor was of carpet rather than hardwood. Torn books and broken wall ornaments littered the ground, and much of the floorings color was lost beneath a wide rust colored stain.

Yet it was not the bloody paint which first caught the Vlad's eyes. Directly across from the doorway stood a wardrobe which seemed to dominate the entire back wall, though it could not have been more than three feet at it's widest. All light seemed to become lost within its lacquered surface, a black so deep that the armoire was difficult to distinguish from the shadows.

The wizard crossed the room in a daze, his eyes wide with awe and triumph. Such exquisite beauty! No doubt the fiend's hidey-hole.

No doubt, but still…

"It would be such a waste to destroy it," he breathed, reaching out to run a pale hand over the macabre scenes carved into the wardrobe. The moment his flesh came into contact with its void-cold surface the dowsing crystal exploded in a glittering shower of broken crystal, yet Vlad was so enamored by the armoire that he did not seem to notice. It was not until he had pulled the wardrobe's doors free that his trance was broken. By then it was, of course, far too late.

A tenor scream of ultimate horror echoed throughout the mansion of Germaine Earlfax for almost a full minute.

***

"How can I be of service to, Master Paladin?" the girl spoke, a golden haired beauty only just fully come into womanhood, dressed in a black, lace-fringed gown of mourning. Her voice was as soft and timid as a mouse's footsteps.

Roland sat across from the girl in the parlor of a village boarding house. Though it had taken the lady of the house a fair amount of convincing of his intentions, Roland had at last been allowed to speak with Whitney Menzogna, the late Lord Earlfax's maid. The dead nobleman's butler, Luigi, was "in no fit state for visitors." According to Whitney's own clarification, the shock of their master's death had left the old man in rather bad shape.

"Master Paladin? Master Paladin? Are you well?"

Roland came out of his musings with a start. He had been studying the parlor's single piece of decoration, an oil painting depicting a bearded man with steel colored hair and eyes, with keen interest. Now he studied the girl's face with greater interest was he spoke.

"That portrait above the mantelpiece," he asked, "Am I right in guessing that it is of your late master?"

"Yes," she squeaked without turning to look. Her gray eyes were roots firmly to her feet.

"May I take it that he was well beloved by the villagers?"

"You may," she answered without curtness. As an afterthought she added, almost defensively, "He never spoke an ill word to me, nor raised a hand against me, either."

Roland stroked his short beard in thought for a moment before giving a soft sigh.

"Ms. Whitney," he said, "Let us speak plainly. You have nothing to fear from me. Your uncle did not send me to kill you, nor do I think he suspects who you are. I am who I say I am, and to your uncle you are naught but his brother's former servant."

The girl looked up with a start, horror and panic written on her face as with a broad tipped paintbrush.

"My uncle?" Whitney attempted to sound incredulous, though fear and timidity quiet spoiled the effect. "What makes you think that my uncle is-?"

"Lady Earlfax," Roland spoke with impatience hidden, his words and the gentleness within them bringing her up short. "You pretended to be Germaine's maid so that your father would be able to pass some kind of a birthright to you, in spite of Prauge's laws against female inheritance, as well as to protect you from Chief Minister Grivaldi, his brother and your uncle. Am I far from the mark?"

Whitney did not look up. Her only form of acknowledgement was a frightened, "How do you know these things?"

Roland smiled.

"It has been more than a thousand years since the elves last walked this earth, but their presence in a human bloodline does not easily disappear. Unless I am quiet mistaken, my dear, I believe it to be too much of a coincidence for two people of the same household to have," he now spoke as if remembering a listing, "slanted, close set eyes of almond shape with irises charcoal grey." No longer listing, he added, "And if I may say, milady, I have seen few such elven eyes of such radiance."

A blush and a guilty smile crossed the girl's face against her will.

"Now to business, milady," said Roland, putting on a more tight lipped expression as he leaned back into his chair. "This matter of spirits haunting your father's house-."

"It's the wardrobe that's haunted, sir, not the house itself," the girl blurted with surprising force, causing Roland to blink in surprise.

"A-are you sure?" he asked.

"Of course," she nodded. "My master, I mean my father, he was the house's first ever resident, and all the time that I've been there nothing strange has ever happened. Not until three months ago when bought that cursed wardrobe."

"Tell me about it."

Whitney sank back into her more reserved state as she spoke. There was a hint of obvious nervousness in her tone, which Roland found puzzling.

"Master…father always had a passion for antique woodwork. He brought it home from the capital one day. He later told me that it was made from the rare Romognian black elder and was supposed to have been the last work of a famous craftsman."

"May I ask whom this craftsman was?" he asked, his tone strained.

"I don't remember."

"Then do you know from whom your father bought this wardrobe from? Did he say if the dealer had ever mentioned where he himself had obtained it or if there might be something wrong with it?"

"No, nothing like that, save for a bit of its history," she replied, somewhat hesitant. "Supposedly it had been ordered specially by a mage studying black magic, and that the men who had harvested the wood, the woodwright who made it and everyone who had ever owned it had died mysteriously."

A note of irritation entered the knight's voice.

"Was he not aware that Romognian black elder grows only in the most tainted parts of the Cherno Forest, and is therefore saturated with dark magic?"

"I-I believe that he was," Whitney stammered, avoiding his gaze, "But I do not think that he ever believed in any of the stories about Romognia. At least not until…not until the end."

The girl dabbed at her eyes with a silk handkerchief. Roland waited a moment for her to finish before asking, "When did the activity begin?"

"On the very first night," replied Whitney matter-of-factly, "At first it didn't begin until after midnight, but after the first week or so it started as soon as the sun went down."

"Can you describe the activity?"

She put her hand to her brow, wrinkled with thought. Slowly she recited, "Screams in the night…banging doors…things being thrown across the room…"

"Poltergeists, perhaps?" Roland murmured a possibility to himself.

"…Nightmares…," Whitney whispered with a violent shudder of remembrance.

"No, not a poltergeist."

"…And…things," Whitney's voice began to break, "Horrible, fearful…things." Her chest was starting to heave with the first signs of hyperventilation.

"That'll do, milady, that'll do," Roland assured, keeping his voice as calm as possible as he clasped a gentle hand to her shoulder and began to channel a stream of divine energy into Whitney's body. In a moment the violent shuddering had past, replaced with an almost euphoric expression of peace before melting back into simple calm. When he was sure that she had regained control of herself, the paladin released the girl and rose from his seat.

"I beg you, milady. Honor me with just two more questions and I shall leave you in peace."

"Of course," sniffed Whitney, rubbing fiercely at her moistening eyes. "Anything."

"Why did your father did not request aid right away?"

"We tried," protested the girl, a surprising amount of heat entering her voice. "Numerous times, but no priest or cleric could succeed if they would attempt at all. Most claimed that they were inadequately trained for such an exorcism. Father must have sent a hundred letters or more to the king and what friends he had at court for help, but none of them would even respond. Not even any of the mage's guilds would reply. It wasn't until he had despaired of any help from within the country that one was sent out to the Adamant Cathedral in your Palanthanmus."

Roland's brow furrowed in thought. He stood still for several moments in contemplation before asking his final question.

"Then why didn't you leave?"

She gazed at the floor. Her expression was sheepish and her movements nervous, growing more so the longer he held her in his azure gaze.

"W-we did," she stammered at last.

A straw colored eyebrow arced itself in suspicion.

"Then why is your father dead?"

"On the night that…it happened," she answered, speaking more with care than with fear or sorrow, "Father said that he had found someone…someone who could perform a strong enough exorcism to dispel the evil from the wardrobe, but the ritual would require his presence. He lied, though. He went into the house by himself at sunset and the doors wouldn't open again until morning. By then…,"

She swiped at her eyes once more.

"I'm sorry, but that's all that I know. I'm sorry."

***

Roland was not surprised to be greeted by Jacopo upon his return, but the look of relief upon the lemon-lipped butler's face was a bolt from the blue

"What happened?" the paladin demanded.

"L-lord Paladin," the butler stammered as he ushered the knight inside. "I fear that some horror has befallen your sorcerer. It wasn't five minutes since he had gone upstairs when-,"

Roland did not wait to hear the rest of what the butler had to say. With one hand on the pearl-encrusted hilt of his sword he dashed down the paneled halls. He shouldered easily past the crowd of anxious servants gathered at the foot of the stairs, flying up the steps three at a time. A single door stood open in the identical second floor hallway.

The wizard lay crumpled at the foot of a looming black wardrobe, his form rigid and his face ashen. With a panicked cry Roland sprinted to his friend's side, but the fear evaporated into relief when a tired moan issued from Vlad's mouth at the paladin's first touch.

With another groan Vladimir was able to raise himself to his knees, but it required another moment for his eyes to focus or his voice to recover.

"Izza buggert," the wizard moaned with scratchy throat and moisture less lips.

"A what?"

"A boggart," he clarified, licking his lips whilst rubbing the back of his head. "Gods, that's a thin carpet."

"A boggart, eh?" the paladin mused, stroking at his beard. "But that can't be all that's-,"

"Unless it's a fell boggart," the Vlad interjected, "You know, eats other bad spirits and assimilates their powers? The sucker's Fear Aura was one of the strongest I've ever felt."

Without reply, Roland crouched down to his partner's level and ran his fingers over the great, ruddy stain upon the carpet. Tearing up a pinch of the stained fabric, the paladin sniffed at the sample and made a sour face; one which changed in an instant to contemplative as he rounded his gaze upon the nearest bookcase. A thoughtful smile tugged at his lips.

"Figured something out?"

"Perhaps," answered the paladin. He gestured at the wardrobe, looming above them with its menacing shadow. Evil whispers lingered at the edge of his hearing, while a great weight of malice pressed itself against his mind.

"I presume that you have also realized what this wardrobe is, correct?"

"Well, yeah. Why?"

A troubled expression crossed the paladin's face. It was only with the greatest reluctance that he replied, "Vlad, I need you to confirm something. But to do so, I must ask you to something that is not entirely keeping within my Order's values."

"Could you be a bit more specific, please?"

With a slight grin, he explained himself.

"Shame on you, Sir Knight!" Vlad scolded, "Asking a poor, law-abiding mage such as myself to do such a thing! And a Paladin Lord making the request, no less! Let me get the saddlebags and I'll get started at once."

***

"What is the meaning of this, Lord Paladin!?"

Marcus Grivaldi stood in the doorway of the library, fists clenched till they were alabaster white. His face was a livid red. Behind him stood Jacopo, attempting to appear as threatening as an aged butler can.

The books which had previously littered the floor had been tossed without a care into a corner and much of the furniture had been pushed aside with an equal amount of concern. Meanwhile, large swaths of carpet had been torn up and tossed out into the hallway, and upon the exposed oak flooring Vlad and Roland were busy tracing complex designs in colored chalk. From the library's single window the red flame of setting Helia lit the room with a scarlet light.

"We are preparing to expel the spirits, Lord Minister," answered Roland without looking up from the Circle of Purification.

"You are ruining my house is what you are doing," the official roared, "I intend to auction this place within a week of your fulfillment of your contract. Do you have any idea how much this reckless vandalism will affect the final purchase price?"

"Not near as much as the boggart in the wardrobe over there will," growled Vlad, his hand hovering over a half-completed set of especially complex leylines.

"Boggart?"

"It's a shape changing spirit which feeds on fear, Lord Minister," explained Roland, now on his feet and pulling on a silver-finished steel cuirass over his pale jerkin. "Hence, it becomes whatever a person fears the most. This is the creature which currently haunts this house, and in order to defeat it we must first trap it within this room and force it to reveal its true shape."

"That is all well and good, Sir Knight, but-,"

"And once the wardrobe is without a guardian," added Vlad with far too much glee, "We'll have to burn it in the midst of a sacred circle in order to break its curse."

"Have you gone absolutely mad?" screamed Marcus, his elven eyes flashing with violent malice. "That wardrobe is made from the rare Romognian black elder tree. That alone makes it worth a fortune! What's more, I know its history: That wardrobe is the last work of the artist Vicente Vivaldi, and that alone makes it worth more than every home, animal or object in the entire province!"

Roland rounded upon Marcus with deliberate slowness, his eyes flashing with blue fire.

"If you know its history," he spoke his voice low and filled with a terrible menace that caused the Chief Minister to retreat several paces, "Then you knew that everyone who has possessed this thing has been driven mad and died from a year of relentless haunting."

The noble's fear of the paladin grew tenfold, his near transparent skin a clear indicator of this. His retreating steps were brought up short when he backed into Jacopo.

"You see, milord," Roland continued, arms crossed and his voice saturated with unconcealed contempt. "I too know of this wardrobe's history, for it is on a list of similar artifacts which every paladin and cleric is required to memorize, so that if in our travels we come across one of these vile things we may recognize and destroy them without delay."

The commanding power of his voice and the wrath within his eyes allowed for no argument, no compromise.

"Well, then I will hold you no longer," Marcus answered, his voice strained his hands raised in a placating gesture, "Whatever it takes to cleanse this house. Though it will be such a shame to lose such a precious piece of art."

"Speaking of artwork," Vlad spoke up as he rose to his feet, brushing chalk dust from his robe. "If you knew what it was, then why were you so keen to sell it? Isn't knowingly passing on a cursed object kind of, I dunno, irresponsible?"

"Even more so when one has already done so."

The fury of Chief Minister Marcus Grivaldi returned with renewed force as he rounded upon Roland with eyes narrowed to serpentine slits. "What are you implying, Lord Paladin?" he demanded, his voice carrying as much ice as Roland's was with flame.

"Am I wrong in guessing that the antique dealer who sold your brother Vivaldi's Cursed Wardrobe was in your employ?"

"How dare you accuse my master of-?"

"Silence, Jacopo," the nobleman snapped. Turning back to Roland, the steel in his gaze extended to more than merely his eye color. "Yes, Lord Paladin, you are quite mistaken. Now if you'll excuse me, I have much work to attend to before nightfall. You have until then to dispose of this boggle or whatever it is, then you and your pet wizard will get out and never come back."

"Oh, we'll be done long before then," cackled Vlad. Through slow and steady steps back, the wizard now stood at the evil wardrobe's side. "In fact, you can help us."

Pulling back on the sable, serpentine handle, the necromancer pulled open the door and Marcus let out a scream of terrified panic. A foul odor like sour alcohol and human waste filled the room as the boggart stepped out to challenge the one who had disturbed it. It wore clothes that had once been rich and majestic but were now torn, faded and filthy beyond all conceivable repair. Its steel hair was long and unkempt, its skin sallow and coated in countless layers of grime. The creature staggered as it approached, a half-empty bottle of dwarven whiskey clutched tight in its grip.

Shoving his servant away, Marcus Grivaldi retreated until he had plastered himself against the opposing wall against the advance of his penniless, powerless doppelganger.

"Now, Vlad," Roland called, but already a dozen skeletons were rising, their bones painted blue in the light of the necromancer's activated summoning circle.

"Get it in front of the window," the paladin continued to order, drawing his sword as the dead swarmed over the drunken bum the boggart had become.

"I know, I know, let me alone," growled the necromancer, weaving his spell. "Malcolm Repulsor!"

Cyan light filled the room again as the struggling mass of bones and boggart was blasted out of the wardrobe's dominating shadow and into the path of the dying sunlight. A screech like knives stabbed into flesh, like bleeding nails over a jagged board, issued forth from the boggart's mouth, its form twisting, convulsing, bulging, growing. Vladimir's skeletal minions were crushed beneath or absorbed into the beast's expanding bulk. Sections of wall burst asunder; the roof began to cave in. Stripped of all disguises, the fiend was like unto a massive worm from whose pink flesh bulged a multitude of terrible things: bones, arms, screaming faces, scowling tooth-filled maws, eyes by the dozens. I mask half like a skull and half like the face of an evil, grinning fat man was at its head end, while a single crimson eye pulsed with malicious light from within the depths of its head.

"Oh, it really is a fell boggart," spoke Roland as he gazed up at the thing, his voice a bizarrely calm mixture of fascination and "Oh crap!"

The wall and floor shattered like glass as the fiend charged. Wood and masonry splinted with equal ease. A flash of white steel, a flare of flame and the shuddering of an explosion. Unholy screeches went up to heaven as enchanted sword cut, summoned ghoul bit, and wraith froze with a touch. With a last gasp of power from his circle, Vlad called up a zombie ogre, which grasped the worm about its middle to crush it with rotten but still mighty muscles. At the same moment Roland let fly a spell of holy power, piercing the beast with light like a sword.

Chief Minister Grivaldi's servants fled the house in terror as the combatants crashed down to the first floor, yet still the boggart struggled without fatigue. A dozen tongues like tentacles, and grasping claws reached out from its maws, but with a roar the valiant paladin cleaved them asunder with a single flash of his mighty blade. Vladimir flung a fireball into its largest mouth, sending teeth of all descriptions, ectoplasm, blood and ichor flying in all directions with the resultant explosion. Yet still the fiend could not be felled.

"His familiars now either destroyed or too damaged to continue, Vlad now reached into the uttermost depths of his skill and chanted a spell most terrible:

"Darkness of the uttermost depth,
Shadow beyond reckoning.
Flesh, blood and bone to dust,
And dust to naught.
From that which all came,
Now shall all return."

As the monster flung itself into a golden barrier conjured by the paladin, a sphere of deep and utter night formed between Vladimir's palms. A darkness, a nothingness so complete that not even ether could exist within the space that the orb occupied.

"Nihilus Fractum," the necromancer muttered with a gleam of madness in his eye, first in the high tongue of the elves and again in the common Geraldic, "Void Breaker."

The sound of ripping space- like the most ear-rending sound imaginable heard on every audio range at once- tore the air asunder. The air was saturated with the stench of burning flesh and ozone. With a final liquid screech of pain and rage, the boggart collapsed, a fast expanding hole running from its eye socket to the tip of its tail. Within moments the hole had engulfed the entire beast, its ashes scattered upon the breeze of the cool summer evening.

Though the breathing of both men was heavy, neither man was much injured. Only fatigued slowed their steps, though Vlad required the support of his companion to move. When the sorcerer could trust his legs to support him, they found and scaled the splintering staircase and began to pick their way through the wreckage of the library. To the annoyance of both men the menacing black wardrobe remained on its feet despite the chaos, but with a mighty thud this sin was rectified.

"You fiends! Animals! Savages! Look what you've done!" a voice half-screamed, half-coughed. Turning, the victors watched as Chief Minister Marcus clawed out of the ruin like a decidedly ugly phoenix. Save for the not unwelcome lack of booze or reek, the nobleman was now very much the vision of his worst fear personified.

"Fools! Beasts!" he continued to shout, "You've utterly destroyed my inheritance. Look at all the money that you've lost me. I'll look the biggest fool at court! And you," he stabbed an accusing finger at Roland, "You dare call yourself a paladin, allied as you are with a filthy necromancer!?"

Unfazed, Roland answered proudly, "I would ally myself with a lich if it would better aid me to defend the innocent from men such as you. I am not called the Maverick Paladin for naught, after all."

Then with a snort he added, "And it occurs to me, Your Lordship, that attempting fratricide with a cursed piece of cursed furniture in order to seize your brother's wealth, only to be left with naught of said wealth but for the cursed item you had given him- it seems a justice so poetic that I have half a mind to let you keep rather than destroy it myself."

"Besides," Vladimir cackled as he kicked at the fallen wardrobe. "Wasn't this thing far more valuable than the house anyway? So from a financial standing, you've lost relatively little."

A roar draconic issued from Marcus' throat as he grabbed at a fist-sized rock and it hurled it at Vladimir's head, missing. "Mortreth take you and gods burn you, wizard! And the damnable box as well! I don't give a damn what happens to it now!"

"As you wish," answered Roland with a solemn snap of his fingers. "Purest Flame."

At the paladin's command, the unbroken magic circle upon which the cursed armoire had been cast down burst into flames the color of snow. As if its lacquered surface were of pitch, the wardrobe itself caught fire and began to burn as readily as dry brushwood.

Falling to his knees, Chief Minister Marcus Grivaldi gave a horrified, sorrowful scream of rage that echoed for many miles.

***

"Lord Paladin, Master Wizard! Wait a moment, please!"

Pulling their horses up short and turning them about, Vlad and Roland found themselves faced with a lovely young woman with timid, downcast eyes that nevertheless shown with the clear light of tremendous joy. A lovely dress of lightest blue swirled about her knees in the wind.

"A glad morrow, Lady Whitney," Roland hailed with a smile.

"Greetings, young mistress," Vlad addressed the former maid with his most silken voice as he leaned forward in his saddle.

Roland rolled his eyes to the heavens and asked the gods for strength.

"I wished to thank you for everything," Whitney's elvish eyes shone as she spoke, face aglow with joy and gratitude.

"Think nothing of it, Dear Lady."

"Though if you really wanted to thank us proper-like, Miss, you and I could find someplace and- OW! Easy on the spurs, Roland, it was a jest."

Whitney giggled as if she had had no reason to do so for years.

"I do feel that I must apologize though, milady," said Roland.

"Heh-heh, yeah," added Vlad, eyes downcast. "Sorry for destroying your house."

"And now that the Chief Minister has departed, I wish to express condolences for your father's faithful Luigi."

Whitney's laughter was brought up short.

"Luigi? But he's still-"

"But milady," Roland asked with mock surprise, "Is your father not currently masquerading as a fear-muddled old servant who refuses to come out from his room? If this is so, then whose new-embalmed remains did Minister Grivaldi observe at the funeral?"

Ringing laugher returned to the young woman's face, lighting up her features like the late-morning son that shown overhead.

"Truly, you are a wonder Lord Paladin," she cried delightedly.

Vlad scowled.

"He's not that wonderful," the necromancer grumbled, causing the girl to laugh all the more.

When she could speak again she confessed, "Yes, it is as you say. In my father's youth he traveled much and gathered up great wealth to add to his first born inheritance, and it was for these that my Uncle Marcus' assassins have long pursued him."

The radiance of her happiness was clouded over with grief as she continued. "Old Luigi has always stood by Father's side, but this latest method of attack was too much for the dead old man. Neither of us was happy to use his body in such a manner, but it was the only way that we could hope to throw Uncle Marcus off of us for good, and Luigi would have urged us to take such an opportunity." A moment or two passed, and as the sadness began to pass she pressed, "How ever did you see through our deception, Lord Paladin?"

"Your acting…is not what it could be," the paladin answered diplomatically, though with a smile of pride that he could not conceal. "Though more revealing were the supposed blood stain on the library floor. For blood, it smelled rather like wood varnish."

Not to be outdone, Vladimir quipped, "And more importantly, curses are rather like serial killers. They work in a method of cycles and patterns. Vivaldi's Cursed Wardrobe has never been known to kill in less than a year's time, heart failure amongst the elderly notwithstanding. Your father took rather a gamble to attempt to fake his death after only three months. Luckily, Lord Head-Up-His-Arse isn't quite as clever as he thinks himself to be."

Roland scowled at the vulgar language, but Whitney only burst into more giggle.

No matter," she laughed "Uncle Marcus is gone, and god's willing he will not trouble us again. We may have lost everything, but I believe it quite worth it to be rid of Marcus, and the people of this village are both generous and grateful. My father and I will never forget what you two have done for us. A thousand thanks to you both!"

With a pleased smile each, Roland and Vladimir at last rode through the arch of the village gates, making for Palanthanmus and home.

Fin

Author's Notes: Yo! This is the first of several short stories I have planned out for the heroes of my in-progress novel Champions of Talmarin (or Adventerous, I haven't really decided on the title yet).

Now, I understand that some of you fellow fans of fantasy may well be thinking, "A paladin working with a necromancer!? What is this blasphemy!?" Yes, it is an unusual pairing, but that's why I decided upon it. I've always thought Paladin to be a really cool class, but in far too many works of fiction they seem like these "higher-than-thou," twits who'll bend over backwards to enforce their anally restrictive codes. And so to get away from this cliche I created Sir Roland, who believes in fulfilling the spirit of the codes rather than the codes themselves, and often willingly bends or even breaks the rules in order to see that justice is carried out.

Then of course there's Vlad. Like in so many other works, necromancers are feared and mistrusted throughout the kingdoms of the continent of Talmarin. Vlad, despite his hobbies, is actually a good man at heart (partly due to being a childhood friend of Roland's), and has made it his mission to improve the image that people have of his kind by becoming the first Heroic Necromancer. Vlad is also a bit strange because he's an independent mage, one without a guild.

For those wondering about the gods and the Five Orders of Paladins and Clerics, this world's cosmology operates with the Ten Glories as the highest gods who live within the confines of the world, with many lesser gods beneath them. The Ten are divided amongst themselves as the Five of Light and the Five or Darkness, for obvious reasons. Amongst the mortals, there are five orders of clerics (battle priests) subordinate to the Church of Light and five Paladin Orders which exist outside of the church but often works with it, and each of the clerical and paladanic orders is dedicated to a single one of the Five. Roland is a paladin of Jinsas, the Hero God and leader of the Five of Light.

The Five of Light are as follows:
Jinsas- God of courage, valor, nobility, chivalry, song, courtship and battle prowess.
Jormaando-
God of justice, wisdom, order, friendship, the farvest and fate
Mara-
Goddess of tactics, compassion, humility, cleverness, mathematics and motherhood
Torren-
God of nature, physical strength, craftsmanship, gentleness, and thanksgiving (not as in the holiday)
Shala-
Goddess of peaceful death, mercy, magic, foresight and love

The Five of Darkness are:
Mortreth- God of violent death, necromancy, jealousy, and wrath
Cortreth-
Goddess of Dischord, lust, and poisons
Bemoth-
God of stagnation, gluttony, famine and natural disasters
Levith Khan-
God of arrogance, destruction, disease, and all violent aspects of the sea
Cassilor-
God of avarice, recklessness, oaths and moral ambiguity

Hope you all enjoyed! Next one coming soon!

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