The Creeping Plague
The party set out on the long ride to Barrow Hill, the settlement where Rudolph said that a mysterious sickness had afflicted the villagers. Dusk fell as the seven travellers entered the Azure Lake Town and as they turned down a crowded backstreet, they came upon a three-story stone building with a sign hanging outside that declared the place to the Pilgrim's Rest.
The sign itself was an excellent work of art, Kori thought. Before she had arrived at Castle Gruenwald, she had never seen anything like it. Of course it could not compare to anything Duerer had painted, including the tiny portrait in her locket, but it conveyed what she thought could be a scene from an actual pilgrimage. The painting showed a pilgrim carrying a scrip and leaning on a staff, passing a milestone that pointed to the shrine of Altfrid. The Royal Guard filed underneath it into the courtyard of the hostelry. There, the ostlers led their horses to the stables while they made their way into the inn.
The interior of the inn was one of traditional washed walls and whitewashed walls. Tables were set out around the parlour and a fire crackled in a grate in the far wall. One of the men went to the car and Rudolph led the rest of the party to a group of pilgrims sitting around the fire. They were having a story-telling contest and at that moment, were in fits of laughter – a gaunt looking man was just concluding a lewd tale about a miller. As Rudolph introduced himself as Lord Sommernacht, the gaunt man stared at Kori and his eyes widened. Kori smiled back at him. Rudolph made an almost imperceptible gesture at him and he looked away.
"Do carry on with the storytelling," said Rudolph.
As the guardsman at the bar came back with a tray of small ales, a grey-haired pilgrim began to recite his tale. Kori was thrilled that it was a tale about Altfrid the warrior-priest, telling how he defeated a terrible follower of the Lord of the Flies at Barrow Hill village, within riding distance of the Pilgrim's rest and on their route to Gruenwald. The cultist had sent plagues of rats and flies at the settlement, but Altfrid had defeated him and then sealed him in a specially consecrated coffin and decreed that the grave must never be disturbed, lest the evil one rise again to send new plagues against the living. Since that time, the village had been called 'Barrow Hill.' Formerly it had been 'Green Hill.'
The pilgrim recounted the legend with such expertise that Kori was spellbound:
"Those still alive know the secret survives in the darkness in the entrails of the earth. The dread cultist lies like a canker, beneath his mound, waiting, always waiting for his chance to rise again and bring pestilence to our land in one fell stroke..."
Kori had been listening on the edge of the seat and when the pilgrim had finished she clapped and joined in the cheering, her strident voice almost drowning out everyone else's. "Oh well done, I love how you retell that story!"
Despite the hubbub in the parlour, the pilgrim had no difficulty hearing Kori's voice. He smiled gravely and inclined his head. "But be warned. The Canker did not truly die. It may well be that another will have to follow on Altfrid's footsteps. But who? Only Altfrid himself would know."
Kori gazed back, wide-eyed. "Will Altfrid tell us?"
The pilgrim fixed her with a stern gaze. "That is for him to decide. But perhaps he will give help to those who really believe in him."
"I believe in him," said Kori eagerly.
The real question is general good faith," said the pilgrim cryptically.
When it was time to go to bed, the guardsmen set off for the dormitory on the ground floor. Rudolph and Kori had the best room in the house, on the first floor. Kori hastened to hug Ralph goodnight before he departed to the dorm room with the other guards.
"Thank you for being in my escort, dearest," she murmured, gazing into his green eyes.
"It is my privilege. Life seems to get more exciting when you're around, somehow," said Ralph gravely.
Kori beamed. "That's very kind of you to say." She was very conscious of the feel of his muscles under the leather guard armour.
But at that moment Rudolph came up to them. "We have an early start tomorrow, dear niece."
"Sleep well, Princess," said Ralph gravely.
Rudolph led Kori up the sturdy oak staircase. Their suite was equipped with pine furniture and a roaring fire had already been lit in the grate and a roast chicken stood ready for consumption on the table. Kori smiled as she looked around. Before she had first visited Castle Gruenwald, she had never seen any room so richly furnished, but Erika's quarters at Gruenwald were more luxurious than this beyond any means of comparison. Even her own more modest room at Gruenwald showed greater opulence than any inn.
Rudolph glanced around critically. "Does this match the requirements for the Royal Writ? The one that says that the Sommernachts are to be given the best accommodation?"
"It's clear the landlord has gone to a lot of trouble, uncle," said Kori. "Look how clean and neat everything is. We should thank him."
"Well we'll see how they do with getting the water hot."
After they had both eaten their fill, the servants brought up the hot water. Kori did not need to wait for it to cool like Rudolph did – she slipped straight into the tub in the tiled bathroom while the water was steaming. She lay back and relaxed as she soaked, her long hair floating around her.
At bedtime she was still restless and sat up in her bed by the window as Rudolph tried to sleep in his own bed by the door.
"Do you think the story has it right, uncle?" said Kori suddenly. "Could the Canker really rise again?"
"Suspicious things are happening, Kori. But nothing is certain. A mysterious sickness at Barrow Hill could have a different cause."
Kori turned to gaze at him. "But I'm going there to help anyone who's sick, whether or not it is the Canker." She shifted on her bed. "The followers of Greater Demons start a lot of plagues, don't they? Remember when you told me of the black widow spider plague?" She was hoping that Rudolph would tell her the story again now, just as he had done when he visited her the previous summer.
"We have a long and possibly dangerous day tomorrow, dear Niece," said Rudolph yawning.
"Oh! Of course you should get some rest now, dear Uncle," said Kori and she made sure she remained quiet as Rudolph fell asleep. But she could not drift off herself. She was too excited at the prospect of healing the next day and the noises throughout the building were distracting… so she slipped out of bed and checked through her belongings as quietly as she could. She still had the tablet Stein had given her with the runes to ward off evil. She had a portion of the firepowder Madeleine had invented in case of emergencies. It had proven valuable when fighting the werewargs – undead lycanthrope puppets of the Wolf Mage – the previous winter. And there was the Heal-All in its gourd which was surely more valuable still. She picked it up and marvelled at the warm glow that seemed to emanate from it and run up her arms, making her feel warm and contented inside.
She lay back, the creaking of the inn sign below her window as it rocked in the breeze lulling her gently to sleep. She had been troubled by vivid dreams a lot lately and now she had another. She dreamt of the pilgrim in the sign above the Inn door and that he spoke to her in a deep mellifluous voice as she once again stood on the track to the sacred spring... "The road will be dangerous, dear one, but if you have good faith, you can prevail against the encroaching Swarm. Remember…"
"I will remember," murmured Kori aloud.
"Beware the Swarm… beware…" There was an angry buzzing far in the distance and out of the corner of her eyes, though still far off, she saw a mass of encroaching shadows. There were malevolent voices in the buzzing, although even Kori's demonic hearing could not decipher them. "Have faith," said the pilgrim. He held out his hand and Kori took it. She felt a warmth, just like she had from the Heal-All. The evil buzzing faded away. "Dream!" said the pilgrim. "And you will always hear…"
Kori awoke to the sound of a cock crowing.
When the Royal Guard set out again, the sun was barely up. A fine mist rose from the damp grass on either side of the track and dissipated in the summer breeze. Ralph rode alongside Kori. The light of dawn suffused his pale face with a rosy hue and glinted off his fiery hair.
"Remarkable isn't it? To be retracing Altfrid's steps."
"Very," agreed Kori.
"But my mother and sister won't be pleased if the Swarm – the cult of the Lord of the Flies - should make an appearance on our route. They were not thrilled about our hair-raising adventure last winter."
"I'm ready to defend you to the last, just as I did against the Arch-Lycanthrope," said Kori, gazing at him steadily. "You should tell them that I'd never let anything happen to you. Even if the Swarm did show up, they'd have to go through me."
"Well that makes me feel a lot more of a man and I'm sure they'd love the idea of you taking care of me in their place," said Ralph solemnly. "You ought to tell my oldest sister that you can do it far better than she could. She'd love that."
"I'm glad," said Kori grinning.
The village was now in sight and Kori could easily see the outline of the Barrow looming behind it ominously.
"You already knew I suppose, that the Swarm gave themselves weird titles?" said Ralph,
"To show that they had given up their old lives in favour of servitude to the Lord of the Flies," said Kori nodding. "The Wolf Demon made that sort of demand of the Wolf Cult – the five cultists had to chuck away their most prized possessions. The ones which symbolised their old lives."
As they entered the village of Barrow Hill, they saw that many of the buildings had runes daubed in red on their doors – a sure sign that the households had been afflicted with a plague!
"Fear not, good people! The Lord Sommernacht is here to save you," called Rudolph.
The men and women of the village looked up with expressions of hope. Kori smiled at them, but then her heart sank. There was the smell of burning and it was coming from a bonfire onto which two strong men were unloading bodies of plague victims. She had expected something of this kind, but that did not make seeing it any easier.
Rudolph took Kori and a couple of armed guards to the village elder's small stone hall. The elders, two men and a woman, listened as Rudolph grandly declared that he would help free them of the plague.
"If we only knew the cause, then we'd stand a chance," said Rosalind, one of the elders.
"I have good reason to believe that the Canker stirs again beneath Barrow Hill," said Rudolph gravely. One of the other elders raised his eyebrows. "Do not worry," said Rudolph, "my niece and I are the true heroes of our noble house. We follow in the footsteps of our heroic predecessors."
Kori was glad when Rudolph suggested that she tend to one of the sick villagers. Frankly, she had been itching to get started.
Rudolph ushered her towards a plague hut, keeping his distance from the doorway. Kori stepped over the threshold. A young woman lay on a bed of straw, her blond hair spilled all over the pillow. Her face was so thin and pale, that it almost made Kori cry to look at it. There was an angry red boil at her throat.
Kori knelt beside her and whispered. "Sorry, my dear… I must lance the boil. It's the only way to take the infection away."
She could hear footsteps and turned to see a boy, maybe a couple of years older than she, with bright purple skin. She gazed speechless for a moment and then rose to her feet.
"Hello. Y-you are a cambion too? I'm lady Korina Sommernacht, but please call me 'Kori.'" She held out a hand which the other cambion clasped in his elegant, purple one.
"I'm Franz and this is my mother, Lisa. She's very sick. Your uncle tells me you are quite the healer?"
"I am apprenticed to a healer, yes," said Kori nodding, her ponytail jiggling. "I really want to help."
"Good," said Franz. "I would not let anything happen to Mum. Well… nothing else anyway."
Kori knew that if he was not referring to the plague, then he was referring to when his mother had been raped. She must have been raped by a lesser demon for Franz to have been conceived.
She nodded. "If the infection can be brought to a head and drained, then there is a chance." She knelt by Lisa and Franz did the same. "Lisa… dear Lisa… can you hear me?"
Lisa's eyelids flickered and then the blue eyes open. "Yes, darling. I can hear."
"I'm here to heal you," said Kori. "I must lance the boil. Please chew these leaves so that it doesn't hurt as much."
Lisa gave a wan smile. "Do as you must."
When she had chewed the leaves, Lisa lay back with a sigh of contentment. Kori nodded to her son. "Hold her please, Franz."
Kori gritted her teeth and lanced the boil. Lisa gave a little cry as blood and puss flowed from the wound.
"Oh, dear Lisa, it's alright, I'm hear," said Kori soothingly, her arms around her patient.
When Lisa was resting peacefully again, Kori emerged from the hut, ready to ask Rudolph who she should tend to next. But something was wrong. There was a miasma of insects hovering over the village. These were huge, black and bloated flies and stinging insects. Rudolph pointed at the swarm, his expression very grave. A dark shadow stood there, shaped like a man.
The figure spoke and his hollow voice seemed to grate and buzz. "Tremble flesh carriers. Tremble before Xorhaz, faithful follower of his Infernal Eminence, the Lord of the Flies." Xorhaz raised his arms and to Kori's horror, they were not human arms, but mantis claws! The cowl fell back to reveal a head that was a shocking fusion of man and mantis, with bulging compound eyes and clacking jaws.
Xorhaz spoke again. "The swarm will rise again!" Suddenly the bugs all surged towards them…