On the day of their departure for Tihanyi, Lucian prepared the horses for their journey. It was a trek he wasn’t looking forward to, given the recent volatile events between himself and Francisc. He was, therefore, taken aback when his mentor unexpectedly approached him and apologised for his sour behaviour.
Lucian tactfully accepted his apology, but could not rid himself of the warning Francisc had given about the possible downfall of the Divine Blade and how it was connected to his relationship with Caius should he delve deeper into it.
On the penultimate day of their journey’s end they arrived in the village of Lovas. Wearied from their journey and sleeping under canvas, they sought to spend their last night in the comfort of a warm tavern. During their stop-over they learnt of a series of grave desecrations that had taken place in and around the locale. In each case the recently interred had been exhumed and spirited away in the dead of night. The more they listened in on the accounts of the locals, the less certain both Francisc and Lucian were that the defilements were the work of body-snatchers. There was an element to the tales that suggested otherwise. Before leaving for Tihanyi the following day, they visited the nearest graveyard where the most recent interment and exhumation had occurred. Though barely visible, due to the inclement weather of the previous evening, they discovered the partially washed-out symbols of a necromantic ritual.
It was late afternoon when Francisc and Lucian arrived at their journey’s end; an isolated lodge set deep within a dense forest on the outskirts of the town. There, they were greeted by the rotund Miklos Tamas and several agents of the Fox division. Following brief introductions, they entered the lodge to discuss Lucian’s training and responsibilities. After finalising their business, Francisc took the opportunity to inform them of the events in Lovas.
Lucian faithfully recorded the event in his diary.
Miklos rose to his feet on hearing Francisc’s account. Looking to his brethren, he told them grimly, ‘Things are far worse than we feared, brothers. We must expand our mission further afield and nip this in the bud before it gets out of hand.’
‘You know about this?’ Francisc asked.
‘We do, brother. Our intelligence network brought it to my attention a week ago. Several villages are involved; Lovas being the latest. Four of the brothers present here today have been investigating them, but with little success. They too have come to the same conclusion as you – that it is the work of a necromancer.’
The unprecedented scale of the operation bewildered Francisc. The ‘weavers’, as they were known by the brotherhood, were humans who rarely moved beyond the boundaries of their respective locations. Theirs was a solitary life dedicated to the resurrection of the deceased in their spiritual or bodily forms for the purpose of divination. More frighteningly, they could resurrect an individual to use as blindly obedient assassin.
Francisc was the only one present with experience of Necromancers. That, in combination with his tracking skills, made him the perfect candidate to head the mission. Lucian, too, was to be enlisted in the undertaking as an observer and information gatherer. Four of the warrior class were called upon to aid them. It was to be a time-consuming and arduous mission for the team.
Given the dozens of graveyards yet to be explored within the district, Francisc and his five-man team had almost given up hope of finding their prey when they stumbled upon a smallholder’s house. Beneath its un-plastered, basalt gable stood a funeral cortège. Realising they had nothing to lose, the group held back and shadowed the procession to the deceased’s last resting place. With the departure of the mourners, the team settled into their night vigil.
Shortly after 2 a.m. they were alerted to faint, indistinguishable sounds coming from the far end of the cemetery. The moon was now completely obscured behind a thick blanket of cloud that stretched from horizon to horizon; maddeningly hiding from view whatever was approaching. Then, all went deathly quiet.
Concealed behind the dry-stone wall bordering the cemetery, and with flashlight in hand, Francisc and his men prepared themselves. What they saw illuminated in the torchlight as they crested the wall both horrified and staggered them. Caught in its glare, and dressed in necromantic regalia, stood the priest who had officiated at the funeral. He was not alone. With him stood the resurrected corpses of men in varying states of decomposition. Each was carrying a makeshift weapon.
The following is Lucian’s account of what took place on that momentous night.
‘The priest is mine!’ Lucian shouted as we leapt into the fray.
The priest, too, gave an order. Other than for Francisc, we were all to be slaughtered.
As did the ancient Norse warriors of old, we crashed headlong into the undead with the ferocity of Berserkers. We slashed, hacked, bayoneted and bludgeoned them for all our worth, but with little effect. They seemed impervious to our weapons.
One of the brothers was the first to fall in the melee, his skull cleaved in two with a trench shovel. We were fighting a losing battle. How in God’s name could we even hope to kill a creature that was already dead? No sooner had the thought left my mind when a cry went up from another brother. ‘Go for their heads. It’s their weak spot!’
Side stepping a deadly blow from my adversary, I swung the gladius around and struck him on the nape of his neck, severing his head from his body. Another foe fell to the ground moments later, a crossbow bolt sticking from his temple. With renewed hope, we targeted their weak point and ultimately won the fight we’d thought was lost.
In the heat of battle, it is easy to lose sight of a comrade-at-arms and we hadn’t noticed that Francisc was no longer among us. We called out to him, but without answer. Picking up the flashlight he had dropped during the skirmish, I scanned the cemetery. There was no sign of him. Several yards from my position a brother called out to me. I ran to his side, half expecting to see my friend lying dead at his feet. What he showed me was a trail of salt leading off into the darkness toward the cemetery’s memorial chapel.
Once again, my unwavering memory came to the fore. Salt was often used to protect the necromancer during summoning rituals. I also recalled that hanging from the priest’s belt was a black pouch. Could this have been the source from where the trail had originated? Had the pouch been damaged in his struggle with Francisc?
We followed the trail to its terminal point; at the end of which was an empty and expansive circle of salt. My companions looked at one another in confusion. Only I was aware of its significance, and what possibly lay within it. I ordered them to surround the circle and ready their weapons. This they did without question, as I withdrew my water canteen from my belt and poured its contents onto the circle, breaking its continuity and thereby revealing what lay within.
Kneeling on the ground, with a ritual dagger held to his throat, was Francisc. Towering over him was the necromantic priest. ‘One wrong move, and I’ll slit his throat!’ he warned.
An unexpected peal of thunder rolled across the night sky.
Looking to the heavens, the necromancer threatened, ‘The Dark Ones have waited for a thousand years for this moment. If you know what’s good for you you’ll leave here now, while you still can.’
‘Kill the fucker, Lucian, and have done with it’, Francisc growled.
‘Shut your mouth, before I shut it for you’, the priest hissed in his ear.
Raising his ritual athame dagger to the heavens, he called upon the Dark Ones. ‘To your purpose, I have bent my will, and brought before you that which you seek. Fulfill the bargain we have struck and render unto me my just reward!’ The clouds churned, and scintillating light crackled earthwards.
In that instant, our crossbowman let fly with a bolt, striking the necromancer through the eye and penetrating his brain. ‘There’s you fucking reward priest’ he said.
As I ran forward to help Francisc to his feet, a bolt of lightning struck a nearby tree and blew it apart in a super-heated outburst of steam. A secondary streamer arced from it and hit Francisc squarely in the chest, throwing him into the air. He landed several feet away, his tunic smoldering from the intense heat.
Not knowing whether he was alive or dead, we grabbed him by the heels and dragged him unceremoniously out of the storm and into the shelter of the memorial chapel. There, we looked for signs of life. There was no discernible pulse, or constriction of his pupils when I shone the flashlight into his eyes. His skin was cold and clammy, and had a bluish tinge to it. All the indicators pointed to the unassailable fact that Francisc was dead.
As we waited out the storm’s passing in a state of despondency, we took stock of our situation. We had been lured into an elaborate trap, designed solely for the purpose of capturing Francisc. But for what reason? What could the Dark One’s have possibly wanted from him? Cleary, they had expected to take him alive. Killing the priest who had conjured and, more importantly, controlled the storm was a costly mistake. Unfocused, the lightning bolts struck arbitrarily, accidentally killing my friend and mentor.
Our mission wasn’t over. We had yet to gather intelligence on the necromantic priest and dispose of the resurrected bodies outside. We had already passed the priest’s clergy house on the way to the cemetery. If there was any intelligence to be gathered on him, then that was the most likely place to find it. Retrieving a bunch of keys from his body, myself and Andor Balogh, who was to become my Fox division mentor, set out in search of it.
We found nothing of relevance on the upper floors, and so we descended into the bowels of an expansive basement. There we came upon a black altar, atop of which lay the tools of the necromancer’s dreadful art. Between two tapered, purple candles lay a book of spells, rituals, and invocations. Stuffing it into a kit bag, I pried upon the doors to see what lay within the altar. Sitting beneath a human skull lay the necromancer’s diary. What we learnt on reading it merely confirmed what we already suspected; the whole scenario had been an elaborate trap to ensnare Francisc. Whatever the Dark Ones were after was still a mystery to us. There was one cryptic entry in the diary, however, that caught our attention and hinted that the Dark Ones were in search of an ancient artefact of ‘major significance.’
It was an hour before sunrise when we entered the memorial chapel to discover Francisc’s body had vanished. On disposing of the other bodies, the brothers who had stayed behind returned to the memorial chapel. To their great consternation all that remained was the horse blanket they had wrapped Francisc in. They had come to the conclusion that the Dark Ones must have spirited him away. In the absence of evidence to the contrary, it seemed the most likely explanation.