“So, he knows we’re coming,” Tebryn said, as they walked along the road that led up to the Marque’s manor. They had exited the forest and crossed the fields of cabbages and potatoes that filled most of the island, and the gravel road left them all feeling a little exposed.
“Apparently,” Max said.
“Right, right,” Tebryn said. “How many of the townsfolk have gone missing, Catherine?”
“About eight,” she said tightly. The woman had gathered herself after fleeing from Selene, and her jaw was tightly clenched. Max suspected she was holding herself together through sheer willpower.
“Three left then,” Tebryn said.
“We fought three darklings, Allette surprised and defeated two more, so that leaves three more.”
“Four including Father Scott,” Max said, softly.
Catharine’s breath caught. “I suppose so,” she said eventually.
“And Zoltan,” Keith cracked his knuckles
“Who’s Zoltan?” Allette asked.
“The Captain of Caval Canti’s guards,” Max said.
“Humourless bastards, that’s what they are” Tebryn grumped. “I put on a seriously good show for those numbskulls and you know what I got? Blank stares and polite applause! I mean, it was like they were dead inside… or something.”
“How many guards did you say there were again?”
“I…wasn’t counting,” Tebryn said.
“You try keeping up patter while palming cards, distracting with your spare hand and remembering exactly where in a fifty two card deck things are!”
“Nine,” Max said. “It’s part of the training,” he said with a shrug.
“Are you sure you want to do this?” Keith asked Catherine, whose face had gone white.
The woman nodded. “I’m through with hiding.”
“Good,” Tebryn said, “Because I’m pretty sure he should be able to see us from those windows.”
The manor was on a rocky outcrop, across the River Corvinus, which cut through the Corvinus Gorge. It would probably be fair to say that Corvinus Manor really sat on the far side of the Corvinus Gorve, given that the river itself thundered some forty or fifty metres below the Corvinus bridge that Max and the others found themselves on the far side of, squinting up into the sunset.
“They really weren’t inventive with names, were they?” Allette said. “And you’d think they’d have locked the gatehouse door.”
Indeed, staring across the bridge to the small gatehouse on the far side, Max could see that the door was open and the portcullis raised. Squinting against the setting sun, he stared up at the dark windows of the manor. “They should be firing arrows at us from those windows by now. I would be.”
“Maybe demons from the pits of hell don’t think tactically?” Allette suggested as she crept up to the low stone wall that guarded the drop on either side of the bridge’s width.
“Zoltan should,” Max pointed out. “He’s a soldier.”
“Zombie soldier,” Tebryn said lightly as he followed Allette across the bridge.
“Not better,” Max grumbled as he followed after them, unslinging his shield and raising it to block any incoming projectiles that might target his face.
“Do we have a plan?” Allette asked as they pushed through the gatehouse door, and stepped into the courtyard at the front of the manor.”
“Kill everything that moves,” Keith grunted, as he crept along the inner wall, keeping in the shadows as much as possible.
“Simple,” Allette said. “I like it. Easy to remember. So…how do we get through the door?”
Reaching out, Tebryn tried the handle. “Not locked,” he said.
“Really?” Max asked. “You didn’t have to do anything to it?”
“Aye. Do you really think I’d be volunteering to take on more work than I have to?”
“Point. So we should go in through the window, right? It’s obviously a trip.”
“It should be,” Tebryn agreed.
“They should have fired on us from the windows as well,” Allette pointed out.
Keith snorted and pushed his way through the front door.
“Or we could just do that,” Tebryn said. “That works too, you know, assuming we don’t die.”
The entrance hall was exactly as Max remembered it—well lit, and simple, but finished to a standard that was of a much higher quality than anything else on the island. Oil lamps, devoid of decoration, but not used anywhere else on the island, lit the corridor, and a faded red carpet ran its length past the waiting room from the coachyard. As he looked around the hallway he felt it—a tug that reached down into his body and settled in his stomach, clamping down and squeezing until it almost hurt. It was here.
“All right boys, let’s get this over with,” Allette said, drawing her daggers and stepping forward. “You’ve been here before, right?”
“Up the stairs and to the left to get to the dining room,” Tebryn said. “Don’t have the foggiest past that.”
“We’ll try that first,” Max said, taking a deep breath and giving himself a shake. He had a mission to fulfil before he could reclaim what was his.
“Mmhmm,” Keith said, twirling his blades as he headed down the corridor. “You know the best thing to do with a trap?”
“What?” Max asked, half dreading the answer.
The moment they were out of the the entrance hall and in the main staircase there was the sound of metal on metal as the doors locked themselves. The lights here were dimmer, casting shadows along the double staircases that led upwards, and a double doorway into what Max assumed would be a ballroom of some kind. A snarl drew their attention to the left and a grey faced man in the armour of a guard captain stood where the corridor turned around the base of one of the staircases and headed off into the darkness.
“You shouldn’t have come.”
“And…he’s a zombie,” Tebryn said. “Explains everything.”
“Darkling,” Max corrected.
“Whatever,” Tebryn said. “Red eyed, humourless bastard.”
Keith took a step towards Zoltan, but four darklings rushed forward.
“Hug the walls!” Tebryn snapped, and Max stepped to one side reflexively. The carpet runner along the wooden hallway rose and fell as it was yanked backwards, and the darklings stumbled, falling over in heap. Looking back he saw Tebryn and Allette let go of the runner, but Keith was already moving, leaping over the fallen creatures and heading straight for Zoltan himself. With a satisfied grin, Allette dashed after him, pausing only long enough to slice through the hamstrings of one of the darklings with her heavy dagger. Max stepped forward, and was able to dispatch two more before the third clambered to it’s feet, squaring off against him. Ahead of him sparks were flying as Zoltan’s deliberate movements fended off the attacks of four weapons, although both Keith and Allette didn’t seem as graceful or fast as they normally did. Max didn’t have time to take that in though, as the thrust and block of his own fight drew in on him. He heard the dull thud of something hitting flesh and bone and figured Tebryn was taking out the fallen. Soon, only Zoltan was left, but outnumbered four to one, he was soon cut down.
“Are you all right?” Max asked as they stepped away, panting.
“It’s just a cut,” Keith said, holding a rag to a gash across his forearm.
“Let me,” Max said, and laid his hand over the other man’s. He felt a surge of energy and then he stepped back. Keith stared down at his arm, which although bloody, was whole again.
“You can…” his voiced trailed off.
Max nodded. “It’s hardly an important secret here, is it?”
He saw the larger man glance in Tebryn’s direction. “No.”
“Rushing us around a corridor corner,” Tebryn said, striding up. “They had locking doors, they could have rushed us on three sides, but they all charge out on one side. That makes no sense.”
“They could have fired at us through the windows,” Max pointed out. “Darklings don’t seem to be very tactical.”
“Good,” Allette said brightly. “I like stupid enemies.”
“Catherine?” Keith asked suddenly, walking back to the blonde woman.
“This was Father Scott,” Catherine said, reaching out with trembling fingers and closing the corpse’s eyes. “I don’t think he…he…” she swallowed. “Let’s go.”
They moved through the manor, finding the ballroom cold and locked, and finding closed off guest rooms and the spartan, musty quarters where Zolton had lived out his unlife. Everything other than the rooms Max, Tebryn and Keith had already travelled through was covered in a thick layer of dust and there was a stark demarcation on the carpet as they rounded the corner on the first floor towards the dining room—a line showing where the lived in, presentable areas stopped and the reality of Corvinus began.
The dining room was empty, as was the sitting room they’d retired to after the meal, although Keith grabbed a case of the man’s cigars, each one sporting a silver paper band with the imprint of a man’s face on it. He shrugged when he saw Max’s eye on him.
“Where is he?” Catherine asked.
“Not here,” Max said helpfully.
“You know,” Tebryn said, peering out the windows into the darkness beyond. “I’ve never seen a manor house with a giant tower in the middle of its courtyard.”
Allette chuckled. “A tower. Of course there’s a tower. Is it red and demonic?”
“Don’t know really,” Tebryn said. “But if it makes you feel better we can pretend it is.”
“Ballroom?” Max asked, looking down at the flower beds below.
Keith lifted a coil of rope from his shoulders and tied it around one of the large, bulky armchairs. “Nah. We’ll just use this.”
It took them a while, but they made it to the tower door without any incident. “Wait,” Tebryn said once they reached the door.
Lighting his small lantern, the smaller man checked the door over thoroughly, peering at its hinges, inspecting the lock and sliding a slim piece of metal between the door and its frame. “Not trapped as far as I can tell,” he said, puzzlement evident in his voice.
“Why would he trap it?” Max asked. “He might as well have lit candles and rolled out the welcome mat for us given the defences we’ve encountered so far.”
Tebryn cocked his head. “You know how you become a corpse, guardsman? You check one hundred steps, look at the last one before the next floor and say ‘oh they haven’t trapped the last hundred, they wouldn’t trap the hundred and first…”
Turning the handle, Tebryn pushed open the door. “After you.”