"Laurelei!" The roar of Rolf's voice was accompanied by the crash of a glass bottle smashing against the wall. "Get down here you lazy brat!" Rolf stood in an old, solid log tavern. It was small, cramped and cozy with only a few tables, two employees and a humble stone hearth. A serving girl cowered in the corner and avoiding eye contact with the angry necronom.
The vampire princess appeared at the top of the stairs in yet another new dress. Soft, deep reds and small gold accents, replete with her usual ribbons, ruffles and jewels. Her mouth was pulled into a tight frown and her cheeks puffed up with impetuous annoyance. She shifted a cold glance toward the serving girl, marched down the stairs, straight up to Rolf and stood as tall as she could on her tip toes to stare him in the eyes. It lost much of its effect when she could hardly get taller than his waist. "You idiot!" she hissed, keeping her voice low. "We are trying to avoid attention but you decide to yell my name as loud as you can!?"
Rolf took a knee and looked at Laurelei eye to eye, matching her expression with a scowl of his own. "Hold the hell on Laurel, we need to talk!"
"I've told you not to call me that!" Laurelei fussed and stomped and clenched her fangs together in frustration.
"I want you to explain to me why I just drank four bottles, four bottles of wine and I don't feel anything!?"
"Is that what this little tantrum is about?" she asked, rolling her eyes at him. "You. Are. Dead. Your body no longer processes alcohol like a living person's would."
"On top of all the other crap you've put me through, I can't even drink now!?"
"I can't believe you've delayed my rest for this nonsense. This is hardly a matter of any importance."
"Not important huh!? Fine, let's see how you enjoy getting around Agares without a slave to drag you around."
"Are you implying that I need you? Hardly, any fool could do your job."
"Oh you little-!" Rolf stopped in mid-sentence, clenched his teeth and stormed off toward the door in a flurry of muffled expletives.
"Where are you going?"
"You may not."
"Go to Hell!"
"Rolf, return this instant! I cannot follow you out there; it's nearly dawn!"
"Wait, Rolf I'm sorr-..." before she could finish, Rolf was gone; slamming the door behind him so hard that he rattled the whole building.
Laurelei's face was frozen in place for nearly half a minute as she stared at the door. Gradually, she closed her eyes, inhaled deeply and relaxed. Her composure shifted back into place with but a thought and she turned to the tavern server. With the quiet click-clack of her shoes, she walked up to the girl and reached into one of her own ruffled sleeves. Laurelei produced two golden coins and planted them in the girls hand. "For the trouble. And potentially your silence on this terrible indiscretion. So long as you remain reliably reticent, you'll receive another four golden lox when my servant and I depart your inn. Am I understood?"
The woman stared at the coins in disbelief. "Oh, completely clear my lady. At the very least, it's clear that I don't make this much in six months!"
With that taken care of, Laurelei turned her attention inwards. "What did I do to upset him so much?"
Meanwhile, the tavern had disappeared behind a cluster of trees and Rolf found himself angrily pacing up and down the small country roads. High Grove was as easy to miss as a village could get. It sat nestled with trees surrounding it on all sides, only small dirt paths leading in and out and no connection to the main roads. The community was mostly small clusters of sturdy, snow dusted cottages with a few hunting lodges at the edges. The old nameless inn where Rolf and Laurelei stayed was the closest thing to accommodations this place had. Luckily it was just remote enough that its streams and animals weren't poisoned by the miasma that had ravaged Arlentis.
The weather had only grown more frigid since he'd left Ulfenmoor. The journey North was made only colder by the passing months. He could feel flakes of snow gathering in his hair and the soft crunch of frozen grass under his feet. He reflexively rubbed his chin and was momentarily curious to find it smooth. He almost laughed at himself. How stupid was he to think for even a moment that his hair might keep growing now that he was a necronom. So many little things he didn't need to or couldn't do anymore. He ran his hand through his black mane and pulled at his hair in frustration. "Last thing I needed today was just another reminder that I'm not a person anymore."
The village grew more distant and the sky turned a rosy-pink as the sun threatened to rise above the horizon at any moment. Rolf had gone to the edge of the village and circle around its outskirts in the expectation that it would be quiet, completely so. For the most part that was true but something stood out among the rustling of branches and the chirp of morning songbirds. It sounded like voices, a lot of them. Rolf's head instinctively tilted in their direction and saw the soft flicker of torchlight amid the trees. He wondered briefly if it could have been a hunting party but that didn't seem likely. Such noise and an unsubtle campsite would surely alert their prey. Curiosity got the better of him and Rolf found himself creeping closer.
The trees slid away to reveal a small clearing with a well-worn dirt path leading away from the village. In the clearing stood a group of a dozen or so villagers, heads bowed low and torches in hand. They all kneeled in front of an old wooden cart, loaded to the breaking point with breads, meats and casks of wine.
Rolf carelessly meandered into the clearing and immediately drew the attention of the villagers inside. "What is all this?" he asked.
One of the people urgently raised a finger to his lips and shushed Rolf, before pointing toward the path. Heavy footsteps rattled the ground and shook leaves from the trees, accompanied by a dark, hulking figure in the distance. With a few lumbering strides it moved into the clearing and stomped to a halt. It towered at nearly seven feet tall and its body was more than twice as broad as any man's. It was roughly humanoid in shape, but most of its figure was covered by a ragged, black fur cloak pulled down over the eyes and obscuring everything beneath the shoulders. What Rolf could see was a great pinkish snout and curved tusks protruding from the shadows.
Rolf watched with a wide eyed gaze and his hand inched toward his sword. "What the hell did I walk in on?"
The thing snorted and shot great plumes of icy mist from its nostrils. One huge hand reached toward a leather leash bound on either side of the cart.
Rolf's hand was on the hilt of his blade but before he could draw it, one of the villagers took hold of his arm.
"No," the man said in a hushed voice. "You cannot kill it, just let it take the supplies and everything will be fine."
"What? You just feed this thing because you're scared of it?" Rolf snarled at the man holding his arm and threw him back with a powerful shove. "Why not just deal with the problem and kill the stupid creature? Watch I'll do the damn job for ya. I felt like hitting something today anyway."
"No!" all the villagers cried out at once. Rolf ignored the chorus of protests and stomped forward, slinging his sword from its sheath and pointing it straight at the monster's snout.
It squealed angrily and reached behind its back. In a flurry of whirling snow drifts it drew out a massive, studded, sphere headed mace. The weapon was as long as most men's whole bodies and covered in countless dents, scratches and a few bloodstains.
"What the hell!? Is that even a weapon!?"
The heavy steel ball swung around with hundreds of pounds of thick muscle behind it. In a blink, Rolf found his whole body making fast and violent contact before he was tossed aside. The single smack was all it took to put Rolf on his back, his vision swimming with scattered colours and flashes of light. His undead state made unconsciousness an impossibility but the rattling that blow gave him was about as close as he'd ever get to sleep again. He couldn't see straight for what must have been minutes and when he tried to speak his mouth spilled out a slew of wordless noises in the vein of, "Habble whutta fleeper."
After a time, the ring in his ears disappeared and he blinked away all the additional images that his addled brain deemed appropriate for the occasion. "What just happened?" he groaned, looking between the bearded faces of the village men surrounding him.
"You just ran afoul the Boar-Man," said one of the the villagers as he helped Rolf to his feet. "Do you see why we just give him what he wants? Saves us a funeral or two. The village is less prosperous for it but we all get to go home to our families."
Rolf shook his head again and brushed the snow from his coat. "Where did it come from, what is it?"
The village man shrugged. "We don't know. It just arrived one day, over twenty years ago. It started by wandering into the village, stealing our food and wine, eating our livestock and scaring away the prey. It would crush fences and knock down walls after it had its fill of the drink. We tried killing it, we couldn't. It's a mighty thing. We've experience slaying the occasional wild boar but this is hardly the same. We figured if we just gave it what it wanted, outside the village, we'd be better off."
Rolf retrieved his sword and slid it into his sheath before looking the village men in the eyes. "That's a big mace it swings around. Think I'll keep it after I cut the bastard's head off."
"You'll what!?" a man said. "If you weren't already a walking corpse, you'd be halfway buried right now!"
Rolf shrugged. "He got a lucky hit. I'm not interested in losing anymore so I'm going to find this thing, stick my sword through its mouth, out the other end and roast it on a spit. Where can I find it?"
The men looked stunned, all shaking their heads and sighing in exasperation. "I don't have to wonder how you ended up dead in the first place then. If you want to do it again, that's your business. You can find him holed up in the old fort down the road. It's from the before the unification. Old as dirt and barely standing. Can't miss it."
"Thanks for the directions. I'll expect some kind of celebration in my honour when I come back."
"Aye we'll have one ready to go," said the man. "In fact, we'll start funeral preparations right away."
Back at her room at the inn, Laurelei sat on her knees with her travel trunk in front of her like a desk. "Awful. I cannot believe he'd be so stupid as to make me do this," she said to herself as she worked. Her magic tome was splayed out before her and she was performing the finishing touches on a new sigil.
It was a flowing, rounded symbol with an eight point compass running around the edges. She popped the stopper into her ink vial, tucked it away and retrieved another. This bottle had a rounded shape, a flat bottom, red contents and a label. The label read 'Dead Boy in Woods,' though that had been scratched out and replaced with 'Rolf.' Stopper removed, she dabbed her quill into the bottle and scrawled a name in the centre of the sigil. 'Hrodwulf Ziegel.'
"There we are," she said with a little smile of satisfaction, following up with a loud yawn. "Oh dear. It is well past the hour of my rest. I should be-," her sentence was cut off by yet another yawn. "Ahem. I should be retiring to my coffin at any... moment." She stumbled through her usually precise words but shook her head to clear away the encroaching exhaustion. "No, no. To work Laurelei, now is no time for rest," she said, chastising herself. Briskly she waved her hand over the page and the ink and blood dried in place instantly. Laurelei then pulled the page from the book and held it up by the corners. In mere moments, one of the arrows lit up, pointing her roughly Northwest. "Now to go outside..." Laurelei took a long, nervous breath before finishing the sentence. "... in the sun."
Out the door of the little inn stepped a most peculiar figure. Laurelei was dressed in the thickest cloak she owned with the hood pulled down over her eyes and a scarf wrapped all the way up to her nose, she carried a parasol in her right hand. Her back was pressed against the wall of the inn and she cowered in the shade, eyes wide as dinner plates and her whole body shaking. "Dreadful, terrible, awful, awful, awful!"
Never leaving the shadow of the inn, she inched along the wall until she approached its edge. The shade stopped and open sunlight stood between Laurelei and the relatively safe cover of the forest canopy. Her chest heaved in and out as she breathed so fast one would swear she just outran a pack of hungry wolves. "Hot, so terribly hot. Why must the sun scorn my people and burn our flesh so? Just take deep breaths. Deep breaths, deep breaths, deep breaths... Run!" Laurelei pulled the parasol down low and made a mad dash toward the shade. The gap was hardly ten metres across but by the time Laurelei stood at the other end, in stretch of mostly consistent shade, she looked almost ready to pass out. Her eyes were wet and what little of her face was exposed appeared red and terrified.
Immediately she felt a searing pain in her right index finger. The nail and surrounding area was aflame and that section of her white glove had been scorched to ash. Panic set in and she ripped the garment away before jamming her finger in her mouth and whining loudly. "Ow, ow, ow!" she squeaked before taking her finger out and giving it a shake. The appendage bore slight burn marks but nothing permanent. Laurelei forced herself to relax, pulled a replacement glove from a pocket inside her cloak and slipped it over her hand. "Now, to find Rolf." From her cloak, Laurelei drew her magic compass and held it out in front. She followed the arrows as they lit up, hurrying as fast as her rather short legs could carry her. She was slowed significantly by the need to circle around clearings and play hop scotch over beams of light from time to time. Even with the shade, her body felt like it was trying to torture her for being out during the day. Her head ached as if she had suddenly developed a terrible fever and she felt the occasional searing hot flash of pain streak across random points on her body.
Eventually, Laurelei saw a broad structure coming into view. It stood out between the trees, a wide, stout fortress with tattered heraldry swaying from its rooftop. The banners were near impossible to identify at this point. What hadn't been ripped away had been washed out by centuries of storms. The outer walls had all but crumbled and the entire left wing of the old fort had met much the same fate. In the distance, approaching those crumbling walls, was a ragged figure in a blue coat.
"Rolf!" Laurelei called. She dashed from the shade of the trees to that of the outer walls and cut the distance between herself and Rolf clean in half.
Hearing that familiar, exceedingly posh voice would've made Rolf sigh in exasperation if he weren't to busy gasping at the fact that she had actually found a way to follow him. "What in the hell!? How did you get here; its daytime dammit!"
Laurelei stopped only a metre from Rolf and looked at him with mock indifference before replying. "It was not... Hnn!... Not without great difficulty, I assure you."
"Laurel, I do stupid crap on a near daily basis but you've got me beat this time. You're gonna die out here, I can hear you practically crying when you talk. Don't you see the huge glowing ball of fire in the sky? That's the sun! You know, that thing that kills vampires!"
"I couldn't just let you leave. You seemed very cross and I thought that you... You might not come back."
Rolf's brow lifted and he crossed his arms over his chest. "The hell makes you think that?"
"Well, you said-..."
"Yeah, I was pissed off. I didn't mean it, I just needed to go be by myself for a moment, think about some stuff. If I leave you out here you're gonna end up getting caught by Gutterwink. Besides, what else am I gonna do if not cart you around? Let's just get you inside before you catch fire and we both die."
Laurelei breathed a sigh of relief. She and Rolf quickly moved around the outer walls and ran toward the entrance to the fort. The doors had been torn down long ago and lay inside the front hall. They were in a variety of pieces and most of the wood was rotten and crumbling.
Once inside and a fair few steps away from the entrance, Laurelei pulled the scarf from her face and closed her parasol. "It may be time for me to ask precisely where we are and what we're doing here?"
"If you don't know then how did you find me?"
Laurelei drew a folded piece of paper from her bag and let it unfurl; revealing the compass sigil she'd created. The arrow pointing toward Rolf glowed a vibrant blue, indicating his close proximity. "With this. It's a necromancer's compass. All it takes is a few drops of the subject's blood and I can track anyone with ease."
"And where the hell did you get my blood!?"
Laurelei shrugged as she folded up the compass and tucked it away. "When I found you in the woods you had left a substantial amount of it lying on the ground. Keeping a small bottle of it may have proven useful for a variety of spells."
"Ugh, just don't drink any of it. That would feel weird."
"Agreed. Now, I ask again, where are we?"
Rolf took a look around for himself. The walls were old and battered and the floor was covered in debris blown in through the gates. A long hall lay ahead, decorated with tattered tapestries and crumbling statues. "It's an abandoned fortress. I ran into a monster and tracked it hear."
Laurelei Gave Rolf and appraising glance before continuing. "A monster?" With her parasol tucked under her arm she strode down the hall and gestured for Rolf to follow. "That is rather vague don't you think. Humans classify many things as monsters. Precisely what are we dealing with and why did you deem it necessary to follow it here?"
Rolf was at Laurelei's back, his hand on the hilt of his sword. "I don't know what it is exactly. It was like a big, pig man thing with a club. The villagers give it tribute so it doesn't eat them. I stepped in, it pounded me into the ground and took off. I decided I wanted a rematch."
"So it's extorting my subjects then?" Laurelei asked. "No, that won't do at all. We can hardly expect my kingdom to prosper when such offenses are allowed to continue. We will put a stop to this creature's behaviour at once."
The hall opened up into wide, sweeping chamber with a great arched roof. It had once been a grand dining hall where soldiers gathered to feast and celebrate before a battle. Long rectangular tables filled the room, more than half of them split, cracked or broken in half. All the tables were empty save for scattered dinnerware, all except for the one in the middle of the room. This table was piled high with fresh meats, casks of ale, wine and beer and empty crates and barrels scattered all around. Behind the table stood the creature, its cloak shrugged off to reveal its full form. It stuffed whole roast chickens into its pinkish snout; its white bristles stained with sauce and booze. With great, hulking shoulders and a big round belly, it must have weighed over half a ton.
Laurelei took in a deep breath but balked at the scent of stale booze that infested the room. "Oh how foul..." she said with her hand clasped over her nose.
The pig man pulled its snout from the meal in front it and stared at the duo. It maw parted and unleashed a deep, rumbling squeal. Snatching up a barrel of wine in its big, meaty fist, it hurled the object with the force of a catapult.
Rolf dashed forward and pressed a hand into Laurelei's shoulder, forcing her out of the way. "Move, move, move!" The barrel smashed into the stone floor and splintered into pieces. Alcohol sprayed in every direction and splashed the shoulders of Rolf's coat. "Damn, he's got a good arm!" As the words left Rolf's mouth, the table in front of him was upended with a swat from the pig man and was very quickly descending onto his position. "Son of a bitch!"
"Rolf, language!" Laurelei said in a chastising tone.
"Not now!" In a whirling motion he scooped up Laurelei, side stepped the collapsing table and ripped his sword from its sheath. He stood with the point of his blade pointed at the pig and a less than pleased looking Laurelei tucked under his arm. "Enough of that crap!" Rolf barked.
The pig man snorted back at him and hoisted up its massive bludgeon, letting it rest against his shoulder.
"The usual strategy then?" Laurelei said as she freed herself from Rolf's grasp and dropped to the floor. "You keep him occupied while I see what kind of sigils I can conjure."
Sighing and shaking his head, Rolf bent his knees and readied for a dash. "I hate the usual strategy." He took off at a headlong charge, a dining table on either side and countless empty barrels and scraps of decayed benches in his path. The pig creature lobbed another Barrel with surprising accuracy but Rolf weaved left and hopped onto the nearest table.
He reached the end of table and lunged into the air, his sword arcing toward his foe. The pig stepped back, of all things for a monster to do. Rolf's weapon whipped past its nose and smacked into the stone floor with a great clang. The pig returned with a blow and smacked Rolf's blade on the side, sending it sailing into the air. It came down edge first, nearly halfway across the dining hall, and bisected a stray table.
"Shit!" Rolf said.
Suddenly the pig was slamming its mace down in a series of vertical strokes and forced Rolf into a retreat. He stepped back as fast as he could and each of the pig's attacks smashed into the floor and scattered chips of stone and clouds of dust everywhere. Rolf backed up as far as he could when he felt his back slam into another heavy barrel of wine. The pig was lifting its mace for another strike but Rolf was quicker. In a swift smash he slammed his elbow into the top of the barrel and obliterated the lid. Then, summoning up his strength, he took hold of the barrel and thrust it forward, splashing it into the pig's face. Immediately the alcohol flooded its nostrils and eyes and a bout of coughing and snorting ensued and was quickly interrupted as Rolf smashed the barrel over the pig's head.
The creature staggered but it didn't buckle and in an alarmingly quick recovery, it replied by slamming its fist into Rolf's gut. "Hurk!" Rolf made a loud, pained wheezing noise and wrapped his arms around his gut. The blow hit so hard that Rolf was lifted from his feet and barely managed to remain standing after coming back down. He tried to lift his head but found a huge hand palming his entire skull. "No!" he protested in vain. The pig lifted him by his head and slammed him through the nearest table.
Rolf spent the next few seconds staring at the ceiling while lying in a pile of old dinnerware, half eaten food scraps and table chunks. "Okay, alright, you're strong. I-Gyahhhh shit!" Rolf's words were cut off as the pig placed its cloven hoof on his chest, applying all the pressure of its massive frame. "Damn, shit, hell, bastard, dammit all, prick, son-of-a-bitch this hurts!" Its foot was so massive that it encompassed the entire right half of Rolf's torso.
"Stop!" Laurelei said as she ran toward the creature, a single scrap of paper bunched up in her hands.
The pig narrowed its eyes at the approaching Laurelei. It saw her lifting the page and the streaks of light shooting across its surface. In but a moment its arm shot out and it snatched Laurelei up with its ease. She let out a scream of protest but could do nothing to stop it as her arms were pinned at he side. The pig held her at eye level and snarled at her.
Her face was a mix of fury and disgust as the smell of a creature soaking itself in cheap wine and beer for over two decades surrounded her. She struggled and and fought but she found it impossible to fight against the monster's grasp.
Rolf's free arm flailed wildly, punching the creature's ankles to no effect. His teeth clenched together and his eyes jammed shut, he willed himself to pause and think for just the briefest of moments. His hand shot down toward the dagger sheathed on his belt and pulled it free. In only a moment, the pig found five inches of silver jammed into its ankle, scraping the bone and blood coursing onto Rolf's jacket.
It let out a terrible squeal that rattled Laurelei's eardrums. Its grip loosened only slightly but it was all Laurelei needed. She pulled her arm free and held her sigil aloft. The page ignited in a blinding light and burnt out an instant. The pig reared its head back and loosed its grip, hurling Laurelei into the air and staggering off of Rolf.
Laurelei whirled in the air and as she reached the peak of her arc, she was suddenly surrounded by an inky black cloud. The smoke puffed out of existence all at once and Laurelei fluttered toward the ground in bat form.
Meanwhile, Rolf launched himself to his feet and charged the blinded pig. His silver knuckle dusters were on his fists in mere seconds and he slammed one right into the monster's snout. The punch jostled its head but it stayed its ground.
"Enough!" the pig said.
Rolf's fist stopped in mid-punch and he stared at the creature with his mouth agape.
"I have had quite enough of this today. I'm far too... inebriated to deal with this most recent monster slaying." Its voice was deep, somewhat slurred and surprisingly posh in its accent.
"What the hell!? You can talk!?"
Laurelei approached Rolf from the right, looking no less shocked. "Apologies, but what happened to the roaring and the squealing?"
The pig rubbed its watering eyes and snorted derisively. "Quite believable wasn't it? I've spent twenty years getting those monster sounds properly intimidating. Unfortunately you two decided to press the issue."
"Why would you need to practice pig monster sounds, you are a pig monster!" said Rolf.
The pig shook its big head. "Not exactly. I am Brigadier General Nigel P. Hawthorne the First. Grand warrior and recipient of a most dreadful curse," he said with his hand proffered for a shake.
"Like hell you are!" Rolf retorted as he slapped the creature's hand away.
"Indeed," Laurelei said. "Brigadier General Hawthorne died over twenty two years ago when the Agaresian Rebellion was resolved by Count Asmodeus Vaughn."
"Yeah, and he wasn't a pig either," Rolf added
The supposed Nigel was finishing up another cask of wine when he turned his gaze back toward the princess. "Like I said, I was cursed. Vaughn routed my forces and defeated me in battle. He could have killed me but he decided to make me suffer. He changed me into this. After that I went into hiding, I didn't want my family to see me as a monster and I didn't want the neckbiters to find me either. I don't care if you believe me, just leave me to my business. Usually a few swings of Bellringer and a roar or two is enough to scare your type off."
Rolf stared at the pig creature before him, taking note of the weapon in its hand. The club had looked rather unusual, but it now it was starting to become familiar. It matched descriptions of the great general's weapon very closely. "If what you're saying is true, you're one sad son of a bitch."
Nigel huffed indignantly and crossed his arms over his chest. "Don't talk down to me boy. What do you know?"
"Have you looked at my face? You're not the only one with a curse around here. Difference is, I'm not giving up, I'm not gonna stop until I'm alive again. The asshole the did this to you wanted to screw with you and you're just laying around here and giving him the satisfaction of it all? If you really are Nigel Hawthorne you'd try to find a way to break the curse."
"It cannot be broken. Not by any but the one who placed it on me."
"So what are you doing here? Why aren't you busting down his doors and beating him into submission until he reverses it?"
"Are you completely daft? Such an attempt would be a death sentence!"
Rolf turned his back and started to walk away. "Die trying or live the rest of your days as a drunken coward? I know what I'd pick."
Laurelei stayed for a brief moment longer, eyes closed in quiet contemplation. "Rolf is correct, I have a hard time believing that a man my brothers referred to as a worthy adversary would resort to such a pitiful existence. You discontinue your activities here and vacate this fortress within 24 hours. Otherwise I shall call upon my influence to have you removed."
"And what influence might that be?"
Laurelei's face had shifted to a cold frown and her eyes were narrowed to a most stern glare. "The influence of Princess Laurelei Marie Lockheart of Agares."
Without another word, Laurelei joined Rolf and left. Nigel sat alone in his old fortress in silence. He stared at his hammer and at the fortress that surrounded him. He remembered days past where he had sat in a dining hall much like this one and ate with an army of men that looked up to him and respected him. Now he sat alone, and the only man in the room despised him.