With one hand, Miles held a large jar of a peach coloured paste and with the other he scooped out a large handful. The strange cream was then applied to Rolf's face, covering his greyed, zombified complexion with something more closely resembling his previous, living skin tone.
"Is this really the best plan we could put together?" the youth grumbled as Miles smeared yet more of the substance over his features.
The trio sat nestled behind a cluster of trees with Rolf seated on Laurelei's old trunk while Miles and Karina sifted through their own respective piles of tools and trinkets. Behind them, the massive walls of Castle Golodomor loomed in the distance and the sun scampered behind the horizon, preparing to give way to nightfall at any moment.
"It's all very simple Rolf, and it's going to work," Miles replied. "Trust us, we've been planning a break in on Golodomor for months now and though things are a touch rushed, we can make it work."
"But we need to get this coat off of you first. Far too recognizable," added Karina as she wrestled Rolf out of his Wolfsgaurd coat.
"Could you both stop touching me?"
"Hush! We're working," said Karina in a scolding tone.
With the coat removed, Miles evened out the last bit of Rolf's face and neck before applying to the arms. "Excellent, you're nearly looking alive enough for this to work."
"What I don't understand is why at night? Wouldn't this plan work a lot better during the day when all the vampires are asleep?" asked Rolf.
"Karina and I scouted the castle for a point of entry and we only found one reliable, quiet method of entry. Lately, whenever Orlov's men kill any humans or come across a body they bring it back here. Then, they take them to the rear-most point of the castle. They leave them there until nightfall when a vampire officer comes, gathers the bodies and takes them in through a hidden passage in the wall."
Rolf nodded slowly. "What the hell for?"
"No idea," said Miles. "But we tried to get into the passage during the day but no luck. Hidden by some of Orlov's illusions no doubt. Our best guess is that he's got something important back there. So important that he doesn't trust any of his necronom guards with the secret during the day. So, bodies go in at night and seeing how this is our only way into the castle, we're running a moonlight attack."
"This is insane," Rolf growled. "We're marching into their territory when they're at their strongest. It's practically suicide."
Miles finished applying the last smudge of make-up and left Rolf looking as close to a living man as he was going to get. He pushed himself to his feet, wiped off his hands and smiled reassuringly. "Suicide yes, but a very daring and well thought-out suicide at least. Ready to get started?"
"Yeah," Rolf said as he stood up fastened his sword belt. "What are our chances?"
"They'd be better if Nigel was still here," replied Karina.
"Forget him," Rolf muttered under his breath. "We'll get Laurelei back, put an end to Orlov and his pet necronom and we'll do it without that damn lush."
Karina shook her head and placed a hand on Rolf's shoulder. "We're not here to kill anyone Rolf. If it comes to it, then we deal with the situation but this isn't about revenge."
His voice fell to a cold whisper. "Yeah, I got it."
"We'll move around to the back and wait for you. You be careful."
"Careful?" said Miles, sliding his spectacles up on his nose. "You are aware of what the plan is, aren't you darling?"
Suddenly, Miles found his wife frowning at him and crossing her arms over her chest.
"I mean that's not to say he isn't going to be okay, of course not, never would imply such a thing," he stammered.
"Alright, alright. I'm going, get to your positions," said Rolf.
Karina and Miles vanished further into the forest, taking Laurelei's trunk with them, while Rolf made a straight line toward the castle's front gate.
His expression was grim and severe and had his heart still been functioning, he was sure it would be pounding away at the inside of his chest by now. "Don't worry Laurel. I'm on my way." He broke through the wall of trees and stood in the wide, empty field that stretched between the forest and Golodomor's front gate.
Immediately one of the two watchmen took notice of the stranger and alerted its comrade with a slight tap to the shoulder. They stood atop the ramparts, just beside the gatehouse. Rolf couldn't quite make out any of their features from this distance, save for the ever present silver and green uniform that Orlov's soldiers wore. They couldn't have been vampires, not yet. Twilight still meandered for the moment and Rolf suspected that true night wouldn't dawn for at least another hour. They must have been necronoms, the vampires would be around to relieve them soon. That was good, Rolf didn't need their keen eyes and blood-scent figuring out he was already dead.
Both guards drew heavy crossbows, the kind so large and unwieldy that men rarely used them on while mobile. But braced against the parapets of a castle wall, they made an excellent weapon for long-range sharpshooting.
"State your business," called one of the guards.
Rolf stood silently, resting his hand on the hilt of his sword and staring back at them.
"State your business!" the guard repeated as he focused his aim on Rolf's torso.
He remained unresponsive but this time, took a single step forward. Before his foot even touched the ground, a crossbow bolt was loosed. It tore through the air like a bird of prey and descended upon Rolf so fast he could hardly twitch a muscle. With a loud thunk it slammed into his chest and threw him back first into the ground.
All he had to do now, was lie still and silently thank every god he could name that the bolt landed in the right side of his chest. Playing dead was easy when one was basically there already. That's not to say it was easy. No in fact it was quite difficult to avoid screaming out in pain with a foot long bolt jammed between his ribs and skewering a good portion of his lungs. He grit his teeth and seethed deeply for several long moments, easing his way through the pain until he could wind to down to a corpse-like silence.
It wasn't too much longer before shuffling footsteps and creaking wheels closed in. The pair of guards appeared from behind the castle walls, one of which was pushing a wheelbarrow. Together they grabbed Rolf around the arms and legs and hauled him into the vehicle.
"First one in a little while," said one of the guards as he grasped the handles and began wheeling Rolf through the field.
"Crazy bastard just walked straight into a bolt. Must've been mad. Probably a good thing that we put him out of it."
"A bit young to be out of his mind, don't you think?"
The other guard shrugged. "Doesn't matter. Let's just drop him out back and return to our posts. Valmont's shift will be starting soon."
The trip around the castle was long, as to be expected when considering the breadth of the walls. The East and West edge of the castle was populated by thick forest and patterned with a network of old dirt roads. Once the trip reached its conclusion, Rolf found himself alone, at the far-rear of Castle Golodomor. The area was neatly tucked away in a small clearing against a stone wall, featureless save for a single, empty alcove.
And there he stayed for the single longest and most excruciatingly dull thirty minutes of his life. He could hardly allow himself any movement, just in case someone was watching or listening. Though he did manage to ever so slowly shift his hand toward his belt, where his dagger lie in wait.
And so yet again he feigned death, this time until twilight shifted to night and the sound of armoured footsteps brought him around.
"Ahhh. Already a body waiting at the ready," said a smooth, male voice with the vampiric accent that Rolf had grown so familiar with these last few months.
It was dark, almost too dark for Rolf to see as the vampire carried no torch or lantern to light to way. Perhaps by moonlight he could get a decent look were he inclined to turn his head for a more direct glance but even he was aware that the risks outweighed any potential benefit.
Valmont strolled past Rolf and approached that empty alcove. Covertly he glanced over each of his shoulders and the turned his attention toward the blank slate of stone before him. "Paritallis aventis zie Orlov commodanta," he whispered. In one instant there had been nothing and in the next was a small, wooden door. It wasn't merely hidden from view, it was if the door simply did not exist until the words had been spoken.
Rolf recognized it as Zarothi, the secret vampire language and though he did not understand the words, he committed them to memory.
Valmont turned to retrieved the corpse but found himself stunned in place as he came to spot it lunging from it resting place and bearing down on him with a long, silver stiletto in hand.
"What!?" he managed to gasp before the slender blade slipped between the plates of his armour and punched straight through his heart. His fingers had wrapped themselves around the hilt of his own knife but all the strength in his form had abandoned him before he could put it to any use.
Rolf yanked his blade from the vampire's chest, eliciting a loud scraping noise as it dragged across its victim's armour on the way out. "Now that that's taken care of," he said, wrapping his hand around the wooden shaft of the bolt in his chest. With a single tug he ripped it from the wound, wincing slightly before tossing it aside. With his attention turned toward the door, Rolf just stood and listened for any sign of movement. It was only a few moments later that he was greeted by the sound of two figures coming up behind him as Miles and Karina stepped into view.
"Great work," said the alchemist as he deftly tossed Rolf a small leather skin of water before skirting around him and moving toward the body.
Rolf nodded and immediately splashed the water onto his hands and began wiping his arms and face down. It wasn't long before he'd washed away the make-up and returned to his usual grey tone. "Thanks Miles. That stuff was irritating."
"So how did he do it?"
"Some kind of password in Zarothi. Para-...talis aventis? Paritallis aventis zie Zavo Orlov commodanta."
"Oh?" chimed Miles. "They really do keep that vampire tongue rather secretive. I'll have to ask Laurelei to teach it to me."
Karina approached next and threw Rolf's coat over his shoulders, pulling it snug and giving him a small pat on the cheek. "Fantastic job, Rolf. Keep it up and we'll have Laurelei back by sunrise."
Rolf nodded back at her while pulling his arms through the sleeves of his coat.
"Barely any damage to the armour," said Miles. "Excellent, excellent. Give me a moment here."
Miles quickly donned Valmont's plate while Rolf deposited the dead body in the forest. By the time he returned, he noticed Miles strapping a strange mechanical device to his right vambrace. It looked like some sort of harness layered with clockwork mechanisms to which he affixed another unfamiliar item. Crafted of wood and steel, it had a short grip like you might fand on a hand crossbow, but it ended in a round, metal bore.
"The hell is that?" Rolf asked.
"Oh this?" replied Miles. "Not surprising you haven't seen one before. It's a gun, sort of like a hand-cannon really. It's becoming very popular in the wider world but very few make it into Guul'Zaroth what with the miasma around the kingdom. The few that do however, I took a look at and managed to put together a recreation for myself. Handy little thing really." Miles then let the sleeve of the uniforms long green coat fall over his wrist and conceal the weapon and pulled on the uniform's helmet for the finishing touch. "Come on, let's hurry this along. Back in the wheelbarrow."
"It's back to playing dead for me I suppose," said Rolf as he eased himself in.
"Well, you won't be alone this time," added Karina. Rather quickly she joined Rolf in the wheelbarrow, laying widthwise across his chest with her hat strategically covering her face.
Door pushed ajar, Miles pushed the rest of the party forward and immediately into a dark landing that lead down to a cramped stairway. Fortunately, the room inside was lit with blazing lanterns. The sound of mechanical clanging came from the room ahead, interspersed with only the slightest hints of speech.
Rattling through the hall, Miles eventually came out into a long, narrow chamber. Immediately noticeable was the strange machine in the middle of the room and its black cloaked, necronom operator. The device appeared to a wide steel chute that lead down to a pair of big, spiked metal grinders, caked in dried blood. The grinders appeared to be controlled by a large crank, which the operator was spinning at the moment.
"Two already, Valmont? Bronis, ready another barrel!" said the old necronom as he shuffled forward and smoothed out his blood smeared robes. "I was just readying the device. Come on, bring them here," he said with urging gesticulations.
Beneath the grinders was a shallow pit, enclosed by a steel rail. At the bottom stood a second necronom, presumably Bronis. He nodded and hoisted up a wooden barrel from a long row of similar ones, some spattered will yet more blood, much like the floor below the grinder.
At the operator's urgings, Miles hiked up the wheelbarrow and moved toward him while giving a silent thanks that he seemed more interested in the bodies to take too much notice of the stranger in his colleague's armour.
"A justiciar?" he asked. "There's a story to this one I'd bet. But the other one, he doesn't exactly look fresh. Where was he dug up?"
Miles didn't reply, just nodded his head and tried to avoid drawing any attention.
"Valmont?" the operator asked again, actually lifting his gaze toward Mile's face for the first time since the conversation began. "You're not-... Who are you?" he asked.
Before he could even get answer, Karina sprang to her feet, clasped him by the collar and gave him a solid hip toss straight into the chute.
He let out a loud groan as he slammed into the grinders and made a few, vain attempts to scramble back up.
"Don't," said Karina. "Don't move and don't say a word or he turns the crank!"
Without even being asked, Miles had taken hold of the device and stood at the ready.
"Valmont!? What in all the hells is happening up there!?" hissed Bronis.
"Rolf, handle him!" said Karina.
"On it," he shot back. In an instant he sprang from the wheelbarrow and vaulted over the railing. He landed with a solid clang next to a rather startled looking necronom.
Bronis reached and Rolf both reached for their weapons, Bronis a small dagger and Rolf his clumsy cleaver. Rolf was quicker and in that brief, momentary advantage, his weapon ripped clean across its targets. Head separated from body, it sailed into the air while its former host stumbled forward blindly.
Rolf dropped his sword to the ground with a clatter and snatched Bronis's struggling wrist with one hand and his descending, screaming head with the other. "Stay quiet!" Rolf roared. Jerking his arm forward tossed the body forward and slammed it against the nearest barrel. Only a short struggle later he shoved the whole of Bronis's body into the wooden entrapment, tossing his head in after and closing the lid on him.
Karina stood at the mouth of the chute, staring down at the necronom inside. "I have a few questions and if you don't want the handsome gentleman over to start turning that crank, you'll have answers."
"Anything you want," he said, forcing a smile onto his leathery, dessicated face. "I live to serve. Whomever I serve, well that's a variable at times."
"Aren't you the agreeable hostage, then?" she replied with a sweet smile. "For starters, this, what is all of it?"
"A blood processing room. We, uh, we put in these barrels and then we ship it off."
"I don't know, I swear it. Orlov, he keeps everything quiet, it's all done it teams. Each one is completely ignorant to the other's roles. We only know what we need to know."
Karina exchanged a short glance with her husband before returning her attention to the necronom. "You don't know anything? Then for what reason does he collect all this blood?"
"It's all very hush. He set me to this task just a few months ago, shortly after the last royal council meeting at Castle Umbra. Had me design the machine and hired my assistant and I to operate it for him. It's very simple to use really, but he wanted as few people to know about it as possible."
"... I believe you," Karina said after a short period of deliberation. It all seemed very much like Orlov and so she surmised that this necronom was either a fantastic liar or he was telling the truth. She banked on the latter for the time being.
"Does that mean I can leave the chute?" he asked, stroking his long grey beard with a bony hand.
"Of course not," Karina retorted. "We still have questions. To start, did Orlov bring in any unusual persons over last few days? Prisoners, quests, anything out of the ordinary."
The engineer searched his mind, desperate for the information she desired and let out a long whimper when he realized it was nowhere to be found. "No, no he hasn't."
"Miles, start the grinder!"
At her command, the wheels turned ever so slightly and tugged at the old man's robes.
"No! No, no, stop! I swear I don't know b-but if he had, if he had, they would be in the dungeon. I can show you where it is!"
Karina lifted a hand to halt the grinder. "Stay," she said in a stern voice before briefly disappearing from the necronom's view. She leaned in close to her husband and spoke in a whisper. "If his men don't know it means he's keeping this quiet. He'd never keep Laurelei in the dungeon if that were the case, too many people could notice. Not to mention if that got back to the king, he'd have Orlov's head."
"Then where?" asked Miles.
"I don't know where. Somewhere private, away from his servants and guards. Logically speaking, only two men would know Laurelei's location. Gutterwink and Orlov himself and the former is a questionable source at that."
"Find Orlov, find the Princess."
"Exactly." Karina returned to the edge of the chute and peered back in at the increasingly desperate looking necronom. "Where could we find Orlov at this moment?"
"Unless he's tending to business, Count Orlov is either in his personal chambers or in the attached observatory. The night is still so early, he may yet still be sleeping."
"Perfect. And where might we find his chambers?"
"Northeast corner of the castle, in the highest tower." The necronom watched Karina's face for any change, any sign that he had finally pleased her.
"The armoury," said Miles.
"The armoury? Why?"
"Because I still control the grinder, that's why!"
"Okay, okay. The armoury is in the Western wing on the second floor. Is... is that enough? Can I get out of this damned thing?"
"Yes, I believe so," said Karina.
A deep sensation of relief washed over the necronom as Karina reached her hand out toward him. "Oh thank you, kind woman," he said while grasping for her hand. "Forgiving and beautiful woman, I will be forever grateful for your mercy!"
With both of his hands desperately latched around her wrist, Karina dragged up up and planted him on his feet. "One last thing."
"Well we can't exactly have you ambling about after we leave, we need to keep things quiet. And you are a necronom. We can't exactly knock you out."
"Oh please no," he whined, hands strategically covering his heart.
"No, not that. We're just going to stuff you into a barrel with your friend down there."
"You most certainly will not!" the necronom retorted. He made to depart from her reach but quickly found her hand clutching his collar.
"This is not a request." Before he could resist, she locked his arms up in a hold and swept his legs. One quick twist later and she had sent him tumbling over the rail.
He smacked against the ground and lay there for no more than a few seconds before being yanked up Rolf.
"It'll be a bit cramped, but you'll fit," said.
"No! No, no, no!" the engineer cried in disgust but it did him little good. "Bronis, do something!"
"I will be sure to think angry thoughts at him from inside this barrel, as that is the extent of my capabilities at the moment."
Rolf picked him as if he were little more than a struggling child and jammed him into barrel, along with Bronis. It took a bit of muscle, but Rolf secured the lid good and tight, before depositing the barrel net to the others. He then planted another, full, cask of blood atop the makeshift cell, just to be sure.
Finally stepping away from the device, Miles stood by the door to main castle. "Well, that was a little messier than expected but all in all, it worked out pretty well."
Meanwhile, Rolf scaled the ladder leading down into the pit and joined the others. "So we have an idea of where Orlov is, let's go get him."
"Not that simple," said Karina. "The castle will be filled with guards, servants and guests. We can't just march into Orlov's personal chambers without any resistance."
Miles pushed open the door and immediately the group entered into a long staircase leading up from the cellar and to the lowest floor. Save for the dim, flickering lamps every few metres, the hall was largely unadorned, though considering where it lead, this was no surprise. From what they had gathered, Orlov had been keeping this room a secret. "I believe I can do something about security."
"Oh no. You're not doing anything," replied Karina as she mounted the first step and lead the group up the stairs. "We're staying together, understand?"
Miles shook his head. "Relax dear, I'll be fine. After all, I've got the armour. I can move around unnoticed, you two can't. I'll head to the opposite end of the castle and stir up some trouble, draw the bulk of the guards away from Orlov and let you two slip through unnoticed."
"Absolutely not," Karina said sternly. "You're putting yourself at too much risk and I will not-!"
"There was always going to be risk," he said, cutting her off. "And as it stands, I'm the most qualified to take this one. I need you to trust me, Karina. I'll make it back safe and sound."
The staircase came to an end and Karina stopped at the door. "I can't know that."
"I'll come back because I have the most captivatingly beautiful motivation imaginable."
Karina's harsh frown softened to a loving smile. "No need to charm me, we're already married."
"All the more reason."
"Now I know you're not leaving my sight."
"I would't dream of it."
Rolf had spent the entirety of the exchange standing by the door and trying his best not to roll his eyes. "Hey! There are slightly more pressing matters at hand!" he barked.
Miles smiled at his wife one more time before at last pushing open the door and stepping into the castle proper. "I'll be fine, I promise."
They exited into a wide, square chamber with two exits. A dark, disused storage room, yet more diversion from the secret chamber below. It was there that the party split, Karina and Rolf exiting through the Eastern door and Miles to the West.
Navigating the halls of an unfamiliar castle felt almost like aimlessly wandering through a forest to Miles. He know only the general direction and without a compass to keep himself focused, even that was a challenge. Luckily for him, the uniform allowed him to escape notice and walk straight past any guards he may have encountered. In fact, the guards seemed rather preoccupied at he moment. He passed by more than a dozen soldiers as he explored the halls but they seemed content to ignore him as they rushed off to one task or another. All he had to do now was keep his head down until he could locate the armoury.
Up a flight of stairs, skirting past the kitchens and taking a quick, cursory glance at each chamber he came across until finally he found himself in front of a wide, locked door, just around where the engineer suggested the armoury might be found. A few quick peeks over his shoulder to check for any passing guards and Miles got to work.
From his coat he produced a set of lock-picks and got to work. A few moments later and there came a series of satisfying clicks from the lock and the door came open. Inside was dark and windowless and the light from the hall was not great enough to illuminate the room. Before venturing in, Miles pulled out a small torch and lit it off a nearby lamp.
He then found himself inside of a large, square chamber packed to the brim with tools of war. Weapon racks mounted with crossbows of varying sizes, dueling swords and halberds were gathered on the right side. Not far from there stood multiple suits of armour in the same make as the suit which Miles had procured earlier. The left side contained more devastating weaponry in the form of cannons. Many were already mounted atop the walls and stored within for easy access, but all the backups were kept here in storage. The rest of the room was crates and barrels full of bolts, cannonballs, knives, cloaks and best of all, alchemical powder.
He could smell it instantly, the sulfurous scent of blaster powder and it lead him straight to the right-hand corner. Barrel upon barrel were stacked upon one another, simply waiting to be tampered with. "Oh alchemy, my first love. It was only a matter of time before Karina came between us but that doesn't mean we cannot still enjoy one another's company."
With abandon he leaped atop the pile of barrels and held aloft a small steel oil-can. Slender, cylindrical and bearing a short and narrow spout, it sloshed with sloshed with viscous liquid. There was not a moment of hesitation before he began splashing it about the wooden barrels piled before him. He poured and poured the thick yellow substance until the can dripped no more and its contents had been scattered across the entire store of combustible compound.
Promptly, Miles retreated to the door and just as he neared the threshold, tossed the torch back. It landed atop the barrels and instantly set the oil aflame. Searing orange streaks scoured the wooden surfaces of the assembled kegs and Miles quietly lamented that he'd not be able to witness to results as he slammed the door behind him and took refuge several metres down the hall.
Within a minute, the resultant blast sent tremors rumbling through the castle and ripped the armoury door from its hinges. The whole portal collapsed , nearly split in two by the force of the explosion. Chunks of wood and stone littered the hallway and the stinging scent of black powder overwhelmed the senses.
Miles looked upon the aftermath of his work with a sense of mixed pride and enthusiasm before turning back down the hall. He took off in a dash, racing through the castle and screaming in the best vampire accent he could manage, "Sabotage! The armoury has been sabotaged! The armoury has been sabotaged!" He round the corner as quickly as he could manage, continuing to yell at the top of his lungs. It wasn't long before another guard came into his sight.
The vampire appeared to have been in his own hurry but stopped in place as he heard the panicked cried from behind. Whirling toward the source he came face to face with Miles as he came sliding to a stop before him. "Sabotage? What happened?" the vampire asked.
Miles grabbed the soldier by his shoulders and gave him a good shake, making a dramatic show of things. "An explosion, somebody ignited all the black powder in the armoury! We need to divert all available soldiers to the Western halls and begin searching for the intruder."
"Are you mad!?" said the soldier as he recoiled and shoved Miles back. "We can't do that, we have an enemy force approaching the castle!"
Miles was taken aback as he stared at the soldier. "We do?"
"Of course we do! You're a captain, you should have received word and..." the vampire trailed off as he took a long, hard look at the man before him. "Just who are you?"
"Me?" said Miles. Then, with a flick of his wrist a hand cannon fell from his sleeve and landed in his grip. Miles weapon came up just as the soldier was reaching for his own but when his fingers wrapped around the hilt of his dagger, there came a loud bang.
The vampire dropped with hardly a grunt, his armour perforated and his body lifeless in but an instant.
"Well," said Miles. "Suppose I better go have a look at this invading force."