As Vlad returned to consciousness he reviewed his situation. He’d been here for a while now, although since he was blindfolded much of the time he wasn’t sure how long exactly. He was being kept in the puzzle wall room much like the one at Headless Cove. The cultists had managed to capture him somehow. He didn’t know how – he went to meet with his father and discuss the situation with the plague and Ulric, and then had woken up here. Since then, he had been questioned and tortured for the solution to the wall. Aside from numerous bruises and cuts the worst he had suffered so far was a broken arm (left). Vlad considered this lucky, as he could resist this type of ‘persuasion’ for a long time. The incessant babbling of the… whatever that was trapped behind the wall was beginning to get to him however. It wasn’t like Vlad could cover his ears and block it out. However, he could largely ignore it, thanks to his fathers’ long years of training him to resist demonic influence and concentrate on other things (like not passing out when they snapped his arm).
Vlad knew there were at least 2 of them holding him captive, his personal torturer and another person who spoke quietly but had not shown himself on those few occasions that the blindfold was removed. Background noises suggested more people were in other areas near this room, so it was a fair guess that rest of the cult was here. Still, he needed to escape soon (since apparently no rescue was coming given how long he had been here) as eventually they would break him, and he had a plan for a small measure of revenge against these people.
The smirk he was unable to suppress when he thought about this worked against Vlad though, as it was noticed and his return to the waking world became evident.
“So, back with us are you?” came the voice of Torturer, “So, are you going to give me the answer today, or do we play another game of guess where?”
Vlad tried to respond but he hadn’t realized how dry his mouth was, and no words came out.
A cry of pain was ripped from his throat as Torturer grabbed his broken arm and twisted…
“See? You can talk if you want to…”
“Thirsty…” Vlad gasped, then gave another small gasp of pain as the blindfold was roughly pulled off, opening a half healed cut over one of his eyes. Torturer held a small cup of water for him.
After Vlad had finished the meagre amount of water, Torturer asks “So, do I break your leg today? Or maybe your other arm…”
“No, no more. I’ll give you the answer. Just… no more.”
Yes, Open Door. Let Me Out. Release Us. RELEASE US. RELEASE US!
“Really? Just like that you cave in after all this resistance? I’m not sure I believe you…”
Torturer turned to a table out of Vlad’s line of sight and came back with a large wooden club – looked like a belaying pin from a ship.
“No. NO. I’ll give you what you want. Please don’t…” Vlad babbled
“Oh come on, I’ve not done anything yet. Really, this is the best you could come up with?” came the reply. Vlad screamed in agony once more as the pin was swung on his hand, breaking fingers.
“St… sta… start top… top left. Second symbol in. Symbol representing ‘W’.”
Torturer eyed Vlad suspiciously for a moment, then looked to the other person in the room inquisitively. Some sort of confirmation was given as Torturer moved over to the wall and apprehensively set the first block, looking considerably happier when nothing untoward happened.“Well? What next?”
“Next… 4th column. 3rd from bottom. Symbol… representing ‘Ra’.”
Again Torturer set the block tentatively, but relaxed when nothing more occurred.
Yes, YES! Freedom Comes Soon. So Long. So Lonely. So Much Lost.
Vlad panted a moment, playing for a little time, acting as though his injuries were keeping him from speaking again (not much of an act really).
“3rd symbol – last column, 6th one… down. Symbol representing… ‘Th’.”
Torturer, reassured by the previous 2 successes moved immediately to the symbol and pushed it, just as the voice at the back of the room started to protest. A flash and a feeling of released power flooded the room, forcing Vlad to close his eyes momentarily. Blinking them open, the only thing that remained of Torturer was a bloodstain on the wall and floor where she had been standing. Vlad smiled grimly in satisfaction.
NO! You Lied! Cruel Evil Mortal! Release Us! Release US And Gain the Power for Revenge!
Vlad shuddered at the voices’ cries.
“So, what now? You need to show yourself. I assume you are the one behind all this.” Vlad addressed the comments to the person hidden behind him.
There was silence for a few moments, and then his blood ran cold as he immediately recognized the voice that replied.
“I wish it hadn’t come to this, my son.” replied Vlads father – Aldus Senex, as he walked into view.
“But… You? What are…? How…? Why…?”
“Yes, it is I. Your attempted trap in Vendig was a clever – probably would have worked in other circumstances – but I simply had you taken just as you left my house. I then burnt it down, and claimed you were still inside, so I hope you aren’t expecting a rescue attempt by your friends. They all think you are dead.”
Vlad just stared at his father, horror written across his face as the context of recent events rewrote itself is his head.
“Why? To protect the people of Vendig, and Belicht. Just as you want to. Just as I taught you. We humans cannot compete with the supernatural powers. The entire land is slowly slipping into being a shadowland. You must have seen the signs. We are fighting a losing battle. The dragon princes don’t – won’t help us. The elementals abandoned us. The Gods do nothing but sit back and take our prayers. We need power to fight the undead. We need power to fight the elementals.”
“And you turned to the demons for this?!”
“They are tools! They can be controlled! Their power can be passed to humans, empowering them! Us! We can fight on an equal footing. We can defend our homes and our people. You’ve seen the start of it.”
Yes. I Can Give You This Too. Strength. Power. Just Give Us Freedom.
“Protect people? Defend people? And I suppose the attack on Siegsdorf and the deaths there were for the greater good?”
“I didn’t order that. Hilde did that on her own initiative – but she was right, it had to be done.”
“She killed my brother, YOUR SON! How can you say it had to be done? Did you care nothing for Teufel?”
Aldus turns away, “Of course I cared. He was my son. But he was blackmailing us. Threatening to reveal our plans if I didn’t keep paying him. I didn’t want to, refused to order it… But there was no choice. We each have to sacrifice if everyone is to be saved.”
Aldus turned back to Vlad for a moment, about to say more, but then walked out of the room. Vlad sat in silence trying to comprehend the turn of events. His father, who taught Vlad about fighting demons and resisting their influence now corrupted by those self same forces.
Hanging his head, Vlad sunk into despair. First his brother, now his father. Even his friends are unconvinced of his creed, with some teetering on the same knife edge his father has now fallen off. How can he fight these powers? There are always more, always stronger. No-one is safe from their corrupting wiles.
With My Help. We Are Not Demonic. Release Us And I Will Show You.
Vlads head snapped up, staring at the wall in horror. This… thing could read his thoughts? No. Focus. Block it out. Ignore the distractions.
Vlad pushed everything out of his mind. His father’s betrayal. The voice. His eyes searched the room for something to help, and settled on the inscriptions on the puzzle wall and surrounding it.
Over the next several hours Vlad slowly worked through the inscriptions. Much of the texts surrounding the wall were decayed by time and undecipherable. It seemed that the wall was a door to a prison cell, designed to contain… something. The secret to opening the wall isn’t just a password, but something more. Frustratingly the last of the information is broken off. Context implied a method of thinking or some form of action, but what is missing. The wall itself was largely a series of warnings to never open the door. With a start, Vlad realised something else – the writing on the door was made by a different person than the wall inscriptions. It was the same language, but the word selection, the phrasing made it clear that it was someone different. How… odd. Eventually, pain and exhaustion overcame him, and he drifted to sleep.
Sometime later the pain overcame the exhaustion and he awoke. His father was in front of him, waiting for him to awaken. Without speaking, he gives Vlad a long drink and some bread. Once Vlad has finished eating he starts talking…
“Vlad, I know I taught you to fight demons and their influences. Evidently I did too well and made you foolishly inflexible. These things are tools, and should be used as such. Their power can be contained and controlled. You are even working on a method for removing that power with your friends. Imagine the possibilities! Take on a demon’s power, defeat the threat, then simply remove the power again, until needed. No more fear. No more being at the mercy of the dead, or the demons, or the dragon princes even! We would be free. We would be safe. Can’t you see? And you would be the one who made it possible. You say we have been corrupted, and must die. Yet you work to save Michel, despite his ‘corruption’.”
“Never. You, the others, you revel in the power you have gained. You talk of putting the power down when it’s not needed, but how long before you or the others working with you decide that you know better. That you should be ruling the rest. After all, you are so much more ‘righteous’ and know better what ‘needs to be done’. Look at your allies so far. Pirates, demon worshippers. Even Hilde, the good and pure daughter of a priest turned into an unrepentant murderer as soon as she got the taste of you ‘power’.”
“You are correct in that. These people that I have been forced to work with have been… less than perfect. Already corrupted by their own base desires. I had thought Hilde above it, but apparently even the purest of maidens has a dark heart.
However, I once again realise that you, my son, are the solution. I brought you up, educated you, instilled discipline and conviction in you. And look at you. Days of torture resisted due to the strength of that conviction. I shall select some young children, and train them from the outset to use the strength for good. For the benefit and defence of humanity. It will take years, but eventually I can stop using these flawed people and bring forth an order of dedicated defenders. Empowered.”
Vlad stared at his father, shocked and unbelieving at what he was hearing.
“That is the future. Now, however, I need the strength that is locked behind these walls if I am to save this land from the dead, and the dragon princes. We never did get a full translation thanks to your interference at headless cove, and the arrest of Birgit. However I do know that these places were used for demonic research, and that what is behind this wall is immensely powerful. I need that power, and you are going to give it to me.”
“Hmm, yes. I expected that. And after what you did to poor Lisette I clearly can’t trust anything you say. So, let me present my solution…”
Aldus rose and walked out of the room, returning a few minutes later with a young boy, no more than 6 years old. Vlad instantly recognises the boy as the son of Ulfbert the blacksmith.
“This is Cort, and he will be pushing the symbols. And in case I have misjudged you, and you are willing to let him die, I will continue bringing children to push the buttons until I find the correct combination. Shall we begin?”.
Blood drained from Vlad’s face. This was his father? The city’s respected high priest. The man that taught Vlad everything. Vlad’s mind was in turmoil.
“No? Impressive. I really didn’t expect you to go this far.”
Aldus walked the boy over to the wall. Holding a sweet in front of the boy
“Cort please push this button.”
“STOP! I’ll do it. But the boy cannot open it. I have to do it.”
Yes. Now Is The Time.
Aldus looks over, while catching the boys hand.
“Really, you have to do it?”
“Yes. You need to… understand the wall to open it, not just push the right combination. I can’t put it into words.”
Giving the boy the sweet Aldus sends him from the room.
“I’m not sure I trust you. You may just be looking to kill yourself.”
“And then you kill countless innocent children in a futile attempt to open it. No, I will open it, or at least try.”
Aldus moves over to Vlad, and unlocks the chains holding him to the chair, but leaves them hanging from his wrists. Vlad slowly pulls himself to his feet. Days of being confined to the chair and the broken bones making movement difficult. Aldus moves away, suspicious of Vlad attempting to grab him despite his injuries. Vlad shuffles/staggers to the wall, hissing as each movement causes pain in a different part of his body.
Steeling himself, Vlad starts pushing the correct sequence to open the wall.
Finally. Freedom. You Will Not Regret This.
Without warning, Vlad suddenly spins round, and whips the chain attached to his good arm towards his father. Caught by surprise, Aldus is knocked off balance by the chain, falls, cracking his head against the chair, and lies still. Vlad feels relief flowing through him as he hears a grinding rumble behind him. Turning back, he watches the wall open with trepidation and fear of what owns that voice.
Flashes of visions appear in his mind. Fights against demons across a hundred battlefields. Soldiers in ornate armour facing unspeakable creatures. Shining heroes wielding unbelievable powers. As quickly as they appear they are gone.
Blinking away the visions and he stares at the now revealed room. The cell is empty except for millennia old dust and the decayed remains of a skeleton. No demon comes charging out. Clearly whatever owned the voice is some immaterial spirit that has now escaped.
Vlad breathes a sigh of relief. Aldus’ body remains where it was, a small pool of blood gathering around his head. Vlad looks with pity on the man that used to be his father, but has more important things to worry about, like escaping, and saving the child/children.
Using the key from his fathers pockets, he removes the chains from his wrists, and looking round the room picks up the club used to break his fingers the previous day. As he does so someone starts opening the door to see what the noise was in the room.
Vlad steps behind the opening door as the person enters the room, and strikes them from behind. The body crashes to the floor immediately, dead or insensate. The cultist, as that it who it was from the clothing, was wearing a sword, and Vlad immediately drops the club in favour of something more familiar.
Noise from the next room make it clear that stealth is now pointless, and in a rush to save the child, Vlad goes on the offensive, charging through the door. The cultists in the room have already drawn weapons and set on him immediately, and sword and dagger blades come from all sides. The ring of steel on steel echo’s throughout the room and beyond, and Vlad’s sword becomes a blur, meeting each blade and turning it aside. Screams soon join the clashing of weapons, with both sounds falling silent shortly after.
Vlad looks around the chamber, and spots the child hiding behind a bench. Walking over, Vlad pulls the terrified child out and orders him to follow right behind as they are going to escape and take him back to his dad and the forge. The boy smiles and nods at this, but continues to stare at Vlads face with awe.
Shouts and footsteps announce the arrival of more cultists. Vlad pushes the boy behind him, and meets them at the door. His sword is everywhere, and no cultist can break his defense. They fall back before Vlad’s assault, before falling to the ground dead or injured. The cultists at the back break and flee from the fighting.
Vlads hopes rise, only to be dashed. Upon reaching what he had hoped was the exit, he sees the way barred by a blood-ape. Its eyes light up with malicious glee as it takes in the torn robes and injuries of the puny human before it, before shifting to an uncharacteristic look of fear as its glance reaches Vlads face.
Vlad, tired but invigorated from the fighting, feels the fear flood through him as he is faced by the formidable creature before him. This is a demon of violence, and not suffering from centuries of containment like the previous ones encountered. Feeling the boy hiding behind his legs makes his choices obvious though.
“Cort, I’m going to distract that thing. When you get the chance, run out the door, find your dad or my friends, and tell them where I am. Understand?”
The boy nods. Vlad edges forward, expecting to give his life to save the boy. The ape warily shifts to one side, before suddenly charging Vlad, claws swinging in vicious arcs designed to rip his throat out. They meet nothing but steel and air as Vlad beats its attacks aside. His counterattacks thud uselessly into the thick hide of the beast. The pair back off and circle, each in a form of shock that Vlad is still standing. The Ape charges again, trying to overwhelm Vlad’s defensive skills, sword and claws blurring in impossible motion as each attack is met and turned aside, each counterattack shrugged off.
Again they break, and Vlad puts some space between them while he catches his breath, trying to ignore the burning sensation in his shoulder where the ape managed to catch him with a swipe. He knows that he can’t keep this up for ever, as does the ape. Smelling the fresh blood, the ape spring once more, sensing its advantage. Rather than continue with his defensive tactics, which are starting to fail, Vlad chooses to meet the attack with an all out attack of his own.
As the apes fist swings towards him, his sword swings up, flecks of golden light glittering along its edge. Both attacks strike home. Vlad flies across the room into the wall, the sword flying from his hand, before sliding to the floor. The ape falls to the ground, beside its own severed head.
Vlad blinks his eyes open to find the boy in front of him, pulling on his arm.
“Mister, we need to go. Please wake up mister…”
Vlad pulls himself up with help fro the boy, and retrieves the sword. They work their way outside just in time to see the sun start to rise. Moving away from the entrance, Vlad sits for a moment to gather his strength, body aching all over.
“Mister, does it hurt?”
“Yes, most of my body hurts Cort.”
“No, the glowy thing on your head.”
“Huh? ‘Glowy thing’?”
“Yes, looks like this”
The boy draws a symbol on the ground, like a stylized sun rising. Vlad stares at it with dawning realisation of what was behind the wall.