The Haunting of Molata

“An Unforgettable Night”

Reinhardt needed to prove his courage to his father, the general of the army of the city-state of Nazalea. He needed to find the exiled princess Thalia before her enemies did. If not, he feared war was on the horizon.

He spent the day traveling through the sand and rock landscape dotted by cacti, acacia trees and rolling foothills. His mouth and throat were dry, the warm water of his skin doing little to slake the parch. His lamellar chafed, the sweat and dirt sticking to his skin, the dry wind brushing his cracked lips. Hours earlier, he shivered on his bed of stones, his back turned to the blistering wind. He would’ve given his soul for a warm breeze. Now, with pain from his split lips, he longed for the night’s icy kiss.

Reinhardt followed the Red Silk Road, which hugged the northeastern border of the Desert of No Return. As darkness fell, a sandstorm blew from the desert, engulfing Reinhardt and his camel with stinging grit, blotting the sun’s feeble rays. Blackness was total, the piping wind in Reinhardt’s ears. He shielded his face as best he could, squeezing his eyes shut, waiting for the storm to pass. Trying to press on would only increase his chances of getting lost.

When the dust cleared, he descended through rolling foothills toward the town of Molata, the dusk hanging in the air like a purple mist. Tired and burnt, his chest swelled at a place to stop. He led his camel along the sandy road into the town. Molata was a prosperous village, with stores and adobe homes flanking the road.

Though the shrouded moon and starlight were dim, Reinhardt made out a steep hill strewn with boulders, with a small keep of sorts on its crown.

The inn welcomed Reinhardt with warm lights, a wooden sign of a white flagon flapping against a wall of creamy plaster. A few people dashed back and forth through the streets for the safety of their homes. As night became more dour, blessed breezes wafted over the town, cooling Reinhardt’s feverish skin. From inside the inn came conversation and the clink and clatter of plates.

A sandy youth came up to Reinhardt as he entered. “May I hitch your camel, sir?”

Reinhardt smiled, impressed by the town’s hospitality. “Certainly, lad.” He tossed the boy a coin, and he disappeared with Reinhardt’s camel to the stables round the back. The inn’s common room was comfortable, a dozen or so warming themselves by a crackling hearth as they ate and drank.

A broad-shouldered man behind the counter waved at Reinhardt. “Welcome to the Foaming Flagon! Name’s Markus! Have a seat by the fire and I’ll have someone bring you something to eat. I see my nephew has already attended to your camel!”

“Thank you, sir.”

The crowd glanced at Reinhardt, some with a wary eye. Reinhardt thought his armor might intimidate, with a belted set of a curved sword and dagger, bow and arrows slung across his back. Nazalean soldiers oft frequented this region, but Reinhardt couldn’t shake the sense of being out of place. He took a seat at the bar.

“What can I get you?”

A dusky-skinned barmaid with scarf-wrapped hair approached him. Reinhardt handed her his water skin. “Water please, ma’am.”

She vanished behind a curtain into a back room. Reinhardt stole a fleeting glance at the other patrons. Most were villagers — a tall man in a smith’s apron, another dressed as a craftsman, and several weathered farmers. A corner table of three stood out to be travelers. One was a handsome man in cataphract armor, the second a towering monk with narrow eyes, and the third was a half-elf dressed as a trader. A golden choker embraced her slender neck.

The barmaid returned with Reinhardt’s water. “Anything else?”

“I’ll take some bread and cheese — and information.”

“Oh?” The barmaid reached under the counter for what Reinhardt asked.

“I’m looking for a woman about your height, blond hair, brown eyes, possibly dressed as a traveler. Have you seen anyone like that come through here?”

She shook her head. “Can’t say I have.”

“What about that fortification on top of the hill?”

“That’s a garrison for the Nazalean Army. I’m surprised you didn’t recognize it. Aren’t you a soldier?”

“I am, but that doesn’t look like any kind of garrison I’ve seen. Is it occupied?”

“Of course. We have bandits and monsters come through here.”

“I see… what other points of interest does this town offer?”

“Well, if you’re the pious sort, there’s the Temple of Temperance; the usual fare of blacksmith and apothecary.

We’re a farming town, but lucky to have a resident mystic on hand for anything strange.”

Reinhardt raised a brow. “Has anything strange happened lately?”

“Not really. The soldiers in the garrison keep to themselves and don’t cause any trouble.”

“Any other persons of note?”

“Well, there’s the Lord Mayor, but he governs with a light hand. He only summons the soldiers if things get terrible.”

Reinhardt stroked his chin. “Very well, then. I’ll take a room for the night.” He slid a couple of coins across the counter and the barmaid handed him a key.

“Upstairs on the right.”

Reinhardt nodded and retired to his room. His legs were numb from fatigue, but the fresh water from his skin on his dried lips never tasted so sweet. After slipping out of his armor, he fell back onto the simple bed, the wooden frame groaning in protest. He had to find Thalia, and fast. She wouldn’t leave his mind until the forces of sleep overtook him.

* * *

In his dreams, Reinhardt thought he heard her scream. He jolted awake. An eerie stillness crept through his room, prompting him to sit up. At first there was only the moaning of the wind and the scratching of blown sand against his window. Then a shriek from the hallway, with something pounding on his door. Reinhardt shot to his feet as the door gave way, the dark outline of a Nazalean soldier filling the frame. His hands outstretched like claws, the soldier lunged for Reinhardt’s throat. His stomach churned, his legs weak as he shoved the man away.

“W, who are you!? What are you doing?”

Reinhardt’s eyes widened, horrified at the thought of one of his own trying to kill him. The soldier mouthed incoherent ramblings as points of blue witch-fire smoldered in his eyes. Reinhardt grabbed his round shield and incoherent ramblings as points of blue witch-fire smoldered in his eyes. Reinhardt grabbed his round shield and knocked the man to the floor.

The screams from the common room struck thoughts of escaping through the window from Reinhardt’s mind. He rushed through the door to the dark hallway. More soldiers bent over their victims, crushing the life out of them, while other guests fought for their lives, dressed only in robes and nightshirts. Two soldiers had the half-elf trader trapped at the end of the hall as she struggled to fend them off, screaming for help. Another pair terrorized Markus and his family.

Sounds of combat erupted from other rooms, while others were silent as soldiers closed in for the kill. Reinhardt’s muscles tightened as he readied himself, his stomach in knots. There had to be an explanation for why those who were sworn to defend the town were now intent on destroying it. With no time to don armor, Reinhardt snatched his belt of weapons and moved for the soldiers attacking the trader.

“Stop! I order you!”

He drew his scimitar; the soldiers regarding him with a burning hate. The merchant grabbed a vase and struck a soldier over the head, but he advanced, pinning her to the floor. Reinhardt’s hands trembled. Did he dare strike

down his own comrades? He could be hanged for treason! These weren’t zombies, but something else. In his limited understanding of the mystic arts, he knew some other force was at work. He also knew it was his duty to protect life.

Reinhardt punched the first soldier with his hilt, snapping his head back, then knocking him over the banister with his shield. He landed on a table, crushing it. Reinhardt sheathed his blade and grabbed the second soldier by the collar of his lamellar, and heaved him over the rail to join his companion. He pulled the trader to her feet.

“Th-thank you… but the others —”

“Leave them to me!”

Reinhardt charged into a room, a soldier poised over a sleeping form with sword pointed down. He shouted a battle cry and ran the soldier through. The guest startled awake to find the soldier falling on top of him, spraying blood.

“You — I saw you earlier,” the guest said. It was the man in cataphract armor, wearing only a breechcloth and his mighty mustache.

“I need your help, sir. I’m Reinhardt.”

“Nikolai. My companions should be in other rooms —”

“I already helped your half-elf friend.”

The monk appeared behind Reinhardt, a full head and chest taller with a wide frame. “Can someone tell me what the devil is going on?”

“We’re trying to figure that out, Tenkai,” Nikolai said. “I’ll strap on my armor and join you.”

“I don’t need armor,” Tenkai said, “But there’s more of them downstairs. I can’t believe the garrison would turn on its own people.”

“There’s something not right with their eyes,” Reinhardt said.

Screams erupted from the common room as Reinhardt and Tenkai made their way downstairs.

Soldiers dragged Markus out the front door while his terrified family and the barmaid cowered behind the counter. Other guests lay face down in their own blood. Reinhardt had seen death on the battlefield, but innocent civilians welled vomit into his throat.

The trader slid down the railing, lute in hand. Reinhardt frowned. “What, are you going to sing the soldiers to sleep? If you can’t use a blade, you’ll just be in the way!”

She scrunched her nose. “My music will embolden you should your courage falter. As for a blade —”

A secret compartment in the instrument's neck held a stiletto.

“Carry on,” Reinhardt said. “What’s your name?”



The front door flew open, admitting another woman dressed in mystic’s robes, her head wrapped in a desert scarf. “Outside, quickly! There must be hundreds of them!”

* * *

Reinhardt and his companions burst onto the bloody streets, his pulse throbbing in his ears, his breath short and rapid. An evil mist rose from the ground, with only a sliver of a moon, as shadows on the streets grew deep and threatening.

Soldiers beyond number hauled villagers into the night. Others emerged from the gloom with startling swiftness, claws directed at Reinhardt’s band. He caught a score of them in a single glance, more of them coming down the road, villager after villager falling to their swords.

Dark, leering forms closed in on his small band from all directions. The thought that Reinhardt could be next sickened him. Nikolai caught up with him, armored head to foot and carrying a spear.

“I understand why you hesitate, friend,” the Hussar said. “But I am not so bound!” Nikolai drove his spear through a soldier’s head, withdrawing just as fast.

“What’s our plan?” Tenkai said.

Reinhardt wracked his brain for answers. He knew the soldiers could terrorize the town all night. Should they hunt them down one by one and exterminate them? Group the townspeople into a single, defensible place, or evacuate?

“We need to follow them!” the mystic said. “Look how the soldiers carry the villagers in one direction!”

“And you are…?”

“Lucia, apprentice to the wizard Groder in this very town.”

Reinhardt noted the name. His sage advice might be useful later. For now, he saw the wisdom in this strategy. It would lead them straight to the source of the attacks. “It’s decided, then. Execute!”

Just then, a flash of fire illuminated the distance. A few of the houses caught fire as the demented soldiers cast torch after torch into the dwellings. Crying families clutching their children rushed into the streets into the savages’ waiting arms.

“Another problem, leader!” Nikolai said.

“We need to keep going! Let the Lord Mayor handle this!”

Though Reinhardt was loath to let the houses burn while there could be innocents trapped inside, a matter even more pressing weighted his soul. Victory often comes at substantial cost.

Markus’ screams filled the night as a trio of soldiers held him hand and foot as he thrashed. A stout man, he was indeed hard to manage.

“There!” Reinhardt said, pointing. His blood raced through his veins like lava. The trail of carnage was easy to follow. The soldiers dragged their victims toward the base of the hill upon which sat the dark garrison.

As Reinhardt and his band approached, eerie ghost-fire flickered over the rocky desert. The eldritch lights played over the boulders and silhouetted a scene that soured Reinhardt’s mouth.

Several soldiers stood in a circle, clutching townsfolk in their wretched hands. In the middle of the ring, a hulking form which could have been the base commander stood with hands locked around the throat of a gagging villager. His eyes burned with the same malevolent glow as the soldier in Reinhardt’s room. With a moan of perverse ecstasy, the commander tore open the villager’s throat, and drank from the gushing wound like a fountain. After the bloodless corpse tumbled to the ground, a soldier offered the monster another fresh victim: Markus.

Without thinking, Reinhardt and his band made their presence known, charging into the ring and taking the soldiers by surprise. With several well-placed strikes, a handful of soldiers fell before the band, though a gloating chuckle bellowed from the monster’s gullet. “Swine! We control this village now… your souls are ours as payment for what you’ve done.”

Confusion tore through Reinhardt’s brain. What did the Nazalean soldiers do? Was this some kind of revenge? The other soldiers dropped their victims and engaged the companions. Markus and the frightened villagers broke for the illusory safety of the town.

“Strike down the leader!” Reinhardt said, but a half circle of frenzied madmen protected him. Shara slid the lute from her back, yet her trembling fingers hit all the wrong notes.

“Guard me while I chant, will you?” Lucia said. The band formed a protective circle of their own, cleaving, kicking, or stabbing soldier after soldier that dared breach their ward. Nikolai grunted in pain as a soldier’s sword found a gap in his armor, slipping red fluid down the blade.

Moments later, soft motes of silver light surrounded the band, and the soldiers recoiled. Reinhardt’s sword was then bathed in silver light, which illuminated the ground like a torch.

“Now strike!”

Reinhardt shielded past the withering soldiers as he landed a solid blow on the monster. He hissed in agony, his body collapsing in a heap. The evil light faded from his eyes. For a moment, the man seemed human, until a spinning orb of blue ghost-fire leapt out of his body and streaked toward the garrison. The other soldiers buckled to the ground, their eyes likewise dimmed.

The wind carried distant screams and sounds of battle. For a time, everything calmed. Reinhardt took stock of the situation, his small band gathering around him to rest, until creeping shadows surrounded them. Startled, the band clutched their weapons; the shadows coming within range of Reinhardt’s light.

Several armed villagers wore expressions of those who had seen too much, led by a stern-faced man in leather armor.

Lucia nudged Reinhardt. “That’s Mayor Vetzer…”

Vetzer cleared his throat. “I wish to thank you for your efforts on behalf of our town. Do you have any idea about what’s happening or why?”

“I’m just as lost as you are, sir,” Reinhardt said. “I’m from Nazalea but came to Molata on assignment. I went to bed as usual until… this —”

“My companions and I will try to move everyone into the temple so we can defend them in one place. Unfortunately, even that is under siege.”

“I can’t believe the soldiers would turn on this town,” Shara said.

“They seem to be controlled by some spiritual force,” Lucia said.

“We’ll sort this out, don’t worry,” Vetzer said. “I would speak to you people again after this is over.”

“We’ll assist you in defending the temple,” Reinhardt said. Nikolai bandaged his wound and straightened.

“Let’s go.”

* * *

Many soldiers surrounded the small temple, the villagers barricading themselves inside. Children wailed in fear as their mothers tried in desperation to comfort them. Able-bodied men and women took up clubs, farm implements, sharpened staves, heavy stones, and anything else they could find as they united in a last stand.

Hopelessness chilled Reinhardt’s bones as he took in the sight of the frightful horde, his heartbeat sluggish. The soldiers’ eyes burned with haunting blue fire as they clambered and fumbled at the doors and windows of the temple. Reinhardt and his beleaguered band along with the Mayor and his own collided with the flanks of the soldier mob.

The soldiers turned their attacks against them, landing several blows on Reinhardt and his

companions. Several of Vetzer’s men fell and were trampled, even as Tenkai waded into the melee, delivering powerful punches and kicks. Soldiers fell left and right.

Inside the temple, the horrified screams of families as their loved ones died before their eyes broke through the windows. Reinhardt thought of retreating. He wished time would speed up, or reinforcements would arrive. But he and his band were alone.

Without warning, the soldiers ceased. They lowered their weapons and stood in an uncertain stupor. They turned from the temple as fast as their limbs would carry them and fled the town for the garrison. Exhausted and wounded, Reinhardt exchanged puzzled looks with his companions, until the rosy reds of dawn bled into the sky to the east. Sunrise was only moments away.

“Soldiers of Misfortune”

After the sleepless night of terror, the morning uncovered the ghastly remains of the town. The dead and wounded littered the streets. Burnt-out husks of houses belched ash gray smoke. Reinhardt, his companions, and the villagers stole a few hours of exhausted slumber. By midday, the town was hard at work cleaning the battle sites. As they surveyed the damage, the grisly task of counting and burying the dead awaited them, as well as strengthening the town’s defenses against the soldiers’ return.

Reinhardt donned his armor and emerged from his room at the Foaming Flagon, shaking the fatigue from his muscles. As he stepped downstairs, the stable boy from last night ran up and tugged on his cloak. “Excuse me, mister, but my mom is hurt. Can you help her?”

“I’m not a priest, but I’ll do what I can. Where is she?”

The boy led Reinhardt to their home, which doubled as a tannery. Strong odors assaulted Reinhardt’s senses as he entered. A woman lay on a wood-framed bed, wounded in the leg from a sword.

Reinhardt cleaned and dressed the wound as best he could, a remorsefulness in his eyes that was his own brethren that did this to her. The woman opened her eyes and rolled her head towards him.

“Please don’t think I hate you for what your kind did last night…”

Reinhardt looked her in the eyes. “I swear on my honor as a soldier of Nazalea I will cleanse the source of this evil. The soldiers were not themselves and would never turn on their own people.”

The woman gave a faint smile and closed her eyes. “Keep an eye on her, change the dressing every couple of hours. Watch that she doesn’t take a fever. If she does, boil some desert-bloom into a tea. Can you do that for me?” The boy nodded and gave a big smile. “Good boy.”

Reinhardt heard his name from behind him. He turned to face Mayor Vetzer in the doorway, accompanied by two strapping survivors of last night, one of them bearing a family resemblance. “A word, if you please.”

Reinhardt followed Vetzer outside, where hasty efforts to put the town back together were well underway. Vetzer’s face was set in hard lines. “By my count, we lost 27 people last night, and dozens more were injured. We need to find out what caused this and put an end to it. I commend you and your companions for your valiant efforts last night, but I believe we’ll have further need of you to see us through this.”

“I’ll help in any way I can,” Reinhardt said, his heart lightening.

“And I’m Abram, the mayor’s brother. I’d like to join your band if I could.”

“Where do you think we should start?” Reinhardt said.

“Perhaps conduct some investigations and then gather allies for an assault on the garrison. We need to move quickly though - we have until nightfall before the soldiers return.”

“But the town will be more prepared this time. We won’t lose as many people.”

“I hope you’re right.”

* * *

Reinhardt and Abram passed the temple. Many of the priests were outside tending to the injured, as the inside was filled to overflowing. It had become a makeshift infirmary, people strewn on cots and tables, wherever there was room. Reinhardt made his way inside, being careful not to step on anyone.

An aged priest with a tonsure of silver hair greeted them, his face heavy with the world’s woes.

“Welcome, welcome… I hear you came to the town’s rescue last night. Many would not be here today if it weren’t for you. I am Brother Balthus.”

He took Reinhardt’s hands in his, his soothing voice washing over him, setting Reinhardt at


“We were wondering if you knew anything about the attack… what could have caused it and why.”

Balthus nodded sagely. “The garrison is ancient, built before there was a town here. These lands are desert nomad burial grounds. While the fort was being built, unexplained things happened, such as scaffolding collapsing, ropes snapping and dropping heavy loads on workers, killing them. Many reported seeing ghosts and black figures flitting through the dead of night.”

The priest led the pair into a back room, where many scrolls and texts were tucked neatly into square shelves. “These writings document many of these historical details.”

Reinhardt folded his arms, his hand under his chin. “Perhaps these spirits are angry, then. The Nazalean Army has desecrated their graves. There’s a revenge motive.”

“It would seem that way, yes.”

“How do we stop it?”

“Beyond abandoning the outpost, I cannot say.”

Reinhardt shook his head. “That’s out of the question. Nazalea would never give up its holdings.”

“But Nazalea has transgressed the Pact of Gi-Kara, and that is, the ground is a gift… one can take it, but they cannot hold it. Even the great city-states will one day be reclaimed by the land…”

“There has to be another way.”

“That I cannot tell you. Perhaps the wizard Groder will be more forthcoming.”

* * *

The wizard was one of those people who “knew just about everything,” according to the villagers. While they enjoyed his stories and magic tricks, Groder always gave the impression that he knew much more than he let on. His squat tower stood on the outskirts of town as far from the garrison as possible.

As Reinhardt and Abram strolled the path that led to his tower, a familiar face intercepted them, the mystic Lucia, her head still wrapped in a cowl.

“Hail and well again, Lucia!” Reinhardt said when she came within earshot. “Do you have business with the

“Hail and well again, Lucia!” Reinhardt said when she came within earshot. “Do you have business with the wizard as well?”

She averted her gaze, ensuring her hood concealed her. “I do.”

“I wish to thank you for your help last night. Without your magic on my sword, I fear we would not have prevailed.”

She nodded. “I’m glad I could be of help.”

They approached the stone steps to the tower. The wooden double doors were braced in green bronze and emblazoned with facing golden serpents with coiling tails. Lucia pushed against them and they moaned open.

A pleasant sitting room appeared on the other side, fragrant with vanilla and jasmine herbs, with two staircases hugging the wall. Reinhardt thought they mirrored the serpent motif on the doors.

A red-robed mage stood on the upper level, peering into a crystal ball, a complete library surrounding him. Lucia ascended the staircase.


He raised his thin black eyebrows, a golden skull cap adorning his head. “Ah.. My apprentice. It lifts the heart that you survived the night.”

“If not for this man here, I might not have.”

She gestured toward Reinhardt, who waited with Abram in the foyer. Reinhardt could only deliver a pained look.

“You have my gratitude, sir, and is that not the mayor’s brother? Come, come.”

Reinhardt and Abram followed Lucia to the second level. “We were wondering if you could tell us what’s going on,” she said.

Groder wrung his hands, the joints red and swollen. “I’ve been scrying most of the night and morning. I can tell you, the soldiers have come under some kind of powerful possession.”

Reinhardt stepped out in front. “I heard from Brother Balthus the garrison was built atop a desert nomad burial ground, and the spirits may take revenge. We hoped you had some magic that would lay them to rest.”

The wizard paused, his brows knitting together in a deep frown. “I do, but it’s a very dangerous sort. If what you say is true, the spirits are justified in their vengeance, the Nazalean Army having desecrated their graves. You will, therefore, need powerful magic to suppress them.”

“Such as from the Book of Dread…” Lucia said, her tone dark.

Groder nodded. “But such magic is far beyond you. I must enchant a crystal to seal the spirits within the land.”

“How long will that take?” Abram said.

“By nightfall, I should be finished.”

“That’s when the soldiers may return…” Reinhardt said, rubbing his arms as though chilled.

“In the meantime, we should regather our allies and prepare for an assault on the garrison,” Abram said.

“I can assist you with the crystal, Master.”

“Very well. Return at dusk.”

Reinhardt felt the throb of his heartbeat, his mouth dry. He offered the flash of a smile that didn’t reach his eyes, his mind tallying everything that could go wrong. As he left the tower with Abram, his stomach knotted, his gaze vacant as the town sprawled before him.

“You seem distracted,” Abram said, pulling Reinhardt from his thoughts.

“Our options are few. What is your take on the situation?”

“We need as many allies as possible to multiply our firepower. If we find ourselves alone, we’re in trouble.”

“The Crystal Skull”

Reds, violets, and blues slashed the evening sky, Reinhardt standing in the inn’s common room, his companions from last night gathered around him, along with some fresh faces. The fire burnt low, a pall of dread hanging over the room.

Reinhardt avoided eye contact with anyone in particular, his stomach roiling. He hadn’t eaten; he barely slept, his chest weighted at having to lead those before him to their deaths.

Besides Abram, Nikolai the Hussar, Tenkai, and Shara, there was Ulrich, the armorer’s apprentice, who claimed to be the best fighter in town. Everyone knew his master, the blacksmith, was good in a fight, but he remained behind in case Ulrich should fall.

Gerda was the mayor’s daughter, a commanding woman who was used to being in charge. She led much of the clean-up work around town. When word of Reinhardt’s helping the wounded tanner reached her ears, she became convinced that Reinhardt had the town’s best interests at heart. Pouches of spell components hung from her belt as he shifted her weight with arms crossed.

Friar Tomas served at the temple, and joined upon recommendation of Brother Balthus, totaling Reinhardt and his companions to eight.

Shara stood, trouble etched upon her face. “Apologies, Reinhardt, but I feel I cannot accompany you. I was too frightened last night and couldn’t play a song that would embolden you.”

Understanding filled Reinhardt’s eyes. “Fear not, Shara. Our numbers shall swell to nine once we bring Lucia. You’ll have plenty of support.”

She gave a tentative nod and sat. Reinhardt straightened, casting his gaze upon the crowd, all eyes upon him. Markus and the barmaid stood behind the counter with rapt attention.

“I’m not good at speeches, so here’s the plan: we’re going to Groder’s tower to retrieve a magic crystal. Then —”

“They’re here! The soldiers have returned!”

The shout came from outside.

“Change of plan: defend yourselves!” Reinhardt said. “We make for the wizard’s tower!”

Every able-bodied fighter grabbed whatever weapon they could and joined Reinhardt in the streets. The villagers were prepared with makeshift barricades, behind which they lobbed spears, rocks, and fired arrows. Reinhardt’s band raced for Groder’s tower, fending off soldiers as they went. He even recognized soldiers from last night who were felled, yet were back in combat.

Cries of terror pierced the night, which by now were too familiar.

Groder waited at the tower entrance, Lucia standing next to him. From his robes he produced a skull of pure crystal, a blue fire dancing in its hollow sockets.

“I fear I am partly to blame for this incident… this skull should never have been removed from the prison.”

“Prison?” Reinhardt said.

“The garrison was once a torture-prison, built for those the powerful wanted forgotten. Those sent there died horrible deaths, their blood crying out for vengeance. Combined with the ancestral spirits of the burial grounds, a wellspring of evil was created.

“This skull was crafted by a wizard who co-founded the town of Molata, who placed it within the prison to seal the spirits. Years later, the prison was converted into a garrison by the General of Nazalea to expand its interests.

“One day Commander Brandt brought the skull to me for study, not knowing what it was. He unwittingly unleashed something that should have remained buried. All those deaths… on my conscience…”

“You couldn’t have known this would happen, Groder,” Reinhardt said. “But you have the chance to redeem yourself.”

Groder handed Reinhardt the skull. “It must be placed in the depths of the prison, where the source of the evil resides.”

Nikolai rolled his eyes. “Of course it has to be in the depths. No one places sources of evil at the entrance!”

Shara smacked him.

“Find the circle of sigils, and place the skull in the center, but be warned… an enchantment protects it…” Groder said.

* * *

One soldier after another fell to Reinhardt’s blade, his shield raised against the spraying blood. His skin crawled like a thousand beetles; he felt unclean. As dusk bled into night, Reinhardt and his companions found themselves at the base of the hill, the dark outline of the garrison like a boil on flesh. With torches against the darkness, their ring of light uncovered a well-muscled man in Nazalean armor, who grimaced at Reinhardt’s approach, his mouth covered in gore.

“Who goes there?” Reinhardt said, pointing his sword. The man scrabbled away into the night, loping on all fours.

“I think that was the base commander, Brandt, from last night,” Lucia said.

Shara shivered. “He gives me the creeps.”

They doused their torches and trod up the hill, ducking behind boulders, keeping out of sight of the soldiers milling around. Reinhardt and his band scaled the hill, many companions stumbling over rocks in the dark.

At length they stood before the garrison as it loomed over them: high walls with turrets at the corners, ringed with crenelations as the parapets between them. Oily clouds streaked a starless sky, their frayed ends licking the moon.

The courtyard was choked with debris, discarded weapons, and thorny plants. The air became chilly and damp, an acrid odor stinging Reinhardt’s nostrils. He knew opening the massive doors ahead of them might be the last threshold they crossed. The heavy oak was fitted with gnarled iron, devoid of any aesthetic sensibility.

Deep grooves marred the wood - the slashing of swords. The severe faces of two desert jinns held iron rings in their fanged mouths, as black mud oozed between cracks in the stone walls.

Ulrich and Abram seized the rings and pulled the creaking doors open with a painful groan. Reinhardt and the others took cautious steps in between them, the darkness devouring them. He handed the crystal skull to Lucia for safekeeping, its beady eyes shedding dim light into the proceeding hallway.

Tomas and Gerda struck lights of their own, revealing a ruin far older than Reinhardt thought. The corners of the low ceiling were fouled with cob-webs, the floor cracked and uneven. A bitter tang filled Reinhardt’s mouth. Near the end of the hallway above an arched doorway hung an unusual sign or seal, gleaming in the weak light.

“Gerda and Lucia, can you make sense of that symbol?” Reinhardt said, pointing with his sword.

“Leave it to me — my knowledge of the arcane is second only to Groder,” Gerda said, lifting her chest. She took several steps forward, only for the door to slam behind them. Hissing laughter filled the corridor.

“The spirits know we’re here…” Tomas said.

“Shh! Listen!” Reinhardt said, raising a hand. “Hold, Gerda!”

A deathly silence enveloped them, save for a distant clinking of chain mail hauberks. The band dared to breathe.

After a few moments of uncomfortable quiet, Reinhardt motioning them to continue. Gerda returned to the party’s safety as they made their way towards the symbol. It resembled the jinn motif seen on the front doors.

The cramped passage pressed in on them with the weight of a mountain, blocking out their breath. Gerda stepped forward and put a hand to her chin, too late as an arc of lightning struck her in the chest and forked to the others. Cries of agony filled the passage as everyone was thrown to the floor.

Lucia clutched the skull to her chest, preventing it from shattering, yet everyone’s torches extinguished. The darkness was total. All around, the scraping of rusty chain mail grew closer.

The floor was unnaturally cold, Reinhardt groaning to regain his feet through a haze of pain. A low hissing filled the passage, followed by the scent of rotten grain and old vinegar. Tomas screamed beside Reinhardt, his cries fading away into the darkness. Had something grabbed him? Shara shrieked and grabbed Reinhardt’s cloak.

“Somebody do something! We can’t lose our only priest!”

“The skull!” Abram said. The sturdy man-at-arms wrenched it from Lucia’s grasp and directed its cone-shaped light into the hallway, exposing the rancid appearance of a pair of soldiers, their faces brown and leathery.

Pinpoints of blue light bore through Reinhardt’s own, raking his soul.

Ulrich broke for the entrance. “I — I don’t want to die!”


When he reached the doors, his ineffectual pounding echoed through the hall.

“Ulrich! Get back here!”

A soldier’s gut invited Reinhardt’s sword, yet he was too far away to defend Ulrich. Death came from behind, an arrow finding Ulrich’s back.

Nikolai shouldered past Reinhardt and thrust his spear through a soldier’s chest, only to be replaced by a second.

Reinhardt deflected the attack intended for Nikolai and lopped off the soldier’s head. Tomas’ screams disappeared around a corner, then nothing. Tenkai started after him.

“No, Tenkai, stay within the light! They want us to divide our forces!” Reinhardt said. A worried look appeared on the monk’s face, as though something told him Reinhardt viewed the band as expendable. He eyed Reinhardt shrewdly before taking an arrow in the shoulder.

Tenkai cursed. Didn’t a monk have heightened awareness to block such a thing? Another arrow thudded into Reinhardt’s shield as he swung it into position. Abram swiveled the skull to shine on a pair of distant archers coming down stone steps, knocking arrows and loosing. Nikolai took an arrow in the thigh and howled.

“Get that light out of my face! It’s ruining my infra-vision!” Shara said. The soldiers’ footfalls outlined a warm pattern on the floor in the red spectrum of light. Trembling, she unslung the lute from her back. Taking a calm breath, she closed her eyes and strummed a few chords. With renewed vigor, Nikolai charged forward uttering a Hussar battle-cry as he drove his spear through an archer.

A bolt of magical energy streaked toward the second, Gerda regaining her composure. Struck full in the chest, the archer flew back against the wall. “And stay down!”

The threats eliminated, Reinhardt surveyed his companions’ damage. “Let’s keep going. We have to find the underground prison and the circle of sigils.”

Nikolai groaned and staggered towards them, pulling the shaft from his leg. He reached for a field dressing and bandaged the wound.

“Give me the skull!” Lucia said, reaching for Abram. The ghost-fire light sputtered in all directions, sending hectic shadows across every surface.

He shot her a look. “Why, do you know where we’re going?”

“I would if you gave it to me!” She snatched it from him and shut her eyes, a look of deep concentration behind her cowl. “I… I can see the sigil chamber! It’s through these doors!” She pointed.

The light of the skull revealed multiple passages leading away from their position, with several doors along the walls. The place was like a maze, but Reinhardt suspected Lucia could lead them through it. An odd familiarity about her seeped through his blood.

Lucia led them under the sealed archway into a wide chamber littered with armor, helmets, and broken furniture.

Muffled cries reached their ears, as though someone was buried alive behind a wall. Water dripping from the ceiling splashed cold on their foreheads, the fort’s musty odor growing stronger as they neared a pair of imposing doors at the base of a staircase.

* * *

The door groaned wide like the mouth of an open grave, a layer of grime coating the stone dressings.

Swallowing was painful as Reinhardt led his band one by one through the archway, his pulse beating in his ears. His tightening grip on his sword caused the leather bands to creak.

Inside, the walls were lined with deep niches extending into the gloom. The floor was tiled with a glittering mosaic of four-armed jinns wielding scimitars locked in eternal struggle. Groined vaults supported a higher ceiling than elsewhere in the garrison, painted with morbid frescoes of jinns devouring human infants, with looks so grotesque Reinhardt couldn’t believe it was merely artwork.

The niches contained statues of horrifying creatures with fanged mouths and vicious horns, while at the end of the hall two dark, armor-clad warriors guarded a door.

“Don’t step on the tiles,” Lucia said. Reinhardt’s band skirted the outside of the room until they reached the warriors at the far end. They stood motionless, their hands grasping giant swords.

Reinhardt exhaled in relief that the suits were only decoration. He reached for the iron ring on the door handle.

“Wait! It may be trapped,” Shara said.

Click. The door clanked into its lock.

Reinhardt’s mouth formed an O as he glanced at his companions. Lucia shone the light in the direction they came from. The clattering of tiny insect legs filled the room, as the panel Reinhardt stepped on triggered the release of thousands of beetles, dropping in thick strands from the statues’ mouths.


Shara backed up against the door.

“Can you pick the lock?” Reinhardt said. The beetles streamed toward them like an undulating black carpet, their glossy shells rolling over one another, too lightweight to trigger the tiles. There were too many of them!

“I can’t!”


“Out of my way!”

The towering monk gave a mighty kick against the door, which barely dented it. He tried over and over, the wood splintering. Gerda cast spells in vain, singing several beetles to a crisp only to have them replaced.

Abram stomped on the beetles, his boots striking the forbidden tiles. Electricity fried him and the beetles alike, only for hundreds more to swarm over him, his body engulfed in their mass. Shara shrieked and covered her eyes. With one last kick, the door gave way. Tenkai stood in the frame.


The others shoved past him, filling the cramped hallway on the other side. The beetles swarmed over Tenkai, filling his mouth and obscuring his face and arms, and before Reinhardt could stop him, he yanked the door shut.

“No! Tenkai! Abram!”

Reinhardt pounded on the door, Nikolai pulling him back.

“You can do nothing for them, leader! We must keep going!”

Shara wept, her shoulders heaving.

A narrow, spiral staircase descended like a wound serpent deeper into the earth.

* * *

Reinhardt led them single file to a dank chamber at the bottom, the skull casting shadows in velvet streaks from the granite pillars that supported the ceiling. The purpose of this room was clear — torture implements hung from the walls, most of them rusted beyond use. Several of the chamber’s skeletal victims lay trapped in their chains, or in the broken devices that killed them.

A weak cough drifted through the dungeon. “Help me…”

Reinhardt directed the light to a roughly handled villager locked in a cell with corroded bars, the band crossing to him.

“How did you get in here?”

“I was captured by the soldiers… I just want to go home.” Gerda blasted the lock with her wand and the door whined open. “Oh, thank you! But be wary of the base commander Brandt. He was saving me to feed… he wants to become a vampire!”

“Is there another way out? You can’t go back the way we came.”

“I think so. Just past these rooms there’s a staircase.”

“Then come with us,” Reinhardt said.

Lucia concentrated on the skull. “The circle is in a room just beyond these cells… Once we restore the skull, then we can help this man out…”

With no time to argue, Reinhardt nodded and followed the light into the next area. It had high, vaulted ceilings of polished black granite. Torches on the walls burned with smokeless blue flames, casting evil shadows throughout the room. The band’s breath lingered in the air, Reinhardt and Shara shivering.

A raised dais in the center was carved in horrible bas-reliefs, surrounded by a circle of glowing runes etched into the floor.

“There!” Reinhardt said.

“But those runes are a protective circle,” Lucia said. “Only those of chaotic bent may cross them.”

“Let me try,” Shara said. Lucia handed her the skull.

“I think not!” came a cavernous voice from a door on the other side. Brandt entered, a predatory grin on his pitted face, his Nazalean armor splattered with violence. Everyone drew their weapons.

“Stand down, Commander,” Reinhardt said. “You’re being controlled by evil spirits!”

Brandt laughed. “Evil? No, no, no… it is Nazalea who is evil, desecrating the graves of the desert nomads. But these spirits have promised me power to set things aright.”

“What, by becoming a vampire? Don’t be a fool.”

Brandt’s eyes set ablaze with blue flame. “You are the fools for not knowing the depths of Nazalea’s corruption! Is it any wonder the princess Thalia has been divorced from its shores?”

Reinhardt grit his teeth. “What are you talking about!?”

The runes on the floor erupted in pillars of light, Brandt directing brilliant motes to fling Lucia against the wall.

Her cowl uncovered her head, her face wreathed in blond hair.

“Lucia… T—Thalia!?” Reinhardt’s face grew wide with shock. The disguised princess had been traveling with him the entire time!

Brandt waved his hands in arcane casting patterns, sending the ring of light outward to envelop Reinhardt and the others. He stifled painful groans as the Order-attuned energy brought him and Gerda to their knees.

The villager fell with a cry, his body stilled. Nikolai sprinted through the magic unharmed, thrusting his spear at Brandt.

“Now, Shara!” Reinhardt said.

Shara stepped into the circle and placed the skull on the dais. A curtain of light surrounded her, an unearthly wail escaping Brandt’s lips. He slashed Nikolai’s throat with black fingernails and made for the crystal, his eyes erupting with volcanic hate.

“Oh no you don’t!”

Shara sprung the stiletto from her lute as Brandt’s bloody hands clasped the skull and drove it into his neck.

Blood spurted across the runes, Brandt’s body tumbling to the floor. A blue mist dispersed in a sepulchral sigh from his nose and mouth.

The threat to Molata was over.

* * *

Reinhardt rode his camel out of town for Nazalea, Thalia behind him in the saddle. He lingered a moment, casting one last gaze over his shoulder at Molata, wondering if the cost of victory was too high.