The stench of death grew thicker as the curtains parted. A figure, robed and hooded in tatters of brown and gray cloth, stepped down from the mold-ridden mattress and bedclothes. The hood swiveled as it took in the intruders, and each of the girls shivered as the cold glare washed over them. Lord Justin’s sword rattled in his grip, though he did not lower the blade.
“More intruders?” The voice was barely more than a dry hiss of air through a long-dead throat, but the words coalesced in the fetid air, clearly audible nonetheless. “Cunning enough to avoid the tests of the unworthy. Why do you disturb the sanctity of this place, and awaken me from my long slumber?”
“You killed them,” Katarin said, still crouched beside the bodies.
“They proved… unworthy,” the rag-clad figure rasped. “I ask again, why do you disturb the sanctity of this place?”
“W-we found papers. Pages, that described a temple that holds a relic of one of our greatest heroes,” Petra said. “Men would have killed to learn of this place, and we want to know why.”
“And who are you, who disturb my rest?”
“The Champions of Threshold,” Brynne said, finally finding her tongue.
“We are the Company of the Maidens,” Katarin said, louder than the other girl.
Jasna sighed. “If I only had a kopec for every time I’ve told you: We are the Handmaidens of Petra.”
The hooded head stirred, and the figure bent slightly. “Threshold? Another to mention that place…”
“You… might know the place as ‘Lugsid,’ across the lake,” Petra chimed in.
The ragged hood bobbed. “Yes… yes, Lugsid is known to me. It seems that many years have passed since I took to my slumber.”
“Quite a few,” Brynne said, taking shallow breaths.
The voice wheezed and rattled. It might have been a chuckle. “You are much more courteous than those others.”
“The Matron encourages us to always speak politely to our elders,” Jasna said. “And… you… definitely qualify.”
“They were discourteous?” Katarin asked. “That is why you killed them?”
“They proved unworthy,” the hooded figure repeated.
“Unworthy? Of what?” Katarin was on her feet, hands on her hips.
“They were not worthy of approaching the sacred relic.”
“Those men were knights,” Justin said. “Sworn to the service of the Church of Karameikos.”
“Karameikos? Yes, that is the name from which they thought to draw their power. It did them little good.” The hood leaned closer to the young man, and the tip of his sword twitched, shaking harder.
“You have much the same smell about you,” the figure rasped. “Tell me, boy, do you serve this ‘Karameikos’ as well?”
The young man straightened his back, lifting his chin. “Of course I do. I am a loyal subject of the Grand Duke. And as a court lord, I attend services of the church, in order that I should set a good example for my inferiors.” He glanced towards the girls, then wrenched his eyes front as the figure’s hands began to rise.
“You do not follow the faith of the tribes of Traladara, then?”
“That pack of superstitions? Certainly not!”
The figure closed one gauntlet over the other, sliding the rusty metal-lined glove from a terribly emaciated hand. The knuckles were swollen and gnarled, the nails overly long, though ragged and blackened.
“You dare to speak of the memory of the Three in such a manner? You will be punished!” The thing lunged at the young man, hand outstretched.
Brynne was faster, lashing out with her staff, bringing it down across the back of the withered hand.
“You dare to--”
Brynne rapped the figure’s hand again. “I dare,” she said. “I think we’ve seen the handiwork of your touch. You won’t be laying hands on our Stableboy.”
“You, too, now?” Justin asked, his voice cracking.
“He does not believe.” The creature’s breath rattled faster. “He is not fully a son of Traladara. His blood is tainted.”
“So you take the lives of those whose blood is not pure?” Petra asked. She stepped in front of the young man, placing herself between him and the raggedly-hooded figure, shaking Brynne’s hand from her shoulder when the other girl tried to restrain her.
“That was a classroom back there,” Petra said, pointing towards the door through which they’d come. “Were you not a teacher here?”
Breath wheezed, in what might have been a sigh. “I remember giving instruction, yes. Those memories are very dim...”
Jasna cleared her throat. “And speaking of dim, it’s not the stableboy’s fault that he is ignorant of the Song of Halav.”
“And who are you to decide if he is worthy?” Petra thrust her chin up at the shadowed figure.
“Yes, what is your measure of worthiness?” Katarin asked.
“Let the tests of the Halls of Knowledge decide,” the thing rasped. “His demise by my hands would have at least been painless. And would have spared the rest of you from sharing in his fate.” It slid the gauntlet back over its hand. “Now go, and let me return to my rest.”