Sunday, August 30, 2020

At the Seraphic Gate


Deep within the Nachtmahr Mountains, Sable, Devanya, Khamad, and Casimir encountered the inhuman minions that Malak had positioned to keep his ritual of apotheosis from being interrupted. Formerly men and women belonging to the army of the Ustalecht Empire, these minions had been transformed through foul sorcery into nightmarish demons crafted from human flesh fused with infernal black iron. 

Through stealthy avoidance, cunning distractions, and unrelenting violence the four were able to gain precious ground as they made their way toward Malak and the seraphic gate.

At last, they beheld their quarry and the fiery gate secreted within a ghastly cavern festooned with carved gargoyles and fresh occult markings. Malak gestured toward the foursome and snarled "Stop them at all costs! All I need is a few minutes more and my great undertaking will be complete!" His remaining minions snarled and began to advance. Malak rushed forward and disappeared into the seraphic gate.

"We'll hold these demons at bay, you two stop him," Casimir yelled over the horrific dim emanating from the seraphic gate. He and Sable drew their swords and ran to meet their approaching foes.

Devanya and Khamad skirted the fray and plunged into the seraphic gate.

And were promptly separated.

Devanya found herself wandering a road paved in ancient stone that wound up a mountainside. At the mountain's summit was a grand walled city. She had never beheld this city before, but she recognized it from her religious training as Vatra Solis, the fabled city of the gods--a city that had remained sealed shut ever since the gods' disappearance in times of legend.

Khamad found himself steps behind Malak, his brother. His brother was running up a different path that led to a tower surrounded by a lightning-hurling tempest. He charged after Malak. Malak turned, his eyes empty of brotherly affection.

They fought, spell versus spell. The clash between brothers ended with Khamad impaled on a sword conjured from shadow. 

"I really thought I'd be the one to kill you," Khamad said as he closed his eyes one final time. Malak ran on to the tower's door. A key glittered in his hand. He fitted it to the lock and began to turn it.

Devanya stood at the gate of Vatra Solis. A key glittered in the lock the kept the walled city shut fast. She reached her hand out and turned the key.

Two keys, turning. Devanya was faster; she opened the gates of Vatra Solis before Malak could unlock the tower's door.

Back within the cavern, Sable and Casimir put up a desperate fight. Casimir was felled by fangs and claws, his lifeblood running out on the cold stone of the Nachtmahr Mountains.

Devanya's mind burned. She could hear voices, voices that belonged to divine beings, voices that nearly drove her mad. Her head was swimming with possibilities she dared not dream of. And then, an explosion of light. She found herself stumbling back toward the seraphic gate. In the distance, she saw a tower she had not noticed previously crumble into ash.

Malak was first to return through the seraphic gate. When he emerged into the cavern he saw that all of his minions lay dead. One of his pursuers was also dead. But the other, the blonde woman with the eye patch, was waiting for him. Sable removed her eye patch, letting Malak see the horrible wound he had inflicted on her.

"Remember me? I owe you one." Sable drove her rapier through Malak's eye, killing him instantly. 

Devanya emerged from the seraphic gate and fell to her knees. Sable cradled her, but saw no sign of injury. Devanya's eyes fluttered open.

"The gods have returned. I've let them loose on the world again," she said.

Her eyes fluttered close.

* * *

Friday, August 28, 2020

Best of the First Half of 2020

Best of the First Half of 2020

Jack and Kate look at what they've read and watched in the first half of 2020 and make some recommendations in the world of books and beyond. The rules of engagement are simple: the hosts each choose one movie, album, TV show, book and "wild card" from any category that was the best experience of its kind encountered during the first half of the year.

Ranging from hideous cinematic abjection to music for The Toughest Of The Goth Kids to various ghosts that may or may not require busting, your hosts meander through the high-brow, the low-brow, and everything in between.

Tuesday, August 25, 2020

The Sanctus Requiem

The Sanctus Requiem
A faction in Krevborna

The Sanctus Requiem are a group of vampire hunters who function as a militaristic arm of the Church of Sacred Blood. Its goal is the destruction of Lamashtu, the persecution of the undead, and the execution of Queen Alcesta von Karlok. The Sanctus Requiem’s symbol is a wheel with many spokes that represents the eternal movement of justice. It may also represent the breaking wheel they use to torture those who willingly serve the undead. The Sanctus Requiem currently seeks knowledge of hidden ways into Castle Siebenhurst so they might plan a direct assault on the realm held in thrall by Queen Alcesta von Karlok. 
    • Motto. “To bring final death to the undead is a righteous duty.”
    • Belief. The undead are atrocities that must be destroyed.
    • Goal. Assassinate Queen Alcesta von Karlok.
    • Quest. Uncover a hidden entrance into Castle Siebenhurst so that the Queen may be made vulnerable.

Monday, August 24, 2020

The Silent Forest

The Silent Forest
A location in Krevborna

The Silent Forest is a deep woods of blackened, misshapen trees whose limbs resemble clawed, skeletal appendages. Unexplained voices emerge from deep within the forest, followed by long periods of absolute, ominous silence. Old burial grounds—their headstones cracked and the names upon them effaced by time and the depredations of nature—are slowly consumed by the green hell of the Silent Forest. 

Entering the Silent Forest is forbidden by the Church. The Silent Forest suffers from a horrible curse; when night falls, the malign creatures within the woods grow stronger, faster, and more ravenous. The fog-shrouded burial grounds within the vast and disorienting Silent Forest are haunted by specters and serpentine cultists. Pagan tribes also live within the Silent Forest; each tribe is named for its totem animal—such as the Wolf, Raven, and Owl tribes. Each tribe maintains a crumbling tower of black stone within the Silent Forest. These towers were once the abode of witch queens and kings who now exist only as unliving shadows.

Thursday, August 20, 2020

Forgive Me Father, Morgana Effect, Raise Your Banner

A few howls of the damned to close out the week:

Cradle of Filth, "Forgive Me Father (I Have Sinned)"

Theatres des Vampires, "Morgana Effect"

Within Temptation, "Raise Your Banner"

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

The House von Karlok

The House von Karlok
A faction in Krevborna

House von Karlok is the royal bloodline of Lamashtu’s ruler, Queen Alcesta von Karlok. The von Karlok family views themselves as the apex of nobility and as exemplars of aristocratic superiority. Their manners are courtly, their tastes refined, and they pride themselves on their honorable family name. Despite their obsession with decorum, each vampire member of House von Karlok is cursed with a simmering red rage that lurks just below their archly composed exterior. The smallest perceived slight can send a vampire of House von Karlok into a violent frenzy.
    • Motto. “Ours is the most noble house.”
    • Belief. All other nobles families should know their place beneath us.
    • Goal. Bring the entirety of Krevborna under the rule of House von Karlok.
    • Quest. Expose a spy within the court at Siebenhurst.

Monday, August 17, 2020

In Thrall to the Dragon of Regicide

Photo by Clint Bustrillos
Sable, Casimir, Khamad and Devanya awaited the return of one of the Knights of Lilith so they could learn the results of the interrogation of the Skarnstein plotters and be on their way in pursuit of Malak. The last person they expected to step through the door and address them was Queen Alcesta von Karlok herself.

Following Sable's lead, the rest of the party made a show of alternating between awkward curtsies, bowing, averting their eyes, and taking a knee. Alcesta laughed at them and bid them take their seats.

Alcesta looked scarcely older than an adolescent; her red hair and gown were arranged hastily, as if she had no care for her appearance...or, perhaps more accurately, as if she knew that no one would dare comment on her appearance. It was a provocation to mutiny. Despite her apparent youth, she was surrounded an aura of death that dropped the temperature within the chamber.

She took a seat and propped her feet up carelessly. "At ease, gentlemen and ladies," she said. "The man you seek, this Malak," she gestured dismissively, "struck a deal with the Skarnstein traitors. They have told him the location of the thing he seeks and have given him a key to unlock it. I will tell you what it is and where to find it...and thereby locate your quarry, with a little luck."

"It's a weapon he's after, isn't it?" Khamad asked.

"In a manner of speaking. He's not after anything so tangible as a sword or a pike. What he seeks is godhood. He wants to be the weapon."

Stunned silence.

Alcesta continued: "He is in search of something called a seraphic gate. If he finds it, and breaches the barrier between this world and the plane of the godhead, he will be transformed into a vessel of divine power. He will still be something less than a fledgling god, but a god nonetheless. I'm going to tell you of a shortcut through the Nachtmahr Mountains, so you can make up for lost time and, perhaps, stop him."

"But why would you care?" Devanya blurted.

The Queen smiled, revealing the sharpest incisors any of the group had ever seen. "Well now, I can't have anyone becoming more powerful than I am, can I?"

Her point was taken.

Later, in the mountains, fell creatures were fought and slain, biting winds were endured, and paths were obscured and found again. The route provided by Queen Alcesta proved efficacious. However, she neglected to inform the adventures that her shortcut would put them down in the caves of an ancient dragon named Thronzeker.

They never really saw the entirety of the beast. Its scales were a dull blood red, but shadows clung to its immense bulk, hiding it from view. However, the shadows were no protection from the horrid fear the creature instilled in them. Each was assailed by visions of bloodshed and fire.

Running from Thronzeker provided futile. It was everywhere they turned in the caves winding their way underneath the mountains. Worse, Thronzeker was content to toy with them. A half-hearted slash of a claw here, a mostly benign bite there, until they were at last exhausted and cornered.

Their lives could be there own, it said without speaking, if they would seek the heir to the throne of Krevborna and slay her. A simple task to be undertaken, surely. In return, they could pursue the ends that had brought them to the Nachtmahr Mountains before turning their eyes to Thronzeker's humble task.

They agreed, seeing no other way. And then, like shadows receding with the coming of dawn, the dragon was gone

* * *

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

The Scarabasca

The Scarabasca
A faction in Krevborna

The Scarabasca is a criminal organization that operates in the cities and towns of Krevborna. It is particularly active in Chancel and Piskaro. Though the Scarabasca’s members do plan and execute mundane crimes such as heists and robberies, their true specialties are dealing in alchemically enhanced intoxicants and assassination via summoned demons. 
    • Motto. “The shadows sing the song of gold and silver.”
    • Belief. The criminal underworld can wield as much power as the Church or secular authority.
    • Goal. Assimilate or destroy rival criminal organizations.
    • Quest. Steal the formula for a new form of magical intoxicant.

Monday, August 10, 2020

The Nachtmahr Mountains

The Nachtmahr Mountains
A location in Krevborna

The Nachtmahr Mountains are immense, fang-like mountains of terrifying aspect prone to sudden and unrelenting thunderstorms amid their peaks. Despite their danger, the Nachtmahr Mountains are sublimely beautiful. Though they are desolate and perilous, they are also home to rugged tribes of barbarians descended from immigrants originally hailing from the Skalloche Isles. 

The Malcovat, a school of black magic, is hidden within the Nachtmahr Mountains. Like vermin, occult practitioners seek places of darkness such as the Malcovat to surreptitiously learn forbidden magic. Students at the Malcovat are taught by warlocks and wizards who have extensively studied arcane magic; some classes at the Malcovat are presided over by devils summoned from the Nine Hells to provide instruction in the darkest arts of magic. Out of every cohort, the student who advances the least in their studies is forfeit to the school’s diabolic masters; their soul is taken as hell’s due. It is said that the sinister sound of an unseen bell can be heard tolling near the entrance to the Malcovat.

Thursday, August 6, 2020

The Beast Awakens, The Little Stranger, The Blood of Roses, and More

Things that brought me delight in July, 2020:

Joseph Delaney,
Aberrations: The Beast Awakens
I loved Joseph Delaney's Last Apprentice series. The Beast Awakens, the first book in the Aberrations series is strong stuff. The set-up is that an expanding, mutating patch of unfathomable darkness has settled over part of Lancaster; it's a bit like Annihilation in that the darkness, known as the Shole, is confounding and full of monsters. Crafty, the book's protagonist, is a kid assigned to work as a "gate grub"; his Fey blood allows him to enter the Shole through portals to do jobs for adults who monitor his progress from a safe remove. There's a bit of a Harry, Dumbledore, Snape triangle in the relationship between Crafty, the head gate mancer, and a villainous gate mancer nicknamed Viper. However, instead of just shaking their fists at the Snape analog, the kids are actively planning on murdering him. The Beast Awakens gets dark. Another episode enters the intersection of folk horror and body horror; the kids have to dart into the darkness to attempt to recover the duke's son, but when they find him, they discover that his lower body has been transformed into roots that extend into a hellish bog. They have to dig him up like a mandrake while he screams in agony. But perhaps the most horrifying element of the novel is the callous disregard the adult gate mancers have for the children employed as gate grubs. To the gate mancers, the grubs are simply expendable tools.

The Little Stranger
I love Sarah Waters's novel The Little Stranger. To my mind, it's one of the best haunted house stories of all time. However, there's never a guarantee that a movie adaptation of a beloved novel will hit the right notes. I can happily report that the film version of The Little Stranger is actually very good. The novel is not a short, compact read, so obviously some things needed to be truncated to keep to a reasonable run time, but all the important elements of the plot and characterization made it into the final cut. After watching the film, I looked at the reviews of it and was somewhat surprised by them. I probably shouldn't have been. The Little Stranger is not really a horror movie or even a conventional ghost story, so it makes sense that an audience more used to Paranormal Activity part 8 didn't really get what the story is doing.

Tanith Lee,
The Blood of Roses, Volume I: Mechail, Anillia
Previously only available in the UK, Immanion Press has done the holy work of publishing Tanith Lee's The Blood of Roses as a two volume set for a wider audience. Even though I've only read the first volume, I feel confident in gesturing toward The Blood of Roses as further proof that no one has mastered Gothic fantasy as well as Tanith Lee. A young prince is accosted in his crib by a black moth that resembles Christus impaled upon the sacred tree; he grows up crooked and broken, only to be refashioned by a fate beyond life and death. Things spirals out from there--a chaos of desire and confusion that always collapses into a neat web of a supremely ordered plan. Anjelen, a magister of the church and Knight of God, sits at the center. The mother, a witch and far more besdies, rises against the tide. Another girl, born from the pursuit of the black moth, defies the flames of damnation to become something else entirely. Faith, and blood, and vampires.

Sasha Graham and Abigail Larson,
Dark Wood Tarot
As soon as it was announced that Abigail Larson had done the art for a deck of tarot cards, I knew I'd be adding them to my collection. And what a set this is! Not only are the major and minor arcana all illustrated with original art by Abigail Larson in her easily recognizable Gothic Fairy Tale style, but the set includes a deluxe over-sized box and a hefty illustrated guide written by Sasha Graham. The illustrated guide is great; it provides details on the symbolic meanings of the cards and different spreads. It also provides a larger reproduction of the art from each of the tarot cards, which is helpful as the cards themselves are on the small side and the art really deserves to be seen in the larger format.

Empire of Dark Salvation, Gothic Electronic Anthems, The Other Side, Utopia
Gothminister is a band with a limited trajectory of evolution. Their earliest efforts are stomping Gothic industrial. Think Rob Zombie, but for the Vampire Lestat crowd. As their albums progress, heavy guitars come to the fore. Think Rammstein, but for the Vampire Lestat crowd. However, the basic formula remains the same--this is big, silly, Halloween music. The name encapsulates the concept nicely: Gothminister is a ridiculous, theatrical appellation, but it's not without its appeal. Darkness as anthem, you might say. 

Gordon Rennie, Emma Beeby, Tiernan Trevallion, Jim Campbell,
Robbie Burns: Witch Hunter
The premise behind Robbie Burns: Witch Hunter is simple enough: what if, aside from his poetical and womanizing ambitions, circumstances forced Robbie Burns to adopt the role of a witch hunter? After spying a coven at their blasphemous rituals, Burns is saved by a duo of experienced witch hunters--but in their flight from the demonic host, Burns is marked as a sacrifice. The pair have three days to turn the rough ploughman into a witchfinder. Of course, Robbie can't help but fall for the beautiful, red-haired witch hunter Meg. But what of his poems? Well, suffice to say that Robbie Burns: Witch Hunter does as clever as a trick with "My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose" as is possible. The art style is definitely in the mold of the Mignola-esque, but given the topic and the time period that really works well here. The monsters are suitably gribbly and the women suitably buxom. All in all, this felt like a fun celebration of Robbie Burns while also speculating on an alternate life that the author of Tam o' Shanter could have led.

Marilyn Ross,
Dark Shadows
I had long wished that it was easy to pick up the Dark Shadows novels published in the 1960s; thankfully, they have begun to be reprinted! The alternate Dark Shadows timeline posited in the first book is pretty wild, but it's a different flavor of wild than what I found in Lara Parker's Dark Shadows novels. It's been a while since I watched the early episodes of the show, but these novels feel much more concentrated in their distillation of the Gothic, perhaps because they have to squeeze a plot line into 150 or so pages instead of endless episodes of a daytime show. In this novel Victoria Winters feels even more driven by need, and the mystery of her parentage seems more acute. Her instant desire to fit into the household or to discover that she is a secret Collins heir reminds me a lot of how the doctor in The Little Stranger desperately wants to have some claim over the old mansion. Within days she is in a desperate romance with Ernest Collins, a concert violinist cousin of Elizabeth Stoddard who does not exist in the television show, forming attachments quickly so she can't be ousted from the object of her desire. Victoria as unreliable narrative is a bold move, but then again all of the versions of the recognizable cast feel at least slightly cracked: Elizabeth is keeping more secrets than usual, Roger is a sexual predatory on top of being a drunk, Carolyn is Id personified, etc. The overall feeling is something like "David Lynch's Dark Shadows." The most fraught moment: Carolyn asks Victoria, "Do you frug?" She does not. Too consumed by neuroses for that.

Squishable Plague Doctor
I made a new friend during these "unprecedented times."

Wednesday, August 5, 2020

The House of Skarnstein

The House of Skarnstein
A faction in Krevborna

The nobles of the House of Skarnstein are the sages and scholars of the Lamashtu. The members of House Skarnstein relentlessly pursue forbidden knowledge; their libraries rival those of Creedhall University. The leaders of the house are vampires, but the Skarnstein bloodline is tainted; the body of anyone transformed into a vampire by a member of House Skarnstein is warped into a hideous, gargoyle-like form. The house is currently led by Baron Nikolai Skarnstein. 
    • Motto. “We are monstrous in form, but wondrous in our thoughts.”
    • Belief. Knowledge is power.
    • Goal. Master the technology left behind by the Lilituan Empire to usurp the throne of Lamashtu.
    • Quest. Uncover the means to cure the Skarnstein of their accursed appearances.

Sunday, August 2, 2020

In the Court of the Vampire Queen

Photo by Josipa Juras at
Photo by Josipa Juras
As they rode through the imposing iron gate that served as an entrance to the walled city held in thrall by Alcesta von Karlok, Casimir asked Denvanya, "So, how do you propose we get an audience with a vampire lord who can tell us where Khamad's brother might be going?" "Simple," she said, "we're going to drop my name at castle and they are going to admit us."

As they approached Siebenhurst Castle, it quickly became evident that the the court was currently abuzz with activity. Great wagons bearing provisions and casks of wine wheeled to and fro, servants scuttled about underfoot, and perhaps most tellingly, black carriages displaying the coat of arms of Lamashtu's noble houses had begun to line up in a long, serpentine queue. Khamad stopped a serf and asked him what was afoot. The man replied, "The Countess has broken the will of the nobles who opposed her. She has their consent to be raised to a Queen! Our Queen! Long live the Deathless Queen! May her sanguine majesty rule forever!"

When they reached the gate of the castle they were confronted by four Knights of Lilith who eyed the group suspiciously and asked to see their invitation to the queen's coronation. Devanya leaned forward in her saddle and declared, "We have no invitation. I am Devanya de Francesca-Almordante, and I am here to offer the Church's blessing to Queen von Karlok on the day of her coronation." 

The knights exchanged troubled glances. One of them stepped away briskly. 

Khamad whispered to Devanya, "You know that your religion is outlawed here in Lamashtu, don't you? You may have just signed out death warrants."

Devanya smiled. "No, I've presented them with a curiosity. They're going to let us in on the off chance a priest of the Church is prepared to bend the knee and give praise to an unholy monarch."

"Aren't you worried about being defrocked if your precious Church hears about how casually you toss around the authority you assume in its name?" Sable asked.

"I'm not on particularly good terms with my Church," Devanya replied.

Sable suddenly grabbed at Devanya's shirt, pulling the garment down at the back to expose a brand that had been burned into the other woman's flesh. "I knew it. A heretic's mark. You're a priest, all right, but not of the Church as we know it."

Just then, the knight returned and whispered something to his compatriots. The group were asked to dismount; then they were led to a private meeting with Vrey von Karlock, a minor member of the noble House of von Karlok. Vrey listened patiently as their ruse was explained. They told him that they had reason to believe that a vampire lord of Lamashtu had given Malak, Khamad's brother, a magical weapon of unimaginable power.

Vrey offered them a slight correction. He was aware that an object had traded hands between a member of House Skarnstein and Malak, but that object was not the weapon itself. The object in question was a key to unlock the sought after weapon from some hidden place of imprisonment. Only the Skarnstein know where Malak has gone with the key. But Vrey had an offer for the group: the Skarnstein vampires were the last to concede to Alcesta von Karlok's desire to be crowned queen, so they must be reminded of their place. If the party would help Vrey entrap a few members of the Skarnstein family in a situation that revealed their dissidence, Vrey would see to it that the information about Malak's destination would be disclosed to them so they might continue their pursuit.

The trap was baited: Devanya approached an enclave of suspected Skarnstein rebels as a cleric willing to use her divine power to thwart the queen's coronation. The small group of nobles she was negotiating with were caught out agreeing to what amounted to a treasonous plot. Hidden Knights of Lilith, as well as Casimir, Sable, and Khamad, leaped out of concealment as soon as the treachery was uncovered. A fierce battle ensued as they rebels attempted to escape, but the Skarnstein betrayers were either slain or taken captive. Those who still possessed their lives--or unlives--would be made an example of, sacrificed as part of the pomp and circumstance of the crowning of Queen Alcesta von Karlok.

* * *