The Gargoyle Court Duel

The appointed day had arrived, and hundreds had flocked from all over the city to watch the great duel between Master Kalgravex of Revenant and his rebellious fellow practitioner of the dark arts, Moribundus.

The Gargoyle Court was, as seemed always to be the case, hung over with ominous clouds of dirty grey. The sheer walls of the buildings on all sides, punctuated only occasionally by thin and forlorn-looking windows, were if anything more dispiriting to behold, stained by the elements and blotched with lichen the colour of bone.

Huge mushrooms almost as tall as men formed miniature parodies of forests as they clumped together in the damper recesses of the Court.

For those unused to spending their time in this Domain, sitting in the Gargoyle Court felt disturbingly like being trapped at the bottom of a huge, dank pit. Still, the various groups of people who had made their way here for the occasion attempted to diffuse the atmosphere with uneasy chatter.

In the centre of the Court was a vast stone platform, its corners surmounted by four hideously contorted gargoyles, each clutching a torch. Suddenly all four torches flared up and a hush descended upon the assembled crowds.

Master Kalgravex stepped up to one end of the platform, an impressive figure despite his years as he trailed the dark robes of his office, embroidered with sigils. At the other end Master Moribundus rose into view, his sagging features giving him a rather melancholy expression under his black leather hood.

Kalgravex was the first to speak:

"At this hour, Master Moribundus will present his challenge to my leadership. Let those here present bear witness. When the sun rises tomorrow morn, there will be no doubt who leads Revenant."

Master Moribundus' voice was frail, but it carried to all parts of the Gargoyle Court as he responded to Kalgravex's words.

"Kalgravex, I do challenge you, in the name of all that is unholy! I have known you to be in league with the Palatine for some time, and in this foolishness you invite doom for Revenant. You have resisted all my attempts to persuade you from this madness, and as a result I call upon you to step down as leader of this domain, and let another more suitable take your place.

"If you will not do as I say then I have no choice but to pit my magicks against yours in the time-honoured fashion. Your reputation as a necromancer is greater than mine, but I hold out hope that the influence of your new-found friends may have corroded your affinity with the dark arts somewhat. We shall see."

Moribundus glanced over at Kalgravex to look for signs of repentance, but the arch-necromancer's eyes were stony. Shaking his head, he began to chant the forbidden polysyllables of a warding spell, in anticipation of Kalgravex's next move...

With an almost nonchalant wave of his hand the Master of Revenant caused howling creatures of darkness to boil up from the earth, and the duel began in earnest. To those unversed in the black arts of necromancy it was difficult to judge exactly what was happening, as darkness pitted itself against darkness and shadow entangled itself in shadow. The sepulchral hissings of delight from the Revenant section of the audience, however, seemed to indicate that this was a particularly impressive display of unholy power.

No-one watching was exempt from a feeling of strange terror as the subtle magickal interactions between Kalgravex and Moribundus were re-enacted on a huge scale in the movement of shadows on the sheer walls of Gargoyle Court. It appeared that the vast majority of the darkness was congregating around Kalgravex, from whose vicinity dusky tendrils lashed out, and were only narrowly deflected by Moribundus’ swiftly mustered wards. By contrast, whenever Moribundus managed to send out a sly cacodemon to try and worm its way through Kalgravex’ defences, it was almost immediately engulfed in nightmare-stuff and torn limb from limb.

Kalgravex allowed himself an evil smile as he saw the droplets of grey sweat beading on Moribundus’ brow. The lesser necromancer’s eyes were darting to one side, as if he were contemplating making an escape from his hopeless struggle. It was time for Kalgravex to play his trump card. "I call forth Ecthorax… an old friend of yours, I believe, Moribundus?"

Moribundus’ eyes bulged. "But… I condemned Ecthorax to eternal agony in the deepmost pits of hell."

"Yes, he was rather clear on that point. You look surprised, Moribundus. Don’t you know that what goes down, must come up? Except you, of course."

As the demon, all many-jointed, taloned arms and ravening mouths, and twice as tall as a Jugurtha barbarian, began to coalesce in the centre of the platform, as Kalgravex folded his arms with a satisfied expression and Moribundus staggered backwards in fright, all hell that wasn’t already present broke loose.

The centre of the platform exploded in a shower of shrapnel and smoke, and Ecthorax screamed with many voices as it was engulfed. A silhouette amidst the smoke, Moribundus yelled out: "Look at what you have brought upon yourself, Kalgravex! You and all your filthy allies shall now perish!"

An army of zombies was pouring from the crater and lumbering surprisingly quickly towards Kalgravex, who looked temporarily stunned, even though his wards had successfully shielded him against flying shrapnel. (Not all of the spectators had been so lucky, and there were not a few moans and groans from people clutching their bleeding heads.) He clearly had not been anticipating having to face an army, and his tame spirits now seemed inadequate against the very solid undead regiment blocking his avenues of escape. Fortunately, his wits had not entirely deserted him, and reaching his left hand into his right pocket and his right hand into his left, he flung handfuls of teeth to the ground before him, which grew into skeletal bodyguards almost instantaneously.

Moribundus, who had vaulted shakily down from the platform, was hastening away from the chaos, but the maddened Ecthorax had caught the scent of his prey, and crouching down on all sixes made ready to give chase with a shriek of unutterable hatred.

A cry had gone up from somewhere in the audience: "Boo! Boo! Moribundus the coward! We all know you were bribed by Palatine to remove Kalgravex from power! You’ll never get away with it!" The booing was quickly taken up by other voices in the Court, but the necromancer clearly had other things on his mind as quick glances over his shoulder revealed that Ecthorax was rapidly gaining on him.

Meanwhile Kalgravex’s skeletons, battling impassively against the zombie horde, were being beaten back by sheer weight of numbers as more and more issued forth from the crater. Kalgravex’s plight would have been even more serious if he had been their sole target: but now more than half of the zombies emerging from the hole were shambling after Moribundus and Ecthorax instead.

Suddenly, from a copse of mushrooms there burst forth what appeared to be, of all things, an undead cow. With a horrific, gargling moo it lowered its head and charged for the centre of the Court, where the zombie regiment parted to let it through in its headlong rush. One of Kalgravex’s eyebrows shot up as the cow neared the wall of skeletons that had stepped smartly to his defence…

…a huge explosion shook the Court as the cow exploded, ripping apart the skeletons and a few of the more incautious zombies in its wake. Kalgravex was thrown back by the force of the blast, into a knot of zombies whose cruel bludgeons were swift to strike home. He was obviously being wounded for all his wards, and his incantations became more frantic as he snuffed out his attackers’ animating essences one by one…

Moribundus had given up hope of outrunning Ecthorax. He had turned to face the slavering demon, and was keeping it at bay with a great expenditure of mental effort, his knuckles white as he held his staff outstretched before him. A straggle of zombies had by now reached the scene, and Moribundus spat a word of command at them. A look of astonishment came over him and he cried between clenched teeth: "No! What are you doing! You imbecilic, insubordinate non-enti.."

A plank with a nail hammered through it struck Moribundus’ back, breaking his concentration and allowing Ecthorax to fall upon him with a hideous whoop of triumph.

By now, many of the spectators had fled, afraid that they would become embroiled in the carnage if they stayed in the Court any longer. Canisters were being hurled from some high vantage point, shattering on the ground and exuding thick, billowing smoke which added immeasurably to the confusion. A few brave souls attempted to forge their way into the fray, but met with resistance from the zombies which soon forced them to drop back.

Then, from among the Revenant seats, where a few urgent huddles had formed to decide what to do, five men threw off their cloaks to reveal the unmistakable splendour of their Palatine armour, emblazoned with the symbol of a fiery red axe. "Glory to Kalgravex and the One!" cried their leader, before hacking into a knot of Revenants, whose conversation had presumably revealed them to be Moribundus supporters. Several of the knights began to fight their way towards the centre of the Court…

If Kalgravex had heard the knight’s words and derived any comfort from them, it was shortlived – the zombies lay in heaps around him, and he had just managed to drag his horribly mauled self back to his feet, when a zombie that had penetrated his defences flung its arms around him. Looking down, he just had time to see something wooden through the corpse’s ribs, and painted on it part of a word: "UNPO"…

Another explosion.

The fighting had now spread to all corners of the Court by this stage. Zombies, knights, Revenants, some Antioch (seemingly just for the hell of it) and anyone else foolish enough to still be in the way were battling it out for supremacy. More cows had emerged from beneath the square with the aid of ramps, attempting to get into the thick of things, at which point they were picked off with flaming arrows and crossbow bolts from some high vantage point, causing immeasurable havoc as the resultant explosion ripped through its surroundings. The unseen archers’ missiles were also hitting live targets, and corpses were piling up all over Gargoyle Court.

Just when it seemed the confusion was at its height, and there could be no hope of a resolution, two more holes were blown open from beneath the flagstone of the court, and two more detachments of zombies began to pile through the drifts of corpses into the world above. One was led by a wizened old woman, her neck hung with amulets and talismans, flanked by a spindly figure whose face was concealed beneath scarves and a floppy hat, and who bore a duelling pistol in each hand; the other by a slightly worried-looking individual in black gloves and waistcoat. Some of the zombies who had assisted in the demise of Moribundus (no-one had dared to go anywhere near, but Ecthorax was still happily shredding his hated foe) peeled back from whatever they were doing to join these two new detachments.

Moving swiftly towards the centre of the Court, they surrounded the ruins of the duelling platform, where the leaders looked doubtfully into the writhing heap of zombies under which Kalgravex was somewhere buried. From there, they began to use their presence to wind down the fighting, taking special care to see to the safety of Tatterdemalion and other innocents who had somehow become trapped in the hostilities.

Ecthorax had finally humiliated Moribundus’ remains enough; bending over the debris of the man it sucked out his soul and disappeared back to the demon realms.

The mass of zombies atop Kalgravex were suddenly tossed to all sides as a huge bat-winged figure erupted from them, carrying the broken body of Revenant’s Master tenderly in its arms as though it were a Tatterdemalion child’s rag doll. Gazing once around the Court with eyes like dread furnaces, it rose aloft into the air, and vanished into the darkness in the direction of the Crooked House.

From beyond the Court, smoke and flame could be seen rising into the night sky: several of the buildings of Revenant were ablaze. The fight carried on for a little while longer, but the arrival of a motivated force had helped things and eventually, amidst the shattered flagstones and the many hundred corpses, order was restored.

The waistcoated man took to the podium, and addressed the handful of stalwarts, some badly wounded and leaning on their fellows, who remained.

"My name is Algernon Blackwood, butler to Master… to the late Master Moribundus. I had suspected him to be quite mad for a long time, but I only became certain of it recently. If only I had acted earlier, all this might have been prevented. My master believed all Revenant was against him, and was attempting to destroy as much of it as possible. I was forced to employ a second group of zombies against his, to defeat him and minimise the damage. I can’t explain the third party which seemed to intervene, but I’d guess that Kalgravex had a few tricks of his own up his sleeve.

"Um… I apologise sincerely for my master’s misdeeds, and House Moribund is still very much under the overall rule of Kalgravex. I don’t wish to see any more trouble like this for a long time. If there’s any other questions I can answer, or anything I can do to make reparations, please don’t hesitate to ask."