Thursday, September 4, 2008


The will of the Gods isn’t always merciful, nor is it kind. That is why I pray that I find their favor.

~A dying elderly man speaking to his son

Dampness brushed her forehead. A cool sea breeze blew across her face. Voices. Sunlight.

She cracked an eye open. The blurry form of the Piet hovered over her holding a damp rag, stroking it across her forehead. She tried to push herself up, but the world tilted beneath her. The priest pushed her back with a gentle shove, a smile lit his face. "Glad to see you're back with us, Madame Rachelle."

Her voice cracked as she whispered, "Wellan?"

Piet Lithor replied with a frown and a shake of his head.

Rachelle looked around her. She lay on the deck of a boat. A motley group of survivors sat on the deck in little groups or leaned against the rail, looking out at the ocean. The flamboyant girl and her brother stood at the helm with Duke Renier. Niether looked as though they had escaped the city unscathed.

She drew in a shaky breath. In twenty-four hours the population of Renier had been reduced from a few hundred thousand to a mere boatful, no more than thirty.

With tears blurring her vision she looked back at the priest. "Where to now? Where is the Duke taking us?"

Piet Lithor glanced toward the Duke and then looked down at her. The priest didn't look happy about the answer. "We are going to the Baron as refugees. The Duke wants warn the Baron of Renier's fate and to ask for his help in ridding Renier of the scourge that has taken it over."

Rachelle shifted back to look at the Duke. Shanai turned at the same moment and smiled down at her. Rachelle returned the smile.

Good remained in the world and with any luck their warning might help to stop the epidemic from taking over another city. Hopefully that warning would be heeded before it was too late.

The End
miranda invis

Chapter 21b: Sea and Sunlight

The Piet's heart thudded in his chest. His arms burned and throbbed with fatigue while his lungs spasmed with the desire for a gasp of air. The faint shimmering light above him disappeared in a cloud of bubbles. If it weren't for the beast still pushing against him he would have thought himself dead. I'm at the gateway of Vaspar, mere moments from ascending into his awaiting arms. If I can only hold this demon spawn off me for another second or two...

Sparks drifted across the blackness as his oxygen starved body began to betray him. His lungs convulsed, trying to draw a breath, but he locked his arms in place and fought against it. The creature thrashed and pushed, sliding Piet Lithor back and forth in the chilling water. He opened his mouth to scream, to draw in air, to end this hopeless struggle when the creature suddenly stiffened and pulled its head up, drawing the priest with it. He gasped air in a spray of liquid as he broke the surface of the water. The creature convulsed at arms length before becoming stiff and falling over on its side.

Coughing and sputtering, Piet Lithor ran both hands along the floor, his chin and nose poking out of the water. He had to find the sword and do it fast before the monster got up, or the zombies reached him. His hands slid right and left, scraping the abrasive surface. The water gurgled and churned in his ear. He felt the dead approach with every splash. An inner voice screamed, just leave the sword and run, but leaving the sword wasn't an option. The blade belonged to Lord Vaspar and he would gladly die before leaving it behind.

His hand brushed smooth steel. He pulled the sword up by the blade and stood, facing the sloshing mass of bodies moving toward him. He backed up and grabbed the blade by its hilt. Something brushed his leg. With a scream he turned around to face the new threat. He swung the sword into empty space. Something brushed his leg again and moaned. He reached down and felt flesh, warm flesh. Rachelle?

He grabbed a bracelet bound wrist and pulled up a limp arm, another moan, female. Without a doubt that the unconscious body lying before him was Rachelle, he lifted her up and slung her over his shoulder.

A hand grasped his arm. Water sprayed as he swung around with his sword. Flesh connected with steel and the liquid before him became a convulsing quiver as the undead thrashed and flopped in front of him. Without waiting Piet Lithor turned and sloshed through the dark, toward the exit.

He didn't walk far before his hand grazed the rock wall of the cavern. He shifted Rachelle on his shoulder then started forward, moving through the water and darkness as swiftly as he safely could. Within moments the splashing sound of pursuit began to fall further into the background. By the time a faint glow starts to appear ahead of him the splashes could barely be heard.

A fresh sea breeze tickled his nose as he stumbled ahead, just ahead he could hear the surf as it crashed against rock. His legs pumped harder, the crack in the rock became brighter with every step. Sea gulls called in the distance.

"Piet?" The Duke's voice.

A silhouette against sunlight waded through the water from the cave opening and pulled Rachelle from his shoulder. He hadn't realized how sore and tired he had become until her weight was taken away.

"Is she okay?"

Sliding his sword into the sheath at his side, he frowned. "I don't know. Something happened while I fought against that wolfhound creature. I found her like this as I retreated."

Piet Lithor squinted and brought his hand to his eyes as they walked through the crack in the rock, the morning sunlight striking him full in the face. To his left, waves crashed against porous black rock. Sea gulls glided through the air above them. A fishing vessel sat anchored to the south, bouncing up and down in the rolling surf. The survivors stood crowded to the side as Stiles and the other soldiers helped them climb a ladder to board the vessel. At the top of the ladder Shannai pulled them over the side, her flamboyant shirt dirty and dishelved. Her equally grimy brother stood at the helm, waiting to turn the ship to sea.

The Duke sped his pace to the boat. "The it still alive?"

"I don't think so. I believe Madame Rachelle killed it before...before she became incapacitated. The dead are just behind me though."

The Duke nodded to the priest then turned to the people boarding the ship. "Let's hurry up folks. We are about to have some unwelcome company."

Duke Renier was the last to board the ship as the dead stumbled from the crack in the rock, wobbling like newborn calves as the waves hit them and the current pulled the water back out to sea.

An arrow flew through the air; piercing a bald man's dead eye in a spray of dark red and dropping him face down into the water. The Duke looked over his shoulder where Shannai stood on the deck, bow in hand and a fierce look upon her face.

With a shake of his head he yelled, "Let's pull the anchor and drop the sails."

As the soldiers followed his orders he looked to the south, where he could a stretch of Renier's wall shone just around the rocks. With a heavy heart he walked to the helm to help Marchas locate a safe port.

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Chapter 21a: The Priest and the Beast

…and Jovias looked to the light, knowing that it was holy and righteous. His spirit told him to move forward, but his thoughts pulled him back, whispering to him that righteousness is not without its cost. To live in the light meant obeying the rules and dictates of the holy, but to succumb to the darkness would give him eternal freedom.

~Parable of Jovias, the Never Dying

Rachelle stood while pale arms, groping fingers, and grey faces bounce and swing in the dim light as the small army of undead worked their way towards the little group of survivors. Wellan marched with them, or what once had been Wellan. He had the true eyes of a corpse now, the slack mouth of someone who no longer breaths, the grasping fingers of starving desire.

A roar pulled her focus from the dead flesh. The wolfhound pushed itself off the floor, his rage replaced by intelligent instinct. A hunter looked out of its milky eyes as it strutted across the cavern, toward the retreating survivors.

Piet Lithor yanked her arm, pulling her to the exit. The Duke stood between her and the undead, the rearguard position. Splashing resounded from further up the tunnel. Stiles coaxed the survivors to keep running, yellow light flickered and danced as he retreated further into the watery exit.

Lithor yelled, "Go, my Duke. Catch up with the others. My sword and Madame Rachelle's magic will keep them at bay."

The Duke opened his mouth to protest, but the priest stopped him. "You can't help us now. This battle will take faith and magic. Go. Trust us."

Duke Renier's nostrils flared wide, an inner turmoil took place that finally saw reason. With a nod of his head he squeezed the Piet's shoulder and splashed through the water, chasing the yellow flicker on the damp walls that receded a little more every second.

The priest turned to the wolfhound and swung his sword through empty air, threatening the beast to come any closer. The monster remained a sword-length away, pacing itself as they stumbled through the water, waiting for an opportunity to attack, an opening that it could use to its advantage. The dead advanced behind the creature, a wall of pale arms and grasping fingers.

Now Rachelle pulled the priest through the tunnel as he walked backward with the sword held before him. She tried to bring forth the power of her magic, but it only fizzled and sputtered within her, a glowing ember where there once raged a burning fire. Too much energy had been expended in her first two attacks. It would be a while before she could call it forth again with any effect. Rachelle didn't have the heart to tell Lithor.

With each swing of the priest's sword the beast came a hair’s width closer, the ranks on the dead close upon the creatures heals. She didn't think the dead would approach the sword, but the wolfhound didn't seem to have the same aversion. He paced left and right, always moving forward, waiting for any opening.

The dancing light and splashing of water faded to nothing as the survivors outdistanced her and Lithor. They stood alone before the undead nightmare.

With a cry the Piet tripped and fell on his back. Rachelle reached out to catch him, but missed, fingers grazing his robe as he went down with a splash.

A triumphant roar filled the cave as the wolfhound lunged forward, just in time to catch Lithor as his sputtering head broke the surface of the thigh deep water. Teeth flashed. The priest’s arms struck out, grabbing the monster by its matted neck, stopping the creature in mid lunge. The water churned and boiled as the priest held the creature back. Just behind them the dead advanced.

Rachelle screamed as she dove forward, one hand raking the rough stone three feet below the water while the other held the torch up over her head. Cold, salty water splashed against her cheek and chin as her hand groped for the metal blade.

Piet Lithor screamed then gurgled as the beast pushed against the hands that held him, shoving the overweight priest under the water.

Knowing she no longer had time to find the sword she stood. She dropped the torch, with a hiss and a splash, to grasp the monster by its ears. In the blink of an eye the tunnel became black. The desperate watery struggle taking place at the end of her hand and the wiry hair were the only things in the void. She pulled and yanked at the beast, but it did no good. With an echoing shriek she pulled up her power, every little spark that ember of power could produce and sent it surging into her palms. Wild magic ran from one hand to the next, crossing the barrier of flesh and fur to slam together in the center of the monsters skull.

She felt the creature lurch and convulse just before her consciousness retreated to the void.

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Chapter 20d: Fight in the Dark

Between gritted teeth, Wellan whispered, "Be...ready to run."

He stepped away, to the left, between her and the wolfhound, walking until he stood just within the edge of the flickering light. He faced the undead, eyes closed and lips pressed tight. He raised his hands high to his sides, reminding Rachelle of a human sacrifice. She had only a second to wonder what the man was doing before having to shift her focus back to the battle at hand.

Ignoring the old man, the wolfhound launched itself at Rachelle, water spraying from his fur as he loped across the pitted floor.

Piet Lithor spun to face the beast, his sword aimed at the creature's heart. The animal stopped and began pacing back and forth before the priest like a caged tiger.

To her right the undead sloshed through the water, but they no longer advanced towards the group. Instead they lumbered in Wellan's direction, crossing just behind the enraged wolfhound. As they advanced he stepped backward, drawing them away, pulling them from the small party of survivors. His eyes remained squeezed shut and his lips trembled as though he silently mumbled in an infernal language. She sensed a bond between Wellan and the undead as if he were a shepherd calling in his flock. Like good sheep the congregated toward him.

The wolfhound lunged at the Piet. He stumbled backward, bringing his sword down on the creatures shoulder before falling to his back on the rough stone. The beast roared and twisted away. The smell of burnt meat filled the air from the creature's smoldering wound.

With hatred and rage in its eyes the beast launched himself at the priest again, a berserker bloodlust over riding its sense of self preservation. Before it could sink its teeth into the Piet Rachelle sent a blast of energy slammed into the beast and sent it flying into the darkness with a howl of rage and pain.

Dropping her hands to her side, Rachelle reached down to help the priest to his feet. Her eyes stayed on Wellan and the undead who stumbled toward him.

The old wizard backed away from the exit as the ghouls crowded around him, running their limp hands over his arms, face and shoulders. They reminded Rachelle of religious fanatics, worshipper's in the presence of a messiah. His arms quivered and shook, lips turned up in a snarl. His eyes squeezed down to cracked slotted shadows. An internal war took place in the old man, one that Rachelle couldn't begin to imagine.

As he reaches the edge of the shadow, undead falling over themselves to reach him, his hoarse scream tore through the chamber. "Run! I...can't...fight it any...Longerrrrrrrr."

Piet Lithor grabbed her arm and pulled her to the water logged exit. Survivors splashed in the water all around her, running for the exit.

Wellan's eyes opened wide, his mouth followed. The dead suddenly lost interest in him, turning to the survivors, sensing warm flesh. Within moments the old man became lost in a mass of grey flesh and tattered clothing.

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Chapter 20c: Of Stone and Water

Rachelle followed ten feet behind Wellan, as he had requested. His dark form shifted and bobbed in the flicker of her torch as he slowly stumbled through the rough hewn stone pathway. The walls glittered with moisture as though coated with orange and yellow diamonds in the shifting glow of her torch light. She could hear the shuffle and echo of the survivor's feet echoing in the tunnel behind her.

She had found Wellan as soon as she entered the tunnels. He stood slouched against a wall, his pale hands coved his face and eyes. She had reached out for him, but he pushed her away, hissing once again about his desires and how he teetered on the brink of loosing control. She didn’t argue, only asked him to lead the way. She would follow. With cracked lips pinched tight and a nod he had turned and strolled into the darkness ahead of her. The survivors gave them both a significant lead and watched Wellan as though he were a wolf within their midst.

As they progressed farther down the narrow and winding stone path the walls became rougher and the floors less even, as though the stone cutters had lost interest in their craft as the tunnel progressed. At several times she had to turn sideways and squeeze between cold, slimy walls of stone. She had no idea how the heavier survivors, such as the Piet, would squeeze through, but somehow he always did. Within a short while the passageway opened again, the nicks and chips of chisel work completely gone. They had entered a natural cavern that cut its way below the Barclave Mountain.

Wellan stopped. Listened. His eyes squeezed into narrow slits.

He glanced at he over his shoulder. His pupil as small as a pin head, the yellowed orb around it glinting in the dim light. The hiss of his voice echoed against stone. "The are before us."

"Who? The undead?"

The tarnished eye bounced up and down as he nodded. "Yesss...and...something else..."

A hand fell on her shoulder. She jumped, heart racing, power surging from her core to the ends of her fingers. Then the Dukes troubled voice whispered. "What else, my friend. What is blocking our escape?"

Wellan turned away, walking into the darkness. "The dead. I...I don't know what the other presence's powerful. calls to me, pulls me like a moth to a flame."

Duke Renier looked down at Rachelle as the undead wizard disappeared into the darkness, his expression serious, worried. Though she couldn't read minds his face told her his thoughts. He wanted to turn back, but retreat no longer remained an option. With a slight push and a nod of his head toward Wellan sent her ahead as he waved the others to follow.

Rachelle caught up to Wellan as he stumbled through the tunnel and finally came out into a larger area. She damp air smelled of sea water. Her light faded and disappeared as it stretched out into the void around her. Stalactites and stalagmites rose from the floor and roof like jagged teeth. Water dripped in the distance echoing through the shadows like amplified rain.

Wellan angled to the right, cautiously walking across the uneven floor. He didn't turn to see if they followed, oblivious to everything but the path in front of him.

A splash broke the silence of the stone chamber. Her light reflected off the water coated floor in bouncing yellow and orange.

Wellan stopped and pointed out over the water covered floor, into the black beyond. "They are here...lurking in the darkness."

A deep growl rumbled through the chamber. The echo made it sound as though it came from all around them. The survivors crowded behind her. Water splashed. Something waded towards them with an even, confident stride. Two pinpoints of white shone in the darkness before then, getting closer, growing into a huge shaggy head, shoulders, waist. A wolfhound, larger than any other she had ever seen before. It sloshed forward in knee deep water, studying the group, but paying close attention to Wellan as though sensing a threat, or maybe a kindred spirit.

Wellan took a step back and the group followed. Metal slid against leather as the soldier's pulled their swords from sheaths.

Piet Lithor stepped to the front of the group to stand at her shoulder, his sword drawn and pointed into the shadows.

The wolfhound turned to glare at the priest. His growl lowered in pitch, lips curling up to display yellow daggers of teeth and black spotted gums.

Rachelle felt the power surge from the center of her being, pulsing through her arms to focus in the palm of her hands.

With a roar the wolfhound launched himself at the priest.

Her hands flew up releasing the power stored in her palms. The air warped and crackled as swirls of energy burst through the air and slammed into the side of the beast, blasting him into the air where he sailed across the room and became lost in black. The sound of flesh striking stone resounded through the endless chamber.

Water erupted further down the tunnel. Dozens, maybe hundreds, of bodies lumbered into the light. Water sloshed and churned as they stumbled forward, mouths open and hungry for flesh.

The wolfhound burst from the shadows at her right, streaking straight towards her. The guards brought up their swords and prepared to make their final stand.

The small group was hopelessly outnumbered. Rachelle felt all hope leave her as she looked into the eyes of the beast.

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Friday, August 15, 2008

Chapter 20b: The West Gate

Shanai crouched beneath a window in an empty store and studied the west gate.

Her trip from the roof had been almost uneventful. She had spotted a dozen or so ghouls, but most hadn't seen her and she outran the rest. Everything had gone almost too well until she reached the gate. Dozens of undead milled about in the morning darkness before the thick wooden door, almost as though they had been positioned there to prevent escape. Dew glittered under the moonlight on their pale skin.

Knowing she wouldn't just be able to stroll through the gate, and wanting to stay out of sight, she had ducked into a small shop with a window that faced the wooden door. She watched the undead through a window, a block from the gate, trying to think of a way through them. Nothing came to mind.

Seeing all that she needed to, she turned and slumped to the floor. Ideas for escape formed and just as quickly vanished as flaws blew holes in every idea she came up with. I need a distraction, but what?

Her eyelids had become heavy and her mind floated sleepily in the ether when an explosion startled her back to wakefulness. Spinning around she turned and squatted below the window, pushing herself up until only the top of her head and eyes poked above the sill.

The orange and yellow flicker of a bonfire broke the early morning darkness. A corpse burned in front of the gate and several others, burning like human torches stumbled back and forth. Most hadn't been harmed by the explosion, but all of them faced toward the buildings to her right, watching something just out of her line of sight. One of the ghouls broke from the others and began a stiff legged march toward the mysterious distraction.

A bottle sailed through the air trailing flames and crashed into the ground to the right of the crowd of undead. The moment it shattered another explosion shook the ground and flames erupted in a great whoosh. Some of the flames singed the hair on one of the closest zombies, but other than that it did no harm.

Shanai didn't understand what was going on, but it did give her the distraction she had been looking for as the ghouls stumbled and limped in the direction the bottle had come from.

She pulled the bow from her back and notched an arrow as she slowly rose to her feet and walked to the front door in the wall to her left. A quick look out the door told her that none of the undead stood in front of the building so she crept out and slunk to the corner facing the gate.

Another bottle sailed through the air on a tail of flames, a whiskey bottle. It slammed into the chest of a ghoul then fell to the ground before shattering in an eruption of flame that knocked the bald corpse onto its back. A human shaped flame pushed itself up and rose to its feet, black smoke billowing from its burnt flesh. The overweight zombie took three steps before his stomach erupted, showering the cobbled ground and several of his mates in greasy gore.

The destruction of a fellow ghoul didn't slow the crowd down as they continued their morbid march toward their attacker. The sweet smell of burnt flesh drifted through the air with the force of a greasy fog. Shanai felt her stomach roll as the smell assaulted her nostrils.

Her way to the gate was clear of ghouls and she crept around the corner, bow held ready. The wooden door sat tightly flush to the ground, but she would work that when she got to that point.

Another bottle sailed through the air and exploded in the midst of the zombies, throwing several to the ground where tongues of flame began to eat into their rotting flesh.

She looked back at where the bottle had come from and a smile lit her dirty face. Marchas stood in the opening of an alley holding a torch. Next to him sat a cart full of whiskey bottles, white cloth stuck from the bottles making them look odd shaped candles with oversized wicks. With a smile on his face he holds one hand to his lips in the universal sign for quiet and waves her to the gate with the torch.

Shanai raised her bow to acknowledge his request then continued creeping toward the gate. I should have known my crazy brother would be too sneaky to get caught by these morons. I'm just surprised he is willing to throw away so much quality whiskey just to save his hide. The thought made her grin, the first time she had felt like grinning since the whole ordeal started.

Within moments she stood before the gate and began looking for the mechanism that would open it back up. Just to the right sat a great wheel with a chain wrapped around it extending from the wheel to the dark recesses at the top of the gate.

Another explosion shattered the silence behind her.

Dropping her bow she grabbed the bar on the side of the wheel that would raise the gate. She pushed with all her might, but the wheel only turned a little, opening the gate up only wide enough for an ant to slip through. With a curse she turned and screamed. "I'm gonna need a little help here!"

The dead turned to face her, forgetting about Marchas. She heard him yell something about her not being able to keep her damned mouth shut then the torch waved over the top of the whiskey cart. With a roar Marchas kicked the back of the cart, sending it rolling toward the dozen or so undead that remained before diving to the ground to cover his head. Shanai watched as the cart rocked along the rough street and slammed into the back of the first ghoul, knocking it to the ground before dipping over and shattering the bottles in an explosion that engulfed the whole crowd. Flaming arms, legs and torsos flew through the air, peppering the street with flaming meat.

Black smoke and bright flame covered the road, not allowing her to see her brother. She was almost ready to step away from the gate and find him when his shadowy form materialized through the black cloud of smoke. "Miss me, sis?"

Shanai didn't say a word. Her bow dropped to the ground and she run up to him, putting her arms around his chest and giving him the tightest hug she could.

He patted her back then pushed her away. "Hey, enough of that. Your gonna ruin my reputation."

She slugged him on the shoulder. "You must have been desperate to burn all that liquor."

He smiled and patted the pack on his back. The tinkle of glass told her that it hadn't all gone to waste. "Now, let's get this gate open and get the hell out of here."

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Chapter 20a: Rachelle's Flight

"I heard he was as old as mankind, a protector or guardian or somethin'. Legend has it that he didn't die, but only waits in the shadows for when he is needed again."

"The legends are wrong."

~Two old men discussing the legend of Wellan the Wizard

creams invaded the castle of Renier. Rachelle heard most of them as distant cries that echoed through the dark cooridors, but some came from nearby closed doors and passageways. The dead had taken over the once beautiful palace.

She followed close behind Wellan as he stumbled through the darkness. He wouldn't let her get too close though. At first she hadn't understood why, but every once in a while he would glance behind him with a cold glint in his eye. She told herself he was only looking after her, making sure they hadn't become separated in the darkness, but she knew better. The glint spoke of hunger and an internal battle being fought for her life. At one point she opened her eyes to his aura, a chore she now loathed. Her gaze revealed a human void, the outline of an old man in black, blacker than the darkness in the cooridor, as devoid of light as any other of the undead she had seen. His aura didn't shine reveal anything about his condition, on what he thought or fought within.

Rachelle had to trust the old wizard or fight her way through the palace. The only good that had come of his condition was that he could sense the undead and lead her through safe passageways.

Watching Wellan as he stumbled through the cooridors reminded her that she was not only seeing the end of the wizard, but the beginning of a new age or the end of an old one. The memories still pounded through her mind, causing confusion and dizziness, but as she slowly assimulated and sorted the information the world gradually became clearer and her headaches grew fewer.

A whisper, like a mosquito buzzing in her ear, pulled her from her thoughts. "Be wary of the black man. He didn't die. I can sense his self serving evil...can see it burning with hatred and the desire for revenge."

" he close?"

The back of Wellan's hear rotated back and forth, barely perceptable. "No, but that one loves to kill and I can no longer protect you. With conversion...the powers I once had are gone. What little powers I have are being used desires. I am like them now, the undead. I hun...hunger for the fleshhhhh."

He stopped and shook his head back and forth several times. His hand rose to his lips then rubbed his eyes. He shook his head once more. "I don't...don't need to talk about that anymore, it only makes the desire harder to supress. I still have some of my wits about me, so I...ugh...I suppose I'm not exactly like the rest of them."

She reached out for his shouder, to give him a comforting squeeze.

"Don't touch me!"

She yanked her hand to her chest, as if pulling it from the snap of a rabid dog.

"I...I'm sorry, Rachelle. I didn't mean...mean to be so harsh, but you don't need to touch me in any way. I'm afraid my will...that I might..."

"No, Wellan. I understand."

He glanced over his shoulder. Behind the hungry glint in his eye she also saw sadness. He shuffled on.

Within moments they stood in the kitchen, facing the open doorway and stairs that led to the cellar. Nothing looked amiss. The pots and spoons hung from a rack over a wooden working counter. Black ashes layed in a pile in the middle of the fire pit. The kitchen looked just like she imagined it would at any early morning hour.

Footsteps pounded toward them from a cooridor on the other side of the kitchen. She drew in a breath that felt like ice water, fear chilling the sensative nerves of her spine. Wellan stepped before her as she held her hands out to her sides, preparing to use her new found powers.

A figure burst through the shadowy arch of the cooridor. Rachell raised her hands over her head, the spell warping the air and sending light bending between her spread fingers.

The figure held his sword before him. More figures burst from the darkness behind him. Everyone gasped.

"Stiles?" Wellan croaked. Rachelle lowered her hands, hoping no one noticed the way they shook.

The Duke and Piet rushed around Stiles with greetings on their lips for the wizard. They froze to each side of the soldier, horror creased their brows.

Duke Renier's voice cracked as he spoke. "Wellan? I...I don't..."

The wizard backed away, towards the cellar stairs, his hands held up before him, palms out. "Stay All of you...please stay back. I...I...I can' hung..." His palms rose to his temples as he bent over at the waist. A struggle took place within the old man, one that Rachelle and the others couldn't understand. She wanted to go to him, to comfort him, but she knew that would be a grave mistake.

Stiles stepped forward with his sword drawn. Another soldier walked from the dark cooridor to join him. Rachelle spun to face them, standing between the soldiers and the wizard, the air crackled and warped between her fingers. She didn't want to fight the soldiers, but she wasn't about to let them harm Wellan.

Duke Renier put a hand on the soldier's shoulders and pulled them back. "No. Let him be."

Stiles lowered his sword, but the other soldier stuttered, "But, my lord Duke...he's one of them. He'll eat us alive first chance he gets."

"Just stay away from him."

In the dark cooridor a terrified female voice moaned. "I hear them, they are coming up the cooridor. W...we have to flee."

With that the crowd moved forward, into the kitchen propper. Rachelle's heart almost broke. She performed a quick head count of the survivors, no more than twenty civillians, and five soldiers, plus Duke Renier and Piet Lithor. How could the city have been whittled down to so few so fast?

She turned to check on Wellan as the Duke walked to her, but he was gone.

The Duke gently nudged her forward while looking into the dark cellar. "He went into the cellar, probably all the way into the escape tunnels." He looked back at the little group. "Go on ahead. Look after my old friend, would you? We will get into the cellar and barricade the door behind us, then follow."

With a quick nod to Duke Renier she stepped into the darkness and followed the steps down into the cellar.

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Chapter 19d: Shanai's Run III

Time seemed to slow down as she worked her way down the board. Every bouncing second seemed like minutes as she pulled herself forward with her hands and arms. She used her knees, feeling the edge of the plank to assure herself that she wasn't about to slide off. With every pull she imagined the lumber slipping off the edge of the windowsill. She saw herself tumbling down into the alley, hearing bone crack as her leg struck the hard packed dirt. Screaming through the pain of a broken leg as the alley filled with hungry eyes and gore crusted mouths.

Stop thinking about it, Shanai. You ain't helpin' yourself with those thoughts. Just keep pulling. The other roof has to be inches away.

Her finger scraped stone. She pushed herself forward, grabbed the gritty lip of a ledge and pulled until her chin touched stone. Shanai opened her eyes and drug herself onto the roof where she lay facing the sky and panting. Her heart pounded to a crazy rhythm in her chest as she stared up at the sky and thanked luck for getting her this far. The rigid edge of her bow pushed uncomfortably against her back, arrow feathers tickled her sweaty neck.

Rolling over to her stomach, she pushed herself up, not waiting for her heart to settle down. She lacked the luxury of time, knowing she had to get to the next roof and down to the street fast. The longer she waited the more crowded the streets would get.

A dozen paces brought her to the stone lip of the far edge of the building. A rickety wooden ladder poked above the roof and led down to the alleyway twenty feet below. No one walked between the narrow walls. The alley created a six foot gap between the buildings, an easy jump.

She walked backward five paces and took a deep breath. Though the jump would be an easy one the distance to the alley below still needled her mind. Images of her falling to the alley floor after missing the far ledge by a hairs breadth kept flashing through her mind. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. You've got enough to worry about without adding imaginary fears. This is a jump any five year old could make and if Marchas were here right now he would have me in tears with his laughter.

Well, Marchas isn't here now. It's just me.

Before she could feed more fuel to her fears, without giving any more thought to her nagging worries, she ran and leapt. Shanai cleared the edge of the far building with a foot to spare, taking a few steps to slow her momentum down. She looked back and smiled. See, nothing to it.

Ten paces brought her to the far edge of the next building, where another rickety ladder poked over the edge of the building like piers. A stone building faced her, a story taller than the one she stood on, separated by another six foot alleyway. She leaned over the edge and peered into the dark alley. Other than garbage piled next to the ladder the way looked clear.

Before climbing down the ladder she walked to the front of the building and slowly peaked over it's edge into the street below. A few undead meandered down the street to the East, lurching toward the building where Ash died. Her destination led West.

Shanai straightened her bow against her back, returned to the ladder and mounted the top rung. With a final look below she descended into the alley.

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Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Chapter 19c: Shanai's Run II

"Come on, Ash!" she screamed down to him as she grabbed the next rung.

He glanced up at her with determined eyes and shook his head.

He's not coming. He has to come.

She stopped ascending and held her hand down to him. "No, Ash! Don't do this. I need you..."

His sword slashed down as the first of them slammed into him, cutting a deep gash from the woman's collar bone to her chest. Her left arm dropped as the tendons and bone became severed, but her right hand grabbed him by the back of the neck. He futilely pushed her hand only to be grabbed on his sword arm by a burly man.

"Climb, girl climb!" he screamed just before the burly man's teeth sank into his throat. His scream turned into a gurgling wail.

A hand swiped across her boot. With a roar, part fear and part frustration, she pulled herself up the ladder until she met the ceiling, where a trap door prevented her from going any further. Gods, don't let this door be locked. She pushed against the wooden door and sighed as it gave way.

Dust drifted down through the crack.

Shanai gave a last look below before climbing through the hatch. The three ghouls at the base of the ladder had given up on her and joined their comrades in their feast at the base of the wall of barrels, a pool of blood spread and smeared around their feet as they tore chunks of flesh from Ash's cooling corpse twenty feet below her.

She slammed the door shut, pulling the hasp over the catch before looking around for something to push through it. Planks of wood lay stacked on the far wall, opposite to a worktable littered with tools. Early morning moonlight shone through two windows, one facing the street and the other facing the alleyway - just below the sharp pitch of the roof. The floor was soft with sawdust. She ran to the table and fumbled through the tools, small metal hardware and sawdust until she grasped a long nail. She ran back to the hatch and shoved it through the door hasp.

That should keep them out. At least for now.

With the trap door secured she walked to the table and leaned back against it, palms flat on the its surface with her fingers curled around the edge, white knuckled. She stared at the wood sliver textured floor, taking several deep breaths.

I'm all alone now. A shiver ran up her spine as the thought worked its way through her. Ash could have made it. I would have helped. He didn't have to sacrifice himself for me. Shanai kept telling herself that as tears warped her vision and ran down the bridge of her nose, but she knew differently. The bite had made Ash too weak to climb the ladder, even with her help and he couldn't have gotten above the corpse's reach fast enough. It's all gonna go to waste, his sacrifice. I can't do this alone. I need...Marchas.

Thinking about her brother reminded her of the adventures they had shared, the bar fights they had lived through, the brushes with death that occasionally followed them.

This is different.

No, it's just another bar fight, another close call. Think, Shanai! There is a way out of this, you just have to think it through. Her brother's voice echoed through her mind, berating her in the dark workroom.

"Yeah, Marchas. I'm open to any suggestions." she whispered to the wooden planks across from her.

Well, I'm not gonna get out of here if I just sit and sulk. What would Marchas do in this situation? She smiled to herself and wiped a sweaty forearm across her eyes.

Treading lightly, trying to make as little noise as possible in the hope that the monsters below her would forget about her, she crept to the window facing the street. The pile of lumber lay stacked before the window, preventing her from getting closer than a few feet. She leaned forward with her hands on the top of the boards and looked down. Half a dozen people wobbled and limped through the streets, converging on the building.

I don't believe I will be going out through the front door any time soon.

She pushed herself upright and walked to the side window facing the alleyway and looked down. Two undead strolled between the narrow walkway between the buildings, one walking to the front and the other lumbering toward the back.

Across the alleyway a flat stone roof sat almost even with her feet, eight feet from her window. On the other side of that building sat another single story building with a matching flat roof.

If I can make it to the second building without attracting their attention I might be able to climb down and get out of this hot spot before they catch me, but can I make that jump. Can I make the jump without making any noise? The answer came instantly. Not likely.

She turned to look around the little attic workshop, checking for anything she could use. Her eyes fell on the planks. They were almost ten feet long, more than enough to bridge the gap. But will they support my weight. They had to.

Turning back to the window she flipped the brass catch securing the panes closed and pushed the window open. Damp early morning air blew in sending a fine layer of sawdust from the window seal to the floor. Shanai crept to the pile of lumber and hefted a plank, almost as wide as herself, to the window. Placing the end of the plank on the window seal she slid to the other end and pushed it out, using her weight to prevent it from tipping down lower than the far roof. The board groaned as it slid across the wood dusted surface. When only a foot of board remained in the room she gently pulled her weight from it and let the far end settle onto the roof. The board sat at a slightly downward angle, but not so steep that she couldn't crawl to the other roof.

Peering over the edge of the window she looked into the alley. The filthy hair of an undead waddled directly under her plank, while two more undead stumbled towards each end of the alleyway. They hadn't noticed her.

Taking a deep breath she grasped the sides of the plank and pulled herself onto the board. It bounced as she landed on top of it. An icy fist of fear squeezed her stomach and she gripped the edge of the plank as tight as she could. She closed her eyes and concentrated on the pulsing rhythm of her heartbeat as it pounded in her ears. The drumbeat of blood continued to count the time, time she knew that she didn't have. With another deep breath to calm herself she pulled herself down until she lay across the board and began pulling herself forward with closed eyes. Heights had always bothered her some, but laying across the board as it bounced with each pull of her arms filled her with an almost paralyzing vertigo. The only thing that kept her moving was knowing that she couldn't stop. If she didn't get across before they spotted her she would never be able to get to the second roof and escape.

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Friday, August 8, 2008

Chapter 19b: Shanai's Run I

Shannai listened to the mandolin fade into the distance. As the frantic jig dissolved into the early morning her sense of loss grew. I might never hear him play that song again. She wiped a forearm across her tear blurred eyes as she pulled Ash along behind her.

The soldier didn't look good. His face had taken on the color of a pale cheese, beads of sweat sparkled in the dim light. Ash tried to remain vigilant, his eyes darting between buildings and into shops, but his gaze took everything in with a melancholy despondence, as if he couldn't process the things he saw. When his eyes fell on her it was with a questioning look, as though he didn't know her.

She feared that he would turn without warning, her hand locked with his. Would his fingers go slack and release her, or would his grasp tighten and hold her till he could sink his teeth into her flesh? Shanai tried to put her fears away, holding fast to her moral obligation to help Ash, but those thoughts continued to worm their way to the surface.

She thought of her brother and continued on, darting through the middle of the streets, until the music faded to a dim rhythmic hum and finally disappeared altogether. Still she ran, her breath hitching in her throat, more from grief over her brother than any exertion she underwent from running.

He will be there at the gate. He has a plan. Marchas will be at the gate. The thought played in her head like a mantra, a prayer, a hope that she couldn't give up.

She remembered back to when they were children. She couldn't have been more than six. She sat between two buildings hugging a doll he had made her from rags and crying because Lorenze Post, the bully of the block, had pushed her down and teased her about being a street urchin. Marchas had sat next to her, his arm around her shoulder, telling her that he would take care of her. He had a plan. She wouldn't always be a street urchin. Their future would be full of excitement and adventure, she just had to hang in there and trust him. After that he had gotten up and walked off. Later that afternoon she had seen Lorenze Post again. He sported a black eye and a different attitude. It would be years later before the two would give up their life on the streets and begin playing songs and telling tales for money. Marchas had a plan and it had worked out eventually.

A movement in a doorway pulled her from her memories. A man stumbled out of a small trinket shop. His mouth worked up and down. Strands of stringy spittle dangled from his teeth as his arms flayed about in front of him. He moved slowly, mechanically. Shanai pulled Ash to the far side of the street, intending to walk around the man.

A woman stepped out of an alley. Her bloodied dress torn down the front displaying full breasts coated in blood. Her teeth clattered as they clashed together. A half dozen others followed her from the alley into the street, blocking the road.

Ash fumbled with his sword, struggling to pull it from its sheath. She pushed his hand away from the hilt. The soldier could barely walk, much less fight off a half-dozen people. He started to protest, but she didn't listen. Instead she pulled him into a narrow alley, planning to walk to the next street over and continue to the gate by a different route.

They walked to the halfway point between the buildings before more undead poured into the other end of the alley. She turned, but the undead they fled from moments before had blocked her retreat.

Ash groaned and struggled to pull his sword from its sheath. Shanai pulled him across the alleyway to a wooden door. She pulled on the handle. Locked. Turning, she dragging him across the alley to a door built into the facing building. She yanked on the C-shaped handle. Locked.

The crowed pushed in from either side.

With a frustrated scream she yanked on the handle in a series of frantic jerks. The frame rattled against its stone support, but held firm.

Metal touched her shoulder, and Ash's voice rasped, "Use my sword. Pry it open."

Taking the sword from ash, she slipped the blade into the door handle and wedged the sword against the frame at a sharp angle. She pushed against the handle as hard as she could, until the blade began to bend and the steel bit a deep gouge into the wood. Still the door held.

The shuffle of the dead became louder, mere feet from them.

She screamed and threw herself against the hilt. The sword resisted for a fraction of a second then she slammed into the wall, the door-handle sailed across the alley. She didn't have time to thing about what happened as Ash grabbed her and yanked her through the door, only pausing long enough to whisp his sword off the ground and slam the door shut once they were inside.

With his foot at the base of the door and his legs spread wide for leverage he moaned. "Find something to hold the door."

Still trying to catch her bearings after knocking herself almost senseless against the wall, she gave him a blank look. "The handle broke. Need something the hold the door closed."

She looked about the room, a store room. Barrels, bags, and boxes covered almost every bit of floor space except for a path that led to a door and ladder on the far wall. The passage resembled a mountain pass with all the items stacked higher than her head to each side of the walkway. She didn't see anything that could be moved to block the door, not anything she would be strong enough to move anyway.

Something slammed into the door, knocking Ash back several inches and causing dust to drift down from the frame. He slammed his thin body against the door and yelled, "The broom! Give me the broom."

To her right a straw broom leaned against a wall of barrels. She grabbed it and handed it to Ash. Fists pounded against the door as he took the broom and wedged it between the door and a stack of boxes. "Go..." He took a deep, rasping breath. "Go to the ladder and climb."

She grabbed his arm and pulled him with her to the far side of the room. The door banged and shook behind her as the undead pushed against it.

Within seconds they stood at the base of the ladder. Ash stepped to the side and motioned for her to start climbing as he drew his sword. "That won't hold them for long. Start climbing. I'll hold them off it they break through."

Ash's hair stuck to his sweaty forehead and he leaned against a stack of barrels to keep himself in an upright position. The man didn't look as though he would be able to climb the ladder, much less fight off the dead when they broke through the door. She knew he wouldn't climb the ladder first. She saw it in his eyes, pride. She didn't waste time arguing with him about it and began to climb. She only ascended five rungs when the broom handle gave way and the undead poured into the room.

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Monday, July 28, 2008

Chapter 19a: A Walk Down the Corridor

“…and the chosen crept into the darkness, not knowing the way. There they did abide, by the Lord’s will and did discard their riches, giving up their worldly selves as commanded by the Lord.”

~Secret Holy Scriptures of the Waken Book

The wall torches formed shadows that danced and leapt as Piet Lithor crept along the silent corridor, his sword held before him in trembling hands. Calm yourself Piet. Have faith in Lord Vaspar. He didn't get you this far just to have to be eaten alive here in this dark passageway.

He wished he hadn't thought about being eaten alive.

His thoughts turned to Bos Spielter. The man had certainly been an arrogant bastard, but he didn't deserve to die in the way he had, his neck ripped open and his blood staining the chapel floor. I wonder if Lord Vaspar took his soul, or if it remained trapped within his body. If it stayed within his body then where did it go when his flesh disintegrated? A shiver ran down his spine as he thought about that.

There you go working yourself up again, priest. Think about something else, something pleasant.

Nothing came to mind.

A figure moved in the corridor far behind him. The sound of metal sliding against stone ripped through the darkness. In the silent passageway it echoed with the sound of torn fabric. His imagination created a lumbering monster dragging a leg behind it as the creature advanced upon him one sliding step at a time. He turned around with the holy sword held high, vibrating with his fear, and walked backwards, glancing over his shoulder every couple of seconds to make sure he didn't run into anything - or anyone.

Another scrape, flesh slapped stone.

The Piet turned and ran down the corridor. His breath wheezed through terrified lungs, heart beating with a dangerously rapid rhythm.

Footsteps before him, dozens of footsteps.

Oh Lord Vaspar, is this the end of me? An undead monster behind me and a horde in front of me...

He slowed to a stop and dropped to his knees in prayer, grasping the hilt of the sword until his knuckles turned white. Please Lord Vaspar, spare my life and if not that then don't let them turn me into an abomination. Take my soul. I've changed, Lord. I'm a different man. I...

"Piet Lithor?"

He looked up and saw figured approaching through eyes filmed with tears.

Duke Renier walked toward him from the shadows with Stiles close behind. Another soldier stood back with a group of twenty or so civilians.

Thank you, Lord Vaspar!

The Duke held out a hand and helped the Piet to his feet. "You need to come with us, Piet Lithor. The palace is no longer safe."

Piet Lithor nodded then pointed back behind him. "Something is in the passageway. I think it is stalking me."

The Duke squinted in concentration as he looked down the dark corridor. "I don't see anything, but we will deal with it if it gets between us and the escape tunnel."

The Piet’s heart filled with hope, as if the weight of the world had been lifted from his shoulders. They are going to the escape tunnel. Again, thank you Lord Vaspar.

He suddenly remembered his small congregation at the Chapel. "We need to return to the Chapel, Duke Renier. There are almost fifteen souls waiting for me to return and bring them to safety."

The Duke grasped the Piet's shoulder. "We will, my friend. We'll make that our last stop on the way to the tunnel. It's not far out of our way."

The soldier who had been standing with the group of civilians marched up to the Duke and whispered. "My Lord, we need to get you to safety. We shouldn't be taking on another rescue miss..."

"No, General. Did you hear him? There are fifteen more men and women, residents of Renier that we can save. We will make this detour and then be on our way."

"My Lord, we need to get you..."

"I said 'no', General. We will rescue these people first."

With that he walked past the Piet and into the darkened corridor.

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Chapter 18c: The Wizard's Apprentice

Rachelle didn't think she had any tears left, but they soaked the chest of Wellan's tattered robe. She didn't know if the tears came from the stabbing pain in her head or her sense of loss with the passing of the wizard. Probably both.

Sharp spikes of torment shot through her head every few seconds and when the sharp pains ended a throbbing ache remained. Her mind fought to sort through the pictures that pulsed within her imagination, memories of ancient times, Wellan's life. Her thoughts remained a jumbled assortment of information, each piece floated in her mind like a single sentence or paragraph from a book, individually making sense, but not forming a whole story. Rachelle moaned as pain shot through her head with the force of an icicle being slammed between her eyes. Her mind tried to sort and catalogue centuries worth of knowledge and feelings. It overloaded her senses, making her brain feel as though it would explode at any second. Her existence had become pain and confusion, lost in a place between her world and Wellan's.

The creaking of hinges penetrated through the dull ache. The Duke, a guard, a memory? She didn't lift her head; a sphere of pain enfolded her and left little room for anything else.

Footsteps padded across the stone floor. The smell of mulch and decay filled her nose. A gurgling chuckle intruded on the pain, menacing. She looked up with bloodshot eyes.

A naked man stood at the foot of the bed. A silhouette stood before her, its skin glistened, slick and black like oil. Teeth that matched his skin shone from obsidian gums. Two black marbles glittered as they stared down at the wizard, studying the deceased with a proud smile.

The black eyes travelled to Rachelle. "Ud move, goshling. Der Shaaaman est mine."

She stood on legs that that threatened to betray her. The room tilted and the nude man disappeared from her vision as memories again flooded her mind. A thin man in baggy robes sat leaning against the gnarled tree bark looking up at her with a smile. He held out a smoking pipe with an inviting smile. The flash lasted mere seconds and when she returned a guard stood in the doorway.

She opened her mouth to call to him, beg him to help, but stopped. The armored man gazed at her with blank eyes. His mouth opened and closed, drool slid down his chin and dangled precariously as it swayed with the rolling of his jaw. The abominations are here, in the palace. All is lost.

The black man stepped around the bed with the grace of a dance and faced Rachelle, a black dagger pointed before him. "Ud move, goshling."

Without a seconds thought she lifted the chair and held it before her, the legs pointed at the black horror. Her pain betrayed her and she wobbled to the side as another spike of pain drove between her brows. Images flashed before her eyes for a mere fraction of a second. A night sky full of stars filled her vision. This slim light of a crescent moon shone in the heavens as a shooting star streaked across the sky and plunged into the earth with a blasting roar several miles away. The scene changed to a small dim room, a menacing chuckle greeted her return to the present. Black hands held a leg of the chair and jerked if from her hands, almost pulling her to the ground.

The black dagger rose into the air, poised to plunge into her heart. She cried out. Her hands rose before her face to block the blow she knew she couldn't prevent.

A bloodied hand, middle finger bitten to a stub, struck out from the bed, grasping the black arm and pulling the blade away from its target. The obsidian man snarled and turned to Wellan, driving the knife deep into his stomach. Runes on the knife glinted green then faded.

The wizard grunted, ignoring his attacker and turning his head to Rachelle. His eyes remained glazed over, but no pain shone from them. He grunted as the knife struck home again, then whispered, "Remember the demon in the cave...the wolf..."

Her mind grasped Wellan's words, flew through the images and information until they locked onto that one instant in the Wellan’s life. Again she saw the five men, the enormous wolf with red hot coals burning deep within his throat. Smoke drifted out between it’s yellow fangs. Once more she felt the power flare up within her, brought forth by her will. She felt it burst out of her and slam the demon into the wall. Power, raw energy flashed from her being, brought forth by her will to use it.

Before she realized it she stood before Wellan again. His weak hands tried to grasp his attacker’s arms as they plunged the dagger into his stomach over and over again. His hands slid off under the black man’s frenzied attack.

With a scream she reached deep into herself and grasped the golden light that represented that power. She sucked it up into a tight ball and sent it racing down her arm and through her hand. It burst forth with the sound of thunder, raw energy barely controlled. A golden radiance unleashed with the fury of the nine hells. It slammed into the obsidian man and sent him flying into the air, crashing through the window and sailing backwards to land somewhere in the courtyard three stories below. The bed flipped over and slammeded against the wall, trapping Wellan beneath it. The undead guard at the door flew four feet across the hall, slamming head first into the stone as though he were launched from a catapult, cracking bricks and splattering gore in a red spray across the rough surface.

Weakness touched her muscles, she felt drained. The room became a blur and she tasted blood. Bracing herself against the wall she wiped her forearm beneath her nose. Blood smeared the back of her arm.

Ignoring her exhaustion and blood for the moment she stumbled to the overturned bed. It wobbled and tipped over as Wellan crawled from beneath it. He knelt on the ground with his intestines hanging from his gutted stomach, the gashes he received outside the city walls opened again and dripping pus.

He looked up at Rachelle and gave her a crooked smile. "Get me something to wrap my waist in and I will try and get myself pulled back together. Then..." His nostils flared, sniffing the air like a hungry wolf, milky eyes open wide. His tongue licked cracked lips then he shivered and squeezed his eyes closed. His voice returned in a rough rasp, "Then we must flee."

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Chapter 18b: A Simple Sermon

Piet Lithor stood behind the pulpit, rubbing his stubble ridden chin and looking at the fifteen or so people who sat in the dozen pews before him. He had been asked to speak to the people in the duke's private chapel, a dining room sized affair and seldom used. Everything in the chapel was at least as grand as the main temple with carved pews, a marble pulpit, soft cushioned chairs and pews, but somehow it didn't feel the same any longer. He felt as though he didn't belong in front of these people, he no longer felt worthy of representing Lord Vaspar.

An echoing cough and shuffle of feet pulled him from his thoughts. The people were getting anxious. He had been staring at them, consumed by his doubts, far too long. His hand ran from his rough beard to nervously comb through his greasy thinning hair. Lord Vaspar, what do I say to these people, men and women who are relying on me to guide them through these troubled times?

Deep down he had hoped that Lord Vaspar would tell him what to say, give him some direction. Silence answered him.

With a sigh he grasped the front of the pulpit and began. "I...I no longer feel worthy of leading you in Lord Vaspar's light. Time and again he has tested my metal and found me unworthy, but I ignored him. I went about my business, strutting around like the lead cock when in reality I was the lowest of you. My arrogance and my pride blinded me to the truth that is Lord Vaspar. You good people probably know him better than I do. You follow him in blind faith. You meet now expecting the grand Piet to give you words of comfort, something that will ease your troubled souls and allow you to sleep at night. I am sorry, but I can't give you people that. I would like to, but..but Lord Vaspar hasn't given me any great words of wisdom to impart on you. He hasn't told me comforting words that will ease your fears or loss.

"All I can do is relate my personal experience and tell you that Lord Vaspar saved me from this ravaged city. When my priests, Vaspar bless their lost souls, tried to get me and turn me into one of them Lord Vaspar was there to save me. He didn't show up in a golden ray of light as he did in the holy book of Chronis. He didn't offer his blessing upon me, didn't bestow upon me the power to beat my enemies. He didn't speak to me and tell me how this is going to turn out."

Piet Lithor rubbed his tired eyes. Hope. These people need hope and all I now do is blather on about how we are lost and Lord Vaspar has offered no aid. Get it together priest. Lead your people, Piet.

He looked at the small group gathered before him and shook his head. Is this all that is left? Are these the last followers of the faith within Renier?

Reaching down to his side he pulled the Holy Sword out of its scabbard and held it high before the people. He gazed at the silver sword, Vaspar's talisman. "This, my friends, is what the Lord Vaspar bestowed upon me. This holy sword is anathema to those retched souls. They can't touch it and are even distraught by the site of it. That is the power of Lord Vaspar. That is the power that saved me when all hope was gone."

He again looked through the group of people, hoping to see someone who survived from the Temple. He didn't recognize anyone. Surely someone else survived. I will need to find out as soon as I am done here.

"Another gift from the Lord Vaspar is his Temple, and I assume this chapel also. They are incapable of touching holy ground. It kills them faster than any sword will. Remember that in the days to come. Lord Vaspar still holds power over what is his and this madness can't take that away. Though the forces of evil...

The chapel doors burst open, banging against the wall like a sledge hammer and echoing through the room. Bos Spielter stumbled through, his hand on his neck and blood oozing between his fingers. He took a few steps into the chapel, his eyes never leaving the Piets, then fell on his knees as though about to pray.

"Nowhere is safe." He wheezed and coughed, blood coating his teeth and sprinkling the floor with red dew. "They're here, here in the palace. We're all gonna die..." The last words distorted and gurgled as blood welled up the Bos' throat and spilled over his bottom teeth. His eyes grew wide and he fell forward, blood formed a widening pool around his head.

Two men jumped up and ran to Bos' Spielter.

"Stop! Don't touch him." Piet Lithor sprang from the pulpit and stood between the two men and the body.

The men's eyes grew wide as they stared behind the Piet. A woman screamed. A nauseating stench filled the room, rotting meat cooked over coals of garbage. He turned. A greasy black smoke rose from the Bos' convulsing body, billowing to the ceiling and covering it like a thunder cloud.

Piet Lithor almost told everyone to run from the Chapel, then remembered his sermon. They stood on holy ground, untouchable by the abominations. They would remain safe in the chapel.

He spoke through clenched teeth, fighting nausea brought about by the stench and watching the Bos' skin and organs dissolve until only charred bones remained. "Everyone stay here. You will be safe until I return. I'm going to inform the duke."

Everyone stared at the blackened bones. No one offered to accompany him. No one needed to. The well being of their souls was his duty. The preservation of their lives his responsibility, his penance for the vulgar life he had lived.

Lifting the holy sword before him he stepped out into the corridor to find the Duke.

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Saturday, July 26, 2008

Chapter 18a: The Mandolin

Part III

"“Men, the children of God, share a common trait as the beast of the field. It is their ‘fight of flight’ instinct, the difference between being a predator or becoming prey.

~From Shantazar’s treatise on human behavior

For almost an hour Shanai had been looking over the edge of the counter, watching as people stumbled back and forth in front of the bakery window. Her nose slowly became immune to the enticing aroma of fresh baked bread until she hardly noticed the smell though her stomach still grumbled from time to time. The streets almost seemed like a busy city night, except for the blank stares and the lurching movements of the citizens. They searched for her as she watched in hiding, like a rabbit cornered in its burrow. She needed to get out there and find her brother, make sure nothing had happened to him. Of coarse, knowing Marchas, he's probably already outside the city walls guzzling down ale and telling the tale of his grand escape. She almost smiled at the thought, but deep down she knew better. Marchas wasn't going anywhere without his little sister.

"You're gonna have to do it." Ash whispered.

For the entire hour he had been sitting on the floor, staring at the wall and rubbing his bite. He had moved very little and said nothing.

She looked down at his pale face. Beads of sweat coated his forehead. "Do what?"

He looked up at her with bloodshot eyes and held up his bloody arm. "Off me. I ain't gonna be around much longer and when I come back I...I'm gonna be just like them. Don't want to be like them. You got to kill me before that can happen."

Grabbing his hand, she pushed his arm back down. "Don't talk about that. You aren't going to die from a single bite. We'll get out of here. Get you some help."

His brows arched and his mouth turned to a sneer. She didn't buy her own pep talk so how could she expect him to.

"You don't know what you're talking about. You haven't seen them, haven't seen people return once they die." He grabbed her arm with his bitten one. "If you don't agree to do it then I won't go any further with you."

She opened her mouth to protest, but he continued on. "I mean it. In here I can't get out and hurt anyone when I change, but if I go with you and you don't kill me when the time comes then I won't only be a danger to you, but to everyone in the city. I can't let that..."

He stopped and turned his head to the shop door, listening.

Following his lead she turned and listened too. Music. Mandolin music. One of Marchas' favorite tunes floated down the street on plucked strings. A fast paced dancing jig that, when accompanied by song, spoke of adventure, ale, women, and riches. A grin spread across her face. That crazy bastard!

Ash leaned back against the counter. "Well, it looks like your brother is doing all right, but if he doesn't stop playing he's gonna draw every undead in the city to himself."

Already the dead were picking up on the sound, shuffling across the front window by the droves, stumbling toward the music.

"Well, I give your brother points for having guts, but not so many in the brains department."

She smiled down at Ash. "Yeah, that's my brother. Always thinking with his..."

The music stopped and fear for her brother grabbed the back of her neck with icy fingers.

She breathed a sigh of relief when Marchas' voice echoed through the streets. "Shanai. Don't yell back, but I'm guessing you are still around here somewhere and thinkin' I've finally lost my mind. You might be right, but I got a plan. I'm gonna play this mandolin for a little longer, maybe go through some more of my favorite tunes, a naughty limerick or two, and then I'm gonna tell you to run. When I do go get your ass headed for the West gate as fast as you can. Don't stop for me. You get outside the gate and keep going till it's safe. If I don't meet up with you right away then head to the Baron Milchev’s town and I will meet you there. Stay safe, sis."

The music resumed with a racy dancing jig.

Ash looked over the counter and shook his head. "Your brother's definitely not paddling with both oars, but he's got guts. I'll give him that"

Watching the dead lumber across the window she smiled. "He never was all that good with paddles. I just hope he doesn't get himself killed with this plan of his."

The dead began to crowd the streets as they headed in the direction of the sound, hundreds of them lumbering in front of the bakery, a stream of flesh moving north, bumping into one another and falling to the ground in their quest for the player of the music.

Ash scratched his cheek and eased around the counter. "This plan might just work. They are starting to thin out, headed for wherever he is holed up. He's drawing them like flies to a carcass."

She cringed at his choice of words, but continued watching the last of the undead as they began to trickle past the backery. Without looking at Ash, Shanai replied, "I just hope he isn't getting himself cornered."

Ash wiped sweat from his brow and walked to the door as the last of the undead stumbled past the window. Shanai noticed his unsteady steps, telling herself that it was because of the long sit and not anything else.

A new song began, one that Marchas added his deep voice too. A song entitled Running with Sin, A fast song about a wild girl who lives life for the moment, always running from the law. A song that Shanai could certainly relate to, but she guessed Marchas had chosen it to let her know that the time to flee was close.

As soon as the song ended Marchas screamed in the distance. "Move your ass, sis! I'll see you on the other side of the gate."

Ash cracked the door opened and looked outside, then waved her to him.

Doing as her brother said she ran, grabbing Ash's clammy hand as she passed through the door.

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Monday, July 7, 2008

Chapter 17a: Wizard's Apprentice

“Bravery is not a lack of fear. Bravery is being afraid and facing your fears, functioning for the betterment of all in the midst of terror.”

~Quote from unknown author

He looked old, sick. She squeezed his cold hand. Wellan shifted his head to the side and his dull gaze stared at her through a thin film. She didn’t think he recognized her until he smiled. It became a grimace that caused him to squeeze his eyes closed. She ran a damp rag over his sweaty brow, being careful not to open any of the wounds as her rag ran across his forehead.

She had been sitting in the room with him for the last hour, listening to him mumble then scream out. Watching him as his body fought a desperate war against a fate worse than death. She feared he would loose this one.

A whisper, like faint words on the wind. She bent her head down closer to Wellan’s mouth squeezing his limp hand. His mouth moved, but she still couldn’t hear the words he tried to speak. She lowered her head more, until her ear almost touched his lips. “Put…put my hands…on your temple. I want…I…to give…”

She sat up and nodded, grabbing both of his hands and placing the fingers against her temples without a clue as to what he wanted.

His eyes shut and his mouth began to more again, soundlessly. She lowered her head to try and catch his words again, pulling his hands from her temples to lay them across his chest. His hands stayed on her temples with more strength than she had credited him with having.

She gasped as a spike of ice slammed through her head, coring into the center of her being. Wellan disappeared from her sight, the bed no longer mattered, her mind left the little room, the palace, the city.


A raging campfire spun to life in front of her. Men and women danced around the undulating flames while sparks burst into the air to ride the currents until they cooled and died. The people were like none she had ever seen, dressed in wolf hides and leather, wearing bones and painted faces. She looked down at herself. A leather loin cloth, shirtless. Her chest looked like that of a young man or a girl, old claws from some fearsome beast hung on a leather thong around her neck.

The dancing stopped. She looked up as a bear of a man came towards her bearing a staff topped with the skull of a large bird. He spoke harsh words in a language she didn’t understand. He yanked her off her feet and spoke the words again, but this time she understood. “Come, apprentice.”

The darkness evaporated into a blinding white field. The heat and humidity that caused her skin to sweat moments before changed, becoming a cold like none she had ever known. It slammed against her face like an open-handed slap. She gasped. And gripped her staff tighter. Her staff?

The large bear of a man stood next to her. This time he did look like a bear, covered head to toe in a wooly fur. She didn’t know how she knew that it was the same man, but she knew. He grabbed her shoulder and pointed to the top of a white mound. “Watch. You may never see them again, Gwunwyvern.”

Dark brown shapes broke over the top of the hill, shaggy lumps with huge tusks. A snout raised into the air and trumpeted a deep call. Rachelle wondered how the mammoths didn’t sink to the bellies in the soft ground. Mammoths? No one had seen the great beasts in hundreds of years. What was happening to her? Did she suffer delusions? She turned to ask the bear of a man, Thornewulf, but before she could the scene changed again.

Tents. Leather cones with brightly painted symbols sat around her on a plain of grass, the flaps of their doors blowing in the steady breeze. Fires burned all around her, smoking meat lay out on sticks. The smell caused her mouth to water. He turned her head and something tickled her neck. She reached up to brush it off. Hair. A beard? She yanked on it, squinting her eyes from the pain.

A man gave her an odd look as he walked past. He wore only leather britches and a domed hat decorated much like the tents. She looked around and saw others moving back and forth between the tents, carrying clay pots, spears, and stone aged tools. The men wore the britches and strange hats while the women wore knee length leather dresses and flowers in their hair. She looked at her own attire, a leather robe reaching all the way to the ground, decorated with more patterns and colors than anyone else in the small nomadic village. In her right hand was the staff that she had held as she watched the mammoths.

Are these Wellan’s memories?

She looked over at a stack of wood. A man lay atop it. The bear of a man, her mentor, his face pointed at the sky and his hands across his chest. Dead. It was a funeral pyre.

She took two steps toward him before the scene changed again.

Darkness. Rock. Her staff glowed with the power of a hundred fireflies. Five brave warriors stood behind her, fear widened their eyes, their spears pointed at something before her. She turned. A wolf stood before her, but like none she had ever seen. It stood five feet at the shoulders and its eyes glowed a bright red. Its lips curled up and a rumbling growl rolled from its mouth. Between the teeth a fire raged lighting up the space between each fang with a flickering light. Its hackles stood. It leaped.

A blast of energy erupted from her outstretched hand. The light of her staff dimmed slightly. She recognized the energy as the same force she had used against the undead on the streets of Renier. She recognized the trigger that set it off, the mental push that her will activated.

The great wolf slammed into a wall and fell to the floor. It rose and paced back and forth, not done with the fight.

The scene shifted.

Salt air and a strong breeze greeted her. The world rocked up and down causing her to put a hand out to catch herself. The damned beard tickled her neck.

“Ok gru tom chay?” Are you all right? She didn’t recognize the language at all, but she understood it. She nodded at one of the three men who stood around a barrel on the deck of a ship. A map sat on the barrel, weighted down by a copper helmet. A crude map showing the coast line of Renier, something an explorer might have drawn.

The wind died, the sea smell disappeared.

She sat in front of a stone hearth in a wooden hall with a mug of mead in her hand and watched warriors wrestle and couples dancing. Her stomach felt nauseous from the constantly changing environment.

A hand grasped her shoulder. She turned to face a bearded man. He looked a great deal like the Duke except for the full beard and his wide girth. A grandfather or great grandfather perhaps?

He smiled, “Are ye enjoyin’ yerself wizard?”

Not trusting herself to speak she only nodded her head.

“Glad t’hear it. This here hall is just a start. I think with a little hard work and a bit o’planin’ we can have us a whole city right here in this very spot. Maybe even build a castle against the cliff. Ye tink I can do it, Wellan?”

She started to nod, but the scene shifted and shifted and shifted, faster and faster until she couldn’t take it all in. With a scream she opened her eyes.

Wellan lay before her, his mouth drawn and his eyes open, staring at the ceiling. His life had ended, but he had given her all he could before it was done.

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Chapter 16d: The Duke and the Priest

Piet Lithor sat in the Dukes private chamber just like he had dozens of times before, but this time it felt different. Before the plague he had always wondered why the Duke, who could afford gold trim on all the walls and exotic tiles on the floor, always chose the simplest of rooms to hold his private meetings. He looked around at the few worn but comfortable chairs, the plain wood knee-high table that held a glass ashtray, a brass pitcher and two simple coffee teacups. Now it all made sense to him. While within this room Duke Renier had no intentions of putting on heirs, he wanted to feel relaxed and to make his guest feel the same way. The Piet had once looks on this with his nose turned up in the air, now he felt relaxed and thankful for a place where he could prop his feet up and leave the status and pomp behind him.

Duke Renier stepped into the room and sat in the chair across from Lithor. He poured them both tea and sat back, looking at the Piet over the rim of his cup. Lithor lifted his to his mouth and smiled as he noticed a small chip near the lip.

Leaning back the Duke asked, “So, Lithor, how did you make it out there for so long? Prayer and faith?”

Lithor smiled and set his cup down on the table. “I think prayer and faith had a lot to do with it. Vaspar kept his hand of protection over me, though I have no idea why. I’ve been an ass and I owe you and everyone else here an apology for the piety and arrogance.”

The Duke sat forward, attempting to interrupt, to politely argue with Lithor that he wasn’t an arrogant fool. Lithor knew better and stopped the duke’s protest with a wave of his hand.

“No, don’t say I wasn’t, because I was. I still am to some degree. It’s hard to retrain an old priest who thought he was above human.”

He picked his teacup back up and took a sip before continuing. He couldn’t look at the duke as he told his story so he stared at the brown liquid.

“I was in my home, complaining to one of the acolytes about the help not being around when it all began. Brother Clay…had prepared my lunch and brought it in when the other…priests…came into the room. They were in terrible shape. Vomit and blood stained their nightclothes. Their eyes were the worst thing, blank and dead. I stood up from the chair and…” He stopped, remembering Brother Clay’s sacrifice.

Leaning forward he switched his gaze from the cup to the stone tiled floor at his feet. “Brother Clay told me to run. I did. I…I left him to slow the other priests down. The great Piet left him to die so that I might live.” He wiped his eyes. His hand came away wet.

“I ran to my room and cowered behind my bed. The priests beat on the door. I prayed to Vaspar to save me. Nothing happened, They continued to beat on the door. My faith began to wane and in desperation I grabbed the holy sword of Tymra and scuttled back behind the bed. I knew I wouldn’t be able to use it, but having the weapon gave me some comfort. I continued my prayers and soon the priests left my door.

“I don’t know how long I sat there cowering, but I finally gained the courage to leave my room. I didn’t see any of the priests until I got to the front yard and looked out the door. Two of them shuffled through the rain in the front yard. Stoking what little courage I had I finally made a dash for the front gate. The gate was shut and they would have had me had it not been for the sword. It kept them at bay. They seemed to be afraid of it, like it was anathema to them.

“After making it through the gate I attempted to reach the palace, but there were far too many of the undead to make it so I ran to the Temple of Vaspar. Others were already there, surrounded by undead. The undead wouldn’t touch the temple grounds. Vaspar’s holiness kept them at bay. I ran through them with the sword held high, even knocked one over into the temple yard in my mad run. The thing began to burn as soon as it touched the holy ground. Anyway, I made it into the temple and did like the others, waited.”

He leaned back in the chair and looked at the duke. “I think you know the rest of my tale.”

Duke Renier leaned forward and put his hand on the Piet’s wrist. “You don’t give yourself enough credit, Piet Lithor. It sounds to me as though Vaspar found you worthy enough to look after you. I have to say though. I do see a change. It’s a change for the better.”

The Piet patted the duke’s hand. “Thank you, my friend.”

“No, thank you for helping those people, and for helping Wellan get into the city. That took a great deal of courage.”

Lithor shook his head. “I owed him that much. I have been terrible to him over the years, spiteful and petty. As I saw him go down amongst the undead I realized that. By the way, how is he?”

Duke Renier frowned and rubbed his hand through his goatee. “Not very good I’m afraid. They tore him up, but he is a wizard and hopefully he will have a trick or two up his sleeve that will allow him to recover. He is with the Lady Rachelle right now. He requested that she, and only she, attend him for now.”

The duke sat up straight and smiled. “Wellan isn’t the only one with a trick or two up his sleeve. Now that you are here it won’t belong before we make our escape from the city. There is an emergency tunnel in the back of the palace that leads to the water on the East side. As soon as Wellan is well enough to walk we will get everyone together and leave.”

Lithor felt a weight being lifted off his shoulders as the dukes words gave him hope. “It sounds like you have a solid plan, my duke. I will pray to Vaspar that Wellan recovers soon and we make a safe exodus from here.”

“Thank you, Piet Lithor. I’m sure Wellan will appreciate that.”

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Sunday, July 6, 2008

Chapter 16c: Return to the Bakery

The hand tightened on Shanai’s mouth smelling of honing oil, blending with the smell of fresh baked bread. A hot breath touched her ear adding the odor of old meat and tobacco smoke. A whisper rode the harsh breath, Ash’s voice. “Quiet, girl! They are right outside.”

Shuffling could be heard in the dark, the sound dampened by a wooden door.

She struggled against him, pulling his hand away from her mouth. She hissed her answer. “Let me go! My brother’s out there, I have to help him.”

“Your brother is fine. Do you hear a struggle? Did you hear any screams?”

Her teeth remained clenched together. “No.”

His hand left her face and she felt him step back. “Your brother and my men are alive for now. They must have seen them and backed out of the alley as I pulled us into the back door of this shop. They are probably holed up somewhere right now just like us, waiting for the dead to disperse so that they can either look for us or make a run for the west gate.”

More feet shuffled past. Something slammed into the door, rattling the wood in its frame. Biting her lower lip she stepped back with her bow raised, uselessly pointed into the black in before her. Feet continued to slide against the stone, but nothing else banged against the door.

Something crashed to the floor behind her. Shanai spun around, her arrow pulled taut and blindly pointed to the darkness in front of her.

Ash’s sword hissed as it slid out of its sheath. His other hand pushed into her stomach and groped until it found her wrist. He yanked her forward until her fingers touch leather, his back. He whispered into the dark. “Stay behind me.”

Another crash. The screech of furniture as it slid across the floor, closer and louder that the previous sound.

Shanai slid her bow over her shoulder. The arrow remained in her clenched fist like a daggar. She took a deep breath to try and calm her nerves; the sweet smell of baked bread filled her nostrils.

Feet rasp as they slid across the floor, getting closer with each lurch. Ash shifted to remain facing the sound. Shanai stepped to the side to remain behind him, or as much as she can in the dark void.

The feet shuffled closer. The leather beneath her fingers begins to slide back and forth as Ash’s sword swung wildly before him.

Shanai heard a thunk as steel wedged into flesh. Ash’s frame shifted, his center of gravity moved to his right side like a spring being wound tight before uncoiling with the speed of a viper. Another thunk of metal sinking into flesh, a cleaver chopping a roast. Something fell to the floor and Ash bent over to maintain the assault. Weight shifting to the right foot before the swing, over and over again, her heart pounded to the beat of Ash maintained. Other than an occasional grunt from Ash and the wet chopping noise the one sided battle took place in darkness and silence.

Something grabbed Shanai’s arm. She screamed and stumbled backward, tripping over her own feet and falling to the floor. Without thinking she crawled across the floor on her back, instinct and fear telling her to get away from the nightmare. She could hear feet scuffling across the floor in front of her. Something banged into the door. Ash let out a hiss and then a groan then the sound of steel sinking into flesh and a body hitting the floor. Liquid splashed onto her pants, then just the butchers sound of steel and meat.

Another slam against the door.

She flinched as something grabbed her arm and pulled.

“Shhhhh, “It’s me.” Ash whispered.

He yanked her to her feet and pulled her along the wall, away from the door and it’s haunting knocks.

Within twenty steps Ash led her through a swinging door and into a room filled with the cold blue light of the night. He pulled her down behind a counter, his eyes taking in what he could of the room before lifting his head above the counter. A frown covered his face as he dropped back down beside her and stared at the floor between his feet.

Shanai waited a few minutes before asking, “What now? Are they still out there?”

He rubbed his eyes with his thumb and index finger before saying, “Yeah, they are still out there. It sounds like the ones who were banging on the back door have quit though, and other than the two in I kill…put down in the back room there aren’t any more in her, but we have to move and do it pretty quickly. We now have a deadline.”

She frowned. “Why is that?”

He held his arm out. A thumb-sized chunk of meat showed on his upper forearm, blood welling within it and dripping down the sides. Ash ripped his sleeve the rest of the way off and began binding it around the wound. The sleeve turned red and dripped before he could get it tied.

“That second one was a sneaky bastard with a hell of a bite. Anyway, we don’t have a lot of time to dally around now. I have to get you out of here before I…succumb to whatever this is.”

With her vision blurred by tears she reached over and touched his shoulder. She didn’t know how to reply.

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Friday, June 27, 2008

Chapter 16b: The Brave Piet

Venomous hatred rose within Piet Lithor when he saw Wellan approaching from the castle walls. He gripped his sword tighter as the ghoulish leader walked through the mass of undead to meet the wizard. Righteous anger heated his blood as the two exchanged words in a language that the Piet found totally incomprehensible. He stood too far away to hear their talk very well, but what he did hear sounded like the speech of devils. The demon wizard is betraying us, selling our souls to that ghoul in exchange for more evil tricks and power. I mustn’t let that happen.

With his pulse pounding in his head and his sword gripped tight enough to whiten his knuckles he walked over to Stiles. He would warn the brave soldier of the sorcerer’s trechery.

The undead ranks began to shuffle and break apart.

Stiles watched, his gaze intently studying the twin demons as their talk took on a became louder and more heated.

Lithor raised his hand to Stiles’ shoulder. "Stiles, there is something I...."

A roar erupted in the midst of the corpses. The undead pushed against one another, trying to get to their master, to Wellan. The blue peak of the wizard’s cowl could be seen between the decomposing heads, but the large commander had disappeared in the throng.

"Run, Stiles! Get those people to the palace."

Wellan? Like water thrown over an open fire, the Piet’s hatred and anger vanished, leaving only the smoke of shame and despair. Oh, Vaspar. He didn’t conspire with the undead. Once again anger, prejudice and hatred have blinded me to the truth. How could I have been so wrong? How could I stand by while another man sacrifices himself for me? It’s not too late to pay my penance. I owe it to that man for the hatred I have felt and lies I have spread. I will not let another die in my place.

Something slammed into him, almost knocking him from his feet, pulling him from his thoughts. The woman with the baby, its cries tearing through the night, picked herself up and raced toward the castle. Others flashed by as they sped along with her. Stiles stood in place, waving the group through, encouraging them to run.

The Piet held the sword before him, pointed to where he had last seen Wellan. He began to walk into the mass of cold flesh.

Stiles screamed, "No, Piet Lithor. This way, there’s nothing you can do for Wellan now."

He continued walking, sparing a glance at Stiles. "Go, do as Wellan said and get those people to the castle." He let go of the sword with one hand to point at the undead that had broken from the mass to intercept the escaping refugees.

Stiles followed the Piet’s pointing finger as more ghouls poured in from the forest, already beginning to grab people as they passed. The newly married man became a widower as undead arms pulled his wife from her feet. He watched in horror, listening to hear screams, as they ate her alive. The young man stepped forward to help her, then turned and ran.

Stiles gave the priest a single nod then ran to protect the refugees.

The Piet continued his walk.

The undead paid no attention to him until he stood at their backs. They turned, scrambling out of his way, parting before him and his holy relic. He continued to walk through the corridor of dead bodies until the last ones fell to the side, revealing a torn and bloody wizard.

Wellan looked up. A smile touched his lips then disappeared in a grimace of pain. "I...I didn’t think you liked me, Lithor."

The priest spun around, presenting the sword like a shield to the cold reaching hands. "I didn’t like you. I was wrong." He reached down to help Wellan stand.

The wizard held his arm up, not in an effort to be helped, but to keep the priest back. Blood dribbled down the corner of his mouth as he rasped "Leave me. I’ve been infected. Get out of here with that sword. Help the Duke."

He reached down, grabbing the wizard’s robes and pulling him to his feet. Either the old man didn’t weight anything, or the priests adrenalin fueled system ignored the weight. When the wizard stood, leaning against the priest, Lithor said, "No one else is dying in my place, Wellan. Now, let’s get you..."

"Put him down." The large ghoul roared as he stepped through the surrounding undead.

Lithor’s sword flashed up. The parchment-skinned man flinched then relaxed, slowly bringing his own sword up. "I’m not one of these simpletons. I won’t be cowered by your relic."

The Piet backed away, swinging his sword as much as he could to push back the reaching corpses, dragging Wellan with him as he went.

The undead leader stepped up, sword raised for a killing blow.

Wellan’s hand shot out from beneath his robes. Lightning flew from his fingers, slamming into the armored chest and trailing the metal around the large body. The man let out a grunt and fell to his knees, sword dropping from his contracting fingers.

Without seeing if the thing had finally been killed Lithor turned and sped through the ghoulish crowd as they parted before his outstretched sword. Within seconds the gate came into sight. The priest almost stopped when he looked to the left and saw that more than half of the refugees didn’t make it. Ghouls stood over their torn bodies stuffing chunks of flesh into their red rimmed mouths. Cylus’ head and torso lay on the cobbled road in a puddle of blood as a woman with the skin color of a fish’s belly gnawed on his severed arm.

"Keep running, Piet Lithor. Run for the gate." The frantic scream of Stiles’ familiar voice bellowing from the castle walls pulled him from the horrid sight before him. He turned and sped to the gate. Armored soldiers, bows held ready, guarded the opening, awaiting his return.

Wellan mumbled phrases that didn’t make sense, in an incomprehensible language, as the Piet drug his body toward the gate. Bow strings twanged. Lines of death streaked overhead. The sounds of falling bodies close behind him. He ran the last fifty yards to the gate with the sword dragging behind him; too weak to hold it upright, but needing it’s presence to guard his back.

He crashed through the line of soldiers. They formed up around him and helped him pull Wellan through the gate as the wizard mumbled, "The blood...don’t"

The Duke pushed through the crowd of guards as the gate boomed closed, kneeling beside the blood covered wizard. He cradled Wellan’s head in his arms and whispered, "It’s going to be all right, my friend. You’re safe with us now."

The Piet knelt on the other side of the wizard, noticing how old the man looked. Though he had never liked the old sorcerer he still had held a grudging respect for the man. Now, it broke his heart to see him like this.

Duke Renier turned to Lithor. Tears brimmed in the red spider web etched eyes. "Thank you, Lithor. Thank you for bringing my friend back to me."

Lithor nodded, for the first time in his life he didn’t know what to say.

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Chapter 16a: The Wizard and the Warrior

“Men, this is war! Today some of you will fall and not get up. Fear not for you will be remembered as heroes. Should that happen to you then have a cup of mead with the god of war and share your bloody stories with him, for I guarantee we will be victorious!”

~General Faygen (Famous battle speech)

The undead didn't notice the wizard's approach until he stood a few yards behind them. They turned to him. A few shuffled out of rank, eager to devour the old man. The breeze wafted a mildly sweet smell of soured meat toward Wellan. They are starting to rot. It won't be long until their putrid bodies begin to affect the few who still live with a more natural form of plague.

They stopped and a deep voice bellowed a name that the wizard hadn't heard in centuries. "Welkgund!"

Wellan dipped his head down in a guarded bow. "Faygen, old friend. Why have you invaded this city?"

The ranks of undead parted as the general walked through their midst. He didn't speak until he had passed the rows of corpses and stood before Wellan. Instead of replying in the common tongue he spoke Croshan. "Welkgund, why don't we continue this conversation in the tongue of men, instead of the yapping of dogs."

Faygen looked terrible. His skin stretched over his bones like parchment placed against a rock and his eyes, if they still existed, sat far back in their sockets. The heavy armor rode his frame loosely, as if built for a much larger man.

The wizard replied in the same language, though the harsh vocabulary no longer rode easily on his tongue. "As you wish. Now, why are you here?"

The general smiled, pitted yellow teeth shone between time cracked lips. "Always right to the point with you, Welkgund. No asking me how I've been doing. No pleasantries."

Faygen's flippant attitude surprised and angered the wizard. The man Wellan had known would never have taken the current situation so casually.

The undead began to shuffle, becoming restless.

"Unfortunately neither this city nor I have the time to spend on the nicer things in life."

The ranks of ghouls became unorganized as bodies moved back and forth, slowly merging with the rear formation.

Thin arms crossed over an armored chest, elbow joints pushing the grainy skin tight. "I've noticed that, so I'm going to let you know how my life's been going without you having to ask. As you can probably tell from my appearance I haven't been doing so well. To be honest with you I've been dead. Some might say I've gotten better in the last month, but I wouldn't agree with them. I would love to return to the slumber of death, but the necromatic bastard that brought me back won't allow that."

Wellan opened his mouth to speak, but Faygen held a joint knotted hand up to silence him. "Let me finish. You might also be asking yourself how the noble general of the mighty Croshan's found himself leading an army of undead. I can assure you it is not out of choice. Do you remember my daughter, Welkgund? Eyliasa?"

He nodded. Her death had haunted him for years. He remembered Faygen's pain and guilt.

The edges of the rear formation of corpses crumbled as they bumped and pushed against one another, slowly surrounding the two old friends.

The wizard looked into the the general's face and saw the pain again. He saw it even through the dry, cracked skin.

"He has raised her, Welkgund. Raised her from the dead. She lives. Not like myself, but whole and unblemished. If I don't take this city, if I don't turn this city over to that monster, he will do it to her again. She will be cut into pieces and tortured, her head brought before me once more. I can't do that to her, not again." His hand rose to his eyes as his head lowered, as if to wipe away tears that didn't exist.

Wellan and Faygen stood in a ring of the undead, dozens deep. They swayed back and forth, but made no menacing motions. He saw the danger, but remained hopeful that his old friend wouldn’t harm him.

Wellan's arm rose, fingers splayed, as if to comfort an old friend, then it dropped back to his side. "Let me help you, Faygen. Let these people go and let me help you."

The general's shoulders shook and a raspy laugh escaped his throat, making Wellan wonder if he had gone mad. "No. There is no escape from this demon. I'm not afraid for myself. I fear for her. If I don't do as commanded he can piece her up again. Not only that, but I wouldn't put it past this creature to raise her again and again to get his revenge, making my precious Eyliasa live through that hell time after time. I think it would enjoy not only her suffering, but my own as well, maybe even more so."

He didn't know what to say, didn't know how to help. As he watched Faygen he realized that there would be no talking the general out of taking the city, but he had to try. "Let these people through. Allow them to go to the palace. I will talk to Duke Renier about leaving the city. There is no reason to harm anyone else."

The armored head shook left and right. "My master doesn't allow mercy. I may be risking my daughter's suffering even by speaking to you of these things. Besides, as you may have guessed, the refugees are only the bait. You or the Duke are the actual targets of this gathering. Still, I can't allow anyone to leave. My master wants them all."

With that he drew his sword, red dust puffed out as the ancient blade left its worn scabbard. Five of the armored undead burst through the ranks with surprising speed and agility, racing to Wellan with swords drawn.

His arms sprang up at his side, fingers twitching archaic symbols, a long dead language spewed from his mouth. His fists closed then pounced open. A bubble of force flashed from him, throwing Faygen and his five undead into the mass of corpses.

“Run, Stiles! Get those people to the palace.”

Flames erupted from his fingertips, torching the nearest undead, but there were too many. Within seconds he disappeared under a mass of flesh.

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Chapter 15d: Wellan Takes a Chance

The night brought with it a cool, damp breeze that blew over the sea from the south, filled with humidity and the salty smell of the sea. A full moon shone on empty streets, clouds occasionally blocking the shining orb. Renier sat quiet and peaceful. The silence uncommon for the large bustling city, the peaceful appearance decieving. Men paced back and forth along the palace walls, anticipating the return of Stiles and the group from the temple, dreading the return of the undead. The eerie quiet adding to their nervousness.

Wellan stood on the wall, looking down the road where the refugees would be returning any moment. A shadow moved within the trees and then another. Soon the forest came to live as swaying figured trampled into the open. The undead. They gathered on the Temple Way Road, just beyond arrow range. Their heads protected by hemets, guards and soldiers, even a few city residents wore battered helmets that appeared to have been keepsakes of someone's grandfather.

"The refugees will never be able to return if those things don't get out of the way." a guard grumbled.

Wellan couldn't disagree. This new move showed organization, thought, a planned of attack.

Further down the wall Duke Renier frantically discussed a rescue strategy with a handful of men. Each looked grim and determined as they nodded their heads and commented on his plans.

The wizard ignored them for the moment, studying the ghouls. Each stood still, gazing down the road, waiting on the refugees. They looked like soldiers formed up for an attack.

A large man stepped out of the woods wearing armor of frayed leather and rusted steel. He marched to the middle of the road and stood before the undead. Wellan gasped, not believing his eyes.

The man reminded him of someone he knew from centuries past, but it couldn't be him.

He closed his eyes and whispered an archaic phrase. When he opened them again the world stood out clearer as night became day to his eyes alone. He focused on the large man. There could be no doubt. General Faygen led the undead.

The ghouls behind Faygen shuffled their feet in excited anticipation. Further down the road dim shapes became clear as they sped toward the ranks of corpses. The refugees. They stopped several yards away from the ghastly line. The general stepped forward as an armored form detached itself from the group of refugees, Stiles. The two exchanged words, but Wellan couldn't hear.

He turned and walked to the Duke as the man mounted the stairs, preparing to go outside the city walls and rescue the refugees.

"Come to help us, Wellan?"

Wellan shook his head. "You can't go out there. It is a trap. He's trying to bait you to leave the safety of the palace walls."

The Duke smiled. "I know it's a trap, and a damned fine one at that because I can't just leave those people to die at the hands of those...things. Knowing it's a trap gives me the ability to avoid it."

"No, my friend. Did you see that large man that came out at the last, the one Stiles was talking to. That is Faygen, General of the Croshans."

Duke Renier gave Wellan a blank stare. The Croshan's hadn't existed as a people for seven hundred years.

"Faygen never lost a battle, even when grossly outnumber he would always find a way to win. If HE prepared the trap there will be no escape."

"How do you know so much about this General Faygen?"

"I'm far older than you think. Keep your men inside the walls. I will go out and speak with the General."

The Duke shook his head. "If the trap is so perilous, leaving no means of escape, why do you think you will get out of it any easier than my men and I would?"

"I know Faygen, we were friends once. He is a good man and I don't think he will harm me. Let me talk to him, find out what's going on, possibly talk him into letting the refugees through, maybe even leaving our city all together."

The Duke thought about it for a moment, hand on his bearded chin, then looked Wellan in the eyes. "I don't like this idea. I don't like it at all, but I trust you to know what you are doing," The Duke's serious expression broke into a mischievous grin. "After all you've been around for what seven, eight hundred years?"

Wellan's grin matched the Dukes as he replied, "If you only knew."

The duke turned to the men in the courtyard, just inside the gates, and roared, "Crack the gates open. Let the Wizard of Renier through." Then he turned to Wellan and in a softer voice said, "I hope you know what your doing."

Wellan smiled, but didn't say anything.

The guards had opened the gate just enough to let the wizard through by the time they reached the courtyard. As Wellan turned to slide through the crack the Duke grasped his forearm. "May the gods watch over you, my friend."

Wellan returned the gesture with a smile then squeezed through the opening.

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Chapter 15c: The Obsidian Man

Something tugged her hand from behind. Her head throbbed. Her stomach churned in a nauseous battle. She ran her tongue across her lips. Blood. Something tugged her hands again, then pushed her back. Her eyes opened, two narrow slits letting in the pain. She shut them again.

"Ud est up?" A guttural sound, cracked and ancient.

Her eyes snapped open. A black face, inches from hers. Black orbs gazed into her brown eyes. The smell of compost and rot wafted across her skin, noticeable even through her blood-clogged nose, a familiar smell.

It all came back to her. Tomay flirting, his surprised face, the black hand...

She began to scream, but a filthy cloth filled her mouth. She tried to sit up and fell back. Her hands bound behind her.

The thing smiled, teeth as black as night. It pushed her flat against the wall. "Ud watch."

The obsidian man stood and pulled a thin black cloth out of his robes. She noticed Tomay lying on the floor behind her assailant in a pool of liquid. Blood? His chest rose and fell. He lived.

"Dis ud man? Ud watch." She shook her head and shrugged her shoulders, not understand the message that the cryptic figure tried to convey.

He reached out, cupping her chin with his greasy palm, squeezing her cheeks until her teeth cut into the sides. He pointed her face towards Tomay’s prone figure. "Ud watch." You watch.

She nodded her head, but her eyes filled with rage.

He laid the thin black cloth over Tomay’s face. It stuck tight to his flesh, like a mask. A thumb-sized dimple rose and fell with his breathing. The thing reached into its robes and brought forth a dagger as dark as his flesh with runes that shone like emeralds. He turned back to Clowey. "Ud watch. Ud shee."

Oh gods! I don’t want to see this. Oh Tomay. Get up, please. Tears slid from the corners of her rage-filled eyes.

The obsidian creature straddled Tomay then raised the dagger and plunged it into his throat, jerking the blade to the side. Blood splashed over Clowey’s legs. Tomay convulsed beneath his killer then lay still. The cloth covering his face shimmered bright green then dimmed back to black. The killer rose over his victim and stepped to the side, his eyes never leaving the young soldier.

Tomay’s eyes opened and he sat up. Blood dribbled down his neck. His head turned to Clowey. She looked into his blank eyes and knew that Tomay’s soul had departed his body.

She screamed against the gag.

Tomay crawled to Clowey. She tried to scoot away, but the obsidian man grabbed her foot and drew her back. His laughter brought forth images of spiders and slugs. The man she had considered marrying jerked toward her on hands and elbows, legs dragging behind him. He grasped her shoulder and pulled it to his mouth. She tried to pull away, but her strength couldn’t break his hold. She screamed into the gag as his teeth tore into her flesh and ripped a chunk away.

"Ud go." The killer waved Tomay away. The soldier, now undead, withdrew to the far wall, chewing on his prize.

The monster squatted next to her injured shoulder. She moaned as he squeezed the wound. Red seeped between her fingers and dripped from her elbow. He brought his blood-coated hand before her eyes, wiped the blood on across her cheek and then brought the hand to his mouth and licked his palm. "Gud. Gud blood."

In a fraction of a second her fear turned to rage. The animal within her took over, instinct beat down her fear. She jerked onto her back and lashed out with her foot, planting her heal into his dark jaw. His head snapped backward, then fell back into place. She felt bile rise in the back of her throat. An egg-sized concave deformed the monster’s jaw. His hand rubbed the deformity, kneading it back into shape.

He reached into his robes and she kicked again. His hand flashed out and grabbed her ankle. He drove the rune knife into her thigh with the other hand. Blood gushed from the wound.

"Ud bith!" He yanked the knife free and fell on top of her, driving her flush with the floor. She heard a snap and pain flared from her wrist. Another scream threatened to tear through the gag.

He brought his rage-contorted face to hers, nose to nose. "Ud bith. Ud be fur me. Ud be mine." The words hissed from his mouth. His breath merging with hers, filling her mouth with sewage, even through the gag. The black cloth fell over her face, blocking out the murderer’s.

No. Not like this. Noooooo...

Pain sliced into her side. Fire stabbed into her body and withdrew, returning at her shoulder and withdrawing again. The slicing pain opened her bicep. Her clothes clung to her, wet and sticky as she wiggled and squirmed beneath the man, her strength slowly fading. New pains assaulted her body, but they weren’t as bad. She felt weak, drowsy. The pain faded as she tired. A green flash embodied her world, then nothing.

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Chapter 15b: A Meeting in the Dark

"What do ya tink yer doin', Tomay Raish?"

"Just trying to comfort you a little."

She pushed him back. "Well, ye won't be confortin' me like tat, so ye jus keep yer hands to yerself. For gods' sakes, me ma and pa might be dead. Ye tink for one minute tat I'm wantin' to let ye have yer way wit' me r'now. Ye must be daft!"

They stood near the wall of a dark, seldom used corridor. For the past several months they had met here to be away from prying eyes. Not the most romantic place, but they could call it their own, one of the few easily accessible spots in the palace that offered privacy. The unlikely location had given them some memorable moments.

She could just make out Tomay's frown, his eyes narrowed.

"I'm sorry Clowey. It's just with all that's happened...well...I thought...I figured this might be our last chance. I just want to be with you one more time before the end."

She placed her hand on his cheek. "Tat be awfully sweet of ye, but I knows ye better tan tat. T'end of t'world ain't got a durn ting to do wit' it. Yer always wantin to rut, tis ere jus' gives ye an excuse." She pulled her hand away and gave him a playful slap on the cheek. "Now, ye needs to be tinkin' aboot soldierin' so ye can get us out o' tis mess. Ye do dat an' I promise ye tat ye'll be tired o' ruttin' before I's trough wit ye."

His teeth shown in the darkness, the first smile she had seen from him all day. "I guess I'm gonna have to start soldiering if I'm gonna make you pay up on that promise."

She placed her arms on his shoulders, locking her fingers behind his head as he held her waist. "Ye certainly will, Sir Raish. Ye certainly will."

He tipped his head down and gave her a passionate kiss, keeping his hands in the neutral area of her waist. She crossed her arms over the back of his neck, returning his affection and giving a final squeeze before breaking the kiss.

"We'd best stop tis now or yer gonna start gettin' ideas again."

A stench assaulted her nostrils as Tomay wrapped his arms around her waist and squeezed. His lips went to her neck. "Yeah, I got an idea or two..."

"Stop it Tomay! Do ye smell tat smell?"

His breath tickled her neck. "All I smell is you Clowey and it smells damned fine."

She shoved him away. "Not me ye bloody stooge. Do ye smell it now dat ye got yer nose outa me hair? A rottin', mulchy smell. Like a compost pile."

He sniffed. "Yeah, I do smell someth..."

A hand, obsidian black, grasped his shoulder from behind as his eyes widened and his mouth grew into a silent 'O'.

Clowey stepped back, her mouth open to scream. A fist shot out of the dark. Instead of a scream she heard a loud crack as pain exploded in the middle of her face and bright sparks filled her vision. The force of the blow threw her backwards where her head slammed against the wall. She slid to the ground. Everything went dark.

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Chapter 15a: Undead Ambush

“Walls of stone and doors of steel mean naught to the beings of the spectral world. How can thou keep out what has no substance? How can thou stop a spirit? Will you rely on ye ramparts and shields, or will ye build yerself a wall of faith?”

~Sermon of the Piet Logan

"I’m sorry I got you into this, Sis." Marchas whispered as he gazed into the cemetery through one of the rear windows of the Temple.

Ash, Arolyn, and Wolf stood by another window whispering in hushed voices, trying to decide on the best rout through the city. Owl stood in the shadows outside the door and looked for undead.

"It’s not your fault, bro." She gave him a lopsided grin to go along with her bro reference. Teasing him for calling her Sis. She hated to be called that, but she also knew he only said it to tease her just a bit, to relieve some of the tension. "We were just at the wrong place at the wrong time."

He cocked his head, angling his eyes toward her. No hint of teasing remained in his voice, "No, I’m not talking about us being in this city, that was purely bad luck. I’m talking about getting you to leave the Palace. That might not have been one of my better ideas. I just figured...hoped that the dead had left. Found themselves something better to do. I guess I was wrong."

Though fear, her new constant companion, crawled up her back with whispy spider legs, she still kept her voice light-hearted as she replied. "Well, it’s not like it’s the first time you’ve been wrong. Hopefully it won’t be the last."

He slapped her shoulder and started laughing. "Come on, Shannai. Give me a break. I’m trying to be serious here."

"Oh, and you think I’m not."

"Shhhhhh." Ash hissed. "This isn’t one of your damned tavern parties. That sort of noise will get us all killed. So either shut it up or get the hell away from me and my men."

Shannai grabbed Marchas, squeezing his forearm, trying to calm him. They needed the help of the soldiers and the last thing she wanted to see was a confrontation between her hot tempered brother and the equally dispositional Ash.

The door creaked open just enough to allow Owl’s thin frame to slide through. Marchas sat back down with a final glare at Ash. Ash returned the glare before turning to Owl. "Did you see any of them? Is the way clear through the graveyard."

Owl glanced at Marchas, his mouth drawn up in a frown and his eyes narrowed in suspicion, before answering Ash. "Yeah, the graveyard is clear of them. I saw a few milling around outside the fence, but the weren’t tryin’ to get in or nothin’. I still don’t like the idea of goin’ through the graveyard. It just seems like that would be the last place we would want to go."

"I can’t argue with you, other than there ain’t no reason to go through the front of the Temple and walk around the outside to get to the back when all we got to do is start back here in the first place. Plus, we won’t be going through the woods, where they can hide. It’s all open in the cemetery all the way to the first block of buildings. We can see them way before they can catch us."

Owl’s mouth drew up into an arched frown, making him resemble a fish. "I see the sense of it an’ all, Ash. That don’t mean I got to like it none."

"Yeah, I don’t like it any myself."

Ash strolled to the door, motioning his men to get ready with a wave of his hand. Shannai and Marcus stood, the spidery fear lightly crawled around the base of her skull. She shivered. Marchas put his arm around her shoulder and squeezed. He would be there for her. He wouldn’t let her down.

With a last look at everyone Ash opened the door and stepped onto the rear porch of the Temple of Vaspar. The trees swayed in the wind, dark shapes dancing to the sound of the ocean breeze. The movement all around her didn’t help to shed Shannai’s fear. It would make the undead harder to spot, harder to hear. Maybe it will do the same for us, she told herself. She doubted her thoughts and tightened her grip on her bow.

The walked down the steps and onto the leaf littered ground of the cemetery. Headstones rose from the ground, crafted stones, reminding her of how death should be.

As she walked through the graveyard, near the back of the group, her imagination began to take hold. Her gaze fell to the mounds of grass-covered dirt, where bodies lay in eternal rest. Her mind began to create another scenario for those people buried beneath her feet. A scenario where mummified corpses pushed against the moldy cloth deteriorating around them, beat against the rotting lids of their coffins, trying to dig their way to the surface. In her mind she saw thin hands shoveling dirt behind them with slow determination, filthy skeletal fingers breaking through the ground. She imagined both hands coming up, pulling the undead from the ground like a baby escaping a womb, to be born again.

She almost stumbled and fell when Marchas whispered, "Are you okay?"

She nodded, looking over the graveyard and only seeing mounds highlighted in moonlight. Focus! Quit letting your imagination run away with you. This is bad enough without that.

Marchas grabbed her upper arm, bringing his forehead close to hers. His eyes questioning again, Are you okay? She answered with another quick nod and a tight-lipped smile. He gave her arm one more squeeze before releasing it. She wasn’t okay, and he knew it.

Within moments the cemetery gates stood before them. A waist high stonewall topped with spiked iron bars. Four undead stumbled back and forth before the open gate, slapping at the opening between the iron posts with pale hands, but not attempting to cross the invisible line that represented the soil of the graveyard.

Four bows sang out. An arrow fletching sprouted from each undead forehead. They fell to the ground in a bloodless pile. One twisted and twitched, a snake in its death throws.

Without slowing the guard put fresh arrows in their bows, Ash yanked his from the corpse he had shot, and walked on, towards the line of buildings across the road from the graveyard.

They had gone only halfway across the road when the blank eyed men and women began to stumble into view between the buildings. Dozens of people, the once peaceful residents of Renier, now a mindless mob of rotting flesh, their clouded eyes wide and fixed on the small group.

Ash veered toward an opening between two buildings, steering the group to one of the few alleyways that didn’t have undead pouring from it. When he got to the opening he stopped and fired his bow down the alleyway, then waved everyone on before entering the blackness between the structures.

Shannai followed him, her brother just behind her. The buildings to either side of the alley blocked the moonlight, forcing her to slow down and walk with care.

Her foot stepped on something soft. She looked down. Two silver, coin-sized circles shown at her feet, the white fletching of Ash’s arrow sticking up from a pale skull like a road sign. Her mouth opened to scream, but a rough hand slid over her mouth, arms drug her further into the alley, and then sidewise into complete darkness.

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Chapter 14d: Race to the Palace

Piet Lithor stood near the front of the motley group, sword in hand. He glanced at one of the soldiers to see if he held the weapon correctly. The man saw his glance and smiled, crooked teeth shone through bristly beard, shaking his sword back and forth before him with bravado. Let’s go kill us some undead. The Piet gripped his sword tighter and decided to look somewhere else.

The survivors stood behind the double wooden doors, nervously waiting for Stiles to open them so they could begin their run for the Palace. A sad little group indeed. Bos Spielter stood to the side with a table leg in a knuckle-whitening grasp. A woman with an infant stayed in the middle of the group, holding the baby close to her breasts. Brother Cylus stood next to the Piet, a steak knife protruding above his cloth belt. The young man, Tollis Mayer actually looked excited about the prospect of leaving the temple in the company of the brave men. The Piet turned his head to the group of soldiers that milled around the outside of the group. City guards, not palace guards, real soldiers, or mercenaries. Just city guards. The fact that Duke Renier had sent city guards to rescue the Piet spoke volumes about the state of the Palace. The situation didn’t look good at all.

Stiles waved to his men to get ready, then turned to the dozen survivors. "Just stay grouped together. Keep up with us and don’t get out of the group. We’re going to go to the palace and a brisk walk, but we won’t run unless we have to, so just follow my lead and everything should work out fine."

He nodded to his men again before turning and opening the door. Stiles’ head disappeared around the corner of the door as he looked about, then pulled his head back and waved everyone on. "Okay, let’s do this."

One by one they walked through the door and into the night. The first thing Lithor noticed was the brisk breeze blowing in from the port, carrying the salty sea smell and dead fish. Tree limbs swayed back and forth, giving the surrounding woods an eerie life of their own. He looked deep into those woods as he set his foot onto the road, hoping to see the shadowed forest free of undead, but just as afraid not to see where they hid. He gripped the sword tighter in his pudgy grasp and followed Stiles over the cobbled road.

Everyone huddled close together, a mass of bodies moving forward. The guards remained on the outside perimeter, bows held ready and eyes constantly scanning back and forth over the floor of the forest. They looked as scared as the crowd they guarded. Their gazes didn’t burrow into the woods like a predator would. No, their nervous glances flagged them as prey, skittishly trying to get past the lair of a hungry beast. The Piet didn’t have much faith in this rag-tag group, but there weren’t a lot of other options. He tried to push the fear out of his mind by concentrating on putting one foot in front of the other. The great Lord Vaspar would see him through.

A guard in the back of the group gasped. The twang of a bowstring followed by the thunk of an arrow splitting flesh brought everyone to a halt. Hundreds of dark figures stumbled from the woods onto the trail behind the group. The moon highlighted the tops of their heads, their shoulders, and their raised arms. Their eyes shined like crisp silver, coins for their voyage to the afterlife.

All the guards raised their bows, strings pulled into V’s.

"Lower your bows!" Stiles hissed.

Six bows lowered, but the strings remained pulled tight. Everyone turned to Stiles.

"Let's save the fight for when it’s necessary. If we speed up we should stay ahead of them." Without looking to see if anyone followed his order he turned and began jogging toward the palace. Everyone followed his lead, glancing over their shoulders to make sure the undead hadn’t caught up.

Lithor's confidence in the young commander rose as he struggled to keep up. The man had made the right decision, choosing not to begin a battle that would do nothing but slow them down. He just hoped that Stiles had enough skill as a leader to get them to the palace.

Bushes shook to the Piet's left. The undead spilled onto the road behind the rear soldiers as if the forest had decided to vomit their filth from its midst, to purge their vile flesh from its natural beauty.

His heart raced. Blood pounded in his ears and sweat burned his eyes as he looked ahead and saw the palace walls getting closer in the distance. His heavy form wasn’t made for such a long run and he slowly fell further toward the back of the group, almost to the rearguard. His side felt like someone had reached under his lowest rib and pulled. Sweat drenched his clothes, a combination of overexertion and fear. His heart pounded harder. He could feel each pulse as it thrummed against his temple. He wasn’t going to make it to the palace. The great Piet Lithor would die within sight of the walls, almost in their shadow. It wasn’t fair. He deserved bet...

He stumbled into the woman with the baby, causing it to let out a shrill wail then a cry that almost became lost in the panting group.

They had stopped.

He bent over, placing both hands on his knees, staring at the ground. The sudden stop made him feel feverish. His stomach clenched, his last meal rose up his throat and splashed onto the ground in front of him. He ignored the mess and looked over his shoulder. The undead had stopped.

He stood, wiping the filth from his half-open mouth and gawking at the undead. They stared back, pinpricks of silver against grisly silhouettes.

Stiles shout rose over the wailing baby and panting people. "Move aside and let us pass."

The Piet spun around; the sudden movement made his head swirl with dizziness. Stiles faced a large man in archaic armor. The armored form stood at least six and a half feet tall. The moonlight cut his face into blacks and whites, an older man with a stern face that seemed to be chiseled out of stone. His thick arms crossed over his chest, the skin rough textured, like parchment. A sad smile crossed his cracked lips. "I am truly sorry, but I can’t allow you to go any farther."

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Chapter 14c: Meeting at the Temple

She let out a generous sigh when the temple came into view and still none of the undead threatened them. Though she had seen them throughout the entire trip, eyes shinning through the trees, they hadn’t moved. There stoic silence almost terrified her more than a blatant attack would. She realized that every step she made towards the temple put her one more step away from the palace and put more undead between herself and safety. She didn’t know what was going on, but she didn’t like it.

The temple stood out of the forest like a beacon of civilization in the middle of the wilds. Shannai had grown up in a city, spending most of her life walking down cobbled streets and only seeing forests from the safety of a city wall, so the woods, especially at night, put her in an unfamiliar environment that spooked her even without being full of undead. The stone and stained glass building, with its high porch supported by marble columns gave her a sense of security, of familiarity, after her short walk through the dark forest. She wanted to run up the steps, rush through the wooden double doors and lock them behind her. A glance at her brother told her that he felt the same way.

Stiles halted the group, taking a hard look at the temple before going any further. Dim light shown through a few of the windows. A silhouette crossed in front of a candle, a dark blue and red blur behind the colored glass. Stiles motioned everyone forward. They passed a well; the grass looked charred and covered with an oily film. A blackened skeleton protruded from the ground like the charred wood left over after a campfire.

They walked past the well and up the wide steps. Stiles rapped his knuckles against the wooden doors. She knew his knocking couldn’t have been very loud, but in the silence under the stone porch it sounded like thunder. It opened immediately, as if someone had been waiting behind the door. A portly man, with a robe designating him as a servant of Vaspar, stared around the door at them. A finely crafted sword held before him. Behind him stood an elderly priest and almost a dozen other people. Most looked relieved, some angry, but they all shared a deep fear. It showed in their wide eyes.

The priest lowered the sword and grabbed Stiles upper arm, drawing him into the Temple. "I’m so glad to see you. We’ve been waiting here all day to be rescued."

The other soldiers followed Stiles into the pew lined sanctuary. Owl took a last look into the forest before shutting the doors behind him.

Stiles bowed his head to the priest and said, "I’m sorry we couldn’t be here sooner, Piet Lithor. It’s been almost impossible to leave Palace Renier due to all of the undead piling up around the walls. When they retreated we came right out."

Piet Lithor? Even Shanai had heard that name; the high priest of Vaspar, responsible for most of the souls in Renier. The rumors described him as an arrogant and pious man, one who liked to get his boots licked and deemed himself only slightly less important than the Duke himself. The man she saw before her didn’t seem anything like the man she had heard of. The Piet seemed almost…humble. She reminded herself again not to listen to every rumor she heard.

Piet Lithor’s eyes widened in surprise. "They retreated from the walls? You didn’t scare them off or defeat them?"

"No, your excellency. They are all standing in the woods, a little ways off the road."

The Piet seemed to consider this for long moments before commenting, "How odd."

Ash stepped in beside Stiles and spoke, "What do you mean? Do you know something?"

Stiles glared at Ash then turned to listen to the Piet. "No, I don’t really know anything. I said it was odd because the undead have been standing out there all day, beyond the edge of the property, until just before you showed up. I just thought that you had scared them off."

Stiles rubbed his chin, deep in thought. "They left just before we showed up, and they never came any closer than the edge of the property?"

"Yes, it seems the holiness of our Lord Vaspar keeps them at bay."

Ash folded his arms over his chest. "Sounds like a trap to me."

"Yeah, me too. I just don’t see how or why. They could have surrounded us anywhere along the road between the palace and here. It just doesn’t make sense."

Ash walked to the window and looked out at the well. "Well, no reason in dragging this out. Who do you want to go with me to warn the Baron?"

A man pushed himself past the Piet and growled, "What’s he talkin’ about, warnin' the Baron? You have to get us out of here and it’s gonna take all of you to do it."

Stiles looked to the Piet as he replied, "Duke Renier gave us orders that once we reached the Temple we are to split into three groups. One group has the responsibility of seeing you all safely to the Palace. A second group is to try and leave the city through one of the main gates and warn Baron Milchev about the fate of Renier. Finally, the third group is to scout through the city and find out where the dead have gone." He looked to Ash before continuing. "I think we know where the dead are so the third group should be unnecessary."

Ash gave Stiles an approving nod before the soldier turned back to the Piet. "So, the group returning to the castle will actually be larger than the Duke anticipated."

Stiles’ explanation didn’t appease the man at all. "Trying to get to the outer wall is pure folly. I barely survived getting here, and I was only a few blocks from the Temple when it happened. Surely the Duke must have more sense..."

The Piet stepped between Stiles and the angry man. "Duke Renier is correct, Bos Spielter. The neighboring cities need to be warned. I’m sure the Duke knew what he was doing when he sent these men. I trust his judgment and thereby the judgment of this brave soldier."

Piet Lithor looked over his shoulder, towards Stiles as he continued, "I’m sure he won’t let us down."

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Chapter 14b: A Trip to the Temple

Shannai walked in the center of the group of men with an arrow notched into her bow. Her eyes scanned the dark forest. An eerie silence filled the forest-lined road. Their footsteps and the occasional rustling from the woods were the only sounds that broke the quiet walk to the Temple.

She still couldn’t believe that Marchas had talked her into leaving the safety of the Palace. Her brother had made a good point when he said the palace had become a trap with no way out, and with the dead mysteriously gone from the walls they could easily escape. Besides, there just weren’t enough people left within the walls to fight through the ranks of undead she had seen. Still, the duke didn’t seem like a man who would let himself become cornered, and even if he were he still seemed to be smart enough to figure a way out of a trap like that, and if not him there was still the wizard and Wellan certainly wasn’t one to be brought down easily.

A noise caught her attention. Leaves rustling deep within the oak filled woods. Something ran parallel to the road. Trying to get ahead of them?

She stopped raised her bow and focused on the darkness between the trees, past the rough trunks. Shannai could just make out the outline of a figure standing deep within, a faint highlight on a cheek, the dark silhouette of a shoulder breaking up the vertical pattern of the tree trunks. The black woods made it difficult to tell if the shapes were real, or only her eyes playing tricks on her, and she had to be sure before she alerted the others. Everyone’s nerves were frayed and having false alarms was the last thing they needed.

"What do you see?" Her brother whispered in her ear causing her to jump and release her arrow into the forest.

She turned to scold him for scaring her when she saw a sight that made her heart race, the twinkle of eyes deep in the forest. Ignoring her brother she pulled another arrow from her quiver and notched it, never taking her sight from the small round disks.

Shannai whispered to her brother and pointed her arrow at a tree, "Look into the forest, just to the right of that tree. Do you see..."

Another set of eyes opened, and another. As she watched, pairs of glowing disks opened throughout the forest. She turned to face the other side of the road and saw the same thing. Hundreds of the undead stood in eerie silence, watching them.

Her brother croaked, "Oh my Gods!"

"Yeah, at the moment it doesn’t seem like such a good idea to be away from the palace."

The leader, a short blond fellow named Stiles, hissed, "Shut it up you two."

"But the undead..." Shannai tried to tell him.

"Yeah, I see them. There’s nothing to be done about it now, and so far they aren’t doing anything but standing there. We’re gonna keep moving forward like we have been. If something threatens us then we will do something about it, but for right now the best thing we can do is keep going."

Shannai nodded and followed Stiles as he walked down the road, towards the temple; her eyes never leaving the eyes that peered at her from the dark forest.

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Thursday, June 26, 2008

Chapter 14a: Convincing a Wizard

"Don’t ye be goin’ out in the forest at night boy. There be more than wolves hidin’ amongst those trees. The boogeyman lives in them woods and he loves to eat little boys."
~A Grandfather’s words to his grandson

Madame Rachelle stood and looked out the window of her small room, over the top of the palace walls, beyond the darkening forest and buildings in the distance. The rain had finally stopped and the moon floated in a hazy sky.

She had watched the soldiers gather around the front gate, saw the Duke and Wellan below talking to them, saw the colorfully dressed man and woman join the soldiers. Little of it sunk through the layers of her thought. Grief still skulked about in her mind like a melancholy guest, brushing against her emotions, pushing thoughts of her daughter to the surface, making her not want to do anything but stare into the dark heavens and think of nothing.

Knuckles pounded against wood floating up through her thoughts like bubbles in a pool. She looked around the room, not able to place the noise in her dreamy state. It came again, a loud rapping followed by, "Madame Rachelle, may I come in."

Whose voice? She recognized it, a voice she had heard very recently. Wellan?

She sighed, not wanting to be pulled from her inner thoughts. "I...I don’t feel like talking right now, Wellan. Maybe later?"

"I understand your grief, but we need to talk." A pause, then, "I need your help."

Why would the wizard need the help of a fortuneteller? Why can’t he just let me grieve for my daughter? She almost told him to go away whether he needed her help or not, but curiosity and common politeness won out. "Just a second."

She walked over to the nightstand and picked up a candle, the only light in the room, and used it to light other candles on her way to the door. When she opened the door the shadows still dominated the small room, but it didn’t look quite so glum.

Wellan’s awkward and concerned smile greeted her. "How are you feeling, Rachelle?"

How do you think I’m feeling? My daughter died this morning and them came back to life as a zombie, along with everyone else in the city. How am I supposed to be feeling? "Had better days, but I’m holding together."

He stepped into the room and put a comforting hand on her shoulder, "It will get better. I promise."

Emotions boiled up as his hand came to her shoulder. Tears filled her eyes and rolled down her cheeks. Tears she didn’t think she still had.

"I don’t mean to trouble you, but we need to talk."

She gave a single not and sat on the corner of the bed. Wellan took a chair from the small table by the door and sat facing her.

"I know this is a terrible time to do this, but I would like to begin your training as a wizard, or at least awaken you to the experience."

Her mouth opened, closed. She looked away from him, thoughts and emotions boiling to the surface, showing in her eyes and on her face.

"I need you, Rachelle. The city needs another wizard besides myself.” He patted her leg and continued. “I started thinking about our conversation this morning. The one we had before this mess began. I remember the look in your eyes while we talked. I remember seeing something there, quite suddenly. Almost terror. You quickly covered it up. What is it you saw? I think I know, but I want to hear it from you."

She didn’t hesitate when she answered. Her voice was flat, like someone else spoke through her, "You’re aura was black, Wellan. You’re going to die."

Wellan’s lips pressed together, forming a tight line under his bushy mustache. "I thought that may have been what you saw."

He leaned forward in his chair and took her hands in his. "My aura is just one more reason why we need you. If I die the city will need another protector, someone who can see things they cannot and use forces that others don’t understand."

She raised her head, her face twisted with sarcasm and self-doubt. "I couldn’t save my own daughter, Wizard, how do you expect me to save myself when the city has already fallen, much less the rest of these poor people. You need to find someone who still cares because I don’t."

"You have been hurt, Rachelle. I understand that, but don’t let the rest of these people suffer because of it. Help me save them."

She pulled her hands away from his. "Find someone else, Wizard. Everything I cared about has been taken away. I’m just an empty shell now. I have nothing to fight for."

Wellan’s voice rose with frustration, "There is no one else. Not just anyone can become a wizard. Not everyone has the inborn power, or sees the world in such a way that will allow them to become a wizard. You do. No one else here does, and they need a wizard. If...when I fall someone will need to step in and take my place. Only you can do that, Rachelle. Only you have that power, the insight, to be a wizard."

When she didn’t say anything he reached behind him and grabbed a candle off the small table and held it between them. "Let me give you a taste of what you can do. Just a small thing to be sure, but one that nobody else here can do."

He held the candle up to her face. "What do you see here. What do you really see."

She shrugged. "Wax. A wick. A small flame."

"No. Look harder. Use your sight."

She let out an exasperated sigh and looked again at the candle. This time she squinted her eyes and concentrated, focusing on the small flame, seeing it in another light. "Plasma. White light jumping with the air currents. Vapors rising above the light and little sparks bursting within the plasma like tiny exploding fire flies."

A small smile brightened Wellan’s face. "Now, will it away. Concentrate on it not being there. Think about the Plasma wilting away until it is gone."

She looked past the flame, to the wizard. Surprise furrowed her brow. She had looked at many things with the aura, flames being one of the most fascinating, but she had never thought of altering anything she looked at. It had never occurred to her that she might have the power to change anything, to alter it from what it was.

Wellan nodded to her, wordlessly telling her to stay focused and concentrate on the flame. Her gaze focused again on the candle. The tiny exploding sparks, white light and vapor flickering with the lightly swirling air. She squinted her eyes tighter and thought about the light diminishing, shrinking into the wick. To her amazement the light dimmed and pulled in tighter to the little strand of string that fed it. The tiny exploding sparks moved slower and popped less. She willed it to diminish even more, causing it to pull in close to the little wick until it disappeared all together.

With her mouth open in amazement she stared at the wizard’s smiling face.

"What you just did is the basis for everything magical. Understanding a thing, seeing how it works, and then having the will to control it."

Still amazed by what she had done she gawked at the cooling wick. "I’m just a fortune teller, not a wizard."

Wellan beamed like a proud father. "Oh, you are much more than a fortune teller. Perhaps you aren’t a wizard yet, but I can see you doing far more than I have done. I can’t see auras in the way that you do, and it took me almost a month of frustrating effort before I could extinguish a flame when I first began my journey years and years ago. You are what these people need. That burst of energy that you used outside the walls earlier today is a powerful force, and it might just be the edge we need to get out of here."

"But I have no idea how I did it."

"Yes you do. I just showed you. Desperation and anger powered that first burst of magic and with a little practice you should be able to do it again…only with a bit more control. Yes, I see great things in you, great things indeed."

He lifted her hand from her lap and placed the candle in her palm before closing her fingers around the cool wax. "Now, let’s see you light it."

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Chapter 13d: Another Trap

On the other side of the palace where the light of day had never reached, a robed figure crouched in the darkness, waiting.

Twelve hundred years ago he had been a man known as The King Killer, a well-earned nickname, a testament to his abilities. The civilized world knew him for his skills in dealing silent death, and for the right coin he boasted that he could kill anyone. It wasn’t an empty boast. The King Killer combined cunning genius with the stealth of a great cat to make him a life ending machine that brought fear to the hearts of friends and enemies alike. There hadn’t been a class of people he hadn’t brought death to, whether they be homeless drunks, wealthy merchants or even powerful kings, he had killed them all when the coin matched the job. Status, religion, skin color or sexual preference didn’t mean a thing to him, just the coin, just the reputation, just the kill. He brought assassinations to a new level in his day, changing it from simple brutish henchmen work to a true form of art.

His wonderful life had ended quite suddenly, but not in a way he thought it would. Pursued through a forest after his latest kill, a barbarian lord had forced him deep into the marshy woods. He had almost escaped, a mere mile or so from freedom, when he fell into a peat bog, banging his head on a root and drowning in the organic soup. He had always pictured himself dying in a sword fight, or even being vengefully stabbed in the back, but never drowning under putrid water with no one around to witness it.

Over the centuries his body had merged with the bog, taking in its minerals and rich organic makeup, preserving him to a great extend. Protecting his body against the ravages of time. Turning his skin to into a pliable leathery material, making it as dark as the murky water that surrounded it.

He probably would have stayed that way until the bog dried up if a hand hadn’t reached beneath the shallow waters and drug him to the surface, toting his black body to an even darker place. He was glad to be back, doing what he loved to do.

The King Killer grabbed his wrist and squeezed. He let go and gently ran his fingers along the indentions left by his grip as they slowly smoothed back over. He skin was pliable, like dough. Even his bones had softened up, Not to the point of making him a wobbly mess, but with a slight elasticity, allowing them more give, making them harder to break, almost like cartilage. Unlike dough, his skin glistened black, onyx. Not the blackness of a normal dark skinned man, but the blackness of night, the black of a crow. He liked his new self, the perfect representation of his inner self, his soul.

A light flickered just under the door. Dim voices whispered back and forth. The King Killer stood and waited.

As the clomp of footsteps echoed through the chamber just beyond the door noises became louder, clearer. A deep voice rumbled, "Help me with this here wine shelf, Champ. It’s heavy as the dickens and I don’t want to be droppin’ any of the wine."

Another voice, full of laugher, replied, "Then why don’t ya just take the bottles out. Set them off to the side."

"Awe come on. You want me to move pull all these here bottles just to move this shelf over a few feet and then put them all back. That’ll take half n’ hour when movin’ the stinkin’ shelf with the bottles’ll only take a couple of minutes. Besides, it ain’t like we’s gonna come back here and drink it after this."

Some of the laughter died from the second voice, "Yeah, you be right about that. I figure once we leave here the dead’s gonna be the only ones drinkin’ the wine, and I doubt they would appreciate it much."

Another set of footsteps moved in. A third voice echoed off the walls with military authority. "You two shut it up and just get that shelf out of the way. We need to make sure the door to the caverns is accessible and not stuck. We will be needing to use it in the next day or so."

The deep voice replied, "Yes sir. I’m sure glad that the Renier’s never closed this secret exit off. Coarse, it ain’t so secret no more, or won’t be for long. What, with everyone traipsin’ through here to escape."

"Well, come on Grommy. You’re the one that asked me to get the other end of this here shelf and now ya just stand there flappin’ yer trap. Let’s do this already."

Grumbles escaped the lips of the deep voiced one and then the chamber filled with a loud screech as the wine rack skidded across the floor.

Footsteps. Keyes jingling. Clicking inside the door. A bar being lifted. The door opened.

The King Killer moved deeper into the shadows as three men stood in a pool of torchlight. One of them raised his torch high into the air and pointed it down the cavern shaft. "Don’t look too inviting, does it, sir?"

The skinny man with the laughing voice replied, "Looks like freedom to me Grommy."

The one in the center, wearing leather armor, put his hands on their shoulders and said, "Okay, let’s lock it back up and tell Duke Renier that the exit is ready."

He had to slip through the door before they closed it and locked him out, but he couldn’t do that while they stood in the way, and he couldn’t kill them yet without alarming everyone in the palace, and he wasn’t ready to do that just yet. With a flick of his wrist he launched a small stone into the darkness, further down the stone corridor.

The men spun around as the stone met a wall and clattered to the floor.

Grommy held his torch out towards the darkness. "Did you hear that, sir? Somethin’s down there."


They waited, listening to the darkness, hearing nothing.

The armored one drew his sword and walked into the corridor, the other two followed his example. They walked past The King Killer, oblivious to his presence as their eyes and ears focused on something further down the passageway.

He let them walk a little further into the darkness before creeping out and sliding through the door. As he walked past the wine rack he glanced back into the darkness, where three forms silently crept over the rough stone floor. He smiled and thought, Thank you gentlemen. I couldn’t have done it without your help. Then he walked on, into the palace to earn his keep.

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Chapter 13c: Setting the Trap

Within the darkening forest outside the palace walls General Faygen watched as the gate cracked open and thirteen people crept from the safety of the city walls. One of the individuals even looked to be a young woman, dressed in an outlandishly bright blouse.

A thousand years has passed and men are just as stupid as they ever were. Faygen thought to himself, shaking his head back and forth. He had heard the ringing of the church bell. He had seen the message from the city walls. The men in the palace desperately wanted to rescue the poor souls trapped in the temple, they only needed an opportunity. Faygen had given them that opportunity, pulling back the undead and giving the brave men of the palace the incentive they needed to attempt a rescue. It was almost too easy, unfair even. Those poor bastards think they are only dealing with the mindless undead. They are about to learn a hard lesson.

He watched the potential saviors as they crept down the road, swords drawn and arrows notched. They didn’t hold themselves like soldiers; bar room brawlers perhaps, but not soldiers. They had no formation and their steps radiated nervous energy, fear. Have men fallen so far since my day? Are they now cowardly and stupid? If this is the best they can do I will have the palace under my control by dawn. At least they had enough sense to send a few archers.

Faygen almost pitied them, especially the girl. She reminded him of a slightly older version of his own daughter, his sweet Eyliasa.

He couldn’t get distracted by such thoughts. He couldn’t allow himself to sympathize with the enemy. He didn’t want to think of them as the enemy though. He didn’t want to see himself as the bad guy, the evil one in the battle, but he couldn’t see himself as anything else. The people of this city had been destroyed by a great evil. An evil that he was helping, but what choice did he have. He couldn’t allow Eyliasa to be hurt again because of him. Not again.

The heroes faded from sight as darkness claimed the road and the forest. Faygen looked at the undead around him. The white disk of dead eyes stared back at him. All over the forest the dead eyes stared. Thousands of them, just far enough into the woods so that they couldn’t be seen from the palace walls, hidden almost in plain sight. They waited for his commands. They waited to feast. They wouldn’t have to wait much longer.

He turned, facing deeper into the wet forest, and gave his mental command. Wait! Stay here until I return.

He felt some resistance to the command. Singly they didn’t have much will, but in such large numbers their willpower became a force to be reckoned with. Luck fully his own willpower was up to the task, at least at this point. He didn’t know what would happen if he gave a command in the middle of a feeding frenzy. Hopefully by that time things would be under control and he could let these disgusting creatures go about their business.

He walked into the forest, the damp undergrowth soaking his britches. His body no longer generated any heat, so it didn’t give him chills, but it was damned uncomfortable none-the-less. He could feel his dry skin soaking up the moisture, wrinkling as dry skin pulled in the water like a sponge. He could also feel himself beginning to rot. His wet skin itched constantly, giving off a sour odor. Gasses built within him and he had to belch and fart every few minutes to ease the discomfort of bloating. He didn’t enjoy being one of the living dead.

Belching, he put these thoughts behind him. He had to beat the heroes to the temple in time to evacuate the undead. He couldn’t do it too early or the people in the temple would realize their jailers were gone and flee, but if the beat the heroes there by a few minutes everything would work out perfectly. He widened his stride and picked up speed.

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Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Chapter 13b: To the Temple

Ten men stood next to the front gates of the palace. A light drizzle misted the air, hazing the fading light and adding to the gloom that shadowed over the men’s faces. Stiles ran a hand through his damp hair as he walked up to them. They knew something would happen soon, they just didn’t know what. He dreaded telling them.

Before he could say anything Ash stepped to the front and said, “Did you tell Duke Renier what a wonderful job you did on our escape from his dungeons? Was he so impressed with your bravery that he told you to go out and vanquish the rest of the undead? Did you tell him how you let Horn die?”

“That’ll be enough of that, Ash.” Stiles could feel his cheeks turning red with the conflicting emotions of both anger and shame. He didn’t know if he wanted to hit Ash or walk up to him and apologize. Instead of doing either he kept his emotions pushed down and stuck to business. People needed saving.

“That ain’t nearly enough…”

“Ash, please. You are partially right. The Duke did give us an assignment.”

To be given an assignment by Duke Renier was an honor, an honor that even Ash couldn’t balk at. The other men shifted their feet. Their brows furrowed inquisitively while their eyes shone with pride. Their nervous shuffled betrayed their fear.

Blade stepped in and put a firm hand on Ash’s shoulder, “What did he give us, Stiles?”

Stiles hand rose to the back of his neck and rubbed it nervously. “This is a great honor, but I’m not sure that you guys are going to like this one.”

Royd’s rough voice spoke up from the line. “Well, considerin’ that the last assignment started out with ale and story tellin’ and ended with us havin’ an undead jailer, getting a tough assignment might not turn out so bad, if you get my meanin’”

“I hope your right, Royd. I really do.”

He took a deep breath and folded his arms over his chest before continuing on. “Duke Renier wants us to go to the Temple of Vaspar and save some people who are trapped inside.”

Blade raised his hand but spoke before Stiles could acknowledge him. “How do they know anyone is there?”

“They have been ringing the Temple bell, I believe it’s called The Bell of Saint Renando. There are also people moving around in the bell tower. Nobody knows who’s in there but it looks like at least one teenager and maybe a priest.”

Another guard spoke up, “I don’t mean to sound like a coward or anything, but does it make sense to anyone for eleven people to be going out to save two. I know my counting ain’t so good, but this just don’t add up.”

“Jamee, I’m not going to force anyone to go. If I have to I will go by myself. The Duke asked me to do this and no matter what else has happened he is still my Duke and this assignment is an honor that I’m not going to shun. You can do what you want.”

Blade forced a smile, giving Ash’s shoulder a squeeze. “Well, you can count me in. Do we leave in the morning?”

“No, you will need to leave right now.” The voice came from the side and caught the men by surprise, the voice of the Duke.

The men straightened, trying to make themselves presentable, but the Duke waved his hand, telling them to relax. Behind him, a grin stretched Wellan’s lips.

“Like Stiles stated, I won’t force any of you to go. It’s true that we aren’t sure how many people there are in there. There may only be two, or there may be two dozen. I just want to give them a fighting chance. I don’t want to leave them stranded, to starve or become one of the undead. There aren’t many of us left. I want to save the ones that remain.”

Blade raised his hand, index finger pointed to the heavens. When the Duke nodded to him he asked, “Why now, sir? Why at dusk?”

“The undead have left our walls. We don’t know where they have gone or for how long, but this is the best opportunity we have had to get to the Temple of Vaspar. I don’t know if Stiles has brought this up, but I would like a group of you to rescue the people at the temple, another group to scout out the city and see where everyone has gone, and a final group to leave the city and go to the Baron Milchev. His people need to be warned. Stiles will split you up into different groups when you arrive at the temple.”

Splashing interrupted the Duke as two people sloshed through the muddy puddles; a man and a woman, wearing flamboyant clothing and packed to travel. They stopped at the end of the guard line.

Wellen stepped around Duke Renier. “Shannai, what are you doing here?”

The man spoke before she could answer, “We want to go. Get outside the city while there is a chance.”

The duke’s brows furrowed. “You and your wife are safe here. There is no reason to take a chance in the city if you don’t have to.”

Stiles bristled as the man glanced at the woman and rolled his eyes. “First off, she is my sister, and secondly I don’t want to be trapped in here if those things come back. We’re getting out while the getting is good.”

The Duke’s arms folded over his chest. “I won’t force you to stay. It’s your decision, but I think you and your sister would be better off here. We are making plans to leave the city. Plans that don’t involve dealing with the undead any more than we have to.”

Wellan spoke before the man could reply. “Is this what you want Shannai?”

The woman stared at the Dukes boots as she replied. “I will follow Marchas. He’s never let me down yet.”

Marchas’ teeth gleamed through his smug grin, but Stiles noticed that his sister never looked the wizard in the eye as she answered, and her voice barely rose above a whisper.

Duke Renier frowned. “So be it. Marchas and Shannai will join the group that leaves the city to warn Baron Milchev. I wish you all the best of luck, and may Vaspar be with you as you go about your appointed tasks.”

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Sunday, June 8, 2008

Chapter 13a: Brother and Sister

"The body is a vessel for the soul and nothing more. We, our true self, dwells within, waiting for release, waiting for the day that we can be judged for our actions. "

~Dokken the Wise
Brother and Sister

Where have you been?” Marchas spit the question out like an accusation.

“Since when did I have to start reporting myself to you?” Shannai spat back.

Seeing their way of life destroyed filled them with tension. Instead of bringing them closer together they struck out at one another. Directing their fear and aggression at the ones closest to them. Arguing more than they had since they were little.

Her brother’s nostrils flared, and he pursed his lips in anger. He opened his mouth to reply and stopped. His face relaxed and he sighed. “Sorry, Shan. You’re right. I’m just worried is all.”

She sat on the edge of the bed while he buttoned up his shirt. “I hope you’re not worried on my account. You’re the troublemaker.”

He placed his hand over his heart, feigning injury. “Me, a trouble maker. Who started that bar fight in Tholog? If I remember correctly I was minding my own business, entertaining some very fine young ladies, when you hit that trapper across the head with your beer stein. Put a hell of a dent in the stein too, if I remember correctly.”

She laughed and threw a pillow at him. “You know that wasn’t my fault, Marchas. That bear of a man had all the manners of a wild boar, and the smell to go with it. If he had kept his paws to himself that would have been a pleasant evening.”

“It would have been for me. No doubt about that. I was doing pretty well that night.”

She started to comment on his philandering, but stopped as he sat on the bed next to her. His eyes shined with fear, and his brows furrowed in concentration.

“Shannai, we are in trouble like we haven’t been before.”

She looked at her lap, where her fingers twisted a button on her blouse, and nodded her head. Her voice shook in a cracked whisper, “Yeah. We are, aren’t we?”

He put his arm over her shoulder and pulled her close. “I’m not trying to frighten you, but I don’t want you to think that just because we are here at the duke’s grand palace everything is okay, because it isn’t.”

“At least we aren’t alone. There are others here. City guards. The wizard…”

He stood up and walked to the window. “Have you seen how many city guards are here? Not hardly enough to stop a bar fight, and, though I was a bit out of it when I met him, it looks like the wizard has met his match. There’s too many of them. You saw. There’s not a city block that doesn’t have ten or more of the damned things trying to kill you. I’m guessing that they’re congregating around the palace walls even as we speak. Trying to get in here and have their way with us. It’s just a matter of time before that finally happens, and I don’t want to be here when it does.”

She twisted her shoulders to face him. “You aren’t thinking of going back out there again? By ourselves? They will get us for sure this time. Besides, I think they are stacked ten deep around the palace walls, just like you said. There is no way we could get through, even if the guards allowed it.”

He slammed his fist into his palm. “I’m thinking it will be easier and safer for two people to sneak out of the city instead of everyone in the palace to try and walk out of there. We know what to expect now, I think we can do it. We just can’t wait here for them to get in.”

“Marchas, think about it. They can’t climb the wall. We are safe here. It’s also a long walk to the city gates. The palace is backed up against the Barclaves at the furthest point in the city from any of the walls. I think it’s too far for just too people. I don’t even think we can get out of the palace. There are just too many of them waiting right outside the palace walls for us.”

He turned from her and grasped the window seal, leaning against tense arms. “Well, I just can’t wait here for them to break through, or for us to starve to death. There has to be something we can do to get out of this.”

“Let’s wait, see what the Duke…”

Rapid knocking on the door interrupted Shannai. Marchas whirled around and looked at her. She shrugged and then turned to the door. “Come in.”

The door opened and a teenage boy stepped into the room. Grime covered his face in the fading light, making this toothy smile stand out. “I didn’t mean to bother you, but I just heard that we might be saved. I’m going around and lettin’ everyone know.”

Marchas stepped up to the boy, his voice reflected the boy’s excitement. “Saved? How?”

The boy hit his forehead with the palm of his hand. “I’m so stupid. The people. The infected ones. They have walked away from the wall. They aren’t blocking us in no more.”

Marchas thanked the boy and walked him to the door. When the boy left he shut the door and leaned back against it. His smile shone through his goatee with as much enthusiasm as the boys. “I think this is out chance.”

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Monday, March 17, 2008

Chapter 12d: Drummen in the Cave

The water had risen to his upper thighs, soaking his britches with cold. He didn’t care. His brothers and sisters had been arriving, a few at a time, for hours. They stood around him. He couldn’t see them but the stone cavern echoed the sloshing water as they shifted in anticipation of the feast to come.

The dreams of rending flesh, warm blood and screaming voices continued. They pacified him, temporarily quenching his hunger, but they hardly controlled his need. The visions barely kept him under control. His tongue licked moisture from his upper lip. His teeth chewed the soft flesh of the lower one. He craved flesh, a hunger that the dreams wouldn’t be able to fulfill much longer.

A splash echoed. A low growl thrummed over the rippling water and reverberated off the walls of the cave. The growl grew into a roar. Water splashed. Bones crunched. The rich smell of blood wafted through the air, a faint aroma that stood out from the smell of rot and mildew. The odor drifted through the air like a steak cooked over an open pit. He hungered. It almost drove Drummen to action. Almost.

He didn’t turn to look, but he could hear the wet feasting stirring the water behind him. A beast had entered the cave; a beast like himself, but different. A predator had taken one of his brethren. A predator sent by the Voice. Another creature slid through the water behind the predator; one like himself, but different.

The two new presences were also brothers, older brothers; wiser brothers. The Voice told Drummen to obey them, to follow their commands. They would show him a cornucopia of flesh, rivers of blood.

He could hear the beast snapping and tearing meat from bones. Water splashed and rippled, soaking more of his pants. He didn’t care. The creature feasted in the humid darkness. The beast devoured one of his brothers. He hardly noticed as the wet smacking continued for minutes, maybe hours. Time no longer mattered. He only cared about his hunger, his hunger and the Voice.

Finally the meal ended. The ripples and splashes lessened.

The beast and the stranger moved through the liquid water, the black void. They moved by him, an arms length away. The predator splashed through the water; proud, daring any of his brethren to approach him. The other one moved with a fluid grace, a smooth wake ripped through the waters behind him. The beast and the stranger moved with intent, a hunter’s stride.

The beast thoughts radiated to Drummen; a kindred spirit living for hunger, anger, and hate. The stranger’s mind shone like green swamp gas, vile and shapeless. Alien.

The beasts splashing stopped, but the smooth wake of the stranger continued up the dark cavern corridor. It had another purpose, one that didn’t involve waiting with the beast, or Drummen.

Within minutes the echoes of the strangers ripples diminished and again water dripping from the ceiling and the occasional shifting of his brethren were the only sounds to be heard other than the occasional growl of the beast.

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Chapter 12c: Rescue Plans

Stiles stood next to the War Room door rubbing his temples. The War Room. He had never been within the palace walls before being rescued from the training yard. Just a few short hours ago he had been a lackey for Drummen and now he stood in the palace waiting to be called to a private conference with the Duke and his top advisors. I bet Wellan’s in there. Thinking the Wizard would be in attendance comforted him a little, but there would also be generals and maybe even that haughty Priest, Piet Lithor. Thinking about the Piet stole the comfort Stiles gained from imagining the Wizard’s presence.

What if they think I did a terrible job of getting my men out of the dungeon? What if they want to demote me, put me under Ash, or even throw me out of the city guard all together? His hand rubbed up and down the leg of his britches. His stomach twisted into a knot.

He had botched the dungeon breakout. He had hesitated when he should have know what to do and acted. Ash shouldn’t have been the one making the decisions. Stiles had the responsibility of keeping his men together, keeping them from being killed. Maybe I should step down, suggest to the Duke that Ash be put in charge? Ash had the men’s respect. He didn’t hesitate, didn’t crumble under pressure.

What if they have another assignment for me? Maybe they want me to sneak out and get help? The thought didn’t ease his anxiety.

He spun around as pounding footsteps raced toward him, a guard. The man stopped in front of the oaken War Room door, straightening his helmet. He beat on the door with a glove-covered hand.

“Come in.” a muffled voice from behind the door.

The guard pushed the door open and strode into the room. Stiles peaked around the corner. Inside the room sat a large table with a map of the city laid across it, painted wooden markers stood at different points across the map. Three men leaned over the table, the Duke himself, Wellan, and an upper ranking guard that Stiles barely knew, but not a general, and no Piet.

The guard snapped his hand to his chest in a salute before speaking in a winded voice, “My lord Duke. The people are moving away from the palace, further into the city.”

The Duke straightened from his bent position over the table, his brows coming together at the bridge of his nose. “They are retreating?”

“To be honest, sir, we are not sure what they are doing. About ten minutes ago they turned and started walking away from the palace. The areas around the walls are cleared of them for the moment.”

Duke Renier turned to Wellan, a what do you think look on his face. Wellan shrugged. The Duke turned back to the guard. “Groyce. Your name is Groyce isn’t it?”

“Yes, my lord.”

“Well, Groyce, did you see where they went?”

“No, my lord. The drizzle is starting to slacken, but visibility is still poor and the surrounding trees and buildings hid them from us pretty quickly.”

The Duke faced Wellan. “Well, my friend, do you have any idea as to what may be happening?”

Wellan shook his head. “I haven’t got a clue, but I don’t think they are retreating. Whatever is going on, I don’t believe it bodes well for us.”

“Well, I think we should use this to our advantage.” He turned back to Groyce. “Thank you for that information, Groyce. You’re dismissed.”

The guard saluted once more before turning and striding out of the room.

The Duke waved to Stiles. “Come in Stiles.”

He walked into the room. Every step felt more awkward and clumsy than the last, a duck waddling through a room full of hawks. He could feel his face turning red. He stopped in front of the Duke. His salute seemed lame after seeing the other guard do it. “You wished to see me, my lord?”

“Yes, Stiles, I have a job for you and it looks like the Fates are smiling on you today.”

“A…a job, sir?”

“Yes. A few hours ago someone rang the bell on top of the Temple of Vaspar. The guards on the wall said they saw at least three men moving about in the bell tower and there could be more people below. I would like you and your men to go to the Temple and bring those people back. I don’t know how they have survived there this long. I would send some of my personal guards, but there are few left.”

He wasn’t being demoted, not even reprimanded. The Duke had handed him an important assignment. He stood straighter. “You can count on me, Sir.”

The Duke smiled, “I knew I could, Stiles. When you and your men reach the church I would like half of your men to keep going, to get out of the city and go to Baron Milchev’s castle. I need to warn him of this epidemic and see if he can send help, though I’m not sure he will. He is an ornery bastard to say the least, but he needs to be warned of what happened here. Hopefully it will keep him from suffering our fate.”

“Yes, Sir.”

Wellan cleared his throat. “You might also want to send some of the men into the city. Let them find out where the people have gone and report back here.”

“That is an excellent idea. Send a quarter of your men to warn Baron Milchev and another quarter to find out where the people are and what they are doing. You can decide which men will be scouting and which will go to the Baron.”

“Yes, Sir. They are good men. I know they can do as you ask.” They aren’t going to be happy to hear about this assignment. Not happy at all.

Duke Renier rubbed his chin, thinking. “Wellan and I had discussed causing a distraction to pull the people away from a section of the wall and then lowering your men down on ropes, but since they have left the area around the walls I think you should try and go out the front gates. What do you think Wellan?”

The wizard’s eyebrows rose in surprise. He smiled. “Their retreat at this moment is fortunate. I think we should give it a try.”

“Then the front gate it is. If they don’t return you can come back that way also. If they do return we will keep an eye out for you. If we see you coming we will distract them as we planned and lower ropes down to pull you to the top of the wall.”

Stiles clasped his hands behind his back. “That sounds good. Anything else, my Lord?”

“No. That will be all.”

“Yes, Sir.” Stiles’ salute remained as awkward as ever.

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Thursday, March 13, 2008

Chapter 12b: Observations

"How long are we to sit here and wait?” Lurok Bos Spielter grumbled. He squatted on the tiled alter steps with his hand propped under his chin, staring at his feet. Lithor didn’t care for his choice of seats, the alter being the holiest of ground, but under the circumstances he didn’t think it worth mentioning. Brother Cylus, on the other hand, fumed and glared at the merchant. His mouth had even opened once or twice to say something, but the rant never got past his wrinkled lips. Bos Spielter didn’t move and no one, not even Brother Cylus, wanted to start an argument that wasn’t necessary.

“If Duke Renier is still alive, and I have no doubt that he is, then help will come as soon as he can arrange something.” Though he spoke to the group with confidence, his words were spoken to comfort himself as much as the others.

When no one replied, Lithor walked to the window. He could only take so much of the merchants’ growling and complaining. Thank Vaspar the man had finally tired of his own grumblings. He desperately wanted to put the merchant in his place, to do what the old Piet would have done, but he didn’t want to return to being that man, the one who ran. He didn’t want to ever see himself cowering behind a bed again while a friend, a brother in Vaspar, stood in his place against the forces of evil. No, he wanted that man to be gone forever. If he had to sacrifice his pride in order for that to happen then so be it. The loss of his status would just be one of the many penances he planned on paying for a lifetime of sin and arrogance.

He watched the mass of pale bodies meander aimlessly back and forth at the edge of the safe zone. Their numbers had decreased, but not knowing where they all were bothered the Piet more than watching them stumbling about in front of the temple. Maybe they will get bored and find somewhere else to haunt. Or should I be doing something? Did the lord Vaspar save me and give me a weapon to combat them? If so then why do I cower behind the walls of His temple? What does He have destined for me? What is Your will, my lord?

Brother Cylus’ liver spotted hand grasped the window frame, interrupting the Piet’s thoughts. His raspy voice asked, “Why do they stay? What are they waiting for?”

“Us, I think.”

Two of the bodies walked into one another’s path. Each turned to avoid a collision.

“Why don’t they attack their own?”

Lithor’s thumb rubbed up and down the pommel of the sword. His eyes focused on the crowd. “I don’t know.”

“Why do they hate us?”

He pulled his gaze from the window and looked at Brother Cylus. “I don’t believe they do. I’ve looked into their eyes. I didn’t see hatred; longing perhaps. Hunger, desire, need maybe, but not hatred. I believe I even saw fear or revulsion when they looked upon the holy sword, but hatred…no that I haven’t yet seen.”

“Do you think they still have souls?”

Lithor returned his gaze to the window. Since entering the temple he had asked himself that question over and over again. He wanted to think they still had souls, a part of themselves that could be redeemed and brought back. He shuddered to think that they could be lost in the void, without any hope of return or salvation. Or worse yet, trapped within those mindless bodies, forced to see themselves committing atrocities they couldn’t control. He tried to tell himself that they were still in there somewhere, blind to their actions and desperately trying to escape the prison of their own bodies. He wanted to see them returned to the lives they had lived only hours earlier. He wanted to put the world back where it had been less than a day ago. Though he wanted to put everything back like it was, he couldn’t’ see how things could be put right as he watched them aimlessly stumble through their environment. They ignored everything, walking around objects and occasionally into them, only becoming driven in the presence of the uninfected. Violence and desire seemed to be their only motivation.

“Piet Lithor, do you think they still have souls?”

“I wish I could tell you that they do, Brother Cylus. I honestly do, but to be honest with myself…I don’t think so. I don’t know what evil causes them to hunt us, but I think their souls are gone. I only hope that they are in a better place and not devoured by the force that created them.”

“Where do…”

“Please, Brother Cylus. No more questions. I’m…”

Footsteps pounded on the bell tower stairs. Both priests turned as Tollis raced down the steps. Everyone stood. The newborn let out a whimper in his mother’s arms. Two hands clasped as the newlywed couple tried to comfort one another. A mother pulled her two sons close to her sides.

Tollis looked at each person, searching. A grin lit his face as his eyes fell on the Piet. “They want us to wait.”

Bos Spielter growled, “What are you talking about, boy? Who wants us to wait?”

His smile faltered. “The guards, Bos. The guards want us to wait.”

Lithor spoke up, before Bos Spielter could snarl at the boy again, “How do you know this, Tollis?”

“A sign, your excellency. They spelled out ‘wait’ on a sheet and unfolded it down the side of the castle wall.”

The Piet turned to Bos Spielter, “I told you the Duke wouldn’t let us down.”

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Chapter 12a: Awakening

"Who can know the depths of evil, and is there an equally good force to compare it with?"

~Secret Holy Scriptures of the Waken Book

"Come here, Tanilla. Come to mommy.”

The baby took a wobbly step forward. A pudgy hand stretched out, narrowing the gap between mother and toddler. The other stayed on the chair seat.

“Come on, honey. Let go of the chair and come to Mommy.” Rachelle motioned the baby to her, arms open, enticing the child with promises of a hug.

She smiled as the toddler took two awkward steps then stopped. Tanilla looked at her mommy as if to say, where seat go? The baby glanced over her shoulder at the chair. She tipped back and forth as she kept her newfound balance, and then turned back to Rachelle. Her face lit up with a triumphant grin. See what I did, Mommy! With a squeal of delight the baby gave herself a single clap, almost falling over, and then looked down at her feet to verify the truth of matters.

The room darkened. The golden glow of sunlight shifted to the hazy light of dusk. Shadows crawled across the floor and walls, giving the quaint room an ominous appearance.

Tanilla’s head snapped up, far quicker than a baby should have been capable of. Her once happy eyes turned completely white, the faint hint of pupils hidden beneath layers of milky film. None of the blue showed. Blood coated her mouth and dripped from her chin as lips pinched together in an ominous grin. The toddler opened her arms and walked toward Rachelle. The unsure stagger gone, heal to toe, heal to toe. The child moved like a predator. Her mouth opened, revealing dozens of narrow bloodstained fangs, more teeth than could possibly fit within the child’s closed mouth. In a deep voice that reverberated throughout the room the child screamed, “MOMMMMMEEEEEEEE!”

“Madame Rachelle. Are you alright?”

She jerked away from the voice, shifting to the center of the bed. Her heart pounded in her chest. A scream threatened to leap from her throat.

Wellan stood beside her, his brows furrowed together with worry.

She sat up in the bed. Tears dribbled from the corners of her eyes and became diluted in the sweat that covered her cheeks. The gray light of dusk shone through the window, filling the small room with long, menacing shadows.

Wellan’s knobby hand gently touched her shoulder. Rachelle jumped. “You must have had a bad dream. It’s not surprising…considering…”

She pulled the covers to her chest and held them tight, a thin wall against the horrible nightmare, against a world gone mad.

The wizard’s voice softened to a gentle whisper, “I…I need to talk to you, to ask you a few questions. Are you up to it?”

She turned away. My baby, Tanilla. Gone, taken away by disease, a plague…or the man with the bow. No, she was gone before he shot her, but had she moved. I felt her move within the blankets. I saw her stand. I saw her try…try and…bite. Fresh tears rolled down her cheek, starting a flow she couldn’t stop, a flood of grief that couldn’t be dammed away with glad thoughts or logic. Her shoulders shook. Her breath hitched in her throat. My baby lost her soul.

She shook her head. No, I can’t talk right now. I just lost the only thing that meant anything to me, and I’m having a little trouble putting it behind me right now. If you could come back in say…a year or two then maybe, just maybe I will have something to say.

Though she faced away from Wellan she could almost feel him nod his head as he said. “I understand. I will come back later when you feel better.”

The door creaked open.

“Wait.” The whispered word left her mouth before she could stop it. She didn’t want him there. She didn’t want to speak with anyone. She couldn’t bear sharing her grief, but she couldn’t be alone. The thought of not having someone near frightened her more than letting him see her pain.

“Do you want to talk?”

“No...Yes…I…I just don’t want to be alone. Not right now.”

“I understand.”

She paused, staring at the floor, she needed to tell him something, say anything. Nothing came to mind, nothing but her baby lying on the floor of her cottage, the look in her eyes as she came back to life, the hunger. She couldn’t just sit and stare at the wall. Wellan had more important things to do than console her.

She focused on a dark corner of the room and tried to clear her mind.

“My daughter. I found her in my house. Dead.”

Light footsteps followed by the rustle of robes, a chair creaked. “I’m so sorry.”

She thanked him for his sympathy with a single nod. Her eyes closed, taking away the distraction of the dim light shining through the window, the texture of the wall. She visualized the morning again as she spoke, stepping through every heart wrenching moment. “I raised Tanilla by myself. Her father disappeared at sea when she was small. Maybe he’s dead. Maybe he just didn’t want to be a father. I don’t know and I don’t guess it really matters. She was all that mattered, the only thing I cared about. Now she’s gone.”

“Madam Rachelle, I…”

“I picked her up, held her close. Cold. She was so cold. I don’t know how long I sat like that, I lost track of time. I wrapped her in a blanket, the blanket that Miss Whorton made. It had little animals all over it. Tanilla loved animals. I wrapped her up like a baby, an infant, with only her face showing. She always reminded me that she was a big girl, but at that moment she was my baby. I think I wiped the blood from her mouth. I’m not sure.”

“I carried her outside. I don’t know where I planned to go, maybe nowhere, maybe to bring her to you. I don’t know. I just walked.”

“People, blood covered people, followed us. I became afraid. I thought they would try and take my little girl. I couldn’t allow that, but I couldn’t prevent it. She started moving, struggling beneath the blanket. My heart surged with hope. I think I sat her down.”

Seconds passed in silence. Madame Rachelle wiped her closed eyes with the palms of her hand. The memory of those next moments twisted her stomach. A fresh wave of despair washed over her. Her shoulders shook with renewed sobs.

Finish the story. Get it all out. It will consume me if I don’t release it.

“I don’t remember…I…her face. Her eyes, the dead eyes, they looked at me with a need, a hunger. Like…like an addict. I can’t explain the feeling that came over me. Fear. Shock. Despair. It was then that she…her head…an arrow. That…that’s all I can remember.”

She turned to the wizard, her eyes swollen and bleary with tears. “That’s all I can remember.”

“Madame Rachelle, I’m so sorry.”

She nodded once and turned away.

“I do have some news that might make you feel better.”

Air stuttered to her lungs. New tears trickled down her cheeks. She hadn’t thought there were any left.

“I think the…the situation awoke the magic within you. I think you could be a wizard.”

She didn’t smile. She didn’t care.

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Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Chapter 11b: The Unwilling Servant

Guilt wracked him. Years before the battle of Sipha, Eyliasa had been abducted by the Ryshans. They were a barbaric people men who would hold a fifteen-year-old girl for ransom as blackmail to assure their victory, men who sent pieces of her as evidence with taunting messages of how they abused her in every way imaginable. He hadn’t given in then. His heart had felt like it would burst through his chest, but he hadn’t given in. The good of the kingdom weighed heavier than the abuse and murder of his daughter. Or so he kept telling himself. He wanted to believe it, but underneath the hard exterior, it tore his soul apart.

In the end she had died, her head mounted to a staff at the forefront of the enemy formation. He made them pay for the abuses. With tears wetting his cheeks, he had made every one of those bastards pay. When the battle ended corpses covered the field. They showed the enemy no mercy. He had their villages razed and their people killed; down to the last child. The vengeance only fueled his self-loathing, but he couldn’t make himself stop, torn between mercy and a hatred he couldn’t stop.

General Faygen had his revenge, but it didn’t matter. He had wanted to die. A boon he didn’t receive until decades later.

He couldn’t live through that again. Undead or not, he couldn’t repeat that burden.

He raised his clouded eyes and glared into the necromancer’s cowl. Hatred burned in his heart that he hadn’t felt in ages.

The wolf smile widened, fueling Faygen’s anger and hate.

The creature motioned him off the table with a wave of his hand. “Dispise me all you want, General. I wouldn’t expect any less, but act on that hatred and you will find your daughter’s head once again left on a pike. Now, do as I told you and stand up.”

The plight of his daughter broken his will. He kept a hand on the stone to support himself as he slid off the table and stood on legs that wobbled, legs that hadn’t been used in centuries. He would obey.

He pushed the dark memories to the back of his mind and watched his two companions step off the ship. They were an odd pair. The first one looked like a wolfhound that had been crossed with a saber tooth tiger, a massive creature whose shoulders stood almost chest high. The beast carried itself like a predator, shoulders swaying with each step, sniffing the air and constantly glancing back and forth as if in search of something to hunt. Huge fangs stretched and deformed its lips and jutted below its lower jaw. Faygen would have thought it was alive if not for the gray, mold-covered skin showing through the creature’s thin hair and the milky eyes that didn’t miss anything.

His other companion seemed to be more wraith than human as it glided down the gangplank to the dock. Cloaked like its dark master, nothing could be seen of the creature beneath. Unlike the necromancer, it gave nothing away within the blackness of its cowl. Neither the eyes or teeth gleamed. The robe contained a moving void as far as Faygen could tell.

I wonder if that demon has some hold over him, something the wraith would do anything for, or is the creature helping for its own ends?

During the voyage they had stayed in their separate quarters. Faygen could sense everyone on the ship, the five lower undead and these other two, as if their return from death created a bond in their souls, shining like a sickly green beacon in the darkness. None of the undead had made any attempt to communicate with the others. He hadn’t expected the lower undead to even try. They only lived to feast on living flesh. Of coarse, he hadn’t expected the mutated wolfhound to try and communicate either, but he had expected more from the wraith creature. It seemed to have a mind of its own, like himself, having desires for things other than the destruction that the necromancer pursued.

He turned away from his companions, following the dock along the waterfront toward Renier’s Port Gate. For the last two days he had heard the sound of men working on the dock, ships coming in full of cargo or fish. Now all he heard was the lapping of the water, the wind gusting over the ocean waters, and the boards of the dock occasionally creak as his companions followed behind him. Are they following me, or do we just happen to be going in the same direction?

He didn’t know their purpose and didn’t really care. He only knew that they had nothing to do with him directly. No orders had been given to him concerning them.

Within minutes the three stood before the Port Gate. Faygen looked through the gates and saw a silent city, a dead city. If his ancient tear ducts hadn’t dried up centuries ago, he would have cried.

A thing that was once a man trudged through the drizzle further down the road, aimlessly walking from one side of the street to the other in a haphazard, zigzag pattern. Faygen sent out a mental command. Come. The thing stopped, its balding head turning toward the three. It turned and stumbled toward Faygen, eyes locked on the general. The creature didn’t zigzag or deviate, walking straight to the three. The ghoul’s feet drug along the ground, making even the straight path take some time. Within moments he stood before Faygen.

He had just started to turn, to see what his companions were going to do, when the wolfhound bolted around him and grasped the mindless undead in its wide jaws. Bone cracked as fangs sank deep into its skull. The wolfhound swung the undead back and forth, popping vertebrae and slinging half-congealed blood. The beast slung it back and forth several more times before allowing the corpse to fall onto the ground. Without a pause, the creature’s head dove to the ghoul’s stomach. Massive teeth bit into the soft flesh and pulled. The corpse jerked up and down with the jerking of the wolfhound’s head, until flesh ripped and a stew of organs oozed out of the ragged hole. The beast swallowed the flap of skin then dove into the quivering innards, yanking out a length of intestine and devouring it, as any dog would do to a string of sausages.

Faygen knew the sight should have sickened him, but he felt nothing, or at best puzzled. Why would the creature kill one of the undead? Is the beast that vicious, or does it need food before continuing its mission?

He turned to the wraith, hoping to get an answer, but the mysterious man simply bowed his head and walked down the wall, away from the gate.

The wet snapping and swallowing continued for several more seconds before it pulled its bloody muzzle up and trotted after the other.

He watched the two walk down the wall until they disappeared around the corner, towards the mountains. Their presence would remain a mystery until another day.

Without sparing any more thought for his companions, Faygen walked into Renier. He had work of his own to do.

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Chapter 11a: General Faygen's Return

Part II

"Who can know the depths of evil, and is there an equally good force to compare it with?"

~Secret Holy Scriptures of the Waken Book

General Faygen placed his feet on solid ground for the first time in almost two weeks.

During the ten-day sea voyage he had stayed in the hold, staring at the plank ceiling and thinking about the hell his resurrection had become. He had done little else as the ship rocked across the ocean. Once the craft had docked he remained in the hold for two more days listening to workers yell back and forth across the docks, while the five lower undead entered the city to perform their terrible deed. He was glad to have land underneath him once again. He hated the hold, a dark and humid place that swelled the gasses within him, making his innards gurgle and swell.

Thankfully he couldn’t smell the gaseous expulsions or his rotting carcass. The sense of smell hadn’t returned to him with his resurrection, though his other senses seemed to work just fine. The constant itch of larvae rooting beneath his skin made him wish his sense of touch had been removed as well. Occasionally he would catch one as it bore through his flesh, or cough one of the little white buggers up as it tickled the back of his throat. He took his frustrations out on the tiny vermin with a pinch of his fingers.

The rain began almost fourteen hours ago, the screaming started shortly after that, then died down to an occasional screech, breaking the lulling rhythm of the rain. He had ignored the distant cries, concentrating on his mission. He listened to the screams and blocked them out, willing them away. He had enough self-loathing to deal with; he didn’t need the added guilt of more victims he couldn’t help. The screams of men being transformed into his mindless army were more than he could bear.

Twelve days in the hold had given him a lot of time to reflect on his situation, both his first life and this new one. Death had claimed his soul almost a thousand years ago in the glorious battle of Sipha. Outnumbered two to one, the Croshans had still claimed victory, thanks to General Faygen’s military genius. They won, but at a high cost; almost two thirds of his men would never walk away from the battlefield and a sword through the back for himself. He died moments after victory had been proclaimed - a glorious death, a warrior’s death.

Faygens last moments consisted of terrible pain then darkness. Not only the absence of light, but of smell, sound, touch, self …everything. Almost a thousand years of nothing. No glorious warrior’s greeting by Roke, the god of war. No glorious mansion for the great leader of the Croshans. No gold and jewels. No beautiful concubines. No great meeting with long lost relatives and no reconciliation with his daughter. Nothing.

His god granted him a thankless death for years of service and loyalty.

Consciousness. No great swirling lights or a voice from heaven, only self-awareness. A dim thought in the center of his mind, I am. The thought grew into complex ideas, then foggy pieces of memory that fit together to form a puzzle of a man. The puzzle displayed a man with friends, comrades, lovers, and a daughter. A man named Faygen.

He became aware, but darkness still held reign over his vision. No sounds. No smells. No feeling, no pounding of a beating heart to contrast the silence. Even with the panic he felt there was still no heartbeat. Am I still dead?

The pain started as pinpricks in his joints. The stinging grew and multiplied until burning torment flooded his body, focusing where bone met bone. His body twitched and convulsed, grinding joints and increasing the torture. He suddenly realized he could feel, though he wished he couldn’t.

His eyes snapped open, grating his corneas like sandpaper rubbed over a grape. They burned but didn’t moisten. Through fog clouded vision he saw two mummified arms, skin as broken and dry as bark, frantically rising and falling, striking a hard surface. A dim beat came to his ears, wood striking stone. The arm rose for another strike. Through slowly ebbing pain he willed the arm to stop. The appendage stayed in the air, thin fingers outstretched like twigs. He willed them to flex and they twitched, sending fresh tendrils of pain to his throbbing mind. My fingers. My arm. What have I become?

The deep rumble of laughter, low and mirthless, erupted to his right. His hearing hadn’t completely returned, making the laughter sound as though it came through a thick wall. He willed his head to turn. His chin swung an inch to the right before pain knifed down his spine from the base of his skull to the middle of his shoulders. The sound of popping vertebrae crackled like thunder, traveling through his dry flesh directly to his ears. An involuntary gasp escaped his mouth. The attempt to move air through the withered bags of his lungs created a new torture from deep within his chest. Dust filled his throat.

“Hurts, doesn’t it?” the voice whispered with a smoker’s rasp. It was a deep and grating sound, two rocks being rubbed together to create words. A face leered over him, hidden within the shadows of a cowl. Only a wide smile shown, filled with yellowed wolfish teeth.

Fear of creating more anguish for himself stopped Faygen from nodding his head in reply.

The creature seemed to understand. “You awakened sooner than I expected, though I really shouldn’t be surprised. After all, it is the mighty General Faygen that I have brought back from the darkness. I will try and work quicker to make your entry back into the land of the living more accommodating.”

A hand reached from a black sleeve and lay on his forehead, while the other hand reached out to grasp his knee. The hand that grasped Faygen’s forehead was black with rot. Knuckles stood out like the ends of cypress roots, stretching the skin until it looked ready to rip. Hundreds of small boils covered the tendons that tried to protrude from the skin at the wrist, lightening the dark skin stretched over then at the head.

He didn’t want the vile thing touching him.

The foul thing began to chant in a guttural language that Faygen didn’t understand. He tensed as ice filled his veins, running from where the creature touched his forehead to the other hand at his knee. A pain far greater than any he had yet experienced flashed through his body. His back arched and his fingers clenched against the chill. He didn’t notice the aching in his joints; a greater pain had taken its place. The hands stayed on him, holding him down against the torment, until warmth began to melt the ice. Like the ice the warmth began at the hand on his head and flowed down his body, thawing the icy pain and replacing it with warm relief.

The chanting stopped. The diseased hands pulled away from him.

“Feel better now, General?”

When Faygen didn’t turn his head or respond his healer said, “You can look at me now. The pain is gone and your body is restored to its former state.”

He turned his head and faced the thing that had brought him back. It stood hunched over a foot or so away from him, surrounded by walls of stone, a thing hidden beneath tattered robes, face hidden within a deep cowl.

In a low voice the diseased thing said, “I think you should know what has happened since your demise. How the world has changed and how I expect you to help me change it even more.”

Before Faygen could reply the creature mouthed another guttural word and the room suddenly became overlaid with images. Events that had taken place over the past thousand years flashed across a backdrop of stone. Thousands of images, important evens, everything of significance that he had missed while sleeping. Then he saw the future. A future where the his resurrector controlled everything, a future of death, where the undead became ghouls like himself. Some roamed around as mindless things, performing simple tasks or stumbling forward until given instructions. Others were more like himself, with the capability to think, but everyone could be controlled at any time by the horrid creature. A world full of abominations like himself.

He didn’t try and fool himself. He was still dead. No heartbeat, no breathing. He had been made into a ghoul, an abomination in the eyes of the gods.

Next, the creature showed him a city named Renier, a city full of undead waiting for a leader; an army in need of someone who could breach the walls of the castle, piercing the heart of the once beautiful city and claiming it for the necromancer.

He wouldn’t do it!

The toothy smile widened and images of his daughter flooded his mind. Eyliasa! Her body lay on a stone table much like his, but unlike himself, she had been restored to her former beauty. His precious fifteen-year-old daughter.

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Monday, November 19, 2007

Chapter 10d: Calling all the Faithful

Piet Lithor looked out the window, at the crowd of people gathered outside the temple. Hundreds of blank eyes stared back. Hundreds of arms grasped out, as though they could reach through the yards of empty air, past the invisible line they couldn’t cross. Hundreds of mouths opened their hungry maws at the few remaining men and women trapped within the temple. “Look at all the people gathered around the temple, brother Cylus. It reminds me of the days when Piet Pearson preached the gospel. Oh, but he could draw a crowd.”

Brother Cylus looked out the window. “Yes, Piet Lithor. Piet Pearson did have a way with the masses.”

A baby cried from among the pews while a mother rocked it back and forth, calming the child.

“Yeah, you got a hell of a crowd out there, Piet.” The angry voice belonged to Lurok Bos Spielter, a local merchant mariner and owner of almost a dozen ships. His tithes had payed for many of Piet Lithor’s excesses. Now he looked as though he planned to make Piet Lithor earn the money.

Brother Cylus bristled and opened his mouth, ready to give Bos Spielter a lesson in manners, but Piet Lithor halted the angry priest with a wave of his hand.

Bos Spielter twisted the end of his bushy mustache, his eyes shifting from the old priest to Piet Lithor as if the old man was of no consequence. “I don’t mean to sound rude or speak heresy here, Piet, but exactly what have my tithes bought me? Year after year I dumped coins in your lap in the hopes of gaining some favor from the almighty Vaspar, but I got up this morning to find that your god left me with nothing. Got any answers, priest?”

Just a day ago, Piet Lithor would have ruined the man for saying such things. The words still infuriated the Piet, and he wanted nothing more than to throw the arrogant merchant out of the temple and into the ghastly crowd. But in the man’s ranting heresy, he saw a reflection of himself. An example of how others must see him. It made him feel disgusted more at his own tainted soul than at Bos Spielter. None of that showed as he looked the merchant in the eye. His voice rolled with more authority than he felt. “You are still alive Lurok. Maybe those tithes bought you a fate that is better than those out there. Maybe all those coins bought you salvation from a fate that is worse than death.”

“Yeah, Piet? Well, I look out there, into that crowd, and I see a bunch of faces. Some faces I even recognize. I look out there, and I see that we’re a little school of minnows surrounded by sharks. So, you will have to forgive me if I miss the blessings that the almighty Vaspar has bestowed upon me.”

“He has made the ground holy, Bos Spielter! He has given us sanctuary.” Brother Cylus spoke up, an angry quiver in his voice.

Bos Spielter waved his hand in the air, brushing the comment away. “He’s given us a beautiful tomb, priest; a place where we can starve to death in the holiness of his presence. I don’t know about you, but I don’t feel all that fortunate right now.”

Before Brother Cylus could argue the point any further, a loud gong reverberated through the temple. All the men cringed at the unexpected noise, and the baby began wailing from among the pews with renewed vigor.

“The bell of Saint Renando. Someone is ringing the bell.” Brother Cylus' voice shook with fear. The temple bell gonged again.

Bos Spielter twisted his mustache all the harder and growled. “Someone better get up there and stop whatever idiot is pulling that cord, or we’re gonna have everyone in the city waiting outside this temple to get it. Though I’m not really sure if it matters at this point.”

The three men rushed to the stairs leading to the bell tower, Piet Lithor leading as the bell chimed once again.

He had run only halfway up the stairs, sweat shining on his face, air heaving in and out of his lungs, when he halted and yelled, “Stop ringing the bell! You’re calling them all down on us! Stop ringing the bell!”

An exited voice, the voice of a young man, called down to him. “Piet Lithor! There are men moving around on the walls of the castle. Guards, I think.”

The youth continued to chatter as Piet Lithor climbed the rest of the stairs to the open bell tower. It rose above the trees, giving a bird’s eye view of the entire city. A young man stood with the bell tower rope in his hand, held taut, and pointed toward the castle. Though his eyes lacked the strength they once held, Piet Lithor looked across and saw guards rushing along the top of the outer castle wall.

“Is that rope they are carrying?”

Piet Lithor had no idea how the merchant could see such details through the haze of drizzle that thickened the air between the temple and the castle. Not that it mattered. What did matter was that men still occupied the castle, and guards at that. They still stood a chance of rescue if only someone would notice their presence.

He turned back to the young man. “What is your name, my son?”

The boy smiled, “Tollis Mayer, son of Royce Mayer.”

Piet Lithor gave the young man an equally wide smile and replied, “Well Tollis, keep pulling that rope until someone spots us.”

He turned back to watch the guards on the castle wall and said, “You may have just saved all our lives.”

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Chapter 10c: Running Blind

A faint tinkling, the sound of a muffled bell , drifted through the air. The noise repeated again and again, getting louder with each recurrence. Shannai frowned at her brother, who shrugged and looked into the distance, toward the odd sound.

As the sound increased, Marchas stepped forward and notched an arrow into his bow, nodding to Shannai to do the same.

With arrows notched and pointed at the ground, they stood and waited as shapes took form in the misty rain. The outline of the damned stumbled forward, becoming clearer as the group marched toward Shannai and her brother. A dozen pale bodies shuffled forward. The bell noise became obvious as an indentured servant, scarred with the shoulder branding of a slave, shuffled with the crowd. A length of chain shackled to his leg dragging behind him.

Marchas raised his bow, then lowered it. He grabbed his sister by the elbow and pulled her away from the slow-moving crowd. “There’s got to be a better way than this! I’m not shooting anybody till I have to. We run. We run till we don’t have a choice, then we’ll do what we have to.”

Shannai nodded, fear filling her with anxious energy and tears clouding her vision.

Her memories became a blur of rain, running, and terror as her brother led her through the city, always forced to move deeper into the metropolis, towards the Barclave Mountain and Castle Renier. Her brain blocked out everything around her, turning her into a sleepwaker with one thing in mind; following Marchas. She could ignore the corrupted humanity around her. She could pretend the city wasn’t a lair for the damned. She could just continue to follow her brother and everything would be all right. Marchas would take care of her. He always did.

“Don’t just sit there. Run!” The noise burst through her half conscious mind with explosive force, breaking her out of her melancholy. Her brother screamed at a woman as he notched another arrow.

Tears streamed down her face as she raised her own bow and released an arrow into the crowd. She didn’t look to see whom she hit, if she even hit anyone. As soon as the shaft left her bow her gaze focused on the weapon and she notched another arrow.

Suddenly everything changed. A scream. A burst of blue light. Her brother flying through the air.

How did you do that? She asked herself as she stared at the sleeping woman.

The wizard had come in and saved the day. Just when she thought they were about to be initiated into the ranks of the dead, the wizard had shown up, clearing a path through the crowd with bursts of fire. He had picked up the witch, while Shannai helped her brother stand. Then they raced to the front gate of the castle and safety.

The door opened to the small room, breaking her thoughts. She straightened as Wellan walked through. He looked down at the sleeping woman, then at Shannai. A smile crossed his face as he waved her into the corridor. She pushed herself from the wall and followed.

“How is your brother?”

She shrugged, “A little sore, but he’ll live.”

Shannai looked down at her feet, not sure what she should say to the wizard. Finally she mumbled, “Thanks for saving us out there.”

He gave her a fatherly grin. “Think nothing of it. I felt Madame Rachelle’s burst of power and couldn’t help but follow it to its source. It looks like we were both at the right place at the right time.”


His grin melted, replaced by a more serious expression. “What are you doing in Madame Rachelle’s room?”

She didn’t look up from the floor, watching her booted toe make short arcs on the tiles. “Nothing…I just…I was wondering why she did that to Marchas. Why she slung him against that tree like that…and how.”

His comforting smile returned, “I’m here to ask the same question. To at least find out how she did it. As far as why…did you see the child, the one she fell on top of when she feinted?”

“No. I was too busy helping my brother.” Tears blurred her vision as she asked the question. A question she feared she already knew the answer to. “Who was she?”

His smile fell again, replaced by a sad frown. “I will have to ask her to know for sure, but I believe it was her daughter.”

He held up a small pendant on a gold chain. “I found this around the child’s neck. It is Madame Rachelle’s symbol.”

A tear rolled down Shannai’s cheek. She brought her eyes up to face the wizard and whispered, “I don’t think I need to speak to Madame Rachelle when she wakes up.”

She turned and strode down the corridor, not looking back as she said, “I’m gonna check on my brother now.”

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Chapter 10b: Into the Streets

When they had gathered their things, they raced back down the stairs and opened the front door. Marchas stopped in the doorway.

Shannai adjusted the straps on her pack and asked, “What’s wrong? Why are you stopping?”

“There’s nobody on the streets.”

“Isn’t that a good thing?”

He shook his head; eyes never leaving the silent road. “Yeah, normally it would be, but something just doesn’t seem right about this.” With a shrug, he stepped into the street. She followed close behind, looking from side to side, but seeing no one.

Other than the wind whipping through the empty road and the drip of water from the drizzle, the city stood eerily silent. Their boots clicked against the wet stone as they traveled through the streets, walking close to the buildings and under the eaves; staying out sight and the weather. As they crossed an alleyway, Shannai glanced between the buildings. A black cloud of smoke rose in the distance, deep within the forest of buildings. She stopped her brother and pointed. He looked at it and shrugged. Not our problem.

A splash drew their attention. The gray form of a man stumbled across the road, staggering in their direction. He approached another ten feet before Marchas stepped back, pulling Shannai behind him. The man’s throat glistened red with blood around a hole where his Adam’s apple had once been. His mouth hung open and his eyes stared at them, their moist shine coated in a dull film. His movements reminded Shannai of Bos Talle.

Marchas kept his focus on the stranger as he reached back and grasped her arm, his grip painfully tight. He pulled her with him as he raced under the eaves, away from the grisly sight. The man followed, but his wobbly gait couldn’t keep up. Within moments he became a faint shadow within the drizzle.

After a few blocks Shannai stopped. “What’s going on, Marchas?”

He shook his head, running his fingers through his damp hair. “I don’t know, but something is seriously wrong.” His gaze traveled from her to the door of the shop they had stopped in front of. Carved into the door was the symbol of a bow and knife, painted in red and black.

He put his hand on the handle and turned to her. “I think that this would be a good time to get some better weapons.”

Stopping didn’t seem like one of his better ideas, but she followed him into the store anyway. He paused in the doorway, causing her to run into his back. Her mouth opened to grumble a complaint and froze as she looked around his shoulder.

A thin man slumped over the counter, his face lying in a pool of blood. She put her hand over her mouth to stifle a scream.

Marchas pulled her through the door and pushed it shut. “Stay right there,” he said, striding to the counter.

He placed the back of his hand in front of the man’s mouth. “He’s dead. It looks like he almost turned himself inside out with his vomiting.”

She still had her hand over her mouth as she looked up at the ceiling, trying not to look at the bloody site; trying not to be sick.

Shannai looked back at her brother as he moved away from the body. Several short bows hung from the wall at the far end of the counter. He grabbed two of them, then ran to another wall and grasp two empty quivers, filling them from a barrel of arrows sitting next to the counter. He handed her one of the quivers and slung the other over his back, then he strung both bows and handed her one.

She didn’t say a word as he worked on the bows, and neither did he. His silence indicated that he was brooding about what needed to be done. Her brother was a kind and jovial man, but when stressed he would quickly become vicious with his comments. She decided to let him work instead of starting a fight.

On the way out, he stopped and grabbed a sword prominently displayed in a plaque on the wall.

The wet streets remained silent as they stepped out of the shop.

“We’ll go to the South Gate. It’s the closest one.” Marchas whispered over his shoulder as he walked south, staying near the buildings.

Shannai looked at the quite buildings and a nervous flutter crept up her spine, making her want to cower in the doorway of the arms shop. A noise made her look back, into the shop. The storekeeper stood, his face a blood-caked mess. Like a man waking from a dream, he looked around his shop. His eyes fixed on her. His mouth opened and his arms rose. He stumbled towards her.

She gasped, grabbing the door and slamming it shut with a thunderous bang.

Marchas twisted around. “What in the hell did you do that for?”

“The shopkeeper…he…he got up…he was coming for me…he…”

The anger in Marchas’ face melted away. His hand grasped hers with a reassuring squeezed as he turned around and pulled her behind him. They continued, hand in hand.

Something was wrong, seriously wrong. The fluttering in her stomach grew with every step, until she thought she would freeze with terror. She saw a ghoul in every shadow, a walking corpse in every alley, felt a cold hand grasp the back of her neck with each gust of wind. They needed to get out of the city as quickly as possible. She released her brother's hand. The reasuring gesture would only slow them down.

They had only gone a few blocks before a noise caught her attention. She stopped, causing Marchas to stop and turn. A what the hell’s wrong now look covered his face. She put her finger to her lips and cocked her head to the side, listening for the sound.

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Friday, November 16, 2007

Chapter 10a: Shannai’s Story

"The party’s over, the night’s done.

Let’s go home, we’ve had our fun."

~A popular bard closing

hannai stood in the back corner of the room, arms folded across her chest and her shoulder leaning against the wall while she watched the sleeping woman. She waited in the shadows, not wanting the woman to see her when she awakened. The woman was dangerous; she knew that the moment the witch used magic, throwing her brother thirty feet through the air. Shannai also suspected why the woman had done it, but she needed to talk to her to know for certain, and patch things up if her suspicions were correct.

She couldn’t believe how bad things had gotten. The whole city lost.

She and Marchas, her older brother, had been in Renier for almost a week, entertaining crowds at the local taverns and inns with their music and stories. They were bards, and it was a life unlike any other. She and her brother received coins for doing the one thing they loved to do. Every night they partied, and they didn’t pay homage to any man, god, or employer. They lived a free life and she had thought they held a firm grasp on their destiny; that misconception faded away in the mid morning hours, when they woke up to a city of the dead.

Being bards, they kept late hours and late mornings, usually not getting out of their rented beds until almost lunchtime. The morning the city died was no different, except for the piercing scream that woke her at mid-morning instead of her usual lunchtime awakening.

Her bleary eyes snapped opened, her hand darting to the dagger tucked beneath the pillow as she listened for more noises. Silence. She released the dagger and sat up. It must have only been a dream. Hell of a way to wake up, though.

Marchas lay in the bed next to her own. His loud snoring attested to the amount of alcohol he had consumed the night before. There would be no getting back to sleep with that ruckus filling the room.

If his snoring is gonna keep me awake then he’s getting up too, Shannai thought. Her lips twisting into a lopsided smirk. She reached for the water pitcher on the nightstand. Only a cup of water remained, sloshing in the pitcher, but she slung the water at him anyway. The rhythm of his snoring quickened and grew louder as the water soaked through his blanket, but he remained fast asleep. Her smirk turned down, forming a frown. Guess I’m gonna have to do this the hard way.

Picking one of her boots from the side of the bed, she leaned back and tossed it at Marchas’ head. His snoring became a growling snarl as he sat up. He held his dagger held in front of him, ready to combat thieves.

“Rise and shine, you lazy bastard!” Though the words were harsh, her mischievous smile let him know she didn’t mean it.

Rubbing the back of his head in feigned hurt, Marchas replied, “What did you get me up for? We don’t have to be anywhere until this evening.”

“Had a nightmare that woke me up, and I couldn’t fall back to sleep on account of your snoring. Figured this would be a good morning to actually see why everyone raves about breakfast.”

“Had it once. Trust me, it ain’t all that special.” He grinned back, throwing her boot back to her.

Fifteen minutes later, dressed in their colorful gypsy clothes, they walked down the stairs to see what the innkeeper served for breakfast. Shannai wasn’t fond of the brightly colored clothing, her in reds and purples, and Marchas in his yellow and orange outfit. She often called it his squash clothes. She wore the outfit because the clothing announced her occupation as a bard and often brought unlikely clients to them.

The main room of the inn contrasted with its appearance from the night before, empty of both patrons and noises. The enticing aroma of bacon filled the air, driving her hunger and making her wonder why she didn’t try and eat breakfast more often.

Looking around as he took a seat at one of the small tables, Marchas commented, “Sure don’t look like it did last night, does it?”

“Nope, but it smells better. I didn’t realize how hungry I was.”

“Yeah, it’s been a while since I chowed on any bacon. I remember that smell though. Smell goooood!”

Shannai laughed at her brother, then leaned back in her chair to look into the kitchen. She wanted to catch the attention of Bos Talle, the tavern owner. Her laughter stopped and a frown took its place as she saw smoke drifting through the kitchen.

“What’s wrong?”

She shrugged and leaned her chair back down. “I don’t guess it’s anything. There’s just a lot of smoke in the kitchen. I guess they burned something.”

Propping his head onto his hand Marchas replied, “Maybe that’s why nobody’s out here yet to serve us breakfast?”

“I’m sure…”

The crash of metal, grabbed their attention. She jumped in her seat and glanced into the kitchen again, hoping to see what had fallen.

Shannai looked at Marchas and he shrugged, but his eyes only widened in shock. She turned her attention back to the kitchen.

Bos Talle lumbered through the kitchen door, his apron trailing flames along his right side, and a frying pan dangled from his left hand, dripping grease onto the wooden floor. He didn’t care about the flames, or the grease dripping slimy puddles onto his clean floors.

Marchas leaped from his seat and ran to Bos Talle, knocking knocking the portly man to the floor. Shannai remained in her seat, frozen in shock by the flaming innkeeper and by her brother’s actions. When the innkeeper hit the floor her brother grabbed him and rolled him back and forth on his side, putting out the fire. She breathed a sigh of relief as the flames flickered and died, smoke drifting through the room and the smell of bacon tarnished by the smell of burnt cloth.

The relief changed as the frying pan clattered to the floor and Bos Talle grabbed Marchas’ arm, his teeth closing around the colorful sleeve. The material ripped away as he leaped from the ground and backed away, leaving a pumpkin colored tube of cloth dangling from the innkeeper’s mouth. The mouth opened wide and the cloth fell to the floor as the man pushed himself off the ground.

Marchas voice shook as he asked, “Bos Talle, are you okay?”

The only reply he received was saliva dripping from an open mouth and glazed eyes filled with hunger.

“Something’s wrong!” Shannai screamed to her brother.

Marchas’ turned to her, perhaps to give one of his flippant replies when Bos Talle lunged and grabbed him by the shoulders, his mouth darting forward to take a bite out of his neck. Marchas’ hand flashed up, grabbing the innkeeper by the throat, holding his head back; inches away from the bard’s neck. His other hand slapped the bar, blindly looking for a weapon. Before Shannai could run to his aid, his hand grasped the neck of a jug. He swung it around, shattering it against the man’s temple and sending him crashing to the floor.

Her brother screamed, “Stay back!” as the innkeeper tried to stand on wobbly legs.

Marchas’ foot lashed out, the gaudy boot catching the man under the chin, sending him falling over in a spray of blood and teeth. He didn’t try to rise again.

Her brother stepped back, away from the innkeeper’s empty stare, disgust contorting his features.

“Are you okay, Marchas?”

Without looking away from Bos Talle’s ruined mouth, Marchas whispered, “Let’s get our stuff. We’re getting out of here.”

“What happened to him? Why did he attack you like that?”

“Don’t know.”

“Are you okay? Did he bite you?”

Marchas turned to her. His usually happy face blazed with resolve as he growled, “Quit asking so many damned questions, Shannai. We have to get out of this city, and we have to do it quickly, before somebody stops us.”

Shannai’s eyes blurred as tears glazed her pupils. “It was self defense. He attacked you.”

He looked back to the still form of the innkeeper, his voice cracked, “We are roving bards, gypsies as far as the law is concerned. Do you think for a minute that they aren’t gonna punish me for this? I just kills a city Bos, a respected merchant. Now, let's get our stuff and go.”

“But, they can't…”

His voice rose, almost to a shout. “They can and they will.”

He turned, running up the stairs. Shannai looked at the innkeeper, his head lying in a pool of slowly coagulating blood. She then looked up the stairs and shook her head. She had to trust her brother. He always knew what was best for them. She wiped the tears pooling at the edge of her eyes and followed her brother up the stairs to get her things.

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Monday, November 12, 2007

Chapter 9c: Training Yard

People poured through the gate like water released from a dam. Many shuffled through the opening dressed in their nightclothes, some with no clothes at all while others wore their everyday outfits for business. A single thing remained common, blood covered their mouths and chests regardless of their attire.

The guards at the gate stepped back, overwhelmed by the mass of clawing flesh, thrown into the thick of battle without a chance to retreat.

The rest of the guards didn’t wait for a command from Stiles, following Ash as he ran forward with sword in hand to help the overwhelmed men at the gate.

Stiles watched Ash slice his way toward the men with the grace and style of a master swordsman. Shame washed over him as he watched the man cut his way to the gate. Stiles had command, but Ash held the men’s respect. He pushed his doubts and shame to the back of his mind and drew his sword to join his men in battle.

He dodged the stumbling civilians, racing to the gate with ease. He wanted to slice through them as Ash did, but he still didn’t have the heart for that sort of violence, nor did he have Ash’s skill with the blade. He knew he would have to kill to get to the castle, but he would avoid killing until he had to.

As he neared the gate he saw how pointless the struggle was. Hundreds of deranged men, women and even children funneled through the opening. Their blank eyes held no fear of the men who slashed and hacked a bloody trail through their midst, a bloody trail where there were few real casualties. Men and women took disemboweling slashes and continued to advance. Arms were severed from bodies, but they continued to stumbled forward. Some lost legs, yet they crawled forward though the blades hacked their numbers to pieces. His guards didn’t stand a chance against such a relentless enemy.

He stopped, looking over the muddy training field for other options. There had to be another way out, something he hadn’t thought of yet. He saw the short wall facing the road, the huge wall protecting the outer courtyard of the castle, and the stony face of Barclave Mountain blocking off everything to the north. Inside the training yard, large stakes stubbed out of the ground like saplings, straw dummies, the guardhouse offices merging into the side of the mountain and the entrance they came from that led to the dungeon, but nothing that would save them.

Stiles turned to join the hopeless battle when he saw them, soldiers running along the top of the castle’s outer wall, ropes coiled in their hands. His world had changed so drastically in the last few hours that he didn’t associate the men with an escape, but when they stopped and began unrolling their ropes down the side of the wall, hope returned.

He turned toward the men, mouth open to sound the retreat, and saw Migel fall. One of the contaminated, stumps of thigh dragging the ground behind him, crawled in and grabbed him by his ankles. He fell forward into the crowd where hands grabbed him, dragging his screaming form out of sight.

“Fall back! Fall back!” he screamed.

The guards stepped back, out of the people’s reach, then turned and ran toward Stile. Only Ash and Horn continued to battle the contaminated, giving the others more time to gain distance between them and the growing crowd.

Gorney also stayed behind, but it wasn’t by choice. He turned to run, made three wobbly steps and fell in the muddy yard. The crowd surrounded him, pulling his limbs in separate directions. The last thing Stiles saw was Gorney’s bleary eyes as they dragged him backwards through the mud and out of sight. He looked sick and dazed, like a man too far gone to care.

The men dashed past him as he stood and watched Ash and Horn. The two guards slashed and cut at the mass of flesh bearing down on them.

He jogged toward them screaming, “Ash! Horn! Fall back!”

They rent and tore into the horde like madmen, blood spraying into the air around them, adding a splash of red to the drizzle.

Stiles had almost reached them when Ash bellowed, “Okay, Horn. That should buy us enough time. Let’s go.”

He slashed at the flailing arms one last time before turning around and running toward Stiles. Horn’s battle with the crowd remained too intense for him to simply turn and run. He backed away a few steps, but a hand reached out of the crowd and grabbed his breastplate.

Stiles froze, his lips silently forming the word run over and over again as Horn turned back to the mass of people. They reached and grasped at him, pulling the beefy man further into their midst. He raised his sword to slice off the arms that prevented his escape, but another hand grabbed his sword arm while more of the wretched beings surged forward, burying him in a pile of flesh. Like ants attacking a wounded beetle, the people grasped and tore at Horn, ripping him apart with their bare hands.

“NO!” Ash screamed from behind Stile. He turned to the outcry as the man raced by. He reached out and grabbed Ash, stopping the guard from throwing his life away.

Ash jerked his arm free of Stile’s grip as a roar ripped through the air.

Horn stood on his feet. People clung to his bloody form, trying to devour him alive. He made two hard fought steps forward before collapsing to the earth again under a mound of thrashing, biting bodies.

“It’s too late, Ash. We can’t save him.”

Ash glared at Stiles. His nostrils flared with anger and battle lust. He didn’t say a word as he shoved Stiles back and ran for the castle wall.

Stiles turned to the heap of bodies covering his comrade, watched his final convulsions as they tore him apart. With the body covered by all the retched flesh that could reach it, the rest of the contaminated swarmed around the pile, like a stream of water flowing around a stone.

He ran for the safety of the ropes.

Most of the men stood safely on the top of the wall. Four others climbed the two ropes while Ash waited his turn at the bottom, glaring at Stiles as he jogged up to the other rope.

“You couldn’t have saved him.”

“Shut up,” growled Ash.

Stiles shook his head as he grabbed the rope and began climbing to the safety of the castle wall.

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Thursday, November 8, 2007

Chapter 9b: Out of the Frying Pan

So…how do you plan to get to the castle?” Horn asked the question that raced through everyone’s mind. “I mean, we can’t just barge out there, swords swinging. There’s enough to handle right here in the trainin’ yard where there ain’t supposed to be civilians. Gods only know how many is out on the streets.”

Stiles rubbed his temples as if that could ease his pounding headache. They had been waiting for an hour and the only sounds they heard had been occasional screaming throughout the city. Some of the screams cut through the air from just beyond the training yard wall, while others echoed from further away. None of the noises sounded like organized attack, no shouts of command or roars of victory, only the distant shrills of terror. They couldn’t remain in the dungeon offices, but he didn’t know if they would be able to make it anywhere else. They would be going to the castle blindly, without enough information to create a solid plan, but it couldn’t be helped.

“This is what we’re going to have to do.” Staying crouched down had begun to hurt his back, and he straightened while looking around at the men. “Ash, Wolf, Tarl, Arolyn, and Owl. You are the best with the bows, so grab all the arrows you can find in the storage lockers and bring them with you. We’re going out that door in a diamond formation with the archers at the points. They will drop the…uh...” Stiles didn’t know what to call the enemy. Were they civilians? Infected? Residents? What could he call a hostile force that had been friends and neighbors only hours before? No. I need to be honest with myself and the men. At this point it's us or them. “…enemy if they get within forty feet. We will warn them off at fifty, and if they continue to advance, then we'll have no choice but to treat them as hostile.”

The men looked back and forth at one another; most had never had to kill anyone before.

When the men returned with their borrowed bows and a meager supply of arrows, Stiles gathered everyone at the door. The anticipation and fear in the room became palpable as they all crouched around him in silence, being careful to stay below the window sill and out of sight. Stile’s heart thrummed in his chest and every muscle in his body tensed with anxiety. His arm froze with his hand on the door handle. Once the door opened, there would be no turning back. His mind raced with the concequences, but it had to be done. They had no other options.

He took a deep breath. The tension eased, and before it could return, he turned the handle and opened the door.

None of the people in the training yard turned to look until the group had passed through the door and took their positions. The archers formed the points of their diamond formation, while the other men stood between them with weapons drawn. Oswald and Gorney took position in the center. Gorney, because of his injury and Oswald on the premise of helping Gorney, though in reality he was simply too drunk to hold a decent formation.

The men advanced through the yard at a steady pace while the clumsy individuals of the training yard changed their direction and began maneuvering towards the guards from all directions.

Within seconds, the formation halted as a woman advanced within fifty feet of the guards, blocking their path to the gate. The archers lined their arrows on her stumbling form, their eyes darted back and forth, watching the other people gathering closer.

“Ma'am, I order you to halt!” Stiles impressed himself. His voice didn’t quake with the fear that threatened to consume him.

The woman shuffled forward, knees hardly bending as she stepped. The scene was all too familiar. Stiles thought back to the leper Drummen tried to stop verbally, knowing his commands fell on deaf ears. He still couldn’t bring himself to give the order to shoot the woman.

The gap closed by another ten feet.

“Halt!” a mumbled “please” that only he could hear, crawled its way from a throat that felt tight and dry with anxiety.

She shambled forward, closing the gap by another ten feet. Stiles froze, his mind working frantically to find a solution that didn’t involve ordering the men to shoot an arrow through her skull.

An arrow punched its way through her chest, forcing her to stumble backwards. As if the first arrow were an order to fire, three more sliced through the air piercing her torso. Fletching suddenly appeared in her chest, pointing in different directions, one going through her arm to pin it at her side. She tipped back, almost falling, and then resumed her march forward.

The arrows punched through Stiles' fear and brought forth his anger. He turned to his men and shouted. “Who fired without an order?”

Ash stepped up, notching another arrow. His ice blue eyes looked upon Stiles with disdain. “Me, sir.” The sir hissed out and dripped with sarcasm.

“Uh…sir?” Horn’s voice went unnoticed as the two men faced off.

“You don’t do a damn thing from now on without an order from me. You got that?”

“Sir?” A small word yet filled with frantic implications.

Ash pulled the arrow back against the taut string. “You weren’t gonna give that order. You…”

A scream tore through the training yard, redirecting Stile’s tension.

Oswald broke rank and ran at the arrow pierced woman, his sword drawn and pulled back for a killing blow. As he neared, the woman raised her arms up to grasp him, the arrow pierced arm pulling free from her torso, ripping flesh and scraping bone on its way out. He ignored the threat and brought his sword down on the crown of her head with a crack of bone and spray of blood. Without slowing down he ran past the collapsing woman, toward the gate in a screaming frenzy.

Oswald's violence drove through the men like a wolf howl in a herd of cattle. Five of the fifteen guards broke ranks and ran behind Oswald. Their weapons forgotten in their white knuckled grip as they sprinted toward the gate.

Stiles watched the men zig zag through the people in terrified awe as Ash released another arrow into a man who had gotten too close to what remained of the guards' formation. The other guards turned to him, wanting to be told what to do.

Before he could answer, Oswald went through the gate and out of sight. A piercing scream tore through the drizzle, all the men running behind Oswald halted, seeing something that Stiles couldn’t. They raised their weapons and drew as they looked back and forth along the opening of the gate. Their eyes widened, and their mouths opened in terror.

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Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Chapter 9a: A Duke’s Dilemma

"The laws of man, rules society places upon itself to call itself civilized, different from the other creatures of nature. Justice and fairness. These don't apply in the real world, the world outside of man's control. What should the world be like without the laws of man, only following the chaotic laws of nature, of the beasts of the wild?"

~Dokkien the Wise

Wellan’s long strides ate up the distance as he traveled to the war room to meet with Duke Renier. Exhaustion threatened to take him over, but he had to tell the Duke about the fall of his city, a fall that the Duke would take hard.

Wellan had exhausted most of his powers in the battle at the open market, leaving smoldering corpses in his wake. Still the dead had continued to come from every corner of the market, flowing in from the nearby homes like a flood of ants taking down prey. He knew that he fought a battle he couldn’t win, so he ran, fleeing back to the castle walls. The undead swarmed to every side of him, stumbling out of the forest and into the road, when he felt the mystical energy being released. Its power radiated across his skin like a puff of air full of sand. He couldn’t ignore the feeling. Wellan changed his path to run through the woods, side-stepping the shambling forms, and see what had caused the phenomena.

He hadn’t traveled far when he came upon the Lady Rachelle, lying in the middle of the street. The undead closing in around her. An ember of magic that only he could see smoldered in the palm of her hand, a blue coal of slowly fading energy. A brightly clad woman kneeled over a half-conscious man. He fought to stand against legs that wouldn’t support him.

Without hesitation, Wellan hurled bursts of flaming power, using the last of his stored energy on the mob of undead. Some burst into flame while others fell back from the heat and force of the concussions. He ran to Rachelle, scooped her into his arms. With a scowl of determination he turned to the man and woman bellowing, “Come with me.”

Neither argued, the woman held the man upright, helping him walk, and followed the wizard to the castle gates. The dead shuffled slowly behind in pursuit.

It didn't take long to outdistance the shambling corpses and reach the front gate. The nervous guard had the gates open before they reached him, as just as quickly closed them again when the group had passed under the wall. Wellan didn't bother to look at the man as he said, "Make sure that door stays shut and don't let anyone else through."

"My Lord wizard, what if someone..."

A hand pushed through the small gate window, reaching in and slapping the back of the guard's armor in a pathetic attempt to pull him to the gate. The man lept forward and turned to the gate, sword half drawn.

"What the bloody hell..."

Wellan stopped just long enough to turn and nod his head at the bloody, bite riddled arm and say, "That's all there is out there. Make sure they stay on that side of the wall."

With the gate taken care of, Wellan and his companions walked to Castle Renier, where he had found the remaining castle servants huddled together in the main entrenceway, waiting to hear what was happening to their beloved city.

Wellan didn't answer any of their questions. He didn't know how. Instead he handed them Madame Rachelle and told them to take care of her and the injured man. It would give them something to do to take their mind off of the civilization collapsing around them.

As Wellan pushed open the heavy wooden doors of the War room, he wondered about the condition of Rachelle and what had cause the outburst of power. He would find out later, when time allowed. For now, he had to meet with his Duke.

Duke Renier looked up from a map on the great oak table as Wellan walked through the open door of the war room. The Duke looked angry and tired, giving him the appearance of a much older man. A middle aged guard also straightened and stared at the wizard, fear and self doubt evident in his wide eyes.

“That will be all, General Rancor.”

The young man almost stumbled over his own feet as he tried to choose between saluting the Duke and leaving the room. He performed a clumsy combination of both, backing out of the room and past the wizard.

When the man disapeared through the door, Wellan turned to the Duke and frowned. “General Rancor?”

Duke Renier sighed, shaking his head. “He’s the highest soldier I’ve been able to find. A hell of a promotion too, from major to general in one fell swoop.” He stooped over the table again, his shoulders bunched in rage. “What are we to do, Wellan? In just a few short hours this…this plague has swept through my city, killing residents without mercy. Dead! Dead for only an hour or so and then they are back. Back to…to…”

His head turned to face Wellan, eyes red and glossy. “Some died right here in the castle. Here in my own home. We tried to find help, but even as we did, they came back. Not as the men they were, but as maniacs, intent on killing…and eating those they killed!”

Wellan remained quiet, letting his friend speak, allowing him to release some of the anger and frustration that filled his soul. “I had to kill my own men, Wellan. I had to kill them with the very sword that is sworn to protect them. I had to order the rest of my men, the ones who weren’t afflicted, to kill their comrades, to throw any dead victims over the walls. Is this what my city has come to? Is this where I have led my people?”

He looked down at the table again and brought a hand up to wipe his eyes. A sob shook his shoulders. “Is this what I’ve done with the responsibility that I’ve been entrusted with, my friend?”

Wellan grasped the Dukes shoulder and squeezed gently. His voice shook as he whispered, “No, my friend. This was unavoidable, an unprovoked attack. There was no way to know that it would happen, and no way to defend against it.”

Duke Renier lifted his head and stared at the far wall, his voice hardening with resolve. “What are you saying, Wellan? Who attacked my city, my people?” His gaze locked onto the wizard's.

Wellan returned his stare. “I don’t know, my lord, but this has the stench of necromancy all about it. I fought those creatures by the Open Market almost an hour ago, and I could feel the dark power radiating from their souls. This is no natural disease. It's a thing of darkness and magic.”

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Thursday, November 1, 2007

Chapter 8c: Lithor's Run

Leaving the priests behind, he continued on. He intended to walk to the Duke's palace and report the horrid affliction of his priests to the Duke himself. The Duke would send his guards to capture the sick priests, and hopefully a cure would be found for the disturbed men. If not, he would have to send a message to the order and have new priests brought in. He hated training new men. It would take months to show them how to perform their duties to the Piet’s exacting ways.

Within minutes, he reached a fork in the road. His tired body begged for rest, but this business had to be taken care of as quickly as possible. He turned to the northeast road, toward the castle. The south road led to the holy temple of Vaspar. He was intimately familiar with both roads.

Piet Lithor's clothes were soaked completely through and his breath wheezed in and out of his lungs as the walls of Castle Renier appeared between the trees in the gray, drizzle-filled distance. Relief coursed through his tired body. His pace quickened.

As the wall got closer, he noticed the blurred forms of people wandering across the road, back and forth along the wall. Odd. I wonder what’s brought so many people out on such a foul day?

A guard stepped out of the trees, a short distance in front of him. Piet Lithor waved his arms at the man while calling out in a breathless strain, “Guard…guard. I need your assistance right now!”

The man’s head flew up and his arm reached out as if asking for assistance. Piet Lithor stumbled backward; the relief he felt dissolved with the speed of a spoon of sugar in hot tea. His call not only gained the attention of the guard, but also a dozen other citizens who began stumbling in his direction. No! This can’t be happening. Has the entire world gone mad?

He turned and fled. Fear replaced his exhaustion and humbled his self-righteousness. He blindly ran through the drizzle as it grew into a downpour. His wet and filthy robes clung to him like a second skin, a discomfort that he hardly noticed. He had to get somewhere safe. Is there such a place, a place where the deranged masses couldn't go?

Vaspar. The holy temple of Vaspar.

Through the sheets of rain, ghostly outlines became visible on the road ahead - shambling, terrifying forms.

Piet Lithor stumbled off the road into the trees. The canopy of leaves lessened the downpour as he cut across the leaf-covered earth, huffing and dodging around the many obstacles he encountered. Cutting through the forest shortened his run to the temple. He broke through the foliage and onto the open road in no time.

The temple sat off the road before him. Trees shrouded the structure, hiding the beautiful stonework and stained glass in shadows. The Piet didn’t remember the building ever looking so ominous before.

A group of people stood in a line, just past the community well that served as a gathering spot for the parishioners. They stood and stared at the holy temple as if waiting in anticipation.

He stopped and stared at the temple. Faces peered out through the narrow openings that served as windows. Fear masked the people’s faces. He recognized Dray, the winemaker. His wide eyes stared out at the waiting people while Lana, the wife of the blacksmith, said something to him and pointed to the well. Whatever she had said he ignored.

Why didn’t the people at the well go inside? They stood as if held back by an invisible barrier. The thought nagged at his mind only a moment before he realized what it all meant. Holy ground! The ones at the well were inflicted by the vile curse that had turned his priests and the rest of the city into lunatics, and they couldn’t approach the temple because it sat on consecrated soil. The ones inside were like him, normal and sane. That had to be it.

He took one last look at the human line standing behind the well and made his decision. Holding the Sword of Tyrana before him with both hands, he ran towards the crowd of madmen, toward the temple. As he approached, the sword burst into blue luminescence and the crowd turned to face him. Their blank eyes gazed into his very soul with a madness and hunger he didn’t think possible. He didn’t slow as he crashed into their midst and barreled through, knocking one poor soul to the ground, past the invisible line. He almost tripped as he stepped on the soft stomach of the fallen woman and continued to run towards the temple. He reached the steps as the mindless woman thrashed in silence on the ground; water and mud splashed into the air as she convulsed. He reached the door and beat on it with the pommel of the holy artifact while the woman’s skin began to blister and smoke. The door opened and hands pulled the high priest into the temple as the woman’s thrashing subsided into weak flinches and her skin dissolved over her skeleton and dripped onto the holy ground.

“Thank Vaspar you made it here safely, Piet Lithor!” a tear filled voice said.

In front of the temple, the woman’s flesh smoldered and dissolved away from a blackened skeleton.

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Monday, October 29, 2007

Chapter 8b: The Gate

He had never opened the portcullis before; that task belonged to brother Craige, who must have succumbed to the illness before the task could be done. If Brother Craige could open the gate, then he shouldn’t have a problem with it. He backed toward the wall, keeping the stumbling priests comfortably in view. Their lurching forms slowly advanced, but if he could find the gate mechanism he could still escape before they reached him.

He turned and immediately saw the wooden door, intricately carved in the likeness of his God, set into the support pillar of the gate. He pulled on the nose and lifted the door, shaking his head at his own sacrilege, exposing a plate-sized steel wheel with wooden handle at the top. This is going to be easier than I thought.

Holding the sword behind him to keep the priests at bay, he reached in and pushed the handle in a clockwise direction. The wheel didn’t move. He pushed the other way. The wheel still didn’t move. With wide eyes, he looked over his shoulder, making sure the priests were still a safe distance away. They shuffled toward him, but the priests still had a ways to go before they would become a threat. The Piet leaned the sword against the wall and grabbed the wheel handle with both hands. He pushed the wheel again, and it began to move, and the portcullis lifted an inch. Pushing the wheel took all of his not-so-considerable strength. It was a fight to get the wheel to turn even one revolution, but with sweat mixing with the constant drizzle, he kept turning the wheel until the portcullis sat a few feet off the ground; high enough for him to crawl beneath it.

He pulled his hand from the wheel and it spun backwards, lowering the portcullis. He dove into the box, grabbing the handle with both hands and stopping the wheel.

“Oh blessed Vaspar, aid your humble priest.” Though not completely true, it was a statement he mouthed whenever a project exasperated him, and this particular chore had him exasperated beyond measure.

With both hands in place, he lowered his head to his sleeve and tried to wipe some of the sweat and rain from his eyes. The damp sleeve didn’t help.

A splash erupted behind him. Piet Lithor’s neck crackled, twisting to look over his shoulder. Brother Rayne tottered thirty feet behind the panicked high priest. He couldn’t let go of the wheel to grab the sword so he swung his head back to the wheel, looking for a latching mechanism. His gaze darted all over the shadow-cloaked box, seeing nothing. Then he saw the dark line of a bar sitting flush against the side of the box. He let go of the wheel with one hand and slapped the bar down, wedging it against the handle. The portcullis dropped an inch before hanging in place.

Piet Lithor didn’t stop to congratulate himself. Driven by fear and necessity, he reached for the Sword of Tyrma and wheeled around to face the threat that stumbled toward him. The sword's blue glow erupted down the blade at Piet Lithor’s touch. He swung the artifact up, creating a barrier between himself and Brother Rayne, a blue arc of light like the afterimage of lightning it dissipated just as fast. Brother Rayne did as brother Foster had, turning his head aside and holding his hands up before his eyes as Piet Lithor backed toward the portcullis.

His back touched the gate and he squatted down, sword held protectively in front of him. The other priests were still advancing a short way behind brother Rayne as the Piet lay on the ground and scooted through the gate, mud and grit staining the front of his white morning gown.

Appalled at his filthy appearance, but wanting to get as far away from the sick priests as possible, Piet Lithor ran up the tree-lined road as fast as his tired body could carry him. Before he lost sight of his home, he looked back. The priests stood at the portcullis, hands reaching through the iron bars like prisoners asking for food. None of the mindless men had the sense to crawl under the portcullis. A half-hearted smile crossed his lips as he witnessed their ignorance.

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Thursday, October 25, 2007

Chapter 8a: Lithor's Artifact

"The righteous will scatter before the unrighteous like dust is blown from an ancient book."

~Secret Holy Scriptures of the Waken Book

iet Lithor stood in the entryway of his home, standing on the balls of his feet, his eye shoved against the peephole in the door. He studied the courtyard, where Brother Rayne and Brother Foster aimlessly shuffled through the drizzling rain and short grass, neither paying any attention to the other. They looked foolish, tottering back and forth on their bare feet and bloodstained robes. Brother Foster’s small hat, a symbol of his divine authority, had slid down his brow, almost covering his eyes, adding to the ludicrous appearance.

He looked past the priests, to the front gate. His priests always locked it at dusk and unlocked it at dawn. He needed to know if it had been opened before everything fell apart. The well partially blocked his view and his vision blurred when he tried to look at distant objects. He moved his head sideways, to get a better angle on the peephole, but the peephole was small enough that it didn’t help.

“Blasted well!” he growled in frustration, momentarily forgetting that silence was his friend. He cringed and looked over his shoulder, making sure no one heard. Other than the faint sound of water dripping from the eaves, silence still filled the house. He didn’t think anyone remained. When he had finally gained enough courage to leave his room, the mansion stood empty of living souls. He hadn’t heard the shuffling footsteps of his deranged priests or seen them stumbling about. The only priest he had seen was poor Brother Clay, laying in a pool of blood; his insides strewn about him. Piet Lithor had never seen so much blood. He didn’t realize the human body could contain such a quantity.

He felt remorse for Brother Clay and more than a little shame at his own actions. He should never have left the faithful priest to defend his retreat. He should have been a braver man and stood with Brother Clay. The priest may have been saved if Piet Lithor would have stayed and helped him. Of course, they might both have been killed, and what purpose would that have served? He hated his cowardly actions, but had he stayed, he would have died beside the priest, his blood and organs would now be mixed with the faithful man’s. Yes, he had made the right decision.

Holding the sword to his side, he bowed his head and said a quick prayer for Brother Clay, that his soul be well recieved by Vaspar. The prayer only lasted seconds. His situation didn’t allow time for such niceties, not when maniacs roamed the halls and grounds of his home. His eyes opened and he scanned the room to make sure none of his priests were sneaking about. The room stood empty and quiet.

With a short prayer to Vaspar, Piet Lithor cracked the front door open. The creak of the hinge reverberated through him like a hammer on a gong. Cringing, he peaked through the crack to see if the two priests heard the noise. Brother Rayne had stumbled and fallen and was pushing himself upright, wobbly shoulders tipped precariously to the side. Brother Foster had walked out of Piet Lithor's narrow line of sight and was nowhere to be seen.

“Have faith in almighty Vaspar. He saved you once, and I doubt it was just to let die an hour later on your doorstep,” He mumbled to himself.

With a steady push, Piet Lithor opened the door enough to get his portly body through the gap. Brother Rayne struggled on his knees, still working to get himself in a standing position. The Piet had seen him in this submissive position almost every day for the past seven years as the priests prayed together to Lord Vaspar. The memory both saddened the high priest and terrified him, reminding him that the man kneeling in the grass hadn’t been a mindless killer twenty-four hours earlier.

He still couldn’t find Brother Foster.

Cocking his head to the side and stretching out as far as he could reach without leaving the dry safety of the entryway, Piet Lithor looked toward the front gate. Even with the well out of the way, the drizzle and his poor vision worked against him. The blurred portcullis looked to be open, but the fuzzy shadows made it almost impossible for him to tell. He would just have to go and hope for the best.

He stepped into the drizzling rain and stopped. Five feet to his right, hidden by the edge of the entryway, stood Brother Foster. The hat-wearing priest no longer appeared ludicrous to Piet Lithor with his hands rising to grasp the high priest and his mouth open in silent hunger.

Piet Lithor stumbled backwards, automatically lifting the holy sword of Tyrmra between himself and the grasping priest. The blade glowed with a foggy blue light and the handle quivered as if appalled or hungered by the abomination facing it.

The mad priest’s head turned to the side and his hands lifted to cover his face, as if ashamed of what he had become in the face of such a holy relic. Piet Lithor side-stepped around Brother Foster and towards the front gate with the sword held between them. His eyes only left the sick man to see where the other priest stood. The priest stepped back, never dropping his hands or turning his head.

When Piet Lithor stood between the priest and the gate he ran. His heavy frame hadn’t moved so fast in years, and he gasped for breath, pushing the ache that painfully formed in his side. As he reached the gate, he turned to see what the priests were doing. Brother Rayne, his bloodstained robes now filthy with mud and grass, stumbled toward the high priest along with the recovered Brother Foster. Other priests, ones that Piet Lithor couldn’t see from the entryway, shuffled through the yard in his direction. He knew each lax face that swayed in his direction and felt a twinge of betrayal. He had known all the men for years, and now they were after his flesh, his blood, maybe even his soul. After all of the things he had done for them year after year, this was the payment he received. He shook his head, reminding himself that they couldn’t control their actions before turning back to the gate.

The portcullis blocked his exit.

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Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Chapter 7c: Rachelle's Walk

Madam Rachelle stumbled through the streets of Renier in a daze, a bundle of cloth grasped to her chest. Legs dangled from the cloth and swayed as she walked, one foot bare and the other wearing a small leather shoe.

After leaving the castle, she had returned home. The deserted streets and eerie silence didn’t intrude into her thoughts. Her mind roamed elsewhere, focusing on every detail of her conversation with the wizard.

When she reached her home she brushed through the door and froze. Mia lay in the middle of the floor. Rachelle had asked the young girl to watch after Tanilla while spoke to the wizard. The girl’s head lay in a pool of vomit and blood, terrified eyes open and staring at the leg of a small table. Her hair formed a dark halo, making her face even whiter by contrast.

Rachelle ran to her and rolled her over. Her voice quivered as she cried out Mia’s name. She touched the girl’s cheek; cold flesh told her what her eyes refused to believe.


She stood on trembling legs, a lump of terror gathered at the base of her spine as she raced to the child’s room. Her worst fears were confirmed when she saw her five-year-old daughter lying on the floor with arms outstretched as if reaching for the door. A shriek burst from Rachelle’s throat. She ran to her daughter, picking the child up and holding her close. The cold, little body slumped against her, arms dangling at her sides.

She had raised Tanilla by herself for the past three years, since Raman went out on a merchant boat and never returned. The loss of her husband had been devastating, but she didn’t have time to wallow in self-pity. She had a daughter to raise, a little girl who depended on her for everything. Rachelle had to be strong for her daughter's sake.

There’s no reason to be strong now, she thought as she cradled her daughter’s cold body in her arms and cried. Tears streamed down her face as she laid the child on her bed and tenderly wrapped her in a blanket before pulling her close again. Her breathes hitched in her throat as she walked through the house and out the front door, her daughter’s limp body pressed tightly against her. Rachelle went through her actions automatically, pure instinct without thought. Her reasoning had buried itself deep within her, unable to face the bitter truth, her body taking control. She had to see to the needs of her precious baby.

The world around her vanished as her feet slowly carried her back to the castle. She barely noticed the shambling corpses, slinking out of doorways and between houses. Rachelle continued down the road, ignoring the people as they grouped together and shuffled behind her, slowly gaining ground and numbers. She ignored everything until her cherished bundle began to shift and squirm.

The movement yanked her mind back from the void it had retreated to. With hope in her heart that she didn’t trust, she lowered her daughter to the cobblestone road. Then she noticed the crowd of people behind her. She saw the blank look in their eyes and the blood coating their mouths and clothes. A few she recognized as neighbors and clients. She willed her vision to shift into another spectrum, a spectrum of life and death, love and hate, future and past. The people’s auras stood out, like holes in the fabric of the universe, worse than the smoky shading of death. Dozens of black silhouettes tottered in her direction, forming an undulating black wave.

She willed her normal vision to return.

Not understanding, but refusing to loose her baby twice in one day, she hugged the child to her once again and ran down the road, toward the castle. The bundle she carried fought and squirmed against her grasp. “Shhhhh…it’s gonna be okay, baby. Mama’s got you.”

She stopped, frozen in place as more bodies stepped out of the manicured forest on each side of the road ahead of her. She stepped back, but with the bodies advancing from behind her she had nowhere else to go.

“LEAVE US ALONE!” she screamed, knowing it would do no good. Hope drained away, to be replaced by gut wrenching fear and despair.

Dropping to her knees, she pulled Tanilla’s head to her shoulder and stared at the ground as tears fell to the cobblestone road.

Pain flared through her shoulder. She pulled the bundle away and looked at her squirming daughter. Her arms rose against the constraining blankets. A small circle of cloth opened and closed in the center of the girl’s head as her mouth chomped up and down.

She needed to see her daughter's face; hear what she tried to say. With shaking hands, Madame Rachelle unwrapped Tanilla from the blanket. She shuffled backward and gasped as baby teeth snapped together behind lips pulled back in a snarl. Her short arms reached out for her mother, but not for a hug. The sight that hurt Rachelle the most though, was the lack of recognition in her little brown eyes.

Rachelle held the struggling girl at arms length while her mind began retreating again, going behind the dark door of her consciousness where none of these events were happening.

Suddenly the girl’s hair wafted up in a spray of red and grey. A steel arrowhead dripped blood onto the girls shoulder. A feathered shaft stuck out from her daughter’s other temple. The girl stopped struggling.

“Don’t just sit there. Run!” a colorfully dressed man screamed from between two trees while notching another arrow onto a short bow. A similarly dressed woman released an arrow into the crowd steadily closing in on Rachelle.

Her mind snapped. Her daughter slid from her hands as she stood, rage enveloping her. Rachelle’s world glowed with auras. The diseased crowds a black mass of waving forms, the trees a patchwork of bright greens with sparkles that flashed and danced. Houses swam in a gray haze, and the man who shot the arrow through her daughter glowed a deep, pulsating red; the object of her rage and hatred.

Her left hand curled into a fist, fingernails cutting bloody crescents into her palm. Her head rolled back. Open eyes faced the cloudy skies. A chilling scream erupted from her throat as her hand flashed toward the man and a wave of blue energy burst from her fingertips and slammed him, throwing him into the air and slamming him against a tree where he slumped to the root covered ground in a daze.

Rachelle collapsed to the ground, her thoughts retreating to the safe place behind the door within her mind.

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Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Chapter 7b: Almost Free

The third key opened the door and within minutes the guards, except for the ones holding Sharky, stood outside their cells. The man thrashed and slammed his head against the bars, silently biting at the freed prisoners. With the prisoners free, he fought and raged worse than ever, struggling to get to the men behind him; the ones not protected by the iron bars.

Stiles tried to reason with him, standing a safe distance away. “Come on, Sharky. It’s us. We want to help.”

He snapped at Stiles, biting his tongue in half. The bloody mass bounced off his shoulder and fell to the floor. Without a tongue to pad his bites, Sharky’s teeth snapped together with loud clicks. Blood ran over his bottom lip and speckled his mouth with every bite.

“STOP IT! Quit or you’re gonna bleed to death.”

The madman kept biting and fighting, battling to free his arms.

Stiles grabbed Horn’s shoulder. “Get another sheet off a cot and stuff it in his mouth. It might slow down the bleeding. Use what’s left to cover him up so we don’t have to touch him.”

Horn ran to a cell and came back with the linen. He wadded a handful and shoved it into Sharky’s mouth between bites. He threw the rest of the sheet over the man’s head and shoulders. Horn grabbed his arms, pinning them to his sides.

Stiles turned to the four men, still trapped in the cell. “Blade, help Gorney up and get ready to run out of the cell. Arolyn, get ready to let him go.”

A frown curled Arolyn’s lips. He didn’t look happy about the order, but he nodded and grabbed the end of the sheet.

Owl and Blare helped Horn hold Sharky while Stiles unlocked the cell, “Arolyn, let him go.”

Arolyn pulled the sheet away from Sharky’s arms. The moment his arms became free he reached back and tried to grasp the men holding him against the cell. Owl and Blare grunted as they pinned his flailing arms to his side. Horn pulled the struggling man backward.

With the doorway cleared, the four prisoners ran from the cell. Once they were out Horn moved to the door and pushed Sharky in. Stiles slammed the door closed and locked it.

Sharky stumbled, blindly making his way back to the door. He looked like a drunken ghost as he stumbled around the cell with the sheet covering him from head to waist. He slammed into the bars and stuck his arms through; his hands clasped and grabbed for the guards again. The bloody, puckered sheet around his mouth moved and squirmed, but didn’t fall out.

Horn spoke first. “Look at that. He ain’t even bothering with the sheet. It’s like he don’t notice it.”

Stiles looked at Gorney. “We’ll worry about him when we get out of here. Royd, bandage Gorney up, then we’ll get some help for Sharky.”

When a tourniquet and bandage had been put on Gorney’s arm, they walked up the stairs to the front room of the dungeon. A wooden door stood between two large windows, facing the training yard. The windows let in a drab light that painted the room in deep shadows. A table sat against one wall with a deck of cards strewn over its surface and a half empty mug of ale. Their weapons and armor hung on the opposite wall.

Stiles walked to the door and stopped as a woman passed by one of the windows. She wasn’t a soldier. The chin and the front of her pale blue dress glistened in the midday sunlight. Both were coated in blood.

He ducked below the window and motioned the other guards to do the same. As they squatted down he crawled to the window and peeked over its edge. The woman’s back faced him as she shuffled to the walls of the training yard. A dozen other people aimlessly shambled back and forth around her. Most of them were soldiers, but none looked like they knew where they were. A distant scream broke the silence.

“What da hell was dat?” Oswald’s blurted from his prone position near the stairs.

Stiles glared over his shoulders at the man. Between clenched teeth he hissed, “Shhhhh”

Stiles peeked over the windowsill again. The woman had stopped with her head cocked to the side as if listening. Moments later, she continued her ambling gait toward the wall.

Blade crawled next to Stiles and looked through the window for himself, then gasped, “What’s going on? Is the whole city infected?”

Stiles turned and sat with his back against the wall while Blade took in the scene. The other men crawled toward the windows for a look while Oswald stayed near the stairs, keeping to himself.

A decision needed to be made, but it couldn’t be made lightly. Stiles had no idea how much of the city might be infected, and he didn’t want to enter the training yard to be swamped in crazy people. Not only that, but did they have the right to hurt those people? They were sick and needed help. If there was a chance for them to get well he could ruin that by taking their lives. On the other hand, he couldn’t let them attack him or his men. He didn’t even want them touching him or his men.

Even if they did get through the training yard, what then? He hadn’t seen any of the city watch dealing with these people. He had to assume, within the few hours they had been incarcerated, the entire city had fallen prey to the strange illness. If that was the case, then the best thing for him and his men to do would be to get away from the city and into the sparsely populated countryside.

He peeked over the window once more, looking toward Castle Renier. The castle stood a little way off, but it sat higher than the other structures and was easy to spot. He didn’t see any movement and almost gave up, but a flash caught his eye. Someone leaned out of one of the tower windows, looking down into the city. He couldn’t see much from where he crouched, but the person seemed to be in control and actively looking at the carnage that Renier had become.

Stiles sat down and leaned against the wall. “There are still people at the castle.”

“So?” Gorney muttered. Sweat coated his face causing his pale skin to glisten in the dim light. Stiles didn’t reprimand him for his outburst, thinking it was the pain talking.

“We’ve got to get to the castle. The Duke may need us.”

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Sunday, October 14, 2007

Chapter 7a: Sharky Awakens

"...and while the righteous gather in their temples, seeking the protection of their Gods, the children shall rise up against their parents with unrighteous vengeance and hatred."

~Secret Holy Scriptures of the Waken Book

"What we gonna do if he don't get up?" Horn stuck his head against the bars of the cell he shared with five others, pointing his nose in the direction of the motionless Sharkey.

Stiles could always count on the portly warrior to break his concentration, but Horn did have a point. Sharky was the only person they had seen since being locked up, and he should have been relieved hours ago. When he collapsed on the floor, they had yelled and made as much noise as they could, but no help came. The sense of impending doom that Stiles had been struggling with became worse. Something wasn’t right.

“I ain’t worried none. The relief guard’ll get here any minute an’ all this’ll sort itself out,” Gorney said in his ever-relaxed tone. He sat on the stone floor in the cell adjoining Stiles with his elbows propped on his knees.

Oswald moved next to Stiles, pushed his head through the bars and waved a drunken hand in Sharky’s direction. He belched before slurring, “I…I ain’t so sure dat ol’ Sharky’s gonna make it tru dis one. Looks ta me like a feller I knew when I was sailin’ wit those mariners. We comes up to dis island and one of da feller’s gots himself stung by dis little flea lookin’ thing. Next thing we know, the guy’s all pukin’ up blood and gaspin’ fer air and…”

“Shut up, Oswald.” Stiles couldn’t take another one of the old soldier’s stories.

“But all I was sayin…”

“Yeah, and I’m telling you to shut up.”

“You ain’t my cap…captain. You just barely outrank…”

“Shut up, Oswald.” Ash whispered the words from the bunk he sat on across the room, in a cell he shared with Horn and two others. He was a man of few words, but when he spoke, everyone listened. Though Stiles outranked everyone in the room, he still hesitated when giving orders to Ash. The lanky man was cold, distant and self-assured. On top of that, he was a quick and deadly swordsman.

A frown skewed Oswald’s face, a mask of disgust. The old man’s mouth opened to say something then snapped shut. He looked at the ceiling as if in deep thought, then dropped his eyes back to Ash. Again his mouth opened to say something then suddenly closed. Stiles expected the old man to cower down, but instead he threw his arm out toward Ash, his bleary gaze swept across the men as he mumbled, “Awwww…ta hell with ya all!” Then he plopped down on the cot, a sour expression on his face and his arms folded across his chest.

An awkward silence blanketed the room. Everyone leaned against the bars or sat on the cots. No one had anything to say that would change the fact that they were locked in a dungeon with no way out, so they said nothing.

A scraping noise broke the tense silence. The sound wasn’t loud, but it got everyone’s attention.

Sharky’s foot twitched and slid an inch.

Horn grasped the bars with his large hands and pushed his wide head against them, “Aye, Sharky. You okay?”

Sharky didn’t respond. Instead he drug a knee to his waist and scooted forward, into the open area past the barrel. Without a sound, he placed his hands by his shoulders and pushed his torso up. His head hung as though his neck were broken, while strands of blood and gore hung from his open lips.

Stiles stepped away from the bars. In the next cell, Gorney said, “Let us out of here Sharky. Give me the keys, and we’ll get you some help.”

Sharky’s head snapped up. He looked over his shoulder at Gorney with cloudy, almost pupiless eyes. He rose on wobbly legs and staggered across the dungeon, toward the cell Gorney shared with three others.

Stiles stomach clenched with panic as Gorney stuck his arm through the bars, hand open to accept the keys. He couldn’t identify anything about the sight that caused his fear, but something about the scene seemed horribly wrong.

Sharky reached forward and grabbed Gorney’s hand, his other hand clasped Gorney’s elbow. Sharky jerked Gorney’s forearm to his mouth and sank his teeth into the flesh until they snapped together. Gorney screamed, yanking his arm as blood gushed over Sharky’s lips and nose. He wouldn’t let go.

Arolyn, Blade, and Wolf ran to Gorney and pulled him back as Sharky chewed and swallowed. His head lowered for another bite. Grasping the bars in a white knuckled grip, Stiles watched as Sharky clung to his victim’s arm while the three men pulled Gorney into the cell and away from the deranged guard.

The pale, dull-eyed man didn’t give up. Both arms reached through the bars. His hands grasped for the four men standing at the far end of the cell; his mouth constantly opening and closing, snapping at empty air.

Stiles knew why he had an uneasy feeling about Sharky. The snapping teeth brought it all back. The lepers had acted the same way. The behavior had seemed vicious and bloodthirsty for men who were so blank and empty. He couldn't forget the raw violence of the lepers. Violence that lacked purpose. The sort of violence Sharky had suddenly displayed.

“What the hell’s wrong with Sharky?” Horn bellowed.

“Can’t you see? He’s got the leprosy!” Owl shrieked from the cell across the room.

Migel grabbed Stile’s arm and twisted him around. “What we gonna do?”

Stiles couldn’t think through the terror and shock. It’s contagious. The stuff is contagious! Just a breath or a touch and I might catch it. A drop of blood, a trace of spit or breath on the wind might have given us the sickness. Any of us could have it and not know it. I could be rotting from the inside out at this very minute.

Migel shook Stiles. “Sir…what are we gonna do?”

Like a man waking from a dream Stiles snapped back to the present situation. We have to get those keys!

He turned to the four guards. Three of the men stood with their back against the wall of their cell, as far away from the snapping and grasping Sharky as they could get. Gorney sat with his legs splayed across the floor, glaring at Sharky and holding his open wound as blood dribbled between his clenched fingers. “Arolyn, Blade, grab Sharky’s arms and pull them into the cell. Hold him tight, so he can’t move. Wolf, when they get Sharky pinned to the bars you grab the keys from his belt.”

Stiles had trouble calling the deranged man Sharky. The man had always been gruff and mean, a necessity when employed as a dungeon guard, but not insane. The blood, hungry stare, grasping hands and chomping mouth had transformed him into another creature. Not a man any longer, but a wild thing; something violent and hungry, a rabid beast. He had to remind himself that the vicious thing was still Sharky and he needed help. The man might be cured if they could get him to a healer.

Arolyn and Blade moved forward. Both were good soldiers and didn’t question orders.

They had only taken a couple of cautious steps when Stiles stopped them. “Wait. Don’t touch him with your bare hands. Use the sheet on the cot.”

Arolyn turned and yanked the sheet off. He handed one end to Blade and they advance on Sharky. They grabbed his arms, using the sheet to protect themselves, and pulled the man tight against the cell. Their proximity maddened Sharky. He shoved his head against the bars. His jaws snapped open and closed with savage force and blood flowed between his crooked teeth as he bit into his tongue.

The men held him against the bars as Wolf slid between them. Cloth ripped as Wolf jerked the keys from Sharky’s belt. He tossed them to Stiles and backed away from the deranged man.

Stiles caught the key ring and turned to unlock his cell. He stopped and spun back to the men holding Sharky. “Don’t let him go. Wrap the sheet around his arms. Tight, so he can’t get away. I’ll let everyone else out and then we will deal with him and get you out.”

They nodded and began wrapping the sheet around Sharky’s arms.

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Sunday, October 7, 2007

Chapter 6c: Wellan's Discovery

After meeting with Rachelle, Wellan walked the silent woman to the gates at the palace wall, trying to keep her out of the rain and reassure her that the people of Renier wouldn't come to harm. She strolled beside him, but didn't speak, often wiping her eyes, hidden within the cowl of her cloak. He tried to sound convincing, but her silence told him she remained certain about the fate of those around her. Her confidence scared Wellan. Rachelle was a seer, known throughout the city for her accurate predictions. The wizard hoped he would be able to stop disaster from falling, but her strong convictions overwhelmed his sense of security.

At the gate, he wished her well, trying to sound more convincing than he felt. The guards stood at attention, eyes fixed on the trees across the road. She nodded her head once, turned and walked away, disappearing into the downpour.

As Wellan turned to go back to the palace, one of the guards cleared his throat and stuttered, "Eh..excuse me, sir."

The other guard rolled his eyes, as if to say, Here it comes!


With a nervous quake in his voice, the first guard said, "Dale and I..."

Dale turned to him and glared, forcing him to start over. "Well, sir, you see...I was wondering if you know what's goin' on today?"

Wellan's eyebrows drew down. "What do you mean?"

The guard scratched his wiry beard and said, "Nobody's come into the gate today, other that that seer, and usually we got at least a dozen people by now. The rain don't even account for it. That, and...well, we've been hearin' hollerin' all over the place. We would've checked it out, but it's hard to tell where it's comin' from with the rain and all, plus we can't leave our post, and nobody has made their rounds to see if we need anything, or we would've reported it."

Fear's icy fingers crawled up Wellan's spine as the implications became obvious.

"Shut the gates until I return."

He turned to the guard who had spoken. "Go back to the palace and find your commander. If he isn't available, then go straight to the Duke. Tell him the palace needs to be searched for dead bodies or sick people. The dead bodies need to be locked away or burned and the sick need to be quarantined. I will be back within the hour."

The guards looked at one another and hesitated; uncertainty and fear clouded their faces.

Wellan put a hand on their shoulders and spoke, keeping himself as calm as he could, "Hurry. It's important that the palace be sealed as quickly as possible."

The first guard spun and ran toward the palace while the second guard closed the heavy iron-bound wooden doors. Wellan turned and stepped out from the palace wall. Within seconds, the rain soaked through his cloak and robes. It chilled him, but not enough to deviate him from his task.

Rain pummeled him as he walked, narrowing his senses so that he could only detect things in a small area around him. Trees could be seen to either side of the road, but only as grayed silhouettes. He wondered if the sudden driving rain might have more purpose than nature intended. Maybe to hide a vile horror from the eyes of those who might be able to stop it. The thought unsettled him.

He pulled his cowl tighter and widened his stride.

Within moments, the market opened before him. Wellan stopped.

Each morning, vendors brought their wares to this area of the city and set up tents and booths, hoping to fill their pockets with coin before the day ended. On a normal day the market bustled with activity, especially with God's Day just around the corner. The sight before him was far from normal. A few booths and tents could be seen, buffeted by the downpour, but the buyers and vendors were missing, their wares getting soaked. The rain accounted for some of the lack of participation, but it wouldn't explain why the booths were completely empty of both buyers and sellers. Not only that, but everything stood in eerie silence, other than the constant patter of the rain and the wind flapping fabrics back and forth.

Wellan walked further into the market, toward the well in the center.

All through the market he saw the same thing: empty booths, watered goods - and no people.

As he approached the well, he saw his first person. A pair of boots peaked out from the backside of the stone and mortar pipe, the heels facing toward him. The boots didn't move.

He ran to the well, water splashing with every step, and instantly smelled death. A heavy-set man lay by the well, eyes glazed open in terror and skin fish-belly white. Wellan squatted next to the man and felt for a pulse. The cool skin told him there was no need. Oddly enough, the smell of death slackened as Wellan knelt next to the body. He bent down and took another whiff. The putrid smell was faint. He stood and sniffed again. The smell became stronger. Realization flooded his mind and he bent over the well and took a deep breath. The putrid stench wafted up from the well.

Wellan slammed his open hand against the lip of the well. "Damn!"

The cities water supply had been poisoned with the infection. Everyone used the city-supplied wells. Most of Renier was probably already infected.

A shuffling sound caused Wellan to spin around. Behind him staggered five corpses, with more stumbling between the booths. They were dressed in an assorted array of merchant attire, men and women who woke up thinking that they were going to have another day of business as usual. The pallor of their skin and blank look in their eyes spoke differently.

Surprised, Wellan stepped back. The corpses advanced.

Repulsed by the sickening creatures, and not even considering who they may have been a few hours ago, he pulled back his arm and swung it forward. Hell burst from his open hand and incinerated three of the five corpses. Seven more had stumbled in to take their place. Wellan pulled both arms back and let loose.

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Chapter 6b: Piet's Dilemma

Piet Lithor cowered beneath satin sheets in the shadows between his bed and the wall. His breath wheezed through his throat and his heart pounded with a quick rhythm. He could hear each beat as the blood passed his eardrum; unfortunately, the sound wasn't loud enough to drown out the banging and scraping coming from the door.

The terror had started as Brother Clay brought the grilled quail to the table and placed before him. The quail was dried out and overcooked. Piet Lithor opened his mouth to tell Brother Clay to return the tray to the kitchen and try again. His angry comment halted in mid-breath as Brother Somners shuffled into the room. The man was hardly fit to be seen in public, wearing only his night clothes, and soiled night clothes at that!

The Piet’s mouth snapped shut and then opened again, ready to tell Brother Somners to make himself presentable in the presence of the Piet. The pajama-clad man turned toward him and the words died in his throat as Brother Somners raised both arms and began shuffling forward. The stains on the night clothes were red, a dark red.

Thank Vaspar for Brother Clay. The man grabbed a steak knife and put himself between the Piet and Brother Somners. The Piet stumbled out of his chair, sending the ornately carved furniture crashing to the floor, and backed away from Brother Somners.

Other priests and house staff stumbled in behind Brother Somners. All of them wore bloodstained clothes with arms outstretched as if begging for help, aid far beyond the Piets ability to give.

He recognized every face. Brother Moyes, the record keeper of the order, shuffled around the corner. Black ink mixed with red blood on the front of his robes. A quill grasped like a club in his ink-stained grip. Mina Trey, his personal housekeeper and occasional caretaker of his more base needs, hobbled slowly at the back of the crowd with a broken leg. Little Gorkis Rowe, a fine young man working to enter the priesthood, sped through the slower moving bodies with blood covering his mouth and hunger shining in his eyes.

It was too much for the holy man.

He turned and ran.

He raced down the hall to his room, leaving Brother Clay to fend the madness off.

His priests had become abominations. He could hear their shuffling from the other side of the door; a door barricaded by a dresser and overturned bookcase. Every sound sent a shiver down Piet Lithor's spine. The shuffling and banging spoke volumes to the Piet. The priests were telling him that they wanted him. They wanted the flesh of his bones, the organs protected within those bones. They wanted to feast on his meat and drink his blood. The priests wanted his essence, his soul. They wanted Piet Lithor to join their ranks and become one of them. He could still hear Brother Clay screaming within the dark recesses of his mind.

"Leave me alone!" he shrieked at the barricaded door.

His plea only increased the intensity of their assault. The feet sliding across the floor became more erratic, and the pounding grew louder as the abominations escalated their efforts.

Piet Lithor crawled to the end of the bed, where an immaculately polished and carved table sat. Standing upright on the table stood a sword, a holy artifact, the sword of Tyrmra the Just. Its gleaming, etched blade and intricately wrought handle almost calling to him. Rising to his knees, he grabbed the artifact by its golden handle and scooted back to his hiding spot behind the bed. He knelt with the sword between his clasped hands, as if in prayer, the blade pushing against the tiled floor with his forehead touching the pommel.

In a frantic whisper, he pleaded, "Oh mighty Vaspar the Just and Righteous. You who right the wrongs of mankind, giving the righteous strength and punishing the unholy. I, your humble servant, ask you to deliver me from this nightmare. Destroy those who wish me harm and save me from the vile clutches of the unholy, so that I may continue to lead men in your righteousness."

The banging of the unholy only got louder.

Piet Lithor lowered his voice to a faint whisper, a minor vibration of his vocal cords, "Oh mighty Vaspar. Please, please don't let them get me. I will do anything you wish, anything. I will…"

A loud crack interrupted his prayers. The door facing began to split.

He continued in silent prayer. I will give you the wizard. Yes. I will deliver Wellan unto you if you will only let me leave here unharmed. I know you hate his dark sorcery, and his haughty ways. I will make him yours. Please, Lord Vaspar, let me live to serve you.

The banging stopped. Piet Lithor felt disappointment underlining the unholy quiet, as if the vile creatures were being denied something they wanted more than anything.

Within seconds, their shuffling faded away and only silence remained.

Weeping, he hugged the holy artifact of Vaspar the Righteous to his chest.

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Sunday, September 30, 2007

Chapter 6a: Auras of Smoke

"The afterlife doesn't contain the promises of Heaven if we submit to the will of our Gods, nor the Hells we should suffer if we rebel. The afterlife is something totally…different"

~Dokkien the Wise

As Madame Rachelle strolled through the large room, she browsed through the impressive collection of books lining the walls from floor to ceiling. Thousands of books stood before her, more than she had imagined the entire city possessed, and all meticulously organized. Their topics ranged from blacksmithing to complicated mathematical algorithms. One thing she didn't see were any books on the subject of magic. Given the little she knew about the Duke's Wizard she wasn't surprised. Legend stated the man, if that were even what he was, had been sent by the Gods and entrusted with the welfare of men.

Actually, not too much was known about the Wizard. Madame Rachelle spent a great deal of time finding out anything she could him, with little success. It began as a hobby, but as she discovered little tidbits here and there, her pastime became an obsession. Maybe it became such a driving force because the local wizard was a mystery that had yet to be unraveled. He had lived in the city since its founding, and many people whispered that he had been meddling in man's affairs since long before the city existed, maybe even since the creation of man, a guardian of the human race of sorts.

Her fingers trailed behind her, gently touching the books she passed. The Wizard had knowledge unknown to most mortals, of that she was sure. He would be able to interpret what her gift had shown her. He would know why she was seeing the terrible sights. He would tell her why she saw death in the faces of everyone she met.

"Hello, Madame Rachelle."

Her heart fluttered as the strong yet quite voice spoke up from behind her. She turned to see the Duke's Wizard standing in the doorway, a silver tray with a carafe of tea held between his delicate hands.

He smiled as he set the carafe down on a reading table. The room filled with a spicy aroma as he filled two cups with the dark steaming liquid. "I am terribly sorry to keep you waiting. I had some other things to attend to."

Her nerves overwhelmed her and stole her voice as her heart raced. She stood in speechless awe, all the things she had imagined saying to the mysterious wizard suddenly gone, a vanishing trick performed by her memories. She almost felt as if she were in a dream, one that was swiftly becoming a nightmare. After a short, but awkward pause, she mumbled, "The wait was short, my Lord Wizard."

He shook his head, giving her a gentle smile. "Please, call me Wellan. Titles don't mean a great deal to me." He passed her a cup of tea. "Now, Madame Rachelle, the guard said you had some important information to share with me."

She set her cup on the table as if it would only distract her from what she had to say. Taking a deep, shaky breath and gazing at the cup as though it held the answers to the meaning of life, she quietly said, "Since we are being informal, please call me Rachelle."

"Alright, Rachelle, what was it that you need to tell me?"

She didn't know where to begin. The speech she planned at her home had become just a jumbled group of words and no longer seemed appropriate. Her voice died in her throat. Finally she gave up, speaking more bluntly than she had intended, "Everyone I see will die in the next few days!"

Wellan’s cordial smile vanished. "Why do you say that?"

"I don't know if you know anything about me, but I’m a fortune teller. I run the little business from my home, reading cards, palms, bones, tea leaves…anything that will allow me to interpret the signs fate graciously gives me. I can also see auras, colorful glows that seem to radiate from everyone. The color can tell me what sort of mood they are in, what has taken place in their past, and what might be in store for their future. It's a gift…a gift I don't take lightly."

Rachelle took a seat at the corner of the table. Wellan sat in a padded chair at the end of the table, his own tea forgotten. His eyes filled with concern as he asked, "When you see these auras, how can you tell whether they reflect the person's mood, past or future?"

She put her hands around her cup and twisted it back and forth, watching the cup and not the Wizard's eyes. "I ask them questions."


"Yes. I use the cards, bones, tea leaves or anything else I happen to have to focus my concentration, and I ask them a question. For instance, I might ask if they have ever been in love; love is the most popular reason I do business. I might see a dark red glow telling me that there are strong emotions here and they truly were once in love. The props aid me a little in narrowing down the possibilities of the telling, and they make it all seem more real for the customer, but…but I mostly rely on my aura sense."

Wellan placed his hand over Rachelle's. The comforting touch drove away some of the nervousness. She stopped twisting the cup and looked up into his face as he said, "You see auras, but what does that have to do with all of these deaths you are talking about?"

A knot formed in her throat and tears misted her eyes. She wiped the tears away with the back of her hand as Wellan pulled a kerchief from his robes and handed it to her. "I…I don't always see the auras. The props help me focus and then they come easier. Sometimes they come all on their own, and sometimes they won't show up at all. Earlier in the week, maybe two days ago, a customer came in to have her fortune told. She asked the usual questions, one was about her husband loving her more and will she find happiness in her future. I used cards for the reading. When I looked up at her she glowed…she glowed black."

Tears freely streamed down Rachelle's face. Forgetting about the kerchief she wiped them away with her forearm, sniffled and continued. "It means…it…. death. Black always means death. I couldn't tell her the truth. I couldn't tell her she was going to die, or maybe it was her husband, or children, but death walked by her side. I told her I couldn't see anything. I lied. She…she left and an hour later another customer came by. I was still upset about the first customer, but I met with the next one hoping that they might have a bright future. Again I saw black. Black!"

She wept as the sudden flood of emotions washed over her. Seeing the disturbing auras was a burden she could hardly bare. Wellan leaned over and put a comforting arm around her shoulder. "It will be okay, Rachelle. They won't die. I won't let that happen, I promise."

She sat up in her chair and he leaned back in his. "What can you do?"

Though he obviously tried to hide it, she could see that he didn't know what to do. He attempted to be kind to her, to comfort her.

She could also see something that terrified her, making her want to scream. Smoke surrounded the wizard, the black smoke that only she could see.

A comforting smile twisted Wellan's lips as he reached out to brush the moisture from her cheek, "Don't worry, Rachelle, I'm sure that whatever is causing these black auras you see we will be able to stop it from harming anyone."

His words brought her little comfort.

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Chapter 5c: Sharky's Bad Day

Stiles sat on a small cot and watched a trickle of water as it meandered down the wall. Must be raining outside, he thought, then turned to watch the other men as they drank their ale, rolled their dice and told their tales within each of the four cells. There were fifteen men in all, three of the cells held four men while Stiles only had two others with him in his cell. His cellmates laughed as they exchanged exaggerated tales.

Stiles didn't laugh. Waiting in a prison cell under quarantine didn't amuse him at all. He envied the other guard's ability to carry on despite their circumstances.

Migel turned to Stiles as soon as Oswald finished another one of his stories. "You sure you don't want anything to drink?"

Stiles gave Migel a sympathetic smile. Migel wasn't really asking Stiles if he wanted ale, he was asking him to break in so he wouldn't have to listen to another one of Oswald's stories. The elderly guard loved to tell stories about his past deeds, and they became larger and grander with each retelling. Though Stiles was tired of hearing the same old tales himself, he wasn't in the mood to join in and take some of the aggravation from Migel. "Don't feel much like drinkin'."

Oswald, who was well on his way to being falling-down-drunk, plopped himself on the cot next to Stiles and slurred, "Man yoos sick?" He had a bad case of tooth-rot and his breath always reeked, but the sour smell of ale made the odor even worse.

"Yea Stiles, it ain't like you to pass up a free drink. Everything okay?"

"I'm fine. I just don't feel like drinking is all." He wanted to say more, maybe ask how the rest of them could be getting drunk while there was a chance that they could be contaminated. The rotting images of the lepers kept flashing into his mind, reminding him that he could become one of them. If they had contaminated him he would start rotting away, a little bit of himself dying each and every day, the community shunning him, his family sending him away. The thought didn’t put him in much of a drinking mood.

His mind kept mulling it over as Oswald started another tale of his grand adventures.

"Godsdamned lazy bunch o' bastards!" The barred door to the main chamber burst open and their guard stormed in. He was a slovenly man, even by city guard standards. His bulbous gut stretch his soiled uniform almost to the breaking point, making Stiles wonder why he didn’t request a new one, one that would fit his portly frame a bit better.

One of the men leaned an arm out of his cell, an ale mug in his hand, wanting a refill.

"Hey Sharky, I thought your shift was over?"

The portly guard stared at the man with disgust, a venomous look that made the already ugly man look like a troll. "Godsdamned right my shift is over. Bunch o' lazy bastards."

Seeing that Sharky was in a foul mood, and realizing that getting the man in a worse mood was possible, one of the Night Guard chimed in from another cell. "Well, what the hell are you still doin' here? Shouldn't you be home bangin' the missus' or somthin'?"

Some of the other men began to laugh.

The comment didn't bother Sharky, but a wicked gleam twinkled in his squinting eyes as he replied, "Keep it up, jail-bait, and when I get off I'll go to your place and do a little bangin' on your missus'."

The men began laughing even harder, but not the fellow who had started the banter. He didn't laugh a bit.

When the laughter died down, Sharky continued. "Nobody showed up to relieve me. Can ya believe it? I've been down here over twelve hours watching these cells, waitin' on you assholes like a barmaid for the last three of them hours, and nobody comes in to relieve ol' Sharky."

Stiles sprang off of his cot and strode to the bars. "Nobody came in to relieve you?"

Sharky spat on the floor. "Not a damned' soul."

Another one of the men grinned through the bars. "Hey, Sharky, maybe they quit doing shifts by hours and started going by how hard you work instead. Hell, you're liable to be here for another twelve hours."

Nervous laughter followed his comment.

Stiles stuck his head up to the bars and yelled, "Shut up, Jamee. This might be a real problem." He turned to Sharky. "You need to find your commander and ask him to check on those men."

Sharky's fat lips formed a frown. "Awww, I figured I would give em' another hour and then I would…" Sharky swayed back and forth, reaching out to steady himself.

Stiles hands tightened on the bars. "You okay, Sharky?"

Sharky brought his hand up to his cheek and gave it a little rub. "I…I don't know. Feel hot as hell. Just sorta came over me." He turned and started walking toward the main door. His steps wobbled awkwardly, as if he had been the one drinking all the ale. Sharky tripped and caught himself on an ale barrel, sending mugs flying to the floor in a cacophony of sound, but stopped himself from falling.

Stiles had to lean his head further into the bars to see Sharky's back. "Sharky, what's the matter?"

He saw Sharky hunch up and then heard him retch, followed by the sound something wet splashing onto the floor. The noise stopped, then started again. Sharky tried to push himself off the keg, but another convulsion struck him, doubling him over and sending him crashing to the chamber floor. When the convulsions stopped the room went silent. Everyone stared at the prone form. The keg hid his head and the puddle he lay in was covered in shadows. Stiles didn't need to see the puddle. The odor of rancid stomach acids started to fill the room, a few of the men looked queasy themselves. The smell of vomit didn't bother Stiles. What bothered him was the faint aroma mingled in with the vomit, the trace of a scent that he was too familiar with, the smell of blood.

"Sharky…Sharky, you okay?"

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Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Chapter 5b: Madame Rachelle

Rain began to fall as Madame Rachelle approached the palace walls. She was still a good half block from the entrance, and shelter, but there was nothing to be done for it now. Her pace quickened. Her hard soled boots sounded in sharp splashes against the drumming rain, dress and scarves trailing wetly behind her. She wore several colorful layers of clothes that included a hood, but the water seeped through and chilled her skin. She prayed she wouldn't slip on the slick stone road as she sped through the rain.

Lightning illuminated the sky, throwing her surroundings into crisp black and white as she arrived at the guard station, the portcullis of the Cutter Path Road gate breaking the entrance up into rectangular blocks. Her whole body tensed a second later, as a crackling burst of sound assaulted her eardrums.

Two burly guards stood in a sheltered area next to the gate; not a drop of water shone across their boiled leather armor. Smirks twisted their faces as she ran under the eaves of the gate.

Madame Rachelle pulled her soggy hood back and wiped water from her face. She fought to keep a quiver from her voice as she said, "I need to see the wizard, Wellan."

One of the guards raised an eyebrow and glanced at his partner before turning to her. His snide gaze traveled from her hair to her waist, lingering on her breasts. An uncomfortable feeling of anger and embarrassment contorted her emotions as she returned the guard’s stare. She felt as if she were livestock at an auction. When his sneering eyes returned to hers, he folded his hands across his chest and asked, "Is the Duke's wizard expecting you?"

She didn't expect to easily get an appointment to see the wizard, and the guard's sarcastic tone, not to mention his wandering eyes, didn't making her feel any more confident about her chances. "Please. It's important. I have information the wizard needs to know."

The other guard had been staring at her also, but his eyes shone with curiosity rather than lust. "Aren't you the fortune teller, Madam Roquelle or something like that?"

She didn't know if her reputation was going to help or hinder her. Many of the citizens of Renier loved and respected her, but just as many called her a charlatan. With a hint of hesitation in her voice, she answered, "Madam Rachelle. Yes, I'm Madam Rachelle, the seer."

The guard turned to his sneering partner and whispered something to him, but the pounding rain forced him to raise his voice so that both his partner and Madam Rachelle could hear. "Dale, we had better find out if the Wizard will see her."

Dale turned to the other guard, looking like a child who is told he can’t play in the mud any longer. "What do you mean? No one's told us the Wizard's expecting any visitors today. If Wellan wanted his palm read, I'm sure he would have mentioned it to the Captain."

"She said she has important information, and besides, my wife knows her. If we don't at least find out if she can talk to Wellan, and my wife finds out we just sent her on her way, she's not gonna give me any …" He glanced at Madam Rachelle then looked to Dale, whose frustrated frown had turned into a toothy grin. "…dinner for a month."

Grinning and trying to hold back his laughter, Dale replied, "Okay. Go find out if Wellan will see her, wouldn't want you missing dinner tonight."

When he turned back to Madam Rachelle the grin vanished. "Just wait right here. We aught to know if the Wizard will see you within half an hour or so."

She nodded to the other guard, ignoring Dale. "Thank you."

The kind guard nodded and walked through the small guard entrance as Dale responded, his snide gaze returning to her wet clothing. "You're welcome."

She folded her arms over her breasts and prepared to wait for the other guard to return.

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Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Chapter 5a: An Ancient Tome

"Your own council you should not keep, neither take the counsel of those who are too eager to give it for in their eagerness they may lead you along the wrong path."

~ Secret Holy Scriptures of the Waken Book.

Wellan and Duke Renier sat in the small conference chamber. The room was quiet and out of the way, half-hidden in a corner of the castle, and they both felt comfortable in the small area, like a clubhouse shared between friends.

Wellan opened a small black book, which rested upon his knee. Cracks covered the leather cover like an old sea bed, with scrawling cryptic letters pressed into the hide. Time had aged the pages and made them seem brittle enough to crumble to dust at the slightest touch, while undecipherable scribbles neatly trailed across the ancient sheets.

Wellan read a segment of writing in a hushed, almost reverent tone. "Thus do the necromancers' ilk walk the earth, created and used by the black arts of Syn. Syn doth grant the corrupt heart favors in this area, but the unholy God, the Keeper of all that Dies, doeth require a great favor for such blessings which are granted unto such an evil heart. These favors are known not by any but he that requesteth the boon from Syn, and they dare not speak of it.

"A man must die in order for the boon to be granted. Such evil beings which shall be bold enough to ask for such a favor as this will have a heart of stone and will gladly find a victim to use as an unholy vessel of Syn. Once the victim is slain and given over to Syn it shall lie dormant, without sign of life or spirit for a time. When the time has expired, the vessel will still be dormant of spirit yet it shall contain life. With this life shall be only one desire. The desire shall be to feed. Bread shall it not want. Water shall not quench its thirst. The meat of the beasts of the field shall repulse it and make it ill, for the new creature is not of this world. The new being will be a vessel of Syn and require the flesh of it's brethren to fill its hunger. The new being shall require the blood of its neighbor to quench its thirst. The abomination will not see wisdom or reason. It will no longer work the hammer or plow. It will no longer create beautiful works or care of its fellow man. It will be a mindless thing, only existing to feed its hunger for flesh."

Wellan looked at the Duke to make sure he didn't need to stop and explain any of the passage. Sitting on the edge of his seat, with a stern look in his eyes, the Duke waved the wizard to continue.

"It should be known throughout the world of men that these abominations are to be greatly feared. No man shall approach them for Syn holds a fate far worse than any mortal death. Should a man contact an abomination, he shall be burned within the hour, else he also become abomination! Neither grab nor touch one such as these, else ye become as they, an animate corpse, without mind or spirit. Thou shalt avoid them and flee. If thou think to cleave them with great iron thou shall rethink thyself. How shall thou kill that which no longer lives? How shall thou separate a soul that no longer resides within the host? Nay, thou shalt not have the power to kill such a one as this with mortal weapons. Only the plasma of fire or the burning of acid shall destroy such a vile thing. If any but these are used, the abomination's hunger will live and grow with each passing minute, a hunger no mortal can understand."

The Duke stared and the small leather tome and massaged his bare chin. Finally he asked, "Is this true Wellan? These creatures can't be stopped with a sword or an axe?"

Looking at least as grim as the Duke, Wellan answered, "Yes, my Duke, they can be stopped with iron. What the passage said was that they can't be killed by anything short of completely destroying the body."

"Now I understand why you insisted that the 'leper' be burned to ash."

With a barely audible sigh Wellan replied, "Yes. I wasn't sure until I saw the creature, but there was no mistaking what it was. It had to be destroyed and destroyed completely."

The Dukes face brightened a bit. "All five of the creatures were destroyed. The last one, the prisoner, has already been cremated, so other than finding out why they were here in the first place the disaster has been averted."

Wellan shook his head. "No, I'm afraid not. The captain of the Night Watch, the one that reportedly went berserk in the streets when he confronted one of these things, never reported in for duty. I requested all of the men involved to meet me on the practice field this morning before they went home. He wasn't among them. When I went to his home, he wasn't there either. Only evidence of his conversion remained."

"If he's loose in the streets…"

Wellan rose from his seat, preparing to leave the room. "Yes. He is loose in the streets, but he shouldn't be able to stay hidden. He probably won't even try, because they truly are mindless beings, as the book said. I have the city guard looking for him, so I expect to see him in the dungeon sometime early today."

As Wellan backed toward the door the Duke grabbed his sleeve. "What if he has touched or…or bitten someone."

Wellan put his hand over the Duke's. "I don't know, my Duke. Let's just pray to the Gods that it hasn't happened."

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Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Chapter 4d: Drummen's Feast

Drummen stood in the dark, staring straight ahead as drops of water fell from the ceiling. The dirty water had risen halfway up his thigh in the last half hour, almost over the lip of his worn leather boots. The water didn't concern him; he hardly noticed it. Only food concerned him now. Only flesh could satisfy his hunger, and blood to quench his thirst.

He couldn't eat yet. No, not yet. He had to wait. The Voice told him to wait for the others. They would arrive soon. To calm his hungers the Voice gave him dreams. Glorious visions. In these dreams he could feel his teeth sinking into soft flesh. The taste of warm blood spraying into the air and flowing around his mouth and gums; sliding, like thin honey, down his throat as he chewed and swallowed.

In the visions, his victims screamed as he ate them alive. The noise meant nothing more to him than the sound of the water dripping into the rising liquid around him. The screams were accompanied by a chuckle, the Voice laughing in the background. They struggled ineffectually as he grasped their shoulders, sinking his teeth into the side of their neck. He should have recognized many of the faces, his mother and the girl of his dreams being two of the victims, but they had become nothing more than blank templates, more food to appease his ever-growing hunger.

Perhaps the dreams weren't quite as good as actually feasting. He would know as soon as the others arrived. With the others, his brothers and sisters, he would hunt the warm flesh. He would bask in the red blood, and he would suck on the marrow of bones. His eyes rolled back and he shivered as the dreams continued to give him an ecstasy he had never found in life, a fulfillment greater than drink and more erotic than sex.

It was unfortunate that he really couldn't understand any of it.

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Sunday, September 16, 2007

Chapter 4c: Lunch with Lithor

Piet Lithor sat at the end of a long banquet table, wondering what chef Roboldi had prepared for lunch. He lifted the silver bell and shook it vigorously; the high-pitched tinkling filled the room. Piet Lithor waited.

That damnable wizard had infuriated him. The arrogant fool didn't treat him with the respect he deserved. He was the voice of god, an ordained priest of Vaspar, the Living God of Justice and Righteousness. Not only that, he was the High Priest, for Vaspar's sake!

The black arts had never impressed the Piet. If great Vaspar wished, he could give the priest the power to crush that arrogant wizard. The almighty Vaspar must have some use for the black-hearted man or he would have already struck him down for his insolence. Vaspar's plans and motives were hard to understand sometimes, but everything that happened occurred because of his God's master plan. Piet Lithor just wished he knew what that master plan might entail.

Piet Lithor’s generous stomach growled, scattering his thoughts and reforming them into more immediate concerns. He looked around, but didn't see the chef with his lunch. What could be taking so long? It wasn't like him to keep the Piet waiting. No one, besides the Duke, made him wait.

Piet Lithor thought back to the night before and his confrontation with Wellan. He had gone from the dungeons straight to Duke Renier to announce his complaints concerning the disrespectful wizard. At first the Duke hadn't seem happy to see the angry priest, but as the Piet told him how nonchalantly and arrogantly the wizard had treated him, and how he refused to call him by his proper title, the Duke had smiled and said, "Yes, Wellan is a handful, isn't he? I will make sure he shows you more respect in the future."

When he expressed his concerns about how the wizard wanted to burn a poor leper for running away from the city guard, Duke Renier had seemed shocked. "I will have a talk with Wellan about that! After all, the man should at least get a fair trial. Thank you for bringing that to my attention, Piet Lithor," he had graciously declared.

Yes, the wizard's credibility would be damaged thanks to the Piet's information. Duke Renier would make sure the sorcerer would be properly chastised for his actions. The Duke was a good man, a ruler who knew how to show a fellow leader of men the respect he deserved. He would make sure the wizard treated Piet Lithor with respect from now on. Yes, the Duke was a good man.

"Where's my lunch? That bumbling chef had better hurry and get it out here or there will be consequences." He rattled the bell with more vigor; filling the room with an awful racket.

When no one responded, Piet Lithor screamed at the empty hall. "Chef Raboldi! Chef Raboldi! Where's my dinner! You're late with my dinner, Raboldi!"

A minor priest burst through the kitchen doors, a filthy apron around his waist.

"What is this, Brother Clay? Where is Raboldi?"

Brother Clay bowed his head, his thumb and index fingers forming a triangle over the crown of his skull with his palms facing the high priest. A few respectful moments passed before he dropped his hands and spoke to the angry man, his gaze never leaving the floor. "I am so sorry, Piet Lithor. Chef Raboldi has gone home sick for the day. All of the kitchen staff is gone."

Piet Lithor's nostrils flared. "All of them sick? Oh, come now. They can't all be sick."

The priest raised his head, eyes shifting nervously to those of the high priest. "Yes, Piet Lithor. I am afraid they all started feeling unwell shortly before lunch. As has many of our own clergy."

That didn't sound good. It didn't sound good at all. Now who would prepare lunch? He wasn't about to prepare it himself.

Brother Clay grabbed the edges of the apron and spread the material out in front of Piet Lithor. His face lit up with an awkward smile. "If it meets your approval, Piet Lithor, I will try and prepare you something for lunch. Of coarse I'm not nearly as experienced as Mr. Raboldi with the herbs and seasonings, but I can prepare a fairly good stew if given half the chance."

Piet Lithor curled his upper lip and lifted an eyebrow. "Stew? Oh come now priest, you can do better than that. I am in the mood for grilled quail smothered in a tangy sauce."

The smile fell from the priest face. "Tangy sauce, Piet?"

"Yes. I don't know what it is, but Raboldi makes the sauce all the time. You should be able to make it easily." Piet Lithor smacked his lips in anticipation.

Brother Clay swallowed, knowing that before the day was through he was going to be getting a reprimand that he wouldn't soon forget. Fortunately he remained low enough on the temple hierarchy to avoid being demoted any lower. "Yes, Piet Lithor. I will do my best."

Piet Lithor shooed him away, then sat back into his chair to wait for his lunch.

It was odd that so many of his staff had become ill. Odd, but he could deal with that once his stomach was full of quail. Yes, he would deal with that after he ate.

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Thursday, September 13, 2007

Chapter 4b: Bolvar the Lucky

Bolvar sat on the edge of a dock with his feet hanging over the side when the drizzle started. He squinted at the dark sky, letting the tiny drops fall onto his stubble covered face.

"Awwww shit!" he grumbled, taking another swig of cheap wine. The sorry crap was bitter and sour, but Bolvar drank it all day long, so he took whatever he could get, and the cheapest of liquor was almost more than his panhandling could afford.

It was time to relocate to somewhere drier. As he lifted his legs to go someone ran by and yelled, "Better get your ass under something, Bolvar. You stupid drunk!"

Bolvar staggered to his feet with his arm outstretched in front of him for balance and hollered "Oh go t'hell ya sorry bastard!" but the tormentor had passed out of sight in the hazy drizzle. He knew he drank too much, but so did a lot of the other guys. He didn't have a home like everyone else, nor a wife and family. He didn't have shit, but that was okay with him. Who the hell needed all that responsibility dragging you down anyway. All he needed in his life was himself!

Hell no he didn't need any of that other shit. Bolvar was a visionary. He had ideas. Sure, he was hung up at the moment, but that wasn't a damned problem. No, not a damned problem at all.

Moments before the rain started coming down hard he stumbled to a group of dilapidated buildings and found a dry spot underneath the eaves. "See there, I'm luckier that anyone gives me credit for. I'm one lucky sumbitch." He rewarded himself with another swallow of wine.

Oh yeah, he was a lucky all right.

Bolvar sat for a short while, contemplating his good fortune and watching the rain fall. Listening to the individual drops join together in a cacophony of sound. His bare feet were getting soaked, but there wasn't enough room to pull them in now without having to sit on them or stand. He wasn't about to stand and the last thing he needed was a wet ass. Oh well, his feet needed a good washing anyway.

Something tickled his chin, crawling through his scraggly beard. He dug into the bird’s nest of hair and pulled the culprit out to give the pesky critter a good examination before snuffing its life out. The little black bug wiggled its legs and clawed the air as he brought it to eye level. In the distance behind the struggling creature, a gray form walked toward him in the downpour. He took a swig of wine and watched as the fellow got closer. It was a young man, maybe sixteen or seventeen. Sheets of rain buffeted him, plastering his long hair to his head and soaking his clothing as he splashed through the water logged alley. He staggered as he walked toward Bolvar. Hey, maybe a kindred spirit. Bolvar smiled to himself.

The young man tottered underneath the eave and placed both hands on the wall, bent over and breathing hard, ass hanging out in the rain.

Being the gracious host, Bolvar held up his bottle of wine and smiled, offering the young man a sip. The fellow looked at Bolvar then at the wine. He shook his head and turned away.

If the kid was too godsdamned good to have a drink with old Bolvar then to the abyss with him! He didn't want to share his wine with the little bastard anyhow.

The sound of retching broke the rhythm of the drumming rain. Bolvar turned to the kid. The boy had doubled over, shaking and puking chunks of half-digested food.

"Hey, kid. You okay?" Bolvar wasn't that concerned about the boy. He only wished the kid had picked another spot to make such an ungodly mess, but it was a polite question to ask. The rain would wash the vomit away in no time, anyway.

The kid turned to Bolvar. The poor bastard looked like a fish caught out of water, eyes bulging and mouth open wide. It almost looked like the fellow was trying to say something.

Not wanting to seem rude, Bolvar leaned closer to the boy and yelled over the rain, "What? Whacha tryin' t'say? I can't hear ya!"

The boy gasped for breath one last time before spewing blood and gore all over Bolvar's face and neck.

He fell back as the kid's dead weight fell forward. "Ya godsdamned stupid boy. Ya gots me all filthy." He pushed the limp boy out into the rain, where the kid lay with his eyes staring into the gray sky as water pelted his face.

Realizing something was wrong; Bolvar stuck his head into the rain and gazed into the boy's blood-shot eyes. The blood washed off them both, dilluted in the rainwater puddling around them. "Ay, kid. Kid. You okay?"

The boy stared at the heavens while the rain splattered into his eyes. He should have been blinking or something. Bolvar looked at the boy's chest. It wasn't moving. "Awww shit. Awwww shit!"

Bolvar stood over the boy and screamed as the cold rain soaked through his ratty clothes. "Somebody help me! Somebody help this kid!"

He continued to yell and plead for help, but nobody came. When his voice became too horse to be heard over the driving rain, he backed up under the eave and plopped down next to his bottle of wine. He coughed to clear his throat then grabbed the bottle and took several generous swallows while looking at the dead kid.

Maybe he wasn't so lucky after all.

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Sunday, September 9, 2007

Chapter 4a: Martha's Bakery

"Mind your folk all your days
If you don't there are ways
To make you suffer and make you pay
When the monsters come you cannot slay."

~Children's rhyme

The sky darkened and drizzle dampened the streets as Martha looked out the little bakery's front windows. Her stomach rumbled as she watched the people in the street run, seeking shelter. This is no time to get sick, she said to herself, placing a hand over her belly and handing
Olga Roth a loaf of freshly baked bread. The store wasn't nearly as busy as she had thought it would be. Aside from Olga, the shop was bare of customers. Must be the weather.

She put two muffins into Olga's basket and thanked the elderly lady as she accepted two small coins.

Olga turned and mumbled, "Bit o'nasty weather out there, it is." Then pulled the hood over her graying hair and stepped through the door and out into the wet streets. The tiny bell over teh door tinkled as it opened. Martha watched Olga scurry across the road, wondering if she should start delivering bread to the elderly woman on her way home from the shop. Malach wouldn't like that. He enjoyed walking her home at the end of the day, when they finished cleaning the kneading table, wiping the ovens and washing the dishes.

Malach and Martha's little bakery had been open for almost three hours. Usually the day started out busy, with people purchasing something to eat on their way to work. The sweet breads were everyone's favorite in the early morning snacks category. As the lunch hour approached customers would come in wanting more wholesome breads, wheat, rye, or just plain white. After lunch business would usually slack off a bit until around clossing time. At the end of the day mothers would send their children by to pick up a loaf of bread for dinner.

Business was slow. Other than Olga there had only been three or four other customers. That just wouldn't do.

Martha's stomach growled again, making an audible gurgle. The rumbling relieved some of the pressure building behind her naval, but the embarrassing noise had already caused one customer to comment on her health, and another client seemed to be suffering from the same malady and would look up in embarrassment when the noisy growl of shifting gasses reverberated through the small shop.

Placing the back of her hand to her forehead she frowned. Her skin flet like a loaf of fresh baked bread, warm to the touch - too warm.

She turned from the counter and walked toward the swinging door that led to the back of the building, where bread rose in Malach's ovens. The room spun before her eyes and she grabbed the counter to steady herself. The walls tilted and shifted, putting a surreal twist on everything around her. Her grip tightened and she focused on the solid wood beneath her palm, the stable wood. Her eyes closed tight, and her knuckles whitened as she willed the room to stop spinning. Sweat rolled down her cheeks like tears as everything tilted once more then stabilized. Releasing the counter, she stood upright, a quiver in her legs telling her that something was still wrong. Martha would have to tell Malach she wasn't feeling well, not well at all. He wouldn't like it, but she didn't have a choice in the matter.

"Malach," she called as she pushed through the swinging door. Her legs froze as she saw him.

He leaned over the edge of the dough-covered kneading table. His eyes bulged as muscles strained to push his breakfast back up his throat. Red faced and groaning, he stared at her with scared, pleading eyes. Martha forgot about her illness as her husband fought for breath. The terrified look in his eyes driving every other thought from her mind. Malach convulsed, his head dropping to face the ground and with a terrible roar he spewed the contents of his stomach from his mouth and nose. The floor became covered in a wet soup of eggs, soggy pieces of toast and slimy stomach acids.

Martha ran the short distance to him, but she swooned and fell against the table. The room spun, reminding her of when she was a child and her brother swung her around by her arms. The dizzy spell kept her from getting her bearings and before she could prevent it, her own stomach heaved, sending her breakfast splattering wetly on Malach's back. He didn't notice. He had problems of his own.

She started to straighten, to help Malach, but her stomach wouldn't allow it. Like a punch to the gut, her stomach clenched again. More eggs, toast and bile rose to splash across the already filthy floor. She could hear Malach echoing her actions nearby.

When the spasm ended, she straightened and grabbed a rag from the counter to help clean Malach up. She felt terrible about soiling his clothes; he was so careful about looking clean for the customers. Martha managed to grab the towel before the next eruption hit. This time there was nothing left to come up and she strained against the force of her own body. Her breath wouldn't come and she feared that she would suffocate. Panic overcame her when something gave way with a painful ripping and her mouth flooded with a burning copper taste.

What splashed onto the floor wasn't eggs and toast. The syrup-thick liquid painted the floor dark red and pooled into the cracks at a snails pace.

She had just enough time to look at Malach before another spasm clenched her belly. He looked at her, hand outstretched as if pleading for help, blood covering his mouth and white apron. His terror-stricken gaze was the last thing she ever saw as she bent over and sprayed blood over Malach's shoes.

The couple collapsed to the floor, hidden from the rest of the world. The rain began to fall hard, drowning the sound of blood dripping from the kneading table.

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Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Chapter 3d: Wystia at the Well

Wystia moved the wooden bucket to her other hand so she could be near her best friend Lindsy. Every day they went to the well in the mornings, and afternoons, each of them filling their buckets to bring back to their homes. Getting water was just one of the many chores forced on them by their parents. Her pa said it built character, but she didn’t see what character had to do with lugging the heavy bucket. Whenever possible, they tried to do this chore together. They were inseparable, sharing all of their secrets and dreams with one another. Wystia would do anything for Lindsy, and Lindsy would do anything for Wystia. They were the best of friends.

As they walked on the cobblestone road she leaned her head against her friend's shoulder and in a dreamy sigh said, "Do you think Kyle is handsome?"

Lindsy pushed Wystia's head off her shoulder and giggled. "Why Wist, I can't believe you're getting all starry-eyed over some brute of a boy."

Wystia stopped walking. Her face skewered into a mock frown as she put both hands on her hips, the bucket making the movement awkward. "Kyle is not a brute. Nor is he a boy. He is a young man and a gentleman."

"He told you that did he?"

They laughed as they reached the well. Wystia set her bucket on the stone lip while Lindsy tied hers to a rope lowered it down into the dark hole. The well handle rhythmically squeeked as she turned the old thing. They continued talking about Kyle's many charms as the bucket filled with water and Lindsy pulled it back up.

When the bucket reached the top, she grabbed its lip and set it on the edge of the well. As she untied the rope from the handle she made a sour face and put her nose over the bucket, sniffing the water. "Yuk. The water has a stink about it."

Not believing her friend, Wystia stuck her nose to the edge of the bucket and took a sniff. "I don't smell…wait….yeah, there's a little smell, but it's not all that bad."

Lindsy's eyes widened with shock. "Not that bad. Oh Gods. My father's feet don't smell this bad."

Wystia giggled at her friend, which made her friend giggle. The joke about her father's feet was used often, but it never got old.

"Oh, come on, Lindsy. It's not that bad. Let’s just get this chore over with and then we can go and sneak peaks at Kyle."

With a lopsided grin, Lindsy said, "After our little talk about Mr. 'gentleman' Kyle I suppose I do need to have another look at the strapping young man to see if I may have missed something."

"Well, don't be lookin' at my man too much. I don't want you getting any ideas." Wystia tied her bucket to the rope and began lowering it into the well.

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Saturday, September 1, 2007

Chaper 3c: House of Drummen

True to his word, Wellan walked from the training field to the seedy docks area where Drummen lived, hoping to find that the fiery tempered man had simply shirked his duties. The wizard didn’t know him, but according to rumor, Drummen behaved like a drunken bully. He drank heavily, fought with friends and enemies alike, and chased the women with little success, but he had never shirked his duties while working for the watch, not in his entire ten years of service. He hoped for the best, but feared the worst.

Wellan pushed Drummen’s fate to the back of his mind as he looked from house to house, in search of the correct one. He found the shack deep within the poverty stricken neighborhoods of the docks. Why a captain of the city guard would choose to live in such a poor section of the city was something he had trouble figuring out. The lower denizens of the city lived in the docks area, the riffraff. Surely a city guard of the lowest level could afford to live in a better part of the city than the docks. The pungent smell of fish was enough to make any sensible person want to live anywhere else.

As he passed through the uneven, hole-riddled streets ragged people stared and pointed. Wellan’s reputation as the wizard of Renier made him an icon throughout the city, leaving him few places he could go and not be recognized. Normally people didn't gawk so brazenly, but the Duke's wizard didn't often frequent that part of the city. Rumors would be flying soon, but that couldn't be helped.

Wellan shook his head as he stared at Drummen’s house, if anyone could actually call it a house. The entire wooden structure was smaller than Wellan's bedroom; he could have easily fit two of the houses within his study, though it would be unlikely that he would ever consider putting such a dilapidated thing within the walls of his study. The porch planks had split and crumbled with age and the posts were made of brittle logs, the bark still scarcely clinging in some spots. Observing the precarious angle of the roof he considered not stepping inside. Unfortunately his path led him to the ruin of a home. Fortunately he had survived worse.

The boards groaned as he stepped onto the wooden porch. I suppose that's how Drummen knows when his neighbors are sneaking up to rob him. The ungenerous thought crept unbidden into his mind. Wellan paused to take another look at the house. No, maybe murder, but not robbery. I think his neighbors probably have more than he does. Wellan heard that Drummen was a mean drunk and loved to gamble, but he never suspected such things could drive a man so low.

He reached to knock on the rickety door and halted as the hinge creaked with the ocean breeze. A slim black gap showed the door wasn’t closed. Not a good sign, but seeing the rest of the house he assumed it might be normal. He held the flimsy door in place and knocked. No one answered and he knocked again. "Drummen?" Still no answer.

The door creaked as he pushed it open, the gap widened and the sweet odor of liquor assaulted his nostrils. He stood in the doorway, letting his eyes adjust to the darkened room.

Filth covered the small area. Part of the room served as a kitchen, and mold-covered plates sat haphazardly near a tub scabbed with dry suds. Past the tub lay a large cot, filth-stained sheets wadded into a pile. On the floor lay a pillow that Wellan wouldn't have let the Duke's wolfhounds sleep on. A large wooden table sat in the center of the room, a chair laying on its side gave the scene a menacing aspect of something started and left undone.

As Wellan bent to pick the chair off of the floor he saw why the room reeked of liquor. A half-empty bottle of spirits sat on the floor. It had obviously fallen from the table, the spilled liquid evaporating during the night. He leaned over to pick the bottle up and saw something that was stranger than the bottle itself. Blood. Crusty half-congealed blood, splashed in large explosive patterns all around the almost empty container. He pulled his hand back without touching the bottle and backed away from the table, seeing more blood splattered there. With the faint light and all the other stains on the table, he hadn't noticed the brown splotches before.

Wellan didn't touch anything as he backed out of the house, stepped off the porch, and into the street, never taking his eyes from the structure.

Drummen had been infected. Now he roamed freely within the city. Wellan's eyebrows gathered together as he considered what that meant for Renier. The man had to be captured and captured soon or the situation would get out of hand, and Wellan didn't want to think about where that could lead.

First he had to take care of the house.

Wellan stepped back and raised his arms, as if hung on an imaginary cross with fingers locked and pointed at the dilapidated structure. Smoke flowed like wisps of steam from the palms of his hands. As the smoke thickened his eyes rolled back and his mouth whispered strange words. Onlookers backed away, not wanting to witness the the unnatural powers sorcery.

Within seconds the house began to disintegrate. The wood blackened and charred, as if burned, yet no flame appeared. More seconds passed and the roof collapsed with a thunderous crack. The walls became black dust that didn't drift with the breeze, but fell straight to the ground. Within moments the home had become a pile of black ash that seemed to be untouched by the wind. It was almost enough.

As Wellan brought his hands together in front of him, ashes piled together where the shack had stood. His fingers locked together. The ashes came together even more, forming a tight mound. With both hands clasped together, he dropped them below his stomach, and the pile of ashes sank into the ground leaving a clean area of dirt, ready for a new structure.

When it was done he opened his eyes and began a brisk walk away from the dock area. He needed to speak with the Duke.

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Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Chapter 3b: A Hard Request

Wellan arrived at the dew-coated training field moments before the morning sun crested the dark silhouette of trees. The damp air clung to his robes and chilled his exposed skin, causing goose bumps to form on his arms. The morning walk felt good though, refreshing after spending the night stooped over a table reading tomes by candle light.

He hadn’t slept, staying awake through the night studying books, scrolls, and ancient clay fragments. Most of the text belonged to languages no longer used or even remembered by the likes of men. Wellan knew them. He could read most as easily as he read the common tongue; he had been looking out for mankind for a long time.

Unfortunately, his sleepless night had turned up almost nothing about the foul creatures that had invaded Renier.

A sandy-haired man marched up to him as he walked toward a line of soldiers standing at attention on the dirt-covered field. Though he was the smallest of the group, his confident stride showed he held command over the other guards. He stopped and tucked a helmet under his arm then saluted Wellan. In a formal military rote he bellowed, "sir, I have gathered all of the men who were involved with the lepers last night."

Wellan looked around the field. "Where is Captain Patrell?"

"He commands the Day Guard, sir. He has worked two shifts back to back and went home to get some rest before reporting for duty again, sir." The man's hand never left the boiled leather armor covering his heart. The salute would remain until he was told to relax.

Wellan hated formalities. "What is your name, soldier?"

"Stiles, sir! Stiles Milo of the Night Watch."

Wellan put his hand on the young man's shoulder. "At ease, Stiles. There is no need to be formal with me." Wellan looked over at the men. "Is this all of them?"

Stiles glanced at the men and his tone became relaxed as he replied. "Almost all of them, sir. My captain hasn't reported back yet. He was pretty upset about the whole thing."

Wellan frowned. "That would be Drummen?"

"Yes, sir. He left right after dispatching one of the lepers."

"Yes, I heard about that." Wellan walked to the line of guards. "Were any of these men injured by the lepers?"

"No, sir. Not physically anyway. We're all a little shook up. We ain't seen nothing like that ever. Are all lepers that hard to kill?"

Wellan walked down the line of men, scrutinizing every man as he answered. "No. Normally a leper would be very easy to kill. These were special, and that is why I am going to have to ask you and your men to do me a favor. A very large favor, one that I don't think you will like."

An eager smile lit Stile’s face. "Whatever you need done we can do it."

Wellan paused for a moment, measuring the character of the man. With a weary sigh he said, "I am going to have to ask you and your men to incarcerate yourselves for a few days in the city dungeon."

The eager smile fled Stiles face and his eyes widened in surprise as he stumbled over his reply, "But… but my Lord Wizard….we have done nothing wrong! We…"

The other soldiers shifted and looked at one another as Wellan grasped Stiles shoulder with a supportive grip and shook his head. "No… No, it isn't that you and the men here have done anything wrong. No, far from it. It is for your own good and the good of the city. I am probably being overly cautious, but the lepers may have been contagious. It will only be for a day or two. If none of you have shown any symptoms by that point then you won't show any at all. You and your men will receive full pay, and you can eat and drink as you like, play cards, almost anything you all would like to…."

"Ale?" one of the men yelled. The brash comment put the men at ease as they started realizing that the next two days might not turn out as bad as they had thought.

"Women?" questioned another one, causing the other men to snicker with quiet laughter.

The comment brought a smile to Wellan's lips, a badly needed smile. "Yes, yes. You men can have all the ale your hearts desire. I will make sure a keg or two is brought down to you. The women….." Wellan shrugged his shoulders "I'm afraid that one is a little out of my jurisdiction."

Wellan recieved a hearty laugh from the men. Feeling more relaxed and assuming the talking was finished, they fell out of line and joked and talked amongst themselves. Wellan turned and left, walking across the practice field with Stiles in close pursuit.

"The men are easily bribed with promises of pleasure, my Lord Wizard, but this contamination you mention bothers me."

Any humor that may have lingered on Wellan's lips quickly vanished. In a lighthearted tone he replied, "Don't worry about it, my friend. I honestly believe that if any of you were going to be sick it would have already begun."

The reassurance appeased Stiles for a moment, before his eyes saddened as a new idea came upon him. "Do you think my captain, Drummen, may have caught it?"

Wellan looked Stiles in the eyes and said, "That is the next thing I am going to find out."

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Sunday, August 26, 2007

Chapter 3a: Breakfast with Martha

"It will begin as a single seed and grow among you, hidden from your very eyes. There it will nourish itself and flourish as the flowers in the spring until you realize it is among you, a great harvest. The harvest to end all harvests!"
~Secret Holy Scriptures of the Waken Book

"Are you using some new type of tea?" Malach said, a frown twisting his mouth as he questioned his wife.

She set a plate of scrambled eggs and buttered bread in front of him, wiped her hands on her apron, and answered, "No, it's the same tea I used yesterday. Why, does it taste bad?"

He set his cup down and scooped eggs onto his fork. "Well... it's just got a funny taste to it is all. A little bitter." He stuffed the eggs into his mouth and chewed.

Martha walked to the cupboard and lifted a canister, grape leaves and squiggly vines painted on the front. All her canisters were decorated with leaves of one sort or another; it was the latest style in kitchenware. She twisted open the canister and sniffed, drawing in a crisp herbal scent. The tea leaves didn't smell odd. She pulled a leaf out and stuck it to her nose, giving it a little pinch to draw out some of the scent, then sniffed again. It smelled fresh to her.

Malach frowned around a mouth full of eggs. "I didn't mean for you to start all that business. I just said the tea tasted odd is all." He pointed at her plate with a fork full of eggs. "Now forget about it and sit down and eat your breakfast. The market is gonna be busy today, and you're gonna need to eat something before we go."

Sighing, she put the canister back, making sure the leaf design faced toward the front. All her containers lined up to form a chain of leaves across the top shelf of the cupboard. She sat down across from Malach but didn't touch her food; instead she lifted her teacup and took a sip. She pursed her lips. "I see what you're talking about. It isn't bad, but it does have a bit of an aftertaste doesn't it? Sort of bitter."

Malach nodded and pointed at her plate with the fork again as he wolfed down a piece of bread. He was always in such a hurry, not listening to a word she said.

"Okay, okay. I'm eating." She stabbed a piece of egg with her fork and brought the pale, yellowed lump to her mouth.

They both ate in silence. Malach was right about a busy day at the market. In two days the festival of Gods Day would occur and people were preparing for a day of feasting, visiting, and giving thanks to whatever diety they happened to pray to. The holiday was created to keep businesses running in the face of well over a dozen temples to different deities within the city. If it weren't for Gods Day creating a common holy time, then every religion would have their own holiday throughout the year and things around the city would be sporadic at best. They would need to be at their little bakery before the sun came up, and they probably wouldn't leave until the sun went down. That was the way it had been their whole twenty-seven years of marriage, and Martha remained sure it would continue on like that for the next twenty-seven years.

Only a few morsels of egg remained and a corner piece of toast when she put her fork down and looked at Malach as he carried his plate and fork to the washing tub, "Maybe it was the water?"

He set his dirty dishes in a large sudsy bowl before turning to her. "What was the water?"

"The tea. Maybe the waters got some sulfur or something in it this morning."

Without much interest he replied, "Yep, I suppose it could be the water. It very well could be."

Following Malach’s example, Martha carried her plate to the wash tub, scraped the uneaten food into a wooden bowl for the neighbor’s chickens, and put her own bowl in the cloudy water. She frowned at the mess, but she would just have to take care of the dishes when they returned at dusk.

She didn’t realize she would never see the inside of her kitchen again.

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Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Chapter 2c: A Meeting with the Duke

"Would you please use the honorific when referencing Piet Lithor? At least do it when you address him directly."

"I am sorry, my friend. I didn't realize that it meant so much to him." Wellan replied. A mischievous smile twisted his lips.

His research into the prisoner's condition had taken more time than he anticipated, allowing Lithor to reach Duke Renier before he had gotten a chance to meet with him. It couldn't be helped. Wellan was thorough, as all wizards were, at least all who wanted to excel beyond the level of street magicians.

"Oh, you damned well know what it means to him. You do it just to get under his skin without appearing to do so." The Duke winked and grinned at Wellan as he added, "I find it rather amusing, but unfortunately I have to listen to his whining when you get his feathers ruffled, and I find that aspect of it far from amusing. So, if he asks, you have been officially scolded."

Wellan looked at the Duke and nodded with a feigned innocence.

The Duke chose to meet with him in the small chamber not far from the main audience chamber. He picked the room not only for comfort, but because it sat in a remote corner of the castle, away from prying ears.

After pouring himself a cup of coffee, the Duke leaned back in the soft, leather-padded chair. He sipped the coffee with both hands and propped his booted feet on a table next to the coffee decanter while giving Wellan a relaxed grin. The charming smile had closed many lucrative business dealings for the city of Renier. The same grin his father used and his father before him as the city expanded through three generations of Reniers. A knowing smile threatened to sneak past Wellan’s bearded lips. He had seen all three sets of grins but knew Duke Renier didn't realize it was a charming trademark of his hereditary line. It made him loved by the rich and poor alike throughout the city and even the neighboring kingdoms.

The Duke took another sip of coffee, dropped both boots to the floor and leaned forward. His smile vanished and in a conspiratorial voice he asked, "So… What did you find out about that unfortunate man? Piet Lithor said you want him burned to ash though he hasn't committed any real crime, other than running from the city guard. Piet Lithor also said the man is quite lively, considering his condition."

Wellan's expression grew serious as he set his coffee cup down and leaned forward on the couch, "I didn't order it burned because of any crimes that it might have committed. I ordered it burned to ash because it is a dangerous abomination."

"Hanging is an effective means of getting rid of most abominations."

"Not this one, my Duke. The thing isn't a leper. It is an undead. A walking corpse." Wellan leaned back on the sofa. "It can't be killed by any means other than total destruction of the body."

The charming smile disappeared from the Duke's face and his brows curled down with worry. "I heard the guards had trouble with them. I thought it odd, considering their sickness and all. Do you have any idea what they were doing inside my city? Do you have any idea why one was captured near my home?"

Wellan shook his head. "No, my Duke. That's the main reason I'm so late getting back here with a report. I wanted to look through my archives to find out everything I could about the undead."

"What did you learn?"

"Not a whole lot. Of coarse I didn't have a great deal of time to carefully study my documents because I was already late returning here to tell you what I had found. As soon as we're done I'll return to my archives and see if there's any other information to be gained about these creatures. In the meantime, with your permission of coarse, I would like to have the body of the abomination burned to ash and the ashes sent to me. They may aid me in learning what its purpose was, here in Renier. I would also like to meet with all the guards who were involved in the capture of the creatures."

Both men stood, knowing that the discussion was ended. Duke Renier put his hand on Wellan's shoulder. "Keep me informed, my friend."

With a nod Wellan replied, "I will, my Duke."

"Get up."

Drummen's eyes opened to stare at leg of his dining table.

"Get up."

Without grace he pushed himself off of the floor, shaking like a newborn calf. Whiskey, blood and bile covered the front of his armor, beard and hair. It was unimportant.


He walked toward the front door. The confident stride missing, his shoulders no longer straight and proud and his expression was no longer angry. His features had turned blank, his eyes a reflection of that emptiness. He looked straight ahead but didn't recognize anything as he shuffled toward the door.

The door stood closed, but that didn't prevent him from walking. He shuffled into it and stopped, clawing at the rugged wood.

"Lift the handle. Pull the door open."

Drummen looked around the door. He didn't understand. The only feeling he had was hunger, so very hungry.

"Lift the handle. Pull the door open."

Without any instructions from him his hand found the latch. He jerked and yanked on it until the door opened, hitting his head. He didn't notice.


He walked out the door and into the cool breeze of the night. Starvation clawed at his stomach and had there been anyone around he would have ignored the Voice and eaten, but the streets were empty. He listened for food, but didn't hear any.

"Do as I say and you will eat. Do as I say and you will feed, but not right now."

Drummen didn't care about the Voice, he wanted food, but the Voice couldn't be ignored. The Voice had to be obeyed.

"Good. Now go. I know just where to hide you until it's time for you to feed."

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Sunday, August 19, 2007

Chapter 2b: Drinking to Illness

Once the night watch had calmed Drummen down, he sat on the curb of the cobble stone street, yanked his gore-covered boots off, and threw them as far as he could. He didn't want any part of that...thing on him. Drummen wanted to forget the last hour and regretted showing up for duty at all, wishing he had stayed home drinking. The thought of getting ignorantly drunk and forgetting about this whole business appealed to him more than any coddling the guards had done. A half bottle of spirits wouldn’t make the nightmare go away, but it might make him forget how terrible it all was for a little while. Without saying a word, he lumbered down the street on bare feet. His men stared at his broad back in silence as he strolled into the night.

Two hours later, Drummen sat at a food stained table in his dining room, which also served as his bedroom and kitchen, a half empty bottle of cheap liquor held between his beefy, calloused hands. The booze didn't help. The images and sounds continued to flash through his mind with unbidden regularity. The leper's wart-ridden face as he pushed himself off the ground. The rotter's gore spilling out of his side. The bastards severed hand flying through the air. The way he kept coming and coming at Drummen with eyes devoid of emotions, dead eyes. The severed head gnawing on empty air. That was the worst. He couldn't let go of that image.

He brought the bottle to his lips, taking generous swigs. Bubbles floated up through the amber liquid as the liquor gurgled down his throat. The spirits burned, but not enough to sear away the awful memories.

Drummen set the bottle down and locked his fingers over his head, elbows out. A ghastly cringe full of horrors that would not be buried contorted his face.

The godsdamned thing was dead! It was dead! It had to be dead! He was sure of it. Yet it had moved. The severed head had rocked itself around to face Drummen, its teeth viciously gnashing together. Click…Click…Click…Click…Click…Click. Stop! Stop moving! Stop looking at me! Just STOP! What he saw wasn’t possible. None of it could have happened, but it did. All of it did!

Drummen ran his quivering fingers through his sweat soaked hair and reached for the bottle. His hand had almost grasped the neck when a chill coursed through his body and the room spun. He closed his watery eyes and put a hand to his forehead. The chill went away, replaced by uncomfortable warmth. The dizziness became nauseating.

“Cheap rotgut.” He mumbled and tried to stand, but only fell back in the old wooden chair, the room tilted and warbled around him. He couldn't get his bearings. Surely he hadn't drank that much.

Without warning, the vomiting started. All of the liquor he had consumed wasted itself across the dirty wooden table. He grabbed the edge of the furniture and retched another pint of liquor onto the wooden surface. The mucus filled liquid ran between the table boards and off the edges, pooling onto the floor and into his lap. He let go with one hand, but before he could gather his bearings he turned to the side and heaved again; stomach clenching up with a will of its own. Very little spewed out. The vomit was getting thicker, leaving dark strings that stretched from his bearded lips to the floor.

"What the Hell?" Anger and frustration made him let go of the table and slam his fist down on its edge. The bottle bounced before tipping over and crashing to the table. The liquor gurgled out the open bottle to mix with the bile-laced liquor already soaking into the table.

"Awe great. That's just bloody grea…" Again he regurgitated. He couldn’t catch his breath as his stomach contracted and his face burned red against the strain. A groaning rumbled in his throat as his stomach clenched, not releasing him to breathe for almost a full minute. The familiar taste of copper filled his mouth as his stomach finally unclenched. Thin strings of blood hung from his beard and glistened on his lips.

Gasping for breath he wiped the back of his hand across his open mouth. His hand shook as he gazed, wide eyed, at the thin film of blood coating the back of his hand. Fear crawled like a spider up his back. He had never vomited blood before. He retched again. This time the blood flowed freely, painting the front of his leather armor red and soaking into his vomit stained britches.

Drummen leapt from the chair, sending it crashing to the floor. The room tilted out of control. He couldn't tell up from down as he took a wobbly step forward. The world tilted and swirled with colors and shapes as a violent flash of disorientation struck him. He stumbled sideways and grasped for the edge of the table. He didn't even come close and crashed to the ground. Drummen lay on the floor twitching, his hand raising and lowering several times before becoming still.

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Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Chapter 2a: An Unsavory Captive

"Without a soul he sits before you
What he whispers will seem like it's true.
Though you think he is the danger you fear
The true danger isn't that near."

~A Parable

"This is the rotter that the night watch captured this morning." Captain Patrell announced, cocking his head in the leper’s direction. His voice horse with exhaustion.

A thin, balding man in black robes scratched his bearded chin. His soul piercing gaze studied the leper’s violent movements. Chains rattled as the inflicted creature roll and thrash on the cell floor, covering his broken body in straw and grime. "I heard there were five of them. What happened to the others?"

Patrell sighed, "The night watch did a hell of a job on them. Their captain, Drummen, beat one so badly that you wouldn't recognize him as a person no more." Patrell hated Drummen and wanted to make sure that he received full credit for his irresponsible behavior. He detested Drummen more than usual because the man had walked off duty after crushing a rotter's head to a bloody pulp, forcing Patrell to come in and work most of Drummen's shift after working his own shift the day before. The guard was no place for a mean drunk.

After a few silent moments, spent nervously scratching his head, he continued. "The other lepers didn't come out much better."

Without breaking his gaze from the thing flailing on the dirty floor the black robed man said, "I see. Yet this one was able to be captured."

Shortly after apprehending the leper, the soldiers began to talk amongst themselves of the rotters will to fight, of how nothing short of death would stop them. The stories spread like a wild fire across the ranks, the men gossiping like a bunch of old bitties. The story didn’t take long to reach the higher ranks and finally the Duke himself. After hearing the bizarre rumors, Duke Renier had sent his own wizard, Wellan, to investigate. The wizard made Patrell nervous. He couldn't read the man. The wizard didn't show any emotion and his thoughts stayed veiled behind his casual comments. His mind and spirit seemed to exist on a higher plane, separating the from those around him. Patrell was going to scratch a nervous hole in his head if this wasn't resolved quickly.

"Yeah. This one was seriously maimed when they found him. He was missing his left arm all the way up to the shoulder and both feet were gone, one all the way up to the knee." Patrell switched from scratching the top of his head to rubbing the back of his neck as he continued. "We don't know how he got like that. The guards used a net. Didn't lay a finger on him."

"And he was found just beyond the walls of the Duke's palace?"

Patrell swallowed, "Uh…well…you see, he hadn't made it up there yet. He was stopped and captured about two blocks from the main gate, near the Tristall estate."

A heavyset man entered the corridor and looked through the bars at the prisoner. His robes were regal with holy symbols stitched into the cuffs and shoulders. Gold jewelry adorned his fingers and neck. Looking over Wellan’s shoulder the heavyset man gasped, "Oh my!"

Wellan stepped back from the cell bars, allowing the priest a better look at the prisoner. He acknowledged him in a neutral tone. "Lithor."

Patrell’s nervous scratching intensified as he said, "Evening, Piet Lithor."

The priest turned to face Patrel, ignoring Wellan for the moment. "Good evening….Patrell isn't it?"

Patrell grinned; amazed and honored that the priest knew his name. "Yes, Piet Lithor."

Piet Lithor turned to Wellan. His pleasant smile vanished, and his tone turned dry and uncordial as he acknowledged Wellan, "Wizard."

The wizard stepped around the priest to resume his study of the prisoner, while Patrell went back through the events of the night before with the priest.

When Patrell had finished giving his summary of the night's events Piet Lithor turned to the prisoner, a quizzical look on his face. "I wonder why he isn't dead? Any one of the wounds appear to be mortal."

Wellan continued to study the prisoner as he casually replied. "He's as dead as any of the men you have said rites over before consecrating them to your god, Lithor."

Patrell cringed and a flash of anger crossed Piet Lithor’s face. No one referenced the high priest without including the honorific; no one but the Duke’s wizard. Piet Lithor gruffly replied, "Well, Wizard. He looks awfully lively for a dead man."

Turning to the priest Wellan said, "Yes. To the casual observer he does, doesn't he?"

Piet Lithor’s face flushed, and his nostrils flared. Wellan ignored the irate priest and turned to Patrell. "When Lithor is finished examining the prisoner, have him taken outside and burned. Burn him to..."

Piet Lithor gasped. "Wizard, have you gone mad! We don't burn men here. If they must be executed then they are a respectable manner."

"If you wish to hang him you are more than welcome to. Just don't touch him and make sure and burn the body to ash when you realize that hanging doesn't seem to bother him a great deal." Dismissing the priest, Wellan turned once again to Patrell. "As I was saying, when Lithor is done with the abomination, whether he chooses to examine him, preach to him, or hang him, burn the body to ash. Don't touch it in any way. Use a rope around its trunk. Tying a rope around what’s left of his limbs will just cause them to fall off. Most importantly, remember not to touch the thing."

Piet Lithor was flabbergasted. His jowls quivered slightly. "You have no authority here, Wizard! I will file a complaint with..."

Ignoring the priest’s complaints, Wellan said, "I am going now to give a report to the Duke. If you don't agree with me then I suggest you do the same."

With that he walked up the stairs and out of the dungeon, leaving a furious priest and a distraught guard behind.

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Monday, August 13, 2007

Chapter 1d: Leper's Mission

One leper didn’t run very far before scurrying into an alleyway. The Voice compelled him to hide there until told otherwise.

He hungered, but he couldn't feed. The Voice wouldn't release him to feed. He could sense food everywhere. It walked in the streets all around him, ignorant of his desires. Oh, how he wanted it. Tender flesh. Warm blood, pulpy organs. He craved the elastic texture of the flesh as it parted between his clenched teeth. He needed to taste that coppery tang on the remains of his decaying tongue. The desired to feel skin stretch to its limits then rip as he bit down and pulled filled his cold chest and made his mouth water with excitement. He wanted these things more than anything but he wasn't free yet.

Voices tormented him as more food strolled by his hiding spot. His tongue pushed against the bandages with a will of its own, hoping to get a taste of the flesh he craved. The bandages parted and his gray and black-splotched tongue protruded past the gauze, swiping back and forth with a mind of its own.

A dozen tormenting minutes passed before the Voice spoke. The time had come to continue his mission. He stepped out of the alleyway and walked through a maze of streets. His gaze pointed to the ground, and kept his head hidden deep within the hood of his robes. He stayed on the side streets and moved within the lengthening shadows; the Voice instructing his every move. It was his master and he had no choice in the matter. Choices had been given up long ago. He didn't miss them. He didn't remember them. The Voice and his hunger defined his world. Sometimes the Voice left him and only his hunger remained to guide his actions.

Within minutes he arrived at his destination. "Wait!" The Voice commanded. He stayed in the shadows, just another dark form in a pattern of silhouettes. More meat moved nearby. He could see them, could sense their presence. Two women stood with buckets next to a well. The sound of their laughter drew him like a leach to blood. His tongue darted out through the gauze; a snake tasting the air for prey.

He stumbled forward, overcome with hunger. "Wait!" He stopped, hunger almost overriding the Voice. The desire for flesh buffeted him in painful waves, but he stopped. He could taste it. He could feel it. The smell of flesh drifted through the air tantalizing him and calling him forward. His jaws worked up and down. His mouth began chewing what remained of his lips, biting down on his decayed and rotting tongue. A black flood filled his mouth and soaked the bandages, spilling over the ragged slit where his tongue protruded through the gauze. He didn't notice. He didn't feel it. His own blood didn't help; an hours d’oeuvre held before a starving man. The chewing was neither a conscious nor unconscious reaction to his hunger, it just happened.

If he could have let out a gasp of frustration he would have, but his lungs had given up on the same day that he gave up having a choice about matters.

The women collected their buckets and walked away, their voices fading into the darkness. They became like wisps of smoke in the lepers mind, diminishing in proportion with their voices until they were forgotten about all together.


As commanded, he walked to the well and pulled a narrow black dagger from within his robes. He placed his boil riddled hand over the edge of the well. Without hesitation he brought the edge of the dagger down on the last two fingers, pinching them between the blade and the hard stone of the well itself. He pushed down on the knife and didn't stop until his fingers separated from his hand and tumbled down the narrow shaft. They hardly made a splash as they fell into the water far below.

"Good. Good. Now on to the next one."

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Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Chapter 1c: Drummen's Rotter

Drummen never lost sight of the rotter. The crowds parted as the leper passed through the street, making him easy to spot. Within seconds the other lepers had disappeared around corners and behind buildings, but he kept his eyes on the leader. That rotter was his.

The man moved faster than Drummen had given him credit for, weaving in and out of the crowded road, but he wasn’t fast enough to get away. Drummen closed the distance between them running just behind the leper. He gave the rotter a push. The man didn’t raise his arms to break his fall and crashed face first into the rough cobblestone street, skidding several feet before stopping.

Drummen towered over the rotter as air billowed in and out of his lungs and sweat dripped from his nose. Blood pulsed in his ears with the force of a drum and the acids in his stomach pushed against the back of his throat with more force than ever. He had reached the end of his already limited patience. “Get up.”

On his hands and knees the leper turned to Drummen letting out a hissing gasp of foul air.

The bandages on the rotter's face were skewed and for the first time Drummen could see the horror lying behind the mask. Two mucus filled holes dominated the face where a nose had once rested. Part of the bandages had fallen away from the man’s mouth displaying crooked, rotting teeth and gums peppered with rot and decay. The lips were a thick jagged line, chewed off at the base of the blackened teeth, giving the rotter a ghoulish grimace.

People screamed and back away from the disturbing site.

Drummen stepped back in horror as the leper stood and extended a gauze wrapped hand. He stepped toward Drummen, arms stretched out before him as if expecting a hug. Drummen stood, frozen in place with loathing and disgust. His eyes rolled down to watch the leper grasp his leather chest plate with bony fingers. The rotter’s saliva-dripping mouth rose to Drummen's neck.

The paralysis left as quickly as it started. Rage replaced Drummen’s fear. He pushed the rotter away and drew his sword. The leper stumbled back, but didn't flinch, and resumed his advance toward Drummen.

He didn’t think about what he did as his sword pierced the lepers stomach, meeting little resistance when the blade passed through the disease infested body. The leper continued walking, impaling himself further along the gore coated steel. A thick black ichor oozed from the wound and flowed down the blade, filling the air with the stench of hell itself. Enraged and reviled Drummen used all his might to jerk the sword sideways. The force of the swing spun the rotter as the blade ripped through organs and muscle slicing through the leper's side. More black ichor, slimy gray intestines, and other foul pieces gushed from wound.

The few gawkers that remained rushed from the scene. Drummen didn't notice them.

The mortal wound didn't bother the leper, with an awful limp he continued to lumber toward Drummen.

His heart pounded, threatening to burst through his chest as he swung the sword again, severing the leper’s hand at mid forearm. Little of the black substance dripped from the ragged stump, but tiny maggots fell to the cobblestone road, squirming on the hard surface.

Drummen could feel his sanity slipping away from him. His mind couldn't make sense of what he saw. A voice within him screamed Get the hell out of here. Instead he took a step back.

The leper took two steps forward.

With a roar of fury and desperation Drummen swung the sword again. This time the steel connected with the rotter's neck. The head tumbled away, landing with hollow thump a short distance from the body. The corpse swayed for a few seconds before collapsing to the ground.

Drummen stared at the lifeless mound. His dazed gaze moved from the body to his ichor covered sword. He slung it away. Bending over with his hands on his knees he began retching. Only bile and a thick stream of water dribbled down to mix with the dirty road.

No more gawkers stood about to see Drummen empty his stomach, only the sound of their presence several streets over gave any indication that he wasn't alone. Out of the corner of his eye he saw movement. Not wanting to look, but not being able to turn aside, he shifted his eyes to see. The rotter's decapitated head wobbled back and forth. Drummen gasped. The head continued to warble until it rolled itself onto its cheek, facing Drummen. The jaw continued to work up and down, chewing and biting what it could no longer reach. The sound of teeth clacking together echoed like horses hooves in Drummen’s mind.

"Oh…..Oh Gods no!" Drummen cried.

The living decapitated head and clacking teeth were more than his mind could stand. With a maniacal roar he ran to the severed head and stomped on it with the heel of his boot, cursing and screaming. The first stomp was answered in a satisfying crack. He stomped again and the crack became louder, accompanied by a wet, splattering noise. He continued to stomp, and stomp, and stomp until some of the night watch arrived to pull him off. It took them almost a half dozen tries.

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Monday, August 6, 2007

Chapter 1b: Lepers at the Gate

Renier was the largest city on the Gulf Coast, a gateway of trade and commerce. The city itself didn't manufacture a product, raise livestock, or farm the land, instead Renier stood as a trading hub for other communities that had products and services to sell; a gateway to a larger world.

The ever-growing city meant streets full of shoppers, vendors, hawkers and gawkers. People continuously bustled back and forth, running errands, delivering products and shopping.

Most people enjoyed the growth and commerce, but it only made Drummen’s job harder.

As Drummen and Stiles navigated through the cities fading light the crowds of people parted before them. Most made it, but many didn't. Drummen shoved the ones that didn't to the side. Everyone knew of the burly man’s temper so no one protested the occasional push.

"Just a little farther Sir. They came through the port gate." Stiles huffed as he squeezed between two citizens. Unlike his captain he didn't have the heart to push people around without a good reason. "They must have a boat moored out there somewhere."

Drummen didn't answer as he bulled his way through the crowded street.

They only traveled a few blocks when Stiles pointed at five figures in gray robes shuffling against the flow of the crowd, toward the Open Market. "There they are sir!"

As Drummen neared the cloaked figures he bellowed. "You. You there in the robes. I order you to stop!" The five gray shapes continued on.

Drummen turned to intercept them.

He sped up with Stiles in close pursuit, slinging people aside as they stepped in front of him. When he caught up to the little group he stood in their path, lifted his broad hand and yelled, "Stop!"

The five lepers stopped and stared at him with pale milky eyes. Filth stained bandages left their faces blank other than a small hump in the center of their faces. A wet, sickening yellow stain around the nose-shaped hump tarnished the soiled bandages.

"Didn't you rotters hear me?" Drummen roared.

Five pairs of milky eyes continued to stare straight ahead without fear or concern. Being shorter than him they didn't even stare at his face, but at the top of his chest plate.

Their lack of fear enraged him and he callously raged, "Have your blasted ears rotted off too? Maybe your tongue?" They didn't respond, not caring that Drummen had begun to scream and his face had turned a deep shade of red.

People stared and whispered as they passed, but continued to go about their business.

Drummen opened his mouth to start a cursing that would make most sailors cringe when the lead rotter said, "I'm sorry, my lord. We are just passing through." The bandages hardly moved as the leper spoke in a flat, passionless voice that sounded as blank as his eyes. His gaze never left the base of Drummen's neck, and the raspy voice sent a chill down his spine. Stiles stepped back, behind Drummen.

The chill made Drummen raise his voice, partly to make himself feel in control again, and partly to let Stiles and the crowd know that he wasn't afraid of these abominations. "You're sorry? No, you just think you're sorry." He pointed back at the port gate where the rotters had come from. "Your going to march your rotting, stinking carcass back through that gate, get on whatever ungodly transport that brought you here, and paddle your stinkin' asses back to whatever gods-awful hell you came from!"

The lepers stared straight ahead. He didn’t see the fear in their eyes that such a ranting should have made.

He became furious and began to take a step forward but stopped when he noticed the stench. He had heard stories about lepers, how they lived while their flesh festered and rotted away a little more every day. The odor confirmed the stories. The scent wasn't strong, but it carried a foul and decaying odor; the smell of death.

The emotionless voice of the leader whispered again, "My Lord, we merely wish to pass through your…"

The monotone voice stopped. His eyes still locked on Drummen’s neck with an eerie detachment. The bandage squirmed between the rotter's parted lips as its tongue worked through the gauze; making a wet circle appear around the rotters mouth, reminding Drummen of an eel he had once netted.

He had seen enough. He reached for the speaker but stopped himself.

Weren't lepers contagious?

Pulling his hand back he roared, "I said to turn around and get the hell out of here! You won't get another warning!"

With empty stares the rotters ignored the command. Again that little chill of fear shivered down his back. Fear was an alien emotion for Drummen, it’s presence enraged him and drove him to action.

He grabbed the speaker by his shoulder, fingers sinking deep into fabric. Soft, boneless meat rolled beneath the material as a wet stain formed below his hand and an unholy stench filled the air. "What the…"

"…..pass through your city." finished the rotter. Drummen’s vise-like grip went unnoticed and he spoke as though nothing had taken place since he started his sentence almost a minute ago.

Drummen yanked his hand away, holding it in the air so the slime on his palm and fingers wouldn't touch his clothing or armor. His eyes widened with fear, a fear of the unknown, and a fear of something he no longer understood.

The lepers burst into action, five lepers bolted in five different directions; their gray robes bobbing through the crowded streets.

Drummen watched them go, too overwhelmed by the encounter to grasp what had happened. He held his ichor-stained hand to his face and looked at it. A shiny yellow film covered his palm and fingers. The smell of wet puss filled his nostrils and made the stale whiskey rise in his already upset stomach.

Stiles voice shook as he asked, "Sir, should we go after them?"

Drummen stared at the foul stain on his palm, collecting his thoughts and getting himself under control. He wiped his hand on his britches several times and replied in a shaky voice. "Yea Stiles. Blow the whistle and get us some assistance. We can't chase five rotters down by ourselves." He ran after the lead leper, the shrill sound of Stiles whistle shrieking in the background.

Before he got too far away Stiles yelled, "Sir, why did they run? Why did they run away like that?"

Without slowing or turning Drummen mumbled back, "I don't know, but I'm damned sure going to find out."

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Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Chapter 1a:Night Shift

"The heart and souls of men are linked to the waters of life. Should the waters run dry whence then will men drink. Shall they die of thirst praying to their gods for something that is no more."

~Secret Holy Scriptures of the Waken Book

Drummen’s brow throbbed with each heartbeat as his stomach churned, grumbled and percolated bitter acid up his throat every few minutes. To make matters worse every turn of his head brought nausea, forcing him to take deep breaths and think about anything but vomiting. He didn’t even want to consider what his bowls had to say about his pre-shift escapades.

He was the captain of the dock area city watch, night division. Gods blasted night division! He should be spending his evenings drinking and having a good time, instead he arrested those who were drinking and having a good time. Something just didn't seem right about that. Hell, he would have been arrested twelve hours ago if he hadn't been captain of the city watch. All the guards knew the hell they would pay should any of them ever take it upon themselves to arrest Drummen. He almost wished one of them would try it. Yeah, that would make for an interesting evening.

Drummen smiled to himself as he remembered the previous night. It had been one hell of an evening, and most of the next morning too. The fun started as a bit of rough-housing with some blokes at old Jon Geary's Tavern, which progressed to singing then wenching then…well, after that he wasn't sure, but he must have had a great time to feel so bad.

He reached across the knotty wooden desk and grabbed a mug of tepid water. Normally he would dump it out and get something fresher, but the stale taste of whiskey made his thirst almost unquenchable, and he just didn't have the energy to get anything better. He emptied the mug in three gulps. Liquid trickled down his bearded chin and dripped onto his leather armor. The warm water only made him want more. He needed something better.

He looked around the table and chair filled station, making sure no one hung about. The station was empty except for some loser the day watch had arrested, and he restlessly slept in a cot perched against a cell wall. Drummen reached into the shoulder section of his armor and extracted a metal flask. Taking one last look he tipped the bottle to his lips and took a deep, throat burning gulp. He belched to relieve the biting fumes that rose in his throat as the amber liquid met his molten stomach acids. A little hair of the dog that has bitten you was Drummen’s motto when it came to hang over recovery.

The station doors burst open. One of the night watchmen rushed through. In a 'you aren't going to believe this' tone the guard grinned, "Hey Drummen…Sir." Drummen coughed and spun away, stashing his flask back into his armor.

Glancing over his shoulder he growled "Doesn't anybody stinkin’ knock anymore!"

The guard noticed Drummen's bloodshot eyes, ornerier than usual look, and the faint whiff of strong spirits and his smile disapeared. Drummen liked making smiles vanish. Stiles was a good soldier but Drummen really didn't feel like listening to the guards cheerful yapping at that moment.

Running his large hand over his red bearded face Drummen asked, "What's so bloody important that you gotta come bargin' in here like that?" He spun around in his chair to face the guard.

"Lepers sir. Stinkin' rotters are inside the city gates."

Oh yeah, what a way to start his shift. Drummen sighed, "Who let them in?"

"Don't know sir." Stiles grinned. "Wasn't me."

Drummen would have to work on cowing this one down. The guy just couldn't take a hint.

Shaking his head Drummen replied, "Let's get this crap over with. Show me where the bastards are so we can give them an escort out of town."

With an eager stride the guard strolled out the door. Drummen grabbed his helmet and followed close behind.

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Thursday, July 26, 2007

Prologue: The Darkest of Sorcery

"In the last days of the reign of men, when their sins have overcome them and they are choked on their own pride, she will come to put them back in their place and remind them that the Gods do reign on high in Heaven and in Hell!"

~Prophecy of Dokkien the Wise

Shadows hid the cavernous room in darkness. The flickering glow of black candles formed havens of light making the archaic etchings in the large stone columns stand out all the more, vile runes long since forgotten by the likes of men. The candlelight danced around the obscene pillars, casting wavy ghosts that undulated across the walls. Darkness competed with light for control of the room. Had there been the slightest sound it would have echoed throughout the chamber, but within the stone walls only the utter silence of the grave existed. Even the chilled air felt stagnant and damp with a stench of sulfur.
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Image by Alex McVey

In the center of the room, alone and forbidding, stood a rune-etched pedestal. An obsidian bowl sat on the pedestal, black as the void of space. The dark object absorbed the light as the candles flickering glow danced like dozens of small souls offering their essence in worship.

A gray robed figure bent over the bowl; the dark hooded opening gazed into the dish. Tiny ripples pulsed across the surface of the liquid void as it gazed into the black water. A bony, clawed hand gently waved over the waters. New ripples formed, fighting with the existing ones for control of the liquid. The cowled form watched the pulses carefully, for in the ripples it could see things taking place far away, and could even control those events to a certain extent. As the ripples began to take on another ever-changing form, yellowed teeth gleamed within the darkened cowl like a wolf baring its fangs at an enemy.

"I'm sorry, my lord. We are just passing through," whispered the thing within the robes. The sound hissed with an odor of rotting meat and festering wounds.

Silence again gained possession of the room as the dark form stood transfixed before the obsidian bowl.

The quiet lasted mere seconds before the vile whisper began again, "My Lord, we merely wish to pass through your…"

"Maaasssster..." An emaciated man stepped out of the shadows, shattering the silence and severely hindering the hooded being's concentration. His milky eyes gazed at his master with empty intelligence and the slack jaws didn't have a great deal to add. The man continued speaking at a slow, lumbering pace without noticing the aura of menace radiating from the robed figure , "Eeeat. Food. Reeeeady..."

The eyes of the cowled figure continued to watch the ripples as a robed claw flashed up, palm facing the man with fingers extended like a spider ready to pounce. Without the slightest change in expression the man dropped to the floor in a heap.

In a rage the cowled being pulled its hand back to its chest and then flung it toward the heap of flesh on the floor. The body flew across the room, propelled by an invisible force. The man crashed into the far wall with the sickening crack of bones and the wet bursting of meat, adding a new heresy to the unholy quiet of the once silent room.

The robed figure again concentrated on the black liquid, waving an appendage over the void. The whispering began again, "...pass through your city."

The wolf-like snarl never left the darkness within the cowl, but it had changed, no longer a malicious grin. The snarl dripped with hatred.

The creature burst into movement. Bony hands waved across the dark water. Back and forth the hands worked. From one end of the obsidian bowl the claws traveled back to the other. Not a sound could be heard within the room except for the rustle of cloth and occasionally a shifting of feet.

With an angry hiss the figure stopped and spun away from the bowl. The yellow teeth gleamed within the cowl, and the eyes blazed with cold fury.

After a few moments to collect its thoughts the figure strode across the chamber. As the robed creature passed the body on the floor it extended a claw toward the corpse. The man's eyes opened, the dull orbs gazed at its master. There was still no intelligence in the slack-jawed look, only a semblance of life, a mockery of what it had once been. Its master closed the clawed hand into a fist, and the skull of the once faithful servant imploded likewise.

The robed figure stormed across the chamber and out into the corridors.


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Thursday, July 12, 2007

Plague by Bret Jordan

Story Synopsis

Renier is a port city that stands as a glorious gem on the edge of the kingdom. The people are justly ruled by their beloved Duke with the assistance of a benevolent wizard and a self-involved priest. Within twenty-four hours everything changes as a small group of strange lepers enter the port and cause a mysterious and deadly illness to rage through the city, killing most of the residents. Violent illness and gruesome death isn’t the end of the horror for the residents of Renier. Not by a long shot, as thousands of dead bodies rise from the cobblestone streets in search of living prey. Sword and sorcery battle against an unstoppable hunger as the few living residents try and escape the walls of an undead nightmare.

"Bret Jordan's Plague blends dark fantasy and zombie horror with genuinely chilling results. You won't be disappointed - get hooked on this serial!"
~David Dunwoody, author of Empire

"Bret Jordan has created an intriguing medieval world where blood & guts zombie mayhem is delivered with the brutal edge of a sword, not the barrel of a .45. Read it - you'll dig it!"

~Vince Churchill author of The Dead Shall Inherit the Earth & The Blackest Heart


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