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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