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.


Darkness.


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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