Thursday, September 4, 2008

Epilogue

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
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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 creature...is 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 is...but...it's powerful. It...it 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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