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It was a dark night. The lingering smoke clung to the skies like a shadowy rash, spreading the coarse suffocating air across the land. The woods were a smouldering skeleton; littered in grey and black ash which dampened the footsteps of the two hunters this night.
Gazlan could not see too well in these conditions. His usual gliding gait was hobbled by the gnarled roots, collapsing soil and littered carcasses of the dead. He had just felt his way around the poor charred remains of a bear. He frowned, pulling his black cloak tight to his body to mitigate the snagging and made his way onward.
He was not overly worried by the darkness; he could sense his quarry via other means. He could feel the necromatic stench of its magic and he could hear it moan and growl as it struggled.
“You’ll be free soon, poor soul. Like these other unfortunate creatures.” He said aloud, his voice muted by the ash fall.
He skirted another animal, a moose that was slumped against a fallen log and reached a steep ravine in the woods.
The ghoul was down below, hanging from intertwined branches. Another tree had collapsed into it and had wedged its ankle in place. How the ghoul ended up in the ensnaring limbs, Gazlan did not know.
He skidded down the slope, debris rifling in his wake. The ghoul heard his approach and snarled, yanking more, causing branches to twist and snap. But it remained trapped.
Gazlan could climb up to free the poor creature. But the branches would definitely collapse under his added weight. Not to mention he would have to evade the ghoul’s reckless attacks at the same time.
He had another idea.
The trees were dead after all.
He steeled himself, biting down the urge to gag and reached out with his necromancy. Reached for the tree that stood strongly rooted into the dead ground. He ignited the foul power and brought life into the charred body – unlife.
Green glows permeated from cracks in charred bark as it twisted and mangled itself with this new force. With a command from Gazlan the whole trunk wrenched. It ruptured its centre and a red glow lashed out from the green – its insides were still burning. As the ghoul was wrung free by the motion it dropped and Gazlan allowed the tree to die again. The green glow and sickly motion failed as the orange embers cast foreboding light about the black hellscape.
The ghoul hit the ground with a snap. But a broken spine would not hold back the undead. It shot up, crawling through the ground with a snarl towards the living creature it could sense. With a sigh Gazlan strode forward to meet it, catching its arm and reaching out with the foul magics again.
“Be free.” He whispered as he tore the necromancy from it.
The ghoul gasped and sighed, going limp. Now just a corpse, the body of someone who had lived, loved and struggled. Someone who had a family and people she loved, someone who had been caught up in this pathetic feud and was conscripted to wreak havoc by violence and foul arts.
“I’m so sorry.”
Gazlan squatted down on his haunches and allowed himself to fall back into the ash, content to let the dying fire warm him until morning.
But the sound of movement caught his ear.
He perked up, his head cocking. He could sense no other necromancy nearby, nor any life… except for something very bare spreading towards him like the spilling of water or a march of ants.
But no, even the critters beneath the ground did not survive this fire.
“Then what?” He sat up and looked up the ravine from where he heard the noise, his fear growing as lumbering dark shapes halted at the lip.
He pushed his awareness further, following the strange trail of life, intertwined with a snake, ‘A vine?’ It ceased along his own tracks in the form of a person.
“Who goes there?” He challenged up at the dark shapes, impossible in their presence with such little life force within and no necromancy to make up for this fact. “What business do you have with Gazlan?”
“Gazlan?” The voice was hoarse, she had been weeping and inhaling smoke and ash for days probably. A smaller figure emerged as Gazlan sensed the source of life approach, a woman. An elf? “So that is the name of the necromancer who has defiled my forest?”
“It was not I.”
“One of your kind.”
Gazlan slumped. “Yes, I’m sorry.”
“You will be, your death comes now at the hands of Vinetta! ATTACK!”
She lifted her hand with a delicate flick and the lumbering un-un-dead beasts tore down the slope. As they grew closer in the clouds of ash Gazlan’s eyes widened. One was the bear, the moose and another a bobcat.
But they were dead, and there was no necromancy at play. He could only detect the faint slither of life that was worming its way into these creature’s dead bodies and shudder.
The bear reached the bottom first, rearing up to swipe down at his lithe form. He expected a growl or roar, it was more unnerving that the beast was silent. Just a slight gasping as the lungs twitched with vestigial movement.
He leaped back and rolled over his shoulder as the beast clumsily smashed into the ground. These things were being puppeteered by some magic unknown to Gazlan. He shifted up and leaped away as the moose charged in from the side, collapsing over the nooks and burned out husks of the dead trees.
The bobcat leaped over the bear as it struggled to pick itself up again and lunged for Gazlan. The beast hit him in the chest and gripped out with claws that tore at his cloak, ripping the hood from his face. Gazlan grabbed it by its forearms and threw it over his shoulder with its own momentum, sending it tumbling into the amber glow of the cracked tree trunk. The few unburned furs on the cat caught alight.
He looked up at the figure who controlled them, this supposed forest dweller who defiled the dead. He saw the hatred that flared in her eyes as the bobcat erupted into a crumpled pile of flames. Her garments were dirtied green, her skin rosy pink. He noticed a vine wrapped around her arm and slunk down the hill, it was teaming with fungi and embedded into the bodies of these creatures.
And then he knew how to win.
Deep down he felt the pull to the easier, more horrid path. He could use his necromancy to ensnare these creatures to his will and sever the strings that controlled their nervous systems. But he sought the harder path, the path that let him sleep at night.
He reached down into the scorched earth with his necromancy and felt past the dead bodies of critters and insects to find the roots, charred and suffocated in the acrid soil. He ignited the foul magics once more as the bear and moose readied themselves to attack again and forced unholy life into the dead plant matter.
It did not matter that the bio mass had not joints to move, nor mind to think. Because necromancy was a perverted art. Coined first by a man long ago too afraid to face the death of his love, and taken on by those after him too afraid to face the living. They imposed a law onto the necromatic arts that none under its influence could disobey.
“Protect your master.”
As the bear and moose charged the roots and shrubbery burst from the ground, forming a mass of twisting sinuous soot and green glow to slam into the mighty creatures with a titanic clash. The moose was impaled onto a branch which lifted itself into the air, snapping the Vinetta’s vine clean from it and it went limp.
The great conglomerate mass of the dead plants and roots reared up as the bear swiped uselessly at it with its claws. The undead biomass slammed down into its spine, filling the forest with the sickening sound of a wet crack.
As the bear twitched Galzan knew the vine within it was spreading, bypassing the break in the bone and allowing the fungi growth to seep into the nervous system, allowing it to twitch once more into the fray.
He had to take out the elf.
While his undead forest fought the dead bear he charged up the hill.
Realising the danger the elf leaped down to meet him. She whipped a vine with her other arm and it cracked down across Gazlan’s face. He fell back with a cry of pain, blood streaking down his cheek and came to in time to realise that the vine was wrapping around his legs, his arms and his neck. Tendrils of fungus were inching closer to his open wound.
“NO!” He reached down with his necromancy again and brought unlife to all the roots within the hillside. They burst forth on his command and struck at the elf’s knees and shoulders, bringing her down as they wrapped and constricted her wrists.
The vine was severed from both of her arms and the bear’s strings were cut. The entrapping greenery around Gazlan’s body went limp and he struggled out of it.
She was still struggling, still reaching out for another vestige of life to manipulate, to fight back. So he surged up the hill and struck her in the face, knocking her out cold.
The grey light of dawn was fighting valiantly yet futilely against the ash canopy by the time she woke. She was lashed against the burned out husk of a tree. Undead limbs pulsing with necromancy constricted her legs and bound her arms in front of her, where Gazlan could see them clearly.
He had started a small fire, using the vines she had attacked him with and had a small bubbling cauldron set over it.
“Your druidry is fascinating.” He said without looking up from the cauldron. “Using plant and fungi to hijack the nervous system of the dead denizens of these woods. Genius really, you are quite resourceful for a low tier druid.”
“You could have turned my beasts against me.” She said, “Why didn’t you?”
“Because I once vowed never to bind a living soul in agony to its dead flesh. That is actually why I am here.” He gestured to the ghoul laid out by the bear, moose and bobcat. “I have been following the necromancer feud for a few years now, eliminating the aggressors and freeing the enslaved souls.”
“So you really are different.” Vinetta slumped. “I’m sorry for attacking you.”
Gazlan caressed the bandage over his cheek. His skin was dark yet pale from his time in the shadows – which reminded him he had to mend his hood – it creased under his eyes in heavy bags but otherwise was baby smooth.
He looked at her. “I’m used to it.” He shrugged.
“I’m different too.” She slumped more. “A druid who defiles the bodies of the creatures of her domain. You should kill me now. No one would miss me.”
“You’re an outcast too then. Your skin is rosy pink… You are an elf from across the mountains?”
“I was banished when I failed to protect my woods from the undead. Now I have failed again. Just kill me.”
Gazlan crushed some herbs and stirred them into his cauldron. “You know my parents were outcasts too. My mother was a necromancer, my father a druid. People could not fathom the joining of those two wells of power.” He sighed. “But the bond they shared seemed nice.” He looked at her.
She recoiled as much as she could. “Don’t even think about it!”
He rose suddenly, so sudden she flinched and he waved his hand. The necromancy died from the roots that bound her and she found herself free.
“If I made you worry in any way by my words I am deeply sorry. I only bound you to stop you from attacking me… I… I haven’t had a conversation this long with someone in a while… they usually just make a threat and attack.” He smiled.
She nervously smiled back. “No, it’s… Let’s do this over.” She stood and offered her hand. “I am Vinetta of the elves of the rain forests. My Druid Order was of The Vines.”
Gazlan considered her hand, then shook it. “I am Gazlan.”
She cocked her head. “Is that it?”
“That’s it.” He released the handshake and made to leave as he gestured to the cauldron. “This salve should ease the bruise on your face.”
“Where are you going?”
“I am on a quest, like I said. To end the war of the damned and free the ensnared souls that fight it.” He stopped, turning. “What will you do?”
“I should tend to these woods, see them grow again.”
“You will die of hunger before this forest regenerates enough to support you.”
“It is what I deserve.”
“Doubtful. Just be safe Vinetta, it has been a while since I had a friendly conversation.”
She bit her cheek, considering. “Here.” She tossed him a pouch from her belt.
He shook the bag, the contents rattled against each other. “What is this?”
“Rose seeds.” She looked down bashfully. “An apology, I guess. From my home woods. I meant to plant them here one day… I.” She trailed off.
Gazlan pocketed the bag of seeds. “I will cherish them. And one day, they will bloom.”
He turned from her again and trudged into the smouldering wasteland. Vinetta watched him go, considering her options as she applied the salve to her face and wrists. Finally she trudged after him, at a distance.
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