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The masses of diseased arms swayed in agony, like grass in the gentle breeze. He could not see their faces, just the rolling plains of limbs and lost souls that cried out for salvation.
Could he give it to them?
A crack of lightning, the churning sky surged against itself in maelstrom. Green necromancy pulsed throughout the storm, swirling around the eye and a bright light struck down, searing the grass of limbs with a sickening stench.
“Gazlan!” He heard him, he heard him across the apocalyptic cries. “Come!”
He started awake with a scream. The burning light in his mind was only the first rays of sun as the dawn oozed gently over the plains.
“You were having a nightmare.” Wutarl grunted.
He was tinkering with Merigol’s bow, adding gears and mechanical switches into place. He glanced briefly at Gazlan over his undersized spectacles. Gazlan wiped the sweat from his face and pulled his hood down to protect him from the light, and the scrutiny.
“Where are the others?” He gasped, his dread and panic subsided as he found peace in the cool dark of his robes. “Where is Vinetta?”
Wutarl raised an eyebrow.
Gazlan slinked further back into his robes.
“Merigol and Vinetta decided to head over to that ridge. See what they could see.” His deep voice reverberated within Gazlan’s skull.
“Merigol made it up the ridge?”
“I used the chassis of one of my cogs to create an exoskeleton for his legs. He should find it easier to travel at our pace now.”
“Good.” Gazlan said, rising. “Good. He needs an easier time given what he’s been through.”
The silence stretched between them as the sun rose. The light – as harsh as it was to a necromancer – soothed the terror of his dream. He sensed another necromancer was close, he could smell the stench of their power.
“Why him?” Wutarl’s gruff voice broke his concentration.
“Why did you bring Merigol with you? The elf I can understand… well, now I understand more…” Gazlan looked away. “But a fellow human, one with weaker limbs. Why?”
“It was that or leave him to fester in a putrefied marsh. I already had Vinetta tailing me. It seemed, better, to have someone with her.” Gazlan answered.
“Ah, you’re afraid.”
“Of getting close to the elf, you wanted a buffer to help bridge the gap between you and her.”
Gazlan stammered. “I wouldn’t put someone’s life in jeopardy for such a reason! Yes, I am afraid, of travelling with people again. The last time I ran with another I watched him torn apart! But I couldn’t just leave a grieving man in those waters. I couldn’t! How dare you suggest otherwise?”
Wutarl stood and towered over him, Gazlan’s voice dwindled to a squeak but he still glared up at the orc.
“I just wanted to grind your gears. So to speak. Test your motivations.” He removed his spectacles. “I am afraid too. I have already lost so much. I wanted to see if you would lead these people to ruin.”
“I might. But they would have died if they remained where they were.”
“Hmm. I still don’t trust you, Necromancer. But I think your intentions might be pure.”
“I guess we’ll see.”
“Your elf friend returns. Merigol is coming too.” Wutarl smirked.
Gazlan glared again before greeting Vinetta and Merigol.
“Nice legs, Merigol.” Gazlan remarked.
“Thank you. Wutarl whipped them up. I barely limp now!” He displayed the wooden exoskeleton running down his legs and encircling his boots and waist. “I just need Wutarl to power the… cells?” Wutarl nodded. “Every so often.”
“The sun itself can power them.” Wutarl added. “So avoid late night walks without me around in dangerous territory.”
“So what did you see?” Gazlan asked.
“The prairie is dying over the ridge.” Vinetta said quietly.
“Blight.” Wutarl growled. “I can sense it.”
“Me too.” Gazlan sighed.
“There is a ruined town in the distance, it looks as if it has already fallen. There are a lot of vultures circling overhead.” Merigol said. “Do you think it would be safe to move through there?”
“Are there any other towns nearby?” Gazlan asked.
“There is a river that runs from the north.” Wutarl pointed northwards where the ground steadily inclined. “It was where my monastery was located. The necromancer who destroyed it is probably making her way down the river, on the way to the coast where I hear one of her rivals has been raising an army. There is only one other town close by, about a week’s march on foot. If she is on foot.”
“Then the necromancer is still at the town you saw.” Gazlan confirmed.
“How do you know?” Vinetta asked.
“Because I can sense her ghouls. She would keep the bulk of her army nearby in case of reprisals on her way towards her enemy. Are we ready for a fight?”
“Is this the necromancer who’s ghouls attacked Sinan and I?” Merigol asked.
“It is most likely.” Gazlan said.
“Then I am ready.”
“I will die trying to slay this witch.” Wutarl said, smashing his fists together.
Gazlan eyed Vinetta. “Whether it was her who burned my forest or not, she must be stopped.” She said.
“Then let’s check out this ridge.”
The four stood atop the rocky outcropping with the expanding dead land beyond. The grasses withered into dust and blight even before their eyes. There were barren outcroppings of stone and sparse trees as the prairie gave way to the river land. Half tilled farms and untended roads littered the expanse. On the distance, by the rolling river was a town. It was ramshackle, teetering to collapse into river to be slowly carried out to sea. There were a few smouldering fires within which expelled wisps of foul smoke into vulture infested air.
“Where are they?” Merigol asked, fidgeting with his crossbow.
“In the basements.” Gazlan answered. “Or the crypt, the silos, the barns. Ghouls and sunlight don’t mix. It reminds their flesh that the soul should be on its journey towards the great light. It burns them.”
“Why don’t you enjoy the sunlight?” Merigol said suspiciously.
“Because necromancy fell into the hands of the evil and malcontent. They have forsaken their role in the natural world. They used to journey from one damned place to the next, freeing wraiths and spirits that were trapped before they could pass on.”
“Then some maniacal fiend used that power to trap souls within the bodies, to make slaves for themselves.” Wutarl growled. “The guardians of the afterlife charged the paladins to expunge that evil, granted the power of sunlight to help us combat them. Until balance is restored, no necromancer will walk easily during the day.”
“Even the good ones?” Vinetta asked.
“It keeps me focused.” Gazlan said.
“How long has this struggle gone on?” Merigol asked.
“Some thousands of years.” Wutarl said.
“The War of the Damned is a recent feud. Some necromancers fancied themselves powerful enough to be lords over the living and the dead. It has gone a long way to scouring most of the evil practitioners. At the expense of the living though.” Gazlan sighed. “Come. We have work to do.”
They descended the ridge and made over the blighted plains towards the town.
“If they are in the crypt.” Merigol asked as they walked. “Wouldn’t they be able to summon the hundreds of people buried there?”
“No.” Wutarl said. “Only those whose souls are still close by. If they have made it to the afterlife their souls are safe and shine down on us every day.” He gestured to the sun. “But we will likely face many hundreds of ghouls regardless. The town alone would have swelled her ranks.”
“How can we prevail?” Merigol said.
“We fight off the ghouls until we can forge a path to this necromancer.” Gazlan said. “I am powerful enough to force her to heel.”
“And then I will kill her.” Wutarl roared.
Gazlan halted. “I am not here to add to the dead.”
Wutarl halted. “Neither were my paladins.”
“Well this is new. A necromancer wanting to preserve life while a paladin seeks to kill?” Vinetta said. “Let’s not get at each other’s throats yet boys. We could decide on a course of action and plan it to perfection, knowing our luck it would fly right out the window the moment the ghouls rush us.”
“Your girlfriend has a point.” Wutarl said.
Vinetta’s rosy ears went red.
“She’s not my girlfriend!” Galzan stammered. “But yeah, she’s right.” He looked away from them and surged forward.
They marched on in silence. It took the better part of the day to reach the town; even their quick rest stop was cut short by the foul stench that rose from the dying earth. The sun was just entering the cusp of twilight as they cautiously strode through the unhinged gates.
It was almost quiet.
The houses groaned as the weather cooled, hanging signs squeaked on their chains in the breeze and there was the unnerving sound of rasping and shuffling just on the edge of hearing. Evidence of the town’s sacking was rife across the streets with litter and broken windows and doors. Then there was the blood that dripped from the surfaces and stained the street.
No bodies though.
The party slowly made their way into the town centre. It was a three way junction as the main road ricocheted into a second road heading out the other end of town. The third road headed towards the river where a mill turned gently. The corners of the junction held the sheriff’s’s, the tavern and the butcher.
“The three signs of a healthy society.” Merigol muttered as Vinetta scrunched her nose at the meat.
“Four.” Gazlan nodded down the ricocheting main road.
The others followed his gaze. The road ran by the town temple, elevated on a mound of hallowed earth – the crypt.
“That seems like a good place to host a mass of clumsy bodies.” Vinetta said. “We have the river hemming us in down that way… We are too exposed in the centre.”
“We would be exposed outside the town walls as well.” Wutarl grunted as he un-shouldered his pack and rummaged around. “Better to get it over with.”
“Did you see that?” Merigol trained his crossbow on the tavern, green light flickered between the slats.
“That’s a temple of light.” Gazlan muttered without responding. “I doubt the necromancer would set up shop in there. The ghouls are likely spread out throughout these buildings. They have been watching us since we arrived.”
A cackling laugh sounded from behind them, above the sheriff’s. They rounded as something scurried away out of sight on the roof.
“That was her.” Wutarl snarled as he produced a collapsible wooden post began to set it up.
“She’s a fast one.” Vinetta said.
“She’s a gnome. I nearly got her back at the monastery but she scurried into all of the hard to reach places until she could raise enough ghouls to drive me away.”
“Well,” Merigol said, scanning the rooftops. “Damn.”
“She will be damned soon enough.” Wutarl replied. “The lamp post is ready, should provide us a safe haven from the ghouls… for a time.”
“Light it up.” Gazlan was watching the darkening skies turn from scarlet to deep shades of night.
The tavern door cracked open and a band of ghouls screamed out. Wutarl lit the post and created a circle of light around the party. The ghouls screeched and skittered to a halt on the edge of the light and as true darkness settled over the lands more came pouring out of their dark places to rush the centre.
The four looked out to a mass of moaning corpses that shambled over one another to attack only to shriek back at the light. Wisps of green necromancy sparkled across the masses as the moon light tried in vain to light the streets.
“Some hundreds.” Gazlan said. “What was I thinking?”
“What were you thinking indeed?” A shrill voice rung out and the ghouls went silent.
The party looked back to the sheriff’s to see a pointed witch hat scurry out to the lip. Merigol whipped around his cross bow but hesitated.
“What?” He said.
“It’s just a witch hat?” Vinetta said.
The shrill cackle returned and the hat jostled with it, it tilted back just enough for the party to see the tiny gnome who was balancing it on her head.
“Ginnalor!” Wutarl cried. “I will crush your puny skull!”
“Now now, orc!” The gnome laughed as the hat slipped down over most of her body. She reached with her tiny hands to lift it back up. “Would your order appreciate you making a comment so hurtful to my people? Perhaps we should ask one of them?”
“I released each member of my order, Witch!”
“And he had help.” Gazlan stepped forward.
Ginnalor started before laughing again. “Oh my, a young necromancer thinks he can stand up to me! At last I can give up my petty disputes and bow down to the King of the Damned!” Her shrill laughter was echoed throughout her ghouls. “I will add you to my ranks, amateur!”
“Ginnalor the Red. Is that right?” Gazlan said calmly.
She halted and the witch hat tilted towards him. He had her attention.
“I have heard of what you did to your own people. I have felt your necromancy from afar for weeks now. I know that you have defeated several other contenders in your pathetic feud before I could intervene. I have with me a Druid who looked after the forest that burned as you slew Ragjar the Tall. I have a traveller who lost his world when you marched over the trade route to Frenk. You already know my friend Wutarl the Meek. You have grown over confident. In me and my companions you will find only humiliation and defeat. Unless you release these souls now in the name of the old ways and answer for your crimes, you will die here in this town.”
“Oh, so if I don’t surrender to have my skull crushed I’ll die? Young Nunnadan. You have no idea the feats I am capable of. You have no idea the enemies I have been preparing to face.”
“You will all serve me!” The witch hat spun and a dagger flung from it to smack into the bulb.
The Paladism snuffed out with a shatter and the ghouls surged inwards.
“You’ve made your choice.” Gazlan said.
He started chanting before the first ghoul hit him. Upon contact it fell to the ground, inert. Behind him Merigol shot his scatter bolt and the fanning destruction cut a swathe into the first rank of ghouls. They stumbled over one another as he pulled back the cocking mechanism Wutarl had installed and a new bolt slid effortlessly into place for him to shoot again.
He had about ten shots before he had to reload a magazine of bolts, according to Wutarl. Each shot slowed down the next wave as they ghouls had to scramble over the incapacitated who were struggling to rise.
Wutarl held back the next quadrant. With a roar his threw a cluster of objects onto the ground and lit them with paladism. The ghouls shrieked as the tiny bulbs scattered around the centre burned them. With large arcs of his axe he cut down the ones that were unfortunate enough to make it through.
Vinetta held back the remaining side. With a cry in elvish she threw her hands towards the sky and summoned the vultures who had been circling for days. In a frenzied swarm they swooped down like a wave and pushed the ghouls back. Pecking at eyes and disorienting the creatures as they stumbled and tripped over one another.
While the vultures gave her space to breath she unfurled her vines from her waist and whipped out with them. She buried them into the undead corpses for her fungi and mosses to seep into the nerves and create a force of marionettes to protect her.
Their nervous systems struggled against the pulsating necromancy which compelled them to kill in the name of their master. But it created a dozen or so meat shields for her to use as she struck out with her vines and her vultures struck from the skies.
Gazlan was climbing over the growing mound of inert corpses as he continued to chant and siphon the souls from the damned bodies to the afterlife. The mound was growing large enough that he was rising above the battle and was but a short leap below the sheriff’s roof. As Ginnalor commanded more ghouls to swarm towards him in her desperation he found more height to climb up to her.
“No!” She cried, shuffling back as Gazlan climbed over the gutter and onto the roof.
The witch hat spun and another knife flung out to embed in his flesh. Gazlan weaved out of the knife’s path and drop kicked the gnome, who even with the witch hat was barely as high as his knee.
Gnome and witch hat both flung away to the other side of the roof and Gazlan surged after her to incapacitate her.
A ghoul’s fist broke through the ceiling from below and clambered up to stand between Gazlan and his target. In the battle below the desperate group found that as they were about to become overwhelmed the ghouls broke off and swarmed up the corpse mound to protect their master.
Gazlan glanced around as the ghouls rose over the edge.
“I have bodies to spare, Nunnadan. What have you got in place of an army, a band of misfits? You have no thralls to aid you! Necromancer indeed.”
“This atrocity you call an army is not true death, Witch Hat.” Gazlan knelt and reached out with his power. “True death is selfless, it is balance. It is matter giving way and feeding more matter. It is the soul – enriched by its lived experience – travelling to the afterlife to live in paradise as it shines that life force back down to the plane of the living. What you have here is a perversion.” He channelled his necromancy into the river, into the soil and blighted earth, searching, finding, binding. “A weakness.” He grunted as he ignited his power. “I will show you the true power of death!”
A flash of green tore down the river and across the fields. The blighted soil shifted and churned. Gazlan had found all of the dead matter, microscopic motes of dust, bugs and plant stuff that had withered – the blight had multiplied this tenfold – and he massed it together beyond the village wall.
Ginnalor scrambled onto the shoulder of one of her ghouls to look out and see the pulsing ball of blight and necromancy.
“This is true power. And I didn’t have to enslave anything to wield it.” Gazlan said through gritted teeth.
He pulled his fist from the ground and the blight surged forth like a dust storm over the town. It slammed into the mass of ghouls above and below, sweeping them away and parting around Gazlan and his companions.
Ginnalor was knocked down onto the roof before him with a squeak as her ghouls were blown away in the gale and stripped to shreds by the microscopic particles. And then, as if nothing had happened, the blight storm ceased. The town was scoured smooth by the sands and reflected the moon. The ghouls were shredded and scattered in organic tatters.
Gazlan placed his boot on Ginnalor and pressed her into the roof with increasing pressure.
“Now those poor souls are in agony, release them.”
Even as she squeaked under his weight she cackled. “Not a bad trick, young one. I think I know where I recognised you from.”
“It doesn’t matter.”
“Oh but it does. Did he really think he could send another to strike me down in his place?”
“He is next on my list, don’t you worry.” Gazlan pressed harder. “Now release them!”
“What was that?” Vinetta pulled herself up onto the roof with her vine as Wutarl assisted Merigol in climbing up.
“It was a lesson.” Ginnalor squeaked. “I may not be able to control that much dead matter on my own, young necromancer. But now you have created building blocks of my own, all powered by their own souls.”
“What are you playing at?” Gazlan barked.
“So perhaps I can do something similar with those poor shredded ghouls… but with a bit more pezaz!” She bit Gazlan’s ankle.
He cried out and recoiled. She broke free and scurried away as Wutarl charged in to smite her. Just as he struck she scurried into the hole in the roof her ghoul had made.
“I didn’t like the sound of that.” Merigol said, reloading his scatter bow.
“What did she mean?” Wutarl asked.
“Shit.” Gazlan felt the pulse of necromancy.
“Shit?” Vinetta asked.
Green flashed throughout the town, cumulating wherever there was shredded ghoul.
“Shit!” Gazlan cried. “Get ready!”
The shreds of ghouls began to shift and churn just as his mass of blight did. It pooled into the three way intersection and massed, forming the shape of a man. And then it continued to mass, and mass and mass. The dead matter rose over the sheriff’s, to tower over the town as a giant of churning shreds of corpses.
“This is an abomination!” Wutarl struck out with a weak beam of light and it seared a pitifully small gash into the abomination’s abdomen.
Ginnalor’s cackle rang out from the creature as the gash widened to reveal her nestled within, channelling her necromancy to keep the horror together.
“Once I have defeated your wild card, I will try to keep you all alive long enough to suffer before you finally serve my will!” The wound in the abomination closed up and the giant mass lifted its arm to strike at the sheriff’s.
The party scrambled over the edge and fell to the road as the sheriff’s was obliterated by the abomination’s strike. Debris rained down around them as Wutarl leaped up and helped get his winded companions to their feet.
“Keep moving!” He turned to summon more paladism to strike back.
“No!” Gazlan gasped. “Save your power, I have a plan.”
A shadow loomed over them as a great foot attempted to smush them into the dirt. The party sprinted across the street and into the tavern just as the roof exploded into shards of wood. The abomination reached in to grab them but they were already scurrying out the other side.
“Oh is this what it feels like to tower over others? No wonder we gnomes are downtrodden!” She cackled as she struck out indiscriminately across the town and the party struggled to stay ahead of the destruction.
“Do you have a plan?” Vinetta yelled as they ducked through one alley and towards the mill.
“I have enough juice to channel blight storm strong enough to fling one of you up there!” Galzan gestured to the abomination that was bearing down on them.
“What good would that do Necromancer?” Wutarl growled as they scurried down the road in the open.
“Merigol. Get your bow ready. Wutarl, as soon as he shoots at the abdomen you channel everything you’ve got into the wound. Vinetta, you’ll need to cut in with your vines.”
“You’re flinging me?!”
“Do you trust me?”
“I guess I owe you for raising an army of beasts against you.” She panted.
They reached the end of the road at the water mill and turned to face off the abomination that was bounding towards them.
“Debt is not trust.” Gazlan said. “I’ll try and change that if we survive this. Wutarl!”
Wutarl raised his axe into the air and roared. The axe blade pulsed with weak light but steadily grew brighter. The earth shook as the abomination stepped closer, Ginnalor’s cackling reverberated with it.
Merigol aimed for the thing’s gut and pulled the trigger. The scatter bolt ripped a large swathe and the churning mass of ghoul shreds rippled. With a mighty bellow Wutarl flung his axe and it tore towards the closing wound. It cut a searing path further into the abomination.
Gazlan had been summoning what he could to the mill. It spun wildly as it pulsed with necromancy and teetered on its axis, flinging the waters everywhere. He eyed Vinetta who had her two vines spiralling around to a point above her head.
Gazlan cried with exertion and channelled the blight which had been spinning around the mill into another storm. It picked Vinetta from the ground and flung her into the now closing wound that Merigol and Wutarl had created in the gut of the abomination. She oriented herself so the spiralling point of her vines became like a drill head and slammed into the wound just as it closed over. A split second later, she burst through the other side with Ginnalor in her arms.
The two spiralled to the ground and Gazlan used his last effort to summon a cushion of blight in the air to slow their fall just before impact. Vinetta drove her shoulder into the gnome, slamming her into the ground with what little force remained in their fall.
Ginnalor squeaked as the air was knocked from her and the witch hat tumbled away. The abomination stumbled and fell into tatters. Wutarl was already charging through the cloud of ghoul with his secondary axe. Vinetta rolled out of the way as he leaped and cleaved the gnome in two.
There was a gasp as the souls were released from the masticated shreds and the green pulse of necromancy ceased.
Gazlan was panting, his vision white as he tried to stand amongst the snowing bits of corpse. Merigol rushed in to assist him.
“I tried to give her a choice.” Gazlan panted. “I know you think she did not deserve one.”
“I know.” Merigol gripped him tightly. “But we freed these people from their hell. We avenged Sinan and Wutarl’s order. You did good, Gazlan.”
Merigol smirked. “She is safe. Rest now, Gazlan. Rest.”
Gazlan sighed and let unconsciousness take him.
He awoke some time later. He could smell the crushed rose salve of Vinetta’s all around. He creaked his eyes open to see his three companions sitting around a fire in the town centre, all bandaged and looking as beaten as he felt.
“So we did survive.” Gazlan said.
Vinetta turned and smiled as he struggled up. “Stay down, you took quite a beating.”
“We all did.” He protested, but he allowed her to press him back down again.
He watched her as she checked over his wounds.
“What are you looking at?” She asked, a small hint of blush appearing at the points of her rosy, elven ears.
“You trusted me.” He grinned. “No one has done that in a while.”
She smiled, looking away. “Yeah. I guess I did.”
“And I guess I trust you too, Necromancer.” Wutarl’s gruff voice cut over the crackling fire. “But I’ll still keep you at an arm’s length.”
“That’s quite far. For an orc.” Merigol said, elbowing Wutarl.
“Heh.” Wutarl grunted. “We can’t make it too easy on him can we?”
Gazlan tuned them out as they continued their beautiful, inane banter, focusing on Vinetta as she applied more salve to his wounds.
“Perhaps we should plant one of those rose seeds here. Mark our path on our quest.” Gazlan said.
“And why is that?” She asked.
“They are a gift I greatly cherish. I want to share that gift. Plus.” He eyed Merigol who bore his rose on his lapel. “They seem to be our thing now.”
She reached into his pouch and produced one of the seeds. “You know,” She said, considering the seed carefully. “That isn’t such a bad idea.”
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