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“Just come on out Gazlan!” Merigol said.
“Gazlan.” Vinetta said sternly. “Come out this second so we can see how it looks.”
“No!” Gazlan repeated.
Wutarl growled a laugh. “Heh, the Necromancer is like a frightened rabbit.”
“Shh!” Vinetta menaced Wutarl with her vine and then subsided. She turned back to the tree Gazlan was hiding behind with a smile. “Gazlan.” She said sweetly. “We don’t want anyone in town to suspect you’re a necromancer and try to lynch you. We won’t laugh, Merigol did a fine job sewing the decorations on. Just come out and we can go in, get some information and have a decent meal for once.”
The three waited as Gazlan sighed, “You better not laugh.”
“On my honour.” Wutarl growled.
“Okay.” Gazlan breathed.
He stepped slowly into the firelight. Floral designs – summoned by Vinetta – had been stitched into his robes. They crowned the hood like a reef, danced around his sleeves to encircle his cuffs and formed trimmings along his buttons down to the hem.
Vinetta smirked, Merigol nodded in pride at his work even as his lips curled and Wutarl… Wutarl burst out laughing.
“Hey you promised!” Gazlan went red and slinked back behind the tree as Vinetta and Merigol joined in.
“It looked so good though!” Vinetta teased. She raced around the tree and dragged Gazlan back out. “Ignore the orc! You certainly don’t look like a necromancer anymore. Just try not to walk as if you’re gliding when we head into town.” She examined the designs up close. “The colour is quite striking against the black, good job Merigol.”
Merigol didn’t answer. He and Wutarl were supporting each other as they collapsed with more laughter. Gazlan stood self consciously as Vinetta fussed with the robe.
“Your face when Wutarl laughed!” Merigol was in tears.
“He looks cute!” Wutarl roared, gripping his belly. “Proper cute!”
“I hate all of you!” Gazlan stamped.
They had moved beyond the rolling prairie and travelled down the river for some days now; entering the hilly woods that buffered the river land from the coast. After more days of bush whacking and eating the slim offerings the over scavenged woods had to offer, they found themselves camped on a ridge on the outskirts of town.
Now with Gazlan’s disguise in tow, they could enter freely.
Gazlan pulled his hood down low to hide from the sun and to slink back from his new appearance as much as he could. The party passed through the heavily guarded palisade gates by late afternoon. The squadron of spearmen eyed them warily, the crossbowmen on the lookouts lowering their weapons when the sergeant waved them through.
The odd collection of travellers gained strange looks from the disquieted locals, especially Merigol’s exoskeleton legs. But stranger things had evidently happened in these parts as the folk carried on about their days without comment.
“This place is heavily guarded.” Wutarl said. “And oddly, not guarded enough.”
“They should be. Check it out.” Merigol said, sauntering over to the notice board.
There were serious looking decrees and notices warning of the undead hordes converging on their location. With one expected from the river some days ago.
“I guess we put a stop to that.” Vinetta said.
Gazlan squinted at the map of ghoul sightings. “Then why wouldn’t more of the army be here to defend it?”
“They’re defending the shipwright on the coast.” Wutarl grunted, gesturing to the map.
“Stupid bastards.” Gazlan cursed.
The map showed the shipwright had a small town nearby which was bolstered by the army’s presence, but the majority of villages along the coast were mostly left to their own defences.
“The necromancer on the coast wouldn’t give a shit about the shipwright. Or if he did he would simply attack it once he’d enslaved the souls of the poor townspeople.” Gazlan continued.
“Perhaps they were pushing the necromancer up towards the sea.” Vinetta traced the path of a larger force that was apparently pursuing the coastal necromancer’s movements.
“That force could hinder the necromancer, yes.” Gazlan said. “But his concern was Ginnalor the Red which was probably why he was massing to meet her… here I guess. But he would have sensed the absence of her power and concluded she was slain. His next move would be to go after the next rival in the War of the Damned.”
“I know there is a chain of islands across the straight which is under strife.” Merigol said.
“The Dwarf Islands?” Wutarl asked.
“I hate dwarves.” Vinetta spat. “Always trying to make me eat mutton. Don’t accept that I’m fine without meat. It’s such a foreign concept to them they think you’ll starve and try to force feed you.”
“Their compassion sounds disgusting.” Gazlan elbowed her.
“Don’t you get started, flower boy.” She laughed as her barb sent him tense again.
“So if this coastal necromancer is heading across the sea, he will attack the shipwright?” Merigol asked.
“No.” Gazlan said. “He wouldn’t want to get caught between two armies without another necromancer to help divide their attention. He’ll head for the nearest sea town, and enslave as many souls as he can along the way.”
“A coastal village won’t have the transport he needs to ferry an army across to the islands.”
“An undead army doesn’t have the same needs as a living one.” Gazlan said. “Okay, we rest and resupply here for the night and head out first thing.”
“Finally, a decent meal for once!” Wutarl bellowed to the skies.
The townspeople started at his outburst but quickly scurried about their business.
“I don’t recall you cooking once since we linked up.” Gazlan said.
“Don’t get so testy flower boy!”
Gazlan tensed again as Wutarl and Merigol laughed, heading for the tavern.
“You really could have cooked one night though.” Merigol said as they left.
“Come on Gazlan, you look great.” Vinetta said as she pranced on after them.
Gazlan grumbled curses to himself as he unclenched his fists and followed.
“I think your clothes are lovely mister!” A little girl with bobbing pigtails bounded alongside him.
Gazlan stopped and considered the girl. He was so unaccustomed to a lack of fear from the living, this was, strange.
“Why thank you young one.” Gazlan said. “I will try not to let the blinged up orc get under my skin.”
The girl smiled as Gazlan entered the tavern. Unbeknownst to him, the girl turned to the hooded figure waiting down the next alley and nodded vigorously before skipping away.
The hooded figure removed a decree from his cloak and ran his finger down the calligraphy.
‘Wanted’ it read.
‘For the crimes of Necromancy in The War of the Damned.
Ginnalor the Red – Gnome of Dusty Peak, pale skin, hair of red copper.
Ragjar the Tall – Human of Dwet, pale skin, hair of black… tall.
Junla Roosewat – Drow, unknown origin, dark blue skin, black pointed hair.
Sscrell – Naga of Trine, described as a sea monster.’
Towards the bottom of the list the hooded figure stopped.
‘Ubzlan the Terror – Human of Nunnadan, dark skin, short black hair.’
The figure nodded. “How many Nunnadan’s do you suppose wander this land?” He said.
“I’d reckon just one, this near the coast.” A woman’s voice rasped from the shadows.
The first figure chuckled, circling his finger around the last line.
‘Reward for proof of death – 10,000 Cets each.’
“Looks like we have a chance to take him down before the army does. Inform the team, we have a payday looming.”
The four travellers sat around the table, bantering blissfully as they ate. Wutarl and Merigol with their roast legs, Vinetta with a bowl of greens and Gazlan with a humble porridge.
“You see,” Merigol said. “My Sinan was a tinkerer too.” He slurred his words with the levities of the night. “I just think it’s nice to see he was in good company.”
“He sounds a fine man!” Wutarl boomed. “For a human! Hah!”
The patrons around the tavern booed at him in mirth. No matter the barbs, it seemed good for morale to have a paladin in their midst, one who was also a mighty looking orc.
“Too right!” Merigol cried. “Boo the orc, look at how small his spectacles are!”
This prompted a laugh and Wutarl growled in mock anger.
“Perhaps a song would ease the cultural tension? My order taught me the paladistic chants, and I composed a mix with them and my tribe’s war songs!” The patrons cheered him on.
Wutarl stood, stumbling slightly and cleared his throat.
His singing was hoarse and guttural, but resonated faintly between grunts. It was a strange synergy between two worlds that had the patrons laughing initially but they quickly turned to keen interest.
“It is actually quite lovely isn’t it?” Vinetta said, sidling up to Gazlan.
“Mmm.” He sipped from his mug. “Wutarl continually surprises me.”
“I guess we all have that in common.” She rested her head on his shoulder as she quietened to listen.
Gazlan felt his whole body go rigid, but he pushed the feeling to one side. His heart was hammering which rattled his breath but also sent warm soothing shoots through his chest. In an attempt to distract himself from this and the fact he felt he could not breathe, he reached into the pouch of rose seeds and held one before Vinetta.
“You have something on your mind?” She said in his ear.
“These are more than just a keepsake from your home woods, aren’t they?”
“They were from my family’s garden. We elves do not die frequently. But when we do, we bury our ancestors in the rose garden. These seeds are a part of them, the essence of the first druids flow through them even to this day. When the ghouls overran the woods, I was charged with defending the rose garden. I failed, these were all I could save. I was exiled, charged to find a safe haven for their essence to preserver in order to redeem myself. That place burned down before I had the chance.”
“And you gave them to me?”
“You,” She paused. “Planting them is more of a metaphor… It’s hard to explain. But I felt drawn to you, and I trusted my instincts. Now these roses grow from Frenk to the coast. One rests on the lapel of a worthy man.” She gestured to Merigol. “One grows to mark the site where a town of souls were saved, another over the graves of once loved paladins… Maybe that’s what my ancestors wish to do now? Stand watch over the forgotten, the meek who have struggled for life despite the horrors of the world.”
“That seems profound and confusing.”
“I’m drunk.” She giggled. “But I was drawn to you. Tell me about your father.”
“Oh. Well, he found me on my own really.”
“Didn’t you say he fathered you with a necromancer?”
“Well.” Galzan sighed. “My mother didn’t spend long with him. She was taken, right before me… He was crippled and found me wailing in a ditch…”
“I’m so sorry.” She caressed his cheek.
Gazlan savoured the sensation before continuing. “So he raised me on his own, taught me of the original nature of necromancers like mother wanted. As my power grew so did the enemies I attracted. More necromancers came and we fought them off, until one day we didn’t. He was taken from me too and I embarked on my quest.”
“It seems we have all experienced pain.” Vinetta said.
“There will be more, before the end.” Gazlan replied.
Wutarl finished his song and the patrons cheered.
“Come, we should get some rest. We have an early start tomorrow.” He said.
The party set out just before dawn, like they always did to ease Gazlan’s journey. They headed out of town and further into the woods which grew rife with ridges and outcroppings of rock as it sloped higher. Once they reached the peak of these slopes they would be able to see the ocean, and perhaps sight their next target.
Gazlan could sense him. He could sense his massing army of the dead. And he could sense the fury bubbling within himself.
“There is something strange afoot.” Vinetta stopped in her tracks.
“What do you mean?” Wutarl asked, he sniffed and scanned the sloped forest.
“The birds have gone silent. I haven’t seen a critter since just after dawn.” She unfurled the vines around her sash.
At her preparation Merigol cocked his crossbow and Wutarl pulled the axe from his back, the grating sound as the haft slid across his chain mail set them on edge. Gazlan clenched and unclenched his fists as he reached out with his necromancy.
“I sense nothing.” He said. “Other than our next foe on the coast some days away.”
“In a war torn land the living can be just as dangerous as the dead.” Merigol whispered.
The four stood at the ready as the trees bristled in the breeze.
“Hmph.” Wutarl growled. “Perhaps Vinetta it’s that you just can’t handle your grog?”
She shot him a look but Gazlan raised his hand. “Shh.”
He heard something, the crack of a twig, the sliding of fabric over the brush. He cocked his head – ignoring the shaft of sunlight that peeked through the canopy to stab at his face – and stepped forward to hear better.
Then a louder snap.
A snare tightened around his leg and went taught as a log fell from a tree across the way. With a yelp Gazlan was yanked off his feet and suspended upside down.
“Bandits!” Merigol shot his scatter bow into the brush.
A single arrow whistled from the canopy and sliced the twine of his crossbow in response.
“Taste the sun!” Wutarl bellowed as he summoned a beam of paladism from his fist and aimed it towards the arrow’s origin.
There was the sizzling of leaves and a boisterous laugh. A large man in plate armour burst through the brush with a war hammer and returned his own beam of light. It caught Wutarl in the chain mail, refracting off the blessed armour like a rainbow as the force of the blow knocked him off his feet. Gazlan cried out and shielded his eyes.
“What a pathetic paladin!” The newcomer laughed.
“You bastard!” Vinetta surged forward with her vines to attack.
With a boyish grin he blocked one vine with his hammer and allowed the other to whip uselessly at his breast plate. Then a hooded figure shifted from the underbrush and clobbered Vinetta’s knee with a cudgel. She swore and faltered to the ground as the rogue slid a knife over her throat.
“Stay still hun.” She said to Vinetta. “Wouldn’t want to open a vein.”
The archer swung from the canopy on a rope and alighted before Merigol. Mergiol struck out with his disabled crossbow. The archer caught the feeble blow with one arm and pulled the weapon from Merigol’s entropic grip.
“Valiant, if futile.” The archer said.
He struck Merigol across the face and knocked him down, discarding the crossbow in the same motion.
“Who the hell are you?” Gazlan spat. “Why the hell are you attacking us? We don’t have coin for you to pilfer you bandits!”
The archer cocked his head and removed his hood, looking at Gazlan’s upended face sideways. He was middle aged, with grizzled stubble and a scarred face.
“Is this him?” The archer said, grabbing Gazlan’s hood and pulling it back.
A goblin hobbled out of the brush with a looking glass strapped to one eye. He hopped up onto the archer’s shoulder and examined Gazlan’s face closely.
“Dark skin, poorly disguised black robe, aversion to paladism… probably why the orc struck out so weakly. I’d say is Ubzlan the Terror, for sure.”
“That orc tried his best. Sadly not many’s best can best mine.” The enemy paladin boasted. “HaHAH!”
“Ubzlan is as old as this goblin looks!” Gazlan snarled. “I am too young to be him.”
“How many other Nunnadan necromancers are there?” The Rogue holding Vinetta captive asked. “How many Nunnadan’s period? Didn’t you wipe them all out when you started this war, Ubzlan?”
“There are a select few who still stand against him.” Gazlan said. “I am not the man you seek.”
“Well, I don’t believe him.” The goblin said.
“Even if you did. The bounty would likely still pay us for his head.” The archer replied.
“Worse than bandits.” Vinetta said. “Bounty hunters.”
The paladin tutted. “That’s a derogatory word! We are simply a party of humble adventurers.”
“Worse than bounty hunters, Vinetta.” Gazlan said, feeling woozy. “Self proclaimed heroes.”
“Self proclaimed?” The archer leant on his bow to scrutinise Gazlan. “We are doing the fine work that our fellow military cannot. Taking out the enemy where many others have failed.” He gestured to Gazlan. “Case in point. We’re the A team baby!”
“You find that funny?”
“This one is crazy.” The Goblin said.
“They all are… but I wanna know what’s so funny.” The archer struck Gazlan in the face.
Vinetta swore and struggled under the rogue’s grip.
“Just kill him, Bluken.” The rogue said through her scarf.
“I wanna know what’s so funny!” Bluken struck Gazlan again.
“The A team?” Gazlan coughed. His head was swimming, but he just needed a moment longer to concentrate. “Any party of ‘heroes’ who could describe themselves as the A team have either swelled the necromancer’s ranks already or are actually defending the innocent, as heroes are want to do. Anyone else is a military stooge or an absolute moron. You lot are the B team at best.”
“Yeah? And what kind of team would you call this then huh?” Bluken pulled out his arming sword, a wickedly curved scimitar with blue runes and held it to Gazlan’s eye.
“We’re… the Rose Squad.” Gazlan said.
Now the goblin and the paladin laughed.
“Well the Rose Squad got beat pretty easy. We just took down the greatest necromancer in this war without so much as a fight. As if we aren’t the A team!” The paladin said.
“The real A team would have noticed how dark it was getting.” Gazlan said.
The bounty hunters looked around, realising that it was a shade darker than normal.
“They would be asking questions, listening for what could cause such a thing. They would be looking up the rope they tied the necromancer too, wondering why it is starting to pulse and wriggle…”
He waited as they looked up the rope, now looking away from Vinetta who was chanting under her breath.
“… and they would wonder why an orc with enchanted armour would go down without so much as a death rattle.”
“Where is the orc?” Bluken asked.
“Why he fell into the brush over there.” The paladin pointed with a stupid expression spreading across his face.
“Make sure he’s down.” The goblin barked. “Stupid jock.”
A brutish war cry sounded from the brush. “Prepare yourself Gazlan!”
A contraption flitted into the ambush, a device with whirring wooden blades that kept it afloat.
Gazlan scrunched his eyes shut and pulled his hood over his head.
The device flashed a blinding light and all except for the antagonistic paladin cried out in pain as they shielded their eyes. Vinetta head butted the rogue who held her and shot her arms free. She commanded the torrent of leaves and critters that she had spent the last moments gathering to the tree canopy to swoop down and attack.
Gazlan bucked and wove his necromancy into the dead fibres of the rope that bound him. It pulsed with green light and snapped free from the chaotic branches above, striking at Bluken and the goblin. It whipped them together and bound them as the squirrels and leaves surged for the paladin.
The rogue recovered and slashed Vinetta’s side with her knife. Vinetta stumbled into the brush and the leaves fell softly as the critters fled in panic.
The paladin was recovering as Wutarl screamed into the fray. He clobbered the rogue with the butt of his axe and knocked her out cold, then charged the paladin who had recovered and grabbed his war hammer from the carnage.
The titanic clash of axe on plate and hammer on chain mail rang through the churning woods. Gazlan ensured that his rope had successfully bound the Bluken and the goblin and turned to assist Wutarl.
He summoned his necromancy to call the dead matter of the forest to him when the paladin struck Wutarl down with a combo. He moved past Wutarl’s guard and slammed his hammer into his chest. He then blasted Wutarl with a beam of light as he struck one final blow and sent the orc sprawling through the undergrowth with a pained cry.
Gazlan acted quickly, pulling the dead matter around him to shoot it out like a lance. But he was not quick enough. The paladin turned to face him with an outstretched hand and fired a beam of light.
Merigol had been restringing his crossbow in the confusion and rose as Gazlan fell, firing the scatter bolt. The fanning cone of death struck and ricocheted off the paladin’s armour. But several found the chinks, embedding in shoulder joints and glancing off his brow.
The paladin swore as he dropped his hammer and fell to the ground with blood in his eye. He was writhing, disabled.
“Anyone else?” Merigol scanned the forest.
Wutarl and Vinetta pulled themselves from the ground, readying to support Merigol if their enemies still had fight in them.
The rogue was out, Bluken and the goblin were bound and the paladin tried uselessly to pick up his hammer with his injured shoulder joints. After a moment he gave up, falling back into the undergrowth with another swear.
“Didn’t think so.” Merigol said, swinging his crossbow up onto his shoulder.
“Gazlan!” Vinetta rushed to Gazlan who was writhing on the ground.
A hole had burned through his chest, the wound was partially cauterised by the searing light which was the only reason he still lived.
“It passed through his heart!” Wutarl said.
“No, it grazed it.” Vinetta inspected the wound as Gazlan moaned. “His lung also got seared and the beam burst right through the other side. He hasn’t got long.”
“What can we do?” Merigol asked.
“He is holding on by a thread, I don’t see how we can save him unless we can repair his organs. My salve can only do so much. Wutarl, can your light heal him?”
“Even if my healing light was strong enough, it would only harm a necromancer more.”
“Shit.” Vinetta’s eyes danced over Gazlan, stopping at one of the roses embroidered into his hood. “I have an idea, but it might not work, and it might kill him.”
“It is a better chance than he has now.” Wutarl said as Vinetta rummaged through Gazlan’s pouches.
His hand reached out and gripped onto hers. “Vinetta.” He rasped.
“Shh, Gazlan, shh.” She cooed. “Just breathe as best you can.”
She found the pouch with her rose seeds and produced one. She placed it within Gazlan’s wound and then smeared over the entry and exit wounds with her salve. He groaned and she gently hushed him again, caressing his face.
“What are you doing?” Merigol peered down in curious horror.
She placed her hand over the wound and began to chant in elvish, spinning her druidry into the seed. A snapping echoed dully as the seed churned and Gazlan writhed in pain.
“You’re killing him.” Wutarl said.
“Wutarl,” She gasped. “I’m not strong enough to grow it how I need. The rose, it needs light.”
“It would kill him faster.” Wutarl said.
“Just a faint glimmer! Please! If he survives your light long enough my power will heal him. I just need a little boost!”
Wutarl growled, “Fine, but it is not going to be pleasant. Merigol, hold him down as best you can.”
Merigol crouched by Gazlan’s head and held down his shoulders as Wutarl wiped away the salve from the wound and inserted his finger.
Gazlan cried out and bucked, nearly throwing Merigol from him.
“I’m ready.” Vinetta said.
Wutarl grumbled as he channelled light from his finger tip into the half germinated seed. Vinetta gasped as she found the life force to work with. Gazlan screamed and writhed and Wutarl had to use his free hand to help press him down into the ground. Shoots of necromancy pulsed from his body, stirring the dead forest matter like a dark wave.
“That’s it Wutarl, get out of there!” Vinetta ordered.
Wutarl pulled the bloodied finger back to see the green of the rose stem weaving itself into tendon and muscle, the thorns curved and intertwined to shape into bone and the petals encased the scorched heart and lung.
The petals pulsed with his heartbeat and haggard lung swell as the wound healed layer by layer. Finally, Vinetta’s salve mended what flesh it could on the surface. Gazlan’s writhing turned to convulsions and frothing at the mouth before going still with a horrifying death rattle.
Vinetta gasped as she released her power and grabbed at his face.
“Give him some air.” Merigol said waving her back.
Gazlan lay peering up into the tree canopy which was spackled with sunlight. He did not wince or recoil from it.
“Is he?” Merigol asked.
“No!” Vinetta sobbed. “No, not now, not just as we were…”
Gazlan sputtered and coughed, rising with a terrible cry.
“By the light, it worked!” Wutarl boomed.
“What in the damnation just happened?” Gazlan breathed. He was gripping his chest. “I feel,” He breathed deep, “Fresh?”
Vinetta laughed as she threw her arms around his neck. “We had to make some alterations to your heart as well as your robe… so people knew you weren’t a terror.”
Gazlan stared wide eyed for a moment, before laughing himself and returning her embrace.
“Thank you.” He said. “All of you.”
“Now what of them?” Merigol asked.
The four companions stood over the B team. They bound the rogue and paladin to Bluken and the goblin as they gathered their things and disarmed them. Gazlan took the scimitar from Bluken.
“I might need something extra where we’re going.” He flourished it briefly before tying the scabbard to his belt and sheathing it. “Beautiful markings. These are mage runes yes? Good for severing a bound soul from a ghoul in a pinch.”
“Are you going to kill us?” The paladin asked.
“We should.” Wutarl growled, menacing him with the war hammer he had taken. He had the paladin’s plate armour strapped tightly over his chain mail. The plate looked as if it had shrunk as he wore it.
“But we will leave you tied up here. The village trappers have some snares set up nearby. I’m sure they’ll find you lot eventually.” Vinetta said with hands on her hips, by the rogue’s knife and cudgel strapped to her waist by her vines.
“So long, B team.” Merigol laughed.
He twisted the looking glass strapped to his eye. A gift from the goblin. The glass expanded and retracted as he fiddled around with it.
The four turned from the bound bandits and made up the slope.
“So you aren’t one of the bad ones?” Bluken called after them. “You’re really going to try and stop this mess?”
“I’ll stop the mess caused by the damned. And I’ll go through any of the living who try to stop me!” Gazlan replied over his shoulder.
“We should really be more vigilant in future.” Wutarl said, slinging the hammer over his shoulder to carry with his axe.
“True.” Merigol answered. “And if we get into close quarters again, I might need an exoskeleton for my arms… Wutarl?
“Aye, I can do that.” Wutarl halted to unpack some contraption from his travel sack to tinker with while they marched.
Merigol waited for him as Gazlan and Vinetta pushed onwards.
“The Rose Squad, eh?” She said, nudging him with her shoulder.
“Fitting even before your… alteration?” He clasped his hand around hers. “You saved my life again.”
“Hmm, don’t get used to it.” She teased.
Gazlan smiled, but his mirth wore off easily. Ubzlan the Terror. It was almost certain now that he was the Necromancer harvesting along the coast.
He was close, and he could feel his power growing.
This next battle was going to be hard. He knew it would come to this ever since he set out on this quest. But as they halted for Wutarl and Merigol to catch up he felt some small hope.
Maybe, he thought. Maybe with this motley band that was becoming a family they might actually prevail. He felt at the flowers on his hood, felt the rose that beat with his heart and swelled with his breath, felt the warmth of Vinetta’s fingers between his and allowed himself to smile.
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