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The Rose Squad watched in horror as the wailing drifted on the winds to their vantage point. The coast was in chaos, the villages that dotted the shoreline were inflame or in smoulder as an army of shambling terror crept into the largest village.
Its people fought a tenacious, desperate last stand. But ultimately they were overwhelmed, and Ubzlan the Terror set his forces swarming into the sea.
The coast would have been pleasant, quaint – if not for the march of the dead. The white sands lined the immense bay that these villages called home and the waters were a calm black in the setting, smoke veiled sun. The wooded ridge they perched on granted the Rose Squad a grand view of the horrifying vista, as it tumbled down into the gentle stretch of land before the beaches.
“Does he expect them to swim?” Wutarl said. His grumbling voice was no more than a whisper.
“If he did he would not mass them at the jetties.” Vinetta said.
“We’ll know more once your device returns.” Gazlan bit down the rising bile in his throat.
He could sense them all. It was like in his dreams, a maelstrom of the damned. He could hear the voice of his enemy’s necromancy taunting him, could hear the thousands of souls that screamed in a language only he could understand. They cried out for salvation. Could he give it to them?
A whirring sounded.
Merigol raised his arm, sporting his brand new exoskeleton that Wutarl had constructed to aid his muscular degeneration. A device drifted into their camp and flitted into a socket by his shoulder. Another of Wutarl’s contraptions.
He used his paladism to channel sunlight into a power cell he tinkered together, which powered the propellers to give it flight. It was the same device that had triggered a flash bomb when ambushed by the ‘A’ Team.
He called it a drone.
Wutarl muttered to himself as he detached the drone from Merigol’s exoskeleton and removed a cartridge. A photo sensitive plate he had installed beneath it.
“It’ll trap the light at a certain time and present an image of what was below it.” Wutarl had explained.
He summoned paladism to his finger and shone it over the image.
Gazlan recoiled briefly at the light, but leaned in with interest at what was revealed.
“So this is what a bird’s eye would see?” Vinetta wondered.
“Could you not use druidry to do the same through a bird?” Gazlan asked.
“There aren’t any around, even the vultures have fled or died.” She lamented. “I never thought to actually see through their eyes though… it felt… wrong.”
“Can we focus please?” Wutarl showed the image, a snapshot of the sea village that had just been overwhelmed.
“Are those, whales?” Merigol asked.
“He sent his ghouls into the sea to attack pods of whales.” Gazlan said through gritted teeth. “And used them to hunt down more, and then more. Now he marches his ghouls into their bloated bellies to transport them across the sea to his next rivals.”
“Is there no end to a necromancer’s villainy?” Merigol cursed. “Sorry.” He said to Gazlan. “Obviously not you.”
“No, no, I’m with you.” Gazlan said.
“It does provide us with an opportunity.” Wutarl said. “We can let him transport the bulk of his army into the depths. There will be less around to defend him when we close in.”
“He will travel conventionally on the boats with an honour guard.” Gazlan said, circling the few boats docked in the town. “Some hundred or so ghouls and a selection of grotesques.” The others gave him a look. “A grotesque is when several souls and corpses are bound into one, forming a brutish corpse. Not unlike the abomination we faced when fighting Ginnalor, in theory. When those thousands dwindle to hundreds we will have to strike.”
“And so we wait.” Vinetta said.
“So we wait.” Gazlan confirmed. “Get some rest, if you can.”
Merigol and Wutarl settled in for the night as Gazlan looked back out over the dying coast. Vinetta slinked next to him.
“You aren’t tired?”
“Curious.” She replied. “Do you know this Ubzlan?”
Gazlan was silent.
“Those bounty hunters said he destroyed your people?”
“I know of him.” Gazlan finally said. He turned to her with a pained smile. “My mother and I fled Nunnadan when he harvested it for the first strike in The War of the Damned.”
“That must have been so awful.” She whispered.
“Get some sleep,” he said. “I’ll keep watch.”
He watched on through the night as the thousands in their droves marched into the maws of the dead whales. More beasts of the depths beached themselves for the purpose as the night went on, speeding the process. He felt the pain of the souls, unable to fight back as they consciously subjected themselves to the murky, suffocating depths of the crowding bellies.
He tried to push it from his mind, tried to focus on the target, on Ubzlan. He was down there, somewhere in that town. Gazlan would finally have his closure.
The Rose Squad set out a few hours before dawn. The sky was a black veil in the smoke, the villages were twinkling infernos in the distance and the green flash of necromancy pulsing through the ghouls was receding like the tide.
“How are we going to approach this?” Wutarl growled as they made their way down the ridge.
“Same as the Witch Hat?” Merigol suggested. “Waltz on in there like a bunch of morons and hope for the best? Eh?”
All but Gazlan laughed, he replied deadpan. “She knew we were approaching, she could sense my necromancy and Wutarls paladism.”
“This necromancer cannot?”
“He can, but he also knows of the living army approaching from the south.” He gestured down the coast. “He knows that after dawn the garrison from the shipwright to the north will deploy to flank him. And he knows that his main rivals are across the sea, I imagine my necromancy appears as an anomaly to him. Instead of hiding in ambush he is forced to move. We can smash into his rearguard, fight our way through and smite him in the open.”
“This is a bit rash for you, little necromancer.” Wutarl said. “You cautioned mercy against the gnome.”
“This is the kind of man who would slaughter his own family just to have more bodies in his army. He would snuff out the sun if he could. He must die.”
“Well.” Merigol cocked his scatter bow and ratcheted the joint on his exoskeleton. “Let’s get salvationing.”
Wutarl unfurled his new war hammer, Vinetta her new cudgel and one of her vines. Gazlan drew his mage rune scimitar, flourished it through the air causing the blue markings to flash and prepared himself to use necromancy through his other hand.
“Are we ready?” He asked.
“Ready.” Vinetta said.
The Rose Squad quickened through the thinning woods and brush. Green flashes of scattered ghouls swarming through the area perked at the sudden movement and swarmed with a terrible rasping cry.
They burst through the tree line as a horde hemmed them in from behind. Merigol pivoted and shot his scatter blow. The fanning cone of death pilfered the rotting mass. It crumbled and collapsed as rank upon rank toppled over one another, crawling with terrifying speed to consume the living.
Wutarl swung his hammer into the air and channelled his paladism into the head. With a mighty roar his slammed it into the ground and a wave of weak sunlight rolled over the swarm. The ghouls cried out and receded as best they could.
Vinetta reached into the earth and found an ancient tree roote with her druidry. It rose between them and the recovering ghouls like great serpent breaking the earth. The ghouls were blocked from them, for now.
“Try not to use your paladism until we reach Ubzlan.” Gazlan said. “We will need every ounce of strength to best him.”
“Fine!” Wutarl panted. “For what little good my power will do.”
The Rose Squad turned from the root barrier and found the fishing village laid out before them. It was built into a grassy plain between the beach dunes on either side. Beyond the simple buildings the pontoons extended into the ocean, where the slaughtered whales waited with open maws. Hordes of ghouls swarmed down their throats.
A smaller horde of ghouls turned and stopped short of the village outskirts. They thrashed and brayed, itching to rip and tear but were held back by some invisible line. The necromancer who controlled them wanted the Rose Squad to make it that far at least.
“Hundreds of ghouls behind us or the twenty or so waiting ahead of us?” Vinetta asked. “Hardly seems like a difficult choice.”
“Well then.” Wutarl took position at the front of the group. “Stay behind me.”
He drew his axe, now holding the two ridiculously large weapons in each hand and smashed them against his breast plate as he bellowed an orcish war chant.
Gazlan summoned a cloud of dead organic matter around his hand like a gauntlet as he readied to fight with his new sword. He had never used a blade before, but the magic that pulsed within it felt natural to him. All he had to do was cut the dead flesh and the runes would sever the enslaved soul without him needing to focus, easy.
“Are we stopping to free the ghouls along the way?” Merigol asked.
“We won’t have time, push to the village centre, kill Ubzlan, and this is done.”
Wutarl cried out again and charged forth, necromancer, druid and clockwork enhanced bowman behind him.
Just before Wutarl impacted the wall of ghouls Gazlan cast his gathered dead matter like a wave. The hyper fast particles sliced through the first few ghouls like a scythe and Wutarl smashed into the aftermath – bawling through the shambolic mass as he crushed and cleaved with hammer and axe.
They crawled over each other attack him but their unholy claws ricocheted off the blessed plate and caught in his mail uselessly. Vinetta was behind him, bludgeoning stray limbs with her cudgel and lashing out with her vine which dismembered any ghoul unlucky enough to turn their attention to her. Merigol followed through next. He shot another scatter bolt into the churning mass to keep them at bay and clobbered at the stragglers with his cross bow, his entropic limbs strengthened by Wutarl’s exoskeleton.
Finally, Gazlan dashed through the gap. He slashed and whirled and hacked at the tunnel of ghoul limbs closing around him. With each hit the ghouls cried their relieved death rattles and went limp, their corpses impeding the ones behind.
The four continued their charge into the tiny village, down the main street and into the loading area by the docks. The dead whales were receding into the murky depths as the final ship readied to pull out, crewed by withered corpses.
Ubzlan the Necromancer stood by the gangway with three of his grotesques, they turned and growled at the presence of the charging Rose Squad. He was tall like Gazlan. He turned in a gliding motion, his long, smooth dark robes dragging along the coarse planks like a hissing snake.
Wutarl bellowed as he channelled paladism into the heads of his weapons and brought them down in unison. Double waves of light shot out from the ground and tore through distance between them and Ubzlan.
He simply, laughed – a sinister sound that echoed through his thralls.
With a flick of his wrist he summoned a wall of dead organic matter between him and the blast. It hit the pulsating mass with red and green shoots of power and both energies dissipated with a wisp. Ubzlan whirled his arm and swept a lashing of more dead matter at Wutarl’s arms, striking his wrists and causing him to drop his weapons.
The same lashing continued and struck Merigol’s knee joint. It broke the exoskeleton leg and caused him to tumble over. Vinetta sprinted and skidded, sliding feet first under the lashing of power while Gazlan dove head first over it. He landed in a shoulder roll, quickly coming up onto his feet.
“It’s over you worm!” Gazlan rattled his scimitar. “I am here to end your wicked ways.”
“Gazlan?” Ubzlan said, his voice was deep and fluid. “I thought that approaching power might have been yours… what have you done to your robes?” He removed his hood, revealing an aged Nunnadan face with short black hair, peppered with grey.
“He resembles you.” Wutarl growled as he shook his wrists of the pain and lifted his weapons.
The ghouls from behind swarmed in but stopped at the street’s edge.
“Of course I do.” Ubzlan laughed. “I fathered the runt, after all.”
“Gazlan?” Vinetta said. “You said your father was a druid?”
Ubzlan laughed again, holding his belly. “Unholy spirits! He told you that hippie was his father? No. He was just a weak man that his mother could shack up with to avoid my pursuit…” He cocked his head, “until she didn’t.”
“You shut your mouth!” Gazlan cried. “You don’t get to speak of her!”
“Oh?” Ubzlan recoiled with mock hurt. “But why not? I have looked after her this whole time. Something you or that druid could never do.”
Gazlan paled. “No. Even you wouldn’t turn her into a ghoul.”
“No, you’re right…” Ubzlan turned to the ship as the lines were cast off. “Sweetie.”
A figure appeared on the deck and sauntered down the rampart. She bore the classic black robes of a necromancer and was younger than Ubzlan – about middle aged – and sported long curly hair. She was tall and slender and striking.
“Mum?” Gazlan trembled.
She looked at him without emotion, her eyes danced with amber magic.
“She’s been bewitched.” Wutarl growled. “By Nunnadan sorcery!”
“Very perceptive, Orc.” Ubzlan said. “I would call you by your class and not your race, but from that display… can you really call yourself a paladin? Oh and who else do we have? A cripple and an elf bitch. Son, you have gone astray without my guidance.”
“I’ll kill you.” Gazlan said through clenched teeth. “I’ll tear your heart from your living body. I swear if you don’t release her I’ll-”
Ubzlan waved his hand and the ring of ghouls around them swarmed forward a few paces before halting.
“You’ll what?” He teased.
“Do you think this is the first time I’ve faced insurmountable odds?” Gazlan stepped forward. The grotesques twitched in challenge but Gazlan ignored them. “Do you think when mother and I fled Nunnadan that we didn’t wade through swathes of your pathetic followers? Do you think that when Grenery my father – my true father – and I fought off your search parties for years that it wasn’t dangerous? Of course it was. But I still stand. I am not some ember for you to smother under foot, old man. I am the raging fire!”
Ubzlan cocked his head again. “Did you rehearse that?”
“No, no I’m serious, I really liked it. Maybe I’ll give you a fighting chance.” He waved his arm and half of the ghouls arrayed around them fell over, dead. “Go on, entrap them to you. We will see whose fire is greater.”
Merigol, Wutarl and Vinetta shifted as the ghouls spread out to occupy the now empty spaces. Gazlan stared down his father silently.
“Oh, that’s right. You and your mother had those morals huh? The ‘old ways’. Hah! Pathetic.”
“You’re a perversion.” Gazlan seethed. “I’ll tear your head off! Release my mother!”
“Gazlan.” Wutarl grumbled. “Control yourself, he’s getting under your skin.”
“I’ll release her if you ensnare one soul to its corpse. Go on, my boy. Just one.”
Gazlan twitched. “Release her!”
“Gazlan.” Merigol said. “Get a hold of yourself, we can’t pull through if you don’t.”
“Come here Lilerna.” Ubzlan beckoned to her and she sidled up to him, wrapping her arms around his waist and resting her chin on his shoulder. “Give me a kiss.”
Wordlessly, she obliged.
Gazlan screamed and charged forward with his sword held high. The grotesques roared and rushed to engage him as the ghouls charged his companions. He heard the telltale click and splatter of Merigol’s scatter bow, the crack of Vinetta’s vines and the bellowing of Wutarl.
He ignored it all and made a line for Ubzlan and his mother.
The first charging grotesque – standing head and shoulders above him – swiped out with a mutated claw. Gazlan ducked and stabbed its gut. The rune’s on the blade did their work and severed the bond between the souls and the monstrous form. It collapsed a bloated mess and Gazlan leaped off its corpse to slash through the next.
So much easier without having to chant and make gentle contact, he realised.
The third grotesque shifted out of Gazlan’s reach and shot its claw into its own belly. It wrenched and lobbed a handful of putrid guts. Gazlan ducked under it and rolled, scooping up a handful of dust in his hand which he pulsed with necromancy. He came up and fired the dead matter at the grotesque like a lance. It tore through its head and it toppled over in a writhing mess without senses to use.
Gazlan reached the pontoon, panting. A horde of ghouls tried to leap from the ship which was drifting away and splashed into the black waters. Ubzlan cocked a brow as Lilerna, his mother, looked on with disinterest and amber glazed eyes.
“Perhaps you are a raging fire, boy. The last time I saw you, you were this snivelling little brat. Now… Well, except for the puny morals you are your father’s son.”
“You’re right. I am just like the man who raised me.” Gazlan spat and flourished his blade.
“And you did not raise him in return?” Ubzlan laughed, “How rude. Would you raise your companions if they fall?” He gestured behind Gazlan who looked over his shoulder in a moment of foolishness.
He caught a glimpse of Merigol hiding behind Wutarl as he loaded his scatter bow. Wutarl had cut a swathe through a handful of ghouls and had produced his whirring drone to rise and shine gentle sunlight upon the skirmish. It gave Vinetta the breathing room she needed to conjure the weeds and roots in the village to shift and entangle the ghoul’s ankles so that they could be cut down with ease.
“What a peculiar paladin you have there.”
Gazlan turned back to see that Ubzlan had closed the distance between them and was standing a foot from his face. He screamed and swung with his sword, only for his mother leap into the narrow gap between them.
His stroke hesitated, long enough for the ghouls in the water to scramble up onto the pontoon. Gazlan swore and retreated as he heard Ubzlan speak into Lilerna’s ear.
“Show them what you can do, my love.”
She snarled and lunged after Gazlan in tandem with the swarming ghouls. She summoned a cloud of dead matter to her arm and launched it at Wutarl’s drone, shattering the paladin’s light. The ghoul’s from the water surged into the melee without it to keep them back.
The Rose Squad had barely recovered from dispatching the other ghouls and now had the second wave upon them. Wutarl bellowed and charged straight into them, carving a path past Gazlan’s frantic duel with his mother and barrelling straight for Ubzlan who looked on with keen interest.
Merigol ran out of bolts and swore, bludgeoning the first ghoul to reach him with the butt of his weapon. His mechanically enhanced limbs provided him as much strength and ferocity as the crazed undead but he had to pivot on his undamaged leg.
Vinetta traced a path in Wutarl’s wake and assisted Gazlan. He was falling back under the flurry of jabs and slashes that his mother conjured from the molecules of dead matter.
“I can’t face her!” Gazlan cried.
“Take out the ghouls!” Vinetta answered, “I’ll fight this battle for you!”
Gazlan broke from the melee and rushed to Merigol’s aid who was quickly becoming overwhelmed.
Upon the pontoon Wutarl reached Ubzlan and he struck with hammer and axe. With the grace of a swan Ubzlan glided around the blows, falling back onto the pontoon as Wutarl smashed it to bits.
“Why not strike me with your light, Paladin? Are you afraid it’ll be as useless as your initial attack?”
“I’ll snap your neck with my bear hands, Necromancer.”
Ubzlan dodged another strike. “But don’t you feel betrayed that your companion is my son? I’m sure you have questions.”
“He’s displayed his good nature like you’ve displayed your evil. I will help him, and smite you!”
“You would see my way of things if you gave me a chance!” Ubzlan laughed as he evaded another strike. “Here, let me show you how I see things!”
He weaved his hands and amber magic swirled between them. He clasped his hands around Wutarl’s face and chanted in strange tongues.
“You!” Wutarl roared and then went silent.
Back at the brawl, Vinetta wrapped her vine around Lilerna’s leg and tripped her over. Lilerna shot out a lance of dead matter in response which grazed Vinetta’s shoulder. With a cry she collapsed to the ground. A moment later Lilerna had scrambled on top of her and the two became embroiled in a bitter grappling match. While struggling, Lilerna summoned her necromancy and raised the ghouls that Ubzlan had released. They twitched and moaned as they rose.
Gazlan slashed at the last of Ubzlan’s ghouls and paled when he saw the third wave rising to shamble into the fray.
“I’ll hold them off!” Merigol panted, having the time to load another magazine into his scatter bow. “You help Wutarl!”
Gazlan looked down the pontoon to see Wutarl writhing in the amber grip of Ubzlan. “No!” He charged down the rickety pontoon.
He was too late.
Wutarl’s writhing went limp and then he rose calmly. He commanded his damaged drone to drift down and Ubzlan stood atop of it. It floated him out over the waters to the receding ship. Wutarl stood dumbly as he commanded the drone.
“You’re exposed now you filth!”
Gazlan summoned another pulse of dead matter to his arm and massed it into a solid lance. He took aim at his father who watched on unperturbed, except for a slight hint of discomfort from the paladism powering the drone.
“You’ll get one shot, my boy.” He called out.
“One shot is all I’ll need!”
“Not if you want to save your friends!” Ubzlan pointed back to the village and Gazlan stupidly looked again.
He saw Merigol about to be overwhelmed by his mother’s ghouls. He saw his mother standing over a defeated Vinetta, raising a blade of nercromanced matter strike the killing blow.
“One shot!” Ubzlan echoed. “Choose!”
Gazlan watched in horror, seeing it all unfold in slow motion. On one side, his father – the man responsible for The War of the Damned and his and his friend’s torment – escaping while Wutarl stood by bewitched.
On the other side, Merigol and Vinetta slaughtered, with a slim chance that Ubzlan would free his mother afterwards. He would still need to fight her. He heard Merigol cry in fear, saw Vinetta flinch and cover her face.
The choice would break him either way. Achieve his goal and still probably lose his mother, or save Merigol and Vinetta – the woman he loved.
In a heartbreaking moment, he acted.
He turned from Ubzlan, and fired his lance of necromancy at Lilerna.
It tore through the air with darkness and green pulses of light. It pierced Lilerna’s chest and knocked her back before she struck the blow. The ghouls about to overwhelm Merigol collapsed. Vinetta peered through her fingers to see her end had been postponed.
Gazlan collapsed onto his knees and screamed out in agony.
Ubzlan laughed. “I honestly did not expect that!” The drone flew over the ship that was now fading into the fog of the coming morning and he released Wutarl.
Wutarl grunted and dropped the drone. Ubzlan landed safely on board.
“I’ll tell you what, Gazlan!” He yelled through the fog and smoke. “Meet me at the Dwarf Islands. Fight with me and the last contenders in this war. And you’ll get another chance for vengeance!”
Gazlan rounded and bellowed into the sea. “I’ll find you! I’ll find you and every other necromancer who fancies themselves a tyrant and I’ll tear the life from the lot of you!” His voice cracked, spittle hung from his mouth. “I’ll make sure you all pay!”
“Gazlan” Wutarl mumbled, shaking his head. “What happened?”
Without answering he sprinted down the dock, past Vinetta and skidded to his knees besides his dying mother.
“Mum.” He mumbled breathlessly. “Mum, it’s me. I thought you were dead.”
Between the confused glances and pained expressions there was a moment of recognition in her eyes. The amber sorcery faded and she stared in disbelief, a faint smile formed. She reached out with her hand, caressed his cheek and breathed her last breath.
All he could do was watch in horror as the life left her and she slumped back in his arms.
“No.” He said. “No no no no no.” He broke down over her body as the Rose Squad gathered around him.
“Gazlan.” Vinetta held him. “I’m so sorry.”
“We have to go.” Merigol said. “The army is moving in from the south.”
Wutarl looked up to see the columns of torch light moving around the ridge on the coast and marching up the beach. “They’ll think you are The Terror. Gazlan,” He growled. “We must away.”
“No.” He looked up, many of the ghouls still twitched and rasped under the coming morning. “No I have to free the ghouls that Ubzlan still commands. I have to, I can’t leave them here. They’re in pain.”
“There’s no time.” Vinetta squeezed him. “They will be free once we finish our quest.”
“No.” He said weakly. “No.”
Wutarl dragged Gazlan from the ground. He did not resist. The battered Squad made for a dingy tied to the pontoon. Gazlan simply watched his mother’s body amidst the chaos as he was pulled along, all alone in the dead village.
They loaded into the dingy and cast off. Wutarl pulled another drone from his pack and placed the propellers in the water. He tied it in place and charged it with a beam of light. It whirred to life and the boat pushed away from the village and into the foggy dawn.
“I failed.” Gazlan said. “I thought she was dead. I just went about my task slowly instead of going after her.”
“You didn’t fail Gazlan. You freed her. She saw that you were free in the end. She would have been happy.” Vinetta held him in close.
“I could have saved her if I ensnared those ghouls.” He choked. “If I just used the full horror of my power.”
“She would not have wanted you to do that.” Merigol said. “It’s like what you said about my Sinan. It would have been a perversion. It’s why we’re on this quest, to end this war and free those souls.”
“I was always in it just to get to Ubzlan. I’m just a selfish failure. And I let my own mother die!” He bellowed. “I lied to you about my family. I, I…”
“Gazlan.” Vinetta squeezed tighter. “This may have begun as a quest to serve your own justice. You may have hid those dark secrets about your father. But none of us judge you for that. You have done much good. You gave us three here a purpose after our lives were ruined, took us in on your journey when you could have just left us to wallow in our own failures. You have selflessly dedicated yourself to the hard path, you have struggled to free the enslaved souls of the land. You put your own life on the line just to free one ghoul when we first met… I think that’s why I love you.” She leant in and kissed him.
He shuddered, he tried to push her from him in his shock and grief but she held on tighter. He finally relaxed and fell into the kiss.
She pulled back just enough to speak. “I think I’ve loved you from the moment I gave you my rose seeds.” She finally said. She placed her hand on his heart. “I think I realised when I mended your heart. Now it’s our turn to save you. We will help you carry this grief. Like you helped me carry the loss of my forest.”
“The loss of my love.” Merigol confirmed.
“The loss of my order.” Wutarl growled.
“We are going to do this together.” She embraced him tightly again.
Merigol shifted in and hugged them too. After a moment – and a prolonged sigh – Wutarl scooped them into a mighty bear hug.
“I love you too.” Gazlan said weakly to Vinetta. “I love you all.”
“We’re family.” Merigol said.
“A clan.” Wutarl growled.
They relaxed their embrace. “So what now?” Merigol asked.
Vinetta kissed Gazlan again and looked out into the brightening fog. She pulled Gazlan’s hood down for him and caressed his head. “Now we end this fucking war.”
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