The tracks zigged and zagged along the rocky plateau, evidence of the skeletons searching as they moved north. Four hours’ travel north towards Saint-Cielle revealed three more burial mounds disturbed along the way. Each had been raided, and each added to the trail of marks that bony feet left on rock. Heather’s already sour mood deepened after every grave.
The burial mounds had all revealed chalky scratches on the stones. Each mark bore testament to the bony hands that had flung rocks off of bodies, and scavenged the remains.
Heather crouched beside Weathers on the barren plain, staring at the path ahead.
“How many bodies by now, Major?” she asked.
“At least fifteen, could be twice that,” said Weathers, running his fingertip along a rock and the pale white marks that bones had left in their passing. “Haven’t counted a bootprint in a while.”
“Strides get longer too, Major. Pushes the rocks around more,” noted Heather. She gestured to an overturned stone that had bounced about four feet from its original resting place. “So they sped up, and took on a load. I think our bastard is riding them.”
“Riding them?”, Persephone broke in. Her voice was indignant, and her tone horrified at the thought. “Like a mount?”
“Probably pick-a-back, or two each carrying them,” said Heather. “Skeletons aren’t usually strong enough to manage it alone, but two or more probably could. It would let them travel about twice as fast over this terrain as we do, if you don’t mind risking your neck on a rock.”
“Wouldn’t that be a sweet turn of luck,” grunted the Major. “Our necromancer dead of his own sloth.”
Heather grimaced. “Luck favors bastards and fools,” she muttered.
Persephone began cursing, each word accompanied by the clatter of ice spat from her lips to the ground. “Riding the dead like beasts. It’s bad enough they raise them!” With her outburst came a savage gust of wind that blew around her cloak and hair. She bit her lips, and fought to smooth her face out.
“We don’t have time for this, Matthewson. Get on your horse,” said Weathers.
Persephone bit her lip again. The wind picked up around her, whipping her hair and ripping her cloak off her shoulders. Her pony spooked at the flapping cloak, and then shied away when she reached for his reins. Then Persephone lunged for the saddle, and the pony cantered out of reach.
A frustrated sound escaped Persephone, and hoarfrost began to dribble from her chin like rabies foam. It flaked away as she scrubbed at her face, gone abruptly hot with embarrassment.
“Saints damn it, come back here!” she shouted at the horse. But the last word was lost to her own rising gale. The horse shied a few steps further away, his ears back in fear. Flows of uncontrolled magic whipped wind around Persephone. Little bits of snow and ice began leaking from her eyes and mouth, dropping onto the ground around her.
Major Weathers turned his attention back from the horizon. He fit Matthewson with a look generally reserved for the tantrums of someone else’s children. “Stand back, give her some space,” he said.
“Persephone, please don’t,” pleaded Helga, her voice disappointed and distraught. “Pull yourself together, dearie. Now’s not the time.”
Persephone went rigid at Helga’s pleading, her fists clenching shut. The frosty bubble of her ward snapped up around her.
“It’s never the saints-damned time!” shouted Persephone. “Stupid horse!”
Her shouting only served to frighten the horse more. It dashed away about a hundred meters, before it turned back to stare at her.
Here we go, thought Heather, edging her horse back. A bubble of space began clearing around Persephone, as knights and squires fell back at the Major’s order. Lieutenant can’t help it now. Seen my boy melt down enough, before. Tired, scared, sore from the road. Probably hungry, probably slept badly. And you clearly aren’t used to a circuit ride, Matthewson. All those feelings, and you can’t let a single one out without the magic coming, can you? You never could.
Matthewson turned away from the group, her entire body taut. She was the picture of a losing battle against the tide of her own fraying temper. Head down, fists clenched, every hard exhalation blasting out a gale of wind that kicked up bits of sand and grit. Helga was gesturing with her hands, face anguished, still trying to plead with the Lieutenant. But the words were lost to the noise of the gale escaping, with the wild magic rushing from Persephone’s every breath.
Heather could feel Persephone’s raw and poorly shaped flows in her own lungs, like the urge to wheeze and empty herself in a scream. She frowned in sympathy.
Persephone’s wrapping the noise of the wind around her like a blanket, Heather observed. Keeping Stengrav’s voice out, keeping the world out. At least the Lieutenant’s still in control enough to aim it away from us. Go blow it out, Matthewson. Maybe a little for all of us. We’ve all got some dread in our bellies by now. But then you get back on your horse and do your job, like the rest of us. We’ve got promises to keep.
It was Ramdas who broke the moment. The centaur trotted up beside Persephone through the chill bubble of her ward. He took her gently by her wrist, and gave a slow, insistent pull. Persephone’s eyes snapped up to the centaur’s, too shocked to be furious.
“Vien. Come,” he said, his voice gentle in the abrupt stillness. He led her off, away from her spooked horse and the group, picking his way with her across twenty yards of the plateau. He came to a stop, and gestured to a large rock.
“La. Or pick one, Matthewson. Give it all to that one you choose. You carry too much. You are allowed, here. It is permitted. But you must give yourself permission.”
Heather’s breath caught. Pramath knows what’s ripping her up better than any of us, she realized. He’s been here before, and paid the price for losing his grip on his own temper.
Persephone stared at him, poleaxed, as his words sunk in. A shudder ran through her, twice. Then she nodded, and her face crumpled. She turned to face the indicated rock, doubled over, and wailed.
Ice and wind blasted from her throat. Jagged pieces of frost caught at her lips, flicking bits of red out among the stream of ice-blasted white. She screamed, and spears of ice as long as Ramdas’ body shot from her mouth. They erupted from her eyes, flung themselves from her face. Where they fell, they shattered against the ground in a pile of discarded frustration.
The wind ripped around her, and slammed into the mass of ice and stone. Her wild magic kicked it across the plateau as if an invisible giant had taken umbrage to its existence. The mass of ice and rock went crashing across the plain for a few hundred metres before it all broke apart.
Persephone was left panting, chest and shoulders heaving, a few drops of blood falling from her lips. Pramath produced his handkerchief and pressed it into Persephone’s hand. She took it with a grateful nod, and dabbed at her face as frozen teardrops fell and broke on the rocks below.
Ramdas patted her shoulder, and left without a word. He retrieved her horse, and ran it back to Persephone. She took the reins with a look that was equal parts shame and gratitude, giving the centaur a tight, sincere nod.
“Thank you,” she said.
“De nada.” He trotted over to join Heather and Weathers. “Pardon for the delay, Major.”
Weathers shook his head. “If that’s quite over, let’s get a move on. Save some for the bastards responsible for having us out here,” he called to Persephone.
Persephone nodded, shame-faced, and fell into line alongside Helga once more. Helga’s face looked tight with worry.
There’s history between these two, Heather thought. This isn’t the first time Helga’s seen Matthewson lose it, not with the way she’s fussing now.
Saint-Cielle made Frostmoor Bay look like a thriving metropolis. The town, such as it was, consisted of eight buildings. Seven were little more than stone cottages, all standing in a loose circle. In the center was a humble wooden chapel.
Village this small, chapel likely doubles as a town hall, school, hospital, and everything else, Heather thought. Must have had to haul wood a long way to build here.
They paused at the southern ridge of the plateau overlooking the town. The sun hung low in the west. It cast deep orange light across the rocks and lichen, and the low scrub that grew on the south-facing slopes.
Heather stared at the distant town. “Bone marks turn away from the village here, sir. Tracking west. Got a good bootprint over here. Different one from the campsite, looks like. Still not a native boot, though.”
The Major dismounted to inspect the trail, and crouched down alongside Heather. Together, they got their eyes low to the ground to see the bone marks on stone. “Skeletons go west, people go north,” Weathers said, frowning.
Heather nodded. “Yeah. At least two of them. They dismounted far enough away that the town wouldn’t see their company. So they proceed into Saint-Cielle, while their thralls go make trouble or hide until they’re called back.”
She pointed then to the town, her throat tightening. “There ain’t no motion, Major.”
“No fires burning, either. Check the chimneys,” replied Lieutenant Matthewson. Her hand was over her eyes, squinting to block out the glare of the setting sun.
A cold, sickly feeling began to gnaw in Heather’s belly. Tension climbed up her throat, and tugged her jaw into an involuntary grimace. She drew her mace, and dismounted. “Major,” she said, pointing. “Water bucket.”
A single wooden water bucket lay on its side, near the stream that ran along the western edge of the hamlet. It had lain there long enough for the contents of the bucket to dry. The stones around the mouth of the bucket showed no sign of spilled water.
Looks like someone just dropped what they were doing, Heather thought.
“Dismount,” growled the Major. “Squires, horses back, two hundred yards. Knights, get your weapons and shields out. We do this door by door. With ground this flat, we’re not going to surprise anyone anyway. Watch your flanks and keep your wards ready.”
Knights and squires dismounted. The squires drew the horses back as ordered, while knights checked each other’s armors dutifully, snapping shut clasps and tugging on straps. Ramdas checked Heather’s armor and gauntlets, and she squared his barding, helping him shrug it back on. Everyone kept a wary eye towards the silent buildings as they prepared, expecting the worst. There was no reaction or motion from the town at the arrival of the knights.
“You want to do the chapel first or last, Major?” asked Heather.
“Your call, Blackthorne. What’s your gut say?”
Heather blew out a breath. “Chapel last. If trouble comes early, I’d rather be on the outside edge of the town, than boxed in by buildings. I’d say we go door to door, breach each house, do the chapel last. East side first, so the sun’s to our backs going into the homes.”
“Sounds good. Knights, let’s go. East side, hustle. Ramdas, you’re with me, covering the team. I want you ready to run intercept, or break us a path if we get boxed in,” said Weathers.
“Si, yes sir,” said Ramdas, and he drew his rapier. His eyes scanned around them warily, as if expecting skeletons behind every rock.
“Breaching team, like we trained. Get to the east house now,” barked Weathers.
They jogged, armor clanking, chips of rock kicked up in their wake.
Sky’s mostly clear, sun’s to the west, good light for a while at least, thought Heather. Ground is dry, footing will be good. We’ll want to be done with this sweep before the sun goes down entirely. Here we go.
The little stone cabin was nondescript, and blended well into the surroundings. The homes, excepting the chapel, had plainly been built from quarried, local stone, mortared in place and shingled in thin slate slabs. There were only two windows on this home, both smaller than a book, but triple-paned. Curtains were shut over each of them.
Helga raised her hammer before the door, and Heather raised her shield. Anticipate the vectors, check your corners. If there’s skeletons in there, they’ll get hemmed in by the doorway and shields. Funnel them out, not in, so the support can take them down if we don’t.
Heather knocked twice using her shield, and waited.
No response, thought Heather, her guts sinking further.
“Breach!” shouted Weathers.
Helga’s hammer smashed the door in. Orange sunlight flooded in, revealing the small cabin to be empty. Heather glanced back at the Major, who nodded, and she advanced inside.
Her eyes scanned the home as she entered, observing everything: Home for four, living in just one room. Mother, father, and two children going by the clothes hanging up. Dolls left on a bed. Cook pot over a fire gone black and cold.
Heather’s hand hovered over the ashes, feeling for any lingering warmth. She found none. A rank smell of burned, spoiled meat hung in the air. She took it all in, stomach tightening.
“No signs of violence, but they left in a hurry. Just dropped what they were doing and left,” she called. “Supper’s burned over the fire.”
“Evacuation?” asked Persephone. “They might have seen the horde coming.”
Heather wordlessly pointed to the unstrung bow and quiver of arrows hanging beside the door.
Weathers followed her into the house, to see what she was pointing at.
“I doubt they would have evacuated without a way to hunt,” he stated, grimacing. He turned to examine the six remaining houses. His expression already said he expected to find the same in each one. “You know this tune, detective?”
Heather nodded reluctantly. “Let’s be sure.” And in the back of her mind: Please, please let us be wrong.
As they trudged to the next door, Heather frowned. I’m used to the background noises of a city, or a town. Even when people are asleep, there’s animals. Livestock. But here? No flap and coo of pigeons, no barking dogs, no cattle lowing. Town doesn’t look like it keeps any livestock. I don’t even see a chicken coop. Probably too cold up here. And certainly not enough to feed them.
This town is silent as a tomb. If there’s anything left here, it can hear us.
They breached two more doors. Each house was the same, no sign of struggle, no sign of violence. There was evidence everywhere of lives interrupted abruptly, everything left as it was. Dinners half-eaten, soapstone carvings left half-completed next to the knife. Laundry washing gone half-finished and dry in the washtub.
With each house, Major Weathers’ and Heather’s faces tightened.
In the fourth house, the moment they breached, Heather’s hand flew to her face. “Damn it. Major. Casualty here. Helga, close the door, look away. Nobody wants to see this.”
Judging by the sound of Persephone’s distress, she’d glimpsed enough already.
The little stone cottage had a crib in it, and the crib held a tiny infant, gone forever silent. Thin, silky wisps of black hair escaped out from under the little handknit cap the infant wore. Heather’s shaking hand cautiously settled atop the crib, careful not to reach in. Not trusting the dead to be dead, or the absence of a trap. She forced herself to stare, to inspect, to process it.
Ignore the screaming inside, she admonished herself. Keep it t- to- keep it together. Look. Observe. Deduce. Signs of injury? None. No blood. Cover’s only rumpled where baby kicked. Dry, cracked lips. Baby died of thirst, or exposure. Neglect. Baby’s a newborn, no older than a week or two.
Probably dead from the cold before dehydration could kill you. Gentle sleep. Never wake up. Kinder way to go. Nothing else unexpected here. Same as the rest. People just got up and left. Put down whatever they were doing, and went. And never came back.
Heather said a prayer over the crib, her eyes and hands checking for traps among the crib-wards. She discharged each rune, just to be sure. She kept her gauntlets on as she gently brushed the flies from the infant’s face, and covered the baby entirely with the little hand-made blanket.
This is a yarn blanket, Heather thought. Someone brought yarn all the way here, and dyed it. Then they crocheted it together, all for their little baby. Some mother, so excited for her baby, or some thoughtful gift from a friend or from Dad. The bastards robbed you of everything. Just like they did to me.
It took Heather a half-minute to wipe the tears from her face, and take the steadying breaths she needed. She pushed the remains of the door open again, and stepped outside. I can’t afford to lose it right now, Heather thought. Not like Persephone did. I’ve got a job to do. Do it. Go to pieces later.
“Baby is three days dead, no more. Flies barely touched her yet,” whispered Heather, once she stepped out the door. Persephone noisily vomited a stream of lunch and ice alongside the house. Helga reached out to hold Persephone’s hair.
“Died of abandonment. Hypothermia did it before the dehydration could,” Heather pronounced unhappily.
“What would make a mother abandon her own child?” cried Ramdas. He was too big to fit into the squat stone homes, and so had been left to learn the results of each search second-hand from the Major or Heather. The centaur fiddled and paced, rapier glinting in the dying light of the sun. His eyes kept darting angrily towards the chapel.
“Compulsion,” said Heather, fighting back some taste in the back of her throat, disgust and hatred rising. Ramdas took an unconscious step back from her at her tone.
Heather’s fists clenched. “It’s probably a compulsion magic, Lieutenant Pramath. Skilled mage lays it on someone unprepared? They lose their will, do their bidding. All of them, all at once, if that’s how they want it. They force the brain to do things, or even just the body sometimes. Leaves you trapped inside yourself, helpless, like a saints-damned puppet. While they-”
Lieutenant’s horrified enough, thought Heather, as Ramdas’ eyes kept widening. Helga’s too. Stop.
“- do terrible things,” she finished quietly.
Heather turned towards the chapel, her hand shaking with tension. Her mace began to glow a faint, ethereal white. Major Weathers followed her gaze, and a moment’s pause and silence fell over them all.
“They’re all in there, aren’t they?” said Persephone, her voice quavering.
“Only one way to find out,” said Heather.
“We do the rest of the homes first. No surprises,” said Weathers. “Hurry. We’re losing sunlight.”
The last house, on the north-west side, showed signs of more recent habitation. Bacon grease in the pan hasn’t sweat much yet, noted Heather. Coffee mugs have dried rings inside, but less so than the other homes. Bacon and bannock for breakfast, and no reason to do the dishes in their wake.
“Someone, two someones, were here Major,” Heather called. “Two place settings for breakfast. Chamber pot’s been used, and they helped themselves to some coffee. Looks about two days old, not three like the other homes. Bone marks by the stone around the door.”
“Looks like just one skeleton there,” agreed Weathers.
“So they beat us here by three days and leave the day after they arrived,” said Heather, scowling. “Did their dirty deeds and got out quickly. Not enough time to do a butchering job on forty people. No large trail left by forty skeletons or shambling corpses.”
“And it’s at least two people, working together,” said Weathers.
Heather nodded. “Solitary necromancer is bad enough. Organization, cooperation? That’s trouble.”
“They aren’t the cooperative sort?” asked Matthewson.
“Not usually,” Heather said. “Price of letting someone know you raise the dead is usually swinging by your neck.”
“Major,” Ramdas broke in. “I think-, si, I think I saw motion, from the little window there, in the chapel.”
Ramdas avoided staring or gesturing towards the chapel, keeping his eyes on the Major.
Good man, thought Heather. Don’t give away you saw anything yet, if they’re watching.
“Get a good look, Pramath?” asked Weathers. He likewise turned to look at the nearest house, following the centaur’s example.
“A face, the eyes were strange. I saw only from the corner of my eye, a glimpse. When I turned my head to see, it is gone. I am seeing things?”
“We should all be so lucky, Pramath,” said Weathers. “No, you’re not seeing things. But some things are seeing us. So now we know something is moving in there, and the chances of it being alive are slim.”
Heather glanced west. The last sliver of the sun was sinking below the horizon. “Sun’s down, sir. If we’re going to breach the chapel-”
“-now’s the time, Blackthorne, I know. Pramath, keep circling, watch the perimeter,” said Weathers. “Stengrav, left, Blackthorne, right, once we breach. Matthewson, behind, raise that ward as soon as we cross the threshold. All of you, check your corners.”
Heather and Helga put their shields up. They approached the door of the chapel until the edges of their shields touched the snow-bleached wood. They both gave a silent nod. Ready.
“Breach!” bellowed Weathers, and Helga swung.
The door exploded inward from the weight of the dwarf’s hammer, casting the last of the day’s light into the chapel. Heather’s eyes took in the tableau, pew upon pew filled with the silhouettes of unmoving bodies. A figure stood behind the altar’s lectern, hooded and robed.
“Pierce!” roared Helga and Heather simultaneously, as shields thrust out a wedge around either side of the door. Check my corner, Heather thought, and jerked her eyes to the darkened corner nearest her. Empty.
“Corner clear!” bellowed Heather. Helga echoed the bellow, and the Major’s guns snapped up into the gap between their shields. Weather’s pistols each cracked off a shot, sending the silhouette at the altar crumpling to the floor.
“Clear!” the Major called. Once more in unison, Heather’s mace and Helga’s hammer swept a terrible arc. Shockwaves of white fire blasted out from where their weapons hit the floor. The two nearest rows of pews went flying, limp bodies flung like ragdolls into the walls.
“Advance!” said Weathers, and they did. Two steps in, Persephone’s ward spread around them, enveloping them in the syrupy chill. Its bubble of influence expanded as her voice carried on a steady chant of litany and psalm.
For a breath and a heartbeat, silence and stillness greeted their entry. Nothing moved, nothing reacted. And then, as the sun finally slipped below the horizon, the only two candles at the altar came alive, wicks alighting on their own.
Laughter, low and husky, rose from the crumpled figure behind the altar. Cast in the light of the candles, the holes left from the Major’s guns showed his aim had been true. His hood lay askew, reavealing a neatly punched hole through the center of the laughing Friar Tomlin’s head. There was a second, black hole, clean through his heart.
Damn it, Heather thought. He’s laughing, and he’s not bleeding.
The Friar was a solid man. His densely curled strawberry blond hair peeked out from under the hood, and his sallow skin was weathered by age and hard climate. His round, broad head rested atop an oddly squat and stocky neck. His eyes didn’t reflect the candles in front of him.
“Friar Tomlin!” shouted the Major. “What have you done, here? What have you let them do?”
“Weathers!” the Friar answered, manic glee bubbling beneath his words. “So good of you to join us in our worship! But of course, put your weapons down please. This is a place of peace, after all.”
Lifting his chin, Weathers took a single step forward. “Tomlin, I’m afraid I can’t do that,” he said, forcing affable neutrality into his voice. “Seems we’ve got a problem here.”
“Problem?” the friar chuckled, raising his hands far out to either side. “Look around you, Major. What problem could there be, here? Everyone here, dear Major, is at peace. They want for nothing anymore, they fear nothing! All the troubles, great and small, that once plagued this little village?”
Tomlin gave a contemptuous flick upon a shirt sleeve, as if shedding a bit of lint. “Dust in the wind, old friend. Dust, in the wind.”
While the Major and the Friar’s corpse conversed, Heather’s eyes flickered between the unmoving bodies of the parishioners. Her gaze lingered on the children. A sick twisting was rising again in her gut, along with a growing rage that clawed at the base of her neck. Anger threatened to film her vision with blood, and her mace glowed orange-hot at the tips, begging for the excuse to be swung.
Observe, deduce. The thought floated up from the depths of her anger, hovering above the cauldron of her heart. Follow your training. Open your eyes. See everything. Lieutenant Persephone is going to break ranks if this keeps up. Not sure if she’ll run or fight, but her spear point is shaking. Helga’s standing strong. Shaken down to her toes, angry as I am, but solid as it gets. I don’t know what the Major’s expecting, talking like this. There’s nothing left of the Friar.
And how’s the Friar even talking? That’s not a message, that’s back-and-forth. That’s a conversation from the walking dead!
“You’ve fallen,” retorted the Major, staring down the sights of his gun. “You’ve brought death, not peace, to these people. And you stand here and try to justify yourself. Were you complicit in this, Friar Tomlin? Were you part of their plan? Did you help them?”
Heather’s heart seized as the head of every corpse in the pews pivoted slowly towards their group. She could feel the magic moving them like puppets, a crawling feeling as if hands were gripping her body and torquing, twisting, wrenching all around her.
Someone’s working magic, Heather thought. We’re not alone!
“Major!” shouted Heather. “Magic! Someone’s nearby!”
A sly malice crept into the Friar’s voice. “We are all part of their plan now, Weathers.”
His flows. The friar’s voice is carrying magic! He’s weav-
An explosion cut the thought short. Their shields absorbed the brunt of the blast, the protective runes shattering as they spent themselves. Helga and Heather had raised their shields in time, but the wave of force from the Friar’s spell knocked them both back, staggering.
Weaves of something filthy and Air, thought Heather as they raised their shields again. That blast was a burst of air pressure, to leave ears ringing, senses deafened and dulled. Smells like an abattoir. It’s a distraction, he’s buying time! We need more light than two candles!
Heather opened her heart, and reached out with her fury and worry for her comrades. She felt for the weight of the promise she’d sworn, time and again, for the sake of her family. Saint Aysha, she prayed. Thrice blessed, light my way. For all the families here, for every murdered soul. Help me.
Her fingers twitched against mace and shield as she felt for the weaves of the Light and the Fire.
Think of the baby, Heather willed herself. Think of the children, the parents, of what’s been taken from them.
Fury rose in Heather’s blood, and she fed it to the Fire, pulsing through her like a second, angry heartbeat. For a moment, the memory of Persephone screaming at rocks flickered through her mind, and dissolved. That hadn’t been the time. This was.
Think of the grief of their families, Heather thought, as her mace went from orange to yellow, and then to a blazing white. Smoke began to curl from the top of her gauntlet, as the heat and light scorched the leather. Think of the sorrow of the ones they leave behind. They don’t deserve this. Nobody deserves this. This should not be allowed. It will not be allowed! By St. Aysha, I will not let this stand!
The Light pulsed through Heather next, fed by her grief, her disgust, her righteous wrath.
She swung her mace up towards the ceiling joists, and a ball of radiant white light shot from the head of her father’s mace as if flung. It stuck to the ceiling, and illuminating the entire room with a dazzling burst. Rays shot out from the sphere like crossbow bolts, licking at the flesh of the undead that rose from the pews. Her magic lit the scene with the harsh, glaring white. Where the bolts of fire touched undead flesh, they smoked and burned.
Some few fell, but more continued to rise, bodies shambling and crowding towards the door. They stumbled over the upset pews and bodies around them, and some fell sprawling. They rose again, with dead eyes and placid smiles spoiled by bared teeth. Adults and children alike stumbled into a charging run, a wave of dead flesh lurching towards them.
A shriek tore from Persephone’s mouth, but it was followed by her panicked, desperate chanting. The cold bubble of the Lieutenant’s ward roiled around them, slowing the first four advancing undead. The bodies were past the stage of rigor mortis, their joints and muscles moved easily by dark magic.
Helga’s hammer cleaved an arc through the first wave, flesh pulping, slamming bodies aside. Some flew back with enough force to rebound off the weight of the charging horde. As Heather cocked her arm to swing her mace, her mind did fast mathematics: Six pews, four per pew. Twenty-four in here, plus the priest. Four down, but we’ve nowhere to maneuver!
She wrapped her anger and fear around her father’s silver mace, leaving the end of the weapon burning as if it had been dipped in oil. Heather swung for the nearest attacker, an overhead bludgeoning that left a trail of sparks in its wake. She ignored the pulping noise of a young woman’s face caving in around her mace. From below came the creak of floorboards, straining under the weight of the undead.
Her shield came up to block an undead hand clawing for her eyes. As her shield shifted to the right under the pull of dead hands, it revealed an old man’s face. It was pitted and creased with age, and held sightless eyes. Before she could adjust her shield, the old man’s hand snatched out and grasped the Major’s left gun, and pulled. Weather’s gun went off three times, spitting holes into the old man’s face. But still the dead thing pulled until the gun came free of the Major’s hand.
The dead weren’t silent anymore, grunts of effort and animalistic shrieks and growls rose from the mass. Cries of effort rose from the knights, wordless shouts from Persephone as her spear jabbed past Heather, trying to score a disabling blow on a corpse. The Major snarled, his right hand firing his gun into the mass with deafening cracks.
Helga’s shield was holding firm, but the press of the dead was close now, too close to swing her hammer. She could only shove back against the pressure of unarmored flesh that came on like an ocean wave. Corpses were lashing out mindlessly at them all, grasping for every handhold they could find.
Helga slammed the bottom of her shield against the floor, and flows of earth shot from around her feet. Spikes of stone exploded up and out through the floorboards, shattering the legs of a few of the dead, but there was desperation in the dwarf’s eyes.
She tried to make that a wall, Heather thought. But someone’s fighting her flows! It can’t be Tomlin, he’s dead!
Persephone’s spear point jabbed past Heather’s left ear, splitting the face of a young boy, no older than eight, his eyes gone milky in death. Her ward was straining, useless against the onslaught. Over the sound of crumpling flesh and splintering wood, Friar Tomlin’s voice recited a gleeful prayer, his words vicious mockery of the saints that the knights called their own.
Dead hands reached out from the mass, grasping for Heather. The mouths of the desecrated were agape in impossible hunger, seeking flesh, seeking life. Heather swung her shield, and shook off those awful hands. But more reached out, and yet more, wrapping charred or smashed fingers around the wood and iron of her shield.
“Fall ba-AHH!” screamed the Major. He toppled to the floor with a thud as his left foot was pulled out from under him. In the confusion of the battle, a strong, heavy arm had curled a hand around his ankle. The corpse was bearing a leather apron. Blacksmith, noted Heather automatically.
“Save him!” screamed Persephone, her ward collapsing. She lunged forward to blindly drive her spear into the mass of flesh. Piercing deep, no doubt, but fouling the haft as three more hands reached out of the horde to wrap around her weapon. Still other hands reached out, trying for Persephone’s arm.
Heather and Helga lunged in unison, their shields trying to support Matthewson’s desperate assault, but it was futile. The weight of a dozen bodies against their shields barely shifted from their powerful lunge. They watched helplessly as the Major was dragged back into the undead host from between them.
His screams were brief, and a wet tearing sound cut them off, as hands dug into his flesh. Heather’s last glimpse of the Major was of the blacksmith’s mouth closing around his left eye socket, biting down on something white underneath.
Helga grabbed Persephone’s breastplate, and hauled her back sharply, abandoning her shield in doing so. A young woman’s nails raked blood from Persephone’s left forearm, but failed to grasp and hold.
“Back back back back back!” Heather found herself shouting, echoed by Helga. They hauled Persephone out the door at a run.
They had scarcely cleared the threshold as the first undead began to boil out, and were met with a piercing, white line of light from Ramdas’ rapier. Three fell to the earth, but already eight more were spilling out to replace those fallen by the single, piercing shot.
“The Friar’s the target!” hollered Heather. “Watch for magic!”
“I thought the dead don’t use magic?” shouted the centaur.
“They do today!” screamed Heather.
The front wall of the chapel crumpled and failed. With a loud, crunching crack, timbers built to withstand northern gales and snows gave way. The aged, dry lumber held no chance against the combined effort of the corpses’ mindless pursuit.
The door frame buckled, and then split and burst open. Next came most of the wooden wall it was attached to, and a good portion of the roof. The timbers came falling atop the charging corpses, but hardly slowed them down. They came running, broken limbs flopping, more boiling out of every opening in the chapel like roaches.
Freed of their shields, Helga and Heather each gripped their weapons in both hands, swinging steady, measured arcs as they walked backwards. Persephone, disarmed and without a shield, scrambled to stay back of their line, her eyes wide in terror as the dead advanced.
Bodies ran towards them, and were met with expertly-timed blows, Heather and Helga ensuring the arcs of their weapons overlapped. Heather crouched and split the knee of a man, and Helga’s hammer followed through to the side of his head. The man crumpled and slid on rough stone, bloodless cuts and tears opening where skin met the ground.
“That’s it, keep running into it, ye wee nasties!” Helga snarled.
Step back, thought Heather. Swing, step back, swing. Stay out of reach of their grasp. Corpses aren’t usually as fast as the living. They’re not smart. They’ll keep walking into the blows. So whittle down their numbers. Watch the Friar!
Friar Tomlin appeared in the ruin of the doorway. With the sun down, he was little more than silhouette amongst the charging dead. But his laughter rang out, his voice carrying undisguised malice, now. “Come join the flock, faithful knights! Come join our new prayers! Piety is still a virtue, is it not?”
The Friar’s hands moved as he spoke. The burning, writhing sensation Heather felt building in her ribs didn’t change in response to his motions. He’s using his hands, but it’s his voice actually weaving the magic, Heather realized. He’s trying to disguise it. Why?
Shadows clotted around Friar Tomlin’s fingertips, coursing upwards along his arms. They rose from his shoulders, casting a silhouette above his head, a holy symbol rendered in mocking, black flame.
“Persephone!” bellowed Helga.
Lieutenant Matthewson’s hand scrabbled for her neck. There came the snap of a leather thong parting at her desperate yank. She pulled something small and metallic out from her breastplate. It glowed a watery blue.
The chanting from her lips was different now: “Saint Brumelia, thrice denier, bless us nine times. Deny us all perfidy, deliver us from evil, and deny all wicked hearts their wicked deeds.”
From the black sigil hanging over the Friar’s head, shot an obsidian, glistening line. It was segmented, and wickedly barbed, as if fashioned from vertebrae cut free of some terrible serpent. The spell whipped out into the air, and curled hard to the left, chasing the arc of the centaur’s run as Ramdas rushed to flank the throng of corpses.
When the spell was halfway there, the amulet in Persephone’s hand pulsed, a bright blue light that flickered and strobed. As if caught in freefall, the black tendril whipped back towards Persephone’s outstretched hand, slamming into the relic in her palm. Heather could feel the raging, filthy magic being drawn out, sucked into the relic’s glow, where the flows spun apart like a hair split by a razor.
Tomlin’s eyes were locked on his failing spell, his grin spreading wide until it split the flesh of his lips. “You brought me a relic? What a privilege to behold. We’ll say such prayers with it, you and I!” he called.
Heather drove her mace into the chest of a little girl, taking her clear off her feet and shredding her pretty homespun dress on the rocks. Now’s my chance, while his attention is on Matthewson. Get Pramath’s attention! Heather jabbed a finger the centaur’s way.
Ramdas nodded at Heather’s short, sharp gesture, and Heather reversed her backwards gait. She leapt forward into the open ground around the chapel, and dodged left past the clumsy tackle of a middle-aged man. Then she jinked to the right to avoid a flailing assault by an elven woman in coarse furs that tripped up her dead limbs.
Ramdas galloped in from Heather’s right, crashing bodily through the remaining corpses between her and the Friar. He bowled over bodies, and sent the corpses tumbling to the stones underneath. The centaur trampled a few under fierce hooves, then kicked another shambling corpse to the ground, leaving the gap Heather needed. He met her eye, and gave a quick, fast nod. Heather took the opportunity.
Tomlin’s eyes were still locked on the point where his spell met Matthewson and the prize in her hand. The black, segmented coil of the spell lashed left and right in the air, like a serpent with its head caught in the fork of a branch. It writhed like a millipede, straining its barbs towards Persephone at every opportunity. The lashing motion kept trying to reach her with the middle segments as the end was continually drawn into the amulet.
The Friar was wholly committed to the magical struggle, distracted by the grasp of Persephone’s magic on his own. Overhead, the black vertebral tendril thrashed, scourging the air like a thing alive. Too late did Friar Tomlin realize the intention of the centaur’s charge, as Heather sprinted forward.
Four lunging steps closed the distance, Heather’s hands aching in her death grip around her mace. She hefted the weight of steel and silver, and swung it as an extension of one pure, meteoric thought: No more!
For a moment, Tomlin looked relieved as the burning weapon rose. Then his expression changed, his lips quirking in an approving smile, and a soft, mocking whisper bubbled forth.
“Such fine, strong bones–”
Silvered steel descended. If the Friar intended to say more, it was lost to the sound of Heather’s mace.