They followed the trail back, west and then south, off the plateau. The occasional scrape of bone dust and freshly turned stone promised they were less than a day behind those responsible for the horror behind them. But Persephone’s wounded pony had to move slowly, and it cost them time.
Ramdas called from the lead. “Tch. We missed them on their way back by less than three kilometers.”
“Had a ridge-line in between us. We didn’t see them, they didn’t see us, Lieutenant,” Helga pointed out.
“Si. The luck of bastards and fools. Caballero Blackthorne. You’ve had time to think of what you have seen, yes? Speak to us of it,” Ramdas said, as weary hooves and feet found careful purchase down the slope.
Heather cleared her throat, eyes half-closing as she stewed over the memories. Her hand reached out to touch Njorn’s neck underneath her, as much for her own reassurance as the horse’s. The Major’s proud mule followed without need of a guide-rope, sticking close to his herd of mares.
“Friar Tomlin was the first turned, sir. He was dead before we found him. Dry eyes weren’t reflecting back his candle, and his eyes had started to go cloudy by the time we saw him. Major Weathers’ bullets through the Friar’s head and heart didn’t draw blood. Bleeding needs a beating heart. Also, there was a bone removed from the back of Friar Tomlin’s neck, the third vertebrae. It’s why his neck was looking squat. I’m not sure why they removed the bone, but I’ve got a theory. I think it’s a conduit, somehow. Necromancers controlling the dead from afar.”
Helga’s eyes hardened, though she held her peace. Persephone was staring glumly at her hands, no doubt replaying the death of her Major in her mind. Ramdas only nodded, so Heather continued:
“Part that bothers me most, Lieutenant, isn’t the magic. Clever necromancer can store spells in their creations, imbue them like a rune. It doesn’t break the rules, because it’s the necromancer’s will and emotion that forms the flows, and the corpse just stores them. Could have been that, easy. What bothers me, sir, is the conversation.”
“Yes, sir. Friar Tomlin knew Major Weathers. Recognized him, spoke with him, responded to questions. Usually if the dead can talk at all, it’s whatever the bastard responsible decided they would say in advance, and only that. It’s possible they informed themselves before they headed up here, but… well sir. It doesn’t seem like it was pre-determined. And the Friar was showing emotion.”
The centaur nodded, his puzzled frown deepening as he absorbed her words. “Trust in your heart, caballero. Why does the conversation bother you so?”
Heather gave the reins of her pony an irritable flick. “That’s just it, sir. I’m not sure. It’s not right. When I smashed in the Friar’s face, he got a look to him, just for a moment, like he was relieved. I’ve never seen undead do anything like that before. Either they’re automatons, like the skeletons and corpses, or they’re ghasts and nothing but emotion. And then there’s binding the rest of the corpses to magic through the corpse of the Friar. That isn’t just a lazy decision either, sir. It’s a stupid one.”
“And you think these men clever?” said the centaur, in an arch tone.
“They’re lazy, sir, but smart and lazy men work any craft efficiently, right? What I think, sir, is they didn’t enchant all those corpses. I think they just imbued Friar Tomlin and moved on. And then they left him to turn the rest of the people. Compulsion magic to call them all to the chapel, all at once. Or maybe he just rang the church bell. After that, who knows. The most likely cause of death was asphyxiation. Deep compulsion magic can do that. Leaves behind a corpse in perfect condition.”
“Recruiting,” came Persephone’s hollow voice.
Heather shivered. “Doesn’t make much sense to leave that many corpses for long. With how cool it is, you might get a week before the bloat and rot sets in. If it got colder, with all that flesh on, they’d freeze, and be useless. Matthewson’s got the right of it. They took the whole town for recruits. Maybe reinforcements. And unless they meant to try to take native villages, I think if we hadn’t stopped them then, they’d probably be marching now, or soon. While they’re still fresh enough to get in close to town, to look like refugees from a distance.
“I think that’s why they kept the Friar’s neckbone. Make it a fetish, a totem, something to keep a link back to his body. Maybe control him at a great distance. They give the order, he carries it out.”
Ramdas pursed his lips, his anger and horror heating his tone. “How many of these… secondaries, could a skilled necromancer hold?”
Heather shook her head miserably. “I don’t know, sir. Maybe as many as he’s got the bones for.” Her arms waved around her in the air as her voice rose. “I can’t even make out yet what he’s doing! I’m doing my best on what little I know, sir. Half of what I’ve told you should be impossible, and if you’d asked me a few days ago I’d have said so. Whatever’s happening here, sir, it’s new. We’ve got catalogues of necromantic activities going back since the founding of the church, and there’s nothing like this in them!”
“We will send a report to the Cathedral of Bastia as soon as we arrive. Squire Norris!” Pramath turned his upper body, staring hard at the squire.
The squire rode up alongside Ramdas, the centaur’s firm tone putting a little steel into the young man’s backbone. “Sir?”
“Squire, the moment we arrive at the town, you will take to the Sending Gate. Go immediately to Bastia. You have been to the capital of Montaigne before, yes?”
The squire shook his head.
“I served in and around Bastia all my life, sir,” Heather offered. “I could go.”
“No. We need you here. Your eyes are needed more than his tongue.” Ramdas looked back to the squire. “Squire Norris, upon arrival, ask directions to the high basilica. Or if that fails, simply look for the tallest church spire on the horizon.”
“Find a Paladin or officer there, and report everything you have seen here, the Major’s death, and Caballero Blackthorne’s analysis. Write it down, so you do not forget,” continued the Lieutenant. “Tell them we request orders and reinforcements. Have the Sending charged to the Cathedral, martial emergency fare. Commanding officer authorized.”
“In my saddlebags, Squire,” prompted Heather. “I’ve got some paper you can use.”
The squire went rummaging through the saddlebags on her pony, pulling out the sheaf of paper Heather had purchased on the boat, and a bit of charcoal. Norris’ face was paler than usual under his blonde locks. The rates of the merchant guild for military transport were legendary. But what was the cost of a year’s worth of a squire’s wages against the lives of a town?
The squire repeated back Ramdas’ order, and fell back into line, his hand furiously scribbling over the paper. Heather looked over his notes, and nodded once in approval. “Good memory, Squire,” she grunted. “You should consider going Detective, with a memory like that. You got it all. Put it in the hands that count.”
“Yes, ma’am!” said the young man. “Do you want me to run my horse ahead?”
“No,” Heather said. “If you’re spotted alone you’ll be vulnerable. If our enemy has any sentries, a lone squire galloping in from the north like a messenger is too important to ignore. We need to make sure that message makes it. Stick with us until the town is in sight. Norris, you understand how important this could be?”
“Yes ma’am,” said Norris. His blue eyes were clear and steady, and his tone serious.
Heather blew out a breath. “Good lad.”
They made camp at dusk. Heather and the squires made their rounds around the horses, checking feet and hooves, checking for cracks and damage caused by so much travel on stone. Ramdas endured the same check with as much grace as worn, weary nerves could muster. He held still as Heather filed out a chip in his right foreleg’s hoof.
“If you’re going to ride on stone like this, sir, there’s no help for it, you’re going to need proper shoes for your hoofs. You’ve beat your feet all to hell.”
Ramdas twisted his body to peer at her, incredulity on his face. “Caballero, I am no common piece of livestock to have barbarian’s iron hammered into my body every second month. Tch. I will have proper boots made.”
Heather blinked. “I hadn’t thought of that. You didn’t bring any when you came here?”
The stallion looked away. “The conditions of my sending were abrupt. I had not the time to take many things, useful or precious.”
“I know that feeling. I can fit my whole life into a rucksack now.”
“Si. I as well.”
It should probably be a squire’s job, thought Heather as she trimmed the ragged edge of the centaur’s hoof. But like he said, he’s not livestock. I wouldn’t trust my feet to them either. At least I grew up on a ranch.
“Caballero, the Captain’s coat and all of its great wards. How did they not protect him, in the end? Why would he not allow at least one to trigger?” The centaur’s voice was very quiet, for Heather’s ears alone.
Heather drew a long breath, hating the clarity of her memory. The moment the Captain fell screaming was fresh in her mind, and the terrible crunch of teeth on flesh and bone that followed.
“They didn’t have time to do much, sir. He went down, he went under, he got piled on. I think in that moment he understood that coat wouldn’t save him. I’m not even entirely sure runes like that are meant to save anybody.”
“Hm. You think perhaps, runes for vengeance?”
“Or corpse denial. Probably both. Like you and Persephone said yesterday, I think the instant he went down under that mass, he knew he had to keep the runes from killing the rest of us.”
Heather made a frustrated sound as she trimmed a bit more ragged hoof free with the knife. “We got caught in an enclosed space. They already had their bony hands around our shields, or Helga or I would have dropped it down like a guillotine. Break the arm that first grabbed him. And you called it yesterday: Hindsight says we should have breached the door and tried to lure them out into the open right from the start. But that’s hindsight.”
A sick feeling welled up in Heather. “Sometimes we do our best, and people still die anyway, Lieutenant.”
The words weren’t any more comfortable for Ramdas. The centaur’s face turned sorrowful, and he nodded. “Gracia,” he murmured, as he set his trimmed hoof down on the stone.
Helga cooked the oats that night, over Heather’s objections: “You’ve had your hands and eyes busy enough. Give a lass a chance to feel useful too, dearie. We’ve a long road tomorrow, and a fight at the end of it, if there’s any luck left us. I’ll make us some good Kamzite home cooking.”
Which turned out to be boiled sausages in boiled oats, sorely in need of some pepper and rosemary, in Heather’s opinion. But she hid her scowl in her bowl, grateful as she was for the break.
Persephone ate with the same mechanical focus of every meal presented to her, without outward sign of disappointment or enjoyment.
Heather thought back to the fight, and the way Persephone had fought to keep Ramdas safe of Friar Tomlin’s spell. “Lieutenant Matthewson, that thing you used to cut Tomlin’s spell. He said you had a relic?”
Persephone looked up over her bowl, and after a moment’s hesitation drew out the amulet. In the dusk light, it was a scrap of silvered tin about the length and width of a man’s thumb. Letters had been etched into the amulet by a crude implement.
Heather leaned forward to inspect the writing, reading out loud: “By an olive tree I wait.” She looked from the scrap of tin on its chain, to Persephone, and back to the amulet again. “You’re a member of the Reliquary?”
“Yes,” said Persephone. “I keep the stories. This is the necklace of Saint Brumelia.”
Heather shook her head. “I don’t know that one, I’m afraid.”
“She was martyred, defending the Reliquary of Martinet four centuries ago. In her dying she drove back the magic of forty-five bandits against the gates, singlehandedly. When the wall collapsed around her, and trapped her, she fought on, in pain and slowly dying. She fought for three days, allowing time for reinforcements to arrive and break their siege. She died, holding this amulet, without a single treasure of the faith lost.”
“What does the inscription mean?” asked Heather.
Persephone’s face gradually came alive as she answered, the passion in her voice sending gentle breezes whipping at the campfire’s flame.
“Her husband was a common guard of the town. An olive farmer, by trade. It was her dying message to her husband, scratched into the tin by the edge of the same rocks that crushed her. She gave her life to protect the faithful, and defied evil. And while doing so her last thoughts and deeds were for the one she loved. She knew if she had fallen in her defense, her husband might have been next. The inscription was from a verse, it goes:
“On sundown of this eve,
By an olive tree I wait,
and by one good fruit
do I bear you an orchard
given time, good fortune, and fate.”
Heather blew out a shaky breath. The exhalation carried flickering embers from her mouth, and left the taste of ash on her tongue. “Serves me right for asking,” she said, scrubbing at an eye.
“Aye, dearie,” said Helga softly. “You don’t see many relics with happy stories. Turn back the magic of that many fierce bandits on your own, that strength of heart has to come from somewhere.”
“Faith is enough for some,” said Persephone, her voice once more settling into her monotone chill. “Saint Brumelia had her miracle recognized by many that day. There was no question, to fight back the malice of forty-five by her own heart, that was nothing anyone could do without the blessings of the Saints and Divine. She is one of the patron saints of the Reliquary. When I hold her amulet high, I know in my heart that if she can find the strength to turn back the evil of forty-five, I can find the strength to stop at least one.”
Ramdas gave Persephone a grateful nod over the fire.
“Is it a focus, too?” asked Heather. “It looks too simple to shape flows on its own.”
Persephone shook her head. “No,” she said. “It’s just a humble scrap of tin with some scratches and a story attached. Most of the finest relics are ordinary things. What they make us feel, how much their story makes us feel, that’s what matters.”
And that’s why they chose you for the job, Heather realized. Not because you can control your emotions. But because of how much you can move others when you stop controlling them. After so long iced in, every time you can tell the story of a relic, you can finally let it all out. Sweep up others in the tale. So if you have to issue a relic to someone, and the all-important story along with it, you know they’re going to remember it. You know they’ll feel the power of it. Big feelings means big magic.
They finished supper, and doubled up on the watch, ensuring Heather’s watch would be the last of the night. The rest of the journey was one of tense silence, broken only by the occasional calls when the track was lost, and found once more. But it was all little more than diligent pretense. The path led inexorably back towards Frostmoor Bay.
The morning sunrise shone over the Bay, and the quiet of the summer ocean nudging the rocky shore. An unfamiliar flock of small white shorebirds, barely more than white fluttering specks to Heather’s eye, wheeled and glided high over the town and docks.
“Trail splits here, sir,” said Helga, hopping down to stare at the rocks. Heather hopped off her pony to squat next to her, their eyes studying the sudden scattering of bone-marks on stone. Where before there was a solid, easy trail to track, it now fanned out. Each individual track proved more difficult to follow along the thin tundral grasses and rocks.
Heather spat into the dirt and swore. “They’re splitting up, dispersing, sir,” she called to Ramdas. “Probably to find places to hide in every damn gully and hill. If they’re smart, they’ll set the skeletons to bury themselves until called.”
Ramdas snarled something profane in his native language, and wheeled on his hooves to stare at the horizon, and the town below.
Frostmoor looked business-as-usual. Townspeople walked in the streets, natives carried their mounds of furs on their backs. There was no unusual smoke or fires, nor signs of violence. Smoke from the chimneys, thank the Saints, thought Heather.
“How fresh is the trail, Caballero?”
Helga and Heather looked at each other, and shrugged. “Can’t be more than a couple hours, sir,” said Helga. “Probably arrived just before sunup and dispersed.”
Ramdas frowned. “We ride into town together. Answer no questions, stop nowhere. Until we have reported to our superiors and received orders, we will not discuss the town, yes?”
“What if folks go up to visit family or friends there, Ramdas?” asked Persephone.
“Then we have that many days to act before the word spreads and difficult questions arise, such as why there is a burned chapel behind us!” pointed out Ramdas, his voice rising. “So we send for help and in the meanwhile we do our jobs. Which is to protect the people from this filth!”
He was shouting, now, red creeping into his face, veins appearing around his forehead. Persephone had frozen, relying on feigning that impermeable, cold calm. Helga looked angry, offended by the centaur’s bellowing. The squires had both taken steps back on their horses, pale-faced in the face of the centaur’s inhuman fury.
But it was Heather who rose to her heels, and stepped forward. “Damned right,” she said, hand grasping the hilt of her mace.
“Pardon, Caballero Blackthorne?” asked the centaur, his head whipping her way.
Exactly like those roosters, just waiting for their turn in the cockfighting ring. He’s spoiling for the fight. He’s acting out this way, because he needs a target for all his anger. He needs to avenge what happened in Saint-Cielle. But he’s got his anger pointed the wrong damned way, Heather thought
“I said damned right, sir!” barked Heather, slapping her mace’s handle. “We know they’re here. They probably know we’re here. So we smoke them out, sir, without setting the town to gossip and warning. If they don’t know they’ve lost their town’s worth of reinforcements, we don’t tell them. Not before we can help it.”
“Precisely!” shouted the centaur, spreading his arms dramatically, glaring around.
“There’s no argument, sir,” said Helga, and it was the first time Heather could recall hearing the dwarf’s tone turn waspish.
It took the centaur a second to realize there was in fact no argument, not even from Persephone. He went from angry to flummoxed, looking back and forth at the knights around him. And then he took a long breath, exhaled a long stream of fiery sparks into the air, and let his arms drop.
“Pardon,” he muttered. “Come. We ride. Squire Norris! To the Sending circle. Go. We return to the chapel. Blackthorn, Matthewson, you will patrol the city on foot upon return. Eyes open for surprises as we approach.”
They mounted up, eyes scanning the tundra hills leading down to the ocean as they rode. Norris rode steadily into town ahead of them at a brisk canter. Good lad, thought Heather. Fast pace to get there, but not so fast as it will attract attention. Any eye that means to see us is going to see us approach. No sense in raising their alarm if we can help it.
Her eyes followed his horse as he rode ahead of them down the trail into town, turned the corner towards the Sending Gate, and was lost to her gaze by intervening rooftops. Heather’s eyes were not the only ones of her party who waited to see the distinctive flash of the Gate activating.
“Saints speed you, dearie,” murmured Helga.
They had just reached the edge of town when there came a crackling boom from the Gate, and the sky tore open.