Skydaggers north east of Seagate. First week of the month Grimshield (Late Spring)
Ibram looked at his little group of refugees. He and the peddler Peleus had managed to rescue two families and a couple of stragglers since they had found Dion in the ruins of his farm. There were only four other adults, two from the same family, one a much older farmer with his two early teen daughters and one a hunter who had wandered in on his own. The rest of the thirteen people were fourteen years or younger. There was a different story of loss written in each face. All were seated in the soft grasses with heads bowed as if praying or asleep. But after witnessing the horrors they had all survived, prayer and sleep seemed distant dreams.
They had left Peleus’ cart in the same place where Dion’s goats had been freed to graze. He knew of a nice sized box canyon that was hard to find. It had a stream and grass aplenty along with a cave where a lot of their gear had been hidden. There was even a pond where the stream tried to flow through a solid wall of stone. It was a defensible paradise, if they had enough people to hold it, and some old ruins at the open end told the tale of someone long ago thinking the same thing.
It was dawn in the mountains. A beautiful sunrise was framed by the rugged peaks. None of them really had eyes for that though. The leisure of watching sunrises and admiring the beauty of nature was lost to them, replaced by fear of shadows and creatures lurking in the receding darkness. Everyone was on the watch for more of the roaming packs of trolls that had plagued them. In the last few days, a few skeletons and zombies had even attacked. Their group had once been seventeen, but a ghoul had cost them four of their number almost two weeks ago, and they had been forced to flee. Everyone now carried lamp oil salvaged from another ruined farmhouse in case they saw him again. Flames were a decent defense against undead with flesh still on their bones, if there was any defense trapped in the great open of the wild.
As if beckoned by a silent call, everyone struggled to their feet, and the old plow horse one of the families had saved was loaded down with gear and two very small children. A llama wasn’t carrying nearly as much, and its sour expression at even that modest load made Ibram laugh just a bit every time he looked at it. Their bearing beasts were few, and with the exception of the smallest children who were carried either by beast or traded between the remaining adults, everybody walked. . Even Ibram walked beside his charger to save its strength in case they were attacked. Their progress through the wilderness was painfully slow.
Trenton the hunter had been off at first light to scout the way. He returned and waved over to the adults. Dion tagged along behind Ibram as he almost always did. His sling had been useful both in battle and hunting, and he didn’t scream as much in his sleep these days.
“Thar’s nuttin up ahead to the next holler. Smoke up past the ridge tho.” Trenton’s accent was thick enough to cut with a knife. Ibram’s city-bred ears took a second to catch up, but all the locals seemed to have no problem with it. He was slowly becoming attuned, but for the times he could not translate, Dion proudly would repeat the hunter’s words.
The group gathered themselves and finally were on the move again, heading back towards Omnire Township and imagined safety. Every farm in the area any of them knew about had been scouted in the hopes they would find survivors. They were what was left. Trenton went out ahead of the rest with an arrow knocked on his bow. His own bow, given to him by his grandfather and his grandfather before him had been snapped like a twig by the same troll who had, in that same movement, snapped his wife in half with just as much ease. He had found his current replacement among the ruins of his neighbor’s farm, knowing that no one in that family had need for weapons or things from this world again.
Ibram was next in the lead of the main body directly followed by the two dray animals with their loads and all the children. The rest of the adults brought up the rear to be guards and make sure none of the youngsters fell behind or drifted off. Dion was right by Ibram’s side with a stone in his sling.
They moved through a broad valley and mostly avoided looking at the burned out farmstead in the midst of carefully tended fields. A young family had just built it and died defending it and been buried by one of the their members several weeks ago. “Oi!” rang out from the hunter leading the group. He shouted again and took a few long steps towards the farm.
They all looked to see two men coming out of the ruin with their hands filled. Bags of grain and some tools were all hurriedly gathered together in their arms. They were both dressed in what could charitably be called uniforms with deep red, loose-fitting pantaloons and sandals; pointed iron helms covered their heads and the curious loose woven studded leather common to desert people covered their torsos. Their complexions were the olive tan of the alliard ethnicity and not the deep brown of either the salt flat’s nomads or the mar’ud of the far river’s cities. Upon seeing the group, they both dropped their loads and clawed for the crossbows on their backs.
Ibram stepped forward with his arms empty. “We mean you no harm! We are survivors of the attacks on this area and are moving to shelter!” He boomed in the battlefield voice of experienced warriors. One of the men at the farm loosed a crossbow bolt that dug deep into the ground at the feet of one of the children. The adults in the group were rapidly shooing them away from potential danger.
“Please do not loose on us again. We have no reason to fight you!” Ibram shouted.
“The Lady will feed your bones to her brother!” yelled one of the two men as both spanned their crossbows for a second shot. Trenton loosed an arrow that struck the farmhouse wall between the two and spat as he reached for another one. The bow still rested heavily in his unfamiliar hand. Little Dion ran forward alone among the children. He had taken to wearing his father’s shield as a backpack and he got in front of Ibram and turned so the shield was to danger.
“Brave lad,” the warrior whispered and rubbed the boy’s hair with a rough hand. He whistled a three tone blast and his warhorse ran up to his side. With a single step, he was up and saddled. The rumble surged under his warhorse’s hooves as they charged down the hill. Dion turned and loaded his sling, hurling first one stone and then another. Trenton was loosing arrows as quickly as he could, one biting into the leg of the leftmost enemy whose blood blended into the color of his pants.
A crossbow bolt deflected from the warhorse’s barding caused it to scream in rage. Ibram held his sword straight up at almost full extension. There are generally two ways to use a sword as part of a mounted charge. Either point and hold it much like you would a spear or the long looping cut. The pointed attack hits harder but the looping cut has a greater area of edge employed and is more useful against foes that may be able to dodge. Seeing the upraised sword, both men turned to run with the wounded one limping badly.
The limping man tried to roll away from the charge at the last moment, but Ibram’s blade caught him in the side. His friend was running as fast as he could, which was nothing compared to the speed of a horse – especially an enraged warhorse. The charger shouldered into him from behind and stepped on the man as it ran by. The horse and rider pulled up after several yards and turned back towards their two downed foes.
The first man had been crushed by the horse and was hacking out his last breaths in a spray of pink foam. Ibram rode by him without a second look. The second man was on the ground curled around the sword cut in his side just below the ribs. “Why did you attack us?” Ibram demanded.
“The Lady has set us free! We have become an army that will return the empire to glory!” the grievously injured man replied. The effort of talking made him wince and learn back towards his wound. The other warrior who had been stepped on by the horse began to convulse. No one paid him any attention.
“Who is this Lady, and what quarrel has she with us?” the mustachioed warrior asked mid- dismount to stand near the man he had so terribly sliced. Under his crested helmet you could just see his brows drawn together in confusion. A death rattle, the excruciatingly long exhalation at the moment of a soul’s passing into the hereafter, sounded from the other warrior. The death rattle was not met with sympathy or acknowledgement.
“She is the mistress of the Atef, and she has been sent by the old ones to set things aright! She has freed the slaves and made us into her army!” The terribly hurt man kept trying to jab a finger at the man who had probably killed him to make his point, and each time he did, fresh blood pumped out from his wounds. As he gesticulated, his sleeves fell back, and scars left by shackles could be clearly seen on his wrist. As he writhed on the ground, a leprous rune became visible on his forehead. It pulsed brightly as his life’s blood soaked into the earth. A drawn out hiss came from the trampled fighter laying among the shoots of crops that would never be reaped.
“My lord!” A boy’s voice barely carried from up the hill where the rest of Ibram’s party had waited. He looked up to see Dion pointing down at him.
“What?” he shouted while pulling off his helm to better hear the message.
“Behind you!” the boy shouted at the top of his lungs. Just then the warhorse screamed, and something slammed into the warrior knocking him to the ground. Helmet and blade were both knocked out of his hands as a slavering thing tried to bite through the vambrace over his arms.
It was something like a man but with elongated fangs, skin the pallor of death, and its body seemed contorted somehow. It chilled Ibram’s spirit where it grappled him as though his soul were under attack. They rolled around for a few moments, one trying to bite while the other punched and tried to fend off his foe.
Ibram finally got his hands on his dagger and thrust it up into the thing’s ribs probing for its heart. Normally a killing blow, it didn’t seem to register except to make the crazed creature angrier. It began to scratch and claw in addition to biting. Few of the attacks made it through the warrior’s defenses, but those that did felt inflamed and sick right away. A crushing strike hit him in the side of the head, setting his ears to ringing, but luckily it was flat handed instead of a tearing hit by its hooked finger nails.
He finally twisted it off him and locked its arms with his legs. Once the thing was pinned, he methodically set to battering it with steel shod gloves. Again and again he hit it with all his might. Eventually, its face began to deform into deep concaves, and its vicious fangs were broken. It scrabbled and fought until he completely crushed its skull. Once it stopped moving, he tried to get up off it, but fell to the ground with chest heaving. He couldn’t take in enough air and felt like his lungs were filled with water while cramps stabbed into his side.
After a moment of trying to breathe, Ibram noticed a curious thumping sound nearby. Staring at a low cloud as it scudded along, he tried to figure out what the noise was through his pounding head and blurred vision. Something blocked his view of the cloud that he had almost decided was shaped like a barge. The thing looked almost like a man but was hunched over with gray skin and wild eyes over a fang-filled mouth. Interestingly, it was wearing the same pants as the fellow that died nearby just a moment before, even down to the arrow sticking out of one leg. That was really unusual. It almost seemed to be in some distress. Every few moments a rock would bounce off it.
Ibram felt like there were some critical points he was missing. This all seemed terribly important, but he couldn’t figure out why. What he knew were that there was a thing standing right there with the same pallor skin as the creature he’d just killed. It was also wearing the pants of the rogue who had recently died nearby. Rocks were also bouncing off of it. Ah, he smiled for a moment. The rocks were making the thumping sound as they struck the ghoul standing over him. Another rock hit it as he processed that most recent thought.
Standing over him.
He shook his head quickly as reality crashed back in. The second warrior had come into undeath as a ghoul and was right there staring deeply into his eyes like a lover filled with passion. But this was a love he wanted no part of. It snarled again and leaned forward against the barrage of stones and arrows coming from up the hill. Everything still seemed to be foggy and unclear, but he had to protect his group. The warrior surged up with his dagger in one fist while whistling to his horse. One punch with his blade pierced the creature to no effect. It had already taken several blows from Dion’s sling and a couple of arrows had pierced its flesh, but it still wasn’t down. The rear legs of a two thousand pound warhorse kicking together nearly broke it in half though. It was thrown backwards several feet by the impact. Both Ibram and his horse ran over to it, one stomping and one stabbing, to make sure this time it stayed dead.
The horse seemed unharmed, but Ibram had to grab onto its saddle as his legs gave way under him. The whole world seemed to be dancing around him, and the light was intolerably bright. It sounded like there was a high pitched whistling surging like a typhoon around his ears.
The boy with the shield on his back ran down the hill and the hunter with the bow followed more slowly. It seemed like they were moving in slow motion. The child arrived breathlessly and seemed to be shouting some gibberish really, really loudly. Ibram motioned for him to hush, but he seemed to keep screaming. The warrior collapsed suddenly, and his horse snorted and moved to the side.
The man with the bow arrived and got really close to Ibram’s face. His garlic-scented breath seemed to fog up the whole world. Dion squeaked, “Is he poisoned? Is he dying?” Ibram winced at the noise.
“Nah, just got knocked in the head. He’ll be aright fore long.” Trenton the hunter snapped his fingers in front of the warrior’s face trying to get him to focus. Both eyes were dilated wide.
After a few minutes, the rest of the group gathered around. Two of the older boys started gathering up the belongings the two dead, undead, then dead again warriors were taking from the wreckage of the farmhouse. One of the adults started dragging the bodies together for burning. The two dray animals weren’t war trained and wouldn’t come close to the foul corpses.
Ibram had to be moved when the burning started. The smell of vile, burning flesh coated his damaged senses in a putrid haze, and for the first time in many years, the seasoned warrior wretched.