The eastern forest to the north of Seagate. Third week of Redheart (early summer)
The fire burned high beneath the cauldron as it had for several days. The two sweating teenage girls and one young man panted as they ran wood from the much-diminished pile to the flames where they would be devoured. One ancient crone chanted over the boiling liquid, her rotting teeth making her spray the words as much as she spoke them. Another woman in late middle age with what looked to be some type of rotting affliction, or even mange, sprinkled powder into the mix and stirred it with a great wooden paddle. A small hand briefly floated to the top of the bilious green concoction and quickly sank back down.
The clearing where the ceremony was taking place had the awakened dead shuffling around it as if on guard. One skeleton wore the armor of a warrior and seemed to direct the others with waves of his curved sword or an occasional hissed word. A tree with torn bark, that leaked a red sap, covered the entire western side of the glade and as the sun set, the beams of light through its branches created a mobile shadow play on the liquid as it boiled. The crone’s chanting increased in pitch and volume and her assistant cried out in a discordant counterpoint to her side. The three younger helpers all stepped away from the nearly consumed wood pile and danced in time with the words of their elders, leaping jerkily and shouting as if in pain.
As the last ray of sol’s light speared the cauldron it began to quake and shake. The liquid within it suddenly shot upward into the sky to flash into a poisonous green mist that floated above the trees. The cloud moved with an almost intelligent purpose towards a distant village. Birds that flew through it fell to earth dead and plants that it touched withered. The five witches grinned in triumph and panted with exhaustion.
Once the malignant cloud had gone, a large vulture that had been circling above for some time winged its way down to the ancient woman who seemed to lead the group. It croaked once and a scroll case could be seen around its bare neck. The great witch of the eastern forest raised a single wispy eyebrow and looked at her followers before reaching for the tube. The bird waited patiently for her to grab it and flew away once she had. Unreth the Dreaded tore open the seals and unrolled the scroll. She read aloud to the group in her breathy, dry voice:
Unreth the Dreaded
Great Witch of the Eastern Forest
I send greetings. Your coven would be welcome in our fastness
As well as in our councils. We are rebuilding the old empire and seek
The ancient allies of the Atef to regain our former glory.
You may find us in the Skydaggers where ancient Ptoledrad fell.
Yours in service to Dread,
Kher Heb of the renewed Empire
“Well, isn’t that interesting. There hasn’t been anyone to wear the title of Kher Heb in this part of the world in over a century.” The crone’s twisted finger tapped the single brown tooth remaining in the front of her mouth as she thought. The skeleton, in worn but well maintained armor of an ancient style--complete with rills around the shoulders and neck--walked over to her. She cocked her head to the side and watched him approach.
“Atef returns?” It asked in a sepulcheral voice.
“Someone claiming to be the Atef has sent us a message. That is all we know so far.” Unreth narrowed her eyes and watched her long time servant who stood for several moments as if pondering this news. It was hard to tell what he was thinking since any skin on his face had long since rotted away leaving nothing more than bone.
“If Atef returns, I go to them.” He finally said in his slow careful manner. “Many of the old ones will gather.”
Both of her eyebrows shot up to her wrinkled forehead. “Are there many of you left?”
“Yes.” The skeletal warrior nodded. “Several have hidden away waiting for the return.”
“Well, this I have to see.” She turned to her gathered followers and proclaimed in a loud voice, “We go to the mountains!” The three younger witches clapped and everyone scurried to their tasks. The older of her subordinate witches was washing out the cauldron that should have been burning hot to the touch but seemed quite cool.
It took nearly a day for the coven to assemble their equipment and prepare to move. The cauldron was tied to two long poles as a travois and pulled a horde of lesser undead. The trunks of ingredients were loaded into the cauldron. Each of the witches had their own pack with personal equipment but the dark book was carried by the skeletal warrior Asimon who stayed right beside Great Unreth.
Unreth was just about to give the order to move when arrows began to rain into the clearing. Some made the butcher cleaving sound of striking flesh, a few rang off the iron walls of the huge cauldron and some chipped off section of bone from the skeletons. A deep voice boomed from the woods, “At them men! We’ve finally caught the witches!”
Six human men in heavy armor moved together through the brush. One was waving his hammer for others to follow. Several humans and one cobra-like midniss, all wearing light armor with bows, were spread about the forest loosing arrow after arrow into the crowd. The young warlock shouted and threw some thorns into the air as two clothyard shafts pierced him. The thorns fell to the ground and grew into twisting vines that sought out the intruders.
One of the skirmishers with an axe went to work on the thorned vines growing from the ground. They writhed like living things and when one wrapped around his leg he started screaming like a damned soul. As blood was sucked through the hollow thorns, buds on the vine burst into life as head-sized crimson roses. They gave the scene a macabre beauty, coming to life as the man was drained of his. The axe dropped to the ground.
The men at arms on either side of their lord knew their business. The skeletal warrior directed the lesser undead against them and shield bashes kept the horde away while hammers swept down to crush skulls or cave in ribs. The skirmishers continued to circle around and loose arrows into the melee as they had a target. The crone began to chant and the earth rumbled. Her middle-aged assistant drank a potion and fell to the ground in convulsions. Two more of the skirmishers had become entangled in the blood vines.
The witch on the ground still convulsed but had begun to grow. Muscles appeared on her withered limbs and blue twisted horns came from her head. She opened her mouth to scream and fangs were revealed where rotten teeth had been. Her wide open eyes had become yellow and slitted like a cat’s. Dirty fingernails were transforming into claws. Her screams became deep and throaty.
The ancient skeletal warrior hooked one of the men at arms out of the formation with his curved sword and the lesser undead fell upon him. Now there were four surrounding their lord. Many zombies and skeletons were down, some crawling back into the fight but often they were completely destroyed. One of the young witches grasped a femur from one of the crushed skeletons and chanted over it. The bone seemed to grow into the shape of a hammer that radiated an aura of gloom. She shouted and charged.
The hangman tree at the edge of the clearing had tiny white rootlets growing up through the ground. They looked almost like pale grubs. When several of the skirmishers stepped into that area to loose their arrows they began to scream like lost souls. The rootlets were growing into their bodies. One managed to pull away and retreat, long white threads trailing from his knee where he had knelt down to shoot. His three friends continued to scream for help. The midniss shot one of them out of mercy when he saw rootlets growing out of his mouth. Several of the lightly armored humans had begun to retreat from the clearing with fear in their eyes.
Unreth’s chanting came to a conclusion and her taloned hands thrust up into the air. Two great hands of earth and stone came up from the ground mimicking her gestures. They slapped aside several of the lesser dead and Asimon skipped to the side showing surprising agility for a skeleton. One of the men at arms was crushed by a great stony hand and the other was set upon by the heavily armored men.
The hag that had been a witch rose from the ground. Her skin had become the red of blood and mighty muscles played as she moved. Her clothes were ripped and torn as she had grown to nearly ten feet in height with her horns extending another foot. She screamed something incoherent and tackled the lord that was leading the attack. His hammer met her in the air and one leg was crushed but he went down beneath her great weight.
Most of the skirmishers were retreating now, the humans were a beaten force. The lone midniss stayed at the edge of the clearing--avoiding the blood vines which had drained another of his compatriots and the hangman tree which had three caught in its roots. He fired arrow after arrow at Unreth but they shattered against her ironlike skin.
Two of the men at arms remained back to back against the few undead and the gathered witches. The lord and the hag rolled around on the ground each striking the other and taking terrible wounds themselves. Unreth’s two earthen hands closed on the heavily armored warriors' and left them both twisted ruins.
The hag was holding down the local lord now. His hammer had finally fallen from his grasp and the visor of his helm was torn away. He looked to be afflicted with a rotting illness. Sores had broken open across his face and were running. Where the reddish pus touched skin more of the blisters rose.
Unreth stalked over to the man and looked down on him with contempt. “What made you so foolish as to venture into my forest?” She demanded in her whispery voice.
“Everyone is dying.” The man gasped, “We thought if we could slay you the others might heal.” He lay down in defeat, finally ending his struggles.
“Fool. My spells are not so easily defeated! Your family will join you in death.” She cackled a phlegmy laugh and raked her filthy nails across his throat. He choked and bled for just a few moments before going still.
She chanted over the lord and her hands glowed black for just a moment. He began to twitch and rise. The hag quickly got off him as he stood, eyes vacant staring off into the beyond. Unreth smiled, “Now you’ll serve me in undeath as you defied me in life!”
Two arrows came from over her shoulder and sank into the zombie lord’s face. He fell to the ground unmoving. “My lord serves no one, Witch!” the midniss hissed, spitting in fury. He turned and quickly ran through the clearing, back into the trees, quickly vanishing from sight.
Unreth glared hatred in his direction and chanted again. Bones from slain warriors and the blood vines gathered together into a misshaped creature shaped much like a man but with an extra arm. Thorns covered its flesh as it rose. “Kill it! Kill the lizard!” she pointed and the shambling thing lumbered off into the wood.
“Gather up everything. We move now. Raise the slain. They will serve us in the place of those they destroyed.” She stalked around the clearing fulfilling her own commands.
In an hour nothing remained except for a huge tree looming over a clearing. The reddish sap oozing between its bark layers looked like blood. The midniss warrior stepped silently out of the trees his armor shredded across his back and torn scales visible. A long purple tongue tasted the air. He set off silently to hunt those who had slain the only human who had ever shown him kindness.