Loose Ends

“What is going on here?” the robed figure spat into Prince Stefan’s face. “I demand you stop those people and return them to the tower.”

“The Lady has granted them their freedom,” Prince Stefan addressed the newcomer. “Her guests are leaving and, as such, She has no need of a kitchen staff.”

Shan watched the exchange between the two men. She noted the former prince’s intense gaze that locked onto what she assumed was a returning necromancer. She saw the undead warrior’s eyes shift to a deeper red, almost the shade of blood. His voice remained level but the amusement seemed to have dropped from it.

The necromancer spoke in a hoarse whisper, his version of a shout it seemed to Shan. Arrogance, anger, and ego dripped off every word he uttered. His voice was the only thing about him that hinted at life.

“And what of Her necromancers?” the robed man hissed at the undead warrior. “Are we now expected to work the kitchens as well as conduct our studies? Are we expected to toss aside our intellectual pursuits to sweat over ovens? Is She willing to have our progress slowed for these people?”

“I don’t think She’ll be overly concerned,” Prince Stefan responded. “There are not enough necromancers left to require a staff. Where are your brothers? You left with two other of your kind.”

“They gave their lives in Her service,” the necromancer dismissed the question with a wave. “What do you mean there is not enough left?”

“You are all that remains of your brotherhood,” replied the former prince. He pointed to the necromancer’s prisoners, “Who are they?”

“I’m all that remains,” the necromancer repeated, “what happened to the others?”

“They died,” the undead warrior answered, “and who are these people?”

“What!” the necromancer’s voice almost reached the volume of polite conversation. “How did they die? When did it happen?”

“Painfully. Recently,” Prince Stefan replied. His voice dropped in volume and took on an icy tone. “Who are these women?”

Shan looked at the women that had accompanied the necromancer. They had definitely seen better days. Their clothing was ragged and dirty, stained beyond anyone’s ability to discern the original colour. The women seemed in worse shape than their clothes; their journey had been longer and harsher than Shan’s own had, she supposed. The two women, one older and one younger, seemed oddly familiar to her.

“Tell me what happened, you miserable corpse,” the necromancer snapped.

“Light Falson,” Shan burst out involuntarily as she recognized the older woman. She had seen the Light a few times, met her once when she was a child. Shan remembered Light Falson as a stern and humourless figure compared to the caring and concerned figure that had been Light Amoren. Shan remembered Light Falson as a frightening, powerful figure whose strength was more obvious than Light Amoren’s had been. The woman before Shan seemed frail by comparison and it had taken a moment for Shan’s brain to connect the woman before her with the woman she remembered.

“Your Eminence,” Shan moved to the side of the Guiding Light. She had taken the action before she had even had a chance to think about it, a lifetime of training had kicked in and all that mattered at the moment was the welfare of the Guiding Light.

A wall of zombies moved between her and the Light.

“Falson?” Stefan asked, his disembodied voice took on a questioning air.

“Yes, yes,” the necromancer interupted. “They traded them to us in exchange for us letting them keep their tower. I felt it was a better prize for the Lady than a place She could never visit.”

“I am sure you are correct,” the prince responded. “Where are the rest of Her soldiers? Surely you needed more than twelve to accomplish this feat.”

“We animated hundreds of your kind,” the necromancer sneered. “We left them to enforce the terms of the deal.”

“Not my kind,” the prince snapped back. “You and your brethren don’t have the power to steal from death. You animate bodies, you don’t enslave souls. You created drones and left them to be destroyed like your brethren. You can only dream of forcing a soul back to this world.”

“I can do one thing you can’t do,” the necromancer shot back, “I can cross into the green. All your power you believe you have and all you can do is wait at the edge of the wastes for someone to cross over. I brought Her a treasure She can enjoy for an eternity. What have you done besides allow Her devoted servants to die?”

“For centuries your brethren have sought out the Lady in an effort to steal Her secrets and bask in Her power. There have always been necromancers vying for Her favour, but,” the undead prince drew his sword and swiftly planted it into the necromancer’s chest, “that will no longer include you. The Lady thanks you for your gift.”

Shan watched the necromancer fall to the ground. Prince Stefan knelt beside the body and used the robes to clean the blood from his sword. He stood and returned the sword to its sheath.

“What are you going to do with Light Falson?” Shan asked.

“I’ll present her to the Lady,” Stefan shrugged. “It will amuse Her for awhile. Keep Her distracted. It’ll give you some time before Her thoughts return to the outside world.”

“You can’t do that,” Shan responded. “The Lady will torture her, maybe turn her into an undead creature so she can do so for eternity.”

“This is not negotiable,” the ancient warrior answered. “It is the price of your freedom and the safety of your people. You have removed the necromancers from Her land, but ask yourself how many of the undead were animated by Her and how many by the necromancers. She can still reach beyond Her land. Go home, Lady Shan. Go home and make sure your children, and their children, never forget the danger She represents. There is nothing left for you to do here, go home.”

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Farewells

“Lady Shan,” Prince Stefan addressed her, “are you leaving us?”

The disembodied voice was something Shan doubted she would ever be able to get used to. It wasn’t that the prince’s voice was particularly frightful but it had an otherworldly aspect to it, it seemed to originate from someplace other than the mouth that uttered the words. She watched his lips move while his voice seemed to echo all around her; a gentleness was hidden underneath the unnatural voice.

He stood waiting for their approach; alone and apart from his army. It stood behind him, neatly lined up before the border of the wastes but too far from the prince to provide any sort of protection. Similar ranks of the undead had formed along the right and left, the portion in front of him, that had pursued Shan’s group, had begun to settle into similar formations. They formed a box around the living and the former prince.

Prince Stefan’s armour reflected the light of the sun. He stood out as a glimmering anomaly in the muted sea of greys and browns. His arms rested at his sides, his hands were empty but a sword was strapped at his side. A faint red glow could be seen where his eyes would be.

“It is time I returned to Norasburg, Prince Stefan,” Shan hung her war-hammer at her side. She felt no danger from the prince and if she was wrong then having the weapon in her hand would not save her, it would only delay the inevitable. They were surrounded and severely outnumbered, they would not be fighting their way out of this.

Out of the corner of her eye Shan could see her companions follow her lead and sheath their weapons. Behind her the rescued people would be huddled together trying desperately to avoid falling unconscious or bolting in fear. Shan doubted they had ever seen so many of the undead gathered together in one place despite being trapped in the tower for years. There was a lot of stress pushed onto their shoulders in a very short span of time, it was a wonder that none of them had broken.

“What could possibly have come up so suddenly, I wonder, that would require so immediate an exit? That would prevent you from the courtesy of a thank-you and a farewell to your host? What could have stopped you from using the tower entrance?”

There was no threat that Shan could detect in the prince’s voice; no hint of anger or malice. There was curiosity and humour underlying his words and, Shan imagined, some hurt buried beneath it all.

“What,” the disembodied voice continued, “could have convinced you to run like a thief in the night from our welcoming home? With the Lady’s property?”

“You’re right,” Shan agreed, “it was rude of us… of me. I owed the Lady, and you, a more respectful parting of ways. Please offer the Lady my apologies and my appreciation for her generosity. I appreciated the time She devoted to me and will miss our conversations. It was never my intention to insult Her… or you.”

The prince nodded at Shan. “For my part, all is forgiven. No lasting harm was done,” he answered.

“But,” Shan continued, “I couldn’t leave these people there. They deserve a life that is more than being worked to death in Her tower and then forced to serve Her for eternity. They deserve to be in the sun, free to explore their destinies.”

“Is that all?” Prince Stefan asked.

Shan watched his face. It was difficult to get a read on his thoughts or emotions as his eyes were nonexistent. Glowing red globes offered no insight into a person’s soul. His voice, disembodied though it was, tended to be a better gauge of his mood. At this point he seemed to be amused and relaxed as far as Shan could tell.

“The Lady doesn’t care about these people,” Prince Stefan waved a hand in a dismissive fashion toward the huddled mass of exhausted, frightened people. “They were brought to the tower solely because the living tend not to enjoy having their food prepared by the dead. There are not enough of them to make a noticeable impact on Her army’s numbers. She would have released them had you asked. There was no need to steal.”

“I’d like to take them with me,” Shan asked, “if that would be alright?”

“Of course,” he raised his hand and Shan watched as the ranks of the undead parted and a passage out of the wasteland opened. “They are free to go.”

“They won’t be harmed,” the prince added when no one moved. “I give you my word.”

“Take them out of here,” Shan instructed Abeth. She watched as Abeth and his archers got the people back on their feet and the group started its shuffle to freedom. “We’ll be right behind,” she offered when Abeth seemed to hesitate.

Throughout it all the undead prince’s eyes never wavered from her.

“That was easy,” Prince Stefan said after a few moments of silence. “Respect shown on both sides and we’re all better for it.”

“You are right, of course,” Shan agreed. Her charges had started to cross out of the wasteland when she noticed another group approaching from the forest: a dark robed man and two people being pushed forward by what looked like a dozen zombies. The two groups slowed as they passed each other; Abeth and the robed figure stared directly at each other. The robed figure moved directly and speedily toward Shan and Prince Stefan, the zombie escorts followed dutifully behind.

The prince had turned to follow Shan’s gaze.

“How unexpected,” he declared dryly.

The Herding

Shan watched as the head of her war-hammer broke through the skull of yet another animated skeleton. They had been attacked on a near constant basis since they had caught up with the freed slaves. Their attackers appeared whenever they slowed in their fleeing, the undead seemed intent on the prevention of any form of rest for their group. The dead never attacked in overwhelming force, they seemed content to just push the living forward rather than destroy them.

Her hammer had never gotten the level of use it had in the past day as Shan and her companions repelled attack after attack as they fled the ruined tower. Shan had never thought she would ever be thankful for all the physical labour that had been part of her life but she suspected the soreness in her shoulder and arm would be ten-fold otherwise. The exhaustion she felt would probably match that of the former slaves all of whom looked as if they would drop dead at any moment. Even with the relentless push forward Shan wondered if any of them would survive the trip: physical and emotional stress could take its toll.

“Why are they sending so few at us at once?” Abeth asked from her side. He had his sword in hand, Shan knew it was matched by the rest of her soldiers; Craig, Thomas, and Esther would also have their weapons at hand.

“They’re trying to wear us out,” Thomas replied. “Stop us from sleeping. Keep us moving and break us physically. Make it easy to recapture us.”

“It’s working,” Abeth nodded toward the huddled mass of people. “Get them on the move before another attack comes,” he directed to his soldiers.

“No,” Craig crushed a skull under his foot, “this is something more. We are in the heart of enemy territory surrounded by an enemy that outnumbers us greatly. They could come at us in force and capture us whenever they chose. Instead they send in just enough of them to push us to our limits, to make it safer for us to flee than to fight. Or at least more efficient from an energy point of view to do so.”

“They’re herding us,” Esther added. The five of them fell into step behind the slower moving mass of people. Esther gestured to their sides. “They maintain a presence on both sides of us. Not quite close enough to be an immediate threat but close enough that we can see their numbers. They make it clear that we can’t travel far to the left or right. They have done the same behind us with one change: anytime we slow we are attacked. Attacked by groups too small to do any real damage but large enough to push us forward; the only direction with no enemies to be seen. We are being herded, capture or death would be easy enough for them to accomplish. No, they have something more in mind.”

“To what end?” Shan asked. “Where are we being herded? It almost seems as if we are being pushed out of the wastes. They could easily block our progress and push us back to the tower. So where are we being pushed?”

Shan had quickly considered what Esther had said. There was no denying the truth to their situation it was just difficult to reconcile some of the details with their enemy’s personality. They were being pushed out of Her reach, beyond the borders of Her land, or so it seemed. Moved to where She would be unable to effect them despite their theft of Her slaves, murder of Her necromancers, and general betrayal of Her trust and hospitality.

The Lady of the Tower was not a forgiving person. She had lived for thousands of years trapped in the tower, Her enemies long since turned to dust, and Her hatred of those who had betrayed Her was still as raw and all-encompassing as if it had happened this day. Every conversation with Her was steered toward a rant about Her hate. Millennia had passed and She still held a grudge against people who were long dead.

But they were expected to believe She would use Her hordes to push them out of Her reach.

“The Lady wouldn’t just allow us to escape,” Shan added. “She might not want us killed outright but She wouldn’t want us to escape either. She is a creature of obsessive rage but She isn’t stupid.”

“The ones they keep sending at us don’t seem that smart to me,” Abeth offered his opinion. He tossed a quick look behind them in search of the next attack.

“They aren’t capable of that level of sophistication in their thoughts,” Esther agreed. “That’s true. They follow direct, simple orders. There are others who are capable of more independent thought among Her hordes.”

“Prince Stefan,” Shan offered.

“For one,” Esther nodded. “There were others. They need to rely less on their numbers to defeat an opponent as they think closer to us and don’t suffer from pain or fear or exhaustion. Like their lesser cousins they are Her thralls and answer completely to Her will. They could develop and implement a scheme.”

“Would they do so without Her knowledge?” Craig asked. “Could they do so?”

“They could. Theoretically,” Esther answered. “They have the intelligence to do so. The more pertinent question is if they have the free will to. I think it is highly unlikely that the Lady would allow them to exercise it. I suspect they are given just enough freedom to carry out Her orders without the need for Her presence.”

“Even Prince Stefan,” Esther added after a moment. “He might seem to be an individual but those that create these abominations tend not to trust them.”

“They seem to be keeping their distance,” Craig noted.

The group’s progress had begun to slow. There was a limit to how long they could keep up a brisk pace after such a long, forced march. The closest any of them got to a rest was when they were repelling the attacking forces but that was just the noncombatants and only for a short period: a handful of minutes at most. The attacks always came as the group slowed down; it wouldn’t be long now.

“Why have we stopped?” Thomas asked.

“I think we know where they were herding us,” Craig commented as they moved through the ranks of the exhausted rescued servants.

They hadn’t noticed until they had created a large hill just how close they were to their freedom. From the top of the hill they could see the lush greens of the Great Forest.

Between the hilltop and the forest stood the largest army Shan had ever seen assembled. All of their soldiers showed signs of having been previously deceased.

End of Hunt

Samuel rested his crossbow against the trunk of a tree. Before him was the body of a man leaning against another tree. One of the necromancers: dressed in tattered black robes, pale skin pulled taut across his skull, greasy hair hung in clumps from his scalp. One shoulder was soaked in blood, the fletching of a bolt could be seen jutting out from the centre of the bloody stain.

It was the necromancer he had hit earlier.

“Are you alive?” Samuel asked, he didn’t really expect an answer. He drew his sword, short bladed and sharp, just as a precaution.

It had been while retrieving his bolts after he had defeated a second pocket of zombies that Samuel had stumbled across the scene before him. It surprised him at first, he had not considered the possibility of catching up with one of the necromancers. He had been frustrated by the additional delay the second batch of zombies had represented. The discovery of the necromancer had reduced that frustration somewhat. One less necromancer brought him a step closer to success.

“No such luck for either of us,” the voice rasped from the body in the black robes. “I still live.”

“I can fix that,” Samuel knelt down beside the necromancer, his sword was in his hand. “Are you in pain? Can you walk?”

The necromancer let out a short, sharp laugh. “My life drains from me,” he responded, “soon I’ll be free of this life and ready to serve Her again. It can’t be stopped, soon I’ll join Her for eternity.”

“Are you blind?” Samuel asked. “You are nowhere near Her tower. How do you expect She’ll find you let alone reanimate you? I think your dream of being a mindless servant will probably die with you.”

“No,” the necromancer grimaced, “I have served Her well. She’ll find me, She’ll bring me into Her fold. My reward will be being accepted into Her Chosen.”

“I think you might have overestimated Her reach,” Samuel replied. “She can’t reach beyond the edge of the wasteland.”

“We are closer than you realize,” the necromancer chuckled. “She will get Her prisoners and Her loyal servants will be rewarded. You are too late to stop it.”

“Maybe,” Samuel answered. He sank his sword into the necromancer’s chest, he was bored with the conversation and felt he had tarried enough. The necromancer would be right if he continued to allow himself to be delayed: he would be too late to stop it.

Freeing the prisoners was optional, killing the last necromancer was not.

Samuel used the necromancer’s robes to clean the blood off his sword. Satisfied that it was clean, he slid the blade into its sheath. He quickly tore the quarrel from the dead man’s shoulder and shook it free of gore. The bolt swiftly disappeared into its quiver as Samuel moved to retrieve his crossbow. He slung the weapon onto his back and started back along the trail left by the last necromancer and his entourage.

There was one more necromancer left for Samuel to dispatch. One more necromancer accompanied by a couple dozen zombies. At least. It was unlikely that they had had the time to force any corpses from their graves since Samuel started his chase but it was always possible that more of their kind had journeyed from the ruined tower to join them.

He would have to take a chance and assume that hadn’t happened. There was an arrogance that seemed to hang around these necromancers Samuel had noticed. It seemed unlikely they would have considered the possibility of failure let alone planned for it. A little bit of caution would keep him safe should his assumption be wrong. There was never a need to rush blindly into anything.

It was difficult to be prevent his mind from imagining an ambush behind every tree. The sounds of nature were absent, the passage of so many unnatural creatures in so short a time had frightened the forest’s normal population from the region. The soft sound of the wind as it blew through the leaves was all that Samuel could hear.

The wind brought something more with it: the stench of decay.

Not the regular decay of the forest as it reclaimed dead foliage but rather the rot of flesh long corrupted and stinking of sickness. The smell was overwhelming, almost too much so.

The smell was so strong it seemed that he should be in the middle of them. Samuel was more surprised that he was alone amid the strong smell of death. It set his nerves on edge but it meant that they were close.

Very close.

Samuel moved his crossbow into his hands and loaded a quarrel. His eyes scanned the undergrowth around him, his sense alert for any sign of ambush. So intent was he on detecting a potential ambush that he didn’t notice the forest’s end until he had walked out of it.

Samuel could feel the warmth of the sun caress him, but he still felt a chill run up his spine. At a distance in front of him he could see the remnants of the group he had been hunting as it crossed the green fields on its way to the grey of the wasteland that was their destination. Further along he could see the source of the extreme smell: all along the border of the wasteland stood an army of the dead, like a wall of rotted flesh. The mass of undead was at least as large as the one they fought at Norasburg.

There was no clear shot at the necromancer, too many zombies surrounded him. They were on the verge of escape and it looked like Samuel would be unable to stop it.

One man could not fight an army.

Delays

The two remaining necromancers split a dozen of their zombies out of their group to combat Samuel. It was the same tactic they had employed with the forces at the river garrison: leave small groups of combatants to harry, harass, and delay any pursuers.

It was a strategy that had served them well.

Samuel could attest to the tactic’s success. He had seen first hand the results it was capable of achieving on a large scale. Pockets of the undead had slowed the Norasburg forces to the verge of stopping the forward momentum completely. They had successfully delayed the army long enough for the necromancers and their captives to all-but escape: they were beyond the reach of the army as a whole.
Not so much from a skilled and determined tracker of Samuel’s caliber.

They moved faster than Samuel had expected. Up until this point the necromancers had seemed to be almost unconcerned about the events around them. They had left their army behind them seemingly without a second thought. They had shown little concern with their safety or the security of their captives, they would drop immediately into sleep at every stop leaving the security concerns to their undead minions. Samuel had observed them since he first spotted them near the ruined tower and they had never displayed an awareness beyond obliviousness to the world.

Until now.

Samuel watched as the necromancer camp sprang into action. The body of the one he hit hadn’t landed on the ground before they had sprung into action. The prisoners were being herded forward by a handful of zombies, more of the undead formed a wall of cover around the two remaining necromancers, twelve zombies broke off and began to move into the direction the shot had come from.

The change in their demeanour was fast, Samuel was only able to get a second shot before his line of sight was marred by the unliving monsters. His last shot at the necromancers was not fatal, the shot was off and the quarrel sunk into a shoulder rather than a chest.
One dead and another wounded sounded like a win to Samuel.

He let one more quarrel loose and dropped out of the tree. There was one less zombie headed his way but he didn’t like the idea of being caught in a tree surrounded by the living dead. It might provide some safety from the claws and teeth but it would keep him pinned to one spot. Samuel preferred to be free, to be able to move as the situation called for it.

His preferred weapon was the crossbow. His skill with the weapon was beyond expert, the weapon was almost another limb. But a crossbow required distance from its target, distance that could only be maintained if he was manoeuvrable.

His skill with a sword was only passable by comparison to his crossbow expertise. In a one-on-one fight he could hold his own against the average soldier. Samuel had no confidence that his skill would be good enough in a crowd of opponents. He was certain it would result in his being overwhelmed and ended with him becoming zombie food.

They sent the zombies at him like a wall of flesh. They moved toward him with a solid, steady gait their goal to push him backward or catch him and the threat he presented.

It was a valid strategy that worked delaying his catching up with the larger group.

Samuel ducked behind a tree and knocked another bolt into his crossbow. He figured he could use the trees and distance to take down each zombie. It was a simple plan and simple plans worked best: fire, run, load, repeat. As simple a plan as one could get.

The downside to the plan was that it allowed the necromancers to escape with their prisoners. Not for long, Samuel was sure he’s catch up with them again, but they would get closer to their destination. Too much of a delay and he might lose them to the wasteland.

He took a brief moment to aim before he fired. One more zombie dropped and he moved back to the next tree. It was time consuming, he knew, but there was no real way to speed it up as far as he could see. Slow and steady removed the risk to him but increased the chance of losing his prey.

A crossbow could only be loaded so fast. A dozen zombies took some time to be put down. It would also take time to collect the spent quarrels, he could only carry a limited number of bolts on him and he couldn’t afford to leave any behind.

It all added up to a large delay. Their escape was certain if he died.

Load, shoot, back away, and repeat until the last zombie fell. As quick as he could Samuel collected as many of his quarrels as he could before he followed after the rest of the undead.

Three dozen zombies, a couple necromancers, and two prisoners made for an easy bunch to track.

The Chase Begins

A small group can move faster through the forest than an army. A single person can avoid enemy positions and slip past their lines with the ease of the wind. Given the right person, of course.

The average member of the undead was mindless, it operated on the most basic of instincts: hunger. They could follow instructions to a point, some species were less driven by hunger and more capable of focusing on a task than others. Without an external intelligence to guide them all the lesser undead were trapped in either a task without end or an endless nagging need to eat. Without a stimuli to draw their attention they will mindlessly go on about their days in an eternal cycle.

Which was what Samuel was counting on.

He had been born and raised in a community of nomadic hunters. His childhood was spent learning the ways of the forest; to track prey and to evade predators. He was as much in his element at the top of the food chain as he was on the bottom. The community he grew up in relied heavily on the efforts of the members; they taught him to be self-reliant and to think for himself. In the woods you could only count on your own skills to be there when you ran into trouble as the community was too small to be there every time.

It had come as a complete shock to his friends and family when he chose to leave the community and joined the local military.

He had been fascinated with the strangers who had set up camp on the edge of the forest. There were so many tents, so many horses, and more people in one place than he had ever seen in one place before in his short life. He had known at first sight that his destiny lay with these new people.

His time with the army found him assigned to the scouting units. His knowledge of the wilds, his swift and noiseless movement, and his uncanny ability to blend into the background seemingly at will made him a much admired asset. Overused, underpaid, but an asset.

The only plus to this era of his life was his introduction to Craig. He was never comfortable within the crush of bodies that made up the camps and coupled with his growing disillusionment with military life made the decision to leave with Craig a simple one.

The life of adventure with Craig and company was similar to his youth: a roving, nomadic life within a small community. There was no one to answer to. Every member was respected for the skills they brought and everyone was given a voice in the direction they took as a whole. They shared the gains and losses equally.

It was never a profitable life; no one left it rich as a king. It did provide Samuel with a more valuable treasure: he got to see and experience more of the world than he would have had he stayed among his people.

He moved through the forest like the wind through the grass: quiet and swift. He kept his distance from the pockets of undead that were scattered throughout the trees. Lesser undead that had been left to slow an enemy but were easy for an individual to avoid, even in the dark of night.

One of the weaknesses of the lesser members was their inability to think for themselves. This resulted in them keeping close to their assigned routes with almost no deviation. With an intelligence to guide them they could be formidable, without they were only dangerous if you stumbled upon them unawares.

Samuel was on the lookout for danger anytime he caught a whiff of death or decay. His responsibility as a scout was to uncover potential danger before anyone stumbled upon it. He was almost never caught unawares.

It hadn’t taken him long to catch up with the remnants of the necromancers. His prediction had been correct, the zombies and the older Falson were slow moving, steady in pace but slow. There were more of the dead in the group than he expected, closer to four dozen than the two dozen he had predicted, but he could make out the two prisoners and the trio of necromancers.

It had only been a few days since he had left the Norasburg contingent on his task from Light Koarl: kill the necromancers, bring back Shan. He may have been a bit more optimistic than he should have been, based on the more accurate numbers he had seen he should have brought people with him.

Too many zombies for a direct attack, Samuel spent the next couple of days discretely following the group as it moved through the trees. They spent the bulk of the day on the move, they rested three times a day for two hours at a time.

The necromancers left their security to their zombie companions. Both the necromancers and their prisoners crashed the moment the group stopped, falling fitfully into sleep until they were awakened when the break was over.

Samuel took advantage of these stops to catch quick naps. It couldn’t go on like this forever, they were quickly approaching the ruined lands of the tower at Ravensbrook: the ruined tower. Once they passed into those lands their numbers would grow as they were joined by roving bands of the undead. They had to be stopped on the forest side or not at all.

He pulled out his crossbow and loaded a bolt. He would only get the one shot before his presence was known but he could at least take down one of the necromancers first. There should still be enough time to get the other two before they made it to safety.

He carefully placed the crossbow into the branches of a tree above him. He pulled himself into the tree and reclaimed his weapons. His perch in the tree gave him a better view of the group and a clearer shot.

They were breaking camp as he watched; the necromancers groggily shaking off the sleep, the prisoners resisting the push for them to awaken.

It was now or never.

Samuel let a quarrel fly and watched as it scored a hit on a necromancer. The target fell and the camp exploded into chaos.

A Show of Power

“Husband,” Esther greeted Thomas as he emerged from the underground, “Shan has been beside herself with grief. She was certain you had met your fate at the hands of those abominations.”

“But I knew,” she continued as she walked over to the large man, “I knew nothing as mundane as a tower full of the restless dead could defeat you.” She smiled and walked into the offered embrace.

“We just might get to test that claim,” Craig interrupted. “We have enemies right behind us. Wait… where are the others?”

“Patience,” Esther directed to Craig, “there is enough time for a wife to greet her husband. You’re hurt.” The last comment was directed at Thomas. He had winced when she had closed her arms around him.

“Where are the others?” Craig asked Shan. The remnants of the building were empty of all life but the five of them as far as he could see.

“One of them got lucky,” Thomas answered. He wrapped his arms tightly around Esther and added quietly, “there were eight of them.”

“We sent them on their way,” Shan replied to Craig’s query. “It made more sense to get started than risk being noticed by a random patrol. There was no need for everyone to wait. We sent the archers with them, they’ll guide them beyond the border and we’ll catch up with them there.”

“How bad is the wound?” Esther asked.

“That’s a bit of relief,” Craig nodded. “We need to stop the ones behind us and try to buy the others some more time to get some distance away from the tower.”

“Not much more than a scratch,” Thomas replied. “A mere discomfort. Abeth bound it, it’ll heal.”

“We need to catch them on the stairs where it’s narrower,” Craig went on. “We can better control their numbers and keep from getting surrounded. There’s no telling how many are behind us.”

“Thank-you for taking care of him,” Esther directed to Abeth. She had been relieved, much to her surprise, to see her husband emerge from the stairs into the ruined building. They had been through many dangers in their time together, faced many life threatening challenges, she had seen how competent he was. She had shared all that she knew of the undead with him over the years, drilled it into his head until he knew it as well as she did, there was little doubt in her mind that he was more than capable of handing most anything the tower could throw at him.

There was that tiny sliver of doubt that whispered fears into her mind whenever he was beyond her sight. It told her people made mistakes, especially during a high pressure situation like combat where things were fast and chaotic. It whispered to her of the ease at which one man can be overwhelmed by many. It reminded her that success can breed overconfidence in anyone, overconfidence could get one killed in combat. He wasn’t getting any younger, it informed her, reactions slowed with age and every wound he had ever taken took its toll on him as well. “He’s dead,” it would insist every moment he was away.

She had no fear of death. She had devoted her life to the protection of the natural world. She had gone wherever the spirit of nature had directed her. She understood the cycle that began at birth and ended at death. Every birth ended in a death, every death supported new life. She understood this.

She just wasn’t ready to part with her mate. She doubted she would ever be ready for that day.

It was always a relief for her when she returned to her.

This doubt seemed even more pronounced in this wasteland. This dead land that stood as a mockery to nature and its cycle. A land so heavy in death that it left Esther feeling almost completely cut off from nature.

Almost.

There was life of a kind within the ruined land. The barbed vines seemed to be entwined throughout the tower grounds and the ruined city that surrounded it. It was not a shining example of life but it was alive, the only life that existed among the dead.

It was easy to overlook if you didn’t know how to listen.

The vines were tough and resilient. Stubborn and independent. They were determined to make a claim for the harsh land they called home. To thrive where no other life could live.

Esther could feel a connection to this lifeform.

“Craig,” Esther asked as she separated herself from Thomas, “what is your plan? To have us all on the stairs to be trapped when more enemies arrive from this side?”

“If need be,” Craig answered. “We need to buy some time. We can fight our way out.”

“We could do that,” Esther agreed. “Maybe we get lucky and we beat these enemies without taking a scratch. We spend two, three days fighting our way out of Her land? What do you think the chances are we’ll make it through unscathed?”

“There’s a better way,” Esther interrupted before he could reply.

“Make it quick,” Craig sighed, “whatever it is.”

“These vines,” Esther explained as she ushered them out of the ruined building, “are the only life native to this land. The only thing that can survive here.” She turned back to face the building.

“The point, Esther,” Craig pushed.

“They have agreed to help us,” Esther took a knife out from her robes. “For a price,” she added.

“What price, wife?” The concern was evident in Thomas’ voice.

“Just a token,” she responded and passed her staff to Shan. “A little blood to seal the bargain. Less than what you’ve lost, I’d wager. They are taking a big risk drawing attention to their existence but they have no more love for the restless dead than I do.”
Esther closed her hand over the bare blade and drew it across her palm. She squeezed her cut hand tightly and allowed a small rain of blood to drop onto the vine at her feet.

“Now for a lesson in power,” Esther told her companions. “Watch the frailty of death without life.”

She closed her eyes and slowly spread her arms out to her sides. All around them the tendrils of the vines moved to either side of the building they had just left. Esther began to move her hands together, the vines climbed the sides of the building. There was a thunderous crack as her hands came together and the building collapsed into a cloud of dust.

“We should leave now,” Esther announced.

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