Sunday, 23 July 2017

Where the Moonlight Dances - Part III

In part three of the story, the sweetness of victory quickly sours for the Maedarian rebels as forces beyond their power to control begin to stir. Katrina finds herself face-to-face with a terror she could never have imagined that threatens everything the rebels worked towards, and slowly but surely, everything begins to unravel as a terrible new foe plays its withered hand.

The final part to Where the Moonlight Dances will be released on Sunday the 30th July.

Katrina paused in the cold night’s air once she was out of the tavern. She stood in the middle of the road, looking up at the moon and starry firmament above. Lucien, damn it, she thought as she began to walk back towards the middle of the village, why do you have to make this about something other than freedom? I don’t want to fight for your ego, I want to fight for my own future. She clenched her teeth and shook her head, her fiery hair billowing behind her in the cold night wind as she did.
            The victory celebrations were still well underway. It seemed as if the fellow who had composed a victory ballad about the battle had re-drafted his work and found a lute, for a song was being struck up around the central campfire. Katrina barged her way through the thronging rebels and the few civilians who joined them until she was at the fireside. Once there, she was surprised to see Lucien absent. They’re singing songs about his victory – isn’t this what he wanted?
            She turned to the closest soldier. ‘Seen Captain Lucien?’ she asked.
            The fellow shook his head. ‘Not for a time. He in the tavern?’
            Katrina shook her head and looked around. Between the crackling campfire, the drunken soldiers, the dancing and the singing, Lucien was nowhere to be seen.
            A thought suddenly struck her. He’d gone to piss on the imperial dead, she thought. What if he’s trophy-hunting? What if he’s cutting off the heads of the dead soldiers to, I don’t know, leave around the-… No, surely not. Disturbed by the thought, she quickly turned and walked away from the fire in the middle of the village, made her way out through the soldiers, and towards the high, wall-like knot of long-dead trees that ringed Witherwood.
            She walked the same path she assumed Lucien would have. She even thought she could vaguely make out some fresh prints in the churned-up grassy mud beneath her feet. They’re roughly Lucien’s size, no? And walking quickly –long strides, with purpose.
            Speeding to a jog, Katrina made it to the edge of the trees and stopped. At her feet lay a dead imperial soldier, his eyes wide and staring, blood dried around his nose and mouth, a huge wound struck across his stomach. Katrina wrinkled her nose at the filthy smell and guts pouring from the bloody orifice and looked around.
            The white moonlight caught the bone-like mass of twisting trees, making haunting shadows of the branches and the mangled dead twisted at their roots. The bright-white of the moon light glittered on dropped steel and fresh blood, and made dark pools in fleshy fissures or bloodless faces even paler.
            ‘Lucien?’ Katrina called out, stepping over the body and into the trees. ‘Lucien, where are you? Are you here?’
            As she put her foot down, a glint of light caught Katrina’s eye. Something was shining up at her amidst the detritus and death at her feet, far too clean and gleaming to be contemporary with the slaughter of hours earlier. She took a step forwards and bent down; A sword.
            There was no blood on the fine blade, and the leather around the hilt looked as if it had been recently re-wound. Frowning, Katrina looked around. How did this get here? she asked herself, inspecting the fine blade and hilt.
            As the wind blew through the ancient branches above her head and the moonlight glittered down on the sword in her hands, Katrina realised she recognised the weapon. It was the same sword she had seen twirled and glittering in the forge-light earlier that day, being gracefully swung and tested by a hand she knew. It was Lucien’s sword.
            Her heart froze. Gods, no.
            ‘Lucien!’ she shrieked, clutching the sword in her fist. She set off at a blind run through the bloody woods with no clue whether or not she was going the right way. Her mind raced as her legs pounded, skipping over roots, weapons, shields, and ruined flesh. What if there was one alive? What if they’ve come back and ambushed us? By the Old Gods, what has happened to him? He’d never abandon his sword!
            Katrina kept on at a run, getting deeper into the knotted mass of twisted trees that ringed the village. With every step, the sounds of revelry from beyond the village grew fainter, and the moonlight seemed to become more blinding, casting its uncanny white glow on everything it could not force into shadow.
            A sound; harsh, vocal, piercing. Katrina could have screamed; she gripped Lucien’s sword and froze, eyes spinning about her. She was completely lost in the dense line of trees, unable to make out where she was in relation to anything else. She could not even see the light from the village.
            The sound came again; coarse, guttural. Katrina let out a cry and looked to where the noise had come from. Wide-eyed, she stared into the moonlit trees. Between the corpses, the knotted, mangled roots, the blood, the weapons, the banners and standards, standing atop the hilt of a sword stuck point-first into the soil were two crows. Their beady-black eyes were fixed on her.
            ‘Birds,’ Katrina hissed, lowering the sword and breathing deeply. ‘Bloody birds.’
            She shook her head and watched as the two crows alighted and flew off into the darkness and shadows behind them. For a few moments, Katrina was alone in the moonlight, the spindly, femur-like branches of the blood-splattered and corpse-decorated trees seemed to be pointing at her, she noticed; it were as if the trees were watching her, glaring at her.
            A shadow moved.
            Katrina spun back towards where the two crows had been resting on the hilt of the sword. Beyond them, back amidst the trees into which they had flown, the darkness was swirling. Don’t be ridiculous, Katrina thought as she felt a cold sweat break out on her brow and neck, shadows can’t swirl; darkness can’t move.
            Yet they did. Right before her. Unable to blink and move for the terrible fear that wracked her, Katrina continued to stare into the darkness before her. And it was moving. The longer she stared, the more convinced she was. The shadows were shifting, but not as if a stray candle were being moved to and fro. They were spiralling together, as if becoming one. They became a darkness which the moonlight could not touch, and then it advanced.
It moved like a whisper, coming from the shadows as if it were part of them. From within that blackness came a figure which even the moonlight feared to touch. It was taller than a man, even though it was hunched and twisted beyond imagining. It drifted slowly across the carnage beneath it on a shadowy fog, which slowly meshed together and became a dark, ragged, hooded robe that hung loosely around a wizened form. Two rotten-looking arms reached from the ragged robe, at the end of each were hands. In one skeletal, decomposing fist was a lance tipped with what looked to Katrina like a faintly glowing flint head as long as her forearm. In the other hand was a head.
But Katrina could not take her eyes of the things face – or the space where its face should be. The ragged hood that covered the creature’s head and hung low over its bent and crooked neck, revealing only an impossibly dark shadow where the thing’s face should be.
‘No,’ Katrina whispered, ‘no, it can’t be. Surely not…’
The thing glided towards her on its legs and lower-body made of fog and shadow, making not a single sound as it passed over the bodies of the fallen. Rooted with sheer terror and disbelief, all Katrina could do was hold up Lucien’s sword.
The thing stopped ten paces away from her, thin and tall enough to touch the very boughs, its long arms and fingers stretched before it, as if it were frail and relied on the spear it held for support, though Katrina could see blood on the tip of the weapon. Slowly, it raised the head which it held in its bony, half-rotten fist and held it out to Katrina.
‘No,’ she said in a whisper, ‘I’m going insane; this isn’t real, this…this…’
Lucien stared back at her. His face was pale, his hair matted where the creature gripped it with its terrible hooked fingers. His eyes were rolled back into his head and his mouth closed, his face splattered with blood. As Katrina watched, unsure if she was losing her mind or if the thing before her was real, a faint, terrible green glow came from within Lucien’s severed head, emanating from his mouth, behind his eyes, from the terrible wound to his neck.
‘Katrina…’ the head said in Lucien’s voice, his bloody lips and heavy tongue slipping around her name.
She broke. Screaming in terror, she dropped Lucien’s sword and started off at a blind run through the trees. All around her, the woods were moving. Tears left her eyes as she ran and things started to grab at her. She watched as the corpses around her began to move, picking up their old weapons or holding in their spilled guts where they could. They shambled after her and she screamed and ran, utterly consumed with horror.
Before she knew it, she was out of the trees and running wildly back towards the village. She had no idea how she made her way out of the woods, for she could barely see through her tears of terror and so many hands had been grabbing at her, so many mouths had been gnashing for her, drooling bile and blood.
‘The dead walk!’ she screamed as she ran into the middle of the village and collapsed by the fire, the breath ripping from her lungs. ‘There’s a thing! A thing in the woods and it’s making the dead walk! They’re alive, they’re coming for us!’
The revelry stopped. Eyes fell upon her, the fire cracked. Then laughter.
Katrina watched helplessly as the dozens and dozens of soldiers and peasants around the fires began to drink and sing anew.
‘See, this is why women shouldn’t fight,’ a deep, male voice said from somewhere on the other side of the fire. ‘Can’t keep it together like the men.’
‘Shut up, Horik, I killed more than you earlier!’
Trembling with terror, lost for words, Katrina’s head span. She looked left, right, behind her, everywhere she could, trying to find someone – anyone – who would listen to her. All she saw, though, were men and women drinking and laughing – laughing at her.
Henry, she thought.
Scrambling to her feet, Katrina set off at a run towards the tavern. She hurled aside anyone who got in her way as she made a frantic run towards the stone-built building, but before she got far, terrible screams went up from ahead of her.
Hurling aside a young peasant man and his mug of ale, Katrina found herself facing the cart she had spotted earlier when she had visited the tavern and the prisoners. Some of the dead she recognised – a man who had asked her if she had a spare copper a few nights ago was on his feet, bare aside from the shroud wrapped around him; another was a woman, Gysela, whom she had drunk with before. They shambled from the cart, their eyes lit by the same terrible green light that Lucien’s severed head had given off as it spoke. Two of them had already fallen upon one of the peasants and were clawing at him with their teeth and nails.
‘The dead walk!’ someone screamed. ‘The dead walk! To arms! To arms!’
Katrina herself was hurled aside by someone fleeing as the whole of Whitherwood exploded into utter pandemonium. She slipped and staggered to the floor, cracking her head against the wall of the low home behind her. For a few moments, her entire world span and the screams of fright that had taken over the world beyond her dazed head faded.
I must be dreaming, Katrina told herself as she slumped into her daze and watched as the braver soldiers ran at the bodies now dragging themselves from the carts. Some of the walking dead’s wounds still oozed blood and organs, whilst others shambled forwards, ignoring now-absent limbs. They fell upon the swords of the living with horrible, dry, guttural cries.
Regaining her senses and scrambling to her feet, Katrina watched on in horror as the blades that pierced the flesh of the dead did little to harm them. They continued to claw and bite, chewing bloody holes in the throats of their victims – men and women who had previously been their friends. Katrina looked down the road towards the barricade that Lucien had set up that day to slow the imperials down to see a number of peasants and soldiers alike clawing at it, trying to open the way out of the village. As they did so, a host of dead in imperial armour, their eyes and mouths, even some of their wounds, giving off the terrible green light. They clumsily fell upon the unsuspecting victims below the barricade with the weapons clutched in their swinging arms and their gnashing teeth.
Katrina turned and ran towards the tavern. She passed two soldiers wrestling with the corpse of a particularly large soldier, and watched in horror as the walking corpse snapped the neck of one of the Maedarians with one hand, as if his neck were little more than a dry twig.
As fast as she could, Katrina ran into the tavern. She spun and bolted the door behind her and fled across the empty and near pitch-black common room, dodged around the counter, and threw herself down the steps into the cellar. ‘Henry!’ she screamed as she went, almost drowned out by the chorus of chaos erupting from outside. ‘Henry, we have to flee, we have to-…’
She arrived at the bottom of the cellar to find the room a battlefield. She looked on, open-mouthed and wide-eyed at the blood and guts that slicked the floor. All of those who had been sick or dying now lay dead in their makeshift beds, their throats torn out and their features mutilated. Their covers had been torn and their entrails had been spread across the stone floor like bloody rushes. Empty faces stared up, frozen in terror in their final moments.
At the far end of the room, several figures were screaming. ‘Kat!’ Henry’s voice came, ‘by the Old Gods, Kat, help me, help me!’
‘No! No!’ someone else was screaming. ‘No, please no! Help!’
The five imperial prisoners were still chained to the wall at the end of the cellar. Two of the soldiers lay dead, their throats torn out, whilst the other, identified earlier as Karsen, was straining against the chains that kept him clasped to the wall as he reached forwards with his blood-spewing mouth, desperately trying to sink his teeth into Baron Tyvilius’ jugular. Beside the baron, Inquisitor Greyseer fought desperately with his chain, cursing and swearing as he heaved on the bolt that kept him fastened to the wall. A pile of the imperial prisoners’ weapons and armour, as well as that of the now dead men Henry had been treating, lay tauntingly out-of-reach from the inquisitor. Before them, though, Henry lay in the blood drenching the floor at the end of the room, a huge, contorted, naked figure covered in holes and torn flesh wrestling with him.
‘Kat, please! Please!’ the old man shrieked as Katrina ran towards him.
Katrina whipped her sword from its sheath and leapt onto the gigantic, twisted, naked figure atop the old medic whilst behind him, Baron Tyvilius let out a terrible scream. Katrina plunged her sword through the neck of the creature, as she had done with the imperial soldiers that day. As she went to draw it out though, its long arms shot out and struck her legs out from under her. Katrina found herself spinning across the room, landing heavily on the gore-drenched floor. She leapt up as quickly as she could, jumping backwards as the creature lunged for her, swiping with its terrible claws.
Then, Katrina saw the monstrous being’s face. ‘No,’ she breathed, new tears in her eyes. ‘No…’
Once upon a time, it had been lovey and friendly, and had held so much warmth and love. Now, it was a twisted mass of cracked and bloody flesh, torn and ravaged. The eyes were still the same, though they glowed a terrible green, and Katrina could just about make out the various features she recognised, for the monster had grown, swollen and expanded, but its skin had split and fissured all across its body.
‘Aldem,’ she said gently as the enormous monster than had once been her brother rounded to face her. ‘Aldem, it’s me. It’s Kat. It’s your sister.’
Aldem snarled, hunched on all fours, for he was now far too tall to fit into the room. His venom-green eyes were fixed on her, and his whole body tensed as if it were about to spring.
‘Aldem, no,’ Katrina pleaded as the being readied itself to pounce, gnashing huge, ugly, sharp teeth between its broken and torn lips. ‘I beg you, I beg you sweet brother, please don’t-…’
The abomination that had once been Aldem’s body charged forwards, Katrina’s sword still sticking out of its neck. She let out a cry – some cracked mixture of terror and heartbreak – as she threw herself aside. She felt huge, clawed hands rend the air above her as she dodged, and quickly spun to face the monstrous creature. Aldem came at her again, teeth gnashing, blood and bile drooling from between his split and rotten lips.
Katrina charged forwards and dived between the hulking, monstrous being’s legs. The abomination stumbled forwards, tripping, and crashed head-first into the tavern cellar’s wall. It let out a roar that made Katrina’s ears ring, before rounding to face her again.
It was Henry. As Katrina turned, she saw he old man grab something from the pile of equipment belonging to the prisoners and the dead and throw it to her. She quickly caught it, plucking it from the air – a lance; blunt but sturdily-made.
Katrina levelled it at the thing that was once her brother just as it charged again. She felt her arms and legs buckle as the split and twisted, naked chest of her brother collided with the lance. The monster let out a howl as Katrina pushed with the lance, doing everything she could to stop it from moving. The creature was impossibly strong though, and incredibly heavy. With a roar of effort, she slowly lifted the lance, the muscles in her arms burning as she lifted her impaled brother off his feet and held him aloft, glaring into his face.
He raved and snarled, clawing at Katrina with the claws that had grown on the end of his fingers. There was nothing but mindless hatred in his eyes, an unthinking desire to kill and consume. Katrina felt tears leave her eyes and she continued to heave on the lance. I’m sorry, Aldem.
An unfamiliar roar brought Katrina back to the real world. Inquisitor Greyseer, clad in his battered and bloody robe, came flying through the air, a longsword clutched in both his hands. With an oath to the Divine Empress on his lips, he brought the blade down on Aldem’s neck, cleaving through the swollen flesh and twisted bone there. ‘Light burn you, abomination!’ he cried as Aldem’s grossly swollen head fell from his shoulders and landed on the floor with a wet smack.
The strength went out of Katrina and she fell, gasping and weeping. She let go of the lance upon which her brother’s headless, and now thankfully still, corpse was still stuck, and let it crash to the floor.
Hands were on her straight away. ‘Kat, sweet Kat, are you alright?’ Henry’s voice found her, but she could not reply. She felt his fingers checking her for injuries, but all she could do was weep and stare at the severed head of her dead brother. She barely noticed Baron Tyvilius’ bloody corpse slumped against the wall, still stuck in his chains – the headless body of the one called Karsen hanging uselessly from its chains beside him. Blood seeped from a terrible bite-wound in the baron’s neck, and Karsen’s vile head which lay a few paces away, was slathered in blood.
‘That was not your brother,’ a stern voice cut through her terror. ‘That was a wight; a vile creature of death animated from the remains of the innocent. Nothing in that creature was your brother.’
Katrina looked up through her tears into the hardy face of Inquisitor Greyseer. ‘The locals were right,’ she said in a whisper. ‘There’s a thing in the woods, they call it the Lady of the Woods. It’s a horrible thing, of shadow and mist, holding an ancient lance. It brought the dead back, I saw it, and it made them walk!’
Greyseer’s lined face grew grave. ‘What exactly did it look like?’ he asked in his stern, unfaltering voice. ‘Try to think, speak slowly. This is important.’
‘Tall, hunched, withered,’ Katrina said, choking back her tears, trying not to stare at the decapitated head of her brother just behind where Greyseer crouched. ‘It wore a robe made of shadow and fog, and it held a spear and Captain Lucien’s head. It had no face, only shadows and darknes, and it said nothing.’
Inquisitor Greyseer winced. ‘Empress preserve us,’ he said in a whisper.
‘What?’ Henry snapped, standing up and looking at the inquisitor. ‘What is it?’
Inquisitor Greyseer seemed reluctant to think for a moment; his eyes scanned the bloody floor in thought, as if searching for something. ‘A lich,’ he said. ‘The thing you saw was a lich.’
‘A lich?’ Katrina said through her tear-rocked voice. ‘What’s a lich?’
Greyseer cleared his throat. “Liches are unique in the fact they seem to retain some form of rational thought – though it is completely twisted and warped by a hatred for all life. They often appear in the form of a dishevelled, near-skeletal Man, dressed in a ragged robe and holding a staff or stick of some form. They appear weak in body, but have an uncannily apt ability with the Heathen Art, and can conjure terrible tendrils of shadow from their rotting fingertips and whip life away with a wave of a hand.” The inquisitor paused for a moment. “Under no circumstances should one ever look for a fight with a lich, as their ability with the Heathen Art renders them the most terrible and dangerous form of the undead.”
Henry looked from Katrina to Greyseer. ‘What was that?’ he said.
‘The entry concerning the lich from Commander Ludwig Nicstaed’s Bestiary Written in Blood; all inquisitors are required to memorise various passages upon gaining their rank.’
‘And what’s the Heathen Art?’ Katrina asked.
Inquisitor Greyseer’s steely gaze met her eyes. ‘Magic.’
Katrina swallowed. ‘What can we do?’ she said. Above her, a particularly loud scream drifted into the cellar. ‘There has to be something we can do, no?’
Beside her, old Henry looked down at the stern-faced Greyseer. Neither man said anything.
Katrina gestured exasperatedly. ‘So this thing is now loose to do what it pleases? There’s nothing we can do?’
‘We can escape,’ Inquisitor Greyseer muttered. ‘Liches are extremely rare, girl; some say they aren’t even of this world, that no weapon made in the World can harm them. No-one has ever fought one and lived to tell the tale.’
Henry nodded slowly as yet another terrible scream pierced the uncomfortably warm cellar air. ‘I am no inquisitor,’ the older gentleman said slowly, ‘but I have heard such things before. There are terrible tales and-…’
‘Tales don’t matter right now, Henry!’ Katrina yelled. ‘If we can’t do anything, we have to get out of here!’
Katrina had barely finished speaking when a terrible crash shook the inn. Whipping out her shortsword, she spun to face the stairs that led down into the cellar, trembling. Whilst Henry staggered to the back of the room to try and find a weapon to defend himself with, Katrina found Inquisitor Greyseer at her side, clutching his own blade, his steely gaze set upon the stair.
‘Whatever comes down those stairs…’ he began before swallowing, setting his grim gaze, and trailing off. ‘Are you ready, girl?’ he asked.
‘Are you ready, imperial?’ Katrina spat back.
There was another crash followed by more screaming. The volume of the chaos erupting outside had risen; They must have broken the door down, Katrina thought, clenching her sword to stop her hands shaking.
‘The heads are the key,’ Greyseer said slowly as the sound of many pairs of footsteps and more screaming made it to the top of the stairs. ‘Do the body as much damage as you can and the essence that binds the creature will escape its form-…’
There was another scream that cut Greyseer off. A myriad of figures tumbled down the stone stairs into the cellar. Katrina saw the flash of green, the smear of half-dried blood, and the desperate flailing of living arms from within a mass of undead flesh. Someone’s in there! She had barely thought for her own safety before she charged at the twisting mass of limbs.
She grabbed, hacked, chopped and cut. She tore at putrefied flesh with her spare hand as she grabbed and wrestled with the glowing green-eyed undead monsters in imperial armour: one was missing a jaw, the other still had a lance embedded in its side. The third and final could have been unhurt if not for the tell-tale blood seeping out from beneath his breastplate. And the eyes. The terrible eyes.
Katrina aimed her first blow for the creature missing its jaw but missed, her blade ringing out as it jarred off the stone stairs. Beneath her, underneath the death-rattle moans and groans of the undead, a voice was shrieking, desperately calling for help. She aimed a slash and, through sheer luck more than skill, cleft the creature’s head off its shoulders. She watched as its headless body went limp and the green glow that had emanated from its eyes and terrible wounded mouth dissipated, like a candle snuffed out in the wind.
Before she could stop, though, hands were on her. She looked down to see the next creature – the one with the bloodied breastplate – grasping her ankle with its long, grey fingers. Katrina yelped and kicked out, but the dead monster’s grip was too strong and she slipped, landing painfully on the floor. Suddenly, it was on top of her, gnashing its yellowed teeth and dripping blood and bile onto her face, clawing at her throat with its cracked, filthy nails. The thing was unimaginably heavy – the magic that bound it and the armour it wore contributing to the crushing weight that pressed down on her.
Katrina could neither move nor breathe. Desperately, she scrabbled for her sword. With a scream caught somewhere between blind terror and impossible effort, Katrina plunged her shortsword into the creature’s chest and pushed with all her might. Slowly, gradually, it lifted off her, though its hands still continued to claw at her face and its terrible glowing green eyes kept staring.
There was a sudden blur of grey and white, and suddenly Inquisitor Greyseer was standing over her, his longsword between his fingers. ‘Burn in Her light!’ he cried, his voice booming and rolling like a war horn as he smote down with his sword, cleaving through the neck of the creature impaled and flailing on the end of Katrina’s sword.
Katrina closed her eyes and mouth as a splatter of brownish-red gore slathered down from the undead creature’s severed head and onto her face. The smell made her gag, but there was no time to wipe herself down – Greyseer was pulling her to her feet.
Bloodied, dazed, and sticky with terrible undead ichor, there was only one of the horrid creatures left: the one with the spear in its side. Inquisitor Greyseer rushed forwards, cleaving his sword in an arc, but the blade reverberated off the thick imperial plate armour the corpse still had strapped around its unliving body.
Slowly, the realisation seemed to dawn on the lumbering undead creature that the real threat was not posed by the squirming figure beneath it, but rather by the three figures at its back. Slowly, it got to its feet and turned to face Katrina, Inquisitor Greyseer, and the old medic Henry. There was a moment of stillness as the thing, spear lodged in its abdomen, looked from one to the next. Then, it placed its still-gauntleted fist on the spear lodged in its flesh and pulled.
A foul human slurry slipped from the wound, but the creature did not fall. Instead, an ethereal green light shone from the hole left in its side. Katrina thought she might be sick, but instead clutched her sword all the harder.
She rushed forwards. For a moment, the monster looked off-balance. She leapt into the air, hoping to throw all her weight and force into the stab she aimed at the middle of the creature’s blood-splattered face, but the reeking monster span with a speed she did not imagine the shambling horror could possess.
Yelping in pain, Katrina landed on the stone floor. Quickly, ignoring the pain shooting through her ankle, she span, raising her blade to block and incoming swipe or lunge. As she had expected, a bloody spear came swinging towards her head, wielded with such force it sent a bone-jarring vibration shivering up her arm and send her shortsword spinning from her hand. Katrina let out another cry as she was sent spinning away, staggered by the inhuman force of the blow.
The creature advanced towards her on its shambling feet, its lance raised in a single hand, its glowing eyes wide and unblinking. It gnashed its teeth and drooled pus as it came. The bloody spear loomed over Katrina’s head. She was sure this would be how she died. To this rotting thing, she thought. Old Gods, save us.
There was a cry and Katrina looked round to see both Henry and Inquisitor Greyseer charge at the monster. The three figures collapsed into a sudden, brief, desperate melee with the impossibly strong monster. Katrina scrambled to her feet, grabbed her sword, and turned to see it was all over.
Inquisitor Greyseer’s sword still lay in the space between the monster’s upper-head and lower jaw. His hands were elsewhere, his form kneeling over that of Henry. ‘Girl, quickly,’ he said through his teeth. ‘Quickly, hold this. Hold this!’
Katrina rushed to Greyseer’s side to find his hands clamped over Henry’s throat. Blood was bubbling out from between his fingers, and the old man’s eyes were wide with shock and fright, though he could not speak nor cry out for the wretched, ragged hole in his oesophagus.
‘Henry, no!’ Katrina cried, falling to her knees and clamping her hand over the wound. ‘Inquisitor, do something!’
The old man’s hand weakly gripped Katrina’s wrist. His eyes met her gaze – pleading, fading.
‘Inquisitor!’ Katrina shrieked.
‘One bloody moment!’ Greyseer snapped.
Katrina turned to see Inquisitor Greyseer tearing the sleeve of his bloodied white robe of the inquisition into a long, strip-like bandage. A long length of the fabric came away with a loud rip.
‘Hold him! Keep holding him!’
‘I am! Hurry!’
Greyseer sprang to Katrina’s side, makeshift bandage in hand. ‘Hands! Quickly!’
Katrina looked down at Henry, who was still gripping her wrist. He had stopped moving. His eyes stared blankly up at the cellar’s roof. Blood still ran over his lips and gushed from the terrible wound in his neck, but he moved no more.
Katrina fell backwards onto her haunches, her hands sticky with the old man’s blood. She looked at Henry’s face; deathly pale, flecked with blood, unmoving. He seemed more surprised than anything, his eyes were wide, his brow quirked, and his lips slightly parted.
Beside her, Inquisitor Greyseer sighed and shook his head. ‘We need to get out of here.’
‘You can’t,’ a weak voice said from the stairway.
Instinctively, Katrina grabbed her sword and span. She had almost forgotten about the person who had been attacked by the undead and dragged into the cellar. She certainly did not expect to find herself eye-to-eye with the skinny blacksmith’s son, Welf.
His clothes were bloodied and torn, like much of the exposed skin on his face and arms. The filth on his face was tear-streaked, and his filthy hair, usually dusty with soot, was clumped and matted with yet more blood and had been torn out in places. ‘They’re in the woods. Hundreds of them,’ he said, his voice shaking.
‘Surely we have to try,’ Inquisitor Greyseer said stiffly, getting to his feet and curling his lip.
Welf shook his head and let out a choking cough. ‘We did,’ he said quietly. ‘Da and I both made a run for the woods. We got past that…’ he shuddered, ‘that thing, it was too busy sucking the life out of a group of soldiers. But the woods are crawling with the dead. Da tried to smash his way out but there were too many and…’
Katrina winced. She had never liked Torrin Twist-Hand, but he had been Welf’s father. ‘What can we do, then?’ she asked hopelessly. ‘Wait?’
Inquisitor Greyseer chewed his lip for a moment, his frown deepening. In the silence between the three people in the cellar, surrounded by blood and bodies, the screams and yells of those outside continued to echo. ‘I don’t know,’ he said eventually. ‘I don’t know what we can do.’
‘We need to hide,’ Welf said, his voice cracking and breaking, his eyes darting and desperate. ‘We can’t stop them, there are too many, and that thing in the hood with the spear…’ he shuddered again, choking down a sob. ‘We can’t. We have to hide. We must.’
Katrina glared at the smith’s son as more screams echoed through the cellar. ‘You hear that?’ she snapped as a particularly terrible scream came from outside. ‘Can you live with yourself having done nothing to stop that?’
Welf made no reply. His lips wobbled and he looked at the floor. ‘Please,’ he whispered. ‘Please don’t make me go back out there…’
Katrina looked down her nose at the snivelling young man and clenched her teeth. ‘We can’t do nothing!’ she said despairingly. ‘These things killed Henry! They’re slaughtering everyone else!’
‘And they’ll kill you if you go rushing out there!’ Inquisitor Greyseer snarled, grabbing Katrina by the wrist. ‘Don’t be such a fool, girl.’
Katrina rounded on the inquisitor. ‘I risked everything fighting for what those people up there believe in; I even risked my own neck for the villagers here, and now they’re being wiped out by some monster!’
Inquisitor Greyseer glared at Katrina. ‘Do what you will,’ he snapped, before folding his arms and glaring at her.
Katrina held his glare for a few moments before placing her hand on the pommel of her sword, turning around, and marching up the stairs out of the cellar. She pushed past Welf as she went; the young man was still snivelling.
She found the common room of the tavern in chaos. The few greasy benches and stools on the bloody rush-covered floor had been overturned, and a number of bodies were strewn amongst them. Katrina did not stop to see if they were friend or foe, and hurried towards the shattered wooden door that led out on to the road. She hesitated as a chorus of screaming erupted from outside, but clutched her sword and stepped out into the street.
The half-light of the moon fell like a translucent snow upon the devastation that had been wrought upon Witherwood. Two thatched houses were alight, great fingers of flame scrabbling desperately towards the pitch-black sky above. The muddy road that ran through the village was littered with corpses – both of the living and the undead. Over them stepped dozens upon dozens of the dead, their eyes and wounds glowing with the eerie, phantom green.
But over them all, manifesting between the flames of the burning houses, rose the lich. It seemed both taller and broader than it had done earlier, and the fire and flames that licked around it did not so much as mark the bare, putrefied flesh of its arms. Its spear, with its green, flint-like head, was drenched in blood. The light and shadow cast of the fire made terrible shadows of the fresh corpse in the lich’s free fist.
As Katrina stood, her eyes fixed on the horrid, hooded creature that seemed to be hovering amongst the flames of the village, she felt its gaze turn towards her. Its featureless face, hidden entirely by the shadow of its ragged hood, stared through the darkness and carnage that swept the village. Katrina felt a terrible chill come over her, but did not drop her gaze.
Suddenly, she heard a roar followed by the clash of steel on steel. Katrina looked down the road, past the shambling corpses, and towards the village centre where the large bonfire was still burning. She could see frantic shadows moving, the gleam of weapons in firelight, and the yelling of frantic voices. People, she thought. They need help.
Gritting her teeth, Katrina looked at the wall of shambling undead monsters before her, blocking her passage to the centre of Witherwood. Through their silhouettes lay her goal: the middle of the village. Katrina took a breath to calm her nerves. She had seen how fast the undead were capable of moving when the spear-wielding corpse had attacked her. She had been slow. Underestimating; arrogant. This time she would not be.
 She drew her shortsword, flexed her fingers, and charged.
Her goal was not slaughter; Katrina knew if she got distracted by dismembering the dead that she would be overrun and torn to pieces. There were far more of them than there were of her, and they could be quick. I have to be quicker.
Her first blow was driven through the spine of a fallen Maedarian soldier. She did not stop, battering the undead creature to the floor and continuing her run. Her second strike ripped the jaw from a semi-naked imperial carcass riddled with arrows. The thing swung at her, but its grey fists arced wide. She sprang away and kept running.
She swept about her with her sword as she ran through the pressing throng of corpses. Terrible green eyes and leering mouths swirled before her as she ran and slashed at the pressing wall of unliving flesh before her. The terrible creatures grabbed for her free arm as she attacked, but time and again wrenched it away until the muscles in her shoulder and elbow screamed. When they clutched at her long, fire-red hair, she slashed at their hands, her hair falling away in gory clumps. Katrina kept running, kept swinging, and kept fighting.
Suddenly, flesh was replaced by firelight, and Katrina fell face-first through the last line of corpses and into the glowing firelight of the square. Hands were upon her before she could look up, and she screamed, slashing wildly with her sword. A vice-like hand grabbed her wrist, though, and her slashing was stilled.
‘Damnit, girl, stop!’ a deep voice snarled as Katrina felt herself being dragged towards the fire, bumping and bouncing over detritus and debris as she went. ‘Stop before you give ‘em something else to bring back!’
Eyes wide, Katrina looked up into the weathered, mean face of Torrin Twist-Hand. The big smith was surrounded by exhausted, harrowed faces: Maedarian rebels clutching swords and a few peasants with pitchforks in their fists. The smith had a huge, bloody mallet in his belt and his only hand clamped around Katrina’s sword-arm. His ear had been torn off and his face was slathered in blood, and his balding scalp sported a bloody wound made by a sword. His lips were split, his eyes blackened, and his clothes slathered in blood. She would have thought him one of the undead given the state of him, if it were not for his normal, non-glowing eyes.
‘Torrin?’ Katrina gasped, yanking at her arm. ‘Welf said you were dead!’
The big smith heaved Katrina to her feet and let go of her arm. ‘He would’ve,’ he grunted and spat out a glob of blood. ‘Bastard things almost got me.’
Katrina looked around. There were perhaps fifty people in the village centre, clustered around the huge bonfire. Some brandished swords and axes, whilst others wielded tools and whatever else they had been able to get their hands on. They had fortified their position with everything from overturned wagons, broken barrels, and dead cattle, amongst which the defenders lurked, pouncing on the dead that advanced, smashing them to pieces with any item they could: sticks, stones, hammers, and axes.
The undead seemed reluctant to advance, even though they drastically outnumbered the living in the centre of the village. The ramshackle obstacle-course of junk that ringed the fire was keeping them occupied and disorganised long enough for the last survivors to rally.
‘I don’t actually believe the soddin’ tales were true!’ the smith snarled, checking Katrina over for injuries once they were well behind the defensive barricades. ‘Lady o’ the Woods my arse – yet here she is, in all ‘er rotten glory!’
‘It’s not the Lady,’ Katrina said, slapping the smith’s hands away and glancing around herself to make sure no corpses had managed to slip through the meagre spread of defences around the uncomfortably hot bonfire. There were women and children clustered around her too, along with a few wounded men and women to whom the villagers desperately attended, applying makeshift tourniquets and bandages to bloody wounds. ‘It’s a lich, Inquisitor Greyseer said so.’
The smith spat. ‘An’ you believe this bloody imperial?’ he sneered. ‘They never understood our ways or our beliefs. If he ain’t out ‘ere tryin’ to kill it with us, then I ‘ope he dies.’
Katrina glared at the smith. ‘That’s not helpful,’ she snapped.
Silence fell between the two figures for a moment whilst the handful of living defenders around them took swift jabs at the ever-thickening wall of undead ringing the bonfire. It was only then Katrina realised there were women and children clustered with their faces towards the flames, weeping and pleading with one-another and the gods to preserve them. A few of them were treating a small group of wounded young men, doing everything they could to stop their terrible wounds from bleeding, though even as Katrina watched on helplessly, two of them slipped away.
‘It’s playin’ with us,’ Torrin snarled, appearing suddenly beside Katrina, his battered face turned towards the Lich that lurked towards the edge of the village. ‘It’s not interested in killin’ us all yet. It wants to break us first – to make us think there’s hope, then snatch it away.’
Katrina looked at the ring of walking corpses clustered around the bonfire, surrounding the last few living in Witherwood. One or two advanced, swiping at the living, who always quickly leapt forwards to drive them back. A few even fell – Katrina watched as a farmer armed with a hoe struck a bloody imperial monster clean in the throat and took its head off. He and two other men with him cheered as he did, daring the corpses to advance and try again.
‘Then what do we do?’ Katrina said, turning to the big smith. ‘We can try and cut our way out or-…’
The smith shook his head and took the bloody hammer from his belt. ‘Won’t work. Not everyone ‘ere fights like you,’ he said. ‘More of us’ll be slaughtered tyrin’ to force our way out. If only there were a way to kill that thing,’ the smith snarled, gesturing at the monster looming through the flames that were spreading through the village.
Torrin had barely finished speaking when the undead took up a terrible, dry-mouthed chant. They began to howl and leer through their cold, pale lips, spitting blood and gnashing on their tongues. Their green eyes seemed to flash and glow brighter, and another terrible wind blew over the village.
Katrina found her eyes drawn past the gnashing dead towards the lich still lurked on the edge of the village. It seemed to have risen up into the air, and was holding its spear high into the air. The green, flint-like blade at the end of the crude, stick-like shaft flashed in the moonlight.
‘What’s it doing?’ Katrina said, turning towards Torrin Twist-Hand.
The smith’s mouth hung open, his eyes wide. ‘I dunno,’ he said. ‘It’s not done this before.’
There was a blinding flash. Katrina could not tell if it came from the flames around the lich, the moon above it, or the spear in its hand, for she spun and covered her eyes to stop herself being dazzled. She was the first to recover, and spun about, clutching her sword, expecting the dead to charge at any moment.
Instead, a chilling scream came from behind her. She span to see the two dead men by the fire clawing at one of the women who had been treating the wounded. Some of the others were desperately trying to pull the undead off her, but to no avail. Behind them, a small group of children had begun screaming.
With a defiant cry, Katrina charged, her sword sang. One head fell and her second strike drove the blade of the sword into the eye-socket of the second creature. It thrashed around, letting go of the woman it held to try and grab Katrina. She twisted her blade, whipped it out, and struck the creature in the neck once, twice, three times before the head fell away. The green glow dissipated from the corpse’s eyes, and it was still once more.
Katrina turned, looking towards the young woman she had saved, but her eyes never found her and no words left her lips. Wide-eyed and staring with horror, she gawked back into the village, bathed orange-white in fire and moonlight. The lich held its weapon high, the moon gleaming through the forearm-length, shimmering green stone-like blade. Below it, the corpses of the living slain by the dead began to spasm and stir. Slowly, their eyes began to glow, their wounds shone, and they rose to their feet.
‘No!’ Katrina heard Torrin cry. ‘No! Not more!’
Katrina took a long, slow breath and clutched her sword, looking from the once again advancing press of undead flesh to the lich which stood, towering over them all. It was drifting forwards, slowly moving through its horde of mindless soldiers. There has to be something we can do, she thought. The Old Gods surely wouldn’t allow something not of this world to exist without a way of it being bested…surely…
The slaughter began.
The undead moved with a single mind, directed by the lich’s staff. They surged forwards, overwhelming the last of the living in a single wave of greyish, rancid flesh. Katrina found herself standing over the screaming women and children around the fire trying desperately to think of something. Anything.
Her eyes widened. ‘Not of this world,’ she whispered, staring through the flames. ‘The spear it carries. Not of this world.’
Clasping her sword and clenching her teeth, Katrina ran into the thick wall of green-eyed death.

No comments:

Post a Comment