Sunday, 30 July 2017

Where the Moonlight Dances - Part IV

In the final part of Where the Moonlight Dances, Katrina, our heroine, makes one last desperate attempt to halt the rising tide of chaos that threatens to spill out of Witherwood and into the wider world. As the wretched hand of death tightens around the hapless village, threatening to choke the final vestiges of life from within it, our story reaches its climax with an epic showdown between the last few living and the horrifying horde swarming the village.

To those of you have read every part of Where the Moonlight Dances, I thank you. To those who have stuck with me throughout my intermittent posting over the last few months. I cannot guarantee when I shall release my next short(ish) story, but there are several currently in the pipeline!

The story will be released as an entire post next weekend for those who prefer to read it that way.

‘Torrin!’ Katrina yelled as she ran, darting around the living and the dead, scrambling over barrels and boxes and other makeshift defences. She had an idea. It was a long shot, but it was better than nothing. ‘Torrin!’
            It was more by chance that she found the big smith than by any skill. As she ran through the last of the defenders, stabbing and slashing wildly as she went, she chanced upon the huge man who was himself surrounded by a small contingent of the last of the living capable of fighting. ‘Torrin! I need a chain!’
            The big smith’s only hand was drenched in blood and he had sustained a nasty cut to his cheek. ‘What?’ he snarled. ‘Does this look like the time to-…?’
            ‘If we can restrain the lich, we can kill it!’
            The smith laughed, swinging his smithing hammer at one of the walking corpses that was too close for his liking. ‘An’ just ‘ow are we gonna do that, even with a chain? The thing’s monstrously strong an’ there are several ‘undred corpses between us and it!’
            Katrina ignored his complaints. ‘Just tell me where the chain you were making earlier is!’ she yelled over the din of battle, spinning around quickly to drive off one of the undead creatures that was getting too close.
            Torrin pointed towards his forge which was located on the far side of the village centre, back the way she had come and through a line of pressing undead. Katrina’s heart fell as she saw it engulfed in flames that reached high into the midnight sky.
            ‘You’d be a fool to try!’ the smith said, his voice cracking with a half-laugh.
            Katrina glared at him, then set off at a run back the way she had come. The dead lurched for her as she went, stumbling and falling about her. Twice she tripped as lunging hands caught her ankles, but both times she was up and away before the dead could overrun her.
            The few defenders that remained were doing all they could to hold back the tide of undead. Grouped in units of four or five, they blocked the passageways between the crude defences they had made, hiding behind shields and bottlenecking the press of undead. Their efforts were valiant, but Katrina knew if something was not done about the Lich, it would all be for nothing.
            Soon, Katrina stood before the burning smithy, her red hair fire-gold in the light of the blaze. There were a few undead horrors in front of it, unperturbed by the incredible heat belching out from within the building. Driven by determination and desperation, Katrina threw herself at the dead. Her sword sang and the creatures fell one by one, their heads severed, their spines crushed, or their skulls caved in. Phantom green essence left the shattered bodies as their wounds made the enchanted spectral mist that drove them break free.
            Without pausing for a thought – without allowing herself time to doubt – she charged through the collapsed door into the walls of the formerly thatched building. The heat that rose up around her blistered her flesh and made her pause. As she did, she felt fire on her legs and leapt forwards with a cry. She found herself in the middle of the workshop, the forge’s fire burning out of control. The weapons, tools, armour, and appliances lined up in the workshop were warped by the incredible heat, and the stone floor beneath Katrina was hot enough to burn the soles of her feet through her heavy boots.
            Katrina had seen Torrin Twist-Hand working on a large iron chain earlier that day, slaving away over his anvil, whilst Lucien had lectured her on the virtues of his plan to deal with the advancing imperial army. It felt so long ago. He had been right, she thought as she advanced through the flames, and he had almost won us the day. But now this. Is he to blame? If the battle hadn’t taken place in the woods, would the Lich have left us alone?
            There was no time to worry. As the fire licked around her, Katrina resigned herself to the fact she would probably never know, and was even less likely to see the next sunrise. Gods damn you Lucien, she thought as she dodged a burning beam that tumbled from the roof, bringing with it a huge wave of flame-engulfed thatch. You didn’t even have the courtesy to stick around and help us deal with this mess.
            Frantically, Katrina looked around the forge. Between the warped surfaces, fire-wreathed timbers, and forge-inferno, she could not make out the chain. Then, in the far corner of the room, next to a pile of warping blades, she saw it: mercifully untouched the fire, and intact. She leapt towards it, dodging gusts of flame that boiled the skin on her legs and the back of her hands. She was sure that at some point her hair caught light, but she batted it so hard she made her head hurt and the heat went away.
            She grabbed hold of the chain and pulled, dodging another wave of falling, conflagrated thatch as she did so. It was sturdy, as thick as her arm and well-made. It was long, too; I hope it’s long enough, she thought as she heaved, sweating and panting. As she heaved and tugged on the chain, dragging the long coiled rope of metal links with her, she felt it snag. Cursing and screaming with anger and fear, Katrina pulled and wrenched on the stuck chain. She could not see what held it, for all around her was fire. With every breath she inhaled smoke, and with each desperate gasp her throat burned and stung. It felt as if the claws of the undead were at her throat, scratching away at her gullet, grasping, ripping.
            ‘Come on!’ she screamed hoarsely, a bloody taste filling her mouth. ‘Come on, you bastard! Come on!’ She heaved again, and found herself tumbling backwards as the chain came free from whatever it was caught upon. She landed hard on the red-hot cobbles and knocked what little smoky breath she had left in her from her lungs.
            With horror, Katrina looked back the length of the chain. Looming out of the flames before her came a huge, rotted figure. Its clothes burned away, she saw its naked, split, and charred flesh was the host to tendrils of golden flame. Katrina immediately recognised it as another wight, only this one was forged from the remains of a woman – and was on fire.
            With a shriek, Katrina yanked on the chain. She saw the wight lurch out of the fire, then stumble as one of its legs was pulled out from underneath it. Katrina’s heart leapt as she saw the chain coiled around one of the wight’s legs, and scrambled to her feet. With a roar of effort, she heaved the chain and began to drag the wight with her, keeping the huge creature off-balance and unable to act.
            Grim happiness on her sweat-streaked and flame-burned face, Katrina let out a laugh as she hauled on the wight. ‘Bastard!’ she screeched, euphoric over her sudden turn of fortune. ‘Burn you rotten bastard!’
            She gave another yank on the chain and watched with sadistic joy and the wight struggled and yelped. She was close to the door, almost out of the forge. Once she was outside, Katrina knew that she would stand a chance against the creature with the help of the defenders. This’ll show Torrin, she thought, letting out another hoarse laugh. He doubted me. He’ll eat his words-…
            Katrina had barely finished thinking when the last remaining remnants of the forge’s roof collapsed. Still clinging onto the chain, she let out a cry of effort as she hurled herself through the doorway of the forge, narrowly avoiding the sheet of flaming thatch that crashed around her. With it came the beams that held up the roof, and then the walls. Before Katrina had even recovered from her leap, the forge was a pile of burning rubble.
            Quickly taking stock of the chaos wrought across the village centre, Katrina regained her composure. The defenders were managing, though people were falling with each passing moment. The lich needed to be killed – or stopped, or something – before they were completely overrun. She could still see the horrific, hooded creature drifting around the periphery of the village. I can do this, she thought, we can do this.
Scrambling to her blistered feet, Katrina began to heave on the chain. It came easily through the burning rubble as he yanked and pulled. Then, with a crack the last of the chain came free – wrapped around the severed leg of the wight.
Katrina paused, frowning at the limb as it bounced and rolled from the burning ruins to land at her feet. The fire-scarred flesh and broken, marrow-leaking bone within stank, but did not move. It looked like an odd ornament at the end of the dozens-of-paces-long chain: huge, clawed toenails jutted out from half-burned bone around which lumps of blackened flesh were still wrapped. It looked like some surreal weapon.
Something burst from within the rubble before Katrina. She barely had time to lift her gaze from the severed leg before something barrelled into her and sent her flying across the middle of the village. She felt her ribs snap and crack as she was struck, and the air was crushed from her lungs as she landed hard, the chain still wrapped around her feet. She would have screamed had she the breath, but instead lay dazed and near-senseless as the world swam about her.
The wight was on top of her before she could even raise her arms in defence. Huge, jagged teeth bore down upon her throat and face. With what little energy and effort she had left, she aimed a wild punch at the middle of the wight’s face. The residual hair that hung from its head still burned, as did much of the flesh left on its body. It was a hideous thing – green fog glowing in its eyeless sockets and from within the hole where its nose should have been, with its lips and cheeks burned away and the warped and mutated bone within its spine exposed through a gaping hole in its throat.
It’s spine.
Katrina felt herself suddenly sober as a mouthful of teeth descended on her again. Broken, cracked and jagged fangs tore at her face and she screamed as she felt blood pour from her face and her world throb with sudden agony. Her left eye filled with blood, and suddenly she found herself half-blinded, only able to see through her right eye.
With a scream of effort and pain, Katrina forced the chain she held between the teeth of the wight. It bit down on her fist, one of its charred teeth taking a chunk out of the back of her hand. She wrapped looped the chain around the monstrous thing’s head once, twice, three times whilst it fought to free itself from the chain in its mouth.
Half-crushed under the weight of the monster, Katrina somehow managed to wriggle free whilst the wight was otherwise occupied trying to pull the chain from its mouth with its burned fingers. Staggering, disoriented, but still with the chain in her fist and her sword in her belt, she leapt to her feet and onto the prone-lying monster’s back. Screaming with hatred, anger, and fear as blood poured from her facial wound, Katrina placed her boot at the bottom of the wight’s neck, just above its twisted shoulders, and pulled with all the strength she had.
Katrina did not know if the wight was capable of thinking for itself, or if realisation was something that occurred to the dead – she hoped dearly as she pulled on the chains with all her remaining might she would never have to find out – but the rotting, burned, and still smouldering foe beneath her suddenly began to scramble desperately. Its fingers caught in the chain at its mouth as the lengths tightened, it let out something that could have been a howl as it began to thrash around with its single remaining leg.
With a final scream of ‘Bastard! Old God-forsaken bastard!’ Katrina pulled on the chain with all her strength. Her cracked ribs screamed with pain as the force on her chest and stomach pulled them tight, and she felt her senses fading as she slipped towards unconsciousness. But then it came. First, there was the crunch of the wight’s trapped fingers breaking and snapping, then a crack as its jaw broke. Finally, with a sound that was more of a rip that anything else, the creature’s head came away from its shoulders. The phantom-green glow in its eyes died, and Katrina watched as a fading, green-tinged fog left its body.
            Katrina fell backwards, exhausted and wrecked. Her whole body was burned, bloodied, or broken. The sight was forever gone from her left eye, she could tell. She also feared the wound would prove fatal, for she could feel the skin and flesh on her face was torn deep. If I’m to die, I’m not coming back as one of these things, she thought as she gazed up into the sky, where moonlight was mixing with smoke and screams of pain and terror echoed.
            She had never known pain like it. That of her which had not been exposed to fire had been broken by the wight, and that which had not been broken by the undead monster had been bitten, gnawed, and torn by something else. As she lay beside the hulking corpse of the wight, she let out a long, exhausted sigh. The world around her seemed to dim a little as her senses waned.
She pulled her sword from her belt and held the tip of it at her throat in her wobbling hands. Will I even manage to take my own head off? She thought as she pressed the tip into the nape of her neck.
A boot kicked the sword from her hand, and suddenly she was being dragged.
‘Get the chain, damn ya! She almost died for tha’!’
‘Don’t you forget her sword then!’
‘I’ve only got one bloody hand, imperial pig, an’ I’m currently draggin’ ‘er with it!’
Katrina’s vision faded as she saw two weathered and battered faces looking down at her, half-illuminated by fire and moonlight. One was rotund and bitter, the other grey and stern. ‘Please,’ she whispered. ‘Please, don’t let me turn into one of them.’
‘Don’t you worry,’ a deep, hard voice said. ‘You’ll be alrigh’.’
Darkness fell.


When Katrina finally opened her eyes again, she found her world still ached with pain. Like the dregs of a nightmare, it clung to her form. She felt her heart suddenly race with panic as she realised she had no idea where she was and sat bolt upright, blinking hard.
            There was dull light, figures, shapes. It felt familiar, but before Katrina could make sense of what she was seeing, the pain that held her body flared and she let out a cry. One of the shadowy figures she had seen was over her, gently pushing her down. ‘Not yet,’ said a deep, stern voice. ‘Slowly.’
            ‘Where am I?’
            ‘The basement of the tavern. Again.’
            Katrina blinked. Something was wrapped around her face. She lifted her hands to touch it and felt a sticky dressing over her left eye and much of her cheek. ‘What’s this?’ she said.
            The figure above her straightened his back. ‘I fear you have lost the sight of your left eye,’ he said quietly. ‘Though your fight with the wight was allegedly something else.’
            Katrina had feared as much. With a sigh, she blinked her one good eye until she could see again. Sure enough, she was once more lying in the basement of the tavern. The corpses of the dead had been removed, and the shackles had been taken from the walls, though there were still great brownish-red smears of dried blood across the floor and up the walls. There were a dozen or so people in the cellar, mainly women, children, and wounded. They sat quietly, no-one saying much. Their faces were drawn and filthy, their cheeks streaked with tears.
            ‘It’s very quiet,’ Katrina said, looking up at the figure over her.
            Inquisitor Greyseer, who stood over her, his eyes thoughtful and steely, nodded his head slowly. ‘That it is,’ he said. His white robe was filthy with blood and dirt and not a single patch of it remained white.
No wonder I didn’t recognise him, Katrina thought. ‘What’s happened?’
Greyseer looked down at Katrina, his expression grave. ‘We are all that’s left,’ he said.
Katrina felt her face pale. ‘But the chain, I-…’
            ‘No-one knew what you planned to do with it,’ Greyseer said. ‘During your fight with the second wight, the lich seemed to lose its patience – if such a creature is capable of such feeling.’ He sighed and chewed his lip for a moment, his gaze wandering as if pained. ‘I’ve never seen anything like it,’ he said eventually. ‘It appeared through the dead and began to slaughter everyone. It crushed the barricades we had and then scythed through those that were unprepared with its spear. We lost half our number – if not more – before we were able to make a run back here. Now, we’re trapped; the lich cannot get in, it appears, and we cannot get out. Every window and entrance to the tavern has been fortified as best as it can be.’
            Katrina felt her heart sink hopelessly. ‘So everyone else is…?’
            ‘Dead. Yes’
            She swallowed. ‘And we just have to wait here? Die here eventually?’
            Inquisitor Greyseer shrugged his shoulders. ‘We have enough sustenance here to keep everyone alive for a week or so, and some people seem to think that the lich may eventually tire and go away-…’
            ‘You’re an inquisitor!’ Katrina snarled. ‘You’re trained to deal with monsters, both living and dead, and here you are advocating we sit here and wait either for the lich to move on, or to die ourselves!’
            Greyseer was visibly cowed for a moment, but his gaze hardened and he set his jaw. ‘My duty is to the Empire,’ he said, ‘and the denizens within this cellar are not of the Empire-…’
            ‘And they never will be if you let them all die!’ Katrina flared, scrambling to her feet despite the pain in her chest. ‘These people here hate you and the Empire! If you truly care about the Empire, then help me save them!’
            ‘Help you?’ the inquisitor growled. ‘You’re one of the worst injured her: you can barely see, your ribs are like woodchips, and almost your entire body is burnt!
            ‘And I want to help these people!’ Katrina shouted, gesturing widely to the battered and beaten folk around them. Most were peasant men and women, though a handful of Maedarian rebels remained – including the fellow who had earlier been writing a ballad praising Lucien’s victory. ‘I can barely walk, and I’m willing to try! What’s your excuse?’
            Greyseer scowled through the half-light of the cellar. ‘I would rather take my chances down here than die on some fool’s errand trying to slay a lich!’
            ‘Don’t you see?’ Katrina snapped, ‘The spear it wields is the key! It acts like a focus for its magic-…’
            ‘And it can cut through six men in a single swipe!’ Greyseer snapped. ‘What do you suppose you can do? You’ve no formal military training, you know as little as anyone else her about the undead, and you’re a woman. There is no hope for us fighting.’
            Katrina glared at Inquisitor Greyseer, her temper boiling. ‘Your so-called Divine Empress was a woman,’ she snarled, ‘and look at what she accomplished. Meanwhile, look at just how much your emperor has lost. And you’re right,’ she said through her teeth, ‘there is no hope. That’s because we make our own hope.’
            Katrina barged past the inquisitor, grabbing her sword from where it had been left beside her and marched up the stone steps into the wrecked tavern’s common room. All the benches and other pieces of furniture that had not been strapped down had been piled against either the windows or the in the broken doorway. Katrina could see shafts of grey light breaking through the slight gaps in the piles stacked up against each opening. Night had passed with her unconscious.
            ‘Torrin,’ Katrina declared as she made her way into the wrecked and ruined room. ‘I need your help.’
            The big smith was still alive, just as Katrina knew he would be, leaning heavily against the tavern’s stone wall. He looked battered, bloodied, bruised, yet unbowed and was surrounded by another dozen or so fighters along with the wide-eyed and teary-looking Welf, all of whom were filthy and looked exhausted. As he heard his name, the big smith looked up. ‘Wha’?’
            ‘Where did you put that chain?’ she asked.
            ‘Boys wanted to put it in the barricades,’ the one-handed smith said, ‘but I wouldn’t let ‘em. If you battered that burnin’ wight, it would’ve been for a good reason, an’ I wanted to know wha’ it was.’
            Katrina’s lips curved into a smile. ‘We tangle the lich up in a chain, take its weapon, and run it through.’
            There was silence in the room for a few moment. The big smith and the remaining Maedarian rebels looked at her as if she was mad, their eyes wide and expressions twisted in horror. Then, to Katrina’s surprise, Torrin spoke: ‘Ah, ‘eck with it. Let’s go.’
            ‘What?’ the big smith’s son said from beside him. ‘You can’t go back out there! You’ll die!’
            ‘Son,’ Torrin Twist-Hand said, looking down at the lad, ‘a time comes in every man’s life where he ‘as to stand up and be a man. I ‘ope that, by my standin’ up today, you might live to one day have the opportunity to prove to the world just what sorta man you are.’ The smith turned and pulled the long, heavy chain out from behind one of the piles of debris blocking the windows. ‘And I’d rather die on the end o’ that thing’s spear than waste away ‘ere.’
            ‘Well,’ Welf said, drawing his face into a pout, ‘I’m coming with you.’
            The big smith looked down at his scrawny son and smiled. ‘I’ll not make you,’ he said.
            ‘No,’ the boy said, ‘I’ll not sit here whilst you risk your life for me. Not this time. I ran earlier and it was the biggest mistake I ever made.’
            Torrin clapped his son on the shoulder, then turned to the surviving defenders. ‘Are you all gonna be shown up by me boy?’
            There was a low rumble of grunting and sighing, coupled with the sound of weapons being drawn and armour being adjusted. Within a few moments, Katrina found herself facing fifteen armed men in mismatched plate, mail, and leather, carrying everything from swords and shields to axes and hammers, along with Torrin Twist-Hand and his son, Welf.
            ‘We bust out quickly,’ Katrina said. ‘Charge into them and keep moving; don’t stop, even when the lich appears. Torrin, throw the chaina round the lich; I’ll catch it and try and loop it up, just like I did with the wight. Everyone else, watch our backs, and if the chain comes to you, give it a twist and a pull.’
            The ashen-faced Maedarian defenders mumbled and nodded. There was fear in their eyes, but they seemed resigned to dying with a fighting chance than wasting away in the cellar.
            ‘Alright, then let’s move.’
            Katrina turned and began to pull at the barricade blocking the doorway. From beyond it she heard the groaning of undead limbs and the scratching of their hands. She took a deep breath, drew her sword, and readied herself.
            The first arm that punched through the weakening barricade was hacked off by one of the Maedarian defenders behind the fire-haired Katrina. Then, when it was weakened enough, the barrier collapsed, and in fell two of the undead creatures.
            Torrin crushed the head of one beneath his boot, kicking and stamping until the monster moved no-more. The second fell beneath a hail of blows from Katrina and the other defenders, its body hacked up in seconds.
            With a roar and her blade held high, Katrina charged out into the street, the last of the living behind her. The day was cold, and the sun had only risen an hour or two ago. The sky hung white and a thick fog had drifted in over the village, obscuring the twisted white trees that surrounded it as well as the tops and timbers of the shattered and burned-out houses that had been destroyed in the night’s violence.
Straightaway Katrina could see that the dead were scattered across the village, no-longer an organised force as they had been when bent to the lich’s will during the battle. A meagre handful were clawing at the blocked windows to the tavern, and Katrina and her survivors quickly dispatched them, driving their weapons through their heads, necks and spines. The essence seems to be concentrated there, she thought. The head, the neck, the spine.
            She was surprised it took her as long as it did to spot the lich. The thing looked uncanny in the eerie fog of the dawn, its own being seeming to twist and spiral with the cloudy haze that blanketed the village. The lich, still clutching its large spear and hidden under its ragged hood, seemed to be floating over the burned-out bonfire that had stood in the centre of the village, its phantom eyes upon them.
            Katrina could feel the lich focusing its will upon them. She knew they had only a matter of minutes before it had drawn in all its forces from across Witherwood and the woods around it, and they would be overrun and slaughtered. As she ran, Katrina could feel her cracked ribs grating and crunching as she moved. Pain wracked her battered body, but determination burned in her heart, scalding her fear away. She clenched her teeth as she ran, slashing with her sword at anything that got too close to her.
            ‘Keep moving!’ she cried. ‘Don’t let them separate us! Don’t waste time on the corpses!’
            The road to the middle of the village where the lich was teeming with undead, though not so many as to prevent their charge. Battering and beating through the shambling horde of dead soldiers and peasants, Katrina and her small group of warriors charged upon the lich, which seemed taken aback by the sudden show of ferocity from the hopelessly outnumbered living.
            As they exploded into the village centre, the lich turned its hooded head to look straight at Katrina. A terrible fear washed over her, but she swallowed and kept running, battering aside the corpses that blocked her way, knocking them down and continuing on her path around the lich.
            ‘Torrin!’ she cried. ‘Torrin, now!’
            She saw the huge, one-handed smith, his face drawn with anger, spin a length of the heavy chain around his head as if it were little more than a rope. When he let go of it, the length looped across the village centre, across the lich’s shoulder, and landed at Katrina’s feet. She scrambled, picking it up, and set off at a run towards the lich.
            As she went, she could sense the monstrosity before her hesitate. As it did so, she noticed the advancing undead corpses pause with it, hesitating in their advance and their attacks upon the few remaining living. Katrina seized her chance, dashed around the lich and looped the chain around its chest.
            ‘Katrina!’ she heard a cracked voice yelling. ‘Katrina, throw it here, throw it!’
            She looked up. Across the centre of the village stood Welf, a kitchen-knife tucked in his belt and his hands in the air. His face was ashen-white and his voice and form shook with terror, but he was resolute. He can do this, Katrina thought as she spun the chain. He can.
            The length of metal arced again, whizzing through the air and looping back around the lich. Katrina watched on as Welf missed the chain but seized it from the ground. He hesitated for a moment, suddenly aware of the dead pressing around him and that the lich was now glaring at him, its spear raised to strike. Katrina saw his eyes widen and his lips part. He can’t, she thought. He can’t do it.
            The spear shot out with lightning speed. The greenish, flint-like, leaf-shaped tip of the weapon scythed through the air towards Welf’s chest. The boy opened his mouth to scream but had no time, for he was sent spinning by a figure that dashed across the middle of the village and shoved him aside. The lich’s spear sank deep into the mud, lodging itself there for a moment.
            ‘Go!’ Inquisitor Greyseer yelled, dragging Welf to his feet and shoving him into a run. The young man set off at a terrified sprint towards where his father and a cluster of the Maedarian soldiers were driving back a number of the walking dead. As the chain looped around the lich again, Katrina saw the creature begin to strain.
‘I blocked the stairs before I left,’ Greyseer cried as he ran towards Katrina. ‘The undead will have a hard time getting down to the basement should we fail here.’
Katrina nodded. ‘A good thought,’ she said, watching as Welf handed the chain to his father. Torrin spun the metal length about his head again and hurled it back across the square to where a Maedarian soldier armed with an axe stood. The man grabbed the length and ran back and forth, catching one of the lich’s arms in the ever-tightening chain, whilst slowly but surely, more and more undead arrived to press the Maedarian defenders. Katrina watched as one fell to the teeth of an undead imperial soldier.
But there was no time to stop. Soon, the chain was back in her hands and she was running. The lich, eerily silent and still as it was wrapped in the chain, did very little to fight the survivors off. As Katrina ran, looping the chain around the now thoroughly entangled monster, she found herself falter. Something’s wrong, she thought. Somethings very wrong.
Suddenly, Torrin’s voice rang in her mind as she tossed the chain to one of the defenders and drew her sword to drive off an advancing corpse. “It’s playin’ with us,” she thought, Torrin’s firelit face swimming before her in her mind’s eye. “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. 
She looked around desperately at the growing mass of undead in the middle of the village. They were holding back, just as they had before the surge the previous night. Katrina could see their eerie green glowing through the thick fog. They weren’t advancing. They had stopped. It’s going to attack us, she thought, I have to tell someone!
‘Inquisitor!’ Katrina shrieked. ‘Inquisitor, its tricking-…’
She looked across the centre of Witherwood to where Inquisitor Greyseer was staring at her just as a terrible, groaning creaking snap exploded from the lich. Katrina looked on in horror and hopelessness as the lich flexed its long, thin, rotten arms and the chain that bound its body snapped as if it were little more than dry twigs before a gale. The lich span, its spear glittering and gleaming as it did so, the terrible green light of hundreds of undead eyes shining in the strange spear-tip.
The first sweep of the lance cut two defenders in half. The second skewered a third to a wall. Desperately, Katrina raised her sword. There must be something, she thought. There has to be something we can do!
Katrina watched as the third defender writhed on the end of the lich’s spear for a few moments, pinned to the wall, before falling still. The lich was strong, but even it had difficulty removing the lance from the wall. As it attacked, so did the pressing hordes of undead. With a single movement, they surged forwards, overwhelming the defenders in a single move. Katrina saw Torrin and Welf both swept under the tide of decomposing flesh and glowing green aura.
‘Girl!’ she heard Inquisitor Greyseer cry. ‘Get the spear! Get it!’
Katrina spun just in time to see the lich looming over her. It was floating, as if the lower part of its robe and body were made from the very black fog that coiled around it. It was several feet taller than her, and impossibly thin and gangly, though faster and more deadly than anything she had ever seen before.
The first blow missed; Katrina hurled herself forwards as the lance crashed into the spot she had been standing in moments before. She found herself under the creature and, without thinking, lashed out with her sword. She felt the blade scrape across flesh and bone, and the lich let out a horrible, unearthly howl that made Katrina’s ears throb as if they were about to burst.
She dodged another blow; her blade had hurt the lich, but the force which she had put into it had not been enough to significantly wound it. Greyseer was right, just as she had been: We need the lance. We must try and kill it with its own weapon.
Suddenly, she did not know how, but she was at Greyseer’s side. The dead were closing in on the two of them; they were surrounded by a sea of rotting flesh and bloody armour, over the top of which loomed the lich, which advanced through the fog like the wind – but utterly, deathly silent.
‘Girl, we run!’ Greyseer cried. ‘We must-…’
Katrina was about to respond when the lich surged forwards. Suddenly, Inquisitor Greyseer was no-longer standing beside her, and the lich had swept past her. His sword clattered across the ground and Katrina span.
The lich had the inquisitor impaled against a section of collapsed stone wall that had once been part of Torrin’s smithy. The lance was driven deep through his stomach and into the rubble, and the inquisitor was doing everything he could to hold the spear in place.
‘Katrina!’ he cried.
She knew what he meant. Time seemed to slow as Katrina charged across the distance that separated her from the lich. Undead hands reached for her as the pressing horde of walking corpses advanced upon her, but she was faster. Even with her wrecked and agony-wracked body, she did not allow herself to stop.
You do this, or you die, she told herself as she flew through the air.
Bodily, she threw all her weight at one of the lich’s elbows. She smashed through the limb like a fiery-red haired quarrel fired from a crossbow. She had no idea if she had broken the lich’s arm, or if she had even hurt it, but the moment she landed she was back on her feet again. She wrapped her hands around the shaft of the spear and pulled with all the might she had left. Every fibre and every single particle of her will and being was channelled into the strength with which she pulled the stave forwards, out of Inquisitor Greyseer, out of the ruined wall, and towards the lich.
Clearly caught off-guard by the sudden show of aggression, the lich fumbled to maintain its grip on its weapon. As it reached around to grab the shaft with its hand that had been knocked loose by Katrina’s first attack, Katrina wrenched the spear in an arc, twisting the monster’s wrist and causing it to miss the grab for its own weapon.
Suddenly, Katrina found herself free, the long, strangely-bladed weapon in her hands. Her arms burned from the force of wresting the weapon from the lich’s grasp, but she could see her work was not done, for the lich was advancing upon her with its hands outstretched, as were its hordes of undead minions.
It was surprisingly light, Katrina thought as she brought the weapon around behind her. Let’s see if it really can cut through six men at once as Greyseer said it could. With a scream of fury and defiance, she span the weapon in the widest arc she could.
The crude, faintly glowing, flint-like spear-tip sliced through the pressing dead like a scythe through  corn. Katrina watched in horror and awe as a dozen of the dead were dismembered by her single blow. Hope burning inside her, she brought the weapon around again and again, ripping through the dead as if they were nothing more than dry leaves.
Then the lich was upon her, hands outstretched and emitting a terrible screech. Katrina felt her bones tremble and shudder with the howl, but brought the spear around once more in a wide arc. She felt it cleave through one, two, three, four of the dead fall before the tip of the weapon struck the lich across the chest. The lich let out a howl that could have split the sky. It writhed, clutching at the long, bare hole that had appeared in its torso. Thick, oily, black blood poured from the wound as the lich continued to howl.
            With a scream of her own, Katrina charged. She drove the weapon into the lich’s stomach with such force that she felt the weapon emerge from the other side of the monster’s body. With the lich skewered on the end of the weapon, writhing and howling as a tide of thick, black ichor poured from its wound, she began to raise the writhing monster up on its own weapon as if it were a flag.
            She screamed with effort and bit her tongue. Blood flowed over her own lips, but soon she had the thing held high in the air, screaming and writhing. Around her, she could see the horde of undead beginning to falter and fall to the floor. One by one, the green mist that bound their bodies left them, and once more they became as the dead should be: still, silent, and peaceful.
            The lich continued to scream and howl, impaled on the end of its own weapon. As Katrina looked up at it, the black mist that swirled around it began to fade and dissipate, and with it so did the lich, Slowly, its rotten flesh turned to ash and its bones fell to dust, carried away on the cold wind that blew over Witherwood.
            And then she was standing in silence. All around her, a great sea of corpses rose and fell: loose scraps of clothing or blood-soaked hair blew in the wind that slowly cleared the fog that lay across Witherwood. With it came the stench: rotten flesh, blood, vomit, hopelessness, death. The lich was slain, but, as far as Katrina could see, no-one outside of those cowering in the tavern cellar had survived.
            Katrina turned. Behind her, slumped against the ruins of the smithy, was Inquisitor Greyseer. Blood was gushing from a huge wound in his stomach and he was paling fast.
            Katrina rushed towards him. ‘I’ll get help,’ she said, though she did not know what good it would be. The man’s wound was certainly mortal.
            ‘Don’t be stupid,’ he groaned. There was a moment of calm, but pain wracked the man’s face. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said.
            Katrina clenched her jaw and took hold of one of Greyseer’s bloody hands. ‘Why?’ she asked.
            ‘I was wrong about you,’ Greyseer said with a choked cough. ‘I have done the Empire a great disservice. You were right,’ he said, his face paling, ‘one should always try. We make our own hope. You did that today.’
            Katrina tried to hold her anger at the dying inquisitor, but her face cracked and a single tear left her eye. ‘I’m sorry,’ she said through her teeth.
            ‘No,’ he said. ‘I am. I was a coward.’ Inquisitor Greyseer spluttered blood and gripped Katrina’s hand. ‘You have a courage and an inner-light even the Divine Empress would envy. It has been an honour to be proven wrong by you.’
            ‘Don’t be foolish,’ Katrina said. ‘You’ll pull through.’
            But even before the words had left her lips, the inquisitor had died. His hand slipped from his wound and his grip on Katrina’s fist went limp.
            And Katrina was alone. A cold wind slowly blew the morning fog that had settled on the village away, but it revealed only the remnants of the chaos that had been wrought over the night. As Katrina stood, she saw both Welf and Torrin’s bodies lying close together, the only hand of the father placed protectively over his son. Scattered around were the rest of the Maedarian defenders, all of them dead. With a heavy sigh, Katrina walked across the carnage. The smell of rot and death no-longer bothered her, neither did the sight of the terrible wounds that were struck upon the corpses.
            No-one had won. The Empire had lost, the Maedarians had lost, the villagers had lost, and the lich had lost. There was barely anyone left alive in Witherwood, and although the Maedarians had stopped the Empire, the Maedarians had all wound up dead anyway. Katrina let out another sigh. Was that really how this began? she asked herself. Did this really start with that battle?
            It felt so long ago. Lucien, her friend-but-not-friend had been her biggest concern. Then there had been her brother, his death, the mourning she had never had a chance to properly do before she watched his twisted and mutated head hacked from his shoulders by an inquisitor. Katrina realised that the old her had died along with everyone else in Witherwood. Only now in the surreal tranquillity of the massacre did she feel it: nothing.
            When Katrina arrived at wrecked and ruined tavern, she merely put her head inside the ruined doorway and shouted, ‘Lich is dead,’ before turning and walking away, hoisting the lich’s spear over her shoulder as she went. She had only two desires in her heart: to put as many miles as she could between herself and Witherwood, and to ensure nothing like this ever happened again.

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