Aphelion Issue 224, Volume 21
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Six Thegn Quean

Episode Six

by David Ulnar-Slew




DEDICATION

Myself, because getting your first book out sucks. It has been long and hard and don't let anyone ever tell you it is not hard work. This has been blood sweat and tears.



1. Dawn Comes

It was quiet outside the village the following morning. The quiet was not calming, though. It was disquieting, eerie. All the men standing duty at the wall or gate were pacing or standing excessively still. The youngest, a lad named Tyler, seemed to be feeling the worst of it. They all knew what was coming. Those who saw the devastation outside the gates made sure to tell their tale to those inside. By that morning everyone knew evil was somewhere close by. The boy recited the only prayer he knew:

Gods of man bring to Raoqam.

Save our souls.

We will pay with our services.

Bring us to the realm of no end.

A dirty, wrinkled, scarred hand landed on the boy's shoulder from behind, startling him. He turned to see Poke holding a mild grin. "You scared, boy? You must be, to be blabbing country prayers like that."

"Yes, Warrant Officer. I thought I was a warrior, but I am not sure I want to do this now. I am petrified and I don't want to die."

The veteran embraced the youngster, much to his surprise. "Son, that sounds just like what I want to hear from a comrade before a battle. We might all die here, so I want someone at my back that is properly scared and doesn't want to die. Just make sure you do your best to keep the rest of us alive too, and we should be just fine. In the meantime, do as you been trained, and things just might be good in the end."

The boy looked relieved; not completely, but some. The older man turned on his heel and marched further down the line. He was probably just as scared as the young fellow. The fear had kept him alive fighting brigands and in border skirmishes for many years. This would undoubtedly be the biggest, most gruesome battle even he had ever seen. If they weren't equally scared, then there wasn't a sow's chinhair difference between the amounts. That had to be true. Chances are they were all about to die. In the distance, he saw Katlyn talking to the twins and he wandered over in time to hear the crux of the conversation.

Katlyn shook her head as Poke got there, in some kind of response to something Eve had asked. "I am sure what he said. He named him Benra. Why does that have meaning to you?"

Eve grasped Lilith's head and whispered into her ear before answering. "That was the name of our father's brother. If the others are dead, he should be dead as well. There would be shame if he survived and did not perish avenging his brother."

Lilith interrupted, "We will speak with your Ren after the killing is done today. We will find the truth then."

The part about Ren being "hers" seemed to rattle Katlyn more than the ominous way the twins inferred this discussion would take place. Lilith and Eve may not have noticed her startle at those words, but Poke did. The gods were truly laughing because there came Ren towards them then. Poke motioned with his hand below the waist to shoo the boy off because nothing good could come of the twins being distracted before the battle. It also wouldn't do for Ren to be hurt even before the battle began; that was always a possibility when you held court with the twins. The youngster wasn't paying attention, though, and was meandering blindly toward the imminent trouble. Well, there was another die cast. May as well stay for the show, Poke thought; this was about to be interesting. Ren's initial attention was on Katlyn, so he didn't appear to notice the twins' stares. It was either that, or he was just so used to them scowling at everyone that he took no note of them. His attention being fixed on Katlyn was notable though; the boy was smitten.

Lilith rushed at him immediately, "Who is Benra? Was he Shen? Where did he go?"

The hunter threw his hands up in front of him to halt her approach, "Whoa, easy. We are friends here. He was the prior hunt-master. He stayed for ten years or so and then left. Also, I have no idea where he came from, but he certainly looked like you two. As to where he went, you may want to ask the priest. They were close, and even though I apprenticed for him for many years, Relchior was his friend, the only one he really spoke to about his past or future plans."

That seemed to be enough for the two sisters as they stormed off in search of the priest. For some reason Ren's explanation was not questioned even for a moment. As they moved away in a hurry, Ren turned toward Katlyn and Poke.

"What was that all about, then?"

Poke just shrugged.

Katlyn put her hand on his shoulder. It seemed a bit familiar for her. "They just found out who they are, what they are. They are scrambling for any connection to that past. You may have just provided a piece that they need. It may signal a long lost uncle or a family coward. We don't know their way entirely, never mind the ways of their lost ancestors. Pay it no further mind unless you need to. Prepare for battle while you can."

Ren nodded at her but smiled nonetheless. They would fight today, but these two had plans for the future; that was evident to Poke. He left them to their preparations and went to see to his. If he was going to die today it was not going to be because he failed to check something that needed looking at.

Not that far away, the nek waited. Inom walked through his dark horde's encampment. It wasn't truly a camp, though. No one ate; no one slept. Not a soul was turned to another in conversation. The entire army just stood or sat staring into nothingness. All just waited for their master's command. Eker walked next to his maker. Their respective bodyguards followed behind. They both knew this was an affectation of living rulers and generals, to have entourage follow, but old habits die hard.

The decrepit lich turned toward his chief commander without stopping his forward pace. "Have I told you how we come here today, Eker?

"Master...," the general looked confused, "I have been with you from the beginning at the crypt."

"That was far from the beginning, child."

Eker cocked his head slightly to the side. "What do you mean, master?"

"This all began on one of the other continents. All the other lands of this world are controlled by Masters and their legions. We and the other races which differ from man are created by them for war. The Nek race is the darkest creation, some say not by much. One Master created us and was defeated by the combined might of the others before he could build a large army of Nek, to avoid our use. Even the fearless Masters fear us. One thought himself craftier than the others and stole the secret of our creation. I was his killer a long time ago. None were more loyal than me. My loyalty was repaid by being transformed into this, and being stored for a time of greater advantage. He had that oafish Eoten and the Kobols bring me here to be hidden among on the armistice continent. None of them trifle here, because much food comes from these fertile lands. The ships which come to port to buy food are crewed only by men, so none here know of these things." If it was possible for the lich to look fatherly it would have been at that moment as he instructed his child on the truth of the world.

"How is this possible? Some must leave and come back to tell tales."

Inom let out a breathy chuckle. "Very few leave. Any who do join the deception or perish; the sea Alves see to this."

Eker stopped walking, his brow wrinkled. "Who are the Alves, master?"

"A problem for another time, a very big problem. First we must deal with the present." With these words Inom raised his hands and all the dead turned and looked at him. "Bring my mount. We are going to kill, and begin our conquest. We will need numbers to deal with the Masters, the Alves, and many others. Come."

His horse arrived and he mounted. He rode slowly toward the tree line and the army of dead followed.

***

In the southern distance another army waited in the light of day, doing all the things the dead didn't. Gambling, eating, drinking, and yelling happened all around. They represented the polar opposite of the other horde. Life in this camp was hedonistic and violent. Men who took what they wanted and fought over every commodity; strength ruled.

Another leader rode with his second, conversing. These two rode alone, with the exception of a little figure on a large creature's shoulders, keeping pace, both trusting their prowess and not trusting fully their underlings to overhear.

"So, these nek threaten my rule, then?"

Snit made no move. His voice just emerged from behind his mask. "They threaten everything. Your rule, your life, human existence--the very order of the entire world is in jeopardy if they multiply any farther than right here and now."

Tuhn looked at Ret and grinned. "Then it looks as if we will have to destroy them here, then."

Ret shook his head at his leader's audacity in assuming victory against an undead horde. Perhaps this kind of confidence was what allowed him to lead such a large, fierce group of men. He was going to speak and add his opinions, but that was when the lookouts began screaming that there was movement at the forest's edge.

2. Wave of Death

They came like a swarm of locusts. There seemed to be no plan to the charge. The land itself seemed to rebel against their presence. The dead surged forward without regard for the ground under their feet, any flora or fauna between them and the village, no regard even for each other. The quicker stampeded over the slower, neither party taking any notice, all just continuing forward.

Inom trailed behind the main charge astride his lich mount. He resembled nothing short of an evil god in the early light of day, come to drag everyone to the depths. His dark skin seemed even more dark that day. The dark metal scythe swords he took from the crypt were slung on his back, there, should he need them, yet not drawn in anticipation of having to engage anything. Nothing could make its way through the wall of death which now ran at the village. The honor guard he had created surrounded him despite his exuberant confidence that nothing would survive to be anywhere near him.

Nearby, but further toward the south, Eker and his personal entourage walked behind the charge. His general served as a conduit to increase his power of command over that end of the army. They would kill and obey, but having his second near them increased the speed and accuracy of his whims. Tactically, having Eker there was best for him as well. There was obviously some sort of activity up on the higher ground to the south; the cook fires and other such signs were glaringly present. No help would be coming from the north, as his minions represented the forces of this kingdom. If something came over that ridge it would be Eker's problem long before it became his.

Somewhere ahead of him, his greatest surprise made its way to the village. Inom was unsure if it would work but if it did then the village may just submit and line up to be turned rather than die at the hands of the product of his chemistry. He had conducted an experiment on one of his minions using a technique he had gleaned from the Master that did this to him. That pompous ass didn't even realize it could be used like this. He had observed it while the fool was preparing to make him into this form. If it worked, he would be the newest Master. This world would be his. The shortcomings of the others would not apply to him.

***

Lilith and Eve looked up over the wall as the horde descended upon the village. Neither woman showed much emotion. A little further down, Cammi and Raz also looked out upon the field of battle. They looked quite a bit more disturbed. Ugle stood by his mistresses' side, seeming to care the least of anybody. Reichart seemed the most nervous of all as he paced up and down the catwalk behind the wall. All of them, as well as one-third of the assembled defenders, would be going out to meet the undead in moments.

Cammi turned to Raz and took him in her arms. "Do you think we can stop them?"

He looked down into her eyes and brought his hand up to softly hold her cheek. "I don't know what will happen, but it will happen to us together."

A short distance away, Naomi approached Reichart and reached out to stop his pacing. He turned to her, and looking into her eyes, embraced her brotherly. She was slightly taken aback. After pulling away slightly, she returned the gesture.

"Reichart, are you sure that you want to do this?"

"Of course, I must do this. This is my village. This is my home."

"True, but you could be stationed elsewhere and still be of use. There is no need for you to face the horrors that await outside here. You could defend the wall, or come fight men with us."

"Somehow I feel that the truest danger is here. There is something evil about those things that is a greater wrong than the horde. I will not allow one of those wretched things into my village while I still draw breath."

Ugle looked out over the wall by standing on his tip toes. If he felt anything, it was a sense of loss, because his brother was with the horde. It looked like he may not even get to speak to or fight alongside his brother. That may be a good thing, he thought, because in the end he may have to fight his brother. In the meantime he would kill people and things to make his mistresses proud. They were good mistresses; all they wanted from him was to follow, obey, and kill things.

The motley crew came together and Naomi went over to her own group. They stood at the front of the small band of warriors and villagers. It was Lilith who turned to address them. This surprised many other than Eve, who knew her sister was prepared to speak. The twins were not known for talking by the villagers, so most were alarmed.

"My name is Lilith. I am a Shen warrior. I am here today to lead you in battle. The things coming to kill you are abominations in the eyes of our God. You do not have to believe in our religion to know that these things will kill you nonetheless. You may fear these dead things, but they do not fear you. You cannot kill them. You must attack until they're destroyed. Take off their heads and pulverize their skulls. Do not stop until they do not move. That is the only way we will win against them. To lose to them is to become them. So if you want your families and children to be dead abominations, then stop while they're still moving. They spread like the plague, because that is what they are, and will not stop until you're one of them. Look at the man next to you. If you see him fall and you know his life is over, remove his head. Do not let him add to their numbers, and do not let him be cursed with undeath. That is all you must keep in mind."

None of the others seemed to have anything to say that summed up the situation any better than that. Everyone readied their weapons as four men stood at the gate ready to open it for the defensive charge. The lead group turned to face the gate and everyone began to bang shields and stomp feet preparing themselves in any way and steeling their courage in any way they could. Finally, the twins nodded their heads to signal the men at the gate. The men pulled and the gate swung open. The twins shrieked and growled. Their voices undulated. Cammi and Raz let out deep bass growls. Ugle let out a shrieking Kobol war cry. It was possibly the most unnerving sound any of them was making. It did make some of the undead stop momentarily. It unnerved all the villagers and soldiers, until they realized the creature making it was on their side. Then it heartened the entire group and they charged to the gate.

Far away, another Kobol pined for battle, and nostalgically nodded his head to a familiar sound. He, too, wished to fight and kill, even more so then that the sounds of home rang through the dawn.

3. Choices

Tuhn looked out over the valley at the movement of the dead. Those creatures looked foreign, unnatural, even from this distance. There was something small which gave them away. They moved dead; it was something about the posture. The little assassin, there was no doubt that was what he was, from the south, told him as much earlier in a briefing. Now he knew what the strange explanation meant. Where life puts off a vibration which can be sensed by the naked eye, undeath creates the opposite, a miasma if you will, when you looked upon it.

Ret rode up along his side and waited a moment till he turned his gaze away from the black army.

"You have a decision to make. If you let those abominations take that village it may mean the end for us all. My counsel is to destroy those things, then worry about the village."

Tuhn's face betrayed no emotion, no sign of approval or disapproval of Ret's words. Finally he looked back out on the fields.

"Tell the men we ride against the black army. This is to be my kingdom, not theirs." Ret rode off to the side and away to obey his war-chief's wishes. The barbarian leader felt the weight of the world on his shoulders. Perhaps now he was truly starting to feel like a king.

"I see you lingering off to the side, little man. Don't bother continuing to hide."

Snit rose from the plains scrub he was using to conceal himself. "Few see me when I hide."

"I am better than most. That is why I still live, and now I lead. You have been allowed your small tricks, but I see no need to play along any farther."

The little figure moved closer.

"I am aware that you aren't human. You are most likely the same as whatever the scouts have caught a fleeting glimpse of on the wall of the village. It was the size of a child, but monstrous." He raised his hand when Snit shifted his hand toward his weapon. "Do not. I don't care. And the beast that is nearby can stay still, too. Even if I didn't kill you both, Ret and the horde would. We have conversed about you freely when you aren't around in hand-speak and he knows all of it."

"Well then, what, perhaps, are your intentions, war-chief?"

"I only intend to assure myself we are not at cross purposes. What do you truly desire out of this?"

"I need the head of the creature responsible for that." His little hand shot out toward the black army.

"Agreed. You had best stay with me at the front, then. It is yours to take, but I will not guarantee it unless you do it yourself."

"Agreed."

"Call your mount. We ride now."

Snit whistled and the Trul came off its belly from where it lay unseen covered in plains grass. That such a large creature was so well concealed impressed even Tuhn. This little man needed to be by his side or in front of him, but most certainly not behind him.

They looped around to take their place at the head of a line of already moving warriors. Soon they would charge. They all awaited their leader's order.

"CHARGE!" The cry was repeated and echoed down the line.

***

The King stood before Naomi, Grenda, and Katlyn, scowling.

"I will lead what remains of my people against that horde."

Naomi looked to respond, but it was Grenda who answered first. "You lead nothing here, little man. This is an independent village. You're no sovereign here."

The King came forward and looked to engage her. Snigin came from the side and took his arm, leading him away. Mazur followed, slightly unsure what his duty was when members of the royal family were at odds. This was made particularly interesting when the Crown Prince was the abdicated, and possibly true, ruler.

"What do you think you are doing?" Snigin stared at his younger brother menacingly.

"I am going to lead my people. I have been remiss, Liam. I need to be a sovereign now or I will never truly be one."

Snigin ignored the use of his given name, now was not the time for that argument.

"I admire what you want to do, Stitches, I do, but you will get killed." He hoped by using his brother's childhood nickname he could get through to him.

"No, it is decided. Those women might be able to tell me I can't lead, but they can't tell me not to fight for my people. Come, Mazur."

The general fell in behind his king, a ruler he respected much more than he had a moment before. Snigin followed along a moment later. When he got back to the main group, his brother was waiting and nodded at him.

"He will fight. He is the rightful monarch and he wants to fight for his people."

This caused Naomi and Grenda to tighten their faces. The villagers looked heartened slightly. The soldiers among these defenders were smiling and cheered a little. Stefan took notice and smiled back. Snigin got the feeling that was the most heartfelt support he had gotten from his military for some time.

Snigin clapped his brother on the back and joined him near Katlyn, Ren, and Ren's apprentice. Mazur stood nearby, obviously going with his king into the fray. Lola came and stood with Naomi and Grenda. It was Naomi who turned to look at the assembled defenders who were to meet the horde.

"You are all brave men and women. It is time to die free and un-cursed. Being under the thumb of that man leading the horde would be better than falling to those things, but not better enough so it can be called living. Some, maybe all of us, will die, but I intend to die last and die free." She nodded at the men operating the gate and began to pull it open. "Kill them all."

The mass of soldiers, villagers, and bandits cheered and screamed. They surged forward out the gate and towards the hills where the horde had begun to descend. All were ready to defend their home to their last breath. Naomi told them the truth, that truth had made them free to do what was necessary. If the gods had any favor that day, some might survive and enough of the horde and the Nek would die so that the village would continue on. It would take a miracle fighting on two fronts like this. She ran at the front, Grenda and Katlyn flanking her.

Her eyes were tracking the oncoming horde as they charged. The mass of riders slowly turned toward the Nek. It wasn't necessarily the miracle, but they might just be a little less damned.

"They are attacking the abominations. Let them engage! If it isn't a ruse we will take up their right!" Naomi heard cheers louder than before. Even though they were prepared to die, possibly living agreed with them more.

4. Out the Back Way

Pyn had never wanted this. They could have let the barbarians take them, then they would fight the monsters. What did it matter who ruled? You paid them like any other master and tried to keep as much for yourself as possible. He had decided he would not die this day. Others were like minded, even some of the newcomers. The thief, Enid, said he knew the land to the north well enough to lead them to the capital if they could just get away far enough fast enough. The brigand had seven men whereas Pyn had twelve people. Unfortunately for the baker, if he was double crossed, his people were merchants and spouses. Oddly, no one with children sought him out when the time to plan escape grew close. Damn those women, giving them all false hope like that. He led his people over to Enid's crew who had spent much effort ensuring they were the contingent "guarding" the back gate.

He play acted the ruse they had agreed upon, just in case someone was in earshot.

"Hail, Enid. We will reinforce you here at the back gate. We are old merchants and women, so we will be more use here."

The scrawny man turned from another thief he was speaking to. "No worries, Pyn, only mine are in earshot. Well, now only mine." He nodded over to a village youth of just barely a man's age slumped against a barrel, blood already drying on the front of his tunic from when his throat was cut.

"Was that really necessary?"

"You want to get out or not?"

"Well, yes of course..."

The thief cut him off. "Get used ta doing as you're told, or I ain't bringing ya nowhere, fatso."

Pyn was not a brave man, not at all, but even if he were, he felt now was not the time for it.

"Very well, I didn't mean to question your methods. Will we be leaving now?"

Enid's men gathered around him, which meant there was absolutely no one watching the back side of the village. None of them seemed to care at how imprudent that was. The thought in passing even made Pyn uncomfortable but they seemed cocksure, so he let the thought pass.

"Bring your people, baker." Two of his men went to each side of the gate to open it and he and the other two led the way. It just then occurred to Pyn that three of them would be in front of his people and four would be behind after they exited. He wasn't entirely comfortable with that. It could have been because he never cared for the premise of thieves in the village to begin with, or it could be other factors. Factors like the corpse of the young man slumped against the barrel that he glanced at as they exited the back gate.

Once they cleared the gate, the other four followed, making no effort to close the gate behind them.

"Aren't we going to close the gate?"

Enid turned his head to glance halfway back at them, "Screw 'em. Every last one of them. Peasants and heroes get what is coming to them."

Pyn's wife gasped and began to speak. He quickly raised his hand to shush her and shake his head. Tolin the chandler hesitated, then turned back. "I will shut it and catch up."

Pyn had no time to warn him. Enid had a dagger in hand and in flight so speedily. It buried itself in the back of a man he had known for thirty years. One of the anonymous thieves pulled it out and dragged it across the downed man's throat. He tossed it back to Enid who caught it deftly.

"And tip off the others to our escape? I think not," he scowled. "Everyone start walking. Now!"

They all did. Unsurprisingly, there were no other heroes in this group. Actually it was more of a surprise that Tolin had even been that brave. It did make Pyn consider what their possible fate was once they cleared the battle area. This was made all the more real by two of the thieves going back and stripping the freshly dead man of all the emergency coin he had stashed on his body for fleeing. This would probably leave Tolin's wife in a bit of a dilemma, but that was her problem. Pyn had a feeling this may come down to every man or woman for themselves, and that may need to include his wife.

They made it most of the way across the back clearing. Their plan was to make it to the tree line of the forest and travel just inside to hide their flight. The forest was a bit dangerous but certainly not as bad as armies and ghouls were. Pyn glanced over his shoulder and saw a lone man standing on the parapet behind the gate wall. He was gesturing frantically and screaming, but they were too far to hear the words.

"I believe we have been discovered."

Enid glanced back. "Damn them. They won't chase us. They are busy. Too bad they found the gate, though."

Pyn still felt something was off. He kept glancing back, trying to read the situation, perhaps waiting to see someone give chase. It seemed Enid was right, several men were closing the gate; no one exited. Oddly, though, the man up high continued to gesture and scream. Others joined him on the wall, they too began to point and scream. That certainly was a lot of ruckus just for a dozen and a half escapees in the middle of such a battle. Who were they even screaming to?

Pyn shook his head. It mattered not. He cast one last glance back at them, determined to put it from his mind. They had taken to waving their arms back and forth as if they wanted Pyn's attention. Wait.

The fat baker stopped in his tracks. One of the thieves who wasn't paying attention walked right into him.

"Hey, idiot."

Enid stopped. "What's going on? Do I need to make another example of what happens to those who go off plan?"

"No," Pyn cleared his throat, "it is just I think they are waving and screaming to us, not about us."

Enid pushed past Pyn. "That is ridiculous." He looked back at the men on the wall. They all turned and looked back at the wall.

The villagers and soldiers grew even more frantic. It seemed now they were making come hither gestures, pleading them to return rather than threatening. Some continued to point at them. No, they were pointing over them, beyond them, to the long grass near the forest's edge, the grass which was closer to them than they were to the village. Pyn's stomach felt hollow. He turned with several of the others.

The dark things stood from where they had laid on their bellies. They had spent hours flat on the ground, moving at a snail's pace, making their way around to the back of the village. There were two of them for every person in the coward's exodus that Pyn had organized, even if Tolin still lived.

Pyn considered he probably would not be finding out when Enid was going to betray them after all.

5. Duty Before All Else

Poke looked at his commanding officer. The young lad had come so far in such a short time. He looked confident and ready. The old soldier held no illusions that the young general was ready for what was coming, but it was enough that he looked ready. That was something in itself. Any apprehension the officer had did not show through and infect the moods of his men. He projected confidence, the kind that inspired others. That was one of the cornerstones of a good leader: an air of confidence which had not a hint of arrogance. He was pleased that he would be following this intelligent lad into the battle.

The troops were ready, and would be exiting the side gate to flank the army of the dead. They were the cavalry, both figuratively and literally. They would exit and form a killing wedge which would sweep into the side of the charge and hopefully cause so much damage that the charge would halt. Then the front could fall in behind them as they turned to drive back the evil that came forward. It wasn't the best plan ever conceived, but it was a plan. All things considered it was a good plan, given what they had to work with. It would leave them vulnerable from behind to the barbarian horde, but there was no helping that. It was most likely that even if they won against the nek, they would be going to sleep that night under the rule of the horde's chieftain. Poke didn't like being conquered, but it was vastly preferable to whatever the dark army offered.

He approached Commander Miller from behind as he was going over the plan with his squad leaders. Tril was three steps behind and to the left of the commander. Poke had assigned personal bodyguard duty to the young soldier. He was a known quantity and would do his duty; Poke trusted him. Some of the soldiers, but more so the villagers, seemed inclined to run or act harshly as the threat got nearer. The warrant officers most important duty was to ensure the safety of their commander. Poke had a small special squad of half a dozen men he would be operating with. The squad would be going wherever Poke chose, to shore up any weak points in the line as they flanked the enemy. This meant he was excused from the briefing that was happening. It was best that he show up anyway, even if it was a few moments late as a show of solidarity to his commanding officer.

He came up behind Miller to the right and stood at the same distance as Tril on the left. The effect made the commander seem even more important and lent weight to his words.

"We will be leaving shortly. You all know your line assignments. Most important in this whole maneuver is to hold the line at all costs. Warrant Officer Poke will be helping reinforce weak points on a rolling basis. Our actions may very well mean the difference between victory or defeat today."

Some of the rank and file let their eyes fall to the ground. Poke noticed that the commander noticed.

"Very well. Most likely we will ultimately lose. Lives will be saved if we do our duty. We will be the difference between defeat and a hellish undeath for ourselves and these people. That is good enough for me. I need you with me."

That was a gamble, admitting that there was no win to be had. Eyes began to lift from the ground. Faces looked proudly back in their direction. The young officer's honesty was enough. His men believed in him more for it.

Gillby, a sergeant, slammed his fist on the makeshift table in front of him. "Then let me die in service to the people of this kingdom or walk no more, ever again. I will not be one of those things, or let anyone else be one while I have breath."

Poke nodded at him from his spot. Gillby nodded back. The assembled men cheered.

Tim Miller held his hand high to silence them.

"Prepare your squads. We ride shortly." Then he turned to Poke and Tril.

Poke spoke first. "Sir, good speech, sir."

"I appreciate that, Warrant Officer. I am sending Tril with your squad," he saw Poke begin to dissent. "I don't want to hear it. You are seven, and with him, eight. I appreciate the protection, I really do, but if I have a choice, I prefer to die today and have the plan work, over living and failing."

Poke had intended to argue. There was no room for the argument. It was a shame they would all probably die today, he thought. This young officer should be the grand marshal of the entire kingdom. If the right time and place had come together, this boy could have conquered the world. A miller's son from the crossroads was perhaps the greatest man he had ever served under. Now he would follow him into perhaps his final battle.

"Sir, yes sir!" He saluted, not because he had to, but because every fiber of his being felt it right at that moment. "Tril, with me. Get your gear and join Grinder squad. We have work to do."

The soldier nodded. He knew that if Poke had nothing to dissent, then he certainly had no argument.

"Sir, I believe the king will be fighting today. He intends to go out the front. The little twit wants to be a warrior."

The commander tightened his face. "Let him go. Perhaps he will be a hero. I wish him the best. Our duty is to the people. We will deal with any situation that is left to deal with after the bloodshed."

"Do we have an obligation, sir?"

"No. Let his general and brother babysit him if necessary. We have a a plan and a duty. If anyone is to be saved, we must do our part."

Poke liked this boy more each moment. The kingdom was more important to him than a man. If the king did die, and his bandit brother too, then Poke knew who he would want to replace them. Maybe not as ruler, but he definitely knew who he would fall in with when the smoke cleared. Tim Miller had potential and the soul of a good leader.

"Get your men ready, then have them form up on me at the gate. We will be ready to ride immediately."

"Aye, sir."

Poke walked back over to his squad's staging area. Tril had brought his horse and kit over, and was as ready as any other.

"Mount up. Then let the others know it is time. I expect five down by your sword to every one the others take. We are the Grinder. I want them to fear us more than we fear them, corpses or not. The head of the next one should be airborne before the body of the first is on the ground."

His men did not cheer. What happened was more of a low growl. He had picked six of the most loyal killers in the ranks to ride with him. They were honest men, but they were killers. They killed like bakers baked or farmers grew crops. If there was no army, these were the six that would have ridden to another nation to fight someone else for another flag. That was what he needed for his part of this job. They knew the position they were in and would do what they were told, especially if killing was the order. Any other day they would have been the ones Poke watched closest, prone to violence and easily triggered. When you wanted as many enemies relieved of their heads with no care for stopping till all the bodies were on the ground, these were the fellas for you.

"Tril, you are my shadow. We will watch each other's backs. You six do what you do. Be ready to change position on my order, but other than that, stack them high."

They mounted and spread out signaling the others to follow. They came back together at the gate behind the mounted commander. Two village men stood on either side of the gates to open and quickly close them after the exit charge.

Their leader looked over his shoulder then nodded to the gate men.

"Forward!" The gate flew open and they galloped out three by three. They immediately formed the line as they spread.

The swarm of dead was more than halfway across the field. The sound of swords clearing scabbards was rampant.

One small group of nek was running faster than the others. There were six, maybe seven of them, with one more in the middle. Some kind of suicide charge, perhaps. They would get near before the line got to them. It is to be hoped that a half a dozen nek could be handled by the gate defenders.

Something didn't sit right with Poke about that, though. The dead were like insects, swarming. A small group of them having a separate plan was disconcerting. He waved and screamed at the men on top of the gate, pointing at the odd approaching enemy.

"Use archers. Shoot them. Something is strange."

The gate guards saw who was yelling and didn't question the order despite being told that arrows were mostly for the horde and weren't to be wasted on the nek. Obviously something made the warrant officer uneasy enough to hope for multiple rare shots to bring down those nek.

Arrows flew. One of the nek was miraculously stopped with an eye shot. The front gate had opened and the front force poured out, and but they would not meet those front runners before they reached the defense's edge. They would be killing those nek under the shadow of that vile Eoten.

It was then that an uneasy realization hit him. He looked back at the charging nek. They weren't so much running at the front gate, they were running at the corpse of the Eoten.

Dear gods, he thought. The others had briefed him that there was no way. What if there was just no way they knew? What they knew may be different from what that vile thing leading the dead knew.

"Grinders, to me!"

6. Our Town

"You understand we are all going to die horribly, right?"

"Shush, Torg. We must maintain a positive attitude." Father Relchior hit his strapping young assistant with his staff. "People must have faith till the end."

"Faith in what? The old gods? Or perhaps faith in this new god who speaks with you since the Shen left us?"

"I told you to shush," the second staff blow was a bit more forceful; the bigger man seemed to feel it. "The people have enough to think about right now without presenting that dilemma to them. Just keep your mouth shut for now."

Nana Crowley appeared so suddenly the two men were startled. She matched their step as if she had been there all along. A smile creased her old withered face as she turned it toward them.

"What are we shutting up about?"

Relchior's face became a mask of severity. His displeasure with her nonchalant spying was evident. She had a way of just popping up that was almost supernatural, and she was relentless in her gabbing.

"Mind your business, you old witch!"

"Now is that any way for a priest to speak to one of his flock?"

"You are not in my flock. If you need guidance then go flock yourself for all I care."

Torg coughed discretely into his hand to hide his laughter. While he was Relchior's assistant it wouldn't do to get on the old woman's bad side. She looked over at him and didn't seem very fooled, but also didn't seem to take any great offense.

She turned her gaze back to the old priest. "Are we shushing about the fact that you talk to the Shen God now?"

Relchior gasped and made a slight choking sound. "Wha..."

"Oh please, old man. There isn't a thing that goes on in this village I don't know about. I'm older than you and then some. I am a spider, and this village is my web. We all have our secrets. The only difference is, I have mine and everyone else's."

"Nana Crowley, how long have you known?" This from Torg, as the elderly priest still hadn't found his voice.

"Since the Shen was here and showed him the way to speak to the God, did it never occur to either of you that perhaps you were not the only one the Shen confided in?"

Relchior finally got his bearings, "I never thought ... I thought I was alone. Can you hear him?"

"Of course I hear him, you fool. I just have enough sense to not go speaking to him often, hardly ever. Just because one can speak with a God doesn't mean one should speak with a God. Fools." She thrust her hand out to him. "Do you have it on you?"

They stared at her blankly, finally Relchior broke the silence. "Have what?"

"Don't play games with me, old man. Give me the amulet. You don't know how to use it. We need it now, and if those two girls find out you have it, they will cut your throat and take it from you."

The color blanched from his wrinkled face. "It is in my home, under the floor board, beneath my table. We can get it now. What are you?"

A snort came from her dry rheumy lips. "I am what I have always been. Just sometimes I expand my web further. I would have most likely sat still and done nothing if the horde over ran us. They wouldn't butcher a passive old woman. I would have done as I always do, just under their thumb rather than the old ruler."

"What is it you do? Why reveal it now?" Torg interjected before Relchior asked anything further.

"I collect from my web and pass on what is interesting. I also keep my people safe, both family, which is most of the village, and friends. The Shen told me the darkness may come. I stayed quiet till I saw them coming myself. Now I will do what I can because it is fair likely we are all damned."

They had all been absentmindedly heading toward the parsonage where Relchior and Torg lived. The men didn't realize fully they had been led right to their doorstep till they looked up, and they were there.

"Bring me the amulet. I can't use it like he could have, and probably not even as well as one of those twin girls, but I can use it well enough to purge enough of those vile things to make a difference."

The old man nodded and Torg went inside. The elders stood in silence, having nothing else to say beyond the great revelations of the last few moments. Relchior was a man of faith, a faith that secretly changed when another's God was proven real and his voiced no objection. Apparently his new God worked in mysterious ways. Torg came out holding a bundle of oiled cloth wrapped tightly around an object he dared not look upon but once or twice since his Shen friend left there. To take it out was to hear the God's voice boom in your head tenfold to speak to him regularly. If she was going to hold it herself, outside of the cloth, and function, then he had no idea how she planned to do it. It was so powerful that it overwhelmed the senses. She took it and turned away from the men. They could see her unfold the oil cloth and look inside.

"Excellent. I know just what to do."

They heard wall guards yelling and pointing out at the field of battle. The enemy should not be upon them quite yet. Something was wrong. The three moved as briskly as they could to the wall and up the nearest stairs to the closest rampart.

At the top they saw what had caused the yelling, a girl. A little one must have snuck away from her minder and up onto the battlements to have a peek. This was compounded by the fact that she had obviously fallen over, outside the village. They would have to get her inside before the dark army closed. Nana heard one of the guards screaming to the others, "There, for the love of the gods!"

She looked further out and saw them. There were possibly a half dozen creatures ahead of the rest by a wide margin, bearing down on the wall. They seemed to have a goal, but two near the front saw the girl fall and broke off. The prospect of such an easy target must have overwhelmed them. She saw the warrant officer charging with several others at the dead ones from the side, but they would not be there in time. She fumbled with the cloth-wrapped relic. Her concentration was faltering; she had no time to prepare. The two creatures were almost to the prone girl. Seemingly out of nowhere a horse charged down the two, causing creatures, horse and rider to all fall in a chaotic heap.

When the turmoil cleared and the horse had bolted away, there stood Stefan, boy sovereign, sword in hand. The dead seemed unfazed by his brave pose, though. They snarled and charged the young royal. They all saw his general, Mazur, riding hard to reach him. It was evident this would play out before he arrived. The young monarch could only have been turned back to watch over his subjects to have reacted so quickly.

The savage dead charged him with little plan or regard for their own well being. Stefan struck one and pushed the other away with his armored free hand. That second one had gouged his face with its filthy nails leaving a grimy streak around a fresh gash on his face.

The king took a few steps back, then realized they were nearing the girl. A steely look of determination enveloped his face and he turned and began slowly pushing toward the ghouls with his sword, trying to prod them off. They spread out to flank him. It was becoming obvious that if one went to circumvent him to get the girl and he stopped it, then the other would have him. His eyes flitted back and forth between his opponents, he knew his dilemma as well as those too far to help.

The first lurched around him to grab the girl. He struck down an overhead blow slicing the creature's head almost in two. The other lunged in and grabbed him, burying it head into the space of his armor at the shoulder. Shock caused him to drop his sword. Fear flashed into his eyes as he leaned away to pull himself free. He took the vile thing by the shoulders trying to push it away. It held on like a hunting dog. Stefan grabbed it around the waist and picked it up in the air. He ran forward toward the wooden spikes on the left side of the gate. The creature paid no mind to what was happening, only wanting to harm the target of its fury. The monarch released its waist as he jumped into the air grabbing the thing's head. Their momentum carried them right over a large spike, which the boy sovereign pushed the ghoul's head onto. The inertia of the two bodies pushed the point through its head and the king followed. The spike went into him mid gut level before he stopped, hanging in mid air.

The soldiers led by Poke intercepted the other enemies about then. Mazur reached the king moments after, bitterly too late.

Mazur reached up and slowly pulled the boy off the spike as gently as he could. The boy's eyes were distant. He looked up at Mazur but seemed to be looking through him.

"The girl..."

"She is safe, Your Highness."

"Good. Tell them, Mazur, please tell them all."

"What, Sire?"

"Tell them I was a heroic king, at least once." His eyes closed and a soft breath blew out and with it the last of his life.

The general guided his sovereign's head to the ground and stood. He glanced up at the wall and saw them all watching. Leaning over he scooped the girl in his arms; she was shaken but breathing. Unsure of what words suited the situation he said what he felt.

"The girl lives. The king is dead."

The voice of Nana Crowley shrieked at the top of her lungs. "They killed my king."

It was echoed by Torg, then Relchior, first one wall guard then another. The gate was being opened to allow Mazur inside; meanwhile the chant spread, voice after voice adding to the pealing chorus. Soon the entire village was screaming at the top of their lungs, "My king, they killed my king."

As the gate closed behind Mazur and some random villager scooped the girl away from him, he watched as they shook their fists and screamed in rage. The boy's act of sacrifice had tapped into their fear and foreboding and turned it to rage. The fact that the man they had considered most distant and different from them in the entire land had died for the least of them opened a rift of emotion through which a flood now poured.

He drew his sword and held it high, knowing that he must make the most of the king's gesture.

"For the king!"

A hundred voices echoed back, "For the king!" Housewives who were hiding came out of huts where they hid holding meat knives. Older children picked up farm tools and stepped forward.

Mazur turned back toward the gate in time to see one of the other dead cresting the wall above the gate, most likely to get away from Poke. As it reached the top and brought one leg over a blue light engulfed it and brought it up into midair. The light trailed back to the old village woman's right hand and in her left she held an amulet. Her lips moved and she gestured with the open hand. The blue light swelled and the dark creature exploded.

Many stood in shock looking at the old woman. She turned to the crowd and raised the symbol.

"Kill them all, for they are the abominations of hell!"

The cheer that went out had no words, just a cry of war, a cry worthy of an army, not a group of villagers.

7. A Hero Indeed

The dead descended on the village. The defenders felt as if they were in front of an ocean of sweeping darkness. Reichart had taken up the defensive position slightly to the back of Naomi. Now that the horde was charging at the army of darkness, the village defenders felt safe turning towards the more bitter enemy. Reichart and Naomi had taken part of their force and charged toward the flank of the nek army.

Once the forces were engaged, they could clearly see where Eker and his small contingent of bodyguards were holding up. The two companions and a few others fought their way through the bulk of the regular dark forces until they came to the edge of the circle where the dark commander held court.

Naomi pushed forward closer and closer, trying to get an edge so she could step toward the dark general. Meanwhile Reichart protected her back as they advanced deeper and deeper into the enemy ranks. Finally they got close enough that they needed to engage the bodyguard. First, two large undead smiths came forward holding the heavy hammers that were the tools of their trade. They came at Naomi as one, trying to crush her between them. One swung high, and the other swung his hammer low. They did not anticipate that she would be able to go through the middle. That is just what she did; she dove in between the two blows and landed behind them. Her sword flashed out cleaving a head from one as her lead foot pushed on the bottom of the other giant man, sending him sprawling toward Reichart who was waiting to stab him clean through the eye, skewering his brain.

The two had become a fairly good team. Unfortunately they had very little time to celebrate their victory, as Eker came forward with his remaining guard, the deadly whore. Strangely none of the other abominations seemed interested in trying to get to Reichart and Naomi. It seemed as if it was going to be two on two. The whore charged Reichart, coming in low with short sword and dagger. His training paid off as he deflected the sword and the dagger barely nicked his armor. He backpedaled to give himself room, which took him away from the fight beginning between Naomi and Eker.

Eker had been a highly trained warrior before he turned. It was possible that, as a nek, he was Naomi's match, with the glaring exception that he could only be killed by removing his head. This gave him a decided advantage. Naomi probably could have taken him with much effort before he died. Now only the gods knew who would win this battle.

He came in boldly, knowing that he could barely be hurt. The first swing he took was meant to disembowel her horrifically. She blocked it, but the force of the blow caused her to lose her offhand knife. The weapon clattered to the ground and he pressed his advantage, driving her further back. She uncharacteristically stumbled and fell backwards as he wound forward.

Reichart was busy defending himself from the chaotic swinging of the whore's daggers. His friend's stumble had brought the other fight a bit closer to his fight, though. Now they were back in the same vicinity. He saw that his friend had fallen and Eker was moving in for the kill. An act of desperation caused him to come inside his opponents guard, taking a glancing blow to his ribs which left a large nasty gash. In the end, though, he had planted his sword cleanly under the chin of the dead, vile woman. He used his foot to help withdraw his blade from her immobile corpse. He lurched forward, hoping he would be in time to save his friend.

Naomi held her sword out in front of her, hoping to fend off the ghoul who was quickly approaching. The position she had fallen into was nearly indefensible and it seemed the conclusion was foregone. Eker's sword was raised in an overhead blow and was in the process of raining down, when suddenly the form of Reichart intercepted the blow. Naomi rolled to the side, acting upon her second nature, coming up able to continue fighting. She was up and ready before Eker's sword was even withdrawn from the still warm body of her friend and companion.

"You're going to wish you had not done that, abomination."

Eker seemed unmoved. "I think not, woman. You'll soon be joining him. But you'll both be standing before you know it; you'll just be serving my master when you move again."

She rushed and let her anger take her forward. It was probably not the wisest course of action, but she was a barbarian warrior. Anger was a part of her style. The raw rage of her advance took Eker by surprise, and step-by-step he lost ground.

He was on the defensive. Naomi's eyes seemed focused on a point behind him. It was as if she was not truly seeing him but more through him. He struck her several small blows around the hands and wrists which seemed not to bother her. She wasn't using her weapon to block; all of its movements were either meant to take his head or to muscle his weapon out of position. Eker's concentration was momentarily broken by an explosion of undead bodies to his right. That was all the opening she needed; as he turned back, her blade took him at the neck.

She nearly fell, counterbalancing her body from the momentum of the blow she launched, but came up guarded despite it. On the right of the clearing was a shrouded, goggled figure on the back of what seemed to be a small thin Ogrim with exceptionally large bottom canine teeth. What or who they were became less concerning quite quickly since they were downing walking dead in an expanding radius around themselves. The creature which served as mount used its large taloned hands to tear heads off of them while his rider skillfully jabbed out with a spear scoring hit after hit right in eye sockets. Once there was a vast pile of bodies around them, the small man spurred his mount onward and they disappeared into the other side of the clearing, further into the dead army, headed towards its center.

8. A Treat for a Good Boy

Snit and his troll waded back into the depths of the undead swarm. His pet performed admirably. He had made it quite clear that while freedom wasn't an option, having a name and seeing his family again were well within his reach if they obtained their prize this day. Trul were normally tough and vicious. This fellow was exceptional beyond that, a true credit to his race. Snit had some affection for him beyond his other pets; he would no more mistreat it than he would a champion horse or dog. It returned his temperance with loyalty. Heads flew to either side at such a rate that Snit had to struggle to get some blows in with his spear. Truthfully he could have just let the beast walk in front of him and they would most likely get to their goal just as quickly, unharmed.

Snit leaned over to the beast's ear and whispered, "Good boy, Marti, kill them all and help me get our prize, and we will be home soon. I will buy your family for the chamberlain and you will be together." He would have sworn that the killing was at its apex, yet the return of his name caused Marti to increase his pace. The thought of seeing his family again spurred him on more. An unholy roar rippled from him, such a sound that even the walking dead paused momentarily. The clear space around them had become so vast that they were able to stand unhindered for several moments. This gave Snit time to take in his surroundings.

The commotion near the gate drew his attention. He watched the king die. He heard the village rally. What is more important, he saw Poke and company charging, and what they charged at. The special group of dead had reached their destination, the Eoten corpse.

The remaining escorts broke off to intercept any defenders around while the center creature jumped up to the corpse and embraced it. It linked its mouth to the mouth of the giant's dead right head. A moment passed then the ghoul fell limp on the ground. Snit considered himself fearless, yet still he felt a sense of dread. What he feared should most definitely not be possible, at least not here. Still the Eotan twitched repeatedly proving his fear right. It squirmed till the spike it was hung on had run it completely through vertically, then grasped it up high and fed it the rest of the way out hand over hand.

The old warrior and his squad were charging right at the giant. It may not require Snit's attention, yet there were circumstances. First, made races were not supposed to be able to be turned. If this became known, the Master's secret would be out. Also that was Kre, the same Eoten who had caught quite a few of the Master's slaves. The giant had taken Snit, many members of his family, and had been up to it long enough after that to have taken Marti a decade later. The Eoten was not popular; it was what caused him to be sent away to this continent on this mission many years ago.

Snit needed to get to his target, yet still. "Marti," he gestured toward the giant ghoul, "destroy Kre, permanently."

The Trul looked up where his master pointed. Again, a gift, the entity that took his wife and children from him was standing in the distance. He was off with a nod to acknowledge Snit's order to find him when he was done. The ferocity with which he broke the dark army's ranks clearing his path to his target actually lessened the press of the attack significantly. Bodies flew everywhere in his zeal to get there before the humans. The Eoten was his. His master had said so. He would be the one to rip not one, but two heads from those shoulders.

9. Payback

Poke and company were almost upon the scene when it happened. He wished he could say what happened surprised him, but very little was a surprise lately. The dead minions' plan was done before they could stop them, but that didn't mean he couldn't fix it after the fact. He saw the Eoten's grisly resurrection. It looked like it was up to him and his squad to put it down.

He was bracing himself and heard the growls of his men behind him. A shot of blue flesh and claws broke through a wall of walking dead soldiers at the clearing's edge. The thing was moving faster than any living thing Poke had ever seen. It was switching freely between two limbs and four to keep up a wild leaping stride, and it was headed right for the newly risen giant. The men behind him saw it as well, and prior to that moment he would have bet freely they could never be stopped once they were charging. He stopped and all his squad stopped in line with him. They all knew that a fight was imminent. They did not care to be an obstacle in the fray. Poke looked to the left and right at his men, "I say we wait and kill the winner." He was rewarded with nods all around.

Marti's muscles burned, his heart beat as if it would burst. He felt as if he would die. If it was to be, it would be on top of the Kre's decapitated body. He had tolerated his master's service because he was treated well and allowed to fight; also, his master made assurances that Marti's family was being cared for. Clan and battle were everything to him, so he persevered for years. Now in the span of hours, his name returned to him, he would be allowed to see his family, and he could destroy the cowardly Eoten slaver who decimated his clan.

The giant turned to follow the gaze of the humans that had stopped their charge at him. One head smiled knowingly, perhaps thinking his undeath gave him an advantage. The other head wiggled around, spasmodically clicking its jaws. It sounded like a horse's hooves on cobblestones. Marti drew near and leapt at the last moment as he drew near.

Trul foot talons pierced the giant's abdomen, finding purchase as claws swung at the twin heads. The speed of the swings was blinding. None seemed to connect sufficiently though, as heads remained attached. Kre launched a great fist into the Trul's middle, causing him to fly away bent fully in half. Where he landed, dirt flew, as his body creased the earth in a groove. The giant wasted no time, rushing forward to kick his downed opponent in the ribs, sending him flying another ten feet away to be impaled on a wall spike. It took Marti cleanly through his right shoulder.

Poke and his men began to stir, sensing an end to the show. They would go do what the berserk creature could not. They began to brace themselves for charge. The Trul had been hanging its head, now it looked up at the approach of Kre.

"I remember you Trul. You were a village chieftain at Del'bruk. I captured you all and I had your woman. I broke you and your children. The lot of you made me rich on the markets."

Marti's feet braced to either side of the spike keeping him suspended, and launched him up the length of the shaft. His momentum pushed him off and onto the ground. The men watching cheered, though they had no idea if the creature was friend or foe; they enjoyed bloodthirsty tenacity and refusal to die. Kre seemed taken aback. It seemed he had thought this bout over.

Marti picked himself up off the ground and gingerly moved the injured arm. Blood flowed freely from the wound with each major movement of the arm.

"Now I destroy you, cowardly Spetkah." He closed the distance with almost as much speed as before, but unable to go down on all fours to replicate the earlier charge. The giant came forward with a sweeping punch at the same time. Marti's foot kicked up and out at the left head, piercing its eye with a long talon. Poke made a mental note not to be a "Spektah" if ever in the company of creatures like that one.

Kre dropped to his knees and the Trul withdrew his foot from where it was stuck to the Eoten's skull. The right head just chittered on for a moment before a sweeping kick removed it from its stitches on the neck of the corpse. It was all the more unnatural that the head that had been stitched back onto the body had any semblance of life at all.

Poke's squad prepared to charge. At the last moment the warrant officer held his hand up holding them back. The Trul warrior turned to consider the humans watching nearby. Once he saw they were prepared to run him down, but hesitated, he nodded and sprinted off back the way he came.

"Lads, that fellow isn't done killing today, and I believe if we let him be he will kill more of them than us. That makes me inclined to find my fight elsewhere." Murmured assent followed his statement. They turned to find a spot on the line where they could wreak havoc more appropriately.

10. We Meet Again

Snit had no fear that he would be most safe without his pet. His acquisition of the target was a "when" variable to him, not an "if." The pace at which he advanced had slowed markedly without Marti. Advancing through the undead horde was much more difficult, watching 360 degrees while moving forward. Dagger and spear left piles of bodies all around but still did very little to thin the overall numbers around him. The carnage just allowed him to advance as if he was cleaving his way through dense jungle, slowly, step by step.

His innate sense of direction had him headed north and slightly west toward where he believed the core of the dark army mustered around their general. Eventually he came to an expanse where the attacks ceased as the press of foes shied away from him to run northeast at someone or something else. They were almost ignoring him. He climbed on a cart for a better view, and what a view indeed.

"Hello, brother. Hello, Shen killers. How nice." He finished off the few of the dark creatures who lingered within spear thrust range so he was able to watch a moment uninterrupted.

The village defenders blended into the charging horde, the former enemies not hesitating for a moment. The obvious threat before them was so obviously unnatural and demonic.The leaders of the village force remained near each other as best as they could. Naomi made her way closer to the main charge until she saw Grenda and Katlyn nearby; she had no fear for their safety. Snigin was fighting near Lola and Ren's apprentice, and they were holding their own. She saw a dead warrior in the armor of the king's elite headed toward them. It seemed he had targeted them as a sticking point in his troops charge, and cared to make the way clear. Naomi quickened her pace, hoping to intercept him in time. The creature was simply faster than she was on foot. He was gaining too much ground too quickly.

The thunder of hooves approached her, overtaking her before she could react. Two horsemen whipped past her toward the impending battle. She barely had time to jump a little further clear of them and avoid being sprayed by the dirt of a horse at full gallop. From behind she knew him, it was his posture, something about the way he held himself. The other man must be his second. She watched as Tuhn tried to charge down the undead elite warrior. She half hoped they would both die somehow in the collision.

The ghoul lashed out straight at the mount, knocking it clean out from under the chieftain. Naomi found herself gasping despite herself. She had never known anyone or anything to unseat Tuhn Brid. He fell hard and tangled with the maimed mount. The lieutenant rode past, unable to turn in time. The gargantuan abomination lurked over the grounded barbarian. He raised a broad axe in one hand, intending to cleave any bit of man or horse in the way.

"Die, fiend, in the name of the true God." Lola broke free of her opponent and charged the brute headlong running him through the sternum with her short sword. It stuck, most likely caught on a rib or other such now unnecessary internal bit. She hesitated to let go. The dead-spawn did not hesitate; he cleaved her head from her shoulders cleanly with one blow.

Naomi saw the the apprentice of Ren, the hunter, dart forward, throwing knives in front of him. The attacks were worthy, and Katlyn would have been proud. The hulking figure had thrown his arm up and both knives thumped into his forearm saving him from two possible skull shots. The youngling was committed to the attack now though; he ran forward, drawing his sword. A good strong blow to follow the initial volley. The dead brute would have been in dire trouble had he cared about the limb that just saved him, but he did not. He threw the arm out to absorb the sword blow as well, the blade cleaving lengthwise almost down to the elbow down the lower arm bones. If he had been alive it would have been a deciding blow. The creature reached out with his good hand swiftly and latched onto the boy's throat. An audible crack sounded as the young man was pulled into his opponent for leverage, and his head twisted viciously. The nek cast his gaze briefly to the ground, looking for his earlier target, the barbarian chieftain that had so boldly charged him.

Tunh Brid stood near the decapitated corpse of Lola. He gently reached down and pressed his hand to the empty stump of neck where the deathblow had been struck. His palm came back up covered in her blood, which he smeared ritually on his face. The nek warrior had no idea of the actual significance of a blood woad, yet the message was far from ambiguous. Tuhn began to stride measuredly forward, his pace increasing gradually by the moment, closing the short distance that had developed between the two during the last few moments of battle.

The dire warrior managed to get his sword out with his good hand and meet the barbarian's initial swings. If the situation had been about swordplay, and the dead one had two hands, the situation may have gone another way. Tuhn struck his sword away with a wild blow which caused both weapons to go flying to the side. He continued his advance reaching deeply within his opponent's guard and grasped his skull. The chieftain, who was every bit as big as the dead one, placed his thumbs on dead eyes and tightened his grip, burying both thumbs deeply enough that vile gelatinous ooze gushed over both of his palms. His pressing did not relent as his opponent fell to the ground; he followed, and in a feat of strength, tore the corpse's head off the torso.

"In her name, the name of the one who came to my aid!"

Naomi shouted out, oblivious to the possible danger of alerting Brid to her presence, "Her name was Lola."

Tuhn looked at Naomi, then back to the crowd in general. "For Lola."

The others, both dead and defender, saw him raise the head high. Cries of victory came from the nearest living warriors, who redoubled their efforts.

Naomi approached him and used her foot to lift his blade airborne, hilt first. He grabbed it with his free hand.

"Woman."

"Pig."

"You know we have business."

"Not till after this."

"Agreed."

The two turned and walked shoulder to shoulder towards the smaller group of villagers she first noticed, who were now joined by his lieutenant.

11. Karma

The woman and children froze where they stood. It seemed there was no where to go, as they were practically next to the undead creatures and so far from the gates. You couldn't outrun things that didn't breathe. Or could you? Pyn would find out if it could be done, the rest of them be damned.

He let the little blade he had hidden in his sleeve fall into his palm as unobtrusively as possible. He scurried up behind Enid.

"What are we going to do?"

"Me and the boys are going to run and let them have you soft little villagers." The thief didn't even turn toward him while announcing his betrayal. He would have made a terrible merchant. He didn't have enough sense to never trust anyone, even those you already thought you had conquered. In business, everyone was a threat.

Pyn jammed the little knife up into the base of his skull. It happened so quickly that there was no time for anything but a little gurgle.

He left the blade in and immediately darted off toward the mountain side of the clearing, away from both zombies and the village. Perhaps the dead would take long enough to kill the others, and he could get away and head to the southern lands. The ghouls moved just as he began sprinting to his right. The others had bigger problems than his escape, so none pursued. His wife shouted his name, but he ignored her. He wasn't a warrior but he wasn't entirely soft, either. Laboring by bread ovens and maintaining a shop was work enough to keep him in some shape. While the others screamed and died, he put a reasonable distance between them and him.

The screams gave him an odd comfort. As long as they others screamed, they were dying, which meant the evil things were busy killing them and not chasing him. If he could get far enough away, they might not even chase him; they may just turn and rush the gates. That was probably their original plan anyway. He realized he just might make it.

The sawgrass made little cuts on his legs as he ran. His fear overpowered any sense of apprehension to being cut up, though. He had covered quite a distance, so far that not only did he not hear screaming, he heard almost nothing. The tree line was nearby and he headed toward it. There maybe something there, but it was unlikely; the dead came from the the North and the West. The horde was to the South, and the deep forest was to the East. It made sense that very little was in that section of forest. It would be the perfect place to hide till this blew over.

He made it to the tree line and stopped. Dropping to the ground seemed prudent. Gazing back out over the field, he saw one of the dead had been sent after him. It had probably been chasing him the whole time and would have caught him eventually. He couldn't run anymore, he was just too tired. That meant he was probably going to die.

It saw where he dropped; now it was just a matter of waiting to die. For some reason the silence bothered him just as much as his impending doom. There was nothing, no night birds, no frogs, nothing was making a sound anywhere nearby. He had lived out here on the prairie long enough to know what that meant. A predator was nearby, the local fauna didn't know what the dead thing was well enough to silence itself like this. There was something else nearby as well, something which had a predator smell, a predator aura.

The dead thing stopped at the wood's edge and looked at him on the ground. It sensed something too. It didn't want to go into the forest. Something felt wrong on almost a religious level. A miasma was on the area; something wasn't right. To his surprise, even though the thing obviously saw him, it wouldn't approach. The ghoul sniffed the air and growled, then it turned and began to sprint back the way it had come.

Pyn saw three arrows which seemed to hit the same spot in its head land almost simultaneously. The creature dropped like a stone.

He rolled onto his back. All around him, stood the most beautiful beings he had ever seen. They were beautiful and slender. He had been saved by angels of the gods. Then they looked down at him. Their eyes were bloodshot and rheumy. One looked down and spoke in a language unfamiliar to him and cocked its bow, pointing an arrow toward his heart. Teeth like he had only seen before on a sea predator when he visited the coastal kingdoms in the south filled the being's mouth. He felt he was surely dead as much as if the dead thing had continued to him.


Ha! You thought this was the end? Hold on 'til February!


Copyright 2015, David Ulnar-Slew

Bio: David Ulnar-Slew was born in Innsmouth, MA, to Dutch immigrant parents of the famous Diepeen family, grew up in Newburyport, MA, and moved to an undisclosed location in the woods of VT in 2010. For ten years he taught Dark Magic to cannibal dwarves in the American Southwest. His first book, "Possible Flash Damage" is what he calls, "the beginning of Humankind's indoctrination into the ways the Elder Gods want us to think."

The truth:

David Ulnar-Slew is the nom-de-plume of Ed Sullivan. He is the former flash fiction editor at Aphelion: The Webzine of Science Fiction and Fantasy, and the Editor-in-Chief at Cheapjack Pulp. He needs a pseudonym because his given name is not terribly good for him in terms of search engine placement.

He would also be pleased if you were to visit:

http://www.cheapjackpulp.com

E-mail: David Ulnar-Slew

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