Marcov spotted the modest hut to which the priest had directed him, spent a moment invoking the haunting spirits, and broke into a sprint. He leaped, hurling his whole weight against the shuttered window nearest the front door. Wood burst inward, splinters flying—all in utter silence, for the ghosts of that long-dead village had spread their intangible substances through the surrounding air, muting all sound.
A trio of animated skeletons—Marcov guessed they'd been chosen over fleshier undead so as to cut down on the stench—lurched and staggered from across the room. Bone fingers wrapped around cheap swords, or curled into tearing claws. The clacking and clicking probably would have been disturbing, if he could hear any of it.
Marcov spun, sweeping the legs from under the nearest corpse. Bastard sword held high, he parried a stroke from the second, then brought the heavy pommel of the weapon down in a diagonal arc. The skeleton's collarbone shattered, causing the undead to stagger and nearly topple.
With a quick yank on the thing's opposite shoulder, Marcov removed "nearly" from the equation. The animated bones fell atop the first skeleton, pinning it down just as it tried to rise. Marcov reversed his grip and plunged the blade through both rib cages and deep into the wooden floor. Neither skeleton would be getting up anytime soon.
The third and final guardian was just clever enough to lunge, taking advantage of the intruder's newly disarmed state. It seemed a good idea, right up until Marcov pounded the thing into a heap of splintered bone with a small end table that had been standing in a corner.
A few additional swings took care of the two pinned to the floor. Marcov retrieved his sword and continued, still wrapped in silence.
Doubtless the skeletons had been intended to scare away any potential intruders, and delay an attacker long enough for Khydol to prepare. Except Khydol hadn't heard a peep.
The cleric stood in the next room beside a makeshift shrine to Calistria, surrounded by rickety shelves of mementos—crockery, books, children's toys, candlesticks—presumably lost by those displaced during the General's purge of clerics from Touvette. The tome he'd been perusing fell open to the floor, its pages crumpling, as Marcov appeared in the doorway.
The half-elf's eyes widened at the sight of the unnaturally stealthy intruder. He raised holy symbol wrought of pewter and began to intone a prayer to his goddess.
Sorry, Marcov mouthed around a vicious grin, then raised his blade and advanced at a saunter.
He was halfway through cleaning his blade when the silence lapsed and the room abruptly filled with the whisper of cloth on steel. A moment later, he heard the faint crunching of someone climbing in through the broken shutters.
"Next room!" he called back. "You're a little late, Loursa."
"Khydol's dead?" Her footsteps, drawing nearer the open doorway, weren't quite loud enough to mask the peculiar tone of her question.
"Dead as Aroden. Figured I'd ask him a couple of—"
It was pure luck that saved him. Had Loursa arrived before the ghosts had dismissed the unnatural hush, or had his struggle with the skeletons not scattered so many chips of wood and bone, she'd have been on him with no warning at all.
As it was, Marcov heard the sudden rush across the debris and was able to hurl himself aside. The blow that would otherwise have punched through his hauberk and into his back instead left only a fiery trail of blood and pain across his ribs.
"What the hell? Loursa—"
The guard kept coming, her blade thrusting as fiercely as it had against the bandits. Marcov, wincing at every blow, found himself barely able to parry despite his heavier sword.
For a moment there was only steel on steel and shuffling feet. Marcov retreated as far as Khydol's body, then leaped over it, putting a bit of distance between him and his traitorous opponent.
"So what is it, then?" he growled. "Just waiting until you didn't need me anymore to get rid of me?"
"Something like that," she told him softly.
He mumbled briefly under his breath. Then, "Lovely show of gratitude, Loursa."
Again she came at him, teeth bared in a feral snarl.
Marcov clenched his left fist. Wisps of shadow, phantom limbs invisible to mortal senses, swirled.
Khydol's body floated up into Loursa's path just as she made to step over it.
Marcov lunged, burning with betrayed fury. Flesh and bone parted, and his former companion deflated with a soft sigh before sliding from the tip of his blade. For an instant, Khydol's floating body held Loursa upright, then both corpses thumped awkwardly to the floor.
He'd actually grown comfortable, letting someone fight at his side again. Should've known better. Stupid, stupid...
Again he cleaned his sword, then leaned it aside and knelt over the bodies. He began to call upon the surrounding spirits, prepared to ask them to revive Khydol's memories long enough to get some answers...
And paused. His gaze flickered to Loursa's slackened face, a bitter spring of pain bubbling unexpectedly to the surface of his anger.
When his hand came down, he felt the ghosts moving, but it wasn't into the body of the priest he directed them.
Loursa's jaw twitched. Her unfocused eyes turned toward him.
"Why did you try to kill me?" He cursed himself for the plaintive tone he couldn't quite banish.
"Ellithir... tells me... you want to harm her, as... you have so many others. I... have to... kill you first."
"My dearest... friend."
A horrible suspicion began to crawl on millipede legs up Marcov's spine. "How long have you known her?"
"Then why are you such dear friends?"
"Words. She speaks... strange, pretty words."
The brutal simplicity of the dead. Marcov rose, staggered backward until he thumped against the nearest shelves. Several dishes and other trophies fell, shattering around his feet. He didn't notice.
Loursa hadn't liked him; he'd known that from the beginning, and hadn't cared. But she'd fought beside him. She hadn't betrayed him, not intentionally. Marcov knew magic when he heard it.
And he'd killed her for it.
Marcov rubbed at his forehead and looked back at the corpse, but it was once again an empty, lifeless husk.
"I'm sorry." His voice was oddly hoarse, the words dusty from years of disuse.
Marcov slung his blade over his shoulder and stalked out into the street, his rage growing hot once more. Someone in this town knew who Ellithir was, and Marcov felt more than ready to make whoever it was tell him.
∗ ∗ ∗
A few customers wandered the aisles of the general store when Marcov arrived. For several minutes, as he pulled goods aside and hunted for hidden secrets, the patrons stared at him in confusion. When one of them confronted him, asking what he thought he was doing, the gaunt foreigner was only too happy to let his ghosts toss a few objects around the room until he'd sent everyone into panicked flight.
It took some doing, and nearly ten more minutes; that damn mosquito-repelling herbal smoke, which seemed to be everywhere he went in the River Kingdoms lately, had given him a right headache by the time he was through.
Finally, however, with the spirits subtly guiding him when he got too far off track, he located the hidden trapdoor behind the counter.
He was forced to duck, walking at almost a crouch down the upper portion of the stairs, until he was deep enough below the ceiling to stand straight.
The chamber was earth and soil, barely supported by sagging beams of wood. A stone-rimmed pool sat within, a granite pillar protruding from its center. Both the stink of acrid incense and a faint glow that was the cellar's only illumination spilled from a pair of braziers. Marcov saw no one else here, heard no one, but a lifetime's instincts screamed of lurking danger. Again, he began whispering to the ghosts, asking them to guide his strikes, to warn him of attack, to—
The shadows at the chamber's far end shifted and lightened, revealing a slender silhouette. A voice hissed something only vaguely like words, and Marcov's sword began to glow. He heard skin sizzle even before he felt the searing pain, and threw the weapon aside with a startled shout. It scraped the edge of the pool, settling point-first in the water. Steam hissed upward to join the clouds of incense.
Marcov ran, and not an instant too soon. A thunderous crash shook the chamber, centered where he'd been standing. Dirt fell from the ceiling and water sloshed over the edges of the font. The burst of noise hit him like a physical blow, staggering him, making his ears ring; he could only imagine how much worse it might have been had he suffered the brunt.
Another three paces and Marcov jumped for the low ceiling. A brilliant beam of light flashed beneath him, so close he could feel the heat of its passing. Had gravity taken its normal course, his leap would not have stopped him from plummeting into the path of the ray.
He felt a phantom current wrap around his fingers and feet, holding him to the ceiling. Hanging upside down above the pool like a humanoid spider, he began scurrying sideways.
The darkened figure emerged somewhat from the gloom, revealing a golden-haired elf whose features might have been deemed soft, had they not been twisted in a rictus of anger and hate.
"Ellithir, I presume?"
She grunted an affirmation. "And you would be Draeven. You're a damned nuisance, you know that?"
"So I've been told. What's this all about?"
Ellithir didn't answer, but the flicker of her eyes toward the granite pillar was all the confirmation Marcov needed. He knew a shrine when he saw one, even if he didn't recognize the deity.
"So, this is a religious thing. Just not Calistrian."
He was stalling, and he knew that she knew he was stalling, but still she answered. "Khydol was useful, as was his faith." She shrugged. "His grudge was genuine. I just... encouraged him to expand his horizons."
"To what end? All this bloodshed and suffering... For what?"
"Bloodshed and suffering is the end, Draeven! We—"
Ellithir flung out her hand in the midst of speaking, clearly hoping to catch him unprepared.
Marcov hurled himself forward and leaped from the ceiling, wondering what fell invocation he'd avoided. Even as he landed, his sword flew from the pool into his waiting grasp, cool to the touch once more. He swung.
The sword crashed into a glimmering aura that sprang into life around the elf, the blade stopping inches from her skin.
Again, Ellithir screeched something that was only vaguely a language. This time Marcov recognized a word—or perhaps a name?—repeated from her first incantation: Gyronna.
The elf's right eye bulged, suddenly bloodshot and grossly swollen, as if pushed partly from her skull by the rage and magic within her. She slapped a hand against his armored chest.
Agony drove him to his knees. Worse than any wound, any illness he'd endured, it felt as though something ate away at him from within.
Then something wriggled, a wet and flaccid tickle that brushed the inside of his ribs and burrowed toward his gut, and he realized that was precisely what was happening. It was all he could do not to retch, then to scream his horror until his mind was gone.
"Idiot!" Ellithir kicked him in the face, sending him sprawling. "We are a plague! We are as the worms consuming your flesh! You haven't stopped me. Even if you'd killed me, you could never—"
The murdered souls that haunted Marcov could do nothing against the unnatural parasites that riddled him. But as they'd guided his limbs before, granting him strength, so did the spirits enable him to act now—more slowly and feebly than he would have preferred, but far more effectively than Ellithir could have anticipated. He stumbled upward.
Again, the glimmering aura prevented a killing stroke.
"Remember how you fought," Marcov whispered, coughing, to the spirits surrounding him. "Remember the men who swept over you, over your families, your children. Remember how you fought..."
Wisps of nothingness swirled, blended, assumed substance and form—until a plain longsword, chipped and battered and vaguely transparent, hung behind the elven cleric.
Ellithir gasped as the blade plunged between her shoulders, unhindered by her aura. She staggered forward, this time into Marcov's waiting grip.
A simple touch was all it took. Flesh split, blood flowed, muscles burst beneath the ghosts' fury.
Ellithir fell, first to her knees, then to one side. Ever thirsty, the earthen floor drank the growing pool of blood around her.
Marcov, too, collapsed once more, panting, shuddering in pain. "A drink and a whore if I live through this," he mumbled, though whether to himself or the spirits was unclear. "Not necessarily in that order."
"Cel—celebrating?" Ellithir's words emerged as a burbling, blood-soaked cough. "Don't. We—we are everywhere. The River Kingdoms belong to us! The flesh is filth. The world is pain. To see is to hate. And the Hag... the Hag sees..."
A final rattle, a pinkish froth, and Ellithir was gone.
Moments later, the agony of the worms began to fade, and Marcov nearly wept in relief. He felt as though he'd just swum the Inner Sea while suckling a mewling vampire, but the worst of the pain was gone.
Then, with the image of Loursa's dead face floating before his mind's eye, he realized he was wrong. It was only the physical pain that had ebbed.
Groaning, he dragged himself upright, leaning on his sword like an old man's cane. His gaze flickered first to the strange stone shrine, then to the dead priestess at his feet.
He thought of Ellithir's dying words—of cults like this spread throughout the River Kingdoms—and the spirits stirred within him.
Just this once, maybe he wouldn't mind the job that lay ahead.
Coming Next Week: The past returns to haunt a group of retired adventurers in the first chapter of Josh Vogt's "The Weeping Blade."
Ari Marmell is an author and game designer, and has written extensively for Dungeons & Dragons, Magic: The Gathering, World of Darkness, and more. His fiction includes the independent dark fantasy novels The Conqueror's Shadow and The Warlord's Legacy, the young adult fantasy Thief's Covenant, and the Iron Kingdoms novel In Thunder Forged, among others. For more information, see his website at mousferatu.com.
Illustration by Damon Westenhofer