Prince Dolandryn explained that in life he'd known only a handful of spells, for he had bent his concentration upon necromantic studies to the exclusion of almost all other magics. Yet he had learned one or two useful tricks, and upon Elyana and Arcil he placed a dweomer that hid their pulse and gave them a semblance of... Elyana was not sure how to describe it, for she saw nothing different in Arcil's appearance once the spell had been cast, but she certainly perceived it upon both of them when she looked down at her hands.
"You will no longer seem alive to the dead you encounter," the spirit told them. "But you do not have long. You must move quickly."
And so they did. They left Mirelle on the steps near the horses, neither of them offering suggestions as to what she should do if they failed in their mission. The girl would have no good options left her.
Elyana and Arcil hurried through the streets toward the city outskirts. Here they finally saw more of the moving dead, and sign that at least some of the Galtans lived, for scores of the animated corpses had gathered around a square redoubt that looked like a watchtower. Lights burned at its heights; figures in Galtan liberty caps were silhouetted in the vacant windows of the place. By that light Elyana recognized men in Galtan uniforms gathered in the ranks of dead about the tower and knew that many of those who'd tracked them to this place must already have fallen.
"How are we going to get through there?" Elyana asked.
"I don't think we'll have to do so," Arcil told her, breathing a little heavily. He pointed out into the darkness. "As far as I can tell, the pendant is that way."
"Lead on, then. How much longer do you think we have?"
"Probably not long enough," he said, and was so startled by her abrupt laugh that his grin was rather charming. She slapped his back.
"Onward then, Arcil."
They did not have much farther to go. Out there in the darkness they saw another light, near a copse of trees. A group of dead men ringed the light, and their shadows were etched upon the surface of the earth before they stretched into the surrounding darkness. From within this ring came the distinct chuk of shovels thrust into the soil, the grunt of men at work, and the sound of earth being cast from the tools. Elyana perceived then that inside the ring of corpses were a handful of Galtan soldiers, along with another figure that was quietly cursing them to quicken their efforts.
It looked as though Elyana and Arcil were not the only ones protected by some kind of shielding enchantment.
Elyana decided then that things could quickly be made much simpler with a few easy steps, and so she darted behind a bush and slipped her bow from her back. Arcil went with her, smiling as she bent the bow and slid the string into place around the nock.
"A well-placed arrow, eh?"
"Or three," Elyana said. "It should save us a little trouble."
"And if this doesn't work?"
"I guess you'd better have your wand ready."
It did not take long. Elyana had three of her finest arrows remaining; the rest had been scavenged from Galtans. She watched the diggers for only a few moments. They did not seem to have been at it for very long, for their dirt pile was but a low mound.
One of the men with the shovels bent down, lifted something, and brushed at it. The hooded figure stepped closer.
Until then he'd been partly obscured by the protective line of corpses and the diggers themselves. No longer. As the necromancer stared at what Elyana thought must be the pendant, she loosed her first arrow, then the second, in quick succession. As they soared through the night, she took a moment longer to aim a third.
The first one tore through the air, over the shoulder of one of the dead sentinels, then passed just beyond the head of the Galtan wizard, who looked up. The second one came within a handspan of his throat, but somehow dropped away just as it drew close. Elyana cursed—the Galtan necromancer must have some sort of protective barrier.
The third, though, took the fellow in his chest. He sank to one knee.
Arcil leveled his wand then, and at his shouted words a firewall appeared beside the Galtans, casting all of them in stark red light. The men with shovels screamed in anguish.
Elyana fitted more arrows and fired again and again even as the wall of fire raged.
Then the corpses were running toward them, eight in all. Five were the long-dead skeletal remnants of the valley, but three were Galtan soldiers. Their opponent was apparently an equal opportunity necromancer.
"Do you have anything else?" Elyana asked.
"A web," Arcil told her.
The wizard set to work, and with a few whispered words a long strand of material glistened into existence between a bush and wall directly in the path of the charging corpses. They rushed right into the sticky strands, where they flailed helplessly. Elyana was already on the run, arrow in one hand, bow in the other. She and Arcil bypassed the writhing bodies, closing on the Galtan position. The necromancer was standing once more, and she fit the arrow to her bow as she ran.
And then there was something clasping her ankle and leg, and a rope of darkness had snared her wrist and waist. Black tentacles formed of shadow had shot up from the ground and wrapped her with implacable power, pinning arms to her sides, holding her legs in place. She turned her head and saw Arcil caught in the same fashion. The eerie, cold restraints were secure and inflexible.
The wall of fire had faded finally, but by the light of the lantern he bore, the necromancer could be seen as he walked to meet them. Two of his still-living guards paced at his side.
Upon closer inspection, the fellow did not seem especially intimidating. He wore a tanned, gray leather mask that concealed all of his face but his eyes, his mouth, and his chin. His hair was hidden by a hood that seemed tied to the mask itself.
The man was round and short, with large hands and stubby fingers, and though the high boots of a huntsman flashed from beneath his robe, his waddling stride made it clear they were an affectation rather than his customary dress. Probably he was a merchant of some kind when he was not serving his state as a Gray Gardener.
He stopped only a few feet before them. In one hand he held a tarnished pendant of silver and gold. The only sign of the arrow Elyana had skewered him with was a dark patch upon his jacket near his heart.
His two uniformed guardsman looked scorched, from their blackened faces to their singed coats and eyebrows. One of them had both his sword and his teeth bared.
"I would have been much more upset with you," the necromancer said in a mild voice, "if you had not led me to this place with this treasure. Why, if you're still alive when I decipher its workings, I may have to thank you."
"You don't need to decipher its workings," Elyana said. "I can tell you what it does."
The necromancer chuckled. "Really. And why would an elf know anything about it?"
"You hold the pendant fashioned by Lord Dolandryn to ward his valley from invaders."
The necromancer's mouth set firmly. This was apparently not the answer he'd expected. "How do you know?"
"Why do you think we came here?" she asked. "I could have lost you the moment we entered the forest."
"You should just kill her, honored citizen," the soldier with the sword suggested.
"Hush," the wizard replied without looking at him. "Elf, I have ways to learn the truth from you."
"There's no need for any of that," Elyana said. "If you free me, I will promise to tell you how the pendant's magic works."
The Galtan laughed, a merry sound such as friends share at a good jest. No one joined him. "You wish me to free you both?"
"Elyana!" Arcil said.
"Now what would the state say if I were to show favoritism to a criminal? Justice must be blind, elf."
"Think what you'll be able to do for the state with the power of that necklace."
The necromancer hefted the thing in one hand, clearly considering it. "Your proposal intrigues me. I sense the power in this thing, and know that it is linked to these dead."
"Then free me."
"No, no. I think you must prove your loyalty to me. Tell me its use, and then I will free you."
Elyana knew that he would never do that, but to acquiesce too quickly would make the fellow suspicious. "You must swear."
"Very well. I swear, by the love I hold for the republic and people of Galt, that I shall free you from those bonds once you have told me the secret of this necklace."
"Don't listen to him, Elyana!" Arcil spat.
It was clearly a very poor sort of oath. The necromancer might mean he would free her of those bonds but put her in others, and he had in no way indicated that she would be freed generally. She knew only that the necromancer would want both of them alive for the guillotine if at all possible, for Galtans loved a show.
"Very well." Elyana feigned reluctance. She heard Arcil still begging that she say nothing. "You must extend your power into the necklace itself," she said. "You will feel the stirrings of the dead when you do so. If you are truly talented, you might be able to command dozens upon dozens of the folks, though they say only Lord Dolandryn could send forth the whole of the valley at once."
The Galtan smiled. "I can do anything that this lord of yours could have done. He could not be so great, if I have never heard of him."
"Free me now," Elyana said.
"First," the wizard said, lifting the necklace, "I will test the truth of your words." He fit it over his neck, and the pendant hung down, shining incongruously on the pot belly that distended his robe.
The necromancer stared off into the distance, then smiled, then laughed. "By the glorious state! You did not lie! I can feel them. I will command them to depart the fortress... I can sense them all the way through the valley. They are set, somehow, to guard the place from intrusion." His voice sounded strained.
"You make it sound easy," Elyana said. "The prince had to work harder than that."
"I can command them all," the necromancer declared.
"Prove it," Elyana said.
He lifted his wobbling chins proudly. "I will. You will see me march from this forest with my new army, for you will be my prisoner! Oh, I will free you from these bonds, but you were a fool to think I would release you from the custody of the state and the justice you are due."
"You're all talk," Elyana told him. "I have yet to see this army you command."
His lips curled.
It took only a moment, then. He stared off into the distance, fists clenched. "I can feel them. I can feel them all! Come, children. Come to me—he will... we will... all..."
Quite suddenly he dropped limp to the ground. He made no attempt to catch himself, and lay twitching. The guardsmen started, unsure, and Arcil shouted a command. The tentacles vanished.
He had dispelled the Galtan's work by use of the ring he wore, looted like his wand from the River Kingdom crypt. Elyana snatched up her bow, charged forward and caught the blade of the lunging Galtan on the edge of her bow. She backhanded his face with its other end and drew her sword as he staggered, crying out in pain. A quick thrust sent him groaning to the ground.
By then the other Galtan was advancing.
Arcil shouted for her attention. "Elyana—the dead!"
She saw them from the corners of her eyes, advancing from every direction. The maddened or enfeebled necromancer lay on the ground, racked by spasms, but the last command he'd given through the faulty artifact still worked, and they had been called to him. Thus they came.
"Put up your blade, fool," Elyana shouted at her opponent. "There's no time for this!"
Elyana beat his blade aside and drove her own through the Galtan's coat and breast. He sank to his knees, dying with a look of astonishment.
Arcil was already holding the necklace when Elyana turned, and at the whispered word the ghostly prince had taught him, the thing fell open to reveal a glowing center. He set it amid the burned grasses.
Elyana lifted her sword and Arcil quickly backed off, leaving the necklace with its brilliant blue nimbus.
The two Galtans she had but lately slain were in motion. One staggered at her, arms outstretched. The other had not even bothered climbing to its feet—it snatched at her ankle, enclosing it in a grip of iron.
Elyana dragged it forward with her, raised up the sword, and sliced down into the amulet's blue glow.
She felt the magical energies of her blade thrum as she made contact with something, as if an invisible hand had slowed her descent. The pendant's light had not diminished or dimmed. The grip on her ankle tightened. She heard Arcil shouting something and the thud of his staff against bone.
She raised the sword higher and struck once more, and again, and a third time. Usually she wielded the weapon with more finesse, but she was tired, and, truth be told, more than a little afraid that all of their effort had been expended for naught.
But then, on the fifth blow, the glow shimmered and lessened. She felt the grip about her ankle relax, and on the sixth strike, the magic winked out. All about her the dead dropped, hitting the soil and pavement with a rattle of bones and armor.
There was then only the sound of Arcil panting. She turned to find the wizard leaning heavily on his staff.
"That was very clever," he said.
"Did you know what I planned?"
"I guessed. Did you like my dramatic denial?" He smiled. "I thought I did a fair job, acting. I waited for the right opening to use my ring. You certainly gave me one."
Elyana nodded, and bent over to wipe her blade on a dead Galtan's clothes.
"We make a good team, Elyana," Arcil was saying. "I think that was very nicely managed." He stepped over to the Galtan necromancer, the man's limbs still shaking at random intervals. "What shall we do with him?"
"Leave him," Elyana said darkly, and sheathed her sword.
Arcil appeared unsure about that. When he bent down over the fellow, Elyana thought at first he meant to deliver a mercy blow, but instead he rifled through his belongings until he rose with a book. "I fancy learning that black tentacle spell," he said.
"You're not going to start dabbling in the dead, are you?" Elyana asked.
Arcil shuddered a little. "You're joking, right?"
When they returned to the tower, Mirelle was waiting for them. The prince was gone.
"We were watching from the tower," Mirelle told them. "He told me when he felt that the necklace was in use, and he grew very sad. But a short time later he turned to me with the most amazing smile. He tried to say something, but I couldn't hear him, for at that very moment he faded away. It was like he had never been there at all."
They rested in the tower for half the night. Elyana expected no trouble from any surviving Galtans, but she still roused her weary group before dawn, leaving the valley via its southern exit. Arcil might ordinarily have groused about having to share a horse, but he did not complain about having Mirelle pressed behind him on the saddle.
By dawn they were on the southern heights, and Elyana could not keep herself from taking a final look over the valley. In the dim light, it was almost possible to imagine the ruins as they must once have been, with folk leaving the houses for their fields, hoes slung over their backs. They would have walked forth in groups, their children running ahead. Others might have pushed carts toward the city square.
"We did it," Arcil said. He had dropped off Mirelle's horse to join Elyana.
"You look sad. Against terrible odds, we came through alive. I can't think of better reasons to be happy."
"I was just thinking about the prince. He loved his people so much that he destroyed them."
"Love," Arcil said. "Sometimes I think we're all better off without it."
"Well, then we end up with the Galtans, don't we? Justice beyond compassion. There must be a middle path."
"Let me know if you find it," Arcil said. "Right now, though, I would rather you focus on the trail home."
"That I can do," Elyana told him. "That I can do." And she turned from her contemplation of the valley, climbed into her saddle, and headed for the woods.
Explore Further: Though this story is finished, the adventure isn't. Read more of Elayana's adventures in the new Pathfinder Tales novel Plague of Shadows, available now!
Coming Next Week: A blast from the past as Dave Gross brings us the adventures of a young Count Jeggare in the Mwangi Expanse in "A Lesson in Taxonomy."
Howard Andrew Jones is the author of the newly released Pathfinder Tales novel Plague of Shadows. He's published one other novel, the new historical fantasy adventure The Desert of Souls, as well as edited eight collections of literary giant Harold Lamb's work, and currently serves as the Managing Editor for the iconic sword and sorcery magazine Black Gate. For more information, see his website at howardandrewjones.com.