The Walkers from the Crypt

by Howard Andrew Jones

Chapter Two: City of the Dead

"I don't care for it at all." Arcil had swung down from his horse to contemplate some glyphs carved into a stone pylon thrust into the ground beside an oak tree. It was tilted a few degrees off vertical, and pitted with age. Overhead, the leafy canopy was so thick it seemed twilight had already fallen.

Elyana was eager to keep moving; she meant to lose the Galtans only after she'd led them deeper into the woods, but she hadn't reckoned on them pressing so close. Perhaps the sight of their quarry fleeing before them on the plain had excited them, for they were now crashing through the brush a few bowshots behind with almost reckless intensity. Yet her voice did not betray her concern. "What do they say?"

"This is old, and marks a boundary. A warding, perhaps?" Arcil brushed at some moss with two fingers to better view one of the glyphs.

"A warding for what?" Mirelle asked. She glanced over her shoulder, apparently more focused on the noises of their pursers. Her horse shifted uneasily beneath her, stirring the leaves with its hooves.

"These are more initials than words," Arcil said hesitantly. "I'm not certain I can correctly infer the meaning."

He sounded as if he knew something and did not wish to say it. "Speak, Arcil. We've no time to waste."

He glanced up at her and then brushed fingers over the three uppermost glyphs. "I think this means 'the walkers.'" He stood, frowning, and brushed leaves and dirt from his pants. He passed close to Elyana, speaking softly as he glanced up. "Walkers from the crypt."

"What was that?" Mirelle asked, straining forward, her face screwed up with worry.

"We're in this together," Elyana said to Arcil. "You might as well tell her what you're thinking."

Arcil climbed back into his saddle, sighing a little. "I think we're heading toward an old burial ground. We're being warned away. It's likely some local superstition."

"Looks like we'll find out." Elyana started forward. She planned to keep moving south, into the woods. Come nightfall, she'd use her better vision and skills to cut west from the forest. She doubted even the best-trained Galtan woodsmen could keep up with them in darkness. More troubling was what a Galtan necromancer could do with a whole graveyard beneath his feet. Hopefully his selection of spells would be as limited as Arcil's after a full day of work. Surely it had been no easy feat to send so many hounds against them, even if he were a caster of great power.

She guided her charges on, ignoring the occasional grunt or low oath from behind her. The humans didn't always notice the branches she ducked.

Occasional gaps in the forest canopy allowed wide shafts of evening light to stream in, but far from reassuring, the muted illumination served only to emphasize the greater darkness around them. There was a silence here. The bird calls had diminished.

"I don't like this place," Mirelle announced quietly.

"Do not worry, my dear," Arcil told her. "Do not worry."

He sounded less soothing than patronizing.

They continued a gradual decent, and then, suddenly, arrived at what Elyana first took as the forest's edge, though she knew intellectually that the Verduran Forest stretched south for hundreds of miles. Slipping from her horse, she advanced to find instead that they had arrived at the edge of a small, crescent-shaped valley mysteriously bereft of trees. Within it were scattered the bones of a small city. Long-shattered stone walls stood out from the gnarled bushes. Paving stones showed gray here and there beneath the undergrowth and detritus. A few buildings were intact, notably a tower near the center, but most were fallen in, and all of the roofs had collapsed long ago.

The abandoned city felt even more desolate than the surrounding woods, and she thought first to skirt it, then reasoned that she could use the place to better confuse their pursuit. She even briefly considered wearing away their numbers from the defensible positions at hand.

They wound deep into the ruins, Elyana leading the way, and the silence here was so deep the sounds of the Galtan mob were quickly lost to her behind crumbling walls marred by thick vines . The sun sank lower, and twilight came on at last. Elyana had been raised by humans and was well acquainted with their instinctive fear of the dark. Still, she was surprised to hear the soft but clear concern in Arcil's voice.

"Elyana."

She looked back at him, saw him paused at a turn down a winding, cobbled road angling for the tower. Mirelle had paused beside him.

"What is it?" she called back.

"Something... someone... waved for me to follow."

There was no time for hesitation. Not hearing the Galtans made her more concerned about their position. If they reached the valley before her team cleared it...

Yet it was unlike Arcil to sound so indecisive. Or troubled. "A Galtan?" she asked.

"Arcil may not be as suave as he thinks he is, but he's a good man to have in a fight."

"I think it may have been a ghost," Arcil admitted.

"You're sure you saw it?" Elyana asked.

"I am not entirely sure, no," he said, sounding a little defensive. "I saw something from the corner of my eye, and when I turned to look directly, it was gone."

Elyana frowned. Arcil was not especially prone to flights of fancy, but a more urgent threat loomed. "Let's press on," Elyana said. Reluctantly, she noted a new chill in the air and their mounts' ears swiveling nervously to catch no sounds but their own.

As they passed beneath the dark silhouette of the tower, Elyana herself glimpsed a figure standing in the gap between two craggy walls. It had the semblance a man, garbed in a white robe and motioning them onward, but before she could properly focus, it vanished.

At that same moment, from somewhere far behind came a masculine scream and a cacophony of shouting and clashing arms. The Galtans?

"What's happening?" Mirelle gasped.

Elyana pulled her horse around, but before she could locate a vantage point to investigate the distant struggle, a shadowy figure lurched up from the darkness on their right. The horses shied, laying back their ears, and Mirelle stifled a scream.

It lacked a head. Behind it, striding out from the yawning maw of a ruined building, were a half-dozen helmed figures in broken armor. There limbs were nothing but bone.

Elyana cursed. "Time to go!" Her horse was eager to race ahead, and Mirelle and Arcil followed. They quickly outdistanced the dead, but as Elyana continued down the street, more dark figures shambled out of the darkness.

"This does not seem to be Galtan necromancy," Arcil shouted up to her.

He was right. Although she supposed that some Galtan soldier might have shouted because he was frightened by the horrific power wielded by one of their mages, the sounds of battle had been unmistakable. The Galtans were fighting these corpses. More likely this was what the markers had been set to warn visitors away from.

"We ride, fast as we dare," she said. "Out of this valley. Follow me."

She darted down a winding side street, urging her horse to leap over something she took for rubbish in the middle of the street until it rose up, waving a notched sword. She pulled back instead and her animal reared, striking the thing with its front hooves. The dead warrior was flung backward, shedding bones as it flew through the air. It struck the street with a muffled clatter and did not rise.

Other shapes were slipping from the ruins. Some strode confidently, bearing weapons. Other shambled. A few were completely intact, but most were missing limbs, or even heads. And all advanced toward them.

She came to a halt and the others drew up near her. "I've few grand spells left, Elyana," Arcil said soberly.

"Then we shall cut a swathe." She drew her blade, a comforting weight in her hand.

"We cannot hope to destroy enough of them," Arcil said, gesturing around at the gloom alive with shambling movements. "What about the ghost?"

Elyana considered the overwhelming number of foes. "What about the ghost?"

"Suppose it meant to guide us to safety? It was the only one of these that did not attack."

True enough, but that didn't mean it intended no harm. However, there had been a tower nearby, which at least had the benefit of being a more defensible point. It had appeared intact, and was much closer than the crumbling walls that marked the city's edge. "Ride for the tower," she commanded. Her horse reared again as she turned it.

"Let me clear a way," Arcil shouted, and Elyana reined in. Mirelle looked on with wide eyes as the figures shambled ever nearer. The horses danced nervously.

When Arcil shouted and cast, his horse shied, but the sudden movement did not interfere with the tiny ball that left his hands. A moment later dozens of the corpses were wrapped in a sheath of expanding fire. So sudden and explosive was the blast that it destroyed them utterly, as if the street had temporarily been touched by the light of the sun. Unfortunately, other dead were already moving to take their place.

Elyana kicked her horse into gallop, sword outstretched to catch the corpses converging on their path some lengths beyond the reach of Arcil's flame. Behind her, Arcil grunted as he laid about with his staff. From Mirelle she heard only shouted commands to the horse. Elyana had no choice but to release Vallyn's mount, which in any case galloped after its fellows, trying to stay within the relative safety of its herd.

Elyana cut her way forward and slowed just two crumbling buildings away from their destination. Arcil shouted something from her left, and wind rolled forth from his hands, pushing a skeletal assailant into two of its neighbors, tangling all three in a heap of rotting limbs.

"Hurry," Arcil cried, and they pressed forward. Elyana chanced a glance behind at Mirelle, who frantically kicked a grasping, headless woman away and then saw Vallyn's horse go down under a pile of scrambling bodies. The horse screamed again and again, and Elyana gritted her teeth.

There must be hundreds of these animated dead throughout the ruins. There would be no way to gallop through them. She wondered if she and Arcil would be able to hold them off long enough even to trap themselves in a high tower room. The mage had already worn through many of his spells. Provided they could even make it to the tower, the poor horses were probably done for.

"One side," Arcil snapped, and came up a bit ahead of Elyana. In his hand was the black wand they'd found in the river king's tomb. He shouted a single word, and instantly a wall of flame licked into existence along their left, consuming the first two rows of dead. Arcil spun in his saddle and shouted again to right, and then behind. The flames burned on, and a charred, acrid smell washed over them. The horses screamed and rolled their eyes in terror.

"That," Arcil said breathlessly, "is about all I've got."

Their way forward was now free, and they kicked their frightened steeds into full flight. The corpses pressed forward determinedly into the flame, immune to fear or concern about their condition.

"Look at that, Elyana!" Arcil said.

The ghostly figure stood beckoning to them from a rotted doorway into the tower. This time it spoke in a strained voice, like a winter wind heard from a great distance. "Hurry."

They arrived before the portal to the tower. Elyana's horse uncharacteristically slid to a halt before the dark passage, despite her urgings. Arcil's and Mirelle's didn't make it even that far, and Elyana heard a thump and an oath as Arcil was thrown from his beast. Elyana leapt down from the horse, keeping tight hold of the reins, and reached out to grab the bridle on Mirelle's. "Go—inside!"

Mirelle slid off her mount and hesitated for only a moment before doing as she was told.

Arcil picked himself up, scowling and distinctly ruffled. His horse danced near the wall of flame, looking for an exit and keeping as far as possible from the tower.

"Arcil, hold this." She handed him the reins to her horse while she threw her cloak over the head of Mirelle's mount and led it in a circle, then into the tower itself. Elyana could barely see after the brightness without, but there was no sign of the ghost within the ebon gloom of the large chamber, which surely encompassed the whole diameter of the structure. She handed Mirelle the reins to her horse and hurried back to Arcil.

The flame walls were fading already as she emerged and saw Arcil struggling to copy her actions with his own cloak. With her assistance, they steered the animal inside while the third horse leapt over the diminishing fires into the crowd of dead, then died screaming under their blows.

Elyana briefly took in their surroundings. There was nothing within save some dilapidated shelving, some warped wooden planks—probably floorboards that had rotted out from the floors above—and a staircase leading up. As she studied this last, the ghost reappeared upon a stair. In the utter darkness, even the dim light of his transparent body shone like a beacon. For the first time she saw him clearly, a young man in a robe with great mournful eyes. He wore soft boots, and jeweled rings shown upon two of his fingers. He beckoned once toward them, turned upon the stair, and vanished again.

Elyana stepped back to the doorway, expecting to see the ranks of skeletons marching toward them. However, those few not milling over the remains of the dead horse seemed listless. Many simply sank back to the ground; others were wandering away.

"Well that's quite interesting," Arcil said. "I suppose that the tower's warded against them. Or perhaps they're unable to recognize intruders within the tower itself."

"What do we do now?" Mirelle asked.

Elyana eyed the stairway. "I guess we go up."


Coming Next Week: Galtan necromancers and ancient curses in Chapter Three of "The Walkers from the Crypt." This story is a standalone prequel to the new Pathfinder Tales novel Plague of Shadows, available now!

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.

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Tags: Howard Andrew Jones Pathfinder Tales The Walkers from the Crypt Wizards

Excellent work Howard - really, really good.

~Dean

Contributor

The_Minstrel_Wyrm wrote:

Excellent work Howard - really, really good.

~Dean

I'm glad you're enjoying it, Dean.

I had to write this one in a white-heat while working on a deadline to a sequel for my other novel. Usually I ponder a little more as I go, but this one seemed to want to write itself, which was a good thing, given the looming deadline.

Paizo Employee Chief Creative Officer, Publisher

Necessity is the mother of invention. :)

Silver Crusade

Love the story so far, as I mention in the main PofS posting, love how you portrayed Valynn in this story as the "rookie" party member.

Great set of characters (again this Pathfinder Tales book is the one I've most can relate to as far as a gamer).

Love the setting, mood for this chapter. Love reading about the undead & your story really makes them come alive (so to speak of course, ha ha).

Can't wait till for the next Chapter. Also love the artwork of the various characters. Pictured Arcil a bit different when I first seen this pic but after finishing PofS, the artwork fits the character.

RM

Contributor

Haldir wrote:

Love the story so far, as I mention in the main PofS posting, love how you portrayed Valynn in this story as the "rookie" party member.

Great set of characters (again this Pathfinder Tales book is the one I've most can relate to as far as a gamer).

Love the setting, mood for this chapter. Love reading about the undead & your story really makes them come alive (so to speak of course, ha ha).

Can't wait till for the next Chapter. Also love the artwork of the various characters. Pictured Arcil a bit different when I first seen this pic but after finishing PofS, the artwork fits the character.

RM

Thanks, Haldir! My first thought was to write a sequel to PofS, but I was afraid that would give any number of things away, so a prequel seemed a better bet. And it enabled me to show Stelan in his glory days, and Vallyn back when HE was the young whippersnapper.

I'm pretty jazzed about the illustrations myself.


I love the feel of the story. Some simply tell a story and others have a more visceral feel for me. This one is more of the latter. And fully convinced me to pick up the novel. Thanks for that!

Contributor

Ishbosheth wrote:
I love the feel of the story. Some simply tell a story and others have a more visceral feel for me. This one is more of the latter. And fully convinced me to pick up the novel. Thanks for that!

Well, thank you! I'm glad you're enjoying it.

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