The faintest shower of sleet, scarcely more than an icy fog, began to fall over the battlefield that had been the town of Kelbran. Just another instance of the peculiar freezes and unnatural weather afflicting eastern Touvette in recent months, but this time—as visibility grew cloudy and the churned muck of the earth thickened—it almost seemed a harbinger of the oncoming stranger.
They heard his approach before he appeared; citizens, bandits, corpses—all turned toward the clatter and splash of a warhorse thundering across the frost-kissed grass. Pounding in from the north, it grew louder, then louder still, until it was joined by the wordless cry of a warrior seeking blood.
All of which left the brigands more than a little bewildered when the mounted figure appeared from the west, bursting through the flimsy curtain of sleet in absolute, almost phantasmal, silence. Dark of hair, dark of armor, he wielded a massive blade from atop a russet stallion that appeared to be all muscle and resentment. The man swung his sword with a walloping force that seemed beyond the ability of a normal man. Striking like steel lightning, his blade sliced through the mist, hewing down foes as the warhorse bulled ahead. Four of the bandits fell, life gushing into the soil, before the others could even guess at the unbound fury that faced them.
Loursa had no idea whom their savior might be, and for the moment, she wasn't about to question. Instead, with a cry, she led Kelbran's survivors in a renewed attack on their assailants.
Even fighting for her life, she couldn't quite take her eyes off the stranger. Whoever—whatever—he was, he was no more natural than the walking dead, and not merely for his abnormal strength. Blade and bludgeon veered at the last instant, sliding past rather than biting into his flesh or even the steel protecting it. In his wake, men who had fallen to seemingly nonfatal wounds twitched, shuddered, and died all the same. He lashed out with his empty hand, as well as his sword, and those he struck fell screaming, limbs withered or skin split.
Perhaps of greater import than any of his eerie abilities was his utter lack of fear. Against one foe or a dozen, living or undead, his arm never wavered, his expression never changed. Where even the bravest of Loursa's companions hesitated to draw near the bandits' shambling allies, the newcomer mercilessly drove his mount to close, his blade filleting desiccated flesh from rotting bone.
When the last handful of surviving bandits fled into the falling sleet, the citizens of Kelbran gave a ragged cheer, Loursa loudest of them all.
Not the stranger. Apparently unsatisfied still, he wheeled his horse and charged after the raiders. Loursa cringed as the din of slaughter and unanswered pleas sounded long after the lot of them had disappeared from sight.
The guard and her neighbors exchanged uncertain glances, then set about gathering the wounded. They'd been at it for perhaps five minutes when the horse reappeared at a walk. The rider dropped from the saddle, sword leaning on one shoulder. As he neared, Loursa could see that nothing about him other than that sword seemed to be in any worthwhile shape, and that the sleet melting down his skin was probably the nearest he'd come to bathing in weeks.
"Draeven," he announced in a bored tone, as though common courtesies were a burden he could do without. "Marcov Draeven. Who commands here?"
Loursa shrugged. "I suppose I do, now. My name is Loursa—"
"Fine." Draeven spun his blade, drove it point-first into the soil and left it standing. He stretched, arching his shoulders and craning his neck to one side. The resulting crack rivaled a small siege engine. "Anything to drink around here?"
"I'm sure we can find you something," Loursa said through clenched teeth. "I want to thank you for—"
"Don't. I didn't do this for you, and I don't especially want to be here." Then, before she could reply further, he idly kicked an arm that had, until recently, been attached to a shambling corpse. "Walking dead. I never heard anything about your bandit problem being an undead problem."
"Neither had we. I think this is the first time those—those things appeared. Maybe because Kelbran is the first town those bastards couldn't take on their own."
"Maybe." For the first time, his expression changed, sliding into a nasty grin. "Bet you're wishing about now that you hadn't booted all the clerics, aren't you?"
Mutters rippled through the citizens, and Loursa drew herself up rigid. "The churches turned on Touvette. They were a bad element. We've been better off since the General ousted them and set up the charities in their stead."
"Oh, yeah." The man allowed his gaze to fall heavily upon the moaning, crying wounded. "I can see that. They look much better off."
"I appreciate your help, Draeven," she said coldly, "but unless you've been granted a traveling pass, I think maybe it's time you left. Or would you rather I escort you to the nearest judge and you can explain to him why you're not a spy and shouldn't hang?"
Draeven waved his hand dismissively. "Lost it in battle, I'm afraid. But I have a feeling you'll be issuing me a new one shortly, Loursa. Otherwise, you'll never find out who's been launching these attacks, and I won't be able to send him to the nearest convenient hell. I'm not leaving without an answer. Or that drink."
"You didn't leave anyone alive who could provide any answers!"
Again, Draeven offered that ugly, crooked smile. "That's not too much of an inconvenience, really."
After a brief and apparently perfunctory examination, the foreigner knelt beside a deceased bandit. The man had fallen from a nasty slash through his ribs; Loursa grew more and more puzzled as Draeven prodded at the corpse's mouth and head. He looked for all the world like a gourmand examining a haunch of beef.
She grew more bewildered still when Draeven said, "All right, you bastards. Make yourselves useful and get in there." Not only did it not make sense, but his head was twisted to one side while he spoke, as if he addressed neither the dead body nor Loursa herself, but some nonexistent entity between them.
Loursa staggered, unable to repress a startled breath, when the dead man's jaw creaked open of its own accord. Horrified gasps and angry murmurs ran through the gathered townsfolk. Loursa wondered briefly if some of them weren't actually planning to attack Draeven.
She listened with rapt attention as they talked, these two unnatural creatures. Draeven spoke under his breath, his words intended for the corpse alone. The sounds that emerged from the body itself scarcely seemed to be words at all. Soft wheezes and croaking whispers, kneaded by dead lips into shapes that only vaguely resembled syllables, occasionally wafted to Loursa's ears, but she was too distant to make any sense of them. The sleet ceased falling, the wind stilled, and gradually the low drone of those voices became the world's only sound.
When Draeven finally concluded his "conversation" and stood, it was all Loursa could do not to either draw her sword or back away. Both urges were only strengthened when she realized that the man's hair, and the sleeves of his tunic, billowed in the unmoving air.
"You know Alvren?" he asked.
Draeven sighed. "Alvren. Do. You. Know it?"
"It's a small hillside community," Loursa replied, now definitely leaning more toward the "draw her sword" option. "It's about fifteen miles north, on the border with Pitax."
"Good. Let's go."
"Why the hell you'd believe I'd go anywhere with you—"
"Because," he drawled, "I need a local to guide me. And like it or not, you owe me for saving your hide." Then, just as she was drawing breath to retort: "And we want the same thing. At least, I assume so. You do want these raids to stop, right? I'm not giving you too much credit, there?"
"No." That single word was icier than all the fallen sleet.
"Then can we get moving already?"
Spitting curses, more than a few of which called upon or profaned gods her people no longer worshiped, Loursa stalked back into Kelbran to gather supplies.
∗ ∗ ∗
The basement was pungent with soil and mildew, a stench utterly unconcealed by acrid fumes of ceremonial incense. Walls of damp earth bulged, supported by a haphazard array of mold-covered wooden beams that sagged, exhausted, under the heavy load. An equally rickety staircase slouched up to a trapdoor that was the cellar's only exit.
Well, its only nonmagical exit.
The inhabitants of the chamber sat, crouched, or sprawled around the cellar's peculiar centerpiece: a circular well of granite, sunk deep into the earth and filled to overflowing with filthy, stagnant water. A stone obelisk, rough-surfaced but perfectly cylindrical, rose from the precise center of the foul pool. Only if viewed from directly above would the peculiar monument appear as a representation of a staring, disembodied eye.
Ellithir leaned back from the edge and brushed a stray lock of hair behind a pointed ear. Over the simple woolen tunic and leggings with which her customers in the store above were familiar, she now sported a voluminous black tabard, torn ragged around the hems. "Well, sisters." She waved idly at the images that were only now fading from the pool. "What do we make of this?"
"Death swaddles him." This from a figure hunched in the shadows across the dark water, a silhouette that might or might not have been human. Her voice was dull, monotonous, like a woman entranced. "An infant's blanket and a burial shroud, both at once. He walks with ghosts. They ride him, as a stallion newly broken."
"Yes, dear, I think we all got that." It was a third who spoke now, a long and lanky shape whose height and proportion, though generally humanoid, were clearly anything but human. "I could barely see the morsel, for all the phantom energies swirling about him. But I believe our sister's point was that we ought really to decide what to do about him."
"More or less what I meant, yes," Ellithir said. "We didn't plan for anyone like him, but we knew someone would interfere eventually." The coven had summoned a host of foul creatures through a variety of spells—some far worse than the undead Khydol had raised—and set them loose along the highways of Touvette. They'd kept the General's knights nicely distracted from the bandits, but the coven knew well that their diversions couldn't last indefinitely.
"Do we call it done, then, dearie? Leave the cleric and his thugs to their fate? The bloodshed's already been heavier than we could have demanded. Perhaps we've accomplished enough for now."
"The priest's wrath rages hot, still," the other shadowed woman droned. "We can burn plenty more, before the conflagration dies."
Ellithir nodded. "I'll send a warning to Khydol, making sure he thinks the message came from some supposed ‘survivor' of the Kelbran battle. He and the rest of Zarred's bandits should be more than enough for this newcomer, once they know he's coming."
The larger figure shifted, stretching. "And if they're not enough?"
"Mm. Can the two of you assist me in renewing the weather magics before you depart? Wouldn't do to have the ‘punishment of the gods' suddenly let up."
"Those spells shouldn't require renewing until the day after tomorrow."
"No, but I intend to be busy for the next few days. Contingencies, in case—as you suggest—Khydol and Zarred don't come through. One way or another, ghosts or no, it behooves us to ensure that this Draeven is just another corpse on the pile.
"The flesh is filth, my sisters," she concluded, her tone abruptly formal, ritualistic. "The world is pain. To see is to hate."
From the others, in unison, "And the Hag sees all."
∗ ∗ ∗
Slipping, Marcov, you wretched fool. Should have known this was too easy...
Should have known—and would have known, only a few years ago, when his arm and eye were honed by a life behind the sword. Before the fury and frustration. Before the drink.
Before the ghosts.
They'd reached Alvren quickly enough, stopping only for a few hours to rest up after the battle at Kelbran. It proved an easy journey, over open fields with only the occasional rolling hill, and often across trails tramped flat by years of passing feet, human and animal alike.
And they'd taken every precaution. Marcov had learned much from the corpse he'd interrogated. He knew that the bandit leader—named Zarred—had depopulated Alvren and taken it as a base camp for his band. He knew there were several dozen men left in that band, but Alvren should house only a fraction of them at any given time. He knew the band had been hired by someone to make these raids, though presumably only Zarred and his immediate lieutenants knew who.
What Marcov hadn't known, Loursa had. Familiar with the geography and—though he would never deign to admit it—possessed of a sharp sense of tactics, she'd planned a nighttime approach that kept them hidden behind Alvren's own houses and barns.
Between their swords and what advantages Marcov could squeeze from the souls who rode him, they'd cut down a trio of riders patrolling near the hill, and a pair of sentries at the edge of town. They'd been so silent, in fact, that the choir of frogs and crickets—those that had survived the recent freeze—hadn't been sufficiently disturbed to cease their calls.
So why, why, after battling a throng of bloody undead, was I too stupid to check for magical defenses?
It had erupted from the earth, a blast of thunderous force that shattered the night, nearly deafening him even as it hurled him and Loursa from their feet. Soil and splinters rained around them, and the world seemed subtly tilted as Marcov struggled to rise.
Now, cursing himself for an idiot and the phantoms for dragging him into this mess, he finally staggered to his feet. One more abrupt lean almost sent him sprawling again, and then the earth righted itself enough for Marcov to see what he faced.
Coming Next Week: The sins of the past revealed in Chapter Three of Ari Marmell's "Best Served Cold."
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 mouseferatu.com.
Illustration by Damon Westenhofer