Jed stood, his holy tankard outstretched in one hand, his rapier in another, as the zombies approached in their ponderous, shambling gait. For all appearances he might have been one of the great Caydenite adventurer-priests of old, ready to banish evil with holy power and charming wit.
Except the holy power wasn't coming. And Jed was just about ready to soil himself.
"What the hell, Cayden!" Jed cried out. "Help me!"
Corogan had been waiting for Jed's turning to take effect—and had run out of patience. The Eagle Knight charged forward, battleaxe and short sword in hand, and began slicing his way through the zombie horde, leaving Jed standing alone—with a circle of zombies closing in upon him.
A gout of flame distracted Jed momentarily; the blaze enveloped three zombies about ten yards away. That would be Silvestrae unleashing her magic.
Jed continued to shout prayers, pleas, and invective toward Cayden, but to no avail. Left with no alternative, the brew-cleric began swinging his rapier. The weapon had belonged to his father, one of Cayden's more adventurous priests, and its magic guided Jed's hand true, despite his distinct lack of training. Jed cut through undead flesh at a feverish pace, praying and shouting and generally hoping that he would survive.
Then a battleaxe sank into the head of the zombie in front of Jed, and he saw Corogan remove the weapon with a grunt. Turning, Jed found no undead left to confront.
"Thank Cayden," he breathed. Jed moved to sheathe his rapier, but with trembling hands it took him four tries.
"Cayden had nothing to do with it, priest," Silvestrae said, striding toward them. She was covered in the black ichor that ran through the zombies' dead veins, but appeared to be unharmed. She stared hard at Jed with anger that seemed ready to boil over at any moment. "You were supposed to turn these things so we wouldn't have to hack our way through! They're zombies! This isn't supposed to be hard for you!"
Jed stood, still trembling, and looked down at his muddy boots. "I don't know what happened," he said quietly. His left arm was throbbing and he didn't know why. He was sore and scared and pined for his brewery as if he were a child lamenting a broken toy. "I'm so sorry."
Corogan looked at the half-elf with a measured stare. "You know full well turning isn't a sure thing," the Eagle Knight said. "Even Rafe couldn't always make it work. Give Jed some time. He'll get there. In the meantime, Jed, maybe you have a cure left in you?"
Jed looked up to see a dark red stain spreading across Corogan's tabard. "Yes! I can do that! Sit down before you fall down!" he said, taking Corogan's arm and helping him over to a large rock beside the trail. Jed helped the half-orc out of his armor, then placed his bare hand on the wound. "Cayden," Jed prayed, "you better listen to me. This brave man is hurt, and you have the power to heal him. Don't leave me hanging again."
He felt the power of his god's grace flow through his hands and into the half-orc. The wound began to close and, a moment later, it was as though it had never been there to begin with.
Corogan smiled in surprise and delight. "Hey, that's not bad," he said, placing a hand on Jed's shoulder. "That's not bad at all. Thanks, Jed." The half-orc stood and began to put his leather armor back on. "Let's get the horses and get off this damn road. We need to go cross-country if we're going to avoid any more of these hordes."
Jed rose with a smile, grateful he had been useful in some small measure. He then said a short prayer over the painful gouge in his left forearm, which had been made by a zombie's claws. This too disappeared.
Jed looked over to where he had stood in the battle and estimated he had dispatched three of the zombies. Not bad for my first time, he thought. But when Silvestrae's unrelenting glare drilled into him, he remembered there had been twenty zombies. He sighed. The half-elf had made her contempt for him clear. He doubted the half-elf would even ask him for healing if she were injured in battle.
A short time later, the companions led their mounts off the path, away from the tiny village they had spotted and into the forest at the edge of the mountain meadow. There, Corogan carefully chose a spot to make camp, one well hidden from the glen, on high, defensible ground. No fires were set; the three simply sat, ate hard biscuits, and drank water in silence. Nobody asked Jed to take a watch, so he walked a few steps away from camp and, sheltered by a large rock and tree, knelt to make his evening prayers.
Prayers to Cayden Cailean were hardly ritualistic and almost never repetitive. But they were rarely as angry and confused as Jed's that night.
The morning light made things little better. Jed woke up with pains in his back so sharp they stole his breath, and his limbs creaked like old doors. At breakfast, Silvestrae looked ragged, and if Jed wasn't mistaken, almost forlorn. Jed's first instinct was to help, somehow, but one half-lidded glare from the half-elf made him reconsider instantly.
"Is she all right, then?" Jed asked Corogan when Silvestrae was out of earshot. "She seems a bit off today."
The half-orc managed the hint of a smile. "She will be. Was a rough night for her." And that was all the Eagle Knight would say on the matter.
So Jed helped load the donkey and the three set off while the sun was still struggling over the tallest of the Arthfells' peaks. The air was cooler here, which made walking more bearable, but even so, Jed couldn't help but wonder what had happened to his body. He carried sacks of grain and hops around his brew-temple each day, manhandled barrels of ale constantly, and was on his feet every night for several long hours. Sure, he had a few pounds around the middle, but it wasn't that bad.
He looked at his companions—both lean and muscled and not even breaking a sweat, though they wore armor and carried weapons and packs far heavier than his—and concluded that he was not only out of shape, but was getting old on top of it all.
And that the path of the adventurer was not his to take. Maybe, Jed mused, that would be Cayden's lesson in all this. Or maybe Cayden was just enjoying a jest at his priest's expense. Jed wouldn't put it past him, deity or not.
Perhaps the joke had gotten stale, for it seemed Cayden was in no mood to test his follower further that day—the mountain trail was clear, if steep in places, and the mounds of the Nogortha Necropolis were visible as dusk settled over the mountains. Most importantly, Jed and his companions were not harried by any more undead, and were able to get within a half-mile of the necropolis proper before they settled down to reconnoiter.
"There aren't that many trails up into the mountains," Corogan reasoned. "So whoever's controlling the undead can group them at the top and try to bottleneck folks. Not a bad plan—except they didn't figure on us, did they?"
Corogan gave Silvestrae's arm a playful whack, but the half-elf's focus was on the necropolis ahead. "I see movement there, mostly undead, but a few living beings there as well. Humanoid. Can't tell who, though. I think we need a closer look."
With that, Silvestrae whispered words and gestured briefly, then winked out of sight once more. Jed could see the brush and grass sway unnaturally as she passed them, but that was the only trace, and soon there was no sign of her at all.
"That's her job," Corogan said, answering Jed's unasked question. "I get us to the enemy, she goes on ahead to scout when we get there, then... well, then we'll figure out a plan."
Jed nodded sadly. "It was different with Rafe, wasn't it?"
Corogan shrugged. "Rafe was a priest, sure, but he could throw down with the best of 'em. He took joy in it, the battle for justice, as he saw it. So yeah, it's different now. But we still have to get the job done. And you'll step up and do fine."
With his doubts firmly in place, Jed turned back to the necropolis, where he saw torches now illuminating the mounds. Jed counted two people who seemed to be very much alive—their movements were fluid and quick, not at all like zombies. In fact, there were no zombies in sight—but there were skeletons.
Lots and lots of skeletons. More than a dozen visible to Jed—and he figured it would be safe to assume there were at least twice as many more in the shadows.
"About that plan... what is it, exactly?"
Corogan scanned the terrain with an expert eye. "Working on it. First, I think, we need to get Sil back here so we can—oh, hell. Hell and be damned!"
Jed started at the Corogan's sudden change of mood, then followed his gaze to the mounds below. There, he saw Silvestrae—now fully visible—being shoved into the middle of a small clearing among the stones. Skeletons surrounded her, two of them in flames. The half-elf was cradling her sword arm as she faced a tall humanoid in a long, flowing red robe.
"Not good, not good at all," Jed muttered. "New plan. We need a new plan."
Corogan frowned deeply and jabbed his short sword into the dirt in frustration. "Fine. I need you to be a distraction."
"I'm a natural," Jed said, the words coming out before he could think properly. "You want me to lead as many of the skeletons away as possible."
"Exactly. I'll go down and get Sil. If we're lucky, you'll draw enough of them away for me to take care of the rest, and maybe see what Red Robes there has to say," Corogan said. "You up for this?"
Jed shrugged and got to his feet. "No choice, is there? I better be. I'll head uphill once I get their attention. When you're done, come find me." And with that he jogged off, seeming far more certain about things than he felt.
And yet it felt good to have a purpose. He was a priest of Cayden; this seemed much more like his bailiwick. Silvestrae got caught while doing her job—now Jed would do his to help get her back. It wasn't enough to put an actual spring in his step, but Jed found it easier to ignore the nagging aches and pains as he clambered down toward the necropolis.
Unexpectedly, he reached the first of the mounds without being intercepted by any guards whatsoever—and he had taken great pains to make plenty of noise.
Drawing his blade for both light and protection, Jed picked his way forward through the gloomy barrows, heading for the biggest source of torchlight he could see. It would do no good, of course, for him to venture too close—he needed to flee successfully in order to be pursued. Being captured wouldn't help.
So while still a good hundred yards off, Jed stopped and drew his tankard in his other hand, then shouted at the top of his lungs.
"What's a Caydenite got to do to get a drink around here?"
The shout did two things: One, it served as the proper focus for his prayer, as Jed figured he needed all the help he could get. Two, and more importantly, it created a hue and cry from the torchlit area. Moments later, the sound of clattering bones could be heard in the distance—and one set of bones, Jed could see, was aflame.
Jed turned and ran as fast as he could. "Burning skeletons," he huffed to himself. "I didn't know they could do that."
Running without concern for noise, Jed reached the edge of the necropolis and began climbing the trail once more, heading up and away from where he left Corogan, toward the rockier mountainside. The trail was small and steep, and there were massive rocks on either side. It was tough climbing—and he felt himself growing too tired, too quickly.
Chancing a look back, Jed saw the burning skeleton far more clearly now—it was barely thirty yards off, and there were several shambling skeletons behind it. They were slow, yes, but they were unable to get tired. There was a joke in there, Jed thought, but he hadn't the clarity or the heart to make it.
The climb got harder still. The trail was all but gone, and he was several hundred yards above the clearing now, which was dimly visible below. The moon had begun to shine, but the flames of the skeleton were brighter still. Jed could see the fiery rictus now, and despite his best efforts, the undead were closing fast. His breath was short and his legs were at the edge of failing him.
And then a small rock gave way underfoot, and Jed tumbled off the remnants of the path, falling into a small gap between the mountain face and a large boulder.
He struggled to gain purchase once more—but a surge of pain from his right foot told him there would be no climbing quite yet. He was wedged in.
And a flaming skull peered over the top of the boulder, eyeing him with empty sockets and burning hate.
Coming Next Week: Trial by fire in Chapter Four of Michael J. Martinez's "Crisis of Faith."
Michael J. Martinez is the author of the Daedalus trilogy of Napoleonic space opera novels, the most recent of which, The Venusian Gambit, came out in May. He also has short stories in the forthcoming anthologies Cthulhu Fhtagn! and Unidentified Funny Objects 4. Visit him online at michaeljmartinez.net.
Illustration by Marek Madej.