Sandwiched between a boulder and the side of a mountain, with a burning skeleton trying to grasp at him from above, Jeddah found himself thinking of his wife and son—the two people who meant the most to him in this world—and silently said his good-byes.
The burning skeleton was trying to clamber over the boulder but seemed to find no purchase in its mindless pursuit of Jed. It flailed at him, flaming arms outstretched, the intense heat singeing hair and blistering flesh on his sword arm. He parried with his rapier as best he could, managing to lop off a few finger bones, but at some point the burning skeleton—and the other undead skeletons with it—would figure out how to reach him.
I don't want to die, Jed thought. I want to go home.
Then he remembered something his father had told him long ago: "Home is something you earn when the battle's won. That's Cayden's way."
And in that moment, Jed's mind snapped into focus. He looked around and found a large rock within reach. He grasped it and hurled it up at the burning skeleton, connecting with its jaw. The jawbone fell down into the crevasse with Jed, nearly singeing his arm.
The burning skeleton disappeared for a moment, leaving Jed just enough time to get his bearings. Go home. Earn the right to go home. And so he began mentally ticking through his options, much as he would check off a recipe for one of his brews back at Cayden's Rest.
The burning skeleton reappeared above him, its jaw gone, and surmounted the boulder in front of him with renewed vigor. It reached the top and crouched, ready to leap—just when Jed remembered his prayers from the last evening.
"Cayden, give me the strength to defeat the enemies of good!" he shouted, gripping his tankard tightly. He felt a surge of divine energy run through him, felt his muscles tighten and grow.
Jed braced his feet against the boulder—and pushed.
With a mighty rumble, the boulder before him started to move. Jed redoubled his efforts, just as the burning skeleton prepared to leap.
The boulder gave way and began rolling.
The burning skeleton staggered atop the rock, trying to regain its balance, but then tumbled backward—right into the path of the boulder. It rolled onto the creature with a crunch and a shower of sparks and flame, then kept going down the mountain. More crunching sounds followed—branches and trees and the bones of the undead.
Jed sat up, freed from his trap, and looked down the mountain as the stone, easily six feet high, gained momentum. It crashed into other rocks, dislodging them and creating a small but noisy avalanche down the side of the mountain, leaving rubble and tree branches and broken bone in its wake.
He laughed. A quiet laugh, fueled by relief at being alive.
Jed struggled to his feet, but found his right ankle nearly useless. He thought to spare a moment to heal the wound, but the sound of clicking bones distracted him.
Three skeletons—thank Cayden, they were not aflame—moved toward him, arms outstretched and flailing.
"Not this time," he muttered, grasping his tankard once more and raising his voice. "In the name of Cayden Cailean, he who gives me strength and succor, I banish you!"
The skeletons stopped dead in their tracks for an impossibly long moment—then turned and fled back down the trail.
"Sweet barleybrew, it worked," he muttered, his smile returning. "Thanks, Cayden."
After a quick prayer over his ankle to heal it, Jed began climbing down the mountain, half-sliding down the trail left in the boulder's wake. It was a good five hundred feet to the valley floor, where the torchlight still guttered among the barrows. He was prepared this time to face any undead he came upon, but the only evidence of them he found were the crushed bones on his path.
Reaching the valley, he walked as quietly as he could among the mounds until he came with about a hundred yards of the torchlight. Crouching behind a massive barrow, Jed peeked around one side to see a half-dozen zombies standing all too still in the light. The red-robed figure was there as well, and was talking to someone—though Jed could not see whom.
Jed quietly moved closer, hoping to see who else was there and perhaps catch a bit of the conversation. Hiding behind a small barrow, he edged around the corner—and his eyes grew wide.
Silvestrae was still captive, and had been tied up with her hands behind her back. She sat on the ground with a zombie standing guard over her. And so, too, had Corogan been captured—how, Jed could not say—and was heavily bound in chains, lying on his side.
The figure in red laughed, but Jed couldn't make out any more words. It was clear the figure was in command of the zombies, simply because no others seemed to be there, and it had what appeared to be a wand in its hand.
After a moment, the figure removed its hood—and Jed saw horns upon its otherwise human head. It was a hellspawn. With the Cheliax border not far away, the prospect filled Jed with dread... and anger.
Settling his mind, Jed tried to piece together a strategy. He could glimpse chainmail beneath the folds of the fiendling's robes, and a spear leaned against a tomb nearby. That likely made the hellspawn a cleric of some foul deity or another—which would explain the undead as well.
Peering from behind the mound, Jed saw a pair of bodies on the ground near the very edge of the torchlight. Both were slashed and stabbed with great force, and Jed assumed they were Corogan's work—which was good, because there appeared to be no other living opponents aside from the hellspawn.
Once again, Jed mentally ran through the few options he had at his disposal. The one that made the most sense seemed to have the highest chance of failure—but also the greatest boon if it succeeded. Typical Cayden, Jed thought. Only the crazy options for me.
He tried to think of better plan, but nothing came to him. Pulling his pants up with a sigh and readying both rapier and tankard, Jed stepped out from his cover—and ran straight toward the hellspawn.
The fiendling's head whipped about, revealing a hate-filled countenance—and the crest of a noble house of Cheliax around his neck. Jed willed his legs to pump faster, but the hellspawn simply raised his wand and spoke a single word.
Jed felt magical energy surround his body—a dark magic, fueled by infernal power—and willed himself to keep moving. He felt his pace slow a moment, but then the magic washed over him and faded.
Jed raised his tankard and focused his own power. "Cayden! Hold him!" he shouted.
The hellspawn froze.
Jed ran into the center of the barrows just as the zombies began shambling toward him. One of the creatures was close enough to get in a good swipe, but its filthy claws skittered over Jed's chain shirt. Reflexively, Jed lashed out with his rapier, slashing the undead across its neck. It staggered back and fell.
Turning to the others, Jed brandished the symbol of his god once more. "In the name of Cayden, I banish you!"
They stopped. And fled.
Jed turned and dashed over to the fiendling, plucking the wand from his still-frozen hand and relieving him of the dagger at his belt. He used the weapon to cut Silvestrae loose, even as she eyed him wordlessly with something between incredulity and amazement.
"Get Corogan," she said once her bonds were cut. "I'll keep an eye on our friend here." The half-elf got to her feet and found her bow and other gear nearby, and then stationed herself a short distance from the hellspawn, arrow nocked and aimed straight for his eye.
Jed managed to free Corogan from his chains—they were both heavy and numerous, but there was no lock. "That was kind of dangerous, what you did there," Corogan said with a grin. "You are a Caydenite, aren't you."
"I am, it seems," Jed replied. "Apparently you have to do something really stupid to get him to help you. How did they capture you?"
Corogan nodded at the hellspawn. "The wand. I'm surprised it didn't affect you."
Jed helped the half-orc to his feet. "Cayden favors the foolish, I guess. Now let's see about that devilborn."
The hellspawn was, in the end, the bastard son of a minor house of Cheliax and an overly ambitious sort. Under Silvestrae's surprisingly menacing interrogation, the fiendling confessed he had sought to carve out a holding of his own in the necropolis and force the government of Cheliax to recognize the claim.
"Not that the Chels would do that," Corogan explained to Jed once they were back on the road to Augustana. Behind them walked their captive, his mouth bound by cloth to keep him from speaking. "Cheliax would love nothing more than to take Andoran for its own," he went on. "But the Chels know we'd put up one hell of a fight for every square inch. This bastard would've found himself hung out to dry no matter what."
"And eventually he'd run out of bodies to animate," Silvestrae said, her mood improved significantly. "What I still don't get is what happened to Rafe down in Augustana."
Corogan shrugged. "If this one has something to do with it, we'll get it out of him," he said, turning to give the hellspawn a wicked grin. "And if not... then we'll have more work to do."
Some nights later, Cayden's Rest was rollicking once more—and its brew-priest was once again among the revelers, this time telling the stories of his own adventures and, in good priestly fashion, weaving in a lesson as well.
"I admit, I was shaken," Jed said to a large table of drinkers, all staring at him with rapt attention. "I'm no adventurer. Just look at me!" he added, turning to show off his profile, complete with belly. After the laughter subsided, he went on: "But you have to have faith. Cayden put me there for a reason, to show me what it means to put yourself in peril for what you believe in. But if you do that—if you fight for what's good and right with all your being—well, I think he'll be there for you, as he was for me. And he'll bring you back here to drink his ale and tell your tale."
Tankards were raised at this, and Cayden's name duly praised. Jed turned and saw Maeve smiling at him from the door to the kitchen, holding Gant close to her as they listened. She was, of course, quite relieved at his safe return, though less pleased when young Gant had immediately asked to begin practice with the rapier.
"So, Jeddah Cailean!" a woman asked above the din. Jed turned and saw Silvestrae standing among the throng, her own tankard raised and a smile on her face. "Will you be coming with us again if we need you?"
Jed turned back to Maeve, whose eyebrows were arched in that way only displeased wives can manage, even though her smile remained. All Jed could do was shrug at her.
"If Cayden wills it, then I can't argue," he replied. "It's as simple as that."
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.