My eyes were constantly scanning, searching. I was startled when the roan seemed to pull back slightly and shy away from the side of the path, like he could sense something I couldn't. I pulled him in a little and focused my attention on the twisted woods to the side of the trail.
It took a long moment before I saw the huddled form, about twenty meters back into the bushes, shaded from the dying light by the woven branches and high, thin grass that seemed to carpet this part of the world. I could just barely make it out. It was almost like one of those 3D pictures you used to see all over the place. One moment there was nothing there but shadows and gnarled trees, and a few seconds later there was a figure. It seemed to be female; it was hard to tell in the darkness.
My horse shied harder, breaking my concentration. “What the hell is wrong with you?” I muttered. I reined in with a little more authority and his ears went flat. There was something to be afraid of here, but my first responsibility was to see if this woman was all right. I could see to my own protection later. We stopped moving, but he kept his feet chattering on the path, like he was agitated enough to bolt.
I slid out of the saddle and approached the side of the path. Behind me I could hear Tad, riding slack, coming up the trail. The delay while I tried to figure out what was there had let him close the gap. “Dave?” He questioned. “Everything all right?”
I nodded. “I've found someone. I think she's hurt. She might not speak English. This is elf country after all.” I took a cautious step. “Miss?” I called out gently, “are you okay?” I stepped further, and at the same time my horse butted me in the shoulder with his head, hard enough to knock me off balance.
“Dammit!” I snarled, stumbling to the side. I shoved his neck, not hard, but hard enough to let him know that I meant business. “Knock it off!”
“Aren't you supposed to be some kind of animal whisperer?” Tad asked me sarcastically.
“Do you mind?”
I took a step or two off the path into a bit of a ravine. The underbrush was fairly dense. After a couple more steps I could barely see Tad, and the woman was still not completely in view. Wish I had my damn sword. I thought. It'd be nice to be able to cut through this shit. And what the hell is she doing out here, anyway?
Out loud I said again, “Miss? Do you need help?” I pushed a leafy bush out of my way and finally got my first clear view of her. She was definitely female, those curves are unmistakable. She had long blond hair that was matted and stringy. She'd probably been out here in the woods for some time. There was dirt smudged across both her bare calves and caked along her arms, and her plain dress was thin, far too light to be out in any kind of weather.
She held her hands together in front of her face, and her shoulders were shaking. “It's all right,” I said softly. “You're safe now. I won't let anyone hurt you.” It might be sexist, but I've never been able to look at a woman crying and not immediately want to put them in my arms and tell them it's going to be all right. It's just the way I am. I took a couple more steps forward, until there were only a few feet separating us. She was standing in the shade of a giant oak that was twined with ivy so I still couldn't see her very well. I figured she was probably in her early twenties, if she was human, and if she was elven I didn't want to even speculate about her age.
She turned slowly to face me, and I realized with numb shock that she hadn't been sobbing.
She'd been eating.
Her dead yellow eyes took me in for a long moment while I stood there, unable to move, unable to even breathe. I watched, a river of icefear crawling down my spine, as she slowly dropped the ripped and bloody wolf carcass to the ground. It fell with a soggy dull thud. Blood and worse was still running darkly down her jaws and neck, covering the front of her dress and dripping from her small, sunken breasts to her toes. It seemed to take forever for her upper lip to curl ever-so-slowly into a snarl that exposed broken crimson teeth.
I made a scared whimpering sound. My sword was on my back, a million miles away even if it hadn't been shattered, shocked hands at my waist, useless.
She made no sound as she charged, blurring from standstill to huntress in an eyeblink. I couldn't even scream as she hit me at full speed, her dead weight blasting me backwards in a tackle more brutal than anything I'd ever experienced on a football field. Her clawed hands ripped at my throat with unmatched savagery, and somehow I got my arms up, wooden fingers desperately grasping her wrists. Her dead flesh squished under my grip, and even in the explosive fear that paralyzed me I could feel my gorge rising. I could taste the stink of her as the rot filled my nostrils.
Her mad rush was the only thing that saved my life. As we flew backwards we landed hard on my shoulders, knocking breath I hadn't been taking further out of me. Her momentum carried her over me in a somersault that would have been humorous in a Jackie Chan film, but now only meant that she was behind me!
“What the fuck?” I heard Tad blurt as I rolled to the side, trying to gain my feet as she spun and came at me again, easily breaking the hold I had on her wrists. I got as far as my knees, but didn't even have time to get the dagger from my wrist before she was on me a second time, left hand arcing in cruelly to disembowel me. My armor turned the strike, but not without creasing into a dark furrow where the blow landed. I clearly heard the sickening bonesnap of one of her fingers breaking, but her attack never slowed, right hand reaching for my face, furious, soundless scream of pure fury gaping the flecked wound of her mouth open as she fought to close with me.
I ducked hard to my right and managed to keep her hand away from my face, but the clawed strike hit my shoulder hard enough to pull me forward. I barely caught myself with my right hand. I felt her grip even through the thick leather of my shoulder plate as she yanked me to her.
Oh god, no! I thought desperately, She's going to bite me! In sheer terror I threw my left hand up, wrist hitting hers and breaking her grip with the strength born of absolute desperation. She hissed as the blow knocked her backwards, just enough for me to get a foot under me. I came up, then, striking with the only weapon I had to bear, a vicious uppercut that had ended many a schoolyard argument. The blow took her directly under the chin, and there was a sharp crack! as her head snapped backward. I clearly saw the nauseating bulge of broken bone jutting forward in the skin of her throat. My terrified punch had broken her neck.
She flew back and landed heavily. With some bizarre attention to detail I noticed that she was wearing one slipperlike shoe, on her left foot. Nice, Dave. I thought randomly, Even when you're punching a zombie in the fucking mouth you have a foot fetish. You need professional help.
At that moment, Tad burst into the underbrush, rapier in hand. His eyes took in the scene: me on one knee, panting; a very dead girl stretched out on the turf in front of me. “The hell--?” he started, but she was already moving, turning over in a sharp movement, head lolling to the side on her broken neck. Her unblinking eyes swept across him, and she snaked forward, clawed hands outstretched toward him while he stood there in shock and horror.
His rapier would be as useless as the broken sword in the scabbard across my back. It wouldn't even be able to slash the tendons driving her dead body to motion... and if she hit him he wasn't even wearing armor.
Somehow I got myself moving, leaping forward in a flying tackle that intercepted her flight and brought her down heavily, her clawed hands snapping shut mere inches from his chest. There was another crunch as several of her ribs stove in like a kicked barrel, but she kept scrabbling, clawing, fighting to drag herself forward while my greater weight pinned her down. She couldn't have been more than a hundred pounds, even when alive, and death had not improved her. It was actually, now that I had the leverage, fairly easy to keep her pinned to the ground while she flailed. Of course that led to a greater question: what the hell was I going to do with her now?
Steve solved that problem for me. “Dave! On three let her go and get clear!” He was still on the trail, probably doing something magical, but I was too preoccupied to notice exactly what it was.
“One! Two! Three!” Steve barked each number sharply, and on three I threw myself to the side as hard as I could. There was an explosion of sound and a light that seared my retinas, even though I clamped my eyelids shut as soon as it appeared. Blinking, I opened them to see nothing left of the dead girl but a few wisps of greasy smoke and a charred outline on the ground where I'd held her.
Without further ado, I rolled to my side and began to throw up. Her stink seemed to be covering me, cloying, filling my nostrils and my mouth even after Steve's spell had burned her to nothingness.
“Dave,” Tad asked while I heaved. “You okay?”
“Busy...” I muttered, trying to get control of my stomach. The worst seemed to be over. I am not going to eat trail bread without a fight ever again. I thought as I pushed myself to my knees. I saw the dead wolf and my stomach did another roil.
Mark was there, hand on my side, offering me a waterskin. “Are you all right?” His eyes were full of concern.
I wiped the back of a quivering hand across my mouth. “I think so. What the shit was that thing?” I took the skin and sucked a long drink out of it.
“I don't know, but it's dead now.”
“Are you fucking kidding me? It was dead before!” I snapped. I grabbed his offered wrist and pulled myself to my feet, trying to ignore my weak knees.
“I think it was a zombie,” Tad said somberly. “Dude, thanks. She was almost on me and I was just standing there when you tackled her.”
I spat to the side. “I wish Coach Hagler was here to see that tackle. Maybe he'd have gotten my ass off the bench more often.” I looked at Steve. “What did you do?”
“Faery fire. The book says it kills the dead.” He paused for a moment. “I mean permanently.”
“Important distinction,” I noted, taking a few careful steps to get back onto the trail. My roan was standing there glaring at me, ears still at half mast as if to say, I told you so, idiot!
“Sorry, buddy,” I told him. “Next time I'll listen to you.”
Mark came up next to me. “What do you mean, Dave?”
“He was trying to tell me not to go into the woods.” I undid the ties holding my saddlebags closed and dug around for some sugared sweets in oiled paper. I offered one to the roan and he lipped it from my hand. “Naturally I didn't listen and I almost got killed as a result.”
“That happens to you a lot,” Steve noted.
My horse nuzzled me gently, ears finally forward again. I forgive you. Try not to be stupid next time.
I rubbed beneath his jawline. I promise.
“You think there are more of those things out there?” Tad asked, eyes wandering as if trying to see everywhere at once.
Mark looked sharply at me. “I have no idea,” I said. My horse has calmed down, but he didn't really react until I got out of the saddle and tried to approach her.”
“We should get out of here,” Mark ordered. “Dave, I don't want you riding so far in front any more. Steve and I were almost too far away to be of any help, and if he hadn't been able to get to you with that spell...” He trailed off.
“I can guess.” I thought of the wolf and the ragged, bloody teeth and my weak stomach almost heaved again. Knock it off! I thought. Jesus, it's like being a cheap date in a frat house.
Tad swung himself into the saddle on his dappled gray. “I thought you killed zombies with a gunshot to the head or something?”
“Don't got a gun,” Steve replied blandly. His eyes were distant, like he was remembering something. “This doesn't really seem right.”
“Are you kidding me?” I demanded for the second time in as many minutes, “Is there a right way for dead people to try to eat you? 'Cause, you know, I'm not sure I want to trial and error this!”
“No, that's not what I mean. Even here in this world, zombies don't just appear. Something has to make them.” He took a couple of steps, hands on his hips, chewing on his bottom lip and staring. His eyes flickered to his brother. “Mark, do you remember the illusion Lolyanni showed us in the Wounded Orc?
“It's entirely possible that I may never forget. What about it?” Mark had Steve's mare by the reins and was leading her towards his brother.
“Remember the inn scene, and the skeletal guy in black armor?”
My jaw clamped shut, tight enough to hurt. “I remember,” I grated.
“He was leading what looked like an army, and there were a shitload of these things following him.”
“I remember,” I said again. “Lolyanni said his name was Gmog or something.” I clenched my fists. “He was feeding people to those things.”
“Gmorkyn,” Tad said.
“What?” I looked at him.
“Gmorkyn. The guy in armor was named General Gmorkyn.”
“Who promoted him to general? Was he ever 'Private Gmorkyn'?” I asked.
“I'm not sure I want to know,” Tad answered me, “But Lolyanni said something...” He trailed off, pursing his lips. “She called the undead the...”
“The zime,” Mark supplied. “I remember it now, too.”
“We may have a problem,” I said. “Actually, we have multiple problems.”
“Do we have to discuss your love life?” Tad asked.
“Shut it. I'm serious,” I said. “In the first place, where is Gmorkyn getting these dead people? If he turns every dead person he comes across into a zime and sends it after us... we're in the middle of a frickin' war right now. People get killed in wars.”
“I see where you're going with this,” Steve said softly.
“I don't,” his brother put in.
“Put it simply, wars are fought over resources, and one of the most important is manpower. It doesn't matter how many of Vaargus's troops we put down if he can make them stand right back up and come after us... and if he does that with our troops at the same time...”
“Oh shit,” Tad whispered.
“And they don't stop,” I said. “One dead chick was almost too much for the four of us to handle. Imagine an army, thousands strong, storming a castle or a town in a human wave attack.”
“The defenders would be swarmed under almost immediately,” Steve put in. “And each victory, rather than weakening the victor and forcing them to stop and lick their wounds, and secure their supply lines before pressing on--”
“Would make him stronger.” Tad finished. He glared at me. “Fuck! Why is it never good news with you?”
“I've got more,” I said, grimly. “Steve, how often can you cast that faery fire spell?”
“About once an hour.”
“Stop fiddling about and tell me what the hell you're telling me,” his brother snapped.
“My sword's broken,” I declared.
“That wasn't my fault!” Steve said.
“That's not really the point,” I said. “It's broken and all of the weapons we have to bear are piercing weapons like Tad's rapier and your shortsword. They'll work fine if we get set upon by bandits, or goblins jump our shit, but if we're going to be trying to put zombies down then we need something that cuts muscle and tendons, something that can hack them to pieces.” I waved my arm vaguely towards the side of the road where the dead girl had been incinerated. “I broke her damn neck and she didn't even blink.
“We're completely defenseless.”
Tad swallowed hard. “If no one else minds, could we start riding, please? I'm suddenly really interested in running away.”
Virgins Slain, Dragons Rescued.
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