They came in the night. Silently, save for the crunch of snow, the creak of dusty bones, and the squish of rotting flesh. We never expected to be attacked, just an outpost in the middle of gods-forsaken outlands. They didn’t care for the strategic importance of our position– there was none. They came for us for the same reason they waited for the sun to rise.
They wanted us to wallow in our fear.
I was already awake, in the burning rays of dawn, when they made themselves known. Alone in the armory, I sat grinding a stone on Captain Jebralt’s sword. It wasn’t getting any sharper, but there was little better to do. We were in our fourth consecutive month at Fort Limbo, as we had come to call it. According to command, it was called forward point septa; according to the six of us, it was a hole. Command said we were intentionally short-handed, the better to preserve supplies. Chaff said it was because they knew as well as we did, there was nothing out here but us. Days passed peacefully, and slowly. Boredom was rampant, so I was happy to volunteer for armory duty. The warmth of the forge fought the bitter chill of our forsaken position.
Shink, shink, shink. The rhythmic sound of stone on steel was oddly soothing. Minutes blurred into hours, as I was lost in my job. I wiped the blade on my sleeve, letting the steel dust settle into the fabric of my sleeve. Admiring my work, I saw the door fly open, reflected in the shine of the blade. The room filled with a flurry of snow and cold air.
“Shut the door, you loon,” I remarked, swinging one leg over my bench to glare at the intruder. “Oh, its you Cap’n.”
Something was wrong. Jebralt’s normally neutral facial expression was twisted in a way I had never seen before. It was unsettling. Before I could inquire as to the reason, he snatched his sword from my hands, nicking my thumb with the edge.
He was out of breath, as if he ran the entire way from the ramparts. Every morning, from sunup, Captain Jebralt stood watch, while the rest of us slept. Snowflakes, speckled across his forehead, melted and ran down his face as he caught his breath.
“We’re under attack,” he said breathlessly. “Join the others on the rampart. We’re in big trouble.”
I sucked my thumb, and stared at him in disbelief. “Now you fool!” Jebralt shouted, and I ran, the captain close on my heels. Something had him riled, and I was loath to find out. Out the door I ran, onto the stone walkway of the keep. In my haste, I nearly plummeted off the parallel edge into the snow-filled courtyard. I hesitated to remind Captain Jebralt of the need for a railing. A right turn, up the stone steps, to the front battlement. As I cleared the last few steps I was greeted by the sight of Chaff, Oree, Merille, and Jon. None of them turned to look as the captain and I approached. I walked to the short wall and stared at the snow scape beyond.
There was nothing but uninterrupted white, for miles. I hated this gods-forsaken outpost.
“What’s all the commotion about?” I snapped, growing irritated with the unnerving silence. Even Jon, the youngest of our group, simply stared, wide-eyed. Jebralt put his gauntleted hand on my shoulder and pointed at the ground shrouded by the shadow of the keep, and the mountain it was built into.
“Ah,” was all I could say. The gentle snowfall had covered the ground, yet there was a broad area where the snow seemed to shudder. There appeared to be tall vertical mounds in the snow, as if it were made into many small piles, then snowed on again. It never seemed to stop snowing here. “So we’re under siege by snowmen, then?” I joked nervously, yet the visages of my comrades were frozen as the landscape. It shifted again, and the piles shortened, chunks sloughing off under their own weight.
As the snow broke away from the mound, I was horrified to see what was hiding within.
A face peered out toward the keep, with the expression of death cast in permanence. An arm protruded from the white powder, and clumsily freed its owner from its frosty tomb, as each other mound followed suit. In a matter of seconds, we were faced with what we knew to be our doom.
“Captain Jebralt?” Asked Jon. “What, Private Agrias.” The captain did not bother to enunciate in the form of a question. We all knew what he was going to say. “Are we going to die?”
The six of us stood in silence for a moment, before Oree spoke up. “Not without a fight. Right cap?” Captain Jebralt was sweating, despite the cool air. He nodded. “Let’s take stock of our assets. I don’t know why they haven’t attacked yet, but lets use this opportunity.” ” I think I know, Captain.” Merille removed his hand from his robe pocket to point. He was the resident mage, and not a bad guy for an elf. I’d certainly met many worse. “See a necromancer out there?” We all scanned the horizon. No, none to be found, that we could tell. Just rows of zombies and skeletons, doing nothing but staring up at us. It chilled me more than the biting wind. “Way I see it, if I was a frail coward with a control complex, would I be standing in this hellish environment doing nothing? And shut up Chaff.” Chaff snickered, but declined to comment. He was an archer, another wasted talent garrisoned where he was no use.
The gears clicked in my head. “So you’re saying there’s nobody to control them?”
“Exactly what I’m saying,” Merille folded his long arms. “I think if we are going to do something, it best be now.”
Young Jon jumped up and down, excited. “Then let’s grab the horses and bolt before the necro shows up!”
Oree shook his massive head. “If my knowledge of our foe is valid, they wont let us by. We can assume their controller set them to stand guard, and they’ll try to kill anything that gets near them. We’ll be pulled off our horses and…”
“And what?” Jon asked.
Oree stared back at him with a morose expression. “Nothing you want to hear about.” Oree had to be the largest specimen of a human male I had ever seen, and ironically, the most gentle. He was a priest of the amalgamated temple, a clustered religion of the more benign deities. Considering the war was against a front of allied necromancers, more and more of his kind were seen alongside soldiers. Soldiers like me. Surrounded by talented specialists such as these, I am forced to admit my lowly station as naught more than a sword swinging, grunt of the United Military. Even Jon had a more privileged station than me, being in line for dukedom. His Aunt, the duchess, likely sent him here to keep him safe whilst out of her hair. If only she knew.
Immediately the captain barked orders: “Get to the armoury and fetch your weapons, and anything else you can’t part with. We’ll take the backdoor out of here, through the abandoned mine.” The mood of the party lifted considerably at the thought of escape. “Jon and I will unseal the entrance and wait for you. Make haste!”
In a hurried queue, starting with me, we descended the icy steps from the ramparts, while Jebralt and Jon hurried toward the opposite end, where it connected with the mountain. We charged into the armoury, and did not bother to close the door. I fetched my own sword from a rack, stopping to inspect the blade, wishing I had spent more time tending it. Chaff strung his bow and shouldered a quiver of arrows. “Let’s hope it doesn’t come to fighting, I doubt I’ll be much help against those… things.” Oree wielded no weapon, and was too large for the spare armor. He managed to scavenge a pair of gauntlets that fit him, and flexed his fingers experimentally. “I guess it doesn’t violate a vow of nonviolence if I beat up something already dead…” His statement had the makings of a joke, but his visage was grave. He nabbed a length of rope, which he knotted about his waist. “Never know when you’ll need it.” Merille, being a mage, had little use for weapons either, but he donned a pot helmet nonetheless. I grabbed a wide axe from the wall for Jon. Young or not, we would all have to fight to survive.
Together we flew from the armoury, letting the door close shut by the wind. Down another flight of stairs, across the snow-covered courtyard we sprinted. The rear of the fort was unworked stone, a section of the mountain upon which the fort was built. In ages past, this fort was a dwarven structure, protecting a large vein of gold. After reaping all the gold, the dwarves moved to other prospects and the mine subsequently fell into disrepair, despite use of the fort by the human kingdom. It has been said that the mine reaches all the way through the mountain, to the valley opposite. That was our only hope for survival, we knew. Despite the questionable integrity of the mine, we knew it was a far sight better than what awaited us beyond our front gate. As we approached the sealed hatch into the mine, we found it wide open, with the captain and private nowhere to be seen.
“Oh, THIS doesn’t look ominous or anything,” Said chaff, throwing his hands in the air.
“All hail lord apparent,” Merille replied.
I peered in the hole. There was naught inside but darkness and stale air. “We’re not going to accomplish anything standing around like this,” I stated finally. I glanced worriedly toward the gate, half expecting to see piles of bones and rotting flesh shambling toward us. I pulled a torch from my belongings, struck it alight against the wall and walked through the door. The others looked none too happy about it, but followed nonetheless. We marched in silence, as I counted each step. Despite being a rock tunnel, we made almost no sound when we walked; this was owed to dwarven stonework. the ground beneath us was almost carpet in quality. I considered asking Merille about it, when Chaff spoke up first. “Am I the only one curious about what seems to be the most squeezably soft stone ever?”
“Its been magically altered,” Merrile replied, predictably, with a foreseeable sigh.
“Now who is Lord Apparent?!” Chaff snapped.
Merrile glared back. “If that’s the case, how bout you explain how they did it?”
Chaff shrugged in resignation.
“So how did they do it?” I asked.
Merrile shrugged in turn. “I have no clue. I’m not an earth mage nor a dwarf. “
I couldn’t resist stealing a glance back to see the look on chaff’s face. His expression was most humorous to all exposed to the torch’s glow.
As I turned to face back down the tunnel, I collided hard with something. The torch dropped from my hands, extinguishing itself head first in the soft dirt. I drew my weapon with a metallic scraping sound, cursing my attention to the captain’s sword over my own. I hoped it would serve sufficient for whatever stood before me. There was not enough room to fully utilize my blade, so I lashed out with my right foot, planting it forward in preparation for a vertical chop. My unseen assailant, or the dim figure which I could perceive, crashed into the far wall, and cried out. I stepped to slash, when the massive hand of Oree grasped my blade from over my head.
“What are you doing?!” I spat.
“Undead don’t cry.”
I sheepishly lowered my weapon, as Merille picked up the torch, re lighting it with a hard flick of his fingers. I never did get used to the way mages do things. The torch shone far more brightly, and yet without heat. Merille looked visibly pleased with himself.
Under the clear white light of the renewed torch, we could all see young Agrias slumped on the ground, clutching his torso and moaning.
Chaff patted my shoulder, with mock cheerfulness. “Good going. Next time the torch goes out see if you can’t behead Merille.”
I shrugged his hand off, and helped Jon to his feet. “Sorry bout that. What’s going on? I assume the captain is further down the tunnel?”
Jon caught his breath, and looked hard into my eyes. His face was drained of his usual wide-eyed innocent expression, looking hardened by adrenaline and absolutely horrified. He shouldered past me, squeezing between the others and the rock wall, squirming toward the way we came. I reached past Chaff and grasped his arm. “What is going on here?!”
“We need to get out of here!” he shrieked, sweat and tears running down his face.
“Why? What is down the tunnel? Where is the captain?” I inquired, restraining the panicking private.
My answer arrived with the sound of armoured footsteps, clanking nearer. I released Jon, who, leaning hard away from me, fell to the ground and shuffled madly away. I turned with the others, back down the tunnel, as Merille held the torch out before him, Casting a sphere of light. The clanking grew nearer, and an armoured glove reached, a boot stepped, into the sphere of visibility. They were followed by the rest of captain Jebralt’s body. Except for his head.
“Oh, peanuts” Said Oree.
The headless corpse of the Captain reached for Chaff, blindly groping with both arms covered in the ichor oozing from its neck stump. Chaff grasped an arrow from his quiver, and drove it into his attackers chest, in an attempt to stop his advance. The undead Jebralt merely kept shuffling forward, the arrow protruding through his back. “Help me!” Chaff pleaded, as the bloody, armoured hands of the former Captain closed around his neck. Merille lunged toward the undead Jebralt, his hands glowing red-hot. I can feel the warmth on my face as he passes, both hands clasped together as if in prayer. He drives them both into the monster’s torso, with a sizzle and a sickening squelch. This did not phase it, as Chaff battered it weakly with his fists, the headless corpse of the Captain responded by bashing him hard against the stone wall. Merille uttered a few mumbled syllables in a language I’ve never heard, and the sizzle grew to a deafening roar. He pulled his hands apart, rending the monster with a faint swoosh sound. In two pieces, what remained of Captain Jebralt fell to the floor, the separation between the halves glowing like got coals, and popping, releasing a horrid stench.
Chaff sunk to the ground and slumped to one side, his head bleeding profusely. Oree rushed to his side, as I grimly Relieved my officer of his sword. It was morbid I knew, but I would not waste such a fine weapon in a time of need.
“Will he be okay?” Asked Merille, wiping his now-normal hands on his robe.
Oree gently wrapped a strip of cloth around Chaff’s head. “Not if we don’t get him some help, fast. I can pray over him all day but one person alone can’t fix this.”
Merille glanced at the remains of the captain. “Unbeliveable… frshly animated, he had thestrength to do that to Chaff, despite the softness of the stone.”
I became aware once more of young Jon huddled against the wall behind us, sobbing to himself. “He-he-he s-s-s-said we would make it. Said you would distract them while we got away. I d-d-didn’t want to leave you guys.” He sniffed and wiped his eyes. “That’s when they came for him. We heard whispering… like someone chanting, somewhere in the darkness. Then the walls, the floor– the entire cave came alive! Arms and faces reached from the stone, and they grabbed the Captain! So I ran…” He buried his head in his knees, overwhelmed.
Oree tended Chaff in silence. Merille crossed his arms and frowned. “So the bastard was going to sacrifice us to escape. But how did ‘the cave come alive’?”
Jon peered up from his muddy knees, “Cap’n said that the dwarves buried their dead in the mine itself. Absorbed right into the stone…”
“That explains why it’s so soft,” I started, “We’re standing on a few generations of dead dwarves.”
Oree stood, bearing an unconscious Chaff on his frame. “So what do we do now, boss?” He looked at me imploringly. To my disbelief, Merille and Jon joined him. Their eyes were all upon me, expectantly staring. “But I’m not the ranking officer– I can’t be!” Yet I knew it to be true. “You, Chaff and Jon are the only ones with actual rank” Merille explained, though I already knew. “You outrank Jon, and Chaff is in no shape to lead. So what are your orders, Sarge?”
Jon had by now picked himself up, his face regaining the youthful expression of complete faith in another. I sighed my resignation to the situation, and equipped the sword I scavenged from Jebralt.
I opened my mouth to speak, yet I would not have been heard, as the dank cave at once lit up with sound. It was chanting, much as I had heard from Merille earlier. Yet, it seemed… different. Malevolent. I glanced at Merille; his eyes were closed, letting the sound come to his pointy ears. He opened his eyes. “That’s our cue, Sarge. We need to get out of here, NOW.”
“Which way do we go, boss?” Oree asked, Chaff’s head bobbing comically beside his own.
There was a shudder in the tunnel, as if we were in the mouth of a great beast that was preparing to yawn– or worse.
“Quick! Run back the way we came!” I shouted, handing Jon the axe I grabbed earlier. “Whatever did that do the Cap’n, it’s further down the tunnel.” As I spoke, a filthy, skeletal hand protruded from the wall, reaching slowly for me. I swatted it aside. “Stay close together, and smash hack or burn anything that isn’t us! Let’s go!” We charged single-file back down the tunnel, as the ground convulsed and produced dirt-caked body parts, reaching and grabbing at us. I led, keeping young Agrias close to me. He clutched the axe as if it were a security blanket. Jebralt never let the boy have a weapon; Said he was a noble, and a noble need never get their hands dirty. I figure when lives are on the line, we all bleed the same colour. Oree flanked the boy, carrying Chaff, who was now babbling incoherently. Merille brought up the rear, stopping occasionally to lob a ball of flame toward sounds back down the tunnel.
It was not long running, albeit hampered by the myriad of animate corpses upon which we tread, before light greeted us. I kicked hard at a skeletal visage peering at me from the doorway, sending its sailing out into the light. Jon followed me out the door, whereupon he fell to his hands and knees panting, despite the snow. Oree ducked through the portal to join us, and was not followed.
I raced back to the mine hatch and peered inside. There stood Merille, kneading a glowing orb of blue fire. “Merille, what are you doing!”
He smiled that infuriating smile that he so often used on Chaff. “I’m making sure you’re not followed, Sarge. This will all be for nothing if we have enemies on both sides. This way, you may still escape.”
What was he planning?! “Merille get out here! That’s an order, mage!”
He smiled sorrowfully. “Sorry Sarge, but it wouldn’t look good, you know. An elf obeying a human? What would my parents say. Oree! the hatch, please.”
Oree lumbered to the door and made to close it. I moved to intervene, but a glance from him stopped me. “You know he’s right, boss.”
I knew he was right, but I was sick of losing friends. As Oree closed the hatch, I stole one last glance inside. Merille had his back to me, and was marching toward the chanting. Numerous dead dwarves tore and clawed at him in passing, some latching on and being dragged. “Merille!” I cried, one last time, before the portal was closed and sealed.
I turned my back to the mine, turned my back on the friends I had lost. Whether Jebralt intended to betray us or not, he was another tragic casualty in this horrific war. I moved to the gate control, and in the absence of my tending the steam generator in the armoury, the clockwork had frozen together. That left only the one option. Solemnly we marched, up the stairs to the battlements. The same sight greeted us as had when we left; A sea of rotting flesh and snow-covered bones. Their cold, dead eyes stared expectantly up at us. “Oree.”
“Secure the rope. We’re going down.”
I sliced a section from the rope, with which we fastened Chaff securely to Oree’s back. The remaining length was tied to the outcropping stone of the fort. One after another, we slid down the rope. Oree was last, and he took care to land gently for Chaff’s sake. We turned to face our foes, Arranged around the fort in a semicircle, ensorcelling us with the fort to our back.
From behind us came a sound, low at first, a rumble which grew to a horrible roar. We looked back at the massive mountain, as each pore and crevice erupted with a stream of blue fire. The entire mountain, including the unhallowed mine, was lit up by indigo flame. At a glance, it seemed almost as a tortured visage, screaming in agony as it erupted in cleansing flame.
“Thank you Merille,” I say quietly, mostly to myself. Oree performed a quick prayer, while Jon merely hung his head. The flames retreated back into the mountain, the roaring died, replaced by a blinding flash and a loud boom.
One by one, the undead army before us stirred, as if awakening. At random, they began milling about, moaning or swaying in place. Some seemed to take notice of us, and began to approach in a non uniform, shambling advance.
Oree looked shocked, horrified, and bemused at once. “Merille– he killed the controller! The necromancer was in the mine, and he left these out here! They are all free agents now.”
“I take it they’re still not friendly, Oree?”
“On the contrary, boss– there is nothing to stop them now.”
I drew my sword, angrily. I was angry at Jebralt, for running for his own safety. At Merrile, for being so valiant. Furious at the undead, this war– everything. At the situation I found myself in. An unfortunate skeleton arrived where I was standing, reached for me with its bony claws, to achieve what end I know not. Enraged, I swung my sword at its midsection, sending a spray of frozen bone fragments through the air. Through my peripheral vision, I saw young Jon in a similar situation. He swung meekly at a zombie, whose movements were slowed greatly by the cold. Jon’s axe struck the undead in the shoulder, causing a large chunk of flesh to skim off, unhindering his foe’s advance. The zombie grabbed Agrias’ head in its blue frozen hands, and pulled him towards its gaping mouth. I was unable to intercept, as a pair of nimble cadavers were approaching me from each side. Before the undead menace could bite into Jon’s skull, Oree came to his rescue, grasping the zombie by its own head and wrenching it from its shoulders. The scene brought back all too fresh memories of our superior officer. I swung twice, in a vertical X, hewing into my aggressors.
We were defeating them as they came, yet for every one we defeated two more took interest in the walking warm meat pies they had against a wall. I was growing tired, the adrenaline of my blood lust ebbing. Oree and I closed toward Jon, forming an obtuse triangle. We continued to fight, though with every foe we dropped we grew nearer to exhaustion, while our enemies knew not fatigue, only a phantom hunger for our flesh.
It was then, when I was sure we would not make it, when I was convinced we would fall fighting the abominable mockeries of human life, that she appeared.
It was the first time I had seen the Golden Saint. She was a legend among our forces, known as a gold armoured angel of the battlefield. She came charging from the white forest opposite our position, mounted on horseback and more beautiful than the legends could portray. The light gleamed off her golden armor, drawing every eye in the area to her. Even a zombie busily gnawing on Oree’s gauntleted fist stopped to stare at the newcomer. True to the legends, her skin was matte black; A curiosity for all who beheld her, the only known dark elf paladin.
Possibly the most unbelievable thing about her, was the weapon she bore into battle. Clasped by the handle to her armoured black steed was the largest great sword i have ever seen. The blade was easily as wide as its wielder, and half as long. The hilt, curiously enough, split at the end into a T, much resembling a giant oar. She rode with abandon into the teeming crowd of undead, banking a hard left. Lifted by centrifugal force, the sword cleaved effortlessly through all that stood before it.
Having completed a full turn, she once more charged amidst the unliving horde, diving from her horse into the hole she made for herself. She flipped gracefully from her steed, bringing her massive sword in a crescent over her. as the weapon landed with a shattering impact amidst her foes, she used the momentum of her flight to flip over the sword itself, kicking a skeleton to pieces. The sword was left where it buried itself, though always within arms reach, as our saviour began brutally pummeling all nearby opponents with her fists.
I found myself frozen in time, mesmerized by her elegant warfare. So paralyzed, I nearly did not notice an ambitious quasi-skeleton, still with some flesh on it, attempting to gouge out my eyes. I cleaved him with renewed energy, crying out in excitement. “We can win this! Let us aid the Saint!” Oree and Jon seemed invigorated by the recent events as well, and as one we moved through the enemy ranks like an organic murder machine.
Despite anticipation, some of the undead proved to have a scrap of intelligence, bearing simple short bows. They wore scraps of armor from various nations, and were likely specially animated to serve such a purpose. I cried out to the Saint to beware, as a volley of their arrows were loosed toward her. She dove majestically over her sword, stuck upright in the snow, and shielded herself from the incoming missiles. We took the opportunity to charge the offenders, slaughtering them as they would us.
Before long, their numbers thinned; The day was ours. Agrias, now warmed up to the flow of battle, liesurely brutalized the remaining undead whilst Oree and I greeted our salvation.
I approached her hesitantly, somewhat star struck to be so close to such a legend. The tales of her beauty did not do her justice, I noticed, as she released her flowing blue-black locks from her helmet. “Are you the commanding officer here?” She inquired, looking at me with forest green eyes. I shook my head. “No… well, yes. Our captain was the first casualty. I am just a buck sergeant, Ma’am.”
“Please,” she replied with a smile, “Don’t call me ma’am. My name is Faye D’Lumis.”
“How did you find us, m– Faye?”
“I was sent to warn you of an incoming invasion, when I was lost in a blizzard– were it not for the flashy display with the mountain not long ago, I wouldn’t have found you at all. Sorry I’m late,” she added sheepishly.
I lowered my eyes, “Yes.. we have lost only a few today, but a few too many. Oh! Oree, how is Chaff?!”
As if he just remembered he was there, Oree unslung our archer from his back as Agrias rejoined us, looking pleased with himself.
“He’s lapsed into unconsciousness…” Oree said bitterly.
“Lay him down,” Faye said urgently.
Oree complied, placing Chaff gently in the snow.
“You’re a priest, are you not?” She asked. He nodded a reply, looking grave. “Let us not waste any time then!”
Together they knelt before the broken body of Chaff, and sent a prayer to the heavens. Her hands took on a celestial glow, illuminating her like a golden beacon of hope. She applied them to Chaff’s head, which slowly began to mend itself. Chaff stirred, then opened his eyes. “Where is Merille?” he asked, glancing at each of us. “More importantly, who are YOU, cutie?”
Faye made a face at Oree, “Don’t suppose we could just brain damage him a little do you?”
Oree laughed, a loud bass sound; the first time I’ve ever heard him laugh. Before long we were all laughing, for the first time since we arrived at this forsaken outpost. It felt good.