Touch of the Grave
“The mortal coil is nothing!” the elven necromancer screamed. “I will destroy you from beyond the grave!”
“Go crap in a river!” Zev shouted. The dwarf buried his axe in the skull of the zombie in front of him. It sank to the ground, but Zev’s smile became a scowl as two more took its place.
The death-priest screeched an arcane phrase, and the crystal ball before him began to drain the light from the room.
“We’re not gonna make it!” Dante shouted in a panic. He waved his rapier, clipping the fingers off a walking corpse, but his blade was ill-suited for dealing with the shambling things. This was in contrast to Fada, whose magic and mace made her uniquely equipped for such a threat.
“The Hells we won’t!” Catriona shouted. She leapt sideways with the agility only an elf could possess, and ran along the wall, above the rotting heads of the necromancer’s vile servants. She gave a warrior’s scream, swung her short sword in an arc, and smashed the crystal ball.
The necromancer stared in horror. “You fool.”
A moment later, the air exploded with ice and wind and darkness. The zombies in front of Zev crashed forward, faster than their decayed muscles should’ve allowed. Their crushing weight bore him to the ground. He thrashed, panicked. They may be slow, he knew, but their teeth and claws would mean death for him just the same. But it soon became clear that they weren’t fighting him at all. He pushed himself out of their still forms, chest heaving. In a final fit of coughing, he straightened.
Behind him, Dante did the same. “Y’know,” the fencer said, “Much as I like being buried in bodies from time to time, I typically prefer those of courtesans, not corpses.”
“Gross,” a low, feminine voice sounded, as Fada’s athletic, orcish frame kicked the dead aside.
“I said ‘not corpses’,” Dante reiterated.
“Still gross!” Fada grunted.
Zev heard none of it. His eyes were locked on the two elves before him. The necromancer lay still, a shard of his own crystal ball lodged in his neck. But so, too, lay Catriona.
“C… Catri!” Zev called. He stepped towards her. “Catriona!”
“No,” Fada whispered.
Zev approached the girl. He looked at her once beautiful body, now twisted by the necromancer’s spell. Her dappled skin was thin as parchment, and the veins that pressed through it were filled with a thick, black substance.
“Catri,” Zev mumbled again. He sank to his knees beside her, lifted her head into his lap. Her eyes stared up at him, empty.
“I…” Dante began, but he trailed off, dodged Zev’s eyes as the dwarf looked at him. His feathered cap was pressed against his chest.
A hand touched Zev’s shoulder, firm but gentle. “We should leave,” Fada said.
Zev wanted to protest, but he swallowed it and nodded. He took a deep breath as he rose. “I would not…” he swallowed again, “I would not leave her here, or in an unmarked grave.”
“Where should we take her?’ Fada said. “She was your apprentice, old man. Where would she want to be taken?”
Dante ran a finger over his salt and pepper mustache. “I should think she would want to return to Éireann, to rest amongst her people. I know a port town only a day’s hike from here. From there another day aboard a ferry could get us to the Isles.”
They left town the following day, just after noon. The Orthodoxy paid its paladins, and their companions, handsomely for the death of necromancers, and they used part of those proceeds to buy a tarp to shroud Catriona in. Fada, too, had found a hymn in her book for guarding the deceased against the ravages of time and vermin.
They walked, and though Fada and Dante both offered to share the burden, Zev insisted on carrying Catriona. His stout dwarven form, he argued, was best suited for the task. With a shared glance, the other two elected not to argue the point.
It was long past dark when Zev finally agreed with Dante’s request to stop. He laid Catriona, gently, in the grass beside the road. Only as he straightened did he feel the burst of fatigue, the fire that raced through his muscles. He groaned.
“Told you, you should’ve let me help,” Fada said, eyeing him as he stretched.
“I…” he grumbled, “Whatever. It’s fine.”
Fada looked at him a moment longer, and seemed about to speak, before Dante interrupted. “I’m going to relieve myself,” the old fencer announced.
“That’s fascinating,” Fada said, “Will it be a lyric in one of your ballads?”
Dante grinned. “Well I won’t know that until I’ve gauged the quality of the experience!” And with that, he tramped off into a nearby copse of trees, his mind already on deeper thoughts.
Fada growled and rolled her eyes. “I’m gonna make dinner. Can you help me get a fire ready?”
Dante passed through the edge of the trees, walking until he was fairly certain his companions couldn’t see or hear him. He paused at a likely looking stump, sat down, and buried his head in his hands.
She had been so happy, he recalled, when he had shown up in her village, a little garden town nestled into the side of one of Éireann’s thick, swift-flowing rivers. The children had fawned over him, as it was clear most had never seen a human before. They pestered him with questions, asked him where his antlers were, why so much of his fur was missing. He sang them songs of Massalia and the Serpent Islands, and distant, frozen Kiev.
The adults too, had questions. How was the war going? Would Massalia and Kiev’s temporary alliance to drive back the gnolls be just that? Would the two nation’s hunger for power mean a more permanent arrangement, or that this one would end in war? What would that mean for the elf clans, who had for so long been Massalia’s ally? He answered them all as best he could, though his grasp of the elvish language was tenuous at best. He had less of a head for modern politics than he did for ancient legends.
And through it all, one girl remained silent, watching his every move with a hopeful, secret smile. At first he assumed her besotted with him. Many were the youths who had never left the village of their birth, who found themselves charmed by a dashing bard with songs and gifts from lands they had only dreamt of. Dante regarded this one warily, though. Even then he was not a young man, and this girl was, at his guess, just shy of half his age.
And so, when she had approached him, as he sat down for a smoke outside of the tavern where he had been playing, he had given her only a nod, absolved to try his best not to lead her on.
“Lass,” he said.
“Take me with you,” the girl blurted.
Dante’s quirked an eyebrow. “Take you with me where?”
She looked confused, and Dante got the sense that she had prepared responses to many questions he might have asked, just not to the one he did. “Anywhere,” she said, after some time. “Massalia, or Serpent Islands. Or Burrows. Where you’re going next. I want to go. With you.” Her Massalian was halting, but, Dante thought, with work, and a teacher who actually spoke the language, fluency was within her reach.
Dante chewed his pipe, but didn’t light it.
“Why?” he asked at last. He knew the answer, he thought, but the important thing was to make sure she did.
“I can’t… be here anymore,” the elf girl said. “Your song. ‘Every day you’re in this place, You’re two days nearer death…’ No. Every day here makes me want to be two days nearer death. Death would be new.”
Dante tried not to smile. He was reminded of a scrawny tavern boy, tan skinned and black haired and wearing the kind of mustache that made him look like he had fallen face-first in dirt, stumbling over himself as he tried to explain these same ideas to the captain of a merchant ship in the Serpent Islands.
He took a breath. “It isn’t easy,” he said at last, “Every night in a bed is six in a tent, if you’re lucky.”
“I can sleep anywhere,” she said.
“Fights’ll happen,” he said, “We’re not mercenaries, exactly, but… on the road…”
“I have a sword,” she said. “Mom said father was a soldier, left it behind after…”
“Well,” he lit a match, held it to the cup of his pipe. “Alright then.”
Dante raised his head from his hands as he breathed, slapped it back down as he took a breath.
You stupid, stupid old man, he thought. You just couldn’t say no. More than that, you had the gall to think you were actually helping her?
He kept his head in his hands a moment longer, until the voice reminded him that there were still those waiting for him. It would be just like an old fool to go and get lost in the woods and force others to come and look for him.
Dante rose, and a moment later realized that he actually had not lied to Fada when he told her why he needed to come out here. He turned back to the stump he had been sitting on.
A tingling sensation ran up Dante’s back, different from the tingling sensation he was expecting. He glanced behind him.
Dante resumed his business.
Suddenly a sound filled his hearing, a branch snapping underfoot. Dante looked around again.
“Fada!” he called, “Zev! If that’s one of you, I think we need to have a serious discussion about boundaries!”
Silence answered him. Dante frowned.
He attempted to resume his business.
More sounds came from behind him, and it took Dante a moment to recognize them: footsteps. They grew closer, and Dante tried to turn, found himself yet staring forward, paralyzed. Closer, and Dante could feel hot, warm breath on his neck. Closer still, and Dante was at last able to tear his gaze backwards, turning to see his assailant.
“What in the Nine Hells?” the fencer breathed. He coughed, and spoke louder. “Well! Whoever you are, thanks! You certainly got the bloody stream going!”
When Dante returned to camp, the others had dinner ready. Zev was pouring stew into his wooden bowl, while Fada stuffed her own tusked mouth with the thick, brown vittles.
Fada swallowed. “Have a good time, old man?”
“As a matter of fact I did not,” Dante grumbled. “My dear companions, I fear we are being followed.”
“Explain,” said Zev.
“Well, when I was… going about my business, I had the distinct feeling of being watched. Yet, when I turned around, there was nothing.”
Fada stared at him for a second, and then sneered. “Aww…” she said, “Did you see something scary on your little trip? Do you need someone to hold your hand when you go in the scary woods?”
Dante rolled his eyes, “Oh yes, mumsie. And would you also rub my belly when I lie down for nap-nap?”
“Ok, stop,” Fada complained, “You made it weird.”
“It was already weird,” Dante shot back.
Zev snorted, and scooped some stew into his mouth. He held the broth on his tongue for a moment, then slid a piece of beef between his teeth to chew.
Suddenly, he retched. Something hard had met his teeth, and he coughed and pried it out, expecting some hunk of bone the butcher had slipped into their meat to pad the weight. He was already forming a curse against the craggy old man from the last town as he looked at what he had yanked free.
Fada and Dante went silent, staring instead at what Zev held: a pale-skinned, delicate, finger.
“What,” Dante murmured, even as Zev dropped the thing to the soil at his feet. He frowned deeply, and kicked a bit of dirt over it. He looked up at the other two, and swallowed.
“Ville De Marin is primarily a fishing village,” Dante explained as they entered the town. “But there is still a ferry here, which overnights to Éireann, every other day at noon. At least, that’s the way it worked five years ago, the last time I was in this town.”
“Five years ago,” Fada said, nodding, “When you were… ninety-five?”
Dante gave a fake laugh. “Thirty-eight. But I guess I should be impressed you know what numbers are at all, orc, even if you don’t quite grasp how they work.”
“Excuse me!” Fada roared.
Zev shook his head. “Well, it’s past noon, now.”
Dante smirked. “Very observant, Zev.”
Dante huffed. “Sorry, but if I only sharpen my razor wit against the orc, I’m afraid it might rot away, so acidic is her stupidity.”
“I’ll kick your rear, old man,” Fada growled.
“Try it, child,” Dante hissed, “I’d lick you good.”
Zev’s brow furrowed. “Who’s licking whose rear?”
Dante and Fada stared at him for a second. Then Dante guffawed. “Let’s go get a drink, children,” the fencer said.
They spent the evening at an inn by Ville de Marin’s docks, a two-story building with a widow’s walk. A painting of a lapdog sporting luxurious facial hair hung above its door.
“The Bearded Bitch?” Fada said doubtfully.
“Best wine in the Ville,” Dante assured her, and pushed the door open.
The next few hours were a blur of drinking and dicing, toasts and card games. The moon hung high in the sky when Zev shed his leather vest and woolen undershirt, crawled into the hay-filled bed in the room he’d rented. Fada, he knew, was in the room across from him, and the music coming through the floor told him that Dante was still entertaining the locals in the common room below. Zev stared out the window, at the light of the full moon, and tried to sleep.
Alas, it eluded him, and he spent what felt like several hours twisting through a series of positions, not wanting to admit that the main problem were the things he saw when he closed his eyes….
He was staring into a cup, which had a moment ago held cider and now held a mix of apple dregs and, perhaps, a few tears. He briefly considered a refill, but thought better of it. He had been able to justify snatching the battle-axe on display above his father’s fireplace. After all, wasn’t it better put to use keeping him alive than serving as a decoration? But he simply could not bring himself to take more than a small handful of coins from their coffers before running off.
He tried not to think further back than that, but of course in trying not to he did exactly that. Frustration filled him as he recalled his last conversation with his father.
“Sorry!?” the grey-beard shouted. “You’re sorry!? Sorry doesn’t bring back the six hundred dukes we just cost Conard and his men. Sorry isn’t going to stop him from breaking the contract, from telling all his merchant friends that the Barasch family can’t be trusted with their arur money!”
“I’m sorry, father,” he mumbled. “They… jump.”
“What?” his father said. “Speak up.”
“They jump, father!” Zev said.
“What are you talking about?” his father growled.
“The runes,” Zev mumbled, “The runes jump. And dance. And run. And, and they do it so fast, when I try to read them, that… that I get all twisted, and, and my head starts to hurt.”
Zev looked at his father then, who was staring at him through slitted eyes. For one brief, naive moment, Zev thought that the old man had understood.
“Are you…” his father’s voice was shaking, “Mad?”
Voices shook Zev from his reverie, as another pair of customers entered the tavern, arguing loudly.
“I told you we’re not going to the Burrows!” a middle aged human was saying. “They’re dark and small and smell weird. And in fact that’s a pretty apt description of their inhabitants as well.”
The human’s companion gave a whine. Zev stared at her. Her skin was dappled, brown and white, and a pair of diamond shaped ears sprouted from beneath her short hair. As she passed, Zev noticed the small, leaf-shaped fluff of tail that spilled out from beneath her woolen blouse. It was only with this last that he was finally able to connect her to a description from an old book.
“But we’re only a day away and I’ve never even seen a dwarf before!” the elf cried.
“Well,” the old human shot back, “Maybe if you spent half the time you did complaining; taking in your surroundings instead, you’d realize that there’s been one staring at your backside since we walked in.”
The elf twisted, and Zev tried to hide his eyes in his drink before she saw him. He failed, and faster than he could perceive, the elf had plopped down on the chair opposite his.
“Hi. Are you a dwarf?” she asked.
He nearly said yes, but thought better of it. Instead he donned a look of amazement, like what she had said had granted him an epiphany that would change his whole life. “That explains so much.”
The elf girl laughed, a high, musical sound.
Zev smiled, then frowned and stared back into his cup. “I uh… I wasn’t, by the way. Staring at your…”
“Backside?” the elf asked. “It’s OK if you were. It will make me feel less bad when I stare at yours.”
Zev choked on the dregs of cider he’d been sipping, slammed a hand into his chest as the elf girl laughed.
“Dante, this one’s cute!” she called to the human, who was chatting with the bartender. “Can we keep him?”
“Is he housebroken?” the human called back.
“What does that mean?” the elf asked.
“Just ask him,” the human answered.
“Are you housebroken?” she asked, turning back to Zev.
“I… know how to use a chamberpot, yes,” Zev said.
“Oh,” the elf said, “Well, I’m very happy for you.”
Zev thought for a second. “I’m starting to think your husband doesn’t have a very high opinion of dwarves.”
“Husband?” The elf tilted her head, then her eyes widened. “Oh, Dante!? No. No no no no no. He is… not my…” She stuck her hand forward. “I’m Catriona.”
“Zev,” Zev said.
Eventually, Zev gave up on the idea of falling asleep, and rose to his feet. He slid the door open as quietly as possible, and on a whim took the ladder up to the building’s roof.
He pried open the hatch, and was surprised when a familiar face looked back at him.
“Couldn’t sleep?” Fada asked as Zev pulled himself up onto the walk.
“Dante snores,” Zev said, nervously.
Fada snorted, and smiled. Moonlight splashed across the water of the bay, and reflected back onto the orc woman’s dark skin. In that moment, she was a painting; all glowing muscle and deep, shadowed curves. It was Zev thought, rather breathtaking.
Fada caught his eyes, and he looked away. He took a step forward, set his hands against the railing. Fada sighed, turned back to glance out at the water again.
“I…” Fada began some time later. “I know you two were… close.”
“… yeah,” Zev agreed.
“And…,” she continued, “I know it hurts, really hurts. Feels like nothing’s ever gonna be right again, like how could the world keep going as it was without her in it?” Zev nodded. “I know, ‘cause I’ve been there too. Kind of there now, even though I didn’t know her as long as either of you.” She took a breath, released it as a sigh. “But it is gonna keep going. The world, I mean. And we need to keep going with it.”
Zev felt something cool, looked down to see Fada’s fingers lying across his. “We’ve been doing important work, you and Dante and I. There are people out there who still need us. So… will you keep going, Zev? For Dante… and for me?” she asked.
Zev nodded. “Yeah,” he said, “Yeah, I will.”
He felt her other hand press against the black, curly mop of his hair, and let her guide him forward. She pressed her lips to his forehead, lingered for one long, warm moment.
She broke, and took a breath. “I’m um… gonna try and go get some sleep.”
“Ok,” Zev said. He turned as she walked away. “And Fada.” She paused, turning back towards him. “Thanks. I… I needed that.” She smiled and turned away.
“Just try not to stay up too late,” she called back over her shoulder.
Zev smiled, shook his head.
Behind him, a pair of eyes glared, hateful and unseen.
The following day saw the group board the ferry Baleine, as it crossed the channel between the Massalian coast and the Isles of Éireann. They spent the day below deck, with a handful of other passengers, passing the time and doing their best to stay out of the way of the crew. Hours passed, and Zev watched the sunset through the small window set in the side of the boat. The other passengers began to settle down, finding comfortable places to curl up or sprawl out. Zev wrapped his cloak around himself, and set his head against his pack.
He woke to the sound of rustling. His eyes glared blearily in the pre-dawn light, expecting to see one of the other passengers rising. Nothing stirred but the shadows.
Suddenly his cloak was pulled from him. A weight struck his neck, drove his head back against the pillow. He tried to cry out, found his breath cut off by the unseen force.
It was then the pain started. A burst of flame, like a hot-knife carving into his forearm. He whined.
The weight vanished as suddenly as it had appeared. The pain remained, though dulled, as Zev unleashed a long, pained howl.
Movement broke across his vision, and Zev held his breath in panic. But he released it, slowly, as his tear-blurred sight coalesced into Fada, who had leapt to her feet. Her face was twisted in an expression of concern.
“Zev,” she said, “Is everything alright? I heard screami- what the Hell?”
Zev looked down at where the orc was staring. Runes, red and angry, glowed against the skin of his forearm. As he watched, the glow faded, but the strange letters remained on his skin.
Fada approached carefully. “Zev,” she whispered, “What happened? Did you tick off a branding iron?”
“I…” Zev said, “I don’t know.”
Fada whispered one of her hymns, and her hands began to glow with golden, healing light. She reached towards Zev’s arm.
Suddenly a blast of darkness erupted from the runes, tossing Fada into the bulkhead.
“Fada!” Zev cried. He leapt to his feet, wrapped the orc in his arms.
“Cursed wound,” Fada mumbled, rubbing the back of her head.
“Hello?” came a silky voice, as Dante rose into a crouch. “Am I interrupting something?”
“Zev got branded,” Fada said.
“Really?” Dante raised an eyebrow. “Y’know, I don’t take issue with body art, but it is generally not a decision one should leave up to a group of sailors one barely knows.”
“It wasn’t… “Zev stammered, “I didn’t… I was asleep, and then…” he held out his arm.
Dante bent for a closer look. He whistled. “Elvish,” he said.
“Do they say anything?” Zev asked.
“I uh… don’t know,” Dante said.
“Wait,” said Fada, “Elvish…. The necromancer?”
“I’ll destroy you from beyond the grave,” Zev muttered, recalling the necromancer’s words, just before Catriona had shattered his orb and ruined his ritual. “Dante, you don’t think—?”
“Zev, I have never heard of a spell like that, at least not from any tale I put any stock in.” His shoulders sagged. “But… that doesn’t mean it’s not possible. I don’t pretend to be an expert on necromancy.”
Fada looked pensive. “So what do we do?”
“Carry on,” Zev said without hesitation, “Take Catri home.”
Dante nodded. “The boy’s right. If the answers are anywhere, they’re in pagan lands.”
The ferry docked in an Éireann port town whose name Zev found somehow even harder to pronounce than the rest of their strange, musical language. The trio disembarked and entered the town, their erstwhile fourth held between them.
“Well, where to, old man?” Fada grumbled.
“The temple of Morrigu,” Dante said. “The elven funeral goddess. Catri… passed in battle with a wicked foe. From what I understand, their religion views that favorably.”
“I’m glad,” Zev said.
They crossed through the streets of the Éireann port, with Dante pausing only to ask direction from a few locals. Soon, they arrived at the building, a circular walkway of stones surrounding a tower, with trees planted in a pattern at its base. Dante passed between the trees, approached the large, wooden doors which guarded the tower. Images of birds, horses and great, snarling hounds decorated the door, and the knocker took the form of a raven’s head, holding a heavy ring in its beak. Dante used it.
The door creaked open. An older elf, dressed in flowing robes of red and purple and with a pair of spectacles resting on his black-tipped nose, peered out.
“Yes um… can I help you, human?” the priest said in accented Massalian. Dark eyes scanned all three of them from head to toe.
“We um…” Dante swallowed, “We are here to return one of your people. She… she fought bravely.”
The priest softened. “Oh. Very well. Please, bring her inside.”
The group followed the priest into the temple of Morrigu. Statues flanked the doorway and paintings filled the ceiling, all featuring the same gorgeous Elvin woman, wielding spear and spell as she guided a legion of lost souls.
The group stepped through another door, and Zev was surprised to find himself once again outside, more or less. They stood in an enclosure, with grass below and the open sky above, yet hidden within the walls of the temple. A massive stone table was laid in the middle of the space.
“Please lay….” the priest trailed off.
“Catriona.” Dante said.
“Please lay Catriona on the table,” the priest continued. “I will prepare the pyre.”
Zev complied, removing the tarp that concealed Catriona as he did so. Fada’s spell had done its work. The girl might’ve been sleeping, were it not for the black veins that yet pressed against her skin, the mark of the wicked magic that had ended her young life.
Fada looked away. “I… I need a minute,” she mumbled, and passed through the doors back into the temple.
Dante leaned against the wall, breathed deeply as he let his hat slip over his eyes.
The priest was collecting logs and powders into his arms from a nearby chest, and Zev walked over to aid him. The spectacled elf nodded in appreciation.
“You… must’ve been close to her,” the priest said as he once again examined Zev.
“Yes,” Zev muttered.
“I can tell,” the priest said. “The brand on your arm.”
Zev picked up another piece of wood, nearly dropped it as he finally caught what the priest had said. “What?” he asked, staring into the priest’s eyes.
“Your brand,” the priest reiterated, “Ma ghra. My love… Is everything alright?”
Zev froze, his mind racing. The necromancer’s ritual, his promise to reach them from beyond death. Catriona, interrupting the spell and getting the brunt of its magic, while the necromancer died to a random piece of shrapnel. The ghostly brand on his arm, the night after his moment with…
“Fada,” Zev gasped.
He dropped the logs in his arms, ran passed the startled priest.
Fada walked through the wooden doors, back into the temple, picked a random hallway and headed down it. She was breathing heavy, felt a strange sort of weight to her chest. As she walked, she allowed the shadows to trick her eyes, bringing up images of days past.
The wolf’s howl split the air, so loud the rafters above them shook, rained dust down on the heads of the elf, orc, dwarf and human trapped in the abandoned house. Fada thought of it as a wolf, for its manner, and the way it hunted. But in truth, it’s enormous, hunched body, held together by thread and black magic, seemed to contain more human parts than canine.
“So I guess we live here, now,” the older human said.
“Shh,” Fada growled.
“We could lick the mold growing on these floorboards,” the dwarf agreed, optimistically.
“And we can catch rain in Dante’s stupid hat!” the elf said. The human clutched at his feathered headwear protectively, mortified.
“I said shut up!” Fada snapped. The elf looked hurt, and the orc immediately regretted her outburst. “Sorry, it’s just… What are you… people even doing here, anyway?”
“We could ask you the same thing,” the human said.
Fada snorted. “I am here, as a paladin of the Orthodoxy, to investigate rumours of an Abomination stalking the area.”
The human, Dante, sidled up to her, peering out the window at the shuffling giant thing. “I’d say that’s a bit bigger than a rumour,” he said, “You may be edging into urban legend status here, maybe even tall tale.”
“I saw a smile,” Dante said, giving her his own.
Fada rolled her eyes. “You still haven’t answered my question. What are you doing here?”
Dante shared a glance with the elf and the dwarf.
“It… it was cold,” the elf said.
“And looked like rain,” the dwarf finished. “I don’t like getting wet.”
“So when Catri saw an abandoned house,” Dante said, “We thought we’d had a stroke of luck.”
“Which we did,” the elf said. “Just not the good kind.”
This time Fada did laugh.
“So what’s the plan, paladin?” Dante asked. “Can you… banish it, or something?”
Fada glanced out the window, and shook her head. “I don’t know what in the Nine Hells created that thing, but it would take at least three paladins pooling their magic to ward it off. More to bind it and put it down for good.”
The dwarf’s brow furrowed. “So we….”
Fada nodded. “Hole up here until sunrise, and pray to the Almighty that whatever passes for its brain doesn’t figure out where we are, come in and….”
“Devour us,” Catri supplied, helpfully.
“Wait, sunlight?” Dante said.
“Mhm,” Fada confirmed. “Something about sunlight weakens the things. It’ll probably run off back to its lair once the first ray of dawn hits it.”
“Well, if light is its weakness,” Dante said, “I studied illusions at the Towers in Siene, and I’ve been teaching Catriona….”
“Not light,” Fada cut it off, “Sunlight. Torches, illusions, they don’t do anything. There’s something in the light of the sunrise that feels like my warding magic to it, or something.”
Dante deflated, but suddenly the dwarf’s eyes popped open.
“What is it, Zev?” Catri said.
“You said your warding magic feels like sunlight to it,” the dwarf said. “What if we could make it think the sun was rising early?”
“Kid,” Fada said, “The light from my spells is more like a campfire than a sunrise, at best.”
“It doesn’t need to be,” Zev said, “If Dante and Catri can add theirs to it.”
Fada snorted in amusement at the memory. Even a year later, she still couldn’t believe the dwarf’s plan had worked. But then, Abominations were not known for their intelligence. Blood-thirstiness, yes. Strength enough to tear a paladin’s arms from their sockets, yes. But not intelligence. And when the giant thing had fled from their false dawn, she had been so thrilled she had very nearly scooped the dwarf up and hugged him. Indeed, she would have, had the elf not beaten her to it.
Footsteps, light and skittering, crossed Fada’s hearing as she walked through the temple of Morrigu, pulling her from her reverie. She twisted, saw only darkness.
Fada laid a hand on the hilt of her mace, hesitated and drew her hymnal instead. She felt the comforting weight of the leather tome as she flipped through it.
She read quickly, trying to ignore the way the shadows had begun to flicker and dance at the edge of her vision. She turned through the book, looking for exactly the right page.
The shadows closed in, the sunlight peering through the windows seeming to drain away into them. Things rose and fell within them, hungry, foul things with no shape or form, not so long as she didn’t look at them. Fear tore its way towards her heart, but she resisted, let her mind become a wall of stone, even as she continued searching through her book.
One of the things rose above the others, moved forward, and struck.
At last Fada found the page she was looking for. She shouted the hymn at the top of her lungs, as a net of blinding light erupted from her free hand.
The shadows vanished, all except one, a human-shaped absence in reality. It shrieked and clawed at the lines of burning light that entrapped it.
“Got you, necromancer!” Fada shouted.
Suddenly the doors behind her slammed open. “Fada, no!” Zev shouted. “Stop! You’re hurting her!”
“Her?” Fada said, confused. But even then, the shadows began to vanish, sloughing off and burning away like a melting candle. Beneath, a familiar face emerged, wasted and faded and sobbing in agony as the shining net burned its translucent skin. Catriona.
“Zev…” the thing cried, pressing a hand against the burning bonds. The light dug into her spectral palm, yet still she tried to reach him.
“Fada, stop!” Zev roared.
Fada released the spell, and the net vanished with a crack. The spectre fell to its knees, staring at the ground.
“Zev…” the thing said, “Zev, I’m sorry I hurt you. But… but it hurts so bad, Zev. It hurts and… and I can’t think and I don’t belong here but I want… oh Zev, I wanted… Never time.” It sobbed. “Never time.”
“Catri…” Zev said.
The thing looked at him. “Zev… I can’t be here. It… it hurts…”
“I know,” Zev said, “But I can help you, Catri. We can help you.”
“Will you… will you stay with me?” Catri asked, “Until…”
They burned her body with the setting sun. Catri stood beside him, as the priest whispered words of magic, and laid his hands on the logs that surrounded her body. A chill struck Zev’s hand, and he looked down to see that Catri’s spectral fingers passed through his. He smiled at her, even as the tears flowed freely down his cheeks. She smiled back at him, even as her ghostly skin flitted away, bit by bit.
When the flames had burned low, the body almost vanished within the bed of coals, Catri drew close, and pressed her spectral lips against Zev’s. He closed his eyes, lost himself in the cool softness of the moment.
When he opened them, the fire was out, and she was gone.
Dante gave a hoarse cough, wiped at the corner of his eyes.
“Well,” he said, “I uh… I could use a drink. How about you?”
“Whoa!” Fada said, “The old man just said something that made sense. Quick, someone check the weather in the Nine Hells.”
“You guys go on,” Zev said. “I’ll catch up in a minute.”
“Ugh, but who will protect me from the old man’s crazy stories?” Fada whined.
“Crazy stories, indeed,” Dante scoffed, “Why, that’s almost as disrespectful as this kobold lass I met in Siene….”
Zev smiled as the two walked off, bickering. He turned to regard the ashes one last time, then followed.
D.M. Kiely is an Education Major at the University of Central Florida, and a veteran of the United States Navy. He is obsessed with books, tabletop games and his 5 dogs in equal measure, and is a proud member of the Orlando Community.