Wednesday, May 2, 2018

No Better Life - Chapter 4

by Gerard "Gray" Chartier

[Editor's note: click to read Chapter 1Chapter 2Chapter 3]

Gray crouched behind rubble in a weed-filled lot, watching as a quartet of hooded figures dragged a bound and gagged Darvan towards the crumbling remains of a small palace.  He turned to his smaller companion.  “Of course, your whole plan hinges on the guards not noticing the fact their pals are walking corpses.”
Soft waved his hand dismissively.  “Pssh!  They’re wearing cloaks and it’s dark!  Plus, they’d have to be not very bright in the first place to fall in with that cult of kooks!”
Killer chittered in agreement.
Gray returned to watching the palace.  “Even idiots can be a formidable obstacle if there are enough of them, and from the sound of it this Crescent Coven has a healthy abundance.”
Soft knelt next to Gray.  “All the more reason to use their own idiots against them!”
Darvan and the four cultists reached an intact door.  The lead cultist, the one Soft had placed compulsions on, knocked three times on the weathered wooden planks of the door, paused, then knocked twice more.  It opened, light spilling from inside, and the cultists prodded Darvan through the door.
A few minutes later, the door opened again.  Darvan, free of the ropes, leaned out and waved to the rubble Gray and Soft were hiding in.
Soft winked at Gray.  “See!  Like a charm!”
“It’s just the first door, Soft,” Gray muttered as he mustered a miniscule amount of energy, just enough to flash a green light to where their companions lurked.  The rattling and clinking of their armor as they approached sounded to Gray like the tromping of a whole company of troops in the silent, dark street.
Soft led the dash to Darvan’s open door when the armored fighters and the rest of Soft’s zombies caught up.  They sprinted as a group, counting on speed to help them go unnoticed.
They all made it through the door and into a foyer with no challenges or shouts of alarm.  Darvan, Kamilla, and Eoin took positions guarding the doors.  Swift proceeded to begin stripping the cloaks from the crumpled bodies of the cultists who’d been guarding the door while Soft checked on the condition of his minions.
“Now,” he asked, “Which one is Boll?”
They all pointed to the cultist who was sprawled face-first just short of an internal door.  Bloody holes in the back of his robe told the story of his end.
Soft grinned.  “Ah, of course!  Jug ears, just as described.  Okay, let me animate him, and he can get us past any other guards!”
Gray shivered as Soft channeled the chilly power of necromancy, the corpse he was crouching over stirring and rising to its feet of its own accord.  “Boll, I’m Soft, and these are my friends.  You’re going to guide us to where your cult is keeping the Bronze Man, and you’re going to help us get by any guards on the way without raising the alarm.”
“Yes, Master Soft,” Boll droned.
“I have to admit,” Eoin observed, “Soft’s…servants…are proving remarkably useful.”
“Aren’t they though?” Soft agreed.  He sighed.  “It’s too bad they don’t last though.  Pretty soon they’ll start to decay, and then they just begin falling apart.”
Gray cocked an eyebrow at Soft.  “Have you tried pickling them in brine?”
Soft turned to Gray.  “No!  Does that work?”
Gray nodded.  “Back home, criminals are sometimes sentenced to labor serving the people they’ve harmed.  It’s not unusual for an earl to have a necromancer to raise them as undead so they don’t have to be fed and don’t need to sleep.  The brine keeps them from rotting.”
Soft gasped, pressing his palms to his cheeks.  “What a wonderful idea!  I’ll have to try that!”
Eoin’s face twisted in revulsion.  “Can we talk about something else?”
Swift came up and handed Eoin one of the looted cloaks.  “Here, put this on and talk about fashion!”
Eoin didn’t look any more pleased, but he donned the cloak without comment.  Swift passed cloaks out to the rest of the group.  Kamilla gagged and turned her face away from hers, holding the garment out at arms’ length.  “Eww.  Evidently, the previous owner never heard of hygiene!”
“And he bled all over it,” Gray quipped as he donned the one Swift handed him, “Very inconsiderate!”
Kamilla’s nose crinkled in disgust, but she put on the cloak.  “Please, Gray!  Blood doesn’t bother me.  I am a soldier, after all!”
Soft directed his minions to drag the remaining bodies into the shadows, and the group pressed further into the palace, Boll’s authority and their quick and dirty disguises getting them past any number of unsuspecting cultists.
Brazenly, the bluffed their way through the central courtyard, where more cloaked figures than Gray could quickly count painted arcane sigils and stacked dry firewood on an unlit pyre with an ominous wooden pole protruding from the center of it.  They were just past halfway across when a howl from somewhere in the town pierced the night’s silence.  Everyone froze, cultists and masqueraders alike trembling like rabbits under a predator’s gaze.
“Move!” Charwindle hissed, “Hurry!”
Spurred by her command, the group hastened to the other side of the courtyard, zombie-Boll leading them down a flight of stairs and into a basement whose gloom was more punctuated than dispelled by an inadequate dispersal of torches flickering in wall brackets.
“The Bronze Man is ahead, held in a cell under strong guard,” zombie-Boll droned, “They will not allow you to take him without a fight.”
Charwindle nodded.  “Mayerling, ready your bows.  Soft, have half your minions guard the stairs, and send Boll and the other half forward with torches.  Have the ones with torches be ready to hit the floor on command.”
“You heard her, boys,” Soft said, “Be ready to drop when I give the word.”
The basement corridor was wide enough for the four Mayerling archers to stand abreast in a loose line.  Each nocked two arrows as Soft’s zombies shambled ahead, taking torches from the walls as they went.  Gray crossed his arms and slouched against the cold stone wall to watch.
The advancing pool of light shed by the torches Soft’s zombies carried revealed a cultist lurking in the shadows.  “You! Stop right there!” he challenged.  “Who are you?”
Soft’s zombies went on shuffling forward, paying no mind to the shout.
More cultists appeared, lining up to block the path of Soft’s zombies.“You’re not supposed to be here!” the first shouted, “Begone!”
“Draw,” Charwindle whispered.  Four bows came up, their strings taut as the archers made ready to shoot.
Steel rasped as the cultists drew pitted blades from ill-kept scabbards.  “Take one more step, and we will cut you down!” the leader shouted.
“Soft,” Charwindle commanded, “Now.”
Soft cupped his hands around his mouth.  “Boys, drop!”
The zombies threw themselves to the floor, exposing the cultist guards even as their torches illuminated them.  The archers let fly as the zombies dropped, the flight of arrows punching through armor and flesh.  Cultists dropped, crying out in shock and pain.
Those still standing mounted a ragged charge, succeeding only in running into the next flight of arrows.  More cultists fell, the few survivors scrambling to reverse course and flee the killing ground, except for one optimistic fool who screamed wordless anger as he hurled himself forward.
Darvan, Eoin, and Kamilla dropped their bows and drew their swords, but Charwindle coolly raised her bow one more time, the arrow she launched taking the optimist in the throat.  He crashed to the floor, his momentum skidding him almost to her feet.
Darvan shot a glare over his shoulder at Gray.  “You were a lot of help.”

Gray shrugged.  “You had it under control.”
Charwindle shouldered her bow and picked up her shield, settling it on her left arm.  “Soft, would you have your minions mop up, please?”
“Up and at’em, boys!” Soft shouted.
The zombies rose from the floor and shambled forward, rounding the corners of the corridor.  The ring of steel against steel reverberated through the dark as the Mayerling soldiers advanced, Gray conjuring up light in his left hand, and readying a ball of energy to launch in his right as he followed.
A handful of cultists were still fighting the zombies as they reached the end of the corridor.  Gray blasted one, his magic burning through leather armor and charring flesh underneath.  That one dropped, and the rest tried to run, the zombies cutting them down from behind for their efforts.
Doorways lined the halls branching from either side of the corridor, some missing their doors, yawning open like great black mouths, others with rotting doors hanging open.  The most intact door was in the hallway to the right, solidly shut and fresh scratches gleaming on the rust of the lock.
“Find the key,” Charwindle ordered.
Swift began to produce lockpicks.  “I don’t need a key.”
Gray strode to the door and kicked near the lock.  His foot bounced off, but the decayed wood around the lock cracked.  He traded a look with Swift, then the pair put boots to wood as one, the ancient door ripping free of the rusted lock and slamming open with a dull boom.  Gray raised his magical light, cutting through the inky blackness within the cell.
A man huddled in the far corner, his skin lighter than Eva’s, but with the same metallic sheen, his golden hair rumpled, his clothing filthy and torn.  He narrowed his eyes at Gray.  “Who are you?” he demanded.
Gray grinned.  “Dancing-Sorcerer-Demon-Captain Gray Erikkson at your service.  What’s your name?”

To be continued in Chapter 5...

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