Homecoming

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Fantasy  |  House: Booksie Classic
This was originally written for a contest on LinkedIn. The contest didn't pan out, so i figured I'd post it here.

Submitted: September 06, 2016

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Submitted: September 06, 2016

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Homecoming

By Arthur Daigle

Soldiering was supposed to be filled with danger, excitement and riches, but Castmal was certain that walking belonged at the top of that list.  Three years a soldier and he’d walked something over a thousand miles through mud, brush, rocks and whatever else the world could throw at him.  He could count on one hand the number of times he’d ridden by wagon or boat, and it had never been for long.  Travel might broaden the mind, but it certainly wore out the boots.

When shall we reach our destination?” Balefire asked.

“Soon,” Castmal said.  “I can see the lights from here.”

Normally he didn’t like talking to Balefire, but today he traveled alone.  This road to Ironcliff went through farmland.  The broad fields had been harvested long ago and farmhouses were few and far away.  This late in the year there was little traffic so he wouldn’t arouse suspicion.  It was also getting dark, so there would be even fewer people who might see Castmal talking to himself. 

It shall be good to find friends,” it said, “worthy allies to serve your rise to power.

Castmal sighed.  “I told you to cut it out.  You’re going to get me killed talking like that.”

Your concerns are warrantless,” Balefire told him.  “Your future was set when we met.  This journey will only add to your strength once we reach your friends and kinfolk.  We can count on their support in the years to come.”

“I just hope they’re all right,” he said as he passed a farmhouse.  “A lot can happen in three years.  I’m proof of it.”

“If your kin are in danger we will protect them,” it said with its usual boundless confidence.  “If they have left for greener pastures we will find them.  If they have gone to the next world, we will mourn them and avenge their passing.”

Balefire no doubt meant that to be reassuring, but it didn’t know IronCliff.  Castmal had grown up in the city and knew the heights and depths it could reach.  A hundred thousand people in one place left a lot of room for thieves, assassins and other vermin to hide, like serpents in a wheat field.  He hadn’t worried about what might happen to the people he loved when he’d joined the army, but now that he was coming home the thought was foremost in his mind.

Ironcliff hadn’t been dangerous for Castmal when he’d lived there.  One look at him convinced most people to leave him alone, and that had been before he’d joined the army.  Tall, strong, with dark hair and scars alone his jaw, he was an intimidating sight.  Fighting had only added to that.  The worn clothes he’d once had were replaced with chain leggings and shirt, a steel breastplate and a shoulder guard on his left arm.  He’d kept his long sword and two daggers when he left the service.  The weapons might arouse suspicion in other cities, but not in IronCliff.  Castmal wore a cotton uniform and cloak over his armor, a backpack and a leather strap wrapped tight over his left arm from the elbow to his fingers.  The strap never came off around people.

“Are those lights in the distance Ironcliff?” Balefire asked.

“That’s home,” Castmal answered.

“We will not reach it until well after nightfall,” Balefire cautioned.

“Yes, mother,” he said sarcastically.  “I’m not going to travel at night.  I’ll find a place to stay, and you need to keep quiet.”

“I was quiet for centuries.  It is overrated.”

Castmal looked at the farmhouses along the road.  There weren’t many to choose from, and most of those were already sealed tight.  He knew better than to knock on closed doors at night.  The countryside wasn’t as dangerous as Ironcliff, but there were dangers that crept out under the cover of darkness.  Only fools let in strangers at this hour.

That put Castmal in a predicament.He could drive off enemies with a look, but that would close doors, too.  He’d rather not spend another night under the stars.  It didn’t help that he’d run out of food this morning.

There was a farmhouse not far ahead with an open door.  A young man sat outside sharpening a hoe with a steel file.  His clothes were a simple cotton tunic and trousers, and he looked bored.  The next nearest house was miles down the road, making this his best bet.

“Greetings,” he called.  The farmer looked up in surprise.  Castmal stopped a healthy distance from the man and said, “Forgive the intrusion, but can you spare space on your floor for a man in need?  I wouldn’t ask, but it’s getting dark and I don’t trust these roads at night.”

The farmer looked him up and down.  “I can’t see anyone bothering you, night or day.”

Castmal shrugged.  “I’ve learned not to tempt fate.  I can pay for the help, provided you accept trade.”

A young woman appeared at the door.  Castmal guessed she was the farmer’s wife, and judging by her belly they’d have a son or daughter before the month ended.  She asked, “What kind of pay?”

Castmal dug into his backpack and pulled out a handful of furs.  “Rabbit and squirrel.  I caught them earlier this week.”

The farmer and his wife came over to look at the furs.  The farmer studied Castmal’s armor while the woman ran her fingers over the furs.  She smiled and said, “These are good.  I can make mittens from these.”

“We can put you up for the night and feed you, but as you say, the only place to sleep is the floor,” the farmer told him.

“That’s generous.”  Castmal kept his face neutral, but he was surprised how quickly they let him into their home.  In his experience people ran inside and barred the doors when armed men appeared.

The couple let him inside and the wife quickly put the furs away.  The farmhouse was a small, one room building.  Farm tools and clothing took up one corner opposite a bed with a straw mattress.  The kitchen was a brick oven against the back way.  There were bags of dried food and clay pots filled with local spices and pickled fish.

“You’re back from the war?” the farmer asked.  He offered Castmal a stool while he and his wife sat on the bed.

Castmal sat down, only too glad to stop moving.  He slid off his backpack and set it on the floor.  “I was mustered out two months ago.”

“Is it going well?” he asked.

“Wars never go well.”  Castmal would have liked to end it at that, but the couple looked eager for more.  They’d probably let him in so they could hear news of the outside world.  If words could smooth his stay then he’d talk.

“The fighting is a mess,” he said.  “We lose men and the Principalities lose men.  I suppose someone’s keeping track and one day they’ll decide who won, but for those of us doing the fighting you win if you live to see the sun rise.”

“You must have seen interesting places, though,” he pressed.

“They’re not interesting after they’ve been fought over.”  Castmal looked at the fire in the brick oven.  It reminded him of the last town he’d been in before he left the army.  “Soldiers take whatever they can find.  They have to when supplies don’t come in.  All the animals are killed for food, wild and domestic.  Wrecked homes are broken up for firewood.  If there’s anything of value it’s sold for food.  The locals run away if they can and beg for help if they can’t.”

The farmer whistled.  “You couldn’t pay me enough for that.”

“What did they pay you?” his wife asked.  Her husband looked at her, and she held up one of the furs.  “You said you’ve no coin.  I’m happy with the furs, but I would think you’d barely be able to walk under the weight of your wages.”

“My wages.”  Bitterness crept into Castmal’s voice.  “I was promised ten silver pieces per month and three meals a day.  I’m owed three hundred silver pieces back pay, and there are better odds of me flying than ever seeing it.  As for the food, we did well if they fed us three meals a week.  We foraged for the rest.  Creator help me, there were days I wondered whose side our generals were on.”

The farmer’s wife handed Castmal a wood bowl filled with oatmeal and a small wood plate with two eggs.  “Sounds beastly.  I know it’s not as much as you’d like, or need, but it’s what we can spare.”

Castmal took the food and smiled at her.  “This is good food for the little I gave you.  Eggs.  It’s been a long time since I had eggs.”

Castmal wolfed down the food, glad to have a full stomach.  He was halfway done with the simple meal when the farmer said, “But you must have taken money from the enemy.”

“Let him eat!” his wife chastised him.

Castmal ate one of the eggs and said, “Principalities soldiers were paid as poorly as we were.  They had few coins and no jewelry.  We sold what little we found to merchants for food.  We used the weapons we took from the enemy when our own swords broke.”  He tapped his long sword’s handle and said, “This used to belong to an enemy officer.”

“Don’t suppose you found any treasure,” the farmer said.

It took a lot of effort not to look at his left arm.  “Nothing I could sell.”

They’d found treasure in the early days of the war, looting enemy homes and castles for anything of value.  Officers had a bad habit of taking the best pickings for themselves, so Castmal and his fellow soldiers had to be quick.  ‘No sir, nothing here, sir’.  Castmal’s captain, an aristocrat named Becack, had suspected them of holding back loot and ordered the men searched.  That had ended badly.

Castmal didn’t tell the farmer that, or any number of horrible things that had happened.  You can’t explain to a person what war was really like.  The long weeks of boredom between battles, the intense fear waiting for an enemy, or how even a farm field can become a place of horror when a battle begins.  Nothing in normal life could compare to the gut wrenching fear of a fellow soldier screaming, ‘Wizard!’ before fire and death rained down around you.

“Were there monsters?” the farmer asked.

“Husband!” his wife said sharply.  “You’ll have to forgive him, he seems to have left his manners outside.”

“There were monsters,” Castmal said.  He finished his food and handed back the plate and bowl.  “There were wyverns and chimera.  We fought a hydra once.  The blasted thing wouldn’t die.  Finally ended up burying it alive when we collapsed a stone tower on it.  Not sure if it’s still breathing down there, but I wouldn’t risk digging it up.  Monsters weren’t what we really worried about.”

“No?” the farmer asked.  He leaned in closer.

“There were never many of them on the front,” Castmal explained.  “Monsters eat too much.  You could feed a platoon with what one monster ate, and nothing but meat would do.  If they didn’t get fed they’d attack their own men.  They never followed orders well regardless of what the beast tamers say.  Monsters panicked if there was a big fire and they ran if a fight got too serious.  Smart that way.”

Castmal chuckled.  “Funny thing happened once with a mimic, though.  The thing looked like a big wooden chest with a fancy metal lock.  Real convincing.  It wasn’t working for the Principalities, just saw the fighting and snuck in for a free meal of horsemeat after a failed cavalry charge.  The fool thing stayed too long, though, and my captain spotted it.  He though he’d found an enemy pay chest and stuck it rich.”

“What happened?” the wife asked.

“It kept pretending it was just a chest.  The captain couldn’t get it open, so he ordered some men to get an ax and cut it open.  The mimic heard that and ran off screaming.  It knocked the captain over and ran right over him!  We laughed so hard a company of crossbowmen came over and then some lancers.  The captain kept ordering us to shut up and we just laughed harder.”

The couple laughed.  It was funny, one of the few happy memories Castmal had from the war.  Happy times were few and far between back then.  Of course getting back to Ironcliff was no guarantee things would be better, but they’d have a hard time being worse.

Worried by what the answer might be, Castmal asked, “Has much happened in the city?”

The farmer shrugged.  “Taxes went up a couple times to pay for the war.  It’s all we can do to keep a roof over our heads and food on our plates.  There are executions, sometimes three a week.  A lot of thieves end their lives hanging from a tree.”

Three executions a week was normal for Ironcliff and no threat to Castmal’s friends and families.  They stayed clear of that kind of trouble.  But there were bigger threats that could sweep up the innocent with the guilty.  He asked, “No plagues or riots?  No fires?”

“No, Creator be praised,” the farmer’s wife said.

“Good,” Castmal said.  “I was worried a refugee might have brought in a plague.  A sword’s no good against that.”

The farmer’s wife smiled and got up.  “I have a blanket you can lay on, and you’re welcome to sleep by the fire.  The bricks will stay hot most of the night.”

“Generous of you,” Castmal said.  He looked at the door and asked, “Mind if I step out for a moment?  I like to look around before I go to sleep.  Old habit.”

The farmer nodded.  “Feel free.”

Castmal got up and opened the door.  He studied the farmland, looking for threats.  It was foolish to think something would happen here.  He heard only the wind and some bugs.  There was nothing to see but farmland as flat as a table, and the stubbly on the field offered no cover for attackers.  Now that he thought of it, there was no one who might attack.  The Principalities was far away.  Monsters wouldn’t come this close to a city.  There were bandits, of course, but they attacked people with money.  One look was enough to tell that none of these farmers were prosperous enough to bother robbing.  But Castmal had done this every night for three years, and likely would until he died.

The farmer walked up alongside him.  “Crickets are singing.  They’ll be gone when we get a strong frost.”

Castmal glanced at the man, not sure why he’d said that.

The farmer looked at the setting sun.  “They only live a year.  They spend all their time in one field, then one day there’s a frost and they’re gone.”  He looked ashamed.  “I don’t want to be like that.  I love my wife, but I don’t want to spend my whole life here, never moving, never seeing anything but these fields.”

The good reception made sense now.  The farmer didn’t just want news.  He wanted more than his simple life here, and hearing stories was the closest he was likely going to get.  It wasn’t surprising.  Castmal had been seduced by the same dreams of wealth and adventure, as had many of the men he’d served with.  Some had joined out of desperation, running away from debts or the law, but most had been tricked into thinking they were going on to glory instead of horror and deprivation.

“I’d give anything for the life you have,” Castmal told him.  “Anything to take away the last three years.”

The farmer stared at him.  “You want this?”

“Yes.  So would the men I’d served with.  I’m going home broke, but some of them are returning crippled.  A lot of them aren’t returning.  I’m not even sure what I’m coming home to.  You have a livelihood here with your farm.  You have a wife and a child on the way.  You have a future.  I’m not sure I do.”

Ahem.

“Did you hear something?” the farmer asked.

Castmal rapped his left arm against the doorframe.  “No.  I…wait.”

“What is it?”

“The cricket’s stopped singing.”

A cloud of fetid air washed over them, heavy with the stench of rotting flesh that Castmal had become familiar with.  The farmer coughed and covered his mouth and nose with his shirtsleeve.  Castmal drew his long sword and stepped away from the farmhouse.  He couldn’t see the source of this stench, but it wasn’t natural.

The sun was nearly set, but a full moon offered at least a little light.  Castmal peered into the darkness.  He heard something moving, crushing the wheat stubble underfoot.  There were one, two, three things moving out in the fields.  The footsteps were irregular and make no effort to avoid making noise.  The stink got worse, and Castmal saw three shapes that might be men shuffling through the fields ever closer to the farmhouse.

“Inside, now!” Castmal ordered the farmer.

The farmer backed away.  “I—”

“Do you have a weapon?” Castmal demanded.

“A pitchfork,” he said.

“Get inside and grab it.  Bar the door if you want to see the morning!”

The farmer ran inside and slammed the door shut.  Castmal heard a thunk as the door was barred, followed by the farmer and his wife speaking in worried voices.  The shambling forms were a hundred feet out and coming closer.  One tripped on the stubble and got up slowly.  They weren’t moving fast, but they weren’t stopping.

Castmal unwrapped his left arm to reveal a silvery gauntlet covering his arm from elbow to fingertips.  It was a masterpiece, beautifully embellished with a dragon.

Finally,” Balefire said.

“We’re earning our meal tonight,” Castmal said.  He stepped away from the house to give himself room to move.  “Zombies.  I count three.”

I despise these abominations,” Balefire said in disgust.  The gauntlet warmed up and flowed like melted wax, oozing down his arm.  He held up his left hand as the silvery liquid reformed into a short sword with a dragon emblem on the blade.  It lit up like a torch, providing much needed light.

The light showed that Castmal was right.  The three shambling things had been men once.  Their clothes were muddy rags.  Their skin was discolored and torn.  One of the zombies had no eyes, but that didn’t slow it down as it advanced on Castmal.  They would be on him soon.

Castmal charged the closest zombie, hoping to dispatch it before all three were on him together.  The nightmarish thing tried to grab him, its movements slow and awkward.  He stepped to the left and swung his long sword in a low arc.  His aim was good and he took off one of its legs at the knee.  The monster fell, but no sooner had it landed than it crawled after him.

Zombies didn’t die like men or animals.  Their organs were just dead weight, so a blow to the chest or stomach was worthless.  They couldn’t bleed to death, either.  Castmal had fought their kind before and knew he had to behead them, and the best way to do that was to cripple them first.

The others are coming on your right,” Balefire said.

Castmal brought his long sword down on the crawling zombie, taking its head off with one blow.  The monstrosity slumped to the ground as the second and third zombies came at Castmal.  He lashed out and took off one of his attacker’s hands with his long sword, then followed up by driving Balefire into its belly.

“Burn!” he ordered.

Balefire blazed with a terrible white light, cremating the zombie from the inside out.  The light spilled out of its mouth and open wounds as it arched its back.  Then decaying flesh and bones alike burned away.  There was nothing left of the zombie but ashes on the field.

The last zombie grabbed Castmal by his left arm.  It pulled him to the ground and leaned over him, its jaw opened wide for a bite to his throat.  He brought his legs up and kicked it in the head with both feet.  That was enough to knock the zombie on its back.  They both scrambled to their feet, but Castmal was faster.  He swung his long sword and took off the last zombie’s head before it could stand.

Well done, my King.” Balefire said.

“I told you to stop that!” he shouted.  He sheathed his long sword and pointed at his brow.  “Do you see a crown here?”

A temporary situation.  I served kings and was buried with one.  When you freed me from that wretched tomb I knew I served another.  One day you will rule.”

Castmal grumbled and bent down to inspect the last zombie he’d defeated.  “There are rope marks on the neck and wrists.  This man was hung.  He’s not too far gone, either.  A necromancer must have stolen the body after he was executed and animated it.”

Check the other one.”

The first zombie he’d killed was in better shape.  “No rope marks or wounds.  No signs of disease, either.  He was pretty young.  I think this one may have drown.”

Both are freshly dead, no older than a week,” Balefire said.

Castmal rubbed his chin.  “Zombies are mindless, but they serve their maker.  Why would a necromancer want to kill these people?  They have nothing to steal.”

Castmal’s mind raced.  “Could be someone wants the farmland.  It’s got to be worth gold, and if the owners are dead it could be claimed.  It might be the work of the Principalities.  No one can spread fear like a necromancer, and killing farmers would keep food from soldiers still on the front.  Or the necromancer might want bodies and not be picky how they die.”

Or the necromancer is insane and there is no reason,” Balefire suggested.  “Madness is an occupational hazard in their profession.

“Yeah,” he said.  The air was still foul, more so after he’d cut open the zombies, but he heard nothing.  There was no sign that he was still in danger, but he kept both his long sword and Balefire drawn.  “I’d bet gold to silver than whoever made these is close by.  They’d have to be to recover the zombies after the attack.  Wouldn’t do to let them wander around and be found.”

Zombies can’t follow complex orders.  He could order them to kill the farmer and wife, but they wouldn’t remember a second order to come back afterwards.”

“Why do you say he?  Could be a woman who did this.”

This is the fourth necromancer I have faced.  They’re always men.

“Then he’s going to come pick up his zombies,” Castmal said.  “When he gets here he’ll find them in pieces.  Has to figure if someone took them down then he’s in danger.  You think he’ll run?  Running would be smart.”

It wouldn’t be smart,” Balefire said.  “If he killed the family and left with their bodies, few could say who or what did the deed.  But with witnesses and destroyed zombies, there would be no doubt who was responsibility for the attack.  The authorities would begin a manhunt of epic proportions, turning over every stone until they found him.  The punishment for necromancy varies by kingdom.  It starts at burning at the stake and gets worse from there.”

“So he’s got no choice but to fight,” Castmal said.  “I hate fighting people with no way out.  They do stupid things.  Dim your light.  We’ll wait for him and finish it here.”

As Balefire’s light diminished, there was a creak behind them.  Castmal turned to find the farmer opening his door.  Before the man could say a word, Castmal shouted, “I said keep that door closed!  This isn’t over, and it’s going to get worse!”

The door slammed shut.

“We could be in a lot of trouble,” Castmal said.  “The necromancer could attack the farmer and his wife, or one of the other farms here.  I’d have to defend them and fight him at the same time.  Can’t call on the farmers living here for help, either.  Poor weapons, untrained, they’d be butchered.”

A bad situation to be sure, but we will be victorious.  Honestly, though, you don’t need two swords even for a job this important.”

“If men saw me using you, they’d kill me without a second’s hesitation to have you for themselves.  If they don’t see me with a sword at all then some idiot would pick a fight, maybe try to rob me.  You stay covered up and quiet unless you’re needed.”

Castmal waited in the darkness.  The ghostly light from the full moon helped a little, but not much.  He didn’t hear anything approaching.  The stink of the dead zombies clung to him, making his stomach roll.  He tried to guess how much time had passed.  Clocks were rare even in cities, but there were some in Ironcliff so he was used to thinking in terms of hours.  An hour crept by, then two.

Ironcliff was still visible in the distance as a collection of lights.  There were fewer of them burning at such a late hour, but it was still a beacon in the night.  He thought again of his home city, of the family he’d left behind.  Oddly his mind kept coming back to his favorite restaurant, a nameless, dimly lit little hole in the wall that cooked the best meals he’d ever had.  Of course with no money he couldn’t eat there when he got home.

There was no getting around it; he was coming back empty handed.  He had no money and nothing he could sell except his armor and long sword.  Three years of his life gone and he didn’t have a coin to show for his sacrifices.  How could he face his family?

He had Balefire, but he dared not sell it.  The sword was alive.  You didn’t sell living, thinking beings.  But even if he was that depraved, he was smart enough to know that anyone who might buy it would prefer to kill him and take it off his body.

His old captain Becack had tried to kill him.  When he’d ordered the men searched for holding back loot, he saw the leather strap covering Castmal’s arm.  Becack guessed something was under it besides a wound and tore the strap off.  One look at Balefire and the fool’s eyed had lit up with greed, and drew his sword.  It had been all Castmal could do to fend off Becack’s furious attacks.  The other soldiers had saved him and made it look like a sniper killed the captain.

But Castmal had more immediate problems.  “You’ve fought necromancers.  What can I expect?”

I thought you’d fought zombies before?”

“Zombies, but not necromancers.”  Castmal was silent for a moment before he said, “It happened before I found you.  The Principalities hired a necromancer and had him animate the bodies of our dead, then sent them at us.  Happened three times in a week.”

That must have been horrible.  What happened to the necromancer?”

“It ended when a Principalities platoon came under a flag of truce and gave us the necromancer’s head.  They said they weren’t party to hiring him, and once they realized what was going on they did something about it.”

An ending worthy of such a fiend.”

“What can I expect from him?” Castmal asked again.

Balefire’s voice took a harsh tone when he spoke.  “Most of their magic is devoted to creating the undead.  They have dangerous combat magic as well, but the range is limited.”

“Arrow range or knife range?”

Their magic reach as far as a thrown rock, but does terrible damage.  I will offer warning if I recognize any of his spells.  Hold back nothing against this foe, for he will show you no mercy in battle or in death.”

That was a possibility Castmal hadn’t considered.  If he died the necromancer would animate his body and send him to kill others.  He’d be nothing but a mindless puppet with the necromancer holding the strings.  The only mercy would be that without his mind he couldn’t control Balefire.

He’s here.”

Castmal crouched down at Balefire’s warning.  “Where?”

You see those light coming up the road?  They’re called corpse fire, a necromancer’s way to light the land.  He can see through them, too.”

Castmal stared down the road and saw pinpricks of light floating at head height.  There were five of them, bobbing up and down as they came closer.  They were a mile away and moving lazily toward him.

“Not much of a rush,” Castmal said.  With his enemy so far off he stood up straight again.  “Figure he knows something’s wrong?”

I don’t know.  He’s too far away to see the zombies or the farmhouse they were going to attack.”

The corpse fires came closer.  They spread out across the field, moving at a leisurely rate.  Castmal saw figures moving far behind them.  There were five of them, four shambling and one walking more smoothly.

“He’s got more zombies.  Those corpse fires, can they hurt me?  Can I hurt them?”

No to both questions.”

Castmal frowned as the corpse fires spread out farther.  “Doubt we can avoid them.  No place to hide except the farmhouse.  We’re going to have to fight them head on.”

The corpse fires, zombies and necromancer came ever closer, showing no sign of haste or alarm.  It was tough odds even with Balefire.  The thought that he might die within sight of Ironcliff disgusted Castmal.  He’d survived terrible battles for years.  To die so close to home seemed wrong.  And if he died the farmer and his wife would be the necromancer’s next victims.

The corpse fires came close enough for Castmal to see them clearly.  They looked like flaming skulls hovering through the air.  One of them floated over the first zombie Castmal had destroyed.  The other four circled about until they found the second destroyed zombie.  Then one saw Castmal.

He smiled at it.  “Surprise.”

That corpse fire backed away while the others approached.  Two studied the farmhouse and the other three circled Castmal.

“You’re sure I can’t kill these things?”

Quite certain.”

The corpse fires kept their distance as the necromancer and his four undead minions came ever closer.  They still didn’t hurry.  That annoyed Castmal.  The necromancer had proof that two of his zombies were destroyed, and the third was missing and presumed dead.  This called for action!  But the necromancer continued his stroll like a man on a shopping trip.  It was almost offensive how little this seemed to bother him.

The zombies and their master finally got to within thirty feet of Castmal before they stopped.  Two corpse fires hovered over their master while the other three stayed by Castmal.  The four zombies were far more decomposed than the three he’d already face, missing their eyes and skin.  It was a good bet they wouldn’t last the week even if Castmal didn’t defeat them.  The necromancer kept behind his minions, but Castmal still got a good look at him.  He wore billowing robes and leather boots.  But his boyish face caught Castmal off guard.

“I thought he’d be older,” Castmal whispered.

A common misconception,” Balefire whispered back.  “Few necromancers live long enough to get gray hair.”

“You were right, it’s a man.  I owe you a beer.”  Balefire chuckled in response.

“This is annoying,” the necromancer declared.  He had a petulant expression and an annoying voice that made Castmal want to slap him.

“We went past annoying a while ago,” Castmal replied.  He considered the reasons why the necromancer might be here.  The man didn’t look insane, just spoiled.  That meant this night’s horror was probably over money.  “You’re not getting paid enough for this.”

The necromancer’s look of irritation slipped for a moment to show surprise and a touch of fear.  But he recovered quickly.  “And what are you being paid to die tonight?”

“Me?  I got two eggs.”

“Eggs?  Eggs!”

Castmal nodded.  “Eggs.  And some oatmeal.  Truth is I’d have done it for free.  Do you know where I’ve been?”

The necromancer folded his arms across his chest.  “You’re another washed up old soldier, battle fodder for whatever war is popular this year.  Your kind infests the roads like lice on a peasant.  No one cares where you’ve been and no one will care when you die.”

“Can you say otherwise?  Is anybody going to care when you don’t come home tonight?”

The necromancer’s face flushed red.  “I’ll show them!  All of them!  My parents, my classmates and the people who laughed at me!  They’ll know my name and they will weep for years to come!”

“Don’t lie to me.  I saw the look on your face when I guessed this was about money.  You have excuses, but if you’re getting paid then that’s all they are.  Kid, I’ve put enough men in the ground to fill a cemetery.  I took down three of your rot bags without getting a scratch.  Four more aren’t going to save you.  I’m giving you a chance to be smart.  Walk away now and this ends.”

Hopefully it would end in a platoon of Ironcliff soldiers chasing the necromancer down and hanging him.  Castmal wondered if the fool had thought that far ahead.

“You’re right on one count,” the necromancer sneered.  “This ends.”

The four zombies came at him while the necromancer stayed back.  They were close enough that they’d come at him in a group rather than one at a time.  But they were clumped together, and he could use that.

Castmal charged the zombies and hacked at the first one’s leg.  He didn’t take it off, but he cut through enough muscles that the zombie fell over.  The next zombie stumbled over the first one.  The other two went around the pile, giving Castmal enough time to attack the fallen zombies and decapitate one.  The two still standing attacked, and he backed away and stabbed one with Balefire.

“Burn!” Castmal shouted.  The zombie went up like a torch, burning away to ashes in seconds.  The necromancer shielded his eyes from the sudden light.  That left Castmal to fight only two zombies and the necromancer, and he could handle three to one odds.

The necromancer spoke strange, forgotten words.  His eyes turned black and he threw back his head.  A gurgling noise bubbled from his throat before he vomited out a stream of black steaming liquid like a geyser.  The filth stunk like boiling tar, and there was far more than his stomach could possibly contain.  Castmal jumped out of the way as the glistening, ebony stream splashed where he’d been standing.  It struck the two zombies on the ground, one dead again and the other struggling to its feet.  Both dissolved under the caustic spray and left behind nothing but bones.

Two more behind you,” Balefire warned.

Castmal backed away from the necromancer and what he’d thought was the last zombie.  He glanced behind him and saw two zombies coming from up the road.  The necromancer’s slow pace made sense now.  He’d directed two of his undead minions to attack Castmal from behind and waited until they were in place.  But the attack’s timing was off.  The zombies were coming in two groups and could be handled separately.

The necromancer stumbled away.  The spell had clearly taken a lot out of him and he needed time to recover.  Castmal charged the last zombie in front of its master and hacked off its left arm.  He tried to push past it and get to the necromancer, but the thing grabbed him with its remaining arm and tried to bite him.  Its teeth didn’t break through his chain shirt, but the force of the bite bruised his arm.  Castmal stabbed it in the face with Balefire and forced it off, then took off its remaining hand.  His next blow removed its head.

The necromancer shook himself like a wet dog and stood straight.  He pulled a thighbone from inside his cloak and pointed it at Castmal.  The necromancer spoke more foul, forgotten words, and the bone began to glow.

Cover your eyes,” Balefire said.

Castmal wrapped his right arm over his face and turned away just as the thighbone shattered into a cloud of long, sharp bone splinters.  They hit Castmal like a wave of nails.  Most broke against his armor, but some drove through his chain leggings and shirt, and two cut gashes across his forehead.

“Die!” the necromancer screamed.  “Just die, you pathetic, washed up tramp!”

Castmal pulled his arm away and wiped the blood off his brow.  The last two zombies were almost in range to attack.  Whether he faced the necromancer of his zombies, the other could strike him from behind.  But the necromancer was the bigger threat, and more importantly, he could feel fear.

Howling a battle cry, Castmal charged the necromancer.  His enemy cast another spell and produced a shadowy viper ten feet long.  The magic snake hissed and threw itself into the air at Castmal, its jaws wide enough to fit his entire head inside.  Castmal swung Balefire and jammed the blade through its head, pinning its jaws shut.  He followed with a stroke of his long sword that cut the serpent in half.  The snake turned to a viscous slime that splatted across Castmal and the farm field.

The necromancer’s jaw dropped in surprise and he ran with Castmal a step behind.  But the necromancer wore no heavy armor, and with each step he put more distance between them.  Once he had enough breathing room, he cast another spell.  His hands twisted like squid tentacles and he cried out in pain.  His fingernails suddenly stretched out until they were a foot long and glowed sickly green.

Castmal swung his long sword at the necromancer’s chest.  He needed only a glancing blow to draw blood, and a solid hit could cripple his foe.  The necromancer countered the blade with his freakish claws.  Sparks flew as he stopped the sword cold.  The necromancer swung his other hand at Castmal’s face.  Castmal blocked with Balefire, and neither the magic sword nor his enemy’s claws gave way.

For a moment the two pressed against one another, swords and claws locked together.  Castmal would have bet anything that he could knock over the necromancer, but the fiend held his ground.  Neither budged an inch.

“Why kill these people?” Castmal shouted at him.

“Someone had to be first,” the necromancer snarled in reply.  “They’ll all die, everyone here, screaming and begging and—”

The zombies are catching up to us!” Balefire warned.

The necromancer stared at the sword in confusion.  It was all Castmal needed.  He stepped back and the necromancer stumbled forward.  Castmal went left and swept his long sword at the man’s ankle.  It wasn’t more than a glancing blow, but enough to cut through the man’s boot and his Achilles’ tendon.  The necromancer screamed in pain and fell forward as his leg gave way.  He reached out with both hands to break his fall, which kept him from blocking an attack with his claws.  Castmal drove Balefire through the necromancer’s gut and pulled it out again in a flash.  The necromancer fell to the ground.

Behind you!”

Castmal whirled around to find both zombies within arm’s reach.  He swung his long sword at a zombie’s head, but his aim was off and the blade sunk deep into its shoulder.  The two zombies pummeled him with their fists and drove him to his knees.  Castmal hacked through a zombie’s knees with Balefire.  The monster fell backward, and when it did it took the long sword with it, pulling the weapon from Castmal’s hands.  The other zombie grabbed him by his neck and throttled him.  He rocked back and forth, trying to break free.  He pulled at the zombie’s hands, and to his horror he tore off its fingers.

Behind him, the necromancer pulled himself to his knees.  He pressed both hands against his wound and began to cast another spell.

Castmal drove Balefire into the standing zombie, but his throat hurt so much he couldn’t order Balefire to burn.  The zombie clubbed Castmal with its arms.  He pulled Balefire free and plunged it into the zombie’s knee.  The zombie fell on top of him and he threw it off.  Both zombies were down but not destroyed, and they crawled after Castmal.

The necromancer continued with his spell.  He stopped twice, gasping in pain, but did not stop.  Castmal ran at the necromancer and reversed his grip on Balefire so it pointed down.  He grabbed the hilt with both hands and kicked the necromancer over, then drove the sword through the necromancer’s heart.  The necromancer gasped and fell to the ground, finally dead.  The crippled zombies slumped over at their master’s death, and the corpse fires winked out, plunging the land into darkness once more.

How badly are you hurt?” Balefire asked.

Castmal slumped down to the ground next to the necromancer’s body.  He croaked, “Give me a minute.”

He put the sword down and rubbed his throat.  Castmal pulled the bone needles from the necromancer’s thighbone weapon out of his arm.  His arms and face hurt, and he likely looked like he’d wrestled an ogre.  He was bruised and cut in a couple places, but he’d been hurt worse than this before.

Why didn’t you burn the necromancer when you first struck me with him?” Balefire asked.

“Need, need his face.  Someone might know who he is, and they can’t identify a pile of ashes.”

Balefire turned into a silvery liquid again and slithered up Castmal’s left arm.  It reformed into a gauntlet and asked, “Do you need a healer?”

“No.  I need a week to rest.”  He laughed, his voice sounding harsh.  “And I’m not getting it.”

What do you mean?”

Castmal struggled to his feet and stumbled over to the two zombies.  He grabbed the hilt of his long sword and put his foot on the dead monster’s chest, then pulled hard.  The blade came out so fast he nearly fell over.  He stood on unsteady legs and pointed the sword at the necromancer.  “Someone hired him to do this.  Someone knew who he was and what he did, and they hired him anyway.  They did it outside my home city.  There’s a price to pay for that.”

Staggering back to the farmhouse, he asked, “You know what we’re going to do?  You and I are going back to the farmer and his wife, and we are going to tell them everything is okay, that this is over.  And we won’t be lying, because we are not walking away from this mess.  In the morning we going home and find anyone who will still talk to me, and I’m going to tell them what happened here.”

Does that include the authorities?”

Laughing even though it hurt, Castmal said, “They couldn’t even feed me when I fought a war for them!”  Thinking better of it, he said, “I’ll tell them.  If I don’t the farmer will.  But I’m not going to hold my breath waiting for them to fix this.  You, and I, and my friends and family, we are going to find who is behind this.  We are going to hunt them down no matter where they are or who they are, and we are going to kill them.”

Balefire glowed brighter, and its voice was heavy with pride.  “As my King wills it, so shall it be done.”


© Copyright 2017 ArthurD7000. All rights reserved.

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