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As the sun began to set, the sky was bathed in vibrant orange light. My family and the mercenaries found a small clearing beside the main road to set up camp for the night. Despite their casual attitude, the mercenaries were surprisingly professional when going about their duties. Every one of them knew their role, and before the sun could fully set, the mercenaries had fed and brushed the horses, set up tents, started a fire, and began cooking dinner. Without Esben even giving a single order, the mercenaries moved with more efficiency than a well-trained unit of professional soldiers. Ten mercenaries even took up positions around the edges of the camp to stand watch while the others worked.

At random intervals, I would spot a glimpse of glowing eyes watching us from behind shrubs or trees, but they would vanish a few moments later as our observer faded into the growing shadows of the forest. By my count, there had to be at least twenty of them out there now. It would not be much longer now before the number of undead outnumbered the living.

Esben completely ignored the growing threat hiding in the woods and focused on the large cast iron pot in front slowly heating up over the fire. He was humming to himself quietly as he dropped a large roast of meat into the pot followed by a few spices I did not recognize. My mouth began to water as the fragrant aroma of cooked meat began to fill the clearing.

Meanwhile, my dad began handing out our family’s dinner of dried meat, hard bread, and a little bit of cheese.

I frowned at my dad as I looked down at the normal travel rations we always ate. “Why do we not cook a roast? Why do we always have the same stale bread every day?" I complained as I reluctantly nibbled on the bread while eyeing Esben’s cooking with envy.

“Meat takes up space and spoils quickly,” my dad replied with a shrug, “This food is better suited for traveling and does not require cooking.

It is exactly the same as your mother and I ate almost every day when we were serving in the Novus military. Just be thankful we do not have to eat any more of those horrible ration bars the Avari serve their soldiers.”

I scowled up at my dad as I spoke, “That just sounds like an excuse to get out of cooking.”

My dad looked over his shoulder at my mom before kneeling down and whispering in my ear, “Truth is, other than the stew you like, your mom is actually really bad at cooking. She burns ninety percent of every meal she makes. This is the only food I pack because anything else will just end up as charcoal.”

I was about to protest that he was wrong when I stopped. I looked down at the bread and cheese in my hands with a sudden realization. Thinking back, I could not actually remember my mom ever cooking anything other than stew.

When I was sick for all those years, I was rarely able to leave my bed. I never questioned where the food I ate came from. I had always just assumed she had been cooking it for me. Now that I thought about it though, I never actually saw her in the kitchen except to clean after a meal, and I remembered that our meals almost always came on different plates... plates that I do not remember our family owning.

“Wait,” I whispered back, “Is the only reason she is good at stew because it was something commonly cooked in the military.”

My dad nodded. “Think about it. She was raised as a noble in the free cities. Your mom had servants to cook for her when she was growing up. Then she immediately ran off to join the military where the only food is rations and meals like a stew that are prepared for enormous groups of people. When Charly was born and we moved to Ortis, it was the first time she ever had to cook a normal meal. We tried to learn, but after the first few weeks, we both just gave up and started ordering all our meals from the local inn. She still tries to cook every now and then, but it never ends well. Trust me. These rations are better than anything your mother or I can make.”

I looked at the rations with a new appreciation, but as the aroma from Esben’s pot became more and more noticeable, I slumped my shoulder and sighed. “Once again, I get stuck with the chores no one else wants.”

“What do you mean?” my dad asked.

I shook my head silently as I walked over to our wagon and started riffling through the containers until I found a pan and a variety of ingredients that might be useful. My dad watched me with increasing curiosity as I found a flat rock, placed it next to Esben’s fire, and placed the pan on top of that.

“Wait, do you know how to cook?” my dad asked incredulously.

“Of course I do,” I replied as I started cutting up the raw vegetables into neat little cubes, “It is only natural I picked up a few skills over the years. If I did not cook, then Samson would have, and nobody wanted that.”

Esben watched me from across the fire with a small smile as I started working on a meal that would not be quite so flavorless. “I have a lot of spices here. Do you want a few?”

I nodded as I took the small bottles from Esben. I taste-tested the spices curiously and immediately started coughing when the first one touched my tongue. “Why is it so strong!” I gasped as I reached for a cup of water to wash down the spice that nearly burned away my tastebuds.”

“That one is a specialty Of Kala. We call it Brasa Salt. It is only to be used in small amounts when mixed with water, not eaten directly.” Esben said while he and a few of the other mercenaries laughed at my reaction.

“Why didn’t you warn me!”

“It is more amusing this way,” Esben replied with a chuckle.

I scowled at Esben, thinking of ways to get revenge when one of the nearby mercenaries shouted, interrupting my thoughts.

“Enemy approaching!”

All the mercenaries immediately shot to their feet, drawing their weapons, as they faced the direction of the shout. Within an instant, the atmosphere of the camp changed to an icy chill as they stared down the undead slowly walking towards our camp. The undead was a very beautiful young woman, probably not even twenty before she died. Her bright orange eyes glowed in the darkness of the forest, reflecting the light of our fire.

She had a light smile on her face as she sauntered forwards with a calm confidence that completely disregarded the thirty mercenaries ready to pounce on her at a moment's notice.

I did not bother to stand like the others as I continued to stir the vegetables I had just placed in the pan. I eyed Irene’s undead with interest, but I knew she was not ready for an attack yet. This was just a disposable pawn for her.

The undead stepped into the light of the fire and sat down on a fallen tree just out of reach to the ring of mercenaries surrounding our camp. The undead woman moved incredibly slowly as she stretched her body in a way that emphasized her curves and slim figure. She then gave a small, seductive smile towards the men looking at her before turning to look at me.

“I must admit, I really do love this innate talent. So many possibilities, more than I could have ever imagined. I never understood just how scary it was until I was able to use it myself. So much potential, it is no wonder my family was defeated… slaughtered.”

I grit my teeth as I stared back at the undead. “What do you want Irene? Surely you have more important things to worry about right now than bother me.”

The undead woman shook her head slowly as she spoke, “Nothing is more important than this. You must know by now that you cannot escape me. You are too weak to fight back. Why must you delay the inevitable? Surrender, and when Envy arrives, you might still be in one piece when I hand you over to him.”

I chuckled softly. “If you think I will surrender to some petty threat, then you completely wasted all that time studying me.”

“Yes, pain and death mean nothing to you, but what about them?” The woman said as she glanced towards my family, “It took me a while to figure out why you had been acting so differently, but I think I understand now… Wren. Surrender, and I will not harm your friends and family. Struggle, and all you will accomplish is making them suffer fates far worse than death. I do not need to tell you of all people how good my family is at torture.”

The light from the campfire began to fade as the orange light was overwhelmed by a green flame. An eruption of power burst from my chest as a single green wing of flame sprouted from my left shoulder blade. I glared down at the undead in front of me as my thoughts were overcome with a murderous rage.

“Oh? It looks like I touched a nerve,” the undead said, baring her teeth in a vicious smile.

“I am going to kill you,” I replied softly, “Just like I killed the rest of your repulsive family.”

The smile disappeared from the undead woman’s face as she narrowed her eyes to meet my glare. She then turned to look at the mercenaries surrounding me. “You are all men for hire right? Capture this child for me and I will pay you more money than you could possibly make in a lifetime of selling your sword. I will even anoint you all with noble tittles as knights of the Novus kingdom and I will give you more women than you could ever dream of, all more beautiful than this one here. All you need to do is give me one helpless little girl and the world will be yours for the taking.”

“I have no interest in the promises of a vidrig like you,” Esben replied as he pointed a spear at the undead woman.

Irene’s undead glanced at the other mercenaries, but not a single one took her offer. They all had a fury burning in their eyes that nearly matched my own as they stared at the undead, itching to attack.

The woman sighed as stood up from the fallen tree and brushed off her clothes.

“Think it over, but do not take too much time. If you do not side with me, then when the rest of my forces arrive, I will simply kill you all and take the girl by force.” She then smiled at me before speaking, “I am going to enjoy making your family suffer.

I have so many ideas on what I will do to them.”

I took a deep breath as I forced my rage under control. I closed my eyes for a moment as I focused all the energy I had at a single point. When I opened my eyes, I gave Irene’s undead a big smile.

“Since you are here, I will let you in on a little secret before you go. That stolen talent you are using actually has a pretty big weakness. You see, when you take direct control of a corpse as you are doing now. You connect both your mind and soul to that corpse. Do you know what that means?”

The undead woman looked a little uncertain for the first time as she took a step back. I did not give Irene time to sever the connection to the corpse before all the power I accumulated was released all at once, flowing through my right eye. A look of horror was frozen on the corpse’s face as it collapsed to the ground. Howling in pain, the corpse clawed at its own head, tearing huge chunks of skin from its flesh.

I maintained the power flowing through my right eye as I slowly walked towards the corpse. “It means you are susceptible to any mental or soul-based attack, just as if your main body was here.” I reached down, grabbing a handful of the woman’s hair and forcing her to look me in the eye.

My voice was a low growl as I spoke, “Honestly, as much as I hate your family, up until now I have not really bothered to deal with you personally. You are a pest, nothing more. I was content letting others exterminate you, but then you threatened my family. Now, I am coming for you myself. You better prepare well. I want you to put up a struggle before I kill you.”



As always, if you are enjoying the story, consider supporting it on patreon to read ahead of the public releases. https://www.patreon.com/calamity_creations

Submitted: August 31, 2022

© Copyright 2022 Marcus Breeze. All rights reserved.


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