Written by Aaron McQueen
Illustrated by Jennifer Lange
Copyright July 16th, 2018
This story is dedicated to my family, my friends, and my most generous subscribers, whom I have listed below. Without their help, support, and contributions, this production would not be possible.
The sky was black. The snow fell thickly into the torchlight, emerging from the darkness like an army of meandering ghosts. Valis watched the undead servants load the wagon, toiling away under the watchful gaze of their clerical overseers, shivering in their fur-lined robes, clutching their amulets with hard knuckles all but frozen to white. Those same amulets had failed them only a few days earlier. Now they lived in fear and submission. Tormar had built the perfect army: obedient, tireless, and relentless, and the gods could take it from them at any time.
The last crate was put on board. It was mostly food for the animals. They’d managed to drum up a pair of yaks to pull the sled. They wouldn’t be the fastest on the plain, but they could withstand the cold. Valis would have preferred a wagon or a coach. It would have been more comfortable, but the sleigh would be more reliable. He couldn’t risk getting bogged down travelling alone, and as for comfort, he’d discovered he didn’t mind the cold so much since his…return.
In all the ways that mattered he was still just as dead as he had been the moment Azarelle brought her magic down upon him. The clerics of Tormar had preserved his body; the will of the gods had saved his mind. None of the power that kept him living was his own. Like the clerics who stood around him shuddering in their boots, he was bound irrevocably to the service of his masters.
Valis looked up. Nexus came swooping down from the sky. It was the first time he’d laid eyes on him since the battle. He confessed to being a little relieved. The bird perched on his shoulder and pecked at his wrappings. Valis shooed him away and he flitted over to the sleigh.
“Good to see you too.”
The bird cocked its head.
“I am different.”
He huffed out a laugh.
“Well, it wasn’t exactly my idea.”
The bird chortled.
“No, I don’t think it can be fixed.”
The two of them watched as the clerics and their wards retreated into the building, leaving them alone in the puddle of light outside the mansion. Tormar had annexed the Jaspers’ old lodgings to house their administration. It was as good a place as any, and well-supplied for the winter. Valis looked out over the empty courtyard. The city was dead. The heat and energy from the last day and the battle had long since bled away into the night. All that remained were thin slivers of light and life, gleaming furtively through tightly fastened shutters and barricaded doors.
A wolf howled in the distance.
There was always a period of quiet at the beginning of the night. Valis had been on the continent long enough to know what to expect. Those who were prepared were holed up; those who weren’t hadn’t yet discovered the hiding places of those who were. Before long the less-fortunate would begin to run out of whatever meagre supplies they had managed to gather. They would be forced to venture out, foraging in the dark, preyed upon by gangs of thugs and packs of wild animals. As time drew on, greater and greater numbers would reach the breaking point. In the end, only the lucky would survive.
Perhaps tonight would be different.
Valis looked again up at the sky. His masters’ tower loomed in the dark space. Its outline was barely visible. The gods could keep the masses in check. He recalled once telling Azarelle that the conquest would save lives. The truth was that it only made the casualties appear…orderly. A wave of attrition was inevitable, either during the battle or afterwards due to the destruction of shelter, food, and fuel supplies. That was the whole point, and the situation had played out exactly as his masters intended. Tormar and Selapak were crippled, and the desperate survivors were eager to fall to their knees.
The gods required supplicants. His masters would do everything in their power to keep their new subjects alive and faithful. They would establish a new order, one that would eventually spread until the whole world sheltered under their dominion. Only those with an eye for resistance had any reason to fear, and they would be dealt with in due course.
Valis climbed up onto the sleigh and grabbed the reins. To business.
Nathanius and the others had been spotted moving southeast at the end of the battle, around the lake and across the open plain, heading for Hane and the Deep Fell, a massive forest that dominated the long curve of the valley’s southern reach. The plain was scattered with smaller settlements, peopled by enclaves of gatherers, hunters, trappers, and tribes of native barbarians. Valis resolved to search those locations first, just in case his quarries had chosen to stop short and shelter in lieu of making the weeks-long trek to Hane. For them, it would have been the safer option. On the other hand, if they had avoided contact and travelled non-stop since the battle, they would soon arrive at the distant lumber colony. They would have to stop once they got there. Travel through the Deep Fell was difficult under the best of conditions. It was impossible during the night. If nothing else, he would catch up to them at the end of the line. There was nowhere else for them to run.
Nexus flapped back up onto his shoulder. Again, he picked at Valis’s linen wrappings.
The animal ruffled its feathers.
Valis gave him a flat look.
“You are not just a bird. And yes, I can blame you.”
Nexus cocked his head.
“Well, control yourself.”
“Yes, starting now.”
Valis cracked the reins and the two of them slid out into the night.
The wagon ground to a halt. The huge draught horses whickered and stomped in their woollen blankets, tossing their heads as they shifted back and forth, trampling the snow.
Ellyn put her head up to the little window. The others were asleep, apart from Asterious. He was standing on the bench, peering ahead into the dark.
“What’s going on?”
He shook his head.
“I’m not sure. I can’t see. The horses just stopped.”
Ellyn looked out ahead. Her eyes picked out a cluster of mounds under the snow.
“There’s something out there.”
Asterious drew his weapons and jumped down from the wagon.
Ellyn furrowed her brow.
“Where are you going?”
“I’m going to check it out. And will you keep your voice down? You’ll wake everybody.”
“You’re going by yourself?”
“It’s probably nothing.”
“And if it isn’t?”
He shot her a grin.
“Well, do you want to come?”
Ellyn rasped a harsh whisper.
“Fine! I’ll go with you. Let me get my coat.”
The two of them crept forward. Ellyn shivered. The snow came up to her knees. The…whatever it was under the snow was only a dozen yards from the wagon, but the slog made it feel like a mile.
How many miles had they already covered? There was no way to know. Without the sun, they couldn’t even keep track of the days. The only clue as to the passage of time was the constant ebb and flow of fatigue. It was like the tide rolling in and out, punctuated only by brief pauses to hunt and trap game for food. They’d had nothing to eat but wild rabbit and squirrel for…she didn’t even know, but the weight of their journey was like a wrestler dragging her to the ground.
Gods, what she wouldn’t give for a carrot.
She bit her tongue, remembering Asterious’s warning about the gods. Don’t think about them. Don’t talk about them.
She clutched her knife.
Asterious was a few paces ahead. He glanced back.
“You stay calm.”
“I am calm.”
“All I’m saying is, if it’s really nothing, why did the horses stop?”
Asterious turned his eyes forward.
“It’s probably just a dead animal.”
Ellyn looked ahead. The snow was mounded up in more than a dozen places.
“Maybe a lot of dead animals?”
Asterious nodded absently.
They came to the first mound.
Ellyn stood a short distance back. Asterious sheathed his swords and brushed away the snow. When he was finished he moved on to a second and then a third before he straightened up.
“You probably shouldn’t see this.”
Ellyn raised an eyebrow.
“What do you mean?”
He turned from the pile.
“What? Indiscreet? We escaped from a city full of zombies. People were cutting off their heads. I think we’re past worrying about me being squeamish.”
He stepped aside.
Ellyn stepped forward.
They were men, dressed in thick furs that looked like bear skin. From their clothing they were hunters. Their throats had been torn out, their legs and arms shredded with claw marks and bites.
Ellyn turned to Asterious.
He pursed his lips.
“I’m not sure. I don’t see any weapons. There are camps of hunter-gatherers all over the valley, but it doesn’t make sense that they would be out here unarmed.”
Ellyn leaned down to the nearest body.
“What else could it be?”
Asterious paused, thinking. Finally, he shook his head and cast his thoughts aside.
Ellyn frowned. Yeah, right.
“So, what do we do?”
“Get the others. We’ll search the bodies and see if we can find their camp. They’ll have supplies.”
“Don’t you think that’s a little gruesome.”
Asterious began to trudge back to the wagon.
“Waste not; want not. If there is anything left, these guys certainly won’t be using it.”
Ellyn put away her knife.
“What about respect for the dead?”
“Respect for the dead?”
He came back over.
“I didn’t figure you were the type.”
Ellyn looked down at the bodies. They’d died in a circle, backs to one another.
“It just seems so cruel. I mean, what if it was us lying dead here? What if it was you? Would you be okay with someone just looting your corpse?”
“It’s happened before.”
Ellyn rolled her eyes.
He was right about one thing. It didn’t make sense for a group of hunters to be caught out in the wilderness unprepared. She scanned out to the horizon. There were no paw prints, but they might have already been covered by the snow. A dozen men lay dead at her feet. It made didn’t make sense that a group of people who killed animals for a living would be suddenly overpowered by them.
Something wasn’t right.
A glimmer of light in the distance caught her eye. She turned her head and called to Asterious.
“Do you see that?”
He walked up beside her.
He stared hard, squinting.
“Well, I’ll be damned.”
Ellyn turned to him.
“What is it?”
“It’s Hane. We made it.”
Special Thanks To: