Exhaustion yesterday and wife-time today have put a damper on finishing up the next Snowflake step. However, I’ve been considering tossing the fruits of my NaNoWriMo labor up here, so what better time than now?
Be warned. This, like the first chapter of my Snowflake story, is an incredibly rough draft. I wrote it quickly and I have not edited it. Cliche’s, word errors and passive voice may be present. There may even be an author’s note or two. (At the end of the chapter, “Caldesor” was originally “LANDYLAND” because I couldn’t remember the name of the country.) However, I don’t remember being entirely disgusted with the first 5000 or so words of NaNo, so you may find it entertaining, if rough.
Ellora Sunstrider wrenched her sword from the orc’s skull. The body slumped to the ground with a satisfying thud. The tall elf bent, grasped a piece of the dead orc’s tattered tunic and wiped the blood and ichor from her sword. She scanned the battered body for a moment and then turned to her companions. “Anything interesting?”
Galen Sheppard, a young, dark skinned human, scanned the clearing, a vacant look in his eyes. Serina Carol, a human so short she was often mistaken for a halfling, efficiently frisked the various bodies while Gorin Irontooth poked at each with the sharpened end of his warhammer’s handle.
“Nah,” the dwarf grunted, “none of ‘em even smart enough to try playing dead.”
“They all have the same mark as the ones before,” Serina called,” but nothing worth noting, otherwise.”
Ellora looked at Galen. “Any magic at play, here?”
Galen blinked his eyes and shook his head. “None but our’s. They were just grist for the mill.”
Ellora sighed. “I’m getting tired of this. Where did he get all these beasts from, anyway?” She shook her head briskly, driving the thoughts away. “Doesn’t matter, lets get moving.”
The group fell out, returning to the trail they’d been following prior to the ambush. They’d been on this trail for several days now, and none of them were in particularly pleasant moods. The fighting that had previously provided them with a pleasant diversion from the trek had recently become far more frequent, and far more annoying. The grunt labor their target was using had hardly been a challenge, and Ellora found herself wondering why they’d bothered with such a nuisance of a job in the first place.
Apparently, she’d been thinking aloud. “Because there aren’t any paying Games any time soon,” Serina said, “and Galen’s a lousy gambler.”
“Hey! How was I —”
Serina cut Galen off. “How many times have I told you, ‘Never bet on anything you don’t control!’”
“But there was no way—”
“Shh,” Ellora silenced them with a motion of her hand. She’d pulled ahead of the others, and was the first to see the castle come into view. She crouched low and advanced, the others following suit.
The castle was set on the upslope of a small valley, opposite the four adventurers. Even at a distance, the outer walls looked ancient. Portions of the wall had collapsed, and an entire tower lay in ruins, the wreckage tumbled down the valley slope. The portcullis hung askew in the castle gate and looked as if it hadn’t been used in centuries. Inside, the keep looked like it had weathered the years a bit better, but maintained was a word Ellora would use to describe it.
“Looks like our friend Zane could use a grounds crew,” Gorin snorted. “I get the feeling he hasn’t lived here long.”
“That doesn’t mean he’s not prepared for some sort of attack. He hasn’t exactly been subtle about his behavior lately.” Ellora pulled a small, gold telescope from her pack and began scanning the castle walls.
“It’s too bad,” Serina said. “He showed a lot of promise in the ring. He could have really made something of himself.”
“That’s all the more reason I don’t understand this sudden defiance. I don’t like it, but what can we do? A job’s a job.” Ellora snapped the telescope shut and put it back into her pack. “It looks clear. Unfortunately, there’s no good approach to the wall. Everything is pretty much out in the open.”
“I’ve got us covered on that end, Elle.” Galen reached into a belt pouch and withdrew a grey feather and a handful of dust. He recited a lengthy incantation and threw the dust into the air. At that moment, Ellora’s companions became hazy and transparent. Looking down, Ellora could see her hands were equally transparent.
Galen stood up and said, “Remember, no aggressive behavior, and stick close together. This spell doesn’t have a lot of range. It ought to last us until we get to the walls, though.”
Ellora stood, sheathed her sword and tightened the buckles on her breastplate. “Try to stay quiet, too. Just because we’re not visible doesn’t mean we can’t be heard. Let’s go.”
Progress across the valley floor was largely uneventful. They did not move as quickly as Ellora would have liked, as the closer they got to the castle, the more debris was in their way.
However, the group soon stood about twenty yards from the wall. Ellora raised a hand, and they stopped, as she surveyed the area, judging whether the gate, or a collapsed section of wall would be better to enter through.
She barely had time to recognize that something had grasped her ankle, and she was falling onto her back, her feet yanked out from underneath her. Two skeletal arms burst from the ground at her sides, one hand grabbing her sword arm, the other swiping its claws at her face. She yelped and yanked her head out of the way, the hand slamming into the dirt.
Ellora could feel a hand trying to catch hold of her legs, and she rolled left, away from the clawing hand, and over top of the one holding her arm. She could feel the hands bones piercing her leather sleeve and biting into her flesh. She got her feet underneath her, and wrenched her arm free. A few fingers ripped free of the hand holding her, and she brushed the still writhing digits away.
The hands that attacked her had become pairs, and were quickly becoming full shapes as the desiccated corpses pulled themselves from the ground. Looking around Ellora could see more skeletons rising up, surrounding them.
She drew her sword. “So much for going unnoticed.”
Gorin already had his warhammer drawn, and crushed the skull of a skeleton that was halfway out of the ground. The scenery behind Gorin was immediately blocked by the now visible dwarf. The creature paused for a moment, and then continued climbing to its feet. “Damn,” he muttered, “I was hoping that’d work.”
“Does that ever work?” Ellora called as she cut the leg off the skeleton that had swung at her face.
A gust of wind blew past Ellora, and the one-legged skeleton was knocked off its foot, and sent clattering into the two behind it. The skeletons were now a pile of flailing bones and Ellora couldn’t make out which bones belonged to which body. This also opened a large gap in the circle that had formed.
“Nice, Galen. Everyone, to the wall, now!” Ellora sidestepped the mass of animated bones that, even now, were reaching for her. The rest of the group followed suit, Gorin smashing aside a skeleton that tried to step in front of him.
When they reached the wall, they stopped and turned. About twenty skeletons were now free of the ground and shambling towards them. Gorin reached into his pack and drew from it a large, round medallion with a crossed hammer and axe in front of an anvil carved on its face. He stepped forward, holding the symbol high, and began reciting in a loud, strong voice.
“In the name of the Allfather, I deny you! As a servant of the Almighty, I condemn you! By the will of Morgrim, I banish you!”
As he spoke, Gorin’s holy symbol began to glow, and the skeletons shrank back from the light. With his final words, a bright flash burst from the symbol, and for a moment, the skeletons seemed frozen in place. Then, all at once, they collapsed to the ground, the impact causing their bones to shatter and crumble.
“Huh,” Gorin said, putting away his symbol. “Zane must still be new to raising the dead. That many undead ought not be destroyed so easily.”
“That, or he’s toying with us,” Galen said.
“Either way, it proves our information was correct.” Serina, who was still transparent, turned to the castle gate. “That, or there are two mad sorcerers living in this place.” She strode forward and began examining the portcullis. After a few moments, she turned back to the group. “Looks safe. Don’t see any tripwires or switches, and the gate feels solid enough.” She ducked under the gate. The others followed suit.
Inside the walls, the grounds were in worse shape than outside. Debris was strewn all about, and the various small buildings were no more than foundation lines and rubble. A foul odor hung in the air, and there appeared to be compost piles heaped in several places around the yard. As they passed by one of the piles, Ellora realized it wasn’t a pile of waste, but rather, of bodies.
Flies swarmed around the piles, and maggots crawled all over the faces of people that had once been human. Heat wafted from the piles and the stench was overwhelming. Ellora could hear Galen retching. She looked around and could now make out the bodies in the other piles. There were at least three others.
“Well,” Ellora said, “I suppose we know what happened to the people of White Hollow, now.”
Serina pounded on Galen’s back. The mage had stumbled away, and was doubled over, holding onto a piece of masonry for balance.
“You act as if you’ve never seen a dead body before, Galen,” Ellora said. “The funeral pyres after the Great War, and during the plague were far worse than this.”
“Not all of us are over a century old, Elle,” Serina said.
“Has it really been that long?”
“Aye,” said Gorin. “The last outbreak happened just before I passed my rites. That was over 50 years ago.”
“Hmmm… I suppose it was.” Ellora went quiet for a few moments. Galen straightened and gave Serina’s shoulder a squeeze. “All right, then,” Ellora said. “We should get moving.”
“Wait.” Galen stopped her. His face was pale, but his expression was resolute. “We can’t just leave these people like this. We’ve got to do something.”
“What, exactly, can we do that can’t wait till we’re done?”
“It’s just not right to leave. I know burial’s out of the question, but we could at least light the bodies.”
“We’ve already faced skeletons, Elle,” Serina added. “Flames would ensure that we’re not facing zombies, as well.”
Ellora thought for a moment, and then nodded. “I guess it’s no secret that we’re here any longer. Be quick about it, though.”
Galen pulled a torch from his pack and lit it. Then he and Gorin went from pile to pile. Gorin spoke a few words of benediction, and then Galen cast a spell normally reserved for defensive maneuvers, which covered the bodies in a layer of oil, and with a touch of the torch, the pyres were lit.
When the last pile of bodies was burning, Galen turned to Ellora. “Thank you.”
Ellora nodded. “All right, let’s go.”
Inside, the keep appeared as though no one had been in it since before the castle’s walls had fallen. Dust caked the floor and cobwebs covered the walls and obscured the room’s corners. There was no furniture and adornments were limited to a few shelves and sconces carved into the wall itself.
At the far end of the entrance hall, what had likely once been a grand stairway led up into a collapsed ceiling. What had appeared in tact from outside and far away, was apparently less structurally sound on the inside. Several rooms branched out from the mail hall, and the four split up to check each of the doors. Serina was the first to call out.
“Footprints over here. And a stairway, as well.”
The footprints led from a side entrance further down the hall to a door concealing the stairs. The stairs descended into darkness.
“Onward and downward, then?” Serina asked.
Ellora nodded and led the way. She could only see a little ways down into the darkness of the stairs. She knew the dwarf would be okay, but her human companions had worse sight than hers in the dark. She reached into a pouch around her waist and withdrew a small amulet. Wrapping her hand around it, she said, “Galad,” and a dim light shone from between her fingers. Holding it up with her free hand, she began descending the stairs.
After descending for what felt like quite a long time, Ellora stopped and looked over her shoulder. “Gorin, how far down are we now?”
“I’d reckon we’ve gone about forty feet underground.”
Ellora peered ahead and, even with her enhanced vision, could see only stairs and darkness. “Odd.” She continued descending, but after a minute or two more, she realized that the darkness seemed to be getting closer. Another ten steps, and she was standing in front of a wall of blackness. Her amulet’s light extended a foot in front of her body, and then stopped abruptly.
“Well, I think we’re at the bottom, and it looks like we’re expected.” Ellora grasped the amulet again, and this time spoke the words, “Or Galad,” and the light coming from the amulet intensified tenfold. Ellora squinted as her eyes adjusted to the new brightness of the amulet. The black no longer blocked her vision, and now she saw that the stairs went down another three steps, and end at a large gap in the floor.
Taking the last three steps, she first looked into the room in front of her, checking to see if anyone was waiting for them, and then glanced down into the hole. It dropped down about twenty feet, and ended in jagged rocks at the bottom. It was narrow enough to be easily stepped over, but wide enough that, if someone didn’t know it was there, they could easily fall in.
Except for the pit, the small room was unremarkable. They moved quickly to the door and Serina pressed her ear to it. After a long moment, she looked at the others. “I think… I think it’s him, but he’s giggling.”
“Giggling?” Galen asked. “What in the nine hells?”
Serina stepped aside and drew her crossbow, loading a bolt into it.
“Well,” Ellora said, “if he’s lost his mind, this ought to be easier. Let’s go get him.” She stepped back, and with one swift kick, sent the door flying off its hinges.
Light poured into through the doorway. Tables were scattered haphazardly about the room. Some had bloodied and battered tools and cruel looking blades strewn all over them. Others had shapes covered by canvas sheets on them. Ellora didn’t want to know what was under the sheets.
Across the room, standing in an open doorway, was their target. He wore a ragged apron, covered in dried blood and gore, and he wore thick leather gloves on his hands. His grey hair was long, filthy and looked as though he’d ripped several large patches out. His face was spattered in the same blood, gore and filth that covered his apron. He stared at the doorway where Ellora stood, but his eyes didn’t seem to be seeing anything. He wore a crooked grin and giggled. The sound was high pitched and less than sane.
Ellora stared for just a moment, and then spoke. “Zane Allucard, you are hereby under arrest for multiple crimes against the Five States. The High Magistrate of Caldesor has granted us authority to take you into custody. Surrender now, and no harm will come to you.”
Zane’s giggling turned into full-throated laughter, loud and fever-pitched. His head fell back, still laughing, and took a step backward. Serina let out a shout and then fired her crossbow. Without looking, Zane threw his left hand up. The bolt pierced his hand through, but he neither flinched, nor missed a beat of laughter. At the same time, he reached with his right hand and flung the door shut.
Ellora cried out and leapt across the room, throwing herself against the wall where the doorway had just been. There was no knob, no latch, no frame on this side of the wall. The only indication that there was a door there was the fine seam that could be easily missed. Ellora cursed and pounded the wall with her fist.
“Why do they always have to do things the hard way! Dammit! All right, spread out. There’s got to be a latch here somewhere.”
She could still hear the sound of Zane’s laughter on the other side of the door. After just a few seconds, though, they could all hear Zane’s blood curdling screams and the sound of flesh and bone being ripped apart.