Authors: David Wells
Tags: #Epic, #Fantasy, #General, #Fiction
He spun with inhuman speed and hurled the spear at the guard he’d been leering at. The short spear struck him in the stomach with such force that it drove clean through his body and clattered to the ground, trailing blood several dozen feet behind him. The guard slumped to his knees and keeled over.
The last guard backed off slowly, looking around wildly, clearly hoping for reinforcements. Defending against bandits or assassins was one thing. This was something else.
Then the man that was not a man locked eyes with Alexander. He tipped his head back and shrieked with a piercing intensity that nearly brought Alexander to his knees.
The last guard stood his ground between the man that was not a man and Alexander but it wasn’t clear if it was courage or paralyzing fear that held him fast.
The intruder lunged so quickly that the guard only had time to raise his shield. The thing backhanded the shield, and Alexander could hear bones in the corpse’s left hand break from the impact. The guard turned with a grunt from the force of the blow, leaving his left side exposed. The man that was not a man drove his sword into the guard’s ribs but this time he didn’t pay any attention to his kill. This time the man that was not a man was looking straight at Alexander.
The thing sprang into a headlong sprint. Alexander and Abigail drew their swords almost as one. Lucky pulled a small clay pot out of his bag. The man that was not a man drew closer and Lucky prepared to throw his clay pot, when a blindingly bright ray of argent light stabbed down from the second-story balcony of Valentine Manor.
Bella Valentine stood on the balcony, wreathed in golden light and flanked by a half dozen archers. She was an accomplished witch. Her mother had been a sorceress and had taught Bella about magic from an early age. From her outstretched hand she directed her magic down on the man that was not a man. Her light revealed the creature’s true nature for all to see. The ugliness of its form was only exceeded by the ugliness of its nature.
The man that was not a man screamed in pain and flipped over backwards, retreating from the light. He regained his feet and shot Bella a murderous look as he snarled and keened in pain. Half a dozen arrows peppered him without any visible effect.
Duncan and Anatoly burst into the courtyard flanked by a dozen of the house guard.
Lucky didn’t hesitate. He threw his clay pot with perfect accuracy. It hit the man that was not a man straight in the chest. The clay pot shattered on impact, splattering magical liquid fire the color of free-flowing lava that ignited everything it touched.
Flame quickly engulfed the possessed corpse. He shrieked again and fell as the fire consumed him. Alexander thought he saw a shadow rise up out of the flames, but dismissed it as his father and Anatoly came up around them.
“It’s time to go. Get your horses.”
Duncan Valentine was all business. It had been many years since his house had been attacked and he was fighting mad. Alexander and Abigail knew better than to argue. They made straight for the stables while Lucky went to get his wagon. He never traveled light.
Before Alexander could reach the stable gate, he heard the shriek again. He whirled to see the house guard who had been speared in the belly standing with his guts hanging out of the fresh wound. He was looking straight at Alexander.
From the balcony, Bella called out, “Zombie demon!”
She cast another ray of blinding argent light at the newly animated corpse. It screamed and gibbered as it leapt back out of the light, looking for a way to get to Alexander.
Alexander didn’t know what a zombie demon was but he could see that his father and Anatoly did. They began barking orders at the growing number of house guard in the courtyard. Duncan grabbed Anatoly by the shirt and said something to him before turning to face the demon in his yard.
Anatoly turned and ran straight for Alexander and Abigail. “Get your horses! Right now!” he bellowed as he ran toward the stables. Lucky came out from behind his workshop driving his wagon fast. Anatoly barked to Lucky, “Head for the gate!”
Alexander and Abigail emerged from the stables mounted on their horses and saw the fire in the yard. Duncan Valentine was ordering his men to use fire against the attacker. Bella’s light was effective at corralling the creature but couldn’t kill it. Fire had felled the first possessed corpse. Duncan clearly figured it should work again.
Anatoly mounted his big warhorse quickly and motioned for them to follow Lucky, while he positioned his horse to block the zombie demon’s view of Alexander. Already three of Anatoly’s men had fallen. He looked back and heard Duncan shout, “Get them out!” Anatoly nodded once, turned away from his best friend, and urged his horse into a gallop.
He found Alexander and Abigail waiting with Lucky just outside the main gate. “Let’s go,” he said tersely as he rode past. They fell in behind him, looking back to see the flames growing from the courtyard of their home.
“Wait!” Alexander cried and reined in his horse. “Where are Mom and Dad?”
Anatoly wheeled around and pulled up close to Alexander. He spoke quietly but with deadly firmness. “Your Mom and Dad are fighting the zombie demon to buy you the time you need to escape with your life. Do not waste their sacrifice.”
He heard Abigail let out a small whimper. Anatoly slapped Alexander’s horse on the rump. The horse leapt into a gallop and Abigail’s horse was startled into a run as well. Soon they were running away from their home as fast as they could ride.
When they crested the last hill, Alexander looked back to see his home fully ablaze in the early dawn light. “Please let them survive this,” he said under his breath before turning back to the road.
Alexander was standing watch in the dead of night. They’d ridden since dawn as fast as Lucky’s wagon would go. It had been a miserable day. The drizzle had started early and was still falling. The wind had blown steadily in their faces all day, and it was cold. Not cold enough for snow, but close.
His heart ached at the loss of his brother. The hard riding had occupied his mind for most of the day but now he was alone in the dark with nothing but his grief. He stood facing the wind, embracing the punishing cold while tears quietly rolled down his cheeks and mingled with the raindrops falling on his face.
He felt adrift in a sea of despair. When he wrenched his mind from thoughts of his brother, he was blindsided with stabbing and sudden worry for his parents. He didn’t even know if they were still alive. Lucky told him that a zombie demon couldn’t stand the light of day. That it would have retreated into the netherworld with the first rays of the sun. That was some consolation but not much. He could still see Valentine Manor ablaze when he closed his eyes. His home was gone. His family scattered or murdered.
Thoughts of his parents led to guilt. He left them to fend for themselves against an unhuman enemy. Despite repeated assurances from Anatoly and Lucky, he felt like he’d betrayed them. He should have stayed and fought. He should have protected his family.
It was all too much to take in at once. He couldn’t get his mind around the terrible day that had forever altered the course of his life. Too much had happened. Too many terrifying questions remained unanswered.
Yesterday morning he was the second son of a minor noble. He had a plan for his life. He’d chosen the plot of land where he was going to build his home. He was going to raise cattle like his father had. All he wanted was a simple life. A family. A home. A connection to the land he drew his sustenance from. Alexander wasn’t ambitious. He didn’t need to be. Darius was heir to Valentine Manor. Alexander would have followed his brother anywhere. And now … Darius was gone. Valentine manor was gone. His future was cloaked in darkness.
His anger began to build again. All this pain for what? Because of some curse cast thousands of years ago. No … not a curse. All of this pain could be pinned squarely on a man who should have had the good sense to die two millennia ago.
Prince Phane Reishi.
A gust of wind blew the icy rain into his face. He heard someone stir from under the oilskin tent. Anatoly emerged quietly to take his turn at watch.
“You are relieved, My Lord,” Anatoly said quietly as he came up beside him.
Alexander spun and grabbed the big man-at-arms by the coat. “Don’t call me that.” His rage had come quickly and he knew it was misplaced. Anatoly didn’t flinch or resist. Instead he stepped close to Alexander and drew him into a hug.
He held him tightly for a long moment, then released him and held him at arm’s length by the shoulders. “The days to come will be hard, Alexander. But you must face your duty. Many depend on you now.”
“I didn’t ask for this and I don’t want it.” His face was a mask of misery.
Anatoly looked back with the maddening resolve that Alexander knew all too well. “Be that as it may, this is your duty now. You have only one decision to make. Will you accept the responsibility you have been given or will you run from it?”
Alexander stood silently, tears flowing down his face, and stared back at his old teacher as if refusing to answer the question would negate the reality of the situation.
“For what it’s worth, Alexander, I already know the answer to that question because I know you, maybe even better than you know yourself.” Anatoly clapped him on the shoulder. “Now go get some sleep. It’ll be dawn soon.”
They rode hard from dawn to dusk for the next two days and made the outskirts of Southport late in the afternoon on the third day.
Southport was a sprawling port town on the west coast of Ruatha a couple of days’ ride from the south edge of the Great Forest. It was a major trading hub that shipped the cattle, grain, and corn produced on the fertile plains and grasslands of southern Ruatha to other ports all around the Seven Isles. Goods of all varieties were in turn shipped into Southport to make their way inland along the three well-traveled roads that went north, east, and south.
Alexander had been here several times with his father and brother to sell herds of cattle and bushels of wheat and to buy wagonloads of all manner of goods needed to run Valentine Manor’s vast estate. He knew it wasn’t a place to let your guard down. It was home to all kinds of people, from reputable merchants, tradesmen and sailors to thieves, con artists and cutthroat murderers. It was the kind of place a person could get lost in.
The houses on the outskirts of town were mostly run-down and poorly kept. The people who inhabited them were about the same. Alexander checked his sword to make sure it was loose in its scabbard.
“We should find an inn with a stable where we can have a hot meal and a warm, dry bed for the night,” Anatoly said as he reined in his horse a few paces from the gate. Southport had a wall surrounding the city in a half circle that radiated away from the seaport. It wasn’t much of a wall anymore. There were many places where one could find a way in without passing through a gate, but not with horses, let alone a wagon.
The disinterested guard came out of the small shack looking annoyed to be out in the rain again. “State your business.” He seemed impatient. The drizzle left tiny dark spots on his damp oilskin cloak.
“We’re travelers in need of shelter for the night,” Anatoly said from atop his big horse as he flipped a silver coin to the man. The guard caught it, gave the coin a hard look and nodded. “Very well then, be on your way.”
He leered at Abigail and her long blond hair when they rode by. Alexander relaxed his focus to look at the guard’s colors. He saw a mix of lust, greed, and petty selfishness, but no threat. He returned a hard look and the guard pretended to take a sudden interest in his reports.
They passed through the gate and into the city to the sucking sound of horses’ hooves in muck. The place stank of manure and human waste. Alexander kept his guard up and his pain at bay. Anatoly’s words from a few nights ago nagged at him again and he pretended that he hadn’t yet made up his mind, but somewhere deeper he knew that he had.
As they made their way through the sea of buildings toward the center of town, Alexander caught a glimpse of something on one of the rooftops but it was gone behind a brick chimney before he could make out what it was. He shook his head as he recalled his father’s words: “There are strange things in the big city, best to leave them be and attend to your business.” Good advice, but something about the thing bothered him. It looked almost like a tiny man with wings.
Alexander allowed himself to relax his guard once they were in their room at the inn with the door firmly locked and barred. He reminded himself to be grateful for the small things as he took a seat at the long table occupying the center of the main room. It was a simple table with simple chairs. Abigail was ladling thick stew from the heavy iron pot that had been sent up from the kitchen.
“Thanks, Sis,” Alexander smiled up at her as she placed a heavy wooden bowl in front of him. Lucky sat across from him and rubbed his hands together at the prospect of a hot meal. He looked tired but despite his fatigue, Alexander could see the light of genuine joy in his eyes as he took a chunk of warm bread and slathered it with rich yellow butter. Alexander had always envied Lucky’s ability to put his troubles aside when presented with a good meal.