Grimnir walked on the wooden pier of the Aisling harbour. The city was quiet and without any life. Even the birds were gone from the skies.
“Eerie,” Said Grimnir as he walked with Eldric and Lani in the harbour, scouting the environment. The sun had gone down behind the horizon and the sky was black, but still the Dark Aurora was clearly upon the whole city, running through the sky with its serpent limbs sucking the light out of the stars above and when it rippled before the two rising moons, it looked like it was devouring them. The air was still, just as you would expect it to be before the storm. They all could feel it, something was coming their way and although they knew of the undead scourge, they had no idea what to expect.
“We need to get going, out of the city and head south,” Eldric said and waved to Captain Drengen to come to them. The men were hard at work scavenging the nearby buildings for whatever they could find. Captain Drengen came running to them.
“Sir?” he said.
“You need to leave, now.” Eldric said.
“But sir, there’s no one here. We still have time.”
“No we don’t. I can feel the oncoming scourge of the undead souls and when that wave hits us, it will be too late for anything.”
Captain Drengen looked at Lani for confirmation. Although she hadn’t fed from him for days after Eldric had ordered her to stop, he still felt like she was his mistress.
“He’s right. You should go,” Lani said and blew a kiss towards him, then started walking towards the city centre, looking around into the houses. Captain Drengen was silently watching her go.
“Captain!” Eldric snapped him out of his dream.
“Yes. Alright, sir. But what about you then?”
“We will head south.”
“But the scourge?”
“We can handle it,” said Grimnir, “Few hundred mindless gnomes, how hard can it be.”
“Hundred? More like thousands,” Eldric said.
“Even better!” Grimnir smirked.
“Now, Captain, get your men and head back to Finngård.”
“Yes sir. And good luck to your journey.”
“And to yours,” Eldric said and shook the hand of Captain Drengen. The Captain shook the hand of Grimnir and walked back towards the ship and signalled his men to join him.
“Alright, I’m ready to go!” Grimnir said and checked his weaponry; a black rifle on his back, dark iron bullets, his trusty morning star, and couple of knives; and a big barrel of ale. Eldric looked at the barrel.
“Are you really planning of hauling that with you?”
“Yes. I need my ale.”
“It’s all right here.” Grimnir said and tapped the barrel. “All the energy I need is right here.”
“Fine. It’s all yours.”
“By the way, where’s your food?”
“I’m not that hungry. I’ll conjure something if I need it,” Eldric said and started walking after Lani. Grimnir looked at his barrel, half the size as he was, picked it up with both his hands, walked couple of steps and laid it down.
“Crap,” Grimnir said and leaned on the barrel. He stood there for a while, thinking it through and finally opened the lid, grabbed his trusty ceramic jug from his belt and looked at the sweet ale inside, “Well, I’ll have to drink it here then.”
Tom moved towards the big ship in the harbour. He had not seen a ship like that in his life, it had unfamiliar markings and was clearly some form of military vessel. As he got closer, he saw the figures to be humans, scavenging the nearby buildings for supplies. There was a group of four persons, clearly some kind of leaders talking to each other. Then two of them left towards the city, one towards the ship and last one, what looked like a dwarf seemed to stay behind, drinking manically from a barrel. The ship was the only one that was left on the silent harbour and it was Tom’s only hope of survival. He needed to get on that boat, but he feared that if he just walked up to them and asked, they would either deny access or worse, kill him. He would have to find a way in. The men in the buildings were rushing out of them and heading back towards the ship carrying the scavenged supplies. Tom was running out of time.
He got quite close to the dwarf drinking from a barrel and had a thought of just making a run for the ship in the cover of darkness, but then he heard the noise. It came from the hills. First it sounded like a storm wind, but it soon turned into a frantic howl and a Tom recognized the scream of thousands of undead gnomes, goblins and halflings. The sound came not from a single point, it came from everywhere. The big dwarf next to the barrel stopped his drinking and listened as closely as Tom did. And then the sound came from Tom’s backpack as his son joined the howl. The dwarf listened for the sounds as Tom quickly opened his bag and grabbed the mouth of his son in his hands, silencing the howl. The teeth of his son, or more likely jagged edges of his jaws bit hard on his flesh. The pain was immense but Tom kept quiet, in the shadows, next to the wall of a small hut. The dwarf listened closely through the howls around them, grabbed his weapon and walked couple of steps towards Tom.
“Come on! Leave the booze!” shouted a tall man up the street and the dwarf holding the morning star stopped, mumbled something and then shouted down towards the men in the pier, “Hey! Take this ale with you!” and then started running up the street. The last of the men going towards the ship stopped, waved to couple of his fellows and started jogging towards the barrel.
“Now or never!” thought Tom by himself, grabbed his son and quickly moved to the barrel in the cover of darkness and climbed in it. It was only half full, the Dwarf had been very busy, but as Tom jumped inside, the level rose closer to the rim. Tom heard the sounds of the men coming towards them and as they closed in he took a long deep breath and went under holding his son.
“Leave it!” shouted Captain Drengen from the pier and started walking to his ship. The three men stopped, looked at the ale barrel and themselves and without saying a word they made a decision to value a full barrel of ale more than the orders from their Captain. They quickly put the lid back on the barrel and started carrying it back to the ship.
Grimnir quickly caught up to the rest of the team, although he had started to somewhat feel the effect of gulping down his so called ‘liquid food’. He burped and tapped Eldric on his shoulder.
“So, now what?”
“We head south,” Eldric said.
“You mean towards the massive screams and howls?” Grimnir touched the hilt of his morning star, and smiled.
“Exactly, we need to get through them if we want to reach the City of the Dead.”
“Then it’s time for some head bashing,” Grimnir said, and burped again. “Excuse me.”
Eldric looked at Grimnir trying to keep his ale inside him and then towards Lani, upper in the street, looking ahead.
“They are here,” Lani said and took out her slim two handed sword from the sheath on her back. Then, like a dark tidal wave they came pouring down through the street, a slow mass of undead gnomes, goblins and halflings, all armed with something in their hands, swords, knives, pieces of wood, pieces of other undead zombies, legs, arms. And the sound of their scream was deafening as they hit the corner and saw Eldric, Lani and Grimnir.
“Here we go,” said Grimnir and grabbed his morning star.
Zombies, the undead or the living dead; all those names meant one and the same thing; a previously deceased, somewhat decaying and foul smelling creature, controlled by Necromancers and the hunger for death. And in the streets of the halfling capitol of Aisling there were thousands of them on the streets banging on the doors and windows of the houses with people foolish enough to stay behind. The flow of the dark mass of the undead ran from the streets to the harbour and it was not stopping. More were coming from the hills and the Dark Aurora completely covered the skies above. In the main square of the city there was a massive white circle of flame right next to the fountain and the spiralling statue of the protector of Jangala, the Rajínn. Inside of that circle were three figures surrounded by dismembered and headless corpses. Eldric was standing in the centre of the circle, his eyes and tattoos on his arms burning bright white. As any of the foolish undead tried to walk through the white flame they were instantly slowed or frozen still and any remaining straggler was decapitated by the sharp blade of Lani. She was moving so fast that it would have been difficult to focus your eyes on her. In her wake heads and pieces of the undead fell to the ground, shattering into pieces.
Eldric saw only white flames as the spell took all his concentration and the third figure inside the circle was missing a left arm that had clearly been gnawed off and half of his face was gone along with most of his stomach. In his right hand, Grimnir was still holding tightly on his trusty morning star although some of his fingers had been gnawed off. He wasn’t breathing.
“How long?” Lani shouted as she shattered the ice covered head off from a very short halfling woman that was using an arm of her husband as a blunt instrument of death.
“Soon,” Eldric said and as he said it, the ice flames around them lowered just a bit. “Don’t bother me now.”
“Just leave him. He slows us down.”
“He’s not that good of a fighter anyway. He’s just crazy,” Lani grunted, slashed another head off and from her frustration kicked the head hard as it was coming down towards the ground. Outer layer of the frozen head of previously very successful gnome barber shattered and the rest flew high above the swarm of the undead surrounding them. Lani smiled.
Eldric knew that he couldn’t keep up the circle forever. Each zombie that came through it consumed his energy and there was no time to replenish now. They had to get out of the city somehow. During the last hour they had just managed to move couple of blocks from the harbour to the city centre, before Grimnir finally had fallen beneath the swarm.
“It’s happening!” Lani shouted and stopped moving for a minute as she glanced at the body of Grimnir. The talisman of resurrection in his chest started to hum a low sound and golden flames engulfed his body, moving through the surface of his skin. The pitch of the hum rose as the flames got brighter and soon the area where his body was lying was as bright as the sun and it was impossible to watch directly at it. As she was blinded by the light for a moment, Lani felt a sharp sting at the side of her chest as a frosty, but only slowed zombie gnome father hit her with his spear. Lani growled, snapped the spear in two and in an instant the spearhead was piercing the forehead of the gnome. Lani kicked the body back into the white circle where it shattered and then continued to chop off the rest of his family.
“Get over here!” Eldric shouted to Lani and ran to Grimnir.
“Just do it. Now!”
Lani jumped next to Eldric and as she did, the tattoos on Eldric’s arms stopped glowing and instantly the white circle died out around them letting the scourge rush towards them. Eldric grabbed on to Lani and pulled her with him to Grimnir, the light blinding them both. Eldric placed his hand on top of the amulet and started to chant some ancient words and as he did, the light from the talisman covered their bodies. Just as the horde surrounded them, a massive bright beam of light burst up from the body of Grimnir and a golden shockwave of flames expanded out through the square, crushing everything organic in its’ path and as it hit the edge of the square, the energy imploded back into the body of Grimnir in a blinding white blast. When the howling wind died out and the light from the talisman faded, the square was silent and dark. Grimnir stood up, took a deep breath, stretched his legs and arms, checking everything was there and yawned. On the ground, Lani and Eldric held their heads and slowly got up themselves.
“What was that?!” Lani shouted as she took a couple of steps back from Grimnir and held her aching head, “I’m still seeing white.”
“That?” Grimnir said and smiled, “That was resurrection!”
“I call that trick an exploding dwarf,” Eldric said and tapped Grimnir on the shoulder.
“Shut it!” Grimnir grunted and picked up his morning star from the ground and looked at it. “I should’ve taken the axe.”
Then they heard the howl of the undead scourge closing in on them.
“That’s our cue to move,” Eldric said and the three started to run towards the street leading north and up towards the hill. The street was filled with the undead scourge, screaming to get their hands on the trio.
“Okay, time for round two!” Grimnir shouted and just about when he had picked a target for his morning star, the scourge started to move away from them, running up the street.
“What?” Eldric said but before he could think more of it, Grimnir was running faster behind the zombies and shouting “Fear me!” until they came round the corner, when Grimnir stopped on his tracks. Up on the street, surrounded by zombie trolls with mauls and small gnomes pointing rifles directly at Grimnir and the rest of the group, was Night Templar Xijan on her pitch black slowly decaying war horse, holding her staff on her left hand, emanating the power of Dark Aurora. Her dark red crystal armour glowed and crackled from within, shining ominous red light on her ornamental metal chest plate. Her helmet revealed her face that was as beautiful as it had been thousand years ago. Her slightly glowing crystal eyes were fixed on one person; Eldric. And she was smiling. The world around them went silent. Nothing moved, just the zombie troll holding a massive war hammer growled by himself.
“Oh my, a Finngård wizard.” said Xijan with a smooth penetrating voice. “It must be my lucky day.” Xijan raised her staff and the goblins fired their rifles as the trolls started to run down the road.
Tom shivered inside the ale barrel. He had swallowed a lot more ale than he would have really wanted when the barrel had been moved around. It was pitch black and his fingers throbbed in pain as he had tried to open the lid of the barrel in vain. There was nothing to hold on to. The air was starting to run out and he couldn’t afford dying in here. He knew what happens to dead people and as a homicidal zombie he would not be able to take care of his son. His son that was at this time somewhere under, at the bottom of the barrel, scratching his legs and biting them. There was nothing left to do but one more thing; cry for help. Tom started to knock on the lid of the barrel. Then soon he was banging it.
“Heeeeelp!” He shouted as loud as he could. Nothing. There was not a single sound around. It was all quiet.
“Someone! Help! I’m in the barrel!” Tom shouted and banged on the lid. He felt his head becoming dizzy from the lack of air and from the shouting. It was pointless. Tom stopped and started to ponder which way would be more comfortable to die; suffocating or drowning in ale. He figured the both of them to be quite similar. Suddenly Tom felt the ship tilt violently and the barrel fell down on its side and then rolled on to the wall. Tom swallowed another mug full of ale while rolling around in the barrel with his son. The ship tilted again and the barrel rolled onto a small metal support beam and cracked. Tom felt the ale starting to spill out. The barrel continued to roll back and forth each time hitting something hard until Tom heard noises.
“Ragnar, you moron!” a deep angry voice shouted, “You forgot to strap the barrels down!”
“We were in hurry, chef,” said Ragnar.
“Come on, help me!” the deep voice said and Tom felt the barrel turn back up.
“Just great. It’s leaking. Go get that empty one, maybe we can salvage some of it.”
Tom went blind for couple of seconds when the big bellied chef Hjålgar opened the lid and jumped back screaming like a little girl. As Tom regained his eyesight there were two figures staring down at him; Chef Hjålgar, wielding a knife on his right hand and his friend, a young man called Ragnar holding an oil lamp, shining the light on Toms’ face.
“What is that?” Ragnar said.
“Uh, hello, I am Tom.” Tom said and tried to smile but was too scared.
“What are you doing in my ale?” Hjålgar grunted.
“I –uhm- escaped from the city in it,” Tom continued
“Hiding in the ale? What kind of idiot locks himself into a barrel of perfectly good ale?”
“Sorry about that,” Tom said.
“It’s ruined now,” Hjålgar said and shook his head. “We don’t have any ale left. We’re doomed.”
“It’s still good. I just drank some,” Tom said.
“You!” Hjålgar shouted, “Shut your mouth! And get out of there! Now!”
Tom was trying to keep his son still under the water with his left arm and had no idea what to do with him. If they saw him, they would most certainly kill him.
“Come on! Out!”
“Okay, I just- “Tom stuttered and looked around for somewhere to hide his undead baby boy.
“Enough!” Hjålgar said and picked Tom up from his shoulders, pulled him out of the barrel and hung him high in the air.
“What?” Hjålgar stared at the growling and soaked baby boy Tom was hanging on. Before Hjålgar could figure out what was going on, Tom suddenly kicked the oil lamp out of Ragnar’s hand and as it hit the floor it shattered and lit the floor on fire.
“You little bastard!“ Hjålgar dropped Tom, quickly grabbed the ale barrel and turned it over pouring the remains into the burning floor. The flames died instantly and the men were left in the pitch black darkness.
“Get another lamp!” Hjålgar shouted.
“Where?” Ragnar said in the dark, “They’re all up in the deck.”
“Right,” Hjålgar said and struck a large match. It shone a small flickering light in his face and as he moved it around, he saw flower bags and some dried meat hanging from the ceiling but not a sign of Tom or his boy. The match died out and Hjålgar struck another one.
“Let’s get out of here.” he said and slowly made his way to the ladder, leading up to the deck.
“What about the halfling?”
“He’s not going anywhere,” Hjålgar said and climbed up.
“Good thing that was ale and not Dragon Mead. That would’ve blown the whole ship up,” Ragnar said as he closed and sealed the hatch after him, leaving Tom in the pitch black darkness. Behind the flower bags, by the wall a baby boy growled as Tom let go of his mouth.
“Shit,” Tom said and took a deep sigh.
Night Templar Xijan was motionless like a statue on her horse, covered in frost and so was her army down on the road. They were all immobile in various different positions, running down the frosted street, waving their weapons. Some were even frozen in time at mid-air. Amongst them, Lani and Grimnir looked around in awe as they tried to figure out what had happened. Eldric walked slowly up the street, dodging bullets moving very slowly in mid-air, the arms of Eldric were glowing wildly in blue colour under his blue jacket. Eldric’s eyes were bright blue and focused on the Night Templar. He walked past the troll and his war hammer in a striking position and continued his way through the statuesque horde of zombies.
“What is this? He froze time?” Lani said as she looked at the bullets flying in the air.
“Not quite. I’d say he cast a Haste spell.” Grimnir said and walked next to the first troll coming at them.
“Yep. He didn’t stop them, he just made us move very fast. That’s why it looks like the time stopped.”
“Interesting,” Lani said and looked around.
“Enough talk. Check this out!” Grimnir said, grabbed his morning star and swung it directly into the right side of the troll’s chest. The troll shattered into million pieces which flew across the street and then slowly froze still in the air, “With haste my morning star moves as fast as lightning.”
“Nice,” Lani said and swung her sword into a small goblin holding a rifle. The goblin was not just instantly cut in half but the kinetic force continued through the body and the gnome started to slowly explode from inside.
“This is fun,” Lani smiled and kicked a halfling lady holding a small hammer and shattered her chest into thousand pieces.
“Stop playing around!” Eldric shouted up the street, standing next to the Night Templar, “I can’t hold this spell for long. Get over here!”
Grimnir and Lani quickly made their way through the horde, leaving shattered zombie pieces lying around in the air.
“That’s a Night Templar? Let’s kill her,” Grimnir said and took aim with his morning star.
“Wait!” Eldric shouted, “Don’t touch her.”
“I sense a strong protection spell around her. And that’s not all,” Eldric looked directly at the eyes of Xijan and as he did, the ice around them shattered and the crystal eyes stared right back at him.
“We need to move, now,” Eldric said and then stopped as his eyes found crystal end of the staff in Xijan’s hand. Inside, he saw the essence of Dark Aurora. He moved closer, staring at the darkness. Behind him Grimnir screamed in pain and dropped to his knees. Eldric just stared at the Dark Aurora within the staff and raised his hand slowly towards it.
“Eldric!” Lani shouted as Grimnir shook in pain and his shirt scorched and burned through, revealing the talisman of resurrection inside, expanding right in front of their eyes, grabbing his skin tighter and running its golden veins through his chest and to his left shoulder. Then he collapsed down on the ground, motionless. As Eldric’s fingers touched the staff, the head of Night Templar Xijan moved as she forced herself into Eldric’s spell and the ice in her body started to crack. Lani grabbed Eldric away from the staff and shook him.
“Snap out of it!” Lani shouted to Eldric. “We need to go.”
“Grimnir?” Eldric said as he saw him on the ground, twitching in pain.
“I’ll get him, just keep your spell going!” Lani said and lifted Grimnir to her shoulder and started to run south through the frozen undead army. Eldric followed, trying to hold on to the remnants of the Haste spell to get them as far as possible before it failed.
When they were just about clear of the city border, Eldric finally collapsed to the ground from the exhaustion and let go of the spell. Immediately they heard the undead howls from the city.
“Let me down!” Grimnir shouted and struggled off from Lani.
“How about a thank you?” Lani grunted as Grimnir walked over to Eldric, who was breathing heavily.
“Are you okay?” Grimnir said to Eldric.
“Just tired, but what about you?” Eldric said and pointed to Grimnir’s chest. Grimnir ran his fingers through the golden talisman, moving all through his chest and felt the golden veins up on his shoulder.
“I was afraid this would happen,” Grimnir said. “It’s happened couple of times before. The talisman needs living energy to bring me back and this place is a void.”
“So it grows?”
“It absorbs my life force. Good thing I have plenty!” Grimnir smiled and tapped Eldric on his shoulder.
“You could have told me this before we left.”
“And miss all the fun? No way. I’ll be okay.”
“If you stop dying in every battle that is,” Lani said. From the distance, a terrifying howl of the zombie horde reigned over them like a storm and interrupted their conversation.
“Speaking of which.” Eldric said, “Can you run?”
“I’m fine,” Grimnir said as they started to run south, following the road.
Lord Marduk was kneeled beside the remains of Baél, still occupied in his thoughts, concentrating on something. The Dark Aurora flowed around him more fiercely than it had before and streams of the Dark Aurora were directly feeding on the few remaining pieces of flesh from Baél. Night Templar Xen came walking back to his master.
“My Lord,” Xen bowed.
“Leave” Lord Marduk growled silently, without looking up, “I’m busy.”
“Uhm,” Xen pondered his choices for a while, then decided to take the risk, “This is important.”
“Finngård wizard is headed this way.”
“Night Templar Xijan is hunting him, south of the halfling capitol.”
“Good,” Lord Marduk said, “Have the rest of the Templars moved north already?”
“Yes. The horde is moving towards the dwarven lands as one army.”
“Very well, now leave me.” Lord Marduk said and closed his eyes. The Dark Aurora started to swirl faster around him and Night Templar Xen decided it was best if he would go and oversee the attack on the north. He walked towards the temple of the dead, which was on the other side of the River of Spirits. On the stone bridge, crossing the river, he noticed that the stream had almost dissipated. The river was now almost dry. But still, through the gates of the Underworld he kept hearing a noise like a bellowing of a waterfall. Something was still there. Something ancient and big. Night Templar Xen took a couple of quick steps and moved away from the bridge towards the temple. He felt anxious; The City of the Dead seemed way too silent for his taste. There were no screams from the recently deceased or tearing of limbs. All but he and Lord Marduk were gone and almost the whole continent was soon to become silent. But still, the thought of the whole world under his command, that thought felt good. For a second Xen thought if Lord Marduk could read his thoughts, but as he stepped onto the temple steps and walked up, he stopped worrying. He walked into the golden circle and placed his hand in the centre of a big transparent crystal orb. The orb lit up and as Night Templar Xen concentrated on the orb, he could see the world through the eyes of other Night Templars.
Tom had no idea how long he had been down in the darkness. The ship seemed to have hit even bigger storms as it rocked violently back and forth for hours, maybe even days. No one had come below deck to check on him or worse, kill him. He had found water by stumbling around in the dark and also some dried meat. At least he hoped it was dried meat and not someone’s leather pants. There was not much to eat as most of the barrels were empty. His zombie son had no problem in the darkness as he hunted the floors for rats, quite successfully, if the squeaks were a good indication of it. As Johan had nowhere to go from here, Tom did not worry too much about him. ‘Let him play’ he thought. When the men finally would come to get them, they might be doomed anyway. This had been a long and very stressful journey for a small halfling but at least they were safe from the zombie horde here, locked in the dark belly of the unknown ship, headed somewhere, hopefully far away from the horrors.
Tom decided to take another nap and climbed inside one of the empty barrels that were secured to the wall. Inside the barrel he would be safe from rats and most importantly, his son. He still had an occasional habit of trying to claw his eyes out and his bony fingers were perfect for the job. Tom curled up in the bottom of the barrel, on top of a flower bag and pulled an empty bag over his head. The rocking of the ship soon waved him to sleep as his son crawled around in the floor, after a quite terrified little mouse.