Time crawled. The lightning, arcing from the caster’s fingertips, bloomed like an iridescent flower in the darkness of the dungeon. Why had he been first in the line? He acutely felt the metal all across his body, the new armor he had bought in town.
He remembered Ai’s warning, his refusal to heal him and his promise to make him suffer for as long as he could, until he repented his wicked ways, recanted his belief in the God of Death. He hadn’t even snorted, had accepted the cleric’s help, with hate burning in his heart. He remembered his master, the man who had saved him from the pile of bodies. He remembered Broc, the simpleton, and remembered his proud words, meaningless now, in the glow of the lightning bolt, his death.
He felt is strike his right shoulder, arc onto his helmet. He smelled burning flesh; his face was burning.
His face was burning.
It felt like burning embers were laid against the side of his face. His skin burned, the bone burned, the infection burned, and he walked the path of flame from his scalp down to the edge of his jaw. How could his imagination still work? He saw the black oily smoke that came from his face, the dim flame, and amidst them, he saw the faces of his family. He saw the images of the things from his home–who knew that everything, even the pottery, could burn in a home?–and he saw the images of the creatures that had done this to him. He saw his family, either alive and burning, or corpses and burning, reach out from his own rotten flesh for his help.
At the foot of his roughly hewn bed, amidst the sheets, he saw a skeletal hand in an iron ring. Some times it was carved into the wood; sometimes it seemed to be a real hand. One time it was his father’s hand, briefly, clutching for his scimitar. And he thought his heart would break if he saw that image again. His mind and heart would burn with the savagery inflicted on his face. The scimitar was his father’s relic of a foregone time, when he had met his wife in the sands of the south.
In the sands of the north, the dunes surrounded by pines, was where the fire in his face had been lit. Someone came in and looked at the green, nauseating bandages around his face. They did not change them.
The town was nearly 500 men. A logging camp had it been in previous days, but the trade for the furred animals that lived in burrows in the dunes instead had brought this town some semblance of permanency. It had a small apothecary, an inn, an two churches dedicated to some of the lesser good gods. It did not have a graveyard, as of yet.
When They had come, it had been with an almost slow mundanity. The town did not have a guard, and did not have even a militia. But the villagers were immediately instilled with a feeling of deep fear. They could tell their enemy was organized and prepared not for looting or pillaging, but for murder. None would live out the day.
Three gnomes sat on tall ponies, one in black, one in blue, one in red. Their somber tone and businesslike manner showed that these were professionals, no simple band of brigands. The half-orc soldiers, or mercenaries, or thugs, operated in a seemingly intelligent manner. They were grouped in threes, all well-armed and armored. They went door to door, slaying as they went, and the houses they left blazed with light, even in mid-day.
What had brought Them here? Had some trade they had been involved with not gone well? Had an insult from one of the townsmen been brought to them or their employer? The townspeople knew, with an innate sense, that there would be no vengeance or revenge for the destruction of their town. Fur-trappers, loggermen, a few itinerant clerics would be the ones who knew of this, and they had no god and no one to watch over them.
Seventh house on the right. The elven wreath on the door for fall: berries, golden leaves, smooth bare driftwood, incense. The door burst asunder and they came in. In a second, he saw it all: his father deftly grabbing his scimitar and bringing it down on one of the half-orc’s hands, wielding a bloody mace, before he himself staggered, a crossbow bolt suddenly shaft-deep in his chest. Another second, and the half-orc with the maimed hand brought his mace down on his father’s chest. In a way he didn’t think could happen, his chest collapsed, like the kind of crusty bread they would make. His father’s face opened–his eyes, his mouth, even his nostrils, in a silent scream.
Then he screamed. And then he saw the mace, saw the blur of it, felt a droplet of blood strike his face first–and then it hit him. It crushed the side of his skull and his jaw. And then he was on the floor, and felt gushing liquid warmth all over his neck, his head, his hair.
He looked across the floor to his father’s face. He sat there, soundless, not breathing, not moving. His hand clutched for his scimitar.
He would never see another expression on his father’s face again. It would be frozen that way, when he died 2 minutes later.
“They did not even burn the bodies.” The man wryly said, as only someone used to death could.
The others were silent, looking across the bloody, pulped pile, laid on the dunes. Some of the younger ones were eager, even anxious. The man who had just spoken now fell silent, in time to hear one of the apprentices whisper “Beautiful…” Even here, at the heart of death and decay, the subtle power exchanges and elbowing for favor did not end.
He did not feel angry or dismayed at this. He believed this was natural, and that such conflict in the end would strengthen their apprentices. Or get them killed.
Dismounting from his black steed, he pulled a jug of oil and matches from his saddlebags. He approached the pile, as one of the other elder clerics began the chant of Grawdying, to consecrate the dead to his possession and to bless the bodies in the gift of their souls to him.
The first splash of black oil, cold in the autumn morning, brought forth a gasp from the ghastly pile. Against the oozing black liquid, two bright eyes opened widely. Even the elder cleric, who had seen thousands of dead in all manner of death, natural and abhorrent, froze in his place. Weakly, slowly, the corpse began to move.
Thoughts raced. Undeath here already, not even three days after the town had been butchered? Or had this man somehow survived, not claimed by Grawdying, laying amidst the slain as blood, excrement, and flies ran across them?
But this was no man. With the faintest of gestures, he sloughed off the dead bodies. It was apparent he had nearly dug his way through the stack of the dead from the middle. He was covered in all manner of filth, and blood, and the oil on his face now washed away from of the grime. It was a broken face, inflamed and bloody, the jawbone protruding from the right side. The child seemed that much more broken, given the elven perfection of his face. The chant ceased as the other elders caught on; the young ones were silent.
The mouth worked soundlessly, at first, and them built to a howl of rage, indignation, fear, hatred. He raised the scimitar in a clear sign of defense, but he couldn’t lift it higher than his waist for his powerlessness. And he knew that this scream was a question, an interrogation. It begged and withered for knowledge–not comfort, not fear, but for the very information that it needed so that the world would once again make sense.
He recognized this feeling, from his own past, as kindred. He stepped forward, answering the child. “You found glory.”
The fire has long since gone out. His face, marred by hand of half-orc. and by order of gnome, stares out at him from mirrors and still water, accusing him. Accusing him of surviving.
By day he works the fields, or hauls in water, or performs any one of a dozen menial chores. They observe their works in silence; he is told that children even younger than him live in silence here at the monastery. At night, they teach him the ways of Grawdying: tending to the mausoleums, or walking through the great mounds around their walled, ensorcelled fortress. They tell him, his zealous devotion to his god may even bring him to the great Necropolis some day, to the council of liches and vampires who preside over the great feasts of Grawdying in the east.
Was this the direction he would go? Would he go back north, to the ashes of his town, to where they burned the bodies of all the men and women and children he had known? Would he seek out the surgeons and clerics in the west to repair his shattered face?–when he had asked how he would get better, everyone had laughed and said Grawdying toyed with him. No healing would come to him. The one filthy bandage they used quickly became useless when the infection oozed from the wound in his face.
The first and last thing he saw every day was the iron ring and skeletal hand etched roughly into the wood of his bed. Even in direct sunlight from the tall windows, it caught the shadows in its deep grooves, promised small secrets. At night, when his tired body awoke him, or he dreamt of fire in the north, he saw it move, obscenely, in small scary movements. It would flex, it would tap its fingers, and sometimes it would reach for a scimitar.
“You’re a cleric that can’t heal huh? That seems pretty odd. But I guess I’m a warrior and I can’t use a shield too well. Can all clerics control the Undead like you did back there? I won’t lie, I don’t much like the Undead they make the hairs on my knuckles stand up like wheat on the first harvest of the year. You thirsty?”
Broc offers a waterskin in the direction of Maltremble.
Maltrimble looks disdainfully at the water skin, but ultimately accept an it and drinks from it.
“I actually can heal. I have been trained to use my god’s power to cure wounds, but I do not agree with it. The Dead God would be angry that I had denied him a sacrifice.”
Maltrimble pauses sagely.
“I can make exceptions in extreme cases only. Where a greater sacrifice could be gained to his glory.”
“I don’t much like the Gods. They’re always asking for sacrifices, gold, and everything else under the sun. Why? If they’re all powerful why do they need that stuff and give so little in return,” Broc seems to stare off a little as he continues his rant.
“They allow murder, theft, rape, war, and everything else. Some of them even condone such behavior, why do we mere mortals bow down to such Tyrants? Even if they are all powerful why do they need our prayers? Or are they just that arrogant and demented they enjoy hearing people beg?” Broc shakes his head and smiles at Maltremble.
“Sorry ’bout that mister. That was rude of me to go on like that. You worship the Dead God? I suppose that’s why you’re with us then. . . We sure do kill a lot of people.” Broc says with remorse.
“I don’t much like men, elves, dwarves…” Maltrimble says, capping the water skin and handing it back. “The Gods are powerful, and wise, but they are easier to understand than mortals. More singular in purpose and will.”
Maltrimble touches the closed wound on his arm that the Other Cleric had healed. “A good god would have healed me in whole, regardless of my actions or beliefs. But this cleric prolonged my life to torture me, to make me suffer. Its complicated. His power and will are weak.”
“The Gods were here before us. But before us, they were as capricious as us. They fought a great war, which killed many of the gods, and nearly destroyed the world itself. When mortals came, our actions defined the Gods–birth, rape, honor, war, murder, even the elements we feel–they are acts whose power defines the Gods.”
“Death is natural. The body is intended to fail, to be killed, to be destroyed. We only hasten that process. Every creature who contends with us, and dies, is testament to his glory.”
“Now I have spoken too much, and I bore you.”
Broc puts away the waterskin.
“But what’s the point of life if you quicken dea–” Broc stops mid-sentence.
“Ah you’re right. This stuff is for the thinkers, which everyone else reminds me I am not.” Broc gestures to the back of the cave where the rest of the party is asleep when he says ‘everyone else’.”
“That was not very nice, and certainly hypocritical, of Ai to not heal you. I reckon I agree with that much.” Broc remains silent for a little bit, and plays with some rocks on the ground for a bit before he says,
“You know I wish I was a farmer, like my great grand pappy. He was pretty important, or so I’m told. People often think being a farmer is a dishonorable profession. I like to think of them like the Sun. They give and sustain life with hardly anything asked in return. Without the farmers where would we be?”
Broc looks over at Maltrimble to try and read his expression.
“I forgot you’re a quiet one. That’s OK I suppose.”
“No farmer could make enough food to sustain life forever. Even the soil refuses to grow life, after so long, even with the best stewardship. But there is life beyond death–and not the crude fashionings like those creatures we encountered in the moat house.”
Maltrimble gives a wide smile, more like a leer with his hideous face, and you feel a palpable chill. You know he is referencing undead creatures like Liches.
“We shall face them someday. And like the others, I will learn their secrets, overturn their rotted minds, and make them mine.”
“Sleep now, Broc. Tomorrow’s need will be sterner. Tomorrow we enter the temple.”
But Maltrimble is looking over at Ai’s pack as he says this. Inside are the healing potions that Ai refused to give him, to restore him to health.
Broc hauled Maltrimble’s body as quickly as he could down the hall. The smell of burnt flesh, of ionized gas, of the gluey dampness of Molly’s Web spell, filled the air.
He looked down on his face, knowing that Maltrimble would have something to say about his own death. Something proud, something bold. But instead, his face is frozen in a rictus of fear, an splotchy red weal across his flesh, a blackened scorch mark on his mail.
Would it be the last expression he would ever see on his face?