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In a dank, pitch-black tomb, a small red rune winked to life.

It would be difficult to specify where in the room such an event occurred, since the rune wasn't visible on any of its surfaces. But considering that the tomb itself did not have a straightforward physical location as such, this was hardly the strangest attribute it possessed. If pressed for details, its constructors would have described it as "a closed-loop manifold constructed of discontiguous spatial isomorphisms", most of which had been drawn from random points inside solid objects such as the planet's crust. One of the more unsettling effects such a method of creation produced was the fact that many of the room's surfaces were either invisible to the naked eye or produced deeply distressing visual artifacts when gazed upon with normal sight, but since the room was pitch-black nothing in it was visible anyway. The rune, thoroughly unconcerned with any of these facts, began to glow more brightly, pulsing rhythmically as it did so.

For several minutes, nothing happened. Then, slowly, something began to stir inside the tomb. The large black sarcophagus placed in the center trembled, only slightly at first, but then with increasing vehemence. Finally, after nearly a quarter of an hour, the heavy lid of the sarcophagus slid to the side and crashed to the floor.

The creature which emerged from within was, of course, horrifying to behold. Black, tarry putrescence covered its twisted limbs, and the twitching, shuddering motions with which it heaved itself about were unnatural and sickening. Lurching and quivering with loathsome intent, it dragged itself slowly and menacingly from the sarcophagus with great apparent difficulty. Somewhere within the room's non-euclidean confines, the red rune flashed brightly and then burnt out forever.

For nearly an hour, the creature thrashed about within the tomb, battering into walls and emitting disgusting bubbling noises. Eventually, however, it managed through sheer persistence to locate the room's exit, a matched pair of congruent triangles on the room's horizontal surfaces. With a burst of foul-smelling smoke, the creature vanished from the tomb, which instantly collapsed into nothingness behind it, and reappeared in a muddy field somewhere much more spatially coherent.

The creature's new location, suffused as it was with things like air and visual light, triggered a number of new changes in its behavior. The bubbling, croaking noises emitting from it increased greatly in intensity, and it began to shudder with increased violence as it lurched about. After a minute or two, it dropped to the ground and began to vomit copiously, a sight which would have tremendously disgusted nearby observers if any had existed. The black filth which poured forth from its twisted, gaping jaws splashed and flowed viscously along the ground, crawling and squirming into the dirt in search of some sinister purpose. Before long, the earth began to stir.

With echoing groans, the zombies shrugged themselves free of the dirt and approached the writhing figure. They seemed to regard it worshipfully for a moment, then reached out with their rotting paws to grope at the creature's noisome flesh. After a long period of horrid activity, something began to emerge from within the slime.

Viewed with the proper sensory organs, the creature's body would have seemed majestic -- beautiful, even. Supple bands of energy wrapped its form in pleasing symmetrical shapes, flowing with firm lines and gentle curvatures not unlike those of a human's flesh or musculature. To the mortal eye, however, the creature was quite awful to behold. It had once been human, but all that remained now were its bones, which floated seemingly unsupported in a watery, slimy membrane which dripped and oozed at various intervals. The creature's maw, expelling the last of the tarry black slime, creaked and shaped words in a language which had not been spoken aloud in nearly six hundred years. If any scholars of Auld Shula still lived and had been present to translate, they would have given the most accurate phrasing of the sentiment in modern tongues as something along the lines of "You have got to be fucking kidding me."

Velinaer Dax'taxu, Seventy-Ninth of his line, Keeper of the Charnel Repeaters for District 742-BVN4 and newly-formed arch-lich, was having a very bad morning.

***

Linduin cringed back as the sword blade swept before him. Clutching his meager axe, he stepped backwards carefully, painfully aware of his total lack of combat training. This was his third fight, and it wasn't going much better than the first two.

On the other side of the clearing, Tebes was currently engaged in hacking his two opponents apart with gusto. The four scruffy men who had attacked them were probably a preemptive attempt to head them off before they reached the next village, but their lives of intimidating farmers and hunting wild animals had not prepared them for the phenomenon which was Tebes. The first had made the mistake of threatening them with a naked blade, and Tebes had beheaded him before anyone else even had time to draw their weapons. The resulting scrambling, chaotic melee was nothing like the stories Linduin had heard, and involved significantly more screaming, vomiting, and shitting of one's pants than he had expected.

He assayed an experimental chop at his opponent, and was gratified when the man jumped back and cursed. The actual realization that he was in mortal peril and was probably about to die in agony hadn't yet penetrated his consciousness -- the teenage human's stout belief in one's own immortality would delay that for another minute or so, at least. Across the clearing, Tebes carved through another man's throat, eliciting a burbling scream which made Linduin jerk in horror.

"Bastards!" the remaining man spat, his face turning white. "You'll pay for this!"

"Other way around," Tebes replied, coolly flourishing his sword. "You're the only one left now. You could maybe kill the whelp, but that's not much to brag about. Unless you have some coins to buy our mercy with..." Tebes usually didn't have to finish his threats.

With another oath, the man turned and dashed out of the clearing, leaving his fallen comrades behind. Linduin sat down heavily, panting, as Tebes icily finished off the fallen and began scrounging through their pockets for valuables.

"Are... are we going after him?" Linduin gasped.

The reeve's face twisted with ire. "No, you dunce. You're more likely to trip on a root and break your neck than accomplish anything. Shut up and get moving."

The last two villages had been slimmer pickings than the first, but Linduin's pack now held over a hundred coins' worth of questionable taxation -- a fortune to anyone of his socioeconomic stature, but a pitiful counterweight to the fief's shortfall.

"What village... do you think they were from?" he panted as he struggled to his feet.

Tebes sniffed. "Who cares. Probably not even one of the ones we're headed to. Life's funny that way." The two of them picked their way over the corpses of the fallen and headed west out of the clearing, leaving behind the stench of death and ignominy. The corpses, thankfully, could no longer complain.

***

As consciousness slowly and cautiously took root once more in Cheis's mind, small sensations began to intrude. Straw, of course. She was probably lying on some. Stench of unwashed human. That was probably not her, but no guarantees, of course. Cooking meat. Oh, that'd be lovely. Dare she hope for breakfast? Unlikely, she supposed. Slaves probably didn't get breakfast. Oh, that's right, she'd probably been enslaved. With a sigh, Cheis opened her eyes to determine what sort of morning she was about to have.

Lying down on some straw -- she'd nailed that one. Hands bound with some rags. Okay, she could work with that. No gag, at least, and her mouth didn't taste gross, so they hadn't tried to put other rags or anything more disgusting in it while she'd been out. Feet not tied at all -- well, that was considerate. She also appeared to be free of wounds, bruises, or violations of any other nature, which was not only pleasant but downright difficult to believe. In fact, physically, she felt quite rejuvented, which she attributed to the lingering effects of the extropy tap she'd fired off back in Morhelm.

Ah, right. Morhelm. Entire town killed, that wasn't ideal. Could have been worse, though. She'd have to remember to set up concentration buffers next time. Maybe she could get started on the data structures for...

She froze. The core emulator prompt was missing. In a panic, she flicked through all the thought triggers for each of her loaders and interrupts, and was rewarded only with an echoing silence in her own head. The emulator had crashed while she'd been unconscious. She was naked, defenseless, powerless...

No, wait. A feeble echo from a ping request sent to her mnemonic cache. That was something. A quick status command returned a list of mostly corrupted labels, but a few of her macros still seemed to be present. Sorting the results, she pored over them, a rising sense of panic in her chest.

An enchantment for breathing underwater for ten minutes. Useless. A thermal regulator plug-in for an epidermal insulator enchantment, which she didn't have. Worse than useless, and she really missed it with all the straw and rocks poking her at the moment. A mid-radius reaping macro. Massive overkill for anything except being attacked by an army, and without a corresponding buffer to handle the incoming energy, she'd probably catch fire or explode. Was there nothing useful in here?

Aha, a kinetoneural template for an animated skeleton. That'd be handy, if she could find any skeletons. Enough energy stored in the macro for at least three castings, four if one of the skeletons was on the shorter side. She felt a little bit better.

A copy of Grumble Guts. She blinked. She hadn't looked at that since she was fifteen. What was it doing in here? She really needed to clean this thing up. How long had she been carrying that around? Total waste of storage capacity. Well, it'd be useful now, at least -- the ability to command someone to shit themselves to death, while embarrassingly juvenile, was at least one ace up her sleeve. She couldn't cast it with her hands bound, but one thing at a time. Other than that, the list contained nothing but jumbled symbols and weird smells. With a sigh, she sent a filtered purge command, leaving only the remaining four macros. She was tempted to purge the thermal regulator too, but she couldn't quite remember if she had a backup of that somewhere else and didn't want to lose her only copy if not.

Well, she'd put it off long enough. Time to take on the day.

Cheis of Veraleigh opened her eyes. As she'd suspected, she was in a filthy tent, on a bed of nasty straw, a captive of some bandits who was planned to be sold into slavery. She was also starving, so she hoped it was the nicer brand of slavery, where they fed you.

With a little effort, she managed to struggle out of the rag bindings. Silly that they'd bound her hands in front of her. Okay, now she could at least kill one person. Or stick her head in a bucket and not drown. Whatever.

Outside the tent, the bandit camp was going through its typical morning routine. A brawl the previous evening over the disposition of the prisoner had resulted in two black eyes, a damaged friendship, and a spilled wineskin, which had cost the serving-boy a finger. If Tarbi hadn't come back with a felled deer an hour after sunrise, the social structure of the camp might have undergone an insurrection.

The chieftain, Gorp, was a surprisingly even-keeled despot. His reputation for equal-opportunity cruelty was well-known throughout the band, and on occasion he could be known to lead the men in a sing-along and only lightly stab those who were off-pitch. Today, he was asleep, having consumed nearly half of the band's remaining alcohol stores the previous evening, and was likely to consume most of what remained upon waking. Luno, the group's lieutenant and Gorp's second-in-command, turned the deer carcass upon the spit while pondering the upcoming day's itenerary.

Judging the meat to have reached that elusive sear which immediately precedes a char, he carefully lifted the spit off the flames and over to a large rock prepared for the purpose, along with the group's best knife. The knife, taken from Lucky Valdi's corpse, technically belonged to Gorp but was usually considered on loan to Luno. Nobody liked having their meals seasoned with rust instead of salt.

Cheis of Veraleigh stomped out of the tent, noticed the proceedings, and sat down to observe. Luno, surprised, contemplated a call of alarm but decided against it. The wench was here, and she probably wasn't much of a threat without weapons. If she started acting squirrelly, he'd stab her with the good knife anyhow.

"So..." muttered Cheis. It was always hard to make conversation with people you might be about to kill.

Luno grunted. "You slept a while. I expected more panicking and thrashing."

Cheis shrugged. "I was pretty tired."

A brief, awkward silence descended between them, eventually broken by Luno. "Chieftain's not gonna be happy when he finds you out here. You should probably go back inside the tent. Dunno how you got loose, but it beats getting a kick in the teeth if you try to escape."

Cheis laughed. She couldn't help herself.

Luno, rather than fly into a rage as Cheis expected, eyed her speculatively. "You're not afraid of us at all, are you?"

Cheis shook her head. "No. I should probably be pretending, but I'm hungry and I've had a very bad couple of days."

Luno, who had not become second-in-command of the tribe for nothing, spent a few moments in silent thought. "Which is it? Camp follower, assassin, or something else?"

"Cheis of Veraleigh," said Cheis of Veraleigh.

***

Half an hour later, she was trekking through the forest, munching on a wrapped-up venison ration. Luno, who had confided in her that he eventually hoped to succeed Gorp, had immediately seen the value in having Cheis of Veraleigh as a distant but friendly acquaintance rather than as a nearby and stupefyingly dangerous enemy. Nice guy. Shame he was balding.

So. She was alone in the wilderness, mostly defenseless, miles from her documentation and on her own, with no wards, no daemons, and no way to improve her situation. By all rights, she should have been terrified, but Cheis of Veraleigh had killed three people with a spoon by her nineteenth birthday and once eaten a man's nose -- being reduced to a tiny fraction of her normal power was grossly insufficient to daunt her.

If she'd known what awaited her, however, she might have stayed in bed.

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AMBLE

  • Amateur Author, Professional Loon

Bio: https://twitter.com/secretly_amble

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