The smell of the horde spread like a cloud. Dust and decay filled Valentine's nostrils. He hated the dryness, it was nothing like the dank rot of Lady Vess' undead he was used to.
"We need to leave!" Valentine grabbed Frug's tiny hand.
"We should stay!" Frug slipped from his grip and began to string his bow.
"We don't have time to argue! We can't be here!" Viverian grabbed them both, and her grip was much more demanding. They sprinted back into the town proper, carrying with them tides of whispers and unease.
"They should know, we need to tell them!" Frug said.
"These people don't deserve it!" Valentine exploded. His companions paused to listen in confusion. "Even if we tell them, they won't believe us. Even if we can, they'll panic. Frug, the town is doomed." A memory forced its way into his mind, the innkeeper calling him a monster, the latest of many. They don't deserve my help. Valentine assured himself.
"You're scared," Frug noted. Valentine looked down at him with large eyes.
"It's not about that."
"You're so scared of losing you won't even try! These people may not be able to help themselves, but we can help them! We can fight! Fighting is what heroes do Val, and we are heroes!"
"I'm not a hero!" Valentine bellowed. They whirled on each other, each holding the other in a blistering gaze. "Spare me from your grandiose delusions. Heroes are for fantasies, and I'll have no part in this!"
Frug doubled Valentine's intensity, to a point where it didn't matter that he was a third of his size, Frug towered above him all the same. Slowly, Frug produced a small length of three purple chains from his belt. He held it up and snapped one meaningfully.
"Fuck…" Valentine muttered. It was decided. He abandoned the argument and marched into the town proper, flanked by his companions. "Frug, get the Old Guard! They are the townsfolk's only chance of getting out of here alive. Viverian! Start alerting people of what's happening. Escort them out of town in the other direction. I don't care what's there, be it river or mountain it's better than this."
"How are we going to fight it?" Frug asked.
"They are undead, nothing like I've seen but undead nonetheless. They won't stop easily, but they are decrepit and old. Anyone that can swing a heavy branch can do just as much damage as a trained soldier. Tell them that when you go!"
"What are you going to do?" Viverian asked before she left.
"I'm going to buy you as much time as possible."
Valentine walked to the edge of town, back to where he saw the horde. He spotted them sooner than he would like, they were closing in on the town. Their stench almost made him double over and heave, brought over to him on a spring wind. The moved with the sound of a stampede, but at the agonizing pace of the elderly. They shambled and hobbled, but the sounds of thousands of them doing it created a great thundering that followed them. A menacing, creeping locust swarm that would pick the town clean. Slowly, Valentine began to cast his magic.
He pulled necromantic energy from every facet of his body, reached deeper within himself to pull on strands of power he never dared touch before. His senses shuddered in unison as he channeled the power, gathering and shaping it how he wished.
He was slow, the horde was getting closer. Panic filled him as he faced the possibility of not finishing in time. It took him off his focus, making the intricate spell take all the longer. He flickered between focusing on his bodily senses and his magical sight, keeping tabs on the approaching horde while he shaped his magic. With a start, he looked and they were upon him. A shout fell from his lips as he felt dry, flaky fingers graze against his skin.
He stubbornly refused to cancel his spell. Hundreds of hands scraped against him for a hold, pulling on his clothes and tugging him about. His hearing was overtaken by brainless groaning in every direction, and soon all he could see was an unbroken wall of flesh. He felt dry teeth close on his flesh, then released his spell.
The undead surrounding him were knocked over as if by a great wind, willed against their will to fall over and die. Valentine stood alone, like a fence post in a field of toppled grass. The other undead stopped moving. They stood straight and still, awaiting orders from their new master.
Valentine felt alive. Never had he used so much power. Potential that had lied dormant in his deepest reaches flowed freely through his veins, shooting out his fingertips to his whim. He was powerful. He should have done this sooner. Now that he had opened the floodgates he was stronger than he had ever dreamed, while his magical reserves lasted. With a grip of his fists, he forced another section of the undead to fall, another scythe culling the horde like crop.
An alien presence swept over him, covering him in a cold chill like a dark cloud blotting out the sun. There was an intelligence here, beyond the servantile processes of the dead. Valentine felt like an ant being observed by a man, a towering force he'd never understand, ready to stomp him out at any time. He felt himself be swallowed up by the presence. Then, like a great wave, it knocked the chains of Valentine's spell aside. Valentine had to redouble his efforts to maintain a hold on the undead. He was an insect in a windstorm though, forced to drain massive stores of power to keep holding the horde under control.
Then the pain began. With every heartbeat, burning snaked through his veins. He saw the magic building up in his arms before he registered the agony. His skin glowed bright purple, and seemed about to burst. Valentine lost his hold on his magic when his veins began to split. His skin cracked, shining out light from within. Thick black oil flowed from his mouth and nostrils, covering his chest. He lost control of his magic and started to slip back into the orchestra of agony that was his body.
He couldn't breathe, he coughed and choked on the stinking black tar. His arms felt as if they were being bitten by a million ants, poked with lines of needles along every vein, too much to use his hands, let alone feel them. Yet, he stubbornly refused to let go of the magic, the power. He needed it. Only moments ago he was limitless, and now it was slipping through his grasp. If he lost it, he'd be powerless, again. He stubbornly held onto a single thread, a tiny string connecting him to the spell. Abruptly, something hard slammed into the back of his skull and knocked him far from the spell.
"You idiot!" Viverian cried. "What do you think you're doing? You trying to kill yourself?!"
Valentine tried to answer, but could only manage a blubbering of black oil. He looked like a child, messing his shirt and struggling to speak.
Viverian turned to swing her huge sword through three undead, turning them to a cloud of dust. She turned her attention back to him as if nothing had happened.
"Valentine, can you hear me?" She snapped her fingers in front of his face. In truth he could barely make out her words, his mind still spinning between physical and magical perceptions. "I can see you in there Valentine, answer me!"
Undeterred by his lack of response, Viverian slung him over her shoulder as she might handle a child. She ran through the horde, handling her two handed sword in her single free hand. Undead who didn't part for her were cleaved into dust and left to blow away in the wind. Eventually they broke through the horde, and for a while Valentine was carried peacefully through town.
Viverian dropped him off next to a water trough. He clung to the rim, black ichor still dripping from his face, and plunged his head underwater. He ignored that this was a horse trough and washed out his nose and mouth. When he was done he was a dripping mess, but at least he could breathe. His body felt weak as a child, able to move but unable to accomplish much.
He pushed his wet hair out of his eyes to see what had become of the town. Carts and barrels had been stacked into a makeshift barricade. The Old Guard gathered on the rooftop of houses, two per, with bows and quivers at the ready. He saw Frug standing by an elf, arrow already knocked.
The dead approached with a dry shuffling like ripping thousands of papers. The townsfolk scrambled, moving barely armed men to the front and shooing women and children deeper into town.
"Draw!" A voice called. A score of bow strings stretched in unison
"Fire!" Bowstrings snapped and a cloud of arrows flew into the horde. They sunk into the dead up to the goose-feather fletching.
Orders kept coming: draw, fire, draw, fire. Aiming was easy when the horde filled the street. Men stood just behind the barricade, gripping their weapons tightly, dreading the first undead to crawl over and onto their side.
A rust stained skull poked over the barricade, letting out a victorious croak. A nearby teen yelped, dropping the club he was holding. An arrow broke the skull like an egg. More skulls and hands pulled on the barricade now, the creeping tide drawing closer.
Eventually the arrows stopped coming. With nothing to stop them, they rushed over the barricade with ease and spilled into the street.
For the armed and prepared there was nothing to fear, as the dead were little more than target practice. Unfortunately there were few of them amongst the fighters. Most were young, inexperienced, and ill-equipped. The sight of the risen dead charging into their town scared them stiff, making them easy targets. Rotten teeth and decaying claws was their enemies' prefered method of attack, and once a fighter was held down they swarmed them like flies, vying for space and their own chance to tear his skin off. Once they were reduced to a pile of ripped flesh and exposed bone, they moved onto the next. The sight of these atrocities only lowered morale and scared the fighters further. With the inexperienced fighters kept to the back, the problem was only getting worse as the dead broke through the front ranks. Screams became constant and a song of panic played through the defenders.
Viverian was a shining inspiration for the town. She swung her sword like an axe through twigs. Wherever she went, piles of dead were left behind and a cloud of dust followed her. She didn't attempt battle lines like the others, she sought to dive directly into the fray and thin the ranks of the dead alone. Her sword wasn't efficient enough for her, it seemed, because whenever she had the opportunity, she'd headbutt a zombie, boring her horns through it. After a few minutes of combat, her sword and horns were caked with rust-colored dust.
She looked like a battle maiden, a spirit from the heavens sent by the Queens to strike down the wicked. Unfortunately her deeds of bravery went mostly unnoticed by the townsfolk, who were too busy fleeing or dying to witness her heroics. Some dead were breaking through the defenders and reaching civilians, the children and elderly who couldn't outrun them.
With the men fighting for their lives and Viverien swimming in enemies, the women and children demanded an unlikely hero. It was Frug who abandoned his post on the rooftops, sliding down the shingles and jumping to the ground, knocking over a zombie when he landed. Knives appeared in Frug's hands, his bow abandoned. His face had turned deadly serious, all comedy and naivety gone without a trace.
He dashed through the ranks of the risen with purpose.. He was too short for them to notice, too quick to grab, and too deadly to give them a second chance at him. Their ankles were weak like rotten wood, easy enough for a trained hand to separate from the rest of the body. Undead started dropping from the middle of the horde, looking as if pulled underground. His tiny form slipped out the other side, leaving a score of fallen dead behind him. He wasted no time in attacking the supporting rope of a tall wooden pole. The rope snapped under his blade, the pole groaned and slowly tilted towards the street. It picked up speed, rushing down with a great rumble until smashing into the horde. It shook the ground and sent up a dust cloud, confusing the simple zombies. The remaining defenders took the opportunity to cut down as many as they could. The horde was split in two and scattered, for the moment.
"Clever little gnome…" Valentine chuckled from his viewing point at the horse trough. "Cutting off the head of the snake… Frug, you really are a monster slayer, aren't you?"
If a gnome a few feet tall could change the tide of battle, Valentine felt a little silly laying down. He stood up on shaky legs, feeling like a newborn calf. His strength hadn't returned to him yet, but he didn't need much. Just enough to whip any zombies that got near him. Bitterheart unfurled from his belt and shot into his hand, eager to be used. With the range of a whip, he felt at ease picking them off one by one. Whenever he cracked his whip, a zombie crumbled. They dissipated like they were made of dust all along, barely holding form until a light breeze could scatter them. Thanks to Frug's efforts, the last of the undead were being picked off when Valentine had enough strength to hobble into the gathering crowd of people.
"That's her, that's the demon!" A burly man covered in bits of undead pointed at Viverian, gathering the attention of the whole town. "Her demon blood brought them here!"
Viverian's eyes went wild. She felt for her hood but found it gone, lost to the battle.
"Today you enchanted this child to steal her money!" A woman cried. In her arms, the child that had given Viverian apples to crush was limp. Both of their clothes were stained red as if dumped in a wine barrel. "Are you satisfied now? Or will you come for the rest of us?"
"No-please-I didn't-" Viverian's voice stumbled.
"She already has! She brought this plague upon us! First she infiltrated our town, then called the rest of her pack to harvest our souls!"
"She's the one that brought them past the Twins! It's the only way!"
They were pathetically wrong. It didn't matter; nothing mattered to them right now. They were whipped into a frenzy and only a drop of blood away from a mob. In under a minute they could be quartering Viverian, and Valentine was overcome with the unfamiliar desire to do something about it. He saw someone run for Viverian, and he knew he needed to act.
Valentine took in as much air as he could squeeze into his lungs, gathered his voice from deep within him, and yelled.
"I DID IT!"
The crowd was muzzled. Their shouts died in their throats and weapons fell to their side. Valentine knew he only had a brief window before their confusion would turn to hatred.
"Vess." Valentine reached out a hand like a claw, sending tendrils of purple smoke to a nearby fallen undead. It opened purple eyes and shook with new life. Its head rattled like a shutter in a storm, emitting screams from the nearest crowd. "These zombies are under my control, now listen to me before I make them rise and slay the other half of you! I'll paint your houses with your children's blood, I swear it!"
Valentine's eyes pierced through the crowd and found Viverian's baby blues. She shook her head, pleading. She was telling him not to continue; he couldn't hear her, but he knew. Frug tugged on her wrist, likely telling her to leave with him. Valentine's expression snapped back to the crowd, lest he lose their fear. Luckily, they turned on him as quickly as they had turned on Viverian.
"I saw him using dark magic during the fight!"
"He's the one that controls them!"
"That Tiefling nearly killed me!" Valentine lied. "She killed many of my troops and defended the town. I curse you, Tiefling! If it weren't for you everyone here would lay dead!"
She shot to her feet, tail poised behind her like a growling cat. Her sword in hand, she strode to him until they were nose to nose, one monster meeting another. Her voice was soft and barely a whisper, too quiet to be overheard, "You don't need to do this."
"Only one of us needs to leave here a monster," Valentine whispered back. Viverian closed her eyes and sighed. Valentine wasn't exactly leaving her any other option. She put on her best angry face and growled.
"Leave this town!" She yelled into his face. "Leave these innocent people alone before I kill you where you stand!" She gripped her sword, lifting it to mock threaten him.
Cries of support came from the crowd.
"Get out of here!"
"Cut him down, Tiefling!"
Someone from the crowd picked up a rock and hurtled it at Valentine. He barely had time to lift a hand. When the rock connected it shattered his wrist.
Valentine's hand hung loosely, all semblance of a wrist replaced by snapped tendons and shattered bones. It looked like a fishhook, curling back around to rest parallel with his forearm.
"Well that won't do." Valentine said with a smile, eyes glowing a devilish purple. To the horror of the onlookers, he snapped his wrist back into place with a chorus of bony cracks.
"Monster!" One of them called.
Perfect, Valentine thought. It felt like he had been knighted in hate. He had garnered enough of their malive for them to bestow upon him the title of monster.
"You're all more trouble than you're worth!" Valentine cried out. He made for the inn, cracking his whip when the townsfolk didn't part for him fast enough. They made no attempt to stop him from untying a horse and mounting it. He dug his heels in, starting off at a fast pace out of town. He didn't have much time before they violently turned on him. He neared a slack-jawed Frug, who he grabbed by the scruff and pulled onto the horse. He owed Frug, and wasn't done with him yet. Besides, all the better for the facade if they believed he kidnapped a gnome, he mused.
He looked back onto the town. He didn't have any pursuers, just a crowd of stunned onlookers. He spotted Viverian standing among the townsfolk, their hate for her seemingly forgotten. Valentine resisted the urge to wave goodbye.
Meanwhile, Frug was sobbing into his jacket.
"VAL!" Frug wiped his tears on Valentine's clothes. "Val, you meanie! Why did you summon all those undead?"
"I didn't." Valentine sighed through gritted teeth. "But the town needed someone to blame, and decided on Viverian. So I lied and told them I did it. Do you understand?"
Frug blinked. "So, you didn't summon them? Then why did you tell them you did?"
Valentine groaned, deciding to save the explanation for another time. For now, he hugged his stolen horse and focused on getting far away. Once he was left alone with his own thoughts, he started to feel the presence of another within him.
They aren't yours, are they, Lady Vess? Valentine asked.
Don't insult me. I'd never make something so pathetic. She spoke into his mind. When she bestowed a part of her magic into him a year in the past, it established a link that she could peer through when she desired. She used it often, usually to belittle or order him.
Whose are they, then? Valentine asked.
You'll learn soon enough. For now, continue seeking the Chain Veil for me. You're running out of time, Valentine. With that her presence left him, though he felt empty the space soon fill with dread.