The dwarf was surprised she took so long. He was expecting her the first night, but she did not show herself until the morning after he left the village, and even then she did not approach his breakfast fire. Instead she sat on the low branch of a tree, not moving. The dwarf had to admit that had he not been on the look out for her, he probably would not have noticed her there. She sat so still she seemed part of the scenery.
He thought about ignoring her but decided that would be merely postponing the inevitable. Instead he plucked the feathers off the duck he had caught the other day, gutted it, and speared it on a stick over his fire. Once the fat began to sizzle he said loud enough for her to hear, but without looking at her, “You can have a bit of meat, but I eat in silence.”
After a minute she climbed down from the tree and squatted on the ground across the fire from the dwarf.
Voltag poked at the duck. “I don’t know why you’ve come,” he said. “The only way I can repay you is to kill Baltrog. It would be better if you weren’t around when it happened.”
“He ruined my life,” she said. “I’m sure he killed my father.”
“More reason for me to kill him,” said the dwarf.
“You don’t know where he lives,” she said. “You don’t know his fortress. I do.”
The dwarf pulled a piece of meat of the duck with his fingers, tasted it, and shook his head. “Not done,” he said.
He looked up at her. “This Lord, this Ball-rock, he controls your mind.”
“Sometimes,” she said.
“Sometimes,” he repeated. “One time is enough. Through you, he could see me coming. Or he could use you to lead me the wrong way. Like before.”
She was silent for a second. “I know when it’s going to happen,” she said. “I could warn you. I’ll shout something. Like, ‘he’s here’.”
The dwarf grunted. “‘He’s here?’ Then what do I do? Kill you?”
Again she sat silently. “It might not come to that. I don’t think he can control me unless he knows where I am. Unless he sees me or one of his minions sees me. I know he can look through the eyes of other people, and take over their minds more easily, but it seems harder for him to reach me. I don’t know why. Perhaps it’s my elvish blood.”
“And who saw you in the woods?”
The dwarf did not know if it was a joke or not, so he turned his attention back to the duck. “Done,” he declared. He broke it in half and tossed part to Yolanthe. Knowing it was coming, she produced a dagger from inside her tunic and speared the bird carcass as it came at her.
“Last thing I’ll say,” said the dwarf. “If he takes you over and you try to kill me, I’ll defend myself. Do we understand each other?”
“We do,” she said.
They ate their meal in silence.
They heard the water before they saw it. They had been walking downhill for four hours. Steep, wooded slopes framed the road, but it seemed less claustrophobic because the mountain peaks were less high. Sunlight sometimes penetrated to the path.
Finally they emerged into a broad valley. The road winded through a mile-long meadow of grass and wild flowers. They could see it stretched downwards in front of them and towards a bridge that spanned a river.
“After the bridge it’s a day to Baltrog’s personal lands,” said Yolanthe. “Another day to his castle in Tzanasport. We have to be careful now. We’re in his territory.”
“Humph,” said Voltag. “The sooner the better.”
He began to stride down the road towards the bridge. Yolanthe followed a few steps behind, scanning the landscape. Wide-open spaces made her uncomfortable and there was something odd about this meadow. While she had been here before, travelling with Baltrog, she had never noticed anything strange about it, but now it made her hackles rise.
They were about a hundred feet into the meadow when Yolanthe realized what the problem was. The meadow was bigger than it had been the last time she had seen it. That did not make sense. Forests tended to overtake meadows, filling them in, unless the soil conditions did not allow for heavy tree growth. But this meadow was larger. And more regular. The tree line was almost perfectly ovoid with one end of the oval ending at the bridge and the other starting where she now stood.
“Stop,” she said.
The dwarf pulled his axe over his head. He slipped into a fighting stance as he reeled around to face her.
“Is he here?” he asked in a fierce whisper.
“No,” she said. “But something else is.”
She held up her finger for him to be silent as she focused her senses. She studied the tree line and realized it had been cut back recently. Also the meadow vegetation was inconsistent. Small irregular patches of raw earth marred the expanse of grass and wild flower.
She could see small fauna: three squirrels, seven field mice, an owl on a distant tree, a pair of swallows darting over the meadow, dragonflies, bees.
She bent down and picked up a pinch of the soil at the side of the road. She rubbed it between her fingers. It was too loose. She tasted a fleck of it. It tasted of calcium and copper, but was rich enough to support trees. She stood up and breathed deeply. She could smell that soil had been turned here recently. Almost certainly the patches of raw earth were the result of recent excavations.
“Hold your breath,” she said.
The dwarf took a deep breath and held it.
She focused her hearing. At first there was nothing but the sounds of insects, birds, rushing water, and small animals in the grass. But then she heard something that did not fit: the sound of digging. Many things digging. But it was not normal digging. This was the sound of things digging upwards .
A cleared field.
Raw patches of earth.
Things digging up from the earth.
“Run,” she said.
Voltag and Yolanthe started to run towards the bridge. It was almost half a mile away.
The first movement came from the patches of raw earth. Claws, some covered with decaying flesh, began to thrust out of the patches and then scrabble to pull their owners out of shallow graves. Other parts of the meadow, covered with grass, began to bubble and shift as undead creatures buried beneath began to climb out. The claws that thrust out of these overgrown parts of the field were older – all bone and gristle, the flesh having long rotted away.
Yolanthe was almost a third of the way to the bridge when the first complete bodies pulled themselves out of the bare patches and into standing positions. They were too small to be human, too slight to be dwarves, and their heads were long and dog-like.
Kobolds, thought Yolanthe. This is a burial ground for a tribe of kobolds that lives in these forests. And something is animating these corpses. Someone.
Voltag could not run as fast as Yolanthe. While she had covered a third of the distance towards the bridge, he lagged 100 feet behind, running as fast as he could. He could see that it would be hopeless. Even Yolanthe, with her speed, would not make it to the bridge before the corpses and skeletons overwhelmed them. The complete corpses were already stumbling towards the road and many of them were in front of the half-elf and dwarf. The skeletons and more decomposed bodies were not far behind. The entire surface of the meadow was churning with undead kobolds forcing their way to the surface. So much ground had been broken by the creatures that it looked like it have been newly plowed.
While running, Voltag calculated. There were at least two hundred, maybe more, of the creatures, but they were clumsy, slow, and mindless. They could only win by overwhelming Yolanthe and him with their numbers, making it impossible for them to move and eventually clawing and biting them to death. The trick would be to keep a space around themselves into which the monsters could not enter. That was something he could do expertly with his axe, as long as he did not fall, but he could not imagine how Yolanthe could accomplish it with her bow. Stupid weapon, he thought. But maybe he could give her his dagger.
Yolanthe stopped running. Her way was blocked by seven corpses, the first two of which must have been very recently buried for they moved in a demonic parody of the quick, jerky movements of live kobold and their flesh, though dirty and green, was almost intact. Yolanthe pulled her bow into firing position and in a blur of motion put an arrow into each of the seven monsters.
It had no effect on them.
Stupid elf, thought Voltag, as he puffed up behind her. An arrow is not going to hurt something that is dead. Undead creatures have to be dismembered, crushed, or . . .
Yolanthe cried out a strange word in a language the dwarf did not understand. The arrows stuck in the undead kobolds all burst into flame. The undead kobolds twisted and fell as their insides burned.
Humph, thought Voltag. Seven down, 193 to go. Then he noticed that the less mobile monsters that stumbled behind the seven Yolanthe had just downed moved mindlessly into the flaming bodies of their fallen comrades. They tripped and fell onto the burning bodies, some of them in turn catching on fire.
The dwarf was some twenty feet from Yolanthe’s position when she sent out another volley. Standing in one place and spinning, she sent 21 arrows into the front line of the crowd of monsters that was converging on them. As she spun and shot she shouted “freeze!” at Voltag. He did so and felt an arrow pass within an inch of his head. He heard it slam into a body behind him.
Once more Yolanthe cried the strange word and the arrows, all of which had hit the undead kobolds in their mid-sections, burst into flame. The burning monsters collapsed and fell, and the undead creatures behind them became tangled on the flaming corpses and caught fire themselves.
Voltag reached Yolanthe, panting. They stood back to back and surveyed their position. They were a half-mile from the bridge. They stood on the road, in the middle of a circle 60 feet across that was defined by the burning corpses of the kobolds. At least 150 more undead were moving towards them outside the circle. Some were still tripping on their flaming companions, but it was clear that in a few minutes most of the flames would be out and the monsters would be able to crawl over the pile towards them.
The dwarf and half-elf, still back to back, turned slowly in spot so that they both could assess the entire scene.
“Any more arrows?” asked the dwarf without taking his eye off the monsters.
“No,” said Yolanthe.
“Any more magic?”
“None that would help.”
The dwarf thought for a moment. “Can you fly?” he asked.
“No,” she snorted. “Can you?”
Voltag ignored the sarcasm. He knew he could create a maelstrom of violence with his axe that would dismember, even disintegrate, any undead creature that stumbled into it. He might even be able to keep it up until all these creatures had been destroyed. But how could he do it with another person within that circle of sweeping metal? She could not stand near him since the swings of the axe would be 360 degrees around his body. He could not put her on his shoulders for that would restrict his arms and she would not be able to crouch under his swing as he was too low to the ground. The axe-master had taught him how to fight with other axe-wielding dwarves, side-by-side, but spaced so that the killing circle of one fighter was just close enough to the next to allow nothing to pass between them. A dozen such fighters created an impenetrable wall of death over hundred feet long. But the system was predicated on the fact that nothing or no one could stand within the sweep of the individual dwarf’s axe.
The flames in the burning bodies were being snuffed out by the undead that fell upon them.
“Here!” shouted the dwarf. He stepped off the cobblestone road onto the earth. “Throw your pack beside mine!”
Voltag threw his backpack some three feet from the edge of the road. Yolanthe threw hers beside his.
“Let me know when they get through,” he ordered. And then he swung his axe into the earth between the road and the packs.
Yolanthe did not bother to ask him what he was doing. Instead she stepped back on the road and scanned the perimeter of the circle defined by the bodies. Most of the fires were out and the skeletons and corpses were beginning to tumble over the wall the bodies had made.
“Maybe five minutes,” she said.
The dwarf grunted and kept working. He was using his axe as a shovel, digging a shallow trench parallel to the road. He threw the earth he dug up on top of the packs. Soon they were almost buried.
Yolanthe kept scanning. She sensed that the first monsters would make it over the barrier immediately in front of where Voltag was digging. As she watched one shambling corpse almost made it over the bodies before it got tangled and fell.
“Two minutes,” she said.
Grunting with exertion the dwarf flung more earth on top of the packs. They now formed a low mound on the other side of the trench from the road. The trench was almost six feet long.
One of the walking corpses tumbled over the wall and began to get to its feet inside the circle.
“One minute,” said Yolanthe.
“Right! Into the hole!” shouted the dwarf.
“Face up?” she asked.
“It don’t matter. Get in!” shouted Voltag.
Yolanthe lay down in the trench, face up. Immediately Voltag dragged some dirt on top of her body with the axe. In a second she was covered except for her face.
The corpse that had made it over the barrier was lurching towards Voltag.
“Don’t sit up until I tell you,” said Voltag as he stepped back onto the road.
The first corpse was now just on the other side of the mound created by the packs. Sensing an object in its way, it stepped to the side and continued towards Voltag. Its new path would take it around the trench in which Yolanthe was lying.
Voltag began to swing his axe in one-handed figure eights.
“I care not whether I live!” he shouted at the monster. “But I have debts to pay before I die. So taste my axe!”
He increased the speed of the axe and began to pass it from hand to hand. It started to whistle as it cut through the air.
The animated corpse lurched towards the dwarf, its claws extended. Voltag’s axe swept through its torso, cleaving it in two without slowing. The body fell in neat halves beside Yolanthe’s head.
The dwarf kept the axe moving in slow patterns. Using its momentum to twist his own body, he moved through the three-step pattern that he had learned so well 60 years ago. A combination of steps, turns, and passes of the swinging axe from hand to hand, it allowed the axe wielder to scan 360 degrees while remaining at the center of the axe’s circle. Once sped up, the same pattern became a defense against attackers on all sides. Slaughter, the old axe-master, had a word for the movement.
“It’s a dance, lads!” he would shout. “It’s rhythmic motion, a beautiful duet for dwarf and axe.” And during practice he would pound out a rhythm on a great drum, a drum which the students whispered was made from the hide of a monstrous orc that Slaughter had strangled with his bare hands decades ago. And he would shout out the steps,“Swing! Step! Shift! Pass! Shift! Step! Swing!” while beating an ever increasing tempo on the drum. The first dwarf who lost a step or, Moradin help him, dropped his axe, would pay with the public humiliation and pain of standing in the practice hall with his axe held above his head for an hour. Some students fainted from the pain in their shoulders.
Voltag studied the enemy as he turned. Corpses had climbed over their fallen comrades on all sides and were stumbling towards him, arms outstretched. The mound made by the backpacks would force the ones coming from that direction to step to the side and by-pass Yolanthe’s head. As long as he made sure her face was under the circuit of his axe, she should be safe. There is no animate thing stupider than a skeleton nor more focused in its goal. It sought to kill the living, which to it meant heat and movement. The dwarf would be providing a great deal of both. There was a chance the creatures would not even know where the half-elf was there.
It worked to his advantage that the undead were once kobolds. They were small and slight. He would be able to cleave through any part of their carcasses without impeding the swing of his axe. The outcome of the fight would come down to his own duration and dexterity. As long as he could keep up the speed of his defensive swinging, as long as he did not trip or let the axe slip as he transferred it from one hand to another, he stood a chance.
The advancing circle of monsters was now ten feet away on every side. He brought the swing of the axe back up to speed and synchronized it to his footwork. In seconds he was a spinning blur of flesh and steel. The whistle of the axe carried across the meadow. Voltag cleared his mind of thought.
He became the dance.
The axe smashed through two corpses’ mid-sections, cleaving them in two, then swung through the neck of the next. The circuit continued and the axe swept through a corpse that was so old the bones literally exploded into dust as the axe tore through them.
Two more undead pressed in around him. Cleaved and shattered, they fell into pieces on top of their comrades.
Now they came in a great press.
Voltag did not think of their numbers, tried not to think at all. The only thing that counted was the dance. As the skeletons and corpses pushed in towards him they stepped into the circle of the axe and were split and chopped. Bones flew in the air, noxious gases billowed from split, rotting guts, and black fluids sprayed from severed necks.
As the pieces of the bodies fell, they began to form a low mound in a perfect circle around the dwarf. The succeeding waves of monsters stepped up on this pile, were cut down, and added to it. Voltag twisted and spun in the center of a growing mound of carnage.
Still more creatures crawled and stumbled towards Voltag. These were the less ambulatory undead: skeletons that were so old they were missing tendons and ligaments, corpses that had serious structural damage such as missing limbs. They exploded in bursts of bone dust and tatters of dried flesh. Rags and mats of hair flew in the air and rained down on the dwarf or were scattered by the vortex of wind created by his ever-moving axe.
Voltag spun and twisted for a full minute before he realized that something had changed in the rhythm of his dance. At first he did not pause to consider what it might be, his mind was so blank. He had surrendered his consciousness to the movement of axe. But slowly consciousness crept back and he formed a real thought: the axe was not hitting anything. It was whistling, unimpeded, through the air.
He slowed the dance down so that he could survey his enemy.
Nothing moved. Voltag, slowly spinning around, found himself in the middle of a circle some ten feet across. Everything outside the circle was a bone or body part. Pieces of skeleton and corpse had been scattered by the force of the axe twenty feet in every direction beyond the empty circle. There were no more undead shambling towards the circle.
It was over.
He slowed the axe to a stop.
His hands ached, sweat coursed down his face. He touched the blade of his axe and found it was hot from the friction of passing through so many bodies. He had done it. He had defeated an army of undead. Himself, alone.
Voltag scrambled to the side of the road. The heaps of bones and body parts covered the place where Yolanthe was buried. Voltag realized he must have drifted away from her position as he fought. Her face was under a foot-high scattering of corpses.
Voltag dropped the axe and began digging through the body parts with his bare hands, chucking bones, limbs, and blackened organs over his shoulder in his hurry. A minute of scrambling and he found Yolanthe’s face. Her eyes were tightly shut, her breath shallow. With what delicacy he was capable of, the dwarf brushed the bone dust and corruption off the half-elf’s face.
“Don’t die on me yet,” he said as be began to dig at the earth that was piled on her chest. In a minute he had it off her and he helped her sit up.
She shook pieces of bone and clods of earth from her hair. “I’m going to be sick,” she said. And was.
A short time later they sat on the road just below the circle of undead.
“What is this place?” asked Voltag.
“A kolbold cemetery,” said Yolanthe. “Tribes of them live in these hills. Baltrog animated the corpses.”
“How did he know we were here?” asked Voltag. “Through you?”
“No,” said Volante. She stood up.
“What now? Are you going to . . .”
Before the dwarf could finish the question, Yolanthe held up a finger for silence. But she was not listening; she was thinking. Trying to picture the meadow just as it was the moment before the undead began to dig their way out of their shallow earth graves.
She strode back to the circle of undead bodies and began to look amongst the corpses and body parts.
“What is it?” whispered the dwarf.
“I need my arrows,” she said.
“Arrows?” asked Voltag, confused. “But they were burned . . .”
Yolanthe pulled an arrow from the chest of a corpse. It was intact and unburned.
“Magic,” grunted Voltag.
“Yes,” she said. “Very handy magic.”
She bent to pull another arrow from a corpse.
“What I don’t understand,” said the dwarf, “Is how Lord Ball-tag was able to . . .”
Before he could finish the sentence, Yolanthe cocked the arrow she had just pulled from the undead carcass, wheeled and fired it at the top of the nearby tree line.
As soon as the arrow left her bow she felt the world tilt and change colors. “He’s . . .” she managed to gasp before her arrow slammed into the breastbone of the owl that was sitting on the top branch of an oak tree just at the border of the meadow. As the owl died the hallucination passed and Yolanthe found herself doubled over. The dwarf had drawn his axe and was throwing his glance between her and the tree line.
“Is it Ball-dog?” he shouted.
She held up her hand.
“No,” she said. “Almost. But I stopped him.”
The dwarf looked at her suspiciously. Seeing she was in distress, he pulled away, embarrassed, and walked over to the tree line. There he found the owl with the arrow stuck in its chest. He brought it back to the gasping half-elf and threw it at her feet.
“It’s not lunch time,” he said.
Calming her breathing, Yolanthe picked up the dead bird. She yanked the arrow from its chest and put it in her quiver. Then she began to stroke the bird, pushing her hand backwards against the lay of the feathers.
“It’s dead,” said Volag.
She kept stroking it, pushing back its feathers, until she found what she as looking for. She gestured the dwarf over.
“Look,” she said.
Peering at the owl, Voltag could see what Yolanthe had discovered. There, on the bird’s pale skin, hidden by feathers, was a tattoo in the shape of an eye surrounded by wavy lines that he took to represent water.
Yolanthe let the bird fall to the ground.
“That’s the same shape I found on the ferret,” she said. “It’s some sort of mark that Baltrog puts on his creatures so he can see through their eyes.”
“Hmm,” said the dwarf. “Do you have one?”
“No,” she said. Then, after a second, “I don’t think so.”
“Think so?” asked Voltag.
“Do you want to look?” she asked, staring at him in defiance.
He lowered his gaze and muttered into his beard, “No time. Got to move.”
“Let me get the rest of my arrows,” she said.