The Innkeeper slammed the heavy wooden latch across the front door. “Won’t hold long, but it’s better than nothing.”
The Cleric and the Taverness wrapped one another in a tight hug.
“Thank heaven you’re all right.” The Taverness tapped her cheek. “We all feared the worst.”
The healer rejoined the Stranger near the door. “It’ll take more than that to slow me down.”
A little girl peeked her concerned face around the end of the front counter. “Papa?”
The Taverness closed the gap between her and the little girl in slow light steps. “Sweetheart,” she knelt before the pouting child. “He---your father didn’t…”
Kannen strode up behind them. “Papa’s gone.”
Her tiny brown eyes welled up. “Where did he go?”
“Those things out there,” Kannen pointed a finger toward the front door, “killed him, dear.”
The Smithy’s daughter buried her soiled face in the crook of the Taverness’s shoulder and wept.
“Make ready!” The Stranger leaned close to a window along the back wall.
Howls and shuffling footsteps surrounded the two-level inn.
“This is your doing!” Kannen stormed toward her nemesis. “Come here so I can cut out that stone and your heart and send them all back to Hell.”
The Cleric barred her path. “He’s the only one that understands how to stop them.”
“One side, Cleric.” Kannen’s words slithered through her gritted teeth.
The Stranger rushed to the commotion at the back windows. “Save it.”
The quarreling women both turned in his direction. A wall of demonic faces mashed against the panes. Long fangs covered in a bloody film. Ashen forearms thumped against the glass, threatening to shatter it any second.
The Taverness hustled up the first few stairs. “They’re headin’ for the top!” Her tone took on a salty accent. She twirled her blade and bounded up the rest of the staircase. “Who’s with me?”
The Cleric glared into Kannen’s eyes and jogged to the stairs. “Coming.”
Deep in the belly of the inn, a pair of heavy wooden doors rattled. The Innkeeper grabbed the Vicar by his sleeve. “Come on. We’ll guard the cellar.”
The Constable readied his pick and sized up Kannen and the Stranger. “Guess that leaves us to hold down this fort.”
They exchanged apprehensive glances and readied themselves for the barrage. The first wave of creatures bashed their foreheads into the lower windows. Gray slabs of skin split and peeled back from their skulls. Again, they pounded into the glass fracturing the panes. Spidering lines flowed out from the breaks. They switched to punching the weakened points in the windows until, at last, the pane’s shards exploded inward.
The Stranger let out a battle cry and brought his blade down on the elbow of the monster. Kannen ran to the window nearest her and swung the axe end of her halberd through the neck of the mangled creature leaning through the hole. A sizzling head meandered across the floor and came to rest against the corner of the bar. More shattering glass upstairs tugged her gaze upward.
The Taverness’s muffled plea found its way downstairs. “They’ve breeched the second floor!”
A forest of fists destroyed the last of the windows and pulled their headless cohort aside. Kannen lunged, stabbing the tip of her staff through the eye of the nearest intruder. The thing howled, clawing at its melting socket. The Constable came to her side and plunged the pick’s blade deep into the creature’s skull. Another shout from the Stranger. Within the span of a blink, Kannen saw that he had decapitated two of them and severed the arm off another.
She ran to assist. “You’ve got to pull back.” She jammed the blunt end of her weapon into one skull and impaled the other just behind it. “It’s you they want.” She shook the limp weight from her staff.
“Can’t afford to.” He ducked a swipe from a creature’s claw and ran it through. “We need everyone we have.”
Screams from the Cleric upstairs startled them both. “They’re in the house!” The sound of something connecting with soft flesh. “Get off me, you bastards.” A wet crunch.
Something small pulled on Kannen’s pant leg. “Hell.” She grabbed the Smithy’s daughter by an armpit and dragged her into the office away from the skirmish. “Stay in here and…” A bit of arcane writing on the desk caught her eye. Kannen spun the leather-bound tome around. She had seen runes like these. “That bitch.” She focused on the girl. “Stay in here, and don’t open that door for anyone.”
The girl nodded.
“Good.” Kannen hurried out into the main room where the men continued to battle the overwhelming numbers. She paused on her way past the Stranger, sneaking a peek at the back of his neck. The same runes!
“You!” Kannen ran past the Stranger and plunged her halberd through another creature crawling through the splintered planks over a window. “You’re one of them.”
The Stranger gouged out the eye of another monster, watching its socket melt over the left side of its hideous face. “Not entirely.”
“What is that supposed to mean?”
His wide fist pulverized the hooked nose of his adversary on the far side of his window. “I was born having only part of them in me.” He jabbed his dagger deep into the skull of another and yanked its gory blade free. “We can discuss this another time.” He flipped a table up into the window and used its benches to jam it into place. “How did you find out?”
Kannen flipped her table and helped him secure it in her window. “The same runes were in a book in her office.”
“Someone brought us both up here.” He jogged to the front door and double checked its long-arm latch. “One of these villagers invited this nightmare on us.”
Doors slammed shut in the cellar. Another heavy latch thudded home. Soon, two pairs of footfalls padded up from its depths.
The Vicar ran a shaking hand through his blond bowl. “Secured down below.”
“Barely,” the Innkeeper added.
The Taverness and the Cleric trotted downstairs to join the group.
The lawman wiped his forehead on a sleeve of his shirt. “Forced them out here as well.”
The Taverness tossed her white mane over a shoulder. “We’ll need a better solution. This won’t hold forever.”
Kannen moved before the Stranger and squared her shoulders. “Their crud flows through you. How do we kill them?”
His keen gray eyes surveyed the room. “If we can survive until the daylight, this will all end.”
“They want your stone.” The Taverness set a hand on a cocked hip. “I say we toss him out into the horde.”
“That would only make matters worse for all of you.” The Stranger paced to the fireplace and turned to address the group. “Once they get it,” he parted his tunic much to the Innkeeper’s wild eyes, “they’ll be unstoppable. You all will be the first to become their slaves. The Darkwalkers will slowly tear your souls to shreds.”
The Constable glared past the Stranger’s legs and into the lapping fire. “Someone will have to go out there and light a ring around this place.”
The Stranger nodded. “That should keep them back for a time.”
Kannen and the Innkeeper exchanged furious glares. Kannen turned her attention to the Innkeeper. “I say we send her out first.”
The Innkeeper scoffed. “Me?” She shuffled toward her office. “I need to tend to the child. Find another.”
The lawman inched toward the door. “I’ll take the first watch.”
The Cleric joined him. “I’ll come with you.”