Authors: Mark Devaney
Tags: #Fantasy, #Sword and Sorcery, #magic, #zombie, #vampire, #necromancer
Copyright © 2015 Mark Devaney.
Cover art by Lucy Holton.
All Rights Reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or in any means – by electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise – without prior written permission.
Special thanks to Lucy Holton for her artwork, cover and all the time and editing that went into this book. It was a joint effort powered by unholy amounts of tea.
Her artwork can be found at her website:
The arrow flew. Any sound lost to the howling winds as it found its target. Blood splashed across the untouched snow as the beast collapsed and became still. Claire Acestes hesitated; remaining in cover, watching her prey for any signs of movement. The shaggy-furred chest remained still as the last misting breath escaped the Horned-Wolverine’s mouth. She nocked another arrow as she approached. Driven mad by disease and hunger the creature lashed out at anyone and anything nearby. The arrow lodged into its hind quarters failed to slow it down. After almost losing it at the lake she’d managed to find its tracks in the snow and chased it half-way up the mountain. She’d come too far to fall victim to those strong jaws and teeth if it feigned death. With great care she circled around the fallen wolverine, her bow drawn as she inspected the arrow wound in its chest. The pale grey fur ragged with blood; its scarred face frozen in anger. Claire watched the eyes — they felt almost human and laced with intent. That’s when she saw the movement. She leapt backwards and loosed the arrow. It struck the thrashing wolverine square in the face with a wet impact and it fell still once more.
Her heart racing in her chest she reached for another arrow, out of habit more than anything. The creature was dead. No doubt about that now. She felt no malice towards it, no hatred — it’d killed dogs and injured some of the yaks; even attacked villagers with rabid fury. But she couldn’t bring herself to hate it for trying to survive; better a quick death at her hands than a drawn-out affair from some of the other hunters. Claire knelt down and closed its eyes out of respect. The pale grey fur would make another excellent coat for the upcoming winters and the livestock were safe for now. The chill from the increasing winds tore through the surrounding fir trees. Claire shivered despite her thick padded-leather hunting coat. After painstakingly water-proofing and dying it dark blue by hand she’d become quite attached to her coat. The white wool undershirt was wearing thin with age and one of the long sleeves had torn during a chase through the bushes a few weeks prior. It’d be another long night fixing it up.
Claire stood up brushing errant strands of long brown hair from her face as she sized up the fallen wolverine. No matter how she tied her high-ponytail it would always come loose during a chase. The wind-swept look was growing on her she had to admit. The stocky creature was far larger and heavier than normal wolverines. It’d be a backbreaking trek carrying it with her down the mountains, through the forests towards Caelholm. A deafening explosion shook through the mountains dislodging snow and ice from the trees. Overhead crows and other local birds fled the source. Her kill forgotten she pushed through the fir trees towards the source of the disturbance. Following a huge column of thick black smoke rising from the direction of the Caelite tombs buried within the mountain range. The sacred mountain was home to several burial grounds and Caelite temples. The largest of which was a mile or so away built into the mountain itself. Above her were the ancient vaults and tombs of fallen heroes and saints, guarded by the knights and bristling with enchantments. Lost in focus whilst chasing the wolverine she failed to notice just how high she’d climbed. Without hesitation she rushed towards the smoke, her bow drawn at the ready.
She crept closer to the nearest entrance to the tomb, keeping low to the ground. This served both to hide her approach and avoid the ash and smoke rising overhead. The grand stone entrance lay shattered and burned and a ragged hole gave entrance towards the darkened crypts. Four guards lay motionless in the snow, their silver-grey armour broken and bloodied, their lifeless hands grasping their signature spears. She knew they were beyond help even from a distance, their bodies cooled in the snow as fresh flakes covered them up. Nearby overlapping tracks showed signs of a brief struggle; yet the attackers were gone. The frigid air rich with smoke, and the unmistakable stench of burned flesh and drying blood; but there was a wrongness to it. The air felt charged and fraught with malignancy. Claire knew to trust her instincts; fifteen years as a hunter honed them well. She surveyed the scene keeping her bow drawn and arrow poised, there was a stillness she couldn’t trust. Besides the distant shape of an owl flying towards the mountains and the occasional breeze nothing else moved. The same pregnant stillness in her experience always meant trouble was close by. A wave of revulsion washed over her prickling the hairs of her exposed neck; a creeping unpleasant sensation followed by a low groan behind her. She spun around to find the stirring body of a Caelite guard, his draconic helmet lay battered and broken in the disturbed snow.
She thought, his dead staring eyes and pale almost blue complexion was one of the first she’d seen laying in a pool of his own blood. But now the figure rose unsteadily groaning and gurgling with his head lolling towards the floor. His hands twitched and clasped the spear. Around her she heard similar groans and shuffling as the bodies reached for their weapons and rose. The twitching knight before her raised its head, mouth open wide in a pained grimace and its eyes burned with a spectral green flame and purpose. There was no mistaking the intent; no denying what she saw before her. Her bow drawn and aimed towards the figure stumbling towards her, now aware of the others closing the distance towards her.
“Stop! Stay where you are.”
Her words fell on deaf ears as she’d suspected they would. With a smooth motion the arrow left the bow and struck the undead Caelite in the head it fell backwards without grace; the green embers fading as it fell. The air around Claire tingled with a familiar sensation. On instinct she threw herself to the floor in a roll. One of the former Caelites unleashed a blast of lightning from its charred hands over her head exploding into the rock behind her. She was already on the move before the creature realised; grabbing for another arrow from her quiver as she dived behind fallen slabs of rock. Two former Caelites advanced towards her their spears trailing in the snow as they dragged themselves forward. It was only a matter of time before they recalled the powerful magics they once used in life. She stilled herself; trying to control her breathing as the twitching figures approached. Their armour designed to turn aside arrows meaning each shot would have to count. Claire ducked once again as another errant bolt of lightning flashed across the clearing exploding into the burial grounds behind. With a fluid motion she spun around the charred rock and loosed another arrow dropping the closest knight to the floor. Its partner charged forwards with renewed aggression whilst the distant Caelite’s hands sparked with magic. She flung herself to the side attempting to keep the melee Caelite blocking his spell-casting accomplice. Caught in the open her luck wouldn’t last much longer. Hands trembling as she reached for another arrow, her eyes focused on the sharpened spear-tip almost within range. With a jolt of lightning the knight fell forwards twitching and shaking. Smoke rising from its back as it died; felled by its comrade. As the Caelite fell its spear scraped past her slicing into the outer layers of her leggings. Another inch and it’d all have been over. The unmistakable stench of singed flesh filled the air soon after. With a single target left she focused upon the magic-casting Caelite, without any cover it was just a matter of who could shoot first. She lined up an arrow as the frozen fingertips of her attacker remained lifeless and still; confident there’d be no flashes of lightning heading her way she fired. Instead the bow and arrow flew out of her hands and into the snow; ripped from her hands by an invisible force.
Aeromancy? Didn’t see that one coming.
She thought, irritated at the lapse in judgement that left her unarmed. Almost. With a smile she ran towards it; surprise washed across its pained grimace and burning hateful eyes. It thrust forwards with the spear but it was inaccurate and unprepared. She sidestepped, moving inside the creatures guard and drew the hunting knife from its sheath. She was close enough to smell the charred flesh and dried blood, close enough to taste it. Claire batted the spear aside with her left hand and drove the knife deep into the creatures brain. A strangled gurgle escaped the dying creature before she kicked it towards the floor and choked down disgust. Within seconds the emerald fire faded and the forest was still once more. The hunter brushed herself down and found her short-bow in the snow, the hunting knife sheathed once more. Her leg ached but the spear hadn’t drawn blood for which she was thankful. She turned surveying the shattered tomb gates and the dim tunnels within, a faint smell of incense greeted her as she approached.
“That’s quite impressive.” A male voice called out from behind her.
Before he could move she held a knife to his throat. Her blood still pumping with adrenaline and her heart raced. A silver-white haired elderly man stood with a black traveller’s cloak billowing in the wind like a cape. Beneath that he wore a black velvet waistcoat over a white silk shirt. Taller than her and wiry in frame; his gloved hands empty with no weapon in sight. He smiled at her and retreated a step holding his palms open and nonthreatening.