It should have been a simple trade mission but a chance encounter with a massed force of some of Karameikos’ skeletons and zombies have turned it into a night of terror. Everyone knows that the undead can only be destroyed with blessed weapons and High King Erich, his son Slade, and adopted son Wulfstan carry no blessed weapons with them.
Finding a rough shelter Wulfstan volunteers to venture out into the night to seek out a temple or a blessed weapon. But the cold night holds many dangers and there is no guarantee that Wulfstan can succeed in his self-imposed mission.
Now King Erich and Slade must wait, hoping and praying for Wulfstan’s return – if he returns.
An Unholy Encounter
Slade had found himself in some precarious situations in the past but none quite like this one. Although his position as Crown Prince Einreich of Vestland would have allowed Slade, as he preferred to be called, to live a peaceful and uneventful life he had a craving for excitement that frequently got him into trouble. Usually Slade was accompanied in his adventures by his sister, the Princess Ursula, and their friends Wulfstan and Ming, orphans raised in the palace by High King Erich and Queen Urda. Today, however, had not been Slade’s idea, nor did he imagine for a moment it would lead to excitement or adventure. It had seemed nothing more than a boring royal duty that Slade had been unable to get out of performing.
His father, High King Erich, wanted to visit with the newly crowned Duke Stefan of the Duchy of Karameikos, Vestland’s western neighbor, to discuss opening up wider trade relations between the two kingdoms. As Erich had spent a good deal of time cultivating the current Duke’s father, Pietr, in the hopes of establishing better relationships between the two rulers personally as well as their two kingdoms he had elected to make this trip to see Stefan without bodyguards or a contingent of Knights of Ilmater. As a show of faith and good will to Karameikos’ new ruler Duke Stefan, Erich had decided instead to take only Slade and Wulfstan, both recent graduates from their compulsory military service, as companions more than guards. Slade’s older brother, Ulrich, had actually wanted to make the trip with their father but Erich had refused, taking Slade instead.
The trip had started innocently enough, King Erich stoically ignoring Wulfstan and Slade’s youthful high spirits, although Slade had caught his father grinning once or twice at their antics. Only when they reached the nearest river road, a mere hours ride from the palace in Noorvix did things start to go wrong. A blockage downriver had slowed the river traffic so that instead of arriving in Karameikos near noon they had not arrived until closer to sunset. As everyone in The Kingdoms knew travelling through Karameikos after dark was never a good idea.
Karameikos was largely wild, unsettled land with all manner of dark creatures dwelling in the region and there were far too many undead infestations for travel after dark to be truly considered safe. High King Erich had pushed ahead regardless, reasoning that they had their horses and all three of them were skilled warriors; although only Slade and Wulfstan were armed and prepared for any sort of combat. Erich was trusting that as it was a scant two hour ride to Duke Stefan’s palace it was unlikely they would encounter any trouble. Remembering this now Slade shook his head, how could his father, normally so intelligent, have made such a fatal error in judgment.
It had been barely an hour into their ride, full dark by that time with none of the three moons having begun to rise and they were struck. In the darkness they had ridden too close to an overgrown cemetery. Slade could still see the pale images of grave markers and the eerie trees barely visible in the darkness. The suddenness of the attack had caught them all by surprise and utterly unprepared. That and the chilling, unnatural silence. The undead did not have battle cries; in fact the undead made no sound at all when they attacked. They had no hope of fighting back; the undead could only be killed, or even harmed, by a weapon blessed by a priest. High King Erich had carried with him only his ceremonial sword, not a weapon used for fighting any enemy let alone the many skeletons and zombies that had attacked, and Slade and Wulfstan had with them only their regulation long swords.
The three had immediately sacrificed their horses and run haphazardly for their lives; what choice did they have? Now they were holed up in an old, abandoned shack they had stumbled upon during their mad dash away from the undead but each one of them had known it was only a matter of time before they were found. When they came, and they would come, the unnatural strength of the skeletons and zombies would render the thin walls of the shack useless. The three of them had discussed their situation from every angle, King Erich listening respectfully to the suggestions of both Wulfstan and Slade. High King Erich was devastated by the position they were in because it had been his own decision that had led to their current predicament.
“If we don’t have blessed weapons,” Slade had said eventually, “then our only chance is fire. We light a fire in a circle around the shack and pray that keeps them at bay through the night.”
“An excellent suggestion, my son,” High King Erich had replied gravely, “but these thin walls would be alight in seconds if the fire got out of control and if the fire went out...”
“We’d be doomed anyway.” Slade had finished his father’s thought despondently.
“Wait,” Wulfstan had interjected at that point, “if there was a cemetery then there must be a temple somewhere nearby. Surely the temple priests would have blessed weapons?”
“Very likely if they are this close to an undead infestation, but how in The Kingdoms can we possibly get there without being caught unawares?” Slade had answered his friend.
“We have no choice,” Wulfstan had eventually answered, “we’ll have to split up. I’ll go looking for the temple, Slade you stay here and get the fire started and keep it controlled. It’s our only hope.”
“Absolutely not,” Erich had responded adamantly, “I will not allow either one of you to endanger yourselves in such a manner.”
“Papa, Wulfstan’s right. It’s our only hope.”
“Then I will be the one to seek out the temple,” Erich had begun.
“No sire,” Wulfstan had cut Erich off, “you are too important. You are the king of Vestland, Slade its Crown Prince. I am the only one here who is expendable.”
“No one, be they of royal blood or otherwise is expendable in my kingdom Wulfstan, you should know that,” King Erich had replied gravely.
“Well, maybe expendable’s not the right word but I know it’s the right thing to do and the right way to do it,” Wulfstan had argued.
They had wasted, in Slade’s opinion, precious time arguing the point but ultimately, very reluctantly, High King Erich had agreed to Wulfstan’s plan. Before he left Wulfstan had stripped himself of all his armor and his sword. He needed to be able to move as silently as possible and the weapon was as useless against the touch of the undead as his chainmail armor. Before Wulfstan had left Slade had gripped Wulfstan’s upper arm in a rough embrace; both of them knowing they may never see each other again. Once Wulfstan was on his way Slade and King Erich had used their shields to dig a rough, shallow trench around the perimeter of the abandoned shack. With the trench dug Slade had insisted his beloved father remain in the shack while Slade searched the woods around the shack for fallen branches, leaves, and anything else he could find to start and keep a fire going.
No matter how long he lived Slade doubted he would ever tell another living soul the terror he had felt during his errand. Although as tall and well built as both his father and Wulfstan and well trained in combat Slade felt incredibly vulnerable and ill-equipped. Each step he took in the blackness Slade had been all too aware of the close proximity of the undead. Slade had already witnessed the deadly silence and effectiveness of their attack. The undead needed no weapons, their brute strength and the cold of the grave were enough to kill and their desire to kill seemed insatiable. Neither were they hampered, as he was, by the lack of light; the undead thrived in the darkness. As he collected the necessary fuel in the chill night Slade could not be certain what he was more afraid of; fear for his best friend out there alone, fear that something would happen to his beloved father or, though he hated to admit it, fear for himself.
Somehow, thanks to all the gods, Slade had accomplished his task. The shallow trench was filled with fuel for the fire he would soon light. Before he had actually set the fire alight though Slade had a fearful wondering if the fire itself might not act as a beacon, drawing the undead to their location where without the fire they may have escaped their notice. Although he had hesitated Slade eventually set the fire; the plan had been made and agreed upon. His duty now was to wait. His father had ignored Slade’s pleas to wait inside the ramshackle shed and, although Slade would likely never admit it, he was pleased to have his father standing at his side tending the fire as they waited and silently prayed for Wulfstan’s return.
King Erich suggested that he and Slade walk fairly continuous circles around the shallow trench, ensuring that no part of the fire went out while they waited. Slade had also suggested, and Erich had agreed, that they make use of the flimsy wood of the shack itself to keep the flames well stoked. Although they were technically destroying a piece of Duke Stefan’s property the fire was their only defense against the zombies and skeletons should they track them here. Together Slade and King Erich had agreed to alternate the tasks between themselves; one would work on dismantling the shack while the other walked the fire’s perimeter. Neither one of them spoke much as they went about their tasks; there really wasn’t, Slade reflected to himself, much to say.
Wulfstan had crept quietly away from the shack, his heart pounding in his ears, chest constricted with fear. He knew well the risk he was taking, knew that the odds of him succeeding were exceedingly small; but Wulfstan also knew he had no alternative. This was something that had to be done and he was the logical, in fact, the only choice. Still, knowing that did not ease the fear he felt nor did it prevent Wulfstan’s deep sense of unease and exposure; alone, unarmed, in the dark.
Although their panicked retreat from the undead attack had been a completely random dash away from the cemetery site Wulfstan had always possessed a very good sense of direction. Wulfstan felt certain he could find his way back, even though his very blood ran cold at the thought of moving closer towards the skeletons and zombies that had attacked them. Regardless of his fear Wulfstan would have to make his way back to the attack site and begin his search for a temple from there. It seemed perfectly reasonable to suppose that where there was a cemetery there would also be a temple. Only one thing troubled Wulfstan about the plan. What if the temple, assuming that it would even be there, was as deserted as the cemetery had been?
Wulfstan steeled himself to put such thoughts out of his mind for the moment. He would deal with each situation as it happened and not worry about what might happen; Wulfstan had learned that lesson well from his military instructors during the past two years. For a soldier, Wulfstan and the other recruits had been told, it was imperative to live in the moment, looking neither too far forward and not looking backward at all. To Wulfstan it had all made perfect sense. In fact Wulfstan had enjoyed his compulsory military training so much that he was already enrolled to join Vestland’s standing army and due to take up his post upon his return from this trip to Karameikos. If he returned from Karameikos, Wulfstan added silently to himself.
Wulfstan moved through the dark woodlands as quietly as possible; his years of hunting in Vestland’s woods now standing him in good stead. He had been told during his years of training that the undead had no sense of smell; Wulfstan prayed to all the gods he could think of that the information he had been given was correct. However he also knew that their lacking a sense of smell would not prevent them from being able to track their prey nor would that affect their ability to see or hear him. Wulfstan’s only hope, and consequently the only chance to protect both the High King who had been like a father to him and the Crown Prince who was his best friend, was for him to remain unseen and be as silent as the night.
As he slipped quietly through the darkness Wulfstan found himself thinking about his childhood. He knew nothing of his parents, both of whom Wulfstan had been told, had died when he was a babe in arms. Wulfstan had been brought to the palace of High King Erich and Queen Urda before he could even walk or talk and he had been raised by the royal couple as though he were one of their own. Not once in all his twenty summers had Wulfstan ever been made to feel as though he did not belong in the palace. The same held true for Ming, another orphan raised by the King and Queen, and a close friend to himself and Slade, along with Ursula the Princess of the Blood.
When he was younger Wulfstan had given no thought to his status, or lack thereof, had not really even considered that he was an orphan for he had certainly not been treated as such. It was only as he grew older that Wulfstan had first come to understand his position; that he was not the natural son of High King Erich and Queen Urda, and that he owed his very existence to their charity. As he had come to understand more Wulfstan had felt an incredible sense of gratitude towards the royal couple but he had also felt an increasing sense of curiosity about why High King Erich had chosen to adopt both himself and Ming.
Wulfstan and Ming were the only orphaned children that lived in the palace and both of them had been treated like children of the Blood. Yet Wulfstan knew well, especially once he had grown older, there were far more orphans in Vestland than simply Ming and himself. Even though the very act of his questioning seemed almost a disloyalty to his adoptive parents Wulfstan could not stop himself from wondering why they, of all the possible orphans in Vestland and indeed in all The Kingdoms, had been chosen.
Wulfstan’s introspective thoughts were halted abruptly as he drew near the site of the initial attack. By this time the Sapphire moon was just beginning its ascent and the shadows created in the woods by the soft blue light it shed made its appearance more frightening than comforting; especially this close to the abandoned cemetery, which Wulfstan could just now make out at the edge of his vision. Drawing closer to the huge tree Wulfstan was standing half-hidden behind he could see the dozens of skeletons and zombies that had attacked earlier still picking over the bloody remains of the three horses.
Until this moment Wulfstan had not known that the undead actually consumed living flesh. Although Wulfstan had been instructed in the ability and willingness of the undead to kill, to have others join their unholy ranks, he had not been aware that they would eat the remains of their victims. He had not even known that they could eat. Was it, Wulfstan wondered, because the only victims of the skeletons and zombies had been horses or would that become his own fate if the undead caught him? Was that the reason, Wulfstan wondered, that those killed by the undead rose again to become themselves undead, because they had been consumed? Wulfstan quickly shook his head; he could not allow these types of thoughts to cloud his mind and possibly jeopardize his mission.
Resolutely Wulfstan went through all that he had been taught about the undead by his instructors, every one of whom was either a seasoned army veteran or one of the highly trained Knights of Ilmater, men and women in a position to know the truth behind their words. The undead could only be harmed by blessed weapons and the undead always attacked in large numbers. Those were the two greatest strengths possessed by both skeletons and zombies. There were other types of undead, vampires and ghouls for example, who had other strengths but fortunately Wulfstan did not have to deal with that particular problem.
However, and Wulfstan took some small comfort from the memory, he had also been told that the undead were known to move fairly slowly. Thinking back over the initial attack Wulfstan tried to remember exactly how it had occurred. As he let the memory unfold in his mind Wulfstan could see that while the attack had been unexpected, with the undead reaching up en masse from their abandoned graves, their movements had actually been quite slow and cumbersome. He, Slade and High King Erich had, in fact, had enough time to slip free from their saddles and begin their mad dash through the woods before the undead had even fully risen from the shallow earth where they dwelt.
That being the case, if Wulfstan could get a sense of where the temple might lie, then there was a good chance that he would be able to outrun them to the sanctity of holy ground. At the moment, however, that seemed a far more difficult task than he had anticipated; every direction Wulfstan looked in showed only the same woodlands he had just crept through. He realized quickly that he could be looking right in the direction of the temple, assuming that there even was a temple, and not be able to see it through the trees. Wulfstan realized he had no choice; he would have to leave the relative sanctuary of his current position and try to edge around the perimeter of the cemetery to try and find a temple.
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