And, so, we continue with the adventures of Marcus and Heather as they do whatever it is they are doing at this point of the story. Happy reading!
Marcus returned to his room at the top of the stairs, following directly behind Heather and watching the sway of her hips as she ascended the stairs. The dress sharply accentuated the femininity of her body, fitting tightly in some areas and hanging loose from others.
“Quit looking at my butt,” Heather said without turning around. Her tone was reproachful, but not filled with the loathing it had held at the beginning of their quest. Marcus marveled at how she knew he was staring at her backside, but then he realized that he was always staring at her backside when they were together, so the rebuke was well justified. She had told him that she sometimes felt more like a piece of meat to him than a partner, but he had laughed it off, asking her if she would like to marinade in the bathtub with him. Now, he supposed, he saw more clearly what she meant and, with effort, cast his eyes down to his feet as they climbed the wooden steps.
When they reached the top of the stairs, Heather opened her door and Marcus opened his. Neither said a word as they entered their rooms, but just as his door was about to close, he looked up. Heather stood with her door a few inches from shutting, looking at him. They stared at each other for a moment, saying nothing, not even to wish each other sweet dreams. Marcus did not know if they were back to that point yet, where he could wish something good for her without her turning it into something wrong.
Heather continued to look at him, a bit of the blue dress visible below her face. She gave him a slight smile, then shut the door. As he held his open, he heard the metallic scrape of a chain being slid into place. He had not entertained any thoughts of attempting to visit her in her room in the middle of the night, but if he had, the sound of her chaining the door would have driven them from his mind.
Walking to his bed, Marcus lay upon it, still clothed. Unable to get the image of Heather in the dress out of his mind, particularly the view when she leaned over to him, exposing the tantalizing swell of her breasts. He smiled, despite himself, feeling for a moment like a teenager with a crush, knowing it was as likely to be rejected as not, and not caring at all.
Then, an image of intense green eyes moved in beside that of Heather. Soon, he was seeing Lorelei wearing an identical blue dress and his thoughts again became confused. He loved Heather, that much he knew, but hurting Lorelei seemed completely wrong, a sin against nature somehow. That’s what it was, natural to have feelings for Lorelei. She was beautiful, vibrant, and, above all, she loved him. Any of those factors alone would be enough with most men to spur a commitment, but just as Marcus would begin to imagine himself with the elven woman, the image of Heather in the blue dress would swim before his eyes.
He wrested with his confused emotions for some time. Hours passed as he lay on the bed, still dressed and not at all sleepy. Finally, he decided he needed some fresh air, not only to clear his thoughts, but also to tire out his body enough for him to get some rest before they started in the morning.
Rising from the bed, Marcus left the room, shutting the door silently behind himself. He crossed the hall and placed his ear against the door behind which Heather had disappeared with her lovely smile. Faintly, he heard soft snoring and knew that she was not having nearly the trouble sleeping that he was.
He quietly descended the stairs again, thankful that the solid construction of the building eliminating any creaking boards. When he reached the bottom, he started to turn toward the front of the inn, but changed his mind and moved the other direction, stopping outside of Lorelei’s door. He leaned against it just as he had with Heather’s and heard only silence from within, not even the light breathing he expected. He wondered if Lorelei was still awake and, if so, what she was thinking.
He again walked toward the front of the hall, his soft boots making no noise as he did. Coming to the front door, he turned and saw Polan sitting in the same chair where he had been when they had first arrived. The room was dark, but the elf’s eyes gleamed in the dim candlelight that filtered in from the dining room. Marcus guessed that the disagreements between the two elves had escalated after dinner, causing Polan to seek refuge away from his wife. Still, he did not want to get involved in the drama of other couples when he had so much of his own to manage.
“Is it okay if I go outside for a bit?” Marcus asked. He knew that some enchantment on the door had required Lorelei to place her fingers on it before being allowed in and did not wish to get outside with no way back in should Polan decided to retire before Marcus returned.
“Yes,” Polan said. Marcus was unable to see his mouth in the dark. “Now that you have been allowed entry, the door will open for you when you decide to return. I am just about to go to bed myself.”
“I don’t think I’ll be long,” Marcus said. “I just want to get some fresh air before I go to sleep.”
“Very well,” the elf said, rising. “Good night to you.”
“And you,” Marcus said, watching the shadowy form of the elf enter the dining room and disappear from view.
Marcus turned to the door and pulled the latch. The heavy oaken door swung inward on well-oiled hinges, allowing the strong smell of autumn rain and fallen leaves inside. Stepping outside, Marcus could see the clearing around the inn quite well, thanks to the half moon that had risen above the treetops, casting its illumination through the thinning clouds.
He walked out the door and along the front wall of the inn, looking out into the chill darkness and thinking about the two women asleep inside, both vying for his love and both deserving of it. Making decisions had always been something Marcus considered himself an expert at, something that gained him wide recognition among his peers at SportsWorld. He wondered what Mike Green, his boss and his friend, would think about him in his current predicament, unable to decide between two women. Marcus would tell him, he thought, that determining who to hire and who to fire was far easier than deciding to whom to give your love.
Reaching the corner of the inn, Marcus turned and continued on along the side wall. He continued to weigh the options presented by both Heather and Lorelei, imagining them both on a large set of scales with every asset for each weighing down her side. As he compared the two, Heather’s tray dropped lower and lower, lifting Lorelei’s as it went. There were simply more things in Heather’s favor, he saw, or he was deliberately shifting things that way because, deep down, that was the result he wanted.
Either way, he knew that Heather was the right choice for him.
He stared out into the dark wood beyond the clearing as this epiphany struck him. That Heather held a much greater promise for happiness than Lorelei, despite the elf’s unsurpassed beauty, felt true to Marcus. He had known since they had started dating that Heather was meant for him and he silently berated himself for allowing things to slip out of control the way they had, for ignoring her the way he had done.
Leaning against the wall of the inn, watching his breath in the cool air, Marcus cleared away the confusion and the guilt that had bound his mind since his reunion with Lorelei. He would tell the elven beauty that his heart belonged to another and that she would have to move on. He would always have a place for her in his heart, he knew, but Lorelei was not his destiny as Heather was.
He continued to stare out into the trees, then a disturbing sight roused him from his introspective thoughts. Beyond the light of the moon, within the shadows of the trees, Marcus could make out two points of red light. They were the same height and size as those he had spied just outside the borders of Glenfold, though he realized that they were now farther off, fifty yards or so from him.
Instead of remaining stationary, though, the red lights now moved. Bobbing up and down slightly, the lights were constant, never dimming, but seemed to be moving toward him through the trees. As he looked around, Marcus saw other sets of red lights amidst the dark trunks, also moving with a disturbing up and down motion.
Fear rose within Marcus as he counted six sets of the lights spaced apart in the woods just beyond the clearing. He thought about the footprints he had discovered outside their camp before and a chill unrelated to the coolness of the air crept up his spine, causing the hair at the base of his neck to stand on end.
Finally, a form emerged from the shadows of the wood and entered the moonlight clearing. Marcus gasped as he saw what looked like at first glance, a human with bright red eyes. No human, though, could look so . . . so . . .
Dead, Marcus thought, they’re all dead.
More figures stepped onto the grass surrounding the inn, all in various stages of decomposition. Marcus was forcefully reminding of the classic George Romero films and half expected the walking corpses to start calling for his brains.
However, the approaching dead did not speak. Shuffling forward, arms hanging limply at their sides, they walked with eerie deliberation toward the inn, red eyes gleaming brighter than the half moon.
Marcus looked around for something to use against them, cursing once again the failure of his powers. He spotted a woodsman’s axe a few yards away leaning against a stack of cut logs for the fire. Running to it, he lifted it and checked the double-edged blade, finding it keen and heavy.
The dead drew closer and Marcus could see them more clearly now. The one closest to him was the body of an elven male, young at the time of his death, but now looking ancient as his skin sagged from his bones. He was dressed in what Marcus knew was an elven scout’s uniform, light gray shirt and pants, though these hung in tatters around his torso and legs. A sudden breeze blew the scraps of fabric back away from the decaying skin, giving them the appearance of gray flame snapping in the wind.
About twenty yards from the inn, the walking corpses halted. Standing stone still in the grass, vacant expressions beneath their glowing eyes, they looked at the walls in slack-jawed silence.
Marcus again studied the one closest to himself and saw that its jaw had gone quite slack. In fact, the jaw opened wide and continued to open until he heard a loud crack as the joint gave way. The mandible swung down suddenly, leaving an obscenely large opening for a mouth that seemed feral and wicked below the twin red orbs. Marcus watched the scene with horror, horror that increased when a voice came from the gaping hole in the corpse’s face.
“Marcus,” the voice said. The jaw did not move and Marcus doubted that the creature itself was actually making the noise. More likely, he thought, the person controlling these dead would be the one talking. “You were warned to go back home and forget this quest. By not doing so, you have elected to die and have doomed your friends to the same fate.”
Marcus held the axe in his hand, ready to strike at the first sign of movement. Still, he knew that he could not contend with all six of the dead he saw plush however many he could not see on the other sides of the building. He felt confident that the Necromancer had the inn surrounded so that if, by chance, Marcus was able to fend off one wave of attack, the building would still be vulnerable on the other sides.
“I will go back when you are dead,” Marcus screamed at the walking dead. He hoped his voice would be loud enough to wake the others, if not to join him in his defense, then to at least not be taken unawares when the attack began.
Cold laughter erupted from the gaping mouth. To hear such sound and not see the body projecting it shaking at all chilled Marcus more than the autumn air around him. “Then you may return now, for I am already dead.”
Marcus’s mind raced, trying to determine what that statement meant while also trying to divine some way out of his dire predicament. As his thoughts whirled, however, the corpses moved again, shuffling forward toward him and the inn.
He raised the axe and charged forward, stirring up a cloud of dead leaves into the moonlit air. Lifting the blade high over his head, he started to swing downward when the corpse before him burst into flames. Unable to stop the progress of the heavy weapon, Marcus felt his hands burn as the axe sunk deeply into the flaming body. He drew them back in painful alarm, loosing his grip on the axe in the progress. Watching in shocked disbelief, he saw the handle of the axe ignite and burn to ash within a few seconds in the fiercely hot fire. The double-edged blade, still lodged in the middle of the corpses face, glowed brilliantly red.
Marcus backed away, unsure of what to do. The flaming body drew nearer to him, reaching out with its arms as though it only wanted to give him a warm hug, a very warm hug. He thought of trying to summon his powers once more to extinguish his attacker, but knew that if he passed out, he would surely die, either by the hand of the Necromancer’s automaton, or in the inferno the inn was about to become.
Setting aside any consideration of attacking the fiery masses descending up on him, Marcus turned and sprinted back down the side of the inn, barely avoided two other assailants as they approached the wooden wall. Rounding the corner to the front of the building, his fears were confirmed as he saw more dead nearing the inn on its front and side. Pelting across the grass, he came at last to the front door and pushed on it. It held at first, creating a feeling in Marcus’s gut that bordered on extreme nausea. Then, the door glowed slightly where his hand touched it and swung back to permit him to enter.
Stepping just inside the door, he slammed it shut. “Everyone up,” he yelled at the top of his voice. Just outside, he could here the crackling of flames. “We’re under attack.”
Almost immediately, Valista and Polan appeared, each in their nightclothes and wielding longswords. Marcus could hear movement from upstairs, but could not tell if Wilkey or Heather or both had heard his cries. He charged up the stairs three at a time and reached the landing just as Wilkey ran out of his room, carrying his pack. Heather’s door remained open and Marcus placed an ear to it as Wilkey joined him.
Hearing nothing behind the door, Marcus tried the doorknob. It did not turn. Stepping back, he raised a foot and kicked the door just above the lock. The wood cracked beneath the blow, but the door held. He readied himself for another kick when he heard Heather’s terrified voice from behind the door.
“What the . . . who’s there?” she asked, her voice loud and panicked.
“We have to get out of here,” Marcus yelled through the door. “We’re under attack.”
He heard a hurried shuffling inside before Heather opened the door and peered out, apparently to verify the truth of his story. She wore her traveling clothes again, Marcus saw with some relief, the blue dress left behind on the dressing table.
“Come on,” Marcus said to her, more softly. “This place is about to go up in flames.”
Heather stared at him with wide eyes. “Is it Amadyr?”
“Thankfully, no,” Marcus said, although he truly did not know whether he would prefer facing the dragon or the flaming fiends he could hear bashing the walls of the inn. “We just need to get out of here now.”
Heather complied without question, for which Marcus was very grateful. They raced back down the stairs as the first tendrils of smoke began to filter up the staircase, causing them to cough before dropping low enough to get beneath its suffocating cloud. When they reached the bottom of the stairs, Valista and Polan both stood there waiting for them. Both of them had tied scarves around their faces to block out the smoke and they handed some to Marcus, Heather, and Wilkey, bidding them to do the same.
Marcus sped down the hall to the room Lorelei had entered and banged on the door. When he received no answer, he raised his foot again and kicked. Again, the door emitted a loud cracking sound, but held shut. He kicked again and a third time before the door frame finally splintered and the portal opened, slamming against the wall of the room.
The room beyond was empty, save for a copious amount of thick smoke that poured into the hall as the door opened. The outside facing wall was completely engulfed in flames and, as Marcus watched, the window exploded outward in a storm of glass.
“Lorelei,” Marcus called above the snapping flames. He ducked down and scanned the room beneath the smoke, checking to see if perhaps Lorelei lay unconscious, or worse, and could not hear him. Still, he found the room devoid of any life save that of the dancing fire.
Returning to the others, Marcus found them all bend down to avoid the cloud of black smoke that floated beneath the ceiling. The walls of the inn creaked ominously as the sound of crackling fire grew louder.
“She’s gone,” Marcus said. “Lorelei’s gone.”
Wilkey and Heather both exchanged puzzled looks, but the two elves looked less uncertain.
“She must have gone out for a walk,” Valista said.
“Well, then, let’s do the same before this place comes down around our heads,” Marcus said.
He spun around, looking for some exit. The sounds of the flame increased steadily in volume and a shudder ran through the wooden structure. Knowing they only had a few minutes before they would be consumed, Marcus raced through a number of escape options and his gaze came to rest on the front door. It remained shut, thought Marcus could hear pounding upon its exterior, like two powerful fists trying to gain entrance. A thought occurred to him then, a half-made plan that was still better than anything else his mind, or the others, had offered.
Taking up the axe which he had dropped at the base of the stairs, Marcus held it in his hands for a moment, considering. The others watched him curiously, but Marcus could see a flicker of hope in their eyes, hope that Marcus had a brilliant plan that would allow them all to escape with their lives.
Marcus turned to Polan. “When I give you the word, I want you to open the front door.”
The elf looked at him, startled, but nodded. He crouched and half-crawled to the door. Reaching up, he tested the handle with his hand and drew it back quickly, telling the others that it was extremely hot. He then pulled off his shirt, pulling it over his head to reveal his thin upper body, and wrapped it tightly around his hand. He tested his grip on the door, nodded in satisfaction, then looked to Marcus for the go ahead to pull it open.
Marcus turned to the other three. “When he opens that door, I’m going to charge through. I want the three of you to be right behind me. We may only have a few seconds to get clear. Single file out the door, then run to the clearing where the griffons are.”
Marcus did not know if Valista and Polan knew exactly which clearing he was referring to, but he reckoned they probably did. He figured the clearing was a regular landing spot, a sort of airport for the large flying beasts. If not, he decided, they could simply follow the rest of them to it.
He paused, looking around into the entry room where Valista and Polan had been sitting when they arrived. The room was sparsely decorated, but here and there he could see various personal effects the two elves had brought from Glenfold or had collected during their time in the remote inn. A chord of guilt sounded within him—he had brought this doom upon them and now they looked to him for some means of escape, despite the fact that everything they owned in this building would soon be ash and smoke. Sighing, then coughing as the smoke cloud thickened, he set those thoughts aside to focus on the job at hand.
He ran to the back of the hall. The heat there was tremendous and Marcus felt that the back wall would likely collapse at any time. Turning, he saw the others had flattened themselves against the interior walls, making room for his charge. He nodded at Polan, who nodded back. Then, he was running.
Marcus had built up a good deal of speed by the time he neared the end of the hallway. He flashed by the others in a blur and the smoke behind him divided like the wake of a speed boat. When he was a few yards from the door, he yelled, “Now!” and Polan yanked the door open.
When the door opened, a pillar of flame rushed inside, feeding itself on the air being forced out of the building by the increasing smoke. The yellow tongues drifted up and curled across the ceiling. The figure producing the flames, the dead body, appeared inside the conflagration like a blackened piece of wood, but still moved forward as the door swung open. Raising its flaming arms, it reached outward for Marcus as though greeting him as a long lost relative.
Marcus reached his full speed at the moment he reached the threshold. Holding the axe out before him like a lance, he struck the flaming body square in the chest and, with some effort, hoisted it up before him as he ran out the door. The fire flickered around him and the heat, intense and blistering, covered him like a blanket. Still, he drove forward and soon felt the chill night air on his back. Behind him, he could hear the others following and Heather’s shrieks of terror as she saw the truth of what was attacking the building.
He felt his arms give out about twenty yards from the front door and he gave one final thrust of the axe, pushing the flaming corpse backward into the grass. It struggled to get up, but its blackened limbs would no longer support its efforts to rise. Marcus turned away from it, realizing that other threats were more in need of his attention.
Heather, Wilkey, and the two elves huddled around Marcus and looked back at the inn. The walls were completely engulfed and most of the windows had exploded from the pressure. The roof leaned to one side as the wall supporting it sagged, then began to crumble. From the chimney, thick smoke poured out, looking almost normal for a cool autumn evening except for the odd angle at which it now pointed.
The entire building became a huge inferno, leaving no wood visible beneath the roaring flames. Marcus could see that the dead that had attacked now stood still in the midst of the fire, blackened columns among the orange glow. They no longer pounded on the walls, seemingly content to watch the inn burn despite not catching their intended prey. Then, Marcus saw something else in the fire. He blinked his eyes and wiped them with the raw, singed flesh on the back of his wrist and still the image was there. As the others saw it as well, they gave a collective gasp.
A face, huge and skull-like, appeared in the flames of the inn. Marcus could make out the eyes and mouth, dark patches against the brilliant light of the burning inn. The eyes blinked twice, as if trying to focus on them as Marcus had tried to do on it, then the mouth curled into a crooked smile, sending a wisp of smoke from its upturned corner.
“Marcus . . . “ the face whispered, it voice barely more than the sound of the flames, hissing and popping. “Marcus, I told you to turn back and still you defy me. You will have no other chances to leave. You and the girl will die.” The face then vanished as quickly as it had appeared just as the walls of the inn gave way and collapsed into a heap, sending sparks high into the air.
Marcus turned to Heather who stared at him in horror. She had missed the Necromancer’s previous displays of power and now knew what magical force they were up against. He hoped that she now understood how important it was for him to regain his powers, whatever the danger. Such a power would eventually destroy everyone in this land and, despite Heather’s wishes to go home as quickly as possible, wishes that Marcus shared, she understood the importance of stopping the Necromancer’s plans.
“Quick,” Marcus said. “Let’s get to the griffons.”
“What about Lorelei,” Wilkey asked, gazing back at the burning pile of wood that had moments before been an inn.
“She wasn’t in her room, so she must have already gotten out before the attack,” Marcus said, although he did take an overlong glance at the glowing heap. He felt confident that Lorelei had escaped, but he would not be sure until they found her again and that shred of doubt gave him a weighty pain in his gut. “If she’s anywhere in the area, she’ll be with the griffons.”
Marcus led them to the tree line, looking around carefully in case more animated dead emerged to begin a second wave. He saw none, but he felt eyes watching him and a hostile will permeating the forest around them. He tried to hear any possible sound of a hidden attacker among the underbrush, but the snaps and pops of burning wood behind them made it very difficult. Still, they pushed on, Polan taking the lead along the path with his sword drawn and his sharp elven eyes finding the path easily. Valista, her sword in hand, as well, brought up the rear, scanning the forest to either side and behind to ensure that no pursuit followed them.
They met no resistance along the path to where they had left the griffons. Walking carefully and quietly, they moved along slowly, watching all angles until at last they emerged again into the clearing.
Leaving the darkness of the woods, however, they found no griffons awaiting them. The clearing was empty save for grass and the silvery light of the moon.
“Damn it!” Marcus yelled. “Where the hell are they?”
“Maybe they were attacked and Lorelei took them to the sky for safety,” Valista offered, looking up into the sky.
They all looked up, seeing no sign of the creatures. Continuing out into the middle of the clearing, Marcus looked around and saw the grass flattened, but could not tell by what. Polan also scanned the ground, being more versed in tracking than Marcus.
“Too many tracks,” he said, agreeing with Marcus’s assessment. “Mostly griffon, but also boots, but that could have been you as you dismounted and came to the inn.”
“Or,” Wilkey chimed in, his voice higher than usual, “it could have been them.”
They all looked up and followed the halfling’s pointing finger. From the shadows of the forest, figures were coming forward. More dead bodies, in various stages of decay, advanced upon them with their slow, shuffling steps. Dozens of them flowed into the clearing from every direction, leaving no gap between them for another escape such as the one at the inn.
Marcus and his companions drew closer to one another. Polan and Valista, however, charged forward, sprinting across the grass toward the nearest body. Swinging their swords in graceful arcs, they attacked, their blades cutting deeply into the dead flesh and stopping them no more than a fly would landing on the desiccated skin. The two elves backed away, Valista unable to pull her blade from the corpses, and fled back to where Marcus and the others stood.
All around them, the ring of the dead tightened. Soon, the rotting bodies were shoulder to shoulder, some passing behind others to form another ring around their victims. Again a wave of coldness swept out from them as they moved in, their red eyes blazing in one long beam that looked to Marcus like a neon tube.
The animated corpses closed in with agonizing slowness. They were within thirty yards . . . then twenty . . . then ten. Now, Marcus could smell them as well as feel their mindless malevolence, the odor of rotting meat clouded the air around them.
Marcus searched within himself, looking for some way to reach those abilities that he knew lay just beyond his reach like a doorknob to a young child. He knew he would have to reach those powers to save them, even if it meant his death from the exertion. His one goal was to save the others if he could. Perhaps Wilkey and the elves could escort Heather back to the cave, he thought.
Then, just as he closed his eyes to try to draw upon his magic, he was startled out of his revelry by a loud shriek. At first, he thought Heather had made it, though it sounded like nothing the human voice could generate. Looking around, the dead nearly close enough that he could touch them, he saw a shadow pass before the light of the moon and felt a large form pass just over his head, smashing into the corpses nearest him.
“It’s Lorelei!” Valista yelled, pointing above.
Marcus looked and saw Blizzard, fresh from his run through the corpses near his rider, wheeling about for another pass. The other griffons, with similar calls to the one Blizzard had made before his charge, dove from the night sky and cut through the ranks of the dead like a scythe through wheat. Even Sunbeam, smaller than his other kin, devastated those within his path, raking the dead flesh with his claws and beak.
The corpses stopped advancing, apparently dimly aware of their danger, but unable to process some plan to deal with it. Marcus wondered what the Necromancer was thinking as his army was decimated by the ferocity of the griffons.
After clearing out a small space around Marcus and the others, the griffons landed beside them. Lorelei sat upon Winterdusk, looking pale and beautiful in the moonlight.
“Valista and Polan, you’ll have to take Blizzard and return to Glenfold. Wilkey can ride with me on Winterdusk. You,” she pointed at Heather, “will take Sunbeam and Marcus can take Aspen.”
No one argued with the commands. They watched the dead bodies around them began to advance again, more urgency in their shuffle now that their prey was escaping. Each mounted the griffons as they were instructed, fumbling with the straps to ensure that the griffons with two riders would not lose either of them in midflight. In a few moments, the griffons took to the air, leaving behind a sea of dead bodies in their wake. Looking down, Marcus could see hundreds of corpses milling about in the clearing as if they were waiting for some outdoor concert by a popular singer. He was awed by the sheer numbers of them and wondered, not for the first time, if he could contend with the power of the Necromancer, even with his powers restored.