Pepin looked up with watery eyes, and searched the sky for answers. The grey sky was bleak of any meaning and only the whip of the cold wind flapping his robes broke the silence. There was nothing he could do for this warrior but close his eyes. The townsfolk had crowded around, hoping for a miracle, but Pepin had run out of those long ago. With a great sigh, he nodded to the burly blacksmith who lifted up the bloody carcass and set it in a new hole next to the mound of the previous sixteen bodies.
Uriah had held on for five days before succumbing to the fell wounds, and in his delusional anguish he had screamed out terrifying things. Gillian sobbed and turned to cry against Pepin’s shoulder as Ogden began shoveling the dirt over what had once been Tristram’s most stalwart man. The remaining folk of Tristram dispersed, muttering about the curse as they drifted off to their homes.
It was less than an hour later when the first band of boys gathered by the crumbling church entrance and garnered the courage to enter. The ten of them had little more than the shirts on their back, and perhaps a dagger, and axe, or small wooden buckler. While they argued about who would lead the expedition, Toby listened intently. No one had asked him to join, but then no one had ever called him brave either. There was still time to speak up and join them while they dickered, but Toby felt his stomach doing flip flops. He had seen the bodies come back like so many bloody husks. What was to prevent them from the same fate?
The tallest boy, Ellis, threw a fist at the eldest, Jacob, and when Jacob backed away, Ellis raised his arms and declared himself their leader. All, except Jacob, entered the Church hooting and yelling, probably more to reassure themselves than frighten the demons. After a few minutes they passed beyond hearing.
The only sound now was the cold wind and the chink and shoosh of the shovel as Griswold and Ogden covered Toby’s father in dirt. Uriah hadn’t been a perfect father, but despite his long days at the mill, he had always managed to find time to tell Toby a story, or teach him about the world that lay beyond the rivers that bound their once happy town. As he looked over the ground, the world now seemed sterile and hollow- more like a painting he had suddenly stepped out of.
Toby went over to Jacob. He knew what it was like to be left behind. “In the morning, Tremain will have to bring them all back in his wheelbarrow”
Jacob snorted, “You coward! They are going down to avenge your father’s death and you tuck your tail and hide?”
Toby felt his ears grow hot, but before he could retort, Jacob had shoved him backwards onto the ground. “Ow! I think you cracked one of my ribs” Toby intoned.
“Sissy!” Jacob turned to go into the Church on his own.
“Please wait!” Toby cried out.
“I don’t want no sissy tagging along with me” Jacob laughed and lit a torch as he marched into the gloom.
Toby dusted himself off and headed back into town. He saw Ogden patting down the new mound, while Griswold leaned on his shovel handle for a moment.
“Over here, Laddy” Griswold called him over.
“Are you going to mock me too?” Toby called out in a quavering voice.
“Ach, no. You are the smart one ‘o the whole bunch. Its madness to go down there, I tell ya”. Griswold looked the boy over. Tobias had none of Uriah’s great size or strength, but had always been wiser than his years. It was unfortunate that the lad was suddenly thrust into manhood this way.
“I’m glad you are here, Master Toby, I have something for you” Ogden mopped the sweat from his brow with a grimy kerchief and then reached into his belt pouch. He produced an ring of orange carnelian set with a wedge of sunstone.
Toby had always been Cain’s most apt pupil and he immediately recognized the restricting ring. Long ago the great Naj had sought to make a ring even more powerful than the constrictors, and one that didn’t drain life to feed its powers. Naj partially succeeded as the Restrictor didn’t drain life, but a flaw in the enchantments allowed it to drain mana at an amazing rate. Naj had cursed the ring and flung it into the river Talsande. According to the lectures Naj’s curse made the ring suck light as well as mind energy, but it was still a powerful ring.
“Your father was wearing this beneath his tunic” Ogden handed over the ring, which was threaded with a silver chain to serve as an amulet.
“You won’t be needing that for a few more years” Griswold barked a warning, then added “Buck up!” as he saw the tears welling in Toby’s eyes.
Toby turned away to hide his pain, and headed towards Ogden’s tavern. He made sure no one was looking and then snuck around back. There was a moss covered barrel for rainfall behind Ogden’s tavern, and Toby stuck his arm deep into the cold water to fish for a stiff wire. He caught the wire and pulled it up, revealing a oiled leather purse. Toby emptied the few coins into his hand and counted them. With the 2 gold he had in his sock, he had a grand total of 100 gold. Toby knew he would never be a great warrior, he simply didn’t have the strength or courage, but he knew the gist of many spells, and though he had memorized only firebolt, there were quite a few he could cast from scrolls. He decided to see what the Witch would sell him for his gold.
Adria sneered at the paltry handful of gold that Toby held out in front of her. “I sense a search for redemption” Adria looked him over.
Toby nodded. “I want to go help the others”
“The time has come for purity to face corruption”
Toby stiffened. Had he embarked upon something that would destroy him?
“Keep your gold, you will need much more of it for your adventures to succeed. Turn over every body and smash every barrel for the least item or coin.” Adria went into her hut and as Toby turned away he heard her call out
“Wait!” A few minutes later, she came out with a long battered walking stick, banded with red which she handed over to Toby, along with two flasks of blue wyrm water.
Toby examined the staff. Other than the small sapphire tip and red bands it was featureless, but Toby knew better. He closed his eyes and spun the staff, letting his fingers read the slight ridges on the bands. There was the sigil for wandering on one, the sigil for many on another, and then the sigil for thunder on another. With a larger sapphire and stronger enchantments the staff could cast great bolts of lightning in long deadly chains, but this one was only a pale shadow of that. Still, the charged bolts would slay many things, and Toby was glad to have it.
Adria shook her head and refused his money. “Don’t thank me, that staff may lead you to your doom"
Thinking of nothing to say, Toby merely bowed and began going over the incantations for the spell as he walked over towards the church. He passed the shambles of the rectory, and luckily neither Griswold nor Ogden was there to chide or dissuade him. He placed one hand against the cold smooth stone and readied himself. No sooner had he set foot in the church, then he heard a scream. It was Jacob! He ran headlong into the church, his heart pounding like Griswold’s hammer. In his hurry, Toby immediately realized that he had forgotten a torch, but his eyes soon accustomed to the gloom and he only slipped on the debris a few times. He had peeked into the church many times, and he knew the floor was littered with bleached skeletons and weapon fragments, so this did not frighten him as it once did.
“HELP” Jacob called out again, from a passage to Toby’s left. As Toby rounded the corner he saw the three hideous things leaping and tearing at Jacob, who was pinned in a corner. They were like bony crabs or spiders and they hissed as they attacked. For the moment, they seemed intent on finishing their victim off and ignoring Toby.
“Jacob!” Toby called out and raised his staff. He knew he had to draw them away, as the charged bolts would injure his friend as well. Two of the three creatures ceased their scavenging and turned to scramble after Toby.
“Is that you, Toby?” Jacob screamed, and Toby could see that the scavengers had already torn out Jacob’s eyes and nose and that half his arm was eaten away as well.
Toby backpedaled around the corner and raised the staff. Three powerful surges of ball lightning shot from the sapphire tip and these drifted out toward the scavengers. When the lightning made contact, the scavengers tittered and cackled in their agony-then curled up and died. Toby went back over to the corner and swung the staff with all his strength at the remaining scavenger. It was enough to break the beast’s back and it curled up and was still. Toby pulled the scavenger off of Jacob.
“Are you okay? He shook, Jacob, but the eyeless head just slumped over. Toby felt for a pulse, but there was none. He rubbed the rapidly congealing blood off of his fingers and steadied himself with the staff as he got up. There was a tik tik tik of clawed feet on stone as more of the scavengers scrambled about. Toby shook with anger, and clenched the staff as he marched out to meet them. One of the four scavengers scurried towards Toby, anticipating an easy meal, but the as the staff completed its great arc and connected with the bony creature, bits of the scavenger went flying about.
The other three scavengers stopped approaching Toby and began feasting on the remains, but there were more deadly things in the distance. Toby took the opportunity to bash in the puny skulls of the three scavengers. He considered his next move. It was certain that in great numbers these beasts would easily finish him, and it was only a matter of time before he was overwhelmed.
He aimed the staff at the hulking figure that shambled towards him in the distance. It was only moving slightly faster than a grazing cow, but there was something fearful about its relentless approach. As Toby spoke the incantation, the three charged bolts drifted out to meet the menace. Toby thought he could make out a moving shadow in the great hall that once housed the pews, but it was hard to tell in the darkness.
That was it! Toby took out the Restrictor and slipped it over his thumb. The room seemed to vanish and all he could see was the three bolts flickering in the distance. There was a groan and the sound of a falling body. A minute later and another creature fell to the charged bolt, but this one clattered as it hit the ground.
Skeletons had always given Toby the heebie jeebies, and he didn’t intend to meet any animated ones face to face! He took off the ring, and looked around him. The cold autumn wind whipped through the littered floor sweeping along dried brown leaves as it prowled the floor like a hungry invisible spirit and chilling Toby to his very soul. He hugged the corner of the wall as he approached the place where the groan had come from. In a few places along the wall, the once proud stone crumbled, and Toby wondered how long until the entire edifice collapsed into a pile of rubble with a dark secret.
He reached the spot, and found the body. The thing was man like, but its features were bloated and oversized, and it literally swam with an infestation of maggots. Toby had heard Cain lecture about Zombies, and how some of them could suck the years of your life as well as injure you. Despite the overwhelming stench, this was not one of those. In fact, when Toby used his feet to roll the Zombie over, he noticed it wore a crimson leather cloak emblazoned with a jaguar rampant; a cloak that once belonged to old man Zimmer, Tristram’s tanner. How did this zombie get it? Then Toby looked closely at the swollen hands, and he knew. Permanently stained from a lifetime of Mimosa and Oak Bark extracts, some foul power had corrupted and taken over the kindly old man.
Toby had not forgotten Adria’s homily, and he took the cloak, shook out the bugs, and scraped a few gold from the ground. He spoke a brief prayer, and donned the cloak. There was another groan and Toby let loose two volleys of bolts in the direction of the sound, and slipped the ring back on.
Two more bodies clattered to the floor, and Toby heard the hollow clank of a fallen helm. He made his way towards the sound. He had to remove the ring to find the helm and he was just starting to decipher the glyphs on it when a skeleton appeared out of the darkness and began whacking at him with a rusty scimitar. The first blow stunned Toby, and he before he could even think, he was hit again. Reeling under the pain, it was all he could do to hold his staff up and block the next swing. The skeleton drew back for another slash, but Toby brought the staff up and used a thrust to the solar plexus. The skeleton shattered and fell down in a heap. Toby felt a surge of energy flow through him and his mind felt stronger and more resolute. His recent wounds were gone and he wondered what power or benevolent spirit watched over him.
The helm seemed well crafted, and was set with the two glyphs for enhancing concentration. Toby donned the helm and worked his way further down the wall. Soon enough he reached a stairwell leading down, and he thought he could hear distant screams filtering up through the stairwell. He decided that today was as good a time to die as any, and gingerly took the first hesitant steps down. He reached the bottom and it was pitch black. Toby had never had a good sense of directions, but he knew that if he stuck to the left wall, at least he wouldn’t be working his way in circles. With the ring equipped, it was as if the creatures couldn’t detect him until he was right next to them. Twice he swept the legs out from under scavengers before they even knew he was there. Now, Toby had come to the end of a row of pillars and a long wall set with torches lay ahead.
A humanoid form walked under the torchlight, but it was too short for Toby to distinguish anything from the silhouettes except the stubby horns. Devils! Toby took a deep breath. He didn’t think these were immune to his charged bolt, but he knew it would take more than a sharp blow to take these down. He worked his way back into the shadows and tried to flank the devils. Suddenly, he slipped on an unseen body and fell face first onto a pile of them. They were still warm, and Toby recognized Ellis and the other six instantly. Ellis had been cleaved from skull to waist; Percy’s legs lay two feet from his body, and the others were equally mangled.
Toby had little time to ponder the horror that caused their demise as his fall attracted the attention of two scavengers and a zombie. Toby expended another charge from his staff which took out the Zombie, but completely missed the two little crab like scavengers. He flipped one of them over and thrust the sapphire tip of the staff through its underbelly, and he cried out in pain as the other managed began gashing upon his ankle. He brought the staff up and down with a quick chopping motion and the scavenger tittered and died.
The ankle was tender, but walking was still manageable, and Toby found a vantage point behind a cracked pillar to observe the devils undetected. Stocky, blue runts, these irascible devilkins patrolled the perimeter of a large room. It was hard to judge in the flickering darkness, but Toby’s estimated their numbered at five. Attacking outright was unthinkable, so he considered how best to lure them individually.
A door clattered shut and Toby nearly jumped out of his skin. Two of the devilkins suddenly became agitated, and angled towards him. Toby backed into the shadows as quietly as possible, and then he heard Kendrick and Theo arguing.
“There’s no way we are going to beat that giant slab of meat” Kendrick spoke as he walked past, holding a small wood axe in a ready stance.
Theo replied, “We’ve already done a lot of damage, he can’t take much more” Theo had some sort of flaming dagger, and Toby surmised that it was the light from this that the drew the devilkins. Neither of the two noticed Toby, but both shrieked when the two devilkins sprang upon them. Theo’s dagger was knocked aside and the devilkin pounced again, using the downward force of his leap to increase the power of the falchion as it bit deep into Theo’s shoulder.
Kendrick fared much better as his axe sheared off the kneecap of the other devilkin, and with a second blow he dispatched it. Theo tried to run, but the devilkin ran him through with the curved blade. When Theo fell, there was slight distance between the devilkin and Kendrick, and Toby judged that he could discharge a firebolt to good effect. Surprisingly, the devilkin fled a short distance to assay his next adversary. Kendrick steadied his grasp on the axe, and as he stepped after the devilkin Toby finished the incantation. A small dart of flame leapt from his fingers and sped towards the devilkin. There was a short howl as it hit, and the beast fell down in a charred lump.
“Who goes there?” Kendrick whispered.
“It is I, Toby,” Toby answered softly and stepped from out of the pillars’ shadows.
“Show yourself,” Kendrick was looking right through the spot where he stood.
Toby removed the ring, and with the extra light he noticed the grievous wounds Kendrick had suffered. “It would be best if you returned to town, and let Pepin treat you” He also made a motion indicating that there were more monsters behind Kendrick.
Kendrick took the hint, and they both moved back away from the area. “I would, but a bloody giant three times Griswold’s size has blocked the stairs. It was he who slew Ellis and the others,” Kendrick indicated their slain playmates. He snapped poor Jeremy like a twig, and as we fled he ran us down and slaughtered us.”
Toby now noticed how both of Jeremy’s femurs erupted from his thighs, and the look of abject horror in the seven dead faces. “How did you and Theo escape?”
“The giant cannot open doors, and Theo and I secured ourselves in a small room,” here Kendrick hung his head, “We had no idea the others would not escape, else we would have stayed to help. Even now, I feel it is my duty to slay the beast, and avenge them.”
“There is no shame in retreating to safety, as long as you return to fight again” Though they had often teased Toby, these had been his friends and vengeance was warranted! “Do you think we could defeat the giant with fire or lightning?”
“I cannot say,” Kendrick looked off into the gloom. “We landed so many blows on him, yet he never even stumbled.”
“Behind you!” Toby’s hands went up in reflex and a dart of flame flew out and bones went flying as the skeleton crumpled to the ground. Kendrick turned to see a small red flask among the remains, and he didn’t hesitate to quaff the healing fluid.
Two more skeletons came rushing towards them with their awkward gait, and behind them was a skeleton surrounded by an eerie green glow. Two of Toby’s firebolts missed, but the third hit home and scattered one skeleton, while Kendrick’s axe took the other one down and sent several of the its vertebrae flying past Toby.
The green skeleton approached them undaunted, and Kendrick raised his axe for a mighty blow. Toby shot two firebolts, hoping to stun the fearsome monster, but it shuddered under the impact of the two flame darts and closed with Kendrick. The wood axe came down and three of the skeleton’s ribs went spinning off into the darkness. The green monster took no notice of the injury and swept a great threshing flail at the boy. The flail’s five steel rods caught the back of Kendrick’s legs, instantly knocking him to his knees. Kendrick raised his axe to ward off the coming blow, and he muttered something in supplication. The chain caught the axe and the five rods wrapped around it and caved in Kendrick’s forehead. It paid no heed to the two firebolts that Toby had just let loose, but turned towards him with grim purpose.
Toby backed away and adjusted his mind state to use the staff’s power. He let loose with three volleys of electrical fury and then the green creature of bone was upon him. As it brought the flail around to take out Toby’s legs, he jumped and scurried to one side. It was then that he noted a the familial crest on the eerie skeleton’s helm. There was no mistaking the two geared wheels and the river.
“Father, NO!” Toby exclaimed as the flail whipped back. For a second the eyeless skull peered at him and it hesitated. Then the flail came crashing down. Toby had his staff held high, and the rods slung around it twice before snapping it. Toby scrambled away and turned to fire off two more firebolts as hot tears streamed down his face. There was a searing pain in his shoulder and he was spun around by the impact of the flail. He fired off two more firebolts and his reanimated father staggered for a second. With fear and reluctance, he fired off the spell again. His father’s skeleton fell in mid stride, and the bones collapsed on top of Toby. As he disentangled himself, Toby stifled a sob, and wondered how this could be, when he had seen his father interred with his own eyes?
"Ah, fresh meat!” Toby saw the grim giant coming out of the darkness, and he hurriedly slid the ring back on his finger and dropped back. The ghastly thing paused and waved its huge cleaver at the empty air. Toby could hear it sniffing for him, and as quietly as he could he tried to follow the wall behind the columns and slip by unnoticed.
Four more steps and Toby was past the columns and facing a dark unknown expanse. Then something hissed and bit into his left leg. Toby’s firebolt incinerated the scavenger, but the pulse of flame also gave him away.
“Ah, Fresh Meat!” and the thing came lumbering at him. Toby ran, but it stayed right behind him. Toby circled around a sarcophagus, but the thing only chuckled as it followed the scent and came right after him. Toby stumbled on a pile of bones, and changed direction just in time to hear the cleaver swish behind him. Toby grunted as he ran headlong into a corner. He turned and ducked, and he felt a spray of warm blood droplets sling across his face as the huge weapon sliced the air where his head and neck had been only moments before.
Toby felt the last bit of mental energy flee him as he discharged another firebolt. The huge tyrant grunted as the bolt left a tiny scorch mark on his face. Then the beast smiled, revealing a huge array of broken teeth. Toby tried to dart past the creature, but it grabbed him by the leg and lifted him up. Toby fumbled for the wyrm water on his belt, dropped the first, but managed to gulp down the second before the beast flung him to the ground.
The back of Toby’s head flared with pain, but he held it in. Perhaps if he feigned death. . . The huge beast, looked at his still figure for a second, then it disappeared in the darkness for a second. Toby was about to make an escape, when the thing reappeared dragging Jacob. It bent over and grabbed Toby by the ankle, and slung him over its shoulder as well. Twice more it stopped, and then it continued to lumber on, with Toby near the bottom of the stack of eleven boys. Toby and the rest were unceremoniously dumped in a pile and Toby chanced a peek. Between the split body of Ellis and the neck of Wallace. He could make out an entire collection of bloody dismembered bodies. They were scattered about, some impaled on spears, others hung by great hooks, and all of them were people Toby had once known.
Toby felt something sliding next to him, and the pile jostled about as the fearsome thing grabbed Percy’s upper torso. It sat down and pulled off the arms; crunched them between its massive jaws and then bit off Percy’s head like a grape from its stem. It sniffed at the chest and then flung it away. It reached into the pile again and pulled out Ellis. It chewed the meat off one leg for a moment, then the other. Then it plucked off the arms and ran them between its teeth to strip the meat.
Toby stifled a gag, but the creature stood and suddenly eyed the pile. Toby held his breath and tried to keep from even thinking. The monster, picked up Kendrick, dropped him and reached back into the pile.
Toby felt the powerful grip on his leg. He was being drawn up and out of the pile, and he used every ounce of will to remain still. He felt the hot noxious breath as it sniffed him. The smell of the creature was like that of dead fish Toby had once found in a barrel.
The beast grunted, but it did not drop him. Indeed, he felt fire and cold shoot up his leg as his shin splintered in the thing’s jaws. Toby screamed. The beast flung him against the wall and went to grab its cleaver. Toby steeled his mind against the pain and managed to get two firebolts off.
The thing groaned twice and then came after him. It raised it axe, and then Toby heard the thwip thwip of bowfire. The thing grunted again, and Toby felt a powerful hand grip his shoulder and drag him out of the room.
“Ach Laddy, didn’t we tell you not to come?” Griswold lookd down on him. “Follow Adria back, and we shall try to hold this foul demon.” Griswold pulled out a flaming sword and headed back into the room, to help Gillian fend off the grim giant.
“Quickly! Follow me, they won’t be able to hold him for long.” Adria pulled on Toby’s cloak. Toby saw the three devilkins jumping towards them, but Adria uttered something and each one stood frozen like a statue.
“Run!, He’s gotten past us!” Griswold yelled out.
Adria waved her arms in a great circle and Toby was nearly blinded by the blue coruscating tunnel that materialized. Adria stepped through, and Toby was almost there when something hissed and caught his leg. Before Toby could cast firebolt, two more of the scavengers were upon him and he was so racked by the pain that all he could do was cry out in anguish.
“We’ve got to get you free!” Griswold’s face was full of hate and determination as he hacked at the little fiends. The first two died but replacements arrived faster than he could slay them.
“Ah, Fresh Meat!” and the heavy footsteps came. Griswold grabbed Toby by the shoulders and tried to drag him through the portal, but the grisly scavengers weren’t about to give up their snack. Toby looked up to see the immense beast looming above him and then the great cleaver swept down.
There was a flash of blue light and Toby felt his leg explode in pain. Then everything went dark.
When Toby awoke, the room smelt of leeks and garlic and Pepin was applying a salve to his knee. “The injury is beyond my power to heal, but I think we have come up with a suitable replacement.”
Gillian’s face was bruised and battered, which made her worried look even more compelling. “What are we going to do about the demons?” she asked as she tossed bloody bandages into a burlap bag.
“We need stronger forces to conquer these demons” Griswold stood back near the corner, holding a long wooden box.
Toby was happy to think of anything but the pain. After a second he spoke, “We need mercenaries.”
“I’m afraid we have no money for such forces,” Pepin had his back turned and seemed to be measuring something as he conferred with Griswold.
“We need heroes, and those heroes will need powerful artifacts to slay those grisly fiends,” an idea was beginning to form in Toby’s mind.
“I can make a few weapons and the caravan’s may have something from time to time, but I cannae imagine ever having enough for an army” Griswold commented.
“I can” Toby remembered a place beyond the mill that his father had always warned him away from-a place of untold danger. Toby had peeked over the rocks, and seen the smashed caravans, but there were never any bodies. Whatever it was that slew them, the fiends never took anything but the bodies, and the spot was always desolate by daybreak. It looked harmless enough, but minutes after a thief or brigand came after an item, fierce vipers appeared from an heretofore invisible cave and slew them. Perhaps, this was where his father found the ring.
It was doubtless that many of the items were worthless rags and such, but Toby knew many enchantments and he could increase their powers. The secret lay in watching the cows. When they grazed on the thick grasses, there were no demons. When the cows stayed away, the area was deadly. Yes, Toby knew how to raise the money and get the equipment for the mightiest army to ever march against the hells!
“Let’s try this on for size,” Pepin turned around and was holding some sort of peg attached to a cupola.
Toby looked left and right in horror. “But I can still feel the pain in my leg!” He reached down where for the pain in his left ankle, but there was nothing there below the knee.
“Phantom pain” Pepin said.
Cain walked in the room, and put a steady hand on Toby’s shoulder. “Adria has enchanted this so it will mimic your old leg exactly in feel and function. It won’t hurt to attach it, but the dweomer is such that it can never be removed.”
Toby nodded. “Go ahead then.” He closed his eyes. He felt Pepin massaging the muscles and then it was done.
“Try it out, I forged the core out the finest steel” Griswold leaned over and lifted Toby out of the bed.
Cain and Pepin both nodded, so Toby took a tentative step. He looked down to make sure it wasn’t his imagination. Then he walked around the room. He had to look to make sure it was the wooden leg-it felt EXACTLY like his real leg. He gave everyone a broad smile and then he buckled over in pain.
“Something is gnawing on my leg!”
It was awhile before anyone spoke. Griswold broke the silence. “We didnae think of that.”
“Why didn’t you just leave me there!” Toby screamed as he felt the broken teeth grinding on his shin bones.
“Until the beast is slain, I am afraid you will be in torment” Cain spoke.
Griswold clapped Toby on the shoulder. “Chin up Tobias. Uriah Wirt would not be happy to see his son moaning about his fate”
Toby glared at them. They would pay. They would all pay dearly. And then he passed out from the pain.