by Francois van der Merwe
Everything is ready for the ritual. The bodies are stacked high in the garden shed. The eyes glow, putrid fluid pools on the floor. Magic grows in green swirls as words of mouth and twisting fingers pull souls from the abyss.
Animated dead shamble towards the house.
A dead soldier walks through the front door. Startled shouts and screams cut the night. People back up as plates crash to the floor.
A man in dark livery climbs onto a table and knocks an arrow to his concealed hand-bow.
“Reck!” someone calls.
The arrow flies true and thunks into the head of the dead.
It pulls the arrow free and black fluid oozes from the wound. Fear, the unmistakable smell, runs down the inside of Reck’s leg.
It ambles forward, pale, milky eyes unseeing. It’s too close for another bolt. Reck flings a dinnerplate at it. A chicken leg clings to its face, flopping down its chest. It’s still coming.
The perfume of putrescence wafts over the assembly.
Reck backs up towards the door as dinner guests start running.
The figure is garbed in an old bronze breastplate. A feathered helm with a single feather, caked with dust and cobwebs clings to its head.
Reck feels a doorknob pushing into his back. He grabs it and backs into the dark kitchen.
The thing keeps coming. Its outlines glow in the candle light.
Reck grabs feverishly at pots and pans. Several clatter to the floor.
A huge man in a white apron storms in. ‘What’s this?’
A low guttural moan answers from blue lips.
Fat but fast, the cook grabs a broad meat tenderiser. The ghoul draws a sword, green with age and cracked along the blade.
It breathes out in a low hiss.
The cook steps closer.
“Death to Akkans,” the thing croaks as it steps forward and in a single slice shears through the cook’s arm. Akkans? They are a dead civilization. Where are these things from?
The tenderiser drops. ‘My arm!’ the cook yells as his lifeblood spurts onto the kitchen floor.
Reck wields a cast iron pan in a whooping motion above his head. A clanging thud rings against the assailant’s helmed head.
A smile in cracked flesh and broken teeth simmers on the pale visage.
It reverses its grip on the sword. In a downward motion it skewers the cook through the neck. A gurgle comes from the floor. Reck winces.
The pan drops in the doorway as Reck runs outside. He’s next to the stables. A heap of hay with a pitchfork in it catches his eye. He wrests it free.
Another rushing undead soldier gets the wind knocked out of him. He has no wind. The pitchfork sticks out of his stomach like a flagpole.
The creature turns and rips the fork from Reck’s hand and knocks him over.
Guards in red filigree push Reck aside. They prod at the monster with their spears as if questing for its origins through its stomach.
Reck runs. Streets and cobbles blur by. He runs up a hill, stumbling several times over raised stones. One more misstep and he falls headlong down a hole.
He blacks out.
Sudden snow falls in soft down, covering the ground in powdery tufts
“Mother!” a voice cries.
Reck is wrenched to wakefulness. A blood-spilling cry peters out. Reck pops his head from the hole. He can barely see over the side. Odd, he’s six-foot one. It dawns on him as his eyes slope down the hill and into the burning city. Cohorts of the bronze deathless march in step to the cries and fire that rages. He can make out their shapes in the early dawn. Greened bronze glints off the first rays.
A child is clutching a woman’s hand as a green glow surrounds her. With a leap Reck jumps out of the hole and rips the child from the turning mother.
The child bawls. The mother rises, her hair forming an unholy halo as wind gusts from behind her. She sways.
A shovel is leaning on a nearby gravestone. Recks grabs it. With the cutting edge he shears through the groaning woman’s face.
The child is quiet now, as his mother topples into the hole. “Come on, kid. This town has gone to the dead.”
They run. Several times Reck needs to apply his spade with diligence. Luckily they only meet groups of one.
A castle of epic proportion stands atop the hill that dominates the city. “There, we need to reach it. We could be safe there,” Reck utters to the child between breaths. “What’s your name?”
“Treena,” a soft voice says.
“Okay, Treena we have to be strong now.” Reck realizes his soiled trousers might not help his argument. He picks up a dead branch off the redbrick road. “They come close, you hit them with this, okay?”
“Okay.” The young girl is defiant despite the ordeal.
They near the portcullis to the castle main. Several undead seem to wander away from them, oblivious, to their next meal.
“That’s some good luck,” Reck says.
An archer in the king’s red peers down at them. “We aren’t opening the gate,” he bellows. “King’s orders.”
Reck scratches his chin. “Fine, drop us a rope then. These dumb dead can not climb.”
The archer frowns. “Are you bitten?”
“For all that is good, just let us up!” Reck pulls his shirt over his head and twirls as he undoes his pants and trips over in his loincloth.
The archers laugh out loud. Reck can swear someone has pushed him. Treena is looking up at the archers hopefully.
“They’re harmless,” the archer says, and he drops a line.
Minutes later they are in the castle.
Wounded and dead line the castle walls on the inside. A medicer goes from man to man. Treena walks up to the grizzled old man and takes his hand. “I can help you; mother was a medicer too.”
“Very well. I need all the hands that are willing.”
All through the day they see to the dying and the dead. Many die, more fall unconscious. As night falls helpers and medicers wearily tread to straw pallets laid outside.
“You sleep here” the old man points, showing Treena a bunk.
Deep in the night Treena wakes. She walks over to the heap of dead, stacked together in death.
Everything is ready for the ritual.