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Brotherhood

*

This story contains the text of “The Lich Emerges”, with a significant amount of additional information. To read just “The Lich Emerges”, follow the link below.

The Lich Emerges

*

Venator looked out at the departing Longfang guards. The outpost at Onsallas was officially under the protection of his Vandregonian unit, the Myrmidons. Venator felt oddly out of place. As the first ever Ulven warrior to join a human army, he seemed to many the perfect choice to command the first multi-racial unit to ever be allowed to garrison the Longfang stockade. From a political standpoint that may have been true, but in his heart of hearts, Venator felt pangs of guilt and sorrow. He wished that William was here.

Among his own people, there were few who knew Venator’s story. Those who did would almost certainly shun him if he were recognized as the “Oathbreaker”. Venator had been a different person, once upon a time, both literally and figuratively. He had been born the son of a selfish and arrogant chieftain, who feared the witch’s predictions that his firstborn son would surpass him in his glory. Venator’s father had bestowed upon his son the title of “Oathkeeper” at birth, and given him away to another pack as part of a political negotiation. The boy was trained and indoctrinated from childhood to serve his foster community as a guardian and warder. Worse, even, than being given away by his own parents, was the fact that his father refused to give him a name, and simply called the poor boy “Oathkeeper”. The child’s resentment, bitterness, and hatred grew as fast as his skill in combat. His uncontrolled rage terrified the peaceful farming community to which he was assigned, for he saw his post and his duty as a prisoner sees his sentence.

He grew up selfish and terrible, just like his father. One day, the Mordok burned his village and killed his wards. He might have been able to stop it. He might have earned great glory. He might have died heroically, but what was the point? What use has the Great Wolf for a warrior with no name?

The young warrior returned to the village of his birth. He confronted his father and demanded to know his true name, now that he was no longer “Oathkeeper”. When the Chieftain refused and tried to have his son arrested, the young man challenged him to an honor duel on the condition that his true name be revealed should he win. That duel was the first time that the young warrior was overtaken by the rage of the Great Wolf. He berserked and brutally beat his father to within an inch of his life, unable to stop himself even after his name had been revealed. His mother tried to intervene and, in his blood frenzy, he stabbed her. Her wound proved fatal, and Venator was forced to flee the village of his birth.

Venator Dreadfang left that all behind him. As far as he was concerned, he had never had a family anyway. He embarked on the path of the Kyrkogrim, but unlike many of the dishonored who go to that pack to seek redemption, Venator cared only to seek his glory and his death.

He traveled all across Mardrun, challenging and defeating all that he came across be they Ulven, Human, or Syndar, every victory surely ringing the ears of the Great Wolf and fanning the flames of his resentment and revenge. Eventually, though, the fires of hatred and anger that had driven him made him weary, for they had burned within his chest until there was nothing left to burn. He had nothing to fight for, and his heart became cold. Venator fell into a deep depression, and began to question whether his victories had any meaning. How much did the Great Wolf really care about personal duels? Was Venator really a warrior, or simply a duelist; an athlete?

When Venator Dreadfang encountered Sir William of Vandregon, he challenged him to a duel. Venator was more skilled than even the charismatic knight, and yet he could not defeat him. Venator’s heart was cold, and he fought like a machine. Though precise, his rage had mostly abandoned him, as had his passion for the fight. Though he rained blow upon blow on Sir William, battering him and wounding him grievously, the knight refused to yield, for the fire within Sir William’s chest burned hotter and brighter than had ever that of his challenger. Sir William gained strength and resolve from the presence of his comrades and friends. He seemed to get stronger, rather than wearier, as the fight went on and his men raised the colors of Vandregon’s heraldry upon sticks, and sang songs from their homeland.

Venator didn’t have any friends. He felt the hatred and resentment grow within him. He no longer just wanted to embarrass this knight, he wanted to kill him. As the two clashed, Venator felt the rage rising inside of him until he neared the flash point of the berserker. Try as he might, however, the sparks would not catch, for there was nothing left in his heart to burn, not even kindling. The frenzy never came.

The two combatants pushed away from each other, panting with exhaustion. Someone threw a waterskin to William, who caught it with one hand and sipped it carefully, keeping his eyes on Venator.

“You’ve got him, William!” shouted one of the Soldiers, “He may have the fangs of a wolf, but you’ve the heart of a sheepdog!”

Venator was parched and dizzy. There was no one to throw him a waterskin. There was no one to cheer him on. There was no one to sing his song, or howl his name. Venator’s vision flickered. In his mind, he could see the empty forest, and the empty road. There was no Wolf waiting for him upon that road.

“Tis not the right road.” he muttered, suddenly feeling weak.

He almost dropped his axe.

“What’s wrong?” taunted one of the Vandregonians, “Don’t have the stomach for it?”

“Nay.” said Venator, “Tis my heart. Not my stomach. My heart.”

Venator realized then, that he had found a true warrior whom he could not defeat. By the code of the Kyrkogrim, he was obligated to become protege to that master until he could surpass him. On that day, Venator Dreadfang became the first Ulven to ever join the Army of Vandregon. It was also the first day he embarked on the path of a true warrior. In the coming months and years, Sir William taught him what it meant to fight for brotherhood, patriotism, and friendship. He transformed a selfish boy into a great and noble warrior, and instilled in him the selfless ideals of chivalry that great men live by. Venator loved Sir William as much as he had hated his blood father, and for the first time ever, he had a family. His heart burned for that family. It burned for all the right reasons.

Venator Dreadfang would die for any one of his Myrmidon, and the fact that he knew they would do the same for him made him quite possibly the single most dangerous fighter in the Army of Vandregon.

Now, Venator was Sir William’s most trusted Lieutenant, and here he was on a dangerous and delicate mission on the frontier, far from his mentor’s guidance. The Watchwolf Ambassador, Raskolf, was here as well, to observe the operation and help keep the peace, but the command of the Vandregonian Garrison, as well as the responsibility for their actions, rested squarely on Venator’s shoulders.

The first day had consisted mainly of setting up camp and performing patrols with some of the adventurers who were more familiar with the area so that the Myrmidon could get a feel for the terrain and the trails. Between Echo Nightriver, Magrat Farwalker, and Raskolf Vakr, the Vandregonians were able to get themselves oriented to their area of responsibility rather quickly.

Even Raskolf’s little daughter, Elise, was knowledgeable of the area, and proved to be helpful as a guide. Venator watched the interaction between the child of seven winters and her doting father. He smiled sadly, especially when the sole separated from the little girl’s boot, and her father, the Ambassador, “Voice of the Watchwolves”, Warder and Champion of the Clan High Priestess, and former Warpack leader, stripped off his armor and sat down in the dirt back at the outpost to mend it with a sewing kit, later on.

Venator was glad that Raskolf was there to handle any diplomatic manners that came up. He was especially glad that upon his arrival at the outpost earlier that morning, Raskolf had laid everything out for him. His first impression of the Watchwolf Ambassador was that of a gruff career Soldier. Venator’s men had been in the process of setting up camp, and the Longfangs hadn’t even left their posts yet, but here this grumbling, growling old Ulven veteran had come storming up to the men of Vandregon demanding to see their ranking officer as if the troops had done something wrong. When Venator stepped forward, the Ambassador had sized him up and then given a hearty forearm clasp without changing his demeanor at all.

“My name is Raskolf Vakr,” he had said, “I am the Voice of the Watchwolves and I speak with the authority of the Clan. If there are any issues that arise between your men and the local Ulven, you will defer to me and support my every decision. Are we understood?”

“Yes, Ambassador.”

“Venator Dreadfang,” he continued, “You are responsible for the security and safety of this outpost and the area surrounding it. That includes the roads, which have been plagued recently by highwaymen. The entire garrison is under your command. Sir William is a good friend of mine, and he has assured me that you are up to this. The eyes and ears of the Watchwolves will be upon you, as will my own, and I will be reporting to him.”

A tall man in a red tabard bearing the white lion rampant joined the two. He was heavily armored, and carried a pack that was bursting with books and scrolls.

“This is Cedrick, the Lion.” said Raskolf, “He is here to serve as your advisor regarding all matters pertaining to the hungry ghosts. One of the reasons that the Longfangs agreed to letting Vandregon move troops to their territory is because of your army’s experience fighting the undead. Since you, yourself, however, have no experience doing so, Cedrick will help you. He is here to share his wisdom with you. Listen to him. Undead have been spotted in the area very recently.”

The Ulven Ambassador had certainly given a rather gruff first impression, and yet now here he was, drying his daughter’s socks by the fire and sewing the sole back onto her boot while he spoiled her with a treat of hot cider and cheese curds he’d purchased from the provisioner.

The little girl finished her snack, and suddenly had the need to burn off some energy, barefoot or not. Fortunately, the Syndar healer’s dog was happy to oblige, and the two began racing around the walls of the stockade. Venator watched her play for a while. The sun was high in the sky, and there was not a cloud in sight, but it was a bitter cold day for the time of year.

After lunch, Venator decided to rotate his guards and take another patrol out. The Ambassador stayed back this time, but Cedrik joined the Myrmidon, along with a few other adventurers. The patrol roved out to the East and then cut South. They crossed the old bridge and followed the lowlands around the marsh. The Longfangs had reported seeing undead in this area, so the patrol kept a sharp lookout. Echo Nightriver and Elise Vakr scouted a short distance ahead, checking the ground for stability and prodding the mud with sticks to test for quicksand. The two had volunteered for the task because they were both small and light. They must have appeared easy pickings. Elise was testing some unstable earth with her feet, something her father would have never let her volunteer for had he been along, while Echo stood lookout with her bow. The wind changed direction, and the two girls suddenly caught a strange scent in the air. It reminded Echo of either funeral incense, or that awful stinky oil that Syndar wore.

The two turned to rejoin the patrol, but a human woman with bright red hair stepped out of the bushes to block their path. The woman grinned wickedly and drew two short swords from her belt. There was a sudden rustling in the tall grass to either side of the girls, but they didn’t wait to see what else was about to ambush them. Echo charged straight at the woman, simultaneously and reflexively firing an arrow deep into the bandit’s abdomen at close range. Elise was hot on her heels. The bandit shrieked and doubled over, clutching at her midsection, and dropping her swords. Echo nearly ran the woman over in her escape from the killzone, and Elise’s sword flashed out and hamstrung the stuporous bandit for good measure as she ran past. The rest of the bandits stomped and splashed through the muck, shouting at the two Ulven girls as they struggled to keep up. Echo and Elise led them on, winding through unstable terrain and losing at least one of the bandits in quicksand. Smiling to each other, the girls ducked and dodged their way back to the patrol. Snarling and mud-splattered, the three remaining bandits crashed through the six-foot tall swamp grass and reeds, stumbling face first into the waiting arms of the heavily armed and armored Vandregonian infantry patrol. The bandits tried to flee, but didn’t make it far. A quick search of their bodies did nothing to identify them. The three men carried with them loot, clothing, coins, and weapons from all manner of different cultures. One of them had a bottle of very expensive perfume from Tielorrien. Another carried bundles of freshly cut herbs which Elise recognized as the raw components of certain healing compounds her mother favored.

As the the patrol checked the bodies, Venator had his men form a perimeter in case there were more bandits, and he carefully marked their location on his map. As he was putting his map away, one of his sentries sounded the alarm that there was movement down in the swamp. Venator’s Myrmidons crouched low in the tall grass, and Venator moved to see what the sentry had spied. He couldn’t believe it. As he pulled the grass aside to see, he found himself staring out at another tabard of red and gray. It was a Soldier of Vandregon. The man was filthy, beat up, ragged, and unarmed, but he wore the colors of Vandregon, and carried on his shoulders another man who was either grievously wounded or dead, dressed in the manner of a Ranger of Vandregon.

“Don’t shoot!” the Soldier panted, “I’m a Cleric from the Army of Vandregon! I’ve got a wounded man here!”

Venator and two other Myrmidon rushed forward to help him as he stumbled and nearly slipped into a pool of water lilies.

The wounded Ranger groaned as the Vandregonians rolled him over and began removing his filthy garments to expose his injuries. Elise joined them with her little basket of bandages, and Cedrick readied his prayer beads for healing magic.

“I can’t believe it!” panted the mud-covered Cleric, falling to his knees and reaching his arms to the sunny sky, “Half a continent away from New Hope, lost in the swamp, hounded by the forces of evil, and I find the Army of Vandregon! Truly the favor of our maker shines upon us this day!”

The Cleric bowed his head in prayer and shuddered as the horrors of his ordeals played out in his head. He was physically exhausted, cold, wet, muddy, and bloody, but such discomfort paled in comparison to the emotion in his eyes.

“What are you doing here?” asked Venator, “My unit was the only one authorized to enter Longfang territory.”

“My name is Vladimir.” he said, clenching his eyes and his fists. “I am here on orders from Father Calder, at the temple in New Hope. We were to reinforce the Order of Arnath.”

Vladimir took a moment to get his composure.

“I am the sole survivor out of a convoy of fifteen. We were attacked by zombies two nights ago.”

“Sole survivor?” said Venator, “Don’t be so quick to write off your friend, here.”

“He was not part of my convoy. I found him out here in the swamp, the day after I was attacked. There was another man with him, but he ran away from us to lure a horde of zombies off of our trail.”

The young Cleric’s voice cracked and he punched the soggy earth.

“Some of the zombies were my old friends.”

Vladimir was a large fellow, obviously possessing the strength to match his frame. His features, however, were youthful, and despite the terror of his ordeal, there was a certain sense of wonder and innocent pride in his tale

Elise had done her best to tend to the wounded Ranger, but he was very sick in addition to his injuries. She dabbed some cooling salve upon his fever blistered lips and sighed to herself. She wasn’t sure he would make it, and she wished her mother was there with her. Cedrik the Lion knew some basic healing magic, but he was nowhere near the healer that Anjan Ravensmark was. As he worked his magic, the little girl rolled her eyes.

“You human Clerics are slow.” she said, “My mother would have had him awake and able to talk within a few minutes.”

Cedrik concentrated on what he was doing and ignored the seven-year-old heathen’s comment.

“It’s probably because your gods are weak.” she said.

“My gods are not weak!” snapped Cedrik, breaking his concentration and terminating his spell, “I’m just more of a fighter than a healer. I’m a Lion.”

“Uh-huh. Whatever you say, mister lion. My mother was one of the best fighters on Mardrun before she became a healer. She was a Tundra Wolf.”

Cedrik gritted his teeth. He was beginning to understand what Brother Captain Aeden had meant about these people.

“Are you quite finished, little girl?” he snarled, “You’ve broken my concentration and caused me to waste precious mana.”

“Is that all it takes to ruin one of your spells? You know…”

“Let me guess? Your mother wouldn’t have lost her concentration? Yeah? Is that what you were going to say? Well, I believe it. You know why? Because she has to put up with you.”

Elise wrinkled her nose at him and frowned.

“This man is in bad shape, Venator.” said Echo Nightriver, “We need to get him back to the outpost.”

“We would have to split up, then.” said Cedrik, shaking his head, “We need to find the other one that was with him before nightfall.”

Venator carefully considered his options. He really wished that Sir William was there.

“No.” He said, “We will not split up. If the group of undead in the area was big enough to take out a fifteen man convoy, then they are too dangerous for us to face divided.”

“They are even bigger, now.” said Vladimir, shaking his head, “My fallen friends have swelled their ranks.”

“Then it is decided.” said Venator, “We will return to the Onsallas outpost and get this man to the Syndar healer. The other survivor will just have to use his wits to survive until we can find him.”

“In the meantime,” said Cedrik, “we need to focus on preparing the outpost for an attack. If the undead are amassing a force of such size, we could be in for one wild night.”

*

Back at the outpost, Venator gave his troops a chance to eat, fill their waterskins, and change their socks while he questioned Vladimir. The Ranger they had rescued was very sick. He had been bitten by a zombie during his battle with the Lich’s forces. The Syndar healer said that she would be able to treat the infection and keep him from turning, but it would require a great amount of her resources, and she simply wouldn’t have enough of the red herb she called phoenix tail left to treat anyone else with injuries later on.

Raskolf and Elise left to retrieve healing supplies from the Longfang village outside of the swamp, and to update the Longfangs as to what had been discovered. Venator was in charge and he had no one to fall back on. He figured he should have just enough time to make one more patrol of the area and search for the missing companion of the Ranger before the sun horse descended. He really wished that Sir William was there.

The final patrol did not locate anyone, but they did find some herbs that the Syndar healer could use. Venator got everyone back before night had ascended. As they approached the outpost, the bittersweet sound of music from Faedrun emanated from behind the walls. The Syndar healer, her traveling companion, and a third Syndar were singing. The shiny skinned Syndar bard had arrived in the patrol’s absence. She had ruddy yet almost metallic skin, the color of beaten copper, and plucked a small stringed instrument that seemed to put out more sound than it should have been able to. Raskolf and Elise still were not back, and Venator wasn’t sure if they would try to make the trip through the swamp in the dark. He couldn’t count on them being back until morning.

“In the meantime,” said Cedrik, “we need to focus on preparing the outpost for an attack. If the undead are amassing a force of such size, we could be in for one wild night.”

*

Venator let his returning patrol have a moment to recover and eat a hearty supper prepared by the human provisioner, Sorcia, before he started coming up with guard rotations. The outpost only had one gate to guard, which created a convenient choke point for the defenders. It was also out in a very open area of the lowlands, so anyone posted on the archery platform had an excellent field of vision on all avenues of approach. Still, defending a fortress wasn’t exactly something that Venator considered himself an expert on. Other Ulven may have been embarrassed to ask a Human for advice, but Venator had been pupil to William for a long time, and felt no such shame.

“Cedrik,” he said, “I need to know how best to defend this place against the undead. I have never fought them before, but my men say that it is different from fighting any other enemy.”

“It is.” said Cedrik, “The undead have certain strengths and certain weaknesses that are unique to them. Their strength lies in the fact that they feel no pain, and cannot be killed. They are relentless in their attack, and will continue advancing, even if partially dismembered. They can eventually be put down if they take enough physical damage, but it takes forever. Their weakness is that they lack mobility, they are slow, and they are clumsy. They are also, for the most part, very stupid, and easy to distract due to their single mindedness. Being creatures of unholy mana, they are vulnerable to divine magic. There are cleric spells which can keep them at bay, but sadly these spells are limited in their duration, and if there is one thing that the dead are good at, it is being patient.”

“Very well.” said Venator, “Since there is no door to the stockade, I was thinking we should put our most heavily armored troops in the gateway to form a shield wall.”

“I agree.” said Cedrik, “but I also think we should place the clerics directly behind them. The clerics can create divine barriers out to ten feet if things get out of hand. The lesser undead will not be able to enter the area of effect, and it will push them back a little.”

“What about casualties?” asked Venator.

“We will need to have the more lightly armored people in the back, ready to grab a hold of any troops that fall in the shield line. Just like your Mordok, the zombies will try to drag the fallen out and away from the formation. I’ve seen the wounded nearly torn in half in tug-of-wars with the undead, so the skirmishers in the back will need to look sharp, and drag the casualties back behind the line before the undead can get a hold of them.”

Venator reflected on these things for a moment.

“Thank you for your help.” he said, clasping Cedrik’s forearm, “I will brief my troops, now.”

“Oh, and Venator.” said Cedrik as the Ulven turned to walk away, “Put me in the front line, please.”

“As you wish, Lion.”

*

It was very shortly after nightfall. The Onsallas outpost garrison tried to go about their typical tasks as if everything were normal, but in their hearts they all knew what the night would bring. Grinli, the bard, sang and played songs from the old world. The memories these melodies stirred evoked both feelings of regret and the sadness of mourning. What the troops didn’t know, though, was that though the bard’s music might be sad, it also carried with it the power to strip from them all fear. Within their chests, their hearts beat stronger than ever, and their frustrations and anger gradually shifted to courageous resolve. As the music died down, it was replaced by a death-rattle upon the cold autumn wind. From the darkness of the swamp came the moaning of many things that should not walk.

The defenders scrambled, and quickly lined up in formation, shields at the ready, awaiting the enemy charge. The charge never came. The defenders looked out into the blackness and squinted against the bitter and howling winds. It seemed like an eternity had passed. The moaning was all around them, and the rustle of the slowly shuffling abominations dragging themselves through the tall grass out in the darkness almost gave the impression that they faced an invisible foe. Sensing that their nerves may break, Grinli approached the rear of the formation and began to sing and play again. As the troops opened their ears to this unusual but pleasant distraction, the zombie horde limped into view.

The battle was a terrible one. The defenders were backed into a corner, and therefore could not use their mobility to their advantage, but they dare not try to engage such numbers in the open, or they would surely have been surrounded and dragged down. The zombies pressed the gateway, hard, swinging rusted weapons so blindly and clumsily that they were actually difficult to anticipate or parry. Fighting the zombies was less like facing an enemy, and more like trying to stop an overloaded wagon that was slowly rolling down hill. The lesser undead kept advancing, even after being impaled on spears, and when they did finally fall, they crawled and clutched at ankles. Whenever things got too out of control, though, the clerics were able to coordinate their divine barriers to temporarily push them back. Among the zombies was a single undead creature that seemed to stand out. Echo Nightriver directed the defenders attention to it, for it seemed to hang back and move with more purpose than the others. Working its way to the front of the horde, finally, it raised a bony finger at Cedrik. The Lion braced himself in case it was about to cast a spell, but instead it hissed and parted its jaws.

“Orrrrrrrrrderrrrrrrr.” it croaked.

“Target that one!” shouted Echo, “It might be a leader or something!”

Temporarily leaving the safety of the gateway, the adventurers assigned to skirmisher duty charged out and cut the creature down, finishing it off with a blessed weapon, and then quickly returned to the safety of the line. The zombies continued to press their attack, much to the dismay of the defenders.

“Well,” said Echo, “So much for that idea. I’d hoped that maybe killing their leader would have some kind of effect on them.”

“It’s not their leader.” growled Cedrik as he pushed back against the clawing horde of zombies, “It is just a puppet. They are all just puppets. Rotten meat puppets.”

“But that one had some intelligence!” said Venator, “It talked.”

“No!” said Cedrik, “It was just a puppet. Just like the others.”

Cedrik may have had the heart of a Lion, but he couldn’t bring himself to tell them the truth. He knew what that thing was, but he was trying so fiercely to deny it, that he couldn’t tell them. He couldn’t admit it to himself, because deep down inside, he’d already felt it. A spell had been cast, after all.

The careful planning and teamwork of the Myrmidon of Vandregon, the coordination of the cleric’s divine barriers, as well as the daring deeds of the adventurers at the outpost ultimately prevailed, for though the zombies threw wave after wave against the outpost, the gateway never fell, and eventually the undead withdrew.

Venator took accountability of his Myrmidon after the enemy had fallen back. The troops were in bad shape. Their armor was damaged, and many were wounded. To make matters worse, there was no blacksmith at the stockade, and all the clerics were severely depleted of mana from creating divine barriers during the battle. Cedrik immediately set up a work detail to burn the bodies of the zombies, though many of them were so dismembered that it was unlikely they would reanimate.

All they could do now was lick their wounds and pray that there was no second wave.

As the clerics and healers tended to the wounded as best they could, Venator himself took up a position as a guard, relieving one of his men and sending him back within the stockade to get some rest. It seemed to him to be the sort of thing that Sir William would have done. As the makeshift pyres cooled and winked out, the color of the night seemed to change. It was a cold one, and damp. Everything was blue, purple, or black in the pale light of Luna’s fullness. The flickering orange of the campfire was the only tone of warmth, and Venator was too far away to feel the heat. Like the smoldering tendrils of smoke which twisted upwards into the night sky and dampened the stars, Venator watched as his breath steamed up in front of his face. The wind picked up just a little, and he regretted not changing out of his sweaty clothes after the fight.

From within the stockade, the gentle strumming of a stringed instrument carried softly in the night air. One by one, the Soldiers of Vandregon recognized the tune, and began joining in, until even the lips of some of the wounded moved in chorus. It was a song from the Old World.

Kind friends and companions, come join me in rhyme
Come lift up your voices in chorus with mine
Let us drink and be merry, all grief to refrain
For we may and might never all meet here again

Here’s a health to the company and one to my lass
Let us drink and be merry all out of one glass
Let us drink and be merry, all grief to refrain
For we may and might never all meet here again

Here’s a health to the dear lass that I love so well
Her style and her beauty, sure none can excel
There’s a smile upon her countenance as she sits on my knee
Sure there’s no one in in this wide world as happy as we

Our ship lies at harbor, she’s ready to dock
I hope she’s safe landed without any shock
If ever we should meet again by land or by sea
I will always remember your kindness to me.

I WILL ALWAYS REMEMBER YOUR KINDNESS TO ME.

Venator’s vision blurred. The world seemed darker. At the same time, though, the moon shone brighter. Venator saw movement out of the corner of his eye. At first it was just a shadow, but then he recognized a silhouette. He recognized the gait of the man, the way he carried himself, and the sound of his boots. It was Sir William of Vandregon. Venator rose and joined him on the path. As he did so, the two of them began to march. Venator wasn’t sure where they were going, but he would follow his mentor anywhere. Suddenly, the two warriors became aware of movement off to the sides of the road. Ghostly shadows. Wisps of darkness. The grinding of teeth. The flicker of ethereal eyes through trees like the mists of time. It was the black pack of the Great Wolf.

“The Wolf Road!” cried Venator, “Sir William! This is the Wolf Road.”

A long, mournful howl pierced the silence.

“You have led us down the Wolf Road!” said Venator, turning to face his friend.

William did not answer him. Instead, the knight kept walking towards the howling.

“William, stop! Your kind cannot go to him! He will devour you.”

Venator found it difficult to keep up. Soon, he was running. Sir William was still just walking, but somehow seemed to get farther and farther away. Something in the trees began laughing at Venator. It was a horrible, raspy laugh somewhere between that of an old man who smoked too much, and the whine of a dog.

“But one of you has to go.” it hissed, “It is the key. There is only one full moon left.”

Venator jostled himself awake, his shame at nodding off on guard duty suddenly pushing the details of his dream to the back of his mind.

If ever we should meet again by land or by sea
I will always remember your kindness to me.

Venator Dreadfang, normally a very hard person to sneak up on, was startled when Jeremy of Vandregon’s hand suddenly clamped down on his shoulder.

“Venator.” he said, “Cedrick says the Ranger is awake. Go quickly. I’ll take your watch.”

Venator hurried back into the stockade. Cedrick and the Syndar healer were tending to him.

“He awoke very suddenly.” said Cedrik, “He just sat upright and asked about a sword. Now he is out again.”

The man shivered with fever as the Syndar healer dabbed his forehead with a rag. Her companion approached with a cup of hot water from the fire pit. The healer gave her friend some directions to fetch a jar of dried leaves from her luggage and crush them with the mortar and pestle. Within a few minutes, the ingredients had been tied into a cheesecloth and a special tea was brewing.

“This should calm his fits.” said the healer, testing the warmth of the brew with her fingers.

Venator and Cedrick helped pull the Ranger up to a sitting position and leaned him against some packs and bundles so he wouldn’t slump or choke on the tea. The Syndar healer pressed the cup to her patient’s lips and administered it carefully, making sure that the Ranger could swallow on his own.

“We should really change out the poultice over his bite wound, but I don’t have the materials to make a new one. The best I could do for now would be to cover it with a plain bandage until those Ulven return with fireroot, pineed sap, and golden bell leaves.”

“I expect them back in the morning.” said Venator. “Just a few more hours.”

“Aromar.” mumbled the Ranger, “Aromar. Are they safe?”

“Do we know his name?” asked Venator.

“Vladamir said he thought his name was Conner.”

“Ranger Conner,” said Venator, “my name is Venator, Myrmidon of the Army of Vandregon. You are safe and among friends. Can you hear me?”

Conner opened his eyes and struggled to focus.

“The Red and Gray.” he said to himself. “And a Lion of Arnath’s Fist.”

Conner tried to sit up, but he was too weak. The healer steadied him and settled him back against the padding and bundles.

“Where is Aromar?” asked Conner. “Is he here?”

“There is no one by that name here.” said Venator, “We found you unconscious in the swamp. Vladamir was carrying you.”

“We have to find him!” said Conner, “If he is lost, then it was all for naught. He was carrying the blade and the orb.”

“Settle down.” said Cedrick, “It will soon be daylight and we will look for survivors again.”

Conner shuddered and sighed. He tried to get up again, and fell back into the pile of luggage.

“Ranger,” said Cedrick, “listen to me. I am a Lion of the Order of Arnath’s fist. We will find what is lost, but you have to help us understand what we are looking for. You said something about a sword and an orb?”

“I don’t know, exactly.” slurred Conner, closing his eyes, “There are very few of us left on Faedrun. The whole continent is overrun.”

“You’re from Faedrun!?” exclaimed Cedrick.

“Even the mightiest fortresses have fallen,” mumbled the Ranger, “and the grand Army of the Alliance is shattered. We were given a box containing two sacred artifacts which hold great power. We were not supposed to know what was inside, in case our minds were scryed by the lieutenants of the Dark One. We sailed East on a small vessel, barely suitable for the high sea, in order to avoid detection. Our orders were to find the colony of New Hope and deliver the box there along with this message: All is lost. There is no longer life on Faedrun.”

Conner shivered and the healer set up some more tea. Cedrick looked to Jeremy and the healer. As one, they felt their hearts sink. It was Venator who broke the silence.

“Your message has been received, Soldier. Can you tell us about the box?”

“We would have never even known what was in the box, for we were loyal and true to our duty, but then we were attacked by pirates when we landed here. They killed all but two of us. The villains opened the box in front of us, set our vessel adrift, and took us prisoner. They scattered weapons and furs around the landing site to make it look like barbarians did it, but our attackers were Humans. It was months before we escaped. We managed to steal back the blade and the brass orb. They didn’t pursue us. We knew they wouldn’t. The natives in the area surrounding their harbor are hostile barbarians called Grimwards. That red-haired lady-pirate had told us as much, probably to discourage us from leaving.”

Conner snarled and spat.

“A pox on that she-devil and anyone related to her!”

The stockade fell silent.

“Conner,” said Cedrick, “I am going to get some of my books and come back when the light is better. We will try to identify these items of which you speak before we send out another search party this morning. In the meantime, rest. Dawn will break soon.”

“And I will be back with a map, too.” said Venator, “Try to get some sleep.”

Jeremy stopped Cedrick as he turned to walk away.

“Cedrick,” he whispered, “Do you think he tells the truth? Is there no longer life on Faedrun?”

“I don’t know.” replied the Lion of Arnath, “I don’t know.”

“He isn’t the first one to say so.” said Grinli, stepping into the firelight, “Many have said as much over the last several years, but still we cling to hope. I see no reason why this should be any different.”

“We don’t even know if he really is who he says he is.” said the healer.

“An unmanned ship drifted into New Hope earlier this year.” said Venator, “Sir William sent scouts from Vandregon to find their landing site further up the coast. The scouts ventured to the very limits of friendly territory. They reported that there had been a battle just inland of the beach. I believe Connor’s story, and I think that he was one of the survivors from that ship.”

The others exchanged concerned glances.

“None of that matters right now.” said Venator, “We have more immediate problems to worry about. Get some rest. It is sure to be a long day tomorrow.”

The sun had not yet completely broken the horizon when Raskolf and Elise returned with the herbs that the Syndar healer needed for Conner, as well as some basic provisions for Sorcia. Magrat was with them.

*

Patrols set out the next morning to find the Ranger’s comrade. What they found was not encouraging. It was a scene of terrible carnage. Sticky drying blood stained the tall marsh grasses, and flies swarmed all about the gruesome scene. Something had definitely been killed here, most likely by zombies. There was almost nothing left but bones and blood. All other tissue had been stripped away. Cedrick crouched down and examined the carnage. There were scraps of green cloth.

“I think we found poor Aromar.” he said, “This looks to me like the it came from a cloak much like Conner’s.”

Echo Nightriver prodded the tall grass with a stick, uncovering a boot caught in a wire snare. There was a clear path of freshly broken and trampled swamp grass leading up to it.

“He was running for his life and ran straight into this game trap.”

“He must have been exhausted and desperate if he fell prey to such a device. It is unlikely that a Ranger would stumble into such a crude trap, otherwise.” said Vladimir.

“Whoever was chasing him approached along these two trails. The gait is uneven, and something is being dragged; perhaps an injured leg?” said Echo.

“Undead, then, for sure.” nodded Vladimir.

“Something isn’t right.” said Magrat, “This knapsack has been un-buckled and emptied. Zombies lack the coordination to do that.”

“Maybe it was Mordok.” said Elise, staring wide-eyed at the tooth marked bones.

“Or,” said Venator, “those bandits that chased you and Echo yesterday are still in the area. This could have been their game trap. It’s possible that the Undead killed our Ranger and the bandits looted the remains earlier this morning when they checked their snares.”

“If that is the case,” said Magrat, “they cannot have gone far. We may still be able to track them.”

The patrol made its way down to a well traveled trail. Magrat and Echo were able to determine the heading of their quarry thanks to some nicely preserved footprints in the mud. The spacing was normal, so the person they were tracking had been walking at a regular pace. Based on the size of the print, and the fact that the toes pointed slightly out, they guessed that they were following a tall male, most likely human. There were other prints on the trail, too, now, but it was hard to determine how old they were as the morning dew had moistened even dried out tracks with fresh pliability.

The party followed the trail down to the bank of a gently flowing stream. There were no footprints in the muddy embankments to either side.

“Either they crossed here, or they walked up or downstream in the water.” said Echo.

“We’ll never find them now!” whined Elise.

“No.” said Magrat, “They didn’t go down into the water. There are no footprints on this side of the stream either. Look how soft the earth is.”

“Well,” said Cedrick, “where are they then?”

“They are here.” whispered Magrat. We are right on top of them.”

“Fan out in pairs.” said Venator, “Search every bush, brush pile, and tree.”

It was Elise and Echo who flushed the man out of his hiding place. He was carrying a spear in one hand and a bundle of red and green herbs in the other. The party quickly gave chase as he splashed out across a partially flooded field of short growth plants towards the stand of trees immediately opposite. In their enthusiasm, the adventurers failed to notice his comrade sneaking out from beneath the roots of the tree near the embankment and heading off in the opposite direction with a suspicious bundle in his arms.

The lightly equipped bandit nimbly outpaced the more heavily armored Vandregonians, and Cedrick as well, but Echo, Elise, and Magrat were able to better keep up. Echo and Elise chased the bandit down into a draw, but Magrat took a quick survey of the terrain and noted that the lower ground curved around and took the longer way to a clearing. She knew exactly where he was going to come out and where she could head him off.

As Elise and Echo pursued the man, Venator and Cedrick yelled at them not to get too close without the rest of the party. The two Ulven fell back a bit, but by the time the others had caught up, they had lost sight of their quarry. As the draw opened up into grassy wetlands, the adventurers had no idea where he had gone. Elise and Echo pouted.

Out in the cat-tails, Magrat was quite pleased with herself. The thrill of the hunt always took her back to her days on Faedrun, especially when she was successful. She was getting rusty, though. She hadn’t been aiming to kill him when he charged her. She had been aiming to take the fight out of him so she could question him. No problem. She had just the thing for that. It was a spell from the old world. Magrat looked around and listened. She wasn’t supposed to use it here. The Ulven didn’t like it. The others were still pretty far away, though. She could hear Venator and Echo bickering about something in the distance. As long as she was quick about it, no one would ever know. Whoever said that dead men tell no tales obviously had no knowledge of the divine magic.

Echo had finally stopped pouting and started tracking when Magrat popped up from the vegetation and approached the rest of the party.

“He did not have the sword or the orb. His brother has them and headed in the opposite direction when we gave this one chase. They don’t know what they have, but they planned to sell the items in New Aldoria.”

“Where is the prisoner?” asked Venator.

“He died from my arrow.” she said.

“See to the body, Vladimir.” said Cedrick, eyeing the Feral Syndar suspiciously, “We don’t want one more zombie walking this swamp.”

“Yes, sir.”

Vladimir and Jeremy pulled the corpse out of the mud by the boots as Venator watched.

“That’s strange.” thought the Myrmidon to himself, “Shot right in the heart. That would have killed him instantly.”

He looked over his shoulder at Magrat. She avoided eye contact.

Venator looked around at the rest of the party. He wasn’t really sure what to do. They looked disorganized and demoralized.

“What would Sir William do?” he asked himself.

“Alright, men.” he said, mimicking his mentor with the delivery, “Take five to check your gear and drink some water.”

He didn’t really know why, but Sir William of Vandregon used to always tell people to drink water. Now that he was in command for the first time, Venator secretly wondered if it was just something that a leader said when they needed some time to think and get things organized. Just like Sir William, Venator made a point of making sure that everyone actually did drink some water. Doing so somehow gave him purpose and made him realize what he needed to do. He gave the party a few minutes to rest.

“Alright. Now that everyone has had a break, lets gear back up. Magrat says she knows where this bandit is headed, and she is going to track him. Echo and Elise will assist. Echo has some tracking experience, and Elise has sharp eyes. The rest of us will follow behind at a safe enough distance that we don’t make too much noise, but so that we are close enough to intervene if there is trouble. Cedrick will set the pace. Let’s move out.”

The party complied without hesitation. Venator bit his lower lip as he observed them falling into formation. Maybe he was finally getting the hang of this.

*

An hour’s march to the West of the stockade, the Battle Brothers of the Order had set up a forward camp near the Onsallas Village. They did not want to intrude too deeply into the Ulven territory, so they had made their own camp.

“Brother Kanos!” shouted a young man, “Brother Kanos!”

Several humans raised their heads or looked around at the sound of the alarmed voice.

“Yes? What is it?” replied Kanos.

Brother Kanos was a broad shouldered man, wearing a basic tunic and lion emblazoned tabard of the Order of Arnath’s Fist. He set down the box of supplies he had been moving and ran towards the messenger.

“Brother Kanos! The Eagles bring news, the Lich has been sighted. It is here, in the swamp, and it is close. They are tailing it now.” yelled the young man.

“Finally!” boomed Kanos, “This hunt comes to a close. Brothers! Prepare for battle, we move out immediately.”

Kanos ran towards his tent and began to don his armor. The small camp exploded into action as Battle Brothers and the volunteer militia of the Order prepared for battle.

A younger man jogged towards the tent, his healer’s robe swishing around him as he went.

“Kanos,” he said, “why do we move out so quickly? We should send Eagles to call in the other Battle Brothers and allies in the nearby settlements. Cedrick would not want to miss out on this chance now that we are so close.”

It was customary in the Order to address each other by the title Brother before their name, but in this case it was not needed. Kanos was the older and more experienced brother amongst three siblings. Cedrick was the middle brother and Mahlik the youngest. The fact that blood bound them together gave Mahlik a bit of leeway outside of the traditional customs of the Order, such as properly addressing one’s superiors or giving them tactical advice.

“Brother Mahlik, we move immediately. This has been the first confirmed sighting since the spring and the Lich is on the move. This is the best opportunity we have to ending it for good. I won’t lose it by sitting back and letting it slip through my fingers.” said Kanos as a novice helped him strap on his platemail bracers.

He had already put on his gambeson and chainmail and would soon be covered head to toe in full metal armor.

“Brother Kanos, don’t you think it wise to bring all of our battle brothers together for this in case we need them? We have yet to get in contact with Aeden. The Masters sent us out here to find him too.” replied Mahlik.

“Enough, Brother.” said Kanos, “Your concerns are valid, but I have made my decision. Without other greater undead or a gravestone powering it, the Lich will be weak enough that we can end the plague now on Mardrun before it has a chance to even truly begin. Send a message to Cedrick and let him know that I will meet you both back here tomorrow evening. This ends tonight.”

Kanos finished buckling on his platemail breastplate and grabbed his great helm from the stand in his tent. Even without his armor, Kanos was a mountain of a man and in full platemail he truly dwarfed most of his fellow battle clerics.

“Wait, brother, I am going with you!” protested Mahlik. “I am not going to stay in camp while you hunt down the Lich.”

“Brother, you know your place is here.” he said, hefting his tower shield. “You are new to the studies and this fight will be dangerous, even if the Lich is weakened. Oversee the camp and prepare for our return. We will likely have wounded in need of your skills.”

“But…”

“That is an order, Brother Mahlik.”

*

Back in the Dirge swamp, the adventurers were hot on the tail of the other bandit. He was giving them a heck of a chase, though, taking full advantage of his lighter kit and his knowledge of the area. The more heavily armored Vandregonians were starting to fall behind. He was almost in the clear. All he had to do was cross the bridge and cut the ropes behind him and he would be home free. By the time they worked their way across, he’d be to the open pond and paddling his brother’s boat out of sight. He ran parallel to the stream, nearer and nearer to the bridge with every step, while the red and gray fell further and further behind. He grinned to himself as he jogged along the muddy bank. As he gazed out across the field across the way, however, something was wrong. There were Ulven on the other side! He couldn’t cross. The bridge was too exposed. Veering off to the left, he desperately sought the concealment of the brambles and hoped he hadn’t been spotted. He didn’t know where to go. Panic gripped him, then, as his only plan of escape crumbled before his eyes. He was too exhausted to think rationally, and his chest burned in the chilly autumn air. He took cover in a bush and tried to size up his situation. He could see the footmen of Vandregon in the distance to the South, and he could barely see the Ulven further off on the other side of the river to the Northwest. He pulled his hair and tried to let his thoughts catch up with him. His thoughts never caught up with him, but the green Syndar and the two Ulven girls he had forgotten about did. Finding himself surrounded, the bandit drew his short sword and desperately charged the smallest of the girls, figuring that she would be the easiest to get past. He was wrong. Elise Vakr, daughter of Raskolf and Anjan, moved like lightning, side stepping his clumsy charge, and hamstringing him with her blade as he stumbled by. Clutching his leg, the man begged for mercy, but then lunged to grab Elise when she knelt to get her healing supplies out. Arrows from both Magrat and Echo whizzed by her and dropped him flat on his back where he wheezed his last breath.

The men of Vandregon and the Ulven Longfang Hunting party passed within yelling distance of each other on opposite sides of the stream, but neither ever knew.

As Venator and Cedrick caught up to the trackers, they were greeted by Magrat. Echo and Elise had already unwrapped the bundle. It contained an ornate sword with an unusual pommel shaped like a lion, as well as a large brass orb which had a certain warmth to it, despite the chill of autumn that permeated all other things metal this time of year.

From his studies the night before, Cedrick recognized immediately what the items were.

The orb was an activator, or key. It attuned a magic item to an individual and allowed them to unlock its power. The sword was a sacred artifact from the May’Kar Dominion. It was a Paladin Blade.

“What is it?” asked Venator.

“It is a holy weapon from a lost kingdom of the Old World, it is the bane of the Undead, and it is the key to our salvation in the face of the Lich.”

Venator frowned.

“The key, you say?”

“Yes.” said Cedrick, “Both literally and figuratively. It is the key.”

A chill ran down Venator’s spine.

Bundling the items back into the blanket roll, Venator hoisted them over his shoulder.

“Come on.” he said, “We’ve a long road ahead of us.”

“You want me to carry that?” offered one of the footmen.

“No.” said Venator, “I will carry it.”

*

Raskolf was waiting for the adventurers back at the stockade with Conner. Venator approached the wounded Ranger’s cot and handed the bundle to him. Conner hugged the sword and the key close to his chest and sighed.

“Thank the gods.” he said, “But where is…”

Venator shook his head.

“I’m sorry, friend. Aromar is dead.”

Vladimir approached his fellow Vandregonian and offered to pray with him, but Conner asked to be left alone.

Raskolf pulled Venator and Vladimir aside. A small hunting party of Longfangs had arrived just prior to their return. The Longfangs had news, and it wasn’t good. The Lich had established a gravestone.

“What does it do?” asked Venator.

“The gravestone leeches the life energy from everything around it and stores dark mana for the Lich to channel.” said Cedrik, “With such a blasphemous totem in the area, the amount of mana that the Lich can draw upon is nearly limitless.”

“I’m afraid that there is more bad news from the Longfangs.” said Raskolf, “The zombies you fought last night were but a small vanguard of the Undead Army assembled by the Lich. It grows stronger every day. The only thing keeping it from exploding out of control is the fact that my people have always burned the dead, rather than bury them, so there are no graveyards in these lands for them to draw from.”

“This is ominous news indeed.” said Venator, “What about the blade, Lion? You said that it was the key to our salvation.”

“It very well may be.” said Cedrik.

“Well,” said Raskolf, “How does it work?”

“That’s the problem.” said Cedrick, “I don’t know. I don’t know how to activate it, nor do I know how to channel that kind of power safely. The amount of mana that this blade is reputed to be able to pull from the lifestream all at once is astronomical. Only the Paladins of the May’Kar dominion possessed the knowledge and discipline to master such a powerful divine conduit without destabilizing their own essence.”

“Speak Common, cleric.” grumbled Venator.

“He means that channeling upon the power of that artifact would be like getting hit by lightning.” said Vladimir, “It would likely kill the wielder instantly.”

“I see.” said Venator, “Can we use it at all?”

“I’m sorry,” said Cedrick, “I am more of a warrior than a scholar. I am identifying it solely from a sketch in a book. I don’t even know how to activate it.”

“Are there any who still do?” asked Vladimir.

“The May’Kar may be long gone, but the independent Syndar enclave of the Phoenix still exist.” said Cedrick, “Their two cultures shared much with each other before the fall of the Dominion and the exodus of the Phoenix. If anyone would know how, perhaps they would.”

“Chow is on!” shouted Sorcia, “Come and get it while it’s hot!”

The garrison at Onsallas hurried off to get what they could before the Longfangs ate all the meat out of the stew and devoured all the butterhorns.

Cedrick pulled out his parchment and charcoal, and sat down to eat a bowl of stew and have a well deserved mug of cider. He was beginning to draft a letter in his head, telling his brothers about his discoveries in the Dirge swamp. The presence of the gravestone was dire news indeed. As he pulled off his boots to pour out the swamp water, Sorcia approached him with a sealed piece of parchment.

“Letter from the Hawk service.” she said, “Postage paid by sender.”

“Thank you.” said Cedrick.

Meanwhile, there was a commotion over by the healer’s campsite. The Syndar had been accused of stealing and hiding the artifacts from the Ranger after he had dozed off on their cot, and then trying to ransom them back to the adventurers. Steel had been drawn, and threats made, but Raskolf, the Ulven Ambassador, had defused the situation.

Cedrick watched from a distance and shook his head as he ate his lunch. Dipping his bread in the stew, he pushed an entire roll into his mouth and broke the wax seal on his letter. A few seconds passed and he stopped chewing.

“No, no no!” protested Cedrick, nearly choking on his bread as he read the message sent from the Order’s encampment.

The look of horror on his face was enough to rattle anyone around him. He read the words written by his younger brother, Mahlik, that the Battle Brothers were marching against the Lich at that very moment. Cedrick understood the decision. Kanos was making the best judgement call based on the information he had, but there was one very critical piece that was missing. It had just been discovered by the Pack Longfang hunters of the Onsallas village. The Lich was not weakened from months of being on the run. The Lich had killed enough people to make a small army, and harnessed enough dark mana to create a gravestone. The gravestone fed the Lich all the dark mana it needed to be at full strength, and Kanos was marching on it with a small group of battle brothers. There was nothing Cedrick could do to help. It was too late. The Order was already on the move.

“Unless,” thought Cedrick, “we can interrupt the source of its power.”

His Brother’s maneuver could create an opportunity for them. The Lich would respond to the attack and move away from the gravestone. It was dangerous but he knew that he could help his brother by attacking the gravestone. Cedrick grabbed the recently recovered May’Kar Paladin’s artifacts and ran off to meet with the Vandregon Soldiers of the garrison and the group of adventurers that had helped retrieve the sacred blade.

*

“Hold your line, Brothers!” roared Kanos as the wave of undead slammed into the Order’s shield wall.

Kanos was in the middle of the line with two other Lions at his side. The flanks of the wall were made up of more lightly armored Starkhaven militia. The far flank was held by another fully armored Lion so that the discipline of the line would hold even if they took losses. The zombies pressed in on the line, their stiffly curled hands clawing broken fingernails across the tower shields of the Order. They groaned and pressed, and reached over the shields to grab at the humans, but the men of Starkhaven maintained their line and held their ground. After the initial wave had hit and lost momentum, weapons flashed out as swords and hammers crashed down on the undead. Again and again, the steel weapons of the Order struck out to chip and grind away at the dark energy that kept each corpse together.

Kanos expected the Lich to have zombies guarding him but he didn’t expect he would have quite this many. The shield wall containing the lions and militia were being pressed hard by horde of zombies about two times their size. They were doing well holding the line and even managed to drop a handful of the zombies already. Kanos knew that most of them would rise again, but knocking them down was a sign of progress. Repeatedly, the lion-etched warhammer rained down on the bodies in front of his shield, smashing aside the zombies and shattering dried bits of flesh from their dessicated bodies. Kanos glanced to his right and saw two militia members get grappled, the sheer number of undead dragging them to the ground. One zombie had already sank its teeth into the shoulder and neck of a lightly armored volunteer as he cried out in pain. Kanos knew it was time.

“Brother Geshin, now!” yelled Kanos as he hammered a zombie in the face and heaved another back with his shield.

The Lion to Kanos’ left dropped back and cast his shield aside to mutter a divine prayer. Brother Geshin finished the prayer by shooting his arms out perpendicular to his body and casting a divine barrier. The sudden aura of divine energy pushed the undead on the shield wall back. The zombies currently grappling the two fallen militia men reeled in shock as holy energy wracked their forms and they were brutally cut to pieces by the other men of the shield wall. As they fell writhing to the ground, the Lions of the Order finished them with blessed weapons and dispelled the dark energy holding the corpses together. The bloodied militia men clenched their teeth in pain as they staggered back to resume their positions in the shield wall. With the divine barrier giving them some respite, the Lions began to bless their weapons again or rejuvenate their comrades with divine energy. The fight was long from over but the Order was prepared for this. The Lions stepped forward and began to strike at the undead from the safety of the barrier.

“Brothers, I can maintain the barrier for a bit long-GURK!” started Brother Geshin, before his words were cut short and ended in a gurgled cry.

Kanos spun around to see Brother Geshin fall to his knees. Geshin’s arms faltered as blood gushed out of the smoking hole in the side of his breastplate. He wheezed, and coughed a voiceless and bloody cry as he dropped the barrier that had been protecting the group. Brother Kanos watched as Geshin collapsed lifelessly to the ground, clutching at the empty sky. Behind the fallen Lion stood the Lich, clad in tattered black, its hand still extended from casting the death bolt that smote Brother Geshin. Flanking the Lich were several undead bodyguards. These armored undead held weapons and shields, and moved with intelligence and speed surpassing the common zombies of the horde. Knowing they had stepped into a trap was bad enough, but after witnessing the sheer power of the Lich and his greater undead guards, Kanos knew that something was wrong. The Lich was not in a weakened state. It must have created a gravestone in the swamp. Mahlik was right. Kanos should have listened to him.

“Behind us!” roared Kanos as he shifted his tower shield. The armored Lion holding the left flank stepped in towards the Lich and cast a divine spell.

“Divine ba…” was all he managed to say before the Lich flicked a wrist out and rammed the cleric in the chest with a magical push.

The Lion flew backwards, away from the line, and crashed into the zombies on the other side. In seconds they were on him. Several bodies piled on top of the Lion and the sheer weight pinned him to the ground. Teeth broke and rotten fingernails tore upon his plate-mail. The heavy armor would keep him alive for a while but it was only a matter of time before the ravening horde found the chinks in his armor. The cleric was unarmed, having lost his weapon and shield when he was pushed back.

The Lich stepped in towards the lines. Kanos charged, slamming his warhammer into the creature several times before he too was blasted with a kinetic push that sent him flying backwards, rolling and bouncing as he went. Kanos crashed into the zombie horde, his massive figure sending them flying like bowling pins. In moments other zombies descended upon him like they did the previous Lion, and Kanos was in a desperate struggle. He couldn’t see anything except for some part of the inside of his great helm other than the visor. He could hear rotting nails screeching on his shield and armor and the grating and wet cracking of broken teeth on the platemail gorget protecting his neck. Roaring in rage, the Lion warrior shoved several zombies aside and began to blindly attack with his hammer from the ground. Every swing landed on his opponents but there were just too many of them.

Just then, one of the militia members charged in and tried to clear the zombies away. He was brave, but his action would cost him his life. Rotten and withered arms reached out and grabbed him, pulling him closer into the mass of undead on top of Kanos. The lightly armored militia man was dragged down, screaming for help, until he fell on top of Kanos’ tower shield. The zombies tore into the man, clawing and biting and tearing his flesh. Within moments the man was torn to shreds, his entrails and blood pouring down onto Kanos and his armor all at once, like someone had dumped out a bucket at a slaughterhouse. While the undead feasted on the man’s body on top of Kanos, The Lion continued to struggle to find a way out from the tangled horde. He was able to turn to his side and get one arm and one leg under him. With every ounce of strength he had, Kanos roared and power lifted up, sending several zombies flying through the air and crashing into the swamp around him. He lost his tower shield somewhere under the mass of bodies, but there was no time to retrieve it.

Covered in swamp muck and gore, Kanos fixed his helm and finally got a glimpse of how the fight was going. The Lion taken to the ground had stopped struggling and had either suffocated or been torn to shreds, his body still covered in a mass of undead. Brother Geshin stared into the sky with dead eyes. A handful of militia were still standing, bloodied and fighting back to back, while others struggled on the ground with their attackers. Several more lay on the ground motionless. Brother Dayson was struggling, trying to fight one of the Lich’s guards and block its attacks. He would have been doing well if it were not for the zombie that had grappled his back and was tearing into his exposed shoulder where his armor had been broken open. Judging by his slow movements, Brother Dayson would soon fall. The final Lion was maintaining a divine barrier, giving the last couple militia time to regroup. It was working until the Lich stepped forward and blasted a hand sized fist through the Lion’s thigh with a bolt of death and black energy. The Lion went down in a scream of pain and the undead wasted no time shambling into attacking range.

They were losing, fast, and everything that led up to this moment fueled Kanos’ rage. He walked forward with a growl and bellowed a prayer to Arnath before calling forth the flow of mana.

“I am his shield and his strength! I banish you with divine wrath!” Kanos yelled as he pressed his palms out towards the nearest zombie in his way.

The air rippled with energy as a blast of pure divine power burst out and slammed into the zombie, ripping the dark energy from its body and sending it tumbled into a broken mass of flesh some fifteen feet away. He stepped past the body and walked quickly towards Brother Dayson who finally collapsed under the wounds sustained by the lich guard’s rusty blade. A zombie stepped in Kanos’ way but a full on punch to the temple with a plate gauntlet sent the zombie crashing to the ground and Kanos never broke stride.

“I am the light in the darkness! I banish you with divine wrath!” Kanos yelled again as he pressed his palms out towards the back of the guard.

It never even saw him as the second divine blast cracked its spine and ripped apart its body. The broken lich guard sailed through the air over Brother Dayson’s body and crumpled when it landed. With the guard fallen, there was nothing standing between Kanos and his intended target… the Lich. Even at full strength, a Lich would be severely damaged by the pure and raw energy of his god’s divine wrath, and Kanos had enough mana and hatred to pummel it again and hopefully finish the job. As Kanos stopped close enough for the spell to work he began to call upon the flow of mana. The Lich turned to face him but it was too late. Kanos was too close.

“I am a Lion of Arnath’s Fist! I banish you from this realm with divine wrath!” Kanos yelled as he pushed the energy straight into the Lich.

The blast slammed into its chest and it reeled back several steps, shrieking as the dark energy keeping it animated was almost torn completely from its body. It was not enough to destroy it outright, but the blast wounded it badly. Knowing it would take more, Kanos wasted no time in channeling forth more mana.

“Not here, not again, Lich! For my fallen Battle Brothers! I banish you from this realm with divine wrath!” roared Kanos as he dug deep into his faith and harnessed the raw power of his god’s wrath.

His rage at losing Brothers to the lich helped harness the energy, and Kanos hated the Lich with the core fibers of his being. In the split second it took Kanos to extend his arms towards the Lich, though, a lich guard rushed in and placed its own body in between the Lich and Kanos. Instead of releasing his god’s wrath into the Lich again, the lich guard’s body took the blast at point blank range. The attack instantly shattered the corpse, destroying it outright and sending it tumbling away. Kanos stumbled in surprise at what happened and then regained his composure to call upon more mana.

“You will not escape judgement! I banish you with div…” was all Kanos could get out as a prismatic blast of energy struck him head on and cut him short.

The Lich had stunned him with a simple, rudimentary arcane spell and Kanos stumbled backwards clutching his head. For what seemed like an eternity, the only thing that Kanos could comprehend was piercing light and the muffled sounds of all that was around him. The sound of the militia being torn limb from limb, the gnashing teeth on fresh bloody meat, the sword screeching through the plate armor of Brother Dayson as he was finished off, and the slowed beating of Kanos’s own heart under the effects of the spell. During the final dying breaths of a brave few, ten seconds can seem like forever.

When his senses returned to normal, Kanos opened his eyes to the extended palm of the Lich at his chest. Time returned to normal speed. A kinetic blast of energy rammed him in the gut and sent him flying backwards into the dirt. He landed with a thud and his great helm was knocked clean off his head. With a hacking cough, Kanos regained his breath and tried to stand. The Lich walked closer to him and summoned forth blue tinted energy in its hands. Flicking its wrists forward, it assaulted the cleric with bolts of energy that struck him as hard as any forged blade. The furious rain of bolts dented and bent his armor and rent his flesh until finally one cracked his breasplate and tore into his stomach. Blood oozed out of the cleric’s armor and he knew the wound was deep.

“Cedrick… Mahlik… I am sorry. I should have listened…” choked Kanos as he looked at the pool of his own blood forming at his feet.

He was mortally wounded and there was only one thing left to do.

“I pray that you somehow know that I died a good death. I am Arnath’s Fist!” roared Kanos as he filled himself with intense rage and charged at the Lich, completely ignoring his grievous wounds.

His death was imminent, but he would not meet it while on his knees.

*

The adventurers and the men of Vandregon moved briskly down the trail to where the gravestone had been spotted by the hunters.

“I fail to understand why you want to bring archers along to fight the undead.” said Venator, “You said yourself that arrows do them no harm.”

“They don’t,” said Cedrick, “but they distract them and get their attention. The most important part of a battle plan is maneuverability. The undead may be mighty, but they are slow moving and even slower witted.”

“I think I understand.” said Raskolf, “If we can control where they go, then we should take full advantage of that. Tell me about this gravestone.”

“It is a magical construct designed to store large amounts of dark mana and negative energy. The area immediately surrounding it will be so blighted that to merely set foot upon that unholy ground will cause terrible burns and an agonizing death to anyone who gets close.”

“How can we destroy it if we can’t get near it?”

“Our divine barrier spells can protect us, but that is a stationary spell. We cannot move once it is cast.” said Vladimir.

“You will have to leapfrog the spells to get us into range, then.” said Raskolf, “We have three clerics between you, Magrat, and Cedrick. The divine barrier will also keep the undead guards at bay. Everyone will need to cluster together in the center of the spells radius.”

“We won’t all fit.” said Magrat.

“We don’t need to.” said Raskolf, “I want the archers to go just outside of the blighted area and try to draw the zombie guards away with their arrows. You will be with us, though, of course. We need your divine magic more than we need your archery.”

“The problem is,” said Cedrick, “That we will waste quite a bit of mana just getting to the gravestone.”

“We might not have enough to complete the necessary ritual to destroy the gravestone.” said Magrat. It is going to be close.”

“I don’t see that we have a better plan at the moment.”

“Once the ritual is complete,” said Cedrick, “the blight will be lifted from the area, but it is likely that we will no longer have any mana to maintain our barriers. If there are still undead in the area, we will be vulnerable to them.”

“That is why the more heavily armed warriors will be inside the circle with you.” said Raskolf, “We will protect you with shields and spears.”

The gravestone was in the middle of a large clearing, surrounded by undead guards. The Human and Ulven archers moved out along the flanks first, and seemed to be able to draw a good number of the zombies away from the gravestone with their arrows. The clerics wasted no time leapfrogging the core group towards their objective. They were about halfway to the stone when a terrible scream pierced the air. Elise peered out from behind her father’s shield and looked on in horror as one of the archers on the right flank panicked and accidently let herself get chased into the blighted area. The woman died a horrible shrieking death as her flesh boiled from her bones and blackened the corrupted earth.

Her death rattle sent a shiver down Vladimir’s spine and the memory of his caravan being attacked by the undead nearly broke his concentration.”

“Keep your eyes on the target, cleric! We must keep moving!” yelled Raskolf, “Don’t let yourselves get distracted, people.”

As the core group closed with the gravestone, they met little resistance. Occasionally, a zombie would throw itself against the outside of the divine barrier, swinging a weapon wildly through the outer radius, but the little circular shield wall held, and protected the casters from the clumsy blows. The divine barrier prevented the undead from setting foot close enough to be a real threat. The closer the adventurers got to the gravestone, however, the more undead they encountered, and the harder it got to move. The amount of force that the undead were placing on the divine barriers with their relentless press began to drain more and more mana from the clerics, who became increasingly tired. Eventually, the archers on the flanks could do little to keep the attention of their enemies, and the undead all began to converge on the core group. As they finally reached the gravestone, the horde of undead was relentless in their attack, slamming their bodies into the invisible barrier again and again and swinging rusted weapons into the shields of the warriors inside it. Raskolf’s spear flashed out again and again in to the horde, and Venator parried their blows as fast as he could, but the zombies seemed to be reaching further and further into the barrier every second. As warriors began to fall within the circle, Elise worked as fast as she could to bandage their wounds and send them back into the fight. They couldn’t hold out forever. The ritual was taking too long, and the cleric’s defenders were slowly being ground down.

“You people are the slowest clerics I have ever seen.” snarled Raskolf, “If my mate, Anjan, was here, she’d have destroyed this thing in about two minutes and then banished all these abominations with rays of sunlight or bolts of lightning by now.”

“Now I know where the little one gets it from.” thought Cedrick to himself, trying not to be distracted by the Ulven commentary.

“It’s cause their gods are weak, father.” said Elise, parrying a wild swing with her little buckler.

“You’d better hope not!” shouted Cedrick as he channeled divine energy into the gravestone, “Because right now, my faith is what is…”

Cedrick trailed off as he realized for the first time, that Magrat, the feral Syndar was the one performing the ritual alongside him and it began to sink in. Back on Faedrun, the Order and Magrat’s Lost Syndar tribe had been bitter enemies, and their difference in faith was but one of the reasons they went to war. Yet here they were, channeling divine magic together to fight a true evil.

“Vladamir!” shouted Venator, “Look out!”

One of the warriors protecting them took a solid blow from a zombie that lunged partially into the barrier and slammed into his shield, causing the fighter to stumble back into the cleric, who was sent tumbling by the force of the impact. Vladimir tried to maintain his protective spell as he was knocked over, but the divine barrier faltered for just a moment and shifted, allowing a single zombie to grab a hold of Cedrick and drag him feet first towards the blighted area. Filthy, broken fingernails clutched at the Lion and his legs suddenly erupted in pain as though they were being cooked from the inside out and sparks of black and purple energy danced across his armor. Cedrick screamed in anguish. Seeing all hope of completing their mission crumbling before his eyes, Venator reached down deep, found the spirit of the wolf within him, and let it take hold. He frenzied.

Before the zombies could drag Cedrick any further out of the faltering barrier, the berserk Ulven warrior crashed into them and sent them tumbling. Cedrick took advantage of the distraction to try to get up, but his legs didn’t work. Instead, he put his arms out and gave the last of his mana to casting a divine barrier. Strong hands clamped down on his shoulders and under his armpits as the other warriors pulled him back into the center of the group.

Meanwhile, Venator’s body appeared to burn with purple fire from the blight as he stormed through the ranks of undead, hacking off limbs and trampling them as he raged. Elise marveled as his eyes glowed with the raw energy of nature and all things wild and somehow the fire of the blight did not consume him.

“What’s happening?” cried Elise.

“The berserk rage is a divine gift from the Great Wolf!” shouted Raskolf, “It is somehow protecting him, but it will not last for long!

“Vladimir!” said Cedrick, “Finish the ritual with Magrat! It is almost done! I will hold the barrier!”

Vladimir wasted no time taking Cedrick’s place.

Elise watched in horror as the berserk fury left Venator and he collapsed in a heap. As the light faded and he closed his eyes, the blight began to singe his clothing and burn his hair.

“No!” she screamed, “No!”

The ritual was almost done, but as Raskolf looked out for the flanking archers, he saw a small groups of zombies feasting upon something in the tall grass. Then he spotted Vandregonian archers in the woodline just to the North of the blighted area. They were holding short swords, so they must have run out of arrows.

Cedrick was beginning to get very dizzy, and his vision was becoming spotty.

Vladimir and Magrat read the last line of the ritual from Cedrick’s parchment scroll, and the gravestone suddenly cracked asunder, spilling white-hot energy from its rune covered surface, and erupting dark mana into the heavens in a searing lance of purple and black light.

The blight was dispelled, and the two clerics collapsed, unconscious, in front of the ruined stone.

They weren’t out of the woods yet, however. They were still surrounded by zombies with wounded and unconscious party members on their hands.

“Raskolf,” croaked Cedrick, “Get them out of here. I’ll hold the barrier and keep them distracted.
“I’m not leaving you.”

“Then you will have to come back for me. There aren’t enough of you to carry all of us.”

“I will stay with him father,” said Elise, “And tend to his legs. We will be safe inside the divine barrier.”

“Very well.” said Raskolf, “We will carry the wounded out towards the archers. Once we have handed them off, we will return for you, Cedrick, and retrieve Venator’s body as well.”

The adventurers left the protection of the divine barrier, working together to carry the load and moving as quickly as they could to evacuate their wounded and unconscious compatriots. Some of the zombies started to give chase, but lost interest and instead returned to stalk the two people inside the divine barrier. One of the zombies seemed to turn its attention to Venator’s body.

As Cedrick stared out in horror, he realized that Venator wasn’t dead. The badly burned berserker began to move, then tried to get up, and weakly stumbled about on his knees, groping the earth in front of him as if he couldn’t see.

“He’s blind and dazed from the blight!” said Cedrick.

Elise tried to call him towards the barrier, but he didn’t seem to hear her.

If they didn’t do something, the Ulven warrior would be eaten alive.

“Elise!” said Cedrick, “I need you to run out and get Venator.”

“You mean bring him back into the barrier, right?” said Elise.

“Yes.”

“Ok.” she said, “Here I go.”

Nothing happened. She didn’t move.

“Well!?” said Cedrick, “Go!”

“I’m scared!” cried the little Ulven girl.

Elise had grown up fighting Mordok, and been raised in a warrior culture, yet the undead terrified her more than any of the monsters she had ever faced before. Perhaps it was because these zombies just didn’t die, no matter how much you threw at them, nor did they feel any pain, nor did they tire. Their single-mindedness and relentlessness was so unnatural that it terrified her.

Cedrick struggled as his arms threatened to fall, the sheer weight of maintaining so many divine barriers proving to be too much.

“Elise, it’s ok, they can’t hurt us if my arms are up. The barrier will hold them back. Trust me, they can’t get you, you are too fast. Go over and help Venator get back here where it is safe.” said Cedrick through gritted teeth.

The Ulven girl was clearly terrified now that her father wasn’t looking over her shoulder. Venator was stumbling further away from them every second, and the zombies were switching their attention to him. Cedrick had to think of something, fast.

“I guess weak gods spawn weak children.” said Cedrick.

“What?” squeaked Elise.

“All this talk about how strong and proud your people are and how great your gods are, but here you are, cowering under the protection of a foreign god, about to let a great Ulven hero die a horrible death right in front of you.”

“Stop it!” shouted Elise.

“Maybe your people will write one of those dreadful drinking songs about this.”

“Shut up!” shouted Elise. “I’m not a coward!”

The little Ulven girl sheathed her sword, picked up her buckler, and charged straight out at Venator, easily dodging the slow and clumsy zombies as she ran.

Cedrick watched in relief as she took Venator by the hand and tried to lead him back.

But something was wrong. In his confusion, Venator was pulling her in the wrong direction, and further away from the barrier. The zombies were closing in. Cedrick’s mind raced. Had he just sent that little girl to her death? He had to think of something.

Cedrick looked down at his mangled legs, wounded from the corruption of the gravestone, and remembered the Revenant’s curse from the night before. He knew then, that he was not getting out of there alive. He could still do something to help, however.

“Elise!” he yelled, “Don’t come back this way, just take him as far away from here in whatever direction you can!”

Elise looked back in horror as Cedrick dropped his arms and dispelled his divine barrier.

“Hey! Over here! Come on! Face me!” yelled Cedrick.

The zombies turned to the noise. With fresh meat helpless and within reach, the undead surrounding Cedrick moved in for the kill, and the ones pursuing Elise and Venator abandoned their chase to go after the Lion, instead.

As Raskolf and the others dragged the wounded farther into the swamp, they heard Brother Cedrick yelling a prayer to his god in defiance as the zombie horde descended upon him. Raskolf handed over his casualty and ran back towards the sound as fast as he could. He was relieved to see Elise and Venator safely stumbling away from the carnage that was unfolding by the ruined gravestone, and he ran to intercept them.

“Run straight back to the others.” he said to Elise and Venator, who was starting to become coherent, though his vision was still blurry.

Raskolf wasted no time. He charged straight back towards the gory scene near the gravestone and shouted defiantly at the zombies, banging his sword against his shield.

*

The Lich snarled in disgust at the fallen men of Starkhaven. The big Lion had been more powerful than the Master of Necromancy had expected. He had actually managed to hurt the Lich pretty badly. Fortunately, he wasn’t terribly clever, and the Lich was able to defeat him with the most simple and rudimentary of Arcane spells. “Stunning” someone was much faster to cast then a “Divine Banishment”. Though the Lion of Arnath’s Fist had been packing some serious firepower, the Lich was faster on the draw, and had therefore won their showdown.

The Master of Necromancy was feeling pretty good about out-foxing these foolish mortals, and now his Army would grow even larger.

Everything was going according to plan.

Suddenly, something was wrong. The Lich could feel it.

“No.” it hissed, “NO!”

In the distance, a purple and black lance of negative energy and dark mana cut across the horizon and caused the clouds to fork with purple lightning. The unholy creature shuddered as the channels linking it to some of its creatures began to falter, and entire squads of zombies suddenly lost their purpose and began mindlessly milling about on the battlefield, eating each other, or trying to get out of the sun.

“So,” thought the Lich, clenching its claws with a dusty crackle, “It is I who have been out-foxed.”

The Master of Necromancy drew its hood over it’s skull. From deep within the darkened recesses, it’s eyes burned like red stars.

This was but one battle, and there were more to come.

*

Raskolf circled back again, drawing off the slowly shambling zombies and patiently moving them across the field and away from the body of Cedrick, like a wolf baiting another creature away from a kill.

Sprinting past them before they could even turn, he had almost reached the abandoned body of Cedrick the Lion when he spotted a girl lying in the tall grass, bloodied and unmoving. It was Elise’s friend, Echo Nightriver. She was still alive, but barely. Hoisting her slender frame up on his shoulder, she whimpered as he continued running and the impact of his every step jostled her body. They reached the place where Cedrick had fallen.

There wasn’t much left. Raskolf retrieved the artifacts, but the body was no longer in a solid enough state for him to carry, even if he hadn’t already found Echo.

“We will return for you, Brother Cedrick.“ he said, “Thank you for your noble sacrifice. Thank you for saving my daughter.”

Raskolf didn’t believe in taking things from the dead, but that taboo was one of the things that had gotten them into trouble when the Lich first appeared on Mardrun. He wasn’t going to keep the blade or the orb, either. He just needed to return them to the Humans.

*

The moon was still full that night.

Magrat stared silently down upon the man she had known for only a few days. His body was torn and sprawled, the white lion on his chest spattered with blood.

That it should come to this. The Longfang had become a second home to her, but they could never replace her tribe, her family. That this human should be her closest link to her people, it would be hilarious if it wasn’t so damn depressing.

Though she was exhausted from the breaking of the Gravestone and and the healing of the Ulven girl, she had work to do, and could not rest.

As silently as she could, she gathered the dead human and his belongings and laid him on a hasty but servicable pyre.

She bowed her head over him, and chanted quietly, invocking the spirits of the land and his ancestors to guide him on his final journey. She prayed for the man whose order had been her people’s enemies for far longer than she had been alive.

“Spirits grant this man honor,

Guide his feet as he journey’s home,

Tell him we honor him,

For an honoured enemy

Is as good as an honoured friend”

She took up her ritual knife and took some of him, taking some of his strength and power into herself.

She took his lion’s tabard, torn and bloody, before setting the pyre ablaze. It might attract the mordok or any zombie’s remaining in the area, but Cedrick would not return, and was laid to rest.

It would take the messenger a few days to find the nearest Order group. The package contained Cedrick’s tabard, and a message, carefully written with the help of some of the more formally educated at the Outpost. At the bottom of the message was a small note:

“We honored him as we did in the past, and set him on his pyre.” Signed was a sigil of the Lost, and she hoped that there would still be a veteran among their number who remembered how the Lost honoured their dead. A grave insult and a grave honor all at once.

***

It had been four days.

“Brother Mahlik? ” asked one of the Order’s camp followers from the tent opening.

“Yes?” said Mahlik from the small portable desk in his tent.

Mahlik had taken to studying scrolls and texts to busy his mind and he had a number of them opened and held down by rocks. He was reading by candlelight since it was well into the evening. His brothers should be back by now. He knew it even if he refused to admit it.

“The others are worried that if the Mordok attack, now, we will not be able to stop them. We are near Onsallas, but not close enough to be protected by our Ulven allies.” said the worker uncomfortably.

Mahlik knew that he should not have waited this long and that to stay any longer was endangering everyone left in the camp. He could not shake the feeling that if he gave in and stopped waiting for their return that it would finally make it real. To give up and leave would admit that his brothers were dead.

“You’re right. We have waited long enough. Start taking down the camp. We will move to the outpost in the morning and link up with allies or other Order members there.” said Mahlik.

The worker nodded and left. Mahlik set down the scroll he was pretending to read and stared blankly into the flickering light of the candles, lost in his inner thoughts.

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