Disclaimer: I do not own the Forgotten Realms. That honour is saved for Wizards of the Crap, in their almighty crapness.
Warning: This story contains violence in large amounts. If you don't like zombies, then get out. If you're looking for Drizzt, get out.
Now that that's covered, on with the story!
And before you leave a review, read the author's note at the bottom. It'll explain things. Go on. Scroll down and spoil the story for yourself. You know you want to.
Dark thunderheads rolled across the sky, drowning out the light cast by moon and stars, their brooding grey substance taking on the hue of blood where the last feeble rays of a dying sun struck them.
The wind blew through the corpse-choked streets of the deserted town of Malden. It howled through broken windows, screamed through the burnt ruins of the houses and disturbed the ashes of the dead, the remains of those who had perished as their homes burned. They were the lucky ones. The others had died in the open, their bodies falling to the claws of abominations even as they ran for their lives. The once-teeming streets were now deserted and desolate, choked with rubble and debris and the sorry remains of the unburied dead.
A man strode through the desecrated village, paying no attention to the bodies strewn about, murdered by his hand. He was garbed in the manner of a priest; a plain, unadorned black robe with a modest holy symbol hanging from a chain about his neck. He smiled as he surveyed his handiwork – a once-prosperous town turned into a ruin overnight.
He turned to the bearing of the sunset and let out a laugh, throwing his head back insanely as if wanting the entire world to know of his victory, his triumph over the world of daylight. His chest shook with laughter, pale face stretched in malicious mirth. Even as he laughed, his hands moved, limply, as if of their own volition, acting out the arcane movements of an intricate spell.
The symbol was jerked upwards by the priest's movement and reflected the sunlight, illuminating the crudely etched carving of a skull and a black sun. The priest's hands finished their spellcasting, and he lifted his right hand to the sky, clutching at the nascent moon.
He said the words.
The sun set.
The dead rose.
'The first reports of unusual activity in the region of Malden came one month ago. A new cleric was sent to the town to replace the previous one, who had vanished under unusual circumstances. Three days after he arrived, the, ah…disappearances began.
'The first major incident was some three weeks ago when a merchant train, a regular visit to the town, failed to arrived. Bandits were believed to be the reason and a report was sent to the Fist.'
The Flaming Fist captain stood in front of the Baldur's Gate court, holding his plumed helmet under one arm and reciting the words he'd practiced before entering the audience chamber. He was standing in front of his city's rulers, and it would not do to stutter or foul up his words.
'Scouts were sent, and found no trace of bandit activity, although they did find the caravan. It was burnt to a husk, and no bodies were recovered. The report was filed away for further investigation and there was no activity until two days ago, when the following message arrived at Beregost from Malden. It was relayed here as its contents were viewed as of extreme importance.' One of the city officials raised an eyebrow at this. The rest looked at him expectantly.
The mercenary captain pulled a small piece of paper from his pocket, cleared his throat and began to read.
'Ahem; "Town under attack. Send help. Send help."' The words sounded strangely hollow in recital, the captain's tone not fully reflecting the severity of the message. He folded the letter and put it away before continuing. 'The messenger carrying this note died some time after delivery.'
The officer took a deep breath before stating what made this particular case very unique.
'He…ah…didn't stay dead. Some hours after dying, he…rose and killed five people, including the cleric attending to him and two guardsmen, before the garrison stationed there were able to subdue and destroy him…ah…it.'
This understandably elicited something of a reaction from the assembled councillors. Duke Entar Silvershield stood and called for silence. He was given it.
'Captain, please continue.' said the Duke in his iron-clad voice. The attention of the entire court was centred upon the unfortunate Captain.
'A patrol stationed nearby was dispatched to aid the town. No response was heard for two days, so another two squads of Flaming Fist soldiers, backed up by two adepts sent from the Lathandarian Church, were due to arrive this morning…'
The captain continued his report, but the remainder was heard by one less pair of ears. A man in unassuming grey robes stood and quietly drifted away from the congregation. His disappearance went almost unnoticed, perhaps due to the fact that the council's attention was centred on the unfortunate captain. He left the meeting hall without a sound, and whispered an order to another grey-robed man outside the main doors. The second man nodded, and went to pass on the message.
The message finally reached a man resting in a small boarding house in the slums. When the orders reached him, the last man nodded and stood. Some hours later he dressed, and left for Malden.
To the men in grey robes, the problem had already been solved.
Sunset, a day later.
This is a man, walking. He wears a long coat, and the moonlight shines off the armour he wears beneath. A silver holy symbol hangs around his neck, a stylised eye nearly the size of a man's palm. A sword hangs from a leather strap over his shoulder. You would say he resembles a priest, but a priest does not carry a sword, nor does a priest walk like he is marching on a parade ground.
The paladin stopped walking for a moment to admire the moon. It was especially full tonight, like a bloated drop of candle wax hanging from the tapestry of the sky.
Somehow, that seemed…appropriate. Gabriel smiled.
A perfect night… he thought.
He lowered his gaze and continued walking towards his objective. The orders had been given, and he would obey.
Ilsa stopped only to pick up a small kit of medicinal equipment from her pack at the troop's camp before running back out to where her friend lay, further out in the woods off the road.
They had been advancing on the town when…things…attacked them. Things whose decayed flesh hung off their bones and whose soulless eyes gazed into nothing as their corpulent bodies moved as if controlled by unseen strings. She had been taught of them in school, but had treated them with the veracity of children's tales.
Undead. Zombies. Abominations crafted by foul magic, the once-still corpses of men animated by heinous rituals. The Fist patrol had not been prepared. They had been expecting bandits, perhaps a minor orc raid. They had not expected to see the entire population of the village rise up against them, controlled by unseen hands. Crossbow bolts did nothing to stop them, and they continued to claw and tear at you even after you had hacked them in half. Her patrol had fought, but there had been too many. Too many.
She and Kassan had fled back to the camp they'd established further away from town when one had stumbled out of the trees and swung a bloodied sword at Kassan, wounding him badly. She had thrown her torch into the thing's face and it had burst into flame, as if the necrotic skin that held it together almost wanted to be destroyed.
She had tried to ignore the fact that the zombie had been dressed in the bloodstained remnants of a Flaming Fist uniform.
They had limped off together, and now Kassan was dying. It was a disaster. She hadn't been taught what to do when this happened. She'd only just joined, this was her first assignment…
She pushed those thoughts out of her mind and concentrated on binding Kassan's wound.
'Urrgh..ahh…' He let out a groan as she tightened the bandage.
'Don't try to talk, Kas.'
She looked at his blood-drained face, sweat running down his forehead. She saw him smile weakly at her, then he fell limp.
Ilsa felt like crying. They were all dead.
This wasn't what should have happened.
She didn't know how to deal with this. She slumped back onto her heels next to Kassan's corpse and held her face in her hands.
A hand grabbed at her shirtsleeve. She opened her eyes and found Kassan staring at her…except that he wasn't. His eyes were black, mindless pits.
The Kassan-thing lunged at her, clawing at her throat. She screamed.
'Please…Kas, don't make me do this.' Ilsa held the crossbow in an unsteady grip, the tip of the quarrel wavering as her hands shook. The thing that was once Kassan lunged at her again, letting out an inhuman growl. She struck out wildly with the butt of the crossbow and ran back to the camp.
When she arrived, she wasn't alone. The members of her squadron were waiting to greet her. Their flesh hadn't been dead long enough to rot, but it had long since turned grey and their movements were slow and clumsy, lacking any semblance of grace they may have had in life. She recognised their faces. She could see Greer, half his head missing and his skull opened up to the air. Thelis was dragging one leg behind him and his arm hung by a few strands of skin and muscle.
'No…you're all dead. You all…died…' She trailed off as a hand grabbed at her ankle. She looked down and saw Wilters, dragging himself across the ground after his legs had been severed at the torso. He couldn't be alive. She'd seen him die. She'd seen his blood spray when a three-days-dead villager carrying a butcher's cleaver had hacked him in half.
She aimed the crossbow at Wilters' rigid face and pulled the trigger unthinkingly. The bolt tore through its skull, exploding out the back of its head in a spray of black fluid. She felt like retching at the sight. At least its grip weakened, allowing her to break free.
She frantically reloaded and fired another bolt aimlessly into the dozen cadavers that had once been her friends. The bolt slammed into Greer's chest, slowing him for only a moment before resuming his slow, crippled crawl towards her.
She dropped the bolt as she was reloading the bow, let out a strangled cry and ran, off the road and into the night.
The paladin could feel it as he strode into the village square. He could sense the evil emanating from the buildings; it covered the surrounding land, a crawling in his skin, a foulness in the air, the chill of the crypt slithering across his bones. It was the stink of decay and corruption, of the dark side of magic at work. Such an affect on the landscape did not happen overnight. To cast this level of unholy spellcraft one needed time, and resources. And a sacrifice.
Yet, he could sense that this was not the centre. It was near, surely, but not the heart of the corruption.
Rubble stirred. Shadowy figures moved in the wrecks of the buildings. They shambled towards him, un-coordinated, clumsy. He could recognise the uniforms worn by some of them. The fools who had sent the Fists here had done nothing but bolstered this sorcerer's ranks.
They'd sent men to do a knight's work. His right hand moved to grab the hilt of the greatsword slung across his back. He watched the movements in the darkness and muttered a prayer, grasping his symbol of the Eye with his left hand.
There was a reason why he would succeed where others failed. His faith protected him.
He smiled grimly and leapt into the ranks of the undead with a prayer on his lips.
Ilsa ran. She ran, and ran, and ran until she was almost collapsing from exhaustion and fear. Her heart pounded like drums. The sword held in her hands felt clumsy and heavy. She had dropped her crossbow some time before. She couldn't remember.
Why is this happening to me?
She had been quite sure, from the outset of her retreat, that she had been running away from Malden. And yet, she found herself looking at the village spread out in front of her.
There was a rustle from the bushes behind her. She turned and rose the sword in what she hoped was a battle stance.
What had once been a middle-aged woman stumbled from the trees, its jaw slack and unmoving, shambling along the ground towards Ilsa.
Try as she might, Ilsa could not bring herself to swing the sword. She couldn't even keep it raised. The fear made her blood run cold, made her sweat until her hair stuck to her skin, made her want to curl up into a ball and close her eyes until the darkness went away…
But it didn't.
There was another sound in the silent forest, footsteps behind her. She turned and saw a man charging towards her, ploughing his way through the trees and yelling indistinctly. For some reason, he seemed distant, his voice faint. Suddenly everything whirred back into perspective.
'…get down, I said!'
Ilsa obeyed almost instinctively, which was probably a good thing. The blade passed over her head – she felt the steel brush her hair – and bisected the zombie's face in half. There was a spray of black blood and the stricken creature fell, the top section of its face falling to the ground a split second after its body.
The man turned to her. He was covered in grime and the pseudo-blood of the zombies he had battled in town, his coat was torn and clothes already stained with sweat. His eyes were wild, filled with the onrush of adrenaline that flooded his veins, and his face was set grimly.
He said something to her. She didn't hear. She was already running away. Where before she had been paralysed with fear, now she was motivated to previously unattainable speed.
This was a night of horror. Everyone – everything - was an enemy.
Gabriel watched the woman run. He called out to her to wait, trying to warn her of where her mad dash was leading her.
She was heading to the heart of the town. She was heading towards her doom.
There was a sound only describable as glurgle, and he turned. The corpse he had beheaded was still moving, trying to stand, its limbs flailing aimlessly. It was nothing if not determined.
He raised the sword two-handed above his head and struck downwards, cutting the monster in half from neck to groin. The halves slid apart with a wet sound that would have made a weaker-willed man retch.
'Helm sends your body into eternal torment, abomination.' he said to the finally dead body, his voice tinged with disgust. Shuffling feet sounded from the line of trees that marked the beginning of the forest. More of them. They were unending.
'You are not my concern.' he shouted to the approaching line of undead. 'You are not who I have come to silence.'
He brought out the Eye, and spoke the words. It was an incantation from the rites of exorcism as practiced by some of the knights of his order. Of course, there were all manner of preparations and paraphernalia that were needed as complements, things the current situation did not really lend itself to. But it would do.
'Helm abjures ye who should have died long ago.' They paid him no heed. 'Begone!' he shouted, louder now. The symbol began to glow, and the wretches faltered.
'Your body is as dust, and your mind is as ash! Only the soul is worth saving, and yours is damned! Into the light, I command thee!'
He raised his fist to the heavens, and the heavens answered.
There was a wave, a torrent of pure light that spread out from the pendant clutched in his hand and struck the encircling undead. Where it hit, their bodies decomposed, turning to ash in moments. Decayed bone disintegrated and rotting flesh split. Those that did not die fled as fast as their decayed legs could carry them, their corrupted minds filled with the only emotion left to them; fear.
He clutched the symbol in triumph. His prayers had not gone unanswered. Helm's power filled him, bolstered him, made him whole. His faith was his power.
With his other hand Gabriel reached into his cloak and pulled out an indistinct object, roughly the size of a human head. He held it up to the moonlight and whispered a litany of words in an archaic speech reserved for the one prayer that remained to be spoken.
The light shone through the eyelets, reflected off the burnished iron of the helmet. With great care, bordering on caution, Gabriel placed the full-face helm onto his head, and changed. He was obscured, masked by a featureless visage of iron; two slits for the eyes and nothing else. He knew what must be done.
He was no longer a man. He was a faceless servant of his god, a being without any purpose but that which was given to him.
And he had been given a purpose.
Helm's power waxed great tonight. His will would not be denied.
Ilsa awoke as if from a dream, dizzy and uncoordinated.
Where am I?
She could remember…running. Fleeing for her life. And then a man had come, a man with a look in his eyes that frightened her as much as the monsters that were her friends had.
It was like she'd woken from a dream; a nightmare, more like.
The ruins of Malden surrounded her. She was in a sort of town square, shops lining the sidewalks and a fountain placed in the centre of the cobblestone path.
A realisation hit her like a knife cutting through the post-adrenaline fog.
She was in the centre of the town. This was where the Fist had been ambushed and slaughtered. She'd run back to where she'd been running from.
The zombies hadn't been hunting her. They'd been herding her.
The fountain was carved to resemble a man holding a horn to his lips, presumably to blow through it. There was a child cradled in his other arm. It was probably once beautiful, but someone had defaced it recently, scrawling obscene graffiti over the granite surface.
One message stood prominent, written in giant letters at the foot of the statue;
THE NIGHT HAS FALLEN.
She wondered what that meant. Her mind was clouded, her thoughts unreasonable and illogical. She looked up, past the fountain, and saw the steeple of a church at the far end of the square. There was something infinitely compelling about its doors; they spoke of safety and sanctuary.
She walked up to the heavy portal. The doors were covered in ornate gold-edged carvings of radiant suns, with the largest holding a position of prominence in the centre.
A temple of Lathander. She would be safe here, her bewitched mind told her. Undead didn't like churches, she remembered. Convincing herself that she was doing the right thing, she entered, her crossbow hanging weakly from one hand.
The interior was dark and cool. Wooden pews were lined up and she could almost see shapes sitting in them out of the corner of her eye. Three stained-glass windows adorned the far end, positioned above an altar to the Sun God.
'Hello?' she called out.
'Is there anyone there?'
'Child?' it said. 'Art thou frightened?' A crooked mockery of a man stepped out from between the granite columns. He wore a heavy cassock, black and threadbare, trimmed with greying wolf-hair around the sleeves and neck. Priestly garments. He was thin and pale, as if he had never seen the sun. There was a pendant hanging from the his neck, but she couldn't make it out in this half-light.
'Do not be afraid.' the figure crooned as it strode to the front of the altar. 'I will keep you safe.' He pointed at her and beckoned, and before she knew it her legs were carrying her closer.
'Why are you here?'
'We…we were sent to find a priest. He'd been…killing…people…no.'
The priest smiled. His eyes blazed, strangely hypnotic in their fervour.
'Did you find him?'
'…I think I just did…'
She could no longer think. She could not comprehend her surroundings; all around her fell into insignificance, her life dominated by the man standing in front of an altar dedicated to the dawn. Her mind was slow, her body no longer under her control. She drifted – drifted was the only word for it – until she was standing right in front of the man, his gaze meeting hers, his eyes piercing her soul.
She practically fell over, the man's surprisingly strong arm encircling her, holding her. His hand drifted to her neck, caressing it, before dropping lower.
Something inside of her rebelled. This was wrong. What was…happening…
She finally tore her eyes from the sunken hollows that were the man's eyes, and they fell to the symbol of the sun on his chest.
A sun carved out of obsidian, with an ivory skull in the centre.
There was a schiitk of steel being drawn.
The necromancer raised the dagger.
The blade reflected the moonlight triumphantly.
Then it all fell away.
It was like being dropped through a hole in the icy roof of a frozen lake, sinking into the arctic water. Everything was suddenly, brutally real. The shadows receded. The illusion faded. She could see clearly again; the veil had been lifted.
The door, thick oak wood reinforced with iron bands, burst open like so much wet paper. In stepped a man so tall and broad his shoulders brushed the edges of the broken door. He had to stoop to enter the chapel.
The sorcerer let her drop to the floor. She felt his muscles slacken, looked up and saw his mouth drop in astonishment.
'Who are you?' growled the false priest. 'Who dares disturb my ritual?'
'I dare,' said the man as he strode towards the altar. 'Your foul illusions are no match for the Guardian's sight. He sees your sins and knows your fears, necromancer.' The last word was spat out, brimming with unbridled hatred.
One arm raised a greatsword, its blade stained with the blood of abominations. His eyes blazed with a fury that went beyond anger. He stepped into the paltry excuse for candlelight, letting the dim glow illuminate him.
'Leave now, foolish man, or you will die. I do not appreciate it when strangers come uninvited,' said the necromancer's, lips curled in distaste.
Ilsa reached out a hand towards her discarded crossbow.
In three long strides Gabriel was halfway to the altar at the centre. He paused for a moment, his helmeted gaze taking in the sacrilegious monument to a dark power. Then he refocussed his attention on his enemy. Unseen by both of them, Ilsa grasped the crossbow and slid a bolt from the quiver at her belt.
'Your heresy knows few bounds. Helm shall correct your path.'
'Helm has no power, fool.'
'Then you are more a fool than I, sorcerer.'
The mage snarled. He pointed at Ilsa without turning and the crossbow and bolt flew out of her hands. He raised his hand, and she rose as well, controlled by unseen force. His right hand lifted the dagger to her throat.
Gabriel stopped. He had feared this.
'You die now, ignorant tool of a powerless god. You die now!'
He raised his left hand and figures rose from the pews. Rotten faces leered at Gabriel. Unseeing eyes stared blankly. Ghoulish faces leered and skeletons stretched out arms of yellow-white bone.
'Kill,' said the shepherd to his flock.
As one man, the horde reached for him with grasping hands and hungry mouths.
Gabriel took three in the first rage-filled strike. The sword rose and fell with a methodical, tireless motion. Blood sprayed, soaked the walls and floor, coated the ceiling, saturated the air. Through the destruction Gabriel strode, armoured gauntlets striking left and right where his sword could not reach. Hands clutched at his limbs and claws scratched on the edges of his helm. Teeth bit down on his arm, piercing the metal plate, forcing him to drop his sword and fall upon his opponents with his bare hands, matching strength born of the grave with power borrowed from a god.
A ghoul leapt at him from across the room and he caught it by the jaw, holding it up to the air like a trophy.
With a cry of rage, he channelled the power that Helm had given him, and felt the energy flow through from the symbol on his chest through his arm and into the ghoul itself in a flash of purifying light. The monster screamed as it burned, turning to greasy ash in moments.
And yet it was not enough. Rotted limbs held him pinned. He could not move for the sheer burden of the undead grappling with him. He crawled forward, inching towards his goal.
He came within inches of the necromancer's grin, and watched helpless as the man made arcane motions with his hand. A red-orange glow suffused his palm, forming slowly into a sphere that swirled with menace.
Gabriel's eyes widened in shock. The helm obscured the expression of surprise that flickered across his face. He tried to move to the side, but the dead held him in place.
Too late, he realised the necromancer's plan.
A ball of flame, barely larger than a man's fist, hit him square in the chest and sent him flying back twenty feet. Then it blossomed, like some arcane firework. It sent the already shattered pews flying, turned them to ash in a single moment of white-hot glory. The fire blackened the stone pillars, melted gold carvings and licked at the edges of the stained-glass windows. Then, as suddenly as it began, it stopped.
A single moment, and all that was left of the far side of the church was a burnt husk.
The priest laughed, and all hope left Ilsa's heart.
'Looks like somebody was all talk.' He threw his head back and laughed again, louder.
Ilsa could not move. She felt the darkness encroaching once more upon the borders of her mind, drawing her into mindless sleep, drawing her into death.
She tried to resist, but it was futile. The last thing she heard was the necromancer's laugh. The last thing she smelled was the scent of burning flesh. The last thing she saw was the moon, bloated and white.
The last thing she felt was the dagger in her heart.
His left arm was burnt and blacked, his clothes smouldering from the heat of the unnatural flame. The metal of his breastplate was warped and melted where the ball had hit him. Every inch of his scorched skin screamed out in agony, his every muscle protesting with each movement.
He banished the pain to the recesses of his mind, as he had been trained to do, and concentrated on retrieving his sword. He had seen fit to let him live. Let it be so.
The priest lifted the bloodied knife from the girl's chest and raised it to the sky, letting the red liquid drip down his arm and fall to the floor. The desecrated altar pulsed with obscene life. The ritual was almost complete.
Soon, I shall have it. Soon, I shall be immor -
He was cut off when roughly two feet of steel suddenly exploded from within his chest.
'Looks like somebody spoke the truth.' whispered a voice in his ear.
The blade was removed with a wet, almost organic sound. The necromancer slumped to the floor. His hands tried to fashion arcane symbols, he tried to speak the words to an evocation, but his body refused to obey him.
'How…did you…survive?' the priest gurgled. An armoured hand reached out and picked him up by the collar of his robes, turning him around to face the victor. Though beaten, burnt and mauled by inhuman hands, his enemy still stood. Impossible.
It hit the necromancer with the final, instant clarity given by impending death. Too late, he saw the ley-lines of enchantment woven around and into the metal, wards against magic. He should have seen. He should have known.
'My faith is my shield.' intoned the paladin grimly. Then, with one movement, he threw the dying man across the room where he fell, limbs splayed across the floor in a pool of blood.
'This is the mercy Helm gives to you. This is all the redemption you will ever see.'
The knight looked disdainfully at the corpse of the necromancer.
'Consider it…a blessing.'
Ilsa could feel her life bleeding away. She could feel it sliding out of a hole in her heart.
She was dying.
A shadow covered her. She turned her head weakly to see the knight standing there, regarding her with a sorrowful gaze.
The paladin laid his sword on the floor and knelt by her, taking off his helmet so that she could see his face. He sighed, as if disappointed by something.
She tried to speak, tried to voice her thanks, but found that her body would not obey her. All that came out was a pitiful whisper. She vomited blood. It stained the man's already ruined coat. Her nerveless fingers scrabbled at surface of the marble floor. She felt like sleep.
'This is the part where you close your eyes.' said the paladin. One gauntleted hand wiped the blood from her mouth.
She looked up at his face, and smiled. Then she saw nothing.
He reached up with two fingers and closed her eyes. Silent, he stood, sheathed his sword, and left the church, limping slightly.
The sun rose.
A/N: Yeah, that was a pretty shitty ending. This was really just an exercise to see if I could still write reasonably well, after a bit of a dry stretch. I kind of stopped halfway through, then continued it some weeks later, which is a thing you should never do with a short story since you lose the driving force that made you write the story in the first place. So, somewhere around the chapel bit, it started getting really, really shit. I maintain that the best thing to do is write a hell of a lot in one go and post it before you delete it all and write it again and again and again and again in an endless and futile search for perfection.
Ah, what am I kidding. It's all crap.
Please, God, review this.