A woman walked alone.
Her age was younger than her haggard appearance would suggest. Her skin was ashen and cadaverous, as if she ate her meager meals in a basement. Her neck-length hair was black and stringy, tied in a loose bun and secured by a pair of lacquered needles. From the top of her head to the soles of her feet, they were the first of many weapons.
She wore a long-sleeved hide anorak, kept tight by three buckles. It sported numerous pockets, all of which were swollen by their contents. Over threadbare canvas trousers she wore boots buckled similarly to her anorak; it also matched its patchwork appearance. Her belt was leather and reinforced by tarnished metal, either side displaying a narrow ring which fit a short-hafted weapon of ingenious versatility. Similar to a pickax, it had a fan-edged hammer on one side and a flat, perpendicular blade on the other. The woman owned a pair of these.
The belt was custom made. It fit comfortably only those two weapons and three compartments for bolt cartridges that armed the repeating crossbow slung over her back. The crossbow's size suggested it could comfortably fire bolts of a significantly larger size, but like so much of her equipment, it was fashioned with a specific purpose.
That purpose was approaching. The woman stopped walking, standing on a moonlit hill overlooking a newly vacated necropolis. Her vision in these nebulous conditions was extraordinarily acute. While the layman would have been able to hear the disconcerting shuffling, she could clearly see its source. No fewer than thirty corpses roamed those desecrated acres, seemingly without direction. The information the woman had received, however, spoke of the dead shambling into the nearby hamlet under cover of night and eating innocents as they slept. That they were so idle now was… disconcerting.
The woman drew her twin weapons and began the short journey down the hill, ready to meet her foes. Her grip was kept loose, for the living dead had greatly variable forms that required quick wits as well as a diversified arsenal to combat. With a flick of her wrist she could smash the fortified skull of a skeleton or decapitate a pulpous zombie. The short hafts meant she could not be easily disarmed, nor did she have to expend much energy to deliver a blow.
She demonstrated that with well-practiced ease. The naked remains of a bloated, gray-skinned man whirled on her as she approached. Its podgy arms extended and a low moan escaped its throat, but both motions were cut off prematurely as the woman lopped off the upper portion of its head and kicked the now immobile body to the ground. It collapsed onto a headstone, fracturing it before falling prone.
One down, two dozen to go.
This hunt was dull. In her protracted travels across Faerûn, she'd often answered the call to cleanse an area of necromantic taint. The magic that ran through these lands was powerful and unpredictable, oftentimes resulting in the dead springing back to a semblance of life in a myriad of forms. The zombie was the most common incarnation, and the weakest. Her devotion to laying those creatures to rest again was fanatical and this job was insultingly simple. It took less than five minutes to carve a path of destruction through the living dead, and another thirty to heap their bodies in the center of the necropolis. A silver phial was produced from one of her many pockets and the liquid within was used to suffuse the soil; a few waves of her arm was enough. A tinderbox was struck onto the mound of dead, and she departed as a white-hot inferno quickly spread and consumed not just the zombie's remains, but the very earth they rested upon.
The light of the bonfire illuminated her approach. The hamlet was called Fenil, possessing a population of less than two hundred. The desperate, horrified looks on the townsfolk's faces as she approached told her that the sign on the main road leading into the village would likely need to be changed after tonight. But that wasn't a concern of hers. She had done the job she was paid to do.
The woman met a wizened man half way. He wore robes once official, but now browned by dried blood. He looked apprehensive, as if he knew what she'd say next.
She held out her hand, palm up. "Job's done."
He winced. That had been what he was afraid of.
"Th-Thank you for your assistance, lass." He looked over his shoulder at his fellow townsmen. One was a woman elderly even by his standards, a stern look on her face. She gestured at him like she was shooing away a cat, clearly reinforcing whatever decision they had come to before her arrival. "And I'm sorry b-but… this town has suffered much in the recent days. We've lost many loved ones and would like to bury them—" he looked past the woman, who was clearly growing impatient. "—Once the cemetery stops burning."
"But for that we need money." The clarity of resolve washed over him and he pocketed something that had been clutched in his sweaty palm. "The money we were going to pay you. I'm sorry but we cannot afford your fee. Please, be on your way."
The woman scowled and the man — the mayor — took a step back. She wasn't leaving, which was what the town had feared. Two men, much larger and younger, approached. One pulled the mayor out of harm's way, while the other stood before the woman with his arms crossed. She canted her neck to look up at him.
"You heard 'em," he said, his voice gruff. "Get too steppin'." He didn't look like a fighter; if the community was any indication, he was a farmer. That sort of upbringing would raise a boy large and strong, but if he was counting on his stature to intimidate the woman, he would be sorely mistaken.
She had yet to retract her hand. "I don't work for free." She cupped her hand twice. "The job was for three dragons. I'm not leaving empty-handed."
"Yes you are," he said bluntly, lunging forward. It was a slow, clumsy motion, and his inexperience laid him low with a stiff uppercut to the chin and a sideways kick to the knee. The punch only dazed him, but the kick had disjointed his leg. He howled as he fell, but was quickly silenced by a straight razor-like blade being pressed against his throat. Where the woman had produced it from, the onlookers could only guess.
The wounded man's partner had been nearly a meter away, still ushering the mayor to safety. The deed was done by the time he turned back around and was too frightened to make a move. They weren't trained in anything but swinging a woodsman's ax, though the extent of their foolishness was only apparent now that the plan had been enacted and took such a terrible turn. No noise was made for several tense moments, save for the pained gurgling of the woman's hostage.
The mayor was dumbfounded. This plan had been his and everyone agreed that it would work. So then, why hadn't it? He took a tentative step forward, holding up his hands in a non-aggressive fashion. "N-Now look… let the boy go, lass. We know of your reputation; you only hunt the dead. You won't kill him."
A smooth motion left a shallow cut along her hostage's Adam's apple. He hissed in pain, while a number of gasps and moans of fear echoed from the populous. So far, none of his wounds were fatal, but she had hoped it would get the seriousness of her expression across. If it didn't, she'd escalate to an ear. His nose. An eye. She didn't want to kill him, but she was not above mutilating him if it meant leaving with her well-deserved compensation.
"All right, all right!" The mayor blanched, fishing into his pocket for the purse he'd pocketed earlier. The elderly woman slapped him on the shoulder for such defiance, but he brushed her off, his worried gaze never wavering from the woman. "Take it!" The small burlap sack was thrown and landed a foot to her left. She leaned far, shuffled the toe of her shoe under the bag, and deftly flipped it into her awaiting hand. The boy was immediately released and a boot to his behind sent him tumbling toward the eager audience, a number of whom moved to attend his wounds.
The woman didn't look back. She was nearly out of sight when the mayor cried after her, his voice filled with fury. "I hope that money can fill the void left by your heart, bitch! I pray Mystryl burns the hair off your miserly arse!"
The woman had arrived by carriage, which had deposited her in the neighboring town of Masum. She had obeyed the scheduling of this day well, however. The job had taken less than an hour, as estimated. Walking to the necropolis had taken three, and her dealings with the unscrupulous mayor had taken nearly ten minutes. That was far longer than she had anticipated. Still, with a brisk pace she'd arrive in Masum just after midnight, and would be able to get some rest in before hiring the carriage driver yet again.
She dropped her weapon into its ring before counting out her payment. Normally she would do this before leaving, to ensure she hadn't been swindled. The circumstances had made her uncomfortable with lingering longer than necessary, however, so she simply hoped that the mayor at least initially intended on staying true to the contract. Three stamped gold pieces clattered into her hand and she pocketed the lot with a satisfied nod. The burlap purse was discarded on the road.
I remember a time when this place was home to a number of stories written with fan-input. Say, you'd leave a review with a short description of a character you'd like included in the next chapter, or a hook you think would be fun to introduce. At the moment, there is only one character, the anonymous hunter of the dead I've come to call "Lass". After all, if everyone addresses her as such, why shouldn't it be her name? While she is technically the protagonist, she is by no means an altruistic or even a particularly sympathetic character. She isn't a villain, but I don't expect she'll garner many fans. But some people like characters like her, so who knows? Anyway, I'd like a few casual ideas from you guys. If you like the story enough to leave a review, do me a favor and include a description of a character you'd like to see. I can't guarantee I'll include every idea if there are a lot of them, nor can I ensure they'll have a big (or even beneficial) role, but if I like the idea enough, they might become a reoccurring sight. We'll cross that bridge when we come to it, but I'll be open to ongoing suggestions from those persons as to the nature and progression of their character.
Still, I get final say. Thanks for reading and I'll see you next chapter!