Saturday, 19 July 2014
The False Moon War: Chapter 15
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Chapter 15. The Dark Lands
From the eastern flanks of the World's Edge Mountains, the Dark Lands revealed themselves to be a featureless grey tundra beneath a featureless gray sky. The two blended together making it impossible to discern a horizon.
With a ginger tap from Mahtis, the Rune Hammer 'o Anti Magic removed the rune which bound
the solar engine. The apparatus flared back to life.
As Bessie stepped out of the last of the foothills, Rychek put the weak sun at her back and the heroes started to follow her long shadow. After a short time, the sun abandoned them to their fate beneath the thickening haze.
The Lizardmen spoke with hushed voices, when they chose to speak at all. The air seemed hostile toward any sound which would disturb the brooding silence. The grey downs were not as featureless as they had appeared from afar. The ground was creased and folded like a rumpled blanket, which made following a true course difficult. Rychek would peer at the sky periodically to work out the position of the sun, then curse at the shroud of lowering stratus. It was difficult even to judge time, because there was little to distinguish day and night under the murk.
Bessie alone, seemed sure of herself as she picked her way forwards. She had some instinct or gift for holding a more or less straight course as they crossed from desolate ridge to thorn choked gully and back again.
On one occasion the party approached what appeared to be a copse of bare trees. As they drew closer it revealed itself to be the titanic ribcage of a long dead beast. The only creatures of such size that they knew of were the thunder lizards of Lustria.
Later they crossed a broad, shallow depression which had the stubs of mighty trees jutting up like broken black teeth. As Bessie shouldered past one, it crumbled into rubble.
"I think..." Rychek startled everyone with the sound of his voice. "I think there was a jungle here once. A long time ago."
The others pondered this in silence.
On a few occasions they saw ragged bands of greenskins. These took one look at Bessie's size and splendour before fading away to pursue easier prey. Rychek felt it was safer to have some of the party scouting ahead, rather than risk an ambush if the greenskins were part of a larger war party.
Bob and Joe were taking point, some one hundred yards ahead of the plodding bastiladon.
"Joe! Careful! Stop!"
Joe paused mid stride with his clawed foot hovering above a brown mass. Bob peered at it. "I think it might be rhinox dung."
Joe carefully retrieved his foot. "It could be Rhinox dung, but it could be something else."
The Saurus Warrior scooped up a large blob of the sticky substance with a clawed finger and stuck it in his mouth. He considered briefly. "Yes, definitely Rhinox droppings. It was lucky that you saw it, Bob."
"Why is that?"
"Otherwise I might have stepped in it!"
Bessie had caught up to them now, and sniffed at the pile. She wrinkled her nose and sneezed. Rychek and Mahtis tumbled down from the howdah, and the four investigated the area.
A churned trail twenty yards wide ran roughly perpendicular to their course. Here and there were piles of dung and other detritus, and the occasional gnawed bone. There were the marks of large cartwheels and many huge footprints. Some were rhinox, some were the hobnailed boots of ogres, and some were the jaguar like pads of sabretusks. Occasionally there were a scattering of tiny boot prints, which surely came from scurrying gnoblars.
One perfectly preserved footprint excited much discussion. It was not large. Its three toe prints were punctuated with the marks of small talons. Rychek pressed his own foot into the dust beside it and lifted it again. The indentations were almost perfectly matched.
"Is it a skink footprint?" asked Mahtis.
"It must be, but how did it get here? Why would he be travelling with ogres?" Rychek wrinkled his brow in concentration. "The ogres who kidnapped Taisteslaikch'ken could have come this way. If they sailed past the Dragon Isles, then the fastest land route to the North would be through the Dark Lands. They could have captured a skink from Los'tmabo'tl, too. Maybe one of Taistelaikch'ken's attendant priests."
"We didn't see any sign of skink prints when we followed their trail in Lustria, and besides, it can't be the same group. They sailed off months ago, and this...." Joe scooped up another glob of rhinox dung and tasted it, "...is still quite fresh."
"Maybe they got delayed somehow..." Bob suggested.
"What, worse than we did? They had a huge warship and a small army. They could have made the journey in weeks."
"It doesn't matter if it was the same ogres," Rychek concluded, "We can follow their trail at least to the Ogre Kingdoms, and then we can try to find our slann. It's a better idea than wandering aimlessly in this place of the dead."
The last four words seemed to hang ominously in the air. None of the others had the will to speak further, and so they continued their journey, now heading north on the trail of an ogre band and one skink.
After several periods of relative light and relative dark, the ogre trail took a sudden turn to the east. Bob nodded to dark clouds that glowered from the north. "They didn't want to go that way, for some reason."
That evening they became aware of figures shambling parallel to them on the right. At that distance and in the gloom it was impossible to tell what race they were. Rychek called Bob and Joe back from point duty, and the four clutched their weapons anxiously until the weak daybreak. Their shadowy escort disappeared before the light could reveal them.
The following night, the shadows grew bolder. At times they would mass into a tight knot, as if ready to charge, always from the right. When they did surge forward threateningly, they would pull back as soon as Bessie shied away.
One time they closed into the range of the solar engine's glow, and the heroes had their first clear view.
Zombies. The corpses of the unrestful dead. Their gruesome ranks were filled by the fallen of many races, from goblin size up to ogre. Some wore tattered clothes over their tattered flesh. Most carried a rusty weapon of some kind, or a club formed from the femur of an unfortunate meal.
Rychek guided Bessie back to the ogre path after each zombie feint. After being diverted for the fourth time, the zombies' purpose dawned on him.
"They are herding us. They want us to turn north."
"I don't want to go that way." Mahtis rumbled as he eyed the thicker darkness in that direction.
The next time the zombies surged, Rychek held Bessie steady. She actually crunched over the top of a few, leaving the rest of the cordon milling about in confusion in her wake.
"Why don't they attack?" Joe gripped his spear tightly.
"Mahrlecht!" Rychek pulled Bessie to a sudden halt. Their path forward was blocked by a large force, at least four ranks deep.
"Rychek, do you remember how you used the solar thing to warm us up? Back at the outpost?" enquired Bob.
"Yes. So?" Rychek responded distractedly.
"How did you make it go?"
"I put my claw in the print at the back."
"Why do you ask? What the....." Rychek shrank down on his perch on Bessie's shoulder as a very hot beam of sunlight scorched through the space recently occupied by his crested head. The effect on the zombie horde ahead of them was dramatic. The pure light stripped rotten flesh from bone, and ignited dry bone like tinder. The hitherto silent zombies shrieked as their unlives were cut short. Again.
"Can we go on now?" Bob called as he removed his hand from the handprint.
Rychek whispered something to Bessie. She bellowed in wide eyed fear and surged forwards through the smoldering remnants of the zombie ranks.
Again and again the zombies barred their path, and twice Chotec's light lanced through them. On the following occasion the solar engine failed. It had not received a full charge from the sun's rays since they had entered the dwarven realm. The undead surged again, and this time they did not pull away.
The party on the howdah flailed with their weapons and Bessie stomped and swept with her mighty tail. The zombies were dying, again, like flies, but more clambered over the frames of their fallen comrades to swarm the lizardmen. The lizards bellowed and cursed at the silent throng.
"Eat flint, Ugly!" cried Joe as he jabbed at the misshapen face of a dead chaos dwarf.
"Bite me!" yelled Bob as he ran a rotting elf through with the Sword of Abstinence.
Without warning the zombies broke off their assault and drew back into the shadows. Bessie picked her way out of the mound of body parts and halted a short distance away.
"Thank the Old Ones! We've scared them off!" panted Joe.
"I didn't think they could be scared off," Mahtis grunted. "They're not afraid of dying. Again."
The kroxigor wiped a gobbet of gore off the Rune Hammer 'o Anti Magic. The big weapon had proved very suitable for dealing with the magically animated dead. Every two handed hammer blow had flashed with golden sparks and a zombie was reduced to its component parts. Admittedly, he would have got the same result if he had used his regular great weapon, or a tree trunk, but the sparks were a nice effect.
Rychek shifted his grip on Gork-on-a-Stick. The sceptre had also served well as an improvised club, although without the gimmicks. "Some of them had weapons, but they didn't use them, not even to block our blows."
"Is everyone okay," asked Joe.
"One of them bit me! That was uncalled for." Bob pulled his hands away from a wound on his neck.
The zombies did not return, but over the next few hours Bob weakened. The injury should have been trivial. The saurus warrior's constitution would normally easily deal with such a wound, and he would be left with another scar and an amusing story of a lucky escape. But not this time. Despite the care given by his cold blooded kin, he faded away and died at daybreak.
Under normal circumstances, the honoured dead of the Lizardmen were interred in the waters of the pool that spawned them, for their essences to mingle with the generations to come. It was their final act of service to the Old Ones.
The trio could not do this for their brother. Instead they scratched a grave for him in the barren soil and erected a stone to mark his resting place.
Rychek mumbled a few words, and turned back to Bessie, his crest lowered almost to touch his spine. Joe stumbled away wordlessly. Mahtis paused over the grave for a moment longer.
"Goodbye Bob. I guess your luck finally ran out."
Not long after Bessie had trudged away to continue the quest, something approached from the north. Two large and very obviously dead horses drew a cart with an open basket-like frame on the back. A number of zombies clambered down and started to load zombie body parts from the scene of the battle. Another set of feet alighted onto the gravel and crunched over to pause in front of the tomb stone.
With a foul incantation, the owner of the feet extended the ferrule of his staff to hover above the disturbed soil. Heavy purple flames wreathed the staff and dripped liquidly onto the ground where they quickly soaked in. The ground rumbled and shook in protest. The earth does not willingly relinquish that which it has consumed.
A twisted, blue, scaly claw burst from the grave.