Interlude – Ireland Part Three
August 4th 2014 – Molly
After some fumbling, I managed to get my combat gear out of my backpack. It was a lot harder to gear up naked. I didn’t realize just how much stuff I usually keep in my pockets until I tried to hold it all in one hand. I generally tinker around with my armaments a fair amount, and I hadn’t brought any especially heavy weaponry to Ireland, what with airport security being what it is. There are probably a few practitioners gifted enough to charm their way through an entire security checkpoint, I’m not one of them. Aside from my age, my utter lack of skill at enchantment was the main reason I wasn’t a full member of the Association. That meant I hadn’t brought anything metal with me. On the bright side, most of my toys were wooden anyway. One of the perks of being a pyromancer.
In my left hand, I held my still burning lighter, and a small wooden statue of a tiger. The statue had runes carved into almost every part of it’s surface other than it’s face. In the firelight, it gleamed crimson as if was painted with blood. Which made sense, because it was painted with blood, mine in fact. I held my favorite wand, a thin stick of maple older than I was, between my teeth. In the firelight, I could see the shambling silhouettes grow larger as they approached my tent.
I finished unzipping the door moments before the first zombie arrived. I call it a zombie, but it wasn’t really. The remains of what had once been a large man leered at me from the darkness. His skull barely was covered by the shreds of leathery skin pulled impossibly taut against it. The rest of his wasn’t much more than a skeleton held together by strips of sinew and dried flesh. His left arm was missing below the elbow, not much more than a sharpened nub. In his right hand, he held a hatchet that looked like it predated the Roman Empire. With every shambling step he took, his body crackled so much I half expected him to collapse into a pile of limbs.
I leveled my beat up old wand at the zombie’s head, and carefully pronounced the command word.
You’d be amazed how many idiots assume a magic wand with the command word “Fuego” is going to shoot some sort of fire at them. I might really like fire, but I’m not a one trick pony. In this case, the zombie didn’t appear intelligent enough to try to counter my attack anyway, but you can never be too careful.
The blast of pure force that hit the zombie’s head sent it flying. Or it might have outright obliterated it, it was hard to tell in the darkness. I didn’t feel any bits of gore splatter against me, so I assumed it went flying. In either case, the zombie-thing staggered backward, cleanly beheaded. Unfortunately, it didn’t appear inconvenienced in any way by the loss of it’s head. With the same awkward, stumbling gait, it kept moving towards me. I slipped out of the tent, taking advantage of the distance created by my wand. Once I got outside, I got a better view of just how screwed I was. My tent was pitched on a small plateau outside the entrance to the barrow. I could see shapes in the darkness moving towards me from every direction, slowly climbing up the hillside towards me. They weren’t moving all that fast, I could probably make a break for it and slip between two of them. However, I’d already underestimated the Slaugh animating these bodies once tonight. I weighed the possibility of escape against the possibility of being dismembered and eaten alive.
After a moments reflection, I decided to play it safe. I’m pretty numb to danger, but the thought of a mob of rotting corpses gnawing my limbs off gave even me pause. While I wasted time imagining my gruesome death, the headless zombie had closed the distance between us.
He lifted the hatchet in his functional arm above his head, preparing to swing at me. I didn’t let him follow through on the strike. I brought my still burning lighter between, and fed the flame a burst of mana. The little fire flared into a short lived burst of light and heat between us. I mentioned earlier that there are certain rules about the supernatural world that usually hold true. Another good one to add to that list is that if living things like it, dead things don’t. I’ve never met a vampire or zombie who wasn’t at least uncomfortable around light, fire, homes, running water, thanksgiving dinners, holy magic, and the like.
The headless zombie shied backwards, reflexively turning away from the light and heat. I stepped in as he retreated, following up with a snap kick to his chest. Beneath my foot, his chest felt oddly light and springy, like it was made of green wood. The zombie gave ground freely, trying to keep his balance. When he finally got his feet back under him, he had fallen back nearly half a dozen steps. The little plateau I had pitched my tent on wasn’t that large, there were barely a few inches between him and the incline behind him.
I helped him over the edge with another blast of force. The hillside wasn’t that steep, it was maybe a 50 degree incline at most. It was a royal pain to hike up, but not exactly hazardous. Unfortunately for the zombie, once he started rolling down the hill, he didn’t have the coordination to stop himself. I lost sight of him after he fell off the lit plateau, but I could hear him roll down the hill until he crashed into something solid.
I crept closer to the edge, trying to get a good luck at just how many of the animated corpses were climbing the hillside. Even just an hour after sunset, the hilly landscape around me was swathed in darkness. The uneven terrain cut down on the amount of artificial light that filtered in from nearby towns. Behind me, the hill was steeper, almost an unclimbable rock face, broken only by the entrance to the barrow. To the other three sides, the shallower hill extended as far as I could see. Which really wasn’t that far, the light cast by my lighter extended barely a dozen paces into the blackness. I couldn’t clearly see very far, but I could make out at least a dozen patches of moving shadows. I was considering spending some power to get a better view when I felt something brush my ankle. I could almost feel my heart in my throat as visions of dismemberment danced through my head. I leapt back on instinct, but the withered fingers locked around my ankle and held fast. I fell backwards, and found myself face to desiccated face with another zombie.
“Fuego!” I shouted, pointing my wand hand at the zombies face. Nothing happened. For a terrible moment, I thought my wand had gone dead. Then, as the zombie started to crawl toward me, I realized my wand hand was empty. I kicked with my free leg, trying to buy time, but the damn thing just ignored the hits. The zombie was incredibly light, closer to a mummy really, age had stripped it of most of it’s flesh. Unfortunately, it was durable enough to shrug off my kicks. The more I struggled, the more it’s bony fingers cut into my leg. I couldn’t see my wand in the tall grass, and didn’t have time to feel around for it. So I used the only other weapon at my disposal.
I took a deep breath, as much to calm myself as to bring in air. I held it, drawing magic in from the air around me. I hated using this trick, without words it didn’t really count as a spell, there were so many ways it could go tragically wrong. I suffused the breath with as much power as I could muster. With one hand, I braced myself, keeping steady. With the other, I brought my lighter up in front of my face.
I pursed my lips and made like a dragon. There’s a lot of technique that goes into breathing fire with kerosene or ethanol, and it’s even harder with magic. I suffered some truly nasty burns on my lips and inside my mouth before I mastered doing it with mana. As the charged breath left my mouth, it expanded into a glowing cone of flames. My body was, for the most part, below the fire, sparing me from horrible burns. My assailant wasn’t so lucky. He scrambled to get back the moment the fire left my lips, but he wasn’t nearly fast enough. The flames clung to him as he fled, the dry ribs crackling like pine needles. He tore at his skin, ripping chunks off in an effort to extinguish the flames before they consumed him. The fire spread quickly, engulfing his arms and torso. As his flesh started to crumble into flakes of ash, the zombie began screaming. It was an eerie sound, I could hear the deep, cracking voice of the body, and the scream of an adult woman mingling together. Even though it had been trying to kill me, I felt like I was intruding on something intensely personal.
As the screaming body fell apart, the spirit animating it was destroyed. There’s a reason even powerful and incorporeal undead fear fire. It’s not just physically destructive, it’s cleansing, purifying, and powerfully aligned with life. My enemy, the Slaugh, was an entire host of spirits, together they formed a powerful and near indestructible monster. Slaugh aren’t like normal ghosts, they aren’t bound to a cause, a regret, a place, or even to the memory of one person. They’re as close to alive as something undead can ever get, free to roam across the countryside, growing and changing as they spirit away the infirm and impious. In other words, an absolute bitch to fight.
To something like this zombie, or rather, to the fragment of the Slaugh animating it, even mundane fire is dangerous. And magical fire like mine, which can’t be extinguished short of jumping in a river, is terrifying. This was the first time I’d done real damage to the overghost itself, rather than just forcing it to expend energy. Unfortunately, considering the number of voices I’d heard talking earlier, I was probably barely making a dent. I’d just have to convince the ghosts that eating me wouldn’t be worth the casualties.
I gathered my wits and my things before another zombie could reach the plateau. A few small fires had started in the damp hedge, marking where the zombie and tossed it’s burning scraps of flesh. I reached out to them, feeding them enough to overcome the damp and become self sustaining. I let my lighter finally go out, it was probably nearly empty by now. If I let it get empty that would cut down on my offensive options until I got back to my room at the hostel. With the light from the new fires, I easily found my wand jammed between two rocks. I crept back to the edge, much more carefully this time, and took another look around. The shadows were massing halfway up the hill, closer to twenty of them now. Some of the newly arrived shadows were massive, if they were human, they must have been larger than NFL linemen in life.
One of the massive shadows stood up. I realized it wasn’t huge man, the zombie was actually pretty skinny. He was just around ten feet tall, so he looked huge crouched down. I wasn’t sure what to make of this anymore. I knew Ireland had stories about giants, but even back centuries ago they weren’t exactly common. And there were three of them standing on the hillside, each almost twice my height. Where the hell was the Slaugh finding all these bodies?
“Okay, that’s actually kind of terrifying.” I said, to nobody in particular. The tallest of the giants, the one standing in the center of the undead horde, chucked in response. It was incredibly eerie how smoothly the voice of the massive man, and the ghostly young girl animating his body, merged into one.
Okay. He, or she I guess, would die first. For a few all too short moments, everything stood still. I knew the horde was waiting for me to move, to run, to fight. As soon as I did, they would swarm me. Well, I wasn’t going to disappoint them.
I tightened my grip around the small oaken statue I’d kept clutched in my left hand. It would only work once, if it worked at all, and it had taken me nearly a week of work. Of course, I didn’t have that many cards left to play. The whole reason I brought the statue was to deal with a situation like this. I’d hoped not to need to play my trump card before I’d even entered the barrow though.
“Well, what are you waiting for?” I asked the giant-zombie-girl. She didn’t reply. I reached out to the fires around me, willing them to spread.
The moment I started drawing magic, the horde began rushing towards me. Some of them leapt half the distance in a single bound, others marched or crawled. The three giants lumbered towards me at a stately pace, covering yards with a single step.
I smiled, and took a step forward, closer to the oncoming horde.