Interlude – Ireland Part 5

Interlude – Ireland Part 5

August 5th 2014 – Molly

I woke up cold, wet, naked, and in the middle of a blasted wasteland filled with burnt corpses. All in all, it wasn’t the best morning I’d ever had. It also was only a morning by the most generous definition of the word, the sun hadn’t yet begun to peek over the horizon. I started to get up, but paused, wincing, when I discovered just how sore I was. I was laying across two head-sized boulders, and that definitely had not made for good rest. Nor had being rained on. I was soaked, but apparently the hillside wasn’t on fire anymore, so that was something. Gotta be thankful for the little things in life.

I was sore in parts of my body that I didn’t know could get sore. I stood up anyway, I had to get moving, sooner or later someone would be coming to investigate the fact that I’d burned half the hillside to ashes. Actually, upon further inspection, it was probably a bit more than half. There was a small circle of green around me, but beyond that about twenty feet of the hillside was charred black, save where it was covered by the grey ashes of vegetation. Corpses, including two that were clearly far too large to be human, dotted the landscape. Most of them were piled up like sandbags in a ring around me, but about two dozen lay lower on the hillside. Further down the hill twisting black lines were burned, marking where Guenwhyvar had passed during the fight.

Wait, where was Guen? Had the mob finally managed to bring her down? Did she dissipate after I passed out? I couldn’t feel any trace of the presence that had lurked in the back of my mind during the battle with the Slaugh.

I spent a moment just standing there, unsure if I wanted to spend my limited time looking for Guen or venture into the tomb to find whatever it was I’d come here for. So, I did the only thing that made sense. I got dressed and finished dinner. The tent had rolled over on it’s side at some point during the battle, but thankfully hadn’t caught fire. My clothes were laying on the floor, marginally dryer and less muddy than they had been last night. I put them on, shivering. I found my lighter and spent the last few dregs of butane to start a small fire in little circle of hedge around me. What was one more little fire after everything I had put the countryside through?

I found the rest of the roll of chocolate-covered biscuits at the bottom of the tent. They were pretty much dust, apparently I stepped on them at some point last night, but they were still delicious, covered with chocolate, and full of calories. I found the little package of precooked sausages I hadn’t been interested in the night before and took those out too. I didn’t have a grate or any sticks, so I just ate them cold and huddled around the little fire. A tiny expenditure of power kept it from spreading any farther. Now fully clothed and fed, huddling around my fire, I had to think about the elephant in the room. Or rather, the tiger that wasn’t on the hillside.

Guen was gone. I hadn’t had her for long, but she had been my cat damnit. Hell, she’d been a better person than any of the people I’d ever met. But she wasn’t coming back. I knew that cat would never have abandoned me just as surely and instinctively as I knew she would’ve burned me if I tried to pet her. If she wasn’t here, she wasn’t anywhere. And she wasn’t coming back. She must have… Fuck, my face was wet. From the rain, of course.

I turned to face the barrow, I’d come this far already, I’d see this through, no matter what. Not that I had much choice in the matter. Being homeless is bad for normal people, but it’s worse for mages. Homeless mages get eaten. I suppose homeless normals might sometimes get eaten too, but I’m pretty sure it’s less likely.

The barrow’s entrance was a slit in the hillside about one and a half times the height and width of an average man. Unfortunately, it was mostly blocked by rubble and greenery. Around the edges of the archway there were hints of what might have been intentional stonework, at least before the centuries of wind and rain. There was an uneven border, and what looked like a keystone near the top. Uniform scratches that might have been writing a very long time ago dotted the stones around the edges of the opening. I traced the writing with my fingers, feeling the smooth grooves. It was definitely old, but I had no clue whatsoever what it said. I could barely manage the most basic of modern Gaelic street signs, this was the domain of anthropologists and archeologists. I might not have an army of unpaid undergraduates with cameras, but I did have the sight. I opened my metaphorical 3rd eye and gave the entrance furtive a once-over.

It was a fear ward. I almost laughed. It’s not that it wouldn’t be an effective way to keep peasants and grave-robbers at bay, I was just expecting something more King-Tut curse and less Emo-Mage home security. I’d had plenty of experience dealing with these during my apprenticeship. My dear old master had used them as magical childproofing. I had been expected to push my way through similar wards every time I wanted to get into the kitchen for a snack. It took the better part of a decade before the bastard taught me how to actually dispel the damn things. He’d used a similar approach to teach me to deal with charm and enchantment, occasionally making halfhearted but still frighteningly effective attempts to charm me into doing nasty chores. And to make me do other things. He really hadn’t been a nice man.

But he had been an effective teacher. I climbed the pile of moss-covered rocks and broken beer bottles and shoved my backpack through the little hole that opened into the tomb. I went next, shimmying in backwards, feet first. I felt the ward take effect when I was about halfway in and paused for a moment. It started subtle, my heart beating faster than it should have. Then came the familiar pressure on my chest, the sweaty palms and the trembling fingers. The bitter taste in the back of my mouth, the pounding in my head. I closed my eyes, and focused on separating the symptoms I was experiencing from the emotions I usually associated them with.

And then I got on with shimmying my way through the gap. Knowing it was magic that was affecting you definitely helped, but there’s nothing like years of practice when it comes to pushing through magic designed to ensnare the mind. Well, actually some new research suggests that the sex, age, and personality of an individual are the best metrics for gauging resistance to various forms of mental magic. Personally, I just think they didn’t train their experimental group properly.

I found footing on the inside of the barrow and slowly lowered myself in. It hadn’t been too tight a squeeze, but a man, or someone with more sizeable… boobs, might’ve been in trouble.

It was dark and musty inside the barrow. A thin sliver of light crept in from the gap I had climbed through. Every time I moved I could see the accumulated dust of centuries dancing in the thin ray of light. The short entryway opened into a small burial chamber. A stone tomb on a raised dais dominated the space. The tomb had been roughly hewn from some sort of grey stone. It hadn’t been weathered anywhere near as much as the stonework on the outside and still retained it’s inscription. Not that I had any hope of reading it, between the dim light and it being, y’know, probably written in a dead language.

I kinda figured it was a few verses extolling the virtues of whatever poor fellow was interred here and the standard warnings of eternal damnation for grave-robbers. The usual stuff you’d find on a pre-christian tomb. I checked it for magic, it was clean. Well, it was slightly dingy. Everything in the tomb was very modestly magical, but nothing overtly threatening stood out about the tomb. So, I got on with what I was here for. I’d bought a crowbar shortly after landing in Dublin, seeing as I’m tiny and rocks are both heavy and inflammable. After a few tries I managed to find a spot where I could lodge the straight end between the heavy stone lid and the lip of the tomb. I had a hard time getting the lid to move, after several thousand years to settle it was practically glued to the tomb itself. Eventually I succeeded in wiggling the crowbar in deep enough that I could pry the lid far enough upwards for gravity and normal force to slide it a bit to the side. It was easier from then on, every inch I shifted the lid gave me more and more leverage. Eventually I had shifted the stone cover almost a third of the way to the side. I gave it one more good wedge upwards, and it started to fall.

The lid landed with a resounding, earth shaking, crash. Dust and soil rained from the roof of the cave. And the tomb lay open before me.

At that moment, what I was doing really hit me. I was about to defile that last resting place of someone who had been beloved enough that those who survived him had literally carved out a hillside as his final resting place. Or her, it was too dark to make out much about the mummy lying before me. The bones were a dark brown color, even more withered than the zombies outside had been. Everything in the tomb was covered with a gray-green dust, at least I really hoped it was dust. The body was taller than me, maybe six and a half feet, but I couldn’t tell anything about the build or gender of the mummy.

Most importantly, and disappointingly, there were almost no personal effects in the tomb. I say almost no, because there was clear evidence there had been some. There was a long thin piece of what had one been wood a very long time ago, which dissolved into bug-filled dust the moment my hand brushed up against it. It might have once been a stave for a bow or spear, but it wasn’t anything anymore. There were also piles of, well, organic matter, that might have once been clothing. And there was a piece of black metal, pitted with rust and roughly the length of my forearm. Maybe a spearhead, or part of a dagger. I didn’t know, and didn’t care. I put it in the bag.

Mission fucking accomplished. There was nothing else of interest in the tomb, and my employer had mentioned nothing about wanting bones or dust. I left the tomb the same way I came in, this time unmolested by the fear ward.

All this for a goddamn oversized nail. Fuck this country. As if in response to my unspoken curse, the grey sky above me rumbled. Every so often lightning flashed ominously in the distance. I threw my backpack over my shoulder and started walking. I really needed a drink. Or several. However many was enough to forget about the scabs all over my body and the cat that had almost been mine.

Advertisements

Interlude – Ireland Part Four

Interlude – Ireland Part Four

August 4th 2014 – Molly

Just one step though. It wasn’t like I was about to get in a wrestling match with an undead giant and his horde of shorter minions. I just wanted a better view of the hillside. Between my sweaty fingers, I could feel the little oaken statue that would be my trump card. If it worked. If it didn’t, I’d probably die horribly looking like an idiot. No point dwelling on that, either my craftsmanship was good enough or it wasn’t.

I filled in the spaces between the fires around the edge of the plateau, creating a solid half circle of flame. It didn’t take much power or time to spread the existing fire around, even in the damp hedge. Ireland was also a bit more magical than the states, I could probably throw around quite a bit of power here before I really started feeling the effects. Especially if I was able to draw out the battle, and avoid using too much mana in any one instant. A long battle was definitely in my favor here, the longer I went without dying, the thicker the ring of flames around me would get. Eventually it would be impassable to the undead, letting me lob spells at them with no risk of retaliation.

At least, that was the plan. Dozens of considerations rushed through my head in the moments before I acted. It was amazing how calm you could get when your life was on the line.

I swapped my lighter over to my right hand, squared my feet, and took a breath. Using untested magic against a bunch of undead giants. This is what I live for. I defy you to show me a drug that can match the high you get from literally holding your life in your hands. I could feel blood on my shin from where one of the zombies had grabbed my earlier. I rubbed the wet blood all over the statue, clenching my teeth through the sting. I could feel the blood between my fingers, filling in the cracks where I had carved runes into the little wooden tiger. Even without a circle, I could feel the connection forged by my blood, a sign I had enchanted the statue properly.

Feeding mana into the statue was like watching an impossibly intricate fountain get filled with water for the first time, or seeing a building constructed in time-lapse. It wasn’t as much a visual thing as a sense of a geometric shapes and complexity, of the lines of a diagram being drawn on an infinite plane just beyond your vision. It was a surreal experience that dragged on forever, yet ended in a moment, as the basic structure of the spell surged into life. The scaffolding, or the outline, waiting to be filled in. The targets steadily approached, the frontrunners of the horde were now less than a hundred feet from me.

I had chosen to use the Anglo-Saxon runic alphabet because it was old enough to have metaphysical weight, but translated phonetically into English. It also had no curvy lines, which made it so much easier to carve into an uneven surface with a pocketknife than English letters. I had written, translated, and carved the spell myself. It wasn’t about precision, the enchantments on the statue already provided enough structure to shape the spell. The spell, the runes, the carving, the blood, all of it was to build a connection. Thaumaturgy is an art, not a science. I spoke aloud the words I had carved as I threw the statue forward towards the horde. It was less of a incantation than a prayer, but they were my words, and that was what mattered.

“I am the fire in the heart of the darkness”

The statue reached the apex of it’s flight.

“Torch, Aegis, Companion”

For a fraction of a moment, I thought I saw a flicker of orange light around the statue.

“My blood shall make your body, my strength will shape your form, and my will shall anchor your reason!”

On impulse, I added another line.

“Sic em Guenwhyvar!”

Hey, it’s another personal connection. A girl’s allowed to have heroes. And cats should have names.

I lost sight of the little tiger statue as it went tumbling into the night. I caught sight of it again, just before it touched the ground. It was glowing orange. I smiled, faith in my handiwork restored. As the little carving touched the ground in front of the horde, it burst into flames. A large part of the power fueling the spell came from me. I could feel the little statue draw strength from me through the connection between us. It wasn’t like the normal strain of working magic, it was more of a steady exhaustion. If burning out after a major working was like collapsing after sprinting a mile, then this was more like having weights attached to every limb, or being kept awake for hours on end. It wasn’t fun, but the drain on my strength was manageable.

The flames around the statue coalesced, shaping and reshaping until they reached a form the spell was happy with.

A tiger composed entirely of swirling flames stood between me and the horde. It’s fur and flesh shifted through every shade of orange imaginable as it flexed it’s muscles. It’s stripes were dark gray, continually shifting as if they were composed of bands of smoke. It’s eyes and claws were black embers tinged with crimson heat. It’s tail swished back and forth idly, igniting the hedge around it. Satisfied with it’s shape, the tiger turned to it’s, our, enemies. And it roared, the deep voice of a jungle cat mingling with the roar of a forest fire. The giant in front, the one animated by the spirit of the little girl, recovered from the surprise first. He, or she, I’m not really sure how gender pronouns work with possession, dropped into a crouch, and charged at my tiger. Worked for me, I had already decided to kill that one first.

Guenwhyvar retreated up the hill with blinding speed, leaving a trail of tiny fires in her wake. The charging giant threw itself to the side, avoiding any contact with the fire. I could feel Guenwhyvar in the corner of my mind. I didn’t have any real control over her, but I could dimly sense her mood. The giant and the tiger circle each other, each waiting for the other to move. Neither me nor the rest of the horde of undead intervened. We all understood that this wasn’t our battle. Yet. I had no problem at all with waiting, and letting the brush-fire spread further.

The giant moved first, clambering forward toward Guenwhyvar. He covered half the distance between them in a single motion, then swung his impossibly long arm around like a club. Guenwhyvar dropped back, easily dodging the massive arm.

Unfortunately, it was just a feint. At the apex of the swing, the giant opened it’s hand and released the rock hidden beneath it’s massive fingers. Off balance, the tiger couldn’t move quickly enough to dodge the heavy rock. The stone tore through Guenwhyvar’s fiery flesh, leaving a ragged gap above her right shoulder. I could feel pain and anger seeping through the link between us. I could hear a little girl giggling. The giant’s mouth wasn’t moving. I looked at the fires strewn across the hillside, trying to find a way to distract Guen’s opponent. It wasn’t necessary. The ragged hole was slowly closing, as the Guenwhyvar absorbed the magical fires she had set in the hedge around her.

Okay, that was fucking awesome. I needed to make another of those statues. The self-healing kitty made of fire was definitely my new favorite toy. I got a strangely mixed response through the link, a combination of pride, elation, and contempt. Was… Guenwhyvar upset at being called a toy? Could she hear my thoughts?

“Bad Kitty! Stay dead!” The giant shouted with the voice of a little girl. Oh dear, it was developing a sense of humor. And learning from it’s mistakes. The giant had rocks in both it’s hands now, and was keeping Guenwhyvar outside it’s massive reach. Every time the tiger threatened to pounce, the giant gave ground and swung one of it’s long arms inward, forcing Guenwhyvar to retreat.

I turned away from the stalemated fight and took stock of my more immediate surroundings. The ring of flames had expanded both toward and away from me. Now the barrier was several feet wide and getting dangerously close to my tent. I reached out to the fire and pushed it away from me. It took much less energy than expanding or creating flames. After the fire slid a few feet towards my enemies, I had a nice semicircle of ashes that would prevent the flames from growing back towards me again. Unfortunately, the horde took that as a signal to join the fight. Two of the human sized frontrunners headed towards me, leaping across the barrier of flames. One’s legs gave way as he tried to jump, and he fell short. Right into the ring. I ignored him, turning my attention to the one that had actually cleared the ring. I brought my wand to bear as he got up from his crouch.

“Fuego!” The wand blast caught him near the top of his chest, sending him tumbling backwards into the ring of flames. I kept watch on him out of the corner of my eye, but the spirit animating him didn’t have the presence of mind to try a suicidal charge at me. I swung my wand around like a conductor’s baton, moving it between the zombies standing just outside the ring of fire. The two zombies who had fallen into the fire screamed in their death throes. Even after the charred bodies stopped moving, the voices of the ghosts continued to scream into the night sky.

A flash of concern from Guenwhyvar tore my attention away from the mob on the far side of the circle. Half of the zombies, and the other two giants, had headed for Guenwhyvar instead of me. Two of the giants used their incredible reach to prevent her from closing to melee range, the rest of the mob threw stones at her. Most of the stones fell far short of their target, and the ones tossed by the human zombies didn’t have very much force behind them. Unfortunately, Guenwhyvar’s fiery body wasn’t very solid. Every stone that hit gouged deep tears in her flesh, and each new hole was slower to close than the one before it. The third giant, the one that had first engaged her, kept itself positioned to prevent Guenwhyvar from retreating toward me and the ring of flames.

Guenwhyvar gave ground freely, brushing against plants wherever possible. The undead weren’t able to safely touch even small fires, and were forced to spread out, preventing them from flanking Guen. It wasn’t enough. The damage caused by the stones was adding up faster than she could create new fires to replenish her body. If she tried to get close enough to do deal damage, the horde would bury her under the sheer weight of bodies.

She hadn’t been around for long, but she was my flaming kitty damnit! The mob chasing Guenwhyvar was too far away for me to easily reach with fire magic. The blasts from my wand would reach them, but they would barely be a distraction against so many. I needed to take down the giant between us, if Guen could get to the ring of flames she’d be able to replace the flesh she’d lost. I think. I felt approval and agreement through the link, apparently she agreed. Guen’s remarkable healing ability hadn’t been an intended part of the spell, neither had her apparent sentience. I sure wasn’t complaining.

“Fuego!” I launched a blast of force at the giant, catching him between his shoulders. He stumbled forward, but otherwise appeared unharmed. Living giants were supposed to be pretty resistant to magic, apparently that applied to dead ones too. Fortunately, that was all the distraction Guen needed. As the giant stumbled forward, Guen pivoted to the right, turning to face him. She leapt, shifting into a blur of flames as she crossed the distance between her and the giant in an instant. Guen stuck to the giant’s chest as she landed, digging in with her clearly solid claws. She tore and raked at the giant’s flesh, starting small fires as she thrashed around. The giant brought one of it’s arms to bear but Guenwhyvar shrugged off the blows. The giant changed tactics, falling forward to try to catch and smother Guenwhyvar between itself and the ground.

Guen was far too fast for that, and slid forward like an oiled piglet as soon as the giant tried to turn on it’s stomach. With the giant that had been in her way sprawled on the ground, she bounded up the hill, easily outpacing the rest of the horde. As Guenwhyvar reached the ring of fire, the flames started to flow out towards her like a liquid flowing downhill. The new fire snaked up Guen’s legs, seeking and filling the holes in her body. In a few moments, she was good as new. She padded over to stand beside me. I almost tried to pet her, before remembering that heat rises. I settled for standing a comfortable distance away from her side.

The rest of the mob was slowly making it’s way over to the far side of the ring of flames. The giant that Guen had savaged had recovered and as leading the horde. The magical fires barely found purchase on the giants withered body. As soon as Guenwhyvar had retreated, the flames had begin to die down. There was clearly some damage, black burn scars crisscrossed the giant’s torso, but nothing serious. I wasn’t sure whether it was because of the innate magic resistance of the giant itself, or the greater power of the spirit animating it. Either way, the giants would be more formidable foes.

Giants are unusual. I’m sure you knew that, since I doubt you’ve seen one in real life, or know anyone who has, other than me I suppose. But that’s not entirely what I meant. While primary sources on giant populations are obviously hard to find at the best of times, it’s generally agreed giants have been pretty uncommon since before the birth of Christ. Almost every pre-christian culture has stories about them. There are even some credible stories of giants in the northern wilds and the far corners of Asia and Africa as late as the fall of the Roman Empire. However, since the Renaissance, giant sightings have been almost unheard of. Giants were the first group of supernatural humanoids to fall into decline with the rise of the modern world. There are a bunch of theories about why, ranging from giants being dependent on high densities of ambient magic to survive, to them just being too large and warlike to hide from the growing human populations. The one thing everyone agrees on, is that they pretty much dropped off the face of the earth well before people started telling their kids stories about magic beanstalks.

To find the corpse of a giant is impressive, that’s a rare find on the level of a mundane archeologist stumbling upon a perfectly preserved T-Rex. But to animate one, to restore unlife to something that lived and died back when the world was a much wilder place, that takes power. That took the sort of power that hasn’t been common among ghosts for a very long time. This was starting to look less like an unfortunate run-in with a greater undead, and more like someone deliberately sent me on a suicide mission. Meh. At least I could blame them if I was accused of setting a horde of zombies loose on County Sligo.

With Guenwhyvar closer to my source of fire I was feeling much more confident about this battle. My particular brand of magical combat really isn’t what you’d call subtle. Creating fire on the fly takes a lot more power than a comparatively novice elementalist like me usually has on tap. As a result, I typically need to rely heavily on magical tools and mundane weapons. It’s a real treat to be able to let my hair down like this, so to speak.

I reached out to the fire surrounding me. It was, for lack of a better word, famished. I could feel the fire’s, or rather, the spirits within the fire’s, overwhelming hunger. As an element, fire is rarely predictable or placid, but the undead are pretty much it’s favorite food. It might sound like I’m giving an inanimate object too much credit, but even small and fragmented spirits like you’d find in an untended fire really do have a mind of their own.

All they needed me to do was provide the means for them to act.

I raised my hand in front of me, curling my my pinkie and ring finger inward. I bent the other two fingers and curled my thumb in along the edge of my palm. I always liked this gesture, it feels like something a witch from a Grimm fairytale would do right before she cursed someone. Sensing my intent, Guenwhyvar slowly walked into the ring of flames. I pointed my scrunched up claw of a hand at the little girl in a giant’s body who had started this whole mess.

“I almost wonder what happened to you so long ago, that you still can’t let it go. What made you need an army of monsters to feel safe at night.” I said.

The giant with the soul of a little girl responded by picking up a rock. Yeah, that wasn’t going to lead to any sort of meaningful dialogue. It’s not like I’m some kind of ghost-therapist or something, but I know when negotiations have broken down.

I twisted my hand upside down, and swiped it around in a little half-circle. I finished the gesture by flourishing my two extended fingers upward. There was some complicated magicking that went along with hand motions, but I won’t bore you with the details.

Guenwhyvar leapt, and the flames followed her, twisting outwards and upwards like a solar flare. She landed directly on the chest of the little girl giant, and immediately started trying to rip her arms off. The tongue of fire that extended out from the ring decomposed around her, flooding out with a vengeance. The flames actively sought out zombies, clinging to every undead thing within a few yards of the embattled giant. I could feel the strain of the working beginning to set in, but I kept up the attack. I swung my hand horizontally, bringing up a wave of flames the engulfed the first few ranks of zombies. They charged and leapt en-mass, the desperation of the Slaugh compelling them to ignore even their mortal fear of fire. The first few fell far short of clearing the now massive ring. One especially athletic specimen leapt nearly six feet into the air, high enough to easily clear the ring. As he began to come back down, I dragged the fire up to meet him. He came down in a flaming, thrashing, heap.

I dealt with the next few waves of jumpers in a similar fashion. It was like shooting fish in a barrel.

“Get the hell off my hillside you damn ghosts!” I shouted. I could hear a little girl screaming in the distance, the sound brought a smile to my lips. Guenwhyvar was holding her own against two of the undead giants, using the fire she’d carried from the ring to control the flow of the fight. She danced in and out of the patches of burning hedge, forcing the giants to risk immolation every time they tried to attack. Both the giants were badly burned, one of them seemed to have lost part of it’s arm.

A rock bigger than my head whizzed by, missing my face by inches. That wasn’t good. I brought my wand to bear, ready to blast or dodge the next one. It must have come from the third giant, who had retreated to a safe distance and was alternately lobbing rocks at me and Guen.

The tide had begun to turn now, with the battlefield was engulfed in flames I was able to easily keep the horde from getting close to me. Guenwhyvar was having similar luck, using her speed and the spreading flames to prevent her opponents from fleeing or landing a decisive blow.

They should’ve ignored the cat and rushed me while the ring was still manageable. Or they should’ve just left me alone altogether. Either way would have ended better for them, the attrition and theatrics the Slaugh would normally use to bring down it’s prey had given me the opportunity to get my defenses up and running.

From here on out it would be smooth sailing.

Hah, famous last words.

As Guenwhyvar finally managed to cripple down one of the giants and fully turned her attention on the remaining one – the apparent ringleader with the voice of a little girl – the entire horde went berserk. Sensing that their master was in danger, zombies rushed headlong into the flames, trying to reach me or smother Guen. Most of them didn’t even have the presence of mind to jump, they just ran into the flames, scrambling across the bodies of those who had gone before them. For a moment, it looked like they might smother themselves a path with sheer numbers. Then I turned up the heat. Actively fed, the wildfire raged higher than before, reaching dozens of feet into the night sky. Zombies caught light from the flames around them even as they crawled across the charred bodies of their predecessors. Black began to creep in around the edges of my vision. I got lightheaded, my fingers tingled, and what I could see started changing colors.

I kept up the wall of flames, praying to someone, anyone, that the horde would run out of bodies before I ran out of power.

Heh. Someone was going to have to explain to the local media why this hillside was filled with dozens of burned corpses. And three dead giants. Wait, where were the giants?

I tried to find them, but I couldn’t see anything beyond the wall of flames. A few moments later, I could barely see the flames, I just felt that my front half was warm and tingly, and my back half was just tingly. I don’t know when I stopped standing, but I could feel something hard beneath my shins.

My last thought before I passed out, was that someone was definitely going to try to blame me for this…

Interlude – Ireland Part Three

Interlude – Ireland Part Three

August 4th 2014 – Molly

Previous Chapter                                                                                                                         Next Chapter

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.

“Fuego”

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.

“Fuego!”

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.

Previous Chapter                                                                                                                         Next Chapter