Dead Moon Rising
"This is the best you can do for me?" Alys Brangwin asked as she reviewed the file entitled "Mystery of the Swamp."
"I'm sorry," replied Erin, the dark-haired Hunter's Guild Secretary. "That's all we received, just the one letter transmission—and a payment draft on the Termi Mercantile Association Bank."
Alys grinned at the secretary.
"Payment in advance, eh? I wondered what got you to even post this, with the details as sketchy as they are. Having five thousand meseta ready to hand out would help your comfort level."
Erin grinned back, which would have sent hunters fainting throughout the guild if they had but known. She was a no-nonsense woman, used to putting up with the antics of a profession that took macho posturing as holy writ and was rarely amused by any of it.
Then again, if Erin was to drop the mask of cool efficiency for anyone, it would be for Alys. The "Eight-Stroke Sword" was the Guild's most celebrated and successful hunter, and a woman who had an equal distaste for crap. The brunette in her red dress over black bodysuit with a wire circlet holding her hair off her face was what a hunter was supposed to be—a professional monster-slayer, bounty-taker, explorer, and guard with a practical attitude and a high level of competence. Alys didn't waste time bragging; she did her job and collected her fees. Like Erin, she had no patience with swaggering thugs who were all mouth and no courage.
"So are you interested, Alys?"
She read the letter over again, hoping to somehow pull meaning from between the lines. "Please help! The dead curse of the swamp has returned! Enos Morgan," Alys recited. Even out loud it didn't mean much. "What swamp curse? That could mean anything. I don't want to waste a trip to Termi, even by telepipe, and just have to come back because it was all for nothing."
On the other hand, Alys knew better than most hunters that there was more to things like "magic" and "curses" than people believed. In her youth she'd known a man named Rune Walsh who had been able to use magic, and recently she herself had come face-to-face with it in the matter of the Monsen excavation site murders. If there truly was a curse at work and the word wasn't just a euphemism, she was probably the best able to handle it of all the Guild's hunters.
Then again, that applied to pretty much anything, so it really shouldn't have been a consideration. Still and all...
"Well, I only got one thousand for that scorpirus hunt out near Nalya. Cord flipped me to see who got the caves, and while I only bagged five, he and Trask stumbled on the nesting pit and killed, what, thirty of the things?"
"Yeah. I think I'm going to take a good look at the coin next time Jason Cord flips me for anything. So, sign me up, Erin. I could use five thousand meseta."
She'd have walked through fire before admitting it wasn't just the money that motivated her.
The first thing Alys noticed as the telepipe deposited her just outside the village of Termi was the air. It was wet and muggy, and felt all the more because it was just about the only spot on the planet where that was true. Motavia was an arid world whose weather patterns tended to dump what rainfall there was back into the sea. The Termi peninsula at the southeastern end of the continent, though, was the sole exception. The wind blew out of the south during the winter and spring, bringing rain clouds that bunched and stopped when they hit the mountains not far north of the town. While the summer and fall featured the gentle trade winds bearing the smell of the sea, it was Alys's luck to land in Termi during the part of the year where one could reliably count on humidity.
Alys hadn't needed to be told her job would start in Termi; the title of the mission alone had settled that. Motavia had exactly one swamp, northeast of town where several small streams flowed out of the mountains. The bog, formally named the Ilcallas Marsh, was a fetid and unpleasant place by all accounts. Seemingly solid ground could hide patches of quicksand, and there were several breeds of insectoid biomonster that had found it an excellent breeding environment, as had slug-types that were usually restricted to dank caves by the baking sun.
Alys herself had never been to the marsh, so in a strange kind of way she was looking forward to it. Getting paid to see the far corners of the planet was one of the perks of being a hunter.
Wiping sweat from her forehead with the back of her hand, she headed into town. Since her client hadn't given the location of his house, the first part of her job was to find him. Butterflies flitted lazily by and strains of brisk music played on stringed instruments and steel drums caught Alys's ears as she sought out the large, whitewashed building that was the home of Termi's law enforcement.
A young, blonde clerk was sitting at the reception desk shuffling papers when Alys entered, glad to be into the shade. She was about to introduce herself when that became unnecessary.
"Alys Brangwin!" a loud voice boomed out. Paul Denton, Termi's Chief Marshal and head of its guard force, had just come out of his office and had recognized the hunter immediately. "Welcome back to Termi. Did you finally decide to take some vacation time here in our fair city, or is this another business trip?"
"The latter, I'm afraid." She'd met Denton on a previous trip when she'd collected a bounty on a con man put up by Termi's government. Alys liked the lawman immensely; while his height and bulk suggested the kind of overblown personality associated with a tourist trap like Termi, the truth was that he had an insightful, practical mind and a sardonic sense of humor that she appreciated.
"Shoulda guessed; you're the sort that likes to stay busy."
"True enough. Mind if I toss a few questions your way?"
"Go ahead. We good guys are supposed to cooperate, right?" His jowly face curved into a broad smile.
"Enos Morgan," Alys said. "Know where I can find him?"
"You're after Old Enos?" Denton said, startled.
"Sort of; he's my client. His request for Guild assistance didn't bother with directions, though."
"Yep, that's Old Enos, all right. Gets an idea into his head and he's off and running. Funny thing is, you and he are kinda in the same profession."
Alys raised an eyebrow.
"Man's gotta shack out maybe a quarter of the way into the marsh. He hunts up plants and animals that ain't found anywhere else, brings 'em back to town to sell for medicines and so on. Does some good business. The owner of the Bayamare gift shop told me once he uses a dye from some swamp root Enos finds to get the reds and oranges just right in the pennants he sells to tourists."
Alys shrugged. The man had obviously made enough of a living at his work to save up enough to advance the commission to the Guild, and the specifics didn't matter much.
"How do I get to him, if he lives out in the marsh?"
"About five miles up the east track from Termi is a little hamlet called Bog Edge, on account of the frighteningly powerful imagination of its founders. Got about thirty folks living there; I'm sure one of them will take you out by boat to Enos's shack." He paused, then hitched his thumbs into his belt. "Alys, mind if I ask—speaking as the guy who's in charge of the law around here—what Old Enos wants a hunter for?"
"In this case, ask away. I've got one sentence to go on: 'The dead curse of the swamp has returned.' Do you have any idea what that means?"
Denton shook his head.
"I haven't run across any curses in my lifetime, let alone any dead ones. Then again, you've gotta figure most curses wouldn't like Termi, what with the heroine Alis Landale's spirit supposed to protect the town."
Alys had gone to see the heroine's statue on her previous visit, and had to admit that she'd looked like the kind of person who wouldn't permit a minor annoyance like death to keep her from helping people.
"Maybe she'll throw in a helping hand for a namesake," she said. "If I'm going to face off against a dead curse, then maybe a dead heroine is just what's called for."
"Just watch yourself, Alys. I don't know about any dead curses, but there's plenty of living monsters out there that could make things rough."
"Well, now I know you've got kids," Alys said laconically.
"Two boys, one girl—and five deputy marshals who figure they're the second coming of, well, you. But keep an eye out anyway."
"I will. Can't spend a commission if I don't live to collect it, after all."
The less said about Bog Edge, Alys decided after about three seconds in town, the better. The shabby construction, the slack-jawed looks, and the smell of alcohol fermented from things not generally meant for human consumption were her first hints, and the universal fashion statement of "unkempt, ragged, and dirty" finished it off. These weren't the hardworking country folk she'd met in farming and fishing villages, and they weren't the kind who were poverty-stricken by fate or bearing up under a desperate situation. Degeneration and decay (and, she'd wager, a fair amount of inbreeding) were the words that best described the place; it was somehow appalling to find it so close to the beauty of Termi.
Alys managed to find a fellow who was willing to forego the pleasures of bad booze at the tavern for fifty meseta in cash for taking her out to Enos Morgan's house. His name was Jedidiah Parker, and he was a stooped figure with pasty white skin and jaundiced eyes who was about thirty and looked fifty. Still, Alys had to admit that Jed poled the boat—more like a raft with elevated sides, it had such a shallow draft—down the channels between hillocks of greenery with a skill and deftness she had to respect.
"Hope yer biz'ness with Old Enos don' take too long, missy," he said after a time. "Gettin' on near dark, an' things ain't too healthy in th' swamp past sundown."
"I'll keep that in mind. Just remember that you're being paid to take me out of the swamp as well."
"Oh, I don' be fergettin' t'at now, missy. You jes' 'member th' price, an' we do be okay."
Alys swatted an insect that was making persistent attempts to get at her neck despite her high collar. Jed had a good point; the growing gloom was made all the worse by the overarching trees hung with wet moss.
"Say, what be bringin' a hunter girl like you out to see Old Enos anyway? T'ere be some big monster you be killin'?"
Alys looked at him wryly.
"Ever hear of a dead swamp curse?"
Jed's eyes widened in surprise.
"Well, sure I have. Don' live in t'ese here parts ma whole life wit'out hearin' 'bout old Mama Vargas."
"What's that?" Alys's interest perked up. Perhaps all Jed knew was just a legend, but then again, there might have been more to it.
"Dorita Vargas. Th' old witch who lived in th' swamp 'bout two, t'ree hun'ned years 'go." Jed's eyes turned back to the swamp, and his powerful hands began to work the boat-pole faster. Maybe it was to avoid the dark, but Alys had a feeling that Jed was uncomfortable telling the whole story, and hoped to cut it short by arriving at their destination.
"A witch?" she prompted.
"T'at's right. Not like t'em tech-nikes you hunters got, no. No, Mama Vargas got th' real t'ing, th' real bad stuff she learnt outta t'em books she had up at her shack. Folks'd go out to her, an' she'd give 'em a charm or a love-spell, or a curse or whatever t'ey wanted, if t'ey paid her price. Time came, people got scared of her, and when t'ey got scared, t'ey got angry. So t'ey went out an' t'ey burnt her shack down."
A shudder ran through Jed.
"T'ey say t'at when Mama Vargas found out what t'ey'd done, she lay a terrible curse on t'em what dared attack her again. She say, anyone t'at raised a hand 'gainst her'd serve her spirit 'til th' world ended!"
That was creepy enough, but most ancient curses tended to be that way. If you cursed someone to have a boil on his left big toe, it usually didn't get remembered for long enough to become "ancient." What got to Alys was the "serve her spirit" part. Most curses promised a horrible and violent death, but this one sounded like it promised a horrible afterlife, which was considerably worse.
Not to mention, she thought cynically, considerably harder to prove effective. It was very obvious, in contrast, if you cursed someone to death and they didn't keel over.
"Did the curse bring the villagers back in line?" Alys again prompted Jed.
"Most of 'em it did," he continued reluctantly, "but t'ere were some t'at weren' scared of no spooks—or mebbe t'ey was more 'fraid of leavin' her 'live t'en t'ey were of th' curse. Five men, t'ey went out into th' swamp, an' t'ey hanged old Mama Vargas for bein' a witch."
"Vigilante justice," Alys sighed. Bog Edge was nominally part of Termi, at least as far as the law went. Though, she supposed, that might not have been true whenever the story had actually taken place—not to mention the problem of convincing the town authorities that someone needed hanging because they practiced black magic. The laughter probably would have been heard all the way back in Aiedo.
"T'at it was, but don' go thinkin' it got 'em nothin'. See, one week to th' day after th' hangin' t'ey hear screamin' out at Milt Faber's place. T'ey all go out to see what it was, and t'ey find no sign of Milt, but t'ey do find 'is wife an' kids..." He paused for dramatic effect. "Only t'ey'd had t'eir heads ripped clean off! Nobody never found Milt Faber 'gain, or th' heads—but th' same t'ing happened th' very next week to Brom Vigneaux. By t'at time, people got mighty scared it was Mama Vargas come back to make good on her curse, see. Winston Crow sent his family away 'cause he was 'fraid, an' Joey Burke up an' kilt himself. Winston disappeared, right enough, so's th' last of th' five, Petrie Smith, 'e goes an' digs up Mama Vargas's grave an' burns th' body. T'at put an' end to it, or so t'ey say. Guess even a dead witch couldn' do 'er magic iffin you burn 'er to cinders."
Jed shuffled his feet uncomfortably.
"Do a lot of people know this story?"
"Most near ever'one in Bog Edge do, I reckon."
"But presumably no one's been found missing a head around the village?"
Jed shook his obviously still present appendage vigorously.
"No, ma'am! Ain't nothin' like t'at, you kin be sure."
"So why would Enos Morgan say that the curse has returned, then? Unless he meant something completely different?"
"T'at's th' only curse I know 'bout, but let me tell you, missy, th' swamp's a queer place. Strange t'ings go on out here. I say it'd be a blessin' if t'is here planet gets just a little hotter an' dries the whole place up!" He paused as if thinking, then freed up one hand and scratched his chin through his scraggly whiskers. "'Course, if t'at happens I'll be needin' me a new line of work, but still an' all...Oh! Looks like we be here."
He pointed through the gathering darkness and mist towards two points of light in the distance. In the marsh, strange glows from luminous gases were not uncommon, but Alys soon realized that Jed was right. The light came from two lanterns hung on the porch of a wooden cabin held above the waterline on six sturdy posts. The building looked old and weatherbeaten, and Alys wondered how long it took for the wood to succumb to water and rot.
No, much as she disliked the blazing sun of Motavia's deserts, Alys vastly preferred it to this grim place which seemed to be bloated until bursting with unwholesome life.
Jed poled the boat up to the foot of the cabin, where stairs led down from the porch to form a makeshift landing. Jed tied up his boat.
"Looks like we're here."
"Something's wrong," Alys said. "Enos was expecting a hunter, and urgently, and the lamps are lit to guide travelers to the house, but I don't see any other boat here."
"T'at's weird, all right. Old Enos'd go off in the swamp, sure 'nuff, but not wit'out blowin' out t'em lights, 'cause of fire an' all." Jed was trembling a bit, and Alys couldn't blame him. Even she was getting a bit unsettled.
Well, she decided, no point in staying here whimpering. She drew her slashers, twin blade weapons that she could hurl to slash up multiple enemies (hence the name) and have return to her hands. In the enclosed space of the cabin, though, she wouldn't have the room to throw them, so she left the blades in their folded position—which enabled her to use them as daggers. Deftly, she climbed from the boat to the stairs and went up to the porch. Alys was somewhat surprised when Jed followed her, clutching his boat-pole like a quarterstaff.
"You're coming along?"
"Well, if t'ere is somet'ing wrong, I don' wanna be out here alone. Safest place, I guess, be where you an' yer blades be, missy."
"Just stay back and don't get in my way," Alys told him firmly. "If I have to make a fast move to save both our necks, I don't want to run into you halfway through it."
His head bobbed up and down rapidly, his complexion looking even unhealthier in the lamp-flames than it had in the sunlight in Bog Edge.
"You kin be sure of t'at, missy."
"Jed, can you swim?"
"Yes. Why d'you ask?"
"Because if you call me 'missy' again, I'm going to throw you into the water."
Alys went up to the door, realizing that her little spurt of temper had driven the nervousness to the back of her mind. There was still tension, but not fear as she opened the door.
The fear came when she saw the headless body, clad in a long robe and overtunic, sprawled in the middle of the floor.
The cabin only had one room, she noted. There was a kitchen for cooking, a bed in the back, partially curtained off, and a table for sitting, eating, and entertaining guests in the front corner. Only, the place was a wreck. The dead man had not died easily. The table was tipped over, as was a chair and a drying-rack for herbs. Another chair was smashed to flinders. A bookcase had been knocked down, spilling bound volumes and manuscripts onto the floor; several had been torn underfoot and pages scattered free. The bedcurtain was half torn down while there was broken crockery near the kitchen. The low ceiling implied an attic, but there didn't seem to be a ladder anywhere.
"T'at's Old Enos!" Jed exclaimed. "T'em be his robes, right enough!"
"It looks like the curse really did get him," Alys murmured, but even as she said it, something still seemed off. The scene wasn't what it appeared, she was sure of it.
After a fight like this, resulting in a violent decapitation, she'd expect to be in an abbatoir. Instead, there wasn't the slightest hint of blood. No pools, no splashes, not even the smell of it.
Alys moved forward and slowly knelt by the body. Since the only light came from another lamp, hanging from a ceiling hook, she hadn't been able to clearly see the second flaw from the door, but at close range it was obvious. While the robe covered most of the body, it left the hands exposed—hands with gray-green flesh, partially decayed, with cracked and jagged nails. Not the hands of a man who'd sent a letter transmission from Termi to the Guild two days ago, not even if he'd been killed immediately afterwards and carried out to the cabin.
"Jed, something's wro—" she began, but the blow to the back of her head cut Alys off in mid-sentence.
"Hee hee hee!" the boatman cackled. "Looks like ma boy got Old Enos good! Now I jest gotta toss you in the water, missy, an' t'en t'ere won' be no one left to say what I kin do!"
Jed could have been forgiven for thinking Alys was unconscious. He'd taken her by surprise, and the blow had been good and hard. The only problem was, since the swamp was a hostile environment Alys had put on her field gear. The sturdy leather crown-style helmet she wore was hidden in back under her long hair, and it rather than her skull had absorbed much of the impact.
The blow had knocked her forward, but even as it did she braced her left forearm on the floor, turned over, and snapped off a backhand throw with the slasher in her right hand. With the blades closed, it flew straight like a knife and buried itself in the boatman's abdomen. With a choking gasp he staggered back against the wall, the pole dropping from his grasp, and slumped to the floor.
"Looks like you done got me, t'en, hunter," he forced out, his eyes still burning with a malice Alys had believed was only the ignorance and resentment typical of a degenerate population. "But I'll git you too! Ma boys are on the way, an' t'ey'll hunt you down no matter how long t'ey have to hunt!"
Then, as if the effort had drained the already-fading life from his body, Jed collapsed to the plank floor, eyes still wide in death.
"His boys," Alys groused, getting to her feet. "Don't tell me I have to deal with some backwoods clan of cutthroats."
She pulled her slasher free of the dead man, but spun when she heard the creak of hinges. The attic trapdoor had been in the back corner over the bed, explaining the lack of a ladder, and a man lowered himself down.
"Nothing like that, I'm afraid," he said in a thin voice that showed no trace of the Bog Edge accent. He was old, balding, and white-bearded, and wore only a sleeveless white undertunic and knee-leggings, the sort of underclothes one wore under a—
Alys glanced at the headless corpse.
"Yes, that's right," the man said. "I put my robe on it so whomever sent it after me would think it was me. Of course, I had to cut the head off so it would match that old story, and believe you me I will never be using that saw again, but all in all I'd say my little ruse worked fairly well."
"You would be Enos Morgan?"
"The same! And you're the hunter from the Guild." He rubbed his hands together eagerly. Like the man generally they were thin but showed wiry strength, no surprise given that he survived a life of exploring and living in the marsh. "I thought cash in advance would get me some help. What's your name, miss?"
"The Alys Brangwin?" The pop-eyed stare cost him a bit in Alys's estimation, but not using her stupid nickname won most of it back. "Looks like my meseta spoke louder than I thought. Which is good, because you're in a world of trouble right now but I think we may be able to get you out of it."
"I appreciate that. Do we have time for you to explain just what the heck is going on, or do we have to get rid of the current crisis—whatever it is—first?"
"It's all one and the same," he told her. "But tell me, if you had to fight four enemies at once, where would you want to do it?"
"Open ground," Alys answered immediately, "where I could use my slashers to hit them all with each throw."
"And if that wouldn't work? You'd have to fight them close-up?"
"Somewhere narrow, where they could only come at me one at a time and the ones in front would provide cover so the ones in back couldn't use long-range weapons or techniques on me."
"In that case, looks like we'd better be heading for the old cemetery. I'll explain on the way."
They took Jed's boat, Enos poling it while Alys got the job of holding a lantern in the bow. On the way, Enos finally filled in the blanks.
"I'm sorry my message didn't give you much to go on, but I needed help badly and I didn't think I'd get it if I came out and said that I thought zombies would be after me."
"You might have trouble getting it now."
"I don't need it now—you do!" Enos said with a cackle. "Jed set them on you before he died, and they'll keep on coming until they get you or something gets them. Since you killed him before he could tell I wasn't really dead, though, I figure I owe you. Plus, we get them now, they won't ever be coming back."
"So what exactly are these zombies?"
"Have you heard of an old witch called Mama Vargas who lived in this area centuries ago?"
Alys gave him an incredulous look.
"You can't be serious."
Enos looked curiously at the hunter.
"I don't understand. It's quite true."
Alys shook her head. "No, that's not what I mean." She related the story that Jed Parker had told her on the way out to Enos's cabin. The old man nodded along as she summed up the details.
"Well, I can see why you were surprised. Jed must have been having a game with you. Those details are precisely the way I myself heard the story, and which I believe did take place. Only, there were additional facts the villagers never knew."
"I see," Alys said noncommitally.
"She left a book behind, a combination diary and grimoire. I happened across it twenty years ago in what must have been the ruins of her shack, mouldering and charred at the edges. It told some of the story, and gave at least one of the spells she used to effect her curse—the one to control the walking dead, by the way."
"Apparently there were two parts to it. The first was to curse the five men to rise after death as ghouls, mindless risen corpses that could be controlled by the proper magic. That didn't actually kill anyone, you see—just...prepared them for what came later. The second and more difficult spell was for her to rise after her own death as a kind of intangible spirit, keeping her own will. The way it seems to me is, each week she was able to gain enough power to go out, kill one of them men, and then control their bodies to wreak further havoc. Then, once she'd given her little object lesson to the villagers, the zombie would march off to the swamp to await further instructions."
"Who knows what a diseased mind might come up with?" He laughed eerily, then said, "Why, I didn't burn that old book, after all. Maybe my own mind's not too steady!"
"It had better be, if there really are zombies."
"Oh, yes. Well, to finish the story, burning Mama Vargas's body was the right thing to do, because it destroyed her wight. After that, though, the zombie curse remained active. When the last man died in turn, he too would have risen up as the walking dead. Only at that time, there was no one to give him any orders. See, these weren't zombies that go out preying on the living; these ghouls are slaves, the animated dead meant to follow the instructions of their master. Being undead, they endured for the passing centuries, untouched by the hand of time. You know, I like that phrase."
Alys restrained herself, with some effort, from offering her opinion.
"So basically," she concluded, "there have been five undead monsters out there in the swamp, waiting for someone to come along with the right magic so the caster could tell them whose heads to rip off?"
"Exactly! Except the head part; I think that was just something Mama Vargas's lich ordered them to do because it was generally creepy."
"So why did you cut the head off the zombie that you killed?"
"I figured whomever had sent it knew the story and expected it to be that way."
"That makes sense. So how did Jed Parker get to be the one who gave the orders?"
Enos blinked, as if surprised she would ask.
"He stole Mama Vargas's book from me, of course."
"Then why didn't you at least mention that in the letter transmission?"
"Well, I didn't know it was him, then. I came back to my cabin after a hunting trip into the marsh and found that someone had been there in my absence. Oh, they covered it up well enough, but when a man lives alone in a place for four decades, he comes to know it to the point that he can see a speck of dust's been disturbed. Only one thing was missing—Mama Vargas's old book. I'd told a couple of people about it, and who knew whom they'd told in turn, so I had no idea who the thief was. I did know there was only one thing that would make it worth stealing; the zombie-control spell was the only one still intact, thanks to the fire and the weather. I also knew that if anyone was going to be killed, I'd be first on the list, to cover the killer's tracks."
"So you went to Termi and sent for a hunter, to protect yourself and find the thief. Only, Jed got the spell working and sent that first zombie after you before I took the job." Thinking of the headless corpse's hands, Alys didn't doubt her client's story of the walking dead.
"Yes, yes—but I was ready for it. I hadn't read that old book back and forward without learning a few tricks, especially when put together with some of the other lore I'd collected, and one of those is how to lay those things to rest forever. Blades won't do it; even if you cut them to bits the pieces will move independently and eventually just join back together. There's only three ways to break the spell that animates them."
"The first way is fire, only it won't work. Those things have been in the swamp for hundreds of years; you'd have to bake them dry for a week before they'd catch flame."
That was too bad, because Alys knew techniques which could conjure up fire. It would have been an easy win.
"The second method is by use of an herbal concoction—dried yaul flower, ground vikkas root, and salt in equal measures. It has to be thrown into the zombie's eyes, which is what I did to the one in the cabin. Unfortunately, while I had a small supply of this mixture made up in preparation for this attack, I didn't have success using it until the third try. You saw the damage we caused while struggling. So, I only have one dose of it to offer."
"Leaving us with a third and hopefully feasible method."
"Oh, it's possible, but it'll take doing. I'd never pull it off, not against four. Maybe not even against one. You have to impale them through either the brain or heart with a wooden or silver weapon."
"I thought that was how you got rid of vampires."
"I'm only repeating what I've read in Mama Vargas's journal."
"Speaking of which, what about Jed? Do we need to worry about him coming back as a spirit the way she did?"
"No, that spell was not complete; like I said, the pages were too damaged by fire and rot."
He said it with faint regret, and Alys suspected that the old man had done a few researches in that direction. Eternal life, even of a partial and spiritual nature, could be a potent lure. Still, it wasn't her problem, especially since his attempts had failed.
"Well, getting back to the situation at hand, since I'm fresh out of silver, I need a few wooden stakes. I suppose I could carve a point into the end of that pole, unless that bundle you grabbed from the cabin contains something better."
"That it does. Go on and take a look."
Still holding the lantern in one hand, Alys crouched and unwrapped the cloth-bound package Enos had brought from his cabin.
"You've got to be kidding."
It was an Alis-Sword, a toy souvenir replica of the blade supposedly used by Alis Landale in her battles. They were popular among the tourists in Termi, who bought them for their children.
On the other hand, Alys realized, it was shaped and balanced like a weapon, so it would be easier to fight with than a makeshift stake or spear. Someone, presumably Enos, had hacked at the normally rounded tip to make a fairly sharp point. It would do. This would be one story, though, that she wouldn't be eager to share with anyone.
Alys also found a pouch containing a tart-smelling powder which she figured was the herbal mixture, a guess Enos soon verified. She hooked it to her belt and was just about to resume her perch in the bow when the boat gave a sudden lurch and she had to fight to retain her balance. A moment later, a hand that, like that of the dead zombie's flesh, was somehow decaying and yet whole all at once, reached up and fastened long fingers on the edge of the boat.
As Enos shifted weight to keep the boat from overbalancing under the additional load of the monster, Alys adjusted her grip on the wooden sword's hilt and waited. Another hand appeared, and then a face rose into view, a hideous, half-rotted face with leering yellow eyes. Before it could attempt to come aboard and actually fight, the hunter thrust hard from the shoulder. The sword's point punched through undead flesh and bone with a sickly sound like an overripe melon bursting, nearly piercing the skull through.
It seemed as if Old Enos's memory of the swamp witch's book was correct. The creature's grip on the boat grew limp, and it slipped back into the water under its own weight. Alys had to hold on tightly to keep the sword from being pulled in with the ghoul; at last it tugged free of flesh and bone.
"That's two down," she said matter-of-factly. The incident, though, had unnerved her more than she cared to admit. The zombie had pursued Alys through the swamp, underwater, not concerned with the environmental hazards or the population of natural, living monsters. Only its need to climb into the boat to reach her had put it in a vulnerable position, and even that had almost turned bad.
If it had managed to overbalance the boat with its weight, Alys was sure she'd have had no chance against an enemy to whom the darkness of the black, murky water and the need to breathe were both irrelevant.
Well, that's all the more reason to fight where I want to. If the battle's going to happen sooner or later, then I'm going to pick the terms as best I can.
With that, the hunter stifled her fears as best she could and returned to the bow. She and Enos took up their respective positions again, and the old man resumed poling the boat, deftly avoiding sandbars and tangles of foliage that could have left them temporarily stranded and at the mercy of their undead stalkers. Alys found his skill, especially given the darkness and the swirling mist, quite impressive.
They reached the cemetery not long after the zombie's attack; it was set on a rounded hillock that seemed to rise out of the swamp. To Alys's left and right as they approached, she saw stone blocks, some plain and some ornamental, thrusting out of the water or just beneath the surface, while further on she noticed more of them set on dry land. Sarcophagi, she realized, above-ground graves.
"The ground hereabouts is too wet for burying; even where it isn't mud you'll hit water after a couple of feet. At first, the people of Bog Edge built above-ground tombs here on this high ground, but around a hundred years ago, an earthquake made a stream change its course and part of the cemetery flooded. The village had to move a couple of miles west, too. Then they gave it up and started just sending bodies to Termi for burial."
"So long as these graves don't start opening up, I'm happy."
The old man pulled the boat up on shore with Alys's aid, there being no convenient way to tie it up. As they did, Alys could see the three hulking shapes lurch out of the water, splashing steadily, with purpose, towards the shore. It was easy to hear the sounds of their passage, for none made any other noise, neither speech nor whispers nor the gruesome moaning so often associated with ghosts and spirits in campfire tales.
But then, Alys thought as they ran up the hill towards the looming outlines of large family mausoleums, these weren't ghosts or spirits. They were puppets, animated by magic, that happened to be made from the risen dead. She did not know whether the soul of each dead man was trapped within its undead shell or whether it had moved on at death, but in either case it was not the dead man's will that drove the corpse on.
She could tell at once why Enos had brought her to the old cemetery. At its highest point were the three mausoleums, and the high walls of two, labeled Smith and Daventry in chiseled letters above their doors, made a corridor leading to the face of the third, Cottner. The zombies would have to advance down the stone-sided path to reach their target, and it was too narrow for them to pass more than one at a time without seriously impeding each other's progress. Maybe it wasn't perfect, given the fog and darkness, the soft ground and grass slick with mist-dew that would affect her footing, but under the circumstances it was as good a place to fight as she could hope for.
Alys handed the lantern to Old Enos, checked to see she still had his herbal mix at her belt where she'd secured it, and took up the wooden sword with a two-handed grip, prepared to face her enemy.
She didn't have long to wait.
Alys didn't understand the process, by what mystic senses the undead creatures could locate her or how Jed had transmitted his orders to them. She knew, though, that it worked. All three figures staggered towards her from the far end of the path between the tombs, claws outstretched to rend. Though each looked different in the specifics, they all shared certain features: ragged clothes and gray-green skin dripping with water, as if each had been allowed to decay just so far and then the natural process had been unaccountably arrested. They had the same blank stare, the same slack-jawed look.
This was when the hunter made her first mistake. The ghouls looked slow and ungainly, shambling towards her in a parody of human movement, but they were not slow. Alys's first defense was badly mistimed and a zombie's claws tore through her upper sleeve, lightly gouging the flesh beneath. The tears in her left arm burned painfully; Alys knew she should probably have them treated with a poison antidote to take care of any toxins carried by the putrid water the corpse had been soaking in.
Assuming, she thought as she dodged a swipe at her head, that she got out of this alive.
Alys used her wooden sword to block another lunging swipe, and it made the weapon vibrate in her hands. It was a reminder of the weapon's weakness; it was not meant for use in actual combat and might break. She also, though, heard the snap of bone from the creature's forearm, confirming what she'd suspected when she'd killed the one on the boat: the zombies' skeletons were unusually brittle.
Probably just makes them easier to dismember, so someone with a blade soon gets swarmed under by the pieces, she reasoned, but it also makes them more vulnerable to this—
She took her chance, sidestepped towards the broken arm, which no doubt was already healing via some magical process, and thrust for the chest. The sword's point pierced the breastbone and transfixed the heart, impaling the monster.
That was when the second surprise came. A living person tends to take their time about dying, but the instant its heart was punctured, the ghoul went from animated monster to dead weight. There was no slow sagging as muscles weakened, no gradually going limp, just nearly two hundred pounds of mass caught on the end of her sword. As the corpse fell, it ripped the weapon from her hands, and the other ghouls advanced on her.
Alys fell back as the second one attacked, her fingers scrabbling for the herbal mix at her belt. Off-balance, she shook open the pouch and flung the contents while the zombie lunged with both hands outstretched for her throat.
Whatever Enos's faults may have been—such as keeping that blasted book!—he knew what he was talking about when it came to these creatures. The animation faded from the thing at once, and its body finished its lunge not by seizing Alys by the neck but by crashing into her, its body carried forward by momentum. It knocked her down; she couldn't keep her footing on the wet grass and she ended up pinned underneath the corpse.
Cursing mentally—out loud would have been a waste of breath—she wrestled her way free of the fallen body, just barely getting loose before the last zombie reached her. Without an effective weapon, she knew she was in trouble; her throbbing arm testified to that. Alys retreated back towards Enos and pulled out her twin slashers, snapping the blades open.
"Those won't kill it!" the old man cried.
"They won't have to," Alys said grimly and threw both blades low. The whirling cutters bit into the advancing zombie's legs at knee height. One did what she'd hoped, sliced through brittle bone and flesh to sever the shin and foot from the leg, making the zombie topple.
Despite the fearful wound, the ghoul made no sound, but continued to crawl forward towards Alys with the same implacable determination it had displayed before. Verifying Enos's words, the severed limb flopped along horribly behind it, as if trying to catch up.
Alys did not hesitate at the gruesome spectacle, though. Catching the returning slashers and re-sheathing them, she took two quick steps and jumped. She easily cleared the fallen monster, managed to keep her footing though her boot skidded on the grass, and ran forward to the corpse of the first zombie. With the last one slowed by its missing limb, she had plenty of time to rip the Alis-Sword free.
Then she drove the blade straight down through the final ghoul's skull, pinning its head to the ground.
"So much for that curse," Alys said, much more lightly than she felt. The knowledge that the creatures were no longer pursuing her with the tireless implacability of the dead was like a weight lifted from her back, though. In that fleeting moment, when the usually pragmatic hunter's thoughts were on something other than objectives to be accomplished or rewards to be earned, she caught sight of the wooden sword and she remembered her earlier words to Denton.
For just an instant, the moonlight struck through a gap in the mist and the white wood of the Alis-Sword seemed to glow silver-bright.
Then the moment passed and Alys looked back at the old man.
"Well, the zombies are gone, so even if someone else finds what Jed did with the journal it won't matter because there's nothing left to control. Jed himself is dead, too; I'll report the circumstances to Marshal Denton, so I'd say this job is finished.. Which just leaves the small matter of five thousand meseta."