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And now, the story…
He could have let us keep our horses,” said Holst, a long, shaggy lynx of a man. He and his friend had hiked some twenty miles that day and were not yet home. “Five years we fought for him.”
“Be glad the Baron let you keep your sword and shield,” said Decker. If Holst was a lynx, Decker was a raccoon: shorter, stockier, but quick and clever. “I expected him to take back everything but our small pants. Makes me glad I stole a few bowstrings. They might be good for fishing.”
“Sword,” Holst scoffed. He looked from the deep wagon furrows of the worn road to the wild meadows that surrounded the two ex-soldiers. “At least I could train a horse to pull a plow.”
Decker shook his head. He looked past the meadows to the forest’s edge. He and his friend had lived their whole lives west of those woods. Even the war against Volsapta had taken them south. What might he find in those woods? What lay beyond them?
“Finally,” said Holst, jarring Decker from his reverie. The tall man pointed past the road’s curve and into the late afternoon sun at a pile of stones that stood higher than a man.
“Undol’s Cairn.” Decker smiled. “We might reach Bierk’s before dark.”
Bolstered by the familiar sight, the two pushed their tired legs through the afternoon and past sunset. The rising full moon saw them reach the two-story wood-and-stone building, with its sign that bore the crossed turkey legs of Bierk’s Inn. Inside, a raucous array of soldiers returning from the war drew the local farmers and merchants into laughter and song. Decker and Holst wedged themselves into seats at one of the long bench tables. Too late for a spot near the fire, but a room full of camaraderie was more than warm enough. The two held up coins to show that they could pay, and a tavern boy brought them plates of roast pork and potatoes while a girl brought them beer.
“We need two beds,” said Holst to the boy, then after getting no reply, to the girl.
“No beds left,” she said. “It’s the floor or the stables.”
“The floor,” said Decker.
A song broke out, a ribald number about the Baron’s daughter sneaking out to ‘comfort’ soldiers during the Siege of Broken Swords. Too busy eating to sing, Decker and Holst listened through the three verses they knew and two others they had never heard. When the song ended, Holst washed down a mouthful of potato and said to Decker, “Do you think she really did that?”
“You don’t think there could be any truth in it? That maybe she was once seen sneaking out of the tent of her lover, who might have been a castle guard, pressed into defense against the siege?”
“I’m more interested in what lies beyond those woods.”
“East, you mean? More woods, I suppose.”
“Come on, Holst. You can’t tell me you’re serious about going back to the farms.”
“The war is over. It’s time to go home.”
“Home! Neither of us has anything waiting for him. Or anyone.”
Holst said nothing, clenched his jaw and fists.
“Five years we were gone,” said Decker in a soothing tone. “Of course she found someone. At least Sheila was good enough to send a letter. I found out about Kara from a traveling merchant.”
“All I know is farming and war. And the war is over.”
“So who says you have to go home? Go home and the Baron can call you again.” Decker thumped his fist on the table. “Is that what you want? To rebuild your life only to offer it to the Baron once more?”
Holst slammed down the rest of his beer and shook his empty cup to call for another.
“You and I have seen more of the world in the last five years than we saw in the sixteen before them,” said Decker. “Let’s see some that isn’t covered in blood.”
“And live on tree bark?”
“The bark of some trees is delicious,” said a booming, jovial voice behind them, “if you know how to ask for it.”
Decker and Holst turned to see a tall, full-bellied man who seemed to overflow with vitality despite having seen more summers than Decker and Holst combined. Around the man’s neck was the deer antler pendant of a priest of Halstaffur, the Green Lord.
“I hight Kanack,” he said and other men squeezed down so the priest could sit beside Decker and Holst. “If you’ve a mind to travel East, I can promise you full bellies, true paths, and all the knowledge of the land you could wish for. In return, I ask only for protection from bandits on my way home.”
“I’m Decker. This is Holst. And I hope you can offer better food than bark.”
Kanack laughed. “Not to diminish our host’s fine pork, but the flesh of a willing kill tastes best.”
“Willing?” asked Holst.
“Come with me and you’ll see.”
“A moment,” said Decker. He and Holst leaned close and spoke in the battlefield cant they learned during the war.
Target of opportunity, said Decker.
Long mission, said Holst.
Change of tactics. No more retreating.
Tactical objective. Then reassess.
Holst nodded. Decker switched back to the common tongue and said to the priest, “You have a bargain. When do we leave?”
“First light is the most auspicious in the eyes of the Green Lord. Always begin ventures at first light.”
When that first light came, the three shared a final breakfast at Bierk’s. As they finished, a serving girl offered them food for the road, but Kanack declined. “My thanks to you and your master, but save your stores for those in need. The Green Lord shall provision us.”
The trio set out into the forest along a footpath between tall, ebon trees with high branches and thin, narrow leaves that Holst knew could stitch closed a wound. Around noon the priest stopped to kneel in prayer, and when he arose he said, “Bide here a moment.”
A few minutes later Kanack returned with an armful of pears and two handkerchiefs loaded with nuts and berries. He passed shares to the two friends. “This should tide us until we stop for the night.”
They nibbled as they continued along the path, which by mid-afternoon met what was once a larger road. Needle leaves filled what the rains had left of the wagon furrows, and the road itself was hardly smoother than the path. Here and there along the way shoots from trees had broken through and promised to reclaim the terrain for the forest.
“The war?” asked Holst.
Decker nodded. “The Baron will have to get this repaired before trade can come through again.”
“He will pay a dear cost,” said Kanack. “The forest wants this land back, and will not yield it lightly.”
Rough as the road was, it served to carry them East. Toward mid-afternoon the priest left the road and returned with water for their skins.
That evening the trio set camp in the disused road. While Decker and Holst built a fire, Kanack used one of Decker’s bowstrings to arrange three simple snares a scant dozen paces away, without so much as a layer of dirt to conceal them. He returned to the fire to pray. Before full dark rose, Decker and Holst watched in amazement as three rabbits hopped straight into those snares and death.
“They didn’t even twitch a cautious nose,” said Decker.
“Praise the Green Lord, I guess,” said Holst.
Kanack smiled, thanked the rabbits for their sacrifice, and roasted them on spits with potatoes and carrots he had found somewhere when Decker and Holst were not watching.
The two friends had to agree that willing food tasted exquisite.
Three days they traveled this way, twice crossing the river Yamhill along stone bridges that had held steady despite the road’s surrender. On the third night, over a dinner of wild turkey, Kanack was regaling his companions with the tale of How the Green Lord Chose the Food Animals when Decker shushed him.
“Did you hear that?”
The companions strained to hear above the crackling fire.
“Three of them, I think,” said Holst, pretending to stretch but reaching for his sword. “Stealthy. Bandits?”
“Maybe.” Decker slid one hand along the dirt toward his own weapon.
Kanack looked back for forth. He mumbled, “What should I do?”
“Stay down,” said Holst.
“Hope they don’t have bows,” added Decker.
A shriek split the night. Three chalky white humanoids ran into the firelight, filling the air with the smell of putrefying flesh. Their skin hung loose, covered in breaks and flakes. Dirt brown hair matted to their heads in clumps. The nails on their hands and feet, like their gnashing teeth, swelled purple as bruises. Their bloodshot eyes stretched as wide as their cracked lids allowed.
Decker and Holst dove for their shields and clambered to their feet. With a howl, one of the monstrosities flung itself at Holst. He edged his shield between them, but the force of the leap carried them both to the ground. Its hands beat at the shield, while Holst brought both arms in to keep it at bay, his broadsword dangling useless near his shoulder, but still in his grip.
Decker bellowed for attention and squared off against the other two. They circled, trying to flank him, but at least the priest was safe. Decker let loose a battle cry and leapt at one of the creatures, swinging his blade with all his might. The thing instinctively raised one arm to ward off the blow, but its flesh was no match for steel. It howled in pain as its mangled stump bled hot, black ichor.
Holst’s foe steadied itself on peeling knees and yanked the interposing shield out of the way. Holst turned with the movement and brought the pommel of his sword into the side of the thing’s head with all the force he could muster. The creature staggered and fell off of him. Holst kicked it in the ribs as he regained his feet, then thrust his sword through its chest, meeting less resistance than a man’s chest should provide. Its body convulsed as its ichor bubbled forth and stained the withdrawing blade.
The one-armed thing gave a discordant cry and ran for the trees. The remaining unharmed creature hesitated. Decker raised his sword. The creature followed its leader into the woods, howling frustration as it ran.
“What,” asked Holst as he struggled to breath the fetid air, “were those?”
“In our lore, they are called Unfortunates,” said Kanack, who knelt behind them holding a burning log in one trembling hand. “Those poor men have been cursed by a priest of Kulath, The Pestilence.” He stood, said a prayer, then set fire to the body of the one and the hand of the other. Kanack then said a prayer over Holst, Decker, and then himself, to ward away the curse. When he finished, the three of them sat on the other side of the fire from the smoldering remains, two cleaning their swords while the other continued to speak. “Somehow the foul priest tricked those men into consuming human flesh and brought the Curse of Valassa on them. It poisons the body and mind, reducing the victim to little more than a diseased animal who craves human flesh.” Kanack spat. “One of the worst fates that can befall the living.”
“What kind of person could do this?” Holst clutched the air in tight fists until his muscles shook. “Who would serve such a god?”
“Someone who has lost much.” Kanack shook his head slowly. “Only a man who has come to hate the whole world turns to the Pestilence.”
“Can they be saved?” said Decker, his narrowed eyes the only sign of his fury.
“If the priest of the Pestilence could be slain or driven off, I could restore any lands and people he has cursed.”
“Then the man I killed…” began Holst, but his voice trailed away.
“You did him a favor, lad, and saved all our lives doing it. We can only hope to save the others.” Kanack looked up at the friends, his eyes rimmed in tears. “Will you both forgive me if I pray that they were travelers? My village is the closest to here…”
By mid-morning the next day, the trio saw the outskirts of a good-sized village two turns down the road ahead of them. “Wait,” said Kanack. “We should have seen outriders by now.”
“Stay here,” said Decker. “We’ll take a look.”
“They’re my people.”
“You make more noise than a wagon.”
“You don’t know what to look for.”
“It’s his home,” said Holst to Decker. “What would you do?”
“Fine, but try not to step on every twig. At least miss a few of them.”
They left the road and approached through the trees, Decker grinding his teeth at every crunch and crack of his companions’ feet. He had chosen not to press his point when he remembered that Holst’s step was not much lighter than the priest’s. Still, as the three approached the village the only response came from fleeing birds, squirrels, and an indignant fox. The village itself must have been built here for strategic reasons, not practical. Just far enough from the river to be hidden among the trees, but also far enough to require a well. Not enough space cleared for much farming or many livestock, it must have relied upon trade. But without the river alongside it, most of their business had to have come down this … road.
Holst jabbed Decker in the ribs with his elbow, just as Decker reached the same conclusion. They both looked at the priest, but Kanack stared at the ground.
“Cracked,” he said. “Dry. And can you smell that?”
The two friends sniffed the air, then wrinkled their faces in repulsion.
“Disease. It permeates the very air. Thank Halstaffur that we met those poor Unfortunates on the road, for they led me to seek His blessing against disease for us. Else we’d all be sick right now.”
“Does this mean–”
“That the whole village suffers from the Curse of Valassa? I’m afraid it does.” Kanack hung his head. “May the Green Lord forgive me for leaving them.”
“Why did you?” said Holst.
“Tell us later,” said Decker. “How do we find the foul priest?”
“They were good people. So many, so many. And children.” Kanack fell to his knees and wept.
“Later!” Decker slapped Kanack hard across the face. Only the man’s weight kept him from falling. “How do we find the priest?”
“The priest?” Kanack touched his reddening cheek. “If the curse is in the ground and air, the priest of the Pestilence must have built an altar nearby. Try the meeting hall, the large building in the center of town. It’s the only one that would hold all the … all the villagers.”
Kanack began to tremble in tears again. Decker raised his hand to restore the priest’s focus, but Holst grabbed Decker’s wrist.
“What about the altar?” asked Holst in the voice he used to soothe a horse. “Should we destroy it too?”
“No.” The priest blinked rapidly, but sounded more himself. “No, if you desecrate the altar you would insult the Pestilence, which would make matters worse.” Kanack drew a steadying breath. “There are proper ways to de-sanctify and dismantle the altar. Leave that part to me.”
“But killing the priest won’t insult his god?” said Decker in the voice he used to question orders. This time that tone did not get him in trouble. In fact, it seemed to help restore the priest from his grief.
“No. The Pestilence sees each priest as a plague, and we fight His priests as we fight His plagues. Any given plague eventually ends, but others always spring up. This is the natural order of things. But to desecrate an altar is to go beyond the natural order and show disrespect for the god Himself.”
“Will the Unfortunates defend the priest?” asked Holst.
“He can call them to do so, but if you go by day you will avoid most of them. While the Unfortunates can bear the sun, they prefer the night.”
“What other defenses might the priest have?”
“I cannot say for certain,” said Kanack, rising to his feet. “But he will be surrounded by disease. The Pestilence protects His priests from disease, allowing them to carry many about their persons. Do not trust any food or drink but what you carry with you, and not even that once you come near the altar. Above all, do not touch the priest with bare flesh. Your limbs might begin to rot.”
“Are you going to argue about not coming?” asked Decker.
Kanack looked down, sighed, and met Decker’s eyes with a power the young ex-farmer could not fathom. “I must find my altar and restore it. Only then can I begin to set things right.”
Near the edge of the town proper, they parted ways: Kanack went north toward where the Green Lord’s altar once stood, and Decker and Holst continued straight toward the center of town. All three wore moistened kerchiefs tied to cover their noses and mouths. They could not ward off the town’s stench, but the kerchiefs gave them small relief. Decker and Holst wore their leather gloves as well, uncomfortable under the noon sun but a barrier between them and disease.
The town was laid out in three rings. Innermost were the most public buildings: the meeting hall, the marketplace, and the tavern. Around them wove the businesses: blacksmiths, wheelwrights, carpenters, stables, stonemasons, potters and others. Outlying were the farmers and those who needed more of the land they had cleared. At least, the town had lived this way in Kanack’s recollections to Decker and Holst. The two could barely recognize Kanack’s landmarks as they made their way. Dead earth farms where not even weeds grew. Some houses had rotted and collapsed while others had been shuttered tight.
As they passed near a sealed house on their right, Holst grabbed Decker’s shoulder. “Slow. Quiet. Step away.”
“What?” Decker whispered.
“Then trust me.” Holst pointed at the shuttered house. “Occupied.”
Decker winced at the crunch of dried weeds underfoot as the two crept away from the house and past a decrepit fence. Decker crouched and looked over the ground, but at first he could see could see no sign of tracks. Then his eyes clicked recognition into a touch of slime around some white flakes. The Unfortunates left a little bit of themselves behind with every step. Decker’s stomach clenched a warning and he had time enough to turn and raise his kerchief before he vomited up what remained of his breakfast.
“Decker?” Holst drew his broadsword and stood guard.
“I’m all right.”
“Good. I’ve spotted the meeting hall.” Holst pointed with his blade.
Decker wiped his mouth on the back of his sleeve, adjusted his kerchief, and righted himself. Past more houses, or whatever those buildings were, Decker could see something shaped like a barn, but two or three times as wide. It had many windows, some high enough to indicate a second story, but all were closed tight. He drew his sword, and both men unslung and readied their shields.
Decker led the way now, avoiding the shuttered houses and any building that looked like it had more than its share of slimy footprints. Soon the two reached the center of town. The marketplace had fallen into ruins, but the tavern looked well-used. A thick layer of slime congealed on its front step. Decker pointed, Holst nodded, and the two gave it a wide berth.
They passed the main well, a strong stone design in good repair. Even its winch and bucket looked unspoiled. The sweet odor of clean water gave Decker and Holst relief from the constant noisome stench.
“Could the water be pure?” asked Decker. “No slime around the well. Maybe the Unfortunates avoid it.”
“Kanack said they were cursed by something they ate, not something they drank.”
The mid-day sun beat down without relent.
“I’ve been parched since I surrendered my breakfast.”
“My mouth is as dry as the dirt around here.” Holst cranked the winch. It whined from disuse, but brought up a bucket of clear water and a ladle.
The dirt, thought Decker. Something about the dirt.
Holst lifted the ladle, brought it to his lips.
Decker knocked the ladle out of Holst’s grasp. It bounced down the wet stone inside the well before splashing into the water below. “The dirt,” he said. “The ground around here is this dry, but the well is fresh?”
Holst blinked, shook his head, then threw the bucket down the well. He steadied himself on the stone rim. “I could think only of how good the water would taste.”
“Come on,” said Decker, and the two approached the meeting hall. The only entrance was a set of double doors, each standing fifteen feet high and half as broad. The worn paint that covered them, like the rest of the building, had once been white, but had now faded to a sickly yellow.
“If we open those doors and the priest calls for reinforcements,” said Holst, “they’ll be on us like cats on a fishmonger.”
“If they start licking us,” said Decker, giving his friend a sideways glance, “I’m going to blame you.”
They circled the place and spotted a more normal door in the back and a large, curtained window along one side.
“Feel like waking the town?” asked Decker.
“The door then.”
They took up positions on either side. Holst leaned his sword against the door frame and reached for the handle: unlocked.
Decker wiggled three fingers on his shield hand. Holst nodded. Decker crouched behind his shield, sword in front, and tapped the ground with his sword tip once, twice, thrice.
On the third, Holst threw open the door and thrust the edge of his shield forward as he readied his sword.
A dim, empty hallway. One door on the left wall, halfway down, and three on the right, one near them and two farther along. At the other end of the hall stood a fifth door. Neither man liked leaving his back unprotected, but they left the entrance open, choosing light over security.
“Let’s check the big room first,” said Decker. “Probably at the end there.”
As they approached that door, the foul stench grew cloying and the scant relief their kerchiefs granted faded. Both men paused to retch.
“They’ll be forever airing out this place,” said Holst.
“No stupid stunts this time,” said Decker as Holst reached for the doorknob, his sword once more leaning against the frame. “Ease it open.”
Holst grimaced. He opened the unlocked door slowly, ducking behind his shield for protection before he reached back to ready his sword.
The main room of the meeting hall had a raised dais to Holst’s left with the remains of a podium and several chairs. More broken chairs littered the floor, enough to seat each one of the hundred or so Unfortunates sprawled asleep on every surface. Flaky slime covered everything around them, and the sickly wheeze of their snoring rasped through the air, punctuated by occasional grunts.
“Well,” murmured Holst with a gulp, “no sign of the priest or altar.”
“Close it. Slowly.”
Holst had begun to do just that with two fingers of his sword hand when one of the Unfortunates stretched, yawned, rolled over and looked at him. Holst froze. The thing was not yet fully awake. Holst continued easing the door shut, straining to keep his pace steady. Then it met his eyes, and Holst saw the flash of recognition: food.
The Unfortunate howled and leapt to its feet, scrambling toward them in a mad rush. Its brethren snapped to alertness and rolled to their feet in its wake. Holst slammed the door. His sword clattered to the floor as he seized the door handle, straining to hold it shut.
“We need to jam this,” said Decker.
“So get a spike!” The door shook as Unfortunates tried to pound through it. Then silence. Then Holst felt one of them trying to turn the knob. The warrior braced with one leg and held the knob with both hands, his shield pinching his knuckles in the confined space between knob and wood. “Today would be good, Decker.”
“Wrong side of the door for a spike.” Decker wound his remaining bowstrings together and tied them to the handle of the closest door in the hallway, then nodded. Holst let go with his shield hand and gripped the knob with his fingertips while Decker hurried the bowstrings into a knot. Holst recognized the dog knot, used to tie the collar of an anxious dog to a post. The more the knot was pulled, the tighter it got. The door rattled twice more, then frustrated cries split the air and the door trembled again under pounding fists.
Holst let go of the knob and massaged feeling back into his fingers. He bent to collect his sword.
The sole door on the left side flew open and rushing out of it came a large man in a violent purple robe, brandishing a huge, two-headed war ax. Black rimmed his hateful eyes, and his shaved head was tattooed with a symbol neither Decker nor Holst could recognize. He bellowed and leapt at Decker, swinging his ax in a wide arc.
Decker ducked under the blow, deflecting the ax to one side with his shield. Holst slipped around the man’s flank and swung for his exposed back, but another sword parried his blow. Stepping out from the doorway came another bald, purple-robed assailant, this one armed with sword and dagger. Following the parry, that dagger came in high to stab at Holst’s eyes. Holst spun away, swinging a kick at the man’s knees, but the robed swordsman hopped back out of range.
Decker dodged another swing of his whirling assailant’s ax, this time tucking his shoulder into a roll intended to corner his opponent in the end of the hall and create the chance to fight back-to-back with Holst. But what he saw as he gained his feet drove other thoughts from his mind: the ax man slashed the bowstrings with his last swing. The ax rose high for another cut, and Decker kicked his foe into the opening door. Decker dove for the open room on the left wall, yelling, “Holst, find cover.” Unfortunates fell on the ax man, screaming in delight at finding fresh meat.
Holst was locked in a tight battle with the purple swordsman. Their parried blows rang out, but neither of their blades had yet struck true. Still, Holst had the advantage of size and pressed his foe down the long hall. When Decker’s call came, Holst jumped back and ran for Decker’s open door, the purple swordsman scarcely a step behind.
At the other end of the hall, more Unfortunates raged past their dining comrades to get at the untasted humans. Holst dove to join Decker, who slammed the door on the swordsman and Unfortunates. Decker shoved his boot dagger in to jam the door, and Holst scrambled to kick it in tight. The pair panted for breath and tried to ignore the screams of dying men. Decker spat at the door. Holst raised a grim eyebrow.
“No more than they would have done for us,” said Decker.
Holst shook his head, stood, and helped his friend to his feet.
“We’ll have to kick doors open now.” Holst adjusted his grip on his pommel. “I’m not setting my sword down again.”
“I’d say we’ve surrendered surprise anyway.” Decker looked back at the door. The screams of pain had faded. The door handle turned, but the jammed dagger kept it closed. “Think those two were acolytes?”
“Hope so. Means we’re close.”
Light at the end of the hallway led them ten paces, left, and up a staircase to a torch in a sconce beside a door on their left. Decker gave a silent three count with his sword and together they kicked the door down.
Before them, in a large, torch-lit rectangular room loomed the altar of the Pestilence. It stood ten feet high, a yellowed bone construct that still bore rotted flesh here and there. Its sickly-sweet, leprous smell dominated the air, despite the stink of the Unfortunates. The altar was shaped like a tripod of human leg bones, over which rose a gigantic clawed hand, easily five feet tall itself, that extended over the altar as though possessively guarding the candles and the remains of some sacrifice.
Before the altar stood a tall, thin man with skin as pale as a winter moon and long hair the color of ruined teeth. He wore a robe of black and purple, and around his neck he bore a talisman of bone in the shape of a child’s coffin. Before him stood two large dogs, poised and ready to spring. They had mottled fur, and their flesh bore scabs and lesions, but their claws seemed sharp enough as they dug into the wooden floor. The fetid beasts slathered as though rabid, and the foam was flecked with blood.
The priest spoke in a harsh, shrill voice. “I trust your presence here means that my acolytes are dead.”
“We fed them to the Unfortunates,” said Decker, buying time for the two to assess the rest of the room: high ceiling, a stack of barrels in one corner and an open area along one long wall, with a wooden rail overlooking the main room where many Unfortunates still milled about. “They looked hungry.”
“The Unfortunates? You must mean those blessed by the sacrament of Saint Valassa. It matters little. The acolytes were tools, and they will be replaced. Perhaps you two will be persuaded to replace them.” The foul priest began a rictus grin, then narrowed his eyes suspiciously. “But how did you come this far with that sheen of … health?”
“The Green Lord sends his greetings,” said Holst. “This plague has run its course.”
“No new acolytes today then.” The priest clapped his hands once and the dogs snarled and leapt to attack.
Battlefield training to the fore, each warrior raised his shield and dropped to one knee to brace for impact, readying his sword to stab. With a screeching tear, canine fangs and claws ripped away at both shields leaving them rent and useless.
Decker pushed to his feet and shoved the remains of his shield forward with all his might, dislodging the dog and bringing his sword around in a tight arc. The swing came too high and the dog slipped under, darting forward, jaws snapping for Decker’s shins.
Holst held his ground, staying on one knee, and slashed low across the diseased hound’s midsection. The blade slashed its target open. The dog fell awkwardly to its back, but rolled to its feet as Holst cast away the remains of his shield. The wounded belly bubbled closed, leaving the region festered and sickly. No other sign remained of Holst’s strike.
“Decker? We have a problem.”
Decker danced to one side, spinning away from the frothing jaws and gaining momentum to bring sharpened steel across a mottled neck. Again the wound bled, then boiled closed to leave only a festering scar.
“So I see,” said Decker.
Holst, still on one knee, shifted offer a small target to his circling dog. It growled a low bass sound, set itself, then sprang. Holst ducked his head to protect his face and thrust his sword into the airborne dog’s chest. Working with the momentum, Holst rolled backward, levering the dog with his sword until he could kick out with both feet. The dog flew over him and over the railing down to the floor below, where a crowd of Unfortunates had been drawn by the noise.
Holst reached in vain for his sword, which flew away with the dog, trapped in its rib cage.
The remaining diseased hound crouched low and snarled as it crept toward Decker, who shook the remains of his shield from his arm and kept his sword interposed to ward against another leaping attack. He moved backward as the dog moved forward, matching its pace and running out of room to maneuver as he neared the barrels.
Holst drew his boot dagger, took quick aim, and let fly at the corrupt beast. Its handle bounced uselessly off the infected hide, but the dog did turn to see what struck it. Decker seized on the distraction and ran to a wall sconce. The dog chased its prey, but met a mouthful of lit torch. Crackling flame roared green as it charred the diseased hound down to bone and unleashed a torrent of noxious fumes from the burning flesh.
Decker and Holst gagged and choked as the cloud dispersed, both men crouching low for the cleanest air available.
“May Kulath damn the Green Lord and all His priests! And damn you both for seeking his protection!” The foul priest spat. “The fumes of the plague hounds should have finished you!”
Decker kicked the fallen dagger back to Holst, and the two of them faced the priest of the Pestilence.
“But they didn’t,” said Holst, panting. “Now … will you swear … to leave … or are you next?”
“I will leave, but those blessed by Saint Valassa come with me.”
“They stay,” said Decker. “They will be restored to the lives you stole.”
“If you would end the plague,” said the priest, drawing forth a whip from his robes, “then you must end the plague master. Come try.” He snapped the whip at Decker, catching him across the chest. The blow tore not only his clothes, but his skin, yellowing and cracking the spot kissed by tainted leather.
Holst threw his dagger, catching the foul priest in the thigh. Thick, greenish blood bubbled out around the blade. Decker tried to charge, but his feet fumbled and the world seemed to spin about him.
The plague master cracked his whip once more, but Holst was ready. He dropped to the ground beneath the strike and rolled a few paces toward his foe.
Decker forced his feet ahead, his own blood roaring in his ears. The world spun faster now and his stomach grew as unsteady as his feet. Strength seemed to leech from his limbs. His sword dangled useless at his side. Still he pressed on.
The foul priest ignored the doomed swordsman and focused on his healthy opponent. Limping on a wounded leg he lashed out his whip again and again, but Holst rolled and dodged, ducked and weaved, anything he could think of to avoid the whip’s sting.
Decker barely held to consciousness now. His reeling mind filled with only one thought – kill the priest. His numb legs managed a few final steps. His arms felt nothing as will alone forced them through the motions of a strike they had made hundreds of times during the war. Perhaps thousands. Decker no longer had the coherence to finish the killing stroke, but his body completed the familiar movement out of habit and need.
The blow struck home and Decker’s sword plunged into the chest of the priest of the Pestilence, piercing his polluted heart and ending his life. Decker collapsed across his fallen adversary. Holst ran to his side. His friend clung to life by the barest thread.
With no thought to the risk of contamination, Holst shouldered his friend and forced his weary body to one last feat of exertion. He sprinted down the stairs and past the limp forms of unconscious Unfortunates. He left the meeting hall at a dead run through the open back door thinking one thing: Kanack said the altar was north.
Holst awoke on a patch of healthy green grass. Robins sang overhead. He smelled the clean air of a fresh rain. He sat up and filled his lungs again and again, desperate to chase away the taste of decay. He opened his eyes and saw that he was in a circle of grass some thirty feet wide on the edge of the dry, cracked dirt of town. One tall oak tree grew out of the center, and a series of small branches wove together to form the altar of Halstaffur, the Green Lord. Above the altar, watchful, was the face of the Green Lord Himself, not carved in the trunk, but grown outward from the bark.
Kanack stood at the altar, mumbling softly. In a pause, Holst would have sworn he heard a low groan of response from the tree.
“How is Decker?” asked Holst.
“Your friend has remarkable will,” said Kanack, a smile on his lips, in his eyes, and in his voice. “He’ll live, though he’ll be some time in healing. A season at least, before he regains his full strength.”
“And the villagers?”
“Without the magic of a priest to motivate them, those cursed by Valassa can do little more than breathe. I have already performed the rites to break the curse, and they and the land will recover in a matter of days.” Kanack squinted at the sky. “Less than a week, if we get the rains I expect.” The priest clapped Holst on the shoulder. “And what of you, my boy? What will you and your friend do once he recovers? I’m sure the people of this town would give you some land to farm.”
Holst looked at his sleeping friend, gave a lopsided smile and said, “Thank you, but no. We’re not farmers.”
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