People Who Go Bump in the Night
By Gerry Torbert
It was a long walk from Borderhold to Slaugbeatha. In actual time, it was only five days. In spirit, it was a lifetime.
Lifetime had taken on a strange new meaning to Darmon Stuart. His normal life would be different now. He would never sleep again. He would be difficult, if not impossible, to kill on the battlefield. Those he knew and met on the battlefield would be at risk merely for the crime of knowing him.
He walked the elk paths and narrow trails from Borderhold through the wasteland that was the Deadlands. For a few days he camped outside of Norville, a small human farm town at the confluence of a stream and the Greatwash River. Not being too far from the section of Zeland known as Creagland, the farmers in the area weren't too surprised to see a Creag in the area, and one offered him a place in his barn to stay for a while.
Darmon walked through town under an assumed name and met some of the people during the day. At night he sat beneath the stars and studied the constellations and the moon. Sulis was his only solace during these lonely times of thought and retrospection. She looked down on him from on high, assuring her pledge to help him through the curse that her brother Tanarus had given him.
He could see that these people were good, gods-fearing folks, hard-working and dedicated to their families, and soon realized that they were probably at risk even having met him. He remembered some of the stories he heard when he was young, about a strange place near the ruins of Aelfar, the first human kingdom - about a crater of the cursed. He began to realize, through his soul-searching at night beneath the moon, that this may be the place he was destined to visit. Faugas told him once that there was a refuge for those who were cursed in the far northeast. He didn't know why, for it was inexplicable, but he felt that he had to, just had to, visit this cursed place. He seemed to have no choice. So in the dead of the third night, he left the barn and began walking through the hills to Hell itself.
He walked for the night, finding a small stream the next morning in which to bathe. He cleansed himself, looking for gashes or scars from Borderhold that he was unaware of, but found none. There was even no trace of the remains of a fight he had had when younger. Any other man would have been either awed or fearful, but Darmon knew why this was so. SO he shrugged it off. He washed his great kilt and pressed it dry, smoothing the wool and pleating it while it was still damp. He then rested while it dried.
As he continued his journey, he was surprised how devoid of any human, dwarven, or elven life the hills were. There was plenty of game bounding between the rocks and low grass, but no people. At noon, rain clouds gathered and began to pour over the scree-covered ground. He managed to trap a few rabbits and fed himself over a small fire beneath the cover of a tree. As dusk fell over the land, he neared a slight valley that he knew contained the main road from Borderhold to Wawmar.
He was sure that the troops known as Darmon's Undead would have passed by this time. The Buchannans and Caembuhls would have left for Creagland, but the Anarians and Dwarves were headed to the great city in the volcano to feast and rejoice in the victory over the dark forces. It was just as well that they would not cross paths, as he knew quite well what effect he had on those he knew.
As he strode down the hill toward the road, he became aware of the smell of a campfire. He slowed down, careful that he didn't cause alarm, and soon spotted the fire. It was of fair size, mounded into a cone, not yet burned to ashes, so he assumed they had only been there for a short time. He recognized the people - and was glad they were people - as a group of elves.
Since he didn't want to cause a stir, he announced his arrival in a loud manner from a distance. "'Ello, elven friends. I come in peace. May I enter?" The reaction was instantaneous. Two elves nearest him sprung up and wheeled around, their bows already in hand. Two others came in from behind him, one from each side, their slender swords drawn.
Darmon stopped and raised his hands. "Who are you, human?" asked one of the perimeter guards.
Darmon looked around slowly, noticing two blades pointed at his neck. "Darmon Stuart, of Creagland. Just travelin' from Borderhold, where we spanked quite a few Orcs. I mean nae 'arm, fellas, jus' travelin', is all."
One elf walked toward Darmon from the camp. "It is safe, Agnor, Foros. I know this man. Hello, Darmon. I thought you were dead." Olanis of Daerlon shook his hand.
"'Allo, Olanis. Yeah, I thought that too..." He rubbed his neck, almost as if he was still looking for a telltale scar. ". . .getting' yer 'ead separated from yer body'll do that." He looked around the campfire at a dozen other elves. "Ya canna kip a good Creag doon, lad!"
Olanis' face, normally aloof and emotionless, manifested what Darmon took for a smile, a little elevation at the corners of his mouth. The prophesies of the short-lived humans eventually taking over Nurion and becoming great, in their own right seemed true and attainable to the old and blessed Elf race, these descendants of the original beings. Why, they didn't understand, and probably never would. They always felt a little uneasy around the humans, but understood that there was far greater danger from the East.
And the humans, for the most part, were always attempting to get them to lighten up a bit. Some of them the Elven race found difficult to understand: the Creags, filed with boisterous life, energy, and pride; the Gaelics, satisfied to live in the south of Zeland, tending their sheep, writing their poetry and embracing life; the Farlanders, always looking to organize and spread their strict laws to every corner of the world; and the Anarians, seemingly stuck in simple, barbaric life, worshipping animals, yet born with a fair and friendly spirit. Sometimes dwarves, hard and stubborn as they tended to be, were so much easier to comprehend.
"I do not know how you were able to survive. You must be somehow blessed. . ."
"Or cursed, friend, cursed," Darmon interrupted. He knew not where those words came from - perhaps an explanation, perhaps the desire to be understood, perhaps even a question. Olanis studied his eyes, and knew. The Creag had, after all, killed a dragon, and the elf knew the rules just like everyone else. Darmon's eyes fell down and to the side, and the elf felt his pain, understanding what his plight must be. "Come warm yourself, traveler. We all have stories to tell."
They spent a few hours talking about their experiences in the last week. The elves had been employed as consultants for Farland's troops in the Deadlands battle, offering advice concerning troop deployment and, in a few instances, some magical help in the form of fireballs and research into the location of the dark forces. They had traveled with them to Borderhold and witnessed the strength and abilities of the mercenaries. And make no mistake about it, they had all heard of Darmon's brush with death.
The subject of Darmon's curse didn't come into the discussion, but Olanis did ask him where he was headed. "The Ruins of Aelfar, lad. I figure I need some place of solace, somewhere I can sit an' think, an' I've never seen the place." But Olanis knew his real destination.
"You may not find what you want there, Darmon. Be careful."
Darmon understood. "Yeah, laddie, but wha' I find may be wha' I need." He smiled and stood up. "I guess I've bored ye with enou o' me stories, friends. I'd like ta stay, even travel with ye, but seems lately those I've been with 'ave ended up sorry for the favor. I travel best a'night, so with your permission, I should go. I'll long remember your courtesy and this night."
At once, all the elves stood up. Darmon was always impressed with the attention to courtesy shown by these elegant creatures, even to the finest details of life. "And we, you, Sir Stuart. I hope you find what you need," said Olanis. With that, the elf extended his hand. Darmon took it, but felt something in his palm - a pouch. "Use it wisely, friend. Life is hell. . ."
Another veiled statement, no doubt. . .and something he'd never expect to hear from an elf... Darmon stuffed the pouch in the folds of his kilt. He'd look at it later. He waved and left.
The Creag walked along the road in the night. The ruins were situated on the road itself, with the crater being a mere five or fewer miles away. He could have walked directly to it, but he felt the ruins had to be seen first. According to legend, the crater was created when, almost fifteen centuries before, the first human kingdom of Aelfar was destroyed in the Battle of Death Downs. A cataclysmic explosion created the crater, and the souls of those killed still roam there. Something in Darmon's mind told him he would find something in this desolate place. Something in his gut, though, told him he might not be happy with what he would find.
The ruins were frightening in the sun, even more so as Sulis shone down her soft blue light. What appeared to be the remains of high stone castle-type walls were now heaps of broken rock reposing in random piles. Little was left to suggest towers at the corners, just the curvature of the stone and of what seemed to be stairs. He could hear. . . no, feel. . . the ghosts of those killed in combat, first human defenders trying to hold on to their very way of life; then dark attackers bent on destruction, chaos, entropy. They seemed to brush past him, and in some instances, he thought he saw a flash of clothing, a glimpse of a face, the steely shine of armor or swords. Was it his imagination, fueled by this hideous place? Or was it the new Darmon, now able to see those with which he shared something?
He walked further into the center of the once-grand city. Stone buildings were torn apart, as if the defilers could barely stand to see one stone upon another. Low northern shrubs dotted the landscape and weeds jutted out defiantly between the pieces of rubble, claiming the once-proud rock for their own shelter, their own land. Not even a rat was seen to scatter in his presence, for there were no rats - there was nothing to eat, nowhere to go, nothing for a rat to do. Maybe it was because some animals can detect the presence of death far better than humans.
Still the ghosts walked by him, walked through him. Each time, he felt a chill piercing his body, cleaving his bones like a claymore wielded by his own hands. He told himself it was his imagination.. But in every universe of sureness there exists a speck of doubt. The wraiths knew where that speck was in Darmon. They were caught up in a sliver of time, the moment of their death, forced to replay their last few minutes, hours, days, even seconds, again and again, for all eternity.
Perhaps they were on another plane, another dimension, not even recognizing him. Maybe a rift in the planes was caused by the devastation that created the Crater of the Cursed. Perhaps he scared them as much as they did him. Either way, it was too harrowing, even for a man of his strength, his fighting abilities. "Life is hell. . ." he remembered Olanis' words. He left the ruins.
Darmon walked to the south of the city. He could see the silhouette of a short range of hills across his path, stretching from left to right, east to west. The hills stopped to the right and turned to the south, almost in one continuous line. But to the east, they continued as far as the moonlight would allow him to see.
The hills appeared to be made of scree, of stone rubble and talus mounded randomly as if they were suddenly wrenched free from the ground and piled up by tremendous forces. He guessed that these were the remains of the land created by the crater. The hill in front of him was about fifty feet high. Over the top of the hill he could see what seemed to be clouds gathered in masses. Suddenly they flashed a dull white, remained so for a few seconds and then became dark again. . .no, they disappeared. . .he could see stars where they were a few moments ago. There was no sound, as he expected to hear the low rumble of a storm, but nothing.
He began the slow climb up the rocky face. Stones were loosened by his movements - they probably hadn't been touched in fifteen centuries - and halfway up, he rested. Suddenly, he noticed the strange light again, flashing on and then off for the same amount of time. He continued to the top and peered out over the Cursed Crater.
From what he could ascertain in the moonlight, the ridge of rock continued along the west side as far as he could see. Below him, the floor of the crater seemed rocky but fairly level, once again as far as the curvature of the planet would allow. To the east, the rim of rock continued to the limit of the light. He was once told the crater was about forty miles in diameter - he certainly believed that now.
He rested once again at the top. Why, he didn't know - being sleepless, he had found that he didn't need the pleasures of rest or sleep, and rarely tired. But he felt compelled somehow. As he watched, he saw the shadowy figure of the clouds forming once again above the crater, a few miles from his vantage point. Then, he could make out some forms on the crater's floor. They were wispy, floating beings, all armed, gathered in two groups, one to the south, the other nearest him.
The ghosts began to float toward each other. Their legs, or what he could see of them, moved, but much faster than their limbs seemed to propel them. As they met in the middle, they began to flail their weapons at one another, swirling about in a typical mass chaotic battle. Then, from the sides, balls of fire emerged from near the ground, headed toward the center of the struggle.
They met in one huge sphere above the strife, exploding into a wave that swept the figures outward, dashing them on the rock rim all around, extinguishing their light. Darkness fell over the scene, and Darmon, once his eyes adjusted, could see wisps of specters beginning to form again. It was part of the Battle of Death Downs, being played over and over, for all eternity, as entertainment for all the planes to see. Or for only the cursed to witness. Or for all the gods, as a warning. Or for Darmon alone. It didn't matter for whom the lights flashed - they would act in their ghoulish play forever.
Darmon began his climb down the inside of the wall of stone. Being careful to maintain his balance on the loose rocks, it took a little time - five curtain calls, to be exact - but he finally reached the bottom. A few of the phantoms around him materialized, as much as a phantom can, and began their inexorable march toward the center once again. A few of them ran through him again, and he could feel their bite, their sting a little more than before. But they passed through as before on their way to their own personal oblivion.
But this time, in the pale light he could make out a few other figures. These were human, of more substance, walking aimlessly on the floor of the crater. He probably didn't notice them from atop the hill, since they didn't emit their own light. He saw one of the wraiths pass through one of these people with no effect whatsoever. One other, however, seemed to be pulled slightly with the passing of another, taking a step backward and then regaining his balance.
The clouds burst again, and the spirits washed over him, passing through more quickly, with more of the sensation than before. But this time, the sky was empty. Where the moon shone brightly, there now was none. His thoughts raced back to his caonnag' lomnochd, the night dance. It had disappeared then, too.
One of the men turned in its path off to the left, and began walking directly toward him. Out of the corner of his eye he noticed him, and instinctively drew his claymore, holding it out in front of him. "Hold, demon. I mean ye no 'arm, but I'll defend mese'f if I 'ave ta!" Yet the strange man continued his strides. Then Darmon noticed his head, turning a light, pale bluish white, swirling, then congealing into a pock-marked map of the moon. "Sulis! Ya come again. What is this place, Hell?"
She stopped a few feet from him. Another ghost swept through her, but on the other side of her body it disintegrated into motes of shimmering light. Then, in a distant cry, the specks fell to the ground, sizzling, disappearing. "It is as you thought. The Hell that you humans wrought on yourself, on the Dark Ones, on the land. And it will never stop."
With that, another specter flowed through Darmon. He could feel it more strongly now, rending his very soul. He winced, not in pain, but in fear, in realization of what, he didn't know. "Then who are these people? They're not ghosts - they're alive."
"No, not alive, but undead. They are the cursed of the world, coming here to pay their last dues. Forever. This is Hell, but here no demons, no devils, rule. It is their own personal Hell."
"Why don't they just leave? They can climb the rocks. Why did they come?"
Sulis laughed a little. "So many questions. . .their souls are taken by those who perished, when they flow through them. They don't want to leave, just as you won't, in a while. Leave this place, Darmon. Your time is not now. . ." Her last words were interrupted by the light from another blast. He looked toward the clouds. As they blackened, he saw the moon behind them, now shining brightly. He turned back to look at the man. Its features were now somewhat human again, twisted into an evil grin, its jaw ungainly dropping in stages, first to the left, then right, stopping only as it rested on its chest. It breathed out, dust and teeth bellowing from its mouth. It began to shuffle toward Darmon, arms reaching for the Creag.
Darmon swirled his claymore over his head, slicing down through its body. The huge sword never stopped, cleaving the undead from the left shoulder to the right hip. It continued its forward march as the upper half of its body, now clouded in the dust from the strike, slid obliquely down to the ground. The lower half of the body, left arm still attached, grasped its killer's kilt for a second as it toppled to the ground, then released its grasp as it landed at Darmon's feet.
It belched one final time, pursing what remained of its lips, air rushing forth between them - "Thank. . ." - it stopped in mid-sentence, still at last.
Darmon bent over to view his handiwork and heard the thankful words of the zombie. What was his particular curse? What made him come here? Was it the same desire to see those of my ilk? Am I to end like him? His thoughts were interrupted again by a ghost, tearing through his psyche, careening toward its enemy, toward its endless death.
He looked up. There were almost a dozen of the same type of people, slowly inching their way to him, drawn by his warm life. He turned to see them closing in from every angle but one. He jolted to a crouch, spinning on his heels and heading for the opening. But they kept coming, turning slowly. More came in from the two sides, and a few from in front, completing a circle. Now, I have no choice but to fight...
He swung his sword in an arc that brought it down on one man's head, easily splitting it in two. He pulled it from the neck, continuing his sweep to the rear, spinning around to plant it across the midsection of another. He strode forward toward a third, pirouetting to slice the next one's thighs. As he stepped through the top of the legless one, it reached out and scratched his arm with long, sharp fingernails that ripped from its fingers even as they cut him. He looked down but saw the cuts close quickly.
Another phantom hit him broadside. This time, it stung him, deeply. His back arched and he almost let loose his claymore. He suddenly felt an ease, a happiness, a contentment. He wanted to stay, he wanted to join these brothers, these people with whom he shared a curse. He began to forget some of his past, a few things that were buried in his mind. They came forward in his memory, as crisp and tangible as if it were yesterday. Then they were gone.
He shook his head to clear his senses. They're taking me. . .a little at a time. . .my soul. . .my thoughts. . .my being. . .what I was. . .no. . .I won't let. . .them. . .
He looked about him. He saw the zombies, now closer. He swung his sword again, taking steps to move toward one side of their circle, hoping to cut his way out. Two, three of them, crumbling into tough skin and dust. He broke through, only to see more of them coming from the sides. Another ghost headed toward him, but this time he ducked under the armed cavalryman, rolling beneath the flailing hooves of his war-crazed undead steed. As he finished his roll, he came down with the sword across another undead, then another. And with each stroke, he could feel their relief, their happiness, their thanks. . . they want to die!...they think their hell will be gone. . .maybe it will. . .
He broke through the line and continued away from them in a trot as the ghosts were flung away from the clouds again. He ducked one but felt the arm of another sweep through his chest, into his heart. He smiled. He so loved this place, a place where he could talk to those who were tired but who nonetheless wanted to walk around forever. All he ever asked for in life was here. Peace. Tranquility. . . .no. . .I must fight. . .I have to. . . He ducked still another ghost, this time completely. It wouldn't be too long before they flew from the rocks again. He didn't have the time to waste. It was still a hundred feet to the rim. He remembered something, something someone told him a long, long time ago. . . Life is hell. . .what a strange thing to say. . .how can it be?...Life is first, then Hell, if you're evil. . .what could it mean?
A swordsman, now brighter, more solid than ever, scraped his leg with his boot as he passed. Darmon winced in pain, falling to the ground, looking toward his leg. The cut didn't close. He felt the pain of the gash, then looked up. The moon was gone. He felt alone again.
He saw the undead closing in on him and turned to get up and run. But he noticed a pouch on the ground. It was a pouch he remembered, where he got it, how he got it, he knew not. He reached out and grabbed it, opening it up. Inside was a glass vial. . . .life is hell . . .He opened the vial, noticing the blue liquid inside. Something told him to drink it - something buried in his mind. He drank the liquid as he got up to his knees.
As he turned toward the latest burst from the clouds, he saw another wraith coming toward him. It hit him full force, but went through him. The feeling of euphoria was not there. He stood up as another hit him, but with no effect. Turning back toward the people clamoring for their demise, he decided that the vial was meant to save him from their fate. There was only one thing he could think of to help them out.
He began what almost sickened him. He tore through the masses of undead that shuffled their way to him. His sword almost sung as it ripped through the leathery flesh of his new companions. As they fell, he could almost see their souls, or what was left of them, released, moving to another place. Ten of them, twenty, fifty, a half an hour's worth of ghoulish butchery later, he felt another ghost hit him again. The potion was wearing off. This time he was able to make his way to the wall of stones, climbing above their influence. He looked back to see another wave crashing in mindless eternal hell, as the clouds once again blew them back to the crater's edge well below his feet.
He reached the top. The moon shone brightly. He rested and watched as some of the cursed that he couldn't help still wandered about, and as the battle played on and on.
He started to sheath his sword. He noticed its shininess was gone, blocked out by the dust of a hundred bodies, of a hundred souls. He grabbed a corner of his kilt and began to shine the fine steel, bringing it to a glimmering gem-like sheen. But as he rubbed it, he could feel it vibrate and hum slightly. He stopped, looking into the steel that he had wiped, and saw what shocked and chilled him to the bone - the reflection of faces, of bodies, gathered together and staring at him.
Startled, he looked over his shoulder at where the beings should be if it was a reflection but saw nothing. Looking back at the sword, he still saw the faces. They were talking to him in a strange language. He looked away again, then shook his head and rubbed his eyes. He returned to gaze at Dragonslayer. The faces were still there, talking in pleasant tones, even smiling, not moving as he twisted the sword from side to side, but still there. He finished rubbing the dust from the sword, and as he did, the image of Gark A'ahs appeared, staring at him, looming over the faces of the people. A chill shot through his bones to his gut, and his heart raced. Have I captured the souls of those I slew? Or is this just some sick reminder?
He finished wiping off the blade. Looking at it again, he saw the same faces, heard the same sounds. Dragonslayer vibrated slightly, as if he had hit it with a hammer or a rock. He grasped the blade to try to stop it, but it continued when he left it go.
Darmon shrugged his shoulders and sheathed the sword. It still hummed and the voices still talked to him. As he made his way down the outside of the crater, he turned over his shoulder, saying, "A'least, I'll 'ave someone ta talk tu on me trip, ol' friend." He turned toward Creagland.