Zombie Deadfall
Zombie Deadfall     Ciglio’s lead zombie, Turen, leaned over the map. The dead man reeked of rotting flesh, a bittersweet smell. Ciglio smiled. It was the smell of power, a necromancer’s power. News of his rampage probably circulated like fire in the capital. He didn’t know how much time he had left before the King sent the Krieg armies against him.

     “Have you decided, Master?” Turen asked, his voice straining with the effort. Wind buffeted against the canvas tent walls.

     Ciglio plotted his next move. He’d hit the villages on the edge of the kingdom in an arc, growing his army of zombies by the night. Several hamlets lay ahead, and he considered the wisest route. “This hamlet,” Ciglio pointed, “to the south, bordering on desert.” Draaien was gathering the orc tribes into a vast army to join Ciglio’s undead in the war to end the west, destroy the bothersome races, including humans. Draaien had a powerful ring, Orc Mother. Ciglio had its counterpart, which he named Zombie Father. The ring amplified his will, allowing him to control a vast number of zombies. The more he controlled, the more strain and exhaustion crept in, but he wouldn’t be satisfied until all of humankind was ruled over by him. With that large of a population netted in the magic, he wouldn’t be able to choreograph their movements with precision, but it wouldn’t matter. There won’t be any humans left to bother him anymore. 

     “Smart move.” Turen interrupted his thoughts. “We won’t get attacked from behind, except-“ The word hung in the air.

     Ciglio turned in his seat to look Turen in the eyes. “Except what?”

     “Here.” The Zombie pointed.

     “That dot? Looks like a crumb stain.” Ciglio squinted and frowned. He dusted the parchment with his fingers, and blew. The mark remained. He kept his things impeccable. His ridgedness in his surroundings counterbalanced the decay of his only company, the dead. “I’ll need to get a new map.”

     “No, Master. It is a settlement. Small, maybe a dozen people. They’ve no chance when our attention’s on them, but if they sneak up behind while we’re dealing with the King’s battalion…” The implication dangled in the tent like the metallic smell of fresh blood.

     Ciglio gnawed on his lower lip, frowning. “Are you sure it’s a settlement? Why would something that small be mapped?”

     “Yes. I’ve been there, when I was a kid. You ordered a copy of the best map of the west ever created. It’s detailed everywhere.”

     Ciglio looked at the corner, rubbing his finger over the copy of the cartographer’s name, Tover. Smiling, he thought warmly of the mapmaker, someone who enjoyed the depth of details like Ciglio and someone not human. Tover had been a lumen, a short cave dwelling race. The only humans Ciglio liked were his kept zombies. “It’d take us a week to get there. I don’t have time for it.”

     “That’s true, Master, if you take your entire army.”

     Ciglio tapped the feather of the quill pen against his lips. “But if I only took how many I needed, six-“

     “You could pick six of the fastest. Bring horses. We’d be there in a day.” Turen straitened, his head cocked to the side.

     A wry smile formed on Ciglio’s lips. “That’d reinforce our position, keep the lines neat, orderly.” He drew a line on the map, then circled the dot. Order and chaos, he reveled in both worlds.

     Ciglio walked the rounds of the camp, inspecting his motionless troops. They stood outside when not marching or fighting, day and night. They’d no need of beds or anything else that didn’t benefit Ciglio.

     Turen stood guard outside of Ciglio’s tent. He was different than most zombies. Most never spoke, and those who learned how over time, never did so as well as Turen. Zombies don’t think. They move to the Master’s will, bound by magic, they have no freedom of their own. Even Turen was bound by this rule. At times, he would disagree with Ciglio, but he always obeyed. The magic held them in thrall; they were kept zombies.

     An interesting specimen, Turen. Ciglio never found the source of the difference in the magic. It was something within Turen himself, the desire to kill, as though Turen enjoyed the bloody freedom of a zombie, all at the mere price of physical death and loss of free will. The more twisted and dangerous the person, the more free range he would have when a zombie. 

     Tossing on his cot, Ciglio wondered about the King’s army, and what their offensive strategy might be. He ran through several scenarios, smiling with glee at the hopelessness of fighting the dead. The King’s army can’t stop them, and the King’s soldiers’ deaths will be like a field of presents, new bodies to raise. Sleep claimed him, and he dreamed of blood and magic. 

     Ciglio woke with the sun shining in his eyes. Turen stood inside the tent, watching him.

     “Anything unusual last night?” Ciglio yawned. He sat up, stretching his arms.

     “No, Master.”

     “Excellent. Pick nine of the fastest, and have the horses ready, and make sure they’re newer turns. I don’t want them falling apart on us.”

     “Nine? I thought you wanted six.”

     Ciglio frowned.

     Turen bowed slightly, a piece of flesh falling free of the ragged tunic, and he left. 

     After an uneventful ride, they stopped at the first house in the forest and dismounted. Turen and the kept zombies went in first, battering down the door. Ciglio glanced about the meadow bordering the home, noting the spring flowers in bloom. He enjoyed mild days, or cold ones. Those didn’t eat at his zombies like the summer heat or rain.

     “Empty, Master,” Turen reported.

     “That’s odd. There’re no fields to plow. Is it a religious holiday?”

     “I’ve no idea.”

     “Maybe a town festival,” Ciglio muttered to himself.

     “Will we wait until dark to attack?” Turen asked.

     Ciglio waved his hand. “No, no. We don’t need that element with so few people. Besides,” the wry grin spread on his mouth, “the sight of the zombies will terrify them. It’ll be simple.”

     Turen grunted. A sign of discontent Ciglio generally ignored.

     Snaps of braking twigs in the nearby trees caught Ciglio’s attention. “Perhaps it’s the owners of this home, returning. Zombies in front.”

     His kept zombies shuffled forward, lining up between the wood and their Master. Flies buzzed as Ciglio ordered the small group forward, weapons ranging from swords to farm tools raised. 

     Screams rang out from the trees, but not those of fear. They held anger, frustration. The hair on the back of Ciglio’s neck stood on end. Screams of the dead. 

     Another group of zombies burst out of the foliage, gaping mouths full of red stained teeth. On reflex, Ciglio reached for their minds, but found nothing to hold. Once a zombie leaves the control of its necromancer, the soul flees the rotting flesh, but the corpse remains animated, hungry for blood. A kept zombie retains the soul, buried under magic and the masters will. The wild, dirt covered zombies hissed and screeched, hands twisted like claws, eyes wide. They moved with a speed Ciglio found shocking. His zombies were no match. 

     “Turen, with me,” he called as his forces met the monsters from the wood. Ciglio retreated into the house with Turen. “Help me bolt the door and cover the windows.”

     Turen raised an eyebrow.

     “Just in case. How many did you count?”

     “Nearly a dozen.”

     “Okay.” Ciglio closed his eyes and directed his will to the kept zombies as they battled the wild ones. “Where did they come from?” Ciglio stopped short. Twelve, Turen had said. The number of this settlement. It couldn’t be another necromancer, these were wild, not bound to a master.

     Turen finished blocking the last window with boards broken from a table. “Now what?”

     Ciglio settled his mind to reach out to his puppets again, but there was nothing to touch. He jumped as he heard clawing at the door. His zombies were gone, ripped to shreds by the unsatisfied wild ones. They wanted blood, and his was the only to be had. He looked around the room, searching for anything.

     “There,” Turen pointed to a hatch in the floorboards. 

     Ciglio opened it and stared down into an old stone staircase. It didn’t match the style of the house, and must have been here much longer than the settlement. Someone built the house over it on purpose.

     “Root cellar?” Turen asked.

     “Yes.” He didn’t know why he lied. Ciglio shut the hatch quickly. Screams erupted outside. More scratching at the walls. They’ll break in soon; the wood wouldn’t keep them out.

     Turen stood by the door. 

     An eerie thought crept over Ciglio, sending chills down his spine. “You want to open that door, don’t you?”

     Turen couldn’t help but answer. “Yes.”

     “You knew. You knew there were wild zombies here, didn’t you?”

     “Yes.”

     “But why? They’ll kill us both.”

     “No, Master. Once you’re dead, I’ll be free of the magical bond that holds me to your will. That is what attracts them.”

     “Then you want to go wild? Is this suicide, then?”

     “Oh no. Wild ones let go of their souls. They become animals.” The scratching on the walls became pounding. “I like my undead life. I won’t leave my body.” 

     Ciglio ground his teeth. “The remnants of the necromancy will allow you to become a lich, a zombie with a soul and free will.” He couldn’t trust people, even dead ones. “Don’t move.” He rummaged in the kitchen, finding brittle rags bundled in a chest. Perfect.

     A hand burst through the wall near his face. He jumped. Taking a deep breath, Ciglio watched as the arm grabbed at the air, then at the inside of the wall. It couldn’t get in. Yet.

     He returned to the main room and set the rags on the floor. 

     “There is nothing you can do, Master.”

     “Perhaps I wish to take you into death with me.” His lips twisted into a cruel smile as he pulled the flint and steel from a pouch at his belt.”

     Turen shook, but didn’t move. He was trapped in the magic, tied to his Master’s will.

     “Didn’t think of that, did you, traitor?” Ciglio taunted him.

     “You always thought you were so smart. You can’t set this place ablaze. Where will you go? I don’t believe for one second you’re ready to die.”

     “Go? I’ll go back to my army, of course. This was quite an ingenious plan; I’ll give you that. And I am pleased that your treachery happened now, rather than when it might have been more troublesome, when I’m dealing with the King’s army.” Ciglio lit the candle.

     “Don’t be stupid, Master. You can’t get out. You can’t stay in the cellar either, the house will fall down on top of you.” Turen strained to move. If he were alive, he’d be sweating.

     Ciglio smiled and looked into Turen’s panicked eyes. The candle dipped, lighting the rags. Fetching a stool, he threw it on the growing blaze. When he was sure the fire caught hold of the building, he opened the hatch.

     “Don’t leave me here, Master. Take me with you. Let me move.”

     Without another word, Ciglio entered the staircase, closing the hatch behind him. He followed the narrow stone corridor a short distance when he heard Turen’s screams. Pausing, he listened, a smile on his lips. The sound ended abruptly and Ciglio grinned. One problem solved. 

     In a little alcove, five bound books lay on a wooden bench. Lifting one, he flipped it open and scanned the pages. He’d read this one, Elementary Necromancy. And the next one too. Ciglio had a sudden thought. The owner of the house must have been a necromancer. He was killed, leaving the wild zombies behind. Ciglio closed the last book with a snap. Fool, he thought, chuckling. He tucked the books in a satchel and lifted it onto his back. Books on the arcane were very rare, and besides, Ciglio wanted them because it kept them out of a potential rival’s hands. Turen’s trap originated in the very thing that saved Ciglio, the pitiful missing necromancer.

     The stairs emerged under a prickly shrub. Thorns caught on his long black robe while he crawled out. Standing and dusting his hands, he looked around. The small clearing in the wood was some kind of shrine. An ornate white altar lay in the middle, encircled by tiny flowers and with laurel trees growing in each of the four directions. 

     He listened for sounds of the wild ones, but heard nothing. Still, he must be careful with wild zombies nearby. Ciglio neared the marble altar, and ran his hand over the carvings and designs along the side. He’d seen these markings before. Closing his eyes, he thought back to the many days he’d spent locked away, researching any tome he could lay his hands on. 

     They were the signs of the Goddess Erillin, Goddess of dark magic.

     “Well,” he said. “I’m no kept man, by any god or goddess, but I know my debts when I see them.” He pulled a dagger from his belt. Wincing as he sliced his arm, he held it over the altar. The blood poured onto the white marble, tainting it pink like the tiny blossoms near its base. Pink lines coursed through the designs, and sped over every side.

     Ciglio tore the bottom of his chainse under his clothing and used the strip of cloth to wrap the cut. “I won’t forget your gift this day.”

     He didn’t go back for the horses; they were torn to shreds by now. Instead he turned north. His army waited, and the promise of the King’s soldiers lay close, like a gentle kiss, the dream of his heart.

References: Ciglio, Draaien, Tover, Lumen, Human, Orc, Zombie, Lich

 
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