Dead men were not an uncommon thing in Dargon, whether the corpses turned up on the beaches or the streets at the heart of the city. What was unordinary, however, was when the dead got back up and made off with those who had discovered them.
Somewhere across the Valenfaer, a man, who was supposedly dead when two boys found him, held one of them captive. Where the dead man was going and why he had taken the boy, Perry, was beyond Roman Cepero of the Town Guard. All that mattered to him was getting Perry back and killing that man once again and for good.
Cepero stood on the docks with the Death Rattler, Varrus, Jacer, and Ratche standing across from him, men responsible for cleaning Dargon of trash and the dead. The ragtag group reminded Cepero of a band of highwaymen, eager to turn another’s misfortune into their own good fortune.
Cepero was uneasy about the alliance. Jacer and Ratche were incompetent fools. Varrus was the Rattler’s apprentice and would likely follow any direction he was given. The Death Rattler was a thin, tall, sunken, deathly looking man that inspired disgust in the hearts of many people and he was surely hiding something.
Even the Esoterics, Tanbry and Arvyn, were along for the ride. Their use of magic was well known across Dargon and for infamous reasons. They were begrudged by the Guard but had their uses, risks always implied in anything they did. Cepero was wary of them one day doing more harm than good as they had done in the past.
Regardless of the tension Cepero felt, it was Ilona’s call. She was his superior and he wasn’t going to question her judgement.
Dom, the shivering boy hiding behind Cepero’s leg, was their guide to finding Perry. He had swallowed a potion meant to track Perry and had guided them all to the docks. Now, they needed a ship to cross the Valenfaer in pursuit of Perry.
Ilona turned and stalked off towards the Victory Chimes tied to the dock behind them, the others following suit. They made their way onto the deck and endured odd looks from the crew as they crossed to the helm. It seemed as though the ship was soon to set out. Victor stood at the wheel and called, “What’s this then?”
Cepero noticed that the crew backed away from the Rattler as he limped aboard.
Ilona hollered back, “Kent, we need your assistance in a matter of the Town Guard. We have a guide here and need passage. We’re in pursuit of a small boat.” Ilona pulled a ducal seal from a pocket and held it up.
“No need to show off the flashy stuff, Ilona. I’m glad to help. Get yourselves comfortable and we’ll set out soon.”
Ilona turned to the others and said, “You heard him. Pick somewhere to hole up while I go speak with Kent. Cepero, are you coming?”
Cepero locked eyes with Victor for a moment before turning away, then said, “No, I’ll stay here. I’d like to speak with Celia for a moment. Dom, make sure to ask Captain Kent about all the adventures he’s had. Oh, especially about the one with him and Gordon Smith on the silver island with the monster they slew.”
Imagination stole Dom away from his bleak present and he followed Ilona to the helm. The two guards, Garay and Celia, along with the Esoterics stood near Cepero as the Rattler and his entourage walked off to a corner of the ship.
“Alright, Celia, this is what I need from you.” Cepero spun in a tight circle to put his shoulder against Celia’s and his back to the Rattler. “Watch the Rattler for anything suspicious. And be quiet about it.” Cepero walked away without even throwing her a glance.
Cepero heard her whisper, “On it, sergeant.”
Kent’s voice broke over the din of the crew, “We’re setting out! Get this ship out to sea!”
The crew of the Victory Chimes hollered back then burst into motion as a sailor in the crow’s nest began ringing a bell. Cepero shook his head as Jacer and Ratche were jostled this way and that by the moving crew. They stepped one way to avoid one crewmember, moving right into the path of another. Finally they scrambled clear of the mast and flopped down on the railing just a few paces from Cepero.
The pair breathed hard as they hugged the railing, gripping it with knuckles gone white. Jacer exclaimed, “Farking gong! Ol’s hairy balls and beard! I’m going to drown and never feel the love of my Jessie again!”
Ratche maintained his hug on the railing and muttered, “Anything else, Jacer? Your mother always said you were sensitive. Jessie, huh? Is that what you call your hand or is that the name of the whore you brought to the house last night?” Ratche spoke harshly although his face betrayed the same amount of fear.
“I nearly went right through this rotted wood. And you’re the sen –” Jacer’s foot suddenly slipped out from under him and went skyward. His back hit the deck and he rolled towards the edge.
Ratche snagged Jacer’s collar as the latter hollered, “Gods, not yet. I still need a wife. And kids! What if I want kids? Rise’er, take Ratche first! No not me, not now.”
The crew exploded with laughter and even Victor guffawed and slapped the wheel. Cepero, Dom, and the others laughed as well. The Rattler stood stock still against the far side of the boat near Varrus who had his arms crossed and a look of disgust on his face.
Jacer stood and shrugged his friend’s grip off as Ratche said, “Take me first, huh? Just wait till we get off this damned boat. I’ll send you right to the death goddess’s arms well before she takes me.”
Jacer then looked at the people aboard the boat and threw an obscene gesture at them. “It’s not my fault I never learned how to swim. Nothing else to it. All you can just keep yer mouths closed.”
The two turned red before stalking off to a corner of the boat near the helm. The ruckus on board ceased and soon the boat was under way.
Cepero said, “That was interesting.” He then turned to the Esoterics and said, “I’ll be up with the captain. Tanbry, Arvyn, any time limit I should be worrying about here for the potion?”
Tanbry said, “None at all.”
Arvyn added, “That we know about. So … No. Yeah, we’ll go with no.”
Cepero rolled his eyes then began walking away. Before departing, Cepero shot a meaningful look to Celia and she nodded back with determined eyes.
Cepero walked by Jacer and Ratche as the latter began quickly slapping the former and telling him to shut his mouth. Jacer shot a scared look at Cepero then quickly turned his head away.
Future misdeeds and debauchery came to life in Cepero’s mind and those two miscreants were the culprits behind it all. Cepero dismissed them and continued up the helm to stand by Kent’s side.
“Anything change yet, Dom?”
“No. Same direction.”
“Straight. Tell me if it changes at all.” Reluctantly, he continued, “How are you, Captain Kent?”
Victor smiled at Cepero and a pang of regret welled within him. The emphasis he put on “Captain” and “Kent” wasn’t lost on Victor.
“Has it been that long, *sergeant*?”
“It’s been a few years, Victor.”
“Life just gets busy I guess, Roman.”
“People don’t call me Roman often. Not much loss anyway, right? We were drinking buddies really. Did it go any further than that?” Cepero waited for a moment in silence as Victor either refused to respond or couldn’t come up with a suitable one. “You took over the Victory Chimes and sailed around making a good name for yourself while I stayed in Dargon and became a sergeant.”
“You don’t think we were anything more than drinking friends?”
“At some point, maybe. But it obviously didn’t mean that much.”
“Cepero, this is your first time seeking me out in quite a while. And it’s only because of business.”
Cepero heard the truth in his words and it stung. But he reassured himself that Victor had been the one to initiate the void that grew between them. He remained silent, biting back accusations.
Victor clenched his jaw as he turned his head back to the sea. Cepero tried to stifle the anger that swelled in him. Despite his discomfort, Cepero had a job to do. “Victor, do you know of anything this way?”
“A few small islands, just small blotches on a chart. Not much about them.”
“That’s probably where we’re headed then.”
A short silence passed between the two. Cepero’s heart felt like a well that was plumbing guilt from the deepest parts of his body. He fought against it and quickly steeled the thought that Victor had been the one to give up on whatever friendship they had. There wasn’t anything for him to apologize about.
Cepero sighed then said, “Dom, stay here and I’ll be back in a moment.”
With that, Cepero marched off towards the side of the helm and slowed to a crawl once he neared the edge to the deck.
Whispered voices came from the lip of the helm and Cepero could tell it was Jacer and Ratche.
“… under their notice. We’ll be underestimated the whole time.”
“What are you saying we do? We stealin’ something?”
“No, I’m not saying anything. Just that we’ll have opportunities. We’ve heard the tales and this is shaping up to be something odd. All I’m saying is that if there’s something to take, we’d get away nice and clean.”
“Straight. Here, let’s go ask Varrus if he wants anything of us.”
“Are you as farking stupid as they think you are? Why should we ask Varrus anything? He knows where we are when he wants us. The Rattler gives me the creeps. And Varrus is a real prick. He thinks we got gong for brains and doesn’t mind showin’ it. Farkin’ whoreson.”
“Like you said, it’s good to be us. Don’t let it bother you none. Besides, I’m certain he’ll just send us away. Gotta look like we’re good boys.”
Cepero heard them standing and backed up a few quiet steps. Jacer and Ratche began walking across the deck and once they were half-way to the Rattler, he called, “Good day as any for sailing!”
Both men jumped and yelped simultaneously, Jacer reaching out to grab Ratche’s shoulder in compulsive fear. They both spun around but Cepero averted his gaze as if he hadn’t noticed them in the least. He looked back and smiled at the two men stricken with fear. Ratche violently shoved Jacer’s hand off his shoulder then they turned and hustled to the Rattler’s side.
Cepero let himself grin although he was legitimately worried about what those two had planned. However, each time they had been brought into the Old Guard House, it was never for anything too serious. Cepero made to turn and walk back to Victor’s side but caught a glimpse of the Rattler and was frozen.
Varrus was speaking with Jacer and Ratche while the Rattler acted as if they were invisible. The ancient man stared at Cepero with lifeless eyes and smiled to show only a few wicked teeth. His hand cut through the air and Cepero read the sign as, “Death is near.”
A cold shiver glided up Cepero’s spine, then filled his body, creating a cavernous depth in his stomach. The Rattler’s presence no longer bothered Cepero, but his statement was disquieting. Cepero, despite his screaming instincts, made to sign back and ask the Rattler his meaning but the old man turned away, hiding his smirk.
This voyage couldn’t end soon enough.
With a force of will, Cepero excised his fear and took up station next to Dom, keeping the boy between himself and Victor, a physical barrier that resembled the symbolic barrier between them.
Dargon’s shores fell away as the Victory Chimes cut through the waves. Cepero was quiet, watching the men and women of the ship work. Boys ran across the deck, carrying out Victor’s orders. The rolling waves gently rocked the ship back and forth as it lightly crashed and rose. He began to drift into his memories, of course focused on his friendship with Victor. Those drinking nights were certainly there and at the forefront, but there was more than that. The two went out drinking often because that was what they liked doing and they trusted one another.
Years ago, Victor and Cepero had attended the Melrin Festival together. They walked the crowds, bumped into friends, and celebrated. During this time, they had each bought a large mug of ale. Before they could commence drinking, they began speaking together of their childhoods.
Cepero remembered seeing a child and a mother but without a father and commented on how terrible it is that so many children grow up without two parents. Victor then divulged that he had experienced such a childhood. They spoke on the matter at length, not just about facts and ideas, but of feelings. Cepero learned that Victor had attached himself to many older men as father figures. He also discovered that one of those relationships had ended terribly for Victor.
During the conversation, Cepero had nearly forgotten they were at a festival. Certainly, he had forgotten about the ale in his hand and it went unnoticed for a long time. Cepero spoke about his own experiences growing up as well, although they didn’t compare to Victor’s completely. Both men seemed comfortable enough with each other to discuss those things that plagued them.
Cepero snapped from his reverie as Victor whispered, “Where did that come from?”
Victor pulled a scroll case from his waist then pulled out a chart. Cepero recognized Dargon upon the parchment.
The captain’s face became a scrunched up version of itself. He said, “That’s what I thought.” He then took a spyglass from his coat and scrutinized the islands through it. “The largest island shouldn’t be there. I’ve sailed past them hundreds of times and that one doesn’t belong there.”
Cepero felt an ominous blanket settle over him. He was certain that was the place they were headed. “Victor, let’s get over there.”
Victor kept the wheel straight, keeping the Victory Chimes on a course for the island. He called to his crew, “Two men get to the bow and keep an eye on the water. I need men watching the sides for shallows! Furl those sails to slow us down and be prepared to shift!”
An “aye” came from the crew all at once. Cepero watched men spring to the sides of the boat. They grabbed weights tied to the end of long ropes and lowered them into the water slowly. Others rushed to the bow and began doing the same. Several of the crew moved to the main mast and began adjusting the rigging. Several of the sails folded in partially and Cepero felt the ship slow as the wind’s influence on their speed lessened.
Victor said, “Conrad in the nest won’t miss anything. The others will tell me if that island reaches out any further beneath the waves than I think it does. Go tell the guards and the Rattler.” Victor paused, looked meaningfully at Cepero, then said, “I have an odd feeling, Roman. I don’t like it much at all. Let’s just make sure we’re careful.” Without waiting for a reply, Victor sucked in a deep breath then hollered, “Be on the ready, men!”
Menes passed with the crew bustling until finally it all seemed to stop. It was as if the air had suddenly become choked by sludge that stuck the world in place. A master at arms and several others walked across the deck, handing each man a cutlass. The crew quietly chattered to one another about the island.
With the deck quiet, Cepero hopped down from the helm and walked across to Ilona, Celia, and Garay. He gathered them and then walked over to the Rattler’s gang. “The island out there isn’t familiar to Victor. He actually said that it shouldn’t even be there.”
Varrus adopted a quiet look of fear. He seemed to be lost for a moment, his mind certainly wandering. Cepero wondered why his words would provoke such a reaction. “Varrus, what is it? You seem sick.”
“Uh, excuse me.”
Varrus turned and the Rattler began signing even before he had taken a step. Varrus cut through the air and the Rattler exploded with motion; for such an old man, his swaying and staff-pounding was a large demonstration. He even uttered gibberish noises.
Cepero was on them in a moment. “What has him so worked up, Varrus? Is there something wrong with him?”
Varrus took a moment to calm the Rattler and signed with him intently. The Rattler drew himself up to his full height to look down upon Varrus and cut the air with a few quick motions. Cepero read them as, “We don’t quit.”
Slowly, Varrus backed away and turned to look at Cepero. The entire crew had stopped to look at the two. Varrus said, “That island is cursed. Dead men don’t stay dead on that island.”
“What are you talking about?”
“That’s what has him so worked up. That island is a cursed place. It travels the waters and the men who go ashore are either cursed by touching the treasure within, or taken by the dead. When a cursed man dies, he belongs to the island. The guy you’re searching for, he’s dead and that’s where he went. That’s where the boy is.”
Sailors milled about, asking one another to verify the legend. Victor’s voice came over the din, “I’ve heard of the moving island. What are we doing, Cepero?”
Running. But then Cepero remembered Dom. He looked to Ilona; she held the boy’s head against her hip. Dom was crying; he must have been terrified after hearing about the curse.
Cepero said, “Then what hope is there? They would have killed Perry already right?”
The Rattler signed and Varrus translated, “They need him alive to curse him. They’ll keep him until then. But it is a fast process. Being on the island itself with all its treasure gives us just menes. If he’s taken from the island and its cursed treasure before too long, he might be okay. But if the curse sets in him, then whenever he does die, he’ll belong to the island. It’ll know when he has died, and it will come to claim him.”
Dom lost it, squealing and sobbing. He fell to the deck and cried, “I don’t want Perry to become that! He can’t be like the dead man!” Ilona moved to comfort the boy, dropping to a knee and holding his shoulders.
As much as Cepero dreaded the idea, he knew what he had to do. He knew that he could do it because these dead, cursed people weren’t a real thing to him yet. He could dive into this headfirst then figure out how his body would react afterwards. Until then, there was still a boy to save and a terrible curse to combat. “We should go ashore. Take a look for at least a moment. There’s a little boy there.”
Ilona said, “I agree. Let’s get ready to go. Anyone who doesn’t want to go doesn’t have to.” Dom had calmed a bit, no longer crying aloud although he stayed on his knees.
A lot of crewmen swore off going right then.
Two gibbering voices turned Cepero around and he found Tanbry and Arvin. They wracked each other’s memory for knowledge about the curse. Ilona saw them as well and approached them. Cepero followed.
Ilona asked, “You two know of this?”
Tanbry said, “No. This sounds like necromancy; we haven’t dealt with it before. Anyone caught practicing it is put to death by the Elders.”
“Is going ashore smart?”
Arvyn stole Tanbry’s stage, saying, “Probably not. But we can take some time to try to understand the curse while we’re there.”
Ilona looked to Cepero and he nodded. “Straight,” she said. The group then quieted and waited their arrival to the island.
The Rattler stared at the island hard and gripped his staff strongly. With his intense gaze, Cepero was convinced that he would dive overboard any moment. Cepero tried to plumb a reason for his acting as he did. Why was he so enthusiastic about getting onto an island full of the living dead? He, of course, dealt with the dead often, but something seemed different here. The timely appearance of the Rattler at the docks coupled with the finding of this island was too much of a coincidence to be free of suspicion. Cepero turned back to look at the island, frustrated with his lack of a sure answer.
As menes passed and the island drew closer, Cepero felt a weight descend upon him and the atmosphere around him. It was as if the still island had sucked the rest of the world into a state of slumber.
Birds glided soundlessly through the sky. The crew, finished with their tasks, waited in pure silence. The creaking of the Victory Chimes and the crash of the waves were the only noises to be heard. The light clouds that obscured the sun seemed oppressive, as if they kept happiness out and trapped gloom in.
The entire crew seemed to feel the same atmosphere as not a single one spoke a word. The mysterious island they looked upon with trepidation was ravaged by green plants and trees bursting from its soil and sand. So much could be hidden within the foliage and within the island itself. Cepero shuddered as he imagined cursed men, women, and children lumbering along the beaches and through caves. Something evil was here and only barely concealed behind a thin veil. That same evil populated the water and sky surrounding the island as if an aura exuded from it. He couldn’t place it, but the island just felt wrong, like it shouldn’t exist in their world.
The next menes passed in a somber way, with most of the men, excluding the Rattler and his smirking face, merely waiting and watching the island obviously concerned. Jacer and Ratche chattered here and there, no doubt about the mention of treasure. Cepero had no doubt that the Rattler knew more than he cared to share.
The Victory Chimes anchored and most of the crew were left to keep watch over her while Victor, Conrad, Arvyn, Tanbry, the men and women of the Guard, Dom, and the Rattler and his men took boats over to the island.
Cepero asked Celia before they landed, “Anything worth mentioning? He gave me an odd signal earlier. I think he’s always known that the man we’re going after is indeed dead.”
“Straight? I haven’t picked up much from him. He keeps staring at the island as if it’s something he’s been searching for his entire life.”
“Well keep your eye on him. I have mine on his lackeys.”
“The two simpletons?”
Cepero replied, “They aren’t as stupid as you think. Or they’re stupid enough to get us in trouble.” Ilona shot Cepero a questioning look but they were moments from reaching the beach. “Later. Let’s just keep eyes on them.”
It seemed that was enough to quell her interest as she nodded once and looked back to the mysterious island.
Cepero was first to hop out of the boat and let his boots crunch down on the sand of the beach. Only then, when he stood atop the beach, did he realize that the sands were tainted by a blue hue. It was a difference in color so slight that it could have easily been overlooked at a distance. However, it made the entire beach seem as though it was slightly metallic, like filings of steel had been mixed into the natural sand.
Cepero called over his shoulder, “Do you see this?”
The foliage then stole Cepero’s focus as he noticed a tinge of blue creeping into the broad leaves and trees. The blue was a part of the entire island as if it had simply grown into the foliage and mixed with the sand.
The other guards leapt from the boat and wordlessly inspected the sand, eying the jungle superstitiously. Ilona said, “Yeah. I’ve never seen sand like this. It’s bluish and even shines a bit.”
Celia said, “All sand shines. This just does it in an odd way. I can’t place it.”
Cepero looked at Garay with a slight smile and said, “Garay, take a bite of it and tell me if it tastes weird.”
Garay looked at Cepero with obvious surprise but then slowly began dropping to a knee.
“I’m only kidding, Garay.”
Tanbry and Arvyn mumbled to each other about the odd sand and then pulled vials from a satchel at Tanbry’s hip and filled them with sand. They also spoke of taking samples of the leaves and bark as well.
Cepero bent down and grabbed a handful of the sand. It fell through his fingers and he then surveyed his hand and noticed that the blue hue had clung to his palm. He slapped his hand against his side but the blue did not leave.
Another boat came ashore bearing the others. The Rattler was assisted by Varrus while exiting the boat. Every person other than the Rattler marveled at the sand, touching it and shifting it around with a booted foot. The Rattler instead looked up the sloping beach and to the top of the small, dome-shaped island.
Cepero knew that trying to understand what was transpiring behind the old man’s eyes was fruitless. “Let’s move. Varrus, looks like the Rattler knows where to go, huh? Dom, where’s Perry?”
The Rattler grinned at Cepero but the sergeant turned away from him. He was becoming quite aggravated by the ancient man.
Dom pointed where the Rattler had been looking. “Up there. Somewhere behind the trees.”
“Let’s go,” Cepero said to the entire group as he took off up the beach. Without a sure idea of what he’d be fighting against, Cepero pulled a long sword and hand crossbow from his hip. The group followed suit, some bringing to bear smaller or bigger blades, maces, axes, or crossbows.
Not a sound could be heard from the small but dense jungle before Cepero. It was as if the wind from the Valenfaer Ocean was barred from sweeping over the beach and across the island. Leaves and branches did not sway, but were stuck in place and time, unmoving. Cepero crossed into the jungle and the eeriness provoked by the silent jungle dissipated when the foliage rustled, making soft noises as leaves slid across shoulders. The Esoterics snagged leaves, stones, and bark as they went. Beads of sweat began to run down Cepero’s temples as his tensions heightened and the abnormal heat of the jungle afflicted him.
“Turn a little to the right.” Cepero shifted his course slightly until Dom called, “Straight ahead.”
Cepero turned his head to nod at the boy and saw his eyes bouncing in his head. He was breathing hard and searching every shaded corner amidst the trees and vines. Ilona was at his side, keeping one hand on his shoulder and one gripping a loaded crossbow she’d need a second hand to fire. Again Cepero was reminded that Dom was merely a boy.
Repressing his worry for Dom was difficult but Cepero managed it quickly; he was good at his job and knew that being a sergeant meant he needed to focus on the task at hand. And doing so provided him a view that dazzled him.
Surrounded by a copse of trees that created a thin hallway to its opening was a cave. Around the mouth of the cave clung the same blue hue that came from the sand. Cepero looked to his hand and a pit opened in his stomach; his entire hand had changed to a darker color of blue and the color was creeping up under his sleeve.
Soft blue light emanated from the walls of the cave and illuminated the cavern. While the group stood stock still, examining the cave and their hands, the Rattler took the lead and crept towards the cave. His hands were also blue, a shade darker even than Cepero’s, but the sergeant could not recall the old man touching the sand on the beach.
With certainty, Cepero knew that the Rattler was somehow connected to this curse. But now wasn’t the time for an investigation, so Cepero brushed past the Rattler and continued down the narrow cavern with caution. His eyes darted this way and that as he sought movement. Not a flicker presented itself and Cepero wished something would leap from a corner; he was irked by the still nature of this entire island.
The corridor widened, opening into a large chamber. The soft light thrown off by the walls was barely enough to allow Cepero a view of shapes within the cavern.
Arvyn and Tanbry stepped next to Cepero, staring hard at the blue walls.
Tanbry said, “We can amplify the light. I don’t know what kind of magic it is but I can feel how to feed it with more power. Arvyn, do you feel it?”
“Yeah. It’s easy to access, like it wants us to. It wants us to supply it with more.”
Before Cepero could warn them that doing so might be the wrong course of action, the walls flared to life, blazing with light that was now white. Cepero shielded his eyes and squinted until the light slightly dimmed.
Dozens of dead, those still with skin displaying tracks of prominent blue veins beneath flesh, were slowly and jerkily rising to their feet. Rusted blades were gripped in a few clenched hands. One man already stood, gold coins scattered beneath him. His skin was a dark blue and he was standing over a boy. The exposed skin of the boy was changing to blue. Cepero could see that he still breathed, although in shallow bursts, and that his eyes were open and moving ever so slightly. Treasures of all color and shape were piled against the back wall along with several locked chests.
Dom cried out, “Perry!” but slunk away from the terrible scene to stand behind the Rattler.
Cepero hollered, “Cut them down!” and charged for the man standing over Perry. He heard the moving feet of the men and women behind him and the twang of crossbows. Two bolts slammed into the man standing over Perry at the same time and knocked him onto his side. Cepero was on him then, stabbing him through the chest and face several times over.
Arvyn’s voice broke over the din, “Stay clear!”
Glass shattered and Cepero left off stabbing the downed man and turned to see a lumbering corpse closing on him. Rising from the shards of glass was a cloud of black vapor that enveloped the corpse and fixed its joints in place. It toppled over and lay there, eyes lazily moving but the rest of it stricken with the rigidity of death yet again. He briefly looked around to see the other guards tearing into the dazed, cursed beings. Even Varrus fought with intensity. Jacer and Ratche stood against a wall, their shoulders touching, with clubs in shaky hands. The majority of those in the melee swung their blades with power created by the fear in them. Although the corpses were terrifying, they fell quickly.
A woman before Cepero stalked towards him as if she moved through a swamp. Cepero leveled his crossbow at her face and fired. The bolt tore into her forehead and lodged deep into her skull. She fell to the earth and ceased moving.
Cepero turned back to the mouth of the cavern and saw the Rattler leaning heavily on his staff, blood dripping from his ears and his breath coming slow and deep.
The others were leaving off fighting the dead and heading towards Cepero. Then he turned to Perry and gripped the paralyzed boy’s shoulders. The boy’s eyes moved slightly towards his and they nearly locked gazes. Cepero picked the boy up and suddenly his body began slowing. He barely managed to lower Perry from his shoulder to a clear spot on the ground, preventing the paralysis from gripping him completely.
Light exploded off the walls once more and then died. Cepero was momentarily stuck in place as if the light had accelerated his petrification. He caught a glimpse of his arm and looked upon dark blue flesh. Although his body has slowed, terror still surged through him, setting his heart to slamming against his chest. The light clung to the dead men and women around him and they yet again began to rise. They were rising quicker than before and Cepero was only barely regaining the use of his body. Fear struck through him and he desperately willed his body to respond to his mind.
The man at his feet was up and his eyes were blazing white. Cepero watched, stuck in place as the corpse struck him with the back of his hand. White flashed before Cepero. Was that the walls that cast the intense light or the cursed man’s strike? Cepero barely had time to consider the notion as he rigidly hit the floor. He had enough motion to turn and see the man who had struck him and the woman he had shot through the head descending on him, the latter with a blade.
Cepero heard Tanbry’s voice calling out in a strange language. There was an obvious rhythm to her gibbering and then she barked a command. Suddenly, the ground beneath the feet of the two undead bearing down on him turned to soft mud. It pulled their bodies downward as if it was hungry for their rotted flesh and brittle bones. Then, it solidified and trapped them within.
A battle raged and men cried out. Cepero heard Dom scream and was finally able to find his strength and mobility as he got to his feet. A cursed woman jerkily but quickly came at Cepero. She pulled her fist back to strike and Cepero only barely managed to sidestep her wide strike. Her speed was incredible and a horrifying thought came to Cepero’s mind; could these cursed people be gaining more power as time passed?
Cepero ducked another strike, then stabbed upwards, piercing the woman’s chest with his blade. Without waiting to see whether or not the strike would fell her, Cepero pulled the blade free then slashed madly into the woman’s face, chest, and arms. She remained quiet while Cepero dismantled her and soon, she was on the ground, an arm missing at the elbow and large swaths of flesh dangling from her body and face.
The din of battle had ceased and Cepero turned in a circle to see that all of the cursed beings had been incapacitated.
He shouted, “They’re going to come back! We need to get Perry and go. Arvyn, Tanbry, he’s cursed. You need to remove it before we can touch him.”
Tanbry said, “Do you think we can remove it now?”
Arvyn shook his head. “Not enough time or knowledge.”
Cepero pleaded, “Then find a way to get him out of here without touching him!”
Tanbry and Arvyn shared a look of worry and Cepero was confused by it. He was only a few seconds short from screaming at them.
Finally, Tanbry nodded and said, “Let’s call upon the earth to carry him. We can do this. But drop the spell if it gets to be too much for you. We all get out of here intact. You understand me?”
As one, the Esoterics waved their hands over the boy and the earth began to shake. Cracks sprang up and ran around him. An oval-shaped piece of the earth burst from the ground and carried Perry atop it. Both Tanbry and Arvyn opened their eyes but kept their hands outstretched.
Two voices came from Cepero’s left and he turned to see Jacer and Ratche standing over a pile of gold coins. “This could get me any wife I wanted! No bar-owning husband would get in the way. Any of ‘em.”
Jacer mumbled, “Or any house. Wouldn’t have any need of sleeping in the muck of a swamp to get one. It’d be better than what we got now. Any house at all.”
Cepero called, “And a cursed life. Get away from that. Don’t touch anything at –”
Suddenly the white light flared anew.
Cepero briefly saw the beings, who had just recently been on the ground and broken, begin to convulse. Missing limbs shot back in place and fused together. Broken bones snapped and jarred as they mended. Cuts closed. Blazing eyes opened.
“Move!” Ilona screamed and every man and woman in the cavern followed her direction. They sprinted for the cave but the undead were terribly fast now. Dom and the Rattler were the only two Cepero were certain had made it out of the cavern and into the tunnel when the cursed beings began attacking.
Desperation welled in Cepero when he saw several men before him take hard blows and cuts along their bodies. The dead leapt back from the men like predators waiting for one of their prey to exit the safety of their herd. Even dazed, not a single person quit running for the tunnel.
Arvyn and Tanbry were before Cepero, pushing the slab of earth along that carried Perry’s still form. The two Esoterics visibly strained as they moved the slab, one on each side to balance it. A cursed man turned on them and darted forward. Cepero rushed towards the threat with his blade outstretched. He barely managed to arrive in time to stab the man through the chest. The cursed being slid down the blade until it was at the hilt then clawed at Cepero’s face. A dirty hand slapped him but the man’s nails had mostly eroded away and Cepero wasn’t sure if he’d suffered any cuts.
With a growl he turned back to the cursed man and shot his fist at the man’s head. Knuckles shattered brittle bone. The being was knocked back but was still stuck on Cepero’s sword so he kicked him in the gut and sent him sprawling to the floor. A massive weight crashed onto his back and he stumbled forward. A hand grabbed the back of his head and he was falling to the floor.
Cepero braced his fall with his forearms but the hand controlling him drove his head down. Cepero instinctively turned his head to the side and was saved a broken nose but his cheek slammed into the hard earth. Before he could begin fighting back, the weight abated. Two pairs of booted feet were to either side of him. The sound of loud dry thumps that soon turned wet spun Cepero’s head around. Jacer and Ratche were pounding the dead woman with clubs and stomping on her with heels.
The cursed woman soon stopped moving and Cepero bolted to his feet. Sharp pain tore across his lower back and through his head as he rose but now wasn’t the time to yield to injuries. Jacer and Ratche left off attacking the cursed woman and spun around.
“Come on! We need to get out of here!” Cepero screamed at them. He limped along behind them as his back protested each step but never did he stop. Garay appeared at his side, crawling for the exit. “Wait! Help me!”
At Cepero’s call, Jacer and Ratche stopped, exchanged worried glances, then dove for Garay. Cepero bent down to help pick Garay up and then pain erupted along his side. A man flashed by with a blade clutched in his hand. Cepero screamed and clutched his ribs, a deep slash now running along them.
Jacer and Ratche stopped hoisting Garay up and flinched away from the man who had cut Cepero. Cepero screamed, “Just pick him up! We need to go!”
Death was much nearer to Cepero than ever before, but he wouldn’t fall prey to this curse. Rise’er would have to wait to dine on his soul. He wouldn’t lie in this cursed place then come back from death to hurt anyone. From what Varrus had said earlier, Cepero reasoned that those already afflicted by it wanted to bolster their forces; they’d wound each man and woman until they couldn’t escape but they wouldn’t kill them purposefully. They’d drag them, kicking and screaming, back into the cavern and set them upon the treasure to allow the curse to sink into them first.
Cepero stood up and groaned as fire spread across his side. He glimpsed cursed men and women darting in and out, striking at those escaping. The few blades flashed across backs and thighs as fists and legs cracked jaws and guts. Only rarely were those escaping able to strike back. Only barely did they stay on their feet.
Garay now hung between Jacer and Ratche, an arm draped over the shoulders of the two men. Both Jacer and Ratche carried a club in their free hand and hustled towards the tunnel mouth. Cepero fell in behind them, each step was a new lesson in pain. He grunted against the agony pulsing in his back and side.
Swift motion caught the corner of his eye and Cepero swung his blade out towards the cursed man. His blade bit deep and the man fell to the floor, inert and missing a large chunk of his head. Then Cepero was limping through the tunnel.
Sounds came from behind him and he turned to see a dead woman chasing after them. Cepero spun around and fell to a knee when the pain running through his body caused his legs to give out. The woman was rushing at Cepero, jerking side to side as she ran. Cepero struggled to rise but the agony kept him down, unyielding in its control of his body.
The woman lunged one final time and was on Cepero, her fists swinging wildly. Cepero raised his blade at the last moment and speared the woman through the chest. She slowed her mad attack until she stopped and then slipped back off the blade and to the earth.
Cepero breathed hard and simply stared at the motionless woman. He tried to refuse the pain, to make it leave him be and allow him to rise and run. It wouldn’t, however, and Cepero’s world was beginning to go black as he tipped forward. A hand stopped him from crashing into the earth and his eyes fluttered, on the brink of closing.
“Cepero, come on. We need to go!” It was Victor’s voice and it tore Cepero from the grip of unconsciousness. Victor pulled and Cepero’s body screamed in protest until he himself screamed. But he was on his feet and then Victor spun him around and they were moving.
The darkness of the tunnel gave way and bright light stabbed into his eyes. Cepero covered his eyes but they soon adjusted to the light and he could see the jungle. Before him was the entire group; not a single person had been left behind or had died … yet.
The Rattler wheezed as he struggled to catch his breath.
Cepero turned to look at the tunnel and white light pulsed from deep inside the cave. “They’re back! Run!” he roared.
Varrus helped the Rattler along; Jacer and Ratche supported Garay; Tanbry and Arvyn focused on carrying Perry, and Victor pushed Cepero along.
After crashing through trees and brush, they came upon the boats. Conrad pulled Perry from the rock and ungracefully dropped into the boat, his body shaking after doing so. The others leapt into the boats. Cepero and Victor were the last in and he wondered about the sounds of moving feet along the beach behind him until pain obliterated his thoughts.
Once he opened his eyes he found himself staring at a man standing just a few hand spans from the boat. He looked around and saw a dozen more dead men and women standing around the boats as well. But they merely stood there, their bodies twitching every so often. The woman with the bolt stuck in her skull was there and Cepero knew that these were the same cursed beings from the cave.
Cepero eventually tore his gaze from the cursed beings and looked down at the boat to see it surrounded by shallow water. The bottom just barely touched the sand, keeping the boats anchored to the shore. Ilona grabbed an oar and used it to shove off. The dead lurched when the oar touched the sand but they did not advance. Conrad did the same to get his boat moving and the dead reacted the same.
The island shrunk as the boats floated away and Cepero stared in fearful wonderment at the undead standing on the shores.
Ilona said, “Cepero, are you okay?”
Cepero looked to Victor. They locked gazes for a moment and Cepero nodded at him.
“No. My side is torn up bad. I’m going to need it stitched once we get on the ship. I think something is wrong with my back too. But it’s better than being dead. How’s Garay?”
“He’s unconscious but alive. Just got his head banged around a bit.”
“Good. And everyone else?”
“Cuts and bruises here and there.”
Celia’s voice cut in, “Speak for yourself. Pretty sure I have a broken toe in this boot. Hurts like nothing before!”
Ilona mumbled, “Count yourself lucky.”
Victor said, “Imagine if they’d all had blades. I only remember seeing two with swords, and they got to almost all of us.”
Cepero nodded then said, “What about those on the other boat?”
“I don’t know. They all look okay.”
Arvyn groaned then said, “Don’t even bother to ask about us. But could you all stop talking?”
Cepero looked over to see the young man cradling his head in his hands. Tanbry had her eyes closed and was rubbing her forehead.
Ilona asked, “You two alright?”
Tanbry replied, “Yeah. Using our magic for so long hurts a little and poses a risk. The pain is manageable though. It’ll be gone in a few menes. Just bad right now. We both made it through without suffering anything permanent.” Again, the pair shared a look that spoke a sure message. Cepero knew that their older brother, Vable, had been ruined after using magic too extensively.
The remainder of the trip to the Victory Chimes passed quickly and in relative silence as those aboard assessed themselves and others for injuries. Once aboard, the wounded were tended to and Perry was set below deck. Touching the boy caused much less of a reaction then it had before.
Celia was stitching the wound along Cepero’s side when he asked, “Did you see anything –?” Cepero hissed as fresh pain shot up his side then continued, “with the Rattler? Anything else that was odd?”
“Blood started coming from his ears when we entered the cavern. I don’t know what to make of it.”
“Could be that he was using magic. Maybe he’s the one who brought the curse alive and woke up those men and women.”
“How would we know?”
“We won’t. When we get back, let’s have the Guard keep a close eye on him.”
“Straight. All done. Now rest, we’ll be at the docks soon.”
Cepero nodded as he slowly lowered himself to lie down on the cot beneath him. Moving caused him pain but the relief that came when he rested was worth it.
Cepero’s eyes fluttered open and he heard Celia’s voice, “We’re here. I’ll help you up.”
Gentle hands helped him sit up and only then did Cepero realize he had been asleep. Celia helped him stand then the two slowly made it up on deck. There, at the mast, were Dom and Perry.
Dom looked sad but kept his arm draped over Perry’s shoulder. Perry no longer had blue skin and he moved freely although he sometimes began to tremble.
“Celia, bring me over to Perry.”
With Celia’s hand on his shoulder, Cepero made his way to stand before the two boys. “Dom, you okay? You look sad.”
“Yeah. I’m just worried that Perry isn’t going to be the same anymore. He said he was really scared and his body doesn’t feel right anymore. Can you fix him?”
“Me? No. But maybe one of the Esoterics can. I’ll ask them. Perry, how are you feeling? Are you hurt?”
The young boy looked up to Cepero and tears welled in his eyes. He tried to speak but once he opened his mouth he hiccuped and openly sobbed.
Dom’s eyes filled with tears as well and he said, “He keeps crying. And I cry when he does. My head and ribs hurt too.”
Celia said, “You’re both just tired, Dom. You’ll be okay.”
Cepero reached his hand out and placed it on Perry’s head to comfort the boy. A lump welled in his throat as he felt the boy tremble.
The potion that Dom had ingested must have done something to him. He already showed signs of some kind of physical connection to Perry. Dom hadn’t sustained any injuries, his sides hadn’t been squeezed by the dead man like Perry’s had. But they had similar injuries. But such a side effect couldn’t be a terrible hindrance. The two were great friends and would likely remain close throughout their lives.
But then he remembered his own friendship with Victor. Although Cepero tried to believe the opposite, he realized that bond had run deep at one point, evolving from one based off of ale and partying to one of emotional connection. But it had all fallen apart as the will to keep it alive had evaporated. What if the same happened with these two young boys? Perhaps people in general needed to fight harder to keep those close ties with the people that became important in their lives. Maybe Cepero was wrong in thinking that their falling out was Victor’s fault entirely.
Without warning, Perry bolted to his feet and wrapped Cepero in a tight hug around his waist. The pain that came with the boy’s embrace was terrible but Cepero held his breath and kept from pushing the boy away. Instead, he let his arms drape down and wrap the boy. Perry sobbed and shook and soon Cepero’s eyes were wet. He could see that Dom was in the same condition as Perry.
Men and women moved about the Victory Chimes, preparing it to anchor in Dargon’s shores. Cepero looked around with teary eyes until he found the Rattler. The ancient man looked terribly old, dead even, and disappointed. The usual disgust that accompanied seeing the Rattler did not afflict Cepero.
“Celia, stay with Perry. I’ll be back in a moment.” Gently, Cepero peeled Perry’s arms from his waist and limped over to the Rattler.
Ancient, dead eyes looked upon him, taking in his labored gait. Cepero said, “Tell me what you know.”
Slowly, either from exhaustion or because he really wanted Cepero to understand him, the Rattler signed, “In pain. Leave me. Curse not destroyed.”
Cepero asked, incredulous, “You were trying to destroy it?”
The Rattler simply nodded his head.
There was nothing within those old eyes to lend any truth to the Rattler’s words, nor was there any indication he was lying. Cepero wondered if the Rattler really was acting with good intention the entire time. Could it have been that he mistook the odd behavior of the old man as malicious intent? He wasn’t sure. He still knew, however, that the Rattler did not sit right with him; he’d always have an eye on that man when he was near.
Cepero turned and began walking back to Celia. Either the rocking of the boat had increased tenfold or he was dizzy. He felt a rush of wind, then his injured leg gave out and he was flat on the deck. Celia called his name but she was so far away. Blackness crept in.
The dead surrounded Cepero, lightning tracks of blue shooting through their skin. They advanced on him, slowly but surely, loud moans coming from their wretched maws. They fell upon him in a torrent, suffocating him, ripping and tearing at him, defiling his soul.
A scream sounded in Cepero’s ears and he was blinded by darkness for a moment although he knew his eyes were open. The scream had been his. He didn’t know where he was but he did know he was going to vomit. He turned his head to the side and spewed the contents of his stomach over a wooden floor. Only once he stopped retching did he understand that he was lying on a cot.
Celia was then at his side, holding his shoulders to keep him from falling off the cot. Once Cepero had finished and he lay back down, he then realized that he was sweating profusely and that simple movement made him sick.
After a few menes passed with Celia dabbing his forehead and rubbing his shoulders, Cepero felt steady enough to speak. “What happened, Celia?”
“Your cut is infected. Those things had old, rusted, dirty blades. Everyone who got cut was infected. You have it worse though. Probably because of how bad your cut is. You’ve been mostly unconscious for several bells. How are you feeling?”
“Terrible. I had a nightmare. I saw them in my dreams.”
Celia was quiet for a moment. She squeezed his shoulder and said, “I’m sorry, Cepero. I’m so sorry. Are you alright?”
“Yes. It was just a dream. How’s Perry?”
“Straight. He’s alright. The curse has left him completely thanks to Arvyn and Tanbry. He twitches a little now, doesn’t have complete control of his body and we won’t know if he’ll ever get full control again. It’s mostly his soul. He just looks scared of everything. He’s home though, with his family. I’ll take you to him once you’re well.”
Cepero suddenly felt very tired. “It was all real, right? The cursed island, all the dead people, all of it?”
“Yes, Cepero, all of it. The island is gone. It just isn’t there anymore. We’ll talk about it more when you wake, you need rest.”
“We need to tell the duke. Imagine it showing up on someone’s shore one day, Celia. What are we going to do? The things on that island, the dead people. It’s not over. Not until they’re all dead, and dead for good.”