The Rising – Part Seven
By: Jeff R. Young

During the days that Draven was off on his scouting mission, Mace and the others took to fortifying and strengthening the walls around the town, which became slightly problematic when Gwent blunted reminded everyone that goblin like to use fire and throw fire at or into the towns they raid. And since Ravenwoods walls consisted of thick, hard, but aging wood, the fire would most definitely prove to be a problem. Gwent had a few ideas to help solve the issue, but also explained they had neither the time or supplies fix the problem. The best solution they could generate was possibly filling buckets of water and post them up on the wall, but again Gwent was quick to mention that would be as useful as ice chunks at a fire breathing dragon.

"We've not much ta' work with," Gwent stated to Mace, "but we be do'n what we can."

The priest could only frown and nod in agreement, "Do what you can, my friend."

Mace turned to find Cora behind talking with Zythos and Kenrith. They were charged with the task of convincing the townsfolk to take up arms and fight should the need arise. Cora told Mace it would be no easy task, but they had nothing to loose in trying.

He watched as the three came to some agreement to which had Kenrith and Zythos walking towards the nearest buildings. Before Cora could move off as well, Mace called out, "Cora, a moment?"

"Of course," she answered easily closing the gap between them.

"I think it is time I learn more about this dagger you mentioned to Master Lucian."

"Of course," Cora nodded, "Let us retire to the privacy of my room, shall we?"

Mace agreed and followed.

Over the next few hours, Mace learned frustratingly little about the weapon. He did not blame Cora. Gathering information from the black markets of any city was not an easy task, made worse since most people knew she was originally from the Temple of the Five.

What she was able to divulge did convince him that the dagger was something he had to look deeper into, since the one fact she was able to affirm was that there were several reports that the weapon was indeed enchanted with dark magic. Cora also mentioned that a man nicknamed The Hound, who was the leader of one of the areas criminal organizations, held the item.

After learning all he could from her, he went out to check on the others who had done all they could to ready for an attack. There was less good news than Mace hoped for, but after Zythos reported that a surprising number of townsfolk were willing to fight, he felt just a little better.

"There is little else we can do," Mace said after a heavy sigh, "all we can do is wait for Draven."

The rest agreed solemnly, and with few words, all departed to their rooms for some rest. Each was hoping silently that the Ranger would be back much–needed news, good or bad.

*****

It was well past dawn when the whole group, having learned of Draven's return, assembled in the guard hall. They were all present: Mace and Cora, Kenrith, Gwent, and Zythos, even Draven and Deall who had only recently passed through the town gate. The ranger had demanded one of the patrolling guards hurry off to let the others know he was back. The intense look in Draven's ice blue eyes quieted any protest the guard may have offered, convincing him that running was the best option in delivering the message.

Each of them either sat or stood in silence, their full attention on Draven as he gave a complete and detailed account of what he had experienced the past few days. Though several wanted to, no one interrupted with various questions until he finished his report. He ended his story by adding the graphic and horrifying details of his fight against the undead creature.

Silence ruled the room as each of them absorbed the ranger's tale. All seemed lost for words as Mace stood from his chair and walked over to Draven who sat on the floor, resting his back against the wall.

"Let me take a look," Mace said, carefully grasping Draven's injured arm. He started by unwrapping the cloth bandage, noticing that the further he got, the more a dark red stain grew in size. The wound must have bled for some time to have soaked through so many layers. Draven hissed and cringed in pain when the last segment of the bandage peeled off the wound.

"That doesn't look good," Cora said, leaning in for a closer look. Everyone in the room stole a glance, all frowning or cringing at the site of the injury. The wound looked precisely like a bite mark; it was somewhat oval with the edges torn where the teeth cut in. The inside tissue, where the most damage was done, had a discolored look, a mix of reds, green and yellow.

"It's already become infected," Mace stated evenly.

"He's been bitten," Deall said quietly. He was sitting on the floor as well, curled up in a corner as far from the group as he could manage. Mace looked over at the man, regarding him in silence. Moments passed before he turned his attention back to Draven's injury, contemplating his next step.

Cora had been genuinely relieved when Deall was found alive. She crossed the room to kneel before him, offered a friendly smile, and placed a comforting hand on his shoulder. He recoiled at the touch, his eyes widening as his anxiety spiked. He'd been acting this way since Draven brought him back, and Cora was determined to figure out why.

"I'm glad you're safe, Deall," she said, her tone soothing. "I feared the worst when you didn't return."

His only response was to stare up at her as if he didn't recognize who she was. But then, slowly at first, recognition dawned in his eyes, and he sat forward.

"Lady Cora?" he asked before scanning the room. His eyes locked onto Zythos, then Gwent before falling to rest on Kenrith.

"Kenrith?" he asked again, eliciting a nod from the guard captain.

"Welcome back, Deall," Kenrtih greeted. "We were worried about you."

"Who are they?" Deall swallowed as he looked back at Zythos and Gwent. They sat quietly at the table, watching him. Then he pointed to Mace. "And him."

"They're friends, " Cora assured. "Sent from the great Temple to help." "There is no help for us," Deall moaned, curling up into a ball again. His eyes grew distant, and he seemed to draw back into a shell.

Cora stood. Mace could tell she was worried. He'd never been skittish or afraid like this before according to her. Cora knew him as a man who always tried to prove how brave he could be, ever trying to convince Kenrith he'd make a proper town guard. But now, he seemed lost, almost insane.

Cora spun and looked to Draven. "Something's changed him; he's never acted like this before." She motioned down to the cowering man. "What happened to him?"

Draven looked away from his arm with a glance toward the woman and shrugged. "It's as I said, I found him hiding up in a tree. And when the creature attacked, he ran off and hid again."

"Deall has never been a coward," Cora claimed.

"Yeah?" Draven countered. "I think his definition of a hero is slightly skewed." Cora tossed the ranger a sour look, yet if the events Draven described were true to the word, she could hardly deny the coldhearted impression he held. She turned back to Deall, unsure how to handle him in his current state.

"Draven," Mace interrupted, drawing attention back to the injury, "something isn't right here."

"Yeah, those teeth marks tell me the same thing," Draven offered sardonically, rolling his eyes.

"No," Mace continued, his tone serious. "The flesh around the edge of the tear is—" he paused and raised the arm to sniff the wound. He frowned as he nodded in confirmation. "The skin is decaying around the bite."

"The dead makes the dead," Deall sputtered from his corner. All turned toward him, waiting for more, but he only pulled himself in tighter, his eyes still wild with fear.

"What does that mean?" Kenrith asked with frustration. Like Cora, he was worried and confused by the current mental state of the man.

"It means," Mace answered, "that whatever caused this curse, whatever is bringing the dead to life, seems to spread through their bites." He looked up to meet Draven's gaze, unable to hide the worry he felt.

"You mean I'm going to become one of them," Draven stated, thumping his head on the wall. "An ugly, rotting people biter?"

"Not if I can help it."

Draven snorted in dry humor, "Would it help if I became a vegetarian?"

The whole group gave a nervous smile or chuckle as Mace reached down to his side and pulled out the Holy Amulet of Ubus and leveled the talisman over the bite closing his eyes. His lips began moving, silently mouthing a sacred incantation. Soon, the amulet started to emit white energy that reached out to engulf the wound. Draven hissed when his arm began to burn, barely containing the urge to pull away. Growing brighter, the light began to pulse, sending wave after wave of holy light to wash over the injured flesh. Cora and Kenrith both looked on with amazement as the wound started to close, the tissue around the bite seeming to heal under the magic.

Mace was deep into the spell when he felt the energies waver. He prayed harder, intensifying the power of the incantation, but it only lasted a heartbeat. His prayer came to an abrupt end, and he collapsed, catching himself with one arm to keep from completely crumbling to the floor. His breath was heavy with exhaustion and sweat beaded like rain down his forehead. Zythos scrambled from his chair, grabbing onto Mace just as Draven lurched forward to steady him as well.

"Easy, my friend," the elf comforted.

For a few moments, Mace seemed completely lost, staring off into nothing. Finally, he began to blink away the fog and regain his composure. He quickly collected himself before lifting Draven's arm to study it. He frowned slightly, apparently not content with what he saw.

"Did it work?" Draven asked, glancing first at his arm, then at Mace, then back to his arm, before adding, "It, ah, it's still there."

"The curse is too powerful," Mace admitted, casting another apologetic look up at Draven. "I wasn't able to cure it, but I seemed to have slowed its progression significantly."

"Well, that's good news, I suppose," Draven mused. He tossed a wink up to Cora, who glared at him in return.

Over by the table, Kenrith's frustration finally boiled over. Before anyone could stop him, he charged across the room, grabbed Deall by the forearms, and hoisted him into the air. Deall shrieked as he dangled with his feet a few handspans above the floor.

"Kenrith!" Cora barked. She started forward to intervene but paused to a light touch below her knee. Snapping a look down, she found Zythos still crouched, shaking his head slowly as he removed his hand. He motioned quietly with his chin. She followed his gesture back over to where Kenrith held Deall and noticed a change had come over the crazed man. He seemed suddenly alert and in the present, no longer drawn into himself in terror.

The guard captain set him down and stood there as the two men stared eye to eye. Kenrith appeared satisfied by what he saw and, with one hand still on a shoulder, guided him none too gently to the table and plopped him down on an open chair. Leaning his full weight on the table next to Deall, Kenrith moved in close.

"Now, I've had enough of this, it's time to tell us what you know." Cora moved in and pulled Kenrith back, giving the Deall some space. Mace could tell she wasn't happy with the guard captain's approach to the situation, but he couldn't argue with its effect.

"I'm thirsty," Deall said plainly, as he looked up to Cora. Gwent, sitting silently in his chair on the far side of the table, slid a mug over to the man.

"Here lad, have yerself ‘a drink o' that."

Deall eagerly snatched the mug from the table and took a healthy swig. With a mouthful of liquid, he stared down at the mug with narrowed eyes, forcing himself to swallow.

"This is ale," he said to the dwarf.

"Aye, good and strong dwarven ale, it'll calm ya' nerves."

With an accepting shrug, Deall gulped down the rest then sighed heavily. He set the mug back down and looked up to Cora again, nervous. At least he seemed to be holding himself together.

"What happened to you?" she asked, careful to keep her tone soft. "I sent you to Lord Karam weeks ago, but you never came back."

"I went just as you told me to," he started, keeping his eyes focused on the table. "But he wasn't ready to send the message I was supposed to get."

"Why not?" she prompted.

"He said he had something better than just a message, but I had to wait." He shrugged before he looked up. "He wouldn't tell me anything more, said it was a secret not meant for me."

"What happened then?" Mace stood, trading a look with Cora as he asked.

"I waited outside the room as he told me to while some strangers came to talk."

"Did you know who they were?" Cora inquired.

Deall shook his head, "No. But the door was sorta open, and even though I wasn't supposed to, I peeked inside. One man wore fancy clothes, and they called him a funny name."

"What name?" Mace urged.

"They called him a hound," Deall responded. "You know, like a dog?"

Again Cora and Mace traded looks. The others caught the look between them and knew something serious was happening.

"Keep going," Cora commanded, looking hard at Deall. The look wasn't lost on him, and he seemed to shrink a little in his seat.

"They started arguing, quietly at first. Then someone started shouting. I peeked in again to see what all the fuss was about…" He trailed off, looking down at his lap.

Not about to let him slip back into his manic state, Cora reached out and gently lifted his head by the chin. "Tell us what happened."

"I saw the dog guy stab Lord Karam in the chest, right through his heart with a fancy looking dagger. The lord fell over dead, and the dog laughed." Deall shook his head slowly, his eyes lost in the memory. "They started looking through the room, talking about what to steal. I didn't know what I should do so I watched some more. They joked and laughed, and they took things, but when that hound went to search Lord Karam's body, the lord jumped up and grabbed the man and bit him on the throat!"

Mace looked to Draven, then back to Cora. "The dagger, that's the cause of the curse." He was sure of it. Cora could only nod in agreement.

"The bad man fell to the floor, dead from his wounds, only to get back up later after Lord Karam attacked and bit the other guys!" Deall added, "There was blood everywhere, and all that screaming. So I hid in a small closet in the hall."

"They didn't find you," Draven stated from the floor.

"No," Deall said, shaking his head vigorously. "They all just walked passed, dead, but walking, all of them!"

"How long did you hide?" Zythos asked.

"Hours," the man snorted in return. "I snuck back to see if anyone was still there, but the room was empty. Blood was everywhere, so I…" Deall hesitated with a guilty look in his eyes. He seemed on the verge of saying something more but stopped as if changing his mind. "I just ran, as fast as I could to get outside into the city. But I was too late."

"Too late for what?" Mace inquired.

"Too late for the living," Deall said quietly. "The dead were everywhere, attacking and biting anyone still alive."

"How did ya' manage ta get yer'self out the city, lad?"

"It took a long time, but I moved down alleys when it was safe, and hid when it wasn't. When I did get to the gate, a bunch of the monsters saw me and chased me into the woods."

"Why didn't you come back to Ravenwood?" Cora asked.

"I couldn't make it to the road; there were too many around, so I ran into the woods. They still chased me and I…" He frowned with a look of embarrassment, adding, "I got lost. I tried to find my way, but another group of those things found me and I had to run again. I didn't know for sure, but I think I was running around in circles, and I was getting tired, so I hid up in the tree."

"We need to find that dagger," Mace stated. He glanced around the room, looking to each person in turn, then fixed a stern gaze on Deall. The man looked back but was unable to match the intensity that bore through him. "What happened to that fancy dagger?"

"Do you mean—" Deall reached under the front of his ragged leather armor. "—this?"

He stretched out a hand holding a sheathed dagger with several jewels along a black handle that ended with a flawlessly cut ruby and set the blade on the table.

To be continued…

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