The Rising – Part Nine
By: Jeff R. Young

With the help of Cora and Kenrith, Mace and the others quickly brought order back into the town. The win against the undead hoard was worth celebrating, but the enemy had shown itself, and it could be only a matter of time before they came again. So, they set themselves to the task of readying the town.

Gwent and Kenrith gathered a handful of troops to collect and fill buckets of water, which were placed strategically along the walkway on the wall. With the help of Cora, Zythos made his way through the town, gathering up the people who had reluctantly agreed to serve in their makeshift army. They were explicitly after the sell-swords and were able to persuade them to fight with the promise of plenty of gold.

Draven took on the more dangerous task of going into the forest to collect the items needed to create as many arrows as they could. He made several trips, bringing back arm-loads of material only to head out and repeat the process. To his surprise, a few of the braver men in town offered assistance, which he eagerly accepted and moved on to another task. He assembled a small group of men and women and instructed them on the proper ways of creating the arrows. It had not taken them long to understand the concept, and soon enough, a pile of crafted missiles grew.

Draven paused, watching the others perform their duties and found Mace to turn the buckets of liquid into the blessed holy water. His sacred amulet in hand, Mace moved from one pail to another, casting the divine magic; but as he made his way down the line, Draven saw fatigue begin to wash over the priest. By the time Mace blessed the last bucket, he near collapsed in exhaustion.

Dusk was settling over the town when the group of six gathered to take stock of the city. Gwent had created a rotation of guards to adequately man the wall so none would be too tired to stand watch. Cora and Zythos had gathered everyone they could and had even collected enough makeshift weapons to arm them all. Though what good the unenchanted armaments might do, nobody knew. Draven's group of arrow makers continued to work diligently, determined to craft the projectiles until they ran out of proper supplies.

Everything seemed in place, so they agreed it was time to find food and adequate rest.

The six made their way back to the Silver Inn. Each member of the party seemed lost in their thoughts as they walked. Draven trailed a few yards behind the rest, using the privacy of the moment to steal a look at his arm. The infection was spreading. Though he refused to panic, worry haunted him.

The discoloration of his veins had created a spider web of black threads over the top of his hand. It grew up past the wound as well, disappearing well beyond the edge of the short-sleeved tunic he wore under his leather chest piece. Worse yet, the pigment of his entire arm had turned a sickly color of yellows, greens, and grey. He did take some comfort in the fact that the discoloration was hard to see. He hoped it meant it was growing slowly.

Draven knew he was dying, and knew he would become an abomination. He swore to himself that when the time came, he would demand one of his friends do their duty and execute him. He'd even let them shoot him with his bow if it came to it. By Nyarae's tears, he'd be damned if he'll become undead.

By the time they reached the Inn, Draven had shaken off his moment of self-pity and replaced it with the urge to eat and rest.

They ate in relative silence, only engaging in idle chit-chat from time to time. The silence was hardest on Mace. Thanks to the profound insight offered during his prayer to Ubus, he wanted nothing more than to share the experience; but the professional in him knew the group needed the break, himself as well. He worried most about Draven. He knew the ranger was tough, but Mace could see the effect of the curse slowly taking hold.

As usual, they were running out of time.

***

The dim light of dawn filtered through cloudy skies over Ravenwood. Everyone, once again assembled in Kenrith's guardhouse, was eager to know why Mace had called for yet another meeting. They looked rested and alert, but Mace felt exceptionally anxious, which contradicted his usual calm and collected demeanor.

Around the table sat Kenrith, Cora, and Gwent, with Zythos and Mace standing next to it. Draven, as usual, sat down on the floor, leaning up against the wall. The dwarf took a swig out of his tankard of ale before staring up toward the priest.

"So, what this be ‘bout then?" Gwent asked, wiping some foam from his beard. Mace pulled the dagger from inside his robe and unsheathed it before setting it on the table. Everyone leaned in for a look, except Draven. He remained seated with his arms resting on his knees.

"I've studied it as much as I possibly could, given the situation," Mace started. "And it does indeed hold no small amount of dark magic. I have no doubts this is the cause of the curse."

"It's inscribed with runes," Zythos pointed out.

"But I don't recognize the symbols," Mace admitted. "So, translating the inscriptions is impossible." "Some are symbols of Uibasy," Zythos indicated with brows furrowing.

"You can read it?" Cora asked, hopeful.

"I recognize the script, but I never learned to read them. In fact, there are few to my knowledge who actually could."

"Explain," Mace insisted.

"Uibasy is an ancient form of writing, created by my ancestors in the days when the elven nation first learned the art of magic."

It was common knowledge to any spell caster that the elves had guarded the secrets of magic for thousands of years. But eventually, the secret was exposed, as was the darker sides of the practice.

"The other is Acash, Mace," Zythos said, looking at the man. The elf raised a brow as Mace looked confused, shaking his head. "It's a necromantic dialect. Learned and spoken only by the most powerful liches."

Mace scowled deeply, as did the others. They may not have recognized the language, but everyone knew a lich was an abomination of the highest form. One did not just create the creature; they became one by using dark magic.

"Wait a moment," Kenrith chimed in, his eyes aimed at Zythos. "If these languages are so secret, how is it you know about them?"

"He's two hundred and thirty years old," Draven answered wryly. "You don't live that long without learning a few secrets here or there."

Kenrith's eyes bulged as he regarded the elf. "Point taken."

"So, what does this all mean?" Cora asked, looking to Mace and Zythos in turn.

"It means this dagger could be thousands of years old, created by a lich who very well could have been elven," Zythos stated evenly.

"One thing's for sure, it was not a relic stolen from the Temple," Mace reported. "There is no mention of the dagger in any book I've studied. It's all irrelevant anyway, no matter who or what created it, it must be destroyed."

"Can it be destroyed?" Cora asked. "I've heard many of the more powerful relics cannot be."

"It can," Mace assured, then turned to Draven. "and in doing so, the curse will be lifted."

"Well, knowing that makes me gitty with joy," The ranger claimed, grinning.

Gwent drained the last of his ale and slid his chair back to stand. "Well then, let me grab me hammer and be done wit' it."

"You'll get your chance, but it's not so easy," Mace explained to the dwarf.

"Of course not," Draven groaned, thumping his head on the wall.

Mace finally sat down and leaned on his elbows. He looked back and forth between Cora and Kenrith. "Is there a Temple here in town, preferably one dedicated to Ubus?"

Kenrith and Cora exchanged looks then shook their heads.

"Not here. But there's three in Caelfall," Cora claimed. "Eone, Jotesis, and yes, a Temple of Ubus."

He leaned back in his chair and sighed heavily, knowing full well what this all meant. He needed to be in a holy Temple, a place sanctified by one of the gods. By luck, there was a Temple of Ubus available, but it resided in a city reportedly overrun by the undead.

"I need to go there," Mace announced. He reached out carefully to sheath the dagger then slipped it back into his robe. He looked first to Zythos, then Draven, and finally at Gwent. "We have to get to the Temple; it's the only way."

"What ‘ye gett'n at lad?"

"I was taught a spell that will harness the power of my lord and allow us to destroy the dagger and to break the curse. And if we do it on time, we can save Draven."

"I like that idea," Draven muttered. "Let's go with that one."

"So, let me get this straight," Gwent insisted, "Ya' want us to travel to Caelfall, fight our way through who knows how many of those rott'n creatures? And if'n we even reach it, we need ta get inta the Temple where ya' will cast a holy spell of ye' god ya' just learned, to destroy the dagger, ending this curse forever?"

"Pretty much, yeah," Mace answered bluntly.

"Oh, ok." Gwent shrugged with a thumbs up.

Kenrith groaned, dropping his head on the table with a thump.

***

An hour later, Mace, Draven, Zythos, and Gwent were at work in the stables, readying their horses for travel. It was still early in the morning, and they were determined to make Caelfall by dusk. Entering the city at night didn't sit well with any of them, but time was a factor that limited their choices. Each was making last-minute checks when Cora and Kenrith strode into the barn and began to ready their own mounts.

Kenrith, dressed in the standard armor of the town guard, sported a longsword sheathed at his left side. To Mace, he didn't look happy, but he did seem determined.

Cora, however, had taken on a startling change. She was no longer wearing her simple tan robe, but instead wore a thin leather top which covered her chest up to her shoulders but came down from her neck far enough to expose a small amount of cleavage. Her abdomen was bare down to the short skirt she wore. Black cloth stockings covered her thighs, to be swallowed by subtle knee-high leather boots. Gold metallic bracers covered her wrists, and her thick black hair was pulled back into a ponytail. To either side of her waist, two gauntlets hung, each sporting a single blade protruding out from the top of the wrist.

"Wow, um…" Draven stammered, looking the woman over. "What are you doing?"

"We're going with you," Cora replied sharply, attempting to end any debate.

"This is our fight, Cora." Mace grabbed the reins of his horse and turned to exit the stable.

She spun around, stalking over to Mace with anger set in her eyes. "We're as much a part of this now as you are," she barked. "And I'll be damned if I'm going to just sit by through it all."

"We don't exactly know what we're facing, Cora. You've done your part, now let us do ours," Zythos said, turning his horse as well.

She shot Zythos a dark look but turned her attention back to Mace and poked him in the chest. "Besides, you need us!"

"How so?" Mace asked, cocking his head.

"Where exactly is the Temple?" She asked pointedly.

Mace frowned. He had considered the fact that none of them knew the city but figured they would form a plan once they got there. But she did have a point, their help would be valuable.

"I don't like the idea of putting you in danger," Draven called over, still in awe at her transformation.

"Stuff your worry, blondie," Cora shot back to him. "Of all of us here, you're the one in the most danger!"

Draven looked at his arm, conceiting the point silently.

"Alright," Mace said, motioning her to calm down. "You make a good point, but neither you nor Kenrith have weapons with the power to destroy them."

"We considered that," Kenrith pipped in. "What about the holy water thing?"

"It worked well on the arrows," Mace explained. "But on a weapon, it would only last a short time, if it even works at all."

"And we ain't carrying no buckets o' water through a fight, lad," Gwent called over.

"Then we can always just lop off the heads," Kenrith countered.

Gwent chuckled at the idea.

Zythos glanced at Mace as he steered his horse past him. "They both make good arguments. Not to mention that we could take the chance to split up and search for survivors as well."

"Alright then, the six of us," Mace announced.

Cora hurried back to her horse, but as she passed Draven, he offered her a wink, "Welcome to the group."

She offered him another deep scowl, but as she moved to finish preparing her horse, she smiled faintly.

***

Though it took longer than they hoped as they made Caelfall about an hour after nightfall, stopping near the edge of the forest. The silver glow of moonlight offering a surprisingly good view of the land around the city. They could even make out the torch-lit stone walls of Caelfall itself in the distance. The group tied their horses to some trees then stepped out of the woods, weapons ready.

"Draven, Zythos, you see anything?" Mace asked quietly. Draven may have his senses attuned to the land, but the elf could see well in the dark.

"The night lamps and torches are burning," Draven offered skeptically.

"Oil lamps," Cora explained, "burn for months. They're all about the city."

"Good, I hate fight'n in th' dark!" Gwent confessed.

"Otherwise, all seems…normal for a city filled with dead things," Draven mused.

"Let's move quietly then. Draven, take the lead," Mace instructed.

As one, they began to move. Draven was in front, followed by Zythos, Mace, and Gwent. Cora and Kenrith followed, continually looking behind them for a surprise attack.

They traveled quickly and quietly, occasionally seeing a wandering zombie off to one side or another. They let those pass, determined to make the city without incident. They were less than two hundred meters from the walls when Draven motioned for them to stop.

"What's wrong?" Cora asked after they caught up with the ranger.

Zythos pointed ahead. "The gate is open,"

"Is that good or bad," Kenrith whispered.

"Good," Draven answered back with a shrug. "I think. At least we won't have to climb."

"Explains how they were able to leave the city and attack Ravenwood," Cora stated.

"Alright," Mace said, his voice quiet. "We need a plan."

"Who do you need to get this done?" Zythos asked.

"I need Cora and Gwent for sure," Mace answered. "Why, what are you thinking?"

"He's thinking him, and I take Kenrith and create a distraction, hopefully getting the largest of the crowd to follow us," Draven said before Zythos could.

"And we could look for survivors," Zythos added. Kenrith didn't look happy with the plan, but the mention of survivors perked him up a bit. He and Cora both had friends in the city and held hope they were still alive.

"Risky, but logical," Mace stated as he looked to Cora. "Once we get there, which way are we going?"

"The streets are set up in blocks, so it's a relatively straight shot to the Temple. But there is one problem…"

"What?"

"The Temple is at the far end of the city, near to where the lords reside in their mansions."

"Figures," Mace lamented. "Well, it's all we got. Let's get this done."

They started again, keeping a steady but quiet pace. When the group neared the gate, they saw no movement. Not knowing what to make of it, they continued until they made the wall. They pressed against the outside as Draven risked slipping through the gate to get a better look. When he popped back out, he didn't look overly confident.

"So, what did you see?" Cora whispered.

"Uh," Draven stammered, scratching his head. "How many people live in these walls?"

"Hundreds, thousands maybe, why?" she replied.

"Well, the infected are everywhere. There is no way of sneaking past them; I can assure you that."

"So we run," Gwent offered.

"Right, Draven, Zythos, Kenrith, you three go first. Do what you can to make some room, but don't be foolish about it," Mace instructed.

"No matter what we do, it won't be enough, Mace. You're going to have a fight on your hands, too," Draven countered. "But we'll head off to the right. There is a large cluster of them near a building of some kind way down the street. My gut tells me there are survivors in there."

Mace nodded then looked at the others. Each nodded in turn, signaling they were ready. He gazed over at Draven, Kenrith, and Zythos.

"Good luck, and may the five watch over you," Mace offered as they darted through the gate.

To be continued…

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