TRAVIS ADKINS TAKES FANTASY FICTION TO ANOTHER LEVEL IN HIS LATEST TITLE
Bowie V. Ibarra
Travis Adkins has never had issues with lack of imagination. Or articulation. Travis brings all of his best writing qualities in an amazing and enjoyable Dungeons and Dragons-style adventure title that is one part fantasy, one part zombie horror, one part comedy, and one part bawdy erotic title. Read this excerpt from 'Mists of the Dead' and see for yourself. Then, pick up a copy HERE.
Copyright 2017 Henchman Press, Travis Adkins. All rights reserved.
In the following excerpt, Warrel the Bard, Kogliastro the Wizard, and Beatrix the Cleric have been spirited from their world into a bizzare new world through a mysterious mist. As they try to understand the realities of their new world, rivals from their world appear and bring trouble. That's when the real trouble from the mystery of the mist begins to reveal itself.
= = = = = = = =
Ahead, Kogliastro stopped walking and stood still in the midst of his light. Warrel’s own steps stuttered to a stop, and then Beatrix’s.
As Warrel waited for the wizard to turn around, with warranted exasperation, and give them a good scolding, he began formulating in his head the response he would provide. He would say he and the cleric weren’t arguing, only politely disagreeing. Then he would apologize. But he had a feeling Beatrix would not suffer chastisement as readily as he did.
Please turn her into a frog, he thought.
With movement as slow and graceful as a dancer’s pirouette, the blue mass of robe framing Kogliastro swiveled around to face them. He brought up his hand, heavy sleeve sagging, and beckoned with a bony finger for Warrel and Beatrix to come forward. They did.
“Get behind me,” he said.
Warrel exchanged glances with Beatrix, and they moved to opposite sides behind Kogliastro.
Warrel watched the wizard, but said nothing. He looked where the wizard was looking, back the way they had traveled, at the mists sieging the circumference of the magical light, obscuring the land from view. It was quiet out there with no one talking—quiet as a grave. Warrel figured it probably wasn’t healthy to be immersed in such deadening silence, when all you could hear was your own blood rushing in your ears.
“Danger?” he asked.
“Yes,” Kogliastro said.
Beatrix twitched. Her eyes shut in palliative meditation, and opened again in resolve. “The un-dead?” she asked.
Kogliastro’s hood shook side to side. “I sense no un-dead in my divinations, only a void,” he said. “But I know they are only part of it; the void is greater than they. The emptiness in this world is vast, the nothing greater than the something, the not-beings greater than the is-beings.”
“Beings can be, and nothings can noth,” Kogliastro said.
“But what danger approaches?” Warrel asked.
“A subterfuge,” Kogliastro said.
“The illusory magic?”
“No. The presence of illusory magic is still a distance away. What approaches us now is the camouflage shadowing us since we arrived here.”
If you weren’t so obtuse I could better follow what was going on, Warrel wanted to say.
The mists betrayed nothing. If there was some kind of code lurking in their swirls and undulations, Warrel couldn’t see it. There was no breeze stirring them yet still they danced, a reaction without an original action, objects in motion staying in motion. He swept his torch across his unprotected side, hoping it might ward off anything lurking on the other side of the light.
“My powers have failed in this world from the start,” Beatrix uttered through downcast lips. “I have been unable to sense any of the threats until they were already upon us. Either my goddess cannot reach me to lend me her strength, or this world itself is an evil all-pervasive.”
Both, undoubtedly, Warrel thought. And a cleric who cannot turn the un-dead is not a cleric at all; worth less than half a fighter, if that. Perhaps the un-dead in this world are like the dead in our world—quite immune to any and all manner of buncombe. But what am I worth? It’s not as if I can beguile them with song, now is it?
“Bah!” Warrel said. “Show yourself, unless thou art craven!”
“Whatcha in sucha hurry ta lose ya head for?” a voice returned.
Warrel braced himself. He knew that voice.
Flames from two approaching torches ruptured the mists, causing a rift in their omnipresence. Currents wafted aside like ghosts fleeing an enchanter.
Two men in leather armor marched to a stop just inside the perimeter of Kogliastro’s light.
“You leave a trail a blind man could follow,” the one with the face full of tattooed teardrops said.
Warrel gritted his teeth. “Thou hast been nothing short of coccydynian, Irvane Jillian,” he said.
Irvane smiled. Beside him, his drooling brother Cale flashed a snarl.
“Who are these men?” Beatrix asked.
“Well, well, well—what’s this?” Irvane said, gawking at the cleric. “You traded in your dwarf for a blessed little goose.”
“So you are a rapscallious knave; that’s all I need to know,” Beatrix said, folding her arms and drumming her mace against her hip.
“A bad trade,” Irvane said. “Me’n Suds actually fretted quite a bit, worryin’ ourselves over how best to deal with Gumgen. Stayed up all night we did, drawin’ big plans. Don’t matter none now, does it?”
“You do not get to say his name,” Warrel said.
“Up and died, did he?”
“Fuck yourself,” Warrel said.
Irvane focused on Beatrix again. “I’m sorry, m’lady,” he said. “We’s got no quarrel with the Whites, but my mama always told me no witnesses, so we’re gonna have ta dirtnap ya. It’ll be quick.” He cast his eyes at Warrel. “You won’t be quick though, poet-boy. And when I’m done with ya, I’m gonna profane yer fuckin’ remains.”
“Have your wits escaped you?” Warrel said. “Has that gaudy codpiece concealing your microphallus blinded you to the situation in which we find ourselves?”
“That insult’ll be your last,” Irvane said. “Ain’t no Swearen around to protect ya, and no witnesses’ll be testifying to him on your behalf in regards to what’s gonna transpire here.”
“Yes, here,” Warrel said. “Have you looked around? Have you any clue where we are?”
“Don’t know, don’t care,” Irvane said. “I feel strong here. This place fuckin’ speaks to me. Me’n Suds might even set up house.”
“So strong here,” his brother Suds-Cale mumbled.
“Oh, shut it, thou warthog-faced buffoon,” Warrel said.
“Can I kill him now?” Suds-Cale asked.
“Make your move,” Warrel said. “The wizard will incinerate you.”
“The wizard ain’t doin’ shit,” Irvane said, grinning big.
And he certainly wasn’t, when Warrel glanced over to check on him. Kogliastro was doing nothing.
“Kogliastro,” Warrel said. “Hey. Hey. Kogster. Pops!”
Worry flashed in Beatrix’s eyes.
“He’ll do whatever we tell him to, ‘cause he can’t do no other,” Irvane said. “He’s nothing but an old man in a robe, and he’ll give us that nice magic cloak he’s got if’n we ask him to.” He snuck his free hand behind his back and it returned with a large glasslike orb cupped in his palm. Irvane displayed it proudly.
So, that’s it, Warrel realized. That’s the coward’s cunning Gumgen spoke of; Irvane’s answer to the wizard’s magic—he has himself a Globe of Invulnerability, purchased or stolen or looted from an enchanter. Now he and his brother are immune to magic, immune to scrying, immune to divination.
“A dirty trick,” Warrel said.
“History’s wrote with dirty tricks,” Irvane replied.
“Written,” Warrel said. What else did Gumgen warn me? Oh— “He might throw daggers before closing in with swords,” he added from the side of his mouth.
Beatrix nodded. She shifted into a sideface posture, mace primed.
Warrel caught something from the corners of his eyes—the flutter of Kogliastro’s beard, and heard something like a growl issue from beneath the wizard’s hood.
Kogliastro lifted his arm and showed his palm to the Jillian brothers. “Enough,” he said tiredly. “I have heard enough. It is obvious you will not be swayed from your ill-intentions by parley. You force me to reveal where the true balance of power lies.”
Kogliastro turned his hand over, palm-up, mirroring Irvane’s pose. Then, with a suddenness and ferocity that caused the tendons in his forearm to ripple, and a simultaneous intonation of the word, “Erbek,” the wizard’s fingers slammed shut into a quaking fist.
In Irvane’s hand, the Globe of Invulnerability shattered in a wonderful implosion, filling the bowl-shape of his palm with his own blood. He gawked dumbfounded at the empty air above his hand where the globe had been, outwardly unaware of the many more bleeding cuts up his forearm made by the bursting shards of glass.
Warrel’s eyes widened and his jaw dropped, face beaming. Beside him, Beatrix tried to conceal her own shocked amusement by covering her mouth with her fingers. Kogliastro merely lowered his hand and allowed it to resume holding his staff.
“Ha! Ha-ha!” Warrel laughed. “Oh thy loathsome Irvane, I truly hope—for the sake of the last vestiges of your pitiful pride—that wasn’t the full depth of your cunning! Ha! This is Kogliastro, man!—not some vagrant street magician! Did you think he’s never come up against a Globe of Invulnerability before?! Ha! Oh, thou hast really cuckol’ed the kobold!”
“A thousand cocks on you, bard!” Irvane roared.
“What do we do now?” Suds-Cale asked.
“We kill them,” Irvane snarled. “And prop ’em up with poles in their nethers.”
The two brothers cast their torches aside and drew the bastard swords from the scabbards on their backs.
Irvane was fast—so fast that even with Gumgen’s forewarning Warrel wouldn’t have been able to evade those three twinkling daggers whistling towards him. He was spared only because a barrier had materialized between his party and the cutthroats. The daggers ricocheted sharply off the barrier with three succinct tings—ting-ting-ting—like the tolls of a tiny bell. Warrel recognized the barrier—a vertical, two-dimensional abjuration twelve feet wide by twelve feet tall, transparent and shimmering like a thin coat of water. It was the same magic he’d seen encompassing Eralynn’s Teahouse to keep out nosy plebeians when Kogliastro was inside.
Irvane and Suds-Cale shifted their weight forward to charge the barrier, but were suddenly thrust backward in such a way Warrel assumed Kogliastro had cast another spell. But that something was terribly amiss here was all that Warrel could really identify. There was soon too much chaos to fully consider each occurrence in turn; one horror immediately followed another.
Irvane and Suds-Cale were still just inside the perimeter of Kogliastro’s light, but their bodies were arched backwards, their heads submerged in the obscuring mists.
Both brothers were screaming.
Irvane tugged forward, trying to get himself back in the false safety of the wizard’s light. He pulled mightily against whatever was keeping his head in the mists and he momentarily succeeded, just long enough to reveal to Warrel and Kogliastro and Beatrix the bloody teardrops filling in the tattoos on his cheeks, and a slimy putrescent hand that poured over his forehead from behind with its index and little finger sunk deep into the sockets of Irvane’s eyes in a sinister grapple.
Suds-Cale’s screaming ceased the instant Warrel heard the cracking crunch of his skull breaking, which was followed by the wet, slurpy sound of his brain being pulled from the cavity, and then the gnashings of teeth.
“Gramercy!” Irvane cried. “Gramercy!”
His bastard sword lay discarded on the dry grasses. Both of his hands worked at the arm that tried to yank him into the mists by its secure grip in his eye sockets. His face was replete with bloody tears.
Kogliastro extended his hand and pointed at Irvane. The chant he then intoned from deep in his throat bore all the evidence of a magically-transformed larynx. An underlying resonance of rumbling swept over everything. The spell was aimed at Irvane, but the tangential effects were enormous. Warrel and Beatrix were seized and held stiff as trees, limbs shuddering.
Warrel tried flailing but could not. He tried shouting, but could not. Beside him, Beatrix managed a windless groan. He understood what was happening even through his panic: Kogliastro usurped their voices.
Less than a second had passed but it felt much longer. It was the first time Warrel was truly terrified of Kogliastro. He had heard stories, passed off as hearsay, about unutterable arcana, and realized now with much embarrassment and humility how stupid he had been; he knew he was traveling with a master wizard, but didn’t truly grasp how real and harrowing were the unfathomable magics he’d been warned of—magics that bent reality to the wizard’s whims and gave him total control of the destinies of others. There was no way of explaining it, or comprehending it, other than saying Kogliastro had penetrated the immutable matrix of the universe and come back with the scariest magic ever recorded.
This enchantment stopped an enemy’s heart by mere postulate.
It was too much power for anyone to possess. It was godlike.
An entire barbarian hill tribe was blowing their war-trumpets in Warrel’s ears. Over the resonance were countless chanting harmonics—“Beel”—“Kray”—“Ide”—“Urd”—the arcana carrying absolute authority; demanding, commanding.
Kogliastro used the power to grant Irvane’s plea for mercy, but the mists corrupted the magic as Beatrix had warned. Irvane’s heart did not stop beating; it exploded from his chest instead, ribcage bursting wide open, spattering the magic barrier with dollops of pulpy blood.
The rumbling ceased. Warrel felt himself back in control of his body.
“Simple spells, wizard!” Beatrix shouted. “Damn it!—we’re lucky to speak again!”
From the left flank, a rotted, raggedy humanoid rushed at the cleric, arms outstretched and flailing like some pestilence-stricken madman racing to arrive first at the panacea. She staggered the creature with a straight kick to its chest, then attacked, spinning in a whirl of white tunic, channeling all of her impetus at the apex of her mace and connecting with the creature’s mouth, bashing it wide open and sending teeth spraying like tiny hailstones. The creature went flat and she pounced to finish it off, crushing one side of its skull with an arcing downward strike, and then ambidextrously swapping the mace to her opposite hand so she could crush the other side of the skull. It seemed a crucial lesson she had been first among them to learn: always double-strike the undead.
Another undead humanoid emerged from the mists and made a run for her, but Kogliastro thrust out a robed arm and abjurated a second barrier perpendicular to the first. The undead smacked into it and recoiled with a broken nose.
Warrel encountered his own undead, a putrescent smaller humanoid bounding from stunted leg to stunted leg, coming closer. He identified it as having been a gnome, though now it was barely held together by its rotting muscles and tautly-stretched ligaments.
He waved his torch and his prediction was confirmed: the undead gnome retreated from the fire. It hopped side to side beyond the reach of the flame, trying to find a weakness in Warrel’s guard.
Kogliastro put up a third barrier, this one in front of Warrel, and then a fourth connecting all the barriers together, and then topped it with a ceiling, completing the magical box.
More undead emerged from the mists and into the wizard’s light. In the time it took Warrel to cast his eyes around full circle, score upon score of undead had come out of the mists and gathered on all sides of the magical barrier.
We are as the trolls caged in the menagerie, Warrel realized grimly. Except it’s quite the other way around, now, isn’t it? The ones craving flesh are on the outside looking in.
By the hundreds they came, heeding some demon trumpeter’s call; forgotten souls from the tempest tossed, human and elf, dwarf and gnome, halfling and orc; anointed in malodorous cadaverine leachate trickling dark and dirty from ruptured skin and nostrils, in stages of decay as diverse as the mob’s members; the pauper in patchwork clothing, bloated with noxious gases; the orc impaled by a bardiche, feet made of cold and sticky clay; a physician ill-served by the plague mask even still perched upon his countenance, breached seams dripping maggots; the knight in corroded and sundered armor, sundry rivets mislaid; the dames in brocade dresses with lips of lurid blue; the marbled appearance of the courtesan in a golden girdle; men of nobility in frayed doublets with lacy ruffled collars; a peculiar humanoid uncatalogued by cryptozoology with a feature full of outreached tentacles, beak like a squid gaping with hunger, garbed in a cracked chitinous cuirass; the kingsman donned in a surcoat bearing the sigil of a kingdom nonexistent; the elf aristocrat decorated in a cloak of darkleaf—thou are not exempt from this fate; none are. Why need I further pore—this corner holds at least a score, and yonder twice as many more. The dead who know nothing: who is the fool?—who is the wise man?—who is the beggar?—the emperor?
Livers and intestines were the first to rot after death, Warrel knew, leaving nothing to digest the nutrients these undead sought. The brains they devoured were given over to total nothingness—wasted into an eternal oblivion. On Erda, the world he knew, life must needs eat life. But on this broken, misty world, life was given unto non-life.
What a grisly joke has been played upon us all, he thought.
Their approach was noiseless—trancelike—not a single breath or sound escaped the dusty abyss of their mouths. The impossibility of their very existence aside, they should not have had the capacity for such coordinated movement. Even well-drilled armies of living men sometimes had a stumble or two when they marched in formation, but not these undead; they did not bump against each other or cross feet. Somehow they were functioning cohesively—without even communicating. And now they were at all four sides of the barrier, trying to get in.
“Kogliastro,” Warrel uttered bleakly. “Is there anything that can be done?”
The wizard answered by plunging his staff into the ground, stabilizing its lifeguarding light, and evoking a magic missile in his palm. He loosed the missile through the shimmering barrier at the nearest undead, magic slapping its face with a wet poof. The head recoiled; clear damage had been done.
Kogliastro evoked another magic missile, and another, launching them at the same undead. Its head recoiled from each blow, each blasting away a chunk of its skull. Two more missiles followed and obliterated the skull entirely.
The wizard flowed in a magnificent arcane dance, loosing magic missiles into the air and through the barrier. They came at first by the dozens, then by the hundreds, the pinkish-orange projectiles racing like tadpoles at the innumerable targets before them. Surely the mists overhead obscured a display greater than any performance of fireworks ever recorded on Erda—perhaps a show even grander than the celebrated ceremony at the Garden of Light in Solux, when millions of hatchling torchflies swarmed the shores during the night of the long solstice, brightening the sky as full as day.
The missiles plunged inerrant on their course, poof-poof-poof, destroying skulls, orange tracers recalibrating to strike the next target, brains and bone fragments popping out in showery eruptions, mostly headless corpses dropping clumsily to the ground, twisted and entwined in macabre poses, a tangle of arms and legs, limbs interlocking in some perverse, necrotic orgy of mortflesh.
Hesitantly hopeful, Warrel watched on as minutes passed and piles of undead littered the field. Not a single sliver of weed was visible through the rotting mass.
He is doing it, he thought. Truly the wizard is as a god.
Except the stream of magic missiles had now begun to sputter, like the dwindling momentum at the end of some divine orgasm. Warrel threw his gaze over to Kogliastro and observed a blue robe with gold piping soaked through with sweat, the lower half stumbling, losing coordination.
“He is exhausting himself,” Beatrix said.
She dashed to be at his side, but before she could reach him to support him upright, the wizard crumpled in a ripple of deflated robe, one final magic missile shooting from his palm and weakly slapping some undead’s face in a gesture most impotent.
Kogliastro lay on the ground. His hood had fallen back in his collapse and the man underneath revealed to Warrel and Beatrix with absoluteness. This was a man deep in senescence, a grandfather several generations grand, a sweaty balded pate above two cataract-infused eyes, twitching as if in momentary senility. Amidst the white beard a mouth appeared, laboring to propel oxygen through its shallow passage and refill the strained lungs powering the decrepit carbon engine.
Beatrix knelt at his side and supported his head.
He is but a cluster of cloth draped upon a frame of bundled twigs, Warrel thought.
Kogliastro’s pupils rolled in Warrel’s direction. They studied Warrel for a time, and then the wizard said, shakily, “I see you looking at me through the pitying eyes of youth—the ignorant eyes gazing upon something they think will never happen to them. Know this, Warrel: One day you too will be a young man looking out upon the world from the lenses of an old body, and none who look upon you will see the man you still believe you are.”
Outside the magical cube, there was no indication the number of undead had been at all reduced. A new wave of zombies scaled and conquered the mountains of unmoving corpses, and the vanguard was pressed to the barrier and gawking like spoiled children at the window of a chocolatier’s storefront.
Beatrix sluggishly turned away from the sight of them and lowered her head, gulping. “How long will your barrier hold, Kogliastro?” she asked.
“I… cannot know for certain,” he replied.
Beatrix nodded soberly. She cast her eyes around the interior of the cube before finding and focusing on the bit of handle jutting from Warrel’s boot, the handle belonging to the Pixie Prick.
“I would like to make use of your blade, Warrel,” she said. “May I borrow it?”
Shaking his head in answer to her question was a frustrating distraction. Warrel was deep in thought, mulling over an idea with a projected outcome that was surely too hopeful to happen in any kind of real actuality. But if the wizard’s magic missiles had been able to pass through the barrier from this side, perhaps anything could.
“Face the inevitable,” Beatrix said. “Be not a coward who dies a thousand deaths. Lend me your blade and I will demonstrate courage.”
“No,” Warrel said.
“No!” he said. “Cleric, postpone thy martyrdom and humor the possibility, however remote, that the lunamoth doctrine suckled from the teats of your goddess serves only to propagandize dying as a trivial, minor inconvenience. I do not share your conviction that life is but a meaningless flicker against the backdrop of some grand immortality; I see life in its full, limitless potential. So, please, be still a moment and let me conclude my thoughts.”
“Ugh—you dare advise me,” she scowled. “Such a ubiquitous trend—the male pontificating the female what she should or shouldn’t do with full agency over her own body.”
“Oh, drop the dogmas!” Warrel snapped. “I’m not trying to claim dominion over you—I’m only asking that you not pass your ghost beyond the veil before we’ve exhausted our options.”
“What options?” she asked doubtfully.
“I might have something,” he said.
“And if you do not?”
“Then my blade is yours to plunge into your breast—or whatever the ritual is your goddess demands.”
“Fine. Do what you will—but be quick about it,” she said. “If I suffer tortuous death at the hands of the un-dead, your name will be the last curse uttered from my lips.”
“Yes, yes, fine,” he said. I’ve been cursed plenty before. He focused his attention on the sweaty old man in the skins of robe on the ground like a collapsed monument. “Kogliastro, are you still with us?”
“Yes,” the wizard said.
“Clarify for me: will anything go through the barrier from this side?”
“Yes,” Kogliastro said. “Attacks from within may pass.”
“Do they need be magical in nature?”
“No,” Kogliastro said.
“You’re quite sure?”
“Yes, I’m quite sure.”
“And nothing can pass through from the other side?”
“Correct. Unless I authorize it.”
“And you’ve authorized nothing to pass?”
“Are you sure?”
“So nothing at all can pass from the other side?”
“Are you very, very sure?”
“Yes, Warrel, he’s sure!” Beatrix said.
Warrel put up his hand. “Okay, okay,” he said.
He turned to face the nearest wall. Zombies pressed up against the other side, front to back, shoulder to shoulder, showing their teeth. Their ranks could go on infinitely.
Warrel shuddered. I must make room.
He extended his torch at the barrier, expecting some kind of resistance despite what the wizard told him, but there was none. The flame passed through, as did the solid of the torch itself. An anomalous force tugged at it from the other side, but he understood it was actually the barrier prohibiting any particles from reentering once they had already passed through.
The undead shuffled backwards one step at a time as the flame drew near. Warrel released the torch and it fell to the dirt on the other side, rolling a short distance on the slight incline and singeing scattered blades of grass as it trundled over them. After everything settled and all movement had ceased, there was roughly four feet of space between the vanguard of undead and the barrier.
That will do, Warrel figured.
He reached a hand behind his back to untie the lashings securing the crossbow to his knapsack. Once accomplished, he displayed the crossbow to Kogliastro and Beatrix.
“This is The Albatross,” he said. “The heighth of gnomish ingenuity. This,” he bounced it in his hands, “is equal to almost the entirety of my life savings. I—”
“Get on with it,” Beatrix said.
“I’m getting there, I’m getting there,” Warrel said.
He spun again to face the undead. With a nervous exhale, he released the ammunition casing from the crossbow’s stock, and verified with a quick glance that six Bolts of Massive Explosion were lined up inside. They phosphoresced with an ominous green iridescence, sheening to glowing tips, a luster lusting only for carnage, wholesale.
And so you shall have it.
He settled the stock against his shoulder and lifted the crossbow at a rotting elf in the forefront. Its pointed ears were browned and withered at the edges and the cartilage of its nose was disintegrated, exposing a festering nasal cavity. Warrel sighted center-mass, the crosshairs targeting a magnified view of the elf’s chest, showing with gratuitous detail the slimy curls of intestine peeking out through multiple ruptures.
Warrel cocked the foregrip with a staunch jerk back then forward, the crossbow releasing a hiss of air in synchronization with the forward motion, drawing back the mithral bowstring. A Bolt of Massive Explosion was conveyed by some mechanism inside and positioned in the flight groove.
Warrel tapped his finger on the tickler guard. It was all that stopped him now.
“Hold on to your butts,” he said.
He pulled the trigger. His eyes were able to witness only a single image of the bolt, a brief instant of the distortion of space by a zooming body captured in his memory as a wraithlike umbilical cord linking the crossbow to its target.
And then all the fires from all the furnaces of all the hells opened wide their abyssal jaws and expelled apocalypse on the dark and misty lands. All was fire—the undead were fire, the soil was fire, the air was fire—burning greenish-red and engulfing even the mists—the mists that succumbed even after losing form and sprinkling droplets of evacuees that were immediately boiled and annihilated.
Warrel winced and shrank back, shielding his eyes with his forearm. The ground trembled below his feet. He squinted at Kogliastro and Beatrix, at their bodies bathed in a wash of neon light, and dreadfully wondered if this might not have been what the wizard had in mind when he said nothing could pass. Warrel counted one, two, three seconds. But inside the magic cube, even at the nucleus of the explosion, the tall grasses were still green and thriving and he felt no trace of heat from the inferno without.
The raging fire was too wide-ranging to make any assessment of its true proportions. For all Warrel knew, it could have conquered this broken world entirely. And once he admitted this to himself, he recognized the terrified expression frozen upon Beatrix’s countenance. It meant to say, the gnomes have it within them to destroy the world—gods help us all.
A minute passed, at least, before there was any change in intensity. The flames receded and the mists in the sky were replaced with roiling black smoke. The fire divided, died off, separated into small tongues lapping away at meager remnants of corpses like pennants of fallen soldiers rippling in the wind after a battle. The field was black, scorched and smoldering. There was no undead left standing anywhere in sight—which was quite far, for the fire had sent the mists into full retreat and provided Warrel his widest vista since he first set foot in this gloomy world.
Beatrix sprang to her feet and investigated the carnage around her. When Warrel espied glimpses of her face, he felt he could almost read her mind: Her oaths forbade her from encouraging, approving, or permitting such wanton destruction, but she was so relieved to be alive that she praised the wanton destruction for saving her, and then all the feelings of guilt came flooding in, and surely at this point she was a mess of amalgamated emotional dissonance. It explained her withdrawn silence.
Inexorably, new undead appeared at the horizons in the form of misshapen silhouettes, weaving around the numerous small fires still burning, drawn to the occupants inside the magic barrier.
“They will keep coming,” Kogliastro said, wincing as he sat up. “And I must dissolve the barrier soon—I cannot recuperate with this lingering magic taxing my power. How much ammunition do you carry?”
“I have five bolts left,” Warrel replied.
“Of the same variety as the one you loosed?”
“Good, good—fantastic,” Kogliastro said, with burgeoning enthusiasm. He pointed at the way they had been travelling. “We must continue seeking the source of the illusory magic. There is an intelligence behind it. If we locate it, we may find safety.”
Somehow I doubt that, Warrel thought.
“Clear a route with your weapon, as far as you can,” Kogliastro said. “Thenceforth we can flee before more un-dead close in on us.”
No other options were coming to mind, so Warrel set about the task. Beatrix blinked away from eye contact and said not a word as he slipped past her to the barrier opposite. He felt her fingers brush his wrist, probably carrying the intent to halt him but not with enough real conviction to make it manifest. She turned her head lugubriously in his wake, as if it were demanded by creed that she witness the chaos her silence sanctioned.
She sighed, barely audibly, “How can my fall be happening so fast?”
Warrel aimed at the farthest spot he could see in the blackness, where the mists were converging, and fired a second Bolt of Massive Explosion.
This time he could behold the detonation in all its glory. The initial burst was a spherical eruption of flaming spikes that looked like the form of some giant enraged quillrat, then a growing column of greenish-red flame shooting into the sky and billowing off like a mushroom. The all-consuming wave of fire came next.
He did not wait the full minute or more for the fire to dissipate. He cocked the foregrip again, lifted his aim to a higher trajectory, and pulled the trigger. He wasn’t sure what kind of range The Albatross was capable of, but he figured it must be great.
Another mountain of fire erupted behind the first. Warrel aimed higher and fired again, then aimed higher and fired again, repeating until the last bolt was expended. He agonized upon each explosion, wondering how much each shot was costing him monetarily. He decided he oughtn’t analyze it too thoroughly; after all, any man who watched his fortune slipping away would feel the same paroxysms of grief.
“Good, good,” Kogliastro said. He attempted to stand, but couldn’t get further than one knee. He wobbled, on the verge of toppling over.
Beatrix caught him. “I’ve got you, I’ve got you,” she said. “We are in no immediate danger. Dissolve your barrier. Let your strength return.”
“No time,” Kogliastro said. “We must flee now.”
“Then we shall carry you,” Beatrix said, purchasing Warrel’s compliance with the austerity of her gaze.
They took opposite sides of the wizard and draped his arms across their shoulders, raising him gently to his feet. To Warrel it seemed less like a human body he and the cleric shared between them and more akin to some hollow construct of papier-mâché they were charged with delivering undamaged to some far-off exhibition. He feared at any moment he would harken the sound of a breaking bone.
Beatrix pulled Kogliastro’s staff out of the ground and slipped it into his hand. He adjusted it in his grasp to extend the light before them.
“Be swift,” he said. “Now, forward, as the fires die.”
The barriers dissolved with a flicker. Hot air blew at them like the ambient heat of a summer sun baking the concrete of a city street, along with the marinade of smells such a street would carry. The pungent stench of crispy, cremated corpses burned in Warrel’s nostrils as if he had snorted the entire stale contents of an old pepper grinder.
They ran, gaining speed as they coordinated strides. Their bootsteps sunk deep in the sweeping black bed of powdery cinders, ashes stirring like dead leaves in a poofy gust of autumnal breath, fiery red coals snowing at their trail.
The craters at the detonation points served as beacons through which they waded in and out, and at the third crater Warrel burst into hysterical laughter.
Beatrix confusedly glanced over at him, then returned her eyes forward. “What could you possibly find so funny?” she asked.
“Oh—” Warrel said with a grimace, “Only that I laid The Albatross down and forgot to take it up again. I ask you: how much must I give?—how much must this land take?”
“Good grief,” Beatrix said. “You know we can’t go back.”
“I know,” he panted. “Just imagine all the other treasures that might be lost out here in the mists.”
“I am imagining living—not treasure,” she coolly replied.
Her breathing was regulated despite the exertion of running, in contrast to Warrel’s increased huffing and puffing. He had worked hard to keep up his cardio and thought the natural endurance of half-elves quite unfair.
“Yes, living,” he said. “Aren’t you glad you stuck around? I bet you’d have felt awful silly killing yourself before I managed to get us out of there.”
“Yes, Warrel,” she said. “I’m sure I would have felt very silly.”
“And considering you’d likely have returned as un-dead.”
“What?” she said sharply, looking past Kogliastro to throw a quick glare in Warrel’s direction. “What does that mean?”
“Just a hypothesis I have,” Warrel said. “If you die with your brain intact, your body belongs to the mists. I think.”
Beatrix scoffed. “And you were going to give utterance to your hypothesis when?”
“When and if the need arose, I suppose.”
She growled. “Argh! You flighty bastard!”
“I’m not flighty,” Warrel said.
She nodded a thought to herself, with conviction, unable to hide the sneer of her lips. “I’d have gone for your brain first,” she said, “though I’m sure it would’ve provided me little satisfaction.”
“Oh, truly thou art rife with zingers,” Warrel replied.
“You impertinent flake,” she hissed. “By the gods, it’s as if I have direct audience with the uncrowned king of imbeciles.”
“Enough!” Kogliastro burst. “Both of you, enough!”
Warrel was not frightened so much at the wizard’s anger as he was by the mists closing in at their sides. They appeared rageful, swooping in swiftly and violently, wanting nothing less than outright revenge for the casualties they suffered by fire.
The scorched land gradually gave way to unscathed pastures. The mists tried to smite at the wizard’s light, sending wispy assassins to encircle the bright bulb at the end of his staff. The luminosity dimmed under their efforts, but did not extinguish.
And though Warrel did not turn his head long enough to investigate fully, he was almost certain putrefied hands and arms were reaching at them from the mists.
He almost cried aloud, We aren’t going to make it!
They passed through an opening in a low stone wall, the first architecture Warrel had seen since leaving the abandoned town. The grass began to reveal interspersed flagstones that clapped loudly under their bootfalls, leading somewhere, certainly.
“Stop,” Kogliastro said. “We are there.” He unwound his arms from the cradle of their shoulders and leaned forward heavily on his staff.
Directly before them was debris where a large manor once stood, evidenced by the ruins of pillars, walls, and supports suggesting the shape of the original structure. There was no telling what its final fate had been, whether fire, storm, or pillaging. Strangely, however, the mists did not invade the area. They seemed unable, being stopped and turned away at the tentative borders.
“There is nothing here,” Warrel said, breathing hard.
“Yes there is,” Kogliastro said. “We see an illusion—a false projection of reality. Behind the illusion the structure still exists, intact and mostly undamaged.”
“It does?” Warrel asked. “There’s a… house here?”
He stepped ahead and flattened his palms against one of the pillars, but his skin did not quite make full contact, as if there were some invisible surface area he was not allowed to see. He knew there was something there; he could feel a finished surface on his fingertips, like polished wood or a painted exterior. He walked sideways, following the imperceptible vertical plane with slaps of his palms, feeling the solidness even where his eyes were sure there was nothing.
“There must be a way in or someone wouldn’t be bothering to hide it,” he said. “A door—there must be a door.”
His brushed against the jambs of a doorframe and felt for its outline. The doorway was large—he could tell that straight away—something imposing and impressive for moneyed gentry to flaunt at passersby. He laid hand on the doorknob, but it only rattled in his grasp. He floated a hand upwards and found a hinged knocker, a cold metal cast of some indefinite form.
“Hello! Is there anybody there?!” he called out, rapping.
Only stillness answered him, though every word fell echoing through the shadowiness of the house, the air shaken by his call.
Warrel stood perplexed. He called again, “Is there anybody there?!”
But never the least stir made the listeners.
“Open says me!” he shouted. He fumbled down at the knob and probed for a keyhole while one hand slipped into his jacket for his howler quill. “I may be able to pick the lock.”
“No,” Kogliastro said. “Stand back. I am not strong enough yet to dispel the illusion, but I may be able to… just stand back.”
Warrel backed away uncertainly, glancing over his shoulders for any sign the undead had caught up.
Kogliastro lifted a shaky hand and said, “Repulverie.”
A large rectangular shape burst thunderously in the false emptiness and yellow light gushed forth from the nothing. Kogliastro had repelled the door from its frame, Warrel gathered, and he was now seeing the interior the illusion had concealed. It was well lit, and there were no mists inside—that was good enough for him.
Kogliastro collapsed to his knees. Beatrix collected him under his arms and hoisted him up. She assisted him to the doorway as he hobbled weakly on crouched legs.
And Warrel was suddenly off his own, plummeting forward, his nose barely missing a flagstone. He cried, “Oomph!” as he ate a mouthful of dirt.
He was dragged backwards, back to the mists, his shirt bunching up in a roll against his chest, a firm pressure around his ankle like a terminal anchor. And he was too tired, too fatigued—and he knew it—to struggle against his assailant.
The undead leaped, and Warrel heard the whistle of air through its gaping mouth, and soon the teeth would be clenched on his scalp, and he braced himself for the surge of pain.
There was an unexpected sound, though, a loud thunk, following an altogether different whistle of air. Warrel saw the blurred crystalline club swinging in a pendulum arc, and felt the impact in the atmosphere when the undead’s face was crushed into its scalp.
A hand gripped the collar of his jacket and he felt himself dragged once again, this time forward, turned clumsily half-over with his knapsack holding him at an angle. The coarse dirt abruptly changed to smooth hardwood flooring, and the hand released him.
He lifted his head. There was Kogliastro on his hands and knees in the blankets of his robe, and he thrust a hand back and said, “Etrun.” The rectangle shape, now recognizable as a paneled door, flew back into its frame as if drawn by gravity. Kogliastro then fell flat on the floor, exhaling an exhausted sigh.
Warrel propped himself on an elbow, and breathing hard, trying to syncopate the beating of his heart, gazed up at the pale apparition who had delivered him from skeletal clutches.
“Yours is the aura of a corrupter,” Beatrix said. “But I postponed your death all the same. Like for like.”
Warrel nodded. He had the urge to shamelessly and effusively kiss her boots, but settled for patting them instead. The doeskin was soft yet unyielding to his touch.
“You have my undying gratitude,” he said. “Pardon the pun.”
= = = = =
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