Essin was tired, but then again at his age every day was tiring. As he trudged through the forest back to his isolated cabin, he was looking forward to a bite to eat, then relaxing with a mug of ale and a good pipe to end his day. For as surely as the sun would rise, he knew it was going to be a busy day tomorrow.
He'd already had an eventful time checking his traps in the forest this day. He counted himself lucky to fill one trap on an average day, and many days he had nothing to show for his treks. Today all of his traps had been full.
He wondered about his sudden good fortune, but Essin was never much for religion or superstition. To his way of thinking, things would happen, or they wouldn't, and the best a body could do was to try to stack the odds beforehand.
His catch sack was very heavy, slowing his progress home. Darkness was beginning to fall as he neared the clearing where his cabin lie, but this didn't trouble Essin much. He knew this forest well, having made his home here these many years since his Tressie died.
Still lost in thought about dinner and a pipe, Essin didn't notice the figure standing at the door of his cabin until he was almost on top of it.
It appeared to be a tall, thin human, wearing a gray hooded cloak.
"Here now, what you be doing on me stoop?" asked Essin.
There was no reply from the figure, but it did appear to notice Essin, turning slightly to face the old man.
"What is it you be wanting, stranger? Lost are ye?" chattered Essin. "Lucky for you the Vulmani didn't vent your weazand."
The stranger stood mute.
"Well, if it's food you're in need of, it's your lucky day," Essin said as he shook his catch bag. "More critters here than I could eat afore they went off anyway."
The stranger continued his silent regard of Essin.
The old man was growing nervous. The Vulmani who claimed this land made it difficult for many to venture deep into this region. As far as Essin knew, he was the only outsider with permission to live or travel in Vulmani lands. Therefore, a visitor that didn't have fangs and fur was something of an oddity.
As he paid closer attention to the stranger, Essin noticed a few more things. The figure, other than shifting its stance a bit when it first regarded Essin, was absolutely still. Moreover, there was an unpleasant smell, which Essin couldn't quite place.
"I'll be stepping inside now, stranger," stammered Essin as he started past the figure. "If you be wanting something, now's the time to let a man know. Otherwise, I'll be saying good day to you."
The figure made no response, but slowly turned to regard Essin's progress to the cabin door.
"As it suits you," shrugged Essin as he stepped inside his cabin, closing the door behind him and securing the latch.
Dropping his burden, the old man hastily uttered an incantation, igniting the wood stacked in the fireplace and the candles placed around the single room.
Relieved to be inside and away from the stranger, Essin busied himself with preparing his evening meal. He had barely gotten the water over the fire when he heard a slow, steady rapping on his door.
"Burn ye stranger, I'm cooking dinner here!" shouted Essin. "If you wanted something, you should have told me afore I got started!"
The knocking continued. Snatching up his axe, he rushed to the door to confront the annoying stranger. He lifted the latch and flung the door open, weapon held in a threatening manner.
As the light spilled out of the cabin and into the clearing, his exasperation turned to terror. Hundreds of figures had filled the clearing, all regarding the cabin in perfect stillness. Standing in the doorway was the stranger. Death had not been kind to it.
The scout looked down upon the valley. He had traveled through this region many times in his years as a hunter and was familiar with every bush, tree, and rock. Today it felt somehow wrong. He attributed part of it to the weather, which was unusually gray and overcast for a summer day, but still, something was ...wrong.
While the valley was filled with the sound of insects, it was missing the songs of birds, and the telltale rustle of other wildlife. This was a fertile valley, a home to many creatures, with a freshwater stream flowing through it. It was a blessing so close to the brackish waters found in the flooded lands to the south.
The scout decided to investigate further. It was his duty; these lands were claimed by his people, the Vulmani. If anything was amiss, he needed to discover what, and there was no profit in delay.
The scout flowed down the hillside like a shadow, and was soon down to the valley floor. Running through the center of the valley was a well-used animal trail.
Inspection of the trail revealed something interesting. While there were a great many fresh animal tracks, there were fresh tracks of another sort. These were of several types, most of which the scout did not recognize. Some resembled shod human tracks, others were birdlike scratches in the soft earth, and some were simply impressions in the dirt, as if something was leaning heavily on a staff. All the tracks, animal and unknown, were headed northwest, with the unknown tracks being the most recent. This gave the impression that the wildlife was being driven in front of the unknown.
The scout was torn. He wanted to follow the tracks and catch sight of whatever had made them, but he was also of a mind to follow them back to their origin. Discretion and duty won out over simple curiosity.
He estimated he was only a few hours behind whatever had made the tracks. Setting a rapid, but cautious pace, staying well under cover, he headed northwest.
Spoor was still abundant. Hunks of fur were stuck to limbs and brambles, as if the animals they belonged to had abandoned caution. In addition, the scout would occasionally find bits of cloth, worn and weathered, but freshly deposited on the underbrush.
The scout pressed on as the sun fell lower in the sky, nearing a widening in the valley well after dusk. Ahead would be a cabin inhabited by a peculiar old human named Essin Lark. Having made peace with the Vulmani chieftain years ago, Essin was not troubled by the tribe. The scout had shared Essin's fire on several occasions, getting to know the old man fairly well.
As the clearing came into view, the scout spotted the cabin. No lights were visible in the cabin, and nothing was moving. Only the sounds of insects and wind through the trees could be heard.
With great caution and skill borne from years of raiding, the scout crept up on the cabin and made his way to the front door. The door was standing open, the interior cloaked in darkness.
Hand firmly clasped on the hilt of his long knife, the scout edged his way inside the cabin. The coppery smell of spilled blood and the musty scent of animals were heavy here. It was still too dark for him to see anything inside the single room.
Retrieving a candle from his pouch, the scout quietly uttered the words of a simple cantrip causing the candle to come to sputtering life. The glow from the candle spread through the room revealing its contents.
Judging by the disarray, there had been a struggle in the cabin. The simple furnishings were strewn about and broken; a kettle full of water had fallen in the fireplace, dousing it. The scout saw a full catch sack on the floor, explaining the smell of animals and blood. Of Essin, there was no sign.
After restoring and relighting a fallen lantern, he continued his examination of the cabin. As he moved to the far side of the room, a faint scratching sound could be heard coming from underneath a toppled chair.
Lifting the chair, he was amazed to find a skeletal leg, roughly severed below the knee, laying flat on the floor, shod with a moldering black shoe. The leg was moving, twitching on the dirt floor in a random, jerky manner.
The scout jumped back a few paces, his hand gripping the hilt of his knife. Chiding himself for his fear, he moved back to examine the leg more closely.
The scout had seen many bones in the past, but never animated ones. Poking at it with his knife caused it to become even more agitated. He could not see how the bones were held together, but it was clearly moving as if it were all of one piece.
Not knowing what else to do, the scout decided to take this strange object back to the tribe. Perhaps the elders could make more sense of it.
Casting around for something to store the leg in, his eyes fell upon the catch sack. He shook the dead animals out, and was in the process of figuring how best to get the leg in the sack, when he heard movement outside.
The scout flattened himself against the wall by the open doorway, knife at the ready. The sound of movement drew closer, to just outside the door, then stopped. The scout was tense, teeth bared in a quiet snarl, unnerved by the day's events.
Several long moments passed, the scout becoming more and more apprehensive. He was ready to leap through the doorway and confront the source of the noises when they unexpectedly resumed.
A figure appeared in the doorway and shuffled towards the center of the room. It was Essin, leaning heavily on a stick. The scout relaxed. Essin was no threat and could possibly explain what had transpired.
"Essin, Vargorht greets you!" the scout called out to the old man.
Essin turned to face the scout. No longer in profile, the reason for the stick was quickly apparent; Essin was missing his left leg from just below the knee. Essin stared at the scout for a moment, expression blank. The scout regarded him in return.
Along with the missing leg, Essin's breeches below the knee were cut and ragged, but there was no sign of bleeding. As the scout moved his eyes upward, he noticed something even more troubling. Essin's unblinking eyes were not the faded blue he remembered, but instead they were black, iris indistinguishable from pupil.
Turning away from the scout, Essin made his way towards the still-twitching leg. As he stooped down and picked it up, the twitching ceased. Essin dropped his stick and placed the skeletal part against the severed end of his own leg.
So rapt was the scout in the actions of Essin that he did not notice another enter the cabin until it moved past him to stand near the old man.
Dressed in a gray cloak with its back to him, the scout could not tell much about the newcomer until it raised both arms above its head allowing its sleeves to fall. Withered skin was stretched over bone, with large patches missing, exposing the skeleton beneath.
The scout had seen enough. Keeping one eye on the two figures in the center of the room and the other on the door, the scout began inching his way out of the cabin.
Paying no attention to the scout, the cloaked figure made a short, croaking incantation. The skin around Essin's ravaged leg withered to match that of the figure, and the old man made a few tentative steps. The skeletal leg now seemed a part of Essin.
Abandoning stealth, the scout bolted for the door. He made it to the doorway, and with a last glance over his shoulder at the two odd beings he ran outside.
He was immediately brought up short, running full on into another figure. This one was not hooded, but dressed in scraps of leather armor that was once quite ornate. Beneath the armor was blackened skin and exposed bone. The face was a rotted visage of something long dead. Its legs were odd, the right withered and wrapped in tatters, the left exposed and very fleshy below the knee. The left was shod in... Essin's boot!
It reached out a bony arm, grasped the scout by the tunic, and attempted to pull the scout close. Reacting without thought, the scout slashed at the offending arm, his heavy blade cleaving the appendage off at the elbow.
Freed, the scout dodged past the corpse, getting a clear view of the valley. It was filled with figures standing silently, regarding the cabin and the scout. More were filing out of the trees to the west. Heart filled with fear, the scout exploded into a run seeking safety in the forest to the east.
With no thoughts of stealth, the scout ran harder than he thought possible. Realizing he could not keep up this speed for long, he settled into the ground-eating lope of his people. He could maintain this gait for a night, a day, and a night again if he needed to.
Looking over his shoulder, he saw no signs of pursuit. The scout kept his pace, unwilling to take appearances for granted. He changed course slightly, making for his village. At this rate, he expected to be there just before the following dusk.
The scout felt a pain in his chest. Looking down, he was alarmed to see that the hand and forearm of the corpse that had grabbed him was still there with fingers entwined around the rawhide laces of his tunic.
Snatching the limb, he tore it free of his tunic. Unlike the leg in Essin's cabin, the arm was no longer animated. Ready to fling it away, he noticed an oddly fashioned chain bracelet of mithril and emerald attached to the wrist. This at least would be some evidence; he was unwilling to risk taking the limb to his village. He suspected its owner, or perhaps an armless Essin, would come seeking it.
After seeing Essin, the scout had no doubts about the good intentions of these newcomers. Removing the bracelet, he flung the arm into the forest behind him.
On he ran, long miles yet to cover. Invaders had entered the Vulmani lands and he must bring this news to his people, or die trying.
"Hold 'em lads, hold 'em!" a shout from within the town exhorted.
"Hold 'em, he says, like we're bloody going to ask them to dance with us," muttered the young dwarf.
The young dwarf had been on the wall for days with no sight of the enemy. Along with the rest of the hundred-odd defenders, he was anxious for something, anything, to happen.
Word of an invasion had come from the Vulmani, who were fleeing their former lands en masse, and then confirmed by several human trappers. The frontier town of Southwatch, nestled at the base of the Beranid Hills, was directly in the path of the invading force as it moved steadily north.
It looked like the dwarf would be granted his wish soon. The enemy had finally made an appearance
Blight me if there aren't a cursed lot of them, thought the young dwarf.
Shambling, crawling, limping, or striding, scores of corpses had flowed out of the forest below Southwatch before arraying themselves in a semblance of a battle line. Attired in remnants of clothing and armor, and equipped with a variety of weapons, they looked quite motley.
Some of the defenders began to jest about the invaders, making sport of their appearance.
"Oi, Valum, is that your wife out there?" shouted one boisterous human.
"Willi, that's not my wife, looks more like your mother, but I thought she was working the docks this week," Valum shouted in reply.
The entire line laughed at Valum and Willi. The dire nature of the invaders was forgotten for a moment. The young dwarf even managed a grin despite his anxiety.
The moment of levity passed as the invaders began their slow advance towards Southwatch.
"Horsemen...ready up!" came a shout from the human captain on the wall. As the ranking military officer in Southwatch, he was in charge of the hasty defense that had been set up over the last few days.
"Horsemen ready!" came the reply from the leader of twenty heavy horse below. The heavy horsemen were all confident veterans, having honed their skills guarding caravans from frequent Vulmani raiding parties.
"Archers ready!" was the reply from the walls and the sergeant placed in charge of thirty human archers and ten dwarven crossbowmen.
The captain had decided to meet the enemy in the open ground below Southwatch. Here he could best employ the horsemen and give the archers on the walls more time to thin out the enemy ranks.
"Archers....loose!" commanded the captain.
Thirty arrows arced towards the enemy, most finding home in the bodies of the invaders. One corpse stumbled as an arrow penetrated its leg, but none fell.
The young dwarf watched as flight after flight of feathered shafts flew into the invaders with no real effect. Perhaps the heavier bolts of his kinsmen would be more telling once the enemy drew within range.
Shouting fierce battle cries, the twenty mounted warriors covered the ground between Southwatch and the invaders in moments, meeting with a crash. Dozens of the animated corpses were flung away by the impact. The horsemen hacked at the invaders with a vengeance, sword arms fueled by rage and disgust.
Dozens more of the undead fell under this onslaught, as the horsemen drove deeper into the enemy line. Intent on their furious drive, the horsemen paid little heed to what was occurring behind them. All but a handful of the fallen corpses were rising to their feet, and the entire mass of undead was contracting inward towards the horsemen.
As the advance of the cavalry began to slow, the horsemen finally saw the danger they had placed themselves in. The dead crowded around the living as they made a desperate attempt to carve a path to freedom. The attempt was futile; as quickly as one corpse fell, another pushed forward to take its place.
The defenders watched in horror as one by one the horsemen were pulled screaming from their mounts, disappearing into the mass of invaders.
Once the horsemen were dealt with, the undead resumed their advance on Southwatch. The dwarven crossbowmen began firing as the invaders came in range. The heavy bolts from the powerful dwarven weapon would stagger their targets, but did not halt the advance.
So much for that idea, thought the young dwarf. They're already blightin' corpses; poking holes in them won't do much.
"Everyone inside!" screamed the captain.
The defenders that were arrayed outside the wooden walls scrambled through the gate. Once all were inside, the gate was closed and secured with heavy timbers.
In short order, the invaders reached the wooden palisades of Southwatch, milling around outside.
It would have been nice to have some good, solid stone around us instead of wood, thought the young dwarf. Using goblin fire on the invaders had been discussed, but the wooden construction of Southwatch made fire too dangerous.
While the young dwarf was dreaming about stone, the invaders were becoming more purposeful. A slow, steady pounding of the gate was occurring, while more and more of the undead moved to assist.
Archers and crossbowmen were still raining arrows down on the undead, but their effect was minimal. Warriors and townspeople gripped their weapons tightly, knowing what was soon to come. The gate was showing signs of weakness, as expected from such a quickly constructed barrier.
Very little time passed until the planks in the gate were down allowing the invaders access to the interior of Southwatch. They poured into the outpost to be met by sword, axe, staff, and club.
The defenders fought with a passion, with no path of escape and expecting no quarter from the invaders. Scores, then hundreds of the undead were mowed down by the defenders.
The undead did not attempt to defend themselves, intent only in killing. Some fought with weapons, but most were unarmed.
After seeing what had happened to the horsemen, the defenders were taking no chances with the fallen. Invader bodies were separated from their limbs, and in some cases, their heads.
The young dwarf fought well in this confusing melee, using his axe to great effect and growing quite adept at amputating limbs in a single stroke. After what seemed like hours, the last invader fell.
Numb and exhausted, the survivors counted the cost. Over half the defenders inside the walls were dead, and many of the living were seriously wounded.
The captain was among the dead, along with most of the other professional soldiers, dwarves and humans alike. The young dwarf, who had somehow managed to survive the battle unscathed, found himself in charge of the ragged survivors, by simple fact of attrition.
"Oh gods, no, no!" came a cry from the walls.
The young dwarf saw one of the archers pointing down towards the forest. Scrambling to the ruined gate, his heart sank at what greeted his eyes.
Another, larger contingent of undead was emerging from the forest.
From atop a tall tower, King Horus Targonor Furth admired the city of Targonor. Surely, this is as great as anything the ancients wrought, he thought. Nothing on modern Thestra could compare to his city, or his kingdom.
His reverie was interrupted by the arrival of his counselor.
"Sire, Southwatch has fallen", the counselor said without preamble or flourish.
"Grim news indeed, my friend," replied the king. "What details have you?"
"Very little, milord, only that a small group of the defenders managed to escape, and the numbers of the invaders are beyond counting."
"Where are these survivors now? I would speak to them myself," said the king.
"Alas, sire, they are not available. The survivors were led to the Cleft by a young dwarf named Degin, where they are recovering from their wounds."
"And what news of the invaders?" asked the king.
"That sire, seems a little more encouraging. They have not moved past the Beranid foothills, and it looks as if they have little desire to do so at this time. But neither have they withdrawn."
"Interesting", said the king. "Tell me about the Vulmani."
"Milord, the Vulmani are encamped just west of the Brightwoods. They say they will welcome any who wish to treat with them, and that they are not a threat. The elves, of course, refuse to believe them, nor can I begrudge the elves their sentiment."
"But with what is happening on the south frontier, I have no doubts that the Vulmani speak the truth."
"Now would be an ideal time to rid us of their nuisance once and for all, don't you think?" said the king.
The counselor considered the king's words for a long moment before replying.
"Sire, I suppose we could readily dispatch the Vulmani, now that they are out of their forest element. However, I also think we might have need of them in the future, and we can ill-afford any losses in battle with this new threat looming quite large."
"What then, do you propose we do about the Vulmani? And if we don't take action, what is to prevent a force from Leth Nurae seeking to settle old scores?" asked the king.
"Of the Vulmani, and the Elves, I have a notion. To the Vulmani we will cede some lands in the Northern Plains, mostly useless to us, in return for their fealty. Once they have sworn fealty, the Elves dare not attack them, since to do so would be committing an act of war upon your kingdom, and Elves are not so foolish as that."
"Do you think we can keep them in line?" asked the king. "Raiding, stealing, all of that would have to stop."
"I think we can manage them, milord. Many of their most savage warriors fell before the invaders; those that remain are no more dangerous than the men of Falgarholm are. Which is to say, they will be a problem, but a manageable one, and worth the cost."
"Even the most skilled hunters of the Elves acknowledge the Vulmani as their superior in terms of woodcraft and stealth." continued the counselor. "These traits will have much value in the times to come, I am sure of it."
"Your plan seems sound, old friend. I will heed your advice on this matter," said the king after some thought.
"Thank you sire, I truly believe you will not regret this course of action." said the counselor.
"But what of the invaders?" asked the king."We wait and see, my liege." replied the counselor. "We wait, and we see."