Originally published in Wayfinder #15
Once the pyres start burning, it’s hard to tell the dead from the undead. It doesn’t help that one becomes another so easily.
I try to count faces as each body lands on the bonfire. I see a bearded bald man that I recognize as the retired baker Matheo. Had he died before, or was he one of the victims? Something split his head wide open, but I’m not bright enough to figure out if it was a battleaxe or a ghoul’s claws. As it turns out, I’m not bright enough to do much of anything but cause disaster.
“This is where priests would come in handy,” I tell Linnea, trying to sound like the thought just barely popped into my head.
“Don’t talk nonsense, Davorik.” Her reaction isn’t very surprising, even to me. Nearly a dozen people died last night before the city watch managed to get the ghouls under control.
“It’s not nonsense,” I defend. “Clerics kill undead, right? They could have stopped the attack or at least gotten folks back on their feet instead of landing in the fire.”
“And what do you think created these things in the first place?”
I swallow. “I don’t know…what?”
Linnea laughs bitterly and taps a long fingernail against one of my protruding fangs – a habit she has whenever she wants to remind me that I’m only her half-brother. “People see you with your big muscles and green skin, and they think they see a dumb brute. Don’t let them be right. Do some studying once in a while. Magic makes the dead rise. That type of magic comes from the gods and their followers.”
“But it’s not all like that. There are good clerics, too.”
“Look around you, brother. Look past last night’s disaster and you’ll see a thriving city. The wounded are being tended in hospitals that didn’t exist a few years ago. Children go to schools that used to be nothing more than money sinks for corrupt clergies. Everything we have in Avendale comes thanks to the fact that General Voran got rid of the churches and their damned holy wars.” She waves a hand at the burning corpses in the city square. “When the god-worshipers get involved, we get this.”
“But if it wasn’t for the god-worsh…I mean, if it wasn’t for a cleric, you wouldn’t—”
“No,” she says, cutting me off and turning away. “I wouldn’t. But you know what? Maybe I shouldn’t.”
She storms off to help with repairs, leaving me to deal with my questions alone.
* * *
The setting sun whisks most people away to the safety of their homes, because fear dies more slowly than ghouls do. Even though I know where they came from, my stomach tenses with every step I take into the broadening shadows.
Part of me wants to ask Linnea to come with me. But the other part of me has a sick premonition of how that would end.
By midnight my feet ache and my heart wants to make a mad dash back to Avendale. I bite my lip and march on. It’s only when the ground gets soggy and the cave comes into sight that I realize I should have brought a weapon with me. I pause long enough to find a sturdy tree I can use as a club. Not exactly the weapon of a warrior, but then I’m not much of a fighter. The muscle-bound half-orc isn’t quite as common as people think it is, and despite my size the only thing I’m really good for is spending long hours digging graves…or, more recently, digging them up.
I never thought of Orden as dangerous, and now I’m starting to wonder why. Maybe it had to do with the light. He first showed me the cave at midday, so I paid the most attention to the many streams that crisscross the area before flowing away toward the Red Reed miles to the south. The cave that rises out of the soggy ground didn’t seem like such a hunched, evil thing when it wasn’t silhouetted in the moonlight. And my conversations with him always seemed pleasant – nothing that would freeze the blood in my veins like it is now.
He doesn’t have a door. That should have been a clue; what decent person doesn’t allow you a friendly wooden door to knock on?
I cross the threshold and step onto the wet, rocky floor. Unfortunately, it’s hard to wave a giant stick around nonchalantly like I’m not planning to crush somebody’s skull with it.
“Orden, are you there?”
“Of course I am, Davorik,” an elderly voice trails down from a bend in the cave. I see the flicker of sudden lamplight on the walls, cutting through the gray shades that my orc-eyes had been showing me.
“Did I catch you sleeping?” I turn the bend and stop, letting the rock wall conceal the makeshift weapon in my right arm.
“Not at all, my boy. I was working.”
My eyes separate shadows from light, and I suddenly wish they wouldn’t. Ice and bile replace the organs in my chest, and the only thing that keeps me from screaming in rage is the small voice in the back of my head that tells me it’s all my fault.
There’s Orden, cheerful, gray-haired man that he always is. He wears mud-encrusted boots, an old white tunic, and a stained gray vest, like he was going to a social gathering and wound up in a swamp instead. He’s at his workbench, one of the many broken-down pieces of furniture he’s moved into the place to make his life as a hermit seem at least somewhat comfortable. And he has…guests.
A dead woman sits slumped in an overstuffed chair, staring at the lamp Orden has just lit. No…she’s not dead. Her eyes are shining with tears, her lips trembling. She can’t move.
Two tables here, both with bodies on them, like the flesh of the living is an appetizer to some grander main course. And dining on those corpses are two pallid, bald-headed monsters that look like men – almost.
I stop trying to hide the club. “Orden, you said you had control over these things!”
“And I do. I wouldn’t be standing so close to them if I didn’t.”
“So you’re letting them eat people? You were supposed to scare people, not murder them!”
“I was supposed to scare the city, my boy. People scare easily.” He walks behind the paralyzed woman and puts his hands on her shoulders as though he were about to give her a massage. Her eyes lock onto mine pleadingly, but she can do nothing else.
“Individual people don’t affect change,” continues Orden. “A society does, and for a society to change, people sometimes need to die.”
“But you can’t just—”
“We can always bring them back,” he interrupts. “Tell me again…what was it that convinced you to ignore the propaganda and accept faith into your life?”
I shudder as the image springs to my mind unbidden. I see Linnea’s eyes close for what I thought would be the last time as the plague finally finishes its work. I see the sale of our family’s property, the grave robbing and the fencing that came after that…all to bring a diamond to Orden, the only man who said he could save her. And then I see my sister’s eyes open again.
“You had to see a miracle with your own eyes. Until you did, you had no hope. And that’s the problem with Avendale – there’s no faith and no hope. They need something to open their eyes, and just scaring them with our ghouls won’t do it.”
Our ghouls. The words stab into my heart and stick there. I’m the one who dug up the first corpses for Orden. I had faith in Orden’s claims, and he betrayed me. But I also had faith in him before, and he brought Linnea back from the dead.
The confusion almost forces me into inaction, but I finally raise the club and step forward. “We’ve gone too far, Orden. It’s time to—”
A wiggle of his fingers and a few whispered syllables from the old man stop me in my tracks. My muscles lock up and my body almost falls over. My eyes, one of the only parts of my body that can move, look toward the woman in the chair as I realize it wasn’t the ghouls that paralyzed her.
“No,” says Orden. “This keeps going until Avendale either stops me or realizes it needs me. Don’t worry – I know you’ll be by my side, just like before.”
He waves a hand at one of the ghouls. The monster stops its feast and begins advancing on me, its bloody fangs exposed in a wide grin.
I focus every ounce of effort in my body into breaking Orden’s spell – not to swing the club, but to close my eyes. It doesn’t really matter, though. I know they’ll open again.