Kajeel touched her face and felt bone where she should have felt skin. She held a hand in front of her eyes and saw green-tinged skin.
“Ugh,” she said. Her voice sounded deeper than it used to, but still had a feminine tone. “I’m decaying.”
“Yeah…sorry about that,” said a familiar voice. “The Dragonlands isn’t as kind on corpses as it used to be. Since Derrezen died, the dead have started decomposing again.”
She sat up and looked around, finding Garyl kneeling by her side. They sat together in a cave, and she wasn’t the only dead body within. Her eyes failed to penetrate the surrounding shadows, but a ball of pale green light floated just above Garyl’s shoulder, giving her some guidance.
“Is that why you haven’t called me for so long?” she asked. “It used to seem like you brought me back every few weeks.”
“The Dragon War came to an end. Not anything I did, I assure you. But since then, I haven’t had as much occasion to come back here. And, as you know, it’s hard to bring you back elsewhere.”
Kajeel tried to smile, but realized she lacked the facial muscles to do so. She noticed that Garyl look askance at her, carefully avoiding eye contact. Crows must have taken one of my eyeballs, she realized. Which means we’re not too far underground.
“And what do you plan or us today?” she asked. “Surely you’re not interested in a date. I’m not exactly presentable.”
Garyl took her hand and helped Kajeel to her feet. He bowed and kissed her on the back of the hand despite the deteriorated state of her skin.
“You’re a romantic,” she said, “but I know you wish you could wash your lips right now.”
“Yes,” said Garyl sheepishly. “I’m afraid you’ve looked better.”
Kajeel examined her body. She recognized the gray and black insignia as belonging to the Blackwood army. A hole in the hauberk she wore suggested that she had died at the tip of a pike—much better than the fate that many soldiers in the Dragonlands suffered. Since then, her body had kept reasonably well—certainly better than the other dismembered forms that lay within the cavern.
Garyl picked up a set of black candles which he had arranged in a circle around the body. They had all burned out by now, but Kajeel could still smell the smoke. She took a sniff, then let out an excited squeal.
“I have a nose this time!” she cried. “Do you remember, the last…two? Or was it three times? You brought me back into a body that had no nose. What a strange wound to suffer, I thought, and to have it happen to multiple people in a row.” She wrinkled her nose. “Oh, but it does make living in this body much less pleasant.”
“I need your help finding the River Hag,” Garyl said, apparently unwilling to banter with her.
“The River Hag,” Kajeel mused. “She’s the one who has dealings with the Crimson Claw, isn’t she? But Derrezen died…how long ago?”
“Twelve years,” Garyl responded. “Twelve years and five months, if you want to be more precise.”
“Oh my. That means I must have died—”
“Too long ago,” Garyl said. His shoulders slumped, and he finally looked Kajeel in the face. “It’s just been far, far too long.”
Kajeel took Garyl’s hand and gave it a squeeze. “You do know that time passes differently for me, don’t you?”
Garyl squeezed her hand back. “I do.”
“It only slows down for me when I’m out and about in somebody else’s body. When you don’t call me back to this plane, everything passes in the blink of an eye. So for me, it will be no time at all before we’re really together again.”
“I know,” Garyl said. “Sometimes I just get impatient.”
“Anyway,” Kajeel continued, “without Derrezen, I would imagine that they’ve dissolved by now. After all, what is a religion without its god?”
“Now they’re all about resurrection,” Garyl explained. “So many plans and prophecies, so many schemes to bring the Dragon-God back and let him claim the land which is rightfully his.”
Kajeel shook her head. “I can’t believe they still think like that.”
“Well, dragons are famous for their wealth—artifacts, gold, and magic accumulated since the dawn of time itself. A Dragon-God has even more. Imagine what the reward would be for the puny mortal who brought Derrezen back from the grave?”
“And you think the River Hag is close?”
Garyl shook his head and gently pulled Kajeel toward the cave’s mouth. “No…I think somebody might already have succeeded. I just need the River Hag to confirm my theory.”
“Well…” Kajeel said. “That sounds very serious. We’d best get a move on. But if we happen to find a fresher corpse, do you think I could change before we get there?”
* * *
The sun seemed like a pale distant star, burning orange through the fog of the Dragonlands but providing little in the way of heat. The pair exited the cave and descended a slope toward the Greyflow, a wide river that ran north through the land and which provided one of the only sources of fresh water in the area.
Kajeel shambled at first, stumbling as she got used to her new body. Not long after they exited the cave, she insisted on stopping.
“This mail,” she said, gesturing at the rusted chain shirt that covered her torso. “I’ve never liked armor.”
“It might come in handy,” he said. “If something destroys this body, I can’t be sure where I’ll find another one that is suitable.”
Kajeel pointed significantly at the wide hole around her upper torso. “If I keep the armor on, I basically provide everybody with a free bullseye, anyway. Now help me get this off. I think there are some straps in the back. Besides, I don’t see you in—oh! You have a shield now! How handsome. Did somebody give it to you as a gift?”
Garyl hefted his shield and angled it so it caught the dull sunlight. “Oh, this? This is just a little something I picked up to protect my back when nobody’s watching it. Besides, it cracks walnuts like nobody’s business.”
It took about five minutes of fiddling with straps and trying to negotiate broken armor into giving enough yield to come off the body, but they eventually left the old mail lying on the ground behind them as they continued their journey to the river. Beneath the armor, the soldier had worn a simple brown tunic which, aside from being blood-stained and tattered, seemed much more comfortable to Kajeel. As they approached the banks of the river, Kajeel grabbed Garyl by the wrist and pointed at the water.
“Be careful—there’s something there. We could be dealing with a river snake, or some sort of fey creature.”
Drawing his sword, Garyl approached the water and scanned it carefully. After a time, he too saw movement, but it brought a smile to his face.
“No monster,” he said. “Look closely.”
Kajeel crouched by the water and placed her head almost level with the ground. She saw movement again, but Garyl was right—it wasn’t the sort of monstrous peril which normally infected this region. Instead, she saw fish jumping as they raced against the stream.
“Fish,” she said, straightened up again. “Some sort of salmon, by the looks of them. And if they’re jumping like that, then they’re trying to loosen their eggs. Life is coming back.”
“Like I said,” Garyl replied, “the dead are decaying, animals are coming back to the region…in fifty or sixty more years, this place might even be suitable for humans again.”
“Let’s hope they don’t get first crack at it,” Kajeel said. “I’d rather see a forest or two grow here before humans muck it all up with their big, walled cities.”
Garyl shrugged. “I quite like cities,” he said. “They remind me of where you and I first met.”
* * *
Most travelers in the Dragonlands prayed for a full moon to help them see their surroundings. They didn’t realize until too late that the things they could see in the moonlight could also see them. Thus, Garyl didn’t mind when the clouds left the moon and stars hidden from sight. The biting cold, on the other hand, was another matter entirely.
He pressed up against Kajeel’s body, shifting as he felt the handle of the hatchet at her belt poke into his backside. He cupped his hands over the only light they had: a small chunk of punk wood that glowed with orange embers. The wood gave off a reasonable amount of heat but very little light or smoke. A brighter fire would keep him warmer but also attract unwanted attention.
Kajeel pushed into Garyl’s body, allowing the two to provide mutual support for one another. She draped her left arm across Garyl’s shoulder, touching his chest with outstretched fingertips.
“Cuddling up to me won’t get you any warmer,” she said. “This old body has been cold for a while.”
Garyl grunted and shivered slightly. “I don’t need the warmth.”
“Liar,” Kajeel chided.
“I said I don’t need it,” Garyl said. “Not that I didn’t want it. And while this body certainly isn’t what I would choose if I had more options, it’s still got you inside it right now. And where you are is where I want to be.”
A gust of wind sent dirt and dried sticks into the night. Kajeel watched one of the twigs fly away from her until it disappeared into the darkness.
“How long ago did I die?” she asked. “It feels like a few days to me.”
“Twenty-seven years next week,” Garyl replied without breaking his gaze away from the embers. “When you’re on the slow path like I am, it feels even longer.”
“It’s not a path, love. Don’t live your life yearning for the day it finally ends.”
“I don’t.” Garyl shifted away from Kajeel’s embrace and looked upon her. For a brief second, he wondered who the soldier whose body she now inhabited had been, and what she would think of the current situation. “I really don’t,” he insisted. “I miss you, and if I had the power to bring you back permanently, I absolutely would. But the last time we were together, you told me to look for other reasons to go on living. I may not have always listened to you when you were alive, but I pay special attention now that you’re dead.”
Kajeel laughed. “That didn’t sound as good out loud as it did in your head, did it?”
Garyl smiled sheepishly and shook his head. “No, I suppose it didn’t. But my point—”
Kajeel put a hand to Garyl’s lips and one to her own, signaling him to be quiet. The wind had shifted from cold, bitter gusts that rushed through their bones to a gentler breeze that felt almost warm.
They both rose to their feet. Garyl stomped out the embers and placed a hand on the hilt of his sword, while Kajeel grabbed the two hatchets that her host had once wielded.
“I hope I remember how to use weapons,” Kajeel whispered. “I think it’s been a while.”
“Just focus on staying alive,” Garyl responded in a hushed tone.
“It’s far too late for that, my dear.”
“I was talking to myself.”
Their whispered banter came to an end as a burst of flame shot out from the night shadows. Garyl jerked his shield upward, and the fire struck its silver plating before dying out. The brief flash of light left orange spots in his night vision. By the time his eyes adjusted back to the darkness, he saw five humanoid figures approaching, each wearing dark robes emblazoned with the image of a dragon’s claws wreathed in flame. At each one’s side walked what Garyl’s mind mentally thought of as a hound, but only because it stood about as tall as a mastiff and walked on four legs. The emaciated monsters moved jerkily, more like spiders than mammals, and each had a long scorpion-like tail with a vicious-looking stinger.
The creatures twitched their tails excitedly, slobber forming around their jaws as they observed their prey. Despite their obvious desire to close in for the kill, the beasts’ masters seemed hesitant. One of them whispered something that neither Garyl nor Kajeel caught, then stepped forward. He lowered his hands to his side and turned his palms outward in an apparent greeting.
“D’ohl sa veress?” the man asked.
Fortunately, languages happened to be one of Garyl’s strong suits. He recognized the words as belonging to the tongue of dragons—fitting, considering that these were certainly followers of Derrezen. “Valle,” replied Garyl, “ohl te veress.” Switching languages, he added, “but Capertian is my preferred tongue.”
The man paced a semicircle around Garyl until he could get a better look at Kajeel’s face. He gestured toward one of the others, who produced a cylindrical piece of wood and struck it against the ground. With a hiss, the wood ignited with a bright flame at its tip. The four-legged beasts that accompanied the humans growled and paced anxiously at the sudden introduction of light.
“It was curious to see a single pair of people wandering these lands at night,” said the man who had spoken originally. “But seeing the type of magic you have at your disposal, it makes more sense. A zombie servant, taken from the corpse of one of the Dragon-God’s enemies, I assume?”
Kajeel stiffened her body and let her face go slack, assuming the type of body language a mindless animated corpse might possess.
“Of course,” Garyl said. “A small necromantic experiment that I hope to develop into something more fruitful. After all, I live to serve the memory of the Dragon-God.”
“Not the memory,” the cultist corrected. “Memories are gone, and the Dragon-God lives on.”
Garyl raised an eyebrow. “Does he?”
“Of course he does,” the cultist snapped. He paced around to the front of Kajeel and waved his hand in front of her face. Kajeel’s eyes didn’t follow the movement, focusing blindly ahead. “Death is a minor setback for somebody who has planned his ascension for centuries. The Dragon-God was always prepared for such ill luck and made plans for his restoration.” The man turned back toward Garyl, his eyes flashing menacingly. “But you would know that if you were truly one of the faithful.”
“I aspire to become one of the true faithful,” Garyl bluffed. “I make an offering of my zombie pet as a small token of the services I can provide to the Crimson Claw.”
The man inspected Garyl carefully, nodding in apparent approval as he noted that the traveler had not lowered his sword or shield during the conversation. “You have prudence,” he said, “and if you did indeed create this…thing, you have power. But can you do it again, I wonder? After all, what good is a magician who can only work a miracle once?”
In one swift motion, faster than either Garyl or Kajeel could react to, the man drew his sword and struck for Kajeel’s neck. It cut cleanly through her soft flesh and decayed bone in a single stroke. Garyl gasped as he watched Kajeel’s head and body hit the ground in two separate pieces, the spark of life already gone from her eyes.
“You shouldn’t have done that,” Garyl said menacingly. His arms trembled in anger.
“Why not?” the man asked. If you have enough power to hold the Dragon-God’s favor, you should be able to prove yourself by raising another corpse. We’ll help you find one—after all, there are plenty of dead troops in these parts to choose from.”
The man laughed and the other cultists in the ring around Garyl joined him. Garyl provided no immediate response. Instead, he focused his mind on determining who he needed to kill first.
The night folk struck his sword against the ground and channeled all the energy within him. He gave a shout that sounded like the boom of thunder, and lightning leapt up from the ground in a circle around him. The bolt of magical energy struck the man who had killed Kajeel first, freezing him in shock and pain. Then the lightning arced all around him, striking cultist and four-legged beast alike.
The lightning stopped when Garyl pulled his blade away from the ground. He lunged forward and drove the sword point-first into his target’s chest, driving the metal deep enough until it came out the man’s back. He let his anger escape him in a serpent-like hiss as his victim dropped the blade that had so suddenly taken Kajeel away and slumped forward.
The advantage of surprise didn’t last very long. One of the scorpion-tailed beasts lunged toward Garyl, its fur still trailing smoke from the unexpected burst of lightning. Garyl wedged his shield between the beast’s jaws as it tried to bite down around his arm, but his sword remained stuck in the body he had just impaled. As he fumbled to effectively draw his weapon out of the corpse, he silently chided himself for his overzealousness.
The other combatants didn’t wait for him to regain the advantage. One of the cultists hurled a throwing dagger, and Garyl shouted in pain as it sunk into his body just below the shoulder blade. Another dagger flew past his ear, narrowly missing his skull. Garyl finally got his blade free just as another one of the beasts darted in to attack. A spray of blood erupted from the dead cultist’s body, and Garyl spun away from the two hideous hounds that had closed with him. Unfortunately, retreating from one attacker only meant opening himself up to another.
He heard another one of the beasts’ claws scrabbling along the barren ground as it thundered toward him. He started to turn as he felt its hot breath near him, but came around too slowly. The monster’s tail shot out over its head and struck Garyl at the base of the neck. He responded with a slash across the creature’s face which drew greenish blood and caused the beast to take a step backward in retreat. But even as the stinger came free, Garyl felt a numbing cold wash over his body. He didn’t need to see the blue-black ichor that mingled with his blood on the tip of the stinger to recognize that he had been poisoned. He just didn’t know what kind of venom now coursed through his veins.
Garyl flicked his wrist and his sword flew from his hand. It floated through the air with a mind of its own, circling around the cultist who seemed the most dazed by his lightning spell. The sword swung with deadly precision, cutting the woman’s throat before returning to Garyl’s waiting hand.
The hot black body of one of the beasts struck him in the back as the monster charged at him with a vicious head butt. Garyl tumbled to the ground and tried to roll with the blow, but his muscles froze. He hit the rocky earth and shuddered in effort, finding quickly that he couldn’t move.
The creature that had knocked Garyl down struck with its tail, driving the stinger right next to his spine. Garyl wanted to scream in pain, but his jaw remained locked tight like the rest of his body. One of the other beasts struck him in the upper arm with its stinger. He felt the cold poison overwhelm him and wondered if the paralytic venom would prove strong enough to stop his heart.
Unable to do anything else, Garyl rolled his eyes up into his skull and mentally lamented that this was a terribly stupid way to die.
“Hold!” came a man’s voice. A shrill whistle followed, and the monsters that had surrounded Garyl parted, leaving ragged fur and hot slobber on his exposed skin.
“Why not let them enjoy their meal?” a woman asked. “Wizard he may be, but we don’t need those foolish enough to pick a fight they can’t win.”
“He killed two of our brethren,” the first voice said. “That means two more corpses. If he can really animate them—or tell us the secrets of how to make the dead walk—he might prove useful.”
Garyl’s eyes refocused. The numbness caused by the poison started to fade, although he still couldn’t move. He felt a boot press against his shoulder, and the man who had spoken rolled him over onto his back.
The man wore a brown leather jerkin, blue cloak, and tabard emblazoned with the same cult insignia as his brethren. His face was broad and well-washed—a rarity in these parts, given the scarcity of clear water in the Dragonlands. He had a well-trimmed black beard and gray eyes that observed Garyl curiously.
“Bind his wounds,” the man said. “Take his weapon and shield, then search him for anything else that might pose a threat. We’ll bring him to the River Hag and give him a chance to prove his usefulness to the cause.”
“Vezara,” the woman corrected. “You know she prefers her proper name. Those who call her the River Hag are asking for pain.”
The man stiffened and shrugged. “I won’t tell if you don’t.”
“And what about the beasts?” the woman asked. “They’ll want to be fed before we get back to camp.”
The man thought for a moment, then said, “We’ve got two corpses, don’t we? We only need one for this fellow to prove his mettle. Let them feast on the other.”
The woman whistled and gestured toward one of the bodies. As one, the monsters descended upon the corpse, slobber trailing from their jaws in anticipation of a fresh meal.
Garyl’s fingers twitched. He clicked his teeth softly, testing how much mobility the conversation had bought him. If he could move his hands and say the right words—
“You overcome poisons quite well,” the man said as he noticed the slight movements. “That’s a good sign. The River Ha—hm…Vezara…needs hardy allies. But we can’t have you moving about just yet.” A look approaching sincerity crossed the man’s face as he raised a dagger. “Sorry about this.”
The man struck Garyl on the forehead with the pommel of his dagger, and darkness took him.