The Undead of Wynter
“I sneaked a peek at your blog,” he says to me.
Yeah, about that, I’m sorry I haven’t put as much on there as you’ve shared with me.
“I’m not talking about that one. I mean your personal one. You’re quite the whiny bitch.”
“Roll over onto your stomach, Mr. Thorne,” a nurse says.
“Cysts on my back,” he says, rolling over. “Want to pop a few? Great fun.”
I feel ill.
That site’s not really me, I just right what comes into my head. It’s not how I really feel.
“Bullshit,” he scoffs. “Everything about your presentation is about how you really feel and your frustration with the fact that either no one cares or no one understands or a combination of both.”
What do you know about how I feel?
“All matter is transparent when you’re infinitely small.”
So now you’re riffing on my choice of blog title.
“It’s clever, I’ll give you that. Did you just come out with that, or did you have to grunt for it?”
It just poofed into existence. Why don’t you ever give your stories titles?
“Titles are like fishhooks – they’re what you retreat to when you can’t catch fish by hand – when your own literary prowess can’t draw the reader in.”
I guess I could just start numbering your posts.
“People might confuse me with a girl who writes haikus and stories about tortured lovers.”
It looks like Thorne’s sprouting marshmallows from lava on his back as the nurse works open another cyst.
“There was one title I was proud of – The Undead of Wynter. I wrote hitchhiking in Indiana while taking a shortcut through the woods in December.”
You just told me about this one. I accused you of stealing draugr from a video game.
“Apparently I’m not the only person in the world steeped in the mythologies of civilizations other than Greece and Rome.”
I think your draugr are probably more accurate.
“Of course they are – it’s a true story.”
Don’t be ridiculous. It’s obvious fantasy.
“It’s better than sparkly vampires.”
Well, let’s hope they don’t hire a piece of cardboard to play the lead female part if they make a movie out of it.
“There aren’t any females in it.”
I was continuing a theme of mine from earlier today: bashing on Kristen Stewart.
“If you think there’s females in it, I guess I need to tell it to you again.”
No, I was just making a cross-blog joke, there’s no need to–
“Pay attention this time!”
No, really, I–
The Undead of Wynter
Ages ago, long before the last great wars were fought at the galactic center, when the Earth was still an island unscathed by the encroaching darkness of the Outsiders, a man came traveling through the countryside of Elg alone.
He wore a dark hooded cloak over clothes of strange makings. His weapons, though similar to the iron blades of the era, were beyond the craft of the greatest blacksmiths. The mightiest of these blades he used as a walking stick, its scabbard made of thick and knotty hide so that it appeared to be made of wood from a distance. The sword had no guard and one would think that perhaps the man would run the risk of his hand sliding up to be severed on his own blade in battle, but the man’s gloves told a different tale. Made of the same impenetrable material of the rest of his clothes, no blade could slice through them. This gave the man the ability to wield his weapon by the blade if he chose. The blade itself was glassy void, like obsidian. One could lose themselves looking into that darkness that ate light and reflected nothing.
His eyes were deep green and his hawkish features sliced through the fog as he descended down from the Elg Pass into the valley of Wynter. His dark hair spilled down from his head in lazy coils from the moisture in the valley.
The inhabitants of the valley saw him long before he reached the settlement near Wight Lake. At his leisurely pace, he afforded them time to wonder, gossip, and then retreat behind shuttered windows and barred doors. Strangers were rare in that part of the world. The tales of terror and evil that managed to seep out of the valley from time to time were enough to cause most sane men to bypass the valley by several hundred miles. Those that did stumble recklessly into that region were soon swallowed up and forgotten by time – save perhaps their final screams of agony that could echo through the valley of Wynter for weeks and months.
As the traveler walked into the small cluster of huts and buildings that sagged and rotted in disrepair, he was met by a man called Gesel, the only person in the settlement not afflicted by the emotion of fear.
“What ye be seekin’, stranger? Death? Aye, we gots that, aye,” he croaked scampering around the traveler like a dog. His face was a catastrophe of boils and scars, and what white hair he had left hung in matted clumps of filth. “Ha! ‘nuther one fer the castle walls I’ll wager, aye!”
The traveler stopped and regarded the man.
“Or is that ye’ve come fer glory, aye?” Gesel reasoned, eyeing the traveler’s weapons and build. “Aye, a mercen’ry’s look ye’ve got. Come to pillage the fortress, aye? Someone led ye astray with tales o’ fortune, have they?”
The traveler’s voice was even and lacking of any accent but the one common to those who wander the world, swimming in and out of cultures like great whales journeying across the vast oceans. He said, “I am only passing through.”
Gesel squealed with laughter and rolled over himself to the ground.
“Led ye astray someone has!” he guffawed. “Best ye go back to the crossroads a hunnerd miles whence ye came. My but ye’ve got some walkin’ to do now.”
“I don’t understand,” the traveler said. “The map I was shown put the road going straight through the valley to the opposite pass and then over the river on the other side to meet the Great Road.”
“Oh aye! Them’ll show you that map, for certain,” Gesel explained, leaping from the ground to grab at the traveler’s cloak. “Like a chute leadin’ a lamb to slaughter, that road ends at the castle, it do, aye.”
“You mean the map was wrong,” the traveler surmised.
“Wrong. Dead wrong. Ha!” Gesel screeched with delight. “Made a jest I did jes’ now! Wicked! Wicked!”
The traveler shifted his feet impatiently.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean that them’s lookin to pull you in and –“ Gesel’s face crumpled into a scowl as his eyes fell upon the building behind the traveler and with a hiss he bolted away and disappeared between two huts.
“He means there are bandits in these parts, stranger,” said a voice from the doorway of the building.
The traveler turned to face the newcomer but found only an open door and darkness beyond.
“I need to pass through to the Great Road,” the traveler explained. “Is there no way over the mountains?”
The voice chuckled from the darkness.
“Oh there’s plenty of trails, friend, and they all start at the castle.”
Finally, the man behind the voice showed himself in the doorway and gestured the traveler to bring the conversation inside. He was obviously once a portly man but his skin hung off his bones like a man who had sustenance taken from him quickly and without warning. His clothes, though dirty with lack of care, were still rather stately and did not quite match the pall of grey that had settled perpetually over the small settlement.
The traveler stepped cautiously inside the building and recognized it as a sort of meeting house with long tables and a raised dais at one end. The old man seated himself at a rickety desk off to the side of the large room where a large moth swung in lazy circles around a half-burned candle’s flame.
“What’s your name and where do you come from?” the old man asked. In preparation of the answer he placed a book on the desk and opened it to a page half full of scribbled words the traveler couldn’t make out. He snatched a quill pen from its inkwell and wrote the date in the empty section of the page.
“Look,” the stranger said. “I’ll just be going back the way I came. I have no problem extending my journey a bit.”
“I’m the magistrate of this region and you’ll tell me your business or I’ll make sure you’re arrested when you reach the crossroads. I’ve got a hawk that can fly a lot faster than you can walk,” the old man said testily. “Now, name, please – place of origin, please.”
“Vohl. I’m a traveler.”
“I can see that. And where have you traveled from?” the magistrate said as he scribbled in the book.
“Right, we’ll just say here you’ve escaped from Port Ull, then, if you’re going to be like that.”
The magistrate ceased his scribbling and turned to stare at Vohl.
Impatiently, Vohl pulled up his sleeve and revealed the Mark of Odin branded on all Gelkflundmen after they pass the Trial of the Hammer.
The magistrate scrutinized the mark, and then stared at Vohl silently. Without breaking his gaze, he slammed the book shut.
“Mercenary,” the magistrate stated gruffly.
“Traveler,” Vohl corrected.
Vohl neither confirmed nor denied the label.
The magistrate stood up from the desk and walked over to the dais and the crude podium situated there.
“I am Lord Calimos. I used to govern this valley for the crown,” the old man said. His eyes then turned downward. “Before the troubles, this valley knew peace and prosperity. I lived in the castle you’ve heard mentioned. It is the castle of my ancestors – they called it Vunderhal”
Vohl listened politely, already assuming where this was going.
“The valley was called Vunder back then. The forest surrounding the castle used to teem with life. My people thrived in this valley and our lives were peaceful and fulfilling. Then the forest began to wither and die.”
To accentuate the point, the moth burst into flames as it got too close to the flame of the candle on the magistrate’s desk.
“I don’t know whether the forest’s sickness came first or the bandits did, but the dual blight of disease and violence turned this place from bloom to shriveled carcass overnight. Travelers came here less, the animals fled or died off, and the bandits took the castle from me.”
Vohl took the unspoken cue. “Who are these bandits and how many of them are there?”
“They’re the remnants of an old Egyptian tribe, run out of their homeland for their crimes. They dabble in the black arts and call themselves the Tribe of Ash. They’ve taken our children one by one and murdered them, eating their hearts, and then burn them on pyres in the courtyard of my family’s castle. When we ran out of children, they began to lure caravans through the valley with their false maps showing a quick route through the valley to the Great Road. They raid villages on the east side of the mountains along the river and bring the people back here to burn. The ash from the burning pyres settles in the dead forest and now this place is known as Wynter. I can tell you, no natural winter season has ever matched the biting cold of death that radiates here.”
“How many?” Vohl repeated.
“A score. I know you’ve faced worse foes and in greater numbers, but I beg of you, please help us. Yesterday they took my sister. You may have a chance to save her yet.”
Lord Calimos stepped down from the dais and stood before Vohl clasping his hands together.
“I can’t pay you but you may have any gold you wish from the castle – all the spoils you may earn from their destruction.”
Vohl looked down at the old man and considered the request and the reward.
“I beg of you. Deliver this valley from the darkness.”
Vohl nodded and walked out of the building without saying a word. He noticed Gesel hiding behind a large tombstone in the cemetery as he left the small settlement, but the crazed man made no move to harass him. He stood there among the graves like a ghost.
Vohl followed the road as it wound around the small lake and rose up, topping a small hill. There it disappeared into the densely packed and dead Forest of Wynter. He set a determined pace, eager to complete his task and continue his journey, but as he pierced deeper into the forest, he began to feel that what he was approaching was something more than just a group of twenty or so bandit cannibals burning human flesh.
The ground was covered in a fine white ash and the illusion that gave the forest its new name was worthy of it. Vohl felt the temperature dropping suddenly, and, with as little warning due to the densely packed trees and sunless sky, the Castle Vunderhal suddenly towered above him.
The front gates stood open before him and a continuous column of smoke rose over the walls, littering the sky with a thick blackness.
He quickly slipped the double strap hanging off his weapon’s scabbard over his head and one shoulder to secure it, then drew his black weapon. He scanned the area quickly and walked brazenly in through the gates.
To his surprise, they let him cross the entire courtyard and reach the inner gate to the keep before they closed the outer gate on him. He knew all along the open front gates were a trap. Vohl readied himself and cast back his cloak from around his shoulders. Gripping the weapon with both hands, he turned and faced the courtyard, ready for the assault.
The assault, however, came from behind him.
The inner gates exploded outward into the courtyard and Vohl was thrown halfway the distance between the outer and inner gates. Quickly recovering, he sprang to his feet and turned to confront his foes. Nothing could have prepared him for what he saw.
The creature emerging from the shattered gate portal was a draugr, a huge undead creature the size of a giant. Its yellow-grey skin glistened with the shine of wet decay. In one of its hands it wielded a huge double-bladed axe, around the other hand strange blue lightning began to circle.
Vohl had seen many battles and traveled far. He had heard of undead creatures like the draugr in front of him, but never truly believed he would ever encounter one.
The draugr opened its hideously mangled jaws and roared an unholy challenge to the man facing it. When Vohl stood his ground, the draugr raised his axe to strike him down. Vohl’s eyes followed the giant blade, and so he missed the magical bolt of lightning shoot forth from the creature’s other hand until it hit him.
Vohl flew backwards and the ends of his hair caught fire. His breath escaped him as he hit the ground heavily and rolled several more yards. He should have died, but his armor-like clothing saved his life. The draugr wasted no time in closing the distance and swung the axe downward to cleave Vohl in two. At the last minute, Vohl rolled away and the axe blade bit into the cobbled courtyard a full foot length.
Quickly scrambling to his feet, Vohl used his blade to vault himself upward while pulling a long dagger from his belt. Landing just next to the draugr as it struggled to pull its axe from the ground, Vohl drove the smaller black blade into the creature’s gut.
The draugr screamed and turned too quickly for Vohl to pull the dagger out. The mercenary was thrown off balance and stumbled backwards away from the fury of the draugr. Purely by coincidence, Vohl was staggering right into the path of the huge axe. The blade caught him equidistant between rib and hipbone. A normal man would have been split in two, but the axe merely threw Vohl a good fifteen feet to the side. The blow was not without punishment for Vohl and quickly he realized he could not take another blow like that whether his armor protected him or not.
The draugr, however, was stunned. It looked at the axe in wonder and ran its deformed thumb along the edge of the blade. The blade sliced clean through the creature’s thumb, severing it completely.
Roaring in rage, surprise, and berserker fury, the draugr sprang at Vohl, leading with its magic lightning. Vohl rolled deftly aside to avoid the lightning blast, and then sprang back into the draugr’s path. The undead creature halted his charge to reposition itself to swing his axe at Vohl, but the mercenary was much too quick. In one motion, he leapt up, swung his sword and decapitated the draugr.
With an inhuman roar, the draugr’s severed head cursed Vohl and exploded into blue flame. The body still staggered headless for a few seconds before the blue lightning began to circle it completely. Vohl sprinted away from it just in time as it exploded in a huge fireball of electric death.
Vohl prepared himself for a new assault, but quickly realized his feet were no longer touching the ground. Some force was holding him suspended. From the shadows ahead of him a skull-headed figure with human eyes peered out from black hooded robes. It held a skeletal hand outwards and as the creature’s hand moved, Vohl’s floating body followed it. The creature was magically controlling him.
Vohl reached quickly for a throwing dagger but the skeletal fiend’s other hand shot out and a white hot burst of pain engulf Vohl. He struggled to scream, but his body was paralyzed with agony.
“It’s unwise to upset a lich, mercenary,” a voice said behind him. Vohl recognized the voice.
As the pain subsided, Vohl could focus on the crowd of humanoid creatures closing in on him. All of them were creatures of the undead: wraiths, revenants, ghouls, ghasts, zombies, skeletons, liches. There were a great deal more than twenty.
A man walked around Vohl’s floating body from behind and then stood in front of him, his arms folded.
The man was Lord Calimos, and he too exuded the stench of the undead.
“You’re an undead fiend, as well!” Vohl spat at him.
“A wight, to be precise,” Calimos responded.
“You’re the reason the forest is dead. Your corruption killed it.”
“Actually, that’s more the result of the many draugr that live in the crypts beneath this forest. They tend to have a – “ Calimos leered at Vohl. “Taint about them. Wonderful additions to my army, I must say. That was actually the first time I’ve seen one killed. Impressive.”
More and more creatures were moving in from the shadows of the castle. To Vohl’s eyes it could easily have been a thousand of the creatures.
“And now, Vohl, I have a leader to guide them to victory.”
Vohl scanned the yard for some way to escape, for some hidden ally. Specifically, he looked for his long dagger for it held a secret that could save him. Unfortunately, it likely was disintegrated when the draugr exploded. Calimos laughed at his efforts to struggle against the lich’s binding spell and his minions followed suit in a chorus of wheezes, shrieks, and snarls.
“There’s no way out, Vohl,” Calimos teased. “Now it’s time to turn you to our side.”
Vohl inhaled to shout his defiance, but, with a nod from Calimos, the lich spoke the word “Sleep” and Vohl drifted off into blackness.
The lich released Vohl from the binding spell and several zombies moved in to remove his armor.
As Calimos looked on with a pleased expression on his face, the lich slid up next to him and whispered, “You should reconsider this one, my lord. He is not of this world, nor the demon planes we come from.”
“What do you mean?” Calimos barked impatiently. “He’s a Gelkflundman. You can see his mark.”
“The Gelkflund tribe will mark any man who passes their trial. Though no man other than a Gelkflundman has survived those trials up to now, it doesn’t mean it’s not possible.”
Calimos turned to stare in to the living eyes of the lich’s skeletal face.
“I warn you, my lord. There is something wrong. The long taint of ages sits on a human soul. This man has a thousand scars in his heart. He has traversed eons – he is older than the sun.”
Calimos waved him away. “Nonsense. This man will be the leader of my undead army.
“This man will become the Vampire Lord.”
When Vohl awoke he was naked and tied to a post set in the middle of a small arena. In front of him a coffin was laid.
Calimos spoke to him from the darkness above and outside the light of the torches blazing around the circle.
“Vampires were wiped out long ago by your ancestors from the North. Luckily, I saved one.”
The lid to the coffin slid off and a gaunt and sickly creature emerged from it.
“He’s seen better days, but know that he is special. In him we have the future of his kind. When he bites you, you will become the first of a new breed of vampires.”
The sickly thing staggered over to the post, its white tongue running over decaying lips and sharp yellow fangs.
“There will be no courtship here, no slow turning. His vampire blood knows it must live on through others. The transformation will be instantaneous. You will be my new Vampire Lord and we shall take over this plane of existence.”
The vampire closed the last few yards quickly and climbed up Vohl’s naked body, its claws digging gashes into Vohl’s flesh.
At the same time, Vohl felt something scanning his brain, his soul, his very being. It was the lich that had tried to warn Calimos before – its curiosity still drove it to seek out what was so special about Vohl.
It found out too late. As the vampire’s fangs sank into Vohl’s neck, he heard the lich’s inhuman scream of terror, a sound never heard on the plane before as a creature that fed on the fear of humans about to perish finally felt that same fear at the hands of the Void itself.
In a flash, the universe which had held that particular version of Earth collapsed. The demon planes connected to it erupted into a maelstrom before collapsing into a similar singularity. All life and all demonkind in that universe blinked out of existence.
Vohl, whose real name was Jacob, awoke on a cot in the infirmary of the Galactic Cruiser Jiang Shi. His neck ached with a peculiar stabbing pain.
The ship’s nurse, Elsa Tanner was checking his chart when she noticed he had finally come to.
“About time, Jake.”
“What happened?” he managed to ask out of parched lips. He suddenly was very, very thirsty.
“We got your jump signal but when we went to retrieve you, the unit had been destroyed.”
“My dagger … draugr exploded with it in him.”
Jacob’s eyes lingered on the lovely vein pumping blood as it pulsed against her lovely white flesh.
“I’ve been on one of the other’s Earths,” he said, sitting up slowly. “This one had undead creatures on it, a whole army of them.”
“That was your mission, I suppose? Remembering it will help us clear you for release to your next one,” she said smiling at him.
Jacob reached a hand up and caressed the nurse’s neck.
“Not now, tiger. Let’s get you cleared first,” she said, brushing him away.
Jacob’s eyes suddenly burned with a hunger Elsa couldn’t have recognized.
“After you’re clear, the Captain has a jump to another parallel uni set for you. I hear this one’s actually quite the little paradise. It’s a king’s life in the Temporal Defense Initiative, isn’t it?”
Jacob leered at her, the hunger overwhelming him.
“Jesus, you’re back for five minutes and already trying to get in a girl’s –“
And that is how the second great culling began – with that universe’s first vampire and his first disciple.