I stood in a roadside shrine. I could not feel my feet, or any part of me, and I could see through my hands. All but the softest colors had drained from the world, and every last drop of sound. I was dead. Again.
At once I set off toward the standing stones, as if a chain attached to a hook through my ribcage were dragging me back to my body. By now the area around the monoliths was crusted over with leprous Death taint. The rift writhed overhead, its black tendrils extra eerie in the hush.
As I regarded my body sprawled in the pit, something caught the corner of my eye. A winged woman hovered above the trees at the opposite edge of the clearing, her bare feet inches from the treetops before she descended. I haunted my way over. A visor completely obscured her eyes, and her hands were replaced with gleaming blades.
Next to her stood a girl, also barefoot and just out of her teens, who would have been pretty if her eyes weren’t hard and cold as a bullet to the gut. She wore only a nightgown, which billowed along with her soft brown hair, and carried an ancient-looking rifle. I seemed to recall an old wives’ tale about a girl from Iron Pine who’d gunned down the Storm Legion detachment that raided her village.
“This is Gisa,” said the winged apparition, pointing one blade at the girl. “The enemies of the gods fall to her as ants beneath a hailstorm.”
“Learn my secrets, Boar Spear,” said Gisa. “Watch your enemies die from a distance.”
“Much as I love murder-by-panorama, I have a swiftly-decomposing corpse to reoccupy. No time to train,” I said.
Gisa just smiled and stepped into me, her ghost dissolving in mine like sugar in tea. Her memories surged through me—though thankfully without the image of myself standing barefoot in a slip, shooting Legionaries.
As she imprinted herself on me, I reached out to my corpse. Flesh fell away from it, painting itself over my spirit, bones filling me out like sticks in a tent. Flexing my hands, I heard the receding thunder of massive wings.
Zombies, skeletons, and worse poured out of the Death Rift, a reeking river, and I already knew where they were headed. Being a bit smarter and faster than a walking corpse, I got there first.
Shadefallen Keep was prettier the first time I snuck in. The shade had certainly fallen—while the moss had risen—over the battlements, and cloying-sweet decay clung to the walls like a plague of slugs.
This was in part because the place teemed with the undead. Hundreds, crowded into the castle’s now-roofless inner keep, around a crude altar. Wormlike runes pulsed purple on the stones.
Atop the altar stood the black chalice, my old friend Ulfrid chanting over it in his empty-grave voice. Flanking him were six hulking men in black armor, one of whom held an old man in an iron grip: the very same old man I’d rescued from the goblins, his pretty granddaughter nowhere in sight.
Unseen, I crept to the end of a rickety old beam hanging out over the festivities, Gisa’s muscle-memory guiding me. Now, I’m a very good archer, but this girl… fury and desperation had turned her into a living thundercloud that cast death anywhere it pointed. I loosed the first arrow, and in midair it split in three. Silent as a viper, each sank into the armored bodyguards’ finger-wide eyeslits—so kind of them to stand in a neat row.
Before the first three clattered to the ground, the last three followed. I danced from beam to board, never stopping, barely aiming, and every arrow killed a foe or two.
With the bodyguards destroyed, no one was holding the old man. Snarling, Ulfrid cast a claw of magic, dragging the old fellow toward the altar. Ulfrid pointed, and the beams disintegrated under my feet. I managed to grab an outcrop and swing to an old tapestry before Ulfrid turned the masonry to rotten sludge where I had stood. I jumped into a roll and sprang up, spear flashing, cleaving corpses on my way to the altar.
I gave a loud, long whistle, so shrill some of the zombies almost flinched.
“Waldemar, you’re too late!” said Ulfrid, fire dancing on the arrow feathers in his eye. “Regulos awaits a twitch of my wrist!” And holding the old man’s head over the cup, Ulfrid slit his throat with a sharpened fingerbone. Watery blood sizzled on contact with the chalice, and the victim fell gurgling to his knees.
A pillar of violet light shot from the chalice, parting the eternal gloom of Gloamwood. Jagged black tentacles poured through, thicker and longer than even the kind from the Death Rift.
“Now the Destroyer shall revive every corpse in Gloamwood,” cackled the lich, “and whoever falls dead upon its soil thereafter! An endless flood of meat and bone will flow from my fiefdom, and Lord Regulos will know he chose his servant wisely!”
Then the first tentacle exploded as if seared from within, a tendril of blinding radiance in its place. Every zombie it caressed fell with a satisfied sigh. I let out a laugh of my own. “Laria’s magic worked! You think I’d leave something like that cup just lying around untampered with?”
“The chalice!” shrieked Ulfrid. “It’s corrupted with the Vigil’s magic!”
“Say, Ulfrid. How many did you kill?” I asked, picking off a few heavily-armed skeletons with arrows that trailed lightning.
“W-what?” You should hear a skeleton stammer in fear and surprise.
“Victims. When you lived, how many died in your little rituals?” Now all the tentacles were perfect, ethereal white, and they cut the undead down like sickles reaping wheat.
“Two score, at least! In agony—” said Ulfrid, but he was interrupted by Moe, crashing through the door and trampling zombies to paste. She dodged one of his spells and slammed him straight back toward me, and as he tumbled past, I plucked my arrow from his eye socket and hopped onto the altar.
“I lost count at fifty, myself” I said. “But I got at least a hundred. You were my last, and the very first I really enjoyed.” As I spoke, I casually dipped the arrowhead into the white energy rising from the chalice. Then jumped back to avoid one of Ulfrid’s deadly bolts, dragging the old man with me behind the altar.
“And hey,” I said. “Did the dragon recruit you personally, or did you just wake up a skeleton one morning and assume you were special?”
“Filth! Vermin! BE SILENT!” he screamed in flight, flinging spikes of glowing bone, but I rolled aside.
“Because he came to me, and I sent him packing. That’s why the dragons will lose the war, Ulfrid. Regulos had to settle for a second-rate killer…”
He flew at me, shrieking. Deadly magic writhed around his sharpened fingertips. I didn’t even aim. This time, when my arrow punched through his eye, it burst through the back of his skull in a divine explosion. Ulfrid fell at my feet with all the deadly majesty of a sack of dry manure. “Only the best for the gods.”
Moe trotted over, and I patted her tusk. “This almost makes up for failing so splendidly against the werewolf,” I said, and she snorted.
Somehow, the old man was still conscious. Overloaded by conflicting magic, the chalice turned to dust, and the white tentacles retracted. The very last one passed across his wrinkled throat, licking his wound closed. Slowly, I helped him up, and gave him a swig of water when he finished coughing.
“Where are the other villagers?” I asked him.
“The castle cellar… I’ll show you. Only a few were killed. The undead dragged us here for the ritual. They wanted my granddaughter, but I stepped up instead.”
“You’re a brave man,” I said.
“And you… the stories of my boyhood were wrong about you, Boar Spear,” he said. “Truly you are chosen of the Vigil.”
“The stories were right,” I said. “And if you fall into my arms and cry ‘my hero,’ you’ll find out how much.”