This is so stupid! I thought to myself—and said aloud earlier—but now wasn't the time to talk. All around me, the dead shifted and wandered. The smell wasn't as bad as I would have expected. The bodies seemed pretty far along in the decaying process, making most of the remaining flesh dry and stretched. Still, the smell was terrible.
They bumped into me occasionally. I could see bones poking through gaps in skin. The pale green glow lit from within them, kind of how the animated plants looked, but also completely different. These weren't plants, they were corpses. And whatever the people at the center of this horde were doing, it made these corpses come back to life, or at least wander around.
There was a tug on my wrist, and I looked in the direction to see one of the small corpses pulling me forward. She tripped, and then looked around at the rest of the horde with wide eyes to see if she had disturbed anyone. She hadn't. Cairn breathed a sigh of relief and then looked back at me, cloaked in an illusion to disguise her as one of the dead. The illusion covering me blurred everything with a subtle shade of purple.
Cairn's other hand was forward, holding onto Porthos. Porthos held Sillius's hand, and Sillius held onto Srak, who held onto another Saurian I hadn't met yet. It was hard to get everyone to agree to hold hands, but it was the difference between getting answers and not, so they went with it.
Still though, it was stupid that we were here in the first place. We had people who were hurt. The Gnomes had lost a lot of people. Dunnel was down. We needed to get them help, not go on another expedition. I did want to know why there was an army of walking corpses wandering in circles in this valley, but I didn't want the others to suffer for it. But the Saurians insisted and we did need to figure out what's going on as soon as possible.
So we wandered. We wandered through the aimless wandering group of people with nothing left but skin and bones. The night had fallen, and the sky was now dark above us, making the experience of walking through corpses even creeper. They moaned and snapped their jaws occasionally, but it seemed they weren't interested in people that looked like more of them at least.
We finally made it to the church situated at the center of the army of dead after about an hour of pushing through. Up top, there was a watchman. I couldn't tell who it was in the dim lighting, but I saw some movement up there as we approached. We needed to be as quiet as possible to avoid a confrontation.
The building itself was old, just like anything else we had discovered on Daegal. The stone was covered in moss and cracks ran up the bell tower. A brass bell lay on its side, half-buried in dirt at the base of the structure.
The corpses weren't as thick in this area as there were more obstacles to trip on. I noticed when I slammed my shin into something hard, worsening a bruise I had received earlier in the day. I looked down to find a tall thin stone at the head of a pit that was lit up with a pale green vein. I looked back at the stone. It was a gravestone. We were in a graveyard. A graveyard that had been woken up by some kind of magic. Is that how this magic works? Like nature, but for dead people? For corpses?
It was a creepy thought. Had people once used this kind of magic? Was this another trick up the sleeve of our enemy? Whatever it was, it was dangerous. If nature magic could create an entire walking forest—I didn't want to imagine what this might do.
We continued forward carefully, still holding hands, but now also trying to sway along with the crowd so we wouldn't stand out.
We reached the edge of the church safely and found a door out front. The Saurian I hadn't met lightly tried the handle. It seemed it was locked. She turned and led us around the side of the building. The stone walls were mostly intact, only showing cracks higher than I could reach. We continued around the edge until we found an empty window frame high off of the ground. The disguised undead Saurian at the head of the group pointed to me and Cairn. Cairn looked at me and then shook my hand, telling me that this one was up to me. Earth magic did make a bit more noise than my own.
I stepped forward and looked back at the tower to make sure no one had a good line of sight to us. It looked clear, so I drew both arms up and pushed my magic into the earth beneath the window. Three small plants pushed up from the green glow and stretched upwards. The two vines on the side continued straight while the one in the middle winded back and forth around the others. It made a makeshift living ladder. Upon reaching the window, the vines hooked over the edge and I nodded to the Saurian.
She began climbing up the ladder, stressing it under her sheer size, but I continued working on it as she climbed. She reached the top, folded through the window, and then disappeared with a muted thump as she landed. We all looked around to see if there was any notice from up top. Nothing. Good.
Up went the next false dead Saurian. It looked like Sillius made sure to copy their actual colors and look while adding rot to their look. It was interesting. I wondered if Porthos was disguising me in the same manner. What would I look like as a decaying corpse? I shuttered.
Next, the Gnomes went up. While Porthos was climbing, our illusions began to flicker out. Some of the wandering dead around us started to notice, turning their heads and increasing the volume of their moans. They inched toward us. I looked up at Porthos who quickly turned and drummed up the illusion once more. Then he peaked inside of the window, made some motions, and Sillius found a crack to keep our cover up while Porthos finished getting inside. I looked up at the tower. Still no movement.
Cairn climbed in, and then me. I pulled the life out of the vine ladder before dropping through the window. The female Saurian caught me and lowered me to the ground softly. And then I got my first look at the building.
It was a church or something along the lines of it. Pews were scattered about the interior in various states of disrepair, askew and rotting. The place was covered in dust and cobwebs and was lit by the bright yellow-green glow at what would have been the pulpit. There, was the center of the veins. A dangerous place to be, as I had found out first hand.
Despite it being the center of these death magic veins, I couldn't imagine this being the base of some big operation. Where were all of the missing colonists? Where were the swarms of Arcus that I expected? And why here?
The others who had been impatiently waiting for the rest of the group started venturing forward. Our cover faded out for a moment and then came back as shadows. It wasn't that we were clouded in smoke, but we mimicked the shadows of the room. As long as we weren't crossing directly over the veins, it would be hard to tell we were there at all. But hopefully, we wouldn't have to test that theory.
The group walked with light feet toward the pulpit. It was situated under the bell tower, or close to it at least, and more doors behind it gave hope that there was more to this place than what we had seen.
Still, without a noise from the tower, we continued forward. We opened one door which led to a storage room. It contained candles, books, and a broom, sorted among shelves. The door in the middle had to have been the locked door that goes to the outside, but the door on the far side was what we were looking for. We opened it and found the circular room that made the belltower. A rickety ladder climbed up the wall to where the guard sat, though we couldn't see him from the angle. It was now their watchtower, and there were no doors or sound breaks between us and whoever was up there now.
On the other side of the room was a staircase going down. Down was good because it meant there could be a lot more to this building than we could see from a distance. But I wasn't sure how far we wanted to push our luck either. If it was the Arcus up there and we got their attention, we didn't have good odds of making it out of here alive. Between the hungry corpses that surrounded the place and the raw firepower of the Arcus, we'd be in a lot of trouble.
I tugged on the shoulder of one of the other shadows. I pointed up at the tower and pointed a thumb back where we came from. Communicating was hard, to begin with, because we couldn't afford to talk. But with the shadow illusion on all of us, it was even harder. I wished we had come up with better terms on when to turn back before we started this trek.
It was a Saurian that I had grabbed. I could tell by the scales and also because everyone else in our group was smallfolk. The Saurian raised a hand to its face, I think, and then continued forward into the small round room. She led us down the staircase, and I began creeping after her.
But in stopping the Saurian, our order changed, and Cairn was in the back now. I assume it was her at least since it sounded like heavy feet that bumped a stray stone into the room. The rock skipped on the stone floor, hit the wall, and then several stairs as it bounced into the darkness below.
I held my breath, and then heard the skid of chair legs above. I reached up, grabbed Cairn, and shoved her ahead of me on the stairs. We all hurried deeper into the darkness.
We all stopped in our tracks as a shadow fell over us, blocking out the moonlight that broke through the ruined roof. I looked up and found a figure at the top of the ladder.
"Wikkith?" said the figure. "What are you doing?"
The moan of one of the dead was the only response. It echoed out from the room we just left.
"Shoot," said the figure at the top of the ladder, and he began climbing down. We dared not move, relying on the shadowy illusions to keep us from being seen as we stood just below the level of the floor. The figure walked right past us into the sanctuary.
"Hello?" he said, and continued deeper into the sanctuary, away from us, but blocking our exit.
This was not good. Exactly what I didn't want to happen. Now we had to figure out a way around the guard, and that's the best case scenario.
We started down the stairs again, getting out of eyeshot from the room where the staircase started as we spiraled further downward. We came up on another door about halfway down the staircase, but we passed by it. We were probably all a little scared that there would be more guards in there.
The stairs spiraled down, deeper and deeper into darkness until we could hear noises below us. It was the sound of moving rock and groaning workers. An occasional yell broke through, but it was muted and distant.
The stairs ended at a small corridor and doorway. A glow lined the edges of the door, giving us a little bit of visibility in the small tunnel. Someone cracked the door at the front of the group and light poured in. It was mostly purple light, powered by illusion magic. The person at the front of the group looked both ways, still obscured by shadows, and stepped out, staying close to the wall. We all exited the hallway and found ourselves on a stone ledge, overlooking a massive cavern.
It was like when we first found the Dwarven colonists, but on a much bigger scale. There were rooms throughout the cavern noticeable by the glow coming from windows in the cave walls and massive stalactites hanging from the ceiling. Suspended bridges connected more stone ledges to the rooms and back to the other sides of the cavern. And down below, we could see people, lots of people. And although it was far below us, I could see a faint pink glow on their heads. They were digging, or cleaning, or hauling. And whatever they were working on, it was massive.
Beneath the rubble were large swaths of an uncovered black shiny substance. Maybe it was coal or shale. But then, it all moved. It was a slow movement, but the whole base of the cave shifted as the shiny black layer expanded, and then retracted. It was breathing. The floor was breathing.
"Kaia we need to go!" I heard a voice. I snapped back to reality and felt a hand tugging at my arm. It was Cairn. She pulled me into the tunnel as I noticed the sound of footsteps above us. It was the guard. He was charging down the stairs after us. Cairn pulled me underneath the staircase and we left the door open that led into the cavern.
We huddled under the stairs as the footsteps grew closer. A young Elf reached the bottom of the stairs, adorned in yellow robes, and a pink glow on his temples. He looked under the stairs quickly, not seeing us through the darkness and shadow illusion, and then hurried toward the open door. He looked both ways, trying to figure out which way we had gone, but refused to move from the spot.
We stood there watching him, waiting for him to pick a direction, but he stayed put at the end of the hallway, scanning the cavern below. We had to get out of there. We couldn't count on the illusions to get us through everything. What if more guards come? What if people who know illusion magic come? I started up the stairs and the others followed.
We tried to be quiet, but it was difficult with the narrow stone rooms. The Elf heard the slight shifting of feet on stone and turned back toward the staircase.
"Where are you?" he yelled angrily. A yellow glow came from his hands and lightning struck the middle of the circular stairwell, showing our false shadows temporarily.
"Run," yelled Porthos. We sprinted up the stairs as our illusions began to fade.
There was a flicker of purple energy and Porthos appeared at the base of the stairs, not far from the Elf. He waved and said, "Hi."
Another yellow glow formed, and lightning struck a purple flash where Porthos just was. The Elf growled and began chasing us. Electricity arced between his hands, adding an ambient blue light to the cavern.
One of the Saurians added to the blue glow with a torrent of water that slammed into the lower stairs. Srak joined in by turning the water to ice, making a slick barrier for the Elf, but we didn't wait to see how the Elf did on them.
We ran as fast as we could up the stairs while Porthos teleported around the room trying to draw the Elf's fire.
We scrambled up to the top of the stairs and entered the sanctuary. I looked at the window with the angry Elf yelling as he neared the top of the staircase. We didn't have time to go back out the same way. I looked at the locked door.
"Tear it down," I yelled pointing at the front door. The Saurians were already on their way and used their claws to rip through the ancient wood.
Sillius knew what to do and with a swirl of purple energy, we turned back into our undead lookalikes as the corpses began flooding into the room. I felt a hand grab mine, and I grabbed the hand of one of the undead Saurians and we disappeared among the sea of the dead. We walked silently back to safety as the Elf behind us screamed at the swarm of invading corpses.