It was a dark and stormy night.
The Gothic forest got a lot of them, something about how the weather patterns would swoop in from the sea to the north and the river to the east, cross the forest and be stopped cold by the mountains, spending their fury on the great black oaks.
Naia was grateful for the wind that lashed the tree limbs into a frenzy and for the rain that sheeted down, drumming on the hard-packed earth of what had once been a forest track. These things were an irritant to her, but she knew it was only an old wives' tale that one caught a cold by being out in the rain. In truth the storm meant safety. It drove the monstrous creatures that had haunted the Gothic forest these past years into snug dens and burrows. For those beasts too hungry or vicious to hide, it distracted them, irritated them to make them less efficient killers. Most of all, the storm cloaked scent and sound, the two greatest allies of the nocturnal predator.
Yes, the storm was a bother, the water finding ways to seep through her clear plastic poncho and soak her clothes so tunic and pants clung to clammy skin. Yes, the wind hissed and howled like some bloodthirsty demon, and the roaring thunder nearly scared Naia out of her skin each time it burst in concurrence with the lightning. These were only the storm's price, though, for the protection it afforded from real demons, real terrors.
"There!" Naia shouted as the trees opened up and the dirt track gave way to cobblestones. "We've made it!"
"Praise Heaven!" Gen called back. They had to shout to make themselves heard over the clamor of the wind and rain. "Let's get to work quickly!"
They scurried forward through the village streets, passing between sturdy, square-built houses in the popular pseudo-medieval style. The village of Terkiln had fallen to a monster-swarm only two weeks ago, according to the refugees who'd come to Naia's own home village of Ashlen.
They passed by the great bulk of a towering stone church near the south end of town, a genuine antiquity rather than a latter-day copy. The intermittent lightning flashes silhouetted the cross-tipped spire against the sky and illuminated the ornate carvings on the stone facade, including the fanciful reliefs of horned and clawed gargoyles. One in particular was so lifelike that it made Naia's heart jump in sudden fear, a fanged, bat-winged monstrosity above the arched door to the church as if it was perched on the lintel. At first she hadn't realized it was a gargoyle at all but thought it was a living creature waiting to pounce, and her needlegun was half out of its holster before her thoughts caught up to her reflexes. In long-gone days these creatures had ornamented sacred precincts to frighten off evil spirits and demons, but during the present troubles Naia found the gargoyles too much a reminder of the very real perils of the forest for comfort.
"There!" she said, pointing to a row of stores at the center of the village.
Naia wished they had a vehicle. With a landrover, they could have loaded the storage bay with hundreds of pounds of food items--canned, dried, or otherwise preserved. With travel all but nonexistent these days, only the cities, protected by King Lassic's Robotcops, had plenty. Outlying settlements had to make do.
Ashlen had no vehicles, though. Their last one had been stolen by a group who'd given up on the town and tried to flee to Gothic Village. Naia had seen what the monsters had left of the giant machine, a smoking wreck. She hadn't wanted to see what they'd left of the run-outs.
Neither wishful thinking nor regrets would help, though. Naia and Gen would just have to be selective. For now, Ashlen had sufficient food and water. Weapons and medical supplies were the top priority. Speed was essential, so they split up; with her nurse's training Naia went for the medical equipment while Gen looked for combat gear.
Terkiln hadn't been big enough for a proper hospital, but it had had a doctor's clinic. Before being overrun, the village had no doubt been in as straitened circumstances as Ashlen, but there was certain to be something and Naia intended to retrieve all she could. The dead didn't need it.
The door was hanging half off its hinges, its bolts ripped out of the wall by tremendous force. A shudder passed through Naia, and she had to remind herself that this was a sign of old violence, two weeks come and gone. She stepped through the door and into pitch darkness, then took out a flash from her belt and snapped it on. Outside the light would be a beacon for predators, but she needed it indoors. Naia only hoped the disposable unit's power source had enough energy left over for her to finish the job.
She played the beam over the clinic's waiting room, noting the tumbled chairs that hinted, like the broken door, at further violence within. Three doors led from the room, one in each of the interior walls, and she picked one at random.
She soon wished she hadn't.
The left-hand door had led to the patient ward, a long room with a row of four beds against the far wall, separated by curtains for privacy. The room was a shambles. Two beds had been upended and a third broken in the middle. Curtains were ripped. A light fixture had been half-torn from the ceiling. Blood spattered the walls and floor in rust-brown smears. At least three skeletons lay in the room, crushed and broken. One lay in the tatters of a white coat and two others in the tangle of the beds.
Wounded prey, Naia thought, and a shudder passed through her. Patients had been lying helpless in their beds, and it had drawn the monsters to them with unerring accuracy. The white-coated body had probably been a doctor who'd given his or her life defending the patients in a heroic but futile gesture. Naia's fingers grew numb at the thoughts, at the images brought by the bloodstained room and the bones cracked from where marrow had been sucked. She nearly dropped the flash, nearly fled, but mastered herself.
"You can't help the dead," she told herself aloud. "The living still need you."
She left the ward and picked another door. This time she was lucky; it led to an examination room and a glass-doored steel cabinet held medical supplies. Rain sheeted down the window and occasional thunderbolts brought instants of daybreak into the room as Naia searched, putting boxes and bottles into waterproof packs. Since space was limited, she passed up more esoteric items, concentrating instead on broad-spectrum antibiotics, antiseptics for wound cleaning, and similar medicines. She also took as many first-aid supplies as she could find; Ashlen was always short of bandages, tape, gauze, and splints. Looting the office was all too easy; Naia had soon filled her back and waist packs as well as a large sack; she only hoped that Gen was having as much success finding weapons, ammunition, and armor. Seeing the ruin of the ward had badly frightened her; she was trembling and not with cold.
"They're dead and gone," she told herself, again speaking aloud as if hearing the words gave them more power than just their echoes in her own thoughts. "This is all in the past. If we don't get these supplies back, people will die."
Gritting her teeth, she turned and left the clinic, stepping out once more into the driving rain. It almost seemed as if she could feel every droplet striking her individually.
"Gen!" she shouted. "Gen, are you here?"
His voice came from behind her and to the right, and Naia nearly jumped out of her shoes.
"Naia, are you okay?"
"Just...it wasn't pretty in there. I'm a little spooked. But I found a fair amount of supplies."
"Lucky you." A flash of lightning lit up the young man's face for an instant. "They didn't have a proper armory. I found a few needlegun cartridges, a couple of short swords, nothing much. If they had better weapons and some armor, they used them. We'll have to search the village."
Naia shook her head.
"There's no time," she called back. A glance at the illuminated face of her wrist-chron verified that it was only a few seconds shy of midnight. The storm wouldn't last forever, and loaded as they were they wouldn't make as good time on the return trip. "Just load up on more from the clinic, and we'll get going."
"Okay; where's the storage room?"
"Straight back from the lobby." It would have been easier to show him, and it would have gotten her out of the rain as well, but Naia did not want to go back in there.
"All right, I'll be--"
Gen gasped and took a step back in surprise.
A misty outline was taking shape between Gen and the door. It wasn't a figure per se, more of a shadowy shape draped in a ragged cloak. Despite the dark and the rain, it was easy to see details; the apparition had a luminousness of its own. The cloak was bright white but spattered scarlet along the long rents in the fabric. Its hands were long-fingered, thin, and pale, but they were the only thing distinct about the body. There appeared to be no legs protruding below the dangling hem of the cloak--a hem which did not sway with the swirling wind. The face was a shadowy cloud, its only discernible features the burning yellow balefires of the eyes.
A bloodstain nearly obscured the scarlet cross on the cloak's left breast.
Naia could only stammer and watch as the spirit reached for Gen with one of those long, pale hands and fastened it on the man's shoulder. Pulsing tendrils of blue-white light flowed across Gen's body, flowing from his extremities to the apparition's hand as if something was somehow being drained from the living man to the dead one--youth, strength, life, soul? She was rooted to the spot, helpless as her companion thrashed and twitched in the dead's grip for nearly a minute. Then the ghost released its prey and Gen crumpled to the wet cobblestones. Naia got only the barest glimpse of his face in the spirit's witchlight--sere and withered as if baked beneath a desert sun--before she was off and running, screaming, fleeing all but mindlessly.
What's done this? Naia's mind gibbered as her feet slipped and slid on the wet stones. What demon is loosed upon us? Rampaging monsters run free in the wilderness and a tyrant king that failed to protect his people were horrors, but they were sane horrors. The wights of the dead risen up to plague the living was something else entirely.
They died in torment, and cannot even find rest? Has Heaven, then, abandoned us?
The thought struck a chord in Naia's mind. It was not an idea; there was no clear-minted thought, no fullness of logical inspiration, just a spark of something.
In her panicked mind, the church inextricably meant sanctuary to Naia. Without any basis for which to do so, she fled as fast as she could in the direction of the cross-topped spire. Somewhere along the way the flash and the sack had slipped from her frozen and fear-numbed hands; she'd have cut loose the packs as well but there was no time to loose the cinched straps designed to stay securely in place despite misadventure. Besides, some part of her knew, it would do no good. The doctor's lich, twisted by whatever forces had called it out of the grave, would not be appeased by abandoning the "stolen" goods. The mere presence of a living person was reason enough for the dead to kill.
With every lurching step, Naia imagined that she could feel the wight's cold hand closing on her with its killing touch. But there was the church, its great bulk rising up just forty feet before her! Thirty...twenty...ten...She was almost to the steps that led to the arched doorway. Then, just as Naia was raising her foot to place it on the first step, another bolt of lightning turned night to day, and the gargoyle perched on the lintel seemed to explode to life, its features were illuminated so starkly. Naia gasped in shock at the stone visage that appeared to hurtle towards her and she missed her step, her foot slipping. She pitched backwards, and her head struck the cobblestones. There was an explosion of pain and then...nothing.
* * * * *
The first thing Naia was conscious of was the warmth of sunlight on her face. Her head ached with a pulsing throb that spread outward from the back of her skull and surged forward. Her leggings were sodden with the rain and her upper body wasn't much better; although her poncho was waterproof there wasn't much any weather-gear could do when one lay on the ground for hours in a downpour. Now, though, the sky above was blue, with sparse clouds drifting by. Clearly it was still morning, to judge by the sun. The night was over; she had escaped the dead.
Her first thought of the pursuing spirit caused Naia to sit bolt upright in terror. The sudden movement was too much for her and she retched, which made her feel a bit better but also gave her time to realize that she was alive, reasonably well, and safe. There was no wight pursuing her, no sign of any threat at all.
"Was it all...a dream?" she wondered aloud, unable to conceive of why the lich had spared her life. Had she slipped and fallen on the way into town, and the rest was but a phantom of her concussed brain?
But if so, then how came her packs to be weighed down with supplies? And where was Gen? He wouldn't have just left her.
Yet if it had not been a dream, why was she still alive?
Naia struggled to her feet. The why of it didn't matter. She had to get back to Ashlen, and it wouldn't be an easy job in the monster-haunted forest. She needed her attention to be on that, not mulling over past horrors. One thing was certain about Palma under King Lassic: there were always fresh, new terrors to keep one from brooding over old ones.
A slight breeze stirred the morning air, and a flicker of white caught the corner of Naia's eye. She looked up at the facade of the great stone church and there she saw, as if caught beneath the claw of the leering gargoyle, a scrap of fabric a few inches long, white with a tiny spatter of crimson. Only, she realized, it could not be caught on the claw, for the sculptor had fashioned the creature so it appeared to be perching above the door, claw-points buried in the lintel, so that there were no sharp protrusions for the fabric to be caught on. Indeed, it almost seemed as if the tip of the cloth had somehow been cemented into the stone.