"This is the best you can do for me?" Alys Brangwin asked as she reviewed
the file entitled "Mystery of the Swamp."
"I'm sorry," replied Erin, the dark-haired Hunter's Guild Secretary.
"That's all we received, just the one letter transmission--and a payment
draft on the Termi Mercantile Association Bank."
Alys grinned at the secretary.
"Payment in advance, eh? I wondered what got you to even post this, with
the details as sketchy as they are. Having five thousand meseta ready to
hand out would help your comfort level."
Erin grinned back, which would have sent hunters fainting throughout the
guild if they had but known. She was a no-nonsense woman, used to putting
up with the antics of a profession that took macho posturing as holy writ
and was rarely amused by any of it.
Then again, if Erin was to drop the mask of cool efficiency for anyone,
it would be for Alys. The "Eight-Stroke Sword" was the Guild's most
celebrated and successful hunter, and a woman who had an equal distaste for
crap. The brunette in her red dress over black bodysuit with a wire circlet
holding her hair off her face was what a hunter was supposed to be--a
professional monster-slayer, bounty-taker, explorer, and guard with a
practical attitude and a high level of competence. Alys didn't waste time
bragging; she did her job and collected her fees. Like Erin, she had no
patience with swaggering thugs who were all mouth and no courage.
"So are you interested, Alys?"
She read the letter over again, hoping to somehow pull meaning from
between the lines. "Please help! The dead curse of the swamp has returned!
Enos Morgan," Alys recited. Even out loud it didn't mean much. "What swamp
curse? That could mean anything. I don't want to waste a trip to Termi,
even by telepipe, and just have to come back because it was all for
On the other hand, Alys knew better than most hunters that there was more
to things like "magic" and "curses" than people believed. In her youth
she'd known a man named Rune Walsh who had been able to use magic, and
recently she herself had come face-to-face with it in the matter of the
Monsen excavation site murders. If there truly was a curse at work and the
word wasn't just a euphemism, she was probably the best able to handle it of
all the Guild's hunters.
Then again, that applied to pretty much anything, so it really shouldn't
have been a consideration. Still and all...
"Well, I only got one thousand for that scorpirus hunt out near Nalya.
Cord flipped me to see who got the caves, and while I only bagged five, he
and Trask stumbled on the nesting pit and killed, what, thirty of the
"Yeah. I think I'm going to take a good look at the coin next time Jason
Cord flips me for anything. So, sign me up, Erin. I could use five
She'd have walked through fire before admitting it wasn't just the money
that motivated her.
* * *
The first thing Alys noticed as the telepipe deposited her just outside
the village of Termi was the air. It was wet and muggy, and felt all the
more because it was just about the only spot on the planet where that was
true. Motavia was an arid world whose weather patterns tended to dump what
rainfall there was back into the sea. The Termi peninsula at the
southeastern end of the continent, though, was the sole exception. The wind
blew out of the south during the winter and spring, bringing rain clouds
that bunched and stopped when they hit the mountains not far north of the
town. While the summer and fall featured the gentle trade winds bearing the
smell of the sea, it was Alys's luck to land in Termi during the part of the
year where one could reliably count on humidity.
Alys hadn't needed to be told her job would start in Termi; the title of
the mission alone had settled that. Motavia had exactly one swamp,
northeast of town where several small streams flowed out of the mountains.
The bog, formally named the Ilcallas Marsh, was a fetid and unpleasant place
by all accounts. Seemingly solid ground could hide patches of quicksand,
and there were several breeds of insectoid biomonster that had found it an
excellent breeding environment, as had slug-types that were usually
restricted to dank caves by the baking sun.
Alys herself had never been to the marsh, so in a strange kind of way she
was looking forward to it. Getting paid to see the far corners of the
planet was one of the perks of being a hunter.
Wiping sweat from her forehead with the back of her hand, she headed into
town. Since her client hadn't given the location of his house, the first
part of her job was to find him. Butterflies flitted lazily by and strains
of brisk music played on stringed instruments and steel drums caught Alys's
ears as she sought out the large, whitewashed building that was the home of
Termi's law enforcement.
A young, blonde clerk was sitting at the reception desk shuffling papers
when Alys entered, glad to be into the shade. She was about to introduce
herself when that became unnecessary.
"Alys Brangwin!" a loud voice boomed out. Paul Denton, Termi's Chief
Marshal and head of its guard force, had just come out of his office and had
recognized the hunter immediately. "Welcome back to Termi. Did you finally
decide to take some vacation time here in our fair city, or is this another
"The latter, I'm afraid." She'd met Denton on a previous trip when she'd
collected a bounty on a con man put up by Termi's government. Alys liked
the lawman immensely; while his height and bulk suggested the kind of
overblown personality associated with a tourist trap like Termi, the truth
was that he had an insightful, practical mind and a sardonic sense of humor
that she appreciated.
"Shoulda guessed; you're the sort that likes to stay busy."
"True enough. Mind if I toss a few questions your way?"
"Go ahead. We good guys are supposed to cooperate, right?" His jowly
face curved into a broad smile.
"Enos Morgan," Alys said. "Know where I can find him?"
"You're after Old Enos?" Denton said, startled.
"Sort of; he's my client. His request for Guild assistance didn't bother
with directions, though."
"Yep, that's Old Enos, all right. Gets an idea into his head and he's
off and running. Funny thing is, you and he are kinda in the same
Alys raised an eyebrow.
"Man's gotta shack out maybe a quarter of the way into the marsh. He
hunts up plants and animals that ain't found anywhere else, brings 'em back
to town to sell for medicines and so on. Does some good business. The
owner of the Bayamare gift shop told me once he uses a dye from some swamp
root Enos finds to get the reds and oranges just right in the pennants he
sells to tourists."
Alys shrugged. The man had obviously made enough of a living at his work
to save up enough to advance the commission to the Guild, and the specifics
didn't matter much.
"How do I get to him, if he lives out in the marsh?"
"About five miles up the east track from Termi is a little hamlet called
Bog Edge, on account of the frighteningly powerful imagination of its
founders. Got about thirty folks living there; I'm sure one of them will
take you out by boat to Enos's shack." He paused, then hitched his thumbs
into his belt. "Alys, mind if I ask--speaking as the guy who's in charge of
the law around here--what Old Enos wants a hunter for?"
"In this case, ask away. I've got one sentence to go on: 'The dead
curse of the swamp has returned.' Do you have any idea what that means?"
Denton shook his head.
"I haven't run across any curses in my lifetime, let alone any dead ones.
Then again, you've gotta figure most curses wouldn't like Termi, what with
the heroine Alis Landale's spirit supposed to protect the town."
Alys had gone to see the heroine's statue on her previous visit, and had
to admit that she'd looked like the kind of person who wouldn't permit a
minor annoyance like death to keep her from helping people.
"Maybe she'll throw in a helping hand for a namesake," she said. "If I'm
going to face off against a dead curse, then maybe a dead heroine is just
what's called for."
"Just watch yourself, Alys. I don't know about any dead curses, but
there's plenty of living monsters out there that could make things rough."
"Well, now I know you've got kids," Alys said laconically.
"Two boys, one girl--and five deputy marshals who figure they're the
second coming of, well, you. But keep an eye out anyway."
"I will. Can't spend a commission if I don't live to collect it, after
* * *
The less said about Bog Edge, Alys decided after about three seconds in
town, the better. The shabby construction, the slack-jawed looks, and the
smell of alcohol fermented from things not generally meant for human
consumption were her first hints, and the universal fashion statement of
"unkempt, ragged, and dirty" finished it off. These weren't the hardworking
country folk she'd met in farming and fishing villages, and they weren't the
kind who were poverty-stricken by fate or bearing up under a desperate
situation. Degeneration and decay (and, she'd wager, a fair amount of
inbreeding) were the words that best described the place; it was somehow
appalling to find it so close to the beauty of Termi.
Alys managed to find a fellow who was willing to forego the pleasures of
bad booze at the tavern for fifty meseta in cash for taking her out to Enos
Morgan's house. His name was Jedidiah Parker, and he was a stooped figure
with pasty white skin and jaundiced eyes who was about thirty and looked
fifty. Still, Alys had to admit that Jed poled the boat--more like a raft
with elevated sides, it had such a shallow draft--down the channels between
hillocks of greenery with a skill and deftness she had to respect.
"Hope yer biz'ness with Old Enos don' take too long, missy," he said
after a time. "Gettin' on near dark, an' things ain't too healthy in th'
swamp past sundown."
"I'll keep that in mind. Just remember that you're being paid to take me
out of the swamp as well."
"Oh, I don' be fergettin' t'at now, missy. You jes' 'member th' price,
an' we do be okay."
Alys swatted an insect that was making persistent attempts to get at her
neck despite her high collar. Jed had a good point; the growing gloom was
made all the worse by the overarching trees hung with wet moss.
"Say, what be bringin' a hunter girl like you out to see Old Enos anyway?
T'ere be some big monster you be killin'?"
Alys looked at him wryly.
"Ever hear of a dead swamp curse?"
Jed's eyes widened in surprise.
"Well, sure I have. Don' live in t'ese here parts ma whole life wit'out
hearin' 'bout old Mama Vargas."
"What's that?" Alys's interest perked up. Perhaps all Jed knew was just
a legend, but then again, there might have been more to it.
"Dorita Vargas. Th' old witch who lived in th' swamp 'bout two, t'ree
hun'ned years 'go." Jed's eyes turned back to the swamp, and his powerful
hands began to work the boat-pole faster. Maybe it was to avoid the dark,
but Alys had a feeling that Jed was uncomfortable telling the whole story,
and hoped to cut it short by arriving at their destination.
"A witch?" she prompted.
"T'at's right. Not like t'em tech-nikes you hunters got, no. No, Mama
Vargas got th' real t'ing, th' real bad stuff she learnt outta t'em books
she had up at her shack. Folks'd go out to her, an' she'd give 'em a charm
or a love-spell, or a curse or whatever t'ey wanted, if t'ey paid her price.
Time came, people got scared of her, and when t'ey got scared, t'ey got
angry. So t'ey went out an' t'ey burnt her shack down."
A shudder ran through Jed.
"T'ey say t'at when Mama Vargas found out what t'ey'd done, she lay a
terrible curse on t'em what dared attack her again. She say, anyone t'at
raised a hand 'gainst her'd serve her spirit 'til th' world ended!"
That was creepy enough, but most ancient curses tended to be that way.
If you cursed someone to have a boil on his left big toe, it usually didn't
get remembered for long enough to become "ancient." What got to Alys was
the "serve her spirit" part. Most curses promised a horrible and violent
death, but this one sounded like it promised a horrible afterlife,
which was considerably worse.
Not to mention, she thought cynically, considerably harder to prove
effective. It was very obvious, in contrast, if you cursed someone to death
and they didn't keel over.
"Did the curse bring the villagers back in line?" Alys again prompted
"Most of 'em it did," he continued reluctantly, "but t'ere were some t'at
weren' scared of no spooks--or mebbe t'ey was more 'fraid of leavin' her
'live t'en t'ey were of th' curse. Five men, t'ey went out into th' swamp,
an' t'ey hanged old Mama Vargas for bein' a witch."
"Vigilante justice," Alys sighed. Bog Edge was nominally part of Termi,
at least as far as the law went. Though, she supposed, that might not have
been true whenever the story had actually taken place--not to mention the
problem of convincing the town authorities that someone needed hanging
because they practiced black magic. The laughter probably would have been
heard all the way back in Aiedo.
"T'at it was, but don' go thinkin' it got 'em nothin'. See, one week to
th' day after th' hangin' t'ey hear screamin' out at Milt Faber's place.
T'ey all go out to see what it was, and t'ey find no sign of Milt, but t'ey
do find 'is wife an' kids..." He paused for dramatic effect. "Only t'ey'd
had t'eir heads ripped clean off! Nobody never found Milt Faber 'gain, or
th' heads--but th' same t'ing happened th' very next week to Brom Vigneaux.
By t'at time, people got mighty scared it was Mama Vargas come back to make
good on her curse, see. Winston Crow sent his family away 'cause he was
'fraid, an' Joey Burke up an' kilt himself. Winston disappeared, right
enough, so's th' last of th' five, Petrie Smith, 'e goes an' digs up Mama
Vargas's grave an' burns th' body. T'at put an' end to it, or so t'ey say.
Guess even a dead witch couldn' do 'er magic iffin you burn 'er to cinders."
Jed shuffled his feet uncomfortably.
"Do a lot of people know this story?"
"Most near ever'one in Bog Edge do, I reckon."
"But presumably no one's been found missing a head around the village?"
Jed shook his obviously still present appendage vigorously.
"No, ma'am! Ain't nothin' like t'at, you kin be sure."
"So why would Enos Morgan say that the curse has returned, then? Unless
he meant something completely different?"
"T'at's th' only curse I know 'bout, but let me tell you, missy, th'
swamp's a queer place. Strange t'ings go on out here. I say it'd be a
blessin' if t'is here planet gets just a little hotter an' dries the whole
place up!" He paused as if thinking, then freed up one hand and scratched
his chin through his scraggly whiskers. "'Course, if t'at happens I'll be
needin' me a new line of work, but still an' all...Oh! Looks like we be
He pointed through the gathering darkness and mist towards two points of
light in the distance. In the marsh, strange glows from luminous gases were
not uncommon, but Alys soon realized that Jed was right. The light came
from two lanterns hung on the porch of a wooden cabin held above the
waterline on six sturdy posts. The building looked old and weatherbeaten,
and Alys wondered how long it took for the wood to succumb to water and rot.
No, much as she disliked the blazing sun of Motavia's deserts, Alys
vastly preferred it to this grim place which seemed to be bloated until
bursting with unwholesome life.
Jed poled the boat up to the foot of the cabin, where stairs led down
from the porch to form a makeshift landing. Jed tied up his boat.
"Looks like we're here."
"Something's wrong," Alys said. "Enos was expecting a hunter, and
urgently, and the lamps are lit to guide travelers to the house, but I don't
see any other boat here."
"T'at's weird, all right. Old Enos'd go off in the swamp, sure 'nuff,
but not wit'out blowin' out t'em lights, 'cause of fire an' all." Jed was
trembling a bit, and Alys couldn't blame him. Even she was getting a bit
Well, she decided, no point in staying here whimpering.
She drew her slashers, twin blade weapons that she could hurl to slash up
multiple enemies (hence the name) and have return to her hands. In the
enclosed space of the cabin, though, she wouldn't have the room to throw
them, so she left the blades in their folded position--which enabled her to
use them as daggers. Deftly, she climbed from the boat to the stairs and
went up to the porch. Alys was somewhat surprised when Jed followed her,
clutching his boat-pole like a quarterstaff.
"You're coming along?"
"Well, if t'ere is somet'ing wrong, I don' wanna be out here
alone. Safest place, I guess, be where you an' yer blades be, missy."
"Just stay back and don't get in my way," Alys told him firmly. "If I
have to make a fast move to save both our necks, I don't want to run into
you halfway through it."
His head bobbed up and down rapidly, his complexion looking even
unhealthier in the lamp-flames than it had in the sunlight in Bog Edge.
"You kin be sure of t'at, missy."
"Jed, can you swim?"
"Yes. Why d'you ask?"
"Because if you call me 'missy' again, I'm going to throw you into the
Alys went up to the door, realizing that her little spurt of temper had
driven the nervousness to the back of her mind. There was still tension,
but not fear as she opened the door.
The fear came when she saw the headless body, clad in a long robe and
overtunic, sprawled in the middle of the floor.
The cabin only had one room, she noted. There was a kitchen for cooking,
a bed in the back, partially curtained off, and a table for sitting, eating,
and entertaining guests in the front corner. Only, the place was a wreck.
The dead man had not died easily. The table was tipped over, as was a chair
and a drying-rack for herbs. Another chair was smashed to flinders. A
bookcase had been knocked down, spilling bound volumes and manuscripts onto
the floor; several had been torn underfoot and pages scattered free. The
bedcurtain was half torn down while there was broken crockery near the
kitchen. The low ceiling implied an attic, but there didn't seem to be a
"T'at's Old Enos!" Jed exclaimed. "T'em be his robes, right enough!"
"It looks like the curse really did get him," Alys murmured, but even as
she said it, something still seemed off. The scene wasn't what it appeared,
she was sure of it.
After a fight like this, resulting in a violent decapitation, she'd
expect to be in an abbatoir. Instead, there wasn't the slightest hint of
blood. No pools, no splashes, not even the smell of it.
Alys moved forward and slowly knelt by the body. Since the only light
came from another lamp, hanging from a ceiling hook, she hadn't been able to
clearly see the second flaw from the door, but at close range it was
obvious. While the robe covered most of the body, it left the hands
exposed--hands with gray-green flesh, partially decayed, with cracked and
jagged nails. Not the hands of a man who'd sent a letter
transmission from Termi to the Guild two days ago, not even if he'd been
killed immediately afterwards and carried out to the cabin.
"Jed, something's wro--" she began, but the blow to the back of her head
cut Alys off in mid-sentence.
"Hee hee hee!" the boatman cackled. "Looks like ma boy got Old Enos
good! Now I jest gotta toss you in the water, missy, an' t'en
t'ere won' be no one left to say what I kin do!"
Jed could have been forgiven for thinking Alys was unconscious. He'd
taken her by surprise, and the blow had been good and hard. The only
problem was, since the swamp was a hostile environment Alys had put on her
field gear. The sturdy leather crown-style helmet she wore was hidden in
back under her long hair, and it rather than her skull had absorbed much of
The blow had knocked her forward, but even as it did she braced her left
forearm on the floor, turned over, and snapped off a backhand throw with the
slasher in her right hand. With the blades closed, it flew straight like a
knife and buried itself in the boatman's abdomen. With a choking gasp he
staggered back against the wall, the pole dropping from his grasp, and
slumped to the floor.
"Looks like you done got me, t'en, hunter," he forced out, his eyes still
burning with a malice Alys had believed was only the ignorance and
resentment typical of a degenerate population. "But I'll git you too! Ma
boys are on the way, an' t'ey'll hunt you down no matter how long t'ey have
Then, as if the effort had drained the already-fading life from his body,
Jed collapsed to the plank floor, eyes still wide in death.
"His boys," Alys groused, getting to her feet. "Don't tell me I have to
deal with some backwoods clan of cutthroats."
She pulled her slasher free of the dead man, but spun when she heard the
creak of hinges. The attic trapdoor had been in the back corner over the
bed, explaining the lack of a ladder, and a man lowered himself down.
"Nothing like that, I'm afraid," he said in a thin voice that showed no
trace of the Bog Edge accent. He was old, balding, and white-bearded, and
wore only a sleeveless white undertunic and knee-leggings, the sort of
underclothes one wore under a--
Alys glanced at the headless corpse.
"Yes, that's right," the man said. "I put my robe on it so whomever sent
it after me would think it was me. Of course, I had to cut the head off so
it would match that old story, and believe you me I will never be using
that saw again, but all in all I'd say my little ruse worked fairly
"You would be Enos Morgan?"
"The same! And you're the hunter from the Guild." He rubbed his hands
together eagerly. Like the man generally they were thin but showed wiry
strength, no surprise given that he survived a life of exploring and living
in the marsh. "I thought cash in advance would get me some help. What's
your name, miss?"
"The Alys Brangwin?" The pop-eyed stare cost him a bit in Alys's
estimation, but not using her stupid nickname won most of it back.
"Looks like my meseta spoke louder than I thought. Which is good, because
you're in a world of trouble right now but I think we may be able to get you
out of it."
"I appreciate that. Do we have time for you to explain just what the
heck is going on, or do we have to get rid of the current crisis--whatever
"It's all one and the same," he told her. "But tell me, if you had to
fight four enemies at once, where would you want to do it?"
"Open ground," Alys answered immediately, "where I could use my slashers
to hit them all with each throw."
"And if that wouldn't work? You'd have to fight them close-up?"
"Somewhere narrow, where they could only come at me one at a time and the
ones in front would provide cover so the ones in back couldn't use
long-range weapons or techniques on me."
"In that case, looks like we'd better be heading for the old cemetery.
I'll explain on the way."
They took Jed's boat, Enos poling it while Alys got the job of holding a
lantern in the bow. On the way, Enos finally filled in the blanks.
"I'm sorry my message didn't give you much to go on, but I needed help
badly and I didn't think I'd get it if I came out and said that I thought
zombies would be after me."
"You might have trouble getting it now."
"I don't need it now--you do!" Enos said with a cackle. "Jed set
them on you before he died, and they'll keep on coming until they get you or
something gets them. Since you killed him before he could tell I wasn't
really dead, though, I figure I owe you. Plus, we get them now, they won't
ever be coming back."
"So what exactly are these zombies?"
"Have you heard of an old witch called Mama Vargas who lived in this area
Alys gave him an incredulous look.
"You can't be serious."
Enos looked curiously at the hunter.
"I don't understand. It's quite true."
Alys shook her head. "No, that's not what I mean." She related the
story that Jed Parker had told her on the way out to Enos's cabin. The old
man nodded along as she summed up the details.
"Well, I can see why you were surprised. Jed must have been having a
game with you. Those details are precisely the way I myself heard the
story, and which I believe did take place. Only, there were additional
facts the villagers never knew."
"I see," Alys said noncommitally.
"She left a book behind, a combination diary and grimoire. I happened
across it twenty years ago in what must have been the ruins of her shack,
mouldering and charred at the edges. It told some of the story, and gave at
least one of the spells she used to effect her curse--the one to control the
walking dead, by the way."
"Apparently there were two parts to it. The first was to curse the five
men to rise after death as ghouls, mindless risen corpses that could be
controlled by the proper magic. That didn't actually kill anyone, you
see--just...prepared them for what came later. The second and more
difficult spell was for her to rise after her own death as a kind of
intangible spirit, keeping her own will. The way it seems to me is, each
week she was able to gain enough power to go out, kill one of them men, and
then control their bodies to wreak further havoc. Then, once she'd given
her little object lesson to the villagers, the zombie would march off to the
swamp to await further instructions."
"Who knows what a diseased mind might come up with?" He laughed eerily,
then said, "Why, I didn't burn that old book, after all. Maybe my own
mind's not too steady!"
"It had better be, if there really are zombies."
"Oh, yes. Well, to finish the story, burning Mama Vargas's body was the
right thing to do, because it destroyed her wight. After that, though, the
zombie curse remained active. When the last man died in turn, he too would
have risen up as the walking dead. Only at that time, there was no one to
give him any orders. See, these weren't zombies that go out preying on the
living; these ghouls are slaves, the animated dead meant to follow the
instructions of their master. Being undead, they endured for the passing
centuries, untouched by the hand of time. You know, I like that phrase."
Alys restrained herself, with some effort, from offering her opinion.
"So basically," she concluded, "there have been five undead monsters out
there in the swamp, waiting for someone to come along with the right magic
so the caster could tell them whose heads to rip off?"
"Exactly! Except the head part; I think that was just something Mama
Vargas's lich ordered them to do because it was generally creepy."
"So why did you cut the head off the zombie that you killed?"
"I figured whomever had sent it knew the story and expected it to be that
"That makes sense. So how did Jed Parker get to be the one who gave the
Enos blinked, as if surprised she would ask.
"He stole Mama Vargas's book from me, of course."
"Then why didn't you at least mention that in the letter transmission?"
"Well, I didn't know it was him, then. I came back to my cabin
after a hunting trip into the marsh and found that someone had been there in
my absence. Oh, they covered it up well enough, but when a man lives alone
in a place for four decades, he comes to know it to the point that he can
see a speck of dust's been disturbed. Only one thing was missing--Mama
Vargas's old book. I'd told a couple of people about it, and who knew whom
they'd told in turn, so I had no idea who the thief was. I did know there
was only one thing that would make it worth stealing; the zombie-control
spell was the only one still intact, thanks to the fire and the weather. I
also knew that if anyone was going to be killed, I'd be first on the list,
to cover the killer's tracks."
"So you went to Termi and sent for a hunter, to protect yourself and find
the thief. Only, Jed got the spell working and sent that first zombie after
you before I took the job." Thinking of the headless corpse's hands, Alys
didn't doubt her client's story of the walking dead.
"Yes, yes--but I was ready for it. I hadn't read that old book back and
forward without learning a few tricks, especially when put together with
some of the other lore I'd collected, and one of those is how to lay those
things to rest forever. Blades won't do it; even if you cut them to bits
the pieces will move independently and eventually just join back together.
There's only three ways to break the spell that animates them."
"The first way is fire, only it won't work. Those things have been in
the swamp for hundreds of years; you'd have to bake them dry for a week
before they'd catch flame."
That was too bad, because Alys knew techniques which could conjure up
fire. It would have been an easy win.
"The second method is by use of an herbal concoction--dried yaul flower,
ground vikkas root, and salt in equal measures. It has to be thrown into
the zombie's eyes, which is what I did to the one in the cabin.
Unfortunately, while I had a small supply of this mixture made up in
preparation for this attack, I didn't have success using it until the third
try. You saw the damage we caused while struggling. So, I only have one
dose of it to offer."
"Leaving us with a third and hopefully feasible method."
"Oh, it's possible, but it'll take doing. I'd never pull it off, not
against four. Maybe not even against one. You have to impale them through
either the brain or heart with a wooden or silver weapon."
"I thought that was how you got rid of vampires."
"I'm only repeating what I've read in Mama Vargas's journal."
"Speaking of which, what about Jed? Do we need to worry about him coming
back as a spirit the way she did?"
"No, that spell was not complete; like I said, the pages were too damaged
by fire and rot."
He said it with faint regret, and Alys suspected that the old man had
done a few researches in that direction. Eternal life, even of a partial
and spiritual nature, could be a potent lure. Still, it wasn't her problem,
especially since his attempts had failed.
"Well, getting back to the situation at hand, since I'm fresh out of
silver, I need a few wooden stakes. I suppose I could carve a point into
the end of that pole, unless that bundle you grabbed from the cabin contains
"That it does. Go on and take a look."
Still holding the lantern in one hand, Alys crouched and unwrapped the
cloth-bound package Enos had brought from his cabin.
"You've got to be kidding."
It was an Alis-Sword, a toy souvenir replica of the blade supposedly used
by Alis Landale in her battles. They were popular among the tourists in
Termi, who bought them for their children.
On the other hand, Alys realized, it was shaped and balanced like a
weapon, so it would be easier to fight with than a makeshift stake or spear.
Someone, presumably Enos, had hacked at the normally rounded tip to make a
fairly sharp point. It would do. This would be one story, though, that she
wouldn't be eager to share with anyone.
Alys also found a pouch containing a tart-smelling powder which she
figured was the herbal mixture, a guess Enos soon verified. She hooked it
to her belt and was just about to resume her perch in the bow when the boat
gave a sudden lurch and she had to fight to retain her balance. A moment
later, a hand that, like that of the dead zombie's flesh, was somehow
decaying and yet whole all at once, reached up and fastened long fingers on
the edge of the boat.
As Enos shifted weight to keep the boat from overbalancing under the
additional load of the monster, Alys adjusted her grip on the wooden sword's
hilt and waited. Another hand appeared, and then a face rose into view, a
hideous, half-rotted face with leering yellow eyes. Before it could attempt
to come aboard and actually fight, the hunter thrust hard from the shoulder.
The sword's point punched through undead flesh and bone with a sickly
sound like an overripe melon bursting, nearly piercing the skull through.
It seemed as if Old Enos's memory of the swamp witch's book was correct.
The creature's grip on the boat grew limp, and it slipped back into the
water under its own weight. Alys had to hold on tightly to keep the sword
from being pulled in with the ghoul; at last it tugged free of flesh and
"That's two down," she said matter-of-factly. The incident, though, had
unnerved her more than she cared to admit. The zombie had pursued Alys
through the swamp, underwater, not concerned with the environmental hazards
or the population of natural, living monsters. Only its need to climb into
the boat to reach her had put it in a vulnerable position, and even that had
almost turned bad.
If it had managed to overbalance the boat with its weight, Alys was sure
she'd have had no chance against an enemy to whom the darkness of the black,
murky water and the need to breathe were both irrelevant.
Well, that's all the more reason to fight where I want to. If
the battle's going to happen sooner or later, then I'm going to pick the
terms as best I can.
With that, the hunter stifled her fears as best she could and returned to
the bow. She and Enos took up their respective positions again, and the old
man resumed poling the boat, deftly avoiding sandbars and tangles of foliage
that could have left them temporarily stranded and at the mercy of their
undead stalkers. Alys found his skill, especially given the darkness and
the swirling mist, quite impressive.
They reached the cemetery not long after the zombie's attack; it was set
on a rounded hillock that seemed to rise out of the swamp. To Alys's left
and right as they approached, she saw stone blocks, some plain and some
ornamental, thrusting out of the water or just beneath the surface, while
further on she noticed more of them set on dry land. Sarcophagi, she
realized, above-ground graves.
"The ground hereabouts is too wet for burying; even where it isn't mud
you'll hit water after a couple of feet. At first, the people of Bog Edge
built above-ground tombs here on this high ground, but around a hundred
years ago, an earthquake made a stream change its course and part of the
cemetery flooded. The village had to move a couple of miles west, too.
Then they gave it up and started just sending bodies to Termi for burial."
"So long as these graves don't start opening up, I'm happy."
The old man pulled the boat up on shore with Alys's aid, there being no
convenient way to tie it up. As they did, Alys could see the three hulking
shapes lurch out of the water, splashing steadily, with purpose, towards the
shore. It was easy to hear the sounds of their passage, for none made any
other noise, neither speech nor whispers nor the gruesome moaning so often
associated with ghosts and spirits in campfire tales.
But then, Alys thought as they ran up the hill towards the looming
outlines of large family mausoleums, these weren't ghosts or spirits. They
were puppets, animated by magic, that happened to be made from the risen
dead. She did not know whether the soul of each dead man was trapped within
its undead shell or whether it had moved on at death, but in either case it
was not the dead man's will that drove the corpse on.
She could tell at once why Enos had brought her to the old cemetery. At
its highest point were the three mausoleums, and the high walls of two,
labeled Smith and Daventry in chiseled letters above their doors, made a
corridor leading to the face of the third, Cottner. The zombies would have
to advance down the stone-sided path to reach their target, and it was too
narrow for them to pass more than one at a time without seriously impeding
each other's progress. Maybe it wasn't perfect, given the fog and darkness,
the soft ground and grass slick with mist-dew that would affect her footing,
but under the circumstances it was as good a place to fight as she could
Alys handed the lantern to Old Enos, checked to see she still had his
herbal mix at her belt where she'd secured it, and took up the wooden sword
with a two-handed grip, prepared to face her enemy.
She didn't have long to wait.
Alys didn't understand the process, by what mystic senses the undead
creatures could locate her or how Jed had transmitted his orders to them.
She knew, though, that it worked. All three figures staggered towards her
from the far end of the path between the tombs, claws outstretched to rend.
Though each looked different in the specifics, they all shared certain
features: ragged clothes and gray-green skin dripping with water, as if
each had been allowed to decay just so far and then the natural process had
been unaccountably arrested. They had the same blank stare, the same
This was when the hunter made her first mistake. The ghouls
looked slow and ungainly, shambling towards her in a parody of human
movement, but they were not slow. Alys's first defense was badly mistimed
and a zombie's claws tore through her upper sleeve, lightly gouging the
flesh beneath. The tears in her left arm burned painfully; Alys knew she
should probably have them treated with a poison antidote to take care of any
toxins carried by the putrid water the corpse had been soaking in.
Assuming, she thought as she dodged a swipe at her head, that she got out
of this alive.
Alys used her wooden sword to block another lunging swipe, and it made
the weapon vibrate in her hands. It was a reminder of the weapon's
weakness; it was not meant for use in actual combat and might break. She
also, though, heard the snap of bone from the creature's forearm, confirming
what she'd suspected when she'd killed the one on the boat: the zombies'
skeletons were unusually brittle.
Probably just makes them easier to dismember, so someone with a blade
soon gets swarmed under by the pieces, she reasoned, but it also
makes them more vulnerable to this--
She took her chance, sidestepped towards the broken arm, which no doubt
was already healing via some magical process, and thrust for the chest. The
sword's point pierced the breastbone and transfixed the heart, impaling the
That was when the second surprise came. A living person tends to take
their time about dying, but the instant its heart was punctured, the ghoul
went from animated monster to dead weight. There was no slow sagging as
muscles weakened, no gradually going limp, just nearly two hundred pounds of
mass caught on the end of her sword. As the corpse fell, it ripped the
weapon from her hands, and the other ghouls advanced on her.
Alys fell back as the second one attacked, her fingers scrabbling for the
herbal mix at her belt. Off-balance, she shook open the pouch and flung the
contents while the zombie lunged with both hands outstretched for her
Whatever Enos's faults may have been--such as keeping that blasted
book!--he knew what he was talking about when it came to these
creatures. The animation faded from the thing at once, and its body
finished its lunge not by seizing Alys by the neck but by crashing into her,
its body carried forward by momentum. It knocked her down; she couldn't
keep her footing on the wet grass and she ended up pinned underneath the
Cursing mentally--out loud would have been a waste of breath--she
wrestled her way free of the fallen body, just barely getting loose before
the last zombie reached her. Without an effective weapon, she knew she was
in trouble; her throbbing arm testified to that. Alys retreated back
towards Enos and pulled out her twin slashers, snapping the blades open.
"Those won't kill it!" the old man cried.
"They won't have to," Alys said grimly and threw both blades low. The
whirling cutters bit into the advancing zombie's legs at knee height. One
did what she'd hoped, sliced through brittle bone and flesh to sever the
shin and foot from the leg, making the zombie topple.
Despite the fearful wound, the ghoul made no sound, but continued to
crawl forward towards Alys with the same implacable determination it had
displayed before. Verifying Enos's words, the severed limb flopped along
horribly behind it, as if trying to catch up.
Alys did not hesitate at the gruesome spectacle, though. Catching the
returning slashers and re-sheathing them, she took two quick steps and
jumped. She easily cleared the fallen monster, managed to keep her footing
though her boot skidded on the grass, and ran forward to the corpse of the
first zombie. With the last one slowed by its missing limb, she had plenty
of time to rip the Alis-Sword free.
Then she drove the blade straight down through the final ghoul's skull,
pinning its head to the ground.
"So much for that curse," Alys said, much more lightly than she felt.
The knowledge that the creatures were no longer pursuing her with the
tireless implacability of the dead was like a weight lifted from her back,
though. In that fleeting moment, when the usually pragmatic hunter's
thoughts were on something other than objectives to be accomplished or
rewards to be earned, she caught sight of the wooden sword and she
remembered her earlier words to Denton.
For just an instant, the moonlight struck through a gap in the mist and
the white wood of the Alis-Sword seemed to glow silver-bright.
Then the moment passed and Alys looked back at the old man.
"Well, the zombies are gone, so even if someone else finds what Jed did
with the journal it won't matter because there's nothing left to control.
Jed himself is dead, too; I'll report the circumstances to Marshal Denton,
so I'd say this job is finished.. Which just leaves the small matter of
five thousand meseta."