Lena just looked at the barkeep matter-of-factly in agreement, but Brendan wanted to hear more about the monsters. “Monsters?” He injected a note of fear into his voice that, quite frankly, he did not have to fake. “What sort of monsters?” He felt the start of a nervous sweat forming on his brow.
“Don’t rightly know,” the barkeep said, lowering his voice a touch. “Clem over there,” he indicated a rotund man deep in his cups, “claimed to hear ‘em a couple of times, groanin’ and moanin’ for men’s souls. Shep swears up and down that something scratched up his door one night a couple weeks back.” He piped down, staring at the bar as though unsure whether to go on.
“Then there’s the graveyard.” He looked supremely uncomfortable. “Don’t know that I should be goin on about this to outsiders,” he said, hunching his shoulders in a bit. “You seem decent enough though, and you’ve certainly paid more ‘n your share for the beer tonight. There were some … incidents over at the grave yard a couple weeks back. Right around the time Clem and Shep and a few others started tellin’ their stories.”
He discarded the rag, which was finally starting to look like it had actually been used, and grabbed a fresh one, cleaning a group of dirty mugs that had accumulated over the past few hours. “Most people know better ‘n to believe the stories of those gents, no disrespect intended to ‘em. But you know how it is when a fellow drinks maybe a little more than is strictly good for him.
“Of course,” Brandon agreed, drinking again. “I’ve been known to indulge from time to time,” he said with a meaningful glance at the mug, which the barkeep refilled with a knowing chuckle. Lena shot a glance at him that he couldn’t quite read.
“I’ve no doubt of that,” the barkeep smiled briefly, then resumed his cleaning. “And so I’m sure you know how muddled one can get in the head at times, and why some folk might not be inclined to take a fellow at his word when he complains of monsters in the night. Why, I once got a little deeper into my cups than maybe good sense would allow for, and I’ll be damned if I couldn’t have sworn that a fallen log wasn’t a forest beast out to eat my legs right out from under me. Spirits do warm the heart, but they also muddle the eyes, am I right?”
“You most certainly are,” Brendan agreed. “So these monsters, they were just the muddled eyes and ears of men who maybe let their drinking get a little out of hand?”
“At first I believed it to be so,” the man said seriously, then leaned in closer. “Least-wise until ‘ol Clint went missing. He was a right regular here, never missed a night. Place ain’t been the same since he vanished,” he said wistfully, casting a glance at an empty bar stool that looked rather well-worn.
“He wasn’t always as careful to never miss payin’ his tab, but he always came through on it in the end, till this last time, least-aways,” he said. “Nobody knows fer sure what happened to ‘im, and if that Myra ever found out, she sure didn’t beat down my door to tell me, nor anyone else round these parts.”
“So they were real, then? The monsters?”
“Well …” the barkeep shifted uncomfortably. “If you mean did I ever actually see ‘em myself … well, no,” he admitted. “But Clint wasn’t the only one to go missing. Nobody’s seen young Ryan since he left one night a week and a half ago. He wasn’t even so drunk that last night that you’d have thought there’d be a problem. Maybe a lil unsteady on his feet, but nothin’ so bad as all that, right? But his missus said he never made it home; never saw him again, nor did the rest of us.”
“S’true, all ‘o it,” said a voice next to Lena. They turned and saw one of the regulars had wandered over for a refill. “Ryan was eated up by the dead’uns.”
“Dead’uns,” the barkeep scoffed. “Was monsters, not dead’uns.”
“Don’ you listen to this guy, ‘e just repeatsh all the nonshense th’ drunks ‘ere spill over the bar all night,” the obviously drunk man cautioned them. “Was dead’uns sure as thish mug is full. Thish mug …” He eyed the mug, then blearily peered into it. Frowning, he tipped it until a single drop splashed onto the bar, much to the barkeep’s annoyance.
“Monsters,” the barkeep said.
“Wasn’ no monstersh,” the man said, setting the mug back on the bar with exaggerated care. “Monstersh dun’ groan and moan like these things did. ‘Eard ‘em I did, oushide me window, wanderin’ about the gra’eyard. Thash why all them gravesh were turned up i’the mornin’, the dead’uns had to dig ‘emselves out in the night.”
“Sounds like zombies to me,” Brandon said to Lena, who nodded back. He’d seen plenty of scenarios like it in books, movies and games. The thought of it happening in reality not so far away in the same town he was in made his skin crawl.
“Zombish? ‘Aven’t heard ‘em called that in yearsh,” the man said, perking up at their acceptance of his story, “but yar, that’sh them.”
“You’re all crazy,” the barkeep insisted. “I’m tellin’ you, it was no zombies, it was monsters. ‘Ad to be. Dead’uns don’t have no control over themselves, see, and everyone who disappeared was right around this area, tween ‘ere and the graveyard. If it were really dead’uns, they’d ‘ave killed the whole town by now, wouldn’t they?”
“Bah, I knowsh what I ‘eard, an’ it wash dead’uns fer shure. I bet ‘twas that lady wot wash pokin’ round that done it.”
“You know I don’t got much love for th’ Ilthem Saeri,” the barkeep said, “but that just don’t make much sense, Mal! It’d all been over for days by the time she poked ‘er nose around here.”
Brandon saw that they’d attracted quite a crowd of onlookers by this point, with people standing around, drinking, listening to the drunk Mal and the barkeep arguing. Nobody seemed to be paying them any attention anymore, which suited him just fine. There was muttering and murmuring as various groups started their own debates on the issue of monsters vs. zombies.
“What are these other monsters you were talking about?” he asked the barkeep.
The barkeep looked at him as though he’d gone mad. “You know, monsters! Everyone knows monsters,” he said, rather unhelpfully. “Big, hairy ‘n fast, eyes glow at night, teeth as big as a finger and sharper than knives.” The barkeep turned back to the argument.
He caught Lena’s eye and nodded toward the stairs. She nodded in response, and they quietly paid their tab and headed up. “What did you make of all that?” he asked.
“It was fascinating. You seemed very familiar with the subject matter; have you encountered zombies before? What sort of monsters are they referring to?” She seemed genuinely curious. He guessed she didn’t watch a lot of monster movies.
“Never outside of a movie theatre,” he explained. “I am a bit of a zombie film aficionado though. I’m not sure what to make of the other monsters they referred to. Maybe werewolves? They didn’t say anything about people turning into monsters, but it would sort of fit with the disappearances, maybe. Feels like a stretch though.”
“I’m a little out of my depth in all this,” Lena said apologetically. “I was never much of a horror fan. A little sci-fi is about as close as I got before I got here.”
“You’re into sci-fi? That’s—” he stopped himself. Not the time, he thought. “Cool, we’ll have to compare notes sometime. For now, I guess—”
“Yes, we should get some sleep and be ready to fill Sorcha in when she returns,” Lena said, suppressing a yawn. “I’m about ready to fall down right here.”
Brandon felt about the same, he realized. “Me too. Good night,” he said, unlocking the door he’d been told was his.
“Good night,” she said, and watched him as he vanished into his room. He closed his door behind him, and was out like a light before he’d even had a chance to undress.
The next morning the four of them gathered around a table in the largely empty common room over breakfast. Sorcha had been out most of the night, but claimed she was fine; “I don’t need a lot of sleep,” she explained.
“Myra was definitely on a the trail of a necromancer raising zombies. And not a particularly skilled necromancer, either,” she sniffed disdainfully. “He’s sloppy, even sloppier than you might imagine for someone who works in zombies. It’s been weeks, and his signs were still painfully obvious.”
“That fits well with what we learned last night,” Lena agreed, and she related the debate they’d begun. Rich and Sorcha listened with half of their attention each, the other half absorbed by the platter of bacon and eggs and fresh-baked bread that the barkeep brought over to them.
The stories were told by the time breakfast was consumed. “We’ll have to head out immediately,” Sorcha announced when they were done. “In fact we probably shouldn’t have waited to finish breakfast,” she added, licking the last crumbs of bacon from her fingertips. “Myra will be difficult to catch if we let her get too far ahead of us, and she has quite a head-start already. She’ll have followed our wayward necromancer, but his trail will end when she catches and deals with him, which she has certainly already done.”
“And once his trail no longer points to hers …” Rich added.
“She’s going to be tough to track down,” Sorcha agreed. “Even for me.”
“If he’s raising zombies,” Lena thought out loud, “then it seems to me that he’ll have to go to where there’s a ready supply of bodies, won’t he? Are there any larger cities in the area?”
Sorcha and Rich exchanged a glance, eyebrows raised in appreciation. “You’re absolutely correct, Lena,” Sorcha said. “He is in fact headed for the nearest big city. It will have taken him some time to get there; zombies are notoriously slow, and he’ll have had to travel by night to avoid attracting unwelcome attention.”
“And it’s possible he wouldn’t have made it all the way to the city at all, if Myra caught him en-route,” Rich added. “She doesn’t deal well with fallen Heroes.”
“You know her?” Brendan asked, surprised. They all seemed surprised, even Sorcha, given the look on her face.
“Yes, we’ve crossed paths,” he confirmed, face soured by the thought. “She gives your people a bad name, Sorcha, I’m sorry to say. Not a prime specimen. Not entirely her fault though, from what I’ve heard.”
“What exactly have you heard?” Sorcha asked, her face caught between anger and surprise.
“She takes her duty as guide extremely seriously,” he began. “But she has had poor luck in the past. Several of her students have fallen, and she seems to take it as a personal failing on her part that it happened. She hunts down the fallen like it’s an insult that they exist at all, and she … well … the stories of what happens when she catches them gave me nightmares for a month.”
Sorcha looked a little pale. “It sounds almost like she has fallen herself,” she said.
“I didn’t want to say as much,” Rich admitted, “but the thought has occurred to me.”
Sorcha stood. “We don’t have time to waste,” she said abruptly, face grim. “We have to get moving.”
They gathered what little they’d brought with them and left the tavern after settling up, and started out on the road once again. They’d just left the village behind and were headed deeper into the mountains when Sorcha spoke up.
“It’s not unheard of for one of the Ilthem Saeri to fall,” she said, voice quiet. “But it’s damn close. I’m going to find her,” she said, voice hard, “and get to the bottom of this.”
“What exactly is it to fall?” Lena asked. “Myra was very … well, vague, on the subject.”
“She would be,” Rich said. “The few times I met her, she really didn’t like talking about it at all.”
“It’s like a Jedi falling to the dark side,” Sorcha said shortly.
Lena’s eyes lit up with understanding. “They’re corrupted by their power then?”
Lena managed a chuckle. “Well, it’s not as external a power as the Force is, it’s more of an internal corruption of the personality, but sort of, yes. We see it as a failing of our guidance, allowing someone who was Called to go down the wrong path.”
“And so you take it personally when it happens,” Brendan said, “and this Myra takes it way more personally than she should?”
“That sums it up pretty well,” Sorcha confirmed. “And from the sounds of it, that has become the source of her own personal fall.”