Sorcha lead them for several days, seeing signs where none of the rest of them, not even Rich, could see anything at all. “How are you following her?” Brandon asked her at one point. She grinned.
“I’m not. I could, but it’s much easier to follow our fallen necromancer instead. You see these bare patches?”
She indicated empty patches of earth. They did suggest a pattern, now that she drew his attention to it. It was nothing so obvious as a clear footprint, but it was roughly that size, and there was another further up, and another, and …
“You see it now,” she said. “Life has been removed from these patches. They mark the passage of those returned unnaturally from the grave.”
“I think I do, yeah,” he said. Even knowing, it was hard to spot. They just looked like bare patches of earth. “I would have expected blackened grass and something more …”
“Something more evil-looking?” she supplied. “That stuff is dramatic and all, and looks impressive in movies, sure, but that’s not how it really works. It’s almost a shame. I’m sure it’d be terrible for the environment, but it’d sure make tracking them easier. Which, when you think about it, is probably why they make sure the magic doesn’t make it that easy to track them!”
“Who designed the magic?” Lena asked.
“That much actually is rather similar to the way it’s depicted in many books and films. Over many thousands of generations, people observed and investigated how the natural world worked, and picked apart the secrets of making it do things the ancients would never have thought possible. It’s a lot like science, actually, only it follows the natural world down other paths.”
Lena frowned and looked like she had something to say, but bit her lip in thought. “So it’s basically science that our people haven’t discovered yet?” Brandon asked. Off on the far side of the group, Rich looked startled at the question, but then he too got a thoughtful look on his face.
Sorcha just grinned. “Yes and no. I suppose so. My people have found some ways to actually break rules that science can’t, so while a lot of what we call magic could be better termed science in your book, some of it truly is unnatural. That’s what we’re dealing with here.” Her face sobered up abruptly. “Necromancy is deep into the unnatural side of magic, and is a highly-restricted art. Whoever our young necromancer is, he fell the instant he started down this path.”
“So he fell because he broke the rules,” Lena said. “Myra was always a bit vague about what exactly it is to ‘fall,’ she’d always just tell me to do what she said and that if I did that, I wouldn’t have to worry about falling.”
“That sounds like bad advice, given what we’ve seen since then,” Rich said.
Sorcha scowled. “Yeah, not the best way to sum it up I’ve ever heard. Basically you Fall when you act in ways that run counter to the Call. It’s more complex than this, but you’re generally pretty safe if you think of it as ‘don’t act in a villainous manner.’”
“Really? That seems so …”
“I know, it’s not all that much better than Myra’s instructions were, I suppose, though at least it gives you a meaningful direction for your behavior. But the Call is a magic that was enacted thousands of years ago, and you’re used to thinking in terms of science, and logic, and computers. This is a whole different world. It’s a lot to get used to, but you’d never have been called if you weren’t capable of it.”
“If you have to be capable of it, why do people like this necromancer end up falling?”
“Because there’s a difference between being capable of something and actually doing it,” the guide said with a sad note in her voice.
The conversation died down after that. They followed the bare patches of ground onward for almost two and a half days. “The problem with this sort of trail,” Rich opined, “is that it’s very difficult to tell how far behind we are.”
“Were you using this method to track him before?” Brendan asked. Richard had told them he’d arrived in the village on the trail of the same necromancer Myra had been after, though the guide had, of course, been much faster than he was.
“No, I was forced to rely on more conventional means. It’s not the necromancer leaving these … prints,” he explained. “It’s his zombies. The magic that keeps them animated destroys and absorbs life from the ground they walk on to sustain itself.”
“So I guess we shouldn’t let them touch us?”
“Well, that’s always a good policy,” he said seriously, “but the magic won’t destroy and absorb you, if that’s what you mean. It’d be too dangerous even for most necromancers to create creatures like that. If the zombies are going to kill you, it’ll be more directly, or by infection.
”A few hours later, the sun still reasonably high in the sky, the trail suddenly veered away from road. Sorcha consulted a map she’d secreted away in her small pack. “Looks like he took a shortcut across this line of hills, she said, indicating on the map where the road jogged around a small line of hills as it passed through the mountains. “The city is still a ways off on the other side.”
“He probably figured it would either save him time or keep him away from other travelers.” They pressed onward, and as they did, Brendan felt a faint stirring of déjà vu. He found himself looking around the forest expectantly, unsure of what he was expecting to find.
“I don’t like this,” he said to nobody in particular.
“Don’t like what?” Lena asked. “I don’t see anything yet.”
“We are on the trail of a fallen Necromancer,” Rich commented dryly. “I can’t say that I especially like that much myself.”
They walked onward, Brendan’s reservations and sense of déjà vu growing. As they hiked up the side of the hills, the forest thickened, the sun slowly sank, and it got harder and harder to see, but still he couldn’t escape the feeling he’d been here before, or somewhere like it.
The trail lead to an impossibly thick stand of trees, and suddenly recollection snapped into his mind. They stood before a ring of trees almost identical to the ones he’d seen when he was Called, in his dream back in the familiar world.
The resemblance was uncanny, but also twisted. These trees were grey and lifeless, where the trees of his dream had been alive and teeming with life all around them. He looked up, and through the darkness the branches above were skeletal and bare, looking like nothing so much as long, grasping hands. He could almost see them bending down to—
“Hey, you okay?” Sorcha shook him by the shoulder.
“Yeah … yeah, sorry, I was …” He shook his head to clear it. The trees were still there, still lifeless, still grey, but they were inert, just dead trees, no longer grasping hands waiting for them.
“You were what?”
“I have a really bad feeling about this place.”
Sorcha nodded slowly; the others looked around and not one spoke against him. “Something is off,” she said. “Stay close, stay together. There’s something not right here. Don’t split up.”
They gathered around close, Sorcha leading, and approached the entrance to the ring. It was eerie just how much it resembled the tree ring he remembered from his dream. Faint red light awaited them in the clearing within.
Sorcha touched the wood as they passed through the arched opening. Brendan did likewise, finding it brittle and dry, almost ready to crumble. He took his fingers away with a shudder. There were no bugs, nothing alive to be seen.
Inside was worse. The ground was bare, like the spots that made up the trail they’d followed. He’d never really realized how alive bare earth looked until he saw dead bare earth to contrast with it.
The clearing wasn’t empty, however. Inside were several crumpled forms. Lena gasped, staring at one of them; a woman. “It’s Myra,” she said quietly. Brendan didn’t think anyone would be able to raise their voice in this place.
She looked like she’d died minutes ago, the anger and determination on her face still clear. Her features were red, looking blood-stained by the light.
That faint red light was stronger near her; it came from one of the other crumpled forms, a younger looking man, strongly built, face frozen in an expression of agony. He clutched a small gem between two fingers; it seemed to be the source of the light.
Brendan looked around at the other crumpled forms. They must have been the man’s zombie minions, he assumed; they certainly looked like they could have shambled off the set of a Romero movie.
Sorcha stared at the scene numbly, expression unreadable. “Carefully,” she said, “we need to get closer to them. Slowly. Something is terribly wrong here.”
They moved as a unit. Sorcha took Brendan’s hand on one side and Rich’s on the other; they linked up together as they got closer. He wasn’t sure what purpose it served, but it did make him feel a little better.
“Necromancy feeds on life-force,” Sorcha said softly. “The closer ours are to one another, the more closely connected, the stronger we are, the harder we are to feed on.”
The necromancer’s body lay near the center of the clearing, casting huge shadows where it blocked the light of the gem. The group approached cautiously, Sorcha leading the way. “I’m going to need a hand free again in a moment,” she said to them. “Keep a hold of me when we’re within reach, up at my shoulders. Don’t let go.”
They didn’t get the chance. They took one more cautious step just beyond reach of the Necromancer’s body when the gem in his hands began to pulse with a sickening internal light. Pain flared through Brendan’s head and he cried out; all four of them collapsed in a ring where they stood. It was all he could do not to throw up.
Someone let loose the most horrifying cry of rage and pain he’d ever heard, and it took him a moment to realize the female voice he was hearing was neither Sorcha’s nor Lena’s.
Myra was staggering to her feet, clutching her head, screaming loud enough to wake the dead; a thing that was actually happening, some part of Brendan’s brain said to him way too dispassionately.
“Don’t let go!” Sorcha yelled, her voice strangled by pain. Lena was crushing his hand with far more strength than he’d have guessed she possessed; she was like a vice. He didn’t know what state Rich was in, and couldn’t make himself look.
Myra stumbled out of view, and it was then he realized he couldn’t see the necromancer’s body at all. The red light began to fade, and the pain in his head eased, leaving a sickening weakness where it had resided. He struggled for what felt like several minutes until he got to his knees, still gripping Sorcha’s and Lena’s hands in his.
They were alone in the clearing; them, and the still-broken, still unmoving bodies of the necromancer’s former zombies. He could still hear Myra’s screams echoing from far away, but of the necromancer himself, there was no sign.
The last of the red light faded and died, leaving them in near-complete darkness. Sorcha let go of his hand, and gradually his eyes adjusted; some light from the twilight outside did make it down from the opening in the trees above.
He felt like he’d been flattened, like all the energy had been sucked out of him, like a sponge wrung dry. It took him a few minutes to find his voice. “What … the hell … was that?” he asked, finally.