The Diffident Hero - NaNoWriMo 2012 - Chapter 12

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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.

The Diffident Hero - NaNoWriMo 2012 - Chapter 11

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.”

The Diffident Hero - NaNoWriMo 2012 - Chapter 10, pt. 2

At first they thought he was going to disappoint them, but as the sky darkened and the locals finished their daily work, they began to trickle in. As the mood of the room improved, his did as well. Lena helped this along by reacting badly to any reference to the stranger who’d been poking her nose into the village’s business a couple of weeks past.

“No, she’s gone, and good riddance,” she said. “She left me high and dry here, far from where I came from. I don’t know what her problem was, but I’m glad to be rid of her.”

“Seems like you’ve taken up with another one though,” the barkeep said with a dark look at the front door.

“Sorcha? She’s fine, nothing like Myra at all. Myra, you want to stay away from. She’d snap your head off as soon as say hi.”

“I believe that. I did say my hellos once, and she did practically bite my head off. The money she paid for those rooms was good, but not worth the headaches, if you ask me.”

“Was she really that bad?” Brandon asked. “She’s related to Sorcha, right? Sorcha seems really nice.”

“Not really related, it’s just that they’re both Ilthem Saeri, like we’re all human,” Lena said. “Not all humans are the same, and not all Ilthem Saeri are the same. You see?”

Brendan nodded. “I think so. They look like us, though.”

The barkeep piped in. “They look like us, and I suppose some of ‘em are okay, like you’re sayin’. But that doesn’t mean they’re the same as us. They don’t live long, and they’re too smart for their own good, and always poking their noses in where they don’t belong. Still, you seem like good folk, and if you’re willing to vouch for this Sorcha you’re with, she’ll have no trouble from me as long as she keeps that nose of hers clean.”

“We appreciate that.” Lena smiled at him. “She’s actually here in town to clean up whatever mess it was that Myra made out here.”

“Well I don’t know that this Myra made the mess, it was here before she was,” the barkeep mused, wiping idly at the bar. “She sure didn’t help matters any though. She mostly seemed concerned with snapping orders at anyone who crossed her path, demanding answers to her questions and generally getting in everyone’s way.”

“Like you haven’t had enough troubles lately,” Brendan muttered darkly. The barkeep gave him an approving nod.

“That’s damn right, it is. First the plague comes and takes down most of the village, then there’s monsters in the night, then this Myra folk keeping honest people from getting things back to normal. It’s just been one thing after another round here.”

The Diffident Hero - NaNoWriMo 2012 - Chapter 10, pt. 1

Late the next day they arrived out of the mountains at the valley containing the village. From a distance, everything looked peaceful enough. It wasn’t until they got closer in that the hunched shoulders, shifty looks and quiet, skittish movements of the people told them something was very wrong.

Nobody would look at them directly until they’d entered the inn, and then they were greeted with sullen suspicion, all except for Lena. Her, the barkeep tensed up upon seeing. “Back, then, are you? Where’s the one you were with last time?”

Lena twisted her mouth in a frown. “We parted ways, I’m happy to say.”

He visibly relaxed and went back to wiping down the bar with a rag. The rag was spotless, as was the bar, Brendan noticed. Small wonder; there were few others in the place, and what others there were were clustered in tight groups around tables far from the door.

“We’ll need two rooms for the night,” she said firmly, an unconscious air of command coming over her that Brendan hadn’t seen before. He couldn’t put his finger on it, but she was surrounded by an air of otherness; she always had it, he realized, but it felt much stronger in this place. Looking at her at that moment, he couldn’t think of her as a human being, and the term she’d given him, Ilthem Saeri, seemed suddenly to be the only appropriate label to apply.

The barkeep nodded, leaping to retrieve a pair of keys for her and taking her money. “Of course, we’ve plenty of space open m’lady. You can take the two rooms farthest down the hall; they’re our finest.”

She nodded and accepted the keys. “Thank you, that sounds perfect.” The she turned back to the two of them. “I need to get out there immediately and learn what I can, while I can. As we discussed yesterday, the two of you stay here and learn what you can in my absence. Without me around, the locals may be willing to tell you things they wouldn’t tell to me.”

Brendan had to wonder at that. “Why would they be more willing to tell us about their business? They don’t know us.”

Sorcha nodded. “True! But they do know me, or my kind, anyway. And they know one of us was around when things were bad. That association will take time to fade in their memories.”

“I wish there was more I could tell you about where Myra went while she was here,” Lena said.

“I appreciate the thought, but I should be able to figure it out. You’ve told me plenty already. Be careful, you two. I’ll be back before morning.”

She vanished out the door without another word, leaving the two of them to their own devices. They took a table away from the others in the place, who grew more animated in their own conversations as soon as Sorcha left.

They spent the last couple of hours before sundown in quiet conversation, Brendan telling Lena the story of how he’d come to be Called since she hadn’t yet heard the story. “You don’t seem especially happy to have been Called,” she observed at one point.

“It’s that obvious?” he replied with a wry smile. “It’s not that I object to being called, really. It’s more … well … I guess it’s a bit petty, but it has kind of thrown my life into chaos. All the attention I was getting back in the real—er, the main—what do we call our part of the world? Anyway, I’m not used to it. At all. I keep to myself, live simply, mind my own business … I never asked for all this, you know?”

“I can’t help but think of it as the real world, too. I guess we could call it the familiar world,” she said, and smiled. “I know what you mean about having your world turned upside down. It’s been a while since I’ve been back to the familiar world though. This has been reality for me for months now.”

“The familiar world,” a decidedly unfamiliar voice said. “I like that term.”

They looked over, and up. A tall, lean figure stood by their table. He was cloaked, but the hood was down, revealing longish brown hair with just a hint of grey about it. He had a friendly face and a deep voice that Brendan wanted to trust. Ironically, that made him want to question whether he should be suspicious of him.

“I’m Richard,” he said by way of introduction. “Richard Leadingham. You can call me Rich.” He pulled up a chair and sat down with them. “You must be Brendan and Lena?”

Taken aback, Brendan nodded. “Brendan Burns,” he confirmed.

“Lena Glavan,” Lena offered.

“A pleasure to meet the both of you. I was told you’d be here; I ran into Sorcha on my way into town just now.”

“You know her?”

“She was my Guide, once upon a time,” he nodded. “It’s been a couple of years since I traveled with her. Strange how time flies, even for us, isn’t it?”

“You’re asking the wrong guy,” Brandon said. “I’ve just barely started, and still more than half wish I could get my life back to normal!”

Rich chuckled. “I’m afraid I can’t help you with that, except to say that your life will probably never be normal again. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but once you’ve seen the bigger picture, the smaller corner never again looks quite the same.”

Brendan had the sinking feeling that he was probably right about that, and drank down some of the beer Lena had bought while Richard signaled for another round.

After a bar maid had brought over a pitcher and a new mug, Richard drank and relaxed into his chair. “So, yes, Sorcha and I know each other going back quite a while. When I ran into her, she asked me to join you.”

Lena looked him over, assessing everything from the state of his clothing to the ease with which he wore the weapons Brendan hadn’t even noticed up until that moment. “You seem to be pretty capable. Why didn’t she ask you to help her with her investigation, especially if you’ve worked together before?”

“I did offer to help, but she needed to move quickly. She’s on the trail of another of her kind, she said. I won’t be of much help with that. They’re better at finding their own than any of us could ever be.”

“So she sent you to mind the kids?” Brandon asked, suppressing a sudden burst of humiliation.

“Far from it, she sent me back here to meet you and then get some sleep. I’ve been on the road for days, I’m exhausted!” he said with a grin. “You two can continue you intelligence gathering at your own pace, and I’ll be happy to help you—but not until tomorrow. Tonight, you’re on your own!”

“You said you traveled with her as your guide a couple of years ago?” Brandon asked.

“Yeah. Not too long ago for us, I suppose. For her though, that was a long time ago. She was very young then. I was her first Called hero.”

“Two years was a long time?” Brendan found himself wondering again just how old Sorcha really was.

“Yes indeed. The Ilthem Saeri are a very short-lived race, at least compared with us. I don’t know exactly how old Sorcha is, but I’d guess she’s probably about 7 or 8 years old.”

“What? No way!” Brandon exclaimed, then hunched down in embarrassment as his outburst drew stares from other tables.

“Can she really be that young? That’s fascinating,” Lena added.

“She can, and probably is. She’ll be middle-aged by about 12 or so, and by 15, she’ll be considered an old woman.” Rich grinned at the expressions on their faces. “They’re an interesting people to get to know. They can take some getting used to; they’re pretty impetuous and impatient by our standards, sometimes, and some people find them flighty. They’re fast though, unbelievably smart and quick on the uptake, and curious about everything. They were the first people to learn to travel between the aspects of the world.”

“The first?” Lena asked. “There are others who can do it?”

“The fact that you’re here is ample evidence of that, I should think.” Rich suppressed a yawn. “You’re both in the early stages of learning to do it yourselves. I can do it at will now, without assistance, though it took a good half a year for me to master it. An Ilthem Saeri typically learns to do it in a week.”

He finished his beer and hid a yawn behind a hand. “And now, it’s been a pleasure meeting you, and I’ll be happy to keep gossiping tomorrow, but I really must sleep. And I’m keeping you from learning what you can about this place. I bid you a good night!”

He rose and they bid their good nights. He got a room from the barkeep before vanishing upstairs.

They’d been on the road for a couple of days themselves, but figured they had at least another hour left in them. They relocated to the bar in the hopes of catching the barkeep in a talkative mood.

The Diffident Hero - NaNoWriMo 2012 - Chapter 9, pt. 3

“Not somebody I know,” she said, finally. “What can you tell me about the investigation?”

“Well, what happened had puzzled me at the time, but in light of what you just told us about general investigations, it makes a lot more sense now. She had generally kept me out of the way and did most of the investigation on her own, so there’s only so much I can tell you.” Lena seemed to turn inward then. Brendan imagined her reliving the memories as though watching a movie in her head.

“We’d been drawn to the town by reports of a plague that had struck the inhabitants. Myra said it was nothing that would have required our attention, except that there had been several deaths, followed by some sort of trouble after the disease had run its course. News got around the people of the village were terrified, and within a week a notice had gone up at the Hall.

“When we got there, we got rooms at the inn, and Myra all but confined me to mine. She refused to let me get involved in the investigation at all, didn’t even want me talking to anyone from the village. If the villagers themselves hadn’t been so desperate for help that they all but thrust their story at me, I wouldn’t be able to tell you anything at all.”

Sorcha chuckled. “Chattering maids?”

“Yes, and a particularly talkative barkeep,” Lena added. “All scared out of their wits and hoping that the outsider might know something that could help.” She sighed. “Myra wasn’t nearly as amused as you are. When she found out the village folk had talked me to me, she accused me of disobeying her, and that’s when she left me behind.”

The Ilthem Saeri clucked disapprovingly. “I may not know her, but I’m growing to dislike this Myra more and more. If what you say is true, and I’m afraid the picture you’re painting is distressingly consistent, then she’s a blight on our people’s name. That’s not good cause to cease her duties as your guide, and it’s certainly no excuse to leave you stranded.” Her voice got angrier as she spoke; the last was virtually spit upon the ground they walked on.

“What was it that the people in the village told you?” Brendan asked. Lena was silent a moment.

“They’d lost half a dozen people to the plague outbreak. People were sick for several weeks, and the whole village was terrified. It had been several decades since the last plague hit, and that one hadn’t been as bad. Almost everyone had gotten sick to some extent, and they were afraid it might return.

“What really scared them though were disturbances of the graves.”

Sorcha and Brendan both turned to stare at her a moment. Brendan was pretty sure he knew how this story played out. He couldn’t banish the thought of zombies and vampires from his head. Sorcha glanced at him, then, and he caught the distinct impression that she was thinking the same thing. He found it far from reassuring.

“Disturbances?” he asked, knowing someone had to.

“Graves dug up and re-filled during the night. Always the graves of the recently deceased. They performed some sort of superstitious rites over the disturbed graves, and if that had been the end of it, they could have got on with their lives.”

“That wasn’t the end of it though,” Sorcha said, her voice flat.

“No. They lost several of the living, as well. Willem, the drunk. He vanished one night, nobody ever saw him again. Nobody really seemed to miss him much, except for the barkeep; he’d been a steady customer for years. Said he just up and vanished, no trace. No sign in his house that anything was wrong, except that he wasn’t there.

“The others were similar, except that they weren’t so easily dismissed. Willem was the sort of man they could have thought had wandered off drunk into the woods and hurt himself, maybe died. The others had families, were respected and well-liked. Nobody seemed to believe they could have gotten lost or died accidentally, and certainly not with such suspicious timing.”

The story hadn’t done anything to set Brendan’s mind at ease about the zombies and vampires. “It sounds like—”

“—a set up for a zombie story,” Sorcha finished for him. “I wish I could tell you that it’s a silly thought, that things like that don’t happen. Unfortunately, it’s all too possible in some parts of the world, and this part that we’re going to … I’m not ready to dismiss it just yet.”

He swallowed a lump in his throat. “That’s … good to know. What are the rules?”

“Rules?” Lena asked with a raised eyebrow. “I assume the same rules I had before; stay in our rooms and don’t get involved.”

“I think he means the rules of the zombie apocalypse, actually,” Sorcha said with a grin, which she lost after a moment. “And it’s a very good question.

“The rules aren’t quite what you’d expect, Brendan. It’s a lot harder to be turned into a zombie than the movies you’ve seen would suggest. If it weren’t, the whole world would have succumbed a long time ago. That said, they are still incredibly dangerous, and if they bite or scratch you, you will need medical treatment immediately. If you don’t get it, you’re almost guaranteed to die a painful death from infection in short order.

“The infection won’t turn you into a zombie, but dead is dead, and if the one who raised the zombie in the first place is around, there’s no guarantee he won’t raise you into one too.”

“Sounds like you’ve dealt with this before,” he commented. He hoped his voice didn’t sound as nervous as he felt.

“I have,” she confirmed. “And Lena’s right, at least at first. When we arrive, we’ll take rooms, and I’d like the two of you to stay there, at least for a short time while I check out the situation. Unlike Myra, though,” she smiled, “I’d actually appreciate it if you could learn anything you can from the locals. I’m not sure they’ll be any more help now than they were before, but at the very least they should be able to confirm that there have been no more incidents recently.”

“You don’t think there will have been any more attacks?”

“Not if I’m right that someone was raising zombies. It fits the pattern perfectly, and that tells me that a village is too small to remain a viable source for long. Whoever it is will have to have moved on to a larger population center.”

“Unless their needs were served with just a few zombies,” Lena said. Sorcha cast an impressed, appraising look at her.

“You’re quick, that’s good. Yes, it’s possible,” she agreed, “but it’d be pretty weird, at least in my experience. Usually people who bother to raise zombies at all need a fair number of them for whatever it is they’re up to.”

With that cheery thought in mind, they passed the fork on the road, keeping to the right and headed into who knew what kind of trouble.

The Diffident Hero - NaNoWriMo 2012 - Chapter 9, pt. 2

Lena glanced at him then, and Brendan was struck by the sensitivity in the glance. She’d been keeping an eye on him during the discussion without his having noticed; she was sharp. She’d seen the parade of emotions and confusion across his face, and sympathized with his confusion.

She’d been in his position once, he supposed; new to the whole expanded world concept. Probably not all that long ago, either.

They retreated upstairs and Sorcha explained the solution to the proprietor, who nodded, satisfied. They collected half their payment, the rest to be collected upon completion of the service, likely in the next several days. “We’ll have to return to make sure it worked,” she explained as they hit the road. “We’ll get the rest then.”

“The village we were in was several days toward that mountain range. The village is in a valley you can’t quite see from here. If we follow the road, we’ll find a fork in a few hours. If we stay to the right, we’ll be on the right path.” Lena rattled off the directions as quickly and certainly as any GPS navigator Brendan had ever used. She was probably less likely to be thrown off by bad satellite data though, he figured.

“What kind of job was it you were on when this all happened?” he asked.

“General investigation of a disturbance,” she said, eyes going a bit dark as her mind strayed back.

“That’s a pretty high-level job type,” Sorcha interjected. “How long did you say you’d been with her?”

“I believe I said she’d helped me with several jobs,” she said thoughtfully, “and while it can be difficult sometimes to estimate how long you’ve been traveling different aspects of the world, I’d guess it was at least two months.”

“Two months, and already doing general investigations,” Sorcha said with a frown. “Two months isn’t very long for your people.”

Brendan started a bit at that, and looked over at Sorcha again, more carefully. It was nearly impossible to assign an age to her; he hadn’t really noted that before. If she’d revealed that she was 21, he wouldn’t have blinked. If she’d said 41, he’d have thought little of it.

“Is it different for … The People?” he said, unsure of what to call them if not that.

She grinned suddenly. “The Ilthem Saeri. That’s what we call ourselves. It translates roughly to The People,’ but it sounds so much better, don’t you think? Anyway, yes, two months is a pretty long time for one of us. Let’s leave it at that for now.”

She returned her attention to Lena and the task before them, all traces of the grin vanished from her face. “Was there some unusual circumstance that demanded she bring you along on this investigation?”

“She didn’t mention any, no. Hmmm … what’s so dangerous about general investigations?”

“We call jobs general investigations when we know too little about what’s going on to find a better name for them. The lack of information is what makes it dangerous for the newly Called. It might be something perfectly safe, or something dreadfully unsafe, and so as a rule, we either handle them on our own or bring only much more experienced people along. Lena, I hate to ask it, but what was your guide’s name?”

“She called herself Myra.”

Sorcha nodded. She looked troubled at the name, though there had been no look of recognition, either.