Monday, November 12, 2012

Plague pt. Two

The bitter winter winds whipped past Peter as the slowly made their way down the dirt-trodden road towards the hamlet supposedly in need, the utter cold seeping through his furs and into his skin, numbing his body with frost. Peter ignored it, something he was used to doing, and did his best to keep pace with his would-be mentor, the still as-of-yet named man he had taken to calling Raven. Their walk, which was now going into its second hour, was done with little conversation, just a few mumbled words from Raven here and there that Peter could barely make out. The brisk night air was bright with starlight which, despite the tall trees growing about them, was more than enough to allow them full visibility without the need for a torch or lantern.
Raven had told him the town was mainly a logging camp that had grown too large to be called as such anymore, developing over the last forty years into a farming community that grew barley and rye throughout the year, their fields ever expanding as the woodcutters cleared away vast swathes of forest for their farming cousins. Altogether, a fairly humble place home to fairly humble people, that rarely if ever called for assistance from the outside world. About a week earlier, a boy had stumbled into town, seeking the aid of the Church and their doctors, claiming that the town had been overtaken by the fast-acting illness.
Peter was a little surprised when he was told how the boy was quickly slain; his body burned before it even grew cold and stiff, in order to ensure the illness did not spread. A small detachment of armed soldiers had formed a loose perimeter around the village, isolating them and barring them from leaving the area, effectively placing them under quarantine. As they grew closer to the village, Peter caught sight of the soldiers, all wearing the same Raven-esque masks as his supposed mentor, though without the full leather suit that accompanied it. They walked like soldiers, stiff and with purpose, and all had longbows slung over their shoulders. One reported to Raven that they had already slain three men who had come stumbling from the village a few hours ago, to which Raven merely nodded as if this were acceptable.
“When we arrived, the entire village was practically deserted, with the sick cloistered within their homes, the streets littered with corpses.” One of the soldiers calmly explained. “We kept a good distance away, and made certain to track any movement we could find. So far there’s only been a few isolated incidents, though I imagine that will be changing soon?”
“I would hazard a guess that you would be correct. If my calculations are right, we are moving into the thirtieth hour of exposure, a rather pivotal time frame if I do say so myself.” Raven replied, pulling a long stiletto blade from his belt. Tossing it to Peter, he let out a dry chuckle. “That axe of yours should see some work today, but be sure to keep that close by in case of an emergency.”
“Against plague victims? Are you joking?” Peter snarled, mood still sour from his fate as a Church doctor. “What, will I be hacking the corpses into small enough pieces to burn then?”
Raven was silent for the briefest of moments before he let out a long, high-pitched whinny of laughter. “Yes,” he choked amidst his laughter, “Yes, you will be doing exactly that!”
Peter fumed at the very thought of the amount of disrespect he was being shown. He should be in the North, leading his people as his father had trained him! But due to the wiles of a religious zealot and his army, he was banished to the lowliest of jobs, in a faraway land, as a slave to some strange plague-doctor.
The town was buried deep within the Black Forest, a vast expanse of densely packed trees and darkened paths, trodden dirt paths acting as the veins to the whole of the forest, twisting and turning in an near endless series of spirals and drops. Raven took it all in stride, sliding down the steepened path when needed with the grace akin to the mountain goats Peter had grown near, leaping to and fro to avoid knotted roots and jutting rocks that would otherwise make this path a difficult one for him.
Peter merely tackled the path as any proper Norsemen would: headlong and with unyielding might. Thick leather treads crushed rocks beneath his feet and tore corded roots free of the cold-packed earth. He had abandoned all form of decorum and already drawn his ancestral axe, the heavy haft granting him a sense of peace that he had sorely been lacking the past few weeks, traveling amongst the “civilized” people. Raven had said nothing when Peter had drawn the large blade, his head only inclining a touch at the sheer size of the weapon, and probably in wonderment of how Peter had been able to conceal it as well as he had.
“The village is up ahead,” Raven said, breaking the silence of their march and coming to a sudden halt. Peter trudged up next to him, peering easily over the shorter man’s head and through the brush of the wood at the town that lay before them.
Ringed by barren fields of frost-ridden soil, a small cluster of squat stone houses sat quietly behind a low cobblestone wall. Several barns were visible from their vantage point, the doors thrown wide open… looters had obviously come to the weakened settlement in search of plunder. Peter had seen it often enough, hell, he’d done it a few times as a young soldier. His keen sight allowed him to see that beneath the soft dusting of snow there were several mounds.
Bodies, long dead if he was any judge of the matter.
Raven pushed onward, pulling a small crossbow from his side and carefully loading it, ignoring the drifting snowflakes that had begun to flutter down from high above. Peter smiled at his mentor’s line of thought, arming himself in case any looters remained. Now he could see why he was here! To defend this man as he cleansed the bodies of the living and dead of this foul disease, to protect him from those that would take advantage of the weak and ill.
As he moved to jog past him, Raven’s hand clasped his shoulder in a movement so sudden it caused Peter to spin off balance for a moment. “We stay together, no wandering off.” Raven ordered as he pulled a wide-brimmed hat from his satchel, fastening it over atop his mask.
“I can handle myself!” Peter growled, throwing the hand from his shoulder with a jerk. “No man can cross blades with me and live, least of all some puny looter or bandit!”
“And I fully believe you, but my orders remain: stay with me, no going off alone.” Raven said calmly. “Between the cover of snow and our small numbers, I would prefer that we work together. Besides,” he said with a low chuckle, “I could have sworn you are my apprentice, are you not?”
“Yes…” Peter growled out, hands tightening over the haft of his great axe.
“Than do not question me.” Raven ordered with a hint of cheer lacing his muffled voice. “Stay by my side, and keep that behemoth of a blade away from me; I’d rather not die today, and one wild swing will leave me as open as a broken door.”
They continued closer to the village, snow and ice crunching beneath their feet as they crossed the barren fields. Raven came to a halt some twenty yards before the break in the low wall, twin lamp posts rising from the worked stone dark, candle wax having dribbled out and frozen along the way. Guess with the plague they couldn’t spare anyone to put out their lights… Peter idly thought as he watched Raven root about in a small side bag. What the hell is he doing now?
“Tell me Peter,” Raven said in a conversational tone as he pulled a small wooden whistle from the pouch. “Have you ever used one of these before?”
Peter snorted at the stupidity of the question, but chose to merely shrug. “Nay, I was no shepherd, nor a watchman. I know enough to use it though, why? Why do you ask such a question?”
“Because of my mask, I cannot use it, obviously. So I would like you to do me the honor of taking it and blowing it as long and loud as you can.” Raven said, a smile clearly hidden behind his facial covering. “And to of course keep a cool head for me.”
Peter shook his head, snatching the offered whistle with his meaty hand. “I truly do not understand how your people have come to conquer all of Europe in such a fashion… utter morons, asking me to reveal our position in such a way.”
“Just blow the whistle for me.” Raven chirped, rocking back and forth on his heels happily.
Peter sighed before placed the simple wooden instrument between his wind-chilled lips, taking in a deep breath of frigid air and letting loose a shrill shriek that lasted well over half a minute. The cry echoed all about them, calling back from the darkened wood surrounding them, a haunting cry far different from the high-pitched screech he had let loose. He tossed the whistle behind him, ignoring Raven’s sudden intake of breath and glared at the reflective lenses that served as his master’s eyes.
“There! Are you happy now? Now everyone within a mile knows we’re here!” Peter cried, waving his arms high above his head, the heavy-ended blade of his axe digging a deep trench to his right as he swung it about. “Damn thing was loud enough to wake the dead, so we’ll not find anyone to hold responsible for the looting now!”
“Rarely have there been truer words spoken, my dear Viking.” Raven said with a long sigh, twirling his crossbow about between his gloves. “But looters and thieves are not what we came to seek, and are not what I brought you here to aid me with.”
“Than what then?” Peter howled, his temper finally flaring at the sheer stupidity of the entire situation. “I am a son of Odin and Thor, a warrior that was bred for the battlefield! I have no need for your false god nor his martyr of a child! I need only a foe to fight, and a battle to be won! No man can stand before me, and here I am, trapped as the servant of a cowardly healer that hides behind the face of death as if he can lay claim to its domain!”
Whatever Raven’s reply would have been was kept silent as a low howl of the winter wind whipped through the woods, the very trees groaning as if alive. A noise he had heard many times in his own native home, yet such noises were always accompanied by a gentle breeze. After a few moments of the groan growing louder, Peter could hear multiple different octaves within the noise, akin to a flock of birds crying as they flew from danger.
Turning, he watched the village as it seemed to be coming alive before his very eyes.
The slumped forms of the dead partially buried beneath the snow were rising sluggishly from beneath their icy covering, blue-tinged flesh drawn taut over their bones, pockmarked with countless open sores that leaked thin rivulets of dark molasses. Dressed in a mixture of night clothes to work clothes, to a few fully nude, men and women began to crawl from the recesses and corners of the village where they had lay hidden, jaws wide open, a distraught cry rising from their frostbitten lips. Stumbling woodenly, arms outstretched, the crowd of plague-stricken peasants began to advance upon Peter and his whistling mentor.
“Halt!” Peter cried, waving his axe in front of him to show them he was armed. “We’ve come to aid you! Return to your homes and we will begin treating your injuries, and tending to the illness!”
His cry fell on deaf ears as the crowd continued their advance, slowly gaining speed as their thin sheets of ice broke away from their flesh. One, a large man that easily rivaled Peter in size, stumbled headlong into the low wall, grunting in frustration as the cobblestone impeded his path. With a series of sickening cracks, the heavy man crawled over the wall, his thick fingers cracking beneath his heavy weight and the strain he was putting them under. He tumbled over the wall and, without pausing a moment, began crawling to his feet. A hideous moan wracked from his throat, wordless and primal.
“They won’t listen Peter,” Raven said quietly, moving to stand beside him. All humor had left his voice, which was now harder than steel. “The Plague that we came to cleanse is now before us, a curse that afflicts man and woman alike, forcing them to rise from the grave. We must prevent it from spreading, my friend. I hope you are ready to do what is needed.”
Peter studied the crowd slowly closing in upon them, hands outstretched with hooked fingers, mouths wider than humanly possible. He almost couldn’t believe such abominations could exist, save for when he caught sight of their eyes, set loosely back within their skulls, glazed over like the eyes of the monster fish he and his brothers would dredge from the churning waters of the Atlantic; cold and glassy, unfocused and dark.
These things were anything but human, and as one finally came within reach of him, a young woman naked from the waist up, he made his decision with a sudden snap of his wrist, his axe springing forth and connecting into her side just beneath her arm, a solid, wet noise cracking through the crisp night air.
She remained standing, arms flailing about wildly as she hissed and howled. Peter was momentarily stunned, staring at the head of his axe, how half of the hardened iron was buried deep within the woman’s ribcage. Something she didn’t really seem to notice, somehow. The strike had felt as if he were trying to fell a century old tree, her body as solid as rock for reasons he couldn’t begin to understand.
Her wild flailing ended as a slim crossbow bolt pierced her left temple, cracking through the thin section of bone with a sickening crunch. Peter turned his head to see Raven already reloading his crossbow, a long serrated knife held in a defensive position in his left hand. “Go for their limbs or their heads, winter has granted them a boon by freezing their insides!” He cried, unloading another bolt into the crowd, striking the heavy man with the broken fingers in the left eye, his body slumping to the ground with a crunching of ice as several more of the groaning dead crawled over his bulk.\
The woman at the end of his axe, now merely a frozen corpse, was quickly removed with the proper application of Peter’s thick boot, leaving his blade covered in bits of mottled grey flesh and tissue. The force of his blade leaving her body carried onward and, with a savage howl, Peter spun the blade above his head and through the neck and shoulder of another blue-tinged undead, ending its high pitched moans with a sudden screech.
Raven darted forward, long blade twirling in his hand almost playfully as he lashed outward, severing groping fingers and hands with brutal efficiency, his crossbow letting loose the occasional twang as he fired bolt after bolt into the approaching dead. The center region of their torsos was nothing but ice and frozen muscle, allowing the shambling horrors a strange amount of resilience; it mattered not to Peter.
Peter was Norse.
Peter was a soldier of Odin, a true follower of the Father-God’s ways and practitioner of his sacred teachings.
He found himself praying, in between gasps for breath, as he swung his axe into the frost-hardened corpses that were slowly overcoming him. His prayers grew louder when, due to a particularly fast victim of the plague (a young child, though the cold had caused much of its skin to fall away, preventing any way of identifying what its gender once was), he found himself separated from Raven, plunged headlong into the mass of frigid limbs and gaping, bloodless maws.
As the grey hands grew more and more fervent, grabbing at his furs and tugging at his pelt, his prayer’s became far louder, his screams rising almost as high as the chorus of moans coming from the innumerable horde pressing in all around him. Peter could feel their nails, cold as the grave, pierce and tear into his chiseled muscles. He howled in agony as their teeth broke through his boiled leather and tore into his corded muscle.
And still he fought on, swinging his axe in wide arcs, loudly crying to the heavens the prayers of his forefathers, and of theirs. As his blood flowed freely from his body, the warmth of life ebbing rom his very core, he cursed the name of Olaf, cursed his sniveling uncle… and most of all, he cursed the name of that damnable false god that had caused all of his misery, and lead to this horrible death. He prayed that soon he would be with his ancestors in Valhalla, and that all of this would become nothing but a tale he told to his fellow warriors in heaven.
His hands aching with fatigue and cold, his grip slackened just enough for his axe to go flying from his grip mid-swing. Peter idly noted with pride that even without trying, the blade was able to cut deep into the flesh of one of the attackers, lodging deep into the chest of a slack-faced man missing the right half of his face.
As the edges of his vision began to fade to black, his ears filled with the thundering sound of his own blood and the innumerable moans of the dead, Peter smiled. Smiled and laughed, as he knew he would soon be with his father, and his fallen brothers. He had fallen in combat, and while he had not claimed the lives of any more enemies of his people, he had at least escaped the clutches of the Church and their fool of a god.
And that was enough for Peter, as it would be for any true Norseman.

High above the carnage playing out in the ice-packed fields of Relmut, a lone child squatted atop the low, steeped roof of the town’s church, idly twirling the iron cylinder that dangled from a long length of chain from around her neck. Her flesh, paler than the untouched snow at her bare feet, twitched as the wind carried the scent of fresh blood up to her, carried the screams of the living as they slowly gave way to the inevitability of death. Smiling, she palmed the cold tube, thumb running over the frosted skull topping it, and murmured a prayer she had murmured many times over her long life.
The doctor was the first to go, pinned beneath a mountain of flailing limbs and jagged teeth as the dead she commanded had charged at him, moving around the gigantic Northerner in order to gain a better vantage point to attack. The young boy who had spit upon her, whose skin now hung over her like a sinister cloak, had served his purpose when she had mentally commanded him to sacrifice himself, tripping the Viking up and sending him deeper into her army of hungering dead.
Her smile grew wider as she could feel the doctor’s life essence drift from the mob, slowly drifting towards her and her phylactery. A flash of memories flew through her mind as his life, his very soul, joined the thousands of others trapped within her toy; Alice caressed the tube lovingly as she awaited the soul of her Viking friend to come forth, one she had yet to sample and, she hoped, would prove far more entertaining than the countless serfs and peasants she had supped upon so far.
“The Black Death…” She said aloud, voice honeyed and sweet like a summer’s day. “Death to all who would try and quell us, and our kind…”
She had cursed God for allowing her to fall prey to a similar fate, just as the Viking now was. She had screamed and cried as the illness robbed her of her strength, sapping away everything that made her human. The only difference between the two of them was that she believed in God, and was now serving the other side… her hatred of that mad God and his Church had allowed her to rise as something far more powerful than the Ghouls she commanded. Just as such hatred had done for all of the Reapers in the world, those that spread the true word of the “Lord.”
“There is no such thing as eternal life.” She intoned with a smile as the Viking gave his last cry, falling beneath the tide of putrefied flesh. “The only true eternity is found in Death… come serve him, and spread his word. Spread the truth.”
She watched as the Viking rose unsteadily from the crowd of undead, her mental call for them to fall back working faster than any bugle or drum. His dead eyes opened glassy, dull. With but a single thought, he wrenched his massive axe free from the chest of one of his new comrades, and began slowly walking into the village, towards her.
“Will you help me spread the word?” She asked him, high atop the church, knowing full well that he would. After all, he was now a devote follower of the truth. How could he say no?

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