Sword and sorcery battle against an unstoppable hunger as the few living residents try and escape the walls of an undead nightmare.
Renier is a port city that stands as a glorious gem on the edge of the kingdom. The people are justly ruled by their beloved duke with the assistance of a benevolent wizard and a self-involved priest. Within twenty-four hours everything changes as a small group of strange lepers enter the port and cause a mysterious and deadly illness to rage through the city, killing most of the residents. Violent illness and gruesome death isn’t the end of the horror for the residents of Renier. Not by a long shot, as thousands of dead bodies rise from the cobblestone streets in search of living prey.
Drummen shook his head as he watched Stiles politely squeeze between the two overweight merchants. He replied with a grunt and bulled his way between the merchants and through the crowded street.
They only traveled a few blocks before Stiles pointed at five figures in filthy gray robes shuffling against the flow of the crowd, toward the open market. "There they are, sir!"
Oh great. With dusk approaching, the merchants and shoppers moved in one direction, away from the booths and vendors. As Stiles and Drummen headed toward the shops, the crowd grew thicker and fewer people managed to move out of their way. Drummen felt like a salmon battling his way upstream as he shoved his way along. His head throbbed harder with every step, and his bowels threatened to let loose with every push until he was close enough to bellow, "You. You there in the robes. I order you to stop!" The five gray shapes continued on.
Drummen growled and pushed his way past Stiles.
He sped up, slinging people aside, barreling through the crowd with Stiles in close pursuit. When he caught up to the little group, he stood in their path, lifted his broad hand and roared, "Stop!"
The five lepers stopped and stared at him with pale pus-clouded eyes. Their stench drifted forward and filled Drummen’s nostrils with the smell of rotten meat. Filth stained bandages covered every inch of them that wasn’t cloaked in robes. Bands of cloth wrapped their heads from necks to eyes. A slimy yellow stain tarnished the bandages around the nose-shaped hump.
He had heard stories about lepers, how they lived while their flesh festered and rotted away a little more every day. The odor confirmed the stories. The scent wasn't strong, but it carried a foul odor, decay, and the smell of death.
"Didn't you rotters hear me?" Drummen roared.
Five pairs of clouded eyes stared straight ahead without fear or concern. The lepers stood a foot shorter than the burly captain. Instead of looking into his eyes, their heads remained straight ahead, and they stared at the top of his breastplate.
Their lack of fear sent a spear of hatred through him. His fists shook with anger and he callously raged, "Have your blasted ears rotted off too? Maybe your tongues?" They didn't respond, didn’t seem to care that Drummen had begun to scream, or notice the heated flush that warmed his cheeks.
People stared and whispered as they passed, but continued to go about their business. He glared at the crowd before turning back to the five lepers.
Drummen opened his mouth to start a cursing that would make a sailor cringe when the lead rotter croaked, "I'm sorry, my lord. We are just passing through." The bandages hardly moved as the leper spoke in a coarse, passionless hiss, his tone devoid of emotion and as blank as his eyes. Stiles stepped back, behind Drummen. The leper’s gaze never left the base of Drummen's neck, and the raspy voice sent a chill down his spine.
The chill made Drummen raise his voice, partly to make himself feel in control again, and partly to let Stiles and the crowd know that he wasn't afraid of a few pathetic rotters. "You're sorry? No, you just think you're sorry." He pointed back at the port gate where the lepers had come from. "You’re going to march your rotting, stinking carcass back through that gate, get on whatever ungodly transport that brought you here, and paddle your stinkin' asses back to whatever gods-awful hell you came from!"
The lepers stared straight ahead. He didn’t see the terror in their eyes that such a ranting should have created.
Their lack of fear fed his anger and tempted to drive him to violence. He began to take a step forward, but stopped as their full stench wafted to him. His stomach gurgled in protest. The hoarse voice of the leader whispered again, "My Lord, we merely wish to pass through your…"
The monotone words stopped in mid sentence. His eyes still locked on Drummen’s neck with an eerie detachment. The bandage squirmed between the leper’s parted lips as its tongue worked through the gauze, making a wet circle around the rotter’s mouth, reminding Drummen of an eel he had once netted.
He had seen enough. He reached for the speaker, but stopped himself.
Weren't lepers contagious?
He pulled his hand back and roared, "I said to turn around and get the hell out of here! You won't get another warning!"
The lepers ignored the command. They stared through Drummen with blank eyes. Again, a chill of fear shivered down his back and stuck between his shoulders. Fear was an alien emotion for him. Its presence enraged him and drove him to action.
He grabbed the speaker by the shoulder, fingers sinking deep into the fabric. Soft meat rolled on top of bone beneath the material. A wet stain formed below his hand, and an unholy stench filled the air. "What the…"
"…..pass through your city," finished the rotter. Drummen’s viselike grip went unnoticed. The leper spoke as though nothing had taken place since he’d started his sentence almost a minute ago.
Drummen yanked his hand away, holding it in the air so the yellow slime coating his palm and fingers wouldn't touch his clothing or armor. His anger died like a campfire in a hard rain. His eyes widened. Fear replaced the rage, a fear of the unknown, a fear of something he couldn’t comprehend.
Before he could pull himself together, the lepers burst into action. They bolted in different directions, their gray robes bobbing through the crowded streets.
Drummen watched them go, too overwhelmed by the encounter to grasp what had happened. He held his ichor-stained hand to his face. A shiny yellow film glossed his palm and fingers. The smell of wet pus filled his nostrils and made the stale whiskey rise in his already upset stomach.
Stiles’ voice quivered as he asked, "Sir, should we go after them?"
Drummen continued to stare at the foul stain on his palm, collecting his thoughts and getting himself under control. Finally, he wiped his hand on his britches. In an unsteady voice, he replied, "Yeah, Stiles. Blow the whistle and get us some assistance. We can't chase five rotters down by ourselves." Without further comment, he ran after the lead leper, the shrill sound of Stiles’ whistle shrieking in the background.
Before he got out of calling distance, Stiles yelled, "Sir, why did they run? Why did they run away like that?"
Without slowing or turning, Drummen mumbled back, "I don't know, but I'm damned sure going to find out."
* * * *
He glared into the wave of bodies, looking for the leper. The celebration of the Day of the Gods was fast approaching. It filled the busy streets with even more people than usual as vendors and buyers traveled home after a day of selling and buying religious items.
A block over, the crowd parted like streamwater flowing past an old stump as the leper raced through the street, making him easy to spot. Within seconds, the other lepers had disappeared around corners and behind buildings, but he kept his eyes on the leader. That rotter was his.
The man moved faster than Drummen had given him credit for, weaving in and out of the crowded road, but he wasn’t fast enough to get away. Drummen closed the distance between them, shoving his way through the crowd until he ran just behind the leper. He gave the rotter a push. The man overbalanced and fell forward. He didn’t raise his arms to break the fall and crashed face first into the rough cobblestone street, skidding several feet before stopping. Around him, people gasped at the leper and glared at Drummen. Their outrage didn’t bother him. He received the same glares every day for his acts of brutality. If they have a complaint, they can get in the back of the line behind everyone else who hates me.
Drummen towered over the rotter. Air billowed in and out of his lungs, and sweat dripped from his nose. Blood pulsed in his ears with the impact of a drum. The acid in his stomach pushed against the back of his throat with more force than ever. He had reached the end of his already limited patience. “Get up.”
On his hands and knees, the leper turned to Drummen and let out a hissing gasp of foul air.
The rotter’s fall had shredded the bandages on his face, allowing Drummen to see the horror lying behind the mask. Two mucus clogged holes gaped where a nose had once rested. A bubble of snot burst as the leper let out another fetid hiss. Part of the bandages had fallen away from his mouth, displaying crooked, rot-pitted teeth and gums peppered with black fungus and decay. The lips were a thick, jagged line, chewed off at the base of the blackened teeth, giving the rotter a ghoulish grimace.
The crowd’s gasps and glares over his abuse of the leper became screams as they turned away from the disturbing sight.
Drummen stepped back with a gasp as the leper stood on wobbly legs and extended his gauze wrapped hand. He walked toward Drummen, arms stretched out before him. Fingers grasped open and closed as if expecting a hug. Drummen stood frozen in place by loathing and disgust. His eyes rolled down, tracking the man as the leper grasped his leather chest plate with bony fingers. The gauze had torn at the end of his middle digit, allowing Drummen to see pus oozing from the crescent shape indention where a fingernail should have been. The rotter’s mouth rose to Drummen's neck. The smell of decay wafted from the leper’s mouth and filled his nostrils.
The vile odor pulled him from his sudden paralysis. The fear melted like ice in the flame of his rage. He pushed the rotter back and drew his sword. The leper stumbled, but didn't flinch. With suicidal determination, the man resumed his advance toward Drummen.
Without a second thought, he shoved the sword through the rotter’s stomach, meeting little resistance as the blade passed through the disease-infested body. The leper didn’t miss a step, pushing himself along the gore-coated steel. Thick, black ichor marbled with yellowed pus oozed from the wound and flowed down the blade. The air filled with the stench of a vulture-covered battlefield. Enraged and disgusted, Drummen screamed and jerked the sword sideways. The pull of the weapon made the rotter stumble to the right as the blade ripped through organs and muscle, erupting from the man’s waist. Putrid gore and gray intestines burst from the rotter’s side.
The few gawkers that remained rushed from the scene, but some paused long enough to vomit their dinner onto the cobbled street. Drummen hardly noticed.
The gaping wound didn't bother the leper; with a desperate limp, he stumbled toward Drummen, arms outstretched.
His heart pounded and threatened to burst through his chest as he swung the sword, severing the leper’s hands at mid forearm. Little of the black and yellow substance dripped from the ragged stumps, but tiny white maggots fell to the cobblestone road, squirming on the hard surface.
Sanity slipped away from Drummen. His mind couldn't make sense of what he saw. It simply wasn’t possible. The leper shouldn’t still be coming for him. A voice within him screamed, Get the hell out of here. He took a step back.
The rotter took two steps forward. Two putrid stumps faced Drummen.
Drummen howled with desperation and did the only thing his confused mind could think of, letting instinct take over where logic couldn’t. He swung the sword. Steel connected with the man’s neck. The head tumbled away, landing with a hollow thump a short distance from the body. The corpse swayed for a second before collapsing to the ground.
Gasping for breath, Drummen gazed at the lifeless mound. His dazed stare moved from the body to his ichor-covered sword. A bead of black, thinned with yellow, dripped from the tip of the blade. He slung it away. The weapon clattered as it struck the road. Bending over with his hands on his knees, he retched. Bile and a thick stream of water dribbled down to mix with the dirty street.
No more gawkers stood about to see Drummen empty his stomach. Only the sound of their presence several streets over gave any indication that he wasn't alone. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw movement. Not wanting to look, but unable to turn aside, he shifted his eyes to see. The rotter's decapitated head wobbled back and forth. Drummen gasped. The head continued to warble, the jaw working up and down, until it rolled itself onto its cheek, facing Drummen. The mouth continued to bite, gnawing at what it could no longer reach. The sound of teeth clacking together echoed like horse hooves.
"Oh…Oh gods no!" Drummen cried.