Ravenloft Inn

Gary Goes a-Huntin’–a deleted scene from my Novel-in-Progress.

Deleting scenes. That’s the hardest part of rewriting. I’ve cut so many scenes–so many chapters–as I’ve been rewriting. Most of them are terrible, and deserve their fate–being banished to the “Clippings” file–while others aren’t so bad, they’re boring or unnecessary. In the case of this scene, it’s redundant. I have an earlier scene that explores the same idea, but in a much more succinct and funny way.

For those of you completely unfamiliar with this never-ending story of mine, let me set up this scene, so it’s not so confusing. It’s a portal fantasy wherein four friends go out to the woods for a bachelor party, but end up in another world. Through various plot mechanics (and dumb choices on their parts), they end up getting split up. Gary, the character is this scene, ends up with an organization that seeks out and hunts the uncanny and supernatural–think, a Fantasy version of the X-Files. They begin training him to become a member of their group. In the scene before this one, he has to kill a pig. Here, he has to go hunting.

Enjoy!

 

In the intervening days after the kill, no one mentioned anything about his behavior, and Willem acted as if nothing happened: he continued training Gary in different aspects of the farm, and working with him in the afternoons on his martial arts, archery and crossbow marksmanship, basic swordfighting and hand-to-hand combat. At breakfast the next morning, Willem gave Gary a cock-eyed grin as he took a bite of hamster. It seemed harmless—a grin that said, “Look, you helped make this breakfast.”

Saethe took him out horseback riding in the afternoons—and though she could be a less patient teacher than Willem, she would stay out with him until he succeeded in that day’s lesson. She too, said nothing about the incident, though Gary was certain that Willem must have reported it. His certainty wavered for, a few days after the killing of the pig, Saethe had Gary join her and a couple other members on a hunting expedition. They were going out for elk, and felt it important to have him come, for his marksmanship with a crossbow was better than expected.

He took the crossbow because it felt very familiar, much like one of his dad’s rifles or shotguns. They never went hunting, but he and his dad would go up to a shooting range in the mountains on the weekends. Gary had no love of guns or violence, but this was the way he and his dad bonded. They talked little—either at the firing range or at home—but when they were out shooting together the guns did the talking for them. After firing off a few rounds, they both loosened up, and would chuckle and tease each other. From his time out with his dad, not due to any real effort on his part but from the sheer amount of time spent at it, Gary became a pretty good shot, and he found this carried over to the crossbow. Whereas the bow and arrow required strength and skill, the crossbow asked little of him, much like a gun. He had to load, aim, and fire. Once he grew accustomed to the weight and balance of the crossbow, it was that simple, and he could hit his target at least eighty percent of the time.

They didn’t go far to hunt—fifteen miles northeast of Baelrath, into the foothills. They left before the sun rose, in the tender hours of the morning when doubts about the sun rising and the belief in witches and wishes are taken seriously. The new day hasn’t officially begun, and the old still lingers, and between the two something new is birthed momentarily, something strange and uncanny that allows for witches and wishes and the end of the world. They rode on horseback in silence, the hooves of the horses shattering the crystallized grass, crackling, crunching thud the only noise. They stopped at the border between the forest and the meadow, leaving the horses with one of the stableboys. From there, they hiked up and over a ridge, through an evergreen forest thick with undergrowth, and then down the other side to where the forest met another meadow. They went along the forest edge, slowly, deliberately. One of the men, a lanky ferret, scurried low over the forest floor looking for sign of elk—scat or tracks. He found scat from a few days earlier, and prints, but to Gary the prints were indistinguishable from the rest of the forest floor, and the scat could’ve been made by any animal.

They continued on for another hour, the ferret-like man assuring them that they should be finding something soon. The sun spilled orange light over the meadow, and the crystalline grass sparkled. Stepping into the sun, bathing in its tangerine glow, was a herd of elk. For their size, they stepped daintily, picking their steps carefully. Gary had never seen elk, outside of a few photographs, and had imagined that they’d look just like deer, only a little bigger. What he saw astounded him—the mammoth size and presence stupefied him. They appeared with the sun—one minute it was dark and the clearing was empty, and the next, the sun poured out her rays and the elk sauntered out of the woods.

Saethe tapped him on the shoulder, and nodded to ready his crossbow. He had to remind himself that elk were just like pigs, but bigger, and with antlers. What if he missed, or just injured one of them, would it come rushing at him, seized by a berserker bloodlust? He slowly raised his crossbow, lining up his sight on the biggest elk out there—a behemoth with a shaggy reddish-brown coat that reminded him of redwood bark, and a set of antlers upon which could hang all the trucker hats at a NASCAR rally.

The elk took no notice of them, and nosed the ground snuffling the grass and eating it. It looked peaceful and content out there with its herd, with the sun stroking its glossy coat and polishing its antlers. Black birds flew over the field, cawing and jawing noisily like a flock of teenagers, startling a couple of the elk, who looked about skittishly. One more startle and they could leave, Gary realized—he had to fire now. His trigger finger caressed the iron trigger, and he hesitated—how could he take that animal’s life? It’s not like the pig he killed—they raised that pig solely to be eaten. This elk—it lived a life outside of the farm, free and wild, roaming wherever it pleased. Who was he to determine when and how it should die? This elk would help feed the farm for the rest of winter—there was no Whole Foods where they could pop in and pick up a pound of venison. The world was their supermarket, and if they wanted to eat well, certain sacrifices had to be made.

He pulled the trigger and the arrow whizzed across the meadow, piercing sunbeams and splitting the wind, finally penetrating the elk in its side. Stunned, it looked up, eyes alight with terror. It staggered forward a few feet, ready to run before its knees buckled and it collapsed onto the meadow.

The rest of the elk panicked and fled, springing nimbly into the woods, ballet dancers exiting the stage—their flight as beautiful as their moment of calm. Just as quickly as the elk had appeared, they disappeared, leaving behind their hoof prints and their dying companion. The elk lay there, crumpled and defeated, blood trickling from its wound. Gary could swear he heard its heartbeat at that moment—a quick heartbeat, quite contrary to what one would expect, especially with an arrow embedded in it. It wasn’t the elk’s heartbeat pounding like a hummingbird’s, but his own in his ears, pounding like the tell-tale heart.

He felt a hand on his shoulder. Saethe gripped him, beaming proudly. “Great shot,” she said. “Are you sure you didn’t have a crossbow back on your world?”

They walked out to the elk—Gary shuffling after the others, blind with shock. He was exhilarated at the kill, and saddened. He wanted to laugh and sing and cry all at the same time. This felt different than kill the pig—much less personal, for the pig he saw daily, while he had never seen this elk—or any elk, for that matter—and so it felt strange and foreign. Killing this elk felt like shooting a target in a video game—he killed a free-spirited animal, but an animal so foreign and unreal to him it might as well have been a zombie or chocobo. When he stood over the elk, saw its blood welling up around his crossbow bolt, and its thick tawny fur and brown eyes, he shivered and gasped. He reached down and stroked its rack of antlers, and then felt the spear-like tips. It was an awe-inspiring and majestic animal, more impressive to him than any unicorn, for this elk had a head full of horns, while a unicorn only had one; he felt powerful and cunning, too, to have taken down such an obviously strong and deadly creature.

“I killed that,” he said. Saethe glanced over at him and nodded. “Yep, you did. We were there, remember?”

He knelt down beside the elk. “I killed you,” he said, staring into its blank eyes which seemed to answer back, yes, you did, but don’t let it go to your head—for someday this will be you, too. He shuddered and turned away from the elk, looking up at the primrose clouds blossoming and the bloody seam of sunlight on the horizon.

The Ravenloft Inn Chap. 1 Part 2

Here, as promised, is the second section of the first chapter of my novel. When I go through my final rewrite, I’ll break this up into a few smaller chapters.

Enjoy.

They drove across the city to the suburb where Alec lived. As they entered the neighborhood, Jack slowed down and turned to Gary, a solemn expression on his face. “Alright, I’ve got to tell you two very important things right now. First, hide the bottle under your seat. We don’t want Alec’s parents to know we’ve been drinking. Second, there has been a drastic change of plans.”

Gary stashed the bottle under his seat and banged it against the seat’s metal frame. It hit with a clang that caused them both to fear its breaking. With the bottle hidden away, Gary looked at Jack, worried, “Alright,” he said. “As long as this new plan doesn’t involve me quitting smoking and still has drinking, I’m okay with it.”

“As I was driving to your place to pick you up, I realized that it’s probably a little unfair of me to drag you into the woods for your bachelor party—“

“But I’m cool with it,” Gary interjected.

Jack smiled. “Yeah, but you’re not that excited. So, we’re sticking with the original plan, but instead of staying in the woods three nights, it’ll be only one. Then, we drive back here and hang out at my dad’s house for two nights of debauchery—dorkish debauchery, mind you, because I’m sure it’ll involve board games, video games, and—may the Lord prevent it—role-playing. Is that plan okay?”

Gary beamed with joy, and looked as if he could reach across the Willys and hug Jack. “Oh, Hells yeah, my brother. We got the best of both worlds there. You are the man—”

Jack held up a finger to stop him from saying anything more. “There’s one caveat to this change of plans, though. One that’ll be like whipped cream on cherry pie—we’re not telling Alec and Greg. We’re going to let them think that we’re spending the entire three days in the woods.”

If Gary wasn’t excited before, this new act of mischief titillated him to a degree that he seemed ready to burst. “Oh, that’s perfect. I won’t say anything—why, I’ll even be sure to complain about this whole trip to make them ‘suffer’ even more. How did you ever get Alec to go on this trip? He hates going outside. I’m surprised that he hasn’t figured out how to build a teleporter so that he could still get to the Waffle House without ever having to step outside.”

“I didn’t do anything,” Jack said. They pulled up in front of Alec’s parent’s house where they saw him standing, flanked by his parents like an inmate surrounded by his guards. They stood there on their lawn in their pajamas and robes, Alec’s dad with his hands in the pockets of his robe, yawning, while Alec’s mom seemed to be stuffing advice into Alec. Greg, the final person to round out their camping quartet, sat on the concrete steps of the front stoop eating pop tarts and watching Alec with a smirk. “His dad did it all. I mentioned it in front of his dad, and before he could say no, his dad had us out in the garage looking for his old sleeping bag and reminiscing about some camping trip in the Ozarks he took when he was a teenager. One of the best experiences he had, he said. It helped him become a man. Alec refused to talk to me for the rest of the night.”

Though Alec worked in the IT department of an aeronautics firm doing something with computers that none of his friends understood, he still lived with his parents. His mother, worried about mooching roommates and despot landlords taking advantage of her son insisted they convert their basement into an apartment for him. His father protested, though not loud enough to be heard above his wife’s insistence, and so his son moved from his bedroom on the second floor to his basement apartment.

Greg on the other hand, had left home and high school at the age of seventeen—his home life was fraught with abuse, and high school he found tedious and dull. He lived in a studio apartment big enough for a futon and his pile of books, and worked as a cook in various greasy spoons until he got an apprenticeship as an electrician. Different as they were, Alec and Greg were inseparable, sharing a love of sci-fi and fantasy, video-games and role-playing. Add to this Alec’s parents’ sympathies for Greg’s struggles, and he stayed there most of the time, the pair of them holed up in Alec’s “apartment” coming up occasionally for delivery pizza or a trip to Denny’s or the Waffle House, and of course the daily interference of work.

Alec’s dad waved and his mom placed her hand on Alec’s shoulder. He brushed it off as if it was a tarantula, and headed towards Jack and Gary. “Stay there,” he muttered to Jack and Gary. “Let’s go before the parents say or do something. Greg, bring my bags.”

“Dude, do I look like your valet? Get your own bags.” Greg shouldered his backpack and said good-bye to Alec’s parents.

“Alec,” his mom bellowed. “Alec Enfield, get back here and give your momma a kiss.”

“Sorry mom,” Alec shouted back. “No time. Running late, we’ve got to go.”

“Alec,” she huffed, and started down the lawn after her son. “You are gonna say good-bye to your mother.” She waddled after him, a mother hen herding a stray chick. As she went down to corral her son, Jack hurried up the lawn to get Alec’s backpack without any more trouble.

“Alec,” Alec’s dad called, “Say good-bye to your mom. Sometimes that boy has no respect,” he said to Greg and Jack. “And watch out for him,” he added to Jack. “He doesn’t have the experiences in the wild like you do.” He took off his glasses and cleaned them with the hem of his robe. “God, I wish I could go with you guys. What a great experience for y’all. A great experience.”

After extricating Alec from his mom’s red-eyed embrace and saying their final round of good-byes, they piled into the Willys and left the city.

They went west, wending their way up a narrow-cut valley into the mountains. The city dropped off slowly, houses here and there, streets and stoplights stripped away, until there was nothing but the asphalt and a stray sign warning of deer or falling rocks to suggest that anyone came back here. Mist tumbled down the sides of the valley the higher they went into the mountains—it wound round the ponderosa and spruce, and pooled on the edges of the road. Jack rolled his window down and breathed in the musk of pine and wet gravel. Rarely did he see it so misty here; it reminded him of Oregon and the Misty Mountains of Middle Earth.

“Looks like we traveled—” He started to say but stopped when he glanced in the rear view mirror and noticed both Alec and Greg asleep. Gary had been snoring since they drove past Manitou Springs, but Jack assumed that Greg and Alec were so taken aback by the beauty outside of their windows they were dumbstruck. Instead, he realized they were struck dumb by sleep. He let them sleep, slowed down, and kept one eye on the road, while letting the other roam over the mist-enshrouded forest.

“Where will we end up this morning,” he wondered. A Martian town with white picket fences? A world whirling with worms and spice and danger? He played this game whenever he was out in the fog—out hiking or on horseback or occasionally in the Willys. He would crest a hill, or take a sharp turn on a trail and imagine that he wound up in another world. Sometimes it was as simple as a pristine wilderness, while other times he imagined complex worlds stolen from films or books he read or whipped it wholly from his imagination. It was a simple way to pass the time on long backpacking trips or drives back-and-forth between Oregon and Colorado, but ever since Samantha died it had gotten worse, and the idle game became a greater desire to chuck it all and begin again somewhere utterly alien. He always had a longing for someplace else, somewhere else—he didn’t feel like he fit in here and that he really belonged elsewhere. His parents were immigrants. He never knew his mother, who left Jack and his father shortly after Jack was born, but they were both from a place his father always described as “far from here under another set of stars.” His dad never gave him the name of a country, so Jack assumed them were Romany, wandering people with a country. His dad never felt completely comfortable in the United States, and Jack often wondered if his discomfort and unease stemmed from his father’s struggles to feel at home in America.

He started singing Led Zeppelin’s “Going to California,” and as they came to the top of a hill he imagined that when they came down the other side there would be a roadless stretch of meadow speckled with wildflowers, unsullied by humankind. When they came down the other side there was a dew-dampened road with a barbed wire fence along the side where a herd of cattle milled about complacently. Jack waved to the cows and continued on down the desolate road, unsurprised, but as always a little disappointed.

They stopped for breakfast at a donut shop in a small mountain town. Jack stopped at a gas station to fill up and he heard rumblings inside the jeep. The abrupt halt awakened the three sleepers. Gary and Greg got out and stretched their legs, and Alec cracked his window and moaned through the crack, “I’m hungry. Hungry. We need breakfast soon or I’ll waste away.”

Gary, who was leaning against the jeep and smoking a cigarette, joined in. “Shoot, I’m pretty hungry too. I ain’t had nothing but coffee this morning. When are we planning to get breakfast?”

Alec moaned through the window of the jeep, “Breakfast.”

Jack glanced over at Greg who stood with his hands stuffed in the pockets of his leather jacket, his eyes glazed with sleep, watching the cars pass by on the small mountain road. “Shit, dude,” he said. “You want me to start bitching, too? I’m not stupid, I know how you are. I ate some pop tarts before we left.”

“Well, I was thinking that we’d get breakfast in Buena Vista—there’s a diner there with this waitress—”

“Buena Vista—that’s like a couple of hours from here, right?” Greg said.

Alec groaned. “I need to eat now. In a couple of hours I’ll be dead.”

Jack shook his head, knowing that if he didn’t feed them Alec and Gary now, there would be mutiny and a miserable two hour drive ahead of them. “Alright, alright. See up ahead there,” he pointed up the road to a small shingled barn. “They’ve got the best bear claws . . . and just great donuts. You guys head on up there, and I’ll finish up with Bessie,” he patted the jeep, “and meet you guys, okay.”

They grumbled about the walk and the chilly, damp air, but hunger outweighed their slight discomfort and they set off. Jack watched them go—Alec in the lead, frantic, he looked like Mr. Spock on speed, Greg just behind him, and Gary, content to know donuts were on the way, took up the rear, a plume of smoke trailing from him as he puffed his cigarette, the little engine that could.

He sighed, “First crisis of the trip narrowly diverted. How many more bullets am I going to have to dodge, hunh, Bessie?” He patted the jeep. While he waited for the gas tank to fill, he popped open the hatch to dig out his wineskins. There was a liquor store next to the gas station, and he decided now was as good a time as any to fill them—and himself—up. He dug through his backpack and found his, and then remembered the one from his dad’s. He lifted Alec’s and Greg’s backpacks, and rifled through the box when he found the knife.

He had forgotten about the knife, but upon seeing it again it was all he could think about. He unsheathed it, and it glowed with an uncanny sheen. The traffic hushed and the outlines of the buildings and road blurred. The fog tightened around him, and he felt like boy in a blanket fort—safe and powerful and when he popped his head out the world wouldn’t be what he knew, but what he wanted it to be, where he belonged. He ran his thumb along the flat of the blade, and was about to test the edge with his thumb when the gas pump made a thumping sound and then a click.

He sheathed the knife and stuck it into his backpack, and then went to the liquor store and bought a couple bottles of wine to fill the wineskins. After filling the wineskins and taking a few swigs himself, Jack finally caught up with Gary and the others. They sat at a long table made of lacquered pine with two boxes, each capable of holding a dozen donuts, on the table in front of them. Eighteen donuts remained—the remnants of at least one powdering Gary’s beard. Greg nodded and Gary waved. Alec, hunched over the box of donuts, paid no attention to Jack, his focus on choosing his next donut.

“Damn. You were right, Seyfair—these are some of the best bear claws,” Gary somehow managed to say coherently with a mouthful of donut. He chased it with coffee. “Damn fine coffee, too.”

“What can I say I know my donuts,” Jack replied. He picked up a bear claw and sat down next to Gary. The fog leered through the window, over Alec and Greg’s shoulder, leaving prints upon the glass. “Now the coffee . . . It’s not bad, but there’s this little shack on the coast of Oregon, just south of Tillamook—”

“Not one of your Oregon stories, c’mon dude,” Greg interrupted.

“Hold on,” Gary pointed his coffee mug at Jack, plashing coffee over the table. He didn’t seem to notice, but Alec glared at him and sopped it up with a napkin before it ran off into his lap. “I’m here to defend this gentleman’s honor. I spent that summer out there in Oregon at Jack’s place when I was thinking of moving out to Portland. He’s right. I had some kick-ass coffee out there. What about that diner—Leo’s? Yeah, that was fine coffee.”

“Wait, you went out to Oregon, I don’t remember this? Why didn’t you move out there. It’s gotta be better than here.” Greg said.

“Eh, It’s just another city . . . I couldn’t find a job, and so I came back here. They took me back at the hotel and they bumped me up—made me front desk clerk. Besides, if I had moved out there, I wouldn’t’ve met Callie.”

“What if. . .” Jack said. He paused and stared out the window, past the fog and the world around them. He snapped back and picked up a donut. “What if you could go anywhere. I don’t mean anywhere as just anywhere in the world or fuck, even the solar system. I mean anywhere you could imagine. What if after we leave here we get back on the road, and as we’re driving through the fog we end up somewhere else. Like, we crest Wilkerson Pass and as we come down on the other side we don’t find a road or a rest stop or houses or towns, but . . . another place.”

They all stopped for a moment of miraculous silence to consider the possibilities. Alec leaned back in his chair, his fingers tented, and snickered like the villain of a melodrama. Greg gazed pensively over Jack’s shoulder, his thin lips clenched as he stroked his Van Dyke beard. Gary sipped his coffee and chuckled, tapping his pack of cigarettes on the table, a rhythmic, shamanic drumming. Jack watched them all with a knowing smile. Elbows on the table, his coffee mug held like a bell, swinging to-and-fro soundlessly. In the span of seconds and within each young man’s mind stardust collected into planets and continents formed. Empires rose and fell and destinies followed.

“Do I have to be me?” he asked. Alec envisioned not only a new where but also, and to him more importantly, a new who—he cast himself as he did every time he and Greg played AD&D as a fearless and mighty warrior-wizard in a forgotten medieval land. He rode into a battle on the back of a horse, a flaming sword in each hand, breathing in the fear of his oppressors, now the oppressed.

“Well, yeah, that’s the whole point—”

“Pfft,” Alec dismissed Jack with the wave of a half-eaten donut and then jabbed it accusingly at him. “Where’s the fun in this if it’s still just me?”
Greg cut in before Jack responded. “Dude, what are you talking about? You want to get blasted by a dose of gamma radiation and turn into the Hulk? This would be your chance to be someone else. Think about it—we could get away from here and go someplace where we could have anything we desired. You can’t be content with just sitting around on your ass here in the Springs, this place is like a fucking prison.” Greg too, imagined a fantasy world. Instead of combat, though, he imagined bookshelves crammed with tomes and mystic ruins relinquishing their arcane secrets up to him. He craved power—brute, physical power, of course, but that was easily gained. What he longed for was magical power—with magic he could do anything. He hungered for wealth and status—all he needed was the means to gain it, and power—a combination of knowledge and strength, cunning and magic—was that means.

“What if there was nothing?” Gary said. “What if the world just decided to stop existing and we drove off into nothing . . . Now that would be wacky shit . . .” He knocked a cigarette out of his pack and stood up. “I’m off for a smoke, boys.”

The possibilities of what might be waiting in the fog animated the rest of their conversation at the donut shop. Coffee cups emptied and refilled, and the plashes and pools of coffee were left unnoticed and unattended. Aliens and extraterrestrials, cowboys and Indians played out a spectral warfare, ghosts and zombies hungry for soul and flesh—a menagerie of horrors paraded across the table, tromping and trudging through coffee spills and over donut crumbs.

Fueled up, they piled into the Willys. Alec curled up like a cat in the back of the Willys. Against the protestations of his co-campers, he unrolled and unstuffed their sleeping bags, piled them into a nest, and promptly fell asleep. With Alec in the very back, Greg stretched out along the length of the backseat and dozed as well. Only Gary remained awake to keep Jack company on the drive. They continued their conversation, passing the bottle of peach schnapps back and forth as they talked. Jethro Tull’s “Songs from the Woods” played in the background, the soundtrack to their talk.

“You never said what you’d expect to find on the other side of the fog,” Gary said.

“I’ve gotta say, Gary, just like those guys,” Jack waved the bottle in the direction of the back of the Willys. “I want to go someplace where I can get away from myself. Someplace where I can forget myself for awhile—like this bachelor party. Now why’d you say nothing? Not that I was surprised—it was a total Gary thing to say.”

Gary chuckled. “Because why does there have to be something on the other side of the fog. Why does there have to be anything?”

When they got to Wilkerson Pass, the fog was at its thickest and their bottle of peach schnapps was empty. Jack stopped the jeep at the top of the pass. He turned it off. Silence filled the jeep. Jack looked at Gary. “Well, we’re about to find out what’s down there.”
An uneasy laugh escaped from Gary. A groan slumped its way from the back and Alec’s head popped up from his sleeping bag cocoon. “Why are we stopping? Are we there?”

“We’re at the top of Wilkerson Pass, and we’re—“

“So we’re not there yet?”

“No.”

“Alright,” Alec burrowed back down into the bags. “Wake me when we get there. Better yet, wake me when this is over.”

Greg peered though his dewy window. The forest formed vague shapes in the gauzy fog, making it hard to tell where a boulder ended and a tree began, so that the landscape looked nebulous and unformed. The fog shifted and swirled, adding to the dreamlike quality. “It’s like something from a Lovecraft story out there . . . I’m just waiting for the Deep Ones—” He stopped talking and his face paled. “Hey,” he said. “Hey, I think . . . Something’s moving out there.”

Jack glanced over and Gary pressed his face to the window, his eyes wide. He locked his door. “Where?” Gary asked.

“Right over there . . .Look . . . I think it’s coming towards the car.”

There in the fog they made an amorphous figure shambling towards them. Brown against the fog, it was hard to tell if it was on four legs or two. The tips of what appeared to be talons or claws cut through the fog.

“Oh man, I think it’s got some kind of nasty demon claws. Jack, what do you think,” Gary turned to Jack. “Do we need to get out of here?”

Jack shook his head. Downcast, resigned to their fate, he replied, “Nope, there’s no helping us now. If we try to go it’ll only scare it and make things worse.”

“Well you’ve got to do fucking something,” Alec screamed from the back of the car, making everyone jump. He sat up, holding a sleeping bag around his head like a shawl. “I don’t want to die stuck in this piece-of-shit car of yours on this piss-poor excuse for a—hey . . . .”

Alec stopped talking. They froze. The thing came down through the fog to the road. The talons were antlers, and the shambling beast they feared would tear them apart, a deer, picking its way carefully across the road.

“It’s a twelve point buck,” Jack said.

Gary laughed, and then Greg joined him. Alec scowled and grumbled under his breath. “You knew all along didn’t you, Gary said.

“Yep,” Jack said. “C’mon,” he started the Willys. It rumbled and grumbled. The buck, startled, disappeared into the fog as quickly as it appeared. “Let’s go see what’s waiting at the end of the road for us.”

Tales from the Raven’s Loft Inn: Part 2–A selection from the rough draft

Here’s the second half of the selection from my novel-in-progress. I picked these selections because I enjoyed them. As I said before, I’ve had people asking me what I’ve been working on for the past two-and-a-half years, and so I’m trying to share a little (I’ve already shared somewhat from my other novel-in-progress). This is really rough, and already the shape it’s taking in the rewrite has a faint resemble to what you’ve read–and will read–here. Much like a tadpole to a frog, or cake batter to a baked and frosted cake, so to my novel-in-progress to the completed manuscript.

Thanks for reading. Enjoy!

They entered the tomb and found it meticulously kept: unlike the others they had been in, this tomb had been freshly dusted, and only one spider’s web—a tangled net draped across a crack in a corner of the ceiling—could be seen. The fresh smell of thyme and pine resin, tansy and other wildflowers perfumed the air. Greg flashed Alec a grin—there in front of them were two rows of stone coffins, all undisturbed.

“Lucky for us someone forgot to lock the door.” Greg said. He tugged a couple of torches from his satchel and tossed one to Alec. “Here, get this lit, if you can remember the spell.”

Alec grumbled to himself, and cast a Minor Flame onto the torch. It flared up as if he had doused the torch in charcoal lighter fluid. He yelled, nearly dropping the torch. The flame subsided, and glowed softly in the settling dark.

“Good one,” Greg said. He lit his torch without all of the fanfare and they set the torches in the brackets on the wall. They walked over to the nearest coffin. “We’ve got to begin somewhere.” Alec felt uneasy, for someone kept the tomb as clean as his mom kept their home in case visitors dropped by. It felt sacrilegious and wrong, an invasion of someone’s private space.

“They may be coming back soon,” he suggested, leaving the so maybe we should go, dangling unsaid in the hopes that Greg would reach that conclusion and they could try another, less well-kept, tomb.

“Dude, it’s nightfall, who’s going to come to the visit their dead family now. Now, wedge your fingers under the slab and lift.”

Alec hesitated, but did indeed slide his fingers and, with palms wet with sweat and arms shaking—not from the heaviness of the marble slab but from nervousness—he helped Greg reveal the contents of the coffin. There, lying with arms at his sides and his hair shorn short, was a man. A dead man and, from his condition, was probably laid to rest a day or two ago. His eyes were closed, and his mouth hung slightly open, as if he died while taking a breath which he would never exhale. He was not much older than them, and from what they could tell of his short-cropped coal-colored head of hair he had a long way to go before he went grey. His skin was soft and unwrinkled, and his hands thin and willowy.

With his jewelry and clothing, they guessed him to be a man of importance, a merchant nobleman. He had a ring on each hand, both set with lime-green gems that captured and spun the firelight into a dazzling display. The green complemented the violet velvet of his tunic. The craftsmanship of his boots made theirs look like beggar’s rags.

This is how I will be buried, Greg thought. Fine clothes and rings, smelling fresh, preserved in pine resin to slow the decaying process. In death, this man had more than Greg’s family had in life. Jealously, he wanted to steal the man’s rings and burn his clothes, but respect made him straighten out the hem of the dead man’s tunic where it had pulled up. I will have this. . . No, I will exceed this—like the Egyptians and their monuments, I will be remembered after my death.

Alec stumbled back in shock at seeing the body, and bumped into the coffin directly behind him, startling a squeak out of him. Greg stood over the body, wearing a solemn and pensive look, as if he was about to eulogize the man, or give a sermon about the transience of life. He watched Greg reach down and stroke out his tunic and tug down the bottom, like a lover straightening her beloved’s collar.

Greg took the book and placed it on the cover of a nearby coffin. He pulled things out of his satchel for the spell: a small bloodstone, a sprig of hemlock, a small vial of yellow, viscous liquid. He glanced up as he pulled stuff out. “Go out and gather some Corpse Fingers for additional lighting, while I prepare the spell. Hurry, it’s getting dark, Septimus will be expecting us soon.”

Something about the spell made Alec uneasy, and the corpse really unsettled him, so when Greg directed him to go out and gather Corpse Fingers he went gladly. He walked down the rows of gravestones, plucking the biggest of the mushrooms. They felt eerily warm in his hands, radiating heat like a rat or hamster. He wanted to end this now and leave, but he knew he was in too deep at this point, just like when they went to steal the street sign, and he had misgivings as they climbed onto the hood of his car to better reach the bolts. He glanced back at the tomb—under the grey clouds, with the wind wet and the night blotting out the light, and the Corpse Fingers stretching and waving out of the ground like real fingers, the tomb with its soft torchlight looked positively inviting. He heard something scrape against stone on the far side of the graveyard, and saw something scurry on all fours by the wall there. A hysterical chuffing sound akin to laughter accompanied the scurrying. His blood ran cold at the sound, and all of the hair on his body puffed out. He straightened up and hurried back to the tomb, one arm wrapped tightly around the mushrooms, his free hand gripping the hilt of his sword.

Greg stood over the dead man, his back to the door. A small globe of light hovered over the man’s face. When he heard Alec come in he called over his shoulder, “Great, arrange those around the coffin so we have sufficient light.”

“Greg,” Alec began, but Greg cut him off.

“We’re going through with this—we’ve gone too far to go back now.” He turned to face Alec, a dagger in his hand. Alec backed away, his hand loosening his sword from its scabbard.

Greg laughed at the sight. “I just need a little blood, that’s all.”

‘Fuck that. You want blood, you’d better be ready to shed it if you think you’re getting it from me.”

“Chill, dude.” Greg took the tip of the dagger, and made a small cut on the inside of his forearm. “I’m not gonna ask anything of you that I can’t do myself.” Alec sighed, relieved. Greg sheathed the dagger in his belt and then smeared the bloodstone with his blood. He took the vial, and poured it over the stone and smeared it, so blood and liquid coated the stone.

“Alright, here we go.” Alec crept close to stand on the other side of the coffin. The pine resin coating the dead man’s skin made him look encased in amber, his features so peaceful it seemed a shame to disturb him. They looked at each other, and Greg knew how the Wright Brothers must have felt with their first flight, or Nikola Tesla and Kolman Czito felt working on experiments together, here they were about to have a breakthrough that would change their lives and Taleth henceforth.

“Hold open his mouth.” Greg said.

“What?” Alec balked at touching the dead man—who knew what diseases crawled his festering skin.

“Unless you want to stuff the hemlock and the stone down his throat.” Alec shook his head and placed his fingers on the dead man’s jaw and gingerly pushed. He did it as if afraid to wake the man, but when it wouldn’t move he pushed hard until they heard a crack it hinged open like a jammed door. Resin flaked from his skin.

Greg took the sprig of hemlock and placed it in the dead man’s mouth, and then with the greased and bloody bloodstone shoved it down his throat. He reached as far into the man’s mouth as he could, pushing the stone down until he couldn’t reach it anymore. Alec watched, horrified.

“You’re stuffing hemlock down his throat and chasing it with a bloody rock? We’re going to bring him back to life only to poison and suffocate him?”

“That’s what the spell says to do. Maybe it absorbs his death and then he coughs it back up, or it shrinks down and he pisses it out like a kidney stone.”

“So what now?” Alec felt a little disappointed. He half-expected the man to jump out of the coffin, but he lay there the same, except his mouth hung open like he was waiting for someone to throw popcorn or candy into it.

“I finish the spell. These were the material components. Damn, dude, really, how much magic have you studied?” Alec’s face reddened. Greg picked up the book and leaned over the corpse. He recited the spell, whispering into its ear. Alec noticed the torchlight flicker, and then the Corpse Fingers extinguish, their soft blue light evacuated the room, fleeing as if they knew what was to come. The air filled with electricity and grew cold. Suddenly, what seemed like an electric burst emanated from the dead man that sent chills through them and shoved them back—Greg flew back into the tomb wall, knocking a torch loose from its wall sconce so that it clattered to the floor, sparks scuttling like insects over the stone; Alec fell back against the coffin behind him, the wind knocked out of him as he slid to the floor. They both laid where they had been thrown staring at the open coffin. The tomb was still and silent.

“This had better have worked.” Alec grumbled. He and Greg both rose. Their eyes met when they stood, and they held their gaze before both looking down into the coffin. There was the dead man, his mouth still slack, his eyes still closed. Only his tunic ruffled. They stepped to the coffin.

Well?” Alec asked.

“Hold on.” He clutched the side of the coffin and leaned in to put his ear near the dead man’s mouth. “I don’t hear anything.”

Was it his imagination, or did the dead man’s fingers twitch? “Ummm . . . Greg?”

Before he could respond, before he could stand full upright, the dead man’s hands shot up and seized Greg’s forearm. Greg screamed and tried to pull away, but the dead man hung on with the grip of rigor mortis and brought his forearm up to its mouth. With its eyes closed, it lapped at the cut Greg had made to draw blood, licking it like a half-dozing baby licked at its mother’s nipple after eating.

Alec screamed, and backed away, banging into the coffin behind him again. Greg twisted and yanked to free his arm, but the reanimated corpse hung on and began sucking on it.

“Fuck fuck fuck” Alec chanted as he watched.

“Help me. Do something,” Greg barked. He drew the dagger from his belt, and as he lifted it to stab the revenant, it bit down into the flesh of his arm. It wrenched its head to and fro, tearing a chunk from his arm. He drove the dagger into the revenant’s forehead with enough force to knock it back and make it release his arm. He drew his wounded arm to chest and recoiled from the coffin to lean against the wall.

The moment it bit down on Greg’s arm, Alec unsheathed his sword and stood waiting for a chance to attack—he daren’t swing while it clung to Greg, for fear of slashing and killing him. Now, he thought, I might have to. Don’t people bit by zombies become zombies?

The revenant popped up from the coffin, gore running down its face from the wound in its forehead. Its eyes open now, it peered around the room. The eyes were glassy and cold—all warmth of life had left them. It glanced from Greg to Alec and back to Greg as if making a decision on whom to attack. Rising up on one arm, it catapulted from the coffin to land on its feet in front of Greg. Greg stood against the wall, hunch over his wounded arm, the gory dagger in his hand. It leapt at him. Greg slashed out, but the revenant seized his hand and cracked it against the wall, forcing him to drop the dagger. Holding his good hand, it grabbed his face with its free hand. He felt the cool gold of the ring against his cheek, the fingers tightening, digging into his eyesockets, pushing in his eyes as it pressed his head against the wall. He hit its stomach and tried to push it away with his free hand, but it hurt too much for him to put much strength in it. Suddenly, a huffing sound, air being forced out of a bellows, came from it. It pulled him back from the wall and cast him to the back of the tomb, where he hit the wall and fell to the stone floor.

Alec saw the revenant spring from the coffin and pounce upon Greg the way his cocker spaniel Pinochle pounced on a doggie treat. We created a fucking Juju zombie, Alec thought. He raced around the coffin, watching Greg attempt to fight it. The revenant toyed with him as if he was a toddler. Please don’t kill him, please let me make it in time, God. Please. He’s my best friend, Alec prayed. He grew up Catholic, but never bothered with the Bible or Church, now he would do anything if God granted this prayer. The revenant held Greg up by the face, squeezing his head, its thumb and middle finger digging into Greg’s eyes. Afraid if he stabbed him he would stab Greg, he swung up, slashing the revenant’s back. He cut the velvet tunic and shaved the back of its scalp off. It jostled forward from the blow, threw Greg to the back of the room, and turned to face him.

He expected his battles to be full of witty one-liners as he cut through enemy after enemy, but the only thing he could think of, now that the glassy-eyed creature faced him, the gore glistening on its face and clotting on its tunic, was survival. He wanted to live, and he wanted Greg to live.

The revenant stood before him. It didn’t move; it just stood there, glistening in the light of the torches, silent. Alec bounced on his knees, waiting. It glanced towards Greg, then to the door, and then back to Alec. It isn’t very smart, is it—it plans on running. He waited for it to run, but instead it lunged at him, just as it had at Greg.

Alec screamed, and slashed wildly at the revenant—his first swing slashing up the front of its body, slicing open its tunic and stomach, so that its entrails spilled over his pants and boots. His second swing saved him, for the revenant grabbed his throat just as Alec’s sword went through its neck and its head tumbled backwards to the floor. The hand squeezed, choking him, and he realized that, though he cut off its head, it still wasn’t dead.

“Fuck,” he cried and, out of desperation. The revenant grabbed him with its other hand and squeezed tighter. As the world spun and his vision grew fuzzy, he cast his Minor flame spell upon the revenant’s body. In an instant, the hands grew slack as the flames engulfed the body. The air filled with stench of burning flesh and resin. Alec stumbled away from it, sucking in deep breaths, and bumped into the same stone coffin. He hollered and kicked at it until it felt like he broke his toe, and then he turned and sat down on the floor. Leaning against it, through tears, he watched the fire consume the body.

Alec and Greg sat on the beach next to a driftwood fire. They left the tomb in silence, letting the corpse burn. Untethering their horses, they rode back to the keep, veering off the trail and through the woods to the beach to clean up before they went all the way back. The sea welcomed them with rolling, clapping waves, and they returned the greeting by stripping down—though Alec only to his underwear, he refused to be naked in front of anyone if he could help it—and throwing themselves into its embrace. The saltwater stung his wounds, but Greg welcomed the pain, for it cleansed and healed him. They delighted in the roiling and turbulent water, rolling around in it like otters. Swimming against the waves, fighting the ebb and flow of the currents, gave them a catharsis—the sea took all of their fear and anger and pain, allowed them to kick and slash and punch it until they had enough, and it set them ashore wet and shivering but joyful to be alive.

Alec soaked his pants in a tidepool, hoping to get most of the gore off of them, and then—after wiping his boots off with a handful of seaweed—he sat by the fire and scrubbed of the bits that clung to them with a shell.

Greg cut strips from the end of his cloak and wrapped them around the bite wound. It stung, but felt much better after being washed out in the sea. He gazed blankly out at the ocean and rolled the ring around on his finger. He fished it out of the fire as they left, knocking it loose of the corpse’s charred fingers and wrapping it up in a corner of his cloak. He saved it as a reminder of this evening. I was careless, he thought. I should’ve been more careful and precise. I thought I knew what the spell said, but I didn’t read it carefully enough, and that nearly cost us our lives. Too, too fragile things, they are, and too easily extinguished in this world. I’ve gotta study harder and practice more, we weren’t brought up with this, as the generations before us had been, and so we’ve got a lot of catching up and learning to do. Maybe Septimus has taken us as far as he can, maybe it’s time for us to start teaching ourselves. This wouldn’t have happened if he taught us everything there was to know about magic, instead of what he thinks we should know. His limitations are dangerous, and set us back.

“Are you hungry at all? Any sudden cravings come over you?” Alec asked. Greg snapped out of his thoughts and laughed.

“Is there a time when you aren’t hungry? Nah, but I’ll sure eat somethin’ when we get back. Scrounge up some black bread and finish off whatever’s left of Gareth’s stew.”

Alec raised his eyebrows. “What about . . . meat. Do you have a craving for meat? Any meat in particular?”

“What are you hinting at? Wait, are you worried that I’m a zombie, because I was bitten? Dude, that only happens in movies. And that wasn’t a zombie—”

“It acted like a zombie—it bit your arm. It fought like a juju zombie. That thing had a ‘Bad Motherfucker’ wallet in its back pocket.”

Greg laughed. “Dude, you fought like a juju zombie. I’m glad you cast your Minor Flame spell, or we’d both be zombie chow right now. I’d hate to see your Dragon’s Breath—you’d’ve probably burned up the whole graveyard.”

Alec guffawed. He didn’t mention that he still struggled with Dragon’s Breath, his spell creating nothing more than a flash of blue and green embers.

“Hey, I’m sorry about tonight,” Greg fumbled with the apology, half-shouting the first half and then half-muttering the latter. “I should’ve been more careful. I thought I knew the dialect well enough to read and understand the spell.”

Alec smiled and held back a snarky retort—it was hard for him to not attack Greg at such a vulnerable moment. “Well, we got some great combat practice in. . . and I see that when you don’t cheat, you don’t fight so well.” He punctuated his jab with a burst of maniacal laughter. “Next time you want to try something like that. . . Do it without me.” He got up and picked his way across the sand to the tidepool where he left his pants.

Damnit. Fucking nature. Fucking animals,” he cried. Greg hurried over and found Alec batting at his pants with a stick. The gore that clung to them drew a horde of crabs. They wriggled over his pants, little Rorschach inkblots in the moonlight. He had put the cuffs and lower legs into the pool, but the crabs, in their greedy orgy, had pulled most of his pants in, soaking them all the way to the upper thighs. “What are you doing just standing there, help me.”

Greg laughed, reached down, grabbed his pants by the waist and gave it a few vigorous shakes. Crabs flew into the tidepool and across the sand like bits of shrapnel. A few clung desperately, hoping to get the last bits. Greg pinched these ones and pitched them across the sand. Greg handed Alec the pants free of crabs and gore, but soaked. “They might be a little damp.”

They waited another hour before heading back, to give Alec’s pants a chance to dry out by the fire. They joked more about the revenant, finding ways to talk around their fear, rather than to expose it and expose themselves as cowards. Greg brought the conversation around to Septimus, and he outlined his main concern about studying under Septimus: his hesitation at teaching them forbidden magic.

“After tonight’s demonstration, I can see why he doesn’t teach us. It’s dangerous, that’s why it’s forbidden.”

“That’s exactly why he should be teaching us—so that we can learn it in a safe environment. We need to know this magic if we plan on ruling Taleth.”

“What do you suggest then, that we go off and find another wizard to study under? Or head off ourselves and have more shenanigans like tonight that will eventually lead to one or both of us being killed.”

Greg swatted the flames of the fire with a stick he used to poke the coals. “No, I don’t think we’re going to find another wizard like Septimus. I don’t think it’d be that easy to find another wizard. What I think we need to do is learn what we can from Septimus, and teach ourselves, but—”Alec began to speak, but Greg squinted at Alec and held up his hand, “let me finish. We need to teach ourselves, but on a smaller scale than tonight, and in a controlled environment. I was thinking that we need to look at setting up our own magical study. I mean, face it, Septimus’s mind isn’t all there. He’s got one foot in the grave and when he croaks, who’s taking over the keep? Umbriel. And is she gonna let us stick around? Hell, no. So we need to be prepared. There will come a point when we’re kicked out and have nothing to show for it because we’ve been relying on Septimus this whole time. If we plan on taking back our kingdom, we need to start preparing now.”

Alec began listening with skepticism, but as Greg continued, he got more and more excited, until he was pacing back and forth next to the fire. In the firelight, with his ear-to-ear grin and the flames reflecting in his eyes, Alec resembled a devil, he completed the image by wringing his hands, one of his hyperactive tics.

“I like it. I like it. That’s brilliant.” He laughed, assaulting the silence of the beach with a staccato burst.

Greg nodded in agreement. Yes, he could see a plan coming together now. He could see . . . the cuffs of Alec’s pants singed by the fire. “Hey, grab your pants, they’re starting to burn.”

“Ah, jeez,” Alec tossed his pants out of the fire and batted the cuffs with a rock.

Tales from the Raven’s Loft Inn: Part 1–a selection from the rough draft

I’ve begun revising the rough draft for my novel (the completed one, I’m still at least a hundred pages from completing the new one), and thought I might share a little bit of it now (especially since I’ve had a few people asking me about it). The premise of the novel is simple: four friends go out to the woods for a bachelor party and they never come back . . . Well, that’s the simple answer I’ve been giving people when they ask me about the rough draft. It’s a little more complicated. They set up camp in the woods, go to sleep, and wake up in another world. The first to wake up, Jack, wanders off to explore, while his friends are taken on by a wizard as his apprentices. Well, that gets complicated too, for they’re also attacked by a roving band of mercenaries, with one of them being shot through with an arrow and left to die in the woods. So: two of them, Alec and Greg, survive the attack and go on to become apprentices—of a sort—to the wizard, Gary (the one shot through with the arrow, and whose bachelor party it was) is left for dead in the woods, and clueless Jack is wandering around the woods. That’s the gist of my novel—obviously, there’s a lot more to it. I hope that makes some sense. Maybe.

What I’m posting is to sate curiosity, nothing more. It’s still in the rough draft stage—I’ve gone through and corrected spelling, but other than that, much of it will be getting rewritten. Heavily rewritten. The section I’m posting to the blog centers around Alec and Greg. They’ve lived with the Septimus, the wizard, for some time now, and have begun to chafe at the limited exposure he has given them to magic. They long to try out more esoteric spells and have gone out on their own to try something a bit different . . . .

Enjoy.

 

They rode for a couple of hours, through the forest and then on to a wide meadow. Greg stopped here, consulted a map—which Alec tried to peek at, but Greg kept riding his horse away so that Alec couldn’t see—and then they veered south. The rain stopped and sky purpled above them, the clouds the color of fresh bruises, as the sun set. Ahead of them, Alec could see a stone wall a few feet high, crumbling in places. Stones dotted the ground, and there were a number of small stone buildings—abandoned hovels, he guessed. A few trees loitered awkwardly, out of place amongst the stones and buildings. Ruins, possibly? Have we come in search of treasure? He fidgeted on his horse, anxious to see what kind of treasure hunt Greg had brought them on. He imagined all the possibilities—magical weapons, invisibility boots, piles of gold like the kind Scrooge McDuck would swim in. The stones took shape as they grew closer, and his excitement fled d he wanted to join it as he realized where Greg had brought them—a graveyard. They had come in the rain, as night fell, to a graveyard.

He stopped his horse. A graveyard—that’s what Greg’s brought me to see. Well, maybe there are ruins underneath, Alec thought, returning to his fantasies of untold wealth and fame—so far, being a displaced descendent of royalty returned home had yielded him nothing but bruises, bad food and mental anguish. Perhaps, he thought, my life is taking a turn for the better. Greg’s been consulting a lot of maps lately, maybe he stumbled upon treasure in the catacombs here, and some classic D&D style dungeon-crawling. Gold and goblins, sounds like a nice way to spend the evening. He pined for the nights when the Mountain Dew flowed, and they couldn’t microwave enough chicken nuggets and taquitos while trouncing trolls and rummaging through the remains of previous adventurers in search of money and magical items. Wouldn’t he have told me to bring more though? I’m not equipped for any kind of adventures. . . Real life in a fantasy world lacked the luster and glamour of role-playing. He dreamt of this happening, and now it seemed so ordinary and mundane.

“I’m not going in there.” he called out decisively. Greg had dismounted his horse and was tying it up to the neck of a statue at the graveyard gates. A breeze blew and whipped up Greg’s cloak as he turned to face Alec. Damn, that’s dramatic, Alec thought. I wonder if he’s doing that intentionally. He loved using his magic for to create an aura of power around him, and would whip up small gusts to rustle his cloak as he descended the stairs for breakfast or brighten the sunlight behind him so that he appeared to have a halo.

“What are you afraid of—there’s nothing here but dead bodies, dust and bones. C’mon, I’ve got somethin’ to show you.”

Something in the tone of his voice raised Alec’s hackles. His instincts want him to turn back, apprehensive of what was to come, but his curiosity and faithfulness to his friend compelled him across the meadow and through the crumbling gates of the graveyard.

The clouds unraveled enough that the last bits of days flaked through, spotlighting sections of the graveyard. Corpse Fingers, pale blue club-shaped mushrooms that rose from the ground like fingers, glowed with an eerie luminescence. A light wind blew, whipping up the smell of salt and rain and the loamy ground. They picked their way through the graveyard, Greg scanning the ground, but heading towards the western end where crypts buttressed each other like a row of brownstone tenements. Alec followed after tentatively, his anxiety rising so that he tittered with his maniacal laugh.

Greg glanced back. “What’s wrong?”

“Oh, nothing. We’re just wandering through a desolate graveyard in the middle of nowhere at sunset. What are you looking for?”

“Fresh graves,” Greg replied. “But I want to check out the tombs first.”

Alec stopped in a patch of sunlight. “Wait. What?” he glared at Greg’s back.

As if he felt Alec’s glare tugging at his ponytail, Greg turned around. “We’re looking for graves. Fresh bodies. What did you think we were doing here, picking tulips?”

The weight of Greg’s words struck Alec as he realized what he said. He stepped back from Greg. “Bodies? What are we doing with a body, hunh, Dr. Frankenstein? And look around you, this is an old graveyard. This freshest body you’ll find here has got to be half the age of Septimus.”

Greg sighed. “I’ve examined some maps, and this is one of the original necropolises. There are bound to be a few semi-fresh bodies here.”

“Necropolis? I hate to tell you, but this area isn’t a bustling suburb. I don’t think that people are lining up to get buried here. Look at the state of the place?” Alec waved his arm to emphasize his point: the walls surrounding the graveyard were overgrown, as was the graveyard itself. The forest slowly took back the land.

“Dude, didn’t you keep up with your history? Corpse-drivers. The dead-bound. They drive the dead to their family graveyards, these necropolises. It’s an old tradition, and most people abandoned it during the Necromantic plague. When necromancy was at its peak, they were often getting assaulted—like getting carjacked, but instead corpse-jacked. There was even that infamous scene where it turned out a couple of necromancers had brought back a dead nobleman to life and were using him as a puppet to rule his lands. Fucked-up shit. People mostly burn their dead now, to prevent their loved ones from being used. Not that there are any necromancers anymore.”

“Wait, are you saying that I’m about to participate in highway robbery, and you plan on stealing a corpse?”

“Not exactly. We’re not holding anyone up. There’s nobody alive around here for miles. Just c’mon.”

Alec refused to move. “No. I want to know what we’re—you’re—doing here. Why do you want a body?”

Greg gritted his teeth and glared at Alec as he reached into his satchel and withdrew a thin manuscript bound in tan leather. He held up the manuscript. “This is why we’re here. If we want to be true wizards . . . If we want to rule this land, we need to know as much magic as possible, and we cannot be held back. This is a manuscript in the Old Emerath dialect, and it has a few of the forbidden spells—necromancy. I brought us out here to try and cast one, but it requires a body. Now, I need your help, and you can either help me or hold us back. You decide.”

“Where did you find this book?” Alec couldn’t hide his horror . . . and awe. The book contained forbidden magic, magic outlawed not just by law but by magicians as well. No wizard would ever practice necromancy, and few ever studied it. That Greg had read it and obviously planned to do something with it excited and terrified Alec. If they were caught, the punishment would be awful, but the power of the magic and its infamy—and that the greatest of D&D campaigns featured the vampiric necromancer, Count Strahd—drew him to it like a moth to a flame. Secretly, he had perused the shelves of the Septimus’s library for just such a book, but found nothing.

“It was stuffed inside another book. A cookbook.”

Alec laughed. “A cookbook?”

“Yeah. I was looking for a cookbook because I was so sick of eating Gareth’s shitty cooking. It’s disgusting. Obviously, no one has tried to cook anything for years, for this was tucked inside. I wasn’t sure what it was at first, but I recognized the dialect, and after reading through it I found out it was a spellbook—like the ones Septimus keeps under protection. But he missed this one, and now it’s ours.”

The squeamishness and horror he felt about finding a fresh corpse evaporated as he gazed upon the book in Greg’s hands and thought of the power they could gain—he could become an even greater wizard-warrior, mastering magic known to only a few. Perhaps there might be a spell there to help him master his condition. “Alright,” he walked up to Greg. “I’ll help, but don’t expect me to touch the body in any way. What’s the spell we’re casting?”

Greg had the pages marked with seagull feathers he found on the beach while studying the book. He showed it to Alec, who looked over the passages, the notations in various hands and dialects, and the diagrams. The ink had faded in spots, stains threatened to obliterate words, but even if the text had been in the cleanest handwriting, or typed, he had no idea what it said. He struggled—no, he resisted—his language lessons, for those he took with Umbriel, and would’ve preferred cooking lessons from Gareth. Now, he regretted those wasted afternoons, as he sheepishly asked, “So what is this spell?”

Damn, fool. . .” Greg shook his head. “From what I understand, it says ‘A Spell for Bringing Back the Dead.’”

“So we’re going to bring back some random guy from the dead? What about his family, and what are we going to do, bring him back with us—‘hey Septimus, look what we found in the woods. Can we keep him?’”

Greg stopped in his tracks, an incredulous look on his face. “We’ve got the ability to resurrect the dead here,” He waved the book inches from Alec’s nose, “and you’re worried about what to do with the guy after we’ve brought him back to life. From the dead. Dude, it’s not like we’re going to wake some guy up, we’re giving him life. Do you understand? Back. From. The. Dead.”

Alec stood speechless, mortified. Chastened by Greg’s rant. What greater inconvenience is there than death? So what if the man had to travel hundreds of miles to get home, at least he could make that journey—if not for their intervention, he’d be here fruiting and rotting. “In a way, we’re like Jesus resurrecting Lazenby.”

“Lazarus. Lazenby played Bond.”

“Yeah, Lazarus. Lazenby was an underrated Bond.”

They began walking again, the Corpse Fingers ushering them through the graveyard, their luminescent glow providing enough light to make up for the cloudy sky—the sun hid behind the clouds, and no stars or the moon broke through the shroud overhead. Tombs littered the sprawling graveyard, but a row of them lined the western wall. They began with these, starting at the very first and moving their way down. The first few they found locked, and went through great efforts to break into them, but each one only provided them with dust and rags, bones and sore shoulders from forcing the wooden doors open. In the third one, they found bats hibernating, and the floor carpeted with guano. Alec swung around and nearly retched from the sight, covering his mouth with his hand and hunching over.

“Do you think it’s okay, our bringing this guy back to life,” he said, as he recovered from the sight and stench of the layers of guano. “Is right for us to play God like this? What right do we have to bring him back from the dead?”

Greg had moved on to the next tomb. “We’ve got a spell, and what’s the big deal, this is just going to be some average person—it’s not like we’re bringing back Balaethe.”

“Balaethe?” Alec asked, annoyed at yet another reference he didn’t understand.

“Dude, do you ever pay attention during history lessons . . . Hey—” The door opened on greased hinges. “It’s open.”