Crug the Barbarian growled, his muscled body gleaming in the dull light. “Sure trap?” He gestured forward with his overlarge sword.
“Of course I’m sure. Some sort of trip mechanism I think,” Littlehorn replied, annoyed at having his expertise challenged.
The Halfling thief was clad in black leather, with a short bow and quiver slung over his shoulder. Several daggers were strapped to his chest, and he carried a small pack on his back. It was all standard dungeon exploring issue. Sighing, he turned and examined the ground just ahead of them once more. The corridor looked the same as the others they had been wandering around in for the past several hours. This area of the dungeon was obviously designed to confuse, and it did a good job of it. The section here was straight, sloping down slightly. He’d stopped because one of the cobbles ahead looked a lighter gray than the others, and seemed to be slightly higher.
He glanced over his shoulder at his three colleagues, who were standing a little way behind him. A faint breeze came out of the gloom to the rear, as if trying to push them onwards.
The barbarian looked bored. He swung his huge sword idly in one hand, and ran his fingers through long dark hair with the other. He wore only a loin cloth and a pair of sandals. Standing next to the large man was the wizard, Redthorne. Dressed in long red robes, he was scowling and leaning on his staff. His beard tumbled halfway down his chest, and the traditional pointy hat sat jammed down over his ears. It had fallen off in a scuffle with some Orcs earlier, and was now slightly bent near the tip.
“You’d better move forward and see to it,” the wizard ordered. “One of us would just blunder into it if we went together.”
“Why do you not cast a detection spell?” the final member of the group asked. The cleric, Nom the Noble, was standing and trying to peer into the darkness through the eye slits of his helmet, which covered the upper half of his face. His armor was colored white, and he held a matching shield with a circular emblem painted on it, the symbol of his god. By his side, a wicked looking mace was attached to a wide leather belt.
“We’re not far in,” replied the wizard. “I don’t want to waste magic now. The thief is up to this, aren’t you?”
Littlehorn nodded. “Wait here,” he said, and moved off carefully, scanning the ground intently.
Behind him he heard Nom speak again. “I feel death nearby.”
Littlehorn rolled his eyes as he inched forward, and replied without looking back. “We’re in the most dangerous and ancient tomb this side of the Very Black Mountains. Of course there’s death nearby. It’s all around us.”
“Probably Theodore,” grunted Crug, as the thief dropped down to slide forward on his belly.
“Yes, I told him not to wander off on his own,” Redthorne said.
“Shhh!” hissed Littlehorn, as he detected a small wire ahead. “There’s something… Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhh!!”
With a crash that echoed off the walls, a stone slab slammed down behind him, cutting him off from the rest of the group. Simultaneously a spike shot up out of the ground, piercing his leather armor and stabbing into his leg. His magic light went out, leaving him in total darkness.
He rolled over, pulling his leg off the barb with a wet squelching sound. Clutching at his thigh he tried to staunch the bleeding. He could dimly hear the pounding and shouts of the rest of the group from the other side of the new wall.
“Damn!” he moaned. “Damn damn damn!” Reaching around, he groped about in his pack for a bandage.
There was a noise nearby. A grinding, as if part of the wall was moving.
“Is that you Crug?” he whispered.
There was no reply. Littlehorn squinted into the dark, but even with his night vision he could see nothing. His hand located the bandage and he drew it out of the bag, trying to move without making a sound.
There was an echo of a whisper. He froze, even as a cold sweat broke out on his forehead. His heart thumped in his chest and his breathing sped up.
He started, very slowly, to move again when the bandage was torn from his hand. A cold breeze sprang up, chilling him to the bone. Littlehorn dragged himself to one side and pulled out his dagger. A sound in front of him! He swung the blade blindly.
Something, his bandage he quickly realized, was thrown around his neck, and he was yanked back. Cold fingers pulled the knife from his hand whilst something held his legs. The Halfling groped desperately at the cloth, trying to free himself.
There was the chill kiss of metal along his midsection, cutting through the leather armor, slicing neatly up from pelvis to chest.
“Aaahhhhhh!” His breath felt icy in his throat.
A hand, cold as death, reached into the slit in his stomach, pulling at his insides even as he thrashed about futilely, sobbing and gagging on bile.
A low hiss in his ear. “Trouble breathing? Let me help.” The hand pushed up under his ribcage, an alien intrusion in his guts, and squeezed.
“AAAaaaaaargggggmmmmmfffff!” Littlehorn gagged as his insides were brutally thrust upwards, forcing themselves up his throat, distending it obscenely, and vomiting them out of his mouth in a mash of tissue and blood.
~ * ~
“Hmmm. I love Halfling!” The zombie threw away a femur and sat back with a smile on his face.
“Yars, thmmfks frrr hemmfing us,” said his friend, mouth full of liver.
“Think nothing of it,” replied Dreth, sitting in his chair and watching the two undead gorge. He waited. The zombies were typical of their kind. Both were clad in dirty rags, with rents in the cloth revealing yellow rotting skin underneath, pot-marked with boils, lesions and sores. Their teeth were brown and yellow, and both had wispy gray hair that barely covered the flaking skin on their skulls.
“Wait a minute!” the first one frowned. His name was Cuthbert, and he was unusually bright for a zombie.
Here it comes, thought Dreth.
“Why are you being so nice all of a sudden?” he asked. “I mean, I’ve been down here hundreds of years, and you’ve never helped us before. Why now?”
“Ythhs, why now?” echoed his friend, who was called Percy.
Dreth tapped the arm of his chair, which was made of arm. “I have come to a recent decision. I’ve decided that I’ve had enough of this ‘life’.”
“Oh, I see.” Percy lost interest, and bit back into the still steaming organs of the Halfling.
Cuthbert though, who was brighter, or at least fresher, looked at Dreth. “Call me old fashioned, which I am, but I get the feeling that you aren’t doing this as a goodbye present. Anyway, isn’t it against the rules to abandon your post? I mean, you’re a Guardian! There are probably things they can do to stop you wandering off you know.”
“Like what?” Dreth said. “Give me a letter of bad conduct? Dishonorable discharge? I don’t think so. Hand me that hand will you?”
Cuthbert picked up the pale appendage and passed it to Dreth. “No, I mean, you know… Guardians.” He tried to wink knowingly, but only succeeded in looking like a bewildered, and very unhealthy, owl.
“Guardians to Guard the Guardians? Who Guards them? Who Guards the Guardian Guardians?” Dreth picked a ring off a finger and stuffed the hand into a pack.
“Stop saying Guardians. You know what I mean.” Cuthbert picked up a foot from the pile and nibbled on a toe. “Look, as a favor the lads and me would be willing to come in and cut you up real good. Eat you if we have to. That would kill you wouldn’t it? Release you from damnation and all that. I could look after your maggot collection, if that’s what’s worrying you.”
Dreth sighed, which was particularly impressive in a wheezy sort of way. He put his pack down and turned to face the undead. “Look, I don’t want to die okay? At least not without seeing some of the world anyway. You know how old I was when I… I became like this?”
“No,” said the zombie, spitting out a toenail.
“Well,” Dreth looked around the room. “Truth is I can’t remember, but probably not very old. The point is, even if you cut me up into little cubes, I wouldn’t die! I would just be little-cube shaped, and very uncomfortable.”
“Oh. I see.”
“Cuthbert, how long have you been down here?”
Cuthbert shrugged, a rather one sided gesture as his left arm was over on the table. “A couple of hundred years maybe.”
“Why don’t you leave?” Dreth picked up his sack again and peered inside.
“Well, it’s a job you know? I was never very good at being alive, truth be told.” Cuthbert looked uncomfortable for a moment. He took another bite of foot and masticated noisily. “Anyway, ten minutes out there and I’d be hacked apart by some over-zealous Cleric or something.”
Dreth tied his pack off and looked at the undead munching on the remains of the thief. “Why don’t you come with me? It’ll be an adventure.”
“No, thanks, I was never the adventurous type. Anyway, I’m okay here. It’s not that bad really.”
“When I said, ‘why don’t you come along?’ I wasn’t really asking.” Dreth examined a variety of swords and other weapons he had saved from his many victims.
“Bastard. Everyone always picks on us Zombies, we’re the scum of the undead world, isn’t that right Percy?” He nudged the other zombie, who was sucking an eyeball out of the skull with a slurping sound.
“Eh? You what now?”
Cuthbert made a tutting noise and attempted to take a deep breath, though this was not altogether successful as his lungs were quite rotten.
One sword that seemed to throb with black energy caught Dreth’s eye. The hilt was silver and gold, inlaid with various red gems. White runes were engraved up the length of the blade. He picked it up and swung it about, testing the balance.
“Hey! Watch where you’re waving that thing! Nearly had my arm off! My other one I mean.”
“Sorry,” Dreth said, not very sincerely. He found a suitable scabbard and strapped the sword on around his robes. “How do I look?”
“Like a dead man walking.”
“Haha. Very funny. Now, finish your adventurer. There’s one more thing I need your help with.”
Cuthbert tucked the foot into his belt and stood up. “Now what?”
“There’s a group coming through the tunnels. This one,” he pointed to the now mostly eaten thief, “and that stupid fighter who pulled your arm off were members of their party.”
“I want to take one with us.”
“You what?” Cuthbert gawked at him, spitting out several teeth. “Are you mad? Oh wait, you mean as a snack.”
“Nope, I mean whole and upright. Sometimes the fully alive can get past things that we… not quite living can’t.”
“Why just one then? Why not take the group? There are still three left.”
Dreth rubbed at his forehead. The trouble with zombies was that their brains were mostly rotten, they weren’t too great on thinking. “There’s a wizard, a Cleric and a barbarian. All of them together may be a bit hard to control out of our little area. One though, one would be manageable.”
“Well, I’m not taking the Cleric, that’s for sure.” Percy folded his arms. “They give me the creeps. Have you ever been turned? Not nice I can tell you. A friend of mine was turned a while ago, he’s been off his game ever since. Hardly even bothers to shuffle along properly any more.” He shook his head sadly.
“The Barbarian would be the easiest,” said Cuthbert, getting back on topic.
“Perhaps so, but the wizard would probably be the most useful,” Dreth said.
“Dangerous those mages,” Percy countered. “The current record holder for the Pit of Doom was a mage. The Giant Spiders were cleaning up for months.”
“Still, something to be said for a good spellcaster.” Dreth kicked the Halflings’ mutilated head across the room, bouncing it off the wall so it came to rest against a pile of skulls.
“Good shot,” said Cuthbert.