Rain soaked the mud-caked the boots of lone, cloaked rider. It rained often in this part of the world, not the tropical rain experienced in the north however. This rain was composed of thick, bitter, globules that pelted those unfortunate enough to be caught out in it.
His horse, a black beast with a silver mane, neighed insistently from behind him. With a wave of the man’s hand the horse went silent; suddenly content to wait in the chill weather from beneath the tall trees. The cloaked man continued onwards, impervious to the harsh elements that had stopped lesser travelers.
Up ahead he could see what looked to be a village. Innate wooden buildings began to take shape through the gap in the wall that surrounded them. Twin torches sat on either side of the entrance, contrails of smoke drifted into the darkened sky. A scent hits his nose, Dragon’s Heart, an herb commonly used to treat fungal infections. Yet more often than not it was sold to small towns like this as an answer to keep out trouble. Simply light a torch coated in Dragon’s Heart and your town will be safe from the evils that lurk outside, the charlatans would claim. It didn’t fool many, but the desperate and fearful are a gullible sort.
He crossed the threshold, eyes shifted cautiously from side to side as he stepped closer to the center of the village. There’s no sign of life. Most villages would at least have a sentry of sort even if the townsfolk preferred to barricade themselves next to their fires. He stopped between what appeared to be a tavern, The Drowned Unicorn, and the blacksmith shop, Edwin’s Embers. A faint glow emanated from the blacksmith’s forge. The man reached beneath his cloak and pulled out a small bell; he rings it. No sound was produced by the object, at least none that he could hear. Yet the markings on it glowed with each flick of his wrist.
Upon placing the bell back onto his belt, he waited. Rain continued to pelt him, he could feel the cold oozing through his thick cloak and leather armor. He continued to wait. Then he heard it, a soft moan like someone waking from a long night at The Drowned Unicorn. Then gradually the moan hardened as more joined in. The chorus of moans turned to growls as the creatures crawled out of the shadows. His left hand grasped the hilt of the sword strapped across his back. He slowly removed the blade from its sheath; blue runes glowed brightly along the silver metal.
He counted the creatures that surrounded him; a good twenty of them, with more likely on their way. They reached for him with outstretched hands, dirt encrusted nails eager to tear at his flesh. With a clockwise spin seven heads were removed from their bodies. The crowd crept closer, saliva and rain trailed down grotesque jaws. The man stepped around one, sliced the heads off a pair of females before returning to the one that had stumbled past him.
Moving in stride, the man whispered an incantation. Heat tingled on the tips of his fingers. The warmth grew stronger, forming a ball of flame in his hand. With a flick of his right hand the fireball engulfed the closest of the creatures before spreading out to create a wall of flame that would temporarily slow the approach of the creatures. Alas, even magical flame would prove no match for the repetitive force of the downpour, so he made his escape towards the western side of town.
It is there that he came upon the village cemetery. He made his way towards the main building at the back of the graveyard. The white wood it’d been built from contrasted brightly against the gloomy weather. It was there that he hoped to put an end to the horde of monsters. The door creaked open revealing nothing but darkness. Carefully, he walked through the rows of benches in an attempt to find any creature that had insisted on remaining behind when he’d called them forth.
A soft mewl caught his attention, he stopped, eager to decipher the source of the sound. Then he heard it again. While he’d never seen an infantile monster before, he wasn’t about to die because something hadn’t officially been confirmed. It appeared that the only location where such a sound could emit from, while remaining hidden was from behind the door at the back of the room.
Reaching out with his right hand, sword back but readied, he pushed open the door. He was greeted by a feral scream as a figure came crashing out of the darkness. Spinning away from his attacker, he managed to narrowly deflect the mace intent on crashing down upon him. The bludgeon continued to strike at him one handed in a fit of rage. It was clear this was not one of the creatures from outside, in fact judging from their use of weaponry, he deduced it was one of the remaining townsfolk. With a quick arc of his sword he disarmed his opponent, but kept his sword trained on them in case disarming wasn’t as effective as he’d hoped.
His opponent stopped. In the dim lighting he could make out steel armor, cheap enough for the daily life of a village guard, but unlikely to do more than make them feel safe in their tin shells.
“Finish me off, monster,” a feminine voice taunted him.
“What monster, may I ask, spares its victims and wields a blade?” he replied in a deep voice.
“You mean you’re not some form of revenant?”
“I am not,” he answered calmly.
“Then who are you? Are you a knight?”
“No,” he stated, sheathing his sword.
Her eyes widened, in both awe and fear. “You’re a Reaper. You’re here to save us from those things. “
“A little late for that,” he added.
“You mean the whole village….”
He nodded as he etched a symbol into the floor with an ornately arced knife. The blade scraped into the floor several times before being angled to start another piece of the rune.
The bundle mewled from the crook of her left arm.
She hushed it silent. “So my boy and I are all that’s left?”
He nodded again. “Looks that way.”
“So what are you going to do?”
He began carving another rune on the opposite side of the first symbol. “I can cast a spell using the spirits of the dead that will return those creatures to their final resting place, but I need time to complete it.”
“That’s good right?”
He sighed as he stood to look at her. “Unfortunately, our little duel might have removed the head start I had on the horde. I will need you to keep them off me until the spell is complete.”
“They’re coming here? I thought they couldn’t walk hallowed ground.”
“I wish half the things they tell the common people were true.” His eyes locked on hers. She returned his gaze with stern commitment. Her skin was a similar brown shade to his. He liked to think his own mother would have been like her, brave and strong, though he knew all too well that was unlikely to have been the case.
“You might want to put him somewhere safe,” he nodded towards the bundle.
“How’d you know he was a boy?”
“Girls don’t cry as much,” he stated.
She leered at him, perplexed for a moment as to whether the callous individual before her had attempted a joke, then decided better and entered the small room she’d initially hidden the child in. When she returned, the runes inscribed on the floor hummed with a blue light. She had a million questions she wanted to ask, she’d heard legends of The Reaper, but had never actually seen one. Granted, in her twenty years of life she’d also never seen the monstrosities that had claimed her friends and family earlier that day.
A series of thuds against the door caught both of their attentions.
“Are you ready?” he inquired, holding out the mace he’d removed from her hand minutes earlier.
She nodded, plucking the metallic hilt from the man’s cold fingers. She turned her attention to the door bracing herself with each successive thump the monsters caused. The Reaper began to chant behind her, a strange language she’d never had the pleasure, or opportunity, to learn having grown up in an isolated town.
The thuds became more violent as the chanting continued. Blue wisps began to swirl around The Reaper, and it occurred to her that contrary to the way he carried himself, he was not much older than she was. Before she could hazard a guess as to how someone became a Reaper there was a thunderous crack; the door had begun to splinter and the creatures clambered through their makeshift hole.
A split-second of fear took hold of her as she watched the faces of her friends and neighbors, snarled and pushed their way towards her. A symphony of groans echoed throughout the room. Then the fear was gone, replaced by an instinct to fight, to survive, and to protect her young son from the monsters eager to feast on his infantile flesh.
Her mace crashed down onto the head of what was once Jonas Salk, he’d built the crib her son had slept in the past few months. His skull caved in and he dropped to the floor. Filled with rage she swiped the weapon in a wide arc that crushed the brains of Marlie Michaelson, Raplh Cassian, and Brynn Thereson. Yet for every one she sent to their final resting place several more eerily familiar faces remained. They began to swarm her, yet every time one got close her mace would crumple whatever semblance of skull remained. Smash! Crunch! Smash! Crunch!
The blue wisps zipped around the room at a frenzied pace. The Reaper’s chants grew louder, more commanding. She continued to bat away at the undead faces of those she once knew so well. With each death her anger began to subside, emotion wanted to subdue the adrenaline that had taken hold. She fought back, focusing on her desire to survive, remembering that she was all that stood between her son and the jaws of those that surrounded her. Claws pulled on her armor, nails snapped off with each attempt. Teeth dented her protective shell with each attempt to get to her flesh. Then came a dull pain as the armor on her shoulder collapsed beneath the jaws of one of the creatures. She quickly switched hands, crushing the offender beneath her weapon. She never got a good look at who it was. Before she could recover, dulled teeth clamped down onto the gap between her neck and her shoulder. This time, bits of muscle and flesh were ripped into before she could strike back. The pain caused her to stumble, but she pressed forward swinging with whatever strength she had left. The moans seemed to reverberate throughout the room, and into her skull. The blues wisps had reached a fevered pitch, her world began to spin as the faces of the undead loomed closer.
Then, with a booming command, the wisps tore into the monsters turning each and every one into a pile of ash. The woman collapsed to her knees, emotionally and physically spent. Blood dripped down the front of her armored chest. She tried to climb to her feet, but lacked the strength to do so.
“Thank you,” The Reaper said. He crouched down before her so that they were at eye level.
“Happy, to help,” she answered weakly. A cry from the back room grabbed her attention, spurning her to her feet. She instantly lost her balance, only to be caught by the man beside her. She smiled sheepishly, but he showed no reaction other than physical support to her current state of weakness.
She pushed open the door, the Reaper stepped back to prevent it from closing. She looked at her son, who smiled upon seeing her face. It was as if all his fears could instantly be allayed by just her presence. She tickled him with her fingers, eliciting a joyful laugh that could have brought a smile to the Reaper’s hardened heart. When she looked back at the mysterious man standing in the doorway however, she saw no such smile. Just the grim expression of a military officer sent to visit the family of his deceased subordinates.
“How long?” she inquired.
The Reaper shrugged with uncharacteristic youth. “Could by minutes, could be hours, could be days with the right medicinal herbs.”
Instantly the flood gates opened as she looked back at her son. “I’ll become like them?”
She tickled her son again, the boy laughed happily.
“I don’t want to be one of those…” The emotions threatened to overwhelm her. “Monsters.”
“I can help with that,” The Reaper replied sullenly.
She looked back at him. “Take care of him, please.”
“M’lady,” he replied hesitantly.
She raised her hand. “Kyra, my name is Kyra.”
“Kyra, I’m not sure that’s a good idea. My laugh is fraught with peril, it’s not the place for a child.”
“Please, if you have to find another home for him do so, but please do this for me.”
After a moment of silence, he nodded in agreement.
“Thank you,” she said, wiping tears, mud, and blood from her face. She tickled her son once more then bent to kiss him on his stomach. The child laughed happily she walked towards The Reaper.
“Can you give this to him, so he has something of us?” She handed him a locket from around her neck.
He nodded his head.
“Will it hurt?”
The Reaper walked up to her. His hand covered her forehead. She closed her eyes, ready to embrace what’s next. A warm, tingling sensation touched her deep inside her chest. A sense of calm washed over her. She smiled as the warmth intensified, and intensified until it became unbearably hot. She opened her mouth to scream, but no sound escaped. A purifying white light shot out of her eyes and agape mouth. The Reaper cradled her head to the ground, her eyes were now black holes while smoke rose from her lips.
The child cried, instinctually knowing something wrong had happened.
“I’m sorry,” The Reaper stated, pulling the boy into his arms.
Together the two of them left the purified corpse of his mother, the necromantic runes, and the ashes of the dead. Outside, the rain had stopped, and The Reaper realized she’d forgotten to tell him the boy’s name.