The Skulls of Cepra
Thrax and Ellyn were sprawled out on the cold forest floor. They spent the entire afternoon following a game trail to this very spot, a clump of bushes at the edge of the forest.
Both of them wiggled to get more comfortable, their armor creaking like a tired old man’s back. They peaked through the bushes, between the leaves, and saw a cave opening across from a small grassy field and at the bottom of a giant cliff face. A strange light emanated from inside the cave opening.
Gilliam crept up behind them and in a hushed tone said, “This looks like the only way in and out.” Ellyn glanced up at him, her grip tightened on her mace.
“It’ll be dark soon, if we’re going to do this today, it has to be now.” She said.
“Horses?” Thrax said, cocking his head toward Gilliam.
“Secured, they’ll be there when we get back.”
“Ok, let’s get this done and collect our gold.” Thrax hissed.
It was early morning when Thrax and his companions arrived at Cepra, a small farming village at the edge of the Valtorevi Forest. The companions had heard rumors swirling for months in this part of the realm, rumors of an evil Necromancer that cast a deadly plague on this village. Calls went out far and wide for anyone who could help rid the village of his evil. For any brave adventures that answered and succeeded in the task, a rich reward of 100 gold pieces each, was offered.
Merchants whispered in the surrounding towns that shortly after the Necromancer arrived, a strange disease spread across the land. They spoke of a hideous and painful death where the infected skins’ would turn black before they died. Fearful of the disease, many villagers quickly buried their dead in shallow graves only to return a few days later to them empty. Someone or something took the bodies.
The companions didn’t care about the rumor, they were interested in the gold. Thrax’s idea was to find the Necromancer and kill him from a distance with Gilliam’s bow. Gilliam, an experienced bowman, had never missed a shot in his life and the companions thought it would be easy to dispatch the mage and collect the gold without much fuss.
They crept slowly over to the cave entrance, each careful not to make any noise. Thrax glanced at where they had just been, the sun was almost down for the day and darkness rolled over the woods. With his long sword in hand, he slid into the cave opening. Ellyn came next with Gilliam bringing up the rear.
Gilliam noticed fresh tracks in the dust of the cave floor. It was a human male that wore boots. He also noticed several bare feet and motioned to Thrax and Ellyn that there may be more people in the cave.
Thrax led the group down a narrow cave corridor, Ellyn in the middle and Gilliam in the rear. The corridor gradually widened as Thrax led the group in. His sword at the ready in his hand, he stopped when the corridor made a sharp turn. He pressed himself against the wall and peered around it.
Thrax saw a large open cavern with stalactites and stalagmites between them were small fire pits. In the center of a cavern stood the Necromancer, a man in dark robes with his face was obscured. He chanted arcane words as he waved his hands across a stone table. On the table were two glowing glass skulls that hummed as the evil mage weaved his dark spell.
Thrax whispered to his companions, “I see him. There’s nobody else. Gilliam, take him out!”
Gilliam readied an arrow and slid in front of Thrax. He raised his bow, cocked the arrow, and aimed it at the dark figure. He exhaled quietly and loosened the arrow. The arrow flew fast across the cavern to its target, the Necromancer’s throat. Gilliam’s face turned to horror as he watched the arrow stop mid-flight and disintegrate. The Necromancer stopped his chanting and snapped his head toward the corridor.
The surprise the adventurers had was over and Thrax moved first. He led the charge into the cavern, Ellyn right after him. She held her mace high, ready to bludgeon the Necromancer. Gilliam took cover behind a large stalagmite, cocked another arrow, and aimed straight for the Necromancer’s chest. Thrax thought they would dispatch him quickly but the mage was ready for them. He raised his hands to the roof of the cavern and shouted guttural words of magic.
Dead bodies rained down from the darkness of the cavern’s ceiling and landed on the cave floor with a dull thud. The companions watched in horror as the bodies stood up and ran toward them. These were no ordinary undead Thrax thought, they had claws and moved fast.
Thrax counted 10 of these creatures as he swung his sword down across the closest creature, severing its arm. It kept moving toward him. That should’ve killed it, he thought, as the tendrils of fear crept into his mind. No! Damn the Gods, I’ll slay you all! He thought and pushed the fear out of his mind.
Ellyn saw the creatures rush Thrax. She took out her holy symbol and recited holy verses, hoping to turn these undead horrors away from Thrax. The Necromancer saw what she was doing and waved a hand toward her. Three undead broke off from Thrax and moved toward her.
Gilliam weaved between the stalagmites and looked for a clean shot. The undead made it hard for him to make a killing shot, but he knew he had to find a way. He loosened his arrow and it struck the Necromancer in his shoulder. He shrieked in pain as he clutched his shoulder. He stopped chanting his spell and the skulls stopped glowing.
Ellyn’s prayer hit home, the undead dropped at Thrax’s feet. He saw his chance and gripped his sword tight. In one giant leap, He vaulted over the stone table and slammed his feet into the Necromancer. The glass skulls scattered at his feet. The evil mage fell to the floor as fear welled up his eyes. Thrax lifted his sword high above him and with one fell swoop slashed it across the evil mage’s body. Blood erupted from his mouth, splattering Thrax’s armor. The mage twitched and fell limp, he was dead.
Ellyn screamed as the last three undead creatures overwhelmed her. Gillam slashed his short sword across one of its necks, severing its rotting head. Ellyn fell to the ground, two of the creatures slashing their claws at her.
Thrax grabbed one of the creatures and pulled it off her. He held it by the neck and ran his sword through its back. It crumpled to the floor. Gilliam severed the last creature’s head, its lifeless body rolled off Ellyn. Blood gushed underneath Ellyn’s body.
Thrax rushed to Ellyn’s side. She coughed, blood erupting from her mouth. Thrax cradled her body into his, holding her head up. She was dying.
Ellyn coughed, “Did we kill him?”
“Yes,” Thrax said, “We got him.”
“Good,” she smiled and coughed. “I think I’m done for.”
“Remember me, Thrax.”
“You’re going to make Ellyn!” He lied.
“Remember me,” she gasped. Her body relaxed and then went limp. Ellyn was gone.
Thrax held her tightly. He thought that if he held her tight he could stop the lifeforce from slipping away from her body. He held for what seemed like hours before placing her gently on the ground. He stood up slowly and looked around at the carnage around him, he frowned as sadness and rage washed over him. Gilliam knelt next to her body, his head hung low as tears rolled down his face.
Thrax walked over to the stone table and picked up the two glass skulls from the ground, they had stopped glowing. He looked at each one carefully and jammed them in his backpack. He took another look around the cavern, at Gilliam, the dead creatures, and Ellyn lying there. He shook his head. This wasn’t supposed to happen, he thought, and now Ellyn is dead. Thrax let out a belabored sigh and hung his head low.
Gilliam carried Ellyn out of the cave, Thrax dragged the Necromancer’s body behind him. They both knew what had to be done now, but were exhausted. They returned to camp and laid Ellyn’s body on the cold hard ground and pulled her sleeping roll over her. The two collapsed into their bedrolls. Sleep washed over them.
Thrax and Gilliam spent the morning breaking camp and gathering wood. They built a funeral pyre for their fallen comrade and laid her on top of the woodpile. She was laid out in her civilian clothes, a simple tunic, and leggings. Her arms were folded over her belly and her long dark hair was laid over her shoulders. Her belongings, armor, and mace, were neatly packaged up and on her horse.
Gilliam had gone to town to deliver the Necromancer’s body and collect the reward for all three of them. They decided to split the glass skulls, each one keeping or selling it as they saw fit. They agreed it would be best to keep these magical artifacts apart from each other, else another Necromancer gets their hands on them. He arrived just as Thrax lit the funeral pyre with a small torch.
They both watched a small flame dance up the tinder. The flames grew larger and raced up the larger bits of kindling and then to the larger pieces of wood. Thrax and Gilliam watched the flames slowly envelope their good friend. A few short seconds later, the funeral pyre erupted into a bright and hot bonfire.
Gilliam placed his hand on Thrax’s shoulder.
“I’m going to miss her,” Gilliam said.
“By the Gods, so will I,” Thrax said.
Thrax threw his dying torch onto the funeral pyre and turned his back, hiding the tears that welled up in his eyes.
“What now?” Gilliam asked, holding the reins on his horse.
“Let’s go tell her Mother, the Barbarian Queen of Khunzadd.”