“Moran always said, ‘Nia, write like you’re talking to someone.’ So that’s what I’m trying my best to do. I’m going to write to you, whoever you are. I hope writing keeps me from going crazy until they leave. They haven't seen me yet; it’s the only reason I’m still alive.”
-Nia Hamlin, Elf Ranger
Day 1: Morning
The dead flew in just before dawn. They shrieked in exaltation as they approached above the village palisades. Harsh grating cries, as cold and empty as frost. Their airship dove toward my village.
I was sitting in my camouflaged hunting shack, nestled high in the branches of an ironwood when I heard their arrival. I took out my spyglass and peered toward my village. I saw the sentries sound the alarm, and I could see the fear on their faces as they retreated to the village center to light the pile of dry brush, a bonfire to fight by.
The enemy had tied its boarding party members by their legs to long ropes hanging over the railing. The raiders swung as the ship made its approach, resembling spiders hanging from long webs. Revealed in the dark by the purple glow coming from each of the brigands. I held my breath as I watched the ship reach the area above my village, having easily passed the meager fortifications. In unison, the raiders released the slip knots binding them to their vessel and fell like rag dolls behind the village walls, out of sight.
Wails of pain and terror filled my ears, then each voice ceased almost as quickly as it started. The damned made quick work of my village. I heard my husband, Moran, scream for me in the chaos of the attack. “Nia, my love—” he cried out, his last words cut short. My heart died with him. In my mind's eye I could see the streets of my village, a killing field bathed in blood.
It felt like ages, but it was moments. It only took moments for them to slaughter my entire village. Moments for them to steal away all I loved.
I pulled my gaze away from the stillness of my village and looked at the airship. I could see someone standing on the deck, their leader. He was adorned in tattered garments of purple and black stitched together. He bore a breastplate made from bone resembling human ribs that appeared as if it might be actually grafted to him. A large, deep purple crystal was inset into the center of his chest like a glowing heart—pulsating, beating.
As he peered down to study the forest below, I saw his pale, ashen face clearly and I could have sworn his gaze fell directly upon me. Impossible. He was too far away. Perhaps it was only my imagination, but I ducked out of sight, shivering.
I laid flat and returned my attention to observing my village. I heard the heavy doors of the palisade groan open in the distance. Six figures exited the gates, moving down the main road, towards my hiding place. I recognized them from the attack; they were crewmembers from the ship, perverted mortal forms who bore the purple carcassite crystals, sordalite that had been tainted, corrupted by undeath. The crystals were embedded deeply in their bodies, held in place by venous membranes.
And now they’re close, so close I can smell their rotting corpses below me. They are there now, completely unaware I am directly above their heads where they stand vigil.
I’m Nia Hamlin, estranged third daughter of my father, an elvish noble. I grew up to the south along the sea. I was the first mate on an airship. I lost my arm in a battle with a cloud shark that took it off whole, blade and all.
I had only been home for a few weeks after the accident before my father bought me a new arm, one of metal and sordalite, but do not mistake this gesture for care, it was only to make me more acceptable to potential suitors. He was intent on “fixing” me so I could be leveraged for the betterment of his house through marriage. My two older sisters had outlived their spouses, and each union had added to the power and coffers of my father’s house. The writing lessons my father insisted on were another such “gift.” Little did he know at the time that those lessons would change the course of my life.
My tutor, Moran, Moran Hamlin, taught me how to read and write. And how to love.
He is my everything. He is… I can’t. No. I can’t.
I can still smell them, the scent of their raw, festering flesh wafting up through the floorboards even so far down. They bring swarms of flies with them. The distant buzzing far below my feet serves as another constant reminder of their fouling presence.
I need to focus on something else. I need to stay grounded. Ok, what do I see when I look around? My hunting shack. I camouflaged it myself. It’s basically a big box, with a trapdoor in the floor and one in the ceiling.
There are also storage spaces in the floor and ceiling. Enough space for some tools, weapons, ammunition, food, water, and sleeping gear. “Enough for a week,” Moran always said.
I don’t know if I can make it a week, sitting here, waiting. The horrors patrolling just beyond these walls. A week is too long. I can’t do it without him, without Moran.
But I have to. He would want me to. I survived a cloud shark. I survived defying my father’s wishes to marry my love. I will stay quiet and wait them out. I will survive this.
Day 1: Afternoon
The bonfire from the center of the village is almost completely out now. When the wind changes, the harmonious blends of the smells of the forest—the fruits, seeds, trees, underbrush, and everything that lives within the whole of the forest—is on the breeze. The fetid flesh of the damned battled the very air for supremacy.
I have been watching them, the undead. I’ve noticed they haven't raised the fallen to join their ranks. Maybe they only eat them. Or perhaps they need to do something to them to give them their curse? Or are they gathering them for some other unholy purpose? What do they plan to do with my village? With my Moran? I don’t think I want to know.
The damned had begun piling the bodies of the deceased like firewood below a long rope hanging down from the ship; as they did, another of the undead tied the rope around a corpse and signaled the crew above, who pulled them up.
I watched as one by one my friends and family were hoisted aboard the ship. It was a painfully slow process.
Eventually, I saw my poor Moran’s corpse get hoisted upside down, tied by a leg, and unceremoniously pulled over the railing. I saw the weapon they killed him with, a purple crystal driven deep into his belly.
Then he was gone. Out of sight and into the larders of the undead. I wept for him, silently, muffling my sobs with my cloak.
Moran was a kind man. He loved to garden and secretly wanted to be an architect. His favorite color was the blue in the leaves of frostberry trees. He loved giant frog legs drenched in grabbleberry gravy. He called our marriage his “supper partnership”—I brought the ingredients, and he cooked them.
He wanted to spend the rest of his life with his “elvish princess.” He wanted to spend the rest of his life with me. The rest of our lives… we were supposed to have more time. He was supposed to have more time. We expected we had decades to look forward to. We only had three years.
Must. Stop. Tears. I can’t do this now. I can cry after. Once they leave. Every time I glance outside I’m convinced the undead will see me, that they will find me. Why are they taking so long? Why don’t they just go? They, the unwitting guards of my invisible jail, the damned, have trapped me here. I could try to escape by leaping from tree to tree in the forest canopy but I have no confidence I would remain unheard and unseen.
Day 1: Evening
They killed Tomic.
I can hear them. Still standing underneath my shack. They shift their weight from time to time, rustling the leaves. The smell is still there too, rotten flesh. I can handle the smell but Moran can’t. I mean couldn’t. Even a little rotten fish was enough to set him off.
Tomic must’ve left before dawn like he did every morning to go fishing in the river nearby. I heard him as he neared my hunting shack on his return to the village. He was whistling and then his voice changed. The pitch rose as he called out, “Who are you? Brigands? Thieves? Step back now, I have a knife!”
Tomic, our village fisherman, always claimed he had the best job in the world. He said his missus, Janine, sent him out with a full belly. He fished until sunset, brought back his catch for her to clean, and came home to a well-kept home and a warm bed. He had no way to know that today would be any different. That today he would die.
He began to scream. His screams pitched high and I held still, fighting every impulse to barrel down to his side. The screams were intermingled with sucking, stabbing, plunging sounds. The noise finally stopped with a miserable gurgle, like when a thorn elk takes a lung shot from a zap gun.
I cautiously peered out and watched two of the undead drag Tomic’s body by the arms through the village gate. A minute later I saw Tomic hanging there like Moran had, being pulled up one foul hand at a time from far above. Slowly, steadily rising. I could imagine the hold full of corpses claimed by the damned.
I screamed silently, holding back the tears that burned at the corners of my eyes. How many days can I live like this? Watching them, waiting for them to go. Holding in my pain. Hiding here. My hunting shack is my salvation, and my prison.
Day 1: Dusk
As the sun’s first rays were just beginning to retreat over the trees, I heard branches cracking, snapping, breaking the dry underbrush; something was closing in on my location unseen. The creature’s warning growl shook the trees and I immediately knew what it was: crag bear. By the sound of it, this one was massive. It charged, the snapping of branches growing louder before it came crashing through the underbrush toward those who stood guard below me.
The smell of such a large amount of meat and fresh blood must have been too much of a temptation for the creature. The great bear rushed past the undead beneath my hiding spot as it followed the scent, continuing its charge towards the village wall.
My father once told me crag bears will eat anything. They’re primarily scavengers, and they don’t fear much; the local crag bear population had plagued my village for years. This bear never had a chance though. As soon as it reached the village, the horde of undead moved towards it. Their crystals flickered, almost eagerly.
The crag bear reared back and roared in defiance. The undead continued forward, circling the bear and descending upon it with the same relentlessness they had shown to those in my village. The beast never had a chance.
The bear lay limp as half of its assailants departed for other duties, splattered with the blood of the creature. I saw them drag four more corpses and two additional crag bear carcasses through the gate. Each had a purple glow emanating from the crystals that had impaled them.
Day 2: Dawn
A half-dozen purple-glowing figures still stand below me, depraved sentinels guarding the road all night.
One of the other patrols of the damned must have found more citizens of Sordane, members of a small trading caravan which had been making its way here to my village. People, horses, mules, dogs.
I survived the night. One night. How could it be that only one night has passed? How much longer must I wait for them to go?
I saw him again. The figure in purple and bone. He moved among the undead with ease, more fluid and graceful than any creature had a right to be.
My spyglass revealed he was checking on the progress of his murderous enterprise. I saw him inspecting the bodies, touching each with his spear as it crackled with a malevolent green energy.
I sat there watching him in the safety of the ship above. My zap rifle was leaning against the wall, but I was powerless to do anything without getting myself killed even though he stood within range.
I was shaking, furious with rage. Now was not the time. I needed to remain alive if I were to hunt him as his crew had hunted my village and killed my love. I would plan and exact my vengeance, but I’d have to be patient. That was my strongest weapon now, patience.
I saw the recently murdered caravan ascend, each slowly hoisted up to the airship hanging like a dark cloud over my village.
Day 2: Noon
They know I am here.
My spyglass slipped from my hand when I stood.
I held my breath. Time seemed to move in slow motion as I watched it arc, tumbling end over end. The lens broke as it slammed glass first into the floor of the hunting shack, shattering the silence.
Almost immediately I heard them begin clawing the tree below me. I was certain that the tree could withstand their assault—I mean, it was an ironwood tree. But how long did I have until they found a way to reach me? Minutes? Hours?
One of them began to hit the tree. Not chopping exactly, more like hitting the tree with the flat of its blade. It dawned on me that the damned air sailor was not trying to cut down the tree, he was signaling to the others that he had found something. He was letting everyone within earshot know he had found me.
Moments later, the leader with the bone armor was slowly lowered down from his airship. Like the bodies being hauled up, the creature’s journey from deck to ground took a painfully long time. He began walking towards my tree, towards me.
He was tall, human height. Perhaps he had actually been a human at one time. His stark white hair accentuated his ashen face and gaunt, sunken features.
He reached my tree stand and began yelling up. He accused me of not understanding that he needs living subjects too.
I said nothing.
He said this is an opportunity to be a part of something bigger than just me. He said the airship and its crew weren’t his, but the bodies were his even if there was an insufficient number for his purposes.
Slowly, I reached for my zap rifle, feeling its cool, smooth form resting in my hands. My finger resting lightly in the trigger guard.
He sneered and said that he had other plans in motion, other than raiding villages.
In one motion I stepped back, pointed the rifle at him, and pulled the trigger. I didn’t even hear my rifle fire. It just happened. I saw him jerk reflexively and his eyes began to shimmer with a purple light. I began to burn, wreathed in purple flames. I dropped with a heavy thump and rolled about the shack and heard laughter below. The fire went out almost as fast as it started. I smelled like sulfur and smoke. My clothes were charred and burnt through in places. I slid up to the wall under the window and peeked out.
I saw him standing there, still looking up at me.
“Why don’t you do that again? I’m not the one burning in a tree after all. It would be a shame if you burned, but we’ll still get your bones.” He stopped speaking, and just continued standing there smiling up at me.
I continued to say nothing.
After several long minutes of staring at one another he grew impatient. Finally, he declared that he would blow me out of my tree and “let the undead collect whatever scraps they can find.” Then he turned and left, walking to the rhythm of the flat of the blade that was still clanging against the base of the tree. Each blow fracturing my composure.
He returned to his ship. It was torture watching him ascend to the deck. His airship is moving this way. I am going to put this book on the shelf. As far as I can tell, they only want bodies. I’m going to try to cross from tree to tree. I’ve no choice. Besides, if I don’t try, I’ve already seen my fate.
If I don’t make it and you see me with them, take my head. Don’t let me be like them. If you see Moran, do the same for him. If he and I can’t be together, at least we can be at rest.
Wish me fortune.