“Uuco, don’t!” Ira said, sliding the instrument case off her back and taking out her narrow five-stringed harp.
She turned towards Dragon Face, who swatted and slapped frantically at the field mice crawling over his body.
She plucked a string on her harp, and a single, pure note rang out, resonating and blurring the air like a heat mirage.
She parted her lips and sang clear and loud:
“Steal Grains and Dig Holes
Do as you Please
But Hop to the North
If you want to find Cheese!”
Her harp’s strings glowed a bright purple as she spoke; one of them quivered and snapped with a ‘twang’.
The mice swarming over Dragon Face stopped and lifted their noses, sniffing. Then they climbed down his legs and wandered off to the north.
Uuco whistled, letting the lightning in his hands flicker out. “Whew!” He said. “I guess you don’t become a Harper by collecting seashells!”
Ira sighed in relief. “Please be more careful, the both of you!” She said, sliding her harp back into its case. “The Lady Ira only has so many strings to spare!”
Breathing slowly, Dragon Face rested a hand on his stomach…and then went to one knee in front of Ira. “I’m in your debt,” he said softly. “I’ll repay you, somehow. I swear by my four-time championship in the Southlands Arena!”
“Yes, yes,” Ira muttered. “Can we go search for the mysterious necromancer now?”
Corax bent at the waist and coughed.
“Corax! Are you alright?” V’vendy shouted, eyes widening. She walked over and rested a hand on his shoulder.
Corax gently pushed her hand away. “It’s alright,” he said, rising and tugging at his braided beard. “It seems the change is coming early….”
“What?” V’vendy blurted.
“What?” Corax blurted back.
“Let’s get moving,” Ira said firmly, and walked deeper into the cave tunnel. Everyone followed her, crouching as the cave ceiling shrank and shrank. Soon, everyone taller than Uuco had to crouch and tiptoe forward.
Then the tunnel opened up, and they emerged into a large cavern, walls lined with stalactites that glittered from the light of flickering oil lamps scattered around the floor.
Beyond natural rock formations, the cavern held nothing else but a flat rock in the center, stained with a dark patch.
Dragon Face inhaled sharply. “Is that…blood?” He whispered. “Is it a sacrificial altar?”
“I’ll go check!” Uuco said eagerly, stepping forward.
Dragon Face laid a hand on Uuco’s shoulder. “Let me instead,” he said. “Uuco, everyone else…please watch my back!”
Dragon Face strode out from the cave tunnel and into the dimly lit cavern.
Dust fell from overhead and coated his shoulders. He dove forward and rolled, dodging the rain of rocks that shattered on the ground where he’d been.
Rolling to his feet, Dragon Face looked up and shook his fist at the two zombies crouched on the narrow ledge above the cavern entrance.
“Disgraceful!” He hollered. “Come down here and fight! Face to face, muscle to muscle!”
The zombies hopped off the ledge and landed on the cavern floor. Ira and Corax drew their weapons and charged with a cry, while V’vendy and Uuco readied their arrows and lightning.
“Excellent! I respect your spirit!” Dragon Face declared, reaching out with his hands to grab the moldier-looking zombie. “But spirit alone isn’t enough against my DRAGON GRIP–!”
“Cheeseeee!” The moldy zombie groaned. It ducked left, and Dragon Face’s fingers grasped only air. “Wha–?” He gasped. The moldy zombie backhanded the masked wrestler, sending him flying back. “Oof!”
V’vendy drew and shot three times, putting out the moldy zombie’s eyes, then piercing his jaw. Ira lunged high, slashing with her short sword and cutting off its head.
Across the room, Stanif roared, smacked the dried-up zombie in the head with his hammer, and then sliced its arm off with his sickle sword.
The dried-up zombie hissed. “Cheeseee!” The muscles on its remaining arm and legs bulged out grotesquely. The zombie blurred into motion, shoulder-checking Corax and knocking him off his feet.
“Corax!” Uuco shrieked hoarsely. A thunderclap burst out from his mouth, hurting everyone’s ears and blasting the zombie off his back.
Corax got to his feet. His eyes glazed over, and he spat blue blood to the side. He swung his hammer down with both hands, and smashed the zombie’s skull to paste. The zombie stilled, and then twitched as field mice started to gnaw their way out of its ribcage.
“Everyone back!” Dragon Face called out, catching Corax as he swayed and leading him away from the rodent-stuffed zombie corpses. Ira took the Stout’s other arm, and together they leaned him against a wall.
“Are you alright?” V’vendy asked, reaching out and feeling Corax’s brow. “Hidden Gods, you’re burning up!”
Corax coughed wetly. “It seems… it’s time,” Grunting, he shoved Ira and Dragon Face away, then slumped against the wall as steam started rising from his body.
“What in tarnation?” Uuco muttered, stepping forward.
“Stay back!” Corax shouted, his skin starting to glow with a bright purple light. “The transformation burns people who get too close!”
“Transformation?” Ira blurted out. “Corax, what’s going on?”
“I’ll be fine in a bit!” Corax replied, glowing brighter and brighter. “Just promise me you won’t be alarmed afterwards!”
Ira pinched her nose. “What?” She said. “Of course we’re going to be alarmed when you say something like that–!”
Corax screamed and exploded into purple flame. Everyone backed away from the searing heat save for Uuco. He stared wide-eyed at the shadowy silhouette inside the flame, a silhouette that spasmed, fell, and began to change shape.
“What’s going on?” Ira shouted, shielding her eyes with her hand. “Uuco, what kind of magic is this?”
“I…” Uuco swallowed. “I don’t know!” He lied.
Just as suddenly, the purple flames winked out, leaving only dust and smoke that soon cleared away.
In the place of the bearded Stout, there now stood a two-legged dinosaur with a long tail, a snout lined with sharp teeth, and long gangly arms lined with feathers. It wore chainmail and leather fitted to the contours of its body, and carried a familiar war hammer and curved sword in its three-fingered claws.
It coughed several times, chirped, then tilted its head and stared at Ira, V’vendy, Dragon Face, and Uuco.
“Sorry about that,” Corax rasped, the feather crest on his head standing up. “Shall we return to exploring the cave?”
“Corax!” Dragon Face blurted out, shoulders tensed. “That’s you, right? How–why are you a dinosaur now?”
Corax scratched his scaly snout with the tip of his hammer. “I suppose you could say one of the Gods was bored and wanted a change.”
“But–“ V’vendy started to say.
“Enough!” Ira said sharply, sliding her short sword back into its sheath. “We need to keep moving,” she continued. “Some twisted wretch is raising the dead and throwing this countryside into chaos. She, he, or it must be stopped. We can talk about your…change afterwards, Corax.”
She met Corax’s now-avian eyes. “But talk about it we shall,” she promised.
Corax bobbed his head up and down. “Understandable,” he said.
Uuco squinted and looked around the cavern, noticing two new tunnels heading right and left. “Looks like we’ve got two ways to go,” he noted, taping his nose. “I vote left! I smell a mystery that way!”
“Uuco,” Ira said gently. “This isn’t a village council.”
“I think Uuco’s right,” V’vendy said.
Dragon-Face nodded. “Left feels like the right way.”
Corax’s tail waved back and forth. “The left path seems to head down,” he pointed out. “That’s where I’d hide, if I was a necromancer.”
“Left it is, then!” Uuco chirped.
Ira pinched her nose and groaned.
After the Pilgrims left the cavern with the bloodstained rock, a black-cloaked figure walked into the underground chamber from the south tunnel.
“Soon,” The black-cloaked figure muttered. “Soon I’ll find you…and then our debt will be settled.”
As the Pilgrims walked through a narrow tunnel with skulls embedded in the walls, Uuco unstrapped the clay from his back. He levitated it in front of him with a flick of his pinky, and took out a reed pen. With a murmured spell, the baked-solid clay softened and fileld with moisture, forming itself into an inscribable surface
“Today, we walked…through a long passage…with skulls in…the walls,” Uuco said aloud, pressing his reed pen into the clay and leaving marks. “I’m going to call it the Skull Cave–”
“Shhh!” V’vendy said from up ahead.
“Oh! Sorry!” Uuco whispered, blowing on the wet page, then closing the book and strapping it on his back again. “Sorry! Just like to get these details down…when they’re fresh in my mind…I’m old, you know!”
“It’s alright,” V’vendy said gently. She drew three arrows from her waist quiver, grasping their tips between her fingers. She spoke softly. “Uh. I can see another lit cavern ahead of us. It might be a good idea to, well, draw weapons and get ready?”
Ira nodded and drew her short sword. Corax drew his hammer and curved sword, opening his mouth to reveal sharp teeth. Dragon-Face flexed his hands, and Uuco picked wax out of his ear with a fingernail.
The Pilgrims crouched and crept down towards the cavern entrance. As they drew close, they saw that the cavern was filled with jagged crystals that jutted from the floor and gave off a strange pale-blue light. Shapes moved back and forth in the cavern, too faint to make out.
V’vendy raised her hand, gestured forward, and then sprinted into the cavern, nocking an arrow to her bow.
Ira let out a hawk-shriek. Dragon-Face bellowed, Corax hissed, and Uuco sneezed. They followed V’vendy in, weapons and magic at the ready…
…And ran into a trio of zombies in costumes. One wore a lion mask on his face with a linen-rag mane and copper whiskers. Another zombie was dressed in the flowing silks and rattling beads of a belly dancer, while the third’s face was slathered with the white and black paint of a mime. The three zombies held hands and danced around in a circle, shuffling and swaying clumsily.
Everyone stopped their charge and stared, mouths hanging open.
“Is this…supposed to be a performance?” Dragon-Face blurted out. His fists clenched at his side. “How obscenely under-rehearsed!”
Ira shook her head. “To the Underworld with this.” She muttered. “At them!” She walked up and swung her short sword at the belly dancer zombie’s neck.
The belly dancer zombie, too desiccated to be clearly male or female, leaned back, dodging Ira’s slash. It twirled around in a circle, belly undulating back and forth in a nauseating motion. It did not retaliate.
Dragon-Face charged and grabbed at the Lion Mask-wearing zombie. The lion-masked zombie hopped back in a stumbling motion, then pawed at its mask like a cat licking its paw.
V’vendy lowered her bow. “They…aren’t attacking?” She said, frowning.
“Beyond being disturbing, they seem to be off in their own little world.” Corax mused.
“Maybe they’re good zombies!” Uuco said aloud. Before anyone could stop him, he walked up to the mime zombie and waved. “Hello!” He chirped. “Me and my friends are looking for a Stout! A crazy-looking one who might have raised you from the dead! Do you know where he is?”
The mime zombie turned and stiffly marched towards Uuco, jerking his arms up and down as if flicking the reins of a chariot. The mime zombie leaned back as if pulling his horses to a halt and mimed dismounting. It pointed toward a wooden door built into the south wall of the cavern, and shook its head. Then it pointed towards a similar door on the north wall, and nodded.
Uuco doffed his red cone hat. “Thank you, Master Zombie! May the maggots not chew on you too quickly!”
Uuco strode back to his fellow Pilgrims. “So there you have it,” the Nobble said, tucking his thumbs into his belt.
V’vendy frowned. “Can we trust them?” She asked.
Uuco shrugged. “Never known a zombie to lie before,” he said.
“Never known a zombie to wear a lion mask before.” Corax snorted, his avian nostrils resonating like a flute.
“I fought a wrestler with a lion mask once,” Dragon Face mentioned. “He called himself ‘The Mane Man’…”
“Enough,” Ira said sharply. She walked north towards the door the mime zombie had approved. “V’vendy, check this way for any signs of a trap: if the way’s clear, we’ll know we can trust them…”
As Ira walked past the mime zombie, it grinned ferally and swung its fist at her back. “Underworld!” Ira cursed, dodging right and raising her short sword.
At the same time, the lion-masked zombie grabbed Dragon Face from behind, hugging him tight by the waist. “Acornsssss….!” It groaned.
“Hidden Gods!” Dragon Face choked, face turning purple. “Treachery!”
The belly dancer zombie leapt towards Corax, latching onto his tail. Hopping, spinning and twisting his head, the Saurian warrior tried to shake the zombie off, to no avail.
V’vendy drew and loosed, planting an arrow in the belly-dancer zombie’s kidney.
Suddenly, a black-cloaked figure ran out from the Skull Cave and held aloft a clay bottle marked with runes.
“Spirits of grain and foam!” He declared. “Slay my foes!” The bottle’s runes glowed purple, and he threw it at the belly-dancer zombie’s back. The bottle shattered, and fizzing bubbles chewed into the zombie’s flesh, dissolving it.
“You!” Dragon Face exclaimed, throwing his head back and bursting out of the lion-masked zombie’s grip. He pointed a finger at the cloaked man. “You’re wearing my cloak!”
The cloaked figure lowered his hood. “You’re damn right I am!” Chief Vincol shouted, folding his arms over his chest. “You ran off so quick, you left your cloak behind at my inn!” He undid the ties of the cloak and dropped it on the ground. “There! Let no one say that Vincol the Brew-Maker steals from his guests!”
Corax bucked like a horse and threw the belly dancer zombie off him. The belly dancer zombie landed at Vincol’s feet, then reached out and bit his ankle. “Argh!” Vincol screamed, shaking his foot. “Get it off, get it off!”
V’vendy raised her bow and drew an arrow to her cheek, its white fletching brushing her ear. “Fly true,” She whispered, the feathers on her head standing on edge and glittering with faint purple light. “Burrow deep!”
She loosed. The arrow struck the belly dancer zombie’s skull, sinking deep through bone. Then the arrow’s shaft spun around like a drill, winding in and turning the zombie’s brains to slurry. The belly dancer zombie’s jaw went slack and released Vincol.
To the north of the cavern, Ira ducked out from behind a glowing crystal and stabbed the mime zombie’s shoulder. She hopped back, sheathed her short sword and pulled her harp out, plucking a single low note on its strings.
“Vile undead mime!” She sang, voice dripping with scorn. “Your stance is shoddy, your motions poorly timed!”
The zombie didn’t react, save to draw an invisible sword from his side and mime hacking at Ira.
“Fah,” Ira muttered, lowering her Harp. “It’s too self-confident!”
Uuco backed away from the brawl, frowning in thought as a ball of flame grew and grew in his cupped hands. Then he stood on his back leg and threw the mass of fire. “Duck left!” He shouted to Ira.
Ira did duck left, and the purple-hued flame struck the mime zombie in the face, melting its makeup off…and then everything else. The mime zombie fell back like a plank, crossing its hands over its chest, then lay still.
“Uuuuuuah!” With a grunt, Dragon-Face threw the lion-masked zombie over his shoulder. The lion-masked zombie hit the ground face-first; before it could rise, Corax swung his hammer down and crushed its head like a melon.
Corax then grabbed Vincol and dragged him away from the costumed corpses. Everyone watched as swarms of chipmunks, field mice, and shrews burrowed out of the corpse’s chests and ran off to the east. Silence fell in the crystal-lit cavern, broken only by gasps of breath and Vincol’s blubbering.
“Oh Hidden Gods!” Vincol wheezed, gripping his wounded leg as tears ran down his cheeks. “They’re plague zombies, aren’t they! I don’t wanna be a zombie! Kill me before I turn! I beg you!”
Ira rolled her eyes. “Innkeeper Vincol?” She said. “Please hold still. You as well, wrestler!” She raised her harp, strummed a chord, and sang:
“Flesh flows to smoothness, bones fuse together.
Pain dims to aches that change with the weather.”
The air hummed in time with her harp. Then two of the harp strings snapped in half, and Vincol’s wounds closed up. Dragon Face poked and prodded at his ribs, and then sighed in relief. “Lady Ira,” he said, “you’re truly a miracle-worker.”
Vincol stood and brushed his clothes clean of dust. “You, Milady, are getting free drinks when we get back to town!”
“The Lady Ira is most appreciative.” Ira said, inclining her head and sliding her harp back into its case. “Now then,” she declared. “In light of recent events, might I propose we head away from where the zombies indicated?” She pointed towards the door in the cavern’s south wall.
“That sounds reasonable,” Corax said, tapping one of his foot talons on the ground. “…Unless the zombies told us the truth out of a sense of honor.” He noted.
“Or maybe the mime zombie was using reverse psychology!” Uuco exclaimed, smacking a fist into his palm.
“No,” Ira said sharply. “No. We are not going to sit around and second-guess a group of bloated theatrical zombies! Let us head south, confront the master of this labyrinth of revenants, and then return to town for those free drinks!”
Uuco sulked. “Fine…” He muttered, like a child made to do chores.
“I have to say,” Vincol said, walking just behind V’vendy as she led the Pilgrims through a tunnel lined with more oil lamps and charcoal paintings, “This is rather exciting! I mean, it’s also frightening, but with Lady Ira’s healing music, I don’t have to worry about getting crippled for life!”
Vincol stroked his chin in thought. “Maybe after this, I’ll put some money away and go on Pilgrimage myself. Always did want to travel!”
The tunnel opened up into a square room with a tile floor and walls lined with mosaics that depicted winged griffins in flight. Glowing crystals mounted in the eyes of the mosaic beasts illuminated the room, revealing no other exits and two hardwood boxes on an altar at the far end of the room.
“Ooh!” Vincol said, walking up to the boxes. “Do you think there’s treasure in these?”
“If so,” Corax mused, following Vincol inside, “you could use that wealth to go on that Pilgrimage you mentioned!” His tail shook. “With my share of the loot, I could fund a peasant’s rebellion!”
“Wait!” V’vendy shouted after them. “We should check for–”
Vincol opened the first box. As he raised the lid, a gear inside it went ‘click’.
Suddenly, a gravelly, hissing voice echoed through the room, full of contempt and disdain.
“You have courage, to infiltrate the Under-King’s sanctum!” The voice said. “Bravo! I will reward your daring…WITH DEATH!”
Panels slid open in the ceiling, and large jagged rocks fell on everything in the room.
“–Traps!” V’vendy cried out.
Vincol looked up from the box and locked eyes with V’vendy. “It’s empty!” He moaned.