This, Iricah had to admit, had been a bad day. She shifted carefully, mentally sighing in relief when the stone that had been digging into her knee for the past ten minutes dislodged itself. When none of the other occupants of the tomb reacted to that small movement, she slowly reached up and tucked the stray curl tickling her nose behind her ear. She then dipped her hand in her pocket and withdrew a small jar. Catching a glob of the ointment inside on her finger, she swiped it across her upper lip and was immediately overpowered by the scent of juniper, which was a welcome relief. The tang of rotting flesh wasn’t one she’d gotten used to, no matter how many times she’d encountered it.
Actually, the whole week had been pretty awful. Although the 3 month voyage from Cillandar across the Still Waters had been relatively uneventful based on her expectations, getting around the isles had been another story. The captain of the ship she had chartered from Silver Shore had, citing unfavorable winds, refused to let her off on the eastern coast as planned, instead dropping her at the northeast corner and forcing her to undertake an unplanned journey of several days to reach the ruins. When there was no sight of the people native to First Isle, the Ata, Iricah was not concerned, assuming that they were further south. When there was no sight of any creature larger than a beetle, save for birds, well…that was more worrisome. The nights, of course, were the worst, eerily quiet yet scored periodically with noises that sounded straight out of Ket.
On the third night, they were attacked. Iricah suspected the guard had been sloppy, but whatever the reason, they were caught flat-footed, the creatures lunging out of the dark scrub forest and into their camp with no warning given. She had woken from a sound sleep to screams and chaos, scrambling for her rapier and throwing her back against the nearest tree. The undead, for that was clearly what they were, were mindless but ruthlessly persistent, and when it was over, she was the only one left standing. Some of the men had fled into the forest when the attack began, and the rest were dead, their fresh corpses lying on the ground next to the much older ones of the creatures that had killed them. Shaken, Iricah had spent the rest of the night up a tree, hands clenched around the hilt of her rapier, not coming down until after the morning moon had set and the sun had fully risen. Though she tried not to look too closely at their rotting flesh, she couldn’t help but notice in the light of Illune that the clothing the undead wore was in the Ata’aun style, and felt the absence of the tribespeople take on a more sinister meaning.
The creatures blackened in the sunlight, leaving little behind but ash and withered bones. The bodies of the mercenaries remained. Realizing the futility of trying to bury or burn so many dead on her own, she left them where they fell and quickly set about the camp to gather what supplies she could carry. Manfully, she limited herself to only one shoulder bag of her tools and a few interesting artifacts gathered on the trip so far. Slinging her packs across her shoulders, Iricah headed onwards alone. The captain of her ship had promised to try to meet her at another set of ruins off the western coast in a week’s time, if sailing conditions permitted it. She sorely hoped they would, and that he was good to his word, as she had no desire to remain alone on an island full of undead. And, if she happened to arrive early and still get a chance to poke around the ruins, then that was a welcome bonus.
The day’s hike took her out of the scrub forest and onto rolling plains. As dusk began to fall, Iricah began to realize just how exposed she was, with no cover save for the tall grasses. She was exhausted, but seeing no reasonable safe option for stopping, pushed on.
It was nearly dark when she heard the drums. Driven by curiosity and no small amount of loneliness, Iricah followed the Ata’uan tribal beat. As she crested a small rise, she saw that the sound emanated from a large earthen temple, or burial mound. A nervous little voice whispered in her head, causing her to be rather more cautious than usual as she slipped into the narrow entrance.
And now, here she was, a quarter hour later, crouched behind a boulder, watching hundreds more of the undead writhing to the beat of the drums, bathed in an unnatural red glow. For the millionth time, Iricah weighed her chances of escaping the structure unnoticed. She’d gotten in without being caught, and was fairly good at moving unseen, a necessity in her line of work, but she was also carrying a rather unreasonable amount of provisions.
When it came down to it, the past month hadn’t been so wonderful either. She used to love Cillandar, its activity and culture, but now it felt like a pair of ill-fitting shoes, pinching and uncomfortable and something she wanted to be rid of as soon as possible. It had been much easier to mount an expedition when she worked for the King; now that she was freelance, the logistical details that used to be taken care of by the Crown all fell on her to organize. She couldn’t help but feel that a Royal ship’s captain would have gotten her to the proper side of the island, winds be damned, and that a company of the King’s Shields would never have allowed themselves to be ambushed in the night.
If she was being honest with herself, nothing had gone right since Galen was killed. Her life was divided into two periods now, the one in which her brother was alive and everything was all right, and the one where he was dead and nothing was.
Perhaps to try to escape her unhappy thoughts, Iricah had just decided to try to make a break for it when movement from the entrance caught her eye. She froze with fear knowing that her position would be revealed. She was doomed.
But a sense of relief flooded her. A recognizable form made a recognizable shadow on the tunnel floor and through the tomb’s entrance in the moonlight. She knew right away it was Landt, she had followed that shadow through the jungle for days. He was one of the mercenaries she had hired! By the Light! And breathing a sigh of relief she stopped herself from trying to wedge her body deeper between two boulders. She was glad he had survived, as he had been one of the more dependable ones, if you could call a mercenary dependable of course. She motioned for him, keeping her hand low and out of sight of the rest of the cave below the rock pile, but he didn’t see her! Light what is he doing? she cried in her mind He’s going to walk right out among them!
She jumped up to grab Landt by the arm, to stop him from walking past her but her shoulder bag straps caught on one of the heavier boulders She was stuck! Helplessly, she watched Landt walk right by her! To Ket with this! She let go of the strap and reached out a second hand but just as her hand was about to catch hold of Landt’s arm she realized instantly, like seizing a hot rock from a campfire that it was no longer covered in flesh! In fact, the arm was almost completely skeletonized, bits of flesh were rotting and hanging from the bones. And that’s when she noticed his tattered clothing and smell.
Unbelievably, the day just got worse.