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Stories from the Verse
Old Verses New
Chapter 34: Hastings 55
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Now away from such civilization as there was, traveling through the woods, Lauren had more of an opportunity to practice some of the magic she had learned. Although she couldn't create that wonderful clear path to Wandborough as Merlin had to his home when they had met, part of that was that she was uncertain quite where Wandborough was. She used a similar spell several times to clear the path of fallen trees and other debris that would impede the wagon.
At night she also had the opportunity to play with what she called a comfort bubble. This was a type of shield which maintained a livable and comfortable environment inside regardless of what the weather did outside. When they made camp at night, she would cast this about them before going to sleep, and although it wouldn't always last the whole night it kept out the rain and the damp and the chill as long as it worked.
On their third day of travel through the woods the path was blocked not by trees or rocks, but by people–and Lauren remembered that in a world in which the dead walked abroad that word tended to be used more loosely. Five men stood in the path ahead, armed with primitive tools, and Lauren realized that she could not tell whether they were men or minions of evil. Sir Sagrimore had halted, and was calling to them to state their business. Lauren sat on her horse, trying to decide whether these were just people or something worse.
She missed Raal. Her werewolf cab driver had always been able to spot ghouls and zombies and such as soon as he noticed them. To her eyes they looked no different, or at least not different enough that she could clearly tell the living from the undead. Even now as she stared, she could not persuade her eyes to see anything but five men standing in the road, whatever her instincts otherwise. She could only wonder what it was that Raal saw that she couldn't.
Maybe that was it; maybe Raal didn't see anything different, either. After all, he was a werewolf, and his senses were not human. She remembered him denigrating his sense of smell once, saying that sometimes he couldn't tell whether someone he knew had been in his cab the day before. It was entirely likely that if someone had died and still walked, Raal could tell by the smell.
Could that help her? Was there a way she could smell them? Lauren knew that senses involved three things–what was actually present in reality, what the neural sensors could detect, and how the brain processed it. If there wasn't anything to smell, she was just barking up the wrong tree. If there was an odor, a gas or particulate or something that was in the air, but the sensors in her nose were not attuned to it, it would be very difficult to change that. But if there was something and her nose could detect it, then what mattered was whether her brain could focus on it. With all she had managed to do with her brain, it shouldn't be too difficult to shift mental resources into olfaction. If it was there, she would find it.
She sniffed the air, and focused her attention on the odors. She could smell the horses, dominating everything else. But she put more into it. The sounds of the forest receded as auditory functions declined, and the smells of wood and earth and blossoms and more arose. The scene before her became less clear, blurring and losing color, but more and more she was able to isolate specific odors in the air. A dog doesn't smell a pizza, she remembered; it smells tomatoes and garlic and cheese and oregano and crust and whatever else is there. Slowly she was able to separate everything, identifying the sweat of her companion, their provisions, and finally, faintly from a distance, the unmistakable smell of decay. She shifted her head and sniffed again, just to be certain of the direction; but she knew.
"Don't waste your breath on them," she said. "They're not alive. You're about to fight your first ghouls."
Before Lauren could shift her senses back to normal, Sir Sagrimore was charging, visor down and lance lowered, through the gap which distanced them from the enemy. Lauren was amused. Of course, since learning that they were in werewolf country, the knight had been riding his charger; she was on a rouncy, a fine mount for traveling long distances, but not fast nor brave nor trained for battle. Anyway, it was better for her to fight from here.
Raising her hands, she spoke aloud, "He will baptize you in the Holy Spirit and in fire. And His winnowing fork is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clear His threshing floor; and He will gather His wheat into the barn, but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire." In this world, at least, magic was getting easy—and she had done this before. Several of the ghouls caught fire; they didn't seem to notice it. "It is appointed to men to die once, and after this comes judgment," she continued, and one of them fell motionless to the ground. At that moment Sir Sagrimore's lance pierced the chest of another.
With a twice dead body on it, the lance would be little use; the knight dropped it and drew his sword. Lauren meanwhile urged her rouncy forward slowly. She signaled the driver of the wagon to wait, but it was unnecessary; the man had no intention of bringing himself into danger.
Now that Sagrimore was in their midst, they took advantage of their number and attempted to surround him. Of course by this point that number was only three, and Lauren was tempted to let the knight have his moment of glory—but ghouls were difficult to kill. As a friend had once said about vampires, they have little that could be considered vital organs, and so can take a lot of damage before they've been stopped. Sagrimore was battling with one on his right which he had hit several times, and another on his left whose attacks he had managed to block. But the third was now behind him on the left, probably the hardest place for him to reach with the sword in his right hand. Lauren couldn't let him be stabbed in the back. Reaching out with her mind, she took hold of that third ghoul and lifted it up and away to about fifty feet in the air.
If she dropped it, it would take about two and a half seconds to hit the ground; it would hit the ground hard. But she had fallen from not quite so high and learned to survive a hard landing, and ghouls were tough. She didn't want it to escape, or to get another shot at the knight. She wanted to make sure she killed it.
Finding the psionic blaster on her belt, she released her quarry, and fired on it as it fell. The shot hit; the body spun abruptly through the fall. Then it thudded on the road. She fired at it again, but this time it anticipated the attack, rolling to the side. Lauren thought she should have used the revolver; the technology might be less reliable in this world, and she was less skilled with it, but it was a fast weapon with better range. By now she could have fired twice more. The monster found its feet and charged at her. She prepared to take another shot.
The rouncy, unaccustomed to being in battle, panicked, reared, and turned sharply. With her attention on her hands, Lauren lost her seat. She had just enough wits about her to tuck and roll, so she was uninjured—but she dropped the blaster. She needed another weapon, and fast. It would reach her before she could do more than find her feet.
The two kau sin kes which she wore draped over her shoulders were lying in the dirt beside her. She grabbed both handles as she stood; the harder plastic one was in her right hand, the heavier glass one in her left. She put the glass one into a sideways figure eight pattern in front of her, just to distance her attacker, and fell into her balanced stance.
The ghoul stopped, seemingly uncertain how to proceed. Once, twice, thrice it lurched, as if it would attempt to lunge forward through the barrier. Lauren wasn't about to wait for it to do so. Grabbing both ends of the plastic one, she began twirling it next to her, timing her move. Then she snapped it overhand above the center of the eight, stinging the ghoul's cheek. Before it could think, she had pulled the tip back to her hand, and then swung it long beneath the defense, biting its leg, and coming back to her. But even with the force of these attacks, the ghoul would not go down easily. She needed to do something more potent.
Abruptly she yanked down the defense, turning herself rapidly to the left even as she took two steps toward her adversary. Both whipping chains swung wide around her, and she focused her attention on getting them at the perfect height. As the ghoul came back into view, she knew she had it; the fear on its face showed her it had no plan of escape. The glass chain wrapped around its neck even as the plastic one looped behind its legs. Yanking the plastic one while it was still secure, she pulled its legs out from under it; she felt its neck snap against the force of her other hand as it fell backwards. Still, ghouls were tough opponents, and she wanted to be certain this one was done. She leapt forward into a flip, and landed both feet solidly on the fallen form. It did not react.
Sagrimore was seated high above her on his horse. "You are a remarkable woman," he said. "I have never seen anything like what you just did."
"Oh," she said, a bit embarrassed. "Well, I get around, and I've seen a lot. Did you get the others?"
"One fled, but he was badly injured and will not travel far or fast."
Lauren wasn't sure of that analysis; probably the ghoul would travel fast, fast enough to reach its master by nightfall. But they weren't likely to be able to keep up with it, and really didn't want to fall upon the vampires after dark. "Then we should get moving. We've got some distance ahead of us still."
"What of these bodies?"
"What of them?"
"Surely we will bury them?"
The knight's honor would slow them down; but she didn't wish to offend it, either.
"They've probably been buried already, at least once. Better to leave them as carrion. That way we know they won't be back. Give them a chance, they might come after us again."
"But they're dead. We killed them."
"We stopped them. They were dead before we saw them, but had been kept from the grave by their vampire masters." She scooped up her dropped blaster and reorganized herself. The rouncy had not gone far, and now stood by the wagon waiting for her. "You can't think of these as people, your lordship. They were certainly people once, but now they are monsters, dragons but worse, beasts of great cunning and danger who mimic humanity and prey upon it." She walked over and mounted the horse.
Sagrimore was staring at the slain. "They look so human, yet they did not bleed when I struck them. How did you know?"
That would be a tough one to answer. "Well, it's not really magic, but it might take a bit of magic to do. I remembered something I learned from a werewolf, and tried to do what he did."
"And that was?"
"I could smell them."
Sagrimore sniffed the air, and shrugged his shoulders. Apparently they didn't smell different to him. He wheeled his horse and led them onward along the road.
There is a behind-the-writings look at the thoughts, influences, and ideas of this chapter, along with eight other sequential chapters of this novel, in mark Joseph "young" web log entry #86: Novel Conflicts. Given a moment, this link should take you directly to the section relevant to this chapter. It may contain spoilers of upcoming chapters.
As to the old stories that have long been here: