The early morning mist clung to the edge of the forest. Hugging bush, and tree. Waiting for the late summer, early autumn sun to burn it away. Far above a thicker cloud-bank grasped the mountain with a firm, and resolute, grip. Defying the sun. Betwixt the two lay the open ground of the scrublands that led into the dead scree of the mountain tall itself.
"I don't like this. This is ambush country." Growled Kralla.
"But you knew it was here, right?" Barnabas almost squeaked, as the group peered, from the tree line.
"Yes. Still don't like it though..."
"Skaran is right. Fortunately the mage arts are not as attractive, as those of the believers, to the undead." Tellerick looked pointedly at Barnabas.
"That is a little unfair Tellerick." Growled Kralla. "Barnabas wasn't to know, and the rumours of the undead wandering the mountain were just that. Rumours."
"No Kralla. Master Tellerick has a point. I'm a beacon to the undead." He pulled the fetish from a pocket. "Master Tamryn thought ahead though, and gave me this. It's a cloaking fetish. As long as I have this, I will be invisible to the evil lurking here in the mountains."
Kralla frowned. "Why is it so important to get to the Oracle, other than it may be a place of safety?"
Tellerick stared into his tea. "We need to get William there, and present him. I believe that he is a nexon of power."
"A what now?" Said Kralla.
"A mage of extraordinary ability." Mumbled Skaran. "If William is indeed what you say he is Master Tellerick, then your teachings are more important than ever."
They all looked at the rat somewhat surprised. "What? I may be a humble pack rat, but I am quite capable of reading a book."
Once Barnabas was awake, and leaving William to sleep, the group sat around the fire to discuss the events of the previous night...
Tellerick started. "We all thought it was a rumour about the undead, but last night made it very clear. There is something dreadfully wrong here."
"Agreed Master Tellerick." Nodded Kralla. "But that was no random encounter last night. That was a patrol."
"Surely not! That would mean..." Exclaimed Barnabas.
Kralla couldn't help herself, and growled menacingly. "There is a controlling force here somewhere."
"We cannot deviate Kralla." Tellerick sipped his tea. "We must get to the Oracle."
A white tiger ear fluttered, as Kralla awoke to a quiet conversation on the chill autumn morning air. The smell of a damp-wood fire permeated the camp as she propped herself up on one arm.
Across from her, the welcome sight of Master Tellerick nursing a tin mug of steaming tea greeted her.
"A good morning Master Tellerick." She growled, pushing back the blanket.
"And to you Mistress Whitesnow..." Tellerick seemed faintly embarrassed. "Thank you for saving my life."
"Thank your student Master Tellerick, not me." She took a mug of tea from Skaran. "We need to talk undead..."
Master Tellerick opened his eyes, and immediately grabbed his aching chest. Beneath him, he could feel the hole as new skin touched the sleeping mat below. He took a deep, juddering breath of cold, damp, morning air before pushing himself upright.
"Welcome back to the land of the living Master Tellerick." Skaran proffered a steaming mug of tea. "You were lucky Master William got to you in time."
Tellerick took hold of the tea, and took a sip. Skaran had put too much honey in it, and it tasted... glorious. "How is he?"
Skaran pointed. "Still sleeping."
"And the others?"
Having put a good few miles between them, and their last campsite, the group stopped to rest for the remainder of the night.
Barnabas put William down onto a sleeping mat, and then pulled a small bottle from his backpack. Quickly he circled the clearing, sprinkling water from the bottle and muttering words of power beneath his breath. Finally he sat down.
"That should keep us from prying eyes until morning." Kralla patted him on the back.
"Good work. For someone who's not been out travelling before, you're doing well."
He looked sorrowfully at Tellerick. "Not well enough I think."
The group quickly gathered up the camp. "I'll take Master Tellerick. Barnabas, you take the boy." Kralla slid her paws gently under the sleeping mage, and lifted him easily into the air. Barnabas made a sling from a scarf, and picked up William, using the scarf as a support.
"Skaran, lead the way. You do know the way don't you?" Skaran nodded at Kralla.
"This way..." He turned, and headed deeper into the forest, an animal track at his feet.
The half-moon lit the ground with dappled shade. Silver eyed, they moved as quickly, and as silently, as possible.
"We can't stay here." Announced Kralla, stepping away from the fox and the fetish he was brandishing.
Skaran looked up from Tellerick and the boy. "We can't move Master Tellerick yet. I can still feel the magic healing him."
"We have to Skaran. We need to keep moving now. Turns out young Barnabas here is a lighthouse for the undead. They stumbled across us this time, but now they'll probably start hunting us..."
"No! We have to move." She gathered up her sleeping roll and tied it to her pack. "We have to move as soon as possible."
"What do you mean? They like you?" Kralla scowled, as realisation dawned.
"Same way you like catnip probably." came the mumbled reply from fox.
"So, wait... You're like... Catnip for the undead!?"
"Yeah. Apparently I, and I'm quoting here... Shine."
Kralla buried her face in her palm. "Why that old bastard!" She growled. "He deliberately... Hang on. If you're undead-nip then why haven't we seen any until now? We're only a day, or so, away from the Oracle. Did Tamryn give you something? Cast a spell on you?"
"Oh, wait! He gave me this before we left. Maybe that's..?"
Kralla bent over Barnabas and helped him to his feet. "Are you alright?" Barnabas nodded.
"Yes. Sorry, I'm. Er... They make me feel so sick. I'm really sensitive to bound spirit creatures like those." He gestured at the piles of bones, rusty swords and rotten armour.
"So, wait... Are you telling me that when you get close..."
"Yeah... I start throwing up. It was one of the reasons I was at the monastery."
Barnabas sighed heavily, and took a swig at the water bottle Kralla had in her giant paw.
"Yeah... There's another reason..."
"They like me... Lots!"
Blinding light filled the small glade as Barnabas, on his knees in prayer, shouted out "Unbind!" The remaining skeletons stopped, then collapsed where they stood.
Barnabas rushed to the edge of the firelight, and started throwing up.
Kralla sighed, and knelt next to Tellericks prone body. "Skaran?" The packrat smiled.
"He'll be fine. Clever old bastard. He's been teaching the boy healing magic." He pulled a blanket over William, who was now curled fast asleep next to Tellerick.
"Oh thank the gods!" She turned, and walked over to Barnabas who was wiping his last meal from his muzzle and whiskers.
The Skeleton warrior slid its rusty sword from Tellerick's back and raised it to strike again as Kralla's roar of fury split the sudden quiet. Her sword slammed down through the undead warrior shattering bone, more like a hammer than a blade, as it went.
Quickly, Skaran grabbed at Tellerick's prone body and heaved him out of the way as more undead entered the, now blazing, firelight.
Behind Kralla, Barnabas grabbed at his bag and yanked at the slipknot holding a pouch to it. Paws shaking, he pulled out a small twist of paper and threw it into the fire...
Tellerick felt something sharp, and looked down at the rusty sword protruding from his chest. Red velvet blood dripped from its edge onto the floor. His vision darkened, and closed in as he collapsed to the floor.
In the darkness he felt a bony foot push into the small of his back and a tug as the blade was pulled from him.
Around him he heard the dull chink sound of sword on sword. He could still breath, but he had no feeling in the lower part of his body. Consciousness faded away, as he bled out onto the floor.
"Master Tellerick... Awaken! We have..." Skaran crinkled his nose. "Master Tellerick?" Tellerick broke wind as he moaned awake.
"Eh? What is it Skaran?"
"Oh my Goddess Master Tellerick! What have you been eating?" Skaran held his paws tightly over his nose.
Tellerick sniffed. "Whooh! Was that me? Very sorry Skaran. My insides are not used to all that rich campfire food."
The others looked on. "I guess I should sleep down-wind from the rest of you eh?"
"Now I know why there's so much undead in these mountains." Sniggered Kralla.
"Well, that's one way to turn them..." Said Barnabas.
The smell came first, and tickled evilly at Barnabas's sensitive nose. Acrid and rotting, as Barnabas came to, it also woke Skaran the pack-rat...
"You smell that?" Hissed Skaran. His whiskers, shivering glass in the moonlight. Barnabas took a deeper sniff and his eyes shot wide open. He quickly covered his muzzle with his hands, leaned into the bushes behind him and threw up as quietly as possible. "I'll take that as a yes then." Skaran quickly rose, and trod silently over to Kralla. "Mistress Kralla! Wake! We have company!"
"Company, mistress. Fairly bad company I'd say..."
As they walked, Tellerick guided his charge in the creation of soap bubbles from nothing. They floated on the breeze, little balls of glistening colour.
Kralla, Skaran and Barnabas trailed behind the pair.
"So... Barnabas... Your, er, tail..."
"It's a skin condition!" He moaned. "Everyone thinks I've got mange!"
Kralla, fiddled with her hat. "Sorry, I had to ask..."
Barnabas sighed. "I wish it was a bushier brush..." He reached into a pocket and brought out a small jar. "I have cream for it! Master Tamryn said it will go away in a few weeks. It's not really my fault."
The morning dew clung to the grass, glistening in the early morning sun. Kralla was busy re-lighting the fire with the wood gathered by Skaran. Soon the smells of a hearty breakfast filled the air.
Tellerick beckoned to William who'd just finished packing his backpack.
"What do you know of the elements boy?"
"Fire, water, air and earth?"
"Your father teach you that?" Said Tellerick, resisting the urge to hold his head in his hands.
Tellerick sighed heavily. "Kralla was right. I need to teach you some basics, and sooner rather than later. Right. This is important..."
Kralla poked at the fire with a stick. Embers floated up in the convection currents, dancing with the fireflies that winked in and out of existence in the warm summer night. "So when are you going to start teaching young William, Master Tellerick?"
"I am. Well, patience at the moment."
"All you've done is teach him some basic travelling skills. That's not magic."
"No. They are life lessons that he's going to need."
"If he has the power you say he has, he's going to need some way to defend himself. Don't you think?"
"Well... You do have a point."
Barnabas looked uncomfortable as he hefted his heavy backpack onto his shoulders.
"I don't like this master..."
"Oh stop whining boy!" Said Tamryn, before messily blowing his nose again. "You'll be fine! Kralla here is more than capable, and so is master Tellerick. You're just going for spiritual support. Nothing more."
"If you say so master."
"Now; you've refilled your flask with holy water?"
"I've got a big one, a bag of small ones and my book, master."
"Good. Now put this in your bag as well." He handed Barnabas a small bone wrapped in feathers.