The Knight reached the protection barrier and brought its sword down with the strength only the dead can weald. It flashed brilliant white. Another flash came as an arrow bounced off.
"Shit! They've got an archer with them." Growled Kralla.
"I see it." Skaran pointed. "It's there."
"First on the list for clean up. It'll likely hang back. Keep your eyes on it Skaran."
Behind the pair Barnabas was saying the preamble to his casting, and behind him Tellerick was doing the same.
"I hope this works Skaran."
"Aye Kralla. I hope this works too. I'm too pretty to die."
Kralla and Skaran looked nervously at the charging horde of undead skeletons. "Is this a 'White of their eyes' thing Tellerick? Because if it isn't, it was nice knowing you."
"Kralla, now is not the time... Barnabas, when I say, cast a turn undead. I won't lie, this is probably going to hurt. A lot. But me, more than you. Alright?" Barnabas nodded as Tellerick placed both hands on his shoulders. "We need to get as many in close as we can. Kralla, Skaran, you will need to clean up. I'm not going to be able to help you out."
Rust and rot emerged from the tree line on both sides of Tellerick's party.
The undead, of armies lost to time and myth, dragged themselves out of the sickly earth. Many of the skeletons were partial, some fresher than others. Their water logged skin hanging from their bones, and ancient leather straps barely held their armour to their spindled and cracked bodies.
The Knight that had seen them first, held its chipped sword high and screeched before charging forwards.
"The protection spell can't handle this many!" Cried Barnabas.
"Breathe lad. I'm going to give you a bit of a boost."
Barnabas reached inside his tunic, and pulled out the tiny fetish that Master Tamryn had snuck into his pocket when they left the monastery.
"Are you sure?"
Tellerick nodded, and Barnabas dropped the fetish into his open hand.
"Don't worry. I'll keep it safe. Not to mention... If it was powerful enough to hide you from them, then I've just become completely invisible. And that is a mistake they are too dead to regret." Barnabas nodded.
Behind them Kralla stood, and unsheathed her giant twin swords. "I hope you know what you're doing Master Tellerick. I count another twenty undead."
Tellerick placed a hand on Barnabas's shoulder. "You're not done yet lad. I can't turn the undead. That's your job. But we can give you all the support you need."
"But... The protection? I thought..."
Tellerick laughed out loud as the Knight, and its cohorts, stomped towards them.
"Lad. Take a deep breath. The old badger wouldn't have sent you with us if he didn't think you'd last more than five minutes. But we need to make the most of you." He opened the palm of his hand, and beckoned. "Hand it over now. We need to light a beacon."
Barnabas tried desperately to concentrate, as he spied another six skeletal warriors emerge from the treeline. They gathered next to the knight that had cast the spell of silence, and turned, as one, towards Barnabas. Or at least that was how it felt. The fox shouted the end of the protection spell at the top of his voice, before plunging the iron symbol deep into the ground. The air changed subtly, taking on the oily sheen of a soap bubble around them.
"I don't know how long this is going to keep them out..." He whispered hoarsely to Master Tellerick.
Skaran dropped his pack, and ran to Kralla who'd stumbled away holding her head. Outside the sparkling dome of dust the silence was deafening, making his own thoughts seem like shouting. He grabbed at her from behind as she tumbled into the scrub. "God's damnit Kralla, you're heavy!" Grunting, he dragged her back to the others.
Back inside the dome sound returned, along with some of Kralla's senses. "Let go of me rat." She suddenly snarled. Skaran, tensed and let go as she turned and knelt. "My apologies Skaran, that was uncalled for. I don't know what came over me."
Tellerick stood, grabbing Barnabas by the scruff of the neck and standing him upright, while throwing a cloud of glittering dust above the group. It descended around them, forming an unnatural, glittering dome of sparkling white.
"Crafty bastards." Tellerick's voice was deafening after the all encompassing silence. "We must've tripped a watch spell. Skaran, grab Kralla and get her in close. I don't know how long this is going to last." He turned to Barnabas. "Protection spell. Now boy! Or we're all going to be joining their ranks."
Barnabas sprang into action, taking a symbol of faith from his bag.
"I don't feel so good." Kralla shook her head, as her companions scrambled backwards. "Head feels... Foggy." She stumbled forwards.
"Oh shit." Hissed Barnabas. Tellerick was already reaching into his bag, muttering under his breath.
Further along the tree line, a knight stepped out. The slight breeze carried the stench of rot, and rust, as it turned towards the party. It raised an arm, pointing its longsword straight at Barnabas.
The screech cut through the quiet morning; metal claws on a blackboard. Loud, long and blood curdling before ceasing.
All sound stopped. Everything was enveloped in a cloying, thick, silence.
"It makes no difference to the undead if we move during the light, or the dark. We all glow to them just the same."
Kralla's head snapped round. "What do you mean we all glow to them?" Barnabas flinched, as she growled at him.
"OK. Maybe some more than others, but the living all glow somewhat to them. We can't avoid it."
Kralla's eyes narrowed. "Someone is doing very well right now."
Tellerick laid a hand on her shoulder. "Now Kralla..." Suddenly she snapped back the other way, and snarled menacingly at Tellerick, before grasping her head with a paw.
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..?"