The Tales of Calek
A Rune Scribe’s Past
by Jacob Peppers
Drasayurn was jerked from a dead sleep to the sound of his door opening. A flameless lantern burned on his work table, but the night had come in full and it wrapped around the figure standing in the doorway like a cloak.
He tumbled off his chair with a start, scrambling across the floor, his hands searching desperately for a weapon. Something brushed his fingers and he jerked it up in front of him defensively.
“Assuming I was one of the living dead,” asked a familiar voice, “what did you intend to do with that?”
Shaking off the last vestiges of sleep, Drasayurn glanced bemusedly at the feather stylus in his hand and back up to Calek. “I... that is... nothing,” he finished lamely. He rose to his feet, dusting off his work robes and his dignity before a thought struck him with violent force. “You’ve been outside.”
“A scholar as well as a fighter, I see.”
Drasayurn bit back an angry retort. “But you already knew what was out there.”
Calek nodded passively. “I do now. The creatures have just begun to leave the city. Besides, I wanted to make sure that what you’d heard was true. It is, in case you were wondering.”
“Of course it is,” Drasayurn mumbled as he wiped the sleep out of his eyes. “Is it time?” Suddenly his stomach felt as if it had been twisted into knots.
“Yes.” The man regarded the scribe with a look of what might have been compassion. “Are you sure you want to come?”
“I’m sure,” Drasayurn said as he stared down at his shaking hands. “You never told me why you are helping us, though. Why do you care about our problems?”
The young man shrugged. “I don’t.”
Calek spoke as if he hadn’t heard him. “When did you know you wanted to be a Rune Scribe?”
Drasayurn furrowed his brow in confusion. “Since I was a child. It’s all I’ve ever been good at.”
Calek nodded and when he spoke, his voice was cold. “I will find their master, and I will kill him. That is the only thing I’ve ever been good at; that’s what I am.”
Drasayurn wondered at the depths of pain that were hidden beneath the man’s calm, cool expression. Before he knew what he was doing, he’d reached out a comforting hand for the scarred man’s shoulder, but Calek turned to him with such a cold fury in his eyes that he jerked it away.
“It is time,” the scarred man said brusquely.
Drasayurn nodded, abashed, and gathered up the burlap sack of items that he’d prepared and slung it over his shoulder. “I’m ready.”
Without any hesitation, Calek opened the door and disappeared into the darkness. Steeling himself, Drasayurn followed after, but he couldn’t shake the feeling that they were both headed for their deaths.
Calek and Drasayurn followed the procession of living dead as they headed toward the southern gate of the city, remaining as far away as they could without losing sight of them. As they passed the guard house, several guards watched them, wide-eyed, out of barred windows, but they did not speak.
A short distance outside the gates, the well-traveled road was packed with hundreds of the living dead in various stages of decay. Here, Drasayurn saw a young man with a ravaged face that revealed his gums and teeth; there, he saw a gray-haired woman whose arm had been chopped off, yet they both shuffled behind the others, unaffected by their injuries.
Twice, Drasayurn nearly stumbled in his efforts to keep up with the Kirakti warrior who glided in front of him as silent and as smoothly as a fleeting shadow. Luckily, the creatures were completely focused on reaching their destination and seemed to be unconcerned with anything else around them.
As they left the relative safety of the city, it took a mighty effort of will for Drasayurn to continue to put one foot in front of the other. Eventually, some of the creatures broke off from the main body and headed into the surrounding woods.
* * *
“They’re heading in different directions!”
Calek turned to him and nodded. He held the same composed, calm expression that he always did, as he gestured to the creatures. “Those will be sentries used to keep any messages from getting in or out of the city. We’ll want to follow the main body. They should lead us to their master.”
“What in the name of Acindra, Goddess of Life, am I doing out here?” Drasayurn mumbled to himself. If the scarred man heard him, he gave no sign, but instead turned back toward the trail.
Drasayurn was considering his own question when he tripped over a rock in the road and tumbled to the ground with a yelp. Releasing a breath of relief that the bag he held hadn’t spilled, he struggled to his feet. When he did, he saw that four of the living dead who had been straggling behind the main body had turned and started toward him. He fumbled at the opening of the sack with fingers gone stiff with fear.
“Stay here,” Calek said as he stalked toward the creatures. A sharp metallic sound rang through the air as he drew the midnight blade from its scabbard. The four creatures broke into an awkward, shuffling, but deceptively swift gait as they rushed toward the lone man.
The first to reach him was a tall, thin man who Drasayurn thought must have looked cadaverous even in life, so sunken was his body and face. He reached for Calek, but at the last possible second the Kirakti flowed to the side, avoiding the dead man’s grasping hands. His sword moved in a blur, slicing through dead flesh like butter.
The creature’s hands fell to the ground, and its head followed soon after, rolling to a stop only a few feet from Drasayurn. The scribe winced, expecting to be showered in blood, but the decaying body had long lost its fresh supply and instead it slowly leaked thick, coagulated blood onto the ground.
For several seconds, he stood transfixed by that dead, milky gaze. When he finally did manage to tear his eyes from the grisly sight, he saw that another creature was down and Calek was engaged with the other two. He moved with an economy of motion that amazed the Rune Scribe. The creatures’ awkward grasps and flailing arms seemed slow and sluggish in comparison.
In his time, Drasayurn had seen some good fighters, some damned good ones, but never before had he seen someone kill with such graceful, unsettling ease. It was as if it wasn’t a battle at all, but a dance, a dance that Calek had performed so many times that the movements — strikes, sidesteps, and counters — all came naturally.
Watching the man, Drasayurn understood why the survivors of a Kirakti attack were never the same again, why they watched everyone, even friends and family, with nervous, shaky eyes. In his life, he had seen few things more beautiful, more terrible.
When he had finished, Calek crouched and wiped his sword on the ragged shirt of one of the creatures. He stood, glanced around at the surrounding woods, and then at Drasayurn. His eyes widened slightly, an expression that equated to a gasp on any other person, and broke into a sprint toward the Rune Scribe. “Down!” he shouted.
With sickening realization, Drasayurn lurched forward, but it was too late: hands as cold as the grave wrapped around his throat with bone-crushing strength. He struggled to draw a breath as his vision shrank to a thin tunnel of light. Then he heard the familiar whistle of the Kirakti’s blade and he fell to the ground in a heap, the pressure gone.
Gasping for air, he rolled on his side to see the scarred man standing over him. A woman, her face pale and saggy in death, stood a few feet away.
Instead of being a mindless automaton as the others, the woman’s dull gray eyes gleamed with the light of intelligence as her desiccated lips broke into a cruel parody of a grin. She tilted her head behind her, indicating about fifteen creatures that were approaching in the unnatural lope that they used.
Calek nodded calmly. “I’m coming,” he said to the dead woman and with an almost casual movement, his sword flashed through the air and sent another head flying to the earth.
Calek regarded the approaching creatures before turning back to Drasayurn. “I’d hurry.”
“Right!” Drasayurn exclaimed, his voice hoarse with pain as he struggled to his feet.
The woods came alive around them as more and more of the creatures began to drag themselves out of the trees and bushes on either side of the road. “Too many.” Calek observed. “Come on, let’s go.”
Drasayurn struggled to keep up with Calek as he dashed down the path. So focused was he on propelling himself forward that he barely managed to avoid bumbling into the Kirakti when he abruptly came to a stop. They had rounded a curve in the path and, managing to look up in between gasping breaths, the scribe felt his heart drop. Several more of the creatures stood in front of them, blocking the path.
Calek barely hesitated at all before, without a word, he rushed forward into the thick of them, his black blade blazing through the air like a sliver of darkness.
Glancing back at the creatures coming from behind, Drasayurn fumbled in the sack slung over his shoulder, finally managing to draw out several smooth, rune-engraved rocks. He threw the stones behind them, and where they landed flame exploded into the onrushing creatures. The creatures lumbered on until, finally, the devouring flames ate through muscle and tendon and their legs gave way beneath them. As they fell, they impeded the progress of those behind.
His heart racing, Drasayurn ran to the side of the path and snapped a small limb off of a nearby pine. While the creatures struggled past their burning comrades, he began tracing curves and lines into the earth. It was a combination he’d not tried before, but he didn’t have the time to test it. By the time he was finished, the creatures had managed to get around the blazing piles of meat and bones that littered the path. Holding his breath in anticipation, Drasayurn backed down the trail.
As they approached the affected area, the creatures began to sink into the path as if it were quicksand. Those in front disappeared beneath the shifting, wavering surface, but their companions continued forward without the slightest hesitation.
Immediately, Drasayurn began to notice a problem. Out of necessity, he’d been unable to make the pool of sand deep; there was hard bedrock a few feet feet beneath the surface that would not be moved by so simple a rune, and as the living dead continued to pile into the trap, each one sank less than the last. The heads and shoulders of the latest ones stuck out from the sand as they struggled slowly but surely forward.
He was so focused on the spectacle before him that he let out a cry of shock as a hand grasped his shoulder. He turned and saw the familiar, if not entirely reassuring face of Calek. “Very clever.” The scarred man said, his tone as dry as ever.
“Th-thanks,” Drasayurn replied, “but it won’t stop them for long. Soon they’ll realize that they can walk around it or...” He glanced meaningfully at the creatures who were struggling through the sand.
“Or they’ll continue to pile in until it’s full,” Calek observed. “Right, let’s go.” And with that, they were running again. Drasayurn’s heart beat wildly as they raced down the moonlit path, but aside from the noises he and Calek made, the woods were silent. Despite the exertion of running, the Rune Scribe felt chills run up his spine. It was the sort of silence that came over the woods when a predator moved through it, a silence of dreaded expectation.
That expectation was soon realized when the two men rounded another curve in the trail. The path ahead was packed with row after row of the living dead for as far as Drasayurn could see. “Merciful Acindra!” Drasayurn exclaimed. Calek drew his sword and watched the creatures warily.
They didn’t seem in the least concerned with the two men. Their bodies hung limp like puppets with their strings cut, and their vacant gazes were directed at the ground in front of them. After a moment, some of those in the middle began to shuffle to each side creating an avenue through which a shadowy figure approached.
The figure wore a thick, dark robe, and the hood was pulled over its eyes. The Rune Scribe could not make out any features. It carried a staff in one of its hands that seemed to glow a pale, sickly gray in the darkness. Drasayurn knew, without a doubt, that this was the person responsible for the attack, but in the face of the pitiless, macabre army that faced him, his anger soon died, replaced, as it was, by a sense of profound loss and inevitability.
The figure worked its way to the front of the legion of the living dead and slowly drew the hood back. As the features came in to view, Drasayurn’s brow furrowed at the somehow familiar features until, with a sudden sickening sense of realization, he took an involuntary step back. “It can’t be!”
Throaty laughter reverberated from the handsome, blond man. The laugh was bolder, deeper than it had once been, but he recognized it, as he recognized the face. It was that of his former apprentice, Osyrd Beledant. “Why, Master.” Osyrd spoke, his voice rich with mirth, “you look as if you’ve seen a ghost.”
“I don’t... I don’t understand.”
Osyrd grinned widely, revealing a familiar, boyish grin; the same smile Drasayurn remembered seeing so long ago when the boy had mastered a difficult task. “Sure you do.”
“But... why?” Drasayurn asked, his own voice low with disbelief.
“Why? Why?” Osyrd repeated mockingly, “Why did my parents die? Why was I betrayed, abandoned by a man who claimed to love me? Yes, let us ask why. You would not help me when I needed you, and I went elsewhere. I found others who would teach me what you would not, and I have learned, Master. Oh yes, I have learned.”
The familiar face twisted with rage. “You would not believe what I’ve been forced to endure because of your refusal.” He paused and slowly his smile returned. “Ah, but it’s all right. I learned all that you could teach me and then I learned more. I know symbology an ignorant city scribe like you could only dream of. I have plans, Dras. Oh yes, great plans, and I thought it only fitting that they start with the city, the man, who cast me out.”
Aching at the use of the nickname only Osyrd had ever used for him, Drasayurn shook his head as a tear of regret ran down his face. “You were always welcome, Osyrd,” he said, his voice choked with sadness.
“I don’t want your welcome, you stupid old man! I want your fear. How did it feel to waste away hours of your life creating runes of warding, knowing that you could never make them fast enough, that each night families would go to sleep and wake up to find their loved ones missing because you failed them?”
“I’m so sorry, Osyrd.” Drasayurn said, his voice choked with grief, “I’m so sorry.”
“Shut up! Shut up!” the blond man shrieked, his eyes wild with madness, “Don’t you dare apologize to me, fool!”
He stood, fists clenched, shaking with pent-up fury for several seconds until, abruptly, his twisted features returned to the self-satisfied smirk he’d first shown. “You know, you should really thank me, Dras. Have you ever felt more important than you have this past year? I bet they appreciate you now don’t they? Those stupid sheep.”
He snickered. “Still, you don’t seem to appreciate the breadth of my accomplishment. Just look at them, Dras.” he said, proudly indicating the decaying figures around him with the staff that still shone a malevolent gray, “They are all mine. They do whatever I tell them. I gave them life.”
Finished with his tirade, Osyrd seemed to notice Calek for the first time. “Ah yes, the Kirakti, strange to see one such as you so far from home.”
“I have no home.” Calek said, his voice betraying the slightest emotion.
Osyrd shrugged, oblivious to Calek’s reaction. “You have destroyed some of my servants.”
Osyrd laughed, “It makes little difference, you know?” He gestured expansively at the surrounding masses of animated corpses, “They are easily replaced.”
“Not much for talking are you?” Drasayurn’s former apprentice asked, annoyed. “Very well.” He turned back to Drasayurn. “I have enjoyed our reunion, Master, but I think it’s time I finished what I started with Delska, and you’re in the way.”
He closed his eyes for a moment and the runes emblazoned on the staff he carried shone brightly in the moonlight. “The Kirakti first.” He smiled. “I want the old man to die last.”
* * *
Copyright © 2012 by Jacob Peppers