I hate the night. Nothing good comes out of it. Brigands, wolves, bears, you name it. There’s a reason nobody back in the foothills of my homeland goes out at night unless they need to. And it’s not the local vampires; they’ll extract a price for it, but they’ll at least guide a farmer home safely.
Down here in the Sydfjords, worse things come out of it.
Nobody likes serving in these parts. The half pay on top of what we get for coming down here is nice and all, but it means having to sit out here in the forts, watching and waiting for something to happen. And then wishing it didn’t happen.
Take right now. I was getting bored standing guard over Fort Camille – and isn’t that a great name for a frozen pile of logs in the middle of some valley called The Valley of The Bones – and mentioned it off-hand in the mess hall. Two days later, a warlock rides into the fort and asks for a guide towards a hot spring some of us go for a swim in. A warlock. One of the Collegium’s elite spellcasters.
Captain Delacroix had lectured us about what to do when meeting a warlock; a lot of fancy terms about showing proper respect and maintaining good relationships with the Collegium. Our tame battlemage Sergeant Kelban gave us more useful information – namely, do not annoy the people who are authorised to burn our blood if it takes down a hostile creature quicker. Especially the warlock von Clief.
Who rode into the fort earlier today. He didn’t look like much at first – just another horseman riding up here on one of the local ponies, with one of the local dogs loping along at his side. But I saw that dog was trouble from the start. I’ve seen sheepdogs tear out wolves’ throats. And the ones in the Sydfjords will go after worse things.
The first I know I’m being dragooned for this is when Slim Joe tells me that Delacroix and Kelban want me to report to them. That sounds bad, but orders is orders. And then I get there and am immediately introduced to Warlock von Clief.
Honestly, I was expecting someone taller. Taller, with a waist-length beard and fireballs permanently in his hands. Not the dusty horseman with a carbine over his shoulder and a run-of-the-mill barker on his belt, and certainly not somebody noticeably shorter than myself. But his eyes – those permanently glowering dark orbs that bear into you – they tell a different story. Suddenly, I feel like a child again.
“I have been told that there are strange goings around a hot spring to the east of here,” he begins. I’m already feeling my bladder loosen slightly as he continues, “I need a guide to bring me to a spot where we can overlook it. Captain Delacroix tells me you are the best scout in the company, Lance Corporal Green.”
I want to deny it. But truth be told, he’s not wrong. And so, I find myself lying behind a rock to the left of him, overlooking the hot springs to our east. That giant dog is behind us somewhere, watching the path back down towards the fort about six clicks away.
The springs glow faintly in the night, an almost soothing blue. But apart from that and the moon poking through the clouds, there’s no light at all. I can’t see the lights from the fort either behind all the scrubby pines. I’d light a fire, but I don’t want to be the one to drag the monsters towards us.
We’re sitting here for I don’t know how long, but at least twice I think I’ve seen something out of the corner of my eye only to see nothing. I’m almost about to ask again what kind of strange occurrences he meant, when I see something again. More than one thing, in fact.
In my peripheral vision, I can see what looks like men stumbling across the grass and rocks towards the springs. But they don’t move entirely like men. Even from here I can tell they’re too tall. As they draw closer, I start to see steel glinting in the moonlight. They haven’t seen us yet, but still…they’re definitely there.
“Sir, over there!” I whisper, pointing. The warlock turns his head slightly to point at it; no sign of any alarm or any change at beyond that. But he sees them. He must do, because he immediately identifies them as draugr! Draugr! The reanimated dead of the crypts that line these hills!
My mind immediately goes back to the pack that stumbled across the rail services yard near Gralheim. Only five of them, but they each took a full volley from the platoon before they finally keeled over. And that was with Kelban and his lackeys lobbing fireballs into them to soften them up as well! And here…here there’s over a dozen of them!
They become more visible in the light around the springs, with occasional flashes where their teeth reflect the glow of the waters. They’re definitely not human – too tall and thin, and even from here I can see their skin is stretched. Some wear helmets that must be a thousand years old. And those swords and axes they carry – they must be about half my height!
Some of them stop. Others continue circling the largest spring until all fourteen have surrounded it, facing inwards to the water. None of them move. I can feel the sweat running down my back. Should I be sweating in this weather? Von Clief isn’t. He doesn’t seem-
“Merkwurdig, ganz merkwurdig,” von Clief mutters under his breath. He sounds fascinated, and for a moment I think he’s one of them fresh eggheads from the Collegium, recently arrived from the big cities. And then I remember, this is the man who considers a zombie dragon to be another day at work. And he thinks this is strange.
Before I can even work up the courage to ask him what’s so fascinating, it starts.
A low drone arises from one of the Draugr. Only now do I see that it’s wearing a larger helmet than the rest, and it looks larger than the rest. The others join in, turning the drone into a chant in a long forgotten dialect that makes the hairs on my neck stick up. What are they doing? Are they…singing?
It goes on and on until they lower their weapons to their sides and then lower them to the ground, carefully. It’s almost as though they revere their weapons – but what would you expect from raiders who have been dead for a thousand years? And then they step into the springs and wade out until they are knee-deep. Are they…they’re sitting down?
“To the best of my knowledge, there are no active tombs left in this valley,” he comments, almost like he’s going for a pint. “But that does not mean some hedge necromancer has not decided to try awakening them again to prove their control.” He sneers at that part.
“Does that happen often?” I ask in spite of myself. He glances sideways at me, and suddenly I want to know even less. But he answers anyway.
“Every year for the last few decades, about twenty to thirty manage to get down here. Many of them end up attacked by their own creations.” He turns his attention back to the springs and waves his left hand slightly, and for a moment I think there’s going to be fireballs. “But I don’t know if these specimens were woken up by necromancers or other grave robbers. It is not impossible that they simply woke up of their own accord.”
“Sir, are we…shooting them?” I don’t want to. Not by myself. I can fire maybe ten shots a minute with the regular Benry rifle at the target range. There isn’t a snowball’s chance in Brieborg I can do that out here by myself!
“Nein. I believe they are talking about something, but I cannot hear it directly.” He slowly pulls a notebook from one of his pouches and flips it open. I can’t read what it says, and the way he angles it towards the moon tells me he can’t in this light either. I can’t hear them say anything from up here, and if they are, I don’t want to know what they were talking about.
They’re standing up again. I lower myself even further into the rocks as they gather their weapons, please not this way, please not this way! They stride off into the darkness, and within minutes I can no longer see them. There’s no sign they were ever there.
von Clief snorts with quiet amusement as he rises into a crouch. “I have never seen Draugr make such a cabaret out of the hot springs,” he says as he slides the notebook back into the pouch.
“A c-cabaret?” I squeak. I just can’t bring myself to see Draugr in Madame Laggo’s! I just…can’t. I’m going to need another shot of rum when I get back in. Just watching them sit in the hot springs like we do was bad enough! Wild horses couldn’t drag me back into that pool!
It’s only when we start following the path back to the fort that I realise something. How many other hot springs have been dirtied by the reanimated dead?
Just a random story that popped into my head on a Thursday evening, which then took me three or four nights to finish. And here’s a painting of three Draugr sitting in a hot spring from this Saturday. Because they need a night off.