Absolutely magically dead. A chain. A cold hand closed over hers, keeping it closed on the chain. She grunted, whined, couldn't scream, couldn't . . . do any magic.
She was fighting so hard to reach for power, to open her hand, she was almost oblivious to anything else. She was forced to the ground, and she could feel the spell closing tighter around her brain, about her soul.
Something cold prodded her thigh. She couldn't open her hand, couldn't think! She pounded her free fist on the thing that hovered over her, that held her hand, and power. Flung her hand out trying to find anything that would help, kicked. Hit its head, like hitting a block of wood. Something cold reached up under her grown and grabbed her small clothes, and ripped them. Damn it she couldn't drain this, this thing. She heaved and thrashed. Tried to hit it with her head.
No power. What could she do without power. It was cold like a reptile or a dead body, no not a dead body, she didn't want to think about a dead body. She pried at the hand enclosing hers, fought the spells closing in on her brain. It was like trying to fight a fallen tree. You couldn't hurt it, couldn't shift it, couldn't get the weight off of you.
She jerked as the cold body, no, no, no, not a dead body, pressed in between her thighs. Something hard poked at her crotch, and she thrashed as a cold shaft shoved into her. An arm slid behind her neck, the cold arm shoving down on her shoulder and the shaft pushing deep into her, compressed her between them.
She punched at the thing on top of her, pushed it, but it was stiff and strong, keeping its position without trouble. The cold shaft jerked inside her, then stopped. It wasn't moving any more, it was just in her. She threw her hand out, found a stick and beat on the Cold Thing until the stick broke.
And it just laid there. Cold and dead, inside her. She waited, whimpering a little, for it to do something. Cold and dead. Nothing happened. It couldn't be dead. If it was dead it would be limp.
This was like an old corpse, rigorous something they'd called it in class. How long had it been dead before it fucked her, before it froze, jammed into her? She was going to die here, being fucked by a corpse. They'd have to bury her with it, because she was trapped. Damn it she should be able to bend some direction and get . . . oww. Not that way. She straightened again, trapped by the shaft that impaled her.
She found the base of a sapling, grabbed it and pulled both her and the cold thing across the ground. She shoved with her feet. Flailed around for any thing. Eww. She threw it away. No. Not anything, not that slimy cold wet rope, it was too much like intestines. She pulled herself further, reached again. A cold hand. A Real Dead One, not this cold thing on her. In her. Stiff and cold as a tree. At least the real dead hand wasn't grabbing her. Yet. She jerked on the hand pulled herself further, felt an arm, shoulder, pulled herself further, felt a belt. A hilt.
It pulled out with a short stroke, a knife, not a sword.
Where do you stab a tree? A cold thing?
Anywhere you can reach.
If it had been a man, her first stroke would have gone in just below the ribs, her second higher, third lower. Her fourth cut its throat, but there was almost no blood, like it really was dead already.
She sawed off the wrist of that cold hand, and when the hand still gripped hers, panicked and stabbed into the gut, and finally, finally she sawed through the muscles of the arm holding her shoulders, and the elbow gave. She shoved the arm and scooted to get that cold thing out of her. She crawled away from it but the cold hand still gripped hers and the chain held her to the Dead Thing. She started slicing and cut the head completely off.
She backed away, afraid to turn her back on it. She felt the slope and moved uphill. It steepened, and she had to turn, climbing awkwardly with her left fist clenched inside a dead hand. She kept crawling until she reached the top, and then she crawled until she reached the road. She finally climbed to her feet and staggered around until she spotted the lights of the tavern and then she trotted unsteadily toward it.
They had to completely dismember the cold dead hand wrapped around hers before she could open her fingers and release the chain, which promptly evaporated.
When she woke her mother was sitting beside her bed.
"That thing. What was that thing?"
"I don't know dear, it was hideously strange."
She shuddered, then sat up suddenly. "Cost!"
"I'm okay. Can I come in?"
"Yes! Are you all right? You were so still. I heard that thing coming and I ran and forgot you! I can't believe I forgot you!" Zenith burst into tears.
Cost and her mother hugged her and patted her.
"What happened to you?" Zenith wiped her eyes.
"I hit my head, falling into the ravine. I'm just bruised everywhere. When I woke up it was starting to get light, and I crawled up the hill. Harry found me, part way up and carted me in here, dosed me up with some wine –that wine, you know? That's what started the whole mess, the way those men acted.
"I guess after we left there was a bit of a mix up. Jasper says she doesn't know who raped who. You know how we set it up so men get a little rough? It was Garnet's and Hemitite's first time and they wanted to have good strong channels. Jasper says she grabbed their groom and pulled him down on her, so he'd get the right idea, and then she was so drunk she nearly killed him. Then the smarmy one tried to raped her, and she did kill him. The third young one got rough with Kao. She says she wiggled around until it was about guaranteed to turn into a rape, and she drained him too far. She's off crying somewhere.
"Now, Hemitite, the other old guy grabbed her and really did rape her; she killed him. And Garnet, sweet little Garnet? The old guy that Hell hit? She saw that he had a hard on, pulled his pants down and climbed on. She's so ashamed she won't hardly show her face today.
"Harry dragged the two live ones out to the ravine and pitched them in.
"When you raised the hunt, they found the old guy's body. He'd been strangled, Never said you could see the finger marks on his neck."
"With Gisele and the Auld Wulf, Nil and Dydit."
"Oh. I want to talk to them." Zenith shuddered. "I think." She got out of bed, and realized she could hear everything the elders were saying in the main room, and shushed Cost and her mother so they could hear.
They sat around the large table and stared at the thing. The body.
"It's human, but very strange." Gisele drew her hand back in distaste. "Riddled with cancers. It has the wizard X, the Storm Mage Y and some other engineered genes that I've never seen before. Damaged genes, and morphs to the body as well."
"Do you think it came through one of the gates?" Harry poked at it.
"I think it must have."
"But what killed it?" Dydit looked it over. "You can see that all the cuts Zenith inflicted on it were hours after it had died."
"Hmph. It was Chained, controlled and connected." Gisele was in old crone form, and stood up stiffly to hobble to the next table. Touched that body. "Yes, this was the man who controlled it. They were linked. When this one was strangled, that one died too."
Never twitched. "Poor Zenith."
Harry growled. "I should have kept my guard up. Thought I was immune to this sort of thing. I'd like to know who let all the horses out. Mot and I were chasing them all over the hills. And that wine! Jasper says she chased two of the Hell Hounds out of the wine cellar, so I suppose that accounts for how it got served."
Dydit snorted. "The other two were probably out opening stalls."
Feet clumped on the front porch. Nil led the others in. "Twenty more bodies about a half mile upstream. Killed by magic. Straightforward cardiac arrest, as far as I can see. Some of them were running away when they dropped dead. Then someone sliced a few of the bodies up for the fun off it. There are dead animals around for about a mile. May have been a surge when the controller was knocked out." He eyed the first body. "But I think this fellow had a hell of long range on that spell. I'm just as glad he's dead."
The Auld Wulf nodded. "We cut some tracks. One man, injured, and the dwarf Zenith and Cost saw. The injured man was headed south, he kept trying to circle, but the Hell hounds were after him. Jasper's victim, I suspect. The Dwarf headed east. We need to tell Rufi about this, the bodies upstream look . . . soldierly to me. I think this could be a scouting party through one of the Gates." He eyed Dydit. "I'd like to get Rustle's opinion on several things. I think she will be able to tell if these were from the World she spent a couple of months in."
"She's still healing." A low growl.
"Yes, but what hurt her was from here, not there."
Dydit didn't speak again, and the god stepped out the front door.
Rustle walked back in a moment later. Gisele gave her a hard look, and then smiled. The Auld Wulf was right behind her, his shields so tight he was invisible to the inner eye. Rustle wrinkled her nose at the bodies and reached out to rub the fabric of the old man's jacket. She opened it and fingered his shirt.
"Feel the shirt. They call it cotton."
Gisele twitched, and saw Harry and the Auld Wulf staring too.
"Damn," Harry muttered. "I'd forgotten all about cotton."
Rustle stripped the man's coat off, turned it inside out and examined the seams. "See this tiny stitching? And then here, big fast cobbles. They cut down the sleeves to what is fashionable here."
She walked over and eyed the strange corpse. "It's ugly in an entirely different way than the god thing I killed over there." She reached out and touched it. "Wizard X, Storm Y." She walked back to the old man. "I don't know what this Y would do . . . " she closed her eyes, then jerked her hand away from the body. "Could it pull magic from other magic users? That would explain the setup in Arbolia, where the Priests keep their gods, and breed them."
The Auld Wulf growled. "I wonder how close they have to be. We need to catch our two fugitives and ask them some questions."
"Catch them carefully." Rustle said. "We don't want to hand them one of us to use for a source. At an absolute minimum, any magic users in a fight with them need to not touch or be touched."
The God of War tapped his fingers for a long moment, then strode out of the room. As he walked through the door there was a gleam of mail.
"Damn all gods." Rustle swore.
Dydit leaped after her, hands twitching as he resisted grabbing her. Nil was on his heels, and Never right after.
Gisele looked over at Harry. "I suppose someone needs to go through the Gate and take a look, and who else is more likely to survive anything he finds?"
"Yeah, but you know, sometimes I wish he'd carry a gun."
"What's a gun?"
Gisele looked over at Zenith as she walked shakily into the room.
"It's a bit like a very powerful crossbow." Gisele said. "Dear, I'm not at all sure you should see this in the clear light."
Zenith shook her head. "It can't be worse than my imagination." But when she looked at the first body she went from pale to ashen. Harry shoved a chair behind her as she collapsed. "That thing was dead. Inside me. For hours."
Harry cleared his throat. "Safer than alive, eh?"
Zenith sputtered indignantly, started laughing and then crying.
Glorious rushed in and wrapped her arms around her daughter. She gulped and shuddered, looking at the corpse. "Yes, much better dead. Zenith, why don't you come home with me, see the new place. Cost can come too. Really, it's so nice with no one there but mages and witches. No . . . ordinary people at all."
Much tromping on the front porch.
" . . . est of soldiers needs backup. As you damn well ought to know." Nil was lecturing the God of War, who was still all dressed up in his mail and plate.
"We needed to know if there was an army on the other side." He caught Gisele's eye. "Nothing there but empty hills. The ground has recovered from the wear and tear of that lot coming through, so we can't tell how many total came. But since no one has seen them, I suspect this was probably at least a third of their company, and possibly all of it. They've probably been here for several weeks."
Harry nodded. "I'll sic Rufi on it. Damn it he's supposed to be sending troops to deal with this sort of stuff."
"I'll hang around until then, prowl a bit." The Auld Wulf shook himself and the armor disappeared, the wolfskin vest returned. Gisele caught Rustle's faint sigh of regret and suppressed a chuckle.
When the dogs finally abandoned their games and departed, Stanley circled around to the west, keeping at least one ridge of hills between himself and that hellish inn. He needed to get to the Twin Columns, warn them about the witches. The last thirty miles were made easy, when he managed to catch the High Priest's bay mare by the simple expedient of walking up and wrapping his shredded shirt around her neck while an ugly old draft horse was fucking her. He managed to design a reasonable hackamore, and by getting uphill of her, mount.
As ragged as he was, the very alert guards at the columns damn near killed him, and he blurted. "The High Priest is dead. The God is dead."