Copyright © 2002 Chris Gonnerman. All Rights Reserved.
We were fools.
We had travelled together for a few months, in the spring and summer
of that year. I was nineteen, and I was next to the oldest.
In my homeland I had trained as a warrior, using the staff; it
was our traditional weapon, and I am proud to say I was quite good
with it. I joined with Kras Dolan, a spearman, Fresia the
Nimble, an acrobat and sometimes thief, and her lover Sol Avar the
sorceror. Together we traveled throughout the land now known as
Spain, from the ice fields to the strait, and then across to the
grasslands you now know as the Sahara Desert.
We fought highwaymen and collected the bounties; sometimes we found
monstrous creatures to battle, like the Ape-Men or the Little People.
They were not the elves or leprechauns you are thinking of, but more
like modern-day Pygmys, endowed with magical powers.
Often we had heard of the evil wizard whose zombie army controlled a
small kingdom in the northeast part of Africa, and one day Kras said
"We can defeat him." So we headed east along the coast. We were fools.
No sooner than we had stepped into the courtyard of his dilapidated
fortress, but we were beset by zombies from all sides. They drove us
into the keep proper, where it was dark and gloomy, as the windows
were all covered. Though badly abused we began to get the better of
them, and Sol even said "Look, they flee before us!"
Those were his last words. I tripped over a zombie Kras had
dismembered, so the bolt of eldritch power missed me; but the others
were not so lucky. I stood up, and found myself face to face with a
horrid, withered sorceror. I could feel his icy breath from five feet
I ran, in abject terror. What man wouldn't, if he had not steeled
himself for the experience? In my panic I chose a door we had not
explored, and found myself descending. Soon I was lost in the caverns
below the keep.
He pursued me for what seemed like days; in fact it may have been, for
I drained my waterskin, refilled it and quenched my thirst at an
underground stream, and drained it again before he caught me.
I had run down a blind alley, and before I had time to backtrack he
was there. I had by then prepared myself to stand my ground, and
fight like a trapped rat, but he raised his hand and spoke an arcane
word, and I fell in a heap.
Three zombies came forward; one stripped my gear from me, and the the
other two lifted my tingling body to a kneeling position. With
another pass the monstrous wizard removed the spell, removing the
"You are cunning and crafty," he said in a voice like dry leaves
crackling. "Smarter by far than any of the other fools who have tried
to best me. I will make you an offer, my friend: call me your master
and become my apprentice, and I will give you power beyond your
dreams. If you decline, know that I will make your death far more
painful than that of your friends, here."
It was then that I realized the three zombies were the animated
corpses of Kras, Fresia, and Sol. I cracked.
"You are my master, O great wizard."
"My name is Gruven Ket, but you will always call me Master." The
zombies (I never think of them with the names they had in life) lifted
me to a standing position, and I followed my new master meekly out of
Ket never called me by my name; he never asked it. I was always "apprentice"
except sometimes when he rebuked me, calling me "slave." I was given
responsibility for the captives he kept in the dungeon, most of whom had been
there many months and had thus lost their minds. The villages nearby gave
tribute, in gold and in food, in return for safety from Ket's undead army;
handling the food became my responsibility.
Much of my time was spent in study and practice; Ket had many projects
occupying his time, and so he spent only two or three days in ten at
most training me. Still, I learned steadily, for I had nothing else
that I cared to do, and I could not leave. I passed four years in
Though I could not leave the keep, I was allowed access to the caverns. From
time to time when the proximity of my master became too much to bear, I would
wander about them for a day or so. It was on one such trip that I found a
narrow, hidden passage, at the other end of which I saw sky. I determined that
it opened just outside the outer wall of the keep, near the bluff overlooking
One day in the chill of winter my master called me to his study, for training I
assumed; but he wished for the first time to discuss something with me. "In
three days hence is the day of sacrifice, when I must give to the demon-lord who
must not be named a virgin sacrifice. Here," he said, waving a hand at the door
behind me. As I turned to look I saw a young woman, her hands bound behind her,
gagged, and held by two zombies. Ket rose and approached her, causing her to
writhe and struggle to no avail. With one icy claw he ripped her dress from top
to bottom, and the zombies tore off what remained.
She was beautiful, of course, and terrified, her eyes like those of a trapped
deer. "You will care for her, apprentice; see to it that she is still a virgin
when I slay her on the altar." With that, he waved in dismissal and turned
I led the zombies, who by now were carrying her, down to the dungeon. I gave
her a cell that had not been used in a while, and sent a zombie to bring fresh
straw. After posting guards at the door I removed her bonds.
First she struck at me, but she was weak with fear and exhaustion and so did me
no harm. I put my arms around her and held her tight until she stopped
struggling and began to cry. After a time she moved away and I told her I would
return soon with food and water.
When I returned, some hours later, I brought food and water for her consumption
as well as a bowl of water for washing in. She watched me like a mouse watches
a hawk, but she did eat and she did wash. Finally she spoke.
"My name is Mara. Have you a name, apprentice?"
"I am called Solomoriah, but not by my master, who does not know my
name." I smiled at this, my first smile in many years.
She stood then, and approached me slowly. "I would do anything, Solomoriah, to
escape the fate your master plans for me." She spread her arms slowly, a
gesture of offering, and I would be no man if I didn't admit I was tempted. My
master's warning rang in my ears still, though, and I refused her. I left
quickly, before I could change my mind.
It was nearly daybreak then, and like my master I slept in the daytime; but I
did not sleep that day, for in my mind I could see Mara bound to that altar Ket
spoke of. I had seen it many times, even seen the bloodstains, but I had not
allowed myself to think about its use before. Now I could think of nothing
The next night I did my best to avoid my master, and he seemed content
to ignore me. I planned and plotted a thousand escapes before I
settled on one.
As I have said, Ket's keep stood on a bluff overlooking the sea. The land above
the bluff was flat and devoid of trees for a long distance, and I knew that
zombies were "planted," half-buried, throughout that area as traps. The bluff,
though... Ket's zombies had to be kept away from salt, lest he lose control of
them, so the salty sands below never saw a zombie footprint. My master himself
could not bear the daylight very long. We would flee, then, through the hidden
tunnel to the outside and quickly over the bluff. If we did so at dawn Ket
could not follow us, and I believed we would be safe.
As dawn was about to break I put on my gear and went to Mara,
carrying some of my extra clothes to cover her against the cold.
Though they fit her poorly she said they would do; for by now she
realized I meant to save her.
As I led her from her cell I saw zombie guards massed at one end of
the line of cells. I boldly approached them, ordering them away, but
they did not obey me this time. With a cold chill I realized that Ket
knew of my treason.
I ran back to Mara, throwing open all the cells (which were merely
barred) as I went. The other slaves, particularly those with
more aggressive forms of madness, ran out into the corridor and
grappled with the zombies. I heard Ket calling to me but his words
Both ends of the cellblock had entrances, and though it was a longer distance
the other way it was our only choice. Mara, for her part, was tougher than I
gave her credit for, and never fell behind. We narrowly missed being caught by
zombies; fortunately they are slow and stupid opponents.
We reached the opening at last, and I put Mara through first, then
followed her. The sky was clear and bright, and I felt confident.
I was a fool.
I started down the bluff first. The handholds and toeholds were quite good, and
I could see a ledge only five yards or so below where we could rest out of sight
of the fortress. I turned to Mara to help her down just as a bolt of scarlet
fire burned through her abdomen. She toppled, lifeless, falling on me and
nearly bearing me to my own doom.
I was right that the zombies would not follow me onto the beach, so I buried her
there under sand and a cairn of large stones. I wept, and as I wept I realized
I had never wept for my lost friends.
It was a long, cold day as I fled along the seaside, putting as many miles
between myself and my former master as I could. I don't know if he let me
escape or if I really got away on my own; but I spent the next several years on
the run. I freely used my name, certain he did not know it, and I became more
powerful in the ways of magic. As with my friends years before I fought the
unjust and evil, and lived on the proceeds.
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