oz2

His features were withered and desiccated, the sallow, discolored parchment skin stretched over sharp bones beneath. His eyes were red embers burning from the depths of sunken orbits, and as he opened his mouth to moan a hideous and sickening moan, she saw that his teach were a jagged serration, his tongue a black worm in the festering hole of his mouth.

I

Lambent scarlet flame washed the western horizon; high above, the clear sky shaded from blue to indigo; star-jewels began the long night’s work of sparkling in the inky firmament.

Below this ancient celestial transition, the black crags that surrounded the old, high castle walls thrummed once again to the sonorous chant of the vinkeri, the stalwart and fearsome castle guardians, loyal retainers to She Who Damn Well Better Be Obeyed… If you know what’s was good for you…

O-Ee-Yah! Eoh-Ah! O-Ee-Yah! Eoh-Ah!

Her Serene Eminence, the Grand Witch of the West, woke to the delicious irony of that sound.

Loyal fools, she thought, not without a measure of genuine affection, stretching languidly in the lengthening velvet shadows of her bedchamber. With each repetition of the chant she herself had taught them, they reinforced the spell that bound them to her, heart and soul. After decades of such repetition, was it any wonder they were fanatically devoted to her?

She smiled to herself. They were such good boys…

Among the almost infinite benefits of being a Grand Witch is that one is not touched by the so-called ravages of time (unless of course, that’s the look one is working toward), but is graced by the wisdom that only witnessing innumerable consecutive sunsets can grant. Properly manifested, the net result of this is a vixen-yenta package whose attraction to and power over the average member of the opposite sex – and not an inconsiderable percentage of the same one – is both devastating and legendary.

But that is by the way…

On the crenelated parapet above her private balcony, one of her gargoyles hooted a greeting to Darkness and Night, and launched itself into the gloaming with a rustle and crack of wide, leathery wings.

How anyone could mistake her majestic creations for monkeys forever eluded her. True, they had a certain simian gate when loping along the ground, and the tufts of long, silky hair that grew irregularly from the folds and creases in their tough hides might confuse the ignorant and the uneducated… Still – monkeys? Hardly. Comparing her winged raptors to mere aerial chimpanzees bordered on the criminal.

She wondered idly if she ought to issue an edict declaring such opinions a flogging offense, but decided the nuisance of enforcement would far outweigh any enjoyment she might garner. She dismissed the whimsy, and rose to prepare for the night.

While even witches of modest Power do not require sleep, per se, there is no doubt that the Dreamlands can be an inexhaustible source of that most potent and fundamental Power of all: information. She did not neglect her time in the Dreamlands. And yet, if she were truthful with herself, she did not feel quite as unique and Powerful there, not quite as invulnerable and unstoppable, as she did here in her rightful Place of Power within the Emerald Realms.

There were things in the Dreamlands that…unsettled…even Sunnurra of the West.

Unlike her empty-headed and class-obsessed cousins, Sunnurra eschewed personal body-servants. The simple disciplines and rituals of self-care were as much a part of the Craft she had been taught as were spells and incantations. Relying on others, even as a matter of appearance, to attend to one’s most basic needs led to dependence, weakness and vulnerability.

And, as anyone who knew her even in passing could assure you, Sunnurra of the Sunset was none of those things.

She filled the sunken marble bath with a pass of her hand and a murmured cantrip, and slipped into the fragrant, perfectly simmering froth with a luxuriant sigh.

Allergic to water indeed! She would have spit the thought into the water, were that possible. She was as incredulous now as she had been the first time she heard that particular bit of folk-folly. The peasant oafs probably thought she bathed in virgins’ blood instead, to keep her leaf-green skin soft and supple… Darkness and Night! However did the silly bumpkins hereabouts come up with such outrageous fabrications? They certainly didn’t show that kind of creativity when it came to improving or increasing the product of their wretched farmsteads and, by extension, her tax-base.

She made a promise to that particular irritation that she would terrorize the local villagers later in the week, on principle, and dismissed it as well. Winter was coming on apace, and she was forever drowsy and laconic when the weather turned cold. She wanted nothing more than to lay in her scalding bath, to float and drift and Dream…

An electric thrill ran over the emerald velvet of her skin and a distant, echoing chime roused her at last. Frowning, she reached out and lightly stroked one of the threads of Power that were always and everywhere around her.

If you could see the world as Sunnurra sees it, you would find yourself floating, like a fish or perhaps a balloon, within a vast sea or sky of light. In perpetual motion throughout this luminous realm are infinite, interconnected clouds of gossamer filaments, literally the fabric of reality. If you could see as Sunnurra sees, and knew what Sunnurra knows, you might reach out too pluck one of these threads, and thereby do that which ought to be undoable: alter the very nature of What Is.

Or, one might simply touch a thread, and know who was attempting to contact one through one’s Crystal.

The Grand Witch of the West groaned. Allaanna, her cousin and Grand Witch of the North. Darkness and Night, she thought in vexation. What a way to start the evening.

Still, the thread upon which the contact rode glowed scarlet with genuine urgency; this was no social call, and just as the Witch’s lofty position dispensed its largess, it also demanded her duty. Tyrant she might be, but she was also a ruler who took the latter mandate most seriously indeed.

Even to the extent of tolerating her brainless cousin for – at least – a turn or two of the lesser glass.

“Yes, Alla?” she said into the empty air.

Responding to the gentle nudge of Power behind her voice, the wispy tendrils of steam above her bath swirled, spun themselves into a translucent sphere, within which the sketch of a face also formed from the pearly mists. The blurry outlines of the eyes blinked, and the mouth writhed, conveying the impression of moving lips.

“Sunnu?” a voice called, as sharp and unpleasant as an iron mallet driving a chisel into stone. “Sunnu! It’s me, Alla!”

Sunnu sighed, and closed her eyes involuntarily, her tolerance slipping a rung or two despite her best intentions. She knew herself well enough to know that if she felt compelled to pinch the bridge of her nose in the next few seconds, this conversation was not going to go well, duty or no.

“Yes, Alla, I know it’s you. What can I do for you?”

Again, those who knew her would assure you that the Witch of the West was quite direct, and that an apparent lack of social pleasantries was normally a good sign when dealing with her. Conversely, when she became noticeably over-polite and solicitous, it was a fair wager she was done with you in general, and likely contemplating your imminent and unpleasant demise.

As much as was possible, the steam-sphere attempted to convey the contortions of Alla’s visage.

“Sunnu! It’s the end of the world – perhaps the end of Time Itself!”

The Witch of the West chuckled despite herself. So this was going to be a prank call after all. Well, she was already feeling indolent and whimsical. She’d play along. For a while.

“Whatever are you honking about, you silly old goose?” she said in response to Alla’s outburst.

“The dead, Sunnu!” Alla’s voice verged on the hysterical, and Sunnu frowned. She didn’t remember her cousin being all that accomplished an actress. “The dead are coming back to life! They’re rising from the grave to eat the living!”

“Alla!” Sunnu snapped, heading off any continuation of the jeremiad. Making a significant alteration in the balance of open-mindedness and skepticism in her voice toward the former, she said, “Are you talking about…Black Magic? Necromancy? Darkness and Night, Alla, you better not be jesting about this!”

“It’s the truth, Sunnu!” her cousin fairly wailed, and that in itself sent a dagger of…uncertainty…through Sunnurra’s viscera. As feckless as she might be, Allaanna of the Auroras would have sooner dropped a chateau on herself than demonstrate such distress to any of her cousins and rivals. Sunnu couldn’t remember it happening twice in the same century.

“All right, simmer down,” she said, making patting motions at the misty face. “I’m listening. Tell me what you know.”

When the Witch of the North was done, her cousin tapped generous, dark green lips with a fingernail like an obsidian thorn. Alla’s recitation had enthralled her audience such that the Sunset Witch had neglected the spell that heated her bath. The water had grown tepid, even chill, but not quite as chill as the doubt that was slowly insinuating itself into her usual, confident certainty.

And that was saying something, for someone whose blood ran cold as a glacial stream at the best of times.

II

She flew high and fast, bearing East and North to the unseen border where her Power rubbed up against that of her cousin, the Witch of the North.

On any other day, she would have exulted in the tempestuous fury of her flight, with no heed paid to what lay below. Today however, she scanned the countryside as it passed below, having borrowed the sight of a falcon that she might behold all, particularly anything that would substantiate Alla’s outrageous claims.

Despite – or perhaps because of – Alla’s desperate, near-hysterical entreaties, Sunnu insisted on a cautious and measured approach. Information, intelligence, after all, were the greatest of all Powers, and Sunnu wanted to know more about the roots of her cousin’s apocalyptic ravings before jumping in with her proverbial ruby slippers on.

Privately, Sunnu wondered if her cousin in the north might not have been smoking the poppies again…

Dead men walking indeed, she had sniffed to herself. Even her mad sister in the East, Zarrussha, was not crazy enough to dabble in such forbidden things. Like as not, the so-called “walking dead” were merely highwaymen adopting a fantastic disguise to better intimidate their victims.

With this in mind, the Witch of the West had dispatched several phalanxes of gargoyles to reconnoiter not only the other cardinal directions, but the less-traveled byways of her own dominion as well. It would not do to bar the door with the wolf already inside. When her servitors returned just before the next sunrise with nothing untoward to report, Sunnu’s suspicions were inexplicably stoked rather than smoored, and she decided to see for herself, even if it meant traveling by day. She hadn’t gotten to where she was by making assumptions based on second-hand intelligence.

Now she arrowed along, just below the scudding, tattered gray clouds, her black robes flapping behind like the tails of some bizarre and sinister kite.

She frowned suddenly at something that flicked by beneath, and pulled her broom into a steep bank, looping back and settling into a descending spiral as she focused on the strange tableau.

What appeared to be a man made of tin, for the love of Darkness, was running, frantic and clumsy, from a mob of perhaps a dozen dirty and unkempt men, who themselves moved in an stilted and unbalanced manner, though they gained steadily on their intended prey.

Ah, she thought with satisfaction, here they are, my fine young bully-boys plying their trade in my realm! Well, let us show them that I alone am free to practice mischief in my lands! And she peeled out of the spiral and sent her besom into a screaming dive.

She came in low, straight at the tin man and his pursuers, her high-pitched war-cackle proceeding her, a sound guaranteed to freeze the blood and seize the muscles of any mortal being in the Emerald Realms. She caught a brief glimpse of the tin man’s rather human face, eyes wide in redoubled terror at the hurtling nightmare vision now menacing him to his front. He promptly crashed to the ground, dropping a long axe and covering his head with his hands. An instant later, she roared over the pursuers, her cackle and the ferocious wind of her passage slamming into the ungainly crowd.

She glanced back, grinning with her bright, sharp teeth, and then her own eyes grew wide at the unexpected sight that greeted them.

She expected to see the brigands – for so she still thought of them – flung about as by a savage tempest, hammered to the ground and pinned there by the shock of her overflight. But, incredibly, it was not so: although the pack had dispersed a bit, and some had fallen to their knees, the better part of the crowd was still charging for the supine tin man, their vanguard even now throwing themselves onto the unfortunate fellow and…

Biting him?

She wrenched the broom around, spinning about face on her center, nearly unseating herself. Momentum carried her on, backwards now, until the Power she poured into the broom overcame inertia, and she rocketed back toward the melee.

She braked hard, and stepped lithely off the broom before it had stopped moving, skipping a bit over the lumpy pasture to keep her footing and her dignity.

“Hold!” she commanded, sending Power into her voice so that it rang like a thunderclap over the meadow. “Hold, I say!”

For all the attention her demand elicited, she might as well have been blowing dandelions into the wind. One fellow, however, a straggler who had just regained his feet, turned to confront her.

Her icy blood turned a few degrees colder, and her hands came up of their own accord, her hooked black claws, like an owls dark talons, extended in a defensive gesture.

“Darkness and Night!” she swore aloud, jolted despite herself into the oath.

The man’s clothing, once of fine cloth and cut, were ragged and filthy. Errant strands of dried meadow grass clung to the greasy fabric, and poked from numerous tears and holes, as if he had spent a great deal of time thrashing about in a haystack. His features were withered and desiccated, the sallow, discolored parchment skin stretched over sharp bones beneath. His eyes were red embers burning from the depths of sunken orbits, and as he opened his mouth to moan a hideous and sickening moan, she saw that his teach were a jagged serration, his tongue a black worm in the festering hole of his mouth.

Improbably, he wore a slouch hat on his emaciated head, though she could not fathom how it stayed on.

The sum of his aspect was one of an animated scarecrow, and that illusion persisted in her mind, even as he began to stumble toward her, his crooked fingers and filthy, ragged nails reaching for her.

A lesser being, even a Witch of middling experience and Power, might have flinched away, remounted her broom and returned to the skies to puzzle out these improbabilities. But Sunnurra of the West was no such thing, and the rage to battle roared up in her.

“How about a little fire, you wretched scarecrow!” she cackled, whipping her arm up, back and around, drawing Power into her palm as the limb rotated. With a woof, a fireball blossomed between her fingers, and she hurled it with a whistling underhand pitch at the oncoming apparition. The blazing missile, at the tip of a contrail of thick black smoke, caught the thing square in the chest, and the tottering nightmare virtually exploded into a pillar of crackling scarlet flame that staggered a few more uncertain steps, then collapsed to the damp ground with a sizzle.

“Help!” a voice cried out. “For the love of Ozma, help me!”

It was the tin man, his voice muffled by the groaning mass that pinned him. Although the outmoded entreaty to a disgraced former monarch – mispronounced though it was – rankled her a bit, her blood was up and there was no disengaging from the battle now. Her sovereignty, why, her very person, was being threatened, and the world would burn with her fury before she let that pass.

Plucking her broom from the air, she strode toward the writhing pile, her robes flapping about her like the pinions of a great raven or carrion crow. She waved the broom over her head, whipping it in ever-faster, ever-tighter circles.

And they came racing from every point of the compass – thick black clouds that blotted out the sun and the blue sky, and brought cold night to the countryside. The brush of the besom spun faster, and the roiling cloud mass above her began to follow it’s motion.

Amidst the sudden roar of the wind and the encroaching darkness, a trio of the vile things detached themselves from the churning heap on top of the tin man and turned toward her. They gave no mind to the swirling clouds or the gusts of hail, to the howl of the funnel cloud forming above them. There was no fear in their demeanor or their burning eyes, only a kind of hunger, that chilled even her stoney heart.

That pang of fear, small though it was, enraged her even more, and she bellowed at the lot of them: “Begone, ye wretched dogs! Away to Kansas with you!” And she leveled the brush of the broom at them with a whipping motion.

The black, twisting funnel struck like a wyvern’s tail, snatching up the nearest three, whirling them up into the ravenous gullet of its vortex. They pretended to insatiable hunger, these mewling, gnawing grubs of the earth, but they knew nothing of true, eternal, unquenchable appetite. Nothing consumes quite like a tornado…

The storm beast howled, ravening for delight, as it spun it hapless prey at dismembering speeds, clawing ruthlessly from every direction until they were torn to pieces and gone from her sight.

Their expressions had never changed; they had never stopped reaching for her, even as they were dismantled by the storm.

Her eyes flicked next to the remaining mass, and the funnel sucked them up as she might inhale breadcrumbs from her palm. The storm churned them and tumbled them and tore at them until they were an unrecognizable hash, and then that too was gone, a black-red mist passing over the sudden rainbow to parts unknown. The vortex might have claimed the tin man too, but with a flick of her wrist and a spike of Power, she pushed him back to earth, and he landed with a clatter and a yelp.

She disengaged her Power from the storm, and in the time it took her to blink and yawn, all was as it had been. The sun shone, fluffy clouds loafed through the sapphire sky, and nothing but an improbable man of metal remained to show that anything untoward had happened in this little field.

She approached the survivor, and saw now that it was a man in full plate armor, of a style that had not been seen in the Realms for centuries. It was a bit rusty, here and there, but for the most part it looked as if it had been recently polished and repaired. She grasped in an instant that it would be a formidable defense against the biting attacks of the abhorred things, and it had doubtless seemed a good idea at the time, though its disadvantages were now readily apparent. Given time, and without her intervention, the persistent things would have cracked it open like a boiled lobster and feasted upon what lay within.

Not to mention that the weight of the absurd outfit was now pulling the spreadeagled man deeper into the marshy moorland with each breath. The muscles of his neck exhausted, the helmet – itself really nothing more than a lopsided metal bowl – was pressing his face closer and closer to the soppy earth. He was in real danger of drowning miles from any appreciable body of water.

Under other circumstances, Sunnu might have tarried to observe the man’s final struggles, his last frantic efforts to breath past a throat-full of muck and filth. But at present she had more important concerns, foremost among them a great – and growing – hunger to know what in the Names of Darkness and Night was going on!

The Witch of the West flicked one needle-tipped finger: the tin man’s armor wrenched itself free from the sucking mire with an audible squelch, and hurled itself up and back into a standing position.

More or less…

III

His name was Jacley, and he was by profession a dealer in antique memorabilia – such as ancient suits of armor. He was also a deal too discomposed at first to be properly impressed by her augustness – at least as far as the Witch of the West was concerned. In another time and place, she would have impressed upon this knave the value of proper etiquette in her presence, but she was a bit preoccupied at the moment.

For his part, Jacley peered at her, once he had removed the bulky basinet head-piece and could see her clearly, and said, “You’re a Witch!”

“No,” Sunnu snarled, “I’m your fairy godmother, Darkness take you!” She would have ground her teeth in frustration at this fellow’s dimness, but they were of a shape and sharpness that made such an undertaking a bit more hazardous for her than for the average person. She settled for displaying her deadly dentition in a glittering rictus that could only be mistaken for a smile by a blind rock at a hundred paces.

“Oh!” Jacley said, his eyes going wide in the firelight. “Forgive me, your Eminence! I’m not as sharp as I used to be, or I would have recognized one of the Four right away. I hope you will overlook my rudeness.” Jacley punctuated his apology with a courtly, if unpracticed, bow.

Now it was Sunnu’s eyes that widened, though only a trifle. This man had called to “Ozma” like any unsophisticated clod-kicker in the Emerald Realms, yet then turned around and addressed her, mere minutes later, by her proper title and invoked the Four – not the Five – in virtually the same breath. It was an intriguing mix.

“Ozma” was a widespread mispronunciation of the diminutive form of Ozymandia, the forename of the last even marginally effective monarch of the Emerald Realms, who had been reified into a sort of demigoddess over the succeeding centuries, as the antics of her descendants made her shortcomings less and less memorable.

The Four, in one incarnation or another, had always held dominion over the Points of the Compass Rose, maintaining the rule of law and magic along the frontiers of the Realms, where their world impinged upon other, less…pleasant dimensions. The Five, on the other hand, was a recent and contemptible heresy, coming into sporadic use among the intelligentsia when that self-styled Wizard declared the Emerald City a separate and independent political state – the Republic of Oz, for Darkness’ sake – and dared to consider himself on equal standing – magically as well as socially – with the Grand Witches of the Rose.

“You present something of an enigma, my dear Jacley,” she said, rolling a fireball on her palm so that reflected flames danced on the growing pile of disassembled armor.

The old antiquarian freed his remaining leg from the embrace of its metal greave with a grateful sigh, and added that item to the heap with a clank.

“How’s that, M’Lady?” he said, with a little shiver of relief and satisfaction, kneading his scalp with stiffened fingertips. As her cousin in the South might say, he was winning points with her by his continued and unbidden use of the old courtesies. As much as it was possible for her, Sunnurra was beginning to look favorably upon this tinker-man.

Still, he was no gargoyle…

“You evoke Ozyma,” she said, stressing the correct pronunciation, “But you also know the Four, and use the old, formal modes of address. The combination, fascinating as it may be, seems…contradictory to me.”

Jacley gave her a rueful smile. “I come of long-lived blood, M’Lady,” he said, “and I remember a time before the Wizard – indeed I do. I was but a stripling, but I recall when there was just the Four. But,” he shrugged, expressing the helplessness of one man against the tide of fashion, “one just falls into the habit of mimicking those nearby. I don’t mean to call on Ozyma in a moment of stress anymore than I imagine you mean to call upon Darkness and Night.”

Under more quotidian circumstances, Jacley would have been incinerated where he sat, simply for uttering the Names, to say nothing of his rudeness and effrontery to a Witch of the Rose. But there was something about the matter-of-factness of his statement, the frankness of his gaze and the guilelessness of his smile that managed to preserve his life.

For a little while longer, at any rate…

Darkness and Night, Sunnu fairly chuckled to herself, quite aware of the irony. He’s an odd duck, to be sure. But Shadows know I could probably do worse by way of retainers in this wretched situation.

She could not, of course, think of him as an ally, as that might imply parity, and her growing tolerance of the ancient chap would never become that liberal or relaxed.

Sunnurra lobbed the fireball away from her and, obedient to her will, it hung itself in the air, bobbing a foot or so above the sod, spreading until it was as wide as a typical campfire. It would provide Jacley with warmth and light for the remainder of the night, though she, of course, needed none. She gestured, and a nearby log divided itself into planks, migrated to the other side of the fire, and reassembled itself into a rough – but elevated and therefore comparatively dry – platform.

“You may sleep there,” she told him, and his thanks was heartfelt. He rose and tottered, stiff-legged and sore, to his bed and lay down with another contented sigh.

“Before you rest, however,” she said, “I must hear the story of your encounters today with these…miscreants.”

Jacley, who had already stretched out on the hard but not unwelcome surface, nodded his head in acknowledgment, and voiced a quiet caution: “It is not a pretty tale, M’Lady, but if you insist…”

Sunnurra of the Sunset leaned toward him, the fire coaxing an eerie glow from the dark jade depths of her skin; her eyes were as effulgent and predatory as the eyes of a dire-wolf stalking the edge of the firelight.

“Oh…” her purring voice was low and husky, “I do so insist…”

Wondering, for just a heartbeat, whether he might not have been better off with the hungry dead, Jacley swallowed heavily and began to tell his tale.

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IV

The Statement of

Sir Jacley Noom,

First Paladin of the Order of

Darkness and Night,

as related to

Her Serene Eminence Sunnurra,

Grand Witch of the Compass Rose,

Protector of the Emerald Realms,

and Champion of the Living,

on the occasion of the

Now-Infamous and Thrice-Cursed

Day of Rising:

Public infrastructure in our shire had been deteriorating for some time now, so when the ruckus commenced, I thought it was nothing more than another riot.

A contractor had used yellow bricks without straw to repair a section of the North-South Road, and heavy rains had turned that stretch into a half-mile trough of rank yellow mud. A number of wagons had been damaged attempting to navigate the obstacle, and one young lad even suffocated in the mire. There had been talk for weeks about paying a, ahem, torchlight visit to the responsible contractor. For all I knew, that had taken place the night before, and now the contractor was back to even the score.

Then the screaming began.

If M’Lady will permit, she doubtless knows the many shades and shadows of screams. A man or woman may scream in pleasure, a condemned wretch for mercy, and even a bold heart, inflicted with sufficient excruciating agony, will scream in rage and defiance.

But there is a particular…flavor…of scream, one I’m sure Your Eminence is familiar with, that alone among screams truly encompasses all that is vile, and horrible, and pitiless in death. It is a piercing ululation from which even banshees quail in their cold and niter-crusted crypts, the wail of the damned who have apprehended their damnation fully in the soul-shattering terror of their final, frantic, futile moments of agonized life and awareness, as they are rent, and torn, and devoured alive by that which bites, and chews and bites again…

I shudder now to remember it, but I did not hear it for the first time this day.

No, I was not that fortunate.

When I was a young man, making my way in the world during my first years away from home, I worked for a season in a fishing village some days up the coast, where the waters are cold and the waves vast and restless and ruthless. A man fell overboard one day, and it was his great misfortune that an old grandfather shark was trolling nearby. Doused as the man was with the blood and oil of a long day’s catch, he had little chance, though safety lay but a arm’s length away.

He screamed that scream, when the old monster came and bit and chewed. He screamed that scream, through the blood that fountained from his mouth, with the rank effluvia of his eviscerated body erupting from the churning, scarlet froth around him.

He was screaming that scream when the demon-fish dragged him out of the world of the living and the sane.

I left the sea that day, never to return, for I could not bear the thought that one day, I might hear that scream once more.

But I heard it again today, even so. I heard it in the streets of my village; I heard it in the tavern where I ate and drank with my friends; I heard it in the shops of my competitors and in the homes of my customers.

It seemed as if I heard it everywhere

I fear that I cannot convey to Your Eminence the exact details of the next few hours, as they blur so in my memory. That I am here at all, graced by your hospitality and protected by your sovereign might, is due to the nature of my profession. As a purveyor of items which are often rare and costly, it was a matter of necessity that I create and maintain a place of business somewhat more secure than the average village shoppe. Thick doors and shutters with heavy crossbars, aided by a bit of common sense and quiet, kept me safe long enough to gather my wits, observe the snarling, snapping menace in the streets for some time, and come to a series of conclusions.

Whether these things are truly the risen dead, we will no doubt determine in time. Suffice to say that, for all the humanity and vulnerability they display, they might as well be dead. In my time of observation, I saw them shrug off crossbow bolts, swords, axes and spears, unless those blows chanced to fall upon and breach the skull. In those cases, they died – or died again – as any mortal man would from such a wound.

I also saw that their preferred means of dispatching prey was to overbear the victim and tear at exposed flesh until the unfortunate ceased to struggle, or escaped in some manner.

Sadly, I further noted that escape in the moment did not always mean true liberation. Whatever this madness, this sickness is, it spreads – like the pestilences of vampirism and lycanthropy – through the bite. But those latter afflictions, by comparison, flow like molasses. A stalwart band with nerve, knowledge and skill are more than enough for a nest of leeches or a pack of wolf-runners. Not so with this plague: it breeds its odious offspring far too swiftly for anything but an army to stem.

By the time dusk drew nigh, a calm of sorts had descended on the village. Though the windows and doorways I could see were dark and silent, devoid of any sign of life or habitation, neither could I hear sounds of confrontation and struggle. Most blessed of all – I had not heard that scream for a number of hours.

During the eerie silence that followed sunset, I ate my first meal of the day, and realized in doing so that I could not remain indefinitely in the safety of my fortified shoppe cum residence.

Like many another unmarried shopkeeper or businessman, I took a number of my weekly meals at the tavern, and what provender I enjoyed at home was usually bought fresh and consumed in its entirety. Other than a few bits of fruit, a small bag of nuts and, of course, the odd bottle of wine, I had no sustenance with which to endure a siege of more than a day or two at most. I set that limit in my mind, you see, because I knew my strength, not great at the best of times, would begin to deteriorate dangerously thereafter. worsening my overall chances at ultimate survival.

Such was my train of thought that, by midnight, I had settled upon an adventurous, if somewhat risky, course of action come the morning.

The rest, I’m sure Your Eminence can easily deduce from the nature and extremity of my circumstances upon our first meeting earlier today. But, with your leave, I will continue my narration, if for no other reason than to ease the pain and fear that still linger in my breast.

The remainder of the night passed, with neither sight nor sound of anyone, living or dead, and by dawn I had convinced myself that the plague had burned itself out, like a late summer grass fire.

Knowing that the ghouls relished the taste of bare flesh, I donned this old suit of armor, took an heirloom broadsword down from the wall, and stole – as well as one can steal in steel plate – out into the street, to search for food and drink, and reconnoiter in general.

The village was littered with gnawed and dismembered human corpses, but I saw nothing whatsoever that moved on two legs. The ghouls have no appetite for anything less than man-meat, and it was not long before I found an abandoned buckboard, the horse still in harness and grazing idly by the roadside.

Relieved that I not longer had to bear the weight of my arms and armor, I am afraid I became overconfident. I had been traveling less than an half a day when that gang you so skillfully and elegantly eliminated lurched out of the weeds and spooked the nag. Again, they wanted nothing to do with her, but she was terrified nonetheless and bolted. The unexpected appearance of the ghouls and the sudden acceleration served to overbalance me, and I toppled from the wagon.

As Your Most Perceptive Eminence has already observed, I was fortunate beyond comprehension to gain my feet after that catastrophe. Unfortunately, by the time I did so, the only avenue open to me was across that sodden field. My broadsword was at that moment racing away from me in the boot of the buckboard, and there was nothing for it in my panicked mind but to run.

And then the sky opened up, and I was saved from the ravenous dead by the benevolence and mercy of Sunnurra, the Grand Witch of the West.

Were it not for her, may she be blessed and praised for all eternity, I too would have screamed that scream today.

(As dictated to her scribe by the aforementioned Most Serene, etc.)

V

It is not unusual, in the Emerald Realms, to find well-to-do folk in possession of a full compliment of teeth, magic being, as it is, a commodity and service readily available to those able and willing to pay the freight.

Further, in the Realms – and it is to be suspected, in many another world as well – it goes without saying that any non-commissioned officer of the City Watch with even a marginal grasp of the fine art of graft is by default well-to-do, and then some.

Thus, it was not strange that Sergeant Lumm of the City Watch, pock-faced ogre that he was, nonetheless grinned down at the petite, good looking – and rather immodestly green – young woman with a broad expanse of flawless ivory.

Ah, Sunnu thought, the gift of inspiration…

Sunnu’s patience had evaporated in the first second of the encounter, when it became clear this was no official interdiction. True, one of the perks of being a Grand Witch was eternal and unmatchable beauty – if you craved that sort of thing – but she had the distinct impression this walking male genital had no real cognizance of higher concepts such as beauty. She grieved for the local livestock when he was in his cups.

“Out of my way, you drooling oaf,” she said, and almost walked into him when he failed to yield ground to her advance.

Like a good natured but randy retriever, Lumm took her rejection for “I want to play,” and his grin widened even more as he leered down at her from his not inconsiderable height, reaching out as if he actually intended to lay hands upon her person! He had to outweigh her by a factor of three, wore boiled leather armor on his head and torso, hefted a table-leg-sized truncheon as if it were a conductor’s baton, and was quite likely used to taking advantage of any female that took his fancy.

Sunnu closed her eyes in what the ignorant, arrogant Lumm took to be fright, but was in fact delicious anticipation. The moist, black fork of her tongue flickered once over her lips and she sighed in gratitude.

She really needed this.

Thank you, sweet Darkness and Night, she breathed silently, for this present…

With a sideways whip of her arm, she snapped the broomstick out to her left, parallel to the ground, holding it as easily as the constable held his truncheon. All eyes on the street shot to the gnarled length of the besom, as it writhed – not like a snake, but rather like a pupa twisting within the thin shell of the chrysalis that it will momentarily shed. The separate twigs of the brush came alive, tiny gorgon-snakes that wrapped themselves tightly around the shaft, forming a woven knob, hard as seasoned oak and sharp as troll-mined quartz.

In the blink of an eye, the broomstick bulged, thinned, lengthened and contracted, settling at last into the form of a shillelagh, a thick, knobby club a yard long with that wickedly gnarled, creased and fluted head.

The sergeant’s eyes went wide, and his mouth flew open. “Oh…” he managed to say, but the “no!” leaped away into the air with the majority of his front teeth. The whip-crack of the scything blow would have sounded to the stunned witnesses like a gunshot, had they known what gunshots sound like. The witless watchman spun a full quarter turn before his twisting body and motionless feet conspired to lay him out in the muddy street like felled timber.

Sunnu flourished the broomstick-turned-warhammer, spinning it on the axis of her stiffened hand, stopping it with a sudden curl of her fist. The attentive, collective gaze of her audience now followed hers, to the tiny smear of scarlet that glowed in the afternoon light, adorning one of the sharp knobs of the war-club’s head.

In speechless incredulity, the onlookers watched as she first sniffed, then licked the thumb-sized stain.

Then she made a face, wrinkling her nose in a way that would have been most fetching, had she not then snarled and spat a gob of slimy, glistening crimson onto the prone body of the toothless and unconscious sergeant.

Hardened butchers, bouncers and brigands spun to the walls and vomited on their shoes as she smiled at the crowd with coy sweetness, and allowed her broom to return to its accustomed form.

To their credit, a pair of junior watchman who had accompanied the hapless Sergeant Lumm managed to hold onto their lunches, and bolted from the scene at high speed, the dissonant, high-pitched bleats of their alarm whistles soon swallowed up as the ebb and flow of business as usual reasserted dominance.

Citizens high and low stepped over the oozing body of the defanged sergeant as if he were nothing more than an errant pile of offal.

A fitting analogy, Sunnu congratulated herself.

“That’s going to mean trouble,” Jacley said, appearing at her right elbow, helmet under his arm and axe over his shoulder. Upon awakening that morning, he had considered the matter, then donned only those pieces of armor that served to cover his shoulders, upper back and arms. He also retained helmet and gauntlets, as well as the woodsman’s axe.

The Witch had nodded at the wisdom of these choices.

Then they walked to the nearby road, where Jacley had been unhorsed, as it were, by marauding ghouls just the day before, and turned right, in the direction of Jacley’s intended destination all along, the market town of Slough.

Sunnu could have whisked them to the gates of Slough, but there was much to be said, in her experience, for literally getting the lay of the land. Nor was she disappointed on this occasion. By the time they hove in view of Slough, she had gleaned much information from the land-spirits thereabouts.

The human dead were, indeed, rejecting the yoke of death, and rising again to wreak havoc upon their brethren – it was the talk of the forest grapevine, if you will. As the feasters from the grave had thus far evinced no inclination to devour anything but long-pig, the local flora and fauna were in an ecstasy of grisly delight as humankind got its long-overdue comeuppance.

She had to say she rather agreed with them, but their celebration was incidental to her needs.

More to the point, she learned that the pestilence appeared to have originated in the North, was moving roughly South and East, but had not yet reached the vicinity of Slough.

She was considering her options, toying with plans, when she and Jacley crossed the drawbridge, passed under the portcullis, and strolled through the gates of Slough, where Sunnu came to the immediate and unwelcome attention of Lumm the Soon-To-Be-Toothless.

Now she grinned at her henchman’s dire warning, patting him on the cheek with believable if not wholly genuine affection. “You are so precious sometimes,” she said sweetly. As she dropped her hand, she let the needle tips of her talons graze his skin ever so lightly, arching her eyebrow at the shiver that ran through him.

Oooooo… she thought with cruel amusement. Snow on the roof but fire in the hearth, eh?

She laughed gayly at the droll notion, and flowers wilted nearby, as if an errant, icy breath of wintery death had blown upon them. A water-jug shattered of its own accord, milk curdled in the paps of new mothers – two- and four-footed alike – and hardened gutter-rats found elsewhere to be.

In the mortician’s parlor three alleys over, a day-old corpse gasped in fear.

Ears bled, fingernails split to the quick, and more than one poor citizen lost control of certain private bodily functions.

A contingent of watchmen, racing around the corner to the rescue of old Sergeant Lumm, ran smack into that laugh like a run-away melon wagon smashing backwards into an unyielding barrier.

This time, as the dozen-odd loutish civil servants tumbled over one anther in a vain attempt to salvage a modicum of dignity and keep their distance from the emerald apparition cackling so evilly at them, private citizens on the street stopped what they were doing and began to applaud.

VI

When the Witch of the West entered his sanctum sanctorum in the bowels of the Town Hall, leading a cowed group of watchmen and trailing an amused and expectant array of loafers, lack-wits and layabouts behind, His Honor Brindley Mourn, Mayor of Slough, made what was perhaps the single most important – and life-preserving – decision of his political career: he leaped to his feet as if he had just realized he was sitting on an irate adder. With a sweeping bow that would have done justice to any court in the Realms, he offered her the throne-like Mayoral Seat behind the considerable acreage of the Mayoral Desk.

Sunnu nodded graciously to the old duffer, and moved around the desk to sit in the huge chair, with the air of consummate entitlement that was her birthright, as much a part of her as the faint green luminescence of her skin.

The reader may be interested to know, at this juncture, that the sudden shift in power, rather than monkey-wrenching the wheels of local government, actually served to shore up what had become, in just a few short days, a rather shaky regime; it certainly helped to dampen a rising, though as yet unseen, tide of panic in the rank and file of the Slough civil service.

Day after day, week after week, these much-maligned worthies struggled to keep the wheels on despite the eccentric, irresponsible and extravagant incompetence of Mayor Mourn, earning a sizable portion of their unpopularity by taking the heat for his nonsense, being the public face of his frivolities and failures.

Over the past two days, his watchmen, clerks, stewards, advisors and other support personnel had struggled in vain to convince His Nibs that something was very, very wrong in the North, and the wrongness was on its way South, right toward the gates of Slough. Whether the Honorable Mayor didn’t have the wit to grasp the situation, or just didn’t care to – opinions at Town Hall were running fifty-fifty – the members of the bureaucracy who worked for a living breathed a collective sigh of relief when Mayor Mourn made his fateful decision, and rule passed into a pair of cold green hands.

She might have been paisley, for all the civil servants cared. They knew a born and bred leader when they saw one, and they began to have hope. What was a disreputable and discredited hedge-wizard in a glass tower far away, compared to one of the Four in their very midst?

Mayor Mourn hovered, uncertain as to his fate in the coming seconds. But Sunnurra dismissed him with a flick of her glittering fingertips, saying, “I have no desire to rule this…town, Mourn. Consider this a vacation, while I sort out this situation. Eminent domain, and all that. You may return to your…duties when I am gone, for all I care.”

Though lightening does not strike twice in the same place, common sense sometimes does. Mourn’s eyes widened a trifle as he digested the parameters of his new circumstances and calculated the possible benefits. Then he departed with an alacrity that would have done credit to Sunnu’s gargoyles.

The gestalt that was the civil service shrugged philosophically: Well, you can’t win ‘em all.

And a lot can happen to a disenfranchised elected official during a crisis…

Sunnu’s broom took up a position just behind her left shoulder, hovering upright so that it appeared to be standing on its brush. It loomed, in a way besoms usually don’t, and one got the distinct and definite impression it was guarding her, an impression no one present cared to test. Jacley occupied a similar position on her right; with his assorted bits of armor and the double-bladed axe, his looming was a bit more explicable.

Timing, it is said, is everything, and Olvid Saffwell, Master of the City Watch, would have agreed, as he barreled past the departing mayor with the barest flicker of recognition and sympathy. Sliding around a corner in the tiled hallway, he burst through the doors of Mourn’s erstwhile office, and skidded to a stop, all but impaled on the frigid points and edges of the greenest, most inhuman stare it had ever been his displeasure to meet.

Flustered already and further intimidated by that gaze, Saffwell quite forgot his manners, until the broom standing behind the Witch leaned forward and glowered at him; he quickly sketched out an adequate if clumsy bow.

No sooner had he opened his mouth to give voice to a well-rehearsed and self-serving introduction than the Witch held up an imperious hand.

“I know who you are, Watchmaster,” she said, her eyes shifting then to a thin, studious-looking fellow clutching an armful of scrolls like a mother holding her babes.

Sunnu nodded slightly. “Chief Scribe…” Her aloof and eldritch regard moved on to yet a third individual, a spinsterish woman with bobbed gray hair, and the Witch gave a final brief nod.

“And Madam Steward of the Exchequer,” the Witch concluded her enumeration of the major public officials present. There were others, but these would do for a start. Her gaze swept over the others in the big room, and that alone was sufficient to clear it of everyone else.

There was no particular threat, no intimidating aura of evil in that look of hers. Rather, it held the absolute assurance of obedience that one will witness only in true aristocracy. There was simply no possibility that her desire would not be divined and her will obeyed, and that utter conviction transmitted itself instantly through her gaze, along with the message: “Get out!”

Sunnu did notice, however, that one fellow remained for a moment after most had fallen over themselves getting through the door, his eyes lingering on her, though he had the good manners – or good sense – not to meet her eyes directly. He was a striking fellow: tall, broad of shoulder, lean of hip; with a lithe, swaggering grace that she found…alluring. His countenance, framed by a mane of long, thick, tawny locks was as beautiful and regal, in its masculine way, as hers. His eyes flashed a brilliant yellow-amber in counterpoint to her own of dark, fathomless jade.

And then, for the briefest of moments, the knave did dare to look her in the eyes, and – by Darkness and Night! – had the temerity to smile! A lazy, arrogant, self-satisfied tomcat smile at that!

She blinked in astonishment and he was gone, the door closing on the wide expanse of his retreating back. With a shock of both fury and delight, she realized that she had just missed the serve, and was now a point down in a game she hadn’t even been playing a heartbeat ago.

Well! she thought, with a not-unpleasant mixture of indignation and fascination. I’m going to be a bit busy over the next few days, my fine fellow, but we shall see – we shall see, indeed…

Dismissing, for the present, thoughts of the intriguing rogue, she turned her attention back to those anxiously awaiting her pleasure, and declared their first council of war in session by asking, “Shall I ring for tea?”

Then she smiled her sweet, shark-like smile…

VII

The next morning found Sunnu back in the Mayoral Seat – in point of fact, she never left it, at least not in a physical sense. She listened with pleasure and satisfaction as the brand new Militia of Slough (Slough Militia having been rejected for obvious reasons of morale) drilled in the town square to the sonorous syllables of their new marching-chant:

O-Ee-Yah! Eoh-Ah! O-Ee-Yah! Eoh-Ah!

When you’re hot… she chuckled to herself.

As the astute reader has no doubt observed, Her Augustness, Sunnurra of the Sunset, is not a Witch given to being startled. Even so, it is possible that she jumped ever so slightly when, with a sharp clack!, an entire bookshelf along the south wall of Mourn’s office swung inward like a huge door, and a hulking, filthy ghoul shambled into her presence, tracking muddy bootprints across the rich embroidery of the antique carpet.

Further, it is conceivable that her eyes widened a trifle, as the ghoul halted its advance, doffed its hat, and bowed with a fluid grace quite at odds with its initial stiff-limbed bearing.

To complete the bizarre tableau, ever-faithful, ever-vigilant Broom whipped into the space between Witch and wraith, not so much hovering as quivering watchfully, a spear frozen in mid-flight, ready to resume its deadly plunge in the flicker of an eyelid. Without straightening from its bow, the thing on the carpet looked up, and went cross-eyed trying to focus on the tip of the broomstick less than a hand-span from the tip of its nose.

A Kodak moment, if ever there was one…

“Broom! Heel!” Sunnu said softly, and without hesitation, Broom zipped backward to hover at her left shoulder. With obvious relief, the weedy apparition straightened.

He – for man he was – resembled nothing so much as the first ghoul Sunnu had encountered, the scarecrow-ish old cadaver she turned into a walking bonfire by way of introduction. The clothes looked as if they had seen both sides of the grave quite recently; twigs, bits of dried leaves or loam, even the occasional grub continued to fall at intermittent intervals to the expensive floor covering. His face was filthy to the point of anonymity, though his hands were covered by clumsy-looking work gloves secured at the wrists by knotted cords and garnished with short pieces of hay or dried meadow-grass. Even the hair under the torn and battered hat was tangled and greasy. The only element that was not in evidence was the sickish, rotten odor of the actual ghouls. In its stead, Sunnu detected the unmistakeable smell of greasepaint.

In short, she was looking at one of the most thorough examples of non-magical disguise she had ever come across.

Sunnurra considered the fellow with growing interest and amusement.

Whatever else he might be, he was no rube. His bow had been well-practiced, and he refrained from following it with some stentorian declamation about who and how magnificent he was. Rather, as proper etiquette dictated, he awaited her notice and acknowledgement in polite silence.

To the uninitiated, this might seem rather odd: to burst, unknown, unannounced and unaccompanied into the presence of a sovereign liege without so much as a by your leave or beg your pardon? Rest assured, good reader – there is an ancient though somewhat convoluted logic behind this.

Here is how it works: You, peasant that you are, are incapable under any circumstances of discommoding your betters, as that would imply some measure of parity with or even power over said betters which is, of course, unthinkable. Further, it is not your place to decide whether or not it is important enough to interrupt your liege by placing yourself at your liege’s immediate convenience, as that would suggest you might possibly know better than your liege and, again, that just cannot be, in a sane and ordered Universe.

Your duty as a loyal retainer is simply to suit up, show up and shut up until your services are required, even if doing so earns you a rebuke for rudeness or presumption.

Yes, it is a bit of a conundrum, but then, that’s your problem, not hers…

Sunnu smiled her special smile. “And you are?”

Now, it was the intruder’s turn to widen his eyes a bit, but he regained his composure in an instant. He inclined his head in a quarter-bow, looking not into her eyes, but – again with admirable etiquette and not a little self-discipline – at the vicinity of her chin, and said, “I am Rolger, lately Mayor Mourn’s special agent at large.”

“Ah!” Sunnu exclaimed with delight, “A spy!”

She laughed, and an entire murder of crows fell over dead in the courtyard below her windows.

“As Your Majesty will,” Rolger murmured, perhaps goaded into his first lapse in etiquette by the appellation “spy.”

“I am not your Majesty,” she said, though less sharply than she might have, “or anyone else’s, for that matter. Oh, don’t look like I’ve just harpooned you – it’s a common enough mistake: I’m not going to have you executed for it. This time…”

She had to laugh again, at the look on his face. In the bakery across the street, an entire oven-full of cakes went flat as an old maid’s bosom.

“‘Majesty’,” she informed him, “is a title reserved for the hereditary monarch of a kingdom. I am not a princess, I am a Power. You would do well to remember that.”

Being a Grand Witch is as much stagecraft as it is witchcraft, as the more a Witch is feared, the less she is required to act in a fearsome manner. Which, enjoyable as it may be, it just too exhausting to maintain twenty-four/seven.

Like many another Witch and leader, Sunnu maintained a rotating compliment of verbal reminders which served to reaffirm who was in authority and what the possible repercussions might be of bucking that authority. In her experience, sprinkling these liberally throughout her conversations with underlings went a long way to keeping the help in line.

“My name’s as good as anyone else’s,” she told him in conclusion, “certainly preferable to any sycophantic label. You may use it in private. M’Lady is also acceptable, of course.”

She eased back into the beeswax-scented embrace of the Mayoral Seat, fingers steepled under her chin. The wicked hooks of her ebony talons glittered in the light that jostled its way through hand-blown glass panes. “So, my dear Rolger: What news from the North?”

Unable to keep from staring at the curved obsidian needles, not to mention the ample swell of jade bosom not entirely concealed by black silk, Rolger swallowed, cleared his throat, and delivered his report.

VIII

Well, M’Lady, I’ve been gathering intelligence for Mourn going on eighteen months now. Nothing untoward, I assure you: no delving for skeletons in the closets of political rivals or anything of that sort. Mourn was a bit of a dolt – begging your pardon, M’Lady – but he had a streak of native cunning, if naught else. He was savvy enough to realize that, at the end of the day, he couldn’t depend on hearsay to tell him what was happening in distant parts. So he paid me, and rather handsomely, I might add, to be his eyes and ears elsewhere.

I’ve heard that some of the folks here in the Hall think Mourn was ignoring their warnings, sticking his head in the sand, but I think he might have been waiting for me to return with dependable information, at least in part. I regret that I couldn’t get here sooner, although I’m not sure, in retrospect, that it would have made much difference. I doubt Mourn could have dealt with the kind of news I bring.

I also understand that you, Lady Sunnurra, have crossed swords, as it were, with these ghouls, but hesitate – again, with your indulgence – to admit that they are in fact nothing less than the walking dead. I can assure you, M’Lady, on my honor and my life: these creatures are not merely dead, they are really most sincerely dead.

My usual practice is to travel as an itinerant tinker; such folk rarely attract attention or arouse suspicion with their nomadic wanderings, especially if they can demonstrate, as I can, an actual aptitude for the work, a fortunate legacy from my childhood.

So I was walking North toward Unctia along the Road, when I found myself set upon by what I thought was a brigand or, perhaps even a madman.

As M’Lady can doubtless surmise, an individual in my particular line of work often finds it providential to know the finer points of defending oneself. However, it is equally true that even killing a highwayman in a fair fight is a sure way to get oneself noticed, particularly by the sort of people and institutions I would just as soon avoid whenever possible.

You will then understand, I trust, when I say that I tried my utmost to avoid doing the fellow fatal harm, but in the end was forced to run him through with a dagger.

Unfortunately, this extremity had no more apparent effect upon the ghastly thing than my previous, less terminal efforts. Although I was confused, and beginning to feel more than a little supernatural trepidation, I was also curious about this horrible phenomenon.

Therefore, I assayed to re-employ my wrestling skills, and soon had the creature belly-down and defenseless at the side of the Road.

Again, M’Lady, I trust you will accept my word when I say that I am quite versed in detecting the signs of life, even when they are suppressed or distorted by drugs, illness or injury. I took my time, so that I might be absolutely certain in making such a weighty conclusion, and satisfied myself beyond any possible doubt that the man was dead. Stone dead, and not only moving, but struggling with savagery and strength every second of its captivity to tear me limb from limb.

Once I had determined that the abomination was in fact undead, I satisfied myself on another vital point, and killed the thing for the final time.

This I accomplished by inserting the dagger I mentioned at the base of its skull, thrusting up into the brainpan, and – your pardon, M’Lady – stirring a little. My rather drastic remedy nonetheless deprived the monster of animation, and in the hour that I continued to observe it, it did not move again.

I regret that I did not have the opportunity to bury the poor man’s corpse. But it was obvious that time and many another factor were already against me – and against the innocents of these lands. I took time to observe the body, that is true, but I had to be sure my…solution was as efficacious as it first appeared. I also felt the need to consider my options carefully, in light of my recent discoveries.

At least I can say that someone sat the deathwatch with him, if only for an hour or so. It is so much more than so many will get, before this is done.

This pestilence is an infection in more ways than one, M’Lady: it has broken out in a series of festering eruptions across the Northern marches of the Emerald Realms, but has yet to really take hold. The singular distribution of our populace has thus far limited the spread of this corruption. Our major population centers are the Emerald City at the Center, and the cities and settlements around the Grand Circuit. In between, there are farmlands, and the occasional market town or shire seat like Slough. There aren’t that many people to infect to begin with, and they are widely scattered, again except for the towns and villages, which themselves are few and far between.

But if this horror reaches the Circuit, you and your cousins will alone remain in a world populated by the ravenous dead.

Begging M’Lady’s pardon, of course…

I took the Lesser Circuit, the so-called Circ-ette, around the City, but went no farther North than Unctia. There was no need. It was a funeral pyre. It’s a wonder that they didn’t see the smoke down here in Slough. But then, towns burn so much faster and hotter when there’s no one left to fight the flames.

I retraced my route, anxious to bring word back to Mourn and then, if I may be frank, continue on towards parts South.

Extremely South, if M’Lady takes my meaning.

Ironically, while I had no difficulty avoiding intermittent encounters with the ghouls – except when and as I chose to confront them – I was nearly slain twice by living men.

Apparently, after too many days traveling and surviving in the rough, and too many scuffles with the living dead, I look a bit like one at a distance. At least two rustics took shots at me with crossbows – one yesterday and one just after breakfast this morning.

And frankly, M’Lady, after what I’ve seen of what’s coming, I really can’t say as I blame them.

IX

With orders to eat, rest and – above all – bathe before attending her again in the evening, Rolger took his leave, eschewing the secret door for the more quotidian exit to the hallway. The Witch of the Sunset Rose tapped one long, slender, certain-death-tipped finger on the desk blotter, widening and deepening the hole that had been growing, by degrees, since she first sat in the detestable Mayoral Seat.

To have any hope of accurate insight into the personage of the Witch of the West, one must gain at least an academic appreciation of the nature of True Evil.

True Evil, like True Love, is a Force of nature, not a worn out cliche in a two-bit fairytale. True Evil, in fact, has no need – and little use – for such commonalities as ruthlessness, cruelty, pitilessness, savagery and the like. While it is undeniable that True Evil finds a kind of poetry or art in suffering and death, is that really so different from the generals who delight in the so-called “art of war” and the carnage it entails? Do certain skilled – nay, gifted! – surgeons not take great pleasure in what is essentially the butchery of the human body? And let’s not even start on gym teachers, bootcamp instructors and theater critics.

As has been intimated in a previous chapter, tyranny is only practical if, as tyrant, one is willing and able to put a tremendous amount of time and energy into it, and it is much the same with an Evil Reputation.

True Evil tends to be a solitary path, as well. Tyranny often requires scads of sycophants, courtiers and other such parasites as window dressing in Gothic fortresses and palatial throne-rooms. The thought of the psychic turbulence created by such a mass of empty heads all tuned to the same, vacuous hum was enough to a cause Witch like Sunnu to blanch a pale shade of lime.

True Evil tends to breed a far more laissez faire despot, much more the benevolent dictator than any historic pretender to that title you care to name. Within broad parameters – most of them, to be fare, evolved from ancient forms of propriety and decorum, and all of them more or less meant to keep people the Hell away – the monarch of True Evil doesn’t give a toss what the peasants do or what happens to them.

But, as we see here, it is a very conditional neglect: Sunnu wouldn’t have been particularly concerned if her peasantry was wiped out in a flood, but she’d be Damned by Darkness and Night if she’d let a plague of walking cadavers gimp across her borders and do the same. That sailed far too close to violating one of the Unwritten Guidelines of True Evil: If you draw back a stump, it’s mine.

All of this is to say: In the event the worthy reader feels that Sunnu’s behavior toward the townsfolk up to this point has been rather more even-tempered and light-fisted than you would have expected from the Wicked Witch of the West, be assured that no “other” ruby slipper waits to drop and shatter on the lemon-yellow lane. What you see is indeed True Evil, in all its unremarkable and rather unexciting glory.

It isn’t all that much different from corporate life, when you think about it…

As Sunnu now considered her immediate options, she became aware of a growing irritation: a high, discordant tinkling, as if the disharmonious notes of an ill-tuned harp were being ground together with broken glass.

Yawning an indelicate yawn to ease the pressure on her inner ear, Sunnu watched incredulously as an opalescent sphere, a soap bubble filled with swirling white mist, floated rather erratically through the tall windows and hovered over the carpet, to one side of the miniature swamp left behind by Rolger.

The tinkling rose in pitch and timbre, and Sunnu had to take herself in hand to avoid grinding her teeth, which would have necessitated several rounds of medicinal spell-work on the inside of her mouth in the aftermath.

The soap bubble expanded to a girth not much less than that of a single-seat pumpkin carriage, and burst with a tired little pop, releasing a billowing cloud of thick, pungent tobacco smoke.

A face emerged from the roiling white mass, a grandmotherly, god-motherly, cherubic face, whose likeness to a spinster librarian was somehow not lessened by the long clay pipe clenched in yellowed but all-present-and-accounted-for teeth. A chubby, short-fingered hand – the kind one would expect to find in a batch of cookie dough, or washing a newborn – removed the pipe, so that there could be no mistaking the ear-to-ear grin.

“You!” Sunnurra shouted, surging to her feet and sending the Mayoral Seat slamming into the wall behind with force sufficient to splinter the wainscoting. Her fury rippled outward in a palpable shockwave that set lovesick young couples nearby to fighting like they’d been married for six decades. Fat old geldings who hadn’t raised a hoof to another horse in a decade began boxing in the stables and fighting cocks turned on their handlers and shred them to the bone. A priest slapped a penitent on account of her profession, and she him for being a lousy tipper.

Gliaannda, former Witch of the North. Gliaannda the Greedy, the only Witch of the Rose ever to be impeached by her peers. Gliaannda the Gullible, taken in by the snake-oil peddler who styled himself “the Wizard of Oz,” whoever, whatever or wherever Oz was.

Gliaannda the Glib, mouthpiece and, ultimately, scapegoat for a terminally unpopular regime.

Gliaannda of the Guillotine, that most gruesome of the Wizard’s inventions, created especially for the occasion of her execution on the grounds of treason.

“Phantasm! Homoncula!” Sunna roared. For a mile around, an entire generation of rats were stillborn. She leveled a lethal forefinger at the intruder, hurling her words like rocks:

“I! Watched! You! Die!”

The grinned only widened.

“Sweetie Darling,” Gliand said, voice roughened to gravel on gravel by too many years of Longrotten Leaf and Ye Olde Painte Removaer, “it’s like ol’ Mandrake used to say: Thing’s ain’t always as they seem…”

X

No one – least of all Sunnurra herself – will ever know precisely what stayed her hand in that moment. It may, perhaps, have been yet another manifestation of True Evil. True Evil, the reader may recall, is not necessarily given to showy demonstrations of Power and wrath, unless there is a definite, desirable goal to be achieved from same. It would have been oh so satisfying, in that moment of vexation, to hurl the Damnation of Darkness and Night at the presumptuous old trollop before her, but…

Sunnurra’s eyes narrowed in calculation and cunning.

But would it be strategically sound?

Here again, in slavery to their egos, lesser villains might lack even an awareness of the bigger picture, let alone the self-discipline to set aside immediate personal gratification for the sake of the greater scheme. But the Sunset Witch was nothing if not self-disciplined.

Ironically, the tension was defused somewhat when faithful Broom once again interposed itself between its mistress and a perceived threat. It hung in the air an arm’s reach from Gliand’s face, quivering like an attack dog awaiting the command to kill.

The traitor-ess merely smiled, and tapped it on the rounded point of its knobby end with the long stem of her pipe, the way one might tease an excitable but otherwise harmless lapdog.

Despite herself, Sunnu had to swallow a chuckle. Broom did take its duties a trifle too seriously at times.

“Broom!” she called, and it was back at her shoulder in an eye-blink.

Sunnu took herself in hand and straightened to a more regal posture, disdain for Gliand radiating from every fiber. Her lips thinned as she set her jaw, and said in practiced, haughty tones:

“Explain yourself, Gliaannda: What are you doing here? How are you here in the first place, and what in the Names of Darkness and Night do you want?”

The former Witch of the North winced, not at the invocation of the Names, but at the mention of her past moniker.

“Just call me Annda now,” she said, frowning.

“Reinvented ourself, have we?” Sunnu sneered, and with a flick of a finger, brought the massive Mayoral Seat sliding back under her ample, eldritch bottom. She sat, with an ever-so-slightly petulant swirl of her robes.

Taking this as her cue, Annda glanced at the squirming pile of mulch that now occupied Rolger’s erstwhile seat, and sidled across the carpet to its twin. She sat with a grateful sigh, and began the lengthy process of putting away her pipe. Ex-Witch or no, live coals are live coals.

When it was secured to her satisfaction, she gave Sunnu the benefit of a frank, level gaze, and said, “You really have to pay more attention to the technologically sophisticated dimensions, Sunnu. They can be horrible places to live, but there’s still some errant wisdom floating around nonetheless. The Face of Fu-Manchu, Hallman Productions, 1965 local. Most people think it’s a Hammer film, but it isn’t.”

Sunnurra didn’t need to comprehend the last bit of gibberish to know its content didn’t interest her in the least. “Stop blathering. Get to the point.”

Annda spread her hands in a helpless gesture, as if The Face of Fu-Manchu ought to have been full and sufficient explanation.

“In other words, Sunny, I faked my death,” Annda said, twisting the nickname like a stiletto in Sunnurra’s unsuspecting gut.

A run-away chain-reaction of fury erupted in the Witch of the West at the snide – and deliberate – resurrection of the childhood taunt. Fortune, however, was with the local animal life – human and otherwise – as an automatic failsafe tripped somewhere in Sunnurra, and the pure, crystalline manifestation of her wrath, unseen, unadulterated and unbearable, was shunted into the nearest expendable object.

The Mayoral Desk, half a ton of rare wood if it was an ounce, turned to singed sawdust in whisper, drifting gently to the floor.

It was Annda’s turn to be taken somewhat aback. “I see,” she said, clearing her throat behind a discreet hand, “that you’ve been working out. Most…impressive.”

“If you liked that,” Sunnu said with a Truly Evil grin, demonstrating that she, too, had been a dimension-hopping cosmopolitan back in the day, “you’re gonna love this!”

She turned one palm upward, and made a “Get up!” gesture toward the ceiling.

The pile of cellulose that had lately been a desk stirred, then leaped into the air, reassembling itself even as it rose into a forest of wooden needles that at once surrounded Annda in a lethal, inward-threatening sphere.

“No more bullshit, good cuz,” Sunnu said in the cold voice of absolute zero tolerance, “Spit it out. Now!

Whether she was intimidated or not, no Witch, not even a de-broomed outcast, would show it. Annda reached out a slow finger and tested the point of the closest needle.

Finding it, we must assume, sufficient to its task, she sighed, and began her story.

“Dying,” she said, “is something I prefer to avoid at all costs…”

XI

I’m not going to tell you how, in the end, I dodged ol’ Madame Guillotine’s sharp kiss, so let’s get over that here and now, shall we, and move on? Good.

I think you can appreciate, in a professional sense let’s say: that’s one little trick I may have to use again, so I don’t want to let the kitty too far out of the bag. Fu-Manchu is way too much of a clue for my own good, although you might have a little difficulty researching it, all things considered.

I will tell you this though, and you can take it for kiss-ass if you want: You were the only one I sweated about, Sunnu – you were the only one of our little circle of sociopaths that I knew I had to fool, or I really was dead meat.

I’ll pick up the story a bit after you thought you saw me go under the knife, as it were. I was in the wind well before that, but actually getting away took so long that, by the time I could stand still in one place for any length of time, it was days after my, ahem, exaggerated demise.

A lot of the time I spent on the lam was devoted to laying down false trails, just in case someone got wise to my little switcheroo, trails leading far from the Emerald Realms, in curious directions.

But then I doubled back. I decided the best place to hide was under the very noses of anyone who might be looking. I also thought it had a little irony, a little style.

I went to hide in the Kansas dimension.

I know how much you hate that place, Sunnu, so I reckon you’ll be pleased to hear:

Nobody’s in Kansas anymore…

See that, Sunnu? That’s not old age trembles, dear cuz: it’s the mere thought of what I saw there. Whatever else you may think of me, have you ever known me to be squeamish in the least? I like to gave up eating while I was there – every time I turned around, I was walking into another horror show that brought my last meal back into the light of day.

I doubt even you could have kept your gorge down, Sunnu. Not even you.

At first I thought the devastation was limited to Kansas, some kind of home-grown catastrophe. It was such a wretched place, no one in the Realms would have been the least bit surprised if it had done itself in somehow. But then I met hoppers who had come to Kansas fleeing the very same pestilence in other dimensions.

It was spreading across the dimensions, Sunnurra!

Kansas – and all the lands of that dimension that lie beyond it – are a wasteland now, where the dead rule and the living run and hide and die. Only to rise again.

It’s what the Emerald Realms will be if we don’t – if we can’t – stop this thing in its tracks.

I’m not going to apologize for my past, Mistress Witch, nor am I going to ask or expect you to forget it or forgive it. But I realized during my sojourn in Kansas that there are times when shit like ruling the world, vengeance, greed and personal satisfaction have to take a backseat to more basic, more urgent issues. After all: If all the peasants are dead, what’s the use and fun of being an evil despot, eh old girl?

I tried to discover how the disease was spreading, whether there was a cure, and how the living were managing to stay that way, if in fact any were. There’s some good news there, but we’ll talk about that later; unfortunately, it doesn’t have any bearing on the immediate shit-storm here.

All that research and back-tracking took me pretty far from the Emerald Realms in truth, way beyond the false trails I’d laid earlier. And you know how the time-tides shift and flux across the dimensions.

I’ve been away a long time by the turn of the glass here – and trust me, it’s felt like a thousand years. But it hasn’t been all that long in my frame of reference. I just caught up with this abomination again, after hounding its spoor across half of Eternity; just before it made the jump to the Realms.

I’ve thought about it quite often, Sunnu, since that night I arrived in Kansas – I really have. What I might have done differently. What I coulda/woulda/shoulda done, as they say in Kansas. Used to say, at any rate. I guess I could have tried to warn the Realms when I discovered what was happening in Kansas, how bad it was. But what was I going to say? Hey, it’s me: I’m not really dead, but the dead are coming from Kansas to eat you, so I thought…

No. For good or ill, I felt I had to act, that I didn’t have time for a fight I couldn’t win.

Now I ask you, cuz: How ironic is that?