A young grave thief, darkly dressed to match the night’s shadows, lay on his belly in the wet grass. He was on a hill, hiding behind a large pile of round stones and looking down into the graveyard that encircled him.
“I’ve seen you robbing the dead,” said a raspy, dry voice. The young thief twisted onto his back and thrust his dagger menacingly at the dark form that hunched over him – a monstrous silhouette against the full moon. After a few fear-filled heartbeats the thief relaxed, smirked, and narrowed his eyes at the form looming above him – a scrawny old man, wrapped in black linen with a billowing burlap cowl hiding his head and face.
“I’ve been watching you steal from them,” the old man repeated hoarsely.
“Bet you’ve done your share of thievin’ too, ya old bastard! Sneakin’ up on the likes of me is a great way to get stuck.” The thief waved his dagger menacingly at the old man who regarded him silently, his eyes and face masked by the cowl and its deep shadow. The young thief wrinkled his nose. “You reek like a month dead pig,” he sneered and then stood slowly, keeping his dagger pointed at the old man. “And just why are you here, you sneaky old stinker?”
“Same as you.” The old man said calmly. He pointed down into the fog filled valley where a blood covered knight in crushed armor lay in the moonlight-cast shadows of a large tree. Fog rolled preternaturally up the hill and surrounded the knight on all sides. Bright red blood, purple in night’s darkness, oozed from the knight’s throat and dripped from his nose, mouth, and his remaining eye. The fog advanced like a predatory beast. Just at the edge of the young thief’s auditory range he could hear hushed cackles and growls and he glanced up at the mountainous horizon, where a thin line of purple light signaled the coming of morning. He smiled grimly at the faint twilight.
“Gods! I’ve been here for over an hour already.” The thief kicked a stone. “Go on and die already,” he whined, gesturing at the dying warrior.
The knight unbuckled his dented breast plate and tore it away from his body with a series of blood congested groans. With shaking arms and limp legs he pushed himself up against the wide trunk of the tree he’d taken respite under. He lay there, looking about himself, his face betraying no hint of fear or pain as he held his sword at the ready. His chest heaved spasmodically, lungs sucking at the cold night air and exhaling steamy grunts of feverish, copper-scented mist.
“He’s mine, stinker,” warned the young robber.
“You may scavenge what you like,” replied the old man. “Then I’ll take what I’ve come for.”
The young thief grimaced and pointed at two dark spots in the fog that swirled and danced, taking the shapes of two monkey-like shadows as they crept on all fours toward the dying knight. “Great,” whined the thief, “if those ghouls get their disease into him neither of us will get anything.”
“We’ll both have our earned due,” the old man said calmly from just behind the thief’s ear. The thief inhaled sharply and turned, staring wide-eyed at the old beggar in his black hood. The thief squinted into the shadowy cowl.
“I thought I said not to do that,” the thief said, this time sticking the point of the dagger against the old bony chest beneath the black cloth. Neither moved for time until the old man slowly raised his arm, wrapped in stained black linen, and pointed down at the knight.
“He fought like the sun through a stormy sky,” said the old man, a hint of anger in his voice, “and he may still see one more dawn.”
A chill reached up the dagger’s blade and hilt and the thief pulled it away from the old man and swallowed dryly. The old man was silent in his dark hood. The thief dropped his gaze and turned away to hide his shame at the fear he felt. He looked down into the valley as the hissing, growling ghouls stalked toward the dying knight who lurched up and raised his sword to meet their advance.
The larger ghoul snarled and dove at the knight who levered his sword with both hands, grunting painfully, and the ghoul fell to the dark ground like a halved apple. The smaller ghoul pondered the fate of its murderous accomplice and eyed the knight cautiously, squatting low and growling like a ravenous hyena.
With nervous haste the young robber sheathed his dagger and picked up his crossbow from the ground. He cranked the string back, dropped a quarrel into the groove and raised the crossbow to his shoulder.
“He’s mine,” he growled. He aimed and fired. The bolt sped past the ghoul, slamming into the knight’s chest and ripping through his heart. The knight dropped his sword and clutched at the shaft protruding from his breast bone. He looked up at the young thief and then his head fell forward and his body slumped into the surreal stillness of death. The ghoul wasted no time, falling upon the dead knight like a wild dog, tearing into his still warm belly with its sharp, yellow claws and teeth.
“Such valor,” the old man said in a raspy whisper, “why did you take away his last moments?”
“I’ve been waiting over an hour,” the thief huffed, wiping his face on his sleeve, “and now that he’s dead he won’t turn ghoul on me.”
They watched the ghoul rip the knight’s torso like a farmer tearing a seed sack. The nightmarish creature pulled out steaming organs, stuffing them greedily into its rotten mouth. The young thief chuckled nervously at the creature as it growled and chewed.
“Go on, little fella, all you can eat and then away with ya.”
“How did you find this place?” Asked the old man from behind him.
“I found a story and a map in an old book that I got off a merchant in Lor. The story said that there was a king from ancient times buried here and that for centuries his spirit has been calling the most virtuous knights in the realm to battle the evil that comes from the heavy, eternal fog of the valley.”
The sound of clanking metal, like armor, suddenly caught the young thief’s attention. He looked down at the ghoul who had dropped the knight’s corpse unceremoniously and turned to look at the golden light of dawn rising behind the purple skyline. As the sun’s rays fell over the grotesque creature it sublimated into a small whirlwind of mist and rejoined the rest of the fog.
The young thief slung his crossbow over his shoulder. “As you noted I’ve come to this place for three moons now. I’ve seen a lot here. Even worse than this.” He pointed down at the gutted knight, laying sprawled in his own blood and entrails. “There is no end to the undeads that crawl from the mist. For every one that is slain, two rise. These poor bastards don’t stand a chance.”
“And you profit by what they leave behind.”
“They are fools who come here to die for glory.”
“He came here to live,” said the old man softly. “And your book is a lie.”
““I don’t really care. I’ve earned enough coin to get me a new whore every night for the last week. And eat like a fat king.” The young thief jovially poked the old man’s upper arm and immediately regretted it, feeling the cold chill once again as his finger struck bone, as if there was no flesh beneath the tattered black robes.
“The knights come for a battle with valor,” the old man said as he walked toward a large pile of stones. “they hope for a king’s blessing but find only his curse.”
“What ever, ya old stinker. This has been fun, but I’ll be needing to get my loot and get back to my bed and the girls I left their.” The young thief looked down where the knight had died. His eyes went wide and his nostrils flared angrily. There was nothing there but shadows and ghoul mist. He furrowed his brow.
“Damn it. I was certain I’d gotten him dead before any ghoul tasted him.” He looked around to see if some animal had dragged the corpse away for its breakfast but saw nothing. “Waste of a night.”
The old beggar looked at the young thief. “Virtue is a light that blinds the proud to all else in their life and so binds us to our own form of undeath.”
“Will you shut u-” The young man’s words were cut off sharply with a squeal of pain. His eyes bulged as he stared down at a ghostly sword, once shining steel, but now green ectoplasm, that had erupted from his chest with the crunch of bone and the tearing of flesh. The young thief was lifted from the ground like meat hanging from a skewer. He looked back over his shoulder at the dead knight standing behind him, now a phantom, like his sword. Blood pooled on the ground beneath the thief. His eyes fluttered and his limbs fell and then dangled limply.
The old beggar drew back his black cowl and straightened the golden crown atop his skeletal head. Two red fires burned in his bony eye sockets. “Leave this one to the mist,” he rasped. “A ghoul in life, a ghoul in death.”
The ghostly knight lowered his sword and the young thief’s body slid from it, becoming mist as it hit the ground. The knight ascended the hill, to the pile of stones at its summit, and knelt before the old man who placed a bony hand on the knight’s helm.
“Come down into my barrow and join your brothers,” said the old king to the knight as they sank into the ground. “We shall endure our valor together, for all time.”