Chapter 12 – A New Beginning 

Twenty-Eighth of Birth 1116 – 26 years Earlier

It was dark. Oppressive. Striker felt pressure all over her body, like a warrior in plate armor had decided to take a nap and use her as a bed. She had yet to realize she was underground. She didn’t taste the dirt that fell into her mouth, though she felt it. She shook her head to clear it, and more dirt drizzled down into her eyes, onto her cheeks.

What the hell?

As soon as the fog in her mind started to clear, Striker realized what must have happened. She struggled frantically through the loosely packed earth, coughing up dirt and small rocks. She was alive. Alive! She remembered

Gallery

the kreve, pictured it as if it still had her clamped in its massive jaws, but when she checked her body, no injuries corresponded to that recollection. Had she dreamt it?

No, she was sure of that. It had happened. No dream could have possibly been that vivid. The pain, the stench of its breath, the sounds of bones cracking. There is no way she could have survived that attack. What did that leave? There was only one possible conclusion.

She had died, after all. Was this the afterlife then? She looked around.

It was dark, but that didn’t seem to impair her vision as much as it should have. She looked up, but there was no moon tonight, or it was hidden behind clouds. She was standing next to a grove of trees as out of place as she was. Short stunted trees to be sure, but trees nonetheless. The patch of dirt from which they grew was an island in a sea of rock. That rock extended in every direction quite a long way. That she could see that far disoriented her further. She looked down at her bare feet and realized she was naked. Whoever had buried her must have stripped her. She tried to imagine what condition her clothes must have been in after the attack and immediately understood why. What she didn’t understand was why her body wasn’t in the same condition.

The possibility that she had become undead, become the enemy, didn’t occur to her even then. So she assumed she was dead, and no one was around to correct that misconception.

She had no idea which way to go, though the ground sloped up in one direction, which might give her a better view of the surrounding area. Well, she had wanted adventure and got it. In the future, she would confine her search for excitement to the times she was sober. A lesson learned the way most of her lessons had been learned—too late to do her any good.

After what seemed like hours of navigating rocky terrain, she noticed a figure somewhat below her, walking with what appeared to be a limp. She made her way to him, carefully climbing over areas where the rock had cracked and in some cases had risen up, making the going treacherous. He finally noticed her approach and stopped to wait for her to catch up.

The first thing she noticed upon reaching him was that he had the bushiest eyebrows she’d ever seen, as if he’d pasted two caterpillars to his forehead. In most other ways he was nondescript, brown hair with just a hint of gray in it, brown eyes that seemed to blink just a bit too often, thin, cracked lips and a nose that would have been large enough to dominate his face, if it hadn’t been for those remarkable eyebrows.

Under other circumstances, she might have been embarrassed by her nudity, but her desire for information eclipsed every other concern.

“Are you all right?” he asked. She could hear the concern in his voice.

“Is it that obvious?”

“Sometimes, rebirth can be disorienting.”

“Rebirth?”

“You were dead, and now you are not.”

“Not dead?”

“No. You are reborn.”

Striker studied the man suspiciously. “Reborn? You mean I’m undead.”

“That’s what humans call us.”

“I’m human.”

“You were.”

Striker started to reply but stopped herself. Was it true? She reached inside, searching for that piece of Sheba that was always with her. She scoured her mind, exploring it as she had explored the landscape, but there was nothing…nothing…something? Something. An entity lurked within her, but it felt nothing like Sheba. It occupied the same space, but took up less room, somehow. It felt like it was there, and yet not there at the same time. Like if she paid too much attention to it, it would fade.

Who are you?

They call me the Undead King.

What do you call yourself?

Nylus.

Why have you done this to me?

Done what? Saved your life?

No. You robbed me of my death.

Did I? I don’t recall doing that. Perhaps you don’t know as much as you think you do.

I know enough.

But even as she thought it, she realized it wasn’t true. She only knew what people had told her over the years. Her parents, the priests, she didn’t believe most of what they said, why should she believe this?

I am no longer connected to Sheba.

That is true. When you die, the tether to your god is destroyed.

I hate it.

I’m sorry.

Are you?

Yes. Is it so hard to believe that I care about my people?

Striker had no answer to that.

She had been following Eyebrows while this conversation went on, not paying attention to her surroundings. So she was surprised when she saw tents up ahead. Several reborn were in evidence. They all looked human, but they weren’t, and she knew it immediately, though she didn’t know how. Without waiting for her to ask, Eyebrows explained.

“The reborn can always sense living beings. As reborn are not alive, at least in the sense that most use the word, you can immediately tell the difference between us and them. Humans aren’t as fortunate.”

“Where are we?”

“This small village has no name. There are a number of these encampments along the border, far enough inside so that we’re unlikely to be discovered by human aggressors. Our main function is to find new reborn and help orient them. As you might have noticed, it can be overwhelming.”

As they approached the camp, a number of reborn emerged from tents, or stopped what they were doing to welcome her. Striker had met groups of people quite frequently in her travels, but she had never seen a group of strangers react in such a friendly, open manner. She wondered if this was just an act, or if they were always like this. Already she was beginning to rethink everything she’d learned about the undead.

“Why do the undead need tents?”

“So that if a human patrol does make it this far inside, at first glance, we look human. It gives us a chance to react, whether that means fleeing or fighting.”

“Do you fight more often than you run?”

“We do.”

“Why?”

“Because if we don’t, we will die. Humans are fond of their borders, but they do not seem to notice ours.”

Striker thought about the statement and intuitively knew it to be the truth. The undead weren’t thought to be sentient or civilized. The people of Death’s Doorstep saw them more like dangerous animals that needed to be put down. They didn’t acknowledge the border because the border to most humans was a boundary they didn’t cross to stay safe. She had never once thought that the undead knew that boundary even existed or considered it a border from their point of view. She wondered what else she didn’t know.

She learned that Eyebrows was the leader of this small community, and that he pretty much left everyone to do their own thing as long as they did what needed to be done, which was to find recently reborn humans and explain to them their new situation. Eyebrows felt the job was important, and the others seemed to echo the sentiment.

Over the days that followed, Striker settled in quickly, used to dealing with new groups of people. She found out that the reborn didn’t need to eat or sleep, so there wasn’t that much cleaning up to do. They didn’t get cold, so they needed no fires. In fact, since fire was the one thing that could prevent them from coming back, they tended to avoid it. They didn’t have to, they just did. It reminded her of when she was younger, how she used to sneak out onto a ledge over a canyon, and look down, drawn by the danger and the fear of falling. Some people avoided heights and some people enjoyed them. The reborn had that same sort of reaction to fire.

She enjoyed her time in what she began to euphemistically think of as orientation village. For the first couple of weeks everything was fine, and then she started to get sick.

It started slowly. She felt run down. Tired. Those in the camp, most of them, were confused, but a couple of the more experienced reborn had seen it before. After a time, it was determined that Striker had a defect. Her rebirth had suffered a problem. She was told it could happen if a person was buried too far from the center of Xarinos, or when the wounds that caused death had done so much damage that they couldn’t be fully healed by the process. She had to laugh. She couldn’t even die right.

Eyebrows explained it to her one night, while sitting around the non-existent campfire. In any human camp, it would have been there. She was still human enough to mourn its absence, though she didn’t attempt to build one, out of respect for those who feared it.

“It seems that you have a life force leak. It’s probably not a leak, but it’s what some of us call it. We get our energy from ambient magic. We absorb it. It’s balanced, for most of us, so that we have all the energy we need. If we’re more active, we absorb more. You don’t absorb enough magical energy to sustain yourself. That’s the bad news.”

“Is there good news?”

“There is. The power that creates reborn almost always provides a way for them to survive, even if they’re reborn flawed.”

“The power that creates reborn? Not the Undead King?”

“No. Reborn predate the arrival of the Undead King. He is our leader, not our creator.”

That was news to Striker.

“Well, I feel like crap, so what do I do to feel better?”

“If I had to guess, I’d say you have the ability to drain life force from living beings.”

Striker frowned. “I’ve heard stories about creatures like that. It’s not an attractive quality. I hope by living beings you don’t mean humans.”

“Most beings kill to survive. They kill in self defense. They kill to eat. We’re no different. But as to what your specific ability is, you won’t know until you try it.”

“You just want me to walk up to some defenseless animal and suck the life out of it? I’m not sure how I feel about that.”

“How do you feel about continuing on as you are, until you slowly fade away?”

“Not great. So, what, I just find an animal and try to drain it of energy?”

“That’s the starting point. See if it works.”

There wasn’t much else to say, so they sat there, listening to the night sounds, enjoying each other’s company. The comfortable silence between them made Striker feel like they were old friends. She wondered at that, considering how recently they’d met.

The next day, Striker set off into the woods…to hunt. The irony was not lost on her. She had once been a human servant of Sheba, who tracked down her next meal with a bow. Now she was a reborn servant of the Undead King using a completely different set of powers, but she was still a hunter.

She spotted a small mammal poking its head out of a burrow. It looked like an improbable cross between a squirrel and a groundhog. She had seen them around, but didn’t know what they were called. As she watched, it slowly turned its head to look at her. She expected the creature to dart to safety, but though it clearly saw her, it didn’t flee.

Striker moved closer, cautiously. The creature sat and watched as if waiting. She spoke to it in a soothing voice.

“I have no idea what you are. I have no idea why you’re so cute. And if you don’t escape soon, it will be too late for you.”

The creature sat and looked at her. Innocent. Helpless against whatever new power she possessed. She was closing in on it now. Soon she would be able to reach out and touch it. And drain the life from its adorable brown-furred body. It made a slight chittering sound but didn’t seem alarmed…more expectant.

“Go, shoo!” she yelled.

The animal ducked back inside and vanished, unaware of how lucky it had been. Striker shook her head and chuckled. Stupid. She had hunted all sorts of creatures while she was still human, but now that she was undead, she suddenly had a conscience. It seemed backwards to her.

The problem was, she needed to eat still, just differently. When had she become so squeamish? But even as the question formed in her mind, she had an answer. Striker herself had been hunted and now knew what it felt like. She understood the pain, the terror, the hopelessness, and she wasn’t sure she could do that to an innocent animal.

And yet, could she let herself starve? What if that was the right thing to do? No. Sheba was the goddess of the hunt, and if she needed energy to survive, hunting was hunting. She felt foolish now for letting the creature go, but it reaffirmed a commitment to her new existence, at least for now.

The next animal she came upon, a stag, reacted to her in the same manner. She’d seen mages use spells that did the same thing. It just stood looking at her, when it should have fled. But it didn’t. It trusted her. And that, to her, was the worst part. This wasn’t a contest. There was no real chance of it getting away, and for that reason it felt wrong— but not wrong enough to prevent her from draining it.

The process itself came naturally to her. She placed her hand against the stag’s side and felt the energy flow out of it. She paused before she drained it completely, intuitively aware that it would develop life force back over time. The problem was, if she left it this way, it was vulnerable. Slower and weaker than it would have been. It would be a meal for some lucky wolf if she didn’t finish the job. Reluctantly, she started draining again and had to admit, when it was done that she felt better. She left the carcass for the scavengers and continued her hunt. She wondered how many animals would have to die for her to sate her hunger and how often she would have to go on a killing spree.

The answer to that question turned out to be a lot. She needed a lot of animal life energy to keep her feeling mostly well. She wondered if she’d eventually hunt so much that she’d have to move on, just to keep her energy going. At least she didn’t have to suck the life from humans. It had been one of her greatest fears.

Striker didn’t mind being undead as long as she was able to retain her old morality. She didn’t want undeath to change her—well change her more than it already had. Not having to eat, for example, was a great benefit. She’d spent many days hungry when she’d finally decided not to return to her parent’s house. That would never happen again. But that boon had been offset by the fact that nothing tasted right, or rather, everything seemed to taste the same. She wasn’t sure why this happened, but it definitely put a damper on eating.

The good news was that food extended the magical reserves she had stored. That was another thing she didn’t understand. Another thing she simply had to accept. Being undead was filled with trade-offs she hadn’t bargained for. For example, she was stronger, faster and had more endurance than any unleveled human, but she could never level again. She didn’t feel she’d done enough wrong in her life to deserve spending the rest of it as a Level 4 Hunter. That’s what she told herself. But there was another part of her, the part that had been told for so long that she wasn’t good enough, would never be good enough, the part that had been beaten and punished and lectured day after day, year after year, that wasn’t so sure.

The constant fear that she had done wrong, would continue to do wrong, drove her to do right. She would never consume a human, because it was wrong, and she knew it. That much she could do. So she hunted and drained and hunted some more. And then one day, when she was looking for her next victim, she ran into something more than she bargained for.

She sensed him even before he came into view. A human being. What the hell was he doing wandering this far into the Plains? Even from this distance she could see he was a warrior. He wore a sleeveless chain mail hauberk and carried what looked like a two-handed sword in a scabbard on his back. She watched him from the distance. He seemed to be looking around, but for what, she couldn’t say. She felt it unlikely he was there to kill undead, since any human looking to do that would have come with a team. So what was he doing there?

Easy enough to find out. She’d walk up and ask him. It’s not like he could tell she was undead—reborn. She had to start changing how she thought if she were going to be able to live with herself.

She approached cautiously, but openly. She didn’t want a trained warrior to think she was sneaking up on him.

“Hello,” she said, as soon as he noticed her.

“Hello.”

She looked him over and liked what she saw. He was muscular, but not musclebound. Broad shoulders made even broader by the hauberk and thick-necked. He’d have been rather scary if his face hadn’t been so kind. He had shiny black hair that reached his shoulders, and a matching neatly trimmed goatee. He might have been in his late twenties. His eyes were gray-blue and intense. He stared at her, as if he’d never seen a woman before.

“What are you doing out here? It’s not safe.”

“Why not?”

“There are undead around here. You haven’t seen any?”

“Nope, no undead.” Just us reborn.

“Aren’t you afraid?”

The concern in his voice touched her. “No, not really. I’ve heard that they’re not as dangerous as people say they are.”

He looked at her suspiciously, but then his expression turned curious. “You don’t think they’re a danger?”

“No.”

“Well, that’s a relief. Are you looking for them?”

“Looking for them?”

He studied her. “I’m trying to find an undead. I’m…curious.”

“Curious? You want to join them?”

He seemed reluctant to admit it, but she could tell that’s what he wanted. He didn’t answer, but stood frozen, as if he were a child caught doing something he wasn’t supposed to do.

“It’s okay,” she said. “Tell me, why are you in Xarinos?”

He dropped his gaze but answered. “I was thinking of…dying. And coming back.”

“I see. It’s not that uncommon.”

“How do you know?”

“I’m one of them.”

“Wait? You’re undead?”

“I’m reborn. That’s what we call ourselves. Only humans call us undead.”

“Reborn?” He said the word as if he were tasting a new dish for the first time. She could see him rolling it around in his head. “It sounds a lot friendlier.”

“We’re not monsters. We’re people. People who have died and come back, but still people.”

“Well, if you’re anything to go by, I guess I have to agree.”

He smiled at her, and his teeth were white and perfect. She wondered what level he was. She wondered why he wanted to die but didn’t ask.

“I’m Trace, but my friends call me Striker.”

“I’m Anth. Can I call you, Striker?”

“You can. How about we walk back to camp, and I explain to you some of the benefits and drawbacks of being reborn.”

“Yes, that would be great. Can we sit for just a little though. I’ve been walking for a long time.”

“Sure. I don’t get as tired as I used to, so I forget. Take as long as you like.”

Striker sat beside him. They were like two friends. He didn’t build a fire, but it wasn’t that cold. Well, she didn’t think it was. It wasn’t like she could feel the cold anymore. But he seemed comfortable enough. He was studying her, and she wondered what to say to get him to open up.

“So, did you have any questions?”

“A thousand. If only I could put them into words.”

Striker laughed.

“You have a beautiful laugh.”

“I bet you never thought you’d say that to one of the undead.”

He looked startled when she said it. “I guess I don’t really see you as undead.”

“Because I’m not. I’m reborn, remember?’

“Right. Reborn. I have to get used to that.”

“It took me a while too.” She didn’t bother to tell him how recently she’d made that adjustment.

“So, I’m not sure of the etiquette in these situations, is it okay to ask about how you died?”

“I’m pretty new, so I’m not sure either, but I was killed by a kreve.”

Anth winced. “That sounds painful.”

“It was. Where are you from?”

“Loralei. I was a guard on a merchant caravan to Death’s Doorstep. It was strange listening to people talking about the undead there. We’ve had a treaty with the Undead King for so long, we don’t really have the same sentiments about Xarinos as most of the world. And I hadn’t traveled that much, so it opened my eyes a bit. And I had to admit, I was curious. I mean, the whole world hates Xarinos, and we don’t. So maybe we were wrong. I just felt like I had to find out for myself. It seems too important for me to leave it to rumor.

“So I wandered across the border and met you. If first impressions are anything to go by, I think the people of Death’s Doorstep got it wrong.”

“I’ve had a change of heart about them myself, but it’s early days for me. Still, nothing I’ve seen suggests I need to fear the reborn. It’s like I’ve lived my life so close to Xarinos and yet I’ve never thought to challenge what people were saying. My family, the priesthood…everyone. Sometimes I wonder how a people could get so bad a reputation.”

Anth sighed. “I don’t know. Like I said, it’s not what I grew up with. I wonder what the reborn have to say about humans.”

“I don’t know that the reborn speak with one voice on the subject. All of the reborn I’ve met started as humans and still have some attachment to that. I’m not sure we can ever really separate ourselves from humanity. But of course, I haven’t been reborn for long enough to know that.”

“Well, if the reborn needed to send an ambassador to sway my opinion of them, they did a pretty good job sending you.”

Striker wasn’t sure she could blush anymore, but she probably would have had she still been alive. She really liked Anth. And as she sat there, something she never expected began to happen. She became aroused. She hadn’t really thought about the reborn having sex but couldn’t deny her body was responding to the man who sat near her. She was drawn to him in a way she’d never been drawn to a man before. Was it him, or something about being reborn that drove her reaction?

She leaned closer, they hadn’t been that far apart in the first place, and searched his eyes. She didn’t know what would happen. She thought he might flinch away, but he didn’t. He returned her gaze and waited. His grey-blue eyes blazed with intensity. She leaned closer and closer and he leaned in to meet her. And when their lips met, it was like the stories she’d heard growing up about people finding their perfect other. Except he couldn’t be her perfect other, could he? After all, he was human, and she was reborn.

But the kiss felt amazing. It send a jolt through her. She was already removing her clothing, and trying to help him off with his armor at the same time. Within minutes they were both naked. She pushed him back and climbed on top of him, leaning down to kiss him again, but then pushing herself back up so she could watch his face. She’d never experienced anything like this and finally knew why some women craved it.

They writhed together as if they were dancing. There was a rhythm to it. The sensations captivated her completely. Nothing else existed but their bodies, and their primal lust. And when she thought it couldn’t get more intense than it was, she threw back her head and screamed, too involved in the act to notice the echoes that heralded the moment for all to hear. Finally spent, she collapsed on top of him. And she lay there. She wasn’t panting since she no longer drew breath. She look down and smiled. Like a typical man, he’d already fallen asleep. She nuzzled into his neck, and imagined what the warmth of his body against hers would have been like had she been able to feel it.

This…this is what she’d been missing in her life. This closeness. This intimacy. And to think she had to die to discover it. Anth lay beside her, completely spent. She wondered at her future, then. Might he stay with her after his rebirth? Could two reborn have a long term relationship? Would he even want to? He certainly seemed to enjoy himself.

Her hand brushed the grass they were laying on, and it was dry, sharp and tough. She was on top, but it couldn’t be very comfortable for Anth, whose naked body must have been very uncomfortable indeed. He must be so exhausted. The passion, the energy…and then she felt a chill run through her, but it wasn’t physical.

“Anth?”

He should have been panting. Breathing heavily…but she couldn’t hear his breath at all. She could hear animals breathing from quite far away with her superior reborn hearing. She tried to rouse him, but knew even then that it was pointless.

“Anth…”

Just a whisper, because he couldn’t hear her anyway. There was nothing she could do. Striker had taken her first human life.

She carried him back to camp, feeling horrible and amazing at the same time. Guilt made it impossible to enjoy the energy coursing through her, even though it was so exhilarating that she couldn’t ignore the sensation. She had killed a man, and it felt great. The human part of her hated the feeling, but she couldn’t deny the pleasure it brought her. She kept telling herself that he had come here to die, so she hadn’t really done anything wrong.

Fortunately, the energy provided her with the strength and speed to carry him all the way back to camp. As soon as they saw her, the others gathered. There were hushed whispers, but Eyebrows was the only one who addressed her.

“What do we have here?”

“His name is Anth. He came to join us. I found myself attracted to him and him to me. One thing led to another and the next thing I knew…”

She ran out of words. She couldn’t admit what she had done aloud. Eyebrows, however, didn’t have the same issue.

“You drained all the life from him.”

She nodded.

“Place him down on the ground. We’ll take care of him.”

Striker complied, still not trusting herself to speak.

“You have powers now, Striker. And with those powers comes responsibility.”

Eyebrows gestured toward the body, and one of the men beside him lifted it and carried it off. Eyebrows and two others followed him. Striker watched until they were out of sight. Then she sank to her knees and dropped her head as if she still had the right to pray…or a goddess to pray to.

She had killed a man, and though it had been an accident, she’d enjoyed it. She embraced the thought for a while, because she needed to be punished for what she had done, and there was no one else there to do it. She had always known she’d been born wrong. But now she wasn’t just disobedient, she was a murderer. She had taken a life. The only shred of hope she had was that Anth would come back and forgive her.

Please forgive me. I never meant to hurt you.

She repeated it over and over again in her mind. She stayed that way, on her knees, offering a prayer that no god would ever hear, until she sensed someone approach. She opened her eyes and looked up. It was a reborn woman, watching her.

“You’re upset.”

Striker nodded, but didn’t speak. She didn’t have words to defend her actions.

“You shouldn’t be. They’re not like us. They’re not worthy of your grief. Humans are what’s wrong with this world. You didn’t hurt that man…you saved him.”

Striker didn’t respond. She didn’t know how. The reborn woman waited a short time, then shrugged and walked away, leaving Striker alone with her guilt.

For two days she knelt there. A day ago, she’d have had to have gone hunting to keep her energy levels up, but not this time. The life force inside was still there. She wasn’t…hungry, for lack of a better word. Well that was something. As soon as she thought it, she cursed herself. She shouldn’t be happy benefiting from another’s misfortune, particularly misfortune at her hands.

She dropped her head and continued to wait. If the day grew cold or the sun was hot, she couldn’t say, because she no longer felt it. She no longer felt anything except self-loathing. And then, after what seemed like an eternity of waiting, he was there.

“Are you okay?”

Her eyes had been closed but she opened them and looked up. She pushed herself to her feet, and took a step toward him, but the rage in his eyes stopped her in her tracks. She dropped her head and answered his question.

“No. More importantly, are you okay?”

Anth sighed. “I came here because I was curious. Not because I’d made up my mind. Now I have no choice. That’s on you.”

“I’m sorry. You’ll never know how sorry I am.”

“Why should I care? I came here to learn the truth about the undead, and the very first one I met drained all the life from me. How do I know you’re not all like this?”

Before she could answer, Anth turned and walked away. She wanted to say something, to stop him, to explain, but the ability to speak had deserted her. Like so often in the past, when her parents had scolded her, when the priests had lectured her, Striker retreated into herself, trying to make herself as small as possible, so that they would feel some sympathy and stop. It hadn’t worked then, and it didn’t work now, but of course, Anth had no reason to be sympathetic to her. She had accused the Undead King of robbing her of her death. And she had done the same to Anth. Striker never saw him again. Never even tried to seek him out, because he had been right. He had no reason to listen to her excuses. He had no reason to forgive her. And she had no reason to forgive herself.

She had been a servant of Sheba. She had been honorable. Now, she was just a murderer. Her family had been right. She was broken.

A few of the reborn came to her after that, trying to reassure her that she hadn’t done anything wrong, but Striker didn’t hear them. She didn’t want to hear them. She had murdered a man, and there was no one to punish her.

That night, she walked away from the reborn encampment, and never looked back. She didn’t deserve their help or support. She didn’t need it. What she needed was redemption. And she wouldn’t find it in a reborn camp. Striker traveled west and never set foot on the Plains of Xarinos again.

 

The Aptly Named Book of Lost Wisdom continues with Chapter 13 – The Right Tool for the Job, coming soon.