On Life, Death, and All Manner of States in Between

Clint Staples

The first time Arabasz saw the Amazon was when he had just begun bodyguarding for Selenius the Graverer. She had immediately tried to kill him.

Selenius had been working on an inscription in one of the cemeteries adjacent to the abandoned Necropolis in the hills southwest of Kos city and needed someone to keep watch for unruly residents. Arabasz had taken up a perch on the tilted and sheared-off top of a cenotaph to someone whose name began "Rhinos-." Arabasz had no idea who that worthy might have been, or what the other syllables of his or her name were, but guessed that he or she had suffered terribly from wisecracks about his or her nose throughout his or her life. Why they would then want to have had the name commemorated with a costly chunk of carved alabaster was beyond him.

Of course, he was not being paid to consider such matters. He was being paid to keep old Selenius safe from the denizens of the Necropolis while he scratched, hammered and chiseled, and otherwise did just about everything possible to lure such creatures to him. Arabasz had taken up his position for two reasons. Firstly, it was an excellent vantage point over the area, giving him views of the three main thoroughfares through assorted sepulchers, tombs, mausolea, and headstones, as well as lines of sight to the two sets of massive opened doors that led to subterranean vaults apparently filled with the bodies of those who had died prior to the Cataclysm of a century earlier. Why the doors should have been left open was beyond him, but he considered it to be a monumental case of bad civic planning.

The second reason he had chosen the spot was that he was still close enough to leap down to the aid of the old scrivener should the need arise — as it had on two occasions thus far, once when a headless shambler had risen from a spot between two canted and cracked gravestones, and again when a particularly brave ghoul had snuck out of the nearer set of massive doors to the underdead vaults. The headless one could hardly be dispatched with a well-placed arrow to the brain, so Arabasz had been forced to fall upon and dismember it. When he had disjointed the withered corpse sufficiently it lost its "animus" and the pieces stopped twitching. And ghouls are simply too stupid to understand the danger posed by arrows, often refusing to die from such wounds. Again he had had to leap down to deal with it with his swords. The bloated, maggot-white body now sprawled amid parts of the headless shambler that had been scattered in the fight.

Arabasz, pleased that his choice of old Rhinos’s monument had proven a good place for a lookout, retreated there afterward to resume his vigil. Selenius was droning on about the need to get the angle of his number-four chisel just right while Arabasz peered around, trying to stay sharp. It looked like the job was about half done, based on the area Selenius had thus far engraved. Arabasz did not know why Selenius had been tasked with this particular piece of gravering. Nor could he decipher the script, but that was not surprising, since he could only read the cuneiform prominent east of the Tetrarchy of Anatolia, and enough Greek to comprehend the word Rhinos. Kos, although it was very near to the mainland, did not have many residents that hailed from regions so far to the east. At least, Arabasz did not think there were many such living in the city. But then he was a recent immigrant himself. He was fortunate to have an ear for languages and had picked up the local tongue quickly enough. Of course, his bronze complexion, dark eyes, and thickly curling hair and beard marked him a foreigner, but at least he could order wine, get along in everyday conversation, find work, a place to live, that sort of thing.

And that had led him to Selenius. Arabasz had been looking for someplace more private than sleeping in an alley off the agora when the old dodderer had staggered by mumbling, completely unaware of the footpad coming up behind him. What had originally drawn Arabasz’ attention from his own depressed snoozing was whatever had been glowing in the old man’s hands. Too small to be a lamp, which would have been unnecessary just after noon in any event, even in an overshadowed alleyway, the light was also green, which was unusual in the extreme. That the light pulsed rhythmically black — and how a light could pulse black was still something he could not fathom — was surely worthy of investigation.

Evidently, the footpad had thought so as well, for he had followed his quarry into the alley, cosh in one hand, hook-knife in the other, approached to within a pace or two and was raising the sap to brain the hapless oldster when Arabasz thrust out his foot in the posture Asp Striking the Date Palm. The cutthroat doubled over, wheezing, dropped his knife to cover his date palm, and stood rocking slightly back and forth. Arabasz recovered himself quickly and stood, remembering to pluck the falling hook-knife out of the air as he did so. The robber realized his situation and tried to defend himself with his cosh, but was hampered by the pain in his nether parts. Arabasz employed the hook-knife, took the cosh from the nerveless fingers of the footpad, and left him to fall. Immediately he turned to follow the old man, who, of course, he did not yet know as Selenius the Graverer.

The bent, cowled form was turning the corner from Arabasz’s portion of the alley to that of the fat lady who smelled like bad goat cheese. She lived with a greasy, scabrous cat that smelled, if anything, worse than her, though in an entirely different way, in a depression in one wall of the alley that she had covered with the remains of two large, broken amphorae to form a sort of cave. When Arabasz would go to relieve himself he would sometimes see her eyes — or her cat’s, it was not always easy to tell — burning at him from between the curving sides of the ruined jars. But when he turned the corner following the green glow he did not see anyone at home.

Arabasz moved closer to the old man, still unsure what he would do. He had the club and hook-knife, but was loathe to kill the old fellow. In truth, he was beginning to feel some attachment, or at least a nascent proprietary sense toward him after having saved his life. So Arabasz followed him.

When the shape before him shuffled out into the street, Arabasz followed, hiding the cosh in his soiled crimson robe, and reversing the grip on the hook-knife so that it was concealed in the palm of his right hand. He stayed several paces behind, and watched the ancient wade through the stink of Charnel Street and on to Scribe Lane. The green glow, unnoticeable in the warm sunlight of the blood-strewn street, became apparent again in the shadows of the taller buildings overlooking the narrowed lane. Arabasz moved casually, though quickly, to follow.

When he turned the corner, he cursed inwardly. He should have heard the commotion before blundering into the middle of it. As it was, he had brained a man without even knowing why, although the reason became apparent when he saw the cleaver fall from the man’s nearly-severed hand. The old futterer had stumbled into another ambush. Arabasz was forced to employ the Leopard Dance, the Reaping Wind, and the Horns of the Bull before the other three miscreants were dispatched. He was a little bothered, because his Horns of the Bull had been clumsy with the mismatched cosh and knife. But he did not have time to ponder his poor technique, for the old man was staring at him through the green glow rising out of his upturned hand. 

Selenius did not pause in his gravening to mumble, "One coming up on the side there." The old man was correct, and Arabasz could see movement — a pale yet befouled humanoid figure appeared over a pile of broken masonry, walking in the quick, rattle-step way that some undead seemed to prefer, hoping to come up on them quickly enough to perhaps eat one or both of them. Now that the wizard had mastered the Black Emerald he was far more attentive to his surroundings. Over the past few weeks it had become a standing wager between them that Arabasz would attempt to sneak close enough to tap him on the back — day or night, whenever the mood or opportunity allowed. Since Selenius had installed the gem, however, Arabasz had gotten within three strides of him only once, and that was while the elder slept off a drunk induced by the better part of three jugs of the finest Corcyraean red, a wonderful, full-bodied vintage that reminded Arabasz inexplicably of a dusky houri he had known in the palace days of long ago. Arabasz silenced his thoughts, nocked, drew, loosed and dispatched the fast walker in one fluid motion.

The wizard was much improved physically as well. He could walk, discourse, or engrave, for hours, as he had done in this case, to Arabasz's displeasure and boredom. It had occurred to him that the Black Emerald must be responsible, that it had given Selenius renewed vigour and awareness — enough, perhaps, that he no longer needed his bodyguard. Arabasz kept these thoughts to himself, lest he put the thought into his master’s mind if it had not already found its way there of its own accord. In fact, bodyguarding was all Arabasz really knew how to do, and it was pleasant enough work if one had the stomach for it, and could find the right body to guard. In the past, he had guarded more regal bodies, and more luscious, occasionally at the same time, rarely in the same person. But he liked Selenius, and that counted for something too. It never occurred to Arabasz that Selenius might like him.

This time, he did not need the wizard to warn him of an approaching something. He could see it moving up the middle thoroughfare from the direction of the city, bold as brass. In fact, it was two somethings. One was a thin figure that at first he thought might be another shambler, but it moved too easily for that. It was also garbed in flowing robes, such as a priest might wear. These appeared to be a deep blue, or perhaps purple, it was hard to tell in the late afternoon’s false twilight, brought on by the massive cliffs surrounding most of the Nekropolis. Since he had never seen any kind of shambler wear such cumbersome robes, Arabasz concluded that the figure was alive.

He supported this supposition with the fact that the something accompanying the something in the dark robes was obviously a lithe, and very much alive, young woman. She wore a splendidly detailed muscled cuirass that must distract her foes enormously, over a coat much like those worn in his homeland. On her long dark hair was a headdress of shining black scales that caught the light of the torch she carried like the backs of black beetles he remembered seeing in a tomb once. Her other hand rested on the pommel of a long straight sword in a bronze scabbard. Her legs, very slightly bowed, and just the tiniest bit too short for perfection, were bare until they disappeared tantalizingly into a pair of boots that hid what he was sure were spectacular ankles. A bow and quiver swayed from one shapely hip, and a strange contraption that might be a rectangular shield, or perhaps additional armor, spread across her back. She was talking to the stick figure, and that detail decided Arabasz that this being could not be a monster, for he could not believe that a woman such as this would converse casually with an undead horror. Destroy it, certainly, run from it, unlikely. But speak to it?

The two figures strolled as though they were walking through the Grand Bazaar, seeming unaware of the fact that thousands of dead bodies and dozens, perhaps hundreds of undead ones, where within a few hundred paces of them. He considered shouting down to them to be more watchful, but did not want to add loud vocalization to the hammering and scraping racket that was Selenius’s work. Nothing drew shamblers like the voices of people, except perhaps for young women bathing or walking into a dark cellar alone. So he voiced the low short syllable that was his warning to Selenius, and hopped lithely down from his perch.

He saw no need to draw his swords or bow. Instead, he began to walk toward the junction that would allow him access to the middle thoroughfare, not too swiftly, but very silently, all the time keeping an eye out for shamblers, headless or otherwise, fast walkers, crawlers, or ghouls. He did not want to let the other two see him at this range, because the woman might put an arrow into him just to be safe. If the other figure were a priest of some Greek god of the underworld, the presence of the pair in the Necropolis would readily be explained. Such a priest might have business here, but could also wield powerful necromancy. Wizards were also known to wear such garb. It might be some enemy of Selenius, or merely a mage hoping to expand his knowledge or collection of magical paraphernalia. In any of the cases Arabasz had just considered, the duo might well react with force magical and mundane if surprised. And surprised they would be, given the lack of care they seemed to take in their whereabouts.

He crept to within a handful of strides, crouched behind a blocky black marble memoriam, and was about to speak from the shelter it offered, when he spied movement among the fallen headstones to his left. Looking more closely he could see two crawlers moving slowly toward the pair of tourists. If he rose, or warned them now, they might attack him with arrows, spells, or whatnot. Despite becoming familiar with the habits and spells of a wizard over the past couple of seasons, Arabasz was not entirely sure whether whatnot was within this stranger's repertoire. However, based on that same period of acquaintance with Selenius, he was sure that if it were, whatnot would hurt, possibly over a large area, and probably a lot. So he did not rise, nor did he call out, for the reasons mentioned earlier about all manner of undead fiends being drawn to the sound of a human voice, but also because he might draw that same painful, expansive whatnot he had just contemplated, down upon himself.

Arabasz considered an arrow, but his bow was not readied and he was in a poor position to shoot. Had he a pair of throwing knives he might have dealt with the crawlers easily. Even one throwing knife might do, although he would not brag that such a throw would be easy. No, he must get closer, ideally before the crawlers attacked, without drawing the potentially unpleasant magical attention of the mage or cleric, and without aiding the crawlers by distracting the already distracted couple. He crept closer, slowing drawing his left sword, such that the sound of it passing from its scabbard was no more than a whisper of iron on lambs-wool. A grin escaped his discipline and spread across his face. 

The crawlers were as oblivious to Arabasz’ approach as the strollers were to theirs and, when he was within sword's reach of his prey they were nearly so of theirs. From behind he slowly slid his blade through the weak part of the spinal column, just where it joined the skull. Almost soundlessly, the longsword all but severed head from trunk as he twitched his sword hand at just the right angle to slip the blade sideways. The crawler stopped. Its mate, a particularly astute corpse, rolled its head toward Arabasz and hissed, saw the living man only a few feet from it, and adjusted its course so as to improve its chances of eating something. Arabasz withdrew the longsword and flicked it in the monster’s direction, and the dead white eyeballs burst as the blade removed the top of the rotted skull in an unpleasant shower of what might once have been brains and blood. That worthy foe, too, went still.

But, as is often the case when life, death, and undeath are in the balance, things did not remain static while Arabasz was dispatching the pair of monsters. Firstly, Arabasz noticed that there were other crawlers and shamblers, rather nearby, that also appeared to have noticed his destruction of their kindred. He was not entirely sure, of course, whether "kindred" was the right choice of word for fellow shamblers; presumably, the corpses of some of these might have been family in life, but he really had no way of knowing. He decided it was more proper to use the word "fellows" than "kindred," and resolved to do so in future unless clear familial relation between the shamblers, crawlers, or fast walkers in question could be established. He further resolved to do this after he avoided becoming one of the shamblers’, or crawlers’, or fast walkers’ fellows himself.

While he considered the matter of culture and familial structure in undead society, Arabasz, decided that to stay huddled among the undead was to join them, and so rose - directly before the lovely lady with the shimmering scale headdress. Immediately afterward, the shamblers and crawlers also rose, to the best of their ability, before her as well. The lady, having heard the hiss of the no-longer crawling crawler, drew her sword, thrust her torch forward, and prepared to lay about, perhaps with one, the other, or both. The robed companion threw back his cowl, the better to see the threat that had suddenly manifested before him, and spoke slow, sonorous words that, in truth, Arabasz was too distracted to attend to.

Things continued to happen very quickly. The lady, confronted with a horde of shamblers, whipped her sword forward like a lightning stroke to behead the nearest. How so obviously experienced and deadly a personage as she could mistake Arabasz for any sort of undead fiend might not be immediately apparent. However, as has been mentioned previously, Arabasz had already dispatched a headless shambler, a ghoul, and two more shamblers so fortunate as to have retained their full properties, all of this in close combat, in which there was much slicing of this and that and assorted sprayings and splatterings. Now, because of Arabasz’ long experiences with sprayings and splatterings, he did not give it as much concern as another less sanguine soul might have when portions of said sprayings and splatterings landed upon his clothing and person. Thus, when he rose into view at the forefront of a small, but undeniable, horde of undead, looking no less disreputable, and nearly as disgusting as the various monstrosities lurching to their feet or whatever passed for them, around him, the lady’s mistake is understandable.

Which is not to say that Arabasz excused the error. As he rapidly leaned out of the path of the hasty stroke, he cried out, partly, but not entirely, in affront of the lady’s attack. The other portion of his cry, if a cry may be said to be portioned out like pudding, was directed at the crawler now gripping his ankle and aiding in Arabasz’s avoidance of the lady’s sword by the simple and timeless crawler expedient of drawing the foot so attached toward its horrid, undead mouth. Arabasz employed Stork Saves His Foot from the Crocodile while swiping his longsword down in a remarkably ungraceful but effective beheading stroke that he could not, in good conscience allow himself to think of as Lion Deigns to Strike. He then drew his right sword and generally whirled his blades around, severing any limbs near enough to be abbreviated by such treatment. There was no specific maneuver for this in his experience, but later Arabasz thought that it might be dubbed Frenzied Iron Wheel. At the time he could only think of a single syllable, and did not consider it appropriate for inclusion in the name of any fighting maneuver he could imagine.

Arabasz was fortunate in the extreme for two reasons. Firstly, having forgotten the lady’s sword in an inconsiderate moment, he was neither spitted upon it, nor shortened by it. Arabasz took this very well, and it went far in ensuring the enduring nature of their friendship, which had yet to occur but will become evident in due time. Secondly, Selenius had heard something of the tumult going on no great distance away, and, dropping his chisels and assorted other tools of gravening, he took himself to see what occurred. When he came upon the altercation, of which only an incomplete rendition has been so far described, he quickly grasped a number of particulars that had evaded Arabasz in his haste to remain alive.

Selenius, wizard that he was, was more or less versed in many brands of occult lore, through the reading of forgotten texts in abhorrent languages, such as the one in which he found mention of the Black Emerald now lodged in place of his right eye. Thus, he immediately understood the pallid aura, pale features, shadowed eyes, and blackened lips of the lady’s now un-cowled companion to denote vampirism, rather than particular fashion sense. Selenius, knowing many of the affectations of such terrible creatures for of the reasons previously described, understood that the vampire had dominated the will of the fine young lady in the prominent cuirass. For that reason, she stood meekly as the bloodsucker drew her head aside and bent toward her tender neck. With a pair of simple finger gestures, Selenius lost no time in setting the looming vampire on fire.

Immediately the villain rounded on the source of its discomfort, roared, and flew at the old man. In very short order, several things occurred. The lady, as strong-willed young Amazons will do, instantly shook off the power of the vampire and drove her sword through its back to project from the front of the burning robes, narrowly missing Selenius’s startled face. Arabasz, having completed Frenzied Iron Wheel to his satisfaction and the shamblers' and former crawlers' detriment, leapt at the back of the flaming figure that loomed, arms outstretched, over Selenius, the very body he had been hire to guard, in Falcon Takes the Stoat. Both feet crashed into the ominous figure's back, driving it to the ground, Arabasz’s sword following in a much more satisfying rendition of Lion Deigns to Strike, which severed vampiric head from quickly-disintegrating shoulders.

After some stomping of feet to put out flames, considerable splitting of skulls to halt the disorganized, disgusting, and painfully slow approach of the tide of dismembered undead that had lost the right to be called either crawlers or shamblers, as well as scanning — magically and other wise — to ensure a certain level of personal safety, the trio made their introductions. The lady, named Tula, of all things, thanked both Arabasz and Selenius, although in entirely different ways and at entirely different times, for saving her from the vampire. Arabasz thanked the lady, several times and in a number of rather imaginative ways and places, for not killing him. And Selenius thanked them both for stopping the vampire from grappling him, for it is widely known that wizards do not commonly practice advanced grappling techniques like Monkey Steals the Peach.

When Arabasz heard that the lady was new to Kos City, and low on funds after long travails, he offered to split his current wage if she would join him in safeguarding Selenius while the wizard finished his gravening. This was accomplished just before sundown, and the three walked together out of the gloom of the Necropolis. Because Selenius did, in fact, bear some affection for the younger Arabasz, he lagged so that the younger man might demonstrate his moves, martial and otherwise, for the lady’s amusement. When the two implored weakly that he accompany them on their quest to slay several flasks of a fine Falernian at the Four Winds Bar, Selenius feigned not to hear them, and continued on toward his home full of repugnant tomes.

It should be mentioned at this juncture that Selenius, while an excellent wizard, an adequate scholar, and a rather poor grappler, was not a particularly methodical person. Thus, he had many piles of many books from which many bookmarks projected at sundry points. In one of these books containing a treatise by a nameless cleric of Apollo was a most unfortunately placed bookmark. A few days prior to Selenius’s mastery of the Black Emerald he had been reading this very book very late one night, when his advanced years required that he set it aside in favor of sleep. Because of his rather cavalier attitude to study, and to the almost unendurable agony and protracted recovery time involved in removing his right eye and replacing it with a magical gem, he had never returned to the volume in question.

So it was that Selenius was unaware of the measures required to permanently destroy a vampire. Of this, more, at another time ...