For the last time, p.1
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For The Last Time


  *******

  FOR THE LAST TIME

  ******

  by Z.N. Singer

  Copyright 2011 Z.N. Singer

  Sword stock used in cover courtesy of FantasyStock of Deviantart. Her work is available free of charge.

  ********

  As Mardon had expected, the tracking part was easy. It was a simple matter of following the refugees.

  His first encounter occurred as he napped by the crossroads. For those who had the sense to travel with little, their weapons concealed by the drabbest of cloaks, this was reasonably safe. But it didn't protect him from well-wishers.

  “Oy, old man! Wake up! You've got to wake up! You can't sleep here!”

  Most people took a while to sharpen up after they'd woken, but Mardon wasn't most people: he saw the man visibly start as his eyes opened and focused immediately as if he'd already been awake. He was an earnest, decent looking man, probably in his early twenties. Good. He shouldn't be being called 'old man' that way by people much older than that just yet.

  “Sky falling son?” He asked mildly, once he'd determined that whatever threat had the man so flustered, it wasn't here yet.

  “This is no time for jokes old man, we've got a new Vampire Lord down east! He's taken several villages, ours latest, and he'll be advancing down this road soon enough if the last few days are any guess. You can't stay here, you've got to move on or they'll kill you!”

  “Don't the Order take care of upstart Lords?”

  “They're probably sending someone but who knows when he'll arrive? The vampire's too close already, it's too dangerous. Travel with us if you want, but you've got to keep moving the other way till then.”

  “They''ll arrive,” Mardon corrected, getting up. “They don't believe in taking chances, sensible fellows that way. There'll be more than one. Best to finish these sorts right away. They get stronger fast.”

  “All right all right, fine, great, two people from the Order, wonderful, now lets go!”

  “East, you said? So your village, that he just took, it's down that road there?”

  “Yes, yes, and now we need to move down that road, there. Come on already!”

  Mardon stretched, slowly; the movement swayed his cloak enough for the man to glimpse the weapons beneath: two long slim swords, nil on frippery and heavy with the wear of weapons whose quality of forging has outlasted several generations of owners, in unusually thick sheaths with an odd bit of catch-mechanism about the mouth, each accompanied by a dagger of similar design. Glints of light armor, meant to fully deflect a blow already partially avoided, also came through. Mardon held the pose a bit, valuing the silent communication it made, often so much more effective than argument.

  “Well, thanks for the warning lad. Zombies are pretty slow, even fresh ones, so if you keep a nice steady pace you should stay ahead. Now that was sensible advice you were giving, too bad I can't take it, but you'd better take yourse—” His eyes caught sight of a harried looking woman with a child and he changed his words. “Take your family and move along like you were telling me to. Don't bother worrying about me, it's not worth it.”

  “But—I mean, okay, you're a warrior, I see that, but you're alone, really!”

  “Like I said lad,” Mardon said, turning down the road. “Zombies are slow.”

  “I'm not.”

  “Commander—”

  “No.”

  “But—”

  “No, I'm not changing my mind. I'm well aware of the facts, Stevens...but you're going to repeat them to me anyway aren't you?”

  “Sir, letting one unaffiliated man take care of a new Vampire Lord with such potential, it is most irregular! And dangerous.”

  “Mardon may be unaffiliated but he's maintained good ties with us all his life, he can be trusted. And he's the best Master of the Discipline for hundreds of miles around. It's doubtful he'll fail.”

  “And since when are we satisfied with 'doubtful', sir?” The attendant – senior attendant, but attendant all the same – said with a highly unusual degree of feeling through gritted teeth.

  Argon sighed. As a rule, he preferred not to punish that sort of devotion to duty even when it backlashed on him. It was hypocritical. And Stevens' frustration was understandable. The immediate and thoroughly orchestrated extermination of new Lords was one of the key policies that had allowed the Order to maintain its hold over the lands it had cleared and – for lack of a better word – occupied. “As a rule, we are not. However, these are...special circumstances. I have discussed this with Mardon: the details are private and need not concern you or anyone else other than me. We will of course keep close watch on the proceedings, and I have already verified the availability of a Wind Contractor to contain the Lord's advance until help arrives if he fails. I'm sorry Stevens, but I'm going to have to insist that you be satisfied with that.”

  “I—this is—”

  “An order,” Argon finished for him. Enough was enough. A commander did have to draw a line somewhere. “Now please go back to work. Oversee the surveillance if it will make you feel better.”

  After a short, tight lipped pause, Stevens swerved about and left.

  Argon sighed, and rubbed his temples. As a rule, using his position for personal favors was an abuse of authority he abhorred. But this was different.

  “Good luck old friend,” he murmured. “I've done what I can.”

  Zombies really were slow: it took him several hours of steady travel – at a Master of The Discipline's pace, which was significantly faster than a normal person – to meet the first group, and they had been heading his way.

  There were nine; relatively fresh, probably from that man's village. He'd have chosen those as foremost scouts for two reasons, most likely. The first would be that while their bodies hadn't yet finished decomposing into their permanent half dead state, they would be relatively faster than their senior brethren. The other would be shock factor, of course: the psychological hammer of familiar mutilated faces gaping in wide, bestial, unknowing horror behind the hands that sought their throats. It was a sight that would still more than a few filled with that desperate bravery even the most timid can find when caught between life and death. And this was important because the truth was that terror was a zombies greatest weapon. Their fighting abilities were near nil: fodder troops of the lowest order. Beings made by vampires with the self-control to stop halfway through a feeding, they were victims robbed of even the mercy of dying, suspended halfway between life and death by the continued existence of their rent life force, half within themselves, half within their master. They had even less awareness than a beast, utterly lacking the thought or will needed to fight the compulsions their Master would lay on them. All they had left was the awareness that there was something they lacked: something the living around them had, driving them to devour their victims flesh in a hopeless attempt to restore themselves. And that same lack of life force rendered them slow and clumsy enough to be downed by any reasonably strong villager with a chair. They were single minded, hardly even cognizant of the threat of death, and possessed a grip as unforgiving as rigor mortis, but they had to reach you and grab you for any of that to matter, and only fear allowed them to do it. Even in groups, zombies were only dangerous to untrained people. A good warrior could generally handle five at a time. Any mid-rank user of any of the five magics would think nothing of fifteen. Fresh or not, there were nine of them, and Mardon was a superlative Master of The Discipline.

  He stepped out into the road and threw back the head of his cloak, revealing his face but not his accoutrements. And waited. Just in case.

  The zombies saw him, slowed and then stopped, shuffling restlessly while their master looked and judged from behind their thoughtless eyes. And then, slowly, with the shambling momentum of the dazed, the wounded, or the half-dead, the group moved as one towards him, gaping mouths loosing mindless moans as their fingers reached forward for the first grasp of warm, coveted living flesh, and the unattainable fire it contained.

  Mardon sighed. He'd known it was a long shot. With an eye-defying flicker of movement he drew his swords, long graceful blades laced with silver, the metal magic users called the Balancer, which cancels the magic it touches, leveling the ground between those who can use it and those who cannot. Such well forged examples were expensive: these had been in the family for some time. He had intended to give them to his son.

  Resigning himself to butchery, he blurred into their midst, swords a swift slashing web of death about him. A Master of the Discipline is a master of the body's true limits, someone who, through intense mental and physical training, has learned to tap into the extreme capabilities of humanity. What most could only find in an instant of terror, an uncomprehending moment, The Discipline can use at will, and over time, train yet further.

  Nine humans would have fared little better.

  A vampire is, fundamentally, an addict to life-essence. Which, in turn, is best described as the source to vitality, the product, which we all use throughout our lives and which mages use directly in their spells. Vitality was meant to be used and restored: life-essence is not. Only Life Attuned Psychics can touch it, and the first to do so became the First Vampire. A vampire can still be made anytime a psychic is foolish enough to try and drink life-essence, but by and large a vampire comes into being when an intended zombie finds in himself, or herself, the capacity to refill the terrible void left within. With that first drink that saves him from half-death, he is forever enslaved to the life-force of humans. Because that forbidden, concentrated taste of life creates an immediate and overwhelming need that eclipses every addictive substance known to man. At first, they try to fight. But in the end the Thirst always breaks them. And the being that is left at last is certifiably mad, a driven, twitching individual whose deepest morals and foibles have been crushed from within himself. Only fragments of their former selves still linger. No compunctions, and often no sense, remains.

  When sense does remain, however, that is a Vampire Lord. And they are the ones that are truly dangerous. Because even if they retain the capacity for human reason, and with it, even sometimes the seeming of their old selves, they are still mad. And so are their goals.

  “Dan!”

  “Ye-yes, yes yeth, master!”

  Getting a vampire underling instead of a zombie was a fluke that often took a while to happen even once. Gordan had been lucky; he'd already acquired two, neither of whom had the capacity to become Lords in their own right. Dan was the lesser of the two. He would have liked to have sent both at once for such an opponent, but that would have effectively meant gambling all his real resources at once. He and Bardeus could take the old man together if Dan failed.

  “That man who just killed some zombies down the road; go and kill him!”

  “Yes Master!”

  He encountered two more groups of zombies before the first vampire underling found him. He gave neither chance for recognition like before: he simply destroyed them. The Discipline enhances all senses and functions: strength, speed, hearing, sight, and even smell. Though this last was a doubtful gift when fighting half decayed corpses. Thankfully it was a conscious function that went both ways – he turned it off instead, almost entirely, so as not to be distracted by the putrid stench that hung in the air behind him and coated the gleam of his weapons. The worst part of killing zombies was cleaning your gear afterwards. It was a gut-wrenching, nauseating process.

  Hopefully killing the vampire would leave relatively fresher gunk to remove. Not the Lord. The small one that was almost here.

  He may have turned off his nose, but his eyes and ears were tuned to a fever pitch.

  Just from the beat of its steps, he could tell it was a cheap one. The rapid pitter patter had the light frenetic tempo of un-ballasted wall-eyed abandon: this one had snapped entirely under the strain of his Thirst and left anything resembling rational thought behind. On its own it would have had a short life indeed, rampaging haphazardly until some magic user killed it. The power it absorbed by nature burned like alcohol: fast, short, and hot, leading it through a ravaging sequence of highs and lows until it finally fell for good, at the mercy of its own cravings till the end. With a Lord to force it into some semblance of rationality, it could be different. Certainly it was near guaranteed to be fresh stocked with life force. But for all of that, vampires like this were usually almost as confounded by being at full power as they were crippled by being without. And its limits would have remained those of humans. A limit he could match.

  He reached for his swords, then paused, considering his cloak. Leave it on as a baffle for his movements and his body, or remove it for greater mobility? After a moment, he shrugged and removed it, tossing it aside out of the way. And then he set himself, and waited.

  Never rush into an unknown, no matter what it seemed like. That was for amateurs.

  There was no hesitation between the emergence of the vampire and its attack: it simply kept running, hands stretched forward and fingers arched like claws; they could rip far better than claws at the moment. Mardon pivoted his front foot and slid back his rear one, turning his body sideways and under the attack, but facing it; his left sword arched up point first in an attempt to skewer the vampire's armpit as it rushed forward; his right sword rose to point towards its shoulder from inside its grasp, posing a twin threat to the shoulder and the arm that rushed towards the leveled edge. The vampire swung wildly around the blades, its speed allowing it to react in time to avoid being mutilated three ways at once. But not in time to avoid being wounded; a long gash ran up the arm that had to avoid the right sword.

  Now the vampire paused; it had almost lost an arm and possibly even the battle and it knew it. Mardon's eyes watched it carefully as he stood, his torso shifted slightly to keep the focus of his stance on his opponent; this time there was no inviting broadside of body presented. But what he watched most was the wound, and what he saw made him smile grimly.

  The regeneration was slow, not nearly enough to turn the tide of battle. This vampire was even now incapable of sustaining lethal wounds. He would not need his sheaths: cutting it to pieces would do fine.

  He could do that.

  This man was too dangerous for him to fight himself if he could help it.

  “Bardeus!”

  “Yes?”

  “Take all but a third of our remaining zombies and go face him. Use them to tire him or distract him, your choice. Just use them well. Make sure he is killed!”

  “Yes, Master!”

  This was the village. A Master of the Discipline did not use magic, and so did not develop a sense for the supernatural – directly. But their enhancement was wrought largely of mental discipline, and this, combined with the overall improvement of their senses, resulted in something that worked just as well, with practice at interpreting it. He could smell the air, feel the atmosphere, taste the faint tremor of danger, of lurking evil that everyone can know, but most can't control.

  Here. The Vampire Lord was here.

  More importantly though, a great deal more zombies and one vampire minion were here – close enough to fight.

  His blades were already drawn, his cloak folded and tied about him, out of the way of his movements and his access to his belt. Up until now, he'd fought in a reactionary style at first, testing the grounds. The time for that was over.

  This time, he would need to take the offense.

  When everything in the body works together perfectly at peak pitch, the results often defy what many would consider even possible. Without seeing, without hearing, or in any way he could define, Mardon's eyes fixed on the darkness between two buildings.

  There.

  The six zombies waiting there barely had time to register they'd been spotted; they knew it when their heads flew and their limbs detached themselves to tumble lifelessly away. In the space of three breaths the space was occupied only by their remains and a dying breeze born of his passing: on, toward the next group.

  If this had been organized by the minion, he was definitely of a higher order than the last, still capable of rational thought, if not of controlling his Thirst enough to create minions of his own. The zombies had been placed in scattered but tight groups, a formation designed for flexible deployment – and to hinder his ability to dispose of them. If they had been all in one place it would have been easy, but now he had to locate and go to each group in turn, moving as fast as he could to dispatch as many as possible before the real fight began: when the minion would finally intercept him. Then, perhaps, the zombies would be more than a passing nuisance.

  He'd underestimated the minion. He was hiding in one of the groups.

  His own speed counted against him – he reached the group faster than his senses told him there was something there. Only instinct saved him – he jerked back and twisted with violent desperation to avoid the open fingered strike that would have torn a hole out of his side, and taken his heart with it. And then the real battle was on.

  The minion had a clear head: he turned and pressed on the attack with no hesitation or any sign of dismay, managing to salvage some of the element of surprise; Mardon was still off balance from having had to dodge so quickly and was all too easily put on the defense, backpedaling frantically to regain control as he flailed and twisted to turn the strikes coming at him aside. A pure silver blade would have weakened the vampire with every touch but would have been too frail for combat: the light silver lines in his swords could only have a lesser effect. When fighting other swords you blocked with the flat, but fighting vampires you blocked with the edge, and it was only the vampires' attempts to avoid mutilating his own hands that saved Mardon long enough.

 
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