A bleak morning sun seeped through the clouds, casting its dim light over the thousands of graves that marked the valley. Home to the dead, it was avoided by the living, scared away by frightening tales of legend.
“We should not advance,” Rorik urged. “You know what he is capable of in this place.”
“And you know our capabilities. There is nothing to fear.” Samuel was the younger of the two, clad like his companion in white steel that shone with an inner light.
“He is a Fallen, Samuel. You cannot hope to best him here.”
“He hasn’t fallen yet. Some Light still lingers.” Samuel’s voice betrayed impatience. He and Rorik had discussed the very thing many times over the course of their journey.
“Light that is failing.”
Samuel drew his sword. “I’m going out there, and I am going to reason with him.” He gestured at the heavy hammer in Rorik’s hands. “Are you with me?”
Mikael laid down his armor, his eyes taking in the numerous dents it had endured over the years. His steel had served him well, and it pained him to see that the Light was leaving it. He truly was descending into the darkness that so many brothers before him had embraced. He felt helpless to stop it, welcomed it even. Soon he would be turned.
Mikael swiveled around and saw Samuel standing at a distance, sheathing his sword.
“What do you want, brother?” Mikael said.
“I want you to come home,” Samuel replied.
“I can’t. Not after what happened.”
“You will be forgiven.”
Mikael looked Samuel in the eye for a long time, then burst into laughter. “I will be forgiven?” he spat. “You think I want your forgiveness? Need it? I need only one thing, and you cannot give that to me.”
“Neither can the alternative,” Samuel said, raising his voice to a shout. “You cannot bring back your family. Turn from this madness.”
A malignant shine grew in Michael’s eyes. It was time. He drew the dagger hanging at his waist. “All there is for you here is death, Samuel. I curse the Light for its betrayal. I want back what is mine, and this gift will let me have it.”
Samuel stepped forward. “You are my brother. I won’t let you.”
“Leave.” Mikael raised the dagger. He took one last deep breath, then plunged it into his heart. He gasped. His face contorted in pain. He fell.
Samuel stood motionless as it happened. He had faced the Fallen before, but never had he seen a brother turn. The sight of it was gruesome. Mikael’s short hair grew into long, jagged streaks of black. His face took on a cruel feature, accented by deep, red runes. Muscles twisted and grew, bones cracked. Finally, all blood was purged, leaving the skin white as snow, and Mikael, or what was once Mikael, rose. He examined himself with pleasure, flexed his altered limbs, then turned his gaze to Samuel, who drew his blade.
“You wish to fight,” Mikael said, baring gruesome fangs.
“You know it is my duty.”
Mikael laughed, and raised his hand. Instantly, the soil began to stir. “You chose a bad place. I am of the dead now, and the dead will obey me.”
Skeletal limbs sprang forth from the dirt, quickly followed by the skulls and torsos that wore them. Most carried age-worn armor and weapons. At a simple gesture, all skeletons threw themselves at Samuel.
“Light shield me,” Samuel said, and through these words his sword and armor erupted in radiant light, crushing the first wave of assailants. The next was quickly upon him, and Samuel fought like a lion, wielding his power with a desperate fierceness. It would not be enough. The knight would soon be overwhelmed.
A roar sounded on the battlefield, followed by the shattering of bones. Samuel spotted Rorik’s massive shape, ploughing his way through the masses. He was soon upon his friend.
“We have to leave,” he shouted.
“We can’t let him live,” Samuel shouted back, crushing three skeletons with a single strong blow. “We have to fight.”
“We’ll fight another day. Come on.”
Rorik grasped Samuel and pulled him through the gap he had created, chased by countless risen warriors. As they fled to safety, they could hear Mikael’s manic laughter, the sickening rattle of the rising dead and felt the dire threat to their Order that hung thick in the air.
They had lost a brother.
And in return, they had gained a nemesis.