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38ea73be36a1ba719f154ff19fc0e403When they woke, this time for real, they were in a dimly lit and dingy church. Significant damage had been inflicted on the structure: holes gaped in the sagging roof and ragged apertures pierced the walls. Stains streaked the walls from the rain, and rubble was strewn across the floor mixed with smashed pews. The altar was partially smashed, with claw marks rending its surface. Statues and frescoes were defaced, with amputated limbs and smears and slashes from unknown liquids and weapons.

A figure crouched at the altar, mumbling feebly. Grubby candles cast a dismal light as the darkness gathered outside.

*********

The fight had been short and simple: Dide sidestepped Ernat’s clumsy lunge and clubbed him behind the ear. Then, one at a time, he dragged the hardly protesting soldiers to the decrepit church at the north side of town. There he found the emaciated and barely sane priest and, with his help, had revived the men.

*********

Ernat was furious at himself and stalked about the church kicking at rubbish and cursing the unknown forces that had rendered him insensible. The rest clustered about holding their heads, either in shame or in hangover recovery or both.

“What the hell is going on, Jurisco?” Ernat demanded. “You’re the God-botherer around here. What’s the meaning of this?”

Jurisco ran his thumb along his crucifix as if testing the blade of a razor.

“Some sort of devilry, certainly,” he said, uncertainly.

“Let’s burn this shit hole to the ground,” declared Albergio. He lurched to his feet and wrenched out his uncared for sword. “Christ on the cross,” he said, “The bugger’s nearly rusted through!”

He started shouting the others into order until Jurisco reminded him that they were in a church. Warming to his task, the camp priest started to lecture the group on their tardiness to duty, conveniently overlooking his own fall into debauchery. His tirade was cut short before he could work himself up into lather by the sound of thumping at the door.

“Expecting someone?” said Gari.

“It’s begun,” wailed the pathetic parish priest from his altar, and he renewed his Latin prayers in a louder, though more fearful voice.

“What’s begun?” said Ernat as he strode to the door and threw it open.

There were a dozen, maybe more, people waiting outside. Their skin was pallid and drawn around their mouths revealing teeth drawn in a rictus of hunger. Bones protruded against their collarbones and elbows and their yellow eyes were febrile with a hunger for something other than food. As the door opened their arms raised as one with a clawing motion as if to grab, grasp and rend, and then they staggered forward. The movement of their walking forced the air from their lungs past their voice boxes producing a repellent moan. Their breath, as it washed over Ernat, was a cold mist that reeked of decay and corruption. Ernat recoiled involuntarily at the tide, his mind overwhelmed by the crashing perversity of the scene confronting him.

“Who the fuck are they?” said Eduare.

“The dead!” shrieked the cowering village priest. “The dead that walk.”

This was the cue that Albergio had been looking for and he leapt forward.

“Dead, my arse,” he said. “But they soon will be. The buggers.”

Despite the dullness of their weapons and the out-of-form rustiness of their movement, the party quickly overcame the mass of shambling monstrosities. Only minor cuts and bruises were suffered, all from weak and seemingly random scratches. The creatures that had gathered at the door were now dismembered hunks of putrescent meat. A foul stench filled the church, but this seemed a minor concern to the soldiers of Spain so used to the carnal house of slaughter in the Low Countries.

“What the hell was that about?” asked Ernat, turning back to the village priest. “What were these Protestant monsters?”

The priest did not answer. He was partially covered by the now still body of one of the creatures, fended off at the last moment in a desperate defence. Dide threw the noxious corpse aside and knelt down beside the clearly dying priest. Blood spilled from a half dozen rends in his chest.

“Ireena Kolyana,” he said, and coughed blood.

“Who the hell is that?” said Eduare as he looked down, wiping the ichor from his sword on a ripped tapestry.

“Shut up, fool,” said Jurisco. He knelt beside the dying priest and prepared to receive his confession. He started to recite the necessary rites but was interrupted again by the failing, gurgling voice.

“Daughter… daughter, they say, of the Mayor. She is the key.”

Before anyone could start with some kind of puerile speculation the priest continued. His voice was weaker now, though he seemed determined to finish.

“… she is not his natural daughter. He found her, at the foot of the cliffs. Old Kolyan took her in. But she is the key to our salvation…”

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