“She was right,” Craig sobbed. “They are all dead, even Master Boz.”
It was Gabriel’s turn to offer comfort. He had a lot of experience being comforted, and he used it, starting by placing his hand on the older man’s shoulder. When this did not seem to get through to Craig, Gabriel began to speak. “You told me the other day about the will of The One. I am in no position to tell you what his plan is here. But I believed you then, and you need to trust in him here.”
One of the monks that had been travelling with them, an older balding man by the name of Trevor, approached silently and stood still until Gabriel acknowledged his presence.
“Master, your blade is needed, some of the dead have begun to…” The old man shivered and began to retch.
“Began to what Brother?”
Regaining his composure, Trevor finally spat out the rest of the sentence. “They’ve begun to change.”
“Go.” It was all Craig could say, the single syllable filled with emotion, but also urgency.
Gabriel chose not to argue and followed Trevor back to where the priests had begun to busy themselves preparing the dead for the rituals.
As soon as the Paladin was spotted, another man rushed up to him. “Come with me.”
Gabriel was led by the hand into a single room hut. The smell of death hung low in the room and Gabriel had to steady himself on a table, the only piece of furniture other than the bed, before he could go any further.
The skull of what had once been a man lay twisted at an odd angle, the jowls having begun to extend, the bottom jaw having burst through the already decaying flesh in an attempt to become more canine. The man’s arms lay at his sides, the forearms already stretched beyond the capacity of the skin. As he approached, Gabriel thought he could hear the man’s bones popping as they realigned themselves to their new, more canine shape.
He lost what little food was in his stomach as he beheld the half man-half werewolf that lay before him. “What do you want me to do with it?” he asked after he had recovered. As if on cue, the monstrosity’s left leg lifted into the air, the bones within creaking, the flesh without tearing with a sickening wet sound, the leg lengthening about six inches. Puss dripped from the torn flesh onto the bed beneath it.
“Kill it,” Came the response from outside the door. It was then that Gabriel realized he was alone in the small hovel. Glancing toward the door, he stumbled, losing his balance, realizing how dizzy he was. He placed his hand on the bed to stabilize himself, and only after he felt the gore underneath it, did he realize where he had set his hand. The young man jumped back, a small shriek escaping his lips.
Gabriel heard a laugh from outside the building. “Then you come in here, why don’t you kill it?” Gabriel momentarily let his fear take over.
“We don’t have any weapons Master.”
The statement reminded Gabriel of the sword that hung at his hip. He withdrew the blade and, turning his head, swung wildly, missing the bed entirely. The sound of tearing flesh occurred again, and Gabriel had to leave the hovel, his empty stomach heaving.
After he had finally regained control of his rolling stomach, Gabriel reached out, as if to steady himself on the man that had dragged him to the building. With a swift yank, he had caused a rip in the fabric of the priests robes.
“Hey,” the man yelled and jerked his leg away from Gabriel, who held on tightly.
This caused the fabric to come free completely.
“What are you doing?” barked the older man.
Gabriel held up the makeshift mask and walked back into the building. The cloth cut down on the smell, and Gabriel concentrated hard on blocking out the sounds that were continuing to come from the still changing body. He got close and, watching carefully, swung his sword one handed, all of the strength he could muster behind the swing. The blade fell and a raspy howl escaped the almost lupine lips of the monster. Gabriel yanked hard on the blade and felt it come loose from the flesh that still kept the head attached to the body. Dropping the cloth from his own mouth, the young Paladin swung the sword again with two hands, the head coming clean off. Gabriel had to stifle another shriek as he could have sworn the beasts eyes had opened and looked at him as the blade severed its spinal cord. Shaking, Gabriel exited the building, “It is done.” He sank to his knees, the creatures staring eyes still visible in his mind.
“There are three more like this.” The priest with the torn robe said, helping Gabriel stand up, just to have the young Paladin swoon again.
By the final body, Gabriel was able to walk in and do the deed without looking too closely at the creature. The second one had been the worst, a little girl not much older than his sister had been when she had passed. He had cried after chopping its head off.
Craig, face stained with tears, had rejoined the other monks and Atwans preparing the town for its funeral. “Those four are going to be burned in their houses.” He called out to Gabriel.
Later, unsure of how late it was due to the thick cloud of smoke the blotted out the sun, Gabriel sat across from Craig in a clearing near Garinth’s orchard, a small cooking fire between them. “What now?” The young man asked.
“We set out a call for a new Paladin to take up the mantle here and we rebuild, I guess.”
“The young woman who met us on the road, how is she doing?”
“She is still not sick.”
“Good, did you find any other survivors?’
“Not in town, no, but I don’t see everyone, so hopefully some people fled.’
“Hopefully…” Gabriel did not have much hope after the dour deeds of earlier in the day, but was not going to squelch the older Atwans hopes.
The silence that followed was broken by a shout as one of the priests ran towards them.
“Another Paladin has arrived,” he said, gasping for air.