Tomb of Ashes
Wendeval crept silently through the thick overgrowth toward Farlane’s cottage. Dressed in a black cloak, he felt very much like an Angel of Death visiting misfortune upon an unsuspecting victim. He couldn’t see Victor, nor the two accompanying Ash Hounds, but before concerning himself over their whereabouts, he had to permanently silence Farlane and anyone else who could bear witness to his presence.
The white walls of the cottage were hidden beneath a thick coat of ivy, as if the building had intentionally camouflaged itself to evade Wendeval’s wrath. Emerging from the surrounding foliage, Wendeval glided towards the door like a shadow shifting beneath a moving light. There was no lock on the cabin’s door to impede entry; apparently the old recluse had never thought his home would be the target of burglary.
The interior of the cottage was fairly small with only a couple of rooms, making Wendeval immediately confident that Farlane would be his only quarry for the evening. With his sword drawn and ready to taste the old man’s blood, Wendeval burst into the bedroom, sending the startled Farlane scrambling from his bed and cornering himself against a wall. He was a small raisin of a human being, clearly in no position to offer resistance.
“Who are you?” Farlane demanded.
Without a word Wendeval removed the hood of his cloak. Farlane’s eyes expanded with terror. Though there was no mirror, Wendeval knew what caused the old man to tremble speechlessly at the sight. He was no longer human, his face was a crude mockery of its previous flesh form: grey and hairless, with gaping hollows for eyes, and a texture resembling an ancient statue laced with cracks. He was incapable of expression, wearing a permanent mask of apathy and callousness.
“Y-You’re trying to resurrect the Ash King,” Farlane managed after a series of horrified gasps.
Wendeval offered no verbal response, but rather thrust his blade into the chest of the old man unceremoniously. Farlane died with a single, hushed sigh, collapsing to the floor instantly. Wendeval walked back to the entrance.
“Victor!” he called.
Soon he saw another cloaked figure led by a pair of wolf-sized, undead hounds, specially altered to pick up the scent of the Ash King’s remains.
Fifty years prior the Ash King had fallen. He was nearly impossible to kill in his demonic form, his heart the only part of him that could be completely destroyed. That feat was accomplished by his slayers, but with dark sorcery the heart could be reconstructed. So to prevent his revival, they cut his body into 150 pieces, charging different individuals with guardianship of the remains. But the Ash King’s chief sorcerer, Nilith, had created the hounds to find his body parts, and had forged the hearts of fifty unwilling participants, including Wendeval and Victor, into a powerful replacement for his lord’s. He had recaptured 148 of the Ash King’s missing members, Farlane’s piece to be the 149th. But much to Nilith’s disgust, the final piece remained elusive. Whereas the previous parts had been detected almost immediately by the sorcerer’s altered canines, that single, damnable part had yet to be located.
Led by the Ash Hounds, Wendeval and Victor found a trick panel in the floor of Farlane’s cottage, underneath which a box was buried. After prying it open the duo found a fossilized ribcage.
“Alright, that’s it,” Victor said with great satisfaction, “so that leaves.. Which part as the elusive one?”
“The liver,” Wendeval responded.
“The Ash King’s liver,” Victor repeated reverently, “okay, sheriff, let’s get this back to Nilith, I’m sure he’ll be pleased.”
Wendeval hated when his fellow Ash Knights called him “sheriff”, though as they always did he had grown tired of protesting. It was unclear to him whether the reference to his former occupation was meant as a sign of respect or mockery. After grunting in agreement he pulled his hood back over his head and the two turned to leave. The hounds did not follow.
“What the? Stupid mutts are still sniffing around that loose panel,” Victor said.
Wendeval didn’t waste time with words, he returned to the spot and reexamined the hole. Brushing more dirt aside with his hands, he soon removed another wooden box, similar to the one in which they’d discovered the ribcage. Concealed within they found the Ash King’s liver, the 150th piece.
“Well I’ll be damned!” Victor said triumphantly.
“We all will most likely,” Wendeval responded, “so Farlane was guarding two pieces. Nobody guessed that the reason we had only found 149 locations was because two of them were in the same place.”
It was almost funny. Such a plausible possibility and yet neither Nilith nor one of the fifty Ash Knights had theorized it. Thus the moment of fate appeared to be nigh for the resurrection of the Ash King, and the receipt of the promised “power” that Nilith’s captives had been guaranteed if they aided with the revival. They had little choice, their hearts at the disposal of the dark sorcerer: either they agreed to be one of his knights, or their heart was cast into a pit of fire and their soul tormented eternally. Some had become excited about the reassembly of the Ash King, even zealous, others were dejected and only followed Nilith’s orders with great reluctance. Wendeval belonged to neither camp, remaining somewhat enigmatic to his peers.
“It’s hard to believe,” Victor mused, “we can have him reborn this very night. What do you think will happen?”
Wendeval cradled the liver in his hands, staring down at it. He was silent, paying no attention to his comrade. Nilith didn’t know that the liver could be obtained that night. He was a hard man to fool, but his ignorance in this circumstance created possibilities. Beautiful possibilities.
“Return the ribcage to Nilith,” he ordered, “it would be a shame to return this final piece in such an anticlimactic fashion.”
“What? You don’t want to return the liver?” Victor said disapprovingly.
“In due time,” Wendeval said, “the hounds will rediscover it in a day or so. And don’t tell anyone about this.”
“What the hell are you going to do with it, sheriff?” Victor asked.
“This will be my final opportunity to settle an old score,” Wendeval told him as he turned to walk away.