Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Chapter Fifty-Seven

It requires the largest pieces of furniture - the divan, the wardrobe, and the bed - to pick up their Master and carry him back to his chambers. Pinocchio, having nowhere to go, follows behind.

Worried whispers drift through the castle. Their surgeon was destroyed during the Master’s last rage, and none of the servants are quite sure what to do.

The Beast’s heart still beats, ever so faintly, but he does not wake up. The basin and sponge gently clean the wounds beneath his matted fur as best they can. The rest watch silently.

Unable to see onto the high bed, Pinocchio looks about the forbidden room. It isn’t nearly so frightening, now that he is no longer alone.

“What’s that?” he asks suddenly. He points to a beautiful, ornate hand mirror.

“That?” says the Candelabra. “That is one of the Master’s most treasured possessions. It is an enchanted looking glass.”

“It shows you,” interrupts the Clock, “whatever it is your heart wishes to see, no matter the distance.”

“Can I see it?” asks the puppet.

May I see it,” corrects the Clock.

“May I see it?”

“If you wish,” says the Clock. “But it doesn’t always bring happiness, I must warn you. No, not always,” it adds, softly.

Unmindful of the Clock’s words, Pinocchio grabs eagerly at the mirror. “I wish to see my father,” he whispers.

And instantly, the mirror sparkles to life. It is Gepetto! He is alive! But where? In a dark, cramped, place. He holds a candle high, illuminating his gaunt, unshaven features, and then the image fades to Pinocchio’s own face.

“It’s Father! He’s alive!” gasps Pinocchio.

“I’m happy for you,” says the Clock, though its face is still sad.

Delighted, Pinocchio clatters downstairs to tell his companion. The Lion is in the entrance hall, at the edge of the pool of blood. He does not turn at Pinocchio’s voice.

“I saw him! I saw him!” Pinocchio calls.

“Is that so?” says the Lion, his voice oddly muffled. In the shadows, the mop and bucket watch him silently.

“Yes! He’s in the mirror! You were right!” He waves the mirror, shining brightly once more.

The Lion growls faintly as Pinocchio steps closer - a warning, the boy believes, to stay back from the sight of the man’s body. It was a most distressing sight, after all.

“Of course. I told you we should come here,” says the Lion, after swallowing. “And this is why.”

“Now all we have to do is find out where he is.” Pinocchio peers into the mirror, trying to spot any clues before the image fades away.

“That will be difficult,” says the Lion, and for a moment, Pinocchio’s smile falters. “But I believe I’ll be able to find him.”

Thinking silently for a moment, the Lion finally says, “It will be easier if we have help. You must go upstairs and ask the others.”

The Lion looks solemnly at Pinocchio, his muzzle flecked and wet. “Tell them it is not too late to save the girl and their master, just as it is not too late to find your father. Tell them.”

Nodding eagerly, Pinocchio scampers back upstairs, his eyes bright. Hope, after all, is a valuable meal.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Chapter Fifty-Six

Up, up, up the Forbidden Mountain sits a dark and beautiful castle - this is the Queen’s destination. But before she can undertake such a steep and treacherous climb, first she must pass a forest most twisted and cruel.

Many of the dead have been caught amidst its enchanted thorns and thistles. They groan and reach out helplessly, but the Queen ignores their pleas. Let them struggle until the end of days.

Every now and then she comes across a true corpse, and they catch her attention more than the undead. Here was once a handsome young lad in the fine silks and silver of a nobleman. How he must have suffered in these thorns, trapped for hours, days, before starving alone.

There are worse fates, she thinks, and she looks again at her wounded hand. How much time remains?

Soon the Queen cannot step any closer - the twisted thorns are too full of groping arms and groaning bodies. To enter further would be literally walking into an open, hungry mouth.

How many, she wonders idly, have made it past these demonic thorns?

One, perhaps? One would be enough. And, roaming aimlessly, it might soon encounter a fawn, weak and helpless. And the fawn would bite and kill throughout the wilderness. And from the forests would come death. And that death would never stop, never stop, never stop, until none remained.

She surveys the Forbidden Mountain with some respect. An impossible journey for a mere mortal, except perhaps the true of heart. But for one skilled in the blackest of magic, it’s a simple matter. With silver knife and raven’s feather, she prepares the painful transformation.

It started here, spoke the Mirror. This is where the death began, in the castle of the uninvited enchantress. And, on her dying day, before she, too, can be claimed by the curse, the Queen intends to undo the spell.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Chapter Fifty-Five

Rifle pointed in front of him, the stranger enters the forlorn castle.

The Lion catches the scent of the man’s oiled hair. And, more worryingly, he can smell gunpowder. Best to remain in the shadows, while the bravest of the furniture - led by Pinocchio and the Candelabra - creep forward to spy on the visitor.

The man has the build of a hunter, tall and burly. Even in the gloom, the Lion can see the large knife gleaming on his belt.

Pinocchio, ever foolish, speaks first. “Father?” he asks, his voice full of doubt and hope.

Thunder explodes through the castle, and the boy clatters to the floor. Smoke wisps from the barrel of the rifle.

The man frowns. Clearly, he was not expecting to hear the voice of a child. He cocks his rifle and steps forward, eyes aware of any movement. The furniture, shocked, stays still and inconspicuous.

Pinocchio clutches his chest. It doesn’t hurt, but he feels as if it should. His fingers probe the newly formed hole where his heart would be if he were made of flesh.

He starts to cry.

“What the devil?”

“You’re not my father,” sobs Pinocchio.

Ears still ringing from the gunshot, none save the Lion can hear the door opening upstairs. The air grows rank with the tiniest threat of fur and sweat and filth.

The Lion glances upward at the Master of the castle - a beast unlike any in his native Wildlands. It stares down from its chamber and takes no notice of the furniture, or the wooden boy, or the Lion.

But this man... HIM... He is not welcome here.

Its eyes blaze in fury, and before the Lion can consider what is to come, the Beast leaps from the balcony.

A nightmare of fur and fangs flies through the air. Its roar - bitter anguish and pain - shakes the castle walls and sucks the air from the man’s lungs.

He’d come following the Lion and the boy, and he’d found something worse - a demon with blue, hate-filled eyes.

Mouth agape, face gray, the man vaguely points the rifle in the direction of the Beast. He staggers backward and numbly pulls the trigger, but the shot is a whisper lost amidst the roar.

“You!” screams the Beast. It lands on the floor - tiles shatter, furniture scatters - and sends the man flying with a savage swing of its black claw. “It was you!”

The man crashes into the wall, and the Lion hears the faintest snapping of bone. The man, overwhelmed, doesn’t seem to be aware that he’s drawn his hunting knife.

“You killed her!” screams the Beast, and it flies toward the intruder. And although the man is a mountain among men - the champion of his town, once upon a time - he is nothing more than a toy compared to the monster before him.

“You murdered her!” the Beast rages. Its shadow envelops the man, and from his alcove, the Lion’s whiskers twitch at the scent of hot, fresh blood.

“Stop! Stop! Please, stop!” screams Pinocchio. He tries to move forward, to help the man, but he is held back by the Candelabra. The servants have seen their Master in such a state before, and they know what happens to those who get in the way.

For many moments, Pinocchio’s cries accompany the Beast’s, punctuated by the wet, smacking thud as the man is destroyed. Even when there is almost nothing left, it continues to slam its giant fists against the bloody tiles.

Only when the Beast’s vengeance is finally complete, its rage sated, does it sit back and notice, wonderingly, the knife in its side, the bullet hole in its body. With a mournful howl, it collapses, its blood mingling with the remains on the floor.

And still the Lion does not move.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Chapter Fifty-Four

Elsewhere in the city.

The attic window of a posh, ruined house, left purposefully unlatched. Outside on the wide ledge, a little elephant catches its breath.

“Yoo-hoo!” chirrups a snow-white mouse. She jumps from a tiny saddle atop the elephant, pushes open the window and glances around. “Darlings!”

“Honestly, Miss,” says another mouse, a common gray. “Be careful!” The elephant’s trunk rummages through one of its many saddlebags and removes a tin of cat food. He hands it to the gray mouse, who accepts the mountainous load with a grunt.

“Oh, pooh,” replies the first mouse. “It’s been ages since we’ve seen them. Surely they’ve missed us!”

“And surely they’ve grown,” mumbles her companion. “Kittens grow up fast, and you know what they eat, don’t you?” His voice drops to a whisper. “Mice.”

“Not these children,” she says in her usual confident tone. “They love us!”

“You, maybe,” says the gray. The tin proves too much for his tiny paws, and it clatters to the attic floor.

Hands on hips, she turns with an annoyed glare. “Really, can’t you be any more quiet? We don’t want any of them hearing us.” She gestures with a paw to the streets below, where the many dead humans wander aimlessly.

The gray nods meekly and holds the next tin all the tighter.

Something isn’t quite right. The kittens would’ve heard the can falling, surely, and if there’s one sound they recognize - other than the Miss’s voice - it’s food.

But the attic remains still.

“Don’t you think...” he begins, but she silences him with a paw. She looks around thoughtfully, at the floor, the windows, the ceiling, everywhere.

There’s a reason why she is such a well-regarded member of the Society, and it isn’t because of her beauty. Since the attacks, she’s been responsible for rescuing dozens of refugees, and has initiated even more members into their organization.

Birds, squirrels, all creatures meek and small had the advantage in this new world. They could slip beneath doors or hide in crawlspaces and cracks. The aerial squadron was instrumental in discovering safe places like this attic, and the flying elephant solved all issues with transport of food and people.

There are shelters like these all over the city, all over the world, but now...

“They aren’t here,” says the snow-white mouse. “This place has been breached.”

“By who?” The gray looks over to the closed trapdoor in the attic’s floor - the dead wouldn’t be so polite as to close it after them.

And the kittens were a handful, but they’d know better than to wander off into the dangerous world, wouldn’t they?

“They still had food,” she says, and she points to a large, mostly empty sack of cat food. It slumps in the corner, fat and dejected.

“And water, too.” Along the other window is the contraption they’d set up to catch rainwater.

“Disappeared,” he thinks. “Just like the Dalmatian couple.” He carefully puts down the tin and sniffs the air. Some unfamiliar scent makes his whiskers tremble.

“We should go...” he says, and unconsciously steps backward to the waiting elephant.

“You smell it, too, don’t you?” she says, and he nods.

“It’s, it’s like a dog,” he says at last. “But not quite.”

“No,” she agrees. “Not quite. Something wilder.”

“A dog might’ve scared them away,” he says.

“Yes, but a not-quite dog would’ve done something worse.”

She continues to look around, always returning her gaze to that open window.

It’s hard to stomach that look on her face, so he takes off his cap and studies it instead. “We should go, Miss,” he says again, and she finally tears herself away from her thoughts.

“Yes, we should.” With one last unsatisfied look at the window, she slowly returns to the ledge. The little elephant smiles at her, eager to fly some more.

“Maybe we can leave one tin for them,” says the gray, hoping for some hope. “You know, in case they come back. I could even open it up, since they can’t use a can opener.”

“No,” she says flatly. She climbs atop the tiny elephant, scratches absently at his enormous ears - he squirms in delight - and looks out over the city. “That won’t be necessary.”

The gray starts to climb up after her, but she stops him. “Oh, and be a dear and hitch along that sack of food, will you? Someone else will need it.”

On her orders, they never return.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Chapter Fifty-Three

“Just my luck,” grumbles the Dwarf. “Started with one sleepin’ girl, ended up with another. Left one dead kingdom, and look where I am.”

He speaks with the same fastidiousness he’d use when stoking a fire. The silence, like the cold, would be overwhelming, and he’s the only one who can carry the conversation.

The bonneted dog listens stoically, and the Dwarf surprises himself by scratching her shaggy haunches.

Cinderella slumbers, lost in the sleep of death. He won’t allow himself the notion that she can hear his words, and doubts that she can feel the plushness of the bed in which she lies. It took him quite some time, working alone, to push it into this room.

The Wolf is gone. He’d been no use the day before, of course. He’d whined about his stitches and wounds, constantly circling about and getting in the way, and hadn’t helped board up a single door or window. Then with the rising of the sun, the Wolf had abandoned them altogether - up through the chimney, quick, quick, quick.

“Good riddance t’ bad rubbish,” growls the Dwarf. It’s a return to his favorite topic. He scratches the bonneted dog harder. “Hope they got him. One less mouth t’ feed, anyway.

“Not that we got much,” he says, raising his voice to drown out the scrambling and scratching below. Downstairs, the dead thrash against the walls and go bump in the night, agitated by the unreachable scent of Dwarven sweat.

“Hard, moldy bread. Water if it rains soon... which it won’t. Probably end up needin’ to eat these shoes.”

With a long-suffering sigh, he stumps toward the fireplace. Not that he needs a fire - his eyes are long accustomed to the darkness of the mines - but the girl might appreciate it. And maybe the firelight will be noticed by someone in this great empty city. Some lucky fool.

A crash and a thump from the roof. The bonneted dog snaps to attention and growls faintly. The Dwarf swears and grabs at his spear-axe. How they got up there is nobody’s guess, but he’ll be damned if they get through.

“Watch over her,” he orders the dog. She nods a small salute, and stands by Cinderella’s bed.

The noise changes to a scuffling in the chimney, and the Dwarf relaxes ever so slightly. Defending a fireplace is easy - they can’t get in faster than he can kill them.

And the dirty head of the Wolf peers through. For a horrible moment, the Dwarf fears his bitter words have come true, but then the Wolf winks. He wriggles from the fireplace and wipes the soot from his arms.

The Dwarf drops the axe to his side. “Don’t make a mess in here,” he says. There’s no need to bother with a greeting.

Slowly, sarcastically, the Wolf brushes himself over the fireplace. Then, paws clean, he reaches into his pocket and removes three bundles of fur. Kittens. Dead. He tosses them in the Dwarf’s direction.

He picks one up, brings it to his nose, and sniffs. Fresh, but no longer warm. Snapped neck. Of course, the Wolf probably ate the plumpest of them, but it’s enough for a stew, and maybe some meat can be dried.

“Where’d you get these?”

“Other end of town. Holed up in an attic.”

The Dwarf grunts. “Should’ve brought back the other ones you ate, too.”

The Wolf’s eyes go wide with pretend innocence. “There were only three, I swear!”

The bonneted dog snorts.

“She could’ve used the extra fur for a blanket. It’s summer now, but it’ll get cold soon enough.” He begins gutting the first kitten. It’s wearing a leather collar, which he pockets. He does not read the name.

The Wolf nods and grins in a way that the Dwarf doesn’t trust. But the creature doesn’t seem hungry... at least for the time being.

“How’re you gonna feed her?” asks the Wolf, with a flick of his tail toward Cinderella’s bed.

“I don’t,” says the Dwarf. “If she’s like the other one, she’ll maybe just drink a few drops of water, but I don’t think she even needs it. But it... it just ain’t right to not give her nothin’.”

The Dwarf tries to focus on the kitten, though one eye keeps going toward the Wolf. He salivates openly, and keeps running his paws over the stitches in a way that is almost - but not quite - scratching.

Muttering to himself, the Dwarf vows to keep watch that night, but eventually, stomach full of stew, he falls asleep. He doesn’t hear the Wolf disappear, quick, quick, quick, up the chimney for a brief nighttime prowl.

But in the morning, someone has placed a small cup of fresh water beside Cinderella’s bed.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Chapter Fifty-Two

Like the rest of the castle, the upstairs landing remains dark, empty, destroyed. Pinocchio looks around.

“Father?” he calls once more. His voice trembles.

He knows - but he doesn’t know how he knows - that his destination must lie beyond the closed door at the end of the hallway. The scariest door. The largest door. That is the one he must open.

He tiptoes closer, although he’s not quite sure why - whatever dwells behind the door has surely heard his voice. As he reaches up to grab the doorknob, a baritone voice emerges from the darkness:

“Ah-ah-ah, I wouldn’t open that if I were you.”

A small flare of fire - a candle is lit - and a candelabra gasps at the visitor. “Sacre bleu! It is a small wooden boy.”

Pinocchio smiles. A talking candlestick! Surely Gepetto is nearby.

It subtly hops away from the forbidden door, and Pinocchio follows.

“Hello,” he says. “I’m looking for my father. Gepetto.”

“Well... I am fairly certain he is not here,” says the Candelabra. It eyes Pinocchio carefully, checking for any distinguishing traits. “Unless you are one of mine.” It chuckles. “In which case, I would say the family resemblance is, how shall we say? Not so good.”

“But, but the Lion said...” begins Pinocchio.

“I am sorry, young monsieur,” says the Candelabra, and it continues to lead the boy toward the staircase, “but there is no Gepetto here. I have never heard the name. Now you must go. I fear you may have already disturbed the Master.”

“The Master?” Pinocchio casts a hopeful eye at the bedroom door. It has to be Gepetto. “Did he make you, too? He made me!”

The Candelabra shakes its head, casting odd, flickering shadows. “I am afraid not, young monsieur. Now truly...” its attention is diverted by scurrying sounds from downstairs - the rest of the staff seems restless this day. “You must go.”

Confused, Pinocchio stops walking. Was the Lion mistaken? But how could he be wrong? And there’s that ever-important lesson he’d learned from the Lion: not everyone could be trusted. Would that include talking candlesticks?

There have already been so many tests - all of which Pinocchio is quite sure he’s failed - along his journey. This must be another one. And his many mistakes had cost him his father, his conscience, the Little Pig. Just about everything.

And somehow he knows - without quite knowing how he knows - that the right decision will cause Gepetto to appear. But if he is wrong, his father will be whisked even further away.

The Blue Fairy told him he must be brave, truthful and unselfish in order to be a real boy. She never said what he must do to find his father. And the Lion has taught him, time and time again, that he simply isn’t suited toward making the right choice.

Should he listen to the Candelabra, a stranger? Or disobey and see for himself?

“Maybe... I’d better... check,” decides Pinocchio. The choice is made. And before the Candelabra can protest, they hear the click and creak of an opening door.

But it isn’t the scariest door, the largest door, the Forbidden Door of the Master.

It comes from the great hall downstairs.

Someone has entered the castle.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Chapter Fifty-One

The forest is still alive. And that troubles the Queen.

She no longer fears the dead. Now she fears the living.

How many hours remain before she, too, falls prey to the curse of walking death? Should a stray squirrel or badger draw near, will she be tempted by the taste of their flesh, the scent of their blood? How much longer does she have?

Her hand still throbs painfully. Already she can see the redness around her missing finger. Not for the first time, not for the last time does the Queen curse that foul Dwarf.

She expects the curse will travel up her arm and slowly kill her, but she isn’t sure - she never bothered to study any of her dying subjects, not when the Mirror was missing.

Now her beloved Mirror weighs down her pack. How it fits inside such a small satchel is a matter of magic most dark, darker than the whispering forest that she hurries through.

Whatever moves about and watches from the trees, it will only impede her on her quest, and she still has leagues to walk before she sleeps. Indeed, she may never sleep again. Not when so much is at stake.

Her approaching death makes it easier to carry on. No pausing for rest or food or even water. There is no more need. All that matters is that she reach the Forbidden Mountain, the birthplace of this terrible curse, before it claims her, as well.

On a different night, under different circumstances, perhaps, she would pause and listen to the whispers of the forest. Out of curiosity, if nothing else, for secrets are often spoken in the dark. But not tonight.

The Queen glides on, a glimmer of jeweled darkness in the moonlit night, until finally the forest calls to her.

“Ho, fair lady,” comes a pleasant voice from the trees.

She does not stop. Something steps lightly among the branches and follows her.

“My lady, these woods be most treacherous at night. Why not wait 'til daybreak up here, safe above the ground?”

Still the Queen does not stop, although her spine begins to buzz with the beginnings of fear. She can smell flesh and blood.

“Please?” A pause. “Well, if that be the case...” says the voice, and something falls lightly from the trees and lands quietly at the ground in front of the Queen.

“We’ll need to be taking whatever you’ve got, then.” He sees the jewels of her crown, and then bows slightly. “Your majesty.”

He is a fox, dressed for a life spent outdoors. He casually carries a longbow, but is too polite to aim it upon her person.

“You dare rob from me?” says the Queen. Too late, she’s identified this forest as Sherwood.

“It’s what we do,” says the fox. He smiles. “Take from the rich, give to the poor. Of course, if you’d agree to stay with us, there’d be plenty of food for all.”

The Queen looks up into the mighty trees of Sherwood, only now realizing the walkways and well-concealed huts. A perfect sanctuary from the dead, a sanctuary she would destroy were she to accept this thief’s invitation.

A bear appears from the shadow of an oak, and unslings the pack from the Queen’s shoulders. He rifles through it, but the magic prevents him from seeing its true contents.

He groans in disappointment. “No food.”

“What?” The fox nearly drops his bow in surprise. “No food? What about water?”

“Not a drop.”

The fox turns to the Queen. “What have you been eating, then?”

She raises her wounded hand, revealing the stump where her finger was bitten. “Myself,” she says.

The bear is too stunned to resist as she snatches her pack and flees into the darkness, intent on putting as much distance as she can from this haven before the inevitable.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Chapter Fifty

“Keep runnin’,” gasps the Dwarf. He readjusts the sleeping Cinderella across his shoulders and continues stumping up the cobblestone streets. At his heels, the Wolf forces himself to limp a little faster.

Though they've only been in the Lands Beyond for a few moments, already the Dwarf has come to hate it.

His people fled here? To this undefended maze of a city? What were they thinking?

Two dead children stumble into the street, blocking their way. The Dwarf lowers Cinderella to the ground - he winces as she falls upon the stones - and draws his polearm.

“Carry the girl!” he shouts to the Wolf, and rushes forward to attack the dead.

“I can’t!” snarls the Wolf. He pulls feebly at her apron, but his stitches throb too painfully.

“Then you’ll get us all killed,” scowls the Dwarf, and he swings angrily at the children. He pays no mind to what they once were.

“Come on,” he says roughly, and picks up Cinderella once more. He looks behind at the straggling bodies, then continues running.

Instinctively, the Dwarf heads toward a clock tower in the distance - it’s the only building in this city of glass that looks safe - but getting there, that’ll be the trick.

“Turn here,” wheezes the Wolf. He sniffs at the air. “Less of ‘em.”

“Less is still lots,” growls the Dwarf. Fightin' 'em off ain't hard, he’d admit, not when you have a weapon made to keep your distance and the enemy doesn’t know any tactics. But each moment fightin' is a moment not runnin'.

“Gotta be somewhere safe,” says the Wolf. He looks longingly at the ruined buildings, but each one has a broken door or a smashed window - an open invitation to the undead.

“Hmph. Not even a tree!” It’s difficult, but somehow the Dwarf finds the breath to complain.

Three more of the dead pick their way through the wreckage of a shop. Not a troubling number - he’d killed seven with one blow before - but the Dwarf’s mostly concerned with the ever-increasing horde following them. The corpses fall over the broken bricks, and the Dwarf decides it’s not worth it, best to keep running.

“Where now?” he asks.

“Doesn’t matter,” says the Wolf. The smell is everywhere. His eyes flit about for any sign of escape. “They’re all coming.”

“Damnation.” He slides Cinderella to the street and looks for the closest cluster. Each group, on its own, wouldn’t be nothin', but not all of them all at once. He doesn’t have time to strategize, especially with that damn barking. What’s the Wolf trying to do, alert the whole cursed city?

“Will you shut yer yap?” he shouts at the Wolf, who looks back at him in surprise.

“It ain’t me!” the Wolf shouts back. The two look at each other, then wildly about the neighborhood. Dead dogs don’t bark. They may howl, but they don’t bark.

Soon they see it - a large dog barking at them from a second-story window.

“Go!” says the Dwarf, but the Wolf is already hobbling in that direction.

The door to the house is nailed shut, but there’s a small broken window next to it. The Wolf, after smelling carefully, shimmies through the hole, and the Dwarf gingerly passes Cinderella through.

In a moment, they’re inside and the Dwarf surveys the interior. Not many windows on this floor, he decides, but not many is still too many.

There’s a lumbering step at the stairs, and they turn to see their barking savior: a large, mountainous dog wearing - of all things - a bonnet.

“It safe upstairs?”

The bonneted dog nods.

“This room ain’t worth defendin’,” decides the Dwarf. He picks up Cinderella and stomps up the stairs. “Maybe I can hold ‘em off from the stairway, pick ‘em off one at a time...”

And then he notices the sound of his own footsteps. The staircase rattles. It isn’t made of good, solid, unbreakable marble, but of a fancy wood. A fancy, delicate, flimsy wood.

Setting Cinderella on the second-floor landing, he takes a crowbar from his tool belt. Within seconds, he’s removed one of the stairs. He looks down - eleven more to destroy.

“This the only way up?” he asks the bonneted dog. She barks back a single affirmative.

“Good,” says the Dwarf, smiling joylessly as the undead beat upon the windows. He rushes downstairs, hoping he has enough time before they break into the house.

“This won’t be easy, but it’ll do,” he says to no one in particular. They’re the cheeriest words he’s ever spoken.