This was Arkyn’s life.
Take the livsbrød and nearly die trying to dole it out. Day after day. It was not a glamorous life, and the struggle exacted a heavy toll in more ways than one.
Without any commiseration, consolation, or comradery, Arkyn’s spirit suffered more than his body.
He didn’t need to remember companionship for loneliness to eat at him. It was innate yearning, one reinforced by the books he read. Arkyn had mysteriously reawoken with the ability to read, a fact for which he was indescribably grateful. By this holy medium, he spent his evenings distant from his troubles, in other times and places, traveling on the dusted magic of the black and yellow page.
These fragile sheaves taught him of a beautiful world, of friends, lovers, and families, of love, happiness, and loyalty. Sometimes this learning was like salt to his aching heart, but more often, it gave him hope for the life he might someday possess. Would possess. This dream belonged to him, as surely as his name, if only he persevered.
The antidote, transparent and glistening, dried over Arkyn’s forearm, a hard sheath around the wound. The swelling and throbbing had diminished significantly. He reached the arm up and around in enlarging circles, clenched and opened his fist. His mobility and strength weren’t as good as new, but they would do.
It was time he got going.
Arkyn only attempted an overt draugr rescue when he was feeling particularly indestructible. The rest of the time, and especially after taking a beating, he adopted a more oblique strategy. After all, he was no help to anyone dead.
Maneuvering a path back through the debris, Arkyn exited the bank and stealthily moved toward the nucleus, keeping to the shadows, and began strategically placing vials along paths draugar might barrel through in the dark hours. He stuck them out of pallet stacks, set them atop electrical boxes, and poised them in door jambs, all at eye level. Arkyn figured that if he had stumbled upon one by chance, perhaps another would. It was better than hoarding them in the library where they go to waste… albeit not much better.
A disturbance came from within a nearby house, lasting only a moment. Arkyn flattened against the closest building and re-gripped his ax. The shifting started again, lazily. It wasn’t the sound of a charge, merely the restless shuffling of dust beneath a dead man’s tread. Make that two. And the sounds were growing louder.
Arkyn slipped between porch columns and into the anteroom of an abandoned home. He had barely concealed himself when he glimpsed through a smeared window two draugar, rambling out of the building opposite.
His heart twitched.
Rags hung from their gaunt bodies. One, a woman once, lacked an arm, the other limped on a nub of a leg. Groggily, they bumbled down the street, grunting and squinting at the faint daylight like it was a supernova and they had hangovers. It was almost… pitiable.
But then their stench overwhelmed the street. Fighting not to gag, Arkyn ducked back into the house. The dust had settled here, and from the smell of it, he didn’t think a draugr took residence within. Though it was hard to tell; this whole side of town was rank, congested with a multitude’s putrescence.
Arkyn took another peek through the grubby window curtains. They were farther away now, their heads swaying from side to side for sight or scent of a meal, the one thing that could stimulate them out of their doldrums and into savage heights of speed and ferocity.
But they caught no such sign and passed around a corner out of sight.
Arkyn regulated his breath, and waiting until he was certain they were well away, he pressed on, hurriedly positioning the last of the vials in the cramped neighborhood.
All ampoules, save one, in case of emergency.
The sky’s dingy haze had grown rusty, the color of dried blood. The dismally short day only had only a few hours where hints of the sun forced their way through the polluted air, and those hours were drawing to a close. Arkyn headed back toward the business district. The further he went, the safer he felt, and the easier it was for his thoughts to drift to the book that awaited him in his burrow of tatty woolen blankets.
Something rattled on his left. As Arkyn jerked to look, he tripped on a skeleton in the road and lost his footing. Careening into a rusted vehicle, he sliced the knuckles of his right hand and nearly dropped his ax.
BASH! BASH! BASH!
Flipping his back against the creaking heap of a car, Arkyn faced the sound.
A gigantic draugr smashed through the wall of a supply shop, pausing in the doorway to swivel its nose. Arkyn gawped. It was at least a head taller than him and twice as broad. The draugr snapped its head to the right, its yellow eyes locking on Arkyn, and its maw, half-lipped and black with rot loosed a gut-rending roar. Like a sprinter at a pistol shot, it bolted at Arkyn taking huge, sprawling strides.
Arkyn hurled his ax at the attacker. Years of daily practice sent it true, but at the last, the draugr dodged, its spray of white hair swirling as the ax grazed its left shoulder.
Arkyn flung himself from the car and scampered back up the road. After ten paces, he threw a backward glance. The creature was gaining on him, despite the nauseating clack of its hip at each lumbering step. It was faster than him.
Arkyn wove between a car, a lamp pole, and a canopied bus stop. Behind him, a thunk sounded and the warble of plexiglass. The draugr must have clipped the bus stop pole. Perhaps its size, while not slowing it, reduced its agility. Arkyn prayed it was so. The pounding run had pulled at the wound on his forearm, causing it to throb horribly again, and his shallow strength began to flag.
Arkyn dove into a narrow side street, toppling a stack of terra cotta pots in his wake. The creature bellowed at the obstacle but barreled through the splintered pottery, further shredding tattered clothes on the shards. But the gimmick had bought Arkyn a little space, and he used it to charge up a wooden staircase perched on the side of a house, hoping for the uphill advantage. Halfway up, the brittle wood gave way, and he crashed to the cobbles below.
Stunned, Arkyn lay frozen for a moment, buried in a shamble of splinters and rusted tools. Then a twang erupted in his ankle, and he felt the fire from the mad sprint burn in his chest. Instead of jarring him to flee, they drained his impetus. Perhaps he was hidden enough; perhaps the creature would run past. No. The scab on his arm had torn open, his knuckles bled freely, and a dozen new scrapes marred his body like he had been tossed in a bag of razor blades and shaken. No amount of salt could mask that. The draugr would smell him out in a heartbeat.
Arkyn glanced at his paltry dagger, his only weapon, and all the while, the draugr drank in the strength of the coming night. Arkyn struggled out of the pile, nails tearing his shirt and dungarees, a thousand slivers in his skin.
The draugr surged into the alley like a force of doom. Flailing pell-mell, it lowered its head and smashed into Arkyn like a battering ram. The impact launched Arkyn off the ground then sent him sliding until his shoulder and head smacked into a drainpipe.
The draugr’s momentum sent him barreling into the pile of debris beneath the staircase, where the jagged end of a board jammed into the creature’s leg. It tried to rise, but the protruding board caught in the cross of a support strut, and it tripped.
Arkyn sprang to his feet. The monster shrieked in fury, its thick saliva spraying the cement. It pounded the cobbles with its fist so hard it chipped stones. Arkyn bungled down an adjacent alley, following its winding turns. Behind him, a crack of wood echoed against the houses. The draugr had broken free.
Its great slapping steps grew louder and louder. It turned onto his path. Another moment and the hot stench of draugr breath puffed on Arkyn’s neck. He hurled a backward glance. No, his mind was playing tricks. The beast was still ten paces behind. But not for long. Soon it would catch him in a flurry of gnashing teeth and tearing flesh.
A small courtyard opened ahead, an intersection between close-set houses. The straight path dead-ended. Right or left, Arkyn? He knew this place; he had passed through it earlier, but terror stripped him of sense. The map in his head, usually so clear and concise, blurred into a labyrinth of death.
Arkyn skirted the courtyard’s miniature fountain and took the right lane. A swell of doubt swelled hesitated him. He turned, and the draugr was there, reaching for him with sinewy claws. Arkyn screamed and stumbled backward, eyes bulging from their sockets. The draugr had him cornered.
This was it. He’d escaped by the skin of his teeth so many times before, but there was no getting out of this one.
Another moment, a twinkling of the eye, and it would be finished.
But in that breath of time, when death should have come, the swirling mass of smog above parted. Just a sliver. And through the fissure raced a beam of the purest white light.
It shot earthward with speed and precision and stabbed the draugr in its step.
The monster shrieked like Ymir the screamer, clawing the air, stumbling as it tried to flee the untainted, untempered light. Blinded, the draugr blundered into the fountain and lost its footing.
It fell slowly as if through molasses. Twisting in the air, it tried to catch itself, but its hand slipped, and it smashed its face on the lip of the fountain with a horrendous crack.
The draugr collapsed in a heap at the fountain’s base, where it remained motionless, one arm dangling in the dirty basin.
The light vanished as quickly as it had come. Yet, it left the impression that it was never truly absent, that even now it lingered just behind the veil of smog, watching the figures below in the courtyard.
Arkyn slumped against the building, heaving breaths and blinking his light-blinded eyes. A confusion of shapes and grasping shadows reformed around him, and the grubby world edged back into focus while his brain churned like a mouse in a vat of cream.
What in the dead world happened? Could that have been the sun in its full brilliance? And had it—had it killed the draugr?
A crack on the head was never enough to keep the undead down. And yet, the creature still did not move.
The only way Arkyn knew to permanently eliminate a draugr was to cut off its head and burn it. He avoided it when possible. Decapitation, even out of self-defense, did not sit right, nor did it align with his salvific mission.
Could light alone have the power to vanquish such calloused creatures?
Arkyn gripped his makeshift knife with a sweaty palm, feeling the loss of his ax. Swallowing, he approached the fallen draugr, eyes fixed to its carcass, ears trained for the tiniest shift.
He was a few feet from the beast’s head when it twitched. Arkyn jerked, training the long railway nail at its head. Stillness. Then it twitched again, more violently. Arkyn swallowed. He hadn’t the strength to outrun it. His only chance at living was to kill it now while it was vulnerable. But something stayed his hand.
End of Part 3
*Read the conclusion in the upcoming installment, which will debut within the week!