Defenders of the Faith.

     War is coming, and the Beltharan Empire has only a few weeks to prepare for the greatest crisis in its history. Frenzied preparations are made, amongst which is an expedition to a lost and forgotten fortress to recover an ancient artifact, the creation of one of the mightiest wizards in history and possessing power beyond imagination. The fate of the world may depend on it, but the spies of the enemy are everywhere and the expedition may already have been betrayed…

Here is an extract from Defenders of the Faith.

     The soldiers came into view as they turned the corner of the street about two hundred yards ahead of them, and the first thing the Ilandians noticed, as they peered cautiously through a hole in the wall, was the strange diversity in clothing and uniform. Some wore the bone armour and skull helmets of the Shadowarmy while others were in Beltharan uniform, and others were dressed as civilians, in the woollens and leathers of townspeople and woodsmen. They were all marching in perfect formation, however. Too perfect. Disturbingly perfect, their pace strangely rigid, almost mechanical, like life sized wind up clockwork soldiers. Each man kept his eyes looking straight ahead, never even flicking a glance to the side to look at the ruined buildings they were passing. Every arm swung as regularly as a pendulum, and every step was exactly in step, with not one of the hundreds of soldiers putting his foot down even a fraction of a second before or after the others. It was a display of military precision that would have brought tears of admiration to Gallit's eyes had it been performed by ordinary soldiers but which, here, sent a tingling chill running down his back, as it did all the others. Such perfection wasn't human. There was a monstrous, inhuman quality to the approaching soldiers that profoundly disquieted all those watching and which the older soldiers, those who'd taken part in the last Shadowwar, recognised with sick horror.

     At first, Drake thought the soldiers were hypnotised, or perhaps mindless, like the slaves that worked the fields around the city, but not even that would explain what he was seeing. It was almost as if they weren't living creatures at all. They might almost have been...

     "Zombies," said Resalintas grimly. Drake gasped in horror, and as the soldiers got closer, he saw that the old priest was right. Those wearing helmets had their visors open, and as they got to within twenty yards of the horror stricken Ilandians, they were able to see their faces. Some were puffed up and horribly bloated, the skin livid green with mould and broken in places to reveal masses of writhing maggots beneath, while others were shrunken and mummified, the skin stretched tight over the bones, depending on how long ago they'd been killed and the conditions in which they'd lain before being raised by the spells of the Shadowwizards. The flesh of some had completely rotted away, leaving nothing but a bare skull, their empty eyesockets staring straight ahead as they marched with the others.

     Walking alongside them were half a dozen living men, filthy, stinking creatures dressed in rags who seemed more dead than alive themselves and who commanded the zombies, giving them commands to march, stop, turn left, etc. Zombies, being mindless creatures, do absolutely nothing unless told to, and then keep on doing it forever until told to stop, and so have to be constantly supervised if they are to do anything worthwhile. Drake remembered rumours he'd heard suggesting that there might be a higher breed of zombies that had a limited amount of free will and the ability to make simple decisions on their own. They were supposed to be used by wizards and the worshippers of dark Gods as guardians of treasures and strongholds, but their existence had never been confirmed and was hotly denied by the wizards of Lexandria University.

     Resalintas and Gallit had both seen zombies before, having served in the last Shadowwar, and so watched impassively as they filed past, successfully hiding their revulsion from the others. Most of the others, however, were seeing them for the first time, and their horror and revulsion mounted steadily as the seemingly endless column of undead soldiers went past. Pars covered his eyes and felt his stomach lurch, the grikon hissed quietly to itself, and Drake, the only one present with the exception of the old priest himself not receiving any benefit from his powdered blood and enchantments of protection, was only able to maintain his self control by calling upon every ounce of dignity and discipline he possessed.

     Some of the other men were in a bad way, however, despite the enchantments of protection, and Bushel, in particular, was sweating and trembling piteously. He was all right, however, until the wind suddenly changed, blowing the sickly, putrid smell of rotting flesh towards them. They gagged and retched, and Bushel suddenly snapped, leaping to his feet and screaming in terror. "Dead! Dead! Dead!" he screamed. "Even the dead march against us!" Resalintas looked around in fury as the men on either side of him tried to pull him down and shut him up, but he broke loose and, scrambling over the loose piles of rubble, fled the hideous scene gibbering in terror.

     The Shadowsoldiers guiding the zombies heard and saw him and raised the alarm, ordering a dozen zombies to go after him. Seeing where he had come from, they then ordered the rest of the zombies to surround the old school, and Resalintas led the patrol out of there before they were surrounded. They slipped out into the street and ran down an alleyway, just as one of the Shadowsoldiers saw them and sent the zombies in pursuit. Fortunately, however, zombies are, by nature, slow and clumsy, and the Ilandians were easily able to outpace them and lose themselves in the ruined city.

     Bushel wasn't so lucky. Running in blind panic directly away from the column of undead soldiers, he tripped over a fallen floor beam and twisted his ankle badly. He fell screaming in pain, scrambled to his feet and hobbled desperately away from the walking horrors approaching him, driven almost as mindless as they by terror. The zombies wouldn't have been anything like as terrifying if they had run after him, but they just walked slowly and sedately, with the patience of the dead and as unstoppable as time itself. They weren't worried that their quarry might get away, they were incapable of even thinking about it. They were prepared to march slowly and patiently after him even if it meant following him all the way across the continent. They would march for ever if that was what it took, and their quarry would live the rest of his life wondering when they would appear over the horizon, finally catching him when he was too old and infirm to run any further. Poor Bushel wasn't to last that long, however. With his twisted ankle, they slowly caught up with him and surrounded him, and he couldn't even bring himself to draw his sword to defend himself. He fell to his knees and hid his head in his hands, weeping and whimpering piteously as they bent down over him, reaching out with their rotting, mouldering hands...