Hepalonia is the lucky one who finally finds what they are seeking later that day. After sloshing around in knee-high muck for hours, her foot catches on what feels like a root or branch. If she were more adept at shamanic practices, she could probably simply have commanded it to rise up to her hand. Instead, she leans over and reaches down into the murky fluid to feel around. She grabs a smooth object. As she pulls it out of the water, she notes that the staff is topped by an unusual skull with tusks coming from the mouth and horns curled like a ram’s springing from the top. Of more concern, though, is the mottled hand also holding the staff, and the corpse that comes up with it. It lurches to its feet, and Heppa stares at it for a moment. Then she screams, backing away from the creature. The rotting body keeps a hold of the staff, moving along with her.
Tric spins at the sound from his cousin and splashes toward her as quickly as he can, but he slips on the slick mud underfoot and falls below the surface. He converts this to his advantage, though, rolling over onto his stomach and swimming towards the legs he sees through the murky water. He is alarmed that there is a second pair near his cousin. Another corpse must have risen as well.
Heppa reins in her shocked response enough to register that a second gross thing is moving toward her from the side. I wanted adventure, but not this! Daddy should have sent a bodyguard along with me. The corpses flail at her with uncoordinated strikes, using their limbs as clubs. Filth and muck smear across her, but there seems to be no skilled intent behind their motions. Although the first corpse is still holding onto the staff, the second one is paying it no mind.
Suddenly, Tric bursts up out of the water behind the shambling corpses. “Two heads are better than one—better in one!” he exclaims, as he reaches up to slam the creatures’ heads together. They are not fazed by this attack, perhaps because they are not using their brains at all anymore. However, the one with a hand on the staff is jostled enough to release it. The creatures turn on Tric.
A weapon already in hand, Hepalonia attacks the bodies battering her cousin. She has not trained much with a quarterstaff herself, but she has watched the shamans running through their branch drills. As Heppa draws the artifact back for her wind up, she notices a deep blue glow within the skull, suggesting that its shard is mounted there. The rod she examined in her father’s library was arm length and incomplete. Now that she has seen this staff, she wonders whether what he has is the snapped-off top of a similar artifact. His also lacked a skull, but that could have been broken off. Perhaps in an activity just like this one. Heppa swings the weapon forward in a two-handed blow, and pieces of rotten flesh spray from the point of impact. So gross! She backs up, wondering if people are faster than corpses. Maybe we don’t need to fight these things. Maybe we can just run. She imagines Tric Manu and her leading the corpses on a chase through the traps that he set up last night. It occurs to her again that if she had only practiced her magic like her mother had told her to, she might be able to entangle the creatures herself.
The walking corpses are no strategists. They maul whatever is closest: Tric. As they get all up in his face, he quips, “Their breath is worse than their bite.” He suffers some bruises and scrapes as he bats away their arms, dodging and feinting. The mindless creatures fall for the same tricks repeatedly. Then one swinging limb collides with him and falls off into the water. I can take the knocks, Tric reflects. I’ll just wear them down. He lands a solid uppercut beneath the chin of one of the corpses, and its head actually jars loose. It rolls down the arm and splashes into the water. The rest of the body crumbles into dust.
The second corpse is still threatening Tric Manu. Heppa has tested her hypothesis and found it faulty. Will they give chase? No. The intellectual exercise has calmed her nerves a bit, enough for her to slide the artifact through some loops on her rucksack and unlimber her bow. She is not sure whether piercing weapons such as this will do much good against things that may not feel pain or use their organs for anything, but it is worth a try. There is more for her arrows to stick to on these corpses than there would be on a skeleton. And stick they do. The second creature collapses as a pile of dust, some sinking into the water, some blowing away. Her vision no longer focused on the immediate threat, she takes in the larger scene. Where has Kachen been during all this?