The following morning, Tric and Heppa meet up with Kachen at his hut to escort him from the forest. Tric asks which way they are headed. “I don’t recommend South Tower, so probably not east. And unless you have a way to cross the Sandy Wastes, I don’t recommend south. It is summer, so going north might be all right. Or we could connect you with Connie and Marvin if you want. That would be the east border. That would let you rest a bit more—outside our borders—before you move further afield. They wouldn’t mind visitors, I’m sure,” Tric says positively. Never mind that they shot him with an arrow the first time he came upon their operation.
“Yes, the eastern edge will be fine. I am headed back into the Estmark Hills.”
“Just make sure you stay away from the Foul Fen,” Tric cautions.
“Right,” Kachen acknowledges, reminded of the unfriendly saurian skirmisher. “I will take up the offer of hospitality from your contacts. I should rest a while more before moving on.”
“We’ll just tell them you were allergic to something in the forest and need some fresh air.”
As Tric and Kachen talk, Heppa eyes the human from a medical perspective. Since he will soon be meeting Connie and Marvin for the first time, she reflects back on her first impressions of Kachen. Something seemed creepy about him right from the beginning. It could have been that it was night in a swamp, he was dressed like shadow, and their camp had just been robbed. Heppa is no fashion expert, but she feels Kachen’s murky dark gray robes do him no favors. She has observed him shivering in them though, even in the heat of summer. Probably that is a result of malnutrition. A week of healthy elvish food cannot undo a year of poor diet. With so little body fat, Kachen can retain no warmth. Hopefully as his diet improves with a clearer mind and a newly-rekindled sense of taste, he will experience less of that. Heppa pulls out a piece of parchment and begins annotating a map of the area to give him, jotting down notes on what nutrient-dense plants in the hills can help him replace some of what his diet has clearly been lacking. They have given him a supply of elvish travel foods, but supplementing with some foraging would still be wise.
Kachen’s muted emotions and general detachment were another thing that made him seem unsettling at first. Now that he is taking the refined dapper inkcap powder, rather than consuming the untreated mushroom, he seems a little less off-putting. However, the new medicine cannot change how much he trusts other people. Kachen still has a haunted and hunted air about him—that is something that will take a long time to peel back. As Heppa watches him talk with Tric, she is pleased that he seems more attentive. She sees more personality from him now, even a bit of a wry sense of humor. He leans on his new staff as he walks, still getting tired easily, but that will hopefully also clear up with time.
Eventually, Heppa tunes into the conversation around her. Tric and Kachen are talking about what goes into giving a body a final rest to make sure it cannot come back as an undead. “I know you said the process takes a long time and people don’t want to do it, but one thing elves have is time,” Tric points out. “Maybe I can convince some folks to do this, at least from time to time. Clearly those corpses that came up were just in our forest and not properly laid to rest.”
Kachen explains that there are two different issues. One is undead that have been defeated but not dispersed permanently. In Kachen’s experience, this has required one-on-one intervention. For some types of undead, such as ghosts, part of the necromantic binding associates a mission with them that they have to fulfill. That is what makes them a slave to the necromancer’s will. The only way Kachen knows to liberate that soul is for it to be able to succeed in its mission.
“Is there no way to dismiss or change such a mission?” Tric asks.
“I do not know how to cancel a mission. The only thing I have been able to do is renegotiate the terms. That is, find a way to take whatever mission the ghost originally had—”
“And make the ghost believe it has succeeded?”
“No, reframe the mission in a way that it can fulfill it,” Kachen clarifies.
“That, I can do,” Tric says, nodding to himself. “Yes, that, I can work with. I just have to convince a ghost something is true?”
“You negotiate with the ghosts, and I’ll work on the ones that cause a disease,” Heppa suggests.
“In my experience, this has required a magical component,” Kachen adds.
“Well, we’ll see what I can do,” Tric says. After all, Glammur has implied that the “gift of the gab” is some form of magic.
Kachen takes Tric’s comment in stride. He has made cagey comments in the past that have suggested he has some knowledge of illicit magics. Perhaps Tric knows some of the same things that Kachen has learned outside the classroom. He might very well have learned such things while aiding his uncle’s studies.
“Yes, I just need to trick a ghost into believing that it has completed its mission…” Tric says, almost gleefully, excited by the prospective challenge. Kachen quibbles with him over the terms. This is not about tricking the ghost, but rather giving it something it can legitimately succeed at. Tric considers those the same thing. “If the original necromancer is not around to say whether the mission was completed or not, then it’s whatever magic that binds the ghost that needs to be satisfied.”
“That’s a valuable box of rocks,” Heppa says, thinking of how Tric fooled Sleidr.
“That’s right,” Tric agrees with a smile.
Kachen assumes this must be an elvish idiom.
“What was the second thing?” Heppa asks. Kachen has so far only spoken of one way to handle undead.
“There are undead that are animated corpses. Fodder for that would be less available if people would just completely annihilate their dead,” Kachen replies unsentimentally, “rather than bury them and congregate them in places all together. I do not know what your elvish practice is, but the human practice is making graveyards full of places where people go and commemorate on a regular basis the lives that used to exist. That simply keeps those spirits closer at hand. They aren’t able to leave the area.”
“I thought all the undead elves attacking our village were ones that had died in battle,” Heppa says. “Our practice is to plant a tree so that the elf can be reincorporated into the forest.”
“If the corpse is still around, and you are going to where it is and thinking about the person, the effect will be the same. You are still tying their spirit to that body.”
“There seems to be some sort of component that’s a disease?” Heppa observes, seeking confirmation from Kachen. “Like it could be passed to another person and when they die they can become a walking corpse?”
“Oh, the plague touch?” he replies.
“I didn’t realize it had a name,” Heppa says, surprised. “Is there a known treatment for that?”
“A treatment?” Kachen echoes, confused.
“So that you don’t get sick from it if you die,” Heppa clarifies.
“A preventative,” Tric adds.
Kachen does not know of anything that can be done ahead of time. Anecdotal evidence suggests the condition spreads more virulently across battlefields than within cities. Heppa shares that her observations fit it being spread by wounds, entering the body by blood, rather than through breathing something in. Kachen confirms that contact with one of the corpses carrying the plague is required. Hence the name, plague touch. Heppa wonders how long a living person might carry the infection before dying and becoming undead. Kachen has never heard of such a thing, people fighting undead one day and then years later, after an unrelated death, rising as a walking corpse.
“Maybe that’s something I can do some research on,” Heppa muses. “If it takes someone days to die from their battlefield injuries, can they still arise?” If she can find a way to cure or prevent such an infection, then at least this undead problem will no longer be an issue.
“You would have to either observe these things yourself or interview veterans of such fighting,” Kachen says. Considering a bit more, he adds, “Certainly, if you had a way of aerially dispersing something that interferes with whatever the plague animation is, that would be a way to—”
“I don’t think you’re going to like that,” Tric mutters, thinking of Fenowin’s project.
“Ugh, something like the pollen attack of your compatriot,” Kachen finishes.
“Yes, she did it to me, too, so I understand,” Tric says.
“I hope your experience with it did not end in a similar trial.”
“Thankfully not. Lot of sneezes, though.” Tric is pensive for a moment. “This is all good information, regardless.”
Kachen is a young human, but he seems knowledgeable about the topic of undead, so Heppa treats him like an expert, asking as many questions as she can in the short time they still have together. “Do you know if undead can regenerate?” she asks. She tells Kachen about her idea of strategically breaking certain parts of a body so that even if it were reanimated, it would be immobile or otherwise ineffective.
“Undead can heal in some capacity,” Kachen says carefully. “How well they do it might depend on who was controlling them and their proximity.” That is all he will say on that subject, though.
“Well, the next time we fight them, we can try more ways of dispatching them,” Heppa says brightly, before adding uncertainly, “Or double-dispatching them?”
“That’s what I said! You have to kill them twice,” Tric insists. This, however, is not a solution that Kachen has heard before in his own research. “Like the ghost in the fortress,” Tric explains.
“Unless the ghost’s mission was to be shot twice,” Heppa playfully counters.
“Maybe. I didn’t really negotiate with that ghost. He seemed satisfied the second time.”
“You did get him pretty good,” Heppa compliments Tric. He happily acknowledges his excellent performance.
Kachen watches the exchange between the cousins, weighing the risks and potential benefits of commenting on the ghost. Ultimately, though, he decides to keep anything he knows on that specific topic to himself.
“How would you find out the mission, anyway? The ghost didn’t really say anything,” Heppa observes.
“Most people probably don’t bother to ask,” Tric points out. “We didn’t talk to the ghost. But the ghost did say some things, talked about fulfilling its mission.”
“I’ve not tried to talk to any of the undead we’ve encountered,” Heppa admits. “Mostly I screamed.”
“I would have avoided it,” Tric comments, “but they seem to talk to me more than I would like.”
“You’re no master,” Heppa says with a laugh, remembering the undead fighter’s words in the gully.
“Yes,” Tric says, narrowing his eyes and acting affronted. To Kachen, he explains, “The revenant said I’m no master! I thought he was just talking about my martial prowess.”
“No,” Kachen replies. “He was probably talking about your air of authority.”
“Yes, well… I don’t have a lot of practice with that. Nor do I particularly want it.”
Speaking from experience, Kachen observes, “That is probably in your best interest.”