Ernie the Hero
There were whispers of a city the undead called home. They weren’t entirely true.
It was more of a hamlet.
The City of Graves lurked in the mists beyond the horizons, and the only way to find it was to be not-quite-dead yourself. Or, in Simon’s case, to have a not-quite-dead guide.
Ernie and Simon approached the crumbling walls of the city. A pair of guards were stationed at the broken gates. One was an ogre with a dozen arrows sticking out of his chest and half of his face missing. The other was a nearly fleshless skeleton with a few bits of hair and one yellow eye set in his skull.
The skeleton looked Ernie and Simon up and down. “We don’t usually let the entirely alive through.”
Simon said, “That’s okay. We’ll just be on our way then.”
Ernie marched through the gates without looking back. Simon had been following the skeleton hero for weeks now with hopes that it would lead to grand adventures of astounding peril and exotic beautiful women. So far, it’d just been a lot of walking.
Ernie, possessing the vigor of the undead, didn’t rest often. He never said anything, never offered any words of encouragement to his volunteer squire. Even when he looked right at Simon with his eyeless sockets, it was impossible to tell whether Ernie was actually looking at him. But the one-armed skeleton had yet to kill Simon, so Simon took that as a tacit approval. And he decided all the walking was a test to see how dedicated he was to his duty.
But walking into the gray city was asking a lot of a breathing man.
“I’m with him,” said Simon as he ran after Ernie. The guards didn’t stop him.
The City of Graves smelled of old rot. The streets were a black muck, and everything was falling apart. The citizens glanced up at Simon. Some of them fixed him with hungry eyes, though most were indifferent. The fog rolled through the streets like a living thing. Tendrils curled around Simon’s ankles, and he kept moving to stay ahead of it.
“This isn’t what I signed up for,” said Simon.
Ernie turned, walking into a ramshackle tavern named The Glass-Eyed Raven. Simon followed.
“Hey, we don’t serve your kind here,” said a ghoul bartender.
Simon pointed to Ernie. “I’m with him.”
The bartender spat a glob of green and yellow phlegm into a glass and wiped it with a filthy rag. “All right, but it’s your funeral, pal.”
There weren’t many customers. A pair of vampires sat at a corner table, and an ancient lich occupied the far end of the bar. Ernie sat at a stool. Simon sat next to him.
“What’ll it be?” asked the bartender.
Ernie’s jaws parted, as if to say something, but there wasn’t so much as a whisper.
“Speak up, pal.”
“He doesn’t drink,” said Simon. “I don’t think so anyway.”
The bartender grumbled. “Typical.”
A woman floated beside Simon. “Don’t mind him. He’s just upset that most of his customers never order anything.”
The ghost was pale as moonlight with two dark black eyes. She wasn’t beautiful. Either her nose needed to be thinner or her face rounder. But she was still very pretty. She wore a typical burial gown, though when she moved it flowed as if floating in water. A bit of seaweed clung in her long, brown hair.
“We don’t get many of the living here,” she said. “You must be a lost soul.”
“I’m not lost,” he replied. “I’m his squire.”
She smiled. “Squire for a dead man. That doesn’t sound like the job of a sensible sort.”
“He’s a great hero. I’ll have you know that we saved the world once. I think. We killed a horrific monster at least.”
She ran her fingers through her hair. It floated behind her in a phantom breeze. He smelled the brackish scent of swamp water. “We?”
“Well, he did most of the work,” admitted Simon. “But I’m here to help him if he needs it. Like I could carry his sword if he ever put it down. Or I could clean his cape if he ever took it off.”
“Sounds like a wonderfully fulfilling job,” she said with a smirk.
He said, “Heroes need assistants. They can’t do everything themselves.”
Ernie turned his head toward Simon and tightened his grip on his enchanted red sword. Simon’s blood ran cold as he scooted to the far edge of his stool.
“So that’s really why you’re here?” she asked. “You just follow a skeleton wherever he might lead you?”
It did sound stupid when you put it like that.
“How did this place come to be?” he asked, eager to change the subject.
“Who knows?” she said. “Some say a curse gone astray. Some say a wizard screwed up somewhere. And some say it always has been.”
“It’s the fog,” said the lich at the end of the bar. His voice floated through the room in a slow, creeping monotone.
The bartender groaned. “Not this again.”
The lich threw back his drink. It dribbled down his rotted flesh, spilling onto his dusty robes. “I’m telling you, it’s the fog. There’s something hiding in it. Something neither alive nor dead.”
“Well, no shit,” said the ghost. “It’s The City of Graves. There’s always something like that lurking around.”
“You don’t get it,” said the lich. “Nobody gets it.” He nodded toward Ernie. “Except maybe that guy. He gets it.”
A wind howled through the city, shrieking like a thousand banshees. The banshee at a nearby table held up her hands. “Wasn’t me. I swear.”
Ernie stood and turned toward the door. The fog swirled through it. Its icy tendrils curled up Simon’s legs and yanked him off his feet. He grabbed the bar with a yelp.
“Did I mention that whatever it is hungers for the living?” said the lich. “I suppose I should’ve mentioned that earlier.”
The ghost took Simon’s hand. It was like touching clammy, wet flesh, and he lost his grip immediately. Screaming, he was pulled into the cold embrace of the mist. Icy claws ran along his body, and something sharp burrowed its way into his heart. Not literally. He was still alive, but he felt life itself dribbling out of him as whatever was in the fog sipped at his soul like he might sip at a warm drink on a cold day.
The fog fell away, and he lay somewhere featureless and gray. Even the muck of The City of Grave’s streets was gone, replaced only by rough, black stone.
A creature stepped from the fog. The white robes wrapped around its boney frame billowed. Its face was only a pair of red eyes floating in shadows.
“The living are not welcome here,” it said, sounding perturbed.
“I’ll leave,” said Simon. “Sorry for the inconvenience.”
The thing in the fog growled and stepped forward. It held a wicked barbed hook in its hand.
It served Simon right. He’d followed a skeleton into a lair of the undead. What the hell had he expected?
“Your gods will not help you here,” said the thing.
Simon laughed. His gods hadn’t ever been particularly helpful though he wouldn’t have complained if they’d been saving up their divine intervention for this particular moment.
Ernie stepped from the mist, and the thing stopped.
“How did you get here?”
Ernie offered no reply. He raised his red sword and advanced on the thing.
The thing chuckled. “You seek to challenge me. Before your world was forged by the gods, I was. In the nothingness between life and death, I have always existed and shall always–”
Ernie stabbed the thing in its chest. It fell to its knees. Its robes sizzled at the edges, turning to ash.
“Do you think I will die so easily,” said the thing. “I am as eternal as twilight, as the shadows you fear in the darkness.”
“I don’t think Ernie fears shadows,” said Simon.
Ernie beheaded the thing with a single slice of his enchanted sword. It evaporated in a puff of icy fog, and the mist dissolved under the soft light of a setting sun. Ernie and Simon stood on the muddy streets of The City of Graves once more.
“I told you it was the fog,” said the lich.
He crumbled into a pile of bones.
Several zombies lay down in the street and quietly expired with smiles on their faces. A broken down building collapsed into a pile of rubble.
“Finally.” The ghoul bartender started digging a hasty grave.
The ghost said, “I thought you were dead for sure. Or worse.”
“We had it under control the whole time,” said Simon.
Ernie stared at Simon.
“It was mostly Ernie,” Simon admitted. “But I helped.”
And he had. Mostly as bait. But it still counted.
Smiling, the ghost offered a wilted flower to Simon. “My hero.”
She planted a kiss on his cheek, and it chilled him to the bone, but it was still nice. And then she faded away.
Simon pinned the flower to Ernie’s cloak. “You earned this more than me. So do you think we could rest for the night. My feet are killing me.”
Ernie might have smiled. He started walking, and, with a sigh, Simon followed, leaving The City of Graves to crumble into the dusts of time.