Chapter 26: The Maggot
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They were going to travel towards Danyang, passing by the villages Samjin and Yangju. Then they will travel alongside the Yangtze river, passing by the villages that nested at it’s banks and seeing how far Han Shanyuan could take them. They were in two wagons. Nikola, Wei Caihong, Penemue, Ryota and Han Fengfan were together in one and Wei Zhaohui, Han Shanyuan and Nathaniel shared the other one. There was a third wagon with all the things they had taken for the road.

The wagon driver kept stealing glances at Nikola and he finally spoke.

“Two concubines, eh? Are you a noble?” The driver was not from the village so he didn’t know Nikola. Wei Caihong narrowed his eyes at him.

“I am his wife. She is the concubine!” Wei Caihong pointed at Penemue who snorted.

“We are all getting married in Danyang, everything is already set. Neither of us is a concubine.” Corrected Penemue and the driver looked at Nikola with something akin to envy.

“Your wives are true beauties, Gege. Share your secret on how you caught their gaze?”

Become a former Emperor who can wield magic and you will get all the potential spouses. Wanted to say Nikola, instead he spoke.

“Gifts, my man. I can’t stress this enough. You can gift knowledge as well as shiny things. With my two intelligent wives I have found that sharing skills is far better received.”

“Oh.” Was the simple reply and the driver looked back towards the road. Then he got thoughtful and turned back towards Nikola.

“Your boy is awfully close to your daughter.” He said, pointing at Ryota who was holding Han Fengfan close to himself and humming her a tune.

“She is not my daughter, but my ward. And they are betrothed.” As good as married, actually, but he didn’t want to explain that to the driver.

“Oh.” Was again the reply and the driver got a very confused look on his face. “Say, Gege, how many children do you have?”

“Three.” Replied Nikola. “Wei Zhaohui, Nathaniel and Ryota.”

“And you took in two wards?” Asked the driver in disbelief.

“I like my house filled with laughter…and my wives are both pregnant.”

“Ah, Gege! What are you going to do with all those children?” Said the driver. He had two sons and he already thought they were too many. Was this man trying to repopulate the Empire?

“Raise them, care for them, watch them get married. The usual.” Said Nikola and the driver smiled at the last part.

“You know, Gege, when I heard you were trying out for magistrate, I didn’t want to take you. I thought you were pompous. But you have a good family and you seem like a good man. I wish my village had a magistrate like you to deal with our problems.”

“What problems?” Nikola expected to be told that the village was poor. Instead, the driver told him that the tombs were crawling with dead bodies which came alive at night.

“But don’t you worry, Gege. They stick to the tombs. It’s just that we can’t pay our respects to them anymore.” Finished the driver with a wishful look. Nikola wasn’t buying it. Undead bodies needed to eat too. If they stuck to the tombs then they had a food source there.

“Say, has your village had any refugee problems?” The driver looked worried for a second. But then he sighed.

“Samjin is not on the border, Gege. But we get the occasional travelers. Workers who come for seasonal work and fishermen. But I guess we won’t be seeing them this year; the tombs are blocking the way. So much rice is going to remain uncollected. We are a small village, but we have many paddies. We are always short of hand.”

“But it’s nearly winter.” Said Nikola. “The rice should have been collected by now.”

“We are too few, Gege. And that’s the hard truth.” Said the man and he looked down and gripped the reins tighter.

“Do you know where the tombs are?” Asked Nikola. He only needed to remove the heads of the bodies and their spirits would rest again. If not then he could always burn them.

“You have a big family, Gege. Who is going to provide for them if you die? I’ve spoken too much. I don’t want a death on my consciousness.”

Nikola let silence rein in the wagon and he leaned over so he could hug Wei Caihong and cuddle with him. Soon, he felt Penemue wrap her arms around them and Ryota crawled to join the pile, his mate in his hands.

“I know what you are thinking, my Emerald. But you can’t draw the gazes of the villagers.” Said Penemue and Wei Caihong nodded.

“If we have taken Master Wang with us then we could have said he dealt with the corpses. But he remained at home. They don’t leave the tombs. They are not our problem.”

“What if someone dies? Oh, what am I saying? People are already dying because of this.”

“Pa, I’ll help.” Said Ryota. “I’m strong too.”

“Out of the question.” Said both Nikola and Penemue at the same time. Ryota couldn’t take his kitsune form any more. He was going to get cornered and eaten.

“I’ll deal with this.” Said Nikola finally, then he stood up and patted the driver on the shoulders.

“I was Troy’s best warrior. Take me to the tombs.” The driver looked Nikola up and down and then shook his head.

“Gege, you barely have any muscle on you. How do I believe you?”

“Stop the wagon and we can have a wrestling match. If you win, I won’t mention the tombs ever again. If I win you will drive us there so I can clean the place.” 

The driver shook his head again but he stooped the wagon. The two other wagons stopped as well and the other drivers came to see what happened.

“We fight until someone touches the ground.” Said the driver of Nikola’s wagon as he rolled up his sleeve. Nikola nodded. The other two drivers tried to make a bet but since they both wanted to bet for the driver they gave up. Nikola and the driver locked into a wrestling position and then Nikola used magic to pick him up and then slam him on the ground. The driver stared at the sky and Nikola checked him for injuries.

“Are you ok?” He asked and the driver nodded.

“For someone this slim you sure are strong. Are you a cultivator, Gege?” Asked the driver and Nikola shook his head.

“I fought all my life.” He said, speaking the truth. “Now, take me to the tombs.”

“We are going there?” Said the driver of the children’s wagon.

“I wasn’t paid enough for this!” Said the driver of the luggage wagon.

“I’ll take him and you two take the wives and these two children.” Said Nikola’s driver. “It is high time someone dealt with the corpses. They have been in the mountains for five years now.”

It was agreed that Nikola was going to go to the tombs just with the driver and the rest will continue towards the next village. As Nikola stared at the changing scenery, he couldn’t help but notice how the very air smelt foul the closer they got to the tombs. These weren’t simply restless corpses, there was a necromancer involved.

“Say, did someone suspicious move in the village five years ago?” Asked Nikola and the driver looked nervous.

“No, Gege. No one. We had a very bad harvest five years ago, then the corpses woke in the tombs.”

Well, it sounded like a ritual gone wrong. Maybe something to make the plants grow faster or produce more? Nikola relaxed into the wagon, bent on getting some sleep before he had to fight whomever or whatever was behind it. The bumping of the wagon on the dirt road lulled him to sleep and when the wagon stopped, he woke with a start.

“This is as far as I’ll take you. Go up the trail and then climb the stairs and you are there.” Said the driver and Nikola nodded. He stretched and took his sword then he took a bag as well filled with food, water and some medicine in case he needed it. With that he waved the driver goodbye and begun the trek up.

Dead trees lined the trail. Nikola begun to climb the stairs and he could see red spattered on them. There were shapes drawn in the stairs, circles and triangles and Chinese characters. A local had tried their hand on magic and now the whole tomb was one big ritual ground. He couldn’t demolish it without raising some eyebrows. No, he needed to drain the place of magic.

He cut his palm on the sword and then slapped it on the ground.

Hear me, oh unclean one!

I came to challenge you and cleanse you.

Step out so I can see you.

In the name of the…

Anything Nikola could have said was interrupted by a set of footsteps. They shook the earth and he braced himself, staring towards the entrance of the tombs. Something half crawled half walked towards him. When he saw it, he wanted to back away from it. This was worse than he had thought. It was the body of a Nephilim, a true giant. Barely fitting through the entrance and forcing the whole shrine like building to rattle and it’s walls to crack as it forced it’s way through. Nikola stared down at his sword. It was too small to pierce the thick skin of the Nephilim. Even if the creature was in the process of decomposing.

It trained it’s beady eyes at him and opened it’s mouth, trying to talk.

“E…me…rald…” Then it did an awkward bow. Nikola took a closer look at it, making a few steps towards it. It had armor on, a griffin on it’s breastplate. There had been only one giant who had tamed griffins, the rest thinking them only food. His general during the Chinese campaign: Arokos. Arokos was one of Samyaza’s children. And he had fought in these parts. Nikola looked at the tombs next. They were old, maybe even dating back to his campaign. Nikola moved to the giant and placed a hand on it’s forehead.

“Arokos, what happened to you? Why are you back from the dead?”

“Eme…rald. Run.” Rasped Arokos and then he raised a club. In one swift motion the club was brought down but Nikola dodged it.

“Arokos! Get a grip on yourself! I command you to…”

“You can’t command him anymore. My master assured me that you were in the area, but he never said you would be stupid enough to come to this place yourself.”

A woman, a Chinese one and young looking from what Nikola could see, stepped from behind a tree. She wore black cotton robes and had a bandage around her neck.

“Arokos, commander of the third legion. Stand down!” Yelled Nikola but the woman giggled. Nikola had faced necromancers before. They brought back wretched beings back, almost no smarter than a toddler. But Arokos was different, he had tried to warn Nikola. Nikola lunged at the woman just as Arokos made it out of the tomb. The club swung towards Nikola and he jumped towards the woman, tackling her as she screamed. He held her down even when he felt the club smash through them. He felt his bones break but the woman was worse off than him for he had made sure she took the full force of the impact. Blood pored out of her mouth and then she was reduced to a corpse. Her skin blackened and ooze sipped out of her, sticking to Nikola.

Nikola looked at Arokos who fell on his knees. He seemed to want to stay conscious for as long as he could to tell something to Nikola. He even made a gurgling sound, but he collapsed to the side and soon he was reduced to ashes. The fate of all corpses which were touched by a necromancer.

Nikola laid broken on the ground with the ooze sipping down his throat through his open, crushed jaw. He whizzled and focused his magic on his face first. He didn’t want to ingest any more of the necromancer’s remains than he had already. Without a chant he ended up exhausting half of his magic to get a working jaw again but once that was done Nikola begun to sing. The sun was setting as he finally got up. He had precious little magic left, but he had enough to finish the job. In Atlantean he finished his challenge:

Come out if you are not scared.

Come out if you are brave.

Come out if you are strong.

Come out if you are weak.

I’ll lay you to sleep, unclean one.

In my name, I who was the Emerald of the world!

In the name of the Lord, which is Genova!

Lightning flashed and struck the tomb. A fire started and corpses begun to shamble out. Nikola righted his sword and charged and he begun to cut off the heads of his slow-moving targets.

Nikola was covered from head to toe in black ooze by the time he was done. He watched as the fire spread. The tomb was of stone, but it had wooden columns supporting it. Once those collapsed so shall the tomb and once any ritual drawing became covered in soot then the necromancer’s spell would be broken.

But who was her master? She had been weak; she should have been able to dodge him. Yet he had brought her down with brute strength. She was no demon. The rest of the corpses had come out because of the challenge, not resisting God’s name. Few things could, it was why Nikola was very careful not to give up the secret of the name to anyone. He could easily be commanded to do things in the creator’s name. It was why he had feared Samyaza the most of all the angels. For all that Azazel was the strongest, Samyaza could simply bend others to his will. Nikola hoped he never got out of the Abyss, for everyone’s sake.

He heard footsteps and he thought that there were stragglers who had resisted the name. He prepared for a battle to his ultimate destruction, for if something could resist the name then it was incredibly powerful. Yet what came out was a burned child in black robes. Nikola rushed to catch it as it swayed but was too late and the child fell down at the entrance.

Dragging it away from the flames Nikola saw that it was a boy. It clutched a wooden toy covered in ash. Nikola picked up the child and ran down the stairs towards the wagon. The flames followed him but couldn’t catch him. Necromancers didn’t wield fire; they were weak to it. He had said he would cleanse. Would the fire follow him to the wagon? It has been so long since the last time he had done it. The last necromancer who crossed his path ended up eaten by rats. The rest had gotten the message. Well, until this mystery one.

He saw the wagon and breathed a sigh of relief. Rushing the last few meters, he jumped in and yelled at the driver to get moving. The driver took one look at the flames which were gaining on them and immediately got the horses moving. Nikola was glad then that he had spend the little extra money for horse wagons and hadn’t gotten the cheaper oxen ones. The child coughed out some black ooze and looked at Nikola with black eyes. Before Nikola distance himself from it a dagger was plunged into his torso and the child smiled as it turned into a swarm of maggots. The driver wiped the reins to get the horses to go faster. He would at least return his patron to his family, even if the Maggot had gotten him. He had tried to warn him and now this Nikola was going to die.

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