Seth offered to take the first watch of the night. He told Dawnold and Sho Thym that he needed to keep an eye on the lantern to ensure it kept its light, but in truth he doubted that he could have fallen asleep in a strange building surrounded by zombies. At first, his companions had offered to keep watch along with Seth, as they felt just as uncomfortable with their surroundings. However, as night wore on and the silent threat outside made no further attacks, the exhaustion of the day and their desperate escape eventually caught up with them.
Mari, the strange silent man who had become their reluctant host, had remained in his hiding place behind the stairs after giving them some tattered blankets. Mari was strange to say the least, and he had made Seth very uneasy when he had first come out from hiding, but he seemed too frail to be dangerous and he hadn’t objected when the three of them climbed the stairs to explore the second story of the building.
The upper floor was in far less disarray than the one below. Instead of a jumbled mess of overturned furniture and broken fixtures, the rooms upstairs seemed as though they had not been abandoned at all. Most of the rooms appeared to be offices of some kind, and each of them had one or two desks, oil lamps, and several stacks of parchment and envelopes that were brittle to the touch. Most of the ink on the writing was so faded or smudged that it was illegible, but the little that they could read made them think the building had once been some kind of town hall.
Two of the offices were much larger than the others, and the door handles were more ornate. Seth supposed they had perhaps been the offices of some rather important officials, such as a mayor or sheriff. In addition to the desks and parchment that the other offices had, these rooms also had a few other accessories. One of them featured a large bookshelf with several volumes containing maps of farms and boundary lines. The other large office had a cabinet with several bottles of extra writing ink, as well as some lamp oil that Dawnold and Sho Thym had used to light lamps of their own.
Perhaps the most welcome discovery was that each of the large offices had their own couch. The couches were musty and covered in dark brown bear fur, but they were long, soft, and far more comfortable than the hard floor. Seth found it odd that Mari had not moved the couches downstairs, but discovered the reason when they tried to pick up the furniture to do just that. Each couch was firmly bolted to the floor at the legs, and at the base of the legs were carved the words, “OFFICIAL USE ONLY. DO NOT RELOCATE.”
Seth felt uneasy about leaving Dawnold and Sho Thym alone in the rooms, but he didn’t want to deprive them of the comfortable couches. At the same time, he realized that he needed to return downstairs soon, as a look out an office window showed that the zombies outside were slowly closing in again in the absence of Seth’s lantern to keep them away.
Dawnold shared Seth’s uneasiness, and suggested that he and Sho Thym keep the doors to the rooms open in case Seth needed their help. Sho Thym agreed and assured the others that they had plenty of lamp oil to keep them burning until sunrise. And, having said that, the young wizard laid back on his couch and fell almost immediately asleep. The couch in the other large office wasn’t long enough for Dawnold’s tall frame, but he draped his feet over the end, and before long he was also sound asleep.
Seth returned downstairs, stepping carefully and quietly to avoid awaking Mari. When he reached the bottom of the stairs, Seth raised his lantern high above his head, and the magical light within intensified. As the beams of light illuminated the windows of the building, he could hear the zombies outside shuffling quietly away. Seth gave an appreciative glance at the lantern, grateful that he had been entrusted with such a powerful gift.
Looking around the large circular room, and the winding spiral staircase, Seth tried to imagine what the building would have looked like before the town had fallen to ruin. He imagined light filtering inward through the windows, sounds of carriages and markets outside, and people walking up and down the stairs. It was the people that Seth liked to imagine the most. He imagined some as simple and sturdy farmers, some as town officials in more elegant attire, and all of them were hurrying one place or another on urgent business.
Seth had not even realized his daydreaming had become actual dreaming until he suddenly awoke to the sound of footsteps and an eerie, haunting tune. He looked up and saw a woman walking toward him, wearing a long purple dress and black cloak. Her face was obscured by the cloak’s hood, but it was clear that she was the source of the music. Seth jumped to his feet, lifting his lantern and brandishing his shillelagh, but he lowered his weapon when he saw a lock of red hair fall from beneath the hood.
“Aluanna?” Seth suddenly felt foolish for being so alarmed. It now seemed so obvious that the music that had awoken him was Aluanna’s beautiful music. Still, he was no less surprised to see her there. “What are you doing here?”
Aluanna stepped forward, removing her hood to fully reveal her face. She was as lovely as ever, but she wore a frightened expression that worried Seth. “I had to find you Seth. You need to come with me, immediately.”
“What happened?” asked Seth as he began gathering up his belongings. The melody in the room continued, reassuring and unnerving him at the same time. “Did you discover the song about the Sword of Wheat?”
Aluanna nodded, then looked over her shoulder. “Yes, but that’s not safe to talk about right now, Seth. Your life is in danger and we need to get out of here now!” She took a few more quick steps towards Seth until she was directly in front of him.
Seth reached out to put a hand on her shoulder and the music in the room seemed to intensify. Seth would not have presumed to embrace a lady of her stature, but she seemed so distressed that he felt compelled to comfort her somehow. “I don’t understand. Where is the rest of your band? How did you get past the horde outside?”
Aluanna threw herself into his arms, burying her face in Seth’s shirt. “The rest of my band was killed,” she sobbed. “I was the only one who escaped. The zombies are gone right now, but we have to leave before they come back. Please Seth, I’m frightened!”
The words shocked Seth, and he felt his stomach drop. Aluanna’s band had seemed so vibrant and full of life the last time he saw them, and their deaths seemed unimaginable to him. “I… I’m so sorry,” Seth stammered. “Let me go get Dawnold and Sho Thym and we’ll leave right away.”
“No!” Aluanna pleaded, her eyes darting in panic. The beautiful melody in the room seemed to slightly waver and shift in pitch, like a key change poorly executed. “The others will be fine,” she said. “It’s you they want, Seth. And they’re going to succeed if we don’t leave now!”
The tempo of the music seemed off somehow, and Seth began to question for the first time just where the music was coming from. “Who?” Seth asked. “Who’s after me?” Aluanna hesitated, and Seth took a step away from her.
As soon as Seth had removed himself from Aluanna’s embrace, he realized just how wrong the whole scenario was. The woman in front of him had the face and features of Aluanna, but the similarities ended there. The wisdom and dignity and confidence he so admired in her were gone. She grasped again at Seth, but the concern was an obvious charade, and she was tugging at his lantern like a thief.
To make matters worse, Seth could hear that the off-beat rhythm he had noticed earlier was not part of the music at all. It was the sound of pounding on a door upstairs.
“Let go of my lantern!” Seth shouted, yanking it free of the woman’s grasp.
“Come with meee!!” screamed the imposter, lunging at Seth.
“Shurrah!” he shouted, and a blast of light hit the woman, sending her sprawling backwards. As Seth’s eyes adjusted to the intense light emanating from the lantern, he could see that she was an old woman, withered with age and seething with hatred. Seth stepped forward to question the woman, but before he could say another word, she pounced for the door, escaping into the night.
For a moment, Seth considered pursuing the woman, but as the last of the music faded from his ears, the sound of the pounding upstairs startled him enough to bring him fully to his senses. He bounded up the stairs, with his shillelagh in one hand and his lantern shining brilliantly in the other. As he neared the top of the stairs, he could hear Dawnold’s voice shouting above the sound of the pounding. When he arrived at the door a moment later he saw that it was pitch black, and it seemed to muffle the sounds behind it.
Seth raised his lantern and swung his shillelagh at the door. The black coating shattered like a shadow made of impossibly thin glass, and the shouts, banging, and other sounds behind the door were instantly amplified. He swung again, leaving a noticeable dent in the door, but failing to do any more substantial damage. Suddenly, Seth heard a loud “CRACK” in front of him, and a moment later the entire door burst off its hinges. He had only just managed to step away in time to avoid being flattened by the door, Dawnold, and the six zombies who were trying to wrestle him to the ground.
Seth remembered the anger he had seen on Dawnold’s face the first time he had met the large, dark skinned man, but that had been nothing compared to the fury that Seth was witnessing now. The zombies were biting, grabbing, and doing everything they could to bring him down, but Dawnold shrugged off their attacks and threw each one off of him as if they offered no more resistance than a sack of flour.
Looking past Dawnold into the room he emerged from, Seth could see almost a dozen more zombies scattered across the floor. Several were missing limbs and two had heads that were turned to face behind them, but all of them were lurching to stand again and resume the fight. Seth raised his lantern and shouted “Shurrah!” There was another flash of blinding light, and the zombies all fell to the floor, completely still.
Seth hardly had time to feel relieved before Dawnold grabbed him by the collar. “What happened?!” Dawnold shouted. “I thought you were keeping watch!”
“I was!” Seth said, instinctively pulling away from Dawnold. While Seth considered him an ally, he didn’t want to be on the receiving end of the kind of beating Dawnold had given those zombies. “I don’t know what happened! I think I was put under some kind of spell. There was an old woman who looked like Aluanna, and she was trying to lure me away. I’m sorry, Dawnold!”
Dawnold released his hold on Seth’s shirt and pounded a fist into his other hand. Seth noticed for the first time that Dawnold’s knuckles were bloody, probably from hitting the locked door so many times. “The witch!” Dawnold said. “How did she get here? We’d better warn-” Before he could finish his sentence, Dawnold ran to the room where Sho Thym had been sleeping.
Seth followed immediately behind, and when they arrived at the room, Seth saw that the door had the same jet black appearance as the previous door. Dawnold began kicking and ramming his shoulder against the door, but it wouldn’t so much as budge. “Wait,” he said, and smashed the door with his shillelagh. Again, the black layer shattered and dissolved. Dawnold wasted no time kicking down the door, ripping it from its hinges.
Behind the door there was no fight, no mass of zombies, and no Sho Thym. There was only a huge gaping hole in the wall where the window had once been, and floating on the other side of that hole was Laronius. The vampire sneered at Dawnold and Seth, and then disappeared into the night.