Due to an error which occurred during the submission of the manuscript to the publisher, the prologue of We, the Living did not wind up getting included in the final copy of the book. To help rectify this, here is a copy of the prologue. Feel free to print it out and read it before beginning the novel.
Midautumn 25, 3722
Ritchar marched along the narrow path next to the river with Arian at his side, guided only by the bright light from the gem on his staff. Beside them in the darkness the refugees formed a long, orderly line that moved slowly forward under the weight of the packs on their backs. Occasionally, some would stumble and Imperial soldiers would rush to their sides to steady them. Ritchar pondered the strange role these warriors found themselves playing. After years of combat and slaughter, they were now responsible for saving the lives of the ill and infirm. After a while, Arian stopped and looked back into the night.
“I can’t go further,” she announced. “He’s all alone back there against those things. I must go and help him.”
Ritchar sighed. It could not have come at a worse time. He knew the futility of arguing with her, but also realized that she was no longer thinking clearly where a certain person was involved.
“Arian,” he retorted, “if you want to go back, fine. But before you do, remember that if our positions were switched, you would remind me about our responsibilities and priorities.”
“But our positions are not reversed,” Arian said. “The soldiers have things in hand, the refugees are moving well, and I am not needed here.”
“It’s night,” Ritchar countered, “and we can’t stop moving until at least the morning. The refugees are close to panicking and it’s only because we’ve kept things calm that they haven’t yet. If one of those things gets through everything will change and you will be needed.”
The ground under their feet vibrated slightly and they heard the faint sound of an explosion in the distance, back down the stream. Arian spun around and began to run towards the noise.
“I can’t wait!” she shouted. “He needs me. He needs my help!”
“Arian, no!” Ritchar yelled after her. “By the Abyss…” He adjusted his grip on the staff and began to retrace his steps. Frequently he found himself stepping into the edge of the cold water to avoid jostling with the refugees. His back ached from the exertion, and even his fingers felt stiff from gripping the magic rod so tightly. He finally saw Arian with four soldiers staring at where the opening in the rock wall had been. A white cloud was floating in front of it over a large puddle where the stream had been dammed.
“It’s sealed,” she said as he walked up, breathing heavily. “The water is backing up.”
“There’s only one way that could happen,” he said. “He used it.”
“But that means he’s trapped on the other side,” Arian growled at the soldiers. “Why did you leave him?”
“He told us to go through, ma’am,” one of the other soldiers commented. “He said he would cover us as we escaped, that we’d be needed later on.”
“He’s trapped,” Arian repeated, “and we can’t even get to him.”
“He’s not trapped,” Ritchar said heavily. “If he’s alone on the other side, he’s dead.”
Arian looked angrily over at Ritchar. “You don’t know that!” she howled. “Do you think him to be so weak and helpless?”
“Arian,” Ritchar shouted, “I know how upset you are, but you must calm yourself! You do us no service by allowing your feelings to overcome your intelligence.”
“How dare you?” Arian replied. The white light of his staff caused the tears streaming down her face to glow.
“Fine,” Ritchar said. “Stay here by yourself while the rest of us continue on to safety. Throw away the time that was bought at such a dear price. Make his sacrifice meaningless.”
“I shall rip their innards out,” Arian cried, “and slash them until their blood colours the Grand Bay black! I shall burn them, crush them, and drive them from this world with such fury that they shall never return.”
“Maybe you will,” he rebutted, “but you won’t do that right now. I’m heading upstream to safety. I recommend you follow me.”
He turned and began walking carefully back into the darkness. Arian looked over at the smoking cleft and then back at Ritchar and the soldiers. She growled, wiped her face and began marching. Behind them came the sound of pebbles falling in the collapsing tunnel and the burbling of the stream as it rushed up against the debris.
Donal looked over at Nitzi as she struggled along the narrow path in front of him. Her hips swayed as she walked heavily, and her breathing was clearly audible.
“I need to rest, sweetie,” she said. “We’ve been walking for hours, eh?”
“I know, honey,” he replied. “But we can’t stop yet. We’re not safe.”
“But I’m not going to make it, eh?” she protested. “My tummy hurts so much, sweetie. Please can’t I rest?”
“Maybe I can find someone to carry you,” he suggested. He looked up and down the row but none of the Men nearby appeared to have the necessary build, and the soldiers were too busy herding refugees along. They continued along in silence for a few more moments as the group headed up a small rise. At the top they heard a roaring noise which grew louder as they moved towards it. After passing a bend in the rock wall, they could see a waterfall illuminated by the torches the soldiers were carrying. The mountain forests rose on either side as dark, foaming water leapt over the low cliff and came rushing down towards them. At the base of the falls they saw a fork in the river, with one branch continuing straight and the other flowing through the trees and rocks into the black night. They stood on the western branch and looked up at the waterfall.
“Well,” Donal said, “it’s smaller than the last one.”
“I need to sit down, sweetie,” Nitzi huffed, her hands firmly holding her bulging midsection. Donal walked down a few feet and stared more carefully at the mountainside. There was a series of indentations in the rock at the side of the waterfall, set at regular intervals, long and deep enough for hands and feet to grasp. The crevices ascended all the way up to the top of the ledge, and the column of refugees climbed it slowly.
“There’s a ladder, honey,” he shouted back. “You just have to make it to the top and then we can rest.”
“I can’t,” she whined. “I really can’t, eh?”
“You have to,” he shot back. He was trying to be patient, but despite his best efforts he was reaching his limit. He grabbed her arm and pulled her forward. She stumbled, but a soldier standing nearby grabbed her other arm before she could fall. After she steadied herself, Donal brought her to the rock ladder. She put her hands and feet into the indentations and lifted herself slightly.
“I’m too heavy, eh?” she complained. “I need so much help.” Her voice trailed off with a sigh.
“No problem,” Donal said. He placed his hands firmly on her buttocks and began pushing up. With his assistance, Nitzi heaved herself further up the ladder. Donal allowed himself to smile slightly as she began to make progress with his help.
“Thank you, sweetie,” Nitzi said when she was halfway up. Donal wasn't sure if there was any intended sarcasm. Sometimes it was hard to tell.
“Anytime honey,” he replied, unnecessarily adjusting his grip. “It’s a pleasure, really.”
Nitzi reached the top of the ladder, rolled herself over onto the ground and lay there for a minute trying to replenish her oxygen. Then, with great effort, she sat up and moved to the side of the path. Donal appeared a moment later and leaned on the rocks next to her.
“I heard some of the soldiers talking,” he said. “They’re going to call for a break in the hike. Lots of people are tired now.”
“Oh yeah, oh yeah,” Nitzi panted. “We’re not used to this, eh?”
“I guess not. How are you feeling?”
“Oh, just peachy, eh?” she groaned. “Oh yeah, oh yeah, and I’m about to toss my cookies.”
“Deep breaths,” Donal advised as he moved back a few steps, “it’s always important to take deep breaths.”
“So you’re a healer now, eh?”
“No,” he replied, “but it always seemed like good advice.” He also didn't want to clean vomit off his magical boots.
Donal blinked as a bright white light appeared at the edge of the waterfall. Ritchar appeared, lifting himself heavily over the edge like a man carrying a sack of grain over his shoulder. He shook as he stumbled to his feet and dusted himself off. Arian appeared behind him, moving slowly. She wore an expression of unmistakable grief on her face.
“What’s happened?” Donal asked.
“We are safe - for the moment,” Ritchar replied. “There is to be a halt in the march for a short time to allow people to rest.”
“Yeah, I heard,” the Chitzo said. “Did we win?”
“No we didn’t,” Arian snapped. “That’s why we’re here.”
“Oh.” He looked around, but only nameless refugees continued to appear at the top of the ladder. Then he looked back up at Arian’s face. The look it wore now made perfect sense.
“Arian,” he said carefully, “I’m sorry.”
“That,” she snorted, “would be a first.” She walked down the rocky path into the darkness. Ritchar watched her move off and then sat next to the Chitzos.
“I’m surprised at your tact, old friend,” he said after rubbing his back vigorously.
“What do you mean?” Donal asked.
“I was expecting you to ask where he is,” the Chetz-grinuaolli said.
“If he’s not here,” Nitzi said, “then he ain’t going to be, eh?”
“The way through has been sealed,” Ritchar confirmed, “and he was the one who did it. His selfless act saved us and bought us some valuable time. Have you seen the Qilivs at all?”
“Not since we came through,” Donal replied. “The last I heard, they went ahead to make sure everything was ready for us. You wouldn’t think Qilivs could move quickly and nimbly, but they sure did.”
“How are you feeling, Nitzi?” Ritchar asked.
“Swell,” she answered. The sarcasm had made a triumphant return just in time for her acidic rejoinder. Somehow this made Donal feel better, that all was right with the world.
“We’ll rest soon,” he said. “There will be proper shelter, food and water.”
“I want to go home,” she whined. “I really do, eh?”
“Home is nothing more than a pile of ashes now" Ritchar said sadly. "We have no choice.”
“It’s not fair!” she cried. “Why is this happening to us? What didn’t we do right? We were brave, we beat the bad guys, and we beat them good! This shouldn't be happening, eh?” Donal reached over and put his arm around her and she buried her face in his shoulder, sobbing loudly. This was happening with greater frequency as her belly expanded.
“It’s okay, honey,” Donal soothed. “We’ll be okay as soon as we get to Arnodon.”
“How do you know?” she shouted, raising her head. “No one else can stop those Undead creeps. What makes you think the Qilivs can? And so what if they do for now, eh? Oh yeah, oh yeah, there we’ll be, trapped for all eternity inside a mountain. What kind of a life is that?”
“Well,” Donal said cautiously, “the Qilivs like it.”
“I’m not a Qiliv, sir!” Nitzi sobbed. “I like green grass and open skies, eh? I like to have the whole world open before me. That’s not what Arnodon is like, I just know it! You can’t tell me things will be okay. And what about the baby, eh?”
“What about the baby?” Donal asked. It was not his favourite topic.
“I don’t feel well,” Nitzi shot back. “You know the constant panic and the running are hard on me. And if I’m not well, the baby’s not well. You want him to be born sick, Mister Donal? Oh yeah, do you?”
“I’m sorry, Nitzi,” Donal retorted angrily. He had tried to be understanding, but he was tired too. It was dark, he was scared and he couldn’t bear it any longer. “It’s not my fault, okay? I didn’t ask for Gormann Daggerheart to destroy my home. I didn’t ask him to find me in the slums of Melobam and I certainly didn’t request this privileged role I’ve played since then. Stop yelling! You’re just upsetting everyone else and not getting anywhere doing it!”
“Donal,” Ritchar whispered as Nitzi’s face dissolved into a river of tears, “perhaps getting mad isn’t the best tactic right now.”
“Why not?” Donal shouted at him. “I’m out here on the middle of the mountains without any hope in the Abyss of ever getting home, my wife has turned into a wailing banshee and you’re telling me not to get upset?”
Before Ritchar could reply, they heard a clattering sound from upriver. The Chetz-grinuaolli grabbed his staff and raised it. In the pale light from the gem, they saw dozens of Qilivs come into the illuminated area, each of them carrying large axes and hammers. As the others watched, the Qilivs began grabbing the heavier packs that the refugees had been struggling with and helped many of the frailer ones to their feet. Fro-ell appeared nearby and hailed them.
“Peace unto you,” he shouted. “Your rest here is over, but soon you will have the chance to indulge in the hospitality of my people in their ancestral home. Come, for the enemy is even now scaling the mountains and drawing closer.”
The refugees began moving quickly along the edge of the stream. After travelling for some time, they reached a small stone bridge that spanned the river. Even in the dim light it looked old, its stones worn and covered in moss, but they could not see any part of it that did not seem sturdy. They began to cross, Ritchar first, followed by Donal and Nitzi. The Chitzo rebuffed her husband’s attempts to help her, studiously avoiding his gaze and rubbing her midsection repeatedly.
The other side of the river was covered in trees up to the water’s edge, but there was a path leading from the base of the bridge up the edge of the mountain. Ritchar stopped at the edge of the bridge and looked up.
“It is a steep climb, if I remember correctly,” he said to Donal and Nitzi.
“Do we have a choice?” Donal asked.
“Probably not,” he replied, “but at least we will receive sanctuary when we reach the top.”
“You go on ahead,” Donal said. “I have to help Nitzi.”
“I don’t need no help, eh?” she huffed. “You’re too busy worrying about yourself anyway.”
“Nitzi,” Donal said, “please let me help you. I know you’re upset and scared, but I can’t do anything to change that now. Arnodon isn’t where I expected to come to either but even if it’s not the greatest place for us, at least we won’t be alone."
“You mean that?” Nitzi asked, glancing over at him.
“Of course I do,” Donal said. “I promise. May Paladin the Defender deliver me to the Chetu’uls of Zehal if I’m lying.” He was lying, but he had an inkling that Paladin wasn't in the neighbourhood.
Nitzi reached over and hooked her arm around his. “Oh sweetie, you remembered the only invocation a Chitzo never fibs about. I’m impressed, eh?”
“Enough, you two,” Ritchar said, “let’s get moving.”
They plunged into the forest and began the steep ascent. After a few minutes, Donal moved behind Nitzi, once again pushing firmly on her buttocks to maintain her momentum. The little Chitzo held her protuberant abdomen and puffed heavily as she hiked slowly past the dark trunks and branches.
“Keep pushing, sweetie!” she panted between breaths. “Make sure you hold me tight.”
“No problem,” Donal said, smiling like he had during the climb by the waterfall. Just because there was a chance they were about to die didn’t mean he couldn’t enjoy himself one last time, he thought.
Ritchar struggled up the first few steps and then stopped to catch his breath. His prematurely aged muscles burned as he stumbled forward, but before he could fall a burly Qiliv soldier appeared at his side and began half-carrying him up the hill. All around them they could hear the sounds of crying and shouting as the other refugees worked their way up the narrow path.
Finally, when it seemed as if they could push themselves no further, they emerged from the trees onto a large, open plateau. Tall coniferous trees surrounded them on three sides, and directly opposite them was another rock wall, smooth and bare, rising steeply in front of them. Hundreds of Qilivs carrying large torches were spread out across the plateau. Ritchar, Donal, Nitzi and the other refugees spread out onto the open field and collapsed heavily, breathing in the still night air.
Fro-ell walked over to where Ritchar was lying and helped him slowly to his feet. “Only a little further,” he urged, “and then you shall rest safely. Once you are all inside the realm, we can close the doors.”
“I understand,” Ritchar said between breaths. He looked over at Donal and Nitzi, who were lying together on the ground nearby. Donal was gently running his fingers through her hair and speaking quietly in her ear. Nitzi’s chest was heavy as she gulped for air, and tears continued to stream from her eyes. Other Qilivs walked over and escorted them through the dark opening. As they disappeared from sight, two Qilivs walked over to Ritchar. One was a short, stout figure wearing plate mail and a grey cape. Over his chest, Ritchar could see a gold circle with a silver rim and the image of a bear in the middle. The other was somewhat shorter and wore a white robe. He had a long grey-white beard and crooked nose, but his eyes and forehead were obscured by his hood.
“Ritchar Grussilivri of Gerne,” the taller Qiliv said. “Your return to Arnodon is eagerly welcomed. Do you remember me? I am Sam-enn, Procurator of the Realm and humble servant of those who serve as its rulers.”
“I remember you well,” Ritchar said. He faced the second Qiliv and bowed deeply. “Your Elder Lordship,” he said formally, “I recall the hospitality of Arnodon with great love. It grieves my heart to return under such circumstances.”
“Yet return you have,” the Qiliv said. “I, Gee, son of Eff of the house of Mer, most Senior of the Elder Lords of Arnodon and the Supervisor of the place until true kingship can be re-established, also welcome thee and thine friends. Find sanctuary and rest in our deep halls. Here shall the retreat be ended. Here shall the ultimate victory begin.”
Mer-gee and Sam-enn turned back towards the opening. Ritchar looked over his shoulder as four Qilivs entered the open area, running quickly. Even in the dim light he could see they were covered in blood. Their armour was visibly damaged, and two of them sported large gashes across their arms. Mer-gee continued walking towards the door, but Sam-enn turned and intercepted them.
“Quoín tumú il pepil di tucedur. Tingu qui tumer ane discerge a nu hey nonganu e le ozquoirde edintru equó,” said one of the Qilivs as they drew closer.
“Hebóe purcounis di rudollus caendu istebe edintrr elló. Astid dibi ontinter quozé sustinirlu edintru pere ehure,” Sam-enn replied. He turned and marched over to where Ritchar still stood, leaning heavily on his staff.
“The situation has deteriorated,” he said gravely. “The Undead have found other approaches through the mountains and are beginning their advance on this position.”
Ritchar looked over his shoulder. The remaining refugees were running quickly towards the gate of Arnodon surrounded by the torch-bearing Qilivs who had moved to form a protective cordon around them. Suddenly he saw Arian emerging from the trees accompanied by six Qilivs. It was clear that she was not walking towards Arnodon by choice.
“Arian!” Ritchar shouted. The tall woman turned and marched towards him. The Qilivs followed her closely with grim expressions on their faces.
“Tell them to get away from me,” she snarled. “I know the Undead are out there. I don’t intend to run from them.”
“Are we to go through this again?” Ritchar asked. “You knew when we left Tzuba that this was to be our destination. Would you throw away your entire journey so foolishly?”
Arian frowned. “I don’t want to go into that mountain,” she said, “to end my days hidden in the bowels of the world like a trapped animal. If my life is doomed to end, then I choose to finish it in glorious combat. I have the right.”
“Maybe,” Ritchar said, “but we need you too much. You would be selfish to exercise that right.”
Another cadre of Qilivs emerged from the trees and began running to the door. Sam-enn walked over and looked at Ritchar and Arian.
“They are near,” he said. “All our anticipation will have been for nothing if we do not seal the doors in time.”
“We’re coming,” Ritchar said.
“I’m not!” Arian shouted. The Chetz-grinuaolli looked over at her. Perhaps it was the evil aura of the Undead that permeated the air around them, or perhaps he had truly underestimated her grief, but the look on Arian's face reminded him more of an injured animal than the proud warrior he had come to know.
“You must,” he said quietly, hoping a reasonable tone of voice would break through the hostility which encased her.
“Khazav got to die in combat!” she cried. “Ziza got to die in combat! I want the same privilege. I demand it!”
Ritchar sighed. “Demand all you want.” He pulled a feather from his belt pouch and raised it to his lips. “Evel zih lu mi’eyin lo, zih bitech mi’eyif. Rochaf!” he chanted. The hand holding the feather glowed for an instant and as the light faded, Arian began to rise from the ground.
“What are you doing?” she shrieked. Her legs kicked wildly in the air as her body began to float towards the opening in the mountain wall. “You cannot do this! I’ll kill you for this, do you hear me? You’d better hide from me, you cursed half-breed. I’ll pull your heart from your chest!”
Ritchar watched sadly as Arian floated through the door. Sam-enn looked towards her and then back at him.
“Is she serious?” he asked.
“Oh, probably,” Ritchar replied. “What did you mean when you said things had been prepared for?”
“Arnodon shall not be taken,” Sam-enn announced, “and the Undead shall regret attacking us. Come with me.”
As they walked towards the dark door, Ritchar's sensitive ears began to hear the familiar, dreaded sound of hooting and growling. They’re already at the bottom of the incline, he thought. In mere moments they’ll be up here. What do the Qilivs have planned?
As he passed under the lintel of the giant door, Sam-enn shouted in Qilivish at two guards standing near one side. They began turning a giant wheel, and the two doors began to close. Ritchar turned and saw the forest explode into flame. The hooting noises were replaced by screams of agony as the Undead within it were burned. Then the doors closed, sealing out the sights, sounds and smells of the world.
He stood for a moment, gazing at the inside of the mountain wall and pondering the events that had brought them back here. The Empire had been destroyed, his group's friendships were strained almost to the point of shattering and Ziza was dead. They had found a safe refuge - but at what cost?