Timeline: Sixth Age, 45th Year, Mid-Autumn
“Yikes!” came an unexpected call from Neil Belzer as he clasped his hands to his mouth before looking around to find a seat – his knees weak with fear from the tale Emcorae’s grandfather had been telling about the walking dead.
A few of the locals coughed up a meager laugh or two, but most of them shared Neil’s fright, eager for Alfranco Azop to continue his tale – for although they’d heard it before, still they drank it up as it if was the first time the oldster had frightened them with it.
“Y’all sure you want me to continue?” The gaffer asked his audience.
“You can’t stop in the middle of the Morati Feast.” Doc Ben pretended to admonish his friend. “Tell us the rest of the yarn, Franki.”
“Well don’t says I didn’t warn ya.” Alfranco took a long pull on his ale. “So there I was in camp, watching helplessly as the Morati were defouling our fallen brethren stuck on the battlefield. At first I couldn’t figure out why, but it was a fellow from Cruz that saw my confusion – he motioned me over and explained. Seems that early on in the war, the allies had given up trying to stop this nightly defilement of their dead — for it was beyond the strength of man to fight the evil hordes during the day and then deal with the walking dead at night. There wasn’t much of a choice – we had to save our strength to fight Myzentiuz’ evil minions, else they might o’whelm the cities of the East. The War itself required that our troops allow the Morati to feast at night…unfettered.”
“My God, Franki, I pity those men.” Hal Sutton lamented. “It must have been gut-wrenching to have to listen to those horrors each night and to know that the Lepeds were actually feasting on your friends!”
“It’s worse than that, Hal.” The oldster cautioned. “Can you imagine if you had to later kill one of your buddies who’d become leped himself?”
“I don’t understand, what’s he talking about?” Sally Romaine blurted out.
“Shhh!” Sally’s husband admonished her. “Let the gaffer talk, woman!”
“It’s all right, Jon.” Alfranco chuckled. “For those of you who don’t know like Sally, let me remind y’all how lepeds are made. Y’all know that the Morati will feast on any flesh and it matters not to them if the creature they feed on is alive or dead, but should the Morati get their hands on the living, watch out! For the bite of a leped will not only kill you, it will do something far worse – if leped’s poison gets into your blood before you’ve spent your last breath, then you’ll become a leped too!”
“Then the tale of Tonka is true!” gasped Sally.
“Well, I don’t know about that, Sally, ‘cause I’ve never been there,” Alfrando took a long puff on his smoke stick, “but one look at a Morati and I can see why many believe the Tale of Tonka Town be true. Like I says before, the Morati are thin, bony and dreadful to behold. Their bodies are constantly decaying, and you can see their bones through missing patches of their clammy skin!”
“Yeah, but what about their eyes?” Jon Romaine asked, himself scared to death but wanting to get a further rise out of his wife. “Didn’t you say before their eyes are creepiest of all?”
“You got that right, Jon,” The oldster took a swig of his beer and continued ominously. “Worst of all were the Morati’s eyes, for they were nought but empty, black sockets that glowed with a hate-filled hunger! And lest you townies think the sight of these dead walkers is bad, let me tell you, it pales in comparison to the sounds they make when they feast – the cracking of bones, the slurping of blood, the tearing of fl–“
“Oh, yuck!” Sally buried her head on her husband’s shoulder, “Make him stop, Jon.”
“Shhhh” replied her husband, shivering himself but wanting to hear more.
“If y’all like that, get this,” Alfranco took another pint from the barkeep and warned the crowd, “El-Janus told me that not only is the saliva of the Morati poisonous, but it burns too — for after they kill, the Morati drool the mucous of their mouths all over the flesh of their victims — that draws out the bones. And when they get the bones, they crack ’em open and slurp out the marrow! Just make sure they don’t get YOUR marrow!” And the old man let loose a horror-filled cackle that raised the hair on the backs of many a head in the crowd.
That all Sally Romaine could take, as she ran screaming out of the Brandonale, her husband begrudgingly trailing close behind.
The locals laughed at the charade, but then soon a quiet pall came down on the room.
It was the barkeep who broke the silence, as he handed another full mug to the gaffer, “Ain’t nothing a little ale can’t cure right, Franki?”
“Here, here” called Ben Witz, while others at the bar raised their glasses as well, eager to forget that part of Alfranco’s chilling tale.
Aldom was busy collecting coppers from the patrons when The Romaines came rushing back in. “I couldn’t let my gal get too far in the dark,” the man proffered a none-too-confident sounding laugh as he steered his wife to sit down again.
Meanwhile, after a sip or three and a few puffs of his smoke, Alfranco was ready to carry on. “So, there I was the morning after the Morati feast and I figured I’d best start looking for El-Janus and my mates, when of a sudden I saw all the men staring dumbfounded at the battlefield – something was wrong, but it was a good wrong, if ya know what I mean.”
“What happened?” Hal asked.
“Seems, as dawn broke across the wasteland, not only was there no evil army lined up to oppose our troops, but instead the hordes were retreating! For as far as the eye could see I spied ranks upon ranks of the hordes making for the western mountains. Oh, what a glorious sight it all was!”
“Weren’t you ‘fraid it was all a ruse?” Jon found his voice again.
“Wise man, Jon.” Alfranco stroked the villager’s ego. “We had to be sure this wasn’t no trick – and that job fell to El-Janus and my crew. Believe it or not, as the rest of the allies got a chance to relax, my team and I suddenly found ourselves trailing behind the entire evil army! Let me tell ya, that was the scariest time of the entire war for me! Picture this – for a moon and a half, my crew and I went into the danger zone and all I could think of was, oh Saint Enok, don’t let me die at the very end when all the fightin’ is done!” And here the gaffer wiped his brow, before sitting up straight again, “But hey, I had a job to do, and that’s the truth. So I did it.”
“Better you than me,” said Neil.
“You’re a good man, Al-Cor-, Al-, Al-Corragio,” said Doc Ben in admiration, finally getting his words out, while he leaned over and patted Em’s grandsire on the back. For by now, even the good doctor was feeling the effects of the alcohol.
“Thanks, Ben,” said Alfranco, “So the other scouts and I trailed the hordes all the way to the top of the mountains – and I never relaxed until the last hobgoblin finally disappeared over them hills.” The oldster let his words trail off, although whether he was lost in remembrance or whether it was all the ale finally taking a toll on his mind too, no one knew.
“Ahem,” said Aldom tapping his friend on the shoulder, “Alfranco, what about the Morati? You didn’t just let them get away too, did you?”
Emcorae’s grandsire woke with a start. “Oh, yes, I’m forgetting the point of this story: the Morati! Well, you see, a’fore we scouts left, while I was still standing in camp that morn watchin’ the hordes run tail, I got caught up in the waves of joy that were whipping through our camp — for all the men were praising the gods that our fortunes had suddenly turned for the good.”
“Pah, ‘the gods’!” Sally Romaine scoffed. “You better not let Pastor Kastelli hear you talk like this.”
Yet the gaffer paid no mind to his detractor, “That’s when we saw that the Morati were still roaming the battlefields — I guess they couldn’t resist leaving all that fresh meat? The scene was terrible — for everywhere we looked those pustuous wraiths were feeding upon the fallen; their gaping maws covered in blood and grume, and oh that cracking and sucking and slurping! Heck, they saw us watching them, and still they didn’t stop.
“However their feasting didn’t last long on this day, for we allies weren’t about to sit back and watch our dead be defiled any longer! Now that we could act, all of us quickly ran to the field and took vengeance upon the lepeds – chasing ’em down and killing every last bastard that’d stayed behind!” And here Alfranco slammed a fist into his palm in savage energy.
“Hooray!” The crowd called out in unison, raising their glasses.
Yet Alfranco held up his hands, “My friends, it was not a pleasant experience – vengeance never is, no matter how strong the pull may seem.”
At that, Emcorae felt a shiver run down his own spine, as if an ominous thought lurked on the edge of his mind. Yet what it was, he couldn’t say.
Master storyteller that he was, Alfranco didn’t leave on a down note, instead adding this. “Mark my words, friends, we cut down all them Lepeds. Hacking, cutting, and ripping them apart over and over and over, most of the time well after they were dead. There were just so many of us and every man wanted to have the opportunity to take out his pent up frustrations. Not a single Morati escaped that day — and yes, we did burn their bones to make sure they’d never return!”
When the patrons of the Brandon all cheered again, Alfranco didn’t stop them — satisfied to see them fully caught up in his tale, he allowed the townies to celebrate “their victory” over the dread Lepeds. And whilst Aldom poured out yet another round, Emcorae’s grandsire added, “By the time me and the scouts reported back that the evil hordes were indeed gone for good, there was nothing left to do but return home — with the hope that neither we nor anyone else would ever have to go through such horror again. And so, for now at least, there’s peace in our world, but for how long it will last who can say for sure?”
“Well, at least you got a chance to finally come back home.” Sally was much relieved that all that terrible talk about zombies was over.
“In point o’ fact, woman, when the war did end, I found that I wasn’t ready to get back to Monthaven,” Alfranco advised. “E’en though I would dream about this place every night during the war, when the opportunity finally came, I couldn’t take it. I realized there was more I wanted to see and do – so I accepted the invitation of my Amorosi friends and went to Arbola Forest instead.”
“But did you ever learn why the evil hordes quit fighting?” Edd Occoni was confused. “And what happened with those evil clans waiting to attack the Drokka on the other side of the mountains back in Gor?”
“Well, Edd, I’ve got to admit that I don’t know the answer to either of your questions.” The gaffer admitted. “The fact is that Zar’s minions had superior numbers and if the fighting would have continued longer, or if the myz knights would have finally joined in the fray, then I fear guess they would have worn us down, and all would have been lost.
“Thankfully it never happened that way,” Aldom patted the old man on the shoulder.
“Praise be to Saint Enok for that,” Alfranco agreed. “I can’t say why the hordes abandoned the fight. But here’s what ol’ Franki can say — good riddance!” And he drained the rest of his mug as the crowd cheered again. When the celebration ended, the oldster declined the barkeep’s offer of another tankard as he rose from his stool, “That was almost 50 years ago now. And that’s how the Last Great War came to an end. And that, my friends, is how I will end this story.” Then turning to his grandson he added, “Ready to go, Em?”
“Sure thing, grandpop.” Emcorae hopped down off his stool.
“No, no, Franki, don’t go yet,” pleaded the doctor.
“Oh, c’mon, Alfranco, don’t stop there, what did you do in Arbola?” piped up Edd.
“Ooh, no, Franki, tell us ‘bout them gargoyles!” Jon Romaine was eager to get another rise out of his wife – hoping this would cause her to seek the comfort of his arms later that night.
“Yeah, yeah, tell us about them,” Neil coaxed sarcastically, “Flying green beastmen, is that it?” In truth, Neil was hoping to challenge Alfranco into staying – for the younger man didn’t really want to venture out, worried that a leped might be waiting for him.
Neil’s gambit almost worked, for Alfranco glared hard at him, “Watch yer mouth, youngin’, for ya know not what ya say. The garg—“ But a tug at his sleeve from Emcorae interrupted the old man’s ire and Alfranco smiled as he said, “Fear not, my little lambs, I have many more stories to tell, and many more nights to tell them in. As long as there is ale pouring from those taps I shall return,” and here he winked at Aldom, as he tossed another copper onto the bar, “ but for now my grandson and I best be getting home. Let’s go, Em.”