Jesus. Poor Brand. Haha. Talk about a raw deal. I wanted to make this story a lot shorter than it needed to be, and that's probably part of why I stalled out on it. Accidentally undead.

Brand Undead

Cane-sweeping the fields in the dusky morning, when the dew-drops splashed and scattered like shards of crystal before the sweep of the Caner's staff, had never been the safest of tasks for eligible young men whose first inclination was to find a sweetheart, a steady guild apprenticeship, and settle down. The job was reserved for the old and the experienced, who could react in a split second to the dangers that lurked in and among the crops. Dangers the dusty-haired young man who stalked half-awake through the heavy-laden fields was only tentatively familiar with.

Not even the thin, choked screech that signified his new knowledge of his present danger awakened any to his demise. He was dead an hour before any went looking for him.

One: A Family Emergency

"Brand!" the woman roared out, stalking out the back door of her shack in high dudgeon. "BRAND! You lazy scullion-fodder! Where are you!?" The woman stopped, glaring about her in an imperious manner that had been second nature since the birth of her first son and, more recently, the decline of her husband's health. "How long does it take to sweep the fields?" she demanded of no one in particular, slapping a spare Cane against the palm of her hand. "Brand!" Snarling a curse, she stalked into the field, nothing but the sound of the crops rustling at her passage following her.

Her tremendous scream of "BRAND!" roused none but the birds in their nearby roosts.

The death cart's steady, crawling rattle through the streets of the town was nothing new to anyone, and the creaking rattle as it drew to a halt was only a sound of dread if it was before one's own home. As it strained its way over the last ridge, empty of cargo, an unusual sight greeted the cloaked and hooded driver. Man and woman stood grimly before their home, surrounded by the cluster of their seven children. He drove to them in his customary silence, folding the reins over his hand as he stopped.

A chill washed through the air, and his gaunt horse shuddered eloquently under their silent gaze. He looked to the woman, who tilted her chin defiantly.

"There are no dead here."

His expressionless eyes held not even skepticism for the grim woman and her gawking brood but flicked to the man, who answered in the same tone, "There are no dead here."

He slapped the reins across the horse's back without argument, and the wagon gave a creaking groan as it trundled off. They would change their minds, the sound suggested, after but a few days of sharing their home with a corpse.

They watched the wagon go, as still as stone, until the man turned, eyes dark, and stalked back into the house, leaning heavily against a wooden crutch. He paused in the doorway to the room his children shared, staring darkly at the silent body that lay within. "It is wrong," he bit out, hearing the woman approach from behind him. "He is dead."

"And we need his hands for the harvest," she answered him harshly, folding her arms coldly across her chest.

The man stared at her, anger and disgust playing war across his face. Then he turned and limped to the front of the shack, slumping down in his chair to glare balefully out the front window. The children had run after the cart, chanting the Death Rune gaily at the driver, who said nothing in response. When they were bored with that sport, they ran scampering back to the front yard, oldest in the lead.

"You'll summon her yourself," the man said grimly, watching the children, who were now chasing a lizard over the dusty ground and trying to beat it with sticks. "I'll have nothing to do with it."

She stalked to the door without replying and roared out, "JAKE-SYLVIA-SETH-CIMONE-CAM-DAHMA-REY!"

The children stopped in their play and turned to her. The oldest of the group, a thirteen-year-old boy named Jake, slapped his stick against his palm and answered her, "Yes?"

"Get into your room and attend to your brother, you little heathen-whelps," she said brusquely. "We won't want you out here until we call."

The children didn't say a word but ran inside, shedding their sticks -- as well as a wave of dirt from the road -- on their way. They went back to their room with the body in a flurry of sound that faded immediately upon their exit. Man and woman were silent until they had departed, then she walked to a corner of the room, fishing through dust and ash and whipping a terry-cloth covering away.

"Why not let them watch?" he asked.

She shot him a cold look, and they said nothing more. He refused to look at her as she stormed past, a set of metering rods enfolded in her arms, their wards dangling pale blue past her knees. Complete silence reigned while she set the rods out in the yellowed grass of their front yard, eight, sharp-spiked ends driving into the ground, at equal intervals along a wide circle. She then went back the other direction, tying the wards, long strips of soft, pale cloth, between. That finished, the woman walked back inside.

The man shifted in his seat. "Have a care, Niera," he said. His gaze didn't flinch from the window.

"As I always do, Ven," she answered him.

She walked outside with eight sticks of incense and a tinder. He settled back in the chair. It was an hour until dusk, when she could summon the witch. Until then, she would burn a stick of incense in each of the wards, waiting until darkness swept in on inky wings to finally light them and chant the summons.

The flies were buzzing in boredom through the thick, heavy afternoon air, and to that lulling sound, he fell asleep.

He awoke to a less soothing crack of thunder, opening his eyes to see no storm rattling his windows but his wife kneeling before the circle of metering rods. In the center, eight beams of light drew together to form a hazy nimbus around the thin, bent figure who stood there, gaze gleaming cold from under her heavy hood.

"Well, you've summoned me," a thin-seeming voice uttered darkly. "And that's quite an accomplishment for all this amateurishness. Now what do you want?"

The woman rose, gaze flinty. "My son has died, Domiti."

The old witch blinked, then peered at her more closely. "Ahhaha, Niera! So nice to see you again, my darling, failed apprentice." She smiled to herself and began to pick her way out of the summoning field. As she reached the outer edge, she snapped, "What do you want me to do about it?" With startling agility, she hopped over the wards and marched over to where Niera still stood, arms folded. "Your son's dead, so you say. What am I supposed to do?" Her face twitched into a harsh sneer. "I can send flowers to his funeral if you like."

"You haven't changed, Domiti," the woman answered her.

"And neither have you, Niera!" the witch-woman told her brightly. "Still making the same fool mistakes you did under my tutelage -- I was ashamed to call you a student."

The woman ignored her statement. "You have power, Domiti. You can bring him back."

At this, the witch all at once grew still. Rising until her bent back was almost straight, she drew her hood back, a steely glint in her nearly colorless eyes. "Bring him back, Niera?" Her eyes flashed. "The Cypress Witch does not deal in resurrections!"

"I only ask --"

"Only!" Domiti glared, waving a bone-thin hand in her former pupil's face. "I will not do it."

"I'll pay --"

"With what, gold?" The witch-woman snorted. "How very petty. To think I'd be swayed by such bribery --"

"With anything you like, Domiti," Niera grated out. "Our survival depends on having his hands to help us."

Her statement was rewarded with a long, considering stare. "Oh-ho-ho ... so that's it." A flash of amusement crossed the old witch's features. "I shouldn't have expected anything more from you, Niera."

Something close to hatred gleamed in Niera's dark eyes, but it faded when the witch-woman looked at her with a wry smile. "Where is your darling, dead son?" she asked, running her hand back over silver-pale hair and pulling the hood tight around her face again.

"This way," the woman answered her, voice barely above a whisper with the wonderment of Domiti's change of heart. The soft, nagging doubt that accompanied her sudden surge of relief faded quickly, and she showed the other inside. The man looked at them once as they went past him, shoulders twitching in a kind of convulsive shudder at the sight of the witch.

Domiti smiled nastily at him, entering the room where the corpse lay. The children were shouting, running about it in chaotic joy. Jake was standing on the cot, carefully balanced away from his older brother's corpse, shouting over the others. They appeared to be playing a sort of "king-of-the-hill" game, until someone, in the rush and tumble, knocked the youngest boy down. Niera stepped into the ensuing flood of tears with harsh words and cuffs aimed at those responsible.

"Out of here, you pale-faced brats," she barked, arm swinging to catch Jake's ear and drag him from the cot. "Go bother your father! We've work to do here."

They complied without a response to her, and someone scooped up the still-crying youngest as they disappeared away in a rush of sound. "Close the door," Domiti muttered absently, leaning over the boy's body with an intent curiosity while the woman did so. "Not dead too long, is he?" she asked over her shoulder. "You did that right, at least."

The woman gave her a frosty look and said, "Can you bring him back, Domiti?"

"Of course I can," the witch-woman snapped. "Now stay there so I can do it without any interference." Her mouth gave an amused quirk. "Life forces are such funny things ..." Her eyes flicked alertly over the boy's inert form, drawing the blanket back from his body, unclothed from the waist up. "Oh, well done, Niera!" the witch congratulated her. "You've even got the positioning almost correct!"

"He's my son, Domiti," the woman said stiffly, and the witch uttered a darkly amused chuckle.

"Always the best for the slave labor," she commented, moving about the body with startling swiftness, adjusting the position of his folded hands, the tilt of his head and chin, and finally drawing back with a satisfied nod. "And now for the charm," she announced ironically. Reaching into her voluminous cloak, she drew forth a thin, leather pouch with a lead seal, which she knocked firmly against the floor to shatter. That failing, she stepped on it, and, victoriously, the lead cracked. "It's going to be a lot of trouble resealing this bag, Niera," Domiti informed her, stooping to pick it up again. "I hope you appreciate that."

The woman did not respond.

Chuckling again to herself, the witch-woman tugged the pouch open, dusting two of her fingers lightly with the contents. "For he who wishes to walk again on the living plane," she intoned, "what of him shall be aware?" A sharpish grin crossed her features, and the woman tensed.

"Thought," she said with some amusement, brushing her fingers lightly across his forehead.

"Sight." She tapped each of his closed eyes.

"Smell, though less acute." She brushed his nose.

"And he shall speak." Her fingers ran across his lips, then returned to the pouch to gather more powder.

"Emotions he is permitted." Two streaks of soft grey dust crossed his bare chest, over his heart.

"Touch." Her fingers dabbed against the palms of his hands and the bottoms of his feet.

She paused, eyes shifting over to the woman, who still stood silent, arms folded. "And has your darling boy participated in any of the baser pleasures of life?" Her mouth formed a wicked, mocking grin. The woman nearly spat at her, eyes blazing, and Domiti laughed harshly. "He does have quite a fetching little countenance, Niera."

"Finish it," the woman grated, fingers digging deeply into the flesh of her own arm.

"As you wish, my student," Domiti purred, and, with a chilling smile, she tugged the drawstring to shut the pouch.

Replacing it in her robe, she drew back slightly, fingers tracing an abrupt and intricate pattern of symbols in the air. "You who have slipped beneath us, who walk the Road of the Dead, this moment hear me and rise. Let your spirit again reside in this vessel, as it did in life. You I summon!" She drew her hands together and clapped twice. "Brand!"

For a moment, there was perfect silence. Then a tensing in the air, and the body's eyes snapped open. Quietly, then with increaasing strength, the boy's voice filled the room, his final and uncompleted thoughts bubbling from his lips with the uncontrolled patter of a brook at spring thaw.

"No -- I can't die, not yet -- Next spring, I was going to -- Morgan said yes! We were going to -- I can find a job with the Guild -- they'll accept me -- I'm of age! I can leave -- Jake, in a couple of years -- I can't die -- Can I dream when I'm dead? -- What's going to happen -- when I die -- I can't die -- no --" And he stopped.

He had not drawn a single breath.

"He'll wake again by morning," Domiti announced, once again assuming her stoop-shouldered posture. "I believe I'll be on my way before then."

The woman was watching her silently, brow showing a small furrow of thought. Something was wrong in the incantation. Something missing. Her lost-eyed gaze as Domiti tugged up her hood to conceal her ageless features seemed to amuse the old witch. "Have you figured it out yet, Niera?" she asked, laughing and pushing past her into the hall.

The cluster of younglings stood there, the younger with wide eyes and open mouths, the older with narrow eyes and pressed lips. Jake uttered a short, barking "Hah" as if the witch's exit had somehow proven an unspoken point. His eyes followed her, and she failed to acknowledge his presence. He spat on the floor behind her. The woman walked out of the room, and the unmoving children traced her path with their gazes. Her shoulders held an uncertain stoop, and her gait was awkward and shuffling.

"Hah," Jake said again. His eyes watched her go.

Domiti was waiting at the door when the woman reached her. A smile touched her mouth at the other's continued consternation. "A pleasant harvest to you all," she offered the family mockingly. "I do hope never to see you again."

With that, she stepped out the door, and still the woman followed, face clearing of a small bit of its confusion. She watched in silence as the old witch stepped up to the circle of metering rods, making to step over the wards and reenter what amounted to the translocation portal.

"Domiti --" the woman called out haltingly.

Domiti turned to regard her blandly, and their eyes met in an empty sort of understanding. A faltering question seemed to touch the woman's quite nearly immobile features, but her lips did not move again, and she turned her eyes away. The witch-woman smiled, a thin knife-slash of a smile.

"I commend you, Niera," she said crisply. "You're a cruel woman. Quite nearly as cruel as I am." The smile faded, and Domiti stepped over the wards to the center of the circle. "One does not make dealings lightly with the Cypress Witch." The nimbus of pale light surrounded her, and she was gone. Then, as if the witch's presence was all that had kept the metering rods lit, one by one, they all went out, and a silvery mist floated liltingly to the starry sky.

The troubled look had not faded from the woman's face as she moved back into the house, padding past the man, who would not look at her, and the children, who watched her with wide, silent eyes. The man stirred, gazing emptily at the metering rods. Annoyance hardened his eyes, and he slipped outside, reaching the rods in three steps. The loosely tied wards slid free with the lightest of tugs, and the rod snapped as a twig over the bone-thin resistance of his knee.

She stepped back to the room that housed her son's body as if drawn by an irresistible force, each step growing heavier with a kind of sick dread. The snap of each metering rod met each step across the floor until she stood before the death bed, and silence reigned outside. Her hand reached forward, trembling, to touch his chest, fingers streaking through the ashy grey that marked it, and her eyes widened in a dawn of empty realization.

Her head leaned back, a terrible cry rising within her to shake the very foundations of her small house. "DOMITI!"

Jake looked out at his father, who was taking flint and tinder to the small pile of wards and rods, then back toward where he knew his mother stood, her ringing voice fallen to stillness.

"Hah," he said.

Two: Long Road Ahead

Before his eyes opened, he knew something had changed. The air in the room was filled with sound -- his brothers and sisters at their pre-fast-breaking romp -- and yet not so. It was is if the air was a still room, and the chaotic noises were an echo of themselves, falling like pale, hollow droplets to be absorbed by the emptiness of it. Jake's strident voice rose above them all for a moment, then faded to a new sound. It was a strangled, choking noise that seemed to issue from another place in the house -- in another few moments, he'd identified it.

His mother was crying.

He opened his eyes, staring at the ceiling in disorientation as he attempted to recall why these sensations -- hearing, feeling, seeing -- were out of place, wrong.

He sat up in one stiff motion, limbs peculiarly wooden, and his eyes opened slowly, realizing the sudden silence in the room. His brothers and sisters were clustered next to his cot, eyes wide and watching him with a mixture of curiosity and fear. He had no chance to speak to them before a thin, flat voice rang out near his feet.

"You're dead."

He turned his head to face the speaker, and at the foot of his cot Jake stood, extending a Cane toward his brother as if to thrust it through his throat. A triumphant smirk hovered on his lips as the others took up the cry. "Dead!" they repeated, some of the younger jumping up and down to punctuate the word, and Jake spoke again. "I heard Mother say so. You're dead."

Brand stared at him. "Get down from there, Jake," he said, voice hollow in his own ears.

The young man's brow knit in anger and, oddly, confusion. His grip on the Cane wavered, and Brand reached out his hand with a snatch to take it away. Jake sprang backward, face a silent thundercloud, and the children scattered as their sandy-haired brother swung his legs over the edge of his cot. They remianed in silence, following him with their eyes -- even as they had their mother -- as he rose and walked to the door, Cane clasped grimly in his fist.

When his figure had turned form the doorway, and his steps were fading down the hall, Jake stalked in front fo the cot and folded his arms, scowl fading to an expression of angry amusement. "Hah!" he announced. "You're dead." He slapped his younger sister in the side of the head, and the romp began again.

As he entered the hall, Brand was greeted with a new voice -- his father's -- muttering softly to his weeping mother. "It was you who called her," he said coldly, "you who knew the consequences. What can we do with him now but sell him to a wandering sorcerer?"

"No," the woman answered harshly, between racked sobs, "His body is still able -- and now immortal --"

"Undead!" the man bit out. "He's useless! You did wrong Niera, and this is the price!"

Me. The thought struck him as strange. They're talking about me! His hands suddenly trembled, and he nearly lost his grip on the Cane he carried, realization flooding to him. I'm dead! Odd, how he couldn't remember it, but what was there to remember in death? He remembered well enough rising above a blackness -- not so much to a place of light, but to a place less black -- greyish -- as if the light he knew must exist were filtered down to him through fog. Then he'd awoken.

"She cheated me." The woman's voice drove into his thoughts unbidden. "Her familiar is a fox, the Cypress Witch ..."

Outrage rose in him suddenly, a blind, focusless anger. All he could think, fist clenching around the Cane with renewed strength, was "How dare they?" The thought drew him forward with heavy steps on an unerring course toward the door. From behind him, he heard his mother scream out his name, as if the force of her voice could turn him back. He walked out of the house, leaving the door to swing closed behind him. His footsteps thudded heavily against the wooden stairs, and dust rose before him as he walked into the road.

He turned toward the village almost without thinking, realization of his decision waking inside him. He was free! Free of his family and the obligation to the farm, free to marry, get a guild job -- a new life! These thoughts propelled him forward at an ever-quickening pace, until a sound jarred his movement and drew him to a halt.

The familiar creak and rattle of the death cart blundered its grim way up the road, driving a haze of dust before it. Brand stood and stared as if he had takn root in the middle of the road, and the driver met his gaze as he drove past.

The dust from the wagon's splintering wheels had long since settled back into the road by the time Brand found the will to move his legs on in the direction of the town. The driver had known him, known that he should be dead. I should have been on that wagon ... Did the village know? Did Morgan -- ? His now-hesitant walk faltered to a stop.

If she knew, he must find her -- tell her he wasn't dead and reassure her that nothing had changed.

He began to walk again, quickening his pace, eyes darting feverishly about the road ahead. What time was it -- midmorning? She should be along soon, headed to market for her mother's bread and her father's pipe-weed. In fact --

"Morgan!" he called out, unable to stop himself, eyes lit with frantic relief at seeing her.

She stopped in mid-step, just outside the perimeter of the town, and turned her head slightly -- just enough to see him. Her cheek was pale with what he could only guess was fright.

He took a step forward, which she matched, by taking a step back. "Morgan -- ?" he said uncertainly. Doesn't she recognize me? "It's me -- Brand! I'm not dead! I --"

"Get back!" she shrilled, as he made to run toward her. "Stay away from me!"

"M-morgan --" he stammered, extending his free hand in her direction, as he often had before, to lead her down a path or past an obstacle. The other hand clenched convulsively around his Cane. "It's all right now -- I'm free. I can get a job with the guild, and we -- we --" He trailed off at her terrible stare. She doesn't understand, he thought desperately. She thought I was dead, and --

The next remained a blur in his mind. He was running toward her, arm outstretched -- If I can just make her understand -- and her face was paler still, if possible. Her mouth opened in a scream of terror that he was never to hear, and next he knew, he was reeling back, the sting of her blow still resonant under the hand he had promptly clapped to his cheek. She stood in the gateway to the town, hand half-raised as if she would strike him again, but instead, she uttered a soft whimpering sound and made the sign of warding across her chest before spinning on her heel and running past the perimeter, chestnut hair bouncing against her back.

Brand gazed after her, eyes helpless, uncomprehending of what had just happened. She was afraid -- she wouldn't have -- she couldn't -- "MORGAN!" he howled out her name, lurching toward the perimeter with his hand still reaching for her in desperation. The unsteady thud of his running echoed in his ears as he bolted through the gateway, then a tearing scream, a siren -- an alarm -- ripped through the air above his head. He soon joined it in a scream of his own, body twisting convulsively as pain like searing needlepoints pierced his skin. The grisly duet continued for an interminable moment, until Brand's body threw backward, twisting sharply as it fell.

His face struck the dirt of the road, eyes glazing over. He could taste dust in his mouth, and the distinct smell of char rose about him. He felt the Cane gripped tightly enough in his hand to mash into the very pores of his skin. His mouth moved, trying to form words, sounds, any form of vocal pain or grief. Morgan . . .

Consciousness was rapidly slipping away from him when he felt a booted foot dig gingerly into his chest, rolling him on his back. His arms fell limply about him, the Cane dropping from his hand as impact with the ground shook his grip.

"Well, well," uttered a dry, sardonic voice, hovering close, it seemed, to his ear, "what have we got here . . .?"

A toneless chuckle of amusement was the last he heard as darkness swept him away.

It was the toe of someone's boot, planted firmly against his lower ribcage, that roused him again. He moaned softly as he stirred, and a young voice -- a harsh, derisive voice -- said soemthing that he didn't quite hear. He felt his mouth open to utter a choked and broken "Mor -- gan . . ." and a sound of laughter reached his ears.

"Well, that's different," said the voice, the harsh one. "Usually the first thing they ever say is ‘kill me'." The owner of the voice had apparently leaned in closer, because his next words sounded very loud. "Must be the villager it just chased off."

Another, deeper voice rang out close by. "Can you do something about it?"

"Of course I can. I'm glad I was passing through." The voice drew away slightly. "It'll be most useful to me."

Brand's eyelids fluttered slightly, and he stirred again. Are they talking about me?

"There we go; it's coming to. I told you it wouldn't take long."

There was a crunching of gravel as the second voice, presumably a villager, backed away from him. Brand sank back again, a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach. Why don't they call me by name?

"Oh, get up," growled the younger voice. "You know it didn't hurt anyway."

His eyes snapped open, and he found himself looking into the ice blue eyes of a young boy -- he could only be sixteen or seventeen. The boy's lips immediately parted in a grin that Brand could only call sinister, and he drew back again, standing up. "Now get up," he said. "You're no use to anyone lying on the ground."

Slowly, unwillingly, Brand found himself obeying the boy's abrupt commands. When he was again standing, he cast about quickly for his Cane and snatched it up, seeing it on the ground near the boy's feet. As he pulled himself to his full height, he took a better look at his antagonist.

Soft, black hair framed a youthful, unlined face, but nothing besides that gave any indication that this boy had ever had a childhood. The blue eyes were cold and removed, as if no warmth or laughter had ever touched them; all they held was hatred. His mouth was fixed in a perpetual smirk of disdain.

"Who are you?" Brand asked evenly, and a touch of pale amusement flickered in the boy's eyes.

"That's a new one," the boy said, baring his teeth in an approximation of a grin. "They don't usually question their keepers."

"Keeper?" Brand snapped, expression half blank and half infuriated, "I don't even know you!"

"Interesting," he murmured, giving his cape a flip as he paced a circle around his sandy-haired subject. "I've never seen one quite as life-like."

"Who are you?" Brand growled, and the dark-haired boy stopped in front of him, eyes narrowing.

"Whoever created you," he said, tone growing cold, dismissive, "was crueler than even I'm given credit for." His mouth twitched into a sneer. "Imagine that. A magical vessel with a free will."

"Answer me!" Brand shouted, swinging the Cane to swipe at the boy's throat. As the weapon was about to reach its mark, he uttered a gulp of surprise. His opponent had vanished -- seemingly into thin air. Only when a familiar, booted foot smashed indelicately into the small of his back, sending him tumbling forward into the dirt, did he realize what had happened.

"A -- magician --"

"No kidding," the other told him shortly, arms folded as he settled back to the ground. "You really must be a country moron." He paused. "Used to be, anyway."

"Who ARE you!?" Brand half-screamed at him, frustrated that his blow had missed its mark. That, after all, had been the reason for his death. Death. I can't be dead. He set aside a mental curse specifically for his mother and staggered to his feet again.

"We really aren't getting anywhere with this. Is that the only phrase you know?"

"Answer me!"

"Oh, that too."

Brand stood still, chest heaving with apparent exertion. He couldn't tell whether he was truly worn out or if it was a half-remembered sensation from when he was alive.

"Well, you figured out I'm a magician," the other said blandly. "I can credit you with that much. What exactly is it you want to know? That's usually enough."

"Your name," Brand spat.

"Of course. How could I forget." The mage shrugged once, pacing his way around Brand once again. "I suppose they have asked me that once or twice. Usually the fresh ones. They haven't forgotten the conventions of society from when they were alive."

"ANSW --"

"Alen!" The boy glared at him. "My name is Alen. Are you happy now?"

Brand drew in a shuddering breath before he realized that he didn't need to. His mind itched away from that reality. I'll breathe if I bloody well want to. "Thank you," he said evenly.

Alen gave him an uninterested look. "If that's all you wanted, then we can get moving now."

"... Get moving?" Brand looked at him with both uncertainty and a rising sense of dread.

"You heard me, zombie," the boy said shortly. "I've come a long way looking for a good magic vessel, and you're the best I've ever run across."

The statement took a moment for Brand to process, though he wasn't sure if that was a result of his undead mind or simple incomprehension. "Zombie?" he repeated, eyes growing wild. "Magic vessel!?"

"Didn't your creator tell you the proper use for the undead?" His eyes narrowed again. "My, what an oversight."

"Get away from me!" The instinct to flee was rapidly overcoming any bravado he thought might endear him to Morgan, who was nowhere in sight. He backed away, the hand that gripped his Cane trembling.

"No way," Alen laughed, matching his movement, step for step. "And miss a prime catch like you? It's not going to happen, undead."

"I'm not an undead!" Brand screamed at him.

"Right, you're not," the other retorted, "And that's why the warding barrier fried your zombie hide."

"What are you planning to do with me?" he hissed, dropping back again.

Alen sighed and shook his head, putting his hands on his hips. In doing so, he pulled his cape back slightly, revealing a slim shortsword sheathed at his side. "If I were a nice guy, I'd break the seal that's binding your soul to your body and let you go back to the underworld." He shrugged dismissively as Brand relaxed slightly. "But since I'm not a nice guy, I'm going to do what I do with every undead I happen to find."

Brand took another step back, raising his Cane.

"I'm going to cram your rotting, undead body with excess magical energy until it's bursting at the seams, and then I'll drain you as I see fit." The magician lifted his head, eyes glinting with cold disgust. "And when that energy runs out, I'll do it again, until your worthless body finally wears out."

The young man's eyes were starting out of his head, mouth open in speechless horror. "N-no --"

Alen smiled his cold, sneering smile. "That's what they usually say."

"I won't let you, you bastard!" Brand half-shrieked, and he lunged forward out of sheer panic, Cane sweeping in for a slash across the mage-boy's chest.

But his target was gone almost as soon as he moved, and the sensation of cold metal against his flesh was all he felt before his arm fell to the ground, cut just below the elbow.

"Don't flatter yourself," Alen said coldly.

Brand choked. The sight of his arm lying on the ground just a few feet away from him was more than he had ever been prepared for. But even worse --

"No -- blood --" he gulped hoarsely.

"Of course not." The mage walked over and scooped the appendage off the ground, looking at it -- and the Cane still clutched firmly in its grip -- with no small amount of criticism. "You've attracted a crowd," he said, not bothering to look behind him at the small gathering of villagers, who looked on, speechless.

Brand was too occupied in staring with morbid fascination at the bloodless stump of his arm to bother noting the crowd -- even to see if Morgan was in it.

"Yes, your creator definitely did a good job on you." The ice-blue eyes flicked over to meet his. "So who was it?"

Brand stared at him, then at his arm. "Give me my arm back."

The mage looked at him impatiently. "What for? You don't need it."

"Give it back!" Brand shouted at him, and he gave his shoulders a rippling shrug.

"If you insist." With a flit of his fingers and a softly worded incantation, the mage walked to Brand and took a firm hold of his elbow. "Hold still," was his sole order as he placed the severed limb back where it belonged. Uttering a word that sealed the spell, he drew back, folding his arms. "Happy? Now tell me who your creator was."

"I don't --" No, that was a lie. His mother had never told him, but he knew. As surely as a fingerprint, her spell-casting had left an imprint on him; the image of her face and voice rose to his mind, and with them an outrage he couldn't -- and didn't want to -- suppress. "Domiti." It came out a snarl of hatred.

Alen looked at him sharply. "Domiti. You said --" His glance darted to the crowd. "We're going. Now." He smiled coldly at the unwilling zombie. "You don't have a choice, you know."

Brand stared at him.

"Just trust me. You don't. And if you don't want me to take control of your body on my own, I suggest you start walking."