by Robert Currer
Part 1: Chapter 10
3,500 Words: 15 Minute Read
Two stone slabs laid at an angle against a hastily uncovered foundation. It looked like a glorified cellar door. Each was covered in creepy carvings of skeletons carrying candles around the rusted ring handles. Eric shifted his weight, his thumb jittering against his thigh. Something about the doors wouldn’t let him settle. The blurred words on the Testimonial kept playing on repeat in his brain. He had no idea what they meant, but they curled their way through every thought like moaning fog.
Mel did not look haunted. She looked busy. He watched her in the pit, her shock of pink hair bouncing to and fro as she spat commands at the workers regarding where to place their long pry bars. Apparently, it would be a crime worthy of beheading to so much as chip the damn thing. Maybe he couldn’t fault her. His eyes trolled along the rim of the pit, noting the press of intrigued faces. Not far off, Tharp stood with arms crossed, glaring down upon the young scholar, his features as discerning and neutral as a judge. Was it any wonder she wanted everything to go just right?
Movement opposite him caught his notice and looked up to see Corbin. She nodded in acknowledgment as their eyes met. The specter of a smile curled into her lips as her gaze traced behind him. Eric looked over his shoulder in time to see Zofia sidling up to him in the growing crowd. She brushed against him, her fingers sliding along his own, and he felt his heart leap in his chest.
She inclined her head to his and said, “Reminds me of a mummy’s tomb.”
“Like King Tut’s curse?”
“Exactly. Sort of thrilling, isn’t it?” A pink glow suffused her cheeks.
His whole body was pulled taut, waiting. What exactly he expected to happen, he couldn’t say, but the air felt charged the way it does before a summer storm. He glanced at her. She wasn’t wrong. It was some kind of thrilling.
At a nod from Tharp, Mel shouted at the workers to lean on their pry bars. As they heaved, she goaded and cajoled, her words a lash at their backs. The bars strained, bowing between the cumbersome stone and the strong arms pulling with all their bulging might. A venomous hiss slithered from between the slabs as they parted. It wriggled down Eric’s spine leaving a trail of sensation like cold slime. Zo gasped, her fingers reaching for his. The stone doors fell open with a crash that rang through the pit like the toll of dolorous bells. A shock wave of silence rolled across the gathered crowd as they listened in unison to the waning echo until at last it was swallowed up by the rasp of the hungry wind.
Eric’s mouth went sand dry, and a hunted feeling crawled up his shoulders. “I’ve got a bad feeling about this,” he said, his voice as haggard as the wind.
The open maw of the tomb door gave a mournful howl as a sand-laden gust was exhaled into the pit. The workers dropped their tools and scattered to the sides as Mel threw up an arm to shield her face. The gust split into myriad churning eddies. As each formed, they slowed, finally coalescing into men and women so gaunt that their leathered flesh hung from their bones like the tattered vestments that wrapped them. There was one frozen second split from time as none moved, all still struggling to believe their eyes. Eric stared down at the bone-thin creatures that flooded the pit. There was a void of the deepest, world-swallowing black where their eyes should have been. He could feel their hunger radiating off them in noxious waves. As one, the Hungry Dead threw back their heads and shrieked to the heavens, a dissonant mind-melting cry that shattered the stillness. Then, all hell broke loose.
The Hungry Dead charged in every direction. One pounced on a worker. It gripped the screaming man by the stubbled line of his jaw and the rise of his muscled shoulder, tearing his head off with a jerk. A font of blood erupted from the ragged stump of his neck. The creature stretched its mouth impossibly wide like the jaws of a snake and then tilted the corpse so that the hot blood poured in buckets straight down its gullet. The other workers and scholars screamed and surged for the ladders. Most were dragged from the rough wood before they made the third rung, their tops popped and their drained bodies discarded like crumpled Coke cans.
One charged at Mel. She screamed, her eyes going round and white as she scrambled backwards. The creature was nearly on top of her when her heel caught a stone and she tumbled flat onto her back. It loomed over her. Its withered fingers reached for the throbbing artery in her throat. Corbin leaped down on top of the monstrosity, driving the tip of her sword clean through its spoon chest. Its hiss was an angry wind before it disintegrated into desert sand.
Zo grabbed Eric by the sleeve and yanked him backward as a dead hand crested the rim of the pit at his feet. Tattered nails, sharp as talons, clawed at the air where his ankles had been. Eric’s backwards stumble transformed into an awkward jog and then a run to keep up with Zo who still held a firm grasp on his wrist. Before he could really register where they had gone, she pulled him through a tent flap and into a lantern lit gloom of chests and wooden crates.
“What are we doing here?” asked Eric. His sword was drawn, and he was peering into the deep shadows.
She threw open a footlocker-sized chest filled with small bottles, each labeled with a yellowed tag. “This might be our only chance,” she said.
She rummaged through the chest. The tinkle of glass was a cacophony in the hush. A moment later, she selected one, holding it up in the light to read the tag. Apparently satisfied, she rose and carried the vial to the center of the tent. There stood a wardrobe of sorts. Its thick oaken sides were reinforced by bands of steel. A thick metal crossbar, which held the door shut, was secured by a padlock the size of Eric’s fist.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
Zo plucked the stopper from the vial and trickled the solution along the base of the lock’s shackle. She danced back a couple steps as the metal began to sizzle and smoke. The lock popped and fell to the sandy floor. She heaved the bar up and swung open the door. Eric’s mouth flopped open. Inside was crammed full of bags upon bags of antitoxin tablets.
“Run away with me,” said Zo looking as earnest and bare as a girl asking her crush to dance. Screams from the hell beyond the tent floated in like dust.
“Zo, now is not the time,” he said.
“Now is exactly the time, the only time we may ever have.”
“They need us out there,” he said. He thought of Corbin, of the Diyakosha’s hot breath on his face, of the weight of it on top of him. He still owed her. He couldn’t abandon her now.
“I need you,” Zo said. She took his face in her hands and kissed him so hard and deep that he felt it in his toes.
When she pulled back, his arms were wrapped around her waist. “Then we’ll snatch enough for the both of us, and we can slip away tonight,” he said, “After all of this is over.”
She pushed him back, eyes aflame. “We can’t wait! The first thing they’ll do is check the count on the tablets. Do you want to end up like Paydrin?”
“I can’t abandon them.”
“Coward.” She shoved him. “Go! Run away from everything we have, everything we could have.”
Eric lingered, drinking her in one last time, the lump in his chest shattering in slow motion. He swallowed the words he wanted to say and turned toward the tent flap.
“I won’t wait for you,” she said, a subtle waver in the steel of her voice. “I won’t be here when you come crawling back.”
Eric paused at the tent flap, standing on the line between the brutal sun beyond and the balm of the shadowy tent. He looked back at her one last time. Tears bulged along the rim of her eyes making them shine like jewels. He wanted to speak, to tell her about how her rose petal smile made him glow, to tell her about the gaping hole in his chest whenever she was gone. Instead, he only nodded and stepped out into the screaming heat.
His boots pounded the ground, sending up plumes of rusted dust. Through the line of open-sided work tents, he could see the surviving ODF guardsmen rallying on the other side of the pit. At their front, Salmin’s sword hacked and slashed like a tempest at the surge of Hungry Dead that spilled over the lip. As Eric cleared the tents, a hand shot up from the edge ahead. It clawed at the orange soil as a shock of pink hair emerged from the pit. Mel spilled over the rim, smeared with dirt and blood. A bellow erupted from below. She scrambled to her knees and scuttled back to the edge.
“Grab my hand!” Her voice was a splintering shard. “Look out!”
A scream like nothing Eric had ever heard tore from the pit just as he reached the edge. Corbin leaned against the dirt wall, her sword swinging in sloppy arcs. All the color had drained from her face. Her right arm hung from her shoulder by only a thin strip of flesh. All around her tattered corpses circled, savoring the anticipation of the kill. Eric didn’t hesitate. He launched himself from the ledge, landing among the Hungry Dead.
He drew his sword and slashed with one clean stroke, disintegrating his target into ashen sand. Another lunged, clawed fingers clutching for his throat. Eric caught the hand at the wrist and spun with the creature’s momentum, throwing it to the ground and driving his sword home through its spine. He pulled his shield from his back in time to block a flash of razor nails from the side before severing the offending limbs with a quick chop. A fast step and Eric threw himself in the other direction, bashing his shield into another of the creatures. It toppled over and he crushed its brittle skull under his boot.
Above him, the sound of shouts and booted feet filled the air. A ladder dropped onto the dirt next to Corbin, spattering the growing pool of her blood. Through the twirling chaos, Eric saw her hoisted over a khaki shoulder and carried from the pit, sweat still dripping from the tip of her colorless nose. Her eyes caught his. He felt the weight of them, her longing to fight, her hunger for rest. She was alive. He breathed a sigh of relief. It was all he could ask for in this life at war.
The moment lasted no longer than the beat of a butterfly’s wings and then the fight shifted as more dead charged, eager to slake their own murderous hunger. As Eric’s blade sung, scattering the dead to dust on the wind, arrows rained down around him. A roar like a stampede welled up from the edge as ODF guardsmen poured into the pit. A wave of sharpened steel and hardened wood crashed against the undead. From the front burst a golden light that cut a wide swath. In its path, a line of Hungry Dead dissolved into mounds of ghastly dust. There stood Salmin, eyes smoking and sword glowing like the first light of the dawn.
Wind buffeted from the mouth of the open tomb, carrying the fetid stench of decay as it swirled the ashen sand. “Close the slab before it raises more of these abominations,” said Salmin. His voice cut like a church bell through the din. As soon as the words left him, his sword was dancing once more, igniting in a solar arc that burned through the Hungry Dead like a blowtorch through butter.
“Uh, Watcher?” said Eric as he buried his sword deep in the neck of one of the creatures.
“What is it, Strange?” said Salmin, his panther frame coiling for the next strike.
“There’s something different about you today. Did you get a new haircut or something?”
Though they were pure smoking white, Eric couldn’t miss the roll of his superior’s eyes. “Quit eyeballing me and get your mind in the fight.”
“Yes, sir,” said Eric, his grin stretching from ear to ear.
The tide had turned. ODF guardsmen closed like a snare around the tomb door, inch by bloody inch. The first guardsmen reached the solid stone doors. They gripped the time rotten edges and heaved against them, veins bulging from their necks and temples with the effort. With the sound of grinding sand, the slabs began to move.
Salmin, glowing like an avenging angel, called out, “Seal that bast—”
“Belay that!” Tharp appeared at the edge of the pit surrounded by a contingent of guardsmen. Like him, they were all splashed with blood. He and his men hopped down into the pit. Without even breaking his stride, he began barking orders. “You three, go get me that artifact. You four, reinforce the guardsmen at the doors. I want that tomb shut tighter than an Orbital’s asshole as soon as the recovery team returns. Now move!”
The guardsmen with Tharp set off at a run. As the three disappeared into to the darkened maw of the tomb, a belch of rancid air blew from within. Eric’s flesh crawled at the greasy feel of it as it swirled around him. The ashen sand at his feet spun into whorls on the breeze as it danced around his ankles. As it capered it picked up speed, drawing in more and more of the dead earth. It darted around him, and he whirled to follow. Even as he spun the dust was solidifying into the same ravenous corpse it had been before. It grinned at him through an oozing, graveyard smile, the rotten sinews of its shoulders tightening to lunge. Eric was faster. He threw all his weight behind his sword as he drove the tip through the creature’s chest. It crumbled once more into granular ash.
All around him the pit boiled as skirmishes broke out in every corner. Splintered screams mingled with the gurgled pleas of soldiers choking on their own blood as the full strength of Hungry Dead leaped upon the depleted ODF force. Eric glance back at the empty dark that led down the tomb’s gullet. Only three guardsmen remained at the doors. One lay gutted in the sand, and the others had joined the desperate fray.
From the tomb’s gloaming came a scream that was cut short. Then there was a frantic galloping of boots on stone. The sound grew nearer until a pale human face appeared in the shadows. Her eyes were wild and white. Tears cut ravines through the caked dirt on her cheeks. Eric charged toward the door. As he arrived at the threshold, she reached for him. In her hand, she clutched a forked brass rod. He stretched for her with both hands catching her at the wrist. He braced himself to pull her out, but a massive hand of living shadow wrapped around her waist. She wailed as the hand lifted her off her feet. Eric held fast, every muscle in his body trembling as he struggled to pull her free. She was slipping from his grasp. He could feel it. Her tears caught the sunlight making her pleading eyes shine like stars in the black. Her fingers slid from him, and she was sucked back into the hungry dark with a pleading scream that would haunt his dreams until the day he died. Numbly, he looked at the forked brass rod still caught in his quivering fists. It had something like a fox or a coyote etched at the base of the fork. His arms tingled all the way up to the elbow.
Shouts from behind rattled him back to his senses. He shoved the rod into his belt and scurried toward the edge of the stone door. He and the other guardsmen gripped the slabs and pushed. Blood pounded in his temples as he heaved. The tempest howl of the dead clashed with the aching bawl of dying men all around him.
Visions of Corbin, her arm in tatters flooded his mind. If they couldn’t get these doors sealed, it would be only moments before these shrieking monsters finished what they started. And then there was Zo. She would have a head start, but how long before these creatures poured out into the surrounding lands? How long until they caught up with her? Images of her, pallid and still, as these creatures hunched over her scattered entrails stabbed at him. Eric roared and the door began to grind against the sand. They pushed with all their shaking strength until finally the doors tottered and fell into place. The boom rattled Eric’s teeth. As it rolled through the pit, the Hungry Dead wailed and crumbled to dust on a dying breeze.
A cheer erupted from the survivors. Those who were still standing hugged and clapped each other on the back. Lojan pushed through the celebration. He took Eric’s hand and shook it. “Well done, son. I knew there was something special in you.”
Behind him, fresh corpses dotted the blood drenched sand. “You’re the devil,” said Eric. He glared straight into Tharp’s eyes.
“I am.” Lojan held Eric’s gaze. “But I’m the best we’ve got.”
“Tell that to the dead.”
“You’ll see the necessity of their sacrifice in time.”
“I won’t forget what you’ve done.”
“Good. Now, hand over the rod.” He held out his hand, granite in his stare.
Eric hesitated. He wanted to hit him, to beat that look of superiority out of him. Instead, he released a slow, shaky breath and pulled the rod from his belt. As he passed it to Lojan, he wondered if it would make his arm tingle too or if Tharp was too much a monster to feel anything at all.
“Thank you,” said Lojan. He started to turn and stopped. “When you’re trying to find a way out of hell, it helps to have the devil on your side,” he said in a low voice that hung in the air like a bleak morning fog. Then he turned to the others and began doling out orders.
The walk to the Aid Station was the longest of Eric’s life. The fighting was over, the dead and dying had been cleared, and camp was on its way to returning to normal as the sun began to set beyond the mountains. His mind was filled with a high-pitched whine that grew with each step closer to the line of drab tents. Still, it was better than thinking about what he was likely to find.
Ahead the medical supply tent loomed, squat and glowering. His heart thumped against his chest, slow and hard like a pounding fist. He reached for the tent flap and noticed that his hand was trembling. Inside were the familiar, shadowy crate towers. In the center, standing tall and defiant like an impregnable keep, was the tablets vault. The broken lock had already been replaced, and two extra crossbars had been secured across the face. Zo had been right. It had been checked first. Eric deflated. She was really gone.
“Can I help you?” said a voice from behind. Eric spun around with a start. It belonged to a tall, blond orderly. He had dark bags under his eyes and dried blood in his fingernail beds. Obvious suspicion was written in bold across features.
“Just looking for a friend,” said Eric. “Guess she isn’t here.”
“Then I guess you should look somewhere else.” The orderly folded his arms across his chest.
“Yeah. Right.” Eric started to trudge his way toward the aid tents and paused. “Hey, do you know where they took Sabina—Guardsmen Corbin?”
The orderly’s face softened. “The healers are still working on her.”
Eric rapped his knuckles against a wooden tent pole and asked, “How’s she doing?”
“They, uh, had to take her arm. But they think she’s going to live.”
“Well at least that’s something,” said Eric with a grimace. Suddenly, every bit of him ached.
“Are you a friend of hers?” asked the orderly. “Do you know an Ebrik Strange? She’s been asking for him.”
“I’m Ebrik Strange,” he said and realized he would never be Eric again.
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