by Robert Currer
Part 2: Chapter 3
2,900 Words: 12 Minute Read
From the catacombs, the waking groans of the dead echoed off the earthen walls. Bone clicked and scraped across stone berths as Ayders and the brothers looked to their hired mercenary. Ebrik shoved the spyglass into his bag. Ignoring the tingling it left in his fingers, he darted to the chamber door. The first skeletons were beginning to emerge from their open crypts. Cobwebs clinging to them like filmy shrouds, they tottered as their legs took the weight of their bodies for the first time in centuries.
Ebrik glanced back at his clients, his mind buzzing. “Grab what you can and follow me. We’re going to make a break for the stairs.”
Burshel snapped his leather-bound tome of notes shut and scurried to Ebrik’s side. Ayders snatched up the golden surgical instruments while Urwin swept a line of urns into a waiting burlap sack. Ebrik drew his sword and shield as Ayders darted into position behind Burshel. Urwin’s heavy feet slapped the stone behind him, the burlap sack bouncing on his muscle-bound back.
“What’re we waiting for! Let’s beat feet,” said Ayders as he came to a skidding stop behind Burshel.
Waiting for Urwin to get into position at the back of their column, Ebrik raised his shield and readied to bowl through the long aisle ahead. It was a straight shot from this end of the catacombs to the stairs. If they were fast enough, they could clear the distance without getting swarmed. His charges now assembled, he broke into a jog.
As they reached the first stone pillar, one skeleton of six had found its footing. With a haunting moan, it stretched a bony talon toward him. He slapped at it with his shield, sending it reeling. It tumbled backwards and its skull smashed into the lip of the funeral slab. A web of fractures blossomed along its cranium as the malevolent light within its empty sockets was snuffed out.
All around them the dead awoke from their timeless slumber. The creaking of old bones and moans like great hunger pains rumbled throughout the massive burial chamber as they dragged themselves from their rocky beds, scattering the moldering offerings that surrounded each like cheap trinkets. Ebrik dodged around a pair of grasping hands, coated in thick webs like the yellowing lace of a grizzly glove. Burshel shrieked as the fingers of a skeletal grasp grazed his temple. Urwin swung a lumpy sack of looted urns, smashing the flimsy arm while pushing his relations onward. Even as he was hurried along by his massive nephew, Ayders paused to scoop up a tarnished ring that fell from the rotting hand. Burshel needed little goading. He clung so closely to Ebrik that that he might have crawled inside the mercenaries scuffed leathers given half the chance.
Skeletons were pouring from the alcoves all around them now, flooding the passage between them and the stairs to the surface. Born by sheer momentum, Ebrik crashed through the creatures, splinting bone with each chop of his sword. A grinning skull lunged from the darkened alcove at his shoulder. He spun away just as the rotten teeth snapped shut, catching nothing but air between the click of its jaws. He reversed his motion bringing his shield to bear and slamming the skull into the rough-cut wall. A gut rending crunch followed and the pulp that had been bone fell to the floor.
Something bumped into Ebrik from behind. He risked a look back and found Ayders crowded into Burshel pushing his bird-limbed nephew into Ebrik’s back. Urwin swung his bag of treasures in wide, artless arcs with a raw strength that sent bones flying like bowling pins. Sweat flowed down the strong man’s face as he lifted the bag to swing again, knocking a swath of mindless dead to rest. The heavy sack was like a wrecking ball, but Ebrik could see the effort it took for Urwin to lift time and again. Even now, his strokes were slowing. They weren’t going to make the stairs at this pace.
“Ayders!” shouted Ebrik through the melee. “Do you still have those blasting charges?”
“Why in the hells does that matter?” said Ayders as he ducked to avoid a bone sent flying by Urwin’s crushing blow.
“Do you have them?” This was not the time for explanations.
“I got ‘em!”
“You gone daffy, boy?” Ayder’s eyes bulged, round and yellowed, making him look like a bearded toad. “That could bring the whole place down around our ears!”
“Light the godsdamned dynamite!” roared Ebrik, spittle flying from his mouth as he cleaved a skeleton in half, crushing its skull beneath his boot.
“Don’t get your panties in a bunch,” said Ayders. His hand plunged into his bag all the way to the shoulder and fished about. When he pulled out, he had two sticks of the explosive clutched in his gnarled claw. He held their fuses in the flame of Burshel’s torch. Flaring, both sputtered and caught. The sparks fizzed in his eyes as he hollered, “Fire in the hole!” and sent both sticks sailing, one ahead and one behind.
The dynamite tumbled through the air, over Ebrik’s shoulder, and falling among the throng of advancing dead like a drunken star. Ebrik spun. He grabbed Burshel by the shoulders and threw him into an empty alcove near the floor. Rolling in behind the kid, Ebrik shielded him with his own body. The explosion rattled the world around them as dust and dirt rode the rolling tide of the shockwave, chased by a burst of flame. Shrapnel of bone, stone, and lacquered wood fell like hail all along the corridor. He didn’t wait for the world to still. Coughing through the smoke and dust, he climbed to his feet.
“Everyone okay?” he asked, squinting as he tried to peer through a haze that smelled of char and fresh turned earth. Before him lay a field of charred bone fragments. The skeletons that had clotted their path had been blasted to shards. He listened through the desperate silence, searching for the sound of shuffling boots or gluttonous moans. None found his ears.
“Well smack my ass! It worked,” said Ayders climbing to his feet. Dust clung to his face, accentuating the topography of creases that marked his features. “Burshel, you alright?”
The scrawny scholar crawled from the stone berth clinging to his notebook like the last piece of flotsam in a shipwreck. All the color had drained from him, and his eyes were impossibly wide behind his soiled spectacles. He shivered and Ebrik guessed it was more from fraying nerves than the temperature. “Hale if not entirely hearty,” he said, his voice cracking.
There came a grunt from behind Ayders as the other brother hefted his mountainous bulk to standing. “Still whole back there?” said Ebrik craning his neck to see around the others.
“Mostly,” said Urwin, his gravel voice rumbling off the stone like a slow landslide. A shard of shrapnel protruded from his thigh. The blood that trickled from the wound looked almost black compared to the moonlight white of the bone. He wrapped a massive fist around the shard and steadied himself. With a sharp inhale, he yanked it from his thigh. He cast it aside almost casually and gave Ebrik a grim nod. Urwin’s features were held taut between the pain and the need to carry on. His eyes were soldier’s eyes, suffering but stoic, weary but unyeilding. Salmin would have liked Urwin. That thought curled a smile into Ebrik’s lips.
A distant thunder of hungry moans pulled Ebrik back to their present predicament. It wouldn’t be long before the dead from the other aisles, who had not been scattered by the explosions, pressed in on them. They needed to run while they still could. “Time to go!” called Ebrik. He grabbed the still stunned Burshel by the collar and broke into a run, the boy stumbling into a loping gait behind him.
The stairwell huddled at the end of the aisle, just at the edge of the torchlight, a beckoning void in the gray tans of the sandstone walls. Ebrik was at the threshold in seconds, shoving Burshel into the shelter of the darkened steps before whirling to the side to allow the others to pass. Ayders was on their heels, but Urwin wasn’t there. Ebrik looked down the passage to see Urwin gripping his thigh as he limped toward them, not yet half the distance. Even in the treacherous light, Ebrik could see his jaw clenched against the pain and the dripping blood that trailed his steps. The wound must have been deeper than they thought.
“Go! Don’t wait for me,” shouted Urwin, waving them on even as he lurched closer.
Ebrik looked to the aisles to his left and right. Already tomb-stained skeletal faces were emerging from the shadows en masse. The clack of shambling bones grew louder by the second. Urwin wasn’t going to make it to them in time.
“We’ll meet you on the surface,” said Ebrik to Burshel and Ayders, drawing his sword and readying to hold the archway. When the pair hesitated, he barked, “Move!” sending them sprinting up the steps.
He turned his attention back to Urwin and the impending horde. The dead would be on him soon, but Urwin would only need a few extra seconds beyond that to make the stairs. Then even if the dead followed, the narrowness of the passage would make their numbers meaningless. It would be a fighting retreat, but he could manage it long enough to break the surface. He only hoped that Burshel and Ayders were coming up with some way to re-seal the stairs once he and Urwin were clear.
Calming his breathing, he stepped away from the wall. He would need space to move if he was going to fight on two fronts. The worn leather of the sword hilt and the easy weight of the stout wooden shield brought him a feeling of reassurance. He focused on those sensations, picturing the speed of the blade when he finally exploded into motion, imagining the thumping of blows deflected by the shield. He visualized the perfect kill, just as Salmin had taught them.
The throng was closing in. The front runners careened toward Ebrik on both sides, their bone hands outstretched, jaws of graveyard teeth held wide. He darted left and swung low with his sword, cutting the first off at the knees even as he pirouetted to smash into another with his shield. The blow knocked the skeleton back, and he followed through with a high chop that separated skull from shoulders. The first dragged itself toward him, its ribcage scrapping across the sandy flagstones as it grasped for his ankle. He kicked out with his back foot and connected, sending bits of bone and teeth flying. Then he hopped back a pace and dashed toward the other line of approaching undead directly behind.
As he passed through the intersection of the two corridors, he shot a glance to Urwin. The hulking man doing his best to close the distance, the whole of his muscled frame rising and falling with each ragged breath as he forced himself forward. Somehow, he had picked up speed. Ebrik felt the specter of hope fall on him as he bolted down the corridor toward another line of shambling dead.
He neared the first of the skeletons and launched himself forward with a blurring burst of speed. His sword thrust outward like an extension of his arm. The force of the blow drove the tip clean through the creature’s sternum and severed its spine. He shoved the inanimate bones off his blade with his shield and side-stepped to avoid a swipe from a clutching hand. He danced forward a step and cut a quick chop into the offending skeleton’s side, cracking free a shower of browning ribs. The dead thing wobbled with the force of the hit, and Ebrik seized the opportunity. He kicked out with his front foot, striking the skeleton at the side of its knee. The knee buckled, and it dropped to all fours. One more quick slash, and Ebrik lopped off its head.
The rustle of bones and rotten leather tugged at his attention. He risked a quick glance over his shoulder and swore. The dead were moving faster than he had hoped. The bulk of the horde was within a few yards of the intersection. If Urwin didn’t hurry up, they would be overwhelmed. Ebrik smote a skeleton that had advanced on him ahead of the wall of shuffling corpses. He danced backwards two steps before spinning on his heel and charging toward the other advancing line. At the intersection, he paused, head swiveling back and forth. Urwin was still hobbling as quickly as his leg would carry him, but it wasn’t going to be fast enough. If both waves of undead crashed on them, they would be torn to shreds. Ebrik couldn’t hold them all on his own, not on two fronts, not in this exposed intersection. And Urwin was too big to carry…
“Fuck it,” he said to himself, slinging his shield across his back. He darted toward Urwin, the sound of his slapping boots echoing down the corridor.
“What are you doing? Get out of here,” shouted Urwin, his face a contorted blend agony and surprise.
Ebrik grabbed the brother’s tree trunk of an arm and hoisted it over his shoulder. He then wrapped his free arm around Urwin’s waist, taking some of the weight off the injured leg. “Fucking hells you’re heavy,” he said with a grunt. The pair hobbled forward picking up speed.
“We aren’t going to make it in time,” said Urwin through gritted teeth. “Leave me here and get going.”
“Your brother will slit my throat in my sleep, if I do.”
A grin cracked Urwin’s knotted features. “Slow poison’s more likely. He’s got a bit of a vindictive streak.”
“It’s always the quite ones,” Ebrik said, managing a chuckle through his panting.
They were nearly to the intersection now. Yet, Ebrik could hear the chorus of moans just around the corner. It was going to be a close one. He pushed harder, half carrying, half dragging Urwin along. Rivulets of sweat ran down his face as the stench of moldering air and Urwin’s bestial body oder mingled in his nostrils. A few more yards and they would be out of this hell. Just a bit further.
As they burst into the intersection, mere steps away from the archway of the stairs, both walls of grasping hands and time-stained, groaning skulls clattered across the threshold together. Ebrik lashed wildly with his sword, batting back the first to reach them, even as he dragged Urwin closer to the archway. The mountain swung his bear-paw fist in wild sweeping haymakers, sending fetid teeth flying. They were almost there. Ebrik stepped into the archway, ready throw Urwin in front for the slow climb up the spiraling steps. Behind him, Urwin roared. Ebrik pulled hard, bracing the elbow of his sword arm against the stone for support. Urwin didn’t budge.
Ebrik looked back. What he saw crushed the air from his lungs. Skeletons had swarmed Urwin. Their bony claws covered him from the neck down, clutching anywhere they could grasp. They pulled him backwards with such force that one leg had already been lifted from the ground and he was struggling to keep the other foot planted. His face was clammy with beads of perspiration clinging to his brow. Foam frothed at the corners of his mouth as he howled against the dead tide. Still, he was being slowly dragged from Ebrik’s grasp.
Ebrik dropped his sword and held on to Urwin with both hands. He planted a boot against the stones of the archway and heaved with every muscle in his body. “Don’t let go!” he screamed as Urwin’s arm slid. He still had the brother by his wrist. He could feel Urwin’s fingers trying to find purchase. Urwin’s eyes were huge and nearly all whites. He wasn’t roaring any longer and a pleading whine bled from his trembling lips.
“I won’t let go,” said Ebrik. His joints crackled and popped. Every muscle felt stretched to the limit as though any moment they might simply snap. The blood was rushing like rapids through his ears and every limb burned. “I won’t let you g—”
His grip slipped.
In slow motion, he watched as Urwin was ripped away toward a tempest of gnashing, rancid teeth. Ebrik willed his arms forward. They snatched at empty air, trying to catch Urwin’s outstretched hands, but he couldn’t move fast enough. He was still straining to reach Urwin when the first putrid jaws sunk into the brother’s flesh. Urwin started to scream, his face stretching wide as mouths all around him opened to slake their terrible hunger. By the time the next rending round of teeth sunk into Urwin’s flesh, he was well beyond Ebrik’s grasp. Time sped back up. From then, it was like watching his friend put through a blender.
Thanks for reading! If you have enjoyed my story, please consider signing up for my mailing list by clicking the button below.