by Robert Currer

Part 2: Chapter 4

2,600 Words: 11 Minute Read

Ebrik scooped up his sword and sprinted up the spiral stairs, leaving the dead to slake their hunger on the steaming meat that had once been Urwin. His boots slapped against the stone, taking the steps two, sometimes three, at a time. His heart beat a torrent in his chest as he whirled upward in the cloying dark. Finally, a dull edge of sunlight bled into the corners of the gloom, growing in intensity until searing sun gushed in through the opening in the desert floor above. He hurled himself onto the sands, gulping mouthfuls of arid heat as the acid in his veins diluted back to salty blood.

“Where’s Urwin?” asked Burshel.  His voice was an octave too high.  He ran past Ebrik to the opening, scanning the worn stone for his brother.  When Urwin didn’t appear, he turned his huge, wet eyes to Ebrik.  “Where’s Urwin?” The pleading in his voice felt like a razor dragged across Ebrik’s heart.

Ebrik held Burshel’s gaze for a long beat, his own features held has hard as the truth they conveyed.  He picked himself up from the sand and, still holding Burshel’s stare, said, “How do we close the opening?”

Burshel’s heart exploded into a million shards as Ebrik watched.  “But Urwin…”  He barely choked the words out, tears and snot flowing.  His thin, bird-like frame folded still clinging uncertainly to the rim of the opening.  Poor kid needed a hug.  But now wasn’t the time.

Ebrik yanked Burshel to his feet.  “Get your shit together!” He shook the boy hard.  “Unless you’re looking to get us all eaten, we need to seal this fucking hole.”  As if to punctuate his point, ravenous moans echoed up from the stairwell.

“I—I don’t know how,” said Burshel, recoiling from Ebrik as if struck.  Fat tears dribbled down his hollow cheeks.  “Th—there’s nothing in the story.  I just don’t know.”

“Don’t look at me,” said Ayders as Ebrik’s gaze swiveled in his direction.  The old scavenger looked like me might be sick at any moment.

Ebrik’s eyes shot from Ayders to Burshel to the black facets of the obsidian altar.  There had to be a way to seal it back up.  He just needed a minute to think.  The ground trembled and the rumble of a shifting wave of sand gouged through the sighing wind.  All around them, small mounds formed as if the earth itself had goosebumps.  Wind swept the bubbling sands and the smooth, ivory curve of a skull pushed free of the mound at his feet.  “Run!” He grabbed Burshel by the shirt and pulled him into a stumbling sprint as all three fled across the boiling sands. 

All around, skeletons clawed their way through the earth itself like men drowning in reverse.  Sand spilled into the cavities their bodies left behind causing the shifting sand to slide this way and that.  Ebrik, Burshel, and Ayders careened passed the standing stones and through the arcade.  As they raced through the ruins, the sand rippled and a broken arch, ten feet high, swayed.  They darted through its shadow just as it listed.  Great sandstone blocks tumbled free, breaking apart at their rotted mortar.  Ebrik darted left and then dodged right, dragging Burshel in his footsteps.  He heard the kid’s breath catch and instinctively yanked the young scholar clear as a massive stone block tumbled to the earth so close that he felt the spray of the sand as it struck.

He risked a glance backward, trying to find Ayders in the chaos.  The old man had fallen farther behind than Ebrik had thought, but the distance had kept him clear of the falling arch.  One look at the grizzled scavenger told Ebrik it was a mixed blessing.  Ayders stood hunched and panting.  His face was paler than a salt pan and his eyes were underlined with a black sheen. 

“Keep moving,” Ebrik said to Burshel and pointed toward the ridge line.  “Make for the spot where we camped last night.”  Then he took off toward Ayders.

All around skeletons had half-clawed their way free from the sand.  He curved around a fallen stone and felt the graze of bony fingers over his trouser legs.  He broke his stride long enough to punt its skull clean from its shoulders before continuing.  The old scavenger was breathing hard, his eyes wide and searching.  Ebrik reached to take him by the shoulder, and Ayders jumped as if he hadn’t realized the mercenary was with him.  As recognition set in, he shrunk closer to Ebrik, curling in on himself. 

“They’re everywhere,” said Ayders, his words coming out a wheeze.  He didn’t look at Ebrik.  His eyes were on the ground, furtively darting to the corners.

“We’ve got to move.”  Ebrik growled the words as he tried to prod Ayders into motion.

The old man shuffled along a few hesitant steps and stopped.  “Too many.”  His voice was a thready wind, so quiet that Ebrik strained to make out the words. 

Ebrik huffed.  Ahead, he could still catch glimpses of Burshel’s mad dash through the decaying ruin.  The kid was moving at a good clip.  At least someone wanted to make it out alive.  Still survival was by no means a certainty for any of them.  All around, a horde of the undead were wriggling their way out of the clenched fist of the desert sands.  Every second wasted could mean the difference between living to strike it rich another day or being ripped apart a handful of flesh at a time, fed into a blender of inhuman hunger.  Just like Urwin.  Ebrik’s gut turned sour.  The vision of the older brother being pulled apart into hunks of dripping meat was still painted on the back of his eyelids.  Even here, in the scrap of the dry wind, he could almost hear the ringing screams and smell the coppery aroma of the bloody mist.

He willed himself back from the brink.  Urwin was dead, but he wasn’t about to let the horror of that reality kill the rest of them too.  Setting his jaw, he turned to Ayders.  The old man felt cold to the touch despite the blistering heat and shivered as if the surrounding dunes had been snow instead of sand.  He was on the verge of locking up, and then there would be nothing Ebrik could do for him, short of carrying the wiry old reptile on his back. 

Taking a steadying breath, Ebrik lifted Ayder’s chin so that they could look each other in the eye.  In tones that felt like a warm washcloth, he said, “I know this frightening, but we have to keep moving.  There’s a campfire waiting for us at the end of the day, hot food and a warm place to sleep.  We just have to put one foot in front of the other until we get there.  Can you do that for me?”

“But—,” Ayders’ huge eyes started to drift away from Ebrik.

Ebrik resisted the urge to slap some sense into this wizened child.  Instead, he gently held the sides of the old man’s face.  “Don’t worry about them.  I’ve got you.  Just come with me, and we’ll make it.  I promise.”

Unblinking, Ayders gave a slow, slight nod.  With a plastic smile, Ebrik took his hand and step by step built their momentum until they were running again.

By now, Burshel was out of sight, but that was probably a good sign.  The absence of grizzly clues suggested he had not yet met a horrific end.  Ebrik and Ayders were making better time than they had been, but the bow-legged elder ran like he was at sea, in clipped teetering strides.  Ebrik reminded himself that it wasn’t fair to blame Ayders for that.  The shifting of the sands had only become more pronounced, and even the tattered bits of ruin rose and fell with their oceanic motion.  Fair or not, it didn’t change the fact that their chances of survival dwindled with every moment they spent in the basin.  All around them skeletons had nearly freed themselves from the pull of the sands.  It wouldn’t be long until Ebrik and Ayders found themselves overrun.  They needed to clear the ruins and get up to the ridge line where the jutting tooth-like boulders would offer shelter.

Ebrik looked over his shoulder and swore.  Ayders wasn’t there.  In his focus to pick up the pace, he had let Ayders fall behind.  Why hadn’t he kept a hand on the wiry reptile?  Stupid!  His eyes raced along the path he had taken and found the old man a dozen yards back.  He had stopped in the shade of a standing triangle of wall.  One hand on the wall for support, Ayders was hunched over, breathing hard.  His face was the burgundy of a deep bruise.  His left arm hung limp at his side.  Ebrik broke into a sprint, scolding himself.  He was pushing Ayders too hard.  The old man better not have been having a heart attack.

Ayders lifted his head to look at Ebrik.  His chin bobbed as if agreeing to some imagined request, and he collected himself to start running again.  The wind gusted through the surrounding tumble of stone, carrying veils of sand between them.

“Stay there!” Ebrik shouted, but his words were lost in the wind.  The earth rolled again.

Ayders squared his shoulders.  He took a step, and his knees gave way.  His eyes bulged as he clutched his chest.  Shit!  He was having a heart attack.  Ebrik was almost there now.  Not that he had any idea what he could do, but at least getting there would be a step in the right direction.  He bounded off rock and block as the sands beneath their feet continued to pitch and roll.  Then the shadow around Ayders shifted.  The old man hadn’t noticed, too preoccupied with trying to keep his heart from failing, but Ebrik saw the masonry lean.  His shout of warning was swept away in the gust.  The wall fell.  Ayders was crushed, a starburst of gore stabbing out from beneath the stone.

Ebrik felt like the wind had been knocked from him.  He skidded to a stop short of the glistening, red sand.  For a moment, his brain stalled, sputtering as it tried to take in what had just happened. 

The bluster slowed to a momentary lull.  In the screaming quiet, he could hear the hiss of sand pouring from the rag-draped bones of the dead as they pulled themselves free.  Ayders was no more, and there was nothing he could do about that.  But Burshel might still be out there.  Ebrik owed it to the kid to find him, to get him out alive, to make amens for failing to save the others.  That much he owed. 

He paused only long enough to rap out three quick knocks on a broken column before racing off in the direction he had sent Burshel.  Sand flew behind him as he made his desperate dash, vaulting over crumbling masonry and weaving around piles of fallen sandstone.  All around the dead clawed their way from the earth.  Skeletons, freed to the knees, lunged for him as he passed, trying to drag him down.  Ebrik spun, weaved, bobbed, and twirled just to stay out of death’s embrace. 

The jumble of ruins was still too thick.  He couldn’t see more than a yard or two ahead, but he bent an ear to the breeze, listening hard for scream or shout.  What came back to him was braying.  It was a wild, panicked noise, and as he rounded a collapsed section of wall, he saw the mules.  They were straining against their tethers, kicking and bucking, driven half mad with fear.  It was easy to see why.  Only a stone’s throw away, the first skeletons had pulled themselves free and were beginning their shuffling advance on the foaming beasts of burden. 

Nearby, the cart of supplies waited beneath the tarp awning as it snapped in the mounting gale.  One wheel had become partly buried, but otherwise all appeared to be in good working order.  Ebrik was tempted.  Even if he made it to Burshel in time, they would be hard pressed to survive the unforgiving landscape of The Wastes without supplies.  But he pushed that thought from his head.  There wasn’t time to harness the mules before the rest of the dead descended upon him, and a barrel of water wouldn’t do him any good if he died trying to get it.  Instead, he darted to the post where the mules were tied and severed the ropes with a quick chop of his sword.  The beasts needed no encouragement from him.  They reared and tore off into the surrounding desert, instinctively heading for the high ground.  “They’ll be alright,” he said to himself, aching for that to be true.

To his left, a newly freed skeleton lurched toward him.  He dispatched it with a single cut and resumed his run.  This time it was a scream that found him.  The ruins parted and there, in the barren rise of sand, was Burshel.  Three skeletons chased after him.  One seized a fist full of his shirt which tore as Burshel struggled to get away.  The delay in his flight was enough for another to snatch his arm.  The young scholar spun trying to yank himself free and lost his balance.  He tumbled to the sand, flat on his back, shrieking as the three dead crowded in around him.

Ebrik charged.  This could not play out.  Not again.  His pounding feet bowled him across the short distance and directly into the first skeleton, scattering its bones like ivory pins.  With a two-handed grip, he swung his sword hard and flat, throwing all his body weight into the momentum.  The blade cut clean through the next skeleton, leaving the legs and hips standing even as the ribcage fell to the sand. 

The last skeleton was on top of Burshel, gripping him by the calf.  The young scholar kicked at the creature, his face contorted into a feral hiss.  Ebrik grabbed the creature using its ribs as a handle and threw it from Burshel.  Fresh blood dripped from its chattering grin.  Ebrik wasted no time in driving his sword through the creature’s skull.

Moans flooded the air as thousands of shambling skeletons called out in hunger.  The chorus sent a chill down his spine.  No good would come from delaying their flight to the safety of the ridge line.  Burshel was climbing to his feet, still gasping lung fulls of scorching air.  There was no time for rest.  Ebrik grabbed him by the collar and propelled him into a run.  Together they scrambled up the barren rise toward the crenelation of outcroppings that ringed the basin.

They didn’t stop once they reached the top.  Ebrik pulled Burshel through the labyrinth of jutting rocks until he was at last satisfied that they had put a reasonable distance between themselves and the wandering dead.  His legs could have melted they burned so badly.  He folded at the waist, guzzling the air as he tried to force his heart from a gallop to a canter.  When he could finally manage to wheeze out a few words, he asked, “Are you okay?”

Burshel gave him a wan smile and said, “Never better.”  He swayed a little, owl eyes rolling into the back of his head, and then collapsed.

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