Thursday, July 30, 2009

Stalker-Part 7

Tom, groggy, waved for the men to gather around. Ken, feeling an urgency that escaped the men about him, kicked those abed awake and splashed them with water from the fire buckets near at hand.

“Wake up!” Ken said, bellowing, “On your feet, or next time you get up you’ll be zeds!”

That prick to their primal fear got the men moving, and moments later they stood around Ken and Tom. With all eyes on him, Ken pointed back towards the Necropolis, towards the ziggurat.

“He knows.” Ken said, “He’s coming for us.”

Ken let that sink into their groggy heads, and once he heard their collective gasp he knew that they realized the threat.

“I guess that he means to trap us, killing each of you and using your corpses against the rest of us in turn. Fortunately, we have just enough time to evade this doom.”

“What’s the plan, Tom?” one of them said, his mask of bravado cracking.

Tom turned to Ken, and Ken’s reading of Tom’s face gave the mutant a good idea of what that plan was.

“All of you men are to pack up and head back to the farm.” Tom said, “Ken and I will handle the rest of the job ourselves.”

One of the younger men moved to protest, only for his father to shut him up. The older men, seeing the full intent in Tom’s eyes, knew better than to argue with their leader. With haste they broke camp and split up, marching as fast as they could maintain going back the way that they came. Once out of sight, Tom again turned to Ken.

“Tom, you’d better be certain that this library still has whatever you’re looking for in it. I’m certain now that the Necromancer knows that you’re raiding his domain for that prize, and I’m just as certain that as soon as we’re detected we’ll have a horde of zeds swarming for us.”

“It’s there, in a climate-controlled portion of the archive. When the Cataclysm hit, it was due to be digitized; the staff kept it there to facilitate the process, because they kept the scanning station near to that vault.”

“It ain’t the Vatican, Tom. It was one of the university libraries. “

Tom chortled. “No regular to libraries, were you? That one in particular kept a lot of old and rare manuscripts, and the university decided to digitize them to satisfy both the archivists worried about the conditions of the collections as well as the faculty and students that used the collections for coursework and research. That’s why the vault existed, and why the scanning station was so close; to minimize the time outside of climate-controlled conditions.”

Ken nodded. “That works. Now, the book’s there?”

“It has to be there; nowhere else for it to go before digitization means that it sat in that vault.”

“You can get in there?”

“If the locks still work, I can crack them. If not, and the vault isn’t breached, then I have a far different set of locks, as it were, to handle that.”

Ken didn’t argue; he didn’t believe Tom’s tale of tools, but neither could he do better.

“Back downriver we go, only we’re going downriver floating on debris; they’ll be watching for boats, rafts and men walking along the banks.” Ken said, “The library is along the banks.”

“I remember it well.” Tom said, “Right next to where I got my M.B.A.”

Ken sighed. “We scale the banks, then the walls, and come in through an upper floor window if we find a safe entrance point- otherwise, to the roof and down from there.”

“You’re sure that we can’t just go through the front door?”

Ken glared at Tom, and that ended the conversation. Once they split their gear between the two of them, they wade back into the river and let the current take them downstream. Passing back under the Great Wall, and into the Necromancer’s domain, they stayed as close together as currents and prudence allowed. Tom kept his eyes on Ken, hiding when he hid and ducking when he ducked, for all of the powers that Ken spoke of were invisible to Tom’s eyes and thus had to rely on the mutant yet again for his own survival.

Tom saw Ken pass to the shore as they neared the old falls dividing downtown from the once-upscale area right across the river, and used great effort to follow the mutant’s seemingly-effortless prowess. For his part, Ken watched and guided Tom to shore- pulling him up out of the river when in reach. Once on his feet, Ken grabbed Tom by the shoulder and pointed at the monstrous black shape before them; the grand ziggurat, stretched over the river, clearly composed of tar, steel, concrete, rebar and other materials obviously recycled from the skyscrapers that once rested here in what once was a city of renown before the Cataclysm.

“Your library is there.” Ken said, “In that thing’s shadow. We have to come around the site of the lab that the university used for mass-wasting experiments, and reenter the river below.”

Tom looked about him. Though the buildings were long gone, and streets disappeared also, leaving tell-tale signs of pits where foundations once stood, Tom still recollected where he was in the city- and that gave him another idea.

Tom pointed down a wide, dirt road that once was an underpass running parallel to the river.

“Does this still go under the Interstate bridge?”

“Not that the bridge is there anymore, but yes.” Ken said, “Why? You have a better idea?”

“If we hurry along that road, we can get into a better, and shorter, position to cross the river and get at the library.”

Ken looked; he saw what Tom saw, and figured it a good change. Ken went down the road, with Tom following, and both men now put hands to weapons; each assumed that it was only a matter of time until chance or fate put a zed’s dead eyes upon them, and once that happened inevitably more would converge on them.

Eyes did find them, but not dead eyes. Living eyes, those of the Necromancer, watched from his place atop the ziggurat. Ghostly eyes, the shades of his courtiers and viziers, blazed their cold light at him in turn.

“The mutant somehow perceived my intent.” the Necromancer said, “It is but himself and one other, the leader of that farmhouse band.”

The shade of Sun Tzu manifested before him. “Sire, what shall you do?”

“This entire affair stems from the fact that this band of men have but two women amongst them, one of which is the leader’s wife and the other his daughter- and the mutant conspires to take the girl as a prize in return for leading these men to a cave filled with women.”

“Yet you desire the mutant’s capture?” Sun Tzu said.

“I do.” The Necromancer said, “Fabius!”

The shade of Quintus Fabius Maximus appeared. “Master.” he said, saluting.

“Proceed as planned against the quarry within. Send the Butcher of Cannae and his father against the farmstead; spare the mother, take the daughter, slaughter the men and boys. Burn it and the fields to ash.”

“By your command.” Fabius said, and disappeared.

Elsewhere in the necropolis, corpses arose from piles of their own volition. Flesh deformed reshaped itself anew, and cold flame flickered in dead eye sockets. Two corpses in particular took on aspects of a race of men long vanished from the Earth; one older, one younger, both fierce and alive in temper. Corpses of horses and other beasts also arose and assumed renewed flesh, unnatural in form, and became bearers or pullers of carts or riders. An army marched forth from the Great Wall, treading grass and flowers underfoot, with two of Carthage’s most famous sons—Hamilcar and Hannibal Barca—at its helm.

Meanwhile, Fabius called up corpse-soldiers of his own. Deceptive in appearance, they lurched like the mindless flesh-eaters that Ken and Tom long knew and are accustomed to hacking apart by the score, but mindless they were not. As they moved towards the library, Fabius joined his master and watched Ken and Tom swim across the river and reach the far shore—near to these fiends—and began their ascent. The Necromancer knew that Fabius would hold back until the interlopers gained a way into the library and neared their quarry; inside, hidden, Fabius secreted a few score of his undead soldiers.

As Ken and Tom reached the vault, Ken stopped in his tracks and sniffed extensively. Tom went to him, took to Ken’s back, and raised his weapon- ready to fire.

“We’ve been found.” Ken said, “They’re here; the stench is nearly overwhelming.”

The first wave attacked, lurching forward wielding crude clubs foraged from the debris. Tom quickly emptied his weapon of ammunition, and once depleted the lurching suddenly shot into a rush; Tom barely got his gun up in time to block the blows. Ken, his mutant senses warning him just a moment before, stood ready with knife and hatchet. He twisted amongst them, panther-like, cutting them down by hacking or slashing limbs off; as he freed Tom from the press upon the man, a great swell washed over him.

“We’ve got to flee!” Ken said, shaking it off.

Tom shook his head, violently, in protest, but Ken backhanded him.

“We run or you die here!” Ken said, “Choose, quickly!”

Tom didn’t get a chance to speak, for they heard more rushing coming up from below. They ran, fleeing back for the window they shattered to get in, but found their rope cut and more of the monsters scaling up after them.

“Up!” Ken said, and he ran for the elevators. He and Tom forced the door open, and seeing nothing inside leapt for the ladder and began climbing up. Fear and dread drove them both, knowing that they wouldn’t avoid the undead hunters for long, but they gained the top of the shaft before the first pair of cold-fired eyes looked into the vacant shaft. Busting out a maintenance hatch, the two gained the roof of the library and hastily beat down the hatch again.

“Now?” Tom said.

Ken again shook off the swelling assault on his senses, scanned about him quickly and saw the rain gully going over the side.

“Take this down, and worry later about the pain!”

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Stalker-Part 6

Tom and Ken organized the men into three watches. One watch stayed at camp, guarding their landing site and covering retreats. A second watch rested. The third watch either foraged for food and fuel, or accompanied Tom and Ken to a site. Ken came and went frequently, scouting the area and clearing a path from the camp to the long-ruined factory; Tom stayed close, and never without escort. Ken’s admonishments, as far as he saw, stuck.

The men camped where they made landfall at the river banks for a week before moving into the ruined city-turned-necropolis. They kept quiet, concealed their presence as best they could, and never lost sight of the camp while alone. Each day Ken would have Tom and some of the men follow him out of the camp a ways, showing them a place that he’d cleared for their progression into the necropolis; by the end of the week, Ken showed Tom the way to a hiding place within sight of the ruined factory.

“In there are the machine tools you seek.” Ken said, “They should be, at worst, repairable. You’ll need most of your men just to get them back to the sight, and then you’ll need to improve your raft or make multiple trips to bring them all out.”

“Do you intend to get inside and clear a path to the tools?”

Ken nodded.

“After that, we go to the library. Where it is?”

“Our best course is to go further downriver; it too lies near the banks, so it would be easiest to ascend from the banks, get inside, find your books or papers and then come out the same way.”

“What of the zeds?”

“I’ve not gone hungry here, Tom.”

That was all Tom needed, or wanted, to hear for an answer.

“Tom, I’ll be back in a day or so; head back to camp and wait there.”

Tom departed with his escort, while Ken bounded forth and sprinted across towards the ruined factory. Declining to enter at ground level, Ken scaled the building and found access a floor up through a broken window. Once inside, he crept through the ruin as a panther stalks prey; his footsteps fell so faint, even to his own ears, that Ken felt certain that no one else could possibly hear him.

With a knife in one hand and a hatchet in the other, Ken cautiously passed from room to hall and from level to level, knowing that the tools Tom sought would be on the main floor below. His senses, despite being dulled by the omnipresent stench of unnatural power, death and decay, remained sharp enough to warn him of immediate dangers- yet they told him nothing.

Ken got to Tom’s treasure, checked to see that they remained capable of being moved, and then cleared a path to the doors that he and Tom would need to get them out. Once secured, he located some simple parts to aid in moving them down to the river; some sheets of steel, empty drums and a working welding torch would come in handy. Ken placed the former two things with the tools, but took the torch with him when he left.

Cautious, Ken covered his tracks back to the camp; he obscured the others’ tracks as he got closer and all tracks converged. Upon returning to the camp, Tom looked up at Ken and thought the precaution odd. After Ken passed the welding torch to one of the men, Tom took him aside.

“What is it?”

“I felt a prick against the back of my neck; I’ve long taken that sensation as a warning.”

“I see. Did you see or hear anything?”

Ken shook his head.

“You found a torch. What else?”

“Your tools are there, and I found some materials that you’re going to need for that raft, but we must act quickly. I worry that we’re not going to go unnoticed for much longer.”

“Should we go now?”

“No,” Ken said, pointed up to the sky, “because the sun sets soon as we have no way to go by night that doesn’t give away our position. Instead, we must go shortly after dawn; we take two of the three watches, leaving the last here to rest, while we hurry to grab and take back those tools. As soon as we can, we get that raft upgraded and depart upriver to our spot beyond the Great Wall.”

“That’s why you brought the torch; there’s metal we can use?”

“Some drums and sheets of steel will allow the men to ensure that the raft will have the strength and buoyancy required to bring them out this way, but they must be ready to start work as soon as possible.”

Tom agreed, nodding.

Word spread through the camp swiftly of the changed plans, and eager to escape this unnerving place the men complied. The watchers eyed the land and waters outside the camp with eyes kept open and alert as much by fear as by unease, but again no incidents. Come dawn, those on watch slept at last; those asleep rose and quickly got to work. Tom and Ken lead them to the factory as fast as they could while keeping quiet and out of sight; thanks to Ken’s previous scouting, they got to it not long after they left camp.

Once Ken ascertained that no hostiles were about, the entire group rushed into the ruined factory; the tools and supplies were as Ken left them, so Ken helped get the supplies into the hands of some runners and sent them back straight away. Tom helped the rest of the men secure the tools to a cart that they jury-rigged from other parts in the building that Ken didn’t recognize as useful; soon, they too made ready to leave, which Ken—visibly showing signs of distress and unease that worried Tom—seemed happy to hear.

“A great power waxes near here, and its eyes sweep this way!” Ken said, “Move!”

Tom, not wanting to push the matter, relayed the order and the men moved. Pushing the cart as fast as they could out of the ruined factory, they retraced their steps back to camp while Ken furiously flew about them- sometimes watching the distance, sometimes sweeping their trail, sometimes doing something unrecognizable to the men as any sort of anti-tracking technique, but so long as it kept the mutant’s attention away from them the men didn’t care.

Once back at camp, Tom and Ken saw that the runners worked with the resting men to pull the raft up and into some positions whereby they could work. Already the drums and steel sheets were in place, being secured by lashings and crude pegs. Tom and Ken ordered the raft into the water, and then the tools loaded onto it; aboard and at its center, tied down as with some of the remaining ropes, they did load it aboard- but, while it floated, most of the men couldn’t ride it, for it couldn’t hold much more.

Tom ordered a couple men aboard, handing them the poles, and ordered them to ensure that nothing obstructed the raft in the river. The rest of the men would take up ropes, secured to the raft, and move along the banks pulling it upriver; Tom and Ken would clear the way and cover their trails. Behind them, as they moved slowly north upriver towards the Great Wall, all saw a visible darkness erupt at the peak of the ziggurat sitting at the black heart of the necropolis.

As they had to resort to this slower means, the return trip—once thought to be a day, at most—turned into another week. Dread, fear and unease gripped the company; at night the watchers kept silent and alert, lest some horde of ravenous undead sweep upon them unawares, while during the day they kept their eyes northward or downward lest they see reminders of the malevolent power behind them.

That same power, sweeping through its domain with the inexorable certainty of death itself, knew what happened, but cared not- the minds of beings possessed of the perspectives of eternity do not quarrel over ill-preserved artifacts of ruined peoples. Yet, not wanting distractions from their work, they make a show of power and frighten the foolish away- at least, long enough to finish the task at hand. So, it rattled the trees to startle them and it pushed the air to harry them, and spur them away it did, all but those that led them- Tom and Ken. These two, though no less awash in fear and doubt did not become drunk by it and lose their reason; they mastered their fear, and this power noticed it.

As Tom and Ken followed through on their plan and called out to Rick for a rendezvous, it kept its eye—invisibly—on them. Well, almost invisible; Ken detected it, and pinpointed it more than once, to the amazement and consternation of it. It kept away from Ken, as best it could, thereafter. Weeks passed, Rick’s company met with Tom and Ken’s company, men and material changed around and the groups separated once more.

Unknown to the survivors, the power of the necropolis—the one Ken called “The Necromancer”—is not unfathomable to mere men; it knows them well. With a moment of will, it commanded one of the dead to rise up; with another, it molded the flesh of the corpse and gave it the semblance of life and made it appear pleasing and comforting; with a third, it seized direct control, much like the way that video games made before the Cataclysm put a player into direct control, for that most amused the Necromancer- a sort of joke that few not like it could understand.

That night, the Necromancer took his drone and stole into the camp of Rick’s company. It took up a knife and made a shallow cut into Rick’s arm as the man slept. The drone licked the blood off of the knife, and with that blood the Necromancer learned all that Rick knew; it assumed Rick’s form, stole out of the camp and then made its way towards the camp of Tom and Ken. Now knowing what this flurry of activity was all about—though, it recognized that Rick’s perspective was not without biases, and took some of what he learned skeptically—it found a way to make these men play a part in his schemes.

Yet, what bothered the Necromancer was that this mutant—the one slaying and eating its property—and he took Ken as a threat to be dealt with. While the drone marched tirelessly to Tom and Ken’s camp, the Necromancer called forth the shades of the greatest of the dead before him for counsel. Sun Tzu and Quintus Fabius Maximus in particular had wise counsel for the Necromancer, as did the fiend’s chief advisor- a supernatural agent named “Gabriel”; they praised the use of the drone, but went on to say that they should endeavor to separate this mutant from the rest of the men with him and slay him separately.

But one of the undead courtiers made it most clear, if not sinister, as to what should be done; this one was Sun Pin, and he said this: “Sire, part him from his fellows for a time; convert his allies into yours, and through them you slay him.” This most pleased the Necromancer. Putting Fabius in charge of executing the plan, and Sun Pin into a supervisory role, the Necromancer ordered that Ken be put down and brought—alive—before him. The others were to be used towards that end.

At that moment, miles away back at the farm, Sally felt a premonition of doom befall her father; clutching the ring in her hands, murmuring prayers with a will focused by fear and love, Sally did what she knew to stave off such a feeling. Ken immediately picked up on what Sally felt at the moment, and that’s when he woke up Tom.

“Get up!” Ken said, “He knows, and he’s after us.”

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Stalker-Part 5

Ken and Tom took the men under their command east along the Great Wall, following the old highway that ran parallel to it, the next morning. Slowly, steadily, they marched across the vacant and crumbling remains of suburban settlements. All about them stood remnants of the world that died years ago: long-looted superstores, cleaned-out clothing stores, gutted garage, rusted-out restaurants, offices obliterated, cars and trucks crashed or trashed, and even the highways itself cracks and crumbles as the years of neglect allow wear and tear to inflict damage unthinkable before the fall. What once took hours to traverse, as all remembered, now took days but after about a week they arrived at the west bank of the river—the water that sliced through the ruined city—and again rested.

Tom spoke little to Ken, but thought often of his Sally; Ken, in turn, sensed that Sally often worried over and wished for her father’s safe return. The men, ever centered in their own desires, thought mostly of the day’s matters when not lusting over the women that Ken told them of weeks before. This the men spoke of often, and they did again as they made camp that night. Ken and Tom, despite the coolness between them, sat at the fire together.

“What now?” Tom asked.

“We go downstream from here, passing the Great Wall. Now I put a question to you: do we march, or do we make a raft and float towards your library and factory?”

Tom thought on it a moment.

“I say that you make a raft, and while you and the men do that I scout downstream. If you take the time to make a large raft and enough poles to ensure that you can either come back upstream, or convert to a cart and come out overland, then I can clear at least part of the way south into the city.”

Tom’s look seemed to Ken as if Tom thought Ken to be insane.

“Come now, Tom.” Ken said, “I merely gave you advice on how to proceed.”

Tom shook his head. “You really don’t see why I might be angry with you?”

“I do. You’d not be a man if you cared not for your daughter, but I remind you that it was you that sought me out. If you honestly thing that you can use me and toss me aside like you did to all of your workers in your old life-“

“I did no such thing!”

“You did so, Tom. I know you did; I dug up the files, hunted through the archives and tracked the victims of your indifference down so they could be interviewed.”
Tom’s face made plain the shock he felt.

“You were part of the team suing me?”

Ken nodded. “You can hide behind laws about shareholder value that no longer exist, but the fact is this simple: you got your wealth off the backs and brains of the men you brought into your service, and when they broke down you threw them away like so much trash.”

“So, this is all some ridiculous revenge?”

Ken laughed. He laughed loud and long at Tom.

“No, Tom. The irony of our destroyed world is that you have the chance, really and truly, to make good on all your past sins. Yet you still have old habits, and it is those habits that may yet see you to your own downfall.”

Tom again looked at Ken as if Ken were insane.

“Tom, you and I both know that you don’t want any of the other men to lay hands on your daughter.”

“That doesn’t mean that I’m keen on you doing that.”

“You won’t care once the pressure’s off. Right now, as we speak, Sally’s starting to see me as your best bet for getting out of this in one piece. She’s also starting to see me as her best chance to get out from under the same dark cloud that dominates you and your household.”

Tom almost protested, but then he remembered the ring that Ken placed in Sally’s care.

“She’s a woman. She can’t help what’s happening to her anymore than her mother could at that age. Fancy becomes fantasy, and that surge of desire does all sorts of things to girls her age. All I’m doing is making it work for me.”

A couple of the men approached them, handing Tom a stick with a fish skewered on it.

“Now back to the choice at hand, Tom: raft or no raft?”

Tom bit gingerly into the charred fish, but could not shake the nagging thought that this mutant—formerly some sort of investigator for the lawyers that sued him before the Cataclysm—is now the zed-devouring mutant running around the blasted wastelands like some mad beast of a man that stalks the walking dead, kills them and eats them as if they were deer or moose.

Just then, Tom got a flash in his mind, an idea as thoughts crossed in his mind and sparked like live wires short-circuiting: Ken isn’t thinking of this any differently than he does a common zed hunt; it’s all the same to him- and this is all just a hell of a ruse to get what he wants. Yet, Tom wasn’t sure that getting Sally really is what Ken wants; going to all of this trouble, antagonizing him while showing him
the way to the stuff he wants—even providing him with the solution to his morale problems—and other hot-and-cold stuff just boggles him.

Ken sensed Tom’s confusion. He called over one of the men, who handed Tom a bottle.

“Drink,” Ken said, “it’ll do you good right now.”

Without thinking, Tom took a long drought from that bottle.

“Now Tom, again, do we make a raft or not?”

Tom now realized that he took a heavy drink of the moonshine that the men often brew from the crops. He passed the bottle to Ken, again turned his eyes to the mutant and finally answered Ken’s question.

“We raft our way down.”

Just then, Tom stood up and he called the men together.

“Rest well tonight, men. Tomorrow we scour the banks for suitable trees or scrap to make a sturdy raft and a set of poles. Once done, we’ll float our way downriver to our targets.”

The men, noticing Tom’s demeanor, smiled and chortled approvingly.

“We’ll drift like the rest of the river junk that’s gone by since the Cataclysm into the city ruins, get what we came for and then make our way out before any of those monsters know we’re there.”

Then one of the men said, “Then we get our women!” and the others cheered.

“Yes, after that you get your women, like reaping wheat at harvest.” Ken said, “Those cold caves will seem as Hell itself once you men return them to proper living at your farmstead and return them to civilized living.”

Watches assigned, the men retired in good humor. Starting the following morning, Tom got the men organized into foraging and building teams while Ken headed out on his own to scout downriver. The mutant woodsman disappeared into the brush, moving swift as a wolf, knowing certainly that no zeds would be near the banks for miles. Once out of sight, Ken broke into a run; drawing on reserves no ordinary man possesses, he ran for hours at that wolf-like pace, easily passing under the Great Wall and entering the Necromancer’s domain.

It wasn’t a mere crossing a wall; the stench of death, of unnatural wrongness, quickly filled his senses- he knew that he passed an invisible, supernatural border as well as a physical one. However, Ken’s senses soon became overwhelmed; the power concentrating into the city’s heart seemed to Ken like walking into a recently-used charnel house: he couldn’t discern which scent came from where, as they all got swamped by the greater environment, and he had no time to adjust.

Still, Ken ran downriver until midday, where he found a suitable landing site for the group to beach and camp; he spent the afternoon retracing his steps after marking the spot so it could be seen from the river. He passed back under the Great Wall, and returned to the group a few hours before dusk as the group gathered for their evening meal of charred fish and what other stuff they found or hunted nearby- some squirrels, a feral cat and provisions brought from the farm.

Ken saw that the raft was no slipshod job. It was a handful of fallen tree trunks acted as pontoons; all in a grand example of lashing things together with twine- the Boy Scouts would be awed. Around the fire men careful charred ends of pole-sized trunks, easily two or three times the height of a man in length; Ken saw that at least one of the men knew what to do in this task, and in Tom’s face Ken saw that he wasn’t that man.

Tom, seeing that Ken didn’t press the issue, said “You go ahead and we’ll meet you.”

Agreed on a course of action, the pair and their company strike camp the next day; the men found neither complaint nor cheer in Ken’s going ahead- especially once they set off from shore, for that was when they glimpsed Ken’s ability to quickly cover ground. However, as they passed under the Great Wall, their attention turned away from the mutant and towards the sights—or lack of them—about them.

Only Tom and some of the older men had been here since the Cataclysm and none of them in the last decade. They expected more of the ruined houses, stores and businesses that litter the towns and suburbs that once ringed the city; they found about them naught but denuded shores and empty land, as if the urban development that once covered the space within the Great Wall had never been at all- all that is now are grass, rocks and trees.

The sole exception is in the south, downriver, where the skyscrapers once stood. There, rising like a hideous blasphemy of antiquity, they saw a massive ziggurat. Even from a distance they saw that it didn’t displace the skyscrapers of the pre-Cataclysmic world, for it gleamed as if made like one, but sickly so. Tom, using an old pair of binoculars, looked long at it; he saw in it concrete, rebar, tar, brick and other repurposed materials mixed in with that glass.

“My God!” Tom said, “It’s as if the old downtown were melted down and recast as that thing!”

Tom passed the binoculars around the company, and each in turn looked about them. Each in turn added their observations to Tom’s own.

“The old city’s gone!” one man said, “What makes you think now that either this library or that factory is still there?”

“What happened here?” another said, “This isn’t a ruin- it’s a city of the damned!”
Swiftly the men erupted into a clamor, but being confined to the raft they had to check their enthusiasm, which Tom thought wise to exploit.

“Ken awaits us downstream.” Tom said, “While I don’t trust him in all things, he’s still a zed-eater and thus no friend of whatever ripped up our old city and put this inhuman growth in its place. Let us meet with him, as I promised, and we can talk about it once we’re camped.”

The men quickly agreed to follow Tom’s lead, but the alien character of the world within the Great Wall kept them unsettled and on edge for the rest of their downriver travel. Tom spotted Ken’s signal fire from far off, ensuring that he and the men would make their rendezvous without incident; once they made landfall, Ken quickly got the men ashore and helped to drag the raft out of the water. Then he brought them near the fire.

“You now know that things are greatly changed here.” Ken said, “We are in the domain of the Necromancer, and must be cautious. From this point on, only I may go off alone; you men are but ordinary men and as such are vulnerable to the Necromancer’s deceptions and guile. His powers are weak against me, and he knows it. But, as yet, we have the advantage, for he does not yet know that we are here.”

Distantly, atop that very ziggurat, a cloaked figure said in answer “Yes, I do.”

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Stalker-Part 4

The men talk incessantly about Ken’s tale of the Cave Women as the community surges into action. They store provisions and tighten defenses in anticipation of the consequences of splitting their numbers for an extended period of time. A week later, Ken led a group of a dozen men—with Tom in command—out of the fortified farmstead and into the ruined wilderness beyond its borders.

In a few weeks, Ken guides the company south and east, towards the Great Wall of the city. Ken guides them along a roundabout way, avoiding contact with others—zeds, usually; crazed beasts otherwise—as best his fellows allow. Like escorting a convoy, Ken’s ranging often involves circling around the group to double-check the rear as well as going ahead to scout the way before them; the sudden toss of a slain beast or zed into their path quickly convinces the doubters of his worth, much to Tom’s silent glee.

As the group reaches a hilltop parallel to the old highway that they followed for the past two days, Ken points into the distance; with the sun at their backs, all of them lay eyes upon the Great Wall of the city. Taller than most of the old oaks of the land, this barrier is as grand as it is grotesque; within its construction are patterns of bone forming shapes and words that most of the men couldn’t read or didn’t know.

“What tongue is that?” one of the men said.

Tom and Ken looked at each other; both, by now, realized that only the other possessed any knowledge or wisdom of note.

“It’s Latin.” Tom said, “It reads ‘This pale wall marks the Necropolis’ borders.’”

Ken followed. “The shapes depict the fact of those who enter unbidden.”

The men, Ken knew, would easily assume the worst- and, as expected, they did. Ken sensed an instant shiver of revulsion at the thought of being trapped, swarmed and consumed by the angry, hungry dead within those walls. He kept his mirth to himself, knowing that these proud survivors don’t appreciate such sentiments.

“We camp here tonight.” Ken said, “Keep fires covered; the zeds may not see them, but there are others that can and this is not a good place to be caught napping.”

“Watch orders are as usual. I want grub going as soon as you men dig a firepit and get a fire lit.”

The men got to their chores; some took up watch positions around the campsite, some got to work digging the pit and the latrine, some foraged for wood and the rest put up tents. Meanwhile, Tom and Ken stood apart from the men and made themselves appear to be planning on how to deal with the Great Wall.

“We’re in sight of the Northwest corner of the Great Wall.” Ken said.

“It’s worse than I remembered.” Tom said, “Your boogeyman story seems a lot more real to me, now that I’ve laid my eyes on the tallest ‘No Trespassing’ sign known to Man.”

“You haven’t been this way in years. The Wall changed since your last raid. It’s taller, thicker, and far more indicative of the Necromancer at the heart of the city than it was then. His powers are far stronger now than they were then.”

“Then how do we proceed?”

Ken pointed at the ruined highway. “We get on the far side of the old Interstate there, and follow it until we reach the river. We rest there and cache supplies for the return trip while we build a raft.”


“The Necromancer sees what they see; zeds are just extensions of his will.”

Tom looked at him, disbelieving.

“C’mon, Tom! You know your tongues; what does ‘necromancer’ mean, strictly?”

“It means ‘one who gains knowledge from the dead’, more or less.”

“Now, what’s the practical application of knowledge? Rick’s an engineer, and you were a successful businessman before the Cataclysm, so I know that you can answer that question.”

Tom sighed and hung his head.

“As monstrous as the whole thing is, what it is in practical terms isn’t difficult to understand at all.” Ken said, “Think of it as an insect colony, like ants or bees. This Necromancer is the queen of the hive, and the zeds are the drones that serve as extensions of the queen’s will- but, outside of direct control, have some sort of robot-like basic functionality.”

“So, as long as we go unseen and unheard, we escape notice?”

Ken nodded.

“But the deeper into the city we go, the greater the density of zeds, and that means that our odds of being seen or heard rise accordingly.”


“You’re lucky that our targets are well-built structures, and insulated from the outside.”

“You’d blame me for your failures?”

“No, they would, and I’d be damned stupid to stop them by myself.”

Ken looked into Tom’s face; he saw in Tom’s face a desire to be rid of Ken, something that Ken expected from Tom, but not necessarily the bluntness or crassness of it.

“Then you had better pray for success, because if this does go poorly and you do try to make a scapegoat of me, you’ll be abandoned amidst a hostile population that you can’t hide from for long. I can, and have, gotten in and out by myself without undue difficulty. You, on the other hand, are utterly screwed without me. You may think you know your way around, but you don’t; so much is different inside that wall now that your knowledge is woefully out of date. You turn on me, and I will leave you to be turned into zeds. Then I’ll go back to your farm, take your daughter in the night and disappear with her forever.“

Tom narrowed his gaze at Ken.

“Try it.” Ken said, “Just try it. I’m better than you in every way that matters, Tom. Stick to our plan, and you get what you want. That’s all that you need to do, so don’t get stupid on me. You get your stuff to make your farm into a little nugget of Civilization, your men get women of their own at last, peace reigns in the hamlet of Tomdale, and all it costs you is your daughter. One girl, and in return you get a thriving hamlet with loyal followers and a secure base of power for the future; that’s nothing in the big picture, and you—being a businessman—know it. Why risk losing it all just to get rid of me?”

“You’re a bastard.”

“No, Tom, I’m something else: a man looking to build a future for his kind, just like you, and unlike you I’m willing and able to do what it takes to get what I want. That I choose to be diplomatic about it, instead of just stealing her in the night, is because I understand—as you do—that it’s best to make gains through mutually-beneficial deals.”

“What makes you think that you’re not one-of-a-kind?”

“You’ve not seen what I’ve seen, Tom.” Ken said, sweeping his arms wide to emphasize the world about them, “I’ve ranged farther and wider than you think, and I’ve already seen evidence that some of those changed by the Cataclysm can breed true. For now, I am the only one of my kind, but that won’t be true much longer. If this world is to be reclaimed from the Cataclysm’s effects, it can’t happen through just by survivors like you or your sons; you and I will have to work together, and that means that your sons must work with mine.”

Tom froze. The image of a whole race of alabaster-like, hairless and deep-eyed mutants like Ken--a race spread far and wide across the ruined world, hunting and consuming the monstrous things wrought of the Cataclysm—that live and breed with normal men like himself horrified him. That his own flesh and blood could ever produce such things like Ken, at a level he had not remembered existed, hit a primal chord his mind.

“I know what you’re thinking, Tom.” Ken said.

Tom made to speak, but Ken cut him off.

“The Old World is dead, Tom. You can’t have it back, ever. This world is one where Man, if he to remain at the top, has to share power between himself and his younger brother. Adapt or die, Tom.”

“My daughter fears you, Ken.”

“I see.” Ken said, “You know, I had a feeling that you’d say that.”

Tom didn’t respond.

“You recall that I changed clothes before we left?”

“Yeah, I do. You wore tattered rags.”

“I also bathed.” Ken said, “While I did so, I left a trinket with your daughter. Nothing obvious, mind you, as it was just a ring I kept as a trophy from a kill. I asked her to wash it and hold it until I came back.”

Tom’s mind whirled into motion; no master wizard was he, yet he knew a little of the occult, and this got him thinking.

“Your daughter is not like you, Tom. She’s not like me either, but I can sense what’s different about her, and right now I am certain that—in obliging my wishes—she’s put that ring on a string and wearing it around her neck. To keep others from talking, she keeps it under her shirt, so it’s touching her skin and resting right next to her heart. She worries about you, as a good daughter does; she wishes for your safe return, and that becomes focused willpower at certain times when circumstances allow her to clear her mind of distractions. When she can do that, she’s unknowingly tapping into a supernatural power and using it to make her wishes real; when she does that, her scent becomes most potent and I can smell it from miles away.”

Tom’s mind, still whirling, almost cuts out Ken’s voice from his mind.

“Tom, this is why you—and, sometimes, you alone—returned from those earlier raids. Your daughter, literally, turned her wishes into reality.”

Ken let Tom stew on the implication for a moment.

“Sally is a witch, Tom. I am now certain of it, because I can smell her scent strongly right now; that ring I told you about? I’ve killed witches before, and I’ve learned a few things in my two lives, so I know a few tricks that damn near anyone can do. One of them is to either take something from a target, or to leave something with a target. This forms a supernatural link, and it makes certain occult powers easier to use.”

“Like what Sally does?”

“Yes, like what Sally does. However, that ring I lent to her is very shiny now that she’s cleaned it and it’s nigh-impossible for a girl like her to avoid the temptation of holding it when she’s alone. I know that right now she’s thinking hard about you, but she’s holding that ring right up against her heart while she does it, and as I can sense your moods and thoughts so I can sense hers- just like I can read a beast in the wild.”

Tom’s mind, still whirling like a tornado, quickly catches the symbolic magical theory; Ken sees the revelation on Tom’s face the instant that it occurs.

“That’s right, Tom. Because she feels just how much you need me, she’s unconsciously extending her wishing to me in order to protect you, and because she’s focusing her wishes with that ring—a ring held up to her heart—she’s putting me as close to her heart as is physically possible. When she wishes, she opens her heart metaphorically and uses her love to give power to her will; by putting me so close to it, she’s drawing me into her heart, and soon that same love will flow to me.”

Aghast, Tom’s hand dropped to his sides, but Ken quickly grabbed them both.

“You need me, Tom.” Ken said, taunting, “You can’t succeed without me, and you will lose everything if you turn on me. Now do you see?”

Still shocked at the depth of Ken’s treachery, Tom didn’t answer.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Stalker-Part 3

After sunset, Tom assembled the men around the front porch. Once they’d finished straggling back from their chores, he called them closer to him.

“Earlier today we captured ourselves the first living outsider since the end of the world. Yes, he is a zed-eating mutant, but after considerable interrogation I discerned that this outsider is a skilled and experienced wilderness scout. He’s been all over the region, stalking zeds and feeding from his kills, for all this time. He knows where things we want, and things we need, are. He’s agreed to help us get them.”

Many of the younger men cheered, but the older men remained unmoved. Tom saw this, and he preempted the question.

“I know that he can be trusted because I have what he wants, and there is no way that he can get it without my approval. He has to cooperate, or he gets nothing.”

Again, the older men seemed unimpressed.

“Tom, just what is it that this freak wants?” one of them said.

“What he wants is not anything that any of you have, use or rely upon for anything; what he needs is not necessarily what we need, so trading with him costs us nothing.”

“Have it your way for now, Tom.” The older man said, “But all of us know damn well that you need us to keep this place going, and by now we know this place and the land around it as well as you do. You may’ve been the boss before the end of the world, but all that burned with the fires that killed that rotten society that you came from. You’ve not been in a position to treat us like this for years, and if you push us like this you’ll find out right quick just how little we need you.”

Tom felt a chill. Jane, Rick and Sally—all inside, but within earshot—shuddered. As for Ken, he too heard that threat, for he was also inside; turning away from the others, he grinned wickedly, as this is exactly what he expected to be Tom’s problem.

Tom looked directly at the older man. “Is that so?”

“You serve us, Tom. So long as you fulfill our needs and wants, and treat us right, you can go on being the man in charge. We’re not your employees, as we sure as Hell ain’t your serfs. You’re not the lord of the manor; you’re the major of a town, and we men are the voting public that decides who’s in and who’s out. We, not you, have the final say now. Your right to rule rests on our acceptance, and we don’t take kindly to you holding out on your treating with freaks like that zed-eater.”

Ken, hearing this, saw an opportunity that couldn’t be missed.

Softly, he went to Jane, Sally and rick and said “I’ll fix this.”

Ken stepped out on to the front porch, surprising the men gathered around the foot of the steps as well as Tom.

“You want women? I know where to get them.” Ken said, “There’s an enclave of them on the other side of the city; I know because the zeds of the city once raided their enclave and dragged many of them away.”

“Wait!” one of the younger man said, “They didn’t kill or eat them?”

Ken nodded affirmatively. “Now, I came upon those women while trailing the raiding party. The few left after the last raid asked me to help them, and being that I found it strange—as all of you did—that these zeds took living prisoners back towards the city, I accepted.”

Ken now stood before Tom, taking center stage.

“I sped through the wilds, stalking the raiders. They were a score in all, and they had a dozen women. Unlike other zeds, these had facemasks on, covering their mouths. One of them seemed to’ve a spark of intelligence to him.”

Ken paused, scanning the crowd, and saw that—despite some disbelief—they were attentive.

“I had but a knife and a hatchet—the same weapons that you men took from me—to do my work with, and I reduced them slowly. As chance allowed, I hacked and cut away zeds as lion culls the weak from the herd of gazelles.”

While some of the younger men didn’t catch his meaning—they seemed a bit young to remember what lions or gazelles were—the older men nodded, and that encouraged Ken to go on.

“Once I reduced the raiding party down to a dozen zeds, I took a big risk; seeing that they were nearing the Great Wall of the city, inside which the zed incidence is much higher, I decided that my best chance to rescue the women would be as they emerged from the forest near the wall. I deduced their path, ran ahead of them, and then executed an ambush.”

Tom, still taken back by Ken’s bold intervention, said only “How?”

“I used the hatchet to hack down some limbs and small trees. I used the knife to whittle the ends into points. With a suitable rock, I dug a few shallow pits. Then, remembering a trick that an uncle taught me from his days in the army, I used some of the stakes in the pits while finishing the rest to use as spears.”

Some of the older men nodded and whispered amongst themselves.

“The zeds came along. When some of them stumbled into the pits, driving stakes into their feet or legs, I struck! “ Ken said, demonstrating passionately as he spoke, “I cleft the skulls of those stuck in the pits, splattering brains, blood and bone. I shoved and pressed those not stuck either against a tree or to the ground and impaled them with a spear, then caved in their skulls also. Minutes into it, and the women ran for safety while I dealt with the one that seemed aware.”

Ken now saw, and felt, that everyone’s eyes and ears were upon him utterly.

“He wasn’t big, or particularly strong, but he moved as if he was alive and his eyes—still there—seemed so also. Yet, as the long-dried flesh made clear, he was dead. He pulled one of the spears out of a now-headless corpse and came at me. Carefully, I tested him, to see if he was all that he appeared to be, and he proved himself to be so quickly. I took away the spear, cut the tendons in his feet as if he were alive, pushed him over and impaled him to the earth. Fixed, I made to finish him, but then his lips moved and he spoke, raspy, to me.”

“It spoke?” one of the older men said.

“Yes!” Ken affected the raspy voice for emphasis, “He spoke, and this is what he said just before I drove my hatchet down and buried it up to the shaft into his dead skull.”

Again, playing the crowd, Ken paused as he moved like the odd zed at hand.

“The master sees you. He will not forget your face.”

Ken then acted as if he had a hatchet in hand, and made a swift and violent chopping move.

“Dead, again, I took my fill and rounded up the women.”

The younger men cheered. The older men nodded approvingly.

“I found them, all twelve of them, and explained what just happened. I guided them back to their homestead, and then I helped them all move to a new place- a place that no one but me, and those women that live there know exists, let alone how to find it.”

Tom recognized the opportunity before him.

“You see?” Tom said, “Have I treated poorly on your behalf?”

“Tom and I had a long talk.” Ken said, “He told me of your needs and wants. Yes, I know where those women are and how to get to them, and get you to them I shall- but first, there is something in the city that this community needs. Once that is done, then I shall take you to them.”

One of the men groaned.

“Again?” another said, “You’re going for that library again?”

Tom turned to the men. “Not just the library. Ken’s told me where we can find the parts and materials needed to get it together and running; we can grow the crops needed to make fuel.”

“You have tools here.” Ken said, “ You have some machines that you have the fuel to run. Those things break down, and I hear that you’ve exhausted all of the nearby supplies over these last 15 years. You also need to find ways to keep the more delicate things going, and I can tell you that most of the stores and caches elsewhere are either looted or rusted by now so you either make your own or do without.”

Tom nodded. “We get that book and those tools, and then we can make our own machine tools, leaving only materials left to search for. Need I remind you how dependent most of you are on your guns, and how hard ammunition is to find anymore? At the very least, we have to be able to maintain our guns and make our own ammunition.”

The men grumbled, but eventually stopped.

“All right, Tom.” one said, “What’s the plan?”

“Ken and I will lead a team into the city to find what we’re looking for, get it and get out again. I’m taking one of the radios, and the other stays here. Rick will have another team waiting here for our signal; when we’re ready, Rick’s team will come out and cover our return. Once that’s done and the follow-on tasks complete, Ken will lead another team—a smaller team—to the women’s location so we can make contact.”

“You men will split into three groups. One stays here at all times. One goes with Tom and I, while the third goes with Rick. Assignments will be allotted tomorrow morning.”

“That’s all. Night watch, get to stations. The rest of you, light’s out.”

The men dispersed, and once all were gone Ken and Tom went inside.

“You can thank me now, Tom.” Ken said, “You won’t lose face.”

Tom turned to Ken. “You’re quite the showman. Was anything of that true?”

“All of it.” Ken said, “The thing about this ruined world is that there’s no need for a man like me to lie. The truth itself is so fantastic that it can, and often does, beggar the imagination of those who hear it. Yes, there is a small community of women almost exactly at the opposite location of this home of yours. They survive by hiding well, as they have neither weapons nor fighting skills, and the only men they’ve seen—aside from me—are zeds. They want men. Your men want women. It shouldn’t be that hard to bring them here, especially since they’re living in caves right now.”

“Caves?!” Jane said, from the kitchen.

“Yes, caves. They fish from the river and gather from their nearby gardens. They’ve gotten very good at it over the years, and the caves that they live in now are very good for storing food over long periods of time since they have the means to do so.”

Sally sighed, relieved.

“Once those men out there set their eyes on those women, all of your present problems will evaporate like fog in the morning sun.”

“What about this ‘master’?” Rick said.

“Oh, him.” Ken said, “According to some of the others I’ve encountered, he call himself ‘The Necromancer’ and appears to have power over the zeds. The stories I’ve heard range wildly about what this guy can do, and none of them are pretty. What I know for certain is that deep in the heart of the city there is a new building--a ziggurat made of steel, glass, concrete, tar and plastic—that dwarfs all.”