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.”

“Why?”

“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.”

“Correct.”

“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.

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