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.”

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