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!”