Thursday, August 27, 2009

Paladin-Part 1

James ran as fast as he could to the White Tower. The Archmage called for him by name, and there was no way that he would let the savior of the people down by not making haste, yet he did stop—briefly—to wonder at the impossible shape of his master’s home and his people’s citadel. This artifact from his people’s homeland was a tall tower wrought of white steel that his people cannot replicate now. It rose from a wide base, narrowed in the middle and then expanded again at the top to hold a broad disk wherein the Archmage worked his arcane art- and ruled the lands that are now known as his domain. From this place, the order that his elders bought with blood and magic emanated, like the waves that go forth from where a rock hits the water- order that now fell to him, and to his generation, to not only maintain, but expand.

James hurried into the White Tower, making hasty—but routine—salutes to the guards and ritual-like interaction with the man-like metal construct standing motionless at the base of the White Tower’s lift. Moments later, James emerged into the Archmage’s chambers atop the White Tower, and there waiting for him was the very man himself- and his ever-present aide, David.

The Archmage—none that knew his name ever told John what it was—made no attempt to hide his venerable age, or to mask the frailty that came with it. Yet even James felt the power in his body, and one look at the eyes made clear that the Archmage still had the full power of his mind firmly in hand. As for David, he seemed as solid a man as he was when John last got this close to him- five years ago, when John began training as a warrior, sometimes under David’s direct tutelage.

The Archmage beckoned James to approach, and John did, nervously.

“Calm yourself, my boy.” The Archmage motioned for David to bring over some water.

“I called you here for good reasons this day.”

James saw that, in addition to some water, David brought over a tunic.

“Harold Arthur James,” the Archmage said, “you’ve proven your worth as a warrior, ready and able to handle the work ahead of you, and it is for that reason that I have called you here.”

David presented the tunic to James, a tunic as blue as the clear-blue sea in the bay just west of the Tower with white accents like the foam on the waves when that sea turns rough. Inscribed on the chest is the device of the White Tower, and on the back sigils in a tongue that James knew not ran down in a column- but James knew well what this meant.

“I name you to the Company of the Tower.” the Archmage said, “The first of your generation to do so, and I hope that you will show the way for those that follow you.”

“Congratulations Jimmy.” David said, as he dressed James in his new tunic, “You deserve this. You’re ready for it.”

James let his eyes go wide and his mouth open, betraying his youth.

“This is such an honor, Masters!” James said, saluting, “I am very grateful.”

The older men chuckled, and then David said “We make this known tonight, when the Tower Festival begins, but there is no harm in wearing your uniform now. Your elders already know, and as I speak your family gathers your things and brings them here to your new home.”

The Archmage turned to David. “Let us be for now, and go below to help prepare.”

“Of course, old friend.” David said, and he made for the lift.

Once alone, James poured water for the Archmage, again for himself, and waited. A moment thereafter, the Archmage took James around the circular room and pointed out a window towards one of the distant mountains that lay well east of the White Tower.

“You are not one for idleness, James, so I shall not insult you with mere guard duty.”

The Archmage paused, drinking.

“That mountain has many names, but in the tongue of the old empire its name is ‘Silver Top’, due to the silver-like shine from its summit. Before the Rain of Azure Flames that ruined the world, a tragic figure fled the land and was last seen running for Silver Top.”

James listened, attention fixed wholly on his master.

“His name is George Felton. He was once a student of mine, many years ago, but he—like the whole of his generation—believed that self-indulgence was a virtue, mistook money for wealth, and eschewed the true purpose for his existence. He rose to some prominence before the Rain of Azure Flames, being both a magician and an alchemist, using an underhanded team of expendable minions to frame his enemies for crimes that he ordered. He did so because he believed that all of his crimes were necessary to ensure that he became lord of the land here, and with lordship in his hands he could forcibly reform things to his desire- to his will, and his benefit, alone.”

“I assume, master, that this Felton ultimately failed? You mentioned that he fled for that far-off mountain.”

Both James and his master emptied their glasses. As James poured more water, the Archmage answered him.

“Indeed, he did fail in time, but not before he did much damage. He used the secrets I taught him to aggrandize much temporal power, and that included create a personality cult about himself. Using this as a weapon, he scoured the lands of his enemies, but always from a distance sufficient to afford him the ability to deny the actions of his followers. By now Felton had a cunning understanding of the madness that afflicted the old empire, and he used it with increasingly ruthlessness and boldness.”

“So, how did he fail?”

The Archmage smiled. “I saw that he became obsessed with worldly power and influence, and in so doing he had lost sight of the universe- he lost all perspective of things. So I moved to contain him and his influence, to quarantine him, and with the help of the other Masters I did so. Then I let some of my other students, including your parents, know what went on and how to deal with it. They organized the victims of Felton against him and his minions, and after a long time of tension we led an assault on his mansion and burned him—and the sickness that he brought—out of the land. Many of his minions died in the struggle, but many more fled with him into the mountains, and the Rain of Azure Flames did not exterminate them.”

The Archmage saw that James quickly drew the intended conclusions.

“The many monsters and fiends we’ve contended with since your birth, for which your father and his friends fought and died to defeat, are somehow tied to Felton and his cult. I’ve seen this after conferring with the Masters; these mutants and other enemies, somehow, target us specifically. They know us—your elders—by name. For the good of our people, this connection must be confirmed or denied, and if confirmed then we must bring the fight to them.”

James finished his glass.

“I accept.” James said.

The Archmage smiled. “I am pleased, James.”

The Archmage moved half-way across the disk-like room and retrieved something from a box that seemed almost as old as the man himself. Covered by a cloth, James could not tell what it was that his master held in hand. As he got close, James watched his master unveil the object and revealed it as a headband; a silver disc with a sun-like device inlayed in gold, fixed to a strong band of black cloth.

“Tie this about your brow.”

James took the headband and tied it on as ordered, centering the disc on his forehead directly over the point that he knew as his “third eye”.

“James, tonight I shall announce your entrance into the Company of the Tower. I shall also announce the expedition for Silver Top, which I shall place into your command. The band about your brow shall mark your status of command, but that is not all it shall do for you.”

James let his eyes speak his question for him.

“You are a young man of fine quality, James, but you are yet a youth and untried. This task shall try you greatly, but I am not without compassion; the band you now wear will, when you need it, be there to help you find the way.”

James smiled.

“There is another part to this task, James. I saw that there is, out there, a great and awesome power. It wants to be found, James, and I want you to find it- before our enemies do. I want you to find it and bring it back for us. Yes, it is somewhere out there, beyond the walls and the pacified bawn. It lies in the wilderness, amidst the chaos now rampant in the world, and I am unable to retrieve it myself- nor are the Masters, or your elders. Only one of your generations has the means to retrieve it now, which is why I place this burden upon your shoulders, James.

James now realized the full extent of the duty before him, and still he smiled.

“Gladly, my master.”


"Far west of the Necromancer's domain, where the Sons of Ken arose, stood the White Tower of the Archmage and the domain that he ruled- and the nation that he ruled as a philosopher-king. Amongst the first generation to come of age under his rule was Harold Arthur James, the man that came to rediscover something once known and lost in the days before the Cataclysm, a way of virtue, that again became known by just one word: Paladin. This is the story of how H. A. James became the first Paladin of the White Tower."

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Stalker-Part 10

Jane awoke to a surprise. She saw Tom looking over her, cuddling their newborn son, and he read her amazement on her emaciated face. With a free hand, he signaled for quiet and pointed to the baby, and then he leaned closer.

“You’re not dreaming. You’re awake, you’re safe, and you’re in the cave with the woman that Ken talked about.”

Jane, still stunned and groggy, didn’t answer. Tom handed her a warm, cooked fish.

“Eat. You need it.” Tom said, “You’ve been out for days. I’ll explain what happened.”

Jane, still coming around, took the fish and nibbled at it.

“Ken sent me to this place, where the cave women dwell, when we failed to get the book I wanted out of the library and had to flee the city. The women here tell me that they are adopted daughters of the spirit of the Mississippi River, which is apparently the thing that found you and brought you here.”

Feeling some strength return to her flesh, Jane bit deeply into the fish.

“Ken figured out what happened, more or less, to the farm. Last I heard, he’s still in the city seeking some way to get to Sally and get out again.”

The baby cooed.

“No matter what, Jane, we’re leaving this place. We can’t go north, and we don’t have the means to go east or west anymore- not for long. Once we know, one way or the other, what’s become of Ken and Sally we’re fleeing from here and going as far from that city as possible.”

Jane looked up from her meal, shocked anew.

“You’ve seen what’s in that city, Jane. We didn’t survive all these years because we’re better than the zeds. We survived because that monster in the city—that “necromancer” Ken talked about—didn’t think we were worth his time!”

Jane put down her fish. “Do you know?”

Tom nodded. “The women told me. One of them heard you talking in your sleep, going on about the attack on the farm, and that’s how I figured that what Ken deduced was right. The world’s gone even crazier than we thought, Jane, and I don’t know what the hell to do anymore- other than get as far from it all as we can.”

Jane slipped her arms around her husband.

“It’s out of our hands now, Jane. It’s all out of our hands, and all up to Ken.”

“Funny, isn’t it?” Jane said, “It seems that the world’s pushing normal people like us out.”

Tom, resigned, embraced his wife and sighed wistfully.

“What about Sally?” Jane said.

“If she’s still alive after all this—if Ken can get her back—then she’s his wife. She’s far better off with him than us now. Ken’s part of this insane world and Sally’s got to go with the future no matter how insane it is. You and I will be busy enough keeping ourselves and the baby going.”

“Why not stay here?”

“I doubt that this place will remain safe much longer, for us or anyone else, especially if Ken succeeds. For some reason, that monster wants Sally, and that means that he’ll come this way sooner or later. We’d better be gone well before that happens.”

* * * * *

Ken, certain that he and Sally were indeed alone, took a moment to inspect the girl as he sundered her bonds- he saw a couple of draw-cuts that had since sealed.

“These!” Ken said, poking the wounds, “What happened?”

“One of them cut me, and then held something up to me right on the cuts, before sealing them. He tasted the blood, and then sprinkled it over the zeds- like some kind of blessing or something. The zeds settled down and then they tied me to the stake.”

Ken cast about, seeking something to use as a cover for Sally, but none could be had.

“Damn!” Ken said, “That makes it clear now. We have to move, now!”

Sally tried to object, but Ken cut her off before she said a word and pointed to the river.

“We reach the river, we’re safe. We don’t, we fail.”

Sally again opened her mouth, and got cut off.

“I don’t know exactly why, but he wants you- alive. He’s used you to set a trap, and it’s about to spring. We run, now!’

Before Sally could stall things further, Ken threw her over his shoulder, broke into a run and made for the river. Distantly, they heard the clamor of a horde of screaming zeds approach. Ken ran, banishing fatigue and strain from his limbs through his own mutant qualities to keep up a sprint-like pace. Sally, looking behind them, saw an uncountable number of corpse-soldiers surge into view like an onrushing flood coming from behind. Ravenous and unyielding, the undead reflection of her own living would-be savior, she screamed and clutched for the only thing still adorning her body: the ring that Ken lent to her, still hanging on a string about her neck.

Moments later, Ken smirked with a wicked satisfaction. A new scent banished the omnipresent stench of death and decay that saturated his senses, swelling up from the very girl current over his shoulder and screaming wildly. The sweet scent, to his senses a mix of lilacs and roses in bloom, made Ken certain that Sally had somehow tapped into a power greater than herself. Soon the scent put him into a near-frenzy, and only through his intense focus on the moment did this explosion of supernatural power not throw him into a rage-filled killing haze. His entire body pushed to its limits, fueled by Sally’s sudden surge of supernatural power, Ken led the horde on a chase that Sally could not believe.

The Necromancer watched, viewing the chase simultaneously through the eyes of many of his drone-like minions, and he directed the horde. He wielded the wave-like hordes as if a painter brushes across a canvas. With each stroke, he meant to cut off Ken and force him to stand and fight, and with each stroke he cut closer and closer to that goal.

After some initial efforts, the Necromancer noticed that when his minions nearly closed the gap and made contact with Ken and Sally there would be some mishap that disrupted his momentum just enough to keep his quarry ahead of his minions.

The shade of John Dee appeared beside the Necromancer. “Master, the girl has some sorcery at her command.”

The Necromancer nodded. “Indeed.”

Just then, as Ken ran over a crumbling bridge covering what once was a rail yard, the bridge collapsed into dust beneath his feet. Ken and Sally fell to the rocky ground below, with Ken ensuring that he—and not Sally—took the brunt of the impact. They landed harshly, but in an inexplicable bit of good fortune they landed in a deep hole filled with stagnant water. By the time the pair climbed out, however, the horde surrounded them.

Ken knew that the river was near; were it not for the din of the horde, he would hear its waters. As Sally glommed onto him, trying as she might to shield herself from the undead and ravenous horde, Ken bent down and whispered into her ear.

“Call to the river, girl. Call to it if you want to live. I will hold them.”

Sally collapsed into a fetal ball, terrified. Ken drew the cleaver-like blades and stood over her.

“Call, damn you!” Ken said, “Or shall I sell my life for nothing?”

The minions came upon them, and Ken whirled into motion. The haze took him, and Ken lost all track of time and space. Conscious thought now suppressed, Ken whirled into motion; without pause he crushed bones and hacked flesh, severed limbs and smashed skulls. Still energized, still frenzied, Ken’s endurance astounded the Necromancer- his mutant nature pushed him well outside mortal limits.

As the blood, bone, rotted flesh and vile viscera spilled around her Sally closed her eyes and clutched that ring as if it was a magical talisman- and in her hands, it was. She chanted the very call demanded of her over and over, unwittingly using it to transform her terror into focused will, and as she did Ken against felt the girl’s supernatural power swell, building up towards a massive outpouring of power.

Ken supped unthinkingly at the power beneath his feet, using it to fuel his flesh and keep it going beyond the limits of his endurance. Already nicked, cut, bruised, sliced and otherwise covered in small wounds all over both arms as at about his chest and back, and then about his legs and then his shoulders and neck- Ken sustained such a series of wounds that would take him down ordinarily, had he not been seized by the fury of such otherworldly menace and power suffusing his senses such that he can’t suppress the urge to slaughter and devour.

“Mississippi River, hear my call and take us away!” Sally said, now screaming.

The spirit answered. The river surged over its banks and flooded the city, sweeping away the debris and dead in its path, and crashed about Ken and Sally. When the waters receded, they were gone.

The Necromancer sighed. “Time is on my side, girl. Sooner or later, you shall serve me.”

Mississippi swept Ken and Sally downriver, away from the Necromancer’s domain, and for now from his power- and as a result, the stalker of the dead became the father of a nation: the Sons of Ken.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Stalker-Part 9

Tom awoke to find the face of a strange woman looking back at him. He found his limbs bound to a crude frame, and his clothes damp.

“You are Tom?” the woman said.

“Yes.” Tom said, “Who are you?”

“I am Lilly.” The woman showed Tom his bag. “You came to us through the river, guided here by our matron, Mississippi.”

As Tom’s eyes adjusted to the light, he noticed that Lilly was a young woman; he guessed that she was yet a girl, about 10 years older than his daughter, when the Cataclysm came.

“Ken sent you here.” Lilly said, “Mississippi told me that Ken left instructions for you.”

Tom nodded, acknowledging. Lilly took up the note and read it to him.

“’Tom, I send you to the ones you called ‘cave women’ so you can escape and recover. Stay there. Once you’re better, be a good guest and help them. Remember your manners, and respect the word of Elder Canny: you do not mess with that woman. Stay put; I will recover Sally and bring her to you. I’ve asked Mississippi to see to Jane.”

By now, Tom’s seen enough weird and fantastic things—especially out of Ken—to let good sense run its course. Obligingly, Tom sighed.

“Might I have someplace more comfortable to sleep?”

Lilly laughed, amused, and cut him from the frame. Helping him to his feet, she led Tom to a nearby bed of leaves and grass and laid him down. She tossed a couple of cured bear hides over him, sat his bag under his head to use as a pillow.

“Deciding to be sensible?” Lilly said.

Tom winced, now noticing the hurt he sustained, and nodded. “Ken was right; my part of this adventure is over, and now all I can do is wait and hope.”

With that, Tom curled up and went back to sleep, a wish swiftly granted.

* * * * *

Ken mulled over his options while consuming the flesh of a zed he’d brought down. He now felt certain that, whatever else this Necromancer was, he was not without the needs and urges of the living; though Ken didn’t perceive the fullness of the Necromancer’s intention, that this was the second time he had crossed paths with the villain during a dispute over women For the second time, therefore, Ken set himself to denying the Necromancer possession of living women.

First, however, Ken had to deal with whatever monster hounded his heels. His hatchet and knife, while valuable tools, would not handle the butchery required for this task. Finishing his meal, Ken banished the fatigue from his muscles and bones, and in stealth he skulked throughout the necropolis for suitable replacements. From a pair of unwary corpse-soldiers, Ken stole a pair of cleaver-like blades; long, sharp and crude—but serviceable—they were, but competently made and deftly-wielded in his calloused hands. In these stolen arms Ken found what he required.

Second, Ken need to draw out his quarry. After a short nap, Ken stalked his stalker. Again he found and ambushed more of his enemy’s undead minions, and over the hours Ken hit and killed many of these as they dispersed throughout the necropolis seeking both him and Tom. Ken, now letting his cunning take up command, ran his trackers on a macabre chase. A head taken becomes a prop in a ploy to misdirect his foe, mounted upon a scavenged piece of rebar and used to give the impression of Ken going one way instead of another. A pair of arms used as props to lure victims to a second doom, thinking that their fox had run into a corner, was another ploy. A pair of legs, stamped to mislead the rotting ears, made them think that their unseen enemies went some false direction, was a third. By such tricks, Ken chased and turned hunter again and again; the attempts by his enemy to keep him from resting proved weak, and from eating worthless.

This, inevitably, forced Quintus Fabius Maximus to confront Ken directly. Fabius, no fool, did not conceive of fighting Ken fairly. When Fabius finally saw Ken with his own dead eyes, they met at the ruins of one of the many bridges that once connected both sides of the river in this dead city. Fabius, befitting his Roman heritage and military history, let his minions swarm Ken. Ken grinned. He drew the purloined blades and—contrary to expectation—ran away, up the naked beams.

The formation broken, Ken turned about and hacked the legs out of the lead corpse. That one now off-balance, Ken pushed the corpse-soldier over the side and let the thing splatter on the broken ground far below. Ken sensed the advantage, and he pressed it. He fell on the undead minions, hacking off limbs and cleaving through skulls with a savage abandon. As one staggered, Ken shoved it out of the way and went for the one behind it. Steadily, Ken fought his way back down the beam; able to kill them one or two at a time, and with the high ground, he fought hard with all power at his command to cleave his way through the army of the dead before him.

Fabius reacted by taking those not on the beam, flanking the beam and throwing debris at Ken; Ken used his foes as shields, and Fabius didn’t care. Time skewed, and all sense faded for both living mutant and undead general. Savage fury and barbarous valor, tied to a supernaturally-honed cunning, proved a match for a depth of experience and significant soldiery that already knew death- and thus held it in utter contempt. In time, despite move and counter-move, a fatigued Ken finally faced a ready Fabius.

“Who are you?” Ken said, breathing heavy after some unknown time in battle.

“I humor you.” Fabius drew a crude mockery of a Roman sword, “Soon you shall die on my blade, and soon thereafter rise as my slave, but I grant your request as a boon- for you fight like only one other I saw in my living days.”

“I’m honored.” Ken said, recovery swiftly, and now seeing that it’s midday as he glanced his eyes upward.

“I am Quintus Fabius Maximus, the general that saved Rome in the Second Punic War and the nemesis of Hannibal Barca.”

The name ran through Ken’s mind; he’s heard it before, prior to the world’s end, and it seemed to be truth. Ken then took note of the general’s stance; this Fabius, clearly, defeated Hannibal- but never beat him. This fact gave Ken reason to smirk.

“Come, then. If you could be so vicious a man as Hannibal, prove it.”

Fabius and Ken closed their distance. Circling, probing, testing, feinting- and then, suddenly, a rush and ring of steel. Body-to-body they went, and Fabius shoved Ken to the ground. Then, no less suddenly, Ken leapt to his feat; he caught the Roman’s thrust with his main hand, and in one smooth motion brought his off-hand down on the general’s skull. Long-dead bone shattered into dust and shards, and the fires in those long-dead eyes flamed out. Without pause, Ken dismembered the corpse and then swiftly fled the scene.

Ken now had the more important of the tasks before him, but in this one he had it easier for he knew where to find his prize. Coming from the farmhouse, the undead troop would enter from the north and west end of the necropolis. This is where Ken went, and he saw that already a train entered from without. Two more like Fabius he saw, and these two seemed to be proper fighters and not mere movers of men. In a place of spectacle now sat, stripped of covering in mirror of her dignity, stood Sally; she stood, lashed to a pole and paraded as a captive princess of antiquity.

His blood got up, and Ken—feeling kinship to the tribal peoples of old—took great affront to this mockery of life in service to some demonic imperial power. No time now for thinking, and all time for cunning and fury. Ken felt that his blades, still slick with viscera most foul, up to the work and down he went to do what so many others did before him and failed.

Still, not a fool, Ken struck the parade from the rear. He attacked, slew a handful, and fled away; he drew away some troops, who themselves met oblivion, before circling back to do it again. In this, however, the Barca men proved wiser than Fabius- death taught them well. They immediately went to the rear to confront Ken. This they did, quickly chasing and catching Ken between the two of them. Ken, sensing that these two monsters were great and terrible butchers of men in life, wisely opted not to face them together.

Ken escaped the two, cutting a swath through a weak point in their encirclement and fleeing. The Barcas again saw Ken’s aim and caught him a second time as he approached Sally’s naked form and struck for the chains binding her.

“Persistent, this one!” Hamilcar said, “What sport this one shall bring, son?”

“This one is the man that the master seeks, father!” Hannibal said, “Apparently, Fabius failed!”

A loud, unnerving and unnatural laughter erupted from the pair. Ken again struck for the chains, which brought the undead back to the moment.

“Deny the master his prize, would you?” Hamilcar said.

“This one is mine, monsters. Promised to me by her father, and I think you two are able to remember what that means.”

“We do.” Hannibal said, “Yet we are the master’s slaves, and must obey him. He demands this one as his own, and we cannot deny him.”

“A shame.” Hamilcar said, “For beating the Roman, we would let you go otherwise.”

Ken’s mind threw a hunch at him, and he decided to play it.

“I did beat him, but I suspect that even in death his Roman ego won’t allow the Sons of Carthage to claim greater glory than he might. As I raced here, swift on my heels ran those under his command, for those I am not without strength I am not a god.”

Just then, Ken felt the presence of a great, terrible and awesome entity. It commanded the attention of the undead officers that he hoped were Hannibal and some other Carthaginian hero; and a few moments later they waved off their troops towards the direction of the ziggurat.

Turning their foul faces to him, they spoke.

“Fare you well, Eater of the Dead.” Hamilcar said, “We shall meet again.”

“Our thanks for rubbing the Roman’s face in it, living Ken.” Hannibal said.

Perplexed, the Barca men quit the parade and raced to rejoin their troops. Alone with Sally, Ken quickly sundered the chains and cut her loose. Then he felt the presence again.

“I am Gabriel.” It said, “I serve the one you know as the Necromancer. I am his vizier and liaison with greater powers.”

Ken sniffed about, attempting to find where exactly this entity was.

“It is our creator’s wish that I defy the appointed king.” Gabriel said, “I assume that this is because you are part of His plan to regenerate Man.”

Ken, his mind still quick in the moment, did not miss his mission.

“This girl, my intended wife, what of her mother?”

“I guided her to the river. You handled the rest already.”

What of our escape then?” Ken said, now looking about him as he put Sally into a carry.

“Yours to handle, Kenneth.” Gabriel said, “I do only what I am allowed, as I am yet faithful unto Him.”

Then Ken felt the presence vanish, and he knew that again he was alone with Sally. That this entity is unseen bothered Ken, but not as much as the implications.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Stalker-Part 8

The men of the community, with Rick in command, returned to the farmstead with the piece of machinery that they raided the necropolis for in hand. Their demeanor betrayed the mixed results, and for Jane and Sally it gave both women pause; in Rick’s face they knew what a conspicuous absence of Tom and Ken really meant before they heard the details.

What none of the men knew was that their absence was long enough for all of them to miss Jane give birth to yet another boy, with no one but Sally to aide her through the process. Subdued, the men came into the house in pairs or trios to see the newborn and pay their respects to a recovering Jane. Rick came in last, having ensured the storage of their prize, and he gave the women the ill word.

“Tom and Ken are inside the city. Tom’s making a run for the library, with Ken watching his back, hoping to find that engineering text again. Tom ordered the men with him to come back; Ken agreed.”

Jane understood. Rick understood. This was not the first time Tom did this sort of thing. Sally, on the other hand, shook visibly and grabbed the ring that she kept under her shirt.

“The men also told me that this ‘Necromancer’ that Ken talked about is in there, and that the old city is gone; there’s some sort of alien city of the dead made from the buildings and streets that used to be there, with a few exceptions. They say that Ken sensed its eyes upon them, and that’s why Ken pushed them to get out as fast as they could go.”

“You don’t think he’s coming back alive, do you?”

“If he does, then Ken will have surely earned his prize.”

With that, Sally broke into tears, ran to her room, slammed the door and wished over that ring.

* * * * *

The undead army of Hamilcar and Hannibal Barca, the Carthaginian generals that brought Spain under Carthaginian rule and prosecuted the Second Punic War, marched without fatigue or distraction for the farmstead designed by their master: The Necromancer. When they received word that a group of men some distance before them seemed to be going to the same destination, the two men knew that soon their work would reach its moment of bloodshed and butchery. Both father and son knew that this was no true battle, but instead punishment. Both had no qualms with hacking apart such communities; they did so plenty in life, and in death it came even easier to them.

It seemed so easy to them. Without fear, they trailed the living men back to the farmstead. Without worry they arranged their meager forces in a simple encirclement. Without concern, they began their attack. Unmoved, they watched their victims expend the whole of the community’s cached ammunition and incendiaries upon the initial waves of expendable troops. Guns empty, bombs used, and barriers bowed- the community moved to evacuate as planned before the barriers broke. While a wave of zeds pressed upon the barriers, the Barcas maneuvered their deathless cavalry into position, and with the aplomb of a father yanking a child up off his feet by the arm that cavalry struck like a hammer against the anvil of the zed infantry.

Exactly as ordered, they slaughtered the men and the boys with savage, monstrous fury. Exactly as ordered, they seized Sally and bound her as a captive. Exactly as ordered, they put both home and fields to the torch. Exactly as ordered, Hamilcar and Hannibal spared Jane. Not knowing if her newborn were a boy or a girl, they spared the baby.

The slain men and boys, now under the Necromancer’s sway, arose from the dirt where they died and fell into line behind their new officers. Jane, alone with only her baby, slumped to her knees weeping as her home, her brother in law, her sons and the men that served her lurched away in time with a sound only the dead could hear while the fields that fed her and the home that sheltered her burned to ash.

As for Sally, she screamed—first with terror, then with horror and finally in hysteria—until she cried out her last and slumped into the back of the wagon, her energy spent, and fell unto a slumber deep and disturbing. The Barca men laughed deep and full, their unnatural voices resonating with a ghastly echo that chilled Sally to the bone, as they drank of her despair as if it were ambrosia. In her sleep, she clutched that ring—still concealed under her shirt—with both hands and wished for someone to make it all better, to make all the monsters go away.

* * * * *

With the corpse-soldiers of Fabius Maximus bearing down on them, Tom and Ken shimmied down the rain gully of the old library as fast as they could go. As they cleared another floor, windows burst out and more corpse-soldiers scrambled out to intercept them in the style of monkeys or apes; they had pieces of steel rebar that they drove home into the wall with inhumane strength and speed, using each as a grip from which they brachiated with practiced ease. Tom glanced down, seeing the banks of the river far below them; Ken copied Tom.

“Jump, and press out from the wall!” Ken said.

“I can’t clear the distance!” Tom said, and the corpses drew closer.

Ken scrambled back up to Tom.

“Ken, there’s no time to arg-“ Tom said, just as Ken socked him in the gut. Ken scooped Tom over his shoulders in a most awkward carry with that same hand, and with moments to spare leapt from the wall and towards the river. The brachiating corpses leapt after them, but missed, despite their horrific might.

As they fell, Ken looked down and saw that, indeed, the ground approached faster than they cleared it. Ken blinked, and in that fraction of a second he felt a gust of wind slam into him; that wind shoved him just far enough to ensure that he and Tom would clear the bank and land in the deep water of the river. As they hit the water, Ken realized that this was no fluke; someone, or something, aided them- but he knew not what.

Tom and Ken swiftly came to their sense and swam up to the surface. Breaching it, both saw that the current already pulled them away from the library and south, away from the Necromancer’s center of power- and even further from the farmstead that they knew not yet had been raided and ruined by the Necromancer’s legendary lieutenants. The pair hurried swam for a fallen branch that hung over the water, and having grabbed fast to it they slowly drew themselves out of the water.

“What were those things?!” Tom said, slumping to the earth, exhausted.

Ken, likewise, sat on the dirt behind them. “Dead things.”

“No zed moved that like before.” Tom said, checking his bag, “They moved as if they lived.”

“They’re dead, Tom. They reeked of it, yet there was another presence—fouler, ranker—that drove them and guided them. It was his power that overwhelmed my senses, and yet it was not that of the Necromancer.”

Tom, though tired in ways he’d not been in years, had yet his wits. “A subordinate?”

Ken nodded. “It had to be, and it had to be a potent one.”

“Then we should count ourselves fortunate to’ve thwarted him.”

Now Ken shook his head. “No, he’s not done yet. We were hounded and harried, Tom, and we didn’t escape without aid; someone or something pushed us out over the water- we should’ve died.”

Tom, finding his bag to be okay, shunts it aside.
“Tom, we’re in way over our heads.”

Tom almost asked Ken for clarification, but then the implication hit him and he inferred Ken’s meaning clearly, and he gasped a wordless cry of terror.

“I’m sorry, Tom.” Ken said, taking Tom into his arms, “Your farm is forfeit for certain. So are your men, your brother, and…”

“My family?” Tom said, as tears began streaming down his face.

“This Necromancer may yet spare your wife and daughter, as he sees value in sparing a widow as a living symbol of his might. As for your daughter, I have good reason to believe that he yet breathes as we do.” Ken said, “But your sons are now his corpse-slaves.”

“What would a monster like him want with my daughter?” Tom said, sobbing.

“What you have with Jane is what he wants, Tom, and what all men want.” Ken dried Tom’s eyes, “Now, quiet yourself and listen to me. I am no master of military minds, but I do know tracking and stalking- and right now we are being stalked, hounded, and harried. This rest we’ve gotten won’t last long, and soon enough we’re on the run again. However, this means that we’re more valuable to our enemy alive than dead at this time; we must make use of this fact while it exists.”

“What are you talking about?” Tom said, agitated.

“Survival.” Ken said, “Maybe even something of a win, but everything’s changed now. Your time in this adventure is over, Tom. The best thing you can do now is leave this place and stay away; I’ve got a strong feeling that I—not you—am the quarry being hounded here, and that now things reshape to put me into the trap.”

Tom looked at Ken, ill-following Ken’s logic.

“I eat zeds. He makes zeds. Need I spill this out in more basic terms?”

“But Jane-“

“She will be fine, if you do exactly what I demand of you. Can you do that?”

“How? How can you possibly guarantee that?”

At this point, using his unseen hand, Ken found the taser that Tom secretly kept in the bag and drew it out without a sound. Keeping Tom’s attention misdirected to him, Tom never noticed Ken turn it on; the next thing he knew, Tom again fell into unconsciousness and his form went limp in Ken’s lap.

With great urgency, Ken scavenged amongst the nearby trees and ruins. He found enough floatable debris and lashing materials—wire, cables, etc.—that he put together a frame and tied Tom to it. Then he took his knife and stood before the river. Cutting his own forearm, he let the blood fall into the river and waited a moment.

“Mississippi, I call to you. Receive this, proof of myself, and answer.”

Moments later, Ken felt—but neither saw nor heard—a palpable presence about him. Wet, wild and willful- it was the entity he beckoned to him.

“What gives you, butcher of those that breathe twice, leave to harken unto me?”

Ken pointed up and behind him, towards the ziggurat.

“He seeks a prize amongst the living, one that may yet hear your voice, so as to trap myself. You are no friend of the dead, despite our own conflicts, and for that reason I ask a boon of you. Take this man, father of the virgin stolen from this man’s home, and take him to the caves where the women I relieved from this monster now take refuge.”

Then, taking a piece of paper and a pen, Ken scribbles a note and puts it in Tom’s bag.

“I leave this man some instructions. Be certain that he reads them; be certain that the women ensure his obedience.”

“In return, stalker, I shall not hear of hunts against my children?” Mississippi said.

“So long as they respect the Creator’s rule, I shall not hunt them.”

Tense moments pass. A swelling sensation of something awesome and terrible rises in the back of Ken’s mind.

“Choose quickly, spirit. A greater power waxes, and likely sweeps this way.”

The raft rises by unseen hands and seems to push into the river.

“Agreed, stalker.”