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?”
“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.