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.