(Go back to Part 25)
They fought against a writhing wall of mottled gray flesh that reached out at them with wasted fingers. A soldier on Alex’s right was seized from behind; her sword bit through the zombii’s arm, taking it off at the elbow before returning to smash its brainpan. Another grabbed Alex as she finished the stroke. Cracked teeth gaped at her for a moment, and then a kick from her boot threw it back with shattered ribs. She slashed at a pair of milky, vacant eyes, and her blade caught halfway through a zombii’s skull. Alex tugged it free as the creature collapsed in a quivering heap; she smashed another’s face in with her sword hilt, feeling the rotten bone collapse inward like an overripe melon.
She bashed a fourth monster with her forearm as it attacked her shoulder, snapping its head around sideways. A backhand stroke decapitated the zombii before it could recover—Alex dispatched the severed skull with her knife as it lay gnawing at the dirt.
And suddenly she was clear again. Fighting was fierce all along the line, but Alex had a few moments to pause and think. She stood, chest heaving, before remember what McCann had told her. “The bonfire. Right.”
McCann and a few of the others were formed up in a semicircle, bonfire at their backs. The bright flames lit the horde well, and their blades flashed with each stroke. A mound of shattered bodies was forming in front of them, piling on top of each other and rolling back down the slope.
The sergeant noticed her. He pulled his blade from a zombii’s brain stem and gave it a hefty kick. It came to rest against the shins of its fellows, causing a few of them to stumble. “There you are! I told you to come to the fire!”
“I got separated!”
“Ha!” McCann laughed once before stabbing a zombii through the eye. He flung it backward from the blade of his sword. “Sinclair, with his fool charges. You can’t scare the dead.”
“I think it was more for us than for them.” They were both yelling to be heard over the noise of battle. “What do we do now?”
There was a piercing scream. One of the baron’s men had pushed ahead too far from the line. The zombii tore him apart, one arm first, and then the rest of his limbs. He disappeared in a haze of blood and flying intestines.
“We fight!” McCann grimaced. “And we don’t end up like him! Here they come!”
The zombii regained their momentum. The gray wall surged forward again, driving the soldiers back to Alex and McCann. Alex stuck to the sergeant, covering his off hand as well as she could. The horde was coming fast now, and she was not as fresh as she had been before. There was not always time to kill—more often she had to disable or decapitate the undead, so great was their advantage in numbers. She knew the loose heads, with their gnashing teeth, would make things dangerous for the soldiers cleaning up after the battle . . . but that was assuming they survived the battle at all.
Alex had no idea how long they fought. All she knew was that the horde never tired, while her arms and legs began to burn. She started to get clumsy; one slashed missed the target entirely and sent her flying off balance. The zombii fell on her before she could recover. McCann saved her; his blade spun through the monsters as quick as ever. Alex felt the corpses stiffen against her before breaking into trembling shivers as they fell to the ground. The sergeant hauled her up by his collar.
“You all right?”
“I think so—”
A zombii loomed behind the sergeant. Alex kicked out with her boot and knocked one of its legs out from under it; teeth snapped harmlessly near McCann’s head. The sergeant laid a boot on its head once it fell and drove his sword down into the creature’s brain.
A horn blew in the pass. McCann kept his hold on Alex’s tunic even as the horde surged again. “Come on!”
There was no time to argue; they scrambled up the hill just in front of the writhing horde, covered in blood, sweat, grime, and sputum. Facing them were another three units of the Baron’s men, swords drawn and ready. Comprehension dawned as Alex threaded her way through the packed soldiers. “We fight in turns?”
“Of course. The next groups go in now. When they get tired, it’s our turn again.” Alex heard the call to charge as the last of the first groups struggled through the new lines. She collapsed against a boulder as the fresh wave of soldiers pushed the zombii back. Most of their group did the same around her, chests heaving. McCann alone looked relaxed, although he was as covered in blood and gore as the rest of them. Only a few men were missing.
Alex’s hands were shaking as she cleaned her sword. She could barely keep it steady; McCann helped her put it back in the scabbard. “You all right?”
“Yeah. Just . . . the rush . . .” Alex shook her head.
“I know. You’ll get over it. Your hands will steady when you need them to.”
She nodded. “There’s a lot of them.”
“Aye.” He nodded.
“Too soon to tell,” he grunted. “And not much we can do about it if there are.”
A blur of motion caught Alex’s eye. Something fell from the bluff above to land with a wet crunch on the ground. The animals squealed in terror, tearing at their ties. “Sergeant, did you see that?”
“What?” he asked her. She pointed.
Another shape fell from the bluff. They got a better look at this one; it had arms and legs. Alex stood again. “What is this?”
McCann motioned to the nearest group of soldiers. “Find General Clovis.” One of them ran off. McCann nodded to the place where the shapes had fallen, and Alex followed him.
Broken zombii lay thick at the bottom of the cliff when they arrived, and more were falling at a steady rate. Their bodies lay in a twisted heap of shattered bones and broken limbs, writing together in an infernal mass. One had dragged itself free, pulling half an abdomen behind it with its single intact arm. McCann killed it with a single blow after pointing it out to Alex.
“They’re still trying? Even after that fall?” Alex shuddered.
“Not particularly smart, the undead,” McCann grunted as he pulled his sword free, “but dedicated, aye, I’ll give them that.”
Alex tried to tear her eyes away, but couldn’t. The empty faces, naked bodies twisted at impossible angles . . . the nightmarish mass of pulsing, desiccated flesh, squirming hands and feet like giant overturned insects; and worst of all, the continuous crunch of bone as more zombii fell from above. It was all lit by the flickering shadows of the huge bonfires. The Credo priest in Goodhollow had described hell before in his services; to Alex, this was worse.
There was a commotion and General Clovis appeared with the men of the rearguard. He was holding a lit torch in his hand. Taking in the situation at a glance, he gave a quick order and the men spread out to encircle the broken zombii. He saw McCann.
“They can move far? Out of the group?”
McCann shook his head no, pointing to the zombii he’d killed. “The furthest.”
The general nodded, and without another moment of hesitation flung the torch into the pile. A gray hand caught it; soon the flame spread to the zombii’s body, and then to its neighbors. The dry flesh crackled, and before long the entire pile was wrapped in twisting yellow flames. Fresh fuel poured over the cliff, one or two at a time, while the soldiers killed the odd monster that managed to escape the flames.
A low hiss became audible, interrupted from time to time by loud, wet popping sounds, like ripe melons being shattered on cobblestones. “What’s that?” asked Alex.
McCann smiled, his face breaking into the unfamiliar expression for the first time since they’d been with Matthias. “Brains.” Alex shuddered.
A horn blew from the south side of camp. McCann turned. “Come on. It’s our turn again.”
They fought all night. The bodies of the undead mounted at either end of the pass, piling on one another in uneven mounds. The horde became a little easier to deal with as it had to climb over the gory barriers, but the baron’s men were tiring. More of them made mistakes as the night wore on, and were bitten or pulled into the horde and devoured. Swords and bludgeons swung again and again, biting into the gray horde, spilling uncounted gallons of bile and brains, but still the zombii kept coming. The twin bonfires of burning zombii, fed by undead falling from the cliffs, kept the pass full of light and bitter smoke.
Finally, as dawn was breaking, McCann shook Alex’s arm.
“What?” Alex had drifted off to sleep without realizing it.
“Listen,” he said.
“To what?” she asked.
The ceaseless, rattling moan of the horde had filled their ears for nearly a day by now. Alex had blocked it out long ago; it took her a minute to hear it again. She listened.
“It’s quieter,” said Alex.
“Yes.” The roar of the flames was as loud as ever, but the moan of the zombii was fading. “Their numbers are thinning.”
McCann was right. Alex picked up her body to look down the slope. Fighting was still fierce, but the horde did not press them as hard as it had before.
By the time the sun was up, the horde was nearly spent. Torches were set to the hills of corpses, and a guard was posted nearby should any stray undead make it through the raging inferno. The rest of the army was assembled in groups near the center of camp.
“What now?” asked Alex as they stood in lines with the rest. She was swaying on her feet from exhaustion, like many of the others. Blood and sweat, mixed with ash from the fires, had covered her in a thick black grime.
“You’ll see. There’s one last thing to do,” said McCann.
At a signal from the baron, men began stripping off their armor. Alex looked over at McCann, but the sergeant was doing the same and so Alex followed suit. Soon they were all standing there in their underclothes.
The Baron moved down the line, flanked by the men of his guard and another in black with an ax and a cudgel. Alex figured out what they were looking for as they inspected each soldier. “Bites. They’re looking for the bitten.” McCann nodded.
A few came forward voluntarily. One old veteran had had his ear bitten off—clotted blood covered the side of his head. Most of the other bites were clean and nearly bloodless. They reminded Alex of Dalia’s wound. Exhausted, and nearly asleep on her feet, her mind wandered to the image of Dalia lying pale in Joseph’s hut. She hoped that Joseph still had as enough potion to keep her asleep.
Other soldiers, not as brave as the volunteers, had to be pulled forward when their bites were discovered. One young soldier hadn’t even noticed the unlikely injury to the back of his calf; when the guards discovered it he collapsed senseless with shock. Another tried to grab for his sword; he was stabbed a dozen times before he could rise.
“Idiot,” spat McCann. The soldiers inspected them; they were both clean.
The bitten were brought forward one at a time by the soldiers on either side of them in the line. The Baron said something in the tongue of the South, and the massed soldiers repeated it. Then they bowed, along with the Baron. The infected men spoke something in return, and then the men on their left held them down. The men on their right drew their swords and raised them high above their fellows.
Alex closed her eyes. There were a terrible few seconds of sound that she wished she could forget.
The heads were snatched as soon as they rolled from the bodies, and then everything was taken to the fires and burned.
The army was dismissed. Water was distributed, but only light food. Most of the men collapsed where they stood and slept.
Alex collected her things and dressed again. The weariness was crushing, a relentless weight that pulled at her limbs and eyelids. Still she dressed, clumsy, and stumbled over to the rock that she and McCann had made their camp. She curled up in the hollow and was asleep in an instant.
(Go on to Part 27)