(Go back to Part 26)
“The plague took the cities of the Ancients, one by one. Their armies were scattered, their empire in chaos. All that remained was death—death, in huge black forms, in swarms of unspeakable monsters. Winged beasts seized them from above. Burrowing monsters attacked from below. The oceans teemed and swirled with death of every kind.
Corruption rained from the skies. The earth cracked open beneath their feet to spew blood, bile, and terrible acids that burned the skin from their bodies. And from inside their companions burst the plague in its many forms, always changing and always hungry.
Despite using their most terrible weapons, the Ancients could not stop the plague. And so they ran, they fled from the horrors, and found many and varied places of refuge.
And—for a time—the Ancients thought they were safe.”
–The Lexicon, Leviathans 13:12
The army rested that day and most of the next night.
The next morning they mounted again, following the sigils carved into the stones. Ashes of the undead smoldered in the pass behind them, leaving a dirty smudge on the horizon for most of the day, but they continued north.
The path began to descend again. They’d fought the zombii at its highest point; now it cut back down through the hills and began to bear more to the East. Each step took them further from Antioch and the Grand Master. Alex sighed at the thought, but she dared not say anything to McCann with so many of the baron’s soldiers around them.
A hundred men died or were bitten in the battle. About half of the wounded died as well over the next few days, despite the extra room made on the mules for them. There was not so many, though—the zombii seldom wounded anyone without infecting them. The rest of the soldiers were in high spirits, particularly the young men who had survived their first battle. Ross cornered Alex one night and sang her the first few lines of “The Battle of Stony Pass,” a ballad he was writing. The young man translated as he went, cursing the Anglic tongue at every turn.
“It takes all the music out of a song!” complained Ross. “I wish I’d been in the south pass with you, fighting next to the baron! The north was too easy.”
Alex thought of the man screaming as his limbs were ripped off by the zombii. “No, you don’t.”
The ground grew wet and fertile over the next week. Soon they were walking through tall green grass, leaving a muddy track through the rolling hills. Great trees grew through the undergrowth here and there, and the sigils were carved into their trunks instead of stones. Their passage startled birds from the grass and the occasional snorting pig, but there were no signs of activity, human or zombii.
Each day the grass became thicker and the air more humid. Soon they were circling around pools of green muck and swatting away droning insects. Fallen white tree trunks lay scattered under the brush, tripping up the unwary as they slogged through thick black mud.
One day, around midday, the column halted. “Send up the sellswords,” came the word.
“Says who?” barked McCann. His left boot had sprung a leak an hour before and he was in a foul mood.
“The baron!” came the reply. Alex tried to catch his eye, but McCann wouldn’t look. “Well, I suppose we best go, then.” He picked his way forward, Alex in tow.
The baron was on foot with his advisors, gathered atop a small hillock. His black chainmail no longer glittered; it had burnished to a dark gray in the weeks on the trail, and a patch showed where it had been mended after the battle. General Clovis had the marks of a dent in his breastplate and a long scratch over one eye, but Minister Turin showed the most signs of wear. His voluminous robes were torn and splattered with mud; with his bald head and skinny neck jutting from the collar of them he looked more like a starving vulture than ever before.
The baron turned as they approached, and Alex could see what was behind him. Another cairn was raised on the hillock, similar to the one on the seashore but not as tall. This one was covered in green vines that had likely done more to hold it up than to tear it down over the years. A single flat stone served as its base.
“There they are. You two, come here,” said the baron.
“Yeah?” said McCann. “What do you want?”
“This is a mistake, Milord,” muttered General Clovis, shaking his head. “We can guess well enough without their help.”
“Quiet.” The baron pointed to the base of the cairn. “That, Curate. Can you read it?”
Alex squatted with McCann in the grass, peering at the stone slab. Faint figures were carved into it, aged by the elements.
McCann grunted. “The old language.”
“I know that,” said the baron. “Can you read it?”
“Can’t Minister Barebones over there read it?” McCann gestured at Minister Turin.
The baron glared at Turin. “His understanding is . . . incomplete.”
The old scribe averted his eyes and chewed on his lower lip. “I can read some, but the rest is gibberish. It’s some sort of code.”
“I suggest you make better sense of it than he did, Curate. Do you need encouragement?”
McCann looked at the two of them before turning back to the cairn. “No, no, of course not.”
McCann settled onto his knees and squinted at the stone characters. He circled the monument twice, slowly, tracing his fingers across the etched patterns and muttering to himself. They spent several minutes watching him.
“Well?” said the baron. “What does—”
“They’re directions,” McCann cut him off, “but Turin’s right. They’re in code. I’ll need the book.”
“The book?” Turin was startled.
“Aye. That’s where the key is.”
“Give it to him!” commanded the baron.
Turin pulled the heavy tome from inside his robes and gave it to McCann. The sergeant eased it open on the ground next to him and began looking through it. “The key could be hidden anywhere in here,” he said.
“Then start looking!” replied the baron.
McCann paged through the thick book, making a big show of looking from the cairn to the pages and back. Soon he started scratching figures in the mud. This went on for several minutes . . . the baron began to pace. He had just opened his mouth to interrupt when McCann snapped the book shut.
“East. It says we go east, into the swamp.”
“That’s all?” asked the baron.
“It also says the next sign will be made clear when we see it,” added McCann.
“How did you translate it?” asked Turin.
“Ha!” McCann snorted. “And give you no reason to keep us around? I think not.” He gave the book back to Turin.
“Don’t push your luck, Curate. Serve me well, and you’ll be rewarded. Mislead us and—”
“—and we’ll all die here, devoured by the zombii or who knows what else. Trust me, Milord Baron, this sellsword loves keeping his head on his neck as much as any of you do.” Alex winced; McCann’s tone was insolent, almost mocking.
“Hmph.” The baron snorted at them before turning. “East! Let’s march!”
(Go on to Part 28)