(Go back to Part 27)
The land quickly gave way to a thick swamp. The army left the mules behind, under guard, and spent the rest of the day hacking down trees. The trees were lashed together to make crude rafts, and the supplies were transferred from the pack animals to the rafts. “What about us?” asked Alex.
“We walk,” said McCann.
The next day they started forward into the swamp itself. Progress was slow. The baron kept a group of soldiers at the front of the column, hacking and slashing with axes through the undergrowth. They worked in shifts, rotating when one group tired. The others were set to pulling the rafts through the muck, waist deep in the dark brown water. The soldiers cursed and grumbled at the tow ropes, tripping on submerged roots or sinking through into pockets of mud when the ground disappeared beneath them.
The outriders, though, had a more terrifying task, sweeping the water with long poles for the inevitable submerged undead. Many of the zombii in the swamp were hidden by the water, crawling along the bottom and ready to put their teeth into an unsuspecting man’s leg. Once or twice a day a man would disappear without warning, pulled under by the zombii’s clutching arms. The others would stab into the water, often killing the infected soldier along with the zombii and turning the murk red with blood.
Other zombii floated, usually facedown, buoyed up by gasses inside their bodies. These were easier to spot, although still difficult to kill with a clean blow.
The undead were not the only creatures hunting them. Most larger predators stayed away, although sometimes they heard a snarl and the snap of teeth when a corpse was left behind. Insects were a bigger problem, as they were unafraid of the intruders—huge swarms of flies and mosquitoes buzzed around them day and night, stinging and biting at any exposed flesh. Fat black flies covered their ears, noses, and even eyes at nightfall, filling the air with an angry drone no matter how many times they were swatted away. Orange centipedes and giant spiders fell on them occasionally from the twisted canopy of branches above them.
The worst enemy, though, was invisible. The slightest cut or break in the skin was a huge risk for corruption. One soldier had his arm ripped open by a fierce boar; by the next day his entire arm and part of his chest was gray and oozing pus. The healing skills of the army’s doctors had little power against the dank, rotting stench of the swamp. Other men, foolish enough to drink the clotted water, were struck with dysentery. Fever attacked only a few at the beginning, but every day more of them were shivering under blankets, lying wet on their backs on the rafts.
Alex hated it. She hated the stinking swamp, with its clinging branches and tearing nettles. She hated being wet from the waist down, day after day, feeling her boots rot between her toes as she walked. At night, those men that could climbed trees to sleep, or crowded onto the few bits of dry land. The unlucky slept on the rafts, crammed in with the others and cursing whenever someone shifted the balance and submerged the men on one side. Alex hated the twisted branches, the hanging vines, and the wet forest that stretched all around them, silent except for the scream of a hunting cat or the gentle plop of something slipping unseen into the water.
The losses mounted as the second week stretched on, and each day they moved a little slower with less men to cut the path through the swamp and less men to pull the rafts. Morale had been high after the battle in the pass, but now the men were pale and thin. They walked like the dead that hunted them, hunched forward, shambling foot to foot . . . all of them but the baron.
“What’s he looking for?” asked Alex one night. She and McCann were up a tree near the edge of camp. There were no campfires, just the glow of torches from the sentries.
McCann laid his head back against the bole of the tree. Even he looked tired; Alex took some comfort in it. They’d stopped bothering to dry their clothes days ago. The sergeant said nothing.
“You know, don’t you? It wasn’t the key you were looking for in that book, was it? You wanted to know what Sinclair is looking for. It’s a Curate book, isn’t it?”
“Aye.” McCann said the word slowly, carefully. “It looks like one, at least.”
“What’s in it? Some treasure? Relics?”
“I don’t know,” said McCann, “but I have my suspicions. It’s something very powerful, that much is certain.”
“That must be why he didn’t want the Curate to find out about his plan, right? Is he going to use it against—uh, them?”
“Perhaps.” And McCann would say no more on the subject.
They found more cairns as they slogged through the swap. Every few days an outrider spotted one, and McCann was brought forward to translate. The path always led east, through the unrelenting hostility of the stinking swampland. The last cairn had clearly been built by the Ancients; it was a single pillar of rectangular concrete into which the old language was carved. The men marveled at its smooth, symmetrical body.
“Three more days,” said McCann. “East. By the river, it says.”
It took them five days. The first sign that they had arrived was an abrupt rise in the ground, capped with tall cement wall. It ran in a straight line in either direction through the swamp, covered in vines and vegetation but otherwise impassable.
“Could it be?” breathed Minister Turin. Slime and twigs filled the thin white beard that had been so carefully oiled and perfumed on the ship. His legs were covered with boils and inflamed cuts, but the old man was still standing. The same could not be said for a third of their company.
“Yes. It is,” said the baron. He alone remained ruddy-cheeked and energetic, even in the face of fever. “We need someone to climb one of those trees.” He pointed at a fallen trunk, shattered against the concrete.
“I’ll go,” said Alex, before McCann could stop her. She was tired of the endless swamp, and curious what lay on the other side of the wall.
“Then go!” said the baron. Alex dug her fingers into the soft wood. The trunk groaned under her weight, but didn’t move; it was anchored in the corner formed by the wall and a massive pillar. When she reached the crown of the tree, it was an easy jump up to grab the ledge. She scrambled up, avoiding what was left of the barbed wire, and swung one leg over the side.
A huge square compound stretched for hundreds of yards in each direction. Vegetation filled the spaces between long buildings, but it was orderly growth and not as thick as the surrounding swamp. Here and there a tree grew through a window or roof, but most of the structures were intact. Empty windows and doors gaped at her like missing teeth in concrete frames. Another, higher wall guarded something in the center, and a huge, shattered steel gate hung from broken hinges on the opposite side of the compound, guarded by a pair of turrets.
Beyond the far wall, though . . . Alex wasn’t sure what it was at first, as the silver reflection of the sun blinded her. It was only when she was able to pick out the fringe of growth on the other side that he realized it was a massive river, as big as the mouth of the river where they’d sailed on the Lysia.
“A river! It’s huge!”
Turin and the baron looked at each other. “The Ro River, Turin?”
“Maybe, Milord. I’ve heard stories, but . . .”
“What else can you see?” shouted the baron up to Alex. She described the compound to him.
“. . . and near the gate, there’s a little lagoon. Maybe some old docks, I’m not sure. It’s sheltered from the river.”
“We’ll take the rafts there, and move everyone inside the walls.” The baron gave his orders, and the column began to snake around the south side of the square compound.
“Alex! Come down!” McCann shouted.
Alex glanced along the wall. There was a walkway cut into the concrete on the inside, only a short drop down. It would be so easy to slip over the side onto the ramparts . . . she could run all the way round, free of the stinking swarm and filthy water. She could even beat them to the gatehouse, at the rate the soldiers were clawing through the undergrowth. Alex’s heart rebelled against the prospect of another minute wading through the muck, every step expecting a bony hand to grab her ankle. They’d lost another one this morning, throat slit and skull smashed by an officer after being bitten by a stray zombii.
“Someone needs to scout the gatehouse and make sure it’s safe. I’ll go fast and quiet, to make sure it’s not a trap. If there’s trouble, I’ll just find another tree and slip back down the other side,” she said to herself.
“Don’t worry, I’ll see you at the gate!” she yelled back, swinging her other leg over.
“Alex—!” but the rest of McCann’s shout was lost as she slid down the concrete.
(Go on to Part 29)