(Go back to Part 29)
They found the baron in front of the gate to the inner complex, along with Clovis and Minister Turin. “Ah, there you are. I have need of you, Curate; I’m opening the gate.”
“Now?” McCann raised an eyebrow. “The men are exhausted.”
“But who knows what’s inside? What if the zombii—”
The baron cut him off. “According to the book, we have nothing to fear from the chamber inside. I haven’t come this far just to stop now!”
McCann looked at him for a moment. “All right.” He drew his sword. “Let’s go.”
“It’s not your sword we need, it’s your eyes,” said the baron.
“I like to be prepared,” replied McCann.
“As you will.” The baron nodded to General Clovis. “Open it.”
These doors were made of the same steel as the outer gates, but they were still mounted and undamaged. The general pushed against them, and they swung open slowly on hidden hinges to reveal a dark passage. Nothing moved inside.
McCann pulled a torch from where it was driven into the ground and kept it in his off hand. He gave the baron one last look before stepping inside.
The passage was short and straight. It opened into a wide octagonal chamber, sunk into the ground and ringed with rows of steps. The moon and stars were visible through huge shattered skylights. Vines stretched down from the roof, clinging to walls and hanging from steel trusses above. The floor was covered in something—they lowered their torches to see a layer of dry leaves ankle deep. A strange dripping sound filled the room.
As they descended the steps, a black shape loomed in the darkness. Drawing closer, the torchlight revealed a massive tree reaching up through the broken skylights. The dripping was coming from the branches—thick, heavy droplets bunching on the tips of leaves or sliding down the trunk. They fell into a shallow pool around the base of the trunk, marked by a low wall.
“There it is . . .” muttered Minister Turin.
“What?” asked Alex.
“The Weeping Tree,” replied the baron.
They stood, gazing at the strange sight, until McCann reappeared. His sword was sheathed. “The room’s clear.”
The baron stirred himself. “Good. Is there another door?”
“Yes. On the far wall.”
They approached. It was a blast door built two stories high out of reinforced steel and titanium. Vines and creepers obscured its edges.
“How do we open it?” asked the baron.
“I . . . I don’t know.” stammered Turin.
“Well, what does the book say?” asked Sinclair, simmering with impatience.
“Nothing; the last pages are missing. There’s nothing after the mention of the Weeping Tree.”
The baron growled in annoyance. “Well, get looking! My prize is somewhere behind that door. There have been too many delays already!”
McCann found the control panel a few minutes later. It blinked on, a brilliant blue light in the darkness. He scraped vegetation off of its surface. “Here’s something.”
They gathered around, all captivated by the strange artificial light except for the sergeant. “What is it?” asked Turin.
“The way in,” responded McCann. He touched it and text appeared. “A puzzle, left for us by the Ancients.”
“The old language . . . but such a strange dialect,” pronounced Turin, after a few minutes studying the panel.
“Aye.” McCann touched the panel again and the text changed. “You’ll need my help with this one, too.”
“Well, get started!” said the baron.
“What, now?” McCann looked at him, incredulous.
“Yes, now!” he thundered. “I’d do it myself if I could, but barring that I’ll have you two at it until that door is open! No more delays!”
“. . . we’ll need light. Lots of it,” said McCann.
“More torches, then, Clovis!” Sinclair waved away the general.
“Paper, too, and quill—”
“There is no ink,” said Turin.
“Charcoal, then. Sharpened to write with,” amended the sergeant.
The baron nodded. “Yes, yes, I’ll send for it. Just get working!”
Alex fell asleep watching the two figures crouched over the panel. When she woke the next morning, buried in the fallen leaves, they were still working, red-eyed and grumpy. Baron Sinclair was gone, but Alex could see a rut worn in the leaves where he had paced all night.
Alex stretched and yawned. McCann heard her. “Get us some breakfast, will you?”
“Sure.” Alex got up and went into camp.
When she came back, the sun was well up and there was no more need for torches. She brought them more bacon, hardtack, half a dozen of the strange fruit, and a wineskin.
“There you are. What took you so long?”
“I tripped on a slab of concrete hidden in the grass. It scraped my palm pretty bad.” Alex held up her left hand. It was wrapped in a bloody cloth and stung badly. The food was held in her right.
“So much for your friendly spirits,” was all McCann said. He ate slowly, head down and shoulders hunched over. Turin looked worse—he rocked back and forth as he sat. Both smelled of smoke and had bloodshot eyes.
“Any luck?” asked Alex.
“No!” they said together. Alex dropped the subject.
When the baron arrived later, Alex expected him to begin yelling about the door again. He didn’t, though. Instead, he came to her.
“Alex. Walk with me.”
“Uh . . . of course, Milord,” she replied. It was the only possible answer.
Alex followed the baron out into the passageway. “What is it, Milord?”
The baron laughed. “You can drop the title, Alexis. I think after coming through that swamp together we know each other a little better than that!” He laughed again and draped an arm over Alex’s shoulders in a gesture that was supposed to seem paternal. Soon they were out of earshot of the others.
“So, um . . . what can I do for you?”
“Alexis—Alex . . . yes, I feel like I know you well by now. You fought well in the pass; I saw you slay more than your share of the monsters. Then you climbed the wall, alone, before pulling that stunt at the gate,” he laughed, “. . . yes, Alex, you remind me a lot myself at your age. I feel like I know you well.”
Alex opened her mouth to reply, but the baron didn’t give her the chance. “The one I don’t know is your father, the ex-Curate.”
“My father?” asked Alex.
“Yes. I don’t know what he’s going to do when we find it, and I need to know now, before we do,” said the baron.
Alex’s chest tightened; this was a treacherous line of inquiry. “What are we going to find?”
“You haven’t guessed? Come on, Alex, you’re smarter than that! What’s worth all this trouble? A dozen ships, thousands of leagues of travel, hundreds dead, incredible risks, and as Turin all-too-frequently reminds me, an enormous expenditure of wealth.” He looked her in the eye. “What could be worth all of that?”
Alex’s blood ran cold. She could barely speak the words. “A . . . cure?”
“Exactly!” The baron slapped her on the back and started walking again without noticing that he had nearly knocked her over. “It’s never been mentioned outright, but when I found that book I knew it could only be referring to one thing. A cure, an end to the Plague once and for all, a power the ancients discovered just too late to save them. But if I had it, if I could use it—”
“But the Curate says that the only Cure is the flame,” said Alex, following him.
“The Curate! God take them!” Sinclair spat on the ground. “That’s what I think of the Curate. Of course they would say that.”
“Are they right?” asked Alex, heart pounding in her chest.
The baron laughed. “The Curate says there’s only one Cure, but they don’t mean the flame, Alex. Oh no—it’s not about the flame at all.”
“It isn’t?” asked Alex.
“No!” thundered the baron, “What they’re really saying is that the only cure for the Plague is the Curate. And at what cost? Taxes, royalties, right-of-passage, right-of-conscription, fealty, emergency powers—it’s a choice, they say, but a choice between what? A choice between death and slavery?!? The zombii or the Grand Master?!? Tell me, which should I prefer flying over my castle, crows or the Red Flame?” He spat again on the ground. “The Curate can take that for my tribute.”
“But they exist to fight the zombii—”
“The zombii are their leverage. The zombii are only there to scare us into submission, a threat grossly exaggerated by old wives’ tales and Curate propaganda. You were there in the pass—you saw the battle! How many thousand fell to our blades? I tell you, they die just as well by our steel as any other. Maybe better!”
The baron was flustered with the heat of his argument. Alex decided not to mention the slow trickle of casualties in the swamp, more than three times the number lost in the battle. She brought the conversation back to the Cure. “But if the cure is found, then it won’t matter. We won’t need to fight the zombii any more—”
“—and we won’t need the Curate a minute longer!” Sinclair slapped her on the back again. “With the zombii gone, the world will rise up to throw off the yoke of the Curate. A new world, in need of someone with vision and strength to guide it.”
Alex could finally see what the baron was asking. “You want to know what my father will do if you find the cure, knowing it will be the end of the Curate.”
“Yes.” The baron turned to Alex and held her with his eyes. “Will he still be loyal? Or will he embrace their destruction? They were his brothers at one point, even if he’s exiled now. I learned never to underestimate that bond a long time ago.”
“The bond between brothers, Alex. It gave me this.” And he reached for his sleeve.
Alex gasped when she saw the baron’s forearm. An ugly, ragged scar, purple and bulbous, cut through Sinclair’s thick black hair from wrist to inner elbow. It was an old wound, but a large one.
“Your arm—what happened?”
“Some lessons leave their marks, Alex .” The same arm seized Alex by the shoulder, and the baron pinned her to the wall with his gaze. “What will he do, Alex? What will he do when we find it? I need to know; I need you to tell me.”
It will do no good to lie, Alex thought to herself. He will know—he’s too smart. “I’m not sure,” she said, meeting the baron’s gaze. “That’s the truth. I’m not sure what his relationship with the Curate is.”
“I see.” He stroked his chin. “And what about you?”
“A cure . . . would mean everything to me,” said Alex, thinking again of Dalia. It must be cold now in Joseph’s hut, that far North.
“Would it mean enough to fight? Will you fight to protect the cure? Will you fight for me?” he asked her.
“I . . . yes. Yes, I will.” Alex nodded.
“Good. I will count on you, Alex. Serve me faithfully through this, and you’ll see the Plague cured. I promise you that much . . . and Baron Sinclair remembers his promises.” He swept off back down the hallway toward the chamber.
(Go on to Part 31)