(Go back to Part 31)
“… But the Ancients were deceived.
For even their places of safety were broken open. After consuming the cities, the ravenous hordes turned to the last fortresses of mankind and tore them open. All were consumed.
Even those who thought to put the mighty sea or the height of mountains between themselves and the Plague failed to find safety. For the Ancients betrayed themselves; in their greed, the seeds of the Plague were already sowed deep inside their bodies. And so eventually all but a bare few were consumed.”
–The Lexicon, Leviathans 13:15
It was two days before General Clovis returned from the swamp with a suitable specimen. By then, all the wounded soldiers had bathed in the pool, as well as several with other chronic conditions. The burning steam cleaned all wounds and purged all diseases.
McCann refused to, despite the web of scar tissue on his back. He also forbade Alex from returning to the pool.
That evening, Baron Sinclair assembled the army in the Weeping Tree’s octagonal chamber. The soldiers were in high spirits after two nights of plentiful food, rest, and dry feet. The healing miracles helped too, of course, and now everyone was curious to see the tree. Sinclair’s men talked and joked amongst themselves, waiting for the baron to appear. An expectant hum filled the chamber.
“I don’t like this,” said McCann. They were on the steps closest to the exit, at his insistence.
“What?” asked Alex.
“All the theatrics. The baron wants to make this a big show. This is supposed to be his coronation as master of miracles, but he hasn’t tried it on the zombii yet,” said McCann.
“It cured everything else. Why wouldn’t it work on them?” asked Alex.
McCann shook his head. “There’s only one Cure. You know that.”
Alex argued, “Maybe this is the exception. Maybe this will actually work.”
“People have thought so before, many times, and it always goes wrong. Horribly wrong. The Curate knows this because of the records at Antioch.”
“The baron says the Curate—”
“I know what the baron says!” There were a few moments of uneasy silence between them.
“The baron says that with the zombii gone, we can build a new world, and save the infected,” said Alex, finally.
“A brand new world with him as its emperor. Tell me, what do you think he would do if someone didn’t want to be part of his new world? Deny them the cure, maybe? Or even spread the Plague in their lands, knowing that his soldiers would be immune?” asked McCann.
“. . . I didn’t think about that. He wouldn’t actually do that, would he?” asked Alex.
“He would. This man has Curate knights in chains. He has your brothers in chains; remember that, Acolyte,” he spat.
They were cut off by the appearance of Baron Sinclair. Behind him was a naked zombii, tethered around the neck and held by four soldiers with long ropes. Alex was glad she wasn’t one of the men who had to capture it; the undead creature snapped and clawed at them, although at a safe distance.
“Men! Brave soldiers! My brothers!” Sinclair lapsed into the old Southern tongue as his speech continued. At several points he pointed from the pool to the zombii, and the army cheered. Finally he finished and beckoned Minister Turin forward. The minister had a basin of water drawn from the pool; he gave it to the baron.
As they watched, the baron beckoned Turin to take a drink. The minister hesitated at first . . . Alex remembered the old man complaining about an incurable stomach illness and continuous ulcers. Turin took the basin and sipped from the edge; his eyes went wide, and he expelled a large cloud of steam, but appeared otherwise unharmed. The soldiers roared their approval, and Turin rejoined their ranks, shy at the attention he’d received.
McCann’s hand moved to his sword hilt. Alex watched him, wondering what he was thinking, and of the conversation with the baron. As she was about to ask, the sergeant leaned over to say something.
“Be ready,” whispered McCann, “I have a bad feeling about this.”
The baron climbed onto the side of the pool, standing with the basin held over his head. The soldiers jerked the zombii forward, pitching it onto its knees in front of the baron. He pronounced one last, long phrase, and then upended the basin.
There was a flash, as with the wounded man, but much brighter. It was so bright that they had to cover their eyes; when their vision cleared, there was again a great cloud of steam. Inside writhed the form of the zombii, but as the steam cleared they could see that it was not healed. Instead it was wreathed in shooting white flames. They blasted out of the zombii’s gut, consuming it from the inside. The soldiers holding it fled, but with a final bright flare the zombii was consumed. All that remained was a smoldering pile of ash.
A hushed silence fell over the group. Alex’s heart fell—it wouldn’t do to give Dalia that—
A huge black shape exploded out of the ground where the ashes had fallen, scattering them in a puff of white smoke. Its form was indistinct, but Alex caught a glimpse of shining black chitin and empty glittering eyes. Jagged claws scythed out from it on either side, spraying blood as they ripped the nearest two soldiers to pieces. A third man screamed as the beast spat a glob of green acid straight forward into his face. The Southerners recoiled in terror; some screamed, while others reached for their swords—
The baron’s blade came down in a silver arc and crunched deep into the giant beetle’s carapace. He cleaved the head all the way in two from his position behind it on the ledge; it shivered once and died, legs digging furrows in the soft dirt.
The baron pulled his sword from the carcass and spat once on the ground, nonplussed. “Turin! What is this?”
Everyone turned to the minister, but Turin seemed to be having some trouble speaking. His face had gone ash-white and he was clutching his abdomen. It looked like he was in pain.
“Turin? What’s wrong? Speak!” commanded the baron.
The old man opened his mouth to speak, but instead blood frothed out. It spilled from his lips, boiling and smoking in puddles on the ground. It came from him faster and faster, in unnatural quantities . . . the soldiers began to edge away from him as he fell to his knees.
It didn’t appear that Turin could hear him.
“Turin, say something!”
The elderly minister jerked backwards, as if his body was being pulled by invisible strings. His face was contorted, skin pulled tight by straining muscles and eyes bulging sightless from their sockets. There was something moving under the back of Turin’s robes, something growing . . . Alex tried to look away, but she couldn’t. Turin opened his mouth again . . .
A piercing, inhuman shriek filled the air like the screams of a thousand birds of prey. Long, black, skeletal wings tore out of his back, dripping with strange fluid as they clacked against one another in agonized thrashing. Soldiers drew swords—everyone was yelling at once—
The inhuman shriek was joined by others from the men assembled in the room. Alex’s gaze darted to this new sound before she could stop himself. Other soldiers were struggling with something—there was movement—strange, fast movement, not human, and coming somehow from inside the men nearby—
“Come on!” McCann grabbed Alex by the shirt. “We’ve got to get the hell out of here! Now!” He started pulling her toward the passage.
“But they need our help!” she said.
“There’s no time—”
A blurred, thick cluster of horned tentacles lashed out from beneath the pool’s surface and stabbed through the baron’s chest, blossoming like a chitin flower from his breastbone. He roared more in rage than pain, still alive somehow, and slashed their writhing mouths into ribbons with his sword as they hauled him toward the ceiling of the chamber. More tentacles stabbed him through again and again until finally the sword spun from his hand into the water.
The entire surface of the pool was foaming with furious teeth and gnashing claws. Sinclair disappeared with a choking scream while more glittering black creatures piled from the water, taking hold of anything living nearby.
“Where—what—how? There’s nothing in the pool—how did they—” Alex didn’t understand.
“There’s no time! Just come! Now!” yelled McCann.
They turned from the room and ran down the passage. Screams followed them, human and . . . otherwise.
McCann didn’t pause when they got outside. He plunged into the grass, which had turned jet-black and brittle. It shattered underfoot like glass. Alex slowed, startled.
“Don’t stop!” McCann yelled back, and they sprinted for the gate.
Most of the torches were out, but the full moon lit their path. Alex could hear yells and the sharp clang of steel nearby as the sentries fought with an unknown foe. She nearly tripped a moment later; the ground was changing, bulging up in places as if earthen bubbles were coming to the surface.
Her boot caught on another mound a moment later, and with a shower of dust a huge buzzing insect clawed its way into the air. With one motion Alex turned, drew, and struck the creature square in the body with her blade. The thick, furry carapace spurted green blood that boiled on the steel of her sword, and the insect crashed to the ground in a writhing heap of claws and wings.
“Alex! Come ON!” yelled McCann, grabbing her arm. “Don’t try to fight them! There are too many!”
McCann was right—the whole compound was writhing underfoot with creatures trying to break through to the surface. Some were huge insects like the one Alex had killed; others were giant soft white worms with round fanged mouths. Alex leapt past one right as a sticky tongue shot out and snagged a flying insect over her head. The insect stabbed furiously at the fleshy skin of the worm until rows of crushing teeth shattered its body. Alex shuddered as the bug emitted a high-pitched death scream.
Other things were coming out of the ground as well—other things even more terrible and disgusting than giant fanged maggots. Her booths crushed carapaces, popped sacs of stinking fluid, and cracked long segmented legs. She didn’t look; she couldn’t look. Alex kept her eyes focused on McCann’s back as the fields around them erupted in an orgy of feeding claws and teeth.
McCann vaulted over the trenches and sharpened stakes set around the main gate. The sentries were already dead—Alex saw movement inside of one man’s shattered red abdomen, but she ripped her eyes away before she could see any more. They cleared the gate, and Alex could see McCann’s goal—the rafts that had carried their supplies through the swamp, tied up now on the river.
They sprinted down the ruined dock toward the water. With a careless jump, she crashed down next to McCann on the nearest raft. “Cut the lines!” McCann already had a long pole in his hands—Alex scrambled to her feet and hacked apart the ropes binding the raft to the shore. As they shoved against the dock, the raft started to move out into the current.
A buzzing filled the air. Alex caught the shadow of more huge flying shapes coming toward them. She swatted them from the air one at a time, sizzling green blood dripping down her sword and onto the raft. Then the river’s current took hold of them and the shore started to recede, although they could still hear the terrible cacophony of death that was tearing the compound apart.
“There. I think we’re safe.” McCann laid down the pole. “Are you all right?”
“Yes—although . . .”
The sergeant began lighting the torches still on the raft. “What?”
Alex clenched and unclenched her left hand a few times. It felt strange. “My hand itches.”
“Your hand—” McCann froze. “The same one you scraped in the pool?”
“Yes, but I don’t know—”
“Give it to me. Now!” He seized Alex’s hand and tore off the glove.
Alex screamed. Her sword went spinning overboard. Tiny spiders were streaming from a ragged black hole in her left palm. Her glove dripped with the blood of crushed arachnids, but more kept pouring out from inside of her body. Some were fighting, devouring each other, while others streamed up her wrist or fell from the tips of her fingers.
She tore at the skin frantically with her fingernails. “Getitoff-getitoff-getitoff!!!”
McCann seized a torch with one hand and clamped down on Alex’s forearm with the other.
“Sergeant! Help! I’m—!!”
“I’m sorry.” And he thrust Alex’s palm into the flames.
The pain was immediate and immense. Alex heard someone scream—the scream filled her whole mind until nothing was left, and she fell down into darkness . . . down, down . . .
(Go on to Part 33)