Friday, August 15, 2008

Chapter 20b: The West Gate

Shanai crouched beneath a window in an empty store and studied the west gate.

Her trip from the roof had been almost uneventful. She had spotted a dozen or so ghouls, but most hadn't seen her and she outran the rest. Everything had gone almost too well until she reached the gate. Dozens of undead milled about in the morning darkness before the thick wooden door, almost as though they had been positioned there to prevent escape. Dew glittered under the moonlight on their pale skin.

Knowing she wouldn't just be able to stroll through the gate, and wanting to stay out of sight, she had ducked into a small shop with a window that faced the wooden door. She watched the undead through a window, a block from the gate, trying to think of a way through them. Nothing came to mind.

Seeing all that she needed to, she turned and slumped to the floor. Ideas for escape formed and just as quickly vanished as flaws blew holes in every idea she came up with. I need a distraction, but what?

Her eyelids had become heavy and her mind floated sleepily in the ether when an explosion startled her back to wakefulness. Spinning around she turned and squatted below the window, pushing herself up until only the top of her head and eyes poked above the sill.

The orange and yellow flicker of a bonfire broke the early morning darkness. A corpse burned in front of the gate and several others, burning like human torches stumbled back and forth. Most hadn't been harmed by the explosion, but all of them faced toward the buildings to her right, watching something just out of her line of sight. One of the ghouls broke from the others and began a stiff legged march toward the mysterious distraction.

A bottle sailed through the air trailing flames and crashed into the ground to the right of the crowd of undead. The moment it shattered another explosion shook the ground and flames erupted in a great whoosh. Some of the flames singed the hair on one of the closest zombies, but other than that it did no harm.

Shanai didn't understand what was going on, but it did give her the distraction she had been looking for as the ghouls stumbled and limped in the direction the bottle had come from.

She pulled the bow from her back and notched an arrow as she slowly rose to her feet and walked to the front door in the wall to her left. A quick look out the door told her that none of the undead stood in front of the building so she crept out and slunk to the corner facing the gate.

Another bottle sailed through the air on a tail of flames, a whiskey bottle. It slammed into the chest of a ghoul then fell to the ground before shattering in an eruption of flame that knocked the bald corpse onto its back. A human shaped flame pushed itself up and rose to its feet, black smoke billowing from its burnt flesh. The overweight zombie took three steps before his stomach erupted, showering the cobbled ground and several of his mates in greasy gore.

The destruction of a fellow ghoul didn't slow the crowd down as they continued their morbid march toward their attacker. The sweet smell of burnt flesh drifted through the air with the force of a greasy fog. Shanai felt her stomach roll as the smell assaulted her nostrils.

Her way to the gate was clear of ghouls and she crept around the corner, bow held ready. The wooden door sat tightly flush to the ground, but she would work that when she got to that point.

Another bottle sailed through the air and exploded in the midst of the zombies, throwing several to the ground where tongues of flame began to eat into their rotting flesh.

She looked back at where the bottle had come from and a smile lit her dirty face. Marchas stood in the opening of an alley holding a torch. Next to him sat a cart full of whiskey bottles, white cloth stuck from the bottles making them look odd shaped candles with oversized wicks. With a smile on his face he holds one hand to his lips in the universal sign for quiet and waves her to the gate with the torch.

Shanai raised her bow to acknowledge his request then continued creeping toward the gate. I should have known my crazy brother would be too sneaky to get caught by these morons. I'm just surprised he is willing to throw away so much quality whiskey just to save his hide. The thought made her grin, the first time she had felt like grinning since the whole ordeal started.

Within moments she stood before the gate and began looking for the mechanism that would open it back up. Just to the right sat a great wheel with a chain wrapped around it extending from the wheel to the dark recesses at the top of the gate.

Another explosion shattered the silence behind her.

Dropping her bow she grabbed the bar on the side of the wheel that would raise the gate. She pushed with all her might, but the wheel only turned a little, opening the gate up only wide enough for an ant to slip through. With a curse she turned and screamed. "I'm gonna need a little help here!"

The dead turned to face her, forgetting about Marchas. She heard him yell something about her not being able to keep her damned mouth shut then the torch waved over the top of the whiskey cart. With a roar Marchas kicked the back of the cart, sending it rolling toward the dozen or so undead that remained before diving to the ground to cover his head. Shanai watched as the cart rocked along the rough street and slammed into the back of the first ghoul, knocking it to the ground before dipping over and shattering the bottles in an explosion that engulfed the whole crowd. Flaming arms, legs and torsos flew through the air, peppering the street with flaming meat.

Black smoke and bright flame covered the road, not allowing her to see her brother. She was almost ready to step away from the gate and find him when his shadowy form materialized through the black cloud of smoke. "Miss me, sis?"

Shanai didn't say a word. Her bow dropped to the ground and she run up to him, putting her arms around his chest and giving him the tightest hug she could.

He patted her back then pushed her away. "Hey, enough of that. Your gonna ruin my reputation."

She slugged him on the shoulder. "You must have been desperate to burn all that liquor."

He smiled and patted the pack on his back. The tinkle of glass told her that it hadn't all gone to waste. "Now, let's get this gate open and get the hell out of here."

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Chapter 20a: Rachelle's Flight

"I heard he was as old as mankind, a protector or guardian or somethin'. Legend has it that he didn't die, but only waits in the shadows for when he is needed again."

"The legends are wrong."

~Two old men discussing the legend of Wellan the Wizard

creams invaded the castle of Renier. Rachelle heard most of them as distant cries that echoed through the dark cooridors, but some came from nearby closed doors and passageways. The dead had taken over the once beautiful palace.

She followed close behind Wellan as he stumbled through the darkness. He wouldn't let her get too close though. At first she hadn't understood why, but every once in a while he would glance behind him with a cold glint in his eye. She told herself he was only looking after her, making sure they hadn't become separated in the darkness, but she knew better. The glint spoke of hunger and an internal battle being fought for her life. At one point she opened her eyes to his aura, a chore she now loathed. Her gaze revealed a human void, the outline of an old man in black, blacker than the darkness in the cooridor, as devoid of light as any other of the undead she had seen. His aura didn't shine reveal anything about his condition, on what he thought or fought within.

Rachelle had to trust the old wizard or fight her way through the palace. The only good that had come of his condition was that he could sense the undead and lead her through safe passageways.

Watching Wellan as he stumbled through the cooridors reminded her that she was not only seeing the end of the wizard, but the beginning of a new age or the end of an old one. The memories still pounded through her mind, causing confusion and dizziness, but as she slowly assimulated and sorted the information the world gradually became clearer and her headaches grew fewer.

A whisper, like a mosquito buzzing in her ear, pulled her from her thoughts. "Be wary of the black man. He didn't die. I can sense his self serving evil...can see it burning with hatred and the desire for revenge."

" he close?"

The back of Wellan's hear rotated back and forth, barely perceptable. "No, but that one loves to kill and I can no longer protect you. With conversion...the powers I once had are gone. What little powers I have are being used desires. I am like them now, the undead. I hun...hunger for the fleshhhhh."

He stopped and shook his head back and forth several times. His hand rose to his lips then rubbed his eyes. He shook his head once more. "I don't...don't need to talk about that anymore, it only makes the desire harder to supress. I still have some of my wits about me, so I...ugh...I suppose I'm not exactly like the rest of them."

She reached out for his shouder, to give him a comforting squeeze.

"Don't touch me!"

She yanked her hand to her chest, as if pulling it from the snap of a rabid dog.

"I...I'm sorry, Rachelle. I didn't mean...mean to be so harsh, but you don't need to touch me in any way. I'm afraid my will...that I might..."

"No, Wellan. I understand."

He glanced over his shoulder. Behind the hungry glint in his eye she also saw sadness. He shuffled on.

Within moments they stood in the kitchen, facing the open doorway and stairs that led to the cellar. Nothing looked amiss. The pots and spoons hung from a rack over a wooden working counter. Black ashes layed in a pile in the middle of the fire pit. The kitchen looked just like she imagined it would at any early morning hour.

Footsteps pounded toward them from a cooridor on the other side of the kitchen. She drew in a breath that felt like ice water, fear chilling the sensative nerves of her spine. Wellan stepped before her as she held her hands out to her sides, preparing to use her new found powers.

A figure burst through the shadowy arch of the cooridor. Rachell raised her hands over her head, the spell warping the air and sending light bending between her spread fingers.

The figure held his sword before him. More figures burst from the darkness behind him. Everyone gasped.

"Stiles?" Wellan croaked. Rachelle lowered her hands, hoping no one noticed the way they shook.

The Duke and Piet rushed around Stiles with greetings on their lips for the wizard. They froze to each side of the soldier, horror creased their brows.

Duke Renier's voice cracked as he spoke. "Wellan? I...I don't..."

The wizard backed away, towards the cellar stairs, his hands held up before him, palms out. "Stay All of you...please stay back. I...I...I can' hung..." His palms rose to his temples as he bent over at the waist. A struggle took place within the old man, one that Rachelle and the others couldn't understand. She wanted to go to him, to comfort him, but she knew that would be a grave mistake.

Stiles stepped forward with his sword drawn. Another soldier walked from the dark cooridor to join him. Rachelle spun to face them, standing between the soldiers and the wizard, the air crackled and warped between her fingers. She didn't want to fight the soldiers, but she wasn't about to let them harm Wellan.

Duke Renier put a hand on the soldier's shoulders and pulled them back. "No. Let him be."

Stiles lowered his sword, but the other soldier stuttered, "But, my lord Duke...he's one of them. He'll eat us alive first chance he gets."

"Just stay away from him."

In the dark cooridor a terrified female voice moaned. "I hear them, they are coming up the cooridor. W...we have to flee."

With that the crowd moved forward, into the kitchen propper. Rachelle's heart almost broke. She performed a quick head count of the survivors, no more than twenty civillians, and five soldiers, plus Duke Renier and Piet Lithor. How could the city have been whittled down to so few so fast?

She turned to check on Wellan as the Duke walked to her, but he was gone.

The Duke gently nudged her forward while looking into the dark cellar. "He went into the cellar, probably all the way into the escape tunnels." He looked back at the little group. "Go on ahead. Look after my old friend, would you? We will get into the cellar and barricade the door behind us, then follow."

With a quick nod to Duke Renier she stepped into the darkness and followed the steps down into the cellar.

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Chapter 19d: Shanai's Run III

Time seemed to slow down as she worked her way down the board. Every bouncing second seemed like minutes as she pulled herself forward with her hands and arms. She used her knees, feeling the edge of the plank to assure herself that she wasn't about to slide off. With every pull she imagined the lumber slipping off the edge of the windowsill. She saw herself tumbling down into the alley, hearing bone crack as her leg struck the hard packed dirt. Screaming through the pain of a broken leg as the alley filled with hungry eyes and gore crusted mouths.

Stop thinking about it, Shanai. You ain't helpin' yourself with those thoughts. Just keep pulling. The other roof has to be inches away.

Her finger scraped stone. She pushed herself forward, grabbed the gritty lip of a ledge and pulled until her chin touched stone. Shanai opened her eyes and drug herself onto the roof where she lay facing the sky and panting. Her heart pounded to a crazy rhythm in her chest as she stared up at the sky and thanked luck for getting her this far. The rigid edge of her bow pushed uncomfortably against her back, arrow feathers tickled her sweaty neck.

Rolling over to her stomach, she pushed herself up, not waiting for her heart to settle down. She lacked the luxury of time, knowing she had to get to the next roof and down to the street fast. The longer she waited the more crowded the streets would get.

A dozen paces brought her to the stone lip of the far edge of the building. A rickety wooden ladder poked above the roof and led down to the alleyway twenty feet below. No one walked between the narrow walls. The alley created a six foot gap between the buildings, an easy jump.

She walked backward five paces and took a deep breath. Though the jump would be an easy one the distance to the alley below still needled her mind. Images of her falling to the alley floor after missing the far ledge by a hairs breadth kept flashing through her mind. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. You've got enough to worry about without adding imaginary fears. This is a jump any five year old could make and if Marchas were here right now he would have me in tears with his laughter.

Well, Marchas isn't here now. It's just me.

Before she could feed more fuel to her fears, without giving any more thought to her nagging worries, she ran and leapt. Shanai cleared the edge of the far building with a foot to spare, taking a few steps to slow her momentum down. She looked back and smiled. See, nothing to it.

Ten paces brought her to the far edge of the next building, where another rickety ladder poked over the edge of the building like piers. A stone building faced her, a story taller than the one she stood on, separated by another six foot alleyway. She leaned over the edge and peered into the dark alley. Other than garbage piled next to the ladder the way looked clear.

Before climbing down the ladder she walked to the front of the building and slowly peaked over it's edge into the street below. A few undead meandered down the street to the East, lurching toward the building where Ash died. Her destination led West.

Shanai straightened her bow against her back, returned to the ladder and mounted the top rung. With a final look below she descended into the alley.

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Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Chapter 19c: Shanai's Run II

"Come on, Ash!" she screamed down to him as she grabbed the next rung.

He glanced up at her with determined eyes and shook his head.

He's not coming. He has to come.

She stopped ascending and held her hand down to him. "No, Ash! Don't do this. I need you..."

His sword slashed down as the first of them slammed into him, cutting a deep gash from the woman's collar bone to her chest. Her left arm dropped as the tendons and bone became severed, but her right hand grabbed him by the back of the neck. He futilely pushed her hand only to be grabbed on his sword arm by a burly man.

"Climb, girl climb!" he screamed just before the burly man's teeth sank into his throat. His scream turned into a gurgling wail.

A hand swiped across her boot. With a roar, part fear and part frustration, she pulled herself up the ladder until she met the ceiling, where a trap door prevented her from going any further. Gods, don't let this door be locked. She pushed against the wooden door and sighed as it gave way.

Dust drifted down through the crack.

Shanai gave a last look below before climbing through the hatch. The three ghouls at the base of the ladder had given up on her and joined their comrades in their feast at the base of the wall of barrels, a pool of blood spread and smeared around their feet as they tore chunks of flesh from Ash's cooling corpse twenty feet below her.

She slammed the door shut, pulling the hasp over the catch before looking around for something to push through it. Planks of wood lay stacked on the far wall, opposite to a worktable littered with tools. Early morning moonlight shone through two windows, one facing the street and the other facing the alleyway - just below the sharp pitch of the roof. The floor was soft with sawdust. She ran to the table and fumbled through the tools, small metal hardware and sawdust until she grasped a long nail. She ran back to the hatch and shoved it through the door hasp.

That should keep them out. At least for now.

With the trap door secured she walked to the table and leaned back against it, palms flat on the its surface with her fingers curled around the edge, white knuckled. She stared at the wood sliver textured floor, taking several deep breaths.

I'm all alone now. A shiver ran up her spine as the thought worked its way through her. Ash could have made it. I would have helped. He didn't have to sacrifice himself for me. Shanai kept telling herself that as tears warped her vision and ran down the bridge of her nose, but she knew differently. The bite had made Ash too weak to climb the ladder, even with her help and he couldn't have gotten above the corpse's reach fast enough. It's all gonna go to waste, his sacrifice. I can't do this alone. I need...Marchas.

Thinking about her brother reminded her of the adventures they had shared, the bar fights they had lived through, the brushes with death that occasionally followed them.

This is different.

No, it's just another bar fight, another close call. Think, Shanai! There is a way out of this, you just have to think it through. Her brother's voice echoed through her mind, berating her in the dark workroom.

"Yeah, Marchas. I'm open to any suggestions." she whispered to the wooden planks across from her.

Well, I'm not gonna get out of here if I just sit and sulk. What would Marchas do in this situation? She smiled to herself and wiped a sweaty forearm across her eyes.

Treading lightly, trying to make as little noise as possible in the hope that the monsters below her would forget about her, she crept to the window facing the street. The pile of lumber lay stacked before the window, preventing her from getting closer than a few feet. She leaned forward with her hands on the top of the boards and looked down. Half a dozen people wobbled and limped through the streets, converging on the building.

I don't believe I will be going out through the front door any time soon.

She pushed herself upright and walked to the side window facing the alleyway and looked down. Two undead strolled between the narrow walkway between the buildings, one walking to the front and the other lumbering toward the back.

Across the alleyway a flat stone roof sat almost even with her feet, eight feet from her window. On the other side of that building sat another single story building with a matching flat roof.

If I can make it to the second building without attracting their attention I might be able to climb down and get out of this hot spot before they catch me, but can I make that jump. Can I make the jump without making any noise? The answer came instantly. Not likely.

She turned to look around the little attic workshop, checking for anything she could use. Her eyes fell on the planks. They were almost ten feet long, more than enough to bridge the gap. But will they support my weight. They had to.

Turning back to the window she flipped the brass catch securing the panes closed and pushed the window open. Damp early morning air blew in sending a fine layer of sawdust from the window seal to the floor. Shanai crept to the pile of lumber and hefted a plank, almost as wide as herself, to the window. Placing the end of the plank on the window seal she slid to the other end and pushed it out, using her weight to prevent it from tipping down lower than the far roof. The board groaned as it slid across the wood dusted surface. When only a foot of board remained in the room she gently pulled her weight from it and let the far end settle onto the roof. The board sat at a slightly downward angle, but not so steep that she couldn't crawl to the other roof.

Peering over the edge of the window she looked into the alley. The filthy hair of an undead waddled directly under her plank, while two more undead stumbled towards each end of the alleyway. They hadn't noticed her.

Taking a deep breath she grasped the sides of the plank and pulled herself onto the board. It bounced as she landed on top of it. An icy fist of fear squeezed her stomach and she gripped the edge of the plank as tight as she could. She closed her eyes and concentrated on the pulsing rhythm of her heartbeat as it pounded in her ears. The drumbeat of blood continued to count the time, time she knew that she didn't have. With another deep breath to calm herself she pulled herself down until she lay across the board and began pulling herself forward with closed eyes. Heights had always bothered her some, but laying across the board as it bounced with each pull of her arms filled her with an almost paralyzing vertigo. The only thing that kept her moving was knowing that she couldn't stop. If she didn't get across before they spotted her she would never be able to get to the second roof and escape.

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