TALES OF A BLOOD EARTH: THE GAMBLE is a serial fiction series set in the world of BLOOD SKIES and BLACK SCARS.
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Argus knew that his former unit was laughing at him from somewhere down in hell.
Screw you guys, he thought. I’m still alive. At least for the moment.
“So all that we know for certain is that undead have overrun the city,” Argus repeated as he and Gray trekked up the long set of spiraling stairs. The air was cool and moist, but the smell was gut wrenching. The stone walls dripped with water, leakage from the storage tanks located up above. Whoever had built the inn had well-stocked it for emergenices…but since Kaj had discovered that the water tanks were now filled with dead people, that preparation had essentially been for nothing. That also helped explain why the passage smelled so utterly foul. The group had their own supply of fluids — a few canteens filled in the tavern, as well as a plentiful quantity of alcohol — but those wouldn’t last terribly long.
“Yeah,” Gray said. He had the bolt-action rifle that Janus had carried before, one of the many Springfield sniper models. He was a stocky individual, dressed in brown and tan fatigues and heavy combat boots, and his unshaven face and wildly curly hair lent him the appearance of some sort of mountain man. “They just suddenly appeared on the streets, overran everything at once. It was a planned strike.”
“Any vampires?” Argus asked.
“Nah. Just zombies and wights and shit.”
The stairs seemed to go on forever. Occassional arrow slits offered glimpses of the melting orange sky, but Gray didn’t stop, just kept ascending towards the apex of the weather tower.
“Christ,” Argus gasped. He was in good shape, but even he had his limits, and hauling his feet up to the top of this tower was like running a 5k up the side of a mountain made of sand. “How much further?”
“We’re almost there. Quit yer bitchin’.”
Argus heard something through the walls, a vast and disembodied groan that split the air like a seam. The way it echoed made it seem to stem from the darkness of the stairs behind them, and for a moment he turned around, positive they were being followed. There was nothing there.
“God damn,” Gray said with his heavy drawl. “Jumpy much?”
“You’re kidding, right?” Argus laughed. They walked. ”So these undead…” Argus said. “Where do you think they came from?”
“Hell,” Gray said. “Where else?”
“I was looking something a bit more specific, shitkicker.”
“They’re not Ebon Cities, if that’s what you’re getting at.”
They reached the hatch door that led to the roof. Dank sunlight spilled through the edges of the square portal, which was old and rusted and covered in scratches and stains. The stairs came to a sudden end at a small platform over a vertical shaft, no more them three feet across, that led straight back down the dizzying height of the weather tower. Argus saw the floor, just a distant white speck.
Gray undid the latch and threw open the hatch door, which swung wide and clanged back down noisily. The way to the roof was an open square hole directly over their heads, with no stairs or steps — they had to reach up and haul themselves straight up to the roof.
“Yeah, THAT looks safe,” Argus sneered.
“Wuss,” Gray laughed, and he hauled himself topside. There was no stench of the undead, and no immediate sounds of attack, so Argus breathed in deep and put his hands up to grip the metal to either side of the open hatch.
There was something that didn’t feel quite right, but he had trouble placing it. That sound, like something crunching in the distance, made his spine tingle, but he had no idea what it was.
The roof was open and stark, naked to the metallic mid-morning sky. Greasy clouds hung like stains. There was nothing else on the roof save for some water pipes and a toolbox, as well as a low wall that circled the roof and obscured the immediate view of whatever surrounded them; to see out, they’d have to walk closer to the edge. Argus felt a sticky breeze, and he sensed the tower shift as the wind gusted.
“How do you know,” he asked as he clambored to his feet, “that these things aren’t from the Ebon Cities?”
Gray stood at the edge, looking at the ground.
“Come here,” he said with a nod towards whatever lay on the other side. “See for yourself.”
Argus slowly walked to where he could see out over the low wall. He saw ruined rooftops and cracked spires, snapped thaumaturgic wiring and abandoned cranes and wrecking equipment. Smoke circled into the sky, and it filled the air with gritty smog. Bits of dirty sunlight punched through clouds of pollution and waste, illuminating the narrow streets and alleys just as Argus could look down into them, as if the sun had waited for him to reveal what was hidden in the shadows.
If that’s true, Argus thought, then the sun is cruel.
The streets were paved with the dead. Bands of faceless zombies; bulbous kaithoren with razor-fan beaks and undulating sacs of corrosive bile; war wights with taut leathery faces and enormous bird-like claws made of metal; walking scarecrows of human skin pulled tight over gangly stilts of bone; dripping mounds of goo without form or center, just collapsing mounds of molten human remains; and ghouls, hordes of ghouls, child-sized undead with piranha teeth and vicious finger claws, who swarmed over the pavement like an army of war dogs.
There were thousands of undead creatures, more there now than in any other place in recorded history, at least so far as Argus knew. Even any given Ebon City wasn’t believed to house so many animate corpses. The dead stretched from one end of the city walls to the other, filling Kalakkaii’s concrete valleys and it’s hillside neighborhoods, it’s industrial plazas and it’s rotting docks.
“Look there,” Gray said. “Floating over the central plaza.”
Argus did. The sight of what hovered there made his blood run cold.
to be continued…
Copyright © 2011 Steven Montano