The quarrying cranes and buildings had stood there since beyond history, slowly decaying. No stone had been cut there since the old days. It had been cold and empty for centuries when the Zombie Corps had built a complex in it. The Zombie Corps complex was three buildings and a series of pits. One of the buildings was a barracks for the Zombies. A second, more luxurious building was a stable for the steeds bred in the third building.
Standing on the edge of the Gorge, with the wind whipping his cloak around, Twig looked down into the shadowy Gorge at the three buildings. The Gorge yawned some hundred and more feet deep, swallowing the buildings. The low-angled sun hardly reached the bottom of the Gorge. The snow-covered roofs of the buildings rose just high enough to be easily seen. Cranes, gurneys, and catwalks clung to the far wall, ancient and mostly broken but built well enough to have held themselves together for all the long years. Twig could see through the dark to the series of pits in front of the luxurious stable. He knew that the dark obscured the sight of the pits and the hefty iron grates over them from Digger. Digger stood next to Twig and looked down into the Gorge.
“Why here?” Digger asked.
“It is secret,” Twig said. “It is defensible.”
“It’s a daft place for a cavalry,” Digger said, raising his eyes. Twig had told him the day before that the Zombie Corps Cavalry Regiment made its base Cankerous Gorge. “Horses couldn’t get out easily.” Nor could they get in easily either. Silk was just finishing tying his horse to a near tree with Bones and Digger’s horse. They would descend on foot.
“The Zombie Corps Cavalry does not ride horses,” Twig said. He began the walk down the narrow, zigzagging road cut into the wall of the Gorge. Digger followed. Silk did as well, looking around as if entering a site of some architectural interest.
Silk had spoken a great deal over the last couple of days. He mostly told war stories, with a creepily joyous attitude. He enjoyed many of the details that implied horrific details. He told a story of destroying a dam to take out an enemy camp, though there had been a town nearby that was also flooded—he told a story about killing a war chief in single combat, but never mentioned what happened to the war chief’s soldiers—he said he caused a landslide that blocked a canyon road to stop an enemy supply chain, and never mentioned whether it cut off supplies from anyone else. Rather than malicious, he seemed ignorant of the unintended effects of his actions. Twig thought that almost seemed worse.
He had fallen in with strange company.
“It looks abandoned,” Silk said. It did look abandoned. None of the buildings had any light coming from them. No heat either. Even before, with his old senses, Twig had felt the heat rising from the pits and the building where the steeds were bred. The artificers had somehow crossbred polar bears with the fire impelled from an explosive powder manufactured by the Scarpy. And, for good measure, the underemphatically named sparking bears had also been given a crown of spiking horns. The resulting fire-breathing bears made the Zombie Corps Cavalry steeds. Twig would have had one. A bear named Frango. Twig did feel a little heat from somewhere in the complex, enough for a fire or two. It was nowhere near enough for even one sparking bear.
Reaching the end of the zigzagging way down, the three of them walked across the Gorge. Now down in the shadows they could see a little better. The floor of the Gorge had been filled with gravel and earth so that the Zombie Corps buildings could have a flat foundation. The nearest building was the barracks. It loomed like an artless block in the shadows. Snow piled against it—jagged icicles draped its every surface, their surfaces rough with windswept frost. A dead silence only a quarry could conjure pressed into every space. It smelled of ice and concrete. Heat like a campfire came from somewhere ahead—Twig could not be sure where.
As they went toward the barracks they passed some of the pits. Some of them had the iron bars broken from within—mangled to make a hole big enough for a bear to pass through. Digger looked down into the pits.
“Bears?” he said. “They ate each other before they escaped. They were enormous.”
Twig went to look. The bears should have been released long ago, put into the stables to wait for deployment with their Zombie Corps riders. When he saw into the pits it confirmed that they had not been ever let out. Skeletons lay on the floor of the pit, their bones gnawed. The bars on top had been broken from within. Some of the bears got away, but none had ever been freed from outside. Twig walked past every pit to check them. All held the gnawed skeletons of enormous, horned bears. Not all of them had broken bars.
“This is not a good place,” Digger said.
“The Zombie Corps would have freed the bears,” Twig said. He walked with haste to the barracks, determined to find the campfire and ask for information.
The door to the barracks had chains on it—ancient chains and a rusted lock. It felt as if the campfire warmth came from inside the building. There must be a window broken through which the intruder had climbed. “Let me,” Silk said, approaching the door. Before the big man could get near, Twig raised his foot to kick. He thrust it at the middle of the two chained doors. They flew in, the handle of one breaking away from the wood. “Well, never mind,” Silk said.
They walked into the barracks, Twig leading the others. Silk hefted his big sword onto his shoulder, his black composite bow and arrows slung on his back—Digger with his long straight sword—Twig clutching his cloak around his shoulders.
A long hall yawned from the broken doors. Snowflakes blew into the shade around Twig’s black cloak, scattering across the dust-covered wooden floor. Open doors led off the hall to both left and right, leading into two long dorms. Boots had disturbed the dust in the hall.
“Can’t be older than two days,” Digger nodded to the boot prints. A cold draft brushed Twig’s right cheek. He went to the nearest of the four doors leading into the dorm on the right. The room, when he entered it, had more light than the hall—every few feet on the far wall a tall window looked out on the sparking bear stable. The glass of several windows lay shattered on the floor. Snow blew in across the bunks filling the room, in two columns and many rows. The boot prints busied the floor around some of the bunks.
“That window got broke in,” Digger said, pointing at one of the windows. The glass scattered into the room from the window. “That one there got broke outward, though.” He pointed at the window next to it, where the glass scattered out onto the snow. “That’s somewhat destructive.”
Silk had come into the dorm through the next door down the hall. He crouched, his sword resting on his neck, and scrutinized the boot prints in the dust. Digger walked toward him. “What can you see, eh? The lad had some business made him run about in here,” he said, pointing with his sword point at the footsteps. “Moved hither and yon like a sparrow building a nest.”
Twig agreed. At a glance, the boot prints—large and solid—described a man with a task to finish. He’d gone around the room twice and back and forth from the window several times. Twig glanced at the shadier corners. Paper-wrapped packages hung between the rafters, tacked up gently. Twig assessed them and began thinking about them. He’d never seen them before. They smelled chalky and salty—faint, but Twig smelled it.
The warmth like a campfire came from near them—almost in the room. Someone might have built a fire on the second floor. Twig looked at the warmer spot of ceiling. He took a step toward the stairs to the higher level.
The spot of warmth moved.
“Did you hear footsteps?” Digger asked, looking to the ceiling. Silk looked up from the footprints in the dust at the ceiling as well. He caught sight of the paper packages in the shadows. They made him frown.
“Scarpy?” he said, his voice bending to a question.
A sound came from the floor above: like a peal of laughter that had been held in for a while by a voice shredded from years of smoking. Silk stood. “Out of this building! Get out!” he shouted, running to the broken windows. Digger followed. Twig hesitated, unsure what to expect.
The footsteps on the floor above stopped at the end of the building. Twig heard a pop, then a sparking sizzle, moving at a walking pace toward him. He had no memory of any such noise. It frightened Silk—already outside the building. Twig turned and ran out of the room, opting for caution. Before he had reached the snow, the sizzle hit the first package in the rafters. Twig barely made sense of the rush of burning burst from the packet. Flash like lightning—heat like sunburn—pressure like a thousand punches knocking him off his feet. The effect multiplied the cloud of fire from the first packet hit the second. The expanding fireballs built upon each other. The building caught on fire—it splintered before the rushing orange cloud.
Twig almost got out of the broken window. The invisible force slammed into his back. He lifted off his feet. Amid a fog of burning air, he flew out of the building. The crush disoriented him. He only found his feet again when he whumfed into the snow. A heat wave blew over him. He kept still for a second, letting the noise of the explosions go over his back. Keeping motionless, he waited in case more explosions occurred. None did. He heard only the rumble of the barracks behind him burning, and a chuckle. Raising his head, Twig looked through the shadows. In the firelight, Silk smiled at Twig’s prone body, standing at a safer distance from the crumbling barracks.
Such a peculiar man, Twig thought. Twig got to his feet and walked toward Silk. He looked back over his shoulder at the burning barracks. It crumbled in on itself in the snow. The shade around it looked darker against the bright, orange flames eating the building’s two stories.
“Look, in the fire,” Silk said, pointing with his sword. Twig came to stand next to Silk—Digger stood a little further away, the fire reflected in his eyes. Unaffected by the inferno, a slim figure strode to a gaping hole in the second floor wall. The flames licked his muscled body—they hid his face. He held his hands close to them as if they comforted him like beloved hunting dogs. On reaching the gaping hole he paused, looking down at Twig, Silk, and Digger. A deep laugh broke the night. Twig knew the creature’s nature. One of them caused enough threat. He needed no companion to worry Twig. But answering laughs broke from the Gorge, behind them and on either side.
“Lord of Chaos,” Digger swore.
Continued on January 18...