|Credit: Roy Lathwell|
The stench of death, familiar to all who had survived The Madness, preceded the horror that congested the entrance. Worse than madfolk was an entire cohort of living dead, many still wearing recognizable parts of soldiers’ uniforms. Where clothes did not cover flesh, it hung loose and rotten, or was gone entirely. They choked the doorway, all trying to get out at once.
“Stop that noise!” Anlayt barked; several soldiers were keening a deathsong, mourning their impending deaths. “Stand like soldiers of Camac!”
“Retreat, you fool!” Jira snapped. “Draw them into the street!”
“Who is the fool?” Anlayt retorted. “If we bottle them up at the entrance, we need not fight them all at once! Perhaps you have forgotten how to count, woman? We are likely outnumbered more than two to one!”
“It’s not likely that our enemy has a functioning mage among them!” Jira bellowed. “Phylok! Captains, to me!”
Phylok hesitated. He trusted Jira, who as a Protector was part of the military, but was not sure why she intended such a tactical blunder. Still, she was the Protector. He turned and signaled an orderly retreat, and the Strikers obeyed. Anlayt, in turn, had the choice of facing the walking dead on his own or joining the retreat. He hustled to join the others.
“Strikers,” said Jira, “tell your archers to aim for the knees. Crawling dead are a less formidable enemy.”
“What is your plan?” Phylok asked her.
“Incapacitate as many as possible. Draw them as far as possible from the Library. Then set them afire.”
“Why could you not—ah.” Phylok nodded. “If there is anything to preserve inside, we don’t want it burning.”
By twos and threes, the archers found their marks. Walking dead, their knees wrecked by arrows, limped, fell, and pulled themselves along with gangrenous hands. The ambulatory skirted or clambered over the lame, driven by hunger for living flesh.
“What caused this?” Anlayt asked, cocking a crossbow.
“Perhaps a priest gone mad?” Jira answered with her own question. “Who knows?”
Once the last crawlers were a good fifty reaches from the entrance, Jira acted. Fire magic rode her intent across the short distance, and the crawling dead became crawling torches. Heedless, painless, they lurched onward. At last, cleansing fire undid the last shreds of ligaments and evil, and the charred corpses fell twitching to the pavement. The soldiers continued to retreat, keeping as much distance as possible, until there were only the living and dead.
“Well done, Protector,” said Phylok.
“I hope you do not intend that we wrap and mourn these as well,” said Anlayt.
“No,” said Jira. “We need not trouble these further. Their souls left them long ago.”
• • •
Above ground, among broken windows and the walking dead, the contents of the Library had not fared well. Underground was better; there was some water damage, but the drainage system still functioned. Jira was elated.
“Protector?” Anlayt asked, looking down one long row of shelves. “What of this would you bring back with us?”
“All of it,” said Jira. “North Keep has plenty of empty rooms. Who knows what someone will need to know, a century or two from now?”
“We don’t have—”
“Arms!” Phylok barked, drawing his sword. A strike of archers hustled forward to flank the Captains. Four more of the walking dead shambled toward them.
“Do you need my help?” Jira asked, as the Bronze Circle again tightened around her.
“If this is all that is left, no,” said Anlayt. Archers lamed the approaching undead, until they fell to crawl mindlessly toward the living.
“Spears!” Phylok shouted, and two strikes moved forward. Mindful of clutching bony fingers and snapping jagged teeth, the soldiers came in spearpoint-first. Several of them looked pale; fighting a pack of mythical walking dead was an exercise, a drill, in defeating an opponent without being wounded. Facing real examples, little more than a year ago, would have been as unthinkable as… as Camac being utterly destroyed.
Nevertheless, their training held. The lead soldiers rammed their spears into the open mouths of each crawling opponent, then stood on the shafts to pin the abominations to the floor by their own jaws. Others stood on or speared flailing arms, then waited for a Captain to strike off the head.
Jira whirled at a shout and scream from behind. Taking advantage of the distraction up front, one more had shuffled in and taken a soldier from the rear. It fastened its decayed teeth on the soldier’s arm, trying to tear away a piece of flesh.
Without thinking, the soldier punched the thing in the forehead. Its teeth tore back a piece of his arm, then it let go and the soldier jerked away. In his panic, he swung a beefy fist, and caught it in the temple as it came in for another taste. With a snap, its head jerked sideways, and it fell. A quick-thinking woman stomped hard on the broken neck, snapping the last shreds of skin and tendons, and the head tumbled away. The body twitched for a moment, then was still.
“Let that bleed,” one of the others said, pointing to the torn flap of bloody skin on the wounded soldier’s arm. “Flush out the poison. Maybe he’ll live.”
“Not if we let him bleed out,” said another.
The wounded soldier looked at Captain Anlayt in pale-faced appeal. “Is it true, Captain? Will I become one of them, now?”
“Just a fable, soldier.”
“So were they.” The soldier shuddered and fainted, as the others bound up the wounded arm.
Jira and Phylok conferred, as Anlayt berated the other soldiers for inattention in a combat situation. “Do you truly intend to bring all these books back?” Phylok asked.
“There was a ketch floating in the harbor,” said Jira. “If nothing else, I will fill it with books and call the wind to sail it home. By myself, if necessary.”
“Things have just become a little more complex,” Phylok pointed out, nodding to the wounded man in the rear. “We need to know there’s no more of those things in there, especially since we’ve left the exit clear.”
“I’m trying to imagine how they ended up in the Library,” Jira mused. “Did someone volunteer to become bait, to draw them inside? And who sealed the entrance? There were three or four sorcerers here, besides the First Protector, who were strong enough to do that. If one of them is still alive, there are several vacancies among the Protectors.”
“We need to vacate this place,” said Anlayt, joining them. In the rear, two soldiers helped their wounded fellow to his feet. “Immediately.”
“Counter,” said Phylok. “We need to make sure there’s no more of those things left. If the legends are true, I’m surprised we faced only a cohort rather than a legion.”
“Perhaps the mad ones saved us from that fate,” said Jira. “But Captain Phylok is correct. Let us clear the Library of walking dead, then I will seal the entrance again. The books can stay, for now. I will come for them later.”
“Well, it is good,” said Phylok. “We know that the important parts of the Library are largely intact. We have laid to rest a goodly number of undead. Let us proceed to the Palace, then to the Western Road.”