The oddity of this world continued to baffle Phalax, enough so that he forgot to keep his blood boiling. Had he forgotten his purpose for life? Without revenge, what else did he have? If this didn’t drive him then what did, if anything did at all?
For the third time, Phalax nearly walked into the broad side of a building while watching a dead person stroll down the street in the same direction as he was moving.
Daeson slapped his shoulder and said, “Losing your focus just a little bit?”
A slight smile crept across Phalax’s face and he said, “Yeah. It’s just this place, you know? It’s so out there. The sky too is just phenomenal. And it has me wondering about other places. There are other worlds, Edmund said so. They’ve got to be even stranger than this place. At least we somewhat fit in here.”
“I couldn’t think of anyone who wouldn’t fit in here. There’s enough weird to let even the strangest blend in. You going to eat that?” Daeson pointed to a piece of bread Phalax limply held in his hand.
Phalax handed it over and said, “You took Micale’s too didn’t you? Gods, man.”
“I’m from the north; we’re always hungry up there. And hey, I don’t think the whole ‘gods’ thing makes sense anymore, right?”
“Shit, you’re right.”
Edmund turned his head and said over his shoulder, “Not necessarily. That’s a conversation for a different time, though. We’re approaching the Graveyard. I’m going to cast an illusion that makes it seem like we are each merely one of the dead. Anybody have any requests? A broken neck? Slit throat, maybe?” Silence greeted him. “Come on, people; laughter isn’t too bad a thing. Well, just don’t talk once I cast. Also, the guards there won’t be able to tell that we are alive. Once we get to the inspectors, though, well, they’ll have things with them that’ll figure it out. Just stay away from anything that looks odd.”
“Everything here is fucking odd,” Micale grumbled, his lips pursed in an angry scowl.
“Whoa, new guy,” Marlen chided. “What’s with the anger issues?”
“I don’t feel well.”
Eula turned and her pupils grew to encompass most of her eyes. Phalax nearly fell backward as if her stare had a physical blow. Micale suddenly stopped when those eyes turned on him.
“Yup,” Eula piped. “You’re running hot. It’s probably a fever. Your body still isn’t used to this place.”
Daeson let the crust of the bread he had between his teeth fall to the ground as his mouth suddenly stopped chewing and became slack. “Does that mean that I’ll get sick too? And what the hells has happened to your eyes!”
“Probably. And don’t you worry about it.” She winked and turned back forward.
Phalax let the girl’s astounding eyes slip from his thoughts. “Hey, Micale, you going to be okay?”
“Probably not but this sickness can wait ’til we finish this.”
“Yeah, we won’t be finishing this today,” Edmund confessed. “We’ll have a chance at some of them today but not all of them. Our goal is to kill at least one. The others will probably run when they find themselves outmatched. Again, a conversation for a different time.”
Marlene suddenly bumped into Vesik and the man righted her then said, “Marlene, what the hell?”
Eula looked to her then said, “She’s drunk.”
“No I’m not. I’m just a little tipsy is all.” The slight slur that accompanied her words begged to differ with ‘just a little’. “There was a rock on the road. I stepped on it.”
Vesik shot her a scornful look and said, “You better snap out of it quickly.”
Edmund chuckled, shook his head, then said, “Well, at least two of you won’t have to try too hard to play dead. Now, come here, all of you.”
Edmund quickly turned down an alley and continued to weave between buildings. After several turns he stopped and faced the group. Immediately, he began casting his spells.
Phalax balked as the men and women around him suddenly became corpses. Daeson’s head sat at an odd angle and his vertebrae stabbed through his skin behind his neck. A dagger hilt sprouted from Micale’s side and red coated his neck. Vesik was old and decrepit, a withered man with blind eyes. The girls had vomit and blood spilled down their chests.
Phalax looked at his arms as Edmund cast his spell and suddenly saw broken hands and dirt-smudged fingers. He surveyed the rest of himself to find hoof marks and indentations along his torso.
Edmund finished with his own disguise and was headless.
Daeson jumped and whispered, “Shit, Edmund!”
Marlene said, “Oh, like you’re one to talk. Your neck is broken.”
“Really?” Daeson began gingerly feeling for his neck.
Edmund scoffed then his disembodied voice said, “It’s an illusion, Daeson. It’s meant to be seen and that’s it. So, follow my lead. Walk like there’s a stick in your ass. We’ll get past the gates easy. Once they go to sort us, we’ll have to start fighting. We’ll rush through the Graveyard, into the stronghold and then to our targets. There should be three of them there.”
“Let’s do it, then.” Vesik nodded and his old neck seemed as though it wouldn’t be able to lift his head back up.
Edmund briskly walked from the alley until he reached the mouth. Then, as he moved onto the street, he developed a hitch that caused him to pitch forward and back. The others followed suit as well, Marlene had too much fun with the charade and blatantly fell into people then bounced off them to continue on her way. A chuckle came from her vomit-covered mouth.
Soon, the dank alleys and rickety buildings gave way to a more industrial sector. Structures here were mostly made up of smooth cement, duller buildings than any Phalax had ever seen. From the tops of the buildings metal shafts sprouted and twisted out to linger over the streets. At their ends hummed odd lights, the likes of which Phalax had never seen. There was no fire, just brightness. His head swirled with confusion.
Reaching up above all the buildings and walls were several jagged towers, their tips twisting menacingly and without uniformity to one another. That, Phalax was certain, was where they were going.
Phalax began to speak but Edmund’s voice drowned his own, “We’re getting close. Remember, you don’t speak, you’re dead. And Marlene, you pull shit like that again and I’ll feed you to the things in the Graveyard.”
Not even Phalax misunderstood the threat within the wizard’s voice. This was beyond important to Edmund; it was his life’s purpose.
Flashes of movement suddenly had Phalax and the others jerking their heads around. Things moved between the buildings and over their rooftops, leaping from one to another. They looked human, or at least made up of flesh. They were fast though and Phalax only ever caught glimpses. Had they been following the group the entire time?
“Don’t look at them!” Edmund hissed. “You’re dead, you don’t care about them.”
Every head turned back forward and beheld a great steel wall. Men walked atop it, they had weapons at their sides, blades of all kinds, and held large staffs with tips that crackled with lightning. Even Phalax felt the coldness of fear blossom within his guts. Just the wall was imposing, the guards terrifying in long black coats and sleek helmets of steel with darkened lenses over the eye holes. Phalax wondered with trepidation at what the actual compound looked like, what terrors lay within it, and how the others were dealing with the fear. Would they break, turn and run only to be torn apart?
Casting these terrible thoughts aside was impossible so Phalax walked, maintaining his rigid gait, and turned his fears over in his mind.
The undead group ambled along the wall, sandwiched by steel and concrete, ignoring flashes of motion from the alleys and rooftops and the black, eyeless stares of the wall guards. Phalax desperately wanted to cover himself in steel, to crawl inside his impenetrable shell and feel the security of near immortality.
Then, as the group neared the wall, the steel groaned and cogs clacked. A large portion of the steel wall slid away into the earth and Edmund lurched around the corner, not bothering to stop for the guards standing there with poles of lightning bristling in their hands. Phalax followed, and nearly came to an abrupt halt once he saw through the gates. Rising from the ground three hundred feet away, was a structure of steel, black metal, and concrete. It pierced the otherworldly sky with jagged spires and square rooftops. It sucked the light of the sun from the air and snuffed it out. Concrete ringed the stronghold, covered in the dead as they shambled across it from several other openings in the steel wall.
Phalax lurched with those around him, his eyes leaping this way and that. Why wasn’t there anyone out here or standing outside the facility? No one was here to maintain anything. And there were so many dead. A crowd of them actually pressed themselves up against the outside wall of the stronghold. Something was wrong with this world if people died this often.
After a short, silent walk, they ended up pressing against the dead outside the castle. Cross-hatched, black iron doors kept the dead at bay. Phalax tried to peer over the dead before him but couldn’t see much beyond the doors.
Something suddenly slammed into his back and caused him to stumble forward. He caught himself on the back of a dead Ureptarian, its skin coarse but slimy. He was then pressed hard against the dead creature and was forced to breathe in its stink, reminding him of the stench of rotten food left in detritus-filled alleys to bake in the sun and infested with rats and piss. He tried to push himself away but found a dead woman pressing into his back. They seemed to lock eyes for a moment and Phalax felt terror strike through him as the slack-jawed, dead woman looked upon him.
A shrieking noise turned Phalax back around and he saw the iron doors opening inwards. He couldn’t see what was opening them, however, as the dead blocked his vision. He tried to get onto his toes to see over them and caught a glimpse of something fleshy but oddly shaped. Then, someone pulled him by the arm and he turned to see a headless man. It was Edmund.
Edmund whispered, “Act dead, dammit. We need to get past the doors. Then, we fight.”
Phalax nodded, unsure if his illusion would have even shown it or not, then continued onward. With each beat of his heart, steel pulsed from the disc in his chest then receded back into it again. He found comfort in that, and also heard the drums of war in his head. Anger began to fill him, and he directed it at whatever was going to try to stop them.
Phalax passed beneath the arch and he was through the gates, into the castle courtyard, a dark place with absolutely no vegetation. Spires of black iron were here and there, a soft, blue light pulsing atop each one, drawing the endless waves of shambling dead. Phalax scanned the area, seeking his enemies. Would the dead begin to attack them? Were they the ones he needed to worry about? Was he surrounded by those that would try to kill him? When would they attack? Should he strike first?
Steel swam across Phalax’s body, coating his chest and back. He walked slowly, eager to kill something.
An odd noise came from nearby and Phalax turned to find its source. Metal clicked against concrete quickly and in an obvious rhythm. Then, a blast of energy slashed through the air, seemingly flung from Eula’s hand, causing a whooshing sound. Phalax caught the flash of light in his periphery vision and beheld something fleshy and oddly shaped, seemingly naked, stumbling backward before it was lost behind the dead.
Shouts came from several people, their voices muffled. A clicking sound turned Phalax’s head around yet again. Through the ambling dead, still moving slowly, indifferent to the fighting, was a creature made up of patches of flesh.
It looked as though many people had been torn apart and their flesh wrapped around something and then sutured together. Stitches also crossed where eyes should have been and where a mouth should have existed. The skin was loose on the thing, as if there weren’t enough insides to keep it taut. It looked humanoid, only its thick, fleshy arms and legs ended in points, making Phalax wonder how in all the hells it managed to maintain balance when it walked. Its head even displayed the same point, looking as if it wore a large tipped hat.
It closed on him and he knew it was coming to kill him. Phalax willed it and steel covered his entire body, a thick, long, single-sided blade coming to life in his hands. The creature suddenly lurched forward and the tips of its arms folded in. The stitches burst and the flesh fell away like wet paper. From between the peeled back flesh came metal spikes.
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