The Immune – Chapter 08

Katrick had no problems finding the wandering group.  He and his two companions, a petite woman whose dark hair had impossibly white shocks through it, and a tall, thin man with a shaved head, slipped down a side-street, and came out onto the central street of the city, 20 meters ahead of the group they were trying to intercept.

“Ah, here they are,” a familiar voice called.  Joshua Carterson quickened his pace, and the others with him jogged to keep up.   The last of the Carterson family in the city stopped for a moment to greet the three Immune, then resumed walking.  They looked to be heading toward the Western wall, but Joshua had a habit of wandering aimlessly during these meetings.

“Thanks so much for fetching him for us, Jessi,” he said as he shook her hand again.  She nodded once, her mane of curly black-and-white hair falling forward as she did, but magically falling back into place as her head rose again.

“So, we’ve been discussing the fences, Katrick,” Joshua said, continuing his conversation/meeting.  “And while we can continue to repair the fences, we’re going to run out of steel fencing within a few months.  We’ve got lots of the stuff, but the fences went un-watched for so long that most of it has to be replaced.  Which is fine for now – but a few months after that, especially once winter comes, we’ll be in a lot of trouble.”

Katrick nodded.  He and his fellow Immune had come to the same conclusion.  “Tarense will trade for more fences.  They did before, didn’t they?”

Joshua nodded.  “The trouble is, how do we pay for it?”  He paused for a moment.  “My mother used to send a lot of food out to Tarense every year for steel.  We have more fence than any four villages in the area.  If I were to commandeer enough food to pay for a year’s worth of fence, we’d have a riot.”  He sighed.  “It wouldn’t even take anyone to start it.  People would see the wagons getting loaded, and they’d just attack.  Besides – who would I get to drive the wagons?  Anyone here would know it’s a suicide job.”

Katrick smiled, nodding his agreement.  “Well, perhaps there’s some good news for you.  Tarense has started asking for metals.”  Joshua’s head turned sharply, and Katrick couldn’t help but chuckle.  “Yes, I know, they have a steel mine.  But they are asking for other metals – copper and silver, among other things.  And in small amounts, gold.”

“What’ll they do with gold?” asked Captain Carpenter, from farther back in the group.

“I guess they’re making pretty things out of it,” Katrick said.  “Nothing of practical value, really.  But they’re also learning how to mix it with other things.  Someone mixed it with steel, apparently, trying to make something both pretty and strong.  I don’t know how it worked out.”  He looked back to Joshua.  “Now, copper isn’t hard to get – the Immune can pull it out of the ancient cities whenever we want, so there’s no shortage of that.  Silver, I guess, is harder to come by.”

Joshua looked up into the darkening sky, thoughtfully, and continued walking.  “If I’m not mistaken, there’s a bunch of ornamental stuff in the wealthy section of town.  And I know some of it is gold, but there’s other metals there, too.  I wouldn’t know silver if I saw it.”  He looked back down to Katrick.  “I have a favor to ask you – you and your friends.  Take some of this to Tarense, and use it to trade for us.”

“For steel fences?  Easy enough.”

“No.  Cement blocks.”  Joshua stopped in his tracks, and the crowd stopped with him.  “We’ve got enough life left in the fences, and the patches we have for it, to last us long enough to build a wall.  That’d be a good sight better than constantly patching this stuff up.” He waved toward the perimeter fence, still out of sight behind buildings.  He sighed, deeply, turning to face Katrick full-on.  “And while I could send just about anyone, it would take you half the time to get there.”

Katrick was silent for a long moment.  An act of this sort would be certain to help their standing in the city, and he could trust Joshua to give them credit.  He looked to his two companions, who both nodded their agreement.

“We’ll do it.”

*****

It began in the merchants’ field, only a few meters from Lincoln’s own carriage.  Despite having nearly an hour, only a few of the villagers had moved up onto the wooden walkway built into the outer wall.  Despite their familiarity with Lincoln, his warning just seemed too far-fetched.  No one wanted to disrupt their evening routines without solid proof.

Those routines ended at the sound of the first scream.  Jameson had seen the ground bulge, then break as a hand pushed its way up and through.  It had been several days since the last rain, and the dirt of the open field provided for traveling merchants and gypsy clans was dry and cracked.  He turned to shout a warning at Bryan, but the drill-master had heard the young girl screaming first, and was already approaching.  His armor clanked with each pounding step as he jogged over.

For a long moment, he merely gaped at the decaying hand as it wriggled in the air, then he snapped back into motion as it was joined by another hand.

“I was holding onto hope that it would turn out to be a fantasy,” he said.

Jameson shook his head.  “I wish it were.”  He looked around, knowing there would be more hands pushing up in more places.  “Well, even if the people aren’t up off the ground yet, at least everything is in place for them.”

Bryan nodded, then turned away and began shouting orders across the field.  Three other armored fighters began to approach, axes and flame-weapons at the ready.

Jameson slapped the drill-master’s armored shoulder.  “No, no, not here.  The carriages are fine, they’ve lasted through worse than this.  Let them come up through here.  There’ll be more coming, in other places, that we’ll need to concentrate on.  Let’s not waste our energy here.”  He looked up to the roof of the carriage, where Lincoln stood, looking back at him.  The old gypsy nodded, then looked back to the ground.  10 meters to the left, the Jennings’ carriage held the entire family on the roof, watching the dead arms sprouting out of the ground with a mixture of dread and curiosity.  Marlena had thought to ask Lincoln’s entire troupe to stay on the roofs of their reinforced carriages – just like they did in the wild – and draw as many of the Turned away from the villagers as they could.

Bryan’s mouth formed a thin line.  Allowing the Turned to remain in his village unchecked ran against decades of training, but he could see the logic in Jameson’s advice.  This was a different sort of breach, and all their drills and strategies were useless against it.  Bryan nodded, then waved the other fighters off, then directing them to help a pair of families that scurried across the village square.  One of the young women stopped in her tracks, then jumped back suddenly, crashing into those behind her.  The ground cracked before her feet, and a pair of hands came out together, reaching toward the woman’s ankles.  She screamed louder, scrambling backward.  One of the armored fighters was beside her a moment later, swinging her axe downward as if cutting firewood.  The blow severed both of the dead hands, and the arms disappeared back into the hole they’d made.

Jameson was jogging toward them.  The fighter stood near the hole, as if guarding it against another intruder, as the two families swarmed around her and dashed toward the safety of the outer wall.  Jameson saw the ground swell again, and shouted a warning just as two more hands broke free of the dirt and grasped the fighter’s armored ankles from behind her.  She lost her balance, falling backward and landing hard on her backside.  The hands didn’t let go, pulling on her to draw the rest of the dead body out of the ground.  The head broke through only a moment later, nearly skinless and deformed by a deep axe-gouge in one temple.

As he approached, Jameson wound up a running kick, and swung his foot through the corpse’s head.  The impact snapped the upper spine sideward, and loosened its grip enough for the fighter to get free.  She was on her feet a moment later, severing the head and hands with two swift strokes of her axe.  The corpse slid back into its hole, but Jameson could see more coming up in its place.  He kicked the severed head back down into the hole.

“Keep moving,” he said to the fighter.  “If you stand still, they’ll come right up underneath you.  Keep everyone moving until they’re out of reach.”

The woman nodded once.  “Thank you,” she said, then jogged after the families she’d been escorting.

Jameson looked around for a moment, taking stock of the situation.  His advice to the fighter did not apply to him, of course – the Turned wouldn’t chase him above-ground, so there was no reason to think they’d try to dig their way up toward him.

There are just too many people still on the ground, Jameson thought grimly.  They were running in clusters, trying to make their way to the ladders at the outer wall.  The Turned were coming up out of the ground everywhere now, and at least a dozen were fully above-ground.  Jameson heard wooden boards splintering from inside a nearby house, and a few moments later a young girl’s body staggered out the door, her dress stained with dirt and blood, her neck and shoulders bitten into in several places.  The family had left the house earlier, so the dead girl must have been attracted by some leftover food.  She seemed to be approaching Jameson, but veered away to approach an older couple as they tried to find a way to safety.

If only they’d given me a flame weapon, Jameson grumbled to himself.  He knew better than to ask – the villagers were still very nervous around the Immune – but he’d be able to save lives if he had one.  At the same time, if it comes to that, there’s bound to be one or two laying on the ground, he grumbled to himself.

Marlena was beside one of the ladders, 40 meters or so from him, urging the villagers to climb the ladder faster.  Four of the Turned were approaching them, and they had only a few moments before they would have to abandon the ladder and move down the wall toward the next.

Jameson broke into a run, looking up the wall toward one of the fighters he was about to pass.  They were about to scale down the ladder and re-join the fight, but wouldn’t make it in time.

“Axe!” Jameson shouted as he approached.  The fighter dropped their axe, head-down, and Jameson snatched it out of the air without slowing down.  The long handle twisted sideward, his own momentum changing the inertia of the over-weight steel blade-head.  Within five more steps, he had added the motion of this twist to the power of his own swing.  The odd, slanting angle of the blow removed the head of one of the Turned and the right arm of another.  Jameson bashed into a third, knocking it onto its belly.  Another swing removed one leg from the fourth.

By this point, Bryan had joined him, lopping the arms and legs off each of the Turned and rendering them more or less harmless.

“Thank you,” the drill-master said between breaths.

“How are we doing?”  Jameson handed the axe back to its owner as they approached.  Then he clucked in disapproval at the stains on his shoulder – his body-block had been messier than he’d anticipated, but fighting the Turned was never a clean activity.

The older man shook his head.  “Lots are up the wall, but we need more time.”  He looked past Jameson, down the wall another 40 or 50 meters.  At the next ladder, another family had nearly made it to safety before the wife was caught by the ankle and hauled back to the ground.  There were only two of the Turned on her, but that was enough.  One was a middle-aged man that looked as if he’d only been dead a week – the blood on his head and arms was still fresh – and the other was so old and decayed that Jameson couldn’t tell whether it had been male or female.  The woman wailed in terror, trying desperately to pull herself out of reach, kicking against the hands on her leg, but it was in vain.

Svetlana appeared as a blur.  She spun in place, her leg shooting out in a powerful kick that caught the older body square in the chest.  It fell backward as if kicked by a horse, slamming into the nearby wall of the blacksmith’s forge, then falling forward.  Jameson had never seen one of the Turned put down by a kick – he presumed its spine had been damaged by the impact.  Then, just as fast, Svetlana trapped the dead man’s arms between both of her own, then twisted in a way that snapped both of the dead elbows downward and backward.  Even without being able to hear the sound over the noise of the breach, Jameson inwardly cringed at the sight.  The woman scaled up the ladder, helped by her husband and oldest daughter, then sat back against the outer wall and wept.  Her lower leg had two long scratches on it.

Svetlana turned her attention back toward the village square.  Jameson followed her gaze.  Nearly two dozen people had been trapped in the open, not far from the inn.  There were four armored fighters with them, and two more with flame-weapons, but the Turned were swarming the village now, and still more were pulling themselves up and out of the ground.  More were approaching his own position, drawn by the living that clustered around the ladder.

Jameson and Bryan locked eyes for a moment.  There were too few fighters, and even if all of them came down off the wall, they’d never fight through the swarm, much less make it back.

“Are there any more flame-weapons?” Jameson asked.

Bryan shook his head.  “They’re coming close to empty now.  Anyone who goes over there with you will never make it back.”

“I can set one of the buildings on fire,” Jameson said.  “If they stay close enough to the flames-“

THWOOOM!  The sound that interrupted Jameson’s sentence was accompanied by a wave of heat and blue light.  Not even 10 meters from them, a column of flame had completely engulfed two of the Turned, silhouetting them in fire.  They only stood for another moment or two, then fell to their knees, then their faces.  They continued to burn, and the other Turned around them shied away.

Jameson looked up the ladder to see the younger of the two Von Allen sisters climbing down.  She wasn’t armored, and had no weapons that he could see, but that didn’t seem to concern her.  The older sister stood astride the ladder’s top, swinging her arm sideward as if throwing a skipping-stone at the nearby lake.

THWOOOM!  This explosion was further away, but no less intense.  Jameson’s jaw dropped as he realized what was happening – the two girls were going to attempt a rescue, all on their own if necessary.  As Hannah reached the bottom of the ladder, she lobbed a pair of small objects – about the size of skipping stones, too, Jameson thought – into the approaching swarm of corpses.  Two more columns of flame erupted where they struck the Turned.  More of the crowded, walking dead shied away from the flames, some moving toward the trapped group of living people near the inn.  Janelle was down the ladder a moment later.

“Let’s go!” Jameson shouted, again slapping Bryan’s armored shoulder and moving toward the swarm.

*****

Cheszalt watched the rescue from atop the barracks-house, safely out of reach of the Turned below.  Idzac stood beside him, not speaking, merely watching the melee as five of the armored defenders – led by the three Immune, including Svetlana – waded into the swarm.  His interest had been piqued by the two young women who seemed to be able to throw fire, but overall, he had held onto his well-schooled detachment.

As the rescue group returned to the ladder they’d left, and it seemed the crisis was more or less over, he turned to his old instructor and shrugged.  “A narrow escape for many.”  He sighed, slowly.  “Again, it is only a matter of time.”

“And yet, you see how they drew together?” Idzac asked.  “Our lessons speak of a decadent culture, soft and careless, without concern as to the hurt they inflict on others – or completely oblivious to it.  Is that what you see here?”

“Of course not,” Cheszalt replied.  “No one can afford to be.  Those who try to survive on their own are snuffed out.”

“Could this not have been the Creator’s purpose?” Idzac asked.  “To give us a dire challenge, one that would cull the overpopulation and force us all to work together again?”  He paused.  “In old histories, it is continually shown that without an outside threat, humans will always turn upon each other.  Brothers and sisters feud until another family attacks them.  Villages ally with each other to meet invaders, then go back to their petty squabbles.”  He nodded back toward the swarm.  “But now – we have a constant, deadly threat that we cannot afford to meet any other way than by uniting.”

Cheszalt gave his old instructor a sideward smile.  “You are in danger of becoming that which you warn me about – claiming instructions from the Creator.”

Idzac laughed, a jovial sound out of place in the aftermath of the breach.  “No, brother, I hold no illusions about a message from our Creator.  I have only the evidence I see with my own eyes.” He paused, and his face sobered.  “Had it not been for years of instruction about the Mission, I would have come to this conclusion long ago.  And it saddens me that I have caused so much harm to those I could have been helping.”  He swept his arm across the scene of the village.  “These people embody all the traits our teachings exalt – especially those two young women, leaping into the rescue without any armor!”  He paused again, allowing the unspoken accusation to reach Cheszalt on its own.

Cheszalt didn’t answer, but his eyes locked the two girls, separated now and moving among the villagers.  Being strangers to the village seemed to make little difference to them – they were helping to distribute food and water, and speaking to each of the wounded.  One of them was not far away, kneeling over a young woman who had been scratched on the leg.  He heard her call for a flame weapon, to cauterize the scratch, but Cheszalt doubted it would help.  At least four people had been bitten or scratched, and two had been killed- not by being Turned, but caught in the open and literally eaten alive.

His eye was suddenly drawn to something in the girl’s hand.  She knelt over the wounded woman’s shoulder now, one arm supporting the woman as she wept, and the other hand nearly concealed behind the woman’s side.  Cheszalt was certain, though, that he had seen something metal there.

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3 Responses to “The Immune – Chapter 08”

  1. it only just gets better and better!

  2. alexander Says:

    Excellent! once a week updates, you say?

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