The Believers – Chapter 15

It had taken the better part of two weeks just to clear a wide enough path for the carriages to get to the hill. Another week after that had been spent making a 30-meter-wide clearing.  The felled trees had mostly been left where they fell, or dragged out of the way.  There were 18 carriages on site, large box-like buildings on wheels, in a rough circle.  The grass had been trampled almost to mud during the nights, as the Turned swarmed around these boxes.  The outer walls were streaked and stained with blood from the beating of dead fists.  The walls had held, though, and while the occupants had been restless with worry, they’d been safe.  They had waited until long after sunrise before venturing out.

But now it was noon, and most of the people were in groups around the ancient building they’d all come to see.  They were about to start the trickiest part of their task.

From the start, Marlena had known they needed to get the snakes out.  But they wanted to make sure the creatures didn’t just retreat down to the lower level cave.  Jameson’s idea seemed to make the most sense- have an un-infected person stand near enough to the door to attract all the snakes away from the cave and near the front door.  Then another group – these people being Immune – would climb onto the roof and pull off the metal panels.  The sun would keep the infected snakes from getting to the lower level.  They had moved a few roof panels over the stairs now, and while it was by no means sealed, it would be much harder for the snakes to get past.  Since the living food was outside, it was believed the snakes wouldn’t retreat into the cave anyway.

And now they were about to remove the last panel, nearest the door.  When Jameson and Katrick removed this panel, the snakes would have no shelter from the sun.  The human-Turned would be rendered nearly helpless by the noon sun, but no one knew what the snakes would do.

So the young man who had volunteered to be the bait was fairly nervous at this point.  Most of the non-infected among the team stayed atop their carriages, watching at a distance.  Even wearing armor wouldn’t defend against the snakes – Marlena and Jameson had seen that fail spectacularly.  The young man’s best chance would be to run for a carriage.  Would the snakes take the time to attack him?  Would they ignore him, and slither into the trees?  Would they ignore the sun?

Katrick heaved his end of the roof-panel upward.  Jameson had broken the last attachment, and the two men slid the panel off the roof girders.  It made a terrible, metal-on-metal screech as it slid, and then there was a long silence before it hit the ground, making the strangest wharrump-ing sound.  When the snakes began to surge through the door, the young man who had baited them turned and dashed toward the nearest carriage.

None of the snakes followed him.  They scattered, moving toward the trees in a blur.  They were so quick that no one was able to follow with their eyes.  Marlena walked toward the metal building’s main door, opening it completely, then strode toward the stairs in the back.  Jameson and Katrick climbed down to join her.

The tunnel was much better lit this time.  She descended the stairs and could see clearly for perhaps 12 meters, just from the sunlight.  The iron oxides in the tunnel walls sparkled along the entire length, reflecting bits of newly-ambient light.

But nothing else was down here.  The snakes were gone- the plan had worked.  She gazed at the sparkles in the darkness, then headed back upstairs, to get the people from Tarense down to have a look.

*****

Ilyana was at the edge of the ring of on-lookers, which was a first for her. She’d always watched the tournament from a larger distance, crowded toward the back by the sheer number of observers.  A large platform had been built, and around it several rows of bleachers were filled with the remaining members of the Order as they looked on.  There are so few, she thought.  On the brink of being exterminated, of disappearing forever.

That would probably never happen.  Saia had been right about that.  No matter how badly the Order might be hurt, it would recover.  And for all the hardship, it would become stronger, more dangerous.  Ilyana had to keep watch on it now.

Perhaps even steer it toward a better course.  Perhaps she would achieve high enough rank to make a change.  Perhaps someday, her brothers and sisters would be ready for the truths that Saia had shared with her.

For now, it was exciting enough to be watching the match.  She’d never been this close for the final match.  The surroundings were bleak- they were using one section of their new city only for training, so of course the tournament would be held there.  The living quarters were all being built somewhere else.  She had her own space, as did many of the ranking brothers and sisters, but more than a hundred still slept in the open.  It hadn’t rained hard yet, but when it did many of them would be huddled under the small shelters formed by the outer wall and its ramparts.

The sun was bright that afternoon.  Ilyana shielded her eyes at many points throughout the match, watching carefully to see how the two faced each other.  One of the finalists was the brother who had defeated her, and the other was a sister who was perhaps in her 24th year.  The two of them had been fairly close friends, perhaps occasionally sharing a bed, so seeing them face each other here had caused many whispers.  Some had joked that the two had worked out the fight beforehand, choreographing it to make a big show but deciding in advance who would win.

Within 20 seconds of the start, it was clear that wasn’t the case.  Unless, Ilyana mused, they’d planned to nearly break each other’s noses.  Both bled from precise attacks to the face, but each held their ground steadily, circling slowly like a pair of wild cats.

It only got worse.  By the end of the fight, the sister had a dislocated shoulder and Ilyana was certain her brother had at least one broken rib from a powerful knee-strike.  It ended with him pinning her good arm to the ground, locking his thumb underneath the jaw joint to put pressure on another particularly painful nerve.  She could barely tap her submission with her hurt arm, but Cheszalt saw the surrender and called an end to the fight.

It was an obvious relief to them both, no matter who had won.  Ilyana cheered, as did the entire crowd.  The two stood apart, bowing to Cheszalt, then to each other.  The woman stood still for a moment, heaving her breaths and smiling as the councilor placed a gold and steel medallion around the victor’s shoulders.  As the formal moment ended, the two combatants stepped back toward each other and nearly fell into each other, they were so exhausted.  For a moment, it looked like they were about to fight again, but instead they embraced and kissed so fiercely Ilyana found herself aroused just watching it.  Every remaining member of the Order cheered again, the roar becoming deafening almost immediately.

Ilyana felt her senses suddenly shift focus.  She had become aware of a new sensation around people since she’d been infected, a strange ability to feel their proximity to her.  It seemed to have a definite range, but she hadn’t yet tested it to see how far it stretched.  She’d tried to figure it out, but it seemed that something in her blood just turned to ‘face’ people when they got within a certain distance.  Now that feeling turned her attention again, but it wasn’t anyone nearby.

It was a figure, standing on the top of the cement block wall that divided this section from where they slept, near its intersection at the outer wall.  They were dressed in black, similar to the style of the Order, but with the sleeves and lower legs of the trousers removed.  Even at that distance, they looked muscular, overlarge for a normal person.  There were no ladders up to that place, and the walls were far too smooth for someone to climb.  They must have a ladder out of sight, Ilyana thought.  There was a long distance between them, but the feeling was crystal clear.

Whoever it was, they were female, and they were infected.  Not the Turned- she’d noted their presence, as well, standing near the outer wall at night.  This one was Immune, as she was.

Her first instinct was to signal Cheszalt, but what would she say?  She looked up at her master, trying to formulate a thought, but his eyes were directed to the same person.  He’d already caught sight of their visitor.  His lips moved, whispering something impossible to hear at that distance.  When Ilyana looked back toward the wall, the figure was gone.

*****

Outside the newly rediscovered iron mine, Marlena was experiencing much the same feeling.  Most of the others were combing over the first floor of the building, again looking for hidden treasures the ancients had left behind.  She leaned against Lincoln’s carriage, holding a plate with the remains of her meal.  She didn’t feel the approach of her visitor, but soon saw her standing amongst the trees, just off the wide path.  She smirked across the distance between them, turned off-handedly to see if anyone else was looking, then began walking away from the clearing.  No one noticed her absence- and if they had, it wouldn’t be any different than the hundreds of other times she walked off into the trees.

“There’s more food, if you’re interested,” she offered.  Her visitor smiled at her kindness.

“Thank you, but I’ve eaten recently.”  Svetlana pulled her hood down, shaking out her white-blond hair and letting it fall around her shoulders and down her back.  Then she looked past Marlena to the cluster of carriages and the crowded building beyond it.  “Something important, to have so many people out in the wilderness like this.”

Marlena nodded.  “Possibly another iron mine.  If it turns out to be worth mining, there’ll be a small city right here by the time winter gets here.”

Svetlana’s eyebrows rose.  “Good.  All those people in Carter’s Hill will need somewhere to go.”

“True,” Marlena agreed.  “They’ll be relatively safe for now, in what’s left of the old city, but many of them plan to come here once there’s a wall.”

“They should be brought here soon.  They’re not as safe as you think where they are.”  Svetlana paused for a moment.  “I know you’re not in charge of all this, but those who are will listen to you.  You know that the Cartersons never made it to their new city.”

Marlena nodded.  “Everyone in Carter’s Hill saw them depart, but no one ever returned.  And they haven’t shown up in any of the nearby villages.”  She looked back toward the ancient building.  “Think they were caught outside by the Turned?”  It was what everyone presumed.

“Yes, but not by accident.  When they reached their new city, they were locked out of their own doors.  Now the Order controls that city.”

This was unwelcome news.  “Even if they’re fewer in number, as you say they are, that’s the perfect place for them to rebuild their strength.”

Svetlana nodded slowly.  “And be certain that they’re doing precisely that.  It will most likely be a long time before they venture out very far, but eventually they will.  My friends in Silverlake will be helping to strengthen the villagers in that area.  But the Order will be looking for people like your friends, the gypsies.  They’ll want what you carry, and they won’t hesitate to attack you to get it.”  She paused again.  “We may not ever be able to completely destroy them, so we must prepare for them.”

*****

The sun was just rising over the trees outside of Tarense, lighting up the inside of the Western wall and illuminating the half-dozen wagons preparing to set out into the wild.  News of the new mine had energized the entire city- some were moving to the new mine, and many were redoubling their work here.  Everyone seemed to agree that a second mine would be a great, positive change.

The two visitors stood, and Symon walked with them to the door. “It was good to meet you,” Joshua said, turning to go.  Symon nodded, graciously, and smiled.  He shook the offered hand.  The young man was bright, Symon thought, and unlike most of the rest of his family, had a fairly balanced view of people.  Above all else, he was honest with himself- more so than most people.  It gave Symon some hope for humanity, knowing that even in a weed-bed such as the Carterson family, someone like Joshua could take root.

Of course, Symon had known the real reason for the visit.  It hadn’t been so much Xeren’s eyes- he suspected that she had purposefully avoided eye contact with Symon.  She knew that he could read her fairly well that way.  But she’d made contact with the young man, the slightest brush of her hand against his sleeve, and he’d almost given it no notice.  She was no stranger to physical contact, obviously, but she respected this man, and among those she respected she was a different person.  She kept a polite distance from people, mainly to keep them from worrying about being infected themselves.

But this young man hadn’t even flinched when she touched him.  He hardly took notice.  And that, above all, was what attracted Symon’s notice.

It was too bad, really.  Symon truly wished he had better news for her, but he wouldn’t lie to her.  Not about this.  Xeren finally looked him in the eye just before turning away.  Symon took a deep breath, returned her gaze, and discreetly shook his head from one side to the other.  Sorry, little sister, he thought.

She hid her reaction well.  The young man had no idea the exchange had taken place.  But Xeren’s eyes betrayed her, as they always did.  And inside, she was screaming.

*****

Miles away, another woman was screaming out loud. She awoke screaming, as she had every night since she’d watched her mother get torn apart and devoured right before her eyes.

She re-lived it in her dreams, every time she slept. Donovan bravely putting himself and the last group of soldiers between the advancing Turned and the large carriage at the center of the double-ring of flame. The four corpses converging on him, pulling away the axe first, then his arms, then the cluster of them bending over him like vultures, pulling and peeling at him until there was no flesh left.  Then the swarm had broken through fully, pushed through the inner ring of burning wagons and carriages.  Those in front were still burning, the smell of blackened skin and hair preceeding them like a foul fanfare.  They overwhelmed the soldiers, setting some of them on fire as they pushed them off their feet, falling upon them to feed.  All the while, the swarm behind pressed inward, pushing those in front right into the fires until the wagons themselves moved enough to make a hole.

There had been hundreds – perhaps more than a thousand.  Every one of them was different.  Some were missing arms or legs. A few missing their entire heads, or a portion of them.  Some looked as if they could have been alive still – fully dressed, and having only an unhealing bite on a wrist or lower leg as a mark of their Turning.  But still, they were all the same – every one of them trying only to get closer to the living, and willing to trample each other to get there.

Dana had held her mothers hand, watching with wide, tearful eyes as the swarm slowly crept toward them.  When all the soldiers had been defeated, and when all the other carriages and wagons broken into, when everyone else in the caravan had been killed, there was no one left but the mother and daughter, cowering atop their carriage and praying the Turned wouldn’t be able to reach them.

It had taken them two minutes to break through the side doors, and climb into the carriage below her.  After that, there had been five minutes of pounding upon the ceiling of their box.  For a few moments, Dana had entertained the hope that the ceiling would hold them off.  But the planks began to crack, then splinter as more and more dead fists beat on them from underneath.  Then the entire carriage had rocked to one side, as the wheels underneath it broke from the strain.  Just as the Turned inside began pushing their hands up through the planks, reaching for Dana and her mother, the entire carriage dropped off its wheels and fell a half-meter closer to the ground.  And with that drop, the last two living humans were within reach of the Turned around the carriage.

She held her mother’s hand, tightly, the two of them looking silently into each others eyes.  Dana felt them pulling at her ankles, dragging her and her mother both off the roof and onto the rotting heads.  A moment later, the two women were on the ground, still gripping their right hands and staring at each others eyes.  Dana was on her back, looking upward and behind her, locking her eyes on her mother’s.

Gina Carterson held her mouth closed the entire time, in a terrified but determined grimace.  Dana watched her eyes, the fear of what was coming replaced by the sudden shock of pain as the Turned began biting at the rest of her.  Her face and head convulsed, as pieces of her were torn off, out of Dana’s sight.  Then Gina gasped for air, the inward wheeze choked off as she was dragged an arm’s length away from Dana.

Dana gripped her mother’s hand tighter, refusing to let go until it was all over.  She could see nothing of her mother but the forearm and hand, even as more of the Turned crowded around them, forcing their way closer to the living meat.

That was when the realization hit her.  Not one of the walking dead had tried to bite her.  They were feasting on her mother- she could hear them biting, tearing flesh off, chewing and gulping – but not a single one of them had bitten her own skin.  They pulled on her ankles and her arms… but only to move her.  They wanted Dana out of the way, so they could get closer to the feast.

The grip on her ankles suddenly gave a terrific yank, nearly breaking both her feet, and she was dragged almost a meter away.  She held her grip on her mother’s hand, but then realized that the arm had been chewed through, and the elbow joint had given in to the strain.  Two of the Turned fell on it immediately, fighting to pry Dana’s fingers open to claim the remaining arm.

Dana twisted onto her belly then, releasing the dead hand and pushing herself up onto her hands and knees.  She pushed away from her mother’s body, toward the gap between two wagons.  The Turned offered her no resistance – they flowed around her, still trying to get closer to the remains of the other bodies, searching for any scrap of flesh left behind.

That was where her dreams left her, pushing her way out of the circle.  Now, she was in the shade under a huge oak, only a half-kilometer from the clearing of her old home, Carter’s Hill.  She stood, brushing leaves and twigs off her clothes.  She’d been wearing the same skirt and blouse for weeks.  They were stained, dusty, nearly destroyed by the overuse.  Her hair was a tangled mess, and her jewelry was long-gone.  About the only thing she had, that had come through the attack and the wanderings since, were her boots.

She came to the edge of the fields near noon, staying out of sight among the trees, watching the field-hands at work from a distance.  She knew distantly that they had been her people once, that her family had been in charge of the city these people called home.  That knowledge was an old memory now, and had been muscled out of the way by a new realization, a new emotion.

She hated these people.  They were indirectly responsible for the tragedy that had befallen the Carterson family, even if they hadn’t caused it purposefully.  They’d always resisted her mother’s leadership, and would have resisted her own.  Now they had no direction, no leadership, and they would fall into chaos.  She felt this anger rising, and determination slowly settled itself about her shoulders.  She knew what she would do.  It was only a matter of deciding how.  And planning was always one of her strong points.

As she watched, the wheels of thought spinning against each other in her mind, a short caravan approached the main gate to the lower section of the city.  She could see clearly across the distance, clearer than she ever had in her life, and sitting atop the carriage in the front-

Of course.  For their plan to relocate to the new city to be so badly thwarted, there had to be a betrayal.  Her gaze burned across the distance, watching her brother dismount the carriage, take the arm of the young, red-haired woman her spies had once described to her, and approach the gates.

Of course.

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7 Responses to “The Believers – Chapter 15”

  1. Oh come on…….. this surely cannot be the end is it…..I need another fix…someone? please? Awwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwww

    • It is not the end… it’s just all I’ve got written so far. While I tune up the Assault on Lone Star, I’ve been putting together the skeleton for the third book – The Immune. Stay tuned – and if you enjoyed the Turned, go have a look at Lone Star!

  2. Love the way you write….love these stories. Any idea when The Immune will be ready to read? I’ve been telling my daughter about these and she doesn’t want to start reading until it’s done. Will that be the final entry?

    • Glad you enjoyed them! I have a habit of skipping from one story to another… while I was finishing The Believers, I was putting together the outline for Assault on Lone Star. While I’ve been editing and posting Lone Star, I’ve been doing the first draft of a modern-fantasy novella AND outlining The Immune. So while it may take some time, its in the works…

  3. richard tejada Says:

    Do you plan on publishing any of your work on print? I’d love to buy any of your work in a book.

    • At this point, I have no plans to publish any of my writings, other than here. I enjoy writing, but I don’t expect to make money doing it. My goal with this site is to get as many people to read my writing as possible. I’m glad to hear that you like it!

  4. I’ve started reading The Turned and love it so far. I have converted The turned and The believers to Epub format suitable for ereaders for my personal use. If you would like copies of them to post on your site, please email me.

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