In those days, you shall know untold hardship, Dread visions shall goad you by night,
And great calamity sting you by day,
A piece of bread shall buy a bag of gold,
And the sea shall give up her dead.
Chapter 39: The Walking Dead
The dawn has moved on, leaning only dusk.
A harsh wind roars across a cracked, crumbling expanse of nothing, dried and dead, every last trace of moisture long gone. It kicks up gritty, alkaline dust, scouring the surface, shrouding the land in a sickly, yellow haze. Through this haze walks a figure, clad all in black, hunched over against the relentless wind.
The roar all around it is eerie and hollow, the wind does not howl but screech. The sound is otherworldly, far too high, and yet empty, as if even the wind here is dying. For all its rage, and all its dust, it barely licks at the rags covering the forsaken form trudging through it. Yet here and there, the tug of a whisper is just enough to expose a glimpse of dry, weathered bone.
The figure stumbles and falls on its endless course, sending up a puff of reddish-yellow dust that disappears into the haze. What might once have been a gas mask covers its face, the rubber cracked, the dark lenses scratched to near opacity. It pulls a dark cowl farther over its head as it huddles on the parched ground, lest it see up. No, never look up. To gaze upon what writhes in the angry red clouds of the alien sky above... is to know madness.
I want to cry, but I cannot...
Instead the figure rises, lurches forward as if drawn against its will. Its bandaged hands scrabble, then find purchase. One ragged foot drags across the grit. The other follows. Onward, ever onward this lost soul trudges, the last walking thing in a world that has moved on.
It passes a shape of some sort, a lump in the sand that has long since lost any meaning. Soon there is another. And then yet another. Out of the sepia murk ahead, a much larger shape now looms, void and without form. As the figure approaches, it materializes into a tall, broad structure. Ancient shipping containers, rusted and scoured until nearly unrecognizable, form a low wall. The figure lurches on, swaying, until it reaches the crumbling gate. Here, it stops and gazes; for an hour, for an eternity.
Before the half-collapsed sheets of metal lay piles of dry bones. A skull stares back, its twisted and deformed features half-buried in the dust. The figure does not raise its face, but sets off across the pile, half climbing, half wading, bones crackling near-soundlessly beneath its feet to join the uncaring dust. A slight push against the yawning gate sends it crashing to the ground with a reedy, empty sound; the hungry wind devours the dust it kicks up.
Within is a courtyard before another withered structure, in the center of this courtyard is what remains of a tree. What it once was... no longer matters. Now, it is only a bare fragment of a stump. The ceaseless wind and abrasive dust have scoured its surface, opening fissures, and left haunting shapes like faces writhing in torment. The figure pauses only a moment before moving on.
Just beyond, bits of rusted metal or etched stone stick up from the ground on either side. What was once scrawled upon them has long since been erased. The figure stares long at these, as ages and eons come and go above.
I want to cry, but I cannot.
Past these, the markers become more simple, often worn away to bare nubs, keeping eternal watch over oblong mounds on the surface. Further still, there are no more mounds, only the tattered remains of shrouds, soundlessly rustling as the wind scatters their contents over millennia as the figure plods on. And finally, before this last wasting structure, there are not even shrouds, only vague clusters of bones the wind has not yet disbursed.
The figure pauses here, casting its masked visage over all it has passed, unwilling to continue... and yet drawn inexorably on.
Inside, the empty howl of the endless wind is lessened. The roof has collapsed here and there, but not yet enough to bury what has transpired. Here, in this haunted place, is the last. Kerb’s final inkermanity to kerb. Here, there are more bones... each one charred, or knife-scored, or simply broken open on a rock.
He sits, keeping eternal vigil here in this crumbling castle from his simple throne, holding his broken crown in his twisted hands: King Nothing, even his name long forgotten. His face is the most horrible of all, his features so deformed that he barely seems like a thing once alive. And yet, he is also the most piteous, his toothless mouth forever contorted in a wail of unknowable misery.
I want to cry, but I cannot.
The ragged figure falls to its knees on the dusty floor, bones clinking with barely a sound. Here, it has reached the end.
I want to die, but I cannot.
Here, there are no more ends or beginnings. Here, there is only... eternity.
Valentina shot upright, gagging, her chest twitching as it tried to draw air into lungs that felt like they had not taken a breath in—
She blinked eyes that burned with dryness, spat acrid grit from her mouth. As she raised her hands to paw at her face, she saw them cast in the pallor of a corpse. Then, as her eyes began to focus, her horror surged even more, as she saw it was not pallor but a thin layer of frost clinging to her skin.
Her hands pressed against her face, hid her eyes. Dark whispers filled her ears. Her chest strained to draw in air, the sensations raising nightmare memories from a lifetime ago.
DФ SVЇDДЍЇҰД, SГДLЇИSԞЇ!
Welcome... to oblivion.
Yet even as her mind struggled before this onslaught, a new and far more present sensation cut through the murk... The acrid sting of smoke.
Valentina looked down to find her sweat-soaked nightshirt smoldering.
Now panic joined the fray, her hands felt like rubber as they fumbled about. And then, she could only stare in breathless confusion at the source of the burning.
She held the Münstone formerly tucked behind her nightshirt up. Anywhere the sodden fabric touched it, for an instant burst into flame... and yet the metal-clad gem barely felt warm in her own hands. As she stared down at it, the distant whispers rose, indistinct but ever more frustrated. The stone began to glow deepest crimson before her eyes, but a flash drew them away.
Over on the wall, the patterned wallpaper now set to smolder and bubble. Spots formed, and then lines, and lines grew into blackened, smoking letters:
YOU CANNOT DESTROY MY DESTINY
Edgas awoke from the nightmare, the scream trapped in his throat until his lungs grasped that they first must take in air to cry out. He choked and gagged as his mind and body fought for control. His chest ached, his eyes burned, and his tongue tingled with a sensation like... bubbling. The room seemed to swim as he felt like he hadn’t breathed in—
Yet no sooner did his mind begin to remember where it was, who it was, that an unpleasant pressure began to envelop it. Edgas raised hands to his head, his scream at last finding breath, as the pressure rose to pain, like probing... scratching... digging into his brain. All at once sound cut off, he felt a pop and something streamed through.
The dark room grew darker still.
YOU CANNOT. DESTROY. MY. DESTINY.
Edgas squeezed his eyes shut, but the presence did not relent.
YOU CANNOT ESCAPE YOUR OWN.
His head shook in impotent denial.
FOOL! INSECT! VIRUS! YOU ARE WEAK! DID YOU REALLY THINK IT WOULD BE SO EASY? DID YOU REALLY THINK THERE WOULD BE NO PRICE?
Tremors built in his fingers, curled his hands into claws, creeping up his arms.
LIAR! USURPER! YOU ARE NO BEARER OF HOPE, YOU... ARE THE BETRAYER OF HOPES!
He thrashed, tumbled backwards... his back arched as a spasm rocked his whole body.
I AM ETERNAL! I AM... INEVITABLE.
YOUR GRAVE IS NO BAR TO ME! EVEN NOW, YOU DO NOT UNDERSTAND.
The shadows drew in.
YOU WILL KNOW SACRIFICE. YOU WILL KNOW REGRET. IF THERE IS TRULY ANY PITY IN YOU FOR THE FLESH-VERMIN THAT INFEST YOUR WORLD, THEN YOU WILL ACCEPT YOUR FATE...
Vision collapsed to a singularity, and Edgas thought his skull might follow.
AND ACCEPT... YOUR... DESTINY.
All at once, the pressure was gone, and the shadows returned to their usual places. Edgas could only lay there, drenched with sweat, his chest heaving and head throbbing. Time turned, aeons passed... and eventually, so did the horrible nightmare fugue, leaving only a crushing weariness that might have cemented him to the bed if not for his thirst. His tongue felt like a roll of rags in his mouth, his lips like sandpaper. His throat had clamped to a bare, wheezing pinhole that whistled with desert air between dry rocks.
Edgas blinked his still-burning eyes back into focus, and found his water glass had been knocked to the floor in his thrashing. He let out a tired sigh, but roused himself, every muscle in his body seeming to cry out with aches, and set off for the kitchen.
Just beyond his door to his stateroom, across the hall, was the grand double-staircase. He leaned here on the polished railing for a time, still blinking, Münlight from the glass ceiling above glimmering in the dim space. Despite his fatigue and thirst, he still marveled at the opulence of it. The Mün, veiled in gossamer clouds, cast stark, pale shadows across the cavernous room, glinting on golden accents, silhouetting carved wood. The velvety carpet beneath his bare feet felt soft as a pillow, and the marble floor below gleamed with silver accents and dark blood stains.
The breath seized in Edgas’s parched throat.
No, they cleaned that...
He stumbled backwards, hands raised in warding. The shadows across the room seemed to shimmer and crawl towards him. His back met something solid, darkness loomed over him, and an icy hand reached out and took his shoulder.
The scream his tired throat had not let pass finally escaped.
Edgas spun around, hands still raised, and—
...Drew them slowly to his face. He then reached one out, hesitantly, almost trembling, and rapped a knuckle...
...bong, bong, bong...
The faint sound echoed softly in the still night air. Before him, a polished suit of plate armor stood impassively on a high plinth, one hand at its side, just about shoulder height, and the other grasping an enormous battle-axe. He glanced back toward the foyer, and saw his “bloodstains” disappear as the shadows shifted again. High overhead, faint clouds still danced around the Mün.
For a while Edgas just stood there, expecting everyone else to erupt from their rooms at his midnight outburst. Finally, he let out a low groan, shaking his head. It was just a dream, after all— horrible, but just a dream. There was no blood on the floor, and he bumped into a statue. It was right where it had been, standing there holding the axe in both hands—
The suit of armor raised the axe high above its steel helm, Münlight glinting off the curved razor edge.
Edgas couldn’t even scream, only cower to the floor and await the inevitable crash of cold steel. And crash it did, breaking over him with a noise like an army marching. Everywhere, bits of metal went flying and tumbling, flipping over the railing to the marble floor below, or bouncing... bouncing... BOUNCING! all the way down the wide, curving staircase, each thunk and crash and rattle echoing from the walls and reverberating down the halls. Edgas pressed his hands against his ears, but it was a noise to wake the very dead.
It echoed and rattled, but finally— finally!— the cacophony died away, after what seemed like an—
His face pinched in a tight wince, Edgas roused himself and peered down. An impossible amount of polished, dented metal littered the marble floor, and the old helm seemed to glare back up at him from the foot of the stairs, shaking back and forth in silent judgement.
You idiot, the Scientist in him chided, that was easily worth more than you see in a year. Kerm, it was priceless, even!
Such things... are no longer so important, the Practical Kerbal in him noted, and also, what’s a Kerm?
Edgas opened his mouth.
Edgas closed his mouth.
Then he just raised a hand to his face, as if to stop the darkness itself from seeing what fascinating new colors it had turned. He stood there like this a long while, expecting that now everyone would finally burst from their rooms. After all, nobody could sleep through that!
And yet... it would seem nobody had done just that. The night air kept its midnight stillness, quiet as—
Edgas shook the thought away. Instead he shifted to thinking he should just go back to bed. He looked longingly towards his door, but felt his tongue like ashes in his mouth. No, he would never sleep like this. A quick glance down the stairs ruled that out, too— the helm was still there, slowly shaking itself at him. Instead, he set off down the darkened hallway off the landing towards the servants’ staircase, a hand still pressed to his face.
He shifted it to first rubbing his temples, then the wide, flat spot between his eyes where his worst headaches always seemed to start. His mind was slowly waking up, coming out of that bizarre fog of sleep and adrenaline brought on by nightmares. Another quick shake of his head tried to nudge that away, too. If his mind woke up, he would start to think, and the last thing he needed right now was to—
Once more he stood for an eternity, not daring to move. He could feel something wet and sticky between his toes. A chill worked up his spine, and he let his eyes sink to the floor, already knowing what he would find.
Something dark, inky, glistened in the dim light. It sat in coagulated pools on the carpet, stained the walls with a sheen of black smears. As his eyes drew up, he beheld a shadowed figure, waiting for him at the end of the hall.
Something deep in the back of his mind told him to run, flee! But his legs refused to act. They, like the dryness of his throat, felt a galaxy away now.
The figure took an off-balance, shuffling step forward. Its arms swayed in time with the tatters of what might have been a dress, shaking free drops that splashed on the floor.
“You...” its voice was as dry and sand, yet somehow gurgled and choked.
Edgas could only lean away, feet rooted in place, his head shaking in vain denial of what his eyes saw.
“You... did this... to... meee...” a few scraps of matted hair stood out in silhouette on its head.
“No...” he could barely croak.
It staggered, coming towards him, the sound of its footfalls conjuring a sense of a bag of bones... and rotting fruit.
“You left me...”
“You left me to him...”
“No, I didn’t—!”
“I was all alone... and you left meee...”
The shadows danced and swayed, played games across the figure’s hidden face... here a glint... there a glimpse... madness lying in what they teased. It raised its arms, reached out for him... scraps of fabric and else dangling below.
An errant strand of light played across its face, “you... betrayed... me...”
Edgas could feel his hands, unbidden, reaching for his own eyes, “I... I didn’t mean to...”
Just as fingers brushed, his feet broke free from their paralysis, and he turned to flee...
...And found his path blocked.
Another figure stood at the far end of the hall, its black form the unmistakable outline of a space suit... somehow, a bare flash of the dim light beyond glowing through the tiny hole in the center of its helmet.
“You...” it was already reaching for him, coming closer, “you did this...”
His head shook wildly, he staggered backwards, only to be met by crunch-squish... crunch-squish...
“Ah trusted you,” the new figure loomed before him, “you led me into a trap...”
Edgas tried to scream, tried to cry out, but his throat was caked with the burn of alkali, and the dust of ages.
“You... betrayed... me...”
He cringed back, frozen in place, squeezing his eyes shut as bony hands curled around his neck.
Finally, he screamed... and opened his eyes, to find Valentina looking at him with concern.
“Are you... all right?” she let her hands drop from his shoulders, “you like you have seen ghost...”
Edgas’s eyes darted back and forth, he spun around... only to find an unassuming hallway, the walls and floor as pristine as ever. Dim, and yet...
He turned back to her, the hall, somehow, seemed to be bathed in a soft, stubborn light, “I...”
She took his chin, turned his face this way and that, looked hard at his eyes, “you do not look well. I think you need drink...”
Edgas ran clammy palms over his numb face, suddenly feeling very, very tired, “alcohol is the last thing I need right now.”
“Indeed,” Valentina reached up... and smacked him upside the head, “do not stereotype! What you need is nice, hot cup of tea, perhaps with chamomile. Calm your nerves. Come.”
Taking his arm in a gentle grip, she led him off down the hall towards the kitchen while behind them, the shadows reclaimed the night.
Dmitri Kermaniv grinned a wide, checkerboard grin as he pulled his prize free. He wiped it on his grungy coat and held it up to the soft, filtered light the clouds above let pass. Faint rays sparkled from the small diamond set in gold. Oh, he would eat tonight! He knew just where to dispose of this ring, and the handful of other trinkets in his pocket.
Then, his grin faded, as he looked off toward the calm, slate-grey sea. It had been... some time, since the last one. How long, he couldn’t say. But still he never turned his back to the sea, always kept one eye on it. Not that it would make any difference, if it happened again.
All up and down this new shoreline, twisted steel beams, already rusting in the salt air, reached up from the bedrock like the pleading fingers of the damned. The bedrock itself was scored and scarred, with deep, fresh gouges running in parallel lines further inland. And beyond that...
Dmitri’s fearful cast changed as he looked down, a scowl carving furrows in his face not unlike the wounds in the rock. Fools! Ingrates! Traitors! These SГДLЇИ SԞ Ї had betrayed the Glorious Imperium, defiled the once-eternal Union! And now... they had reaped as they sowed. One hand rose to the worn, faded Kommisar’s crest, still clinging to the shoulder of his tattered greatcoat by few stubborn threads. Yes, he had seen...
He had seen, from his squalid hovel on the hill overlooking the city, clutching his rotting coat against the midnight chill. Seen, the twinkling lights of Krostov laid through with the crimson glow of tail lights choking every street. Seen, as red trails wound away to the north, unmoving, even their precious Autoways clogged to a standstill. The bright, wandering streaks had reminded him of the infection that had claimed two of his toes, cast out and forsaken here in the wilderness.
His face split into a grin again. But the cure cometh, and that right soon.
He had seen... by the light of the crescent Mün, a great shadow arise in the south. It spread from horizon to horizon, glimmering darkness in a sliver of Münlight, rushing northward with cold inevitability: a wall of water half a kilometer high.
He had seen, as it fell upon the infection, sweeping it away with the rest of the city.
The dawn had followed late, the sun tinged red by the cruel irony of a thousand fires burning unchecked, pouring smoke into the air. Oh, he had seen! And he had grinned, as flashing lights had descended from the mountains to the north, and streams of people swarmed out of the rubble... for they could not see the harbor empty itself. Then the water returned, every bit as fierce if not quite so high.
He had seen, as it did so again... and again. And again. Now this once-shining monument to the decadence and treachery of the New Ways had been wiped from the map, buildings torn away, freighters and warships cast here and there upon the rubble like the forgotten toys of a spoiled child. Why even here, in this very place where he now stood, there had once been endless canyons of skyscrapers... now there were only the scattered bodies that the tide brought every morning.
Dmitri looked down in disgust at the one at his feet. They were rich— were rich, he jangled his pocket— but all their wealth could not save them, for even the very ocean rose with indignation at their betrayal. His eyes drifted up to the new shoreline. But for him, today the sea had been... most generous. Strange dress, foreign, even, but who was he to know what manner of debauchery such as these had been about?
Leaning heavily on his stick, Dmitri moved on across the scarred rock toward the next one, and even before he reached it, his eyes lit up. He knelt down, practically gibbering with glee. An arm poked out from beneath a mass of colorful rags draped with seaweed, and on its wrist, glinting in the filtered sunlight...
A Rolux! Yes, a Rolux! He could tell even before he touched it. And solid gold, judging by the gouges and dents left by the rocks. That meant nothing, but so much gold meant that he would eat tonight! And possibly even tomorrow! And there may even be more, he reached down and shoved the body over...
...And was immediately struck by the confounding and unpleasant urge to scream and vomit all at once.
As if in emphasis, a deformed crab as white as bone scuttled from one... not quite empty eye socket, and the urge to vomit ultimately won. But Dmitri quickly wiped his mouth on his grungy, ragged coat sleeve. He had seen... worse, of course. Perhaps. And there was gold, and ultimately food to be had.
Keeping his own eyes from that ruined face, he fiddled with the clasp of the watch band, but found it jammed closed from damage and tiny sea creatures that had begun to grow on it. Still, this would not stop him. He had a knife, of course, but it had grown dull from these long years of hard use. He would need a rock, too...
Ah yes, just there, now to—
A soft, slimy hand grabbed his wrist, and the air caught fast in Dmitri’s chest. He spun and watched, unbelieving, as the corpse sat up, and turned its faceless, eyeless gaze upon him.
“‘Lor?’” it said, “‘uggle?”
At last, the urge to scream had its moment, and Dmitri screamed as if he never had before, or would again. He screamed until his throat burned like a dust-scoured desert, until his lungs plead for breath like an airless void. He might have gone on screaming, has some primitive, animalistic part of his mind not realized his hand still clutched a rock. He swung it will all the force his weakened arm could muster, and it connected with the abomination’s head in a wet, yielding crunch.
Dmitri scuttled backwards like the deformed crab he had seen a moment ago, until something else wet and spongy blocked his path. He turned to find ragged hands reaching for him from another pile of seaweed and cloth. He recoiled, looked up, to run... to flee...
And... he saw.
All up and down this haunted shoreline, the dead arose...
...And began to walk...