Sleep did not come. Julia’s usual excellent breakfast was choked down by sheer will power, success primarily fueled by my motivation to never insult the cook. Especially when said cook was my lover and the warrior covering my back. Both eyes felt grainy and were undoubtedly bloodshot. By the time there was enough daylight to see an enemy coming fifty yards away, we were packed up and ready to go.
“Let’s leave the horses here for now,” I suddenly decided. “Just tie them to a few trees. Better cover here and it’s only a fifty yard dash away from the accursed tomb.”
My mate nodded cheerfully. “You’re the boss. Appy and Roan would hold position, but if we’re in there any length of time….”
And so it was settled.
We trudged through the snow toward the object of my fears, shoot guns in hand. I’d rigged a leather tie to carry both Sedlacek Special spears angled across my back, their razor sharp heads jutting above my right shoulder. It would take extra seconds to yank the bow knot in front of my chest, releasing the spears from confinement; Julia could draw her sword in a fraction of the time it would take me to bring those pig-pokers into action. Still, it was the best I could do and far better than going without. I’d grown so attached to that pair of blades that without them I felt naked, not just unarmed but literally undressed.
The massive archway leading into the crypt faced north. None of the morning sun’s first rays warped around far enough to get in there, so it was still pretty dark inside–and felt really dark.
Unwilling to let fear master me in front of my lady, I choked back the rising bile in my gullet and stepped inside without hesitation, Julia at my heels. “Gonna need the torch.” Couldn’t see a blasted thing in here, but there was a sense of a looming presence, no doubt enhanced by the solid rock walls closing in around us. Or at least it felt that way. I thoroughly understood it was most likely my own brain messing with me. We’d brought both the torch itself and a glowing coal from the campfire, it didn’t take long before flame licked up strongly enough for us to get our first good look at the place. We stood in a “room” some eight feet deep by fourteen feet wide, give or take. At the western end, a massive stone sarcophagus rested upon solid granite pillars approximately three feet high. Both coffin and pillars seemed to be made of the same rose-speckled granite, polished to a glow that bespoke care in the manufacturer’s approach and unlimited funds in the corpse’s bank account.
The eastern end was…empty. Nothing but polished rock walls. Julia and I looked at each other, shrugged, and stepped the other way, approaching the massive container of my evil ancestor’s remains. We had no intention of trying to lift the lid. For one thing, it did not appear to be hinged yet had to weigh many hundreds of pounds, possibly closer to a thousand. Its curves were simple, tasteful, and could stay right where they were; neither of us had the makings of a grave robber.
Besides, the thing might be cursed. Death-mist in the box of rock, waiting to waft into the face of the first fool to break the seal. Rotted, mummified flesh over dessicated bones at best. Or possibly the flip side, mold run rampant. Maybe a still-active strain of Capriosis vilify, the Blackface virus itself, lurking in the dark, waiting to pounce on fresh victims.
In a word, ew-w-w-w!
There were, however, words inscribed across the entire surface of the granite coffin, at least the side facing us. The letters had been carved deeply into the stone and then filled with what looked like solid gold, resembling nothing more than the gauche buildings constructed by the ancient Before President, Donald J. Trump. This stone crypt was hardly Trump Tower, but it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that the rich man who’d commissioned this engraving had been an admirer.
The wording itself was enough to hold our attention.
WILLIAM JOHNSON SCHENK
Neither date of Birth nor Death be marked
For timeless be this body parked
If you knew what I knew
If you knew where I’d been
You would understand
Why I’d do it all again
“Rather sure of himself, wasn’t he?” Julia’s voice was soft, bemused.
I shook my head, an attempt to deny the force of his arrogant words. “He had to be, to do what he did. May the Creator save us from the true believer who perceives his vision as the only truth.”
“You okay, babe?”
“Yeah. Kinda sorta. Let’s get out of here. I’ll be a whole lot better with some distance between us and this world killer’s bones.” I was nearly sick to my stomach, but the nausea lessened with every step away from the Demon’s Crypt. By the time we’d retrieved the horses and exited the cemetery/park, I was pretty much back to myself.
Until we identified the lumpy snowdrift beside the snowless pavement as a pile of skeletons, that is. There had been similar drifts along the way; we must have passed fifty of them yesterday, fully buried under the snow. But at the edge of the magic black street, just touching the surface…those were definitely finger bones. Not large. A woman or a child. That single set of calcified digits served as a dark Rosetta Stone; from then on it was impossible to pretend we were not passing between death-piles accumulated just off the shoulder of the roadway.
How many? That we couldn’t guess; our minds shut down after a while, refusing to estimate or even acknowledge the horror in any detail.
Yet none of the skeletons rested on the street. It was as if the surface itself had rejected them, shoving them to the side. Or had the true believers, the few hundred Survivors, somehow found the nerve and the energy to clear the way in those last days?
It was a mystery we would probably never solve. Nor did I want to know. TMI.
The steady clip-clop of our little horse herd kept time for one mile deeper into the city of Winnow, two miles, three. Twice we passed parks, both smaller than that allotted to the Insane One’s crypt, both clearly meant to be available to the public. Skeletons rested in each of them; our eyes were now able to pick such things out at a glance, snow cover or no snow cover. Here and there the snow had blown clear, or perhaps melted at some point, so that a grinning skull or a bleached pelvic bone could be seen in all its death-worshiping glory. We could camp in them if we had to. The company of fifty or sixty innocent, dead fools couldn’t be any worse than the previous night’s campsite near the Demon of Death Himself.
At least the horses wouldn’t care. To them, bones were bones and grass was grass.
No more than a dozen yards ahead of us, a flash of white skittered across the pavement, disappearing in the snow off to the right. I stopped long enough for Julia to study the tracks.
“Weasel,” she announced. We were some distance from the last park, which meant there was likely enough game here to hold the small predator’s interest. Mice, at least. Something. Life was returning to Winnow. Birds we did not see, not even the cheerful chickadees that refuse to fly south for the winter. Either the weasel had already eaten those, or there simply weren’t enough seed bearing plants to keep the tiny fliers around.
And then, rounding a curve that was sharper than most, we saw it.
“Whoa!” I stopped and stared. Julia moved up beside me, the clip-clop of the pack string coming to a halt behind her. She helped me stare.
Ahead on the left, a castle still stood, just far enough back from the street to allow for a tall stone wall–ten feet at least–to surround the grounds. Not that the turreted stone structure housed the living; there were gaping holes in the perimeter wall and in the castle walls, both. Nothing available today could do that sort of damage; it had to have been inflicted by what they called rockets Before, or at least some unbelievably powerful explosive charges. The windows were dark, forbidding, nothing we cared to investigate. Besides, the whole thing looked like a good push would knock it over. How its–what, sixty feet?–of height had withstood the winds of these past forty years…no clue.
This, then, had to have been Maniac Schenk’s abode while he lived. Bow to me, peasants! I will strike down the world with my power, my sneaky dollars funding the research that will eradicate y’all, and y’all will thank me for it!
Plenty of skeletons in there, no doubt, many with bullet holes in the skulls and busted bones from bladed weapons and blunt instruments at the end. No, we’d leave that alone.
Directly across the street, though….
It could have been a courthouse, or a library, or a museum. One of those marble-pillar square buildings, two stories unless there were basement levels. And it looked untouched.
Well…untouched wasn’t quite the right word. Bet a dollar to a donut hole, that dimpled effect would turn out to be formed by the impact of hundreds if not thousands of incoming bullets. But there was no visible damage to the white structure, not even a door off its hinges or a broken window. We’d heard of bullet resistant glass; perhaps those windows had indeed been hit–a lot–but none of them had so much as cracked.
The difference was in the defensive perimeter. Instead of a wall attackers could hide behind, the Mystery Building was surrounded at a distance of roughly fifty yards by a ten foot high chain link fence topped with razor wire. There had been adversaries, for sure; skeletons were piled against that fence by the hundreds. Mowed down, and my intuition told me this, by automatic fire from the building. Maybe the roof of the building. Machine guns, capable of threshing the rabble like so much wheat.
Why had this structure been defended so much more effectively than the castle across the street? Had Schenk already been dead?
Questions for another time. For now, all we needed to know was how to get in there. The place had answers; I just knew it. A branch of the dark pavement ran all the way past that fence to the front door of the building. I led Roan up to the locked gate and stood there, scratching my head.
“No simple padlock on this one.” Captain Obvious, my mate was.
“No,” I agreed. The gate was chain link as well, but mounted on a frame of steel pipes no more than six inches apart. The hinges at the far end weren’t really hinges; instead, they looked like the vertical bolt that ran through the receiver bushings had been welded to the rest of the gate after installation. So no help there. The locking end involved four separate bolts piercing a six inch pipe post, each with a hole-through holding its own padlock on the inside of the chain link. Razor wire topped everything.
Simply put, the gate was out.
“Where’s a set of bolt cutters when you need them?” I muttered, turning my attention to the fencing to the right of the gate.
“Only one set in all of Fort 24,” Julia said, “and I think we’d have had a dickens of a time convincing the powers that be to let us take them with us on this suicide mission.”
That surprised me. “You mean bolt cutters really exist? I was being facetious!”
“There you go with the big words again.” She grinned, but I could see the worry in her eyes. She was every bit as frustrated as I was.
In the end, the solution turned out to be simplicity itself. With no better idea in mind, we decided to circle the perimeter, see if there might be an easier way in…and there was. Around the far side, in the back corner, the fence had been breached. The opening appeared to have been cut with something, likely a Before tool beyond our ken, a gap a good four feet wide by seven high, give or take. The only problem was the pile of skeletons filling the hole, but only to a height of two feet or so. As living and/or recently dead human beings, they’d filled a lot more than that, but bones don’t take up nearly as much space once the flesh is gone.
There were a lot of bones, though, far too many to just flip-and-toss out of the way, so we got a canvas from one of the pack horse loads, piled a bunch of remains on that, and then dragooned Roan into service, pulling them forty feet off to one side before dumping the load and returning for more. Whoever had been defending the building hadn’t been able to prevent the fence cutting, but he hadn’t let the mob get very far inside, either.
By the time the way was clear, it was getting late.
“Let’s head back to that last little park we saw,” I suggested. “Set up camp for the night, come back here in the morning.”
“Works for me,” my blonde agreed. “I’m about hungry enough to start gnawing on a bone.”
“Cannibal Julia?” My eyebrows shot up, kind of like my stomach shot up toward my throat. “Now, that’s just gross.”
“No sense of humor,” she shook her head sadly. “Just none at all. Besides, it’s not like you’ve been showing a lot of respect for the dead. I’ve been watching you do those fancy bone-flips onto the canvas. Counting rotations in the air or whatever, sailing a pelvic bone like skipping a stone across a pond, slam dunking skulls.”
She had a point. It was probably a good thing there was nobody else around to witness my blasphemy. So few folks seemed to get it even now, that a discarded husk was a discarded husk and nothing more. Big difference between bone-flipping and cannibal jokes, though…or was there?
Julia was right; supper sounded mighty good right now. Just so it wasn’t bone soup.
Our chosen campsite boasted a surprising amount of available firewood, mostly cottonwood which burned down fast but beat nothing by a country mile. Two fallen giants had angled together to form a natural breastwork and windbreak, the closest thing to a fortress we’d enjoyed since starting this little vacation. Michael decided we’d be better off simply forting up for the night, one of us staying awake to feed the fire and keep our senses tuned to the night but not doing any roaming patrol.
Made sense to me. Roaming around the little park would be more likely to expose the sentinel than anything else. Besides, it was nice having my man close to me, either watching over me or me watching over him.
We were warmer when the sun came up than we had been for a while. Part of that turned out to be the weather; it could get hot enough to start melting snow for the first time in weeks. Not that the break would last for long; the dawn was rosy as Gabby’s butt cheeks the last time Dad had to spank her for getting into the stallion’s pen. Old Snart had been a cranky, ugly, mean range stud with one wall eye and a willingness to kill; my sister had been seven and stupid.
She didn’t do that again. Man, I hoped she was healed up from that Rodney Upward crossbow bolt. Every time I thought about him shooting her during the raid, I wanted to ask Michael if we could go back and kill the rat bastard all over again.
Back at the Mystery Building site, we tied the horses off to the chain link fence, strolled through the huge gap, and walked boldly up to the structure. Black Street, as we’d dubbed the pavement to which snow would not stick, must have wound around more than we’d realized. The sun was well up now, but behind us, so the rear door–sheltered by a small portico supported by outsized marble-looking columns–obviously faced east-southeast.
Up close, the building turned out to be huge. Biggest manmade structure I’d ever seen. The castle across the street was taller, but this…a perfect square, yeah, but each side at least a hundred paces across. Paces, not feet. The door itself was at least four feet wide by eight feet tall. Even if they had ten-foot ceilings in there, two stories was not right. Had to be at least three.
Michael’s voice shattered my trance. “Oversized door handle, lock not visible. Wonder how they managed that?”
“Look, Jules. There are three peepholes but no place for a key. How on Earth–”
“Entirely electronic? Digitally controlled? I’ve read about security systems like that.”
“Maybe. Teacher did mention something like this once…I think. I thought she was making stuff up. It’s pretty obvious they had defense in mind when they built this place. See all those little ports, no only here in the door itself but scattered along the wall?”
“Not blind, babe. And yes, lots of windows but very narrow and high, enough to let in light but not an attacker.”
“Sorry. Just saying. This place has me freaked out a little.”
“Me, too, I guess–don’t open that door!”
Michael’s hand leaped back from the curved lever-style handle like it was red hot iron. He didn’t stop there, either; flinging himself sideways, he now stood with his back to the wall, staring wide-eyed at my prone form. I didn’t even remember hitting the deck, but there I was, as flat as I could be, plastered belly down in the snow, shoot gun aimed at the door he’d just abandoned.
He didn’t move another muscle until I found my voice again. “That handle turned like it wasn’t locked, right?” I sounded as nervous as a girl on her first date, nothing moving but my lips.
“Didn’t strike you as odd?”
“Yeah. Yeah, it did.” Michael shifted away from the wall just enough to make sure his back wasn’t covering one of those little shooting ports, then turned his attention back to me. “I wasn’t going to push it open. Would have moved away a lot slower if you hadn’t yelled, though.” There was no accusation in his tone, just a simple statement of fact.
“Could be booby trapped.”
“Yep. But Jules? Think you could maybe join me instead of staying out there in front of whatever defenses are left? The wall feels safer than open ground.”
“That’s a thought, but I’ve got a better one. Let’s both get out of here for a minute, tie the horses off somewhere else. If the building starts shooting, they could be right in the line of fire.”
He hadn’t thought of that.
Twenty minutes later, with our saddle mounts and pack string safe from ghost Before weaponry, we were back. Plastered against the wall beside the door again. With a ten foot forked stick and a plan.
Michael’s upper body leaned out from the wall just far enough to push on the door handle with the forked end of the stick. I held both of our long guns and my breath. The door opened a crack…an inch…an inch and a half–
–at which point two things happened. The oversized door slammed all the way open, the noise of its contact with the interior wall buried in the sudden hell of a thousand shooters pouring lead through the doorway, nonstop. Forever. Gouts of snow flew into the air as buckets of bullets impacted the area on the other side of the hole in the fence, rolling thunder assaulting not only our ears but every cell in our bodies. We were deafened. In shock. Paralyzed. What had we stumbled into?
When the barrage finally stopped, I realized I’d peed my pants a little. That awareness was slow in coming, though, drifting in behind the understanding that Michael’s face was in my face, looking like he was yelling but the sound wasn’t getting through…until it did, a fragment at a time.
“…hear me now?”
“I think…kind of. Michael, I think we should get out of here. If we can.”
Then and only then, for the first time, I saw cold, hard steel in the depths of my lover’s eyes. He made me afraid. Not that I thought he’d hurt me, but suddenly I knew I would never want to cross this man. I had hooked my wagon to a power beyond my understanding, a force that would not be balked.
By anything or anyone.
“You don’t have to go in, Jules.” His voice was soft, but maybe that was the temporary deafness from the fusillade. It certainly didn’t fit his expression. “But I have to.”
“Where you go,” I said, a shudder running through me from head to toe, “there I go also.”
“Well, then,” his expression morphed into an entirely boyish grin, “time’s a-wasting.”
My fears, though understandable and entirely rational, turned out to be unfounded. The doorway led not to a battalion of red-eyed zombie soldiers but to a simple room housing a single mummy in combat fatigues, lying on a simple cot. Hell’s own artillery turned out to be a single weapon, confusing at first, but ultimately determined to be a belt-fed machine gun in .30 caliber, mounted on a tripod that had been lag-bolted to the hardwood floor. A count of expended brass proved to my considerable astonishment that 150 rounds had blown out through the doorway, more than the entire Gunderson family expended in an entire hunting season but far less than the thousands my panicked psyche had perceived.
“Ingenious setup,” Michael observed, admiring the pulleys-and-weights arrangement that had both jerked the door wide open and locked the machine gun’s trigger back.
I was more interested in the mummy on the cot. There was a bedside stand where he–I assumed it was a he–had placed a pair of spectacles before taking his final rest. A quick look through the glasses made the room a little blurry, but his vision hadn’t been that bad. There were two drawers in the stand. In the top drawer–“Sweetheart.”
“Whatcha got, babe?”
“Looks like a journal. Still legible after all these years. “Let’s see…hey, he dated it, too….”
My man continued his inspection of the room, unwilling to proceed any farther into the building until we’d uncovered every secret these few hundred square feet had to offer. He was studying the high ceiling–had to be fourteen feet if it was an inch–but listening to me. “Legible?”
“Yeah. Cursive, but I can read it okay. Closes his e’s up tight, but nothing I can’t handle. Hm.” I flipped through the pages, not really reading anything, just eyeballing the handwriting. “Bit shakier toward the end. Looks like it covers a lot of years, though. The very last entry…hon, it’s dated in March, only three years ago.” I paused, thinking about that. “If we’d come in here just three years earlier, we’d have been facing a live defender with a lifetime of knowledge, dedication, and heavy weaponry.”
“Good thing I was only a thirteen year old slave boy then, huh? Can you read that last entry?”
“Think so. Let’s see…okay, here we go. Looks like he uses ACV for…After Capriosi Vilify, maybe? Instead of ATF for After The Fall. But I think the numbers are the same.”
March 17, 37 ACV
O Lord, I am used up, may thy name be glorified and my service be in balance with the Divine Scales of Life. 42 years I have labored here, preserving Mr. Schenk’s library as best I could. The others are all gone before me, Jenks and Harlan and little Brie, all received into thy arms or cast down into perdition as Justice may decree. It is my turn now. I have no knowledge of the future, of whether the Library will simply disintegrate over the eons or whether the Lovers or the Haters will come to claim it in time. Or perhaps another, for I know not the destiny of those few who lived to flee this place of death, of destruction, of megalomania run amok.
Yet also of knowledge, of preparedness, for here within these walls lie the seeds of greatness, stored against need by the very madman who destroyed the world. And now, I feel the light fading as I yearn toward that greater Light, and know I have but few moments left, and would address those who have come to read these scribblings.
If you are of the Lovers, flee while you can. Herein lie tools you can never bring yourselves to use effectively. If you persist in your folly, you will perish.
If you are of the Haters, you will ignore this book, burn it perhaps while you laugh, drunk with your little taste of pitiful power. I have nothing to say to you.
If you are Another, one I cannot predict, then welcome. Clearly, you have been wise enough to seek this place, smart enough to avoid my pathetic little trap, persistent enough to proceed, and best of all, you can read. To you I say, there is only one other bullet trap in the building, a setup similar to this one behind the opposite door. Beyond that, there are weapons, manuals to explain them, but more than that, a fount of knowledge you are unlikely to find elsewhere.
“That’s it. The writing is really hard to read in that last paragraph; I’m pretty sure he managed to finish on will power alone.”
Michael wasn’t looking around the room now. He stared at me, transfixed. “Tell you what,” he said finally, “let’s take that journal back to the park. I’m willing to rig a tarp where we camped last night, risk snuggling in together without a sentry–except the horses, of course–and reading that journal from beginning to end before we take another step into this…library?”
“That’s what he calls it.” I closed the hardback journal carefully. The paper pages were still in surprisingly good condition, possibly a result of advances in the field those last years before the Fall. Big thing, nearly two inches thick. Priceless.
By the time we’d unhooked the machine gun from its pulleys and figured out how to swivel it so it didn’t face the doorway, clouds were already rolling in. Unsurprisingly, the rosy dawn had preceded a storm front. If my gut was right, the horses were going to be digging deep through snow to find grass by tomorrow morning.
Tenting up sounded like a really good idea. We might be stuck in the cottonwood fortress for days, but it would take days to get through the thick volume penned by the Unknown Mummy Soldier.