Saturday, 19 July 2014
The False Moon War: Chapter 16
to Title and Contents
Chapter 16. The Lost City
The rest of that "day" dragged horribly. Perhaps it was the fact that the invigorating glow of the solar engine was spent, but it was also possible that the remaining lizardmen were weighed down by the loss of their comrade and brother.
Joe managed to give voice to his regret. "There was so much I could have said to Bob, but I never did. We just spent our time bickering about unimportant things. I....I wish that I had just said to him, "You're wrong, Bob. About everything."
Mahtis gave Joe's shoulder a comforting squeeze. "It's okay, Joe. I'm sure he knew that was how you felt."
Rychek scanned the horizon with a dangerous look in his eyes. "The next zombie I see, I will take apart. With my teeth if I have to!"
As the weak light faded at dusk, he spied his desired victim. A solitary zombie stood, blocking their path east, with a single arm lifted, palm outwards. Rychek leapt to the ground brandishing Gork-on-a-Stick and charged the zombie with a wordless shout. The shout quickly changed to a cry of confusion, and then anguish.
As he came close enough to strike he saw that the walking corpse before him was of reptilian form, with blue scales on its slack hide. A rotting wound on the creature's neck buzzed with flies. Its milky eyes gazed unseeingly at him from beneath a gleaming white egg shell.
It was Bob.
Joe and Mahtis rushed to Rychek's side. "Bob, thank the Old Ones!" Joe blurted, "You're alive!"
"No he isn't. I don't know how he is standing here, but he is not breathing. He is dead."
"No, he came back so I could tell him..." Joe turned back to his spawnkin, "Bob, I need you to know.... that you are wrong!"
There was no response.
Still no response.
"Okay smarty-scales. He's dead."
"Not exactly dead," a harsh voice called from the darkness. The Night-Mare drawn cart clopped into view. From the running board stepped a figure. "He is undead. I have made him so."
The speaker was an elderly and not very impressive human. His eyes were covered with disks of glass held by a wire frame which was hooked to his ears and balanced on the bridge of his long, pointed nose. His dome-like scalp was devoid of hair, and combined with the dark circles of glass gave him the appearance of a leering skull. There was something cold and clinical about his precise appearance and movements, which was contradicted by the ornate appearance of the black filigreed staff he bore.
"Why have you done this?" Joe attempted to step forward to confront the figure but was restrained by the claw of the zombie saurus between them.
"At least Zis one has held your attention long enough to avoid being burnt. Or hacked. Or crushed. It is tiresome to me when I have to reanimate so many of my friends whenever zey extend an invitation to guests, such as yourselves."
"Zombies are no one's friends," Rychek snorted. "They are mindless slaves."
The glassy disks regarded him for a long moment. "Indeed. Und zat is why you have been invited as guests. I think you would prefer zis to... the alternative. But, I am being a poor host. My name is Victor. Please to follow. What is it you call zis one? Bob? Come Bob."
Victor and the undead Bob climbed onto the corpse cart, and it turned towards the menacing dark to the north. Rychek briefly considered fleeing to the east, but changed his mind when he saw that the zombie army had formed a semicircle around them. North was definitely the way to go.
The trio of lizards dutifully followed on Bessie and whispered about this turn of events, all the while shadowed by the ring of undead.
"Rychek, why has he done that to Bob? Why are we following him?"
"We have no choice, Mahtis. We are outnumbered one hundred to one, and he can raise troops as quickly as we can cut them down. He is clearly a powerful necromancer."
In the silence of the Dark Lands, attempting to have a quiet conversation was futile. The sharp eared old man drew his cart back level with Bessie and engaged them in companiable conversation as they travelled deeper into the darkness.
"Zis is correct. I am, or was, a necromancer. I was one of ze best. But now I am a humble scientist." He bowed his pointy head.
Mahtis raised his eye-crests at the unfamiliar word.
Victor explained, "I observe ze world around me and I deduce how it works. I conduct experiments and I apply ze knowledge I have gained."
"Isn't necromancy easier?"
The scientist laughed. A short savage bark. "It is easy enough for zose dumm-kopfs in Sylvania. Zey are blinded by their desire to live forever. But I desire more zan an army of "mindless slaves" as your spawn kin puts it."
The cart and the bastiladon rumbled onwards in silence for a time.
"I have spent centuries in study, but when I presented my findings to ze Sylvanian Geographic Society zey banished me from ze land. No matter. I will show ze fools. Very soon, I will show zem! But now, excuse my bitter words. We have arrived!"
The bastiladon, cart and zombie army passed under a shadow which dwarfed them. An enormous arch pierced an equally impressive wall which extended in both directions to be swallowed by the gloom. The travellers followed broad avenues through a city which had long been abandoned. The buildings seemed eerily familiar.
"This is a Temple City!" gasped Rychek.
Victor confirmed Rychek's assertion. "Indeed. Zis city was established by your "Old Ones" millennia ago. The pool at its heart ceased to produce spawnings, and ze city died. But what is dead need not remain so."
The layout was familiar to the adventurers. Every temple city was a construction of the Old Ones. For all that kroxigor labourers might maintain it, and skink artisans embellish it, a temple city has at its core the durable architecture of the Old Ones. The basic structure would endure until the end of the earth.
By the time the odd travelling companions reached the central plaza there was an unnatural storm beginning to brew further to the north. Flashes of purple and green lightning were followed several seconds later by ominous rumbles.
The great temple at the centre of the city should have been surmounted by the star chamber of an attendant Slann Mage Priest, but in this forgotten city, a crude bird's nest of metal rods perched at the zenith. Thick metal cables snaked down the Eternity Stair to disappear underground through a low arch.
Rychek boggled at the desecration of the most sacred of sites.
"That thing..." he pointed at the spiky mess on the temple. "....connects to the Spawning Chamber?"
"Ya! You are observant. Ze first attribute of ze scientist. Come with me....Rychek. We shall test your application of logic!"
Victor beckoned Rychek and the pair disappeared into the spawning chamber with a sizeable escort of zombies. Joe and Mahtis fretted outside. Bessie ate a tumble weed.
The spawning chamber was the almost the twin of the one in Los'tmabo'tl. The murky water in the further half of the vault had a vague glow which lit the chamber from beneath. On the far wall, water dripped into the pool from the grooves of an ornate frieze which depicted the inscrutable Old Ones. These aspects were as they should be. However, two differences were apparent.
The dry portion of the chamber was cluttered with a tangle of wire and gleaming metal apparatus. Multihued liquids bubbled in retorts and noxious vapours clouded the air. The other difference was an empty square niche in the centre of the dripping frieze. Rychek wracked his brain to recall what exactly was missing.
Victor paused to inspect some of the shabby citizens of his empire. They were from all corners of the globe. There was an impressive greenskin warboss, a random selection of elves, a clump of dwarves and men of the Empire, Bretonnia and beyond. There was even a lone lizardmen skink whose body was ravaged by burns and large wounds.
"Zese animated corpses will obey, but without life they have no volition. Zey cannot choose and zey cannot feel. They retain only the barest rudiments of their pre-mortem personality.
"I don't want to raise ze dead anymore. I wish to create life. I want my creations to serve me, but not as zese do. I want zem to serve me of zere own free will, and out of gratitude. And love."
Rychek snorted, "Creating life! How is that going for you?"
Victor remained pensive. "I have travelled and observed as a scientist should. I even went to your homeland, Lustria. I observed carnivorous plants which move of zeir own volition. Zis inspired my first attempt to create autonomous life. Rick!" He beckoned a malformed creature.
It was vaguely man shaped, but its head was replaced with some form of large root vegetable. As he did not have a face, his features were simulated with crude caricatures which were pinned in place.
"Zis is Rick O'Mortis. He was a potato farmer from Eireland, but was killed in a tragic mishap involving three quarts of butter, a large marrow, and an angry sheep. I was too late to prevent ze... incident, but I was able to combine his essence, so to speak, with zat of a living plant. Is he not appealing?"
Rick O'Mortis shuddered at the horror of his situation, and one of his ears popped off.
"So your experiment was successful?"
"No. Unfortunately, he is a vegetable."
Rick O'Mortis shuddered once more and scuttled away.
"It does not matter. He is obsolete. An early prototype. Now observe. Arnold!"
A muscular part human warrior strode forward. Where his flesh had rotted, or been stripped away, a gleaming metal skeleton was exposed. One half of his face was missing and a there was a red glow emanating from the metal eye socket. "Arnold. Bring the gurney."
Arnold surveyed the scientist and the space which the gurney was meant to occupy. "I'll be back." He said slowly.
"My work with Arnold was inspired by my dealings with the biomechanical monstrosities of Skaven Clan Moulder. I took his dead flesh and merged it with a machine.
Rychrk studied the muscle bound human's back as he disappeared into a side chamber. "He was a mighty warrior. What killed him?"
"Quietly now. He is sensitive about the manner of his death. He was originally from Oesterreich. By strength of arms he rose to become State Governor. He could not be defeated in battle, but yet he succumbed to a cancer of the brain."
The gigantic warrior had quietly returned and stood now stood behind Victor.
"Of course not," said Victor soothingly. "Put the gurney there."
Arnold complied and stepped back muttering. "It's not tumour. At all...."
"Rick and Arnold are closer to true life than the zombies. They have greater self will and autonomy. Rick moves towards light of his own volition, and Arnold steals people's clothes, boots and sunglasses. No-one knows why." He shrugged. "Zey obey me, but it is out of obligation not love. Only the living can love."
Victor stepped behind the trolley which Arnold had delivered. It had a sheet covering what appeared to be a large dead body.
"Zis will be my final experiment. I will create life! I will be as a god! Behold my beautiful creation!" Victor flung back the cover to reveal a hideous creature. It was too large to be a man, yet not big enough to be an ogre. The body appeared to be assembled from the parts of several different creatures stitched together. On either side of its neck protruded two large silver bolts.
"You have made a monster?" cried Rychek in shock. "....although the tail is a nice aesthetic touch."
"He is beautiful!" sniffed Victor defensively. "I used reptile parts where I could. Ze cold blooded physiology is more suitable for reanimation."
Victor inspected the horror briefly then called, "Scalenex! We must prepare. The storm is almost upon us."
Rychek realized that rumbles of thunder had been building in volume and frequency since he had entered the spawning chamber.
The undead skink pattered to his master's side.
"Scalenex, do not neglect to attach the electrodes to the silver bolts zis time. We all remember what happened on ze previous occasion."
The dead skink paused as if recalling an unpleasant experience. He attached the wires carefully and scurried out of the chamber.
"What is my part in all of this?" Rychek demanded.
The scientist was bustling around his equipment, checking connections and adjusting dials. "Ah yes," he gestured towards the empty niche above the spawning pool. "A cube fell from its place millennia ago. It remains at ze bottom of the spawning pool. You will retrieve it."
"I have seen a similar cube above the spawning pool of Los'tmabo'tl. What does it do?"
"Your Old Ones were not gods. Zey were scientists such as myself. Zeir planet forming and universe bending power came from one invention. Cubes of some unknown material. Within each, ze essence of one or more forms of energy could be captured. Zey can be filled with incredible volumes of energy, even otherwise incompatible energies, such as light and dark. Ze combined powers from ze cubes can perform otherwise impossible works.
No practitioners of ze mystic arts now alive, not even ze greatest of the Slann Mage Priests, can combine such antipathetic energies without triggering cataclysmic consequences. You have an example of one of zese cubes on the back of your pet."
Rychek remembered the cube at the heart of the solar engine. "Could you use that one?"
"Bah! I cannot use it. Who here has any use for concentrated sunlight?"
Rick O'Mortis raised his hand hopefully, but was ignored.
"Ze cube in ze pool combines earth and life power. Zis pairing is normally incompatible. Ze earth digests and decays. Life grows and flourishes. Ze two energies combined in ze cube empower ze nutrient rich crucible of ze pool to produce living beings, by some means I do not fully understand.
I will use ze power of a lightning bolt channeled through the cube to give life and vigour to zis flesh." He thumped the torso of the collage of inert meat that lay on the metal trolley in front of him. "My creation will live!"
Rychek folded his arms sullenly. "Get the cube yourself."
"I don't swim."
"Make one of your zombies get it."
"I have tried many times. Ze zombies drown."
"What? They don't need to breathe."
"Zey revive in ze water. Zen zey drown."
Rychek scoffed. "We inter our dead in those waters. They don't magically come back to life. Their bodies mingle with the waters to nourish the next spawning."
"You are correct. Dead are not restored to life by ze waters. But ze undead.... Perhaps it is easier if I demonstrate." He beckoned to a rotting dwarf. "Retrieve ze cube."
The dwarf plunged beneath the surface. Seconds later he surfaced with a gasp, "Ai'm...alive!" He grinned. His arms and legs began to flail impotently. "And Ai cannae swim!" he spluttered as he submerged again. When he finally floated to the surface, he was in a face down position.
Victor dragged the dwarf's body over to the edge with a long hooked stick, which he seemed to have been available for just this eventuality. "It is always ze same. Now I will need to reanimate him again. It is tiresome."
"You have a zombie skink. He is aquatic. Send him after the cube. He won't drown."
The scientist paused in his futile rescue mission. The glass disks covering his eyes glinted. "Zat has proven to be....unsatisfactory. He revives, remembers his last living urge, and zen tries to kill me. Zen I have to kill him, and zen reanimate him and so on and so on." he waved his hands.
"I need one living, aquatic being to willingly retrieve the cube. I leave you to decide whether you will assist me, or choose to condemn your other companions to...unpleasantness. I must attend to my zombies outside. I feel zat zey are strangely unsettled.
High up on Bessie's back, Joe and Mahtis were witnesses to a horrifying spectacle. The throng of zombies had organized themselves into two roughly equal factions. Those with hand weapons squared off against those with spears. What had started with some hissing and the occasional shove quickly escalated into a pitched battle.
"Halt!" Victor appeared at the mouth of the spawning chamber with his necromantic staff held aloft. The undead adversaries immediately froze and turned their milky eyes towards him.
"Who are ze instigators of zis... disharmony?"
The mass of zombies disengaged and shambled backwards leaving two of their number locked in a kind of embrace. One was an undead skink. In one hand he held the butt end of a spear. The pointy end was standing proud of a zombie saurus warrior's back. The saurus, in his turn had demonstrated the efficiency of the humble hand weapon by hacking off the skink's other arm at the shoulder with a rusty sword.
"Come here!" Victor barked in annoyance. The pair approached their master.
"All of you!"
The skink went back and retrieved his arm from the ground.