The sun blasted against our environment-reinforced uniforms. We were moving through the Great Barrier Desert, a massive Tainted Zone larger than the New Arkham Dust Zone by several orders of magnitudes. Our dust masks and goggles kept the worst of the radioactive sand away but not all.
I was leading Gamma Squadron Rangers and carried a T-17 heavy assault rifle in my hands. We were on foot, having left our jeeps to recharge their solar batteries. All of us were carrying more equipment than usual, looking like a collection of walking arsenals. Recon and Extermination missions were usually the most dangerous and we were equipped accordingly, but there was something about this mission which made us double stock on weaponry.
Strangely, the thing I was most aware of was the weathered Stetson on top of my head and the leather duster around my back. The hat was my single most cherished possession, a legacy from my father. He’d been a member of Gamma Squadron before me and I’d requested the right to wear his hat. It was stupidly romantic of me, but I sometimes felt his ghost was looking out for us. I felt it was the least he could do after trying to murder me as a child.
“Look alive, Gammas.” I spoke into the microphone hidden in my mask. “We should be spotting this ‘Black Cathedral’ any time now.”
I remembered our mission now; it was an errand of mercy. We were performing a rogue operation the Council of Leaders never would have approved of. We were just supposed to scout the area, find out the local tribes’ numbers and armaments, but one of their chiefs had persuaded us to look into a series of mass kidnappings. Our team wasn’t at full strength, only the six of us remaining from our original eight-man squadron, but the Remnant had neglected to reinforce us. We’d just have to make do.
I’d exceeded our orders by taking us on this investigation, but there had been children involved. Children always changed things; they were the one universally precious thing to all of humanity. Whoever was taking slaves from the local villages wanted especially young captives. That was enough to melt even the hardest soldier’s heart.
“I still don’t know why we’re looking into a bunch of illiterate savages having their brats stolen,” Joseph Stephens said behind me. A blond and blue-eyed man’s man, Stephens seemed to think he was a purer example of humanity than other members of the squadron, ludicrous as that may be. “If we manage to get them back, they’ll probably eat them. Then they’ll try and eat us.”
“You’re doing this because I ordered you too,” I said in response. In fact, that wasn’t strictly true. I’d asked for volunteers and Stephens was the only one to object.
“You’re a heartless bastard, Stephens,” Jessica spoke in a smooth southern drawl. She was a pretty, brown-haired girl underneath her mask and armor, something which many individuals had noticed on our treks across the Wasteland.
It was fruitless, though. Jessica wasn’t interested in a relationship. She might gently flirt but she’d lost her husband only a year ago during the “Color Incident.” I felt more than a little guilt for the fact I hadn’t been able to pull him out of it alive. There was also what had happened to her children. Frankly, I didn’t understand how she continued to function—much less joked around.
“It does not require a majority to prevail, but rather an irate, tireless minority keen to set brush fires in people’s minds,” Jeremiah “Jimmy” Schmidt said, quoting some figure from Old Earth’s past.
Jimmy was the most educated of us despite being the youngest. I was a distant second, understanding roughly half of the references he made. Occasionally, he’d catch flak from Stephens for his African descent. It was one of the reasons why I’d made a number of requests for the latter’s re-assignment. Not the least because I was every bit as black as Jimmy.
“This whole cathedral is probably just a hoax. Don’t you think we would have noticed a huge stone temple sticking out in the middle of the desert?” Stephens was clearly more nervous than he was letting on; part of that had to be his own superstitious fear of the Wasteland.
I was of the mind that Stephens was more ignorant than actively malicious, but his manner had always grated on me. Still, he was a part of my squadron, and that meant he was closer than anyone but family.
“The Wastelands can hide a lot of things,” Jessica said, her voice hanging in the wind. “My grandmother once saw a dragon in the Wastelands.”
“Your grandmother didn’t see no god-damned dragon.” Stephens said. “There’s no such thing.”
“Have you ever seen a dragon?” Jessica asked.
“No!” Stephens snapped back. “I just said that’s impossible.”
“Then you can’t say they don’t exist.” Jessica stuck out her tongue, a childish gesture but one that made me chuckle.
“That makes no …” Stephens trailed off as he bumped into my back. Spread out before us was a particularly deep valley in the sands. In the center of the dusty wastes was a cathedral. Not just a temple or an old church but a genuine, honest-to-god cathedral with soaring towers and architecture like the kind humanity hadn’t been able to build since before the Rising.
The building stood alone, no surrounding infrastructure or community. It was a monument to its builders’ dedication and resourcefulness they’d been able to construct something like it in the middle of nowhere. Yet, I couldn’t admire them too much because the building was disturbing in a way no piece of Old Earth architecture could match.
On a very primal level, looking at the alien building made me sick. The color of the building was black, darker than obsidian, with stones seemingly formed from the very night itself. Grotesque statues lined the outside of its walls. The obscene statuary included both Great Old Ones and mutated humans, each more hideous than the last. Its cyclopean walls were covered with stained glass windows made of some twisted organic crystal.
The building itself seemed as much grown as constructed in some places. Every time I blinked, the building seemed slightly different, as though my eyes weren’t able to fully grasp its entirety. A disgusting black biomass was growing out of the ground and wrapping itself around the building’s towers.
“What the fuck is that?” Stephens said, summarizing the entire unit’s opinion.
“Who the hell builds a cathedral out in the middle of the fucking desert?” Jessica asked, staring. I hadn’t realized until now she hadn’t thought the name was literal.
“Mormons?” Jimmy suggested.
“Very funny,” Jessica muttered. “I don’t think they’ve changed that much since my great-grandpappy’s day.”
I would have guessed the cathedral to be Extra-Biological Entities (E.B.Es) in construction, possibly mutant or alien in origin, if not for the familiarity of the place. Despite how sickened I was to look at the place, I felt a definite sense of déjà vu as I stared upon it. Parts of the building were less inhuman than others, resembling the most ancient of human structures. Yet, its alien components dwarfed those familiar constructions, as if all I could recognize was a pale shadow of what this building’s mad architect had achieved. The Black Cathedral was magnificent; it was abominable.
“I can tell you what it is.” I loaded up another clip. “It’s our target.”
“Are you sure you want to continue, Captain?” Sergeant Misha Parker asked. Parker was a pale-skinned woman with half of her face badly damaged by acid but still-functioning sight. Parker was new to the group but someone I still trusted. She was a survivor of Alpha Squadron and came highly recommended from that now-defunct group.
Still, I hated when she questioned my orders. “Yes, Parker. I’m sure.”
“I’m ready, Sir. We’re all ready,” Private Thomas Garcia added, reminding me we were understaffed with only six soldiers. Garcia was a thin but tall man with glasses and a shaved head. He was openly gay, though received no flak from Stephens over it. I suspected that was because they were cousins.
“Speak for yourself, Garcia,” Jessica said. “This is weird even by our standards.”
Jimmy walked up beside me, pulling out a pair of binoculars to get a closer look. “Parts of it look Ancient Egyptian and other parts early Byzantine Empire. There are definitely influences of both Mayan and Medieval European architecture as well. A lot more of the influences I can’t place though, nor would I want to. For example: the semi-organic motif.”
“Thank you, Jimmy.” I glared at him.
“You’re welcome, Sir.”
“That was completely useless.” I rolled my eyes.
Jimmy grimaced. “Yes, Sir.”
I understood what he was saying, though. The place looked simultaneously influenced by seemingly every culture on Earth but none of them. Despite the fact it couldn’t have existed before the Rising, it almost seemed to predate humanity. There was a primordial feel to the place. I felt in my bones this building had seen the rise of humanity and would exist well past our extinction. That was impossible, though. Nothing like this had ever been constructed by Pre-Rising mankind, especially not in the middle of the Great Barrier Desert.
Taking out my binoculars, I did a quick survey of the terrain. “I don’t see any guards or sentries. But this place is huge, larger than some Old Earth skyscrapers. If the slavers are inside this, there could be hundreds of them.”
“They’re likely to be packing a lot less, Captain.” Jessica adjusted her cowboy hat, a relic similar to mine she wore with my blessing. She gave her heavy assault rifle a humorous slap, as if it were a gun from the Old West. Drawing from her courage, Jimmy and Stephens exchanged glances before nodding.
“We should go in,” Jimmy said. “This could be a threat to New Arkham and the United States Remnant.”
The Remnant consisted of New Arkham and some outlying villages so saying both was traditional but redundant.
I smiled, proud of Gamma’s dedication. “Very well, I suggest we go in quiet and see what we can see.”
“Are you sure we shouldn’t radio headquarters? The General should know about this,” Parker said, looking nervous.
I took back what I’d said about their dedication.
“Kind of defeats the point of a secret mission, doesn’t it?” Stephens said, giving her a sideways look.
Parker looked down at the ground.
“Just shut up and keep a look out,” I said, feeling strangely drawn to the place. Even more than rescuing the children we’d been sent to find, who were very probably dead, I wanted to go inside. There was a terrible energy bubbling beneath the surface of the Black Cathedral’s walls. An energy which, despite how insane it was, felt familiar. Walking forward, my team traveled through the Black Cathedral’s broad open doors and we met no hostiles.
The insides were no less surreal than the exterior I’d earlier remembered seeing. It was a place bizarre in both subtle and grandiose ways. The doors, for example, were octagonal rather than square while the columns holding up the domed ceiling above our heads were made of an organic, stone-like coral. The chamber around us was illuminated by a mixture of diffused sunlight streaming in through bulbous windows and free-floating orbs of green crystal. I’d never seen anything like it in my two decades of exploring the Wasteland.
“Fascinating,” I could hear Jimmy say behind me.
“Yeah, if you like funhouses,” Stephens said.
“I wonder if this is a building belonging to the mythical Pre-Human Elder Things or Yithians,” Jimmy said. “It’s possible that some force, perhaps tremors from the Rising or deliberate human effort, forced this place up from the underworld where it was buried.”
“Jimmy, I love you but maybe you should stay focused,” Jessica said. “We’re hunting slavers.”
“Sorry,” Jimmy said, looking uncomfortable as he checked his heavy assault rifle. “I guess I’ve just always wanted to meet a genuinely intelligent E.B.E.—not the usual psychopathic killers we meet.”
“You already know Richard,” I said, leaning down to examine the smooth gray stone floor. There were signs of recent passage, human too, by the size and shape of the scuffmarks.
“May I say how uncomfortable I am with the fact the Captain knows a ghoul and hasn’t shot him yet?” Stephens said, raising a hand.
“Yes,” I said. “You may.”
“And if you ever tell anyone about Richard, I’d like to register your remaining life will be measured in minutes,” Jessica said, her eyes boring into Stephens. “He’s helped us a lot.”
“Be quiet, all of you. It’s not natural no one has come out to meet us. Even if the slavers aren’t based here, there should be some sign from the inhabitants. The best case scenario is they’re hiding, the worst …” I didn’t need to say the rest.
“Orders, Sir?” Jessica’s voice became very soft.
“We move in quiet,” I said, also lowering my tone. “Nice and quiet. No engaging of targets unless I say so. Our first objective is to establish if the missing children are here. If they are, getting them out becomes our top priority. Stick to the shadows and corners; avoid any and all places where ambushes seem likely. It’s possible the slavers saw us coming and moved further into the temple, so we need to be cautious. Any questions?”
“No sir,” they all said.
“Good,” I said, waving them forward.
Moving deeper into the Black Cathedral, I was immediately struck by how much the place reminded me of a museum. The rooms we passed through were filled with treasures from across the world, most of it Pre-Apocalyptic. It must have taken the owner years to loot enough historical sites and vaults to fill this place.
As we proceeded further towards the center, the treasures were gradually replaced by displays of historical sites and battles which grew darker and more perverse with each room visited. The first ones were merely chronicles of humanity’s wars but the final ones showed humanity’s slaughter by the Old Ones.
“Permission to make a comment, Sir,” Jessica said to me, hefting her heavy assault rifle before her.
“Granted,” I said, trying to hide my disgust.
“The man who owns this place is seriously fucked up,” Jessica said.
I had to agree, looking up. There, hanging like we were in some sort of Medieval castle, were a set of green-and-gold banners with the Elder Sign in a circle. The sideways pentagram and eye inside it filled me with a strange sense of unease.
“Take a look at what’s hanging over our heads,” I said. “Strange to see cultists using that.”
“Damned cultists,” Stephens grunted. “It’s them who brought the Old Ones.”
“We are pilgrims in an evil land,” Jimmy said.
“This is a lot more civilized than your typical set of Wasteland savages,” Parker said, looking around. “I mean, who collects antiques after the end of the world?”
“Maybe someone who was around before it,” Garcia said.
“Cut the chatter, we’ve got a job to do,” I said. I was feeling uneasy beyond belief. There was a sense of danger in the air. It only grew worse as we reached the central dome of the Black Cathedral, the place where we’d achieve access to the entire building.
The place was almost completely empty, not a soul in sight, which screamed trap. Nevertheless, as if supernaturally pulled in a certain direction, we proceeded into the center of the room—ignoring my earlier advice as if all military discipline couldn’t hold us back from taking in the sights around us.
The walls depicted a freshly painted mural of particular insanity, showing in blasphemous glory the fall of mankind to the Great Old Ones. It was just one of the hundreds of things on display as the room had artifacts of the various E.B.E species spread throughout the acre-sized chamber. The centerpiece of the room, however, dwarfed them all. There, one of humanity’s greatest foes had been put on display as a trophy.
In the heart of the room, propped up like a skeletal Tyrannosaurus Rex, was a collection of bones unlike any other I’d ever seen. Topped with a fish’s skull, it was the shape of a man but at least twenty feet tall. An aura of power encircled it, even as it was propped up with wires from the ceiling. At the foot of the great beast was a display stand covered in a little gold plaque reading, HERE LIES DAGON, LEAST OF THE GREAT OLD ONES.
Stephens shook his head. “Seriously, the guy who runs this place is utterly batshit.”
“The Wasteland has driven most of humanity’s survivors mad,” I muttered. “It’s why we exist: to protect the Remnant from the rest of them.”
Honestly, given how the Council reacted to encountering other groups of survivors, I wasn’t sure we were all that much better. Several small nations had emerged on the East Coast, and the Council was determined to pretend they didn’t exist or treat them as hostiles. I’d killed almost as many humans as E.B.Es during my two decades of service.
Jessica looked at the statue of Dagon with something approaching awe. “Do you think it’s really one of the Great Old Ones?”
“If it was one of the Great Old Ones, he wouldn’t have been able to kill it.” I said coldly, still unnerved by the sight. “It looks like nothing more than a particularly large Deep One. Chicanery, nothing more.”
“Chica what now?” Stephens asked.
“It means trickery.” Jimmy rolled his eyes. “Seriously, Stephens, you could use a couple more years in Re-education.”
“I’ve got other ways to amuse myself.” Stephens chuckled, giving a lewd look towards Jessica and Parker. “If you know what I mean.”
“You could never keep up with me, Stephens,” Jessica said, surveying the landscape for possible points of entry.
Stephens looked between me and Jimmy. “Aw, I’m just kidding. You girls are like sisters to me.”
“That says more about your family than I ever desired to know.” Jessica said, snorting. “And we’re women, Stephens. Learn to tell the difference and maybe your dating life will improve.”
Parker smiled at that.
So did I.
It was weird how casual everyone was being in a potential combat zone. That was when I realized what was going on: someone was asserting a psychic influence over us—forcing us to relax. Martha had tried it during a few arguments over the years, only managing to piss me off more whenever she did it.
“Everyone, shake it off,” I said, trying to warn everyone. “It’s too quiet for this not to be an ambush.”
“You just had to say it’s too quiet, didn’t you?” Jessica grunted.
That was when a dozen secret doors opened and a hundred armed Cthulhu cultists poured out.
The Cthulhu cultists were a motley band of half-deranged psychotics, but Earth had never seen more fearless warriors. Armed with meat cleavers, baseball bats, makeshift spears, and whatever firearms they’d scavenged, the cultists were more of a mob than an army. Their clothing and armor was as eclectic as their weapons, consisting primarily of scavenged sports equipment and bits of scrap metal sewn together.
There were no tactics or strategy to their assault, only sheer numbers driven by mindless ferocity. I had heard legends the cults of Cthulhu used a combination of drugs and ecstatic rituals to drive all fear of death from their warriors. Seeing the way they whooped, hallowed, and rushed eagerly into the jaws of death, I believed it.
“Humans forever!” Stephens shouted one of the traditional battle cries of the R&E Rangers, cutting down several cultists with his heavy assault rifle as we sought cover. Overturning museum cases and knocking down the statue of Dagon, we brought the full force of our weapons to bear.
The first part of the battle, if battle you could call it, was little more than a slaughter. No matter how brave a warrior, how skilled, he was nothing more than a target for even a moderately skilled soldier armed with automatic weapons. We did not indiscriminately fire into their ranks but selected our targets.
It was a slight delay, one many commanders wouldn’t have encouraged their troopers to make, but one I’d drilled my team for often. This method, nicknamed “crowd control” by Stephens, guaranteed a kill every time. It slowed down the enemies’ charge and filled the room with corpses.
The tide of Cthulhu cultists managed to use weight of numbers to their advantage, however, getting close enough to engage us in hand-to-hand combat. Despite their reckless courage, this too failed them. Each of my team was more than a match for any five of the barbarians surrounding us. The trick was only engaging that many at a time, an increasing prospect as they came after us in ever-greater numbers.
“For the glory of great Cthul—” One tomahawk-wielding, punk-haired lunatic shouted, wearing an amulet which caused bullets to bounce right off of him like raindrops. He managed to charge right up to Jessica and swing at her head. She promptly clocked him across the face with the butt of her gun before shooting him on the ground and returning to fire into the crowd.
I was impressed.
“These guys are idiots!” Parker shouted so everyone could hear her over all the automatic gunfire.
Jessica pulled close to cover me. “How you handling yourself, Captain?”
“I’ve been better!” I shouted, cutting down more of the enemy combatants trying to swarm us. When one got close enough to stab me, I smashed his face in with the butt of my gun and shot him with the last rounds of my clip. Reloading, I brought to bear my weapon to mow down an additional five charging me.
“Fair enough!” Jessica laughed before slamming her machete’s edge square into one of the cultists’ heads before blasting another in the chest. Some might have called it psychotic glee, but I called it excellent soldiery.
In the Wasteland, you had to train your men to enjoy combat—to love it—in order to survive. I often wondered whether it was the right thing to do, but it was too late to change anything now. I, too, had been trained to get a thrill from battle.
Parker and Garcia covered each other and the two of them made sure none of the Cthulhu cultists got anywhere near as close as the one Jessica had to take down. Their style of fighting was different than the others as they focused on three-round bursts. Stephens and Jimmy fought side by side, the two ignoring their usual belligerence to concentrate on the enemy. By the end of five bloody minutes, both men had saved each other’s life a dozen times.
Our caution in bringing so much equipment proved well justified, as the extra ammunition proved the difference between life and death. Corpses were strewn across the ground by the dozens, some of them having fallen in piles as the horde kept coming over their own dead.
The battle was wearing but, tired and exhausted as we might be, we emerged victorious in that particular struggle. Not a single Cthulhu cultist chose to flee but we’d annihilated them nevertheless, all without a single casualty. Even by Ranger standards, it had been a tremendous victory.
“Well, that was anticlimactic,” Jimmy said, kicking a cultist’s corpse. “They just ran to their deaths.”
“Another triumph for New Arkham, freedom, and superior firepower,” Stephens said, giving his rifle a kiss.
“Do you think it’s over?” Jessica stared across the battlefield, looking at the corpses of well over a hundred slavers littering the ground. She visibly winced at the battle damage done to several of the display cases, the artifacts inside having been destroyed by gunfire or grenades.
“No,” I said under my breath. “No I don’t.”
The assault by the Cthulhu cultists had been too crude for the mastermind we were investigating. He or she had plotted the removal of hundreds of children from dozens of settlements. His or her minions had done so in an efficient, methodical, and thoroughly well-planned manner. This, by contrast, was the work of someone with no thought whatsoever to strategy.
“Even if we’ve destroyed the bulk of their fighting force, several hundred children were reported missing. They have to be here somewhere,” I said, looking around the room. The place had been devastated by our battle, symbolized by Dagon’s bones being scattered about like so much refuse. “It’s our duty as members of the United States Remnant to secure their release.”
“Yeah, assuming any of the kids is still alive. These crazy psychos probably ate them,” Stephens muttered, rubbing the back of his head. Despite his words, I could sense the worry in his voice. Stephens wasn’t a sociopath and his disdainful treatment of our mission was a way of divorcing himself from the probable fate of those we sought to rescue. At least, that was what I believed. I had faith in him, despite our disagreements.
“Don’t even joke about that, Stephens.” Jessica looked at him with a disgusted expression on her face.
Stephens, in fact, was not looking at her. Instead, he was staring at a pile of corpses nearby. “Damn, some of those bastards are still alive.”
“That’s very … unlikely?” Jimmy started to say before turning his head to the bodies. Then I saw his head tilt in confusion. Following his gaze, I saw the corpses he was looking at were starting to move.
All of them were starting to move.
“Shit!” Parker said, stepping away from them and moving her gun down at the corpses around her.
“God dammit, West-boys! Shoot ’em in the head!” Stephens shouted, aiming at the various corpses’ skulls and unloading with ammunition.
For once, I believed Stephens had the right idea. “Everyone, we’ve got Reanimated-class undead! I want you all to fall back into a circle with covering fire on their remains. Aim for either the head or the spinal cord!”
“Yes, Sir!” My squadron shouted in unison, spraying the rising monsters with bullets. I just prayed it was enough.
The Reanimated, known as “West-boys” in Ranger lingo, were the single most deadly type of undead to emerge in the aftermath of the Rising. I had high enough clearance to know they were an evil the Remnant had brought down on itself. While I was too young to have participated in the fall of New Boston, I knew it had been the Remnant’s experiments which had resulted in the Reanimated becoming a self-propagating plague on humanity.
The “Herbert West Formula” created durable, semi-intelligent, and fearless creatures without any sense of morality or restraint. I’d never fought them before, but my grandfather had told me they were several times stronger than the ordinary “zombies” created by Wasteland sorcerers. There was no telling how the lunatic in charge of the Black Cathedral had gotten ahold of it.
“Captain, do we have enough ammunition to kill them all again?” Jessica asked, continuing to fire in short bursts.
“No,” I said, solemnly. “We don’t.”
All around us, the bodies of the Cthulhu cultists began to slowly pick themselves up and retrieve their weapons. Those who had been damaged in their legs moved slowly and awkwardly but the majority moved faster than they did alive. The fact they seemed to ignore gunfire anywhere but the most vital portions of their body made them nearly unstoppable, though.
We managed to shoot a number of them in the skull and spine before they rose, but there were at least sixty to eighty in front of us by the time we prepared for our exit. Worse, the Reanimated were between us and the entrance, leaving us effectively pinned down.
“Switch to flamer rounds!” I called. We had only one clip of flamer rounds each, so it was mostly a choice of when we were going to use it than if. However, fire might give us a short reprieve.
“You got it!” Jessica shouted, firing the bullets that caused the bodies of several charging Reanimated to catch fire. Jimmy and Stephens soon joined in, the flaming corpses coming at us until they collapsed from the nerve damage. The Reanimated who possessed some limited intelligence seemed to back away from the fire, even if only for a few moments. That bought us valuable seconds as I considered my options.
“How many grenades do we have left?” I asked, firing another spray of bullets into the skulls of a half-dozen Reanimated. Their bodies collapsed and caught fire as the undead behind them fell back only to eventually move around them with ruthless determination.
Jimmy and Jessica responded to my question by hurling a pair of grenades into their ranks. The resulting explosion was neither large nor spectacular but it blew several of our opponents to pieces and thinned their ranks enough to give us a little breathing room. Only a little, since the Reanimated were infinitely more dangerous foes than the cultists they’d been but minutes earlier.
“Those were the last of them, Captain!” Jessica said, right before she was bitten on the arm. “Son of a bitch!”
Parker shot the monster before the injury was anything more than a surface wound, Jessica smacking it across the chin with her rifle butt.
“Does that mean she’s going to turn!?” Stephens shouted, knocking another Reanimated away with the butt of his rifle before setting it aflame with the explosive ammunition in his gun. Kicking the flaming corpse away from him, Stephens created a protective barrier in front of him. He was surprisingly cunning when he remembered to use his brain.
“No, Stephens.” I sighed as we found ourselves pressed against the back of the central chamber. That was when I noticed a grand staircase was now behind us, a huge marble thing decorated with hanging chandeliers which had simply not been there before.
Taking a look at it, I shouted over the blare of gunfire, “Well that doesn’t look like a trap does it?”
“What do we do, Captain?” Jessica said, shooting a few of the Reanimated in the legs to slow down the ones behind them. It wouldn’t work in the long run but was the only option we had in such tight quarters. With only a few flamer rounds left between us, the Reanimated were going to overwhelm us within moments.
I didn’t have a chance to respond before the reanimated corpse of the bullet-immune cultist charged at Parker and then bit into her throat, tearing it out. Parker didn’t get a chance to scream before blood sprayed out and she went down.
I pulled out a machete my wife had blessed and charged forward, cutting the corpse’s head clean off before ripping away the amulet. The creature fell over in an instant and ceased to move before I tossed away the amulet and jogged back into formation, shooting the entire way.
“Jesus!” Garcia said, right before a Reanimated on the ground grabbed his leg and pulled him to the floor. It crawled up on him and gouged out both his eyes with its thumbs, tearing away his face with its teeth. Jessica managed to shoot it, as did Stephens, but it was a futile gesture since a half-dozen more Reanimated were already upon Garcia, tearing him apart. There was nothing that could be done for him and he had to be abandoned if we were going to survive.
“Up the staircase!” I ordered, sick to my stomach at our losses. “We’ll switch to pistols once we reach the top and try to take them out one by one.”
“Murderers!” Stephens cried out, tossing his heavy assault rifle on the ground. The last of his flamer ammunition was expended. He then pulled out a refurbished Desert Eagle and started shooting Reanimated after Reanimated in the head. This was a mission of revenge now for my teammate and I worried I’d lost him.
Jimmy was slower getting his pistol, instead getting overwhelmed by a horde of the creatures when his assault rifle ammunition ran out. Stephens didn’t hesitate to throw himself into Close Quarters Combat with Jimmy’s attackers, firing the gun into their faces at point blank range.
“No! Stephens … fall back!” I cried out, lifting up my own pistol as I watched Jimmy crawl out from under the mass of reanimated dead. What happened next was bloodcurdling; Stephens was ripped limb from limb as the monsters chopped away at his arms before pulling him to pieces.
“Son of a bitch!” Jimmy coughed, bleeding from the mouth as he crawled on the ground, pulling his own gun out to shoot a few avenging rounds at the individuals murdering his squad mate.
“I said fall back!” I repeated my order. I snapped the neck of a Reanimated coming with inches of me and fired a few shots into the heads of the ones between Jimmy and me. I’d not lost any squad mates since the Color Incident and it was painful to experience it again. Private Stephens hadn’t been my favorite trooper but he’d willingly laid down his life for Jimmy. It made me ashamed I’d ever doubted him.
Everyone, finally, moved back into formation as we were given breathing room by the burning corpses before us. The fire we’d set, plus all the Reanimated we’d shot in the spines, slowed down the thirty or forty undead remaining to give us time to get us up the staircase. We’d inflicted massive casualties on them but at a terrible price.
I was first up the stairs, almost to the top with Jessica behind me. Jimmy trailed behind us, possibly wounded. A number of Reanimated broke through the fiery barrier and charged up at him. Refusing to leave a man behind, I lifted my pistol up and descended down the stairs, shooting one after the other in the head. Five were down as Jimmy passed me. I, for a second, thought we were going to make it.
That was when a lone Reanimated assassin at the bottom of the staircase, a woman missing the lower portion of her jaw, lifted up a revolver and fired over my head three times. I didn’t even see her until it was too late. Clicking off a final round, I sent her spiraling down to the ground where she joined the ranks of her other forever-dead colleagues.
“Captain!” Jessica cried out.
Turning around, I saw Jimmy had been hit by all three rounds in the back of his head. Both of his eyes had been shot through and so had the back of his mouth.
“Dammit!” I spit, knowing we didn’t have time to mourn our losses. I’d gotten my entire team killed but forced that thought from my head. I needed to survive and get my sole remaining teammate to safety. I didn’t care if I got killed at this point but I had to cling to the idea I could salvage one of my brethren. “Jessica, keep up the stairs! We’ve got to get a move on!”
I didn’t have time to say more because black tendrils descended on us both, throwing us to the ground and sinking into our skin like leeches before lifting us up into the air. I was able to catch a brief glimpse of their source at the top of the stairs, a figure standing in front of the gigantic blob-like thing producing the tendrils. It was a white-haired man with skin the color of chalk dressed in a dirty suit leftover from centuries past. I recognized him as Alan Ward, my old teacher and one of the last human scientists left on the planet.
What the hell was he doing here?
I didn’t have time to think about it before I passed out.
End of Excerpt
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