Krumer blinked as he stepped from the dark gloom into the gray light. Through the circular opening above him, clouds drifted slowly by, tossed by a light wind. Once outside, he slammed the door shut behind him and searched for a lock. There was none. Frantically he looked around for anything that could serve as a way to secure the door.
He and the others stood on a weathered metal platform easily ten feet wide, as well as long. From off three sides branched metal mesh catwalks spanning the fifty yard pit that opened to the storm clouds, and eventually the ground, far below.
The orc hesitated. He had spent much of his life aboard an airship, first with his enlistment in the British Royal Navy, then later as a privateer. Airships had a deck, gas bags, rigging and above all, they did not normally have large holes in them where a person could drop to a very unpleasant death. It was unnatural. He eased over to the all-too-thin metal railing that surrounded the platform, and looked over. Below the catwalks and his platform, a collection of large propellers spun methodically, circulating a huge torrent of air. He looked up. Above him, the giant, rigid frame gas bags that held the station suspended rustled calmly in the light wind.
“Spirits watch over us.” Krumer said reverently. The stout winds from the propellers buffeted the small group gathered there.
O’Fallon, crouched next to a footlocker on the right side of the platform, looked over his shoulder. “Ah hope they’d better. We be needin’ it.”
Moira, who stood nearby with a tight grip on the railing, tore her eyes away from the disturbing sight below the platform to look over at the quartermaster. “What do ya mean?”
O’Fallon pointed over the side to the propellers. “If’n we na be careful, we’ll be chewed finer than dust down there. Got some braided rawhide here, we could be tyin’ the door off ta the railin’? Might slow’em down a wee bit?”
Krumer held out a hand for the leather. “It’ll buy us time at least. Thorias, how is the doctor doing?”
Thorias and Carlos had eased Dr. Von Patterson against a nearby wall. Arcady took flight and hovered near the doctor to observe on his own. Thorias checked Dr. Von Patterson’s eyes and shook his head in dismay over the man’s small bout of shivers. “He’s mobile. Beyond that, it’s only a guess to say.”
“I understand. Go ahead and start over the catwalk to the other side, Moira and Adonia can follow after in case you, Carlos or the doctor stumble. O’Fallon and I will be along presently.” Krumer explained while he and O’Fallon went to work.
“Right then. Come Doctor, time for your afternoon walk. Mind your steps.” Thorias reached over and slowly eased Dr. Von Patterson upright. Carlos quickly stepped around the doctor to help from the opposite side. Arcady settled back onto Thorias’ shoulder and clung tight against the stiff gusts of wind. James Von Patterson’s eyes rolled wildly with each step forwards, as if he was lost in some opium-induced haze. Carefully, the two men maneuvered Dr. Von Patterson to the main catwalk that spanned the entire open distance. Partway, the doctor abruptly succumbed to a violent bout of shivers.
“Oculus … arbiter acies …” He mumbled in broken Latin. While he quivered, his opened eyes wide, focused on nothing. He shouted, “Oculus!”
“Easy old boy, easy now.” Thorias said in a soothing voice after he gave Dr. Von Patterson a curious look. After a moment, the doctor’s shakes subsided and his mumbled rants dropped to a faint whisper. Carlos and Thorias exchanged an uneasy glance then proceeded to half-walk, half-carry the ailing man to the catwalk.
Over by the door, O’Fallon tied one end of the braided rope into a timber hitch around the railing, then tugged hard to test it. “So what be chasin’ us?”
Krumer tied a complimentary knot on the door latch itself. “Dead men,” he said in a flat tone. “Or at the very least, a dead man.”
O’Fallon paused with a start and shot Krumer a look. “What? Like zombies or wee ghouls?”
The orc’s eyes were focused on the knot while he tugged at it to make very certain it would hold. “Call them as you will. It’s a dead man. The one that fell upon you when you opened that door, to be most accurate.”
“Na, go boil yer heid! Ye canna be serious. Any stories Ah be hearin’ put ‘em in graveyards, na places like here. None ever be tellin’ about rippin’ away a steel lock! Ye saw that like Ah did.” O’Fallon sputtered nervously.
Krumer sighed and looked to his longtime friend and crew mate. “Then, by the spirits, we’ve never heard the whole story or,” the orc paused with the hint of a wry smile, “we’ve the honor of discovering a new kind.” With that, Krumer stood and hurried over to the catwalk.
“Well, just beezer for us then?” O’Fallon replied with a sarcastic grimace. He gave one last uneasy glance to the door before he ran to catch up with Krumer.
At an agonizingly slow pace, the group walked along the main catwalk that spanned the open chasm. Winds buffeted the group and threatened to toss them at any moment from the rust splattered, metal grate. Each kept a firm hand-hold on the metal pipe railings bolted along either side of the catwalk. Carlos and Thorias maintained a firm grip on Dr. Von Patterson.
Midway, O’Fallon heard a dull, muffed sound over the wind. He paused and looked around. The zepplin-sized bags above, the propellers below, and the catwalk were all the same as they had been a moment ago. A small voice in the back of his mind nagged at him to turn around. He wanted to ignore it, but knew he had best look.
The platform they had left behind was quiet. The braided leather rope was still tied between the railing and the door. Suddenly, the rope twitched independently of the wind. O’Fallon’s blood chilled just a degree.
“Krumer …”, O’Fallon called out, but his words were far too muffled by the wind for the first mate to hear.
Then the rope twitched again. O’Fallon looked over to check the others’ progress. Carlos and Thorias had already crossed most of the way over the catwalk to the other platform. Moira and Adonia were only a few paces behind. Krumer was just five feet ahead of where the quartermaster stood. O’Fallon glanced back to the door. This time, the rope snapped taut, and the door shook violently.
“Krumer!” The quartermaster called out, this time just enough to break over the light howl of wind.
The first mate stopped to brush stray, windswept dreadlocks from his face. “What?”
“Incomin!” O’Fallon yelled before he broke into a dead run on the catwalk.
Krumer’s eyes snapped up to the door just as the leather popped in two like over-used sinew. The door, once securely held to its frame by brass hinges, ripped away with a violence that caused Krumer to jump in surprise. Through the opening, the dead man in the grease-stained yellow shirt stepped toward them, brandishing the door like a cast-off piece of kindling. Krumer’s hands dropped to the gun at his belt in a blur of motion. He drew and aimed just after an explosion of gunfire sounded twice in succession from behind him and to his right. He glanced over to see Moira in a crouch, pistols drawn with a tendril of gun smoke from each barrel. Moira’s target staggered forward, fell face-first, and ceased to move.
“Is that all of ‘em?” Moira asked cautiously.
Abruptly a tide of figures pushed through the door. All mortally wounded in some way, be it shot, beaten or stabbed, the men shambled ahead as quickly as a mob could through a single doorway. On the platform, the man Moira recently shot slowly slid his arms underneath himself and pushed himself upright. The look in his dead eyes was not slack lifelessness, it was blind rage.
“Bloody hell!” Thorias exclaimed behind them.
“Moira, that would be a ‘no’.” Arcady chimed in.
“Indeed.” Krumer answered flatly. “O’Fallon? Get the door. We’ve overstayed our invitation here. Ladies? We’ve guests to entertain before we leave.”
Moira frowned in concentration. She hated to miss. She hated it more when a target stood back up. “Aye.” Moira replied, raising her pistols once again.
Krumer planted his feet and took aim at the mob while Adonia crouched to his left and Moira remained on his right. All three opened fire and matched each other shot for shot into the mass of bodies that pressed forward through the doorway. Each shot, carefully placed, found their mark. One by one, bodies fell to the platform only to stand up a moment later with a new bloody wound among the older ones.
Adonia shook her head as yet another of the lumbering corpses slowly got to its feet. She flipped open the cylinder of her pistol, reloaded and wound the clockwork key in its side. “They just won’t stay down!”
“Try for the joints then.” Krumer growled through clenched teeth.
Behind the firing line, O’Fallon raced along the catwalk and around Carlos and Thorias for the platform beyond. He half-jumped ahead and skidded to a stop at the door. He looked down at the door latch. It was unlocked. With a quick turn of the latch and a shove to open the door, he was face to face with a dead man in dirty gray coveralls, deathly pale skin, and blood-matted hair.
“Bugger me!” O’Fallon yelled while he ducked under a bloody punch from the dead man.
The Scotsman ducked under a second punch, then sprung up with a stiff uppercut to the midsection. The force of the blow, backed with muscles toned by years of hard work, doubled the dead man over. O’Fallon shoved the walking corpse away and back into the darkness where three more zombies waited. He grabbed the handle and slammed the door shut, then held it closed with both hands.
Krumer fired at a thin figure in torn trousers and blue, grease-stained shirt and boots. The corpse took the shot in the mid-section, doubled over and fell flat where the catwalk met the platform. Unlike the others, this one did not immediately try to get back up. Krumer frowned and looked curiously at where the dead body lay. Suddenly, he heard O’Fallon shout and glanced behind him.
“O’Fallon? Do you have the door?” The orc called out.
At that very same door, O’Fallon braced a boot against the frame to help hold the door closed. The door shook slightly as something on the other side pulled at it, and pulled hard.
“Na quite!” The quartermaster yelled back as the door suddenly jerked free of his grip and flew open. “It’d be a wee handful!”
The corpse in the gray coveralls shuffled quickly forward. O’Fallon dodged the man’s fist, then returned a devastating flurry of blows that knocked the dead man backwards from the force. Unfortunately, the intended effect of the punches seemed lost on the corpse. O’Fallon sighed and stepped in, then swung low but underestimated the distance. His blow glanced off the man’s torso. The dead man swung in return and caught O’Fallon against the side of his head with a clenched fist. Stunned, the quartermaster staggered back and fell hard onto the platform.
Just before O’Fallon fell, Carlos and Thorias pulled Dr. Von Patterson off to the side, away from the door. There were two other catwalks that extended out from this platform, and Thorias, while he would rather stay with the others, knew his duty. That was to get James Von Patterson to safety first, then return to lend what aid he could. He hoped Carlos felt the same.
Arcady, who had kept silent for some time, had been occupied with his own analysis. Without warning, he launched off of Thorias’ shoulder and in a headlong flight against the gusts of wind, tore through the air towards O’Fallon while the walking corpse loomed closer to the dazed quartermaster.
“Arcady!” Thorias yelled in alarm.
“No Doctor! I think I know a solution!” Came the Clockwork’s reply as he shot through the air. The small brass clockwork dragonfly soared in a tight circle and dashed between O’Fallon and his attacker.
“You go no farther!” Arcady’s tinny voice echoed with a metallic ring. Suddenly a reverberating sound echoed from the small speakers that served as a “mouth” in the clockwork insect’s head. The sound grew in volume and in pitch. While the sound grew, the zombie walked slower, until it stopped and reached up to grab its ears and moan in a soul-wrenching howl of pain. Finally, the wretched creature collapsed in a fit of shakes that consumed its entire body and focus. Arcady shut off the sound.
“Success!” Arcady shouted in triumph. His joy was short lived when four more of the unusual zombies shambled through the doorway. The clockwork dragonfly quickly flew out of reach of the newcomers.
“I cannot handle that many.” He said aloud, turning his brass head to look between the four walking corpses.
O’Fallon staggered to his feet. He squinted through the clouded vision and rubbed his eyes in a vain attempt to clear them. “That be two of us.”
At that moment, an explosion followed by a flash of lightning erupted from within the hallway. Three of the zombies convulsed and were tossed about like rag dolls being shaken by a dog. They collapsed abruptly to the floor. The fourth rushed forward, still intent on O’Fallon and Arcady. The pair exchanged a quick glance and braced themselves for the attack. Before the corpse could touch either, a roar echoed out of the darkness and a gray furred mountain lion with luminous eyes and black claws leaped from the darkness and onto the corpse. Both cat and dead man careened into O’Fallon. Arcady dodged wide, fought the winds and circled back. Meanwhile the mountain lion pinned the corpse to the floor and clawed furiously at the zombie’s back. The zombie struggled frantically a moment, then lay still.
O’Fallon rolled to one side and eased into a crouch, too shocked to speak. He watched as a young man, no older than his early twenties, ran headlong from the hallway. He was dressed in a close fitting gray outfit with black leather padding on the knees, elbows and shoulders. He sported dark goggles on his head and a small array of strange cylinders at his belt. The newcomer skidded to a stop on the platform and yanked one of the palm-sized cylinders from his belt, flinging it across the chasm.
“Down!” The young man yelled.
On the catwalk, Krumer, Adonia and Moira had slowly begun to give ground as the zombies pressed their advantage. At the sound of the new voice, Adonia turned in time to see something small arc over their heads. She frowned in immediate recognition of the object until her mind made a dangerous assumption.
“Grenade!” Adonia yelled, dashing towards the platform where O’Fallon and Arcady were.
At her scream, Krumer and Moira looked away from their targets in time to see the same object. Close behind, they turned and raced for the platform. The small tube swung end over end until it reached the catwalk proper, landing in front of the mob of zombies. On impact, it exploded in a brilliant burst of fire and smoke. Out of this erupted a secondary burst of lightning. The electricity arced along the metal catwalk and through the mob. Those that were not flung from the catwalk over the side to the propellers below were shaken violently by the wild electricity. Only a few in the back were spared. The catwalk, built to survive storms, succumbed to the blast. Metal shrieked and snapped. The catwalk itself collapsed in on itself and fell away.
As the remaining catwalk shuddered like a leaf in the wind, Adonia and Moira sensed what was about to happen. Quickly, the two women raced ahead and jumped onto the far platform. Krumer, taller and heavier due to his orcish muscular build, was not so lucky. As the catwalk fell away, he pushed off with the last amount of solid surface and sailed through the air.
The orc landed hard against the side of the platform. He slid backwards, his fingers clawing for purchase against smooth metal until he managed to grab one of the pipes that comprised the safety railing. Krumer paused a moment to get his breath and looked down at the deadly propellers below. He then looked up to a much more reassuring sight while O’Fallon and Adonia grabbed for his arms to help pull him to safety.
While they slowly helped Krumer, the newcomer took a deep breath, obviously in an attempt to regain his composure.
“Greetings. Time is short, and what I did will not permanently stop them. I am Tiberius Fabia. You would be wise to come with me if you want to survive.” He said in a matter-of-fact way, and held out a hand to Krumer who had just set his feet down on the platform.
Thorias, just returned to the platform with Carlos and Dr. Von Patterson, glanced between the newcomer and the zombie that still lay beneath the mountain lion.
He looked over at the young man. “As it stands, young sirrah, I do not see how we could refuse.”