Moira sat bolt upright from surprise. “RiBeld! That’d be all we’d need. What’s that bugger got ta do with all this?”
Krumer shook his head. “I could not begin to say. Though I trust it’s nothing good, especially if he discovers we are involved. From what I understand, he holds grudges quite a long time.”
Tiberius shifted his gaze between the two. “You’ve met him before?”
“Yes indeed.” Krumer explained. “At that time he was intent on kidnapping two children as part of some scheme to extract money. Specifically, they were his children.” The orc gestured to the pale figure of Dr. Von Patterson resting on a mound of canvas.
O’Fallon stretched, then leaned back against a crate. “RiBeld be na end a’ trouble, that be for sure. What do ye think he be diggin’ for this time?”
Krumer sighed then looked off into nothing while he thought aloud. “Money perhaps? Leverage over someone? Hard to say.”
“Perhaps he’s just after the statue?” Tiberius suggested. “He mentioned for his men to look for one.”
The others in the room exchanged a look. Adonia cleared her throat. “You know about the statue?” she asked cautiously.
“The Statue of the Mystic? Yes, I do. It’s rumored to be a solid jade statue.” Tiberius explained. “As it was written, the ones that first settled the ruin brought with them a mystic. The mystic had a small shrine he carried with him where he kept a jade statue. The statue supposedly granted him ‘great insight into the deeds of men’. Nothing was recorded of how or where the statue first came from. Only that it was made of jade and in the shape of some creature. A drake I think.” He then gazed at Adonia. “You said it looked like jade? So you’ve actually seen it?”
“Yes.” She gestured towards Dr. Von Patterson. “He was carrying one with him when I found him in the forests. The statue was a soft green very much like jade. The eyes were a white stone with a glassy kind of green gemstone for the inner eyes. It is beautiful, but still a little disconcerting to have been staring at you at night while people are chasing you. Also, it was shaped like a drake sitting on a rock.”
Tiberius nodded. “That would match the descriptions I’ve read. Even the disconcerting part.”
Krumer cast a sidelong glance at Tiberius. “You know quite a lot about this statue.”
The young man shrugged. “As I said, you would call it archaeology. I’ve studied the writings, what few there are.”
“Well since you have, what was this ‘insight’ that …” the orc started to ask when another violent round of seizures gripped Dr. Von Patterson.
“Oculus! Acer oculus censura!” The doctor said with a quivering voice before he silently succumbed to the seizures for a half-minute. Thorias quickly loosened the top button of Dr. Von Patterson’s shirt then, with Carlos’ help, eased the doctor onto his side to help the man breathe. Once the seizures passed, the archaeologist resumed his dazed, fitful state where he occasionally mumbled in incoherent whispers. Tiberius watched the entire episode thoughtfully.
Adonia shook her head sadly. “Ever since I took him away from the ruins, he has had small outbursts. A few words as if from some light delirium. Ever since we’ve arrived at the station, he’s been shaking as if he’s taken a fever and ranting. These seizures … they are new.”
Krumer noticed the change of expression on Tiberius’ face. “You recognize what he says?”
The young man looked up, his thoughts broken. “Yes, yes I do. I’m surprised. He speaks the language so … fluently. It roughly translates to ‘the sharp eyes of judgment’.”
With Dr. Von Patterson relatively quiet and no longer convulsing, Thorias and Carlos eased the doctor onto his back again. Thorias looked at the rest of the group. “I do not like how this … ailment for lack of any better term … is progressing.”
O’Fallon nodded. “Ah agree. It nae look healthy.”
“It isn’t.” Thorias said flatly. “Seizures are not something to take lightly.”
Krumer cleared his throat. “Tiberius, have you any idea what it means?”
The young scholar shook his head slowly. “Not exactly. I remember my mentor said something once about the mystic being an arbitrator of sorts.”
“An arbitrator?” Thorias mused. “A barrister then, after a fashion.”
“Similar, yes.” Tiberius replied.
O’Fallon turned the idea over in his mind. “Sounds like he be hintin’ at us bein’ watched, though.”
“Watched by zombies.” Moira said sourly.
O’Fallon shrugged. “Aye, but we still be watched.” The quartermaster then puzzled over a thought. “A’course can a zombie be watchin’ anythin?”
Krumer ignored the quartermaster’s dark humor. “Tiberius, do you remember anything from Sapienza’s libraries that mentioned any more about this statue?”
Tiberius hesitated. “Oh, well no. Books on that section of history in the university’s library were rather sketchy.”
Krumer nodded and kept his surprise hidden. How could the Sapienza, also known as the University of Rome, have a poor selection of information over Roman history? It should not. In fact, it should have a well stocked selection of information. He wondered if the young man was referring to books about the old Roman ruin itself? The orc thought that was possible. Still, Krumer’s instincts yelled at him that Tiberius was not, in fact, from Italy.
Carlos suddenly broke the short silence and shattered Krumer’s trail of thought. “That’s all good and well, Señor, but what do we do with the ‘now’, eh? What is, how you say, our ‘plan’?”
The orc gave the Spaniard an irritated glance. “It is still primarily the same from my own view, with a few changes.” Krumer held up a hand and counted off the list on his fingers. “First, we warn the Griffin. Second, we locate this statue. Third, we get Dr. Von Patterson, his statue and ourselves off this station and away from RiBeld and these creatures. Fourth we locate someone to help deal with the … problem … on this station. My own preferences tend towards the Belgian military for the last one.”
Carlos returned Krumer’s irritated glance with one of his own. “Señor, I could not care less about that statue, but if it means we leave this accursed place, then I’ll be with you.”
Adonia looked around at the others. “Since we’ve no idea where this statue is. How will we find it?”
Krumer thought a moment. He sighed when no ideas readily came to mind. “I don’t know, yet.”
Just then Tiberius’ companion growled in a low, guttural tone. The big cat lifted its head. Its eyes scanned the room while its furred ears turned forwards, then backwards.
Arcady’s wings fluttered a moment with a light buzzing sound. “We are not alone. Something is nearby.”
O’Fallon sat up slowly when he heard it as well. It was a faint sound, almost a whisper. Like the sound made when rough cotton or canvas cloth has brushed against a piece of metal. Carefully, he reached for his sidearm. “Ah be hearin’ it now. Somethin’ be movin’ about, tryin’ ta be quiet.”
From outside the room, the sound echoed again. This time it was loud enough for everyone to hear. Quickly and quietly, O’Fallon drew his sidearm. Krumer and Tiberius both moved carefully over to the trap door. Everyone else sought cover as best as they could find behind crates or even the old forge on the far side of the room. Krumer gazed at Tiberius.
“Ready?” The orc whispered. Tiberius nodded in reply. Krumer reached for the trap door.
Moments before his hand could touch it, the trap door exploded into the room. Wooden splinters and sections of plank scattered through the air like so many needles in a strong wind. Immediately behind that was a cast iron pot, coated in rust, that flew through the remains of the door. Krumer and Tiberius fell backwards, hands held in front of them to ward off any of the wooden debris that came too close to their faces. Inside the room, the rest crouched low behind cover and averted their eyes to protect themselves from the worst of it.
Krumer quickly rolled to his left and scrambled up into a crouch. Through the door rushed the unwelcome sight of a broad-shouldered man who, if his obvious stab wounds were any indication, should not have been walking around at all, much less rushing through a door, his face contorted in a mix of anger and pain. The zombie lunged for Krumer’s throat. The orc twisted to one side, and narrowly avoided the attack. Tiberius threw a quick punch to the zombie’s face. The creature grunted and glared at the young man before it reached for him. Tiberius leaned back just before the zombie could touch him.
“So much for a safe place.” Krumer said as he hammered a strong right fist into the zombie’s face. The creature’s head snapped back before it lost its footing. It fell hard, face first onto the wooden floor, then slid sideways down the metal stairs. Through the doorway, Krumer watched it slam into four more of the creatures, which knocked two more zombies off their feet. That unfortunate group slid into a group of seven jostling and shoving at each other at the bottom. The last two zombies that remained on the stairs continued their climb.
“We have a problem.” Tiberius said firmly.
“There be quite the understatement.” O’Fallon remarked.
“How many?” Adonia asked quickly.
Krumer looked over the side and counted. He sighed with exasperation. Two more had joined the rest below. “Thirteen now.”
Another zombie appeared through the trap door and was abruptly greeted by a burst of gunfire from Moira. The zombie’s body shuddered with the impact of each well-placed bullet. This one, like its predecessor, lost its footing on the old metal stairs and crashed downward. The thump of the creature’s body against metal echoed from below.
“How’d they find us?” Moira snarled angrily. “I thought they didna come here!”
“They don’t!” Tiberius snapped back. “They didn’t before!”
“Well, it seems they have been exploring a bit more in earnest then.” Adonia replied with a cold edge to her voice.
Krumer hammered two quick punches into the next zombie then shoved it backwards. That one fell downwards like the previous two and vanished from sight. Krumer looked down the stairs. Below, the larger group of figures had just begun to climb towards them. He shot a stern look around the room behind him. “That’s quite enough! If we panic, they’ll have us for certain! If we work together, we stand a fighting chance. Tiberius, where does that other door lead?”
“To a storeroom.” The young man shrugged, then hesitated when realization dawned on him. “A storeroom with a window! It should be just large enough for us to scale out and onto the roof!”
The orc grinned savagely. “Excellent! Thorias?”
Thorias smiled grimly. “I know, Dr. Von Patterson to safety. Come Carlos, let’s help the good doctor with his exercise regime.”
O’Fallon jumped up and raced to the door. He turned the knob and pulled it open to allow Carlos and Thorias to carry their dazed burden into the storeroom. At the trap door, Krumer drew his pistol and fired down the stairs. His first two shots impacted in the creature’s chest, the third in its lower torso. It jerked twice from the first two bullets then doubled over at the impact of the third, its face contorted in pain. It collapsed to the metal stairs and lay motionless. A memory rushed to the front of Krumer’s mind of something similar happening not long ago on the catwalk over the propellers.
“There is a way to stop them!” Krumer called over his shoulder.
“Aye! Explosives!” O’Fallon retorted.
Krumer ignored the comment and continued. “Aim just below the chest but just above the stomach. For some reason, they seem only vulnerable there!”
“Good and done!” Moira replied. Adonia simply nodded gravely that she understood.
A minute crawled by with no more unwelcome undead at the top of the stairs. The first mate, who had remained at the trap door, peered through the opening. At the bottom of the stairs, five figures milled about, but none had ascended more than a step or two. At once confused and curious, he leaned a bit lower and tried to peer into the gloom. Despite his efforts, he could see no reason why the zombies had not pressed their attack.
The orc looked over his shoulder into the loft. “How fares it?”
O’Fallon called out from the storeroom. “Havin’ a wee bit a’ trouble with the window.” The Scotsman then punctuated his comment with a strong series of blows with the butt of his pistol to the windowpane that stubbornly refused to budge. “Ah’ll be havin’ it open right enough.”
“Good. We may have some time left to us but … ” The orc’s words were cut short when a dull boom shook the walls, floor and ceiling of the loft as if something had struck the building. A second impact followed the first that knocked everyone off their feet.
“What the devil?” Adonia exclaimed.
Krumer scrambled up off his back and peered over the open trap door. The orc grunted in mild anger when his eyes caught the hint of motion beneath the stairs. Almost out of sight, two zombies each hefted a sledgehammer and aimed for one of the main support struts for both the stairs and the loft.
“Spirits willing, if it had to be zombies, why could they not have been mindless?” Krumer complained with a snarl.
Tiberius, who had peered over the side as well, sighed in frustration. “I could use one of my grenades, but it might help them with what they are doing far more than hinder them.”
“What is it?” Adonia asked, unable to hear the conversation by the trap door.
Krumer turned to reply when the sledgehammers impacted on the rusted support beam below. Once more, everyone was thrown from their feet. This time, the chilling sound of wood as it splintered filled the air.
“Hold on to what you can!” The orc shouted as the support beam fell away from under a corner of the loft.
Metal twisted against metal in a loud groan. Wood splintered, snapped and fell away. In the loft, blacksmith tools, once securely stored, jerked from the walls to become deadly missiles in the air. The forge shook apart, and the once metal-braced stone added to the avalanche. Among the metal tools, stone and wood debris, people were tossed about like rag dolls on the wind. Just to the side of the trap door, the beam broke away from the wood and twisted. Beneath even that, and unexpected to everyone, the main floor of the blacksmith’s shop caved at the abuse that was tendered. Wooden floor snapped, and the beam plummeted through it like a drill. Above where the support beam had rested, the loft split largely into three pieces before it fell in on itself and crash to the floor below.
Krumer instinctively reached out and grabbed the trap door’s frame. Tiberius did the same. A maelstrom of wood and stone pelted them from all around. Somewhere in the shower of debris Krumer recognized a feminine shape with thick hair. His hand shot out and caught hold of the collar of a wool long coat. He fumbled with the material until his fingers found purchase in the wool. Krumer tensed and pulled at the cloth. Adonia, who was wearing the wool coat, was quickly hauled up against Krumer so she, too could grab onto the frame of the trap door that miraculously remained intact. With her other arm, she clung desperately to Dr. Von Patterson, who was in the midst of yet another seizure.
The orc looked out through the dust and chaos that rained down. The middle of the room was a maelstrom of debris that fell away into a dark pit. On the far side, he thought he saw one, perhaps two figures for a moment struggle for their lives. Then the dust obscured any view of them.
“O’Fallon! Thorias! Moira!” Krumer yelled. No one answered, if they could hear him at all. Dust made his eyes water and splinters stung his face. He strained to listen for a reply among the noise. He started to shout again when one of the large, gray, soot-stained stones from the forge struck him on the head. The world exploded in a shower of stars that slid sideways into blackness.