Far above the dark, wet trees of the High Fens, higher still than where the Griffin parted the lower storm clouds, orange tongues of gunfire ripped apart the fog that skittered along the rooftops of the relay station. As the small group watched from the tenuous safety of the shed, eleven zombies slowly emerged from the fog in a silent, unnerving march toward them. Immediately after the gunfire, several of the reanimated dead men shuddered with the impact of bullets. When the roar subsided, only three toppled over and fell flat. Krumer took aim and squeezed the trigger of his pistol again, but nothing happened. Mouth set in a grim line, he pulled open the gun and automatically reloaded. His mind clicked like a machine. With each bullet that he dropped into the cylinder, he mentally counted down on his inventory of ammunition. When he had left the Griffin, he had brought spares with him, in case of an emergency. Ten minutes ago, it had been such an emergency. Now, it was a full-grown crisis.
“Everyone still breathing?” Krumer asked.
“What?” Tiberius crouched just inside the right side of the shed door. He had not quite been able to hear over the roar of gunfire. Finally, he worked out what was said in his mind. “Yes, I’m here,” he called out.
Adonia leaned out from the left side of the door, fired once, then twice at two different bodies in the gloom. Both shuddered, then fell. Barely two seconds later, they both slowly righted themselves. She ducked back inside and growled, “Still here. Though I am not sure for how much longer. These creatures will not stay down!”
Krumer nodded, not knowing if Adonia was even watching him. “Aim low, above the stomach.”
“I did!” The Charybdian woman exclaimed, her hair-tendrils writhing like poisonous vipers, eager with both anger and venom.
Krumer took aim and fired. The zombie that currently had his attention shuddered, and dimly he heard a metallic report. The zombie dropped to one knee, then stood again. Surprised, Krumer looked at the wound. When he had shot the creatures in that same spot previously, they had fallen and had not gotten back up. The wound was there, where he had wanted it, but there was no dark ooze like before, this time he believed he saw a glint of metal through the bullet hole in the zombie’s shirt. The first mate’s blood boiled with frustration and anger.
“Some of these are wearing a type of armor.” He explained between clenched teeth. “Aim for the joints, the knees. Anything that might be soft. It will at least slow them down.”
One volley of gunfire followed another. Two zombies managed to come as close as the shed’s doorway, but were stopped by Tacita, the gray mountain lion. The great cat leaped upon one, hauled the zombie off its feet and flipped it over the edge of the roof to land with a wet impact on the catwalks below. Once Tacita was upright, the beast slammed into the second zombie and beat the creature against the metal walls of the shed until it stopped moving.
Then, as abruptly as it began, the fight was over. The eight zombies that had crowded onto the roof in their march to the shed slowly stopped, then began to wander in random directions. Two simply collapsed like puppets whose strings had been cut. After their drunken rambling, the remaining six dead men slowly turned away from the shed and wandered off the way they had come. In the distance, they stopped, standing like silent, macabre statues, caressed by the thick, whitish tentacles of fog.
“They … stopped?” Adonia said in stunned amazement.
Tiberius wiped blood from a cut on his lip where a zombie had gotten too close for comfort. “Why? It isn’t as if they need to regroup.”
“They didn’t wear metal under their shirts before, either.” Krumer replied curtly. “So if they want to regroup, so should we. Check yourself, your supplies and catch your breath. In between, keep watch.”
Tiberius smiled weakly while he turned to look into the fog. “You sound like my mentor.”
Krumer chuckled. “Must have been quite a fine fellow.”
Tiberius nodded. “He was. Top historian the university had.”
The first mate stood, stretching sore muscles. A muffled set of pops clicked from his back. “Ah, better.” He walked toward the back of the shed to the hastily-repaired telegraph.
“Seeing where Anthony is?” Adonia asked, reloading her sidearm.
“Yes. I understand they were down along the Fens, but a short delay would be preferable to a long one.” Krumer squatted on his heels next to the telegraph key and tapped a message. Once he was done, he let go and looked expectantly at the small receiver. Seconds ticked by in silence. Outside, the wind howled in protest around the station and gently rattled the thin metal walls of the shed.
“Do you think they heard it?” Tiberius asked.
“I’m assuming so.” Krumer said solemnly, his gaze locked on the telegraph receiver.
Finally, the receiver key began to move, tapping out a reply. Krumer closed his eyes to focus on the pattern. In his mind, he resolved the patterns of taps into letters, then the letters to words.
Satisfied her pistol was still in working order, Adonia dropped it into the holster at her waist. “I never could see how you can do that all from memory.”
“Practice,” replied the orc briefly before returning to his mental translations.
When done, he looked over to Adonia, his brows furrowed in confusion. “That … makes no sense.”
“Why? What did they say? Are they delayed further?” Her face showed no small measure of concern.
“It began,” Krumer cleared his throat, “Requiro subsidia. Ille belua voluntas percurro ille defensio.” The orc shrugged. “If I pronounced it correctly, that is. It makes no sense to me.”
Tiberius shot an alarmed look at Krumer. The young man’s face was the picture of near-panic. “What did you just say?” He blurted in a tumble of words. “Who sent that? Did they send the time and date? Can we get them back?”
As though in answer, the telegraph key sprung to life again with a flourish. Krumer raised a hand to ask for silence while he listened to the frantic tapping.
“More of the same language,” he explained. Meanwhile, Adonia glanced at Tiberius with a narrow-eyed look.
“Why? What does that mean?” She asked carefully. All around her head, her hair-tendrils slowly swayed to show her mind was racing while she watched the young man closely.
Tiberious squirmed under her gaze. Suddenly aware of the tension in the shed, Tacita casually stood and walked over to the door, settling down in the precise spot where the beast could maintain a watch over all the occupants of the room at once. “Ah … well,” Tiberius stammered. “It was someone … uhm … calling for reinforcements. They are outnumbered.”
“Do you know them?” She asked bluntly, her yellow-eyed gaze practically riveting the young man to the spot.
Tiberius smiled nervously, then started to speak. He hesitated when he realized the telegraph receiver was no longer tapping out a message. Glancing over, he noticed Krumer watching him as well with a similar interested look. The orc raised his eyebrows as if to silently say, ‘Well, answer her question.’
Tiberius closed his eyes, his cheeks turning a deep crimson as if he had been caught stealing biscuits from a jar. “I am not … from where you think.”
“As we are not fighting for our lives again … yet … go on.” Krumer prodded.
“What do you both know of Rome?” Tiberius asked.
Adonia looked confused. “It is the capital of Italy and was the seat of the ancient Roman Republic and later Empire when both existed.”
“Well, true. My name really is Tiberius Fabia. Although while I’m not really from Rome, I am Roman.” Tiberius sighed. “I am not sure how much of Rome’s long history is known among your peoples, but I am from a small footnote of it. Have either one of you heard of the ‘bellum Germanicum’?”
Krumer shook his head and looked over at Adonia. “The Marcomannic Wars?” She replied. “Yes, I am familiar with it.”
“That is the start of my people’s story. It’s rather long, and we did not keep all our records. However, in brief, in the year following the great plague that ravaged Rome but before before Emperors Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus fought the Marcomanni tribes, an expedition set out from Rome. Its leader was Publius Decius, an experienced commander within the legion. Emperor Verus tasked the commander to find Thule, as the Emperor believed that among the lost knowledge there was a cure for the plague.” Tiberius paused a moment. Both Krumer and Adonia looked at him expectantly.
The young man cleared his throat and pressed on with his explanation. “Emperor Verus sent Publius with two full cohorts and an astrologer, who was also an alchemist that legends state came from the lands to the Far East. They used a pair of maps. One, however was lost when they crossed the Danube and were attacked by a tribe. The remaining map, with aid from the alchemist’s jade statue, was enough to help them find their way.”
Krumer and Adonia exchanged a glance. It was the first mate who spoke first. “Ah, so it’s Atlantis, is it? Tiberius, you were wiser to stay with your story of Rome.”
Adonia quickly interrupted Krumer. “Wait, Krumer, let him finish.”
“Adonia … ” he began.
The Charybdian gave her friend a sour look. “Krumer, we are being attacked by zombies several miles up in a floating relay station in the clouds. I think we can safely say that right now, in this place, we just don’t have the luxury of ‘that cannot happen’. Besides, I’ve heard someone mention this Publius Decius who personally owns a very old parchment map that also has this name on it.”
“Who?” Krumer replied, still skeptical.
“Him.” Adonia pointed to the unconscious form of Dr. James Von Patterson in the corner of the shed. “That map, that story brought him out here.” The woman turned back to Tiberius. “As the zombies could return at any time, let me guess … he found it? He found Atlantis?”
Tiberius blushed harder. “After many failed attempts and brief settlements along the way, such as the colony Dr. Von Patterson was searching through, yes.” The young man sighed as if a weight rested on his shoulders. “It is so against our laws to admit this.” He said in a weary tone. He looked at Adonia then at Krumer before he pressed on with his explanation.
“It was a gamble, an accident really. One of the soldiers happened to look over the alchemist’s notes on Plato’s story of Atlantis. That lead south – far south – to the headwaters of the Nile river itself. I believe your John Speke named it Lake Victoria.” The young man said with a slight smile of pride.
“How does the jade statue James found come into all this, exactly?” Adonia asked curiously.
“The jade statue was one of many the alchemist made. He supposedly used them for many things. One survived to reach Thule itself – or so we thought. The surviving statue Publius used to contact Rome, but had found things changed there. Emperor Verus was dead and Emperor Aurelius knew nothing of the expedition. In fact, Emperor Aurelius was well caught up in his wars with the Germanic tribes and had no time for some supposed expedition to some mythical location. When ordered to return, Publius refused. Rome attempted to use the statue’s other ability – to control another’s mind. It would have worked, if Publius had not found the strength to smash the statue he used, which broke the connection. Though it destroyed the statue completely, and the alchemist refused to make another.” Tiberius explained.
“Which cut off your people from Rome and left you in Thule?” Krumer asked.
“Yes. However, over time we lost parts of the history of how we arrived in Thule. The details that is.” Tiberius gestured to Dr. Von Patterson. “That was why I was sent to meet Dr. Von Patterson. My people do keep track as best they can of what happens in the world. News came to us that he had found the lost map! We knew we had to meet him and learn what he had discovered so far. These zombies … the assassins … Dr. Von Patterson’s recovery of an intact jade statue of the alchemist … that was all a surprise to us.”
Krumer folded his arms over his chest. “If I remember my history, Rome was not in the habit of letting errant commanders run loose with their soldiers. If your people found Thule, why didn’t Rome send an army to deal with you?”
Tiberius shrugged. “They were in a war with the Germanic tribes, but we really don’t know why Rome did not attempt to find us. We’ve always assumed they never we able to duplicate the route.”
Adonia walked over and knelt down in front of Tiberius. Tacita tensed slightly, but when no harm came to Tiberius, the great cat’s posture relaxed again. Adonia put a hand on his shoulder. “If I had not seen the map with my own eyes, I’d claim you were lying.”
“Adonia … ” Krumer began. “Thule? Atlantis? it’s an entertaining tale but … really … let’s be practical …”
Adonia interrupted him before he could say any more. “Very well, let’s be practical. Krumer, we have known each other for many years. If you trust nothing else I can say, trust me this one time. And if not me, trust James, as it’s his life’s work.”
The first mate glanced over at Tiberius, who was the very picture of deflated depression. Then he looked to Adonia and met her gaze. Krumer had known her many years, and while Adonia had been many things, a fool was not one of them. Neither was she easily taken in like one, either.
With a sigh, he relented. “Very well. Though the best I can do is reserve my judgement.”
Behind Krumer, the now-familiar tapping of the telegraph began again. This time, however, the cadence was different. Krumer turned to listen and to translate. He frowned, this time recognizing the words being sent in code. While he listened, he translated for the others. “This is a message I do understand – but it’s not the Griffin.”
“Then who?” Tiberius asked curiously.
Krumer held up a hand again for quiet while he translated. “Statue stolen. Stop. Carlos now dead, so we lose informant on location of Von Patterson. Stop.”
“What?” Adonia nearly shouted in alarm. “Carlos, a traitor?”
Tiberius quickly interrupted her. “Wait, wait, there’s more.”
“Inform RiBeld of setback. Stop. Despite mishaps, first step nearly complete. Stop. Will deal with newly arrived ship at port. Stop. Will trap for recruitment. Stop. Will contact when done. Stop.” Krumer finished his recitation as the telegraph suddenly went silent once more.
Tiberius’ gaze darted between Adonia and Krumer. “I was to meet an inbound ship crewed by my people. It was my means of heading home. We’ve got to warn them!”
“Of what, Tiberius? We’ve not the first idea what is about to be done, just that ‘they’ have a trap planned. We need to know something more of what they might do.” The orc said in an exasperated tone born of fatigue and stress. “Besides, if they’ve not been further delayed, the Griffin should be here soon. Once she’s here, we’ll have plenty of help.”
“I say, what help?” said Dr. Von Patterson in a weak voice from the corner. “And while someone is ready with the explanations, just how did we get here?”
Krumer, Adonia and Tiberius each exchanged a stunned glance.