Gehenna Rises

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PART EIGHT: ASSAULT & DEFENCE

‘We won’t make the Ward…’

JB: You ran for the castle?

AM [Nods] Sprinted up the lane toward the main entrance. Where else was there to go?

Nearly consumed with panic, we pumped our legs on the tarmac as best as they’d allow. Already strained and not properly warmed down from my previous exertions, my pins instantly began to burn. I knew then – a rising nausea in my gut – I wasn’t going to make the main gate, let alone the summit Ward. I was going to slow down the group, probably doom them to a fate like Horace’s. Grasping finally now the full horror of what had happened at the Fortress, the question popped into my head;

Is this how those poor Bretheners, with Jeff among them, had felt; caught out in the open, exposed and running for the charade of safety that was their compound, with Leviathan chasing them down from the outer darkness of Hell itself? Did they feel this pitiless truth fall on them that there was no longer any such thing as hope? That maybe this monster proved there was actually no Deity to hope in…?

I felt the full, oppressive, existential weight of Nature’s cruelty then; the unconscious indifference of a purposeless universe. I realised at that moment I was screaming, screaming as I ran – just as the others were around me. Not in terror of the monster chasing me, that would have been easier. Not the feeling of abandonment by God. Not even that, a realisation there is no god to be abandoned by. No… I was screaming in the face of yawning Nothingness. Because Death is eternal Nothingness – I could see that – and its undead servants, those shells of humanity, and that towering amalgam of them advancing on us, they were all instruments for its end.

In truth, crushed by that despair, I ought to have just given up and let the monster take me. But still my feet pounded against the surface of the road. The survival instinct is a powerful engine after all, and fear an excellent fuel.

All the time during our retreat – and it would be generous to describe it as that – Brendan would aim behind himself to take the odd pot-shot at the behemoth rapidly gaining ground on us. For all the good the wasted ammo did, he may as well have just waved it to go away. With each huge stride across the field, the Homunculus shrank the gap between us tens of metres at a time. Each time I dared glance back at the thing, it loomed larger and larger, its arms the length of whole tree trunks, swinging forward and back in vast, pendulous arcs as it walked. It was a shocking, horrifying sight, yet… somehow beautiful in a ghastly way; how the beast was finding its feet, its gait improving, becoming more sure with every shambling step it took. And its eyes… all those skulls becoming more defined as it bore down on us. Instantly it came back to me, what poor Emily had said, dying up in that Fortress attic. Delirious we’d thought her at the time, but she’d been more accurate than we gave her credit for-

JB: “I saw the Devil… With all his eyes…”

AM: And it was gaining on us, fast. We’d been running maybe half a minute, forty seconds, and the distance between us the Homunculus had already halved. We were panicking now, no two ways about it.

Right then the call came over comms from Sergeant Rule to cease fire. Any pretence at deference from him to Haven Council authority had gone now. This was a major combat situation; the Haven was out of its league, facing an unanticipated, even more unconventional opponent than any we’d previously encountered, living or undead, and any defences we’d set up were likely untenable against it. As ranking officer with most experience, his voice literally carried the most weight now. Any prior petty jostling Brendan may have been making to exert his own penny-ante authority counted for nothing now. Hearing the order over comms, he seemed to realise it too, even welcome it. He ceased fire, faced front, lowered his head and pounded boot leather against tarmac with the rest of our group. The gunfire from the castle stuttered to a halt as well, replaced by bellowed orders too distant to be coherent, the odd despairing screams cutting over it.

Meantime I was lagging behind the rest. For all the fear I felt, as much of an initial spurt it had given me, its fuel was burnt away now. I was still a near middle aged, undernourished Anglican priest, my lungs constricting, the muscles of legs stiff, nearing to cramping, my field of view narrowing. The others were gaining ground on me fast, there was no way I could keep up. I think Carol sensed rather than saw my absence from her side. She looked back, spotted me falling behind, but I dismissed her dismay by waving her on. It wasn’t heroism, nothing so noble. Just… I didn’t want her taking the risk. Perhaps if she had…

It’s curious, the things you end up regretting, what makes you feel shame, however illogical the feeling. I wouldn’t have counted an attempt to save someone’s life among them.

I then found myself wondering how best to end it.

JB: You seriously considered suicide?

AM: Sure. That was it, as I saw it. Of course I’d considered such scenarios since O-Day. Seeing how appallingly and slowly people could be chewed and torn apart by the undead before finally succumbing, I’d long since decided finishing myself off was as much a mercy to me as anyone else I might end up attacking after. I’d confessed to anyone else concerned who asked my own belief that, if God still had an issue with suicide, well, I guess He’d have to take extenuating circumstances into account. In the nights I’d calmly rationalised it however, I hadn’t quite considered this scenario. I had a hunting knife of course, we all carried one, and shoving the blade into my heart was the quickest way of doing the job. But pulling the blade from its sheath, I saw my hands were shaking from fatigue and terror. Then I wondered again how close the beast was, looked back, and immediately stumbled in a pothole.

Rolling, I came to stop on my back, facing the way we’d come and immediately saw we’d entered a part of the lane where the hedges either side in the months since O-Day had grown high from neglect. Their branches grew in a thick tangle, every which way, and I realised that, through them, I could barely make out – itself a shadowy hulk against the cloudy sky – the advancing Homunculus. Which meant of course, lying there in the road as I was…

JB: It had lost sight of you too.

AM: I didn’t think, didn’t waste a second. My hand slapped over the handle of the knife I’d lost in my tumble (it was lucky it had landed nearby), and I rolled myself to my right, off the road, burying myself as deep into the base of the hedgerow as I could, ignoring the scratching and stabbing I got top to toe from the barbs and brambles. I feared with all the noise I was making the monster would hear me, that it would already have a mental count of the group fleeing from it, and would recall one of them disappearing. I knew – just knew – it would slow, lean down and seek me out. I placed the knife over my heart, both hands over the pommel, just as we’d been taught, ready for the moment I saw those insectivorous skull-eyes gazing on me to push the blade through my ribs. But it turned out I needn’t fear that. The heavy footfalls created deep rumbling booms from the ground – I could feel the vibration of them now too, it was so close – and its many eyes were fixed firmly on my group.

With a heavy whump! first one massive, elephantine-shaped foot of conjoined body parts struck the road, barely three metres from my hiding place. It was swiftly followed by the next, and with them, came the sickly-sweet reek of decay. God, the thing was even more grotesque, seeing it up close. Random stray arms still tethered to their owners were dotted all over the thing, emerging from the rippled, warted-seeming surface that fusion of all those bodies created. The limbs flailed about, appearing from their tiny size in comparison with the behemoth to which their were joined, to all intents and purposes like broken insect antenna, or blistered, bleeding sored cilia, roving, testing the air, tasting it for prey, pointing, reaching out. The Slaved Revived too clung tightly onto their master like gory monkeys, bumping and swaying against its trunk, its hips, wherever they hung, the thick, stringy black cords of goop forming dangling horseshoes of umbilici from the neck or skull of each of the Slaved back to the main body of the Homunculus, keeping them powered and bound to its will…

The Homunculus strode on up the lane toward the castle, and I craned my head back, peering out from under the hedge, unable to resist following its pursuit of the team.

JB: You witnessed it attack them?

AM: I saw it, yes. Another three or four strides along the lane, then it had overtaken them. The group’s fearful cries reached a crescendo. All who had firearms shot up into the thing. I heard amongst the staccato din some cries turning to shouts of defiance. It was all useless, of course.

I saw Johnny flee, diving through a hedgerow to the right and out of sight – that was while the monster turned round and swung its tree-long arms toward the militia, reached down…

With its left arm it snatched up poor Carol and another – Derrick Weber35, locking the pair together in its seven-fingered grasp. They struggled of course, crying out in fear. Then their cries abruptly turned to screams of pain. I think we, all of us who’ve lived through the Outbreak, know that sound now. A shrill shrieking of someone aware they’re lost. I knew why they were making it too. I’d only caught a glimpse, but before the hand closed about them, I definitely made out… heads, the yellowed bands of teeth. They must have still been attached to a few of those torsos, or shoved into empty body cavities, bent to face out as part of the creature’s “palm”. Intact heads with goop-networked brains, telling their jaws food is nearby, and biting, biting. Spotting the regularity of those jaws set in the Homunculus’ hands, the strange, zipper-like regularity we’d noticed to Jeff’s wounds suddenly made sense.

JB: So Jeff Salmon had been grabbed by the Fortress Homunculus?

AM: That’s my conclusion now. It fits with the available evidence. God only knows how he got himself free from the thing’s clutches though.

Now the Beeston Homunculus had Carol and Derrick. From that moment, I knew they were doomed. And of course, it wasn’t a swift end for them either. The hand lifted, repositioned Derrick between its “thumb” and “index finger” and tossed him into the maw of the re-opened chest cavity to join poor Horace. Once again the mouth sealed his pain and despair off. For Carol however, the thing had different intentions. The monster slapped her on her back against what made up its upper chest. Immediately the arms making those undead cilia on the blackened surface grasped her hard or reached out and snapped shut over her like the petals of some twisted Venus Flytrap, securing her tightly in place, while all about them, pinprick stars blinked on, and I realised they were the whites of eyes belonging to snarling faces, more snapping jaws. It dawned on me then how precise Carol’s placement had been. Her capture was just right to allow a body to loom free from out the “shoulder” to which it was anchored, lean down, grab Carol’s head and shoulder to expose her neck, and, a clear strike now available, bury its teeth in. Carol’s screams immediately drowned in gurgles. Blood sprayed from her mouth.

But here’s the thing, it didn’t feed.

JB: No?

AM: No. With a mortal wound delivered, the body just sank back into the shoulder, leaving Carol to bleed to death.

Oh, Carol. If only I’d let you…

Even as the left hand snatched Carol and Derrick, the right grabbed another militiaman - Terry Sullivan36 this time – slapping him to the other side of its chest as it had Carol, and the waiting biter that would end him too.

At the same time I saw the Slaves go to work.

With hungry bellows, their arms reaching, their umbilici whipping wild, they leapt free of their master, pouncing on the remaining three militiamen. It wasn’t a coordinated strike by any stretch, they went for whoever was closest, but each militiaman was struck by more than one Slaved Reviver. Brendan I saw taken down by three, all pawing, scratching, and biting him the moment they connected. Even for his size, Brendan never stood a chance. As soon as each militiaman had been throat-bit and blood was spraying freely, the Slaves dragged them toward, or threw their still struggling victims at, the Homunculus’ legs, and the open arms of its waiting cilia; which lifted them and took them to itself even as they shuddered in their final death throes.

JB: Jesus Christ!

AM: All told the attack had been brutally swift, horrifying in execution. Barely a minute after the Homunculus had stepped among them, all six militia who’d come to arrest Johnny and I were gone; gathered up, the Slaves climbing back aboard their master, the monster already looking elsewhere – the castle – for more prey.

As it reoriented, oblivious to me still concealed under the hedgerow, I lay there, numbed by the horror I’d just seen, struck at the same time by the gruesome logic of it all. Any organism needs feeding, and such a behemoth, with its decaying infrastructure of body parts, would need constant replenishment of fresher meat and bone. That thing could have mashed and munched anyone into a bloody jam, but instead, not so much with cold deliberation as instinctual need, it caught and held the likes of Horace, Carol, Brendan and the others, infected them to let them die and turn. I imagine it’d leave them like game, to hang and let the meat ripen a little before taking the fresh undead apart for new components…

I realised that Nature – no, not Nature, as the pathogen, the engine powering the goop wasn’t natural… but it had found a way. We were shooting, blasting and dicing its hosts with such frenzied, desperate abandon, we were making them useless in their whole form. And of course, we’d dumped the bodies hadn’t we? Out of the way, in a pile, all those pieces of rotting flesh, and leaving them be. Letting the reeking, stringy blackened reanimating goop drip from every exposed wound, linking, finding pathways, discovering how the pieces could be used again. Death had been no hindrance to La Plaga after all, so why should dismemberment? And so the pathogen worked another diabolical miracle.

As it turns out, it was good thing I lay there stunned by it all.

As soon as he could, Sergeant Rule must have climbed the nearest watchtower on the castle’s lower battlements to get the best view of the thing. So it would have been from one of them he’d have watched it… absorb the six militiamen. Maybe he hoped to offer them a quick death. He’d have had no idea Johnny and I were still close to the monster of course, while at the same time the hedgerows provided us some measure of protection. So when he fired the grenade at it from the M208 launcher on his rifle, we were both pretty much at ground zero.

Of course, I had no idea what was coming, neither of us did. So it was a complete surprise when the Homunculus, having only just turned to face the castle full-on and, letting loose a fresh banshee war cry at it, abruptly faltered. Both it and I had at most a moment to register a fresh cloud of aerosolised gore puffing from the centre of its barrel chest, before I heard a dull, heavy whump. The body shuddered and the entire, middle third of the torso burst apart, blasting bone, sinew, whole body parts in all directions. Decaying blood and flecks of goop sprayed across the field and down the lane toward me; bits of flesh raining down, smacking the tarmac hard at my side.

The grenade had hit the Homunculus square in the cavity where it had thrown Horace and Derrick. Were they still alive in there (unlikely as that was), the explosion would have finished them off instantly. As for what remained…

When I next looked, the upper half of the Homunclus had collapsed into the void the grenade had created. The legs beneath it had buckled, and the severed lower half crumpled into a kneel, with the upper portion of the giant somehow sitting atop it… but still very much active. It had stretched its arms out into the fields either side to keep itself upright, and seemed to pant as if spent from its exertions; an incongruous, carbon-copy sight I’d have seen mimicked by thousands of pre-Outbreak marathon runners the world over. I hazarded a smile, I thought for good reason. The giant had appeared unstoppable. But without its legs, the Homunculus, I thought in my naivety, while still a considerable threat to Beeston Haven, had literally been cut down to a manageable size.

That was until I realised the Slaves – those not caught in the explosion – were also active.

JB: But the monster was disabled. How were the Slaves a worry?

AM: Well, it was two things. First, the very fact they remained active. Those Slaves were attached mostly to the lower half of the giant, right? I guess mainly for the bloody tasks I’d just seen them perform. For a moment I’d assumed that, separated from its upper half and the head, that the lower half of the giant would become inert, like so much useless meat every other zeb had become when that happened. Even then, after all I’d already seen, I was still following the old paradigm, assuming the old zeb rules still applied. Remove the head, or destroy the brain. Idiot. But the Slaves were still active weren’t they? As were the twisted limb-cilia, writhing as if in a panic, all over the rumps and legs. And, lying there, it struck me as obvious they would be. After all, considering its size, and that it was an amalgam of bodies, what possible reason did it need to confine its “operating system” of a brain in one place, as a single human unit does? If some dinosaurs were so big they required two brains, then likely the Homunculus was following a similar pattern – no, better; it had any number of brains, riddled throughout its mass, and all networked together by the goop. An astonishing level of redundancy.

But it’s what the Slaves were doing…

JB: This is the second thing? Which was…?

AM: The Slaves crawled about the lines of damage to both upper and lower halves of the Homunculus, peering into the ragged holes of flesh the grenade had created, reaching in, feeling round.

JB: You mean… like they were assessing the damage?

AM: Exactly like they were assessing damage. And what have any of us done when we’ve assessed damage to a car or piece of electronic kit? It’s with the idea in mind that the damage can be repaired. As day follows night, that certainty struck me then, along with the equal certainty that, were it given enough time, the Homunculus would simply use the undamaged body parts at the join to knit its separated sections back together. Considering the accelerating reconnective capability of the goop, any gain we’d made stopping it would soon be lost.

My relief had been stupidly premature. As was the Haven’s; I was hearing whoops and shouts of angry joy coming from the walls. Barely any time had passed since the grenade hit, and the defenders were enough of a distance away so’s to be unable to see what I was seeing. They thought Rule had brought it down. But we hadn’t won a victory, only more time… which was fast ticking away.

That was then I heard a voice stage whisper at me from across the road. It was Johnny. After throwing himself through the hedge, he’d managed to get clear and – keeping his head low – run from the attack on the other side of the far hedge. He’d thrown himself down the moment he heard the explosion, only to see me through the brambles across the road, cowering under the hedge. We confirmed to each other we were both okay and I explained to him what had just happened. But one of the Slaves must’ve heard us I think. It abruptly stopped its work, hop-hobbled from the monster and walked back down the lane toward our position, reaching the full length of its umbilicus about twenty metres from us. At the same time I scrambled out from my hiding place, as did Johnny, and we joined up in the centre of the lane, gazing at the Slave. The umbilicus of goop stretched taught as the zeb struggled at its leash, assessing us, gnashing its teeth, the hunger it had pushing it to come at us to feed literally tied off by an instinctive knowing that it must stay put or die again.

Once we realised it could go no further, and that neither it nor its master were intending to turn on us, we relaxed a little – but not by much. I pointed out to Johnny our problem, what the other slaves were doing. Even as we watched, undamaged body parts at the edge of each section began flexing, uncoiling, legs and arms stretched, reached, wrapped about each other. Hands snatched at ribcages, femurs, forearms.

As I feared, the Homunculus was healing itself.

Johnny expressed what we both felt; that we had to warn the Castle, ASAP. Sergeant Rule had to hit it again with another grenade. Hell, every grenade he had.

JB: But… how? You had no radios, did you?

AM: That’s right. But the militiamen did; we could even hear commands coming from their sets, and a mangled body of one, blown clear of the monster by the blast, lay only a couple of metres behind the Slave watching us. He lay face down, the torn gash of his neck wound was still bleeding out, pooling on the blacktop.

Johnny gave me the job of dodging past the Slave while he distracted it and drew it toward him at the lane side. I rushed the militiaman’s corpse as fast as I could, throwing it onto its back and – as soon as I could judge he was still inert and (so far) safe – grabbing his radio. I grabbed the man’s sword, immediately ran for the Slave and swung the blade at the umbilicus, severing the connection to its Master.

Only… that didn’t kill it.

JB: But… it was a Slaved Reviver!

AM: That was my first reaction. I’d expected it to drop to the tarmac like a stone. Instead it just turned on me, realising its bond to its Master was broken and I was the one responsible.

In retrospect, I see now that redundancy had been “built” into each Slave as well. Just like those bodies Horace had reassembled back at his shed, the injuries to any Slaved zeb had been fixed by the goop too; either by filling in any gaps or joining separate brain sections. We also know now that the umbilicus existed only to direct each Slave in its tasks; not power it. One has to admire the solution really; utilising the weaponising potential of the material available to its max. So, once severed, any Slave suddenly became an undead free agent again. And this one was now free to go for me… which it promptly did. I just stood, staring at it like an idiot until it was almost upon me, then muscle memory kicked in. The sword blurred again, and the zeb’s head detached from its neck. I had to trot backward a couple of steps, as the thing staggered forward a little more before finally giving up the ghost and dropping.

Once sure it was down, my hand was at the broadcast key of the radio. I was about to send a warning until I realised the handset had some give to it. The entire front casing was jagged with fractures, and it remained stubbornly silent even while I heard commands blurting from the handsets fixed to the other militiamen. I threw the broken electronics aside, cursing.

As it happened to be in the direction of the undead giant, I was able to see that it wasn’t finished with us yet.

Sure, the Homunculus was still too injured to go for us itself, but, with that impossible neck-turning trick it had, the undead giant was now gazing at us, the collective skulls of its insect-eyes giving us a baleful frown. There came a deep rumbling growl from the undead within its collective body. At the same time, the lower section had directed its other Slaves toward us, while the cilia holding the remaining dead militiamen still attached pivoted and lowered them, feet first, back onto the blacktop of the lane. I say dead, but the way the corpses twitched and the eyes fluttered, that was a temporary state. They were already at the point of transition from corpse to undead. I’d never seen that happen so quickly. Truly, everything about this plague was evolving at a frightening rate.

As such, Johnny and I had to act quickly too.

Giving another of his colourful expressions, he darted toward the thing to retrieve two of the rifles dropped by the militiamen before the remaining Slaves’ advance took them out of our reach. Sprinting back to me, he threw one across, and we checked our weapons, keeping half an eye on the advancing Slaves. My rifle still had half a mag, but Johnny’s was empty; I guess he’d grabbed Brendan’s. More swearing. I gave him a choice; my rifle or the sword. “I’m a techno-gun-whore,” he pleaded. I handed it over. Honestly, I didn’t mind him taking the firearm. I hate guns, though obviously I’ve grown to appreciate their use since O-Day. Johnny wasn’t joking either; he’d owned a rifle before O-Day so his aim was a damn sight surer than mine would’ve been.

We agreed to thin the Slaved Revived in odd-even order; him popping the skulls of the odds, me decapitating the evens. That would give us access to the undead militiamen and their radios. All we had to do was let them come to us, out of range of the Homunculus’ reach. They were already on their way too; Brendan’s corpse had just fully transitioned and was stumbling toward us.

Naturally, our plan immediately went south the moment we saw that the Slaves, unlike their predecessor, had no intention of lining up like ducks in a shooting gallery. Instead, as one, they grasped one another’s umbilicus and sawed through them with their teeth.

JB: The Homunculus was setting them free?

AM: More like giving its Special Forces free rein to act as bodyguards. My guess is – and again it’s pure speculation on my part – the giant had a… limited awareness its prey had an unknown capacity to hurt it badly from a distance, and, assuming we too had that power, it needed to keep us at bay as long as possible. Slaved Revivers wouldn’t suit that purpose if we just stayed out of reach.

As soon as we realised what they were doing, I urged Johnny to shoot as many as possible before they got free. That took care of four of them before the remaining eight turned on us. Johnny took out those nearest as they advanced, and we retreated when they got too close. Once he thinned the numbers to the final pair, we charged; me swinging the sword at one, him using the butt of the rifle on the other. Then we repeated the tactic on our former colleagues, coming up fast on their tail. I had the… I was going to say honour, but “task” is more appropriate, of putting Brendan out of his misery. I made sure I gave him as clean a cut as I could. Then I grabbed a radio, hailed the castle and gave our warning. All we got back in acknowledgment was a curt, “Okay” followed by, “Get the f**k out of there now!”

JB: Sergeant Rule didn’t fire another grenade?

AM: No. In fact Johnny and I’d been wondering what he was waiting for while watching the Slaves checking over the damage their master had sustained. Unbeknownst to us, while we were busy dodging body parts and walking corpses, Beeston Haven had descended into complete chaos. Every kind of training or disaster preparedness drilled into us prior to that day had, at the mere sight of the Homunculus from the castle walls, been tossed out of the window. I’d said before that Rule knew our outer defences wouldn’t hold against it? Well, that was also immediately apparent to anyone else with eyes to see. And while Johnny and I were trying to get our hands on a radio, the mad scramble up the hill to the bridge and the summit Ward had reached its peak. Guards at the outer walls and in watchtowers had fled their posts, workers at the allotments dropped their tools and ran, engineers and mechanics at the fuel dump, power plant, car pool and workshops abandoned their machines, residents at the castle campsite forgot their food and grabbed their loved ones. That was just the Haveners within the Castle grounds. At least half the population again was working within the perimeter, on the farms making up the surrounding Safe Haven; those out in the fields, the farmers and their families… guards patrolling the perimeter fence and exits; men, women and children were streaming through the castle’s main gates as soon as they could and beating a panicked path up toward the summit Ward bridge.

JB: That wouldn’t stop Rule firing another grenade into the giant. Survivor statements testify he stayed at the south watchtower while others ran.

AM: But for only a short while, and he was spending that time watching… but only until we called in with the warning. Up to that point he was waiting for the second explosion.

JB: So he did fire another grenade into the monster?

AM: I believe he did. I recall whenever I saw him on duty and wandering about camp, he always carried at least three of those things in a special ammo belt. The next time I saw him, two of the grenades were gone.

My guess is he fired the second grenade at the same time, or just after, Johnny and I emerged into the lane, which explains why the giant took such interest in holding us off. We were out of Rule’ line of sight, so, aside from our distractions, we’d never have seen the second grenade hit anyway. But, luckily for us, it turned out to be a dud, or it struck such a swathe of soft tissue it didn’t trigger, or… whatever. If it had gone off, well… if Johnny and I weren’t killed instantly we’d have been showered with biohazard shrapnel. I doubt we’d have been walking around with a pulse for much longer after.

But as soon as our call came through, he was off that watchtower like a shot and sprinting for the fuel dump, calling for keys to the Haven’s fuel tanker, and yelling that the main gates be kept open.

JB: So he knew burning it was the only way?

AM: He’d been there when Jen pleaded her case at the Council meeting. He’d have heard her recommendation to burn the Pit, and he’d just witnessed what one grenade did to the monster, seeing it blast biohazard material all round. Close quarter engagement within the castle around so many civilians was the worst option. He had to burn it now, while it was disabled, outside the confines of the castle and he still had the opportunity.

Johnny and I heard Rule’ orders over comms while we staggered back to the castle, cutting across the fields, giving the Homunculus a wide berth. Within about five or six minutes we joined up with other stragglers hastening through the lanes, keeping an ear out and casting glances back, hoping to God the gates would be kept open long enough to allow us to get inside. We were terrified we’d be left locked out and – again – on the wrong side of the walls with that thing. But the panic had touched almost everyone; when we eventually reached the short towers of the English Heritage entrance marking the way to the Castle, we found the gates already unmanned.

By that stage, it was academic anyway. The monster had found its legs again.

Behind us, a hue and cry of alarm welled up from the tail end of the tired stampede we’d joined. We couldn’t help it of course; standing there at the very threshold of the castle portico, Johnny and I looked back. There, already rising over the hedgerows in the near distance (too near!), the undead giant was using its arms to push itself up until finally it stood erect once more… if wavering a little. As far as we could tell, it appeared as if the explosion excising its midriff never happened.

Again its gaze was directed toward the castle, then… it walked.

This time, there was no gunfire to even make a pretence at holding it back.

I recall staring up at the entrance, thinking we had to close it, or be ready to, once Rule stormed through in the fuel tanker. Those gates, large, high and heavy oak things they were, when closed forming an imposing solid barrier between each tower either side, peaking into an arch reminiscent of the medieval originals that would’ve sealed the castle porticos when it stood new and whole. Upon the inside of them, Victor Kaczmynski had designed a custom reinforcing lock, which he’d installed upon another layer of wood nailed over the original by us over the winter. At least as high as the walls immediately beyond each tower, those gates would have deterred all but raiders driving the heaviest military vehicles… and maybe an undead behemoth that didn’t know its own strength.

Then, recalling the carnage we’d seen at the Fortress, I took in the English Heritage boundary walls as they followed the lane. Each shrank in size from an impressive man-dwarfing to a point not twenty metres on from the towers where their stone barely reached head height. Sure, we’d spent a frantic few weeks after O-Day giving ourselves an extra metre’s protection at the walls; raising chicken and barbed wire fencing immediately behind them. But the toppled stones I’d seen back at the Fortress were still vivid in my memory, and – old as those walls had been – they’d had real height on them. Against these modern walls… well, the Homunculus wouldn’t even have to topple them. It’d just step right on over.

Watching the monster lumber across the fields toward the castle, its gaze fixed upon the refugees streaming pell-mell through the lower encampment laid out on the south-facing ground between the English Heritage boundary and the castle’s original, medieval outer walls, it looked like that was exactly what it intended to do.

Johnny clocked its intended target too. He knew we’d have to make our way up through there and ran the timings in his head.

‘We won’t make the Ward,’ he declared. And he was right. Even if we’d arrived minutes earlier, at best we’d only have joined the melee unfolding up at the Bridge Gate. We had only one option now.

JB: Which was?

AM: Avoid the castle completely, and hide. What else could we do? Rule wasn’t riding up to the gates to head out and intercept it yet, as we’d hoped. In fact he’d fallen suspiciously silent. And, what with the racket everyone was making up toward the top of the hill, it’d be a sure destination for the Giant. Already over comms, watchers up at the summit battlements were declaring the monster’s approach toward the castle, and all I could do was throw in my tuppence-worth that everyone not yet in the summit Ward should scatter and keep their heads down. Johnny and I began yelling at the stragglers milling about us within earshot to do exactly that; encouraging them to get inside the portico towers and shutting the doors, or run into the cover of the still forested parts of the hillside to the north, keep to the shadows and shut the hell up until the danger – we hoped – passed. They didn’t need telling twice, fortunately. I advised Johnny to get inside with the others, stay out of sight, keep an eye on the gates and get them closed if necessary. If the castle looked like it was lost to the Homunculus, then I suggested he was to make his way with the others over to the Fortress and Wallace’s crew while they could.

JB: And you?

AM: Me? Sergeant Rule was the Haven’s most seasoned soldier. I was going to find out what had happened to him.

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