“Monsters! Run!”

Morgan and Henri crept down the brick-lined passage, past arches, closed doors and rooms drenched in darkness. The underground bunker was pretty much how Arika had described it, except for one thing: the almost liquid silence. Arika had spoken about a background of moaning and wailing, but today there was nothing – not even the drone she’d described, which Morgan attributed to exhaust fans, quieted now the power to the farm was shut off. In the silence, every footfall echoed off the walls and reverberated down the passage. Morgan was acutely aware the noise could attract the attention of anything still lurking down here in the suffocating darkness, but on the bright side they would have early warning of any approaching danger.

Thanks to Arika’s description, he had an image printed in his mind of the layout of the subterranean rooms, and guessed the wizards would be in either the study or Gilles’ laboratory. A light emerging from the open door of the study appeared to substantiate his hunch.

Motioning Henri to stay back, he pressed his back against the wall, raised his rifle and began edging towards the room. At the door he paused, moved his head and his rifle barrel into the doorway and peered inside.

The study was empty. A single lamp sat on the table, sending out a warm yellow glow. Next to the lamp was an opened bottle of champagne, an empty flute and an oval plate containing beetroot dip, dry crackers and three types of cheese. There was an overturned chair on the floor and the room was littered with broken glass and ashes.

He waved Henri over and she came up behind him and walked into the room.

“Someone’s had a party,” she observed, glancing about at the mess.

“What do you think? A spell?”

“The stuff on the floor, you mean?”

He nodded.

She wrinkled her nose. “It looks more like they were having a party, got drunk and dropped a glass.”

“The ashes?”

She squatted down and felt the texture of the grey dust. Brushing it off her hands, she said, “There’s a lot. But no smoke or smell. Maybe it was some kind of spell. I’ve never heard of one that used champagne as a medium, though.”

“Okay, let’s go. Time to check out the lab.”

They continued on to the main chamber.

Despite Arika’s description, Morgan wasn’t prepared for the alien vastness of the place. There was nothing like it in any of NSO’s records, and it seemed unreal, like he was standing at the edge of the universe, with only empty space in front of him. The darkness was absolute, impervious to his puny flashlight.

“This way,” he whispered to Henri, slipping past her.

When they neared the red-brick house, Morgan skipped over to make sure Waite and Orwell weren’t hiding there. They weren’t. But something awful had happened in that dark, odorous room. The body of a man was lying on the floor: a skeletal, grey-haired man Morgan recognised immediately as Sebastian. The naked body was splayed on the blood-soaked straw, his legs at a ninety-degree angle, his arms above his head, as if he’d been posed ceremoniously. The body was outlined with a mixture of smashed bones and liver-coloured fungi, and a pot filled with foul-smelling liquid had been placed at his head. When Morgan stepped closer he saw a hole had been bored into the poor man’s chest, the foul-smelling liquid smeared around the wound like an antiseptic before an operation. But Morgan knew it was no antiseptic.

“Sebastian,” he sighed, crouching by the body. “What the hell did they do to you?”

He knew he couldn’t tell Henri about this. Not yet. It would be too distressing, and despite her indignation when he questioned her state of mind, he worried about how much more she could take before she snapped. Instead, he took a few pictures so she could analyse the ritual once they’d escaped this nightmare.

“Not there,” he confirmed when he rejoined her, and pushed on into the darkness.

They went quickly past the two openings Kane hadn’t explored and soon arrived at the corridor where he’d encountered Gilles. It was hard to stay quiet as they made their way towards Gilles’ laboratory. Every whisper bounced off the walls, and with each echo seemed to get louder. Morgan knew this was a more dangerous situation than they’d faced at the study. The laboratory was larger and was home to a known homicidal maniac. Further along was the dungeon, the home of Waite’s army; behind them, the vast chamber with its over-sized altar and stone slab pillars. Beyond that was the cavern with the giants’ steps leading down to an abyss of unimaginable horrors, out of which elder things crawled to sacrifice each other or some other unfortunate monstrosity in the name of their hellish gods.

He poked his head into the room. There was a lit lamp on the table and candles on the shelves, but no signs of life – only more death. A man was strapped to a table, his mouth filled with blood, his eyes staring lifelessly at the ceiling. His face and arms were slashed with knife wounds, small and superficial for the most part, but undoubtedly painful when they were inflicted. A long-handled fishing knife was lodged in the man’s throat. Wet blood stained the table and floor.

“Damn it!” swore Morgan, stalking past the corpse to the far end of the room. “Where the hell are you bastards?”

Henri approached the table and bent to inspect the body. “This wasn’t a living man,” she pointed out, prodding his forearm. “See? The skin isn’t fully attached to the muscles, or the muscles to the bone. It wouldn’t have been able to stand upright, I wouldn’t think.”

Morgan turned in surprise and went to have another look. “You’re saying they resurrected it? For real?”

“Recently, I’d venture. See?” she said as he joined her in prodding the man’s arm. “According to the texts, once a body is resurrected it needs regular supplies of blood over a period of days or weeks to complete the spell – to get to the same state as the ones running around upstairs. This one’s like a clay pot that hasn’t been in the kiln yet.” She shook her head at the knife. “That’s nasty. Someone has a very bad temper.”

“It’s different from the ones we found in the Six Hills. They were walking, for one.”

“They must have been alive for a while.”

“Alive? They weren’t alive. They were walking nightmares. The things they did to those poor campers …”

“They were probably starving.”

“For brains?”

“They weren’t zombies, Sam. They were resurrected from ashes – Hey! Maybe that’s the reason for the ashes in the study!”

“A failed spell?”

Henri glanced around the room. “I’m amazed those two you found were able to escape. It’s a pretty sophisticated operation down here.”

“Sophisticated? It’s an abattoir!”

Staring at the corpse’s face, Morgan contemplated what to do next. There was no point searching any further for the sorcerers. They could be anywhere by now, perhaps even down in the cave, protected by whatever horrors they’d managed to recruit to their cause.

“We’ll have to wipe out the monsters and dead things the usual way,” he said to Henri. “We’ll contain the immediate threat, then come back and do a sweep and destroy. And hope they don’t raise anything more in the meantime. Let’s go.”

She looked up in surprise. “We’re leaving now? No, no, Sam! Can I have a few minutes to look around? There might be something we can use.”

Morgan was intending to check out the place where Arika had said Waite’s army was housed, so he nodded and left Henri going through books and piles of notes while he went to see whether any of the dungeon’s inhabitants had been left behind.

The heavy iron door at the end of the corridor was open. Flashing his torch into the darkness, Morgan saw what looked like a boring stone room, around the same size as the laboratory but empty. As he’d expected, the room was silent. He moved cautiously forward and soon came to the precipice where Kane Gates had almost met his end. Spying the metal stairs, he went over and shook them, making a hollow noise that echoed around the room. When he imagined Kane hanging onto the railing, his legs dangling into the darkness as hordes of dead things leapt on each other in a frenzy to grab him and drag him down, his chest tightened with panic.

As he shone his torch around the floor below, he began to hear what sounded like slippers on carpet.

He froze, the torch beam shining on a dark archway at the far end of the dungeon.

Something snorted. The slipper sound grew louder. Whatever was approaching was moving towards the archway, grunting and sniffing and snorting like someone with a bad cold. As the steps grew louder, Morgan fixed his eyes on the black hole, unable to flee or look away until whatever was making the noises had shown itself.

When the thing finally appeared, he was dragged back to that dirty swamp where he and Grieves had watched in disgust as the gross bloated swamp thing feasted on the remains of a young girl. It was the nightmare vision that had marked, for him, the start of this mission, and now something similarly obscene was staring up at him. It wasn’t a malformed human this time; it was something from a fairy tale: an enormous ogre. Fat, brown and hairless, it squatted in the semi-darkness, staring up at him. Without moving its gaze, it brought a man’s leg to its flaccid lips and chewed on the foot.

As Morgan stared back in horror, he heard what sounded like a burp, and the next moment a second ogre appeared. This one was dragging half a corpse – the bottom half – pulling it by its severed spine like a child with a rag doll.

Both ogres stood watching him, as if they’d never before seen anything like him. Flaring their flat, warty nostrils, they sniffed the musty air. Morgan’s scent seemed to excite them and they grunted at each other, threw away their booty and began shuffling towards him.

His wits returning, he spun around and ran back to the laboratory.

At the door he half-whispered, half-yelled, “Monsters! Run!”

Henri didn’t need to be told twice. Abandoning her pile of treasures, she slipped past him and took off down the corridor.

Bursting into the chamber, Morgan stopped and leaned back into the corridor, listening, hoping the ogres were too fat to climb out of the dungeon or too lazy to chase them when they already had a meal in the hand.

“What was it?” whispered Henri.

At first he didn’t hear anything. But then the sound of snuffling and grunting arose behind them in the chamber. The hair stood up on the back of his neck. He knew what this meant: the ogres had left the dungeon by another exit and were now on their trail.

“Back to the well,” he urged, close to Henri’s ear.

“What is it, Sam?”

“Ogres.”

They ran. Morgan, covering his torch with his hand to minimise the light, stayed close behind Henri, though it slowed him down substantially. Fortunately, though the ogres weren’t too fat and lazy to stay in the dungeon with their disgusting meal, they didn’t have the build or stamina to win in a foot race.

As they reached the first of the corridors on the way back, Morgan’s foot slipped on something wet. He grabbed Henri’s arm. “Wait. Look,” he said, pointing his light at the floor.

They hadn’t noticed it on the way in, but there was a trail of blood leading along the edge of the chamber and up into the corridor.

“This is the way they ran,” he said, smearing the blood with his shoe. “The dead things. Look: it’s still wet. I’d bet my life that’s the way to the barn.”

Henri was staring over her shoulder, listening to the snuffling and snorting coming up behind them.

“It has to be either this corridor or the next one. And the trail leads this way. It has to be this way.” He played the beam of his flashlight along the chamber wall. “Yes, the farmhouse is over there,” he said, flicking the beam in the direction of the study, “and that means the barn would be up here. It fits. Come on, Henri.” He joined Henri for a moment in listening to the snuffling and snorting, then tapped her arm and took off.

“I hope the fight’s over up there,” commented Henri, raising her eyes to the ceiling.

They passed a series of rooms with closed doors, and then, as Morgan had predicted, a wide flight of steps appeared on their right, leading upwards towards a milky glow.

“Told ya!” he shout-whispered, flashing his light at the blood on the steps.

Sharing a relieved smile, they took the stairs at full speed.

They emerged into the light panting and blinking at the rear of the demolished chapel, behind where the dais had stood.

As they made their way out of the wreckage, they were confronted with a horrendous sight: everything was dead.

Morgan gaped at all the dead soldiers, the mangled creatures from Waite’s army, the smouldering ghouls and other blackened heaps. Beyond the flattened gate were the vehicles, and there were dead soldiers there too. He didn’t immediately recognise anyone, but he knew some of the dead were his friends.

“What happened?” asked Henri, spinning around.

“You’re the expert,” he said without emotion.

At that point, Henri spotted a lake of reddish-brown goo on the ground. “The Tseg!” she cried, pointing at it. “Destroyed! Look, Sam! Something must have happened to the wizards! The spell’s broken! We won!”

“Does this look like winning to you?” Morgan shot back.

She dropped her hand and looked sheepishly at him. He refused to meet her eye.

“I’m sorry, Sam, I didn’t mean –”

“Maybe Sparks got them.”

She was quick to agree. “Of course. That would explain where he went. He must have found these stairs and taken a squad down, found the wizards and killed them.”

He stared back towards the dais. “I dunno. Wouldn’t we have bumped into them down there? Or heard them?”

He suddenly recalled the leg in the ogre’s hand, the half-body being dragged into the dungeon by the other one, and bile rose in his throat. Had Sparks taken out Waite and Orwell only to be dispatched himself by Waite’s pets?

“Maybe he went down one of the other corridors,” Henri suggested. “Or into the cave, if that’s where he thought they were hiding. He could still be down there. Maybe that’s where he found them.”

Morgan was desperate to believe her, but he knew too much about the army’s tactics to hold out much hope that Lieutenant Sparks was still alive. It just didn’t feel right. Then again, Henri had a point that the melting of the Tseg pointed to the demise of the sorcerers. “It could have been some of their own demons got ‘em,” he offered, thinking this an equally likely explanation.

“There’s protection spells –”

“Yeah, but there’s dozens of freaks came up the stairs; probably more still down there. It’s the most likely scenario, so you could be right that Sparks is still around. Anyhow, I suppose we’ll find out soon enough. When we go down again.”

“When will that be?”

“What’s that?”

Henri stared at him. “I don’t … What?”

“That noise.”

She cocked her head. After a moment he could see she heard it too. A series of dull thuds, irregular, like distant thunder. She glanced down at her shoes. “I can feel it … coming up from the ground.”

Morgan looked down too. He could feel the vibrations in his boots, could see the barn timbers shaking with every thud, but something told him the vibrations were going down into the ground, not coming up.

He looked at Henri. “It’s not from the dungeons. It’s terrestrial.”

Turning around, he froze. His tongue lodged in his throat.

Henri scanned his face, as if reading what he was seeing in his expression, then slowly turned too. She grabbed his arm and squeezed hard, though he scarcely felt it.

Crawling across the heath was a black behemoth, the size of a four-storey building. It reminded Morgan of tree trunks and sea urchins and ant legs and jellyfish, all magnified and mashed together. Leathery black tentacles waved in the air as if they had a life of their own, while the branch-like legs propelled it forward with a motion that was totally alien. And as it moved towards them, its strangely-human face regarded everything with an air of apathy. In its wake was death: birds dropped from the sky; bushes wilted and dropped their leaves; the grass turned a greasy grey-brown – the same sickly non-colour that surrounded Jacob’s End.

When the monstrosity entered the battlefield, its tentacles reached out, scooped up bodies, pulled them back and stuffed them into yawning mouths along the length of its body. Despite the frenetic activity of its tentacles, the yellow eyes continued to look around wearily, as if it were already bored with what it saw in this world.

Henri gasped. “She’s magnificent.”

To Morgan’s surprise, she began walking towards the thing, her face glistening with rapture. When he went after her and reached out a hand, she sprang away violently and started running.

Dashing after her, he caught her by the arm and pulled her away just as a giant tentacle, appearing from nowhere, smashed to the ground at her feet.

The near miss broke her trance and she backed away, her face quickly turning from rapture to fear.

Realising the stupor could return at any moment, Morgan grabbed Henri under both arms and dragged her like a sack of potatoes towards the farmhouse. She soon found her feet and began running under her own steam.

As they made the portico, he felt something wrap around his ankle. The next moment his leg was pulled out from under him and he fell face down in the mud.

Spitting out dirt, he rolled over to find a black tentacle clamped around his ankle. Before he could reach for his rifle, it hoisted him off the ground and high into the air. To his horror, he was pulled past the giant face with its yellow eyes and towards a black yawning mouth.

Bending his body up, Morgan managed to get his pistol out of his thigh holster. He lifted it, aimed as best he could, and shot at the face. The bullets bounced off the thing’s skin like rubber bouncing off rubber. Desperate now, his head approaching the waiting mouth and its rows of shark-like teeth, he pointed the gun up and shot at the tentacle around his ankle. This time the bullet entered the thing’s skin. The tentacle spasmed and released its hold on him.

As he fell, another tentacle shot out and caught him in the same place. Morgan shot that one too, and he dropped with a heavy grunt to the ground.

Winded, weak, white as death, all he could do was reach out a hand to Henri, who was standing in the doorway, her hands holding the jamb. Now the behemoth was moving away, it seemed to have lost its grip on her, and her face was a mask of terror. As more tentacles grabbed him around the waist and arms and legs and lifted him off the ground, he felt a warm sense of relief that at least Henri was safe, and would survive this disaster. It would be one less death he would be responsible for.

Morgan suddenly noticed his struggle to survive had captured the interest of the monster. This time, instead of dropping him into one of the waiting mouths, the tentacles raised him toward the thing’s face and dangled him in front of its slitted yellow eyes. For a while it looked him up and down with what seemed like intense fascination.

As the she-god stared, a warm tingle washed over him. Her interest was giving him the kind of high he’d only ever experienced in his university days, when he’d partied on ecstasy and felt an overwhelming emotional connection to every person in the room. This was different, though: the elation wasn’t coming from a chemical inside him, it flowed into his every pore from the sublime creature that held him. She was a vision, a warrior, a conqueror of worlds, and she was interested in him. He was the favoured one, her sole focus of attention out of everyone and everything in the entire universe, and he craved her gaze, wanted to crawl across her perfect tentacles and stroke her cool ebony cheek.

As his muscles relaxed and his mind wavered and his eyes went in and out of focus, it came to him how rare it must be for the beloved to be challenged. This is what had warranted this unexpected and unwarranted favour, he was certain of it. She was a divinity, a supreme being, the Black Queen, and he was her servant, her protector, her obedient slave, to do with as she wished. All he wanted was the chance to worship her for all eternity, to beg for her glorious attention and become one with her perfection.

These were Morgan’s last thoughts as his life was drained from him. Once he was nothing but a dry husk, the Black Queen opened her mouth, threw in his body and swallowed him whole.

Read Chapter 54: March of the Black Queen

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