Chapter 56 - Land of Ruins

Cloudhawk and the Queen rode atop a giant lizard, the light of the dawn casting their shadow long across the dunes. Here the monotony of the wastelands was broken when the desert gave way to a cluster of ruined structures.

Metal husks rusted beneath the beating sun. High walls crumbled away like the flesh of ancient, long-dead beasts. What remained of the city stretched out across the horizon as a concrete and steel jungle, far as the eye could see. Baked by the sun, beaten by the winds and sand, the magnificence of dilapidation was lain bare before them.

The group wandered for a few dozen meters until they found a crack in the wall and slipped into the wasted metropolis. Even after years of erosion, even now when the weeds had reclaimed this place, the towering wreckage was a testament to the splendor of the old world. 

As the humans picked their way through the ruins they were dwarfed by its scale. Cloudhawk and the others were insects by comparison. More than just broken skyscrapers peppered the landscape as well. Statues, temples, and palaces dotted their paths. Great peaks, collapsed burrows, and all manner of debris were interposed throughout. Strange sites with stranger histories. Who knew what this place used to be like in its heyday? What sorts of experiences waited along its streets and in its buildings? All of it was lost to the inevitable march of time.

The ruins would probably protect them from the winds and sand. Shrubs and low foliage could be seen all around, traces of life everywhere they looked. The city had become a collapsed labyrinth that Cloudhawk and the others could get lost in forever. Even experienced wasteland rangers would have a hard time finding their way out.

It wasn’t Leonine’s first trip to the Greenland Outpost. He was experienced enough to avoid detours and misleading roads. He also knew when to skirt dangerous lairs where fell beasts lay in waiting. As they made their way through the ruins nothing made passage difficult.

About an hour later…

A strange howl echoed through the cluttered, dilapidated streets all around them. No one could distinguish what it was or where it was coming from. That is, until an arachnid-like monster skittered from the ruins. It leapt from the darkness, whipping its four limbs with incredible speed, and landed before one of the soldiers. The human victim brandished his weapon for protection and was quick enough to thrust it at the beast.

But the monster was faster than anyone could have imagined. It allowed the weapon to plunge into it as the creature opened its black maw and buried its fangs in the warrior’s shoulder.

Kill it!”

A handful of the men attacked, stabbing it repeatedly. But even after a dozen or so strikes the beast still lashed about. Eventually it stopped moving when a war hammer smashed its brains to bits. 

Cloudhawk had a chance to look at it more closely. It only had four limbs, a head, eyes, ears, and a nose… familiar features except for the greyish-black flesh. Its legs and arms were twisted grotesquely. “Did this thing used to be human?”

Leonine pulled out a saber. The weapon was roughly five feet long, large and unadorned, with a blade just as long as the hilt. It was perfectly straight, and about as wide as one’s palm. Though it was nicked and etched by blood the saber still managed to twinkle with a cold and lethal light. The grizzled veteran was sinister enough, but with the saber in hand he looked like he could cut down a whole host of enemies.

“Leonine, what the hell are you doing!?!”

Leonine had just thrown himself into the crowd like a shooting star. His saber streaked through the air with all the force of a raging river, right for the wide-eyed warrior that’d been bit. The unfortunate man’s head soared high and hit the ground several meters away. Meanwhile, his body collapsed in a spray of blood. He was dead before he knew what had happened.

The others gaped at Leonine.

“That wasn’t a mutant, it was a walking corpse.” Leonine stood tall with the dagger tight in his grip. Not a spot of blood was on it. “If ya get bit by one of em, you turn in less than a day. You join the ranks of the walkin’ dead. He had to be dealt with.”

It was the first time Cloudhawk had ever heard anything like this.

Leonine continued. “Zombies like this move in packs. We gotta leave, now.”

As though on cue, the wailing rasp of zombies called out from all around. Like nightmarish insects the dead started to close in on them, skittering over walls and out through cracks in the ruins. They crawled and groped, with hungry scarlet red eyes. Dozens of them were closing in already and there were more coming.

Cloudhawk’s face fell. “There are so many of them!”

Leonine hefted his dagger. “Y’all come with me. Careful you don’t get bit, and try not to get any of their blood on ya.”

Indeed these corpses weren’t mutants. They were monsters, human flesh turned to beasts through some evil poison.

A zombie’s poison was in their saliva and secondarily in their blood. One bite and their disease was passed on. Anyone unlucky enough to feel their teeth was as good as dead. If any of their blood got in an open wound the chances were also good the disease would be passed on.

There was no medicine. No cure. That’s what made these monsters so terrifying! Cloudhawk was willing to fight against all sorts of creatures, things that lived only in nightmares and the darkness of the wastes. But he sure as shit wasn’t interested in tangling with the dead.

Leonine led the way, racing ahead. His dagger flashed and two rotting beasts barring their way were cut in half. Still more poured in from all around – they clearly did not know fear and were willing to die en masse during their attack.

Shit! One got me – it bit me!”

One of the warriors let loose with a crisp shout of pain. One of the zombie had bitten off half his hand. The sound of his cries were heavy with pain and horror, filling the others with fear much worse than the sight of his injury.

“You fuckin’ animals, I’ll wreck ya!”

The warrior threw himself at the zombies hysterically only to get pulled down by a host of them. He screamed in bloody agony as their blackened claws disemboweled him and pulled his intestines free of quivering, shredded flesh. Zombies fell on his body like he was a rare delicacy. The scene made the other humans shudder with a bone-deep terror.

Cloudhawk was suddenly blocked by three of the beasts. He didn’t know which one to attack, they were too fast and focusing on one would leave himself open to getting bit by the other two. If one of them took a chunk out of him, that was it.

The three corpses didn’t give him any time to think.

Cloudhawk was frozen in a panic and so the Queen made the first move. She seized his exorcist staff, whipping it around with practiced movements. One, two, three – the monsters’ heads exploded in no particular order, spraying brain matter all around.

The Bloodsoaked Queen was far more skilled than Cloudhawk. With the slightest influence of her will she summoned the strength of the staff, so little in fact that no one could tell she’d galvanized the relic at all. It was just enough to crush these zombies’ skulls and nothing more. She used only as much energy as was needed, as opposed to Cloudhawk who always struck with his full power.

Leonine’s voice rang out. “There’s more of ‘em comin’! Don’t let ‘em surround you or you’re dead!”

Cloudhawk then noticed that as they fought the undead were only increasing. Sooner or later they would be overrun. How many of these fucking things were there out in these ruins!?

The Bloodsoaked Queen flipped around and lashed out at anything nearby. She dealt with the zombies while Cloudhawk steered the giant lizard, following the others as they fought to break free of the slavering horde. All the while Leonine led the escape, his long saber cutting this way and that. A dozen corpses were cut down, left in pieces on the sand.

They continued to fight and run wildly. The undead gave chase.

Scores more humanoid beasts joined them until there were more than a hundred zombies chomping at their heels, skittering like spiders all around. No matter what they did the monsters stuck to them like foot maggots [1]. So far six of Leonine’s crew were gone and that number was only going to keep rising if the living dead kept on them.

Just as the unpleasant thought was crossing his mind, the ground began to quake. A disk-shaped titan erupted from the earth in a shower of sand and debris. This new monster was the very image of a crab, only several dozens of times larger. Six gnashing pincers clacked and swiped, and it was covered in a shell so thick even bullets would be useless!

Two unfortunate men were too slow in getting away. The crab-monster’s pincers unceremoniously snipped them in half.

Cloudhawk gaped at what was happening before him. They couldn’t catch a fucking break! Before them was a giant mutant nightmare, and behind them was a whole mob of shambling corpses. What were they supposed to do? Yet Leonine wasn’t alarmed with the appearance of this newest threat. He pointed in another direction and shouted at them. “This way!”

They followed him down a fork in the road. But the zombies had caught up.

The crab lurched forward as the wave of zombies closed in. It Used one of its pincers it smashed a group of them against the ground and used another to pick them apart. Severed limbs were conveyed to the crab’s maw and disappeared down its horrifying gullet. The other zombies hesitated when they saw the fate of the first wave.

These giant crabs were a zombie’s natural enemy. They survived by feeding off these poisoned corpses.

Though the dead didn’t have a mind of their own, they were still creatures of instinct. When they came face to face with their natural enemy their immediate reaction was to flee, for their teeth couldn’t crack the monster’s armor-like shell while its pincers felled them with ease. Fighting it served no purpose other than giving the monster a free meal.

The giant crab’s timely arrival had saved them. 

Leonine’s party kept moving forward for fear the living dead would find a way to reach them.

“Listen up. There’s a canyon ahead, and the oasis region of Greenland Outpost is on the other side.” When he spoke there was no note of relaxation in his voice, like the journey was nearly over. Just the opposite – his voice and countenance grew more severe. “No matter what you see, don’t touch. You’re dead if you do!”

Cloudhawk was puzzled by Leonine’s warning. Oasis? What oasis?

He wasn’t curious for long. By the time he and the others reached the lip of the canyon a jaw-dropping scene spread out before him. The basin was an expansive area of rolling hills that separated the valley into different areas. Every dip and crevice was covered in a blanket of green. Plants of all sorts covered everything and grew with abandon, and in the very center was a glittering lake.

It was an oasis, huge and awe-inspiring.

Never in his wildest dreams would Cloudhawk have imagined a place like this existed in the wastelands. Whole forests of trees spread out below him, carpeted with grass and weeds that flourished while surrounded by desert. It created a natural barrier, a maze of green that kept out wasteland fiends and roving monsters – protecting the oasis camp from the terrors that plagued other outposts.

It was an emerald paradise in the middle of the desert!

1. For the love of God don’t google this. I did and I regret it.

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