Thursday, November 30, 2017

The Secret of Atlantis

Citadel World, book 2
The Secret of Atlantis
by Kir Lukovkin

Release - February 26, 2018


The cold wind blew swathes of snow into Paul’s face.
He closed his eyes and nearly fell to the ground from the blow he received.
“Where are you going!” someone growled in front of him.
Paul pulled on the reins of his bay horse. The other riders behind him followed suit. They shouted at each other, conveying the command to halt along the chain of riders. Paul rose in his saddle, trying to make out what was going on at the head of the column. Excited voices could be heard, sounding like they were in arguing fiercely. Lanky Pete rode up on his old nag and asked him about what was going on ahead.
“I don’t know,” Paul muttered. “We wait.”
Lanky Pete grimaced unhappily and rode on. Paul stared at his retreating back, dumbly. It was cold and all he wanted to do was to return to their Retreat, stretch his legs in front of the big fireplace and drink some hot ale. The horses snorted, flicking their ears and nervously looking around. Paul turned to see what his bay horse Duchess was looking at and examined the edge of the Canal—a long depression that ran almost as far as the horizon. Nothing, just a gray line that grew misshapen as it stretched out in the haze.  Duchess was clearly getting nervous.

“Now, now,” Paul stroked the horse’s neck.
Lanky Pete returned and rode back towards the tail end of the caravan without stopping. A cry came from the front for everyone to get ready as the caravan was about to continue on its way.  Paul could not wait to get going. This was all because of the accursed cold. Everyone’s hands had already gone blue from the freezing temperature, chilled down to the bone, their bodies barely obeying them. There was no clothing that could save you when you spent more than a day up on the surface.
The caravan crawled on, gradually twisting its way around some unknown obstacle. The reason for the stop became immediately obvious. Paul could not help but shake his head, thanking the Almighty for the fact that he was traveling on an empty stomach. A corpse lay in the middle of the Canal, so disfigured that it was impossible to tell whether it was a man or a woman. As the column moved on past the body, Paul managed to overcome his disgust to have a closer look. The cadaver lay in a fetal position. The flesh had been gnawed all the way down to the bone. It was difficult to tell whether this was a righteous man or one of the possessed. Death is the great equalizer.
Paul stared at the edge of the canal ahead of him again. Everyone in their Retreat new that the Great Canal divided the plain in two. A shallow river flowed along it in the summer, while the bottom was covered with a layer of ice and snow in winter. It was an umbilical cord that carried caravans to the Retreat from the Mainland. If anything was to happen to the Canal, it would be the end of the Retreat.
Paul gloomily considered this every time the latest mission set off on its way. Paul had thought about this the first time he joined one of the missions too...
The horse of the leading rider suddenly reared violently. The rider could not hold on and fell onto the ground, beneath the hooves of the horse behind him. There was a commotion up front for a few instants, with pushing, shoving and shouts of frustration. Paul barely held on to Duchess, when she tried to bolt away at a frantic gallop. He pulled on the reins with all his might and leaned in towards the horses head, patting her on the neck. Duchess' whole body trembled, and it was not because of the cold.
“What's wrong with you?” Paul exclaimed, trying to calm the mare down, but she whinnied loudly.
The other horses in the column replied, as they fidgeted nervously and attempted to rear or bolt. One horse managed to jump up on a cart and knock it onto its side. There was a complete mess up ahead and some sort of serious obstacle.
The caravan stood still. A Captain rushed past Paul, shouting commands and trying to impose order. Duchess finally calmed and that was when Paul looked up. The banks of the Canal were covered with strange mounds under the snow. Duchess nearly stepped on one of these and immediately shied away, neighing wildly again.
Paul took a closer look and understood what the matter was. The horse's hoof had randomly swept some snow from a mound and a human hand appeared. It was as white as a block of salt.
The captain kept shouting, “Order! Order, you idiots! Get back into the column!”
And then Paul noticed them.
A human figure appeared far away upon the left edge of the Canal. It looked so small that it was barely the size of his little finger could cover it. Then, another appeared by its side, as if it came from underground. Then another and another, and then the edges were lined with silent figures.
Paul felt the cold reach its tentacles right into his heart. His hands almost let go of the reins. He thought that he shouted, but only a weak croak emerged from his throat.
The figures did not move, but more and more of them appeared with every passing second. All the while, the people at the bottom of the Canal were too preoccupied with getting everything in order as their horses trampled the frozen corpses underfoot.
Paul looked up at the sky for some reason, as if he was hoping for help from some unknown gods. A thick layer of clouds hung low and silent up above. He directed his gaze back down to look ahead and the figures started to move. It was as if a gray wave rapidly flowed down the edges of the canal in complete silence.
It was only then that a belated cry of “Possessed!” sounded nearby.
The cry was caught up by a multitude of voices along the body of the column, like a sudden convulsion. There was a glint of bared swords. Paul remembered that his blade was also sheathed by his saddle. It seemed to be a pathetic toy compared to the hordes bearing down from above.
“Here comes death,” a thought flickered through his mind. The wave of possessed on the right reached the canal first and smashed into the side of the caravan. The howling, shouts, screams of the horses and the clang of steel got even louder. Barely a moment had passed when the same happened on the left-hand side.
The faces of the closest possessed were so near that it seemed that they could be touched with an outstretched hand. However, attracting their attention had to be avoided at all costs. Standing out among the crowd was also a recipe for disaster, as the possessed were predators that attacked caravans to satisfy the only primitive and primal feeling that they had remaining.
Paul struck Duchess on her haunches and flew along the column at a gallop. The possessed smashed into the caravan behind his back. People screamed in terror as they swung their swords. Paul rode on ahead without looking back. It was obvious what was going on there anyway—the humans were entwined in a bloody battle for their lives against beasts in human form. The waves of attackers rolled down the slopes faster than Duchess could gallop. In a moment or two they would collide, crushing the column in a vice-like grip of death.
He had almost reached the end of the caravan where he could already see Magister Choo and his escort, who had quickly separated themselves from the masses. It looked like the Magister was planning to slip away from the claws of the predators. However, the possessed were already rushing to cut them off from both sides. The first of them leapt with an unbelievable speed and threw one of the Magister’s bodyguards off his horse.
Duchess reared again and there was a loud crunch as her front hooves smashed back into the ground. A braying scream rang out. Paul turned his horse towards the inside of the column, trying to hide from the possessed. Chaos was everywhere, death feasted as madness snorted with laughter. The Brothers of the Order fought back as hard as they could, but their experience as warriors was of no matter, as the enemy overwhelmed them with their numbers. For every possessed that fell, two rushed in to take its place. The monsters were chewing upon still living humans. They were filthy, they looked scrawny, but they were merciless beasts. Their strength was unbelievable. It seemed that they never got tired and that they were ready to engage in endless slaughter just to satisfy their hunger.
And then, Paul felt himself being dragged from the saddle. He hacked away with his blade, but the grasping fingers kept dragging him to the ground even though he continued to desperately fight back. Duchess bolted, kicking through anything in her way. Two or three of the possessed had Paul in their deathly grip. His foot was stuck in the stirrup and he would have been torn apart if his boot had not slid off.
Duchess galloped away. A foul, blood-drenched maw hovered above Paul. He stabbed out with his blade and pierced the throat of the monster. A gushing stream of blood burst upon Paul’s face and chest. The blood suddenly warmed him, giving him a moment of calm so he could look around. It would have been better if he had not—the furious battle had become a massacre, with the victorious possessed feasting on the bodies of their enemies and finishing off the few that still resisted in groups. The horses had all fallen or run away. There were few people left that were still capable of screaming in pain and fear. The possessed growled and squealed. And then, Paul’s shoulder was in agony.
He had no time to even turn his head when he felt another bite sink into his forearm. Paul screamed, trying to unsuccessfully fight back and preparing to meet his death, when something inexplicable happened.
A strange hissing sound rang out, followed by a low drone, as if the air itself became thicker, twisting into a horizontal whirlwind. Paul's ears got blocked. The growls of the possessed changed to howls of terror. The monsters started to run away in a panic.
Paul could not gather the strength to rise so he just looked up again. The gray sky had turned pink. His head spun. It was as if he was starting to fall into the heavens but just could not do it. The possessed ran past, gesticulating and swinging their arms wildly—for some reason, they were engulfed by flames as if they were living torches. Gradually, the screams quietened down and the wind began to howl over the canal again. Paul felt the cold but he did not care, he was not afraid of freezing. He lay there and looked up at the sky and could not understand why he was not dying. Death should have come long ago, as well as a meeting with God, but neither seemed to be happening.
The snow crackled nearby and the sky was suddenly obscured by a face—a wide face, somewhat ungainly, with deep, dark eyes and raven-colored hair, adorned with a scraggly beard. It was very pale. The stranger examined Paul with a calm and uncaring gaze, as if he was an inanimate object.
“Where are you from?” the stranger asked at last.
Paul could not answer. He tried to move his lips, but he was unable to. His strength had completely abandoned him.
“Blink if you want to say “yes”. Do you understand?” the stranger instructed next.
Paul blinked slowly.
“All right. Where are you from? Are you from the west?”
Paul kept staring at the stranger.
“From the east?”
He blinked.
“The outpost at the foot of the mountain?”
Paul used his eyes to say “yes” yet again.
The stranger stood up, looking to the east and adjusted the unusual weapon on his belt—it looked similar to a crossbow, but instead of a bow and string, the stock featured a short tube with some sort of light blinking on the side.
Once he finished with his weapon, the stranger turned to Paul.
“Try not to die before the end of the day.”
And then he vanished.
Paul thought that he would not manage to fulfill his request. However, the stranger returned after some time had passed, pushing a cart. After performing some manipulations, the stranger lifted Paul and placed him inside. There was someone else in the cart but Paul could not see who it was as he could not turn his head.
The stranger left for a second time and he did not come back for a while. But then he brought a horse up to the cart, harnessed it and set off on his way.
Paul lay on the rough planks of the cart and gazed up into the pink clouds. Why were the clouds still pink? Why? He could not think of a coherent answer. Probably because it had got very cold. Paul could not feel his arms and legs and could not stop himself from constantly drifting off to sleep. His mind became cloudy, his thoughts all jumbled up and repeating themselves as his eyelids became heavier with every passing moment.
His consciousness finally sank into the fog in its entirety and then faded to black, as if a candle had been blown out.

Release - February 26, 2018

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