An excerpt from the rough draft:
The few buildings that marred the perfect gray landscape rose up before him like a cliff. The plasteel structures had been added in layers spiraling outward, but construction had stopped with an abruptness that terrified. Buildings moldered half-finished, their gray skeletons looming out from the equally gray plasteel desert like the bones of a dragon, slain in some distant age.
And the blood.
There was always blood. That’s how this thing spread, this city killer, this eater of species. The dragon’s bones were painted with it, the brash brush strokes of some sinister ism, a masterpiece drawn across a city, each citizen donating a pint or two to the endeavor.
Tactically, this was the worst of all situations. Corwin had approached the city straight-on, with no cover. Worse, there were only three boulevards down which he could travel. It meant that whomever might be out there watching him, waiting for him, infected or otherwise, would know where he was coming from. The only other option, then, was to try to make his way in and through the more intact buildings and hope that they’d neglected to trap those doors and windows. They might not even be new traps, Corwin mused. They may have been snares deployed during the initial siege, lain then forgotten in death.
“Well?” Corwin said. It wasn’t a question, more of a plea for something else, a better plan than trusting to dumb luck.
Zeerus remained silent: he had no help to give. His information was based upon faulty data, and he couldn’t risk exposing Corwin and his fragile mind to the servants that wandered the city. In fact, he couldn’t be sure that the servants he’d placed here to watch over Corwin’s and his progress were even still alive. If clusters of live Choxen still roamed the city’s streets, they would take any chance to destroy the active servants and those that rested.
His next chance, Zeerus would need to double the guards on the sleeping chambers, and awaken contingents to scour the city clean - again.
Corwin had wracked his mind as Zeerus thought, and when none of them came up with a better idea, Corwin started forward without another word.
Corwin hops the half finished wall before him, Zeerus shadowing his every move, almost weightless. Sprinting from cover to cover, Corwin crosses the few hundred feet of the plasteel boneyard, and slides up underneath a window.
So far, so good; they aren’t dead.
Corwin pokes his head up and over the sill, ducks down. Only after a few seconds does his brain process the images, then issues new orders to his finely-tuned muscles.
Corwin is up and through the window in the space of a breath, his supply pack and water jugs now a part of his homunculus, and all but forgotten. His boots ring loud, echoing in the burnt-out room; it smells like charred meat gone rancid.
“Clear,” he says under his breath, more from habit than to relay any real information.
He takes the stairs two at a time, pauses where the stairwell turns leftward, continues up to the second floor, then up to the door he knows will lead him to the roof. He eases the door open, worn hinges groaning in the preternatural silence that covers the city like a dull blanket.
There’s blood up there too. And bodies. These bodies are fresh - fresh-ish. They were recently killed, again; new bullet holes cratering their heads, old flesh split open for the first time. This time, hopefully, the bullets have rendered them inoperable.
Corwin pokes them with his booted toe, gun out, ready for whatever tricks the dead might play. They don’t respond. In a way he’s grateful: whoever did this eliminated a group of infected that next time might come upon him unawares, except, the enemy of his enemy did not make them his friends - the Choxen would still kill him without thinking twice.
He scanned the staggered rooftops, longing for the eyestalks that a few of the IGA species had to look, in a safer way, out from behind the edge of the three foot lip that ringed the roof.
Another explosion of movement brings Corwin onto the roof beyond, sprinting to the safety of an open stairwell door. He hops from roof to roof this way, Zeerus always at his heels, both of them trying to scan all directions at once. No one shoots, nor do they see any of the shuffling creatures Corwin calls enemies that patrol this city.
Corwin reaches the last building in the long, twisting line; and if he wishes to continue, he needs to climb down, merge with the road, and cross another sea of featureless and perilous plasteel. He pauses; weighs his options. In this moment of calm, he Dyzus a stirring in the ether about him, a tugging at the Sahktriya strands that float about him to catch such changing currents.
There are enemies nearby. Below, Dyzu the strands.
Zeerus, his own abilities limited to the physical, helps Corwin watch. He is aware of what Corwin does with the Dyzuing and the Sahktriya, but he has no skill at all for it - despite his other abilities.
Corwin presses himself onto the ground in the corner of the roof, and despite Zeerus’s help, keeps watch with his corporeal body even as he focuses more attention on the movements of enemies down below.
There are a dozen of them, but they mill about as would a heard of cats: aimless, yet with some amount of agency. They didn’t Dyzu like Choxen, there was no pall of aggression that climbed the skeins of Sahktriya to where Corwin hid; none of that skin-prickling intention of a predatory tiger stalking from the tall grass.
These were the infected, the dead-made-mobile, and they sniff for warm, coursing blood.
Corwin’s face twists into a sneer of disgust and horror. These creatures were nightmares in flesh; hideous, shambling caricatures of life with ravenous mouths and gaping wounds through which blood and gore spilled. One drop of that infected blood was enough to change the victim from thinking, emoting Sentient, into a slavering beast; from lover to killer.
Corwin shudders as he remembers his few brushes with this virus. A mistake - not of his own doing - aboard the Tokugawa released it into the ship’s hold, and they’d barely contained it in time. Fire had killed it, consumed the bodies of its carriers and denatured the proteins in which its little packet of hijacking RNA was housed. The fire had also killed several who hadn’t been infected. They hadn’t made it to the door in time, and Corwin couldn’t risk it getting out into the rest of the ship.
With Zeerus’s help, Corwin pushes himself back to the present. He needs to keep his mind about him.
Screams from below shatter the delicate Sahktriya hairs, jarring Corwin with tremors of fear. It’s a primal fear, the fear of demons whose eyes glow red in the dark, of something unnatural that has tasted the scent of flesh on the air.
The screams are not from living mouths. They wail like the bellows of hell, throat curdling, howling, choking on blood-vomit undulations that freeze Corwin in place. His skin has gone pale, perspiration beads his forehead, collects, runs down his tensed jaw, across quivering lips to drip like liquid hydrogen to the ground.
The shrieks get longer, louder, a pack of undead jackals hunting.
More sounds: shouts; guttural, filled with life and Sentience. The two rival factions meeting in the room below, their deadly contact piercing the silent roadways through broken windows, bouncing up and to the ears of a petrified Corwin. Corwin can’t see with his eyes, but his mind draws a sketch, the lines of the combatants provided by memory, the color painted by sounds.
The two factions meet - the dead and the soon-to-be - the infected charge forward, bone-chilling shrieks leading the charge, heedless of the Choxen bullets that tear out flesh and bone. At first the rifle fire is organized, the Sentient voices calm.
After just a few short seconds it all changes. New voices shout from bloody and torn throats - the freshly risen dead joining their brethren. The control of the remaining Choxen breaks, their guttural voices shrill with fear as they try to retreat. The rifle fire is erratic, spotty: diminishing.
Silence now in the room below. Tears stream down Corwin’s face to drip-drop-drip onto the bare plasteel he uses for a pillow.
No. Not silence. Squish, says the room below. Clump. Thump. Scrape, it says as hearts and brains that until moments ago knew the joys of bioelectricity and a pulse stop and something else takes over. They are marionettes now, all of them, walked and shuffled by an invisible hand with an agenda that Corwin can’t know.
Corwin has reached the end of what his mind can take. The Warrior in him has fled, leaving behind a drooling, crying fool.
There is only one way out before they come for him; before it’s his turn to be devoured and regurgitated in undead form.
He snatches his pistol from its heavy place at his waist. The touch of the barrel against his temple is cool, reassuring. It means freedom.
He pulls the trigger.