(If you are new to this story you can find Part One here!)
Yakov cringed as he felt foul water trickling into his boots. The ground was much less solid inside the gas cloud and the mud much deeper. He wondered if it was the moisture in the cloud that kept the ground from truly drying out, but he shrugged off the thought. He was no scientist after all, just a soldier. He had a job to do and he would be damned if he would disappoint the commander again.
The scouts walked as one, stopping only when one of their number sank too deep into the thick brown sludge, making careful note to avoid that path on the way back. The stench within the cloud was beyond putrid. The taste of it was like acid, leaving their throats dry and sore.
Yakov wondered what Lev would make of it. They had been close friends for many years now and though they were both relatively fresh in the army they had seen their fair share of combat and marched through some pretty inhospitable terrain. Still, Lev’s noble background was a constant source of teasing between them. He was a very eager soldier, but his upbringing had left him largely unprepared for the ruthless nature of the real world. Yakov grinned at the thought of him holding his nose and gagging in exaggerated disgust.
He soon regretted grinning as a splash of water caught him full in the face, its foul waters dripping into his mouth. He coughed and spluttered and the others snickered at him, one thumping the young soldier on the back. He grimaced as the last cough sprayed black liquid onto his gloves. He glanced down at his gloves and saw not flecks of black, but darkened crimson. Was it blood? Was it his blood?
He had no time to think. The squad had stopped dead. At their forefront a veteran stood with a hand raised for silence. Instinctively Yakov looked around him, scanning the murky depths of the cloud for any sign of movement.
‘Why have we stopped?’ asked Yakov, his voice little more than a whisper.
The scout next to him shook his head.
Yakov looked around the group, hoping that some explanation might present itself and then saw their leader holding what looked like the corroded remains of a metal helmet. What little was still recognisable of was covered in rust. Yakov wondered how much of its disfigurement was merely down to the acidic nature of the cloud. As the leader held it out for them to see it became clear that it was not armour of human design but rather intended for a head of an entirely different shape, one that more closely resembled a snake.
‘Lamians,’ said the leader. ‘Blitzers by the looks of it.’ He held the helmet up so the entire squad could see and then started as a large object fell out of it and into the water, followed closely by a spray of red and black slush. ‘Dead blitzers,’ he said, identifying the object as a skull. ‘What in Mortis’ name are they doing here?’
‘Sir,’ said the scout next to Yakov. He was staring at the ground in front of them, and Yakov dreaded what he knew was to come. Both Yakov and the leader turned at the same time, looking down at a patch of mist that had cleared from the path. ‘I think we have a problem.’
As the scouts watched it the mist began to dissipate, exposing the corpses of countless beings, some lamian, others so rotted away that it was impossible to tell one way or the other, but most it would appear were human.
‘Necrolytes,’ spat one soldier in terror and disgust, pulling his blade to bear and waving it frantically between corpses as though expecting them to leap up at any moment. ‘Mortis-cursed fiends must have gotten stuck in the swamps. Perhaps the cloud rotted away whatever was holding them together. Perhaps it killed them, what other explanation is there?’
‘None,’ agreed the leader, examining the remains of the lamian closer. The bones were brittle and scattered all around. Whole parts appeared to have been melted away or were simply absent. In any case there were no whole skeletons that he could see. Absentmindedly he picked up the fallen skull, peering into it as though hoping it would offer some illumination, but there was nothing reassuring in those eyeless sockets. ‘They’re dead, that’s all that matters.’
Yakov watched black liquid drip from the skull, and then quickly looked back at the blood on his hands. Slowly he allowed his eyes to wander down to his feet and immediately wished he hadn’t. Where moments before there had been puddles of the same yellow sludge he had trudged through since entering the damned swamps there was now a thick crimson stream that appeared to seep from the ground like water from a sponge. In all his life he had never seen so much blood. He turned to his leader, face paler than the northern snow. But no one seemed to have noticed.
The words exploded through the silence with the force of a thousand voices screaming at once. The suddenness of the noise made Yakov jump in fear, waving his sword wildly and hacking at the air as though fighting invisible enemies.
The other scouts followed suit, with the exception of the leader who was now howling in pain. When Yakov chanced a glance in his direction he saw that the skull had dropped to the floor, a massive crack in its temple. Fresh blood seeped from its fangs. The leader screamed and turned to them, the skin of his face hanging loose where fangs had ripped it free. He was cradling the stump of what had once been his arm close, a fountain of blood oozing from the open wound and trickling out between his fingers.
Then something worse happened. Something that left no question in Yakov’s mind but to run.
As the leader’s blood sprayed into the mist its colour began to change. It was as though it was consuming the blood, soaking it up into itself. The entire world turned red, and as Yakov watched, somehow incapable of turning away, the open wounds on the squad leader began to putrefy and rot, pustules and swellings growing from the corrupted flesh to tremendous size before exploding in a shower of acidic pus that sprayed across the three closest scouts, burning through their light armour and leaving gaping holes in their flesh.
Yakov screamed and ran as his comrades fell to the ground, their inanimate bodies slowly consumed either by the acid they exhumed or the hungry skulls that began to chew at their flesh. As the young soldier fled he could hear them laughing. In his mind, he could see their toothy smiles dripping with the blood of his comrades. He could hear their screaming too, screaming so loud and at such indescribable pain that he prayed to die so he could no longer hear them.
The horror he had seen… how could he do anything but run?
The red mist was spreading fast, like a swarm of insects to a carrion feast. It was chasing him, and with every metre it drew closer he could hear the bones shaking and laughing with malicious ecstasy. They wanted him to trip. To fall and be at their mercy.
A tide of death was pursuing him, and he had barely shaken it when he started to see the outlines of dark shapes up ahead, standing motionless like the Mortivore beasts of legend. Black guardians and heralds of death standing judgement on the damned. Behind him roared a tide of blood, and before him oblivion incarnate. There was nowhere to run. He had to make a decision.
Chancing one last look back at the terrible sea of red. He burst forwards as fast as his legs could carry him, screaming for mercy at the top of his lungs.