If you missed Part 1, click here.
Arkyn pocketed the little card with its simple message. He had dozens of them now. Keeping them made him feel closer to… to what? The hand that had written them? The promise that there was someone somewhere better than this?
Arkyn shut and latched the crate of livsbrød and hefted it onto his shoulders. Back inside, Arkyn peered through a knot-hole in the storeroom wall, scanning the back alley for stalkers before passing through to the front and repeating the check. All was still, for now, so he set down the crate and went about readying himself for the day.
After slaking his thirst, he added to his canteen a portion of salt from the pouch he kept in his rucksack and with a rag, took a hurried field bath between the stacks. Cleaner, and with his scent sufficiently masked, he sat on the pad of a broken swivel stool and pried open a can of unidentifiable mush for his morning fuel and cracked open a paperback for distraction.
Eating stirred niggling memories of his past and the unholy diet he had kept. He could recall the fleeting satisfaction of raw flesh but speedily banished these thoughts. It had been wrong, appalling. He had been appalling. Even before full knowledge had dawned inside him, before the antidote had healed his being to the core, he knew it to be so. Nothing had the lasting power to satiate. Arkyn remembered the severity of his appetite, both of body and of mind, though the former’s scream for fulfillment drowned out the other. Emptiness ate at him continually, without hope of reprieve or end.
But all that had changed.
Arkyn sprinkled flakes of red powder from an unlabeled jar into his can of sludge, which only gave the impression of flavor, and ate quickly. It was no feast, but his only frame of reference for what food could be, came from the yellowing pages of old cooking magazines.
He sharpened the tip of his dagger and ax blade on a honing steel, the only practical tool he had found in the kitchen next door, the rest having been scavenged long ago. Then, with practiced familiarity, he checked his gear, donned his thick coat and boots, and tied layered cardboard armor to his arms, chest, and thighs—not the most durable defense but better than none at all.
After strapping his empty water jug to his rucksack, Arkyn came to the quintessential task: fitting his bandolier with vials of antidote.
Taking the little bottles of life from the med crate, he tucked them, one beside another, into the pocketed strap rudely sewn from an old pair of jeans, until all were in their place, lined diagonally like soldiers across his chest. He closed the white case and stacked it with its mountain of empty brothers clogging up Non-Fiction rows 220.7–892.40.
Arkyn cracked open the library’s double front door and surveyed the road. Vacant. Not too surprising. The dead were less prevalent in this part of town, having scoured it clean of vermin.
Slipping out the door, Arkyn passed down the paved road, gliding along walls of buildings, pausing behind jutting framework and dumpsters before darting across intersections, his ears attuned for any disturbance, eyes constantly scouting in all directions.
Scrubs of dead grass, twigs, and garbage clumped on the sidewalk and street, gathering like drifts around rusted cars and skeletons. Multitudes of skeletons.
Arkyn did not remember what cities and towns were like before, but he pieced together fragments from faded billboards, newspapers, and word paintings in the books he read, and he thought this town might have been charming once upon a time, with colorfully painted buildings, sprouting green plants everywhere, and the living going about their lives, smiling, shouting, talking.
Alas, time, weather, and the destructive power of bloodthirsty draugar had done a number on the place. Every centimeter of the town was crumbling, rusting, rotting in dismal shades of grey and tan. Instead of laughter, music, and birdsong, every sound and movement posed a threat.
Arkyn filled his canteen at a hydrant three blocks down that could still be coaxed to dribble. After chugging several rusty gulps, he topped off the container and replaced his kerchief over his nose and mouth. His throat and lungs had constricted uncomfortably at the brief exposure to the adulterated outside air. He fought to control his raspy breath; a coughing fit was the equivalent of a death knell.
Coming to a large, exposed intersection, he scrutinized every shadowed corner, doorpost, sideroad, and shattered window. Warily, he darted across toward the sector of town where the remaining rodents and pigeons cowered, and draugar circled, ferreting them out one by one. Though these nightmare beasts disfavored the haze of day, they never slept or rested, goaded by their desperation to prowl until their bones wore to powder.
Yes, into the jaws of hell, he snuck.
Therein lay the struggle. Disperse, the notes said. But don’t die.
From his attempts thus far and his personal rebirth, Arkyn deduced that the antidote only took effect when it entered the body via the eyes, nose, mouth, or possibly the bloodstream, though his memory of the event was muddled.
He recalled waking to a throbbing, cramping pain clutching his body, but it was inconsequential compared to the acute pain searing his eyes. Sprawled on his belly, Arkyn had raised a hand to them, his fingers coming away bloody. The entire orbital socket—brow, lids, under eye—was shredded and stinging. It was a miracle he could see. Stunned and confused, he had searched his surroundings and found, beneath where his face had lain on the pavement, a smashed vial, trickling red liquid.
Arkyn did not know where it had come from, how it had entered his eyes, or anything preceding the moment it had. He only knew his present, and what of the past he pieced together from the old words he found on disease protection pamphlets, posters of gas masks, advertisements selling underground bunkers, and terrifying newspaper articles.
Though the mission seemed absurd, obeying the messages was Arkyn’s only direction, his only purpose.
Simple, yes. Easy, no.
Step 1: Saunter up to a decaying brute from Niflheim.
Step 2: Politely ask to pour burning antidote into his eyes.
Step 3: Repeat. Assuming you survive steps one and two.
It had not gone well.
Arkyn’s apprehension grew as he neared the fringe of the danger zone. He sidled along a grocery’s grimy paneled exterior, knowing an encounter was nigh. But he was ready for it. He could defend himself, he repeated silently. He was ready. He was ready.
But he was never ready.
Arkyn heard a scrape overhead milliseconds before two hundred pounds of rotting flesh crashed through a second-story window in a rain of glass. Arkyn’s arms flew up to protect his head. Before he could run or wield his weapons or think, a set of powerful jaws clamped on his left forearm.
He screamed as he and the monster crashed to the ground. His weapons skittered out of reach. Jerking and yelling, he wrenched at his arm, trying to free himself. The beast’s reeking breath flared through flaps of nose cartilage. Its face was grotesque, half skeletal, half sickly flesh, oozing, and riddled with mold and maggots.
The razored teeth bore down harder, threatening to crush bone. Arkyn strained, leveraging every ounce of his weight to push off one foot, forcing them into a roll. The draugr’s brown cords of hair whipped Arkyn’s eyes as they twisted in the red dirt. The jaw’s grip loosened, only an iota, but the motion Arkyn started, the beast continued, log-rolling him over and over, a crocodile with its quarry.
It would not let go.
As they spun wildly, Arkyn glimpsed a leer on the draugr’s misshapen face. It had its next meal. And it was pleased. Moments more, and Arkyn’s strength would diminish altogether, and then… it would feast.
Panic and contaminated air surged in Arkyn’s throat, choking him. But he untangled his right fist, bashing at the creature’s head, again and again, winning nothing at all but bloody knuckles.
The vials! He should use a vial! Arkyn’s hand flew to his bandolier, clutching for one of the slender glass ampoules, but his fingers were numb and stupid. At the next revolution, his head smacked the pavement. Several vials fell out of their pockets and scattered in the dust. Discombobulated, Arkyn and the draugr smashed into a magazine dispenser. Arkyn kicked at the beast, but he hadn’t enough room to gain momentum, and still, the thing did not let go. However, the movement did distract it an instant. And that was enough.
Arkyn’s fumbling fingers closed on a vial, and his thumb flicked the cork away. The draugr growled through teeth still embedded in Arkyn’s arm and twisted away, wrenching Arkyn after him. Upon impact, Arkyn launched off the ground and, gaining the upper hand, upended the bottle, aiming at his attacker’s face.
The draugr released Arkyn’s arm, emitting an ear-splitting shriek. Something sizzled and steamed. Had he gotten it in its mouth? Its nose? The draugr scrambled back, hissing like a rabid possum. Arkyn clutched his arm, eyes riveted to the retreating monster. He noted no positive change in its behavior or its appearance. Maybe the transition merely took longer.
No. There it was, red liquid sliding down the draugr’s greasy neck where it sizzled and bubbled, the catalyst fighting the diseased flesh, and losing. It was the only stuff that caused the creatures pain. Pain and healing. It was funny how the two went together.
Frantically, the creature smeared the precious antidote away with rotted hands as it scurried into a building’s recess to nurse its burns.
Arkyn slumped against the magazine bin, his breath ragged.
This was how ‘dispersing’ typically transpired. The draugar were too quick… too deadly. If there was a better way to go about it, Arkyn had yet to discover it.
A grimace grew beneath his beard as he quickly took stock of his harm. It pulsed in swollen agony, the muscles refusing to obey his commands. His slightest movement shot twangs of pain up into his shoulder. It needed to be cleaned immediately. Swallowing, Arkyn checked his bandolier, where seven vials of livsbrød remained.
The medicine lost much of its potency after twenty-four hours. He found it still prevented migraines and hallucinations but was not enough to save him from a miasma of depression. Life turned to ash in his mouth, and time ground by with sand in its gears, the hours riddled with loneliness that beat him into despair.
He took a vow then, to do everything in his power to drink fresh antidote each morning and to obey without fail the accompanying directive. As a result, Arkyn experienced deepening detoxification in his body and acuity taking root in his mind, but best by far was the brightening hope that blossomed in his chest with each passing day.
So, no. Arkyn would not quit, despite his arm.
But it did need attention if he was to avoid the entire horde catching wind of his fresh blood.
Dragging himself to his feet, Arkyn collected his weapons and stumbled out of the roadway. The closest building’s glass door was broken. He climbed through it, entering into a large, open chamber. Rubble lay thick atop the marble flooring, strewn about with queue belts and toppled stanchions; on the far wall stood an ATM and a row of teller units.
Biting his beard, Arkyn held his injured arm tight against his abdomen and picked his way through the mess. Reaching the far side, he hopped the broken, low-swinging door and crouched behind the counter.
Here, he stilled and listened.
Not a shuffle or scratch met his ears, which was surprising. He had thought himself nearer to their nexus. But it was his senses and instincts that kept him alive, not presuppositions. He felt safe enough, for now.
Slowly and carefully, he undid the straps of the mangled cardboard armor. His whole arm throbbed violently as he removed the canvas coat and rolled back the flannel shirt, fully revealing the gory wound. The skin was red-hot, distended, and emitting a foul odor.
The wrenching crush it had undergone was not responsible for the worst of the damage, but the two rows of jagged, tooth prints laced with the draugr’s caustic saliva, already turning the punctures into volcanos of putrid infection.
With a practiced hand, Arkyn uncorked one of the seven vials and doused the trauma. The red antidote mingled with his blood, and the one canceled out the other, turning the liquid clear. It streamed down his swollen arm, dripping from his elbow like a river of life, and the boiling, pounding pain began to ease.
Arkyn sighed, leaned against the cubical wall, and allowed the serum to do its work.
End of Part 2
**Return for Part 3, wherein Arkyn has an encounter that will change his life.