leading to Vernus, or Qued, or one of the major cities of Tal where his prizes could be broken apart, melted and sold. It would do him good. It had been two days since he had eaten, two days of forced marching through the wilderness to get to the battle just as it was ending, with poor dead stupid Gerd dragging along behind him so that he missed every open farmhouse window at every mealtime along the way. It was obviously affecting him. He needed to eat: something solid, with real meat, and an ale of heroic proportions to wash it down. Then sleep, and however many girls he could afford. Marius exhaled, and steeled himself to raise his head. It was time to lay down the corpse-rat and be a man for a while. All he needed was a slice of fortune, a space in which to make his dash.

He placed his hand flat on the ground in front of him, wriggled it to get firm purchase upon the shifting mud, and tensed. Slowly he lent into his arm, pushing upwards so that his shoulder slid out from underneath the soldier’s embrace. His head followed it, inch by inch. Once it was clear he stopped, and waited. Only the sound of crows reached his ears. He smiled. Just a little further…

“I wouldn’t do that,” a voice like a rusted gate whispered from just in front of him. Marius froze. His head seemed to twist around of its own accord, until he was once more staring at the sword-blighted corpse. While his eyes widened in sudden terror, the corpse smiled. Marius swallowed, once, twice. His voice, when it emerged, was little more than a choked cough.

“I’m sorry?”

“Get up like that,” the corpse said. “I really wouldn’t, if I were you.”


The corpse blinked, dislodging a cloud of flies. “A fellow like you, wandering around, it’ll cause more than suspicion, don’t you think?”

“But… but you’re dead.”

The corpse ran its tongue over cracked lips. “Well, that’s all a matter of perspective, wouldn’t you say?”


“Heh. Well, perhaps you’re right.” It hacked, and spat a red globule onto the ground in front of it. “Still, I think you’re missing the point.”

“What?” Despite himself, Marius couldn’t help but be drawn into the exchange. After weeks of Gerd’s inability to hold down two consecutive thoughts, even a dead man made for stimulating conversation.

“Come here.” The corpse tilted its head in invitation. Marius glanced about him, then quickly lowered his head back towards the grinning face.


“You know how I’m dead and all?”


The corpse shot out an arm and grabbed Marius around the back of the neck. Marius pulled away, but the soldier held on with a dead man’s strength. Slowly he pulled Marius down until no more than a centimetre separated them, and Marius’ vision was dominated by the corpse’s eyes: one black and endless, the other staring through him to a point so far in the future Marius was terrified to think of it. With surprising speed the corpse pushed its face forward and kissed Marius on the lips, then pulled him back to his former position. It smiled, as Marius drew breath to scream.

“So are you.”


Marius fell, far longer than the half-second it should have taken for his head to travel from the corpse’s grasp to the mud. The mud let him go and he slid downwards, through the slippery scurf of the battlefield, into a warm, gritty embrace that held him briefly before he scraped past it and into an open space with neither light, not air, nor any sensation of movement or life. He simply moved away from life, receding from it at a slow pace that was all the more terrifying for its lack of urgency, and his complete inability to alter the rate of his journey, or indeed, bring it to a halt. Just as he became convinced that he was destined to fall into the unending blackness forever, he burst through into a cone of dim, brown light. Before he could register the change he landed flat on his back, knocking the wind from his lungs. He lay stunned for long moments, lost in the sensation of airlessness, and the closed-in feeling of something deeply buried.

Gradually, as his senses returned, he was able to focus upon a ceiling several feet above him. It was dirt, rough and un-worked, as if Marius were observing a garden bed from the underside. Here and there roots poked through the surface, hairy points hanging in the air like warts clinging to the face of a beggar. Occasionally, a drop of muck fell as some disturbance or other sent tremors along its surface. No hole existed to prove Marius’ passage, yet he knew without doubt that it was from that ceiling that he had fallen, and were he able to penetrate its solid surface, he would find himself back at the battlefield, however many unknown miles above his head.


It was then that he became aware of tiny sounds around him, creaks and groans as of a large body of men standing quietly, expectantly. He stiffened, and fixed his eyes upon the ceiling.

“I don’t suppose this is the new ale room at the Axe and Raven, is it?”

Someone giggled. Marius’ bladder twitched in response.

“No. I didn’t think so.”

Marius decided to leap to his feet, to gather his legs underneath him like steel coils and lunge through whoever surrounded him in a mad dash for the nearest exit. Assuming there were exits. Assuming he could gather the strength to move. Assuming his body would let him. He considered it. His body declined to comment. He willed his legs to drive him upwards, and his arms to begin the motions necessary to propel him into a crouch. Nothing. Marius sighed. Ah well.

“I don’t suppose anyone fancies giving me a hand up, do they?”

For a moment there was no response. Marius began to entertain the notion that something heavy had fallen from the sky and hit him on the head, resulting in a somewhat strange and vivid hallucination. Then rough fingers gripped the fabric at his shoulder, capturing a fair amount of flesh underneath, and hauled him to his feet. And beyond. Marius dangled from the grip of his hidden helper, too terrified to turn his head and see the face of whatever giant held him aloft. If it was anything like the ones before him, he didn’t want to know.

Not a single face was whole. Countless strangers stared back at Marius – every age, size and ethnic grouping, and not a single one of them was complete. Skin had peeled back to reveal the underlying bone; eyes were absent from sockets; dirt trickled from all the usual orifices and ones that looked like they had been created by teeth long after death. Beyond them, in the darkness, the glint of unseen eyes winked at him, so many and to such a distance that Marius did not bother trying to count them. He scanned the crowd in soundless fear, taking in the hue and age of each tattered body. Soldier and peasant stood arm to rotting arm. Women eyed him with as much baleful energy as the few cats and dogs who crouched without panting at their feet. Children, most terrible of all, stood silently amongst their taller counterparts. A scream rose within Marius’ throat like bile, and he calmed the temptation with the only words he could summon enough sense to utter.

“So you’re all dead then?”

A little laughter, even from one of the children, would have helped his state of mind. He received nothing, not even a whisper of movement as a young woman raised a hand to cover a shy smile. The dead ranks simply stared. Marius’ own laughter lurked behind his teeth. If it were to escape, he knew, it would never stop. He swallowed, then did so again, forcing it away down his throat.

“Is there someone I could talk to?”

At his words, the crowd parted. A corpse, no different to the others as far as Marius could establish, tottered on stiff legs to stand less than a foot before him. Marius sniffed, then wished he hadn’t. It opened its mouth. A fine shower of earth fell from the open hole. A small snake broke cover to glide across its face and under a scrap of shroud still clinging to the dead man’s shoulder.

“You wish to talk?” he said, without the corresponding movement from his jaw. Despite his fear, Marius frowned in surprise.

“How did you do that?” he asked, leaning forward to examine the corpse’s jaw more closely.

Вы читаете The Corpse-Rat King
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