Pathways (Part 11): Descent

For the first 100 meters or so, it seemed as if the carnage had not penetrated deeply into Lord Jerimiah's manor. Everything remained undisturbed, almost peacefully so. It almost gave Jotin hope that they would not be forced into combat.

That notion was quickly dispelled once they got further away from the bunker. Sneila's cringing gasp alerted him to the body, lying crumpled on the ground. She started to walk toward it, to check on its vitals, but Jotin placed a hand on her shoulder and gently steered her away. She got the message. The body was barely identifiable as a person, much less having any chance of being alive.

It was not alone, either. Other bodies, most likely those of Lord Jerimiah's servants and slaves, occasionally mingled with those clearly belonging to guards not fortunate enough to get to the bunker in time, lay strewn about the manor. The majority of them were simply beaten into pulp or torn apart, as if a pack of hungry slavers had descended upon them. Only a few looked to have died from weapon fire - probably the infected who had met the guards, before the guards were taken down by numbers.

Aside from the corpses, the manor was oddly intact. There were some overturned pieces of furniture and shattered sculptures, but those could easily be explained as having been jarred in the fighting. The tapestries, paintings, rugs, and heavier furniture remained undisturbed. It was almost as if they were of no consequence to the infected.

Jotin cringed. Of course not, he thought. These people had been driven crazy by their infection. They only cared about killing. He wondered what sort of cruel nature had devised such a malicious disease.

But those thoughts would do him no good now. He pushed them away and buried them deep in the back of his mind. There would be time for reflection later. Right now, he needed to survive and get Sneila and himself to safety.

The twists and turns of the manor hallways were like a maze. It wasn't long before the two of them were lost within its twists and turns. He cursed the Holder and his extravagances. The labyrinthine corridors served no purpose but to lead visitors astray. Useful for someone who was either paranoid and wanted his guests watched at all times, or wanted his guests to constantly feel lost and confused and at the mercy of their host.

As it became more apparent that neither of them had any idea where they were, they paused briefly and sat upon a lavish couch. A monitor on the far side of the room flickered with static. Jotin tried to activate it, but it appeared to be dead. Whether it alone was disconnected from the central computer or the computer itself was simply offline wasn't readily apparent.

After their brief rest, they started moving again. Jotin made a decision that they would always head west, figuring eventually they would reach the side of the manor. The task was more difficult than he expected. Halls dead-ended suddenly, or gradually curved back the opposite direction.

After what seemed like an hour, maybe more, they reached a window that looked out over the city. Smoke could be seen in the distance. The area around the manor itself was free of people, as far as he could see. At least none were outside.

Jotin looked briefly out and judged the distance of at least twenty meters. It was too long to jump out, but a few hallways back they had wandered into a linen closet. The two retraced their steps and found the closet, liberated the sheets and towels, and returned with them to the window. Like something out of a fairy tale or an action holo, they tied the sheets together, then anchored them around a statue.

Jotin went out first, praying that the knots would hold all the way down. He slowly inched out the window and breathed a sigh of relief as none came undone immediately. Slowly, he slid down, the lump in his throat easing with each knot he passed that didn't come undone. When he was about two meters from the ground, one finally did, and he tumbled to the ground in a heap. The sudden jolt knocked the wind out of him and Sneila yelped in terror.

He raised a hand to show he was alright and deliberately lifted himself from the ground. He rested with his hands on his knees and breathed in slowly. After a few moments, he straightened back up and waved for Sneila to follow him down.

She gingerly wrapped her legs around the rope and climbed down like a gym student. She hung at the end of the rope for a moment, her eyes closed, then let out a breath and let go. She landed comfortably in Jotin's arms and he held her there for a brief minute before she opened her eyes, smiled in relief, and climbed down.

The two checked their weapons, ensuring they worked, before moving on. Now that they were outside, Jotin knew where to go, at least in general. They were on the west side of Lord Jerimiah's manor, while the ramps down to the lower levels were on the south side. Jotin hoped they would find a vehicle somewhere and be able to start it. That seemed preferable to traveling dozens of kilometers on foot. It could take them days to reach the bottom on foot.

As they walked, they still remained free of any infected. Jotin briefly hoped that whatever had led to their madness had either worn off or killed them all by now. It seemed unlikely, he supposed. More likely, they had simply finished up with the expansive but sparsely populated noble's level and had merely continued their rampage into the lower levels. It was possible they had gone through the merchant's level already, as well. But he shuddered to think of the carnage that was surely taking place in the commoner's and slave's levels.

Luck didn't find them on their way to the ramp. They spotted a few vehicles on the way, but they had all been overturned or otherwise damaged beyond use. Jotin wondered why the infected had bothered destroying the vehicles, but left the furniture in the manor undamaged. Perhaps they had more intelligence than they showed, being smart enough to demolish means of potential escape while ignoring the rest.

It was just another negative thought to add to the pile he already experienced this day. He hoped that by the end, he'd be able to dig his way out from under them.

He looked at Sneila. She seemed to be taking this better than he did. Or if she wasn't, she did an exceptional job of hiding it. She had next-to-no military training. Only the bare essentials that Hyasyoda demanded of all their citizen-employees. She knew how to shoot a weapon and how to follow orders. But she had not been exposed to the same level of combat training he had. The blood and gore was new to her.

But she swallowed the revulsion with typical Caldari perseverance. It was not going to get to her, no matter how horrific. She could save those thoughts once they had put some distance between what was causing them. Do what must be done, worry about the rest later.

It was the Caldari way, the reason they had been so successful in the face of larger, threatening empires that could have crushed them, devoured them, and then obliterated any trace of their history. Jotin had to smile at her resolve. It made him proud.

As they traveled down the ramp, toward the merchant's level, Sneila suddenly froze. She held a finger to her lips and the two stopped and listened. Jotin heard nothing at first, but after a moment, the faint traces of laughter reached his ears. The sound was growing closer and increasing in number. At least one group of infected were coming back toward the noble's level.

The two sprinted down the rest of the ramp, reaching the bottom and ducking behind a garbage receptacle moments before a horde of them rounded a corner. The two crouched down, their hands on their weapons, and remained as quiet and immobile as possible.

The group was filled with people, dozens strong. They were all types; nobles, merchants, commoners, and slaves alike. All laughed manically to themselves as they walked toward the ramp. Every few minutes, one of the group would suddenly turn to another and attack. The two would ferociously claw and beat each other for several seconds before gradually stopping, untangling themselves, and returning to the pack as if nothing happened.

A few of them had streams of red running from their eyes. It looked as if they were weeping blood. These few stumbled every few steps and their laughs seemed labored. The end state of the disease, he wondered, or just another step in its horrid progress?

Most unnerving, however, was a young boy that was with them. Of them all, he was not wracked by the spasms of laughter. He had a blissful look on his face and he walked with a purpose. He was not at their head, but neither did he seem to have simply been swept up with them.

When the boy turned and looked directly at Jotin and Sneila's hiding spot, his blood froze. He tensed and could feel Sneila, pressed against him behind the receptacle, do the same. The boy gave a broad smile, then turned away and resumed walking with his horde. Jotin didn't relax, not until the last of them disappeared up the ramp. Even then, they waited several minutes until the last of the horrid laughs vanished in the distance.

Part 12

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