One of the mouths opened and shrieked. All of the joyous memories that Casimir ever had drained out of him and he began to cry and wail and blubber. Nearby he could see Amy doing the same, burying her face in her hands and sinking to her knees. His gaze was inexorably drawn to the monstrosity. Several of the faces along the flank stared into Casimir's eyes and Casimir was helpless to do anything but stare back. The inside of his mind felt hot and feverish. The transfixture faltered when Emblem tripped over Casimir as he hurtled past.
Emblem had disposed of his clothing and stood naked at the edge of the altar, defiance in his pose. Nothing broke the lines of his taut, well-muscled frame but an enormous scar with the jagged edges of a particularly bad burn across his entire back. It appeared to be a modified cross. This one had a long, white vertical bar bisected halfway through by another bar only a quarter of the length. The only other decoration interrupting his lean figure were the braided black bands tightly wound around both wrists and his neck.
"Cazgivicus, the Second of Calamignon's Lesser Children. To what do I owe the pleasure?"
The abomination pulled the eyes of its faces away from Casimir and focused them on Emblem. It made a sloshing noise that Casimir realized, with dawning revulsion, was the sound of its speech.
"Ehblehmnezbeh," the abomination said, "so you are with us in the land of the living. My master sent me to inquire about your status, and I had not even to travel beyond the reaches of this pathetic city. I would be remiss if I did not say that it is a displeasure to see you again."
"The feeling is mutual," Emblem replied. "Who is your master these days, you sniveling wretch?"
"Why, the great necromancer Arkephalous!" Cazgivicus replied, and all of the rotten mouths on his bloated body grinned at once.
"Arkephalous, the former master of the keep at Ict Lihis? All of your bloat must be lies. He was destroyed, cast down from his throne of death in Ict Lihis by the wizards of Orb. And you were cast down as well. I saw this."
"The wizards overcame his troops and his body, but there is no overcoming his mind. The wizards cast him from his throne, it is true, but they could not destroy him. They imprisoned him and left his prison on this magicless rock, where it was only a matter of time until he found those who would release him. As for me, I was able to escape. The fighting was over, the war believed to be won, nobody cared to hunt down the survivors. My brothers and I survived."
Casimir noticed that the shadows had thickened around Cazgivicus' glistening, gelatinous skin during his exchange with Emblem. Now the mouths had fallen almost completely into shadow but through the shroud, Casimir could see that blood began to ooze out of the abomination. He shrieked again and the shadows closed in further, almost completely obscuring his mass.
"There are more powerful entities than you and your master," Emblem said.
"Curse you and these spirits to the foulest pit!" Cazgivicus yelled, his harsh voice sounding muffled and far away. The lump of shadow began to move back towards the door. "You'll be destroyed in the end!"
"I've heard that before," Casimir heard Emblem say to himself. Emblem walked over to the doors, naked and unselfconscious, and pushed them shut. He returned to the altar and helped Amy to her feet, before patting Casimir on the back.
"What was that thing?" Amy asked.
"That floating pustule of repellence was Cazgivicus the Diseased, one of the Lesser Children of Calamignon. He and the brothers that he talked about were - are - agents of Arkephalous. Many considered them worse than their master, as Arkephalous was born a man. The Fiends, the Lesser Children of Calamignon, were aberrations from the start, maglinancies birthed and nurtured in one of the deepest festering crevices of the Expanse," Emblem said.
He strolled behind the curtain, and a few minutes later pulled the curtain down. He was clothed in blue jeans and a hooded sweatshirt. He wore the same black leather jacket, but he'd obviously brushed off the dirt and wiped off the blood and bits of zombie effluvium.
"No reason to keep the curtain up. I won't be able to set foot in here again without being greeted like the ghosts greeted Cazgivicus. They don't like doing the work of the living. Arkephalous changes things. These zombies are not the result of some fluke. They have been created and commanded to a purpose. The last army that Arkephalous raised fought to enslave all of Orb under the yoke of death. I don't think that he's spent his time in prison repenting. Are you ready for war?"
Emblem threw the armoire open.
Swords, axes and maces hung in scabbards or from leather thongs on the crossbar that normally held shirts. A small rack beneath them carried a variety of rifles. Emblem pulled open the drawers, one by one. Casimir saw knives of many different shapes and colors, squat grenades, handguns and accessories like silencers and scopes.
Casimir, on an impulse, reached into the armoire. He seized one of the longer, more vicious guns: a fully automatic assault rifle. It was heavier than he expected, and with only one good hand he was barely able to get his good hand into the grip and prop the barrel on his forearm. A grin split his face.
The grin fell when Emblem took that away from him, rubbed his chin for a moment, and selected a small pistol from a drawer. He passed it to Casimir.
"What am I supposed to do with this?" Casimir asked. "If this is a war then I need a real gun."
Emblem shook his head and hefted the automatic rifle. "You'd be a menace with this thing. Do you have experience with automatic weapons?"
"No," Casimir said.
"I didn't think so, based on how you were holding it. Do you have experience with guns at all?"
"My uncle used to let me shoot cans off of his fence with a BB gun," Casimir said.
"That pistol will be more than enough. Especially one-handed. Here, take a knife as well," Emblem said. He bent down and strapped it to Casimir's leg. It was a brown leather scabbard with ties of the same material. The knife inside was not a modern combat knife - it shone with an orange glow and was of a design that Casimir had only seen in a museum.
"It's copper. As for you," Emblem said, and eyeballed Amy. He reached in and pulled out a bolt-action rifle. He handed it to Amy, then followed up with a long, no-nonsense dagger in a scabbard.
"If you like spears, you'll love this. Simple action, great accuracy, and you'll paint the pavement with zombie brains. If you need to, attach this bayonet and boom, you've got a new spear. Remember, both of you: the zombies are slower than you. You have limited ammo. Line them up, take your time, and make each shot count. Squeeze the trigger, don't pull," Emblem said. He reached out and put a hand on their shoulders. His eyes flicked back and forth, holding their gaze.
"But more important than your weapon is your mindset: those zombies are not people, and will never be people again. They are corpses that have forgotten that they should be dead. They're gone. A lot of towns fell that never rose again, a lot of people died that should have lived, all because one well-meaning relative refused to drive a pike into a corpse's face, because that corpse used to be cousin Lucas. Don't lose sleep over killing a zombie because it looks sort of human. Find that place inside of you where your revulsion lives and dwell there. You're both young. You both have many, many years of horrible, irrevocable mistakes ahead of you. This should not even register on your conscience."
He withdrew his hands.
"With that said, let's get cracking on your brother, your girlfriend, and then get you all safely back to the Museum," Emblem said. He moved to one of the wooden chests and opened it. Ammunition of every size, shape and caliber glistened in the candlelight, from stubby pistol bullets to the long, thin needles of the 5.56mm NATO rounds.
He pulled out several boxy clips from the chest and showed Amy how to load her rifle. Then he did likewise with Casimir, helping him to develop a motion to load one of the clips into the pistol with one hand, albeit slowly.
Emblem reached into the chest and pulled out a leather ammo belt studded with shotgun shells, then pulled a black shotgun from the armoire and shoved several shells into it. He also selected several knives and made them disappear around his person, and did the same with several grenades. Then he paused. After thinking for a moment, he handed one knobbly grenade each to Casimir and Amy.
"Do. Not. Fuck. Around. With. Those. They are for emergencies only."
He handed a hefty flashlight to Amy and took one himself.
"Now we're set. Casimir, stick close to one of us. If a zombie comes at you, shoot it. Then stab it. Or use that hand of yours, I think you're safer than either of us. Let's do it," Emblem said.
They left the church. As they approached the wrought iron gate, the wooden doors slammed shut behind them. Casimir jumped.
"I'll be back for my things," Emblem shouted behind him. An eerie glow shone through the stained glass, flaring brightly, and then the church joined the rest of the unlit buildings that lined the street. The only light came from the car's headlights. They illuminated the shattered corpses of the zombies. They had been torn to pieces by an unseen force.
"Well, I'll be damned. Cazgivicus actually did me a favor for once. He must have been pissed off when he left."
Emblem, Amy and Casimir climbed into the car and drove off, slowly making their way through the streets abandoned of life. No raccoons rummaged through garbages, no bats flapped through the night sky, no drunken college students stumbled into intersections to throw up.
It wasn't the city that Casimir knew.