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Entering the Castle (excerpt from Autumn: Aftermath)

Jes­si­ca Lindt died three days short of her thir­ty-sec­ond birth­day. That was almost a month ago. Since then she’d spent every sec­ond of every day wan­der­ing aim­less­ly, often drift­ing in herds with oth­er corpses, occa­sion­al­ly grav­i­tat­ing towards the few remain­ing signs of life in this oth­er­wise dead void of a world. Jes­si­ca had no idea who or what she was any longer: she sim­ply exist­ed. She respond­ed to move­ment and noise around her, but didn’t know why or how. And yet, some­how, she occa­sion­al­ly remem­bered. In her dull, decay­ing brain she some­times saw things – just fleet­ing rec­ol­lec­tions, for the briefest of moments, and gone before she’d even realised they were there: split-sec­ond mem­o­ries of who she used to be.

Her body, of course, had changed beyond all recog­ni­tion, bulging in places where grav­i­ty had dragged her putre­fy­ing innards down, becom­ing brit­tle and dry else­where. Still dressed in what was left of the Lycra run­ning gear she’d been wear­ing when she died, her feet were bad­ly swollen and her lumpy, bruised ankles were now almost ele­phan­tine in appear­ance. Her gut was dis­tend­ed, inflat­ed by the gas­es pro­duced by decay and a sub­stan­tial insect infes­ta­tion. Her mot­tled skin had split sev­er­al inch­es below her droop­ing right breast, leak­ing all man­ner of semi-coag­u­lat­ed yel­low and brown gunk.

Jessica’s unblink­ing eyes were dry and unfo­cused, but they saw enough, and the move­ment of the lone sur­vivor stand­ing in the house up ahead of her was suf­fi­cient to attract her lim­it­ed atten­tion. Sud­den­ly mov­ing with more speed, and some­thing almost begin­ning to resem­ble a pur­pose, she lum­bered towards the small ter­raced cot­tage, smacked into the win­dow with force and col­lapsed back­wards, end­ing up on her back­side in the gut­ter. She’d been down only a sec­ond or two before oth­ers attacked her, attract­ed by the noise and wrong­ly assum­ing she was some­how dif­fer­ent to them. They tore apart what remained of Jes­si­ca Lindt, and soon all that was left of her was a dirty imprint on the glass, a few lumps of greasy flesh and a pud­dle of gore, which the oth­ers clum­si­ly stag­gered through.

#

The sur­vivor stood on the oth­er side of the win­dow and wait­ed for the brief burst of chaos out­side to die down again. His name was Alan Jack­son, and his faith in human nature was all but exhaust­ed – not that there was much more than a hand­ful of oth­er humans left alive. He’d been stand­ing in the shad­ow-filled liv­ing room of this oth­er­wise emp­ty house for what felt like hours, star­ing out at the sprawl­ing crowd of sev­er­al thou­sand corpses stretch­ing out in front of him for ever, won­der­ing how the hell he was going to get through them and out the oth­er side. He could see his intend­ed des­ti­na­tion in the far dis­tance, though his view of the ancient cas­tle was dis­tort­ed by the tens of thou­sands of swarm­ing flies which buzzed through the air above the innu­mer­able rot­ting heads like a heat-haze. He hoped to God – not that he’d believed in God for as long as he could remem­ber, cer­tain­ly not since the begin­ning of Sep­tem­ber – that this was going to be worth the risk.

In the three and a half weeks since the pop­u­la­tion of the coun­try – most like­ly the entire plan­et – had been slashed to less than one per cent of its orig­i­nal lev­el, Jack­son had thought he’d seen it all. From the moment the rest of the world had sim­ply dropped dead all around him to right now his life had been a cease­less tumult of death and decay. They were every­where, sur­round­ing him con­stant­ly, what­ev­er he did and whichev­er way he turned. Death was inescapable, and he was fuck­ing sick of it.

Anoth­er of the bod­ies stag­gered past the win­dow, a twitch­ing, dried-up stump where its right arm used to be. Christ, how he hat­ed these damn things. He’d watched them change, vir­tu­al­ly day by day, grad­u­al­ly regain­ing a degree of self-con­trol and trans­form­ing from lethar­gic hulks of impos­si­bly ani­mat­ed flesh and bone into the vicious crea­tures they were now. He didn’t dare think about the future, because he knew that if the pat­tern con­tin­ued – and he’d no rea­son to think it wouldn’t – they’d be even more dan­ger­ous tomor­row. Instead he tried to remain focused on the fact that if they con­tin­ued to dete­ri­o­rate, in anoth­er few months they’d have prob­a­bly rot­ted down to noth­ing. Jack­son was no fool; he knew things would undoubt­ed­ly get much worse before they got any better.

Stand­ing alone in this lit­tle house, a frag­ile oasis of nor­mal­i­ty buried deep in the midst of the mad­ness, it occurred to Jack­son that even though he’d out­last­ed just about every­one else, his life was still lit­tle more than a fleet­ing moment in the over­all scheme of things. Mankind had crashed and burned in a day, and he him­self prob­a­bly wouldn’t last that much longer, yet it would be decades, maybe even hun­dreds of years, before all trace of the human race would be gone for ever. His skin and bones would be dust blown on the wind long before the streets he’d walked along to get here today were ful­ly reclaimed by nature.

It made him feel so fuck­ing insignificant.

All the effort he’d put in to his life before the apoc­a­lypse had count­ed for noth­ing – and the worst part? It wouldn’t have mat­tered a damn if he’d tried ten times as hard or if he’d not both­ered at all. Every­thing that had hap­pened was com­plete­ly out of his con­trol. A man makes his own chances, his dad used to say when things weren’t going well. Yeah, right: thanks a lot, Dad. No amount of hand­ed-down bull­shit is going to help me get past those bod­ies out there today, is it?

Jack­son was dawdling, and that wasn’t like him. His reluc­tance to move served only to increase his unease. It was because the way ahead was no longer clear. Until recent­ly he’d had a def­i­nite plan: to keep walk­ing north until he reached the part of the coun­try where there had been few­er peo­ple orig­i­nal­ly, and where the effects of the dis­as­ter might not have been so severe. When the true scale of the chaos had been revealed and it had become appar­ent that things were far worse than he’d at first thought, he’d been forced to reassess his pri­or­i­ties. His orig­i­nal aim had been too ambi­tious, and he decid­ed instead just to head for the near­est stretch of coast­line. Hav­ing the ocean on one side would make his posi­tion eas­i­er to defend, he thought, and also, when he looked out to sea it would be eas­i­er to believe that the rest of the world wasn’t in ruins.

Three days ago, Jack­son had had anoth­er change of heart, after a chance encounter with anoth­er sur­vivor. The kid had been the first per­son he’d found alive in sev­er­al days. He was your arche­typ­al angry teen, all long hair, leather and den­im, pierc­ings and a patch­work of bad tat­toos he’d inevitably end up regret­ting if he lived long enough. Adren­a­lin, fear and untold lev­els of pent-up sex­u­al frus­tra­tion surged through the kid’s veins, and a cock­tail of drink and drugs had clear­ly added to his volatil­i­ty. Jack­son had found him in the gym­na­si­um of what he pre­sumed was the school the kid had pre­vi­ous­ly attend­ed, round­ing up corpses in an impro­vised cor­ral. The sick fuck­er clear­ly had some deep-root­ed issues, and had been try­ing to set­tle a vendet­ta or ten with some old and very dead friends. He’d been fla­gel­lat­ing the bod­ies he’d cap­tured, muti­lat­ing them beyond recog­ni­tion, as if he had a seri­ous point to make. Sick bastard.

After a half-heart­ed attempt to try and deal with him, Jack­son had decid­ed there was noth­ing to be gained from try­ing to rea­son with the clear­ly unrea­son­able, and know­ing that nei­ther of them would gain any­thing from being with the oth­er, he left the kid to fes­ter. To him, the unpre­dictable kid pre­sent­ed an unnec­es­sary risk; to the kid, Jack­son was just anoth­er author­i­ty fig­ure to despise and kick back against. As he’d walked away from the school, Jack­son had won­dered if use­less, bro­ken peo­ple like the kid were all that was left. That night, the enor­mi­ty of what had hap­pened to the rest of the world weighed heav­ier on his shoul­ders than ever before, heav­ier even than the ruck­sack full of sur­vival equip­ment he’d been lug­ging around since the first day.

The encounter with the kid had made him stop and think, and after that he’d begun to realise the futil­i­ty of just end­less­ly walk­ing. With the dead becom­ing increas­ing­ly ani­mat­ed, just being out in the open felt like it was becom­ing more dan­ger­ous by the hour, and Jack­son knew it was time now to stop and think again. It wasn’t as if he had any­one else to wor­ry about but him­self – there had been some­one who’d mat­tered, once, but she was long gone and best for­got­ten. He didn’t want any­one else now. He didn’t need them in the same way they need­ed him. He’d come across sev­er­al groups of sur­vivors before the kid in the gym, and they’d all, with­out excep­tion, asked him to stay with them. We should stick togeth­er, they’d inevitably end­ed up say­ing to him; we could do with hav­ing some­one like you around. And that was the prob­lem: they need­ed him, nev­er the oth­er way around. He’d begun to realise that he didn’t actu­al­ly need any­one; more to the point, hav­ing oth­er peo­ple around actu­al­ly appeared to make things more dan­ger­ous. All it need­ed was for one per­son to pan­ic and make a mis­take and untold num­bers of dead bod­ies would be swarm­ing around them in seconds.

Anoth­er surge of move­ment out­side the unim­pos­ing lit­tle house made Jack­son focus again. Up ahead, on the oth­er side of the road, it looked like one corpse had attempt­ed to fight its way deep­er into the vast crowd, and all around it, oth­ers were react­ing to the unex­pect­ed move­ment. They tore into each oth­er, vicious fin­gers strip­ping decay­ing flesh from bone, cre­at­ing a sud­den firestorm of sick­en­ing vio­lence. And as the first few began to fight, so more and more of them fol­lowed, until huge num­bers of the damn things were scrap­ping vehe­ment­ly over noth­ing. As the bizarre swell of activ­i­ty grad­u­al­ly petered out, Jack­son won­dered whether he’d actu­al­ly been run­ning away from the rest of the world, or at the very least try­ing to hide from it.

Yes­ter­day morn­ing he’d stopped at a prison. His first instinct had been to avoid it, but com­mon sense said he should stop and inves­ti­gate. You have to think about things dif­fer­ent­ly these days, he told him­self as he cut his way in through the no-longer-elec­tri­fied chain-link fence. After all, places like this were designed to keep peo­ple away from each oth­er, and that’s what I want.

The prison proved to be a damn good place to shel­ter for a while: the kitchens were well stocked, pre­pared to feed hun­dreds of hun­gry inmates, and the vast major­i­ty of the prison’s cur­rent pop­u­la­tion remained con­ve­nient­ly incar­cer­at­ed in their cells. Jack­son spent a cou­ple of hours walk­ing along numer­ous emp­ty land­ings which all looked the same, swig­ging from a bot­tle of wine as dead pris­on­ers threw them­selves against the bars on either side of him, strain­ing their arms to try and reach him. It had felt like vis­it­ing a zoo and inten­tion­al­ly goad­ing the animals.

He broke out onto a sec­tion of flat roof where he sat cross-legged and watched the sun sink, mark­ing the end of anoth­er day. Unper­turbed by the cold, he lay back and looked up into a dark sky filled with more stars than he could ever remem­ber see­ing before, their indi­vid­ual bright­ness inten­si­fied by the lack of any ambi­ent light down at ground lev­el. And yet again his per­son­al insignif­i­cance became painful­ly appar­ent. He felt like a piece of gum that had been spat out on a pave­ment. He might have mat­tered once, but not any more.

Half drunk and com­plete­ly depressed, Jack­son had slept inter­mit­tent­ly, but when the sun start­ed to rise on yet anoth­er day, he looked up and saw the castle.

#

It had seemed like a good idea at the time – the cas­tle, Cheetham Cas­tle, accord­ing to all the brown signs, looked like an ide­al place to spend the next few days while he worked out what the hell he was going to do with what was left of his life – but it was sur­round­ed by vast num­bers of the dead, many more than he’d expect­ed to find. He could see the grey stone cas­tle gate­house through the liv­ing room win­dow, tow­er­ing proud­ly above the heads of the writhing crowd, still vis­i­ble through the smog-like swarms of insects. He’d checked out the full scale of the writhing crowd from an upstairs win­dow ear­li­er, and the size of the gath­er­ing both ter­ri­fied and intrigued him. He’d long since dis­cov­ered that when­ev­er the dead amassed in these num­bers, there was always a rea­son. He hadn’t wast­ed much time try­ing to work out what that rea­son was – it was impos­si­ble to do any­thing but guess from this distance.

From upstairs he’d seen that the cas­tle was between half a mile and a mile away from this row of hous­es. Between here and there was a road, a grav­elled car park and sev­er­al acres of grass­land which con­tained sev­er­al thou­sand corpses. Inter­est­ing­ly, they had all stopped short of the building’s walls, pre­vent­ed from get­ting any clos­er, he assumed, by the steep slope of the large hill upon which the cas­tle had been built. It was sim­ply too high for their weak legs to climb.

The cas­tle walls them­selves looked strong, at least from this dis­tance. It was dif­fi­cult to gauge their height from the house, but they looked to be reas­sur­ing­ly un-scal­able. For a while, though, Jack­son had actu­al­ly giv­en seri­ous con­sid­er­a­tion to try­ing to impro­vise a grap­pling hook and rope so he could drag him­self up and over, up and over like some Errol Fly­nn char­ac­ter. As it was, his best option would clear­ly be the gate­house, on the far right of the cas­tle from where he was cur­rent­ly stand­ing. Judg­ing by the num­ber of signs he’d seen on his way here, this place must have been a pop­u­lar tourist attrac­tion, so the castle’s most recent own­ers would sure­ly have done every­thing in their pow­er to make it easy for the pub­lic to get inside and part with their hard-earned cash. At the very least, get­ting to the cas­tle would afford him a much-need­ed breath­ing space before he need­ed to move on again. He had an obvi­ous advan­tage over the dead when it came to the steep climb, and the view from the top of the rise would no doubt be spectacular.

Jack­son packed up his few belong­ings, fin­ished eat­ing the last of a pack­et of cere­al bars he’d found in the kitchen, and read­ied him­self to fight.

#

He stepped out into the open and pressed him­self back against the wall of the cot­tage. The cool air out­side stank, and he was acute­ly aware that every move he made sound­ed dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly loud; every foot­step thun­dered, and every breath echoed end­less­ly. He stayed frozen to the spot as he assessed his lim­it­ed options, mov­ing only his eyes as he scanned the wall of dead flesh up ahead of him. Vir­tu­al­ly all of the corpses now were stand­ing with their backs to him, so it made sense (as much as any of this made sense) to try and work his way clos­er to the gate­house, look­ing for a place where the crowds were thin­ner, for his suc­cess today boiled down to being able to charge his way through the decay and come out the oth­er side.

He began to shuf­fle slow­ly along the lane, mim­ic­k­ing the sloth­ful move­ments of the dead and try­ing to blend in with those which, even now, were still drag­ging them­selves clos­er to the cas­tle. Then one sprang out at him from a hith­er­to unseen gap between two build­ings. Whether it was an inten­tion­al attack or an unfor­tu­nate coin­ci­dence didn’t mat­ter; it took him by sur­prise and he swung it around and slammed it against the wall he’d been fol­low­ing, then clubbed its brains out with the short length of heavy met­al tub­ing he car­ried with him. He dropped what was left of the bloody corpse in the gut­ter, then looked up as anoth­er one began mov­ing towards him, alert­ed by the noise of his vio­lent attack. This one had a bad­ly dam­aged right leg, and its unsteady gait made it look more aggres­sive than it actu­al­ly was. Jack­son angri­ly shoved it away, react­ing before he’d ful­ly thought things through, and it clat­tered back against a wheel­ie-bin, which thud­ded into sev­er­al oth­ers. The noise echoed through the air.

Shit.

He knew even before he looked around again that he was in trou­ble. Many of the dead had noticed him now, and their reac­tions had, by turn, attract­ed even more. He might as well have fired a start­ing pis­tol into the air because, up ahead and behind and all around him, huge num­bers of them were now react­ing to his pres­ence, peel­ing away from the edge of the immense crowd like a chain-reac­tion. Jack­son knew he had to move fast. For­tu­nate­ly for him, sev­er­al of the piti­ful mon­sters had already lost their foot­ing in the con­fu­sion and were being tram­pled by their des­per­ate brethren. He glanced up at the cas­tle in the dis­tance, vis­i­ble inter­mit­tent­ly through the criss­cross­ing chaos. Could he still make it? It had been a while since he’d tak­en a chance like this. Christ, he thought, I hope so.

Jack­son swung his heavy ruck­sack off his shoul­ders, using it to smack the near­est corpses out of the way as he did so. He start­ed to run, kick­ing out at a foul, bald-head­ed crea­ture with a hole eat­en through its face where its nose used to be lashed out at him. He jumped side­ways, onto the bon­net of a Vaux­hall Astra – his sud­den change of direc­tion caus­ing tem­po­rary mass con­fu­sion – then climbed onto the roof. He took a moment to stash his met­al pipe in his ruck­sack, then opened one of the side pock­ets and dug deep inside, now and then stamp­ing on the fin­gers of those try­ing to grab at him with hands decayed into spite­ful claws. Then he pulled out a pack­et of fire­works wrapped in a clear plas­tic bag, unwrapped one rock­et and start­ed fum­bling in his trouser pock­et for his lighter. Dis­tract­ed by try­ing to light the blue touch-paper, he didn’t notice that one of the bod­ies had man­aged some­how to grab hold of the bot­tom of his trousers. The crowd around the car surged as more of the dead arrived, and the body hold­ing onto Jackson’s leg was pushed back, tug­ging at him. He tried to pull away, but over­com­pen­sat­ed, the heel of his boot slipped down onto the curved sur­face of the wind­screen and he lost his bal­ance, crash­ing down onto his back­side and leav­ing a deep dent in the roof. He screamed out in pain – swear­ing as the noise imme­di­ate­ly caused anoth­er sud­den surge of dead flesh – and almost dropped the rock­et he was try­ing to light. He spat in the face of anoth­er wretched car­case (a com­plete­ly futile ges­ture, but he didn’t have hands free to do any­thing else), then scram­bled back up onto the roof.

The touch-paper caught sud­den­ly. Jack­son ignored the intense heat and the show­er of sparks spit­ting out over his hand, and aimed the rock­et down into the cen­tre of a pock­et of seething corpses a safe dis­tance away. The fire­work whooshed away before com­ing to a sud­den stop, embed­ded in the chest of a dead car mechan­ic, judg­ing by the remains of the over­alls he was wear­ing, who reeled back on his heels and looked down at the jet of flames stick­ing out of his bel­ly just before the rock­et exploded.

The noise and flames had exact­ly the effect Jack­son had hoped. Almost imme­di­ate­ly the focus of atten­tion shift­ed away from him and towards the mechan­ic, who was still stag­ger­ing around despite the fact he was burn­ing up. Jack­son lit a sec­ond rock­et and aimed it up into the air. The pierc­ing scream it let out as it raced up towards the grey clouds was enough to dis­tract an enor­mous num­ber of corpses, and as they lift­ed their dead heads sky­wards he jumped down from the car and ran for all he was worth. He crossed the road and the car park, then tripped over what was left of a barbed wire fence lying on the ground, already tram­pled down flat by the crowds. He lit a third rock­et as he picked him­self up, and shoved it into the gut of some­thing which looked like the kind of punk kid he’d have done his lev­el best to avoid before this. It looked down at itself, bewil­dered, as jets of blue and green flame start­ed spit­ting out through var­i­ous holes in its chest. The stu­pid thing still had a wrong-way-round base­ball cap on, glued to its head by a month’s worth of decay. He bloody hat­ed it when they wore their caps back-to-front like that.

As the corpse explod­ed behind him, he dropped his shoul­der and charged deep­er into the heav­ing throng. Many of them were now try­ing to move away from the cas­tle, head­ing towards the flames. He felt like a derailed bul­let train, smash­ing bod­ies away on either side, not entire­ly sure where the hell he was going or where he was going to stop. He just kept mov­ing, know­ing that every step took him clos­er to the cas­tle in the distance.

He was deep into the dead hordes now, so close-packed they had no idea he was near until he actu­al­ly made con­tact. Some were still try­ing to fight their way towards the fire­works, but most were look­ing the oth­er way, fac­ing the cas­tle, and those he sim­ply pushed aside and clam­bered over them when they fell.

And then, unex­pect­ed­ly, the ground dropped away in front of him. With­in, a few steps he found him­self wad­ing through a fall­en mass of tan­gled bod­ies rather than run­ning between and around those still stand­ing. A few steps more and he was knee ‑deep in churned remains. It took him a moment to realise that he’d stum­bled into a wide ditch – the over­grown rem­nants of an ancient moat, per­haps. It was filled with bod­ies, trod­den down and com­pact­ed into a repug­nant gloop beneath his boots. Hor­ri­bly, some of them were still mov­ing, and Jack­son ducked as a drip­ping, vir­tu­al­ly flesh­less hand swung past his face, sharp, bony fin­ger­tips just miss­ing the end of his nose by inch­es. He was strug­gling to keep mov­ing against the decay suck­ing him down, when the rea­son for its depth became clear: the deep fur­row here had act­ed like a valve. The dead had been able to get in eas­i­ly enough, but none of them could get out again.

Even­tu­al­ly Jack­son found him­self on lev­el ground again. The corpses on this side of the ditch were few­er in num­ber, so despite being soaked through with gore and des­per­ate­ly need­ing to stop and catch his breath, he kept on run­ning, side-step­ping one cadav­er which came at him, then hand­ing-off the next as if he were a rug­by play­er weav­ing through the oppo­si­tion to score a try under the posts.

And then he realised he was final­ly begin­ning to climb, and he looked ahead and saw the impos­ing wall of old stone loom­ing, stretch­ing up into the rapid­ly dark­en­ing sky. His thighs burned with the effort, but he kept on push­ing until he had passed the last of the bod­ies, then slowed as the ground became steep­er and exhaus­tion got the bet­ter of him. He moved at walk­ing pace now, strug­gling to keep climb­ing, stop­ping occa­sion­al­ly to look back over his shoul­der at the crowds gath­ered at the bot­tom of the incline and on the oth­er side of the trench. They looked like they were wait­ing impa­tient­ly to pounce the moment he slipped and fell back into their grasp.

Once he’d reached the cas­tle walls, Jack­son fol­lowed a three-foot-wide path­way around the edge of the decrepit fortress towards the front entrance, but it was imme­di­ate­ly obvi­ous there was no chance of him get­ting inside that way: as well as the fact that the huge wood­en gate was shut, there were more bod­ies here, all crammed onto a nar­row wood­en bridge. He pressed him­self back against the stonework and looked down towards the house he’d been shel­ter­ing in, try­ing to assess the sit­u­a­tion. A gen­tly curv­ing track wound its way up here from the car park below, and its rel­a­tive­ly smooth sur­face and steady incline had enabled a stream of bod­ies to make the climb until the main gate had become blocked by an impass­able, clogged mass of rot­ting flesh. Jack­son shuf­fled back the oth­er way, only mod­er­ate­ly con­cerned. Despite the incon­ve­nience of still not hav­ing found a way into the cas­tle, he realised it was also a good thing. If I’m hav­ing trou­ble get­ting in, he thought, then the dead have no chance.

He’d worked his way back around half the perime­ter of the immense ruin, look­ing for anoth­er entrance or a place where the wall was low­er, when he stopped to look down at an engraved brass tourist map set into stone. This had obvi­ous­ly been a pop­u­lar view-point, and as well as afford­ing him a clear view for miles around, it also gave him a clear appre­ci­a­tion of the true size of the vast crowd wait­ing for him at the foot of the hill. An almost incal­cu­la­ble num­ber of blank faces looked in his direc­tion, bod­ies stretch­ing away to the right and left, wrap­ping around the base of the hill and seal­ing the cas­tle off in a sea of rot­ting death.

The brass map had accu­mu­lat­ed a light lay­er of filth which Jack­son wiped away with his sleeve. He tried to make out some of the local fea­tures it had been designed to high­light: the port of Chad­wick, some thir­ty miles east (he was clos­er to the coast than he’d realised), the small­er town of Hale­croft to the south. There was a reser­voir, a ruined abbey, and a wealth of oth­er beau­ty spots and land­marks, none of which were of any obvi­ous use to him. He was on the verge of giv­ing up for the day, and he won­dered if he should just fin­ish walk­ing around the cas­tle then find a piece of lev­el ground up here to pitch his tent for the night, when some­thing caught his eye: anoth­er entrance – a secret entrance? This was the stuff of bull­shit or leg­end, – but no, it appeared to be real: a small­er, far less obvi­ous way into the cas­tle, through a pas­sage carved into the hill­side. There was a brief expla­na­tion on the map – for smug­glers get­ting in and tyrants get­ting out in times past. He ori­en­tat­ed him­self, worked out rough­ly where the hid­den entrance was, and head­ed straight for it.

#

A pad­locked gate, a cage of green-paint­ed iron rail­ings set into the hill­side, and an unex­pect­ed gag­gle of more than a hun­dred corpses were all that stood between Jack­son and the entrance to the tun­nel. He stood sev­er­al yards above the dead and com­posed him­self, watch­ing as sev­er­al of them tried unsuc­cess­ful­ly to scram­ble up the wet grass to reach him. Hands shak­ing with nerves, he lit his last fire­work and aimed it at the back of the ragged gath­er­ing. It shot away from him, and before it had even hit the bod­ies, he was sprint­ing direct­ly at them. The rock­et explod­ed and they turned and moved towards the light and noise en masse, giv­ing him a few sec­onds of space to fight his way through to the gate, his bolt-cut­ters held ready. The pad­lock clasp was too thick and too strong, but he man­aged to cut through a link in the chain it secured. The fire­work had burned out and he had again become the sole focus of atten­tion. With the dead already turn­ing back and begin­ning to grab at him, he wrapped one end of the chain around his hand sev­er­al times and began swing­ing it around wild­ly like a whip. The effect was remark­able, slic­ing through rot­ting flesh like a hot wire through but­ter when­ev­er it made con­tact. With the arc of the chain pro­vid­ing him with a large-enough space, Jack­son pushed the gate open, threw him­self through, and then turned and start­ed back to shut the gate – but there were already too many corpses hot on his heels, pour­ing through after him, reach­ing for him with their claw­ing hands. He ran for the tun­nel, depend­ing on his speed to get him out of imme­di­ate trouble.

The pitch-black close con­fines of the damp tun­nel walls made him feel uncom­fort­ably claus­tro­pho­bic, but he had no option oth­er than to keep mov­ing. He ran with arms out­stretched, climb­ing upwards and brac­ing him­self, know­ing that at any sec­ond he might reach a dead end. Christ, he realised, far too late to be able to do any­thing about it, this bloody tun­nel might not even go any­where. The pas­sage was sev­er­al hun­dred years old at least – it could have col­lapsed, been shut for safe­ty rea­sons, been re-rout­ed back out­side to the bot­tom of the hill… And all the time he could hear the dead behind him, chas­ing him down with an almost arro­gant slow­ness, and absolute­ly no fear whatsoever.

The lighter. He dug his hand into his pock­et and felt for the reas­sur­ing met­al out­line of his lighter. He was run­ning low on lighter flu­id, but what the hell. He flicked it on and the unsteady yel­low light imme­di­ate­ly illu­mi­nat­ed the rough­ly hewn sides of the tun­nel around him. Mov­ing with increased speed now that he could see, he burst into a large, low-ceilinged cham­ber. There were dis­plays mount­ed on the uneven walls – all about smug­glers, and grue­some pic­tures of starv­ing pris­on­ers… it looked like this had been some kind of dun­geon. That’d be about right, he thought as the lighter began to burn his fin­gers. He swapped hands – not that it made much dif­fer­ence – and des­per­ate­ly searched for anoth­er way out. There was anoth­er short slop­ing pas­sage­way, lead­ing away at about ten o’clock from where he’d entered the dun­geon, then anoth­er large open space beyond. He let the flame go out again, con­serv­ing what was left of the lighter flu­id and ran across this sec­ond space. He slowed down to walk­ing pace again and felt for the wall with out­stretched hands, increas­ing­ly aware of the sounds of the clum­sy dead fol­low­ing close behind, their shuf­fling, scram­bling nois­es ampli­fied by the close con­fines. His fin­ger­tips made con­tact with cold stone and he worked his way around to the left until he reached anoth­er door­way cut into the rock, lead­ing into yet anoth­er tunnel.

Feel­ing his way for­ward with his left hand, try­ing to flick the lighter into life again with the right, the dead sound­ed clos­er than ever now. The lighter flame caught, and shone on a wood­en door direct­ly ahead. It looked rel­a­tive­ly mod­ern, and reas­sur­ing­ly sol­id, and yet he felt the hairs on the back of his neck begin to prick up and stand on end. If I can’t get through, he realised, the sounds of the dead con­tin­u­ing to increase in vol­ume, then I’m fucked.

He hit the door at speed, slam­ming his hand down on the latch and push­ing it open, and found him­self falling into anoth­er space. The door shut behind him – and he screamed in fright at the sight of a body, hang­ing from the wall, its arms shack­led, before real­is­ing it was a plas­tic dum­my, dressed in rags, strung up there for effect. He stum­bled back, trip­ping over his own feet, hit­ting the deck hard and drop­ping his lighter, which went out and skit­tered across the floor. The sud­den pitch-black was suf­fo­cat­ing, all-con­sum­ing. He crawled slow­ly for­ward, his hands feel­ing the ground, des­per­ate to touch the warm met­al of the lighter. He found box­es, and pack­ag­ing, and what felt like the plas­tic feet of anoth­er exe­cut­ed dum­my, and kept crawl­ing until his head hit a wall and he yelped with pain and rocked back on his heels. In the dis­tance he thought he could hear the dead advanc­ing with renewed speed now, almost as if they were feed­ing off his pain.

His head throb­bing, Jack­son felt along the wall until he found the edge of a door. Was it the same one he’d come through, or a dif­fer­ent one – had he some­how turned him­self full cir­cle in the dark­ness? If he went through this door, would he be run­ning head-first into the oncom­ing dead? He stood up and tried the han­dle, but it wouldn’t open. He pulled at the han­dle again, then shoul­der-charged the door and as it gave way he flew into the next room, land­ing on his hands and knees in the mid­dle of a small shop. There were shut­ters pulled over most of the win­dows, but enough light was fil­ter­ing in for him to see. Exit through the gift shop, he thought as he picked him­self up of the ground. He shut the door behind him and looked around for some­thing to block it. He spent a few min­utes pulling dis­play stands in front of it, and once he was sat­is­fied it was secure, he jogged down to the oth­er end of the clut­tered room, ignor­ing the key-rings, plas­tic swords and armour, mugs, stuffed toys and oth­er equal­ly use­less tourist tat, shoved the far door open and burst out into daylight.

He found him­self stand­ing on the edge of a large court­yard, inside the cas­tle walls, look­ing down the busi­ness end of a shotgun.

‘Nice fire­works,’ the man aim­ing at him said. ‘Now who the fuck are you?’

‘I’m Alan Jack­son,’ he answered, breath­less, ‘and I’ve had a hell of a day. Mind if I come in?’

THE AUTUMN SERIES