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The Heart of the Zone by Steve Wilcox

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On forum: 03/02/2005
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The Heart of the Zone by Steve Wilcox

Part I

It had been said that time was yours for the taking if you could only seize the moment and act without apprehension. Richard Grey lived by those words and now was his time to act. Diving over a fallen tree for coverage, Richard checked his clip, verifying all thirty rounds were present in his FN 2000. He then glanced over the log and checked his field of view. Forty paces out stood his target, it's once fur covered hide had been stripped of the protective hairs, leaving a course, charred skin. As its head swiveled from one side to the other, one could see the skin and tense muscle move along with its neck. Through its skin, which was almost translucent, blood vessels could be seen pumping the fluid of life through the mutant's body.

Richard spotted the main artery traveling from the heart to the neck of the mutant. With pin-point accuracy he leveled his weapon to his shoulder and fired a three round burst into the Atrocity. He knew one would have sufficed however in his profession, risks were plentiful and there was no need to make a small incident into a large one. As soon as his target had been incapacitated, another Atrocity leapt from the bushes, lunging at him from a fair distance. With another three bursts, two out of the pack of ten had been eliminated, one of them lying at his feet.

Atrocity's were a collection of mutated wolfs and dogs, hunting in dedicated packs. Having survived the horrible Chernboyl incident, their perception had been altered by mutagenic means. Their minds perceived mere seconds closer to minutes, allowing them time to witness their prey's every action in slow motion. Rarely did the prey survive a confrontation with a pack of Atrocity's. The only quality of the Atrocity that out matched their heightened perception of time was their dedication to their kill. Many times they stalked their kill for weeks at a time, going unnoticed until the time was right to strike, when its prey was most vulnerable. This pack had been following Richard for several hours, and now that the first blood had been drawn, it was anything goes for these enhanced canines.

A river to Richard's right ran towards the meadow from the heart of the forest. There was roughly a six foot drop down the slope of dirt and clay that banked either side of the river, which had a depth of roughly four feet. Its glistening surface reflected the overcast sky that shown down through the leaves. It would do perfectly.

Looking out from the edge of the forest, fallen trees and trampled grass cleared a path out into a meadow that was adjacent to the forest. Most likely a tornado had touched down on the edge of the forest, a frequent occurrence in these parts since the incident. The tornado had turned this part of the forest into a runway of destruction, however it had now become a runway for fang and flesh as the two Atrocity's sprinted towards Richard.

The first Atrocity that had tried to get the jump on him was attempting to flank him, the two that were in a dead run through the forest clearing towards him had apparently abandoned tactics and attempted to attack through sheer force in numbers. Through their mutation these animals had not only an altered sense of time but an even more cunning and intelligent approach to hunting. Waiting behind him hid a third Atrocity.

The closest Atrocity was thirty paces from his position. The second was closer to fifty. Richard took aim for the closest and fired his traditional three round burst into the skull of the mutated animal. Its momentum carried the back of its body faster then the front, which had received the impact of the projectiles. Its skull dived into the soil while its rear flew over its head, consummating its death by snapping its neck in two. For the second attacker, Richard unclasped a fragmentation grenade from his belt and withdrew the pin. While judging the distance of the second Atrocity to have closed to within roughly twenty-five paces, he lobbed the explosive in a high arc, which landed directly in front of the mutated dog. Through instinct it scooped the grenade up into its mouth and continued in its dead run, unaware of the package that it carried. As it closed to within ten paces the Atrocity that had been waiting in a pile of brush behind Richard dove out from its hiding place and leapt at Richard, salivating all the while believing it would taste the blood of its prey in reward for its patience. It was the last mistake that Atrocity would ever make. Almost as soon as it had left the ground and leapt towards him, Richard dove over the side of the river, rolling down the bank into the water. When the wolf-like mutant had its paws back on the soil, its pack member collided head on, sending them both sprawling into the dirt. In the midst of their roll the Atrocity that had been barreling towards Richard began to realize that its instincts had deceived him; its skin started to tear from its skull. In its mutated perception, the wolf that had been collided with watched as the face of his pack member was torn apart from within its muzzle. At first it was just fragments of skin, then whole pieces of the skull began separating from the body. A blinding flash marked the end of the two as hot shrapnel exploded from the skull the mutant.

As Richard rose from within the river, pieces of flesh splashed into the water, none bigger than the size of his fist. The five that had remained hidden throughout the attack continued to do so, judging this was not a fight on their grounds. When the time was right, they would finish what their pack mates could not. „Cursed things!“ screamed Richard „You'll not have me, do you hear? Never! “ The Atrocity's watched with silence, a common thought ran through the packs mind: time was theirs, and soon they would seize the moment and act without any apprehension.

* * *

In the center of the meadow stood a small, concrete building surrounded by the tall grasses that had at one time been harvested by local farmers, in a time long since past. The contrast of the open, golden meadow with that of a cold and faceless concrete structure protruding from within the centre reminded Richard of the price that human technology had taken on the earth, tainting its beauty. It no longer mattered, none of that did.

He now worked to discover new technologies from the incident, looking toward the future of man kind. Richard had always believed that in the ashes of one mistake lies the prevention of another. It was his task as a Stalker to search through the ashes and find a means of prevention. Richard was contracted by a covert organization called Provision Six, established to discover any new technologies within the Zone and use them to protect and prepare for anything the Zone might have hidden within its nether reaches. Richard was not directly hired by Provision Six; rather they contracted him when his expertise was needed.

They were not alone in their quest for technology, many more organizations existed like Provision Six, however their intentions were not to prevent or protect but rather to escalate and expand on the problem at hand. Where chaos reigns, evil grows. Throughout Richard's years in the service of Provision Six he had come to know the competition however he made sure they knew little of him.

In all of his missions, only one had failed. It was a stain on his otherwise perfect record. A stain he intended to wash clean. His failure was the victory of another operative, known only by the alias Tension. She had stolen the artifact rightfully Richard's. As Richard trudged through the meadow, his thoughts drifted to those of sweet revenge against the deceptive rouge. He still had no clue as to who she worked for, or how she was able to track him down and steal that one item that should have been his.

As he looked up to the darkening sky, Richard's mind returned to the task at hand. He hand been dispatched by a fellow Provision-Six operative three days due south of his location. Since there was no roads leading to this location, and any air transport could easily be tracked he had to hike through this section of the Zone in order to reach his desired location. He had been informed that there was a remote region of the Zone where a high concentration of anomalies had been occurring, resulting in a strange gravitational field that surrounded the area. If that wasn't trouble enough, the weather surrounding the entire area seemed to remain in a constant state of electrical storms and was frequented by hurricanes and tornados. The only feasible access was a system of tunnels created by the Chernobyl nuclear facility. The easiest way to get to these tunnels was via a bunker centered in the middle of a meadow. Richard was given its coordinates in latitude and longitude, which was further confirmed by satellite images and now by his very own eyes. He was to trace the tunnels back to the heart of the problem and see if he could figure out what the source was.

As Richard approached the bunker he noticed a small radio tower atop the bunker which had been converted into the home for some ten or fifteen sparrows. Working his way top to bottom he noticed there were no windows or slits in the walls to allow sight in or out of the bunker. By the time Richard had reached the door the sun had vanished beneath the horizon, even though it had been cloudy most of the day Richard missed the light it had provided. The Zone could get quite nasty after dark.

As Richard stepped forward ready to open the large metal door, he noticed it looked fairly new in comparison to the rest of the bunker. When he examined the door closer he noticed that some pollen and dust had been brushed off the handle and parts of the door. It was more than likely that some one, or thing, had recently entered the bunker.

In order to avoid walking into a trap Richard leaned forward and pressed his ear against the door. Before it could even touch the cold metal, the door swung open and a hand grasped his shirt and hauled him in. Another hand pressed against his back and forced him towards the dusty concrete floor.

* * *

As his eyes adjusted to the lamp light he could feel the barrel of a pistol pressed into his back. „Well, if it isn't P-Six's best operative, Richard Grey!“

„I see you've done your home work, Tension!“ Richard said through gritted teeth. This was quite humiliating being an operative of his skill being caught in a position such as this. Richard decided to try and play this situation with composure; at least until he could reach her side arm, then she would be the one drowning in humiliation.

„Well I see you haven't! You don't even know my real name yet, shame on you!“ She teased Richard like a baby who had just soiled his diaper. In effect it was more like teasing a lion from within his cage. „Well, what to do with you? I was thinking…'

„Listen Tension I have no time for your games. Release me or kill me, either way grant me the mercy of not having to listen to you!“

„Your certainly in a good position to be making demands!“ Before the last word left her mouth Richard used his hands to quickly push his body backwards across the floor. He then grasped Tensions left arm that held the pistol and with his right arm wrapped it around her so that it was folded against her back. With his other hand he wrapped it around the front of her. Her back was tightly pressed against his. „How's this for a good position!“

„Fine but would you quit poking me with that thing!“

„What?!“

„The gun, put it away. It's not even loaded. I had no intentions of hurting you. Your too resourceful to kill right now!“ Richard glanced down at the nine millimeter pistol, which in fact had no clip inside. With all the commotion he must not have even noticed, he rarely missed things like that though, especially when it came to combat. He grasped Tension's other hand and forced it open, a nine millimeter clip fell out from her sleeve and clattered on the floor. She had some how unloaded the weapon while he had been disarming her. He hated when she did that.

„Oh, how did that get in there!“

„Drop the act and we might talk business!“

„Fine, but I really never intended to hurt you!“ She turned around to face the most admired man in the business however no one would ever tell him. His hair was covered with the cap of his hooded garment. His cool, smooth complexion made her eyes follow straight into his, which were light blue with flecks of a darker blue scattered around. His hood continued down under his Kevlar vest. He stood an even six feet tall with broad shoulders and the muscles that came with his line of work. He wore a stern look of determination, with that look she almost wanted to tell him the truth. Tell him who she was.

„What are you glaring at?!“ he barked out at her. Almost.

* * *

She was looking at him in the oddest manner. It disturbed him to have the eyes of a vulture feast on him, waiting to kill. She stood three inches shorter than his full six feet. Her dark brown hair had been tied back against her head, keeping it out of her eyes but giving her the freedom to look the way she wanted to when she was not on the job. That was if she did in fact have a life outside her work. Richard didn't. Her creamy complexion and pure brown eyes only added to her deception. Her body was not that of a slim model however that was due to her muscle that had built up throughout the years as a Stalker. Nonetheless she did mange to retain a shapely figure.

„Business, Richard. Remember!“

„Of course. First of all what are you doing here and when will you be leaving!“

„Well as I see it I beat you to it, now either you can leave or tag along with me!“

„Absolutely not! I don't work with the enemy, especially when the enemy is you!“

„Where did you ever get the idea that we are enemies? We both work for the common good of the people!“

„Is that so? Then why is it that your employed by a fascist and destructive tyrant that will stop at nothing to gain profit at the expense of human lives!“

„Your looking at it all wrong, Richard, and besides you believe yourself to be so self righteous and justified when you don't even know what Provision Six does with the artifacts you retrieve! Where do they all go, Richard?! Are you really that naïveto think that they lock them up and throw away the key never to be used!“ Already the arguing had begun.

„Used for what, the power to destroy what little we have left in this world?!“

„Just because something is powerful does not make it evil. It takes crooked hands to mold a wicked shape!“

„And your saying that Provision Six has these ‘crooked hands'?! You are the one who brings the coals of power to the fire of corruption, not I!“

„Richard, you don't understand. I'm not working against you, I'm…' Tension's head swung sideways to face the door just in enough time to see the metal crumple and fold inwards as an object struck against it. She leaned over and handed Richard his FN 2000 and then leveled her own against her shoulder. Both Stalkers stood facing the door, waiting for the unknown to break into their concrete sanctuary. With another slam on the door the hinges broke loose, and the door slowly leaned forward and then slammed into the floor, sending dust rising into the air, creating a smoky effect. Two men in military garb stepped through the doorway, shrouded in a haze of dust. They wore the standard in military uniform, green camouflage, with a black Kevlar vest protecting their chest. They appeared to be regular soldiers before your eyes rose to meet their faces. Grotesque, stretched and scarred skin horribly disfigured their faces. Not one hair was present on their heads. Their eyes were a cold black stare, which was never obstructed as the walking-dead lacked eye lids.

One of the animated carcasses stepped forward, making an advance on the two Stalkers. It began to open its mouth, appearing as though it was about to talk, which would have been unheard of since the undead lacked the intelligence to even formulate the simplest of sentences. Before it could say anything, if it had indeed intended to speak, Tension fired six shots in the skull of the undead soldier. For the second time, the body of the soldier collapsed dead on the floor. The other soldier that remained in the doorway stared at Richard as he did the unthinkable and began to speak. „You cannot go to the heart of the Zone. It will not be allowed, we will stop you!“

„Who's we!“ Richard asked. He didn't like the idea of being several feet away from a zombie, let alone one intelligent enough to engage in conversation.

„We are the Collection. We protect the Zone, maintain the balance it has with your world. We cannot allow you to tamper with that balance!“

„You're a controller aren't you!“ Tension spoke to the undead man for the first time.

„Yes. We are not all controllers, we work together. We thrive together!“

„Well ‘we' are here in the name of exploration and we wish you know harm!“ Richard felt like an idiot, justifying himself to a zombie, even if it was a possessed one.

„It will not be permitted. Humans are not to be trusted, not after the incident!“

„But that incident gave birth to you, if anything we are responsible for your existence!“

„We live in a constant state of pain, of torment. These conditions wreak havoc on our bodies. We are condemned to lives of suffering, and for what? So you humans can expand and grow for your own selfish profit!“

„If you are in such pain, then why not end your tormented lives!“ Tension's interest in the conversation grew.

„It is either we endure the pain, or perish. What would you choose: life or death!“

„ Well, life but…„ Tension was cut short by the controller.

„You humans may have brought us into being, but that does not mean we ever wanted to exist. However we are here now and we choose life. We will not permit you to travel to the Heart. If you enter those tunnels, you will never see the light of day again!“

„I'm sorry, but we must do this. If we have to, we will fight our way to get to our destination. We are not here to create more problems; we are here to prevent them!“ The posture of the walking corpse seemed to slacken and it began to shuffle its feet forward towards the two Stalkers. The controller had left the lifeless body. It was now only animated by its hunger. Tension fired three shots into its head where it collapsed on top of the first body.

„Well, that was certainly interesting!“ Tension stared at the two bodies, half expecting them to rise again and attack. „Have you ever heard of the ‘Collection' !“

„No, but no one has ever been this close to the center of the Zone before. It appears as though we have stumbled upon a society composed of twisted freaks. I guess it's kind of like the sixties!“ Richard joked.

„Yeah except these are not peace loving hippies, instead we have relentless savages!“ Tension looked up at Richard „How many days will it take to travel through the tunnels!“

„Two is the target, but it could be closer to three if there are any unforeseen problems!“

„Are you comfortable with this, Richard!“

„The only thing ‘comfortable' about this is that you're not going with me!“

„Richard, don't let your arrogance get you killed. Your going to need my help down there and you know it!“

„Listen I'm tired, I've been fighting off a pack of Atrocity's for the better part of three days, can we at least sleep on it. We'll wake at five and decide how best to tackle the situation!“

„Alright, sounds good to me!“ Tension set her watch to wake her at four. Knowing Richard he would try to wake early and leave her behind, but not this time. Not this mission.

* * *

Tension awoke to the sound of her watch alarm. She opened her eyes to find herself lying on the floor facing the concrete wall of the bunker. She rolled over with a self satisfied smirk on her face, Richard would be furious that she had thwarted his plan. In the dark she couldn't really see the other side of the small bunker, but with the lamp beside her the whole room lit up in a few seconds with a fluorescent glow. Her smirk quickly turned to a frown; Richard was gone. She frantically looked around for her pack. He may not have made it far. She still might him before he went too deep into the tunnels or else she may become lost. After she had gathered her pack, her FN 2000, and her lamp Tension went to the back of the bunker where a large metal bulkhead protruded from the floor. Tension grasped the smaller crank wheel that sat atop the bulkhead and began twisting it counter clockwise. Once she had twisted it several times she was able to lift the bulkhead revealing a narrow circular shaft with a ladder attached to the side. Tension attached her lamp to the side of her pack and began descending the ladder into the tunnel system. Once she was fifteen feet down the ladder stopped and Tension dropped down into the dark corridor. There sitting on the floor sat Richard, a flashlight in one hand and a complex map of the tunnels in the other. He glanced up from his studying when he noticed Tension standing beside him. „I didn't want to wake you up while I read the map, so I came down here to find out what were getting ourselves into!“ Richards gaze shifted back to the map.

„Well, you certainly had a change of heart!“

„Sometimes all you need is a little rest to ease out the tension, no pun intended!“ Richard smiled to himself while still starring at the map. „You were right when you said I can't do this alone. This doesn't change anything between us, but until this mission is complete we're going to have to work together. I've been looking at these maps and I think I've found the fastest route through the tunnels, to the ‘Heart' of the zone as it seems to be called!“ Tension leaned closer and looked at the map over Richards shoulder. „You see these tunnels highlighted in red,' Richard pointed to a system of consecutive lines heading north east. „Through these tunnels we should be there in at least two days!“

„Assuming there aren't any unforeseen problems, right!“

„Right!“ Richard stood up and neatly folded the map and put it back into his pack. He then reached into a side pocket and removed a FN 2000 magazine. „Are you familiar with the Magnesium-Magazine !“

„No, is it some Provision Six special issue!“

„You could find them out side of Provision, but they would be a rare thing. Basically each bullet in the clip is coated with magnesium. When the bullet is struck and sent forth through the barrel the magnesium ignites, causing the bullet to glow. This allows for easier targeting in low light situations!“ Richard removed the clip already present in his weapon and replaced it with the Magnesium-Magazine. He then pointed his firearm down the tunnel and fired three bullets a few seconds apart. Each bullet eradiated light and lit up the sides of the tunnel as they flew down the corridor.

„I see your technicians have been busy!“

„You've just seen the tip of the iceberg!“ Richard handed Tension two magazines from his pack. „But I'm not about to give away all of our trade secrets!“ Richard slung his pack over his shoulder and the two Stalkers began to follow the maze of tunnels heading north east, tracing the veins of the Zone back to the heart.

* * *

The first day had been long and demanding, however the two explorers had covered almost twice as much ground as they had first estimated they would. Setting up camp and preparing their second meal of the day, Richard and Tension sat around the fluorescent lamp cooking their ration over Richard's portable stove. „It's amazing with all of this technology evolving and making our lives better scientists have yet to create rations that taste good!“ Richard joked as he stirred the so called beef stew inside the metal pot.

„Maybe that's what we'll find in the heart of the Zone: tasty rations!“ Tension replied.

„Now that would be a mission worth while!“ The two Stalkers chuckled as if the were old friends reunited and at that time that's what it felt like to the two of them: old friends.

Richard grabbed one of the two metal bowls sitting beside the stove and filled it with beef stew. „Here you are,' said Richard as he passed the bowl to Tension. „the finest meal in the Zone!“ Richard then filled his own bowl and lifted a spoonful to his mouth. After he had swallowed the stew he thought to strike up some dinner time conversation „Tension I know we buried the hatchet and all but I just have to know one thing: what were you doing in Hells Kitchen!“ Hells Kitchen was an abandon military facility inside the Zone. After the incident most of the buildings had been destroyed by the initial blast, leaving nothing but rubble. Richard had been sent into Hells Kitchen to recover an experimental piece of equipment from one of the facilities' underground research labs. After Richard discovered a way into the bunker and located the experimental equipment he realized that he had been shadowed by none other than the rouge Stalker Tension. She grabbed the equipment and made a quick escape.

„Richard there's something that you need to know!“ Tension set her bowl on the floor, folded her hands and looked Richard in the eyes. „The organization you work for, Provision Six, is a front. The people behind Provision Six have been using the artifacts you've recovered to research weapons of mass destruction. The only reason they tell you their called Provision Six is so that they can get the best Stalker the Zone has ever seen on their side. I went to Hells Kitchen to stop you from handing over a piece of equipment that would have caused wide spread chaos. All they stand for…'

„No, I won't here any more of this slander against the Provision!“ Richard threw his half eaten bowl of stew onto the concrete floor and rose to his feet. „I asked what you were doing in Hell's Kitchen, not the ethics of being a Stalker. Besides if I'm working for such ‘evil' employers than why wouldn't you have killed me in Hells Kitchen!“

„Richard, I would never even…'

„Isn't that what a Stalker should do? If some one is in your way, you don't go around them, you go through them!“ Richard pulled his pistol out from its holster attached to his leg. He held it out handle first for Tension to take. „If I am a minion to such tyrants then the right thing to do would be to put a bullet in my skull. So what are you waiting for!“ Richard thrust the butt of the gun towards Tension. She stared blankly in his eyes.

„Richard I was sent here to make sure that you don't find any powerful or dangerous artifacts on this mission, and if you do, make sure they never reach Provision Six. I'm not contracted to kill you, and even if I was I know I couldn't go through with it, because it would be wrong. Just like your ignorance towards your employers is wrong. Think about it Richard, all the pieces fit together!“

Richard walked several feet down the tunnel and sat down with his back against the wall and put his head in his hands. Tension knew this would have been hard for Richard to take but he had to know the truth, he had to know that he's been fighting the right war from the wrong side. Tension packed up the cooking items and stuffed them into Richards pack.

She tipped the pack sideways to slide the portable stove in when a journal book fell out instead. Tension picked up the book and went to return it to the pack when she saw the corner of a photograph sticking out the side of the book. She glanced over at Richard to make sure he still had his head buried in his hands. He did. She slid the photograph out from between the pages. The picture was that of a beautiful young woman with shoulder length brown hair, piercing brown eyes and a stunning smile. The picture had been taken twelve years ago. On the back some one had written„Lost but loved — S.R!“The initials of the one being remembered had been written at the end. Tension could hardly believe what she was seeing. She had to tell Richard. She slid the picture back inside the journal and went to put it back in Richards pack when it was snatched out of her hands.

„It's not enough that you have to destroy my future, now you're meddling in my past!“ Richard carefully did what Tension was about to do and placed the book back into the pack. „We move out a five!“ He then unrolled his sleeping cushion, faced the wall, and went promptly to sleep within a matter of seconds. Tension would have to wait until tomorrow to tell Richard the news, after he'd calmed down.

* * *

They both rose at five in the morning as Richard had said they would. After their belongings were collected the two set out on their second day of travel in the Chernobyl tunnel systems. If they could keep the same pace as they had the day before they had a chance of reaching their destination by night fall. Richard took the lead and held it until lunch where they sat down and rested for the first time that day. Neither of the Stalkers had said a word to each other. Tension decided to tell Richard her news after lunch. Good news on a full stomach was all the more sweeter.

After their standard rations, this time chicken-pot-pie, the two packed up their items and returned to their mission. Now was the time Tension intended to tell Richard her news, all she had to do was think of the right words,

As the two approached a twist in the corridor they heard a loud, static noise. The closer they got to the curve the louder it was. „Any idea what that noise is!“ Tension said to Richard, breaking the silence for the first time since the night before. Richard took his pack off his back and removed the map they had been using from the start of their adventure through the tunnels. He unfolded the map and began examining it, Tension watched from beside him.

„Here,' Richard pointed to a twisting and turning line that ran across the map. „a river runs above this part of the tunnels. The only thing between us and that river is fifteen feet of concrete and soil!“

„At least it's nice to know there is still a world outside these damn tunnels!“ Tension said more to herself than Richard. The two resumed on course, following the curve in the hall. Tension had finally thought of the words she was going to say to Richard. As the two walked along Tension grabbed Richard's arm and spun him around to face her. „What this about!“ Richard asked. Tension opened her mouth to say what she had wanted to tell Richard since she'd seen the picture the night before, but she ended out saying something entirely different.

„What the hell is that!“ Tension pointed down the tunnel in the direction the two had been heading. Coming around from another curve in the tunnel ahead was a large insect, the size of a grown mans chest. Four legs, two on either side, no larger than an inch thick held the back of the insect up. It's upper half was supported by two considerably larger legs that resembled two scythes, each a foot long. With its dark green shell protecting its back and four pure black eyes atop its head, the bug made its way towards the two with incredible speed. When it had nearly reached Richard and Tension, a dozen more appeared from around the curve, some clinging to the walls, others walking along the ceiling with ease.

Without hesitation Richard unleashed three magnesium bullets into the closest over grown insect. The bullets flew down the hallway, illuminating the surrounding walls with a bright, pure white light. Once the bullets hit their target the light ceased for a fraction of a second and then they carried on through the other side, resuming their white glow until they struck the wall where the glow died out.

Watching the bullets pass through the first bug one could see a green fluid spray out from the exit wounds of the creature. Its body skidded across the floor after every bullet struck it, each one sending it farther down the tunnel. Tension followed suit taking aim at the bugs clinging to the ceiling that continued to charge at the two Stalkers. As the two unleashed hot lead and magnesium into the insects more flooded in to take their place, creating a river of pests.

After several minutes of laying waste to the onslaught of bugs, the two explorers had expensed several magazines. Tension grasped onto a fragmentation grenade at her belt and was about to pull the pin when Richard stopped her. „We can't risk an explosion in these tunnels, the last thing we need is a cave in to block our objective, or worse trap us in here!“

„Well we can't keep this up for long, were going to run out of ammo in a few minutes!“

„Were going to have to fall back and see if we can't lose their interest!“ Tension nodded and the two began to walk backwards back around the curve from which they had come. Richard glanced over his shoulder just in time to see an insect diving for Tensions back. It was so close that instead of shooting it Richard used the butt of his gun to knock the thing out of the air and onto its back where it struggled to flip itself over, legs violently swung in the air with futile effort. One bullet to it's soft under belly rendered the attacker no longer a threat.

Dozens more followed behind the one Richard had just killed, blocking their escape. Standing back to back, Richard and Tension fought off the surrounding sea of insects. „Richard, we can't hold out much longer. We need a new plan!“ yelled Tension over the loud bursts of gunfire.

„I know. I'm thinking, just give me a minute. I think we might be able to…' Just then the ceiling began to crack and split, small chunks of concrete began to give way as sprouts of water started shooting out of the small fractures in the tunnel. In a matter of seconds the small fractures began turning into large cracks and splits, huge pieces of concrete were falling from the ceiling, all the while allowing more water to flow into the tunnels. Then with a loud crack a large section of the ceiling collapsed, narrowly missing the two Stalkers. A half a dozen of the over sized insects came pouring out along with the water. They had apparently attempted to tunnel through the concrete and further press their attack. Little did they know that they had weakened the structure of the tunnels, causing the pressure of the over head river to be too much for the concrete to bear. An onslaught of water swept the two Stalkers off their feet and carried them deeper into the tunnels at a rapid pace. Both Tension and Richard struggled to stay on top of the water. Up ahead the tunnel divided in two, one path leading to their objective, the other to the unknown.

Tension grasped along the right wall attempting to find a place to grip her fingers. She finally managed to grip a part of the wall the stuck out into the tunnel, stopping her present course fifteen feet from the right tunnel.

Meanwhile Richard had tried the same approach however he could not find a grip and continued to travel towards the left tunnel. Seizing his last chance Richard lunged towards the barrier that divided the tunnel in two. His attempt was a success, if only for a matter of seconds. „Tension,' Richard called out. „that tunnel will take you directly to our objective, the heart of the Zone!“

„Where does that tunnel go!“ Tension used her head to point at the tunnel Richard was about to head down once his grip failed.

„I'm not sure, but it will most likely end up some where close to where your tunnel ends!“ With one free hand she reached into her pack and pulled out something wrapped inside another bag. With all her might she tossed the package across to Richard. He caught it with his free hand and managed to tuck it inside his pack. „What's this!“ Richard yelled across to Tension.

„You'll know when you see it. It may be more use to you than to me!“ Richard watched as Tension began to lose her grip, the current was an endless weight barring down on the both of them.

„Richard,' called Tension, in what would most likely be her last words before the current swept her away. „My real name, it's Sara. Sara Reid!“ Just then her grip faltered and Tension was carried off with immense speed down the adjacent corridor.

Richard couldn't believe what he had heard. She was alive, and right before his eyes. All those years ago, he thought she had past away. Yet another victim claimed by the Chernobyl accident. He had to get her back, he wasn't going to lose her again.

Richard began to slide his body across the small section of concrete that divided the tunnel in two. Try as he might the current was too strong. Knowing his attempt was in vain Richard let go of the wall and allowed the water to carry him down into the dark abyss, away from his only true friend.

* * *

Upon opening his eyes Richard was greeted by an excruciating headache. >From what he could tell he was still within the tunnels, but instead of a long corridor he was inside of a small room. The walls danced with shadows cast by a small fire in a barrel located in the center of the room. Grates on the ceiling allowed for ventilation of the smoke caused by the fire.

Richard lifted himself up with his arms to find that he had been sleeping on a cot. A small bedside table had a bowl of steaming porridge sitting atop it. Just then a dark, bulky shape entered the doorway. A large brown cloak covered the unknown person. A hood covered its head and prevented even a glimpse of its face. It was a wondered it could even see.

„Hello there, I see your awake now!“ A calm and cool voice was cast out from beneath the shadows of the hood. „Please help yourself to some porridge, its fresh!“ Richard kept his gaze on the strange person standing in the doorway.

„I appreciate your hospitality, but I would like to know who my host is!“

„Oh my, wherearemy manners!“ Long yellowish fingers extended from the arms of the cloak, grasping the hood and pulling it back to reveal its true nature.

Richard would have never have imagined who his care taker was.

Standing a mere four feet tall was the most elusive beings that ever existed in the Zone. „My name is Galrog. I can tell by your expression that you know I am a dwarf. I found you laying face first on the ground outside my door. The river that had dragged you down here must have been cut off by another cave in some where in the tunnel. Now there is but a stream running in front of my door. I find it quite relaxing, thank you!“

„I didn't cause the flood!“

„Oh, my mistake then!“

„Actually it was some of your local residents, large insects of some sort!“

„Ah the Scaramites must have been tunneling again!“

„Not quite. They attacked us. Swarms of them came from all directions, the ones that came through the ceiling in order to strike at us were the ones who caused the cave in!“

„No, no my friend, Scaramites are not aggressive inhabitants. They tunnel through the soil searching for grubs and places to lay their eggs!“

„Well either we look like grubs or those Scaramites have developed an appetite for human flesh!“

„ ‘We'? I saw no other come down here.“

„My partner and I were separated at a junction back up in the tunnels!“

„Oh my, this is not good. That tunnel would take one straight into the Heart of the Zone. Tell me, is your partner human, like you!“

„Yes, I'd have no other species as my partner!“ Richard glanced up into the large black eyes that stared down at him. “ No offence.“

„None taken. Your partner is in grave danger, if caught I would imagine they will kill your companion!“

„You have to take me to the Heart then, before it's too late. Please, she is very dear to me!“ Richard held back tears, the pain of seeing her alive and then losing her again was almost too much.

„ I suppose I could guide you there, but I will not help fight your battles.“

„I only ask for your guidance, not for you to lay down your life!“ Just then Richard remembered the package Sara had tossed him. He found his pack beside the cot and began to remove the smaller bag from within. When he unfastened the clasp on the top of the smaller bag his jaw dropped as he realized what was in his possession. Sitting there in the bag sat the only stain that was on Richard record, the only artifact he had failed to retrieve.

„What do you have there!“ asked Galrog, as he peered into the bag. Richard pulled out the small metallic item so that his host could see it in the fire light.

„It's called a Quantum Shifter. The military had been working on this up until the Chernobyl accident. They were very close to completing it but there was one ingredient that kept them from finishing it. That ingredient was a large burst of energy, large enough to activate the crystals within it. My ‘employers' believe that the Chernobyl accident may have introduced the energy required to make it work!“

„Well, what does ‘it' do!“

„Assuming my information is correct it should make someone become invisible!“

„What?! That's absurd!“ Richard began clasping the Quantum Shifter to his belt. He then proceeded to put his fingers on either side of the item. Just as he pressed his fingers down on the buttons located on the sides of the device his whole form disappeared. „Oh my!“ gasped Galrog. Richard had completely disappeared, only when he moved his limbs did light refract and one could see a faint outline of his body for a second or two. Galrog stretched his arm out and tested the air where Richard had been sitting. He found that his hand still came in contact with Richard, as if he had been replaced with a glass statue of himself.

Then just as quick as he had disappeared he reappeared right where he had been sitting. „I take it from your expression that the Quantum Shifter works!“

„Man and his technology!“ Galrog whispered more to himself than to Richard as he stared at the device with unblinking eyes.

Richard began collecting his things and stuffing them in his pack. He then grabbed the bowl of porridge and quickly shoveled in the contents and placed the bowl back on the bedside table. „There's no time like the present!“ Richard said as he stood up swinging his pack over his shoulders. „How long ‘till we get to the Heart of the Zone!“

„It is mid afternoon now, walking due North we should be there by dusk!“

„Perfect!“ Richard grabbed a wooden walking stick that was leaning against the concrete wall and handed it to Galrog. „You ready!“

„Yes, I am!“ Galrog stood up and grasped the cane. The two travelers walked out the door and began heading down the tunnel in the direction a small stream flowed.

„How far does this tunnel go until we are outside again, I'm dying to see the sun after being stuck in these tunnels for so long!“

„Well, we should be out of the tunnels in a matter of minutes, but as for the sun, you will see no daylight once we are outside!“

„I thought you said that it was the middle of the afternoon!“

„It is, but the sun does not shine in the Heart wither it is mid afternoon or midnight!“

„Oh!“ Richards' mood dampened learning that he would not see the sun again until he was away from the Heart, if he could get away from the Heart that is.

„I think you will find our world quite different from your own!“

„How so!“ Just then Richard could see the end of the tunnel ahead. As he approached the opening he saw a vast, barren land. Leafless trees dotted the soil which bore no grass. A humid breeze carried a stagnant smell that was generated by the swamps that were scattered here and there. Not one sound came forth from the wasteland. Not one bird, grasshopper, or bullfrog called out. Nothing.

„This, Richard, is out world. Death and decay, just like its inhabitants!“

„This is depressing, how could anyone survive here!“

„Through necessity, this world forces you to strive or perish. We do both. This is the world man created for us, and as ‘depressing' as it is, it is our home!“

Richard stopped walking along the path the two had been walking along. He turned to stare the dwarf directly in eye. „Why? Why are you helping me? If we have condemned you to this hell, then why are you going to help me!“

„We have somewhat of an ability to see what will come to pass, and in this instance it will benefit both of us if I lead you to the heart. I will help you get Tension back!“

„What did you say!“

„I will help get Tension back, your partner!“

„I never said her name was Tension. Your not really ‘Galrog' are you? You're a controller speaking through this dwarf!“

„Richard, if I had not taken control of this dwarf he would have found you and done some horrible experiments on it!“

„But why the deception!“

„I didn't know how you would react!“

„Your not part of the ‘Collection' are you!“

„Those cursed fools, never. They are power hungry savages who wish to control the Heart!“

„Well, what's in this for you, by helping me I mean!“

„Lets just say that I to enjoy the sun!“

„Fair enough. I'll get my partner back and you can get a tan!“ The controller tried its best to make the dwarf smile. Its toothy grin was more frightening than anything Richard had ever seen.

„We had better hurry,' The dwarf began to walk along the path again. „they will crucify your friend at dusk!“

„What?!“ Richard stared wide eyed at the dwarf as they walked along the path.

„Many of our kind hold you humans responsible for the pain and suffering we endure each and every day. So in order to make up for this any humans they find they crucify them to wooden poles for three days. In their minds those three days of crucifixion is an attempt to balance the pain in their lives!“

„Ho much longer until we're there!“

„About another hour or so. We should make it in time before the ceremony!“

„ ‘Ceremony'? Your talking like the ‘Heart' is a city of mutants.

„We have several actually. Soon the Zone will not be able to contain us. Then we will migrate and expand our society. In this you humans will have no choice. The day will come to pass when you will share your world with the mutants you created!“

„Aren't you forgetting the shield that envelopes the heart!“

„Soon it will fall, like a flood gate releasing water, we will pour out into your world and take what is rightfully ours!“

„And what would that be!“

„Vengeance!“

„Let's just concentrate on one thing at a time, like saving Tension. We had better quicken our pace!“

„We have plenty of time to make it there before the ceremony, do not worry!“

* * *

„The time has approached, the ceremony begins!“ Tension glared at her captor, his twisted and scarred skin was grotesque. He was one of the many humans that had survived the incident but was damaged by the exposure to the radiation. Rather than spend their life in exile in the human world they instead choose to live in a society where the normal was freakish.

Tension stood up when the guard started to advance into her cell. „Do not keep the Chancellor waiting. He has little patience for you humans!“ As she walked towards the cell door she was relieved to be away from the putrid confinement of the dirty concrete walls. The inhabitants had taken over a small town that had once been populated by humans up until the incident.

Once Tension stepped outside the one room jail and out into the evening air the guard gave her a shove in an attempt to encourage her to walk faster. Instead she fell face first into the ground, unable to use her hands for support due to the fact that they were tied behind her back with wire. The guard lifted her back onto her feet and pushed her again with less force than the first time.

She slowly made her way up a winding path to the top of a hill that over looked the city. On top of the hill rows upon rows of decaying human bodies that had been tightly bound to thick wooden posts could be seen. Their hands were bound to a smaller pole that slide through a hole near the top of the post, making it perpendicular to the post and holding their hands out to either side.

Several dwarfs, human freaks, and a select few Controllers were gathered around an unused wooden pole. Tension's pole. A small fire a few feet away from the pole lit the faces of the surrounding mutants. A Controller wearing white robes stood facing the pole with his back to Tension as she and her guard approached. His head was covered with a white hood that was attached to his robes. His long, slender, pale arms hung out of the sleeves of the robe at his sides. This must be the Chancellor that so many of the inhabitants spoke of. As the two approached the pole the Chancellor turned around to face Tension, however she still could not see his face as it was shrouded by the hood he wore.

„Another vile human to join the ranks of her comrades!“ Even though she could not see his eyes, she could feel them penetrating her soul. „We condemn you to three days of crucifixion, on the evening of the third day you will be executed and left to rot bound to your pole!“

„Only three days? I was expecting at least a week!“ Provoking your captors was one of the many traits a Stalker possessed, however it rarely helped.

„It took three days for your horrific accident to spread throughout this land, three days of excruciating pain, suffering and mutating. We are showing you mercy in comparison to what you forced upon us!“

„If your so self righteous then why don't you end the blood shed?!“ screamed Tension.

„I would not expect a mere human to understand. It is too complicated for your species to comprehend what is right and what is wrong. Let us begin the ceremony!“ Two large mutated humans grasped Tension by her arms and carried her over to the pole. Two other freaks lifted the pole out of the ground and laid it along the soil. Then they unbound her hands and retied the wire on her right hand to a small metal rod. They then slide the rod through a hole that had been drilled through the post and bound her left hand to the other side. Once that was finished they tied her feet tightly against the post and lifted her and the wooden pole upwards and replaced the end of it into the hole that had been created for it earlier. The Chancellor then began chanting words Tension could not understand. Soon the whole crowd was chanting the senseless gibberish.

Upon glancing around Tension realized she was close enough to the other posts to recognize some of the decaying corpses as Stalkers. In fact most of them were fellow Stalkers, many of which Tension had worked with. It appeared that not only had the explosion disfigured the bodies of these creatures it had also distorted their minds. She was surrounded by crazed madmen. She could only hope that Richard was as far away as possible.

* * *

Richard was a close as he could get to the ceremony without being spotted. He watched incredulously as his long lost love was bound to a pole and erected in a field of death and decay. Standing in front of Tension was a small group of people all chanting in a strange language. In the middle of the group stood a person clad in a white robe with a hood pulled up covering his head. As if answering his unasked question his dwarf companion whispered to him that the man in white was the Chancellor of all of the Heart.

After several minutes of chanting the majority of the group began walking down the winding path that lead down the hill and back into the city. Three mutated men were left behind to insure that Tension would not escape. Richard began to advance out of the trees towards the three mutants guarding his partner when the dwarf grabbed his arm.

„Richard that would be foolhardy to try and rescue her with those guards around her, even with the Quantum Shifter of yours there's no telling if one of those men is undead or not. I'm not positive but I would imagine they do not need to see you to detect your presence!“

„Well then what can I do!“

„A day's journey to the north there is a cave which these inhabitants travel to several times a week. They go to this cave to pray to God to have mercy on their tortured lives!“

„What's so special about this cave!“

„Well, inside the cave is a stone that they believe holds divine powers however…'

„What?! That has to be the most the most idiotic thing I have ever heard. Why in Gods name would they think a stone had ‘divine powers'?!“

„As I was about to say, no one can reach the stone due to immense power that irradiates from it. Any mutant who has dared to approach it has perished. These people believe that the one who can obtain the stone will be the one who will bring them into the light. Perhaps with that device of yours you could recover the stone. If these people saw that you had the stone they would fear and revere you, giving you ample time to save your partner and make a quick escape!“

„This sounds pretty far fetched!“

„What other choice do you have? Charge up that hill and perish in a hail of gunfire? Even if you could kill those three guards hundreds more would be on you in minutes from the city. Wits not strength is you most valuable alley here!“

„Then to the north we shall go!“ The dwarf took up the lead and the two began walking farther into the forest.

* * *

By the time the two had reached the cave it was approaching dusk. The entrance was quite large, posts with unlit torches stood on either side of the wide mouth of stone. It had not been difficult to find, even without the dwarfs aid Richard could have spotted the cave several miles back due to the clouds that hovered about the small stone hill. In a halo above the cave the clouds seemed to breathe, expanding and contracting. It was quite a disturbing sight.

„Well here we are, the Temple of Divinity!“

„How original!“ mumbled Richard as he removed the lamp from within his pack. He flipped the switch on the lamp and the fluorescent bulb kicked on. „How far back does this gave go!“

„Perhaps a hundred feet. You won't need that lamp once we get inside of the cave, the stone creates its own light. The light of Heaven some say!“ Richard muttered his disagreement as the two walked deeper into the natural stone structure. Sure enough once they rounded the first corner of the cave it was as bright as day inside. Centered amongst several glowing green rocks was a pure white stone that blinded ones vision. Glancing down at the stone floor in front of the rocks Richard saw the few who had tried to reach the stone before, sprawled across the ground. Most of them were slowly decomposing, their skin flaking off as their faces sagged. It was then that it struck Richard why none had reached the stone before; the green rocks that surrounded it were radioactive. Judging by the condition of the closest corpse to the stone it was evident that the level of radiation was strong enough to tear skin and muscle from bone. Richard grabbed the dwarfs arm and dragged him out of the cave and back to the safety of the outdoors.

„Are you crazy?! Don't you know what radiation is!“

„Radiation!“

„Those green stones surrounding the white one, they're radioactive, that's why you can't reach the stone. Your bodies literally fall apart before you can even get close to your precious stone!“

„I don't understand, how could it kill us!“

„Those are not your everyday ‘rocks'!“ Richard said pointing back into the cave. „It is some form of uranium, an element that emits toxic energy. When the energy passes through your skin it breaks it apart, flesh and bone!“

„Well, that would explain why those men who have tried to reach the stone look the way they do!“

„Damn right!“ Richard ran his fingers back through his hair. „Do all your people come here and worship the stone, I mean even from the other villages!“

„Twice a week each colony makes a journey to the Temple of Divinity. Why!“

„Don't you see?! That is why you are in constant pain, not because of the accident, because you keep exposing yourselves to radiation. Those who get close to the stone die, they are the lucky ones. You and the rest of your people however only get enough exposure to cause long term damage, enough damage to cause constant pain and anguish. In fact if not for your mutant resistance to small amounts of radiation you would have died long ago!“

„Perhaps those stones were placed there to ward of the unworthy. Yes that must be it. You are still going to try, are you not? Your device, it will protect you, won't it?

„In theory, it may allow the radiation to pass through my body. Light waves are close to radiation waves in essence, so it should work but I'm still taking a great risk in retrieving the stone. Can you guarantee that Tension and I will be back together again once I get this stone!“

„I give you my word that you will be with her as soon as we return!“

„Good!“ Richard pulled the Quantum Shifter from his pack and attached it to his belt. „Wait here, if I don't come back out shortly that means that the Quantum Shifter didn't work and I'm lying in excruciating pain on the ground, slowly dieing. But hell, what a great story this will make back at the bar with the guys, right!“

„Huh!“

„Never mind!“ Richard pressed the two buttons on either side of the device and by watching the expression on the dwarfs face Richard could tell that the device had shifted his being into another state. He walked back into the cave heading directly for the stone at a near jog. He surmised that even though the device may prevent the radiation from crippling him some may still pass through and damage his body.

As he approached the stone the light became painful, piercing through his eyelids. As he walked closer to the stone he attempted to use his hands to shield his eyes but to his disappointment they did little to stop the burning white light. Once he was within arms length of the white crystal he reached out and blindly felt around for the largest stone. Once he had firmly grasped the stone he lifted upwards and the stone slid out with surprising ease. The light from the stone ceased and the cave fell into darkness.

Richard turned to leave when suddenly the cave was lit up from an unknown source for a short moment and returned to darkness. At first he assumed it was his eyes tricking him after the pain he had subjected them to but as he started to head out again the cave lit up a second time. He turned to look back at where the stone had once sat. Static light was erupting from the other radioactive stones. Much like electricity, the light jumped between the stones, lighting the cave for a few seconds and then allowing the darkness to flood back in. The rate at which the bursts of static light occurred was rapidly increasing, almost to the point that the cave was constantly bathed in light. Just then the cavern began to shake, small flakes of stone began falling from the ceiling, bursts of static light struck out against the walls, breaking pieces of stone from the cave walls. Richard began to back pedal out of the cave but it was already too late. A large bolt of the static white light shot out from the stones and headed directly for Richard. It struck him square in the chest and sent his body into the air and flying backwards out of the cave.

* * *

Once Richard had discovered he was unharmed by the blast he and the dwarf headed back to the city of mutants. Not much was said between the two except that the dwarf assured him he would be back with his beloved Tension. Richard just hopped that she could have held on this long, being strapped to a pole a subjected to the harsh climate could very well have ended her life. When they reached the crest of the hill that overlooked the poles Richard could see Tension still bound to hers. Laying beside her was another pole which must have been knocked over in the night. By the time the two had reached Tension there was a large group of inhabitants gathered. Standing in front of the group was the leader of the city, the controller.

„You have the stone!“ asked the controller in a commanding tone.

„Yes, now release my partner and it will be yours!“ commanded Richard. The bellowing laugh that came forth from the controller was both freakish and disturbing.

„I don't want that worthless stone! It is what that stone did that you have now undone that is important!“ For the first time Richard noticed that the morning sky was not overcastted as it had been since Richard had entered the heart of the Zone. „You, my friend, have just brought down the barrier that had kept us caged within this forsaken land. We are now free to enter the world of man and assume our roll as the new super-sapiens, rulers of the modern world!“ Several undead men grasped Richard's arms and dragged him over to the pole that lay beside Tension. As he was bound to the pole the walking dead disarmed him of his pack and FN 2000.

„You little bastard, I'm going to tear you limb from limb!“ cursed Richard to the dwarf that he had trusted for his journey.

„I'm afraid that is my doing Richard!“ The controller said. „I fooled your feeble human intelligence!“ said the dwarf. „I promised you would be back with your Tension, but I never said you would have your freedom along with her!“ It had become obvious now that the dwarf was and always had been controlled by the controller that governed this city and intended to conquer the rest of the world. Just then another controller approached the group.

„Sir, our forces are ready to move!“

„We will wait until tomorrow to move out, let today be a day of celebration. The human Richard has freed our people!“ With a holler from the group they made their way back down the hill, leaving Richard with his beloved, albeit unconscious, love. As nightfall approached the clouds returned once again and began a downpour on the valley. Richard tried to rest but the position he was in would not allow it. He longed to touch her skin just one last time before she passed from this world. He looked over at her, leaning in her direction, savoring the inches he gained. Just then his pole began to slip in the newly created mud. Richard put more of his weight against the pole and it slid out of the ground, sending him face first into the mud. He quickly stood back on his feet and leaned forward to balance the pole. He then attempted to revive Tension and much to his surprise she came to.

„Richard?! Is that you!“ She mumbled.

„Yes, I'm here. Tension we have to hurry, I'm going to try and knock over your pole, that way we can use our hands to untie each other, ok!“

„Uh, I guess!“ Richard leaned against her pole and pushed with all his weight and strength. Slowly the pole slide out of the mud and crashed to the ground.

„Are you alright!“

„Yes, I think so!“

„I'm going to untie your hands with mine!“ After the two had united each other and embraced they silently made their way down to the city. Tension lead Richard to where her cell had been and where her gear, and most likely Richard's, had been stored. Once they had armed themselves Richard explained how they must find the stone and replace it in the cave to restore the barrier. They resolved that the stone must be in the controller's residence, which was most likely the largest building in the city. They made their way through the streets with stealth until they reached their desired location. A large brick structure stood several stories high. No lights could be seen shinning through the windows. „They must be celebrating and left this building unattended!“ surmised Richard. Once they had entered the building it wasn't difficult to locate the stone which sat atop a table in front of a fire place. Richard grabbed the stone and the two exited the building and headed east to remedy the mistake he had made.

* * *

As they approached the cave Richard noticed the strange cloud formations had dissipated from above the mountain. Before they could get within a mile of the cave a large party of undead soldiers could be seen advancing on them from the west. „We'll never make it to the trees in time. We're going to have to take up a position on the edge of the forest over there!“ Richard pointed to the tree line that followed the valley. By
 
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