“Okay, this is getting downright eerie,” Emily said, while wiping her slender wrist across a grimy forehead.
“Yeah, and dangerous too.” As he spoke, Devon picked up a lava rock the size of a roasted turkey and lifted it above his head. A moment later, he tossed it down the slope. It smashed a zombie in the face and it went falling ass over elbow knocking down three others before it came to stop on a pile of jagged boulders.
Emily was the best shot he knew and she proved it again when she fired her rifle into the horde of undead below. Even from their distance, he saw a flash of red when the head exploded. “This just doesn’t make sense,” she said. “Sure these Walkers are stupider than a can of dog food, and would wander away from a fresh bowl of guts if you showed them something shiny, but with all our gunfire they should be turning around and following us. Not chasing after a jeep that left an hour ago.”
She looked over at him. “You don’t think that Haeds can somehow make them follow him?”
“If he could do that, he wouldn’t have had to use that girl for bait. The fact that we can only get about twenty percent of his would-be army to turn and follow us is strange, but it isn’t supernatural.”
“Yep, nothing supernatural about walking dead,” she said, before she let one of her piercing screams disturb the desert stillness.
“Ahhh, damn! Can you warn me before you do one of those, please?”
“See look, even with my piercer only about a hundred zombies have broken off to come after us.”
“Which is more than enough.”
“Yeah, if you were like eighty or something, but hey genius, have you figured out a flaw in your plan? If those guys took our only vehicle, how’re we going to get back? And with four hundred Walkers marching on our ranch it won’t make anything extra easy.”
“I had already considered that.” The first wave of zombies were approaching the crest of the rocky hill upon which they stood. Another well tossed rock sent a few more rolling back down the hill. Their fall snapped arms and legs and left a pile of thrashing bloody zombies below them. “I’m sure we could figure a way to loop around in front of that army and get picked up, but that still begs the question of why would we want to be trapped in a ranch about to face off again hundreds of Walkers.”
“Devon you wouldn’t abandon them!”
He smiled. “No of course not. I had planned to free Tucson of zombies first, but if we were to clean out even a small town that could really give us a chance to stock up before we made any real assault on our city.”
“I’m not sure if I’m following you.” She flung a rock of her own and it took a zombie wearing biker shorts in the top of his head and he expired with a dull moan.
“There are just the two of us. We are already doing our part to help the ranch by luring these hundred dead-heads away. But we need a vehicle. I say we head back to San Miguel and see if we can grab one and maybe check out the place a bit.”
“With these flesh bags following us, we might not have too long to search.” She said, while joining Devon in a constant rock assault on the approaching dead. “And there’re probably plenty of zombies left back there too.”
“Yeah, I know,” but then stopping in mid throw, he said, “but what if that girl isn’t the only prisoner he had?”
She looked at the zombies and then back at him. “You’re right. You didn’t leave us to be abused and tortured in the Ripper jail and who knows, this Haeds could be even worse than them.”
“I was also thinking that he might be keeping them half starved already. If they have to wait while we protect the ranch and then fight through hundreds of undead before we get to them. Well, they probably wouldn’t make it.”
“That is, if they exist at all. He was calling her his queen, that sounds more like a singular title.” She smiled. “Girls notice things like that.”
His cheer dissipated when the first walker cleared the rise. “Come on, San Miguel’s still a good twenty miles from here, we need to get going.”
* * *
Haeds’ eyes flickered open as his consciousness returned.
It took him about two seconds before he began to thrash against his bonds. Where am I? Some place dark and enclosed. Dust filed his nostrils and little light existed.
“Let me out of here!” he screamed. “You can’t do this to me. I’m the king of the dead!”
When rescue was not forthcoming, his rant continued. “I’ll laugh while me friends tear you apart and feast on your flesh. I’ll hold them off to make sure your deaths will be slow. Release me. Bring me my queen.”
Then he remembered her words. She had told the men to kill him. It tore at his heart. How could she? She had never spoken that way to him in the cellar?
Something was wrong and all he knew was that it was their fault and all these murderous breathers were going to pay!
Devon shared the view from the rocky peak with Brown and the siblings. Bringing his binoculars down, Brown turned to the others and said, “This guy might be crazy enough for twenty people and somehow able to trick the zombies from wanting to chow on him, but he’s certainly no mad genius.”
Grabbing the offered binoculars, Devon said, “What do you mean?”
“This guy’s so overconfident that-”
Spencer interrupted. “Overconfident, the spazzmo has a flippin’ God complex.”
“As I was saying, he’s in such a hurry to lead this army of zombies against us; he isn’t thinking some things through very well.”
Looking through the glasses, Devon said, “Like separating himself from his lured army by over a hundred feet.”
Brown favored them all with a humorless smile. “Yeah, besides a few zombies strapped into his jeep, the guy alone.”
“What about the girl in that cage?” Emily asked.
“I’m not forgetting about her,” Brown said.
* * *
Haeds yelled in alarm when a zombie’s head exploded and sprayed him with gore. Before this could even sink in, the zombie behind him quivered and then fell silent. He panicked and for a moment froze. Then a pumping sound could be heard and suddenly the vehicle shook as a man launched himself out of a ravine and leapt onto the cage that held his queen.
He jerked back in alarm scrambling for his rifle.
But the dark bearded man appeared. “Hi there, sparky,” he said, before his fist connected with Haeds nose. It broke with a spray of blood. Before he could react, Black-beard was already yanking him from the truck. Soon blows rained down on him. “You should think more carefully before shooting at a man.”
Through the haze of pain he heard more voices.
The man on the cage talked to his queen. “Don’t worry. We’re going to free you. We have a ranch with a lot of people. You will be safe, I promise.”
Others were running to them wooting and yelling. “Yeah, Devon. Kick his ass, but leave me a piece, man.”
“Emily, help me with her,” the man on the cage yelled.
He flinched when the bearded man searched him and removed his weapons. A young teen kicked him in the ribs.
“Stop it, Spike,” Black-beard said. “Those other Walkers are getting close. Tie him up.”
“I want to put him in his own fucking cage,” The man with his queen snarled.
“Fine, I want you and the sibs to take him back to camp and keep him safe.”
“What the hell are you doing?” The girl they called Emily demanded.
“I’m going to try one of his tricks and use myself to lure his special undead friends back away from us.”
“Alone, hell no,” Spike said. “I’m going with you, Devon!”
“No, we need Brown to drive and you to watch weasel-boy,” the girl was saying. “I’ll go with Devon.”
Haeds heart froze when his queen began to scream. “Don’t guard him. Kill the sick freak. Kill him. Kill him. KILL HIM!”
Want to get in on the beginning of the Eternal Aftermath? Check it out here!
The heat pressed in on him as Devon crouched in what might have once been a chicken coop. “So Mel, why do you guys work out here? This heat is killing me.”
The stocky bearded man turned toward Devon. Jeans and an old shirt that might have seemed appropriate on a zombie adorned the middle aged man, along with his ever present Stealers cap.
“It’s like this boss. Flitch and I are pretty good at reloading bullets, but something could go wrong and if it did, I wouldn’t want to be responsible for killing a house full of kids.”
After wiping the sweat from his brow, Devon asked, “so how’s all this reload coming? I mean if you guys can pull this off it’ll be a damn miracle. It could give as a serious edge.”
“It has been pulled off, man,” Flitch answered with a grin. “We already made you two hundred rounds, bro.”
“Well, we may end up needed more like five hundred if freako comes at us with all his special friends.”
Mel spoke again. “And we’ll have that much soon and hey we still had some rounds we scaved from the Rips, but the real issue will be when we run out of primer. When that happens, we’ll hit a brick wall until we get some more.”
“Just make what you can, for now. We’ll cross that bridge for the primer later. Right now, for all we know, Heads if marching his rotting troops toward us.”
“Do we have any clue why zombies ignore this guy?”
“Some theories at best. We’ll let you know when we now.”
“Alright boss, we’ll keep things going on this end. Just make sure we get a warning if the Walkers start rolling in.”
“You can count on it,” Devon threw over his shoulder as he passed into the blinding desert sunlight.
The heat pounded him. Sunglass went on instantly and he gazed out over the cactus covered hills. He half expected to see Haeds up there with a high powered rifle or hundreds of stumbling zombies, but neither occurred.
A few men guarded the compound—sticking to the sparse shadows. He avoided them. Instead, he hiked up to the top on the hill facing the northwest. The Desert north east of Tucson topped a hundred and fifteen degrees this time of year. His body turned and weaved through the large patches of prickly pear. For a moment he rested in the shadow of a giant saguaro.
Finally topping the hill, he gazed toward the northwest, the direction of their newest enemy, or yes, savoir. His chest heaved. Nothing. Then he looked down.
My girls are here. They’re sticking close.
Something moved in the desert. Zombie, could it be one of the girls? It was Brown’s jeep. He went back down to meet them.
There was a punk teen with Brown and Devon sent the man running in to grab Mitch and the siblings.
Brown didn’t need to be asked. “It looks like he stopped long enough to prepare something. Either that or it takes a while to get them all moving.”
“How does he get them moving?” Devon Asked.
“You aren’t going to like this part.” Brown removed his cowboy hat. “He has this big truck rigged with a cage in the bed. He’s put a woman in the cage.”
“And the zombies follow the flesh.”
“And he his leading them on us?”
“Yep, but it’s still eighty miles. I’d say we have about four days. And something else. I saw the look in that girl’s eyes. I’m going to free her.”
By the time the team, Devon’s team, finished their meeting, darkness had claimed the land. Devon headed outside into the night. A precious whiskey and water filled his hand. He needed a moment of solitude and as soon as the thought entered his head it made him want to laugh.
“Figures,” he said aloud. “All that time in the zoo, when I was alone, all I wanted was someone to talk to and now here I am seeking some solitude again.”
“Were you talking to yourself then too?” a female voice asked. He felt more than saw her clinging smile as she rounded the barn and stood a dozen feet before him. The half moon kissed the sparse desert with silver light and caused her golden hair to almost glow.
“Kimberly, I didn’t see you there.” He swallowed the lump forming in his throat. He had been so busy making sure everyone was safe and stayed that way that he really hadn’t gotten any time alone with the woman that had saved his life during their final battle with the Rippers.
“Yeah, I’m pretty sneaky,” she said, while moving a bit closer and he could see her smile this time. As well as the fact that she was wearing a flowing little summer dress. Most women dressedvlike men these days—less things for the zombies to grab on to—and he had almost forgotten how beautiful a woman in a dress could be.
A moment of silence stretched between them, until she broke it by saying, “Well, it sounds like you wanted to be alone, so-”
“I doubt I’ll ever want to be alone again,” he said quickly. “It was just that thinking back to my time in the zoo was making me want to see my jaguars, if that’s even possible.”
“I’ve seen them a few times. They only come out at night of course. They’re easiest to see on top of the hills hunting rabbit and quail.”
“I guess I’ve been to too busy with everything,” he said while looking at his boots.
“Come on, Mr. Gloomy,” she laughed, “I’m not sure why, but they seem to like you enough to stay around this ranch. Besides, we appreciate how busy you are.”
“Oh yeah, we sure do,” A gruff voice sounded from over his shoulder. “I mean what would we do without our big hero?”
Whipping his head around, Devon saw four new people approaching him. Two men, with their arms around girls way too young for them to be getting that cozy with, stepped out of the shadows and into the dim moonlight.
“Rik…Trent, what brings you two into the desert tonight, besides bringing these girls outside the safety of the ranch house where they should be?”
“I thought I heard that the whole reason you bailed on your army buddies is because you didn’t like taking orders and here you are more than willing to hand them out.”
It sounded like Trent Mumbled hypocrite under his breath.
“I’ll be handing out a lot more than that, you slackers.” As he spoke, he quickly advanced toward Rik. The two girls drew away, startled. “Am I not anarchist enough for your tastes? Did you prefer the jails of the Rips?”
“So why did you release us,” he sneered, “just so you could have some big group of minions that you could boss around?”
“Actually, my goal is to rid Tucson of the plague and keep it Walker free.”
“Good luck with that one,” Trent tiffed.
“Girls, I’d like it if you headed back inside. We have a new enemy, a breathing one and he could have easily driven out here.”
Rik got into Devon’s face. “If these gals want to hang with us, it’s their business.” A smile spread over his pinched face, “Besides we can protect them.”
Devon paused. These guys are low lives, but what is it I truly stand for? The issue filled him with angst and the fact that Kimberly looked on didn’t make things easier.
“Listen up, Rik, because I only want to say this once. I suppose you could say we’re something along the lines of a Temporary Autonomous Zone, but we’re also fighting, hmmm, no less than four different opponents, and if what Rollie said about those insane churches to the northwest is true that number could rise to five.”
“So yeah, have your fun, but learn one thing about me, I’ve set a goal to free Tucson and anyone that tries to slow me or mine down had better step aside or they might just get their asses run over.”
“So the old your way or the highway?”
“No, it’s the old let’s try not to be eaten or tortured trick. We have limited resources and need to keep things tight or die. Are you willing to help a pregnant teenager run through gunfire or carry your new born through a horde of zombies?”
The girls blanched.
The men didn’t say a word.
“Yeah, I thought so. Rik, I want you to take Trent and keep watch tonight until I relieve you later. Do a sweep first too.” There was a little grumbling but they set off. The two girls didn’t need to be told again and headed into the ranch.
“Nice speech,” Kimberly said, “but does this mean you aren’t going to knock me up?”
He smiled. “It isn’t out of the realm of possibilities.”
Devon and his allies made it back to their ranch without so much as seeing a stray zombie. As soon as he had washed the sand from his hair, he sent out some runners to fetch the people whose advice he trusted or was at least willing to lesson to.
Of course Spencer, Emily, and Brown where there. Mitch showed up moments later, wheeling Rollie into the study that Devon had claimed for his own.
Their would-be doctor arrived as well. Dr. Alexander had been a psychiatrist before the Walkers claimed the planet five long years ago. The brown skinned man had never been able to flesh out no matter how lucky their savaging teams were and only his well kept goatee separated his figure from the gaunt corpses that refused to die. Although Alexander was no surgeon, his medical training certainly left him better equipped than anyone else to handle any physical crisis.
More surprising was seeing Mar enter with him. The young ebony haired woman had undoubtedly been saved by Alexander skills when she received a bullet wound during their escape from the Ripper jails. Despite the heat, she favored black and often appeared to be competing with Emily over who the sexist girl in the camp was. Devon wondered briefly if she and the doctor could have somehow become an item.
When they finally got settled, Devon filled them in on the away group’s encounter with Haeds. Mitch could barely bite his lip long enough for Devon to finish, before he burst out, “The zombies didn’t attack this man. That’s impossible. Are you sure he was alive?”
“Unless a zombie can shout and swear while he’s trying to fill you with bullets, I’d say he’s alive.” Spencer said, as he helped himself to one of Brown’s precious shots of whiskey.
“Wait,” Alexander began. “Maybe Mitch has a point. If what you say is true and the walking dead ignore this man, then perhaps he is infected.”
“What do you mean doc?” Rollie asked.
“Maybe you have been looking at this from the wrong angle. You are acting like he is a human that fails to attract zombies. Perhaps, he is a zombie that has evolved.”
“I don’t know, Doc,” Devon said. “He seems pretty spry. I could see a zombie remembering to pull the trigger of a gun or learning to turn doorknobs, but talking normal and driving a car… I’m not buying it.”
Brown spoke up. “Maybe it’s something else. What if he was bitten by a zombie, but somehow has an immunity to the plague. Not only would he still live, but if the infection marked him, the Walkers might read him as being an undead. We know they never eat each other. They could think he’s one of their own.”
“And if he only had zombies for company after all this time,” Emily said, while leaning forward, “that could easily explain why he went mad.”
She flashed the psychiatrist a small smile, so he took the stage. “I would certainly agree with you there. After five years, he might consider these zombies and his friends and family.”
“I still hate him,” Spencer said.
Devon addressed Alexander. “Could it be possible that we might be able to use his blood to inoculate ourselves and become immune to the Walker’s attentions?”
“It certainly could be possible, but we have no real way of knowing why the zombies ignore him. He might have devised a sound wave device or be doing it be some olfactory means.”
Spencer made a leaking gad noise. “I doubt that, this guy’s a dumb-ass.”
“Young man,” the Doctor chastised, “having a mental illness is no indication of an inferior intelligence.”
“Whatever,” Spencer said and tried to take another shot.
Phillip was faster and grabbed up the bottle. “Let the rest of us catch up first. It has been a long ass day.”
“And it will be a longer night, if that freak tries to march his ‘friends’ into our ranch.” Mar said, finally joining the conversation.
Emily looked over at Devon. “Do you think he might do something like that? He knows where we live.”
“Maybe we should leave while we still can.” Mar said, looking like she was ready to start packing.
“Let’s not be rash,” Devon said. “We’re set up pretty good here and the only real place to retreat to is a city filled with Walkers. Even if he does try to march on us, unless he has some truly mystic control over the undead, it would take him days to get organized and then at least another three to get them here.”
Emily touched his arm, “but what if he does have some power of them somehow?”
“You’re right. We need to head back to San Miguel. If he’s trying anything big we need to know about it. Maybe we can learn more about this guy in the process. He just might be the savior of mankind.”
Spencer stopped cleaned his nails with his dagger for a moment. “Either that or some bastard is about to try to do his best to see us all eaten alive.”