An “X” is universal. It either means, “Dig here, buried treasure, yarr,” or “Don’t come here because there’s badness inside. Since we know they’re not pirates (no water), when the people settled around the water start waving torches in an “X” pattern we slow.
“Continue?” I ask, and Zel nods. So we stop moving toward the band and start back around the lake. I see a shelter of sorts (an old picnic area with two concrete walls and a corrugated metal roof) with charred remains in the center that look like a picnic table exploded. More likely, it was burned. “Stopping?”
“No,” Zel growls and continues his plodding steps past the structure. After meeting that herd, I don’t blame him; I haven’t seen that many walkers in a long time and that can only mean one thing.
See, zombies aren’t people, per se, but they’re not immortal either. For a band to be so numerous, and so—I know this sounds terrible—fresh, means that a habitation nearby has been overrun and the majority of the inhabitants infected. I say majority, because someone always has the luck (if you want to call it that) to hole up long enough to survive. This makes them more paranoid, twitchy and irrational, however, and if I had to face ten zombies or one maladjusted survivor, I’d pick the zombies every time. Zombies don’t cuddle up to you at night and try to slit your throat the next morning.
And yes, I know the phrase “maladjusted” doesn’t mean anything, not with the entire human population suffering from one form of PTSD or another, but there are people who’ve accepted our new reality and those who haven’t…and everyone knows that acceptance takes time. So we walk, this time around the lake to the east where the terrain is rougher going and I trip one step in three vice one in five along the “main” road.
“There’s a bridge up ahead,” Zel mumbles—misplaced encouragement, I think—and I have to stifle a groan. I might be tired, but Zel is running on nothing besides adrenaline and energy gels. “We can rest there.” Another cold campsite, another stiff morning…but at least no one will be able to sneak up on us.
After Zel scans the bridge, we make our way to the center, stopping every ten yards or so to string up some rope & bells behind us at different heights. It’s a decently long bridge, and mid-span I drop my pack beside Zel and trek to the other end of the bridge, repeating the process of rigging the alert system until I’m within ten yards of our “camp.” Zel’s already consumed his night ration and set himself for sleep—back against a pack and sitting on the “sleeping bag” instead of using it—and I settle myself beside him, but not touching him, before pulling my bow out, stringing it, and making sure I have enough arrows at hand.
The stars wheel through the sky and I can pick out a few constellations, the Ursas (Major & Minor) and Cassiopeia, but none of the others ever made sense to me and when I find my mind wandering I shake myself lightly and go back to scanning the road. First I look North (where we’re going), then I scan East (where it will be easiest to ambush us from) before turning South (where we’ve been) and then finally checking the lake behind us in the West. There are a couple of night creature scurrying here and there, and the shriek of some night-hunting bird followed by the whomp, whomp sound of the wings now weighted down, but it’s all blissfully normal and I’m grateful. I would unfold my map and survey our course for tomorrow, but we’re still in the dark of the moon and using a flashlight at this point would be foolish.
Exactly four hours later, Zel awakes with a small grunt, unslings his Blade, and nods—first at me, then at the sleeping bag—as I set my bow aside and unlace my boots. If I was on my own I wouldn’t take my boots off for anything short of four solid walls, but with Zel at my back no matter what happens (within reason, it doesn’t do to tempt the gods by thinking about absolutes) I’ll have at least enough time to get my boots back on. The sleeping bag is mostly crushed from his weight, but springs back as I unroll it before climbing into it and using my own arms as my pillow. My body is blocked from sight by our two packs, and it’s enough to know that I’ve got someone looking out for me to allow myself to fall asleep.
“Up,” Zel growls and my eyes snap open. I roll from the bag and thrust my feet into my boots, knotting them quickly, and just enough to keep from tripping over the laces. My partner thrusts my bow into my hands and I calm my harsh breathing enough to realize what’s troubled him; from far in the distance two tinkling bells are chiming merrily in the fog. “Over,” he commands and I pat him on the shoulder, Understood. Zel’s telling me to go over the railing binding the road and approach from the opposite side. We’ll both be walking the same path, but we’ll be on either side of whatever is tripping our alarm.
There’s something about being scared that makes you stupid. A lot of people will breathe through their nose because they think it’s quieter but if they’re on the verge of hyperventilating it will just make them louder. Animals are far too smart to let ANY person (living or undead) sneak to within 10 feet of them, so I don’t need to worry that my mouth-breathing will spook something innocuous. Each step I take brings me closer to the jangling but it’s a discordant, half-hearted ringing, so I know that something’s caught in our trap.
Not a good sign. Living creatures—and people in particular—can reason out what’s holding them up, it’s the undead who will get tangled in the simplest lines. A forceful jang makes me stop; Zel must have triggered that one to tell me to hold position. The faint tingle, jing, stops for a moment as well, and then a fearsome, hurrrrAAAAAGH! tears through the fog, freezing me in my tracks.
Zombie, my brain belatedly informs me a moment before the faint stink penetrates my nostrils and crawls down my nose. It’s hard not to gag but I manage it as I press myself further into the dirt. The sun’s crested the mountains and the fog is burning off from the top down, if Zel and I can remain hidden from the zombie until we can see him (and each other) this will go more smoothly. A scrape, tinkle, and THUMP into the barrier beside me disabuses me of that notion and I scream,
“MOVING!” as I leap over the barrier and dart across the road.
“Here!” Zel calls and I change course slightly, the barrier looms up in front of me and I leap, the breath knocking out of me as Zel’s beefy arm bands around my waist and keeps me from leaping into the mucky, stagnant side of the lake. He drops me to the ground and I twist, extending my blade and sweeping the road on the other side of the barrier as Zel bellows a rage-filled roar of his own. My blade passes through what feels like a phone book, and a startled guuuragh, lets me know I’ve hit the undead as Zel leaps over the railing, raises his own blade up over his head, and brings it down in one solid, satisfying snickt. The head goes rolling across the pavement and the body seems to collapse in on itself as the last of the fog burns off and we survey our surroundings.
“Alone,” Zel sniffs, dismissing the now-headless corpse without a second glance. He neatly bisected the skull at the jaw, jawbone and next separated from the cranium and what remained of the brain. There’s no one nearby and after wiping off his blade, Zel starts removing the bells and ropes from our improvised barrier as I roll back onto the road and set about lacing up my boots properly.
The work is quick, and before the first chill of the morning burns off we’re well on our way. Whenever we happen upon a solitary walker we dispatch it, then drag it to the nearest patch of concrete for someone else to burn. We’re still in the dry season, and we have more than one reason to not dispose of the remains ourselves; 1) that would alert other people to our progress (and we know there are other people about, given the herd and the encampment by the lake) and 2) if we start a forest fire it would be the end of us. Admittedly, other fires have pretty well ravaged the landscape already, but we can’t lose the time it would take to gather the requisite materials either.
We make good time following the road, and excepting the few walkers (and one crawler) we come across we manage to pass without incident. 3 days of food, I grumble internally, it’s going to take us 3 days just to get there, what the hell were they thinking? We stumble across a “ranch”—one of those touristy types that made money sitting someone from the city on top of a horse and walking them around a pre-determined and well-maintained trail—at midday and eat a little, before pushing on to our destination.
From the looks of the map, most of the city had sprawled on the Northeast side of the road, so as we approach (I imagine the signs posting the distance to this little po-dunk are still correct, as they haven’t been vandalized) we start to angle to the west so that we can better observe our goal unimpeded.