~~~

After checking in with the topside camp, or what Stephen referred to as the “Relocation Pre-Staging Outpost”, Tony, Diane and Nine started their perimeter patrol. The outpost was a daylight operation, involving the gradual packing and moving of essential supplies from their underground compound and staging them above for the community’s exodus out of the Wasteland. The planning for the first official scouting party out of the wilderness preserve to investigate possible resettlement locations was already underway. It was decided that they would look to the southwest, just past the Pennsylvania border, at some of the smaller towns located near the Allegheny National Forest, believing that the dead might have migrated away from the mountains. The scouting party was set to leave in three days.

Tony led them west along the northwestern portion of the winding river for a quarter-mile, then south, and then finally back east along the southern perimeter to complete the northern loop along the nerve-wrecking eastern side of the wilderness preserve, which took them through a portion of the burnt forest, until finishing back at the river near the collapsed waterfall cave, which once served as the originally entrance into the compound. From here, the river wound its way east toward ground zero, where Micolad, the insane robotic god, had detonated.

No one had ventured that far east since Gina had led a group before the winter storms to explore the ruins from a distance, wanting to verify that the camp of Micom and Micolad, was destroyed. The explosion had obliterated the camp, killing everything dead or alive in those eastern woods. The greatest evidence of this was the charred trees which continued to stand like dead sentinels, and a lasting testament to the madness which had occurred in that sadistic camp.

Nine shifted uncomfortably as he stared up at the dead trees. He hated being this far east and had heard the stories of everything that had happened prior to him joining the community.

Diane took up her usual hawk-like pose, holding her rifle at the low-ready, while checking the ground for any signs of recent dead, or living, activity.

Tony stood at the bank of the large polluted pool, now filled with large rocks from a landslide caused by the cave collapse, as well as numerous burnt tree limbs deposited by the explosion. He remembered this place and how he’d first seen the Shadow Dead lining up and disappearing into the cave, which was not recognizable anymore. The once majestic waterfall had been reduced to a sickly smaller version of brown dripping sludge left over from the winter’s melting ice. As unlikely as it was, Gina had insisted on including the devastated waterfall in the patrols, making sure nothing ever tried to dig its way in. Perhaps she had feared the numerous bodies of the dead, which were now as burnt as the rest of the woods and left buried beneath the pool by all the debris, or maybe it was her nightmares of the dead re-animating beneath the water and finding their way into the tunnel just outside the control room door… either way, she made sure that the collapsed cave and the pool continued to be monitored.

“Stop looking at them if it bothers you so much,” Diane snapped, shaking her head at Nine who continued to stare at the trees as if expecting them to come back to life.

“They’re fucking creepy,” he said, turning the collar up on his jean jacket as a chill seized him. “I’d heard the stories about what went down out here… you know… Shadow Dead thingys plus yellow-eyed monsters and crazy machines that went ‘Boom’… but it was always easy to laugh that shit off. It’s seeing these damn trees that really make all those stories seem… real. It’s like this place really is…”

“What?” she said. Diane stared into Nine’s white face and smiled. “Oh, come on! Do you really think these woods are haunted?”

“Well… don’t you?” he said. “I mean… you were out here. You saw those Shadow Dead dudes. Don’t you feel it?”

Diane frowned. She looked up at the dead trees and said, “I find them… comforting.”

Nine laughed. “‘Comforting’? Really? You’ll forgive me if I don’t hold your hand all romantic-like while you connect with nature on a stroll through the apocalyptic forest.”

“That’s not what I mean, dip-shit,” she said. “I stare up at those dead trees and take comfort in knowing that if they look like ‘that’… than nothing else survived either. There was a lot of bad shit in these woods. That bomb took care of it.”

“Well… not me. I’m just glad it’s still green on our side of the forest.”

Diane turned toward Tony and stared at this back. “Just be glad you weren’t here. Some of us saw way too much of that bad shit. Some of us more than others.” She turned back to Nine. “I lost a few friends that day. Good hunters, too.”

Nine looked away. “Sorry… I forget sometimes.” He looked back up at the trees and sighed. “You know, now that you mention it, they are rather… comforting… in a creepy-as-fuck kind of way.” He looked back to Diane, his eyes going wide. “Just for future reference, please tell me that you’re not the kind of girl that likes to get all freaky in graveyards and shit?”

“What?” she said, not appreciating the shift in topic.

“I mean… I’m not totally against the idea… if that’s your thing and all-”

“Nine.”

“Yes, my angel.”

“Stop talking now.”

“Right.” He nodded with a smile and forced himself to stop staring at the trees as he moved a little closer to Diane. “I’m just saying that if you-”

She shot him a look.

“Sorry… nerves and all… I’ll just… you know… stop talking now.”

“That’s a great idea,” she said. Diane looked back at Tony who stood like a statue before the river. “Tony? Are you okay?”

He turned and smiled weakly. “Sorry… got a little lost in thought. This place brings it all back.”

She smiled and nodded. “I get it. Want to head back?”

Tony looked east, up river. “Not yet. We’ve got plenty of daylight left.”

“What are you thinking?” she said.

“Let’s go in a bit further and see what’s out there.”

“You mean… out there?” Nine said, staring east.

“Is there a problem?” Tony asked.

“No… it’s just that… well… everyone knows those woods are all haunted and shit.”

Tony’s eyebrows shot up. “‘Haunted’?” He smiled, amused.

Diane hit Nine with her elbow and shook her head. “Don’t mind him,” she said. “He doesn’t get out much.”

“Yeah,” Nine laughed and shot Diane a ‘what-the-hell’ look while rubbing his shoulder. “Too many horror movies on weekends for me. This place just makes me think of… you know… all of them put together.”

Tony laughed. “I get it.” He looked up at the trees. “I’ve been out in these woods several times and have seen some shit I wish I could ‘un-see’.” He smiled at Nine with a wink. “Haunted is as good a word as any for this place. I’m sure there’s plenty of ghosts still lurking these woods. Let’s go.” He started east along the river.

“You’re a moron,” Diane said, shaking her head. “‘Horror movies’? Really?”

“What?” he said, raising his arms. “He was kidding about the ghosts… right?”

Diane started after Tony.

Nine looked confused. “Okay… okay… off we go into the creepy-ass woods. Sure, sounds awesome!” he said to her back. “I can’t think of anything better I’d love to do… no… this works for me.”

“You coming, or do you need to change your shorts first?” she said, without turning around.

Nine laughed. “Oh… that’s good.” He hurried to catch up. “Just got burned in the burnt forest. Perfect. I think you hurt my feelings a little with that one.”

“Aw, poor baby,” Diane teased.

“It’s alright,” he said. “I forgive you. But I think a kiss is in order, you know, just to make sure my bruised ego is still intact.”

“Sorry, not in the mood right now,” she said. “But… should we find a graveyard out here… well…” She squeezed his ass.

Nine gave her a surprised look, nearly tripping over a tree root. He saw her smile and said, “You are evil, you know that?”

She laughed. “Just trying to get your mind off these big, bad scary woods, Scooby-Doo.”

Nine shook his head and laughed. “Well… first damn ghost we see, and I don’t care what color sheet it’s wearing, I’m heading back to the Mystery Machine… and your ass is walking home.”

~~~

They reached the western edge of the obliterated camp by noon, stopping before a large drop-off where the outer chain-link fence used to be.

“Woah,” Nine whispered, staring across into what remained of the dead camp.

The drop-off was actually the outer edge of a large crater where most of the camp had collapsed on top of the underground level of tunnels, and rooms beneath. The large domes which once served as housing surrounding the outer-most perimeter were charred black and disfigured, melted into strange shapes or completely blown to pieces, scattered around the camp. Toward the center of the camp, the large hangars had also collapsed, obstructing their view beyond, as piles of metal and wood lay in large black piles of hazardous debris.

Tony let out a heavy sigh. “This was as far as we got when we came here last. Gina took one look at this mess and I watched her face go pale as every horrible thing that happened to her and Frank must have flashed through her mind. I think she wanted to get closer, but there really wasn’t time and I’ll be the first to admit it… we were still scared shitless of this place. As you can see, the explosion was effective in destroying everything.” He pointed down into the crater. “Somewhere under all that mess, Gina and Frank were tortured in some hidden facility beneath. That was main reason we came back here. Myself, Gina and Marcus survived the blast by hiding in a tunnel toward the south. I think we were damn lucky that we were already at the farthest edge of the camp. But it was reasonable to assume that others might have survived by hiding underground… well… until we came and saw all this.”

Diane shook her head at the devastation. “Why? Why would they destroy their own camp?”

“Who knows for sure,” Tony said. “Maybe when Charlie showed up with his dead army, they knew they’d lost control and wanted to hide all their fucking secrets. You’re talking about a bunch of fanatics who were out here worshipping a metal god which dictated who lived and died… and who was sacrificed… in the hopes that more psychos dressed in monster suits wouldn’t just come in and eat them. Why would anyone choose to live like that? That’s the real damn question. In any case, we were satisfied by what we saw and headed back. But Gina always wanted to return and make sure this place stayed dead. Or maybe she wanted to uncover some of those secrets.”

“Like why that bomb conveniently blew up everything except the bunker we’ve been calling home?” Diane said.

“Yeah,” Tony said. “Or if our mystery door led to other places like this one, hidden beneath the ground. Again, too many secrets and mysteries left unresolved.”

“And so here we are, the lucky ones who get to play ‘hide and seek’ within the crater, hoping that we don’t fall into some underground hell,” Nine said, looking very pale.

Tony grabbed the young man’s shoulder and said, “Relax. We’re not going to get too close. Just a quick look past those destroyed hangars… you know… just to be sure the damage was complete. This place was loaded with underground tunnels. I’ve personally been inside two of them, so I know there’s a chance that if anyone else found their way out through one, like I did…”

“Then there’s always a chance they could’ve crawled their way back in,” Diane finished. “And we want to make sure they’re not alive and well, plotting our demise on the other side of this twisted place.”

Tony nodded. “Something like that. I think Gina’s main concern was that we never saw any more of those Shadow Dead fuckers… and it was always possible that they might have come back to hide here.”

“Underground?” she asked.

Tony’s grave face answered her question. “Again, just a quick look, and we’re out of here. Last thing we need it so start relocating our camp just to get attacked because we didn’t look hard enough in our backyard first. This dead place would still make a great staging area for those sick fucks wearing masks. If they’re still hiding out in these woods at all.”

“And if we find them,” Nine said, “what then? You know there’s only three of us, right?”

Tony smiled. “We’ve got the daylight on our side. These things like the dark. I don’t think they like being exposed. Besides, if I really thought they were still out here… well… we wouldn’t be here now, because they’d sure-as-shit already know that we’re here.”

“That’s fucking comforting,” Nine laughed. “So why don’t we just walk the crater and call it a day? Do we really need to go down there?”

“Tony wants a closer look and a chance at solving some of those mysteries,” Diane said, giving the big man a suspicious glance.

Tony’s eyes were far away. He finally said, “I owe it to Gina to take this place as seriously as she did. Everyone else thinks she wasted a lot of time, keeping us on edge at the threat of a Shadow Dead attack that never came. It was probably the one thing that made it easy for the community to kick her out when the opportunity arrived,” he added with a bitter tone. “The truth is, we were never attacked, and have been living fat beneath the ground while God-only-knows what the rest of the world is going through. We’ve seen a small taste of that. Most of the community have never had to worry, because Gina kept it from them. It worked against her in the end… but she still did her best to keep these… people… safe. Stephen’s doing a great job in her absence… and we need his type of leadership now. But I don’t blame Gina for keeping us ready, even if it kept us in that hole for too long. But now that she’s been kicked out, I need to know that it all meant something. That all her effort wasn’t in vain.” He looked at the two of them and finished, “I brought you two with me because I’m sure you feel the same way I do.”

Nine chimed in, “Yeah… that was all bullshit. Gina may have been a bit of a hard-ass, but I always felt she was protecting us. Keeping us on edge was just her way of keeping us alive. I don’t fault her for that. She deserved better.”

“Agreed,” Diane said. “There may come a time when all those complainers might wish Gina was still among us… especially if we’re caught with our complacent pants down.”

“And that’s why we’re here,” Tony said. “To make sure we don’t forget that there are still horrors in this world trying to kill us… even if they’re not here at the moment.” He looked down into the crater. “If she were here now, Gina would be ready for anything down there. As for myself, I just want something… anything… to take back and show these fools that Gina was right.” He took a deep breath. “Even if she was wrong about a great many other things.”

Diane and Nine left that alone.

Nine quickly changed the subject. “So… let’s go down there and get some answers… or maybe we’ll get lucky and find an extra-crispy Shadow Dead souvenir corpse that we can haul back. Then, Tony, you can say, ‘Look, Fuckers, this is why Gina needs to be here’.”

Tony and Diane both laughed. “I like you’re line of thinking and your enthusiasm” Tony said. “But I’d settle for one of those extra-crispy cow-head helmets… less to carry back.” He added a wink. “Let’s do this. In and out. Nothing stupid.”

Diane looked to Nine and repeated, “Yeah… nothing stupid.”

“What? Me? Stupid? I’d never think of it,” he said with a smile.

They carefully descended into the crater and walked across a former war zone between the living and the dead, being mindful of every step. As they maneuvered through and around debris and charred corpses, the real concern was falling through the ground level and into the collapsed cavern below. Fortunately, they made it to the center of the dead camp without incident.

Everywhere he looked, Tony was reminded of the chaos of the battle between Charlie’s dead army and Micom’s fanatical minions. He tried not to stare too long at the remains of so much death and destruction. The explosion, followed by a winter’s worth of decay, had successfully diminished the contorted shapes of bodies that were almost unrecognizable. Wood, steel, flesh and ash had all merged into one catastrophic scene as the eyes could not process the scale of so much destruction.

Tony stopped them briefly before the remains of the large hangars when he realized that they were standing in the former assembly area, where the maniac machine, Micolad, once stood on a raised platform, issuing out decrees of life and death to a defeated remnant of humanity. All that remained now was a cleared out large black patch of earth, slightly deeper than the surrounding ground—the lack of anything organic or inorganic—a clear sign of the absolute destruction which occurred in this assumed sacred area at ground zero… the legacy of Micom and Micolad, reduced to dust, ash, and nothingness. Just as it always was.

Sam would have loved to see this, Tony thought sadly.

They found a small path through the demolished hangars, being mindful of every nerve-wrecking blind spot and shadow that could hide a potential attack, until they safely made it through to the eastern side of the camp.

“Now that is some creepy shit,” Nine remarked as all three of them stopped short before the large object that dominated their view.

Surrounded on all sides by more remains of the hangars, stood a charred black willow tree, it’s entire upper half had been blown away leaving a jagged spire of black decaying wood, standing defiantly against the explosion which had ripped most of the life right out of it. Rooted deep within the earth, Mother Nature had apparently made her stand against the destructive power of man, refusing to give up its original place long before Micom, Micolad, or any of the other abominations which had manifested since The Change. But the large tree had paid a price for its defiance, now just a sickening shell of its former woodland majesty, as the dying tree now stood as a symbolic landmark of what was slowly happening to everything living in a dying world. Stripped of its former identity, it too, had become an abomination, refusing to die… or perhaps it had… but was returning to join a horde of another kind.

For Tony, this tree had been poisoned long before the explosion. All he saw was his love, chained to the tree, slowly dying, as he had nearly lost his mind with rage trying to get to Gina in time as Charlie’s horde had moved in to claim her. He and Marcus had fought hard in that place… while the cursed willow held Gina tightly.

“That’s… that’s very sad,” Diane said, in an unusually softer tone while staring at that sick wood. “It’s like it tried to hold on… and now… it’s just slowly rotting away. It would’ve been better if the explosion had knocked it down.”

“Fuck that tree. That’s where I found her,” Tony said, dismissing Diane’s sentiment. “Those sick fucks beat the life out of her, tied Gina half-naked to it, and were about to inject her and turn her into one of those poor souls we’ve found fastened to several of the trees surrounding the wilderness preserve.”

“So what the fuck?” Nine said. “We’re these losers worshipping that tree, too? What kind of sick Wiccan/Robot/Zombie worshipping religion did they practice here? Never mind… I don’t want to know.”

Diane pointed toward the base of the willow. “What’s that? Something’s sticking out of the tree.”

They moved in closer, clearing the debris field, until they were standing before the willow.

Nine stood a healthy twenty feet back, not caring if they made fun of him for it. The tree terrified him.

Tony and Diane moved in to investigate the object sticking out of the tree. Tony recognized it and froze. A blackened blade with a mangled hilt was sticking into the tree, approximately in the spot he pictured Gina’s heart would have been, if she were still hanging there.

“That’s Copperfield’s sword,” he said. “He was Micom’s right-hand man. Marcus and Gina killed that little bastard right here. Gina took the sword and used it to fight off the dead when we headed south. It shouldn’t be here, sticking in that fucking tree.”

Diane had already lost interest in the sword as she started studying the ash and dirt surrounding the tree.

“What is it?” Tony asked.

Diane gave him a puzzled look. “I’m not sure,” she said. “Sometimes it’s the absence of tracks that give tracks away. Looks old now, but definitely since the thaw… but if I had to guess… someone was here, and then brushed at the ash to hide it. It’s the way the ash sits different than the rest that gives it away.

“Are you sure?” he asked.

Diane shook her head. “No. I could just be letting this place make me paranoid.”

Tony frowned. “I’d trust your paranoid interpretation of signs, there are not, any day, hunter,” he said. Tony looked again at the sword. He was beginning to get a real bad feeling, the kind you get that makes your stomach drop right before death arrives. “We came her for answers and found more fucking mysteries. It’s time to go.”

“Oh, Christ yes!” Nine chimed in. “There’s too many dead eyes staring at me. Can’t you feel it?”

They both turned to the young man.

“He’s right,” Diane said. “Something feels ‘off’ here. Especially with this tree.”

Nine’s started to pace nervously. “Shit, girl. You’re not supposed to agree with me! Now I know this fucking place is haunted.”

“Let’s go,” Tony said. “Haunted or not, we’ll discuss it once we get the fuck out of this crater and back on our side of the woods.”

~~~

Two hours later, they reached the topside camp. They’d spoken very little about what they’d discovered, wanting only distance between themselves and that dead place. Also, Tony wanted to make sure they weren’t followed back as he and Diane deliberately altered their course several times in an attempt to throw off any potential pursuers and hide their tracks. Imagined or not, their visit into the eastern portion of the Wasteland had left them all uneasy.

“Now, don’t go blabbing to anyone about haunted woods, swords sticking in trees, or any other damn thing,” he said specifically to Nine. “We don’t need to scare people if-”

“Tony,” Diane interrupted, pointing in the direction of one of the armed sentries coming out to greet them from the topside camp. It was one of Logan’s men, Barney.

The old guard came out, puffing for air and holding a tree to catch his breath.

“Take it easy, Barney,” Tony said. “What’s the matter?”

“Stephen told me to fetch you as soon as you came back… and you all took your sweet damn time about it, too. Anyway, he wanted me to tell you the news, all ‘ASAP’ and shit, so here I am. Haven’t run like that in years, so you make sure you tell that bugger that you saw me running when I found you-”

“Barney,” Tony broke in. “The news?”

“Shit… sorry. Yeah, he wanted me to tell you that your boy, Marcus, is back. Looked like he fought the devil or something, but he’s alive. Showed up a couple hours ago. They’re waiting for you in the control room.”

Tony’s eyes lit up. He turned and found Diane and Nine’s equally surprised smiles.

~~~

Next Episode 38-6

Previous Episode 38-4

~~~

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__________________________________________
“Chapter 38-5: Healing” Copyright © 2017 Scott Scherr, from the novel, Don’t Feed The Dark, Book Four: Phantoms. All Rights Reserved.

No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission by the author.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

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