~~~

By early afternoon, when Diane was fit enough to travel, they continued west along Route 322, passing several old neglected farms on large fields slowly being reclaimed by nature. Everywhere they looked told the same story: Society’s complete economic and social breakdown as Mankind, whether by the dead or by the elements, was slowly fading away. Places once maintained for generations were now silent graveyards of rot, rust and weeds.

The early morning sun had gone into hiding as a storm front moved in. A dark overcast sky accentuated they’re gloomy moods as everyone kept to themselves, slowly trudging along the desolate highway.

No one considered investigating the farms, or the occasional house along the way, as an understandable distrust and dread of discovering the living rivaled stirring the dead in those dark abodes. They had plenty of food and water, and a few more weapons acquired from the Greenman house, and they intended to keep their supplies… and their lives… by sticking to the roadway, eyes forward, and quickly passing every former dwelling like ghosts.

“A car would be nice,” Mark grumbled to Wendy’s left as he stared ahead at the endless road, riddled with fading yellow dashes that mocked their every tired step. Himself, Wendy and Matthew were walking a few feet ahead of Tony and Nine, who were moving much slower to help Diane. Alysa took up the rear with her bow drawn, waiting for threats from everywhere.

Wendy said nothing as she tried to forget about the heavy pack she was wearing.

“I mean… it’s like some sick joke,” Mark continued, readjusting the weight of his own heavy pack on his shoulders. “All this open highway, and here we are, walking our asses off. I’m starting to feel like that thirsty guy stranded at sea, surrounded by water he can’t drink. Annie didn’t have a car… nothing working at the Pendleton place either. And every time we see one along the road, it’s either missing keys, out of gas, the battery is dead, or the engine’s flooded.” He looked to his left at the latest two-story home set back down a long gravel driveway. There was a Ford pick-up truck in the drive, guarded by unknown residents hidden behind foreboding dark windows and nerve-wracking silence. “Take that truck, for example,” he continued, while no one cared to listen. “There’s probably a key hanging just inside the front door… ripe for the taking. But we just keep on going, afraid of our own damn shadows.”

“Then go check it out,” Matt finally said from behind him, his irritation evident. “And if you manage to not get eaten by the dead, or jumped by the living for all the shit you’re carrying, and still find keys for that truck, and if it even runs, then we’ll all sing your praises from here on out.”

Mark shot him a dirty look.

Matt gave him one in return.

“Take it easy,” Wendy said. “This is the last thing we need right now. Tony doesn’t want us taking any more risks, especially with Diane struggling to keep up.”

Mark shook his head and laughed. “He should’ve thought of that sooner. Then maybe Beverly-”

“Shut your mouth!” Wendy stopped and cautioned. “Not a fucking word about that… do you hear me?”

Mark looked like he was about to challenge the short young woman, but held back when he saw the seriousness in her face. “Whatever,” he finally said, pushing on ahead of them.

Wendy took a deep breath, regretting that she stopped as the weight of her pack felt heavier.

Matt held up next to her. “You… okay?”

She gave him a half-hearted smile. “I should be asking you that.”

He frowned, feeling the weight of his own pack. “I’ll be fine… when I can get this pack off my back and sleep for a thousand years.”

She laughed. “At least we’re useful now. Although I never pictured myself as the group ‘pack animal’.”

Matt smiled weakly. “Let’s keep moving before the others catch up. I can’t look at her without losing my shit.”

Wendy glanced back at Diane. She was walking in between Tony and Nine with her arm, her only arm, wrapped around Nine’s shoulder. The stub of her other arm was wrapped in gauze and buried within a light rain coat. The once fierce hunter of the group hardly looked up from the road as Nine occasionally tried to talk to her. Tony stayed close, his rifle out, guarding the young woman like a hawk. When she did look up, her face was a mixture of pain and deep sadness, partially obscured behind her brown hair. She briefly met Wendy’s gaze and quickly looked away, feeling humiliated, like some freak show spectacle.

Wendy turned away, feeling her heart sink and wiping a tear from her eye. “That poor girl,” she whispered to Matt. “She hasn’t said a word since waking up.”

“Careful,” Matt said, staring to move. “Don’t let her hear you talking like that… or see that pity-face your wearing. That’s all it will take.”

Wendy started moving. “‘All it will take’?”

The young man frowned, staring off into nowhere. “We all have our limits. I’ve already reached mine. She’s probably very close to hers.”

“And what does that mean, exactly?” Wendy pushed.

Matthew said nothing.

~~~

Tony was the only one who appreciated the seemingly endless road before them. It allowed him time to process his conflicted and heavy thoughts while trying to figure out their next move. If there was anything he hated most about being the leader, it was that he always had to be ready at a moment’s notice to make some dreadful decision that might cost them something if he chose wrong. For as long as they remained on the road, those choices seemed easier… linear: Just keep moving, or stop and risk dying.

He stared up at the storm clouds. They would have to stop soon and find shelter. The thought filled him with anxiety, causing him to second guess every decision as they passed each home that offered a roof… and the devil only knew what else.

He focused on Diane instead. “How are you holding up?”

Nine gave him a wary look.

Too late.

“I’m fine,” she snapped, refusing to look in his direction. “Just like the last damn time you asked… and the time before that.”

Tony was about to speak, but wisely remained silent.

“In fact… I’m feeling fucking peachy, if a new adjective will shut you the hell up. Why don’t you stop staring at me like I’m some fragile china doll, and find something else to worry about.” She coughed from the exerted effort to speak.

Tony backed off and let the two of them walk ahead. Shit. She’s right. I’m smothering her… making her feel… weak.

“I would’ve put an arrow in your ass the second time you asked that pointless question,” Alysa said, stepping up beside him. “But she’s a lot more generous than me.”

Tony turned to the archer with the stone face, failing to initially catch her dead-pan humor. “You know… just when I’m starting to like you again, you start to piss me off.”

She gave him a wicked smile. “So… perhaps I should ask: How are you holding up?”

“You’re such a bitch” he said with a laugh.

Alysa shrugged her shoulders. “I’ve been called worse. Seriously though, lay off the hunter. She needs time to ‘adapt’, and that won’t happen until after she has time to ‘accept’, first.”

“Accept what?”

“That she’s a warrior who’s lost her ability to fight.”

Tony felt the heaviness left behind by that horrible truth.

“Warriors don’t have much else,” Alysa continued. “In my former life, if what happened to Diane happened to one of us, the expectation was that one of our comrades grant us an efficient death.”

“Sounds harsh. Must have sucked to get wounded as a Shadow Dead.”

Alysa gave him a puzzled look. “You speak of things you can’t possibly understand. In our Order, being a warrior is everything. It’s a sign of deep respect to be put to death after receiving a serious wound.” She nodded toward Diane. “What she’s going to suffer through now, and all the debilitating shame to follow, is worse than death among my kind.”

“She’s tough. She’ll get through this,” Tony said. “She past the worst of it. Her wound is no longer life-threatening.”

“Would you allow a bird with broken wings to live, knowing that it will never fly again? Is that kindness? Mercy? Or just cruel?”

Tony gave her a hard look. “Diane’s more than just a warrior… hell… I hope we all have a chance to stop fighting one day. She’ll eventually figure this out and adapt… as you say. We’ve all had to adjust to a great many things since this shit started.”

“Yes, but a warrior is different than most. The rest of you fight because you must. A warrior fights because it’s all she is.”

Tony looked at Diane and Nine. He smiled. “She has more to live for than that. You’re wrong about her. Diane’s not like you.”

Alysa flinched at his cold words, surprised by her own vulnerable response. “You mock me. Fine. But if you’re wrong about your friend. She will suffer.”

“Diane will ‘accept’ what she has to… like we all have had to do… and ‘adapt’ accordingly. Perhaps you’re the one who needs to re-evaluate things, especially since you’re no longer a Shadow Dead. Remember?”

Alysa turned away. “Perhaps. But I am a warrior… and I will die as one. Shadow Dead, or not.”

“And when the fighting is done, what then?” Tony pushed. “What does a warrior do, then?”

The archer had no response. She glanced into Tony’s sincere eyes, and found no contempt this time. Somehow, she’d allowed the focus of their conversation to fall directly on her, making her uncomfortable.

She turned away, guards firmly back in place. “Should that time come, and we are both still breathing… you can ask me that again. But until then, it’s irrelevant.”

Tony laughed lightly and stared at the quiver on her back. “You are quick. I didn’t even see you pull out that ‘arrow of avoidance’ and open fire.”

Alysa shook her head. “I have many arrows.” She deliberately made a show of looking at his ass. “And that is increasingly becoming a better target for many of them if you continue down this road.”

Tony laughed.

Alysa released a genuine smile, and then quickly caught herself doing it. She stopped abruptly, stone face intact, and said, “Go on ahead. You’re distracting me.”

“Yes, Sir.” He mock saluted, walking ahead. “But don’t think for a minute that I don’t know what you’re really doing back there.”

She gave him a puzzled look. “Explain?”

Tony didn’t say a word.

She caught herself staring at his ass and then rolled her eyes. Another rare smile broke through her stony exterior.

~~~

They made it to the outskirts of Wayne Township by midday. The sky was so dark it felt like early evening.

Tony’s concern at this point was finding shelter before the storm broke. But he continued to show reluctance as they passed each dead-looking home along the road, believing that their lack of encountering the dead out in the open only meant that they were either roaming the open fields or lying dormant in houses, just waiting for the living to step inside and stir them to violence.

Mark called back from the front of the group, pointing toward a long narrow stretch of open field to their left. “I see something,” he said. “Not sure what to make of it.”

Tony and the others caught up with him.

Mark pointed to several sets of wide tire tracks that veered off the roadway and through the field.

Diane, who was feeling less pain now thanks to a stash of Annie’s painkillers they’d brought with them from her bunker, knelt down to investigate the tracks. “Looks like one large truck… maybe two other smaller ones. Tracks are a month old, maybe longer.”

Wendy’s eyes lit up. “Remember Annie’s story? She described a group of people in front of her home, driving trucks. Maybe it’s the same people we’re looking for?”

“Maybe they’re just waiting for us to step into that field so they can blow our heads off,” Mark added. He then pointed further into the field. “Look there. I can’t tell what those are, but there’s several of them, all in a line at the back of the field.”

“Those are targets,” Alysa said, squinting her eyes. “Specifically, archery targets.”

Nine laughed, pointing to the archer’s diminishing supply of arrows on her back. “That’s some well-timed good luck. Looks like you’ll be able to re-stock on a few arrows… assuming we check it out.”

Alysa gave the young man a thoughtful look, and then turned to Tony. “What do you want to do?”

Tony was staring past the targets to where he thought he saw the side of a building nestled just inside the tree line.

Diane found another piece of the puzzle when she noticed an old crushed sign buried in the tall grass. She pulled it out, struggling with her one hand, and let it fall on the road.

Mark came over and read the sign. “Dunbarr’s Archery and Guns.” He raised his eyebrows to Tony. “If our murderous friends are still there… and if they weren’t armed… they are now.”

“They’re long gone,” Diane said. “There’s tracks going in and coming back out again. They probably understood what they found, looted the place, and moved on.”

Tony nodded and then stared up at the ominous sky. “Weapons or not, we need shelter soon. Anything we find is a plus.” He nodded toward the field. “There’s a structure back there, hidden from the road. I say it’s worth exploring. I’m not looking forward to spending the night out in this fucking storm. I believe Diane is right. Those fuckers are long gone… but there may be some clues left behind telling us where they went.” He turned to Alysa. “What do you think?”

The archer was caught by surprise. She turned toward the field. “I could use a few more arrows. There could still be a huge surplus of overlooked weapons or ammunition there. I say it’s worth the risk… but we will be exposed. I recommend going in quietly—blunt weapons only. That way, if we encounter the dead, we won’t bring the rest of this town’s dead residents right to us with gunfire.”

“Agreed,” Tony said, removing one of several hunting knives they acquired from the Greenman stash. He still had the fire axe, holding it in his other arm. He addressed the others. “We stick together and make sure the area is safe and secure before we do anything else.”

The others nodded, retrieving their own knives, looking entirely awkward holding them. Mark also had a long metal pipe, Matthew—a crowbar, and Nine had a wooden baseball bat he’d grabbed from the room of one of Annie’s boys.

“I feel all ‘Lord of the Flies’ like,” Nine said, holding his large knife and the bat.

Diane gave him a weak smile and shook her head.

She was caught off guard when Tony walked up to her and held out a handgun. “I’m hoping for the no-gunfire approach… but… just in case, I want us ready.”

She stared at the weapon and then at Tony, waiting for him to realize the obvious.

“Take it,” he said. “You’re probably still better left-handed then these kids are with two hands.”

Diane was about to speak, but then nodded, accepting the weapon like a good soldier.

Tony left her standing there and walked up to the front where Alysa had her bow loaded and ready. “That was a good thing,” she said.

“What’s that?” Tony asked.

“Showing her that you still have confidence in her might help her find it in herself.”

“That was the idea. Ready?”

The archer nodded, and then took point as she crouched down low and ventured into the field. The others followed, trying to use the tall grass as concealment.

~~~

“My God,” Matt whispered, stopping with the others.

“That’s some fucked-up shit,” Mark added when they were close enough to the six archery targets to make out four bodies pinned on the targets with arrows through their chests.

Wendy put her hands to her mouth. Her face went pale. “Are they… are they…”

“No,” Alysa said, beating her to the question. “They haven’t turned. Whoever they were… they were alive when this happened. They’re really dead now.”

They all cautiously approached the targets.

Nine counted the targets again to avoid staring into four faces with tortured expressions, eyes wide
open—one man, a woman, and two teenage girls. They had all been stripped naked before being executed. “Six,” he said. “That’s not a good sign… at all.” He started looking around nervously.

Tony forced himself to examine the faces of each suspended victim. “They’re not our people,” he finally said. “Probably local. Fucking animals!”

Alysa removed one of the arrows from the chest of a blond-haired teen and examined it. “Some of these are still good.” She started removing the arrows and placing them in her quiver. The dead teen’s body fell limp to the grass.

“What’s the matter with you?” Wendy said, causing the archer to stop. “You just… you just plucked those arrows out of that poor dead girl like she wasn’t even there!”

Alysa stared at the odd-looking woman with the glasses, trying to figure out what she’d done to offend her.

Wendy huffed in frustration and then walked up to the fallen teen lying all distorted in the tall grass. She grabbed her cold, rotting arms and pulled her away from the target until she was lying flat on her back. Wendy crossed the dead girl’s arms in front of her chest, trying to restore some sense of dignity. “I need something to cover her up,” she said, wiping tears from her face.

“What are you doing?” Alysa asked. “She’s dead, and doesn’t care what you do to her body.”

“Just… just shut up… please,” Wendy said.

Nine found an old tarp and dragged it over to the targets. “Here. We’ll take them down and cover them up with this.” They reluctantly began removing arrows from the corpses.

Alysa shook her head. “Was I not doing that already?” She resumed removing arrows until the bodies were all lying in the grass.

Nine, Mark and Matthew pulled the large tarp over the remains.

Tony and Diane were investigating the side of the structure just passed the tree line. The rusted green aluminum siding blended well with the surrounding foliage. After walking the perimeter of it, and finding two sturdy locked doors, they ended up back where they started.

Diane looked up toward the top of a two-level home, converted into a place of business. “Roof looks intact. Place is old, but well concealed from the road.”

Tony pointed toward a large two-car garage door. “That’s our way in. If nothing else, we could secure the garage and stay in there tonight.”

The hunter looked at him. “Are you expecting trouble?”

He turned back toward the targets. The others were standing around the large tarp. It looked like Wendy was praying or speaking on the victims’ behalf. Alysa, obviously wanting nothing to do with it, focused on filling her quiver with arrows. “Those poor souls under the tarp were probably the last ones trying to hide out here. Didn’t go well for them. I just want to be extra careful before we start sneaking around in dark, tight hallways.”

“There could be a shit-load of weapons scattered around the house,” Diane said.

“First things first.” Tony moved in front of the garage door, held up his axe, and used it to tap on the door five times. He then put his ear to the door and listened.

The others started over. Diane held a finger up to her mouth until they understood what Tony was doing.

“I hear something shuffling around in there,” he said. “I think I woke a couple of dead-heads up. They sound sluggish… clumsy.” He was already considering calling the whole thing off and leaving.

“We can handle a couple,” Diane said. “Just lure them outside and take them from behind.”

Tony turned back and looked at the hunter’s missing arm, before quickly averting his eyes.

Diane caught the glance, frowned, and let her shoulders sag. “When I say ‘we’ I meant the rest of you… obviously. I can cover you with the handgun if things get out of hand.”

“No gunfire,” Alysa reminded them. “I’ll stand back with Diane.” She raised her bow as a reminder.

“I don’t need your protection,” the hunter hissed.

Alysa raised her eyebrows. “Of course. I was only being tactical. Go ahead and join the others at the door if you wish.”

Tony and Diane exchanged a look.

“Forget it,” she said, shaking her head. “Let’s just do this already. I’ll hang back.”

Tony tried to pull up the door and barely budged it. He waved Mark, Matt and Nine over. He whispered, “It’s stuck… feels like something’s jammed into the rails. We’ll lift it up slowly, just enough to see what we’re dealing with first.” He turned to Wendy. “You, take a peek beneath and tell us what you see.”

Wendy nodded nervously.

Tony turned back to Alysa and Diane. They both had their weapons out and nodded.

When they were all in place in front of the door, Tony signaled them to lift.

They grabbed on to the outside handles and raised the heavy door a few inches. The door squealed on its rusty track.

Wendy was lying prone on her belly, several feet away from the door, trying to peer inside. “It’s too dark. Just a little more…”

They raised it a foot.

Wendy almost had enough light to work with. “Wait… I see movement in there!”

“How many?” Tony asked.

Two feet.

She squinted her eyes and then they went wide as everything came into focus. She scampered back on her hands and knees. “Close it! Close the damn door!”

Before the others had time to react, at least twenty pairs of rotting arms shot out from beneath the garage door, latching on to their ankles.

“Let it go!” Tony shouted.

They did. But the garage door remained open.

“It’s stuck!” Matt yelled, trying to use one foot to kick off dead hands from around his other foot.

Tony was swinging his axe down at the flailing arms reaching out for him.

Mark managed to get free, but foolishly stepped directly in front of Alysa line of fire. She lowered the bow with a curse. “Move!”

“Shit!” Nine yelled. He tried to back away as two rotted hands grabbed both of his ankles, causing him to fall backwards on his ass. Four long sickly arms started moving up his legs, decrepit hands latching on to his pant legs, attempting to pull him under the door.

Diane could see their mangled faces pressed up against the gap in the door, howling and hissing and drooling with lust, as they gnashed their decomposed teeth at the air, trying to push their way out to tear into flesh. They looked like patients in an insane asylum all crammed into a single room—their dark sunken eyes, feverish for blood.

When Nine fell, the young hunter panicked. She couldn’t get a clear shot with her handgun, not without risking a bad shot with her non-shooting hand. She ran toward the door, obstructing Alysa’s view.

“What the hell are you doing?” Alysa shouted.

Nine was frantically swinging his bat, trying to swat the hands away from his lower legs while trying not to get cut on grime and blood-stained fingernails. “Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!”

Tony couldn’t get a clear shot with his axe without risking cutting Nine’s legs off. He was still trying to free himself from the horde of violent hands.

And then Diane was there, sitting behind Nine. She wrapped her one good arm around his neck and started to pull him back. “Let go, fuckers!”

“Get… get back!” he tried to warn her, as the hunter started cutting off his air supply.

The extra force was enough. Nine got loose and scurried back away from the disgusting assault of arms.

Tony also hacked his way loose and then helped Matt and Mark get free. Before he had time to register what was happening, Tony looked back at the archer, who was loosing arrow after arrow, super-fast, into the dead things crawling out from beneath the door.

When she was finished, a line of twenty zombies lay motionless spread out before the base of the door with arrows sticking out of their rotting skulls.

“Fuck!” Tony shouted, “They never made a damn sound when I banged on the door!”

Wendy, shaking, got back down and peered beneath the door again. “It’s because they couldn’t move, most of them…”

“What?” Tony got down to see what she was looking at.

“They were under the pile,” she said, her face going pale.

Tony got closer to the door, pulled out a flashlight, and then leaned down, nearly gagging from the repulsive odor that escaped beneath.

“Careful,” the archer advised.

The big man ignored her and got a good look. “She’s right,” he said with a cough. “They were trapped under a pile, until we gave them an opening to get out.”

“A pile of what?” Mark asked.

Tony stood back up. “There’s more bodies in there then I can count, stacked on top of each other. The only reason they haven’t turned-”

“The only reason they haven’t turned is because they were food for the others,” Alysa finished.

Tony nodded at her. “Looks that way.”

“What happened here?” Matthew asked.

Tony shrugged his shoulders at the young man. “There was something else. I could just make it out on the back wall. Some kind of message, written in bold uppercase letters… and in blood.”

“What message?” Mark asked.

PAY THE LUNATICS OR FEED THE DEAD,” he said.

They all paused, needing a moment to digest the cryptic message.

Diane and Nine stood back oblivious to the situation. “You okay?” she asked, checking him for bite marks.

“I’m fine,” he said. “Just took a bite to my ever-depreciating ego.”

“I… almost lost you,” she said, looking at the ground. “I tried to shoot them, but-”

“It’s okay,” he said. “Your damn choke hold did the job. My neck’s going to be sore, but I’m sure you’ve wanted to choke me out on more than one occasion.”

“Stop making jokes. This is serious.”

His face changed. “What’s the matter?”

“You know what’s the matter. That was the first time I couldn’t keep you safe.” She looked at the stump of her missing arm in disgust. “How am I supposed to keep doing this… when I’m half a woman now?”

Nine shook his head and smiled. He embraced her and then finally answered, “You’ll adapt. You always do. I know how strong you are… and your arm has nothing to do with it.”

“But that was the first time I didn’t know what to do,” she said, wiping a tear from her eye. “Before, I never doubted, never hesitated.”

“And you didn’t this time either,” he said. “You still pulled me out of there.”

She smiled at him.

He smiled back. “There we go.”

“You’re still an idiot, and most of the time you say things that make my eyes hurt.”
He laughed. “Go on… laud me with accolades.”

She laughed. “But… I just wanted to say… thank you.”

“For what?”

“For not making me feel… less.”

He kissed her and then brushed her hair back with his hand. “I like it when you’re not playing the tough girl all the time. But don’t worry, I won’t blow your cover, my angel.” He added a wink.

She shook her head.

Tony announced, “I’ve seen enough to know that this place isn’t safe. We’re leaving. From the looks of that garage, there probably isn’t anything worth risking our lives to salvage here.”

They were all in agreement.

Alysa quickly started pulling arrow shafts out of the dead while the others gathered their belongings.

“Maybe we’ll find something in town,” Tony added. “Let’s try and beat this rain.” He started back across the field, the others in tow. He couldn’t shake the massacre image of that garage or the message he read on the wall.

Lunatics?

And now they had a name for the murderers they were pursuing.

~~~

Next Episode 41-2

Previous Episode 40-8

~~~

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__________________________________________
“Chapter 41-1: Siege” Copyright © 2017 Scott Scherr, from the novel, Don’t Feed The Dark, Book Five: Remains. 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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