~~~

“Wake up!” The voice came from what sounded like the end of a long tunnel. Someone slapped her hard across the cheek. Diane opened her eyes. She attempted to focus. Wendy was hovering over her… no… not Wendy… something much worse.

“Nadia?” she whispered.

The tall blond smiled down at her. Nadia’s hair was a mess. Her make-up looked smeared and she was wearing a grey hoodie over a torn blue dress. “I thought I was too late,” she said, quickly wiping tears from her face with the back of a shaky hand.

Diane tried to speak.

“Just give it a minute,” Nadia said. “I’ve injected you with enough adrenaline to counter the sedatives that I’m surprised your fucking heart hasn’t exploded.”

The joke was lost on Diane. She tried to lift her head but failed. “Where… where are my friends?” she managed.

“They’re here,” she said. “They’re alright. They need a few minutes to recover… same as you.”

“Diane?” It was Tony. He sounded hungover. “You okay?”

She turned toward his voice. The big man was lying on his side, slowly attempting to sit up. “I’m here,” she said. “Hash?”

“I’m here,” Hash said from her opposite side. “My head feels like it’s on fire… but I’ll live.”

The fog was starting to clear in Diane’s mind. She stared up into Nadia’s face and said, “You killed my friend.”

Nadia shook her head. “I… I had to. She… she was infected and almost-”

“No,” Diane said. “You killed my friend when you betrayed us.”

Nadia tensed up and looked away from Diane’s cold stare. She nodded. “Yeah… I fucked up. But… but I’m here now. I came back because… because I knew I fucked everything up.”

“Get away from me,” Diane hissed. “I fucking hate you.”

Nadia looked like she’d been struck in the face. “Okay. I deserve that. But not now. First, you need to let me help you get out of here. Everything’s gone to shit topside. The streets are filled with the dead… and they’re butchering everyone.” The tall blond stood up and offered Diane her hand.

Diane reluctantly took it. Her legs felt wobbly, but she managed to stand and regain her balance. The hunter looked over at the body lying on the floor.

What used to be Wendy was turned over on her side, back facing, lying still in a puddle of blood from the gunshot wound to the side of the head.

The hunter closed her eyes. I’m so sorry. I’m so… fucking sorry.

Nadia was helping Tony to his feet. “We’re fortunate,” she started. “Once Candyman left the lab he took everyone that was left down here with him. I don’t think he realizes that New Cleveland is lost. There’s too much pride in that man. He’ll need to see it all for himself. Hopefully the dead finish them all off.”

“What the hell is happening up there?” Tony said.

Nadia gave him a look that spoke volumes. To Tony, she had the face of someone who was unable to process the level of nightmares let loose above. She shook her head. “I don’t really know. They just… they attacked and came over the walls like a flood. There’s so many of them. They’re killing… and eating people. I’ve never seen so many of these things before.”

Hash laughed, starting to rise. “I need a damn drink. This sounds like the end of a very bad day.”

Tony was attempting to clear his head. He looked over at his dead friend on the ground. No time for grieving, he thought. We get out of this town, you can hate yourself later. He looked to Diane. “Can you still fight, hunter? Sounds like we’re going to need all we have left to get out of here.”

Diane didn’t turn. She simply nodded. “And what about Nine and Joe?”

Tony didn’t know how to answer that.

Hash bailed him out. “This is war, Diane. Not our fucking war, but war nonetheless. Whatever’s happening topside sounds like the fucking battleground… and we’re clearly outnumbered. We’re not going to do Nine any favors wandering around up there, trying to find him.”

Again, Diane refused to turn away from Wendy. She nodded absently.

Hash turned to the attractive blond with the long legs. “I assume there’s a way out from down here. I seem to remember that clowned-faced bitch hinting at it when she tucked tail and ran with that Candy asshole.”

Nadia nodded. “Yes. There’s an access tunnel that runs beneath the wall. It’s hidden from the outside. We should be okay once we find it.”

Diane turned and glared at the woman. “You mean, you’ve known about this tunnel the entire time… and you said nothing?”

Nadia shook her head. “It’s not like that, Diane. If the dead hadn’t attacked, this place would’ve been heavily guarded. There’s no way we would have had a chance to use it… until now.”

“That’s convenient,” Diane hissed, taking a few steps toward the woman. “You arrive just in time, acting like you had a change of heart and came to rescue us. Truth is, once you knew Candyman evacuated the lab, you were going for the tunnel to save your own pathetic life!”

“That’s not true!” Nadia shot back.

“Bullshit!” Diane continued. “You probably got halfway down the tunnel, then realized you couldn’t make it out there for five minutes alone, then you came back for us. Isn’t that why you’re really here now?”

Nadia was about to speak then stopped.

Tony interrupted. “Look,” he said. “You two work this shit out later. We need to leave before the dead find this place.” He turned to Diane and added a little more sternly, “I need you to put this shit aside… for now. Can you do that?”

She glared at him. “Yes.” The hunter backed off.

The sound of a door slamming from up the hall coming from just outside the open laboratory door captured their attention.

“Shit!” Nadia hissed. “There’s not supposed to be anyone down here.”

“Give me your gun,” Tony said.

Nadia handed him the handgun. She backed up toward the closest wall and pulled out a small knife from her hoodie pocket.

Diane recognized the blade. It was her make-shift knife from the trailer.

They could hear resounding footfalls echoing down the hall—the sound of running—headed right toward them.

“Candyman… he must have… shit… he must have made it back!” Nadia said. “If Briana’s with him…”

“Be quiet,” Diane hissed, looking for something she could use as a weapon.

Hash started to do the same.

Tony raised the handgun toward the open door. Are we ever going to catch a break? The big man steadied himself to make another kill, silently vowing to himself that if they made it out of this alive, he’d never kill again.

A young man, out of breath, appeared in the doorway. He saw the raised gun and held up his hands. “Wait! Don’t shoot!”

Tony quickly lowered the gun, taking his finger off the trigger. “Fuck me,” he said, then laughed.

Nine lowered his hands, slumped his shoulders in relief, and smiled. “Damn, Tony. Are you trying to make me shit myself? With that smeared face-paint, you looked like the biggest fucking Lunatic I’ve ever seen—figuratively and literally.”

The big man walked over the young man, grabbed him by the shoulders, and then swallowed him up in a bear hug.

“Good to see you, too, big guy,” Nine said, trying to breathe.

Tony released him and nodded.

Diane covered her mouth, overcome with emotion. She launched herself toward the young man.

Nine saw her and started to weep. He stepped into the room and caught the hunter. They hugged each other fiercely.

“Well, shit,” Hash said with a nod and a smile. “Isn’t that something.”

Tony turned to the sergeant and smiled. “Yeah… that is something.” The big man’s eyes started to water up as he watched his two friends embrace. Guess we caught that break after all.

Nine finally let her go and stared into the hunter’s face. “You… you okay?”

She nodded. “I am now. Where’s Joe?”

Nine’s sad face spoke volumes. He shook his head as tears streamed down his cheeks. “I couldn’t… she’s… They strung her up from that rollercoaster… Herbie, too…. I saw them… I… I thought you’d all be up there… it was… it was fucking awful.”

Diane started to cry. She put her hand gently over his lips. “Okay,” she said. “Come here.”

Nine buried his face into her shoulder.

The hunter placed her hand on the back of his head and gently stroked his hair. “It’s okay,” she whispered in his ear. “I’m here. I’m here.”

Tony turned away, allowing them a moment.

Hash gave him a confused look.

He came over and said. “There was a little girl who was with Nine. Her was name was Joe.”

Hash nodded respectfully as he pieced together the rest. “Ah, shit… really? He’s killing kids now?” he said. “That’s… that’s a damn shame.” The good sergeant wiped a tear from his own eye. “Sorry,” he said. “I’ve been down here too long. It’s turned me into an emotional mess.” He looked down at his ridiculous pajamas and finished, “I already look the damn part.”

Tony laughed and put a hand on Hash’s soldier. “It’s good to have you back,” he said. “We’ve all been through hell. A little emotion can be expected.”

The good sergeant nodded.

Nadia came over to the two men. “We should leave,” she said. “Before anyone else we don’t want to see wanders down here.”

Tony nodded. He turned to the couple. “I hate to break this up… but we need to get out of here.”

Nine and Diane parted. The young man smiled at Diane and whispered, “I love you.”

“And I love you,” she quickly responded.

Nine turned to Tony. “There’s a way out from here,” he said.

“That’s what we’ve gathered,” Tony said. “Taven?”

Nine frowned. “He tricked us. That crazy fucker never intended to help.”

Tony nodded.

“Did you know? Did you know he was… a half-dead?”

“Yes,” Tony admitted.

Nine raised his eyebrows in surprise.

“We’ll talk about that later,” Tony said.

“Where’s Wendy?”

Diane gently turned his head toward the body.

“No,” Nine whispered. “Fuck!”

“The plan fell apart,” Tony said. “I’ll fill you in later. Right now, we need to leave.”

Nine shook his head. “There’s a lot of people dying in town. The dead are everywhere.”

From somewhere farther off, and above them, they all heard more sounds.

“We need to leave,” Nadia was pacing frantically. “That could be a Lunatic patrol!”

Tony’s face changed. He looked pale. “How did you get down here?” he asked Nine.

There’s a ladder at the back of Harper’s Run, I climbed it to the top and to the access door which leads right under the ride… and down here.”

“Did anyone see you?”

“No,” Nine said. “There’s hardly any Lunatics left up there. Everyone’s just trying to stay alive.” Then his face changed. “Shit!”

“What is it?” Tony said.

“It’s the dead. They’re… smarter now. I don’t know how… but they are. I’ve seen them do things we’ve never seen before.”

The sounds were getting closer.

“Did they see you?” Hash said.

“No… I was careful. But that doesn’t mean they weren’t… watching.”

“What do you mean ‘watching’?” Diane said.

Nine shook his head. “I don’t know. Maybe I’m just being paranoid, but they are smarter. Maybe they were watching to see what I’d do… and lead them in here.”

Tony looked surprised. “If they can do that…”

“…then I’m sure climbing ladders isn’t that much of a stretch,” Nine finished.

Tony nodded. “Let’s move!”

Nadia led the way as the others followed her out of the lab and down a short hallway that opened up at an intersection. She turned to the left. “Down to the right is where Candyman and Briana would’ve gone. It leads directly beneath town, near Candyman’s courtyard.”

“You’re just full of information we could’ve used before, aren’t you?” Diane accused.

Nadia ignored the shot. “The other hall leads to more cells, like the one Hash was in.”

“I know,” Nine said. “That’s the way I came in. There’s a staircase at the back end of that hall that led me down here. Those cells are full of the dead. I assumed those are the ones they use in the Race?”

Nadia nodded. “Yes.”

“And where we’re going, is that where they bring them in from outside?” he asked.

“Some of them,” Nadia said. “Others were made that way by Candyman’s… experiments.”

“This just keeps getting better,” Diane said. “So, what don’t you know?”

The sounds were getting closer.

“Sounds like whoever that is,” Nine said. “It’s coming from the stairs.”

“How far is it to the exit?” Tony said.

“Not far,” Nadia said. “Five minutes. After that, we’ll be outside the walls… and that’s the end of all that I know.”

“Understand,” Tony said. He kept looking behind them as the sounds grew closer. “We need to step it up. I don’t want to be here when whoever that is gets here.”

They picked up the pace and entered a smaller, darker tunnel.

“This might have been some old ventilation shaft,” Nadia said. “But that’s just my guess. It looks like there used to be some kind of large fan mounted at the end of this thing. It’s gone now, but the brackets are still there on a metal grating in front of the exit. It’s not secure anymore and all we’ll need to do is push it open.”

They reached the grating covering the exit hole just as the sounds behind them reached their level.

“They’re in the lab,” Hash said.

Tony stepped up to the grating, gripped the rusted mesh, and then pushed against it. The grating popped out of position. He turned it to the side and led the others outside.

“Careful,” he whispered. “We don’t know where we are… and where they are.”

The others nodded.

Tony put the grating back over the exit hole and then looked around. They appeared to be in an old dried-up riverbed, about fifty feet beneath the western wall. The riverbed was covered by thick vegetation on both sides and ample tree cover from above.

“It’s some kind of forest,” Nine said.

“We should follow the riverbed,” Diane suggested. “Looks like it will take us right into woods undetected and keep us from making too much sound.”

Tony agreed. He led them into the riverbed which ran northwest and south outside the western wall. They went northwest as the old riverbed started to curve away from the former amusement park and continued deeper into the neighboring forest.

A half an hour later, the riverbed entered a valley with slowly rising ridges on both sides. The opted for the higher ground and scaled the ridge to their left until reaching a plateau at the top and finally getting their first clear glimpse through the trees at the old serpent-looking coaster rising above the tree line. They could see several tendrils of black smoke rising with the old coaster as if that dragon had been set on fire. There was a steady breeze blowing from the direction of town. They could smell the ashes of New Cleveland.

“That should eventually put out the fires,” Hash said. “Probably won’t be much left of all those plywood palaces and trailers. Just all those amusement park relics from before.”

“Agreed,” Tony said, staring at the top curve of the sea serpent slithering up over the trees, just like on the first day they had approached New Cleveland.

They took a moment to rest and silently celebrate their hard-fought freedom and mourn the deaths of their friends.

Maybe it was the breeze, or their imaginations, but they all heard what sounded like faint, muffled screams, riding on the wind, like the voices of the slain, forever trapped in that town—new phantoms now haunting the ghost attractions of Geauga Lake for the second time.

Hash sat down next to Tony and let out a heavy sigh.

Diane and Nine sat across from them, looking equally exhausted.

“Was it just me,” Nine started, “or did anyone else hear music? I could’ve sworn I heard an old Johnny Cash song about twenty minutes ago?”

They all gave him a strange look, too tired for Nine’s jokes.

“Never mind,” he said.

Nadia prudently separated herself from their group and sat down on a ledge at the edge of the plateau, affording a breathtaking, yet terrifying view of the forest to their north. To her, it filled her with dread of the unknown. She refused to look back toward the place she’d considered home for so very long, not wanting to risk feeding the panic that threatened her now. She felt lost and out of her element… and very much alone.

“There probably wasn’t more than five-hundred of them actually in town,” Nine said. “It seemed like a lot more of the dead when they were mixed in with the crowds. But once the living population dwindled, you could tell that most of those yellow-eyed monsters stayed outside. I never would’ve made it off the streets otherwise.”

Tony shook his head in disbelief. “We saw more than five-thousand of those things out at Mosquito Creek… and it only took five-hundred to take down one town.”

“That’s some smart fucking warfare,” Hash said. “The ability to use your numbers to overwhelm the enemy from a distance and get them to use up their ammunition from the walls… without ever having to invade with but a fraction of your forces.” He shook his head. “I remember how clever those bastards were back at the power plant when they attacked. If they’ve evolved since then, and with the numbers they have now… well… the living is going to be hard pressed to survive anywhere. We’ll be lucky if the species survives another winter if those things move on from New Cleveland.”

“They will go dormant again,” Tony said. “After they get fat on New Cleveland, they’ll go back to sleep, or hibernate, or whatever the fuck that is… just like what we saw them doing at Mosquito Creek.”

“Until the next time, or the next town?” Nine said.

Tony shook his head sadly. “Yeah. Something like that.”

Diane stared over at the tall blond and then excused herself. She sat down next to Nadia and gazed out over the vast forest.

Nadia shifted uncomfortably at the heavy silence between them. “So,” she finally said. “Is this the part where you all vote on whether to take me with you to wherever you’re going, or just kill me for exposing your plans to Candyman?” She’d meant it as a joke that became less funny when she considered how acute how observation may have been. “Again, I’d like to point out that I did come back for all of you,” she finished.

Diane didn’t say a word.

“I’m sorry… about your friend. I wish I’d been able to get there sooner. But I had to wait until Candyman left. You do understand that, right?”

“Why did you take my knife?”

Nadia found the question strange. “Okay,” she said. “That was out of nowhere.”

Diane turned and stared. “Did you take it when you took my map and showed it to Candyman? Was it some kind of trophy for fooling the dumb gimp girl into trusting you?”

“No!” she said defensively. “No… I wouldn’t do that!” Nadia retrieved the blade and held in her lap. She stared down at it and shook her head, struggling to find the words. She glanced over at Diane’s jacket and said, “I guess it’s like that jacket your man gave you. After I did what I did… I felt ashamed. I felt weak. I never intended to tell him anything… but he knew I was hiding something… and I was afraid. After I told him your plan, I was afraid for you and thought I’d never see you again. So… I took the knife to remember you.”

“Because you love me,” Diane said flatly, turning away.

Nadia stared at her, stricken by her cold words. “Yes,” she said. “Is that so hard to believe?”

“You don’t betray the ones you love.”

“I told you… I was afraid-”

“Better to die for someone you care about it then take trinkets to feed your selfish affections. Were you just going to stare at that silly thing, like you’re doing now, and remember our shopping day together… and forget that you got me killed?”

“I… I don’t know what to say,” Nadia said. She held out the knife to her. “Here. Take it.”

Diane reached over and took the knife. “You know what I see when I look at this horrible thing?”

Nadia remained quiet.

“I’m reminded of that cruel man who dehumanized me and terrorized me and how badly I wanted to kill him every damn night.” She looked over at Nadia. “Did you two arrange that whole rape scene just to get me to confide in you?”

Nadia refused to answer.

Diane looked away. “That’s what I thought.” She looked over at Nine. He was staring absently down at his feet. “I’ve never seen him in so much pain,” she told her. “That girl, Joe, meant a lot to him.”

Nadia looked over at Nine.

“That little girl’s death is on your hands, too” Diane said. “Herbie, Wendy, Joe… is there anyone else you’ve killed today with your lies?”

Nadia sighed. “I know you hate me for what I did. I hate myself for what I did. I just hope… I don’t know… that maybe… you can forgive me someday. Maybe I can make up for-”

Diane turned and quickly stabbed the woman three times with the blade, twice in the chest and once in the throat, retracting the knife like a viper after striking.

Nadia turned in shock, grabbed at her throat, and started to gasp for air.

The others were stunned by Diane’s unexpected violence. By the time they got up to stop her, it was over.

Nadia reached over for Diane’s shoulder.

The hunter shrugged her off.

Nadia fell forward and off the ledge, rolling down the ravine.

Diane watched the woman fall. She lifted the make-shift blade and tossed it off the ledge. “I don’t forgive you,” she whispered.

Before the others could say anything, multiple explosions coming from New Cleveland captured everyone’s attention.

~~~

Next Episode 52-11

Previous Episode 52-9

~~~

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__________________________________________
“Chapter 52-10: Sodom” Copyright © 2019 Scott Scherr, from the novel, Don’t Feed The Dark, Book Six: Mother. 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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