Two heads ducked behind the remains of the wooden fence as Alex rode down the street on his bike. In a bygone age, it had been a privacy fence to protect the suburban oasis of swimming pool, swing set, and deck from nosy neighbors. Now, the crumbling monument to the old order offered a place for the two men to hide. .
Night was fully upon them, but the sight of the silhouette holding the tall scythe made them take pause. Neither of them spoke until the man turned and walked into the darkness.
“What do you think he told him?” The bigger of the two men gritted. Appearing to be in his late twenties, he was bald with a scruffy face and bad teeth.
The other one was closer to Alex’s age. Everything about him was sleek and smooth. His voice was still as much of a boy’s as it was a man’s. “Will you relax, Dale. I’m sure he told him the same thing he told us. Be there at sun up in three days.”
His comrade growled.
Jimmy looked over at the older man. “What do you expect? His daughter’s a redhead. He has to make sure her husband is strong. Everyone will want her.”
When the bald man didn’t answer, Jimmy wasn’t sure what to make of it. He didn’t think his cousin understood the seriousness of the situation. “If Mr. Teeblum doesn’t follow the courtship rules, he’ll have a riot on his hands.”
Dale’s cold smile and dark words sent a feeling of unease down the younger man’s spine. “I don’t want to marry her. I just want some of that…” He licked his lips and let his words trail into another dark thought. “When I’m done, he can have her body back.”
The grim thought made Jimmy more aware of the chill in the night. He was glad the chosen suitor would have to earn the token to gain entrance to the Forbidden Zone. Hopefully, Dale could be stopped. His cruelty frightened the younger man. Jimmy knew his threats of savagery could not be dismissed. Cora deserved a better man.
“I’m not playing this little game,” Dale hissed. “She will be mine!”
Jimmy tried to conceal his fear, but there was no hiding the innocence in his wide, childlike eyes. “You try and go over there now, and he’ll think you’re stupid for being out this late. He won’t give his daughter’s hand to an idiot.”
Dale pulled a folded brown piece of paper out of the back pocket of his jeans. In the old order it was grocery bag. Slowly, he unfolded it, running his eyes across the hand-drawn image. “I’ve got a map to sneak into the arena. And I know where some good shit is.”
Jimmy brushed his dirt-crusted bangs out of his eyes. “Man, nobody gets into the Forbidden Zone until Black Friday. You’re crazy!”
“I’m not walking in the front door, dumb ass,” Dale spat condescendingly.
Jimmy wasn’t like his cousin in many ways and his words showed it. “Man, you can’t go in there alone. It only works if large numbers go in to fight the crowds of the dead. They will be eating your ass in no time. Think about it, man.”
Dale’s evil grin spread like the dark embrace of a hungry corpse. He aimed it at Jimmy with vicious intent. “You think you’re gonna get some of that sweet Cora, don’t you?” He flicked his tongue, crudely taunting the teenager, truly frightening him.
Jimmy stuttered briefly. “No man, you’ll never make it. Think about it.” He was torn. Dale had kept him alive in many situations; killed for supplies and shelter. He had no conscious and would do anything. Jimmy wasn’t like that. He had his limits and might not even make it alone. But he had seen Cora at the trading market and the Church. From the very first time she had melted his heart. She made him feel something he had never felt before, something incredible, something peaceful.
Dale gloated as he folded the map. “I’ll be in and out with some good gifts that will make her stupid father think I’ve got resources to keep his little girl safe.”
He pushed the map deep in his pocket. “Really, it’ll just be enough to get her to spread her legs.”
Jimmy didn’t move. He was cold with fright. His heart raced with revulsion as he watched Dale walk away from him.
Hopelessly, he slumped. He knew he didn’t have a chance. There were too many suitors for his princess’ hand. Even worse, he knew none of them could win out over the wicked intent of Dale. For a second he entertained killing his cousin. He even reached for the knife strapped to his leg, but he quickly thought better of it. He’d seen Dale kill three boys with nothing but his fists.
Dale’s motorcycle roared to life and drove off into the distance until the engine could no longer be heard. The thought of his sweet Cora filled him with that peace, that warmth, that nothing had ever brought him in his hard existence. In silence he prayed for God to let the dead eat Dale. He didn’t care what the cause, just kill him. Cora deserved better.
# # #
The dark-skinned, young woman kept low to the ground as she darted from one patch of shadow to another. Her squirrel skin moccasins concealed the sounds of her steps in the cool night. The dangling, black ribbon tying her dreadlocks back hung down the side of her neck and rested across her leather secured bosom. She knelt on her fit legs bending from her short tunic of animal skins. The quarter staff in her hand hung at her side as she surveyed the night. Her slingshot and pouch were secured to her tunic.
Had Stephanie been to read, the meaning of the sign would have been lost to her. In the old world, The Graves Gilbert Clinic had been a state of the art medical facility. Under the darkness of a midnight sky, covered by unruly vines, it was debris. The surrounding parking lot of the three story building was empty of cars. A few sections of asphalt were broken. It was the poles that made the Sick Beds different from every other place in Bowling Green. They were spaced generously enough that a traveler could pass through them without difficulty. They were about twelve feet tall. Two to three foot lengths of chain dangled from the top of each pole as they stood like quiet sentries around the structure.
Old woman Carter had been the one to tend to the sick as long as Stephanie could remember. The people in town called her a witch. Many were scared of her and didn’t even like to say her name. But when a loved one was sick beyond all hope, trembling hands rang the bell of her domain.
She could hear the chains tapping the poles in the night wind.
One of the poles on the far side of the house of the Sick Beds had the unmistakable dragging form of a zombie standing next to it. The uncoordinated arms slapped at something hanging from the chain. The undead was fixated. It’s slow movements were several feet below reaching the hanging item, but it never stopped. The creature waited, head turned upward in total attention.
Clinging to the night swaths around the parking lot, Stephanie made her way to the target. Stragglers should always be killed. It was as true as the sun rose in the East and set in the West. If stragglers died, hordes never formed.
For a clear shot, she had to break from the cover of trees and walk out onto the open field of tall metal poles. Stephanie closed the distance quickly from about fifty feet away. She was able to make out a human arm hanging from the chain. It swung haphazardly as the dead creature bumped into the pole with its clumsy attempts at getting the appendage.
She kicked something, and it scraped and bounced across the ground. The night silence was broken as the huntress dropped her staff, clattering at her feet. The die had been cast. Surprise had been lost, and Stephanie pulled the slingshot from her tunic. Her other hand fished a hefty iron nut from her bullet pouch.
The zombie made a staggering turn in her direction. Its dead lips parted, and a moan spilled into the midnight air. Stephanie had heard that sound countless times before, but it never failed to send her heart pounding. She wasn’t foolish enough not to fear the dead. Her practiced hand put bullet to slingshot, and she drew back an arm’s length.
Her eyes sized up the weak spots of the rotten body. This one was in bad shape, and by the look, it had been dead a long time. The muscles of the naked corpse were dry, restricting its movements. Its spine was crooked causing it to lean to the left.
The hand holding the slingshot adjusted in response to the spot she found, a piece of gleaming white femur was visible.
Stephanie released the iron nut, and the sling shot fired with incredible power. A crack of bone filled the night as the creature topped over on its broken leg. Unaffected by pain, the corpse waved and flailed mechanically.
The sling shot dropped to the ground as Stephanie snatched up her heavy quarter staff. She brought down a thunderstorm of blows to the grounded corpse. Her two-handed strikes dislocated both of the zombie’s arms at the shoulder.
Fully aware of the presence of food, its jaws snapped loudly as it bit at nothing. Bone gnashed and gnashed again and again. It had been years since the teeth had broken away. The zombie’s drive to kill held no understanding that it was powerless to feed ever again.
The sharpened point of her staff slammed into the eye of the zombie, bursting out the back of its head. Dark liquid splashed across the earth beneath it, and the corpse stopped moving.
Several savage blows from her staff scattered the bones and dried muscle. Her excitement subsided, and Stephanie stood alone once again surveying the nightscape around her. She picked up the iron bolt from the ground and placed it back in her pouch. Bullets were too hard to come by to be wasted.
As she moved swiftly toward the house of the Sick Beds with quarter staff in hand, the young woman made sure her slingshot and bullets were secure. Where one corpse walked, there could be others. Something drew them together, sound, smell, a faint memory of companionship from when they lived, no one knew, but the dead gathered.
A large door took shape in the darkness before her. Mounted on the brick wall beside it was a bell with a piece of rope hanging from it. As she clanged the bell, her heart beat fast again. She felt like she were announcing to all the flesh eaters and all the criminals she was vulnerable if they wanted to attack.
From somewhere slightly above her Stephanie heard a muffled voice. “Who comes to the Sick Beds?”
“It’s me, Stephanie,” she said politely in hurried fashion. She wasn’t scared of the witch, but the woman never forgot who she was dealing with. Old woman Carter was not an enemy she wanted.
There was movement behind the door. Something solid moved away from it. Then a click and a squeak accompanied the opening door. Night withdrew as the flames of a torch danced in the cool breeze. An attractive woman in her thirties greeted Stephanie stoically. “She awaits you in her study.”
Stephanie stepped into a dark hallway and waited for the woman to secure the door. The floors were tiled in white and the walls covered in the remains of beige wall paper. When she turned around, the torch illuminated black fatigues, including lace up boots and equipment Stephanie had never seen before.
“I’m Aphra, Commander and lone survivor of the Harpies.”
Stephanie stared in amazement at the woman who paid little attention to her as they hurried down the hall. Aphra’s bare, sleek arms concealed rippling muscles with a feminine softness. Matching black wrist bands supported the tendons of her strong forearms, and her raven hair flowed with a beauty so contrary to the hard world of dirt and survival beyond these walls that Stephanie didn’t think it was real.
The mysterious woman’s tan skin was flawless, and Stephanie noticed the redness of her lips seemed wet. Her lashes were dark and thick with an arching eyebrow framing her dark eyes like onyx fresh from the earth. Stephanie had never witnessed anything like her before. Aphra was beautiful.
The duo wound through the ancient corridor and through heavy wooden doors. By the time Stephanie pulled her attention from the beguiling stranger, she had no idea how to make her way back to the entrance.
“What’s that on your back?” Stephanie asked.
Aphra’s face was expressionless and her tone was dismissive. “A weapon.”
“I figured that. It looks like every other machine gun that’s only good for a club now that all the rounds have been shot up.” Stephanie had no intention of bowing to this woman.
Aphra turned with unexpected explosive intensity, pinning Stephanie to the wall with her forearm. Her torch illuminated the shock on the visitor’s face. “Are we going to have a problem little girl?” She said coldly.
Stephanie’s struggle went unanswered by the obviously stronger and more skilled woman. Out of frustration she erupted with anger. “Who the fuck do you think you are! Get your hands off me!”
Aphra leaned in close as Stephanie fought to no avail. Her luscious red lips parted into a mocking smile. “You’re lucky, the old woman has plans for you. I’d rather use you as bait if were up to me.”
Immediately she stopped struggling. Her eyes fixed harshly on the more powerful woman in front of her. “Why don’t you go fuck some of the rotten dicks in the Sick Beds, whore. Me and the witch have business.”
Stephanie concluded with a final jab. “Servants aren’t needed here.”
Aphra released her hold and stepped quickly to the solitary door next to them. She gave two quick knocks. A weathered voice came muffled from the other side of the wooden planks. “Come in.”
Aphra opened the door. She turned to Stephanie, nodding for her to enter. Without a word, the woman in black continued down the hall until her torch disappeared around a corner. Gentle firelight from the open door spilled out into the hallway replacing the missing torch. The long shadow of a bent hag moved in the room.
Stephanie walked into a square chamber. The back wall was dominated by a large table with metal legs and a scattering of folding chairs. Books and papers were strewn over it. The hunched form of the old witch leaned on a tall knobby staff before a small ring of stones. A crackling fire licked upward toward a hanging pot. Her gray shawl moved as she stirred.
“Would you like stew, child? Bowls are on the table.”
“No thank you.”
Cara laughed. “The young turning down food when these hard times make no promises.”
The old woman turned to face the girl. She wore a light blue dress covered by a shawl. Her white hair had a yellow tint to it from years of dirt and grime build up. Flakey, sandal-covered feet supported her waif body. “Bring me a chair from the table. My bones are tired.”
Stephanie didn’t have to guess. The woman’s crooked spine was undoubtedly painful. She fetched two from around the table. Respectfully she pushed a chair up near the pot, so the woman could sit near her stew.
Before sitting the old hag took a wooden bowl from one her deep dress pockets. She dipped it into her pot, carefully balancing it in her free hand she used her staff to lower her misshapen body into the chair.
Steam rose up into her face. “Did Kyle finish the medicine?”
Stephanie was slow to answer. She knew the witch wouldn’t be happy. The dead sickness had begun to deteriorate Kyle’s mind when the boy with the bow showed up on the first floor to practice his archery. Once he started screaming, she had to hide.
“He was found before he took it all, and they burned him.”
The old woman sipped from her hot bowl and croaked her rebuke. “You were supposed to protect him, Stephanie.”
Cara greedily drank her stew giving the girl time to speak.
“It wasn’t safe. I had to leave him.”
The witch took the bowl to her lap. “This magic has to be tested.”
A storm of footsteps burst down in the direction of the meeting. Stephanie looked up to see a boy about ten standing in the door. His skin was brown from grime and his hair matted and wild. “Cara! Come quick! The patient is ready for the last dose!”
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