It was on the third day of the journey that the whole squadron was forced into battle.
It had rained hard the previous day, and in their fit of watery rage the heavens had even thrown down hail upon the scarcely sheltered land. Now, even though the middle of the day had passed some time ago, the flat surroundings still felt like an arboreal shipwreck trying to put itself together again after a storm.
Katherine, and probably most of the platoon, couldn’t help but feel a tingling in their spines when Gloria gasped and covered her face with her hands, almost falling off of her horse in the process.
“What is it, Gallagher?” asked Masterton, signalling them all to halt.
“There’s so many of them…I can’t even…” Gloria was almost hysterical in her worry. But she managed to pull herself together before anyone else needed to step in and help her do it.
“There’s a huge army of Zombies up ahead, Captain, and they’re moving fast towards us,” she informed the group, and a few more gasps popped up among the soldiers, “It’s like…it’s like they’ve caught our scent just like I’ve caught theirs. They’ll reach us in a matter of minutes.”
As she spoke, the soldiers with the best eyesight began to point anxiously at what looked like an entire section of barren forest moving in the distance.
Masterton cursed to himself for a few seconds before addressing the squadron with an admirable level of calmness.
“Okay, squad! This is going to be a big one, but all of you have now fought these creatures ‘n defeated them in battle before, so don’t get your knickers in a twist! But be warned, this horde that’s approaching us could have undead Supers in their ranks, which means they won’t be your run-of-the-mill Zombies. Be alert, keep your distance where you can, ‘n you’ll survive! Now, all of you, get ready to defend this position!”
Undead Supers… the thought chilled Katherine to the bone more than the moist cold did. They were about to face creatures who probably would have been ordinary Supers like themselves not too long ago. It was like they were fighting the worst possible future versions of themselves.
The ground began to rumble now, an unsteady beat made by bony feet that had no interest whatsoever in choreography. The incoming horde outnumbered them for sure; she hoped desperately that it wasn’t by a lot.
The Zombie army was drawing closer. In a staggered formation that placed the melee-oriented Supers in front and the rest of them behind and with a clear view of the target, Eagle Squadron 8 tensed itself in anticipation of the oncoming threat.
Katherine continued to be boggled by the size of the horde as they drew closer, seemingly growing in number as they did. This was crazy! They’d never fought so many Zombies simultaneously like this before! Were they really going to be the last ones standing after this battle?
She had now reached the maximum height that her bodysuit allowed. From her elevated viewpoint, the horde seemed even more massive. There must have been at least a hundred Zombies in there, maybe even a hundred and fifty! The thirty odd soldiers in the squadron were in for a tough fight.
“Kenneth, take out the fast ones!” shouted Captain Carpenter, as about six of the zombies began to outrun the rest of the horde and advance alarmingly fast on their group. They bounded on all fours like wild dogs and moved almost as fast as a horse at full gallop.
They weren’t as fast as Kenneth though, thankfully. In a whir, all six of them were parted of their heads, their bodies flailing as they flopped to the uneven ground, and Kenneth was back with the squadron, his face a little paler than usual.
The rest of the horde was within firing range now; Katherine could even see some of them wielding swords and other weapons. Like a grisly fireworks show, the bullets and other projectiles shot out at the oncoming crowd, most of them finding their mark. Streams of fire and ice and blasts of multi-coloured energy joined Anthony’s orange-tinted beam as they slashed through the Zombies, scorching furrows through their ranks.
And still they kept coming, running towards them now. The horses were beginning to panic, and Matthew and another soldier were straining their mental abilities to the limit trying to keep them calm. Oliver, still injured, was helping where he could.
The moment Katherine had seen the two enormous, troll-like Zombies in the middle of the horde, each of them almost twice the size of an average person and wielding spikey-looking weapons that were almost person-sized, she knew that they were hers to take care of. Now, as Carpenter led the close combat troops towards the front line of the Zombie horde, Katherine used her increased size to bound ahead towards them, her enlarged feet stomping through advancing Zombie attackers in the process. She could feel some of them hacking at her feet like decaying rats, their claws and blades not strong enough to break through the material of her bodysuit immediately, but strong enough to eventually pierce her skin.
She had to make sure that didn’t happen. Otherwise… she didn’t dwell on it. A side effect of her poly-morphing ability was that she healed much faster than the average person from wounds, but with this many attackers, she wouldn’t be able to heal fast enough.
Stretching out an enlarged hand, she grabbed one of the big troll Zombies (they must have been Supers with some kind of enhanced strength and size before they were turned, her subconscious tried to tell her), and tried to lift it. It was much, much heavier than she’d anticipated! With smaller zombies nipping at her legs and some even trying to climb up them, she drew on all the strength she could muster, lifting it clumsily. It felt like lifting a bowling ball that was trying to strike back at her.
There was no way she could deal with the Zombies at her feet and take care of the one in her hand at the same time. Hoping that her squadron would help her out here (and out of the corner of her eye, she could already see Lizbeth rapidly teleporting in and out, snatching Zombies off of her, and energy blasts taking out a few more), she hurriedly looked for the other big one, found it storming towards her, wading through the sea of Zombies with arms like rotting tree trunks, and enacted the very hastily constructed plan she had come up with.
The second bigger Zombie, only a few metres away from the large thing that was holding its comrade hostage in its monstrous hand, looked up to see that same hand crashing down towards it, holding its friend like some wriggling rock that it was going to smash an oyster shell with. It could only manage a loud roar before the hand slammed down on it with the force of a falling train carriage. The ground shuddered at the force on the impact, and the crackling of several bones at once tore through the frigid air.
Katherine immediately jumped away from the horde, and began to swat at the zombies that had grabbed onto her legs and were trying to hack through them. Thankfully, her skin grew thicker as she grew larger, which made their task a little harder at her current size. But it wasn’t completely blade proof, and her suit was already slashed in places.
“Don’t go near the bloated Zombie, take it out at range!” cried out Captain Masterton from somewhere outside her current field of vision.
When Katherine had taken care of all her attackers, she looked back to see the soldier with the blue energy blasts about to blow up the bloated Zombie. She also saw several of the others looking dangerously close to it, too occupied fighting other Zombies to notice.
“Brenda, wait!” she called out, taking quick strides back into the fray, “Let me clear it from the field!”
Before waiting for a confirmation, she scooped up the bloated Zombie in one enlarged hand, taking care not to crush it (which took more effort than she’d expected; the thing felt like a balloon filled with pus and other liquids she didn’t want to think about, held together by a barely there skeletal frame). She flung it as far away from the battle as she could manage while still keeping it within range of Brenda’s energy blast.
Katherine had expected her to wait for the thing to hit the ground before firing, and quickly shrunk herself back to normal size as a reflex reaction when Brenda blasted the Zombie while it was still in mid-air. The bits and pieces of rotting Zombie ooze that flew out of the creature like a macabre fountain were luckily propelled away by the force from the energy blast.
She was distracted by the explosion for maybe a second or two too long; it was enough for Samuel to cry out in warning, “Behind you, Katherine!”
She whipped around in time to see a Zombie fast approaching her, but rather than looking like it was going to pounce, it looked like it was about to projectile vomit something at her. Again reacting on a dime, she immediately shrunk herself as the Zombie spat out a spray of what looked like very acidic vomit at the spot where her torso would have been at normal size. She quickly darted out of the way as Gloria jumped onto the creature from behind, but a few drops managed to hit her. She felt them burn through the bodysuit, but had too much adrenaline pumping through her to panic about it.
Growing herself back to around fifteen feet in height, she turned around in time to see a sight that she would spend many, many nights wishing she could unsee.
The spitting zombie had somehow thrown off Gloria from its back, and was at that very moment spitting its vomit directly at her face. Before Katherine could even cry out in alarm, an arrow slashed through its skull and splintered it into bony chips, but the damage had been done. As Katherine rushed over to her, so did a very distraught Samuel.
“NOOOOOOOO!!” Katherine heard him cry out.
Katherine got there first. Picking up the writhing form of Gloria with one enlarged hand, she called out to Samuel to continue fighting while she took care of Gloria. She hoped that he wasn’t emotionally compromised enough to ignore her.
With a couple of elongated steps, she was back at the horses, where several of the Zombies had managed to reach them and were now being valiantly fought against by Oliver and a few of the other soldiers. She laid Gloria on the side of the road away from the battle as gently as she could manage with her trembling hands, and then went back to help her squad mates fend off the Zombies from the horses.
As she punched and kicked her way around the attackers, she caught glimpses of the bigger battlefield becoming less chaotic. Now that all the enhanced Zombies had apparently been taken care of, only the regular-looking ones were left, and the troops were cleaning them up as quickly as they could. She could see the whir that was Kenneth at full speed still blitzing his way through the Zombies, while bullets and punches punctuated the gradually dying sounds of the conflict.
And as she did, a Zombie somewhere behind her received a bullet to its face from Oliver’s rifle.
She looked back at Oliver to commend him on the shot, and her face fell. Oliver was wounded. She ran over to him, reducing herself to normal size while leaving her fists enlarged to deal with the last few Zombies that remained near the horses.
It didn’t look as bad on closer inspection though. Oliver had gashes on both his arms, and a deep cut on his left thigh, but the gashes looked superficial. Katherine immediately ripped a stretch of cloth from Oliver’s uniform and used it to make a tourniquet on his thigh. Oliver had the good sense to not say anything and continue firing at straggling Zombies while she sucked as much blood out of the gash as she could before it felt safe enough to patch up.
“I can take it from here, Big Sis, go help the others,” said Oliver weakly but determinedly. Katherine gave him one last lingering look before running to the battlefield.
It didn’t take long for the rest of the Zombies to be dealt with. When the last one received an energy-amplified punch from Captain Carpenter that snapped its head clean off of its neck and flung it several yards into the nearest bushes, the crack of head parting from body was the final chaotic note of the battle. As it died away, the squadron began to survey the aftermath.
Four of their number had died in battle; many more were injured. Captain Masterton and some of the others carried the four dead soldiers to where Katherine had left Gloria. Samuel was already there, kneeling beside his friend and trying very hard to stem the tide of tears.
“You’re going to be okay, Gloria,” he kept muttering to himself, and possibly to her as well, “You’re going to be okay…”
He only looked up when Masterton was standing by him, his face curiously grim.
“She’s still alive, Captain,” said Samuel shakily, “I can hear her, she’s still talking…”
Masterton was quiet for a while. And then, to Katherine’s surprise, he gently laid a hand on Samuel’s trembling shoulder.
“Listen to me, Samuel…”
“She’s still alive, Captain!” said Samuel, almost alarmingly loud, “There must be something we can do! We can still - ”
“Listen to me, Samuel!” said Masterton, sharply but not unkindly. Samuel went quiet, probably more because he couldn’t figure out what more to say.
“She’s suffering now, Samuel,” continued the captain levelly, now gently holding Samuel on both shoulders, “That blast to her face, it’s eaten most of her face off, ‘n the plague inside it is killing her, slowly ‘n painfully. Trust me, Samuel, I have seen this happen before. I have seen the effect it has on good men ‘n women like yourself. Like Gloria. And when the plague finally kills her, she will become one of them. One of the Zombies. Do you want her to go through all that suffering? Do you think she would want that?”
Samuel was trying really hard to control himself, but he just couldn’t. The tears were no longer stemmed.
“Gloria was a brave, good-hearted soldier. There’s only one fate that she deserves. And she was under my command; it’s only right that I see to it that she receives this fate. Stand aside, Samuel. Please.”
There was something in that voice that still somehow resembled a command, even though it was anything but. It had the intended effect though; Samuel stood up and staggered to a side, where Matthew was waiting, just as shocked at what he was seeing.
Katherine wondered if he was trying to see through Gloria’s eyes, see if there was anything worth saving in there. Could he even bring himself to though? She wasn’t sure if she would have done it in his place.
Masterton was now standing at Gloria’s feet, with Captain Carpenter at his side. He was saying a prayer.
“Our great God in Heaven, here lies a soul who fought in your name, to reclaim the lands of Faeritalum, your greatest creation, from those who have defiled it since the Great Plague. She fought hard, she fought bravely, and she fought with honour. In your infinite grace, please find a place for her by your side in Heaven, our benevolent God, for eternal peace and happiness is what should rightfully be hers in the afterlife.”
He then solemnly raised his pistol, the chambers fully loaded, and fired a single shot into her acid-blasted head. Her body, which may have been twitching before, was now still. If Katherine wasn’t already stunned by everything that had come to pass in the last minutes, she was by the echoing blast of the pistol slicing through the frosty air.
Carpenter repeated the prayer for the soldier lying on the ground next to her, and did the same with another pistol. The two captains went through the remaining dead, their grave ritual harshly punctuated by the bullets breaking through the skulls of the fallen soldiers.
When the bullets had stopped firing, Carpenter asked for volunteers to dig graves. Katherine, even with her injuries, was one of them. So was Kenneth.
As they worked together with the others, scooping out dirt from the frost-hardened ground with improvised shovels, well away from the road, they tried and failed not to think about their own fates. Would Katherine one day see Kenneth fall? Would he have to watch as a bullet was fired into her brain? Or even have to do it himself? Would she?
Could she even handle it, watching her brother die in front of her? Could he bear to see his only sister, his oldest friend, lose her life?
It was only now that Katherine began to feel, to actually taste the brutality of the Crusades. Perhaps only now were they all truly a part of the whole thing; when they had seen the worst of the consequences that lay in wait for them on this quest, and still soldiered on.
When all five graves had been filled again, and marked with rocks, the squadron continued their journey with markedly less morale than they had begun the day with. Many of the horses had bolted in the attack as well, so a few of the soldiers had to share. Katherine shrunk herself as small as she could while still being able to wear her outer clothing, and shared a horse with Lizbeth. The two of them didn’t trust themselves to speak as the group continued along the main road.
“We will reach Fort Newstead the day after tomorrow, just after nightfall at the latest,” said Captain Carpenter to the squadron when they set camp for that night, “Today has been the most difficult day that many of you have faced, so get as much rest as you can, and focus all your thoughts on finishing this stretch. We lost some good fighters, and even better friends, today, but we also fought against terrible odds and we survived. Take heart in that! There will be more battles to come, but you have proven yourselves more than capable to fighting them! Keep up that warriors’ spirit!”
Her words didn’t ring hollow, but with the chilling drizzle pelting them like miniature snow balls as they set about fixing up their shelters, the words weren’t nearly as inspiring as they would have liked.
“This day just keeps getting better, doesn’t it?” asked Lizbeth as she, Katherine, Kenneth, Anthony and Oliver worked on their tent.
“Shh, don’t jinx it, Twinkle!” warned Kenneth.
“Too late, she’s already done it,” said Anthony, “Now we’re going to be attacked by Zombie wolves in the night, aren’t we?”
The chuckles this got out of the group were ugly, disfigured hunch-backed versions of a laugh.
“No, they’d stay curled up inside their Zombie wolf caves if they had any sense,” continued Oliver.
“Zombies having sense?” asked Anthony incredulously, “How badly injured were you, Dodo?”
“Hey, too soon, Trigger!” said Oliver, “It still hurts, by the way, thanks for asking.”
“We’ve got it from here, Dodo, you can crawl in and start warming up,” suggested Lizbeth, pointing at the opening in the half-complete tent.
“Don’t mind if I do, actually,” said Oliver, ducking inside the tent and lighting up a lantern.
“Brrr, at least we’re past halfway, going by what Captain Carpenter said,” said Kenneth, as the five of them huddled around the lantern inside the tent once it was fully propped up.
“She might have just been saying that to cheer us up,” pointed out Anthony, “You know, boost the morale a bit. God knows it needs boosting right now.”
“She doesn’t strike me as the type to lie about something like that though,” said Oliver, holding his hands near the lantern, “Or lie at all, even. Straight as an arrow, that lady.”
“Speaking of arrows, I wonder how Samuel is faring,” asked Lizbeth, “The poor guy was apparently right there when the Zombie got Gloria.”
“Yeah, and he fired its head off immediately after, from what I heard,” said Kenneth, shivering so rapidly that steam was evaporating from him, “If he’s cursing himself for being seconds too late, I don’t blame him. I’d feel the same way if it was one of you guys.”
“Katherine was right there too, I saw her extract Gloria from the field,” said Oliver, “Weren’t you, Big Sis?”
“Yeah…” said Katherine, her eyes fixed on the flame in the lantern but not really looking at it.
“What’s on your mind, friend?” asked Lizbeth, “You’re being unusually quiet.”
“It’s been an unusual few days,” said Katherine offhandedly, but not convincingly enough to evade the questioning looks.
“I’m just, I don’t know, confused, I guess,” she finally said, more to break the glance-filled silence than anything else, “That horde of Zombies we fought today, they were ruthless; they were rabid. And they were clawing at us until the very end. They didn’t back down even when we were had the upper hand. None of them ran away, did you notice?”
“I wasn’t really looking out for it, but now that you mention it,” pondered Kenneth, “yes, I don’t think any of them retreated. Even the last stragglers.”
“It could be that we didn’t really give them the space to, though,” argued Anthony, “We were fighting non-stop out there in that battle today.”
“We’ve been fighting non-stop in every battle we’ve fought so far, Trigger,” said Oliver, a little bitterly even, “We don’t exactly stop in the middle and take in the lovely landscapes.”
“But it was only in this last battle that we had no other choice,” continued Katherine, “All the other Zombie camps we’ve come across, the Zombies there… they were completely different. Total pushovers, even. We haven’t had to fight even remotely as hard as we did today.”
“Where are you going with this, Big Sis?” asked Lizbeth.
“It’s just,” hesitated Katherine, “All this time, we’ve been seeing the enemy as one big mass of plague-infested creatures who are all united, all after our heads and our blood. But… it feels like there’s at least two bands of Zombies out there, and only one of them is the enemy we’ve been training to kill.”
“That’s dangerous thinking to be doing at a time like this, Katherine,” warned Anthony, “Do you want to go through another shout-down with Captain Masterton again?”
There was enough of an edge in his voice that Katherine knew better than to continue going down this line of thinking. At least, not in Anthony’s presence.
“Now that would be something to be concerned about, somebody wanting to get another brow beating from that moustache,” cracked Kenneth, in a mostly successful attempt to disrupt the tension.
While the group awkwardly tittered, Lizbeth gently squeezed Katherine’s arm. Of the bunch, she had arguably agreed with Katherine’s perspective the most after Katherine had filled her in on the incident at the Zombie camp. That she was still showing some support even after the hell they had been through today meant a lot. Katherine smiled back at her warmly.
“Well, I don’t know about the rest of you, but I feel like eating some rations and then calling it a night,” said Katherine, stretching one elongated arm towards her backpack.
“Isn’t that Trigger’s line?” joked Oliver as the others showed agreement by shifting towards their own backpacks. Anthony punched him lightly in the shoulder as a reply, and Oliver winced, “Not so hard, you idiot, I’m still hurting, remember?”
And as Katherine tucked into the bits of food in her rations pack, she couldn’t help but think: weren’t they all.