There was something about marching with an army of a hundred strong soldiers, many of them Supers, that awed Katherine so much that she could only talk in whispers, if she could talk at all. She had been in big crowds before, back in Nexus city, such as when a big performer was playing at the theatre or a big speech was being made by the Mayor, but those crowds were chaotic, disarrayed, having several focuses at the same time. Here, everyone had only one driving thought in their minds as they marched out from the gates of Fort Newstead, their determined steps almost in rhythm with each other.
“This feels so intense,” commented Kenneth in a low voice, who was marching next to her.
“My thoughts exactly,” whispered Katherine.
It was only the first few weeks of spring, so the trees were still barren and brown, and the ground still murky with the slush left behind by winter. There were some blots of green here and there if one looked closely, but the squadrons weren’t interested enough in the scenery to notice. Nearly all of them had been taking shelter in the fort for the whole of winter, most of them for even longer than Eagle Squadron 8 had been, so there was a strong sense of eagerness to get to the action as quickly as possible. The scenery would still be there when they came back, and it would probably have improved by then too.
Nobody was thinking if they came back. With an army this big behind them, confidence was naturally quite high. Not to mention that reinforcements would be there with them when they finally reached Baskemont.
The journey was almost two whole days long, and extremely uneventful. They probably had passed some small Zombie camps on the way, but nothing that could possibly pose a threat to a force of their magnitude. There were a few spots they passed which bore the marks of undead occupants who had, on seeing or hearing the great mass of Supers approaching, had quickly decided that their best option for survival was a very swift relocation.
It was in one of those spots, a stretch of farmland that lay on the outskirts of the city of Baskemont, that the troops camped on the second night. Eagle Squadron 8 were inside the ruins of what could have been some kind of big enclosed garden back in its glory days. The jagged silhouette of Baskemont silently stalked them from the horizon to the west. It was somehow hard to believe just how close they were to the broken walls of the city, and yet how far away it still seemed.
Maybe it was this weird mix of perspectives that was doing it. Maybe it was the excitement of being so close to the beginning of a major operation for the Crusades. Maybe it wasn’t actually excitement, but nerves. Whatever the reason, Katherine was having trouble sleeping that night.
Taking care not to disturb the others sleeping near her, she decided to walk around the garden.
There was a faint sliver of moonlight giving an even fainter glow to the surroundings, although it did very little to the dark shadow of Baskemont in the distance. As Katherine weaved her way through the various shelters propped up by the soldiers, a gentle wind caressed her face. If it was a sign of things to come, Katherine would have considered it a good one.
She made her way to a little pond serenaded by bushes that, even though only barely recovering from the winter, were clearly not native to the land. She wondered where they were originally from; whoever had owned this garden before the Great Plague must have travelled quite a lot.
There was an empty spot by the side of the pond, and the gently rippling surface seemed to be gesturing to her that it was a cosy little place to sit at, and wouldn’t she try it out, just for a bit? She decided to take the little waves up on their offer.
She sat down beside the pond, and almost reflexively dipped her feet into it before seeing that the pond, just as ruined and forgotten as the structures around it, was filled with stagnant water that was possibly more alive than the Zombies in the neighbourhood. And it was definitely the wrong colour for pond water, from what little she could make out in the faint moonlight. Still, the muffled gurgling that it was making was somewhat soothing, in a strange way.
“Hey, Big Sis,” said a friendly voice, “Couldn’t sleep?”
Katherine turned around.
“Hey, Dodo,” she replied, “Not really, no. How’s the patrol?”
“Uneventful,” said Oliver, sitting down next to her, “I think I can spare a few minutes without putting the camp at risk of a Zombie attack. So, is it nerves?”
“Haha, I guess so,” said Katherine, now looking at the quivering surface of the pond again, “Although now that I’m out here, I’m wondering more about what life used to be like here, before the Plague. This garden, for example, it must have looked so beautiful back then.”
“True, and the city was probably more colourful and alive,” pondered Oliver, “And that’s partially why we’re here, isn’t it? To bring some of those golden days back to this land. To make things as beautiful and lively as they used to be.”
“We won’t be the ones to see that happen, though,” said Katherine, as something began to bother her in the back of her mind, “This land won’t be restored in our lifetime, I think.”
“No, but none of us are really here for ourselves, are we?” asked Oliver, in full philosopher mode, “We’re here for something outside of ourselves. To make someone else’s life better, even if we’re not around to receive their gratitude. That’s how I feel about it, anyway.”
“I don’t know if I’d completely agree with that, but you have a…” began Katherine, before the thing that was bothering her finally registered.
It was a small object partially buried in the ground, trying to vie for her attention in the corner of her eye. Something about it looked out of place even in a garden like this, where at least half the plants probably were just as foreign. She stretched out a hand to pick it up, and found herself looking at…
…an Indian bead necklace.
Many of the beads had already fallen off though, and the string nearly crumbled in her hand when she had pulled it from the ground. But she knew it was Indian from the small bear totem that was at the centre. It had been carved from some kind of animal bone, and it felt even older than it looked. But the carving had only partially faded with time, and enough of the bear was still present to snarl at her.
“Huh, I would never have expected to see that out here,” said Oliver, also marvelling a little at the find, “Do you recognise the tribe or something?”
“That’s not really how Indians use totems, Dodo,” said Katherine, removing the bits or bead and string from the bear, “but I recognise the symbol, a little. Indians believe in the idea of spirit animals, a sort of guide that follows them through their lives and takes the form of an animal depending on the characteristics it represents. The bear, for example,” she waved the totem in her hand, “represents strength, courage and protection of others. It’s like a big and burly guardian type spirit.”
“It suits you perfectly then,” said Oliver with a smile as she began to fish around in her pockets for a length of string.
“Since it’s you, Dodo, I’m going to assume you did not just imply I’m fat,” joked Katherine as she found a satisfactory string and improvised a necklace with the totem.
“Ha! As if I would dare,” said Oliver, and then added, “It looks good on you. Really brings out your more Indian features.”
“I hope it brings me more than that,” said Katherine, now trying to get a good reflection of herself in the pond and failing, “These totems apparently show up in your life when you need them the most. And I’m going to need a lot of strength and courage for tomorrow’s action!”
“Aren’t we all,” said Oliver, now getting up, “I should probably return to my patrol. You’re welcome to tag along if you still can’t sleep, you know.”
“No, I think this little trip was enough to calm my nerves,” said Katherine, stifling a yawn, “I think I’ll head back to my sheet. You shouldn’t stay out here too long either, Dodo.”
“I’ll be fine, my shift ends in an hour or so,” said Oliver, “Good night, Big Bear.”
“Oh God, Big Sis was bad enough!” said Katherine, punching Oliver gently, “Good night, Dodo.”
And with that, she began the walk back to her sleeping spot.
“Listen up, squad!” announced Captain Masterton when they were all assembled outside the walls of Baskemont; every captain was barking instructions to their own units at the same time. “We will be capturing the northern section of the city. That means the moment we go into the city limits, we turn right ‘n blaze a path through the district there, running roughly parallel to the city wall until we reach a square with a cathedral. You’ll know it when you see it, it’s a damn big sight for sore eyes, according to scouting reports. Some of the reinforcements from Falcon Squadron will be making for the same square. Until they all arrive, we clear out ‘n hold the cathedral, ‘n after that we clear out the rest of the northern section of the city. Any questions?”
“Damn straight! This will be a glorious day for the Crusades, my fellow soldiers! There has never been a better time to be on your best fighting form! Now, on the signal, follow me!”
Katherine looked around and realized that, for an army about to invade and take over a city, there was a curious lack of siege weaponry. For some reason, she had been expecting cannons or catapults to accompany them. Then a little voice inside her head gently reminded her that, with Supers like Anthony and Brenda around, they already were equipped with perfectly adequate, if not improved, alternatives.
Other than the main gates on the East side of the city, there were also two breaks in the walls that the soldiers could use to enter. There were a few Zombies peeking out at them from guard towers and some of the gaps in the wall; strangely, they seemed to know better than to come running out and expect to survive the trip.
This was a moment where Katherine would have written in her article for the Weekly Nex that ‘the tension was palpable’. She still had the notebook on her person, along with the newly acquired bear totem necklace. She probably should have brought the pen along too, just in case…
Other squadrons were starting to move into the city now, and the sounds of early scuffles with the defending Zombies were beginning to float out past the city walls. It was going to be their turn any moment now. She could hear Kenneth’s rapidly tapping foot, and smiled; Kenneth had always been the more impatient of the two of them –
“That’s our signal! Let’s move, soldiers!” yelled Captain Carpenter, and Eagle Squadron 8 breached the city of Baskemont.
There was no time to think inside the walls; with melee soldiers like Katherine and Kenneth on the outside, and ranged specialists like Anthony and Samuel within the group, the squadron surged through the ruins like a hot needle piercing through several layers of the city’s flesh. Within the hardly standing structures were a few small groups of Zombies, most of whom could manage a little more than a croak and a step before being decimated by the soldiers.
Within the confines of the district, which had the cramped and cluttered feel of what had probably been a very poor part of the city, Katherine decided to stay at her normal height so as not to be encumbered, only enlarging her fists and feet when taking on the Zombies. As they hopped in and out of buildings, flushing out straggling Zombies with all the elements at their disposal in the process, Katherine couldn’t help but feel a rush. Within the surgical precision of their advance through the streets was a chaos only barely held back, and unleashed with glee on the Zombies in their way.
She was ambushed by a bunch of suspiciously sneaky Zombies as she entered one of the houses. Using her pliable frame to make some very dexterous dodges, she grabbed one by the head and smashed it into the floor, while sending the others flying with a sweeping punch clean out of the house through the window. Just outside, she heard a whir and several cracks as a speeding Kenneth bashed in the flying Zombies’ heads mid-run.
With the screams and groans of battle overwhelming her ears and the blasts of energy and bullets flying through the air, her mind was so fully occupied with keeping a clear head in all the chaos that she didn’t stop to reflect on a very small nagging doubt. The doubt being that this was all a little too easy. If she had reflected on it though, some rationalization about that being exactly the point of this assault at this time would have waved away the small nagging about.
As she punched a Zombie straight through the brittle roof above and then shielded herself with an enlarged arm as the whole thing began to collapse around her, the doubt realized that it would never be addressed and wandered off to sulk in a corner.
At around the same time, Lizbeth teleported in and whisked her away to the middle of the street.
“I had it under control!” said Katherine, before the two of them began to run up the street towards a group of Zombies that were having second thoughts about whether they were strong enough to take on these invaders.
“Didn’t look like it from where I was!” said Lizbeth before twinkling away to take on some of the Zombies ahead.
Katherine wound up, and then flung her enlarged arm through the Zombies like a fist-headed battering ram. As the Zombies were scattered by the blow, their eyes showing a mix of confusion and panic that wasn’t really going to help them, a glowing rock flung itself from somewhere behind her into the half on the right before exploding in a blinding flash and obliterating the Zombies in the process. The other half had finally managed to get an actionable idea into their heads and began to scatter, but were met by a searing fan of fire in the process.
As Katherine ran past them, one of the Zombies shout out a long, slimy looking tongue and managed to grab her around the neck. Struggling for breath, Katherine tried to get enough eye contact with the creature to land a blow in retaliation. Before she needed to though, the Zombie found itself on the receiving end of a charged punch from Captain Carpenter.
“Thanks, captain,” managed Katherine with a wheeze.
“Stay alert, soldier!” replied Carpenter, not unkindly though, before moving ahead.
They must have gone halfway through the city by now, wondered Katherine during the very brief moment of respite. Where was the cathedral?
Before she could think about it some more, another couple of Zombies emerged from a house to her right; she greeted then with a vicious swinging kick. Their heads were smashed to bits as her enlarged foot connected with them.
“Is it just me, or is this a little too easy?” asked Kenneth as he stopped blitzing around and took a breather by Katherine.
“It’s not just you,” said Katherine, “Most of them aren’t even trying to stop us.”
“That’s not going to stop me though,” said Kenneth pointedly.
“Nor me,” assured Katherine, before advancing up the street with Kenneth jogging beside her.
It was when they got to the next junction that Katherine realized with a sinking feeling why it had been so easy up until then. The moment they stepped into the middle of the junction, several roars buffeted them from all around. Zombies were crawling out of the windows, spilling out through the doors, creeping out from the alleys; within a matter of seconds they were surrounded. The Zombies they had come across before this must have been buying time for the setup they had just stumbled into.
The group straight ahead had a leader, if the one different-looking Zombie at the head of the group could be called that, and the leader looked like the acid-spitting type. It was groaning something to the Zombies behind it, and if they had been close enough they probably would have recognised some kind of encouraging words coming from it. But before the Zombie could finish talking, a fierce arrow bored a hole through its head before embedding itself in the head of a Zombie further behind. As the Zombie’s head cracked open from the force, the two of them slumped to the ground.
As the rest of the Zombies, infuriated by the pre-emptive strike on one of their own, began to surge into the squadron, Katherine briefly wondered if Samuel had gotten some much-needed revenge with that shot. She sure hoped so, for his sake, as the squad found themselves quickly overwhelmed.
Katherine immediately grew herself to more than double her height, and then used the added elevation to try and stomp a path out through the Zombies for the rest of the squadron. It was easier said than done, though; a few of the creatures were clinging onto her, trying to hack and claw into her skin, and she had to try and shake them off while also making sure not to trample any of her squadmates, or get hit by their blasts. It felt like she was trying to juggle a bunch of plates while a monkey was clawing at her head.
“Watch out!” came a cry from somewhere below her, and she moved her foot just in time to avoid stepping on Anthony. She turned to quickly apologize, and could only look in horror as a Zombie had managed to get its teeth into his neck.
Filling inside with fury, she tore at the Zombies on her, crushing them and flinging them into the nearby buildings with reckless abandon. Her bodysuit, only just repaired over the winter, was torn apart once more, and some of the scratches in her skin were worryingly deep. At this very moment though, she did not care one bit. Her eyes could only see the crimson shades of rage as she pounded away at the Zombies that were pouncing onto the body of Anthony.
It was a miracle that she didn’t hit any of the squadron by mistake. But if she had been looking at her immediate surroundings, she would have seen that it wasn’t purely a miracle. Most of the Zombies were attracted both to the smell of Anthony’s blood and to her magnified show of rage, which had given the rest of the squad enough room to both get out of Katherine’s way and strike back with their own fury.
A mess of bodies and blood later, Eagle Squadron 8 had lost a few more of its soldiers, including Matthew the mind-jumper. But the Zombies had been dealt with, savagely in most cases. Since they still hadn’t completed their mission yet, the captains skipped the prayers (or silently uttered them in their heads, more likely) and ordered the rest of the squad to proceed onwards with an urgency that had a hint of reluctance to it.
Katherine hated that Anthony was given such a punctuated farewell. Kenneth, Lizbeth and Oliver probably did too. But War was not all that considerate to begin with (it never had been, had it?), and it wasn’t going to start now.
The squadron, hindered by the more injured members of their group, took a little longer to move through the next few junctions. Katherine checked all her wounds and found that only two on her right leg were in need of an intervention. Making use of her pliable neck and a scrap of cloth from one of the dead soldiers, she quickly tied a tourniquet on the affected leg and sucked out as much blood as she could from the wounds.
“Big Sis! Are you…” began Lizbeth, who had probably teleported back to her when she’d noticed her absence.
“I’m fine, it was just the two wounds and I’ve taken care of them, I think,” said Katherine, hoping against hope that it was true, “Could you help me patch them up?”
With Lizbeth’s help, the wounds were bound up very efficiently. Lizbeth then teleported the two of them back to the rest of the squadron.
“Katherine! Thank God, I was so scared – “ began Kenneth, who was currently supporting a badly injured Oliver.
“Dodo!” cried Katherine at the sight, “No, no, no, this can’t be happening!”
“Don’t worry, I’ll be fine after some first aid and… rest,” said Oliver weakly, “Look, we reached the cathedral…”
And indeed they had.
The scouting reports had been right about it being big. As to whether it was a sight for sore eyes though, that could be debated. Its predominantly stone structure had withstood most of the harsher ravages of time, but a lot of what must have made it look pristine back in its day had not survived as well. The resulting building looked like the architectural version of a former beauty pageant winner who hadn’t aged as gracefully as she would have liked, but was still stubbornly trying to maintain her figure at the least.
The expansive square beside it only boasted a structure that must have been a fountain, but now looked like a piece of sculpture that had been dropped onto the square from the weathered top of the cathedral. In-between the fountain and the cathedral, the reinforcements from Falcon Squadron were having their hands full dealing with a big swath of Zombies. Eagle Squadron 8 moved in to assist, streams of fire and ice mowing through the Zombies.
“Good timing, Eagles!” said one of the captains of the other squadron, “We got here about ten minutes ago. The cathedral’s mostly secure though, so we just need to take care of this lot before moving out!”
“Shouldn’t be too hard with both our forces combined,” said Masterton in reply, “Carol, take half of the squad into the cathedral to help out, would you? I’ll handle things here with the rest!”
The Zombies in the square soon folded under the might of the two squadrons. After a quick get-together during which the captains quickly introduced themselves, arranged for the wounded to be sheltered in the cathedral and tended to, and then discussed tactics, the able-bodied soldiers that remained fanned out in multiple directions, cleaning up the rest of the Zombies that were hiding in the district.
Katherine, seeing Kenneth going up one of the towers bordering the northern gate to the city, decided to go up the other tower. When she reached the top, she found herself behind a group of four Zombies who were about to charge in on a currently occupied Kenneth on the parapet ahead. She struck them down from behind with one clean punch from an enlarged fist, like a bowling ball striking down four unaware undead pins. Kenneth whizzed around to make sure the Zombies all stayed down.
“I thought you promised you wouldn’t keep saving me?” asked Kenneth good-naturedly once he was done.
“That wasn’t really saving you though, you could have handled that lot easily,” said Katherine, “I just wanted to lend a hand.”
“Oh God, when did you start with the terrible puns?” said Kenneth, holding his stomach in mock agony.
“Oh yeah, that was a pun! I didn’t realise,” said Katherine. “Honestly!” she added at Kenneth’s disbelieving look.
“Well, it looks like we’re done here,” said Kenneth, taking in the surroundings before signalling to the troops below then that the towers were cleared, “Do you think we have some time to enjoy the view a bit before reporting back?”
“I think the captains wouldn’t mind terribly if we were a little bit late,” said Katherine as she walked over to the parapet’s edge.
It was a pretty good view. To the north of the city was a very large plain gently sloping downwards, only scantly dotted with clumps of trees or the ruins of farmhouses and villas. The sun, fading away into the horizon to the west, had decided to bathe it all in warm, even glowing shades of yellow and amber. Standing there, at the parapet between the towers, with the great expanse of new grass below them, they almost felt like they could see the whole of Anglos from their post.
“Thanks, Katherine,” said Kenneth quietly as he looked on with her.
“For what?” she asked.
“For sticking to your promise. For not overcrowding me and watching my every move,” said Kenneth, “It makes a moment like this feel even more special, you know? Like I contributed to this big victory on my own two feet.”
“You’re welcome, little brother,” said Katherine softly, “Although it doesn’t feel like much of a victory to me.”
“Yeah…” said Kenneth sadly, “Dodo might not make it to next week if his injuries aren’t taken care of, and Trigger…”
“It was my fault, I just know it!” said Katherine, slamming the parapet in frustration, “I nearly trampled him back there, and my clumsy feet distracted him enough for that Zombie to – “
“Hey, hey, hey!” interrupted Kenneth as he held her arm, “I saw what happened, and it wasn’t you that distracted him, okay? He was busy blasting the Zombies at your feet when he saw you trying to clear a path for us, and that one nasty bugger got the jump on him. The way they surrounded us like that, it couldn’t be helped. That’s how all the others died too!”
“I hope it was all worth it, taking this city,” said Katherine glumly, “The squadron’s almost half the size it was when we landed here.”
“You know what was worth it, though?” said Kenneth, desperately fishing for something positive to talk about, “Having you around as a squad mate. Even if I didn’t think so at first, I’m glad you decided to be here with me in the end.”
“Same here, Kenneth,” said Katherine with a smile that was strangely hard to make, patting him on the arm, “I’m glad I got to see you being such a force to reckon with out there on the battlefield. And I’m really glad I didn’t have to hover around you to make it happen.”
“Same here, Big Bear,” said Kenneth, grinning. Katherine groaned.
“You too? I need to have some words with Dodo about - ” began Katherine, before noticing something odd in the distance, “Is it just me, or is that forest… moving?”
Kenneth took a look as well.
“No, it’s not just you,” said Kenneth, shielding his eyes from the sunlight, “And there wasn’t that much forest over there to begin… with…”
They both reached the same conclusion at the same time. And then gaped at each other in horror for a good long while.