When she woke up, Katherine’s first impression of the afterlife was that it was colder than she’d expected. She then wondered why she was covered by some kind of flimsy cloth thing that was very unconvincingly trying to pass itself off as a blanket.
The sounds of the afterlife began to enter her ears. She had been expecting the hums and soft voices of angels, or the agonised screams of tormented souls burning away in hell. What she hadn’t expected was the very ordinary sounds of a forest that had just woken up, accompanied by an assortment of mumbling groans.
And the thing that was floating just a few feet away from her vision looked remarkably like a flimsily constructed tent…
And then she felt her body, still hurting a little but quite tangible.
Apparently she wasn’t as dead as she thought.
And then another horrible realization sent a sharp shock through her system. She quickly threw off the scrap of cloth that was on top of her and began to examine her hands and her body. Her eyes looked for decay, for pieces of vomit-coloured skin falling off… and found nothing of the sort. Not only was she not dead, she was also not un-dead. And now, she was also thoroughly confused.
“Ah, it appears our guest has awoken,” rasped a heavily accented voice from somewhere to her right, “A very good morning to you, my dear.”
She turned around to greet her apparent rescuers and – oh God! She collapsed the shelter she was in by rapidly getting up onto her feet while inside it.
Zombies. Only about four or five of them, but they were standing there, gawping at her like she was some exhibit at a carnival. And the stare of a creature without eyelids is somehow several magnitudes worse than one that still has them.
And then the one in the middle spoke.
“Goodness me, girl, pray do not panic yourself so!” it said calmly, with that strange kind voice she could faintly remember the other Zombie having as well – the one which sounded like malfunctioning plumbing. “While it is a difficult battle we are currently waging against our instincts, we do not wish to kill you, contrary to what you may believe.”
After freeing herself from the shelter’s tarp that had wrapped itself around her when she had risen, Katherine pinched herself to make sure she was awake. It was a hard pinch, almost leaving a mark even, but the Zombies didn’t go away. But then she wondered if maybe the stories about pinching oneself in a dream were all that true to begin with…
“What… what do you want from me?” she managed.
“Well, nothing particularly at the moment,” said the Zombie, its half-exposed mouth drooping a little on the half that still had skin on, “Save perhaps for an introduction. What brings you here, Miss…?”
She stared at it, her body tensed in preparation for the surprise attack that was surely about to land on her. She quickly scanned the surroundings, and found more Zombies shuffling around what looked like a very basic camp. Any moment now, she thought.
“Perhaps we should introduce ourselves first, Captain,” said one of the other Zombies, “And if she still refuses to speak, then we really should introduce our teeth to that fine neck of hers.”
“Hush, Joseph you taffer!” scolded the first Zombie, as Katherine tensed up even more at the mention of teeth and necks, “Although yes, perhaps I shall start the introductions here. My name is Timothy Mossridge, young lady.”
Katherine was so shocked at this point that she involuntarily replied “Katherine... Kenway.”
“What? You’re not Indian?” asked the Zombie that was apparently named Joseph, “Timothy, she’s just another Super like the rest of them, we should – “
“I said shut that bloody trap of yours, Joseph, even if that may not be completely possible on account of a quarter of it having fallen off already!” said the Zombie named Timothy irritably.
“Joseph’s got a point though, Timothy,” said one of the others, “We only spared her because we thought she was an Indian, didn’t we?”
“Well let’s settle the matter once and for all then, shall we, Eleanor?” said Timothy, before firing a question at Katherine. “Miss Kenway, what does the totem you’re wearing represent?”
She may have been completely bewildered by what was going on, but Katherine could recognise a test when she met one. Especially one with life or death consequences.
“It’s the symbol of the bear, an animal spirit that represents strength, bravery and protecting others from harm,” she began carefully, “It can also be a symbol of leadership. And, like all other spirit guides, it appears when the person will need to use those qualities during the next stage of their lives. In some cases, it is the person’s chosen spirit animal, in which case that person has a natural aptitude for leading others and guarding them from danger.”
The Zombies were quiet for a while, as though digesting her answer. Then the one called Eleanor spoke.
“That sounds correct enough to me, from what I recall about Indian beliefs.”
The others murmured in varying degrees of assent.
“I have my doubts though,” began Joseph, eyeing Katherine with a stare that would have been narrowed if he had the facial features for it, “She could easily have learned that all from a book – “
“For God’s sake, Joseph, the girl looks at least part Indian, she has a totem for a necklace and she even knows what the damn thing represents!” said Timothy exasperatedly, “Are you so keen to have our gracious God heap even more divine retribution on your greedy soul?”
When Joseph didn’t answer, Timothy soldiered on.
“Good! Now, be useful and go fetch us some water for boiling, would you?”
When Joseph gave him a confused look, Timothy rolled his eyes. Katherine felt a slight chill in her spine as she realized how eerie the action looked when the person doing it lacked most of their face.
“Miss Kenway cannot drink the water in its current diseased state and expect to survive another day, can she? Now off with you and hurry back before we have to re-light the fire!”
As Joseph shuffled off, the other Zombies introduced themselves.
“I am Eleanor Raffles, my dear, and this is my husband Nigel Raffles. The other fellow is young Charles Hammond – well, I suppose he’s not all that young from your perspective, but he was only in his twenties, possibly around your age, when the Great Plague struck him.”
The others greeted her in similar amicable fashion.
“Um, hello, all of you,” said Katherine, still expecting to wake up at any moment from this bizarre experience, “I don’t really understand at all what’s happening here, but thank you for not killing me, I guess?”
“So why do you have the name Kenway if you’re Indian?” asked Charles eagerly.
“There’s no need to press her this early, Charles, I’m sure she will tell us eventually,” said Timothy, giving her probably the toothiest grin she had ever witnessed up to that point in her life, “Although that does remind me, I suppose you yourself must have several questions. All of which we will answer in due time, not to worry. Oh, God’s grace!” he suddenly slapped his forehead with an unpleasant squishing sound, “I must let the mistress know that you have awoken! Please, come with me!”
He had offered her a very withered hand, and withdrew it after seeing the look on her face.
“Ah, yes, you had better not touch,” he said before walking on in a curious mix of a shuffle and a walk that nevertheless managed to propel him in the right direction. As Katherine slowly followed him, so did the other three Zombies, all of them eyeing her with a morbid curiosity that was exponentially more morbid than the average onlooker could manage.
“I take it you’ve met the more violent members of our kind,” said Nigel, who had probably had a well-groomed moustache when he was alive, “And possibly killed them too?”
“I had to,” said Katherine, having decided that until she knew more, it was probably best not to mention anything Crusade-related, “I guess you know how vicious you - they can be.”
“But of course we do,” said Eleanor, “We were all like that ourselves, you know, a very, very long time ago.”
“You were?” asked Katherine with extra confusion.
“Right, of course you probably don’t know about the Phases,” said Timothy, “There will be time enough to – ah, there she is. Tabitha, dear! Our guest has awoken!”
“She has? Oh dear, and I only just finished stitching her a top!” came a voice from a small tent just ahead. As they approached the tent, a small figure shuffled out from inside it and bowed, her bones adding some unwanted clanks to the gesture.
“Tabitha Mossridge, my dear,” she said after straightening up, “Welcome to our humble little camp! And you are…?”
“Katherine Kenway,” said Katherine, not trusting herself to bow properly in return.
“Oh? But you’re Indian, aren’t you?” asked Tabitha, her one hairless brow raising up, “Ah, I suppose it’s from your mother’s side then.”
“She’s Indian enough though, we checked,” said Timothy, “I thought we might answer the myriad questions she must have for us over some tea, once the water has boiled.”
“Boiled? But Timothy, we cannot keep the fire burning for too long – “ began Tabitha.
“It will only be for a short while, dear, and we are far enough away from the roads that we should be left alone,” explained Timothy, “In addition, I have already asked several of our lads to patrol around the camp.
“Alright then, if you insist,” accepted Tabitha, “I must say though, it has been a long while since we had warm tea!”
“Well, we don’t often have living company these days, do we?” asked Eleanor.
“Certainly none as disinterested in bopping our heads off as Miss Kennedy here,” said Nigel.
“It’s Kenway, dear,” corrected Eleanor before Katherine had decided if she even wanted to.
A phrase that Katherine had read in a children’s book once suddenly came to mind: Curiouser and curiouser. If there was any phrase that perfectly encapsulated the current proceedings, it was this. She was beginning to wonder if she should pinch herself some more.
Or maybe she had inhaled some fumes from some plant that grew in these parts, and the fumes were wreaking havoc on her senses. But then, why was it that only the Zombies were behaving in such a surreal manner? The rest of the forest and the sky and the ground all looked just as dreary and muddy as they had the last few days.
Something was off here, but she decided to roll with it for the time being until she was in a better state to process things.
She was definitely not dreaming, she thought to herself as she tried to rub the hurt out of her hands, because if she had been, the little mishap would have snapped her out of it.
The Zombies had managed to procure a cup for her to drink the water from, but the sad little cup had very clearly needed to be washed in some of the boiling water to kill the germs in it. She had tried to do it without dipping her hands into the water, but the cup had slipped into the bucket, and in her attempt to quickly fish it out, she had scorched her hands.
Tabitha had tutted to herself, and had a look on her face that suggested she would have really loved to help or even do the washing herself, but sticking her festering hands into matters would have defeated the purpose.
Still, the tingling was starting to die down now as Katherine very cautiously sipped the water from the bowl. While they had been marching about, the soldiers had used some kind of filtration device to clean the water before drinking it, so it wasn’t her first taste of Mortanny’s rivers and pools. But there was something different about this water. It tasted like someone had added a drop of essence of mud to its flavour. But it was warm, and that helped overcome the taste issues.
“Are those really tea leaves?” she asked, pointing to the cauldron in the middle of their circle, in which the Zombies were brewing their ‘tea’.
“I highly doubt it,” said Eleanor, stirring the water with a stick, “To be honest, all of us here can no longer taste anything, so we simply put in whatever dead leaves or grass we can find that look close enough like the real thing.”
“And you drink it anyway…” wondered Katherine.
“It is the principle of it that matters,” said Nigel, “It reminds us of the days when we were more… ourselves.”
“And more importantly, it reminds us that we still have enough of ourselves inside us even now,” said Timothy, staring at the cauldron, “Even as we lose a little bit day by day.”
“We’re still dying, you know,” butted in Charles, answering a question which Katherine would probably have asked a few minutes into the future, “This Plague that we have just makes the process much, much slower. It is as though our deaths should have been a single page in a book, but the words have now been extended across several chapters.”
“And any day now, our books will come to an end,” said Nigel, accepting the cup of tea Eleanor passed him, “But there is no way we can know with certainty when that day will come. This Plague is an annoyingly unpredictable curse we have been afflicted with.”
“There is the Last Madness though,” pointed out Tabitha, and the whole group shuddered.
It may have been written in bold text on Katherine’s face at that moment that she very clearly wanted to know what the Last Madness was. This was probably the reason that Joseph jumped in with another question instead.
“So, tell us your story, Kenway: How does an Indian-looking girl like you take on an Anglish name like Katherine?”
Katherine’s mouth was already half open, so she simply had to pack up the Last Madness question for a later time and swap in an answer to Joseph instead before she opened it fully.
“I was adopted when I was too small to remember,” she said, her eyes dipping a little at the thought of her family, “I never knew or met my biological parents or family. I just knew that there was some amount of Indian blood in me because of the way I look.”
“Adopted?” asked Eleanor, “Do you mean to say they still take Indian children as slaves in Terra Magellar? God’s grace, if only they knew! We should warn them - ”
“Well, the blokes who come from there nowadays are hardly in a listening mood when they find us, are they?” pointed out Nigel.
“No, no, I wasn’t a slave,” corrected Katherine before the conversation derailed further, “My parents took me in as one of their own children. They treated me and loved me like I was their real daughter.”
“They must have been very rich then,” said Joseph, looking at his tea with an expression that was much harder to read without most of the necessary facial features, “Not too many poor families who would add more mouths to feed out of love and kindness and all that.”
“We were middle-class where I come from, so they weren’t particularly rich,” said Katherine in a bit of a rush, because she had a question she wanted to get out of the way: “Anyway, why is my being Indian so important to you? And what does your God have to do with it?”
The Zombies looked at each other for a brief moment.
“Well, it is the reason we are not going to kill you and convert you into one of us,” said Charles, as direct and blunt as a blackjack to the face, “So I would think it is just as important to you too.”
“Before the Great Plague, we were quite monstrous and cruel in our treatment of Indians,” began Nigel, as Timothy adopted a very pensive, faraway look, “Slavery was probably the least of the punishments we gave them. At the time, we thought them inferior beings to ourselves, and that our mission was to destroy their livelihoods and convert them to our own.”
“But then the Plague hit us, of course, and changed us into these hideous forms,” said Tabitha, “Not really living, and very slowly dying. Forever feeling the pain of our bodies shutting down. Eternally hungry since we are unable to eat anything other than rotted plants or living meat – “
Katherine recoiled a little at the statement.
“The point is, we believe that our God cursed us because of the inhumane way we treated the Indians back when we were truly alive,” said Eleanor, “and so we force ourselves to show them, and you, the kindness we should have done earlier. Perhaps then our gracious God will ease our suffering, or end it sooner.”
“Not everyone believes this though, or they don’t believe it strongly enough,” said Timothy, giving Joseph a dark look, “But when I think back to some of the cruelty we inflicted upon the Indians, and how we ourselves are now inflicted with this curse, it makes sense. We failed our God, and He lashed out at us for our sins; we should know better than to anger Him again.”
“It is not easy,” said Charles, after gulping his tea, “Even now, I have to fight back a strong urge to attack you and bite off your warm, sweet flesh. Something in the Plague also gives us this savage instinct to hunger for living animals, like fleas being drawn to a dog.”
“Yes, about that,” said Katherine, very eager to change the current direction of the conversation, “Eleanor said something about how you all used to be like some of the other Zombies I’ve come across; the ones that roam around in hordes and keep trying to kill me no matter how hard I attack them back in return. The really violent, primal ones. Were you all really like that once?”
“Ah, you speak of the First Madness,” said Tabitha, “When we first become Zombies, the urge to kill and eat living things overpowers every other thought and feeling in our bodies. The hordes you speak of are comprised of such newly created Zombies. Ever since the Crusades began, there have been many invading soldiers who have died over the years, and those who die here by our hands and teeth always become Zombies themselves.”
“The First Madness lasts for about twenty years on average, I would estimate,” said Timothy, scooping another cup of tea for himself, “After that, the urge weakens enough for the rest of our remaining senses and thoughts to take over. In that state, we are more like what you see now, more civilized and proper.”
“There are rumours that some of the hordes that roam out of Zyltravania are in a perpetual state of madness though,” warned Nigel, “I do not believe such a thing is possible myself, but I am not inclined to ask those hordes where they are from when I see them approach…”
“It makes sense, though,” said Eleanor, “Zyltravania was where the Great Plague originated, was it not? Perhaps the air there is so foul that they can never come out of the First Madness.”
“But those hordes come to these parts, where the air and the trees are almost as clean as they were in the days before Mortanny,” argued Joseph, “And they remain feral and bloodthirsty no matter how long they roam the Anglish plains.”
As the Zombies argued about the Zyltravanian hordes, a light bulb began to flicker inside Katherine’s mind.
“Wait a minute,” she said, interrupting the groan-flavoured debate, “so, every person who is turned into a Zombie will eventually become less violent and more, well, more like you?”
“They should, unless they died in Zyltravania, apparently,” said Tabitha, “Although, if there are any living people in Zyltravania in this day and age, I will be extremely surprised.”
Katherine was about to begin vocalizing her thoughts when another Zombie came scampering up to the group.
“There’s a group of new Zombies approaching the camp, Timothy,” said the new arrival, before goggling at Katherine. It was probably simply glancing at her, but its face was only capable of goggling with the remaining features it had.
“Well, why is that such big news to – oh, right,” said Joseph, also glancing at Katherine as the others all began to rise.
“If we moved only a little further to the South, they should pass us by, I think,” said the scout Zombie.
“Good, but I will need a few of you to hang around here and redirect them should they get wind of anything,” said Timothy, “Join us after they pass by.”
The Zombie nodded before scooting off to find other Zombies to follow it. Timothy announced to the others in the camp that they were moving, and in a very short time the shelters and items were all being packed up, the fireplaces were being scattered and the Zombies were beginning to shuffle away.
As they all ambled through the forest, Katherine caught up with Timothy.
“Do you remember the place where you found me?” she asked a little eagerly.
“Not exactly, but I can recall in which area of the forest it was, roughly speaking,” said Timothy, “why do you ask?”
Feeling excited after what had felt like an era, she then told him why.