They didn’t have to wait long before their first encounter with Zombies.
They rode out the next day before the dawn had broken, in a turn of events that everyone saw coming. The days had reached that unsure boundary between autumn and winter, when there were still plenty of warmly coloured leaves still clinging on for dear life to the trees, but the bitter cold breezes of winter had come to blow them away once and for all. Rain was expected to fall at some point on their way to Fort Newstead; given the frigid conditions, it was also expected that some icy sleet would also accompany the rain when it came falling.
It was during rare moments on days such as this that Katherine wished she had a different ability. In order to maximise the range of sizes she could make use of in battle, the Forces had supplied her with a tight bodysuit with light reinforcement and extra stretchiness. Thanks to it, she could increase her overall height to around twenty feet before the suit began to tear and reduce it to a foot before the suit would be too loose. She could also stretch and deform her limbs even further than that without too much worry.
The problem was that the rest of the clothes she had to wear in order to survive the harrowing howls of the wintry winds didn’t stretch at all. And the bodysuit didn’t have much in the way of resistance against the elements on its own. Which meant that, when running into battle, she would have to strip down to her bodysuit and then pray really, really hard that the battle would finish before the cold completely numbed her senses and froze her stiff.
Needless to say, it wasn’t an experience to look forward to.
As her horse noisily trotted along, its hooves occasionally munching when they landed on dry leaves, she looked around at the scenery they were riding through, in an attempt to distract herself from her worries. But there was nothing much there that stood out or even looked vaguely interesting. The sky had the dull grey tone of a sky that wasn’t feeling all that well today and just wanted to stay at home wrapped up in a blanket with some hot chocolate to drink. And the scenery was mostly clumps of trees and bushes occasionally broken up by patches of plain grass. Not even a river in sight to break up the monotony. Sigh.
And then came the call.
“I can sense something up ahead, Captain Masterton,” said Gloria, who was riding just behind the two captains, “It smells dead, but it’s moving.”
“Sounds like Zombies to me all right,” said Masterton, signalling the company to halt, “How far ahead are they?”
As they were currently riding up a slope, the view ahead was blocked by the peacefully rising hill at the end of the slope. The company only had Gloria’s enhanced senses to go by for now. Although…
“About a hundred yards, maybe more,” replied Gloria, cautiously sniffing, “It smells like a really big group though, Captain. Maybe even matching our numbers.”
Katherine slowly elongated her neck until she could just see over the hill.
“I only make out two of them, Captain,” said Katherine, squinting into the distance, “although there’s a lot of trees in the area as well, the rest could be covered behind them.”
“Also remember that Zombies have a much stronger scent than pretty much anything else out here, Private Gallagher,” said Captain Carpenter.
“Except maybe moldy cheese,” said Masterton, as Katherine’s neck returned back to its normal size, “But I reckon there’s fewer of them than you think, Gallagher. Still, no reason to take it too easy. Now, here’s what we’re going to do…”
Minutes later, while half the squadron stayed back with the horses and their supplies, the other half followed Masterton on foot, using the sporadic bunches of trees in their way as cover while they snuck closer and closer to the group of Zombies. Some of them, like Oliver and Masterton, had their guns out and at the ready; the bayonets at the tips of the rifles were trying very hard to glint in the gloomy day’s light.
Katherine was one of the Supers on the squadron who didn’t have a gun; with her ability, they would only just get in the way. Besides, she wasn’t entirely a big fan of them either. There was something about their sleek builds, like the canines of some eccentric monster, and the fact that they could only ever spit out blazing pellets of death and fury, that rubbed her the wrong way.
When they were only a couple of clumps away from the two Zombies Katherine had seen earlier, Masterton signalled them to halt. Reducing her size so as to better hide in the shrubbery, Katherine could now make out a path of sorts leading to what was probably a temporary camp. Mixed with the fetid hints of Zombie was the scent of a fire; apparently, Zombies weren’t as immune to the effects of the cold as she’d thought.
Masterton gave a signal to Kenneth, and a whoosh and two very rapid muffled cracks later, the two Zombies near the road lay on the ground, their heads having been parted very neatly from their bodies and then caved in for good measure. Kenneth didn’t have very powerful punches, but with his speed and the knuckle dusters he had on, his punches didn’t need to be.
She recalled the training they’d had back at boot camp about taking out Zombies; taking out their brains (or whatever they had as a replacement) was the quickest way to render them inert. Whichever Zombies that still remained after the time of the Great Plague weren’t immortal so much as taking a much, much longer time to die than normal people. As such, taking out their hearts or other organs simply removed a handful years from what was still going to be a very long death-time.
Since Zombies weren’t allowed to enter Imperica unless they were well and truly deceased, the recruits had only been able to practice with training dummies up until now. Katherine flexed her hands, partially to ready herself for what was probably going to be a very messy first encounter, and partially because the cold was starting to get to her.
That was when she saw Gloria quickly skulking through the bushes towards a patrolling Zombie who might just have gotten a hint of something funny in the wind. Gloria’s abilities seemed to have been inspired by some big wild cat, like a panther; she also had razor sharp claws and super agility to go along with her enhanced senses, and she was currently making good use of these abilities.
Slice. Snap. Thud. The patrolling Zombie was taken care of. Gloria skulked back just as stealthily.
There was another patrolling Zombie sniffing the air suspiciously, nearer to the other end of the squadron. An arrow whistled in the air as it struck the Zombie squarely between the eyes, nearly ripping its head off of its dilapidated body in the process. The Zombie collapsed with hardly a growl.
With all immediate threats taken care of, the squadron advanced towards the probable location of the camp. It wasn’t long before they found it; a shabbily constructed mess of tents and shelters too sparse to be even considered related to tents, given some visual cover from the main road by a ridge in the ground and several densely packed thickets. It wasn’t a large camp; there couldn’t have been more than fifteen Zombies, either shuffling about lazily or resting on the ground even more lazily. They were a morbid variety of states of decay, although none of them looked too far gone. A lot of them even had clothes on, although calling the bits of rag and string they were wearing ‘clothes’ was being generous.
More than half of them snapped their heads and began to sniff the air as the squadron began to surround the camp on all sides. Zombies were rumoured to have an odd mix of enhanced senses of their own; it was said, for example, that they could sense heat in much the same way that some snakes could. No wonder, then, that they had picked up on something amiss as all the warm-bodied soldiers were surrounding them.
The Zombies that had been lying on the ground were getting up; the ones that had been shuffling began to pace more rapidly. Katherine tensely waited for Masterton’s signal. Some of the Zombies were packing up the shelters and putting out the weak fire. Others were drawing closer to the soldiers’ hiding places. Any moment now…
Masterton raised his pistol and fired at one of the prowling Zombies. The bullet tore through the face of the creature and blew up its skull with a crack like a whip in an empty cave.
That was the signal. The squadron charged. The camp was more filled with life and chaos than it had ever been – and ever would be.
The Zombie that Katherine had targeted, who had been distracted by the sound of the gunshot, turned around just in time to see an enlarged fist bigger than its torso flying straight at it. With a sickening thud, it took the full force of the blow and flew several feet before landing heavily on the ground. Whatever was remaining of its ears were ringing with a choir of angels moaning in the background. It unsteadily tried to get to its feet as Katherine approached it, enlarged fist at the ready to give it one more punch, a final blow to the head that it wouldn’t be getting back up from.
Katherine was standing above the pitiful thing, her fist primed to rain down swiftly, when it… spoke. It was the sound of a clogged drain trying to dislodge a large rock that had somehow got stuck in it, but in that sound was a voice. Possibly feminine, even.
The voice pleaded, “Please… I beg you for mercy…”
She was so taken aback that she simply stood there, although half of her was expecting the Zombie to take advantage of her inaction and pounce on her. The fist remained at its threatening size. Come on, give me a reason, that half of she silently dared the Zombie.
But the Zombie didn’t fight back. Naturally wide-eyed from its lack of eyelids, it simply skittered away from her, taking the opportunity to flee instead of fight back. It may have even growled a ‘Thank you’.
It didn’t get very far, though, before a blazing orange beam of energy blew off its spindly legs from its torso. Before the part of it that was still attached to its head could pull itself away from danger, a bullet struck it in the head. It’s frantically scrambling arms flopped down in surrender.
Katherine didn’t spend a long time staring at the pathetic looking remains of the Zombie. She looked around to see if there were any more of them to take care of. But the soldiers she was with had cleaned up very efficiently. As she looked around, Samuel the longbow-wielding soldier let fly another perfectly aimed bolt into the head of a Zombie, while Oliver blew up the skull of another with his rifle at close range.
And just like that, it was over.
Well, not quite. Not for Katherine.
“Well done, troops!” bellowed Masterton as he sheathed his pistol, “I reckon we’ve got all of them, but recon the perimeter just to make sure! Not you, Private Katherine!”
He strode towards her with the kind of deliberate steps that told her she had messed up big time. The trouble she was in was the breaking-a-priceless-irreplaceable-family-heirloom variety of trouble.
“What in tarnation was that, Private Katherine!?” charged the question.
“Sir?” asked Katherine, as neutrally as she could managed.
“You know damn well what I mean, soldier! Why the hell did you let that Zombie run away from you!?”
“It begged for mercy, Sir,” said Katherine, and she could almost sense the blood rushing to his raging head at that reply.
“So what, did you expect that once it got away, it would send you flowers ‘n a thank you card, ‘n then the two of you could be the best of buds? That is NOT what we’re here to do, private! We are trying to eradicate these abominations from this place, not make friends with them!”
Katherine was uncomfortably aware that the rest of the squadron could very clearly hear what the captain was saying.
“These are the God-damned Crusades, private, not some silly kiddie’s game where we all play nice ‘n give each other a hug when it’s all over! You have been trained to send these creatures back to the damned depths of hell where they belong, because THAT is what you are here to do! That is how you will survive this cursed place and its plague-ridden creatures! Understood!?”
“Do you have a problem with my command of the squadron, private?”
“Then the least you can do is show some damned zeal ‘n respect when I ask you a question!”
He paused to glare at her, allowing the sounds of soldiers trying very hard to pretend that they were otherwise occupied to seep into her ears, before continuing.
“Now, I know that you are also here because some damned newspaper back in Imperica wants to write a bunch of pieces about the Crusades. Like it’s all some fascinating alternative lifestyle to them. And do you know how much I care about them? NOT ONE BIT! So listen well, private…”
Katherine was pretty sure at this point that even the half of the squadron that had stayed back with the supplies could hear him.
“…if you ever, ‘n I mean it, if you EVER hesitate to kill these damned monsters ‘n follow the orders you’ve been given again, then I will NOT hesitate to send you right across the ocean ‘n slithering back to your newspaper folks, do you hear me! I will NOT tolerate a soldier under my command who cannot perform her duty when she needs to! UNDERSTAND!?”
Not long after, the rest of the outfit confirmed that there were no other immediate dangers in the area (Anthony had found an undead woodland critter of some kind, but had blasted it to bits before it could do anything even remotely threatening – or even be properly identified). After assembling back at the centre of what was left of the camp, they began to briskly jog back to the rest of the squadron.
Katherine couldn’t help but notice that her squad mates were almost proactively avoiding eye contact or any kind of conversation with her. She didn’t mind terribly though; she was having enough of a conversation with herself already, and the extra input probably wouldn’t have helped much.
The Zombie…it had spoken to her, hadn’t it? And it didn’t fight back, not even when Katherine had given it a window so wide open that the shutters were dangling off of their hinges. Even with all the orders she had been pelted with to take them out regardless, it still felt wrong to put down an enemy that didn’t even raise a withering hand in defence. It felt very, very wrong and not at all heroic. Even the troublemakers back on the streets of Nexus City fought back enough to justify all the injuries she tended to leave them with.
But that wasn’t the worst part though. No, the bit that clung onto her thoughts like a very unsettling leech was the fact that the Zombie had spoken. And not just spoken random words, but words that had a very deliberate meaning to them, words that had taken the context of the situation into account. Words that were aware.
They met up with the rest of the squadron, and after Captain Masterton recounted what had happened to Captain Carpenter, they all got back onto their horses (and Katherine very gladly put on her warm clothes once more) before continuing their ride to Fort Newstead. Katherine caught some whispers between some of the soldiers, and she didn’t need Gloria’s abilities to know that she was the subject of some of those whispers.
She was still too enraptured by her own musings to care.
All the briefings they’d received about Zombies from the time they were still starting out in boot camp had painted the undead creatures as some kind of mutilated fungus that had spread its spores throughout most of Mortanny. They were monsters without feelings, without any desires beyond the one to feed on other living beings and to spread their infection through them. Killing them wasn’t an act of taking lives so much as it was ridding the continent of germs, a cleansing that wasn’t ethnic in any way. Plus, it was either kill them or be infected by them and join their festering ranks.
But that Zombie hadn’t simply been a diseased monster. It had been sentient; maybe the person it used to be was still in there, somewhere. What if the other Zombies were like that too? What if there were more of them who were sentient beings that didn’t simply want to kill anything that wasn’t a Zombie? For all she knew, based on the sample size she had, all Zombies were more than just disease carriers with a primal appetite. The mental image of the Crusades that she had was starting to show its darker shades.
“Hey, how are you holding up?” asked Kenneth, who had trotted up beside her.
“Hey,” she smiled back at him, “I’m fine. I just have a lot on my mind.”
“About what happened back at the Zombie camp? I didn’t think you’d be so affected by what the captain said,” wondered Kenneth.
“It’s not what he said that’s bothering me,” said Katherine, “or even the fact that the whole of Anglos probably heard him.”
“Ha! I guess having good lungs is always a bonus when it comes to commanding troops,” chuckled Kenneth, before asking “So what happened back there? Did you really let a Zombie escape?”
“I was about to crush its head in, when it spoke to me,” said Katherine, quietly so that she couldn’t be heard over the pitter-patter of the hooves on the hard road, “It asked me for mercy. And then, it tried to crawl away when I stopped attacking it. It even said ‘Thank you’.”
Kenneth didn’t reply, and Katherine thought she could recognise the look on his thin face; it was the look he had when he was trying very hard not to say something offensive or hurtful.
“I take it you don’t believe me?” she asked him, as casually as possible.
“Hey, whoa, I believe you!” said Kenneth, his horse suddenly jolting and diverting his attention for a few minutes while he tried to rein it back to its usual trotting pace, “I mean, I believe that that’s what you saw and heard.”
“And…” prompted Katherine, waiting for the less diplomatic part of his argument.
“Well, it was still a better idea to deal with it instead of letting it go,” said Kenneth, channelling a little bit of Oliver in the process, “I mean, otherwise it probably would have found a bunch of other Zombies and alerted them to our presence, wouldn’t it? And then maybe the next time, they’d be the ones sneaking up on us while we’re in a camp.”
“They’re not going to sneak up on us anytime soon with Gloria around,” pointed out Katherine.
“Fine, they won’t sneak up on us, they’ll swarm us instead,” countered Kenneth, “The point is, whether or not they can talk, they’re still the enemy here, Katherine. They’re still the bad guys, and we’re the good guys here to take them out.”
Were they though, really?
Katherine returned to her thoughts as Captain Carpenter signalled the group to halt. She had spotted a bunch of bushes still bearing edible fruit, even though it was the tail-end of autumn in these parts. For the next few minutes, the group spread out and tried to extract as many of the clumps of berry-looking fruits as they could. They had packed enough supplies to last them the whole trip, but they had space for more.
Katherine took a long look at the ones she had managed to forage. They were a very normal-looking round shape, but their colouring was unusual; they looked as though a red bubble had burst at the point where they were attached to the branch, and was now spilling over the rest of the otherwise dark purple fruit. She tried one a little hesitantly; it tasted sweeter than she had expected, but in a piercing, almost acidic way that she wasn’t sure she liked all that much.
Still, at least it had more taste than their usual rations. She continued plucking away at the bushes.
The day was approaching its peak, although it didn’t feel like anything remotely resembling the middle of the day thanks to the grim slab of grey shades that was the sky, when Gloria picked up on another group of zombies ahead. This time, though, the terrain didn’t allow for a sneak attach as it had before; the ground here was more open and flat, so the hiding places were not as plentiful. Also, as far as Gloria could tell, the Zombies were moving, following the direction of the road while keeping some distance away from it.
Still, just as before, roughly half of the squad advanced with Captain Masterton to take out the threat. This time around though, Katherine was posted with the group looking after the horses. It was a clearly random decision, she thought bitterly.
Still, it also meant that she could stay in her clothes as opposed to running around in the cold with only her bodysuit on. A small yet important comfort. And they still had to be on the lookout, as Carpenter reminded her and the others who hadn’t guarded the supplies the last time around; Without Gloria’s senses to warn them, they had less warning time should they be attacked by a roving pack of Zombies.
It turned out to be an uneventful lookout. About an hour later, the other half of the squadron returned, this time with less good news that the last time. Oliver had sustained an injury, and while it didn’t look fatal (or worse), it was enough to keep him out of active duty until the end of their journey.
“I was careless, and one of them managed to sneak up on me,” he grumbled when Katherine asked him about it, “I’ll be fine in a few days I think, if the medicine stops the infection from spreading.”
“I should have been faster to react,” said Kenneth guiltily.
“Oh please! If you were any faster, you’d be moving backwards in time,” scoffed Oliver, and they all shared a relieving chuckle before Oliver’s wincing at the pain brought it to an abrupt stop.