“He comes from the grave, his body a home of worms and filth. No life in his eyes, no warmth of his skin, no beating of his breast. His soul as empty and dark as the night sky. For eternity, he will walk the earth, smelling the sweet blood of the living, feasting upon the bones of the damned. Beware, for he is the living dead.” ~Obscure Hindu Text, Circa 1000 B.C.E.
Tortuous thoughts and vision plagued my dreams that evening, my only escape from them the distant sound of voices drifting toward me from somewhere deep in the forest. They grew louder as I gained consciousness, and I suddenly awoke with a start, my entire body dripping in a cold sweat.
I breathed heavy for a moment before I realized that the voices hadn’t vanished with my subconscious. As the cobwebs in my mind began to clear I realized the sound was only coming from my radio. I reached to my pack and drew it out, its muddled tone transforming into a clear message from my mystery survivor.
The message was easily deciphered, and it brought welcome news. I had planned on going the entire distance to Kamenka to meet the man behind this voice, but now would only have to reach the village of Pavlovo. It has halfway between here and the coast, and would take me considerably less time to reach.
I gathered my supplies quickly and kicked dirt over the few remaining coals still smoldering in the fire, then set out to the South. As I moved from the trees into the long clearing, I looked back to Zelenogorsk in the northeast. I had thought I was saying a final goodbye to the city, but as I watched its dead streets and lifeless buildings I felt some sort of force tying me to it, like an invisible rope lashing me to the mast in a vicious hurricane.
The feeling made me uneasy, and I forced my vision back to the South, vowing to escape that storm which held me bound.
As I had expected, I reached Pavlovo in just under an hour. I first thought my effort had been in vain when I reached its borders, when within the village I suddenly saw movement; a movement more lifelike and natural than the undead throughout it. There, in the churchyard, crouched a man.
He had only a small pack across his shoulders, and I could tell from this distance that nothing but a pistol afforded him protection. For the first time, I pressed the transmit button the radio and sent a message across the void: “I can see you in Pavlovo, by the church. I’m here to help.” I could tell the signal startled the man, as he whirled and pulled his own radio from the pack, staring intently at it. A quick movement of his hands showed me he had begun to send a reply.
“Are you friendly?”
I held the button again, “Friendly, yes. And I have some supplies you can have. Look North.”
As I spoke the words, he turned and stared up toward the trees I emerged from, and he waved an arm over his head slowly, glancing around nervously as he did so. Several creatures wandered the streets of the small village, but the surrounding fields were so large, and the gaps between the houses so wide, that it was trivial to slip through them to the decaying chapel.
As I reached it, the man stood to greet me, rising from the corner he had been crouched in. I motioned him back, whispering, “It’s not wise to stand in the open.” He understood immediately and nodded, stepping back against the stucco wall of the building.
I dropped my pack to the ground and dropped to my knees beside it. Reaching inside, I withdrew the spare compass, watch, and hunting knife and handed them to my new ally. He took them with a sigh of gratitude, and stuffed them within his own smaller bag.
“I’m Mitchell,” he said, as he turned back to me.
“Maverick,” I responded, surveying our surroundings. Here, in front of the church, we were almost completely exposed, and every so often a moan or groan would pass by us beyond the surrounding streets. “We need to move,” I continued, “follow me.”
We slipped quietly across the main street which ran through the village, then past the last few houses on the outskirts, not speaking again until we were safe within the trees of the surrounding forest. As we crouched in the trees, I remembered that he only had his pistol.
“We should probably find you a better gun,” I suggested.
He nodded. “I think you can find supplies in a city named Zelenogorsk,” he said, “is that near here?” The memory of my escape earlier this morning came back to me now, and I shuddered involuntarily. I had no desire to return to the place that had been the scene of so much recent death, but I also knew I was right; the only reason even I had continued to return there was the knowledge that it remained the sole source of any serious supplies in the area.
Still I hesitated as some ominous presence clouded my mind like some sort of otherworldly warning. “What do you think?” Mitchell pressed again, turning toward me and noticing the distant expression on my face.
I shook my head, then gave a quick nod. “All right,” I agreed, “but we’ll need to be careful. Zeleno isn’t just filled with zombies, but chances are at least several other people are going to be near it. Keep your eyes open and your ears alert.”
We moved through the trees northward, only stopping when one of us heard what we thought to be a distant gunshot, or nearby moan. If we were right in these moments, the dangers never presented themselves, and we would continue on.
Before long we reached the southern outskirts of the city. I suggested we search a barn to the east that I had seen in the distance earlier this morning, and Mitchell followed closely as I made my way to it. A few of the undead wandered around it, but they were easily avoided. I motioned to my new friend to check inside while I covered the area from the outside. A few minutes later he returned, carrying a rather large crossbow and a few bolts in his hands.
“Not bad!” he exclaimed as he reached me where I hid, crouched beside several bushes. He was right to be pleased; though the weapon would be slow to shoot, and ammo scarce, it was also as deadly as it was silent and offered the chance to recover the barbs from its victims.
I tried to use the moment to steer us to another location, but Mitchell didn’t want to go for it. “There might be something better in the city,” he reasoned, “or even other things we could use. We should check it while we’re here, at any rate.”
Without a word, I began to move toward the city, taking the long way around on the West just as I had done days ago with another companion. I hoped this time the results would be better.
As we skirted the cement fence near the area where the store say, I fell to the back, allowing Mitchell to take the lead. I could not see any zombies in the fields or streets ahead, and the foreboding I had felt only a day before came back upon me as I began to glance around nervously.
Soon we reached a gap in the fence, and before I could caution him Mitchell slipped through it toward the store. “There’s nothing there, anymore!” I tired to warn in a loud whisper, but if he heard me he paid it no attention. We couldn’t risk losing each other within the city, and I had no choice but to follow, which I did as quickly, but cautiously, as I could.
The effort was in vain, for no sooner had we moved through the gap than the telltale groans of approaching death reached my ears, coming from behind me. I turned and saw several zombies giving chase in our direction. What had startled them I couldn’t tell, but now my only motivation could be to survive long enough to consider that later.
Out of instinct, I turned from the city and ran for the woods, hoping to lose the creatures in the tress, but I had only moved a few dozen yards before I remembered Mitchell was still in the city. I knew my fleeing now could only result in his own death, so I turned back, quickly deciding to make for the store and try to take out the creatures as they came through the doors.
The first part of my plan worked as I reached the back side of the building and pushed open a set of large double doors. I had tried to locate my companion as I ran, but he must have found some other, hopefully safer, hiding spot nearby. Quickly, I began to push shells into my shotgun, turning back to the doors as I did so and dropping to a knee.
Soon the beasts were upon me, and I dropped the first two easily with successive blasts. No sooner had their bodies hit the floor, though, than many more screams of anger and torment sounded from elsewhere in the city. In my haste to defend myself, I had not even thought that the sound of the gunshots would be heard by any other creature in the area.
I continued to fire quickly, killing zombie after zombie, but each pull of the trigger only seemed to elevate a truth I could feel growing in my mind: I didn’t have ammunition for all of them. Soon that truth became all too real as I reached for more shells to force into the gun, only for my hand to come up empty out of my pockets.
As they moved toward me, I tried to fight them off with my fists, but there were too many, and their unnatural strength proved too much for my weakened limbs. I closed my eyes, and waited for the end to come.
It came as quickly as the beasts could reach me, and in a heartbeat I felt their hands upon me, clawing at my flesh. The agony only struck for a moment, but as I felt the life draining for my body with each new spurt of blood from my wounds, a strange sense of peace came over me. The faces of Tom, Alex, Reno and my nameless victim moved through my mind as I fell to the ground. Each of them turned and nodded toward me, and I felt a sense of understanding from them.
Just before I slipped into the endless black, sudden gunshots tore through my senses as the undead began to fall around me. In moments I could sense another, more lifelike, body near me, but my eyes had almost faded now and the sound of its footsteps seemed to be reaching me from the end of a long canyon. It seemed as though someone was shouting at me, but I couldn’t make out the words, and for some reason I didn’t care to try.
My eyes were dark now, and the only feeling which remained was the beating of my heart, pulsating and throbbing loudly in my mind as though I was seated next to a bass drum at the symphony. The tempo began to slow, and with a final long breath stopped as my heart fell silent.