Garth pried open Doug’s mouth and shoved the stone into it, forcing him to swallow. Once that was done, he had Leanne help him get the wounded man onto one of the library carts. They tucked his guts back into his stomach and pinched the ragged edges of flesh together, sealing it with superglue until they could find something better to stitch it together with.
Leanne did the delicate work, tucking the bloody, ropy guts back in while Garth held Doug down. She wiped the wound dry before applying the glue, causing Doug to buck wildly for an instant before he fainted.
Leanne backed away from Doug, her face pale.
“Nah, he’s still breathing,” Garth said, eyeing the rise and fall of Doug’s chest.“Toss that book on the cart.” He motioned to the blood-smeared book of edible plants before going library and searching for anything he could find on first aid or medicinal plants. Sadly the section on plants was riddled with holes, and there were no books on first aid with decent pictures, on account of it being a middle school.
“Guess this is all we’re getting,” Garth said as he came back from searching the library. The light streaming in from the windows had changed drastically since they’d arrived, now hitting to opposite side of the bookshelves. They needed to move on, and they needed protection to do it.
The shotgun had two shells left in it, and Doug’s AR-15 had ten rounds, with a spare clip of thirty on his belt. Leanne and Garth threw them all on the library cart along with Garth’s bag. They got behind it and pushed, straining to force the squeaky thing up the ramp.
Garth was praying that the cart didn’t break down, seeing as Doug must have weighed at least two hundred pounds. He kept his eyes and ears open, waiting for Harold to jump out like a boogeyman sponsored by Ensure as they pushed Doug down the hall. Once they got the cart outside, they upgraded to a wheelbarrow to better facilitate travelling through the woods.
“How are we doing?” Garth asked as they came to the stream where they’d first met.
“He’s cold, not breathing very deep,” Leanne said, putting a hand on Doug’s forehead.
“Cold. Shit.” Garth cussed, setting the wheelbarrel down and checking Doug’s gash. The cut was red and inflamed. Not a happy cut, bound together with glue. At least it wasn’t bleeding. On the outside.
“He’s not gonna make it through the night without some extra oomph. And a blanket.”
A thought occurred to him as he glanced at the river. The school was only a few hundred feet away, and the city only a few hundred beyond that. There were sure to be a few ghouls lingering around.
No, that was a stupid idea. What if there was another tiger-looking one? Anything with four legs would make a meal out of them in an instant.
“What is it?” Leanne asked.
“You looked like you thought of something. What was it?”
Garth glanced at the stream, then back to her.
“How fast can you run?”
“Like the wind.”
Garth rested against a tree, the rifle laying crossways on his lap, at war with himself. Beside him, Doug lay in the wheelbarrow, sweating and struggling to breath.
It was a stupid idea, not worth the risk. There’s no risk to me, the benefits outweigh the risk. Goddamnit, I can’t expect a little girl to- Garth’s self-recriminations were cut off when he heard a girl’s shrill shriek. All according to plan.
The sound made his heart hammer in his chest and his guts twist with worry. how was he supposed to know if that was a real ‘I’m getting eaten’ shriek or a ‘follow me to our ambush’ shriek? No, calm down, this is why we made codewords, ‘spiderweb’ for if she’s trapped and needs help, ‘Fire at will’ if she runs into Harold. So far, it’s all been fine.
The shrieking came again, closer this time. She was really egging them on. Or dying.
Twenty seconds later, Garth made out the light blue of her T-shirt, muddled with smears of Doug’s dried brown blood. The sight nearly made him sigh in relief when he noticed the horde that was following the girl, no less than forty ghouls dashed along behind her. Here we go. God I hope I was right about water. If he wasn’t, they were about to get eaten, because she’d drawn far more than Garth was expecting.
Leanne flew through the woods, her small frame passing beneath branches and sliding between narrow trees, forcing the lanky ghouls to slow down and find their way around.
Garth shouldered the rifle, putting the neon green sights on the lead ghoul, trying his damnedest to calm his breathing. As soon as the girl was out of the way, he’d get started, one shot center mass on each of them. He didn’t have the time or the skill to try to shoot them all in the head.
Leanne hit the water and juked to the left, clearing Garth’s field of fire.
Garth pulled the trigger, mechanically lining up one shot after another. The recoil was vastly less than the shotgun, but the butt of the gun hit the exact same place, making his tender shoulder cry out every time he put a round in a pasty ass.
The ghouls drew up short as they hit the water, coming to a screeching halt. They snarled at their prey that had escaped across the river, only noticing Garth picking them off a handful of seconds after Leanne hit the other side of the stream.
There were already twelve screeching on the ground when they broke, trying to scatter in all directions. Garth focused on the ones trying to run back the way they’d come, since they’d chosen a bend in the river that created a natural choke point.
Admiral Akbar would be proud.
When the bullets ran dry, Garth dropped the gun and pulled himself to his feet with his spear, him and Leanne putting the mortally wounded but not quite dead ones out of their misery.
All told, they managed to kill about twenty-four of the bastards, while sixteen managed to escape. They would have been able to catch more if they had more people, or more bullets, but he was fine with the haul. Garth viewed it as simple math. They exchanged the forty bullets for twenty-four Heartstones.
Every time he or Leanne finished pulling a stone out, she would run it over to Doug and make him swallow it, until they’d fed him eight. Once they had the last sixteen, Garth gave Leanne twelve and ate the last four himself.
“Why so few?” she asked, looking at the pile in his hand. “Aren’t we gonna split it even?”
“Consider it a bonus for being the distraction, and the one Harold took from you.” Garth said. “And maybe if we meet Harold again, I’m hoping you can make him cry like a little girl.”
“Damn right,” she said, tossing back her head and swallowing a handful at a time. “I specialized in strength.”
Garth’s eyebrows rose. “Strength?”
“You got a problem with that?” Leanne asked, cocking her head. “I’ve seen enough to know what side of the smackdown I wanna be on. Being able to take a beating doesn’t win a fight. And while speed was tempting, it really doesn’t matter once the guy has his hands on you, does it?”
“huh.” Garth said, the gears turning in his head. “When this whole apocalypse thing blows over, do you wanna play a paladin in this campaign I’ve homebrewed? It’s like Aliens in a medieval hamlet.”
“I just thought of you as the rogue, since you’re tiny and have attitude, but you’re actually the paladin,” Garth said, rubbing his chin and swallowing the tasteless stones.
“I’m not interested in your lame game.” Leanne said.
“That’s understandable, I hear girls aren’t very good at math.”
“What!? I’ll have you know I beat everyone at the last quiz-“ Leanne’s eyes narrowed at Garth’s stifled chuckles.
“Kids really are easy to bait- OW!” He howled in pain when Leanne punched him in the shoulder hard enough to knock him onto his side. It looked like the stones were already having an effect, because the girls small fist made his arm feel like it was going to fall off.
“Son of a bitch,” he said, rubbing his shoulder. “I didn’t need another bruise, thank you.”
“Why not? You were asking for it.”
“Okay, you know why I really gave you all those stones?”
“Because now you owe me. Go get some more ghouls.”
Leanne shook her head, but she didn’t object, picking up her spear and heading back out to town.
At least this way, she’d be more likely to survive another run. The first one had been risky, but judging by the purpling bruise on Garth’s shoulder, she’d be able to fight her way out of damn near anything now, making luring the baddies in safer and faster.
By the end of the day, they’d lured more than a hundred ghouls to their deaths. After the first group, they’d changed to using their spears, using the stream as an impassible obstacle that the monsters were, for some reason, unwilling to traverse. They spent the day lining them up and stabbing at the mindless monsters, getting close and letting the ghouls think they might have a chance of eating the humans.
Of the one hundred and eight, Leanne ate fifty-two stones, followed by Garth at thirty-four, and Doug at twenty-two. Once Doug’s color improved, they started splitting the stones between the two of them. When Garth’s spear broke he almost got eaten, but Leanne was able to pull him back into the river, just ahead of the ghoul’s gnashing jaws.
Garth made a new spear in the same fashion as Leanne’s, along with a spare for both of them, and they got back to work, retiring for the day shortly after.
When the sun began its descent, turning orange, and then red as it approached the horizon, Garth and Leanne headed into the woods, putting distance between themselves and the town. Garth knew there was always a chance that some Kipling had found a way past the river, and distance only helped slim the chance they’d be discovered.
Hell, that little stream was no obstacle at all to someone like Harold. For all Garth knew, the crazy ex-marine was tracking them through the woods.
“Fucking prick.” Harold lay in the back of his favorite bar, next to an empty case of beer, pulling buckshot out of his abdomen one piece at a time. He’d taken his shirt off and counted the holes as he staggered into ‘The Rug. He needed three more pieces, out of the six that had hit him.
Every good bar has a good first aid kit, especially Harold’s kind of place, where young studs from the corps congregated when they were visiting their hometown, thinking they were hot shit. Harold took pleasure in setting them straight and putting the fear of god in ‘em.
Marines were like rottweilers, his father had said. Fierce, loyal, but every so often you gotta show ‘em who was boss. The old man raised rottweilers. He would strap himself up in protection and wrestle the uppity ones to the ground when they started testing him, and it worked like a charm.
Sure there’d been a few cuts and bruises, a broken bone or two. One of Harold’s former subordinates had called a few times, begging him not to damage government property, but he’d fired back, asking who’d catch more heat, a fifty three year old retiree, or the man in charge of reigning them in.
Paul had made the incidents disappear after that. He was a good kid.
Over the course of these incidents, Harold had seen a boot get a bit of beer bottle removed from his scalp with some nice long tweezers. Those very same tweezers sat in the neck of a small bottle of one sixty proof vodka, the blood turning it slightly pink.
Harold picked up the dry rag and wiped his stomach before picking up a sharpie and crossing off the third wound. His sense of time had been slipping and he couldn’t afford to plunge the tweezers around in a clean hole, doing even more damage.
“Three more to go, but first-“ Harold took a swig of his piña colada. He’d managed to find just enough ice at the back of the freezer to make a nice big pitcher of his favorite fruity beverage – one of the reasons he’d had to bust some heads – before beginning the surgery.
The drink served three purposes, It dulled the pain, could be the last thing he drank, and if he saw white coconut cream oozing out of the holes in his stomach, then he knew he was in deep shit.
So far so good on all counts. Harold raised the drink in salute before setting it down and getting back to work.
Ever lost a tooth or scratched a really bad itch? That was what pulling a bullet out was like, ‘cept in order to scratch that itch, you gotta burrow through three inches of perfectly painful flesh to get to it, moaning, sobbing, and shaking.
It shoulda been five times deeper, popping out the back, and bleeding him out in a matter of minutes. not so.
Harold knew the one thing every good soldier needed: Endurance. They forged marines to be strong, and fast, but most especially, they needed to be tough. Tough enough to run a hundred miles in a day if he had to, carrying full combat gear.
He’d been tempted to blow the head off the ugly little man, but his curiosity had gotten the better of him, and he’d opened the letter. The words laid out before him hadn’t made any sense, but he knew one thing: Marines were tough.
So he’d put a drop of blood on Endurance and handed it back to the little man on the off chance that it could help him. No matter how tough a marine got, though, he couldn’t stop a bullet with his abs.
“None of ‘em except me.” Harold chuckled as he pulled out the tweezers and started fishing around for that fourth bit of lead.
“Fuckin’ pansy-ass.” He muttered to distract himself from the pain of the cold steel working its way into his stomach. Purple bastard was in deep with whoever or whatever caused this, looking at him like he was better.
“Intelligence,” Harold scoffed. He knew the type. Officers that thought they were hot shit on paper, in war games. The ones that thought they knew what the hell they were doing because they thought they understood the rules. Most of ‘em died before they understood there were no rules.
“Fuckin-“ Harold took another swig. “shove that spear up his ass-“
The bell on the outside door rang. Harold froze, straining his ears.
Click-tack, click-tack. Whatever was outside didn’t sound human. With a stifled grunt, Harold dragged himself to his feet, picking up the handgun he’d gotten from behind the desk. A second later, he crept up to the doorway leading into the main bar and carefully peered in.
Harold’s eyes widened. Three…things that looked like ants with the upper bodies of men crawled through the bar, cautiously inspecting the room. What truly set them apart was their clothing and weapons. Odd shaped bows and swords rested on their thoraxes, along with body armor covering most of their exposed flesh. It looked like some kind of hard leather.
Most importantly, Harold could make out some kind of insignia on their shoulders and dog-tags around their necks. They were soldiers.
There’s only one way out of this, he thought, his grip tightening on the pistol.