It wasn’t anything more than a collection of corpses, not that I could see. There was no stitching holding it together, no barbed wire running through it, and not even any visible strands of unearthly purple light. It wasn’t clear how the corpses were stuck to each other either, since they weren’t gripping each other, and there was no real rhyme or reason to their arrangement. I had no idea how it had been made or formed, but at a good approximation someone had taken a giant mold of a creature with four nominal limbs and poured corpses into it. Some of the pieces that made it up still twitched.
I had already given some thought to how to kill it. The zombies were killed by either puncturing or otherwise destroying their heart, but this thing didn’t seem like it would have a clear analog, and even if it did have one it would have been buried behind at least a foot of flesh. The void tunneler seemed not to leave much in the way of an exit wound, the ballistic pistol didn’t seem like it would be much better, and even if I could stab Zombie Voltron up to the hilt with the sword, I put low odds on that working. Which left … not a lot, actually. The power lines in Comfort were dead, so I couldn’t shock it. There were presumably no working cars, so I couldn’t run it over. I hadn’t seen any pits I could (somehow) push it off, no conspicuous cliffs, no lakes to drown it in, and not much in the way of flammables to (again, somehow) burn it down. The only likely thing I had seen was the grenade the Coterie had thrown at me and I didn’t know how to get one of those.
If this were a videogame, I would have pounded my head against a boss creature like this for at least an hour, trying different strategies until I had sussed out the patterns of attack and could manage to grind it out. If this were a tabletop game, I would have killed the party for trying to go up against something that I’d given them several hints was beyond their level. Either scenario ended with death for me, and I wasn’t about to count on getting extra lives or the chance to roll a new character.
So I ran, fervently hoping that I wasn’t going to get another level of “Cowardice”, fall into a stupor from having 0 WIS, and get devoured.
I heard bricks and glass crashing down as Zombie Voltron chased after me down the hallway of the shire-reeve’s station. I hooked left into the room where I’d had my little battle with the Coterie and gave a brief glance backward. As I’d hoped, Zombie Voltron was being slowed down by the need to tear his way through the walls like a goddamn maniac. I jumped over the floor that the grenade had wrecked but landed awkwardly and felt a sharp pain in my ankle just before I tripped and tumbled to the ground.
New Affliction: Sprained Ankle lvl 2! (SPD -2, Athletics -5, Dodge -5)
I hobbled to my feet, trying to ignore the pain, and began limping forward as fast as I could. It was my left ankle that I’d hurt. Each step felt like I was jamming a nail into my ankle, but I could hear Zombie Voltron behind me as it wrecked its way through the building and I didn’t have much of a choice. When I’d first come into town I had seen it chasing after people and it seemed like they had been faster than it, but with my ankle all fucked up I thought my chances were basically dogshit. Across the street was a building helpfully labeled “Pet Store” with the door hanging half off its hinge, and having no better option, I trundled toward it.
Zombie Voltron had broken out of the sheriff’s office, hopefully twisting his own ankle in the process. He was a lumbering creature, his “feet” nothing more than haphazardly positioned corpses. They were falling apart, not because they were rotting but because every step he took crunched bones and tore at dead flesh.
The pet shop was a nightmare of glowing red eyes, all of them looking my way. I didn’t stop to look at any of them, but those red eyes shone from aquariums with little hamster wheels, habitats with driftwood and fake leaves, and looked at me by the hundreds from murky tanks. I limped past them all, trying not to seize up at the sight of them, motivated by the crashing sound behind me as Zombie Voltron made contact with the shopfront. (I couldn’t help but wonder if the pets had been turned by whatever apocalypse had hit Comfort, or if they had all starved to death in their cages and then risen as zombies after the fact.)
I limped through a doorway with a tattered curtain over it at the back of the shop, then through a stocking area with boxes loaded high, and finally out a door back into the overcast daylight. I stopped when I realized that I couldn’t hear anything behind me. Well that’s ominous. The back of the shop had a small little parking area and loading zone, and beyond that was a wide alley. That meant there was a row of shops between myself and main street, then another two blocks or so to the auto place where Cypress was waiting. I swallowed hard and started limping, trying not to grunt in pain with every step that I took.
“Pssst!” came a voice from one of the buildings in the alley. I spun around and pointed my gun in that direction, but was able to stop myself from firing. There was a boy hanging out a window, leaning over so he could see me. To my surprise, I recognized him. He was the one who’d been shouting about how we were all in this together right before we’d dropped. “Come here!” he whispered, loud enough that it carried.
I limped over to him, holding the trigger-handle of the gun so that I could move it up and fire at a moment’s notice. The pain in my ankle was getting worse, and I could feel fresh blood dripping down my back.
“Inside,” he said, and when he did the door near him opened up. I limped over to it, cursing under my breath.
I was instantly suspicious. I had always been one to look a gift horse in the mouth, ever since my grandmother had told me there would be candy at church and made me sit through a two hour sermon in order to get it. Of course, the root of the saying was more about the appearance of propriety, since I don’t think anyone expected you to just ignore equine dentition altogether. They’re grazing animals, their teeth are important!
There were two people ducked down in the back of the clothing store, one a pallid boy clutching a stomach wound and the other a girl with a scar running from the side of her mouth to just below her ear. She was the one who had opened the door for me, and she closed it quickly as soon as I was in. She spared a glance at my ankle and a longer glance at my weapons, but said nothing. From a different room, the guy who had called to me from the alley crept in. I guessed he was about my age, blonde and muscular like a Nazi recruitment poster. He gave me a strained smile and held out his hand.
“Poul,” he said.
I shook his hand slowly. “Joon,” I replied.
“This is Becca and Sly,” said Poul, with a gesture first to the girl, then to the boy.
“Sly’s not going to make it,” said Becca. She sat down and grabbed her knees. A dagger was stuck in the floor next to her.
Sly gave a weak laugh. “It’s true,” he coughed. “Gonna get added to the undead army.”
Poul grimaced at that. “We’ll find a way,” he said, but he didn’t meet Sly’s eyes when he said it. He let the silence linger for a bit, then turned to me. “The Host dropped a gang with us, as if the Risen Lands weren’t bad enough.” He looked down at the makeshift pistol in my hands, then the sword at my side and pistol at my hip. “You look like a dangerous guy.”
“Not in my current condition,” I said. “Plus even at peak condition I don’t think I could take on the moving mountain of corpses out there.”
Becca was staring at my weapon. Her scar was clearly deep, because her frown was only present on half her face. “What weapon is that?” she asked.
“Void tunneler,” I said.
Poul winced and Becca sucked air through her teeth.
“I shouldn’t be surprised,” said Poul. “The Exclusion Zone predates the Imperial ban.” A forced smile crossed his face. “That confirms you as a dangerous guy then. Did you build it?”
“Yes,” I said immediately.
Skill increased: Deception lvl 4!
It’s pretty hard to maintain a straight face when a message suddenly pops up in front of your face calling you a liar. I decided then and there that I would level up Deception as quickly as possible, if only so I’d stop getting startled by it.
(I should hope that it would be obvious why I lied. I didn’t trust these people yet, and even if I did, that didn’t mean that I could betray Cypress’ confidence. More to the point, the motorcycle we had could take two people at most out of Comfort, and that would give them an incentive toward betrayal.)
“What’s the play?” I asked, mostly to switch topics.
“There is none,” said Becca, but Poul was already shaking his head.
“There are two fronts right now,” said Poul. “That works to our advantage, so long as they’re killing each other. A defensive strategy is the best option, since our odds get better with every kill on either side.”
“Convenient that it also means taking the least risks,” said Becca. “We’re going to starve to death.”
“We can forage,” said Poul.
“No,” coughed Sly. His voice was weak. “My uncle did the math, sent it to me in prison a few days before we dropped.” He was noticeably more pale than when I had first come in. “Graduation rates have been steadily dropping, month after month, year after year. It’s getting harder for anyone to leave the Risen Lands. Reports from those who make it back are that most of the food that was still good has been eaten through. Any car that worked got taken early on, there’s no one to drive them back into the --” he coughed and waved his hand, then kept coughing until blood started coming up from his lips. I kept waiting for him to stop, but he kept going, until Poul moved over and laid a hand on his shoulder. When Sly eventually stopped coughing though, he just lay there, not moving to wipe the blood from his mouth. His chest had been heaving with the heavy breaths he was taking, but now it was completely still.
“Shit,” said Poul.
“He’s going to rise,” said Becca. Her words were soft, as though uneager to leave her lips.
I raised my void tunneler. “Move aside,” I said. I limped forward and aimed carefully as Poul backed up and got behind me. The thwip seemed louder than usual, but that might have just been my imagination. I stared at the clean hole I’d made, the flesh that had vanished from his body.
Maybe I’m a bastard, but my first thought was, Well, that’s the seventh soul I need.
“Fuck,” said Becca.
“I don’t know any last rites,” said Poul.
“Me either,” said Becca. She reached into the pocket of her jeans. “I picked up a few coins though. Thought we might need an obol.” She handed a silvered coin the size of a half-dollar to Poul, who opened Sly’s mouth, slid the coin inside, then closed his mouth again. He turned to me. “Last rites?” he asked.
I swallowed and focused on the body. “May your darkness turn to light. May the burdens lift free of your immortal soul. May you swiftly find your way to heaven and thereby find your peace.” I didn’t think that I’d made a total hash of it, but I noticed movement to the side and saw Becca pulling her dagger from the floor.
“What the fuck is heaven?” she asked me with gritted teeth.
“Calm down,” snapped Poul. He turned from her and looked me over, as if seeing me for the first time. “That was certainly … unorthodox.”
“Sorry,” I said quickly. “I didn’t … I’m not from here, I’m dream-skewered, I don’t know … I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it.”
“Fucking cultist,” spat Becca.
“We need to work together,” said Poul. “You’ve noticed that he’s the guy with the weapons, right?”
That stung a bit. I really should have just been smart and said that I didn’t know any last rites either, but I had thought about my years and years of playing different roles as DM. I was fairly certain that I had made up last rites on a few different occasions. Apparently though, instead of bringing comfort to the two of them, I’d made myself look like an ass. The glass jar in my pocket, the one with six small white souls floating in it, felt especially heavy and awkward. I wondered what their reaction would be to that; Becca had been nearly ready to kill me for saying the wrong prayer.
“We still need to decide what we’re doing,” said Becca. She stood up and looked out over the racks of clothes to the street outside, then quickly ducked down. “Undead have gotten thick. And like it or not, it’s going to be easier to move without Sly.” My ankle throbbed at the mention of moving.
“We can at least wait a day,” said Poul. “That’s enough time for them to stop wandering the streets.”
“The Coterie are here for a reason,” I said. I gently massaged my ankle, which had become swollen and tender. “Whether it’s their purpose or not, they’re hunting.”
Poul and Becca shared a glance.
“Say that again, but slower,” said Poul.
“They’re here for a reason,” I said. I could feel myself blushing. First the thing with the last rites, and now they were looking at me like I’d grown a second head.
“You said Coterie,” said Becca. “As in the Fuchsia Coterie?”
“Yes,” I replied. “Part of the Color Riot, I think?” The term ‘dream-skewered’ seemed to mean nothing to them, which was a problem. I’d gotten lucky that Cypress had been the first person I met.
“Motherfuck,” muttered Becca.
“Bad enough when we thought it was a gang,” said Poul, shaking his head. “But I still think we should stay put. There’s no reason the Color Riot would send one of their cohorts here … Hells, to slip them onto the plane under the Host’s nose? They wouldn’t do that if they were just trying to kill us. And if it really is the Fuchsia Coterie, then we can’t afford to tangle with them.”
I shook my head. “I don’t know what sort of stories they tell about these people, but I’ve already killed four of them. Five, maybe, depending on how you count. There can’t be that many of them left.”
“Who the fuck are you?” asked Becca. The color had drained from Poul’s face.
“There’s a safe place I know of,” I said, ignoring Becca’s question. I looked toward main street, and though my view was obscured, I could hear the milling horde. “And while I may be too slow to make it there right now, I think there’s a way I can fix that.”
“He’s insane,” complained Becca.
“He’s well-armed,” Poul countered. “Do you think he would have gotten to this point if he were crazy?”
“Yes,” said Becca flatly.
“Well if that’s the case,” I said slowly. “It’s at least a beneficial form of insanity.” Dream-skewered. “You can leave and we can meet up later, but I think that’s riskier.”
“We run at the first sign of it going south,” said Becca. “We’re not going to wait while you’re overrun and we’re not going to help you.”
“Deal,” I said. I stood up and limped toward the front of the store. The zombies didn’t see me right away, which gave me some time to level my void tunneler at the nearest one, aiming right for the center of his chest. I had to put some weight on my ankle, which was painful, but I was hopeful that it wouldn’t be for too much longer.
Skill increased: Pistols lvl 4!
I had been trying to ignore the messages as much as possible, mostly because they didn’t help me at all. The character sheet clearly did do something, but it was frustratingly vague and clearly didn’t represent all the game mechanics, especially considering that I didn’t even have hit points or a health bar. (And I did briefly wonder how I was supposed to tell how close I was to death, until I thought just like you did back on Earth, dummy.)
I learned something useful, which was that the void tunneler took four seconds to cycle. I had been careful with it, not wanting to push it too hard for fear of it irrecoverably breaking, and had elected not to do tests with it for that reason. Here, though, I had some ability to control the circumstances of this fight. More of the zombies had turned toward me as my pistol kept making its little sound, but the windows to the clothing shop weren’t floor-to-ceiling and the zombies would have to negotiate a wall to get to me.
“You said you had magic,” said Becca.
I ignored her and set my sights on another zombie. They were slow, but still walked at a decent speed, which meant that firing on them was still somewhat difficult. If I could have aimed for the head it might have been different, but my target was their heart, which is quite a bit smaller.
I had now killed three zombies and two members of the Fuchsia Coterie since my last level up, and I thought I had to be close to level four. The zombies were unfortunately starting to mass toward me, and I seemed to have underestimated how many of them there were. With a start I recognized one of the zombies; he had a split in his jeans right at the crotch, and I remembered seeing him back by the gas station. That meant the horde trailing me had caught up and dispersed into Comfort. Frick.
By the time I had killed three more, I was starting to get worried. I glanced back and Becca and Poul and saw that both of them were standing by the doorway, with Poul keeping watch to make sure the coast was clear and Becca staring daggers into my back. I saw her eyes widen briefly and snapped my attention back to the storefront, where the zombies were starting to behave differently.
Where they had been pressed up against each other before, now they were starting to coordinate somewhat, crawling over each other or shifting out of each other’s way. The crowd was forming a tight knot of zombies that seemed more concerned with each other than with me, their movement slightly away from me, in fact. I realized what was happening just as I fired my pistol again and killed one of the closer undead. There wasn’t really anything that I could do about it at that point though; the undead were fused together, lifting up their makeshift torso, and spreading their fused together limbs. Zombie Voltron 2 was slowly coming to life.
Skill increased: Pistols lvl 5!
I was ready for the heady rush of leveling up this time and I leaned into it, taking a huge breath as it hit me, tasting the honey-flavored wind that rippled the tattered clothes still hanging on mannequins in the store. When it had passed, the ache in my ankle was gone and my shoulder was unblemished.
I ran from the zombies just as two of them toppled over the wall and into the store. Becca was staring at me with an open mouth as I rushed toward her, but she managed to pull herself together enough to beat me out into the alley. The three of us ran together; I had given Poul my ballistic pistol, mostly because he kept insisting that if I was killed by the zombies the two of them would be nearly defenseless.
There was no crashing sound of the clothing store being destroyed, but we kept running all the same. It was two and a half blocks to the auto shop, which I had reluctantly told Poul and Becca about. I was still short a soul, but hadn’t dared to try taking it from Sly’s corpse with both of them there, not after the way they’d reacted to my attempt at last rites. (This was cowardice or caution, depending on how you defined things, but the game layer didn’t count it against me.)
We kept to the alley, darting across the street at full speed, past zombies shambling around as their glowing red eyes turned to track us. We were halfway down the next block when an enormous figure lumbered into view at the end of it. For a second I thought that the second Zombie Voltron had somehow outpaced us and cut us off at the pace, but with dawning horror I realized that the configuration of corpses was familiar. This wasn’t the one that had just come together, this was the original. Which meant that Zombie Voltron 2: Electric Boogaloo -- yes, a quick glance confirmed that it was behind us, moving to block the other end of the alley.
“Left!” I called, and darted off down one of the thin sidewalks that threaded between buildings. Poul was just after me, with Becca after him, but as I looked back at her I saw her shirt snag on a bent piece of pipe that was sticking out of the ground at an awkward angle. It ripped her shirt but yanked her backward in the process and she fell to the ground, slamming her head on the cement.
This was the moment that I had been dreading. If I’d had to take a stab at what the rule for Cowardice was, it meant not helping people in need in order to increase my own chances of survival. I turned back toward Becca and sprinted, sliding past Poul as he kept running. My void tunneler was in hand and pointed to the alleyway. I reached Becca just as one of the Zombie Voltrons peered in at us. Up close, his red eyes were bright enough to be almost blinding. I shot at him with the pistol, thwip, hitting him right in his left eye, and though it winked out, I saw corpses slithering around each other, rearranging. My left hand was grabbing Becca by the leg and pulling her backward, out of harm’s way. Zombie Voltron’s arm-of-corpses wormed its way between the buildings and slammed down where her head had been a half second prior.
“M’ fine,” said Becca as I dragged her. Either she was surprisingly light or I didn’t know my own strength. I counted to four in my head, then fired at Zombie Voltron again. I couldn’t see the hole it made, and the creature made no reaction. Becca kicked at me and struggled to her feet, but when she tried to take a step she stumbled and slumped against the wall before staggering back up to her feet.
I moved beside her and got beneath her arm, draping it over my shoulder and holding onto her wrist. I was partly supporting her and partly carrying her. Any thoughts she might have had about protesting had left her and she tried her best to stay on her feet. The space between buildings was just barely wide enough for both of us to pass, but if we’d been shoulder-to-shoulder instead of hip-to-hip we probably would have been stuck.
When we got out from between the buildings, Poul was nowhere to be seen. I’d been terrified that the other Zombie Voltron would come around and box us in, but they didn’t seem to have that level of either speed or coordination. We were back out on the main street now, with rusted out cars and shambling zombies all moving toward us. Becca was putting more of her weight on me as I tried to think of what to do -- thinking that was cut short when Zombie Voltron came out from around the buildings and began lumbering toward us. The way we’d come was blocked; the other Voltron was making its way through a space far too narrow for it, squeezing and wriggling to do so.
The one on the street charged us. I fired my void tunneler at in again, swearing as I did so.
I had a moment of hope, but all that happened was that one of the corpses which made up the necrotic abomination fell to the ground. I had seen the hole this time, right through the chest of that zombie … oh. Piercing a zombie through the heart killed it, this creature was made up of zombies, therefore all I would need to do was pierce every one of its hearts to kill it. One down, fifty to go.
I slid the void tunneler into the waistband of my pants, lifted Becca up and slung her over my shoulder in a fireman’s carry, and started running. Running was probably a generous word for it, considering that I was carrying more than a hundred pounds.
I tried my best to weave between the cars, hoping that Zombie Voltron would have trouble navigating them and making up for my deficit in speed. I could hear it after me though, the wet slap of ruined corpse-flesh as it ran and the crunch of bones as it came down too hard. Judging by sound, it was gaining on me. The only point in my favor was that I was still moving toward the mechanic’s shop, where hopefully Poul and Cypress would be able to give me a scant bit of cover, but it was another two buildings to go and I was moving painfully slow. Whatever fight Becca had left in her was gone, and she was nearly limp against me, which made her all the harder to carry.
I heard a loud sound, very close behind, and risked a look just in time to see the end of Zombie Voltron’s arm coming toward me. The ruined mess of flesh that made up its feet was gone, replaced by a dozen grasping hands attached to arms that waved around.
It was too close to me, and I was too slow. One of the hands grabbed onto Becca’s forearm, and as soon as its grip was secure it yanked her away from me, other hands coming to join the first one, grabbing her throat, hair, shoulder, anywhere they could reach. I managed to grab hold of one of her legs before she could fall completely off my shoulders, but the mass of zombies pulled her away from me with a force that nearly pulled my arm from my socket. I lost my grip and watched in horror as the arm made of corpses whipped to the side, smashing Becca against a metal dumpster. The edge of it hit her in the spine and separated her body in two, splattering blood and guts against the ground.
“No!” I screamed.
Affliction: Cowardice Removed!
I could feel my pulse beating in my temples and my vision was starting to blur. I had been angry before, consumed with blinding rage, but it had never been so perfectly paired with adrenaline. With a shaky hand I yanked the void tunneler out and started to level it at Zombie Voltron … then I turned and ran, because that was the smart thing to do.
I swore as I ran, cursing the injustice of it, the raw unfairness of trying to do the right thing and seeing it all fall apart anyway. It was how I had felt after Arthur died, this furious anger at a world that was so indifferent to us, a burning desire to find God and punch him in his fat fucking face for letting a thing like this happen.
I ran until I thought I had lost them, then doubled back, keeping my eyes open. The rage was fading into a firm commitment that I would kill every single fucking zombie in this place before moving on. I’d grab this stupid fucking world by the neck and bend it to my will if I had to, I would mold and shape it against its protests until nothing was so shitty as that had been.
I’d felt the same way on Earth for about six months after Arthur died. This feeling was an echo of that one, or maybe it had just dredged up those old thoughts that I had been starting to put behind me. I had known Becca for all of half an hour, if that, and I had only gone back to save her in the first place because I was worried about my own life. The part of me that wasn’t set on howling against the world could see that this was more of an old scab being ripped off than a rational response to Becca’s death, but that didn’t change how I felt.
I killed five more zombies as I snuck back to the mechanic’s, more because I was angry than because they posed a real threat. The little thwip was unsatisfyingly quiet, though there was some satisfaction to be had in the notifications that popped up. There was no sign of the Zombie Voltron (Zombies Voltron?), which I was thankful for. It had taken an act of will to keep myself from standing my ground and fighting them until they killed me. I didn’t see the Fuchsia Coterie either.
When I reached the mechanic’s shop, I heard someone say “Psst!”. Poul stepped out from around a corner and walked over to me, crouching as he did so. He was looking around and opened his mouth to ask a question, but stopped himself.
“There were three undead at the door,” he said instead. He patted the pistol at his side. “I figured this thing was a little bit too loud, didn’t want to attract too much attention, so I led them away then came back. Are you … okay?”
“Yeah,” I said. “Becca didn’t make it.”
“Shit,” said Poul.
I moved to the door and opened it up. The smell that hit me was foul; the corpse sitting in the waiting room had ripened. “Come on, I’ll make introductions.”
Cypress greeted me about the same way that she had when we’d first met; she had a new gun, a rifle this time, which she pointed straight at me. She was crouched in a makeshift bunker of car doors that she must have put together. I had forgotten how deeply attractive she was; that fact had become a point of data in my mind which didn’t reflect the visceral pull she had on me.
“I heard a commotion outside,” she said calmly. “Were you followed?”
“No,” I said. “But I did bring company.”
Cypress jerked her head to the side, the universal sign for “move out of the way then”.
“I have a void tunneler trained on you,” she called to Poul as he stepped forward. “My trust in Juniper, such as it is, does not apply to you.”
Poul made no response to that. He was staring at Cypress. “Holy shit,” he said.
Yes, that had been my reaction too, but at least I was polite enough not to say it.
I’d misread him though, because Poul went to his knees and bowed down. I raised an eyebrow at that; Cypress rolled her eyes.
“Princess Amaryllis,” said Poul from the ground. “I pledge myself to your service.”