Shouldering his staff, Jake Preston squinted against the blaring sun. After taking a few moments to find his battered shades, he ran a dirty sleeve over his damp brow, before fitting them back into place. Above him, like always, the moaning of the walking dead could be heard. Sometimes Jake wondered how the survivors in other places could live through the constant murmurs and wails of the dead without losing their minds, but then he remembered that as far as they could prove, there weren’t any other survivors and certainly none near them.
Looking up along the line of steep cliffs that surrounded the canyon, Jake saw the ever-present horde of zombies. They gnashed their teeth and howled in anger at the sight of them. Then even as he watched, one of them lost its balance and came tumbling down the rocky cliffs. A sickening series of brutal snaps could be heard, until its head exploded against a large boulder sending a shower of blood and bone onto the rocks below. Its mangled body followed a moment later; looking barely human by the time it stopped rolling.
“Oh great, now we have another one,” Evan grumbled. “Don’t make eye contact, it only encourages them.”
Evan was the leader of their six-person team and even though it was really no major accomplishment, the young blonde always seemed to let it go to his head. Evan was younger than Jake’s twenty-eight and had the look of those California pretty boys. The kind Jake had grown up disliking.
Jake didn’t bother to reply, instead set himself to task. It was their turn to deal with the floaters this week.
A floater was the term given to the zombies that toppled off the cliffs throughout the course of each day. Rarely did these come close to surviving the fall and those few that did were in no shape to hurt anyone. The problem was that these corpses could easily pollute the limited water source provided by the Lilly Ponds and the small stream they fed. It had happened before, and nearly half of the camp had died, when the rotting corpses had been allowed to stay where they fell. Even with their policy of boiling all water before it was used, the disease of the dead was a strange one and if the bodies weren’t removed daily, there would certainly be another outbreak.
So now Jake and the others were forced to move the fallen bodies that were little more than mangled bits of hamburger clinging to shattered bone. They would be piled onto tarps and brought to the burn sight, which was located far from the stream.
Using long staffs, with crudely sharpened horseshoes attached to their ends, he and his compatriots began to drag the rotting corpses onto their tarps. It wasn’t long before Jake heard a soft voice crying out to him. “Jake, can I get your hand with this one,” It was Ellen and from the sound of her voice, she was barely holding it together. “It is all messed up. I…“ her sentence was interrupted by her leaning over a fallen tree and heaving up her breakfast.
Jake hurried to her side, but was beaten there by Evan. “Oh man,” the team leader said, almost sounding as bad as Ellen.
By the time Jack arrived, he saw that it really was a mess. The zombie had managed to tear his whole body into pieces. Not only its guts, but his brains as well had painted the rocks with a stinking coat of viscera. It was a horrid sight even for this group, which was certainly used to such, but they couldn’t let the parts linger so close to their water supply.
“Jake, why don’t you finish this up,” Evan ordered. “I’ll walk Ellen back to camp. I think she has had enough for today.”
“Yeah right,” Jake mumbled to himself. “I’m sure that it has nothing to do with the fact that Ellen was the only available woman our age.”
Her long chestnut hair blew in the wind as she favored Jake with a final parting glance. She whispered a thank you, but then hurried on. Jake would have thought she was beautiful in a room full of women, but the fact that she was only the single woman in the camp, only heightened his appreciation for her petite form. He watched them depart, admiring her slim waist in silence, before resuming his foul job.
Soon she was gone and his attentions were forced to return to the gruesome task of collecting the wet pieces of bone and the tangled mass of decomposing innards. Bits of organs clung to the rocks like bloody sun bleached slugs. Several times, he felt his breakfast threatening to join the putrid mass below. There were several unsavory tasks that their camp was forced to participate in, but this was by far the worst. Jake’s only thoughts were to complete the gruesome assessment as quickly as possible.
Finally finished with his first body, Jake began to drag the tarp over to a second corpse. Overhead the moaning of the walking dead grew to a feverish pitch. They saw their prey and Jake knew they hungered for his flesh.
He had just moved in closer to where Franklin was working on a bringing a floater back towards shore with his long hooked staff. It was still moving slightly, so Jake left his burden to back up his ally. Sometimes the ones in the water had less severe injuries that still left them able to give a lethal bite. The team had already lost a member in this manner.
Seconds before he got to Franklin, there was noise above him. At first he thought another overzealous zombie had toppled off the cliff, but then he saw that in fact one of them had created a small avalanche. Shouting a warning, Jake moved away from the wall while protecting his head. Unsure of the problem, Franklin looked up just in time to see a head sized rock tumbling towards him. He tried to move, but it was too late. The rock smashed into his forehead and he toppled backwards without so much as a scream. His body hit the waters with a big splash.
Leaping into the dark waters without hesitation, Jake began to swim towards the injured man. He knew it was a lost cause, before he was within ten feet of him. The waters had become awash with crimson, and Franklin was already sinking. He dragged him out anyway. It wasn’t even worth trying to save him and he felt no consolation that his former friend would be too injured to ever receive the curse of the walking dead. Melvin and Dag were at his side helping him with the body, but when they saw its state the three men left it laying on the shore, while they struggled to regain their breathe.
“God damn it,” Melvin cursed. “It seems like we can’t go for a week without having some type of accident. Why does everything have to turn to shit.”
Jake didn’t have an answer for him, but the youngest of the three Dag said, “Hell, what do you expect Mel? The whole world has turned to shit.”
The pair went on bantering, and Melvin’s curses increased in potency, but Jake was no longer paying them much mind. Above him the zombies had fallen into an eerie uncharacteristic silence. Looking up he saw them wavering as one. Then even as he watched, one of them, a man dressed in a soldier’s uniform picked up a fist-sized rock. He stared at it for a moment and then hurled it down towards them.
It banged off a rock seventeen feet to Jake’s left. “What the hell…” Melvin started to say, but by then the other zombies were mimicking the soldier. Soon, before what had happened was even sinking in, rocks began to rain down upon them. The trio exchanged a glance and then began to sprint back towards camp.
The rocks followed, as down the line the zombies began to learn their new trick. Melvin was the first to be hit. The blow took him in the shoulder and he cried out as he became tripped up and fell hard. Jake and Dag helped him onto his feet, but then a rock ricocheted off a boulder and took Dag in the knee. He cried out almost dropping Melvin.
“Keep going,” Jake hissed and as one they continued towards the now dubious safety of the main camp. The chaotic assortments of tents were just coming into sight, when a lucky toss took Melvin in the center of his head. The blow killed him instantly, and sprayed Jake and Dag with both blood and bone.
Dag screamed and stumbled as the area around them continued to be pelted with stone. Jake, risking his own life, stopped to assist Dag and with his help the young man was brought to his feet.
By now, the rest of the camp was aware that something was wrong. Evan and the Camp Captain, who was named Mitchum, were standing outside the main tent watching their progress.
“What is going on, Preston?” the Captain demanded.
“Yeah, what the hell did you do?” Evan added.
“Don’t have time to explain,” Jake shouted between his gasps for air. “Get everyone into the Kitchen!” The Kitchen was their name for an overhanging area of rock, where most of their cooking took place. In wasn’t a true cave, but Jake hoped it would be sheltered enough to protect them from the zombie’s new mode of attack.
By the time Jake and Dag had reached the tents, the majority of the camp was moving. Tents were collapsing like exploding balloons as he rushed Dag through the bombardment. Due to the younger man’s injury, they were nearly the last to enter the protection of the overhang.
Jake had barely helped Dag to the ground, when a bouncing rock somehow found its way into the Kitchen and struck an older woman, named Margaret, in the forearm. She fell back with a wail and even from across the room, Jake could tell her arm had been broken.
Most of the people who had maintained some semblance of composure had hurried to Margaret’s aid and that was when Jake heard a wail coming from one of the collapsed tents. It was followed by a pathetic cry for help. He recognized the voice at once. It was a young teen named Renni and she didn’t sound too good.
Mitchum had heard it too. “Shut up. Everyone shut yourselves up!” As one, they stopped to listen. The only sounds now heard were the constant rain of rocks banging off each other, mixed with the hollow thumps when the missiles hit the grassy stretches of earth.
They heard it again. “Help me. Oh please help me.”
“She doesn’t sound too good,” Dag noted from his seat along the side of the overhang.
“I’m going to go get her,” Jake said, without raising his voice. Ellen looked up at him, her eyes wide.
Evan looked at Jake, “I’m going with you.”
“Alright, are you ready then?”
Trying to regain control, Evan said, “all right on three. One…two…three go!”
Jake beat him to the punch and was dashing across the camp first. Rocks crashed all around them, banging into pans and splitting coolers. One bounced off a rock before him and he was forced to duck to avoid a cracked skull.
Finally making it to the tent, Jake gasped, “where are you hurt?” The slight form of Renni could be seen through a tear in her tent. “I think my foot is broken.
“Come on Jake, we need to get out of here.”
“Grab both sides of the tent,” he ordered. Evan hesitated. “Do it now!” he ordered again, louder this time. A rock whizzed by his shoulder. Evan finally mirrored him and together they pulled the pins out of the soft earth and lifted her whole tent off the ground. Then moving like medics carrying a stretcher across a battlefield, they hurried back into The Kitchen. No one was more surprised than he, when all three of them made it back without suffering farther injuries.
Once there, he set the tent at the back of the overhang and turned towards Mitchum, for he knew that he was going to have a lot of explaining to do.
* * *
The crackling of the fire did little to compete with the nearly constant clatter of rocks that hammered what was once their camp. Little was left of it now other than the chaotic tangle of colors created by their destroyed tents. Rocks still occasionally came into the Kitchen and three more people had been hurt. One rock had caused several screams, when it hit their fire sending sparks flying in every direction.
Mitchum had ordered the uninjured members to begin to make a ring of protection around the lip of The Kitchen with whatever they could find. So everything from rocks to coolers had been piled around the entrance. This had helped considerably, but wasn’t near a complete protection and Jack doubted there would be much sleeping going on that night.
Once this was done, Mitchum had gathered the younger members of his team away from the fire. Grim in tone, he addressed them. “We obviously have a major problem. Ill luck has led to an unforeseen advancement in zombie warfare.” Looking around the room, while dark shadows danced across his face, he went on. “The real question is how are we going to take care of this? I’m open to suggestions.”
“Aren’t they going to run out of rocks soon?” Ellen asked.
“Not before we all get our heads bashed in,” Dag grumbled.
Mitchum shot him a look of pour venom. “That isn’t the way I would have put it, but this is a canyon. It will take them a very long time to run out of their ammo. Some of us might be able to last through it, but then where will we be then. Hungry, without food, with all our equipment ruined and most likely with more wounded than otherwise. In such a state I wouldn’t give our chances even money. We need to act.”
“Can we just try to escape and find someplace else?” Tina asked, her voice almost a whisper.
“We may have too,” Mitchum answered, “but not without a plan. If we just try to make it out of this canyon with these wounded, we wouldn’t make it a quarter mile.”
This last statement sobered everyone. Silence ruled the group as the firelight continued to create chaotic patterns along the stone walls.
Looking around at the scared and worried faces for a moment, Jake finally said, “I volunteer.”
“That is great son, but volunteer to do what?”
“There is only one thing to do. Someone has to lure the majority to the zombies to the north, so the rest of the group can escape to the south.” Locking eyes with Ellen for a moment, he went on. “Then we just need to pick out a meeting spot, just in case I survive.”
Evan looked at Jake, then Ellen, then back at Jake. “I don’t want you hogging all the glory Preston, I’m coming with you.”
“I’m not sure we can spare another-“
Speaking up quickly, Mitchum words interrupted his. “I’m going to have to call a BS on that Jake. You need to have at least two of you. Hell’s bells you should probably have ten, but of course that isn’t possible, but there has to be at least two.”
The real reason for this was left unsaid, but Jake knew that they needed two runners. That way if something happened to one of them, the other could continue on with the mission.
“I’m going to need a gun.” Mitchum looked cross for a second, but then nodded his assent. This was no small request. They had plenty of guns; it was bullets they were short on. The other group was sure going to need all that they could get, for certainly not all the zombies were going to be going after Jake and Evan. In the end Mitchum allowed both he and Evan their pick in arms. Jake took a Desert Eagle with an oversized clip, while Evan grabbed up an AK.
Jake’s weapons didn’t end there. There was a growing pile in front of him, which included hunting and throwing knives, a razor sharp machete, and a full sized sledgehammer.
Ellen approached him as he was strapping the machete to his waist. Drawing closer, she said, “I wish you weren’t doing this.”
“Someone has to and I’m not really sure we will be in much more danger than the rest of you. You guys will not be on easy street.” His hand slid into her’s with some trepidation, but he was pleased to see that she didn’t resist. Speaking softer, “the only reason I wish I could be with you is to make sure you’re safe.”
“I wish you were going to be with me too. I always feel safe around you.” She leaned her face up towards him, moving in closer.
Whether she wanted a kiss or not, he was about to give it a try, when harsh words sounded from over their shoulders. “Hey, Preston, you ready to go?”
Looking over, he saw that Evan was fuming. It was no secret that he had eyes for Ellen. The fact that she seemed to be choosing Jack over him right before they were about to set out, might not have been a good thing, but Jack decided to say screw it. At least he had something to live for now, that is if they could both get through this mess, which was seeming less and less likely.
With a final look at Ellen, they grabbed up the last of their gear and headed out into the night.
* * *
Rocks crashed against the boulders, sparking and stirring up dust. The constant drone of the colliding stone left Jake feeling like he had entered some giant world war being fought by cavemen.
A rock smashed into the cooler, which he was holding above his head. He and Evan had each brought a stocky cooler along for just this reason. Still, each hit left them painfully bruised and almost at once his head was ringing and it was hard to even think.
“What the hell are we going to do now, hotshot,” Evan screamed.
“Keep heading north.”
“We need to reach Spider Rock.”
Evan tried to say something else, but the clattering rain of stone blocked out his words. Jake didn’t care and just kept going. There was one close call where an unlucky zombie must have fallen. It hit the ground directly before Jake exploding in a shower of gore. Almost loosing his footing, Jake stumbled ahead determined to see this too the end.
There was a small overhang before the foot of Spider rock, where Evan and Jake stopped to catch their breath. “Now what?” Evan asked, but Jake didn’t bother to answer. He was looking up at the large tower of stone known as Spider Rock. A thin walkway led from the convergence of the upper canyon up to the narrow pinnacle of stone. If he could somehow reach the base of that stone, he might be able to hold the pathway for quite some time, even against a horde like the one that pressed around them in the canyon. Sure his life would be forfeit, but at least the others would have a chance to escape. The only question was, how could he get up there without his head being bashed in?
Searching the sides of the jutting mass of rock, he thought he saw a way. There was a narrow cleft in the stone, which led almost all the way to the base of the pinnacle. If they could reach that and make it up, then they could make their stand before Spider Rock. The zombies would see them and came after them. Once one zombie started the others would follow and soon, with luck, the entire army of corpses would be focused on them and Ellen and the others would at least have a chance to escape to the south. Where they could go he had no clue, but at least they would get a head start.
As soon as he caught his breath he said, “see that cleft in the rock. We need to make for it. We’ll be making our stand at the base of Spider Rock.”
“Are you nuts? That is suicide.”
“What did you think you signed up for?”
Evan growled. For a long time he just stared at Jake, until he finally said, “after you.”
Leaving their trashed coolers and his sledgehammer behind, the pair sprinted across the open space towards the cleft. Stones pelted the earth all around them. A ricochet took Jake in the shin. His bit his lip against the pain and kept running. Somehow they made the cleft and Jake began climbing at once. Bracing his body against each side of the crack, he began his slow accent. Some good fortune was theirs at last; for the ill fired stones of the zombies were unable to reach them easily. But that didn’t keep them from trying and the drone of their hammering filled his ears like the drums of hell. Dust was dislodged filling his eyes and he could only rarely spare a hand to wipe them clean as they continued their arduous assent.
At one point, a rock banged close to his ear, starling him enough to cause his foot to slip. Fingers bled as he clutched at the thin lip of rock that was the only thing that suspended him from a certain death. Finding his footing, he continued up until finally they reached the last lip between them and the walkway that stretched from Spider Rock and joined the rest of the canyon.
The Zombies were already there, waiting for them.
“Evan, get your ass up here. We are going to need to clear out a spot with your AK.”
With great difficulty Evan was able to reach his side. “So what am I supposed to do?”
“I just want you to clear a space so we can get up there. Once there we make for Spider Rock.”
Jack’s grim smile went unseen in the dark. “Then we will just play it by ear for a while.”
“You’re a madman, you know that?” Evan’s voice was a mixture of awe, fear, and respect.
“Yep, now let me boost you up.” That was what he did, and with Jake’s help, Evan was able to start mowing down the zombies that had aliened themselves along the thin ledge overhead. He emptied a magazine, then paused to shove another one home before he yelled, “Go.”
Hands were already clawing at their shoulders before they had gotten their feet under them. Teeth came towards Jake’s neck, until a bullet from his handgun blasted through them. He rolled onto his back, shooting three other remained zombies in quick secession. Hundreds more were coming at them from the canyon side of the path, but Evan had done a fair job cleaning most of them off the path. Together they finished the rest of the strugglers, who Evan had just wounded, and then headed towards Spider Rock.
Jake was leading the way when he heard Evan cry out. Looking back he saw the young man struggling with a prone zombie, which had grabbed him by the leg as he passed. To his surprise, he saw that it was the dead soldier who had taught the others the stone throwing attack. Then, even as he watched, the zombie took a big bite out of Evan’s calf. It would be the last thing it would ever do. Evan screamed, “God damn it,” and fired a spray of bullets into the thing’s head from point blank range. Its head exploded and a moment latter it was tumbling off the side of the walkway.
Jake already had his back to Spider rock. Evan was between him and the slowly advancing minions of death. The army of the dead was a thousand strong and Evan’s body was briefly silhouetted against the undulating horde.
Jake was about to say something, when Evan jerked a blade off his belt and aggressively sliced into his leg over the bite. Jake was stunned. What was he trying to do? A zombie bite was always fatal, but since they were pretty much doomed anyway, he figured it didn’t matter.
Then to his horror he saw that Evan was slicing a hunk of flesh off his leg that was the size of a pancake. All the while the mass of zombies was drawing near. “Evan what are you doing? We-”
“Shut the hell up Preston. You got us into this mess.”
“Cutting your leg, won’t do you any good.”
“Screw you. How do you know? I caught it quickly. I could still make it, but not with you around. You are just they type of person who would nark me out to Mitchum.” Leveling his gun at him, he continued. “I’m going to get out of here and catch up to the others. Don’t worry I’ll tell Ellen what a hero you were, before I screw her pretty little brains out.”
“Ethan come on. Neither of us will be making it back anyway. We-“
The sounds of gunfire shattered the night and Jake leapt to the side as a hail of bullets were sent his way. He landed chest first on an incline and began to slide towards the edge. Frantic grabbing only brought forth handfuls of powdery sand. He was almost over the edge, when something arrested his fall. At first he thought Evan had somehow reached him, but then he saw that it was a wounded Zombie who had grabbed his ankle. The zombie must have suffered from a bullet in the spine, for its legs no longer functioned, but his arms were quickly dragging Jake back towards its snapping mouth.
Allowing his suspect rescuer to continue to drag him uphill, Jake searched for a weapon. His pistol was long gone, but his hand latched onto a hunting knife. Just as the injured zombie was about to give him a mirrored image of Evan’s bite. Jake rolled over onto his back and sent the tip of his dagger through the monster’s left eye. It shuttered for a moment, and then went limp and it was all Jake could do to keep from sliding back down towards the edge of the cliff.
A gun was cocked before him.
“Good-bye, Jake,” Evan said. He had slipped a new magazine into his gun and was bringing it up. “I can’t let you tell the others I was bit. Besides I always hated you anyway.”
“Believe me, the feeling was mutual,” Jack said, as he flipped the knife at Evan in an underhanded toss. Evan brought the barrel of the rifle up, which deflected the knife and also sent it spiraling over the cliff.
“Nice try, but now I’m going to aahhhhhhhh!”
Just as he was about to finish Jake, the first of the zombies grabbed Evan from behind. He screamed as a huge chunk a flesh was bitten from his neck. Soon the zombies were twisting his enemy’s body and literally pulling him apart. His screaming lasted longer than Jake would have thought possible.
Almost weaponless now, Jake turned and hurried up the almost sheer side of Spider Rock. Grey hands clutched and tore at him, but he was able to climb just beyond their reach before they could get a solid grip. Carefully turning so that his back was to the spire, he took in the scene below. The zombies had already lost interest in Evan and were coming for him in mass. But the pathway was barely his height in width.
Even as he watched, the clumsy zombies were already toppling off by the dozens. They had been able to stop their mad blood lust when the breathers were at the bottom of the canyon, but here when he was so close and they couldn’t check their murderous urge.
Before long, the zombies, who were only a few feet below him, were being crushed against the base of Spider Rock. They began to fall away, taking others with them by the score, but still the zombies didn’t stop their advance. The mindless horde just came on and on. Never halting, never changing their attack. Like lemmings, they pushed each other into the canyon, until their corpses covered the rocks below and all one heard was the constant slap as bodies exploded against each other.
Even though it was a welcome sight after a few minutes of this, it began to sicken him. After an hour, he thought he might loose his mind, but it didn’t stop. Legs went numb and fingers bleed as the hours slowly passed. Hundreds became thousands, as it seemed like every zombie that had ever plagued them from the tops of the cliffs was heading his way.
How could it be possible? How could the bait of just one man bring about the death of thousands of these walking dead? He still doubted that he would make it out of there alive, but at least he was happy to know that he had given Ellen and the others a chance at survival.
Dawn broke over the sky and they were still coming. His legs suffered cramps that hurt worse than any wound he had ever received, but he couldn’t give up now. He had to see this through. If his life had to be sacrificed to take out this many, then so be it.
In many ways, the day was worse than the night. The sun beat on him mercilessly and he had no water. Hunger was also weakening him now and he began to feel light headed. At one point he almost lost his balance and nearly tumbled into the snapping mouths below him. He made up his mind then that if he did lose his strength he would dive off the side of the cliff rather than give even one of them the satisfaction of taking him out.
Then the attack began to slow. He hadn’t noticed it at first, but soon the masses dropped to only a few dozens, then a mere trickle as only a few new zombies stumbled down the cliffs towards the walkway. Before long there was only forty of the walking dead left fighting and thrashing below his precarious perch.
A few were still falling here and there, but those who remained would still be more than enough to tear him to pieces. Evan’s rifle was being ground into the earth under their feet, but it might as well been a hundred miles away.
Then he thought of something. There was no way he could climb down from where he was, but he could try to leap over them if there weren’t so many. Knowing what he had to do, he lowered himself balancing carefully and drew his machete. After taking a deep breath be began to hack into the remaining zombies below him.
It was exhausting work. Fingers flew and hands spiraled away long before he was able to knock even one over the side of the cliff. Even when he would seem to make progress, three more would wander out of the woods to join their fellows.
Soon exhaustion ruled him and his arms had turned to butter, but he kept at it. He almost lost the machete a dozen times, but quick turns insured that they lost their fingers instead.
Finally after what seemed like hours, he had dropped their numbers to less than twenty. Standing back up he braced himself against the wall. Then with a deep breath and ten more seconds of nervous dread, he lunched himself out over the heads of his foes. Hands with missing fingers snatched at him, and his knees collided into two zombies before he landed. Once on the ground mangled hands were all over him, but he fought them aside before they could get a grip.
Scrambling to his feet, he found himself screaming a string of curses as he broke away from the foul pack. Once free, he sprinted down the path that had cost so many zombies their unlives. A fresh zombie attempted to block his path and was rewarded with a machete driven through its head. He left it jammed within the corpse’s skull and just kept going.
Dodging around a random corpse every few moments, he was still pleased to see that the once teeming canyon only had a few handfuls of zombies left.
Had the others survived? Had Ellen made it? He knew one thing; he was going to do his best to find out. Flinging one last glance over his shoulder, he left Spider Rock behind as he jogged towards the south.