Author’s Note: The penultimate chapter of Volume 2, now things get serious!
Volume 2 – Chapter 7
The weird thing was, I didn’t just hear the bird chirping, at least not in the normal way. While the soft coos of some sort of bird did reach my ears, that wasn’t all–somehow, I could also tell where the bird was, despite the fact that there were hundreds of trees just down the hill.
That, in itself, was enough to get me to check out what was going on, and I turned around to get the others in on it. They were all pretty far behind me, Asher and Miller barely jogging above the speed of a walk and Ayame keeping back with them out of what I guessed was pure politeness.
Well, no use in going all the way back there, I thought, and cupped my hands over my mouth.
“Hey, guys!” I shouted, pointing at the line of trees while I did so. “There’s something down here. I’m going to go see what it is!”
Neither Asher nor Miller responded, but Ayame gave me a quick thumbs up, which was good enough for me. Without another word, I jogged past the worn-out sheds and down the hill, pumping my arms and pulling my shoulders back to keep from tumbling forward. Within a few moments, I’d made it to the tree that I knew the bird was hiding in.
It took me a long time to find it–so long, actually, that the other three had caught up to me by the time I did–but I eventually caught sight of it, a small, fat gray bird. It was huddled on a low branch, barely visible behind the cluster of large, rounded green leaves that hung so low they almost reached my head. As soon as I knew that I’d found the subject of my curiosity, I pointed it out to my friends.
“There it is,” I announced, raising a finger in the general direction of the gray blob. They had trouble locating it, for a second but, as if on cue, it let out a small coo, revealing its location to all of us. “It sounds quiet, doesn’t it? I’m gonna go see if anything’s wrong with it.”
“You sure that’s a good idea?” Asher asked, shielding his eyes from stray lines of sun breaking through the fluffy white clouds overhanging us. “There aren’t a ton of strong branches on this thing. It’s probably not very safe.”
“Shhh.” I waved him off playfully. “I’ll be good. You may have forgotten, but I’m a world-renowned tree-climber.”
“You know, if you were the master at everything you say you are, you’d probably be the world champion at being the world champion.” Miller was standing back from me with his arms folded across his chest, looking up at the bird suspiciously, as if it was going to drop an unsuspecting present on him at any second. “Are you actually that good at climbing trees?”
“Of course I am,” I said. “Would I ever lie to you guys about something I’m good at? Anyway, I’m heading up. I’ll be back down in a sec.”
Without waiting to hear their responses, I took a small jump and grabbed hold of the lowest branch, pulling myself up almost effortlessly.To maintain my balance, I was forced to crouch on the branch, centering my weight and keeping steady with a flat palm on the rough surface of the bark but, luckily for me, the bird was close to the bottom and, with a little adjusting, I was able to bring myself to eye level with it.
From what I could tell–and with my limited knowledge of birds and their various types–it was a dove, although not any kind of dove I’ve ever seen. It sat there, its feathers puffed, giving it the appearance of thunderhead right before a huge storm. Its entire body was that same dark gray, aside from two distinct white lines running from its left eye, all the way down to the tip of its wing.
As I examined it, it didn’t stir, which was my first indication that something wasn’t right. Reaching out a hesitant finger and ignoring the various warnings I’d received throughout my life about all the diseases birds can carry, I stroked its side.
There was no response, aside from a single, barely audible chirp. The bird looked at me, it’s tiny black eyes aiming at my chest and, to me, it seemed as if it had already resigned itself to whatever gruesome fate awaited it in that tree. For all it knew, I was the red predator that had finally come to fulfill its fate as foretold by the all-knowing food chain.
Little did the bird know, I was actually about to do the exact opposite.
“I think it’s hurt!” I called down to my friends. “I’m gonna try to bring it down!”
“Be careful, Cat!” Ayame called back, and I glanced down. They were all looking up, waiting for me to come back down with the bird in tow.
And I wouldn’t disappoint.
Slowly, I reached out my hand again, cupping my palm and preparing to lift the bird up from under it. I didn’t encounter any problems at first, and was even able to get my hand under the bird, but the success didn’t last long.
As I began to pull it back towards me, however, things took a turn for the worst. First, the bird pecked me, striking just below my thumb and drawing out a streak of blood, which trickled down my hand and fell towards the ground.
Then, things started to go really bad, really quick.
Although the pain in my hand wasn’t super bad or anything, it did come as a shock and, after the bird stabbed me with its beak, I took a quick step back in surprise. Normally, that wouldn’t have been a problem, but when you’re standing on a thin tree branch and working at all times to maintain your balance, it’s definitely not good.
With the step backwards came a loss of my balance and, as the bird jumped out of my hands and flapped away, unharmed, I went over the edge of the branch, towards the ground.
While I was vaguely aware of reaching my hands out to stop the fall, most of what wrapped my fingers around the thin branch of the tree came down to instinct. One second, you’re falling out of a tree, about to crash to the ground, the next you’re hanging from the branch you were just standing on top of, feet dangling above the ground.
It happens, I guess.
So, the way I figure it, that was bad enough, but whatever forces were in control of my life weren’t about to let me off that easy. Below me, my friends were calling out my name, probably (justifiably) worried that I was going to fall out of the tree or something.
I looked down at them, just in time to see Ayame step forward.
“Cat, are you ok–” she began, but something drew her attention fully enough to cut her off. She stared at the ground for a moment, her eyes wide in fear, and took a step back so quickly that she herself fell over.
“Hey, what’s going on?” I asked, trying to pull myself up and, after hearing the crack it drew from the thin branch, giving up on the effort.
Glancing downwards once more, I got my answer.
At the base of the tree, glowing like an iron rod left to sit in a flame was, of all things, a triangle. The longer I looked at it, the brighter it seemed to burn, the red-hot lines composing its sides burning deeper and deeper into the wooden armor of the tree.
What is that? I wondered, my arms growing heavier.
I got my answer a second later when, without warning, the triangle exploded in an upward column of flames that came directly towards me. They were fast, climbing up the side of the tree faster than a bullet train.
For a second, I let myself be surprised, but no longer than that. When a magic triangle carved into a tree tries to kill you, you’ve kind of gotta just go with the flow.
Above the incoming roar of flames, I was partially aware of my friends yelling, but I didn’t let that faze me–with a quick swing of the legs, I pushed myself backwards, let go of my trusty branch, and fell out of the tree.
I’ll tell you now, it’s pretty darn hard to come out of a fall into a backwards roll on uneven ground without hurting yourself pretty badly. Honestly, I’m not even sure how I did it, and I still don’t think I did it right–there was an awful crick in my neck for almost a week afterwards–but, however successful it was, it did the job.
For a few seconds, I just lay on my back, looking up at the sky–partial cloud coverage, 20% chance of precipitation–until my friends made it over to me, all three of them kneeling at my side to check up on how I was doing.
Ayame made it first, frantically digging her knees into the bright green grass and half-yelling “Cat, are you okay?”
“Yeah, I think I’m fine,” I said, sitting up and gripping my ankles. I cracked my neck, the snapping sound echoing off of the trees. I gave her a smile and held up my hand. “Just a cut, is all. Nothing major.”
“I swear,” Asher said, shaking his head as he and Miller took their place at Ayame’s side, “you’re going to kill yourself one of these days.”
“No way,” I said. “Haven’t you heard? Teenagers like me are invincible!”
“Actually, I’m pretty sure our teachers are always telling us the exact opposite,” Miller said. “You know, the whole ‘teenagers think they’re invincible’ spiel.”
“Oh, yeah,” I said, flashing back to the dozens of one-on-one conversations I’d had with my teachers on that very subject over the years before shaking it off. “Either way, I’m okay. I’m more worried about the dove, actually. I hope it’s not in danger.”
‘It flew away, so it should be fine,” Asher responded. He glanced at the sky, before returning his attention to the tree. The fire had, miraculously, died down, leaving no signs of ever having existed in the first place. “I’m more worried about what in the world those flames were. Fire doesn’t just disappear like that, especially on such a dry day.”
Ayame, who had been looking at me until that point, turned her eyes to the ground. “I-I think that was my fault.”
None of us spoke, at first, as we tried to wrap our minds around what she had just said. Then, I decided to break it, and hopefully knock some sense into her while I was at it.
“How was that your fault, Ayame?” I asked, leaning a little closer. “Last time I checked, you weren’t some kind of witch with control over the ancient element of fire.”
“No, I’m not,” she mumbled. Normally, she would have smiled at that, but her face remained a serious mask. “But think about it. Nothing happened the whole time you were climbing the tree, but the second I took a step forward as you were about to fall, that triangle started glowing. I don’t see how else I’m supposed to take that.”
“There is no way that you’re supposed to ‘take that,’” I said. Maybe I was being a little harsh on her, but there was no way I could have her blaming herself over something none of us had any control over. “It just happened. That’s all.”
“Cat’s right,” Asher said. Miller nodded his assent. “Weird stuff’s been happening to us for the past couple of weeks, anyway. Whoever’s fault that is, it’s definitely not yours.”
Ayame looked a little relieved at the sudden display of support, and I think she was about to say something–maybe thank me for my unprecedented clarity of thought in stressful situations–when we were interrupted by a crackling sound from the tree. At first, I was worried that the fire had started up again, or worse, that the damage it should have caused had caught up to it, and that it was going to fall over.
When I stood up and walked over, the reality was much different, and a lot weirder.
On the ground, just below the scorched symbol of the triangle etched into the base of the tree, was a large, dirty gray hand, breaking through the surface of the ground in typical cheesy zombie-movie fashion. Naturally, I took a step forward to investigate it further, and the hand lunged farther out of its earthen tomb, grasping at the now-exposed roots of the tree (I’ll be honest, I was a little disappointed it didn’t go for the classic ankle-grab).
“What is this thing?” I wondered aloud, attracting the attention of my friends, who came over to check up on it with me. As soon as they saw it, at least two of them let out an audible gasp, and Asher grabbed ahold of my shoulder, pulling me away from the ancient fist.
I guess it was a good thing that he did that, because not even ten seconds later, another five hands broke their way out of the ground, forming a weird sort of conga line of zombie arms. The four of us watched in a combination of horror and interest as, following the arms, six full-out zombie men stood up, complete with ashen-gray skin and rotting flesh, facing us in a line. Their eyes glowed bright yellow, as did the few teeth they possessed among the lot of them, and each one was brandishing a weapon that looked to me like it belonged in a gladiator movie.
“This is kind of like the opening to a fight in an RPG, don’t you think?” I whispered to my friends, who were staring in horror at the six dark figures in front of us.
“Now is not the time for jokes, Cat,” Miller hissed, never taking his eyes off of the zombie soldiers. His knees were low, and it looked to me like he was ready to run at any second.
He didn’t say anything else, and I turned away. Although they had been so active in breaking free from the earth, none of the soldiers were moving, at the moment, instead standing in a sort of formation, almost as if they were waiting for orders from a nonexistent general. Two out of the six had bows, with dark leather quivers stuck on their bony backs, while the other three carried short, rusty swords. Only one of them had a shield and, although I didn’t say anything for fear of Miller’s ire, they really did look like low-level enemies in a tacky video game.
“Should we run?” Asher asked, not breaking eye contact.
“I don’t know,” Ayame whispered back, so quietly I could hardly hear her. “They might attack us if we do.”
“What even are these things?” I asked the group, although nobody had an answer. We all stared at the group of rotting enemy units for a couple more seconds, and then something that I never would have expected happened.
The bird flew overhead, dipping its wings in the sky and rocketing towards the group of zombies. For a split second, I thought it had come to rescue us, maybe as a favor for the kindness I’d shown it in the tree.
Of course, it ended up being nothing like that.
As the gray bird loomed over the warriors like a storm cloud, gliding over their heads like an omen of doom, it let out a loud, prolonged screech, the shrillness of which made me cover my ears. Then, almost as if it had completed some necessary duty, it flew off one again, disappearing beyond the tree line. Then, the previously stationary soldiers began to move, pushing their ancient, rickety bones into action.
Funny, the entire time I thought it was me, at the top of the food chain, who had the bird in the palm of my hand. Turns out, it was the other way around.
The first zombies to attack were the ones with the bows, who raised the dark pieces of wood, which looked a little like a pair of arched eyebrows, and placed an arrow on each of their ancient strings, drawing them back and taking aim.
For the second time that day, I let my instincts take over.
No time to think, just go. I looked at my friends, who were in various states of shock, and yelled.
“Go into the trees!” I began running pushing them along with me, and each of us broke into the small wooded area off to the side of the school just as the rotting warriors let their arrows fly. Somehow, one of them flew past my head with the sound of someone flicking a rubber band times one thousand, and landed in the ground next to me, splintering on impact. I kept running, trying to keep track of my friends.
Asher was in front of me, following closely behind Ayame, while Miller ran at my side, keeping pace with me as I dodged around trees and jumped over rocks. I hazarded a glance behind me, and saw the skeleton soldiers rushing after us, faster than I would have thought possible. One of them raised their bow again, and I quickened my stride, ducking my head as another arrow disappeared through the trees with a twang.
“Over here!” Asher yelled from in front of me. I followed his pointed finger, and saw a cluster of trees in the distance, much thicker than the typical new-growth trees that made up most of the woods. Running as fast as we could, we headed for the grouping, swerving around and keeping them behind our backs as added cover.
Miller and I had caught up to Asher and Ayame at that point, the four of us more or less running in a diagonal formation, and I was close enough to hear each of them panting at various tempos. We continued on, and I considered turning around again, before thinking better of it.I wiped some sweat from my brow.
“You..know….” Asher panted at my side, pushing a few strands of nearly translucent hair from his face. “I’m really…getting sick of the undead….”
Amen to that, I thought, flashing back to the multiple experiences we’d had with ghosts and zombies in just the past few months. Taking everything into account, it definitely wasn’t natural, and I wondered why we were the ones that ended up having to deal with this sort of thing so often.
We continued running in near silence, listening to the heavy crashing of our feet against the leaves scattered about the forest floor, and the more hollow sound of the bony feet behind us, tapping on the ground as they continued to creep closer to our running forms.
“Up here!” Ayame shouted suddenly, her arms pumping wildly in the air. She winced, taking in a deep breath, and continued. “The woods end up here. I…think there’s a building.”
Nothing more needed to be said, and we all continued forward with increased vigor, trying to ignore the sound of wood splintering off of trees and slamming into the ground as more arrows flew towards us.
As soon as we cleared the woods, breaking into an open area of well-trimmed grass, a building that might have been a church standing tall about a hundred feet in front of us, we seemed to move even faster, rushing towards the structure like our lives depended on it–which, all things considered, they probably did.
We made it to the door quickly enough and, turning around wildly, I saw that the skeleton guys hadn’t made it out of the woods yet. The main doors of the building were probably around the front, and so we instead made our way to two metal doors rising out of the ground in the shape of a wedge, which I assumed led to the basement.
Asher made it to them first and, locking his fingers around the small handle yanked up. At first, it seemed like they were locked, but on the second attempt the doors yanked open, revealing a set of stairs leading down to another metal door. Rushing down the concrete steps and closing the metal doors above us, we moved through the (thankfully) unlocked door Asher had opened, launching ourselves into a musty basement and slamming the door behind us.
It was dark, dark enough that I could hardly see my hand in front of my face, which wasn’t good. While darkness where you can still see a little is alright, the pitch black of an underground room, without even a drop of light to remind you that it exists, is what really gets to me.
My breathing quickened, and I imagined the zombies breaking into the room, preying on me and my friends in the dark. A tightness rose in my chest, and I felt around for the wall, leaning against it for support and closing my eyes, finding slight comfort in darkness that came from myself, rather than an outside source.
My eyes were closed when someone laid a hand first on the back of my neck, and then on my shoulder, squeezing once as some sort of sign of assurance.
“Miller, find the light,” Asher said, his voice loud in my ears. “We won’t be able to do anything if we can’t see.”
‘Yeah, got it,” Miller said, and I heard him shuffling around the room carefully, feeling against the wall for some sort of switch. It took time, too much time, but eventually found it, bathing the room in the searing light of a single, uncovered light bulb screwed into the ceiling.
I looked at Asher, wincing at the harsh light reflecting off of his hair, and gave him a quick nod of thanks, before stepping forward in the basement. It was a mess–boxes containing everything from VHS tapes to bowling balls lined the walls, and no less than six television sets sat, gathering dust, in the back corner. Moving around a broken easel, I stepped up to the door situated by the light switch Miller had found and, turning the handle, pushed.
“No luck,” I said, upon discovering that it wouldn’t budge. For some reason I didn’t understand, they had decided to lock the inside door, while leaving the outside doors unlocked. “We’re gonna have to go out the way we came.”
“I don’t think that will work,” Ayame cautioned, trying the door herself to the same result. “They were gaining on us in the woods. They’re probably out there right now.”
“So, you’re saying we backed ourselves into a corner?” Miller asked, leaning against the wall in a much too nonchalant manner. “That’s really bad.”
“Yeah, we’re going to have to fin–” Asher began, but stopped upon hearing the sound of scraping metal that we had heard only moments before.
The doors above us were being opened.
“We have to get that door open,” Asher said, amending his previous statement.
“And how are we going to do that?” Miller asked, glancing nervously at the metal door we had come in through.
“Break the doorknob,” I said simply. Without another word, I bent down and picked up a hard metal case that looked like it carried top-secret government papers, handing it to Miller. “Here, if you break it off, we should be able to get out through there.”
He stared at the case for a second, and then glanced at the doorknob, as if considering the strategy.
“Okay,” he said after a few seconds, as if accepting an assignment at work. “And what are you guys going to do?”
“I think Ayame should help you. You’ll get it done twice as fast with both of you.” Ayame nodded, and I searched the basement floor. Tucked below a box, so deeply buried among the horde that it was barely noticeable, was a metal baseball bat. I picked it up, before grabbing a large broom off of the opposite wall and handing it to Asher. “Asher and I will handle the zombies.”
Asher looked at the broom held loosely in his hands like it came from outer space. “You want us to fight deadly skeleton soldiers with a broom and a baseball bat?”
“Exactly,” I said. Asher looked wary, but he didn’t have a lot of time to think about it, as a second later the metal door opened, and the undead soldiers began filing in, yellowed eyes shining even more menacingly in the dimly lit basement.
An erratic pounding began behind me, and I figured that Miller and Ayame had started working on the door, but I didn’t check. Tightening my grip on the handle of the bat, I looked at Asher, expecting to have to psyche him up. Surprisingly, however, his eyes matched the intensity of the warriors themselves, shining with spark of fight and eagerness to do something despite the risks, which is a quality I’d rarely seen him express
For some reason, it made me smile.
“You ready?” I asked, raising my bat in my hands. Although I hardly noticed, the handle had begun to grow hotter, the top of the silver instrument glowing with an unnatural light.
Asher shifted his broom in his hands, glancing at me out of the corner of his eyes. “Yeah.”
We didn’t have to say anything else and, together, we charged the soldiers.