Beautiful Experiment

Chapter 14

“Hurry!” Leon commanded, running full speed up the path. Behind them, the flaming wreckage of the truck was giving the villagers enough pause to allow them a chance of escape. Manuela sped ahead of Leon handily, and Leon tossed back an incendiary, continuing to prolong the hoard.

The path curved and the three found themselves running over a bridge. Spotting a pair of cranks, Leon pushed himself harder, practically having to go horizontal to stop his momentum when he reached the crank. Manuela reached the other crank at the same time, and they nodded to each other quickly. Syncing with each other, they began hoisting the old wood. The villagers on the other side hastened their steps, yelling to run faster, but it was too late as the bridge hit its apex with a bang.

The two sides regarded each other tensely for a minute, pitchforks raised on one side, guns held on the other. Finally, the mob’s leader turned and waved for the others to follow him. The mob turned slowly with a collective grumble, their torches fading into the night.

“They’ll find another way in” Leon stated, turning to face the grand entrance, gun still out. In the night, he could see the faint blue illumination curling around the corner. “The Merchant’s here.”

Ashley moved to ask who “the Merchant” was, but Leon was already blazing ahead. Indeed, within a small wooden shack the man stood, his familiar torch casting them all in blue. Leon allowed himself the smallest of smiles at the sight, putting away his gun. “Greetings stranger!”

“Nice to see you too” Leon returned, gazing about at the inventory. “What have you got?”

“Got some nice things on sale!” he chortled. “How’s the Punisher servin’ ya?”

“Quite nicely. It helps a lot in a crowd” Leon affirmed, buying some ammunition, before eying the rifle. Despite that they were in a castle, there were enough walkways in these old places to warrant the use of one. “I’m interested in that one there.”

“Ah! You’ve got a good eye stranger! It’s yours, if you can afford it” he laughed. A small amount of haggling was done, and Leon soon had the rifle in his hands. Regarding his weapons, he realized that his selection was still very suited for zombie survival. Guess some habits never change.

“Hold up a moment Leon.”

Manuela called their party to a quiet stop before they had even left sight range of the Merchant. She tilted her head, straining her listening. Finally she turned to face the other two. “We’re not alone. It sounds like more villagers, but...they sound different somehow. They’re muttering things about life and death. It almost sounds like a prayer.”

“Hunnigan did mention it was a cult. I suppose we won’t be able to talk with them much” Leon joked as he checked his gun. Manuela nodded, taking the point this time. Beyond the door, the stone path curved into a set of stairs that seemed to lead to some higher level. Swiftly and silently, Manuela advanced to the corner, her Matilda clutched tightly. She motioned for Leon to follow, as she started moving up the stairs with inhuman grace and silence.

Pressing against the stone, Manuela peered around the corner, and immediately spotted the source of the noise. More of the villagers were here, only they seemed to be dressed in black robes inlaid with strange designs. They also lacked hair, which revealed their pale skin and disturbing expressions. Worse, they seemed to be equipped with more...purposed weapons such as maces and crossbows. She relayed the information to Leon, who peered around himself to survey the scene.

“There doesn’t appear to be many here, and even if there are more, we can easily take them. Do you think you can get to one of those doorways without being spotted?”

“Probably. What are you thinking?”

“If you can get into place, I could pick a couple of them off with some shots to the head. When they come for me, you could sneak in behind them, take a few out without wasting ammo. If something goes wrong though, drop a flash. The Merchant is right behind us, so we can always grab another one.”

“Understood. I’ll give you the signal when I get there.” Leon nodded as Manuela dashed out to a crate, crouching carefully out of sight. As the cultists moved about, she mentally tracked their movements. She soon saw her opening and rushed over to a corner behind more crates and a doorway. She quickly flashed a hand sign before ducking back out of sight.

Leon turned around the corner, kneeling to be as small a target as possible, using the wall beside him as cover. Taking careful aim, he fired a shot into one of the cultist’s head. To his surprise, it did very little to the man other than stunning him briefly. He turned slowly, and Leon had a quick flash of remembrance of the zombies. He shrugged the thought aside, firing more shots, stalling the cultist’s progress. The other cultist however, was moving uninhibited.

Until Manuela snuck up behind it, kicking the back of its shins. Keeping momentum, she spun, slamming her foot into the cultist’s head, shattering bone. She had barely grounded when they both heard a disturbing hissing sound emanating from the still standing cultist. From the broken head, a tendril snaked out, twisting and writhing.

“MANUELA! LOOK OUT!” Ignoring the other cultist, Leon charged forward, unclipping a flash grenade and hurling it. The canister clipped the ground, bouncing up under the monster, exploding just as the tendril fully exposed itself. Manuela managed to twist out of its way, avoiding stunning. A horrible screeching came from the explosion, and the body fell over limply. Using his momentum, Leon performed a flying kick on the other stunned cultist, landing carefully before driving his knife into its chest. He turned to fight the tendril monster only to see the tendril had disappeared, leaving only the body.

“Thanks Leon. I was worried when that thing came out. But it seemed the flash grenade took care of it.”

“I don’t think these things like light too much. We can use that to our advantage. For now, let’s try to not aim for the head. That seems too likely to release whatever that was. Are you okay?” Manuela waved aside Leon’s concern.

“I’m fine. It didn’t get anywhere near me, thanks to you. Let’s keep moving. We still have to find some answers.”

Leon did not consider himself a lucky man. He had shown up to a zombie apocalypse on his first day on the force, and now here he was, infected with a parasite, no connection to Hunnigan, Luis had evidently lost the the medicine that would help him and Ashley, and now, mocking him from high above.

“Me llamo Ramon Salazar, eight Castellan of this magnificent architecture. I have been honored with prodigious power from the great Lord Saddler. I’ve been expecting you, my brethrens,” he bowed. He straightened and turned to look at Manuela. “And you, Ms. Hidalgo, who so unkindly rejected our gift. You are lucky we haven’t killed you.”

“You won’t be touching her, bro,” Leon retorted, though he eyed the two things that flanked Salazar. The little man laughed.

“My my, we’ve got a feisty one! I suggest you surrender yourself and simply...become our hostage. Or, Mr. Scott, you can give us the girl, because neither of you are worth a penny, I’m afraid. You can die.” With that, Salazar waved them off dismissively.

“I’m never turning into one of them! Never!” Ashley affirmed, though through her bravery, Leon could sense her fear. He was about to speak when Manuela cut in.

“I’m sure you won’t. You’re stronger than that.” Ashley looked at the woman for a moment, then smiled slightly. Manela had grown a lot stronger since their time in the jungle. He only hoped it would keep up.
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