The Graveyard Tales
Chapter 31: A Voice From On High
Victor Ivanov lead a squad of soldiers through the forests of the Soviet Union. It had been two weeks since his company had lost contact with any and all commanding officers, putting Victor and his longtime friend, Andrei Sastanovich, in charge of the remaining solders. Rather than attempt to stem the tide of an ocean of undead, those left opted to save those who mattered most, their families, and try and find a safe place to hide while whoever was left in charge sought a way to remove the zombie epidemic from his homeland.
It was an idea that sounded great in theory. Real life, however, was rarely so kind.
Victor stifled his tears as he trudged on, rifle at the ready, eyes scanning the surrounding woods for any sign of danger. Though at this point, he would welcome death, if it would promise an end to his nightmares.
A week ago, he had led this squad to the small town where their families had lived, with the intention of bringing their loved ones with them. Rumor had it the undead had not yet made it this far, and they entered the quiet town with hope in their hearts, hope tat amidst all this death and destruction, some vestige of their lives might yet survive.
As the old saying goes, he who lives on hope will die hungry.
The rumors were wrong, dead wrong. From the damage and decay of the bodies, the undead had reached this town several days ago. There were signs of battle-spent bullets and explosions from hand grenades and rocket launchers. Piles of zombies, now dead a second time, could be seen here and there, evidence that the townsfolk had managed to fight for some time against the ghouls. Victor and the others rushed to their homes, calling out the names of fathers, mothers, brothers and sisters, wives and children.
The only response that greeted them was silence, and the muted stench of rot and decay.
Victor entered his home, knocking aside the front door, which had been barred shut. The lights were out, the power long since gone, and it took his eyes a few moments to adjust to the dimness. Once he saw clearly, though, he wished with all his might that he had been struck blind, so he would not have to see what lay before him.
His wife, Katya, and his three children-Piotr, Daniel, and little Ileana, all dead, each shot in the head. He saw the gun in his wife's hands, and knew she had committed the deed before turning the weapon, a gift from his father, on herself. For three minutes he stood there, unmoving, not even blinking. But soon tears began to run down his face, he fell to his knees, sobbing loudly, sounds of depthless anguish and soul-wrenching sorrow filling a home that for years had known only laughter and joy.
He looked around the home, not truly comprehending what he was seeing, yet as his eyes took in the scene before him, memories of his life flashed before his eyes. He saw a photo of himself in uniform with his family, a small bow adorning the frame, and remembered the day Ileana had given him the present on his birthday, merely two months ago. He looked to the football trophy his son had won when his team captured the national title. His eyes fell upon a handmade chair, a gift from his father, with cushions sewn by his mother. In his grief, he never even wondered if they were still alive.
Suddenly shots rang out, snapping Victor from his grief. He ran outside, ready and willing to take revenge on the first undead he found. Instead, he saw his squad gathered around the corpse of Private William Ilovich. The young soldier had shot himself in the head with his sidearm.
"What happened?" asked Victor, though the scene before him was plain enough.
"He found his wife, dead," said another soldier. "Shot in the head. They're all dead sir."
Victor looked around, noticing for the first time how empty the town was, the complete and utter absence of any living thing. Even the rats were gone.
"All of them?"
The soldier nodded, tears streaming down his face. "When the undead came, they must have realized all hope was lost. Every single home has been boarded shut, every person dead, shot in the head."
Victor's eyes strayed back to his family's home, to the doorway through which so many family and friends had passed. The doorway was a gaping wound, one which would never heal, even when death mercifully claimed him.
"We failed them," Victor said. "They were counting on us, and we failed them."
Those words echoed in Victor's mind as he and the rest of his squad trudged through the forest. Just then, new words filled his ears, carried on the winds. Words being spoken by many voices. Victor looked around at the other soldiers, ensuring himself that sanity hadn't suddenly decided to leave town.
By the expressions, their minds were very much intact, at least as much as they could be given the current situation. "It's coming from that direction," said one of the soldiers, pointing to the west.
Heedless of the noise they were making, the troops ran through the forest, eager to find what could be the first living humans they had seen in several days. That this might be some sort of trap by bandits or a group of government loyalists with a dim view of traitors never crossed their minds. Any port in a storm, they say.
In a clearing, the soldiers came upon a rundown church, the source of the chanting. They slowed their approach, unsure of the reality that lay before them. The building was well over two hundred years old, a small Catholic church, the sides covered in a fresh coat of paint, the spire adorned with a large brass cross, polished to a glistening shine. Nearby was a large vegetable garden, and the men could see carrots, turnips and potatoes were being grown. Nearby was a small fenced-in area, with cattle, sheep and goats grazing contentedly on the grass. A smaller hall, used as a classroom for the church's Sunday school, sat nearby, in an equal state of disrepair.
But it wasn't just the condition of the building that surprised the squad. It was completely
unguarded, with no defenses of any kind. The windows were wide open, admitting the brisk fall air, and one of the front doors was slightly ajar. No one, armed or otherwise, could be seen, yet the area was devoid of the walking dead. The smell of so many uninfected humans, plus the animals, should have drawn the creatures to the clearing like a magnet.
Yet not the slightest moan or snarl could be heard.
Victor motioned the soldiers to approach, signaling them to spread out. Weapons up and safeties off, they quickly moved in, unable to hide their approach for the lack of trees, relying on the parishioners apparent lack of any strategic sense to aid them. They moved toward the windows, and slowly edged to where they could see inside. What they saw was no scene of horror or blood, yet it shocked the men to their very core, simply by the sheer absurdity of what lay before them.
There were around two hundred people inside the church, simple farmers and townsfolk from the nearby communities, dressed in their Sunday best, reciting hymns. Leading them was their priest, a thin, frail man of around eighty years, who nonetheless held a power and presence beyond that of any battle-hardened veteran Victor had ever met, himself included. Behind the elder was a large cross, covered in a cloth. As Victor looked more closely, he could swear he saw something move beneath the sheet.
"Good day, sirs," said a voice behind them.
The soldiers turned to see a middle-aged man, dressed much like the parishioners. He carried no weapons, and his smile was friendly and benign. But it wasn't the friendly greeting or the neighborly attitude that so unnerved the soldiers. The man seemed to have no concern for the possibility that the undead might be nearby.
In fact, if Victor didn't know any better, the undead didn't exist.
"My name is Jacob," he said. "Would you like to join us for our morning Mass?"
Victor turned to the others. Jacob seemed not at all concerned that armed soldiers stood before him. A service was hardly their mission, but keeping civilians safe was. If for some reason the people here had been spared the zombies, it was their duty to get them to a safer location. Victor nodded, and the man ushered them into the church. At the threshold, he asked them to leave their weapons.
"We are a peaceful order, and any and all weapons are strictly prohibited," said Jacob.
Inside, the men were greeted with warm smiles and handshakes from the parishioners. No one seemed put off by their blood-soaked uniforms. The elderly priest spread his arms and beckoned them to one of the front pews, which was strangely vacant, while the rest of the seats were full.
"I had a feeling we'd be receiving visitors today," the old man said, plucking the question from Victor's mind.
Turning back to his flock, the priest's voice echoed through the church. "On this day, my children, we give thanks for the sunrise, for the air we breathe, the food we eat, and the chance to learn more about the gospel," he motioned to Victor and the others. "And we give special thanks for new friends, to share in our mission to bring peace and tranquility to this world."
A chorus of "Thanks be to the Savior," filled the church. Victor and the others looked around, unsure of how to act. True, these people hadn't displayed any signs of aggression. Just the opposite, in fact. But that they could so blissfully welcome strangers, armed strangers, into their midst filled the soldiers, soldiers used to death in all its vicious forms, anxious and uneasy.
The priest motioned to two men in the forward seats, and they moved to either side of the shrouded cross. Victor's mind went back to his first viewing of it, and wondered if he had seen movement, or if his beleaguered mind was just playing tricks on him.
The voice of the elderly holy man took on a deep, rich tone, and Victor could tell something of significance was about to happen. Something significant, though for some reason he found himself wishing he had his gun handy.
"Let us make our offerings to the most holy," said the priest. "He who walks beyond death, forever out of his grasp, eternal, unliving, yet not of the dead."
Yep, that gun would be mighty handy right now. Too late.
The old man gestured, and the two parishioers ripped off the cloth. A foul smell, a mixture of decay, filth and congealed blood filled the room. Victor covered his hand to his mouth, his eyes wide with horror. Two of his fellow soldiers bent over, vomiting, though they had not eaten in two days. But Victor didn't notice, so fixated was he on the terrifying scene before him.
Nailed to the cross, twitching and twisting, mouth snapping at the assembled crowd again and again, was their savior.