Chapter 1 - Don't You Try to Run Away
They were closing in on him. He could feel it.
Joe was not the kind of man who ran a lot. Not to say he wasn’t fit. He was a thick, sturdy man, and though his body was shaped from a lifetime of work out in the fields of his family’s farm, running had never been his thing. But here, and now, with these unliving monsters that walked the earth, running was the one difference between surviving and joining their ranks.
And running was just not his thing.
He paused, leaning hard against a tree as his breath came in heavy pants and his vision blurred and clouded. He could hear them crashing callously through the underbrush behind him, no care in the world beyond finding him. Killing him.
Briefly he tried to remember why he thought entering the woods was a good idea. Did he think he could lose the zombies if he just got out of their sights? Could they even see him to begin with? Those dead, yellow eyes, those unblinking faces… how did they sense him in the first place?
Joe supposed the how wasn’t half as important as the fact that they could, though. And they definitely could, as the increasing volume of the sounds of their footsteps and the rising anticipation in their disturbing moans more than attested.
He stumbled deeper into the forest, thinking all the while that he should have stuck to the streets. The paved roads, clear of obstacles, would have made it easier for him to just keep going.
But then again, the uneven ground of the forest could have worked to his advantage, as well. Zombies weren’t the most graceful of creatures. They might be stumbling and falling all over themselves. It might be just enough to get away.
That distant hope put a brief burst of speed into him, so he was moving too quickly to avoid the branch.
He almost saw it in time, snaking out from the leaves, and tried to stop. But the ground was slick with mud, and he skidded far enough to get wrapped up in the thorny branches. Trying to free himself only made things worse, as his pants' leg stuck in the thick bramble, and every movement only succeeded in throwing him more and more off balance.
The fall seemed to come in slow motion, and Joe felt like he was outside of it, watching this cartoonish nonsense happening to someone else.
He landed on his shoulder hard, sending fire shooting down his back and side. He tried to roll over to get off it, and the world seemed to drop out from under him.
He bounced and slid, falling hard down a hill he hadn’t even realized was there, until he finally came to a stop on something hard and unyielding. And… gray?
Joe looked up, and realized he had somehow stumbled into a town. Or at least some kind of shopping center. It was the clear path he had been wanting only moments earlier. But would it do him any good?
He turned and saw the zombies, already stumbling down the hill, but most of them on a much less steep path than he had taken. They would be on him in moments, before he even got the chance to get back to his feet. If he could get back to his feet.
Resignation set in, and he closed his eyes and turned away, waiting for the end.
There was a thump and he felt the weight as the first zombie fell on him. Then several more thumps and the weight shifted. A scream rose in his throat, but caught, dying there, as he realized it was pure reaction.
He didn’t feel any pain.
And there had been that strange whistling sound. And a few too many thumping sounds.
Slowly, not really willing yet to believe, he opened his eyes.
The zombies were all around him and on top of him, but they weren’t moving.
Joe thrashed about, freeing himself from the zombies that had landed on him. They offered no resistance. They weren’t moving at all. Then he turned, looking behind him, and saw a tall man in a dark coat standing there.
“Who…?” He started to ask.
The man moved suddenly, raising something before him.
“Wait!” Shouted Joe, raising his hands defensively.
The whistling sound came again, followed by several more thumps. Joe turned back to the woods to see a second group of zombies falling one by one.
Whatever the stranger was using, it was killing each zombie in a single shot. Which meant on top of being quiet and rapid firing, it had frighteningly deadly accuracy.
When the last one fell, he turned again to see the stranger already offering him a hand. Joe took it, and let them pull him unsteadily to his feet.
“Thanks,” he said, awkwardly, not sure how to respond to whatever it was that just happened.
The stranger stepped over to the nearest pile of zombies and knelt down over them. One by one, he began pulling long, thin darts out of their heads.
“What the hell are those?” Joe asked, but the stranger didn’t respond. Instead, he began pouring something over the darts and then wiping them off. After a moment, he raised his weapon and began refilling it with the used darts. It was the first good look Joe got of the weapon.
“You did all that with a crossbow? How many shots can it hold?”
Again he received no response, other than a sideways glance, so Joe changed tactics. “I thought crossbows were only made for hunting.”
“These are made for hunting,” the man said in a surprisingly deep, sonorous voice.
“What kind of creature needs a crossbow machine gun to be hunted?”
“They’re for hunting something a bit larger than most creatures.”
“Are you telling me you have special crossbows made just for hunting zombies?”
The man turned on his heels and shot him a weird look. “These aren’t made for hunting zombies.”
Joe barely heard him, because when the man turned, he caught a flash of something under his long coat.
“Are you… are you a preacher?”
There was silence for a long moment, and then the stranger rose to his feet and nodded.
“I am a man of the cloth, yes.”
“What kind of ‘man of the cloth’ carries around zombie killing crossbows?”
The stranger had already begun walking away. “You should get moving. There’s bound to be more on the way.”
“Wait, you’re not gonna just leave me here, are you?” Joe protested, starting after his rescuer.
“Your cardiovascular system is in shambles, most likely from years spent on red meat and anaerobic exercise.”
Joe slowed for a few steps as he tried to process that. “Uh, what’s that mean?”
“It means you will have difficulty keeping up.”
As if to prove him wrong, Joe sped up and fell into step beside the man. His breath was still coming in heaves, even after essentially having a brief respite on the ground. His heart, too, was pounding away, his pulse racing. The preacher was absolutely right, he would have trouble keeping up, but there was something about just being in the mere presence of this strange, powerful man that seemed to energize him.
“Well I don’t care,” he said, as steadily as he could through his struggle for air. “Wherever you go, I’m going.”
“I will not wait for you.”
“That’s fine. I’ll keep up.”
They walked on in silence for a brief moment, but the quiet was too much for the still panicked farmer. So he attempted to strike up a conversation again. “What brings you out here, preacher?”
“I am looking for someone.”
“Oh? Is he a preacher like you?”
The stranger paused for a moment, as if considering. “Yes,” he said at last.
“What’s his name, this other preacher?”
The man stopped walking and turned to look at his new companion. “Gabriel.”
Joe’s eyes went wide and he took in a sharp breath.
“Have you seen him?” The preacher continued.
“No,” Joe replied. “Pretty sure I’d remember meeting someone like you.”
Somehow the stranger’s frown managed to deepen. Then he knelt down and Joe realized they had come to that second group of zombies. The man repeated his process with the darts and then he was back on his feet and walking away again.
“What will happen when you find this Gabriel fella?” Joe asked as he fell into step beside the taciturn preacher.
“If we are lucky, we will find the rest of our order.”
“There’s even more than two of you?”
“In a sense.”
Joe’s eyes widened. Even just a couple of men with equally deadly aim on those crossbows seemed like an unstoppable force. But an entire group of them?
But then something else the preacher had said stuck out to him, settling like an uneasy weight on his chest.
“And what if we’re unlucky?” He asked.
The preacher didn’t look at him, didn’t pause for a moment in his tracks, didn’t so much as bat an eyelash. He simply replied, “Then humanity is likely doomed.”
Joe paused, but true to his word, the other man didn’t even slow his pace. Joe hurried to fall into place beside him again before commenting, “Well, you’re just a ray of sunshine, aren’t you?”