Chapter 45: Sentries
They drove through the gates and were quickly back out on the road again. Before long they had passed the high school, but this time continued on past it, returning to the highway. Less than an hour later, they were again pulling off the highway onto a side street leading into the woods, and from there it was only a few more side streets before Mac slowed the car to a stop.
“What’s going on?” asked Eli, leaning up between the two front seats to peak out the front windshield.
“I think we’re here,” said Mac. He pushed open the car door and stepped outside. He opened the back and fished around for a minute until he had recovered a pair of binoculars. He stepped back to the front of the car and looked through the goggles to the far end of the road.
The others had also stepped out of the vehicle, and following Mac’s gaze Eli could make out a chain-link fence and some structures in the distance.
“Is that it?” he asked.
“Yep,” said Mac. “That’s it. And look.” He handed the binoculars to Eli.
Eli took them and brought them up to his eyes. In the distance, the trees gave way to a massive fortified structure. The road they were on came to an end at the entrance gate for this structure, or what would have been the gate, but the doors were broken open, each side hanging loose on their hinges. A small number of zombies roamed around just behind the broken doors in what looked like a small clearing. More zombies piled up into giant masses on either side of the clearing, as though held off by some invisible force.
“Well, shit,” he said, as Amber stepped up with another pair of binoculars. He handed his off to Aliyah. “What do you think happened?”
“Looks like there were a bunch of zombies in there, and they busted their way out,” said Mac.
Aliyah scoffed. “Were? There’s like a million in there.”
“Sweet emotion!” exclaimed Jay, accidentally interrupting as he took his turn at the binoculars. When he lowered them he realized everyone was staring at him, and his face grew red with embarrassment. “Sorry,” he croaked, “just, what’s with all the gargoyles?”
“Gargoyles?” Aliyah asked, looking again. “Hmm, he’s right. There are a lot of gargoyles on the building.”
Eli frowned. “So what?”
“I dunno,” shrugged Jay. “It’s just weird, is all. How many military installations have you seen covered in gargoyles?”
Eli considered the point. “Well, considering this is only the second military installation I’ve ever been to in my life… about half.”
“Funny,” Jay said, emotionlessly. “You’re funny.”
“Look at this,” Gabriel said. Kneeling down, he began to draw in the dirt. His fingers traced the outline of a rectangle, and then from one of the short sides of the rectangle he drew little arches extending off in either direction. “Here,” he said, wiping a hole in the rectangle on the line between the two arches, “is the front gate, busted open. Here,” he added, motioning to the long sides of the rectangle, “it looks like there is another type of gate blocking off this section. There’s only a few zombies in this rectangular area here, while most of the zombies seem to be in this outer area.”
Amber frowned, then snatched up one of the pairs of binoculars and stepped forward a couple paces. She glanced through the lenses for a moment, and then turned back to the group. “He’s right. The front entrance is like a corridor leading straight to the building.”
“So all we really have to do,” Eli added, thoughtfully, “is clear out this little strip, and we’re home free. So to speak.”
Daina crossed her arms, looking uncomfortable with the suggestion, and asked, “What about the rest of the zombies? Won’t they try to break down those walls to get at us like they did the front gate?”
“It looks like the walls of the corridor are made of a bit sturdier stuff,” Amber explained. “And if we proceed quietly enough, we can probably clear out the zombies from the front without attracting too much attention from the others.”
Daina sighed heavily, not looking entirely satisfied with the answer, but not arguing, either.
“It’s a good idea,” Eli agreed. “I think we should do it first. We’ll leave the van here, and once we’ve cleared out the front, we’ll head back here. That way we can gather whatever supplies we’ll need for going indoors at that time, and if necessary wait for any zombies we stirred up to calm back down.”
There was a general hum of agreement with Eli’s plan and everyone stood up straight and prepared to get moving.
“Everyone, guns ready,” commanded Aliyah, raising her own as if its presence were the punctuation to her sentence.
“Uh,” Eli coughed, rubbing the back of his head while his face turned red with embarrassment. “I, uh, I actually didn’t bring a gun.”
It wasn’t entirely true. He had the gun that Lisa had given him, but it was buried somewhere inside the vehicle. He didn’t really want to go digging for it now when he felt there was no chance he would be using it anyway.
Aliyah blinked and stared at him as if her mind was unable to process his words. “What?”
He shrugged. “Well, you know, I figured, what good is a gun right now? I mean, sure it’ll stop a zombie, if you manage to shoot it in the brain, but the noise will just bring more zombies down on you. Like we were just talking about. It attracts too much attention. Better off using something quieter. And also it would have no effect on werewolves, unless you’re carrying a supply of silver bullets that I’m completely unaware of. And vampires? Completely useless on vampires. So again, maybe we should be less focused on having them?”
Aliyah was clearly gritting her teeth, and seemed to be straining very hard to hold back on tearing Eli a new one. “Yeah,” she finally hissed through clenched teeth, “and a baseball bat is obviously better against vampires and werewolves.” She reached into her bag and pulled out her backup pistol and a holster. “Here,” she said. “Just, take this one and stay out of the way.”
“Fine,” grumbled Eli, begrudgingly taking the gun. He attached the holster to his belt and followed the rest of the group to the main gate.
The group made their way calmly yet cautiously into the corridor. As they had been able to see from down the road, there weren’t too many zombies left beyond the gate. At whatever point, when they had forced the gate, most of the creatures must have spilled out into the world and wandered off.
Daina, Mac, and Aliyah cut left, while Gabriel, Eli, Jay, and Amber headed right. They each picked a zombie and began attacking. The zombies had noticed them and began heading toward them, but the group was ready. They each picked a zombie and approached it, weapons raised. Eli tried to focus on his zombie, but couldn’t help but watch his companions.
As with previous times he had been in these situations, he was struck with the professionalism of the group. They worked so much in tandem that the coordination seemed impossible without communication, but there was none. He couldn’t help but wonder again if maybe Devin had taken everyone through some drills that he, with his need to be a loner, had missed out on. Whatever the reason, they were efficient. It was only a matter of moments before the stragglers had been cleared out.
Eli straightened and rested his bat up on one shoulder. “Well, I guess that’s good,” he started to say, but a sharp cry of surprise from Amber cut him short. Everyone turned to look.
She was standing closest to the fence leading into the next yard, and this fence was comprised mainly of horizontal metal slats. Somehow she had caught the attention of a zombie on the other side of the fence, and it had managed to force its hand between the slats and grab her by the wrist.
The hand sticking through was disgusting and disturbing. The skin had ripped off against the harsh, unyielding metal, leaving just tendon, muscle, and bone exposed to the elements. The skin bunched up like a rolled back sleeve down near the opening in the slats, with one flap hanging loose down from the arm.
Everyone, even Amber, stood stock still, too horrified by the sight to immediately react. Before anyone came to their senses, there was a dull thump, and then another hand was reaching through the slats, much lower than the first, also grasping at Amber. This second hand was at too bad of an angle to reach her, but before long more hands were reaching through the openings.
Amber attempted to tug her arm free, but the zombie hand held on with surprising force. She set her foot a little forward for better leverage, but this ended up working against her. Another hand stuck through the bars and wrapped around her ankle, clamping down hard. Resist as she might, the combined force of the unyielding zombies was beginning to pull her closer to the bars.
“Amber!” Eli shouted reflexively, as though just shouting her name would do any good. He ran on over and began pounding away at the hand holding her wrist with his baseball bat.
Now between the slats there were no longer just arms and hands, but the gnashing teeth of the undead’s hungry mouths appeared in the openings. In only moments, Amber would be close enough for them to bite down into her flesh.
Suddenly, Aliyah was there. She body slammed Eli aside, and with almost no hesitation brought her machete up and back down again. It sliced cleanly through the exposed muscle of the zombie’s arm, and cracked noisily into the bone. She raised it and struck down with it again and then again. On the third time the bone broke through and the blade cut its way through the rest of the arm.
Amber fell back with a shout, but Jay caught her under her arms before she could go too far. Together the two continued pulling her away from the remaining zombie hand holding onto her leg. Her shoe was now only millimeters from the nearest zombie mouth.
Aliyah was forced to drop back, stepping away from the fence as more zombie hands tried to grasp at her, too. She swung her machete at the flailing limbs, but even though she made a few cuts, it did her no good. The zombies felt no pain or fear. Her weapon was not a threat to them. They did not pull back, only pressed on harder.
Then Mac was there, kneeling down next to Amber. He raised his shotgun and pointed the barrel almost point blank into the face of one of the zombies.
“No!” hissed Eli, leaping toward the older man, but he was too late.
Mac fired, and the gun erupted into the creature’s face. Mac had calculated with surprising care, hitting exactly the right zombie. As the violent explosion blew out the creature’s brains, it lost all control and released Amber’s leg. She scrambled away frantically.
“Ew!” she declared a moment late as she realized that the hand of the first zombie was still clasping her wrist. She waved her arm violently until the disgusting severed limb finally came free and toppled into the dirt.
“What were you saying?” Mac asked, standing and looking directly at Eli.
Eli frowned at the other man as he knelt to help Amber back to her feet. “Look, I appreciate that she’s free now, but the noise is going to have attracted too much attention.”
Mac waved the barrel of his gun at the fence as he reloaded. “Seems like the attention is already gathered.”
Eli opened his mouth to continue the argument, but suddenly Jay stepped in between them with his hands held up for silence and a concerned expression on his face.
“Hey, guys,” the young man said, “um… what’s that noise?”
Eli stopped and listened. At first all he could hear was the groaning, shuffling, and teeth gnashing of the undead, but after a moment he finally heard it.
From somewhere nearby, just far enough away to not have a clear, specific source, there came a dull rumble like thunder and a strange crackling sound like a million hands snapping apart chunks of peanut brittle.
“What the hell is that?” Mac asked.
Everyone turned in the direction they thought the sound was coming from, which left seven people staring in seven different directions. Only Jay, it turned out, turned in the right direction.
“Guys,” he said, pointing toward the roof of the base. “Look!”
Everyone turned to follow his finger, and they immediately saw it.
“It can’t be,” breathed Eli.
But it was.
From up on the roof of the building, the nearest gargoyle was starting to move. Chunks of what looked like concrete began breaking off of it in the areas where it had freed up enough of its body to begin to stretch. It rose up, arching it back and neck, its wings slowly spreading apart to a disturbingly long wingspan.
Finally fully mobile, it turned its head down and seemed to regard the group with a strange look in its eye. Perched there, its eye on them, face locked in a feral grimace, it looked rather like a cat eyeing the fish inside the fish bowl.
Then it dove.
The motion was so smooth and sudden they almost didn’t notice it, and when they did it just looked like the creature had – due to some unseen force – fallen head first toward the ground. Gabriel was the first to realize it was gliding straight for them.
“Get down!” he shouted, shoving the person nearest him off balance as he dove for the dirt himself.
The creature swooped by just above the ducking figures, and then curved gracefully through the air and turned back towards them. It dove again, and this time it sunk its claws right into Daina’s shoulders.
She screamed in pain, but otherwise didn’t move. The claws dug into her skin so hard any resistance only brought more pain shooting through her body.
“I got it!” Eli shouted, and dashed for the monster. He drew back his bat and let loose with every last ounce of strength he could muster.
The bat slammed into the creature, but it hardly seemed to even notice. Eli might as well have been swinging at a brick wall. The bat was completely stopped by its target, and with all the force Eli had put into the blow this sudden stop ripped the weapon from the young man’s hands and sent it spinning to the ground.
Eli let out an involuntary growl of pain and felt his arms go numb. It was as though the creature was made out of some sort of living stone, every bit as hard and durable as the real thing and yet somehow flexible enough to allow movement.
“Screw this!” shouted Aliyah as she leaped forward, shotgun raised. She jabbed the barrel hard into the gargoyle’s stomach and pulled the trigger.
The gun roared furiously, and the explosion was powerful enough to rip the creature off of Daina. It spiraled through the air, and Eli could see the blast had punched a hole straight through the center of the creature. Suddenly it started cracking and crumbling, and within moments it practically dissolved right before their very eyes. It turned to dust that fell down to form a small pile on the ground, as though it had been a statue all along and their eyes had only played tricks on them.
And with that, it was over.
Aliyah rested the shotgun on her shoulder and shot Eli a cocky grin. “What’s that you were saying about guns being useless?”
Eli rolled his eyes and choose to ignore her. Instead he hurried over to Daina and tried to inspect her wounds. At first she was too shocked to move and remained locked up in a defensive position that made it difficult for Eli to get close. As he continued to push against her she seemed to snap to her senses and started actively pushing him away.
“I… I shouldn’t have come,” she said, her voice dull and empty. “I can’t… I have to get out of here.”
She turned and started heading back for the exit.
“Daina, wait!” Eli called, hurrying after her.
“Guys!” Jay shouted, but he didn’t need to say anything. They all heard the noise pounding through the air like the thundering of drums. It was the same sound they had heard when the gargoyle had awoken, only amplified to eleven.
Eli turned, despite not wanting to look, and saw that, certainly enough, the remaining gargoyles were stirring.
The word fell out of him like a weight, crashing to the ground with a horrifying finality. As if this were a cue, the creatures shot into motion. Immediately they were diving, jumping, soaring, gliding… filling up the sky with the dark shadow of their flock.
“Run for it!” Eli screamed, and lurched forward to follow his own advice. He had meant for them to run for the base, for cover, but when he turned to look, he noticed that Daina was sprinting through the broken gate.
“Daina, no!” he shouted, skidding to a stop to turn after her.
Gabriel, who was furthest back, also skidded to a stop. He waved Eli on and called, “Go! I’ll watch her!”
“Gabriel!” Aliyah called, and tossed him her shotgun.
He caught it and, to Eli’s surprise, continued the motion into a graceful spin taking him out of reach of a diving gargoyle. He ended the spin by raising the weapon and firing it straight into the creature’s back. It crumbled just like the first one had, and about as quickly. Gabriel ran on past.
“Look out!” Jay shouted, tackling Eli to the ground. A gargoyle swooped by, its claws ripping at the area where Eli’s head had been just moments before. He had been so caught up in watching Gabriel, he had forgotten to keep any eye out for danger.
“Thanks, man,” he said, pushing himself to his feet. Together, they rejoined the others in a mad dash for the front doors of the base.
Mac got there first. He tried the door but it was locked. He raised his gun and aimed it straight for the lock.
“No!” Eli shouted, just as Mac pulled the trigger.
The lock blasted off and Mac grabbed the handle and pushed the door open. He held the door and looked to Eli. “You were saying?”
Eli scowled and said, “Whatever! Just get inside.”
The group needed no further encouragement. They pushed on through, and into the darkness beyond.