Chapter 53: The World's End
They drove on for the rest of the day, putting as much distance between themselves and the town they were leaving behind as possible. When darkness started to fall, they found the first concrete building they could and barred themselves inside. They passed another mostly restless night in this manner until morning came and they could be on their way again.
Eli tried several times to find ways to comfort Amber, but she mostly did her best to keep away from him. When they stopped for the night, she made it a point to lock herself away in a separate room from him. In the morning, she was up before he was and already packed and waiting by the car before everyone else. She barely even responded to him talking to her beyond the occasional grunt or motion of her head. Even simple single word responses were a big response for her for the next forty-eight hours as they traveled north and east.
They continued traveling back roads as much as possible, avoiding all big cities, dodging around Tennessee almost entirely to avoid both Memphis and Nashville, despite Jay’s instance that they could use a morale booster by going to something like Graceland or Dollywood. Nobody else seemed too eager to agree. They were all still reeling from the sudden loss of two of their group, and they were all clearly responding to the loss in different ways.
It wasn’t until late in the third day that they finally realized they were in sight of the Appalachians. They pulled off the road in a small town and walked up to the second story of a motel to look out at the view.
“I thought they’d be… bigger,” said Eli.
“They’re not exactly small,” Aliyah commented.
“I guess. They just… they look more like really big hills than mountains.”
“It’s probably good everyone around here is undead,” said Amber. “They probably wouldn’t be very happy to hear you insult their mountains.”
Aliyah stood straight and yawned. “It’s not important. We should get some sleep so we can get an early start tomorrow.”
Aliyah and Amber took one room, while Eli, Jay, and Gabriel took a third. They used furniture from the other rooms on the floor to barricade the doors, but trusted that they were finally far enough away from the werewolves to not worry about needing to sleep in what amounted to concrete bunkers. In this area, they figured they didn’t have much to worry about other than zombies.
They got on the road with the first light of dawn. However, they quickly discovered that the mountains had been deceptively distant. What Aliyah had thought would be a short journey proved to be a seemingly endless journey through thick woods down winding streets. They kept turning through long loops to go around someone’s property that had probably not changed in size or scope since long before the roads had been put into place. By the early afternoon they had only just manage to crest the top of one of the mountains, though from their vantage point they could not even tell. Frustrated and tired, they stopped for a brief rest break.
Everyone exited the vehicle and stretched their legs, and one by one they wandered off into the woods to relieve themselves. Eli was the first back and he stood around the vehicle waiting for the others and running through a series of stretches. He saw Amber returning and gave her a hopeful look, but as soon as she noticed him she quickly crossed to the far side of the SUV and out of his line of sight. Eli let out a sigh of frustration, crossed his arms, and leaned back against the vehicle.
When Jay and Aliyah returned they pulled out some food and ate a little, but they were all growing uncomfortable with remaining in the same place for too long.
“Where the hell is Gabriel?” Aliyah demanded after a few minutes.
As if on cue, they heard a noise in the thicket nearby. They all quickly dropped their food and raised their weapons, ready for an attack.
Gabriel stumbled out of the woods, looking a little red-faced and frantic. He noticed them and raised his hands in surrender. “Don’t shoot!”
“Where the hell have you been?” demanded Aliyah.
Gabriel motioned them over. “Come quick,” he said. “I found something.”
They all exchanged suspicious glances, but quickly followed him into the woods. He led them not along a path, but simply across uneven ground, over fallen trees and around large ditches, until Eli couldn’t help but wonder how the hell he knew where he was going or how to get back. Despite his concerns, however, Gabriel was quickly able to lead them to a small cliff set into the mountain side, just beyond the tree line.
“There,” he said, pointing out past the cliff at the valley below.
It took everyone a moment to see what he was talking about. From all they could tell, it was just more trees stretching out into what seemed almost like forever. Eli was shaking his head in confusion when he finally noticed something. What he had initially thought was just trees swaying in the breeze had to have been something else entirely. There was something just a little bit too irregular about the movements he could detect. He squinted and leaned forward, trying to get the best view he could manage. It finally clicked.
“Zombies,” he said.
“Lots of zombies,” agreed Gabriel.
Eli let his eyes roam throughout the valley, and as he did he felt his heart sink. “Dear Lord,” he said. “There must be millions of them out there.”
“Safe bet this is where we need to go, then,” Aliyah said.
Jay scoffed. “You serious?”
“She’s right,” Eli answered, nodding his head. “If the vampires have control over the zombies, then it makes sense that where the most vampires are gathered, so too will be the most zombies. They’re drawing them all in.”
“Well, I’m out,” said Jay, throwing his hands up and starting away. “See ya.”
Jay paused and turned back. “Look, pal, you saw the same video I did. That cave was dangerous enough before there was the world’s largest army of zombies guarding it like some undead Great Wall of China.”
“More like the Qin Shi Huang army,” said Eli
“What?” snapped Jay, but quickly thought better of it. He sliced his hands through the air as if trying to strike out the comment. “Nevermind. Whatever. Forget I asked. My point is, there’s no way we’re getting through that out there. And even if we somehow magically do get through it, then we still have the world’s most dangerous spelunking to do. It’s too much. It’s just way, way too much. We got those blood samples. We’re just gonna have to hope they’re enough and that Paul can use them to find a cure.”
“I hate to say it, but Jay might actually be right,” said Gabriel.”
“Might?” echoed Jay in disbelief, his voice shrill and whiney.
“If Paul can find some treatment for the zombie-ism, then he can, basically, inoculate us from becoming zombies. In which case, it would make journeying through that mass down there a lot less dangerous.”
“They could still just eat us,” argued Jay. “Which is really what they want to do, anyway.”
“Maybe we could find an abandoned military base, and, I dunno, steal a tank or something. Or several tanks,” Aliyah suggested.
There was silence for a long moment, and Eli let out a sigh. “You know what?” he said. “You guys do what you want. Run back to the base. To Paul. To some tanks. Whatever. Go home. That’s fine. Probably the best chance we have is actually for just a single person to sneak on in there. The group those zombies would definitely detect, but a single person? I could probably give them the slip, get in the cave, and kill the bastards responsible for all of this. Go ahead and leave. I don’t care. I’ll do this myself.”
“Eli, wait,” Aliyah said, grabbing him by the arm as he started to turn away. “You’re being unreasonable.”
He tried to pull free, albeit unsuccessfully. “Let go,” he growled. “I don’t care.”
Amber walked straight up to him and slapped him in the face. Everyone froze in stunned shock, especially Eli, who regarded her with eyes the size of silver dollars.
“Why the hell are you trying so hard to get yourself killed?” she demanded.
Eli opened his mouth to respond, but realized he didn’t have an answer for her, and shut it again.
“Ever since I first met you, you just keep throwing yourself into situations way over your head. It’s like you’re just looking for the one that gets you in too deep. Why do you want to die so bad?”
“I… I don’t,” Eli protested. “I’m not trying to die.” His words sounded flat and hollow, even to him. “I’m… I’m trying to save the world.”
“Look around you!” Amber snapped, swinging her right arm in a wide arc at the valley stretched out below them. “The world is already lost, Eli. There’s nothing left to save.”
Eli’s face reddened, and he opened his mouth to argue back, though it was a minute before he could make any noise beyond just a few incomprehensible squeaks. “If you feel that way, why the hell did you come?”
“To keep you alive, you idiot!” Amber slammed her hands palm first into Eli’s chest, forcing him to stumble back a few steps. “Don’t you get it? That’s all that’s left. For those few of us who are still alive to stay that way. Isn’t it bad enough that we lost Daina? Should the rest of us die just so you can… what? Prove yourself to me? You’re not proving anything to me, Eli. I’m never going to feel that way towards you. Not ever.
“But we need you. We need you alive and with us so that you can help us fight for our survival. So you can help us dig life out of the dirt and struggle and make it, and maybe, just maybe, one day there will be enough of a civilization left that would be worth trying to save.
“Or… or we’ll just fade into the folds of history. Maybe it just really is the end of the world, and this is simply the point where we’re finally just supposed to pack it in and let go. Who knows? But we might as well find out. Together. Just come back with us, Eli. Let this end.”
Eli’s face was hard, a rictus of overwhelming emotion, and it looked like he was fighting back tears. He didn’t know what to say, but he fought for words, anyway.
“Amber… I… I just… I don’t know…”
He never got to finish.
Suddenly, Jay was between them, grabbing them both by the shoulders and pointing to the distance. “Look!” he yelped. “Look!”
They turned and looked. In the distance, a dark cloud was forming along the horizon. It seemed to be moving and billowing with surprising rapidity in their direction.
“Rain?” asked Amber, confused.
Eli’s jaw fell open as his vision cleared enough to realize what he was looking at.
“Gargoyles,” he said.
“No,” whispered Aliyah.
They all stood there, frozen in terror, until the cloud had reached close enough to start dividing into individual shapes, and those shapes quickly formed into clear, distinctive patterns. There could be no doubt. Eli was right.
“Run,” said Gabriel. For a long moment, nobody moved. “RUN!”
This time, he didn’t wait. Following his own directions, before he was even done shouting the word, he turned and began to flee back in the direction they had come. The activity seemed to wake the others, and they, too, quickly turned and followed hot on his heels.
They flew through the trees as quickly as their legs would take them. As they ran, a terrible cacophony resounded in the air around them: the sound of a thousand semi-concrete wings thundering through the skies. They all immediately ducked for whatever cover they could find as the creatures flew past the treetops above them. Not a single gargoyle swooped down to grab at them, nor did any eerie siren of alarm sound from the creatures. After a moment, they were gone, so the group ran on.
“Considering all the new information,” Eli called out when they came in sight of the car, “I’m beginning to think that, at the very least, a tactical retreat is in order.”
“Good call,” Amber bit out sarcastically, as she threw open the passenger side door and climbed up into the SUV.
Within a matter of seconds they were all inside the vehicle. Aliyah fired the engine to life and slammed her foot down on the gas as soon as she pulled it into gear.
Unfortunately, the SUV was not the ideal vehicle for a quick u-turn, but Aliyah was quick on the draw, and it only added a few extra seconds for her to pull a three-point turn and get faced back southwest and away.
She gunned the engine, and they roared off down the road.
“Do you think they saw us?” Jay asked, leaning over the back seat to try and get a view at what little of the skyline he could glimpse through the trees.
“No idea,” Amber called back to him.
They rode on in silence for a long while, everyone’s eyes glued to the windows and the skies beyond, waiting for even the slightest sign of the gargoyles approaching. They drove on, tense and nervous, for several minutes before anyone dared to breath.
“Maybe… we’re okay?” said Jay.
“I don’t see anything,” agreed Amber.
Eli turned back to the others, nodding his head. “I guess they didn’t see us,” he said, breathing a noticeable sigh of relief. “And, I suppose…”
That was as far as he got, as the next moment, there was the sound of something heavy impacting hard against metal. Eli’s view helicoptered wildly out of control, and then everything went black.