Authors: R.G. Westerman
Book One in the Rising Ash Saga
by R.G. Westerman
Robert H. Westerman
Thanks for fixing my computer.
For everything, always.
Copyright © 2016
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, events, are products of the author's imagination or used on a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to any persons, living or dead, or events is purely coincidental.
Tension burns in my arm as I take aim, lowering my gaze into the scope. I have been waiting up in this tree for about an hour and finally something edible crosses my sights. Across from me on the far tree branch, the squirrel pauses, twitching its tail as if to taunt me. I take a slow breath, careful to keep my balance.
Seconds pass and the arrow flies from the crossbow hitting the mark, sending it tumbling into the underbrush. Small black birds erupt in a flurry from the brambles. I sit up straddling the branch and adjust the bow around to my back before I swing down, my feet finding the rocky ground.
The grass-grown gravel road curves through the field up ahead, dotted with a smattering of wet red leaves. I take a few labored steps towards the shadowed brick shelter up ahead, my legs sore from sitting in the tree for so long. Ivy and vines drape the trees in a chaotic tangle, grown over and filling the air with the scent of rotting wood.
I estimate there to be only a few hours of sunlight left. There is not much to accomplish for the day except to prepare and eat the parcel which I have just won. The meat will go a small way towards filling my stomach, but it is better than nothing. At least, the shelter up ahead would make a good place to settle in for the night. Careful of my steps I skirt around the edges of the swamp, doing my best to stay undercover.
I have not seen a zombie in several hours. Even in my mind, I feel silly calling them that. The word sounds like something out of a story told long ago, a fairy tale from childhood, but these things, these creatures, living while yet dead and rotting, are all too real. I saw one a few miles back, crouching over the carcass of the yearling deer at the side of the road. That was a real shame. There would have been a lot of good meat on that deer.
I break through the underbrush, grab the arrow containing my night's meal and head towards the shelter. Having a means of hunting in which I could retrieve my ammo made life a great deal simpler in this world. Bullets, with their awkward explosive noise, always drew unwanted attention.
The storm clouds threaten to take over the sky, and fat rain drops begin to splatter against the ground. I pick up my pace, quickly ducking into the wooden door of my shelter. Once inside I can relax my senses, something I still find difficult even after all these years. I do not expect to see any more of them for a while, as they tend to disappear when it rains. I leave the wooden door open, glad that I already have wood for a fire gathered on the dirt floor, at least enough to warm the small space and cook my food.
I nudge one of the branches with the black leather toe of my boot, before crouching to start the fire. Before long I have the squirrel stripped and roasting on the spit leaning into the flickering yellow flames. I glance around, taking another quick assessment of the surroundings.
The shelter perches at the end of a row of brick houses alongside the back yard area of a much larger house, which possesses white columns and tall glass windows. I settle in at the doorway watching the storm clouds roll by overhead. Better to wait it out than to get caught in the rain closer into the city where shelter would be hard to come by. Here I can remain clear of any intrusions.
The scent of roasted meat fills the small space and my mouth waters in response. I tend to the fire and turn the makeshift spit, glad of the small amount of warmth generating from the source. I still have a small pouch of beef jerky left over from the last supply run, but that is the last of it. The yellow flames illuminate the space enough to cast shadows of the small cot and table lining the walls. Despite the presence of a wooden chair, I remain sitting on the floor, turning to face out and watch the falling rain darkening the patch of green grass outside my small hovel. I cannot see much beyond the hulking house ahead of me, but I know I have a secure vantage point in case anything approaches.
The fire sputters and a flame flairs up as grease drops into the fire. Exhaustion creeps up on me, my shoulders and legs aching from the day's activities. I pull off my boots, followed by the damp socks, laying them out to dry and stretching my bare toes towards the meager warmth of the flame.
I decide the squirrel has cooked long enough and I pull it from the fire. My fingers singe as I attempt to pluck off pieces of the dark meat, but my stomach wins out. I know I need to replenish my supplies, but being this close to the city it will not be difficult to complete a supply raid in the next few days.
Carefully cleaning each bone and examining the carcass to make sure I am not missing a single morsel, my stomach calms its rumbling protest, satiated at last. I reach over and pull the heavy door closed as the darkness sets in. This will give me some amount of security during the night. Nothing can get in. That much is certain. Regardless, I pull the cot over in front of the door before I settle in. I toss a handful of dirt over the dying fire and Curl up against the wall on the far side of the fire, falling asleep to the constant rain tapping against the wooden rooftop outside.
I wake to the sound of scratching around the door. The thin tendrils of dawn reach underneath the strip between the door and the damp floor. I immediately reach for my crossbow as I roll onto my feet. The instant adrenaline rush pushes me into full wakefulness, and I realize the sound, the slow scritching of mindless movements, is coming from a zombie outside.
For the moment I am safe, locked inside this shelter, so I take a moment to pull on my boots and locate my knives. The barricade of the cot against the door stayed in place through the night, but the creature beyond the door is blocking my only means of escape.
The first thing I do is to move, slowly and quickly, over to the window. It is long since painted shut, but I try it regardless. Stuck fast. From this vantage point, I do have a clear view of the front of the mansion. The angle does not allow me to see the creature, but I can see the large staircase leading up to the wide concrete porch framed by the tall white columns. I press as far to the right as I can, trying to gain a clearer view. My small movements are met with an increase in motion from the creature outside.
At the top of the staircase, I catch sight of a woman crouching with her back pressed up against the stately doorway of the mansion. A young boy clings to her. Even through the small distance between us, I can see the terrified look in both of their faces.
They stay frozen in place, their faces caught in grimaces of terror. The woman has her arms wrapped around his shoulder, holding his head against her chest. His glassy eyes gaze wildly towards the front door of my small shelter.
She glances towards me, her trembling eyes cutting towards my movement in the window. The boy keeps his gaze fixed on the thing in front of my shelter. For as far as I see, the grassy landscape around rolls into the distance without a sign of another one of them.
This one is alone. For now.
I have no way to get a viable shot on it. I cannot see it from the window. With some resignation, I know what I have to do. There is no other way. I place the crossbow on the bed and reach down to the knives inside my boots. With a blade in each hand, I move to the center of the room, pausing to listen. It shuffles back and forth, scraping its rotted, tattered shoes along the concrete floor. At least, it is staying away from the boy and the woman.
I take a deep breath.
First, I slowly pull back the cot, scooting it out of the way with a loud scrape against the concrete. My fingers fumble with the small latch at the door. The ancient property has not been lived in for ages. I can only hope the door swings open in one motion. With one last breath, I tighten my grip around the handle of my knife and pull the door open.
Jumping back, I give myself enough space while the creature advances on me. In this small room, the sickly sweet stench of rotting flesh is nearly overpowering. It comes at me slowly and steadily; I circle around trying to keep the space between us. I have seen them often enough, the dead eyes, the rotting skin. This one has a flap of pink flesh hanging from its face and exposing the bone white jaws, teeth jutting from black ichor. The creature emits a small growl, nothing more than a gurgle deep in the back of its throat.
I leap forward and swipe at the creatures face looking to gain purchase with my blade. I miss and it lunges towards me, teeth clamping dangerously close to my forearm. In my periphery I see the woman, staring at me with increased horror, clutching more fiercely to the boy. Her mouth forms a small circle, drawn tight against her teeth.
She nears panic.
If they make a sound and draw his attention, there is no guarantee that I can take him down before he gets to them. I need to dispatch this thing quickly. This one seems slow so far, but I have seen them exhibit bursts of speed without warning. Hopefully, the small space can work in my favor.
I lunge again swinging my knife with careful aim.
Right through the eyeball.
The knife lands without much fanfare, just a small squishy sound. When I pull the knife out the creature collapses at my feet, no longer a danger to me or anyone else in this world. I grab the crossbow, slinging it over my shoulder on my way out the door.
I see the woman's face collapse in relief. The threat is gone.
I leave the creature, stepping over it carefully. Once outside I clean the viscera off my knife blade, wiping it against the ground and placing it back in the sheath.
“You two okay?” I call over to them.
She does not answer right away but gives a short quick nod.
“It's alright,” I say as I walk over towards them, careful to keep my shoulders relaxed. Just because I removed the danger does not mean they see me as an ally. Besides, I learned a long time ago that approaching new people always poses a risk. The irony remains, even though every stranger could be a threat, it is safer to run with a group than alone. I pause at the bottom of the stairs, hands up and front of me with my palms out.
The woman stands and pulls the boy to his feet. He looks like he might be about seven years old. They both appear frightfully thin. I smile when I catch his eye, raising my hand in a small wave.
“Where are the two of you headed?” I ask.
She does not answer right away. They both stand there watching me with obvious suspicion. I need to get her talking.
“I'm headed into town myself,” I continue. “Heading in on a supply run.”
I reach behind me to my backpack and pull out the last scrap of jerky, literally the last piece. As if approaching a wild animal, I hold the food out to the little boy as I step up onto the first step. He eyes the food with rapt focus but glances up at her. She gives a slight nod, barely visible before he quickly snatches it from my outstretched hand.
“What's your name?” I ask, keeping my eyes on him.
He does not speak. She does. “My name is Rachel,” she says. “This is Marcus.”
“Ash,” I reply. “We need to take shelter quickly. Where there is one like that it usually means more are coming. We need to get under cover and move on after they pass us by.”
I did not want to say so, but as soon as the loner went down I sensed the shift in the air. A horde approaches. A big one, within a few miles at most. Rachel nods, clutching the boy close to her.
“We've seen them before,” she says. “We're traveling East towards the ocean. There were five of us, but the car got overrun a few miles back. Marcus and I are the only ones who got out.”
“I'm sorry,” I say quietly.
She nods, but her stiff expression shuts down any more discussion of it.
“The ocean,” I continue. “What's there?”
“Don't know. Some say it's safe there. Clean of any infection.”
I turn and scan my eyes over the horizon. The highway cuts through the rolling hillsides. They will be here soon. We need to move quickly.
She turns to me, looking me over in a quick examination. I keep my eyes away, glancing to the ground in hopes that she cannot read my expression.
“How old are you, Ash?” she asks. “If you don't mind me asking. You can't be much older than...”
“Fifteen,” I say hitching the straps of my crossbow around my torso. “According to last count, I'm fifteen.”
I turn away from her shocked expression, facing towards the hilly valley just past the freeway. The shift in the air is so subtle that I cannot even pinpoint the movement in the trees or the distant sound that I know only I can hear. I gesture for the two of them to remain silent. Beyond the sound of the birds and the rustling of leaves, I hear them.
“We don't have much time,” I say.