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Authors: Tara Quan

Catching Red

BOOK: Catching Red
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 Catching Red

Undead Fairy Tales, 2

Tara Quan

Published 2014

ISBN: 978-1-62210-084-2

Published by Liquid Silver Books, imprint of Atlantic Bridge Publishing, 10509 Sedgegrass Dr, Indianapolis, Indiana 46235. Copyright © Published 2014, Tara Quan. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the author.

Manufactured in the United States of America

Liquid Silver Books

http://LSbooks.com

This is a work of fiction. The characters, incidents and dialogues in this book are of the author’s imagination and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events or persons, living or dead, is completely coincidental.

Blurb

Scarlet “Red” Ryding is on a mission. To prevent mass suicide, she must fulfill her grandmother’s evil wishes and return posthaste. With knives in hand, she dives headfirst into an abandoned hospital full of zombies. But after getting trapped within, she is forced to accept help from the world’s most dangerous predator—a man.

Covert Agent Marcus Woodsman received strict instructions against interfering in the affairs of nomads. As a spy for the Federal Military Agency, his mandate is to observe and report. But when he finds a little redhead caught in the center of a brain-eater swarm, conscience compels him to put his ax to good use. By the time he realizes this smart-ass scout comes equipped with a world of trouble, it’s too late—he would do anything to keep her safe.

As Red and her Woodsman work together to survive undead, brave a snowstorm, and bring down an evil cult, they learn to laugh, love, and fight for happiness. The second book in Tara Quan’s Undead Fairy Tales series,
Catching Red
is a post-apocalyptic thriller with a happily ever after.

Dedication

To everyone I’ve hung out with in our own concertina wire-surrounded fortress. It was a better year than I could have ever imagined.

Chapter 1

Scarlet Ryding felt the smooth pad of her grandmother’s thumb against her chin—one of the few parts of her face not covered in blood. Head wounds bled more than any other, and a metal cane had just crashed into her forehead. Women of all ages gathered around the Circle. The oldest was a matron in her eighties. The youngest was a girl of four. A lesson from years past echoed through her fading consciousness.
The ritual of punishment is a dual blade. The offender’s suffering brings satisfaction, but the audience’s fear is a prize beyond compare.

From Scarlet’s kneeling position on the hard ground, the two leaders of the Women’s Independent Territories Church filled her vision. Theirs was an alliance of ambition and kindred souls. Mother Gothel had killed many to become a Prophet in her followers’ eyes. Eleanor Ryding’s hands were stained by madness and blood. But on the outside, two women couldn’t seem more different.

Mother Gothel had a burnt hole where her left eye had once been. Her one eyeball was in constant motion and glinted with maniacal paranoia. Scars crisscrossed her shriveled cheeks. A healed gash bisected her mouth to create four uneven gray globs of flesh. Her body was so large she needed a cane to hobble around. Her fingers were gnarled. A web of veins and dark spots covered the backs of her hands. She often boasted about how her appearance once inspired outsiders to call the church using the acronym W-I-T-CH. When the abbreviation seeped into internal lexicon, she embraced the usage with gusto and incorporated it into her sermons.

Scarlet’s grandmother encapsulated serenity. Though she approached seventy, Eleanor’s wrinkled face was still the color of porcelain. She seemed to glide from one place to another with her back ramrod straight and her lips perpetually curved into a facsimile of a smile. Her pure white hair was coiffed into a neat bun at her nape. Her bright green gaze shone with quiet confidence. Even though Scarlet’s vision was hazed by blood, she couldn’t help but respect the quiet power her forebear wielded. Without Eleanor’s calming presence by the Prophet’s side, the WITCH would have disassembled long before Scarlet was born.

“You disobeyed a direct order.” Her grandmother’s carrying voice seemed to convey pity. The woman had a talent for feigning emotions she didn’t feel. Over the years, Scarlet often wondered if Eleanor was capable of empathy at all.

And even though she hated her grandmother with every fiber of her being, even though she grew up witnessing the price paid for a flawed utopia that reeked of death and unfulfilled dreams, she couldn’t snuff out the glimmer of respect planted the day Eleanor forced her to venture outside the WITCH’s walls. This haven was her creation. In a wasteland where undead roamed, in a world where all women were prey, the WITCH kept them safe. With land mines and concertina wire, concrete barriers and roving patrols, she maintained an impenetrable border against the reanimated corpses of a bygone age. Lush fields and ample water allowed for an existence beyond survival. Only here did babes live long after birth. Only behind these walls could young girls laugh and play.

Though the Prophet’s charisma engendered worship, though her cult of personality gave this settlement its beginning, Eleanor spun the web that strengthened their iron grip. Impulsive and impatient, Mother Gothel was incapable of planning or manipulation. Left to her own devices, WITCH members would have rebelled or fled. Instead, they dogged her footsteps in blind devotion.

Eleanor had an uncanny understanding of the human pathos. She used it to instill an obeisance that went beyond fear. Her scripture turned prisoners into their own wardens. Her words blinded most from the puppet strings guiding their every move. And when the select few saw past this mirage and yearned for more, her ruthlessness stomped out dissent long before it had any chance of catching fire.

Scarlet cried out as a burst of pain bloomed over her ribs. Her muscles seized. Cold sweat mixed with blood; droplets traveled down and coated her eyelashes. Dark patches in her vision warned of an impending collapse. Mother Gothel’s cane shouldn’t have caused much damage, but Scarlet’s torso was covered in bruises and shallow cuts. Having grown old and weak, the Prophet used her elite guard to prepare each prisoner for their appearance in the Circle. The prestaged wounds were in areas obscured by clothing. To the untrained eye, her ability to inflict injury would seem undiminished.

Scarlet could sense the crowd’s excitement. She remembered standing among them. Her small hand had been clasped against her mother’s clammy palm. In a faraway voice, Mary had explained why public executions were necessary. Blood triggered a rush of adrenaline. The prospect of death added excitement to the monotony of everyone’s lives. Without these displays there would be dissent within the ranks. Pent-up frustration could disrupt the harmony inside the WITCH’s walls.

But not all the faces Scarlet saw today were colored by bloodlust. She had grown up with these women. Over the years, she had brought them food, medicine, clothing, and tools. She joined them for the harvest every summer. Threads of memory bound every member of this community together, and not all were the puppets her grandmother believed them to be.

Keeping her voice just above a whisper, Scarlet directed her defense at the WITCH leader she hoped was still sane. “I would do almost anything for you. Letting Angie die in an undead pit wasn’t one of them. Please, Grandmother…”

Eleanor shook her head and answered at a volume meant for all to hear. “Your sister tried to escape. Her punishment fit the crime.”

Mother Gothel’s cane landed on Scarlet’s stomach. She slumped to the ground. Her hissed reply was barely audible. “Angie’s only fault was not wanting to repeat our mother’s life. You knew she loved Michelle. You knew she couldn’t bear the thought of being tied down and impregnated by a stranger.”

Scarlet killed her first undead when she was eight. She could still remember her mother’s pitiful howl as she and Angela were shoved through the Circle’s gates. Mary wept, falling to her hands and knees to beg forgiveness. But defying orders came with a cost.

Scarlet’s mother was given the task of breeding. After Mary gave birth to two healthy daughters, all her subsequent offspring were deemed unacceptable. They disappeared into the ground one after the other.

That night, Mary attempted to escape with her newborn. Still weak from labor, she was easily captured. For her defiance, the Prophet deemed it necessary to remind her of what Scarlet and Angela would face without the WITCH’s protection.

The sounds the monster made as it thrashed over the sand, her sister’s screams echoing in the dark night, an image of the creature, illuminated by a sliver of light from the moon above, was seared into Scarlet’s memory. The undead was missing its lower half. What was left of its torso was covered in gashes that oozed thick black liquid. The smell of mold, mud and rotting cloth made her stomach turn. Remembering the night still coated her tongue with the sour taste of vomit.

Her grandmother had tossed a knife over the chain-link fence. Scarlet scampered over the sandy ground to close her hand around the cold handle. Just like she practiced in study sessions, she lunged and embedded the blade into the undead’s face.

Eleanor’s breath brushed Scarlet’s earlobe, jolting her back to the present. “We all endure fates we don’t think we can bear. That idiot child was fit for no other purpose. She couldn’t shoot. She couldn’t fight. She was too weak to plow fields and too stupid to learn a more complex trade. Carrying a child was the only way she could contribute to what I’ve spent a lifetime building.”

The statement was a half-truth, though Scarlet wondered if Eleanor knew it. Her grandmother’s hatred for her own offspring was so deep-seated it spilled over to her grandchildren. The more Mary suffered, the more elated Eleanor became. Scarlet’s value lay in her ability to fill her mother’s eyes with tears. “Angie cared for the children. She loved them. They loved her. She knew how to teach them. She made them smile.”

“A commendable skill,” her grandmother murmured, “but one neither useful nor necessary in the world we now live in. Our members grow old. They will soon die. More than anything, we need new blood.”

Eleanor’s emerald eyes were the exact color of Scarlet’s own, yet the way they saw the world couldn’t be more different. “You didn’t need Angie to birth them. Even if she gave you a great granddaughter, she would never have survived the process with her mind intact. You made a mistake. It drove her away.”

The woman shook her head as her face contorted to project false regret. “The only one who has made a mistake is you.”

When her grandmother rose, Mother Gothel hobbled over to her side. Clasping the Prophet’s hand, Eleanor addressed the crowd. “The Prophet demands absolute obedience. You are all equals in the eyes of Mother Gothel and I. You are our children and our grandchildren. Just because this girl has my blood doesn’t mean she can defy us without penalty. For the crime of setting two prisoners free, Scarlet should be sentenced to death. But we have now confirmed those she tried to save perished in the wastelands. Mother is our God. Her eyes fall upon the corrupted, and she moves to smite all who stray from the righteous path.”

A murmur went through the spectators as tears burned paths down Scarlet’s cheeks. She had gambled and lost. The price of failure was two more lives. The pain of losing her sister made it difficult to breathe. What happened to her now seemed inconsequential.

The Prophet’s voice felt like sandpaper as her words slithered into Scarlet’s awareness. “Since Mother has seen fit to correct this child’s mistake, I will offer her one last chance at absolution. She must leave us now and come back sixty-six days hence with an offering. If she returns with a pack full of medicine, I will accept her into the fold once more. All will be forgiven and forgotten. If she fails, both her life and that of her addled mother will be forfeit.”

The last of Scarlet’s strength drained away. Born too close to power, she was one of the few who knew of a world beyond the WITCH. Soon after she turned sixteen, her grandmother summoned her to the Prophet’s tower. There she received an assignment few members knew was in play. While she realized scouts existed, the possibility of becoming one had never dawned. Young recruits were considered too mutable to be allowed free rein in the outside world. They were tasked as fieldworkers, mechanics, roving patrols, and snipers. None were permitted to set foot outside the church’s walls.

But her grandmother had been certain Scarlet would never dare stray from her assigned tasks—would never dream of shirking her duties to seek another life. As the Prophet’s confidante, Eleanor wielded absolute power. The lives of Scarlet’s mother and sister were subject to her whims. If Scarlet betrayed the WITCH, those she loved would pay the ultimate price.

With a pair of knives sheathed against her lower back, she walked into the undead wastelands with little hope of return. Her knees shook so hard they almost buckled. Her grandmother didn’t expect her to survive. Scarlet had been too young, small, and weak. Scouts with more training than her either disappeared or came back with fatal injuries.

BOOK: Catching Red
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