We made our way through the department store, walking up a frozen escalator and out into the main part of the mall, without spotting a single zombie. As far as I could tell the place hadn’t been infested with the dead. There were none of the telltale signs--no blood, no human remains strewn about, no smell of rotting death and decay. It seemed totally impossible, but the mall was clean. The stores were all open, but shrouded in darkness.
Above us a clear panel skylight allowed rays of the sun to illuminate our path. Birds flapped around over our heads, going back and forth between stores on the second level. My stomach growled as we marched past the food court toward an exit on the other side of the mall, passing a Wetzel’s Pretzel.
That’s just what I needed to see, I thought. I’m freaking starving. I’d have killed a hundred zombies for a pretzel right then and there and stacked the bodies into neat piles for our not so friendly new friends.
“Can’t we stop and check to see if there is anything edible?” Benji was as hungry as I was. Maybe more since he’d just come down from drinking the blood of the Lamb.
“There’s no electricity,” I said. “Which means the food’s all spoiled anyway. Besides, if we did find anything we’d have to prepare it. We’ve got hunters on our trail. We don’t have time to stop and cook.”
“The smell would lead them right to us,” Felicity added in a soft voice.
“She’s right,” I said. “Our best hope is to head to the coast like I said and hope we lose them along the way. For now we’ve got to at least stay ahead of them.”
“We can’t go forever without eating,” Benji pouted.
What’s wrong with this kid, I thought? We’re being hunted down like wild animals and he is crying about missing his juice box at snack time?
Benji was usually pretty easy going. I chalked it up to the trauma of the accident and being grabbed by that big zombie. That would be enough to freak anyone out. Still, I hoped he would get it together and not slow us down. Everyone needed to stay focused if we were going to make it out alive and together.
“We’ll find food along the way,” I said.
“What if we don’t?”
“We will. Worst case scenario, we eat at the base. Now stop arguing and hurry up.”
Benji scowled at me. I had become the mean parent. I guess someone had to play the role but that didn’t mean I had to be happy about it.
“Come on,” I said. “I don’t want to argue about this all day.”
I heard a high pitch whistle hum through the air to my left side.
“Xander?” Felicity’s voice sounded off, like she was fighting back tears. I turned in surprise to see an arrow sticking out of her right arm.
“What the hell?”
I walked over and looked at it. It had pierced all the way through the skin under the bone and out the other side. Bright red drops of blood dripped from the barbed tip. I heard another whistle zing right past me before I could comprehend what had happened to her. The second arrow skidded off the shiny stone floor next to me, clattering across the tiles. I looked off in the direction the weapon had come from to see one of the hunters stringing up a third arrow. He smiled at us with black teeth.
“What do we do?” Felicity looked at me with big pleading eyes.
“Run,” I yelled, drawing my sword and holding it out in front of me. Benji and Felicity turned and bolted for the sliding doors at the end of the mall.
The third arrow whirred directly toward my head. I brought my blade up as I ducked and knocked it into a planter between the Orange Julius and Hot Dog on a Stick.
The bowman crouched down to reload just as his buddies came tearing in from the darkness of the department store with their guns drawn.
Arrows are one thing, I thought, but there is no way I’m gonna be able to dodge a bullet.
I turned and ran toward the exit as fast as I could. The sound of gun shots rang out like loud thunder. I didn’t stop. I couldn’t. My lungs burned as I pumped my legs up and down as fast as they would take me until I reached the others.
Benji and Felicity were trying desperately to pry open the heavy glass doors, but with no luck. I joined in on Benji’s side, managing to get them open about an inch. Felicity let out a shrill cry of pain and let go, clutching her wounded arm.
I looked back toward our enemies. They were advancing with their weapons drawn. We were trapped! They fired again and the bullets hit the glass to the left of us. Felicity quivered in fear and slumped down to the floor.
“Are you hit?” I asked, but she didn’t answer. “I said, are you hit?” She shook her head no, unable to speak. She was quivering from head to toe.
She’s probably going into shock, I thought, from the wound the arrow made. Hell, it’s still sticking out of her!
They were less than a hundred feet away now. At this range, their aim was sure to improve.
“We’re going to die in here,” Benji cried. “Do something!”
I turned back to the doors and began to pull with everything I had in me. Benji joined me and the door began to slowly roll back. I could feel all the muscles in my arms and chest burning.
Don’t stop, I told myself. They are depending on you. All of our lives count on it. Pull harder!
I gave out a cry and yanked the doors open a bit more. My arms felt like stretched rubber left out in the hot sun. The muscles were giving out and I was losing my grip.
Another shot rang out and hit the glass mere inches from my head. I am not going to die like this. I can’t! Not after everything we have been through. Not without saying goodbye to Moto.
I stepped between the doors, propping my legs against one side with my back against the other. The doors came open, but the pain in my back and legs was almost unbearable.
“Go,” I yelled in a hoarse voice. “Go NOW!”
Felicity crawled through and Benji followed her.
I turned to see them standing on the sidewalk staring at me.
“Come on,” Benji yelled, trying to pull me through with both hands.
I gave the doors one last push and fell through. A chorus of gunfire erupted from inside the mall as the hunters screamed and wailed at our escape. Several of the shots made it out through the small crack before the doors closed and fully shielded us.
Miraculously, we weren’t hit. My whole body ached and I panted like a wounded animal as I stood back up on trembling, unsteady legs. The hunters pounded on the glass but didn’t try to pull the doors open.
“That’s odd,” I said. “Why aren’t they following us?”
Benji frantically tugged at my arm. I turned around to see the reason why we’d been left alone. A small crowd of about a hundred zombies had begun to wander toward us from across the parking lot. The familiar sound of their unearthly moans and horrible stench reached me at the same time. I fought back my desire to vomit as a breeze sent a wave of decomposing stench over us.
“This is bad,” Felicity said. “We’re trapped. What do we do?”
“Get behind me,” I said, holding up my blade. “We’re going to cut a path to freedom.”
“That’s insane,” Benji cried.
“We’ll never make it,” Felicity added.
“We’ve got no other choice,” I replied, letting out a war cry and charging at the ones closest to us. With a flash of my blade I took off a fat zombie’s head, kicking his rotting body over. It felt like stepping in putty, but I didn’t slow down. Without missing a beat, I brought the sword back across my body to the right with all the force I could manage and took off another zombie’s head with a clean sweep. The rest of the zombie horde didn’t seem to notice my bloodthirsty rampage. They just stepped over their fallen friends and kept coming at us like the mindless killing machines they were.
Swinging in a wild circle, I sliced my way through another, then punched a thin zombie out of my way before freeing my blade from the last victims chest. Dark coagulated blood oozed from the tip of my sword like an oily film of dead pulp. I shook it off and drove the weapon back through the neck of a screeching woman who lunged for me, nearly knocking me over. There were more of them than I had realized. They were reaching me too fast and I was taking too long to kill them. Benji and Felicity were right. This wasn’t going to work. There was no way I was going to be able to fight them all off.
“Xander look out,” Felicity cried as a thickly built male zombie snapped at me teeth first like a rabid dog.
I leaned back just out of his bite radius and felt the horrible chill of his cold breath on my face. He looked like he had been a body builder before being turned, and I was dismayed to discover that he still had the strength of one as he gripped me by the throat and began to squeeze the life out of me, raising me completely off the ground with my feet kicking at the air. I beat my left fist helplessly into his chest to no avail as stars popped in my field of vision.
Felicity screamed at the top of her lungs. I prayed the rest of the horde hadn’t already moved past me and gotten to them. My right arm flailed wildly with my sword still in hand, but I wasn’t able to make a dent in the monster even by hacking chunks of flesh from his back. He pulled me forward toward his open mouth, preparing to tear off the front of my face.
In a last ditch effort I jerked my right arm upward, lodging the sword into his head. I felt his grip loosen but he didn’t relent. He was still making every effort to eat me alive. With all the strength I had left in my already sore muscles, I forced the end of the sword handle down until the blade slowly sliced up and through his brain, removing half of his head and exposing rotten gray matter and more oily black blood in the process. He let me go and fell over with an unsatisfying grunt. I fell to one knee, gingerly touching my neck and gulping in air as fast as I could. I was dizzy but I forced myself back to my feet to continue to fight.
“Come on!” I screamed. “Is that all you’ve got?” Adrenaline pumped through me as I stood back up. I was ready to die fighting but I was going to take down every last one of these creatures before I did.
“Xander, look,” Felicity said as she pointed to the middle of the horde.
A flash of light drew my vision off to the right and I turned to see the strangest thing I’d ever witnessed in my whole life. The zombies turned back on a man who was walking among them. He calmly swung two objects that seemed to be made entirely out of reflected light in a blur around his body. The horde seemed so captivated by him, they had forgotten all about us.
His face was painted like an Indian warrior and he had several crows feathers tucked into his hair. His expression was a mask of calm resolve. He wore a thin layer of chainmail over his upper torso and head and protective metal armor from the waist down to his metallic boots. Light reflected off his mirror polished armor as well as whatever he was using for weapons, giving him the impression that he was glowing almost from head to toe.
I thought of the pictures Moto had once shown me of Shaolin warrior monks.
How is he doing that? I wondered to myself. It’s like he’s somehow able to communicate with them.
The zombies would turn to attack him then stumble back, looking confused and disoriented. Whoever he was, he calmly moved through them like he was taking a stroll through the park on a lazy Sunday afternoon. He might as well have been walking on water as far as I was concerned. He was headed right for us but I didn’t feel any fear. Instead, an indescribable calm began to settle over me at the sight of him, like for the first time in forever everything was going to be all right.
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