The killer of Miles was probably in the town – but he or she could also have been in the woods waiting for an opportunity to kill us. I moved behind the cover of a tree with Alice beside me, clutching her axe.
“I’ll contact Rav,” I told Natasha and Pipa. “Cover me.”
They positioned themselves to protect me as I got on my radio. “Rav, can you hear me?”
“Yes,” he answered from inside the Battle Bus. “What’s up?”
“Bad news. Found one dead man. It’s Miles. He was shot. We’ve got an armed killer in the area. Possibly a Pure Blood.” My radio was only powerful enough to send a signal a couple of miles – but the one on the bus could reach our camp. “Send a message to HQ. Tell them we might have some surviving Pure Bloods here and require support.”
“All right,” he said. “Anything else?”
“Yeah – be ready for an attack.”
I switched my radio to Leroy and Owen’s frequency. “Leroy, Owen, this is Kris. Where are you? Report to me.”
Leroy did not answer immediately – which was not like him.
“Leroy, Owen, report!”
“I’m in position,” Owen said. “I can see into the town. There’s no movement. Nothing. It looks dead down there.”
“Be on the lookout for armed hostiles. We just found a dead civilian. Leroy’s not answering his radio. Can you see him?”
“Uh – hold on a sec. I’ll look.” I waited an agonising minute while Owen used his binoculars. “Uh – no sign of him. Wait. I can see his bike – but he’s not nearby. I think – oh, I can see -”
The radio crackled and whistled.
Again – nothing. His radio had gone dead. I swore.
Pipa scowled. “What’s going on, Kris?”
“I think Owen and Leroy are in trouble. Hell – I don’t think it. I know it. We’re in danger.”
Natasha said something in Russian that had to be a series of swearwords. Then she spoke in English. “The enemy have tactical advantage. We must retreat and wait for support.”
I agreed completely. “Let’s get back to the bus -”
“Hear that?” Alice interrupted. “Somebody is out there hunting us right now.”
Alice wasn’t being paranoid. I had heard something in the woods to my right – the crunch of twigs and rustle of leaves.
I nodded to Natasha and used hand signals to tell her to check it out. She pulled her knife and darted off, disappearing in a heartbeat. She would sneak around behind whoever or whatever was coming without them hearing her. As a child back in Russia, Natasha had hunted bears for food during the harsh winters. I didn’t have to worry about her – but I did worry for the rest of us. We were not in a good defensive position. All we could hide behind were the trees. Pipa and I aimed our crossbows at the source of the sound and listened.
The rustling grew louder.
Something grey between two trees, lit by dappled sunlight. A second later, a lumbering zombie appeared through the gap. There were two more shuffling behind it, staggering like drunks. The closest one was male and in a bad state, even for a zombie. The left side of his body was skeletal and alive with beetles and worms. He must have been lying on the ground for months, decomposing. The other side of his body was fleshy and slimy and covered in lichen and white mushrooms. Disturbed from his semi-hibernated state, he had re-awoken hungry and blind, drawn by the sounds and smell of the living. The two behind him were also blind and decomposed to the point where I could see through their ribcages and tattered lungs. They were sniffing the air and following the first one. Their jaws gnashed. They began moaning.
A year ago the sight of three ravenous zombies would have freaked me out – but I’d adapted to the grisly and disgusting. I wasn’t scared at all. I was relieved it was only three zombies and not a whole horde.
Alice raised her axe – but I held her back. “Don’t. Natasha will take care of them.”
“But I can’t see her,” Alice said.
“Exactly,” I said.
Natasha came up behind the zombies with incredible speed – her knife slamming into the back of their necks, severing their spinal cords in one, two, three fluid strikes. None of the zombies made a noise as they collapsed. Natasha finished them with stabs through their empty eye sockets into their brains, giving each a true death. Her knife glistened with pink and wet brain tissue. She wiped the blade on the ground. “That was satisfying.” She frowned, looking down at the legs of Mushroom Man. There was a deep cut in what remained of his left ankle’s flesh. “This man was shackled,” she said. “Someone released him and the others to attack us.” Natasha grinned. “Did the fools really expect such weak creatures to harm us?”
The zombies had drawn our attention in one direction.
Leaving us vulnerable from behind.
“Watch out!” I said. “It’s a distraction!”
I spun around looking for human targets. There was nothing straight ahead where I looked first – or to my left or right – but I saw something high above my head, something black and green and moving rapidly. It was a camouflaged soldier rappelling from an overhanging tree branch, where I had not seen him hiding.
Yelling a warning, I aimed my crossbow upwards.
But I was too late.
The soldier had already tossed something at my feet. The object looked like a green ball. It bounced and rolled up to me.
Cold fear struck me.
It was a grenade.