It's not that I have anything against druids. It's just that ours has been in a trance for the past five days.
To be honest, I'm not even sure if he's a real druid or if he just likes that title. I personally think he just stumbled across an old book, learned a bit of the secret ways of the world, and called himself something that sounded appropriate. Oh, sure, I'll buy that he walks the old path. I've seen enough strange stuff in my very long lifetime to not believe that. But I just don't think he knows what he's doing most of the time.
It was a shame too. We could use someone that was more connected to the ways of the world right now. Jeremy and I were hunters and Maria, well, there was nothing special about her. She just had guts. Martin was the only one that could read the secret signs and here he was, cross-legged in the middle of his room with head slumped to his chest and still not responding.
"I'm just going to bite him," Jeremy said, prowling about the room, "See if that wakes him up. He always was twitchy around us."
Jeremy is technically older but we stopped counting rank by seniority a while ago. It was a good way to introduce feuds and the vampires had plenty of other problems to deal with.
We shared a large house that had been in the vampire family since its construction, which meant that it was old, drafty, and the water didn't like to remain one temperature all the time. But at least all the windows had long since been boarded up and there was plenty of security for two paranoid vampires that knew for a fact there were vampire hunters out there gunning for them specifically. Long story. We dealt. The two humans in our group complained a lot.
"He's not waking up. Maybe he wandered down the wrong path," I said, leaning against the wall and faking a yawn. "Ask the fairykind if they've seen him."
"I'm not asking them anything. They don't like us."
"Few people do."
Jeremy left the room after that. I listened very carefully and heard him go downstairs. Heard a shriek and the crash of breaking dishes. Maria. He'd startled Maria in the kitchen. We'd have to buy new plates at this rate.
"Bloody hell Jeremy, can't you make some kind of noise when you're stalking around! Bloody vampires."
Maria wasn't British. She just liked to swear like she was.
I sighed and tapped Martin's forehead. He was stripped to the waist and looked vastly unhealthy in the faint light. I smelled blood and knew that he was still living, at least, even if his mind was gone.
"Enjoy your nap," I said, "You're going to miss the fun."
I closed the door behind me.
I had been living with Jeremy for a long time, ever since my mentor cut me loose. We were like brother and sister; the kind that loved each other so long as there was only one chocolate cupcake that had to be shared. Martin came onto the crew because the old ways led him to us. I did some digging and found out that his old roommate had kicked him out after he summoned a water spirit into their bathtub. I'm not sure why he picked vampires next but I suspect it is along the same lines as Maria – thrill-seeking.
"So we've got an infestation of zombies," Jeremy said as I entered the kitchen. Maria was at the table with her sandwich on a paper towel and the broken plate on the floor. She'd been kicked out by the landlord after she blew a hole in the backyard while experimenting with fireworks.
"Down in Newcastle. About an hour south of here," I said. "I can watch the news just as well as you."
Jeremy gave me a pained look. He enjoyed the illusion of being in charge. I settled into a chair.
"Whatever. Either way, the government has requested any non-humans to deal with the threat first since they don't want to risk their fleshy, mortal asses."
"I'm risking my mortal ass."
Jeremy ignored Maria. "Since the vampires are trying to push a protection bill against vampire hunters into Congress it would be a good idea if we were the ones to deal with the zombies. It'll look good, it'll make the other vampires happy, and if we're really lucky the higher-ups might raise our allowance."
When you've been alive since the Civil War you start to grow cynical. Most vampires grew sullen and enigmatic. Jeremy grew sarcastic.
"I need to finish eating and get my gear ready."
Jeremy glanced at the clock.
"That's fine. Tess and I need to feed tonight, anyways. Maria, take the car and meet us at the gas station near the on-ramp an hour after sundown."
She nodded. I turned and walked back upstairs to gather my things. Jeremy followed and paused by the entryway to my room.
"Zombies, eh?" I said.
"Maria almost got infected last time. You going to talk to her?"
"Do we care that much?"
He paused. He'd been thinking this over for a long time, as had I. The zombie virus had escaped from a laboratory almost eight years ago and had yet to be contained. It popped up in seemingly random places and had only one cure. And we were loathe to dispense it.
"Yeah, I think we do. Talk to her."
The first vampires had styled themselves as noble lords and dressed as such with plenty of jewelry and rich fabrics. This distinguished them from the knights and infantry during a battle and after the first few awkward explanations on why they lived even with an arrow through the heart they reconsidered their social status. Later, the vampires returned to the noble and wealthy look as it was now safe to do so and socially acceptable – barely – to remain a recluse in some old mansion and pass along your family fortune to your son who happened to look exactly like you. Now, in the modern area, vampires no longer had to bother hiding their identity. We could dress in tight black leather and play up the sickly gothic look all we wanted.
Mostly though, we just wore jeans and a comfy shirt.
The town pretended that there weren't two vampires living on the outskirts. It was the quiet neighbors who kept to themselves and the children threw rocks at their windows because they were strange. Except we had fangs and the children didn't have any windows that weren't boarded up to break. There were a handful of people in the town I was on good terms with though. They either accepted or ignored my odd dinner habits and on the whole we got along quite well. About half the town tolerated us. The other half hated us. I was doing my best to win them over. Old grandmother Williams had once tried to drive me away by holding up a cross. I'd responded by crossing myself in the Catholic fashion and reciting a prayer in Latin. She was one of the people I was on good terms with now.
Jeremy and I were always very considerate when we fed. There were a handful of people in the town that did not get as angry as others if we ambushed them after sunset. Sometimes we were able to wheedle a favor out of our mortal friends, since vampire attack was a good excuse for calling off from work. We never fed off minors. That had been made illegal many years ago. I was able to surprise someone, a person I vaguely recognized, and after a very brief struggle shoved him to the ground and bit into his neck. They usually gave up when they realized that it was a vampire attacking them and not a mugger. I counted for ten seconds and backed away. Checked his coat for a cellphone, dialed the hospital, and left it ringing by his head. He was still conscious and would have enough coherency to get someone to help him home. For now, I had to go find Maria.
Feeding always left me dizzy. Light-headed. It was a euphoric sensation, listening to stolen blood rustling in my dead body, and I was always hard-pressed to maintain my senses after. The old vampire movies always showed the vampire hunter confronting the vampire right after he fed, at which point a climatic battle ensued. It didn't work that way. The vampire would probably stagger out the nearest window and leave the vampire hunter standing there in confusion.
This was why I was having so much trouble talking to Maria. Our vehicle was a flatbed truck. Maria drove, Jeremy sat in the passengers seat, and I sat in the back with our gear. Right now I was leaning against the cab, my legs stretched out among the guns we brought with us and my head right next to the open back window. Maria had the radio running off of battery.
"Last time we did this you almost died," I said.
She'd gotten caught on the second floor of the town courthouse with her path blocked by zombies. She'd also used up her ammunition. Jeremy had managed to scale a nearby building, jump the distance over onto the roof, and pull her out a window.
"I'll remember to bring more clips this time. You smell of blood."
"We're worried that something might happen. They can't cure you if you get bit, you know."'
"You're also slurring your words."
I grew quiet after that. Like most vampires, I didn't appreciate having my mistakes pointed out to me, even if they were brought on by recently feeding. I never made it to my main point by the time Jeremy arrived.
There were military blockades on the exit ramp to Newcastle. We slowed to a stop and a soldier walked up and announced that the town was under quarantine. Jeremy smiled and said that zombies didn't bother us. After a minute the soldier returned with an officer. Another few moments passed, I looked for constellations in the stars above, and finally they determined that yes, we were indeed vampires, and let us pass. Maria being the obvious exception, but the military rarely looked closer than just Jeremy. After all, who in their right mind would hang out with our kind?
Zombie towns were easy to quarantine. Once the zombie virus took over the brain the infected people would hang around whatever they remembered as home. The few people that were simply passing by would retain the ingrained rule to travel along roads and the military blockades would have a simple task of gunning those down. But the thick of it, the town itself, was a bit too hot for the military to go into without massive risk. That was where all the zombies congregated. They were interesting in that way, retaining bits and pieces of their former lives in their decaying minds, while at the same time gaining an overriding instinct for violence. Some people had surmised that the laboratory the virus originated from was trying to create their own version of vampires. No one confirmed or denied that.
"Maria, stick close to Jeremy," I said through the cab window, "And listen. You need to decide right now what you want done if something goes bad."
"You didn't talk to her yet?" Jeremy asked. He sounded annoyed.
"I tried to," I replied and I sounded annoyed as well. "Maria. What do we do if you get infected?"
"Donate my body to science."
"Very well, but what if there was a cure for the zombie virus?"
She was quiet. Jeremy pulled the car off onto the side of the road and put the parking brake on. There was about five yards to the start of the trees and I eyed those. The town center was directly down this road, about another three miles.
"It's like this," Jeremy said, "How would you feel about a nocturnal lifestyle and a radical change in diet?"
So much for breaking the topic gently. Maria didn't say anything after that so I put a clip in my rifle and put the handgun and knife on my belt. Jeremy tossed the keys in our mortal's lap and hopped out of the car, pulling his own guns out of the back and loading the ammo.
"Half an hour," Jeremy said, "then get to the town center as quickly as you can and wait for us there. See you later, bait."
Jeremy and I both broke into a run towards the town. Vampires were hunters and like any good predator we could move fast and cover a lot of ground in one night. Being dead, we also no longer breathed, and therefore would not get winded over a prolonged sprint.
"There were better ways to handle that," I said as we ran.
"Beat around the bush all evening? Good plan, Tess. Real good plan."
"You could show some sympathy."
"Oh, I forgot. Mortals have feelings. Silly me, seems that part of my brain died with the rest of my body."
"This has nothing to do with being a vampire. It has to do with you're being an insensitive man." That was a low blow but he took it in stride.
"I'm not so sure that Maria qualifies as feminine anymore. I mean, she likes blowing things up and shooting guns. Besides, we already know her choice. Faced with being a zombie or being a vampire it's obvious what she would pick."
"You know, when people say they'd rather die than be a vampire, some of them mean it," I said, and that was the end of it.
Vampires have a high sense of self-preservation. Fortunately, walking into a zombie-infested area was not on the list of things that got vampires killed. Quite the opposite. It always went worse for the zombies. See, zombies honed in on living creatures and hunted by the warmth and breath of life, of which vampires had none of. We were not even on their radar. Sometimes I wondered if they even knew we existed, even when we were destroying them, one by one. This was why the military always asked us to go in first, because a single vampire could single-handedly wipe out an entire zombie infestation if given enough time and ammunition.
There were a couple on our way into town. We slowed to a fast walk and drew the pistols, putting a bullet through the brain of each as we passed. Zombies were difficult to kill because, being dead, they ignored most wounds. A direct shot to the head or spinal column would take them out. Basically, the point was to overwhelm the virus that was keeping them animated and moving. The bodies would be gathered up by the military later and either burned or carted off to a laboratory.
The town had two main streets, lined with old buildings that had been there since the town's founding. Narrow shops with large windows and peeling paint. The power was on and the streetlights were up but the shops remained dark inside. The zombies stood in the streets or shuffled down the sidewalks. Men, woman, and even some children, puffy from the first stage of decay and with vacant gray eyes and that jerky shuffle that came from a not quite functioning nervous system. Jeremy took one street. I took the other. It wasn't a physically demanding business, killing zombies. I would walk up to one, put the pistol to its forehead or the back of the neck, pull the trigger, and move on to the next. Sometimes they would continue to keep walking, even with the pistol holding them back, and I was reminded of a dog that can't quite figure out that it was on a leash. The difficult part of killing zombies was the mental aspect. We're vampires. We feed off of humans to survive. But this was pathetic, this town of people who should have been buried peacefully days ago, who couldn't even realize I was there and that they should fight back. It would have been better if they had. Instead it was just walking up, shooting, and walking away. Like a booth at a carnival. I hated it.
We cleared both streets within half an hour. Then we sat back and waited for Maria.
"I'm nervous doing this without Martin," I said.
"We'll address that later."
"I don't suppose there's anyone else in the state that would know how to get someone out of a trance?"
"Check the phonebook under 'occult' and 'druids' and 'morons who are messing with stuff they shouldn't.'"
Martin was Maria's guardian. He sensed the zombies and could pinpoint where they were coming from before any of us saw them. When using mortals, like Martin and Maria, to lure out the zombies we missed it was very useful to know where they were coming from before they could get close enough to hurt anyone that could get hurt. That was how Maria almost got infected last time; she got separated from Martin. The druid-wannabe could take care of the both of them.
Ten minutes later we heard the car. It sped down the main street, turned and skidded to a stop in the middle of the intersection. Maria turned the engine off and hopped out, climbing into the back and loading her rifle. Jeremy hopped up beside her and I climbed onto the top of the cab, crouching there with my rifle across my knees. Now we waited. The zombies would sense a living being and converge.
"I'll buy ice cream for whoever bags the most," Jeremy said.
"That's awfully biased of you. I can't eat ice cream," I replied.
"Says volumes about who is the better shot then, now doesn't it?"
It took a while for the zombies to show and that made me nervous. It was far easier when they trickled in as ones and twos as we could pick them off with ease. When they took their time it meant they were massing. The other strange phenomena about zombies – hive mind behavior. It didn't happen all the time but when it did it invariably caused problems. Maria was getting antsy.
"So I was thinking, about what you said earlier," she said, "and Jeremy, it's nice that you'd offer. But well, I've, well, I don't want to see my family all die and their children die and their children beyond that."
"You get used to it," I said softly.
"Then why do you have all those pictures on your dresser?"
I stiffened and pretended to be watching the streets. Fine. You don't get used to it. You just find every now and then that you've passed into a new level of dealing with the fact that everyone you once knew is dead. It was little wonder so many vampires became recluses and only communicated with their own kind. Vampirism didn't do much more than stop the heart's pulse.
"Northwest," I said. It was a good thing Maria had made me uncomfortable just then.
"See them," Jeremy confirmed.
A big group, heading our direction. We settled our rifles and started taking pot shots. I estimated there to be about fifty and with them that close together it was hard to miss, even if I was a bad shot. After they got a few yards closer Maria started shooting as well. I couldn't help but note, now that it was pointed out to me, that she was indeed bagging zombies faster than I was. The killing was different from before. This time we had something to protect. There was no remorse.
"We're not going to get them all before they reach the car," Jeremy said. "Maria, are you certain?"
"My body goes to science," she said firmly.
"Fine. Then get in the car and head for the military blockade. We'll keep these off your tail."
I hopped off the cab and dropped to one knee on the asphalt and continued shooting. Took a moment to reload and I heard Maria start the engine up, back the car up, and turn it around towards the highway. But it just sat there and idled. Then Jeremy turned and started shooting in a different direction. I didn't have to look.
"There's another group blocking her way out," I said.
"Of course. I'll hold them off. You go with Maria and try to get her to safety."
There were still two directions left open. None of us knew the terrain but hopefully Jeremy could keep zombies off the truck long enough to get Maria back past the blockade. And I would eliminate the two groups of zombies. They weren't after me, only something mortal.
It turned out that this was all made unnecessary very quickly. A bear came running from behind the northeastern group and started mauling anything that moved. Even the vampires, ancient and used to seeing strange things, were taken off-guard by this very sudden turn of events. For precious seconds I could only stare at the very large and very angry grizzly bear that was currently hurling zombie bits around like so many twigs.
"So, uh," Jeremy said, "I'm not questioning this. Tess, help me open up a path."
I turned and started emptying my clip into the horde. Maria waited for a moment and then gunned the engine. She shot through and opening, tires squealing, and the few zombies that tried to grab hold of the side of the truck were pulled off and chewed on by the bear. By then the group from the northwest had made it to the center of the town and were shuffling off after the vanishing truck. I drew my knife and backhanded the nearest zombie.
Jeremy and I left the town center after our work was done. We went to the end of the street were the least amount of bodies were there and I sat against the wall of a building and wished vampires were capable of being violently ill. Throwing up would be a release for having to deal with so many shambling dead. Shambling, decomposing, dead. Just thinking of it made me long for the gag reflex.
"The bear is following us."
Very astute of Jeremy. I turned my head and saw it standing there, just a yard away, with its head turned to the side. It looked left, sniffed, looked right, sniffed again, and then it shrunk. The fur collapsed like an empty balloon and after a moment of struggling a very naked Martin appeared, wrapping the skin around his waist like a skirt.
"Sorry I'm late," was all he said.
We were out of there two hours before dawn. The military moved in to clean up anything we missed and we went home to retire before the sun came up and killed half of our party. Maria drove. Martin sat in the passenger's seat with the bearskin wrapped around him and Jeremy and I were in the back. I had the window into the cab open so we could talk.
"So," I said. Excellent conversation starter.
"Look, shapeshifting is an accepted druidic practice," Martin said and I nodded like I understood what he was talking about. "I had complete control while I was in that bear form."
"Not questioning that. Just how you did it."
"Personally," Maria said, "I would have liked to see more of the bear and less of the naked Martin. No offense, but mate, you look like hell."
"I've been in a trance for a while."
"We were worried you wouldn't come out of it," I said, "Be honest. It took that long for you to figure out shapeshifting?"
A very long pause.
"I got lost," he finally admitted.
"Knew it," I said.
"Pay up," Jeremy demanded.
"We didn't bet on that!"
"But Maria did."
She just clenched her jaw in response.
"Look, I'm fine now, okay," Martin interrupted, "See? I got out. Well, with some help. Fairykind isn't so bad, really. They're the ones that taught me shapeshifting and I got out of the trance, found an animal skin in my lap and the news talking about zombies in Newcastle. So I took my car, got out just before the blockade, turned into a bear, and came to help."
Jeremy nodded. Maria pulled off the highway back towards our house. I made a mental note to laugh when Martin realized that his car was still by the military blockade, since he just rode home with us instead of retrieving it.
I tried to take a very long shower and gave up when the water refused to go any higher than lukewarm. Besides, the sun was up and even though the windows blocked any light I could feel it, like a tingling on the back of the neck when someone is standing just behind you. It was time to sleep and forget about the night's events. The news would talk about the vampires that cleared out the zombies, people would be uncomfortable but silently thankful that the infection never reached our town, and Martin would probably spend far too much time wandering around as an animal. At least it wasn't water spirits in the bathtub.
I had climbed into bed when Maria crept in through the doorway. Contrary to the stereotype, I did not sleep in a coffin. I slept in a very nice bed with a down comforter and stuffed animals.
"So, uh," she said, "I just wanted to say thank you and all. I understand how rare it is that you make that offer and-"
"I know," I interrupted, "You are welcome and we mean what we said. If you ever change your mind let us know."
She stood by the doorway and I turned over onto my side and closed my eyes. I fell asleep just after Maria whispered goodmorning and closed the door behind her. When I woke the next night it was to the sound of a bear falling down the stairs. Martin had just discovered how hard it was to do certain things with four legs instead of two.
The rest of the week proved to be equally amusing. I was much pleased.