The city zoo was located at the bottom of Mt. Artifex, on the last train stop before reaching the university. Elizabeth and Alex exited the station looking at the sky with worry. The once sunny day was slowly becoming cloudy, with gray blobs of rain looming in the distance. A stale smell wafted through the air, like an unholy union of manure and wet fur. The train station led directly into the zoo's parking lot. Five yellow school buses were near the front, with hundreds of different cars filling up the rest of the space. Some costumed mascots, like a cartoonish tiger and ape, stood around taking pictures with children and families. Elizabeth couldn't help but feel sorry for them. They acted energetic and friendly in front of the crowd, but they subtly slumped forward in disappointment as soon as they could. Since the zoo's funding partially comes from the university, a lot of the staff members were students themselves. Mostly people from the vet school and biology department that worked part-time. They probably thought they were going to have work experience with the animals, since that's how its advertised by the faculty, but ended up forced to entertain people in silly dresses.
The entrance gate was lavish and welcoming, its green metallic arches hanging from a cement ledge that funneled people towards the paying booths. University students didn't have to pay for entry, so Alex and Elizabeth just showed their student IDs and passed through. The first few exhibitions were rather tame, some lemurs and ostriches that lazed around in their pens. Most of the main attractions were further down into the zoo, which was a really clever strategy to make sure people saw every animal displayed. If the lions, giraffes, and gorillas were at the far end of the park, you would have to go through some of the less popular enclosures to reach them. Kind of like how supermarkets stock their most requested items at the back so that customers are tempted to buy other things along the way. Needless to say it worked on Elizabeth and Alex, since the latter stopped every few meters to observe whatever exhibition was ahead. Alex then leaned over a railing with gleeful eyes and said:
"I knew it! Platypuses really do look like that!"
Elizabeth walked up next to her, narrowing her eyes. "You know, I've never actually seen one before. If you'd told me what they looked like without showing me a picture, I'd never believe they existed."
"I know, right?" Alex grinned. "I actually just won a bet right now! He always said platypuses were a prank invented by the internet, like dropbears. If I could see his face now…"
"Why don't you take a picture? That should be proof enough!"
"No, it's my ex-boyfriend. He uh…"
"What? Bad break-up?"
"No!" Alex shook her head vigorously. "He's… not around anymore."
Elizabeth glanced downwards. "Oh… Sorry. Pretend I didn't ask."
"No, it's okay." Alex smiled softly. "You didn't know. It was a few years ago and I'm over it. Mostly."
Their conversation drifted into silence before they resumed their stroll. After they reached the middle of the park, the main path split into three separate routes. One led to the reptiles and amphibians section, including snakes, lizards, frogs and crocodiles. The other led to animals found in the savannah, like rhinoceros or lions, and finally, the primate section, where all type of monkeys and apes resided. Alex rushed to a cotton candy cart and told Elizabeth to go ahead, so Elizabeth kept going down the primate path.
This was probably where the XSMG was holding their protest. Recently, a three-year-old boy climbed into a gorilla enclosure and was grabbed by Jurambe, a 17-year-old Western lowland gorilla. Fearing for the boy's life, a zoo worker shot and killed Jurambe before things could escalate further. The incident was recorded on video and received broad international coverage, including controversy over the choice to kill the gorilla. It even turned into an weird internet meme where people would mourn the loss of Jurambe in an exaggerated, melodramatic fashion. Elizabeth didn't really get the joke, but she figured that following these trends was pointless. These things are usually forgotten very quickly, to the point where referencing them a even couple of months later would make you look outdated.
Since the XSMG publicly admonished the zoo for mishandling the situation, Elizabeth figured this is where they would rally. A chance to get attention with a popular news story? It was perfect for them. On the middle of the road stood a tall watchtower, with tinted panes lining the octagonal structure at its top. Pairs of cone-shaped speakers were anchored on each corner, probably for park-wide announcements. It was big enough to cast an intimidating shadow, drawing Elizabeth's attention as she walked past it. She felt conflicted on its purpose. It was supposed to be a security measure, something that would keep everyone safe, but why was it needed? What kind of absurd situation made its construction necessary? Wasn't it a little overkill? This watchtower didn't make her feel safer, it only made her more anxious. The fact that it's present here means that the zoo is less secure than she originally thought.
Elizabeth shook her head and shrugged. Maybe the zoo staff was just as paranoid as her. She continued onwards until reaching a wide plaza at the end of the path, where it opened up into a large variety of exhibition. At the center of this section was a large crowd of around thirty people. They held signs and chanted loudly, with President Tiffany leading them at the front. She used a megaphone to pump up her followers, eliciting an enthusiastic response to everything she proclaimed. The president's face was fierce, raising her fist in the air with strength to accentuate every point she made.
"Animals deserve more respect than this!" The protesters cheered. "This zoo has no excuse for this tragedy! This place is understaffed and underfunded! It is not fit to house these delicate creatures!"
There were more than a hundred people in total here, but most of them ignored the XSMG, focusing on the different types of primates without a care in the world. Children wearing the same uniforms held balloons and laughed at the antics of monkeys, who seemed more than eager to entertain them. This was probably a school trip. Elizabeth couldn't help but look fondly at their innocence. She had gone to a trip here during her fourth grade, just like them.
Circling around the gathering of activists, Elizabeth leaned against a corner and watched the rally. She hoped to get something out of Tiffany Ethyris, but she looked so involved right now that interrupting her felt pretty intimidating. All she could do was wait for the protest to wind down a bit. There's no way they could keep up this intensity for long. Elizabeth sighed. This was going to be boring as hell. Alex should catch up soon, though. Bringing her along was a great idea since at least she would have someone to talk to. Elizabeth pulled out her cellphone, browsing the internet in a daze. Nothing interesting was happening today. Just the usual headlines of geopolitical back and forth between world leaders.
A sharp scream cut through the rally's noise. Elizabeth widened her eyes and almost dropped her phone from the surprise. A chorus of high-pitch voices joined the first one, causing the protesters to quiet down in confusion. Elizabeth looked around the plaza, hoping to find the source of the scream. A mob appeared from the path she came from, panicking as they seemingly ran away from something. The park-wide speakers then blared:
"Attention visitors, dozens of diseased animals are roaming the zoo. Do not approach them! They are incredibly aggressive and will attack anyone nearby. Please look for the nearest park employee for further instructions. They are trained to handle emergency situations."
Elizabeth shuddered. Her shoulders tensed up and adrenaline coursed through her veins. Could it be the same zombies that attacked her yesterday? If it was, then things were bound to get worse from here on out. Was it luck that this happened when she was here, or was the necromancer still after her? It didn't matter. Either way, she needed to get to the other side of the plaza, where an employee funneled a crowd into a corridor that went underground. Elizabeth ran towards it for a few feet, but was pushed to the ground by a sea of fleeing people.
As she stood up and dusted herself, Elizabeth realized a problem with the current arrangement. While she managed to hear the announcement, most people acted like didn't listen to it. They kept running around in a chaotic fashion, ignoring the desperate employee that beckoned them to follow him. At this rate, more people would be trampled by the mob than mauled by the dogs. Tiffany Ethyris quickly held up her megaphone and shouted:
"Everyone calm down! There's an employee leading people to safety! Just go over there!"
A pack of shambling dogs entered the plaza, silencing the entire crowd momentarily. Panic ensued again, this time more fervent than before. The dogs attacked the people closest to them, viciously mauling anyone in the outer rim of the crowd. The zoo employee brought out a gun and fired it. He missed the first shot, but the second one managed to hit a dog square in the face. It didn't slow down the animal, though. The dog brushed off its wound and tackled a man to the ground.
The school children started crying in unison. Elizabeth turned around and gasped. Seven kids were frozen in place with their backs against a wall, shaking uncontrollably behind their teacher. He was a lanky man with a green sweater vest, a scruffy beard, and round, cheap glasses. A dog growled in front of them, arching its back in preparation for a lunge. Its left eye was missing and its rotting brain was half exposed. The teacher's fear was palpable from a distance, his wild eyes growing more desperate the longer he stood still. The man then looked at his students, swallowed painfully, and sprinted away. The dog immediately intercepted him, biting his neck and tearing out his throat. Blood sprayed out of the teacher's body, spasming violently for a few seconds until going limp.
Elizabeth gagged and fell to her knees. Her chest got uncomfortably tight, forcing her to take a series of deep breaths. The dog continued feasting on the man's stomach, pulling out his intestines and swallowing them with a slurp. Elizabeth clenched her fist. She had never seen anything as disgusting as this in her whole life. She then slammed her fist on the ground. Now wasn't the time to get angry. She had to do something before anyone else got hurt.
The canine stopped eating. It rose its head, glaring at the seven children with its dead eyes. Tears streamed down the kid's face, snot dripping from their red nostrils. They couldn't move or even react to what was in front of them. The shock was too much for their young minds. The creature leaped at them. The children winced but were surprised to find themselves safe afterwards. Elizabeth had punted the dog away and now stood between it and the kids. Her heart pumped at an erratic rhythm. She didn't know what she was doing right now. She didn't even have a plan for what to do next. The only thing going through her mind was that she would rather die than see these kids get torn apart.
"What are you idiots waiting for?!" said Elizabeth, looking back. "Run away! Go to the shelter! I'll distract the dog!"
The kids scattered and Elizabeth turned towards the dog. The creature hesitated for a second, but ignored Elizabeth in favor of pursuing the kids. Elizabeth furrowed her brow. Did the zombie understand what she just said? Now wasn't the time to think about that. The kids were in danger. She ran behind the dog and threw herself at it, tackling it before it could reach a small boy. She hung on to the animal with a bear hug, restraining it against its will. It trashed around but couldn't free itself, allowing the children to flee safely. A megaphone then smacked it across the face, sending its head flying. Elizabeth released the decapitated dog, squinting her eyes in confusion. It was Tiffany Ethyris. She had just sung her megaphone at the zombies head, launching it away like a golf ball. The student council president extended her hand and helped Elizabeth up, saying:
"That was amazing! If it hadn't been for you, those kids would be dead! Let's get to the shelter before we run out of time."
Elizabeth shrugged. "Time? What are you talking about?"
Tiffany ignored her question, grabbing Elizabeth by the wrist and dragging her away. Elizabeth looked around as she crossed the plaza with Tiffany. People were grouping up and beating up the zombies together. It wasn't enough, though. Undead reinforcements were converging on the plaza. At this rate, the dogs would swarm around those fighting back and overwhelm them. Tiffany was right. They didn't have much time before it became impossible to enter the shelter. People quickly emptied the plaza, hiding in the shelter as fast as possible. Elizabeth and Tiffany were one of the last to enter. After the green metallic door closed shut, they walked down a small slope and into a wide, dome-shaped room. It every surface of it was covered in cement, with iron bars encrusted on its wall. They ran upwards and met at the center of the roof, supporting its weight. Elizabeth felt surprised that this was a full-blown shelter inside a seemingly innocent zoo. Maybe the people running this place really were paranoid, just like with the watchtower.
Worried murmurs echoed around the relatively small room. With so many people packed in, the ambient temperature rose because of their body heat. Elizabeth felt sweat crawling on her skin with heavy breath. The brief exercise she just did reminded her how out of shape she was. She really needed to start jogging again. Some zoo employees were using first aid kits on some bruised people, while others handed out water and snacks. The school children Elizabeth saved were huddled together in silence. They seemed disconnected from this world, staring at nothing in particular with an empty gaze. Elizabeth felt pressured to talk to them, maybe console them a bit, but she couldn't find the strength to do it. Whatever words she could muster would probably make them feel worse. It was better to leave them alone.
Elizabeth leaned against a wall, sat on the floor, and sighed. Two near-death situations in less than twenty four hours. She knew that uncovering a murder was dangerous, but she didn't think it would be this extreme. Still, the fact that she just so happened to be here when the attack happened left her worried. At least she confirmed the necromancer wasn't stalking her or anything. That dog clearly had a chance to kill her, but deliberately ignored her to pursue the kids. This whole scenario didn't make sense. Why would the mage do something so drastic in broad daylight? They were definitely after something here. An ulterior motive for all this chaos. Elizabeth rested the back of her head on the wall. This was a distraction. It's the only explanation she can come up with. Elizabeth refused to believe that a person would start a senseless slaughter with no objective whatsoever. When Tiffany told everyone to hide in the shelter, the dogs didn't attempt to block the shelter. They merely attacked the first people they could reach. Back there, Elizabeth was almost certain the dog understood what she said, which means that the one controlling them should've known about the shelter too. If the objective was to kill as much people as possible, then blocking that escape route would've been the top priority. On the other hand, if the mage only wanted the crowd to get out of the way, the tactics employed made complete sense.
Elizabeth closed her eyes. Letting the mage go unopposed didn't sit well with her. If she waited here, the police would eventually come and clear everything out, but the mage would most likely get away with their plan. She could always call Al. Joshua did give her his phone number and they would probably know what to do in this situation. Elizabeth frowned. It hadn't even been five hours since she fought with Al. Calling him so soon would be pathetic on her part. Plus, Alex was still out there. Considering that this was the closest shelter to where she last saw her, the fact that she wasn't here was very worrying. Elizabeth was the one that convinced her to come to the zoo. If anything happened to her, Elizabeth would be to blame, and she would never forgive herself for it. No, Elizabeth had to come up with a plan. There had to be something she could do right now.
A series of loud bangs came from outside the shelter's door. Everyone in the room went quiet, staring at the entrance. The banging started again, this time more persistent and desperate. A zoo employee walked up to the door and reached for the handle.
"What the hell are you doing?!" shouted a mother. She gripped her son's shoulders and brought him closer in a protective embrace. "If you open that door, the monsters will get in! Are you trying to get us killed!?"
The employee looked at the door, then back at the mother. "But what if its someone running away from them?"
"I don't give a flying fuck about who's out there! If you endanger my son's life anymore, there will be hell to pay!"
The employee hung his head and turned away from the door. The banging came back again, this time slower, but stronger with every strike. Elizabeth stood up and said:
"No! Open it! My friend is still outside! I'm the one that convinced her to come here! If that's her, you'd be killing her!"
The mother glared at Elizabeth. Tiffany Ethyris walked up next to Elizabeth and said:
"Please, open it. I'm sure a lot of people here have someone still outside." She looked at the crowd. "How would you guys feel if, once you got out of here, you found the corpse of someone you knew on the doorstep? Wouldn't you feel guilty if there was something you could do about it?"
The employee took a deep breath. Everyone present had a mixture of fear and guilt on their faces. Many had nodded along with the mother, but an even bigger portion twisted their faces in agony after hearing Tiffany's words. The banging returned, but this time it had an eerie quality to it. It was weaker. Like the person on the other side had just given up. The employee gritted his teeth, approached the door again, and said:
"I'm opening the door! I don't want to anyone to die if there's something I can do about it! If it ends up being a mistake, then Lady Catherine have mercy on my soul!"