Read the First Chapter of DEAD WEIGHT, Our Brand-New YONDER Release!
Chapter 1 – The Horde
She could hear the zombies before she could see them—a low groaning, a kind of visceral rumble that seemed to come from far away and up close all at once. Somehow, the destruction of most of the living population on the earth had resulted in an apocalypse that always seemed louder than it should be.
Unfortunately, nothing from the natural world was making those sounds.
Allie shivered, her skin suddenly feeling too tight. That was the only way to describe the way the fear crept up on her, the prickling sensation all over her body. It was as if her skin was tightening up, squeezing her, even though her head felt oddly light.
For a moment, she stopped and looked around at the little valley she’d been scouting. Realizing how open this space really was, despite being bordered by hills and trees, she took a moment to lower her rifle, closing her eyes against a sudden wave of… something. Dizziness? Nausea?
She took a slow breath in and out.
Maybe she’d just been underground for too long.
Or maybe I’m agoraphobic now.
The landscape in all directions was nothing but leafed-out trees, underbrush, and weeds. No sign of any human efforts to keep nature at bay, no sign that any humans had ever been there, other than the crumbling, partially obscured road where she’d parked her pickup truck. After a drive that had felt a lot like emerging from hibernation, she’d come out into the world that was being slowly reclaimed by nature.
She’d chosen a spot at the bottom of a steep hill to set up shop. Well, she’d seen it, thanks to her gift, but her goddess had chosen it, shown it to her in her dreams the night before. He’ll be there. You’ll be waiting.
Him. The man. Cameron Hale.
Allie had a name, a face, and a vague feeling that there was something Morrigan wasn’t telling her. But goddesses tend to keep their secrets. Allie knew better than to ask questions—Morrigan hadn’t steered her wrong yet.
If She’d seen fit to send Allie out of the bunker for the first time in months, on a mission to find this specific person… well. That was that.
Another human. Another alive human. After all this time.
Nerves twisted in her stomach, but anticipation hummed in her brain. Excitement that bordered on hope.
She only wished she didn’t feel so fucking exposed out here.
Allie sighed, gave herself a mental shake, and leaned back into the truck’s open driver’s side door. It was time to get this party started and let Cameron Hale know another living person was here.
With that, Allie slung her rifle over her shoulder and slammed one fist against the truck’s horn, twice, a double-blast of noise that spooked birds and a small herd of deer from the trees all around her. The deer, unfortunately, wouldn’t provide any distraction for the Zs. Zombies had no interest in eating anything but people.
Her ears still ringing, Allie levered herself and her rifle up into the truck bed and then clambered up onto the top of the cab, far more clumsily than she would have preferred.
It was hard to feel too embarrassed when the only witnesses to her klutziness were fleeing animals, buzzing insects, and zombies.
Allie went down to one knee, pulling her rifle up to her shoulder and her eye to the scope.
She didn’t quite understand why zombies could hear so well, but nothing about them made sense to begin with. Dead, rotting bodies shouldn’t be able to do the things they seemed to be able to do—walking around was the least of it. The fact was that they could hear noises, and they could see through those pale, hazy eyeballs, and they could smell things like campfires. Allie had seen evidence of this with her own eyes.
They could probably taste, too.
Stomach churning, Allie forced her attention back to the world around her. Thinking too much about the why… that way lay madness.
Allie scanned the perimeter quickly. The zombies lurking nearby had emerged from the tree line on either side, only about a dozen at the moment, but she knew more would be coming.
Because they were chasing the man she’d been sent here to find.
They were close enough that she could hear the moans now, faint and lilting on the breeze. If she didn’t know what they were, they might have sounded like the faint hum of a crowd of living people enjoying some kind of outdoor recreation from the pre-Z days. Before. A picnic or concert, maybe.
She could see their eyes now, pale but with an occasional, improbable flash of something that glowed. The hair on Allie’s neck and arms rose. Her skin chilled. The nerves in her stomach twisted into a cold knot of terror. Steady, Allie.
Belatedly, she looked back down at the tall grass on either side of the road. Damn it, she should have swept for the crawlers first, but even if there were some lurking, they probably wouldn’t be able to climb up the sides of the truck.
No ankle-biters today, please, she prayed to Morrigan, and returned her focus to the handful of zombies that were between her and her first chance in a year to reconnect with another living person.
Allie willed her body to loosen and her hands to stay steady, then she lined up her first shot with care, hoping the only zombies close to her were the ones at the end of her scope.
Then she squeezed the trigger. Resighted. Squeezed the trigger. Resighted.
Lather, rinse, repeat.
It had been a long time since she’d had to use a gun for anything but practice, but she hadn’t lost her skills. The way was now clear, and as yet there was no movement in the grass signaling the presence of ankle-biters.
Even so, Allie set her teeth and reloaded. She’d made it through the easy part.
Within seconds, she heard what was coming, and she closed her eyes briefly against the chill in her bones, sending another quick prayer to Morrigan.
Inside of a minute, a person—Cameron, it has to be him—crested the hill to the south, running full-out. Through her scope, she could make out his panic-widened eyes and grim expression.
Only a few heartbeats behind him, she saw seven zombies, fanning out almost as if in formation. They weren’t, of course, at least not on purpose. Zombies were stupid, even the newly turned ones like these. The fast-movers.
The really scary ones.
They made up for a lack of intelligence with ferocity and speed. Goddess, they were fast. Having no pain receptors would do that, Allie supposed, for they didn’t seem to react to injuries in any way. If you blasted an arm off a Z, it kept coming. If you broke its leg, it kept crawling. Only a shot to the head would truly stop it.
Despite that, the man seemed to be holding his lead, scant as it was, but that wouldn’t last forever.
That’s why she was there.
Allie aimed carefully. Moving targets were harder, and these were moving. Her first shot went wide.
Damn it, Allie.
She’d been too worried about hitting the man—hitting Cameron—and had aimed too far to the left. Still, if she was off even by a little, this wouldn’t be a rescue mission but an execution.
Trust yourself. Trust the practice.
Trust in Morrigan.
“Right,” she muttered, and sighted again. Relaxed her shoulders. Readjusted her shot. Pulled the trigger.
This time, the zombie right behind Cameron, reaching for him, went down. The next one did, too.
Allie blew out a breath and mentally thanked her goddess for a windless day.
They were getting closer now, close enough that she could hear the growls and whines from the running zombies—fuck, those animal noises were almost worse than the unnatural moans of the decaying ones—but also close enough that Cameron seemed to understand that she was there to help. His path was a beeline to the truck.
He’d seemed to get a second wind with the first crack of the rifle, and that was repeated with each shot. This one had induced an almost superhuman burst of speed.
Allie got it. Sometimes all you needed was a little bit of hope to get a little more out of the gas tank. Maybe if she kept shooting, he’d end up running faster than her truck.
How fast would you be on your fiftieth wind, Cameron?
She stifled a wild urge to laugh. She always laughed when she was nervous. Or scared. What a truly stupid habit.
Speaking of stupid, she really hoped Cameron didn’t do anything to try to “help” her, like duck or zig-zag. Just keep running to me. Let me get them—and don’t let me get you.
Allie aimed, let out a breath, squeezed the trigger. Another zombie went down, its head exploding. Only two more left, and Cameron was closing ground quickly on his way toward her.
She held off for a second, thinking he would make it to the truck before them—not wanting to risk hitting him any more than she had to—but then he stumbled, and her heart stopped. Nonono. She squeezed off a round before she could tell herself not to, and lucked out by winging the zombie to Cameron’s left, catching it in the thigh and spinning it to the ground.
But before she could dwell on that fucking miracle, Cameron shouted, “One more!”
She sighted, heart pounding. She took a deep breath, held it, and pulled the trigger. The kick of the rifle expelled the rest of the air from her lungs.
Last one down.
Allie raised the rifle, wincing a little, and got to her feet, swaying with the unaccustomed feeling of height, of being tall in the open air. A fierce joy rushed through her—if she’d been on the ground, she might have done a little dance of victory in relief that the man was still alive.
Instead, she carefully slid down to the hood of the truck and then to the ground. Clumsy again, sure, but who gave a shit? She’d done her job and fulfilled her mission.
That mission was still running full-tilt only a few feet away from the truck.
She knew why. The immediate threat was gone, sure—or incapacitated, as she was pretty sure she’d made an ankle-biter out of the one she’d gotten in the leg—but gunshots were loud. It was only a matter of time before more zombies came questing for the source of the noise, and the fast ones would get there first.
That thought frayed her already-worn nerves even more, and she hustled into the truck, sliding the rifle into its case behind the seat and opening the passenger door.
Then she started the engine and had the truck in gear when the man—Cameron Hale—launched himself into the passenger seat, steaming with sweat and fear and suddenly filling the cab of the truck with such life that Allie could only stare at him, slack-jawed, for a moment.
His breathing sawed harshly in the air, but he managed to get out one word: “Horde.”
She slammed on the gas as he slammed shut the door to the truck, and they peeled away from that overgrown valley of death and decay as Cameron panted and cursed under his laboring breath and she tried not to look at him but kept her eyes on the road in front of them.
Even so, she couldn’t keep her eyes from the rearview mirror, from craning around to look through her wildly whipping hair out her open window, scanning the horizon.
The shapes were packed so tightly together that she almost couldn’t tell that the horizon was moving—and then she knew.
Even though it was impossible—totally fucking impossible—she could hear the groans and growls of the horde inside her ears.
With her ears ringing and body trembling, she rolled up her window and focused on the steering wheel in her clenched fists. She began to hum to herself—a jingle from some long-ago potato-chip commercial, which had become her comfort song—to hear anything but those unearthly noises rising up from her subconscious.
Let’s get snacking… Let’s grab a bag… Now we’re crunching… on Let’s Chips, grab a ba-ag of LET’S…
When her breathing evened a bit and her fingers relaxed on the steering wheel, she looked over at the man. Cameron. He was not looking at her. But he was not looking at her in a way that made it clear that he had been looking at her.
His face was flushed red, with eyes that seemed to be some shade between blue and gray wide and a little wild. His jaw was covered with patchy scruff, short dark hair matted to his head with sweat. He breathed hard, chest heaving, and looked a little cramped in the space, legs bent a trifle while hers could extend out to the pedals. He was dressed in a nondescript pair of jeans and a T-shirt, with beat-up Nikes on his feet. His hands were filthy where they clutched the oh-shit bar above the window and the seat beside him.
He was quite possibly the most beautiful thing she’d ever seen in her life.
Allie gave him a weak smile. “Hi.”
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