I don't run. I walk.
We all walk. We walk with our staffs held in front of us, each step as quiet as possibly, our guns glinting on our backs. It feels fucked up somehow, like some sort of sneak mob going to hang somebody, but I don't bother to ask questions. I know we must be hunting undead. And hunting undead is always okay by me.
So maybe the clicking thing meant attack. Not run. Or… let's go hunting.
I have so many questions to ask, so many things I can't help but wonder about, but I don't say any of it, not now. I just focus on being as quiet as possible, on keeping the staff from burning me, on not burning anybody with the staff. The boy from earlier is just to my left. He looks younger in the firelight, with the flame illuminating his face. He glances sideways at me and frowns.
I frown back at him. He looks away.
I've never liked boys, not really. They're always so bossy and know-it-all, even when they don't know shit about anything. That's how it always was with the boys I knew, anyway.
The shadows move. I jump. They bug me, now, because I don't know if they'll suddenly materialize into another look-alike, or another undead with bare skin showing. Even with the fires of the staffs dancing against the walls of every building and the paving and dust of every street, I feel like the undead will somehow sneak up on me – sneak up on us.
I sneak a glance Thalay’s way. She's several people ahead of me, and she doesn't look a bit afraid. Her chin is up and she holds the staff naturally, as if she was born for it. Her helmet gleams in the light.
I wish I could be that confident. That easy. I bet I look like a scared little brat, the way I am now.
I turn to the shadows again, and I stop. Everybody else has stopped, too, and the men filter to the edges, like a protective circle. Out of the corner of my eye, I think I see Thalay slip to the edge, too, but I can't be sure. They turn the staffs so the ends are pointing away from them, straight in front of them.
They've seen what I've seen.
Eyes. Big eyes, so huge that it's uncanny, staring out of the shadows, completely black. It makes me want to take a step back. They move, too, little movements that rustle softly in the darkness, little movements and low, low growls that start deep in their throat.
These are mostly naked. No clothes. Nothing to hide their true forms. When I turn to look behind us, I can make out more, but they're in junker uniform, like they were trying to blend in with us. In the firelight, they look almost human – except for their helmets… because behind their helmets, I can just make out their eyes.
One of the men jerks his staff forward, tip flaring. There's a noise from the shadows, and the eyes seem to become slightly smaller, almost like they're shrinking. They rustle as they move back, their limbs curling as they move.
“Eena!” Mariah cries, raising her staff. “You come to hunt us, so we come to hunt you -”
“Rawrrr!” Thalay yells from the edge, pushing her staff forward. Mariah glares at her. “What?” Thalay mutters. “Get on with it!”
And then she rushes forward.
For a moment, I'm scared that the rest haven't noticed. And then – how could they not notice? – they're surging forward next to Thalay, staffs thrust forward, and the dark little creatures and covering their eyes as they fall back, howling every time we poke and jab at them, letting out high, shrill screeches, screeches that chill my blood and make my palms sweaty –
The men are no longer in front. They're at the sides, and the women are in the middle, darting in and out, thrusting their staffs towards the undead with the tips flaring, burning, sparking. I hesitate, then join them, spinning my staff at the undead, my hands fighting not to slip against the handle.
Thalay is next to me. One moment she isn’t, and then she is, and we’re falling back, and I don’t understand, I don’t understand at all. All I know is that if they’re falling back, I’m falling back with them. I don’t question. I just do what they do, backing up step by step, staff in front of me, pressing towards the bikes. Mariah is shouting something but I can’t make out what she says, and I don’t even know if she’s saying it in English, or if it’s some mumbo jumbo I’ll never have a chance of understanding.
“Bikes,” Thalay hisses, as if she’s not sure I get it. And then she’s pulling me back with her, onto her bike.
I accept it. I don’t know if I’m supposed to be with her or not, but at least I’m on somebody’s bike, and that’s all that matters. Thalay’s kicking the bike into action before I’m fully on the back, and then we’re rushing forward again, and the sand up against my helmet and I’m fighting not to drop my staff.
Thalay doesn’t seem happy.
“What happened?” I ask, leaning forward so my helmet clinks lightly against hers. I’m half yelling to be heard.
“Too many,” she shouts back. “And we need to move fast. Those things run a lot faster than us. If we don’t move, we’ll be sitting ducks. I hope nobody’s low on charge, because only these bikes are gonna be able to outpace them.”
“It wasn’t supposed to happen like that,” she shouts. She sounds angry – at herself more than anything. “There weren’t that many scouts. There shouldn’t have been so many waiting at the camp.” She shakes her head. “Those were new ones, too. They hadn’t been around long. I don’t know where they came from.”
“Do we know where any of them come from?”
She glances back at me, her hands tight on the handlebars of the bike. “Nope. Not really. But we know we see a lot of the fuckers more than once. And that’s the first time we’ve seen newborns. The ones today…they’d never been impostors before, most of them. Those were fresh.”
“They can be impostors more than once?”
She shrugs. “We don’t know how to kill them, Joanna. All we know is how to scare them, or hurt them enough that they lose their forms for a bit. But they always come back as someone new. In between, they take on their original selves, but they’re less powerful…sort of…than the newborns. They’re more wispy, almost. Mariah has a theory that if you kill them enough times, they die eventually. Eventually.”
“And there’s no way to tell impostors from the person they’re posing as?”
“Not unless you threaten them with the staff. They tend to let little things slip then. Sort of like their mask is imperfect, and you can kinda tell. But it’s hard. Even shining the staffs on them, you can’t always tell. It’s in the eyes. Sometimes they don’t get the eyes right, and you know it’s an impostor.”
I swallow. So I could see Elsie, or Momma, or the baby again, and it could be an impostor. I could have to kill Elsie…
Somehow, the fact that it wouldn’t really be Elsie doesn’t make the idea any easier to swallow.
“So technically I don’t know that you aren’t an impostor,” I say quietly.
She turns around, grinning beneath her helmet. “Rawr.”
I nod. Okay. “So basically it’s a free-for-all.”
She winks at me. “Have fun!”
I look back in the direction we came, and for once, my eyes begin to tear up. I have a horrible feeling that I’ll never be able to go home.