For the second time this month it is my privilege to share with you another author form the Summer of Zombie Blog Tour.
My guest today is James N. Cook and rather than the standard interview or the usual blog post about his writing roots and such…James would like to cut to the chase and give you a taste of his latest work.
Take it away, James…
Hello everyone, and thanks for having me. For this post, I decided not to bore you to death with a bunch of anecdotes, un-funny jokes, and observations that no one cares to hear. I am not here to tell you all about how awesome of a writer I am, and why you should buy my books, and how hard I’ve struggled, and blah, blah, blah. Rather, I’d like to simply show you. This is an actual chapter from my new novel, Warrior Within. It is the third installment of the reasonably successful Surviving the Dead series. I hope you like it. Enjoy!
Excerpt from Warrior Within,
by James N. Cook
Waking up in pitch-black darkness is never fun.
At first, you’re confused. Then there is a second of panic as you bat feebly at the imaginary monsters lurking in the black just in front of your face. Finally, the pistons of memory begin to fire, and you remember what the heck you’re doing wrapped up in a sleeping bag on a cold cement floor. My hand fumbled around the edge of the bedroll until the cold metal of my flashlight touched my palm. I flicked it on.
The interior of the utility shed was exactly as it had been the day before, albeit a bit warmer. Surmising that the sun was already up, I glanced at my watch and saw that it was just after nine in the morning—much later than I had hoped to get started.
Dammit. As Wil Anderson would have put it, I was burnin’ daylight.
I rolled up my bed, ate a quick breakfast of venison jerky and crushed cattail root, chewed a little chicory to get my blood flowing, and got myself ready to move out. The M-4 went strapped to my back, but still within reach if I needed it. The CZ went into a cross-draw holster on my chest, and the Sig rode on the back of my right hip. The 10-22 I carried in my hands. My other weapons dangled from my belt.
With everything ready to go, I moved to the door and put an ear against it. Nearly a full minute passed. Nothing. I turned the handle on the deadbolt, sliding it back slowly until it stopped. I eased the door open to peek outside, ready to slam it shut again if I spotted any walkers. The brightness of the morning sky made my eyes water after being in the gloomy shed for so long. I grabbed the pair of polarized ski goggles hanging from my neck and slipped them on to dial down the glare. Peering out again, I scanned the field as I gradually pulled the door back but didn’t see anything.
I almost stepped outside, but then hesitated, realizing that from where I stood I couldn’t see very much. What if I had been spotted when I roped down from the chopper? What if someone was out there lying in wait? Anxiety quickened my pulse. I stood in the doorway for a long minute debating what to do.
Enough of this foolishness. An old, familiar voice in my head whispered. You can’t account for every possibility under the sun. Keep your head on a swivel, your gun at the ready, and get yourself moving. Time’s a wastin’.
Steeling myself with a deep breath, I stepped outside and diligently scanned around the shed, walking close to the walls and cutting the pie on each corner before stepping around it. Nothing but a few trees, a burned out building or two, and farm equipment that looked like it had been abandoned since long before the Outbreak. Pale brown grass stretched into the distance under a clear sky.
Turning my attention from sight to hearing, I closed my eyes and listened. Birds chirped. Leaves rustled. Small rodents skittered through the grass looking for seeds. Nothing out of the ordinary.
My confidence began to return, filling my chest up like water on a dry sponge. I chuckled at my own paranoia. “Hell. I’m probably the most dangerous thing out here,” I muttered.
It was a dumb thing to do, putting a sentence like that out there into the universe. I should have known it would come back to bite me in the ass.
The first few miles went under my feet without incident. I set an easy pace, kept my eyes moving, and stopped frequently to make sure I wasn’t being followed. Every once in a while I spotted movement in the trees—a swaying limb where there was no wind, a rustle of foliage, a shadow passing between trunks—but whatever it was, it was staying out of sight. It was too stealthy and moved too fast to be a person, but beyond that, I had no clue what it was.
And I sure as hell wasn’t going in after it.
I would have to keep an eye out, but with a hundred yards of open ground separating me from the forest, I wasn’t worried about being taken by surprise. I kept moving.
Consulting my compass, I felt confident that I was on course. My destination was an abandoned industrial park that Grayson Morrow had identified as a Legion base of operations. He knew it well, as it was the place where he had been captured and held prisoner.
The terrain around me was mostly flat, which made for easy travel; by the time I stopped for lunch, the first waypoint on my journey was within sight. It was too small to warrant a stoplight, or even a name for that matter. But I guess you could have called it a town. There was a small collection of houses and a trailer park across a set of railroad tracks from a rundown strip mall, a farm-equipment repair facility, and a rusting grain hopper. Although everything looked like it had been abandoned since the Outbreak, I still had a feeling that there were a few infected kicking around somewhere. In places like this, there always were.
Ordinarily, I would have avoided this place entirely unless I was in desperate need of supplies. And even then, I would not have come alone. Taking on a town full of infected without help is just next door to suicide, but I had to do it. There was something here that I needed.
During his time with the Legion, Grayson Morrow had secretly drawn a map of the encampment where he had been imprisoned that detailed the disposition of troops, supplies, and nearby equipment. Not long after drawing it, he had actually managed to escape and had fled north toward his home state of Indiana.
He didn’t make it very far.
Hunting down escapees is one of the Legion’s favorite pastimes. They tracked Morrow to the little community ahead of me, where they eventually captured him. Morrow had known he was caught, and what his punishment was going to be, and he didn’t want the raiders to find the map on him. If they had, they would have killed him after they had their fun with him. As for what they did to him, well … it’s probably best left unmentioned.
I shook my head to clear it of dark thoughts and darker anger, peered through the Ruger’s scope, and started looking for the best way to approach the strip mall.
I spotted an old irrigation ditch that ran along a gradual slope in the landscape that would hide me while I snuck in from the west. It was probably an unnecessary precaution—it didn’t really stand to reason that there would be anyone still living here—but I hadn’t stayed alive this long by being stupid.
Staying low, I followed the crease in the terrain and approached at an angle that would make it tough for anyone looking out a window or from a rooftop to see me. As I got closer, I heard birds flitting and chirping through broken panes of shattered windows, and the intermittent moans of infected.
The walkers hunger for birds the same as they do any other animal, but even with their rot-addled brains, they still manage to figure out that they can’t catch the swift little creatures. Or maybe it’s just that there are always other birds around to catch their attention. Either way, when walkers see birds, they moan at them. But not much else.
Oddly, as soon as the sun goes down, this behavior stops. During this time, the infected only make noise when they are near larger, ground-based prey. No one knows why. It’s just another one of the many mysteries surrounding the walking dead.
I soon reached the small cluster of buildings near the railroad tracks that were once businesses but were now just broken shells. There was a trailer park ahead of me and, farther down the road, an assemblage of small brick-walled houses. The trailers looked like something out of a low-budget horror movie, with crumbling porches, broken windows, and stained aluminum siding. Their insulation had been ripped out by wind, rain, and water damage, and lay strewn around the overgrown yards like orange and yellow confetti. The houses beyond didn’t look to be in much better shape.
Reaching the strip mall, I poked my head around the corner and did a quick scan. The trailer park was directly across from me, and in front of it was a single crumbling road running parallel to the railroad tracks. The moaning I heard was coming from the storefronts to my left, where the community’s former residents wandered aimlessly, groaning and bumping into one another. They all gazed upward, staring disconsolately at a contingent of barn swallows that had taken up residence in the nearby rooftops.
On any other day, I might have found the situation sad, and vaguely humorous in a fucked-up kind of way. But not this time. The infected were right in front of the building where Morrow had stashed his map and, in order to get it, I had to get past them. If Gabe had been with me, it wouldn’t have been a problem. But alone, it was a gigantic pain in my ass. I ducked back around the corner and weighed my options.
I could get their attention and lead them away, but doing so would burn up time and energy I could ill afford to lose. Another option was to climb onto a rooftop and just shoot them, but the noise would attract every walker within a square mile. If I did that, I would have to set a hard pace southward and hope I could reach my next stop before they found me. Considering the distance involved, that didn’t seem likely. That left me with only one option.
Gently and quietly, I took off my pack and laid my rifles down against the wall. The CZ and its holster were just going to get in the way, so I left them behind as well, but I kept the Sig. Shooting my way out of here was a bad idea, but I still wanted the option available, just in case.
Now I had to decide which implement of destruction to use—ax or crowbar. Unlike Gabe, I’m not strong enough to brandish a weapon in each hand and cut through hordes of infected like a pissed-off scythe. Staring back and forth between the two weapons, I began to sorely miss my small sword. Or pig-sticker as Gabe liked to call it. (Sometimes he mixed things up and called it the ghoul-ka-bob.) Despite my friend’s snarky comments, it was a great tool for dispatching the undead. My technique was to find a Y-shaped tree limb, trim it down, and use it to hold a ghoul in place by jamming it under the creature’s neck and lifting up. Holding the stick like a lance gave me leverage against my target, and left my other arm free to deliver the killing strike—a stab straight through the eye-socket.
It wasn’t the most crowd-pleasing way to kill a walker, but it was fast, effective, and it kept them out of arm’s reach. The absolute last thing you want to happen is to let a walker to get a grip on you. They’re not any stronger in death than they were in life, but due to the fact that they never get tired, and they can use one-hundred percent of their strength at all times, they feel super-humanly strong when they grab you.
Sadly, my small sword was at Allison’s house back in Hollow Rock, so I would have to make do with the tools at hand. The crowbar was great for crushing skulls, but it was slow. It usually took me two or three good whacks to put a ghoul down for the count. For that reason, in my case at least, crowbars are only useful against one or two ghouls at a time. Any more than that and I run the risk of being overwhelmed.
The ax, on the other hand, was good for more than just brain busting. I could sever a walker’s head, or use the broad blade to disable their legs and reduce their mobility, making them easier to kill. Considering that I had quite a bit of work ahead of me, I decided that the ax was the best tool for the job. I cinched my scarf over my mouth, tightened the strap on my goggles, and retied my headscarf. Hefting the ax in my hands, I stepped around the corner.
A ghoul spotted me immediately and let out a hiss that sounded like a porcupine raping a rattlesnake. I lifted the ax over my head and chopped into his forehead, cleaving his skull like splitting wood.
“Shut up, you.”
I wrenched the ax free as it fell, then took a few running steps to the next-closest ghoul. She was in reasonably good shape for a corpse. Most of her skin was still in place, not all of her hair had fallen out, and she was still recognizable as human. Might have even been pretty, once. Her only visible wound was a mouth-shaped gouge on her forearm. A small one. Like from a child.
“Poor thing. I hope it wasn’t your kid that did that.”
I swung the ax again, this time burying the blade through her temple. She dropped, and it took me a couple of precious seconds to pry the blade loose.
Meanwhile, the other walkers had spotted me and began growling and keening, their faces twisted and their hands grasping as they lurched toward me. I backed off a few steps, took a quick look around, and jogged back around the corner of the building. A rutted old gravel path started at the end of the cracked pavement, ran through a field of patchy grass, and terminated at the grain hopper next to the railroad tracks. My best bet was to lure the walkers into the open, run circles around them, and pick them off one by one. It was going to take a while, and it was going to be hard work.
“Nothing for it, Riordan. This is why you stay in shape.”
I turned and waved an arm at the walkers who were lunging forward as a single mass.
“Come on then, you fuckers. Let’s do this.”
I quickened my pace out to the middle of the field and began to sidestep in a wide circle around to my left. The first two walkers that came within range were nearly on top of each other, shuffling shoulder to shoulder. A front kick to the chest sent the smaller of the two tumbling backward and gave me the space I needed to behead his companion with a two-handed backswing. The one I had kicked landed at the feet of two others who promptly tripped over him and landed in a heap of struggling, moaning limbs. I dashed into the opening and used two quick swipes to cut the knees of ghouls on either side of me, then retreated and circled around to the other side.
So far, so good. I spotted another infected walking in front of two larger ones close enough to trip them. Taking two running steps, I executed a textbook jumping sidekick and planted my size twelve into his sternum. The bone crunched under my boot, and the little ghoul’s arms flapped comically as it bowled into the walkers behind him. I had enough time to chop two of their heads open as they struggled to get back up, and then the other ones began to close in, forcing me to back off.
To my left, a massively obese man reached toward me with one arm, and one ragged stump that ended just above the elbow. I ran around to his unprotected side, took half a step behind him, and brought the ax down at an angle into his knee. The blade cleaved through flesh and bone, and the big ghoul toppled over sideways. A quick follow up swing divided his skull into two equal halves before I backed off yet again, and circled the horde.
The dance continued for at least five minutes, and round and round we went. Five minutes may not sound like very long, but when you are running, throwing kicks as hard as you can, and swinging a heavy ax, it feels like an eternity. I managed to whittle their number down to just ten ghouls before my strength started to flag. With my arms trembling, and my lungs burning, I jogged away about a hundred yards and put the ax head on the ground, bending over it and leaning on the handle while I gasped for breath.
I straightened up, dug a canteen off my web belt, and took a long, grateful drink.
“What I wouldn’t give for a silencer right now.”
The temptation to simply pull my pistol and get this thing over with was strong, but doing so would only lead to having more walkers to contend with, so I left the Sig in its holster. Besides, I had handled this many. What was ten more?
Backing off, I let the walkers follow me closer to the tree line. I would need plenty of space to give ground once I circled them and started busting heads again. As I watched, one of them tripped on a depression in the ground and face-planted into the grass. I couldn’t get to him—he was in the middle of the pack—but it felt good to laugh.
When I was down to twenty feet of breathing room, I broke into a jog and ran around their left side. Finding a good vector, I turned, ran in at a sprint, and channeled my momentum into a spinning swing that sent the top half of a walker’s head flipping through the air. Another step brought me in range of what had once been a skinny, tattoo-covered young man who couldn’t have been a day over twenty when he died. I batted his arms aside, sheared off the front of his knee, and backed off as he went down. Rather than deliver a killing stroke, I retreated. He wasn’t much of a threat anymore, and the other walkers were getting too close for comfort.
“Okay. Two down, eight to go. Let’s get this done.”
I blew out a couple of deep breaths, and ignored the trembling in my arms. The ax was getting damned heavy.
The horde got close again, and this time I managed to take out four more of them before backing off. Two of them marched close to one another, just over arm’s length apart, and it was a simple thing to dart between them, hack their ankles like brittle saplings, and then kill each one with a downward stroke to the back of the head. Another ghoul behind them tripped over their bodies, and I wasted no time stepping up and dispatching him. The fourth was alone, and a simple baseball swing to the throat sent her head spinning one way and her body the other.
As I stood waiting for the remaining walkers to come within range again, a rustling of branches and the sound of something running over dead leaves caught my attention. Looking behind the walkers, I caught a brief flash of color, and the fleeting impression of a massive body running at incredible speed before it disappeared into the shadows of the forest.
That brief flash of color, a burnt orange glimpse of sleek fur stretched tight over rippling muscle, told me exactly what had been tracking me all day. My blood ran cold, and I wanted to kick myself for not bringing my rifle, not that I was entirely sure it would have done me any good. Facing a thousand walkers—something I had actually done before—would have been far preferable to taking on the thing dogging my trail.
“Okay, Riordan, you know animals hate the dead. It won’t get close while these things are around. Focus on what’s in front of you. One threat at a time.”
I steadied my breathing, clutched my ax, and waited.
They shuffled onward, ever onward, and I met the first of them with an overhead chop. He was a good bit taller than I was, and the angle was awkward, so I didn’t kill him on the first try. Another swing, harder this time, and he ate dirt. The rest were close behind, so I circled left to make the tall ghoul’s body perpendicular to their path. The next closest one tripped over him, making it easy to end its unnaturally prolonged life. I stayed close to the body to get a shot at one of the last three.
What happened next, I can only ascribe to bad luck and fatigue. My breath was coming in short gasps, my arms trembled, and the ax felt like it weighed about a hundred pounds. A couple of blisters had sprung up on my fingers, and I was beginning to feel weak from having eaten so little that day. It wouldn’t have happened a year earlier when I was raw-boned and full of whipcord muscle, toughened by the struggle to survive in the harsh, unforgiving Appalachians. But several months of plentiful food and soft living had sanded away my hardest edges, and made me a shade less sharp than I used to be.
I know. Excuses, excuses.
The last three ghouls were in a cluster, their arms brushing one another’s shoulders as they reached for me. I swung for the first one, but my weary arms didn’t quite raise the ax high enough, and the blow clipped the walker low on the face, the blade lodging in his jaw. If I had been less tired I could have pulled it free, but I wasn’t.
When I pulled on the ax, the ghoul came with it, dangerously close. It reached out, grabbed the lapel of my heavy jacket, and without hesitation, it hauled on me with more strength than any human body, dead or alive, should be able to muster. I wrenched the ax sideways and pushed it with both hands across the creature’s jaw, lodging the handle in its teeth and neutralizing it for the moment. I had enough strength left to keep it at bay, but I couldn’t hold it forever, and the other two were just feet away.
One of the many lessons Gabriel taught me about fighting the undead is that it is never a good idea to throw them. Unlike living people, they don’t care if you fling them ass-over-head. Nothing hurts them. And nearly every throwing technique imaginable, from a shoulder toss to a rolling hip-lock, brings them within biting distance—something you never, ever want to happen. A trip, a sweep, or a knockdown blow from a well-aimed boot is always a better option.
But in this case, I didn’t have much of a choice. The other two walkers were closing in, and the one in front of me wouldn’t be denied his feast for much longer. So I opted for the only option I had available. I backed off a step, pulled the ghoul’s head against me to trap the ax handle between my chest and its jaw, and rolled into what was quite possibly the sloppiest hip-toss I’ve ever thrown.
It worked, sort of. The creature flipped over and slammed onto its back. I managed to keep my feet beneath me, and landed with a knee on its chest, pinning it to the ground. Unfortunately, my back was to the other two, and I could practically feel their rotten hands growing inexorably closer. Meanwhile, the ghoul I was sitting on had maintained its grip on my jacket, and was pulling with everything it had to bring my face closer to its mouth. I didn’t have time to rip the jacket off, so I seized the arm holding me, trapped its wrist beneath my armpit with its elbow on my knee, and leaned down.
The limp snapped like a twig, and while the bastard’s grip didn’t loosen, the downward pressure finally let up. It kept trying to pull, but with the bones between its upper and lower arms disconnected, the muscles had no leverage. Gripping the ghoul’s wrist with one hand, I stood halfway up and pivoted on my knee to face the last two walkers.
They were closer than I thought.
The one in front—squat, fat, and obviously long dead—reached out and was only a foot away from gripping my shoulders. I couldn’t shrug out of the jacket in time, and if it got its hands on me, I was done for. My mind scrambled desperately for an idea, some way to escape. And then I remembered that I still had my fighting knife on my belt. Reaching down, I drew it, gripped it hard, and waited. The walker’s hands were just brushing the fabric of my coat when I struck with as much force as I could muster, driving the blade upward through walker’s soft palate and into its brain. As it stiffened, I gave the knife a hard twist that sent syrupy black ichor running down my glove, and the ghoul went limp. As it fell, I pushed it away from me. The knife, however, was stuck fast in its skull, forcing me to let it go.
One more down, but my problems weren’t over yet. The last ghoul followed close behind and lunged for me. I snatched the ax up from where it lay on the corpse beneath me, and lacking enough room to swing it, I shoved it against my attacker’s throat. The viselike squeeze of its hands gripped my shoulders, iron fingers gouging painfully into my skin. I let out a hoarse shout of pain and fear, and shoved it back as hard as I could, a desperate surge of adrenaline lending strength to my arms. It wouldn’t last long, and I knew I didn’t have much time to come up with something.
Rocking my weight to the left, I lifted up my right leg, planted my foot in the ghoul’s waist, and rolled backward, letting my arms go slack as I did. The combined push-pull effect from the walker’s arms and my outstretched leg sent the creature flipping over my head to land with a solid thump. For a couple of precious seconds, it lay immobile—probably trying to figure out what the hell just happened—and gave me the chance I needed to unzip my jacket and shrug my arms free.
Rolling to one side, I got up and sprinted about twenty yards away. When I turned back around, the two ghouls were also standing again and, as they always do, they were coming for me. The broken arm of the first one I had fought dangled uselessly from the elbow, the skin holding it together stretched and twisted. I stood up straight and filled my lungs with deep breaths: once, twice, three times. The adrenaline began to subside, leaving me weakened and shaky.
I needed a rest. I needed water. I needed something to eat, and I needed to wash the damned stinking gore-splatter off my clothes. But none of that was going to happen until I finished the job in front of me. The urge to pull the Sig returned more strongly than before, but again, I fought it down. There was no need, all I had to do was let these two meat sacks chase me a little ways, then run around them and retrieve my ax. I could see it lying on the ground next to the walker with a black Krylon knife-handle protruding from its lower jaw.
I pulled on my elbows to stretch my arms and back, touched my toes to ward off a cramp that was threatening my left hamstring, and walked quickly around behind the last two ghouls. With my weapon back in my hand, I felt the panic that had gripped me just a few short moments ago fade away, and in its place, a hot, burning anger began to take hold.
I had been dealing with this shit for more than two years. Two years of nightmares, and fear, and wondering if each day was going to be my last. All because these motherfuckers were hungry. Because they were mindless, and stupid, and cared for nothing but the endless, driving need that gnawed away at their rotten guts. It had consumed the world, that ravenousness, and all the pain and hardship I had endured as a result was their fucking fault. Even worse than that was the knowledge that after everything I had been through, everything I had survived, I almost got my ticket punched in some nameless, shithole backwater in middle-of-nowhere Tennessee because I got cocky, and complacent, and bit off a little more than I could chew.
It was a gut-check moment. No more fucking around.
I walked up to the one with the broken arm and cleaved its head in half, swinging so hard that the blade went through cranium, sinus cavity, and jaw, and lodged in the creature’s spine. It fell, and I let the ax go with it.
I let it get close enough to almost grab me, then seized its wrist, placed a palm against its elbow, and with a quick twisting, pulling step I slammed it down onto its face. Raising my boot, I stomped down hard onto the back of its neck, stomp after stomp, until I felt a crunch. Two more stomps for good measure, and I stepped away.
Behind me, I heard another moan.
“You gotta be fucking kidding me.”
Turning around, I saw the tattooed kid whose knee I had sheared nearly in two. He was still pursuing me, pushing himself across the ground with his good leg while pulling with his arms. I laughed, grabbed the handle of my ax, and after a little wrenching back and forth, pulled it free.
“I’ll give you this much, you’re a persistent fucker.”
Stopping a few feet away from him, I stood watching, the ax held loosely at my waist.
“What was your name, huh?”
It responded by leaning up, fixing its milky white eyes on me, and croaking. I lowered my voice into my best Samuel L. Jackson.
“That don’t sound like no name I ever heard of.”
It gripped the ground and pulled itself closer, its face contorting in hunger. It slid a few feet, then fell down as its grip faltered in the loose dirt.
“I’m sorry, did I break yo’ concentration?”
It moaned, kicked with renewed vigor at the sound of my voice, then went silent as it reached forward and dug its fingers into the ground again.
“Oh, you were finished? Well, allow me to retort.”
The ax swung down, and the walker went still.
I walked back over to my pack, grabbed a bottle of rubbing alcohol, and wiped down the blade, going over the handle as well just to be safe. When I finished, I held it up and looked at my grainy, distorted reflection in its surface.
“When you absolutely, positively got to kill every motherfucker in the room, accept no substitutes.”
The ax was no AK-47. And yes, I was switching movies. But hey, you take your laughs where you can get them.
If you liked what you just read, pick up a copy on Amazon today!
Or go to my author page and check out all my work!
I would like to thank James for sharing his work and I ask you to please support James and all of the other authors in the Zombie Tour – find out more here.
As always – thank you for reading