Tower in the Woods

Undead Fairy Tales – Book 1

Tara Quan

 

Chapter 1

Nel Zapur frowned as she studied the anomaly through the night sight of her M24 sniper rifle. The dark shadow, artificially made visible as a green glow by the scope, was moving far too quickly. The aerodynamically streamlined sprinting irrefutably indicated her target wasn’t a zombie. Zombies didn’t run, they lumbered. The virus still lingering in the undead might return enough functionality to make them into brain-eating monsters, but the reanimation process did not return full motor control or any cognitive abilities. Zombies may be relentless, but they weren’t fast, especially not as fast as Nel’s target was moving. They swarmed and overwhelmed, unfazed by pain or dismemberment, but they couldn’t cover great distances in a straight line, their stumbling movements inevitably making their journey circuitous.

Protocol indicated that Nel should still put a bullet through her target’s brain, infected or not, but she couldn’t bring herself to do it. In the eleven years that she had been stationed at the Tower, she had never killed another human being. It wasn’t because she was particularly merciful; it was just that no human unaffiliated with the Women’s Independent Territory Church had ever made it this far. The Tower overlooked the western border of the WITCH, and the woods beyond contained swarms of zombies, enough to ensure that no human would survive a journey through the undead wastelands.

But the shadow making slow and steady progress toward the Tower had somehow persevered this far, and Nel was, for the first time in memory, unwilling to satisfy her duty as the Tower’s guardian. Squeezing the trigger had never felt this hard, the decision to lodge a bullet through bone and flesh never this unclear. Her target wasn’t a zombie. Her target wasn’t something that was already dead. If she squeezed the trigger now, she would undoubtedly be committing murder.

Mother Gothel had never told Nel what to do if two of the WITCH’s ten commandments conflicted with each other. Commandment five told her to fulfill her duty, which meant shooting all targets within range. However, commandment six told her not to murder any human unless directly ordered by Mother Gothel herself, and the prophet wasn’t due to come by for another few days, perhaps longer if this snowstorm didn’t let up. What was Nel supposed to do with the human before then?

The best course of action, she supposed, was to simply do nothing to this specific target. After all, there were duties she could fulfill that were much more clear-cut. The human coming toward the Tower was obviously wounded—a good dozen or so zombies, drawn by the scent of fresh blood, were following the human straight through the boundary line that Nel was tasked to guard. Accounting for the blistering cold wind that would change the velocity and direction of her bullet, she aimed and fired directly between the eyes of a lumbering zombie’s head.

The kickback was absorbed squarely against Nel’s shoulder, an impact she was practically numb to, having been taught to use the weapon since she was six. She had been told that the accuracy of the rifle was within two inches and that its maximum effective range was eight hundred and seventy-five yards. However, Nel had been making shots at over a thousand yards for the past five years, and her accuracy was closer to one inch than two.

One by one, Nel lodged .300 Winchester Magnums into the heads of the zombies gaining on the bleeding human. Each time she squeezed the trigger she made a single-shot kill. When the sun came up seven hours from now, members of the WITCH would span out to scavenge the metal, as well as whatever other raw materials could be found on the zombies, and eventually the bullets from those heads would be melted and reused.

Considering Nel shivered against the cold, she had a feeling the ones she’d just used were irrevocably lost. No scavenging expedition was worth braving this storm, one that was turning the temperature in her Tower down to arctic levels. For the first time since she had been stationed there she considered blocking off the single window that gave her a glimpse of the outside world. Without it she couldn’t fulfill her duty, but if she didn’t do something about the cold very soon she was afraid she may very well die.

Nel wasn’t too concerned about the snow preventing the WITCH from resupplying her. Since she had always craved the security of having plenty of supplies to spare, she had hoarded both bullets and other necessities since she’d been brought to the Tower eleven years ago. By using all her resources cautiously, with an eye toward saving rather than comfort, she was able to accumulate a sizable stash of essential items. Even if snow blocked the narrow road leading through the woods to her Tower all winter she would easily be able to survive.

At first, Nel had felt a little guilty about not verbalizing the fact that she was receiving far more supplies than she actually needed, but caution quickly took precedence over doctrine. After all, no one in the WITCH knew the exact location of the Tower besides Mother Gothel, who was edging closer to seventy every day. Besides, all the items she had in her possession were given to her by the prophet, and omission, after all, wasn’t a sin. Considering the fact she may be snowed in for who knew how long, the decade she spent scrimping and saving was about to pay off.

Once all the zombies following the human were incapacitated, Nel returned her attention to the initial dilemma. The shadow was now close enough she could see it without the scope so she flipped on the safety of her M24 and pulled out the five-round detachable magazine before unloading the chamber and lowering her weapon. The draw of the human’s blood had flushed out most of the zombies within the vicinity so Nel was pretty certain she wouldn’t have to use the rifle again tonight. Any zombie within sniffing distance of the human had just been eliminated.

Still undecided about what to do, Nel peeked through the small window and looked downward. The shadow had finally reached the Tower and fumbled around the walls, looking for an opening. She could have told her uninvited visitor there was no door, that the Tower had long since been sealed with brick and cemented over, and the spiral wooden staircase leading up to her quarters blown to smithereens. But other than the few monosyllabic answers she occasionally muttered in Mother Gothel’s presence, Nel hadn’t spoken to anyone in eleven long years, and she didn’t particularly want to start now.

Curious, Nel leaned out a little farther, trying to see the stranger more clearly. The human was much larger than she was used to seeing, the body and torso oddly blocky and rectangular. Mother Gothel was a large woman but she was round in the middle and circular in shape, not at all like the shadow pounding against the cemented walls of the Tower. Looking down at her own body, Nel decided the human trying to get inside was easily twice her size and probably a good head taller than her. That was odd since she was one of the tallest members of the WITCH, standing a good five inches higher than Mother Gothel, who was about average height.

Suddenly the hooded shadow looked directly up at the window, clearly sensing Nel’s presence, and the sight of it nearly made her take a step back. There was hair on its face, she could see it clearly even in the night, and she had not seen such an odd feature before on anything other than zombies. She then remembered descriptions she had read in the numerous books that lined her small quarters, and they brought her to a terrifying conclusion.

The human looking up at her was what the books described as a man. According to teachings of the WITCH, men were evil, deviant creatures who tortured and killed women. They were the reason these zombies existed in the first place. They were not to be trusted, and any male presence was supposed to be immediately reported to Mother Gothel.

But since Nel did not have the ability to leave the Tower, reporting the man was not an option, and she did not have any guidance as to what she should do if left to her own devices. In all the years since the WITCH was founded, this issue had never come up. Nel had been with the WITCH since she was six, and for the past twenty-one years, no man had ever entered the WITCH’s borders. In fact, many of the younger members of WITCH assumed men weren’t real, that they were described in Mother’s teachings as a metaphor for all the world’s evils.

Grabbing a pistol from the holster around her shoulders, Nel pointed the sidearm downward and aligned the sights. The Glock was a precaution, something she was meant to use if she ran out of the .300 Magnums. It wasn’t as accurate as the rifle but the 10mm bullets were much easier to come by and there were a large number of them stockpiled in the Tower. Out of boredom she had lately allowed zombies to get much closer to the Tower so she could practice using the Glock. Making perfect shots using her M24 had lost its challenge several years ago.

“Whoa there. Take it easy. I’m unarmed,” the man said as he saw what Nel pointed at him. He must have excellent night vision for it was pitch-dark at this late hour with storm clouds blocking any light from the stars and obscuring the moon. “I’m not here to hurt you.”

The voice was much lower than any Nel had ever heard before, and she remembered the books describing male voices as a bass or baritone. The sound seemed to rumble out of his chest rather than the throat, and it projected much more clearly than her voice ever would, considering she was elevated a good thirty feet above him. The howling winter winds were loud enough to mute the growls of zombies, which made it even more surprising that she could hear the man so distinctly.

“You need to leave,” Nel yelled down, some part of her balking at the thought of killing another human, even if it was a man. “Go away.”

“Look, lady,” the man replied, “the snowstorm of the century just hit these parts and it isn’t going away anytime soon. If you don’t let me in you might as well shoot me. I’m bleeding and the zombies can smell it a mile away. If the brain-eaters don’t get me, hypothermia will.”

Firmly, Nel shook her head, more at ease with nonverbal communication. Then she realized the man couldn’t possibly see that motion in the dark. “There’s no way in. The Tower is sealed. Please find somewhere else.” She carefully enunciated, trying to make her naturally soft voice as loud as possible. Her words weren’t exactly eloquent but she was out of practice making her mouth say things out loud.

“How the hell do you get out?” the man asked as he continued to stand there, looking at her, unfazed by the weapon pointed at him.

“I don’t,” Nel answered simply, hoping it would make the man leave. It was also the absolute truth since she hadn’t left the Tower for over a decade. There would be no point building such an elaborate defensive structure only to allow zombies to break in, or so Mother Gothel had told Nel eleven years ago. When Mother Gothel made her weekly visit, Nel would lower a basket to retrieve the necessary items, barely even making eye contact with the prophet. Aside from the scavengers, most members of the WITCH didn’t even know where the Tower was exactly, only that it was somewhere in the woods.

The man refused to be deterred. “What about supplies? Tell me how you get them.”

Obedience had been an integral part of Nel’s training, and she was not accustomed to refusing to answer questions or disobeying direct orders. Before she had the wherewithal to stop herself, she replied, “I have a fixed pulley and rope. Supplies are tied onto the rope and I pull them up and through the window. There is no other point of entry.”

“Is there anything you can anchor the rope to? Something bolted into the wall that won’t move?” he asked, sounding frustrated. Snow and sleet rained down, and it was getting colder and colder as they spoke.

Nel forcefully shook her head before remembering once more the man couldn’t see her. “No. Everything inside the Tower can move. It was designed so I can’t tie the rope to anything and climb out. Mother Gothel said the best path to obedience is removing temptation.”

She heard the man mutter a number of words that weren’t in her vocabulary before he said, “Tie the rope to your waist and throw it down. It’s at least worth a shot.”

The idea of helping the man into the Tower was so alien to Nel she simply froze. The teachings of the WITCH clearly stated men were evil and violent abominations, that they existed on earth for the sole purpose of hurting women. The prophet once told Nel she had experienced the cruelty of men before she discovered Mother’s teachings, that a group of men had burned out her left eye after keeping her tied up in chains and raping her for weeks. Nel didn’t know at the time what rape meant but she knew from the pain and anger in Mother Gothel’s face that it must have been something truly horrid. Helping the man get into the Tower was definitely a very bad idea, one she shouldn’t even consider.

Clearly sensing Nel’s refusal, the man cried out persuasively, “If you don’t help me, you might as well just put a bullet through my head. Out here I will either freeze to death or get killed by zombies. It’s your call, but if you don’t do it you will be committing murder.”

And murder wasn’t good. There was a sick feeling in the pit of her stomach at the thought of being directly responsible for the death of another human being. The man was right; letting someone die was the same as murder.

Squaring her shoulders, Nel reached for the rope and looped it over the pulley. She tied one end around her waist before holstering the pistol, but she kept a bullet in the chamber. After all, if this man got violent and tried to hurt her it would be self-defense and not murder if she had to kill him.

*

Special Agent Dane Prince silently cursed as he hauled himself up the Tower in the woods. The flimsy rope cut painfully into his palms, the small sharp fibers that were braided elaborately together feeling like prickly thorns. He could only thank his lucky stars the woman on the other end was holding steady. Dane couldn’t make out any facial features when he first looked up at the Tower, the moonlight having silhouetted the female and obscuring his view. He had been desperate, asking her to pull him up, even though he strongly doubted any female had the strength necessary to do so. Now that he was a good fifteen feet off the ground, he was relieved he had been wrong, but intimately aware if she suddenly let go of the rope he would most surely die.

Dane would have refused this godforsaken mission had it not been for the fact that all of Washington, D.C. was in an uproar. Every month for the past twenty years, at least one little girl had been abducted from New America’s capital city, and the Federal Military Agency had made no progress tracking down the kidnapper. The agency’s first and only lead came in the form of a young lesbian refugee couple, who said their names were Michelle and Angela.

The two women had arrived at the city’s gates severely wounded, claiming they had escaped from the Women’s Independent Territory Church. They had been tortured within an inch of their lives, escaping and journeying toward the capital without much hope of success. Michelle was clearly a trained soldier while Angela had told them she had been in charge of the school. Neither of them had been in good enough shape for any significant interrogation to take place.

They had both been infected by the Undead Reanimation Virus, but luckily for them, the disease hadn’t progressed too far. They were sedated and pumped full of antivirals, and the FMA was only allowed short snippets of conversation by the hospital staff. They learned the WITCH was a large cult occupying several hundred acres of Virginia woodlands, and that it had been abducting girls from the federal government compound for the past two decades.

Dane along with a handful of other operatives had been sent out to scour the zombie-infested areas neighboring the capital in search of this mythical cult. After weeks of intelligence gathering among small enclaves of resistance fighters, Dane had learned the WITCH had been founded about fifty years ago at the height of the URV outbreak by a woman who called herself Mother Gothel.

Composed mostly of women with military or paramilitary training, the WITCH had been able to take advantage of the military’s abandonment of Fort Belvoir where the cult supposedly set up its headquarters. After taking over the weapons and resources in the military base, it established an enclave for women that occupied most of what was once Mount Vernon National Park. For the first thirty years, as the URV outbreak wiped out most of the world’s population, enough women and girls had flocked to the WITCH’s stronghold for recruitment to not be a problem.

But with the discovery of a vaccine for the Undead Reanimation Virus twenty years ago, what was left of the American civilian and military leadership opened up Washington, D.C. to refugees in lieu of keeping the mostly unscathed capital city under a virtual lockdown. The city was now quickly rebuilding itself with a population of over fifty thousand people and growing agricultural and manufacturing sectors. The Federal Military Agency was set up to serve the dual roles of defending the city against the horde of zombies that surrounded its borders as well as policing the city’s population against crime. Dane’s father had been part of the FMA since its inception, and Dane had proudly followed in the general’s footsteps.

Unfortunately, that particular career choice had landed Dane smack-dab in the middle of zombie-infested woodlands several hours outside the capital, during what was gearing up to be the biggest snowstorm of the century. He had made the fatal mistake of driving his Jeep over land mines strategically placed at the junction of Interstate 495 and Richmond Highway. His shoulder scratched by shrapnel from the explosion, Dane had been forced to pick his way along George Washington Memorial Parkway, a road that had long since been reclaimed by trees, weeds, and zombies.

Although Washington, D.C. was now the strongest and most prosperous human stronghold in the world, the fledgling government was very reluctant to incite direct conflict with any human enclave outside its borders, kidnapping or no kidnapping. The city had survived through absolute isolationism, literally cutting off the rest of humanity and using all of its resources to preserve only what was within its domain. Because of that cutthroat decision fifty years ago, Washington, D.C. had survived and prospered. Considering the conservatism of the military and civilian cadre that now administered the city, it was a miracle public sentiment had forced the FMA to accept refugees at all.

The intelligence regarding the existence and location of the WITCH was tenuous at best, and Dane understood the federal government’s bureaucracy well enough to know no action was going to be taken without visual confirmation of the WITCH’s stronghold along with detailed schematics of the headquarters. Even then the FMA was likely to drag its feet for as long as humanly possible before attempting a rescue operation.

Through sheer random luck, Dane had made it all the way to Mount Vernon without getting torn apart by brain-eaters, and now he was one slippery hand away from falling off a five-story tower. All that stood between him and certain death was a woman who was, by her own admission, a member of the very cult he had been sent to investigate—a nameless, faceless individual who couldn’t have sounded more reluctant to help him. All he knew about his savior was that she had the sweetest voice he had ever heard, one that reminded him of honey and spring flowers, and that she was one hell of a sharpshooter. Dane was an expert at all firearms, but he doubted he could outdo what the girl had just accomplished in the past twenty minutes.

Dane could only hope as he reached out his hand to grab onto the window’s ledge that the woman wouldn’t decide to lodge a bullet straight between his eyes. After all, if she wanted to kill him, she had been given plenty of better opportunities.