AN: This is the first time I've had the courage to submit anything for others to read. I wasn't sure whether to put this in the Walking Dead category or the World War Z category since it could belong to either world. I've decided on WWZ because of the lack of specific character recognition. Criticisms welcome!
The woods are silent. The sun has barely risen above the horizon (not that one can see the horizon from this deep in the forest, of course) and the shadows have cast the snow in a sort of foggy blue light. The only sound in this crisp stillness is the crunch of boots through the icy crust which has settled itself upon the snow.
Dark eyes search through the snow laden branches for any sign of movement. Seeing none the bundled individual presses on, following a memorized path away from Home Base, walking in a straight line beneath the blue shadows cast by the blanketed branches. The crunching footsteps stop after twenty minutes. A gloved hand reaches up to touch a tree with a bold N carved into the bark, below the N is a smaller notch |. Habitually confirming the location before continuing on in the same direction, the dark eyes never cease their perpetual scanning. Ears are focused, ready to pick up on any sound.
Stepping at an even pace the second marker is reached. N ||. The right hand brushes against the letter and the notches without even looking at them. The forward progress stops at this tree. The sound of the crunching footsteps fades away in the frozen air. Silence. Eyes continue looking in all directions, never glancing upward at any point, always staying eye level and below.
Up is of no consequence. They cannot climb.
Silence and emptiness greets the ears and eyes of the hunter. Satisfied with the silence the eyes flick toward the right, the body turns and follows the gaze in the memorized steps of a great clockwise circle. E || and S || were reached with no excitement or surprises. Half way between S || and W || something caught the gaze of the searching eyes. The crunching footsteps cease. The gloved hands tighten their grip around the hunting bow which had silently made its way from the harness across the snow dusted back into the hands which now were pulling a single arrow into place.
Dark eyes focus on the detail that triggered the mental alert. A dark shadow. Too short to belong to a tree, too… person-shaped. The sound from the crunching foot steps had not attracted attention from it. Perhaps it was still in a sleep state, no food to catch means no reason to keep walking. Perhaps it stood still too long and had begun to freeze.
Perhaps it was a tree stump.
Gloved hands raise the hunting bow, a single finger resting gently on the arrow shaft, two more restrain the slightly tightened string. A puff of fog is released through the fabric covering the face below the hunter's eyes. A silent calming sigh. Slowly, one step at a time, the figure approaches the person-shaped shadow.
Sure enough. Frozen walker. The gloved hands carefully relax pressure on the string, well oiled cogs silently roll back into place. The arrow is removed from the bow and both pieces are returned to their places within the harness hanging between their shoulders. No point in risking an arrow. Instead the gloved hands pull a pickaxe up from its loop on the right hip. As the crunching steps approach the walker dark eyes take in cloudy white ones. A low growl emerged from its throat, but with its limbs frozen it could do no more than that. Even the cloudy dead eyes were unmoving. Lids half shut. A blue winter jacket hangs in tatters from the frozen body. It used to be one of the "neighbors". That's what they called the other survivor camps which studded hundreds of miles of frozen forest.
On rare occasion they would meet other survivors on their early hikes, scouting out territory before things really settled in. Occasionally they would send messages to other camps and settlements, checking on their wellbeing. There was very little face to face contact, of course, that was too dangerous. Notes would be left in certain trees between the camps. Never offering help. Never asking for it. Just acknowledging another's survival can be enough to keep going. About six months after Home Base was settled one of their hunting parties came across a group of about six or seven other survivors doing the exact same thing. It was decided then and there that they would not merge groups. Not yet. Best to keep separate for now, at least until things settled. At that time no one trusted each other. Every bruise or scratch on a stranger's face or arms looked like a bite. If you let them into your home they would gain your trust, die, turn, and infect your whole party. No. It was easier to acknowledge from a distance. Thing had been getting better, though. People were settled in. It seemed like this would be the year. Come spring someone would send the message asking if there could be a meet. Someone would propose making better roads or means of communication between the communities. Someone would suggest joining up. Someone would crack a joke about deepening the gene pool. Someone would smile and say that things felt so normal. Normal.
Goodbye. Gloved hands grip the wooden handle of the pickaxe and swing it boldly at the head. Ignore the blue parka. Ignore the blonde hair. Ignore the tell-tale signs that this was once one of us. The rhythmic thoughts rang out like a mantra, blocking out the sound of shattering ice. Frozen shards of skin and bone fell to the ground. Black dead brains ooze across the snow, staining the clean white blanket like crude oil. It was fresher than expected. Dark eyes watch the black liquid drip from the tip of the pickaxe. Wiping it carefully with handfuls of snow before returning it to the loop at the right hip, the hunter moves on. Back to the memorized path. W || and back to N ||. By now the sun is above the tree tops. Light reflects back from every surface, causing a headache to form behind the dark eyes. Heavy boots begin the memorized spiraling path back to Home Base. The news felt heavy on the mind. If the neighbors were infected… if they were wiped out. No. We have no proof, we just have one walker. Maybe they got bit and were turned away. No, that can't be. What survivor base would let an infected just walk? No one is that sentimental these days. Maybe they were on a hunt when they got bit. Maybe they didn't have a way to kill themselves. Instead of bringing the infection home they decided to just let the cold take them. Yes, that must have been it. They got bit on a patrol but instead of risking infecting another they wandered deeper into the woods, so far that they crossed into our territory. Maybe they knew that. They knew that our patrol would take them out if they came too close, but it was still far enough that they would freeze before they could spread the infection.
The best case scenario thoughts felt good. But we must plan for the worst and hope for the best.
The spiraling path led the heavy feet home. Every limb ached from the weight of the gear and the cold seeping into the fiery burn of the muscles. Dark eyes acknowledge the two close-guards. One, Steven, is pacing around the back of the homestead. The other, Jo, nods toward the hunter. "Cap," she says, "peaceful patrol?"
"Not that lucky." A quiet voice says from behind the black scarf, sounding whispery after hours of silence.