The next morning, as smoke still rose lazily up from the city beyond; Mark awoke and staggered to his feet. Blinking away the dark spots in his eyes and gagging at a foul taste in his mouth he clumsily threw on his jeans and the heavy black overcoat he had found last night in an abandoned Land Rover and had been using as a pillow.
Grabbing his pistol and holster from the table next to him and stepping carefully past the sleeping forms of Chris and Gage and past the pile of supplies they had made by the door he tiptoed out and into the main area.
"Sleep well?" he heard a voice say and turned to see Aafia sat behind the counter amongst the ransacked shelves, absently looking over Marvalo's double barrelled shotgun, two shells lined up in front of her ready for use.
"Like a log…" he replied with a grin and stretched, his hand instinctively going to his bandaged right side where a bullet had grazed it during the flight from the crazed games of Miss Marvalo and her gang.
"Is that…?" Aafia began, looking with concern at the shape of the bandages under his shirt but Mark only grinned.
"Fine." He said simply. "I changed the bandage whilst I was on watch last night and its fine. Bullet just grazed it. Have you seen any of the others?"
"Jacobs on the roof at the moment watching the road." She explained. "Said that he thought he saw some movement on one of the buildings on the outskirts last night and we should check it out maybe. Could be some survivors or something… As for Eliza and Lexi, I don't know really and whatever they're doing they kept it quiet." She added with a slightly cold tone to her voice.
"Have you seen Michael?" Mark asked, his fists clenching a t the thought of the man who had almost killed his best friend last night.
"Just outside watching the road." Aafia said, and then called after him as he turned toward the door. "Look…just don't do anything stupid. He was just stressed last night that's all…"
"Stressed! That guy almost throttled Chris!"
"He's had some bad experiences since this whole thing went down Mark. Worse than all of us I've heard." she added. "Just remember that before you do anything rash."
Mark nodded as he stepped outside and closed the door, Aafia returning to checking her weapon as he breathed in the cool morning air. The sky beyond was overcast to the north but with glimpses of blue beyond, whilst the air was warm but with a hint of smoke in it, drifting in from London beyond.
He saw Michael across the forecourt, past silent petrol pumps and cars, sat on the bonnet of a crumpled sports car, swigging from a water bottle and starring out at the fields across the empty highway.
"Enjoying the view?" Mark said, and instantly Michael's head snapped around, his face pale.
"Look man…" he stammered. "I'm so ashamed at what I did. If I could…"
Mark shook his head with a smile.
"It's over." He said firmly. "You're not the first person to use Chris as a punching bag when things are rough…" he added with a grin as he sat down next to the young preacher. "Seen anything of interest?"
"Nothing much. There were a few walkers a while back but Jacob got them before they made it too far. Besides that just a few stray sheep wandering across and there was a helicopter about an hour ago. We tried to signal it but either the pilot couldn't see us or didn't care." He said with a frown. "It flew back towards London after circling for a bit."
"That's good!" Mark said with a grin. "If the military or whoevers sent that helicopter are in London that must mean there's a safe zone or something! The fact they have aircraft is even better! I bet the army are already clearing up whatever undead are left in the city and should be here within the week. I mean, how are walkers going to take out tanks and attack choppers?"
Michael looked down at his feet solemnly, tapping his leg with the steel machete in his right hand.
"Those never helped back in Haven."
"The village I was assigned to preach in back at the start of this nightmare." Michael explained simply, sighing softly.
Mark nodded as the preacher continued.
"There were only about a hundred or so people in the village." He explained, staring blankly ahead. "We could have been safe really. There was a river running around three quarters of the village and the rest was empty fields we could have, I don't know, built a wall on or something. Lord knows how well we might have done for ourselves until well, the military arrived. When I heard the military were coming I expected maybe a squad or so, just to help us fortify the place. We got a while friggin army!"
Michael's expression darkened.
"You would have thought having a thousand soldiers and an entire army base in and around the village would have done it good. Absolutely not! They were sending out troops every day on 'seek and destroy' missions. You would see low flying warplanes and helicopters over the fields laying waste to the landscape whilst they sent whole platoons worth of soldiers and vehicles everywhere…"
He shook his head.
"Soon they had attracted what felt like every walker in the south of England. Probably a lot came from whatever was left after Southampton was carpet bombed. All I know is I heard explosions and gunfire for a whole night and then, in the morning, nothing. I remember the street outside the church was empty. It was creepy almost, people just staggering out onto the main street looking scared and confused as rabbits. The army camp on the village green was empty, and no one knew where they had gone. All I know is, wherever they had gone, they weren't coming back. I got everyone into the village church, figured it was the safest place at the time. I remember praying so much, asking God to spare us from whatever cruel fate had befallen the military. Then I climbed the church tower and looked out over the countryside."
He was looking directly ahead now, tears forming in his eyes.
"That's when my hope died."
The first tear fell, hitting the grey tarmac silently as he continued.
"I saw the fields beyond me laid out like a sick tapestry of death and decay. All across the farmland were the remains of the military. Abandoned tanks and armoured vehicles just sat there like statues, the horses the army had taken from the old Giles Farm to get their artillery in position lay dead around those same guns they had dragged out there the day before. Smoke was rising above them, just tiny little clouds, the remains of walkers the army had been roasting with flamethrowers and incendiaries. There were a few helicopters as well, lying on their sides or painted with blood and gore and still sat by crushed tents and ammo dumps. But the worst bit was the bodies. So many of them. Soldiers and civilians alike, all in various states of decomposition. And all of them moving."
By now the tears were flowing freely and Michael looked Mark straight in the eye.
"They were coming. So many of them. Must have been hundreds, if not thousands even, moving across the fields and around the remains of the army's last stand in one unbroken horde."
He took a deep breath, wiping his eyes on his sleeve.
"Do you know what I did? Do you know what I did as I saw that tide of undead?"
Michael looked down at his feet, shaking and sobbing.
The preacher put his head in his hands.
"I just ran out of that church. Didn't say where I was going or what was going to happen to all those people, mothers and fathers, children and babies. I remember just turning to old Mr Holt, the local policeman, standing by the door with a grin on his face, as if to say everything was going to be alright… I just turned to him as I opened the door, said I would be 'back in a minute' then left."
"What did you do?" Mark asked softly.
"I closed that door and just sprinted away. I heard the screams a few minutes later."
Mark looked away, feeling a slight sense of shame at how, only a minute or so ago, he had been ready to beat this man to a pulp and yet now, he only felt a great sense of sorrow and compassion towards him. He had seen, and experienced, so many horrors compared to the rest of them.
"Look…" Mark began, turning to face the sobbing preacher. "I understand what you've…"
He never got a chance to say anymore as Michael suddenly lunged forward and pushed him away, sending him sprawling.
"Motherfucker!" he roared, hand reaching for his pistol as he began to pick himself up.
Then he looked up and saw Michael smile at him, a genuine one filled with warmth and yet with a tinge of sadness. Then the crack of a rifle echoed across the forecourt, and Michael was struck in the chest and rolled off the car with a burst of crimson.
"Oh shit." Mark said softly and drew his gun, rolling into cover behind a parked car, sweating and breathing heavily.
"Another shot whined overhead and Mark peeked out from behind his hiding place to see a figure in body armour and a bandana aiming an old rifle, fumbling with the bolt and cursing.
Then there was a brief thud of gunfire from above and the man fell back with a whine, a bullet between his eyes.
That's when he heard Jacob's voice overhead and another quick burst of fire.
"Get inside boys! I'll keep their heads down!"
Keeping low as a bullet whizzed past and catching sight of shadowy figures crouched behind the cars on the motorway, Mark rolled to where Michael lay in a pool of blood.
"Shit man I'm gonna have to get you inside." Mark stammered, retching slightly at the gaping wound in the preacher's chest. "Why the fuck did you..?"
"Saw the guy in the bushes." Michael said before coughing up a wad of blood. "Couldn't let you get shot down by some thug."
Mark's eyes widened as the truth of the man's sacrifice was revealed.
"John 15:13." Michael spluttered. "Greater love hath no man than…"
"…to lay down his life for his friends." Mark finished, breathing heavily. "We can…"
"No need." Michael said with a grim smile. "I've got this one. Pass me your gun." He said firmly.
Mark turned his head as he handed Michael the heavy pistol, turning away with a grimace.
When the single gunshot rang out Mark, averting his eyes from what remained of the preacher, grabbed his gun and sprinted across the tarmac, crashing through the door and into the dingy shop, earning a look of surprise from Aafia, before she fired off a blast from her shotgun outside, then slammed another two shells into her gun.
"Get the others!" she shouted. "We need to get out of here!"
Mark nodded and barrelled into the next room, finding Eliza and Lexi waiting, both with weapons drawn.
"We need to move." He said simply and started grabbing their bags from the pile, along with his crossbow and the meat cleaver he had picked up from Stan's house. "Grab the stuff and make for the cars. The other should be with us…"
He was cut off by a burst of automatic gunfire by the back door, and he watched with horror as the flimsy metal door, covered in new bullet holes, was kicked in and a figure ran in, clutching a sub machine gun.
Instantly knowing the balaclava clad thug was no friend Mark fired off a shot isnticntively, caving in the man's head.
As he stared at the corpse, his mind full of doubts about his first murder, another figure ran in, this one firing off a long rattle of gunfire across the room, firing from the shoulder as the three survivors dived for cover.
When the gun smoke cleared Mark slowly stood up and watched, in horror, as he saw Eliza standing, her gun gone and her fists clenched, face to face with…
"Sunil Singh." He heard her say softly, the fury in her voice obvious as she lunged for him.
"Oh what a surprise. But I would save any heroism you have planned." Sunil, a grin on his face, said softly as he drew a heavy chrome Desert Eagle pistol from his coat, throwing his empty AK aside and aiming his gun in a steady hand. "Unless you want a round in your head like your girlfriend got…"
"Stay the fuck away from her!" Mark heard a voice say, and Chris suddenly came running in, pistol in hand.
"Hold up there." Sunil laughed, grinning widely. "You're her brother I guess?"
Chris was breathing heavily with rage, the rattle of gunfire from outside providing a strange soundtrack to the tense standoff as Mark quickly drew his own weapon.
"Back off Singh." He said cooly, crossbow aimed at the man's heart.
"Nice bow William Tell." The gangster said with a laugh. "But soon as the rest of my boys get here…" he added, curling his left hand into the shape of a gun and mouthing the word 'bang' at each of the assembled survivors, then laughing again.
For a second there was silence, then a figure burst through the back door, knife raised and leapt at the gangster.
Instantly Sunil turned and fired off a shot before dodging his attacker's blade and drawing a machete from a holster inside his overcoat and swinging it in mad arcs at his assailant.
"Shit that's Gage." Lexi said simply as they looked on, dumbfounded.
It was indeed the Gurkha, but gone was the genial old man they knew, replaced by a whirling beserker, swinging his kukri, face a mask of rage.
Even Sunil seemed surprised and stepped back, his blade meeting the old soldier's kukri with a clash of steel.
With a contemptuous flourish of his knife, Gage easily knocked aside the gangster's machete and held the knife to his throat.
"Get out." He said simply, hurling the man into the wall and standing over him, kukri clenched in hand.
Sunil staggered to his feet, eyes ablaze as he grabbed his AK and sprinted from the room.
"Why did you let him go?" Chris said through clenched teeth, ready to sprint off after the fleeing gangster.
"Because I didn't want to become the same monster he has." The old soldier said simply. "Now grab what you can and run."
Mark literally fell into the front seat of Alafia's police car, its new owner raising an eyebrow before starting the engine.
On the back seat Jacob sat, rifle at the ready, gripping the weapon tightly.
"Go!" he said simply and Aafia brought it around in a tight circle and screaming out of the petrol station and down the motorway, ramming over a walker crawling across the bloodstained tarmac.
"Others are right behind us." Jacob said simply.
"Who the hell were those guys?" Aafia said with a concerned tone to her voice.
"Some pyscho we met in London a while back and his thugs." Mark said simply. "Gage let him go."
Aafia looked about to ask the same question Mark had been asking himself since they escaped, but was cut off by Jacob shouting from the back.
"They're behind us!"
"Shit." Aafia said softly as she checked her mirror, noticing a green armoured vehicle thundering in pursuit of the two cars.
Pressing the accelerator to the floor she sent the car speeding up the motorway, the trees and fields either side melding into a blur of green.
"You know we can't exactly fight that thing?" Mark said, checking his crossbow as the armoured car's horn blared out.
He looked down at his feet, expecting nothing less from their pursuers than a quick bullet to the face, or worse, to be left for dead and rise as another walker to join the ranks of the undead.
Then he heard the clatter of helicopter blades overheard, and remembered his words from before.
"Shit." He said with a grin. "Michael was right."
From above there was a burst of heavy machine gun fire and he saw the armoured vehicle breaking away and retreating, whilsut the others were whooping and hollering.
Then the radio crackled into life.
"This is Night Watch." Came the voice of the helicopter pilot. "Feel free to thank us later. Proceed on to George Gate on the M4 motorway for entry to the Westminster Safe Zone. Oh and welcome to London."
Five minutes later and the small convoy was powering along the devastated from of the M4,skirting burnt out cars and craters, the city below them an empty shell filled with abandoned cars and debris.
Looking up ahead Mark saw the tall form of a high wall built from heavy concrete blocks and fortified with barbed wire, two watchtowers sat either side with grim faced soldiers standing at the ready and watching the city beyond. Between the towers was a steel gate, five metres high, warning signs and notices plastered across its metal form. And before it lay a pile of dead walkers, pushed into two stacks and blackened by fire, two soldiers with flamethrowers letting forth a torrent of flame onto the cadavers.
As they drove toward the checkpoint Mark saw a green 'Welcome to London' sign, covered in bloody handprint,whilist a crimson line had been drawn through the city name and replaced so it now read the morbid phrase 'Welcome to Hell."
"Well this looks promising." Jacob said from the back, slightly unsure as he reloaded his rifle.
Any other comments were silenced as they stopped at the barricade and were ordered to step out of the vehicle.
"Warm welcome isn't it?" Mark said as he stepped out,hands on his head,the gas masked soldiers on the wall above aiming down at them.
"Open it up boys I'm not seeing any bites!" called a burly sergeant from one of the towers,staring down a rifle scope at the small band.
As the gate slid open and they drove on Mark looked outside at the small army camp on both sides. The soldiers here were grim faced and hard, clutching their weapons close as they closed the gates behind them, a few hefting heavy crates between the small settlement of tents and prefab buildings that had been dragged up here, whilst long spools of barbed wire coated the barriers at the edge of the road, over which snipers glanced with high powered rifles.
"Bit of a lax policy to bites?" Jacob muttered as they exited the camp through another armoured gate ,a lone armoured car sat by the gate moving aside for the ragtag convoy.
"Well they seem safe enough here." Aafia observed. "Maybe things aren't as bad as Chris thought they would be.
"Doubt it." Jacob said bitterly as they drove on, passing a few walkers who stumbled toward them before accurate shots from the gate behind pierced their skulls.
"Any better ideas?" Mark asked, slightly angrier than he meant to.
Jacob shook his head sullenly as they drove on through the empty streets.
"Wait there's something up ahead." Aafia said, nodding up the road.
"Ah shit another checkpoint." Mark muttered as they stopped at the crude wall of police riot vans and barbed wire.
And yet the only occupant was a lone female soldier, sat atop one of the vans, her helmet and mask next to her, absently holding her rifle and running a finger through her short brown hair, done up in a tight bun.
Stepping out the car Mark walked towards the barrier and the soldier stood spreading her arms wide in mock greeting.
"Private Jessica Parr." She stated simply. "Welcome to hell."