Book: Led Astray: The Best of Kelley Armstrong

Previous: The Kitsune’s Nine Tales
Next: Bamboozled

If you had to make a last stand for the survival of your race, Monica supposed there were worse places to do it. As she gazed out over the fort walls, she could imagine fields of green and gold, corn stalks swaying in the breeze.

How long had it been since she’d tasted corn? Monica closed her eyes and remembered August backyard barbecues, the smell of ribs and burgers on the grill, the chill of an icy beer can as Jim pressed it to her back, the sound of Lily’s laughter as she darted past, chasing the other children with water balloons.

Monica opened her eyes and looked out at the scorched fields. She’d been the one who’d given the order to set the blaze, but there hadn’t been corn in them, not for years. Only barren fields of grass and weeds that could hide the enemy, best put to the torch.

“Commander,” a voice said behind her.

She turned and a pimply youth snapped his heels together and saluted. The newer ones did that sometimes, and she’d stopped trying to break them of the habit. They needed to believe they were in a proper army, with proper rules, even if they’d never worn a uniform before. It was what kept them going, let them believe they could actually win this war.

“Hendrix just radioed,” the youth said. “He’s bringing in the latest group of prisoners.”

Monica nodded and followed him off the ramparts. They passed two teenage girls in scout uniforms who nodded, gazes down as they murmured polite greetings. Monica hid a smile, thinking that, once upon a time, she’d have killed to get that respect from girls their age, back when she’d stood at the front of a classroom.

She thought about all the kids she’d taught. Wondered where they were now, how many were Others, how many were dead . . . Too many in the last category, she was sure. What would they think, seeing their chemistry teacher leading the last band of resistance fighters? Could they ever imagine it? She couldn’t imagine it herself some days.

As she followed the youth into the fort, Gareth swung out from the shadows. He fell into step beside her, his left foot scraping the floor—a broken leg that never healed quite right.

Before he could say a word, she lifted her hand.

“Objection noted, Lieutenant.”

“I didn’t say a word, Commander,” he said.

“You don’t need to. You heard we’re bringing in a fresh lot, and you’re going to tell me—again—that we can’t handle more prisoners. The stockade is overcrowded. We’re wasting manpower guarding them. We’re wasting doctors caring for them. We should take them out into the field, kill them and leave the corpses on spikes for the Others to see.”

“I don’t believe I’ve suggested that last part. Brilliant idea, though. I’ll send a troop to find the wood for the poles—”

She shot him a look. He only grinned.

“We aren’t animals, Lieutenant,” she said. “We don’t stoop to their level.”

Of course he knew she’d say that, as well as she knew his complaint. Gareth just liked to voice his opinion. Loudly and frequently. She’d answered only for the sake of the new recruit leading them.

When they reached the main hall, she heard the cry: “Prisoners on the grounds!” For the newer soldiers, it was a warning and they scattered in every direction. Monica never tried to make them stand their ground. She understood too well where that fear came from, those years of hiding, watching, waiting to run again. She did, however, ask her officers to take note of those who fled and, later, they’d be taken to the stockades, so they could see that the Others weren’t the all-powerful demons of their nightmares.

Once they were convinced, they’d react to that cry very differently. They’d join the other soldiers now lining Stockade Walk to watch the parade of prisoners. They wouldn’t jeer, wouldn’t say a word, would just stand firm and watch, the hatred so thick you could smell it, heavy, suffocating.

As they walked into the main hall, already choked with soldiers, Gareth said, “You can watch from the second floor, Commander.”

“Like hell.”

A wave went through the assembled men and women, grunts and nods of approval from those who’d overheard, whispers going down the line to those who hadn’t. Yet another crowd-pleasing routine, she thought wryly. Gareth won approval for the suggestion and she for refusing.

As they entered the hall, Gareth’s shoulders squared, pulling himself up to his full six-foot-five, his limp disappearing. The crowd of soldiers parted to let them through. Those who didn’t move fast enough earned a glower from Gareth, and scrambled aside so fast they tripped. Him, they feared and respected. Her, they loved and respected. Yet another of their routines.

Monica took up her usual position at the first corner. When the prisoners walked into the hall, she’d be the first one they saw, waiting at the end.

She could hear them outside the doors now. This was the toughest part. Nearly every man and woman in this hall had been in this same situation, waiting in their hideouts, hearing the Others approaching, praying they passed. Oh God, praying they passed.

Gareth moved up behind her. Out of sight of the soldiers, he rubbed the small of her back.

When the footsteps stopped at the door, a few soldiers broke ranks and, shame-faced, bolted back to their bunks. It was still too much for them, the memories too fresh.

The door started to open. Monica’s own memories flashed. In that first moment, she didn’t see soldiers and prisoners. She saw the gang of Others who’d burst into her own hideaway ten years ago. She heard Jim’s shout of rage as he rushed forward to protect them, yelling for Monica to take Lily and run. She heard his screams as they fell on him. She heard Lily’s screams as she saw her father torn apart. She heard her own screams as she grabbed Lily and ran for the basement, as they caught her, ripping Lily from her arms. Her screams for them to show mercy—Lily was only a child, only a little girl. They hadn’t.

Gareth moved closer, letting her rest against him. He leaned down to murmur reassurances in her ear, then, as she relaxed, the reassurances turned to reminders. Stand tall. You’re in charge now. You own their asses. Don’t let them forget that.

Now she saw prisoners, strangers, not the monsters who’d slaughtered her family and tortured her. Broken and cowed and filthy, they shuffled along the gauntlet of soldiers.

Gareth tensed. Monica looked up sharply, gaze tripping over the prisoners, trying to see which one had triggered his old cop instincts. Sure enough, there was one at the end, long greasy hair hanging in his face, but not quite hiding the furtive looks he kept shooting her way.

She stood firm, gaze on the prisoner. He looked away as he passed. Then he wheeled and lunged at her.

Gareth leapt forward so fast all Monica saw was a blur and a flash of silver. The prisoner’s head sailed from his shoulders. It hit the floor with a dull thud and rolled. When it came to rest at a soldier’s feet, the young woman kicked it. A cheer started to surge, choked off at a simple, “No,” from Monica.

She motioned for someone to clean up the mess. The procession of prisoners continued on. None even gave any sign they’d seen what happened. They just trudged along, gazes down, until they disappeared from sight.

Word came next that the scouts had been spotted. They were moving fast, meaning they were bringing bad news. She left the hall with Gareth and headed for the meeting room to await their arrival.

As they passed the lecture hall, Monica could hear the teacher giving a history lesson for the children, all born after the Great Divide.

Three flu epidemics had threatened the world in the decade preceding the Great Divide. As they’d escaped each relatively unscathed, experts swore they’d only dodged one bullet to put themselves in the path of a bigger one.

The virus had started in Indonesia, with sporadic outbreaks downplayed by authorities until they could announce a vaccine.

Their salvation turned into their damnation. Some said the vaccine had been deliberately tampered with. Others blamed improper testing. They knew only that it didn’t work.

No, that wasn’t true. If the goal was to ensure that people survived the flu, then it worked perfectly. People were vaccinated, they caught the virus, they died, and they rose again.

Even before they rose, though, they’d carried a virus of their own, unknowingly spreading it through lovers, drug use, and blood donations. By the time officials realized the problem, a quarter of the population was infected. After the vaccinations stopped, another quarter died from the influenza itself. Both viruses continued to spread.

That was the Great Divide. The human race sliced in two, one side fighting for supremacy, the other for survival.

The world will end, not with a bang, but with a sniffle.

Or, to be precise, with the risk of a sniffle.

After Monica escaped her captors, her only thought had, indeed, been survival. Her own. But as she ran from the hordes, she’d picked up others like a magnet attracts iron filings. Everyone was alone. Everyone needed help. As a mother, she wanted to protect them. As a teacher, she wanted to guide them. Within a year, she found herself leading twenty survivors. Then they found Gareth.

He’d been in the middle of what had once been a town square, fighting a half-dozen of the Others, a roaring whirlwind of blood and steel, fighting valiantly, but wounded and outnumbered.

They’d rescued him. His story was one of the simpler ones—no family slaughtered before his eyes, just one guy, living a normal life until the day he wasn’t. He’d tried to stick to what he knew—being a cop, protecting the innocent, which these days meant roaming the countryside, fighting bands of Others so survivors could escape. A noble plan, if not terribly efficient. Monica had suggested that, if he really wanted people to protect, he could look after them.

And so it began. Ten years later, they were here, commanding what might well be the last of their kind, awaiting a final battle. A battle they knew they couldn’t win.

The scouts’ news was exactly what she’d expected. The Others were amassing just beyond a forest to the east, the only place for miles that couldn’t be seen from the ramparts. When she’d ordered her troops to raze the fields, they’d started cutting down the forest, then realized the task was beyond them. Besides, she’d reasoned, that meant the Others would pick that spot for their camp, so she could concentrate their surveillance there.

Surveillance. It sounded so strategic, as if they were fully prepared to meet the enemy, simply biding their time, when the truth was that they were foxes backed into a den, waiting for the wolves to arrive.

She hadn’t brought them here to die. She’d hoped by running so far, they’d send a message to the Others: “Look, you’ve won. We’ve holed up here in this wasteland and here we’ll stay. Now just leave us alone. Please leave us alone.”

One last plea for mercy. It was, she realized as the scouts gave their report, too much to hope for. Deep down, she’d always known it was.

“Prepare a reconnaissance team,” Monica said as she rose from the table. “We’ll leave at the first night bell.”

Two of the trained scouts exchanged uneasy looks. They’d come from the true military teams, long since disbanded, where commanding officers stayed behind the enemy lines. They glanced at Gareth, as if hoping he’d advise her to stay behind.

“You heard Commander Roth,” he said. “Get that team ready.”

Monica was back on the ramparts, looking out over the barren fields, waiting for the team to convene below. The scrape of Gareth’s dragging boot told her he was coming, but she didn’t turn, just stood at the railing, looking out until she felt his arms around her waist.

“We knew this was coming,” he said.

“I know.”

“We’re as prepared as we’re ever going to be.”

“I know.”

“There’s still one more option,” he said.

“No.”

“Just saying . . .”

“And I’m saying that I know it’s an option. I’ll remember it’s an option. But—”

She inhaled and shook her head. He pulled her back against him, chin resting on her head, and she relaxed against the solid wall of his chest.

She felt his head turn, as he made sure there was no one around before he leaned down and kissed her neck, his lips cool against her skin. Those who’d been with them a long time knew they were lovers, had been for years. As discreet as they were, it was hard to hide something like that, living in close quarters. They were still careful, though, for the sake of those, like the scouts, who’d come from the troops, where such a thing would be a serious concern.

There weren’t many of them left—true soldiers, trained ones. “Military commander” had never been Monica’s role. Years ago, when they’d started meeting up with other groups of survivors, she’d made it clear that she wasn’t cut out for that. She’d take charge of the civilians. Gareth had been invited to lead a military division, but he’d stayed with her, trained the civilians to protect themselves. Then, one by one, the troops had fallen, the few survivors making their way to Monica’s group, until they were all that remained. Now they looked to her to protect them, and she wasn’t sure she could.

By the time they left, night had fallen. That wasn’t an accident. They traveled at night when they could, moving silently across the burned fields. The same open land that protected them from sneak attacks made them prisoners during the daylight.

It was an hour’s walk to the forest’s edge. They’d just drawn within sight of it when they heard a barely muffled gasp of pain ahead. They’d split up, Gareth and Monica proceeding, the others fanning out.

The stifled whimpers came from just past the first line of trees. It sounded like a child, but they continued ahead with caution, Gareth in the lead, machete drawn. Those were the best weapons they had—knives and spears and makeshift swords. They had guns, too, but without ammunition, they were little more than clubs. The Others were no better off. This was a primitive war of tooth and claw and steel, as it had been for years, the munitions factories among the earliest targets.

Monica’s weapon of choice was a throwing knife, and she had one in each hand as she followed Gareth. At the rustle of undergrowth, he stopped, and she peered around him to see a figure rising between the trees.

“Oh, thank God,” a girl’s voice said. “Oh, thank God.”

The figure wobbled, then dropped with a cry. They found her on the ground, clutching her leg as she lit a lantern. She was no more than eighteen, thin-faced and pale.

“I thought you were the Infected,” she said, her voice breathy with relief. “They got the rest of my troop. I-I tried to fight—”

“Shhh,” Monica said, moving closer.

The girl looked up at them. Seeing Gareth’s scarred face, she gave a start, but Monica nudged him back. He slid into the shadows.

“They took the others,” the girl said. “They took them all.”

Monica crouched beside the girl. “We’ll get you back to your camp. We just arrived ourselves. Reinforcements.” She offered her most reassuring smile. “You’ll have to show us the best way to go. In case more of them are out here.”

The girl nodded and reached up. Monica tucked the throwing knives into her waistband halter and tried to take the girl’s arm, but the girl clasped hers instead, fingers biting in as she rose slowly.

Then she yanked Monica toward her. Silver flashed as the girl’s free hand pulled a knife from under her jacket. Monica’s foot expertly snagged the girl’s “wounded” leg and she went down, the knife flying free. Monica kicked it out of the way as the girl grabbed for it. Another kick to the girl’s stomach and she fell, doubled-over and gasping.

“Did you really think I didn’t know what you are?” the girl snarled between gasps. “Did you think I couldn’t smell what you are?”

“No,” Gareth said, stepping forward, machete whispering as it brushed his leg. “And did you really think we wouldn’t smell an ambush?”

He swung the machete as the forest around them erupted, Others lunging out from their hiding places. The girl tried to scuttle back, but he was too fast. Her head flew from her shoulders. Blood jetted up, her body convulsing in death. The Others stopped, all frozen in mid-step, staring.

“What?” Gareth boomed, bloody machete raised. “Isn’t that what you do to us? Lop off our heads? The only way to be sure we’re dead? Well, it works for you, too.” He smiled, his scarred face a pale death mask against the night. “Any volunteers?”

“You may want to consider it,” Monica said, her quiet voice cutting through the silence. “Because, if you look over your shoulders, you’ll see we aren’t alone. And they won’t kill you. They’ll turn you.” She looked around, her perfect night vision picking out each face, her gaze meeting each set of wide eyes. “They’ll infect you.”

Gareth roared, giving the signal for attack and the forest erupted again as their soldiers leapt from the undergrowth and swung from the trees. In that first wave of attack, some of the Others bolted. More ran after a few half-hearted swings of a blade. She had invoked the greatest weapon they possessed: fear.

Fear of becoming Infected. Fear of becoming like us.

Without that weapon, they’d have been massacred. Even with it, the fight was long and bloody. Finally, they were left standing among bodies, some their own, but most not and that was really all they could hope for.

They continued on. They’d come to see the Others’ camp and they weren’t turning back. It was a slower walk now, trudging through the forest, some of them wounded. Nothing was fatal—few things were for them—but injuries healed slowly and imperfectly, like Gareth’s broken leg and scarred face. It was, as with everything about their condition, a trade-off, in some ways better than life before, in others worse.

As a teacher, Monica had been one of the first to be inoculated, along with her family. One of the first vaccinated, one of the first infected, one of the first to die. The virus had hit with lightning speed, leaving her writhing with pain and fever, listening to her daughter’s screams, unable to get to her.

Then, a miracle. Or so it seemed at the time. Death and rebirth.

Before they could even decide what to do, the soldiers came, the first squads deployed with orders to annihilate the Infected. They’d gone into hiding, staying one step ahead of the death squads, squatting in abandoned homes, certain if they could just wait it out, the authorities would realize their mistake and help them. But the order to kill all Infected stayed. Then came the bounty. Then the gangs of blood-crazed bounty hunters. They’d escaped the death squads, but not the gangs.

Jim had blamed zombie movies. When the dead rose again, people were sure they knew what they faced—an undead scourge that would end life as they knew it.

Some of the old stories were true. The Infected could not be easily killed. They carried the pallor of death, the faint smell of rot. Their bite could infect the living. They fed on meat, preferably raw, and while they had no particular hunger for human flesh, it was true that, if driven mad with hunger, they had been known to do what they would otherwise never consider.

But, unlike the zombies of legend and lore, they were still alive in every way that counted, still cognizant, and they could be reasoned with. The same could not be said for the living—for the Others.

The Infected had been hunted to near extermination and now, when Monica finally set eyes on the Others’ camp, those seemingly infinite tents, she knew their end was at hand.

“We can’t fight this,” she whispered to Gareth.

“But we will.”

And that was what it came down to. They would fight, hopeless or not.

They started back for the fort. She let Gareth take the lead, her mind whirring with everything she needed to do. She didn’t notice when she veered slightly off course. Didn’t notice the tripwire. Didn’t notice until her foot snagged it and she heard Gareth’s shout and saw him diving toward her, shoving her out of the way, heard the explosion, saw the flying debris and saw him sail backward, hitting the ground hard enough to make the earth shake.

She raced over and dropped beside him.

“Shit,” he said, rising on his elbows to look down at his chest, his shirt shredded, the flesh below shredded, too, a mangled, cratered mass. “That’s not good.”

She let out a choking sound, meant to be a laugh, but coming out as a sob. It’d been a small blast, a homemade bomb designed to do nothing more than shoot shrapnel, but all that shrapnel had slammed into Gareth’s chest. If he hadn’t been Infected, he’d have been dead before he hit the ground.

She waved the medic over, but one look at his face told her all she needed to know. They could recover from most injuries, but if the damage was too great, too extensive . . .

Oh God. Not Gareth. Please, not Gareth.

She stayed beside him as the medic took a closer look. The soldiers ringed around them, solemn-faced, a few shaking, arms around each other.

When the medic looked up to give his report, Gareth waved the soldiers back out of earshot. They hesitated, but obeyed at a growl from him.

“I can make him comfortable,” the medic murmured. “Get him back to the fort . . .”

“Waste of time,” Gareth said. “Someone’s bound to have heard that blast. Get them moving before—”

“No,” Monica said. “You’re coming if I need to carry you myself.”

She expected him to argue, but he gave a slow nod. “You’re right. They don’t need this. Not now. Take me back, tell them I’ll pull through.”

That wasn’t what she meant at all, but he had a point. Their best warrior—a man who’d single-handedly annihilated mobs of Others—killed by a simple tripwire bomb? That was a blow to morale they could ill afford.

The medic bound Gareth’s chest while the soldiers fashioned a makeshift stretcher from branches and clothes, and they took Gareth back to the fort.

Monica stood on the guard’s balcony overlooking the stockade crammed with Others. Prisoners of war. That had been her policy from the start. Leave as many of the enemy alive as possible. Bring them here. Keep them alive and comfortable. Use them as bargaining chips and as proof to the Others that they weren’t monsters.

It hadn’t mattered. Her missives to the government had gone unanswered, as they always had.

For years, she’d tried to reason with the Others. First to negotiate, then, as their numbers dwindled, to beg for mercy. She understood that they posed a threat. So they’d go away, far from the living.

The Others might as well have been getting letters from a colony of diseased rats. Eventually, she’d realized that was exactly how they saw the Infected—diseased rats that somehow had the power of communication. Subhuman. Dangerous. A threat requiring swift and thorough extermination.

She looked out at the Others and thought of what Gareth had said. The final option. Back when she’d first started arguing for the taking of prisoners, the other commanders had seen the possibilities. Horrified, she’d fought until the option was off the table. Only it wasn’t really. It never had been.

She left the guardroom and walked through the fort. She passed the rooms of soldiers playing card games, of civilians mending clothing and preparing meals, of children listening to stories at the feet of the old ones. Everywhere she looked, people were carrying on, hiding their fear, laughing and talking, just trying to live.

Just trying to live. That’s all they’d ever asked for, and that was all she ever wanted for them. So how far was she willing to go? Not to save them—she wasn’t sure that was even possible anymore—but to give them every possible chance for survival.

How far would she go? As far as she could.

Three days later, she was back on the balcony overlooking the stockade. Gareth was beside her.

“I need to be there,” he’d said. “They need to see me standing there.”

So the doctors had done what they could, binding him up, and she’d done what she could, washing away the worst of the stink of rot that had set in. They’d cleared the hall and carried him on a stretcher to the stockade door. He’d taken it from there, finding the strength to walk up to the guard post. He stood in front of a pillar and she knew he leaned against it, but to those below, their champion was back on his feet. And, now, with this new hope she’d given them, so were they.

Once again, she looked out over the men and women packed into the room below. Only this time, they looked back at her. More than one hundred and fifty trained soldiers on their feet, watching her.

In those faces, she saw fear and uncertainty. She saw hate, too, but less of that, surprisingly less.

Guards ringed the room. Civilians walked up and down the aisles with trays of meat. Cooked meat because, for now, that would make them comfortable. They gave the hostages as much as they wanted. That would help. So, too, would the doctors slipping along, silent as wraiths, watching for signs of trouble, others in the back room, dosing the meat with mild sedatives.

The transition had gone smoother than she’d expected. The doctors assured her it would, but she’d seen one too many hellish deaths and rebirths to truly believe them. They were right, though. After all these years, the virus had mutated, ensuring its own survival by making the process faster, less traumatic. One shot of the virus. Then a death-inducing dose of sedative. Within a day . . . rebirth. And now, two days later, an army to command.

She started her speech with a history lesson. How the Others had driven them to this place. How they’d fought the sporadic incursions, killing only those they could not capture. How they’d treated the prisoners of war humanely. Every man and woman there could attest to that. But now, with the wolves at their door, refusing to negotiate, they’d been forced to do the unthinkable.

“We need soldiers to fight,” she said, her voice ringing through the stockade. “Right now, I’m sure you don’t feel much like helping us. But you won’t be fighting for us, you’ll be fighting for yourselves. You are us now. You are Infected. Every one of you is now free to walk out our front gates. But you won’t. Because you know they won’t let you. Your brothers-in-arms, your friends, your families—everyone one of them would lop off your head if you walked into that camp because you are no longer human. You are Infected.”

She paused to let her words sink in. Behind her, Gareth shifted, struggling to stay on his feet. She glanced at him. He smiled and whispered that she was doing fine.

She turned back to the troops. “To everyone you left behind, you are now dead. Do you feel dead?”

They shuffled, the sound crossing the stockade in a wave.

“To everyone you left behind, you are now a monster. Do you feel like a monster?”

More shuffling, sporadic grunts.

“To everyone you left behind, you have no right to live.”

Another glance at Gareth. He stood straighter, chin lifting. He was dying. They all were and this was how they had to face it: stand tall and refuse to let Death win so easily. They’d cheated it before. Now they had to cheat it again.

She turned back to the crowd below. “Do you want to live?” She paused. “Are you willing to fight to live?”

The answer came softly at first, her own troops calling back. Gradually, more voices joined them, the new soldiers joining in, their shouts boosting the confidence of the others until the cry ran through the fort.

Gareth moved up behind her, his fingers sliding around her waist, his touch ice-cold now.

“You gave them hope,” he said. “You gave them a chance.”

She nodded. It wasn’t much, but it was the best she could do. Maybe, just maybe, it would be enough.

Previous: The Kitsune’s Nine Tales
Next: Bamboozled