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Dying Light: The Descent

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PROLOGUE

“I learned to recognise the thorough and primitive duality of man; I saw that, of the two natures that contended in the field of my consciousness, even if I could rightly be said to be either, it was only because I was radically both.”

― Robert Louis Stevenson, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde


"First I'll kill you, bitch."

The vials were the answer. They had to be!

No, they were the cure! That cult leader lunatic was talking out of her ass. Only one way out? Turn on that nuke and kill off millions to save billions? No, like hell was he gonna do that!

Enough of losing more lives because 'the ends justify the means'. Enough of losing friends around him!

Enough was enough!

He was done with this voodoo, higher morale shit!

The weakened runner scrambled to the thin vials of dark-blue liquid.

"...And save my friends…"

Get the vials, get out, and get back to the Tower.

"And you can rot in hell."

He picked one. Two. Then a third for good measures.

The walls around him blurred into a dizzy, sickening soup. He was almost swimming in it and yet some willpower leftover was ushering him to keep going. Don't stop. He couldn't afford a short rest.

Then the visions flashed.

He was gone under for a couple of minutes, watching the faces violently snarl at him. Try to kill him. But his body kept going. Once he surfaced back up to reality, he found himself clumsily wobbling into some white containers. Somewhere else.

"You can't change anything, Kyle."

Something was wrong. He couldn't put his finger on it. This dizziness was taking far longer than he expected, along with this killer headache.

"What's happening to me?"

"You'll see for yourself…"

The colors were wrapping around him into shiny spheres. Again, he went down. Like drowning at the bottom of the ocean and he was clawing back up for a breath of air. A set of old mattresses softened his lumbering fall.

"I… I killed you! I fucking killed you!"

Where was she? Where?! He'd do it again if he had to!

"This is a poison…"

"It's not a poison!" His anger died out quickly as he desperately pulled out a vial. It was confirmation to himself, just to calm him down from losing to insanity. "It's a cure!"

Again, he squeezed his fingers on the vial. It was real. Not an illusion!

"Lena?" he called over the line after keeping the vial away. "Lena, I'm coming back with the medicine. We'll be able to help everyone now! Tell Camden that he has all the time in the world… No! Tell him that we have a new lead… A better one…"

Again, he went under. The flashes were getting worst. When he breathed back up, he was by a barricade of blue containers. He heaved himself over them to spot a ray of hope gushing down a manhole.

A way out. A ladder, at the end of the tunnel. Out of this damp, sewage.

With all the determination he had left, he pushed himself to keep going. Ignore all the one-second faces going by. The masks, the symbols, the crazy fanatics, fuck all of them. They were history. That damn Mother voice in his head was just the after effect from having his brain smashed up inside - that was all. Because she was silent now, no more whispering.

Replaced by something else. He couldn't hear it.

Just go, Crane. Get out.

Out into the light.

Once the delirious runner was up on the surface, everything was relatively clear in his head. The blurriness had stopped and he found himself on the edge of a playground. A cozy suburban area with well-cut lawns behind picket fences. Playing by the monkey bars were two kids while an adult - their mother - was watching nearby.

No zombies. No cries of help. Just a peaceful afternoon.

"Where am I?"

It felt a bit alien to him. After everything he had gone through, none of this felt real to him. It was as if he had been dropped into a reality where the Harran virus didn't exist and everyone was moving on with their lives.

He hopped down. Maybe the family could give him some details. Where he was, what was happening, all the questions. He needed to get to the others pronto-

The visions flashed again - violently. One of the infected launching at him with bared teeth for a split second was familiar. No, she was familiar.

"Aaaaa!"

Suddenly, one of the kids pointed at him. They were looking at him directly with terrified faces. Why? Both children rushed over to their mother like chicks under the protection of the hen.

"W-What?"

He reached out-

And gasped at the sight before him. His hands...they shouldn't be his hands. Orange veins like molten lava running through him, glowing out of crusty, disgusting blackened skin. Nails were sharpened and wrapped into talons.

He had seen these kinds of hands. Only at night. These weren't his hands!

But they were attached to him.

No. No! What is this? What...why is this happening?

More screaming.

He wanted to yell. He wasn't a monster. He was trying to help people! Save them! Scream out his name to confirm he was human. He was still inside! He wasn't one of those mindless freaks!

Please! Someone hear him!

Then the dimming of one enormous light caught his attention.

Sun was setting. And just as it slowly descended behind the houses, something creaked out from the center of his mind.

Foreign. Primitive.

Dark whispers telling him to tear, rip, kill. Getting louder the closer night was falling.

NonononoNO!

He turned back to the family. He wanted to tell them to get away but a snarl came out instead. The unknown energy was building up inside his muscles, readying him for the stalk. The hunt. His teeth were aching for some sinking. And look over there, someone in the back of his mind murmured toxically at him. Easy prey.

Get them.

Stop! This is not what I wanted!

He tried again.

RUN!

But all that came out of his mouth was the howl of a predator in pitch nighttime.


Eight days later...

The loud lyrics of sunshine and joy echoed uncannily throughout the dark tunnel.

The small boat zoomed smoothly across the gentle foamy waves and all of its noise was taunting the slow walkers at the banks. Any survivor upon seeing the boat would think the driver had a deathwish - the infected already limping towards the sound of the propeller, only to clumsily fall into the saltwater. Like chicken who can't swim, they sunk right under after a few clawing at the sides.

The driver didn't care, her fingers tapping to the music. As of now, water was one safe haven from the undead around her. The channel was the only best route that would surely get her to her destination safely before noon.

And the morning sunlight seeped in once the boat reached the end of the tunnel.

A slender, gloved hand lifted up, shielding her eyes. The sneaky bright rays slipped past her shades. But once her vision finally readjusted, she glanced at the familiar Mediterranean coastline of Harran. The Slums were just a line so far away in the distance.

The blue water and crystal clear sky weren't breathtaking enough to dress up the city from its own horrors: the many streams of black smoke and the screams of the damned. Isolated apocalypse was upon humanity and while the destruction was laying waste in the streets, the city seemed to rebel against it. The walls were still staying strong and whatever was left of survivors were trying to push through. One more day. Just one more day.

So the driver of the small speedboat couldn't help but feel stunned at the sight.

Then her short attention drifted to one thing on the dashboard that annoyed her. A weird bobblehead knockoff, probably from China. She was told it was some game character - a rap singer with an open black shirt, red bandana over his eyes and one big golden B-pendant chain around his neck. It just tempted her to poke at it and watch the head bobble.

"You sure have some weird taste, Lenny..." she uttered, a thick accent escaping her lips.

There was a feeling of vibration in the pocket of her sling bag. At first, she decided to let it run - because she knew who it was going to be. Maybe this upcoming earful would be less loud since it was still daybreak. He'd be looking for a wake-up by now.

At least, that was what the woman was betting on. She slipped out a small earpiece, linked to the walkie-talkie on her belt, and placed it in her ear.

Beep! "Jack. Do you read me?"

Oh, she could hear the sweet, lovable voice of her comrade. Steaming and ready to give her a vocal one-two punch. So she deliberately kept quiet and watched the scenery.

"Goddammit. I know you can hear me!"

"Sorry about that, Bones. Just admiring the view."

"Where the hell are you? Everyone's been looking for you this morning."

"Somewhere near the Coast. I'm heading to the Slums in less than an hour."

"Ok. I don't even know which to be angry at. Thinking you got killed during a run. Or of all the places in Harran to go to, you're heading there! Asem's going to be pissed."

"Actually, she gave the OK."

"What? Seriously?"

"You gotta do what you gotta do for family. And she knows it more than me. Besides, I'll be back in a jiffy. These waters' got no zombies to worry about. And this boat ride is relaxing."

"Well, that explains Lenny going ballistic this morning. Geezus, Jack. What are you thinking?"

"Like I said, it's just a drop-in. Tower's been silent since last week now and that nitwit of a cous is probably losing his cool again. So I'm just gonna drop by and give him a pep talk."

"You never liked your cousin."

"We had our falling. But he's a bloody idiot and he's all I got. And hey, I get to meet up with Jade. Rahim too. Might even shake hands with this new runner they've been talking nonstop about over and over. Says he's been doing good with the folks there."

"Sounds like he's completely the opposite of you."

"Ah-ha. Good joke. Remember I'm the only one who's doing this little pet project for you. And when have I never done a good deed for you guys?"

"No, I mean - you are a good person! But sometimes your methods are...unorthodox."

"At least it delivers the bread on the table. And sounds like I'm not needed over at the Ravs. Maybe I should stay at the Tower for a while."

"What - No! Of course you're needed. Stop putting words in my mouth!"

She chuckled. "I'm kidding, Bones. The Ravs is my home now. I won't abandon ye all."

"Heh. That's good to hear. Asem would put a curse on me if you did… And, Jack. Are you sure you want to be doing this away from the Ravs? There's nobody to get you if you go under. And no one outside the Ravs can know about this 'pet project'."

"Don't worry too much. I'll be careful. I'm just birdwatching, see how those freaks think. And let a few zombs take a few quick bites off me-"

"For collecting data, not screwing with your life," the young man on the other end heaved a heavy sigh. "And we have zero idea if that will work. We haven't even finished the tests, for Pete's sake!"

"Look, you saw it yourself. It did. It'll take time for them to go down but it works. And if I can get the info you need, then we can help the Tower out with that cure, right?"

"Theoretically, yes. But-"

"Then it's a better solution than nothing. I beat the odds and I'm the only one brave enough to get close to those zombs. You know that."

There was a muffled scream - hands over a mouth. Bones was surely having a hard time trying to win this one-sided argument. "...You were cutting so close to the thread last time. We can't lose you again. Your cousin, Harris...if you two really do care about each other, he's gonna be real broken about you."

The tension could be felt through the earpiece. He was still beaten up about the previous week. Hell, it was understandable so Jack couldn't help but feel a little apologetic.

"I know, Bones. I know. I'll...try to be more careful."

"That doesn't give me a vote of confidence. And you're not going to listen to me one way or another… Ok. You're wearing your PACT, right?"

Jack glanced down at her left wrist. The tight black bracelet with a thin green monitor - pulsing with the easy readings, from reading her adrenaline spikes to chemical influx. "As always. You should really come up with better names."

"Shut up and keep an eye on the color. When it hit blue, contact me with the results. When it hits red, contact me! Keep that tracker on at all times, got it?"

"Got it."

"And no heavy combat!" he hissed. "Just...find a weapon. Craft it out of thin air, for all I care. But no fists. Don't even be a hero. We can't lose our best fighter out there."

"Ah, come on. I'm Mad Jack. I'm immortal."

"Was. Keyword, was Mad Jack. Don't make me read your file again," he groaned, letting a pause swing by. "Contact HQ when you've arrived there."

"Yes, dad. You'll hear from me in three hours."

"What is it?" Over the line, another voice could be heard in the background as her worried companion moved away from the mic. "Jack, heads up. GRE has been sighted over the horizon. Asem thinks they might be sending the cavalry to finish the job for good."

"Asem's always right on her sixth sense. Wasn't there some rumors about them leaving a bomb in Harran?"

"And pray to God, they never find it. I am not going to go down in that kind of blast of glory."

"Amen to that."

"They're coming in heavy too. So avoid those hotheads at all cost. We need more time."

"Affirmative. But you know they could just bring in another bomb."

"Jack, why can't you just be optimistic for once?"

"I'm being realistically optimistic. There's a difference."

"Just get back here in one piece. Good luck."

With the other end gone cold, the runner kept the earpiece back in its original spot.

"...I don't think I can promise you that."

Looking back at the scenery again, she decided to retract back her earlier thought. It was a bittersweet sight. The infected filled the streets like packs of lionesses, slow and sluggish by day and by night, much greater threats came out, thirsting for flesh and blood. And that was just the tamest part of the city.

Citizens were struggling with food, water, and even Antizin. Survival of the fittest was the main game for the past few months, leading to factions being self-deluded beacons of hopes while lashing at each other for the drops. The most dangerous one she had heard from the Slums was one large group by some psychopath but that also went silent before Tower went off the comms.

Well, if anything, that was probably for the better. Humans were far more threatening and vicious than the undead freaks. And she knew that from her own experience. Jack didn't want too much trouble while she'd stay over in the Slums.

"...Harris, you better be alive or I'm gonna kick your ass back to hell when I find you."

Just as she turned back to the front, something arose up to the surface fifteen feet away. It was barely in the seconds that she noticed the strange form picking up the pace towards the boat.

"What the hell-?!"

Despite her best effort to steer around, the unknown thing hit the bow. Hard.

The sheer force bashed the boat right to a 45-angle left, heading towards a stone pier close back. There was nothing she could do but brace for the impact.

CRASH!

"GARGH!" Her whole body went flying, right onto a pile of blue garbage bags to cushion her floor. The full brunt knocked the wind right out of her as she rolled off with a huff of pain.

Her vision went blurry for a few seconds as she recoiled on her knees. She wasn't alone on the dock. Vials were everywhere, staggering towards the one noise they heard: her.

Then she remembered the boat. Its side was smashed in and with nothing to pilot it, it aimlessly drifted away from the stoned dock, from her.

"No, no! The boat!" Jack hurried after it-

"Grooooaaawnn!" Coming in unexpectedly, an 8-feet-tall Goon lifted up a rebar. High up it went, ready to pound down her head like a watermelon.

"Whoa!"

THUD!

The concrete before her cracked apart as she skidded back a good five feet distance. The Goon's hollow white eyes glimpsed with raw instinct. To kill a puny human.

"Yeah, you know what? Keep it!"

She was off. She was defenseless and carried little on her. The rest of her equipment was now at the bottom of the sea. But speed was the best tool a runner could use in times like this. Speed was vital. Stop for a split second and one would be chomp food.

There was one slight problem. She didn't have anywhere else to go.

After the pier was a two-storey-tall, thirty-feet-long barricade. An extra wing of Harran's City Walls, creeping into the coastline and stretching from one end of the beach to the other. It was a new addition after the rebuilding of those surrounding walls in the past, now barred with all sorts of protection to keep any hoppers from jumping over. The Coast was a closed-off area with the GRE and authorities establishing a means of protection from the nearby quarantine areas, bordering off the shorelines and the city of Harren.

That was why she took this route - minimum zombies along the pier. And now she was gonna pay the price.

"Shit! Someone! Anyone!" she hollered along the side. Just one kind soul over the tall concrete wall to hear her and pull her out, which was highly unlikely. They'd shoot her on sight. If she must, she was going to have to take a dip in and face whatever was lurking in the water.

Her sprint dropped to a skip as her eyes widened at a new sight. Crumpled rocks laid waste on the floor.

From a giant hole in the wall.

How? When did this open up?

Oh, the questions didn't matter right now. Her life did!

The gurgling groans and snarls were coming right behind her. Surrounding her. The zombies were picking up the pace on their new prey as she galloped through the tear. And sure enough, beyond the walls were more infected, heads spinning round to the tasty prey.

Oh. Perfect.

"Get up, Jackie! The floor's lava!"

With a foot on a fence and another on a sliding, she swooshed her way up to the second deck of coastal houses. Hopping from one balcony to the next, Jack eyed around for any likely safe spot to stay for a good amount of time.

Either way, being up and above was far safer than below on the streets.

"Graaargh!"

"Oomph!" A Biter came charging to her fast, out from an open door of the second deck and both tumbled off the balcony. This time, there was no soft cushion for Jack.

A blinding pain wracked through her body in an instant. Ringing could be heard in her ears. Oh, did she really hope her skull was fine. Bones would never forgive her or even let it go if he heard word about this. But as her head cleared up, she felt another source of pain still lingering.

On her leg. The Biter that fell down with her was latching onto it with arms and teeth.

"Get off me!" She kicked it off. No sign of a tear in the fabric but a bite wasn't and shouldn't be her main concern.

A second Biter was darting after her. Quickly, her hand searched behind her and gripped on a pipe lying around. The space between them wasn't enough time for her to use it like a weapon - the infected runner was already pinning her down with its rotten body while she pushed back the snapping jaws with the pipe.

Seriously? This was how she was gonna end up? Getting eaten by these bastards?

"Mad Jack...isn't gonna die here! Not until I say so!"

Just as she was about to boot the Biter off her-

"Rrrargh!"

The Biter was off her in seconds. Two bodies rolled off but one stood triumphantly and exhumed out another roar.

Great, a second new type she'd never seen before. It had been a while since Jack felt fear. Her heart was in her throat and she was shaking in her shoes, trying to inch away. Because that thing was a beast, bashing the second infected to a bloody pulp with its bare fists.

Fists? Wait. Zombies don't punch. They flay their arms at victims in an attempt to overwhelm them. And those were split-opened claws.

Then yellow eyes shot at her.

Just eyes and the baring of canines. Maybe before the infection, the bastard was wearing some sort of head covering before it turned into draping rags. Which was good. Of course, she didn't want to see its ugly face. Its whole body was already hideous with bone spikes piercing out through the back of its green jacket.

And now it wanted her.

"Fuck! Are you kidding me?!"

Jack climbed back onto her feet. The dead onlookers hawked towards her as she zoomed into an uphill street. One good swing of the pipe and she sent a head flying off.

The predator's roars and the sound of a few backers falling like flies didn't tempt her to peek back. Seemed like the tough guy didn't want to share her with the other zombies. She'd take that conflict between 'their kind' as a blessing in disguise.

"HEY!"

Jack gazed up. Up ahead was a fenced-up warehouse - double-reinforced up and with a person jumping up and down, waving her arms at her.

Yes! Survivors!

Two more joined the short runner on the top, clearly in similar runner attires as Jack herself. They pointed out handheld spotlights with the purple lens as if they were assault rifles, right at her.

"Blast it!"

The light didn't seem to do anything under the bright sun. But the sound of sizzling skin and hisses made her realize one thing.

UV.

"Open the gates!" the black-haired teenager hollered down below, which whoever was behind compelled. The heavy man-made gates growled loudly and opened too slowly. It'd be a tight squeeze but Jack quickly dropped down into a skid and slid through the gap.

A loud roar echoed behind her. And that sounded big.

"Close it! Close it!"

One thug that towered even most men Jack knew hurried to the center of the gates and with all his strength, cranked them shut. The gates suddenly banged forcefully, pushing the hulk off his feet. Quickly, the teenager dropped down to hurry up with the locks.

"Keep the UVs on that thing!" The dominating voice of a man boomed across the front yard of the warehouse. "Get some heat out now! Gab, check our visitor."

An old man kneeled beside Jack, immediately uttering out words she couldn't understand. Polish? Then he tried Arabic. Next, English, "Are you alright?"

Jack was all too weary to assess any more of the situation or speak up. Every part of her body - inside and out - was burning and in knots. She was even too numb to notice the doctor examining for any injuries.

None of this was how she planned. But then again, most of her plans never went the way she wanted them to go.

"B-Bloody fucking dandy…" was all she could muster out as a murmur. Jack let the exhaustion win the battle this time and closed her eyes shut. Didn't matter if she added more salt to her headache once the back of the head hit the dirt. She needed forty winks.

Well. Guess she was stuck in the Coast for a while.

Chapter Text

ONE: WELCOME TO SCANDEROON


Light was a survivor's...somewhat of a best friend in these dark times.

Sunshine just seemed to make the infected sluggish - like cats sunbathing for a snooze. So in some way, it was a form of comfort - as long as they were outside, not chewing your neck off. But that comfort was only temporary. Once the sun was down, the nights were a whole different story. Daylight was the single grace to live through the crisis.

It was, however, annoyingly too bright for Jack.

"Is she gonna be ok?"

"At best, she suffers from a headache. At worst, her skull's cracked open. Would have been better if this rickety base was at a hospital."

"Too big, too many way-ins the infected can crawl in, and too cramped for escape. You know that, Doc."

"Ay, ay, what Mahir said. Well, doesn't matter." She could feel the doctor examine the back of her head. "Looks like this isn't your first head trauma. Ha, I can't tell if you're lucky or unlucky."

"Sorry, can someone pull the curtains close? It's bloody bright in here," Jack groaned.

"Hmm," the old man gruffed. "Must have taken more than just a beating to the head if you're sensitive to light." He gestured someone, a woman, in the background to comply with Jack's wishes.

"Being pushed by a zombie off the second floor can do that. I think."

Once the light dimmed with the scratching of the curtain rings, her vision readjusted. She was on a makeshift bed, on top of boxes that gave her a backache. From what she could tell, she was in an office that had been turned into a small medical bay. Before her was the old man, an unfamiliar face - probably his assistant - and the young tan-skinned teenager slouched by the door.

"Well, it should go away. But if your headache doesn't, come see me. Williams," the old bloke introduced himself. "Forcefully-appointed doctor of this Junction."

"Because you're the only one here who has medical knowledge," the assistant pointed.

"Not a doctor, Hadya. A professor. In Anthropology. There's a difference."

"Jack." She introduced herself, pinching her nose to squeeze herself out of her drowsiness. "I've gotten through worse."

"Hm." He crouched his frown. "Concerning. But none of my business."

"How long was I out?" she forced the question out.

"About a day. Which you needed after that shenanigan yesterday."

"A day?" She groaned, her shaking head in her hand once she got a nod from the doctor. "Bugger. Bones' probably going crazy by now."

The old man knitted his eyebrows together, shaking a pointing finger at the new visitor. "You know...you look mighty familiar. Were you on TV?"

Ooooh, this again.

"Probably. My face's real recognizable."

The shaking grew more aggressively. "Yeah. You're Mad Jack."

"Guilty as charged-"

"The Wild Dog. Kickboxing world champion for three years."

"Actually, four-"

"A firecracker who gives suplexes a whole new meaning."

"That's a bit of an exaggeration-"

"Hellraiser that sent shivers down rookies' spine."

"Ok, I did have an attitude-"

"Bit off the Cannon's ear outside the ring."

"Wait, how did you-"

"Broke both legs off an officer, too."

"Ok, that bloody fool had it coming. Didn't keep his hands off that girl. And he wasn't doing any search-up."

The old man slapped his knee with a laugh. "Aha! The legend herself."

"I didn't know you were into kickboxing, Doctor," Hadya exclaimed with surprise.

"Oh, no, not at the beginning. My wife, rest her soul, was into it. You know, she found you an inspiration. I heard that you were starting up self-defense classes. She would have wanted to take them."

"Heh," Jack chuckled. "Well, if it's any consolation, I would have been honored to have her as a student."

"Ha ha! Good to hear! If my days are outnumbered, I can tell her I met Mad Jack in the flesh."

"Doctor!" Hadya hollered. "Seriously."

But the old man just rumbled on with laughter, folding away his stethoscope before he pulled out a small bottle. "I jest, I jest. Well, shouldn't keep you here any longer. Come by the sickbay downstairs later. We have enough Anizitin to share around-"

"That won't be necessary." The response came out too fast. Jack almost thought she had made a rookie mistake when the professor looked at her funny. "Had my shot before I left home."

At first, the old man gave the kind of expression she remembered her grandpa giving. But he held out his hands. "Alright, if you say so. Just letting you know, we've gotten enough to share." He passed the bottle to Jack before getting up to leave. "And come by anyway. Even for a cup of tea. Siv, show her around, would you? This one's a keeper."

The assistant followed the professor out the room, leaving the two behind. A thick tension immediately fell between them. She didn't have to sense it. The expression on the young girl's face had the words clearly written - she did not like the newcomer one bit.

"So. You're Mad Jack. Bigshot champion, huh?" the teenager huffed out with hands in pockets.

Oh, she didn't like the tone. "Retired. Passed the mantle over to someone else a year ago."

The young teenager's narrowed eyes scanned the older woman, from head to toes. With a hmph, she continued, "Yeah, you won't survive out there for long."

"Excuse me?"

"It's 'do or die'. You're gonna have to prove your weight around here if you wanna keep up, Granny."

"Granny? I'm barely out of my prime, kid. You think you can do a better job than me?"

"I can certainly outrun you to be bait." The runner strolled off to the door. "If you wanna talk to the leader here, Mahir's downstairs," she uttered, disappearing. "Welcome to Scanderoon."

Well, that was a warm, welcoming introduction.

Jack snorted. "Cheeky kid. Reminds me too much of her." She kept a soft laugh inside. "I like that."

Just before she climbed herself on her feet, she realized something was amiss on her face. Jack spotted it on the desk - a pair of sports sunglasses she kept. All the time. Never took them off in the day.

No way was she leaving them behind. It would be an honest sin.

Once she clipped them on her collar, she made her way to the ground floor. Cubicle-like walls were placed up to make individual rooms - important stations like vendors, kitchen, the sickbay, living quarters, etc. Impressive for a group of survivors but she could tell they were under-equipped. A miracle they've stood against the tides for...who knew how long the infected came into the Coast.

"-It's not looking good, Boss. Those bastards' been getting to the drops these days."

She found what was probably the command center - five people around a map pinned down on the table. There were noticeable pieces from board games along the surface, enough to pinpoint locations and symbolize their significant representations. Well, better than nothing, she supposed.

One man in his forties, the leader from the looks of it, heaved a heavy sigh. "Rotate the rations for the next three days and take a break. Let's see if Beta team can get the ones up North."

The other people gave disappointed looks but eventually obeyed, accepting the fact it was all they could do for the time being.

"And send word to Dua. We need another two boxes of Anitizin."

The five adults wheeled from the table but the leader brightened up at the sight of Jack.

"Well. Welcome back to the living, newcomer." He held out his arms with praise as if her presence would lighten up the mood. The others just strolled right out - however, one staying back at a small radio station. "We don't have much. But we got coffee." He held out his hand, which Jack shook it. "Mahir. That was daring of you to be out at the coastline. Those infected seem more feral at the shore than inside the city."

"Jack. From the Outskirts."

"The Outskirts? That's the other side of Harran. Where the first outbreak happened."

"Yup. Near Sector 0. I was trying to get around to the Slums through the channels. And here I am." Jack glanced around curiously, ignoring Mahir's surprised look that clearly read "how crazy are you to be heading to that place?". "I thought this area was walled off."

Mahir scorned loudly, leaning back on the table. "For a while. Despite authorities' 'best efforts' to protect this place, something from Harran came in. Don't know how, don't know what those airheads are gonna do about it. But it's here. And we're sick." Mahir's face grimaced. "So...the Outskirts. Do you...know Asem?"

"Um, yeah. She's in charge of the group I'm in."

"Heh." A grin smirked wide across the tall man's face. "Yeah, she would do that. One step ahead of everyone… Good to hear she's doing fine."

So he knew Asem. Hm. "Well, as fine as anyone would be under these harsh times. Those freaks gave me a run for my money, mate."

"Hm, sounds like any runner's story here. Well, mostly from Siv."

"The kid, right?" she asked. "You should keep her off the streets. I can see that gal doing something really stupid one of these days."

"True. She runs her mouth too much. But she's capable, a good teacher in parkour - again, if she doesn't run her mouth too much - and we're low on numbers."

"So she teaches? All of you-?"

"No, no. Pulled vertebrae. I couldn't pull myself up the monkey bars even if I wanted to. And," he lifted up his legging, showing a prosthetic leg. "I can't really run well."

"Sorry, didn't mean ill-will."

"No worries. I'm surprised I've managed this far in a zombie outbreak," Mahir then continued to move on the conversation. "We have about ten runners here. The rest are gunners, staff, civilians and those crazy enough to get supplies on foot."

That didn't sound good to her. They were really understaffed. "Well, just tell them to be extra careful. Especially with something new out there."

"New?" There was a look of concern written all over the leader's face. "Mind sharing?"

More like she had no idea how to explain it. But anyone would need the new info just to be safe. "I dunno. Some bloody...freakoid chased me all the way from the beach. Like a hunter."

"A Night Hunter?" The name seemed to click to the leader. "In broad daylight? That's not possible. They only come out during the night. As the name says. Deadlier than the regular infected."

"Well, this one was prancing around like he owned the place. And sounds like it's something common here."

"And not in the Outskirts? Like I said, only at nightime. But a Hunter running amok in the day… Thanks." Mahir gave a pat on the shoulder. "I'll let the runners know when they're out there." At first, Jack thought the good gesture and shaking hands were a good way to break the ice. But the man's quiet expression then told her that wasn't enough for a stranger like her. He folded his arms, like an interviewer waiting to be wowed. "So are you gonna be extra deadweight for us or are you gonna be of some use to us?"

"Deadweight? I'm offended." Jack jested with a palm on her chest. "If you want to get rid of me that badly, alright. I'll walk myself out the door."

"Heh. From the looks of things, I can tell you're no normal person. Everyone's talking about you being a famous kickboxer."

Wow, word goes around. "My reputation precedes me. And it's 'retired'."

"Hm-hm. And can you tell me you're not gonna up and leave after a good night's sleep or are you gonna be more than just a retired fighter?"

Right, the trust game. She couldn't blame him - she had her fair shares of picking allies and enemies. Before and after the outbreak.

"Hey, I'm with Asem. That's good enough for you to know what I'm friend."

"But I only know Asem. I don't know you or what she's been up to."

"I should say the same to you. How do I know you're not lying about Asem?"

"You don't. But what choice do you have?"

The silence hung tight, neither side was folding. But eventually, with a soft sigh, Jack was the first to yield. There was no ill intent in the man's body language.

"Alright. We call ourselves the Ravs, under Asem's command of course. We scavenge around quick and quiet, help out the neighborhood as much as we can. We do delivery, fulfill requests and escort survivors if needed. With a bit of compensation."

"So basically crows."

"It was Asem's idea. And we don't do it for money. Materials, weapons, meds, anything to help the Ravs out and take care of the zombie population."

"You're a service for hire."

"Well, probably more said for me. I'm what you'd call a distraction. I prefer going all out with the noise and away from the Ravs. Get the heat of good people and give them a chance to live another day."

"That's a...risky role to do."

"It helps. And it might help you too. Crows are loud and notorious."

There was a long pause between them, as if he wasn't finding her pitch convincing. But the leader smirked widely. "...Asem picked a good friend. One with balls."

"She has a good eye for people."

"Oooh-ho," Mahir chuckled. "That she does."

"I'm only here until I get my boat. Like I said, I was on my way to the Slums before I was forced to make this pitstop."

"Fair enough." He stood up, directing her to the map. "Well, might as well get you up to speed on the situation. All roads out are permanently closed off at the north and there's only water down south. We've seen several yachts try to leave but all got sunken down by military or zombies."

"So absolutely no escape."

"Just be careful looking for this boat. Waters too dangerous whether undead or not."

"You don't have to tell me twice," she muttered under her breath.

"Important landmarks are the dockyard over here, the shopping district, and city square. There's another group of survivors at the orphanage, the Cicadas."

"Interesting name. Because of the local insect?"

"That or maybe one of them accidentally dropped an assault rifle with its safety off. Could be both."

"Ah."

"I'll radio them that we got you here. They've been needing someone with your 'caliber' anyway. Over there is your place, the Outskirts. Which I advise against going there. The tunnel's caved in."

"Yeah, I saw the rubble on the other side... Gonna need some heavy climbing tools if I wanna get back there. I'll pass word to Asem I met you by the way."

There was a moment of hesitation in the man's posture. "Ehhh, I'd rather you don't."

She cocked an eyebrow. "Too sensitive? We are in a zombie apocalypse. No need to keep secrets."

"This secret, I'm keeping to my grave. Ahem." Mahir cleared his voice. "If it's urgent for you to get back to Ravs, I know a friend who can get you the gear."

"Hmmm, that's one option. But I'm in no hurry. Once I find my boat, I can take the way back. In the meantime, I can get to learn more about you, Mahir. And between you and Asem." Jack chided in a more chirpy kind of voice.

A purposefully-loud groan and a shake of the head. "How about a no?" The leader forced himself to continue. "Now, two main spots you wanna be careful. Up there's the Baias Castles, 10 miles from here. Our runners saw GRE making camp at the old ruins there."

"That's an odd place to pick."

"None of our concern if they leave us alone. We've already gotten enough 'help' from them. Next spot of danger is the prison up by the bay. The scumbags there made their own operation. Their stronghold is stacked full of all sorts of things they've pirated and pillaged. Few of their men have tried to ransack this place several times."

"Now that is a problem."

"Aaah, they'll nothing to worry about. Heard they've been doing some illegal boxing ring to relieve the stress. Even capture zombies to add more flavor. Bunch of lunatics," Mahir scoffed. "They'll wipe themselves out to stupidity in the end."

"Boxing?" she almost sang that word out. "Sounds like my kind of alley."

Mahir glimpsed at her with a look of concern. "Yeah, don't do anything stupid too. They don't treat women kindly either."

She cocked up an eyebrow, offended. "Who says I'm gonna treat them kindly either?"

He held his palms out. "Don't say I didn't warn you. And there you have it. Easy to remember, right? Just keep in mind where the clocktower is and you won't lose your way."

"What's this over there?" She pointed at one area to the west.

"Suburbans. Not too far from Harran's edge. Supposedly, that was where the virus first hit this city. We don't have much over there other than a couple of madmen starting up some sort of following."

Now that was interesting information.

"Oh? There were rumors along those lines coming from the Countryside."

"Really? Where did you hear that from?"

"From the Tower in the Slums. A small group of survivors too. They were onto something and that was the last thing we've heard. The details were a bit vague."

"In what way?"

"Something about domesticated zombies and people wearing masks? Sounds like a bunch of people were smoking too much on whatever they found if you ask me."

"Domesticated zombies. Ha! That will be the day," the leader uttered.

"I know, right? Crazy." She rolled her eyes with a loud laugh.

Mahir didn't quite share her enthusiasm. "Well. It's a little more different than that. Seems like they're rallying up any survivor they can grab and taking them away."

"Away?" she exclaimed concernedly. How odd. "Any reason?"

"No idea and I'd rather we don't find out." He scratched his head grimly. "We nearly lost one of our suppliers the other day. Guy lived but...apparently, he saw something he didn't like. He...let's just say he left us after that."

"Sorry to hear that."

He shrugged, seemingly having been through this many times. "It happens… The group calls themselves the Firebrand. We don't know what they're up to but if you see anyone with a sun symbol, be careful."

"Noted. The name already sounds ominous from the get-go."

"No kidding," Mahir stated, ending with his hands on his hips and his mind in deep thought. Clearly, he was trying to recall any more good info to pass on. "Well, get yourself comfortable. Browse our wares, meet the locals. Pretty sure, you're gonna have your hands full with requests."

"I'm happy to serve." Jack bowed jokingly like a butler. "Mind if I borrow your rooftop? Need to contact the Ravs and make sure they aren't running around like headless chickens."

"By all means, go ahead. They must be missing you badly."

"Ooooh, you don't know the half of it."


The Junction was well reinforced - kept the walkers and the more troublesome people out. The only way in was through the main gates or going from the top. Metal cables ran across the city from the warehouse's rooftop - where the runners would zipline off and no walkers skillful enough could tightrope their way in.

A perfect and safe way of leaving and entering the Junction. As long as the other tops of the buildings were zombie-free. Which was minimum.

One such creature had climbed its way on the scaffolding of a construction site, just on the opposite side of the district. It eyed at the warehouse full of humans. For any infected, it would have been a whale of a catch but this one didn't care about any but one.

Where was the woman…

Something was off about her. Something familiar. Something disgusting that put bile in its mouth.

Was she back? No, yes! The voice. The damn voice. She was still there. Always have been, always scratching out at the bad until the other side - the one most aggressive and thirsty for the scent of blood - took over. Snarling at the other voice to go away. Leave!

It was like being dragged down to the bottom of the ocean and letting the sharks take the surface.

And now that small, pesky shark was back. Not just in its mind but right in plain sight. She was in the flesh, inside that building.

If she was back...he was gonna kill her again.

It knew full well it would be too risky to charge in. From the front, the poorer excuses of predators were gunned down or fled from the painful UV rays. The distance through the tops was too far for a leap and only death by fall was certain. Those irritating obstacles were making its claws ache.

Just wait. Wait for her to leave, said the beastly voice.

But instead of seeing her go through the main gates, the door on the rooftop flung open. Out popped Jack.

There. There she was.

It could wait. It had all the time in the world now.

Jack was all too occupied to notice the golden eyes locked on her from the building across to her. The blazing sun stung her eyes the moment she stepped out, ushering out an annoyed groan from her. Quickly, she fished out her shades and slipped them on.

It was then she marveled at the coast of Scanderoon. Quite a stunning sight - for the most parts. This section of the city was just as bad as Harran, infested thick with the undead.

"Man… Scanderoon had seen better days…" she muttered to herself. "Last time I was here was for the championship tournament…"

The wind was nice, cool and refreshing but stunk of the rotten flesh, ashes, and iron. Ok, enough of sightseeing, Jack put on her earpiece.

"Come on. Pick up. I know you're having an aneurysm by now. Or two. Or three-"

Beep!

"-Jack? Jack! Oh my god, you're alive." Bones' voice started up with a sense of joy. "Where the hell were you?!"

"It's nice to hear your lovely voice again, Bones."

"I've been pushing Asem to send rallies to get you! Don't do that to me, man!"

"Not my intention. Had to make a sharp detour into the Coast and was out for a day. And I think I'm gonna be stuck here with this group of survivors for a while."

"That bad?"

"Pretty much. And besides, these people have given me a looong list of things to do in the meantime. At least until I can find Lenny's boat-"

"You what-?!" Nothing at first, like Bones was giving a quick and panicked glance back until he neared closely to the mic with a sharp whisper. "Lenny's gonna kill you!"

"It's fine. It's exactly where I left it. More or less intact."

"Wait, what did you say - know what? Forget it," Bones groaned. "Less I know, the better."

"It'll be fine. Don't be such a pickle."

"That's what you think. I'm out of here when Lenny confronts you," he whined. "Still, good to hear from you, Jack. Any problem over there?"

"Other than the usual? Eeeh, not much. Well, maybe two or three."

"Oooh boy… I got my notebook ready."

"Well, one is Anitizin. They seem pretty stockpiled on it with a good system on who's taking it. Had to decline the doctor."

"Figures. You're gonna have to keep low on this one. Or you'll die," Bones uttered with great emphasis on the last word.

"Well, doesn't make it any easier. Once they hear word I'm avoiding Antizin, they're gonna lock me in a closet thinking I'll turn."

"What are you gonna do?"

"What else? Make up excuses. Have to be careful around the Doc. Sharp fella for his age. Feels like my gramps was right here, catching me on a white lie."

"Well, better be ready to bolt before that happens. We can't lose you, Jack. Again."

"I hear you, I hear you," she remarked casually. "But better I stick around. These people need all the help they can get. A few are keeping my distance. One girl clearly shows that."

"A girl? Is she cute?"

"I'm not playing matchmaker in a zombie outbreak, Bones."

"I wasn't saying that-"

"But you were hoping. Answer's no. She's too young. Back to business."

"Finnne." She could picture the lad rolling his eyes on the other end. "Well, if you must gain the trust of the people, you better do a good job. Us Ravs need to keep a reputation here. Just don't forget your main task. We need to collect data from those infected."

"I've not forgotten. But you know it's bound to get found out."

"Then just lie! Or something. It's only an option-"

"It's the only option we got. And I'd rather tell a half-truth than a half lie and piss them off more. Nobody wants that."

"Man. Your damn honesty is gonna get you killed one of these days."

"Hey, telling the harsh truth beats being a lying dickhead, right?"

"Ha! Like you're not one when you're being truthful! Fine. Fine… So what else? It can't be that easy."

"Well, it's no different here than the Outskirts. GRE's at one side of the Coast. There's also a bunch of prisoners causing up a storm at the other end."

"Yup, sounds about right."

"Oh, and to top it all off, we have some cult in the Suburbans. With a sun symbol."

"Sun?" Bones repeated. "That sounds all too familiar. Think they're the people the Tower was looking into?"

"Doesn't sound like it. They're doing something suspicious other than praising to their Sun god or whatever."

"Do I wanna know?"

"Nope," she answered straightforwardly. "Also, Bones. I don't know if this might be interesting or bad to you. Two new infected we've never seen before. The first one, I didn't get a good look at. Was in the waters."

"Oh greeeat. They're turning into sharks. What's the second one?"

"Some sort of hunter. Leader here says they come out during the night like vicious leopards."

"Hunters? We don't have those in the Outskirts. The worst ones here are the Volatiles and Berserkers."

"Well, this one's a bit different. I saw it. In daylight. And it was beating the living shit out of another infected."

"...Ok, that does sound interesting."

"Oh. It gets better. I think...and this is just a thought, I think it was punching. Feral but that was close hand combat I was seeing."

There was a pause. Yup, a pause.

"Ok, Jack. Be very honest with me. You're sure you didn't hit your head again?"

She almost hesitated. "Of course not," she droned. "I am perfectly sane. To a degree. And as crazy as it sounded, that was no original zombie I saw."

"So what? They're becoming smarter? That can't be right."

"Maybe it was acting out?" she proposed. "Lenny's always going on about them imitating."

"Yes. And he's a fucking conspiracy theorist. But it is a possibility. Or maybe… No way-"

"Spit it out, Bones. We should look into all possible means."

"Maybe it still has its memory. You know, relying on past events and all that to be able to do hooks. I dunno how they think. It's just a guess."

"A zombie with its memory. Sounds reasonable... And dangerous."

"And I'm happy it's not here in the Outskirts… But it could make a good specimen to look into."

"So tag it and track it?"

"Well, that's what this project's for. Besides, he's gonna drop like all the others-BAM!

Oh, wow. The harsh loud noise of a door shutting in the background really hurt her right ear.

"Hey! What are you doing, you old cock-?!" Something fell in the background, giving a loud bang and crack. That gave another sharp hurting, forcing Jack to pull out the earpiece.

"You bloody fucking woman! You took Serendipity!"

"And nice to hear from you too, Lenny," Jack greeted chippily, switching the piece over to her left while she gave the other a rest. "And taking is such a strong word. I was just borrowing it."

"When you get back here, I'm gonna leave your corpse out for the walkers! Now bring her back!"

"And I will. As soon as I'm finished here working on Bones' pet project."

"What - Why, you-!" It was clear that the older man wanted to strangle the nearest thing he could reach. Jack could hear it in the background - Bones yelling, "Hey! Stop!" while Lenny was screaming, "You tell her to bring Serendipity back!"

"Enough horsing around. I'm burning daylight here."

Another loud thud and Lenny came back to the mic. "I should be the one doing this but oh, did you take that away from me! And my boat!"

"We both know you can't do the tracking, Lenny. Not with your arm like that."

"I told you before, I have it under control."

"Yes. Under control. And that's why it was a better choice of taking your boat away from you."

"You don't get to make that call! You need an expert for this stupid hooligan project of that bone fetish creep!"

"Hey! " Bones hollered somewhere. "It's not a bone fetish, it's a study, you bipolar gunman!"

"Boys, boys. Enough. All of us has a stake in this. Our lives. And must I remind you that Asem can hear you from the radio room?"

The two men quickly fell silent - with a few grumbles here and there.

"Good. Lenny, those zombs would have killed you if you went off on your own. And Asem agreed with me on this one. I'm the best you've got out here. If you don't like it, then you'll have to run it up with her." There was a loud, obvious groan on the other end. That was a definite no. "For now, I'll still need your advice. You run me the ropes, I'll give you the credits. And your boat back. Deal?"

"...Aye, you bloody bitch and a half. Keep your damn credits. I'll do the hunting instead once I get out. Bag meself the biggest motherfucker out there... You have the trackers?"

Jack fished out a small plastic bag with tiny devices inside. What she had expected from the professionals were actually the kind she saw in those animal documentaries. Instead, thanks to Bones, they were finder devices one could use to look for lost keys and all that - with clips and hooks. "You sure this will work?"

"I increased the range so that we can see them on the whole map, even from the Outskirts. You have the app, right?" Bones asked.

"Ummm, well-" She traded the next thing with the bag. Her cheap-ass phone - cracked and soaked. The screen made it partially hard to read. No matter how many times she tapped and shook it, it wasn't gonna get fixed instantly.

It had never been a source of contact - everything, from phonecalls to chatrooms, has been jammed down some time ago and only two months or three ago did some communication came back on. Just the internet was still down. But some of the apps still worked, especially her game.

"Jaaaaack," he groaned.

"I'll get a new phone, don't worry. SD's still intact. Someone around here's bound to know where I can get one."

A sigh. "Just click a tracker onto a Special infected. And don't kill it."

"Easier said than done. You know that. I'll call in again when I get started. So be nearby, Lenny."

"You better find my lass first, Jack," the older man grunted.

"I promise, I promise." Lenny was already gone, out the door with another bang. That man always made thing difficult for her whenever he wanted a taste of the hunt.

"Fucking lunatic… You two click like two peas in a pod."

"Now I don't even know whether to find that flattering or insulting," Jack jested. "Chat you again."

"Good luck, Jack.Beep!

The end of that conversation. Well, Jack most certainly had a lot put on her plate. But nothing she couldn't handle. And she had the entire coast of Scanderoon to go around at her own pace. Maybe she could even visit some old and new sights in between jobs.

"Well, Jackie. Time to get to work."

She wheeled around-

"Geezus!" she shrieked, jumping back from the face that popped out of nowhere behind her.

She didn't even hear the rusty door creak open or Siv walking right behind her.

"Woo! You nearly gave me a heart attack. Oh, oh, oooh!" Jack heaved in a deep breath. "How long...were you there for?"

"Enough to know that I'm a problem to you," Siv scoffed irritably.

Well, then. That gave her a gauge which part of the conversation the teen was more peeved at. Didn't tell her if she heard the whole thing or not.

"Don't you know it's wrong to eavesdrops on people's conversation, Kid-"

"Don't fucking call me 'kid'," Siv hissed, stabbing a finger close to Jack. "Right now, you're at the bottom of the food chain inside these walls."

"Well, I apology, your royal Majesty." Nope, not even a crack of a smile off this uptight girl's face. "So...what does the high and mighty want from the underdog?"

The girl grimaced darkly but she bit down whatever retort she wanted to throw at her. "You're with me on drop collection."

"My first assignment of the day?"

"Mahir put me up to this. He may have given you a pat on the back but you're gonna do much more than just talk your way around things." She jabbed her finger into the ex-kickboxer. "The moment you do shit, I'm pushing you right out there as zombie food. Got that?"

Talk about hostility. This kid did not like having anyone older than her worming their way into her circle.

"Crystal clear."

The girl scrunched up her pretty face, hating the loosely-tonged response Jack gave. She marched right off to the other side of the roof.

"Yup. Totally like Champ," Jack muttered to herself. "Doesn't seem like she heard too much back there."

For the better.

"Less people know, the less hope they bet on the results..." Jack heaved a grim sigh, and with a brushing of dirt from her gloves, she exclaimed gleefully, "Well then, no rest for the wicked."

Chapter Text

TWO: BREAKING THE ICE


It was clustered on the rooftop. Jack had to climb her way around the ventilation shafts and the small made-shift watchtowers. This place was really prepared for the worst. And it wasn't easy for her, with the kid ordering her to do leapfrogs.

C'mon, Jack knew how to do this, she didn't need a tutorial.

"Would you hurry up, lazybones?"

"Alright, alright. Bossy," Jack uttered. She was about to ask the question, how were they gonna leave, until she spotted the means. "Ziplines."

"If you wanna stroll down there, be my guest."

"I'll pass," she uttered. "But, uh, you sure this is safe?"

It sounded like a dumb question, forcing Siv to remark, "Safer than down there."

"That's true. But those ziplines are going up, not-"

Siv pulled out a rope ascender from her belt. She cocked out her eyebrow. "What? You think I'm gonna climb my way?"

Smart. "You don't have a spare for me, do you-" The teenager was already off, the device swooshing loudly along the metal. "Ok. Let me take the long way around then."

She seriously was not gonna make things easy for Jack. But that wasn't a worry to her.

"Just take it as exercise, Jackie. You've been out for a day anyway."

A day. Yeah, right. She felt like she had gone cold for weeks the whole morning. But remembering parkour moves particularly was a good refresher course. Traversing over fences, moving along thin ledges by the fingers, freerunning across the roofs, this was easy.

Ok, that was a lie to herself. She was still rusty at these things.

"You sure know the basics."

"Learned them from my cousin. Traded him self-defense from me."

"You're an instructor?"

"Not yet. Was supposed to start before the Harran outbreak happened. Had the papers and gym ready," Jack breathed, not forgetting she was hanging by a thread as she moved about. "You know...this isn't half bad."

"Your cousin didn't teach you enough."

"Hey. I didn't teach him enough either," she chided, taking Siv's hand to be hurled up onto the next roof. "I wasn't gonna give him the upper hand."

"Hmph." That little small joke wasn't enough to crack through the teenager's thick ice. This was gonna take a while, Jack told herself. This walk along the rooftops could have been a good bonding moment between them but Siv wasn't gonna give her any chance in that.

"Hey, rookie. Gimme a hand." Their first stop was a set of coastal townhouses that had been blocked out at the ground levels and severely damaged by intense rainwater. At the last house, Siv pointed to a dunnage rack on the second floor.

"Rookie? Why - ok, fine." Jack was about to give her some lip over that distasteful title but she let it slide. This one time. "How about a please?"

"And you're not my mom. Move it," Siv ordered. "Don't pull your back."

"Hreh hreh," Jack mocked. She wasn't ancient. And she wished she has retracted that thought. Because "Omph! This thing weighs a ton!"

"Told ya."

But she could see why. Siv saw this as a bridge to help them across the gap of splinters and bars. They set it down quietly - just because the architectural canopies were easy to move about didn't mean they weren't entirely safe.

And off the runner went across it. Not giving a second thought to wait for Jack.

Ok, she might as well instigate the conversation. Get the ball rolling and the ice melting.

"You know, I find it baffling that a person like you is doing errands," she exclaimed, following after the young girl. "Or running around the town for that matter."

"Mahir needs all the hands he can get. No complaints there."

"So he lets you go? Alone?"

"We've got teams. But I don't see a point in sending more than two people to collect an airdrop close here."

"Your parents must be proud of ya. Or terrified."

"Wouldn't know."

Jack almost stopped. "Wait, they're not here?"

"My dad got into an accident when I was a toddler. Drunk driving."

Oh, dear. She stepped on a landmine. "Sorry to hear that… And your mother?"

"Dunno. Haven't heard a word from her."

And a second one! Terrific, Jack. You're one step closer to being bubbies with this girl.

"I'm sure she's fine."

"Hmph." There was a spiteful tone on the girl's tongue. "I wouldn't know. Instead of staying with her only daughter, she gets a call to join with the other physicians at the first sign of the symptoms in Harran."

Oh dear. Mommy issues.

"She did it for a cause, I guess."

"She was doing it because her fucking boyfriend was there! What else?! And my teacher, for fuck's sake!"

Wow! Ok. Really need to stop, Jack. But she tempted fate again.

"Do you miss her?"

"I don't wanna talk about it."

Which meant "step over the fourth or fifth landmine and I'll break your nose." Jack compelled quietly, though she'd certainly wanna see how this girl fight. A poor jab that she could parry away.

"C'mon. This way."

Still, this girl had good speed over strength. Mahir was right about her. She was shooting her way across the slidings and pipes. If the kid were to take a lesson from Jack, she could deliver many blows accumulated than harder ones at the price of losing their momentum.

Siv was off to the other side of the level, leaving Jack to already feel the stitch catching up. Fuck herself if she was gonna show any sign of weakness to someone waaay younger than her.

"So who's Bones?"

"I'm sorry?"

"Bones. He's your contact, right?" So the kid wanted to continue the conversation. Or maybe she just didn't like the dead silence like Jack.

"You really shouldn't have been eavesdropping, Kid." No snap from the girl, so Jack reluctantly obliged to continue. Better out than in. "Fine. Bones' basically our unofficial radioman. Lets the recruits know where to go, when to go, all the warnings and such."

"Unofficial?"

"He never asked for it. But somebody's gotta do the job. The last radio guy took an absense of leave. You are hearing the other person getting chewed up on the air."

"Yeah. I know the feeling," Siv confessed, giving a quick glance to the city's grim edge. 

"Nothing much we can do. We are low on manpower. And he doesn't have many redeeming qualities out on the field."

"That bad?"

"I said on the field. He's got a good head on his shoulders. Creative lad, comes up with ideas and gadgets to give us some leeway against those freaks."

"Huh... What else?"

"What else?" Jack repeated. Ok, now she was struggling. "He has a good sense of humor sometimes. Um, listens to game music?"

"That's a genre?"

"He tries to defeat himself that it keeps him in the rhythm. Can't deny that - if it wasn't the same platformer track over and over again."

"Wow. Now that's terrible."

"Tell me about it."

Another pause between them as they climbed across the dwellings.

"So why do you call him Bones?"

Ahhh. This story. "He was taking a curriculum at the University in Harran before the outbreak hit. Forensic anthropology? Forensic archaeology? I dunno which. He got real interested in studying those zombies' bones after he joined the Ravs."

"Um, isn't that, like, unhygienic? Touching dead bodies?"

"Well, he certainly lives up to his name. And no, you don't get the virus by touching bones and body parts. Still, he's able to figure out a lot of things around them Biters. Which part's the most vulnerable, which weapon could do an effective beating, yada yada yada. It's thanks to his brains we're giving those zombies a real knockout in the Outskirts."

"Huh. That's impressive."

"He's a college student. Couple of years older than you."

"And? I'm nineteen. I'd be, what, freshman in college?"

"Is that correct?" she asked suspiciously.

"Yeah." The silence between them stung greatly. "Ok, it's eighteen." And yet Jack didn't budge, now tapping her foot. "...Fine. I'll turn seventeen next month! Happy?"

"What is with kids these days…"

"...What about this Asem?"

"Seriously?" Jack uttered disappointedly. "Do I have to go down the roster list?"

"Not my fault you're a loudmouth," Siv scoffed, boosting herself aggressively as a reminder to Jack - she could keep her out of the Junction at any time. 

The brunette sighed defeatedly. "Well, Asem's an interesting woman. Has her own secrets. The only two things I know about her are that she's leader of the Ravs and she's from the military."

"She is?" Siv uttered with surprise. 

"Yeah. Trained markswoman. 

"Huh… Mahir's from the military too," the youngster offered that thought to her.

"Ahhh, possible they've crossed paths at work," Jack sang.

"You know, Mahir's not very talkative about his own past too. Think those two had something scandalous between them?"

"Enough to make his lips sealed, that's for certain."

"Maybe Asem could tell you-"

"Ah ha ha," Jack broke out with a nervous drone. "Oh, I'm probably gonna get the same treatment from her as he did to me. But far worse."

"What? She's bossy?"

"Bossy? No. A bit...scary at times. She's a good leader, our 'mother hen' of the group. If it wasn't for her, I think everyone from Ravs would have fended for themselves."

"Oh... What about this Lenny person?"

"Lenny… Huh, to be honest, I have no idea. Cooky kind of guy. We had some theories - that he was some wildlife poacher, headhunter or a treasure hunter."

"So which is he?"

"No idea. He has an awfully vast knowledge on how to track stuff, dead or alive. My coin is on the bounty hunter."

"I bet it's the treasure one."

"Not the poaching?"

"Why would anyone wanna poach in this country? There aren't any rare animals like a Siberian Tiger. But there are ruins everywhere. Gotta be some treasure in them."

Jack let out a chuckle. Now that did sound plausible. "I should change bets then."

"You should. I'll come out with all the winnings."

And the two laughed together. It was a good change of pace, a short moment of comfort to forget their current dilemma. It was one of the fewer things Jack liked. If you kept focusing on all bad things, you'd forget the good things - her manager had told her that. It kept her sane. Reminded her what was important.

One thing, though, at least, she was able to confirm just how much the kid overheard from her talk with Bones and Lenny. Didn't seem like she overheard all of it.

That didn't mean she should stop being cautious.

"So people call you Wild Dog."

"And now it's my turn, ladies and gentlemen," Jack mumbled. "Yeah, well. It wasn't my idea. My manager saw what I could do. 'As rabid as the stray dogs of Harran', he said. And I lived up to the name by-"

"Biting off someone's ear, right?"

Well, she had to bring that out. "Uh, I guess. Yeah, I bit people in the ring. A bit of the low side but it makes them flinch."

"Isn't that illegal in kickboxing?"

"Ehhhh, why yes. Just has that one time in the ring."

"Hmph. Sounds like you did more than just normal fights."

Damn, this kid was sharp. Jack could straight out lie or avert the conversation elsewhere. But the world was damned now, who would care about consequences and karma.

"Alright. Yeah, you meet all sorts of contacts, good and bad. Even before I was into kickboxing, I was always looking for a quick fight. Desk job just didn't feel right to me."

"Oh, I'd hate that too. And is that where you got the name Mad Jack?"

"Eeeh, you know, I don't really remember which fight they started chanting that name… Was it the Rennes fight or the Paris one…"

"You've been to France?" Siv uttered.

"Started in France first, then Turkey, Iran. Pretty much everywhere. Once I signed up officially, I went even further. Spain, Germany. Australia. Wherever Mert could find a good fight for me."

"He's your manager?"

"Yup. I owe a lot to him for everything. He helped me stay focus on the right path till my retired days… The only problem was the unwanted baggage that followed me afterward."

"Baggage?"

"Like I said. You meet all sorts of contact. Mert didn't really care. Guess we were both hoping that baggage would leave me alone. Learn to move on."

"They didn't, did they?" Siv started with a wary step into the conversation.

Jack bit her lip hard, stifling down the provoked flames with a deep breath. She was the one who let that little detail slipped past by - she asked for it. "Most people never do. They can't take no for an answer."

"Sounds like a story you don't wanna talk about it."

"It's an indefinite story."

It wasn't harsh - Jack had learned to always keep her anger in check unless it was out in the ring or to a dumbass. But it was enough to tell the kid not to step over the line. Perhaps she wasn't too offended by the soft mild-tempered remark since she had been given Jack a hard time from the start.

"So...any scars?"

Jack hunched her eyebrows at the surprise-attack question. "I'm sorry?"

There was a hint of hesitation in the young girl's body  A slight tint of regret, maybe feeling at fault for nearly bringing up an old wound. "Scars. Or broken bones. Wrestling's all about getting the pain, right?"

"Kickboxing. There's a fine difference."

"Ok. What is it then?" Siv remarked snippily. 

"Wrestling is locking and holding your opponent to overpower them. Kickboxing is striking your enemy."

"Okaaay. So you can ku-fung your way around it-"

"Ha! Not like the movies, love. I've come out with some scrapes. A broken rib once. Even a few kicks to the head."

"Sheez...isn't that like bad?"

"That's the risk of headbutting in the ring. In any combat sport. Either one of us ends up with jam in their head."

"Your head's not like swiss cheese, is it?"

"Wouldn't you like to know." Despite Jack's wide smirking and cheery chuckle, Siv couldn't tell if she literally meant she did or didn't. Still, the kid refrained from probing. "But if anything, it was all worth it in the end…"

There was a sense of pride, like a veteran mesmerizing the old days. So she really was a granny, Siv thought. But she wasn't gonna throw salt on to the wound when she noted the peaceful, satisfied beam on the woman's face.

"So where's this drop?"

"Up ahead," the youngster answered. "Just need to cross one more threshold."

That was good to hear, Jack thought. That was until they walked around the bend.

"Whoa, whoa. Ok, no."

"What?"

Between two buildings, before the two girls, was one threshold all right. A radio tower had snapped off its structure and fallen down, forming a bridge. But that wasn't the main concern. It was the height.

"That's a fifty-foot drop."

Siv simply peered over the edge. "Actually, sixty-five. Estimate."

"Ah-ha, a wise guy," Jack mockingly exclaimed and glanced around. "But seriously. There should be another way around-"

"Aren't you Mad Jack? You take all sorts of risks right?"

"Back in my glory days. Not in a zombie-filled city."

"What?" Siv spread out her arms, readying a cheeky taunt. "You're chicken?"

Seriously? The kid was gonna test this woman's patience? "Mad Jack ain't chicken."

"Bwak, bwak! Bwaak!"

Neither of them knew they were being watched. Not too far away from the two's location, the golden eyes hawked eerily - the unnatural monochromatic vision watching the smaller highlighted prey flap her folded arms. It was ticing it to come after her. Not enough to quench its hunger but it'd make for an easy kill-

No! No! Stop! Stop!  Shut up!

"Ok, ok," the female adult uttered with a chuckle. "But this tower's better be stable, Kid."

"Relax. Runners go through here all the time."

The infected creature tried to steady itself. Keep the bloodthirst in check. Let the anger do the talking. All it wanted was the woman. It couldn't let her go. If she was really back, she would be nothing but trouble. Just like before. Her and her fucking holy morals. She couldn't exist anymore! She couldn't fuck someone else up like she did to him!

I'm gonna kill you.

Jack wheeled back to the sound. But was it really sound? It was a strange scratch at the back of her head, just enough to be mistaken as a soft whisper to her ear. Actually, it was all too strange that she couldn't describe it.

Was it the wind?

"Hey. Something's wrong?"

"Um… Sorry. Thought I heard something."

"You better be alright. Or I'm leaving you behind, slowpoke."

"Yeah, yeah."

Siv was gone with a skip, far too fast for Jack's liking. Seriously, how was this kid able to keep it straight on such shaky obstacles? Hell, she just jumped over a good six feet gap.

Well, she wasn't gonna be left behind. With a deep breath - first, a few steps back for a running start - Jack leaped off.

BAM!

"Jesus Cripes' sake!" she shrieked, her top half holding on top to the tail-end of the radio tower and her legs dangling over the edge. Creeeee-thu-thu-thu! The metal creaked grated loudly at the sudden change of weight but it didn't bend like she had thought it would. She hurried back up and gripped the railing so tightly, her knuckles were turning white.

"You're ok?"

"Yeah. Just a little winded." She made the foolish decision to look over her shoulder. Omph, the height. She felt like she could be pushed off by the wind like paper. "Bloody hell. That's a long way down!" Stupid to say again, but man, did it send shivers down her spine. She gave out a loud, nervous laugh. "Gives you one heck of a thriller!"

"Ha." Jack could have sworn she saw a little creak of a grin from the young girl. "You should try the top of the clocktower. It's one dozy-"

Siv suddenly stopped, bringing a hand to her head. She wobbled unexpectedly along the dwelling, not going forward or backward.

"Siv?"

The swaying of her body was getting worse. Right before Jack's eyes, the teenager timbered over the side.

"SIV!"

The brunette darted full speed as the tower creaked louder and louder from her hurried steps. The fear of watching the kid fall off a building overtook the fear of falling off herself if she were to misstep through the gaps. Quickly, she dove across the edge and latched onto Siv's arm just in time.

"I got you!" Jack hollered. "Pull up!"

At first, the girl didn't even lift her other arm. Shit! What the hell happened to her? But, thankfully and finally, Siv seemed to stir. She shook her head for a moment and drowsily comprehended her peril she was in. Like snapping out of a daze, she quickly pulled herself up.

"Come on!" With a gruff, Jack grabbed her by the jacket with her other hand and both rolled over onto the more stable part of the fallen tower. That was way too close for comfort but certainly not over. Jack examined her thoroughly - Siv was now lying on the ground like a fetus, hands on head, like something heavy was upon her. She did not look alright.

"What were you thinking?! You could have gotten yourself killed!" Jack snapped. "Damn, your head."

There was a bit of bleeding coming from an opened knob on her forehead. She must have hit herself on the metal.

"Sorry…" Siv apologized, barely hearing her. Ok, now that terrified Jack. "Just had...a bit of a spasm.."

"A seizure?" She got nothing of a reply. "When was your last Antizin dosage?"

"Three days ago… But I shouldn't be feeling the effects now."

"What?" Ok, that did sound strange. And alarming. "We're going back to the Junction."

"No! No," Siv demanded, forcing herself back up but that only tumbled her on her rear. She squeezed her eyes tight, hoping that would get rid of the fits. "We got to get to that drop first!"

"There will always be other drops. Not another Siv. Now come on-"

"I'm fine! Really!" The young teenager straightened up again, right on her feet before she held out her hands. "See? No shakes. It was just a fluke... I'll get another dose after we get this drop."

Jack let a pause pass by, at first waiting for the girl to change her mind and follow her back. In this changing world, stupidity over pride or goodwill could send you down a one-way trip over yonders. But the girl simply frowned even more - visually telling her she'd leave her behind and get the drop herself.

Ugh, this stubbornness. It was like dealing with a clone of that woman, with the difference of the years and experience. And Jack knew she wasn't going to back down. Still, one more examination told her she seemed fine.

But what about the next time?

"Let's just get to the other side."

Siv seemed reluctant at first but agreed. She didn't need a second time. Jack kept a close eye on her, readying herself to reach out at a moment's drop.

"Let me fix up your head first," she proposed once they reached safety.

"I'm fine. It's not that bad. And it's not like I'm gonna get infected again."

She folded her arms. "First important rule. Your body is your tool. Don't be an idiot or else it'll break."

"Who said that kind of philosophical shit?"

"Mert. My manager." Siv's scoffed face immediately scrunched up like a scared kid preparing for the scolding. But Jack didn't. "He's right though. Now sit tight."

This time, there wasn't any fighting from the teenager. So she was gonna listen to an adult this one time. Jack was already quick to searching for the needed materials - a gauze, alcohol and duct tape to hold the bandage together.

"Ssssk!" the kid hissed at the sting.

"There we go," Jack exclaimed. "We really should get the doc to check on you-"

"I'm good. Really." Siv grimaced at the unconvinced expression the ex-kickboxer was giving. "We've not gotten anything these two days and it's dampening up everyone's mood. We need something to cheer everyone up. And-"

"Ok, ok," Jack answered begrudgingly. Better for her to stay with her until they'd return back home. "But the moment you start hungering for human flesh, I'm taking you back."

Siv scoffed, leaping right off her seat. "You should be shooting my brains out when that happens. Come on. We're getting close."

The runner trotted off, climbing her way down the insides of the building.

Jack didn't follow at first.

"...Yeah… Let's just hope that never happens…"


Unlike the runner back in her usual bounce, Jack took a slower descent through the radio station. It was also a quiet trip - that little scare took a bit of a year out of the grown-up. However, Siv was keen on keeping up the atmosphere, as a means to brush away what happened to her.

"Hey, c'mon, Slowpoke. It's right here!"

The end goal was a parking lot outside. Empty of not just cars but also the walkers strolling aimlessly beyond the busted wire fence. And right in the middle of it was the tell-tale red container.

"And there we go. One airdrop of rations and first-aid. Told ya it was just a simple collection." Siv folded her arms with a proud boast of her chest. "And Mahir thought it was all too risky to go three streets away on my own. Now he can get off my back-"

"Um, Siv?"

Jack had already started with opening up the airdrop. Her eyes bugged wide at the contents and it wasn't out of sheer joy. One side of the box was what they needed: Antizin. The other wasn't. Carefully, she pulled out the first object into the light. Oh, yes. She didn't need her eyes checked.

It was a grenade.

"Do drops normally contain military grade weapons and explosives?"

"What? Of course not! Are you da-?" The young girl joined her and immediately her eyes widened. "Holy - this is enough to take out an army."

"Or a horde of zombies."

"Why are they dropping in stuff like this? We don't really need this - well. Ok, we could use these but, fuck."

Then Jack heard it.

Click

A tiny sound of an assault rifle echoed behind them, yet dangerous enough to make the two halt on the spot. Immediately, a voice hollered out, "Freeze!"

Beside the zombies, the two weren't alone in this parking lot.

"Turn around!"

Jack peeked over to her companion. Siv was scared, holding her breath as she glanced at the adult for some notion of what the fuck should they do. Jack gestured out a nod - she's got this - and they slowly turned around. Behind them stood two soldiers in heavy armor. Guns were drawn out. Not normal-looking military.

GRE printed on their attire.

"Put your hands up!"

Siv quickly did as she was told. Jack silently refused.

Breath in. Nobody noticed Jack counting to three with her free hand. 1, 2, 3. Breath out.

She examined her opponents like a quiet she-wolf against its rival. The grunts were hired hand, the kind anyone - the crooks, the rich or the corporates - would hire for a decent amount of pay. The two men clearly showed they experienced in close combat but totally relied too much on ammo. She could take them. Just needed to do three things: disarm one, disarm the other before he could shoot, and make sure Siv stay out.

For now, the best choice of action was to keep a note on their moves while distancing them from Siv.

The man on the left holstered up his walkie-talkie. "We got two survivors here."

"We're not zombies, you fucking asses," Siv hissed.

"Shhh," Jack hushed cooly.

"Roger that." The soldier lifted his rifle back, tightly like that kind that showed the girls were target practices. "Orders in. Exterminate them."

"What?" his partner uttered, no doubt with wide eyes behind his protective eye gear. There was a moment of hesitation, trailing back and forth to Siv. "But she's just a kid."

"Orders are orders, Serge. They're no different than those infected." No sense of mercy out of this one. He could be trouble, Jack thought. While she was keeping watch, Siv couldn't believe what she had heard. Fucking GRE was branding them as Virals immediately!

"We're not infected!" she tried to defend. Jack shouldn't be the one to take her fall, all because of Siv.

"Move to the wall. Now!"

Siv jumped with gritted teeth, almost ready to do as she was told. But Jack remained still. She was stern.

Breath in. Her fingers counting 1, 2, 3. Breath out.

"Are you deaf or something, freak?!" The soldier trotted towards her, jamming the nuzzle into her chest. Pointed right at her heart. "Put your hands up and move it!"

She wasn't budging.

"I said do it! Or I'll shoot you!" The tone was getting as itchingly aggressive as the finger on the trigger.

So she shrugged her shoulders. Well, he asked for it.

She raised up her hands and behind the gas masks, the two soldiers' eyes widened up at the sight in Jack's righty. The one in front of her quickly backed away.

The lovely grenade she had picked up from the container.

"Whoops. Looks like my finger's stuck on the pin." She remained absolutely calm, her little pinky slipped through the small little ring. For anyone, that was the most horrifying thing she could have done. Even Siv stared at her with sweating palms. "Now ten hut, men. Time to listen good. If you don't want all of us blowing to kingdom come, you're gonna drop your weapons and stand ten feet away from us."

"What the fuck are you doing?!" Siv whispered.

Jack gave a short, gentle wave with her free hand - visually telling Siv it was going to be alright. Kinda. She had to try, at least. "Now me and my friend are gonna go through the back. And you're gonna wait for us to have a ten-minute running start."

The left man then tilted his gun up-

"Nah-ah!" Jack shook one index finger, like a disappointed teacher scolding a student for trying. "You sure you wanna do that? My finger could slip if you shoot me. And even if you survive the explosion, the noise's gonna attract a lot of attention."

"You're bluffing," he scoffed.

Jack merely smirked. With a casual shrug, she reached out to the pin. "Alright. Don't say I didn't warn you-"

"NO! NO! Wait!"

"STOP! STOP!"

She obeyed the men's pleads, slowly putting back her free hand away. But the grenade stayed up.

"Now are you gonna be the gentleman type and grant a lady's wishes? We don't have all day."

"...Fine. Fine." Slowly, the two men dropped their guns to the floor.

"Backups too."

They clearly grimaced. They weren't dealing with an amateur. Handguns were grudgingly taken out of their holsters and kicked aside.

"Back away slowly, eyes front."

Siv wasn't too sure if the professional meant it for her or the grunts. But once the men obeyed with three steps back, Jack took two big ones back. So carefully, Siv did the same. For now, she had to rely on the crazy woman if she wanted to live. And for an insane plan like that, it was working. Ha! They might get out of this alive!

The teenager didn't notice the left man slowly slip his gloved hand behind his back, fingers touching the hilt of a hidden survival knife and his eyes on the naive little girl-

Not giving you the chance! Jack thought.

"Move!"

Shiink!

Out went the pin. Jack pitched the live bomb hard and the little deadly thing bounced towards a nearby pillar of a highway as she sprinted, grabbing Siv by the shoulders.

"Get down!" the right man hollered. Just like from the movies.

BOOM!

Rubble flew everywhere, separating the two groups apart. A sharp ringing shot through Jack's skull. She barely registered a portion of the upper road collapsing, her body moving on its own to bring herself and Siv to safety. Eventually, the ringing stopped and her vision cleared. The two men didn't follow after them.

Then the loud screams came from everywhere.

"Shit! They're coming!"

"What are you waiting for?! Shoot them! Shoot them!"

"Run!"

"You don't have to tell me twice!"

The runners bolted, the teenager already leaving Jack to bite the dust. Jack ignored the panicked wails of the two GRE soldiers and the firing going off. Better them being ravaged than her and the kid. Now the focus was getting out alive - more infected were swimming at the sides, splashing through the tilted fences that were busted down by past panic-stricken vehicles.

"Shit! Shit! Shit! Uh, uh - this way!"

She spotted Siv ushering her towards a warehouse two streets ahead, much smaller than the Junction. Doors were closed but not the second-floor window. The teenager immediately leaped up a pipe and Jack followed, both hopping inside.

"Whoa!" A hiss to Siv's right made her sidestep frightenedly.

"Get away from her!" Jack was in thug mode. She shoved her shoulder into the zombie, its body tumbling down a set of metal stairs. "Go! Lead!"

Siv took towards the roof again, headstrong on getting them out alive! By fishing out her rope ascender. "Jump!"

The ex-kickboxer quickly lassoed her arms around the girl's waist with one leap of fate as Siv snapped the ascender device on their only saving grace of escape - zipline. The shrieking of metal biting metal shrieked louder and louder.

"Hang on!"

"What do you think I'm doing?!"

"Hang on!" again, Siv hollered. This time, for the impact.

"OH SHIIIIIT!"

CRASH!

Color-stained glass shattered everywhere. This act must be a sinful thing the ladies did under the watchful eyes above but breaking through the window of an old church for sanctuary was surely something God could look over. Just this one. Their bodies tumbled across the carpeted floor - they were all too in pain to glance around for any zombies nearby and lucky, there weren't. Well, Jack felt the aches much worse than the Kid's that she simply laid back, arms and legs spread out.

"I so need one of those zipline thingies…" Jack groaned.

Siv was halfway up, palm on a knee. "What are you? A lunatic?" she panted heavily. "You could have gotten us killed!"

Jack drew circles in the air with a finger. "Never a dull day for a Rav. Comes with the territory... I think you'd make a good member with that bullshit stunt."

"Really?" Siv uttered with a ting of surprise and excitement. Then a shake of the head and a swallowed up breath. "I can't just leave everyone at the Junction."

"Hey, you don't have to. It's just handshakes and doing the instigation, just basic stuff. An honorary member. Dental's free by the way."

Siv chuckled loudly. She was put at gunpoint, nearly eaten by zombs and was next to a mad self-defense instructor holding a grenade as her negotiation point. She should have been yelling at this cuckoo old hag for putting her own life on the line.

But out of this wacky, panic-stricken, fruitless trip, it looked like Jack's personality had finally won her. Getting back up on weak knees, the teenager gave Jack her hand and with one more breath out of the brunette, she took it.

"You have one sick sense of humor, you know that." She hosted Jack up on her feet. "Hahaha...heh…" There was an odd ending to the teenager's laughter for some reason.

"Well, that's what everyone keeps telling-" Jack turned around and her heart jumped up straight to her throat. "-me."

Again, they weren't alone. A survivor could never be alone.

Men were predictable. Jack could read the moves easily and deliver back three folds before they'd try to touch her. As long as she'd take notes of their patterns, their movements, their behaviors, it was a simple take out. Whether with fists or not.

An infected was different. They spontaneously attack, pull a 180 sometimes and if they were lucky, manage to give a turnaround on Jackie herself. She had a couple of close calls over the last few months.

She recognized the jacket and those animalistic eyes. A Hunter was right before them, growling a low clicking. A large predator making its stance on top of the debris before two nicely prepared preys for it.

Jack had only one thought in her mind. And she absentmindedly mumbled it out.

"Well, hello again, mate."

Chapter Text

THREE: WILD DOG


Siv was terrified.

There were many times she felt that feeling. The first was seeing her mother crying after her dad one day never came back home but she was far too young to understand the reason. The second was experiencing parkour the first time, feeling the tight grip close to death as she glanced down. The people below her looked like ants from all the way up the top.

The third came rushing all too quick and too sudden. Over the first week of the Scanderoon outbreak, a lot of things terrified her. She had seen men kill men, zombies kill men and men kill the infected. Even she had to do the finishing blow to the monsters.

Just to live.

It took every ounce of mental strength to sleep the terrors away but she had learned one thing: survival. There was no way she could survive on her own and no way she could trust anyone with her life. Mahir and the people at the Junction were the only ones she could after she was rescued. One fateful day, he and his men were out getting to the drops one day and found her fleeing for her life from prison hooligans.

That encounter didn't come without losses. And she was given that condescending talk from Mahir that she was deadweight if she wasn't going to help the Junction. Well, it wasn't mocking - the leader was explaining to her in a calm fashion. Everyone had to pull their weight around for the group's benefits. But she still hated that "you are a kid and you don't know what you're dealing with" attitude.

So she showed them, all the adults, by making the A and B teams for the Junction. Any time they had a situation where supplies were in need, she and the other runners jumped in for the hardest task.

This time was different. The container was a loss cause, GRE soldiers nearly tried to gun them down and now, she and Jack were against a zombie she had never seen before.

Was it a Hunter? Runners were never to go out during night but she had heard the stories. But Siv just didn't expect to meet one in broad daylight, hawking at them like a tiger deciding which one would make a good meal.

"Siv," she heard Jack whisper softly and cautiously. "I want you to stay...absolutely still. Ok?"

Shakingly, she nodded - her eyes peering at the corners of her eyes as much as possible without turning her head. The red-hooded adult slowly ambled step by step, towards Siv. Jack was dead on using her own body as her shield - something Siv didn't want but she was far too afraid to protest. Her mind was blank to figure out a way they could both escape without this Hunter tailing after them. Or biting them.

In Jack's hand was a piece of wood she had just picked up from the floor. As she stepped away from Siv, she waved the weapon like a bone to a dog but in a slow, drifting manner. That seemed to catch the Hunter's attention.

"Hey, there, big...ugly fella," she mumbled to the infected. Like it had any level of intelligence to understand her. But sounds of all sorts were enough to draw its attention. "You're hungry, aren't ya? You want something with more meat, right? How about me instead?"

That seemed to work. The Hunter clicked his tongue aggressively at the ex-kickboxer with haunting golden eyes. A claw forth, then the next one towards her.

"Back away. Slowly," Jack ordered. "Get back to the Junction."

"What?!" Siv muttered, nearly breaking into a shout. "I can't leave you!"

"This is not up for debates," she insisted calmly.

"B-But…" Siv had so many things to say. Jack was risking her life over a stupid kid like her and she wasn't against those normal rotting monsters or gun-crazed men. Maybe, maybe, she could find a weapon and help her-!

"It's ok." Jack, although completely focused on the one danger in the room with them, wasn't fazed at the threat in front of her. Just like with the GRE soldiers. "I'll be alright."

She didn't say she'd be right behind her. Or that she would follow Siv once she'd knock the bastard's lights out. But Siv could tell she had some insane confidence of taking care of the problem. This wasn't the first time.

This lady had better come out alive or Siv would never forgive her. Slowly, she took a step and another back.

"Snarrk!"

"Ah, ah, ah!" Jack gave a quick shake of the 2x4 plank just as the Hunter switched back targets. That sudden jolt of the eyes on the teen nearly made Siv yelp with fright but she tried to be as quiet as a mouse creeping backward. Less movement and noise out of her as possible while Jack kept all the attention on herself. "Don't go changing your mind. We haven't even started yet."

Siv gave a quick glimpse to see how far she was to an open window. She needed to get out, get back to the Junction quickly, get A Team-

Clink!

Siv froze at the sound of something beneath her feet.

The broken glass.

"Ragrh!"

The Hunter immediately snapped its glare onto Siv.

She couldn't move. Couldn't scream. She was all too petrified to do anything. She couldn't even meekly plead for help.

The zombie launched itself at her.

"SIV!"

It was all of a blur to Siv but suddenly, just as the Hunter pounced with teeth and claws drawn out, Jack leaped forth with arms lassoing around the beast's neck. With Jack's sudden momentum, the human and monster went flying off to the left and through the weak part of the floor.

CRASH!

"Jack!"

Both bodies hit the ground floor hard, right in the middle of the aisle before the dropped cross. The wind was completely knocked out of Jack but her mind was screaming her to get up. Quickly!

"Get up!"

Oh, wait. Was that Siv doing the shouting?

Finally, Jack's body did as it was told. But the Hunter was also climbing back up. With a loud holler that powerfully brushed out like a vicious wind, it was making its stance against her.

Oh, how she wished she had a UV light right about now!

"Jack!"

She glimpsed up. "Just go! Get out of here!"

"But-"

"NOW!" Jack battered up her weapon for a readied pitching.

"I-I'll get help!" The stamping of Siv's footsteps gradually faded off into the distance.

"That's ok. I'll be done with this freak before then," Jack chided maddeningly.

"Rraaagh!" With a starting stalk, the Hunter jumped at her but Jack was quick on her feet, dodging aside. She took one good swing down on the zombie's ugly head.

Thrack!

Splinters flew everywhere as the wood piece broke in two. Three. Or more. That whack did absolutely nothing to the damn freakoid.

"Ah, shit."

She turned. And saw a claw grabbing her by the jacket.

"Whoa! Ommph!" Jack felt the floor fast and hard. A good five feet of a spin and she was already disoriented. She took too many seconds to stand up but she definitely knew one thing

Judo. That was a fucking throwdown technique. By a mindless man-eating freak. Oh, she was gonna feel it in the morning.

"O-Ok. So you're not an average zombie."

Suddenly, thin tendrils wrapped around her. For a split second, she was stunned at this new whatever-this-biology-thing was. But hurriedly, she stuck out her arm as a sort of shield. The monster pinned her down, looking for where her neck was.

"I'm not into this kind of shit-GAARH!" Teeth sunk deep into her left forearm and pain ricocheted from the spot. OMIGOD! THIS THING WAS EATING HER ALIVE!

Sure, this was probably nothing new. Every single survivor has had their fair share of bites and wounds from the Biters and runners.

Thankfully, her right arm was free.

One punch! Two punch! The Hunter's jaws were locked on her arm tight! "Get...off...ME!" Three punch! And he stumbled off - not without bits of flesh stripped off.

Jack staggered away, examining the bite wound on her forearm. "Fuck!" With eyes still on the infected jumping on its feet, she wrapped up the wound to dull down the pain. If this thing managed to get her neck next, she was down for.

Normal weapons weren't going to take this bastard down. And oh boy, Bones wanted this one as a live specimen!

Then there was a cough. A choking sound erupted from the Hunter's throat. It was gripping its chest, having a hard time to breathe. Frantically, it spat out Jack's flesh like it was something nasty to it.

"Good. Drop dead, you bloody mongrel-"

"SRRAAAARHHH!"

Another holler out of the thing. It was fighting against the pain in one go. Its golden eyes locked on her again. Now twice as ferocious as ever!

"Shit! What?!"

"Raaaargh!"

There was no warning for her, despite her desperate yells of "No! No! No!". The infected vaulted with the tendrils out again. Hands together like a pray, she shielded herself up with no choice but to be tackled down. Her only main concern was protecting her vitals. She was putting all her strength in pushing back the snapping chompers. But the Hunter was easily overpowering her over sheer inhuman strength with its creepy ropes tightening on her.

No! She wasn't going to go down! Mad Jack didn't know the meaning of quits! She then did the unthinkable. Actually, she did what she had always done from the ring.

She bit it.

Yup.

That was right.

She sank her teeth right on a tendril. A grunt of alarm escaped out of the beast, followed by a wail of agony. It tried to shake her off, the sprigs slithering around her. It had enough of this stunt and tossed her away.

CRA-KAK!

Her back hit the Holy Son with incredible impact and half her body dropped to the altar. The Hunter growled with a hand on the bite wound, biting down on its lower lip at the sting. It quickly glimpsed back at her, making sure she'd stay put. Good, she wasn't getting back up. That had to do that bitch in-

"Heh...hahaha…"

It was a slow chuckle as Jack pushed herself up. Her vision was swimming, gradually clearing up as an old feeling was coming back to her. She spat out the disgusting taste from her mouth with a "Ptooey!"

Then out came the explosion.

"AHAHAHA!"

This feeling - it had been too long since she'd felt this! No more being cautious about her wellbeing. No more chaining the spirit down because of 'proper manners'. Now the stray hound in her was hungry. She wanted to wolf this feeling all in. She had to live up to her legendary name one more time.

She mounted over the table with maddening hazel eyes behind her shades. She wore the widest grin like the Big Bad Wolf, flexing her fingers in and out. A crazed woman was on the loose, out of her mind.

She didn't care. This apocalypse had given to her one thing she didn't mind at all - it gave her the freedom she had been secretly yearning since her retirement.

All rules were out the window.

"Alright, fine! You want to fight, mate?!" her voice raised loudly, her fists up and railing to go. "You'll get Mad Jack!"

There was a small flinch out of the beast. But it recoiled back with another boost of a roar. It knew. It wanted just as much as she did.

Good. That was what Jack liked!

"Don't hold back!"

The Hunter loomed left and then right. Trying to trick her at the last second, but Jack's eyes were tightly locked on it.

It lashed out at her. She ducked to the right.

Instead of a frantic, mindless charge like any zombies, the Hunter was doing something she was surprised to see - out of a feral creature. It was pacing to the rhythm, read her moves as she was doing the same. Maybe not to waste too much of its energy in the fight. She'd do that.

This Hunter was clever, Jack would give it that. Yeah, Bones was right about this beast making an ideal candidate. She should tag the fella once she beat its lights out!

Another slash of the claw but she ducked under the attack. An opening to its ribs! She hooked hard, sending the thing into a short floundering. She fired again! And another! Each building up with more ferocity until the fifth one forced the Hunter to steady itself on the side of a bench.

The taste of life and death was strong, it gave her thrills! She was back in the ring - 3rd stage Mad Jack's rabid style! Only the worse kind of scum gets it, with silver culinary and the good china. And the Hunter was the main guest getting all of its glory!

It was back up on its feet. With an angry hiss, it pounced-

She spun out a kick. One good roundhouse sent it flying off right into a confession booth.

"Ahahahaha!" Jack laughed. "HAHAHAHA!"

Yes! It's been so long!

The Hunter tried again. But Jack was in her game-mode. Three fast jabs, then another swing and a kick, the infected was thrown back to the other end of her imaginative boxing ring.

That methodical patience it had was slowly burning out. Now she was seeing more of the feral side spewing out but she didn't care. Even with the unpredictability, that thing would make the mistakes she was betting on.

It launched again, talons and tendrils drawn out.

That was what she was hoping for! Just as it tried to fish her down, her legs immediately roped around its bulky waist. The unusual change in momentum brought the Hunter to the floorboards - another opening that Jack quickly freed out her arms and wrapped them around its neck.

A guillotine choke! If this thing could breathe, good, she could knock it out. If it didn't for ten seconds, ok, she was gonna have to think of something quickly!

Ten seconds passed. It wasn't going down.

Ok, change of plans! The choke wasn't working-

"Right! Tracker!" Jack was about to pull out a device but suddenly, her momentum was thrown off. "Whoa!"

Unexpectedly, the Hunter zoomed back up and tried to shake her off. Jack had no choice but to climb on its spiky back and hold on. Now she was in it for the ride!

"C'mon! C'mon!" Fuck, this zombie wasn't gonna make it easy on her! With the few seconds she was riding on a bull - which she had never experienced before - she quickly latched the tracker onto the back hook of its torn jacket.

A tendril suddenly snaked around her arm.

"Whoa!"

CRASH!

Her back made contact with a few old, damp benches, knocking the wind right out of her. Again. She quickly wobbled back up, shaking her head and her hands to brush off the pain.

"That was nothing!" she yelled maniacally. Back into the ring with a hard right jab.

POW!

Its head yo-yoed from the impact of her punch, the ragged cloth dangled off from its head. As it reeled back up, it showed its gorgeously ugly face at her with a flash of its canines.

Its mutation was still in the early stages but it was still grotesque as ever. Darkened skin split along its shoulder, back and head, like a second monster trying to burst out of its host. Small nodes of bone stuck out like a measly crown of a prince but it showed its power off like an alpha male with its menacing glare and deadly bites.

There were the notable features of the previous owner, a man in the midst of his Mr. Hyde transformation. But that human was gone, nowhere in sight for him to come back. Nobody at this point of infection could come back.

"So this is what a Hunter looks like," she sang  dancing on her toes. "You're one ugly bugger, alright!"

"Raaaargh!"

The monster wailed back at her insult. Enough to make men fall down on their knees.

Jack wasn't fazed. In fact, the Wild Dog was long gone to react. Like ravenous strays playing with its food.

Tendrils swarmed around her as it managed to get the jump on her. And teeth lashing at her. Out of pure instinct, she shielded her neck with her arm. The same arm she just bandaged up.

"Enough!" Her free hand quickly worked its way on what she felt was the belt. With all her strength, she lifted the bloody infected off its feet and bridging it over her shoulder. "Of eating my flesh!"

One Jackie suplex coming right out!

THUD!

She slammed its body right into the floor, sidestepping back as she watched the damn bugger wincing from the pain in its neck. It was a few seconds before it struggled to stand up.

It was slowing down, gagging out something from its mouth.

"What? I'm not bloody tasty enough for you?!" she mocked and kept the fire going.

Left! Left! And a right! Repeat and rinse before ending it with another roundhouse kick. Again and again, each strike accelerating that the infected couldn't keep up except hold its arms up like a riot shield and take them.

One final punch from her sent it down. Recoiling back weakly and tiredly, the terrifying special zombie hunched away from her like a scared little dog with its tail between its legs. For trying to bark at a dangerous, big, wild dog.

OH! Now you're fucking afraid!

"I'm not done with you yet! C'mon, Freakoid!" she taunted. "Mad Jack's got all the time in the world!"

Give it to her! She's never faced an opponent quite like this! Give it!

"...J…"

It was a second scratch at the back of her head that made her flinch. Barely audible that she couldn't make out the word. The weirdest part was...it came from nowhere. She desperately tried to find the source.

But the only thing that was making any noise was…

"...Jade…"

The Freakoid said that. With a small glint of something in those inhuman eyes. She could manage to read them, even if that was impossible from the undead. Sadness. Grief.

Jack completely came to a halt, stunned out of her mind. What? Wait, hold on. Come back three - no, five, ten steps back! There were so many things she wanted answers, or if it was all just her imagination from the intensity of the near-death fight.

But the name, hearing that name, was the biggest shock of all.

"What the hell did you just say?"

Why? Why did that thing say her name-

"Gaargh!"

Suddenly, the Hunter cowered down on its knees, the sudden dimness illuminating its glowing veins. It contorted its body like it was in pain. No, like it was dealing with a massive headache.

Then she noticed it. Streaming towards her were the bright rectangular rays. The moving of the light through the windows behind her twisted her insides. On an inkling, she warily wheeled back.

The sun was setting.

"Oh, fucking Hell."

The snarls were getting worse, forcing her to turn back to her opponent. Now all of Jack's fire was gone and she wasn't in the mood to swing back. She recalled one thing Mahir told her about Hunters.

"They only come out during the night. Deadlier than the regular infected."

So Freakoid here was gonna be far worse than what she had faced?!

"R-Ruun!"

Now came out a distorted voice - a man's voice blending together with a monster's. There was a visible internal struggle she was seeing. No, everything about this infected was all too new and honestly, batshit horrifying to her.

What in the world was she dealing with?

"Run!" It was a desperate cry. Like some small piece of humanity screaming with everything it had. It wanted her to get away from it.

Then it wanted her dead.

"RUAAGH!"

It was gone like a light. Just as the sun went out.

"AaaaaAAAHHHHHHH!" Jack jumped into a sprint out the church's doors.

The Hunter was right on her tail.


The night was at its scariest. It was alive and full of rapacious zombies seeking out prey. Any survivor knew it was a no-go to leave safety after daylight was gone. And anyone dumb or unfortunate enough to still be outside should make their final amends and prepare themselves on a silver palate. 

Jack was one such unfortunate survivor... But she didn't even have a choice!

Moreover, she didn't recognize this part of town. She didn't keep track of the lower surroundings when she and Kid were crossing the tops. For all she knew, she could be running blindly and further away from the Junction. So for now, it was a run to any place of safety. The large streets needed to avoid - a less crowded and maybe narrow lane was good for her to slip away from the Hunter. Quick thinking was helping her a bit by pulling over any obstacle to block the path behind her.

But how much time could she keep buying? She was almost tempted to glance back, hoping that maybe the zombie changed his mind and stopped trying.

She looked back.

The Hunter wasn't behind her anymore.

Did she lose it? No way! That was way too easy.

"GAARGH!"

The new screams told her she had just jumped out of the frying pan and into the fire. Three new friends leaped to join the party behind her. Friends she never asked for. Broad-shouldered freaks with exposed bone and muscle and the most noticeable mandible jaw ready to sink their teeth on her.

"Volatiles! Frigging Volatiles!"

There was no way she could survive-

Beep!

"Jack! Jack! Do you read?!"

Oh, swell time to get a call! But she couldn't have been happier to hear Siv's voice - if she wasn't being chased.

"Hey! Not now! Running for my life!" she responded panickedly.

"Jack," then came Mahir's voice on the other end. "Do you see an overpass?"

An overpass? She could barely make most of the night. The streets had barely any few streetlights on and a couple of barrels with fire lying around. Two streets ahead, she spotted it.

"Yes! YES!"

"There's a safehouse there! Hurry!"

Oh, that was a word she was so glad to hear. Except for the three vicious infected behind her and the active swarm packed in the street. They all saw her, fraying their arms at her with aggravated groans.

She forced her way up on a car, feeling the fingers behind her try and rack at her clothes. She madly jumped on a couple of heads to cross over the sea of Biters and up over a fence. She spotted a lone, small construction site barred with wire and spikes all over the perimeter.

Safehouse! OH, thank the Universe!

But her eyes bugged wide at one small problem: the lights weren't on. Not even the UVs.

"Why is the power off?!"

"What?!" Mahir hollered with the same tone of shock as hers. "Shit! The generator must be off."

"You have your safehouse tied to a fucking generator?!" Jack screamed.

"Look for it, dammit!"

She darted with a vault over the deadly traps, ignoring the undead runners toppling into the sharp blades. That should buy her some time. But the Volatiles were another matter that could leap over them with ease once they'd catch up. To top it off, there were a few stragglers inside the unprotected safehouse.

Nothing was ever easy on her! Jack dodged left and right from the small fry and searched for the generator, praying real hard it was just going to be the switch kind.

It was behind a trailer. And it was the pulling type. Fuuuuuuck!

She grabbed the pull and gave it a good tug. The machine burbled boringly at her. She tried again - this time with a bit of life but no go.

"Please! Oh please! Don't be out of fuel!"

She tried again. Just a dying gurgle again. And the zombies were getting closer.

"OH, turn on, you bloody, broken piece of garbage!"

She pulled again. Then the generator roared with life, yelling for her to stop it! It was back to work! The safehouse's lights flickered on and the familiar blue rays shone the front.

"Gaargh-hisssss!" The two Volatiles dropped off the fence, skin flambéing up under the UV light. The third wasn't lucky enough, flapping painfully inside the safe zone along with the other unwanted guests - dropped like a fly smacked inside a zapper. And boy, could she smell burning flesh on the small yard. It turned her stomach inside for a minute.

But it was over. Oh, bloody hell. It was finally over. How close she was to being zombie food. She may be stubborn enough to fight against one special infected but she was no fool to take out a horde.

"Jack?"

"Y-Yeah," she replied with a pant. "I'm good. I'm good. Phsew... That was too close."

"You are one damn lucky woman, you know that?" Mahir complimented.

"Yeah. Well. It's all about the skills. Raw talent. Not luck," she tried to breathe.

"Skills. Heh. I'm honestly jealous."

"Give me that, Mahir! Jack?!" the young runner took over the call. "I'm sorry! I-I didn't want to leave you behind!"

"Siv."

"You could have been killed! I-If I didn't make that stupid mistake, you wouldn't have to protect me! No! I shouldn't even have gone for that drop! We should have turned back before the radio tower! There was nothing even in it-!"

"Siv!" That finally stopped the teenager. "I'm fine. Really. Just a little grazed but I'm fine."

Total understatement of the year. If she were to see her right now, the very obvious bite marks and bruises would tell her "You're fucking lying, Jack!"

"Geezus… We came out with nothing and you nearly turned up dead."

"Weeell, I wouldn't say it was for nothing," Jack chided. Got herself one hell of a fight. "Don't put yourself in a pickle over this…"

The teenager said nothing in response, silently telling her she was beating herself over what just happened. Jack was about to tell her she didn't hold it against her but she knew she wasn't going to listen.

So she said instead, "You all should get some sleep. I'll see you guys tomorrow."

"Yeah. Tomorrow. You better come back," Siv demanded, a swing back to the usual hot-blooded attitude. Then she added with a generous tone, "Thanks, Jack. Really."

"What are friends for?" She heard a chuckle. Already, she was making her a friend after one day? But Siv didn't reject the idea vocally. "And Siv?"

"Yeah?"

"We'll find more supplies tomorrow. This granny here can still keep up with you."

"Heh-heh," she laughed, the weight on her shoulders feeling a little lighter. "We'll see about that... Goodnight. And good luck, Jack."

Beep!

"...Yeah. Goodnight. And good luck," she said to nobody. Or maybe to the noisy zombies outside. Maybe to herself.

She had enough excitement for one day. She needed sleep. Taking off her shades, she laid back on the prepared sleeping bag. However, she was a bit all too wide-awake to drift off to slumberland. Not only was she still trying to clarify herself on what she had just experienced, she thought back on her 'luck'. 

Luck was something she never relied on - her skills were what kept her alive. And sometimes, luck did have some play on her, before and during this epidemic. She had nearly gotten close to running out twice. But she was sure it was gonna run out dry around the cornet. There wouldn't be anymore stopping.

Just forget about it, Jack.

She closed her eyes, trying to block out all the groans and moans outside. They would shut up soon.

Thirty minutes later, it became a quiet night.


Something was wrong!

It hurts!

What did that woman do?! What did she do to us?!

Everything in its body was burning up. Changing it. Eating into its brain like a sickness. A poison! It couldn't stand - the colors and the shapes swimming around it.

This has happened before. She gave something that was twisting its insides! Just like before! It was happening all over again!

NO! 

The other side was hating this feeling. It was like something was trying to dull its frenzy down. 

Stop this!

The voice sounded scared. Forced into a corner and was snapping its jaws at nothing for a way out. The burning sensation wasn't letting it have that. This time, there was no escape for them.

Them?

No. Wait. Why the word, them?

Kill her! We need to kill her!

What?

Why?

He didn't understand.

She did something! She's hurting us!

It did hurt. Everything in him was like hot needles tossed through the muscles. But for some odd reason, it didn't bother him. No. It was more like he had been drowning this entire time that pain was now numbing to him.

"Alright, fine! You want to fight, mate?! You'll get Mad Jack!"

Fight?

Yeah. He wanted to fight.

He wanted control again.

Killherkillherkillherkillherkillher!

No, it wasn't her. Something was different. Hell, she even went all ballistic - an animal all-out on the infected. Thirsty for the fight and thrilled to stay alive. She had a desire that he had been wanting for a long time.

To live again.

He wanted that. But the reason why he waited this long...was because he was afraid to come back.

He couldn't remember why.

She'll kill us!

N-No. No. He wasn't back in the Countryside. That Volatile freak was dead.

It's her! She's back!

Shut up.

Be quiet and let him think for once!

It was nothing but clusters of noise grinding against bone - memories flashing violently again. Some old he had forgotten, some new he had never seen before. Whatever was happening to the infected was not just tearing it from the inside but also making a mess of its brain, his brain. There was no order. There had never been any order and the dominant voice was getting more aggravated at its loss in that fight, at the itching thought that she had lived, at everything!

She was going to get it, the voice wailed, for hurting them. They would make her regret ever facing them.

Shut up!

What 'them'? He wasn't them. He was himself!

He tore off her head!

There was never a 'them'!

So what?! The voice hollered ferally at him. They have been with him far longer than he wanted. They've only come out because of this blessing. And now they were gonna show everyone who was the top. The king of the night!

No more guilt, no more pain, no more fighting for a pointless cause, no more deceiving others and on himself! No more suffering! He'd be free of all those complications if he'd allow the other side to stay. It was much better to accept this raw power, this freedom! Stop restraining and go kill her! She's more brainsick than before! She's the last obstacle left!

No.

He didn't want that. This freedom.

He'd be forgetting everything he went through.

All the faces, all the people he had been fighting for, dead and alive.

No! Stop! It's not worth it! Now the voice was pleading. It was losing its grip on his conscious. The damage's done! There's nothing to go back to!

"I'm not done with you yet! C'mon, Freakoid!" she taunted. "Mad Jack's got all the time in the world!"

Oh, you shut up, he grimaced. Who are you calling Freakoid?

Stop! The other voice was frantic. It could tell - he didn't want to go for its sake, its request to kill, he wanted to return. Don't listen to her! There is nothing! There is no point in returning!

He didn't care. He had to give it a try.

Everyone at the Tower had to be worried about him-

No one is! All those unturned weaklings? They wouldn't accept him back. The one that brought this disaster upon these new hunting grounds! One look and they'd gun him down! It has only been him and the other side together for these several weeks and he needed it to stay alive. Wasn't that why he let this other side of him take over?

Because he was too chicken to face them, that was why!

Everyone was out to get them! Same went for this bitch! She was back for him-

No. Enough! he hollered, losing his patience. 

No! It's not enough! We won't rest until she is dead! Kill her! KILL HER NOW!

KILL THE MOTHER!

And that did it. Something loud snapped inside his skull and off his chains.

"Oh SHUT UP!"

One right claw grabbed on the top of its head and forced it down.

Crack!

Then it all stopped.

Everything.

The voice. The one way back in his head that easily took over the surface. Ever since….it, no, he could remember.

All there was now was a painful headache. He had really smashed his head hard on the rock but it was enough to put that monster back. God... He hit his head and now he was paying for it. He barely registered everything as he tried to deal with the pain. Quite frankly, he couldn't even remember how long he had been out. Even the memories were a bit faint on his own identity.

Wait. He was someone, right?

Once the grogginess subsided, he glanced up, finding himself on an overpass overlooking the trailer. He trailed his vision around, seeing the whole unfamiliar scenery of this new city before him.

He heavily caught his breath, completely frazzled from the whole experience. But he understood one thing.

He had finally resurfaced.

Kyle Crane was partially back in the head.

Chapter Text

FOUR: NIGHT PROWLER


Kyle Crane didn't know how long it had been. Or where he was. Or what he had been doing. Just the name… He used to be someone. Someone brave. Someone who made poor life choices. Someone terrible.

And very slowly, the memories trickled in bit by bit.

He was a survivor. He was part of a group that held up somewhere... The Tower.

He...he went to the Countryside. To investigate on a rumor. A possible way out. Talks about some cult and sentient zombies.

Where was he now?

He examined everything, first finding the colors a bit off - which he dismissed it for the night time. He could tell he was nowhere near the farms. It was some sort of city with mountains one side and a wide coast on the other.

Wait. He had been at a city… Har... Harran. Yes. But this one was different. The beaches and the landmarks in the distances were unfamiliar to him.

Where was this place?

He then glanced down at himself-

"Gaaah-ah!"

Crane nearly screamed - his shriek turned into a panicked murmur. Because he now noticed the talons. And he tried to get away.

They followed. Those were his hands.

He lifted them close to him, shaking.

"What-?"

He stopped himself, gripping his throat out of sheer terror. Kyle felt a shiver down his spine. That definitely came from his charred lips but that didn't sound anything like his own voice. It was like somebody else was talking to him.

He tried again.

"H-How-"

No. Stop. This wasn't him. That wasn't him!

"What is hap-" He nearly leaped at the sound of his...voice? It sounded like it was his normal voice. Not the monstrous noise coming from his throat. But it came out...differently. It was as if he should have been thinking out loud but he could hear that thought like soundwaves. The manner he spoke it was a lot familiar to someone's means of communication he had heard...or telepathically listened?

"C-Calm down, Crane."

Ok, that really terrified him. And it was making it worse. His vision was blurring up again, delirium and hyperventilation creeping over. He tried his best to steady himself, to stop himself from exploding.

Any sane person would never be the same after discovering they've turned into a monster.

"Calm down."

This second time, he tried to pace his breathing and close his eyes. It wasn't partly working - he could hear and sense everything on an enormous heightened level. But eventually, the anxiety dimmed out inside of him.

Eventually. Not completely.

Truthfully, he was expecting himself to lose it again but for some reason, he didn't. Like something was keeping him anchored. And it wasn't his willpower, that was for sure - what was left of it.

"Ok. So you're a zombie. Ah-heh-heh," he 'laughed' nervously. "I-It's alright. It's alright."

No, it wasn't. He had lost his mind if he thought this wasn't the worst thing to happen to him.

What the heck was he? A sentient zombie? That really did not sit well with him. Because that was far worse. He became the one thing Mother said he would.

The Mother.

He quivered with anger at the mention of that name. Oh, he hoped she was rotting away. More than sic feet under. Crane grounded his sharpened teeth and tightened his fists at the rising rage inside him. Without thinking, he lifted them up, wanting to hit something! But all he had was the stone beneath his feet. And that just made his claws hurt after a few outbursts. But he kept going - let all the anger out.

Finally, he settled down. Because it was pointless to punch rocks.

Kyle breathed in and out. In and out...

Why did he come back? It would have been better if he had never resurfaced and saw this sorry sight of himself.

He breathed heavily. "Ok... Ok. What do I do now?" Was it that easy to swing back like that? Denial was his only key right now. "Heh," he scoffed at himself. "Don't really have a manual."

Smooth, Crane. Real smooth. He might as well smash his head again and go out completely-

"Jack?"

Then he heard it - a man's voice, a bit muffled with static like it came from a can. Or maybe a comms. But it sounded like a good distance away from him.

From the perch he stood on, he found himself overcasting a construction site below. Spike-fenced, UV-protected and fortified against the night threats. And right inside the trailer's walls, he could clearly make the brightly-outlined skeleton walking back and forth with fingerbones to its ear.

Wait. He vaguely remembered a woman. Recently. Giving him a knuckle sandwich that would have knocked an average Joe down. She was hollering, taunting at him to come and get her.

"Yeah. I'm good. I'm good. Phsew. That was too close."

Uh, what? Was he hearing things now? No, he was hearing her voice. Crystal clear like he was right next to her. Was this some sort of superhuman hearing?

"You are one damn lucky woman, you know that?"

Out of some interest, he walked over towards the small safehouse. Well, not walk like a human being, more like trotted like a sort of ape in a destroyed concrete jungle. But the closer he got, the clearer the conversation became.

"Yeah. Well. It's all about skills. Raw talent. Not the luck."

Ok, this was a bit creepy. He felt like a stalker now.

"Skills. Heh. I'm honestly jealous."

"Give me that, Mahir! Jack?!" A third one came into the audible picture: young, female. "I'm sorry! I-I didn't want to leave you behind!"

"Siv."

"You could have been killed! I-If I didn't make that stupid mistake, you wouldn't have to protect me! No! I shouldn't even have gone for that drop! We should have turned back before the radio tower! There was nothing even in it-!"

"Siv!" the woman uttered. "I'm fine. Really. Just a little grazed but I'm fine."

Graze? He nearly killed her. Right? At least, he remembered something along those lines. His head was still throbbing from being bashed over and over like a punching bag. Maybe it was the other way around on who was killing who.

"Geezus… We came out with nothing and you nearly turned up dead."

"Weeell, I wouldn't say it was for nothing. Don't put yourself into a pickle over this… You all should get some sleep. I'll see you guys tomorrow."

"Yeah. Tomorrow. You better come back," the younger voice demanded. "...Thanks, Jack. Really."

"What are friends for?"

He felt a tug of a heartstring at the familiarity. This cheekiness, the banter between fellow survivors lightening up the grim reality… It honestly made him miss this kind of thing.

If anything...this reminded him of how he was with Rahim when he first started. That was a blast from the past. It didn't start off like bubby-bubby. Rahim was a jackass, pretending to be the boss and calling him lazy.

I'm not lazy, was his remark behind the kid's back.

...Well, guess he had been doing nothing but stay inside his head for who knew how long.

"And Siv?"

"Yeah?"

"We'll find more supplies tomorrow. This granny here can still keep up with you."

"Heh-hehWe'll see about that... Goodnight. And good luck, Jack."

Beep!

"...Yeah. Goodnight. And good luck."

It was a tired mumble to herself. He watched the woman take her sweet time lying on the floor for a snooze - at least tried to with all the noises from the other infected. That was it.

This was all too familiar to him.

Supplies. A group of survivors needed supplies.

"Really? You're gonna do this?" he muttered to himself, pushing away that wanting feeling of helping someone. "...The Tower's gotta be worried about me."

Then he stopped himself.

"No. No way am I going to do that… The others shouldn't see me like this." He just couldn't bring himself to do it. He should spare them from seeing their friend completely gone. "...Then I should retrace my steps." What was the last thing he remembered-

A flash hit him hard. The sight of three people looking at him terrified from the playground.

"Gaugh!" He groaned, holding his head and the anxiety peaked up a bit. No, no. You did nothing to them.

Stop.

Or else…

He wouldn't forgive himself if he caused the lives of a mother and two children. No, he already didn't forgive himself after seeing the mess before him.

This city was filled with monsters just like Harran. Death was around every single corner and the few unturned humans left alive were struggling to stay alive.

He caused all this, didn't he? When he left that manhole, he…

He shook his head, pushed those broken fragments as far back as possible. He didn't want to think about it. Calm down, Crane. Calm down. A part of him wanted to know what happened after he lost himself. But he was too terrified to learn the truth.

It didn't matter anymore. He could see around him the results and there was no denying it: he caused all of this.

He did this.

The Hero of Harran brought the end to this city and its people.

He failed.

Crane felt something wet in his eyes. He was almost ready to be broken.

No. Enough. It has been too long. After all, he wasn't a human anymore - no point in holding it all in.

Putting on a face to show he wasn't a wuss didn't matter.

He broke out, soft wails coming out of him as the drops fell to his feet. Nobody could hear him - not even the sleeping survivor or the mindless walkers below him.

In a way, he was alone in this world.

Once the tears had been spent, he found himself uncertain, lost, tired. Being angry, crying or denying everything was just a waste of time. At this point of his...new zombie life, he had no idea what to do. Nothing to guide him, no voice over the comm to tell him where to go. He had nothing and he couldn't return to anything.

Just this...disgusting, revolting body.

"...Why am I back?"

Why was he able to think?

He found the whole retaining his humanity thing...strange. Well, he should. The infected wasn't able to talk, think, be themselves again. So why was he able to be...himself-ish?

Remembering that made him pissed, his claws curling up angrily. Like someone up there gave him the finger and put him back in this hideous excuse of his old self.

Crane heavily sighed. "What good would it do to get angry at...?" He was still groggily from his weird out-of-body experience - or was it back-in-body experience? Most of his energy was spent on the internal fighting and outbursts.

For now, he'd let his curiosity get the better of him. Because it was all too weird for him.

If he could come back from being mindless, that meant something happened to him on the inside. It did something to the virus. Or something brought him back a portion of his humanity when he wanted it gone, so he couldn't acknowledge his own predicament. But now he had to, hu-fucking-rrah

The voice, that aggressive shark he had allowed to seize the surface this whole time, was right about one thing earlier. And he glanced back at the lying highlighted skeleton in the trailer.

"That woman... She did something to me."

He frowned irritably at himself.

"And what? I could go back to normal? Find out why I can think?! Brilliant idea, Kyle!" he hissed at himself. A legit hiss of an animal from his own mouth. No, more like the mumbled wails of a infected Runner pleading that he was still there only to eat off his friend's face.

Crane was probably going down the same path he tripped and tumbled back in the Countryside. A fucking dead end.

No, no. It couldn't be one person. He didn't see an injection from her, no magic fingers that snapped his brain back to normal, nothing. Think, Kyle. There had to be some other, more logical, theory why he came back.

Was it really that blue solution-

It was then he remembered.

"The vials."

He patted his belt, looked into what little pockets he had on his jacket, everything. He had absolutely nothing on him.

"Great...I must have dropped them somewhere. Wherever this place is."

Thrilling. He just got back his mind, got nearly beaten by this woman, couldn't return back to his so-called 'normal' life and he fucking lost the vials!

He sighed, hunching down his head. "...Maybe it's for the better."

Maybe the Mother was right… They were a poison.

"...Are you stupid, Kyle? That means you're agreeing with that bitch." It left a foul taste in his mouth. "...No. They had to be the cure-"

He wanted to slap himself for thinking that too.

"Look at what that 'cure' did to you!" he snarled at himself, even a vocal growl came out of him. Whatever happened to them, good ridden. They were a lot more trouble than they were worth.

Right now, he was back to square one. All he had to go on was this woman and whatever she did. And Crane didn't have the foggiest idea how. Maybe she just beat the living shit out of him that it scared off his dangerous side. He would admit one thing - that gal was a fighter. And scary.

She had every reason to fight him - he was the one trying to kill her - but that was ballest of her to use her fists. Fists. Not a weapon, fists. And even with her teeth.

He massaged the bite wound on his shoulder. Still stung. "Crazy woman. Trying to bite back-" Then a grim thought came to mind and wrecked his insides with guilt. "Oh god… Shit, she shouldn't have bitten me..." He sighed. "Dumb thing to say. I shouldn't have bitten her... Twice."

He didn't know - didn't want to remember - if he might have ripped apart three people unknowingly but he most certainly infected this woman. Ok, maybe not infected since everyone within the quarantine zones had the Harran Virus, but she had to have gotten more - whatever those vials Crane got that gave him this new form. Couldn't his affliction be passable through bodily fluid?

One more to his long list of victims this 'creature' had killed and/or infected. And he didn't know what the number was except "4".

But...if she were to turn just like him…

He thought long and hard. No one should have the same fate he went through, not even this person. If she'd become like him...he should give her mercy when it was her time to lose it. That was the least he could do… After all, he was still a zombie. They kill with absolutely no remorse or emotion. He might as well oblige like it was the latest trend.

...But only if she was too far gone. Which he honestly hoped for. For now, she was the only piece of the puzzle he had right now. So he might as well keep an eye on her. At least for now, he had a new goal in this undead life.

Heh. An eye out, on a total stranger he didn't know. It was there with his weak chuckle he saw something outside the safe home. Like a cat to a little firefly, he climbed his way down to the glowing object. A cell phone.

He kneeled closer and was about to pick it up but something shot right out of his hand.

"Shit!" It scared him right off his feet, the phone whooshing up to him and right into his claw. His own arm had split apart and a tendril had fired out like it knew what he wanted before slipping back inside...him.

Ok. So he could grow vines out of him.

"Baby steps," he choked to himself. "T-Take baby steps."

Crane took his mind off the new...ability by examining the phone. It was a cheap brand anyone could get in this day and age. He had some minor difficulty with it - his claw just scratching the screen instead of swiping it that he gave up halfway in exploring what was inside the contents. Of course, the phone was already cracked and water-damaged. From the get-go, it was a source of information. Just like his previous Companion App was, reminding him his list of objectives, map locations and all that. But most of the features weren't salvageable, except for the notes and options.

"Well, that was awesome. Got derailed here, lost Lenny's boat and nearly got eaten. At least the Junction here is a good place. And looks like they need all the help they can get. Might as well stay for the scenery." Marked off. It was exactly how he had done himself in the past - both a diary to himself and a reminder to stay on track. "Leader here's given me the rundown. Prisoners one side, GRE fucks on the other, everyone fighting for supplies. Just like the Outskirts."

The Outskirts? He had heard about that part of the city, before landing in Harran. Supposedly, that was the first place that got hit by the virus and the first to be closed off.

"Tagged for supply collection with this kid, Siv. Boy, does she remind me of Champ. Don't know how much she's heard from me though. Better keep a close eye on her."

That was the last main entry so far. The rest were small requests: pick up some specific items, scout nearby enemy outposts, go look for a fisherman by the riverbed(?) - her words, not his. But there was one piece he found to be most important.

Find any special infected and track their movements. Asem's order.

Now that was something weird.

He deducted this had to be the woman's phone. She was the only one around here running for her dear life. Ok, so she was from the Outskirts. And she had to be out of her mind - go find special infected? That was a death wish. But there was no way for him to get answers. And while it would be courtesy to return the phone back to a woman...yeah, there was no way for a zombie. 

It seemed like everything was toying with him tonight.

"Yeah. Like she's not gonna try and kill me…" he said to himself. "And those UVs will fry me."

Well, he was deciding to come at her at any sign of her becoming like him. If anything this little bit of fate was one more push for him to stay on his path. It was harsh, it was...heartless. But in Harran and now, Scanderoon, the only salvation for a turned was to end their lives.

Crane should do it too, if he was going along those lines. Maybe. After he has corrected his mistake.

For now, the woman in the trailer might just be his only reason of staying alive. Until it was her turn to end.

"Alright. Guess I'll be sticking around, lady. I got nothing better to do."

Ok, Mutant Crane. Stop talking to yourself. You're starting to creep yourself out.

Still, it was kinda ironic, as if he was seeing a reflection of his old self. From the conversation he gathered earlier, this woman's kickoff was like how he started at the beginning - a new face in the middle of a zombie outbreak. And that new face needed to work in order to keep the place going. Do some deeds for a couple of survivors and collect drops. But he did it because he had a job to follow, until he realized where his loyalty lied and told GRE to stick it up their ass.

Oomph, a real blow to his conscience. 

Whatever this woman's reason was, he didn't really care. But he understood how hard it was starting up in a place cut out from society.

He looked back at the phone one more time.

Time for work.


It took him a long moment to find his bearings and at the same time, get used to his new form. There was odd chemistry between his mind and his body. Sometimes, it felt like he was wearing a costume that wouldn't move with him. Sometimes, it became second nature to him. If he could describe it better...it was like himself parkouring his way around but three times beyond a normal human could do. Swooshing across the buildings like a bullet.

It was also uncanny that his body was able to swing to this unnatural momentum quickly after that brawl. It was like the night was giving him back his strength, just as powerful as drinking coffee.

"Don't get too comfortable, Kyle," he 'thought-said' to himself. "Who knows if you'll fall off the deep end again."

That feeling wasn't as provocative as before but he could still feel it lingering at the back of his skull, scratching at his door that it wanted out.

The sightseeing gave him some distraction at least. So far, he now knew he was at the coast of Scanderoon, the next-door neighbor to Harran. But he had absolutely no idea or direction where the manhole was. He remembered the playground and picket-fenced houses but this district was certainly not suburban.

Then again, he wasn't planning to go back. He had already made up his mind.

A few streets nearby, he did find a large warehouse filled with many orange-lit skeletons. Big, small, all different kinds of shapes. That was probably where that woman came from. The number was a lot smaller than that from the Tower but they looked well-stocked and prepared for any invasion - man or zombie.

Ahahaha, he wasn't gonna test that. He may be an infected but he wasn't dumb. Well, even when his mind was gone, he doubted the other side of him was stupid either. How else would he survive this long?

And there was one more thing he learned that was different from Harran. There were absolutely no drops to find.

He remembered what the containers looked like. But he was out at night - they were probably picked up anyway by other people during the day. Swell idea to be scavenging at night, he said to himself. Why did he think this was a good idea?

Another grim thought came to mind. He dug deep into his memories and recalled one bit of information - it was quite possible the drops had stopped. Or that just like Harran, it was decided to stop helping Scanderoon too. He didn't know how long this outbreak was but it still was grave to think that a second city might have been abandoned by the world.

It wasn't all fruitless. He managed to find some things listed down in the phone - exclude the requests involving meeting people. And he did learn something about the infected he never noticed before while he scavenged around. Then again. he was trying to stay alive to take notice.

The walkers were a bit more hostile to him than he anticipated, giving a few hisses when he passed by before ignoring him. Like he wasn't one of them anymore. He had truthfully thought this form of his could be a sort of camouflage in plain sight but clearly, these zombies knew something was wrong with him.

Then there were the 'special' infected. Through his eyes, he could see them lit up across the environment. They were either hiding or seeking for prey. But they knew where he was. He could hear them snarl at him four streets away, a warning not to come near or else.

Prey. That was a frightening, horrible thought but as long as there was nobody on the streets, it should be alright. The thought of him stalking a human and eating him up made his stomach knot and that idea jumped to the next one, that he might have already eaten someone.

He wanted to throw up but Kyle tried to calm himself down. Even force himself to pretend that never happened. Don't even think about it.

It was then he noticed the nearest, brightest lights nearby. From his current perch, he found a small group holed up inside a building for the night. Three gunmen at the bottom, one at the open top floor. And right next to that man was a box. A drop.

Oh, sure. Had to be the one guy be right in front of the container.

He thought at first they could be survivors like the Tower and that Junction place. Until he overheard them.

"This is stupid. Why the hell are we staying here?"

"And your cell was cozier than here? Fuck off."

"At least it was safe. Don't tell me you're not afraid those monsters will come in?"

"Please. They're slow and stupid. You can easily whack them down."

"Seriously? They come in packs! Would you want to get eaten by those things or rot in prison? 'Cause I certainly prefer the latter now."

So escaped prisoners. With guns. Whoopie.

"Stop complaining. We're not the only ones holding up here," one of them mumbled. "Saw a lady staying at the construction site. Maybe we should go see if she's doing alright. Maybe spook her and pretend to come rescue her, eh?"

The other men chuckled. "Ah, I see where you are going. Then we better keep quiet with the others. We don't want to share her." Their laughter grew louder.

Crane clicked his teeth irritatedly at the disgusting pigs. Most of all his chains of restraints were off.

Morals didn't matter to a zombie, not to assholes. He had his fair shares of stealing from and fighting against crooks back in the Slums. He never could tolerate what went through the darkest parts of mankind but in the past, he could rarely step in. He had an image to keep, an obedient pet for the GRE to command and follow. His 'duty'.

He wasn't the old Crane anymore. There was no Kyle Crane the human anymore. He might as well go ham on these prisoners. However, they had guns, like some of the thugs he faced before. Just because he was a zombie, didn't mean he was invincible. And the one problem was the top guy - he had a good view for anything to sneak through the front door.

Could he just scare him away? No, that would draw attention.

His eyes snapped to his hands. "Hm…" He held them out like that one superhero did. Nothing happened. Crane gave a hard shake to his wrists and tried again-

The tendrils fired out and roped around the unlucky bastard.

"Wha-?!" They snaked around his whole body and even right into his mouth - the feeling of saliva and teeth making Crane cringe. Instead of launching himself forward for the pounce, he pulled hard in hopes to untangle the tendrils off the prisoner but instead that took the poor bastard over the wall.

Uh, not what he wanted but ok. No guard.

The prisoner survived his fall, freed from Crane's grasp and not without a bit of a head injury. Then he frantically hurried to the door. "Shit! Shit! HELP ME!"

"What - What the fuck are you doing outside?!"

"HELP ME! THEY'RE COMING!"

Huh. Guess Kyle didn't need to do much of anything. While that little distraction was happening, with a few stragglers heading towards him, Crane made his way into the second floor and clicked the lid off the container. Food, water, medkits. Didn't look like it'd be enough for three, four people but it was a start. Seriously, though, these tendrils would have made all those collections so much easier. Less dodging of bullets too.

Was he accepting this new life now? Maybe he shouldn't. But doing this task gave him a sense of familiarity. As if he was back to being human.

Crane took off before the prisoners failed to save their comrade, and their gunshots attracted more danger. He wasn't gonna stay for the blood-soaked fireworks. He had another thought in mind. How was he even remotely gonna give the supplies to the survivors?

Maybe he could pitch the bag into the perimeter of their base-

"P-Please!"

His hands and feet skidded like a cat coming to a stop. The plead came from his right, behind a fence.

"You're those runners from the Junction. Isn't it past your curfew hour?"

"Please! Let us go!"

Crane peeked around the corner to the wire part. Three thugs in prison attires were circling around two runners. He could smell blood in the air - one of them was injured, grabbing her leg. It gave him a bit of an itch in his mouth.

"Hear that? Let them go," one of the men scoffed and squashed down. "Sure, we could do that. You make good bait for these fuckers."

THU-KACK! Sparks flew from a power box and that shut down the protective UV lights of the small generator room.

Crane's eyes widened. Were they sabotaging this safehouse?

"Stop! You want to get us killed?!" the injured adult hollered.

"And?" the leader uttered. "It's your fault setting up near Cel's property. You should have stuck to your own corner of this stinky city."

"We should head back-" A third prisoner scanned his surroundings around fearfully.

"What? You're scared? We can throw molotovs at those undead freaks," his friend uttered cockily. "We could get it good if we have these two turned." What? "The boys' been needing more for the fighting ring."

"N-No," the runner's friend whimpered.

"Nah, we should use these wimps as our little moles. You know, get them to open up the doors and we can take over their place."

This was insane. Sick. No different than Rais' thugs back in Harran.

For once, Crane wanted to go off the rails.

Go. They can't hurt anyone anymore.

"What is wrong with you?!"

"Wrong?" The leader grabbed the runner by the cheeks. "It's a free country now. No rules, no cops. These streets are ours now, we're the kings here. And you peasants have to obey."

"Fuck you! Come near the Junction and we'll fucking kill you!" she threatened.

"Oh, frisky. But we don't need that attitude." The leader grabbed the uninjured runner. "You better behave, little guy."

"P-Please. Let her go." The second runner was trying his best to be brave, hoping to give his friend a chance to get away.

"Hm, no. She's gonna die anyway." The thug nodded his head to the one wielding a plank.

Crane readied himself, crawling beyond the fence. Enough.

"No! Stop! Stop!"

The plank went up.

The Hunter fired.

"Rraaagh!"

The man with the weapon was down instantly, tendrils wrapped around him. His scream drowned immediately as Crane dug his teeth into his jugular and ripped it out.

Then the whole yard exploded.

"SHIT! SHOOT IT!"

Next one! Crane darted left and right to his target, the one with an assault rifle. The human was inexperienced with a gun, frantically missing his shots. "AH! AHHHH!" Down went the yellow-bellied thug, his chest opened up like a bloody present.

"Gaaaah!" The leader had let go of the runner, turning tails in hopes the Hunter would go after the other two.

The Hunter jumped in front of him, watching the terrified man skid down to the ground. Desperately, the prisoner pulled out something at Crane. Tendrils already fired and he leaped onto the thug, not noting a free hand did one punch into his side. All the blood rage was giving him tunnel vision. The leader wailed one last scream before the canines bit further into his neck.

I'm not done! He could still take more of those jerks! Make them be afraid. He was the king, this was his hunting grounds-

"NO! NO!"

He snapped to the next voice. Then stopped.

He was right on top of the runner - a teenager. He was almost ready to rip him apart.

Oh god... Oh god. What was he doing?

"Aaah! Aaaah!" the survivor hollered with tears, arms shielding up as he desperately tried to get away. The wall of the safehouse blocked his back. No escape for him, no choice but to accept his fate.

No... No. He wasn't a monster.

He was Kyle Crane.

With every ounce of mental strength, he quickly stepped back. But that wasn't enough for the kid to feel safe. That the big, horrifying Hunter meant no harm. Kyle couldn't blame him, he was inches close to a fucking zombie. 

He searched for something, anything to help the scared runner. Anything to calm him down. He finally glanced at the bag he carried and an idea came to mind. He crept a bit closer, the distance making the poor man even more terrified. So he did the unexpected.

He chunked the supply bag right into the teenager's lap.

The survivor stopped cowering. He was completely baffled, at the non-hostile infected and the large bag in his hands. Crane stepped a good five feet away from him - he was just a kid stuck here.

"Get away from him!"

Blue light hit the Hunter.

"Gargh! Ugh!" Crane's skin felt like it was burning. He darted further away, shielding himself from the rays.

God, so this was how the zombies felt!

"Come on!" His partner picked him up.

"F-Fazil! Wait!" And the two limped away, the bag under the teenager's arm.

That was good, even if he got more than he bargained for. There was a moment of worry he had - one was injured with a trail of blood inticing the Biters and one was still shaking in the knees. He should keep watch from behind, make sure they'd head back to their base safely.

But his legs wouldn't move. There was a piercing feeling on the left side of his abdomen. He looked down, noticing his right hand on the spot.

Lifting it up revealed a darkened color spilling out on his torn shirt.

"Shit."

A shiv was in him. Shit, the shiv was in him.

Relax. Just relax. Losing it was only going to make the pain worse.

Should he take it out? No, he might bleed profusely. But he had no idea if his new body was just the same as his human one. Zombies didn't bleed, right?

"Oh, fuck it." He pulled. "AARGH!"

An inhuman shriek wormed out of his mouth as he recoiled to the pain, his hands holding down the bleeding. His mind was screaming - god that really hurt! It didn't help that the UV hit was also making him a bit lightheaded. Inhaling and exhaling, his eyes darted wearily to spot one thing he didn't think would be there. Lying before him was a piece of gauze.

The runner must have dropped it when the two bolted. Maybe by accident or as a quick return of the flavor, but whatever, he took it as a sign and hurriedly dressed up the hole. It was better than nothing but no way a bandage was enough for a stab wound.

His pace was slowed, agony zapping across his whole body. Dammit. What was he going to do?

Crane bit down on the agony and thought on his next steps with bated breath. Ok...ok. He should look for something to stitch it up. A safe place too. Away from survivors and the infected. Could he do that? Well, he had to try.

But there was one more thing he needed to do. It was the last thing he had planned for the night after the supply search. After all, he didn't mean to keep the phone anyway.

C'mon, Kyle. Just a bit more.


It took a bit of time for him to recall the way back to the overpass, from both the dizziness and getting used to the unfamiliar alleyways. Once he spotted the orange glow sleeping on the floor beyond the few walls, he crawled slowly to his destination - outside the UV-lit safehouse at the construction site. As he approached it, Crane took a minute to rest. Hard to get around with both an injury and not on two legs. The minute he regained a bit of strength from the night, he took off his head covering. Crane wasn't sure when he had dawned this on him. He didn't even remember if somewhere in his feral infected period, he unconsciously put the rags on him out of fear someone would recognize him and learn, yes, Kyle Crane became a zombie and brought the infection here.

There was no point in hiding his horrid face anymore. And he was too petrified to see what it looked like in the mirror.

Biting down on the pain, he turned the cloth into a makeshift bag and plopped in the phone and some materials he thought would help the fighter. He wrapped the bundle real right and took one deep breath. Readied himself.

Oh, it was gonna hurt again.

Crane pitched the bundle hard, up it went and over the fence. He hissed at the pulled lesion getting worse. Yup, there was no winning. He could feel himself slip away.

He needed to stay. Stay alive. It'd be a fucking, hilarious joke he'd die right now. He'd never let it go if he'd leave behind this woman to her demise either.

Just like before.

No. Not again. He had to stay awake. Maybe he could flex this pain off him. Zombies could take a couple of bullets. C'mon, Crane. You've gotten through the first hurdle, you could stay conscious a bit longer!

His body wasn't listening to him anymore. He dropped to the ground, shrinking down to the pain. No, not here. Too open and unsafe. His mindset was still the same as before, don't stay outside, stay inside, and that clearly was the smart thing to do when injured. Crane used his remaining ounce of energy to pull himself along the stretch of the road nearby. Within reaching distance, he found himself into the back of an empty van. An ideal spot for safety.

He wasn't able to shut the door - only a gap and a peek of the half moon. Crane rolled over, biting down on the wound-

Then she was there. Sitting inside with him, completely unfazed that she shared the same space with him. There was a silver lining to seeing her face - it wasn't distorted and twisted with the infection, not like the flashes. Just that thick mascara and the brave face she wore.

He was hallucinating, he knew that. But he didn't care. He was a bit upset she had to see him like this. Just a shell of a man.

"Jade…"

Sorry. He's been doing a shit job, even as this freak.

There was a sort of gentleness to her - she understood. No words but she got it. Just get some rest. There's always tomorrow.

Yeah. He agreed.

Just let him sleep for a bit...

Chapter Text


FIVE: RIVALS


Sleep was a double-edged sword to those getting through the night. It meant all your worries were gone until the morning rolled over. It meant nightmares could snake right out and eat you whole - slowly, you'd start losing your own sanity and either fight or flee from the zombie-filled reality. Some men had done stupid and dark things to achieve a hopeless goal.

Jack could partly understand that but she never got why they would take drastic measures. It was as if all their problems would go away. To her, that was a cowardly thing to do. Abandon your responsibilities because you couldn't take the heat.

Everyone dies. That was fact of life, made much clearer in recent weeks. You could keep on pushing to reach the light or just give up and fall back into the darkness.

Jack wasn't going to follow their example. She had already been down that black, dim hole and it wasn't that entertaining.

That was why sleep was mostly peaceful to her.

"Hey, Jack."

Soft. Muffled. The voice poked at her annoyedly. No, give her five more minutes.

"Jack."

Then she felt a hand on her shoulder.

"Jack."

She snapped open her eyes and veritgo hit her, making her squish them. "I'm up... I'm up."

"Burn another night again?"

Shaking her head out of the grogginess, she sat up on the old bench inside the gym's office. And for sure, in front of her was her old manager.

She didn't share Mert's gentle, wrinkled smile. "Well, I wouldn't say it was enjoyable… What time is it?"

"Nearly noon." The old man was patient, letting her shake off the drowsiness. Gradually, his smile turned upside down. "It was him again, wasn't it?"

Jack inhaled in deeply. She should have denied it, throw out a statement to turn the conversation around. "...Couldn't let it go. I thought I could, you know, make him back off and call it a day."

"Jack, we've talked about this," he said with concern. "That man's gonna keep coming after you unless we do something. We should go to the police-"

"I know," she heaved a sigh. "But like he said, it's my word against his."

"That's a load of bull and you know it. What, because no one would take your word-"

"Because they won't take my word. And someone who's been fighting before professional fighting."

"So? Everyone has to start off with their hands dirty, men and women. It's society's own fault we've unconsciously babied ourselves to think everything can turn around from a bad rap."

Jack gave a soft laugh. Mert was always a gentleman. In his line of work, he didn't see the dividers everyone did - race, gender, age, mistakes. All he cared about was that fighting spirit, molding into place with enough discipline and training. He had coached many candidates and praised Jack's fire over her faults.

"…Honestly wished I had come to you earlier," she confessed. "Then I wouldn't be in this bloody mess."

"Hmph," he scoffed. "You were stubborn. Everyone is at the start. And I told ya, the past is none of my concern. What I care is the now. If that bastard lays one finger on ya with his money-grubby hands, I'll break every single bone in his body."

Now Jack would really love to see that. But she kept that compliment inside.

"Thanks for the gesture, Mert… But I don't want you to get yourself hurt. Or arrested."

"You don't give me enough credit, Jack. I still have ten more years left in me," he boasted. "Enough of him. C'mon. I have something to show you."

Jack cocked up an eyebrow but the old man simply headed for the door. Surprises were a rare thing from him. Actually, it was a clear zero. But something had him chippy than usual.

Well, she needed to move her legs anyway. And get rid of the knots in her joints.

Jack rose up from the bench and took a slow pace, rubbing her eyes. Mornings were something she didn't like but for this day, the light was relatively pleasant and warm through the windows. And across the busy, lively street of Harran, she spotted the new movie advertisement being put up on the cinema's front. Dead Tide, coming to theaters this summer. Right on the picture was the popular African-Australian actress starring as the ex-cop, gunning down the infected with an assault rifle.

"Seriously. I don't get the appeal in zombie movies," she mumbled to herself. "Always about screaming and fake gore." Nowhere as entertaining as psychological horror.

She exited out of the office, spying Mert leaning over the second-floor railing. Once she neared closer, she spotted the surprise instantly.

Down at the punching bag was a young woman with thick mascara, practicing her jabs. Sure, to some people, this was just a new customer. But Jack and Mert had seen her face rise up over the couple past months.

"Well, well. Isn't that-"

"Hm-hm," Mert confirmed it. "Jade Aldemir. In my gym."

A kickboxer rookie that quickly rose the ranks in just a few matches over the two years. Just like Mert said, right inside the gym. And that was enough to perk the Wild Dog's interest. After all, she had expected to cross paths with the young kickboxer eventually, like say, next year.

Surprisingly, the rookie made it up all the way to the upcoming Global Trial Championship. Two months from now.

She was fast, Jack gave her that. And daring to be coming to her turf. "Think she came here to see the competition?"

"As long as she's paying, then she's welcomed here." Mert smiled with a chuckle, before glancing back at Jack.

He noticed a strange look in the woman - not the kind that whenever the opponent came to her outside or inside the ring, she'd be giving the first stage Mad Jack introduction. Instead, she was watching at the girl with a calming sort of demeanor. Maybe a reminiscence of her past?

"Why don't you go down there and introduce yourselves?"

Jack cocked up an eyebrow at the old manager. "Really? Just like that?"

"You two are gonna be head-on in the next ring anyway. It's all about good sportsmanship."

"Spying on the other opponent at her manager's gym is not what I would call "good sportsmanship", Mert."

"Hey, maybe the kid will surprise you. Or it'd be the other way around. Just behave."

"When have I ever misbehaved?"

The old man chuckled loudly as Jack walked down the stairs, eying the young kickboxer. She wasn't alone - outside the punching area was a teenage boy, probably ready to head for college. Maybe the brother - the two had similar features. And he clearly wasn't here for the equipment. He was a bit scrawny, that was for sure. One of the builders would easily pick him up and toss him out. And he had a weak attention span - while he was waiting patiently, watching the young girl throw the jabs at the dummy, he was quick to switch over to his phone to pass the time.

Hm. Jack took them as two who would take the afternoon to go their separate ways, not stick together. Didn't siblings fight all the time? She had her spiteful moments with her cousin.

At the first floor, she was about to stride towards the area when she spotted another new face by the door. Just loitering there. He didn't seem like he came for the gym. And he'd better not stay for too long - Mert didn't like window-watchers or freeloaders.

But there was something notable about the man's half-hidden face. He was staring at the young kickboxer with a sad gaze under the cloth over his head. Actually, maybe at both her and the teenager.

Wait a minute. Jack didn't remember a guy standing by the door. That wasn't how the memory went.

Still, she ignored him. Like he never existed in the first place. Her focus was on the rookie instead. Reaching the outer perimeter of the practice area, she studied the moves. Seemed like the youngster favored the jabs a lot - she had heard the young woman's signature move was a good butterfly kick. Like the swift tail whip of a scorpion.

There was a peek from the rookie. She obviously noticed the older woman watching her but didn't tear away from the punching bag. Full attention on her target.

What, trying to one-up me, Jack thought. Tempting-

"You know you're being a creep."

It didn't come from the girl but from the boy instead. Jack slowly glanced over at him, who was giving her a hard "back off" kind of look.

Jack didn't step back... How could she play with this?

"And?" she started with a cheeky tone in her voice. "Is it wrong to check her out, maybe get her number?"

The boy was surprised for a split second, then glared at her angrily as he hurriedly climbed on his feet. He had the wrong idea written on his face. How cute. "You...you're not her type."

"Oh? She has a type?" She purposely planted her eyes on the puncher like it was a study to her. "Strong legs. Good flexibility. Intense stamina and she knows how to pace it out… I can take her."

The boy was fuming silently, cheeks bright red and eyes bugged wide. He was having a hard time trying to speak. "Wha - you - now hang on a minute here!"

She held in a chuckle. Oh, she was gonna have a lot of fun out of this naive boy. And she wasn't even making it sexual, she was literally pointing out the rookie's skills.

"You don't get to date my sister! Or anything with her! She's off! Period!"

"I don't think that's possible, Kid. Not with our appointment coming up."

"Wait! What?!"

"Rahim," the girl then intervened, standing between him and Jack. "You can be so dense sometimes." She then took a firm, stern stare at the Wild Dog. "You're Jack Brecken."

Jack smirked mellowly, with palms out front. "Guilty as charged."

And immediately, the very young adult, Rahim, hunched up his shoulders with eyes wide. A clear sign that showed he had heard Jack's reputation, the more aggressive side she gave in her matches. Now the small little rabbit was in for it, trying to give lip to a kickboxing world champion.

"Don't put yourself in a pickle. I get that often."

That seemed to calm the boy down. Sorta. He was in the shadow of a legend.

"I thought Jack was a guy's name," he choked.

His sister rolled her eyes. "Seriously? Then I wouldn't be facing her if she was a dude for this tournament."

Jack shrugged. "Never liked my real name. Nobody took me seriously as a kid."

"Ugh, I know the feeling," she groaned. So she had her fair shares of being ridiculed for a feminine name.

"For what's it worth," Jack turned back to the tense boy, looking more scared than he should be. "A bit adorably admirable to be standing up for her here. This world needs more people like you. I take it you're siblings?"

Rahim was about to say something with a growing smirk along the grumbling lines of "I'm not adorable," but the girl took over the conversation.

"More like I'm the one cleaning up his messes."

"Hey!" He turned to Jack, clearly seeing the hidden giggle she kept in. "I-I don't get into trouble!"

Jack ushered out a chuckle and held out her hand out of good gesture. "It's nice to meet you both, Rahim. And Jade Aldemir."

"So you know?" Both shook it - the girl with a firm shake then her brother a normal one.

"Who doesn't? You've made quite a name in the past two years. Fastest kickboxer to make it to the finals. Bloody impressive… So, what's a rising star doing in this neck of the woods?" Jack asked out of curiosity.

"Well, I wanted to check you out too," Jade boosted, following after Jack's earlier ruse. "You are my competition."

"Can't deny that," she chided. "Learned anything from me?"

The younger woman folded her arms with a stern, puzzled glance. "You're not what they say on TV. I was expecting some madwoman in person."

"You're not alone on that one," Rahim whispered, just enough for Jack to hear despite his best to conceal it.

"Oh, c'mon, mate. That's just all for show. You give the audience what they want and they'll lap it all up quickly. You of all people should know that," she explained, seeing the kickboxer quietly give a nod of agreement. "If I were to be nice and composed all the time, think how bad it'd be for my reputation."

"True… Kind of a disappointment."

Now that was an odd thing to say. "That I can't be a normal person in my personal life?"

"No. Even I can't always like I am in the ringer every single day." Jade now had an arrogant gleam in her dark eyes. "I was just thinking it's a real shame Wild Dog's not everything I thought she was."

"Excuse me?"

"You're acting like a proper lady in front of an opponent. Who does that?" Proper lady? Jack knew nothing about forks and spoons. "I didn't come here for the courtesy treatment, be all disgustingly girly, kiss cheeks then leave. I came to see Wild Dog herself. In action."

"Ahahaha, no," Jack uttered. She could tell where this was going. "We're already going to fight each other in two months' time. Why spend the energy now?"

"What? Can't I see the real deal right now? I'm here to prepare myself."

Ok, Jack would give her that. She would definitely want to feel the heat of the fight within these walls, see this rookie's fighting style up front and close. But she still was recovering from the previous night's ordeal It would be a dumb idea right then and there to accept her demand. Jack would be regretting it tomorrow morning.

"Don't you know it's better to savor the flavor rather than rushing it?" Jack asked playfully. "We might just find each other pretty bland and the match won't be exciting to look forward to."

"Oh please," Jade scoffed. "You aren't the patient type." Well, she wasn't wrong. "C'mon. Two minutes, everything goes."

Wow, she didn't know when to quit. But Jack knew when not to begin. "While I do admire you for having balls, this grown-up has a tight schedule today. It was a pleasure meeting you, Jade. Rahim."

It was only a couple of steps Jack took off-

"What? Wild Dog's chicken?"

Oh.

She did not just go there. Jack wheeled back to see the bold smirk and the restless waving of her gloved hands. That ushered out a low, growing laugh from the pro's mouth.

"Dearie," Jack started, flashing a toothy grin. "You're gonna eat those words."

Jade smirked cockily with a presentation of her arms. "Show me then. It's been all bark from you."

There were a few "oooohs" nearby. Some onlookers had stopped and overheard the talk ramping up. Rahim was the only one who walked back - he wasn't stupid enough to jump between his crazy sister and a rabid boxer.

Jack glanced up first - Mert was still at his same spot, overseeing everything. He had certainly heard everything and with a light nod, he gave the OK.

The ladies walked over to the patched-up boxing ring, each taking their corner as Jack readied herself. The crowd was getting bigger, the other members putting down their equipment to see for the first time an unofficial match between two titles. Like a rare National Geographic episode between a venomous arachnid and a stray dog back to its natural roots put in a hole. There were a few quiet bets in the background - the poison sting would take Jack down or the female alpha would bite down on Jade's claws.

Jack ignored them all. Her main focus was seeing what her opponent's first move - additionally, she was still feeling yesterday's pins and needles. But know what? Nothing cures them like a good workout.

They took their stances, a few shakes here and there, some tiptoeing around.

And the fight began.

Jade took the first attack. A fast right jab but Jack blocked it with her forearm. Then the left but again a block. The rookie was putting more into her punches, already impatient to take Jack down quick. She wasn't taking her time like Jack was doing.

"What are you holding back for?" Jade hissed, a bit angry at the defensive attempt. "Aren't you supposed to be rabid?!"

She fired her jabs again. Jack took them with her blocks.

The rookie had misread Jack's intention. She wanted to see how far she would go. So Jade didn't want to be babied. Show the professional she was on the same level as her. Give it to her!

"Your bark's worse than your bite?!" Jade taunted. And fired a sweep at her.

Too early. Jack swiftly sidestepped like a wolf leaping back. And she returned the favor with a hook, catching Jade by surprise. The little moment of vulnerability was enough for the rabid hound to deliver another two punches, both dampened by Jade's block.

Both girls stepped back. Jade was starting to feel the burn but Jack was barely breaking a sweat.

"I've not been holding back, rookie," Jack sang, a small tint of ferocity spilling out. "I'm just getting started."

Second stage foam. Now the teeth were ready to bear down, even with the chain on. She danced on her tiptoes, firing her shots at the rookie. Jade didn't quiver back, however, and instead swung her jabs at the gaps of Jack's attacks.

Normally, most rivals Jack had fought would back off from her stalking and pouncing. But this one was different. She could see it in her eyes. She liked this. She wasn't afraid of her. She was intent to go all the way to the end, regardless of who came on top.

That was giving Jack a rush. So, rookie, are you going prove you can stand up against me?

Show me!

Jade swept a kick at Jack but her elbow quickly clenched down on it. With her balance thrown off as the older woman backed a step, Jade tumbled down.

"Oh, that was a dick move!" She shot back on her feet.

"Hey, this isn't even the real match. Why follow the rules?"

The young girl smirked. "Oh, I'm gonna like this." Yeah, screw the rules. That was what Jack read on her face.

Left, right, left, right. The crowd was roaring loud, with Mert watching from above and Rahim looking anxiously. But Jack had underestimated her stamina. Rookie was still keeping up while Jack was slowing down a bit. Shit, now the tables were turning and her last night's attempt at a coup caught up to her.

Then Jade launched her signature move at an opening, one leg up ready to whoosh down like a scorpion's tail.

Jack dodged it completely, her arms parried it off just as it went down. Now Jade had put herself into the opening. The older kickboxer squatted on all fours and readied the frontal jump like a wolf would on a deer. The punch combo was fired and Jade was stunned down by a front kick.

That wasn't Jack's signature move. But she had created it over the years as a means to bluff her opponents she was coming in for the kill. Jade should have expected that - it was on every TV match - but she was still taken by surprise, not enough to shake her off her feet.

"Oh, c'mon. That wasn't that bad!" Jack droned, closing in on the kid-

Then suddenly, the young kickboxer lashed out.

"Whoa!" That was teeth! Trying to take a big chunk out of her! "What the-"

Huffed growls made her look up. The young kickboxer didn't have her healthy complexion anymore. In fact, her body was contorted and twisted, eyes went white and hollow, and skin blistered with darkened veins.

She looked like the spitting image of one of those zombies from the movie advertisement.

"J-Jade?" What the hell just happened?

"You left me to die…"

"What?" Jack gasped, not understanding at all what she meant.

"You left me to die, Kyle!"

"Jade, hey, now! Snap out of it! W-Who the bloody hell is Kyle?!" An ex-boyfriend or something?

"Youleftmetodieyouleftmetodieyouleftmetodie!"

It was like an episode from an old mystery horror show she had seen once. Everything about this was unreal, unfamiliar. She stepped back - the Wild Dog with her tail between her legs at this change of the scene. Like the script derailed away from its climactic scene because of a last-minute actor's decision.

"GAAAAARGH!" the young kickboxer screamed.

"Shit!" she cursed, jumping over the ropes. "Oh shit! Shit!"

"Gaarrgh!"

And suddenly, she was surrounded. Everyone. They were all zombies. The kid, Mert, the other boxers. Everyone had been turned.

The day Harran fell, everything changed forever. It happened right outside her small gym.

No. Wait! That was supposed to be two years later. And it was a slow build over the weeks, not a quick infestation in just a couple of seconds.

Didn't matter, Jack was already booking for the double doors. She dodged left and right from the swinging arms and the snarling teeth, even leaped over bodies. Run. Run!

They wanted her dead. They wanted her to join them. Everyone was gone. And Jade was zooming close, her fingers grasping at the tip of Jack's hoodie.

There was no escape from this virus. It was already in her.

Run! RUN!

Jack shoved the door open and was hit by the bright light.

And out into the whiteness, stood the man in the green jacket she saw earlier - his back to her.

She had gradually come to a stop. Because all the scary stuff just stopped in an instant. She didn't even feel their presences behind her anymore.

"What-"

Before she could finish that question, the man slowly wheeled around with a vocal click, click, click.

Click.

The face of the Hunter glared back at her.

All she saw was the flash of the canines coming towards her.


"Gaaph!" Jack bolted up. Breathing heavily. Sweating profusely. She gave a quick glance around - no, she was in the safehouse. Not at Mert's gym. Not in the past.

She swallowed. Breath in. Breath out. 1, 2, 3, with her fingers counting down. Breath in. Breath out. Repeat. Jack then wiped away the sweat from her temple.

Geezus...it's been a while since she had such a dream. Or a trip into memory lane where the train derailed into Nightmare Ville. That was most definitely not how the memory went. Was it because she had gotten too many blows that her memories were jumbled again?

And Jade was dead? That was stupid - the Champ was fine and dandy the last time she heard from her. If she wasn't…

...Rahim would never let it go. The two kids were inseparable, the only family they had left for each other. And she knew them ever since the first day Jade waltzed right into the gym.

"Enough. Don't think too much about it. Jade's fine," she said to herself. "You'll see them at the Tower." Jack breathed deeply and tried to convince herself again. "Yeah. You'll see them. Now get your arse up and start work."

She pushed herself up. Then felt every part of her body in pain. Oh fuck. Why the bloody hell did she feel like a car rammed right into her-

Oh. Right. She went one-on-one with a Special.

Again, Jack tried forcing herself up and walk the agony off her. The bites were still pretty bad that she had to rebandaged them before covering them up with her sleeves. She didn't want to show anyone what kind of night she had. They'd worry too much.

"Arrrrgh... I hate mornings." The sunlight was blinding once she was out the door, compelling her to wear back her shades. She should have been used to it by now. But no, her eyes just hated the sun.

And right on cue, she got a call over her comm.

"Helloooo, Jack," droned Bones once she put on the earpiece. "Had a good night's sleep in Scanderoon?"

She scoffed drowsily. "Sure, escaping death is real riveting."

That immediately took the cheerfulness right out of the other line, replaced by thick anxiety. "What happened, Jack?"

"Eeeh, nothing I couldn't handle. Just took me by surprise it, is all."

"It doesn't sound like it was nothing. What about your PACT? What's the reading-"

"The PACT reads I'm fine," she stated. "I managed to tag that Hunter by the way."

"Wait, already? That was fast."

"Well, I didn't really have much of a choice in the matter. You should see Freakoid on that...app, software, thingie, whatever you call it."

There was the sound of clicking the keys and the mouse on the other side. "Got him-" Bones went quiet for a bit, then uttered out a groan before a sound of him giving a slap to something could be heard. "Damn this signal."

"Ypu can't locate him?" If it was a bust, nice, that meant all her work was in vain.

"Well, a maybe. Until we can get a more powerful signal, I can only give you an estimate. He's stationary, not too far from you."

"Oh great. Bloody zombie doesn't know when to give up. Especially with all that weird shit he had."

"Weird how?"

"Well," her voice trailed off. She couldn't find the right words.

Honestly, she had no idea what just happened. It'd be a lot easy to say that infected had a lot of oomph in him, uncanny when the undead didn't have the mentality for tactical attacks like animals or moreover, humans.

It was also the fact it 'talked' to her that made her wary. She truly remembered that part as clear as day. And she wasn't even sure if it came from its mouth or not.

"Can infected..." She twirled her hand in circles, trying to think of the right word. "Communicate with one another?"

"As in making noises like birds?" he asked, not expecting an answer. "...Now that I think of it, we've never established if they had some kind of vocal connection. I mean, they just groan. The specials seem to have some form of dominance to order them around though."

"Uh, Bones, that's because the lower lifeforms are attracted to the vomit sprays those big guys give. Not "I order you to sink on this human. Now go"."

"Ok, so they have a good scent of smell. We don't know if they have any means of auditory signals at any level of intelligence. Why do you ask?"

Ugh, the moment she'd tell Bones, he'd make Jack go back to the Outskirts and get her head checked. Again. More importantly, there was one thing that she couldn't dismiss.

Why did that zomb bastard know Jade's name?

"Jack?"

She shook her head. No, that was silly. Maybe it was another Jade it was trying to remember. That name was as common as Jack's. That thing was relying on memories, Bones said before. "You know what? Forget it. I'm not even sure what I heard."

"...O-kkk. If it's nothing serious. Still, this is a start. Maybe we can get some actual results. In the meantime, you should get a new phone. Remember?"

Oh, right. She forgot.

"I was about to get one. Someone at the Junction's gotta know-"

Cla-clink!

She stopped at the sound of many pieces knocking each other. Jack glanced down at her feet, to see a small package wrapped up with a cloth. Actually, the ragged cloth looked strangely familiar.

"Jack?"

Jack was all too focused on the package, opening it up cautiously. But to her surprise, it wasn't some hideous organ or a small bomb.

Speak of the devil, it was her phone - a bit more scratched then it should be. And it came with a couple of craft parts for a few medkits. And a special weapon. She darted her eyes about for her unknown visitor. Where did this come from?

"Jack. Please don't do this to me again."

"Nothing to worry about, Bones. Say...did you send a Rav member out on package duty?"

"Um, no. And not at night. Why?"

"Hm," she exclaimed. "Someone left me a little present. And it's not even my birthday."

"Huh. That is strange… Speaking of packages-"

"No." She immediately knew where this was going.

"You - You can't say no to good gesture! You're all the way there without us and our service!"

"And I'm perfectly fine scavenging on my own. Don't send anyone here. You guys need all the hands you have more than I do."

"No go, Jack. Asem's the one you gotta take it up to. She's preparing the twins to do the delivery."

"Figures. Of course, she would. Look, the Coast is pretty much blocked off from the Outskirts. And yes, sure, most of the Ravs are capable of coming here and dropping off but-"

"Nope. Asem's final word. She's not gonna listen to you."

She held back a groan. Seriously, Asem was such a worrywart. "Look. I'll be fine. I'm not alone out here. Junction's a reasonable base of operation and they have a better head than Harris has."

"Ok. But think those survivors can last long?"

She didn't remark straight away. While Jack did praise the one side of the Junction, she could easily see the disadvantages they carried.

"I dunno… Too young, too old, too inexperienced… They're not like the Ravs."

"That bad?"

"They have a kid that trains only a few to be runners and the only one with some military experience can't fight. And their doctor's a professor, not a full-time medical professional."

"That's...technically not too bad. Not as great as the Tower's people."

"But Harris and the others have the high ground. They don't." She heaved out a sigh. Better to let him know. "Me and the kid had a run-in with two GRE soldiers yesterday. Bones, they were ordered to shoot us."

The pause from him showed he was digesting the severity of the situation. "Shit. You guys are alright?"

"Peachy. But I dunno how far those GRE jerks will go if they're taking down survivors like that. That's why I don't want you sending any droppers here."

"Yeah but-"

"No buts. Those goons are here like it's duck season. Ravs' job is to lay low and quiet, and help the survivors in the Outskirts. Not putting them out in the open-"

"Jack."

She stopped in her tracks, with shoulders hunched tight at the familiar, stern voice. How she wished she had never said anything. Now the second voice on the other end wasn't going to listen to her. Then she relaxed like this was something to her every day.

"Hello to you too, Asem," she greeted with a chirpy tone. "Now call off the fleet. I don't need any stashes."

"After what you've told us, it sounds like you do need it."

"I do not want to take responsibility if a runner gets killed by a GRE or a zombie. And away from my watch. You know I've never liked this plan. Too risky and too many ways to lose someone over me."

"I know. But Jack, if the GRE is taking drastic measures, then they are escalating for some reason. More of them are coming into the Outskirts by the numbers."

"Wait, would GRE be allowed to go gung-ho?" It was Bones' turn to ask. "That's gotta bring out some flags right there."

"Bones, you do remember that radio talk about them being decommissioned for something with the Ministry of Defense?"

"Yeah?"

"Which means, now they don't have any leash to hold them anymore."

"Oh... Right."

"GRE was the one who jammed the signals for more than a month. They had control over the whole city," their boss explained. 

"And now they've gone rogue because the Ministry of Defense can't agree with them or some shit. Clean up their biggest fuckup of the century."

"Geezus," Bones gasped beside the mic. 

"And the Ministry did try to bomb the whole city up-"

"Alright! Alright! I get it! The whole world wants us dead!"

"Now that's a harsh thing to say. What you should say, the whole world wants this virus gone. Those infected as well."

"You do know that includes us too!"

"Regardless which organization is running to clean up this outbreak, it's already clear we're against the clock," Asem said with her firm tone breaking away. "It's only a matter of time before they decide to use drastic methods again over keeping a face to the public."

"Oooh," Jack sang. "You know how to make a girl feel real special with all the pressure on stage."

"Jack. You're an important aspect to this project. We are riding everything on this to work. That's why I'm sending out a few runners." Jack was about to protest. "To give ya enough supplies to give you a head start. That's it. They go in and they get out."

"Geezus, you make this impossible," she grumbled. "Fine. But the first sign they get into trouble, I'm sending them back to the Outskirts."

"Of course. I'm also sending a runner to the Tower."

"Oh, come on now. Harris' not that incompetent."

"It's not about lack of leadership, Jack. They've gone cold for a week and recently, GRE's sending troops into the Slums." The two pieces of information aligned together so perfectly, Jack was already putting the dots, feeling a tight grip in her chest. "You understand where that's going, don't you?"

She swallowed. "They'll be fine. They told me. They got this Crane guy being their hero and all that."

"When was that?"

She bit her lips. She knew her hesitation was showing. "...Two weeks before I went...you know, MIA."

"..." The silence was easily readable. Didn't matter if the Rav leader had some sort of sixth sense or clairvoyance, she knew how much of an effect this was on Jack. But she couldn't let herself be strayed off and change course. "Jack. For now, you need to focus on the project and your life. Everything else is secondary."

And as quick as ever, Jack kicked away the feeling of worry. "You know it's not in my nature to turn an eye away when someone needs saving, Asem," she droned.

"I know," Asem replied. "I'll keep you in the loop. And remember, the stashes."

"Finnnne," she groaned long-windedly. "...And thank you."

"Just be careful out there."

"Always will."

"Hm." That was the kind of hm that meant, "I do not believe you 100 percent". "And, Bones."

"Yeah?"

"Clean up this room. You're gonna trip one of these days."

"Yes, madam."

He's totally not gonna do it, Jack thought.

"Alright. You know what to do, Jack," Bones instructed. "Look out for our emblem and you'll find the stash. Ender and Riza should be over there by the afternoon."

"Loud and clear."

"And remember. Phone," he demanded. "System should be up and fully running later. As long as the signal stays strong too."

End of the conversation. Welp, she had her orders. Still left her with a bit of a sour taste about the possibility of a Tower dilemma.

For now, all she could do was wait for the next call from Asem. If she thought the outcome was either good or bad, it'd make her unfocused. Stay on track.

So she might as well return back to the Junction, show everyone that "Hey, I lived a day outside. So what jobs do you have for me?". And that had to be one or two who could get her a phone.

"Well. Siv will be thrilled to put this old girl to work, that's for sure."


"What do you mean the requests are done?" Jack was staring at the Kid with baffled eyes and shoulders downcast when she blurted that out.

It didn't go exactly how she thought it would when she returned. She was suddenly jumped on by a frantic Siv who thought she had turned up dead and was then told she didn't need to worry about the previous jobs she took yesterday.

"Just the basic stuff," Siv answered, uncertain why Wild Dog was giving that odd expression. "I thought you were being real ballsy last night."

Well, that would be an earning she'd gladly take. But she fully knew well she did not go shopping last night. She was particularly knocked out from yesterday's beating. "I've been at the safehouse the whole night, Siv. Where did you get that idea?"

Now it was Siv's turn to look puzzled. "Some runners last night brought back this bag full of stuff. Even supplies we needed. So we figured it came from you."

"That explains why you were hysterical earlier."

Siv then scoffed, folding her arms. "Can you blame me in thinking a zombie jumped on you and took off your stuff?"

Jack hunched her eyebrows so tight. "I have so much to say right now but I'll start with the most important question. What zombie?"

"Well, that's the weirdest part," Siv began but didn't continue. "I think you should hear it from one of our runners. C'mon."

No, she would like to hear it now. But Jack followed the young teenager to the sick bay where Hadya was attending to an injured woman. The two girls didn't go in because right outside the entrance, sitting with arms around his legs was a boy taller than Siv.

"Orhan. This is the new runner I was talking to ya about." Siv then turned back to Jack for introductions. "This is Orhan, he's from the B team."

It was his expression that Jack could understand. He wasn't glancing up to see the newcomer, his eyes were fixated on the floor and his fingers were nearly white from gripping so tight.

It wasn't so much fear that the boy saw something terrifying. She knew that face. She had seen it multiple of times.

It was guilt.

"Orhan," Siv called worriedly, with a light shake. "Can you tell her what you saw?"

All of a sudden, Jack sat down on the floor next to him. This surprised Siv but she kept silent. Nothing witty like a one-liner came out of her, not even her dynamic personality.

Instead, she simply waited with eyes on him. Like keeping watch that if he'd lose it, she'd be there to be his anchor.

Finally, he noticed her. Like resurfacing out the dangerous water.

With trembling lips, he started. "...W-We were ambushed… Men from the p-prison… T-They destroyed our safehouse. Wanted us dead… Then t-this Hunter jumped out of nowhere. K-Killed them."

There was no reaction out of Jack.

"It...It gave me this bag of stuff. J-Just like that. F-Fazil managed to hurt it with the UV and we ran…"

Again nothing from the adult. Jack was attentively listening to the boy without a break in the silence from her. And the more quiet she was, the more he opened up.

He was almost ready to cry.

"It's ok," Jack said softly. "Take your time."

And that was it. The first tears out of him in a long time. "...I...it was my fault. We couldn't get to the drop in time. The prisoners got to it first and… I-I thought I could get it back. Fazil followed me and...they found out. They hurt her. I-I didn't mean for any of this to happen."

A boy who wanted to be a hero. Jack had seen this many times.

"Orhan," Siv called. She wanted to say it wasn't his fault. But a shake of Jack's head told her not to.

She knew from experience. Being told it wasn't anyone's fault wouldn't change the past.

"It's scary," Jack started, her voice uncharacteristically gentle that Siv never expected to hear it from her. "Being in a situation like that… And you've made it. You and Fazil. You're both alive. You're here."

That seemed to help him, along with her patience and her calm face. No one was judging him for his wrong. Fazil or he or both weren't killed back at the safehouse. And he didn't need to keep the emotions in.

That was the truth.

"You did good, kid," Jack said.

Orhan's slow nods were still shaking. The older woman slipped a hand on his shoulder and squeezed it. Let it all out. And he did, hunching down his head on his knees and the tears went on going.

Another few minutes later, he seemed to settle down.

"Better?"

Orhan nodded - a bit of a lie but it was better than nothing.

"Alright." Jack then noticed Hadya by the door. "I think someone wants to see you right now."

His eyes perked wide open, turning to see Hadya. Up he immediately went and galloped right inside. Jack followed up slowly, leaning against the doorway and watching the bandaged up woman reach her hand out to Orhan. Her injuries didn't look too worse for wear.

"What are you? Some kind of therapist?"

It was a surprising question coming from Siv. Jack simply jeered. "Please. I'm not some miracle worker or a mind-reader. I can't even understand my own head."

"Really?" Siv found that sentence a bit odd. She couldn't put her finger why.

"Yup. Sometimes, everyone needs someone to listen to them. No good bottling emotions up," she explained, leaving the sickbay.

"...Is that why you enjoy fighting?"

Jack hunched an eyebrow at the young teenager. "What are you? A mind reader now?" Still, she obliged to continue. "I suppose I had a hard time in my youth that I needed to take it out. Of course, you can't go punching someone in society. You get arrested for that. So I turned to unprofessional fighting."

"Huh. Never peg you to have a troubled past."

"Not really troubled, just trying to figure out who I was as a person. Everyone has to start off with their hands dirty," she recited her old manager's quote. "Now enough of the past. Back to the present." Jack was finding it very difficult to say the next sentence. "...A zombie just gave them the stuff I was hired to find?"

Siv shrugged her shoulders tight with an unsure face. "That's what both of them said."

"Now I've heard everything."

"Hey, they're not lying," Siv snapped. "They've been through a lot-"

"No, no. It's not that," Jack reassured. "They're not alone on the whole weirdness department there."

The teenager was clearly not seeing what she meant but only came to the assumption Jack encountered something similar. "They said it was a Hunter too. Do you think it's the same one that tried to kill us?"

"If it was, wouldn't they have been torn to pieces like it almost did to me?" Jack hummed with a sarcastic tone. Then she narrowed her eyes - it was a plausible thought. "But…it's not something we can rule out."

"So what? This zombie has some brain damage it can't decide whether it wants to kill or something?"

"Ha!" The laugh came out unnaturally loud but Jack didn't care. "Oh, sure. The undead can have personality disorders."

"Hey, everyone's a bit on edge with this one. Mahir's telling everyone to be on high alert. Says it sounds unpredictable."

"Oh. I fully concur."

"Meh, you all are making such a big deal. We have UV," Siv scoffed boldly, then took her leave. "Still, watch yourself, Granny."

"When are you ever gonna stop calling me Granny, Kid?" Jack asked, pretending to sound offended.

"When you quit calling me Kid!" Siv hollered down the hall.

Jack chuckled. Good to see that spirit in her. This place needed to keep up with its liveliness during these tough times.

Now, she had another issue to attend to.

"So someone's been doing my job…" And a Hunter. She didn't know whether to feel pleased or offended. Or worried. Or puzzled.

And was it really the same Hunter? That was a killer with no rational thinking or remorse. Suddenly, it grew a conscience and went gathering supplies. Even took down the thugs to save two runners?

That was showing some regained sense of intelligence. Which was crazy. Laughable. And there was another matter that needed answers.

"How did he even know-" She stopped herself and quickly fished out her phone. A lot of this was lining up too nicely together. "This day is getting better and better by the minute."

So there was a mystery before her. Jack was honestly curious about this new discovery and in such a short time. However, she was ordered to stay focused on the main task. And it would be lunatic to go after a Special. She was nearly close to the shave with the fight last night… Then she thought, well, if it was the same Hunter, this still fell within the same boundary of Bones' project.

She wasn't changing course. She was…just looking into a possible lead.

Jack looked down at her phone.

Right. She should get a new one. Jack was going to need the app a lot more than before if she wanted to get to the bottom of things.

"Time to track myself a Hunter," she said to herself. "This is going to be fun."

Chapter Text

SIX: THE HUNTER AND THE HUNTED


"Ok, Bones. I got a shiny, new phone. Now what?"

It was a hassle. She had to go througg a few hoops, from one person to another. It was only at the last part of her quest that took her to an electronic clerk who barricaded himself inside the back room of a mall.

This man was bloody brave - the place was riddled with many infected and yet he seemed to have handled this like some badass character from a movie or game. No wonder some folks said he was the master of zombie surviving.

The only problem was "Doomsday" Adam had a bit of the "tough man" grumpy attitude, a decade older than her. He wasn't even swayed by the fact he was in the presence of a legend. So it took a bit of oiling - namely completing his request - to get things going.

Unfortunately, it was discovered that the keys to some of the mall's shops were lost and Adam just said, "Just steal a phone. Nobody cares." But she gained a vendor.

Still...why did she go through all of that? No, stop, Jack, don't question it. She finally snuck into the phone shop, cracked the display open and took what she thought might be the latest brand of the year. Well, she just picked it 'cause she liked the color - raspberry red.

"Ok. So you see the little zombie head with the bull's eye icon? Click on the HEADS."

"You all seriously need to think of better names."

"Just click on it."

Immediately, her phone lit up with the map of Scanderoon. However, it was blackening in and out like a flickering light with a large icon of a broken satellite.

"Bones, it's not showing up."

"Hang on. Just give it a minute. Gyeong said she's got it… Annnnd, there we go!"

The annoying "No GPS" icon disappeared and the display was stable. No more glitches or static. Fully functional and ready for Jack to use.

"Well. Would you look at that?"

"Oh yeah! Don't underestimate us Grads!"

"Oh really? When was the graduation day?"

"Um, well…" Yup. It didn't happen when the outbreak hit. "A-Anyway, you should see the tag, right?"

Jack wasn't gonna forget that attempt at changing subjects. But she did see the orange dot. A good distance along the overpass from where she stood on the map. "Bright as a firefly."

"You can also use this to track down anything besides the special infects. Factions, safehouses, enemies. We can even add markers on our end too. Let you know of any problem on our end."

"Hmm." She played around with it, drawing a small smiley face with her finger right on top of the Junction's location.

"Ahahah, very cute."

"Hey, I'm just testing it."

"Yeah, yeah. Well. It works. There's nothing to worry about."

"Is this in real time by the way? I'm not gonna be surprised by a Biter with a five-minute delay, right?"

"As long as the hacking stays without any hiccups. Codebreaker's programming is not all perfect but-"Slap! "Ouch! Hey!"

Then she heard the mic being taken away.

"Hello, Jackie. Must be a real earache having to hear Bones' voice every single day."

"Eh. It's alright. At least I know where he is at all times."

"I'm not a kid!" Bones hollered in the background.

All of you college kids are still kids, Jack thought to herself with a roll of her eyes. "So what is the problem, Gyeong? We have a working signal, right?"

"Of course. For communications. That doesn't mean we have ongoing GPS. You do know hacking isn't magic and I can't completely take over a whole satellite, right? Unless I go after the HQ's mainframe, we're gonna have some fumbles here and there."

"Couldn't you hack into GRE's mainframe?"

"Are you kidding?" Gyeong started off with a tone saying that was an insane idea. "That would be an amazing feat! But all of their defenses and with what little I have here, it'd be like shooting a pea through a needle."

"Odd choice for an idiom."

"Point is you need to be a bit cautious with where the zombies are located. Until I can get better gear, it's the best we've got."

"You know, I could look around for a laptop or something for ya."

"Not laptop. I need the best hardware and there aren't a lot of places the runners can scavenge here. For now, you have to make do until I get the goods."

"I have almost no idea how this tech works, but I'll take your word for it."

"Seriously, Jack? Even now?" the young programmer whined at the unwillingness to understand tech details.

"Jack," Bones took over the comm. "Rain's picking up over at your place."

The brunette peered up at the sky. The northern side was indeed getting darker and she could hear the booms in the distance.

"Oh boy. What I needed. A storm."

"Nothing much we can do with the monsoon season. You know that. Tower had it way easy with that drought over in the Slums."

"And here I was hoping for some sunshine in the Coast. It's already a pain going through knee-deep water."

"Just find ground or shelter. You're a sitting duck when the rains hit."

"I'm just gonna hope the wind takes them elsewhere. Jack out."

She looked back to the dark clouds again. Another thing that was making this place like she was back to the Outskirts. With the outbreak came chaos. Cars abandoned, damaged drainage and bodies piled up made some places possible for overflooding - hindering mobility and sight on both the Biters and runners. Rain created a ton of problems and Jackie herself have experienced most of them. The weather also came unpredictably in the day and at night.

One of only two solutions was as Bones said, take the high ground. But slippery walls were pretty much a bad thing for parkour. And the second one wasn't to her liking, Jack didn't like to be a caged dog.

"Now, where are you, Freakoid?"

Freakoid's location in the app hadn't changed at all. So she took the way up to the overpass via a few trailers stacked up and a broken emergency ladder at the side. The stretch of road still had its dangers but she opened herself a path with bought UV lights and firecrackers. The app led her towards a van, its doors gapped a little open.

"Ok, this is too easy," she whispered, cautiously readying her melee as she reached out to the door. 1, 2...3!

Thunk!

Jack raised her weapon high up, hoping that a good swing would be enough to knock the Hunter out. But there was nothing inside.

"Damn." She checked the app and found the dot further from her position.

A hiccup. From what she estimated, it was a 30-second delay.

"Well, Codebreaker did warn me. A little hide-n-seek never hurt anybody."

However, the time of the delay was a concern. This Hunter was moving faster than even her and within great distances. Man, she had hoped her punches would have worn him down but for some reason, Freakoid had already bounced right back up and brushed their fight off.

Ugh. She hated overpowered bullshit. How about coming down to her level so she could beat the shit out of him?

Jack kept on the search but it seemed like the Hunter was always one step ahead. Was it looking around for prey to feast on?

"Come out, come out to plaaay," she sang as she got closer, jumping into the first floor of a convenience store. Nothing.

Then out popped from behind the cashier was a Biter.

"Nope! Not you." She whacked him down quickly. "C'mon. Can you stay in one spot?"

Three blocks away. What in the world was this Hunter doing? This delay was setting her further back than she had hoped for. The dot was swooshing north-west of her in seconds, giving her the impression he was moving above. And she was pretty far from the Junction now.

Hang on. Was he trying to circle around her?

Oh, so it was gonna be that kind of game? Who was going to be the hunted. Then she needed to up her game. If anyone from the Junction knew what she was doing, they'd call her insane.

So? She was having fun.

The district she found herself in was the new business district left abandoned in the middle of its construction. A lot of openings to jump around and the tall buildings made the ideal place to get a bird's eye view. She kept to the middle rather than the top or the bottom.

With the extra running space, she was catching up to the dot. And it stopped at an unfinished office lot.

"Found you-" No, wait. The signal moved three blocks away. Behind her.

But Jack never saw it coming once she turned the corner.

The buttpad of an assault rifle came like a flash.

Thud!

"Ough!"

She went down fast.


Everything was still strange to Crane, even when tomorrow had rolled over. Getting used to this body was like trying to wear down a new pair of tight shoes. Moreover, waking up to see the stab wound closing up without stitches or alcohol gave him didn't settle well for him but at least he survived the night.

The morning, however, was a different matter. It made him a bit sluggish. Worst was the fact he did feel blistering on him from the sunlight. Like sunburn. All he could do was pull his collar, his folds, the clothes on his back, to cover the exposed skin. And even when it gave him some sort of relief, he was forced into any form of shade. Cover was his only salvation if he wanted to move about. He couldn't stay in the van forever so he was going to bear with the light burning. It did explain why some infected never came out during the day. A Volatile could easily fry like an egg on the sidewalk.

And there was the other matter of the dream. What was that all about?

Crane ignored that, however. Why would a zombie even dream? His concern was the woman, who surprisingly disappeared from her safehouse. She must have returned back to her base - and he had zero idea where that was. That was pretty bad. There was still a possibility she'd turn and kill off the survivors - a walking timebomb ready to go off. Or maybe she wouldn't.

No, that was stupid. Once bitten, you're infected. And Crane knew from his personal experience. 

Then for some reason, as he was looking for her, he felt like he was being followed. It was a strange tingling sensation that told him to watch his back. A scratch in the back of his skull, that 'second' voice he quenched down to shut up. Even with his humanity, the other part was seeping out to give him a warning, a primitive instinct. Nothing like his gut instinct and common sense he had always relied on when he was human.

"Dammit." He didn't know where this stalker was coming from but he wasn't going to let them have the upper hand on him. Oddest thing was he 'felt' them as familiar but he couldn't figure out why. Not something that was months ago but recent.

Didn't matter. If they were enemy, he was willing to take them down.

Despite feeling a bit heavy like he was logged with sleep deprivation, Crane was still capable of moving faster than a normal runner. On fours. He literally could fly across the streets using his tendrils for locomotion, sticking to the overcast shadows from the tall buildings. There was one disadvantage he noticed: his sight. There weren't anymore highlighted skeletons he could spy behind walls. Just very blurred out shapes.

So his eyes didn't work fantastic in the day. But his vision was pretty ok. In place of those blurred shapes, he could see what they really were - human. From one side of the district were two prisoners monitoring the street and far off, a group of three runners darting across the construction site.

But they weren't his target. The feeling of a 'stalker' wasn't towards those people. If anything, searching for this mysterious tracker was a good warm up to how far he could go in this body - a scary thought but he was going to accept the reality he was stuck like this. Whether he liked it or not.

Crane kept to the mid grounds. And eventually, swinging roundabout to a suspension bridge, he felt the presence getting stronger.

Closer.

"Got you."

Then he stopped.

Below was a large space near an abandoned building - turned into a fortified military outpost. Lined up at every entrance was three guards, heavily armed and armored. And he recognized the logo.

"GRE."

Lovely. The asshole organization he left behind was right in this city. What were they doing here? Actually, dumb question. If they were here, that meant they've decided to take drastic measures. Like many times before.

Crane tightened his claws at the memory: cutting any form of communication to the outside world, destroying any trace that there were people still alive, ever single action GRE took to tell the globe that "everything was fine". And now there they were, like a bad rash. He had hoped that as long as the research he retrieved stayed inside the city, that would give everyone more time. He underestimated their impatience.

Then he spotted two men dragging something into the protected courtyard. Wearing that familiar red hoodie.

"Shit. What is she doing there?" And from the looks of everything, it wasn't good. He lost sight of the woman, seeing her unconscious body brought through the main doors. He had to follow but with the number of obstacles blocking his way ground level, he'd be dead right before he reached the perimeter. A rash dash could also endanger her.

The height was his possible advantage - no guards at the top. Maybe because they thought a zombie to slingshot silently across the pesky UV lights and guns. No infected could jump a good thirty feet like an Olympic high jumper. The abandoned building was the soldiers' hinderance and they didn't even know.

He'd need the right time to jump in. 

"We've found this survivor, ma'am."

The two men dropped Jack to the ground, right before a tent. She tried to catch her breath and shake off the dizziness, barely glanced up to see who the bigshot of this place was. "Fuck. You sure know how to welcome your guests. Aaah."

"State your name, civilian." A woman stepped out from the tent.

Crane's eyes widened. That voice. He had heard it many times, through his radio. And the aversion came hitting him slow but hard.

Cold, calculating, down to the point. The one he reported to during his time in Harran. The one who told him to focus on the main objective, on getting to Rais at all costs.

His former supervisor. His operator over the comms since Day 1 of his Harran infiltration.

"Ward. What is she doing here?"

Shit. What a twist of fate. Frigging GRE agent Noria Ward. In Scanderoon?

The firm female officer waited for Jack's response, gradually noticing the back of her hoodie - the old, dirty clothing the ex-kickboxer wore. It bore a trademark symbol, the emblem of a wild dog's face and teeth, an immediate means for everyone to see and say, "Yes, she was Wild Dog."

"I've seen you before."

"Oh," Jack mumbled under her breath. "I'm even famous to the GRE. I'm flattered." She could easily feel that this woman didn't share her dry sense humor at all. There wasn't going to be much leeway from this. "So what can Jack the Wild Dog do for you folks, miss-?"

She was about to get up when immediately, the man on her right shoved her back down with a whack to the back of her knees. Guns pointed dead on the back of her head. Shit, these people were taking her like she carried the plague.

Within the tense atmosphere, Ward was the only one who remained detachedly composed. She simply strolled closer, taking a photo from her breast pocket and showing it to the brunette. "Have you seen this man?"

It was a little hard when the fucking grunts were keeping her head down. But Jack glimpsed up to the face of a man with glasses. Well-known, in fact. Huh. That was a face she least expected the GRE to be hounding after. Why go for an important figure?

"Umit Solak. Have you seen him?"

Give her a second, geez. "Oh sure, on TV. Political figure, archeology specialist in the History of Harran, yada, yada. Everyone and their mothers in this fucking country know him," Jack groaned. "What does it matter? Didn't he leave with all the big suits when the outbreak hit?"

The silence from the agent spoke volumes.

"He never left, did he?" Jack smirked. "Let me guess, he's in need of a rescue."

Not even a face twitch from this woman. Wow, she was as tight as a drill sergeant she once met. Agent Ward somberly got up.

"Ahhh. Not a rescue. Then he must have done something to piss the GRE off," Jack continued with a soft chuckle.

"You tried to take a drop of ours and let the infected attack our soldiers."

Ah. Well, they were bound to learn about that, Jackie.

"Did I really do that?" Jack uttered. "Can't remember much when one of them was pointing a gun at me."

"You were illegally taking GRE equipment."

"Oh, so all the drops are now yours? I didn't see your name on it. And for the record, explosions don't feed mouths."

THUD! Went the hilt of the assault rifle to her face. Shit, that smarted! Jack spotted a few drops of blood on the dirt. Licking her lower lip, she could feel a cut there.

This woman was going to get herself killed, Crane thought to himself. Yeah, he did decide to end her life if she would turn but...this treatment was cruel.

A heavy, tired sigh droned out from the agent's mouth. Oh, I'm sorry for giving you a boring performance! Jack yelled in her head.

"And here I thought I could be done by this evening."

"Hey." Jack had to play her cards right. These people meant business and one slip up would cost her her life. "I could always find this guy for you if it's that important. Just look the other way on that drop incident. I've got connections. Can't be that hard to find him, miss Agent."

"It's Agent Ward. And that won't be necessary. We already have a local doing that for us... But your cooperation has been most useful to us... Take her to the lab."

Jack was forced up to her feet but her gut was screaming something was off. She gave a struggle but the two men were bent on taking her somewhere. "What? Not gonna gun me down for stealing and nearly killing your men?" Jack hissed. Stall the conversation. Find an opening. "Or are we going to have bygones be bygones?"

"You don't have to worry about anything, Miss Brecken. The doctors will attend to your needs. All of this will be a thing of the past."

That was a clear lie. Jack narrowed her eyes at the bloody woman. "Don't sugarcoat it, lady. I'm not these stereotype jarheads with no brain cells in them. What doctors?"

It was then the agent stopped in her track, realizing this one was smarter than most poor sods her men picked up. She thought on it, there was no point keeping the facade. 

"Alright. You want the truth?" Ward obliged. "You're not going to leave here. You're just like everyone else in this city. Infected with the Harran virus. And the only solution you have is to go down peacefully. For your own sake."

"In order words, euthanasia," Jack cut to the short term. "So it's true. You're taking all of us out."

From above, Crane's head perked up. Did he hear that correctly?

"Shit," he cursed. "Shit. Shit. Shit!" This has escalated but he wouldn't imagine it going that fast.

"It's nothing personal. This outbreak has gone on long enough. The Ministry of Defense wants this to stop with as fewer casualties as possible."

"You mean GRE wants it to stop so they can all go back home by the fire," Jack droned. "We're the mess. You're the bloody pest control. You should have kept a tighter lid on the quarantine then."

"Make it however you want it, Brecken." Ugh, the way this woman said her surname was leaving a bad taste in her mouth. Trying to give a bit of courtesy but this captain was fully intent on verbally showing her loathing. "We cannot keep supplying more survivors any longer. The lives of billions are more important than a handful."

"Oh, I dunno. How about making a cure then? That could solve everything."

Ward didn't share her enthusiasm. "It's not that simple anymore." There was a small crack of a frown. "Thanks to one idiot's decision, this is how everything has come down to."

"Do I sense some hostility?" Jack droned, finding the string to tug at. "Sounds like someone pissed you off real good."

The agent's face darkened. Yup, and now Jackie was gonna get the bulk of the heat. How she'd love to give that guy a pat on the back for making this agent's field day grand.

Actually, she didn't but if Jack ever met this guy, she was going to punch him for this mess she was in.

Instead of giving Jack the favor in responding to that question, Ward remarked coldly, "Good day, Miss Brecken. I'm sorry this is how it had to end." No, she wasn't sorry. She gave a nod to the two agents and without hesitation, they seized the ex-kickboxer away.

This was bad. Crane had to act fast but he was still within an area full of soldiers. And he knew what they could do - he was an agent himself. He knew all of their tactics and combat skills. The only difference was he had done a lot more in Harran to know how to survive while these men were too amateurish to know the dangers. Their advantages were firearms.

Dammit, Crane. Now isn't the time to be afraid-

"WAIT! WAIT!" Jack suddenly hollered, bringing everything to a stop. "Ok. Ok. Fine, I didn't want to say anything. But I've got no choice in the matter. You're not the only ones trying to fix this mess."

At first, Ward wasn't engaged. The quietness was enough of a warrant for the two grunts to continue dragging her away.

"You're not the only ones looking for a bloody damn cure!"

And that got her. The agent wheeled back to the woman, holding out a hand to stop them. Even the holler got Crane's attention.

A cure?

Agent Ward was, at first, hesitant. She eyed for a trick pulled from Jack's sleeve. And when nothing happened, seeing the dead-serious, wide-eyed expression from the brunette, Ward compelled to prolong the conversation. "Of course. I know that. He handed over the research to your people instead of following orders. But it's been weeks. There hasn't been any 'cure' and time has run out. There is no way a bunch of backwater hooligans can figure out how to make a cure to the Harran Virus."

Jack gave a look of confusion. "I have absolutely no idea what you're talking about. Or who you're talking about. But sounds like someone else has the same idea."

The agent was also as puzzled as her but she was slowly losing her patience. She pulled out her pistol as a warning.

"I don't have time for games from a retired airhead."

"See, that's your problem there. You're rushing too fast. All of you are too narrow-minded to see something about this virus is changing. Creating new Specials over the month. Even doing something to us survivors. Depending on the right conditions, of course."

"You're talking nonsense."

No, Crane disagreed. Well, ok, maybe she was talking nonsense. But he was the evidence. Something did happen to him. And it was clear to him this woman knew a lot more than she was letting.

"Maybe. Blame the grads back home. I have no idea what they're talking about half the time. But they have a better idea what's going on a lot more than you suits have. Heck, you don't even know what Antizin is really doing to everyone's bodies."

Ward's face darkened even more. "Are you this ignorant in person? It's suppressing the virus-"

"Is that what your scientists are telling you or is that what they think is doing? Oh, oh. You have no idea your stupid organization is making the problem far worse than it already did. And lookie here, a bunch of 'backwater hooligans' is fixing your mistakes quicker than you arseholes were at bringing this virus in."

The agent's eyes widened at the nail hit hard on the coffin. Jack's toothy grin was wide and mocking like that of a hyena.  

"GRE was the one responsible for the whole incident, wasn't it?"

Ward had enough. The firearm was held right up to Jack's temple. "You have a real big mouth for an ex-champion-"

That was the moment. Now or never, Crane thought. He was about to give the jump when suddenly, Jack did it first. She immediately lassoed the handgun, forcing it to an angle Agent Ward couldn't shoot.

"Gargh!" Whatever Jack did, it loosened the handgun right into Jack's possession. With a twirl around, she immediately had the agent at gunpoint, using her body as a shield to her two men before they could fire. "You damn-!"

"Whoopsie," Jack droned. "You're gonna have to disinfect that, love."

Right on Ward's forearm was the telltale sign. Sixteen indentations right into her flesh.

No fucking way! Crane couldn't believe it. Did she really bite her?

"I'm no better than those Biters, right?" Jack explained madly. "So I might as well act like one. Mindless, no control, unpredictable. Now tell your men to back away."

Their captain remained stern, a bit flustered, even if she was feeling the barrel nudge deeper into her spine.

"Do you really think you'll leave here alive?" Ward snarled.

Jack's eyes darted left and right. The two soldiers weren't lowering their guns and more were adding to their numbers. She grounded her teeth inside her mouth.

So no go on negotiations.

"Nope. But I gotta try." Then she gave a good kick to Ward's butt with a loud holler.

The captain tumbled right into the two men, hurrying to catch her as Jack sprinted into the tent.

"SHOOT HER!"

Tat-tat-tat-tat-tat-tat! The bullets flew.

With a skid to the ground, Jack's one hand gripped on a tent's pole and took it along with her momentum. The whole tent crumbled down, giving her a blind spot she needed from the fire as she made her way into the abandoned building.

Then wailed out the infected outside. The gunfire had attracted the infected towards GRE's outpost. And that forced the soldiers to be split - three men rushing after the ex-kickboxer.

She fired back. Just as a scare, enough to put the distance between them further. But she was down to one bullet once she reached the tenth floor.

"Shit!" Dropping from the above floor came a Hunter. Freakoid. Now she was between a rock and a hard place!

The odd thing was the Hunter didn't jump on her immediately as she sprinted away, behind the pillars. Instead, he howled loudly to tell the three gunmen there was more than just her to worry about.

"Infected inside the perimeter!"

The bullets fired but Freakoid was lighting fast. Tendrils grappled him across the walls, turning the infected into a harder target in such a claustrophobic space. Freakoid found an opening and shot his tendrils at one body.

"AAAAH!" The poor grunt went flying right out the unfinished wall and to his death below. And what made this Hunter more frightening was the fact he was easily disarming their weapons and deliver blows, not bites and tears. Almost like a military mutant.

"Bloody - why did things have to get worse?" Jack muttered.

One agent changed targets to the woman. She fired and it was a total miss. Oh, wait. What on earth was she doing?! She ditched the gun away and waited patiently.

Peeking out came the agent. Swiftly, Jack took him by surprise and shoved him down to the floor. Arms snaked under his shoulders and around his neck for a good bone-cracking twist. Down he went.

More gunfire but it was much closer. The commotion with the zombies below must have dispersed and now they were moving their men to the upstairs.

Jack knew her odds. And she wasn't going to stay. Let Freakoid deal with them! The only question was how on Earth was she going to get off this building.

Then she spotted a zipline at the back, going to the roof of a bank. Twenty, thirty feet away. From that, she spotted a military-standard device next to the fallen soldier. Similar to Siv's ascender. 

It was as if the Universe were giving her the backdoor.

"Take it, Jackie!"

She shot into a sprint, head down and a prayer none of the bullets would hit her. In her sprint, she grabbed for the ascender and with one leap off the floor, she hooked it onto the wire and whooshed up the line.

Klack-thuh! The sound of metal wire snapped apart from a couple of grazing from the bullets, loud and clear.

And the zipline went weak in her grip.

"No! NO! NO! NO!" Jack screamed. Her whole world was rotating. She had only one way and that was down. No stopping. There wasn't even a cushion of bags like the last time at the beach.

She wasn't going to be miraculously saved.

"Got you!"

Jack felt the wind knocked right out of her as she suddenly found herself being wrapped by arms. Everything was hard for her to progress other than what she headed right into - a window.

CRAAASH!

She felt linoleum and something heavy between her. And it wasn't letting her go even as they rolled to a stop. If she wasn't in such a disoriented state from the near-death experience, she'd be thanking whatever saved her.

Still. How the bloody hell was she even alive-

Then she saw the Night Hunter right on top of her. Canines clicking together.

"Aaaahh!" Out of reflex, she gave a hard kick.

"Urgh!" He should have saw it coming. Crane stumbled back from the surprise boot, clutching his face. Man, that hurt. The terrified woman panickedly crawled away from him, getting to see his ugly face in all of its glory.

His sharp hearing picked up something coming and he sharply wheeling back to the broken window. Attentively, he watched out like an eagle from its perch.

"They're coming."

"Whoa! Whoa! So you can talk?!" Jack couldn't believe what she was hearing. No, there were no words coming out of Freakoid's mouth! Ooooh, so many red flags there if Bones heard that from her. "Wait, why do I hear you in my head? Wait! What's going on?!"

Freakoid didn't take the time to explain. Crane didn't even know how to! But the longer they took to have any sort of conversation, the quicker Ward's men were coming from across the street.

"Get out now!"

Jack was still flabbergasted by this development. But she could hear something whistling.

Metal arrowheads pierced right through the concrete wall, making the Hunter jump. Jack hopped wearily up to see five GRE men ascending up metal lines that weren't there before.

"Oh shit!" she hollered. GRE had grappling hooks!

Ok! Do what the talking zombie told you to do! Leave now!

Crane peeked back to see her take to the fire stairs. With one less thing to worry about, he hurriedly grabbed one end of a zipline with his tendrils and with all his strength, yanked it off.

"Whoa-AAAAAAAH!" Two agents down… Three more zooming up.

Crane leaped back to the cubicles, watching the men take a stand through the broken window. Well, here goes nothing!

"What the fuck is that thing?!"

"I'm not a thing, your jackasses!"

He howled. He needed the heat on him, not on that red-jacketed woman. And swiftly, he ducked behind cover from the fire.

"Holy shit!" Too close for comfort! And he couldn't afford a zombie frontal attack with such high stakes and in tight space. Crane's only choice of action was to leave out the same way that woman took, locking it with a piece of pry bar he picked up from the floor.

That only bought him a minute. One shot to the door was enough for the group to get out. Thankfully, this office building was packed like sardines with infected. The sound drew Biters to them.

"Go sic them," Crane thought and hurried out to the corridor above the foyer.

"Target on sight!"

At first, he thought it was him when he heard that. Then he noticed a squad at the entrance and the woman in the hoodie behind the counter. She had no other cover to sneak past them or any firearm to protect herself.

Ah, shit. Maybe he should have thought GRE would have had this place surrounded. He would have done it too in the past.

"Why can't you bloody well sod off?!" Jack hollered and ducked back down at the fire. But then again, she did bite Ward. And Crane knew what kind of silent hell-bent fury came from that officer.

Even the zombies weren't doing anything. A few did approach to the gunfire but it wasn't enough to take down the firing squad. The odds were against the ex-kickboxer.

Crane needed to do something. Anything! But bullets could shred both of them.

"Oh, what was this fucking body good for if I can't even take down a couple of armed men?!"

His anxiety was getting the better of him, making him rather queasy from the inside. He suddenly thought that his body was revolting against him for underrating its capability. Crane had to steady himself by the railing. Now wasn't the time to-

It shot right out of his mouth. A projectile of disgusting, horrible-smelling digestive juices splashed onto three in the squad. Crane coughed uncontrollably, feeling the burn in his throat.

"Gack! What the fuck did I just spit?" Crane choked.

"Ugrh! What the fuck is this gunk?!"

And that stirred up the horde around them. Their wails echoed throughout the building.

"Fire! Fire!"

That was enough to bring the pot to boiling temperature - more infected thinning out the numbers. Good, a chance. Crane spidered his way up along the upper floor, sticking to the height advantage. One lone agent had stepped away from his herd, prime for the taking.

Crane shot down his tendrils at him and like the whipping of a bolas, he threw the agent clean across the foyer.

Brrrrrring!

Water came down as the alarm rang loud. Indoors. The fire sprinklers were turned on. Crane scurried around to find out the source - spying the hooded woman having pulled the lever.

He first thought, no, that was going to wash off the spit. Then his super-hearing picked up something in the distance, ten - fifteen yards away.

"More infected inbound! I repeat! More infected coming our way-Zzzk!" he overheard a voice yell out from the squad leader's comm.

She was making this whole building be a giant lure for the zombies. Ok, he'd give her that. Or maybe she just thought it would give her the sneak cover she needed as she took off to the west.

Whatever, it was a good plan. Don't complain, Crane.

"Fall back! Fall back now!"

More fire. More noise. From how many bullets were spent, Crane believed they were nearly close to running dry. And with the damage given to the outpost, this group of GRE wouldn't be able to recover immediately. And that was a nice thought, it meant giving them a finger. Or a talon, he supposed.

The maintenance hall the woman took was 'somewhat' safe. There was no second squad at the end of the hall but four zombies blocking the exit.

"Shit-!"

Crane was right behind her as her watchful guardian. He shot himself past the woman, his presence shocking her. He was already right in the Biters' faces, not enough time for them to retaliate. One was down with tendrils wrapped around his whole body and Freakoid twisted the Biter's head a good 180.

"Gaaaargh!" One infected snarled angrily at Crane for his rebellion but was immediately put down by Jack with a whack of her crowbar to the skull. She was already on the last one, breaking a leg like an axe swing to a tree.

But she wasn't stopping. She was dead set on getting out and far away to safety. And thankfully, she wasn't turning her attention on Crane with that crowbar.

Jack shoved open the doors, right into daylight. The alarm was still screaming - the fences being clawed at by a bigger horde outside. She jumped onto and across a series of cars and tilted trunks - her end goal being a fire escape at the next office building.

Then suddenly, the last van shook violently beneath her feet.

"Whoa!" Jack was thrown right off to the ground. The doors burst open and a zombie joined the party.

"What the fuck is that?!" It was an infected type Crane had never seen before. The infected was a little like the common ones but it was muscular and split open...kinda like him. Wait, he took that back. Not totally like him. It was covered with hardened boils the size of grapefruits on its arms, hands and one side of its face.

"Great," Jack hissed, quickly getting herself up. "A fucking Brawler."

Brawler?

With a loud holler, the Brawler took its stance and lifted its bloated hands up high. Jack scrambled back, readying herself with a block. There was a funny gleam in her eyes like a happy finger ready on the trigger.

Crane was faster. He roped his tendrils around the Brawler. The power of this infected type nearly threw him off his feet but Crane pulled with everything he got.

For goodness sake! "Run, you idiot!"

Jack was hesitating, maybe still digesting the reality an infected was protecting her. Or offended she was called an idiot. Then she heard a part of the wire fence give way.

"Shit!" The horde had broken through. She went back to the tops of the vehicles and up the fire escape before the ground was swimming with the sharks.

Crane battled with his own problem to care about the common infected surrounding him. He could always just let the bastard go ram itself into the wall now that she was up and safe from this Brawler.

Then suddenly, it turned to him with a grunt.

Wait, what?!

The Brawler then charged towards him, the tendrils loosening as the distance closed in between them. It rose one bloated arm up like a puncher ready to pitch - Crane ducked aside to feel the wind break to his left.

Crack!

The punch was powerful enough to break concrete. Shit! His head could have been smashed open!

The Brawler had more to give and it was quick on its toes. This tactic was a new thing to see from a new infected - then again, that could be said for Crane too. Maybe the Brawler couldn't use its claws like any infected so swinging them like punching gloves was the next best thing. And how was it able to know where to land its shots? It was fucking blind!

Ok, enough playing around. It was getting difficult with the nearby Biters also trying to give him the jump. But the Brawler's quick turning in its charges made it hard for him to find a chance to escape.

Quick thinking. He fired his tendrils at the legs just as it rushed again. With a hurl on the ropes, he forced it to trip on its own feet and down timbered the Brawler. Crane then zipped his way back up to the rooftops, hearing the infected call out to him to come back, continue fighting it!

No, he wanted to live, thank you very much.

He needed to find the woman. Until she was absolutely safe, he couldn't stop worrying for her safety. He couldn't see much past the walls in the daylight other than a flash of orange here and there.

Could that be her, he wondered many times and could only hope he was right on her tracks.

Once he could no longer hear the gunfire or the undead screaming, he stopped his tendril locomotion and landed on a sheltered outdoor balcony. He was out of danger's reach. For now. At least he could have a bit of a moment to himself, to breathe.

"Good… Looks like they're not following."

He slowly wheeled back, only to discover the pitch of a blunt weapon coming right at his face and the woman hurling out a yell in less than a second.

THUD!

In the short amount of time, he had forgotten he wasn't a human anymore. So the red-hooded lady had every right to knock his lights clear off when she was right next to a monster.

"Oh, shit," was all he heard from the brunette.

Truth be told, he should have seen that coming. He would have done it himself.

Well. Nothing much he could do now. He was unconscious again.

Chapter Text

SEVEN: JUST A FRIENDLY CHAT


There were a lot of things Crane wanted to ask himself. But even if he was given the answers, it was either they weren't the ones he wanted to hear or he knew what they already were.

"What the hell am I doing?"

And right now, one question stuck right at the top of all his questions. And that was why did he decide to go after this woman?

"-this is the same zombie that tried to eat me! Twice!"

The noises of aggressive pacing and her voice irritated his ears, forcing him to try and stay awake. There she was, going back and forth.

"Bones' gonna tell you you've gone completely mental. Again-!"

Back into the darkness again. Right now, he was nothing. Didn't matter if he had this new body, he was weak and powerless. He had absolutely nothing, and the people at the Tower, he knew they wouldn't give a second thought if they saw him. He'd do the same honestly. Crane was on the brink between human and infected, not on either side of the coin.

This couldn't go on any longer. Did he really want to subject himself to a life of being turned and sound? Everyone, anyone would see him as a big, fat threat. He might as well just let the other side take over and be done with.

"Well, know what? I'm already on the road to insanity. I can tick off 'voices in my head' and add 'zombie friend' to my bucket list-"

But Kyle Crane was stuck here, inside a monster. And if you get lemons, you might as well make lemonade. But he was going to need help. And that was something he had never asked before. He had always been the lone wolf, soloing his way around.

As crazy as it sounded in his head…he was going to have to rely on this lunatic woman.

And that was if she wouldn't kill him.

It wasn't really much of a choice. But this woman knew more than she was letting on. Maybe it was stalling, maybe it was lies but he's got nothing better to do anyway.

"Uggggh. For once, I'm hating myself for this." She then boasted with hands on her hips, "You're very welcome, Jackie."

Darkness again. But his conscious swam back out. He needed to stay. And suddenly, he saw…

The Mother. Looking down at him with that mask of hers - hiding her true face.

Fucking...he wanted to move. Rip off that head again. She was right in front of him.

Kill her-

"Hey, Freakoid." The image was interrupted violently by the thick accent. Where the Mother was kneeling down before him, the woman in the red hoodie took her spot. Her eyes were unreadable behind those sunglasses. She waved her hand, waiting for a response.

Crane was in and out of conscious. He didn't even feel himself being carried.

"Urgh! God... You're fucking heavy. Lose some weight, why don't you-"

Shaddup… He had a long few days.

What he wanted was for the things to go back to normal. Even better, change the decisions that royally fucked him up: not join GRE, not be a lying bastard, not listening to the Mother and more. The list was extremely long.

Just once...he wished he didn't have to wake up as a monster. And who was to say he wasn't before he got turned?

"Hey!" Click, click, click!

His eyes snapped open to the sound of fingers clicking close. Ouch, now he wished he didn't have such powerful hearing with such a terrible drawback to nearby sounds.

He tried to move. His body refused. Glancing down at his hands, he found himself tied up with cable ties. GRE and military standards if handcuffs weren't available. The brunette must have picked it up during her flee.

...Ok, did she really think this could stop an infected from cutting these off? But then again, Crane was still between la-la land and reality to put that to the test.

Jack kept her distance from the infected, on the other side of a hotel room. No Biters nearby other than the signs that she had whacked a few before dropping Crane's body right on the carpeted floor. The bed in the room had been destroyed completely - good enough space for her to maneuver if she'd get pounced on.

"Now today has been a wild ride for me," she started. "I mean, it's not every day you get a zombie that 'talks'. For all I know, I could be crazy. And I'd fully accept that." She let the silence drag, a stern glimpse behind the shades. "But you're not like the other infected. You clearly know how to fight."

Fight with his claws, tendrils, and teeth or fight like a human? But Crane refrained from saying that.

"So I'm going to take this chance. If you're really are some kind of zombie with high awareness and you're not gonna rip me to shreds, I'll take the binds off. Have a 'friendly' chat with ya. But if you jump on me, you're getting a face full of UV." She held up an unlit flashlight as a warning. Fair enough. And with that out, the brunette took a seat at the furthest part of the room, weapon ready in her other hand. "Now...let's talk."

The demand, let's talk, just made him feel like he was back at school in front of his strict middle-grade teacher. Her tone, though, was more thr "I'm been through too much and if you pull one more stunt, I'm shutting you up."

Crane was partially regretting his early decision. He thought about the pros and cons. A talking zombie to her might be something of a gem in the rough she could use and that was something he didn't like - become someone's pet zombie. But she could very well be the only person willinh to listen, someone who knew his secret now. That was only if his other self didn't decide to murder her.

Should he risk it? He had just as less trust in her as she did to him.

"Yeah, Jackie," she uttered loudly, slapping her thighs as she bolted for the door. "You were totally losing it."

No. Wait. She did something to him. He needed answers.

"W-Wait."

The distorted voice came out of him out of impulse but it was enough to send shivers in Jack, making her whip her weapon high up like a baseball pitcher. She was primed and ready.

He tried again. "Wait." Hell, his head was still swimming. "Please, just wait."

"Holy shit…" she gasped, lowering her weapon. "And I thought I was hearing things."

"Ha...you're not the only one," he managed to drone. Ok, Kyle. Try and not make this more awkward than it should be.

It wasn't working. He couldn't even tell what kind of expression this woman had behind her shades, other than a frown. The weapon was still at a level that could do some damage if he'd make a mistake.

"How...how are you doing that?" she dared ask. "What are you?"

"I wish I knew how." The fog in his head was slowly clearing up. "Hrgmm… But...I have an idea or two on what."

"Oh. Ok," she chided. He wasn't sure if it was an attempt to shake off her discomfort or not. "How about sharing it with the class then?"

Share? He had no reason to keep it as a secret anyway. She was dead. There was no way the Mother could return.

Come to think of it, he vaguely remembered how his other side was dead set on hunting this woman down. All because he thought the Mother was back.

...Why did he think that?

He could clearly see right then and there the lady wasn't. A Caucasian woman in her thirties, wearing an attire sorta compatible for parkour and survival - if it wasn't for that flashy red hoodie. Not a sentient Volatile with her tongue drooping behind her rotten mandibles, dressed in old traditional clothes and jewelry.

And now that he had a good look at her...there was something off. A vibe telling his "infected" self that she wasn't like the other survivors in some way. Well, obviously she hadn't turned yet like him.

"You...why are you like the Mother?"

He could have sworn he spotted the eyebrows furrow tightly together, the shades slipping down the bridge of her nose. "Excuse me?"

"No...I…" Crane groaned, unable to get another word out because of the dizziness. That sounded so stupid now that he thought on it. "Geez, how hard did you hit me?"

"Well, clearly not hard enough," she droned, sounding utmost offended that she was prompted to throw out a laugh. "I have to be one hella of an ugly mother to birth you, Freakoid. And I don't even have children."

"N-No. No. Not you… Someone else," he struggled so much with both the grogginess and the hatred. Even the thought of calling her 'mother' was nauseous. OR that fucking Volatile freak.

The woman cocked up an eyebrow, not seeing the connection there. "Ok, creep level to the max here. I think I've had enough for my fill of the day." And she wheeled for the door. "Goodday."

"W-Wait a minute." Crane gave himself a hard shake of his head, overwhelmed with disbelief. Was she really going to walk out? "You're gonna leave like that? You just discovered a monster that is talking to you."

"Until you called me mother. That's good enough for me not to stick around with a demented person, human or zombie."

"Hey, it wasn't my intention. And look who's talking. Who tries to pick a fight with the GRE?"

"Well, it's not like they were going to let me live." She slapped her hands as she stepped away from him. "Look. There's probably some sob story before you got turned into...this. But I got better things to do than listen to the voice in my head. So goodbye and good luck, mate." With that, she turned for the door.

Crane couldn't believe it. Why, you arrogant, little… He wasn't gonna let her go.

She may have gotten him tied down but she forgot about the tendrils. Out of spite, Crane spider-webbed at her legs.

"Whoa!" Jack suddenly lost her footing, the floor whacking her hard. The tendrils snaked further up her body and pulled her forth - the sudden jerk making her drop the flashlight. Closer she got to the Hunter, now purposely expanding himself to snap free off his binds. "You fucking bastard!"

Freakoid towered over her. Right now, he wasn't the past Crane and he certainly wasn't going to give her the courtesy and politeness because she was a woman. He was done getting walked on and an infected didn't need tolerance.

"Now you listen here." The ex-kickboxer tried to worm her way out but he had made sure the wraps were tight. Really tight. "You did something to me. I don't know what or how. But whatever it did, it somehow made me get my mind back. And I'm this close to switching back. So unless you don't want me 'eating you', you're gonna tell me what you did."

"What I did?" she hollered. "You were trying to kill me! It was self-defense."

He clicked his teeth. That was all true. He couldn't deny that. And he wasn't trying to put the blame on her. "I…I know... But I shouldn't even be back." He was definitely making it worse by delaying, even confusing her. "And right now...I've got nothing to go on except you…"

That was the honest truth. Crane had finally said it. He was showing this weak side inside his monstrous shell to a complete stranger.

Up close, he could see her eyes under the shades, noting a hard, serious look from her. Her breathing was slowing down - sorta, she had a freak right on top of her but she was unusually calm for someone in this kind of situation.

Then suddenly, she grinned. Her head tilted to the right that her hair swaying from her hood brushed against his vein-covered arm.

Wait. That wasn't on purpose...right?

"Hm-hm." There was an odd hum in her voice. "Is this your way of softening me up so I can go easy on you?"

Crane's animal eyes widened. He felt a lump get stuck in his throat for a second. "What?"

"I mean, I suppose this would be appropriate if this was before the outbreak. And you're not a creepy Hunter on top of me. We are in a hotel room and all-."

"W-Whoa! Hold on there!" Then his voice cracked"Time out!" Was she seriously suggesting what he thought she was suggesting?! Also, what?! His brain couldn't proceed this!

"Oh c'mon. You probably have smoothed your way into a lot of ladies' hearts in the past, right? Be that mysterious man with all the secrets kept in, got all the chicks thinking "He needs help getting out of his shell" or something along those lines?"

"N-Now wait just a second. This isn't what you're thinking!" Why was he feeling flustered? Wait, no! Why should a zombie feel embarrassed? Also, NO! He wasn't that kind of person when he was meeting new people outside of work-

Then all of a sudden, legs lassoed around his neck. There was a wicked gleam he recognized back at the office building but his whole world went round as Jack forced him over on his side. Now she was on top, shoving a forearm down on his apple.

It was all a ruse.

"Now you listen, jackarse," Jack demanded as Crane choked. "I have no idea why you're able to act like this. Heck, it might have me beating your skull one too many times for you to gain some humanity bullshit."

Well, that was a possibility he'd thought of. But he couldn't agree verbally with his throat being pushed in.

"But I don't have the time or the patience to be answering 20 questions. And right now, you might be the missing link we Ravs' been looking for."

Crane's golden eyes shot up to her with a confused gleam. "W-What?"

"Right now, you're a damn mystery that even I don't know about. And if solving it gets us one step closing to finding a cure, then you're gonna be cooperative. Capisce?" She gave another push to reinforce her point.

"What are you...talking about?" Crane choked. "There's already one being made."

"Of course, I know that. I'm surprised an infected like you has heard of it. Wait, can zombies read minds? Do you read minds?"

Now that was an odd answer. And he couldn't put his finger on why. And if he could, he'd love to know what she meant.

Wait a minute...did she know about Camden and the cure? No, only the people at the Tower and the Embers knew.

"Whatever. The fact is there are a lot of people out there trying to fix this problem. After all, GRE are fucking morons and they won't help us."

If only she knew she was dealing with an ex-GRE agent. Oh boy.

"So how about this? If you want answers, then you'll let me do my job."

"And what the fuck is your job?" he demanded, trying his best to get more air into him by worming his neck from her arm. No go.

"To find out what the fuck is happening to this virus and all of us."

Crane looked at her like she was mad. No, she definitely was. He knew what this virus was doing - it brought back the screaming damned. It turned him into this. What was the point of learning more from it?

But from what he understood, there were more besides him seeking an answer. Besides Camden researching on the cure. Besides the Mother with a secret base holding the vials. And this woman was part of some faction. Did she really know something everyone else, even himself, overlooked? Sounded like she was following a wild goose chase.

But he couldn't let it go - about what she said back at the GRE camp. And as stupid as it seemed to him, could it be the lead he was searching for this entire time?

"So. Do I have your cooperation?"

He was reminding himself of his past leads, where they ended up. But he didn't have any other choice. He wanted her off. Now. "C-Crystal."

"Good." She then zoomed right up, finally letting Crane breath in. "Glad we've come to an agreement."

"Geezus. Gack..." The shmuck attitude. "You're egotistical, you know that?" he hissed, massaging his bruised neck.

Jack simply shrugged her shoulders, her smirk still staying stubbornly strong. "Eh. It's one of my redeeming qualities on show."

Ok, what was she talking about? "I'm sorry?"

"You know, on TV," she pointed. "Though some fans would agree with you there. I tend to be too...eccentric at times."

"What?" What on Earth was she rumbling about? "What are you, some kind of super-actress?"

"Yes, I've won the award for best personality," she joked, pretending to hold an invisible trophy in her hands. "Jokes aside. Do you really think an actor can survive in a zombie world? Well, I guess you could get away with being part of the horde. Just slap on some makeup and fake blood."

"Oh great," he mumbled to himself. Hearing her rumble was making him regret ever speaking up. "This was a bad idea."

"Hey. You should feel honored you're with a famous face here. Not an actress like you hoped for but a pro is better than nothing."

"More like a narcissist," he barked. "Seriously. Are you so full of yourself?"

Jack gave an odd look of puzzlement from the disconnected vibe she was getting, the shades sliding down the bridge of her nose to expose hazel eyes and furrowed eyebrows. "Hang on. You know about GRE but you...don't recognize me on the news?"

"Why should I? You're some spokesperson or the weather woman?"

It was then Jack looked at him like she was insulted. Offended! She flayed out her arms like she was presenting herself. "Mad Jack." Still nothing from the shrugging Hunter. And that was baffling to her. "Previous kickboxing world champion? Four years in a row? 2013 showdown between the Wild Dog and the Scorpion at the Scanderoon Sports Palace?!"

Absolutely nothing but a shake of the head. To be frank, he wasn't much into kickboxing. Or any women's sports for that matter.

But that name she said...

Before he could think on it, Jack's arms dropped down to her sides with a loud slap. "Unbelievable… What was I even thinking?" she said to herself with a scoff. "As if an infected like you would know stuff like that."

"Of course I do. I was human," he hissed. Maybe he should have rethought before he decided to rely on the lunatic woman. Again, Crane. Lunatic!

"Well, clearly, you were more into the hockey channel before you got turned."

He narrowed his eyes at her. "...Ok, that was a good guess. I'll give you that."

"Of course, you're too easy to read."

And now she was talking out of her ass. Him? A monster was easy to read like a book?

"Well," Jack pointed, mostly to herself as she readied for comm. "Bones' gonna have a field day with this story-"

"No." Crane was very quick. He latched onto the hand holding the earpiece. If more people learned about him, it'd be like he was at a circus. And he was the freak show.

But his attempt to stop her put the crowbar right at his abdomen, the sharp end ready to pierce. There wasn't any cheery smile on her - she was prepared to give the first blow if he would overstep his boundary.

He clenched his teeth tight. "I'm not...entirely fine with you knowing about...this. And I'm not ok with more people knowing."

"Then you can leave."

Crane was dumbfounded at the response. But she wasn't kidding.

"I'm not gonna pretend I didn't just meet you and keep secrets. You aren't the only one looking for a cure."

His head twitched with even more shock. Did he give some signal she was easily picking up on?

"That's what you want, right? So do the Ravs. And everyone in this city."

His grip tightened on her wrist but she didn't show any reaction to the small pain. Negotiations were out the window. Moreover, there was a look of determination in her that he wanted to question: why she was so hungry on finding this so-called cure. Hell, he had never heard of this Ravs group. Sounded shady.

What was her game? Was it out of desperation? Afraid to turn into something like him?

No. She had nothing of the sort. Her whole body exhumed a strong aura. Reminded him a bit too much of himself in his first few days. Only that she had an 'older' look about her - not age-wise but experience-wise.

Crane could tell...there was no getting through to her.

With a grumble, like a child being forced to obey his parent, he let go of her hand and went to a corner. Completely brooding.

"Bones, do you copy?" Now how was Jack going to explain this?

With a click on the other side, her caller came on with an unusual chirp in his voice. "Heya, Jackie. Didn't expect a response so soon."

She narrowed her eyes tightly. "Ok, what did you do?"

"What? Psssh, nothing. Just doing the same ole radioman as always." There was an odd laugh at the end that went by too quick. "Why do you ask?"

"You've never called me Jackie. Ever."

"Whaaaat? We've been pals for quite a while now! Don't I get the courtesy to call ya that? Anyway, why the call?"

"Hm-hm…" Oh, she was going to get him for that change in the subject. "You're not going to believe what I've found." Jack paced around slowly, eyes still on the grumpy Hunter. Who was to say he wouldn't jump on her to stay quiet?

"Well, try me. We're already gotten a lot of strange things over the month."

"Um, well, how should I say this?" Oh, boy. This was difficult. She relayed over and over the words inside her head, before speaking them out. "Remember that Hunter I've been looking for and...our discussion about communication between the undead?"

"Yeaaah?" his voice trailed, sounding uncertain with where she was heading with this.

"Well…" She then rolled her lip in out of frustration. Forget starting off slow. "Ok. I'll get to the point. A zombie just talked to me."

There was a moment of silence through the comm. She had fully anticipated that.

"I'm getting Asem."

"Now hold on a minute! Stop! Come back to the mic, Bones! Listen, I'm completely sane!" Jack debated.

"I beg to differ."

"Oh, you shut up," Jack snapped at the Hunter.

"What? What did I do?" Bones suddenly uttered over the comms.

"No, not you. I mean him. The talking zombie."

"Uh-huh. Jack. You just told me an infected spoke to you."

"Yes, I'm making it much worse than how it sounded in my head. Especially with my case," she droned. "But I'm telling the truth. Freakoid's right here with me."

"Hey. Why am I being called Freakoid?" Ok, dumb question to think of but that nickname felt a little unnecessary.

"Wait, the Hunter's with you?! Kill it before it kills you!"

"Ok, now that's hurtful," Crane mumbled to himself. "I'm not an 'it'."

"Now that would be the logical thing to do. If he didn't have such a riveting personality," she chided, wheeling away so she could whisper softly, "And he's a big sordid whiner."

"I heard that."

Jack ignored him.

"O-K. So basically, you have a domesticated killing machine in the same room with you."

Ok, where was this loudmouth on the radio? Crane wanted to hit him.

"That can talk," Jack emphasized. "Telepathically, might I add."

"Right, ok... Jack. You've had a few rough days." Oh, god. Not this talk again. And the fact she was getting it from a person a couple of years younger than her was an insult to her age, it made her nearly roll her eyes all the way to the back. "Ender and Riza are arriving in the city soon. They can come get you and bring you back here."

"Ok. Fine. Send them to my location." Freakoid's eyes bugged out wide. He clearly didn't like this. "They'll see the proof. And if you run, Freakoid, I'm coming after you."

Crane murmured quietly to himself. And he actually believed her.

"Hey," she then snapped. "Why don't you say a word right now if you don't want any unwanted company coming here?"

He simply folded his arms. He wasn't gonna give her the privilege.

"You bloody fucking bastard." She should have gotten a recorder or something.

"And now she's playing with the zombie… Ok, I'll go get Asem. Just sit tight."

She muffled down a loud groan. "Both of you are not making this any easier on me."

"Easier? Do you hear yourself?" Bones asked. "There's no way the infected can talk like a normal human being. The chances are completely zero. Some of those zombies even had their cords ripped out by other zombies. Before they were turned!"

"Well, seems like I hit jackpot on this one," she uttered in hopes the conversation would go her way.

"Jack, the infected can only go "Grrrrrr!" before biting our heads off. They're too stupid to have any sort of vocabulary and be capable of forming any sort of sentence."

Crane's face darkened. Just as terrifying as the very beasts that chased his human self during the nighttime. Ok. Now this guy had done it. And the more he listened to this droning with his powerful hearing, the more he couldn't stand it.

"They're just rotting, walking piles of flesh without a minuscule number of brain cells left inside their skulls." Jack peered back to see the Hunter already up to her, kinda standing up like a threatening ape than a human. She wasn't 'too' afraid this time when he was giving some sort of expression that bored into her. Or into the voice over the comm. "Right now, you're hallucinating and that's already something to be concerned about. But if you're so convinced that this one's different, then alright. We'll play along with your fantasy and get him a collar and a water bowl. Just come back to the Outskirts so we can have you checked, Jack."

"Hand it over here," Crane demanded coldly with an open palm.

Jack blinked behind her shades at the surprise. So he finally grew a pair.

"Hang on, Bones. You've got a call."

"What?" Jack immediately compelled, handing over her earpiece. "Seriously, Jack. I'm getting worried about you. Vials, Biters, Volatiles, and this Hunter can't talk-"

"Are you sure?"

Crane said that right into the mic. Loud and clear.

There was a drop on the other end. The wise-ass guy had nearly fallen off his chair. Another quiet moment hung so tightly - good, he was having a hard time progressing what just happened.

"W-What? Jack, was that you?"

"No, it's the stupid zombie talking to you."

That completely took the guy's tongue. Crane could hear the panicked mutters as if this Bones person was trying to speak. "Holy shit. Holy shit. What? H-How?"

He tossed back the earpiece to Jack with a fit and went back to his corner to mope. He wasn't in any mood to explain - even if he had some idea himself.

"Told ya," Jack chided proudly into the earpiece.

"W-Wha...b-but-"

"Yes, Bones. It's a lot to digest. But we might as well get up to speed on this one." She glanced back at Crane. "If a zomb can regain back his senses back, then something is really up with this virus. Maybe it's also the key to reversing it."

"Um...give - just give me five minutes."

"I'll give you thirty seconds."

"What?! But, but, you don't just shake that off."

"And what? We've already gotten used to everything else back at base. This is just like that."

"Geez, man… Ok, ok. Thinking cap on. Um, m-maybe the virus has some repairing capabilities in restoring brain cells. B-But even then, a brain gone dead, then revived, it wouldn't guarantee any sense of personality back. It's not like a coma situation from those soaps and with tremendous brain healing power! Unless he created his own ego."

"So it heals the host's brain? Huh, and here I thought it was because of my punches that knocked some sense into him."

"Heh." Crane grimaced. The healing one sounded too far-fetched to him. The punches were more reasonable. "Same."

"Hang on! You fought him...with your fists?!"

"Nooo, of course not," Jack sang. "I did hit him with a piece of wood."

"You what?" Crane uttered but Jack ignored him again, twirling away on her heel.

"Jack! Are you trying to get yourself killed?!" Bones hollered. "Wait a minute. Then...you got bitten?"

"Twice."

"What - grrrah," Bones was doing his best to keep in his frustration. "Then he should be dead!"

"I know! That's what I thought too," she droned.

"Hold it. Back a few sentences up. What do you mean, 'dead'?" There was something they knew he wasn't getting any info on.

"You've got to bring him here! We need to run some tests. All the works," Bones immediately demanded. "Oh god. That is the stupidest idea I could ever say in my entire life."

"Actually, it might be your most brilliant one yet." She then stopped her chippiness, already sensing the disapproval inside the room. "But...I don't think he'll like that."

Even if there was not much of a 'human' face to tell expressions but the body language was already speaking volumes. He didn't like the word 'tests'.

For any survivors, the idea of sympathy for an infected would be unheard of. Unless they knew the person, which at that point, the only answer was to put them out of their misery. They were gone in the head. They shouldn't be left wandering senselessly looking like that.

He shouldn't be wandering at all like...this.

Jack could see it in Freakoid. Like anyone in this outbreak, she would take the liberty of axing down an ally if they were too far gone. She had gone down that route many times. Only this time, she met someone that just returned back to his humanity. So she had to question herself on that. Did she have the right to treat him just like those Biters? Because right in the room, he looked like a pitiful cat having escaped from the rain. And she was a dog person.

"Oh, c'mooon. He has that level of self-conscience? This is annoying! Uh, no offense to him. Just lie to him or something-"

"He can hear you, you know?" Jack pointed and out came a long-winded frustrated groan on the other end. "I'm not gonna force him to the Outskirts."

The surprised Crane. Or was she trying to con him? Make him think the conversation was going one way when she meant another?

"Fine. Fine… Yeah, I did sound cruel there. Sorry. To him, I mean. How would we feel if we were being poked around like in those mad scientist movies? And I should know."

"We're all desperate, Bones," Jack said understandably. "Only natural."

"Yeah, and we're getting real close too," he heaved a deep sigh. "Alright. Alright. Forget what I said earlier."

"And the Ravs will shoot him on sight if I do bring him over there."

"Right. Good point," Bones had to agree on that. "But he's a special case. Never heard of a zombie just turning back-"

"I'm not the only one." Jack wheeled over to Crane. "...But she's dead."

Ok, that was good to hear. She needed one voice in her head, not a billion. "He just said he's not the first."

"Wait. There's more?!" Bones shrieked.

"Were," Jack corrected him, hearing a sigh of relief. "But that means there's some kind of common denominator. Actually, that rumor the others were looking into isn't so far-fetched as we thought."

"Um...yeah, that's another good point… So if there aren't any infected like him...what should we do?"

In the end, Jack could only come to one conclusion. "Stay on course. For now, I'll continue on with your project. Get the samples and data. Asem's gonna need to hear about this too. She has to give the word on this one."

It was a suggestion Crane never expected to hear from...her frankly. He had pictured himself being pinned down, gagged, tied up and taken to this HQ place to be pricked with needles. Instead, she was giving him his space. Uh, wasn't she making such a big deal about his condition being important and the entirety of Harran and Scanderoon needed a cure?

"Boy. She's not gonna believe this," Bones groaned. "This day gets better and better."

"Sounds like you've gotten yourself some bad news over there," Jack pointed.

"Uh, I-It's nothing, really. What bad news? It's all fine in Harran. Totally fine."

"Hm-hm... Spit it out, Bones. I can read you a mile away."

"...Just don't go on a crusade, ok?" he asked with a heavy sigh. "...Runner's back from the Slums. Tower's empty."

Crane's golden eyes widened as big as dinner plates and his heart shot up to his throat.

The Tower was empty?

Wait. How did these people know about the Tower? No, forget about that, Crane! Everyone's missing!

When did this happen? When he was MIA? Another good question he asked himself - how long had he been out and running wild? How long had he been away from the Tower? He gave a snarl at himself, too muffled for the crazy woman to hear.

And the strangest thing he noticed was the lady, herself. She stopped, immediately looking like she had been delivered an unsettling punch to her side.

"What do you mean empty?"

"Gone. Everyone've gotten up and left," Bones explained. "And it's not that. GRE soldiers are everywhere in the Slums. Remember that psychopath that's been causing a ruckus over there? His men were everywhere that we Ravs couldn't even get there without getting spooked?"

"Yeah, I remember. We lost one runner to those bastards and three nearly lost their lives. But he's dead, right?" So even that man's reputation spread far and wide, Crane noted to himself.

"Yes, but not whatever's left of his crew. They're causing riots against the GRE. It's chaos in the streets. Our runner barely got out of there alive. Jack, whatever the GRE is doing, they're not sending in men to check on the problem or helping people. They're trying to clean up."

"Yeah… I kinda had a run-in with a GRE bigshot and her crew of burly men. Barely got out of there alive by a hairline."

"Shit… This is looking real bad then."

"Nothing we can't handle. We've gotten through the worst of this viral outbreak. A military assault should be fine."

Just how overly confident was this woman, Crane wondered. This was Global Relief Effect, not boy scouts selling cookies!

"Riiight," even her friend on the line didn't agree with her enthusiasm. "Asem thinks the Tower's gotten cold because it's not safe in the Slums anymore. We've even spotted a few Ember runners heading our way too."

Another familiar name for Crane. GRE was really stirring up the pot. It made him anxious inside. Restless. Shit, what had happened while he was gone?

"Everyone's moving. A full-on evac," Jack muttered. "Do you know where everyone went?"

"No idea. Asem's still looking into it."

And that was the cue she needed. She was already out the door. The leave surprised Crane. Why did this woman care so much about the Tower? He had never met her before. He then brushed after her, already close to her heels.

"Jack, stop. I know you're thinking of heading over to Harran now. You can't."

Basically, she couldn't try a large-scale search. "I can certainly try. I just need to find Lenny's boat."

"Boat?" That caught Crane's attention.

"Look. I know you're worried. We all are. But Asem's order is to focus on the project. You can't run off on a rescue mission."

"I can do both at the same time," she jested. "And who says I'm worried? Harris has a loose head when he's under pressure but he'll be fine. Or he could have been eaten. That's another possibility."

"Do you really not give two shits about him?"

Crane thought for a moment he misheard them. They weren't talking about the same Brecken, right?

"Look, Jack. The guys at the Tower couldn't have gone far. Asem says give her some time to comb the Slums. 72 hours at best. Can you do that for her?"

No, she wouldn't, not after being given this bomb on her. But...she wasn't the type to rush in. And Asem always kept to her word. "...Alright. You tell her she better find Harris and the others."

"You know her," Bones assured her. "And...I'm gonna, you know, tell her about the 'talking zombie'... Ugh, hearing that from my mouth just makes me sound like a madman."

"Welcome to the club."

"Just...keep an eye out on him. This is completely new."

"Roger that."

End of the conversation. It left Jack in a quiet fit that she simply heaved out a heavy sigh. Things just had to escalate.

So it was the waiting game. It wasn't in her style. And she didn't notice it wasn't Freakoid's either, with his own thoughts cramped in his head.

He laid down the facts. The Tower was gone. Lena, Brecken, everyone was missing. And that weighed down on him heavily. If only he had never left for the Countryside, if only he had stayed, then none of this would have happened.

Calm down, Crane. They...they could have moved. Just like they said. There were a lot of possibilities. Just calm down.

No. He had to know. He needed to go back.

Enough. He wasn't going to wait any longer.

"And where do you think you're going?"

He was about to take the window route when Jack's voice stopped him. She wheeled to him, looking all patient and bold. This woman was starting to look real dangerous to him and it wasn't just her skills.

"It's none of your business."

"It is when you're a talking Hunter. I got orders, and that's keeping an eye on you."

"Ha. I'd like to see you try." No way could she could keep up with him. He could barely escape a Volatile as a human-

"Hm… Ok, then."

And that halted him in his tracks. Ok, that utter was extremely suspicious. And turning back to see the brunette leaning against the wall, hands in her pockets, confirmed his notion. That smile of her dug irritably into him. "What do you mean ok?"

"Doesn't matter if you're all super fast and zipping your way across town. I'm gonna find you. No matter what. I did tag you."

Ooooh, he didn't like that. "You put a tracker on me?"

"Yup. Before you started talking to me," she boasted. "Hey, you were being animalistic at me."

Oh, definitely a no! If this woman was going to follow him, she'd be led to the Tower.

He growled a low click, leaping right up to her. He was so close to her face, he might as well bite off her nose."Where is it?"

"I'm not gonna tell ya." She gave a playful grin. "Maybe it's in your stomach. Or your eye. Who knows."

That prompted him to rest a hand on his stomach, feeling a twist inside. When-

"Or it could be on your back."

Once he heard that, Crane quickly lashed a claw at his back, spinning around like a cat after his tail. The only problem was his bulky chest and spikes made it difficult for him to reach out. He cursed out with a couple of snarls at the dilemma.

"Now. Tell me." Hopping away from the wall, she approached him with arms folded. "Where are you going?"

No fucking way was he telling this stranger. If he could, he'd be biting his tongue. But the grazing feeling of his sharp teeth refrained him from drawing blood. And Crane knew full well the answer to take the tracker off him was no. So he ended up answering. "...Harran. I have to go there."

That intrigued her, maybe even made her draw to some conclusion related to her call. "Hm… Were you someone from the Slums?"

That was a question he couldn't answer. At all. Crane knew nothing about this woman, or this faction she was with. Hell, if she really has a connection to the Tower, nobody there told him about her. And if she knew about them on an acquaintance level…

His brain was on overdrive. What he feared most right now was Brecken, Lena, everyone, learning that he'd been turned. And someone who knew about the Tower could actually tell them about him. A person with that deep of a connection for whatever reason could spill the beans - "Hey, guys. Kyle Crane has turned into a freak!"

No. No one could know.

He had to lie.

"I… I don't remember."

"You don't remember or you don't want to remember?"

The latter but he stuck to his act. "I don't know who I am. What my name is. Everything." That was the best lie he could give right now. "But I know I need to go there." Her face was unreadable but it didn't matter to him if she'd buy it or not. "And I don't need a babysitter."

He wasn't sure if that convinced her. But he wasn't planning on finding out.

"...You know. Nobody in Scanderoon can get to Harran. Unless it's by boat." That ceased him from taking off. "Roads all blocked and we're surrounded by mountains on one side and the Coast on the other. And I doubt you can swim."

"I can find my way back," he scoffed and said quietly to himself, "Just need to find a sewage system or something."

"And what? You've still got soldiers shooting down infected survivors and zombies. You're walking into a deathtrap."

"Why do you care?" he snapped.

"About you? I don't. Particularly, I have every right to be on the edge if you'd decide to chomp down on me one second later. But you want answers. So do I. As it stands, you need the Ravs to solve this. And we need you to help figure it out."

"Oh really?" He was now up close to her again, standing as straight as his body could allow him with a spiteful tone seeping from his mouth - correction, mind. "Your people made it very clear they want to open my body up."

"Ok, now you're exaggerating-"

"How am I exaggerating?!" he hollered, now using his real voice and not his inner voice. "I don't know a damn thing about you. Or this Ravs group. And you go around boasting that you're searching for a cure?"

"Seriously, you're acting like that hotshot lady. I've only just started-"

"Look at me!" His voice was shaking loudly as he presented himself to her. "This is what a cure did to me! Who's to say this lead you guys are finding won't be some dead end just like what the Faceless had?!"

Jack's eyebrow hunched up. It was clear she didn't know what he was talking about. But she remained firm in place and let him spill out.

"Is this what you are looking for? Because here, you have it! There is no cure! We're all gonna become like this! This is how it's gonna end. So why don't you keep your heroic crusade to yourself and stop dragging others in? Because you're not helping anyone!"

Stop following a dream. Stop becoming like him. Those were all the things he wanted to tell her. She'd only end up like him!

"I won't make the same mistake again."

She was quiet, taking his outburst all in as he breathed heavily. Let her soak it all in.

"...So you're gonna sulk and not help us?" she mocked softly.

Crane scoffed. Why was this woman so stubborn?! "Help you? Why should I even trust you?!" All of his anger, his vent from way back had finally spewed out. Laid waste to her.

"Then the feeling's mutual."

The statement was said in such an unfazed demeanor, it surprised Crane. And the next one took it even further.

"Because I don't know who you were. And what you're gonna become."

That did him in. The calm, collected response left him with a distaste in his mouth.

What he was going to become…

He balled up his claws. Not hands, claws. The thought never crossed his mind until she said it right to him - he had just regained back his humanity so what was the next step? What else could he change into? Be like the Mother, a deluded infected with a twisted agenda to kill off everyone in Harran? Or something far worse? He would rather die than become like that manic.

He swallowed. Finally, he had realized there was no salvation for him. No hopes of returning back to being a human.

Why did he think this brunette, or any other person, could help a monster like him? He shouldn't have even tried.

"I should have never saved you."

Crane then realized his mistake. He had only done that because he was boiling up from the inside. He was tired of himself, of everything, of this woman being an asshole to him. He could have sworn he saw her expression in a way that the comment hit her. And that pinched at his guilt.

Then she smirked.

Just like that.

"Oh, you're gonna be an interesting character, mate. I can tell."

"What?"

She gave a nod of the head, unfazed by Crane's bafflement. "Alright, then. Thanks for the leads you've given me," she spoke, looking very relaxed against the wall. "Guess I'll be seeing you around."

"Wha..." He struggled with his words. "Are you out of your damn mind?! Leads?! What leads?!" Crane couldn't stay in control, both thought and voice spurred out as one. It was like dealing with a troublesome neighbor with an attitude or passenger on the train. He literally wanted to shake her down. "What is with your damn deal?!" he yelled.

"My deal?" she hummed. "Why don't you go and find out?"

It was a taunt. A lure. A mystery waiting to be open up but she had a lot of confidence that he was never going to find those secrets.

He didn't want to. He didn't want to care about her anymore. Let her go find those vials and get herself killed. His concern now should be getting back to Harran.

"Forget this... I'm leaving."

"Ok. Fine."

"Good!"

"Glad we've come to an agreement, Freakoid." Her beam stayed annoyingly strong it was mocking him.

"Oh my-" She...just had to have the last statement! He hoped he'd never meet her again. Without a second thought or a remark, he was off across the roofs.

And Jack was left alone. No more voice in her head - only the silence in the room. That was an interesting event, she admitted to herself. The ending, however, wasn't what she thought would go down to. Sure, she had just let her one lead walk right out on her but she had other priorities on her mind. A talking zombie wasn't and shouldn't be of her concern. Especially when she had to wait for the Ravs' word about this situation.

"Guess I should get back to work," she told herself.

She didn't move.

"...Screw it."

And Jack was out the door.

"Harran, here I come."


 

Concept art on Mad Jack and her hoodie design

 

Chapter Text

EIGHT: SHOWTIME


Making her way to the stoned dock she had crashed into was probably a stupid decision to make, especially with the remaining hours of daylight she had left. She didn't have any idea how bad the boat was when she left it - either it had sunk or it was there surrounded by hordes of zombies.

So Jack was putting the bets out: hoping that one, the damage wasn't that severe and two, she could be out on the water once the sun was down and away from the shoreline. Right now, the pet project was on hold. That discovery and encounter with a talking zombie? Didn't happen, she just imagined it. The orders from the Ravs? Nope, she heard nothing over the radio.

Until she'd make it to the Slums and see just how empty the Tower really was, she wouldn't be able to focus. Until she knew that everyone was alive, even Harris, Lena, Champ and Rahim.

And there was the other matter of something lurking in the waters but she hoped that maybe it was long gone.

"C'mon, please be there."

And she exited out of the broken quarantine wall.

"OH, bloody-!" she held in her strongest curses.

The damaged boat wasn't there. At all. Nothing. Just only the clear saltwater and the buoys in the distance.

"That's just great... Lenny's gonna kill me." She tapped her foot, rethinking the situation. "Ok… Maybe I should take up Mahir's offer." But that meant heading to the Outskirts, not the Slums. And the way between them was closed off. She could get the climbing gear and look for a vantage point across the mountains-

Then her pocket vibrated. She pulled back out her earpiece. Any news would be better than wandering around aimlessly for a missing boat.

"'Ello~?"

"Jack?"

"What's up, Siv. Bit late to be getting another drop, don't cha think?"

"Um, not today. I…just wanted to check on ya."

Uh-oh. Jack knew that tone. "Something happened?"

"Um." She had no idea what the teenager was doing, but could only imagine. Biting down on her lip because she either couldn't talk about the matter or she'd feel ashamed to speak. "Nothing, really. Just wanted to talk."

"Ok, I'm listening. What do you wanna talk?" She probed - try and get the Kid to drop her guard down.

"Uh…" Hesitation. Like she was trying to search for a topic on the radio station's desk. "Oh! How are things so far? Found that Hunter yet?"

Seriously. Why on Earth did kids these days want to change the topics on a dime? Still, Jack continued with the conversation. "Oh, yes. Got more than what I bargained for."

In more ways than one. But she refrained from saying that.

"Okkk. Sounds bad. Should we be hunting down this thing if it's smart or something?"

"Hunt down the Hunter… Naaaah. It'll be fine," she reassured. "He's not much of a threat anyway."

"He?"

"Oh, pay no heed." Jack laughed. Now it was her turn to switch topics. "There are more pressing matters to worry about. Surviving, avoiding the GRE, getting Antizin, so on."

"Antizin. Right."

"You don't sound confident there," she pointed. "It's not like you guys are low on it, right? So it'd be fine."

"Y-Yeah. We've got loads. Loaaaaads of Antizin. Can survive even the Ice Age if it'd ever hit us."

"Hm-hm. Running zombies down with snowmobiles. That's actually not a bad pastime."

"Throw in some skates. You could literally slice them down when they slip on the ice." Siv giggled at that thought, her tension slightly loosening over the line.

But Jack didn't share her girth. The little hint the teenager had been hiding this entire conversation was so obvious. No way could Jack not notice.

"...Siv, there's one thing I hate in this world. It's liars." There was a pause on the other end. But Jack pressed on. "Something's wrong, isn't it?"

The hesitation spoke volumes. "Nothing's wrong... And, and... If you're gonna accuse me of lying, then… Don't even come back here."

"You're lying again," Jack pushed. "You might as well tell me to drop dead. You need someone to talk to. Nobody at the Junction listens."

"...Fuck you," she groaned as a last-ditch effort to push her away. "Forget I even called-"

"No, I won't. Siv, tell me the truth. What's up with the Junction? I can't do my job if you're not being honest with me," Jack stated calmly and swiftly before Siv could have a chance to end the call right there.

Nothing but silence. Though it sounded like Siv was staying. Ok, that was something.

"...I'm not allowed to say anything. Everyone will freak."

"And that is when?" she asked. "Three days? A week later? Everyone will find out about this white lie you guys are telling yourself."

"It's not me who lied. It's…" Siv fell silent.

"Mahir told you not to say anything, did he?"

"...He and the Doc. They don't want to scare the others off." Siv held in a heavy sigh for a few seconds, until she finally let it out, as if she had been holding it in since this morning. "...Everyone's on edge here. We've not gotten any drops for days now."

"I thought you were all well-stocked on Antizin."

A groan from the other end. "That's what Doc says so we won't panic. But lately, we've been running dry. Some are even using Antizin more often than most." Jack hunched down her eyebrows. That little bit of information was a concern to her that Jack muttered, "More?" softly. But she turned her attention back to the conversation after hearing another deep sigh. "It's not looking good, Jack. Some are thinking of leaving and Mahir's trying to reason with them but… Even he's getting frustrated."

"That bad, huh?"

"Totally. Everyone's complaining and I'm getting sick and tired of it. If these GRE fucks and prisoners weren't around, things would be a little easy…" Jack heard a small knock, the mic shrieking a bit from the sudden movement. "I just…dunno what we can do now."

Ah. This was the urgent dilemma Siv was worrying after Jack had left the Junction. A shortage on the suppressor drug was really bad news and it didn't sound good if people were using more and frequent. Another matter Jack took as a concern was how rare drops were here compared to over in the Outskirts. Wasn't this a recent outbreak in Scanderoon? Or did the world quickly decide not to give a shit like they did with Harran?

Then Jack spotted the bay in the distance.

It was there and then she remembered something from Mahir and was struck with an idea. Probably a stupid one.

Yet, she grinned widely at the idea.

"I'll get some Antizin."

"What?"

"That's why you called me, right?"

"Not really. I just wanted to talk to another grown-up that isn't a whiner like everyone here."

"Aww, I've grown on you."

She heard a scoff. "Be serious, Jack," Siv said, trying to brush it off. "I don't have any idea where we can find Antizin."

"But I do. I might know how to get some."

"Wait… How?" There was a wary tone in Siv's voice. "You're not gonna raid into a GRE's pantry or something, are you?"

"Now that sounds like my kind of party. But no," she chided as she fished out an Antizin bottle from her sling bag. "I can get the Antizin. No worries. And I need you to do me a favor in return."

"Anything," Siv said with a bit of hopeful emphasis.

"I'm looking for my boat. It's gone missing and I was hoping your runners could find it."

"...You're leaving us?" There was a thick vibe of disappointment in the teenager's voice. A bit of anger.

Jack could understand why. "The Coast wasn't my final destination, Siv."

"Is it really that important?"

"...Would you leave the Junction if you've heard your family's gone missing? Or do nothing?" she asked. It was best to come out clean rather than just say nothing. She wasn't gonna do that ole cliche in drama shows - basically, never tell the reason why.

"...This about your cousin?" Now her little fit was gone. Just a tiny bit.

"Yup," she answered. "Even if we don't see eye to eye, I can't help but worry about him."

"...Yeah. I can sympathize." Not entirely, that was what Jack could read. She really couldn't forgive her mom that much but she did worry about her

Choosing blood over water was a simple and expected answer unless those family ties were easily severed for reasons. Some families have strong ties, some didn't. It was close to strong ties between Jack and her cousin.

"I'll come back. If he's alive, then good. I'll be back before you know it. And...if he's not… Guess it'll take a little while longer."

"Why?"

The answer was simple. "Well. I'd need to make preparations… He's my cous. No one deserves a half-assed burial..."

Silence. It was an honest answer Siv never expected. There was a pause over the radio as if she was a bit guilty for her earlier angry remark.

"...Hey, Jack," Siv suddenly called out, stopping Jack from taking off her earpiece. "Your cousin is alive. I'm sure of it."

"Yeah… I hope so." That was all Jack could say. Just a bit of deceitful hope until she saw it for herself. But it was making her hate herself even more, a simple means to delude herself and stay focus. She was about to put her comm away when she remembered something. "Oh. One more thing. Can you ask Hubert what's the recent duration between shots? How long before each survivor ask for their next Antizin dosage."

"Recent duration?" Siv repeated. "Sure, I guess. That sounds rather specific."

"I'm just curious," she said a half-truth. "Catch you later then."

"Um, ok?"

Jack hung up. Ok, now the next hassle. Oh boy. She ran a thumb on the fragile Antizin bottle the professor gave her. Would she be able to pull this off?

Well, she's gotta try. She had already committed to the task for Siv. For the Junction.

"Now...where can I find that fighting ring?" she asked herself and got no answer. Only silence and the dull wails. "Damn. Kinda wished Freakoid didn't part ways with me."

He was like a giant hunting dog, right? Most night zombies had horrifying tremendous ways of finding and tracking down humans before tearing them up. Maybe he could have easily looked up likely places humans held themselves up for a wrestle-

"Help! Someone!"

The holler was over the broken wall. She hurried back into the city, spotting a man struggling against a zombie on top of him. With a quick pitch of her weapon, she took two stragglers nearby and then shoved the Biter with a kick. One more swing and off went his head. Once the man had his personal space freed of terror and death, he slowly regained his composure. Jack then noticed the tall-tale full-body suit on him, with the arms tied around his waist.

"Thanks, man. Thought I was a goner… Geezus, these fucking freaks. Day in and day out." He swallowed, catching his breath.

Her grin stretched. Well, talk about coincidence.

"I'm getting out of here-"

"What?" Jack droned, the playful tone stopping him from bolting off. "Just a thanks for saving your life? That's pretty harsh, mate."

"What? Oh, sure." There was a moment of hesitation, the prisoner's eyes darting back and forth. "Yeah. I've got something." He drew his hand down to his pocket. "It's not much."

Then out came a shiv at her.

She anticipated that three moves ago. A duck and a skip were enough to take the prisoner by surprise. Jack was swift - with his unbalanced momentum moving forth, she grabbed hold of his arm and together with force, gave a hard knee into his abdomen.

"Uogh!" Down he went, all the wind out of him. "P-Please! Please! Wait!"

"Nuh-uh, you played your card too early. Now, I don't have all day. I want information," she sang, digging her melee into his throat. "I've heard you boys are having a boxing ring in town. Against some infected, right?"

"What?" the prisoner grunted. "That's just Prince's stupid crew being fucking idiots, man."

"Prince? That's a very cocky self-proclaimed kind of name."

"He's the one running the prison. Ever since the guards left. I want no part in their craziness."

"But I do. So what's it about?"

"Are you mad?" Nope, she wasn't as she neared closer into his space. "...You'll have to through six consecutive rounds and come out alive. Winner walks away with all the bets."

"Does that include Antizin?"

"Of course! It's a faster way of getting a bunch rather than heading for those drops. But you'd have to be dense to try it. They toss you against big brutes."

"Hm," she hummed. "Sounds like my cup of tea."

"Are you fucking crazy?!" he hissed. "You're fighting against zombies!"

"Where is the latest ring match?"

The thug glimpsed at her, baffled. But she was dead set on taking this tournament head on, her catty grin staying unbroken. "...At the shipyard, near the cruise station. B-But you need admission anyway. Or a pass from the boss."

Jack's calm smile grew wider. "Let me figure that one out for myself." She purposely gave two pats to his cheek, like praising a dog for a good job. She then stepped back, twirling her weapon like a baton. "Now scat."

He didn't have to be told twice. The man galloped up on his feet and ran as far away as his legs could possibly take him. This woman was insane.

Yes, she was. And she was crazy enough to go to a criminal-filled dockyard.

"Alright, Jackie. Let's see how this goes."


OH, where the fucking hell was the way to the Slums?!

Crane had been searching for an hour but just as that woman explained, Scanderoon's exits were all blocked or difficult to walk through. Even from the clock tower, right center of the city, all he could see was mountains and the ocean for miles. No familiar trail to follow, or an easy path to cross over the rocky borders or a manhole for him to crawl under the stone roads. And like hell was he going to risk a swim with this new body.

Now he wished he hadn't left that kickboxer. When he heard the word 'boat', he thought it'd be a faster and easier means to get to the Slums. He even had the idea to take it from her.

No. He had made his decision. Because his gut was telling him she was going to get him killed for sure. By accident, arrogance or sheer stupidity.

"Ok," he assured himself. He had no compass so all he could do was figure out which orientation the Slums could be. "Scanderoon is, um, Southeast from Harren. Sooo...Northwest?" He directed himself to where he believed was the right way. "I think Slums'...that way."

To be honest, he was relying on dumb luck to find the way.

Up ahead near the coastline's edge was a hydroelectric power plant - the city's source of power still running on its own. There didn't seem to be any humans stationed there. Nothing that he could see highlighted brightly - he wasn't sure friend or enemy but he wasn't going to test it in case his zombie vision was limited by distance.

However, he was going to check to see if there were any bypasses near there.

"Where there's water, there's the sewage system." Crane shot himself clean across five streets. The faster he'd leave this city, the quicker he'd be in Harren.

The only problem was his surroundings, scraping at his guilt. Throughout his trips, he was pointing out the similarities. It was no different than in Harran - from afar, he spotted behind walls someone on the ground being mugged by two individuals. Off at a building were a large group of people, big and small. Not the one he spotted near the overpass.

He honestly wanted to help. But not like this. If he could, he would. Just not as a freak.

Crane shook his head. Try to forget about this city, the Tower was more important. Sunlight was burning out-

Suddenly, the infected version of Jade launched at him. Screaming.

"Gargh!" He shrieked, finding himself back on top of a roof. Not in the past. The sudden flash made him grip his head as he fell on his knees. Shit, what was that? It was like something took the wheel in his body and turned a sharp right for a crash.

Something was snaking its way back into him. He could feel it stronger and his own consciousness was fading. This felt different from the previous night he went out looking for supplies. In fact, it felt like the first time.

When he was turned. At the playground. Being told to stalk and kill on unfortunate souls.

"N-No." Was he reverting back? Why now? He didn't understand any of this.

He had to keep going. If he'd lose his grip now, Crane would never get back to Old Town. He had to push this other side back as long as possible until he was sure everyone was alright. From a distance.

But his world was swimming again. The whispers were getting louder. Let them take over again.

"Fuck off, you!" he snarled at himself. If he must, he'd gladly slam his head on the ground again.

Then Crane's vision steadied enough for him to take note something fifteen feet away.

An open manhole. A way down to the undergrounds. Where it would lead, he wasn't sure. But the underground would be the best place for him - best for everyone from him when he'd turn savage. Desperately, Crane clawed his way towards it. He had to try, hurry and duck in before the night would take him in again. 

Then Crane heard it. The sound of something fired and the whistling of something big.

Suddenly, thick ropes covered him, his arms and legs. He was thrown back, his footing lost as he fell down two stories. "Oomph! Gaaaah..."

And out of the blues, four men in brown suits came from behind. Where did they come from? When he started to lose it?

"Got it! Got a big one!" one yelled.

"Call in the Director. Tonight's show's going to be one heck of a killer."

Show? Killer?

What the fuck were these people planning to do with him? Even more alarming was the fact they purposely captured him. With ropes. For what, he wasn't going to find out! Crane quickly sunk his teeth down into the trap, sawing off the threads. Fine! He'd let his other self help him this one time-

"Shit! It's cutting through the ropes! Shoot it!"

Pif!

"Gak!" Crane felt a needle prick at his neck. He pulled the thing off to find a dart. A tranquilizer dart.

Oh shit. No, no, no!

His body instantly went numb. The whispers were getting softer. The drug was enough to knock out an elephant, even an infected-turned Crane. It became harder for him to see the four prisoners towering over the weak Hunter, their smiles distorting and warping.

No. Let me go. He needed to get back.

"Alright, big guy," one of them said. "You're gonna be our main attraction tonight. Make us filthy rich."

Crane really wished he had never left the woman. She was sounding like a better choice than these bastards.

The crook then whacked his pipe onto Crane's head.

And he was down and out again, into the darkness.


Jack managed to reach the dockyard before the sun was close to a line, the dim rays seething behind a small cruise ship parked near the station. She could hear the cheers and hollers over the giant containers - used as reinforced walls for a man-made outpost. And not too far from where she entered the shipyard was the entrance, heavily guarded.

There were other things she should be taking into consideration - she was dealing with men doing the time for petty or dangerous crimes, free from the strict clutches of authority - but she put them at the far back of her mind. Jack would have to work her way around the problems when she got inside.

"Evening, mates." The guards immediately drew out their weapons at a warning level. But Jack wasn't fazed. "I'm here for that fighting ring you got at the back."

At first, there was no budging. Only waves of laughter and sneers from the muscular men. Yeah, yeah, let it all out. She's been through this in the past.

One thug strode out from the entrance. The first problem.

"Really? A woman?" he taunted. "C'mon. Why throw your life away? You should be giving us some sugar instead."

Jack rolled her eyes as the men laughed with him. Of course, there'd be those kinds of sickos.

"Why don't you come to the back with me? I can protect you from the Biters. Give you a roof, food, Antizin. Just a nice night together with us. What do you say-?"

"Pssh." The thug frowned at the sudden chuckle Jack tried to keep it. Then she let it all out. She just couldn't take this bloke seriously. "Protect me? You need to protect yourself from me, boy. Don't you know who you're dealing with?"

"What's that supposed to mean?" he snapped.

Now she frowned. "What is with people today? Did my name fall off the map or something? Look, mate. I don't have the bloody time to be keeping you comfort because you can't sleep without bailing your eyes out," she droned. "And..." Her eyes trailed up and down. "You're not even my type. So step off. I don't have all day to be dealing with a brat like you."

The insult clearly took him back. Then he sized himself up with an angry glare. "Listen here, you fucking bitch." He stepped in front of her, grabbing for her collar. She could see it in his eyes he wanted more than respect. He hadn't seen a woman for days too. "You better listen to me if you don't want to get hurt. All you're good for is staying in the kitchen and the bed. Not pissing me off. So why don't we start again without your fucking attitude-"

Without warning, she lashed out with a swift elbow to his side. The thug dropped down, realizing too late what had happened to him. Jack was already on top, seizing his arm behind his back. The guards pointed up their guns, unsure how to assert the situation.

"Get her off me! Argh!" The pull on his arm tightened. "I'm gonna kill you!"

"I'm not here to be your little toy, twat. I'm here for the tournament," she demanded calmly. "So unless you're the boss of this place, I strongly suggest you shut up and let me through."

He said nothing. Just a bypasser trying to make a quick buck on the side.

"Good. Oh, and one more thing."

She shoved down hard.

Crack!

"Aargh!" he screamed, feeling like a hot iron rod pierced through his shoulder. His arm went completely limp. "AAAAH! AAAAGH!"

"I can do a lot more than just cooking, boy." She shot up, leaving the prisoner to his pain. And like a simple switch in her character, Jack shone a wide grin to the guards. Like a hyena having doubled down on her prey before turning back with a cackling smile. "Now. I want to take part in your boxing ring."

The men obviously looked at her like she was crazy, preparing for a death wish. One scoffed loudly, "...Even if we did, there's no way a woman like you is going to survive."

"A woman like me?" There was an odd tone to her droning. She was a hungry predator ready to play with her live food before the sinking of teeth. She neared close to the talkative guard, whose stiff body visibly showed that he had a hint of fear. It didn't matter the gun in his hands was leveled at her chest - he clearly understood this woman knew her game. No way was he going down with a broken shoulder like that other thug. "Mate. I've been kicking zombies and humans' arses for the longest time. And you've seen my demonstration with your friend. Do I need to show more of my skills?"

Oh, he definitely didn't need more to see. "You were on TV, weren't you?"

"Finally. Someone recognized me. I don't need to go through the trouble of introducing myself and going through some trial by fire. Now. Are you gonna let me pass?"

Again, no budging. "You have to pay admission-"

Jack lifted up the Antizin bottle like a gambler with her chips. "Would this be enough?"

The expression in the man's stern face told her, yes it was, no matter how hard he tried to hide it. Finally, with passing whispers from one man to another, the guards gave her access as she tossed the bottle to one of them. "Take care of your friend too. Or leave him out for the zombies. I don't care."

The bottle was a small loss the moment she gave her admission fee. A terrible stunt she had to do. It could have helped some other soul, anyone. But if all would go well, then that one tiny waste could make a big difference.

At least, that was what she was gunning for. Now she had to be extremely careful - she was inside their territory.

"You've gotta be looney to be coming here."

Beyond the gates was one person that looked like he ran the place. Not the boss, probably the supervisor. Maybe a quartermaster.

"And? What does that say about you lot pitching yourself against the infected?"

"Hmph. Don't put me in with these numbskulls," the man added. "I'm just here to make sure everything runs smoothly. They can bet their lives away." He took a hard glance at her. "And I'm not gonna convince you to think otherwise, am I, miss?"

"Miss? Ugh," she choked. "All I want is more Antizin. That's the honest truth."

"By betting away your only bottle?"

She simply shrugged. "You gotta break an egg to make an omelette, right?"

No chuckle out of him. "Your funeral. Don't say I didn't warn you."

"Then how about the rules? Nothing below the belt, mister-?"

"Duman. Don't call me mister. Rules are fists only. No weapons. You can do whatever you want with the undead. Just beat all six rounds and you got yourself the trophy."

"No breaks in between fights?"

"Hmph. You can get a break when you're dead or after the fight. Like I said, your funeral," he pushed.

A clanking sound caught her attention to an opened container, the strong whiff of iron coming thickly from it. She peeked in, spotting a big guy wearing a black apron and holding a large cleaver. A real-life butcher from some horror movie. On the floor laid chopped up Biters and buckets full of red blobs, flesh, and piss. She wondered if some of those limbs were once unlucky criminals who bit more than they could chew in the ring.

"What's that for?" Jack asked, watching the butcher fill the blood up in sealed packets before placing them into a crate and slipping them outside with his boot.

"Something to entice our feral contestants to stay inside the ring. We've had a couple try to climb over the fence. Gets them into a blood frenzy during the nighttime."

"It's blood. They're not vampires," she pointed.

"None of my business how they work. Head over to the checkpoint for your turn. Five minutes before the first round. Give these idiots a good time, would you?"

Meaning a good fight or a good death? Because that smirk from him was pointing at the latter. "But of course."

Duman went off to his business, writing down Jack's name on the clipboard. Everyone else was distracted with their own things, unaware that she strolled closely to the crate. The blood bag felt disgustingly warm in her hands. "Ew."

"OOOH! And down he goes! That's gonna leave a mark. That is if he gets out alive, gents!" cried out a booming voice through the speaker. Sounded like the person before her wasn't having a swell time.

"Don't stall for too long, Jackie," she said quietly to herself. "Finish it quick and get out."

Easy said than done. Jack was already examining her surroundings as she headed towards the checkpoint. Tops were covered up and sides were barricaded that not even a mouse could get out. More importantly, she didn't see any place for all the food, water, meds and Antizin to be stored away.

But she heard the sound of the ocean under the cheers. So this little outpost had a side right into the waters.

"Hold on." A guard at the checkpoint held out his palm with a nod to a basket beside him. "Weapons out, lady."

And here was another hassle - a dangerous decision to go weaponless surrounded by thick-headed crooks. But rules were rules. Jack chunked away her melee and all the valuable items she carried for survival but that wasn't enough. The guard then went to check out her sling bag and her little belt pouch.

"Heh. A little speed?" He held out a small brown pill bottle. "Mind sharing it with us?"

She shook her head. "You do know that's not even opium or whatever you guys like to smoke these days. But go ahead. Don't know how a woman's pill's gonna affect you."

The thug's one eye widened and his voice got stuck in his throat.

"Actually, I'd like to see it for myself. How does a man handle the side-effects? Less sex drive-"

"Stop. Enough," he demanded, almost unable to compose himself. He gave her back the bottle. "Ahem. Go on right in."

"Much obliged," Jack pledged and strolled into the tunnel. Once she was a good distance from being heard, she held in a chuckle. "Men. Always overthinking. And these aren't even contraceptive pills."

She did spin the truth. That was what she liked to do. As long as it wasn't the full truth, she could get away with pretty much anything. And this time, she was lucky. If that thug had managed to take this bottle away, then she was going find herself in some serious trouble. Well, maybe break a few bones in the process.

"Gotta make sure I don't lose this," she said to herself, slipping the bottle back in her bag. Because she was halfway done with the bottle. If she could pace her taking out a bit longer until she could get a stash, then it'd be ok.

She put her focus on the upcoming match, first stopped by another thug guard at the end. Out in the center of a ring was a fallen prisoner, stomach ripped open and head mashed to mush. There were the sounds of a big bastard being tasered down nearby, maybe being put back into its cage. And presenting on top of the unlucky fellow's corpse was what she believed to be the referee. Just another criminal but wearing a black vest.

"Aw, looks like Sabir's demise came too quickly. But don't worry. The night is still young. Let's get this baaall rolling," he droned over the mic before heading towards Jack's direction, shining a rather pearly-white grin. "Oh. Hello, there, Miss Celebrity," he ushered with the kind of tone you'd hear on shows or the supermarket. Had to make the show interesting to get the crowds going.

He then held out his hand dramatically as if to take hers like a gentleman and kiss it. "I'm the show director of this git, Aslan. After the mighty lion. But call me Director instead. You must be the famous Mad Jack."

She didn't accept the gesture, hands in her pockets. "So you've heard about my reputation?"

"Who doesn't? You're one fire of a woman." And now she wanted to gag. End her misery, quick. "And a good opportunity to do business with. We should strike a deal together, you and I. Once you manage to survive this, of course. What do you say about doing this full time?"

"Thanks, but I've already done deals in the past."

"Ah. Of course, your retirement. Such a shame."

"I'd disagree with you there. I'm doing a lot better these days," she chided. "The pay is promising."

"Right, right." That seemed to go over his head. Alsan, or 'Director', roped his arm around her shoulders. "Y'know. We're stuck here with this outbreak. And as people have been fighting in this city for days now, crowds need something for entertainment. Relief from our predicament. But these competitors just die too easily. Can't even last for a minute before they're sobbing for their mummies and daddies. But you can stand longer than them."

"Uh huh," Jack muttered and unhinged herself from the clingy guy. She knew where this was going - she had been there before. "I'm just here for one night. That's all."

"Alright." Director held up his hands. "I respect a woman's decision. But remember, the offer still stays." He turned back, listening to the impatient yells. "Well. Time to give them a good show, Jackie."

"Please don't call me that," she grumbled, feeling an unwanted tinge across her spine. But the Director didn't hear her and simply stepped forward into the ring.

"Gents and more gents, we've got a very interesting guest tonight! Three years with the world championship title-"

"Four," she groaned, holding out four fingers. "Four years."

"And the most terrifying female kickboxer of the 21st century. The Wild Dog herself is going to blow you right off your feet with more than her teeth. So put out all the bets, people and give it a round of applause foooor Mad Jack!"

Out into the ring, she stepped out as Aslan hurried inside the entrance. Behind her, the gate shut tight and the men behind the barred fences roared loudly. Some hooligans tossed in some catcalling. And oh, they were lucky to have the fence blocking her because she'd do some serious damage on them.

Though, frankly, it felt like she was back in her glorious days. Just a bit. People back then were shouting her name. The difference was some wanted her dead inside this ring.

That feeling, however, was short lived when she heard groans from the other side of the circle. Just like the exit she came out, something was ramming its arms at a second closed gate.

From the sounds of it, it was a shrimp. The first easy one for newcomers like herself.

Jack readied up her fists as the gate opened.

"It'sssss SHOWTIME!" the Director's voice buzzed loud through the speakers and the crowd's joy rammed it higher.

Yup, this was definitely a stupid idea, Jackie.

Chapter Text

NINE: BLOOD FRENZY


SNAP!

The Viral wasn't even a challenge to Jack - an infected sap the prisoners picked up from the street. Slow, moving in one direction with weak attacks, the witless sob easily tripped over from a boot to the knee. There wasn't even a need to throw punches. Jack simply seized its head when it got up and twisted it a complete 270.

"Welp! That went fast!" the Director yelled. "But that's just the starter course. Next up, picked from the Captain's cabin in Sunny Costa Cruise, and no - he's not the captain - Crewmate Hannibal!"

The gate immediately opened and out popped Jack's next opponent: a regular Biter in a tourist attire. It shot itself like a bull but she took a sharp right, instantly grabbing for an arm and twirling it behind. The same technique she used on the thug but with a different spice - using its clumsiness and her added momentum, the Biter plummeted to the ground.

One elbow up, she slammed it hard on the spine and heard the vertebrates break. She took one more measure - a foot on the back as she pulled one arm. One loud pop!

And still wasn't enough for the Biter. With a broken arm, snapped back and pulled shoulder, it galloped up and darted towards her, the upper body limping over.

She fired her fists - left and right. And Crewmate Hannibal was out for the count. For good.

"Another win for Mad Jack, gents!" the Director droned under the booming applause. And it wasn't even a minute that he was rallying up the next fight. "Now this one's fresh from the marketplace and I do mean that literally. No ID off this guy but he's reeling up for a brawl! Welcome our third zombie, Iron Fist!"

THUNK!

Out of the blues, the gate bent outwards. Something had rammed head first with a roar.

"And looks like he's real impatient! Release him, boys!"

At the command, the door opened and a Brawler staggered out, blindly searching for its victim.

Jack refrained from speaking, "Oh, great. Another one." This time, she was gonna have to be extra careful. For the previous opponents, she's been handling them quick and simple - didn't give them a second so she could conserve her energy for the next one.

Be as quiet as a mouse, Jackie.

She stepped slowly, arms up like a shield. The Brawler paced aggresively with its skeleton-nostrils sniffing the air. It was trying to find her.

"Hey! Get a move one!" one prisoner from above yelled crossly, chucking a stone at the fence.

"Grraaasnk!" it hollered at the outburst.

Good. The noise from the audience was distracting it. Guess the folks around Scanderoon didn't know of its literal blindness - the boils and tumors covering its eyes. The next question was how could she take this one down. Its top body was wide and thick, maybe it difficult to hit at vital parts or snap its neck.

But its lower legs were as weak as twigs in comparison to its top weight, even if they helped a Brawler give it tremendous speed.

"PFFFFT!"

It turned sharply at Jack's whisper. With another howl, the Brawler charged headstrongly. But just as it was inches to her, it halted itself to a complete stop and let the force plus its own strength fire its inflamed fist at her.

THUD!

Jack ducked under, feeling the wind brush like a slap as one part of the fence sunk in, the onlookers behind jumping up like those at a water show. Yup, just like a mantis shrimp. But it was also a disadvantage. Keeping herself down, she dashed forward just as the Brawler retrieved back its fists. She fired a fist at its neck, causing it to stumble back. And many more punches at the same spot that the Brawler couldn't breathe properly.

One low kick at the ankles and it went down like Humpty Dumpty. She leaped up in the air and with gravity at her side, slammed her elbow right into the Brawler's exposed spine.

CRACK!

It was a sickening sound but that guaranteed that the Brawler would stay down. It was gurgling but all limbs wouldn't move.

The crowd roared wild, with some boos at the sideline. They really wanted her dead.

"Impressive, and we only have halfway to go."

Don't remind me, Jack thought. The stress and tension were starting to build on her body.

"Now you all remember him from last week, who unfortunately met his demise after getting his winnings. Let us give a second of prayer and a second applause for the 11th winner, from Cell Block A, Scanderoon Bay Prison and with a new toy to play with, Tough Turk!"

Even under the yelling, she heard the dragging sound of something heavy. Through the battered gate was an infected she least expected. At all!

In fact, it was cheating!

"Grooooaaawnn!"

THUD!

"Hey!" Jack hollered, dodging the Goon's swing. "Isn't this against the rules?!"

The Director didn't reply. He was too busy shining his toothy smirk to the audience.

Fucking arseholes, she thought, keeping back to her kickboxing mentality. "Contestants can't enter with weapons but zombies can?!"

The Goon lifted its weapon up and down on Jack. She evaded right, punched two at its side and backed off from another swing. There was a very little amount of measure for an opening, its melee having such a wide reach.

And it did get her.

CLANK!

"Oomph!" The whole brute force nearly took her off her feet. Thankfully, it was only the rebar, not the concrete slab. And she used her arm to sorta block the blow. Well, it was a dumb, instinctive move. There probably was a fracture now.

Dammit, all of her meds were taken from her at the checkpoint. One more blow and she'd be left punching with one hand. Or worst, dead. She had to change her game.

"Grooooaaawnn!"

THUD!

Another swing onto the ground but Jack evaded it and this time, darted right in front of the Goon. As much as it hurt her right arm, she jabbed her palm at the infected's wrist - a self-defense move to disarm a foe. Once the rebar weapon was out of its hands, Jack roped her arms around its waist and with all of her strength, she literally hoisted him up.

Yes, trying a suplex on a Goon was probably a bad move but she had to try!

THUD!

Jack quickly backed off, arms reeling back up. But the infected thug didn't stand. Its fingers twitched uncontrollably as it tried to push itself up with its arms but Its head - drastically angled 90 degrees down - dangled on its shoulder.

"Stay down!" she snapped and gave one hard kick down on its head.

It finally obeyed her demand.

"Whoooee! Four out of six! Mad Jack's on a roll here. But here's where we up the difficulty level, folks!" the Director sang. "And you know what time it is. TIME FOR THE BLOOD RAIN!"

The audience's volume suddenly peaked up and that made Jack concerned. She didn't even have time to get a breather and already they had the next round planned and prepared. Two men behind the fences appeared with the familiar crate she had seen earlier and with good pitching, they flung something into the ring.

The blood packets exploded, coating the ground thick and red. Blop, blop, splash!

Something was definitely not right but Jack stayed firm in her defensive stance.

"This one took a lot of work capturing after our last one got taken down by Tough Turk himself. And this is gonna be very interesting: give applause to our next contestant... Jack the Ripper versus Mad Jack!"

Once more, the opposite side opened up and out came...actually, something that Jack herself had never seen before.

It looked like a Volatile and yet it didn't. In fact, she could say it was like a Freakoid version of a Volatile in body size. Its jaw mandible had misshapen into something like the mouth of an alien bug and the ends were sharpened. Most of the tissue had sunken away on its face, disgustingly giving the illusion of a skull mask. Yup, one ugly zomb like all the rest.

A new special type. And a very dangerous one. What was the most alarming thing for this new infected to Jack was that its talons were much longer than those of a regular one, like Freddy Kruger.

"HAAAORGH!" Then it raked at her.

She felt something along her cheek to her ear. Painful. Raw. Had she not skip back, she might have lost half her head - an exaggeration perhaps.

She barely noticed the other arm swaying at her.

Thankfully, it wasn't the talons. Unfortunately, it was a hard swing to her side. It knocked her right off her feet, sending her across the blood-soaked dirt. The Ripper was already on the next attack, suddenly worse than before as she could barely get up. All of Jack's quick dodges were saving her from being shredded pork.

Her lungs were burning up and sweat dripped down her face. Now, this was getting serious.

Another sweep of the claws. Four slashes across her leg just as she fled back.

I'm not gonna be able to survive.

Fuck it.

Jack dived a sharp left at another launch attack. Then she did the unthinkable.

She grabbed on one of the long talons, both hands. She bit her lower lip hard as she purposely stepped back and let the folds of her fingers be cut.

"What is she doing?"

"Oh my god, she's real dumb! Ahahaha!"

"Call it whatever you want, bastards." She shook her hands, letting her blood trickle down. Then as if she managed to shake off her pain, she rolled her fingers up into readied fists. "If you wanna throw everything you got onto me, then I'll bring out the guns!"

Speed was the disadvantage she had and it was getting worse as her fatigue was building up.

Ok, let's have it come at me!

"HAAAORGH!" It jumped.

And Jack jumped too.

With the distance shortened far too much for the Ripper to tear her down, she madly latched onto its head and reeled back hers.

SMACK!

Yes. She literally headbutted the infected. It stammered clumsily away and Jack took a few seconds to recover from the recoil.

Ok, she regretted that. No! No! Get back in!

Then Jack attacked, one right into its disgusting face. She kept at it, ramming her fist into its mandible mouth again and again. Her blood specks flew, dropping onto the soaked ground, on herself, on the infected's skinless body.

"Gaaargh!" Out of frustration, it retaliated. The sharp mandibles bit down on her fist and the whole body lunged at her. She was forced down, bearing all mental strength to endure the pain and now the audience was cheering wildly.

"Get off!" She kicked hard, sending the Ripper off. The knuckles were whitened and cut up.

C'mon, when was that card up her sleeve gonna start-

"Gack!"

The infected gagged loudly. Then came another one. And another, as it fell on one knee.

"Garugh!" it uttered and suddenly, its claws lashed onto its throat. It started to tear at it, as if something was stuck inside and the Ripper couldn't get it out.

"Um, I think Jack the Ripper's last meal didn't agree with him! Ahahaha," the Director nervously chuckled.

"Go down, go down!" Jack whispered. The infected was still resisting it, stumbling towards her for the kill - however, it didn't seem like it was winning like Freakoid did.

"Srank!"

That snarl came from behind. Jack wheeled around to see the Brawler back up. Shit, it must have only been knocked out.

"WELL! WELL! Looks like Iron Fist is back on his feet! Two against one, gents! Let's see who comes out on top!"

Great, between a rock and a hard place. The struggling Ripper gave out a gargled voice while the Brawl roared. Both sides pounced at her.

"SHIT!" She dropped down.

One bloated fist ricochetted off and the claws slashed up. The Brawler's tumors ruptured, pus and blood oozing out as the mouth split open. A tongue flung off into the audience. The Ripper's head slingshot off from the sheer impact with its bony face smashed in.

The Brawler's body splashed onto the drenched floor and the Ripper clumsily floundered with its coughing fit. It continued to choke violently until its own ripping did it in. And the entire time, Jack had been at the side, unharmed and still on the defense.

That little surprise took the audience by surprise. Jack overheard a few on the benches saying that was a lot quicker than how the previous champion took on this...Ripper, the prisoners called it.

"Uh, well, I guess that's a win?" The Director wasn't even sure either and forcefully changed back to his rambunctious persona. "Looks like the capture crew's gonna have to find a new Ripper."

The shock soon dissolved into disappointment, then anger. Boos rained around her while claps for her luck was quickly short-lived - pressure peer.

"Settle down! Settle down," the referee tried to bring order back. "We've still got one final match to end it all and I guarantee you all, it's gonna be a finale nobody will forget!"

"Really? I wanna forget," Jack murmured.

"Without further ado, time to let loose our best and biggest motherfuckers yet! Weeelcome, TITAN!"

Oh, great. Now what?

Jack's answer came swift through the gate.

A Demolisher. A big, fat, giant Demolisher!

"You've gotta be kidding me."

"BRROOUGGGH!" it bellowed. It charged.

She could feel it brush against her just as she went right at the last second. Nice, she was within a small space with a hulking monster like this one. The only saving grace helping her was its slow movement after each ram, the monster panting heavily as it regained its running energy. It only managed to hit itself into the fenced wall, losing a bit of balance from every miss.

But there was no fucking way she could punch her way through this. That thing was huge! She needed a weapon! Any weapon!

Then she saw the Goon's concrete weapon.

Jack hurried over to it, fingers reaching for the bar-

Tik-tik-tik!

"Shit!" Three shots nearly grazed close to her. Warning shots from above.

"Oh no, no, no!" The Director waved his finger at her like a parent scolding a naughty child. "Sorry, Jackie. Remember the rules. No weapons!"

"You piece of sh-!"

"Grroooar!"

Another charge and miss from the big guy and it was getting more provoked than usual. Alright, she was gonna have to twist that rule around if she wanted to live.

Jack waited for the next ram and when the Demolisher did, she ran towards it. Just like the Brawler. She skidded across the ground, bloody dirt spraying everywhere. Right under the Demolisher and up immediately behind it as the big, brainless zombie tried to figure out where she had disappeared.

With a sprint, the ex-champion jumpkicked its back - just enough to send it stumbling.

Right into the blood-coated rebar of the Goon's dropped weapon.

Something made a horrid sound, flesh and squishy. The metal bar had speared through an eye socket and right through the head, the helmet pushed right off. There were a few twitches from the brute, following by aggressive c and finally, its head sunk further down the rebar from its weight.

For a moment, everything was silent except for Jack's heavy, tired breathing.

"Ok. I'm done," she gasped. "That's it, right?" Enough was enough. Just let her have the Antizin and walk away. She needed literally a bath for this "blood rain", bandages for her wounds and a warm, cozy bed.

Then the majority of the crowd booed her. Hissed. Mocked at her. Called her a cheater.

Wow. They really put everything they had for her demise. If she wasn't tired and a little lighthearted, Jack would honestly give them the finger. But instead, she might as well relish in their salt.

"Oh. Thank you, thank you," she droned. "You're too kind."

"Uh." The Director clearly didn't think she'd live. Or he was unsure how to handle such a ruckus in the audience. "G-Give a clap for Miss Mad Jack, gents. Our thirteenth winner and champion of tonight's show! All betters, you know where to get your winning."

Jack wasn't going to stay any longer and listen to this blabbering drone on. Once she heard her exit open up, she took it down the tunnel.

Then her vision blurred a little. She staggered, putting a hand on the walls to keep her steady. A small migraine had snaked its way into her head - maybe from that headbutt, from the hits? She didn't know which caused it.

But she knew it was starting.

"Ah shit."

The effects were starting. With a shaking hand, Jack took out the brown bottle, popped two reds out and into her mouth.

"Fucking migraine," she groaned. Closed her eyes and steady herself. Breath in, 1, 2, 3, breath out. In a few minutes, it would slowly settle down, enough for her vision to come back. But it was gonna take the whole night for her to make a full recovery.

Again, Jack. Breath in, 1, 2, 3. Breath out. She couldn't afford to be like this inside a dangerous place.

Get back in the game, get back in the game, get back in the game, get back-

"Hey, Jack."

She shot herself up, trying to feint ignorance but that nearly made her lose her footing. Right in front of her was Duman, giving an odd look of concern. Just a tiny bit that went by quickly.

"You ok?"

"What? Oh, good. Good. You know, six fights, really take the wind out of ya," it was partly the truth but she said all of that a bit too fast.

"Right," he muttered. "Still dumb amazing for you to be alive."

Even she couldn't believe she had won by the skin of her teeth. "Well, I'm still alive in this outbreak. There's nothing that can take this gal down."

"Suuure, don't go biting more than you can chew, miss," Duman warned. How odd to hear a little tint of concern from a cellmate locked up for a petty reason. "Prince wants to meet ya in person. Head over the office down that hall and up the stairs."

"And is he the one I get my winnings from?"

"Nope. We have the stuff in the back. Safety precautions. We had an incident where some of our men tried to steal our bet bag. And let's say that it didn't go pretty. The guy in charge just wants to talk to you."

Jack hunched up an eyebrow. "Really? To praise my fighting skills?"

"Dunno, don't care. The only way to live around here is to know less and do your job," Duman stated before holding up his hand. "It was good to have you on board though."

She shook it, his other giving a pat on the arm. And he was gone, back to work on that clipboard.

And Jack got herself a gauze in her pocket.

She smiled softly. Guess there were a few kind souls among this band of thieves and crooks. Quiet for sure, just to live one more day until they could slip through the cracks. And probably a reliable ally to secretly pledge with if ever she was in a sticky situation.

Still, the fact a 'boss' asked for her presence warranted caution. She didn't plan on staying longer - just get out as quick as possible with the drug. But if she were to decline the request now, these men might turn on a dime.

Taking the hallway took her to a small open space right where a site office was for this part of the harbor. Again, heavily guarded, more so than the entrance.

No sign of a pile of goods, like Duman said. So with that, she headed up to the office.

"So I heard the big man behind this whole operation wanted to speak to me," she started. Inside were two bodyguards and someone in a cozy swivel chair, his back to her. "Flattered that my skills reach far and wide in this city."

"Oh. But I've already seen it in action. After all, I was the one who gave you the chance of a lifetime."

The man in the seat spun around.

Jack's world seemed to stop. All the alarms in her head went off the moment she saw his face. Then the wariness and disgust turned to swimming, pulsating anger.

"Celso."

The lithe-built, tanned man with slicked-back hair and in the brown prisoner suit cleaner than the others gave a cocky smirk. "Long time no see you, Jack. And here, I thought I'd never see you again with this outbreak around."

"And I thought prison life would have done you in," she said illy. "Like a shakedown. Or a shiv."

"How long has it been? Two years already? We really have so much catching up to do."

Jack's fists curled up tightly. "Really?" Her tone was full of spite. "You're the last person I'd ever want to see again. No, I take it back. It'd make me happy to punch you again."

"Oh, Jack. After all these years… You should be grateful for everything I've done for you."

"Grateful?" Now, she really wanted to hit him hard. Didn't matter if his bodyguards were inching their firearms a bit higher or how cold-heartedly calm he remained. "You were a fucking snake in the grass."

"Harsh. I've changed now. A better man than before… I should really thank that kid for putting me in jail. What was his name? Raaaa...something? And then, there's that new champion-?"

"Come near them and I'll fucking put your head up your bloody arse," she snapped warningly.

"Still acting like the responsible guardian you were for them. Can't blame you. I should have seen it myself before it was too late. That whole "wanting something better than just the fights and the cash". I really should have kept a tight leash on ya from being led astray-"

"Oh, fuck off," Jack hissed. "The only damn mistake I've done was accepting your damn offer from the beginning."

"Jack, Jack, Jack." He strolled up from his seat, like a rich villain in those sparkling suits. Even now, as a jailbird, he still tried to keep the facade. "Don't you see? I owned you. And I still do. I was the one who created Mad Jack before she ever headed to the ring. Not you, your manager, no one but me."

"You're so full of it."

"Same goes for you." A cast of his quiet glance to his bodyguards made Jack realize she was in trouble. "Why did you ever think you could walk out with the Antizin alive?"

Ok, this was bad.

"Oh, don't worry. I'm not gonna have you be killed. It'd just be like the old times again. After all, I need to keep this operation running smoothly."

"Hmph," she gruffed. "Basically, there are no winners. All the bets everyone makes goes to you."

"Yes, yes! You're still clever as always, Jack. But not that smart. Even after that one spectacular match, you still haven't learned," Celso hummed, tapping a finger on his temple. "You've got to think further. That's why I can't have you leave with everyone's winnings."

Explained why the prisoners had such big stashes, they never gave it to anyone unless you fit the bill for them. And with every loss scrubs make through the fighting ring, it added more to their riches.

The bodyguards seized her by the arms. She struggled, ready to throw one over her shoulder and right into their boss - until she felt the nuzzle into her back.

"That's always been your downfall. You've always never strived for more than just the goal." Celso nodded to his men. "Take Mad Jack back into the ring. She can do one more fight."

She was dragged out, doing everything in her power not to leave that office. Not without giving a one-two at Celso. At the man who ruined everything. All because he had an enormous ego and a manipulative mind. He had swindled people craftily and spun them around to be his little puppets - make a profit out of a person and run them dry to death.

Even she was made into both his bait dog and a 'tamed' fighting pit bull.

Out through the doors, she saw the Director with absolutely no expression. He anticipated the outcome. "Sorry, Jackie. You should have taken the offer."

And fuck you too! she thought loudly.

The Director followed after them and right towards the built-in competition ring. Easily, he slipped back to his referee persona as Jack was thrown right out the fighters' gates.

"Alright, folks! It's not over yet! We got a special event for this one time only! A seventh match for our dear, sweet, Mad Jack to end the night for us! So put everything you got on our newest catch of the day! Recently dropping by the shipyard, a new kind of zombie we've never seen before. So give it up for Fido the Night Hunter!"

"GAA-gaaaor!"

The gates behind her closed shut and the gates in front opened. And out shoved by poles tipped with taser guns and duct tape was indeed a Hunter.

Jack's eyes widened. "Freakoid."

Talk about a twist of fate. The only problem was something was a bit different. Or should she say familiar?

He was snarling like he had gone back to his feral roots. But at the same time, instead of lunging towards her immediately, he was forcing himself back. Resisting.

"C'mon, fucker! Get a move on!"

Tssww!

"Snarrk!"

Freakoid retreated from the shock on his back, still giving that aggressive snarl instead of a whimper. He was close to dropping off the edge and taking down the nearest threat. He had no choice but to obey. Not for the men behind him but something else.

Ok... Ok. She was going to have to do this carefully.

"Alright," Jack said to herself, pacing slowly. "If that's how we're gonna play."

She kept her eyes on Freakoid. That internal conflict was still visible, but as she walked along the fence in one direction, he stalked down the other. It was like their first fight back at the cathedral. It was a slow, tense start and both sides didn't care if the crowd was either growing impatient or getting anxious from the suspense.

Then Jack readied up her fists. Blocked out all the unwanted noise above her.

"Ok. C'mon, Freakoid!" Jack began. "You've been real angry at me before. Me and my stupid campaign, right? I'm particularly the villain here."

She didn't care if someone in the audience were wondering what she was saying - the noise was pretty much deafening her voice. But Freakoid heard it loud and clear, his head shaking as if he was trying to stop himself.

Don't stop. Come at me!

"I'm gonna find that cure. Hear that? A cure. So here's your chance! Come get some!" Let it all out, it was only gonna get both of them killed if he didn't take the first move. "Stop me from being a big whiny baby like you. I'm serious! C'mon, you bloody, fucking, ugly two-face!"

The clicking was louder and the resistance was dying.

That's it! Stop stalling!

"What are you waiting for?!" she taunted. "COME AT ME!"

And Crane launched himself at her.


The night was stiffly quiet at the Junction that it was so alien to Siv. She paced back and forth on the walls' ledges, searching for that stupid old crow heading to the man gates.

But there was still no sign of Jack.

Yes, she was worried. Because something about what Jack said didn't set right for her. Where the heck was she going to find Antizin when the runners couldn't? Oh, please, she'd better not do something crazy like that grenade stunt-

"Siv?"

The teenager turned back. She hadn't anticipated Orhan to be outside of the warehouse - after all that happened to him and Fazil, she had thought he'd want to stay inside.

"She hasn't come back?"

Siv wasn't one to keep a poker face. She clearly showed every sign of worry - for an adult. And she really hated that.

"No... God, she's such a dick," she grumbled. "Says she can do it when we runners can't find a single Antizin crate and she hasn't even reported in for the night time. Ugh… Why are adults always so...arrogantly shmuck but they end up eating their own words..."

Siv gave another huff, sitting down with her arms around her legs. After a few quiet minutes, Orhan joined her on the fence's perch.

And there was an odd glimpse in his eyes. Nothing perverted or schmuck but as if he had something to say. "...What?"

"You've really taken a shine on her, haven't you?"

Siv glared at him like he was crazy. And there wasn't a reaction from him, like a cower and a plea, "don't hurt me!". "Of course not! Jack's a complete mystery woman. I don't even know what she's thinking half the time and it frustrates me!"

"Hm, well. Maybe that's a good thing."

Siv narrowed her eyes at him. And he didn't retreat away. "Really? Are you into older women or something?"

Now it was his turn to be freaked out. "What?! No! Don't make me into some weirdo. All I'm saying is Jack's a lot different than everyone else here… And it's helping us."

Siv wasn't too sure if she could agree with that or not. On one hand, yeah, having a stranger like her was making a bit of a warm effect on the grim atmosphere. It was like Jack could take on the world and the world would fall. On the other, she was reckless, maniacal, and deceiving. She did watch that woman try to bargain two thick-headed soldiers with a grenade.

Heck, Siv was still wondering what Jack meant by 'avoiding Antizin'. Ever since that call Jack made, she had been waiting for the chance to toss her right out the doors. And it was dangerous, wasn't it? Having a person who wasn't taking Antizin inside the base? She couldn't find a bite wound on Jack but Siv hadn't even told anyone what she'd heard.

And Jack wouldn't let her. She never asked her to but after everything she had done, Siv couldn't find it in her to expose Jack.

Man, she wanted to just confront her about it. But one, she'd know Siv had eavesdropped the whole conversation and two, Siv just couldn't find the right moment to ask the question.

However, one more look at Orhan was just enough to take away some of her doubts.

"You've changed, Orhan." It was kinda odd. While she had only known him for a couple of weeks, his personality had turned over a 180 within a day. Before, he had been a scaredy-cat, following Fazil like her shadow because he couldn't trust anyone - not even Siv, the one who taught the teenagers and agile adults how to parkour. And there were times he tried to man up, show face, only to back down and hide at his comfort spot.

Honestly, she expected him to quietly go back inside from her retorts about Jack.

Orhan just shrugged. "I think that's good… Is it bad?"

"Um… No, it's not. It's good on you."

Then silence again. For a small bit of comfort, the evening sky seemed safe and peaceful to them. It was just enough to forget about their whole predicament.

Just for a second.

"I've been doing a lot of thinking," Orhan stated. "You know...things were always so...tense around here. Yeah, we were always so focused on staying alive in this zombie apocalypse but...I felt like we were forgetting something."

"We still are in a zombie apocalypse," she reminded him of the situation. "But...I kinda get what you mean… It's like we don't have the norm anymore. It's been all about routine on food, water and Antizin but that's about it. I can't believe I'm saying this but I also miss school too."

"Yeah. Me too. And that's scary." He nodded. "...I think Jack dropping here… I felt like...that something we were missing came back."

Siv remembered the day Jack, out of the blues, gave the frightened, traumatized boy a bit of solace. Some ground for him to come back down on.

"Hmph," she then grunted. "I guess you're right. But I still think she's got too many loose screws."

"Hey, she makes a better grown-up than everyone else."

"Mahir's gonna feel insulted if he hears that."

Again another shrug. Wow, Orhan has gotten a bit cocky. "C'mon. Admit it. Jack's a bit crazy but her being here has really loosened up this place a bit."

Siv didn't want to admit it. But Orhan's stern face told her to comply because he wasn't gonna take her lie. With a roll of the eyes, she said, "Fine. It's nice having a person like her around here."

Then the pit of worry came back. Siv was reminded again of the thought from five minutes ago and all she could do was stare at the city before her, hearing the faraway howls of the predators.

Jack was still out there somewhere. Siv would send out a team and even herself to go looking for her right now. But the night was dangerous. Deadly. And downright a stupid time to go outside the protection of their base.

She sighed heavily.

"I really hope she isn't doing anything stupid out there."


The prisoners behind the fence spurred on, most of them eagerly off their seats. Some were madly chanting the same words over and over again, "Death, death, death, death!". They've struck it rich this time! Their patience had finally been paid this second time despite their previous losses.

Because Mad Jack was down on the red-stained ground with teeth on her neck.

It was a quick and swift bite on her jugular from the Hunter as warm, fresh blood gushed from her body and down into the dirt. Not even the great ex-champion could survive the seventh fight after going through all of that.

"And gents, we have come to the end of the show! Give applause to our new zombie friend and winner!"

The roars grew louder. Yes, just what the Director wanted. The crowd's satisfaction. That meant his reputation was growing more. It was all about showbuzz, no need for pity over a few maggots who bet their lives away against the impossible.

Yes, Mad Jack was an opportunity he saw in her. The number of battles attracting more suckers in to see a fighter, and a woman too, try to survive waves of hordes.

But alas, she had to decline the offer. Then again, even if she stupidly did, he'd give her a week before she'd kick the bucket. Still, that was a close call, he thought to himself. If Jackie had survived a 'seventh' match, the audience would be most disappointed. And an unhappy crowd made an unhappy Director with a cut pay.

Additionally, the crew would need to gun her down. They had an operation to continue. The more prisoners bet away their stuff, the more their treasury filled up. And out of this, Aslan the Director was paid a good amount of supplies and even some extra stuff for his adobe up North.

This zombie gig was much profitable than the outside world. Out there, he'd be arrest again for the shows he liked to run - the kind where he'd kidnap a person and pitch them to a desperate, deranged person. Only the survivor could leave and at the end, the Director would doublecross and force them to find a newcomer, that becoming the next winner. And all of this would be broadcast all on the web, untraceable even for the cops to find him. Views were where the big bucks could be gained - all sickcos wanted the VIP access.

He straightened up his collar and marveled at the fallen woman, ready to be eaten up by the Hunter.

"Well, Jackie. It was nice while it lasted." Then he held up his mic. "Alright! Clean-up on Aisle 1! And bring Fido back to his cage. He deserves a good rest."

The Director dropped the microphone away, giving a piercing sound through the speakers but he was already off with a hum.

That was all, folks.

Chapter Text

TEN: TO DAWN


The rich smell of iron and dirt was everywhere. It was making Crane feel high in the head like he had been drugged. He could feel himself off the rails again - the other side of him having a stronger grasp on his body. Like a tiger having the taste of human flesh and now it couldn't have enough of it. It needed more.

Worse, something was yelling at him to do it, to come after her. And it wasn't even inside his skull.

But then the taste of something foul and bitter made some sense come back to him. It was horrid to his taste buds but his teeth still wouldn't unhinge.

Actually, it was more like a hand underneath him was gripping his worn shirts, stopping him from backing off.

"God, this reeks," he heard someone speak out. From behind. Leaving from the gate he was shoved through. "This is gonna take weeks."

A small fragment of his mind knew what was going to happen - they'd be zapping him like cattle and herding him into one of those cages he had been locked up until his release. Escape, the other side was telling him to do. Slingshot his way up and over the fence, that would be the best option.

But-

"Front's heavily guarded," the soft whisper seeped into his right ear. "We'd be swiss cheese if we leave from there."

The sparks of the man-made electric prods could be heard closely behind him. He needed to act now. But the grip wouldn't let him go.

"Only way out is through the gate you came from. They brought you in here somehow."

Yeah, he vaguely remembered how he got here. The prisoners had a boat.

"And that's likely where they're keeping the Antizin."

Crane hunched an eyebrow. What, why the need for Antizin at a time like this-

"There's a group of people who really needs it." Jack swallowed between gasps. "I don't know where but I'm gonna find it with or without you."

Are you crazy?! he thought. Not loudly for her to catch it but even he found that ludicrous.

"Alright, you creepy fuck. Enough of playing with your meat," warned his captor.

But he wouldn't back off, his ear kept down as close as possible as he kept a careful eye on the surrounding four men.

He should cut his ties now and run, argued the other voice.

"Maybe it does seem pointless looking for a solution to this whole outbreak," she hissed. "But I'd rather die trying than give up. That's what everyone is doing."

Crane glanced down at the woman. Alive. Her life was in his hands - well, jaws. And this time, he found himself locked in her stern gaze behind her sports sunglasses.

"How about you? Are you done trying?"

Trying?

He had been done with it. He had tried again and again, looking for the answers this woman was searching. And trying got him nowhere. But...surprisingly, this annoying persistence from her was catching up on him.

He wanted to try.

"Hey!" the thug taunted.

"What are you doing, talking to that thing? It's a zombie."

"Just hurry up and move him! I wanna beat this woman's corpse until there's nothing but mush."

Ok. Crane was in. Not completely because he was running through the chances of them surviving in his head. There was still the problem of getting out of here alive!

"Guy to your left," she whispered. "I busted up his shoulder earlier."

The one who yelled the men to hurry had an arm in a sling, sending a cold, angry glare at the body of Jack.

"She's already dead, man."

"I don't fucking care," he barked. "I'm gonna do every single horrible thing to her damn fucking body. Now get off, you stupid zomb-"

Crane unhinged off the woman - Jack letting out a gasp - and turned sharply around. In a split second, the man froze at the sudden change.

"SRRAAAARHHH!" the Hunter roared, the strong burst like a gust of wind. Tendrils fired right out of his claws and onto the loudmouth. Instead of leaping forward, Crane hurled him right off his feet and into one of the capture teammates. Crack! went the injured man's neck on impact.

One prisoner quickly wheeled about-face. "Shit-!" Then all of a sudden, the taser prod in his hand didn't move.

Jack had immediately seized the long pole, avoiding the high voltage. With a sharp kick to the stomach, the thug was thrown off and Jack was now dangerous with the device. She jammed it into one captor on her left, right into his mouth.

"Kafph! Gah! Gack!" Jack finally coughed out and proceeded to massage her throat. If those teeth had sunk any deeper, she'd really be a goner. "Geezus. I thought you were really gonna kill me!"

"Blegh! Phootey!" Crane finally spat out the disgusting, odd, iron taste from his mouth. "Why the hell do you taste terrible?!"

"Oh, excuse me!" she snapped. "Sorry I'm not to your liking. Want me to put salt and pepper for the next meal?"

Well, whatever it was, it somehow snapped him back. The moment he put the chompers on her, the odd taste woke something back up inside.

"W-What the hell? Are you loco?!" the last captor hollered at Jack.

"Shaddup, you're one to talk!" Then Jack quickly hurried down, picking up a throwing knife from the body of the fallen prisoner. With a swift throw of the wrist, before the thug could get to the fighter's gate, she hit his back and down he went, screaming in agony.

The crowd above them rattled louder, some out of shock, some out of "what in the world is going on?!". There was no Director on the scene to calm the storm, only several armed guards telling them to sit down or get out.

"Let out some of the infected!" someone yelled.

Jack was rushing over to the trashed door, failing to notice someone in the darkness opening up a cage at the side.

BAM! "Gah!" she shrieked at the barrier shaking. A red-muscular claw thrust out through the gaps.

"Hey! Lady!"

Jack wheeled round at the Freakoid's urgent thought-yell. And she immediately saw the firearms point at them from the audience.

"What are you waiting for?! Shoot them!" one man nearby yelled.

There was a pause in the chaos. Guess the shooters thought the fence was enough for protection-

Fence?

"Fence!"

Crane wasn't too sure why when she suddenly hollered that word. But Jack was down, pillaging off the bodies around them. She picked up a grappling hook and a pistol.

"The fence! Pull it!" she yelled.

"O-Oh!"

Thankfully, because of all the previous fights, the barricade had been battered down by the Brawler and the Demolisher. She hooked onto one of the broken ends. Crane followed - his tendrils seizing the other. And just as the armed men on the other side were ready to fire-

Keee-keee-KLANK!

The enclosure plummeted forth, together with a portion of the audience and the gunmen falling in. Like lemmings over a small five-inch cliff.

Ok, isn't this a bad idea? Crane thought. They were just adding more numbers down in this pit.

"Here! Catch!"

Splosh!

"Gaack!" One prisoner was soaked in red from the broken blood bag thrown purposely at his feet. She had snuck two inside her hoodie before the fights - one busted open by Freakoid when he pounced on her.

"Keep them busy!" she hollered at Freakoid.

"Wait! What?!" But Jack was already off at the broken gate. "Ah, shit!"

The first armed man got up but the tendrils were faster than his trigger finger. Just like before, Crane swung his grabbed prey right into the pack of people, watching them tumble back down onto the bloody ground - their brown uniforms darkening. And boy, was the scent making him really wanna tear them apart even more.

Wait, was it the blood?

CLANK! He heard that sound from behind. With a glance over his shoulder, he eyed Jack suddenly backing away from the other entrance, the door off its hinges.

"Chow time!" she hollered madly.

"GAARGH!"

Swooshing through were two Volatiles, diving into the red-covered crowd. They were famished, the night and the scent of blood bringing out their wild, savage side. But Jack didn't stick around to watch the carnage. Once the door was opened, she quickly darted into the tunnel, ignoring the wails and gunshots behind her.

"Hey! Lady, Wait! " Crane wasn't going to stick around. He swooshed right in, passing large cages packed with 'undead' contestants racking their claws through the gaps.

And up ahead was a downed man. Then, a second one. And another. It wasn't that difficult to look for her - with the trail of incapacitated criminals. He finally caught up around the bend, spotting her frantically searching.

"All men, get me that fucking woman! Dead! And make sure she doesn't get our cache!" a voice boomed over the speakers.

"Fucking bastard," she cursed. "Of course he'd do that."

"That's not good," Crane pointed. "We gotta get outta here- " And again, she was off. "Hey! Wait! Are you listening to me?!"

"I'm not leaving without that Antizin!" she snapped.

"We can always find that elsewhere! Somewhere safer-"

Then he noticed it at the corner of his eye. Beyond a few walls, he noticed a few men oddly positioned lower than they were. Two were on guard, two were loading objects onto a separate small and shaking platform.

"Crates?"

"What?"

But they were small in size, enough to keep something even smaller safe and secured. And those men were taking something away.

"Right! There's a pier to your right!"

Jack forced herself to a stop, uncertain why that was an important point. But there was a click in her head and she ran down to the direction, along the large container-walls.

And right in sight was what looked like a secluded area of an open-air boathouse with two men in front of the sprinting duo.

"Shit! Shit! Close the gate!"

What was between the two and the gang was a storefront metal door slipping down fast. However, Jack suddenly pitched something at it.

Thud! Metal hit metal. A small axe had been thrown in at the right, precise time - halting the door from fully closing. Jack kept at her speeding momentum and skidded right under like a baseball batter sliding to home base.

One man stood by the door's button, baffled. And up she pushed herself with her kinetic energy, a foot smacked into his jawline.

The second guard barely had his gun on her. The distance was too far for her to rely on close-hand combat so Jack took aim and fired two rounds right at his chest. Two more men came around the corner of a boat hung up by pulleys. She also took them down before they had much of a chance to retaliate.

With all the danger gone, she searched frantically.

"Antizin, Antizin, Antizin-" Her eyes gleamed at the side of the familiar medical logo on six boxes. "Antizin!"

In a small section of water was a small boat where the two men were loading up the crates. This might mean once a night of betting was done, all of the riches these people had gathered would be hurled away off to wherever Cel's main quarters could be.

"There she is!" Popped around the corner was a new face. And the nuzzle of a pistol.

BAM! BAM!

"CRIPES!" Jack quickly ducked behind the hull of a small boat, turned upside-down and left alone. The bullets scratched the wood and over her head.

Crane quickly slid under the metal door, grabbing her axe in mid-dash and swooshed right next to her. Holy shit, the amount of fire they were giving to protect their loot.

"Here." He tossed her weapon back to her - there was no point for him to use it, he could easily deal more damage with his fists than with a weapon. "We can't stay here any longer." He spotted beyond the walls a few new humans coming their way, twenty feet charging. "More are coming."

"Really? The more the merrier," she jested.

"Seriously?" he groaned. "Look. I'll be a distraction, you shoot them."

"I don't do guns."

Crane's eyes widened. "What?"

Jack glanced back, serious eyes peeking over her shades as she instead holstered the gun to the back of her belt. "I. Don't. Do. Guns."

It left him confused, shocked. He couldn't comprehend what he just heard. As Jack hopped over the hull, all he could do with struggling shakes of his hands was shout, "What do you mean you don't do guns?!" He quickly joined her on the enclosed battlefield. "Everyone here uses guns! "

It was true. The added four men inside were armed but the distance inside the cramped space was small in proximity. The ex-champion was right up into one face, dodging the bullets. One sharp wrist to his jawline and seizing his arm behind his back forced him to be spun around. Jack let the wild firing commence - the stray shots hitting the thug's comrade.

As she gave a hard kick at the back of his knee, finishing him off, Crane was already on the next one. He felt two shots graze across his hardened skin but all of his focus was on keeping the lady alive.

The last man stood alone at the far back, his uncertainty switching between targets. He had no backup. One side was a madly-grinning woman itching to tackle him down and a monster with piercing golden eyes and blood-covered teeth.

"Aaaah!" he screamed and escaped through the back door. Crane didn't give chase and instead locked the exit up, pulling down a metal rack for good measure.

"C'mon!" she hollered, already hearing more commotion outside. This was probably the best time to leave. Hoisting the rope off the mooring, Jack leaped on board and went for the engine.

BAM! BAM! The door rattled violently with every shoulder shove.

One pull, two pull and the engine roared. Once the Freakoid climbed aboard, Jack steered the boat right out of the boathouse.

CRASH! The door flung open. And Celso was among the pack of gunmen.

"Stop them!"

The bullets of AK 47 fired blindly.

"Get down!" Crane pushed her head down, caring less of her yelling a "Hey!" at him. Nothing hit so far.

Well, except him. He felt them hit his back alright - but if he had to see one good thing about this new body, it was that he had hardened skin to pillow down the shots.

The prisoners with guns yelled out their curses and anger. It didn't seem like they were gonna hop on boats themselves and give chase too. Not when the haunting screams of the damned were heading to the gunfire. And as the noises dulled out the further the duo got away, Jack glanced back one last time at the man-made fighting ring on the dockyard.

She couldn't believe it.

She got out. With Antizin.

And she burst out in laughter.

"AH HA HA HA! I did it! We did it! We got Antizin!" she screamed. "AH HA HA HA!"

Crane was taken aback by her fanatic energy. That was a close call and they could have nearly died! But that outburst strangely gave him reassurance - they had just survived, and with a large stash, a feat he could barely succeed on his own. Or even imagined.

They lived and it was thanks to this crazy brunette.

He couldn't help but chuckle too.


"Well, that's the end for this engine." BAM! Jack gave one more boot just for good measure but it didn't come back to life. "Hole punctured the tank. And here I thought I could use this."

It took a long good distance for the duo across the waters until they both believed they weren't followed - then an extra fifteen minutes by boat. And there was a strange gurgling sound from the back. That forced Jack to quickly stir it to the shoreline, for them to hear its final choke.

Crane had quietly taken himself to perch on the red-tiled rooftop of a nearby restaurant to keep an eye out as she tended to the engine. Make sure the other walkers back off from her. Once she was done fiddling with it, she took out her earpiece and made a call.

"Yo, Siv."

"Jack?" The young voice echoed on the other end. "Omigod, Jack! Where have you been?" Then there was a cough as if the runner was clearing her throat. "You should have given us a call!"

"I had a busy night," Jack pointed quite literally. "Got a big present with your name on it. It's waiting at a pier for your runners. I think this is a resort?"

"Wait," Siv uttered softly, then the volume changed for the next two sentences. "Hold on! You found Antizin?!"

"Six crates worth. That should last enough for a while."

"I-I don't believe it!" The teenager was trying to find the right words and express her bewilderment. "H-How?"

"Well." Crane didn't peek back - he could already feel the ex-kickboxer glancing up at him. "I got some help."

"Help?"

"Yup. A runner was passing by in the neighborhood. Packs a real good punch too. Couldn't have done it without him."

That was a rather nice compliment coming from her and also weird to hear it from a person like her. He was expecting her to talk shit about him. Or take all the praise to herself.

"That's good. We need all the help we can get."

"Eeeeh, he's pretty much a shy guy. Don't think he'll be walking by the Junction any time soon."

"Ok, now that's exaggerating. In more ways than one," he mumbled to himself.

"Well, I'll wake Beta team up and send them over. It's the Karst Spring resort, right?"

Jack searched about for a name, anything. However, she was quick to realize how familiar this side of the resort was. "I think it's the Blueside Hotel. Stayed here for a few nights before."

"Got it. And that guy? Let him know…thanks. And you too, Jack. Thank youReally."

"I think he already knows."

With the end of the call, Jack joined him up on his perch - feet swaying up and down over the edge with her perky grin. "Well, that was rather an eventful night." All the aches in her body told her just how much of a measure it really was.

He raised an eyebrow at the lady. Seriously, she was that daring to sit right now to a Hunter? No, wait. Yup, she was serious. So he did nothing of the sort to push her away.

"...I still can't believe it," Crane confessed.

"What? Escaping from big thugs with guns and zombies at the side? Sounds pretty normal to me."

"No. Well, yes. I mean, getting all that Antizin." He peered back at the stack on the boat. Six small crates. That was the most he'd ever made during his time in Harran. And in one night. " ...I've barely gotten a few bottles myself...you know, back when I was human."

"Really?" Jack droned. "To be honest, I thought I was walking out of there with just two or three bottles." She hunched forward, glancing at the horizon - a mix of red-violet, blue and a seeping orange. "And I couldn't have gotten this much without your help."

Crane almost wanted to laugh - really? A woman crazy enough to take on thugs like those prisoners? But the seriousness in her face stopped him. She meant every word and every gratitude.

"Just who are you?"

She turned back with her Cheshire cat smile. "I'm just a normal Rav member. I do what I can, when I can for people in need. Got to keep a good reputation for the name."

"Normal. Right. And this group just helps people?" he scoffed. "No way are you that charitable."

"And what about you?" she asked. "You sound like you had some history, 'helping people'."

He grimaced silently but Jack didn't push, looking back at the sky.

"You said it yourself, Freakoid. You don't remember much about yourself. But your body still seems to."

His body. Right. Crance glanced at his claws. How the heck did he come back a second time? He was sure he was lost in the head. And she wasn't wrong - he was still quick and nimble, a part of him knowing full well what his morals were. This virus inside him was just giving him a boost in surviving better, under whatever-right-conditions.

Virus. That word reminded him of something.

"You said you were looking into this virus. Why?"

It was there the woman in the hoodie gave him a hard look. As if she was deciding whether to reveal a secret or not. Or two.

Then she simply gave a humph of a laugh. "Yeah. Why not? Who's gonna believe anything from a zombie?"

"Hey, seriously?"

"Alright, then." She was about to jump off and leave. "I'll talk about it another time, when you're not so sensitive-"

"No. Garh, " he groaned. Man, did she really love to toy with him. "You really believe something's up with this outbreak. What exactly?"

She was quiet for a minute. Just to be sure. But the expression Crane gave told her he was as dead set as she was, with a newfound sense of confidence and more importantly, hope. "...Well, for starters, there's been new types of infected in the last few weeks. And I suppose now, you're one to boot."

"Geez, I'm flattered. What don't I know?"

"C'mon. I didn't mean it like that. But it's rather odd for some of these new types to be, well, fresh and new. Like they're evolving." Now that got his attention. And Jack continued. "It sounds crazy but nature's not one to speed things up. It's all too fast for a zombie evolution. A Rav friend of mine back home, he thinks the normal zombie population got into something recently that kickstarted this new trend."

Hm, ok. There was some ground to that logic. After all, Crane himself was one example.

"And it's not just the Biters. It's also the survivors."

Crane examined her sternly at the mention of the word, survivor. There wasn't any obvious sign he could see as easily as a big zit. She was an unturned, normal human, assumedly infected with the Harran virus because of him. "What do you mean?"

She lifted up a leg and rested her chin on her knee. "I'm not obligated to speak on behalf of my fellow members. Some things are too personal and others… Heh. You'd think I'm mad as a hatter."

He narrowed his eyes. Okkk, there was a red flag there that told him he should go. But he stayed firm on his spot. "Then what can you say?"

"Hmmmm… I guess I'll talk about myself." Yeah, Jack thought. Why not? Let's see how well Freakoid takes it. "I am infected after all."

"Well, of course, you are. I was the one who infected you."

A scoff ushered right out of her mouth. "Oh, please. Don't go taking the credit for someone else's work. I was bitten weeks ago."

Crane's yellow eyes widened. At first, he proceeded the sentence as if it were a joke. "What - wait, weeks?!" he did holler out his real voice, glancing the woman from head to toe. "Ok, if this is another bullshit-"

"Now when have I ever bullshitted anyone?" Then she suddenly thought on her own question. "Don't answer that question."

"You...you... W-Wait, you're on Antizin, right? You have to be."

"Hate to burst your bubble there but we had a period where Antizin stopped dropping in Harran. During the week I got bitten." It was so easy to read how much disbelief the monster sitting next to her had written on his face. Yet Jack stood by her words. "I'm telling the truth." She pulled down the bandages off her left upper arm. And right on the skin, clear as day was the evidence.

A bite wound. A healed bite mark, probably more than three days.

"What the shit," was all Crane could gasp as he grasped the arm, just to make sure it wasn't an illusion to him.

"And I've not turned yet."

"H-How is that possible?"

"Honestly, I'd like to know the answer too. What I do know is instead of turning into, well, like you, I did get a bit of a change. Whatever is in me, it's got this poisonous effect in my bloodstream. Every time a zombie's gotten a bite off me, they wound up choking dead. Like eating a box jellyfish or something. And we've done a couple of tests back home before my friend realized what was up with me."

And Crane rolled his eyes. This arrogant, over-the-top attitude. And this story was unbelievable. She was trying to sell him that? "Ok, now you're being full of it."

But her grin was uncannily wider than before. "You said I tasted terrible, right?"

Again, he grimaced. The idea of her devoured by him and her flesh inside him really did make his stomach do flip-flops. "Hey, look. I'm sorry I tried to eat you. I wasn't right in the head-"

"That's the oddest part about you, Freakoid," Jack pointed with a bit of a hum. Then her tone changed to earnestness at a drop of a pin. "You're supposed to be dead."

He gazed at her with a puzzled expression. The word dead hung with a tight grim proverbial vice. But she really meant it. "...I don't believe you." It sounded ridiculous once he connected the two dots together. No way-

"Freakoid, I could barely survive six rounds of zombies nonstop. I wouldn't have lived past the last two. I had to cut my own hands so I could have an advantage." Jack raised up her wrapped up hands, the redness still staining through the bandages. "I even coated a rebar with it, thinking I could use it on one of the big guys." She breathed out a deep sigh. "Of course, it didn't go exactly how I'd planned but it worked out in the end."

Crane was still digesting what he had heard.

"And right now, you're the weirdest one of all. You should have died. And I mean that literally. You're the only infected that has somehow survived my venom, I guess you can call it that."

"There's no way…" He struggled but couldn't think of a rebuttal.

"Freakoid, I bit you." He wheeled back, eyes relatively wide at her sober face. "When we first met, I bit you. And I've had a couple of zombies go down when I do that. But you didn't go down."

Yes. He remembered. And still had the bite mark on him. Crane massaged that area, as if the ache came back.

"It might actually explain why you're ok in the head." Now that was something he couldn't honestly believe. She simply shrugged at his body response. "Hey. I don't really know how this all works. But so far, you've lived twice. And twice, you've stopped being all feral and zombie-like. So something's working."

"I'd say those were flukes," he pushed. "Who's to say a third time, this...venom in you isn't gonna stop me?"

Wait a minute, Crane. What are you saying? That meant he might lose it again.

"Or you might finally drop dead. Have you ever heard anyone surviving lightning three times?"

"That's a completely different thing."

"Well, we can always test it if you lose your marbles again, Freakoid."

"You-" he held back a groan. "Ok, let's say I'll believe it for a second. How is it even possible?"

"Like I said before, wish I knew the answer myself. " Another surprise out of this woman. "All I know is I had an epiphany, blacked out and after I woke up, I became like this. And before you ask...I dunno." The silence hung tightly and yet she still persisted with her causal personality. "Lost a whole day of memory a while ago. And nobody back at Base could figure out what happened. Was out for weeks too."

Oh. Uh. Crane wasn't too sure how to respond to that. In the end, all he could usher was a, " ...Sorry."

"Eh, I've lost much worse than that." And now he was even more concerned. What exactly did she lose inside that skull of her? "But hey, I did gain this nice, little perk instead."

"You really think the virus in you has that kind of effect? And I'm supposed to take your word for it?"

"Like I said, I don't know. But I've been surviving this long. And it's something I need to look into," she explained. "My boss gave me...this little pet project. I'm supposed to monitor how new types get affected from my venom. Gather blood samples from them if they survive and jot down whatever new things they do."

He recalled back the important note he saw on that phone. "Why?"

She slouched back in her seat, arms on knees. "Another group we know is working on a cure. At least, that's what they've told us over the radio."

Again, the Tower. But Crane forced himself not to ask questions on that subject. "Ok. What does that have to do with your project?"

"It's simple, really. We wanna make sure this 'cure' won't fail on us."

Crane's mouth dropped agap with his eyebrows knitted tightly. And in fact, he felt offended. What was all that running around, trying to get that research back, for?! "C'mon. This is a cure, right? How can it fail?"

Jack didn't share his skepticism. "My friend I was talking about? He's afraid that this virus' adapting too fast for a cure to beat it."

It was something that never crossed his mind. But he thought about it with a terrible feeling.

Before all of this, he truly believed the cure research could solve everything - given time and resources. Of course, he didn't have any knowledge on how pathology works or the whole rundown of how an antivirus was made. That was left to Camden to figure that out.

But if the Harran virus could build a resistance...that could certainly spell disaster for everyone.

"So, I'm collecting all the data he needs. And once we can get contact again with this other group, we can help them out with strengthening this vaccine research."

This other group, Crane instantly took a gander. He was almost hesitant to continue but he really needed to understand how she knew. "...This group, it's the one you and that radio-guy were talking about?" He then added a moment of feinting ignorance. "The Tower, right?"

Jack nodded, this time her fingers tightened at the mention of the name. Still no news from Asem on that either.

"Why should you be worried about this cure?" he then pushed, spin the question around to gain more information. "At least, one's being made. It sounds like this experiment you're doing is a waste of time."

"Well, it's an idea to look into."

"That might not lead to anything."

"Same goes for that cure the Tower's looking into. We don't know the outcome."

Crane groaned. He was trying to fight a wall - who was right too. He had no idea what Cameron's current progress was on the studies.

"Ok, how can this pet project of yours help?" It was really vague, to begin with.

"Well. Think of it this way. How is antivenom made?" She waited but only got puzzlement and silence. "You have an animal take the snake's venom to create-" She purposely let the word hang long, eying him to finish the sentence.

"...Antibodies."

Now he was seeing the connection. With a confident nod, Jack continued. "This little project's all about making immunoglobulin-something. And my venom might be a key to that. That's what Bones said anyway."

A key. That was the thing, both her and this Bones guy didn't sound certain on their own bullshit. And it was riding on this one woman to be doing this assignment on her own. These Ravs were also sounding a bit incompetent to leave this whole 'study' on one person. The more he thought on this, the less he was feeling optimistic about it. It was a terribly long shot if anything.

"What? You want to sit around, waiting for any news to come?" Jack asked. Good point. Even he wanted to find out the results. "Especially when there's something up with the virus every day. Not us Ravs. We've been through this outbreak longer than anyone has here and in Harran. No way can we sit this one out."

"This is crazy..."

"Oh, c'mon. There's no harm done."

"Except to yourself. You really have a death wish to be doing this. Alone," he scoffed, lowering down his head. Boy, if he was the normal Crane before, he'd be heading for the hills once he'd listen to this lady's bizzare, loony goal.

"Well. If this project bears fruit, it might help you out too. You're still an oddity anyway."

"Hah! Do I look like I need help?"

"Well, do you?"

He stopped, his curled up fingers opening up at that. He didn't openly want to admit it but he was having a hard time getting around as a sentient infected. He was treated like an animal by his captors after all. He was feared by all, even that poor kid the previous night.

How on earth was he going to last like this-

"...Why don't you hire me?"

Crane glanced at her. "What?"

"Hire me. A Rav is supposed to help people. With compensation, of course."

"Hmph," he chuckled, almost buying this woman's humor. So he might as well entertain her a good bit. "People. I'm nowhere close to being considered human."

"Really? So chit chatting to me isn't human? Well, that's a first."

"And you're deranged to be talking to me, lady."

"Better than no one to turn to. Right? And the name is Jack. Call me Jack."

Crane was baffled. There was so much honesty behind this crafty, insane woman a person wouldn't be remotely sure if she was being sincere or not. "...You're serious, aren't you?"

She shrugged. "I'm always serious. You and everyone else just assume I'm not."

"W...Why?" he forced himself to ask, adding one important fact to her. "I nearly killed you."

"And yet, you didn't. And the second time too."

"What… How can you trust me that I won't go off the rails again?"

"Trust you with my life?" That line surprised him. He was almost certain she would laugh at her own statement. But she didn't. "Freakoid, I'm far away from my own people. And no one except them knows what I'm doing. No one else can know about this project. Or my blood. And now you do. So...that makes you the only one I can fully trust with this 'campaign' going smoothly."

Now when she put it that way, ok, that was a bit too much for his plate. She was really going to let him be her support? Watch her back without thinking it looked delicious to him? He was close to a sheer drop the last time and he could easily take her with him in one go. And this lead of hers, it could possibly end just like his others. Like the 'cure' he sought in the Countryside.

It was one big, crazy burden too.

He was about to say, "are you sure?" but one look told him it was pointless.

"So? What say you?"

He breathed in and out. Unbelievable, it felt like this was all a fantasy - that this woman was a part of his imagination he created.

But maybe that was better than being alone as a freak with no goals in mind - provided he kept his distance from her for a lot of good reasons.

"...What's the catch?"

Jack's grin slowly and steadily weakened, just a bit. It was now a stern, thin line.

"Helping me. To find out everything about this virus. And what's happened to you," she gave her most honest answer. "You seem to know your way about finding things, for a zomb."

He was left stunned. Then he gathered himself. Well, at least he wasn't going need to pay her with money or stuff. But it sounded exactly like what he's been doing the whole time before he was turned.

So was he going to throw himself back into the fire again?

"Sun's up."

The orange rays soaked across the dark sky. Everything in the coastal city was baked under the eerily breathtaking light. The night was over, the terrifying things that preyed on the humans were gone.

Except Crane.

The horrid feeling of his skin burning wasn't as bad as before - if anything, it was much bearable. He had a moment of pain in his eyes once the sunlight pierced over the mountains yonder but his sight quickly adjusted, faster than his first sunlight as a Hunter.

It was as if his body got a bit better dealing with the light. Not great but it was something. That irked him a little, just a little.

He turned back to the woman, Jack. She was looking at the beautiful scene straight on, shades protecting her eyes while she smirked cheerily. She survived another night and it was particularly nothing to her.

Overconfident, much. But maybe having company like her would be...alright - it was the one difference between now and back before he was turned.

Crane wasn't going to be alone doing a big job like this. And with that, he heaved in and out a deep sigh.

"...Alright," he gave his answer verbally. His quietly monstrous voice didn't make much of a dent into Jack's overzealousness. "I'll accept the offer."

"Heh," she chuckled. "Well, then. Guess that makes you an honorary Rav member now."

"Really? You just give membership like that? "

"Unofficially. If you want the dental care and five vacation days, you're gonna have to talk to our leader for an interview." Jack hopped right up on her feet, giving herself a stretch that only prompted out a muffled groan. "Regardless, welcome aboard, Freakoid. We start at two."

Crane raised an eyebrow at that statement - mainly the choice of time - but she had already dropped down to the open-air parlor. "Wait. Where are you going?"

Now it was Jack's turn to look at him like he had grown an extra head. "To bed. What? You think my service is 24/7? I've been up the whole night and right now, I need sleep. And a bath. And some first aid for my bruises." She strolled off with her rambling and a bit of a staffer in her walk. "Maybe some painkillers. Aspirin. Anything for this killer headache."

What an oddbird she was but nothing alarming. And a bit too trustworthy, now that Crane noted it to himself. He was going to have to be careful around her.

Crane jumped down to the lower floor-

His vision suddenly warped. Everything spun around him with shapes and circles of light. He almost lost his footing, having to brace himself down to let the dizzy spell go by. What was this?

This was very much different but at the same time familiar. When did he feel this before? And for a moment, he could have sworn he saw Jack morph and shift into the Mother, her back in red robes towards him.

The dark whispers came back and it wasn't the voice of his other self. Something was wrong-

"Yo, Freakoid."

Then he snapped. Like he had a wake-up call. His whole world went back to normal and Jack was Jack again, glancing at him with a look of mild concern behind her shades.

"You ok?" she asked.

Ok?

Was he?

No, that wasn't a moment where he was losing his mind. He'd gone through twice and he was able to tell now. His mind was just playing tricks on him, right?

He wasn't sure.

In the end, he did what he always did, to give a peace of mind to the other person.

"Y-Yeah. I'm alright," he lied. "I'm ok."

Chapter Text

ELEVEN: A NEW DAY


Sleep was the only bliss Crane could look forward to for the nights, the one chance he could be ignorant of his previous situation - a human trapped inside the thralls of an outbreak - and now of his current condition - a human trapped inside the body of a deadly zombie. The first night, he had pretty much been knocked out. The second was a little better, except for that crazy dream. And now it was the third day.

Despite Jack's little offer for him to sleep at the safehouse - which was rather stupid from her for all the wrong reasons - he had to decline for her own sake. And the UV lights would fry him. So with a goodbye and goodnight from her, Crane departed to a nearby residence for rest too. It had been a long and tiring night for the both of them. It wasn't that difficult to fall asleep, maybe because his own internal clock had been turned around thanks to his body.

However, the moment he drifted into slumberland, he found himself in a very different location. He wasn't indoors but outside - no sign of the coastal tops from Scanderoon or the cityscape of Harran. There was a lot more flora together in harmony with the low-lying buildings around him. If he had to guess, this was the outer part of a town or city.

The worst part was it being filled with people. Normal folks walking by and going on with their day-to-day lives. He should have turned around and fled - he was a danger to people but instead, he didn't.

Because he felt out of place. The streets and even the alleyway he was in had no trace of an outbreak. There was no panic or chaos. It was as if there were never any zombies roaming around for flesh to feast on.

Was this real? Did he somehow manage to come back to normality? That everything he went through was all one big nightmarish dream?

Then he caught a glimpse of her. Among the people walking down the pavement.

"Jack?"

The face was familiar. But it was only a quick glimpse before she disappeared. Curiosity got the better of him as he exited out of the alley.

And there she was, her back to him. No red jacket with that wolf pattern but that shmuck, bold posture was definitely hers.

Then she stopped.

"Alright, you might as well get out. I know you're there."

He froze up. "Sheez, that's real sharp of you-"

"You got a lot of balls to be coming up to me," she said.

"Now hang on." He just came here.

"Isn't your sister going to be mad at you?"

Sister?

"Pft, she's not my mom and neither are you."

His heart dropped at the sound of that voice. He recognized it as clear as the first day he heard it. Crane spun around, almost losing his stability. And immediately, he stopped. Because standing not too far from him was a ghost.

Rahim. Trying to look all tough. In normal clothes, not his usual parkour getup.

Guilt came rushing back for Crane.

"Rahim-" He reached out his hand. A normal, human hand.

"Please. If I was your mother, I'd kick you so hard, you'd land all the way to Down-Under, kiddo."

"Hah! I'd like to see you try."

Rahim ignored Crane. No. He didn't see Crane. One more look on Rahim told him something was off. Rahim looked a little younger by two or three years.

He turned back to the person Rahim was talking to. Not him. A person Crane had never seen before.

No, wait. That was Jack.

Or at least, he thought it was her. The face was the same, without her shades and hood but this different Jack gave out a different demeanor and aura - more languid and 'normal' than her crazy self. She even had her hair medium-cut. For a second, he almost thought that wasn't her to begin with. Could be taken as her normal twin.

Jack also didn't see Crane. His existence between the two was nothing but air. Crane was the ghost in this dream. An entity put in a different part of time.

"Seriously. Do you really talk to your parents with that mouth?"

"You're not family. So don't get all chubby with me," he huffed, trying his best to bluff - boosting his chest out threateningly. Rahim was still the same even in the past. Pig-headed, stubborn, trying to one-up as if he was the adult in the conversation.

Jack laughed, not taking any offense from his attitude. The young lad completely deflated, seeing his attempt failed. "So why are you here? And where was this spunkiness when you were at the gym? You didn't give me lip back then."

"I was only being polite because Jade was there."

"Suuuuure." Even Jack could tell how much of a lie that was.

"Hey, I was."

"Hm-hm... Are you upset about what happened?"

Rahim flinched. She got him.

"It was a fair fight."

"Yeah, right. That stunt wasn't fair."

"And neither was hers midway. It was a tie. Neither of us won anyway."

"That's not my point," Rahim barked. The statement stopped Jack, making her examine the boy a little more. Prying away the layers to understand his motive. She gave a soft chuckle at a realization.

"Protective lil' one, ain't ya?" Jack hummed. And before he could even rebuke to that comment, she turned away.

"Don't call me that - hey!" Rahim bolted up, blocking her path. "I'm no kid and I'm definitely as tall as you."

"Really?" With a cocky raise of an eyebrow, she swished her hand from the top of her head to Rahim's dome a couple of time. "Hm, give it another year or two. You'll catch up."

"What are you, twelve?" Rahim barked, shoving her arm away.

"You're being the immature one here."

There was a strange thing Crane couldn't put his finger on. Past Jack's way of saying...it was very different from Present Jack's. It was more...sane? Was that the right word? Less crazy. Her smile wasn't as Cheshire catty as the present one's but there was that slight playfulness in her.

"Immature?" Rahim uttered angrily, trying to find the right words for a rebuttal. "I'm not in preschool like you are."

"You're acting like a preschooler trying to win an argument. Exactly how old are you?" she asked curiously. She guessed around or sixteen or seventeen.

"I finished high school already!" He grumbled under his breath, now contemplating why did he ever decided to confront her.

"Right. What's gotten your pants in a tight? You wouldn't be talking to me about our fight. And I'm gonna bet you didn't want to ask your sister."

"Whaaat? You read too much into people. Just because you're famous, doesn't mean I need to be all 'well-mannered' to you."

"I'd rather you don't." She drew close, nearly making Rahim jump with hands ready and up. Like he really was gonna fight a pro. "I like this spitfire attitude." She chuckled.

Those innocent eyes went as big as dinner plates. He coughed, clearing the lump in his voice. "Ok. Backing away. Creep level to the max here."

Jack shook her head, still keeping her smile. "I guess you're not grown up yet to tell me off. Better keep a good head. You can't be too shy from anything."

A test. It was just a test. And Rahim crumbled up his frown. "Hey, who are you calling shy?! You threw me off!"

"Do I really need to go talk to your mother about you?" Jack folded her arms. The adult had to come forth now.

"Shaddup. She's no good to talk to anyone today."

Jack hunched her eyebrows. "No good?"

Rahim realized his mistake on the spot, curling in his lips. "Nothing. Forget I said anything. Look. I didn't see you, ok? Pretend you didn't too." He waited for a response, hoping for Jack to accept. "C'mon! Would you stop looking at me like that?"

The waiting was torture. Jack wouldn't stand down. Eventually, he gave up.

"...She's at the hospital. Poor health."

"I'm sorry to hear that." Rahim's gut twisted. He despised those words. Nothing but a broken record and it wasn't the first. "Hope she gets better."

It was a dagger that had already been there and the more Jack spoke, the deeper it got. One glance at the woman told him to calm down. She didn't know the situation but there was no point in yelling at her.

The odd thing was her face. She didn't cast a sad, pitiful expression like most people did at hearing about his mother's condition. Neither was it mocking. Laughable.

She was serious. Serious in meaning her words. Serious in her ways. And serious in her work.

It irked him to ask a question.

"How are you and Jade handling it? Your mother, I mean," she tossed back one before he could do his.

He almost wanted to say, "who wouldn't be handling this ok?". His mom wasn't doing well. But like always, he gave the little white lie, "We're doing ok. She'll pull through."

"And your father?"

"Dunno. He left us when we were young."

"Ah... I'm sorry."

"Pfh," he scoffed with a tint of anger in his voice. "He made his choice. We don't care about him anymore." With one huff, Rahim managed to shove that little pull before it would get the better of him.

It was the silence that made him notice how firm and patient Jack was. She was waiting. A total stranger he and his sister just met wasn't just changing the conversation so that it wouldn't be all so weird to anyone. That it was 'making them feel better', to forget about the grim stuff.

Jack waited, until Rahim was alright to talk. 

So he finally asked the question he wanted to ask.

"You're...really going to fight Jade?"

Jack was emotionless, indifferent to the question.

But she understood.

"We signed the contracts. We can't back out of it." Rahim's face told everything. The boy was worried about his sister. She'd give him credit for being protective. "Your sis has been in fights before. The next one doesn't make a difference."

"It's not that. She'll easily wipe the floor with you," Rahim barked proudly.

That didn't sway Jack. "Then what's the problem? You don't want your sister to get hurt?"

Another point on the dot. Rahim was hating the fact Jack was a mind-reader. If only he knew - Jack was a good reader but not telepathic. People give the easiest patterns in their body language, no matter how small they were.

"Can you blame me? You're Mad Jack. The Wild Dog. Of course, I'll be worried about her. Our mom goes crazy whenever she's in a match."

Jack rolled her eyes, finding that fact a little annoying for what it was worth. But she couldn't deny it. "I am not going to kill your sister-"

"No, of course not. I know that after seeing that fight earlier…" He couldn't find the right words. The conversation had to diffuse before Jack would figure it out. Stupid Rahmin, why did he blab it out-

"She's trying to win the match for your mother's hospital bills."

Rahim hunched up his shoulders, casting a dark and irritated look down to the pavement. It was too late. Jack got it right again.

She sighed at such a heavy request. "Well, a lot is riding on this tournament. Lots of bets and shoutouts everywhere. But that's not my call. Your sister has to win this fair and square."

"Right. Fair and square."

"You don't believe your sister will win?"

It was an insult to his ears. He glared angrily at the kickboxer. All the anxiety was gone the moment she said those words - Jack outside wasn't the terrifying woman he had seen on TV, now she was a person who didn't have the right to question his sister's strength. "You be quiet! Jade's gonna win that match with her hands tied behind her back!"

"That's right. The right way. That's what she needs to do. Without her brother asking her opponent to step down."

And that did it. The young, arrogant teenager was put in his place. What Jack said soiled his motive for meeting her. He knew that - he wasn't making it fair for his sister by doing this, at most, it was gonna piss her off. But family was important.

He felt ashamed that he wished he could dig up a hole and crawl in it. But there was no hiding the guilt from Jack.

"Kid. Listen to me when I say this. Going dirty in a fight isn't going to help anyone. Not even your mother." She spotted his fingers tightened. Whatever this family was dealing with, it was a life-threatening problem. Jack wouldn't ask for more questions, wouldn't pry further into the kid. He didn't need that pain scrapped at any further. "All you need to do is trust your sister on this one. You said it yourself. She'll wipe the floor with me."

And the tension in his body slowly went away. But the concern stayed behind. "Yeah...she will… But you're just as good as she is."

"Doesn't mean I'll win, guarantee. We'll have to see who the victor is out of that match. Fair and square." Jack reinforced the two words - nothing but annoying scratches to Rahim's ears regardless of how true they were. And Rahim reluctantly accepted her words. "It's better that she doesn't become an example like me."

Rahim found that sentence odd. An example? He was ready to rebuke at that statement, as if Jade would be like her - but when he looked up, he twitched with a sliver of fright.

Jack's face hardened like a cold slab of concrete. Something in the distance, over the kid's shoulder, had caught her attention.

"You should go home, kid."

He was about to tell her to stop calling him a kid. But the change in mood urged him to look back. After all, there was a certain look he had seen once on TV and just recently. A hungry but apathetic glance the Mad Dog had on prey.

No. Not prey. Unwanted guests in her territory.

He glanced over his shoulder. He counted four men. Tough, bad guys that came from the bad side of the neighborhood.

"Don't look back."

Rahim still glanced back at Jack with a worried, scared face. But he obeyed. Quickly, he walked down the other direction as Jack went forward, hands in pocket and a look dark enough to scare off people.

"Miss Jack Brecken?" one asked. He waved a hand to the alleyway Crane had come out from. She uninterestedly followed them in.

"I take it he sent you to pick me up?" she got right into business.

"He wants to see you on a matter."

"Of course," Jack sang irritatedly. "Good old Cel always has always something to talk about. Whatever it is, he can have it ram up his bloody arsehole. Tell him that. I've retired from the underground months ago."

"He said you need to listen." The men chuckled, slowly splitting away and circling around the kickboxer. "Orders, miss.

Jack sighed heavily with a roll of her eyes. This day just keeps getting better. "Please spare me the formality. I ain't gonna give the same treatment to him and neither to his dogs." That peeved one, two men on the spot but was quickly put in their place by the speaker. Their angry demeanor and rolled up fists didn't sway bold Jack.

"Look," the speaker tried to delicately sway her. "You better come down quietly. Boss has a discussion with you on an upcoming fight."

"Hmph," Jack laughed. "I wouldn't have thought otherwise. He's never the kind to offer tea." She paced up to the speaker. She had finished being the nice one here. "I've said this to him and you're going to say it too. I'm done with any more fights. I'm done with doing his dirty work. So find someone else to fill my shoes."

"He insisted that you attend or we'll drag you to him by force."

The brunette was ready to leave but the men behind her tightened the gaps between them. One cracked his knuckles loudly, eager to pound on her. Chivalry and gender didn't matter when business was the first priority.

Instead of that wolf-like toothy grin the present Jack would shine out, the past Jack was apathetic to the danger around her. She had been through this before, many times. Every thug Celso sent was always old news. She obviously heard the underlining threat in the man's voice before turning around to face the group.

Here we go again, she thought boredly. Jack shook her head. "...Men never know when to quit."

The man to her right cracked his knuckles. First slow step, then two quick steps. He fired a shot.

Readable. It was all so easily readable.

She ducked swiftly. The opening was there - she sent a strong right hook, knocking him to the floor. The remaining men came charging in all together in an attempt to overpower her.

Sure, numbers were their advantage. Timing wasn't. The first man that came spiraling towards her with open arms was down fast. She lassoed onto one arm and twirled him over her shoulder. The second was next, surely thinking her focus on his comrade would help him. He never saw the quick kick to his gut, the wind pushed right out of him.

The last one, the speaker, was the last one. But this time he wasn't as gung-ho as the others. He had a weapon, a set of brass knuckles he slipped on.

The thug struck. A miss. Biggest mistake to try and take on a pro. Jack jabbed at him hard - the world around him spinning. He didn't progress her grabbing his arm and twisting it backward.

A sickening sound popped from the joint. Pain surged through his body and a blood-curdling scream shot out from his mouth.

"You fucking bitch!" He shouted as he clutched his now-limp arm. And still he wasn't going to go down.

Jack held out her fists. She hadn't pry away her eyes off her opponents. The first man had scrambled back onto his feet and battle-cried in another run.

She heard him clear as day but she didn't spin round. Like a strong zebra, she fired a kick back timingly at a knee. Jack wasn't done yet and neither as the second man. The poor man behind her was crippled by the sharp agony. All he could do was helplessly watch the brunette grab him by the collar and toss him onto the second guy.

In the midst of the two bumbling idiots' fail, their leader had hurriedly seized out another weapon. The butterfly knife unfolded at the flick of his good hand. The dangerous sharpness didn't faze Jack but she was on full-fledged defense. A blade wasn't something to mess around with.

He attacked. A jab, and another and another. Jack was swift, dodging all of them.

"Gaaaargh!" he hollered and ran.

Jack ducked left. There was a nip of pain on her left cheek but she completely ignored it.

Another jab of the knife. Jack found her opening. She shielded up her arm, stopping his swinging forearm. Before he could retaliate, she slid a kick at his shin, forcing him down on one knee.

Then came the stomp. The tibia broke with a loud crack.

"AAAAAHHHH!" he screamed and curled up into a ball. Double the pain was unbearable.

One down. The other three were still up. One was at the far back, cowering fearfully at the woman. He knew she wasn't someone to mess with. Jack threw away the morals of a ring the moment they picked a fight on her.

People like them, like Celso didn't deserve her fairness.

The others jumped in again, fueled by their arrogance and rage. Planned, sicker punches was all they got as their rewards. They were knocked out, just like their leader.

Then Jack turned and faced him.

Him. Crane himself.

"Wait. I'm not one of them-!"

It was already too late.

Her fist fired.

POW!


"Garh!" Crane exhaled out a small gasp, opening his eyes to darkness.

No, he wasn't at that unfamiliar street. He was back in his little room he had found to sleep off his exhaustion.

He groaned sleepily as he pushed himself up, rubbing his tired eyes. That dream… It was so vivid. Like he was in the audience at a cinema, watching the protagonist go through the drama of life.

And why Jack? That was a very specific kind of dream to have about.

This wasn't exactly his first 'weird' dream. But like before, he pushed it aside. Maybe it was his mind trying to fill in the holes on this mysterious woman. Or his way of imagining what a 'normal' Jack would be like.

"I'm seriously going crazy," he groaned pointlessly.

Crane stretched. Half the day was gone but it was a well-deserved rest after their crazy, heroic deed yesterday. He was out and about from the closed bedroom he found at the hotel - his own personal chamber. Not nearly as comfortable as the safehouses he used to stay but better than out on the stone.

And once he reached the nearby safehouse, he waited.

Five. Ten. Fifteen-

"Gaaaahmmm," out came a muffled grumble first, then Jack out from her safehouse. She had her shades off, holding a hand over her eyes as if the sunlight was revolting against her. The light had some terrible effect on her than it did to him on his first day waking up as a sentient zomb.

"You're not a morning person, are you?" He got a "I don't care" expression from the lady while Jack proceeded to rub the tiredness from her eyes. "It's already 3."

"Well, why don't you go fight six tough infected in one night and let me know how you feel in the morning," she muttered, none of her oddbird personality shining through.

He rolled his eyes. Oh, he's done better. Though, to be fair, Crane did so in a more cautious manner. Jack pretty much headbutted one after the other with nearly a scratch of her life.

As she exited through the UV protection, Crane dropped down from his perch. "So, what's the plan for today?" She didn't answer straight away, wearing her shades on. "I'm paying you for your service, aren't I?"

"But of course, of course," Jack chirped right back to her usual perk. "Impatient one, aren't you?"

"Sure, mutated freak here. Uncontrollable urge to kill and hunt if you've forgotten."

"Eh, you worry too much. Just take a bite of me and you'll be fine."

"You really don't have any concern for your own well-being, do you?"

"Oh, please. I've dealt with much worse hooligans than you." Jack glanced around, her hands slapped on her hips. "Well. I suppose we should head to Harran."

Crane stopped, alarmed but the woman didn't pay any heed to that as she trailed off to a direction.

Oh no. No, no. Not Harran. Of all places, why there?

He hurried after her. "Hold it. Hold it. Isn't that place too dangerous."

Now she turned to him with a raised eyebrow. "What? Weren't you talking about going there?"

Dammit. That wasn't what he expected. And he still hadn't uncovered any information why this woman knew the Tower. More importantly, it seemed like her faction knew about Brecken's group too. "Yes but...w-what about this experiment of yours?"

"On-going, what else? There are just as many zombies over there for test subjects as there are here. I can do it on the go."

Ok, Crane had to give her that one, seeing she had a good point.

"Uh, excuse me. Have you forgotten what you said yesterday? Finding a cure, making it a big deal, me turning back to human?"

"I did say it was a big deal. I didn't say it could be done overnight." Jack turned back to him. "And weren't you the one who made it a big deal to return to Harran?"

He zipped his lips shut, curling them in. There was no way he was saying anything to her.

"What?" She slowly snaked right up to him, flashing a curious grin. "You've changed your mind?"

His gut was screaming at him not to say anything - this woman had a cunning way of getting out all sorts of details and the spurring truth from one's mouth. It was a one-sided conflict: he knew absolutely nothing about her except the tip of the iceberg and he wasn't going to let her know about him.

"Of course not," he barked. "I'm in no a hurry."

She backed off but her smile stayed firm and shrewd. "Hm-hm…" And with a swing of her hands in the air, "Well, I am so you might as well tag along, Freakoid. Or don't. Your pick."

"Wait - Now hold on a minute." But she was off. And Crane kept at her heels. "Where's the fire?"

"In Harran, where else. Once I find my boat, any boat, I'm off for a day. But I'll be back quick. Nothing biggie."

Oh, yes, very big. For him.

Ok. Ok. He was drawing blanks from this woman the entire time. The best he could do was pick at the clues from a somewhat 'normal' conversation and work from there.

"Just what's your reason for going there? Didn't your radioman say something about that place having GRE?"

"Well, you already know as much as I do. The group over there has gone cold and I'm just dropping by to check on them."

"But you're just two random groups, aren't you? Both from either sides of Harran."

She chuckled. "Oh, we know them. Few of our runners ended up in the Old City by accident some time ago. But all of them didn't make it. One managed to make it to the Tower for about a day." She wheeled around on a turn of a foot. "Tower got his comms and well, they contacted us."

Thank goodness she was the talkative type. This must have been before Crane arrived in Harran on Day 1. "So that's how you know them."

"Actually, I know a few of them closely." She turned back to her walking. "The Tower's leader is a bloody family member of mine."

"Brecken never mentioned about you-"

"I'm sorry?"

It was barely a small whisper in his head but somehow, she was able to pick that?! "Nothing. Just...never took you one to care about family."

At first, she didn't budge. That stern look behind the shades wasn't promising to boot for Crane. But with a shrug, she continued. "He's all I got in this world. Same goes for him to me. We might just be cousins but we both had our own rough beginnings."

Ok, cousins. Huh. Brecken never did talk much about himself. Just a parkour instructor unfortunate enough to appoint himself as leader of a group of survivors in the midst of a zombie apocalypse.

"But I'm not worried. He's not that incapable he'll wind up dead. And he's got backup."

"Really?" It wasn't probing. Crane couldn't think of who the "backup" was back at the Tower. Couldn't be himself. Lena...well, she has a strong head but her thing was medical, helping those sick, not second-in-command. Don't think it's Buckshot, the guard trainer, or Timur. Crane could go down the whole list of names but no one could be it. "What kind of backup?"

"One good fighter and one good strategist, nurse too. There is one more but meh, we never listen to Rahim and neither will my cous. Champ would skin both of them alive if he did."

And there, Crane stopped in his tracks. Jack was already a few more steps ahead of him, unaware of his sudden halt.

"What…"

He thought it was just a dream. His mind combining Jack and his memories. But the moment she said that name so nonchalantly, he felt a chill down his spine.

It was all too accurate.

He swallowed, forcing himself to stop from asking this question: why, why did she know Rahim?

But before he could even ask, or dare to ask, the sound of a beep! lightly erupted from her pocket. Jack was quick to wear on her earpiece.

"Jack's here. Who's speaking?"

"Hey, it's Siv. I think we might have a lead to your missing boat." The young female voice again.

"You have? That's grand," Jack uttered enthusiastically, something Crane couldn't share. He was all too stunned to listen.

"You know about the orphanage? We got word from the Cicadas about spotting a boat along the canals. Might be yours."

"Does it have the name Serendipity? That's very important."

"Dunno. You're gonna have to ask them, Jack."

"Well, a small lead is better than nothing. Where's the orphanage?"

"Up north, past the memorial park. The old church-looking structure that stands out from the other building. Can't miss it. They've been using it as a base since the outbreak started. Already told them you're heading over. So expect work there."

"And I'm happy to accept. As long as it's not stupid or unreasonable."

"Uhhh, you're probably gonna get some oddball job. Some of the people there aren't...well, let's just say we had some disagreements with them in the past."

"Lovely." One could take it as a sense of sarcasm. Or masochism. Or both. No one could tell. She ended her call and knew where her goal was.

But would Freakoid agree to come along? Now that was a good question.

"So are you going to stick around or just stand there?"

That snapped Crane out of a half-in-half-out trance.

"Yeah…" he murmured. That was when he noted her glance locked on him. Did he give some tall tale? He tried to swing back to his usual 'self'. "Yeah. Sure."

She didn't look convinced. But Jack walked away.

"Yeah…"


"You've gotten real quiet, Freakoid. Is Harran that bad this time of year?"

Crane didn't reply as the two exited out through the front entrance of the hotel. But he was going to. The more he didn't want to say anything, the more Jack was going to probe him for answers.

The twist in his gut was tight. What were the chances he'd meet someone who knew not just Becken - family, he added - but also Rahim. He needed answers. But the weight was almost crushing him in its harsh grip.

So he could only do what he was best at. Change the topic. Pull at the right moments to get info. Better yet, convince her not to go to Harran.

"Bad...C'mon, Crane. Try to shake it off. "Like it's any better than here."

"Well, you've got a good reason not to go there. Says so on your face."

He glowered. Really? He hadn't checked his face. He didn't want to see his face. But he could imagine just how horrible it must look. Jack was bullshitting.

"Sure, zombies showing expressions. Are you reading too much into that?"

And she dodged it with a question. "You said you don't remember. Did you get a memory or something?"

Right, he was playing the role of the amnesiac infected. He most certainly had his memories intact. A simple lie would be enough if it wasn't so hard to recall everything vividly.

"I...what does it matter? Who wants to remember when they're like...this?" Crane indicated to himself.

It was then Jack stopped and gave a prying eye on him, her fingers cupping her chin. Like any scientist would. He could literally feel the goosebumps over his hardened skin.

"Good point. We should do something about your wardrobe."

"Ok, that's the craziest thing you can say. Wardrobe. On an infected."

"Oh, c'mon. Wouldn't it be better if people saw you less of a zomb and not try to kill you?"

"Riiight, good plan. Except I'd want them to if I'd lose it again."

"Semantics, semantics. Have you just forgotten? I'm here to bring ya back."

Ok, was there a second choice? Because Crane really needed another. "I'm starting to feel less and less optimistic around you."

"Hey, that's exactly what a Rav member said to me too. Then I grew on him."

"Wow. You must be great at parties. Look, I get why you're doing this. But I think you should be at least more cautious with me. I could snap. At any moment. And you're going to this orphanage. I can't be waltzing in, expecting people to not scream in sheer terror and try to kill me."

"Well, that's what I'm hired for. Be your wingman, that's the correct term, right? I can talk to the folks without the shooting, screaming and them trying to hunt you down. Besides, do you really wanna be walking around in those rags?"

He glanced down. There were holes and tears, sure. Nothing that...terrible from weeks of being a feral. "What's wrong with them?"

"Other than you stay out like an easy target, you look like a hobo. But we can do better."

"Ugh, why did I ask such a pointless question..."

They had just wandered into the hotel's carpark, littered with abandoned luggage. Somewhere in the recent past tourists had dumped everything they had and fled to their buses. But the vehicles never left - windows shattered and dead bodies left to reek inside.

And Jack opened up one luggage by a corpse-filled coach.

"What are you doing?" His seeping self-reproach was replaced by a dull feeling of curiosity. For his own sake, to push the first annoyance away.

"Here, try this on."

It took him by surprise, all of his will forcing his primitive instinct to not duck away. Or bite Jack. The cotton fabric of a cheap-looking, thin scarf draped over his head as the woman causally tied it up. The kind of style people would wear at deserts.

She took a minute to marvel. A small adjustment there that frankly made Crane go, "Ok, can you stop? You're not my mom."

Jack just brushed it off while he took it upon himself to loosen the tie. "Eh, it's a start. Makes you less scary."

"Uh-huh. A scarf magically makes me less of a monster."

"Hey, at least it hides those big teeth of yours. Let's try this then." She smirked at her discovery from a busted suitcase. A hooded shirt is always a nice thing to have - both fashionable and practical.

"You're telling me to wear dead people's clothing."

"What? They don't smell." She then took a whiff of a tank top in her hand and her nose wrinkled. She pitched it away and tossed a pair of pants at Crane's feet. "Or you could walk around half naked like these zombies-"

"I'll pass."

When did this become a walk into a man's clothing store with Jack being the clerk? But Crane might as well entertain her just so she could stop. He examined the hoodie, only to spy Jack looking at him.

"Do you mind?"

She cast a look of surprise. Or a fake one. "Oh, sorry. My bad. I'll give you your privacy." And she strolled around the bus she was scavenging by.

He shot her back a swift glare, just to make sure there wasn't any funny business or a single peek. Then it was back to the realization he was going to see his hideously ugly body.

Crane could just ditch the clothes. He could just not do this. He didn't need to bind himself by human rules. Heck, he didn't look that bad. Jack was being crazy.

However, he sniffed his clothes. And cringed. A bloodthirsty zombie with the sense of smell of a bloodhound revolted at the disgusting odor he had just noticed.

Never mind. It's been how many days, weeks wearing these torn, dirty, blood-soaked clothes. He needed a change.

He heaved a sigh. "Just get it over with it, Kyle."

It started off as a delicate operation but it didn't really help when the cloth kept catching the exposed bones jutting out of his back. There was some leeway that he could feel the fabric slip but still…

"All ok back there?"

"I'm fine," he mumbled. "I know how to wear clothes-"

Teeerr!

It was a loud sound. That he and surely Jack heard loud and clear. And immediately in his claw, one of the sleeves was torn off. His jacket.

"Well, that's just perfect."

"You sure you don't need help?"

"Graassh!" he growled. He purposefully hissed back.

He spotted a shoulder behind the bus, shrugging. "Fine. I was just offering."

Crane huffed through his nose and looked back at the damage. And he really liked the pattern on the back. The jacket...wasn't too bad. He could salvage it. Make it come off as a new sense of fashion. The kind of sleeveless biker vest he'd seen before. Just needed some work.

He grumbled to himself. How much denial was he putting himself into… He shook his head at himself with a facepalm.

The next obstacle was the worst. His shirt underneath was almost unrecognizable - dirty and completely shredded. Seeing his abdomen in a dark, scaly texture with pulsating veins made his stomach turn. He tried to ignore it by pulling off his shift. But the holes were even more embedded to his spines than his jacket.

Frustration got the better of him.

"Come on, you stupid piece of-!"

Riiiiiiip!

"You know. I could look for a pair of scissors or a blade. Or something simple you can slip on."

"Not. Helping."

"That's the deal with you men. Just take one shirt and you're happy for a whole year. Doesn't matter how old and worn-out it gets, it's just fine for ya. No fashion sense."

"Excuse me, I have good fashion sense." He wasn't stuck to just one outfit over the course of his time in Harran. He could make it work with the right set of clothes, urban, rural, formal. Crane even discovered a nice special agent set. He was suave.

If it wasn't for the bloodstain across the chest… But he still made it work!

"Well, hopefully it's better than my cousin. Seriously just takes the first top he sees from the pile and he's done for the year."

Crane stopped. And gloated. Hm, so he was a bit better than Brecken. That was a nice thought.

Then his next obstacle came. Pants.

Why? Why didn't he stop before he started? Now he couldn't stop because he knew he'd never hear the end of lunatic Jack after that statement he made.

Jack, the entire time, stayed where she was. From the sounds alone, it was definitely a trial. She hadn't look back but hearing Freakoid growl in discomfort at the nasty sensations told her, he's not liking this idea.

"Maybe this was a bad idea," she muttered to herself.

"You think?"

She shrugged at the hiss tossed in her head. Damn, his hearing was good. "You could have said no."

Grumble, grumble from the grumpy zombie. The jacket was the only thing salvageable but he had to improvise a little. He had torn off the other sleeves and wore the hoodie underneath it. And putting that on was a harder challenge compared to before.

"C'mon. It'll be over soon and you can look back at this with a laugh."

"Still not helping."

"I'm just saying. Having a change is refreshing. Think of it as a nice clean slate. Why not take it as a new step from your whole feral phase? You're one step closer to looking normal."

"Normal. This isn't normal."

"Neither is a zombie outbreak. But here we are, infected and stuck in this hellhole."

The difficult part of wearing clothes was finished. It wasn't too bad now that he looked over at himself. Correction: it was still bad being the fact he was an infected. Crane examined his hands next. There was no point in putting gloves - the hardened texture on his palms and fingers obviously helped with his grip. And there were the tendrils. Gloves would just be a hindrance.

The sight of his hideous hands did tick him off a little.

It was a constant reminder. Everything about his body was a constant reminder. He was stuck like this. And there was nothing he could do.

The question easily seeped out of his mouth.

"Am I really able to turn back…?"

Quiet. Of course, Jack couldn't answer a difficult question like that.

"...Do you want to hear the truth or I lie to you?"

And that was a surprising answer from her. But either side of the coin just left a bad taste in his mouth. While he would like brutal honesty, it was just prolonging the inevitable. A lie would be more gentle but in the end, it was going to hurt him. And others. He knew from experience.

"It's already obvious."

"You're asking the wrong person here. I'm not a good liar," Jack tossed. "...Honesty, I don't know. I've seen a lot of strange and crazy things throughout this outbreak."

"Hmph." He really didn't like her answer. But there was some merit. "...I know the feeling. Seen too much shit to know if I'm sane or not."

"Maybe that's a good thing. Wondering if you're sane or not. Would any madman not think like that?"

"You're one to talk. You're with an infected here."

"And? Surprisingly, it makes for good company. Good story to tell by the fire."

Crane finished off the last touches to his outfit, tightening the scarf a little, adjusting his collar loosely, etc. "Which is exactly my point. Why are you even sticking around with me?"

"Because you remind me too much of my old self."

It was a sentence that piqued his interest. He had a bit of annoyance - mainly "you have something to say, Jack?" - but the line got him. Already finished with his somewhat-new look, he turned back to where Jack leaned against the front.

And she had already turned around the corner. This time, there was no Cheshire cat smile. Her eyes were completely unreadable behind the shades. That casting aura of experience shone right out of her posture.

It made her look old. Look like she was reminiscing all over again.

She was disappointed.

Not even a cunning remark could break it.

He didn't get it. So he pushed warily. "What do you mean?"

Another minute passed and still nothing. But quickly, it was all taken over by her Cheshire cat grin.

"Lookie here. A lot better than your old drags," she uttered, taking a bit of pride in helping with his fashion.

She avoided the question.

But Crane didn't dare push harder. It made him wonder about the dreams he's been getting.

The old Jack. Knowing Rahim. Brecken's cousin. The pieces fitted too confidently together.

Just how accurate were those dreams?

"We could use some...I dunno, movie makeup or bandages but you could really pull this off, Freakoid. Actually, we have that." Jack tossed over a roll of clean bandages to him.

Crane reacted just as smoothly and quickly as a normal catcher. Only, a step further. The tendril from his right shot right out and latched onto the small item, slipping it right into his hand. How fast was he to adapt to this but Jack's indifferent face to the reaction made him feel a little less...terrified of that thought. Or maybe he should be more - Jack was already getting used to having a zombie buddy.

"Nice catch," she sang.

The mood changed. And Jack wanted it to stay that way. She didn't say it to him but Crane knew. He should stop here. Just continue the conversation under this chirpy tone as he'd wrap his claws with the bandages.

"You know, one look at me and people are either gonna run to the hills or shoot me. I still look like a freaky Hunter."

"Sheez, lighten up just a tiny bit. So broody." Crane narrowed his eyes at the comment. Broody, him? "We just need to test it out." Jack jabbed a thumb to the sky. Far off was a stream of smoke, bearing the red color of a smoke flare. Only instead of a long stream, it flowed in odd rhythmical puffs.

Was someone making smoke signals?

"What's that?"

"Standard Rav signaling. You might remember the names, Ender and Riza."

"Probably. And?"

"We're gonna welcome them to the neighborhood."

Bad idea. Completely and utterly a bad idea. "How about a no."

Jack chuckled, hands in her pockets as she strolled off, first with a spin to cast a catty smirk at the grumpy zombie. "Just relax a little and let me do the talking. I'm your wingman, remember?"

"Oh joy. This will be fun…. Not." Crane grumbled to himself.

"I can still hear you. Stop being a party pooper. You'll do fine."

"I'm fine. I'm totally fiiiiine."

"Yeah, yeah. Oh. Before that." Jack walked casually back to the pile of ripped fabrics on the ground and picked up something small. "Here."

"What's this?" Crane asked about the thing in his hand.

"The tracking device. Yours. What else." Again, Jack walked away.

It took Crane two clicks before he could figure out what that meant. "Hold on. Hold on." He instantly felt the red flags come up that he swung himself right in front of her so fast. That gesture was way too suspicious from her. "This is the tag you put on me."

"Yes. And?"

"Aren't you going to put it on me?"

She peeked out an eyebrow over her sunglasses. "Do you want me to?"

"No." He quickly regretted his question, recoiling away from the crazy woman.

"Well, you shouldn't want to. Look, the whole purpose for that tag is to track any new infected. You are a new brood and you were the first on my list. But you're not as feral as the other infected here."

"That's until I suddenly snap."

"Semantics. You said you didn't need a babysitter. So I'm giving you that space."

"Just like that." Kyle simply looked at the woman.

Jack shrugged her shoulders. "Keep it on you if you want. Even you disappear off or get yourself in trouble, I'll come running after you. You did hire me."

"And what if I just toss it? Or drop it?"

"Do you really want me to put it on you again?"

"No. Forget it." And he thought a bit. This...what should he call it? This act of an adult dealing with a child in a calm manner. He gave another hard look at Jack, trying to find any trace of that person he saw in the dream. There was barely any and yet...it was there. "I really can't figure you out."

"What's there to figure out?" she chided. "I'm a helping hand for ya."

"Riiiight," Crane uttered as he latched the tag easily onto the waist of his new pants. No way that can fall off unless he went streaking at high speed.

"You've always been a lone wolf, haven't you?"

"And you're a team player?" Crane rebuked, no matter how true her words were.

"Heh. You'll have to be the judge of that."

Chapter Text

 TWELVE: FIRST IMPRESSION


The open basketball court was empty of any walkers with its doors closed off. A perfect safe spot for a meeting. Right in the middle was the tossed away flare, red smoke fizzing out into the dull cloudy sky. From the looks of it, the building next to it was a high school. But Crane didn't see any illuminated signs of humans from way up on the rooftops - not the two people Jack was meeting. Not behind the walls of the classrooms or in the other surrounding buildings.

"You sure your friends are here?"

"I told you. Rav signal," Jack replied casually as she jumped down to another rooftop.

"Yeah, a giant "notice me" sign anyone can come to."

"Yeah, I can see that. But no Rav would go to just any fire signal like fireflies. We aren't stupid. Plus, see that symbol at the eastside?" She pointed at a window - what looked like probably the school's cafeteria - where painted on the outer glass panel with white paint was a large straight line and a seven right in the middle. Crane could make out something from the design... A bird of some sort?

"Yeah?"

"That's our emblem. That's our way to telling this meetup is a go. And if it isn't, someone smudges that off with a cross. Dead bird, dead zone."

"Your group has some organized system?" he pried and easily, Jack answered without much hesitation.

"It's been working. Surviving in the Outskirts long enough has helped us figure out a method. Keeps us Ravs alive and well."

"Been meaning to ask about that name. So what do you do? Help people in the day and have rave parties all night long?"

Jack gave out a laugh, her pace slower now that she looked back to the Freakoid. "It's short for ravens. Our boss gave that name when she set it up." She recited most of the same description she gave to Mahir back at the Junction. "We're just a service for hire, not like those thug factions that take over territories. We scavenge for food, meds, Antizin, everything with as little noise as possible. We're the ones daring enough to get supplies than most civilians in the Outskirts. They're holed out in their homes too afraid to leave. So we go out and help them. Trade around and take down a few zombs to make it feel safe for them."

"Generous. Sounds a little too good to be true."

"Outskirts' community is smaller than say the Old Town. It's mostly rural places and trees nobody dares want to go alone. We're pretty much knitted over there."

Crane didn't quite get it but perhaps there was some merit behind her words if he thought more on it. Back at the tower, trust was on very thin ice. Even under Brecken's leadership, tension would still arise and there had been a few faces Crane had seen get up and leave.

The city of Harran was like any other city, even Chicago for him. Every man, woman and child were total strangers to you within the concrete jungles, regardless if the sky fell down. When he hears the word, Outskirts, he could imagine it a little more homey than the city. Neighbors knew each other well enough to have one's back.

Probably not as propaganda-like as the Countryside was with those Faceless fucks.

"If it's that small, why are the folks there staying?"

"Three obvious reasons. One, zombies. Two, monsoon season. You can't get around chest deep in water unless you know how to parkour. Or have a boat."

Ah, hence why she had a boat to begin with.

"And the third?"

"It's their homes." It was a straightforward answer that Crane first thought was a melodramatic joke. "Everyone's been living there for years. If you've been there, you'll know that no one wants to abandon their place."

"Not even for the infected?"

"If they had a choice, they'd take it. GRE took that away," Jack explained. "They walled off all roads there and surrounded the forest up with every defense possible. Considers anyone crossing the fence as trespassers. We've seen a few good souls go."

"Shit…" He knew the measures GRE could take. The steps and orders put down 'just for a cause'. The end justifies the means, as they say. But that was just the same level as most sickos in Harren. "That's too much…"

"Hey, as much as we all hate GRE for doing their job...they are still doing their job. At least some of them with a conscience anyway. I told you we had a long dry spell where there was no Antizin. Well, one day, suddenly, Antizin."

"What?"

"Don't know all the details there. We managed to pick up radio talk on the whole deal. Something about those blokes being ransomed with some research as a bargaining chip. Whatever happened seemed to get GRE to keep sending Antizin in afterward. Or could be because of Scanderoon's zombie problem. Who knows."

Crane felt a little grin stretch on his face. It might have been when he broke protocol, that he refused to follow orders and took Dr. Zere's research back to Camden. Or it might have been the higher-ups and commotion. Or maybe with the fall of Scanderoon, the situation had become worse in the eyes of the world that GRE had no choice but to continue sending in the meds. Who knows, just like Jack said.

But at least Antizin was still coming in after his whole deal. That gave Crane just a tiny bit of hope. If the Outskirts was getting back Antizin, then maybe the rest of Harran too.

"Still, that's not gonna last long," Jack had to bring him back down to Earth. "If they decided to stop the drops, they can decide it again. GRE here isn't sharing their supplies."

"That's pretty pessimistic coming from you," he grumbled at her.

Again that catty grin back at him. "I'm just saying the odds. Makes a good challenge."

"Challenge," he just couldn't agree. The one thing that irked him about the woman was her taste for the thrill. The destruction and fall around her had little effect on her soul compared to him. Yes, he had to keep strong-minded and not break under the sight around him. And there were times he nearly crossed the line. Jack, however, was a different story. He could tell. "So you profit from all this."

"I'd be lying if I wasn't. But it doesn't mean I'm heartless."

"Sure," he answered judgmentally. And Jack could spot the tone in his thought-speech. "Just like him."

"Someone I should know? Or someone you just remembered?"

He grimaced, realizing quickly his mistake. Play the infected with memory loss, stupid! "Nothing. I'm mumbling to myself."

That seemed to work. Although Jack had a moment of doubt - what looked like a deep reading into his soul - she turned away. Her line of thinking reflected a little like that man's. Crane actually wished he could forget him.

Kadir "Rais" Suleiman. The sadistic, violent, irritable bastard that terrorized most of Harran. A man with his own psychotic philosophy, who profited from the outbreak by hoarding the Antizin and exploiting the struggles of others to fatten his pockets.

He'd better be rotting with the maggots.

"Sounds like there's history. For someone who can't remember."

"Do you always like to poke at everything when you shouldn't?"

"I need to know my client better." She cocked up a cheeky grin. "How else are we gonna work together?"

"Together. Right."

"Am I that untrusting of a person?" she asked exaggeratedly. "Even after our bonding moment last night?"

"I'm still on the fence with you."

"Heh. Guess that makes the two of us," she joked. He wasn't too sure if it was a sarcastic one or she meant it. "Eh, as they always say, misery loves company."

Sure, and misery had to give him this loon of a character. Beggars couldn't be choosers. But that didn't mean he shouldn't keep a distance from her. Not until he knew more of her true motives, her real self behind that mask of hers. Just because she was "Harris' cousin" - air quotes there - didn't mean it could be true. People could lie about connections.

 "Yeah, don't get too comfortable with me, lady."

"Aw. I'm hurt," the brunette sang, feigning a heartache. 

They've reached the edge of the school perimeter, Jack jumping down to a street with one, three slow walkers. The afternoon sun was still an assuring blessing of protection for her. Not Crane - the burn was slight but still present that revolted him to go back to the shade.

The brunette could hear the pacing behind her cease to a crawl. A wheel on her heel and she spied the Freakoid, refusing to move.

He didn't care what she thought of him - whether true to his word that he wasn't going to show his ugly face or otherwise, he wasn't leaving the shadows.

"Seriously?" she uttered with arms wide open. And when Freakoid wouldn't budge, she slapped her hands on her thighs and rolled her eyes, turning back to the flare. "Ender. Riza."

Nothing. Not even a little peek. The ex-kickboxer wasn't worried but Crane kept a watchful eye out from the shadows. She climbed over the wire fence and scanned around her quiet surroundings.

"C'mon, you two. I don't have all day," she groaned.

"Hello, Jack."

Two voices behind her. And she wheeled around with a small jump in her step. Two runners, shorter than her and almost similar to each other, stood side to side. The only differences were how fully clothed the left runner was compared to their partner, hiding even their face. The other, no doubt female, shone a smirk at their guest.

"Ok. Stop being those creepy twins from that one movie. I don't want any blood gushing out behind you two," Jack hissed.

"And it's nice seeing you alive too," the right runner broke down the creepy mood with her spunky tone. "You didn't even say goodbye when you left."

"We were heartbroken. And Lenny was furious."

Jack just shrugged. "I had to go see family. So of course, I needed to take Lenny's boat."

"But here in Scanderoon?"

"Ender," she began saying to the left runner. "I crashed here. More importantly, how did you two get here?"

"Please. You of all people. You can't underestimate Ender," the right, Crane was gonna assumed she was Riza, spoke out proudly. "If wasn't for them, we'd have taken longer getting through that rumble."

"Yes and I do wanna remind you two about the circumstances," Jack muttered tiredly.

Ender groaned in retaliation. "You worry too much. I got it handled."

"Then I take it that the way to the Outskirts is good?"

The two looked back to each other. One could almost say they were like twins or their minds thought alike. "Nope. Still caved in."

"Wait, then how-"

"Same way those zombies can move back and forth between the Outskirts and Scanderoon. The maintenance tunnels."

Jack hunched down her shoulders. Hearing two young adults, fresh grads, by the way, go through a very dangerous area was enough to bring a headache to her. "Really, you two-"

"It wasn't bad," Riza cut her short. "We're still alive, aren't we? We marked the path in case you wanna come back home. Everyone misses ya."

"Except Lenny."

"Yeaaah," Jack mumbled but still keeping her cheery beat going. "I don't think I should go back yet. Not without his boat anyway."

"Oh, yeah," Riza chuckled. "Lenny's gonna kill you."

"Everyone's already put bets on how it's going to go down. My money's on him."

Jack looked insulted. "Hey. What about me?"

The two runners just shrugged their shoulders in sync. "You're Mad Jack," Ender continued. "But Lenny's some hitman."

"'Presumed' hitman," Jack enforced the word into their conversation. "We don't know what he did for a living."

"That's what makes it fun," Riza added. "It's a guessing game."

Jack uttered out a loud and long groan through her teeth. Sheez, do these kids make her feel old and unappreciated...

"I see you're not alone." The left, Ender, pointed at Crane's hiding spot. "Mind introducing us your friend?"

Hang on. How the heck did they see him? Crane was in a good blindspot way back. The left runner's ally was having a hard time searching for him too.

"New partner," was all Jack said so easily like she was just introducing friends together. She was about to say his name, which technically has been the 'Freakoid' nickname she had been giving, but held that back. It'd complicate things. "He hired me for some business. He's shy by the way."

"Oh, shaddup." However, he kept quiet, just in case his mental thoughts could be carried out to the two strangers.

"Business, huh…"

Bit by bit, Crane poked himself out that Riza finally spotted him. He could feel the clear grey eyes scanning him top to bottom.

No good. Even if there was a good distance between the Rav group and himself, there was no way people would fall for his disguise up close. He clearly had the look and build of a monster. The hood and scarf hid his ugly face and teeth while the bandages did some help for his claws. But the spikes and hardened skin were a dead giveaway.

"He looks like a creep."

"More like a stalker."

"Hey!" Crane really, REALLY wanted to speak up. All he could do is pout and fold his arms.

"Looks can be deceiving. Give him time. He might just warm up to you. So what's the delivery of the day?"

The twin runners glanced at each other before they got right into work. "First off. We got the supplies you need for the "special" project."

"Really, though. How did you lose everything?"

"I didn't lose everything," Jack defended herself as she caught the small knapsack thrown by Ender. She began examining the inventory. "I just so happened to come across a little...bump in the road that...sorta knocked my bag overboard."

"Which means you lost it. You know those aren't easy to get, right?"

Out came four special syringe devices in her hand - the powerful medical kind that is used for a fast and easy way of taking body fluid with just a prick into a vein. All without too much trouble from the donator. Enough space in the vials to be stabbed onto a horse.

"Yeah, yeah. I know. Was planning to ransack a hospital for these."

"Bad idea. Regular hospitals don't hold them."

"The special medical outposts do. And we've screened through all the ones in the Outskirts. Don't go losing them again."

"I won't, I won't," she chided with a twirl of her hand in the air.

"You know the plan, right? Or do we need to remind ya-"

"Oh, shush. Stop treating me like I've forgotten. I find a Special, let them test my blood and if they act funny, I stab them with these thingamajigs and draw their blood out."

"Hm," one of the twins hummed. "Think she's ok?"

"Doubtful," the other whispered back. "You know how bad her memory can be-"

"A-hem!" A foot tapped angrily but the face of Mad Jack was emotionless. But the two guests simply giggled quietly behind those masks most people wore as if it was enough to protect them from a cough of the virus - not them, they did it for the fashion. "Can we get onto business or how about I just wrap this up and go?"

"We're not done yet, Jack. Blueprint gifts from Bones. New designs that should help you out with the new Specials."

"You're gonna have to make them. Sorry, we needed to carry light."

"Wouldn't think otherwise. What else?" Jack casually asked.

"Just an offer."

"We spotted some nice holdups that we can use for business here. But they're packed with bad guys and infected."

"Seriously, you want to set up shop here?"

"We're staying here for a while, right? We need a place for safety," Riza pointed to Jack. "Until you move or we head home."

"I'd rather you both go back. Ender's the problem if they stay. No offense, love," Jack quickly apologized with just a shrug of acknowledgment and acceptance from the right runner.

"Hey, Asem made us your local suppliers. You're stuck with us all the way to the end."

Jack grumbled. Oh, fuck it. She was never gonna win the argument, especially with these two. "Fine. Just give me the locations."

"We just need one. It's an inactive safe zone down by some museum-"

"Markos Museum. I know where it is. Been there once years ago."

"Sweeet! Make sure it's cleaned up too."

"Don't push it," she warned them.

"Ok, ok. One last thing. This." Ender handed the one thing Jack and even, Crane, didn't expect for her to be given.

"A tranq gun. Where in the world-"

"From Lenny's collection. Where else."

"Is he really a poacher?" Jack asked a question no one could answer and not even her but she hurriedly shoved that question away for a new one. "Wait, can even sleeping darts knock out an infected?"

Actually, it can, Crane thought. It worked on him before.

She didn't need to know that, he thought more.

"Lenny tested out the dosage on a few zombies back home. Doesn't work on the normal biters but can knock down a Demolisher like an elephant."

"He also changed it a bit to make it light-weighted and adjustable for you. He says the darts are easy to craft."

"You all know I don't do guns," Jack grumbled. While the gift was nice, she just didn't like to use them. Too many problems and unnecessary weight needed.

"It's not loud, he said. And he also said if you lose this, he's gonna make you into zombie bait."

"That man. Bloody let it go," Jack complained loudly.

"You did steal his boat."

"Stop reminding me. Alright, how about those stashes? Asem sent you for those, didn't she?"

All she got was a wide grin from Riza while Ender was unpredictable. Oh, no.

"They're already set up. We didn't make it too difficult for you."

"We just put some of them in very high, out-of-reach spots for you to find."

Right away, Jack knew where this was going. With an additional headache to boot. "Another scavenger hunt… What is with you kids and these kooky games?"

"Hey, you're the one who wanted some fun out of this outbreak. We're just giving it to you," Riza sang.

"Can I take back what I said?"

"Stop being a spoilsport. Just think of it like getting achievements," Ender added.

"I mean, have you ever played a video game before? Tried to find all the hidey-holes?"

"I don't speak geek talk… So same deal as always."

"Yup," Riza chided. "Just find-"

"Our white raven symbol and you'll get the stashes," Jack said in union with the two runners. Like this one rule had been said over and over again. It really showed to Crane that Jack wasn't kidding about earlier - the Ravs had a system and they followed by the code. Just to stay alive.

"We wrapped a few of them with the red bow. Special presents for the great Wild Dog."

"You know, you could just give them to me."

The two chuckled together. "And where's the fun in that?"

Jack held in her complaint. The problem with being in a group where some of them were young adults, younger than her by a decade. Many of them just wanted to one-up a few older members and show they have clear heads. Jack examined the tranquilizer gun in hand with a few shifts of the barrel and handle - first questioning to herself again where on Earth did Lenny get one and second thinking if she could just do without it.

Still, a sleeping zombie would make the outcome of an impossible fight a million times better.

"By the way, where are you heading, Jack?" Riza asked. "Everyone back home has been wondering why you just disappeared days ago."

"The Slums." Jack clicked the slot back into the gun, only to see Riza's face scrunched up. Ender's face was unreadable behind the goggles and the face mask. But if she had to guess, they had the same expression as Riza behind their mask.

"You're kidding. Harran?" they barked. "Bones just told us. It's dangerous there."

"What's new? Everywhere's dangerous."

The twin runners didn't share her enthusiasm. "We can't convince you otherwise?" Riza asked.

Jack simply exhaled a patient sign. "Ariza, it's just a short visit. Don't get yourself in a bunch about it..." Not enough convincing. "I'll be fine."

"If we had known you'd heading there, we'd give ya the stashes up front."

She cocked out a soft smile. She didn't need their concern. That was the last thing she wanted. "Leave them be. You did all that work and it shouldn't be for nothing. Plus, I need the exercise."

"We could give ya a time limit-"

"Again. Don't push it."

It was then Ender stopped their friend from leaving just yet, a thickly gloved hand on her shoulder. They crept up to Jack's ear and quietly whispered, "Say, does your partner know about your secret assignment?"

Unknown to them, Crane caught wind of their whispers. Thank the superhuman hearing.

"Pretty much. He's sticking around until we've...completed our negotiation."

The twin runners didn't seem to like that answer. He could tell from afar.

"Didn't Bones say to keep a tight lip on this?"

Tight lip. He hadn't forgotten what Jack said way in dawn - no one outside the Ravs knew about this pet project of hers. So they wanted this under wraps. That pulled at Crane's suspicion. Exactly what was the Ravs up to...

"Asem's not gonna like this."

"Only if she doesn't find out. Yet. I'll talk to her." There was a glance over the shoulder from Jack, trying to spot the Freakoid in the distance. "He might actually be helpful with this assignment."

"How?"

"He'll surprise you."

Again, the two runners just didn't seem to agree. Or disagree. He could read it from the left one - again, trust was on very thin ice. Outsiders was another thing altogether. The groups and factions he had met and worked with never or rarely cooperated with one another. Supplies were running scarce and there was fear at every corner, infected or human.

The Ravs were no different, he could tell. That was why he couldn't accept the details about the faction as "generous". A group took care of itself. There wasn't time or resources to give a helping hand to another unless it was a desperate cry for help.

Everyone looked out for themselves, even Crane. But there wasn't any harm in keeping your friends close and your enemies closer. He had been through many factions, gaining trust in order to gain more info. And one group had no intention of doing for the right causes. So if he wanted to learn more about the Ravs, he'd have to gain their trust slowly.

...He almost wanted to laugh. He'd be dead before he'd ever talk to them.

"Okaaay," Ender sang carefully. "Just radio us if he causes you trouble."

"Hey. I'm not like that." Then Crane decided to retract back his quiet statement with a shake of the head. "Stop talking like you're normal. You're a frigging zombie."

"Should be the other way around," Jack exclaimed jovially. "And there's one last thing. Got a spare?"

Crane squished his golden eyes, unable to tell what she was up to. Jack had tapped at her ear and silently, the two runners knew what she wanted. There was an exchange of the hands and that finalized the entire meeting.

"We'll be around the neighborhood, Jack. Need to meet up with the locals and start business."

"But of course. Ender. Take care of Riza. And the same to you too for Ender."

"We got each other's back. You take care."

"As always." With a wave, Jack departed from the basketball court and joined her partner in the shade. "See? Told ya you'll do fine."

"This one time. The next time, I'm expecting to be clobbered to death." He gazed back on the two runners, now talking to each other in a dull whisper. They were heading one way while he and Jack were going the opposite. "They're just kids, aren't they?"

"College students. These two are from the business department. A number of the Ravs came from Harran University."

So between eighteen to twenty-ish. "That's a bit concerning."

"They needed help. Those kids and more had a bad predicament when the outbreak started. Since then, they've stuck around. Like everyone in the Outskirts, they had nowhere else to go."

"...They care a lot for you."

"I'd rather they don't. They make me worried. Never liked the idea of someone caring for me."

Another part of Jack that surprised him. "What, don't like a gesture of good will?" he taunted jokingly, an effort to get more out of her.

"It's not about good will. It's about stopping for me. They should be worrying about themselves instead of others."

Stopping. It was an odd choice of word. She didn't want people to be selfless for her, but selfish for themselves - a different side compared to Rias. In fact, the entire conversation has given him a little bit of understanding about her.

"Alright. The orphanage, boat retrieval, and safe zone. Should be quick and easy."

"Whoa, whoa." He stopped her, swiftly jumping in front of him. "You're not planning to do everything today?"

"I don't see why not."

Ok, he took it back. This woman really...ugh. "I hate to break it to you but you're putting too much on your plate."

"They're my Rav mates. Gotta look out for them."

"Alright, then find the boat tomorrow." Please say yes, he'd have one extra day to figure out something before they'd head to the Slums.

"You don't give me enough credit, do you?"

"It's not about credit due. It's overworking yourself until the night falls. We don't have a lot of daylight left."

"And the more we talk here, it's more wasting time. I need that boat. I need to get to Harran ASAP. Before sunset."

"You can't do both-"

"And I can't pick one. Not in my nature to abandon people on my watch."

Oh my god, he thought. This stubborn woman… Acting a noble, high-strung hero that could make all problems go away. And he hated that bit from her.

So what if he reminded her of her old self? She reminded him of his old lying-his-ass-off self!

Crane was set on telling her it wasn't worth it. It'd only hurt her more. But that stern glance behind the sunglasses was stopping him.

"...You're dead set on heading to Harran?" It felt like a stupid question to ask. A repetitive one at that. Even Jack, while emotionless to anyone to see, was clearly judging how stupid it sounded from him.

But she was calm. Again, impassive. And dead set on her main goal.

"I have to. For family."

It was straightforward. Again. An honest response surrounded by death, despair and burning flesh.

"Same goes for the Ravs. They're family too."

That put the icing on the cake. Was Crane a sucker to this kind of speech? But it got him. It hit at his regained sense of humanity.

"I'm gonna regret this," he mumbled to himself, and surely Jack heard it. "Alright. But you can't do all of this in one day. Well, half a day. And alone."

"What are you suggesting?"

"I'm suggesting that we divide and conquer."

Jack raised an eyebrow at the surprising suggestion. "That's...not a bad idea. But you're sure about this?"

"There's not much I can do other than wait while you're at the orphanage," he explained. "I ain't gonna be lazy and sit my ass all day. Let me do the safe zone."

"You? The safe zone?"

"Yeah."

"With the UV lights?"

Ah.

Right.

"I'll...worry about those when I get there."

"I think I should be the one worrying for you, mate," Jack muttered.

"What? I've done this before. This is a walk in the park," he gloated.

"Really?" Crane regretted saying that. That was a slip of the tongue - how easy it was for him to fall back into the old Hero of Harran like it was routine. However, Jack didn't seem to push on his slip-up and heaved out a sigh. "Still, would make things easy for me."

"Yeah. And you can get this boat before dinner time."

Jack folded her arms, easily looking a little put off by the sentence.

"I don't mean it like that," Crane snapped.

"That's still one tiny problem. We're going off on our own. And while we both agreed that you don't need a babysitter...you don't have me to stop you from going off unhinged."

"Yeah. I haven't forgotten… But you have the tracker on me."

"That. And one step further." She flipped something into his hands. Claws. A new set of an earpiece for two-way communication - the kind he had used when he was a human and now long gone during his feral time. "Don't hesitate to contact me on anything. And since you're so eager for work, I can pass over more stuff your way. Share the workload together."

"Anything reasonable. Heck, give me some a-holes to go beat up."

"Riiight, with your fists or your teeth?"

"I am not gonna eat anyone," he hissed verbally. Stop beating around the bush that he was a Hunter. He knew too!

"I'm just saying." She held out her palms defensively. "You are now a reformed zombie. So try not to make a reputation of yourself. You've already spooked the people at the Junction earlier."

"Good people, of course. It's the crooks I want. I can take out them like it's nothing and that can help the survivors greatly. I can give them a chance in living...as crazy as it sounds. Given my situation."

"Weren't you saying you'd get shot the moment people see you?"

"Hey, you're backing out of the whole 'making me look less of a zombie'?"

"Of course not. That's one of my best ideas yet."

"Yeah, don't wanna know how well your others were," Crane mumbled. "Look, you wanna be my wingman, right? You do the talking. I'll do the work."

"Ha!" Jack chirped. "Now I can't let ya take all the work. You hired me, remember?" She thought on it regardless. "Alright. We'll give this a shot. Markos Museum is down north, past the highway. Only ancient-looking building inside the city."

"Alright." That should be easy to find. He took one deep breath to prepare himself before he'd leap off on tendril locomotive. "I hate to say this, I really do...but you're only my hope I don't fall off the deep end again."

"Aw. How flattering. I'm your backup," she droned, watching him visually roll his eyes.

Yes, a zombie rolling his eyes. Comical but he didn't care.

"Hey, Freakoid." He stopped and wheeled back to spy a stern face on her. "I told you already that this virus is changing. Fast. You've seen some examples but be on the lookout for any more new ones."

"Thrilling." Made it more fun for him. "Just how many are there?"

"No one knows. It's a whole different story back in the Outskirts. That's why it's important to note down how many new ones are out there."

"And do this whole pet project of yours? Your venom...blood, thingie."

"Leave the blood testing to me. That's my job."

"Ok, sure. But if I see one...then what?"

Jack snorted. "Easy."

She tossed something with a quick swap of her hand. It was getting routine now - a passing gesture of an item that Crane could easily catch with his tendrils. And immediately slapping onto his palm was a bag of strange, small devices. Trackers.

"Bag 'em and tag 'em."


Saint Sandrine Orphanage was easy to find. In what was once an old, historical street of Scanderoon, the old, dark-stoned walls made the structure stand out from the newly-renovated surrounding buildings. The old church-like base was in the midst of reconstructing just before the second outbreak hit, adorned with scaffolding on all sides. It was an ideal stronghold, with UV lights and spikes securing the entrances and the tall stone fence surrounding it.

"Hold it." The first man, gun-prepared, stopped her before the barricaded gates. Jack held out her hands - she wasn't a danger.

"You got a call from the Junction about hired help. Jack's the name."

Some exchange of words between more people at the back and she was given the OK to step into their grounds.

She examined the Cicadas. Less manpower compared to the Junction, which was discouraging to see. What was more concerning was the children. Six, seven, eight she counted on her way to the Inner Court. And Jack was going to expect that number higher the further she went into the building.

"Well, it's an orphanage. What would you expect, Jackie?" she mumbled to herself.

"Hey." A voice hollered to her and she spotted the hand wave. The leader, she gathered and the dark-skinned woman showed her authority well with little fault. "Mahir did say he was sending a celebrity over. I didn't think he was serious."

"Retired celebrity. I'm just your normal, average errand gal."

"Yeah, he also said to put you to work," the woman added. "Sister Mary Francine."

"Sister?" Jack checked her up and down. "Aren't you supposed to be wearing nun clothes-"

"Nuns and Sisters are two different terms, Miss Brecken. And try running around in a dress and tell me how that goes. You got no choice but to be practical."

"Can't disagree with that."

Crash! Clank! Clank!

It was a bunch of loud sounds that freaked everyone in the Inner Court out. Even Jack was put on the edge, ready to parry. It was only the fallen toolbox from the top of crates on a moving pushcart. The cart driver was a chubby man - a previous Stuffed Turtle employee before he landed in the orphanage's walls for protection.

"Butterfingers! I told you to be careful!" Sister Mary Francine snapped at the now-cowering man, who was quick to apologize and pick up the spilled tools and box. The sister could only sigh heavily like this was a regular, tiring thing. "Marvin wants you on cooking duty again."

The tone was much gentler than her earlier outburst, she didn't mean ill-will to snap. But the bumbling fool was still apologetic. Very low self-esteem there. "Sure, sure. Sorry, sorry."

"It's ok, Carl… Take five before you go see Marvin."

"You got your hands full, huh?"

"Nothing we can't handle," Sister Mary Francine replied to the brawler. "So I've heard you're looking for a boat?"

Change the topic. Jack compelled to follow. "Siv told me it was at some canal. And you know where."

"Red Rill. And it's got some friends too. Prison mates."

"What? They're planning to bail out of the city on boat?" Jack chided.

"Please. No one in their right mind wants to head to the waters."

"I can concur from experience. That can't be all? You have some compromise for the boat, haven't you?"

"We can do one more better. I only need one thing from you and that will be it."

Jack jerked her head back. "What? C'mon, I don't mind taking more jobs."

"Well, you're gonna have to earn our trust first, Brecken. We're a little on the edge at the moment to be accepting of others' help."

"Sounds like you had a rough time before I came here."

"Rough. And disappointed. One of our own decided to take all our Antizin to the Rill. Damn traitor made a deal with this man named Celso."

The name immediately rattled Jack up. "Celso."

"Sounds like you know him."

"Yeaaah, can't deny that. He's been a thorn in my side before."

"Then you're not alone He's been a thorn to everyone's side in Scanderoon. He managed to create an operation faster than us and the Junction."

"Yeah...it is kinda odd for him to be this quick with an outbreak...but he talks the talk. That's how he gets people to do the walk for him."

"That's a little more detailed than I expected."

"Eh, you hear all sorts of chatter for big crime bosses and drug lords. Etc. The newspapers are always blabbering anything to get attention."

"Hm," Sister Mary Francine hummed, not entirely buying what Jack said but left it at that. "They're planning to bring our goods to their HQ tonight." For another rigged fighting event, no doubt. "You get your boat, you bring those stolen Antizin stock to us. Mahir's given you the word you're a face to trust."

"So do I already get to be on your list of friends?"

"We'll see about that. You've got a long way before we can call each other buddies."

"Heh." She smirked. "That's alright. Trust builds friendship."

Sister Mary Francine gave a slight approving scoff.

"Jack."

"Geezus!" Jack leaped at the voice in her ear, nearly alarming to the Sister with her hand leaping for the weapon at her belt.

That was the fright of her life. Now Jack regretted ever giving that earpiece to Freakoid. The telepathic communication was one thing, hearing him speak was another but hearing it through the radio was an entirely different thing altogether.

"Sorry, need to take this call. I'll get your stock" Jack took off to an empty hallway, away from any wandering and passing ear. "You gave me a heart attack, mate."

He grumbled on the other end of the line. "Hey. It's not like I can change my voice. And I can't 'speak telepathically' over the comm."

"Fair enough. What's up? A safe zone isn't too much for you?"

"Hardly. I'm already in the area. But I spotted some men heading your direction."

"Doesn't sound like a problem."

"They said your name. They're looking for you."

"Ahhh. Well, we did sabotage their fighting ring last night. Of course, we'd piss people off."

"What's this we? You were the one trying to steal Antizin from a prison."

"And you could have turn tail instead of helping me. Don't worry about me. I can handle myself."

"I'm not worried. You've shown me enough you can do just that. I'm just giving you a heads up. Also, there's an overcast coming in."

Jack glanced out of a faraway window to see the rolling grey clouds cover the sky. The wind must have picked up and moved them towards the city. She could hear the thunder louder than before.

The storm was getting closer.

"Rain. Not a good thing to hear."

"What? A little rain never hurt anyone."

"A little, maybe. A lot, definitely. It's just as dangerous as the nighttime. Obscures your sight and makes everywhere slippery and hard for runners to get around. Outskirts' no joke. And I don't advise you to test yourself on wet terrain."

"Huh...never really got much rain back in the Slums."

"That's because Harran's gone through regular droughts. Doesn't have monsoons, unlike the outer places."

"I…" Again another slip of the tongue. "Nothing. Forget I said anything… Just a flash."

"Hm-hm." He clearly had some memory. But she shouldn't pry in any further - sometimes memories can be good or bad. Who was to say Jack might make him lose his mind at remembering something terrifying?

So she let it go. This one time.

"Well, whatever you just remembered, don't take it like this is Harran. This is a whole new experience for you."

"This isn't my first time surviving an outbreak. I know what I'm doing."

"I got it. You are my client. Just making sure you don't die on me. A second time."

"Just find your boat. I'm heading to the safe zone now."

"Sure, sure. I'll meet ya at the museum in an hour." With that, Jack was ready to leave - only to be stopped by one thing that stood out in the orphanage.

The saint's statue overlooked everyone from its pedestal. The carved stone was eroded from years outside before having moved inside for restoration. There was an overwhelmingly peaceful air from the sad eyes. As if saying that her frozen suffering was nothing compared to the millions in Scanderoon right now. She was weeping for the city.

"Daughter of Harsim Şamdereli the old King of Harran, protector against fire, patron saint of the city's children, runaways, the stray dogs and most of all, refugees like us."

Strolling up to the ex-kickboxer was a man in his forties to fifties with a wise aura behind those old-fashioned, round-rimmed glasses and native to the city. Attire was one thing that surprised her - it wasn't that of a runner, a civilian or a brawler like her but with the gear of an archeologist, fedora hat included and draped over his back by a string.

"Originally named Kader Şamdereli before she changed her name. After her family was dethroned during the City Walls rebellion and fled to Scanderoon. It was said she prayed to God for the rains to come and for one week, it did. One week of salvation to quench the rebels' anger down," the man, proud and enlightened to recite the tale to a stranger, explained. "Saint Sandrine herself in stone. Marvelous sight, isn't it? It's one of the city's prized landmarks," he chuckled.

"Not much into history, to be honest, but I can agree she is something."

"That's only the surface, miss. Harran's past rebellions bled into the city of Scanderoon that she went in to stop it with just her kind words. Saint Sandrine took those fleeing from the rebellions under her wing and used the very stones torn off from the City Walls for this orphanage as their home."

"Heh. Sounds a bit like Asem back home," she said to herself. "Except the kindness part. She has more of a...motherly iron grip, I suppose."

"Perhaps that's for the better. Kindness can only go so far, even in the modern world. Saint Sandrine's reward was sadly paid by one of the rebels killing her. And yet, up to her death, her last words were forgiveness to her murderer."

"Ouch. Pathetic way to go. I'd rather haunt the guy if that were to happen to me. But each their own."

"Umit Solak," he introduced with a strong handshake.

"Ahhh. The famous archaeologist. I heard about that dig over at the Western Border."

"Ha. Not as infamous as you, Miss Brecken. I'm just a simple man interested in these lands' history."

"Simple. Y'know, I met a couple of GRE soldiers looking for you." The man was stiff as a tree, completely unfazed that an organization was after his name. But there was a displeasing frown. "You seemed to have anger someone high up."

"More like it was the other way around. Had some disagreements with them in the past."

"That's something. Why would a humanitarian organization want with you?"

"Well, I've had given archaeological lessons for them in the past. And…" At first, the man was reluctant to spill the beans, not to some random person, but he gave it a second thought. "Have you heard about the Sundial artifact?"

"It was all over the news months ago. Before the outbreak. Some big discovery dating way about the start of Harran's reign."

"I guess the news wouldn't give a more detailed explanation," he grumbled at the lack thereof. "But yes. It's to do with an old civilization's avatar called the God of the Sun. Heard of it?"

"Can't say I have."

"Ah. Well, that name is supposed...some sort of deity a nearby settlement's ancestors used to worship. And in one part of Harran, their traditions are still existing for hundreds of years. To this very day."

"Lot of dedication there."

"Well, of course. Gods were made by man, Miss Brecken. And that is because there was someone who 'stoke the flames' into the hearts of people that in their eyes, that someone stood as a god. That's how it goes in mythology. The great stories exaggerated by mortals that we ended up believing in legends."

"Mythology and history are two different things, aren't they?"

"Yes, but even so, mythology still takes roots into history. I believe that the God of the Sun was a real human. More importantly, that he was the first King." Jack could easily tell that the man had a glimpse of a child who had opened the biggest present on Christmas morning. "The very one who founded the city of Harran and built the City Walls as well."

"I thought Harsim was the first king, even naming the city Harran after him."

"That's in the history books. Our discovery, however, proves otherwise. What most people don't know was that the God of the Sun named the city after his son. Harsim was never the first king. He might actually have been a descendant of the God of the Sun."

"Huh. That could shake people up. Having a bit of history change on a dime like that."

"Perhaps. Most of the records dating before the Harran rebellions were lost thanks to the Ottoman Empire. And the Sundial artifact has given us so much we could ask for," Solak pointed, starting pacing in a circle like a man brimmed with wonderful thoughts that needed to come out. "There had been an ongoing discussion back at the Ministry of Culture. That the walls dated around the same time as the oldest buildings of Harran. But! The Sundial dig site proved otherwise. We found figurines and tokens showing carvings of the City Walls. However, later antique coins have the city imprinted on them. That meant the walls were built before Harran. The first King had a reason to protect his people over giving them a home."

"Well, this country had its fair share of conquerors. Romans, Persians, the Turks themselves, you name it. Those are a pretty good reason for him to build defenses first."

"I see you know your history."

"Just the basics, sorry to disappoint you."

"Don't be. It's rather refreshing to meet someone with one foot in instead of no feet in." The man with the glasses chuckled at his own amusement.

Jack didn't share his enthusiasm but she tried to keep a good face. "All of this does sound big. Doesn't explain GRE."

And that was enough to sour Solak's mood. "Well, yes. Them. Do you know what they did? Those incompetent cretins decided to up and take the artifact. Didn't give me a reason," he scoffed. "I wiped my hands off them after that."

"Really? A big expedition taken away from you? Even I'd give them a piece of my mind."

"I've given it and they didn't listen. It did hurt my pride and joy to see what could have been Harran's greatest treasure taken like that. From the people. Us." Solak let loose a tired sigh. "Then came this outbreak and well...I suppose, we won't be living long to see the artifact on display."

"And GRE's looking for you even now."

"Hmph. Whatever they want, I want nothing to do with them," Solak added. "You should too. GRE caused this whole mess and they'll be nothing but trouble for everyone."

"I've had some run-ins with them so I'll take your word."

Solak nodded approvingly. "That will keep you alive."

"Isn't that what we all want? Live yet another day. It was nice to meet a well-known man, Solak. Hope to see each other intact."

"Leaving so soon?" he uttered with honest curiosity.

"While your speech on Harran history is entertaining, duty calls. Helping survivors, killing zombies, all that. We only have so many hours in the day after all."

"True, true. But you can afford a little more time. Seems like you've got some onlookers."

Jack furrowed her eyes at the man pointing something behind her. She wheeled back to see nobody was standing there.

Correction, nobody at her height. She glanced down to see four, five sets of beaming eyes back at her.

The orphans. At least some of them either curious to meet the Mad Jack herself or wary of another adult in the building. Their watchful gazes made her feel a little...awkward was the right word. Like the Wild Dog needed to be on good behavior to a bunch of pups.

And they didn't look like the kind that would leave her be if she said she had to go.

"Ummm...hello?"

And she was pounced with questions of all sorts.

Chapter Text

INTERMISSION: HIDE ‘N’ SEEK


"Have you beaten up bad guys?"

"Uh-"

"Do boxers pump themselves up with steroids every day?"

"That's-"

"Do you have special combo moves? Like Up-down-up-down, left-right-left-right."

"Wait, what-"

"Is it true what you do is fake? Big Tommy told us it's like wrestling."

"Um, who-"

"Hilmi said you bite people."

"No, I didn't say that!"

"That's kinda-"

"How many zombies have you killed before you came here?"

"Do you do autographs?!"

"Do you have a favorite animal? Is it a dog?"

"Wait, hang on a sec - Hold on! Time out! TIME OUT! "

And finally, the chatter ceased at the rising, panicked voice of Jack Brecken. There was a tiny flash of fright in those eyes - this has happened before, she could tell. The kind that read to her they have been told to stop misbehaving if they stepped on toes. They were children who knew little of right or wrong and that balance scale of morality was put to the test many times by men who cracked under the nightmares.

Jack almost thought she had made a mistake. There were no other adults around to help her - they had their own business to worry about and Solak had already left.

So quickly, she swung back to her usual, cheeky self.

"First off, I've beaten up bad guys. No, we don't do that stuff. That's illegal in kickboxing and any sport. Yes and no, we do have moves but nothing like what you said. And, Tommy's a big fat liar. Kickboxing's real. And, ye-esss, I've sorta bitten people before. Don't do it, children. I've killed a couple on my way here. Yes, I do autographs. And no..." she finally caught her breath. "My favorite animal is the tiger. Phew...anymore questions?"

The children glanced at each other timidly - hoping that one would spur out another question. They didn't want the new face leaving. Just yet. But they were as quiet as mice.

"Heh." She smirked, breaking down the thick anxiety in the air. "Impressive. All bright-eyed and bushy-tailed." The seconds irkingly drew on. Still nothing but awe from the kids and nervousness from the adult. "...Sooo, one of you said autographs-"

And immediately, as jumpy as the Biters outside but livelier than the undead, the little ones leaped up and down on their toes. Some scattered for a piece of paper and pen - something that was gonna be proven difficult for them.

Yeah. One little thing Jack kinda missed during her old days.

One short child had already gotten the first go, passing her a napkin and a red crayon she was carrying around. With a swift go of her wrist, she signed her name. "Here you go."

The boy giggled wildly and scrambled off to show his new-found toy.

"Pft!"

A little scoff to her right. At the spot behind where the crowd of children once stood was one child. A girl. Ten, Jack guessed. And yes, she had the same demeanor and expression as Siv did on first meeting. Almost made Jack wonder if she were related.

"Would you like an autograph too?" Jack offered. She had already read the girl's move tenfold. She did not like Jack at all.

"No thanks. I'd rather get one from the Scorpion. She's better."

"Ouch. Touche. So you know about the championship?"

"Of course. She's the best kickboxer in this country."

"I cannot deny that," Jack chided. "Sooo, eight, seven years old watched a kickboxing tournament-"

"I'm thirteen."

"Huh." Ok, she was off on the age by...three, four years.

"And it was my father who took me there. At the Sports Palace."

"Ah. Front row seats?"

"Of course. The best for us."

"Niiice." The tension was slowly dispersing between them. "So...what's your name, little one?"

Then it seeped back with the girl folding her arms. "I'm not telling ya-"

"Her name's Lina. With an I."

"Shut up, Rashid!" the girl with the glasses snapped to one of the children nearby.

"Lina. Pretty name. I know a Lena. With an E."

"Nuh-uh," Lina immediately cut her down. "We don't take sweet talk."

"I'm only honest. It's pretty. The others agree, right?"

A few of the girls around Lina bounced with accordance. Some of the boys were quiet but they did see eye to eye on the name.

"Still not taking sweet talk. If you want us to like you, you've gotta prove yourself."

"What is this, Lord of the Flies?" Jack exclaimed. Man, did this girl know how to keep a strong front.

"Please. There's no way you can fight those Biters outside. You're old news."

"Oh boy. What is up with children these days," Jack grumbled. Did their parents ever teach them manners?

"Yeah. I said it. You stopped being champion a year ago."

"Berat betted you to say it."

"No, he did not!" That clearly was a lie writing all over it. Lina turned back, almost making Jack think she just read her mind and was insulted. "She can't even outrun them."

"Ok, now, that's being ridiculous. How would I have gotten here then?" Jack interrupted the childish argument.

"Hey, I'm not the one talking my ass off like I'm a bigshot," Lina spat at Jack. And the little curse slipping off her tongue made some of the younger ones gasp. She said a bad word, they whispered.

"Language."

"Oh, c'mon. Who cares about that in an apocalypse?"

Jack didn't budge. She was tapping her foot with arms folded.

"Fine." Lina rolled her eyes. Teenage antics. Was Jack ever like this when she was her age?

"Alright. So I take it there's some proving ground for me to do. An evaluation until you think I'm still in my game."

The young child ran her eyes up and down on the adult. She was schmuck about her next move. "Really think you're up to it?"

"Of course. Nothing I can't handle. So what's the game of choice?" It couldn't be too ridiculous-

"Hide 'n' seek!"

Lina was about to answer but one of the little ones cut her to the chase. She glared angrily at the interrupter with wide eyes but it was already too late. The others were keen on the suggestion.

"Yeah! Hide 'n' seek! Hide 'n' seek!"

"What?! No! There's no way she'll do it-"

"Lina, she can't get to the top areas. She's not gonna find us," said the tall boy.

"I can hear you," Jack grumbled. Just how many times were these kids gonna kick her in the shin?

The group of children huddled together in their debating. Some agreed, some didn't, some just wanted another game instead. Finally, five childrens glanced back to the brunette.

"Alright," Lina started, obviously taking the lead. "You gotta find the six of us throughout the building. No asking the grown-ups, no cheating and boundaries' at the walls. No going outside."

"I certainly hope not," Jack added. "Do I get a reward for this little game?"

"Of course. And a good one," one of the boys added.

"So? Are you up to it?" Lina chided.

The ex-kickboxer pondered, huffing through her nose. She did need to find that boat. And meet up with Freakoid. And there was so much daylight left.

"Yeah. Why not?"

The little smiles grew bigger.

"Ok."

"Cool!"

"Yay!"

"Well, what are you waiting for?" Lina demanded.

"Uh-"

"What? Have you never played Hide 'n' seek before?"

Jack scoffed. "Of course, I have. I think."

"Then count to 30."

Ah, right. "Alright, alright" Jack wheeled around, her back to the giggling children. "1. 2. 3. 4."

She could hear the whispers. There were some hints she picked up and the children's scrambling - they were choosing their spots but quickly switching around their decisions on a whim. They wanted to make this hard for her.

Out of curiosity, once she was at ten, she slowly glanced over her shoulder.

But Lina spotted her quickly.

"Hey! No peeking!"

"Finnne." Jack turned back. "11. 12. 13. 14. 15. 16. 17."

She counted down, listening for the little footsteps squeak across the marble floor. Some went to the east. Others went upstairs.

"28. 29. 30." Jack turned to an Inner Courtyard emptied of bright-eyed children. "Here we go."

The first thing she did was sweep the ground floor. Some of the smaller ones, with their short legs, wouldn't go too far away. They'd want the quickest spots.

"Found you."

"Aw! No fair," whined little Hilmi, hiding under the staircase near the kitchen.

"Don't be upset. Using that vase was a nice touch."

"Heehee!" The eight-year-old then hurried off to the Inner Courtyard. Maybe to wait for the others that Jack would find. The Second hiding spot wasn't as difficult as the first. It needed some discreet entering the room, however. People would get lots of ideas on Jack if they saw her.

"Hey! You can't come in here."

"And you should know better using a Gents' room as a hiding spot. That's cheating."

"All's fair between men and woman."

"Where on Earth did you hear that from?" Jack asked curiously. This boy was around nine, not close to knowing such things. Right?

"The Sisters… I didn't get it… But it was a smart idea," Eren said in his defense.

"Of course, of course. Now run off."

Now was the next few spots. Jack was done with the first floor that she had to move up to the second.

"Peek-a-boo," she sang, peeking under the bed of the main dormitory.

"Heehee!" giggled Melek, the tiniest among the small group.

"Come on." She gently pulled the girl right up, with a little toss in the air and a little happy squeal out of her.

"Again! Again!"

"Next time, dearie," Jack whined softly. Omph, she felt her back pulled. Carefully, Jack brought her down and brushed the pesky dust bunnies off the girl's dress shirt. "Off you go."

Out the tiny girl went and out Jack went, stretching out the knot. The next few rooms to sweep was the sickbay and a laundry room.

However, Jack was quick to decide the sickbay might not be a choice the kids would pick. Not where there were two Sisters tending to the injured and sick. And the laundry room was a no-go when she saw the stocked weaponry there.

But she stopped and loitered against the door entrance.

"I'd advise you children not to use this spot anymore. This looks pretty dangerous."

No response. So Jack unlocked the closet door.

The innocent brown eyes peeked out of the small utility room. "This one's ok. I'm not inside the stockroom."

"Hm. I'll give ya that. But no more staying in the utility room. Ok?"

Rashid was quiet. He had no intention of giving up this spot. At least, not entirely. "Are you gonna tell the Sisters?"

"No," Jack replied. "I won't tell them."

"...Ok. I won't use this again. I'll tell the others too."

"Much obliged."

Four out of six. Not too bad. However, the last two were proving to be tricky. They were nowhere on the rest of the second floor so, by her deduction, they had to be on the third floor." Jack galloped off to the stairway. Only to see two men tending to the way up, with hammers, nails and other tools.

"Miss, be careful of the stairs. The wood's rotten from the heavy rains." The constructor pointed to the plank of wood against the damaged area - one 'safer' way to get upstairs.

"Noted. Did anyone go upstairs?"

"Yeah. A few Sisters and watchmen."

"Any children?"

"Children? They know better than to go to the third floor."

"Ah. I see." Jack strolled away. No point in giving the grown-ups ideas someone disobeyed a rule. "That means they're still on this floor." Maybe she missed a hidden room or something.

Then her eyes danced onto an open window at the children's dormitory.

She had noticed it before when she combed the floor. It was a damning, horrible mistake that someone would do. If a zombie could fly or leap over the walls and UV lights, they would certainly find this little entrance and slaughter everyone.

No adult in the orphanage or any safe area would leave a window opened.

But a child was another matter.

"What are the odds they took this way..."

Hopped she went through the window.

"Woooo!" Jack couldn't finish her sentence of "whoa!". It was a very, very long way down from up there. "There's no way they'd go through here...right...? No, they went this way."

There were traces of crayon marking in all various colors, along the old stone walls. What an odd place for doodles to be. And more organized ones that spoke to the reader, this way, that way, don't take this window. They were there long before the outbreak started, but younger than the vines leading up to the third floor.

The older kids...they did have the skills to climb all sorts of places. Like trees. More adventurous and thoughtful on their imagination.

Jack found the next open window, leading into what looked like a lone attic room. And by the gaping door was one of the hiders, all too focused on what was outside to hear Jack sneaking in. Right behind him.

"What you're looking for?"

Liam spun with a jump in his boots. Almost tripping back but Jack was quick in pulling him back on his feet. "Don't scare me!"

She chuckled. "Apology. Did you find a zombie lurking on this floor?"

"No. They don't come in." Jack's thumb jamming over her shoulder to the open window said a different story. And Liam, with wide eyes, puffed with anxiety. "We close the windows before nighttime. If the Sisters find out-"

"Alright. Alright. Still crazy for you kids to be doing that… All ok?"

Liam was busy looking back and forth from the door, unable to keep eye to eye on the brunette. The eleven-year-old boy was scared of something, alright. "...Sister James' on this floor… She'll get mad if she catches us."

"Ah. Alright. I'll tell her I didn't see you. Ok?"

"Ok."

"Hold on." She stopped him. "You're not going...back the same way, right?"

His lips were sealed tight but Liam's eyes said yes.

"You kids are gonna be the death of me…" Jack did nothing else to stop him. With a watchful eye locked on Liam, she observed him carefully ascended down the roof tiles and into the second floor window. She waited another five seconds to see the young boy wave back a thumbs-up.

Jack had been holding her breath so tight she could feel her head go light. Her fingers went white on the window sill. "I was almost ready to bolt and grab him if that kid fell… Heh, they sure showed me."

Now, it was the sixth kid left-

"-this is the fifth time!"

The harsh voice of a woman boomed outside the bedroom. It was down the hallway, where Jack spotted the thirteen-year-old, glasses-wearing girl with a Sister.

A Sister with a ruler in hand.

"You have been told many times you are not allowed on this floor. It's too dangerous for you children to be wandering around," barked the Sister.

"It's just stairs. There's nothing up here anyway."

"That is not the point. What were you doing up here?"

"None of your business," Lina snapped softly. She had no intention to tell an adult she was playing a game with Jack. "I'll save it for confession."

A smart-ars- then Jack stopped that train of thought. A smart aleck she should called Lina.

But that didn't impress the Sister like it did to Jack. In fact, it ticked her off. "...That is the crux of your problem, isn't it?"

To what expense was Lina trying to gain? This didn't seem like the first time to Jack. And it certainly wouldn't be the last with that kind of attitude.

She could have just admitted the truth, and Jack would walk right out and vouch for her. Take the heat off her. And yet, for some reason, Lina refrained from speaking. Maybe too desperate to spill the beans.

"You can't keep doing this," Lina talked back. "To everyone. Sister Mary Francine will know-"

"Enough!" the Sister snapped, letting the silence draw on. Only the sound of her heel tapping impatiently and loudly was all anyone could listen. "...I've tried everything to help you. But you seem insistent on ending up the same way your father did… Dragging everyone down with you.

...What a waste."

That stung, more painful than a bee's sting. Worst than getting bitten by a zombie. Lina's lips quivered and the sides of her squished eyes watered. She rubbed her left wrist tightly. What was worst was that her parent, probably long dead outside, had to be brought out to put salt on the wound.

The Sister didn't notice Jack hounding out of the bedroom and up to her. The woman in blue was too bent on keeping her authority up high at the young girl.

"Now go to your room. We'll discuss your punishment later-"

"Hey." Jack's interference surprised the two but she still shone out her catty grin in such a heavy atmosphere. "Are you the Head Sister of this orphanage?"

"I'm sorry. Who are you?" the Sister impatiently uttered at her. Another person who didn't recognize her.

"Brecken. The Junction sent me. And what's your name, miss?"

"It's Sister James. And I'm not the head. Sister Mary Francine is-"

"Ah. Sister James. Right! My mistake. I was looking for you." Jack roped her arm around the surprised Sister's shoulders, taking her away from the surprised, wide-eyed Lina. "Could I have a word with you? For a minute. Adult to adult." And before the Sister could object, Jack was already on the next move. "Run along, kiddo. I saw your friends waiting at the Inner Courtyard. So, Sister James. I'm running around to gather some requests. Anything to help the good people round here. Know what I mean?"

"I...can't think of anything right now. I am a very busy woman, as you can see, but-"

"Of course, of course. Same said for me. I'm a busy woman too. But we can spare a minute or two. It's not like those things outside can waltz right in," Jack droned, keeping them on a path to who knew anywhere. Not even Sister James knew. She knew where every door led to what room but where the destination this woman was taking her, it was unknown. "Must be tough running an orphanage. Before and after all Hell broke loose. Pardon my French there."

"I think you know the situation just as much as we all do. We're all trying to survive. Too many tried to take refugee here during the first three days of the infection."

"This is a historical place and a place for sanctuary. Anyone would come here."

"Well, not many stayed around. Some got tired waiting for anything to happen and left. A few too hopeful to find some way out of Scanderoon."

"Oh. Did they ever find it?"

"Please. You've heard Harran, right? No one could get out. And same is said for this city."

"You don't have much faith in them?"

"Faith is one thing. Ignorance over others is another. Some of those people left behind their children, thinking this would be a safe place. They did not think enough that their choice would be affect these little minds."

"Heh. Hehehehe… Oh, how poetic."

The Sister raised an eyebrow at that sentence. "I'm sorry?"

"People make last-minute decisions. There's no time for rational thinking."

"Well, they should have controlled their children a little more before dropping them here. We have lives here."

"You can't fault the parents for thinking this was the safest spot in all of Scanderoon for their children. Better than their own homes."

"Perhaps. It doesn't make it easy for us to tell their children they are not coming back. Or that any time, we could all die. That girl, Lina, she needs to see it that way. She needs to stop being like her father… He managed to rally a few other men and convinced them to go on a rescue mission. A pointless rescue. No one survived. How stupid." Sister James was all caught up in her speech, she barely saw the little twitch in Jack's tightening fist. Almost a hairline away of being punched. "We have always kept a firm hand on the orphans, even on the new ones. They need to learn more than ever they can't be clumsy and bring others down with them."

"So it's alright to demoralize their children for their decisions? Punish them for the sins of their fathers?"

Their walking stopped.

Sister James looked at her sternly. She didn't like where this was going. "Miss, these children forget every day that we are in peril. One mistake and they'll surely get themselves killed. Everyone else too. I'm only reminding them that they're lucky to be alive and no one needs their shenanigans disturbing everyone."

Everything Jack listened just sounded like a joke, an excuse. The same thing she had heard over and over before.

"Hm-hm. Yeah. Sure," Jack mumbled, closing the gap between them.

And her arm fired.

THUD!

Sister James' face was drained of all color. In less than a second, she found herself being pinned up to the wall. And what she saw before her wasn't the calm, collected and unreasonable woman she was talking to.

It was a predator. Not like the ones outside these walls.

"What are you doing-?!" Sister James yelled. She was far away from any help to hear her pled.

"Listen carefully. You're not the only one with her string hung tight. Everyone's in the same predicament as you are, Sister . But that doesn't give you the right to take it out on others. Psychologically and physically."

"What are you talking-"

Not what Jack wanted to hear. And she shoved the woman to stay quiet. "How often do you tell everyone that these children are 'clumsy?' Because those bruises on their arms don't look like any bump."

"W-What? They're just a slap on the wrists!"

"A slap?" She gave a resentful laugh, almost equivalent to a hyena too tired to give any shit. "Love, I've gotten all kinds of blues and blacks. I know the difference. And I'm pretty sure God knows that too. If I don't see your act change by the time I come back, you're gonna be praying for a lot more than just help."

There was no reasoning with an unleashed dog. And even if Sister James were to deny her claim, try to spin it around in her favor, there would be no stopping the teeth from firing.

"Understand?"

Jack didn't get a reply. She never expected an answer. She didn't care for an excuse.

"Don't," Jack warned. "Call anyone 'a waste'."

The Sister couldn't move. She didn't have the courage to get her free. No way could she fight those zombies outside and no way could she win against a professional.

"Are we clear?"

Sister James nodded - first it was a few slow, timid ones, and then the nodding became aggressive.

"Good." She unhooked her arm off her throat. There was no apologetic demeanor from her, no regard that she tried to put a person of the holy profession at a necklock. She simply smiled and patted the dust off the Sister's blue top. "Godspeed, Sister."

And Jack left. She didn't turn back to see the petrified Sister slide down the wall, still processing if she had just survived something far worse than being devoured by the Virals outside.


Jack stretched out her arms as she strolled for the exit. That workout was an interesting one - put her to the test and led her to discover the building's little secrets. It did make her wonder if there were a lot more hiding under the city's grounds. Like old tunnels, secret passages, etc.

"Hey."

She stopped and wheeled to see Lina not too far.

"Weren't you sent to your room?" she asked, only to get a scoff.

"Sister James doesn't know everything about this orphanage."

"Oh. There are more places I haven't seen?"

"Of course. I'm not telling ya what and where they are."

"Fair enough. You'd need a good advantage anyway," Jack chuckled with her wide grin. "This place has so many hidey-holes those creeps outside can't find ya."

Lina's smile melted down. "Eren saw what you did… Sister James' not gonna like that."

"And I don't get a…" she held back her word. Remember, children. Hold your tongue, Jackie. "Dog's butt what she thinks of me."

"Heh. Dog's butt. Nice one."

Jack just shrugged shamelessly.

"...Thank you. You didn't need to-"

"Maybe… But I've been told that before. Never liked it."

"Oh… From your parents?"

"Oh. No, no, no. My parents loved me… Someone else said those words to me once."

The silence hung uncomfortably and densely in the air. That was where she should take her leave now. Jack was positive the Sister was already on her way to complain to Sister Mary Francine. "I'll see you all again."

"Hey," Lina called for her again. "You're really leaving without your reward?"

"I didn't finish the game," Jack pointed. "I should have found you first."

Lina partly and silently agreed that. Had Jack was five seconds earlier, she wouldn't have been found by Sister James.

"You still found us."

In her hands was something wrapped in cloth and dirt. If Jack were to guess, they had dug it out from a garden inside the walls. Lina easily handed it over to her, tearing off the cloth.

A shiny cricket bat. Good quality wood. Barely any scratches that showed it had been behind glass before it was taken down.

"Now that's...really impressive for you lot to have."

"It's my dad's." That surprised Jack, making her fingers soften on the wood. "That's signed by Jasmin. His favorite player… He always wanted to teach me cricket."

"You sure-?"

"You've earned it. And you need it for those zombies."

"You do know I might break it, right?"

Lina just shrugged. "Dad would have probably clobbered those zombies out there. And...he'd want someone to put it to good use."

"...I'm honored. Thank you."

"Jack?" Again, the thirteen-year-old girl stopped her. "Don't die out there."

Jack smirked boldly. "Wouldn't dream of it. Saint Sandrine, watch on us all."

Chapter Text

THIRTEEN: DOWNPOUR


One, two, three and four switches up. And volia, let there be light.

The safe zone came to life. The fluorescent lights around him blinked a few times before brightening up the small room Crane was in. A backpack with standard stuff, a nice sleeping bag near the table and the whole place clear of any problems that made this place relatively safe.

"Alright, Jack. Safe zone's running now," he called over the comm.

"That's impressive," the ex-kickboxer droned in his ear. Whether she really meant it or joked at him was another thing he couldn't figure out on the spot. "You didn't have any problems fondling with the switches?"

"I may be a zombie but I still know how to turn on a frigging power box." With a scoff, he shut the metal box close.

"I meant no ill will of questioning your capabilities, Freakoid. You've clearly shown them to me in the last two days. I'm more impressive how well you're remembering the small things quickly."

Shit, did he give another slipup? He's gotta stop doing that. Come on, try to turn this around so she could get off his back. "So? It's amnesia, not a complete wipeout. Lots of people can remember the basics like it's no problem."

"Weeell...you're not wrong on that. I still can't remember the route I used to take for groceries."

Oh. Right. "Yeah. You...you said you lost your memory, right?"

"A couple of days worth. Maybe a week. Can't easily recall anything. So I know how difficult it can seem trying to remember the last thing you did."

So she knew from experience. Was it right of him to play the role of an amnesiac? It might be a double-edged sword if he tried to play his cards wrong. Jack might pick up something off in his words. Or she might feel sympathetic towards someone with so-called "memory loss".

"...Sorry. If I brought anything up-"

"It's old news. Only time can tell when memories come back. I should know myself."

"Uh, right." Now, why did that sound weird to him? "Anyhow. You can give those two the OK."

"Sure. Oh, before you leave. Mind spotting our emblem on the window? It's a Rav thing."

"Um…" An odd kind of request but it wasn't a request he didn't have to reject. It wasn't some life-threatening or lunatic offer. In fact, it was probably the simplest thing he could ever be asked for. To paint a symbol. He darted his eyes about. Luckily, right by a workshop table were two old paint cans. White for one. "Ok, sure."

It wasn't too difficult at all. With claws like his, it was easy to just clip the lid in one go - the liquid having dried it shut right into the can. There weren't any brushes around so all Crane had to resort with was...well, his claw.

"White raven, right?" he asked, starting with the straight stroke he recalled from memory. Right across a window panel.

"Yup."

"I don't see the point-"

"It's just our way of saying that's our turf. Good friends are welcomed, unwanted guests are not. Both the 'graaar' type and the thug type. Sure, no one here knows the Ravs yet but, hey. We can't be losing a place for safety."

"Fair enough... Done." At least, he hoped that was enough. He did his best to replicate the emblem as close as possible to what he said back at the basketball court. The beak looked a little off though. "What's taking you by the way? Don't see you anywhere." He peeked out through the filthy window. Didn't help that the sky was darkening. Not the night time yet, just more grey clouds.

"What about you? You said it was going be a walk in the park and you just finished."

"I had...some extra problems." He expected just the normal lurkers. But apparently, the group of men he spotted earlier had split up into smaller packs - one heading to the inactive safe zone to claim it.

What they didn't expect was the dead zombies at the door of the safe zone. And when they followed Crane's carnage, they found him.

So the walls were riddled with bullet holes. And there was blood everywhere. He did his best to move out the corpses but hey, there was no safe zone that had air fresheners. And he wasn't a cleaner.

"Nothing a talking, walking zombie can't handle. As for why it's taking a while: one, got held back at the orphanage and two, the boat was taken by some jackarses."

"Nothing an ex-kickboxer can't handle?" Now it was his turn to toss back the ball.

"Not for the second, no. Easy picks for me. The first, well-"

"What? The survivors there don't like you on first impression?"

"Hide 'n' seek with the orphans. Little buggers were real smart in their hiding spots that I couldn't find any of them for first ten, twenty minutes."

"You're real carefree. Should you even be playing games?"

"They're children. They've already gotten enough discipline from the adults here. They don't need to hear from one more."

"You? Discipline? Don't sound right to me."

"If you're asking for that strong office boss type, I'm not that kind of woman."

"Please. I've met one and I've regretted it ever since. Jokes aside, you...really shouldn't be all humble with everyone."

"Oh? And why not?" she sang. "Strengthening bonds can help people in a time of need."

"Hey, you said to me not to treat this like I'm back at Harran. Same should be said to you, this isn't the Outskirts either. Everyone isn't your next door neighbor."

"Who really knows about their next door neighbor? I couldn't figure out mine at my old apartment for three years."

Ugggh, could this woman just be serious for once? "Look. All I'm saying is you can only get so far being a Good Samaritan. But...if you keep this up, you're only gonna get stabbed in the back."

The line went quiet. And again, another slipup.

But this time, Crane didn't bite his tongue back. She needed to hear that. While Jack had too many secrets under her thick skin and reminded him of Raiz a bit, she was too trustworthy. People could make her dance like a monkey before trying to chop off her head.

Why was he even trying to help her? So that she wouldn't make the same mistakes as him?

Maybe. There was no way for him to turn back time and redeem himself. Guess he wanted her not to have that feeling.

"Another one of these flashes?" she asked. Her tone wasn't mocking or peppy.

"...Call it intuition."

"Hm... I should have met you much earlier then. Would have saved me a lot of trouble. But that's a whole different story… Like I said before, not in my nature to abandon people."

"You can't save everyone."

"No, I can't. I'm no hero," she said honestly. "But I gotta give something to these people, no matter how small. It's the same for you. You want to help runners and you're using the one thing they fear. Yourself."

"Stop reminding me-"

"I'm not. What you are right now is also small but you are a force that could save lives. That's big."

"That's...kinda nice, coming from you."

"That's what I mean. Small things to give back. Sometimes, people need just a bit of hope. A bit of courage. It goes a long way."

"Sometimes, it doesn't," he argued.

"Maybe. We'll just have to see. I'm on my way now."

The call ended with a click and a bitter taste in his mouth. How on Earth was he going to convince her otherwise? She should be more careful of who her friend and enemy were.

Maybe he should let her get burned. A learning experience for her when it hit her hard.

No, he wouldn't let himself go if that were to happen on someone else. And something told him...she's been down his path before.

Crane could only hope she wouldn't regret her decision in the long run. Like he did.

But right now, he was about to regret his current decision.

"Right…the UV lights."

Getting out quick without being roasted up by UV rays. He never would have imagined that the one thing that kept the monsters at bay would keep him out too. The sign of the blue fluorescent lights were signs of safety and now, they were deadly rays on him. Then again, he'd never dreamt he would be on the other side.

No pain, no gain. Except he'd surely die.

He thought carefully about his next move. "Just run right out. Ignore the pain. You can do it. Run. Just. Run."

Crane prepared himself. Then deflated himself down and took a step back. Shook his hands a couple of times before he reached for the door handle.

He counted. He repeated in his head several times. Just run, just run, just run.

Inhale. Exhale.

"Ok." Another ten seconds. "Enough stalling!"

Crane threw open the door and bolted. Immediately, the UV lights hit as he bolted up and over the tall fences. He felt his skin burn and fizzle, the smell of his own flesh snaking to his heightened scents. With a loud hiss, he ducked away from the safe zone and took a minute outside to endure the pain. Let it run its course.

Finally, it was gone. And like before, like it was nothing, Crane took towards to the top of the apartments.

He'd need high ground to spot Jack. And make sure none of those prisoners would drop on her and surprise her. She was a capable fighter but there was a fine line between being careful and being an idiot. This place would eat anyone alive if they weren't careful.

So far, with his special see-through sight, there was no sign of the thugs. They and any other human must be heading for cover from the coming rain. Already, he could feel the first wet beats on his skin.

The infected didn't seem to mind the light blessing. The sound of water hitting tin cans and metal dumpsters did make them draw towards it - it was sending them around in circles.

There was one highlighted infected that caught Crane's attention. It was at the top of another apartment. Far off.

To be honest, he thought it was a survivor by the way it stood. It didn't slouch its chest back and walk sluggishly - all the tall tales of a zombie. It was straight as a tree, undisturbed by the other walkers around it. Ok, so it was one of them. He thought it was a Goon because it had something long in its rightie. But it was too thin in muscle mass.

Then it turned.

It turned right to him.

"Shit!"

He ducked under the air-con machinery. That didn't happen, right? That thing...looked at him. It saw him ten yards away from him.

How did it know?

Crane glanced back and got the shivers down his infected spine. The eyes were still on him. Uncannily locked even behind so much distance between them. He crawled a bit to the left and it followed. He slithered to the right and it followed.

"The fuck…" He had no words. Ok, he technically hasn't been saying words much as a zombie. But he was left speechless.

Even after a minute or two, this thing wouldn't get bored and move on. It was on his every move and he didn't like it.

What should he do? No zombie he knew could do anything like this. Maybe it was a Special. A new one Jack would be interested.

"Hey, Jack."

"What's up?" she clicked back in. "I see the museum in the distance. Be there in four, five tops-"

"I just saw something strange. Some...weird, lanky zombie."

"Oh? Weirder than you?"

"Funny. A smart-ass."

"You can't get mad at me. I have a zombie like you as my client-"

"J-Just stop talking for one second. I'm serious about this one. This thing's nothing like I've seen before. It's pacing...like a human."

"Sounds like any typical type to me. All these Biters were humans once."

"Yeah but...this thing isn't acting feral. It's too calm."

"Okaaay. Doesn't really warrant for any concern that I can see."

"Except...I think it saw me. Through walls. Shit. This thing's eyes are on me like a hawk."

"What?"

"Yeah. It's damn freaky." He had slipped out one tracker from his pockets. "Think it's worth to tag it?" he asked reluctantly.

"Freakoid, get out. Now."

"Wait, why?" The urgency in her voice was now grave. Screaming danger to him.

"That's a Watcher! GET OUT NOW!"

Watcher?

Then came the whistling sound. It was immediate. Crane couldn't pinpoint the origin with his heightened hearing.

Then wood splinters burst next to his ear.

"SHIT!" He dropped back. It was nearly a graze. No, it was nearly right on his head. A M4 bullet!

For a split second, he thought a human gunner was nearby. One of the prisoners seeing a big threat on the rooftops. Or Rais' men. But there was no one.

Except, the Watcher, still staring at him.

That wasn't a rebar or a blunt weapon the thing carried. It sluggishly raised its choice of weapon high up, almost at the same level as one would with a firearm. And an assault rifle at that.

"Since when do zombies use guns?!"

He couldn't stay. All the wailing was drawn to the gunshot. Not the only gunshot: multiple. That thing was already preparing another fire. It still 'remembered' how to aim. Whether it could reload, he didn't want to stay and find out.

A red dot danced across the tops. Oh, peachy. Laser scope sight! Crane couldn't risk using his tendrils and stay out in the open. He had to stay under cover over the rooftops. The rain had also picked up, as if orchestrating that his demise was coming.

A loud gunshot fired.

"Gah!" The force of the bullet wasn't one he could joke about, even as an infected. The shot nicked his shoulder but it pushed him off his footing. He tumbled off the edge, his claws racking at something to grab.

Thud!

Only concrete stopped his fall. It wasn't the ground floor but the next door rooftop was enough to do a number on him. His vision blurred from the bump on his head. He needed a minute. Please-

The plead went unheard. Because right coming to his reemerging sight was a hideous thing.

At first fuzzy glance, the creature looked like a Volatile, straight and firm. Like the Mother. But there was a lack of traits this one didn't have. It didn't have the split-jaw mandibles or the bone spikes from the side of its abdomen. It partly had some shreds of its former uniform before the poor sob turned undead - it even had standard military pouches and the ripped, tattered camouflage sheet over its back like an evil villain's cloak. Crane was right on one thing: that rifle was military standard. This country's army's choice of weapon for their best. In fact, it wasn't too hard to figure out what the silhouette of the past man was.

What stood out the most was the eyes. Its eyelids had rotted off, showing the golden, unclear orbs as big as they could be. Black-ringed pupils locked hauntingly at him. It was almost as if a monstrous owl was observing him, regardless of where he tried to hide.

The barrel drifted to Crane's throat. He could feel the hot metal drape.

"W-Wait!" He was one of them!

Crane held that sentence back in. He was being an idiot, trying to plead with an infected. But it made him realize how grim his reality was. He was the only one turned and the only one who came back. And regardless of how easy survivors saw him as one of them, the Watcher knew otherwise.

Not knew. The norm of the infected didn't know. They couldn't think. They couldn't control their hunger. The infection commanded them to bite, to spread, to destroy. And the Watcher was going by pure instinct, following the virus obediently. But it didn't want competition. It saw Crane as a threat, it didn't want him sharing its hunting grounds.

It lifted the rifle up. Point blank to his head.

The Watcher wanted him dead.

Crane was never one of them. He was unwanted. In a sea of zombies he no longer belonged.

He wasn't one of them anymore.

Pif! Pif!

The Watcher swatted something on his neck - his free palm. And Crane saw it between its pale fingers.

Two darts.

"Gragh!" came the warcry. And the Watcher was gone by a shove, down into the pitch dark below.

Jack was in its spot instead.

"Jack-"

"What are you waiting for?! RUN!"

He galloped back up, after the ex-kickboxer who was now four rooftops away from him. "You got rid of that thing!"

"Two tranq darts is not gonna stop a Watcher!" Jack hollered. "Go!"

Another gunshot. Whistling somewhere above their heads. The two dropped down from quite a high distance, right on top of a wooden platform roof. It stayed firm under Jack's weight but broke under Crane's. Right inside the house below.

"Keep going!" Jack shook off the sores from her fall. There couldn't be any second wasted. "We can't stop-"

"Wait!" Crane glanced back through thick walls. The Watcher was now at a high top but was still quite far away. It didn't come after them. "It's not following."

"Oh. Well. Let's not give it a chance then. Watchers can still shoot our heads like bloody pumpkins from the other side of the city, mate!"

"What the hell is that thing?" he demanded in the small brief of respite they have. "Why can it use a rifle?!"

"Good questions that I don't have any answer to. And we'll never learn the longer we stay out here!"

"It's not nighttime yet. But we need to find a safe zone for you-"

Jack was already shaking her head in disagreement. "No, no. A safe zone with a Watcher on it becomes a prison cell. That thing needs to be off us now. It's not a goldfish with a 5-minute memory. Worse is when it howls."

"Why?"

As if Crane was just asking for fate to turn a bad turn for the worse, a loud wail resounded. It was different from a normal Volatile. It was louder than a Demolisher. But it was clear to Crane that thing was made heard. Like a banshee announcing someone's upcoming death.

And on queue, the city cried out with it.

Crane had heard these noises before. So has Jack. Any loud sound would attract the dark seeping creatures from underground. Ready to dig their claws into warm flesh.

"That's why. It calls reinforcements."

"Shit."

"You're one of them, right?! Can't you tell them to bugger off?!"

Crane glared at her with wide golden eyes. "Are you kidding me?! They see me as an outcast!"

"Oh, bloody - of course. They have a hierarchy." And she was off. "Move! We need to get to the river!"

They were back out in the open. The rain wouldn't be enough to cloak them from the three swarming entities climbing towards them from the manholes they burst out. Another four small fries added to the numbers.

Another gunshot rained upon them. A miss. But this time, it was closer to Crane's right.

"How accurate is this thing?!"

"Keep going!" Jack shouted, glancing back.

It was only a split second. She didn't have eyes at the back of her head to see a Volatile climbing up the antenna nearby, readying a leap-

"Oh no, you don't!"

The tendrils fired and lassoed around the bloke's torso. With a hard swing and a spin on a heel, Crane chucked the violent beast right back at their persecutors. The sounds of bodies contact and irritated growls were drowned down by the storm.

The duo speedily parkoured on - Crane kept his speed down, however. He could easily outrun Jack but no way in his conscious was he gonna let her be bait. And who knew if another Volatile would try to get the jump on her again.

Right now, Jack was also his guide. She seemed to know where to go and what to do under these terrifying conditions. So up they climbed and slid down a long, steep, zinc-sheeted covering.

"Shit! Stop! Stop! Stop!" Crane wailed frantically. It was no go - his claws couldn't get a good grip on wet metal sliding. All he could do was let the ride take over and watch Jack take a leap off the roof's edge. Over a twenty-feet gap and into the balcony of a two-deck home.

"Jump!"

Now or never! He overshot. A powerful Hunter with strong leg muscle would be able to fling himself right at the roof instead of the platform. Like a slingshot.

"Shit!" The old awning broke beneath his feet. And down he dropped.

"Got you!" Jack fired her hand right onto his just in the nick of time. But the sudden shift in weight nearly took her over the edge with him that she had quickly latched herself to the balcony railing.

"Thanks!"

"Pull up! You're too heavy!"

Stop calling him fat! But Crane did as he was told. The two were back up, climbing and darting across the rooftops.

"River's just below!" Jack hollered. "Slide down the zipline!"

A hop and skip onto the line. Crane could see another platform on the other side of the raging channel. How far were they going to go before this thing got tired of them-

"Jump down!" And Jack suddenly unhooked herself off.

"Wait - Ah, shit!" A change in a detour for whatever reason but he didn't question her.

Down they went into the rushing river.

Splosh! Splosh!

The laser dot ran across the water's surface. The Watcher was still seeking, still searching.

Nothing.

It waited.

Still nothing that its large, hollow eyes could find.

The assault rifle drooped down. It had lost both its rival and its new prey. Now with its interest lost, the Watcher stayed on its perch just as it did before it picked up on Crane. Waiting. For another to fall under its radar.

"Gah!" Twenty feet away in the river, Jack popped up her head, spitting out swallowed water. The one good way she knew of getting out of a Watcher's sight was going in cold water.

Well, she had never taken a gamble to see if it'd work. Either the coldness hid her body heat or the rush would take her away too fast for the Watcher to point and aim at her head. Regardless, it was one means of escape from all sorts of zombies.

"Ahahahaha!" Jack chortled, pointlessly wiping the water off her face. With wet gloves. In the rain. "Oh…that was riveting. Could have gone more gracefully, eh, mate?"

She got no reply.

"Freakoid?" she called, sharply glancing around. Freakoid hadn't surfaced out.

Wait. She never did get a confirmation before about him able to swim. Could Hunters even swim?!

"Freakoid!"

"Gack! Koff!" A head came up. And she almost thought it was a new type that inclined her to raise her weapon. Or a crocodile. Crocodiles were nasty little critters.

She plopped the weapon down under the surface. "Oh, don't scare me like that, mate."

"Garh, I got water in my ear."

"That should be the least of your worry. We need to get out of this river. And this rain." Jack was already on her way to a little debris-made bank at the edge. Crane followed. It was just as easy to do the stroke in this new body as in his old body.

"Oh. C'mon," Crane started. "This isn't the worst storm I've been in-"

KA-BOOOOOM-KAAAK!

"SHIT!" The Wild Dog leaped, hands over her head. She nearly lost her footing, as jittery as a scared chihuahua.

The sky screamed. It roared angrily, demanding repentance to those below it. Its wrath was made clear - that even the mindless, the calculated, the sane and the primal couldn't stand against nature.

"Oh...wow!" Jack uttered. That came out of nowhere. Yes, the lights in the district were out in a blink of an eye. But, oooh, that was terrifying. "That really scared me shitless… Huh, seems like it did the same for the zombies." She couldn't spy any sign of the golden eyes in the distance. No Watcher all the way high. "Hahaha-heh…"

Jack wheeled back. And she couldn't find the pair of golden eyes behind her. Her smile cracked down.

"Freakoid?"

He wasn't there. Not in the waters. Not behind her. Nowhere.

But she spotted him running along the river's inner edge at the corner of her eye.

"H-Hey! Freakoid!" she hollered under the storm. Jack gave sprint. "Freakoid! Shit, who would have thunk it that he'd be spooked by lighting! Freakoid!"

Her calls were drowned by the thundering. Even with Crane's excellent hearing, he couldn't hear her.

He was too afraid.

The second voice was still at the back of his mind. When the sky turned white and roared, it wanted to flee. Instinct overrode his reasoning and took over. He needed to get out of the rain, it told him. They had to get out!

It was coming. Whatever it was, it was coming to get him. To kill them!

Wait! Stop! Where was he supposed to go? A part of his rational mind was still trying to grab for the reins and stop the mad horse from crashing somewhere. He had nowhere to go.

His body wouldn't obey him. It was too terrified to stop.

No, he had somewhere to go.

I need to go back! I need to go back to the Tower-!

"No one is at the Tower anymore."

"Gaaah!" Crane shrieked. Standing in his way, on the banks of the river was a face he was sure he had killed. The piercing bloodshot eyes staring through the eyeholes of that mask.

"No one is waiting for you, Crane," spat the Mother.

Run! Run! screamed his other side.

He sprinted past her. He couldn't stop. But her presence was still behind him, lurking close like a ghost.

"You can't run forever." And suddenly, she was back in front of him. "You can't save anyone."

"Shut up! I killed you! You're dead!"

"How delusional you are!" her voice boomed, scraping at the bony sides of his skull. "Like before. And even now. Do you think everything will all end with a simple solution?"

"SHUT UP!" he roared, slashing at nothing.

His sudden attack sent his body flying, like a blind jaguar pouncing. He felt the ground hit him at his fumbling but fear rallied him back up.

"You can never get rid of me."

Yes! Yes, he could! He just needed to get away! Underground was the safest-

A voice pried into his ears, outside his skull. Something called out to him but it was muffled by the whispers inside his head.

Then he felt something grab his arm.

He lashed out a talon at whatever it was and dug his sharp nails into something soft. There was a hiss but he didn't care. He didn't listen. He had to stay alive-

"Freakoid!"

Crane snapped out of it. All the dark whispers were quietened down by the heavy-accented holler. It was quiet inside his head - with only the raindrops around him.

He blinked a couple of times. He found himself at the entrance of a large broken pipe. And right in front of him was Jack stopping him from going further into the channel, out of breath and nearly out of her wits.

"Are you with me?" she asked between breaths.

There was concern in her tone. Why, he wondered. Why was she worried about him-

No.

Why should she worry about a thing like him? Why did she come after him? Seriously, who in their right mind would chase after a zombie?

She tried again. "Hey. You're ok?"

Ok?

Was he ok?

His eyes darted about until they stopped on his grip. It was on Jack's arm.

There was blood. Her blood.

He drew out blood so tightly with his talons. He had nearly tried to attack her without realizing it.

Crane retrieved his hand. No, claw.

He wasn't human.

He was a quivering animal inside a pipe.

Crane could never become human. This disguise wouldn't help. It was just made-pretend.

He was going through another lie when there was no hiding from everything.

"C'mon." She reached her hand out to him. "Lighting's nothing to be afraid of."

Crane stared down at the hand - that reassuring, human gesture. No, that was just an illusion to him. Another make-pretend. That shouldn't even be given to an infected.

"I can't… I can't do this…"

"Of course, you can. Storm will pass just like any other storm would-"

"I don't mean that!" Crane slapped the hand away from him. That shocked the brunette but he didn't care. He was being serious. "...Stop pretending like I'm...ok."

Just leave him alone. Leave him outside like all the rest. It was a broken record in his head but it was the truth - he was gone and there was nothing for him to return to, neither on the survivors' side or on the infected's.

Jack was only making the impossible worst. By toying around and pretending he was a human. Having a human conversation, saving him like a human would for another, making him dress up so that he could barely pass as one. Yes, she was ordered to stay with him. But there was a limit how far a person should treat another long gone.

Just stop staying for him…

But she wouldn't budge from her spot. Instead, she waited.

"...Look at me… I'm a monster. A-And I still was! I...I've hurt people. I've probably killed more. I could have killed you just now." Her face didn't twitch at the idea she nearly died. So Crane pushed again. "...You can't dress that up and pretend like it's nothing."

Nothing from Jack and with the silence straining against Crane, all he could do was tear out the revolting feeling he had kept inside.

"I don't get why I'm back. I shouldn't be back at all! You shouldn't even stay with a piece of shit like me! Nobody should for all the things I've done! I could have saved them! All of them! But I let them die!"

Crane breathed heavily after his outburst. Why wasn't he better? It still didn't quench down that painful guilt inside. It was burning, ripping him up. It was something he had kept shut inside under lock and key - Crane rarely let himself explode.

Now, all the bottles he kept away were breaking, cracking into pieces.

"I can't hide this…"

The guilt. The pain. The Crane that ruined everything. The fake Hero people saw him.

"...It's always routine."

Crane sighed. Not another one of her ramblings. "What are you talking about-"

"The first step you do before you jump into the ring...is to admit you're powerless."

There was something in the air that Crane almost overlooked on Jack. It was that old look he had seen before, only it had a sense of a vet thrown into war.

Correction. A fighter putting herself many times into the fighting ring.

"Your opponent is the same. Both of you are powerless. Not better. And when the two of you jump right in the ring...that's when you figure what to do. What you need to do," Jack explained. "You'll get wins. And losses too. And you can't stop. Even when you hit rock bottom."

The sincerity in her strengthened every word in her. It made Crane wonder - how tiny were her secrets that she let them slipped between the lines. He almost wanted to scoff, she couldn't compare her sports career to his ordeals in Harran.

"There's really only one way you can do when you go back into the ring," Jack explained softly. Wisely. "That's pretty much up."

Crane hunched his eyebrows together. Up? There was nothing for him to go up. He was a monster. A menace. A burden. Stop joking with him, Jack!

But he kept those five words in. Jack had taken down her shades. And this was the first real time he fully saw her eyes. The hazel eyes told everything - the whole world behind the mask. Jack was an ex-kickboxer and she was a woman thrown in this outbreak like him. She was like any survivors in this city, living and surviving.

There was a story he didn't know but the expression she had told him...she had seen a man like him crack down and fall to his knees. Or maybe it was herself who had fallen.

She had given up before. And yet, she kept going.

But she never surrendered.

Well, she was a boxer, as she said. Surrender probably wasn't in an athlete's vocabulary. They never really quit after a loss. They got back up. And he knew a bit from his high school days in the run-and-track field.

"That's all you can do. Same said in this fucked-up place. You can only go up. Or let this infection beat you."

"Hah!" Crane scoffed. He found this funny. All of it. "So what? I become like that maniac crimelord? Or, or that crazy-ass Volatile and her cult?! Oh! Better! How about those cooperate fucksheads?!"

KLANK!

His distorted voice had raised the volume to the point it nearly made him inhuman. He quickly stopped himself, before his other side would try to take it out on Jack. Driving all the anger down his claw fisting metal in one strike. Jack only stared at him with much-deepened confusion and caution on her face.

It didn't matter to him if she didn't understand what he was saying. God, why was he saying anything to begin with? Why was he spilling it all out so easily?

Perhaps because he was down in the gutter. Perhaps he had finally found himself so far gone, there wasn't a point in keeping the secrets and the lies.

"I let people die… I made them suffer...because I was following orders. I...I had always been a good little dog...following orders…"

The final blow to him. The pan that whacked him right out of his denial and down the rest of the five stages of grief. He couldn't hide from it any longer. God finally gave him what he deserved. A liar and a crook could only get retribution. Hell had already opened its gates on him but he had now stepped through.

"No… I deserved this…" And Crane set his face into his palms. "For being a monster…"

The storm brew on. And finally, the shadow on him shifted. Jack had finally decided to leave him-

"...Then you should start repenting."

Crane slowly, briefly, raised his head. Jack hadn't gotten up and left. Instead, she made herself comfortable at the end of the pipe. Nothing of a wise-crack joke out of the stone-cold woman he had beside him. She meant every word.

Repent. Maybe he should. But the way Jack said didn't sound like he should off himself. Her voice was spiteful again - so soft and low it was well-hidden but sharp enough to cut the air - he would be seen as a coward if he were to take the easy way out.

"...I don't know these people, Freakoid. I can't read your brain. And I don't know what you've been through. But I know this much," she began. "If you want things to change, if you want to have a clear conscious, then you gotta carry that weight all over again. Not just for yourself, but for those from your past. The ones who mattered. And you gotta be yourself to do that."

Again. Just like the first time.

Jack had a good way of talking. It nipped at the heart. It moved the courage. It sparked the passion.

Small things to give back. And nothing asked back.

"That's how you'll get back up. You owe them that much."

Up. It didn't literally mean that he'd rise up to the top and become the very enemy he swore to stop. It meant to get up on his feet and try again.

Could he really get back up again? Just by being himself again? He wasn't sure if he could tempt fate and turn it around.

Be myself...

"...What if I don't like myself?" he confessed.

Jack had no answer. Not straight away. "...Then make a new you." Another surprise from her. "You have that choice. Just don't leave behind those people you couldn't save."

He absorbed everything he listened. He contemplated. He recalled Jack's words - that he reminded her of her old self. With a spiteful tone that read she hated it.

The old Jack.

And right before him was the new Jack.

Don't leave behind those people you couldn't save… It sounded ridiculous. Jade and Rahim were gone. Many good people were gone. They weren't coming back.

But...if Crane stopped now...who would carry them?

That was unfair to them.

"C'mon." Again, she reached her hand out. Still persistent as always. Was it Crane's destiny to meet whackjobs in this country? "Let's get out of the rain."

"...Seriously." He pushed it away again, this time not with as much force as the first. "You're nuts to be sticking with me."

She chuckled softly, this time no offense to the second decline. "I told you already. Not in my nature to abandon people."

"What?" Crane laughed. "And I count?"

"Yeah. You've been looking like you needed someone for a very long time."

Crane let the words sink in. He couldn't deny that but he didn't admit it. More like he was all too stunned at how true and painful those words bit.

Jack said nothing. She wore her sports shades back, stood up and walked a few paces away from the giant pipe. The hand offering had stopped. She was giving him his space but she wasn't planning on leaving.

She waited. And she wasn't going anywhere. Even if it was the middle of the night. In the pouring, pitch-black rain.

Finally, Crane crawled out from the metal cylinder.

"Hey," he called out verbally. A little jump in the bold, pigheaded fighter from his spooky, disgruntled voice but she turned around with an expressionless face. "...Sorry. About earlier."

"For what?" she asked.

Geezus, did she really have to make him say it? But her puzzlement was genuinely modest.

"You...reminded me of someone I hated. That...maniac crimelord."

"Ah…" Yup, he offended her. Jack may be quiet and peaceful, and not going off like a firecracker, but there was a tint shown in her body gestures.

"About what you said. That you profit from all this."

She nodded. "...If it's any consolation, a lot people hate me," Jack admitted.

"Heh. Maybe. But he was a psycho. You're not. I'd pick you over that fucker any day."

She looked rather impressed to hear that, genuinely pleased and honored at his statement. "That's the nicest thing anyone had said to me."

"Probably the last thing I'm gonna say… Thanks, Jack... I mean it."

She smirked. "That's what partners are for."

Partners.

It was an odd word he had never really taken in. He had freelanced a few jobs before GRE, and freelanced for that company. But always, he had done his missions soloing. It wasn't how it worked - having a partner could be a liability in his line of work. Men like him had to learn to be sturdy and strong on their own, even learn to pull out a bullet and do self-surgery with a hot-heated needle.

His only fault, as his GRE command had told him, was that he was too soft at times.

Then came a beeping sound.

Jack lifted up her PACT. The countdown had just begun.

"Nighttime's coming," she breathed tiredly. "How are you holding up?"

Crane found it surprising once she asked that question. He couldn't tell if it was still night or day, with how dark and thick the rains were. The lighting had freaked his other side right off that it took over his reins but...he didn't feel it.

There was no unhinging. He wasn't slipping again. He was still grounded, unlike yesterday's late noon after he departed ways with Jack.

Crane was anchored down. This time. And it felt rejuvenating. Light on his conscious.

"Good… Better than before."

"That's good… Alright. Enough dilly-dallying. Let's head for shelter, shall we?" Jack asked, gesturing him to take the lead. "This storm's a no go to get to Harran anyway - shit!"

There was a little shriek of the volume pitch, even in Crane's ear. He groaned, almost inclined to pull the earpiece out. Jack had already done hers but kept the comm piece in the air before sitting it back in.

"That smarts," he murmured.

"Guess the storm did a number even on the comms. Yeah? Hello?" she hollered, picking up a tiny voice through the static. "Siv? Siv, slow down. I can barely hear you."

And finally, the voice stirred through the crackles.

"Bzzt - ck! Jack! We've got a problem!"

Chapter Text

FOURTEEN: PREDICTION


"What happened?"

"Don't you see it? Look around you!" the young girl's voice hollered over the feedback. "It's lights out! This storm hit the whole city's power grid!"

The gravity of the situation swiftly hit the two in the channel. They scanned at the surrounding buildings - the lampstreets and whatever faint little glow of a lightbulb behind windows weren't coming back to life. It was pitch black, nearly impossible for Jack to see without her torchlight but greatly possible for Crane to detect the illuminated bodies. Both infected and non-infected were brighter than before, like fireflies.

"The whole-? I thought it was this district!" Jack uttered.

"No! Everything's gone dark! Noah thinks this is a geomagnetic storm!"

"Are you and everyone ok?"

"Y-Yeah! We got backup generators for this kind of thing. But Jack...it's the entire city! No one is safe!"

"No power, no UV lights, no safe zones," Crane whispered, catching Jack's realization at his words. The danger was much worse than she, they, had anticipated.

"Open season for Volatiles… Great."

"Jack! You're dead if you stay out there! You need to come back!"

"How long does a geomagnetic storm last?"

"What-"

"How long, Siv!" Jack hollered urgently.

"I-I dunno! Noah says maybe a day or two. The generators won't last that long! But we can hold off till daylight."

"It doesn't matter if you go back," Crane pointed. "Nobody is gonna last the first night."

"Siv, is there any way to get the power back on?" Jack persuaded.

"He said it'd only come back on its own," Siv explained. "...But-"

Hesitation. And there was a bit trailed right from it. A bit of hope Jack was willing to latch on with her teeth. "Give me anything, Siv. It could be our only option."

"The hydrodam. It's the city’s second main power source. It got shut down a few days ago. N-Noah says if we can use it, we can light the city up again!"

"Then that's what we'll do-"

"Jack, that place is swarming with those things! No one has been able to get into the dam. A-And we don't even know how to get it back on!"

"There's no one to switch it back on?" Jack asked gravely.

"I dunno hydrodam engineering! I dunno how it works!"

"Neither do I," she added, with a tiny slice of sarcasm. "Do you guys know anyone? Anyone who works there?"

"No! And even if we did, no one will go there. Not until it's safe!"

An impossible situation - the dangerous feeling of dread was gripping tight on Jack. She had to keep calm, keep grounded. Because if she were to lose it, Siv would surely fall too.

"Can you find anyone-?"

"How can we find an engineer if the whole city is in total darkness?!" Siv hollered at the obviousness.

There wasn't a remedy to the problem. The only solution everyone could think of, even Jack herself, would be to hold off the night while the rest of Scanderoon was eaten up in pitch blackness - prevail for as long as possible with whatever they have on them.

But for how long-

"I can do it."

Jack had been pacing with clouded thoughts until she heard that sentence snake into her head. She stopped dead in her tracks and nearly spun around too fast on her heels. Wide eyes behind her shades.

"I think I know how to turn it on," Crane persisted.

Jack pulled out her comm from her ear, ignoring the girl's hollering of her name. Her face said it all - she couldn't comprehend the worriedly confident tone in Freakoid’s thought speech.

But Crane didn't back down.

"What - Who -" Jack was almost lost with words.

Was it that hard to believe him?

He could do it.

Ok, he didn't really have an engineering degree. He didn't really know the detailed tech side of things. But some knowledge on the basic was enough. Crane had never done anything like this but it was standard to know a thing or two in his previous line of work.

"I have so many questions but I'll start with this one," Jack started, swinging back to full force seriousness. "Can you really turn it back on?"

"It's a hydrodam. We just need to get the turbines moving and they'll do the rest." Again, no budging from her. "That kid, she said the dam's your only chance of turning this city's power back on. That's all we've got to lose."

Jack digested that fact, that probed her to point another. "She also said the place's swarming with zombies."

"Nothing's ever easy," Crane stated. "...I can do it. Trust me."

"...Ok...ok." She was convinced, and just before she was ready to bolt, she brought back her comms. "Siv. The shy guy I told you before? He knows how to turn on the dam on."

"He does?!"

A ray of hope, one Jack didn't want the young runner not to lap onto it so quickly like pure water. "Tell Mahir to double up the Junction, keep the generators going for as long as you can… Stay on the radio for me if we need other options."

"O-Ok. Ok. Careful out there, Jack."

"You sure that was wise telling her that?" Crane asked as she fished away her comms - with a slight irritation in his thought-tone. "Weren't you saying people needed a bit of hope?"

"Of course. But not in the middle of dire danger." No more the playfulness coming from Mad Jack. "A little wish in times like this can make desperate men go blind for a second."

"That's...truthfully harsh." He never expected such a dark reaction from the loony woman.

"It's being realistic," she said straightforwardly. Not a single break in her stern face. "Same goes for no hope."


On foot, the dark streets of Scanderoon were dens of nightmares jumping onto poor souls forced out of their homes with the UV lights off. On the roofs, the more dangerous Votalies, and runners were eager to feast on the ones on swift wings of parkour. Seconds were counting and more people were dying. The only one thing anyone could do in the dead of night was barred up their homes and hope that morning would come soon.

The river was but one and only safe means of transportation.

Jack had led Crane to where she had parked the boat, Serendipity, and she had already speeded it down the stoned canal before Freakoid dropped into the front deck. The only source of light Jack had was the small boat's headlight to shine the way across murky, raging water. Everything else was hard to see, in the darkness and the rain.

"I can't see a damn thing," Jack cursed, hoping she wouldn't crash into a wall or something.

Crane, however, could see everything. A street with someone screaming for help. A house with a family cuddled together. There were one, two things he saw that made him ache to get out of the canal - the second voice whispering softly him to join 'their' brethren while his morals telling him to go save a person. He had tightened his claws on the side rims just to stop himself.

Having zombie vision sucked, watching the carnage unfold around him and tear deep into his guilt. But he had to stay.

"Go left!" he hollered. Right now, he was Jack's eyes. He could see his surroundings, the buildings, everything better than a human. And the end of the large river was at the black horizon. "Dam's up ahead."

The fighter did as she was told - the blind being led by the infected. "Exactly what are we looking for when we get there?" she hollered.

"If the dam isn't that badly damaged, we just need the control room. Get the gates open and water going again."

"Huh, sounds simple," she sang.

Crane held back a groan. "Sure. Let's go with that. Hard right. I see a dock area."

"And a looot of friends." Jack didn't need Freakoid's eyesight to notice the many pairs of blood-red eyes. A pack of sharks at night swarming to the water's edge, drawn by the loud engine.

"I'll take care of them. You stay on the boat."

"Ha!" she chided, steering the boat closer to the banks. "Oh, bloody hell, no. You're not taking all the work from me."

"Suit yourself."

The boat hadn't even touched the dock - anchor tossed around a tie down for better security - and already the duo leaped out with weapon and claws ready. The Night Hunter was swift, five, ten bodies down and halfway across the route to the dam.

There was not a single light except the moon. Jack had to brighten the way with her flashlight as she whacked one, two, three zombies down and tried to catch up.

The front of the dam had the recent reminiscence of civilization. There had been people trying to seize the dam but that was indeed a failed attempt from the sight of the evidence. The UV lights, barbed wires, and barricades were ready but the corpses of those fallen dragged themselves up onto their feet and wandered sluggishly to the intruders.

KHUD!

Off flew the head of a worker, cleaned right off its neck by Jack's pitch of her weapon. She kept to the pace, taking a few jumps on heads and away from gripping arms. Freakoid was damn fast, she'd give him that.

But she wasn't gonna be outclassed.

"Perfect! We got company inside."

"Sounds like a party," Jack chuckled, tightening her grip as she joined him closer to the dam's doors. "Shouldn't be that hard to kick them out for excessive drinking and loud music."

"They're Hives."

"Oh." She shrugged her shoulders. "Well. Better be fast on your toes."

"Plan on it."

THUD! The doors burst open by Crane's shove. Inside was far dangerous than outside. The dam was a nest. Blood-red eyed infected runners galloped towards them with screams out of their blood-stained mouths. Their peace was disturbed.

Kill the intruders.

"Stay behind me!" At least, he could use his body as Jack's meat shield. "Get some camouflage if you have to-"

Jack was already gone. A sprint forward and she sliced off a runner's head. She really didn't know how to listen, he thought but Crane followed grudgingly.

"Where's the control room?" she hollered after another two slices of limbs.

"There! Up the stairs."

Their path to their destination wasn't an easy one. Infected blocked the way up - that didn't mean for the duo, they were going to make it easy for them.

The first two, hacked down easily with two swift swings of Jack's blade. Crane vaulted rapidly across the walls in just three mighty steps and flew himself over the topmost level of the stairs.

His tendrils fired, snaking viciously around the necks of two walkers. With his own flying momentum, he hurled them right off the stairs and their skulls cracked open on impact. Crane strode his impact against a machine and darted back to the stairs like a yo-yo, a kick to a third zombie.

The last one was still on the stairs, obstructing the door.

Shnk! The blade pitched right into its face before Crane could even do anything to him.

He wheeled back, amazed at how good that throw was but quickly dismissed that feeling away because it had to be ruined by that schmuck look on Jack's face. Real competitive.

Crane was the first to rush into the control room. Retrieving her weapon back, Jack slammed the door shut behind them to keep the mindless riff-raffs out while the Hunter hurried to the dashboard. An interesting sight, she admitted to herself. No one would believe her if she said "an infected got the dam working again". But it was happening right in front of her. Immediately, Crane scanned about the buttons, knobs, and dials until he spotted the control gate valve.

Please be just a simple thing, he pleaded to himself. No hiccups. And he turned it on.

Nothing seemed to tell him things were working. Then the monitor said something, gates opening, and the loud howls within metal came out like trumpets of a chorus.

"YES!" he roared, almost inclined to do a fist pump. "It's working-"

The monitor flashed red.

"Oh. No, no, no!"

"What? What happened?"

"It's the generator. Something's jamming it," Crane read off the monitor. Of course, it wouldn't be that easy. "We gotta get those rotors moving before they break down."

"I think I know what's the problem. And it's a lot bigger than we think."

"Bigger than the entire power grid going off by a geomagnetic storm?" he uttered. "We just need to get that generator unjammed. Probably deal some Hives along the way. Saw about three nearby."

"And you didn't see the most obvious one?" she asked with a hunched eyebrow behind the shades.

"What obvious one?"

Jack pointed at something beyond the room's windows, tempting Crane to leave the control panel and peer through. Whatever Jack saw was almost cloaked by the machinery and darkness. Only her flashlight she deliberately shone our spotlighted the foreign entity in the middle of the stage below them.

His yellow eyes widened at the sight below.

It stood out like a giant sore thumb. It was nothing he had ever seen before. Its very presence screamed a welcoming of danger, a rebirth preparing for the collapsing world. It was a Hive like any other, something ready to unleash its primitive rage and bloodlust.

He had mistaken it as a normal Hive before they reached the control panel. It looked normal to him, it made him think it was just close by.

The size was deceiving. This huge hive took almost the circumstance of the mechanical platform. He estimated it to be about more than ten feet. Demolisher-sized.

A big problem. Definitely a BIG problem!

"What the fuck is that thing…"

"A big menace if we don't kill it before it stops developing." Jack had seen this before. It was so straight and simple for her to explain what it was. "Worse, isn't it in a very convenient place?"

Right under the mass, Crane could spot the struggling, jagging motion of something metal. Rotor blades, trying to move together with the gushing water down in the giant pipes below.

"The generator… Of course."

"GAARGH!"

The familiar cries of one monster type were very close by. He found them in the darkness, down in the generator area. They were wailing at him to back off, stay away. This place was their terrority, not his. And the human too was theirs to feast upon.

No. It wasn't the place they wanted him to leave.

"The Volatiles are protecting it?"

"Looks that way. Is this your first time facing these things? If not, how well were you at killing them?" Jack chided out the question.

A question that would only get an answer saying along the lines, "are you fucking insane?". But Crane didn't give that. "Uh...a few. And barely at the skin of my teeth."

"Then here's hoping your new body can take down a lot of those guys. They get a little bit feisty when people get too close to a Hive like that."

"Feisty how?"

His answer came ramming its head right at the control room's windows.

CRACK!

"Shit!" It scared the bejesus out of Crane. One of the Volatiles had hurled up and smashed into the glass. A tempered glass window! The second one was already in the air.

CRASH!

"Gah!" Jack yelped, her body thrown down by the ugly fucker. Quick thinking saved her from an inch of having the jagged mandibles right on her neck, the hilt of her blade pushing the beast back as much as she could.

"Get off her!" Crane demanded with tendrils and claws roped around the Volatile. He hurled it off Jack, watching the thing snarl and lash at her. Despite how close of strength he could compare himself to a Volatile, this thing could still unhinge itself right out of his grasp. Crane didn't hesitate to snap its neck.

He snapped the neck of a Volatile. He, a Hunter. When a human could barely kill it without flares. The body flung down to the floor.

"How many are there?" Jack gasped, grabbing for Crane's hand back to her feet. "We need to take out those Volatiles before we can deal with that Hive."

"Three more. No. Four. There's four."

"Bloody - what I would give for some flares-"

"Uh, hello?" Crane grumbled. "I'm still here!"

"Oh, you'll be fine," she scoffed and with a smirk and a hand gesturing to the broken window, she chided, "Shall we?"

Man, this woman really was enjoying everything chaotic. "...Ladies first." Because he truly believed Jack wouldn't listen if he said he'd go first.

There was cackling out of her lips and the brunette hopped right down to the generator area. Seriously, four Volatiles. That should already tell anyone to run for the hills. Freakoid followed after, locking his sight on the closest two Volatiles around the large circular contraption.

"This is crazy. Volatiles," Crane muffled. "Careful, Jack."

"Careful, says the talking zombie." Oh, she was gonna be extra careful. Even as a skilled fighter, she knew well enough it was a death sentence to go against a Volatile. But she had some new tricks up her sleeves. "Here, catch!"

Blosh!

A small bag of red, coagulated blood bathed the Volatile on her right. A sweet, sickeningly stench hit Crane's nostrils. He had smelled this before. And he shook his head to snap out of its intoxicating trance.

Then suddenly, the Volatile at their left went berserk. Before his very eyes, the beings that seemed to be like animalistic brothers were at each other's throat. The strange liquid was nectar to the left Volatile, enticing it to bite the right Volatile's head like an apple. The drenched one, in desperate attempt to stay alive, ripped open its opponent's stomach.

"Picked up a nice blueprint from that boxing ring we were in. These Lures really do wonders."

"One to your right!" he hollered at the sight of something moving. Now wasn’t a time to talk tactics.

Blosh!

It was a blind throw but she somehow hit that something and ducked away. The third Volatile's claws ditched down as a miss, hitting concrete before recoiling up to find its prey.

"It didn't hit him!"

Crane jumped in the way, taking the brute force of a violent monster. They both went down, tendrils snaking around its neck and with everything he got, pulled the biting mandibles back. It despised him. It didn't want to share with a stranger.

"Hey!"

Its bright, red eyes spun to the voice. To the swinging blade.

Off went its head.

"Ouch! Ouch!" Crane felt the nips as the tendrils slithered back into his arms. That was way too close of a shave. An inch down and surely, Jack would cut them off with the Volatile's head. They were still a part of him.

Jack stretched a hand down to him. "Come on-"

"Watch out!"

The fourth Volatile was right behind the ex-kickboxer. She didn't see or sense it. A second of a delay and she mIggy have gone down without a head. Freakoid shot out his tendrils again, wrapping them around her in seconds and pulling her down with him. He heard her holler painfully - she had been hit.

Anger screamed out from the Volatile. He stole its food. As the shrieking monster came down to get it back, Crane blocked its way from Jack by putting his body. A slash of its attack only hit his thickened skin. Not a tear of flesh or a bruise when a Volatile would rip a human apart.

Damn, he was indestructible. But he couldn't gloat right now with this thing after Jack's meat.

Crane delivered a punch to the right cheek. Canine flew right out of its jaws. The Volatile was softened up.

"Gaargh!" war-cried Jack and she jammed her weapon into its skull. Through the mouth and out the back. The Volatile was dead immediately.

Four Volatiles in total. None rose back up.

"Gahahahaha, oh, that was nothing!" she chuckled proudly, seizing back her weapon and shaking off her thrill and terror.

"Hey. You ok?" Crane asked worriedly.

"Hive. Now," she barked and climbed back up to the top of the generator. That should be top priority over her well-being, something that Crane couldn't agree on but had no choice but to comply by joining her before the disgusting, sleeping giant.

"Ok. So how do we destroy this thing?" he asked next, looking at the mass up and down for some sort of solution. A weakpoint. Anything. "We need fire, right? Molotovs? Acid? Flamethrower maybe?"

"Fire won't do anything to it. Neither will bullets."

"What? Ser-! Uggh. I'm hating this virus," he grumbled. When did zombies become fire-resistant?

"One solution would be to blow this thing up to kingdom come. We really can't let this thing get into the city."

"Let's not. We need this dam. Any other ideas?"

"Oh. Just one."

Jack raised up an arm, slipping off one of her kickboxing gloves. She exposed the skin of her palm and without hesitation, placed the blade of her weapon to it.

"Jack!" It was already too late before Crane could stop her. She slit her own skin and purposely squeezed out her blood until the color red coated her fingers and dripped down her whole arm.

"I really hate this part," she hissed and readied up her bloodied fist.

Jack punched it. She drove her fist right into the huge mass of muscles and tendons, into an opening that looked to be tangled arms in an embrace behind a thin membrane.

And the Hive contorted. Revolted. Squirmed with agony as if Jack had stabbed its heart with a poison-tipped dagger. Venomous blood seeped through its internals, inside its safe cocoon.

A gargling sound out of the giant nearly shook the whole building. At least, that was what Crane felt. With one last gasp, the Hive fell apart.

The tendons split apart and the body spilled out. It was enormous, towering just as big as a Demolisher. What was more shocking was how different and yet familiar it looked. If he could pick one phrase to describe it, it was a giant version of a developing Volatile. An Alpha one at that. Their red-exposed skin...it looked hardened with a darker blue tone.

"Ssssnrk, gah!" Jack recoiled away from the dissolving Hive. The stench of burning flesh could easily be smelled. Well, she did just stick her hand into something larger than the sleeping tendon-dressed Volatiles Crane had killed before. And with an open wound.

Whatever that thing was, it burned.

"Shit, that looks bad," Crane murmured, noting the redness and the edges of her cut eaten away. Like stomach acid.

"I'm fine. The generator," she quickly brought him back to the urgency of the situation. They were not out of the woods yet. “Now.”

"Right." Crane hopped onto the generator while Jack tended to her wound. He found the root of the problem quickly - whatever those bodies once were, their personal belongings were also on them, roped in the leftover organic gunk. The artificial and biological stuff was what jammed the shaft. "Ugh. This is just nasty."

Normal hands wouldn't be able to pull them out from the thin gap. But Crane wasn't normal anymore. His tendrils shot down through the gaps, dancing around to find a loose pipe in the rotors. One heave to get it all out.

Keeee-Thud!

ROOOOOOOOOOOOOMFF!

And the generator roared aloud. Alive. Following its bellow came light.

The hydrodam lit up inside like a Christmas tree. White, red, green, yellow, all sorts of big and small electric lights blinked on. An awakening happening around the duo, Jack almost having a sense of familiarity and amazement like the lights turned on around the boxing ring.

Then her earpiece rang. She barely said anything after she popped it back into her ear.

"Jack!" cried Siv. "The power! The whole city is coming back on!"

There was nothing for her to tell other than Siv's words. But she wanted to be sure. Already, Jack was on her feet and up towards the catwalk above.

Crane was close to her heels. Up to the roof, where she shoved her way out of a hatch and glanced pleadingly at the dark horizon.

Like blood pumping through the body, bringing back life, the white dots snaked throughout the city, one district at a time. Everything was coming back, just as Siv said. Jack could even spy the Junction turning much brighter than before.

Power was back. Electricity was in the hands of man again. And the UV lamps waned off the monsters back to their holes.

She heaved a great deep sigh of relief. "Thank goodness…"

"OhmifuckinggodYou did it, Jack! You saved the whole city!"

That was a nice compliment. But Jack couldn't take the praise. "Shy guy saved the city. I just tagged along."

"Well, you both did it! Ahahaha! Oh my god...I thought we were dead for sure."

"You and me both."

There was scuffling of voices in the background before Siv came back to the mic. "Mahir will send some people over to the dam at dawn. Clean up the place and keep it running."

"Eh, we did half the work for you here. Someone had the same idea to make this place a safe zone. It's secured now."

"Roger that. He said they're gonna hold a damn celebration for you two when you get back."

Jack didn't have enough time to stop Siv there. The young runner had already turned off the mic, too eager to celebrate the victory towards another day.

"A celebration. Look at you. You've made yourself big with them," Crane laughed. He was too in awe, staring back at the bright city, to notice not a crack small from Jack's face. "I'm actually envious of you."

"Really? Then you should join me. It is for you too."

"Eh, no thanks. But if you can smuggle me out a cold drink, that'll be good enough," he poked back at her throwback. Crane glanced back at Scanderoon - they were too far for him to pick up anything with his incredible sight. But he had a small piece of mind that with the power grid back meant the survivors were safe at their homes. "'Cause I really need one after all that craziness-"

He wheeled back at the sound of something sliding. His anxiety crept back when he noticed the proud fighter weakly leaning against a wall, plopping down to the ground. Slow breathing. Eyes barely focused.

"Jack? Hey!" he called, hurrying over to her and checking for injuries. There were none. "Shit, are you ok?"

"I'm...fine. Just a bit light-headed... Used a bit too much back there," she gasped between breaths.

That only gave little reassurance to Crane. He took her bandaged hand - the bleeding had stopped and it wasn't an alarming amount that she would need a blood transfusion.

"We should get you to a safehouse. Probably first aid if this keeps up."

"Pft. I'm fine. It's just a little blood loss."

"Right. 'Used a bit too much'. 'A little blood loss'," he stated with 'air-quote' fingers. "You gotta stop talking out of your ass."

"And what? Bullshitting yourself never killed anyone," she jested while panting. She then glanced around aimlessly. "Hey, why did the power shut down again?"

Ok, was this more 'talking out of her ass' again? "You forgot? That lighting took it out."

"Oh." There was doubt in her voice, like she was struggling to recall.

"Are you really ok?" Crane pushed again. Something wasn't right.

"Right. Right. Light-headed," she exclaimed. " ...I just need five. It’ll go away… Why don't you wait at the boat?"

"Yeah, no. I'm not leaving you-"

"I'm not going anywhere either... Five minutes. And I'll be right down."

There was something off he couldn't put his finger on it. His instincts had always been the better judgment at times and for some reason now, they spoke to him. Yet the shrewd grin on her tired face told him to ignore his reasoning.

She looked fine, just as she said she was. His senses even read how slow but steady her heartbeat went. A little creepy to himself - that an infected could easily detect how weak their prey was - but it was one thing that assured him there was nothing major. Like she would one day drop dead.

That thought...kinda scared him.

"Five minutes."

He gave a pat on her shoulder. A job well done for the both of them. And he ducked back down the hatch.

Freakoid was gone.

But the headache was still there.

It started when that Volatile had jumped through the window and on her. The back of her head had hit the floor - just a bump.

The next Volatile's hook to her skull made it worst.

Breath in, breath out, breath in, breath out. Jack tried to steady her shaking hands as she dug out her medicine bottle. Two reds popped right out, but before she took them, she counted.

A third of the bottle left.

She really needed to stable herself. Bones had told her many times not to aggravate herself. It would only make it worse for her. Same went for her doctors and her nurse. It would make her want the pill addictively. Which meant she'd run out quickly and be in a predicament.

The closing of hospitals in the middle of a zombie outbreak wasn't her biggest concern. Whether inventory had this drug listed down was.

So Jack needed to keep track of her intake. But it was hard to tell someone like her to be careful. 

She took her meds and counted down the seconds. Breathed in and breathed out.

Breath, Jackie. Breath.

She needed to stay a little longer.


Crane waited. He didn't have a watch anymore, probably gone long after he had first lost his mind. Five minutes didn't seem like a long time but it still irked him a little. Yes, the dam was safe now. The city had power again. And the rain had finally stopped.

Just...it didn't sit right on him. Leaving Jack up there.

And finally, what felt like a boring eon, his waiting was over. The ex-kickboxer exited out of the working hydrodam with absolutely no fear that she was still under the blanket of night, where the infected was at their worst in horror. As if this was a normal evening walk for her.

"Feeling better?"

"Lots," the brunette sang, rubbing the ache out of her neck as she briskly strolled to the boat. "I need some sleep after all this-" That was then she stopped, looking at Crane in an odd way, hands in pockets. Thug-style. "What are you doing?"

His claw was barely touching the engine button before he turned back to see a rare expression of scorn from her. "What? I'm driving us out of here."

"Why?" she softly snapped.

"Ok. Sure. Weird for a zombie to be driving a boat. But you should take it easy-"

"Uh-uh." That was the answer she anticipated out of Freakoid, not about the strangeness of a beast riding a vehicle. And she hated it. "I'm fine and dandy. Now move over."

"Ok, ok. Sheez. Stubborn woman," he mumbled, sliding down to the bow. He knew he shouldn't step on her toes, but if she wanted to overdo it on herself, then alright. He'd let her have her way.

And probably five minutes later, he was going to eat those words and behave as the sorta gentleman he should be. He really was too soft.

The boat set off across the river. Now the night wasn't as dark as before. Jack could see and make their way back to the channel.

"You know, it doesn't hurt."

"What does?"

"Letting someone take over the wheel."

"And I appreciate the help. But you're making a mountain out of a molehill."

"We had four Volatiles."

"Hm, sounds like a record. Wonder if anyone can beat that."

Crane didn't join her in her little joke. Nobody should joke of how close their thread was at being snipped off.

Jack sighed. Oh, this zombie wasn't going to let it go. "I'm alright. And if I'm not doing anything when I'm alright...it makes me impatient."

"So a workaholic."

"Call me whatever you want-"

"No, no… To be honest, I was like that."

“Oh. Got ourselves some memory, huh?”

That made Crane zip his lips tighter. But he showed no sign of resistance. Because he understood her.

Work was...used to be always important to me.”

"So you quit? Was it the paycheck? The working conditions? Or the ethics?" she poked for the details. 

"Um… The paycheck wasn’t one reason." He needed to make a living anyway. "Conditions, eh, fifty-fifty. Ethics...at the start, I... I thought they meant something."

"Sounds like you changed your mind."

"Yeah...the work I did...I couldn't do it anymore."

"I see... The disagreements were what made you quit?"

Crane bit his lower lip lightly. How right she was on the truth. "Yeah… A lot of it..." He huffed out a sigh. "But that was in the past. I was done with them."

"Hm," she chuckled. "Good on ya. So have any backup plans after all this?"

He gazed at her with a baffled look. "Excuse me?"

"You know, if we cure this virus, get you back to normal. Do you have any other position you're looking into? Changing jobs is always the hardest."

"We're in the middle of an outbreak," he exclaimed. "The whole world might be in shambles because of this epidemic?"

Jack just shrugged. "That's if it spreads. And hey, maybe in a month or two, this all blows over and we're fine. We can return back to our normal lives."

"Suuure. Way too optimistic there. And what? You're offering me a job after all this is over?"

"Pft, I'm retired. I've got no choice but to live my sunset days for as long as possible."

"You don't look old enough to be retired."

"Oh no. Desk jobs aren't for me. If I could, I'd want to go back into the ring. Back to kickboxing again."

"Well...if this virus does blow over, why don't you?"

Another chuckle out of her. "That would be nice. But no...my fighting days have long been finished since Champ took my spot."

"You were bested."

She nodded shamelessly. There was an aura seeping from her expression, an old feeling that Crane would only see on the people of Harran - that kind of reminiscing of the good days before the collapse.

However, this time, he had a bit of apprehension in him. The name, Champ. He had heard it before and his instincts told him to push against the veil of curiosity.

He was afraid to ask the question.

"And what, you stopped kickboxing just like that?" he scoffed, mainly to shake off that annoying pull inside. "You were crazy enough to go one on one with these things."

"You can't deny a little skill can help you stay alive," Jack exclaimed straightforwardly. "I've been through worse. This outbreak can't put a dent in me."

Arrogant. Real arrogant. Thankfully, she didn't blabber on and on like that psychopath. About morals and opposite sides. All that stupid crap that Rais couldn't just shut up.

But when she said she had been through worse, it piqued at his interest. He knew he was going to regret it either way...but he had to know.

"Who's Champ?" Jack didn't reply straight away. "You've said that name before."

That got her into a better mood. "An old rival of mine. Much younger than me. More stubborn than me, that's for sure. We went against each other in the ring three years ago."

"You sound close for just being opponents."

"Eh, it started out as good sportsmanship. Then her little brother kept on bugging me." She rolled her eyes. "Then, I guess we became friends... Heh. Both kids were nuisances. Couldn't mind their own businesses. They were good people. Naive but good. Someone had look out for them."

"Really?"

"Well, her brother, Rahim. Yes. Damn brat got himself into a lot of trouble in those days. Couldn't sit still for one second," she grumbled. Almost like an old woman complaining of how badly her grandchildren misbehaved.

He agreed with her. Rahim was...almost impossible to work with.

That grip on his heart came back.

Jack didn't seem to notice. She was already trailing her eyes off, seeing the destruction around them. Her wide smirk softened down with a tint of worry. "He'd better not be getting into any trouble."

Crane sat further back into his seat. He wished he could just throw himself overboard and drown right now. Please, stop. This was a joke, right?

He had to ask. Even if he didn't want to.

"What's...what's her name?"

"Whose?"

"Your friend. Champ."

He prayed. He really prayed to God it wasn't the answer he thought was right. Even if everything fell together so well like pieces of a puzzle.

An ex-kickboxer. A person who easily said Rahim's name like he was her spoiled child.

The answer came so casually.

"Jade Aldemir."

And that did it. That hit Crane like a shovel to the back of his head. A dagger stabbed and gutted him from the inside.

"She's the best fighter out there. Hell, she fought me. The Wild Dog." Jack heaved down a deep sigh, down away the worry. "Eh, I'm not too worried. Tower told us Ravs they got a new guy helping them. This 'Crane' guy."

He squeezed his fingers tight, sharp fingertips digging down.

Stop.

Stop doing this to him.

"On and on, Rahim keeps on blabbering how great he was. Heh, sounded like he found a father figure, alright. Made me a little jealous that I got replaced like that. Next time I see him, I'm shaking his hand-"

"Please stop."

And that Jack did, wheeling up with a puzzled face. The voice was wrenched with an emotion she wasn't too sure she could detect. Something between the lines was shaking, spat through clenched teeth but Freakoid averted his eyes from her.

"What?"

Further down his eyes went. She should know, shouldn't she? She made it sound like her group had been talking nonstop to the Tower.

But one glance at her confused face made him slowly boil up.

"Nothing," was all he said and then to himself, keep it together, Kyle.

Jack wouldn't budge. Her eyes behind the shades were stern and stiff on him.

"Nothing," he pushed and then tried to change the topic. Turning back to the buildings at the sides of the canal. "Shit."

"What now?" The note in her voice wasn't filled with too much annoyance from Crane's earlier rudeness. There was some good that she didn't hold back a grudge but there was that steady glance that said to him, she had her eye on him.

"No. Just..." He breathed deeply. "I really hate this body of mine. I see a lot more than I should see."

"Am I supposed to know what's happening?"

"It's just… I don't know how to explain it." He tried, really, tried with the best words he could think of. "I'm seeing humans behind walls… I know...how to stalk them and-"

"Leeet's not finish that sentence, shall we?"

"Doesn't make it any better for me. And it's not just them. It's the infected too. I know where they are too. How they'd react. Where and when they'll come."

"Hm. No wonder you were quicker than me back there."

"It's just all strange to me. It's been days and...it feels both natural and unnatural. And that's what...scares me."

"I'd say that's a good thing."

"What?" he scoffed, raising up both open claws at her. "Being like this is a good thing?"

"The fear." And that surprised him. "It'd be more terrifying if you weren't scared of it. Same goes for the ring. If you don't have fear, you don't have control."

Ok, he really had no idea how kickboxing or any sort of wrestling was all about. But there was some level of truth behind her words. He did learn judo. "Um. Aren't you not supposed to be afraid in order to be in control?"

"Yes. But without fear, it gives you tunnel vision. It forces you to go kill someone without mercy. Makes you no better than these walkers."

That was a sentence that reflected the harsh and dark truth Jack tended to hide between her words. However, he stopped himself because he had to turn this around. This wasn't his point-of-view, this was Jack's.

For the past few days, he had watched and examined her fighting style. There was a sort of metaphorical leash on her but he had to ponder based on what she just said.

How far had she gotten to losing it? Like he did. As a human, not as an infected.

"But you're not them." The atmosphere quickly changed on a dime, however. "Look around you. You're in a boat, talking to me. They're gagging around with no direction. You're not one of them anymore."

"Neither am I human anymore," he rebuked grimly.

"Eh, subjective. But you know, that sixth sense of yours might help us out."

"Oh, really how?"

"How good are you at reading people?" she asked such a peculiar question so modestly that Crane wasn't sure how to answer. "When you're in the ring, against your opponent, you gotta read their body languages. Their faces. That's the same outside the ring too. People give too many subtle hints without realizing it. One flinch can say, "back off", another type can read "trust me". A twitch can say, "I'm nervous" and a furrow of the eyebrow says "it's nothing". A shift of the eyes can tell me I have a liar."

And now, he was getting uncomfortable. Because he had given signs throughout their conversation. He huffed irritatedly through his nostrils.

He didn't like how close to the cut she was at analyzing him, right on the dot on "liar".

"A scorn like that can say "you're reading too much into this"."

"Ahem," he coughed and tried to get himself better in his seat. How far was this boat ride to the nearest safehouse?

"It becomes too late before you turn the conversation around to your favor."

"And you're good at reading these hints?"

A nod of her head. "Some folks tell me I'm a mind reader. But I'm not. I've met all kinds of people to know enough how predictable they can be. It be by word or by fists."

"Uh-huh." Yup. He really couldn't get a good read on this woman. This was on dangerous waters. She was going to make him open himself up like a book, all of the pages delicately peeled apart. Crane wouldn't be able to see it coming either. "You're damn scary, you know that?"

She gave a slight bow. "It's another useful skill. People in these kinds of times don't think properly that they let their emotions do all the talking. The turnabouts are rather fun to do."

"Sure. If you're not being shot at." Crazy men had nearly taken his life. Several times.

"Well...doesn't always go the way I want it to go. My point being is that sixth sense of yours. You can predict what these infected can do. I can't. These zombies don't have any emotions like you or me. They aren't predictable to me."

"Ok. Don't really see your point."

"Simple. You can read their patterns. Their behaviors. Everything. You can study them and tell me what to expect. It's like a...safari expedition. We Ravs could really use that information too."

"And how exactly does that help them?"

"A lot. We've been making all sorts of tools and gadgets just based on these animals. And they're adapting. They are learning how to undermine us, back in the Outskirts. Even here," Jack explained earnestly. "If we know how they think, we know how to stop them before the next attack."

Stop them. "Yeah...and me too."

Jack shook her head. Ugh, that pessimistic attitude of his. "Now don't go all dark and broody there-"

"No. I mean it." Crane had to have a backup plan. This whole talk has made him realized that was the case. What happened at the dam was another bonus. "You were right that I needed someone… But I also need someone to take me down… If I go too far over the edge."

That silenced Jack out. No, his eyes, his little facial twitches told her he wasn't kidding. All the signs on him wouldn't let her joke that all he needed to do was take a bite off her and he'd be fine from her venom blood.

He really needed that final stop. He would need mercy to end his life. Just as he gave it to those needing it.

How funny, ironic, the table has turned around. It had been him who thought he would put her down. She hadn't turned yet, didn't look like she would and Crane was convinced she could never - if her blood was doing something to the virus. Now Jack was going to be the one who'd axe him down.

He didn't ask for her yes or no. He wouldn't take it. Crane ended that discussion then and there and put that burden upon her. It should be a simple decision for her.

And the ride onwards was quiet.

Crane aimlessly looked back to the buildings. The carnage was no more. There were bodies, on the streets, inside houses, on the roofs. But the nearest safe areas with survivors locked up were some little beams of hope to him. Despite how long that blackout was, even Scanderoon was revolting to stand strong through the darkness.

He and Jack managed to save enough lives in a dying metropolis. There were losses but...they did everything they could.

"Hopefully, this blackout didn't do too much damage to the city-"

Suddenly, the boat ride slowed down. Crane glanced over his shoulder to see the drastic change in Jack's face - how easy her frown grew longer.

"Oh no."

Out of the blues, Jack brought the boat back to speed again but with a change of plans.

"Hey, what's up?" he asked again, noticing her furrowed brown eyebrows.

"Up ahead," she pointed. Crane searched about the city for whatever caught her attention. "That's smoke."

The black chimney streamed in the far distance. That meant fire.

"I see it. What about it?"

Jack's reply brought him back down to Earth. Down the grim, ugly, and heavy reality again.

"That's where the Orphanage is."

Chapter Text

FIFTEEN: SMOKE AND MIRRORS


Dawn hadn't crept across the dark sky yet but the small orange embers scattered about - brighter and brighter the boat closed towards the orphanage. All was too quiet to Crane's liking. No sound, no movement, and so far, no highlighted bodies, whether human or zombie.

Once the boat reached a spot in the canal, Jack jumped off and bolted.

He understood and followed. She was their latest visitor so of course, anyone would feel a bit overwhelmed. But Crane underestimated how easy a person like Jack would get shaken. Even he, a 'turned', was just as drawn to the destruction and ruin as he was as a human.

"Shit," he murmured at the sight before them.

UV floodlights blinked and sparked violently. The spiked barriers and platforms around the front gate had been demolished down. Blood was smeared across the tar road. It was as if Grendel, the monster from myths, gutted out the orphanage. Or better yet, like something had burst out from inside.

The old stones couldn't protect the residents during the blackout.

The duo skidded quickly into the building, completely shocked by the damage. It had already been done. The smell of blood and gunpowder was old, about a few hours ago. The further they slowly walked into the building, the more the number of bodies became.

Crane had nothing to say. He couldn't find the right words for...for this carnage. The blackout had completely engulfed this place right up while they were trying to get power back on from the other side of the city. It was already written in the stones. "But we tried…"

"That's all we did. We tried." Just as bitter as his own frustration, Jack's fingers tightened. The fists were itching to hit something but she kept them down. What was the point - everyone was gone.

Jack could only sigh. She had to wonder how many more lives were lost from the blackout-

"Jack." She wheeled back to Freakoid, pointing one of his talons to the ground floor closet. Jack was back in her cautious stance with her weapon seized out. Ready.

Something was behind this door.

Slowly, she reached for the doorknob. Three fingers went up.

One...two...three!

She pulled the door open.

"Wait! Wait! Don't kill me! Don't kill me!"

Out came a large cowering ball, shaking arms stiffened over the face like a shield. It was a human, alright. But far less threatening than what they were prepared for.

"Hey, hey," Jack swiftly called, attempting to calm down the man in the Stuffed Turtle shirt. "It's alright. You're safe now."

A peek through the arms and slowly, the man registered he wasn't surrounded by the infected like it was buffet time for them.

Then he noticed Crane behind Jack.

"GAARGH! Monst-!"

"Hang on! Calm down!" Jack held him back. Seeing the chubby man frail about did pull at Crane's gut. He had almost forgotten again and slowly stepped away. "It's ok."

"Stop it. This is pointless… I'm heading out-"

"He's a friend. Hey!" Two hands clutched the man's cheeks and directed his eyes onto Jack. "He's not going to hurt anyone."

The man glanced at her like she was crazy. His gasping didn't slow down but the longer he gazed at the brunette, a person who wasn't even running away at the sight of something hideous, the calmer he slowly became.

"What… But he's-"

"A friend."

What was the point? She was delaying the inevitable for Crane. The poor guy should just let it all out and run for his dear life. But there was some spell she cast on him. Maybe because she kept his eyes on her, not on Crane. Maybe it was because of seeing this woman not flee from a monster.

Finally, the chubby guy seemed to settle down. Seemed to. It was probably a trick of the eyes for Crane. "What the fuck is he wearing? Some...Halloween costume?"

"Yeah. Sure. Let's go with that."

"Convincing, though," Jack jested, like it was some creative attempt to draw back a bit of cheer to the grim atmosphere. "Helps him get past the zombies pretty easily." Another second passed and the cheeriness was gone. "Now. Can you tell me your name?"

"Name?"

"Yes. Your name."

He was still flabbergasted. Still reeling from everything that it took him a while for him to answer. "Carlo… Carlo Rover."

"Carlo. Ok. Can you tell us what happened here?"

At first, it didn't seem like he had come back to the surface. And yet, the memory was fresh. His breathing skipped quick into a panic and Carlo searched about as if whatever dark and ominous destroyed this place was coming back.

"Carlo. Look at me." It was a stern command but a gentle request that compelled Carlo. "Breath in." She held her fingers up to him, counting up to three. "Breath out."

It was an odd ritual that Carlo didn't know how to react to. But again she repeated the words and the gesture, going through the steps one by one.

"Breath in." 1, 2, 3 fingers. "Breath out."

Again, Jack said them again like they were a verse from the Bible. And the rhythm caught up to him like a trend. It was working, settling down his nerves as Jack kept it going without needing to recite her motto over and over.

"What happened here?"

Carlo swallowed. There was a swirling moment coming from the pit of his stomach that needed to come out - that he wanted it to come out. "...All the lights turned off. We tried to get them back on b-but…they came. W-We...we were surrounded."

"What do you mean? You couldn't shut yourself inside-"

"No! They didn't come through the front door! They came from inside!"

"What?"

"T-They came from the basement… They came and killed everyone! Some of us tried to run but..."

"Wait. How? I thought this place was secured."

"It was! Everything in this building was secured. B-But they got in…"

So the front defenses weren't destroyed from outside. But from inside? Was there some secret passage below this building, Crane wondered.

"Then what?"

"I-I… I…" The man really went through the darkest times ever, his hands shaking with a need to hold something.

"Carlo. It's ok. They're not coming back."

And his brown eyes were at their largest. He had a realization on his mind - and that broke him.

"They're not coming back…" And the fat man broke out into tears. "Oh god. They're not coming back."

"Carl-"

"Everyone. Sister Mary Francine. Marvin. Zeki. T-The kids… They're...they're gone…" Carlo hunched down, whimpering loudly. A horrible sight that if anyone would see, they'd be disgusted. But Carlo didn't care and let it all out. "I hid. I did nothing. I do nothing here!"

Survivor's guilt. It hit the poor sob hard. In fact, this reminded Crane too much of another person he found, cowering in the basement of a farmhouse.

"I was useless… I am useless. I shouldn't have hid-"

"You lived."

The broken man almost couldn't comprehend. That sounded wrong to him. He should have gotten a different reply. But gawking back to the woman told him he heard it right.

"You're alive and they're gone," Jack said straightforwardly. "And there's nobody to tell their story but you. You owe them that."

This talk sounded familiar to Crane. Yes, she had said something along those lines to him. Not exactly and yet, just as powerfully swaying as it was to him, it helped the unfortunate man out of his guilt.

Almost, however. Because Carlo was still back down with wet eyes.

"M-Maybe… But…" He shamefully shook his head. "It should have been me… We had kids here. They were just kids-"

"How many?"

"Gargh!" Carlo shouted. He searched for that monstrous voice. "W-What-?"

"How many kids were there?" Crane barked vocally. He'd worry about exposing his secret later.

The man with the Stuffed Turtle shift wanted to leave but again, Jack held him down with hands on his shoulders. Silently, he was told to calm down, it was alright.

Alright?! He wasn't alright! He lost everyone! The Cicadas' home was gone! And kids, KIDS, had to have been killed.

Carlo swallowed down the lump in his throat. This woman was crazy. "S-Sixteen. We had sixteen." The number then hit him and he was back to quivering his lips. "Oh god…"

"What's up, Freakoid?"

He was already on the scent, or in his case, sight. Through the ceilings and walls, he could see the small bodies huddled in three different spots. It wasn't sixteen but it was better than zero.

"I count...nine. Small ones… Not Screamers. They're alive-"

"Hide 'n' seek."

"What?"

Jack didn't answer. She instead ran off.

"Hey! Wait-!"

"Just keep him company. I'll be back quickly!"

"You know where they are?!"

She didn't wait for the clues. Or listen to the agitated man on his knees whimper, "is she always like this?" to nobody.

Jack had done this before. A simple game for children to do just to pass the time - a clever idea that could potentially have saved their lives.

Yes, it was hopeful. Tiny but enough to make Jack run straight for those spots.


She found them. Each child she met yesterday, and a few more. Hirim, Eren and two other children hiding under the staircase. Liam with his little sister, Melek in the small utility room. Instantly, Liam apologized to the adult for using it again.

Jack forgave him. And told him to go downstairs with Melek. Carlo was waiting for them, she said.

There was still one more hiding spot to find. She skipped over the construction boards instead of taking the way up the walls outside. Jack never found it - all because of Sister James.

She found the door to the play area. Claw marks across the wood - something had tried to go in but thankfully, it was locked on the other side.

With one hard shove, Jack barged right through it, hearing the kid baseball bat snap in two. And inside, it was empty. Just toys littered from a struggle. A room that was supposed to be filled with happiness had lost its colors.

But there was one more room, a closet.

And gently, Jack opened it.

Three pairs of frightened eyes blinked painfully at the light streaming in before they stared back at her. One of the owners put his own body between her and the other two. Only eleven and he was trying to show bravery.

There was one more behind them, cuddling on the blanket-covered floor.

"Hey," Jack uttered with a relieved smile. "It's ok. I'm here."

"J-Jack?" And the brave little boy was gone. It was like the ending of the Lord of the Flies, where suddenly the group of savage children comes across a British naval officer and his very presence destroyed their feral, warlike acts of a tribe. However, the orphans of Saint Sandrine Orphanage weren't thrown into the jaws of a jungle and unlike the ending, where that tribe fell down ashamed, the three children quickly embraced the only adult around gratefully.

"Did you get bitten?"

They shook their heads but she double-checked. No break of the skin, good.

"T-The monsters," Berat started off, with whimpers stopping him from trying to form sentences. "They, they came to get us."

"It's ok. They're gone now," Jack assured him.

"Where's the Sisters?" the second girl asked hopefully.

The brunette refrained from speaking out the answer. She did recall the total number of people staying inside the Orphanage, excluding the children. She counted the few bodies discovered within these walls. Probably, the others had fled from this safe place to whatever fate was outside.

The unknown was a better answer than the expectation. So she truthfully said, "I dunno. But Carlo is downstairs. With the other kids."

"Butterfingers Rover?" the third kid uttered.

Ofph, poor guy. Even the children? "Really?"

"We didn't make that. The grown-ups did."

"But he's better than them. He plays with us."

"That's good to hear." Well, there was some silver lining. It'd probably cut further down his self-esteem if these kids were as terrible as the grown-ups.

"Lina's sleeping." The girl pointed back to the friend at the back of the closet.

"Alright. I'll take her. You three go downstairs."

The three kids nodded obediently and did as they were told. Mad Jack scooted further into the closet. There was nothing to turn the lights on inside the small space but she didn't see anything alarming on the thirteen-year-old child. Poor girl, she really had tuckered herself out.

"C'mon, sleepyhead." Jack scooped the girl up in her arms and rolled her over onto her back. "Let's get you out of here-"

It was a soft, crinkly sound of a moan. Too weak for a shriek and too sinister for a cry. A familiar kind she had heard from everyone around her, with no ability to form any sort of words. The tiny, pale arms of a thirteen-year-old latched onto her shoulders like super glue.

It happened so fast.

"Grgah!" Teeth sunk down on her neck. But unlike any survivor who mistakenly took an infected child onto their back and would scream at the surprise attack, frantically trying to shove the biter off him, Jack bore down the pain. She stayed put.

Because she knew how this would all end.

"Of course."

The choking came loud at her ears. The jaws unhinged off her skin. The grip loosened.

"But of course…"

And with an act of kindness, Jack swiftly caught young Lina before the lost soul fell back from the venom. A hand under her head and slowly, the brunette laid her down on the wooden floor.

"It's alright, Lina." All Jack could do was watch the tiny zombie gargle and contort, with foam from the mouth and uncontrollable tears from the red eyes. "It's over now."

There was just a small moment. A voice incapable of saying words begged with gasps. Like Lina was still behind those eyes. She was there, hoping to be saved. Just like her friends.

That person was long gone. Pleads out of a mindless undead were just tricks. But Jack grasped her hand and held it tighter. Like a parent giving one final squeeze of remorse and reassurement at a child's bedside.

The seizures dispersed and the young orphan's eyes weakened.

She stopped moving.

Thirty seconds later, she didn't move.

"You'll see your father soon."

Jack rested the limped hand down before making the final preparations. A child in a world like this didn't deserve anything half-assed. Carefully, she slipped off the broken spectacles and folded them, putting them under Lina's hands. Gently, Jack closed her eyes and caressed the hair from her face.

But the brunette didn't leave.

This wasn't the first for her.

"Hush, baby, hush, fain you off to bed.

Daddy's gone to buy you a mockingbird.

The little brown bird's in the tree on the hill.

And the sleepless creeps from the windmill."

It was a soft, soothing tone that no human could hear it from the third floor. But it fell on Crane's sensitive ears. He glanced around for the source until his eyes fell on the highlighted body above the inner court. It was hunched down like a mother holding her sleeping child.

"Hush, baby, hush, we're all alone now.

Daddy's gone for the priest's rosary in town.

The bright sunrise will come over the hilltop.

And the devil knocks right at our doorstep."

He had never heard the lyrics before. But he listened nonetheless. It was soothing yet disturbing - like a bittersweet promise that all was alright soon even though the bleak truth was right outside, ready to grasp the singer and listener with blood-curdling, bony fingers.

Gradually down the few lines, sun rays seeped through the broken windows. Morning stretched over the concrete-jungle hilltop.

"Hush, baby, hush, rest your little head.

Daddy's gone to get the axe from the farmstead.

The bogeyman taps on our burning windowsill.

And the little brown bird's in the tree on the hill."

The last notes were sung. The bigger body rested down the small body on the floor. Crane heard her say "Goodnight, Lina." before rising up and trotting down the rows of stairs. His eyes fixed on the moving entity until it was right in front of him.

Jack.

Crane stopped himself from calling her name, or asking what happened. Her face said it all. It was like a sad gravedigger had buried his wife.

"Where's Lina?" One of the boys, Berat, noticed that the ex-kickboxer had come down alone. "Isn't she awake?"

How optimistic. But it didn't make a mark into Jack's unsparing fortress. The nine children didn't know but the two men came to a conclusion before the brunette said it.

"Lina's not coming back."

The words sunk in - only to those who understand what the term, death meant. But Berat couldn't believe it.

"...No."

Jack was silent but Carlo had already spoken out. "Berat-"

"No!" the small boy hollered, almost loud enough to for any zombie to come waning towards his voice. "You're lying! Stop lying!"

Berat rushed over to her and hit her. Smacked his fists on her padded legs. And Jack let him do so, allowing all the frustration to come out onto her.

"She's sleeping! She's not gone!"

And in a desperate attempt to prove her wrong, he then ran for the stairs. But Jack was faster, with an arm arresting his body from scampering off on his own.

"Let me go! Lina's fine!"

Seeing a young boy wishing to see his friend again stroke the flames in the other two older children as well. Their faces said it all: they refused to believe the words of a grown-up. Their legs were ready to go, they were determined to show the woman she was wrong.

Crane was almost ready to stop them. They couldn't go and see the body. Again, Jack was fast. With her feet planted on the spot, she reached out and captured them easily in her arms. All because they tried to flock towards the stairs, where she stood at the bottom.

"Let me go!" Berat hollered again, trying to fight and break free.

Jack held the three children tightly.

"I'm sorry."

He didn't want to listen. None of them wanted to hear it.

"She was already bitten."

Then the truth stopped them. Berat had been denying it the entire time.

Lina had been bitten. The memory played back in his head - how terrified he was at seeing a monster reach through the closing gap of the attic room door. The thirteen-year-old girl was trying to lock it up with the broom through the slip of the doorknob but during the attempt, the blood-covered teeth managed to sink down onto her arm.

She said she was fine.

She told them everything was alright.

Berat's eyes swelled up with more tears. The punches on her chest came weaker and finally, he rested his head onto her shoulder with loud wails. The other children broke down too while the other youngsters huddled close to Carlo.

"W-Why...? She was fine."

Jack let them cry. She didn't let them go. Words couldn't make it all go away for the little ones - Carlo was struggling to find them and make the sadness go away. Crane couldn't even speak - he'd only frighten the little ones away.

So only the silence could drown it away-

"Lina saved you," Jack broke the thick quietude, unhooking herself off the three kids. Throughout this entire time, her hood had been down, showing that stoical and unsmiling profile to the children. "She's the one who told you to hide."

The young girl in her arms nodded. And like a contagious infection, the others did the same. And in the end, Jack nodded too with acknowledgment. During her visit to the orphanage, she had counted sixteen children. Out of that number, only three was older than ten. Lina was one of them. So the oldest child was the one who had the say-so.

And she told them to go for their hiding spots.

"Don't forget her," Jack exclaimed as she wiped the tears off their faces with her gloved hands. The strong woman stood up with the aura of a warrior that warmed the little ones' fear away. "She cared about you very much. You were her family."

"Jack. Those teeth mark-"

Suddenly but gracefully, she turned back to Freakoid with a finger to the lips. Don't, she silently spoke to him. Her furrowed eyes were behind her shades but she really hoped he'd read the message off her face.

Crane connected the dots quickly and did as he was told.

Don't tell them their friend turned and was put down by Jack.

"H-Hey. It's ok." Carlo gathered up the children, quickly forking out a handkerchief to wipe away all the tears. "E-Everything's alright now… Lina's in a good place. Yeah, she's in a good place. C'mon."

It was sad indeed. Carlo Rover, the useless bum, was trying. He wasn't the best-looking guy, he wasn't the strongest or even the bravest. He did whatever he could do but many times, he fumbled those up. Even trying to cheer children up was another. He wasn't a married man yet.

"You're still alive. Y-You're all still alive. A-And...it's thanks to Lina! It's thanks to her..."

That did help. Just a bit. It'd take a long time before the children would be fine, before he'd be alright too.

The grief still lingered in the air. And Jack went onto business, pulling her hoodie over her head.

It was to pay respect.

"Siv, can you send someone to the Orphanage for pickup?"

"Uh, sure. We just sent some people out to check the damage in town. Are they ok?"

The ex-kickboxer bit her lip bitterly. "Place got hit badly…"

"Wha - When -" The young runner couldn't continue with her sentences. "Because of the blackout?"

"Looks that way. We have one guy and four, six, nine children here. No other survivors. Think they can stay at the Junction?"

"Definitely. For as long as we can hold. Alpha's nearby, five minutes top."

"Much appreciated." With the end of the call, Jack put the earpiece away. "Friends from the Junction are going to take you there."

Carlo nodded nervously but gratefully. "Thank you. Thank you so much." And he tended back to the little flock around him.

She didn't want his thanks. All she did was get things moving again. She didn't save a life or stop whatever catastrophe hit the Orphanage.

And she ended a person.

She was the villain after all.

"Where's the scary man?" little Hirim asked so timidly, it drew out the cocky smirk from Jack. But she did wonder with a peek over the shoulder. Freakoid was immediately gone the moment the people from the Junction came into the picture.

But she knew where was his hiding spot. Oh, he was real bad at this whole hide-n-seek.

"Well," she started, kneeling down to her. "He's keeping an eye out for the bad ones. Making sure everyone's safe."

"Like a superhero?" another boy, Eren, pointed innocently.

"I guess you can call him that." Amusing. Freakoid, a monstrous superhero. "Alright. The nice people are gonna take you to a safe place."

Little Hirim and Liam wheeled back to see a group of strangers approach through the open doors of the Orphanage. They appeared suddenly, their transport being a larger boat docked next to Serendipity in the canal. Some held scary guns, some wore the same kind of gear the grown-ups here did. The children watched one talk to Jack about something while two women gave them reassuring smiles.

The nightmares were over. The sun was here. And they were going to leave this awful place.

Melek was still a little drowsy as her older brother held her tightly. In a protective circle around the children, the men from the Junction escorted them out into the open street. It was cleared out thanks to them before assessing the situation inside. The little one began wondering - where were they going?

She had been brought up for most of her tiny life. The Orphanage was her home, everyone was her family. Never once had she ever went beyond the walls, not when the Sisters told them they couldn't because of the monsters. And now they were leaving her home.

There was one person she noticed who didn't go with the big group. And she waved sleepily at her.

Jack waved back too. She didn't follow after them, her feet rooted on the spot. Until the large group was gone around the bend of the channel, she stayed quiet.

"You can come out now. They're gone."

Crane poked his head out from the shambles of a nearby hall but he didn't step out just yet. With his powerful sight, he watched the many orange skeletons leave before their boat disappeared off to who knew where. Eventually, he let out the tense sigh he had been holding in before the Alpha team arrived. On one hand, he didn't want to have anyone see how horrible he looked regardless of this disguise he wore. On the other, he was saving them from being scarred by a monster like him. 

"Least it's over for those kids," Crane exclaimed with relief. "You handled that pretty well. Me, honestly, I...don't really do well with kids. When I was human."

And he said that truthfully. He did try, better than most people he came across, those having to deal with orphans and children while struggling in an epidemic. But he did do it quickly, because he was against the clock and so was everyone. That didn't mean he would ignore a child over his mission on a split second.

Jack, however, had an extreme amount of patience. For crying grown men and scared little children. He had to admit, it was awe-inspiring. Moving that her words shook Carlo to the core. How harsh she was to give the blunt truth but calm to that boy taking his anger out of her. Crane couldn't see himself doing any of that to a couple of kids. He would give a white lie instead. Because it was the right thing to do.

She was more patient than his human self was. Jack didn't falter, she didn't ignore.

Even when he telepathically and softly laughed - mainly as a means to break the thick atmosphere - she didn't budge. Her old-looking back had been to Freakoid this entire time.

"Jack?"

Nothing. Ok, this silence treatment was starting to irk him. He couldn't believe himself that he was actually missing her annoying personality. A quiet Jack actually gave him signals that, oh no, this wasn't right to him. Why wasn't she coming with some silly comeback like always?

"Remember what I said about this venomous blood being a nice, little perk, Freakoid?"

The stiffness in the air was broken by the random question thrown at him. And yet, Jack didn't expect an answer back.

"It is nice sometimes...but not every time. Sometimes, you'll see familiar faces. Sometimes those faces haven't even been turned yet."

The weight of the sentence caught on immediately. A bite off her blood and infected dropped like flies. A giant Hive they just encountered took only seconds to go like a popped balloon from just a punch drenched in blood. And so far, Crane has been the only one who has tasted and survived the fatal effects. Twice.

But what about people who hadn't gone over the edge yet? Those who were suppressing the virus with Antizin?

It never crossed Crane's mind. Yes, why would anyone, any human, try to drink her blood?

Unless it was intentional. Unless it was accidental.

"So when you tell me you need someone to take you out...then alright. I'll do it."

Jack unhurriedly wheeled back to the Hunter, too stunned and stiff against the wall she put up.

"Just make sure I don't hold back."

Her response surprised him. And not only that, there was not a crack of a toothy grin. She meant every word.

Crane wondered - how badly did that death above him affected her? It was a child, yes, but she was long gone. And a second delay could cost another victim. Those three children hiding above them could have turned as well if Jack didn't do the deed. Crane knew from experience, having taken down several young infected because it was too long for them. Without a second thought.

Jack had extreme patience, alright. Even for an infected child. She gave mercy just as Crane did to those who crossed his path.

But at what kind of cost?

He sighed. Why did everyone have to make it more difficult for him?

Yet, Crane pushed down that question when he took one more meaningful glance at the ex-kickboxer, strolling away with that pitiful yet strong vibe like some...well, movie character after a tragic, bittersweet event.

It wasn't just him who was given the hardest choices. He could tell just from her shoulders.

Jack had also made those kinds of choices.

Even when they were made for her.


The night had taken a toll on her body that landing on the sofa with no resistance knocked Jack right out into a peaceful daze. Her mind had been spent and it needed the recharge too. It was less than a couple of seconds before she tuned herself out from the entire world and embraced the darkness.

She just needed a couple of hours. Or a day. And she would be right as rain again.

There was no one to disturb her. She didn't have any appointments. There shouldn't be any important event today. Nothing.

Just peace and quiet…

...

Ding-Dong!

…Go away, she begged sluggishly in her mind. Maybe if she pretended she was out, the person would leave.

Ding-Dong! Ding-Dong! Ding-Dong!

Whoever was at the door was going to have their finger broken. And the quick beating of the doorbell was irritating! As bad as that rapping house music kids were into nowadays. The pillow she squeezed over her ears wasn't helping! With a defeated groan, Jack punched her way off the sofa and walked casually to the door. An everyday motion she had done a hundred times in her normal life. The quicker she got rid of her visitor, the sooner she could get more forty winks of sleep.

She opened the door to the cheeky, dishonest grin.

"Hey, Jackie! How's it hanging?"

She sighed heavily at the clear, non-transparent lie. "Alright, Rahim. What did you do this time?"

Rahim glared at her, offended. Right at her door. "Nothing. Why do you always assumed I'm up to something?"

Jack simply crossed her arms over her chest with a mildly disappointed shake of the head. Really? He was going to hide such an obvious thing when it was as clear as day?

"Ok. How about taking that cap off?"

And the young boy's eyes flashed wide. A moment of guilt. Then a moment of deception. "What? Don't you know? This is in fashion. All the kids in my block are doing it."

"Hm. But it's rather rude to be wearing a hat inside someone else's house."

"Ye-Yeeaah? But c'mon. Rules are meant to be broken. You need to get out of the stone age."

"Are you implying I'm 'old', runt? Because it sounds like that."

Ah, shit. Big mistake. Even if the kickboxer was at her calmest, there was seeping spite coming from her aura. The folding of the arms was emphasizing that power too.

Here was where Rahim had to stop. If he kept going, he was going to become her chew toy.

But he kept going.

"What? No. You're really...hip-hop. Sure, you're bad with tech." "Hm," was what the Wild Dog ushered behind her clutched teeth, a bit of acceptance behind it. "But you're cooler than most people."

Was that enough sugar coating? He hoped that'd lessen down her cold, scary wrath but one look said it didn't break down Mad Jack's wall. She was just as tough as a punching bag.

Well, he tried. He really tried. Before meeting Jack, there were two people he couldn't get away with. Now that number became three. The only thing was...at least the professional kickboxer was a little less firm than his mother and sister.

But she was damn good at reading people and he hated that.

He took his cap off.

"Rahim. What happened to you?" Jack asked with her tone mixed with sternness and worry.

"It's nothing." He shoved the hand away from the recent cut across his eyebrow. "I just...had a little slip-up. Nothing bad."

"Those are stitches. Does Harris know?"

"No. Me and my buds were just doing some warm-ups. Nothing to worry about."

"Are those warm-ups during his session or outside his session?"

Rahim's lips crumpled with fakely-innocent eyes looking straight into that firm, hazel gaze. "During, of course."

Yet the Wild Dog steered closer to his face, just like a wolf nearing to her terrified little prey trapped in a corner.

"You looked at me straight in the eye."

Rahim took a second to look baffled. And that was relevant how? "So?"

"How often do you do that to Rookie or your mother?" Jack asked, putting the distance between them apart.

"Uh, I don't know. Maybe?"

Jack scoffed lightly. "A man only looks at a woman in the eye to make an effort to lie to her."

Oh. Uh...now what should he do? Keep staring her down even more? He was lying and he knew, the more he dug the hole deep, the faster Jack was going to bury him.

"So you're saying, I'm a man?" he quickly tried to assess back the conversation.

"Cute." And it was shortlived. Nope, his lovely charms didn't work at all on the strong-willed brawler. "Now, the truth."

Rahim gave up with a groan and a hunching-down of his shoulders. "Outside. It was just one mistake. Nothing bad." And right back to his 'winning' personality. "But hey, at least we got matching scars." He grinned widely, pointing boastfully at the stitches.

"Rahim. It's the other eyebrow. And you didn't go against someone with a broken bottle in the middle of a pub."

The young man's eyes stretched wide. "Why did someone go after you with a broken bottle?"

"I didn't start it," Jack said that with a straight face. "The guy thought he could get a few ladies by buying them drinks. Nice offer if it wasn't for the date drug he slipped in."

"Omph. Glad you stopped him," he chided. "Wait, he didn't give ya a drink too, right?"

"I never accept any glass. I prefer a cold bottle. Unopened." She eyed back the closed wound on Rahim's eyebrow. "I've got a couple in the fridge."

And just like that, she was letting him in - turning away from the open door for him to walk right through. "Oh, nice-"

"Not for you, Rahim. For your head."

"I'm ok. Really! It doesn't hurt anymore."

"I'm gonna guess you fell from a very high height. That isn't something to walk off from," Jack grunted as she strolled to her small kitchen.

"I didn't break my neck! Geezus, you're the one who's going to scare Jade and my mom off by exaggerating every little detail."

"Is that why you decided to come here?" she asked. Her unimpressed expression had stayed the same since he walked in. She leaned down on the counter with her face in her hands to emphasize more on her lack of respect for him. "To hide from them?"

"For a day or two? Pretty please?"

"No."

"C'mon! Please, Jack! Just this one time! You don't know how bad Jade can be!"

"Now you're exaggerating."

The scared air Rahim had on him told her he wasn't. His body language was requesting the brunette to allow sanctuary for him into her domain. He could almost fall to his knees and put his hands together just to sell it. Rahim was the small little rabbit surrounded by predators and the clever idea that the rabbit had was to pick one of those predators to shelter him. Until he had an escape plan.

She sighed deeply, exhausting all of the air out of her lungs.

"Until dinner time. I'm not defending you when your folks find out."

"Ok, fair enough. Gives me some time to think of a convincing story!"

Thud! And Jack banged her head lightly on the counter while Rahim got himself comfortably right at home in her small apartment. Ugh, what a troublesome kid.

"Bloody hell. I should have stopped you from taking Harris' number," she mumbled with full regret. It all started with that badly-advertised poster her cousin showed her one Wednesday. It was one of those sports companies' idea to start a parkour competition with 10 grand as the prize. She could see it on Harris' face - this was a good opportunity to get new students. In five months, he'd probably get about twenty.

Too hopeful a number but Jack refrained from saying that. Then in the afternoon, Rahim had to meet her on the street and snatch that poster from her.

The word 'parkour', printed big and bright across the paper, sparked something in his eyes. He asked all sorts of questions about it until out of nowhere, Jack suddenly realized she had told him her cousin was the instructor. Rahim was off with a wicked smile.

She got an earache of a phone call from Harris the following week. Rahim became one of his students.

Well, since she had a guest, Jack might as well make some tea. She needed it more than ever.

"What are you talking about? Coach is cool! And he needed students. I managed to get him more in just three days."

"Wait. Back up. 'Coach'?" She had seized out the old, fancy teapot set, along with the necessary ingredients for two cups of milk tea. But the name, 'Coach', was enough to make her stop with a baffled face. "He only just started this whole instructor thing last month, slow down there. Don't let it get to his head."

"Parkour's awesome. It's like…the rush is frigging amazing!" He really didn't know how to describe his feeling - the rushing thrill from way up high, his brain spinning from just staring down to see the little people like ants. "Why didn't you tell me about Harris?"

"Because we're just acquaintances. You're not close enough to be my buddy."

"Whaaaat? I'm offended. It's not like I'm trying to spy on you or anything-"

"Rahim, you really need to know how to mind your own business."

"Oh, what? You had thugs come to you in broad daylight. Why should I not be worried?"

"I told you, it's nothing."

"Face it, Jack. You need an eyewitness."

"Oh, no, no. You stay out of it. I really mean it. I can handle this myself."

"If you're in trouble, then you really should talk to the cops or someone." Ugh, who the hell made this boy a boy scout? "Harran is nice but it also has its bad places. Doesn't hurt to have someone looking out for you."

"Yeah. Sure, sure," she impatiently interrupted, whipping the conversation around to change topics. "Does Jade know you're taking classes?"

"No, and she or my mom never needs to know. You know nothing."

"Serious? Mind games?" That whole 'waving the palms' in front of someone's face was a joke. With the tea prepared, Jack set the set down on the round table. Two cubes with full cream for hers, five for Rahim. Like always.

"It's ten grand! Who wouldn't wanna go for that kind of dough?" And quickly, he brought back that annoying poster from between the pages of a black sketchbook.

"It's in a month. And when did you start taking Harris' class? Last week. I bet you he said the same thing I'll say now. "You got a long way to go before you get to that level, boy"."

Holy smokes, that was on point! "Have you been spying on us?" he uttered.

"I didn't need to. Because that was exactly what Mert told me when I started kickboxing." And still no convincing the bright-minded lad. She sighed heavily at his stubbornness. "Fine. It's none of my business. But don't do any more stunt or else Jade will murder me. And my cousin."

"I got this," Rahim boosted, delicately taking his cup. "In a matter of days, I could be on the same level as Harris-"

"HA!" The howl insultingly hit at his pride but Jack didn't care. "Please. You're just a rookie to him as Jade is to me."

"Wha-" He was almost lost for words at that statement. "Didn't I say she'd wipe the floor with you last week?!"

"Yes, I have more confidence in her skill than having you try to win a fight with me. Or Harris." She watched the upset boy sink back in his seat with a fold of his arms. Like a bad child with that "Dunce" hat from school, indeed. "She's been in kickboxing for two years, yes? That's a lot more than the few days you've started parkour, Rahim. That doesn't mean she can already go against the pros. Believe me, I've fought them. And you need to be in the game again just to keep the world champion title."

"Well, ok. You've got a fair point."

"I do. And I've got another: if you want to be the best, you have to keep doing your best. Jade has regular training, yes? She had two years. My cousin has more years too. He's a professional. And I had Mert training me from the start. Don't go blowing your load too early, boy. A few days doesn't make you the same level as Harris. "

That has been what past matches have taught Mad Jack. Just because you know a good right hook doesn't mean you can take down a Goliath with one punch. She had met such a Goliath to learn she couldn't rely too much on her own steps. Like Mert always told her, she had to adapt.

The same went for the modern world. You adapt, even having to sink down your teeth.

However, not everyone would agree with her and her manager. He was already below the splat of his chair, having her words be digested and eaten into Rahim at the same time.

She did come off a bit arrogant but had no intention of taking away his new favorite pastime. Rahim was a young idiot, the kindest words she could pick for him. Maybe that was why she left the door open for him.

Because if she didn't, Rahim would probably wander off too naively and land himself into more trouble.

"And...as much as I wanna convince you to stop parkouring...I won't. If you really enjoy it, then you need to commit to it. Not slipshod it."

Rahim was about to say it - he wouldn't do that, he got this. But he kept quiet. Because Jack was right. He did enjoy it but that didn't mean he would finish doing it like it was a one-time deal.

"Just promise me you won't enter the contest. There will always be another."

Another. Sure. When was that coming?

The anxiety he had always felt beside his mother's hospital bed was back. It was the same anxiety he had about his sister's upcoming tournament against Mad Jack. They really needed the money but he couldn't help but worry.

He never could find a moment to relax his mind about it. Until he had his first day of parkour.

"...It's just…it's like spreading my wings out." He wanted to explain his feeling a bit better. "Like...I can forget everything for just a minute. That I can do something for myself for once. It...it just makes me feel like...I'm me."

Now that was enough to strike hard on the world champion. It was easily relatable. In the ring, she was herself - not the usual Jack on the streets, or the Mad Jack people cheered.

Just herself.

"And...I thought I could make some money out of it. Without losing myself in the process. Does that make me sound...selfish?"

"No," Jack pointed. Another surprise out of her. "There's nothing wrong with being both selfish and selfless."

His thin apprehensive frown crept up to a small smile. "I can see why your cousin started teaching it. It's not just awesome, it's-"

"Breathtaking." That was the best word she could describe that rushing emotion. "Well, it is his passion. Just like me with kickboxing."

"Passion. Heh. Yeah." Jack noted the change in his tone before she took another sip of her tea. It was a subtle clue of disappointment but Rahim swiftly brushed it off with his usual lively self. "Guess parkour's my main hobby now."

"You have others?"

Rahim jumped in his chair. Dammit, he had mumbled that to himself. He scratched his head sheepishly but eventually pulled out the black book from his backpack. "It's nothing really. Just something I do to pass the time."

Why was he showing her those bad drawings? They were just doodles, some word phrases based on the graffiti he saw at the stations and alleyways. Nothing that impressive that he would secretly get some paint sprays, find an empty wall and start designing it.

But Jack was attentive. She had this watchful shimmer he had seen on TV and in person. Several times, he had thought she was staring into his soul and prying out every little secret he kept in.

And she was examining his drawings the same way but in a manner that she was engrossed in his sketchbook.

"I like this design." She pointed to the sketch near the edge of the left paper. Of course, Jack would pick that one, it had a wolf ready to eat the viewer up. "'Dream Wild. Die Free'... Actually, all of this is really good."

That compliment made him crack a tiny smile. "You think?"

"Yeah. You're a good artist. Go to college and you can come out better."

"Pft!" And back he slumped into his seat. "No way. They're expensive. We don't have that kind of money."

Jack cast her eyes off the sketchbook, quickly realizing her mistake. A frown had immediately painted across his face as he stared off to the floorboards - she had to remind him again the kind of situation he and Jade had.

"Sorry. I shouldn't have-"

"It's ok. Even Mom wants me to go but… Her health comes first. Money doesn't grow on trees."

Silence stirred into the apartment, regardless of the soft turning of the electric fan. The message in the air was easily readable, the boy's body language said it all. He had been told before to try to take his art to another level.

But life was cruel.

"A-Anyway, it's just doodles." He snatched the black sketchbook away and put it away. "I can't make a quick buck out of it - Whoa!"

CRACK!

Rahim was too careless. Too fast in keeping his personal thing away. Without thinking, he had knocked the white ceramic teapot with his book. Down it went and shattered, hot tea forcing him and Jack right off their seats.

"Sordid," she groaned.

"I-I, I'm so sorry, Jack!"

"It's ok. Let me go clean this up."

"I'll help-"

"No. I don't want you cutting yourself. Again."

Rahim bit his lower lip. He barged right into someone's home and already he made a fine mess. "J-Just let me pay you back. I'm really sorry about the teapot."

She shook her head. A minute ago, he didn't want to go to college because it was expensive. Now he wanted to pay back for a broken piece of China. His priorities were really all over the place.

Fine, she'd entertain him.

"Well. The set was from England. Made from Derbyshire clay. Twenty years old. Don't think you can find the exact teapot again."

"Then I'll get any other pot. That's what eBay is for."

"E-bay?"

Rahim was shocked again. "Seriously, have you never used the Internet before?"

"I...have. Sometimes. But that's not the point. Buying just any other teapot won't work."

"Why not?"

"Because this set belonged to my grandmother from Derbyshire. She made this set. And she died four years ago, bless her soul."

Uh oh. He didn't like where this was going, even though he had no idea behind the connection. "S-So...what does that mean?"

"It means it's priceless. You can't replace it."

And back came the scared, guilty boy. All he could do was give a weak laugh out of his loud mouth and nothing of a comeback to give. He needed a hole to bury himself.

Sheez, this boy needed a backbone. Stop being so afraid of everything and handle this like a man. Of course, if Jack said that, that would probably make him go further into his hole.

But she couldn't blame him. No father, growing up in the shadow of his sister, tending to his sick mother, and keeping to his own circle of friends, not much development there that this boy wasn't exposed to. He might as well tell her he had never gone outside of Harran.

One of these days, that boy was going to lose everything in a heartbeat 'just to make a quick buck'.

"How about this?"

Timidly, he looked up to the stern glance she gave. "You teach me how to sketch like that." The offer left him confused. The next sentence left him even more baffled with eyes as big as dinner plates. "50 dollars an hour. Saturday morning till noon."

"...And we can forget I broke your teapot?" he asked hopefully.

"Ahaha, no."

And Rahim frowned that clearly read, "damn". He almost got away with it!

"Rahim, you are right. Money doesn't grow on trees. And it's not going to buy back the sentimentality of a priceless teapot. Getting money quickly for your mother's bills so you don't have to worry about Jade is a generous thought." His smile slowly stretched. Then it quickly got shut down. "But short terms like these aren't going to solve your problems. Your sister and your mother wouldn't want to lose you."

Seriously, he hated this belittlement. He got this shit from his family, then Harris and now Jack. He wasn't a kid, stop treating him like one! But the conversation did make him think. A month wasn't enough to get to that level of a pro. And before him was a woman who had many belts into her martial arts. Her experience was physical, her legend was real and that was thanks to years of commitment.

Not to arrogance, not to wrathful pride after five days of parkour.

Maybe if he had never gone to Jack's place to hide, Rahim might have decided to try his stunt again and break his neck for real.

"Going big and all the way, however, will. It takes years. But if you're really passionate about parkour, about art, then you keep committing to it. You'll get there. You only need to make that decision."

That finishing touch bandaged up his hurt. She meant those life-changing decisions, huh? He really couldn't see himself going into college. That meant going through books again and that kinda left a bad taste in his mouth. Everyone kept making 'university' sound like you'd be set for life, even his own mother - who had raised two kids on her own while juggling her teaching job.

"Think about it. About college."

Those two sentences were a common thing he had heard over and over again. It had always been from a "think before you leap" kind of conversation that told Rahim not to make a dumb move.

Yet from Jack, those words carried a different kind of meaning behind them. And he thought about it. He really did in Jack's dining room.

"And stop calling my cousin, Coach. Then we have a deal."

A deal? Just like that? 50 dollars an hour just to teach someone older than him to draw did sound better than trying the odds on a one-month-later contest. And safer. Even Rahim couldn't believe it. He almost thought it was a ruse.

"Heh," he chuckled. "You're really odd, Jack."

"You're not the first person to say that." With the tea mopped up, it was now a little easy to get the large pieces first before the sweeping. Carefully, she placed them over to the fold of today's newspapers she got from her kitchen counter.

"Really?" And Rahim was left to his devices now. He had nothing to do but watch the adult clean up his mess. That left a twitch in his foot and his eyes wandering around the house. This was the second visit but he never did have a good look until now. "I think everyone just looks at you like a legend. Look at all those trophies."

"Of course. Have a reputation to keep."

And one thing in the house caught his eye. Like a rabbit to a treat, he jumped to it, hidden behind the kickboxing trophies.

"Oh, who's this~?"

"Hey, hands off - ow!" Her tone started off the normal playful and calm full until the shard nicked at her fingers.

"Are you ok?!" Rahim hurried over to the older kickboxer, the photo still in hand.

"I'm fine, I'm fine." She was quick to stop the bleeding up with a nearby hanging towel in her kitchen. The pain threshold wasn't that bad but the wound was deep.

"Shit. We should get you to the hospital-"

"I'm fine. No hospitals." There was a tiny, seeping hint of despite behind the cheery tone. "Hand that over."

It wasn't a strong tone like Rahim's mother would use since he was a scrumptious child. Like "Rahim! Stop running in the house!" or the usual "Hurry up, Rahim. You're going to be late!"

But it was a firm request that the young man compelled, passing the dark-wooden photo frame to Jack. Moreover, he did just drop that teapot and was responsible for the chain reaction.

A notice of the fierce kickboxer's sudden change - with a deep meaningful glance at the picture - was an easy sign for Rahim to pick on. Anyone could easily tell what that meant.

After all, the body languages and the smiles in the picture spoke many words in one go. It had a much younger Jack. Maybe four or five years ago, and with no crow's feet or small scars. Lassoing a strong arm gently around the brunette was a tall, broad woman in a denim shirt, tied up. And slid over her black boyish bob was a pair of sports shades - the kind almond-shaped black eyes staring back to the camera.

Damn, Rahim thought, she looked more terrifying than Jack. She could almost be a fitting rival against the Cannon. But the frozen wide, huge grin the woman gave was enough to say, "she was no foe". What sold the picture even more was the brightly-lit atmosphere at a typical Harran bar.

"You two look close," Rahim pointed as he took back his seat. "Is she a girlfriend?" he droned cheekily - like a schoolkid poking fun at someone's crush.

"Partner. From my old job."

No approval but definitely no denial there. But he was curious. "What did you work as?"

"Oooh, just...stuff. Traveling, finding people, retrieving things."

"Sooo a postal mail woman?" It was almost adorable that the young boy was finding it unbelievable to be picturing the well-known fighter in that brown uniform carrying parcels around...and yet the assumption was insulting.

"Yes. Riveting job. Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat will stop this courier - are you shitting with me? Postal?"

The start of the sentence was so convincing that Rahim almost bought his assumption until the disappointed frown and hands on hips from Jack sunk his head further into his shoulders like a panic-struck duck.

"It was a bunch of odd jobs together but I was a negotiator most of my time." Jack visibly dodged his curiosity with a 'second' right words for her old career. "My partner was the main specialist in our duo."

"Sounds like you had some shady job when you put it that way."

"Heh. Ain't all jobs shady with their corporate bosses cutting corners? Our line of work was the same. With some favorable perks."

"Like what?"

A chuckle. "Sightseeing, for one thing. Get to see all the landmarks and beautiful trinkets up close. Another was the memories. Ahaha..." Jack's hazel eyes drifted back down to the photo. "We made a very good team together. Indestructible, she'd say…"

It was rather cool - seeing someone recall a past but didn't go further into the details. It left Rahim open to ideas in order to fill the holes. However, he noted the furrowed eyebrows on her.

She wasn't just nostalgic.

"Until making a living wasn't enough…and our choices caught up to us. Even when it was already too late."

The somber face of Mad Jack did make him pick at the little clues but Rahim didn't dare ask for the answers. This time, he didn't let the interest get the better of him.

Except for one question.

"What's her name?"

Jack's fingers tightened on the photo frame. That bitterness was enough to bite through her metaphorical shield over her heart. It'd be a mortal sin if she were to forget her name.

Even though Jack was in complete reminiscence, she didn't react to the sharp, growing, ringing in her ears.

"Her name-----"

And the dream shattered at the peak of the sharp sound.

BAM!

A body slumped to the concrete ground. The smell of gunpowder overpowered the senses. For a second, Crane couldn't recognize where he was or who had died right in front of him. Was this a warehouse?

Then the second was gone and his new surroundings 'malfunctioned' on him. They suddenly became 'familiar' to him. Ancient artifacts were displayed around him and the walls were built like a fortress.

The young woman with her neck broken, her eyes bloodied and her body changing laid on the battle-stricken floor.

"No, no!" Crane hollered. Not again! Not this memory!

Still, his feet ran for him. Even when the whole world was shifting - changing - he hurried over to her. This was a dream, wasn't it? Stop it!

Let him try and save her!

But when he reached to her, to Jade Aldemir, it changed again. Jade wasn't there anymore - the big woman with the bob haircut was in her place. His claws didn't appear. Slender hands did, rolling the other lady over to expose the gunshot in her chest and the redness bleeding across her clean white shirt. No trace of infection.

Two memories were clashing together. They overlapped like glitches in a matrix system. They didn't match but they resembled so similarly in comparison. Jade on the strange woman's spot, arms splayed out. The woman in Jade's spot on the warehouse floor.

And Crane wasn't Crane anymore. He was watching through someone else's eyes.

He could hear Jack's voice somewhere. Or did it come from his mouth? She was pleading, begging for the other woman to get up, her hands caressing the dead her pale cheeks as big tears dropped down onto dead, cold almond eyes.

The name of the big woman was audibly redacted. Again and again. And again.

"Didn't I tell you?"

Crane spun up to see to the stranger's voice.

That wasn't Rais. The place around wasn't the museum. The floor wasn't littered with broken glass and spent bullet shells. The living dead bodies weren't around - he was surrounded by the kind of guys hired to soil their hands for another. All for a high payroll.

One of them stood out differently. The lithe-built, tanned man wore the expensive suit, the leather loafers, and his sleek bad-guy jacket draped over his shoulders - hair gel oiled back his pompadour style. He had all the reads over him: he was untouchable. Unbreakable. The bad guy who could get away with anything but not with Rais' methods.

Not even Jack could stop him.

Crane recognized his face. Only on the papers and in the news three years ago.

In the dapper man's hand was a revolver, smoke seeping from the barrel. He kneeled down to her level and said with a cruel, cold beam.

"I own you, Jack."

The gun pointed blank at Crane's head.

BAM!

"Gah!" And he gasped loudly, bolting up from the floor. Sweat tinkled down his temple as he shot his zombie gaze around. For that man with the revolver. For that second woman and for Jack.

But he was all alone.

Chapter Text

SIXTEEN: HERETIC


Crane breathed. In and out, in and out, in and out. Hurriedly, he patted himself down, searching for where the bullet hit him.

Nothing on this zombie body.

He swallowed. Dear god, that dream was just...too real. His heart was pounding inside his chest like a loud train. It was like he wore someone else’s shoes. But those shoes couldn’t decide if they wanted to stay with him or not.

For a minute, he almost couldn’t believe he had gotten out of the dream. But the room was evidence to him: Crane was still in Scanderoon, not in some unknown warehouse or…

Back in Harran, at the museum atrium.

It was over. His mind was in the present, not the past. And Crane plopped back into his bed as he tried to calm his nerves down.

Shit, what was going on with his head? Could everything stop going whacky on him? He already had enough dealing with Jack and her loony ways. And straight away, he blamed this virus. He blamed his change. He was perfectly fine and mental before heading to the Countryside.

However, this time, he didn’t ditch away from the dream like the previous ones. Third time a charm so it couldn’t be a coincidence his mind was making things up about Jack. But was it even true? He was trying to grasp at straws for the certitudes from dreams, dreams! That was on the road to being a madman.

Then again, who said he wasn’t already at the finishing line?

There was no point in a guessing game. And there wasn’t any point to asking that woman up front. She’d think “oh sure, this talking zombie can bloody read minds ” and would probably punch the undead shit out of him. This was like...some intrusive thing, right? Digging out dark secrets inside someone’s head.

So, as he guessed, the best course of action was not to do anything. Again.

“Why the fuck am I still alive?” he mumbled to himself.

Crane peered up to the ceiling of his makeshift room - one of the floors of an apartment some streets away from the Cicadas’ demolished base. They were up all night and he could tell from Jack’s unsteady walk that she needed sleep. The toll from last night really got to her, added with what happened at the orphanage.

Right. Since he couldn’t do any analyzing with the dream, he might as well check on her. He fought against his body’s need to steer away from daylight, before shoving his cupboard-barricade from the broken front door.

The Sea Ville Apartments was...reasonably better compared to the original state of the Sunny Apartments back in Harran. Before the outbreak. There was a big pool...that clumsy zombies tripped into and drowned instantly. But this place almost mirrored those apartments in several ways: where the rooftop couldn’t be accessed with the top stairways blocked off by furniture and some floors were crawling with the remaining residents who refused to leave - only to succumb to the virus.

Crane crept up the fire escape from his floor, all the way to the top, where a safe zone was turned active hours ago.

“-it’s nothing.”

He saw her highlighted body before he heard Jack’s voice. She sat on top of the small safe house, fingers to the comm piece in her ear.

“And no. I have been taking them…” Jack squeezed the bridge of her nose, as if trying to dull out a headache. “I just haven’t been sleeping much these past few nights. All because of these bloody damn dreams.”

Dreams? What sort of dreams? ” The voice on the other side beat Crane to the punch on that thought.

Quietly, just as sneakily as a Volatile, he joined up on the little stairway house. Jack didn’t hear or sense him right behind her but then again, the discourse grasped at her attention more than noticing his presence.

“Just...things from the past. Nothing big. Feels like my head’s splitting open though.”

But you are taking them, right?

“Yes, Bones. I have. Every time. I’m not that forgetful.”

He didn’t want to disturb her, even though, seriously, Kyle, he was being a creep. He knew it and hated it. Before he decided to drop down, he spotted an open sketchbook and pencil beside Jack.

Crane picked it up gently. Huh, these are good, he thought. Never imagined that the wild firecracker was an artist. But what got his pique was the drawings themselves.

Infected. They were drawings of the biters and goons he and Jack had faced these past few days, of the monsters he had seen since Day 1. All in good details. It was a different style compared to that he saw in the black sketchbook, from the dream - like a scientist jolting down every single detail of a newly-discovered animal or plant from the jungle. Not like one of those graphic street artists.

He turned back to the previous pages and immediately frowned at one of them. “That’s one ugly motherfucker. Hope I never meet his kind.

The infected type wasn’t something he had faced before. At first glance, it kinda looked like a Night Hunter - the kind he had barely escaped a few times when human. Yet there were features that said Volatile. The right mandible of the jaw and the bone spurs along the arms were evidence. What kept the left jaw in place was whatever tissue of the mouth still attached to it. The right had some flesh underneath to the bottom of the throat from the looks of it, that helped it from coming out.

Basically, if a Night Hunter and a Volatile had a baby.

The only one “good” thing Jack had written about this thing was the eyes. A pair of ‘soulful’, ‘sad’ eyes. Nothing further in meaning and Crane didn’t get the punchline there - if there was one. All he could guess what she meant was some poetic bullshit: that the soul was still trapped behind those inhuman eyes, unable to scream out for help as he watched his own hands take another life. All for the sake of having prey.

Yeah, no. He disagreed with the notes there. That zombie was fucking ugly, Crane thought.

Until he read the heading at the bottom of the page. “Freakoid”. Bolded and underlined by pencil.

Wait a minute. ” It prompted him to touch his mouth, feeling something on his right loose and yet set back in place like a jigsaw puzzle.

Then...could they got anything to do with, you know, the virus, or-?

“No, no. Neither… Just...never really thought that they’d be so vivid…” The sentence just trailed off but it caught Crane’s attention.

Jack?

“Nothing. Nothing.” Despite looking like she received fewer answers and more questions from the deducting conversation, Jack leaped onto the next question. “Has Asem picked up anything on the Tower? It is nearly 48 hours now.”

No news yet. We got a trail but it ended up heading to one of the blocked tunnels.

“Hm… No way Harris would risk anyone going through those places.”

Yeah. Those are Volatile grounds. We’re still looking. You know us. We are the Ravs.

“I know. We are the Ravs,” she cheered. Unhappily. 

You’re still not planning to go the Harran, right?

“Of course not.” Jack gestured her hand in small air circles. “I’veee...not decided. Just want to be sure, that’s all.”

I know. Just give Asem time. She’ll find them.

“Yeah, yeah…”

Crane’s frown thinned tightly. There it went again, his heartstrings being pulled. God, GRE was right. He was too soft. But he felt the same as Jack did - the Tower was still missing.

Where in Harran were they?

For now, focus on the mission. You should also go check back on that building. There might be a clue to finding us a candidate.

“That’s the plan for today.”

Then he spotted the peek behind the sports shade. Jack had glanced back.

Oh shit. She saw him with her book. But before he could say anything, or try to pretend “yeah, I picked this up. It’s yours, right? I didn’t read it”, Jack just continued on with her conversation.

“Freakoid’s here,” she said to the other guy on the line. “So should we get this started then?”

Sure. Before Asem heads out. Hang on.

The comm talk was over and Jack climbed up onto her feet with an unreadable expression to Freakoid.

Uh, I...this was on the floor, and-

“Heh,” was an honest, soft laugh. “What? Hard to believe that I have other talents besides boxing?”

Well, these are good. I won’t deny that, ” Crane admitted, handing over the sketchbook to the open hand gestured by her.

“That’s because I had a good teacher,” she said proudly. Nostalgically. “Loudmouth. But once you get him to focus on something, he really goes all out on the topic.”

Again, the painful needle poke in him. It was bitter. Did she have to talk about Rahim again? Though he did agree with one thing. Rahim was a loudmouth.

He quickly ushered out something, just to shake off the anguish. “When did you even have time to do those drawings?

“Whenever we weren't running for our lives. It’s much safer than using your phone camera on a moving zombie after your neck. By the way, set your comms to Channel 3,” she chided as she put away her small notebook.

What for? ” he asked casually.

“Our boss wants to talk to you.”

Oh.

Ooooh-oh, no, total no. Nuh-nuh. Nope. Nada.

Every goddamn time he talked to someone in an authority position, it’d always go wrong. His fucking command, Noria Ash? Told him to burn that crate of Antizin. Made contact with Rias and what did that get him? A whole load of bullshit morals and pain. Tried to make a reputation in order to reach apostle rank in the Faceless cult just to talk to the Mother? Crane became like this!

So no, not dealing with this again!

Yeah, you know what? I got some chores to do. You know, a, a zombie thing. Really important zombie stuff so I’m gonna skip this call-

“You can’t keep running away,” Jack said disappointedly. “You’re the one who spoke out back at the hotel.”

Well… I mean… Hey, your radio guy started it.

Jack simply rolled her eyes with a shake of her head. She was surrounded by children. “If you have a complaint with how someone does their job, then take it up to them. I’m not the feedback box here.”

No way. I ain’t showing anyone how I look like. ” Especially after seeing that drawing of himself. Also, he wasn’t that big! “ Or talking to anyone. You freaked out when you heard my voice over the comms.

“Where did that confidence from yesterday go? You were doing so well too.”

When that guy at the Orphanage screamed at me.

“So? He didn’t shoot you,” she chided. “First test to seeing how well everyone takes you and you passed with flying colors.”

You mean how well they can take a monster or a circus freakshow.

What a whiner, Jack thought but zipped those words behind sealed lips. “Freakoid, there’s a time and place to be crawling into your hole because you’re not one of the cool kids anymore.”

There were so many points in that sentence Crane wanted to attack and demolish down. “Oh shaddup! I'm not-

“Let me finish. I told you before that you’re the biggest mystery behind this virus. And Asem wants to know what we’re dealing with.”

Asem being your leader, right? ” All the lights in his head were lit up red. “Yeah, no. I’ve met enough people at the top of the food chain to know where this is going.

“Did you have a thing against authority or something?”

Sure. When they’re being a pain in my ass.

“You’re quick to judge. You haven’t even met Asem yet. And she doesn’t know you either. That’s what this call is for.”

Yeah. Sure. Does your whole faction know you’re running around with a sentient zombie who could actually kill you at any moment?

“Oh, sure. The whole group knows about you,” Jack said without any hesitation. At first, he took it as a joke. After all, what he said was sarcasm. “I had to report back every now and then.”

NOT WHAT HE WANTED TO HEAR!

“But three-quarter thinks you’re a figment of my imagination, 20 percent of that quarter assumes you’re just some human nutjob who really believes he is a zombie and the rest actually buys the whole talking infected gig.”

Refrain from struggling her neck, Kyle. Stop yourself from doing it, Crane hollered in his head as he used every ounce of energy to control his claws from grabbing her.

What about you? You’re also a damn mystery with your weird blood poison!

“Repeat that sentence again, Freakoid. It’s poison. Not a cure. I’ve already gone through every single test imaginable before I took this field trip.”

Crane glared at her. He tried to think of a comeback, anything to get himself out of this situation. But watching her stand like she was the bigger adult between them was making him mess up his words. Hands on hips and looking all like “I already did the pain so stop your complaining and grow a pair.”

Crane tried, thinking with broken back talks. Along the lines of “Well, you’re not like a freak monster like me!” or “I still have rights not to be pricked with needles!” or, or...

He got nothing out of his mouth. He couldn’t win this argument.

“Look. You’re part of the Ravs now. And it’s a formality that we trust each other. You rub our backs and we rub your...scaly, bony, back. Thingie.”

Ok, he’d let that one slip. “Hang on. You’re the one who decided to make me a Rav member. That didn’t mean I agreed with joining you guys.

“Oh, c’mon. I don’t know what you went through but it can’t be as bad as the hazing at Harran University. Which was basically reciting the school’s plaque in their underwears while putting a horse mask on Benedict the Great’s head in broad daylight.”

What?

“Dunno. That’s what the grads told me. Must be a college thing.”

And you...you did that when you first joined the Ravs?

“Of course not. The horseman statue is in the middle of Old Town. We were stuck in the Outskirts for more than a month.”

Oh.

“However, for my initiation, I had to play “the floor is lava” game. Basically, some of the members wanted me to go up on the rooftops at night and push three Biters off. Together. At once. Without stopping,” Jack said displeasingly. “For anything.”

Yikes.

“Yes. And the guy who did the hazing had to give up his quartermaster position to someone more capable and empathic for the job. That was after Asem found out.”

What is your group? A daycare center?

“Feels that way every, single, day,” she groaned through clenched teeth. “If anything, this outing is the excuse I needed to get out of the base.”

Jack, ” called the voice on the other end of her comms. “She’s here.

“Roger,” she said to the radio guy and with a signal that said she was passing the stage over to Crane, she exclaimed, “All yours, Freakoid. Behave.”

Behave. Sure.

"Oh, come now, mate," the brunette sang. "Live a little."

All Crane did was huff irritatedly. What a contradiction with his kind of situation.

He held down a long, demotivating groan as the brunette walked away to give him his space. Right back into the same swing of things, even when he said no and gave the metaphorical finger to the world. He’d behave, alright, and that was if this Rav leader wouldn’t tick him off.

This is Asem, ” said the other line. A woman’s voice, and there was a native tongue to it. Perhaps someone who spent her entire life in this country. “I presume you’re Freakoid?

Oh, I’m gonna regret this. ” He cleared his voice - hoping that would make it less hoarse than the usual - before he gave one deep sigh...and spoke bitterly. “...Yes. This is me speaking.”

There was a moment of pause. Yup, the bold captain of the Ravs was stunned to hear his voice. And Crane anticipated this woman wouldn’t want anything to do with talking to a freak like him.

Hm. Not what I expected. Bones made it sound like he was hearing a Volatile on the other end.

Well, that was anti-climax. But that told him this woman was going to stay. Which was super, another person likeJack. “Yeah, and I can just leave right now. I don’t need this treatment.”

Rash and headstrong. Now I see why Jack took a liking to you.

“Wait a second, back up. What do you mean ‘a liking’?” Now he wasn’t too sure how to take that compliment. Should he be afraid?

Still, beggars can’t be choosers… ” For which side? Her faction or him? “Jack has already informed us about your...state of mind.

“That’s rather a light thing to say about me.”

Believe me when I say this. We’ve already seen a lot to know that this outbreak isn’t normal.

“Well, of course. The dead shouldn’t walk.”

And neither should something turned come back right in their head. Which begs the question: are you going to be a threat, or something more?

“Only if someone is a threat to me,” he murmured softly and angrily. “Or do you think I’ll be a lot worse than anything you’ve faced? Because I can.”

I meant the latter with good intention. Even men draw their guns on us. ” Nothing continued for a while, as if she was thinking over the choices given to her. Which was few. So she took the chance. “Alright. Jack does have a better judgment on people than most of us.

“Better judgment?” He hollered, catching Jack’s attention - she hunched up an eyebrow at his sudden outburst. Crane quickly turned away and hushed his voice a little. “I’m sorry but are all you Ravs people crazy?! You’re putting your fate on one woman! Who’s also crazy!”

Hm-hm. ” It was a laugh. A genuine soft chuckle. “The fact even you don’t believe she has good assessment skills tells me she “rubbed off” on you... Good.

Crane couldn’t believe his sensitive ears. Maybe he was right about this group being cuckoo in the head.

“Good? What do you mean good? Am I missing something here?”

When Jack informed us she had found a sentient infected, we had thought she had lost it. Until Bones vouched for her. I did have my skepticism about you. But...you’ve changed my mind. A little but enough to know where you stand.

“And where is that exactly?” Kyle scorned.

“That you’re not a threat. When you’ve worked with Jack for as long as we have, you’ll learn how she operates. And the fact you’ve stayed this long means you can tolerate her.

“Actually, I’m pretty close to the threshold around her.”

Hm. You’re not alone there. However, a friend of Jack is a friend of the Ravs.

“You really don’t see how bad this is, right? Again, infected, ready to tear a human limb from limb?”

And have you yet? ” she asked.

“Uh… No?” He hoped he hadn’t. The thought of having eaten human flesh still stuck into the deep fibres of his gray matter. And he tried to shove it deeper. Don't think about it.

Then I have every bit of confidence she’ll be fine with you. Or she kills you if you snap.

“Oh. Joy,” he grumbled sarcastically. “My fate in her hands. Do I have any other choices?”

None of us have any better choices. We take what we are given,"  the leader said mindfully. "Now that we're done with introductions, I have a request for you.

Oh, suurrre, here we go again. “There’s always a catch,” he growled. A literal growl of an animal. Didn’t matter if the change in his voice reflected more of his true nature. Let this boss woman know he wasn’t some ‘pet’.

I am not asking for your loyalty, ” the woman said firmly and went straight into business. “I want you to look out for Jack.

The anger inside Crane’s throat quenched down at the unusual air behind that offer. Wait, babysitting?

Ok. That was a very different kind of request compared to the hundreds he had gotten.

Asem might not be in front of him to show her expressions, to sell that request off as a joke. All he had was the genuineness behind the words. And she continued on. “She had already told you what this project is, yes?

“Yeah. Something about testing her poison blood on special infected?”

Correct. A little disappointed at her for failing to keep this a secret. But...maybe it’s better if it isn’t a human who knows about it.

“Again. Can just leave. And what’s wrong if she tells someone this big secret of yours?”

Because nobody outside the Ravs is supposed to know about Jack’s capability. A person capable of having poisonous blood to those infected with the Harran virus, how do you think people will react to that?

“They’d think it’s a cure,” he started and slowly made the connection. “And they’ll kill just to get her.”

We’ve had a riot when we first made this discovery. That’s why we need to keep this under wraps.

A riot. Crane could imagine how that went. If anyone back at the Tower just found out they had poisonous blood, it could lead to an internal fall. Some would see that person as a threat, others think they were a weapon, some a possible cure.

"This is a poison… "

He replayed the Mother’s words in his head distastefully. Still, ironic for another type of ‘poison’ to be on two legs and punching zombies.

It did bring out another question he had.

Exactly where did Jack get this perk? And for the Ravs to just let her go off on her own with such a valuable ability...

“Well, I hate to break it to you but sending out your only lead to do the job isn’t really clever.”

And what other choice do we have? None of us are fit or can spare time on this mission. And Jack is only a recruit. She has a long way to go.

“Hold on.” He nearly raised his voice again. “She just joined the Ravs?”

Yes. Last week.

Crane groaned loudly, putting a claw on his face in dismay. What - Who - what a self-centered, inconsiderate, jackass she was! Literally! Jack made it sound like she was one of the confidants under this Asem woman. Now he was finding out she was just as a new recruit as he was?!  She was as bad as Rahim when he first met him!

“Not a lot of good choices, huh?” he asked weakly.

Only with what we are given,” Asem stated again. How the hell could she be so calm in the middle of the outbreak? And with talking to him? “She did ask to take this mission.

“Wait, she asked for this?” Actually, he believed that. “Eh, yeah. She would.”

Believe me when I say we’ve tried looking for other people to help Bones do his project. But she did give us good points as to why it should be her and her alone. She’s more capable than anyone of us here. And she has her blood. There’s nobody better we trust than her.

“Then why the request?”

"Jack likes to wander off and do all sorts of jobs instead of focusing on one thing at a time. She has good intention but we really need this project going smoothly."

"Then you really should have gotten someone else to do the job for you," he mumbled.

"Maybe. Unless you think you can do it better than her?"

"I...couldn't." Almost, he almost boldly said he could. Jack was still checking him out now and then with every glance over the shoulder. "I don't have poisonous blood. I only have this...body."

"And you have your mind. That's better than nothing."

He tightened a fist into a ball. Was that really enough? No sane person would really believe someone like him, no, something like him could still stay a human inside an infected.

"Jack did say you're a very doubtful person."

Crane scoffed. "Well, when you're in my shoes, anyone would be. You...you don't know what's it's like. Being like...this."

"On the contrary, I know more about how you feel than you think."

Oh, please. He rolled his eyes. Like anyone would know. How about sticking it up your ass-

"I have learned one thing from this conversation. That for an infected like you, you are more clear-minded than Jack is."

That stopped Crane from saying his sentence out loud on the comms.

Clear-minded? Well...actually, he did have that one moment of weakness and nearly cracked down. If anything, Jack was the stupid, stubborn one stopping him from fleeing deeper into the sewage system. But that wasn't clear-minded. Jack grabbed him on impulse. And at the dam, at the dock, at the GRE outpost, she had always jumped before thinking. Like a dog off its chain.

And what did that tell about him? He had been trying to leash down his other self since his awakening - the zombie side of Crane.

Now that he thought more on the conversation, he got a bit of an idea behind this Asem person. Good at picking up traits from just words - she didn't have any way of seeing just how horrible he looked but only by words did she get some picture of who he was. She wasn't dealing with a gun-trigger thug, or a brainless baboon, or any of the Viral. She understood, all based on what Jack told her.

Jack was that important catalyst for her to make the decision about him.

...What a terrifying woman. She was as manipulative as the Mother but on a whole different scale. Maybe as bad as Agent Ash. He's got to be careful around this one.

"So," Asem started, Crane picturing this boss trying to act like...well, his GRE boss - 'are you up to the task or am I going to hire someone else to do it?', that kind of talks. "Are you really what Jack said you are? Can I trust you with her life?"

"You're asking a lot from an infected."

"And yet Jack has a lot of faith than you do on yourself."

"Really? That's flattering. I'm pretty sure she has so much confidence in her own blood that I won't kill her. Maybe too much."

Another laugh. "That's Jack for you. And that's why I'm asking someone outside our Ravs to look after her." There was a hint there, seeping out of a crack Asem let shown - remorse. "We had already lost her once."

The hanging reminiscence made Crane peek at the corner of his eyes. Jack had been waiting during this entire conversation, only hearing his one-sided responses and probably trying to piece it all together. But never once did she interrupt the talk - she pretty much got bored and sat at the edge of the rooftop, her head resting on her knee.

Asem had to be referring to the days Jack got her perk, at the loss of her memory. And it was fatal enough for a whole group to worry about her.

Oh, for god's sake, Kyle. Stop being so soft!

But he was going to regret this anyway. "Yeah, she told me about it." With a heavy sigh, Crane exclaimed, "There aren't a lot of options here."

"None that we found."

Only what they had right now and that was something Crane knew all too well in his line of work. All one could do was adapt with what they got.

"...Sure. We have a deal. I'll help her with the project."

"Good. One more thing." Of course, this was another needy group. "You've probably heard of her reputation as Mad Jack. She has a tendency to go off on a tangent now and then."

"Ok. So it's not just me."

Crane could have sworn Jack heard that last part of the discussion. Oh, god, he was unintentionally welcoming a punch from her. Thankfully, it didn't seem like it caught up on her so he inched a couple more steps away from her - just to be safe.

"Jack's skills as a kickboxer has always been formidable. But she can push her body too far without thinking."

"Sooo...what are you asking from me?" he asked confusedly.

"What I want from you is... Make sure she doesn't go berserk."

Berserk? Was she really asking the right person for that job? "Really? I think it should be the other way around-"

"I mean it."

That next statement caught him by surprise. Just what kind of history did the ex-kickboxer have? Perhaps enough to make even this other woman, a leader too, worried. However, that did show another side behind this boss.

It was still on first impression and the more he'd learn about Asem, the more he would get her true colors. However, right on the get-go, she wasn't as heartless as Rias to abandon all his men or devious like the Mother to put the wool over the eyes of her sheep under a pointless, deceiving doctrine.

Asem reminded him of Jasir...if Jasir was a military man and not a farmer.

"I… Sure. You got my word."

"Thank you, Frea-" She stopped and cleared her voice. "What should I call you?"

"You were gonna say that stupid nickname Jack calls me," he grumbled.

"That's all she's been calling you since the start."

He facepalmed. "Of course she would."

"If it's bothersome, then you might as well tell us your name. You were a human once."

Human. Yes. He had a past, a name.

"It's…"

But saying those two words was difficult. Something in the pit of his stomach wanted to say it. The rest of him wanted to strangle it so it couldn't speak out. His name was nothing but a reminder.

Play the amnesiac, dummy.

"It's nothing," he explained. "I don't remember my real name."

Only silence stayed over the line for more than a minute. He almost thought Asem didn't buy it - he couldn't underestimate her.

"Hm. How unfortunate."

And that ended the chat.

Yeah. Real unfortunate. He couldn't agree more with the Rav leader. Everything about him since he arrived in Harran had been unfortunate. An irritating itch made him clutch his sharp teeth so tightly.

He wanted to bury that man, Kyle Crane, as deep as possible into the ground. Because that coward was dead.

He was supposed to be dead. And he should stay dead.

Crane wasn't a hero anymore.

But fate was a bitch and had other plans for him, he supposed.

"So what did our mother hen say about me?"

And just like that, that heavy, cocky accent broke the stiff, grim air that disgustingly gripped tight to his hardened skin. Up she had jumped from her spot, ready and railing to get back to work now that the call was over. It was like Jack was Jack herself again…

The self-centered, inconsiderate, jackass Crane had been regretfully working with.

"Pretty sure she had a lot to nasty things to say about my attitude," Jack chided.

"Mother hen?"

"We pretty much call her that. If it weren't for her, we'd be lost little chicks getting eaten by the rabid infected zombies."

"Ugh."

"What? Chicks get eaten all the time. Nothing to get grossed out over."

"It isn't that. It's the fact you're calling your boss 'mother'." If this group becomes another Faceless cult, he was leaving. "Already been there, done the whole raising up the ranks for a crazed prophetess that calls herself 'the Mother'."

"Asem has a kid. A thirteen-year-old son. She's just a little protective. Not just to her family but the Ravs."

"Oh." Ok, now he made this awkward. He had only himself to blame.

"Sounds like the last group you worked for were all eccentrics. We just call her Asem," Jack continued on, completely impregnable to the discomfort Crane just put flat out between them. "No need for special titles in the Ravs. So now you're officially assigned to Bones' pet project, I guess I should give you the detailed rundown. We need to find four infected candidates to test my blood against and get samples from them."

Yeah, get back to work. That would take his mind off what he just said. "Ok. Well, you got a lot of choices around you."

"Whoa, hold on there, cowboy. It can't be any Tom, Dick, Harry. The candidate needs to build resistance to the blood. And most types we've come across don't stay alive long enough. And others don't even bite."

"Hm. That is true. So...what can be a candidate?"

"Well, Bones is very particular about this candidate's winning points but...from what we've discussed before, he said it has to be someone like," she trailed off, glancing back to Crane. "You."

"Oh… So, do I need to give a blood donation or-"

Jack chuckled. "Don't flatter yourself. You were our first choice for candidate until...you started talking to me. And the idea of being your nurse kinda give me the willies."

"Yeah, that also gives me the chills."

"Also I don't do well with syringes. Sure, use them as a weapon and stab people with them, I can. But drawing blood, from a human being or a talking zombie, eh, no bloody thanks. I'll leave that to Bones if we ever get to the Outskirts."

Well, there was reassuring. He was already committed to not become a test subject. "That can't be your only reason."

"Bones said you might not entirely be building a resistance. Not after the second bite you took off me."

"What does that mean?"

"It means, and in his own words, you're a different case. And he doesn't want a greenhorn like me in case I hurt the merchandise's feelings." And the Freakoid gruffed angrily at the affront. "You're off-limits until Bones has you take a rundown at his lab. And that's on your consent, by the way."

"So your radio boy is also the one looking into this virus? Wow, ok, you Ravs really are thin in numbers."

"He was taking a second major at the university. And he's not a member. Can't see that boy taking action from anything other than a petri dish. But he's brilliant. Like his uncle, I've heard."

"Brilliant. Ok. But yaps a lot."

"What do you expect from college students? They never shut up about their favorite topics."

"Yeah, I wonder if they had some influence there," Crane mumbled, eyeing dead-on at Jack.

"From what?"

"Oh, nothing. Nothing… No other better choices, only what we are given," he repeated the Rav leader's words.

"Well, it's better than none," Jack pointed, waving out her arms. He had to agree with her there. "And if Bones' project does give something fruitful, maybe we can finally stop this virus for good."

"Alright. Alright. Might as well go on a wild goose chase," he only said that to stop hearing how hopeful she was trying. It just made him sick. "But we don't have a long list."

"Already a list? So you have some ideas?"

"Not...really. A rare type of Biter?"

"A scrub? Now you're just insulting me."

Boy, was this woman making it difficult for him. Let him recall back his list of things to do: he had to help her find specials and put her blood into their bodies without them trying to kill her. While he'd keep an eye on her.

Was this what they called a paradox?

"Ok. A Demolisher?" Crane just picked what could be a bigger threat since she just looooved a challenge.

"Eh. Promising. That's if we can stop it from stomping us."

"Alright. How about that Watcher?"

Jack glanced out wide eyes as her shades slipped down the bridge of her nose. He set the bar quite high there. "Ok, that's a little too risky. The Ravs haven't been able to get close to one for us to test it. Alive."

"Fair enough. Our last run-in with one wasn't what I would call fun… Yeah, I've got nothing."

Mad Jack smirked. It was that confident, catty grin again - that she already knew where her next goal was before Crane could make plans.

"But I might have a lead. Follow me."

And off she went, off two floors of the apartment and onto a balcony before heading inside. No explanation at all.

Ugh...this was going to be a long day, Crane thought. And he went to take the quicker way down.

It took about half the time Jack needed to rest the apartment's exit. Freakoid was patiently waiting by sitting obnoxiously on the bent-up car parked outside. 'What a showoff' was what the brunette thought off, clearly plastered right on her face and he was fine with letting her think that. That was when Jack noticed something down the road. It stared back at the odd couple with its bright brown eyes.

"Well, that's a rare sight."

Once Crane saw the object of her interest, he understood her surprise. When he first came to Harran, there was never any sight of its kind or any other four-legged critters. Animals and pets were probably eaten up by the infected after all but that was just a guess. Kyle did see a few back in the Countryside with their guts cut open.

Not ripped out by claws. A strange detail he noticed but never thought more on it.

"A dog. I thought all the strays were gone."

"Come here," Jack cooed to the big dog. Didn't seem like the animal was a particular breed but she had seen all sorts of mutts back in Harran. In this country, their stray population was one sad example of how bad humanity can be before the outbreak. Of course, these dogs were clever in surviving and avoiding the dogcatchers.

So she knew this one wouldn't be easily coaxed by her soft, kind voice. Its bushy tail did wave but the dog was obviously cautious at Freakoid - its dropped ears perked back at his presence.

"Yeah...I don't think it likes me. Too bad. I'm pretty much a dog lover."

"Might not entirely be a stray. See that ear tag? Had been taken by animal welfare. And...there's a collar. An odd-looking one."

Around the neck of the dog didn't look standard. If she had to guess, it looked like a tracking device.

"Animal welfare? So he escaped from a shelter?"

"It's a bitch," Jack corrected him. "Stray dogs are a huge problem in this country and too few shelters can keep them. Only way around it to is to capture them, give them their shots, all the works and let them go. That's what the ear tag's for."

"Huh."

"Don't be too worried about them. Dogs in this country are smart critters. They've lived off the land without needing people." She stood back up. "Still, this dog might actually have an owner to have that tracker on her."

The collared dog eventually grew bored of the two, well, bored at Jack and still wary at Crane. A human walking around in the middle of a street full of walkers would instantly flee for shelter. Yet an animal like her just trotted about like it was just a normal Scanderoon day. And that was what the mutt did - trotting away and out of the duo's sight.

"Guess even in a harsh situation like this city, life finds a way."

"Really?"

She didn't get why Freakoid said that. "What?" Jack uttered with a shrug of her shoulders.

Crane simply shook his head at the reference she had to pull out. She really was full of surprises.

"Still odd about the dogs though."

"What's odd? It's just a dog."

"Bones told me that this outbreak was because of a rabies mutation. Funny thing is I didn't hear reports of any dog attacks when the virus hit Harran."

"And how's that a concern?"

"Old concern, actually. It's already too late with this epidemic out. But Bones did bring out some good points. Humans don't immediately get transmitted with viral diseases as quickly as this Harran virus. Usually, it starts with something small. Pigs for influenza, birds for bird flu, and bats and canines for rabies. And there weren't any sign of infected animals before this virus came out."

Whoa, ok, he bought that this ex-champion had other talents but stuff on viruses? "How do you know all this?"

"I'm just repeating what my Rav friend said. He knows a bit about virology. And that viruses are supposed to jump on new hosts, not evolve. Which this Harran virus is doing."

"It skipped the appetizer and went straight for the main course," Crane continued that train of thought.

"Not by natural causes, that's for sure. Bones thinks it's man-made."

"Ok, I actually buy that," he muffled softly to himself. He did discover a hidden military facility that originally contained that blue stuff. The details behind the virus' origin were vague - other than that one dead end about it coming from outer space. Like that could be true.

"Whatever this virus is, it's still worrisome. It's not acting like how a virus naturally would do." She got a narrow stare from Freakoid. "Ok, everything about it isn't normal. But there is a plus side to it."

"And what's that?" This was going to be fun, what sort of optimistic point she could pull out of her ass.

"At least we don't have any zombie dogs running around. We've got enough trouble dealing with walkers and Volatiles every day."

"That's actually a good point. Don't think I can handle a jumpscare like that."

"Jumpscare?"

The first red light flashed in Crane's head. Because that reaction was legit - either she had never heard the word, 'jumpscare' or didn't know what he was referring to, until now.

"...Yeah, jumpscare. You know, mutant dogs jumping through windows and scaring the shit out of you?"

Nothing from the look of her face. The sports sunglasses couldn't hide Jack's outright confusion. Another second and all she did was silently motion him to explain it better. But Crane was too baffled to say anything once he digested what he was witnessing.

"Aaaam I supposed to know this? 'Cause I don't. What exactly are you talking about?"

Crane's golden eyes were at their widest. No. He did not hear that. She knew about 'that' reference but not his?!

He was done.

"You're a disappointment. You really are," was all he could say. She tried to make comeback, ask what was he going on about, but no, Crane stopped her by silencing her with a gesture of his claws saying "Nope, I don't want to hear from you anymore."

He walked away from a completely oblivious Jack.


 “So, mind telling me why are we here?

The Freakoid thought this was the last place they’d go back. There wasn’t any reason to. But there they were, standing outside the destroyed opening of the Orphanage.

“Checking out that lead for Bones. He did give an interesting point I overlooked.”

And that is?

“It’s better you see it for yourself actually.”

Could Crane just get a straight answer? In fact, it sounded like Jack was having fun making him spin in circles for the bone.

But still, for her to come back to the Orphanage? Nothing has changed - the number of infected outside was still the same and the number of dead Cicadas the further the two walked in. The smell of death lingered just as thickly as everywhere else in Scanderoon.

Nobody was coming back, just like Carlo said.

So...are you ok?

“Ok?” The brunette glanced back, clearly puzzled by his question

Because this place, I mean- ” How should he put this delicately?

“There was nothing we could have done. We did the best we could do,” Jack said it rather too swiftly - not with any intention to end the conversation there but to reinforce the notion that losses were bound to happen. But Crane could tell. The Orphanage incident did put a dent in Jack’s already-battered and repaired shield. And she shook it off like it was a regular day at the boxing ring.

Yeah… We did our best. ” But it just wasn’t enough. It always wasn’t enough. And with that discourse ended, he moved on to the next to ignore that bitterness. “So what exactly is this lead of yours?

“Been wondering about what Carlo told us the whole morning. How the place got jumped on during the blackout.”

What is there to think about? They got attacked by the infected.

“Yes, but from inside. One kid told me there are secret passages beneath the Orphanage the Sisters didn’t.”

Ok, that made sense. Crane was reminded of the underground tunnels beneath the museum in Sector 0. All those passageways submerged from the lake. “And you want to find this underground passage to do what...?

“That we could find a Candidate down there. Zombies stay in the dark during the day. Seems fitting. They could be long gone by now. That doesn’t mean they couldn’t have left a trail.”

Alright,” Crane sighed with disbelief. Just let her do her thing and he’d eventually get to the point. “I’ll bite. What gave ya the idea we'll find one downstairs?

“I found something while looking for the kids. Didn’t share this info earlier because well. Carlo wasn’t in any state of mind to go into further details about the break-in. And the folks from the Junction would only get paranoid if they saw the little discovery.”

What could make anyone any more paranoid than an outbreak?

“How about this?” And Jack pushed open the double doors.

Where they were was still the Inner Court, originally with a prayer room opened for the public. And that was where Saint Sandrine stood at, palms out to give a moment of respite to her poor, misguided followers.

It was where she did stand. Now, the statue had been pushed off her pedestal. The right arm and bottom legs had broken off and her left side of the face was torn off. One look on this would make any Sister yell “blasphemy!” if they were alive but there was a more shocking red clue painted across the wall.

It was almost unreadable as if someone with illegible handwriting tried to form those seven letters. But he could almost see the word.

“'Heretic'? 

“Seems like there were some people who didn’t like the statue of Saint Sandrine.”

And what does that prove anything?

“Well, let’s think for a minute. We’re looking for a candidate like you.”

Ok.

“That can think like a human, talk like a human, walk like-”

Alright, I get your point.

“Here’s the thing. Are you still good at writing?”

It finally clicked in Crane. In fact, what Jack was proposing was a wild idea. Kyle was a clear representation of a sentient zombie and yes, he could still use his hands - he still knew how to spell his own name. But the idea that there were others? It almost made him feel wary. Could the Mother really be back? No, he killed her.

Someone without a head couldn’t come back from that.

And you think a zombie wrote that? Maybe it was one of the Cicadas who vandalized the statue out of spite.

“Sure. If the paint wasn’t human blood.” The brunette turned away from the prayer room and headed down a hall to look for the basement. “You said you’re the only one, right?”

Yeah, as far as I know.

“Here’s the thing. Are you really sure you’re the only one?”

He bit his charred lip. “I’m certain,” he voiced out. “...I’m the one who killed her.”

Jack took that with a bit of surprise and a bit of relief there wasn’t more than one Freakoid. But it did make her ponder…

“Well, there is another angle we never thought of. Bones could be right about this whole viral evolution taking into effect.”

“What do you mean?”

“That someone besides you and your compadre turned into something like you. They ‘evolved’.”

Crane was hoping she couldn’t come to that conclusion. But looking at himself, it wasn’t far-fetched. “Super. Another me out there is already dangerous enough.

“Aren’t you also dangerous?”

I got nothing to say to that, ” he grumbled. “But...if this infected did write this, it does mean it has some level of intellect.

“Not on the same level as your rational thinking. And I vouch that’s a far worst zombie than you.”

Agree.

“Well, then. Now that we’re on the same page,” she chided and pointed to the busted basement door and the many claw-marks decorated wildly around the entrance.

Something had exploded out from below the Orphanage. The two stared down at the rickety wooden stairs, spotting the footprints across the dust and down into the stale-aired darkness.

“Let's go hunting.”

Chapter Text

SEVENTEEN: PERPETUAL COWARDICE


The air was stale but it had been stirred, hit with a strong, pungent odor of fresh and rotting flesh. It grew and grew the further Crane and Jack walked down the basement stairs. Creak, creak, creak beneath every step they took - but Crane has been through this many times.

The bottom floor was like your original basement, a little less clustered than Atilla’s cozy home by the cliffside but a lot roomier - enough space for a huge gang of sneaky zombies to creep up the stairway.

A perfect scene for a horror film. A perfect place for a zombie’s sneak attack.

It didn’t scare him. He was always on the edge, prepared, waiting for the teeth to lash onto him or a paranoid survivor to attack. He was expecting for any leftover crawlers to be down there in the basement. His sight and smell didn’t pick up any trace. And much to his dislike, Jack just casually disregarded any sense of danger by strolling down the creepy basement like it was nothing.

The completely ruined the mood of caution and terror. Seriously, did she want to die?

Do you think we’ll be able to find this candidate?” Crane asked as he searched about for some hole the infected had crawled out from.

“Don’t know. Doubt our writer will be in one spot. Zombies wander off to who knows where. They don’t stay for the food.”

The brunette had spotted a fresh corpse ahead, next to probably the boiler room. It wore the standard Sister clothing, now soaked with blood.

Jack slowly, respectfully turned the body over, hearing the soft slurping sound stretch from the thickly-coagulated red pool beneath it. Flies had begun to set in so it wasn’t recent but she wavered it was probably during the raid last night. Dead fish eyes stared back at her. It was a different Sister. Not Sister Mary Francine but she had briefly seen the face before. An unlucky survivor whose neck was ripped open and body dragged down to the cellar after her death.

No sign of being eaten. She wasn’t tasty enough for her assaulters to enjoy.

“Looks like we’re on the right track.” Then the little gleam caught her attention.

It was a necklace from the looks of it, entangled between the firm, flaccid fingers of the dead Sister. Rigor mortis had set in but with enough force and curiosity, Jack pulled the trinket out. The image of Saint Sandrine watched back at her in bloodstained gold.

And there’s your culprit.” Crane pointed to the ‘backdoor’ in another room - a pushed-down cupboard revealed what was a man-made hole that only led to more darkness.

Perhaps the previous old Sisters hid the entrance long ago until whatever came shoved their way out. Perhaps, in a cruel twist of fate, this secret passage was forgotten and no one in the Orphanage thought any wisely that the infected could come in.

One thing was certain - the zombies unintentionally made sure their backdoor was a one-way.

Crane grumbled at the collapse of stone blocking their way. Did an earthquake or something hit this place? And if so, what a coincidence. With one claw, he pulled away one rock. A thousand more to go from the looks of it.

Of course. A cave-in.

“Well, this place is pretty old.” Jack peered through the widened hole Freakoid dug into. “And from the looks of it, this must lead to one of those historical tunnels.”

Tunnels?

“Scanderoon has a network of built underneath. From the salt-mining days. I heard that these tunnels got extended when the second world war hit the country. The Orphanage was one of those shelters.”

And now a historian. Any more surprises out of you?

“I’ve stayed here for a martial arts tournament once. The 2013 GTC. You pick up a few things.”

GTC?” he repeated. The Global Trial Championship. Wow. “Huh. That’s a big event.

“I was a world champion,” Jack stated, a little disappointed at the Freakoid for forgetting that little detail quickly. But she let it go. “C’mon. Let’s keep searching.”

For what?

“Another way in. Kids with all the time in the world and Sisters too busy taking care of this place from falling, they were bound to find secret doors.” There was an odd tone in her voice, more chirpy than the usual. Like a little prize was just waiting for her to find and take. “Wouldn’t surprise me if they’d use the tunnels for some fun before the outbreak. Now...for some clues...”

Well, Jack certainly could find anything ‘fun’ out of a grim, dark situation. She was already off on the trail, combing through stacks of boxes and old donations in one room.

Clues, huh. It has been a while. Crane had his fair shares of putting his investigation skills to the test. It helped to find a life, uncover the truth behind the fate of a poor boy’s companion and dig up hefty firearms hidden by a little looney collector It helped Crane more so - it was what made him feel himself. It kept his mind working.

Himself. Odd thinking about it with his circumstances. But playing the detective had in a way, always been something he enjoyed.

Alright. Clues,” he said to himself. He had his thinking cap on. “If it’s kids, then it has to be something they made or used...

It narrowed down what he should be looking for. Kids were short, adults were tall. Kids used things their age, adults used things they could reach. So Crane needed to search for places children would interact with.

Of course, a basement wasn’t one place children should be playing in. If he had to guess, they hid any evidence of their presence away from the Sisters. Where it wasn’t obvious or overlooked.

Crane went on his knees and peered underneath a bookshelf.

Ah-ha.

Snuck hidden from any adult was a child’s lunchbox - the kind he had as a kid himself too, the kind that a child could use to hide their favorite items and trinkets. The pattern in the dust showed it had been moved out from its hiding spot many times. And the contents were exactly what he expected when he pulled the metal lid open. Small toy cars, little army soldiers, crayons, and...one folded letter.

“Got something,” he hollered vocally and opened it up.

Jack joined him, glancing over his shoulder. The letters were scribbled in crayon untidily, definitely by one of the orphans. One line was the most important clue they could have found.

“Into Narnia?”

Of course.” Then again, that hint was too easy so duh. “We just need to find a wardrobe. A group of kids going through a cabinet to another world. It’s a classic. You’ve read it, haven’t you...

It all fell short the moment Crane spotted the disapproving, disappointing frown from Jack, drilling right into him. He was actually thankful for those sports shades to hide how thin her eyes probably were.

Uh…

“What? You assumed a person like me never had a childhood and read books?”

Actually...I never took you as a bookworm,” he daringly spoke that out.

He couldn’t see beyond the sunglasses but he definitely could feel how icy the glare was. The frown, however, told him everything. With nothing more to say, Jack left off to find a wardrobe as she grumbled quietly to herself, “I read books.” and “Who hasn’t read that book as a kid?”

He scratched his neck sheepishly. Well, Kyle, don’t judge a book by its cover. And he refrained himself from saying that pun.

“I count three wardrobes down here.” Jack sighed. Well, they couldn’t make this easy but they had no way of narrowing it down. The first cabinet she came across, she ran her fingers around the wood - for any sign like a gap in the concrete behind it or the feeling of wind seeping out.

Three, huh? Alright.

Jack raised an eyebrow, away from the first cupboard. There was something off about the atmosphere. The sense of danger or thrill were replaced by a different feeling. It offset her for some reason. Why did it remind her of something from a television show?

Then she finally got it when she noted the Freakoid cup his finger to his chin and ponder on his next move. A zombie - doing a particular pose in those scenes as he mumbled to himself about his deductions.

Wonder which wardrobe is the flashiest to children. Or maybe they kept their things in one-

“Really?”

The sudden outburst broke his focus and he wheeled to the baffled ex-kickboxer. “What?

“What is this detective noir shit?”

And like that, his spell was broken. The usual shtick he had always done as Detective Crane was gone out like a light.

Noir shit?” Crane nearly gave it away but he kept the offense in check. “Excuse me but I’m looking for the entrance.”

“No. You’re acting out as Sherlock Holmes. Should I give you a pipe and that hat to make the mood more appealing to you?” Jack jested.

W-What?” He tried to feign ignorance. “I’m not-

“Oh, don’t deny it.” Jack folded her arms with a shrug of her shoulders. “We all have our little quirks. And you were human once so-”

“Hold on. What quirks?” Crane’s voice was crackling, even as monstrous as the usual out of him.

“You don’t see it, do you?” she asked playfully. The mannerisms, the walk, the nuances and the stance. It was obvious! “It’s like watching a real life re-enactment of those mystery shows. Did you have that little spyglass as a kid?”

He almost zipped his lips tight. Because Jack was dead on about the little nips of his childhood. He really hated this digging, pulling and teasing.

Alright. Fine,” he hissed. “Got a problem with how I do my own investigation?

“Oh, no problem. Just never understood the appeal behind those TV shows. It’s like trying to make every single thing over-the-top with the evidence when you can figure out who the killer is in the first episode.”

Excuse me!” Oh, she did not just offend him!

“Plus all that black and white is just annoying. Blurs everything too much you can’t even see the clues.”

What - hey! That’s what makes it look cool,” he defended.  

“So you do watch those shows.” Cute, and at least she got back her revenge for his remark. “This way, Sherlock. I found the entrance.”

His head tilted back. That was fast and they hadn’t checked the other two.

“There’s scratch marks,” Jack was swift to answer him before he asked. She was right, Crane spotted the evidence on the stone floor. With her shoulder to the furniture, she gave a hard shove and timber, it went.

CLANK-THUD!

Not without consequence. But a check beyond the entrance showed there was nothing waiting for them.

The man-made burrows were muskier than the basement’s air, with a hint of saltwater and iron. And there was an eerie feeling of familiarity to Crane. Like he was ‘home’. Not Kyle Crane, the infected side of him. It was ‘comfortable’ to that side he was trying to push dead into his conscience.

But he knew. This was another means for the infected to zoom around, undetected by humans. And if it wasn’t the common ‘folk’, it was the mutated ones.

Just like him. And that didn’t make it any better for him.

“Freakoid.”

Again, he had dived deep into his train of thoughts, nearly going into that railyard tunnel. Like it was a daydream into something dark and terrifying. Did zombies...daydream? His eyes were to the ground but he lifted his head up to see the tough fighter, with hands in pocket and the usual patient pose.

Again, Jack pulled him out of it by breaking the normality.

Yeah. I’m fine,” he assured her. “Just feels...familiar.

“You’ve been down these tunnels before?”

No. I don’t think so.” He grumbled to himself. “I can’t explain it.

Even Jack couldn’t figure out his little riddles. Not like he expected she would. “Well, if you can’t explain it, then it’s not worth worrying right now. You need to focus.”

Sure.” Keep his mind working. He needed that more than ever.

Sheez, Jack thought with a light shake of her head, too small for Freakoid to pick on. Why, for a zombie, was he so obedient on sticking to a life-threatening mission? Most men would give up before entering these tunnels. It made her wonder how easy of a pushover he was as a human.

And that was a worrying thought. “If it gets too much to handle, we can always go back-”

Then he stopped her, quickly lashing a claw on her shoulder.

Crane noticed it around the bend. With his new eyesight. It was just like how he could see humans behind walls, how he could read off the pace of Jack’s highlighted heart and how he could detect an enemy infected on his terrority - ahem, wrong thinking. An enemy infected coming after him.

On the dirt were faint but highlighted tracks. Not shoeprints. Not naturally stirred dust and markings he had found before whenever he was investigating.

These footprints weren’t made by humans. Because they reeked a familiar smell off them. They didn’t come from the basement but they pitter-pattered around the fork. Something had walked through recently.

Tracks. And they’re from an infected.

Jack kneeled down, watching his claws delicately trail around the disturbed dirt. It was a good call - she would have missed it.

“Hm, guess you make a good bloodhound.”

Crane scorned but this time, he had nothing to say to the grinning cat. Because he had to keep his head in the game. And the only way to do that was to do the exact same thing Jack was doing.

She was a human with venomous blood. Infected with the Harran Virus and changed differently in a bizarre twist. And what did she do? She took the mission to go test out her blood on Specials. A suicide mission. And Jack embraced it because she had an advantage.

Crane had been gone on near-death missions. As a human with whatever tool he could scramble with. And like Jack turning a bad situation around by using her perk, he might as well do the same with his new body.

So, fine. Time to be a bloodhound after the infected. 


They were on the hunt - Freakoid up ahead and Jack watching the rear. The tunnels streamed far and wide, maybe as large as the city. On the plus side, it wasn’t entirely dark. Electrical lamps lit up the caves, held on the rocky walls. With the hydrodam running, something brought these lights back up too.

A few stragglers stayed around, lost. They had wandered through some other way and now, couldn’t get out to join their brethren on the feasting. And a wandering human kickstarted their hunger.

Then they stopped and some backed off. Those unlucky met Freakoid’s silent wrath or Jack’s bloody stab. But she had noticed the clever ones - if the zombies didn’t want to go after her, then that was good for the duo. The fewer enemies, the easy this tracking would go.

Clever was probably too strong a way for them. They basically had free food walk through their lair and some decided, “nope, not worth it.”

It wasn’t the blood. Many times, she had normal walkers come and try to bite her. It was already too late for them to change their mind. Or what was left inside their decaying heads. The only difference from now and then was...well, Freakoid.

Could it be the competition was too great of a harass to the undead normies? Or was she reading too much into it? It was too bad she couldn’t read zombies as easily as humans.

Then Freakoid stopped her again. A hand out gesturing her to halt and a claw to his charred lips saying “don’t talk”. Crane perked his head up as far as he could go, as if trying to hear something at one ear.

It was a faint sound, that Jack didn’t notice. But it was there. Fifty feet away. Somewhere. And the tracks were getting brighter down the direction he glanced to.

He gave the signal to go. Slowly. And onwards, he took the lead. This bloodhound had to be vigilant if he wanted to keep Jack alive and get this candidate. Eventually, Jack picked up the sound. It was really soft but she could make out a man’s pitiful sobbing. It echoed through those old halls.

“Is someone down here?”

If they are, then that’s not good.

“Guess we’ve got a rescue on our hands. Or a dead man.”

The weeping grew louder the closer they walked towards. Yet nothing in sight. The confusing, swaying caves seemed endless to them.

Only at a break did they finally get out. The cavern they entered was a dead end but there was evidence it had been converted into a structure with a large metal door.

“A raid shelter,” Jack muttered, spying the ID card device as its lock. “And with fancy tech.”

After all, Scanderoon was one of few cities aiming to become the country’s Silicon Valley. She did recall hearing the Ministry of Development pushing projects to turn this old city into a smart city, with promising projects and infrastructure - which was introducing smart applications in transport, energy and urban services.

The future was right around the corner, said so on the billboards and the posters. Too bad that beautiful dream was halted by a viral breakout.

It’s opened.

It was only a small gap and whoever opened the door, slipped right inside. Cautiously, Jack pulled the door a little more open. Because of the blood smear along the frame.

Inside was the standard needs for a shelter, all prepared for the world falling. Beds, shelves stacked with medical stuff, food, etc. But the reeking smell seeped powerfully out of the room. This shelter had been raided, alright, and gutted open.

Then she saw him, on his knees, crying softly. Surrounded by fallen friends.

It was a normal lean man in his forties, bald, wearing a white buttoned shirt. She could barely see three tied ribbons, oddly strapped around his right arm for some reason. Some sort of trend middle-aged people had? And what she could tell, lying in his arms was a woman. Young, probably a teen.

The young girl wasn’t getting up. Dead? Alive? There was no way for Jack to tell unless she was closer. As they slowly neared to the man, she could make out the muffled words - speaking the lines of “they’re coming”, “they killed them”, and “it’s safe down here”. They repeated again and again like a broken record, almost too jumbled to form.

The man must have seen things and survived by the skin of his teeth. If anything, he was probably long gone in the head.

But they had to try, right? Jack thought that.

“Well, there’s our weeping man,” she chided softly. Again, she was disregarding the circumstances - that she was in a den full of the walking dead and one freak of nature. Jack casually walked towards the man.

“Safe. It’s safe down here,” the bald man muttered. Again and again. To the girl in his arms. Or that was what Jack thought he was saying. He had an odd speech pattern.

“Hey,” she called. “Sir? Excuse-”

All of a sudden, she was stopped a third time. Ok, this was getting old! But before Jack could complain, the look on Freakoid’s face gave her a warrant for concern.

Something was wrong. And he saw something she didn’t. The ex-kickboxer took one hard look at the crouched man.

She noticed the exposed red flesh beneath the torn shirt. Boils raptured through the pale, white dead skin on his shoulders with a pungent, sickly-sweet smell seeping from them.

Then the man sunk his teeth on the corpse in his arms. The sickening sound of tendons being pulled turned Jack’s stomach around.

“What the fuck.” The muffle out of her was soft but Jack shut herself up quickly. She almost fell for it. From the back, it looked like a human. The weeping made it all the more sellable to her.

Jack,” Freakoid threw that thought into her head. “Back away. Slowly.

That was what she had planned for. This was all too uncanny. That was an infected. Another infected that could talk. Make words and reenact like he was genuinely sad. All too different from the normal runners that gag out broken pleads for one time and nothing more. Did they really find another one like Freakoid?

Tck!

Something hit from the heel of her shoe as she backed away. A broken bottle tumbled across the concrete floor.

Then the sobbing stopped.

It became quiet.

Dreadfully.

Silent.

Chills ran down her spine. This was a different kind of fear - nothing like her many matches in the ring and her time during this outbreak. It was terrifying even to the fierce woman. Her mind was screaming to run.

Don’t stay.

But she couldn’t move.

The crying man glanced over his shoulder, showing the haunting, animalistic eyes and the nearly-split jaw mandible.

A Volatile was the first thought she had. But it wasn’t. The body shape wasn’t the same. The arms were too long. The skin color too different.

She didn’t know what it was. She had never seen anything like it.

An angry growl escaped out of the creature as he rose up threateningly. Jack couldn’t read anything off his hideous face other than one word.

Danger!

“Get out! Get out!” he bellowed in a broken, distorted tone. 

Then the whole room seemed to shake at the next outburst.

GET OUT!

And all the patience ran out for the new type. With one leap, it charged with clawed hands up front.

“Jack!” Crane hollered, ready to pull her out of danger with his tendrils.

But Jack was faster. She had been between the inside and outside of the shelter, standing right at the door frame as she was stepping back. In one quick swoosh, she rushed for the door handle and shut the door close. One click and an auto-mechanical locking sound told her the shelter was secured back tightly.

BANG!

“Oomph!” The force nearly shook the door right out of its hinges and certainly the brunette off her feet. It took a bit for her to get her bearings back as she felt someone pick her up on her feet. Right. Freakoid.

“That should keep him in there-”

CLANK!

“Shit!” Crane hollered as both of them ducked down from a flying metal door. Behind them, they heard it impact with one loud thud that most certainly stirred up any horde within the tunnels.

But their main concern wasn’t the small fries.

The new type stepped out menacingly and with one more howl out of him, as if the beast inside was showing dominance, the bald man sprinted towards his first target. Long, thin claws drawn and ready.

The monster inside of Crane was faster. A duck back and the sharp bony talons slashed against the stone. But the next swings kept coming.

“Aurgh!” the new type hollered at arms roping around his neck. Jack managed to jump at the opportunity, boldly and stupidly riding on a creature like this one. The sudden weight staggered the hideous man down on one knee.

“Rope him!” Jack ordered as she worked on getting her own blood coated on her weapon. She needed the new type to stop moving for her to test it.

Yeah, what better timing to do this experiment?! But he wasn't complaining. Crane was swift, firing the tendrils out of his hands. One latched on the other leg that wasn’t down and the other grabbed for the torso. That also meant around Jack too but what choice did he have-

“Get off me!”

“Whoa!” Jack should have seen that coming. Maybe Freakoid too. This wasn’t a normal zombie. ‘This’ didn’t behave like a normal one. Instead of trying to shake her off like a bull with a cowboy on it, the new type grabbed Jack by the collar and flung her right at Freakoid.

In a split second, Crane was taken aback by a flying Jack hurtling towards him. He almost went down with her. Then the next second, he planted his feet back down and stopped their combined force altogether. It was like both of them never really tumbled over.

He never got a chance to ask if Jack was ok. Because the new type pounced again. Now that thing found an opening.

And what? It was also against something like Crane. Shoving the brunette away, he parried up his other arm to take in the force hurling towards him. Talons hit his hardened skin, alright, but it nearly pushed him back on his toes.

He didn’t see the swinging right hook.

Pow!

“Gah! Ow...” He felt one side of his...split jaw cracked, the little remaining flesh that held it together tearing. Another strike would send that side flying and Kyle could go on without his somewhat-coherent ability to vocally talk.

He warily stumbled back from the creature, one hand on his mouth. He couldn’t just go wildly like other mutated beings. He had to stay in his game if he wanted this thing to go down.

How? Even the ex-kickboxer, now back on her feet, was desperately searching for an opening. On an infected. This wasn’t like her first fight with Freakoid - there was a mix of methodical yet unpredictable movements behind this new Volatile.

And it was sorta frustrating her. This fight was dragging too long!

“There’s two of us and one of him,” Jack irritatedly pointed and readied up her bloodied machete. “This should be a piece of cake-”

“You can’t kill me. You won’t kill them!” it roared again.

The word, them, seemed to have a powerful effect. Or something? It was so quick for her to realize anything, or comprehend what just happened. A sharp pain just daggered through her skull from the ear-piercing holler, like something was trying to dig into her head.

The rocky walls around her were gone. In a split second, she found herself looking out of a window. In that split second, a scene played in front of her. It was too far away but she watched a woman shot by a bandit.

A teenager boy, maybe a year younger than Rahim, screamed. With anger and sadness. He bolted out from the farmhouse. But Jack didn’t see what happened to him as out of the blues - as if someone was taking the wheel and driving this vision away - she was turned to a trapdoor on the floor and dropped down into the darkness.

As she heard the second gunshot.

Gargh!” she shrieked, hands immediately grabbing her head.

What the fuck was that?! It was like all her neurons were being electrified by something. Like she was in a different place, a different time. But in a blink of an eye, she saw herself back in the tunnels. It was like she had resurfaced from someone’s memory back to reality.

She didn’t see the lashing claw to her neck. Jack still couldn’t apprehend the impending danger coming to her as she fell on one knee.

“Jack!” was all she could hear. All she felt was her body going one direction from a shove of a hand.

Had Crane not dive in, she most certainly would have been chow food. With all his might, he took in the charging power from the new freak, claws immediately arresting claws. He was on a hold-down with another kinda like him. Now it was the question which side was the better.

He had to be better! Or else, they were both dead!

Salvia and blood flung everywhere as the new type spat furiously, “I won’t let you kill me! Like they did to them!”

Them? Who was them? More like this one? If so...awesome! Like it wasn’t hard enough for Crane to deal with just one!

“I’m not that coward in the basement anymore!”

What?” What was this thing talking about?

Stop thinking, Crane. Stop trying to figure out what this meant. This type wasn’t capable of human talk like him. This zombie needed to die. Just kill it quick. Now!

But the more he looked at the beast in front of him, snapping to sink canines into him, the more he noticed...how familiar the face looked.

It was subtle. The jaw and the naturally-split skin did hide the details, even tore through the now poor, mange-like excuse of a moustache. Looking at the blood-red eyes and sharpened teeth would tell anyone that this thing was dangerous. To Crane, however, the small features were familiar. That he knew this person.

Because he remembered the man as alive. As terrified as a child, shaking in his boots, when his family was slaughtered by bandits. Too petrified to leave the basement of that farmhouse. He remembered how almost far gone that man was until he was brought back to his daughter.

It lined up so well that Crane finally realized it. And before he knew it, he blurted out one name.

“Ercan?!”

No! It couldn’t be-

LEAVE ME ALONE!” the infected man roared. Both vocally and through thought.

Crane found his feet didn’t touch the ground anymore. His whole world spun uncontrollably until his body hit a wall.

“Omph!” Shit! Did he really just pick him up and threw him like he was nothing?!

The once weak, cowering man he found in the basement of that farmhouse, back in the Countryside, was a creature more powerful than even him. It was a pure rage that couldn’t compare to his moments going down under the surface and losing it. And the monster zombie fired his attacks at Crane.

Ercan! Stop!” It was probably pointless. But he had to try. “It’s me!

Another roar out of the new type of Volatile deafened Crane from saying his name. And infected Ercan pounced at him.

Get out of his terrority! This was his safe haven! There could only be one of them!

That was what he could see in Ercan’s glass-like eyes - some fragment from the past lingered behind those white orbs, as if this was replaying a terrible scene all over again. Ercan wasn’t that frightened man anymore. Bandits that killed his family would be a joke. People like Jack who saw him as a threat didn’t make him afraid. As long as he had this power, he could stay alive.

But here was the thing: that was what Crane thought. Something similiar to how Crane felt that night, before he snapped out of it to see the quivering runner beneath him. And there was the difference between them - Crane came back. Many times to count. But Ercan...a person he knew was dead, infected and gone.

Crane repeated that quickly. Ercan was dead, infected and gone. He wasn’t coming back like Crane did.

I’m sorry!” Crane apologized. Again. Again! But someone had to do the finishing blow. He tried to grab for Ercan’s head.

Snap his neck like the many times Crane did before.

I have to do this-

GAAARGH!” the new type bellowed. This type didn’t act like the normal walkers around him, or the biters. The normal zombies would flail their arms, unable to comprehend the coming neck snap before dropping down.

But the new zombie adapted. It reacted differently. Its free arms didn’t flail uncontrollably, they grabbed Crane by his shirt.

Wh-Whoa-WHOA!” It took Crane by surprise. He was easily picked up like he was paper. And just like trash, Kyle was tossed away in one go. All he could feel was a wall, or was it the ground?

Whatever it was, he felt the impact from it - enough for vertigo to hit him. With all his infected, heightened senses, he couldn’t see where Ercan was. Once his vision stopped blurring, he found the bald zombie standing right on him.

“Ugh!” A foot stepped on Crane’s neck. It pressed harder and harder, cutting down on his breathing. He tried to get it off him but this new type’s strength parried even his.

What was more, he stared back at the golden eyes - glaring dead at him. There was no human behind them like him. It was someone else, something else staring at him like an animal.

Infected Ercan was ready.

“Grrragh!” Out came the battle-cry and suddenly, something leaped onto the monster’s back. Jack was back on the saddle and this time, with a much more insane plan.

The stab to the shoulder wasn't intended to finish the new freakoid. But during her struggle to her feet, she had purposefully tightened her bare hand on the blade and let the blood flow down. Let it seep into its bloodstream.

The cry was inhuman. The yellow animalistic eyes locked on the hand digging the weapon deeper. Jack never would have thought for a 'Candidate' like this one, it would retaliate. It grabbed her arm and before she could do anything, the canines sunk down.

"Ugarh!" The hot-iron pain shot through her whole arm. This wasn’t her first, as she bit hard on her teeth.

“Jack!”

The ex-kickboxer held on for the ride of her life, clutching her teeth tight to endure the sharp agony. Just stay on. She couldn’t get anymore infected and best of all, this thing couldn’t try to take a bite off Freakoid.

And of course, Freakoid had to have an idea. The Hunter rushed over and seized the bald zombie. Well, that did make the ride less rough but even with two on top of it, it wouldn’t go down.

But Jack had one good advantage. She still had her other arm.

With legs fastened so tightly around the creature’s torso, Jack prepared the punches. One down at the eyes. Another and another. She had to, until this monster would go down.

And it didn’t drop after five hard jabs.

“Go down, already!” she hollered, preparing the sixth one. "Go down!"

“GET OFF!”

Ercan had enough of being held down. With everything the infected got, he pushed both right off of him. The disgusting taste on his dangling tongue urged him to spit it out. It lingered horribly.

And it was doing something. Zombie Ercan ‘felt’ wrong. With a couple more forceful gasps, the new type hurriedly turned tail and ran.

Wait! Stop!” It was a stupid attempt from Crane. Ercan wouldn’t stop. It wasn’t a human anymore.

That fact made him stay - as much as he hated it, Ercan was gone and there wasn’t any point to chase after him. There was no reason to continue this fight. He turned back to another concern, Jack’s safety. The bite on her arm was really bad. Kyle refrained from asking, “Are you alright?” when he clearly could see the blood. And the ex-kicker looked like she had gotten the wind punched out of her. She didn’t even patch herself up.

That’s it.” This mission of hers was suicide, to herself! If that Raz leader wanted her to be alive, then give this pet project to someone else! “This is getting dangerous for you, Jack.” He took the bleeding arm and went to work with a bandage he had on hand.

Still nothing from her. Shit, did that fight really take a lot out of her? Or was this another light-headed moment from the blood loss?

C’mon. Let’s get you out of here-

“He didn't go down.”

Crane raised an eyebrow at that sudden statement. Or whatever expression a zombie like him could even give. And only up close, did he realize Jack wasn’t

She was flabbergasted.

“He didn't go down,” Jack gasped. Her shoulders sunk low at the growing disbelief and her mouth was so wide open a fly could go in. She couldn’t believe it. If Freakoid could look behind the shades, he’d see how big her eyes were.

Again she repeated the words.

“He didn’t go down!”

Those words finally hit Crane. He understood. They had found their candidate.

Did that also mean Ercan could become like him? That was a terrifying, scary thought. That wasn’t what he would want on another.

But that also meant antibodies.

A cure.

I tagged him!” Kyle pointed quickly as the two began the chase. It was a close shave that he managed to slip a tracker down the shirt button during his first struggle. “Go!


Run!

Keep running!

They have to hide!

Where? This place was unfamiliar even after days. The tunnels reached for miles, even to areas no man had ever stepped through. This place didn’t have the open, yellow fields and the windmills.

They could have stayed there. They were free. But they have driven away - their prey managed to be more threatening than what it was worth to kill them. So they ended up finding a sewage line and followed it down into the darkness.

Where it was supposed to be safe.

They could hear those two behind the new infected type. The turned one was faster than the prey - a prey they just discovered to taste revolting!

And the horrible taste was still inside. It was eating through them, making it unbearably hard to breathe. It was blurring their vision, making it harder to pick at the orange highlighted skeletons behind them. The normal lighting sprint was stumbling down to a weak tumble.

No, they couldn’t stop. They needed to live.

He wasn’t the coward anymore.

What, he?

Why...did...he…

Then a blinding white light suddenly pointed at them. Him.

“Agh!”

“Shit! What are you doing?! Shoot it!”

“Stop, you idiots-!”

The light hid the three orange lit bodies suddenly in front of the new type. Prey. More prey. No, numbers could mean-

BAM! BAM! BAM!

There were so many bullets, bouncing off the hardened, armored skin. Yes, more prey meant more weapons. Sometimes, it was an annoyance but so what? They were still prey, terrified, weak livestock. Food for the mighty.

But this time, he felt weak. The rampaging venom in him was stirring up-

Resurfacing.

That agony stopped the moment one bullet popped right into the left eye.

SPLUNK!

Everything felt light to them. Why?

Everything was blurry. Why?

He couldn’t comprehend everything. This was all too different from him.

He remembered that day, when the bandits came to his farmhouse. He was moving the supplies downstairs to the small bunker. Then he was supposed to find some new wires to fix the stupid UV lights. But before he could leave, he suddenly heard the gunshots, followed by his wife’s scream.

He was already shutting the trapdoor once he heard his son yelling, then the next gunshot. He did cry. He did break down. He just saw his family die and all he did was stay in their basement.

He couldn’t recall what happened after that, or the man who found him - lost in his grief and insanity. He couldn’t remember his name, or any recollection before and after that one. It was wedged so deep into his mind, that memory became an oath. To both of them, himself and the other side.  

He survived like Lazarus. And they survived again. If the other one inside his head hadn’t come, he might have stayed dead for good.

The memory replayed all over again. But it wasn’t bandits anymore. It was the fighting prey. The prey was coming for them. Just like they did after his family. But this time, the strange and different Volatile had nowhere to slip and hide. Their body wouldn’t obey them anymore.

They were afraid.

Afraid.

          Afraid.

                    Afraid-

                               And everything went dark.

Chapter Text

EIGHTEEN: LINGERING


 

BAM! BAM! BAM!

The thunderous noises echoed down the tunnels, instantly halting the duo to a stop. And on Jack’s app, the blinking dot stopped dead right after those sounds - thirty to forty feet ahead of them.

Crane felt a stone drop in his stomach. Half of his mind was thinking “Ercan was dead” while the other was admittedly thankful. Someone else had ended his life and Crane didn’t have to.

Then the guilt crept back. He was relieved he didn’t need to soil his hands, and the next revolted at that moment of relief. Crane had changed a lot. 

It irked him.

The gruffy voices far away didn’t snap him out of his thoughts. But Jack’s hands pulling him back did. 

“Hey. Freakoid,” she called softly. That furrowed brow of hers told him she was concerned. To a freak of nature. 

“Fucker’s dead.”

“God...that scared me.” 

Before Crane could say anything through thought or voice, Jack was already on the next move - equivalent to a wolf with her ears perked towards the men’s voices. Three of them. Kyle could tell this was a regular thing the ex-kickboxer had done. Not an amateur who would back away from the sounds of the new guests .

And more guests screamed out their welcoming from behind, the howls echoing through the walls.

“Shit. They’re coming.”

“It was your fault you fired! I told you to put the safety on!”

“That thing came at us!”

“C’mon! We need to move these boxes! Now!”

Shit. 

Kyle quickly examined his surroundings - Jack was between a hard place and a rock, inside a hornet’s nest. The way out was the guarded entrance spiraling upwards and glancing back, Crane had a harder time detecting the running fiends in the caves.

That was the drawback to his zombie capabilities: humans lit up like fireflies in the darkness but Kyle was almost desensitized towards other zombies’ presence. It wasn’t so much a ‘lack of it’ but more of ‘a need ’ to find humans. Prey.

That word rang a little clearer to him than before. 

“Four boxes,” Jack’s whisper snapped him back again. “10 kilos each. 40 seconds for them to take, probably two, and lock up the entrance. Horde will be coming in, say, 30. Or less.” Then suddenly, he felt his scarf slip off. “I’ll be borrowing that.”

Hey-

She had a plan. One he wasn’t seeing, except her wrapping her head with the scarf and taking a large tarp found nearby. Up ahead, he noticed the four small crates she pointed, huddled by the entrance. 

There was a smell too. Industrial.

Then we should head back-

“No go. We’ll be swarmed before we get to the Orphanage.” 

Ok. Then I’ll take care of those goons-

She chuckled. “While I have every bit of confidence you can handle anyone, we want the quickest and safest way out. Just need to play this con right. 20.” She draped the tarp over herself.

Con?

“Yeah. Con. What? Never deceived a person before?” 

Omph, low blow there. Did she have to make him feel even shitter about his poor life choices? What was bewildered to him was how nonchalant the lady was in saying that.

“It’s easy. Overload their senses with so much fear they won’t recognize our faces. Well, my face. Yours, eh, questionable.”

His eyes thinned so tightly with a growl clicking through his jaws. “ Fine. What do we do?

“Good, you’re on board. Because I need you for this con,” she pointed, flashing a wide toothy smile under the hoods. “I’m the terrified French damsel in distress. You’re the Hunter trying to eat me.”

Wait . What-

“10.” Jack had already bolted from her hiding spot.

Hey! Wait!

Out of her mouth went the wails in broken French as the cloaked woman scrambled towards the armed men. Convincing enough for them to panic rather than question why a human was down in the tunnels. 

“W-What is she saying?”

“Speak English!”

“Hunter! Hunter!” She jerked her finger towards Crane’s direction, weaseling her way behind all three men. And sure enough, they spotted him. Guns snapped to the terrifying Hunter immediately.

Are you kidding me?! ” Oh, he was going to kill Jack.

“Did it just talk?”

Oh. Now that was just great . It didn’t help that behind the panicked men, Jack was flailing her arms at Crane. Do something! her body read. Howl at them!

Then she rolled her eyes frustratedly when Freakoid remained still, more cautious than going with the play. Oh, for goodness sake!

“W-Why the fuck is it standing still?”

“Don’t care! Let’s get out of here now before the horde comes-” The one prisoner turned to the quick draping of the tarp over his eyes and a hook to the stomach. 

Down he went, tumbling on the last steps of the stairs and his two comrades saw the fall, wheeling back to the surprising danger standing behind them. Jack was swift, seizing one goon’s arms and firing a kick at the other’s knee. Her main focus went to her capture, disarming the rifle out as she delivered three jabs to his chest.

The third guy rallied back up, still limping from the sharp pain in his leg. Just as the fighter turned for the next attack - prepared to pull his weapon out from his hands - tendrils fired first on the rifle.

Wide eyes snapped to the Hunter in the tunnel. With one yank, the rifle went out of the hands and the prisoner slipped down the stairs. But that also took Jack down - she had grabbed for the weapon at the same time Freakoid decided to step in. Quick thinking saved her from hitting the ground as she latched a hand onto a railing.

The poor sob tried his best to steady him. He didn’t fall but rose back up to the horrible face of a Hunter. He barely got out a scream once the monster grappled him. 

Crane still remembered his Judo techniques, all the moves and he wasn’t rusty even after his ‘zombification’. But he never imagined how light his foe was. 

CRACK! One box broke under the prisoner’s weight. And the smell was getting stronger.

“Damn, you woman!” The last conscious thug pulled the cloth off him and climbed back up to his feet. 

Jack was quick as always, in action and observation. On one step, between her and the man, was one of the heavy crates. She was almost correct about its weight, giving a good, hard shove on it and right into the charging thug’s legs.

He timbered down, chin hitting stone and body rolling in agony. Now was their chance to bolt. But unlike Jack’s enthusiasm for freedom, the Hunter was less inclined to move.

“What are you waiting for?!”

“...Gunpowder?”

“What?” Did she hear that right from the Freakoid? 

He didn’t budge or clarify further. In fact, he looked more dazed than before. The sounds of the horde, however, urged Jack to make a quick decision; a quick glance over the shoulder to the bright end of the stairway.

“We gotta go!” she snapped. “C’mon.”

The brunette kicked off, rushing her way up the stairs. But Crane didn’t follow.

He paced slowly to the open gate. There was light at the end of the tunnel, a proverbial stairway to Heaven. The rays streamed around the boundary of the woman’s body as she grew smaller and smaller. Out of the damp darkness.

He belonged down here - the other self of him whispered that inside his head. The light was an annoyance. Yeah, he had been down here before and the feeling, “this was home”, crept eerily like goosebumps. The others would be more welcoming to him if he stopped this rebellious phase of his. Others...like him, no doubt.

Kyle was even surprised to find himself questioning: should he stop following this lady and stay? 

Then Crane glanced back to the one body on the floor. Not at the prisoners.

Ercan still laid there, blood pouring from the hole in his head. He had changed, physically, mentally, with similar features like those from Jack’s notebook. Almost like a mixture of a Volatile and a Hunter. That man Kyle rescued from the basement was gone, succumbed to the virus and turned…

Like him. A zombie. 

Another thought snaked into his head. What happened to the people at Jasir’s farm? What happened after he left the Countryside and out of the manhole? 

There was no way he could get the answers now. The only response he had was Ercan’s deceased body. 

But if so...was that how Crane would end up? Being gunned down like that? His assaulter never knowing there was a mind hanging on the edge by a thread.

Yes, he imagined. He had already figured no one would turn a blind eye on him. And finally, the weight behind that statement hit him hard.

So should he still stay down here, go back to being feral, and die like Ercan?

I want you to look out for Jack.

No. The Rav leader’s words repeated in his head. He had work to do. He couldn’t leave it unfinished and descend down into the darkness. 

Just keep thinking it’s work like, in Harran, he thought. Keep himself grounded for a bit longer.

He gave one last somber gaze at the dead mutant. 

“You can rest easy, Ercan.”

And Kyle climbed up the spiraling stone stairs.


 

Ascending had never been so difficult for Crane. It wasn’t like this before - every time he opened a door or exited out from a dangerous, dark place, he spotted the blissful casting light of the sun. High up on the rooftops or down below, Kyle would feel relieved with one powerful thought.

He had lived another day.

But now the sun was his enemy. It hurt his eyes. It burned the skin under his i. It urged him to hide in the shadows, to go back in the tunnels. And still, he persisted against the sun’s threatening aura. 

He had to live-

He felt his world shift. His control was gone for a second until it came back, close up to Jack behind a truck parked beside the entrance. One gloved hand clasped over his mouth.

“Shhh.” She placed a finger to her lips, the whisper so soft a mouse couldn’t hear it. 

His sight was numbed again but his hearing was still sharp - he heard more voices, more men around them. Like one of Rais’ outposts. Which of course, meant more guns.

Jack drew carefully around the corner to peer out, eyes behind shades attentively surveying the situation. 

Like someone he once knew.

For a second, this reminded him of something. Only, it was outside a school. When Jack hushed, it pulled a vivid memory from Crane’s mind. And the guilt still lingered inside him - only a little different and more painful than that for Ercan.

And when Jack turned away, her back looked similar as someone’s he remembered.

The terrible sinking bubbled inside of him. This felt all too familiar. 

No. Come back.

But his inner voice and real voice couldn’t come out.

No. No! Don’t go.

“Jad-“

"What are you doing?!" The heavy-accented whisper was strong enough to break the illusion.

It was still difficult to see but his vision shifted to that of almost-normal human sight. And Crane found himself with one claw immediately clutched on Jack’s wrist.

Jack. Not Jade. 

“Now’s not the time to be having cold feet,” she murmured urgently, yanking her hand free. 

He breathed. In and out a bit too rapidly but the clever ‘mind reader’ didn’t pick up on it as she turned back to their surrounding predicament. 

What was wrong with him?

He felt a tap on his shoulder. Jack pointed one thumb to an empty back alley, out of the way for any crook to notice. Her inaudible words were “Let’s get out of here.”

He couldn’t agree more, nodding quietly to her.

She was the lead as always, one unobstructed by the blinding and burning sunlight. Kyle had to rely on her this time. While she squatted along the bank of vehicles, Jack gave a wave of her hand to him, silently telling him to beckon with her. They would take to the cover, away from the danger.

Good. That was what Crane wanted. He followed suit, keeping as low as his body would let him.

“Why are we even here? There’s nothing here, man. Except these freaks,” said one effusive thug.

“Prince’s orders. We need to check everywhere for that woman.”

Crane glanced a quick peek under a Volkswagen as he continued crawling away. The small amount of shade did some sort of help to his eyes - he got confirmation on what he could see. Definitely a station of bad crooks, holding up at what was the broken reminiscence of a bar. He could only count the two chatterboxes, three by the door far off and two moving about. More was surely inside.

“Really? Sure, she’s some celebrity but why should that matter?”

“Dunno. Guy’s fucking obsessed with her for some reason.”

“Heh, bet he is. What’s her name? Mad Dog?”

“Mad Jack,” Jack glowered disappointedly for some reason. Luckily, it was far too soft for anyone but Freakoid to hear.

“Whatever her name is, Prince wants her brought to him. Alive. You want to get on his bad side?” his friend muttered sharply, ending with a sigh. “...He may talk all big and convincing but he ain’t no chum.”

“What? He killed someone?”

“You really don’t know. He did a lot more than murder. Bastard is the big bad wolf in this country.” 

Basically, another bigshot like Rias, Crane thought to himself. Even sounded more self-centered with a name like Prince .

“Isn’t anyone locked up in maximum security?”

“No, are you even-! Look, just count your stars you never meet him in person. He can read you like a book. Gets you under your skin too.”

“Pft. You’re making such a big thing about this guy.”

"Hmph. Maybe this is what they mean by ignorance is bliss for you recruits.”

"What is that supposed to mean?"

It was a slow and steady crawl to the back alley, with every pause now and then. But finally, the two were able to duck into the shadows - Crane rushing faster than the brunette to escape the little singing of his skin.

“Hey! What are you dillydallying for?!” The loose-lipped prisoner leaped right onto his feet at the command of a third voice. His companion took his time however. “We gotta get this shipment out by noon! You, find out why Stretch’s team is taking so long.”

“Down the mines? No way!”

A thick, dicey pause of silence and a stern glare slapped the fear back into him. “You’re going down there. Or I’m shoving you for Volatile bait duty tonight. Take your pick.

The choice of life and death - it was never old to Crane back in Harran. The opportunity within a falling city of disorder was there for the picking. Authority was dead and abandoned. So of course the thieves, crooks and killers flocked together like lemmings to a cliff. For their own survival, not for the weak. And that meant pushing their own comrades over the edge.

Crane had thought this before: this was no different than Harran. One could even say that he was right back home...in a sarcastic way. These men were the kind he’d gladly take care of now.

But he stayed in the shadows. It was another three streets before Jack decided to stop, one more check for anyone following them.

“Too close for comfort back there.” She finally let out a heavy breath she had held so tightly in her chest. “We should work on your communication skills if we’re sticking together. A second later could devastate us.”

She waited for the krusty comeback. Nothing came. Under the cover of an awning, Freakoid simply stood silently, staring off back to their origin point.

It was a bit concerning. So Jack called out. “Hey, Freakoid.” 

His head jerked. His savage eyes blinked. He turned towards her, still prolonged by several more milliseconds. Again, the series of little details she saw several times back in the tunnels and onthe surface - hints that showed he was still “human” inside.

“You ok?” She watched his next move. Nothing again. “You were out of it back there.”

Oh, yeah… Yeah...the tunnels, they felt familiar to me. ” 

“Really? I thought it was that Special.”

Another quick, tiny pause. The ‘feeling’ in the tunnel Freakoid explained? It did come off like an excuse. Maybe it did hold some truth, but his second delivery on that line was undermining.

W-What?

“Well, it’s another one like you. I’d be flabbergasted if I found someone else with venom blood.” She held up the scarf to him.

R-Really…? ” He was thinking. Then, he took the cloth. “ Couldn’t tell. Looked like any Volatile we’ve come across.

“A bit,” she continued the swing, not a moment to show she was onto him. It was a little sad, to be honest, a shell of a man trying to deceive her. “But I have a good eye for details, mate.”

“Yeah... “ He didn’t like that idea. His hesitation was clear as day when he took longer to take back his scarf from Jack’s hand. For a zombie with an awareness and a forgotten past, he sure knew when to be careful. He knew the kind of person he was dealing - someone who shouldn’t be fooled around with.

His past life couldn’t be that of any regular Tom, Dick or Harry, that was for certain to Jack. He had the mindset of a pro, relying not on the feral mindset but a gut instinct. Like her, but with a sort of naivety in his actions. A softness during these harsh times. It was the question, what exactly was his past, that eluded Jack.

Just who was this guy before he turned?

So what now? ” Freakoid brushed over a new topic, as he wore back his scarf. “ We lost our only lead back there.

“That we did.” She nodded, letting the seconds tick tock. And with a clap of her hands, she proposed their next movement. “Guess we should look for other options.” With a turn on her heel, she strolled away 

Whoa! Whoa! Wait a minute! ” The Hunter leapt in front of the human, an act that would have made any survivor jump out of their shoes. But clearly not Mad Jack. “ You’re ending it like that?!

“Well, yeah. You said it. We lost our lead. Doesn’t mean it was our only one.”

So...just find another Special? ” There was a crack of emotion in that line. Disappointment? Distaste? Or apprehension?

“We can’t be picky, Freakoid,” Jack explained frankly. And straight away, Crane stepped back. “I already said we wouldn’t start with you.”

Right. Didn’t mean the Ravs would do it later on him with the blood tests. “ I hate to break it to you, but that Special you need for this test is dead… And the obvious answer is me.

“Oh, so you’re gonna volunteer?” she chided too perkily. “I can call Bones to book an appointment when we drop by the Outskirts.”

No.

She shrugged her shoulders at the quick, harsh decline. “Well, we have a long way back to Outskirts anyhow. For now, we’ll just have to keep searching.” 

“Keep searching?” For how long? And not just because of their own mortality but the situation around them. The virus had spread into Scanderoon like cancer - time was against them just like it was to Crane in Harran. That was why he had thought they had gotten their answer in the tunnels. “ You said if we find a Special, we could start this pet project of yours. I mean, your group made it urgent.”

“Are you always this impatient?” Jack asked bluntly. “You really can’t rush into things.”

Hey, newsflash. There are sick people everywhere. And we are surrounded by the undead. ” He gestured his claws to himself. “I’m one example!

“And you’re doing far better than these walkers, mate. I’d say that’s an achievement.” No dent. Crane couldn’t fathom what went on in her head.

How can you be this...arrogantly confident? We pretty much came out empty-handed back there.

“On the contrary, I’d say this hunt was fruitful. It gave me a theory,” Jack boosted, taking no offense to Kyle’s little remark.

Oh. ” He crossed his arms pompously. “ And what’s that?

“That there could more like you.”

Despite how aloof Jack spoke that line, it made the pale color in Crane’s face much paler. That had never crossed his mind until now.

His shock incited her to explain, keeping Freakoid on the same page as she was.

“Think about it. First, it was you. Then we got that other Special. Not as talkative as you are.” The little joke prompted a disapproving groan out of Freakoid. Such a tough audience, she thought. “Who’s to say there aren’t ten, twenty of you out there?”

More. 

The idea didn’t sit well on him, that more like him could be in Scanderoon. Maybe in Harran too. And when he clicked a previous thought together like a jigsaw puzzle, he couldn’t help but feel even more uneasy. 

The blue vial. It was what started it all: the Mother’s transformation, his transformation, and then Ercan’s. Crane didn’t know how and why, anything behind the inner workings of the elixir but he was certain it all connected. What made the guess even grimmer was that the elusive Faceless cult used that so-called ‘cure’ on a large community in an inhalable form. 

How many became like him? Jasir? Palot? Bilal? Anyone from the Countryside?

How many would he have to meet along his bizarre journey-

“Hey.” Jack’s waving her hand right at his face pulled him back out of his thoughts. Her hazel eyes peered into him, the sports sunglasses pushed down the bridge of her nose. “Are you listening?”

“Uh, what?” he muttered.

The discordant sounds out of his mouth were still unnatural to Kyle. It prompted him to swallow, needing to clear out his throat and disperse that foreign thing out of his voice box. Anyone would be terrified if they heard him vocally.

“I asked, “if you remember anything about your last whereabouts?”,” Jack repeated the question, unfazed by the inhuman tone, far better than him now. “You’re really out of this today.”

“I’m fine.” No, he wasn’t. He was clearly displaying his discomfort naked to her. One more swallow and he spoke out telepathically, “ Why do you ask?

“Well, this is the second Special to have a reaction to my blood. So maybe you two came from a point of origin that caused your transformation,” was Jack’s line of reasoning. “This isn’t like any other infected.”

Oh, he knew exactly where.

No. ” Again, Crane swallowed. Stay calm. She couldn’t possibly read anything out of a Hunter. “ Can’t say I know where.

The problem was his opponent in this game of deception - Jack was again unreadable to him and there had been several times that irked him. With anyone, he could lie out of dodge or turn the conversation to his advantage. But with the brunette, there was a stiff expression out of her, a reading deep and far past the shield he held. 

It didn't help that she had pushed her shades back over her eyes, the very window into a person's emotional state. Who would have thunk it that a zombie couldn’t see past the reflective lens. The little silence between them almost made him wonder if he had given it away.

“Hm. That’s a shame.” Crane had a moment of relief. Good, she dropped the topic.

There was no reason for Jack to go to the Countryside. No, it was he that didn’t want to go back there. Call him selfish, a coward, whatever, but that was the line he put down. 

He was never going back there.

“Guess we’ll have to find other sources.” Back crept the cheeky grin. Off Jack went to work, fishing out her earpiece. “Ender. You two alive?”

Bzzt! A sharp electrical sound hit the comms. “ What? You think a little blackout would stop us?

We’re fine, by the way, ” spoke out a second voice.

“Of course. You two aren’t the same kids we first met,” Jack praised. “We’ve been through a lot more than just a blackout.”

You’re insinuating we still are kids? Now that’s insulting.

“Because it’s true. You and the rest of the Grads.”

We’re offended. I’ll let the gang know you said that. ” 

“And I wouldn’t care. Now, I’ve got some work for you two.”

Aw, c’mon. You do care. You’re always talking about keeping a rep.

“The same should also be said about your reps too. Don’t suppose you’ve gathered some intel this morning, or have you two been sleeping since last night?” Jack moved the conversation along.

Oh, we’ve got plenty. It was no picnic getting them.

Did you hit a hornet’s nest b.t.w.? ” Riza asked. “ Some prison blokes and a few GRE squads’ been looking for you.

“Oh, fabulous. Those stuck-up agents.” Jack’s list of enemies was getting longer by the day.

So you did do something.

“I...might have made a couple of people angry.”

A couple? You pissed off a GRE lead agent, a prison mob boss and now both groups are after your neck, ” Crane muttered.

“Oh shush. And how would you know that was a lead agent?” she asked, a hand cupping her earpiece.

Jack, who are you talking to? ” Despite her best efforts, the two on the other line heard her. That little mistake drew Jack back to the conversation, much to Crane’s relief. What a slipup he just gave again there.

“Oh, you know. Shy Guy,” she swiftly answered, her tone not breaking. “They’re probably recovering from the blackout last night. More uptight than before. Stay clear from them.”

We should be saying that to you, Jack, ” Riza pointed concernedly.

“I’ll handle the crowd. Now. Intel?”

Sure, but price’s bit higher this time.

If you’re gonna make it harder for the both of us, then we want more compensation for it.

Jack groaned lightly. She saw it coming. “Alright. What is it? Rations? Special parts? Cash-”

We wanna meet Shy Guy. In person.

Jack’s head jolted at the proposal, eyebrows raised. Even Crane expressed a more agitated glance.

“Ha-hah,” the brunette broke the silence. “...Yeah, I don’t think that’s possible-”

Why? ” Ender persuaded. “ Bones said he’s a member now. So he’s gotta have the proper inspection.

“Oh, we don’t need that. Asem’s fine with him.”

C’mon, Jack. Everyone’s talking about your ‘imaginative zombie friend’. ” Jack could picture the young female runner holding out air quotes on the other line. “ So of course, they’re asking us to see it for ourselves.

Ah, shiiit . Crane had almost forgotten about Jack’s spilling of the beans to her group: openly telling them about him, a talking freak of nature. He had deeply hoped that most wouldn’t buy her little tale or better yet, see her as a madwoman. But all he could do was silently fret in circles.

“Basically, this inspection is for me,” Jack bluntly exclaimed. 

What? Nooo. We know you’re as sharp as always.

We just wanna be sure. You’d never lie to us.

And if it is true, then we gotta talk business with your partner. ” There was a little tint of interest in the words, a bit too gleeful for Crane’s taste. What kind of business did they have for him… 

“That’s rather accepting coming from you lot.”

Honestly, it sounds kinda exciting to the both of us, ” Ender said to Jack. “ We’ll be at the Hub downtown. Nobody there to see him in the open.

See you two there.

Jack wasn’t quick enough to give a convincing statement - the other end already fell flat before she could turn the conversation around. The bitterness she then felt daggering into her back tempted her to look back: Freakoid absolutely detested the idea. 

I am not going.


 

He went. And he hated himself for it. However, Crane set the ground rules to Jack: that she’d keep her two buddies away from him, that he would stay thirty feet from them and lastly, he’d walk away if they ever saw him. 

The brunette simply said they weren’t going to bite him. And Kyle stared coldly at her dry sense of humor. 

The transportation Hub was an ideal place to meet up: it had its own unique, beautiful, skeleton-shaped architectural structure inside, too open for anyone to take shelter but also too closed off for a wandering ear and eye to notice him in broad daylight. A newly-built construction of the twenty-first century tainted and riddled by the undead scrambling boredly on the ground level.

Scanderoon was a place on the rise to being a smart city - the evidence was already there at every corner, with old monuments slowly transforming and new, innovative telecommunications integrated into the urban space. Better transportation, better quality of life, better city management, better information systems, a better city life. The dream Scanderoon sought out for two years until it was hit by the Harran outbreak. 

By him.

No amount of information and communication technology could protect anyone from hordes of zombies. Everything had devolved down to the primitive need for survival: man, infected and the world around him.

Crane took to the second floor while Jack waltzed in casually past the threshold, which was the entrance of the Hub. Behind several walls, he spotted the tall orange-lit skeleton meeting a shorter skeleton in the ground level and once he reached the atrium, he peeked over the railing. The openly-spaced rooms - left unfinished with paint cans knocked over - was indeed ideal and safe for the two Ravs to meet up. Beneath their feet, the contemporary tiles were splattered with a dry explosion of colors, chaos destroying order in design.

It was then Crane noticed someone was absent.

“Yo, Jack.” The short female, Riza, skitted herself off a workbench, first with a smile to see a familiar face, then a puzzled frown. “Where’s this partner of yours?” 

“He’s here. Nearby,” Jack tried to sell it. 

Like a disconcerted child, the young college Grad pouted. “Couldn’t you have just drag him over here?”

“Sure. Drag him. You do know this is a Hunter. Not a human or like the other Ravs.”

“Never seen one so I wouldn’t know. And he hasn’t killed you yet, right?”

Jack’s back was to Freakoid but her body could easily say, “Well...almost. Twice.” She stayed quiet to the question and moved onwards with another. “Why the curiosity? You two are among the most tentative people when it comes to these sorts of things… Under Talos and Asem, of course.”

“That doesn’t mean a little risk is gonna stop us from opportunity,” Riza boosted. The mindset of a crafty business student with a silver tongue. “And if he’s a figment of your imagination, nothing’s lost.”

“Except you lot thinking I’m insane,” Jack gruffed disapprovingly with hands on hips.

“C’mon, Jack. Don’t put words in our mouths. We’re not against you.” 

“Would never dream of munity. Also, the new guy’s sensitive about showing his face with strangers.”

“Wait, he’s vain?” the young grad murmured with bewilderment. 

“When you have a face a mother couldn’t love, then yeah.” That seemed to inflict a tap of fear into her ally, enough to make shoulders hunch and a frown wrinkle. “Believe me when I say this. The experience would scar you for life if you saw him.”

Riza cocked up a worried, stern gaze. “Is that what happened to you?”

“Well… Not exactly.”

“Then what’s the problem? He’s your client, isn't he? So tell him this is a normal business meeting.”

“Heh. Normal. My line of work is very much different from yours, Riza. We’re not talking about numbers and supply lines.”

“Oh, please. You help people. So do we. How different is that?”

“I mean...when you put it that way-”

“Good, we see eye to eye then. So how ‘bout it?”

A sigh and a shake of her head was all Jack gave. “He’s not going to come.”

“Hm,” Riza hummed loudly. It looked like she was accepting the fact that there would be a no-go. Then she hollered out, “Hey, Ender. Do you see him?”

“Yeah. Brooding like a gargoyle up here. Kinda like Asem.”

The voice was almost right on top of Crane. From where, he couldn’t pinpoint the location but it was enough for him to be alerted. Someone was on the same floor as he was and he hadn’t even notice it. His other self didn’t sense it. Crane ducked deeper into the casting shades of his environment and searched for the voice. 

Ender. Where are you? ” Jack’s voice clicked through the comms. 

“Nearby.” Where was nearby?! “You weren’t joking. Never seen anyone be this bashful around people.”

That was because he didn’t want anyone seeing him like this! 

Is he really what Jack said? ” asked the Rav member, Riza.

“I can’t tell from this angle. He keeps moving like a chicken.”

So she has been pulling our legs.

Hey. I am right here.

“Nah. He’s no survivor. I can tell, remember?”

That’s it , Crane thought. He was going to jump out of this building. Didn’t matter if the blistering sun would be a pain-

“Hey. Jack’s partner!” Riza hollered out loud. “We wanna talk to you.”

Sure, you do, ” he muttered to himself and scrammed away from their meetup place. The faster he got out, the better-

“C’mon. We’re not that bad,” his invader spoke up.

Crane wheeled to the voice, which was suddenly right behind him. There was the other Rav member, just inches away and perking up close like an owl with inquisitive awe. Patterns of bright, neon turquoise and magenta lit over the survivor’s hoodie and leggings within the same dimness Crane stood in. As a matter of fact, it was almost like a skull-headed fiend was staring back at him.

“Where did you-?!” Desperately, Kyle tightened his scarf on his face more. He never even saw or heard the person make their entrance. 

“Whoa,” Ender uttered. There was no expression for Crane to read when the Rav member had their whole face concealed behind goggles and cloth. But there was no leap away out of fear or a raise of a weapon - but rather the aimless look of a gaping onlooker. “Bones wasn’t kidding. You definitely don’t sound normal.”

Crane shuffled two, three big steps away. He was baffled at this turnabout - how could this kid be so calm? It didn’t sink well on the Hunter that he was being examined, observed like an animal behind glass. 

“So is he really a talking zombie or not?” Another shout from below the corridor. 

Ender gave another glance at Freakoid. It was a harder reading on them than on Jack. Anything could go.

“Gonna keep us waiting?” Crane could feel a smirk dig into him behind the mouth mask. The strange Rav member then disappeared past a tarp before dropping down to the ground floor safely - the neon patterns on their attire vanished under the light.

They really wanted him to join them? Just like that? 

“Geezus… They’re like Jack,” he mumbled annoyedly.

It was a cautious, slow pace towards the balcony. Claws gripped the railing as he glanced down to the odd, abnormal scene: just three people...talking. Outside a safezone. Like it was still a normal day to them. Even the conversation, clearly about him, came across so light-hearted and whimsical. 

It felt unreal to Crane. These kinds of chit-chats were rare back in the Tower, more from the children than the adults. 

Jack, still smirking, gazed up to the bewildered Hunter. “I told you it was pointless.”

Crane’s frown stretched longer.

“Holy… You really were telling the truth,” Riza blurted out.

“Have I ever lied to you?” Jack sang, pleased to hear that. “Now can you report to HQ that I am lucid?”

“Hmm…still up for verdict,” Ender remarked boldly, not at all rattled by the ex-kickboxer’s fretful glimpse. 

The light banter and atmosphere were just enough to coax Crane from his hiding place, making his way slowly down step by step. 

“So this is the famed “Freakoid” you were talking about.”

“Definitely nothing like what we’ve seen back in the Outskirts,” Riza gapped.

“I wouldn’t agree. Been with him for two days and all I can say is that he's not that special.”

Was that Jack’s way of ‘lightening’ the load off Crane’s back? It was rather deceitfully nice of her to do so, and yet...came off a little belittling to him.

“Well...he’s certainly not hissing at us like those Biters,” Ender pointed with some sense of relief. But they thought for a second and steered back to Jack with a whisper. “Does he...eat human flesh?”

Jack shrugged. “Not that I’ve seen him do.” 

The answer was left so open-ended Crane could see the two fill in the gaps themselves. With the wrong interpretations. Hey! Don’t put words into his mouth, he hasn’t craved for human meat. So far, he’s been scavenging energy bars and whatever he could find from abandoned fridges.

“Hey,” Riza called out, almost with a little shake when the golden eyes snapped to her. That scared expression dug a little into Crane’s regret but it was short-lived. “Can you really do that telepathy thing or is it some sort of echolocation?”

And his stigma was replaced by aversion. Jack told them that, didn’t she?

“C’mon. Zombies aren’t telepathic,” Ender corrected. “Never have been in games.” 

“Or movies,” Jack added.

And yet, lo and behold, Crane could. 

He was surrounded. Jack’s assessment wasn’t helping him much. But he wasn’t going to entertain them. He still had his dignity.

As a zombie.

Sounded completely and horribly crazy connecting the two words together in his head. So right on the spot, Freakoid became the grouchy zombie Jack had been used to the past two days. His charred lips were sealed.

“Really? The silent treatment?” Ender exclaimed. “Hey, Jack. Make him talk.”

I am not a thing, he said only to himself and grumbled bitterly under his breath. One word via thought or voice would end it for him.

“He’s not a pet,” Jack justified, at least giving some pass for the poor bloke.

“So he really thinks as a person.” The remark from Riza wasn’t intentionally mocking, just out of forthright awe. The gears were obviously turning, the young student cooking up assumptions behind bushy eyes.

“Or he’s just imitating his actions like a human. He could be fooling Jack, for all you know.”

“Seriously?”

“Ok. You can’t be fooled,” Ender replied to Jack. “But anything can go right under our noses. Virals can fake “being hurt” too.”

There was an aloof nod from the brunette, accepting the undeniable truth said. “Well, he’s been standing with us this entire time. That’s something.”

“Sure. For now,” Ender pointed casually. “‘Oh, one more thing, Ender, Riza. Jack said the Hunter’s part of the Ravs now.’ Bones told us that. Do you know how crazy that sounds?”

“So you’re against it?” Jack asked curiously.

“Us two? Nah, getting used to it. The others back home? Eh, maybe over time.” Ender’s voice trailed off with a hand doing air-circles. “I mean, how are we supposed to trust someth-” 

They stopped themselves with a clearing of their throat. They were going to say “something”, Crane just knew it. But at least this Grad had the courtesy to correct themselves before blurting out loud.

“Ahem. Someone. That won’t even talk to us.”

“Unless he lost his tongue,” Riza proposed inquisitively. “Zombies do lose body parts.”

“Or Jack really means it when she called you Shy Guy-”

“Oh, shut up.”

Ender didn’t jump in their shoes but Riza did, like a mouse hearing a twig snap before trying to make itself smaller. 

“He really can talk,” the short runner gasped. “Ender, he talks.”

“I heard it too, Riza.”

“This is creepy.”

“Hmph,” Crane scoffed. Yeah, he gave in but he had enough of this circus performance. Moreover, the Ender person was now on Crane’s list of people to be careful of, for that stunt.

“Alright,” Jack broke the one-sided conversation, a clap of her hands to draw the three onto her. “Now that Freakoid is here, how about our deal, Ender?”

“Sure. Afterwards. So what’s it like on the other side? You’re able to blitz past the other zombies like it’s nothing, right?”

“Can you even move around during the daytime? Or faster at night?”

“Also, do you eat humans? That’s an important question.”

The kickboxer groaned before Crane could - what was her reason to do that when he was more bothered by the bombardment of questions. It was getting increasingly uncomfortable the more these two were invading into his little personal space.

“I’ve said this before. He isn’t that special.”

“Sure,” Ender laughed at Jack. “You got a talking zombie. How is that not special?”

“If you count the other one we had a run-in with, then, yeah. It’s not.”

Both Rav members wheeled quickly at that drop of an anvil. “A second one?” Riza exclaimed worriedly.

“He’s dead,” their older ally assured them. “Gunned down this morning..”

“Oh.” The caution was gone in less than a second.

“Then what’s the problem? He’s not coming back.”

“Problem? Mate, there might be a dozen like Freakoid here. But not completely like him, if you catch my drift. So you can ask him everything you want about his condition after my intel.”

“Fine. Joy kill.”

“Totally.” 

“What’s the specifics?” Ender took the reins, asking quicker than Jack could roll her eyes at the folksy disrespect tossed at her.

“Any places that got hit badly last night.” 

“You’re asking for the whole map, Jack. Everywhere got hit. Even our safehouse.”

“What?” 

“We’re ok,” Riza assured their senior. “Door was bashed but we were able to hold off.”

“You mean I held that freak off. I told you to stay in the backroom,” Ender complained calmly.

The short grad student frowned with a jolt in her steps. “Excuse me, but I’m your Lifeline in this city! If you’re fighting those zombies, then we go together. Ravs rule.”

“I know, I know.”

Jack mustered out a heavy, displeased sigh but any more persuading from her - to have them returned back to the Outskirts - would fall on deaf ears. “How about strange events? Things that normally don’t happen?”

The two young members slowly contemplated on that thought, before steering their sights on one particular point of interest.

Freakoid’s eyes narrowed angrily “Hey,” he snapped lowly once he realized they were looking at him. 

“Besides him,” Jack swiftly corrected.

“Well, there’s the Bayside down the Coast,” Ender began. “Folks were trying to get out to sea.”

“But to no avail,” she tossed out the obvious ending statement. 

“It’s not so much the navy, Jack. They’ve been talking about something in the waters, pulling people in.”

“Hm. Sounds all too familiar to me. I’ll look into it.”

“The Courts’ another place of interest. Some guy named Ilyas leads it. Bit uptight though.”

“They aren’t that open to strangers from outside. Specially, infected survivors.”

“Which means I’m not invited,” the brunette ushered boldly. “I’m sure I can grease some wheels along with their requests and they’ll be more welcoming to me.”

“Just be careful. They haven’t done anything drastic but-”

“They have guns.”

“And what’s new?” Jack chided, unafraid. 

“But they were alright. Warned us about the strange noises from the Mines.”

“Who makes a mine a tourist attraction?” Riza interrupted. 

“Greedy old men trying to cash in on a city’s dying history, that’s what.”

Get to the point already, Crane wanted to say out loud but kept that in.

“Dark, cramp spaces for the zombies to hide in and wail don’t sound far off to me,” Jack intervened, bringing the two easily distracted adults back to the subject.  

“That’s what we thought. Until they said it sounded like chanting.”

“Chanting?” All three heads turned to the distorted voice from Crane and it didn’t help to see the younger girl flinch. A natural reaction he had as a human, when a Viral, a Biter, or a Volatile spotted him. At least there was some merit: the other two less jumpy runners brought down the rigidity in the air - Jack already used to tagging with a monster like him, and Ender...basically cryptic in both facial and body expressions.

“Yeah. Not only there, all over the city. Everyone’s been saying they’ve heard voices at night lately,” Ender explained further. 

“Well...now that is odd,” Jack pointed with uncanny, pretentious interest.

“Some thought they were unlucky folks who couldn’t get to a safe place in time. Some even said ghosts.”

“Ghosts,” Crane croaked. It was as crazy as having the undead around. And yet, it sounded more grounded, harmless. The idea of encountering one spectre trapped inside a house over a city full of the undead ushered out a sigh from him. “...What I would give for that.”

But this was their reality. And as quick as he fell back to the norm, he realized something about the rumor. It didn’t sit right with him for some reason.

“Nuh-uh!” 

The outburst distracted Kyle from his thoughts, surprised eyes snapping to Riza. This time, however, she stayed calm. More flustered and tense at spectral beings than a Hunter in front of her. “No ghosts. Already couldn’t sleep with that in mind.”

“I think it’s just more Virals down there,” Ender proposed. “But it is something to look into.”

“As the saying goes, “leave no stone unturned”,” Jack exclaimed coltishly. 

“Next up is the Junction. We just visited them this morning.”

“How are they?” Jack asked.

“A lot cheerier than the other places. They’ve been calling you a hero.”

“Sounds like you had an eventful night during the blackout.”

“It was nothing.” Crane noticed it in her tone, subtle but present - the compliments were brushed away as quick as a heartbeat. There was no gloating from the ex-kickboxer, no quick accepting of a job well-done in a glamorous, arrogant style. In fact, there was genuine worry in her soft voice. “Junction’s at the top of the list for me to go visit.”

The praise in both her members were shot down, with seriousness draped back into the atmosphere. 

“Well, there is one thing you should know.”

“Same rumor about voices at night?” Jack proposed.

“That,” Ender clarified. “One of their runners discovered something near their place.”

“Actually, not just at the Junction. Also at the Bayview and Courts,” Riza said. “Someone’s been painting a sun symbol. Blood red. And fresh.”

The word, ‘sun’, made Kyle’s orange eyes widen, unnoticed by the three humans. Dread rushed down his body as a thought immediately hit him hard. Just like the idea that there were more like him, with the common origin point being the Countryside, the idea of a specific gathering of people in masks appearing was loathsome to him. 

But it was impossible! He saw the bodies. He remembered the blood splatters down the dark, grim hallway. 

They were all dead-

“Must be the Firebrand I’ve been hearing so much about.”

The tension boiling up inside Crane cooled down by Jack’s peculiar report - before he could utter out that one name, just to double confirm if it was true - that they were back. The name Jack said, however, was something new.

“Firebrand?” he repeated.

“I suppose you wouldn’t know much of the circumstances here. You did “come back”,” she said straightforwardly. “It’s a group that’s been kidnapping people lately for some following. Nobody knows why and for what.”

So...not the Faceless.

Good. Maybe. Crane took it with a bit of salt and sugar. Anything remotely connected to the Countryside gave him shivers and disgust. No matter how hard he pushed the memories away, something related came to remind him in a way of nails across a chalkboard.

But another psychotic group with nefarious deeds...he really couldn’t get a break.

“Seriously? We have a cult in this city?” Riza whined. 

“Nothing we can’t deal. I’ll take care of them if they become an issue.”

The cockiness from Jack didn’t help Crane’s anxiety settle down. It awfully reflected the bad choices he made, less crass and more willing. 

“Hmph.”

He didn’t care if the brunette heard that or the slow steering of her concealed eyes to him. The gaze saying, “you doubt me?”.

“Got something to say, Freakoid?”

Plenty. "It's a bunch of crazy people. Not worth anyone's time."

"Sounds like you know from experience. Like to share with the class?”

He trudged a step back, the animalistic gaze averted away. This was another pry between the lines, and this time, he was careful. A low scoff slipped out from the Hunter. 

“Look. Whoever they are, they can’t be good. Best plan is to ignore them and do your pet project,” Kyle stated firmly. “That’s high priority, right?”

“He is right,” softly spoke Riza.

“And a zombie’s saying that,” Ender exclaimed the surrealism behind that point. The futility and truth of those words came out from the mouth of a man who died and came back. 

“I agree with you there. But they’re my problem when it becomes everyone’s problem.” Again, so nonchalant for Jack to swing out a response like that. Unbreakable, resistant, an idol of hope.

Easy for her to fall by her own pride and cause. Just like him. 

In their previous conversations, he would stop there - let her do whatever she pleased. But the more push this woman gave, the more it tested his patience. Stop it, he thought to himself. You’re only human and you could only go so far. 

It was just an itch but the irritation was enough for him to speak up. 

“Sure. And I’m the one who’s gonna drag your sorry ass out when things get too rough for you.”

“Yet it’s been the other way around for you,” she countered coolly, truthfully. “I appreciate the concern but you are my client. Let me take care of the bulk work while you worry about yourself.”

“I told you. You can’t do everything on your own.”

“Heh,” Jack laughed, half out of amusement and half of a reflection that said, “stop underestimating me, mate”. “Do you know who you’re talking to? I’m Mad Jack. There’s nothing I can’t handle, not even this outbreak.”

Mad. He couldn’t disagree but for a different reason. “Yeah. You keep telling yourself that.”

The air was uncomfortable between the two older adults while Ender and Riza kept quiet with gawking eyes, left and right. One side was going to give in, whether to reason or to pride but it was clear that neither would. Again, it wasn’t getting through to her. And again, he was too stubborn to let it go. 

Both sides ended with huffed sighs.

“Any more info?” The strain was tiny, snaking right out of Jack’s voice, regardless the playful smile she kept shining to her compadres.

“Those are the major spots,” Ender said and slipped their hands in pockets - better they’d stay out of their little quarrel.

“Actually. There is the Plaza.”

“You do know that manager’s a nutjob, right?”

“And who isn’t? Besides, the more work, the better for us.” With that argument won, Riza turned back to Jack. “Nothing to do with your ‘creepy stuff’ but the Plaza was hit by the blackout too. They could use some help.”

“And probably everyone else in this city,” Ender concluded. “Any dawdler you help out might have info about those voices and symbols we don’t know about.”

“I plan to do that.” More information was golden to Jack. She could never one to turn a blind eye from it, before and during the outbreak - as long as she’d get something in return. And words were a treasure to her. 

“Now it’s our turn.” The childish inflection from the young female runner was something to warrant for, slapping the older woman’s smile right off. She didn’t like the sound of it, or knew where this was going.

“Alright,” Jack started. “What’s the proposition this time?”

“Not from you,” Ender surprised her.

“From him,” and Riza surprised Freakoid.

“Wait. Me?”

“Do you see anyone else? Of course, we mean you.” 

Crane was baffled. One moment ago, this Grad was shaking. The next, she was intrigued, her partner joining her in their scrutiny. It reminded him of something like this - working for two insufferable people before.

“We’ve got a job only someone with your ‘caliber’ can do,” Ender took the lead.

“A zombie that thinks for himself. This is gonna boost our business by a huge margin,” Riza hummed.

“I’m not anyone’s freakshow-” he warned them.

“Oh, no. Believe me, I know what it’s like to be put on display,” Ender assured him, despite driving the confusion into Freakoid. 

He didn’t follow - first thought being this young grad couldn’t possibly compare themselves to Crane’s ‘condition’, and then the second being perhaps, it wasn’t in his right to judge without knowing what sort of discrimination Ender went. A human’s discrimination.

“And we’re not ringmasters. We’re brokers on the go,” Riza swiftly rolled the conversation on. Like two actors on a stage, prepared and whimsical on their lines without any flaw. 

“Ok?” 

“What she means is we’re like any other vendor in this outbreak. Only difference is, our inventory’s more special than the average merchandise,” Ender explained. 

“Designed for the Ravs. Like Jack.” Riza swayed a hand at the kickboxer before bringing it to Crane. “And now you.”

“Ranges from top-notch weapons, rare items, powerful consumables. You need it, we get it.”

“Depends on your rank though. The higher you are, the better the tier is.”

“Whoa, hang on,” Crane interrupted. “This is a joke, right?”

“Uh, no? Do you see anyone of us laughing?”

“You’ve gotta see how bad this is. I’m a monster, remember?”

“Who’s having a normal conversation with us humans. I see nothing wrong there,” Ender said.

He was getting a migraine from this.

“There’s still the matter of me losing it,” Crane again reinforced his earlier statement. “And why would I need things when I’m like...this?” He gestured to his own body.

“Well. You bleed, don’t you?” Riza uttered, the once-shy confidence now balling up to full-blown spunkiness. “You’re just like us. And you need our goods to stay alive.”

What goods? There was nothing of interest that came to mind, anything they could offer was completely useless to a Hunter. A bandage, maybe. A molotov, he could easily scrape for a bottle. But nothing big.

“Or if not for you, then why not do it for Jack? You’re particularly her Lifeline right now,” Ender offered the idea. 

Jack’s bold mannerisms changed in a beat, the frown returning back to her cheeks. “Excuse me. He’s not my Lifeline. He’s a Hunter-”

“Nuh-uh,” Riza cut her short. “If he’s a Rav, then he’s gotten be someone’s Lifeline. That’s the rules. Nobody goes out at night without a partner.”

“And you signed up to be a Rav too. You gotta follow them like everyone else,” Ender shuffled into the conversation.

“Of course. And sometimes, rules have to be broken,” Jack tried to counter. “Bones’ project didn’t need more than one working on it.”

“No but there should be someone looking out for the worker. You left our base before anyone could vouch being your Lifeline.”

“Nobody should be,” the kickboxer whipped out the remark.  “I’m a special case, remember?”

“Special case? More like a bad choice.”

The confident smirk zipped straight down to a disapproving frown at Freakoid’s comeback. Back to the “hot potato” talk. 

“It’s the only choice, mate. I already told you: nobody from the Ravs is fit and capable to do this.”

“But you can? You’re biting off more than you can chew.”

“Bloody brilliant, coming from the Hunter in front of us.”

“At least I don’t go charging off without discussing a plan. Look what happened earlier.”

“We were against the clock. We had to adapt under peer pressure, mate. Something you don’t really do much. You’re awfully too cautious.”

“And you’re too ballistic. You literally went up front to three gunners!”

“Someone had to bloody well take them down. Guns are too much trouble for what they’re worth.”

“Now I get why Asem was willing to let Shy Guy join us.” Riza’s whisper was soft as she jabbed a thumb at Freakoid. But not soft enough that the two older grown-ups wouldn’t hear. 

“Yup. He’s the only one that can keep up with Jack,” Ender mumbled.

“What does that mean?” The two younger adults wheeled back, noting the professional fighter’s darkened gaze. Their postures stiffened but they weren’t too heinous for thinking aloud in front of their senior.

“Nothing,” Ender droned. It was interesting: they had never seen anyone try to headbutt Mad Jack in a normal-sounding conversation. They and everyone knew the reputation she had, the fighter who couldn’t turn away from a fight. What put the icing on the cake was her opponent, a man succumbed to the virus and risen back up as a talking infected.

However, they had seen this kind of banter. So they stepped in before it kept going.

“Look,” their sincerity directed Crane’s attention on themselves. “You’re turned. There’s no denying that. And anyone will want to kill you. So that means you need our help more than ever.”

“And we are still staying. Yeah, you’re scary,” Riza confessed. “But we’re not leaving.”

“What do you have to lose?”

A lot, Crane thought quietly. Another life done by him and more blood on his hands, with or without control.

“You might as well go along with it, Freakoid,” Jack’s explanation slipped into the discussion. “These two are stubborn when it comes to their business but their hearts are in the right place. Deals are too good either.”

“Geez. Thanks for the vote of confidence,” Ender uttered lively.

“But she is right,” Riza interrupted and wheeled back to Crane. “We'll make it worth your wild.”

“Hm,” Crane huffed. Alright, so it was like working with Spike. “And, what...you two are ok working with...someone like me?”

He was prepared to leave at anytime - even ten minutes into the conversation, if it wasn’t Jack. The answer was and should be clear-cut: he was a danger. He could potentially lose his mind in a second and kill either one of them without knowing.

Nevertheless, Riza and Ender didn’t budge from their spot. They exchanged glances at each other, then at Jack before back to him. 

“You’ve been sticking around with Jack till now. That’s good enough for us,” Riza voiced for the both of them.

It left Crane stunned. He glanced back and forth between the two, waiting for them to take it back. But nothing in their actions showed it. Maybe it really was true: it was because of Jack’s infectious personality that influenced these two terribly. 

However, that didn’t mean he should turn away to a proposal. He was never the kind of person to call it quits… An idiot, but he was never one to go back against his word. So Crane heaved out a sigh and shook off his gripe. 

“Ok,” he replied back. “What do you have in mind?”

Riza’s coy smile stretched wide and Crane could feel Ender’s grin too. The Hunter didn’t like that exchange but there was no taking back - Ender had spoken out carefreely.

“Alright, Freakoid. Let’s get you started.”

Chapter Text

This is just to notify everyone on AO3 there's a revamped chapter up, this will be replaced with intermission chapter(s).