Where did this come from? This was an entry for a zombie-themed anthology on Wattpad, called Zombiepalooza. There were a few rules for my team: each story must feature a Volkswagen campervan; include a can of peaches; each story should have a reference to Buffy the Vampire Slayer; and each story must make use of one of three prompts, of which I chose the music of the Danse Macabre. The Buffy reference was a bit difficult considering I’d never watched it.
When did I write it? June 2017, which seems scarily long ago. Having just finished playing The Last of Us in a week (as I’d only borrowed the console), I was certainly in a zombie mood.
Sunlight lanced over the edge of my world and the dance ended. The song went first, chased in fleet whispers over the horizon. It dragged the Call with it. Then the dancing stopped, and its listless prey stood blinking in the dawn. Another night ended. Another night spent avoiding the death throes of the human race.
I can see them now – each figure a fellow human picked out under the morning sun. They slouch like scarecrows staked above the cotton fields, each one a mute and silent sentinel of our doom.
“Damned nihilist,” I mutter to myself. I reach up to my shoulder, remove the hand that rests there and drop it by the side of its owner, who only groans and sways in reply.
He’s a dancer, just like the rest of ‘em. Poor fools cursed to dance every time night falls, legs jerking to the tune of some invisible piper. Not that the fact of it’s too poetic, but it was sure as hell a funny sight the first time it happened. But then they started killing and, well… there’s not too much humour to be taken outta’ that.
Since he’s harmless in the light of day, I look him up and down. Dressed like a lumberjack, though too scrawny to be one. The usual mottling creeps through the skin of his coarse-bearded face, making it look like some kind of painted mask, but in daylight it’s starting to seep away. He’s wearing a camo jacket that he clearly never used for its intended purpose but one of the pockets is bulging, so I take a rummage as he stands there.
I pull the object out and peer at the label. If all else were outta’ the question, I might say this was a lucky day, I think to myself, holding the tin of peaches up to the sky as if I’m some wine taster encountering a particularly fine vintage
“You won’t be needing this,” I say, giving the dancer a quick pat on the arm and a friendly smile. “Take care of yourself now.”
That done, I shrug my way through the press of bodies surrounding me. The sheer number of them, the concentration and their intent on reaching me all cross through my mind, but I force the thought to pass. No use mulling over close calls when the next could be just around the corner.
Well, not in daylight, but that’s not the point.
I should be focussing on finding a place to sleep through the day right about now, but plans have changed, so I look around to find the path I was following before the dancers came across me. Sure enough, it’s still there, although I had my doubts. I throw the tin of peaches into my rucksack, hoist it up onto my back and head off. Maybe, if I’m fast, I can get there before nightfall. Maybe.
Walking is a solitary occupation nowadays. There aren’t many left who resisted the Call. It twists and turns into your mind, drags you into the dance, replaces any aims and notions you might have with its own. From what I’ve seen so far, those notions are mainly to kill. Kill and dance.
Yeah, this is some twisted turn of events. No one comes back from the dance.
Not a sound to be heard as I walk along, but as the dancers thin out, so too do the cotton plants grow sparser and give way to weeds, to grass and skinny trees. I pass under the first branches of a forest and my eyes close in pain as dappled light filters through them in bursts.
Somewhere, a twig snaps and I freeze in my tracks, but the forest is silent. I’m thankful the path carries on away from the noise, and each step takes me further away from what could have been danger. I can’t risk someone finding me. I can’t risk being seen.
After a little while I come across a trail of broken saplings all bent and twisted in one direction. Further away, part-smashed against a large rock face, lie the remains of an old VW campervan. It’s in good shape, considering its accident. No carbon marks, no sign of fire or damage apart from at the front end.
Could be food, I think. Could be weapons. Could be danger.
I drop into a half-crouch out of habit and edge forward, sweeping my toes out with each step to shift any sticks that could snap and give away my position. There may not be anyone to give it away to, but you spend as long as I have in the time of the Call and you pick up a case of healthy paranoia pretty quick.
Something metal crashes to the floor inside the van. The noise startles me and the forest, sending birds screeching out of the trees. I pull my rifle forward in its sling and level its muzzle at the back door, waiting with baited breath for whatever’s in there. The Call’s gone for the day, so I doubt it’s a dancer, but I’ve seen one or two in my time acting outside the darker hours. Hell knows what’s controlling ‘em then, but it’s rare enough that I don’t bother to ask.
More things crash around inside the van before the back door swings open and a young woman steps outside. Can’t be more that twenty-five, maybe, and somehow the mess of recent times hasn’t made it to her looks. She stares straight down the barrel of my weapon, shrugging a rucksack of salvage over her smooth-tanned shoulders without a care in the world. The best I can describe it, she’s dressed like a schoolgirl. How can someone like her just stand and smile at the shadow of death? I can’t imagine her surviving the survivors, let alone the night.
“Hi there!” she says, in a voice as unbelievably sweet as her appearance.
I hesitate – the kind of hesitation founded only in the most heady disbelief – before saying, “…Hi.”
She just stands there, so I motion to the right with my rifle.
“Move along, now,” I say.
“You’re not a fan of friendly faces, huh?”
“Most o’ the ‘friendly faces’ I see are painted come nightfall.”
The woman raises her arms beside her and dances around on the spot. “Do I look like I’m standing still?”
“Yeah, I get the point. You’re not one of them. You’d be painted moving about in daylight, if you were.” With some reluctance, I ease up from my crouch and shoulder my rifle.
She shrugs. “If you say so.”
“Hells…” I shake my head. She hasn’t bothered to learn a thing about ‘em.
“So,” she says, hopping down from the tailgate, “where are you headed?”
I grunt and start to move back along the path. Whatever’s left in the van can stay there. “I’m not lookin’ for company.”
“Really? Sounds like you need it, misery-guts.”
Sighing, I glance back behind to see her picking her way along the trail about ten feet back.
“You’re going the wrong way,” she says, skipping to catch up.
“Everywhere leads somewhere.”
“Well, this way leads to zombies so thick you can’t even push through them, unless you want to crowdsurf.”
I glare at her as she keeps pace alongside me. “What’d you just call ‘em?”
“They’re not zombies. Zombies have been dead. Our lot are living people, same as you and me.”
She barks out a laugh. “They’re clearly different to us. We have to call them something.”
“Sure,” I say. “They’re dancers.”
I come to a full halt. How can she not know?
“What?” She pauses a few feet further up the path. “Did I miss the party or something?”
“Have you never been out at night?”
The thought of that has her taken aback. “Of course not!”
“Ah.” Makes more sense, now. “You been in a shelter since the beginning, then?”
“Yes. Haven’t you?”
Another grunt is the only reply I give her. Every one of the immune got crowded into shelters at the beginning. The denizens of the dance got them, otherwise. She can’t know I was kicked out of my shelter. She can’t stay with me.
I clear my throat. “I need to get moving.”
Gesturing to my motionless feet, she fixes me with an ‘are you serious?’ look. “Left foot, right foot, body will follow. Ring any bells?”
“You are not coming with me.” I jab a finger at her chest for emphasis.
“Because,” I wave my hand in the direction of the path, “I’m going that way. You’re right in sayin’ it’s full of dancers. I might not make it through before day’s end. You do not want to get stuck there after dark.”
“And you do?”
“No, but I can deal with it.”
“What makes you think I can’t?”
That’s something I have to laugh at. “Look, just… I have something I need to do. I’m so close to gettin’ to the bottom of this mess. One step closer in the right direction and I know I’ll find the person responsible.”
“I’m sure it’s a person. It has to be.” We have met, after all. “’Sides, how come the spores don’t affect you?”
She frowns at me, neat eyebrows furrowing toward a dainty nose. “Immune, same as you. They told me to take tablets out here, though. It’s a waste of resources, if you ask me.”
“I didn’t.” Must’ve been a precaution they took after I left, but they clearly didn’t tell everyone the reason. I cast a critical eye over her again, trying to think up some excuse to get her to leave, but nothing comes to mind – not even with digging.
“This thing can’t be too important if you’ve got time to ogle me,” she reprimands me.
Turning away from her, I let out an exasperated sigh. “I’m not ogling you, I…” I shake my head. “You can follow me if you want, but I won’t slow down and I won’t help you if you get yourself in trouble. When night-time comes, I want you long gone, you hear me?”
“I hear you, old man.”
“Jesus,” she says as we start walking again. “I’d have had you pegged as late forties.”
“Thanks,” I growl.
We walk for another few hours under the harsh light of the Sun until the woman quits trying to get a conversation outta’ me and sticks to her left foot, right foot routine. The silence is bliss, even if it has been a while since I heard another human voice, save the groans of dancers. Still, as the day drags on I feel my eyes growing wearier. The light burns them and sears deeper in the form of a headache. It may be more a risk travelling at night, but at least the moon doesn’t slice into me so.
I weigh up my options for a good few minutes before coming to a decision. There’s no point confronting what I have to confront if I’m too tired to stand on my own feet.
“I’m restin’ here for a while,” I tell the woman. “Only a couple of hours. I’ll wake before the night.” Why I tell her, I don’t know, but she doesn’t pass comment on it.
After walking a little way off the path, I set my rucksack down on the forest floor. She takes a seat on a nearby rock, watching me all the while as I unpack my sleeping bag and rollmat.
“How long have you been out here?” she asks.
“Too long.” I throw the rollmat out across the floor before shoving it flat, scrunching my eyes as I do.
The sleeping bag, compressed as tight as it is, takes a little longer to unfurl, but it’s still not long before I have it layin’ on the ground. “Somethin’ like that,” I say as I burrow beneath the layers of fabric.
“Is that a four-season sleeping bag?”
“Are you too nosey for your own good?” I snap back.
If she makes any reply, I don’t hear it. I’m out like a light.
Dreaming – one of the reasons why I hate sleep. As my awareness drops through the floor, memories rise up again, engulfing and consuming me.
It’s pitch black outside with a vicious wind screaming through the dead ribcage struts of collapsed and decaying buildings. The stars change position every time I see ‘em, but the scenery stays the same. I can feel the chill, smell the rot, hear the stamping of thousands of feet as the dancers weave their magic through the streets below us.
My brother Andrew stands behind me. Even though I’m facing away from him, the dream shows me every detail. His young face is weathered by the last few months, his hands and muscular arms littered with scrapes and scars, his tousled blonde hair lit by the glow of the dancers’ torches. He leans against a window frame, gazing down on the scene below with concern. His front is lit by fire, but his back is lost to the night.
That’s the thing about darkness. No matter how bright the inferno, the void consumes the light.
“We’ll wait for them to pass,” I find myself facing him and breathing as a whisper, the same as every other time. “We can leave in the mornin’.”
Andrew shakes his head. “They have outrunners on the edge of the pattern. They do the hunting.” He turns away from the window to face me. “They’ll find us if we-“
His sentence trails off. In the dream, I can see through his eyes: the exaggerated smile of a dancer leering over my shoulder. No matter how often I have this dream, I never hear it arrive. It came upon us silently, just as the apocalypse that spawned it.
The dancer ignores me – I can never be sure if it even noticed me to begin with – and leaps straight for my brother. Its hands form into mock claws and its spore-highlighted lips split into a silent, feral snarl.
My brother, how I miss ‘im, he’s taken by surprise. The dancer hits him with such force that he’s bowled straight back into the corner, jaws descending to his throat to kill, but not consume.
But in the split second before it bites, I’m on it, both arms around its waist, dragging it over the edge of the broken floor into the room below. We hit the ground hard and I bite back a cry. The dancer drags itself to its knees and prepares to lunge at me, but I’m one step ahead. I draw my knife and bury it in its neck.
Back then, I half-expected it to carry on and tear into me with its dying breath, but I know better now. As I expect – and remember – it does nothing. Well, nothing’s the wrong word. It breathes. It presses its face up against mine and a foul, cloying stench forces its way into my mouth and nose. The taste of it makes me gag, even in memory, before it sets a pounding headache in my mind.
Before it dies, the spore paint flushes out of the dancer’s skin and wide, shining eyes look at me aghast. The man’s mouth opens and closes, blood gushing out of him, before he slumps against me.
For those few seconds, it wasn’t a dancer I’d killed. And from that point on I knew what everyone held as their worst fear– people do stay trapped inside their bodies for the dance. For the kill.
This is where the dream starts to break up, shifting and changing each time. It’s because I can’t really remember what happened that night. I get snatches of colour, painted faces and stamping feet. And there’s a song – the song. That night was the first night I heard the Call, not that I knew it then. The song in the night. The voice in the song. His voice – the one I’m following.
I came to that morning confused and alone. I made my way back to the shelter, but they wouldn’t take me. The people had been shut inside, even though it was day-time, and I saw my brother’s face behind the barrel of the gun levelled at my chest. I ran, and his bullets ricocheted all around me.
In hindsight? I can’t say I blame him. Can’t say I blame any of ‘em.
By the chill that seeps through the ground when I wake up, I can tell the night isn’t far away. I push off the ground, joints aching from my short spell in the sleeping bag.
The woman’s still here, sat watching me.
“The hell’re you still doing’ here?” I ask. “It’s almost night.”
“Sleep well?” She cocks her head at me and raises an eyebrow.
I wince and rub my head. “You are not taking this seriously enough.”
“Maybe not. What’s your name?”
Clambering out of the sleeping bag, I shake my head. “Don’t take names. Makes it easier when people die – like you’re headin’ for if you stay with me.”
“Eh.” She shrugs. “If it suits you, Felix. You had it written on your shoe, anyway.”
I pause from packing up my bedding to shoot her a cool glare.
“I’m Carrie, anyway.” She laughs. “Now you have to get all sad if I kick it. Not sure your frown can get any deeper than it already is – you’re like the broken robot from Virial Artifice.” Pausing at her words, she mumbles, “You know, this situation is kind of similar to the episode it got for its character arc.”
“Why,” I ask, ignoring whatever that reference was, “are you still here?”
“In truth?” She sighs, fidgets her legs and looks away for a few moments. “I ran away.” She grins. “Bet you weren’t expecting that.”
“You’re startin’ to seem mad enough to have run away from safety.”
“Yeah, well, they never told us anything. They were all open up until a while ago and then they just…shut up. These new tablets, I bet they’re just placebos. We’re all immune. They just don’t want us to go outside.”
Now it’s my turn to sigh. “If I tell you the truth, will you go home and stop bothering me?”
She fixes me with a penetrating stare. “Sure.”
“The truth is that no-one’s immune. If they told people that, they’d panic. They’d think it really was the end.”
Her face puckers into a frown. “But none of us get infected, ever. The spores don’t affect us.”
“The first type. The first type of spores don’t affect you. But during the Ca- the dance, the strain becomes more virulent. Not the one that’s in the air, but the one inside a host. The dancers ‘emselves. If you get too up-close and personal with a dancer at night, they’ll leave the host and pass to you. If the previous host isn’t dead, it’ll re-infect pretty soon since it wasn’t immune to start with.”
“You know a lot about it,” she says.
“I’ve been out here a long time. Anyway, people who are immune who get infected at night, they go back to normal in the morning when the strain’s less virulent. Even riskier than your usual dancer. Hard to spot, although I guess you could look for light-sensitivity.”
“So they just wake up with no memory of what’s happened?” Her voice is quieter now, tinged with the first sadness I’ve heard from her.
“No. Maybe the first time, but after that, they remember everything from the night.”
She looks taken aback, her eyes wide. It’s the reaction I’d have myself if I didn’t already know it.
After some hesitation, she asks another question. “How do you know they remember?”
“I was there the first time it happened,” I tell her the truth. “It wasn’t pretty. And I followed them for a while after that.” I look her in the eyes until she matches my gaze. “So believe me when I tell you – that world out there is not one you want to be in in the dark.”
She nods, but makes no attempt to reply. Instead she just stands up, casts about for anything she might have forgotten, and leaves.
I breathe a sigh of relief and go on my way. It’s not far now. Not if I remember right.
The trees press thicker as I move on, and so does the density of dancers. I walk past one trunk to find three behind it, vacant gazes pointed toward the floor, then four to my right, two draped over tree branches, one that I have to push past to break through a copse. The light filtering through the leaves begins to fade. The dappled forest floor mottles into shadow.
The Call arrives.
I feel the prickling in my skin first, like a million tiny needles, then the pressure behind my eyes and forehead, the pinch in the bridge of my nose. The dancers start to move. Their faces flush with colour and their heads rise up with painted smiles. They pull themselves upright, each standing to attention for the invisible piper.
Then they start to dance. They shuffle at first, but as the tempo builds they begin to leap and whirl, their limbs flailing madly in the air. They link arms and race around in tight circles, forming the spinning wheel, the writhing mass. The outrunners – or hunters, as I call ‘em now – weave in between them all, crazed eyes searching in the dying light, teeth bared to the world.
I resist at first. I usually do. But then the Call strengthens. It digs its fingers into my mind and pulls, numbing it with pain and pulling me into the dance. It pushes my awareness to the abyss at the back of my mind and all I can do is despair at the distant twinge of my own muscles flexing to the song. My painted face joins the crowd of the soul-stripped living, each no doubt wishing to be soul-owning dead.
It’s through the song that I hear him, or feel him, or… something. He observes us first and I feel him pause as his attention passes over me, but he has a lot of marionettes to control and other tasks to focus on. Plucking at the strings that bind us, he sends his orders. Sweep. Seek. Kill.
Beneath the shroud of the Call, I sense the terror of the thousand minds it twists to its purpose.
We move out. We break branches off the trees and light them, carpeting the land with a sea of firelight. The hunters race off and we follow as tendrils creeping behind them. Shadow and light, painted masks, limbs raised to the air and thrust to the ground; the dance goes on for hours, traipsing all across the land. I get further and further from my objective, the voice behind the call, and ever closer to the path I followed to get here.
Ever closer to Carrie.
A twist in the dance puts me in line-of-sight with her, clinging desperately to the uppermost branches of a tree. She swings down at the hunters below her as they whoop and call, circling over the tree’s roots.
Stupid. Stupid woman. She should have run, not climbed. She should have gone, not followed.
With each swing, another hunter joins the game and the dancing knot winds tighter around her perch. With each swing, she grows more tired. After the next blow, she catches sight of me. Her eyes are desperate, confused, hurt, pleading. They wrench me out of the dance, heart and body torn to a halt as dozens of dancers careen into my side. I can feel painted faces turning to stare as I take one broken step forward.
Carrie misses the hunter behind her. It leaps up in the firelight and claws her from the tree. They tumble together through the air, to the ground and out of sight.
I realise my legs are moving again and the dancers have forgotten my defiance. They twirl with me past the hunters as they dismember her perfect body, bringing me inches from the viscera of her avoidable death.
Stupid. Stupid woman.
She didn’t even scream.
With a bodily sigh – the sort that somehow starts in your shoulders and rolls down the rest of your body, sucking your energy right into the ground – I give up control of my mind to the Call. I blur out the dance and its movements, the hunters and their prey. I ignore the things it makes me do. I just retreat into the back of my head, letting everything go on around me.
But then I feel him again, his presence stronger and more defined than ever before. I open my eyes – metaphorically speaking – and notice that we’ve made it to a clearing. A massive bonfire raging with green flame scorches the night sky in its centre, turning the stationary figures surrounding it into stark silhouettes.
It’s a surreal scene. That inner circle all wear capes of varying ripped fabrics, with pistols, swords or sabres hanging from their belts. They take the semblance of matadors, but wear the faces of ghoulish clowns, swaying from side to side. Chanting emanates from them. It’s not the music of the Call, but it sends a chill through me nonetheless.
Inside the ring they form, a solitary man strides within arm’s reach of the inferno. I can’t pick out any of his features against the fire’s glow, but I know it’s him. He’s the one leading the Call.
If I take him out, I think, this can all be over.
Summoning all my strength, I shove aside the Call’s grasp and lurch forward, breaking the chain of dancers yet again. The chanting halts in an instant, replaced with a threatening hiss. The matadors’ painted faces turn toward me. The solitary figure draws himself upright. The dance stops.
In the newfound silence, I find every detail of the scene imprinting itself on me. The eyes pinned to my face, the tongues of emerald flame flickering and crackling in the darkness. Beyond them, a tall communications tower, tangled wires snaking between newly-audible generators.
Instead of ordering an attack, as I’d expect him to do, the man raises his arms in a welcoming gesture. “Is my patronage not enough for you?” he asks, the whites of his teeth showing as a smile in an otherwise shadowed face.
Realising how out of breath I am from the exertion of the dance, I pause before replying, “You think I’d enjoy this?”
“My actions are all necessary,” he says. “You will thank me when the plan comes to its ordained conclusion. Enjoyment is not required until that moment.”
I lick my lips to get some moisture back in them, sidestepping around the senseless dancers but staying out of reach of the matadors. Their eyes and hisses follow me as I move.
“I’m thinkin’ perhaps you forget most people don’t enjoy being made a prisoner in their own heads. Or does your plan have you letting us all free after the fact?” I say.
“To tell you the details would be to strip the plan of its beauty. So be a dear and cooperate. After all, I chose to make you mine, not a corpse. Your life belongs to me. I’d go as far as to say you owe me.”
I shake my head and wrap my hand around one of the thick generator cables. “No,” I say, “I owe you pain.”
I lunge toward him, tearing the cable free as I do so. The matadors all reach for their weapons, but they didn’t have the initiative to expect this. Thrusting my arm through the air, I hold the cable out in front of me. There’s a crack and a blinding flash. An arc of electricity soars across the gap between me and them. It flings two matadors back into the flames before locking onto the man, who flies back to join them.
The force of it knocks me back as well and I let go of the cable. I land in a tangle of dancers who screech and lash out as the man dies. They turn on each other, stabbing with knives, biting and clawing.
Winded, it takes me longer than I’d like to get to my feet. I go to run, but a hand grabs my ankle and yanks me downward. I kick it, unholstering my pistol and firing into its face at the same time.
It works, but it gets their attention. Even as I start to sprint away, a large group of them splits off to chase me. I careen through the forest, leaping over roots and weaving between trunks, branches whipping past my face. I can hear their feet behind me, twigs snapping, can feel the Call’s unanimous command to kill.
Then a pain in my back, sharp and blunt at the same time as a knife lodges into my shoulder. I tumble forward, hitting my head on a rock. The dancers cry out in jubilant glee, racing over the leaf litter to finish me off. My head screams and my back feels on fire. My fingers carve useless funnels in the valley floor as they attempt to find purchase, to drag me forward somehow.
Through a haze of pain, I hear bullets rip through the forest. Dull thuds ring out as they meet their targets and the dancers fall all around me. Running feet halt, then fade into the distance, new steps replacing them from the other direction.
I begin to hear voices, hushed or muffled, wavering in and out of existence. The words slip through my mind, alien noises muted by the pounding in my ears. I feel their rough hands lift me and place me on a stretcher, but then the fog descends and I return to the dark.