Aidan struggled to rise from the cold concrete. He felt broken inside, and he knew he'd be done for if not for the fact that he'd fed on live blood beforehand. And, too, thanks to Sally. The ghost was not strong enough to defeat Bishop on her own, but she could hold a stake long enough to provide a distraction.
As soon as the pain settled a bit, signaling the healing of his internal wounds, Aidan pounced. He grabbed the razor wire, leapt to his feet, and wrapped it around Bishop's neck in one smooth motion. “I begged you to not to do this!” he cried, tightening the wire. Bishop's hands fought futilely against his arms. “It didn't have to be this way.”
“You're right,” Bishop gurgled. Aidan's hands didn't exactly loosen, but he stopped short. Bishop, arms reaching behind him, squeezed Aidan's shoulders one last time, almost as if with pride. “I'm...sorry.”
So many visions suddenly flashed in Aidan's mind, a myriad of alternate timelines, each one always leading toward him killing Bishop. As if he saw it too, Bishop choked, “S'okay...Aidan. The son...always...kills the father.”
“No.” Aidan pulled the razor wire from his maker's throat, throwing it across the room. “No!” he cried again, pushing Bishop away. Now Bishop was the one lying at Aidan's feet. “You can only make me so much of a monster, Bishop. I won't be like you.”
“What are you doing?” Sally cried. She balled her fists and mimed kicking Bishop in the head. “You have to kill him! He wants you dead! And Josh!”
“Not anymore,” Aidan said. “This is finished. You hear me, Bishop? You've taken – and given – my life so often over the centuries. Now I've done the same, and we're finally at quits. Leave Boston. Run far, and never come back.”
Bishop stared at him, ignoring the ghost entirely. Aidan read so many different emotions in his maker's gaze, but he kept one look in his own eyes. He saw Bishop recognize it, and the older vampire nodded, bowing his head in defeat.
“He stole my door, and you're just going to let him go?”
“I'm sorry, Sally. But it's over. Done. Bishop won't be a problem for us anymore.” Aidan turned and walked out of the warehouse, praying that was true.
“I will not die. I will not die. I will not die!” Aidan reiterated to himself, far, far under ground. For months, he'd been lost inside his own head, haunted by visions of the happy life he'd always dreamed of. He could feel himself giving into the delusions. The time was coming when he might not come back to himself, when delusions would become preferable to this mindless, starving torment. He was already forgetting why coming back was so important anyway. “I will not die!” he thought he screamed, but his throat only croaked dryly.
Then he stopped, cocking his head to listen. It wasn't his imagination, nor a delusion. Aidan heard the unmistakable hiss of a shovel slicing through dirt. Someone was digging him up.
It had been so long, well over a year, since he'd seen light. Aidan was blinded as the coffin lid opened, and he was so weak from hunger that whoever it was could have easily killed him with a toothpick. He rubbed crust from his eyelids and struggled to see his rescuer.
“Now, I know you never wanted to see me again,” that familiar voice said, “but when I heard what Mother had done to you, I simply couldn't sit idle.” Bishop lifted Aidan from the coffin and effortlessly raised him up to the hard-packed ground above. Aidan couldn't see where Bishop went after jumping out, but he heard the sounds of a struggle. “Disgusting things,” Bishop said as he returned to pull Aidan away from the grave.
Aidan could smell the blood that Bishop's hands left on his jacket, but something about it smelled absolutely foul. Starving as he was, the scent of blood should have sent him into a full-on junky tailspin, but it didn't. It turned his stomach and somehow made feeding the last thing he wanted to do. That was probably the only thing that saved the poor girl he finally noticed lying face-down on the ground nearby.
“I brought take-out!” Bishop grinned at him, then his face quickly sobered. He snapped his fingers in front of Aidan's eyes. “Aidan, are you still in there? Come on, it was just over one year! Not eighty.”
Remembering what led to his being grounded, Aidan began to cry. “Suren.”
“Yes, yes. I'm sorry you lost another love. It happens to the best of us.” Bishop sat down, crossing his legs. “Now, we don't have much time, and I need you to listen carefully. Aidan! Dammit, this is serious. Are you with me?” Aidan managed to swing his head into something like a nod, and Bishop continued, “Mother is dead. They're all dead, Aidan. Damned humans caught some kind of filthy virus. They're turning into zombies. Lots and lots of zombies. Like fucking cockroaches, really; it's a cesspool around here. And to think, that's what we thought before.” He laughed and looked sidelong at Aidan. “Well, most of us, hm? Anyway, the antibodies it leaves behind in the survivors is killing all vampires now too. You can't drink from them if they've ever had the virus, even if they're healthy now. It started cropping up all over about seven months ago. Now, if you can even manage to find a human, having a simple meal is like playing Russian roulette. That's why I brought you this one. She's special in more ways than just the one.” Bishop reached over to the unconscious girl. When he rolled her over, Aidan saw that it was Emily, Josh's sister. His head finally began to clear.
“There you are. Glad you're coming back! Okay, eat up, 'cause you're gonna need your strength. But for god's sake, don't kill her. Emily here didn't get sick. Or maybe she did and is just immune. Hell, I don't know what's going on. What I do know is that there aren't many like her left. You'll need her, and you'll have to fight off the other vamps too if they realize what you've got. You'll have to fight the humans, or the ones who used to be, regardless.” Bishop stood and gave Emily a half-hearted nudge with his toe.
“Don't--” Aidan groaned again.
“Don't you worry about me,” Bishop said as he bent over to pat Aidan's shoulder. “Marcus has a couple of gals set aside for us. Let me give you another tip: if you need another food source, always have one of the new turns taste-test first. Give it twelve hours. If they get the virus, you'll know by then and probably before. You can turn the contaminated food, if you avoid their saliva and just drip blood into their mouths. Or you can kill them. But setting them free just helps kill more of us that much faster – and turns them into even more zombies in the long run. We've all got to do our part to stem that tide. Headshots, of course.” Bishop stood tall and dusted his hands off on his pants. “Now we're at quits. I'll help you guys get into the house and go right back to leaving Boston; it's a lost cause anyway. Eat. Get your strength back. We'll never see each other again after this. But I couldn't leave you in that box to rot forever.” Bishop smiled, blue eyes flashing. “Call me sentimental.”
“I'm telling you,” Emily said, hiding her face behind her hand and a curtain of brown hair, “he's not in Ithaca. I thought he would come for us, I really did. But he didn't. And then...” She trailed off, her voice choking. She finally looked up at him. “After, I thought maybe I could find him in Boston. Bad idea. The cities are overrun. If he's still there, he's dead. And if he's not, I don't know where he'd be.”
“The cities are overrun,” Aidan echoed, his mind racing now that he was in better condition. “He'd take Julia and go off-grid.”
Emily shook her head and smiled sadly. “No. Julia didn't make it. Josh got back together with Nora a month or two before shit hit the fan. That was the last I heard from him.”
“I might know where to find them.” Aidan, feeling revived enough after his third feeding, left Emily to recuperate as he hunted for a well-gassed vehicle. He wasn't back to full health by any means, and explaining the whole vampire situation once Emily had finally regained consciousness had taken a lot out of both of them. He felt guilty for drinking so much that first time without her knowledge, but he'd had to. If he'd tried to wait until she woke up, he wouldn't have been able to control it when he finally did feed. Emily came around to the idea of feeding him much faster than he expected, but it may have just been his luck at being the only familiar face she'd seen in over half a year. Or the fact that Bishop and his crew had fed on her before. But she dealt well with Aidan's news and right now, her health was suffering far more than his. Their mutual convalescence had taken a week, and there was no more food for Emily.
He found a car, as well as a bag of pork rinds and a couple of slim jims somebody had stashed away, abandoned on the main road. From the long-dried blood splatter in the driver's seat, as well as the fact that four similar vehicles sat at various spots some distance up the road, Aidan was fairly certain that the vampires had laid a trap for humans evacuating the city. He found a bag of clothes in another car, and he changed out of his fifteen-month-buried clothes and into a blue t-shirt and a black hoodie, though he had to keep the dirty pants. Another car had a few canned goods and an empty gas jug, so Aidan siphoned what gas he could from all of them. He also found two water bottles, and he swished the gas taste out of his mouth and put those in the bag to take back to Emily.
Josh and Nora weren't at Josh's old changing shed, where Aidan had killed Connor so many months before, but he could smell the lingering scent of them. Aidan's nostrils flared. Josh, Nora, and...someone else. Another werewolf, and very similar to Connor and Brynn's scent. Aiden stopped in the doorway again and noticed a large blood smear where someone had fallen against the doorjamb. Aidan bent low to examine it. There had definitely been a fight here. Damn, Aidan thought, pacing the small shed with his eyes closed, trying to figure out out what had happened. Strong. Musky. Dammit! They were pureblood twins. Surely some father, or maybe pack leader, seeking answers or revenge. This is my fault.
“Is it...?” Emily couldn't say it aloud.
“Josh's blood,” Aidan said. He headed back outside and paced the small yard. “It's old, but he was alive when he left.” He couldn't tell which way, so they decided to start spiraling out around the cabin until they found some sort of clue. After several hours, they finally found a little cave, a crevice really, that smelled heavily of werewolf. It was...almost Josh? He smelled different. Aidan pointed east, deeper into the forest. Although the trail was old and zig-zagged crazily, Aidan was able to follow it for over two miles before the long-spilt scent of Josh was overrun by the fresher, infinitely-stronger scent zombies. Aidan frowned, worried about how much blood Josh must have lost for it to linger at least a month, maybe two. It almost seemed like it was easy to follow because there were no other smells, as if the scent of Josh's blood had kept the zombies, and even other animals, at bay.
“Do you think they...ate him?” Emily asked, jumping as they heard twigs snap up ahead of them. She eased her knife from its sheath, though Aidan was being as gallant as possible in protecting her from all others who wanted to eat her. He still wasn't quite full strength, but he was getting there as quickly as he dared. Emily needed to stay strong and able to run just as much as he needed to.
Aidan shook his head, circling around as the zombie broke free from the treeline. It was, had been, a woman, missing her left eye and a goodly amount of hair. Aidan only had a pocketknife that he'd found on one of the already-dead ones, but he used it to good effect. “I don't think so. I'd be able to smell that, surely. If he was wounded, they would have had to find a real shelter. Let's get away from this ripe fella and see if we can pick up the trail again. That looks like it slopes uphill over there. Let's have a look.”
There were too many trees to get a good view, but Aidan stood there for a long time, keeping his eyes closed so that he could focus on scent and sound. There were two or three more zombies not far to the west; their footsteps sounded like they were shuffling their way down a paved road. Then the wind suddenly gusted from the east, and Aidan caught the unmistakable scent of werewolf. A very strong scent of werewolf, heavy on the wind even though it blew in from miles away. Aidan opened his eyes and looked skyward. Though not quite dusk, the moon had already risen, and it was a gibbous moon. Not full.
“That's not possible.” He took off at full run – a vampire's full run, not even thinking until he heard Emily scream his name. He hurried back to her side and reined it in, pulling her along as fast as he was able since he felt too weak to risk carrying her.
“What is it?” she gasped. “What's wrong?”
“I don't know, but something definitely is.” They ran for two or three miles, and Emily was begging for water, when Aidan picked up a new scent. “Nora!”
He left Emily to follow as she was able, since he could detect no other undead in the area. He had used up too much energy the first time he'd taken off at super-speed, and now he could only run as fast as any other exhausted, hungry man could run after covering several miles.
Aidan stumbled out into a small clearing. There was an old camper parked, a fire pit and fold-out chair giving evidence to some kind of inhabitant. Aidan could smell Nora, smelling kind of like sweaty dog – but the good, familiar, huggable kind – all over the place. He knocked on the door, going so far as to open and call inside when he received no invite. Unfortunately, the place was deserted. He shut the door and sat on the small steps, cradling his weary head as he tried to catch his breath.
After a few moments, he noticed the smells around him becoming more and more intense. He stood just as Nora burst from the forest in his right. She shot across the small field as if she was on a mission, and Aidan saw that she was armed with some kind of handgun. “Nora!” he cried, “Are you okay?”
She stopped suddenly, skidding her feet almost cartoonishly, and turned toward him. She stared blankly, her mind obviously elsewhere. Aidan stood and rubbed his bushy, bearded face self-consciously. He hadn't had the opportunity to bathe or shave since he'd been dug up, and he knew he must look like hell. “Aidan? Is that you?” she asked incredulously. Her face sobered. “You shouldn't be here.”
He half-jogged, half-stumbled towards her. “What's after you?”
Nora frowned at him, and then a look of pure terror sunk in. “You need to go! Now!”
They heard crashing coming through the woods. Nora assumed a shooting stance. “The tranq will slow him, but it's taking longer and longer to kick in. RUN!”
The werewolf stopped and lowered his head, eyeballing the newcomer. Aidan's heart broke, because he recognized it was Josh. “Oh, no. But how--?”
The wolf lunged, and Nora shot two darts into his shoulder. He slowed only slightly, veering around the woman as he went for Aidan. Aidan turned, somehow finding one last surge of energy, though it petered out around the same time Emily came sliding to a halt just in front of him. Aidan turned to face Josh, placing himself between the two of them.
“What the actual fuck?” Emily pushed Aidan aside, staring at her brother.
The werewolf stopped and cocked his head. He sniffed the air, and then his head started to wobble. He shook it, as if trying to fight off the effects of the darts, and stumbled forward toward Aidan and Emily. Nora ran up and shot one more into his hindquarters, and after a brief but valiant struggle, Josh fell.
“That's not Josh,” Emily insisted. During their talks at Mother's, Aidan had confirmed for her that everything in Josh's journal was indeed true, but he knew it was something else to see it for the first time. Josh's wolf form was brown and wiry, the body almost half-man and half-canine. No fuzzy puppy, this. He had coarse, thin hairs all over his body, but the only real 'fur' Josh had was a patch of black, almost a mane, really, circling his wrinkled, half-snarled face. Aidan knew it was even worse to watch the change. It was like Josh's whole body ripped apart. He was glad Emily had been spared that, but she still gaped, shaking her head in disbelief. Aidan had drunk as much as he dared from her, and now as her face went even paler, he feared she would pass out. “There's no way that's Josh.”
“It's not even a full moon. How did this happen?” Aidan asked once again, gesturing to the unconscious, fully-turned werewolf.
Nora sighed. “He was cured, battled a witch, and was later scratched by a pureblood. It's a long story. Help me get him back to the barn.”
“Oh my GOD!” Sally's voice screamed in his ear, and Aidan dropped the tentative hold he'd had on Josh's arm – front leg, whatever. “Finally! I did a locating spell on you guys, like, three days ago, and I've been hopping back in time ever since. But don't worry; I think I know a way to turn him back!” She turned to squeal at Aidan. “And Aidan! You're back! And scruffy. Kinda dig it. I would have looked for you too, but seeing how you ran off with Suren,” her face fell slightly, “I figured you didn't want to be found. Anyway, Nora needed my help. Where've you been?”
“It's a long story,” Aidan echoed Nora. “Let's get him locked up, and, if you really can, change him back. Emily and I both need to eat soon.”
A pale, shaky Emily sighed, but she picked up Josh's other arm and helped slide him across the forest floor without complaint.
As the trees suddenly cleared, the group caught glimpse of a large prison looming in the distance, surrounded by multiple rows of fencing all the way around. Josh grabbed Nora and Emily's shoulders, pulling them into the trees on one side of the road. Aidan sniffed the wind and smiled. “People. Children. And tomatoes.” His smile tightened. “Aaaaand a hint of death,” he reluctantly admitted. “But, I mean, everything smells that way anymore.”
“We shouldn't,” Josh said, rocking back and forth on his heels. “Not if there's kids.”
“Look at those fences, Josh!” Nora practically dragged him back into the street. “Zombies aren't getting into that prison, and vampires can't get in without an invite. Just until Aidan and Emily can get their strength back. That last fight took too much out of them. And you.” She plucked at his bloody sleeve. “I know it's worse than you're letting on.”
Josh looked anxiously over his shoulder, then up at the sky. “What about the moon?”
“There are cells. We can find an unused corner. Solitary.”
“No! Not with kids.”
“Then we can take our chances in the woods and maybe bring down a few of those bastards on our tail. Or maybe Aidan and Em will be better by then, and we'll be on our way.”
“Neither one of them is anywhere near full strength! We wouldn't be able to leave by then.”
“Josh,” Aidan croaked, struggling to keep himself upright. Emily hadn't had much left to give that morning. “We need a place where we can all just catch a breath. Maybe, if we can trade for supplies, we could even build up a small bank so it doesn't take so much out of her when I get hurt. I promise, I won't let you hurt anyone.”
After a moment, Josh nodded, then took Aidan's arm and put it around his shoulders. “C'mon, I'll help you down.” Nora did the same for Emily.
Sally jumped up and down, clapping. “I'll go check it out!” she squealed before dissipating. The rest of them hobbled down toward the prison gates. Luckily, they were so covered in zombie guts that they seemed to pass for zombies themselves, because none of the walking dead so much as glanced in their direction.
There was a commotion at the gate. They had been spotted.
“Jesus, Cas, it's about freaking time!” Dean stood from his pallet and walked out into D-cell, which they'd had to themselves since Sam had lost consciousness. “Where the hell have you been? We've needed you! I finally manage to get Sammy's soul back – no thanks to you – and he's been freaking comatose for the last five days. We can only keep making so many excuses to these people before they kick us out. Can you fix him?”
The angel, Castiel, did not even look at Sam. He turned away, keeping his head down. “I don't know. There may be a way, but I need to look into it further. It was dangerous putting his soul back, Dean. It's going to take time.”
“Time? They said you left when I did. That's been nearly a week without a word, Cas. What's going on?”
“Nothing, hell! You promised me, Cas. No more secrets.” Dean stalked over to the angel and forced him to raise his eyes. “I said I'd kick you to the curb, and I meant it. No secrets.”
Castiel's lips drew thin, and his eyes hardened. “I've been very busy, Dean. Trying to protect you, and Sam, and these people.” He peered into the cell where Sam had lain unconscious for days. “While you were...Death...I met with one of my contacts. Naomi somehow got word that I was in London. That might be beneficial, if she believes I'm on another continent, but she may simply be too close on our trail. I decided to lay a few false trails far from the prison.”
“Good,” Dean said, swallowing some of his pride. “Well, uh, look, I'm sorry I snapped at you then.”
The angel actually smiled. “Thank you.” His smile fell just as soon as it came. “But while I was doing that, Meg managed to find me. Seems a demon somewhere recognized you while you were playing Death, and he sold that info to Kali. So we're on both Naomi's and Kali's radar now.”
“They don't know why you would be allied with Death, but I do think it's given them pause.” Dean smirked at Castiel's words. “I think Meg may have figured it out, though.”
“I can't stand demons, man.” Dean began to pace the hallway. “How much does she know? What does she want? Did she follow you?”
“No, she didn't follow me. That's why I took another two days – and a sojourn through the eighteen hundreds – to confuse the trail. But she knows about Sam locking Lucifer back in the cage, and about Sam's soul. I don't know how. She said, 'It's Sam, right?' and then just guessed everything! I didn't confirm,” he assured Dean, who looked none too convinced. “But she wants to ally with us as well. She's after Crowley. She's willing to share intel on both demons and Heaven.”
“Why does Meg want Crowley?”
“This. Is. Perfect. There are babies! Babies!”
Carl sat up, grabbing his gun despite still being half-asleep, and pointed it toward the cell door. He'd been in the middle of a weird dream, but that woman's voice definitely hadn't been part of it. That was real. Quietly, he stood and made his way to the wall on first one side, then the other, of the cell door, peeking first from the left and then from the right. Seeing nothing, he cautiously poked his head out the door.
No one was there.
Someone's here, some inner nudge insisted.
Carl quickly grabbed his hat and holster and ran out to the yard. His dad was already outside, and Carl saw him and Tyreese jogging down toward the gate. He wasn't overly surprised to see a handful of people approaching the prison. They were slow, tired, and bloodied, but the two men and one blonde lady each took turns taking out the walkers that had gathered at the gate. One girl, obviously weakened, had been set down some distance up the drive, and one other was like a cheerleader bouncing around in a surprisingly clean purple dress. She seemed content to clap and point out walkers instead of actually help anyone.
His dad raised a hand when he noticed Carl running toward them. “Wait on this side.” He and Tyreese went through the inner gate, opening the far doors for the new arrivals. From the tower, Glenn and Maggie cleared the walkers that were drawn in by the scuffle.
Rick kept a gun trained on them as Tyreese pulled the gate doors closed. “Hand over your weapons,” he said, gesturing his gun slightly towards Tyreese. Tyreese collected various knives off of each of them, a gun off the dark-haired model-looking guy who was being half-carried, and another off the blonde woman who was helping the younger, obviously hurt, girl. Carl guessed she was Beth's age, or maybe a little older. Tyreese didn't even turn towards the girl in the dress. Carl frowned, his hand hovering near his own gun.
“Are you okay? Are you sick?” Rick asked them.
“Not sick,” the healthier-looking guy answered, then words just came tumbling out all in a rush. “We got into quite a scuffle yesterday. That was miles away, though. Half a tank of gas and I don't know how many miles walking.”
“Who'd you encounter?”
“Some freaking canni--” The guy's voice was loud and shrill, but he broke off completely when he locked eyes with Carl through the fence. He turned his face away and lowered his voice. “Cannibals!” he finished in a stage whisper.
“Please,” the wounded girl croaked. “We need a place to lie down, just for a few days. Please.”
Rick and Tyreese shared a long look. “We'll take you up to see our doctor.”
“Thank you, baby Jesus!” the woman in the dress cried out, and Carl could have sworn that it was her voice that had woken him up. Her companions looked at her but said nothing, and his dad didn't even deign to glance in her direction.
“But then you'll have to speak to the council,” he continued. “They decide who can stay.”
Everyone heaved such heavy sighs of relief that the group almost seemed to fall in on itself. They held each other up though, and Carl noticed the meaningful look his father shared with him. He stood a bit taller as he opened the inner gate for them.
Rick met eyes with each of them as they passed through the doorway and into the yard. “You try anything, anything, against our people, and you're dead.”
Carl noticed how he turned and followed the blonde and the wounded girl, completely ignoring the one in the dress, who lagged behind. He had a crazy theory, so he stepped right up to confront her about it.
“O-oh! Look at the little man in his little sheriff's hat!” The woman gave a patronizing grin and clasped her hands behind her back like she was examining an animal in the zoo. Carl's stomach turned. Her smile froze, then started to slip as she leaned from first one side to the other. “Guys!” she hissed. “I think Little Man can see me!”
The beat-up guy swung his head around, and two others copied him. The blonde lady flashed Carl a weak smile. Carl smiled back, then looked up at the ghost chick and smiled at her, too. One of the men groaned, but he said nothing. Carl followed them all up to the infirmary, where he took it upon himself to stand sentinel at the door.
His dad gave him another proud nod as he entered the room with Dr. S. As Carl shut the infirmary door behind them, he felt a presence at his back and turned. As he expected, he found the ghost girl standing behind him, leaning against the wall. “Hey,” she said, kicking one foot nervously.
“So, what are you?”
“What are you? You're not a ghost. Are you psychic or something?”
Carl considered that a moment. “I never really was before.” She didn't seem crazy like his mother's ghost had been, but Carl was leery of any supernatural creatures these days. He wished he had a crowbar or piece of iron handy. At least he'd taken to carrying a couple handfuls of salt in his pockets. He sunk his hands in and tried to look nonchalant. “That's a weird question, you know. 'What are you?' So if I can see you, and your friends can see you, then what are your friends?”
The girl blinked rapidly. “Psychics.”
“So you travel through the apocalypse with a band of psychics?” Carl rolled his eyes. “I'm one of the living. We still have brains, you know.”
“Okay, well, they're not, like, anything special.” She picked her nails and shrugged. “You're right. It was a stupid question. I'm Sally, by the way.” She waited a couple of beats. “What's your name?”
“Nice to meet you, Carl.” Sally bit her lip, then bent down with her hands on her thighs, as if lowering herself to speak to a toddler. “Listen, hon, I'm not here to, like, scare or haunt people or anything. It's true; my friends really do just need a place to rest for a few days.”
“I guess if the council says okay. Just don't go all poltergeist or woman-in-white,” he said. “But I will be watching you. You try anything with our people, and you're dead. Or rather, banished.”
Sally's eyes widened in surprise, then she smiled that patronizing grin again. “I won't try a thing. We're good people. Promise.” She zapped herself back into the room with her friends.
Carl was glad to see Daryl coming. He nodded at Carl, then peeked through the infirmary door's glass. “How they doin'? Think they're up for the council?”
“I don't know,” Carl said. “Probably not yet. They looked pretty banged up.” After only a moment's hesitation, he added, “They've got a ghost with them. Some girl named Sally.”
“Really?” Daryl stared back through the door. “How do you know that?”
“I saw her. She talked to me.”
“Really,” Daryl said again, not so much a question this time. “We're like a freaking magnet lately. Reckon they're evil?”
“I don't know. But I know they can see her, too.”
Daryl took out his knife – a new silver thing from a big stash that Maggie had found somewhere – and took up a position on the opposite side of the door. He leaned against the wall and started cleaning his nails with the tip. “I got this. Why don't you go tell Sasha what you told me? And maybe Dean. I doubt you can tear him away from Sam, though. Must have been one hell of a head knock to put him out for so long. Startin' to think he might not make it back.”
Carl nodded, but he said nothing about the dream he'd been having when he woke. There was no reason to believe that any of that craziness about souls and playing Death had actually happened. After all, Dr. S. had looked at Sam and confirmed blunt force trauma. They were keeping him in a quiet, dark room as the doctor suggested. “I'll let them know. Don't let these new guys out of your sight!” he told Daryl, who smiled and nodded.
Carl found Sasha wrapping up a conversation with Tyreese. He waited until her brother was out of earshot, then told her, “The new people are travelling with a ghost. Like, aware of her and talking with her. Daryl thought you and Dean oughta know. Do you want to tell him?”
“Oh, hell no,” Sasha said, her face darkening. “He'd just think I was looking for an excuse to be alone with Sam. He's not leaving Sam's side, and he doesn't trust me around him, for all we had both their backs. Well, I don't trust him with my folk either. I'll handle this one.”
“Yeah. We got this one.”
Carl nodded. “For what it's worth, Sally, the ghost, seems pretty nice.”
“I'll take that under advisement.”
Sasha headed back into the building just as a handful of kids came piling out. Frowning, Carl turned and headed the other way. He hadn't really hung out with any of the other kids since Patrick had died. Those left were too young to have much in common with – and they were far too weird. Lizzie in particular seemed to be coming more and more unhinged. He'd caught her doing some pretty messed up stuff at the fences the night before. Carl glanced back, making sure she was staying outside and out of the way for a while, then hurried to go find his father.
Rick was outside of the seldom-used B-block, where the guests had been given quarters. Rick was obviously staying close enough to keep apprised of the newcomers' comings and goings but far enough so as to remain unobtrusive. Carl knew his dad had his hands full, so he nearly turned around, but then he remembered Lizzie looking bug-eyed at him and decided he'd probably better say something.
He waited until everyone was out of earshot before bringing up his concerns. “Dad? You got a minute?”
Rick tore his eyes away from B-block's door and looked at him in surprise. “Sure thing, Carl. Let's take a walk.” He clapped Carl on the shoulder and headed down the yard, toward the garden where the kids had headed.
“Um, no. Let's walk this way,” Carl said. Rick looked at him curiously but obliged. “Look,” Carl started, “I know we've got a lot going on all the sudden, and maybe it's nothing, but I just thought you should know...”
“What is it, Carl?” Rick gazed at his son. “You know you can tell me anything.”
Carl sighed. “It's just...well, last night, I saw something kind of freaky. I woke up in the middle of the night, and I heard a cell door creak, and then I saw Lizzie sneaking out. I followed her, you know, since it's not safe going out alone at night. She just...” Carl looked behind them, making sure she was still well out of earshot. “She went straight to the fences. She was,” he swallowed, “feeding them. The walkers.”
“Yeah. That wasn't even the weirdest part. She was, like, calling out into the dark. Just kind of reaching,” Carl mimicked her, “and mumbling something, and then, I swear, Dad, these rats just came running at her. Like, to her. She picked them up one by one and handed them through the fence holes to a few of the walkers.”
Rick stopped in his tracks. After a moment, he said, “We'd found carcasses down at the fence line. But why would she – well, I mean, Lizzie's obviously not right. You sure about what you saw, Carl? They were really just coming to her like she called them?”
“Exactly like that.”
“I think maybe we ought to go tell Dean about that one.”
They did, a discussion which left Dean in dumb silence. “So,” Rick prodded, obviously unnerved. He'd only recently accepted all of the Winchester brothers' tales. “Do you think maybe it's a demon possession?”
Dean blinked and shook his head, seeming to come back to himself. “No, that doesn't fit the M.O. at all. And we've got wards up. Demons shouldn't be able to get in.”
“Well, whatever it is, we can't have her feeding the walkers. That's probably what led to the build-up at the fence last week.”
“Yeah, no, we definitely can't have that,” Dean agreed. He turned to Carl. “You're sure she called them? She didn't, like, throw out some food or something, maybe?”
“No, she was calling them. They were just trotting up to her one by one.”
“Yeah, okay, that's more than a little freaky,” Dean said, and Carl nodded. “This is the one who's always been a little eh-eh?” He waved his hand like a scale teetering off balance.
“Yeah, kinda,” Rick reluctantly agreed.
“Maybe we ought to go talk to her dad.”
Ryan Samuels, Lizzie's father, had been bitten during the D-block attack and was recuperating from an arm amputation. The doc had kept him pretty doped up, but he'd been lucid for the last day or so and Rick deemed it safe to try to talk to him. He was pale and kind of clammy, but awake, when they reached the infirmary. He even laughed and tried cracking a joke about not being able to wave. “Them new folks is a little odd,” he said to Rick as they came to his bedside. “That tall guy stared at me for the longest time. After he realized it, he wouldn't even look at me again. I think maybe the stub unnerved him.”
“New folks?” Dean asked.
“Yeah, a group of four turned up at the gates this morning,” Rick explained. “Pretty banged up. Don't look to be a threat, but we're keeping an eye on them.”
“Good call.” Dean stuck his hands in his pocket and looked between Rick and Ryan. When Rick said nothing, Dean took the lead. “Look, Ryan, is it? We'd like to ask you some questions about your daughter.”
Ryan didn't have to even ask which one. “Lizzie's not in any trouble, is she?”
“We hope not,” Rick said, shifting his feet. “That's what we wanted to talk to you about. Has she seemed...odd to you lately?”
Ryan gave a little chuckle. “Well, Lizzie's always been an odd bird.”
“Yeah,” Dean said, “but we don't mean, like, normal kid weirdness. We mean more like...” He struggled, as if he wasn't quite sure how to phrase it.
“Has she been having bad dreams lately?” Carl asked in a rush, working on a hunch. He knew he had been.
Ryan looked at him as if he'd just noticed him for the first time. “Well, I've been in here near a week now, but yeah, she'd had a nightmare or two in the last few weeks. I mean, don't we all?” He shook his head. “You'd have to ask Carol how they've been since I got in here. She's been nice enough to watch Lizzie and Mika for me.”
“We'll do that,” Rick said. “Has she talked about these dreams at all?”
“Huh. You know, the night before the attack, she said that I was gonna die. Got real scared, nearly out of her head. Insisted I locked the cell door that night. Probably saved our lives.”
“Y'all are lucky,” Dean said, shifting on his feet. “Has she had any other prophetic dreams or feelings?”
“You know, she's always been...particular. She's always made really random comments and demands, but sometimes they paid off. Like, once, she insisted we take a different road to school, and there ended up being a big pile-up on the road we would have drove on. Or insist I light a bunch of candles moments before the power went out. That kind of thing.” Ryan smiled. “She's always been kinda special that way. Lucky, I guess.” His voice turned wistful. “She got it from her mom. Now there was a lucky woman! Always was. The damnedest thing, really. Val swore she had an angel on her side.”
Carl noticed Dean tense up ever so slightly. “That so? Tell us about your wife.”
“She was gorgeous. I mean, every man says that about his wife. If he's lucky, anyway. But Val was a lot prettier than I deserved. Always pleasant. Always had good fortune.” Ryan smiled and trailed off, obviously thinking of her. After a moment, he continued, “You know, she even won the lottery once. Like, real money, not no twenty-buck pot. We were having a pretty rough time when she was pregnant with Mika. She was on bedrest and had to quit working, and we were honestly about this close,” he raised two fingers on his remaining hand, “to bankruptcy when she won a cool mil on one of them scratchers.”
Rick made a choking noise, but he shook his head when Carl and Dean looked at him. Ryan continued, “Her luck never steered us wrong. Even, you know, after all this, money didn't do no good after a while, but her good fortune just kept a-goin'. Val would even shake us awake and get us moving just before the roamers would show up. Worked a good year, right up until...well, when it didn't.” He swallowed. “Lizzie tried to warn us, but she'd been feverish for days, and we thought she was just delirious. You want to keep them lying safe somewhere while they're sick, you know? And she wasn't making any sense. But her luck took over once Val's ran out, I guess, 'cause Lizzie's screams are what brought the Governor and his people. Saved us that day. He may have went crazy, but he saved us that day.”
Dean looked like he wanted to ask more, but Rick spoke up first. “Thanks, Ryan. Sorry to disturb you. You get some rest, okay?”
Once they left the infirmary, Dean reached out a hand to stop him. “Rick, you okay?”
“You heard what he said, right?”
“Yeah. So? Girl's either prophetic or lucky. You know, we found this cursed rabbit's foot once...” Dean laughed and shook his head. “Nevermind. I'll ask Bobby what he thinks, since he's got way more lore than me tumbling around in that head of his.”
Rick gazed at Carl with a look he couldn't decipher. For a moment, Carl thought his dad was going to shoo him off again, but he didn't. He shook his head and looked back at Dean. “Shortly after Carl was born, we fell on some hard times ourselves. Lori had needed an emergency c-section, and I'd only just recently got on at the precinct, and my insurance hadn't even kicked in yet. Lori's mom was sick, and it was looking like we might have to back out of our lease, which we couldn't really afford to do, and move back in with her folks. Then, one day, lucky us...it was just after Georgia started its lottery. Lori won a million dollars. Doesn't last as long as you might think, but we were able to buy a home, and a better car, and hire some good live-in care for her mom. Had plenty to live off of for several years, and a good college fund set aside 'til all this happened. One million dollars.” He looked back towards the door. “Ain't that something?”
“That's something all right,” Dean said, his face a mix of emotions that seemed an awful lot like anger, disbelief, and curiosity. “And Lori died when Judith was born?” Rick nodded, and Dean turned his gaze on Carl. “And you've been having dreams too? Prophetic ones?”
Carl swallowed nervously. “Kind of. A lot of weird stuff has been happening since Mom's ghost showed up.”
“Uh huh.” It seemed like that meant something to Dean, but Carl didn't know what. “And how old is this Mika kid?”
“Mika?” Carl was surprised. “Ten. Almost eleven, I think.”
Dean made an 'ah ha' face but said nothing. “And how old are you?” he asked Carl.
“What is it?” Rick pressed.
“Sounds to me like a deal. Make a deal with a crossroads demon and great things happen for the next ten years, but then the demon comes to collect his due.”
Dean avoided Carl's gaze this time. “Their souls.” Reluctantly, his eyes flicked back to Carl. “But that doesn't explain you and Lizzie...”
“I'm not like Lizzie.”
“No, I know. You're not ten or eleven, either. It's just–” Dean shook his head. “There's got to be more to it than that. Let me talk to Cas and Bobby, see what they say.”
Carl and Rick followed Dean as he headed back to D-block. When he noticed that they apparently planned to accompany him, Dean rolled his eyes and said, “How about you guys come along with?”
They listened as Dean filled Bobby and Castiel in, speaking in low tones. When he mentioned the lottery similarities, Castiel murmured, “That's very specific,” and when he mentioned the death of Lizzie and Mika's mom, Bobby added, “Well, it's gotta be a deal.”
“Carl was thirteen when Lori died. She got more than ten years. And what about the kids, though? They're definitely affected somehow.”
Bobby looked at Carl a long, long moment, then said quietly, “Azazel?”
“What's Azazel?” Rick asked.
“He was a demon, but he's long dead. And all of his 'special children' died as well.” Bobby's eyes flicked to the cell where Sam was being held. “They were all much older, anyway. Sam's age.”
“What special children?” Rick asked, on high alert where kids were involved. He reached to put an arm around Carl's shoulder.
“It was a demon experiment gone wrong. And it's over now,” Dean said. “Long over.”
“What if somebody else had the same idea, though?” Bobby asked. “One of Azazel's protégées, maybe.”
“I'll look into this,” Castiel said. “Maybe ask Meg. It does sound similar, but it doesn't sit right with me. I think you're right, Dean. Something else is at play here.” He turned to Rick. “May I speak with the boy?”
Rick looked down at Carl, who nodded. “All right.”
Castiel led Carl down the hall, where they sat in an empty cell. Carl briefly wondered if his dad would eavesdrop but realized that he likely wouldn't with Dean and Bobby right there. He just sat quietly, waiting for the angel to say something.
“You saw Lizzie drawing rats to her, you said?” Carl nodded. “And her dad said she knows things sometimes?”
“And you do as well?”
Carl nodded again. “I've been having dreams, since I banished mom's ghost. They come true sometimes.”
“I was dreaming about the walker attack in here just before it happened. I hadn't said anything, because I thought it was just a nightmare, but I should have.” Carl hung his head.
“That's not your fault,” Castiel promised. He tried to give Carl an earnest look, but he ended up just looking uncomfortable. “Anything else happen to you lately?”
“Something woke me up this morning. A voice. I coulda swore it was that Sally girl who arrived with the group this morning.” Carl lowered his voice. “Sally's a ghost. She seemed really surprised that I could see her.”
“A ghost? There seems to be a – well, nevermind. Is that all?” Castiel asked, and Carl deliberated on how much to tell him. He didn't want to be viewed as freaky like Lizzie. “Carl, what else?”
“Sometimes I can feel magic, I guess it is. Like, the hairs on my arms and legs prick up when I walk over the devil's traps you guys drew, and I can tell that Maggie and Ms. McLeod are both wearing some kind of magical jewelry or something.” Carl shrugged, lowering his voice. “I just kind of feel the power pulsing off of them. I can't really tell much when you're around though. You kind of drown out everything else.”
“Interesting.” Castiel peered at him as if peering into his very soul. “Have you been visited by anyone? Demons, ghosts, entities of any sort?”
“Except for Mom, not really. I mean, I can see that Sally ghost, but I don't think she's here to visit me. She just trails along with her friends. I think she just wants to watch over them.”
“If anyone comes for you, even if they just want to talk or seem really nice, I want you to call for me, okay?”
“Sure. What do you think's going on?”
“I don't know yet, but I'll find out.”
“I told you once already!” They heard Dean's voice raise, and both Carl and Castiel rushed out of the cell. “You've got to just let him heal, Sasha.”
“I'm not after your brother, Dean. I wanted to talk to Bobby, thank you very much.”
“Yeah. Unlike you, he's not a dick, and I like to hear what he has to say.”
“You just haven't known him long enough,” Dean grumbled.
“Can we speak in private?” Sasha asked Bobby.
“Well, to be honest, now's not the best time.”
Sasha rolled her eyes. “Fine. No problem. I'll handle it myself.”
Rick's ears seemed to prick at that. He jogged across the cell block as she turned to leave. “Handle what?”
Sasha's eyes slid over to Carl. She dropped her voice, but Carl saw Dean's interest suddenly pique as he strained to overhear. “Carl asked me to keep an eye on the newcomers. I snuck a few tests in on them when I went to say hello. At least one of the men – the shorter one? Josh, I think – had a reaction to silver. The taller one didn't, and then I didn't really have a good opportunity to try the ladies, since they were on their guard and concerned about Josh after that.” She held up a hand, showing a chunky silver ring. “This little thing burnt the shit out of him, though. Or something that made him jump near through the roof. I didn't let on that I knew anything, and he tried to play it off. Daryl's on watch, and I thought I'd see if we could narrow down what exactly he might be.”
“You can't be serious,” Dean said. Sasha shrugged and looked away. “Man, we really don't need this right now.”
There was a groan from the cell behind him, and Dean's eyes went wide. He turned and ran for the bars. “Sammy! Sam!” He glanced back over his shoulder at everyone. “How you feeling, bud? That was one helluva whack you took to the head.”
Sam stood on shaky legs and came toward the locked cell door. “Dean? Why am I in jail? What are you doing here?” He peered over Dean's shoulder, looking into the room, confusion writ on his face. “Bobby, Cas? I thought you guys were dead! Is that – a kid?” He gaped at them and wavered on his feet. “What's going on?”
“You don't remember anything?” Castiel asked him, moving up to stand behind Dean.
“Bits and pieces. The last thing I remember is...jumping in the cage.”
Dean laughed nervously as he fumbled with the key. “That was some head knock, all right.” He turned back to Rick, Sasha, and Carl. “I think you two can handle the guests for now, can't you? Carl, do you mind telling Dr. S. that Sam's awake now? He should probably get looked at.”
They reluctantly left, but Carl thought about what Sam had said as he ran to get the doctor. He'd mentioned jumping in a cage, and the angel, Castiel, had mentioned Sam locking 'Lucifer' in a cage in his dream. Carl strongly suspected that this morning's dream had been a true dream as well, and if that was the case, then Dean, Sam, and Bobby needed an eye kept on them just as much as anybody. They weren't being honest, and they were involved in something way more dangerous than vampire hunting. Carl might not be the most educated kid thanks to worldly circumstances, but he was no fool. A couple of guys who hung with an angel, battled demons, allied with Death – crazy as it sounded, Carl suspected that there was only one Lucifer they could be talking about.
He resolved to investigate them himself. Maybe he'd even try honing his magic-detecting senses or see if he could gain control of his dreams at night. It was probably a good idea to get a good handle on whatever strange powers he was developing, anyway. Practice makes perfect, after all. Somebody like Lizzie sure as hell shouldn't be better at it than he was. Again, no fool; that'd make for some dangerous shit.
His dad called for him to wait, then walked with him over to A-block. Carl hung back as the men chatted, trying to disappear as Rick questioned the doctor about their current guests. “How bad off are the newcomers?” he asked. When Dr. S. hesitated, Rick chuckled and added, “There's no HIPPA anymore, Caleb. What I mean is, how long before they can safely be on their way?”
“It's difficult to say.” Dr. S. spoke in quiet tones as they walked. “Aidan is not so bad off as we initially feared. He didn't want any assistance at all. He just looks a little blanched. Probably dehydrated and malnourished, from their story. Emily, however, is extremely anemic as well as dehydrated. I'm really concerned, to be honest. But she says she always gets that way,” he glanced over his shoulder at Carl and turned back to Rick, whispering, “just before her menses.”
Carl tried not to laugh. It wasn't like there was an abundance of extra hygiene practices or privacy going on anymore. Sex and adult bodies held little mystery at this point. Dr. S. continued in whispered tones, “They're all suffering, but Emily's worse off by far. I've given her some B12, and I've got maybe half a dozen iron supplements, but that's it. She needs rest, a lot of water, and hopefully some red meat and other iron-rich foods.”
“Well, we've got plenty of beans, and I've got a little spinach finally coming up,” Rick said, though he sounded reluctant to part with the greens. “We actually still have a lot of iron-fortified baby cereal left. Judith won't touch the stuff. I bet it's tolerable enough with some of those jelly packets squeezed in or something.”
“Good. It might actually be better to start them with something easy. They don't remember how long, but it's been over a week since they've eaten. Two of them have three gunshot wounds between them, luckily all superficial. Still, they need several weeks to regain full health. A week or two less if you just want a patch job.”
They were nearing D-block, and Rick reached out a hand to stop them before entering. “What about Sam? We're pretty worried about how long he was out. Now he's apparently forgotten everything since before. Is he safe?”
Dr. S. stared at him. “Well, I'll need to examine him, of course, but I don't see why not. Memory loss isn't unheard of in head trauma victims.”
“He thought his friends were dead. He doesn't seem to remember us here at the prison at all.”
Now Dr. S. looked around, everywhere but at Rick's face, considering. “It's possible he confused some of his coma dreams with reality when he woke. Did you not experience such a disorientation when you awoke from yours?”
“When I woke,” Rick said wryly, “I discovered an apocalypse in actual progress. There was plenty of disorientation. I don't remember dreaming at all, but I was scared awake pretty damned quick.”
Carl, once again, tried to imagine what it must have been like for his father to wake from a coma and find the whole world dead around him. Carl still felt guilty that they'd left him. He didn't have any idea how his dad had managed to find them again, but he was definitely some kind of hero. Carl had sworn to always have his back, ever since the moment he realized his dad was alive. He'd always be there when Rick needed him. He may have been a kid when he swore it, but he'd meant it, and he was doing his best to live up to it.
“Go ahead,” Rick said to the doctor. “See to Sam. Just keep us posted. I'm worried about him.”
After the doc had saluted and headed off into D, Rick turned to his son. “I'd like you to sit in on the council meeting, if you're up for it.”
Rick smiled. “Yeah, really. You've been a great help around here lately. And so far you're the only one who can see this, this Sally, so they could use your impressions afterward.”
Carl beamed. “Sounds great.”
Since their guests obviously needed food before questioning, it was decided that they'd hold the council meeting after lunch. Carl was surprised to see Sam and Dean join them, and he watched closely as Sam was re-introduced to everyone. He really didn't seem to remember a thing. Like his dad, Sam had just woken up to find an apocalypse happening around him. Dean looked upset about him being up and about at all, but Sam shook him off. Nothing was said aloud, but they kept exchanging pointed looks, and Dean finally scoffed and stopped mother-henning over him, though he let everyone else do the talking.
The newcomers were very reserved during dinner, almost as if they were afraid to talk to anyone. They sat to a table by themselves in the far corner, but many people were sitting nearby and chatting, trying to make them feel more at ease. They certainly didn't look dangerous, Carl thought, but then he remembered what Sasha had said and wondered.
Ms. McLeod came out with a large pot of veggie stew and started ladling seconds into their bowls, and Beth trailed behind with two plates full of salmon patties. They'd gotten a lot of canned meat from Lisha and Garth, but not really any red meat. Daryl claimed half of one plate for his table (which mostly meant his dog). As Ms. McLeod approached the dark-haired guy, Aidan, he flashed a dimpled grin and Carl could have sworn he saw her blush. “Oh, thanks, but I know I couldn't eat another bite,” Aidan said.
The blonde – Nora, Carl heard her tell Carol only moments before – gave a more strained smile. “Truly, your generosity is moving, but you have more than enough mouths to feed.”
“This is on Dr. Submaranian's orders,” Ms. McLeod said, plopping a spoonful in her bowl anyway. “You're all far too skinny.”
They looked uncomfortable again, and Carl realized that they were likely feeling embarrassed about showing up on their doorstep so...helpless. He had a hard time picturing any of them as monsters. More like lost and dirty refugees, helpless as babies. Still, they did have a ghost, whom they could all obviously see. Actually...as Carl watched a little closer, he realized that the younger girl never seemed to glance in Sally's direction. Sasha said the fidgety one was some kind of, well, something. Well, I did say I needed practice, Carl thought to himself.
He took a few deep breaths, just to shake off any nerves, and then picked his bowl up and went to sit at their table. “Hi,” he grinned, trying to be as disarming and pleasant as chiseled-dimpled-guy had been. Once he got closer and thought about it, Carl did kind of get a feeling of some weird energy coming off of them, but he wasn't sure if that was ghost interference or due to their obvious fright around so many people. “So, are you guys family? Been together long?”
Emily, the younger girl, smiled and punched Josh in the shoulder. “This one here's my brother, and Nora is my far-too-good-for-him sister-in-law,” she joked. “Aidan's a family friend.”
“Roommate,” Josh said, holding one hand to his mouth as he swallowed his food. “We were roommates before all this happened.”
“Are you from around here?” Karen asked from a table nearby. “Do you know the area at all?”
Sally, the ghost, snorted. Aidan gave her a look from the corner of his eye. “No, we came out of Boston, actually.”
“Boston?” Rick asked. “What made you come all this way?”
“Oh, you know...” Aidan gave a little shrug with his head. “Zombie apocalypse. We couldn't stay near Boston. It was just completely overrun, and the suburbs were no better. I actually...ah...I had some friends who lived out in Pennsylvania Dutch country, and I thought there might still be some little pocket of civilization left running off-grid out there. You know, the Amish keeping on just like they always have, but...” A sad look came to his eyes, and he returned to poking his salmon.
Carl tried to 'get a read' on them, but he wasn't sure what was real and what he was projecting. Aidan's grief seemed real enough, but it also seemed like there was far more to the story. Carl tried to flex his psychic powers, third eye or whatever, and look into Aidan's mind to see what he was leaving out, when BAM! It was like Carl had run face first into a brick wall. His head even hurt a little. Aidan's eyes narrowed for a split second, though he didn't look up from his plate.
“Yeah, so that was bloody.” Josh gave a wild little laugh. “But, uh, Nora had a cousin who lived out in the mountains in North Carolina, so we thought that would be a better bet. At least she knew where a secluded cabin might be, you know? Maybe family. But we couldn't even get close because of a pretty bad forest fire. That pushed us off course and we got lost. We just kind of wandered around, hanging out with groups for a while if we found a good one, but mostly avoiding people because they're, well, there's a lot of crazies out there. Thieves, cannibals, that kinda thing.”
“That's the truth,” Daryl said, coaxing the puppy into eating some potatoes before getting any salmon patties. Daryl was an oddly gentle parent-type thing all of the sudden.
Dean finally stirred. “Hey, what'd you name that thing?”
“You know that's a female, right?” Garth called from across the room.
Daryl rolled his eyes. “Coal with an 'a'. 'Cause she's black, you know?” Garth had called her a 'Sheprador', a German Shepherd/Black Lab mix. She was just a fuzzy black ball at the moment, but she had the big German Shepherd ears that stuck straight up. They hadn't had a chance to go on any runs since Sam and Dean had shown back up with Garth, so they had no dog food except the half-bag Garth had brought with them, but Coal was content to eat every meal out of Daryl's hand. Carl would never have thought a dog would like vegetable stew, but she happily ate whatever pieces of onion or canned potatoes that Daryl fished out for her. “Gonna have to hunt again soon, with all these new mouths to feed.”
“There'll be time for that,” Rick said, his eyes sliding to the newcomers. “We'll work something out.”
Aidan looked between the two men. “You know, I'm actually a pretty fair hunter. I've just got a bruised rib or two. Give me another day and I'd love to help, maybe pull some weight around here in thanks for your hospitality.”
“Why don't we see what the council says first?” Carol said, smiling at him. “If you're ready?”
They stood, and Beth hurried forward to take their dishes for them. Josh gallantly pushed their chairs in and waved the ladies ahead, stopping to gesture for Rick to precede them. Rick's mouth quirked slightly. “Oh, I'm not on the council. But he is.” He gave a little nod to Carl, and Carl hopped up to follow, giving the rest of his bowl to his dad to share with Judith.
“Oh, he is?” Josh said, swallowing down a laugh.
“For now he is,” Rick said.
Sally spun around and glared at him. “You ratted me out, didn't you? You little snitch! Guys, he totally told on me.” Aidan and Josh shared a look but tried to pretend like they didn't hear her. As they headed down the halls of the prison, Sally continued her indignant tirade. “Have I done anything even remotely spooky? No, no I have not. So I like to kick it with my old roomies and help out when cannibals try to eat them! That's downright angelic, if you ask me.”
“You obviously haven't met any angels,” Carl muttered under his breath.
“What?” Sally said at the same time that Carol turned around and asked, “What's that, Carl?”
“Nothing. Just thinking out loud.”
The other council members were already assembled when Carl, Carol, and Daryl ushered in their new guests. Daryl had given Coal over to the kids to play with, and Carl realized that he'd have to speak privately with the council about what he'd caught Lizzie doing. For now, he reckoned that Beth would keep a good eye on the prison's newest, fluffy member. Hopefully Lizzie wouldn't feed Coal to the walkers in broad daylight.
“So,” Hershel said after another round of introductions, “I know you've had a rough road, but we'd really like to hear more about you and your experiences. Especially regarding these people you're on the run from.”
“Of course.” Aidan seemed to be the unofficial spokesman for the group. “We shared a bit of our history with these fine council members at lunch,” Aidan said, gesturing to Carl, Carol, and Daryl, “but basically we're a small family from Boston. Well, Josh and Nora are married, and Emily's his sister. I'm the coworker-slash-roommate that they've been kind enough to keep alive at the end of the world.”
Emily did something akin to a snort-laugh. “Oh, sorry.” She waved a hand, tightening the cap on her water bottle, which Dr. S. had insisted she and Aidan keep on them at all times. “Aidan's far too humble. He organized our entire rescue mission on Terminus.”
“Terminus,” Nora said quietly. She gulped, shaking her head at the memory. “That's what they called it. There are signs up all over the place out there. I'm surprised you haven't seen them. 'Sanctuary for all', it promises. 'Community for all. Those who arrive survive.'” Her voice hardened. “Bullshit.”
Everyone was quiet, waiting to hear what they would share but hesitant to push with such an obviously traumatic tale. After a moment, Aidan continued, “As we said, we were leery of strangers. You rightfully are too. So we wondered about the type of place that would openly advertize all over multiple counties. We wanted to check the place out before going in.” Carl noticed Hershel and Glenn nodding in agreement.
“We could tell we were getting close,” Nora said, “since things were cleared out and being managed. We turned back to find a good safe house for Em to wait in. We doubled back quite a bit, just in case. We scavenged what we could while Aidan scoped the place out.”
“I can be pretty quiet in the woods. I waited until dark and worked my way up a nearby hill where I'd have a good vantage point. I heard gunfire and rushed to the top. Terminus was an abandoned railroad complex, wide open with train cars dotted here and there.” Aidan's voice hardened. “I was able to get a very close view because everyone's attention was on the back rail yard. They were...herding...a group of people. Leading them down a maze until they were cornered and forced into a train car. I watched for a short while, then scoped the compound as much as I could until the guards finished their sport and started patrolling the forest perimeter.”
“How could you be sure they were cannibals?” Carl whispered.
Aidan's jaw clenched and he looked away. “They had a scrap yard. And...multiple barbecues. I smelled it, saw it.”
“So we made a plan to get in and free those people,” Josh said, his voice sounding strong and sure for the first time since he'd arrived.
“How many were there?” Carol asked.
“We saw them herd five into the train car, but I heard people in others as I circled around,” Aidan said. “They were families. Children. We had to do something. I had a son once. I couldn't just leave them like that.”
“How many in Terminus?”
“At least thirty-five. Maybe more, because when we counted the captives, those numbered twenty-four.”
“You don't know?” Carol asked. “Some of the cannibals got away?”
“We let the children go with one of the women,” Nora said. “A couple escaped during the shooting. Others may have escaped that we didn't see. We came in through the back, and the alarm was sounded before we'd opened all the train cars.”
Everybody shifted in their chairs, and Carl watched his own people for cues as closely as he'd watched their guests.
“You four took out the entire community yourselves?” Sasha asked, her skepticism obvious.
“Not entirely. We had weapons, and I'd seen where they'd taken all of their captives' belongings. Nora covered that area while Josh and I opened the cars.”
“First we were quickly explaining that they could run one way and take off or find their weapons the other way and fight with us,” Josh said quietly. “But when someone sounded the alarm, Aidan covered me as I finished opening the train cars as quickly as possible.”
“I was a soldier and a hunter,” Aidan said with a small smile. “I have good aim.” Aidan noticed Emily finish off the last of her water, and he passed his bottle down the table to her. When Carl stood to fetch him another, Aidan shooed him back to his seat. “Please, sit.”
“Dr. S. said--”
“I'm fine, really. If I drink anymore, I might not make it through the meeting.” He gave a little wiggle in his seat.
Carl still had trouble getting a read on Aidan, but something about him suddenly seemed shady. Fake. His smile seemed forced, like it didn't meet his eyes.
“We thank you for your service,” Hershel said, and then the look was gone. “Both times. In the service and saving those people.” Aidan turned to him with a look of surprised gratitude.
“I'd like to hear how you did it,” Carol said. “How'd you take out all thirty or more of them?”
“We had better guns, for one, but we ran out of ammo during the shoot-out. The prisoners who ran were on their own,” Nora explained, “but we had several join us. Nearly everybody who hadn't had kids. We all grabbed up what weapons or armor we could. A few of them had personal items they wanted to find and took longer searching the room. I told them to cover the yard after we left, while six went to help Josh and Aidan and the rest circled around to the front with me.”
“We took out the snipers and what guards came running outside,” Aidan continued, “then Josh and I breached the building. We split into two groups of four to sweep the house. I'd gone over the plans and everything with Josh and Nora. My group was the one that intercepted their leader, who had a pretty large group himself. We lost two almost immediately, and I'm not really sure what happened after that. I think the other guy ran.”
“All of mine ran once I – once we fought a group of more than just two,” Josh said. “I saw one later, on the way out. I guess the others took off. I took this hit,” he said, gesturing to his shoulder, then lifted his shirt, “and another really light graze here. I'm lucky it wasn't way worse. I took care of the situation and followed the gunfire back to Aidan.”
“My group covered the front exit and kept them occupied there,” Nora added, her voice choking. “I tried to get them to surrender, but the prisoners wouldn't have it. They shot everyone they could. It was a bloody battle, but they were in a frenzy. Our part was over pretty quickly, and some of my group spread out to cover the whole perimeter.”
“I couldn't even ask a surrender,” Aidan said. His own voice was dull. “The leader was a mad man. I knew his kind. Psychotic. The things they had been doing...they weren't even human anymore. They were monsters. They'd disarmed me and were having a go at me when Josh arrived, and he distracted them and gave me a second wind. ”
There was a heaviness as he broke off, and Carl felt a flush of guilt about his earlier thoughts. No, Aidan was not insincere. They may not be telling everything, but what they were telling had the ring of truth, as crazy as it sounded.
“Nobody's giving me any credit?” Sally asked, walking around the table to stand between Carl and Hershel's seats. “Obviously one of them knows about me.” She looked down at Carl. “I'm the one who told them there were others in the other train cars, and then I totally scoped a safe path for everyone to escape. Well, nearly everyone. And I kept telling Josh where all the bad guys were once his pansy-ass backup...ran off.”
“I got a little graze too,” Nora said. “We really lucked out, honestly.”
“I'm so sorry that happened to you,” Hershel said. “But are you sure that none of them followed you here?”
“Pretty sure,” Aidan said. “We did stumble upon some Terminus deserters, but Josh's deserters had found them first. We heard gunfire and arrived in time to help his pansy-ass back-up,” he smiled, “make their retreat. The termites followed us for a bit, but with us nearly doubling the survivors' numbers, they finally gave up.”
“That was the last we saw any. We split off from the group and found a car to circle around and pick up Emily,” Josh added, “then we booked it. Took turns driving until we ran out of gas. Aidan and I checked a pretty large perimeter before we camped for the night. It's been safe. Well, as safe as it can be.”
Emily finally spoke. “That was last night.”
The adults looked between each other and seemed to come to some mutual decision, though Carl didn't know how. Hershel leaned on the table and looked Aidan in the eye. “It's clear enough that your friend needs some help if she's going to make it out there, but you all sound like a rather formidable force. If your tale is true, we have a lot to discuss and prepare for just in case. It's enough to make a body nervous. You understand.”
“Of course,” Nora said, smiling at her companions. “We would never disrespect your hospitality.”
“Yeah, just as long as you don't go attacking us or eating people, there shouldn't be an issue,” Josh added, then laughed a little too loudly. “But, I mean, you won't, right? We don't want any of that, I promise.”
Sasha didn't back down. “Why wouldn't you let our doctor look at you?” she asked Aidan.
“I didn't need it,” Aidan said. “At first I thought I might have busted a rib from the many knees I took to the gut, but once we found a car and I got to lie back and rest a while, I felt pretty okay. It's just bruised at most. Been there before. There's not much to do for it.” He shrugged. “You've let us stop walking for a bit. That's all I need, and we don't plan to overstay our welcome.”
Everybody glanced around again, and this time Sasha held Carl's gaze. She was waiting for his approval, he guessed, so he gave Sally one last look. She clasped her hands under her chin and batted her eyes. “Please! Please, guys. We will be so good.”
Carl gave a brisk nod. It was Hershel who spoke next, his eyes flicking quickly to Josh and away again. “All the same, y'all are rightfully wound up, and we're rightfully nervous. Would you consent to having your cells locked at night?”
Aidan's brows rose slightly in surprise, but he looked to his friends. They all gave grave nods. “Of course. Whatever it takes.”
“You still gotta answer the questions if you're staying a while,” Daryl said, uncrossing his legs and straightening in his chair. “How many walkers have you killed?”
“Walkers?” Nora asked. “Oh. God, I don't know.”
“A lot,” Josh said.
Everyone looked to Emily and Aidan. “I may not be in the best shape right now,” Emily said, “but I'm not an invalid. I've killed at least a few dozen myself.”
“Probably hundreds.” Aidan shrugged.
“How many people have you killed?” Carol asked.
“Like, all together, or just since the whole zombie thing started?” Josh asked. He laughed nervously again when everyone looked at him.
Nora shook her head at her husband. “Four.”
Josh looked at his hands. “I'm honestly not sure at this point. With the shootout and everything...there were a few others even before them. I never wanted to.” He sighed. “Probably a couple dozen at least.” He flushed and avoided his sister's gaze.
“Two,” Emily said quietly.
Carl's stomach dropped at the thought of how many humans everybody had actually killed. And not just these people. Carl knew the three questions; everyone at the prison knew the three questions. But he never sat in on these discussions and rarely heard the answers. Besides the kids, were anyone's hands even clean anymore? Carl himself had killed three people. Well, he'd done the actual kill shot with his mom and the Woodbury boy, but he still considered himself responsible for Dale's death too. That was a weight he'd always carry.
“I honestly couldn't tell you,” Aidan admitted. “I don't know. I...I was in several wars even before all this. A whole lot. Too many.”
“Several?” Carol asked. “How old are you?”
“I look young for my age,” Aidan said. “I'm actually...thirty-six.” Sally suddenly disappeared from Carl's shoulder and popped herself into a far corner, examining her nails.
“All right. Now why?” Daryl asked, returning to the questions.
“To protect myself and my friends. To protect innocents. And...sometimes because I had orders to,” Aidan said. “There were a few times, back then, when I lost it and didn't know when to stop. I killed people I shouldn't have. I've spent the rest of my life trying to make up for it, though.” He was a man who obviously owned his failings and would not hang his head as he answered.
Going back down the line, Emily answered, “Mercy killings.”
“Everybody I ever killed was threatening my family in some way,” Josh said, and then his voice turned shaky. “Except Julia.”
Sally's face fell. “Josh.”
Ignoring her, he continued, “She was my ex-fiancée. It was an accident, but the accident was my fault. And then...” Josh clasped Nora's hands in his, “there was our baby.”
“Josh,” Nora whispered, turning to lean her forehead against his. “I never blamed you. That wasn't your fault.”
“Yes, it was! My...genes...my...my...”
“No,” she said firmly. “No. That wasn't you.”
Everyone was silent, the prison residents looking unsure, but with sympathy in their gazes. Nora shook her head, dispelling whatever thoughts were there. “Same here as far as reasons go. And my ex as well, actually, long before this started, but he was a bad man too.”
“Well,” Carol said, smiling as best as she could, “everybody has baggage. We all protect our own. Rest up. Heal. You behave and treat us right, we'll do the same, and there'll be nothing to worry about on either end.”
The meeting apparently over, all of the adults began shaking hands and murmuring thanks or sympathy as they filed toward the door. Carl turned and looked expectantly at Sally. “Well?” he asked quietly.
“Oh! Well, I can't kill any 'walkers', obviously.” She demonstrated by sticking a hand through the table. “And anybody I ever killed was already a ghost anyway.”
Carl wanted to ask how that was even possible, but then he remembered banishing his mom's ghost. If that's the case, guess I actually killed her twice. I wonder if my number is still three or if it's four?
“See ya,” Sally said. “Thanks, really. You guys have no idea how much we've needed this.”