Author Michael Garza has agreed to a post a preview of his novel “Tribes of Decay” for our readers to enjoy. It’s not the first time ZGM and Mr. Garza work together, so be sure to expect more from this collaboration in the future!
The cold, damp air left the heavy vegetation glowing in a thin cover of dew. Morning light crept across overgrown streets and long-abandoned structures. There was little that remained of the old world. Those who called this place home knew only fragments of the once proud people who believed they’d reached the pinnacle of civilization.
Darian was a hunter. He’d always been taller than the other boys his age and his skill with a bow was considered the best among the Cheyenne Tribe. Rowan lived his life in the shadow of his older, admired cousin. The two were as close as brothers. They’d been inseparable since they were children. At the age of seventeen, they would be among the next generation to take the test of manhood.
“Haven’t we been out here long enough?” Darian asked. His skill with a bow was almost as well-known as his questionable sense of humor. “I’d be just as happy to spear you and take you back.” He laughed as Rowan finally turned around. “I’m sure if I skinned you down, no one would even notice the difference.”
Rowan was trying to keep Darian focused. It was a task he’d been at since they were three years old. Darin never had to try very hard to be good at anything. It annoyed the hell out of Rowan at times, but he’d learned to accept it.
“Look at the sun,” he pointed out beyond the buildings. “We haven’t been out that long.”
“Why don’t we head west?” Darian asked.
Rowan eyed him closely. The land west of the city was crawling with the infected and both of them knew it well. The tribe had managed to push most of the infected into the outlands beyond the city before the last harvest. No one was allowed to go out beyond the city limits. The city was bad enough, the dead lurked in the dark corners of every building, and they were difficult to deal with in large numbers.
“We can’t play around anymore,” Rowan said. “We have to bring something back or we’ll lose favor in the elders’ eyes.”
Darian smiled a sly grin. “You know as well as I do that the lands in the west are stocked full with game.” He had Rowan right where he wanted him. “We can stay at the edge of the city and we’ll be fine.”
Rowan wanted to disagree, but he knew Darian was right. In truth, he was tired. They’d already drained their waterskins and the day was looking like a total loss. He tried one last time to think of a better idea as his eyes scanned from one dim entryway to another. The buildings loomed overhead in every direction, their exteriors covered in deep-green foliage that matched the distant surrounding forest. Rowan gave in with a nod and they were on their way a moment later.
The streets were as silent as a grave. Rowan often wondered what the people of the old world were like, but deep thought was not a particular hobby of his cousin. Rowan knew his place among his people and he was content with his lot in life. He was proud of his skills and he was sure the council of elders would make him a full member when the trials began.
“Don’t you ever think about what it was like before us?” Rowan asked and Darian’s face drew up as if the question smelled bad. “…in the times before the infection.” Rowan’s eyes were on the main doorway of a three-story building across the street.
The simple response caused Rowan to freeze in his tracks. He shook his head and laughed. He marveled at what it must be like to not get caught up in reflection. Rowan knew it was a key difference between the two cousins. Darian was capable of sudden action and it showed in everything he did.
“You think too much,” Darian said as he pulled an apple from the pouch dangling off his belt. “I bet you’d be a better shot if you spent more time with your bow.” The bigger boy pushed Rowan in the back. “When I’m the council chief, I’m going to forbid you from thinking about anything longer than me.”
Rowan started off again, this time laughing.
“I guess that means I won’t be thinking at all.”
Rowan gasped for air and tried to remain perfectly still. He’d lost Darian somewhere within the building, but was too frightened to retrace his steps and look for him. His knees shook and he was sure that his deep, panting breaths would give him away. The only light came from a small window at the other end of the hall.
They’d reached the edge of the city and a sprawling valley opened up ahead of them. And what they found there nearly brought them to their knees. The infected pushed through the high grass in an endless row of bodies. The count was unnamable and the sheer size too vast for comprehension. Their horrible howls carried on the wind, slithering through the grassland.
Rowan and Darian rushed for cover, seeking refuge in the first building they found. Darkness consumed them and at some point during the panic-stricken run, they were separated. Neither of them had the courage to call out. Rowan was alone and fear clung to him more than ever before.
He could hear the dead closing in. Their moaning calls echoed through the dark halls. The tactic was a common one and highly effective. The infected would cover the exterior of the building and send the dead in to flush out the prey.
Rowan cursed himself for falling into the trap. He couldn’t shake the nefarious vision of the horde crossing the field. He couldn’t remember ever seeing a group so massive. He would have to get word to the council. The sound of footsteps reminded him that he needed to live long enough to get out of the building before he would have to worry about delivering the news.
He notched an arrow and tried to gather his bearings. He’d lost himself in his mad dash, but guessed at the direction of the stairs. Rowan took three hesitant steps before another sound froze him still. He considered his surroundings and then quickly put his bow away and pulled the knife from his belt.
The moaning grew louder and a rush of sounds followed. Figures shifted within the shadows of a room on the other side of the hall and Rowan rushed toward the opening. He peered through the doorway in time to watch Darian’s knife plunge through the skull of a zombie. The blade dug through the top of the head and burst from its mouth. Darian let the creature fall to the floor and then managed to flash his cousin a smile before he waved him over.
“I’m glad you’re having fun,” Rowan whispered. “You know we’re trapped in here.”
Darian’s smirk faded. “We need to go up.”
“We’ll get stuck.”
“We’ll just have to wait them out then.”
Rowan shook his head. “Did you see the size of the horde?”
“We’ve seen worse.”
Rowan was going to disagree, but a new sound pulled his attention back to the hallway. The slithering-speak consisted of a series of grunts interchanged with words. Rowan’s heart thumped in his chest. The infected were coming in after them. He felt his hands shake as his mind raced.
“We’ve got to go now,” Rowan said, but Darian was already moving. “We can’t get trapped in here.”
Darian waved him off as he approached the doorway. He held still for a moment before peeking out into the hall. Rowan’s eyes adjusted enough to see Darian signal him forward. They stepped out into the hall only a foot apart.
The darkness played havoc on Rowan’s mind. He swore there was movement up ahead, but Darian continued on. The dead-speak grew louder, now joined by quickening steps. The echo in the hall made it impossible to tell which direction the sounds were coming from. The cousins were a few steps from a crossway when something rushed them from the shadows.
The howl gave it away. Its lashing movements were a common mark of the infected and the dim light revealed it. Pale gray skin covered his naked body. Open sores on his cheeks and chest showed through to the tissue beneath. Scarlet stains covered him from head to toe, hinting at the horrific acts of his blood thirsty desires.
Darian dove instinctively and slid across the debris-laden floor, leaving Rowan face to face with the fiend. He brought his knife up as the infected man lashed out at him. The blade stabbed into his forearm and the force of the blow dug straight into the bone. The infected man grabbed a hold of Rowan’s shirt, oblivious to the damage to his limb. He pushed Rowan back, snapping his teeth together as he leaned in for a bite. A foul breath escaped his open jaws saturating the space with a vile mix of sickness and vomit.
Rowan was down on one knee pushing back the full weight of his attacker. The man roared in maddening rage and several echoed replies filled the hallway from both directions. Rowan pulled his knife free and rolled out from under the attack. He spun around in time to see Darian slam into his attacker, his knife digging into the infected man’s chest up to the hilt. The man staggered back, pulling himself free from the blade, and then gave one last screech before collapsing to the floor.
The sound of the struggle drew the infected in and Rowan caught sight of figures rushing toward them. He grabbed Darian’s sleeve and pulled him into an open doorway. A moment later, the door was closed with both boys dragging battered desks across the room to stack against the entrance. They leaned behind the makeshift barrier and braced for impact.
“We have to keep moving,” Darian said.
They were already running when the infected reached the barricade. The impact reverberated throughout the room, and the initial shot sounded like an explosion. The cousins burst into a long open bay and rushed down a center aisle lined with rows of crumbling desks on either side. Their feet kicked up decades of dust with every step leaving a cloud of dirt in their wake.
They reached the center of the open space when a thundering clamor signaled that the infected had broken through the barricaded door. The shrieks that followed announced that they’d been spotted. The sound of a stomping assault echoed through the adjoining room in a tidal wave of noise. Rowan followed Darian to the end of the chamber and the bigger boy burst through a partially open door and out into a main corridor.
A number of figures lunged toward them as a mass of outstretched hands reached for fresh meat. Darian slashed his knife across his body, nearly stabbing Rowan in the process. He managed to ram his blade into the exposed side of one of the infected, but couldn’t pull it free. He stretched out for Rowan and pushed him beyond a pair of hands. The hesitation allowed the rest of the infected group to cross the corridor. Rowan saw the haunting, golden hue of their eyes before he started to run again. Darian managed to get ahead of him as the infected closed in.
The heat of their pursuers’ breath surrounded Rowan like a cloud, saturating his skin. His heart leapt to his throat and terror engulfed his mind. He could hear them all around, calling at him in their dreadful speak. He screamed wildly as panic consumed him.
Darian reached an exit and flung open the door. Light burst into the hall as a hand grabbed a hold of Rowan’s shirt. He tried in vain to pull away as another hand took hold. Rowan turned to face his certain death and the full sight of the group crushed his hope. It was the sound of Darian’s war cry that broke through the horror as he threw himself at their pursuers.
Rowan pulled free and ran. He covered the remainder of the hall in several leaping strides then sprang from the entrance out into the light. He couldn’t slow himself until he crossed the street and reached the building on the other side. Darian’s scream pulled Rowan to a grinding halt. He’d never heard Darian shriek in horror and before he turned around, Rowan knew that’s exactly what it was.
Darin was on the ground trying to crawl across the entryway. Several pairs of hands had a hold of his legs, gouging into his skin. Rowan’s eyes locked onto to his cousin’s and the fear was unmistakable. Darian’s grip failed him as a hellacious roar erupted from the open doorway. He lashed wildly, trying to grab a hold of anything within reach. A single word escaped his mouth before he disappeared into the darkness.
It was an unseasonably warm afternoon, the kind that brought the sweat out of every pore. The sun beat down on the top of the decaying city buildings, baking everything in its path. The people of the Cheyenne Tribe went about their routines with little concern for the heat or the high-rise structures they made their homes on top of. The squat dwellings were pieced together with wood and vine, mixed with whatever scraps the builders could find.
Long, expansive walkways lined the sky between numerous building tops, creating a hive society. The design came from a necessity for ease of access and a need for survival. The city streets were once owned by the dead and infected. The height and inaccessibility of the rooftops created a safe haven for the living. The tribe society survived in that relative safety.
Mia looked out over the city with a heavy heart. Hunting was the primary responsibility of the young men of the tribe and there was no one better at it than Darian. Her thoughts, however, were on Rowan. As best as she could remember, she’d loved that boy before she knew what love was, although neither of them had the courage to say it. The only thing that mattered to her at the moment was seeing his familiar smile pop up over the edge of the building.
The cousins were late to return. They’d been late many times before, but that never made Mia feel any better. Darian had a way of getting Rowan into trouble and she feared the day he might get them into something Rowan couldn’t get them out of. She wrung out the soaked shawl she was trying to get clean and then tossed it over the clothesline. She finished her chores earlier in the day and now she was doing anything she could to keep her mind occupied.
Mia finished washing the basket of clothes and turned her back on the city. She headed for the bridge between her building and tribe’s council of elders. The leaders of the tribe would soon gather and discuss who among the young men would join them as full members. It was something Rowan dreamed about and she prayed he’d be chosen. Among other things, it meant they could finally be married.
Her mind was lost in the events of her wedding night when she reached the council gathering. Her father, Arkin, sat among them. He was next in line to be chief and she feared what he might do if Rowan was not among the chosen. Mia couldn’t stand the thought of her father choosing another husband for her, although it was his right. She sat her basket down near her father’s stoop and then bowed before she approached.
“Are you preparing, Father?”
He smiled at her for a brief moment and then his expression hardened.
“I cannot show any special favor.”
She shook her head as she sat down in front of him and crossed her legs. Her handmade shirt and leggings should have been a part of the laundry. The stain across her top was less than appropriate in the presence of the council. She took a second to allow her sudden frustration to fade and then pushed her long bangs out of her face.
“I did not ask you for any favors, Father,” she hesitated, “and neither would Rowan.”
He grimaced at the sound of his name.
“The council has discussed this for some time and the chosen ones will be given their place among us.”
Her father wasn’t saying anything she didn’t already know. Only council members could marry or own property. All other members of the tribe were held in a lesser status. It was Rowan’s outspoken questioning of this structure that found him at odds with the council of elders, and more importantly, Arkin. Her father had once been the center of her world but that felt like a life time age. Mia’s relationship with her father had been strained for several years. Her mother died in a terrible attack and Arkin’s heart hardened, leaving Mia and her younger brother, Jonah, to turn elsewhere for affection and support.
A horn rang out from the corner of the roof and Mia’s head snapped around. Someone had been spotted on the streets far below. She was up and running before she finished her thought. A moment later, she had her eyes on someone racing toward the building. A chill trickled down her spine at the sight of the single figure. As far as she knew, no one had gone out alone.
The wait was excruciating. The returner, whoever it was, took a long time to reach the tribal council building. It was even longer before he leapt out of the window in the exterior wall of the eighth story and began the long ladder climb up the remaining floors. The building was abandoned long before the Cheyenne Tribe laid its roots and the top three stories were impossible to reach from the inside.
The edge of the roof was crowded by the time Mia recognized Rowan’s face. His dirty blond hair was matted with smears of blood and dirt. Mia was shaking and had to back away to keep from toppling over the side of the building. She was grateful to see his return, but she was terrified of the lone question in her mind.
Where is Darian?
Rowan reached the rooftop, but he was on shaky legs. Mia threw her arms around him in an unusual show of affection. She could hear several of the older women grunting their disapproval before she regained her bearings and quickly stepped away. Rowan smiled at her, but she could see right through it.
“What happened?” she asked.
Rowan opened his mouth, but couldn’t find the words. Mia was shocked when she realized he was crying. She felt like she’d been punched in the stomach. She knew what happened without ever hearing his explanation. She wanted to comfort him; she wanted to say something, but the sound of her father’s voice tore through her thoughts.
“That will be enough.”
A number of the onlookers quickly scurried off, most of them bowing at the members of the council as they went about their business. Several of the rooftops of the surrounding buildings sprang to life as news of Rowan’s return spread like wildfire. Mia knew she had no business listening in on the coming conversation, but she fought the will to be shooed away.
“What is this all about?” Arkin asked, looking past Rowan with little regard. “Where is Darian?”
“We…we got surrounded,” Rowan tried to explain. “Darian…there were too many of them and…”
Arkin shoved Rowan aside and peered over the edge of the building. He rose back up with a bewildered gaze. “You left him.” Half a dozen of the council members had joined Arkin at the roof’s edge and a number of them echoed his accusation. “You abandoned him like the coward you are.”
Rowan stood frozen as the older man rushed toward him. The sunlight reflected off of Arkin’s cleanly shaven head and revealed the loathing fury in his eyes. Arkin pushed aside the ceremonial robes wrapped around his chest and grabbed Rowan by the throat with both hands. Mia lunged forward and tried to wedge herself between them.
“No Father, please,” she shouted.
Several of the council members pulled at her while the others tried to hold her father back. Rowan fell to the ground as they were wrenched apart and smacked his head on the rooftop. Arkin stood over him as he tried to get up, yelling at the top of his lungs. Mia wrapped her arms around her father’s leg as a wave of figures rushed toward the fray. Rowan tried to raise his head and a moment later he was consumed by unconsciousness.
A constant wave of pain was highlighted by a relentless pounding from Rowan’s temples. He knew he was lying down on his back, but he wasn’t sure what had happened. His eyelids fluttered then parted and the darkness remained. He tried to move his hands and found he could not. Reality slowly filtered in and the pounding in his head grew worse. His throat was dry and he wasn’t sure he could speak if he wanted to. He took one long breath and then tried to sit up. He regretted it immediately. Two things became apparent; he was pretty sure his head was going to split open and he was chained to the floor by his wrist.
Rowan’s eyes adjusted to the dark and he focused in on a small slit in the covering on the far side of the dwelling. The pale light told him it was after dark and the bindings told him his fate was yet to be decided. He knew Arkin never wanted him as a husband for his daughter and he’d guessed many times that Darian would be chosen for Mia. It was only Mia’s devotion to the lesser cousin that kept her father at bay.
Arkin’s resentment for the boy began as an act of heroism. The attack that ultimately took the lives of Rowan’s parents also set his future in stone. Arkin made a decision to save Rowan on that faithful night and it cost him his wife. That choice created a deep rooted animosity that revealed itself every time he looked at Rowan.
The sound of distant conversation pierced the hide covering. Rowan tried to make out the words, but he couldn’t. He could guess what the council was debating, but he was too frightened to consider it. His thoughts drifted to Darian and a sudden wave of emotion rushed over him.
The agony of his situation engulfed him and it was all he could do to keep from howling at the top of his lungs. His heart opened up as the memories of his cousin swept through his mind. He wept like never before, aching with each passing moment. He laid in painful silence as he tried to regain control of himself. It was the sound of someone else’s hushed words that pulled his attention away from his thoughts.
There was a deep breath followed by a series of movements somewhere behind the dwelling. Rowan studied the stretched hide that covered the top of the structure until a small slit produce a familiar face. Mia’s eyes were burning red and the darkness couldn’t hide her pain. She took a hesitant glance at something out in front of the dwelling before pulling the cover back far enough to slide in and drop down.
“Your father’s going to kill you,” Rowan whispered.
“You should talk.”
She grabbed him and pulled him close. The two kissed more passionately than either of their years could account for. She finally let him go and Rowan sat back, out of breath.
“I was worried about you,” Mia admitted.
“I need to get you worried more often.”
“That’s not funny,” she said. “The entire council is discussing what to do with you.”
“The chains kind of gave that away,” Rowan said, pulling on his binds. “I didn’t do anything wrong.”
Mia’s eyes went to the floor. She couldn’t bear to look up at him as she spoke.
“What happened to Darian?”
Rowan’s throat dried up all at once. He tried to say something, but nothing came out. His heart thumped in his chest as a vision of his cousin being pulled in through the abandon building’s doorway flashed through his mind.
“We went to the edge of the outlands,” he continued on before she could tell him how foolish they were, “there were so many of them.” He struggled with the words. “It was like an army of the infected moving toward the city.” He pressed his hand against her chin and raised her head. “We got trapped.”
A single tear streamed down her cheek when her eyes met his.
“I have to tell them,” Rowan said. He tried to stand up and was left hunched over when the chains didn’t come up with him. “We have to do something.”
“What do you mean?” she asked. “You’ll be lucky if they just banish you.” She cried harder the moment the word banish left her lips.
Rowan looked over at the slit in the covering and whispered,
Mia stood up and searched for something on a small table across the room.
“We have to get out of here.”
“I didn’t do anything,” Rowan insisted.
Mia spun around and snapped at him much louder than she intended.
“It doesn’t matter.”
The two stood still, staring at each other, their senses painfully aware that her shout was loud enough to hear from the outside.
“You have to go,” Rowan said. “They can’t find you here.” The sound of trampling feet echoed into the dwelling as a wind shook the flap of hide over the entrance. “I have to show them,” he said. “The council has to know what Darian and I saw.”
Mia’s eyes went to the entrance and then back to him. He could see the struggle on her face as she fought the urge to run.
“Go,” he said, “go now.”
She crossed the room and took a hold of his face with both hands.
“I won’t let you go,” she said and then kissed him.
The stomping feet reached the entrance and he pushed her away.
Mia took one last look at him and then leapt up to the slit in the roof and lifted herself out. Rowan watched her feet disappear a moment before the hide over the entrance was swept aside and several figures pushed in. Arkin was standing directly in front of him before Rowan realized who it was. A pair of council members unchained Rowan and pulled him out into the open.
Most of the council was gathered. They sat on platforms several feet off the top of the building, facing in on one another in a semicircle. Tall flames lit the gathering from a pit in the center of the platforms. Rowan was lifted up the stairs to an empty dais and left to stand on his own as Arkin and the others retook their seats.
Sporadic conversations came to a close as all eyes focused on the lone layman among them. The ages within the council ranged widely. Those chosen to take the test during the last planting season were only a few years older than Rowan. He locked eyes with Darian’s father, his uncle Deleak. The large man’s sizable girth was left exposed with only his leather britches covering him. Deleak stared at Rowan and the agony in his eyes was almost too much to bear.
“We all know why we are here,” Arkin said. “You, Rowan, have been accused.”
“I didn’t do anything wrong,” Rowan declared. He ground his teeth and a sudden inspiration came to him. He knew tribal law as well as anyone in the council. “You have to give me an opportunity to defend myself.” He drove the point. “It is my right.”
Rowan was in no position to make demands. He was alone. He had no close family to speak of. There was no one on the council to protect him, no one to stand in his defense but himself.
“What have you to say?” Chief Orin was older than any other member of the tribe. “You may speak in your defense,” he said and the entire council fell silent. Chief Orin stood up from his seat directly across from the accused. His rail thin body was covered in a heavy fur, which he held at his neck. “Tell us what you saw.”
“The infected are gathering,” Rowan said, looking over the crowd as every pair of eyes locked on to his. “It was an army, like the stories of the old world.”
“You know nothing of the old world,” Arkin interrupted.
“Silence,” Chief Orin said in a tone that matched the aggravation on his face. “Let him speak.”
Rowan took a deep breath and slowly let it out. The entire council was focused squarely on him. He had to choose his terms carefully. If the infected were truly gathering then the fate of the entire tribe would depend on his every word.