There was a mad rush as everyone grabbed their weapons. I already had mine in my hand so I was ready. Kind of.
I had played a lot of video games where you killed zombies. I had also watched many zombie movies. So, I had a rough idea of what to expect—hitting them in the head was the only way to stop them, and if they bit you, you turned into one—but did those rules apply here?
You also had to take into consideration which type of zombie we were dealing with. The slow, weak ones that overwhelmed you with numbers? The fast crazy ones who ran up walls? Neither would be fun, but the slower ones at least gave you the option to run away.
Was it even a zombie Flossie had seen?
Everyone started asking Flossie what exactly she had encountered, which only made her more flustered. A low moan shut them all up.
We all pointed our weapons in the direction of the noise. And then the answer to all our questions came shuffling into camp, dragging one leg, arms reaching out ahead of it. The good news was that it appeared to be on its own.
It looked how you would imagine a zombie to look. Flesh hung off it in stringy clumps. In some places the skin was stretched so thin, holes had appeared showing the bones beneath. On the right side of its face, the jawbone and teeth were completely exposed. The nose was completely missing and it had no eyelids, making its eyes bulge in their sockets, and patchy hair sprouted from the top of its head. It was, however, quite smartly dressed. Buttons all done up and clothes nicely matching.
The zombie stopped when it saw us and looked around, awkwardly moving its neck from side to side.
“Oh,” he said in a slightly high-pitched voice. “I do apologise, I didn’t realise there was anyone here. I don’t want to intrude. I’ll see myself out.” He started to turn around, one degree at a time like a tanker turning at sea.
“Wait,” I said. “Aren’t you a zombie?
His shoulders hunched up and he stopped moving. Slowly, the zombie turned back. It’s hard to read facial expressions when half the person’s face is missing. At first I thought the scrunched up features indicated great pain. Then I realised he was offended.
“Is there really need for that sort of language? We’re just people trying to live our lives. There’s no need for name calling.”
“So you aren’t undead?”
The zombie’s body went limp, and his arms fell to his side. “Ugh. Of course not. What does that even mean? Undead? It’s not even a real word. How can you un-dead anything? It makes no sense.”
“Well,” said Maurice, “theoretically, a necromancer can—”
The zombie raised a hand. “Please keep your racist theories to yourself. Yes, I have a skin condition that makes me look a little different, but in here—” he tapped his chest with a bony finger (and I mean very bony) “—beats a heart just like yours.”
I would have found it easier to believe him if every tap on his chest hadn’t produced a hollow thud like the slamming of a coffin lid. The way he was going on about his ‘skin condition’, you’d think he was talking about a little eczema.
“This disease, is it contagious?” I asked.
“You people,” he said with great disdain. “No, you’re perfectly safe. It’s called zombidermis—yes, I know, that’s where the name comes from, but please refrain from using it. It’s not a cute nickname, it’s very offensive. Zombie this and zombie that. We have names, you know. Mine is Jespert. How do you do?”
We all introduced ourselves, somewhat sheepishly.
“See how easy that was? All we want is to live our lives, raise our families and be happy. Just like everyone else. But because of the way we look, people assume we’re evil and want to murder everyone. As soon as they see us, the name calling begins. Can you imagine what it’s like for our shilfren. Nnnnnghhhhh.”
He suddenly grabbed his jaw with his hand.
“Are you alright?”
I braced myself. Was he losing control? Were tentacles about to sprout out of his head? He seemed perfectly rational, but that didn’t mean he wouldn’t attack us.
“Toothache.” He poked at his teeth. Through the holes in his cheek. “Receding gums. Makes the teeth very sensitive.”
‘Receding’ was a gross understatement. He had no gums.
“That’s why I’m out here. There’s a herb called clovis that helps ease the pain. It grows in these woods; a little blue flower.” He looked around like he might spot it.
“Wouldn’t it be easier to look during the day?” asked Claire.
“It would, but sunlight plays havoc with my skin. And no, that doesn’t mean I’m a vampire, either.” He rolled his eyes, which was unsettling. “By the looks of you, you’re visitors, right? Arrived fairly recently?”
We all nodded.
“I understand. It can’t be easy finding yourselves in a new world where everything looks strange and scary, but please, don’t judge people purely on the way they look and unfounded rumours. Take the time to make up your own mind, that’s all I ask. Prejudice is a terrible thing.”
I think we all felt suitably chastened and mumbled our apologies.
“I’ll leave you to it then. Have a good evening.” He started to turn again, but then stopped. “By the way, you do know it’s quite dangerous around here at the moment, don’t you? The lizardmen are on the march and their main army will be coming through any time now.”
“Their main army?” I said. “You mean that procession on the main road?”
“Oh no, that’s just the advance party. Once the main army get is here, this whole place will be crawling with them. You don’t want to be here when that happens. Horrible creatures, lizardmen. Completely untrustworthy. Alway fighting for no reason, the females get pregnant before they can even stand upright, and their food smells awful. I’ve been saying for years they shouldn’t just defend the border with Monsterland, they should build a wall, but no one listens. I’ll tell you, the only good lizardman is a dead lizardman.”
“You know,” said Claire in a tone that made me want to swiftly walk away, “for someone who talks a lot about not judging people on the way they look, you sound a little bit prejudiced yourself.”
Jespert seemed taken aback. “Me? You mean about lizardmen? Oh no, that’s totally different. They aren’t people, they’re monsters. You can’t treat them as equals. They’ll eat you.” He’d become much more animated once he started to talk about his views on lizardmen. And it didn’t stop there. “I’ll tell you who you should really watch out for. Mermaids. Oh, those bastards. They come crawling out of the sea with hardly any clothes on and set up stalls by the roadside selling their fish and their seafood platters. It’s disgusting.”
“That doesn’t sound so bad,” said Maurice.
“It’s taking jobs away from honest fishermen. The land should be for people with legs, shouldn’t it? They should go back to where they came from.”
“And the fishermen should stay out of the sea?” I asked.
“Well, no. They have to make a living, obviously. But it’s the principle.”
It was hard to tell exactly which principle he was talking about. One minute he was all love and peace and don’t judge a book by its cover, and the next he wanted to kill everything that annoyed him. A liberal racist, but fiscally conservative. In our world he would have made a fine politician. Other than that, he seemed quite nice.
“Ooh, ooh,” said Flossie. Her fidgeting had been steadily increasing over the last few seconds. “Ah wanna see a mermaid.”
“Fortunately, that isn’t possible,” said Jespert. “We’re too far from the sea here, and they don’t travel well. Or so I’ve heard. I’m happy to say I’ve never encountered one myself.”
“Hold on,” said Claire. “You’ve never actually met a mermaid, but you’re sure they’re evil monsters based on what you’ve heard from other people. Doesn’t that strike you as a little ironic.”
“No,” said Jespert. “There’s nothing ironic about being half-fish.”
“That doesn’t even make sense.” Claire was about to lose it.
Jespert seemed unaware of the danger he was in. “You should head for Dargot, you’ll probably be safe there.”
“That’s where we were headed,” I said, “but the lizardmen are blocking the way. We were hoping to cross the road once they passed by, but it sounds like that won’t be for a while.”
“Oh, you can’t use the road. You could use the tunnels, though. It takes a little longer, but much less dangerous, for the most part.”
“There are tunnels?” I said. “To Dargot?”
“Well, not all the way, but they’ll get you past the lizardmen. Anyway, enjoy the rest of your evening. Nnnnnghhhhh.” He started to turn again, hand clamped against his jaw.
“Uhm,” said Flossie. “Is this what you were looking for?” She pulled a small blue flower out of her hair and held it out.
“Oh, clovis!” A smile cracked his face wide open. Yes, that is how I mean it. “Thank you.” Jespert took the flower in his skeletal, partly decomposed hand and popped it into his mouth. He rubbed his jaw, then stretched. “Ahhh. That’s better.”
Suddenly he was able to move a lot more freely and his whole body seemed to relax. “Okay, grab your stuff and follow me. As a sign of my gratitude, I’ll show you the tunnels. Behave yourselves, and I may even treat you to a home cooked meal. And no, you won’t be on the menu. I don’t eat meat, it’s terrible for the complexion. I suppose you’re all carnivores.” He said it with quite some disgust. “I can see it’s going to take you a little while to pack everything up, so let me take this opportunity to tell you the advantages of a raw food diet.”
He proceeded to lecture us on the joys of vegetables. It had been scary enough when we’d assumed he was a zombie, but it turned out Jespert was something even worse. A vegan.