Jespert talked the whole time we spent packing up our gear. The pleasure of a vegetarian diet. The needless horror of animal slaughter. The unethical practices of farmers and butchers. It went on and on.
He continued talking as we set off, and he talked even more as we made our way from the woods into the marshes all the way to the open fields beyond.
His voice was loud and unremitting. With lizardmen in the area, it might have been unwise to make so much noise, but in all fairness if they heard someone expounding on the link between broccoli smoothies and regular bowel movements, I expect they’d run in the opposite direction.
Once he’d eaten the clovis Flossie had given him, Jespert no longer shuffled around like one of the undead and traipsed through the tall grass. We followed behind, somewhat dazed by the onslaught of preachy scolding and barely passable logic.
“If you bake aubergine with the right spices, tastes exactly like chicken.”
It was madness, I tell you.
I was closest to him, with the rest forming a line behind me. Mandy was at the rear, still pissed off with me and in a dark mood. The others could tell we’d had words but didn’t ask for details.
It occurred to me I could solve everyone’s problem if I could just get Mandy to hook up with Jespert and leave her with him. But perhaps that was being unnecessarily cruel. The poor guy had suffered enough.
Claire walked up next to me and leaned over. “Are you sure we can trust him?” she whispered.
“I’m not sure I can trust you,” I whispered back.
“I’m serious. We’re just following him back to his lair. Who knows what’ll be waiting for us.”
“His lair? He’s not a badger.”
“I know, he’s a… you know… one of them.”
“A zombie?” I whispered.
“Don’t use that word,” she hissed back at me. “It’s offensive.” She looked around guiltily.
“You were the one thinking it. Does Maurice know you have racist tendencies?”
“Oh shut up. You know what I mean.”
“I don’t know where he’s taking us, but I’m guessing there’ll be fewer lizardmen there, which is the main thing. There’s a risk we could be walking into a trap, of course, but do you have an alternative plan? No? Well, neither do I. Plus, he only eats vegetables—he probably doesn’t have the strength to put up much of a fight. If he does attack, just keep dodging until osteoporosis takes its course.”
Claire wasn’t too impressed of me making light of her concerns, but let the matter drop. She changed her pace so she fell back in step with her boyfriend.
They had all followed my lead without question when I accepted Jespert’s offer of a meal and directions to Dargot through some mysterious tunnels he refused to go into detail about, but now they were getting a little antsy. I couldn’t blame them, I was just as unsure as Claire. Jespert seemed harmless enough. Didn’t mean he was.
“By the way, have you tried wheatgrass?” Jespert droned on. “A shot in the morning is better than half a dozen boiled eggs. It might taste disgusting, but then have you considered where an egg comes from?”
“He’s very passionate about food, isn’t he?” said Jenny. I was surprised to find her now walking beside me, talking to me as though it was the most natural thing in the world. In fact this was the first time since she’d joined that she’d said something to me unprovoked. “It’s almost like he’s deranged.”
“Standard vegan behaviour, if you ask me,” I said. “No point discovering the secret to good health if you can’t bore everyone to death about it.”
“I don’t know. The way he goes on about how precious life is one minute, and then wants to wipe out whole species the next makes me think his disease might be degenerative. If it’s got to his brain, might be dementia of some kind.”
I turned to look at her. She was staring at the back of Jespert’s head as though she was x-raying it. She wasn’t carrying any bags or weapons—they’d all been left behind when we fled—and even her clothes were borrowed from Claire. She strolled along beside me, occasionally brushing away the strands of hair fluttering around her head. Sappy thoughts filled my head.
I focused on the semi-decomposed mutant walking ahead of me. It was less disturbing. “I don’t think he’s that strange. Self-righteous people are often full of shit.”
“And did you notice how he always speaks out of the right side of his mouth?”
“Maybe his jaw’s about to fall off.”
“I think he might be deaf in the left ear so he pushes his voice to the other side so he can hear himself better.”
“Are you a detective on the side?” I asked her.
“Mm, what? Oh, haha, no. I just like figuring people out.”
I sped up a little and approached Jespert from the left side. “Is it much further?” I said in a low voice.
There was no response. Then he suddenly turned towards me. “Oh sorry, did you say something? I’m afraid I’m a little deaf in this ear.”
“I was just wondering if we were close.”
“Almost there. Just past those trees up ahead. And please be mindful of what you say. The others aren’t as forgiving as me when it comes to tolerating bigotry and hatred.”
“Ah, okay. Sure. Thanks.” Nothing like being accused of a hate crime to take the wind out of your sails. I slowed so I fell behind him again. Jenny was grinning.
“I told you he was deaf in that ear,” she said, unbearably smug and beautiful at the same time.
I grinned back and gave up all hope of getting together with her. I had no chance so why torture myself? I felt a lot better once I accepted that.
It took another half an hour before we reached our destination. It wasn’t what I was expecting, although it did kind of make sense.
“Erm, isn’t that a graveyard?” I said. Ahead of us were dozens of unkempt and decrepit tombstones. Vines and weeds grew everywhere, creating weird looking silhouettes in the starlight. There were even a few crumbling statues. A boy blowing a horn and an angel with four wings.
The others had formed into a tight small knot of anxiety behind me.
“Don’t go jumping to conclusions,” Jespert warned us. “Yes, this is an old cemetery that’s too full to be of use to anyone. No one comes here, not humans, not lizardmen. That’s why it‘s perfect for those of us who want to be left alone in peace and quiet. They’re all too afraid of the ghosts. This way.”
He set off through the tombstones.
“Did he say ghosts?” said Flossie. They all stood there shivering. It wasn’t particularly cold.
“Oh come on,” I said. “It’ll be fine. If it’s one of those girl ghosts with the long black hair we’ll easily beat the shit out of her.”
I followed Jespert through the gravestones, sword in hand just in case. Sadly, Sadako never appeared.
In the middle of the cemetery there was a stone building. A crypt. The doorway was a gaping black hole. Jespert disappeared into it. I paused in the doorway and looked back at the Scooby gang jostling to let someone else go first.
“No, please, after you.”
“You’re a lady, too!”
If there’s something strange in your neighbourhood, who you gonna call? Not this bunch of clowns, that’s for sure.
Steps led down into the dark. After the first couple I couldn’t see a thing and had to feel the walls to keep my balance. They were wet and slimy. Except for the cobwebs.
“Jespert?” I called down.
“Hold on,” he called back. “I’ll turn on the lights.”
There was a spark and the bottom of the stairs lit up. A torch burned brightly either side of the entrance. I looked back and saw six faces crammed into the doorway staring down at me.
“You lot stay there and keep an eye on all those graves. That’s probably where the ghosts will come from. Thanks.” I turned and walked down the stairs. There was a mad rush of footsteps behind me.
At the bottom, a long corridor led to another doorway.
“Everyone here?” asked Jespert. “Good. Wouldn’t want any of you left out there when the lizardmen come through. Oh, those workshy layabouts. The thought of it’s enough to make my skin crawl.” He shuddered and his skin did indeed crawl. Literally.
“I think you might have something on your neck,” I said, pointing. “Yeah, just there.”
He felt around his neck and then plucked a maggot out of the flaps of flesh. “Oh this? Not to worry, he’s one of mine. For medicinal purposes.” He placed the wriggling maggot back onto his neck. “Right, let’s go meet everyone.”
We were a little jittery as we walked down the passage which had stone urns in holes in the wall. At least there weren’t any heads in jars.
There was light coming from the doorway ahead and a little noise. It sounded like people talking and laughing. We walked through into a large room with tables and chairs and a fireplace with a roaring fire. It was quite homey with colourful rugs on the floor and painting on the walls. And lots of people. Or rather…
“Oh! Look at all the zombers!” said Flossie, loudly.
I cringed, waiting for the backlash, but no one reacted. In fact they all got up and started walking towards us, which might have been a bit scary, seeing as how they all looked just as decomposed and covered in rotting flesh as Jespert, except they weren’t saying, “Unhhh, brains…” they were saying, “Ooh, nice to meet you,” and “Would you like a drink?” and other pleasantries.
“I found these people outside,” said Jespert. “I didn’t want to leave them out there for the lizardmen.”
There were nods and general murmurs of approval. There must have been about thirty of them. Male and female and quite a few children, from toddler to teenager.
“Sit, sit,” said Jespert, indicating the nearest table. “I’ll have some food brought out.”
We all put down our gear and sat down on the benches.
“Jespert, “ I said, “why did nobody say anything when Flossie used the, you know, the Z word?”
“No, no, she said zomb-er. That’s completely different. Zomber is more a term of affection.”
“Really? So you can say zomber but not zombie?”
A hush fell on the room as everyone stared at me.
“Sorry. Sorry. No offence meant.”
They didn’t look offended, they looked mad. They started shuffling towards me, eyes glaring, lips snarling. For vegetarians, they were doing a damn fine imitation of wanting to rip the flesh from my bones.
“Okay, everyone calm down,” said Jespert. “He’s a visitor, he doesn’t know any better. Let’s just forgive him. This time.” He gave me a withering look.
Reluctantly, they stopped their murderous advance and went back to what they’d been doing, but the general mood wasn’t quite as welcoming as it had been a minute ago. Shit.