After the group destroyed the abomination in the infirmary, Rasheed called upon all of his newfound mystic might to knit together Governor Byrne’s torn flesh and broken bones. Though the effort exhausted him, the survival of the group filled all of them with real relief. They had a chemotherapy machine for Dr. Chadwick (the younger) and had come out of the battle with only minor injuries.
The ladies of Locust Lake celebrated into the night, breaking open their stores of food for the joyous events. With the infirmary cleared of dangers, they once again had access to necessary medical machinery, including a dialysis machine for one of their own undergoing kidney failure. All seemed well for a change.
The illusion was shattered the next morning when the sentries awoke the heroes around dawn. Snow was falling from the overcast sky, and the day was frigid. Outside the gates, a single zombie approached—with its hands up in the air, wearing the jacket of a Horseman. The group recognized the dead man as the young, uncertain Horseman they had interrogated after the raid. He had apparently been tortured, then killed and sent back to Locust Lake.
To everyone’s horror, the dead Horseman’s mouth opened as he began to speak! He had come to deliver a letter to “the magus of Locust Lake,” so Rasheed carefully took the proffered letter from the zombie’s hands. As soon as his mission was done, the zombie seemed to become aware, weeping and screaming for them to kill him. While everyone else reeled in horror, Governor Byrne snatched a gun from one of his companions and mercifully ended the poor bastard’s unlife.
The letter was an invitation from “the Red King,” calling himself Tlaloc, and asking that Rasheed would come to meet with him before the Winter Solstice. He would have his men waiting in an encampment north of Frackville until the darkest night of the year, and would guarantee safe passage for Rasheed and his allies for the chance to meet a true “magus.” He apologized for the condition of the messenger’s body, but explained that the man had betrayed his oaths—and therefore had been made an example.
Rasheed and Governor Byrne agreed that the invitation stank of a trap, but a month gave them time to consider it. Moreover, they still had medical supplies to deliver back to Allentown and had been considering a side trip to Mount Weather. Crystal had pointed out that it was only a 2 hour trip—under normal conditions—and Rasheed knew that if any vestiges of the government still existed, that’s where they would be.
In the meantime, the snow was threatening to cut off their route back to Allentown, so they quickly said their goodbyes. Crystal couldn’t leave Locust Lake while the women there still needed her, and she wouldn’t permit her little sister to stay someplace the Horsemen were sure to attack. Crystal begged Rosalie to stay in Allentown once she got back there, safely out of the line of fire of the Horsemen and behind barricades. Rosalie responded that nowhere was truly safe anymore, but Crystal insisted that Rosalie at least stay with Doris.
One of the women of Locust Lake asked to come along, bringing one of the captured Horsemen motorcycles with her. Melissa “Missy” Kim had a bad reputation around Locust Lake—as Crystal put it, “if anyone deserves to be someplace worse than this, it’s her”—but Doris could only say that perhaps they needed dangerous people as their companions in dangerous times. In the end, the group agreed to bring her along, and she offered them no trouble at all.
The drive back to Allentown was uneventful, but all of the bridgeheads were swarmed with zombies. The lightest group were around Brad’s new hummer, but everywhere was packed with the walking dead. Worse, the chemo machine was too heavy to bring across the Lehigh River on a fishing boat. Brad suggested going back to the local airport to grab the prop plane they had found there, load the machine onto it, then fly it into Allentown and land on an open stretch of highway. The Allentown survivors were down with that plan, especially since a small plane could be really useful for them in the long run. Though the air was cold and snow was falling, Brad made a decent showing of himself—for a change—and flew the machine across without a hitch.
The other survivors noticed that the river was beginning to ice over, and they recommended that the Allentown group dynamite the ice to break it up again. The resulting noise drew the dead out of their former positions, giving the heroes a chance to slip across in the fishing boat. They stopped in to explain the situation to Samantha, and discovered that several new survivors had shown up in Allentown since their group had left.
Suspecting infiltrators or spies, Governor Byrne and Rasheed confronted the most suspicious-looking of the bunch. One seemed to have nothing to hide, while the other drew a hidden knife and tried to stab the governor in the neck! Though caught off-guard, his riot armor turned aside the blade. Rosalie tried to stungun the infiltrator, but he seemed too hopped up on adrenaline to notice.
Before a real battle could commence, endangering all of the people in the quarantine area, a woman stepped past Rosalie and calmly snapped the spy’s neck. To everyone’s horror, they found themselves face to face with Sofiya, who they last saw in a burning roadside rest stop. Doris was particularly unnerved by the woman, who greeted Rasheed with something approaching fondness.
A conversation between the living and the dead ensued, with Sofiya explaining many things about the zombie apocalypse—and raising far more questions. What is the “rising tide” of darkness that she spoke of? Will things truly get worse before they get better? And what of the “darker things” she mentioned? The only thing she could be clear about was that the so-called “Red King” was a dangerous creature, and that she had come to Allentown to hide among the living, since she didn’t consider them a threat.
Rasheed disdained her offer of alliance, deriding her survival ideals as petty and Nietzschean. He agreed that they could have peace between them, though—as long as she agreed to restrict her feeding only to the recently dead, and to not contribute to them becoming that way. In return, she could remain in Allentown until the spring with no harassment from the heroes. Though she had wanted more, Sofiya was content with that arrangement.
Still, as the thing wearing a woman’s flesh slinked away, the heroes couldn’t help but feel that they had let a tiger loose among sheep…