Conrad Warren had been tracking them a long time—weeks, it felt like.
He had managed to escape from New York by climbing through the undercarriage of the GW Bridge, but the escape had been costly. He was the only member of his SEAL team to get out of New York Presbyterian hospital when everything went to hell, and in in the process he had lost his sidearm, used up almost all of his ammo, and been left with just his fatigues and the Barrett on his back.
After getting out of the hellhole that was Manhattan, he had been picking his way west, making for open country, when he started running into other survivors. Some of them said there were people trying to help—that they wouldn’t have lived without the sudden, shocking arrival of heroes. Conrad was intrigued; anyone trying to get things back into shape was someone he wanted to team up with.
Finally, he had arrived at Allentown and been transported across the river into the Lehigh Valley. In the wake of their shocking conversation with Sofiya, the heroes were surprised to find someone who wanted to meet them and wasn’t some sort of monster. Introductions were made, and the group was happy to take in an actual trained soldier as one of their number. Conrad had missed most of the worst stuff they had seen, given his cautious nature, but he was willing to take some things on a temporary basis. Smart walkers he could believe, but magic? Who the hell knew?
Very soon, Conrad was drawn into the planning for the next stage of their mission. While Rasheed was reluctant to actually meet with the Red King, they decided that a scouting expedition wouldn’t be a bad idea. Furthermore, some discussion revealed that they had left behind thousands of rounds of rubber bullets in the armory at Locust Lake.
Conrad told them that rubber bullets could easily be refitted into real bullets, if they had some basic machinery. Allentown was wealthy in metal and machines, so a decision was made to travel back to the penitentiary and pick up the ammo. In the meantime, a second group would make their way by foot into Frackville and take a look at the enemy forces awaiting them.
The group made their way back across the river and quickly lured off the few zombies near Brad’s humvee before piling in and taking off. Rosalie, Conrad, and Rasheed formed the scouting party and were let off about 10 miles outside of Frackville, while Doris, Governor Byrne, and Brad made their way back to Locust Lake.
The women of Locust Lake were happy to see the survivors again, and Crystal was particularly happy to see that Doris had managed to convince Rosalie to stay behind in Allentown. Doris just smiled and nodded, not willing to destroy Crystal’s peace of mind by telling her the truth. The survivors explained the situation, and the women were more than happy to give them the rubber bullets; they couldn’t use the things in their current condition, and they had plenty of ammo even without them now that the armory was open.
The scouting party had easy going despite the cold. There seemed to be fewer zombies as they traveled west, and the roads became less cluttered with abandoned cars. Finally, they saw a barricade across the highway up ahead and took to the woods for cover. They snuck past a pair of Horsemen in a duck blind and continued on their way, finally reaching the edge of Frackville.
Their first view of the town was a grim one. While there were no walkers to be seen in the streets, the streets were watched over by crosses, upon which hung bodies. On close examination, the bodies seemed to be slowly writhing; Rasheed thought they might be some sort of early warning system, so the group chose to stay out of town proper and scout only with binoculars from a high vantage point.
They managed to make out a fracking rig on the far side of town, as well as getting a count of perhaps 20 or 30 Horsemen who seemed to split their time between the rig and a nearby bar. The Horsemen seemed to avoid town, though, preferring to live in shanties and tents near the rig rather than taking over the presumably empty houses.
After a few hours of scouting, the group decided they had seen all they were going to. Wanting to get back to the pick-up point before dark, they got moving, only to notice the cawing of a crow. Rasheed realized they hadn’t seen any animals for days, making Conrad suspicious of the crow. With stunningly quick reflexes, he reached out and snatched it from its perch; before he could break its neck, the crow began to speak!
The talking crow explained that his kind could hear the dead, and that the voices of the walking dead caused them pain. He called Rasheed an “old-talker,” and said that his clan had refused to come speak to him, on account of some old betrayal by people like him. But this particular crow—who Rasheed named Gary—had more courage than the others, and remembered other stories about old-talkers. He believed that Rasheed could help everyone, but that he must not allow himself to fall under the thrall of the dead, especially the one called the Red King.
Rasheed was shocked to realize that the Red King was one of the dead, rather than a sorcerer like himself. The scouts questioned Gary for a while, eventually realizing that his clan was nesting for the winter at a hot spring in the nearby mountains. Rasheed pledged to come and gain their aid, to convince them that he wasn’t like the others. Conrad just thought the whole thing was weird as hell.
After hours of walking and talking, Gary bade the scouts farewell and flew off, leaving them to rejoin the others. When they arrived at Pottsville, Doris had to do some quick thinking to keep Crystal from finding out that she had been deceived about Rosalie, but everyone managed to get out without causing any drama. With new knowledge and cases of bullets, the group piled back into the humvee and started back for Allentown.
On the way, they found a wrecked truck by the side of the highway, still smoking from a recent crash. Three bodies were laid out next to the truck—all shot in the head. It looked like someone had driven up alongside the truck, shot the driver, then pulled the other people out of the crash and shot them before stealing everything that wasn’t nailed down. Governor Byrne was deeply disturbed by the scene, and Brad complained that this would surely lead them into trouble…