The Cardinal

Episode 24: Warning: Graphic Content

Maple Leaf Zombies - For fans of free zombie web novels & online horror fiction

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Looks like it's going to be another scorcher. Yup, a ssssscorcher. There’s not even a breeze but at least they have all this exquisite cool water, as much as they want.

This place is perfect….weird, maybe a tad unsettling, but perfect.

 

Bad people would obviously try anything to take this sanctuary, so good on these wacky priests for arming themselves to the teeth, Leo concludes. The walls will keep out the dead and the men here will grow their own food, so who would ever want to leave?

So what if the occupants are on a misguided religious kick. Whom was Gareth referring to when he mentioned someone wanting to take this place? 

Why can't things just be nice and quiet and peaceful? No more killing, nor dead roaming around and cannibalizing.

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Leo leaves Big Gregg in the bedroom and goes out to hang with the new arrivals from yesterday.

Silent Dave is already talking to them in the dining hall. It's hard to believe sixty-goal scorer Fred Hall is here. You'd think a big-time hockey star and multi-million millionaire would have the means to take his family to safety when the plague hit.

 

Problem is, things happened so fast, and literally everywhere, that even the rich and famous didn't stand a chance. The great equalizer, eh?

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Now his wife, little son and daughter are safe. So are Joe Doyle, an uptight, neurotic high school math teacher, who's a whacky, spitting image of actor Don Knotts, as well as Charles Sandlak, a microbiologist from Seattle who, until recently, had been trying to figure out the culprit behind the global nightmare.

 

Tragically, their two other friends didn't make it out on the highway, but good thing the fighting priests showed up when they did or the entire group would have been lost.

There's been too much death already.

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Leo is particularly keen on talking with the scientist guy but, as soon as he sits next to him, Gareth enters the hall and summons the dude. It looks like the almighty, mysterious cardinal he has yet to even see has decided it's time to meet him, but only Leo.

 

The rest of the guests will have to wait for his eminence. Gareth escorts Leo past several priests working in the expanding garden, while one on a guard tower looks down on them and smiles. Greek music pours out of another building.

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"My parents, they were raising my son in Sooke. He was such a cool little boy. They got one of the last planes heading east, Ontario, you know. They were going to place that was supposed to be save near Dryden. Never even tried to get a hold of me, see if I wanted to go. I don't blame them because I was lost, corrupted. I know they're dead now, I just know it. I'm not sad about it, I've let them go, you know,” Gareth frets.

 

Leo nods.

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They eventually arrive at a small house at the far end of the grounds where the awestruck Gareth waits outside. It's dark in here and smells like lacquer.

The only light that's allowed trickles through one window with partially drawn curtains. The sound of an antique grandfather clock adds to this peculiar scene.

 

Leo stands by the door, holding his bowler hat, and isn't sure what to make of this - just roll with it. Here's the kicker: A small TV in one corner is showing an old Three Stooges flick playing on a DVD player.

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"Please come in, my son. I'm most pleased you're here. I'm looking forward to our talk. Please come ....sit," says a figure in a baritone voice watching the delightful romp. Enjoying the comedy, the figure's laugh is a deep one. He turns off the DVD player and walks to a table where a bowl of warm water waits. He slowly, deliberately, cleans his hands. It's hard to make him out as he then sits in the dark.

 

"Leo, what do you think of our mission, our order? Have you ever seen anything like this? Do you believe in something much bigger at play, making this all happen for us? Beyond yourself?"

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Leo feels uncomfortable, like he's in the principal's office. He's not sure how to answer the questions.

 

"You've done a really good job, I guess. Good group of guys here. Thanks for letting us stay, I mean, we really appreciate it," he replies sheepishly.

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"The outside, the cities, it's bad, isn't it? All hope gone? All faith gone?" the cardinal continues. "I believe, I know, it was a punishment. Only the most righteous will prevail, now we'll see the very best earn their place in the kingdom of god. But…..a price must be paid. Don't you agree the weak and the helpless must be cast aside to usher a greater humanity?"

 

"Oh, OK, I guess. You might be right," Leo answers, wondering what this guy wants from him and how he'll navigate through this conversation.

 

"A lot of people died. My friends died. It's pretty damned bad sir.....excuse the language."

 

The figure with the husky voice laughs. "Don't be sorry Mister McGregor. This your life now. You have hope. You know, I've been touched by the lord. He's shown me the path. Let me show you..."

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He then pulls his chair closer to Leo, pulling into the light. What Leo sees is totally weird. What the.....holy crap! A freakish......huh? He's some kind of albino: skin completely white as a ghost, translucent, showing veins and blood vessels in his face and head. He's completely bald and his thin eyebrows are white as well. But the weirdest thing about this character are his eyes: just balls of bright blue.

 

Yes, definitely weird!

 

Leo was not prepared for this. What the hell is up with this guy? Is he sick or something?

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"I had a vision you'd be coming here my son. You're purpose is an important one. You don't understand now, but you will. God sent you to us, to me. Everything will be clear soon for you. I just can't tell you the joy in my heart you're with us."

 

This is a bit much for Leo but he tries to play it cool, looking at another dark corner where he sees the outline of another more recognizable figure: Big Gregg, arms crossed, leaning against the wall and shaking his head.

                             

The freak seems to know everything, all the carnage, that's going on in the ugly world outside these walls to the last detail, seemingly too much.

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"You want to tell me something my son? You can tell me anything, anything at all. We’re brothers now," the bizarre-looking head honcho inquires.

 

"MMMM, no, no.....I'm...good. Thanks" Leo responds. The cardinal gets up and heads to a liquor cabinet, then hands Leo a tulip shaped glass with a very nice cognac. He wants to know all about Leo’s journey.

 

He also wants to talk about consciousness and what it means to be human. Then he moves onto our reckonings with the blandishments of modern life.

The dude, luckily, has read enough material from the used book store to be able to hold his own with this larger-than-life personality.

The cardinal will also go on to cryptically tell Leo he will play an important role in helping the brotherhood, and that things will be brighter, quoting Churchill, "If you're going through hell, keep going."

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The unusual meeting concludes a couple of hours later following the cardinal having the dude watch the rest of the Three Stooges episode, the one where Curly is in a professional wrestling match....."nyuk-nyuk-nyuk!"

 

Up on a heavily wooded hillside overlooking the mission, meantime, three scruffy women are crouched down on a spying mission. One is peering at the walled compound through binoculars.

"Hmmm, yes, they have another guard tower up. Looks like he's got a machine gun. Looks like maybe three or four sets of eyeballs those priests got watching the place. Going to be tough, for sure," she tells her colleagues. "Come on, let's get back to camp. Gotta report to Donald."

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Ummm, are these the adversaries Gareth was talking about?

 

The three tough-as-nails women head back to a logging road to get to their car but as soon as they reach the road they encounter a half-dozen teeth chomping plague monsters. The dead are even out here! One of the women pulls out a small pistol but is halted by the one with binoculars around her neck.

 

Confident, she tells the woman with the gun, "No, not that. They'll hear us. We don't want the priests hearing. We've got this. Easy!" They pull out hunting knives and make quick work of the gory creepos. 

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Just when they're done, and covered in reeking black and yellow muck, a big, gaudy pickup truck with gigantic wheels pulls up behind them. Their new leader, a strapping man of Hawaiian decent, steps out, satisfied with his subordinates' performance and expecting an update on what's going on at the mission.     

 

At the mission, Leo is obviously unaware of the situation not far beyond the walls. He's escorted back to the dormitory after the odd meeting and he knows he's going to have to wrap his head around this for a while. Strolling past one building, a melodious hymn can be heard from the practicing choir.

 

He walks past a priest raising a Canadian flag up a pole near the crucial water tap. Outside these walls of questionable sanctity it's hell on earth. So, nope, he'll keep his butt parked here. The dude doesn't even want to think about what the Rooster or anyone else is going through out there. But Kate, his kids....he's gotta get them out of hell and back here, somehow. 

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They also walk by someone pulling into the parking lot in a big-ass red motorbike. The rider is the flashiest and most flamboyant priest here, a strapping man with a bushy mustache and wearing a white cowboy hat, also an AK-107 strapped to his shoulder. What a character! He smiles and gives Leo a tip of the hat.

 

Leo's thoughts then shift to the newcomers who arrived the other day.

 

He's eager to talk to the scientist guy, find out what he knows about the virus or whatever killed the world. He also wants to know if Sandlak knows what happened to Kate, since they worked in the same facility.

 

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Leo doesn't get the chance as he's intercepted by Father Michael, who keenly wants to hang out with the dude. In the dining hall Father Michael has a game of chess set up and ready for them.

 

It's been a while since Leo played but he knows where all the pieces are supposed to go. The young priest wants to know what it was like meeting him. Was it exciting? How did Leo feel? The dude advances a d-pawn two squares.

 

Meantime, down south, several soldiers from the research facility have made their way to the hellish streets of Tacoma, Washington. Abandoned cars, all kinds of debris as well as decaying bodies are everywhere.

It's a stifling hot dust bowl out here and the loud wind is like a soundtrack for some....yes....spaghetti western.

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The troops are currently using an old Plymouth Volare wagon. The driver, the young buck Danny, spots something moving from a window of an emptied out Walmart. Seems like it's worth checking out. Yes, the place really is cleaned out.

Even the gift cards were taken, can you believe that? They pull over, grab their machine guns and break open the door for a sweep. The dead have an annoying habit of lurking around every quiet corner, you know.

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It doesn't take long for them to find a husband and wife hiding in a back office. They're tired, hungry and scared out of their wits. They're also, naturally, extremely relieved and thankful for the rescue. They're the last of a group of a dozen survivors who were holding up at a stadium that was overrun.

The dead are everywhere and the couple didn't know if any people were left anywhere.

                         

"You're going to be OK. Everything is OK now. We have a medical centre where you'll be safe. Come with us now, ma'am," one of the soldiers tells the wife, urging them to move quickly. Danny doesn't want to look them in the face.

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Across the street, another survivor, an older man with a bushy beard, and wearing a baseball cap backwards, peeks through a dirty window of an ice cream shop to watch the recuse…but stays silent. It’s Keron, still in possession of that antique short-barreled shotgun.

Something isn't right about these soldiers, he correctly assesses.

 

When the soldiers leave he goes to a back room to sit beside his seven year old grandson, the last of what was a large, close-knit family. Lying on a couch, the sick boy is shivering and his bones feel like they're on fire. The man is dreading the prospect of being all alone.

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The boy opens his eyes, looking at walls covered with colourful posters of happy, delighted kids enjoying tasty ice cream scoops.

His voice and breathing faint, almost not there at all, he asks the powerless granddad, "Why is this happening to me? Why do I have to die?"

The man's eyes well up as he answers, gently stroking the little boy's burning head.

"It's OK. Don't you be scared now. I'll see you up in heaven real soon. Everything has a reason."

It'll all be over very soon.

 

 

shelter

Story by Sandor Gyarmati

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