Characters from ZOAB

The old rickety door swung open with a creak. “Oy Chemy, your door needs oiling’ again!” McCoy called out as he took the can of spray-on lubricant from his tool belt and gave the hinges a bit of ‘the old TLC.’ He swung the door a few more times, then nodded with satisfaction.

Chemy smiled at her cousin and gave him an appreciative nod. “Always the handyman, Mr. McWrench.”

A patron, some traveler McCoy didn’t recognize, cocked an eyebrow. Before the man could ask the tired-out question, McCoy answered. 

“Yeah! My name is McCoy McWrench. I’ve got two ‘McCs’ in my name. What of it? ‘M-C-squared’ was good enough for Einstein, and he was a bloody genius!” He huffed and made his way to the bar.

The Stranger didn’t refute McCoy’s logic, either due to not wanting to provoke him or simply not understanding it.

“Can you get me a pint there, Chemy?” McCoy asked as he slumped onto a bar stool.

“That depends on whether you have come to settle your tab….” Chemy replied with the kind of smile that held no joy. “It’s in the triple digits now.” She added.

“Heeeeeyyyy!” McCoy protested. “I just fixed that squeak in your door, didn’t I?”

Chemy nodded, “Okay, that’s true. That squeak was annoying….”

“So…” McCoy prompted.

“Your tab is back down to just two digits.” Before he could object, Chemy continued. “My herbs don’t grow, my potions don’t mix, and I’m not running a charity. Money is what makes ZOAB go round.”

“But we’re kin!” McCoy rebutted.

“That’s why I let you open a tab, to begin with,” Chemy replied flatly.

“Perhaps…” The Stranger interjected, “We might trade Mr. McWrench… I’ll buy you a beer in exchange for some information.”

McCoy nodded, “Aye… beer for some local gossip seems fair to me. What do you want to know, lad?”

The Stranger paid Chemy for the drink, so she poured McCoy one of his favorites.

“I’m heading for Camp Caldwell–” The Stranger began but was interrupted. 

“‘Camp Caldwell’?” McCoy asked in surprise. “Sorry, friend, it doesn’t exist anymore. Haven’t you ever heard the story about the ‘Survivors of Camp Caldwell’? Oh, ho! It is quite the tale, a warband escaping the very clutching boney fingers of death, led by the Vanguard Tu’ul himself.”

“I haven’t heard about any of that…” The Stranger replied. 

McCoy smiled and took a sip of his beer. “Well, my friend, you’re in for a treat! Since you were kind enough to buy me a drink, I’ll spin a yarn about the ‘Clan of Old Man Joe’ and how they battled the scourge of the Cult of the Rotten One at the fall of Caldwell.”

“So, Camp Caldwell was once a small scouting outpost when humans first came to Vivarium, but it grew as they learned to survive. It was a mere shack on a hill once, but it soon expanded into a thriving city where goods and information could be bought and sold. A shining city on the hill it once was, but sadly nothing has ever been built that the Blight can’t corrupt.”

“The story has it, and it was some fine day. The people were out and about tending to their daily doings… working the fields, plying their craft trades, selling the goods, swapping stories, the usual sort of things… when a sound like a discordant buzzing of insects was carried into town by the blowing wind. Some folks thought it was an approaching storm and ran for cover, but sadly, it was much worse.” 

“The Cult of the Rotten Ones,” they’re called, humans that have gone mad with Blight. The fools think their ‘god’ wants them to spread the mold all over ZOAB! Can you believe it? Most of us work day and night to contain and curtail the mold so that we can survive, and these crazed servants of some Rotted gods want to undo our lifesaving work. Humph! As if the barren wastelands and hostile wildlife weren’t bad enough! Well, the Cult marched on Caldwell on that day. They brought the worst kind of hell with them.”

“Have you ever seen a Karyd up close?” 

The Stranger shook his head.

“No? Well, count yourself lucky, then! Blasted vile things, gigantic, some as tall as three men standing like a totem! And they will eat just about anything. I… won’t specify what I mean by that, given we’re in a reputable establishment.” McCoy nodded in the direction of Chemy. “But… you know what’s worse than even a Karyd? A Karyd, the Cult of the Rotten Ones, has gotten their hands on and turned into a Rot Beacon! They infest the bodies with mold, and it uses them like a giant puppet– meat suit! They’re essentially biological siege weapons! And worse still, they’re never without the Cult’s ‘Warblers’ singing madmen that spread auras of spores from their staves.”

“That’s what the people heard that day. The Warbler’s Song.” The Stranger inquired.

“Yes, you’re right. That’s precisely what the poor people of Caldwell heard that fateful day… the song of the Warblers as they marched Rot Beacons to them. The thought of looking out over the hill and seeing something heading my way, let’s say I have good reasons for drinking as much as I do….”

“Now, this is where the heroes of the tale enter. A clan of four, they were a family of blood and choice…all touched by the gifts of science through cybernetics in unique ways.”

“There was their leader and father, Old Man Joe! A man some claim to be at least seven feet tall with a voice that could shake apart mountains. He carried an ax that could fall a tree with a single swipe. They say Joe was the leader of a raider warband once. The terror of the distant plans that pillaged and murdered all that stood against them until, one day, he encountered a woman like no other. Little is known about Joe’s bride, but they had a daughter ‘Joy’ from their union. Raising Joy changed Joe. Once a man of wanton fury and violence, he became a father of honor and courage. Having a child can alter a parent’s view of the world, from a ruin to be looted to a garden that must be tended.”

“So, he’s single then?” Chemy interrupted suddenly, which drew a look of confusion from McCoy and the Stranger. “What? Seven feet tall, good with kids, AND knows how to handle an ax? He sounds like my type.” She shrugged and went back to cleaning the bar.

McCoy nodded, “Ay… suppose he would be. Anyway, let me tell you about the others… now what Joy lacked in her father’s raw strength, she more than made up for with wisdom. Joy is a healer and shield bearer. She knows how to heal those who are injured, how to treat infections from the Blight, and has mastered the tactics needed to protect herself and others. She is the shield to her father’s axe. Though to hear Joe speak of her, you’d still think she was just his little girl instead of a grown woman that can go toe to toe with some of the nastier creatures we have the misfortune to exist.”

“The twins came as part of honoring a life debt. A man, perhaps an old friend of his, saved Old Man Joe at the cost of his own life. As he laid their dying in Joe’s arms, he begged him to watch over his kin as his own. Now a man of honor, Joe kept his word and still does so. It’s rare in this savage and harsh world for one to be willing to take on extra mouths to feed, but Joe… he is one of the few who would.”

“The girl, Quinn, is a marksman of uncanny aim, agility, and quickness. They say she is keen enough to shoot an arrow into a zombie’s eye at a hundred paces and quick enough to catch it by the fletching before it landed. Her prowess in combat at a distance makes her a fine addition to the warband of Old Man Joe. After all, some zombies burst when killed, so it’s best to have someone pop them from a safe distance.” 

“The final member is quite the handful. Jono… well, rumor has it he is a ‘psychic.’ He has the magic of the mind, enhanced by special implants scavenged from some of the Caretaker’s more ‘exotic’ creations. Supposedly he can ‘talk to fire,’ spark it from nothing and make it follow his every thought choosing whom it burns on a whim. In a world plagued by endless molds, you can no doubt guess just how useful a ‘pyromancer’ could be.”

“So, the four stood shoulder to shoulder with the rest of Caldwell’s defenders. As the Rot Beacons drew closer, the ground began to shake with their thunderous footsteps. As the Warblers followed, their discordant song came to a crescendo. And yet, not one defender fled. Life is short on ZOAB, one learns to stand and defend what they have, or they fall to waste.”

“Old Man Joe and his warband were at the spear’s tip! They rushed forward with weapons raised! Joe got in close and used his mighty voice to blast away the Warblers with a mighty roar! Without their protection of the spore auras, the Rot Beacons were much more vulnerable. Quinn’s arrows and Jono’s fire made quick work of one. Joy marched with her father, shielding him from blow after blow as he jumped into the middle of a pack of Warblers and spun around with his axe like a gusting tornado. If only there had been more like Joe and his warband, Camp Caldwell might still be standing.”

“I take it the tide of the battle turned?” The Stranger speculated.

McCoy nodded sadly. “While the spear of Caldwell stabbed deep into the lines of the Cult, the momentum could not last. As you know, as I do… when a human dies to the Blight, they are denied the blessed mercy of staying that way. For each defender of Caldwell that fell, another soldier for the Cult of the Rotten God rose to fight. Joy noticed their collapsing line and called for everyone to fall back. Not usually the one taking orders and deep in the haze of combat, Joe did not heed her at first, but when Quinn nearly lost her life to the errant swat of a colossal Rot Beacon as she sped her way to him, he quickly relented. 

“Have you ever been in a fight, lad? A real fight in the mud and blood?”

The Stranger nodded in reply.

“Ay, then you know how quickly the tides of battle can shift. The defenders of Caldwell had thrown their all into one offensive push to break the rising wave of the Cult, but in the end, it just wasn’t enough. That was when Old Man Joe and his clan met the legendary Vanguard Tu’ul. He had been organizing the evacuation of the camp. Their only hope was to get to Miler’s Hill. Have you ever heard of it?”

“Yeah, used to be farmlands with windmills, thus the ‘Miler’s’ part. They were forced to militarize and build fortifications to hold back raids.”

“That’s the one! The only hope for salvation for Old Man Joe and his warband was to get behind those sturdy walls before the Rotten God’s Cult armies got them. They had Vanguard Tu’ul to help, but it would be a running fight. Zombies can be surprisingly quick when they have to pray to chase them. That was when… and you will not believe this part….”

The Stranger eagerly led forward, “Yes?”

“That was when a giant–” McCoy was interrupted by a soft cough from Chemy.

“Sorry, fellas closing time. I have gotten cleaned up and call it a night.”

“But I was just getting to the best part!” McCoy protested.

Chemy replied by pointing to the door.

“Aye… right, I’ll tell you about it next.” With that, McCoy hopped off his stool and walked out the door, hoping to meet the Stranger on another day so he could finish the tale… and get another free beer.

Writer by M.J. Kramer

Illustrator and Concept by Zana Arnautovic.

Outline Illustrator by Rafaelo Sales.

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