‘Open 24 Hours,’ the sign read.

Charles pushed the glass door open, leaving a bloody handprint missing part of the left ring finger. Inside, rows of beige washing machines ran down the middle of the space, clothes dryers lined either wall. Staggering to the back, he found a deep sink. With bloody, gloved hands, he turned on the water and began washing the red from his hands and sword. With a start, he froze and dropped his sword in the sink. Bleep. “The zombies bit my finger off!” Washing his left hand more carefully, Charles examined the injury. “I appear to have stopped bleeding, but-” Bleep. “I guess I’ll find out if the regeneration will work on a whole finger, well, half a finger. But still, it’s just wrong to look down and not see a piece of me that’s supposed to be there.” Charles drew in a few audible deep breaths, then grabbed a roll of paper towels to dry his hands.

The camera panned up to the mirror above the sink. It showed Charles’ black hero suit and red-lined cape whose tall collar was folded down at the cheekbone. Sitting on a short post on his left shoulder was the sphere of the omnicam. It pushed the cape back from that side of his body. “I don’t know if any of those zombies were still alive when they attacked. I don’t think they were. But mobbed like that, all I could think about was getting away.” Charles’ gaze and the camera angle shifted back down into the sink. He picked the sword back up out of the water. “The edge is a mess,” he said, picking at the badly chipped blade. Turning off the water, he dropped the sword back in the sink. “I’ll deal with that later. Since I’m in a laundromat, I’ll see if I can finish getting cleaned up.”

Approaching the change machine, Charles fed a bill into it. Quarters rained into the dispenser bin. “I guess it’s still working. I’m sorta surprised no one ripped it off.” He scooped up the coinage. “Okay, Dennis, I hope this cape is machine washable. I have to get some of the blood out. If I had any peroxide, I’d… I can get some from next door.”

Rather than show the walk, the video cut back to the sink where Charles was scrubbing the blood spots on the cape. “With the right amount, peroxide can help stop blood from staining. You do need to not use too much. It’s a wonder what you pick up running into too many fists while owning too few clothes.” The image faded to one of Charles stuffing the cape into a washing machine. “Dennis, I hope this thing is machine washable,” he said before feeding quarters into the mechanism. With a sigh, Charles returned to the mirror at the back of the laundromat.

“I don’t think the noise will attract any zombies, but I can’t be sure. I’m starting to understand better why the hazard teams want to be able to shoot the infected if they’re among a mob of zombies. It went from an empty street to a mob out there in a matter of seconds. I did notice that they preferred to linger in the shade and avoided full sunlight until they were chasing me. I also notice the snipers I thought were watching didn’t shoot. I wonder if it was my proximity or the uncertainty of which might be infected. Either way, I got out in the end.”

Charles drew a few deep breaths. “I need to do something other than watch the door while waiting for the washing machine. So I had some other questions viewers had asked. Might as well try to answer them. One was how I managed to get deliveries from viewers when I never mentioned my address. Well, on the ‘about’ page, I listed a PO Box. I didn’t mention it in videos, and I don’t blame people for not poking though those other pages. So I’ll put it in the description of this video too. I swear none of this has been staged.” He held up his left hand so the camera caught the partially missing finger. “I’m not that dedicated to a bit.”

Lowering his hand, he thought for a moment. “Some people have asked how I thought things were going to play out in the zone. If I’d gotten to the question yesterday I’d probably have a different answer. Today I’m pessimistic. We have the problem that the cordon’s primary purpose is to keep the zombies and the virus contained. With the thousands upon thousands of people who live in the area, there is no way there would have been an orderly test and relocate process. Once people want to get out more than they worry about their stash or other stuff, the cordon will get swamped. And the zombies will definitely be drawn to the crowd. If you let the crowd out untested, the chances of someone infected carrying the virus out gets pretty close to a certainty. The order will be given to keep them in. The crowd will panic and rush the cordon. We will either have a lot of innocent people shot at the cordon, or the zombies broken out by the crowd, and a lot more people outside the cordon will die.”

Charles sighed and looked down into the sink.

He picked up his sword.

“Right now, however, I still have to do my job.” Charles started to say something else, but the video cut before a full syllable was uttered.

* * *

The video started with Charles in his button-down shirt seated in front of his wall of cardboard. He donned a fake smile that didn’t extend to his eyes. “We’ve got something new this time. While the MPD doesn’t seem to have made heads or tails of the crime scene I stumbled on to, someone watching my video seems to have found something. I know that’s vague, but I am still doing this off the cuff. At first I was skeptical, but through our email conversation, he provided the references where he was relying on texts. The biggest problem I have is that these books are pretty rare, and I can’t find a copy I could even access. I did find someone else who had some of these volumes, and the discussion got a bit esoteric for me to follow. Somehow I’ve convinced them both to come on and tone it down for general audiences. So if yes, this will initially stream live, but there should be an archived version once we wrap up. Assuming I get all this working right.”

“I don’t know if your audience can hear you, but I certainly can,” a man’s voice said.

“There’s someone in chat saying that they can hear, so why don’t I introduce you. The first guest I have is actually the second I managed to talk to. Listed as a Master Emeritus of the Society Thaumaturgique and Gezel… gez-” Charles didn’t notice that he’d subtly mispronounced société.

“Don’t worry about it, it’s another magical association in Europe I doubt anyone’s heard of.”

“Anyway, lets get you on screen, this is Martin Van der Veen.”

The image shifted so that Charles’ feed only took up the right half while the left was taken up by the image of a man seated in a plush library. A multitude of stately leather-bound volumes filled hardwood shelves behind him. He was dressed in a dark suit and tie. His black hair had a few flecks of gray. A neatly trimmed beard framed his mouth and ran along the strong line of his jaw. He lounged in a leather backed chair swirling the amber contents of a snifter.

“That’s a nice library, Mr Van der Veen,” Charles said.

“Yes, this one is supposed to be pretty. It’s for guests. I mean if someone managed to destroy this one, I could probably replace it for under half a million.”

Charles blinked in surprise. “Is that a common hazard?”

“The Société Thaumaturgique polices wizards in the Francosphere, and they’re not always happy. Lets just say I’ve had to replace a few houses in my day.”

“I see,” Charles said.

“But, ‘Emeritus’ means I’m not actively in that role anymore. So unless it’s someone just getting out with a grudge, I’ll be fine.”

Charles glanced off to the side of the screen. “It appears our other guest is joining.” He leaned forward to adjust the stream. Van der Veen’s image shrank to occupy the top left quarter of the screen while a new panel appeared below him. It only read ‘Connecting’ with an animated ellipsis. After a long moment, a grainy, pixellated image popped up. It showed the helm and pauldrons of a bulky gray suit of armor. Glowing blue sigils and cuneiform lettering ran along the edges of the armor plates. Four lines of such text ran down the front of the helm below the blue eye lenses. The wall behind this armored visage was bare, rust-stained concrete.

“Apologies,” the warped, resonant voice of the newcomer said, “My connection is not the greatest.”

“I’m guessing you’re running it through a couple of proxies,” Martin said. “Really messes with the latency and the available bandwidth. But then again, you appear to still be hiding behind a mask and codename.”

“I’m surprised you’re not.”

“Uh, let me introduce our second guest,” Charles said, uncomfortable. “I only have the codename of Iron Conjurer, but he was the first to provide any information on the symbols I stumbled onto earlier.”

“He gave you a heap of mistranslations and misinterpretations,” Van der Veen said.

“No mistakes, I gave what it said and who made it,” Iron Conjurer said. His movements in the frame left ghostly after-images until the video caught up to him.

“Anyway, it was this gristly image,” Charles said. His own image retreated to the upper right quarter while the space below was filled by the still of an overturned truck. On the top of the truck was a ring of symbols around a partial skeleton held together by scraps of ligaments and tendon.

“Yes, I unearthed reference to that array of imagery in the Book of the Seventh Chaac-” Iron Conjurer said.

“There are only four Chaac,” Van der Veen said.

“I didn’t write the book.”

“Doesn’t is also contain a fanciful yarn describing the trek of Namtar in Xibalba?”

“I’m not sure why that would be an issue,” Charles said.

“Namtar is from Mesopotamia, Xibalba is from the mythology of Mesoamerica. No culture believed in both at the same time,” Van der Veen said.

“I believe a certain Master Emeritus of the Société Thaumaturgique once said, ‘Myth is a mask worn by reality’,” Iron Conjurer said.

Van der Veen covered his frown with a sip of brandy.

“Anyway, the Book of the Seventh Chaac was only the starting point. It led me to look into past emergences of Devourer Cults.”

“What is a Devourer Cult?” Charles asked. “While the name is pretty straightforward, I want it to be clear for our viewers.”

“Cannibals cloaking their depravity in religion,” Van der Veen said.

“Whether or not they truly believe is unclear,” Iron Conjurer said, “But they do pop up most often around zombie outbreaks. Whether the outbreak causes them, they trigger outbreaks, or they are drawn to them is also uncertain.”

“They are opportunists. The anarchy of an outbreak allows them to indulge their deviance with little risk of immediate discovery.”

“Some accounts indicate that they deliberately infect people with Viral Athananthropy for the purposes of creating ghouls, whom they regard as blessed.”

“Where did you get such an idea?” Van der Veen asked.

“I first saw it in a book titled ‘Cannibal Cults of the Colombian Exchange.’ I think you’re familiar with the author.”

Van der Veen tried to hide his flash of annoyance with another sip of his drink.

“Who wrote it?” Charles asked, innocently.

“I needed quick cash,” Van der Veen said. “It was a sensationalist volume for the general public, and lacking in academic rigor.”

“I did use it to find your sources for that tidbit,” Iron Conjurer said.

“So they either caused it, were drawn to it, or created by it?” Charles asked. “That doesn’t seem to narrow things down.”

“But it does in a way,” Iron Conjurer said. “You are looking for a cult, typically a small one of fewer than a dozen members, who practices ritual cannibalism and holds ghouls to be sacred. This one happens to call itself the Sons of Xolotl.”

“And that is where you have screwed up,” Van der Veen said. “I see where in the markings you pulled that from, but it isn’t their name. They are cursing the children of Xolotl. Which also doesn’t make any sense, because Xolotl has no recorded children.”

“Who is that?” Charles asked.

“An Aztec psychopomp, also recorded as the god of monsters, misfortune, sickness, and deformities,” Van der Veen said.

“Seems appropriate for a zombie outbreak,” Charles said.

“But not appropriate for a Devourer Cult,” Van der Veen said. “If you’re going to glom onto an Aztec deity to justify eating people, Mictlāntēcutli is a better pick, as he was traditionally worshiped with such activities.”

“You are among the handful of people in this country who can pronounce that name correctly,” Iron Conjurer said. “It’s unlikely the cultists studied Nahuatl. And if your premise is correct that their faith is a fig leaf for their activities, they would pick something they have a better shot at pronouncing.”

“Now you’re jumping to unsupported conclusions based upon assumptions.”

“All right, let us assume we have Ivy League educated linguists eating people in the slums of New Port Arthur,” Iron Conjurer said.

“Thats-” Charles started.

“You’ve gone too far in the other direction,” Van der Veen said. “But what our mailed malcontent is trying to say is at least within the general vicinity of the truth. You are looking for a cult with… questionable theological underpinnings that is very much revelling in the grotesquery. Unfortunately, you will need more information to track down where they are hiding. It is probably within the quarantine zone, unless there is a reliable means of bypassing the cordon we are unaware of.”

“There are dozens of ways around the cordon,” Iron Conjurer said.

“For you, for me, but for the average person?”

“Who’s jumping to unsupported conclusions now? What’s to say that they are average?”

“What’s to say they aren’t?” Van der Veen asked.

“Thank you both,” Charles said. “Where would-”

The video feed cut unexpectedly.

It returned from a very different camera.

The grainy, pixellated image had several flaring lights in the background that were all but washing out the scene. It was clearly from a cell phone held in landscape mode, with Charles’ black mask off to one side. Flickering flashes filled the distance with sporatic popping on the audio. With the cheap camera, the streetlights left trails of light across the image as his hand wobbled.

“I got a signal. Looks like it’s from across the river though. Not only is my internet down, so is cell service within the zone. I had to find a roof with a good line of sight to a functional tower. The developments here are not good. It’s not just the communications, it’s, well, Riverside.”

Charles turned the phone to point it more at the image of the distant towers of the housing project. Some of the windows were lit up, but there was a more ominous orange glow behind the front row of towers.

“Riverside is on fire, and that popping is gunfire. I’ve heard enough of it to know.” His statement was punctuated by a long rip of automatic fire. “I don’t know exactly what’s going on over there, but ‘bad’ doesn’t cover this. Either the zombies are swarming the projects, or the gangs are at war with each other.” Charles paused. “Possibly both. Either way, I can’t imagine the body count.”

Charles turned and watched the fire for a moment. The cell phone repositioned so he was no longer in frame, and it only showed the housing project.

“I don’t know if the emergency services can even get to the blaze. With the shooting, they’d have to send the army in first. That would be a complete disaster. You’ve got gang members, zombies, and innocent residents all confined within a complicated and confined vertical environment.” The image shook as Charles made a gesture the phone didn’t pick up. “I do not envy whoever has to make that decision. It’s a lose-lose politically. You’re going to have a slaughter either way. And then you have the demographics of the area. I don’t know how many people lived in the projects, or how many are still there, but…”

Charles turned the camera back to himself.

“I’m going to keep an eye on it, but except for this rooftop, I don’t have a line to the outside world.” The video feed ended.

* * *

Black, acrid smoke roiled into the haze blotting out the otherwise painfully blue sky. Dreary gray concrete facades reached into the fumes. Chain-link encased the balconies meant to serve as hallways. Splotches of rust marred the chain link, adding another dreary color to the towers. the image panned down towards street level where the shadows of the towers mingled with the haze to create a gloomy pall over the pavement.

“I’ve long known to avoid Riverside,” Charles said. “Even before this mess. But before I got off the roof last night, I got a call from the mayor himself. I don’t know if people are refusing to enter the zone, or if he’s unwilling to order people in, but apparently I’m the only one the city’s got inside the cordon. No one moved to do anything to Riverside, and the smoke’s messing with their drones. So they want me to take a look.”

Charles snorted.

“I need more hazard pay for this. Anyway, internet and phones are still down. I don’t know if or when I’ll be able to upload this video. Hopefully it’s not going to end up posted posthumously.”

Charles drew in a deep breath.

“All right, enough stalling. I have to see what went down.” He emerged from the shadowed alley where he’d been hiding and quickly crossed the open pavement to the gap between the nearby towers. From this new vantage, the sources of the smoke were no longer obstructed. Fires still burned within the concrete edifaces, spewing forth the thick clouds from windows, balconies, and any other openings available. The image panned down the building, past the orange glow and the unburned lower floors. On the pavement were the bodies, strewn about in tangled clumps. Charles inhaled sharply as the camera panned about, taking in the field of the dead.

“Um… well.. from this distance… it looks like… a good number of these were clearly zombified before they were shot. The others… well, I can’t tell. They could have been zombies, but they could have been residents caught between the fires, the zombies, and the shooters.” Drawing in a deep breath, Charles steadied himself and started forward. Picking his way through the field of corpses, he investigated the carnage. “I don’t know enough to determine which of these, um, marginal cases were already zombies before they were shot. But it looks like most, if not all of these were shot.”

“Da-” bleep, “-? Tights? What the-” bleep, “- are tights doing here now? Where were you before?”

Charles looked up at the voice, spying a lone figure on a balcony of an unburnt tower. His features were shrowded in shadow, but the profile of his Kalashnikov stood out against his white shirt. As the figure chambered a round, Charles broke into a run. A rip of automatic fire chewed on the pavement at Charles’ heels until the shooter released the trigger to avoid losing control of the rifle. The second burst tore into the corner of the burning building Charles ducked behind, scattering concrete chunks in plumes of dust.

Bleep, bleep, bleep, Charles’ muttered profanity was censored out. “I ran the wrong way,” he said, casting about the smoke and the bodies for an easy way out. “I don’t know if he’s coming after me… but…” Charles fell silent for a moment, picking his way to an alley between two smoldering highrises. “But he has a point. Where are the licensed heroes? They used to be all over the zone, and this is the sort of event they’d swarm towards. Why am I the only one on-site? I get the army and the fire department not moving in, but the Community Fund? This is exactly the sort of situation they handle.”

Emerging from the alley, Charles stopped before yet another concrete wall. Spalled sores revealed rusted rebar that stained the concrete red, but not as red as the blood. Scrawled sigils surrounded the carcass staked on the face of the wall. Looking down the row, he spotted another, and another, embraced in tendrils of smoke and crucified on concrete.

“The cult has been busy,” Charles said.