Monthly Archives: October 2013

Guilt

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For some it is a tide, the gentle sea circling our ankles as sand swirls about our toes. For others, it is a wave that crashes into us, threatening to knock us to the ground. But it is when the waters ebb that we should be wary. It is when the sand is dry and the shells lie there, bleached upon the shores that we should be warned. For it is then that the ocean can catch us unawares, dragging us inexorably out to sea. I was caught in the waters, caught in the current. And now because of my stupidity, because of my recklessness, because of my loss of control, it’s very likely that I will drown. I can only hope that no one else will be dragged into the depths.

Alexa stared down at her drink, watching how it turned into liquid gold as candlelight flickered across the wooden bar. Shadows formed and twisted in the dim room, ever changing and ever present. They clustered in, suffocating her as she took another sip. The taste of fire and cinnamon burned her tongue and throat, clouding her thoughts as her eyes flickered toward the door—the gate into the Earth, the gate into the ground, the gate into peace and chaos and death.

She set down the glass, a small clink sounding against the surface of the table. Why had she done it? There was logic there, yes—the type of logic that belongs to someone who is desperate or dying. But there was no reason. She shouldn’t have struck the blow—at least not in that way.

I used them.

Alexa stared at the whirls of wood, studying the patterns that flowed and swirled across the surface of the bar. It was smoothed by hands and drinks, by craft and trade. Words came unbidden to her mind, replaying as they had a hundred times before—the words that came and left and came again. Why?

It pressed down on her, weighed on her mind. It made her shoulders curve as her fingers ran across the smooth rim of her glass. It squeezed and pushed: the feeling of guilt. She took another sip, more fire washing down her throat.

She lost control, she lost herself—whoever that might be. She couldn’t afford to do it again. She couldn’t afford to let emotion sweep her away into its fold and drag her downward to that place. It was dangerous—to her and those around her. Power came with a price, and she wasn’t willing to pay that toll—not with their blood.

So why did I do it?

A mirror. A face. A reflection. It was you there. It was you screaming on the ground. It was you crying in pain. It was your blood and your agony and your sorrow. It was all you, Alexa. It was all you.

You can no longer run.

I will no longer hide.

I am Alexa King. And no one else will pay for my mistakes.

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The Dreamers

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It was the type of day that only existed in dreams—a perfect summer’s day. The willow trees next to the river swayed in a gentle breeze, slim leaves rustling. Cicadas buzzed nearby, their sleepy drone mingling with the chirps of sparrows and the high trills of mockingbirds. Mourning doves cooed to one another, and the gentle lap of the water sounded peacefully against the muddy shore.

A man sat there, the sun warming his dark coat as he adjusted one of the two fishing poles nearby. Ripples moved outward from the corks in the water, the light catching the thin lines cast into the river. If they were lucky, they’d catch something. But even if they didn’t, it wouldn’t matter too much. After all, they were there for the experience—to enjoy the day.

His eyes wandered toward his companion—a young girl with hair that glinted gold in the sunlight. She was busy now, her hands rummaging through the picnic basket they had brought with them. Several apple cores already littered the grass, remnants of their lunch. He felt a smile tug at the corners of his lips as he remembered how she had spat the seeds into the river, curious exactly how far she could make them fly.

The girl suddenly looked up at him, blue eyes narrowing as she stuffed a sandwich into her mouth. She chewed noisily for a moment before swallowing. The southern twang of her young voice rose above the general hum of the summer’s day, “An’ what’re y’all staring at?”

The man shrugged, his voice sounding polished to even his own ears as he responded, “Oh, nothing. Just wondering what the rest of them might be dreaming about.”

The girl raised one eyebrow as she continued munching her sandwich. Crumbs scattered on her lap, falling on the homespun cloth. She wiped her mouth with the back of her hand, shaking her head as she replied, “Believe me. Y’all don’t wanna know. Ya got some pretty messed up folk in that town of yers.”

The man raised his eyebrows in return, leaning forward to grab one of the sandwiches from the basket for himself. He pulled one out as he smirked, “Bold as brass, ma’am. Bold as brass.”

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Rosemary was in a house—a house without a name, a house without end. The hallways stretched in front of her, always the same. Flaking, golden sconces gleamed on the walls. Paintings hung at intervals, always displaying the same proud faces—always showing men and women with diamonds and feathers and sneers.

Her steps echoed down the corridors, heeled shoes tapping across wooden floors and faded rugs. Her skirts swished against her ankles, flowing behind her as she continued walking forward, ever forward through the house. She was there for a reason, after all—for a purpose.

A sound—the faintest of noises—made her pause. She hesitated at a door as it came again, louder this time. It was the sound of a cry, the sound of a child—a baby. That’s when she realized the true reason she was in the house, the true reason for her endless walk through the corridors and hallways.

She had to find that child.

Rosemary turned the handle of the door, opening it gently and peering inside. A few leather couches lay in the dusty room, the same faded paintings on the walls, the same faded rugs on the floor. But there was no baby, no nursery. She quickly shut the door and turned, listening.

The cry came again, fainter this time. Did it come from the right? No, the left. Rosemary turned and began walking again. Her breath caught in her throat as she tried another door, her fingers once more turning the handle as she peered inside—more chairs, more paintings. She closed the door and listened. There.

She walked forward, up a flight of stairs, past more flaking, golden sconces, down another hallway, past rows and rows and rows of doors with more chairs, more paintings, more dust and decay. The cries were closer now, closer than they’d ever been. Rosemary felt her heart begin to race, her brow creasing as she continued to search. The baby had to be there, had to be close. She had to find it—to find him or her. She had to comfort the child. Up more stairs, past a crystal chandelier, across the faded rugs, down one flight of stairs, past another corridor. So close.

Rosemary found herself in front of a door. The door. Her hand reached out, her fingers trembling as she grasped the smooth handle. It was just like every other one she’d tried so far. But somehow, some way, she knew this was the right one. She closed her eyes, the cries becoming even louder in her ears. It turned into a wail that went on and on and on as it echoed through the empty house.

She opened the door.

There was no baby.

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It was good to be on top—seriously good to be on top. Johnny stood at the apex of a golden pyramid, the dry air whipping his robes around him as he folded his arms across his chest. The sky stretched above him—endless and blue and perfect (maybe not as perfect as he was, of course). Despite the brightness of the day, there was no sun. But that didn’t surprise him. After all, he was the sun: the God of the Sun. He was the master of all he beheld—and all of Vegasia stretched out before him. It was, most definitely, good to be on top.

He smiled, a smile that he knew would brighten the lives of everyone below him (and there were a lot of people below him). They milled around the bottom of the pyramid, eyes turned upward to behold him in all of his glory and magnificence (there was a lot of both). He could see them go about their daily business, walking across streets and into gambling dens and through bars.  How little they seemed with their chips and their gems and their bright clothes. How tiny they were and how insignificant—at least compared to him. Then again, who could really compare to how amazing and awesome and…

That’s when the first pickle hit him. It smacked him across the face, sour juice dripping down his chin. The pickle—and it definitely was a pickle—bounced away as it rolled down the side of the golden pyramid. He watched it, dumbfounded as it eventually stopped at the bottom of the structure, coated with dust and grime. There were only two words he could utter in this situation. Only two words that could describe exactly what had happened to him.

“The fuck?”

A second pickle hit him, then a third, and a fourth. He was suddenly being bombarded by pickles. They weren’t normal-sized ones, either. They were tiny ones—about an inch in size. They were dark green and light green and that slightly yellowish color that old pickles sometimes become. They smacked him in the face and the arms. They stained his robe with pickle juice as he fruitlessly tried to bat them away.

“What the hell?!”

That’s when he saw who was throwing them: women. Dozens and dozens of women. They tossed the offending pickles at him, screaming wordlessly as they did. They were faceless, nameless—and they were all naked.

Johnny stared at them—the God of the Sun, the Master of all he beheld—as he was slowly, but surely, buried under pickles.

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Smiles floated.

Currents whirled beneath and through her, swirling around her body as the waves lapped at her fingertips and toes. She floated as the sea breeze blew in eddies above her and caught the clouds high above in strange patterns. She floated as she wondered if they had a meaning—if the life of the sky and the wisps of vapor had a purpose or if they were all, like her, floating within the vastness of the world and the sea.

Smiles’ hair fanned out around her as she turned her head to look toward the horizon. There were others there, playing amidst the sea foam. Their bones were made of coral, their eyes of pearls: sea nymphs that danced beneath the ocean as sand glittered within their hands. Smiles did not smile, but she felt something—stirring. It lurked within her depths, full fathom five, the memory of a thought of feeling.

It was peaceful there in the waves and the sea. She swirled her fingers through the water, her loose skin catching against the current. There was no noise, no sound. There was only the feeling of it all around her and through her.

The bones were unexpected, but seemed natural there amidst the foam. They floated, bleached by sun and sand. They bumped against her body, brushed against her hands. There were femurs and ribs and skulls with their gaping sockets. Teeth bobbed past thigh bones and finger bones and back bones.

Smiles closed her eyes as the peace surrounded her, as the sun warmed her face, as she floated.

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Dakota always enjoyed the leaves this time of year. They spiraled down around her: red and gold and brown and orange. They formed patterns on the ground, crunching beneath her feet as she walked through the forest. Dappled sunlight filtered through the dark branches of the trees, warming her hair and skin. She could almost ignore the fact that the light was getting darker, that the air was getting colder—that she was lost in the woods.

She wasn’t sure exactly how long she’d been walking—only that it had been a while. Brambles caught at her jeans, scratching at her legs. She glanced around her as she passed more trees, more leaves. A crow cawed in the distance, its mournful cry sounding through the silence. She didn’t know where she was—she didn’t know why she was here.

That’s when the panic started. Her heart beat faster, adrenaline making her dizzy as she picked up her pace. The forest was becoming darker around her, the shadows lengthening as the sunlight turned from gold to burnt orange. The branches seemed to become more threatening, turning claw-like as the leaves crumbled into dust.

She began to run. She had no idea what she was running from or running to, but she knew she had to keep moving. Her arms pumped at her sides as freezing air blasted her face. Her breathing came in short gasps as she tried to remember why she was there and where she was. Frost spiraled across tree trunks, snaking through the forest in an icy glaze as she pushed forward.

The rock came out of nowhere. It tripped her, tangling her legs beneath her as she fell to the ground. She felt a large jolt as her shoulder slammed into a fallen branch, making her cry out in pain. There was dirt suddenly in her face, dark earth that seemed to stifle her as she struggled to rise from the ground. The cold was all around her now, choking her as her breath formed clouds in the air.

A hand suddenly came into her line of vision—pale, familiar. Dakota jerked her head to look up at a man with a flushed face. She blinked, surprised. The face was wrong; he was wrong. He should have had dark circles beneath dark eyes, should have had no color, no spark of life. And yet there he was—alive.

The man offered a faint smile, “Do you need a hand?”

Dakota realized her mouth was hanging open and quickly snapped it shut, her teeth clacking together. She lay there for a moment, stunned, and then she reached upward and grasped the man’s fingers. They felt warm in hers—so different from what she remembered. He pulled her upward as the frost melted away around them.

The man arched a brow, looking over her stained jeans and dirtied shirt as he spoke in his foreign voice, “Are you quite all right? No broken bones? Everything in order?” He offered another smile, “Don’t need to call a doctor, do we?”

Dakota felt herself smiling in response, the expression spreading across her features. Even if she had wanted to, she wouldn’t have been able to hide it.

“Doin’ all right now. Doin’ just fine.”

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“Do you know what they are?”

Alexa glanced upward, her eyes gazing over the twinkling lights above. The night air caught in her throat as her breathing flowed with the wind. Grass swayed around her, brushing her fingers and tickling her arms as she sat in the middle of the field.

She didn’t look at the speaker as she replied, her voice murmuring across the space, “Some say they are the spirits of dead warriors. Others say that they are glow bugs that flew too high and became stuck. Someone else once told me that they are the lights of ships in the heavens, the homes of people that live in the sky.”

“And what do you think?”

Alexa closed her eyes, warmth suddenly flooding through her. The cold was gone now—the autumn air no longer biting through her clothes. It was summer, and a gentle breeze played through her hair, “I don’t think it matters.” She paused for a moment, a smile tugging at her lips. A hand suddenly came to rest on her own, fingers intertwining with hers. She opened her eyes and glanced over toward her companion, suddenly realizing that she wasn’t quite sure who he—or she—was. Blond hair shifted to brown and then back again. Green eyes changed to blue and then brown. It didn’t matter, though. He smiled at her.

They remained there, sitting—quiet, but comfortable. The night air whispered to them, blowing the scents of fresh grass and leaves and green things. Alexa squeezed her companion’s hand and then continued, “What really matters is what they mean. What really matters is that we can sit here and look up at the stars.”

The lights suddenly poured around them, falling to the ground. The field lit up in a silver glow, shining in the night. They were now flowers, blooming, chasing away the shadows and the darkness and the cold. And yet they lurked there—on the edges.

They waited.

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It was the memory of a birth—painful and bloody. It was the memory of a life—short and sorrowful. It was the memory of a death—lovely and sweet.

Voices screamed. Voices cooed. Voices shouted and yelled and cried. Voices said everything and voices said nothing in the darkness of the depths of the tomb. Within the ground and within the earth, they stirred and dreamed and trickled through the cracks. Their hopes and wants and desires and needs all pooled together and became part of it all—became part of something more and something less as their very selves were lost in the tide. A grain of sand upon the shore. A drop of water within the ocean.

Sorrow and regret and agony spiraled together, swirling in a whirlpool. Laughter mingled with shrieks—the sounds of the sane and the insane. It didn’t matter which they were. After all, everyone and no one was the same when they came here.

Here. Here it was in darkness. They grasped and pulled and pleaded. They tore and threatened and cried. They wanted life, they wanted breath they wanted sunlight and air and wind. Their minds were gone, their minds were there, their minds were ours. They were a part of it and a part of us. And with them, they were one.

They dreamed the dream of death.

We dreamed the dream of death.

Goodnight, my lovelies.

Runner

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The feeling of wind against my face, the pounding of the earth against my feet, the sound of breathing in my ears: all of these things are a part of my existence—my very being.  But what happens when the path is barred? What happens when my ankle finally snaps? It’s only now that I stop to consider what will happen when I can no longer run.

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It was dark within the earth, cold within the grave, peaceful within the morgue, quiet within the ground. Shadows flickered across the earthen walls, candlelight filtering down the stone stairs from the room above. Alexa leaned against a brick column as she watched the others: the ageless man, the girl who never smiled, the woman who never stopped smiling. All three of them huddled together on one of the benches in the makeshift tomb, their hushed conversation mingling with the silent whispers of those long since passed.

Her eyes scanned over their solemn faces, each in turn. Bowed heads and murmured words seemed to be the norm for this place. Was she intruding? Perhaps—she usually was. For a moment, she wondered if she should take the stone steps back upward—into starlight and moonlight and shadow.

“Alexa, can I ask you a few questions?”

The name made her turn her head toward the girl who spoke. Dark eyes stared out from beneath a black mask and brown hat. The white smile that was permanently etched across her stoic features grinned out at her from the darkness. Alexa shifted her weight, pushing off from the column as she walked toward the group—the better to hear them, “Yes?”

“Would you mind telling me how you died? Your experience in the Gravemind.”

The question caught her off guard, even though it shouldn’t have. She knew that the girl had been collecting stories—information. Alexa remained silent for a moment, her eyes flickering over the others present. The woman in pink was looking at her curiously, wide eyes staring. The other kept his shadowed eyes firmly downcast, refusing to look at her. Something shot through her for a moment, her heart clenching. Guilt, perhaps?

He doesn’t want to hear—not really. Neither does the other one. Do I really owe her this?

It wasn’t personal—wasn’t specific. Alexa was the reflection and the shadow rather than the real thing. It wasn’t her experience—it was everyone’s and no one’s at the same time. She was a conduit.  And perhaps I do owe her. She was there, after all—an apology is necessary, or at least some kind of trade.

Besides, I can’t run from it forever.

Alexa moved forward, taking a seat on one of the benches. The wood creaked beneath her as she leaned forward to look at the girl in the mask. She felt her mind wander back to that place—the one where she never wanted to go again. Then she locked the door—and there was simply nothing. She no longer noticed the way the woman in pink stared at her. She no longer cared that he kept his face carefully averted, eyes unwilling to meet her own. Her voice sounded hollow even to her own ears as she spoke.

“What do you want to know?”

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Alexa felt her breath catch in her throat, her limbs trembling as she took one more step. Her heart thrummed in her chest, pounding as she realized that only thing keeping her upright was the sheer rush of adrenaline.  Something slick and wet dripped down her arm, coating the inside of the plates strapped to her. Blood. Something in the back of her head told her it should be painful, that she should be stumbling or falling.

Instead, she took another step.

The battle raged around her, screams and cries echoing through the air as gunshot and smoke and the clash of steel against steel rang across the darkened field. The grass was slick underfoot, water and blood and mud mixing together to form a soup that threatened to pull the unwary off their feet. Moonlight cast everything in silver as darkened bodies fell and bled and died.

Alexa adjusted the grip on her blade, her fingers wrapping around the familiar leather as she glanced to her right. A tall man stood next to her with his shield and sword. Strips of flesh hung from his face and arms, blood dripping from his lips. He looked back at her, grinning with rotten teeth—laughing in the face of danger. That’s Stew for you.

Her eyes shifted to take in the red haired man next to him, militaristic armor strapped to his thin frame. His face was serious, unyielding. Alexa felt a smirk tug at the corner of her lips as a thought flitted through her mind. You’d never think he had hollow bird bones.

That’s when the next wave hit.

They came from the woods, dark shapes forming from the shadows. Alexa caught a whiff of them—the smell of salt and sea and wind. The smell of home. They charged, blades gleaming in the faint light. And then Alexa was in the heart of the storm.

She whirled and ducked, watching out of the corner of her eye as Stew and Yossarian battled alongside her. Her breathing sounded harsh in her ears as she knocked away a blade aimed for her throat, instead plunging her own sword into the person’s chest. She caught a glimpse of sea green eyes before the man stumbled and fell.

The battle continued. Her breathing became harder as she rounded back toward Stew, her legs slowing. She couldn’t keep this up forever—couldn’t run forever. Her eyes flickered over the others around her, watching as they worked and fought and battled against the tide.

And yet there was no time to pause. Alexa darted through the crowd of people, moving behind the enemy—they didn’t even seem to see her. They rarely do. She threw herself out of the way of a club, her blade turning and flashing as she plunged it into someone else’s back. There was resistance—the feel of cutting through meat—and then she was free again. There was no thinking involved, no worries. There was only the will to survive—the will to live.

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Moonlight silvered the branches of the trees, coloring the leaves grey as the night sky opened up above them. Thousands of twinkling stars winked amidst their velvet cushion, shining in the biting autumn air. A chill wind caught clothing and hair, twisting and turning it as the figures walked across the path. Their footsteps padded silently across the gravel, barely heard within the cover of night.

Alexa remained silent as she listened to their conversation, her eyes glancing first to one, then the other. It was odd company: the Emperor, the Scholar, the Yorker. And yet somehow they worked together—seemed to blend and mold to the darkness. She felt as if she was the odd one out, the one that didn’t belong.

Is that really surprising?

Their feet turned to move across grass, the blades catching at their ankles as they walked through the night. Alexa allowed herself to take a deep breath of the cold air, filling her lungs with the smells of smoke and wood and spice and earth. A voice interrupted her thoughts, quiet and serious.

“I believe that the financial issues should be solved with the Banks’s and the VanBurens. I don’t like it when outside forces meddle in certain affairs.”

Alexa glanced at the speaker out of the corner of her eye. His hat was set at a jaunty angle on his head; his clothing was fashionable—if a bit worn. Yet his face remained impassive, his eyes hard and glinting in the dark.

Alexa nodded faintly, keeping her own voice to a low murmur, “I’m sure they’ll appreciate that. Thank you.”

There was a pause and then he spoke again. Alexa didn’t lift her eyes to look at him, didn’t bother to turn her head. But she could feel his eyes on her, making the hairs on the back of her neck prickle. It pinned her, keeping her from walking—from running.

“I heard something about a Toy Box.”

Careful. Alexa cleared her throat slightly, eyes shifting to look at the tree line—anywhere but at his face, “That is an issue that I’m planning on dealing with. Don’t worry, it will be handled.” He shouldn’t have to worry about it—it’s not his problem, after all.

She was met with silence. Alexa cast a quick look toward him again, noting how his mouth hardened, how his eyes became steely. She wondered, for a brief moment, if she had offended him in some way—if she should apologize. But why would he care? I’m not important, overall. I’m a tool. Her mind flipped through the possibilities, wondering what the answer was. Does he want me to ask for help?  To thank him? She did go over his head—did tell the woman in Ripton. Irritated by insubordination? That was the most likely. Tread carefully.

He abruptly turned his gaze away; the moment was over. Alexa gave a quiet sigh as his step quickened, as he moved away. Perhaps he really was insulted. After all, there should be information for information.

But this is something I’m not willing to share—especially not in front of an audience.

Their steps faded into the distance, the conversation continuing where it left off. All that was left of their passing were a few bent stalks of grass, the remnants of a shadow.

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The woman was looking at her—staring at her. Grey-green eyes that reminded her of waves and sea and wind peered past and through her. Alexa felt a chill run through her as she stared back in kind, keeping her face expressionless. The woman’s lips were moving, half-formed words barely heard above the voices around her.

“You can no longer run, Alexa. You can no longer run.”

Gunshot

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This was a writing exercise done by myself and Ericka Skirpan. The Alexa sections are done by yours truly while the Rosemary sections are done by Ericka. Enjoy!

Late afternoon light slanted through the clear windows, filling the lavish room with a warm glow. Threadbare rugs carpeted the floor, embroidered with swirling patterns of leaves and vines. Cracked leather couches and sofas provided opportune places to lounge, new pillows barely disguising the worn material. Pictures hung along the walls and a few toys lay strewn across the ground: metal trains, a few marbles, a china doll.

Alexa tried not to fidget as she stood near the wall of the large room, her eyes directed forward as she was taught to do. Back straight. Shoulders back. Feet apart. Hands behind your waist. Don’t slouch. Don’t smile. Don’t speak. Don’t cry. In front of her, a boy and two girls chatted with one another, ignoring her completely. Necklaces sparkled at the girls’ throats. Cufflinks flashed at the boy’s wrists. It was a sharp contrast to her own clothing, black and dour as always. Not that I want to look like them, anyway. Their voices rose and fell, mingling with one another as the boy placed a hand on the older girl’s arm—a gentle touch that showed he cared.  Or at least that’s what he wants her to think. The younger girl was clutching a pillow, her dark eyes glazed as she stared at something that they couldn’t see.

Alexa wasn’t quite sure what she was doing there. It wasn’t as if she could be much use, and the other servants were far better trained than she was.  But James had asked her to be there—told her to be there. And she always did what James told her to do.

Her eyes flickered toward the metal case on the ground next to her. She knew what was inside it—guessed what he wanted to do with it. But she could only imagine what the others’ reactions would be.

A voice suddenly brought her back to attention, commanding and loud, “Rook, bring me the case.”

Alexa shifted her gaze to look at the boy who had spoken—James. His blue eyes stared out at her from a face framed by reddish hair. Sharp cheekbones angled toward a mouth pressed into a thin line. He might have been handsome if he ever looked anything other than petulant. Unfortunately for him, he didn’t.

Alexa’s eyes shifted away from him and toward the metal case resting beside her. Thin lines ran across its surface, burnished clasps holding it closed. She picked it up, her small hands barely fitting around the smooth handle. Wordlessly, she walked over. After all, she had a part to play.

James smirked, teeth glinting for a moment as he turned away from her and to the two girls next to him, “I think you’ll enjoy seeing what’s inside. It was a birthday present from my father.” He reached over, resting a hand on the older girl’s arm, “You’re more than welcome to have a go with it yourself, if you like.”

The older girl smiled in return. She was pretty—but then, all Purebloods were with their perfect hair and clothes. Dark curls framed a pale face with bright blue eyes that lit up as she spoke, “What is it, James? Oh, do tell.”

He shook his head, eyes flickering to look toward Alexa again, “You’ll see.”

Alexa moved forward, setting the case down next to James. She kneeled, carefully flicking open the clasps with a snapping noise before lifting the lid. She saw the children’s faces light up—or at least two of them. The youngest girl seemed to be more intent on staring at the ceiling rather than the contents of the case. Alexa lifted the metal container again to display to the others.

The older girl breathed in slightly, eyes widening, “Is that…?”

James nodded, a grin spreading across his face, “Yes. It’s my first gun.”

Alexa had to admit the weapon was beautiful. The metal gleamed faintly in the dim light, engravings standing out to show swirling designs and a stylized crown. There were gold inlays on the handle, patterned for a firmer grip. It was a gun fit for a king—or at least a prince.

This isn’t going to be pretty.

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Can he use it?

The eldest in the room tried not to let the moment of shock and fear betray itself on her features. Clearly, the younger boy was happy – outright proud of his birthday gift. It would do no good to seem dismayed—not to the boy she wished to please more than anyone in the world.

“They’re… very dangerous, aren’t they, James? Your father must trust you very much to give you something like that…” Rosemary carefully selected her words, being ever cautious to only say the nicest things. After all, if she had nothing nice to say then she might as well not say anything at all. She even pushed a smile onto her lips in fascination of it all. But she kept her blue-green eyes cast downward, her worry hidden behind carefully darkened lashes.

“Of course. I’m a man now. All men own guns. I’ve used them on the shooting range plenty of times before.” There didn’t seem a shred of doubt in James’ young, proud voice, still on the edge of cracking here and there. “Want to see me shoot it?” The boy’s hand darted for the box, quickly reaching for the gun. His fingertips shook in excitement, all too eager to show off his prized possession.

Rosemary’s teal eyes snapped up to the little blonde girl who held the box out. Her more protective instincts kicked in quickly. She didn’t get through years of managing half a dozen siblings without knowing how to avert disaster before it happened, “Rook, don’t you think it’s better we take this outside? Close the box so we can carry it safely!”

But Rook wasn’t hers to command. Rook was his. Just like the gun was his. Happy pride turned to sharp temper in the blink of an eye as James’ hand smacked the box down onto the floor and out of Rook’s hands before she could close it. The tall girl jumped a bit at the sharp sound, bracing for some horrid accident to come.

James’ eyes narrowed, his voice showing no hint of the affection that was there before, “I can shoot it wherever I like. I know how to be safe, Rosemary.”

The noise had finally gained the attention of the youngest, Elizabeth. Her widely dark eyes stared at the others, jerked from whatever dream world she had been involved in. A bright, guileless smile suddenly bloomed across her face, “Shoot it, James. I want to see!” Now that her attention had been gained, it would not be lost until she’d gotten what she wanted. There wasn’t much difference between James and Elizabeth at the end of the day.

Rosemary exchanged a single look with Rook, trepidation in her eyes which she quickly hid away beneath a beaming, pink lipped smile. She scooped herself up off the floor in a spill of ruffled white skirts and pearls. “Of course, James, you’re right. You know where best to handle it, you always know what is best. Will you show me? The safest, best way to shoot! Teach me, please? I don’t know anything about the bloody things and you’re so well practiced…” She beamed at him, her husband-to-be, the heir of the King family: handsome, young and petulant. She gave him the most adoring smile she knew how. He was smart, strong, and rich. He was everything she wanted. Why couldn’t she just enjoy it?

Yet somehow already, she knew something was deeply wrong…

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Don’t make a sound.

That’s what she’d learned over the past two years. There was no point in protesting, no point in arguing. You were liable to make things worse if you kicked up a fuss. Instead, it was better to fade into the shadows—better for him not to notice you. Be one of the walls. Be a piece of furniture.

Just don’t let him notice you.

Alexa knelt down next to the case that James had knocked out of her hands. She deftly replaced the bullets that had fallen free from their slots, not making eye contact with the red-haired boy or the two dark-haired girls next to him. She then silently stood and took a step back, planning to take her position back by the doorway. Unfortunately, his voice stopped her.

“Rook, load the gun.”

Alexa jerked back toward the three other children. James was watching her expectantly, his arms folded in front of his chest. The older girl—Rosemary—was staring at her with wide eyes. Her pale hands twisted in front of her as she played with a string of pearls, “I…know that you can shoot it anywhere, James. But truly, shouldn’t we go outside? I’d love to see the shooting range.”

That’s not going to work. She already tried that tactic.

James turned to look at the girl, his brow creasing faintly before it smoothed once more, “The one thing that you should know about handling a gun is that you can do it safely anywhere. You just have to know how. Besides…” James paused for a moment, a smirk turning the corners of his mouth upward, “How am I supposed to learn to defend you if we only practice on the shooting range? Rook, load the gun.”

Alexa hid a grimace as she knelt down again. Her fingers fumbled with the bullets as she carefully placed first one, then two, then three inside the chamber of the gun. With a snap, she closed it. Her fingers slid over the handle of the weapon and for a moment, she wondered what it would be like to shoot it—what it would be like to pull the trigger.

“The gun, Rook.”

Alexa stood and handed the weapon over to James, making sure that the safety was still on. She glanced to the other girls; Elizabeth was practically bubbling with excitement, her hands grasping one another as she beamed at James. Rosemary looked more worried, a faint frown creasing her porcelain face.

“Now go stand by the wall.”

Alexa turned, the hairs on the back of her neck standing on end as every instinct she had told her not to show her back. She slowly walked toward the wall before leaning against it, facing the other children once more. She knew what he expected.

Rosemary’s voice suddenly spoke up, trembling slightly as Alexa tried to remain as still as possible, “James, what are you going to do exactly?” She took a step forward—as if almost involuntarily.

She should remain where she is.

James flashed a smile at Rosemary as he aimed the gun toward Alexa. There was the faint clicking noise as he disengaged the safety and then sighted down the barrel, “Second lesson, Rosemary. A gun is only as good as the man who wields it. In the right hands, it can be safe—it can’t harm anyone you don’t want it to.”

Rosemary’s brow creased further as she took another step toward James, “Please, James. This isn’t…”

The gun went off.

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There are moments in a child’s life where they decisively grow up. They age years within seconds. The first time a child falls out of love is one of those moments. The moment the gun went off, Rosemary Banks no longer loved James King.

She couldn’t hold back a brief yelp of surprise and the tight flinch of her body in response to the loudest sound she’d ever heard. She held her eyes tightly shut though she could not remember closing them – she didn’t want to see the blonde girl’s blood everywhere against the wall and on the floor. If she didn’t open her eyes, maybe it wouldn’t be real. The boy she loved would not have shot the childhood companion she’d never known anywhere but at his side. He wouldn’t be showing off the ability to kill her like some prized possession.

“James… that wasn’t… necessary.” She breathed out sickly, no admiration in her voice for the moment –nothing but disgust and confusion. Instinctively, her arm reached out to gather the young Elizabeth against her side, trying to guide the young, laughing girl away from the sight.

“I told you I was a good shot. I had to prove it. Look, you can barely see the hole in the wall!” James crowed proudly, still not even looking at his bride-to-be but across the room to the small hole exactly two inches above Alexa’s head in the cracked wall behind her. He set the safety back on the gun, just as he was taught, and lowered it to his side.

“The wall?” Rosemary whispered. Her eyes fluttered back open and stared over the grisly scene to find… nothing. No blood. No death. She vaguely realized she should have known the truth when she didn’t hear a body hitting the floor or a cry of pain, but her ears still rang from the shot and everything seemed distant and surreal. Elizabeth shrugged out of her arms and applauded happily for her brother, kissing his cheek loyally and muttering something in congratulations.

Rosemary stared at Alexa numbly across the gorgeous hall for several long heartbeats. She searched that young, thin face for any acknowledgment of fear over what had happened. Nothing. The girl seemed half dead, more a part of the wood work and furniture than an actual living, breathing child across from her. Had she even flinched?

“Rook, I am glad you are uninjured. I should have never doubted.” She finally corrected herself, plastering a fresh smile back on her face as she turned back to James.

All of Rosemary looked adoringly at the thirteen-year-old boy, just as she had done a hundred times before. Her smile, her expression, all of her—except her eyes. All admiration had fled from them.

Perhaps this wasn’t the happily ever after it was supposed to be…

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Be still as a stone. Silent as the grave.

Alexa remained in her position, her ears still ringing from the blast of gunshot. It had been close this time—very close. He was obviously getting better.

James stood across from her, the gun still in his hand. The swirling patterns across the metal seemed to twist and turn in the candlelight, reflecting warped shapes.  Alexa could see the interior of the barrel—the inside blackened from the heat of the bullet. Her eyes shifted toward the others. The older girl had said something—something about being glad that she was all right. Bluish eyes had stared at her worriedly, pink lips turned into a frown. But she had already turned away, too busy with James and Elizabeth.

Slowly, very slowly, Alexa moved herself away from the wall. She brushed blonde hair away from her eyes before folding her thin arms in front of her chest. The other children were chatting to each other, conversation drifting toward her as she edged herself back toward the doorway. It didn’t concern her, though; it was just more praise and admiration for James—something that he was used to.

Something he will never hear from me.

They were too busy to notice if she left. Elizabeth was busy hugging James and he was ruffling her hair as any proper older brother should. Rosemary was merely listening as James explained the ins and outs of firing a gun. Time to go.

Alexa quickly edged herself around the doorway and into the hall, the conversation behind her fading to a dull murmur. Plush carpet trailed down the wooden floor. Tarnished sconces held candles intermittently along the cracked walls. Alexa began to walk, her feet leading her across the well-known floor.

She hadn’t been worried—her heart wasn’t even pounding in her chest. There was no rush of adrenaline, no feel of fear. She knew that there was no reason to be afraid of the gun—of the bullet. There was no reason to doubt James and his abilities—no. James was effective, deadly and true.

And that’s what they should really be afraid of.

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She barely noticed the shadow with blonde hair leaving the room. Just like any proper servant, the girl was inconsequential. It had been foolish to even get her stomach in knots over it all, but Rosemary couldn’t manage to shake the disquiet that wrapped around her heart.

She glanced in the direction of the empty wall where the girl had once been. It was like she’d never come into the room at all, never stared at her with wide, green eyes as a gun was leveled at her head. Only the small bullet hole left any evidence that she was ever there.

Rosemary kept the smile forced across her mouth. After all, she was there to make James happy. She should be happy. That was how the world worked. There was no reason to feel badly about a servant.

She watched James as he popped the barrel out of the gun to show her to reload it. He was so happy, his hands so sure. He would make a good head of the family some day. He would protect her children well. He’d only hurt those who hurt them…wouldn’t he?

Rosemary felt something twist in her gut. She had to do something—show him that she supported him. She suddenly leaned over and kissed his cheek, catching him off guard, trying to remember that familiar flutter in her chest every time he touched her or looked in her direction. It would come back, surely. She’d had it so many years.

James glanced toward her, his blue eyes hardening slightly as he arched one of his eyebrows, “Rosemary. You have to be careful around guns! You can’t distract me.” His voice sounded stern, but his smile couldn’t entirely be hidden.

Rosemary lowered her own eyes, glancing down at her folded hands, “I’m sorry.”

His lips surprised her. They were suddenly on hers, hard and boyish, mouth shoved to mouth. The dangerous weapon and his sister were forgotten. Rosemary didn’t fight it. She couldn’t. She didn’t kiss back, though. Kisses were what people did when they loved each other. Just like in the books. Like her mother and father. Like what she dreamed of doing to James King every night.

If she just closed her eyes, she could pretend she wasn’t there—pretend she was somewhere else. If she just closed her eyes, she could pretend that James King was still someone she loved.

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It’s the blast of a gunshot, the sound that reverberates in our minds. At first, it’s a shock—a ringing that goes on and on. What people don’t tell you is that over time you get used to it. The sharp crack is no longer there—we all become deaf to it in the end.

Reflection

Standard

This story was an exercise done by myself and Kathryn Elsinger (please visit her blog here!). The Alexa sections are done by yours truly while the Dakota sections are done by Kate. Enjoy!

She was alone.

The late afternoon light filtered through the leaves, casting dappled, golden patterns on the forest floor. A few bird calls echoed through the silent wood as wind whispered through the branches, the chill hinting at colder days and colder nights to come.

Alexa moved through the underbrush, her eyes flickering across sticks and leaves and grass as she sidestepped rocks and hopped over logs. She breathed in, the smoky scent of autumn filtering through her lungs as she continued through the forest. She rarely had a chance to do this anymore—to walk through the woods without any real purpose, to merely look for what remained hidden. It was liberating and dangerous. But at one point, that’s all she knew how to do.

How times have changed.

Her feet took her past a deer trail as she ran her fingers lightly over waist-high vegetation. Soon, it would all be gone, leaving just frozen leaves in its wake. Then it would be harder to hide, harder to run—but it would make things easier for her to find, at least.

Alexa paused for a moment as the wind picked up. Stalks of grass bent and twisted, revealing yellow and pale green undersides. A flash of red suddenly darted in front of her, feathers standing out stark and bright against the fading colors. She closed her eyes, allowing herself—just for a moment—to drop her guard slightly as her mind wandered back to when she first came to this place.

Hunger clawed at her insides as she ran through the frozen wood. Her calves burned, her breath forming clouds in the air. Her dark coat and pale hair streamed behind her as she glanced over her shoulder, half expecting to see him following.

Alexa shook her head, jerking herself back to the present. Her fingers fluttered toward her opposite wrist, twining through the red cloth that was there.

It’s been almost two years—two years of running, two years of hiding, two years of disguises and lies and masks. It’s been two years since I stumbled into town, half frozen and half starved. It’s been two years of surviving and fighting—of trying to blend into the crowd. But I can feel the noose drawing closer. It tightens around my neck, choking me as I try to breathe. I can no longer hide. I can no longer run. I am trapped and cornered—and only one of us will survive.

She let her hand drop, her eyes flickering toward the surrounding trees and grass and leaves. It wasn’t the time for memories—for thoughts. It was a time for action.

She had work to do.

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She had work to do.

It wasn’t going to be easy work, either. Dakota walked around the large chunk of metal that jutted from the ground, trying to gauge how much more was buried. This was going to be a hell of a thing to carry back without help, but she preferred scavenging alone when she could. Dangerous as it was to walk alone these days, it was also quieter–and she preferred not to stir up every raider, zed and competing scavenger this side of Star City.

It was fall now, but the summer heat had hardly wavered in its resolve to cook her alive. Dakota was grateful for not having to dig under a mountain of crisp, dried leaves to find the herbs and salvageable bits of metal, but she was starting to miss the way the cold air would burn in her lungs when she ran. She even found herself missing the cool nights when she could burrow into her bunk with a pile of blankets. The landscape here was unchanging and unforgiving. The same fine brown dust covered everything, the same spiny plants grasped at her pant legs, the same wide blue sky remained devoid of a single cloud no matter the season. She found herself missing it—missing home.

It had been two years. Two years since she had put down the bottle, walked away from the farm, the Double Tap and the familiar. Two years of endless walking, endless caravans and endless strangers with only one blessed constant beside her. Two years—and now she was here.

Waist high grass provided her a bit of cover on her trips out into the wastes but it could be sharp as blades and she had to be twice as careful wading through it. She had found this little clearing by pure luck while hunting for the waxy plants that the doctors said held milk to sooth burns. Surveying the clearing again, she bent and scooped up a desiccated old stick from the ground. She began digging around the edges of the huge piece of metal carefully, excavating it from the cracked earth that was trying to swallow it.

This thing could be bigger than I am under all that dirt.

Dakota almost laughed out loud at the absurd mental image of herself carrying this huge slab back to town on her back, completely shadowed by its bulk.

At least I would be cooler with some shade, natural or not.

Straightening up, she dropped the stick and kicked petulantly at the corner of the scrap with one weather-beaten boot. The metal clanged loudly at the impact, ringing like a bell.

Dakota froze, eyes shut, listening for any sound of the undead or for the insane laughter of the raiders she’d had the ill-fortune to encounter earlier. Long seconds passed and all remained still, the noise echoing away into the distance. Finally she expelled the breath she had been holding and gave the rusty hulk a scornful look. She made a mental note of her location and was determining to return with more hands when she heard a quiet snapping sound from behind her.

She spun and drew her pistol with practiced grace, but her nerves were frazzled. She strained her ears listening for footsteps or the rustling of the high grass.

There.

She swung the gun to her left and steadied it–waiting and wishing it were darker. She scanned around herself quickly for somewhere convenient to hide and found nothing but stunted trees and flat scorched earth.

It was getting closer. Something was coming.

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Something was coming.

Alexa lifted her head, her hands jerking away from the metal she had found, half-buried beneath leaves and twigs and grass. There was the sharp sound of a branch breaking, the shuffling of footsteps over dirt. She grabbed the hilt of her sword, eyes scanning the area.

Where are you?

She watched the trees for any movement, her muscles tensing as she prepared to run. It would be a shame to leave the metal behind, but she’d rather escape with her life than die protecting a hunk of scrap.

There. A creature stumbled from the woods, one of its legs twisted and dragging. Tattered clothes hung from its thin frame, ribs and bones poking from beneath pale flesh. Its dull eyes stared out from a warped face, jaw hanging slack. There was no spark of life there—no hint of intelligence. Alexa tightened her grip on her blade, slowly drawing it from its sheathe as she shifted her legs beneath her.

That’s when she noticed the others. They emerged from behind trees, the same dull eyes staring forward. Ropes of drool hung from rotten lips. Blood smeared broken fingers. Gore was imbedded beneath yellow nails.

One. Two. Three.

They continued to come with their missing limbs and torn hair and bloody wounds. A few of them were still recognizable, their features not quite falling to decay; there was a man with a hat, a woman with a gold chain around her bruised neck, a child dragging a bloodied doll.

Seven. Eight. Nine.

There were too many—and they were coming closer. It was now or never.

Alexa suddenly jerked herself upward and to the side, her feet flying over branches and stones and leaves. She twisted around just in time to avoid a grasping hand. Instead, she swung her arm, her blade connecting with the creature’s neck. There was a slight resistance and then a thump as the monster’s head fell to the ground.

Before the rest of the horde could respond, she darted toward them again. Metal connected with flesh as her blade whipped forward. There was the sickening plopping noise and another one of the creatures fell to the ground, black blood oozing slowly across the forest floor.

Alexa turned, her eyes darting across the others as she gritted her teeth. It was what she was afraid of—she had waited too long in the underbrush. There were others around her, closing in. She’d have to carve a path through to get away. Guess it’s going to be the hard way.

“Let’s get this over with.”

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Let’s get this over with.

Dakota went to a knee and sighted down her gun in the direction that the noise was coming from. The yellow-green grasses started to rustle, then shift and finally parted. Crawling toward her was a zed, hauling itself along by digging raw, bloody fingers into the dirt–its bottom half nothing but a ragged stump that trailed its own insides. In surprise and disgust Dakota stood and took an unconscious step away from the thing. The creature inched its way across the clearing and she watched it in a sort of dark fascination, allowing it to come within two or three feet before she finally fired two shots into its head.

Done.

She holstered the pistol, pulled an old scarf from her scrap bag and used it to wipe the blood from her face. The smell the thing emitted in the afternoon heat was enough to turn her stomach. Satisfied with her work, she turned to leave by the trail she had followed in..

That’s when she saw it. The true source of the smell was only inches from her now, and her face was level with its chest. She let her gaze flow up the rotting body, noting the torn clothes and exposed bones. Its lower jaw had come unhinged and was flapping loosely from one side of its face. She fought down an urge to scream as her gaze fell past it to the other shamblers emerging from the tall grass behind it.

Three. No, maybe five of them?

Her gaze snapped back to the one directly before her as a dry rattling moan rose in its throat. She had one second to act before the thing lunged at her. Against every bit of her better judgment she reached up and quickly placed one hand on either side of the creature’s head, over its ears. The skin was dry and smooth, but seemed to writhe under her warm hands. Before she could second guess herself, she snapped one hand toward her and one hand away sharply. Its neck broke with a loud crack. Its body dropped limply to the ground before her.

Why is it never easy?

Behind it stood six other zed, less rotten but no less ardent in their desire to rip her apart. Pulling her gun a second time, she dropped three of them with shots to the head. She misjudged the last shot and only managed to take off the creature’s ear. The noise and motion had spurred the remaining zed to action and they reached for her, moaning loudly and closing the short distance.

Two of them reached her at once and their combined weight knocked her onto her back, painfully pushing the breath from her body. Dakota swung with her stronger right hand at the eyes of the bigger of the two. The creature drew away like an animal that had been kicked and gave her the chance roll out from under its partner. She threw herself onto the thing’s back and drove her fists into it, over and over, aiming for areas she knew to be vital. Finally the thing collapsed beneath her and ceased its struggling.

Dakota jerked her head, reassessing the situation. The first zed was back, reaching toward her. Without thinking, she grabbed for the stick she had dropped earlier and jammed it up through its eye and into the softness behind it. The monster struck the ground with a strangely hollow thump and did not rise again. Standing, she turned, looking for where the remaining creature had gone.

For a moment she saw nothing, and then noticed it slowly edging its way around behind her near the treeline.

I’ll be damned if y’all aren’t getting smarter.

She turned her body to face the last of her visitors. It stared back at her dumbly, its fists clenching and unclenching at its sides. It wore tattered leather armor; its weapon remained holstered at its side, forgotten in death. She hated having to look at these things, the ones that still looked like people. This was someone’s brother or father, someone trusted to guard a camp or a caravan.

You had a name once; you were a person who someone loved.

She moved in, swinging her fists in furious anger. Her hatred for the Gravemind, for the evil that turned the living from people into soulless beasts was in every strike. Rage and sorrow poured out through her hands and faded from her with every impact. Before she registered what had happened the creature fell away from her and crashed down onto the heap of scrap at the center of the clearing. She moved up next to the monster’s still-human face and looked down into it. She failed to find any shadow of the man who had lived in the body before.

Her hand suddenly reached toward the ground, finding the rough feel of a rock. She gritted her teeth,  slamming it down into that face, cracking it open and stopping its feeble struggle. Then there was silence.

It was over.

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It was over.

Adrenaline still coursed through her veins, making her jittery as her breath came in short pants. The smell of blood and decay and unwashed bodies wafted toward her on the autumn breeze as she inhaled the scent of death. She didn’t want to see the bodies—didn’t want to look at the way congealed blood oozed across the ground, didn’t want to examine the warped, twisted limbs and glazed eyes. But they were there anyway, the forms lying mangled on the ground.

Alexa quickly turned away, kneeling down in the grass. She wiped her blade on the plants, removing the worst of the dark blood. Two years ago, she’d be running. Two years ago, she’d be hiding. Two years ago, she’d probably be dead.

So much has happened since then.

She stood again, eyes flickering across the dead. She’d have to keep moving or the rest of the horde would show up—and she wasn’t about to lead them back into town. The metal would have to wait—surviving was more important.

Alexa took one step, then another—and another. Suddenly, she was running. Her feet flew across rocks and limbs and leaves. The wind whipped her hair back from her face as the early cold bit into her lungs. Trees flashed by on either side as she hopped over logs and ducked beneath branches. She moved forward, ever forward—no stopping, no pausing, no thinking. She was the air, a stream, a tide. She was movement and motion.

She was a runner. Don’t pause. Don’t look back.

She would survive.

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She would survive.

Dakota had survived worse. The pain and constant fear had become a background note in her life. She was unwilling to go on allowing it to direct her. Higher causes and more rational voices guided her now. Still, her heart beat fast and her breath was as shallow as the pools of black blood collecting around her where she knelt next to the faceless man.

She wiped her broken, bloody knuckles against the legs of her jeans and tried not to see the bodies all around her. She thought back to Hayven, to the farm and the friends she had left.

Another lifetime, another girl completely. How have I gotten this far?

She stood and removed her hat, feeling the heat of sunlight against her hair, and pressed it to her heart. She closed her eyes and bowed her head, giving a moment of silence to the souls who might have once walked the world in these bodies. She was more reverent of life now that she had seen its value and tasted the rare sweetness.

She turned her back on the dead, on the memories that would always plague her and started to move. It was always safer to be moving, to keep running. Tall grass and dust parted before her as she ran, feeling the warm wind rush against her skin.

Not running away, running toward; but toward what?

She had a future and while it was obscured from her, she knew she it would be something worth living for. Dusk was falling as she ran from the wastes, her eyes settling on the cracked and torn buildings that characterized the settlement in front of her. The setting sun painted the walls pink and gold, reflecting its rosy light across the landscape. Dakota paused, her eyes scanning the town as she wiped the sweat from her forehead. This was her home now–her life. Every one of them she could keep from becoming one of the faceless undead was a small victory. It was time to stop running.

It was time to live.