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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.