We try to play the game as kings and knights and queens. We think we are in control—that our carefully laid plans will bear fruit and win us a quick victory. But what happens when we lose that power? What happens when we realize we are no longer players? We are all pawns in the end—the pieces that unfathomable forces move across the board. James King realized that fact a little too late.
Waves flashed along the water’s shore, lapping at the sand beneath a sky that was an undiluted blue—fathomless as the ocean, pure as the air. Grass whispered in the chill wind further up the lake slope as red and gold leaves spiraled to the ground, landing on colored, rippling cloth spread over the tables that were carefully set with cups and plates.
It looked like there should be a party taking place—a picnic or celebration. It was only as you ventured nearer that you realized there was no food on the dishes, no drink in the vessels. It was only as you walked closer that you saw the blood, congealing on surfaces, dripping in the dirt—death at a wedding. But what else would you expect from someone who was no longer living?
Alexa walked down the path toward the water, her eyes scanning the scene before her. A figure stood there next to the lake, beneath dying trees and open sky. The sun caught the glints of red in his hair, lighting up the contours of his face as he slowly turned toward her. James. He smirked, lips curling slightly as his blue eyes narrowed. Alexa felt her muscles tense as they stared across the space at one another—as their eyes met. Then he looked away, past her and toward the woman in the white dress beside her: Rosemary. Her face was stern and set. Dark curls spilled around her eyes, catching and tangling in the breeze as she walked toward him. Alexa slowly forced herself to relax, forced herself to watch Rosemary walk; after all, this was all planned—a necessary part of a dangerous situation.
“Isn’t this nice? I’m so glad you could all come.” The high, almost-girlish voice cut into her thoughts, making her turn and glance at the others present. Many had followed them down to the lake, their faces unfamiliar and unknown. They spread out among the tables and gore, nervous glances flitting between each in turn. The woman who had spoken stood at the head table. Her pale skin looked garish under the sun, blood and makeup smeared across her face in a way that made her look almost doll-like. Elizabeth always did need help dressing herself. She clapped her hands together as she swayed back and forth, her body moving to music that only she could hear, “Let’s…yes…let’s have the servants serve the food. And then…yes…and then the bride and groom stand just there. Yes, just there like a happy couple.”
Rosemary glanced at Alexa and then moved to stand at the head table with James. They remained there, inches apart, their hands flexing as if they wished they could strangle one another right then and there. If looks could kill, both of them would be dead right now. Alexa moved as well, standing next to Elizabeth as she continued to sway, her voice speaking out again in the silence, “Where are the servants? We need them to serve.” Her voice became higher pitched, bordering on hysteria, “Where are they?”
Play along. That’s what the Toy Box wants. Alexa shot a glance at the people sitting at the makeshift table. Most of them were locals—townsfolk. The only real face she was familiar with was the one that was half rotten, flesh peeling back in strips. His weapon and shield lay at his side as he crouched, eyes watching the scene warily. Then he stood, moving with one other to play the part—to play the game. Good thing Stew’s here. They gathered bowls and handed out crumpled leaves, pretending to serve refreshments that were never there.
Alexa found herself shifting uncomfortably, not quite knowing what to do or where to stand. She had to role her part, of course—a role that was at once unfamiliar and eerily familiar. She was always the guard in the corner—the one that attracted the least notice. And yet now she found herself in front of a crowd, the focus of attention. That’s a change.
Elizabeth turned her pale face toward her, dark eyes staring out from tangled hair, matted with blood, “It’s time to give your speech now, Rook. You are the bridesmaid, after all. Time to give your speech. It’s time.”
Alexa stared at the woman for a moment, resisting the urge to ask her if she was joking. She then slowly turned to look at the crowd. Confusion and worry flickered across the sea of faces, their eyes fixed on her. Alexa turned her own gaze away, staring at the ground as she spoke. She was never good with public speeches. She could fake it with some preparation, yes. But there was a reason she preferred others to take the lead and be in charge.
“I’m glad that you could all be here. It’s wonderful to have two families…the Banks and the Kings…unite in this way.” Alexa paused for a moment as her mind went blank—at a loss for what to say. Words failed her completely as she felt heat rising to her cheeks. She bowed her head slightly, allowing pale hair to cover her face as she stumbled over the rest, “To see the new Mr. and Mrs. King in this way is a joy and a pleasure. And I can only hope that this union will be…profitable.”
She was met with complete silence and blank faces. Alexa kept her head bowed as she slid her eyes to look at Elizabeth. She was smiling, her body still swaying back and forth as the quiet stretched out further and further. A harsh voice suddenly sounded in her ears, mingling with her own thoughts.
Yes, that’s right. Keep quiet like a good servant.
Alexa jerked her head and gritted her teeth. No. She unsheathed her blade as she glanced at Elizabeth’s back, noting the unguarded way she held herself—how easy it was. Now.
Alexa shifted her grip on her weapon and moved. She slammed her palms into the woman’s temples and then jerked her sword back, running the girl through—or at least she would have. The blade glanced off Elizabeth’s side, making Alexa stumble slightly before she quickly recovered herself.
Alexa felt her heart plummet as she took a step back, as she realized that somehow, some way, they’d failed. Elizabeth turned with raised eyebrows. Rosemary and James were watching her, faces revealing nothing.
That’s when Elizabeth spoke, dark eyes staring at her—staring through her, “You should take advantage of this situation. Rosemary should take advantage.”
That’s when all hell broke loose.
James suddenly moved, unsheathing a dagger from his side as his face turned into something ugly—something Alexa was all too familiar with. He sneered, his polished voice lowering slightly, “I’m done with this charade.” She saw, almost in slow motion, as his blade arced toward Rosemary, as she shrieked and backed away. Blood spattered the ground—fresh blood, Rosemary’s blood.
Alexa stared for a moment as the bright droplets colored the tablecloth—as James advanced and as Rosemary stumbled. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw more movement. Arms emerged from the ground around them, dirt and soil spattering the plates and bowls. Shouting and snarls and groans sounded through the air as the dead dragged themselves from the earth, from the grave. The guests were already in motion, cutting into flesh and bone and sinew as the monsters continued to come, continued to arrive with gnashing teeth and wild eyes.
Suddenly, Alexa was in motion—running before she could even think. She was in between Rosemary and James, her blade aimed at his throat, “Stop this, James. We’re here for a reason.”
His blue eyes narrowed, his face becoming almost impassive as he unholstered a gun from inside his dark jacket. Alexa noted the stylized crown on its side, the way gold and silver gleamed in the light as he leveled it at her head, “I’m done with this. Move.”
The shot rang out, echoing in Alexa’s ears—but she had already ducked. Her sword flashed out, catching him on his arm as he stepped to the side, avoiding a more fatal blow. Alexa gritted her teeth as she moved forward, striking once, twice, then three times—blocked every time by his dagger. The sound of metal clashing against metal rang out over the lake, over the sound of screaming and groans and cries as the dead continued to rise, continued to assault the living.
James smirked at her, teeth flashing as he struck out with his blade. He’s enjoying this. Alexa blocked the blow, feeling the way it jarred along her arm as she backed away from him toward the water. She whirled and ducked, trying to get out of the way of his advance.
“You were always afraid of me, Alexa. This isn’t any different.”
Alexa opened her mouth to respond, and then she felt the hand around her ankle. She had a brief moment to realize what James had done—why he had pushed her toward the water. He smiled at her as she was dragged off of her feet, inexorably pulled into the lake by one of the drowned dead.
There was no air, no space, no light. There was no way to breathe or think. It pressed in on her as she struggled and thrashed. She tried to scream and lost more precious air, bubbles floating to the surface as she was drawn further into the depths. Teeth and nails dug into her skin, ripping and tearing her apart as her sight blackened, as her hair floated around her face like weed in the tide.
Arms were suddenly around her, dragging her upward—back into light and space and air. Alexa choked and gasped, water flowing off of her as she struggled onto the lake shore. There was pain—the throbbing feel of wounds that were torn by dulled nails. Then something was being shoved down her throat. There was the bitter taste of liquid and then the pain ebbed—seeming to disappear. Alexa jerked her head, noting briefly that a woman had saved her before she took in the rest of her surroundings.
It was chaos. Men and women were battling for their lives as blood slicked the grass around them, turning it red. Some cried out on the ground, arms outstretched as the dead tore into them. Alexa caught a brief glance of Stew pushing forward, his blade rising and falling and then rising again, coated in blackish gore.
James was advancing on her again as she tried to stumble away, doing the best to defend herself. Somehow she’d gotten a weapon—a large piece of metal. But that wasn’t going to hold him back for long.
The voice stole her attention, making her jerk her head to the woman who had spoken: Elizabeth. She stood next to one of the tables, fixing Alexa with a vacant gaze as she spoke again, “Help her, Alexa. You should take advantage. Help her.”
Alexa’s eyes drifted over the dead woman, looking at the lines of her face—the way her dark eyes seemed to, for once, make sense of the world. She means it. Alexa glanced from her to the table; it was coated with blood now, body parts strewn across its surface. The colorful cloth was almost completely hidden beneath death and decay. And yet something gold glinted on the surface—something that Alexa recognized.
“He almost considered you to be a daughter at the end. He would have wanted you to have this.”
Something stirred inside her, something that stuck and twisted in her gut. Her hand darted out and grasped the gold object. Without thinking, she threw it over her neck, the pearls settling along her throat. A familiar weight pressed against her chest.
She glanced once more at Elizabeth before darting toward Rosemary and James. She dodged the living and the dead, nearly losing her footing on the ground, slick as it was. She watched as James stepped forward, slashing at Rosemary. She watched as her white dress turned red.
And then she was in front of Rosemary—again. Alexa held out her own blade, catching her breath as James stared at her—cold, calculating. She swallowed, not daring to look away from him as she spoke, “That’s enough, James.”
“It’s never enough.”
He dashed forward at the same instant Alexa raised her blade. Metal clashed as they both whirled, gathering themselves before attacking again and again and again. Steel flashed in the light, faces pulled into something more serious, green eyes meeting blue. He pushed her back as she defended, stabbing and slashing. And yet Alexa noted how he sometimes pulled his strikes, how he spent more time driving her back rather than aiming for a final blow. He’s not really trying to hurt me.
Alexa gritted her teeth as she knocked away another blow, “What are you going to do, James? Kill me?” She struck forward with her own blade as James neatly parried it aside, “Doesn’t seem like it.”
James smirked in reply, backing up slightly. His eyes bored into hers as he responded, pitching his voice lower, “Oh no. I don’t plan on killing you, Alexa. I plan on beating you down and then dragging you back. And this time? You won’t escape.”
She was back there with him—back in the dark. She stared at the man’s face—how the bruises stood stark against his pale skin. She watched as James advanced, watched as he pulled out the knife, watched as flesh was peeled away.
Alexa stared at James as everything went silent. She could no longer hear the cries and screams, could no longer hear the crash of metal and the sound of gunshot. There were no hurried footsteps or moans or shouts. There were no words. There was no meaning.
Blood spattered the ground, chains dragging across the stone floor with a rasp. There was a whimper, the faint sound of someone who had given up hope.
James’ face seemed to change, becoming something monstrous. Blue eyes turned into steel; red hair turned into rust. He wasn’t a person—he was a force. He was everything and nothing at that moment. He was the world and he was death.
Rook, I need you.
The sounds of the dying echoed through the chamber.
You always run, Alexa. You always run.
Sharp pain dug into her skin, lancing across her body as the feeling of something slick and wet dripped across her shoulder from the wound.
Are you really any better than he is?
A woman grasped at her ankle, wide eyes pleading in the shadows as blood dripped from her lips—as he kicked at her head.
The hollow, crunching noise of broken bones.
You can’t protect them. You can’t protect yourself.
Alexa stepped forward, her voice shaking, “You can’t make me go back.” She took another step as she saw the hesitation in James’ eyes—the uncertainty. “You can’t make me.”
Alexa struck out with her sword, blade slicing through the air, “I won’t run! You can’t make me go back!” She was screaming now, wordless. She struck again and again and again and again, meaningless sound tearing from her throat, “I won’t go!” Blood spattered the ground, coating her hands and her legs and face. James stumbled, red blossoming across his shirt and vest. You are nothing. He fell to the ground, his features mingling in a mixture of surprise and shock. Nothing made sense anymore as metal slid against flesh, as she screamed, as she kneeled down, as she stabbed him over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over again.
Strong arms suddenly encircled her, dragging her back. She continued to scream, struggling against whoever it was who was pulling her away, trying to reach James, trying to rip into him, tear into him. She fought, snarling, eyes fixed on the trembling, blood-soaked figure on the ground. Kill him. Destroy him.
“Alexa, that’s enough.”
She jerked her head around as she realized who it was who had pulled her back—who had brought her back to herself. The fury, the rage, the anger—all of it disappeared as quickly as it had come, leaving her empty, hollow. You are nothing.
Worry creased the lines of the man’s face as he watched her warily. Brown eyes met hers, waiting for her to respond. Alexa breathed in shakily as exhaustion suddenly washed over her, as her legs threatened to buckle.
Stew nodded his head once, “It’s okay.” He slowly let go of her, allowing her to stand on her own. He placed a hand on her shoulder for a brief moment, squeezing it slightly before picking up his weapon and shield again, turning toward the restless hordes still filtering around them, threatening to swamp them. Always the protector—the guardian. Alexa watched his back for a moment as she took another shaky breath. I can’t do this anymore. I can’t. She turned.
Rosemary was there. Her dress was soaked in red, patches marring the material. The piece of metal she had found was clutched desperately in two hands as she moved forward toward Alexa. She reached out a hand, grabbing Alexa’s arm, squeezing it firmly, “We need to finish this.”
Before Alexa could respond, before she could speak, she was dragged away. Her feet skidded against the grass as Rosemary pulled her back toward the figure on the ground. His coat was slashed, his bowtie askew. The pale shirt he wore was now indistinguishable from his surroundings, covered in blood. He glanced up at them, wide eyes showing fear—real fear—as he tried to pull himself away from them, hauling his useless body across the ground.
“We need to finish this, Alexa. We’re in this together.”
Alexa suddenly found herself on her knees, forced down by a heavy hand. She continued to stare at James—at his pleading eyes and pale face. She could see it now—the resemblance. She could see it in the arc of his cheekbones and the shape of his eyes. Something sour bubbled at the back of her throat as she jerked her head away from him toward Rosemary, “Please…don’t make me. I don’t want to do it anymore.” Her voice cracked, shaking slightly, “I don’t want to kill anymore.”
Rosemary looked down at her, eyes wild, hair stuck to her forehead. Her lips thinned, becoming set as she spoke, “We finish this together.” She reached down, grabbing Alexa’s hands, forcing them over the hilt of her blade, pressing it to James’ throat. “Together.”
Alexa shifted her gaze to look back at James. He kept his eyes fixed on her face as he reached toward her with one bloody hand, fingers inching toward the necklace that rested against her throat, “Alexa…please. Don’t do this.”
Something stirred, wrenching at her gut as she stared. Pity? She couldn’t speak, couldn’t say anything. What was there to say? It had all been spoken—had all been done, had all been paid by violence and death. All she could do was hold the sword over his throat.
Then the command came again.
Without thinking, Alexa quickly slid the blade over his neck as Rosemary thrust her weight behind the piece of metal. There was the sickening feeling of flesh against steel, muscle and tendons parting. And then there was nothing. Nothing at all. Good-bye.
Alexa slowly stood, refusing to look at the body in front of her, refusing to see how his face stared blankly at the perfect sky above them, refusing to watch as blood pooled around him. Everything around her seemed muted, as if it wasn’t really there—just a dream. A nightmare. Rosemary was already stumbling up the slope away from the lake. The others were still battling the tides of the dead. It didn’t matter. Nothing mattered.
That’s when she noticed Elizabeth. The dead woman stood in the center of it all, her face beatific. A smile spread across her features as she swayed from side to side. Her eyes stared upward as she clasped her hands together and nodded slowly, “I can go home now.”
Alexa stumbled forward, ignoring the way her body was failing her, threatening to drag her to the ground. She drew back her sword as she neared the woman. One more. She struck. One more. Metal sunk into flesh, cutting through it, tearing through it. One more. Alexa grasped the small body as it fell toward her, as she continued to smile at her, “I can go home now.”
Alexa’s fingers shook as she laid Elizabeth on the ground, kneeling over her. The girl’s eyelids fluttered, the same expression still plastered across her face—fixed. Alexa’s voice sounded raspy to even her own ears as she spoke, “Yes, you can go home now.” With one motion, she drew her blade over the girl’s throat.
There are moments in your life where you need to make a choice—pivotal moments that can change a game forever. These are the times that can either win you a victory or destroy you utterly.
I’m still not sure if I made the right move.