This piece was written thanks to Josh Demers, who pitched me this idea. You can blame him for the story, and me for the embellishments. Enjoy!
My job is to protect people—to save them. But to do that, I got to keep my guard up—dropping it isn’t an option. Thing is, I keep wondering what would happen if I did…and then I realize I might have already done what I promised myself I’d never do.
The morning dawned grey and dreary, rain lashing at the ground and forming puddles of mud that pooled and trickled and slicked the roads with damp. Trees dripped with water, the branches heavy and laden with the storm. A few brown leaves plopped to the ground, no longer able to grip onto trembling twigs.
Stew stood there in the rain as it streamed down his face, as it fell in drops against his coat and pattered on his shield. He stood there with his blade as he stared down the road into the gloom. He could hear them—the shuffling footsteps of the dead. Their groans echoed in the mist, growing louder as it mingled with the sound of the water around him.
He gritted his teeth as he lifted his sword, barely noticing the cuts and tears that already crisscrossed his body—the blood that flowed in rivulets down his arms and hands. They were inconsequential at the moment, the marks from a battle already lost. I will not fail them. I will not fall.
He had fought with his brothers and sisters throughout the night—a war seemingly without end. They had to fall back, regroup. But he wasn’t sure where they were—wasn’t sure if they’d even made it. He was alone, standing against the restless dead in front of him as the relentless dawn lightened the darkness around them.
They emerged from the fog; grey clouds clung to bodies in tattered clothes. Water made their hair stick to their scalps—hang in front of their faces. Blank eyes stared at and through him, mouths slack and drooling. They used to be men and women and children. Now they were just bodies that needed to be cut down.
Stew hefted his shield, adjusting it to one arm as he waited. There was no reason to run into the mass when they were already closing in. Right where I want them. He had a duty—a job. And he wasn’t about to neglect it. I will protect them.
And then they were on him.
Yellowed nails tried to tear at him, grasping at his armor and shield. Wild eyes stared as teeth gnashed and guttural voices snarled. Stew cut them down, pushing forward as the sound of metal carving into rotten meat mingled with the shuffles and groans and the falling of rain and blood. He pushed them back, bodies falling around him. And then he heard her.
The voice cut through the air, ringing in his ears—a familiar voice. Alexa. He jerked his head to the side, catching a glimpse of pale hair near the ground—a flash of black and red. She was there—broken, helpless.
No. He didn’t think. There was no time to think. He didn’t wonder how she’d gotten there. He didn’t question it. He shifted his shield and stretched out his exposed arm to help her off the ground. “Alexa, here.”
That’s when he realized his mistake.
There was a sharp pain in his arm, the feel of something tearing into him. He turned to focus fully on the girl, noting how her skin was paler, how dark circles ringed her eyes, how blood coated her fingers as her teeth sunk into his forearm.
Green eyes stared blankly back at him as she ripped away a chunk of his flesh, strings of meat hanging from her mouth. She swallowed quickly, showing the insatiable appetite of the dead as words came from her mouth again—a hollow mockery of the living.
“Help. Please! Don’t leave me here alone.”
Stew stared at her a moment too long. The others were suddenly on him, dragging him down, pulling him to the ground. Stew struggled as pain lanced along his body, as they tore into him, stripping flesh from bone. He didn’t have a chance to yell—to cry out. Only one thought filtered through his head and he sank into darkness.
I let my guard down.
Stew woke up.