Monthly Archives: January 2014

For Both Your Sakes

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Photo: Joel Olives/Flickr

Photo: Joel Olives/Flickr

This particular story was done as a joint project with the wonderful and talented Kathryn Elsinger. The Alexa sections were done by me, while the Dakota sections were done by her. Please check out her awesome blog for more stories here!

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The sun beat down across the dusty landscape, filtering through the branches of dry, warped trees and desert scrub. It warmed the paved roads and sharp rocks, streaming across the scattered buildings that made up the town. No clouds marred the impossibly blue sky—a sky that stretched for miles and miles toward the horizon. All that could be heard was the dry rattle of the wind as it carried voices from down the road, the sound of footsteps in the dirt.

Alexa stood next to a copse of trees, sword extended in front of her. Sunlight warmed the dark plates of her armor and pale hair as she watched the woman across from her carefully. She had her arm similarly extended, sword ready to block or strike. And while she wasn’t wearing much in the way of armor, her face looked determined beneath her brown hat.

Alexa smirked slightly. Now. She darted forward, feinting to one side before striking toward the other. A surprised look crossed the woman’s face—blue eyes widening slightly as the blow struck. Then she stepped back, shaking her arm slightly after feeling the flat of Alexa’s blade.

Alexa withdrew just as quickly, backing up into the ready position. She offered the woman a grin. Best way to take the edge off of a blow. “That was better than before, Dakota, but remember to maintain eye contact. And remember to use your speed. You’re fast, after all.”

Dakota grinned back in response, impossibly blue eyes twinkling as she held up her sword again, “That’s easy for y’all ta say.” Her braids glinted gold in the light as she shook her head slightly, “Ain’t all that easy when you’re first startin’ out.”

Alexa shifted her weight slightly as she adjusted her grip on her sword. She watched the Merican, eyes studying her for the moment, noting the way she held herself—the way she ignored the bruises that were probably already forming from their sparring. I can see why he likes her.

She smiled again, “Don’t worry. It will get easier with practice. Now…” She paused for a moment, her smile growing wider, “Let’s try this again.”

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Welts rose on Dakota’s arms and legs faster than she could believe. For a moment, the two women stood frozen and watching one another—their stances mirrored, swords raised and waiting. The new girl was like a snake, deadly fast and lethal if she chose to be. She was only striking with the flat of the blade between encouraging words, but it stung; and Dakota knew she’d be feeling this lesson for days. The girl, Alexa, circled her, forcing her to turn to keep her blade between them.

The light slanted through the trees above her, glowing in her white blonde hair and throwing her sea green eyes into shadow. The familiar coloring brought a sting to Dakota’s eyes, and she lifted a hand to shade them from the sight. Mercifully, her teacher assumed it was the brightness causing her to turn away.

“See what I did there, Dakota? You have to use the terrain to put your enemy at the disadvantage.”
Dakota nodded and stepped left into the shade. People were milling around—Styks and Chance watching from the side of the road. The rest of the visitors from Hayven also observed, less conspicuous but not unnoticed from behind the windows of the Saloon. Dakota’s eyes darted, watching them all in the nervous manner that was becoming second nature to her. That’s when Alexa’s blade slapped home again.

“Eye contact, Dakota. Right here.” She pointed into her own serious gaze with two pale fingers. “You can’t get distracted like that.”

Dakota laughed and looked back up, locking eyes again with the Bay Walker, “How are you so freakish fast? I swear I ain’t never seen someone move as fast as you do.”

The pale girl favored her with a smile, but raised her blade again, determined and patient.

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They stood in the middle of a field, dry grass trampled down by feet and stained with blood. The sun beat down on their backs, shade nonexistent within the relentless onslaught of light. Others milled about them, worry and determination flashing by in turns. The nearby woods were quiet for the moment, but it was likely that more creatures would emerge—more of the walking dead.

Alexa pushed her pale hair from her face, glancing to the two others beside her. Dakota stood in her newly-learned stance, sword in front and ready. Mickey stood next to her, his normally-tattooed arms now bare after travelling through death. They left him to die. Alexa shook her head briefly as she pushed down emotion, instead tearing her attention back toward the woods. No wonder the people here are worried. Their allies might turn their backs and run at any moment.

Chance was nearby, his Merican hat pulled low over his face as his wiry arms worked in the dirt. His hands scrabbled in the dust as he carefully laid down a thin wire, checkered shirt hanging loose on his thin frame. It was a simple task—lay down the line and direct power to the town; the problem was keeping him safe long enough for him to do it. But they had Chance’s back. If we don’t, who will?

The sound of crunching leaves suddenly jerked Alexa back to the present. Her green eyes darted toward the noise as she raised her blade.

They emerged from the twisted trees, their limbs half-broken as they dragged themselves across the flat plains. Alexa could smell the rot—a sickening, sweet stench made worse with the sun’s heat. Some had missing eyes, picked clean from their skulls by enterprising scavengers. Others had skin that jerked and moved just beneath the surface—maggots doing their best to wriggle their way from their fleshy prisons. A few gasped and snarled, half-decayed lungs no longer able to function properly.

Alexa cast a brief glance at the others. Mickey could handle himself—would handle himself. But Dakota was another matter; she could only hope that the girl had learned what she’d been taught. Then again, if she’s anything he says she is, she can probably take care of herself.

There were a few brief seconds of peace, and then there was chaos. Screams and shouts echoed across the field as men and women hacked into the restless dead. Alexa remained where she was for the moment, keeping watch to the rear. If more zed arrived from that direction, it was best that she remain. Besides, I’m not about to leave Dakota and Mickey alone.

He asked me to act in his stead.

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Cool, composed, confident. No wonder every head turns when she’s around.

Dakota waited quietly for the conflict to begin. Her nerves sang on high alert, but the blonde girl at her side appeared to be the essence of poise. I wonder how she remains so calm.

The enemy lumbered toward them, slow and predictable. While Dakota tried to stay near Alexa and her shadow, Mickey, it was difficult. The screaming voices of combatants and the nauseating rattle of the horde soon divided them, causing them to go separate ways. Dakota suddenly found herself standing over Chance while he tried to move the injured out of harm’s way. Her sword was drawn, just as she’d been taught, but her movements were still jerky and unpracticed. This could get ugly. Dakota put on her most determined face and, with an air of confidence she did not feel, scanned the tree-line for danger—making herself a shield for the unarmed. I’ll protect them.

It was warm despite the cool breeze that was rising up from the direction of the lake. The coppery smell of fresh blood rose to mingle with the stench of rotting flesh as the battle continued. That’s when cries of warning rose from the crowd around her as another wave of the dead staggered from the forest. Dakota jerked her head, looking for her teacher. There. She spotted Alexa darting across the battlefield. Her sword flashed and blazed in the afternoon sun like an avenging angel’s as she hurried back and forth. She would strike and be gone, suddenly insinuating herself into some other crucial spot in the chaos. Always, Mickey was nearby watching her back—even when she couldn’t see him.

He says they’re friends; maybe he’d like more, but friends first. He’s more interested than he lets on.

Without warning, her enemy was before her. The wounded nearby were scrabbling for safety as she tried to drive back the threat. The sword was heavy and too big for her untrained muscles—but she had to fight.

Dakota gritted her teeth and plunged the blade into the papery skin of what had once been a woman. The creature snarled, clawing at Dakota as she ripped the sword free, leaving an ugly wound gaping in the thing’s chest. I need to protect them. Using more blunt force than finesse, Dakota savagely hacked the head from the creature. It rolled a few feet and then stopped, white eyes staring upward at the sky.

The fight around her was becoming quiet. For once, the wounded were all being tended and the enemy being driven back.

Easier in the daylight – cleaner. No one bleeds to death in easy earshot of their allies. I wish it were always like this.

She cringed to think of Mickey’s strange accent while he said the words, “Tha’ was me. I died there.”

Dakota had been there not so long ago—lying prone as she begged for rescue or death or both. The town hadn’t helped, hadn’t come. She remembered her own death—how dark spots had swum in front of her eyes before the Grave Mind came for its due. For a moment, she wondered if that same hopelessness had grasped at Mickey, or if he was too tough for such pitiful emotions.

Dakota shook her head, snapping herself from her thoughts. Too dark for such a bright day.  She briefly ran her hands over the new rents in her armor. It didn’t look like much but with the upgrades Stew had sent, she’d managed to keep all her blood on the inside this time.

This time.

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The wind whispered across the grass, bending green and yellow stalks as they walked across the field, side-by-side. The late afternoon sun beat down on their shoulders, warming their backs and faces as they strolled toward the edge of town. It was almost time; the caravans were leaving and she had a meet-time with JD. Not to show would drive him insane with worry. Always be at the rendezvous.

Dakota paused and stood with her new friends as she spoke, “Y’all better stay in touch. Was nice seeing all y’all from Hayven. Wish I didn’t have to leave so soon.” Dakota cast a sly glance to Alexa, a smile crossing her face, “Y’all ever consider stayin’ down here?”

The pale girl grinned back in response, shaking her head, “It’s nice, but not my type of place. Not enough puddles to jump over.”

Dakota laughed, genuinely and without fear in her heart for a time, “Stay, Alexa, if y’all don’t think you’ll dry up and fade away in the heat. We could make you into a proper Merican.”

Deftly, Dakota slipped off her hat and dropped it onto the other girl’s head. It was too big for her and as she looked down at her feet, almost shyly, it slipped forward awkwardly on her head. At that moment, Dakota wanted nothing more than to wrap her arms around the girl and hug her like she was family.

Dakota remembered putting her hat on another little blonde girl a lifetime ago. Wear the hat; it’ll help keep the sun outta yer eyes while you aim. Dakota had put her arms around the girl and had helped support the weight of the heavy revolver. See? That’s how ya do it.

Dakota quickly pushed the memory aside, looking hard at the other girl for a last time. They had nothing in common; they were from different worlds and had probably walked entirely different paths to get to this moment together. But something about her manner resonated deep in Dakota’s chest—a sharp pressure not unlike what she felt when seeing old friends after long years. Idly, her gaze wandered to the man beside Alexa, and the pressure became something uncomfortable in her stomach.

Turning her attention fully to Mickey she said, “Yer liking that image a little too much, if’n ya get my meaning. Give that here, Alexa.” She smiled to soften the words, but she took the hat quickly and slid it smoothly over her own blonde braids. He oughta just make his move and get it over with. Like someone said once, see bout how many drinks it’s takin before yer howlin’ at the moon.

A cloud of squawking birds rose from the trees behind them, their sharp calls breaking the moment of silence between the three. Looking over her shoulder, Dakota could see the smoke from the caravan fires being put out, a common enough signal that folks were getting ready to roll out. Time to go.

The small group started moving again, the northerners laughing and joking back and forth over her head. She smiled at their easy banter and strolled languidly toward the town’s border. Alexa, small and sharper than she even let on and Mickey, broad, strong and passingly familiar—even despite his strange accent from the Mass.

He’d said that he was a worker. “I’m no good fer anythin’ but heavy liftin’ and swingin’ fists.” It reminded her of someone. Dakota couldn’t help but hear another voice, a ghost, echo his thoughts.

“I know I’m sorta dumb and I get into a lot of fights, always needin’ to be getting’ myself all stitched up time and again… but if you can put up with that… um… then maybe you and I could…”

Mickey’s voice and a friendly touch on her arm called her back from the darkness. They’d stopped walking, as close as they needed to be for the caravan’s guards to keep watch. She looked up at him from under the faded brim of her hat, not entirely sure what he’d said. Again he asked, “Moind if I talk to ye alone a moment?”

He looked past her, towards Alexa—as if torn between his need for privacy and concern for leaving her even remotely unprotected in the wild. Dakota followed him a few steps away from the girl and cocked her head in an unspoken question. He was intimidating in his size and intensity; his eyes blazed with dark fire in a serious manner she hadn’t yet seen in her short time fighting beside the man.

“Deals have been made, Dakota, yer ta be protected here…” He continued, elaborating on the consequences her death would have here.

Blood rushed in Dakota’s ears, fear and confusion warring with the butterflies in her stomach as she remembered the glint of the Nemesis knives and the bars of the slavers’ cells. She remembered pools of blood soaking the knees of her jeans as Bravo’s people died around her.

“I need ta know ye understand.” Mickey’s eyes pinned her to the ground, his voice deadly serious. It sounded as if his very life depended on her acknowledging his words.

“But, why?” Dakota asked plaintively, softly. “Why?!” She reached a hand toward him to stall him, to force an answer. But he only smirked and turned away, moving back toward Alexa and the circle of waiting caravans.

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Alexa cast a glance to her two companions as they moved back toward her. They were easy together—comfortable. It was as if the three of them had known each other for years. She could see Dakota frowning faintly beneath her flowered hat, her hair glinting gold in the light. For a moment, Alexa wondered what Mickey might have said. Then the frown disappeared, replaced by a quick smile on her pretty face.

Dakota’s footsteps were light and easy as she walked back toward her, fingers hooked into the belt loops at her waist. Mickey glanced at her every so often, his sword resting on one shoulder. Alexa noted how his dark eyes darted around them, ever watchful of their surroundings. Can’t let your guard down. Alexa kept her own hand on the hilt of her blade as Mickey moved to stand beside her again.

“All done?”

Mickey nodded, his lyrical accent sounding out across the field, “All done.”

Alexa smiled at him and then turned her gaze away, studying the horizon that stretched before them. In the distance, she could see the caravans—the covered wagons and carts and horses that carried crates and boxes of goods into the settlement. Smoke rose from Rover campfires, the smell of roasting meat wafting on the breeze. We’ll be joining them soon enough—on the road again back north. The warm weather was nice enough, but she was ready to be gone—ready to be back home.

“Sure y’all can’t stay a bit longer?”

Alexa turned her gaze back to Dakota, noting the grin on her face, “Can you stay a bit longer?”

Dakota shook her head in turn, “’Fraid not. I’ll miss the caravans if I do. Ain’t got no time left.”

Alexa nodded, glancing again toward the waiting caravans. I’m going to miss this. They might have only spent the day together, but Alexa liked the Merican—enjoyed her company. She’s not afraid to be herself—to open up, to care. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see Mickey shifting his weight from one leg to another, restless. Alexa turned again, studying Dakota. She’s a good person—truly good.

Alexa smiled faintly as she remembered the girl earlier that day—how she had leaned over a letter, a baby held carefully in her arms. She remembered how Dakota’s impossibly blue eyes scanned over the handwritten script as a smile tugged at the corners of her lips. She cares about him as much as he cares about her.

I wonder if she realizes.

Alexa had done everything he’d asked of her. She’d watched out for her and delivered what needed to be delivered. But does she really know?

Alexa exhaled faintly, her breath stirring the pale strands of hair in front of her face. She took a step toward Dakota, casting a glance toward Mickey briefly. Ever watching. She paused for a moment as Dakota looked at her, questioning, fixing her green eyes with her blue ones. Eyes the color of a sky on Christmas morning.

“He…cares about you, Dakota.” Alexa didn’t need to say who “he” was. They both knew. She could see it in Dakota’s eyes. “If anything ever happened to you, he’d be crushed.”

Dakota smiled and rolled her eyes as Alexa spoke. She doesn’t believe me.  For a moment—a brief instant—Alexa wanted to shake her. She wanted to make her understand—to realize. Just as quickly, the feeling faded, passing.

Her voice sounded harsher than she wanted it to, more serious, “I mean it, Dakota. He cares for you—and I hope that you believe that.” Alexa paused for a moment, watching the Merican, waiting for her response. She has to understand.

Slowly, Dakota nodded. Something flashed over her face. Worry? Concern? Something else? “Y’all better take care of ‘im for me.”

Alexa nodded in return, “We will. But stay safe, Dakota.” She paused for a moment as their eyes met, as they watched one another—alike and yet different.

“For both your sakes.”

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“I didn’t realize…” Confusion flickered across his features as he spoke—confusion and something else. “I didn’t realize that his kind could have…a relationship like that.”

She watched him in the darkness, green eyes meeting his brown ones—full of uncertainty. Something stirred, a feeling, a memory, “It’s unusual, but every person is different. He’s different.”  She paused for a moment before continuing, “What they have is something special. After all, it’s lasted this long.”

He nodded and they lapsed into silence—a silence that was only broken by the sound of the wind outside, the scuffle of leaves, the howl of a wolf. A silence that was comfortable—of mutual understanding. A silence that promised everything and nothing.

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Counting Stars

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Photo: Flickr/Marjan Lazarevski

Photo: Flickr/Marjan Lazarevski

The acrid smell of burnt skin and hair still hung heavy in the night air, its inescapable stench wafted by the dry wind that blew through the dusty town. Warped trees rattled, the sound of branches mingling with the worried voices from the nearby saloon. Light shone outward from windows, scattering box-shaped patches of brightness on the dirt. A few men and women still remained standing near the cracked, wooden tables outside. They milled around, paying little attention to those still bleeding—still dying.

Alexa sat with her back against one of the tables, her chest rising and falling as her breath mingled with the wind. Each inhalation sparked pain, blood oozing from the slashes that cut straight through her armor and into her flesh. Stitches pressed against her skin, holding together the gashes as they healed. She had been stupid to allow herself to be cornered—stupid to not run and instead take the blows. She inwardly cringed, remembering his words.

“You were one adrenaline shot away from dying.”

She leaned back slightly, turning to watch the man on the other side of the table. He had his head resting against the wooden surface, brown eyes peering at the sky.  His mouth stretched into a faint smile—almost a grimace. Sometimes if you don’t laugh, you’ll cry. One of the doctors was quickly stitching him up, needle working through his skin as wounds closed. He needed the help after their encounter. The creatures that leapt out of the darkness had torn into both of them as their howls echoed through the gloom. Makes me not like dogs.

Alexa exhaled slowly, feeling how her newly-sewn stitches strained against the motion. There was less pain than before, though—soon all she would have were scars. And even those would slowly fade away. She was lucky—very lucky. If it hadn’t been for Stew’s gift, she might have come off worse than she did.

“Take a look at tha’.”

His accented voice startled her from her thoughts. She turned her gaze to follow his, peering up at the darkness. No clouds marred the starry sky as flashes of light burst from horizon to horizon. Alexa grinned faintly as she slowly laid her head back against the table, her eyes tracing out the patterns above. It was beautiful—the type of starry night that came along only once a year.

You shouldn’t relax. There could still be things in the dark.

It was true. There could still be things out there—lurking, waiting. For a moment, Alexa’s muscles stiffened. She lifted her head again to scan the surrounding area. Nothing. Slowly, she placed her head back on the table. Couldn’t she relax—just this once?

No, you shouldn’t let your guard down.

Alexa stared upward at the night as she felt the welcome itching sensation of her wounds finally closing. Slowly, she pointed toward one of the brighter points, pale fingers stretching toward starlight, “That one looks yellow—different than the others.”

There was silence for a moment. She couldn’t see him, but she could hear him shift slightly, armor and cloth moving as he turned his head to see where she pointed. Then he replied, “You’re roight. Don’t get skies loik this up north.”

Don’t let your guard down.

Alexa’s hand reached toward the sword at her side, fingertips brushing along its hilt. The cold materials of metal and leather felt almost comforting within the darkness. I won’t. Her eyes continued to trace the heavens stretched above her—endless. I can’t afford to. A point of light streamed across the sky, fading into nothingness. More stars followed, mingling with the other brilliant sparks of light embedded within the blackness.

But for just one second, one minute, one moment, she pretended like she could let her guard down. She counted the stars.

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The paths we take can twist and twine, leading us in directions we didn’t expect. But now my footsteps have taken me into the dark, leading me so deep that I am now lost. Do I call out? Or do I keep walking forward, hoping to find my way again?

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Photo: Flickr/Craig Sunter

The rain came down in sheets as water trickled down roads, pooling in puddles while the surrounding fields turned into muddy mires. Brown grass remained plastered to the ground, slicked beneath the onslaught of the constant drizzle. Here and there, patches of fog remained; the wispy remnants curled and steamed while the last of the snow and ice melted along the sides of the town’s roads. Even the nearby buildings seemed to droop beneath the rain, eaves dripping.

It was the type of night where no sane person would be abroad. It was the type of night where most would prefer to be under wooden roofs, safe and secure next to a crackling fire with warm drinks in hand. And yet dozens of figures remained outside, grim faces set as raindrops pattered on metal armor and shields—on blades and guns and clubs. It was an army—and the war had only begun.

Alexa remained stationed on the main road, ignoring the way the rain plastered her hair to her head, ignoring the droplets that trickled down her face and her neck, ignoring the sticky feel of blood washing away. She tightened her grip on her blade, eyes flickering to the others around her. Mickey stood next to her, bouncing on the balls of his feet—never still. His dark cap was pulled low over his brown hair and Alexa could just barely make out the tattoos that curled from beneath his armor. Further down the road, she could see Stew’s tall frame with his shield, ordering another group. Others clustered next to a side road leading steadily downward—into the Earth and into Death.

Then they heard the groans. They were faint at first, almost unheard above the constant pattering of rain. Then they grew louder; there was the crackling of twigs, the shuffling of feet, the click of bone that was no longer quite attached. They came from the woods on the side of the road, mouths hanging slack to reveal yellowed teeth, water mingling with blood to stream from gaping wounds.

Without further word, Alexa darted forward. She could see Mickey doing the same in her peripheral vision, face set. They paused before they reached the horde—the restless dead, the enemy—and Alexa gave a quick look to the other Bay Walker. He grinned at her, “You take all the ones on th’left an’ I take all th’ones on  the roight?”

Alexa smirked, turning back to the zed emerging from the trees, “Sure.”

Then they were off again—through the trees. Alexa dashed toward the first target and cut forward with her sword, feeling the slight resistance of flesh and sinew before the blade swung free. The creature turned for a moment, white eyes staring blankly at her before she thrust her sword forward again, catching the zed through its throat. Black blood oozed slowly from the cut before the figure collapsed, a puppet whose strings had been cut.

Others had engaged now. There was the sound of gunshot—of metal hacking into rotting meat. There was the sound of shuffling feet and heavy breaths, of mud sucking at boots and of screams. Alexa darted and turned and fought, blade catching enemies unaware as blood mingled with water.

And then just as quickly, it was over. She was left standing amidst the milling townsfolk, blade heavy in her hand. She pushed damp hair away from her eyes, exhaling slowly as she slowly walked back toward her position. After all, the war had only begun.

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Pain. It lanced through her, cutting like a knife. She could feel blood seeping beneath the plates of her armor as she struggled to breathe. Figures stood around her, dark shapes that reached down and grabbed at her exposed flesh—ripping, tearing, eating. She could hear the sounds of their snarls, their gnashing teeth, the sickening tear of flesh.

She screamed.

The rain poured around her, pattering on her skin as mud coated her back. Her hair remained plastered to her face as she took one breath, then another. They had been fighting, fending off the creatures that had attacked the covered wagons—the horde without end. But we have to keep fighting—have to keep them from the Near Grave.

The battle still continued around her as she lay on the ground. Gunshot rang out over the rain, loud noises that left a buzzing in her ears. Why is it your responsibility? Her sight was blurring, the pain a constant throb that she could now ignore—mostly. Are you seeking redemption, Alexa? The faces of the monsters mixed together. Bloodstained mouths and gnashing teeth swirled into muted colors. Or do you seek death?

And then the creatures were being pulled off of her—one by one. Alexa suddenly felt a hand on her shoulder as a surge of electrical current shot through her. She spasmed, gasping as she jerked herself off from the ground. Instantly, everything was clear again—sharpened by adrenaline. She could see the others around her fighting for their lives. She could see townsfolk bleeding on the ground, crying out. And she could once again feel the pain of her bruises and cuts, covering her body like some sort of patchwork quilt. At this point, one more scar doesn’t really matter. She stumbled back, her arm shaking slightly as she raised her sword—no longer to attack, but to defend. Ending up on the ground again would only waste resources. The person (people?) who had saved her had already melted into the darkness, disappearing to help others.

It could have been seconds. It could have been minutes. But suddenly, the fighting was done. Those around her were finishing off the rest of the zed on the ground. Shots rang out as bullets were embedded in dead skulls. There was the crunching sound of bone breaking as others used blades or clubs to finish off the restless dead.

Alexa stood in the middle of it all, breathing shallowly. She probably needed someone to stich her up—no, definitely needed. But she couldn’t bring herself to move. Instead, she turned her head upward, allowing the rain to run off of her upturned face as her eyes traced the dark clouds overhead. Breathe in, breathe out.

“Alexa.”

Alexa glanced back down again, her eyes focusing on the tall figure in front of her.  His face was carved into something more serious than she was used to, eyes hardening slightly as he spoke, “Don’t wait to use the things I gave you if you’re in trouble. Don’t save them if you’re bleeding.”

Alexa inwardly grimaced, nodding slightly. He had a point; she couldn’t use anything if she were dead. But how could she ever repay him for them? His gift was too generous—too much.  Does he expect repayment? No—he’s too good for that. He’s the best of us.

I wonder if he realizes that himself.

“Okay, Stew.”

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They stood in front of the doorway to Death, the entrance to the Near Grave, the place that echoed with screams within the dark. They stood and watched—waiting, hoping, praying—for the man who had volunteered to be a sacrifice. Solemn figures were outlined by flickering moonlight as clouds skittered across the sky. They had bled, they had fought and now, all they could do was stand.

Alexa turned her eyes toward the entrance, hand resting on the hilt of her sword at her side. She could see the road, overgrown with grass and lined by twisted, bare trees. It angled downward—ever downward—until it was lost into darkness itself. That’s where they’re going—Yossarian, Stew. The heroes of Hayven setting out to rescue the martyr.

They’d better not become martyrs themselves.

The Near Grave needed to be closed. They couldn’t survive as a settlement with it. Soon, the blood notes would run out. Soon, there would be no coming back from death. They would all remain within the Grave—part of the hundreds and thousands and millions that had gone before them. A drop within the ocean. The sacrifice was necessary.

Alexa turned her attention back to the others nearby. She could see the pale face of the Professor in the gloom. Next to him, his companion stood. Her masked face tilted to one side, long hair falling down her back in waves, tiny frame partially obscured by her large jacket. They waited—the same as she did.

A sound suddenly caught her attention, the noise of crunching gravel and ice. Alexa turned, noting the tall figure striding toward them in the gloom—Stew. I thought he’d already left. She quirked a brow as he slowed his steps, seeming almost hesitant to approach. Alexa glanced toward the Professor briefly, watching as his expression turned from solemnity to apprehension. Then she turned her gaze back toward Stew, tilting her head upward as she watched him.

He shifted his weapon in his hand, hesitating, and then he spoke, “It’s going to be a lot more dangerous than we thought, and I’m not sure if I’m coming back or not. Alexa, I need to tell you something before I leave.”

If you die, I’ll kill you.

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Connections bind us, tie us, restrain us. They are what make life worth living—as useful as they are dangerous. But what happens when you find yourself in a web that you didn’t weave? And more importantly, what happens when you find yourself in one that you didn’t know you wove?

I don’t know.

Morning Dawns

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Photo: Flickr/Dominic Alves

Photo: Flickr/Dominic Alves

Note: This story was created as a writing exercise, inspired by a prompt from Sara Rodhjort.

Sleep doesn’t come easily for me. Dreams swirl, half-formed and half-remembered in my mind. They tear me back to reality, imagined cries waking me in the darkness. And so I rise amid the soft murmurs of sleepers, I shake off the visions that still cling to me. And then I walk into the night and its embrace, hoping to find the dawn.

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Like the rest of the world, dawn slept late during the winter. It kept back its rosy glow, leaving the morning hours to night and its darkness—to its biting air and stars and winds. It held back the sun and its warmth as frost spiraled across leaves and branches and twigs—as it glazed the cracked and dusty windows of the sleepy town with its dirt roads and wooden structures. It kept most of the citizens in bed, nestled beneath their blankets, curled against one another as they desperately sought warmth. It kept most of them locked behind barred doors—most, but not all.

Alexa walked through the quiet town, the familiar weight of her bag resting across her shoulders as her eyes scanned the surrounding buildings. Already, her face was becoming numb, bitten by the wind that rattled the branches of nearby trees and tugged her pale hair from beneath her hood, tangling it in front of her face. And yet she enjoyed these early morning strolls—enjoyed the peace and quiet and the calm, the opportunity to order her thoughts.

The breath before the sprint. The instant before the plunge.

The air itself seemed to have crystallized that morning, freezing the world into a moment that seemed like it would last until spring. Even the clouds of her breath hung suspended in time—condensing in white puffs before the wind tore them away.

But it won’t last forever. The town will wake up and life will continue. Locks will be unbarred, doors will open and the Near Grave will have to be dealt with. A faint smile flickered across Alexa’s face as she pushed a few errant strands of hair away from her green eyes. Part of the job, I guess—always busy.

Her boots stepped lightly across the frozen dirt road as she rounded a corner, her steps taking her toward the lake. She could see the ice shining faintly through the trees—white in winter as the last of the stars flickered away and vanished.

Alexa paused, her hand falling across the hilt of the sword strapped at her side as she watched leaves skitter across the ground in front of her—as her body shivered in the cold. Dawn was beginning to rouse itself, its faint light turning the sky from black to deep blue. Soon, the others would wake up. Soon, the first patrols would start—men and women armed with guns and knives walking along well-worn paths. Soon, Alexa would need to run.

But not yet.

Alexa turned her face toward the rising sun, the cold stealing her breath away as pink and purple streaked across the sky. Gold-tinged clouds lightened from blue to grey as dawn slowly appeared, roused from its slumber.

Not yet. Because for one instant I can stand here and watch the world wake up. For one moment, I don’t have to worry. In this place and this time, there is nothing else but the feel of morning—the chance for new beginnings.