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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.

__

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.”

__

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.

__

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.

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