The moon shone brightly in the clear sky, silvering scrubby trees and dry grass that whispered in the night. In the distance, a coyote howled, the mournful sound echoing across the flat plains and dusty trails that wound their way through the dry landscape. The smell of smoke still drifted on the wind, the scent of smoked meat mingling with spices.
Alexa sat on the ground, knees pulled up to her chest as she watched the campfire’s remaining embers flicker and die—bright points of light that sparked and flared occasionally with the breeze. She could hear the others around her, quiet breaths sounding amidst the gloom. Most of them had decided to sleep inside the wheeled caravan nearby—House and Aladdin curled up in each other’s arms, Rosemary snuggled beneath quilts. Mickey and Feargus remained on watch outside, staying awake as the others rested. They probably assume I’m asleep, too. From her position, she could see the guards within the dark—faint outlines next to the horses.
But sleep wouldn’t come. It’s that moment when you begin to drift off—that feeling of weightlessness, as if you have no body. Alexa turned her face upward instead, eyes tracing the starlight above. The brilliant orbs stretched from horizon to horizon—clear, endless.
That’s when she heard it—the quiet sound of a footstep, the sound of someone who didn’t want to be heard. Alexa’s body stiffened for a moment and then she forced herself to relax. Carefully, slowly, she placed a hand on the hilt of her sword, listening again.
There was another footstep—this one nearer to the caravans where the others slept. The hairs on the back of Alexa’s neck prickled. It could just be one of our own stepping outside for a minute. She cast a quick glance toward Mickey and Feargus, but they seemed to be unaware—watching for any threats in the wastes instead.
Alexa stood, muscles protesting faintly as she drew her sword quietly. She kept her breathing easy—calm, collected—and stepped silently toward the caravan. She couldn’t see anything—no figure, nothing wrong. She could just be paranoid. I’d still better check. After all, it was better to be safe.
She found herself outside the covered wagon with its warped boards and worn wheels. Retractable steps led upward, providing easy access inside. Normally, a door would block the entrance, a metal lock keeping precious cargo safe. Normally, she wouldn’t be able to just walk through.
The door was open.
Alexa’s breathing halted for a moment, heart thudding in her chest. No. Adrenaline suddenly washed through her as she leapt up the stairs, no longer caring if anyone heard her. Please no. Her stomach plummeted as she stepped inside, as she drew a sharp intake of breath. Her vision swung wildly as she stared at the scene before her.
Blood. She’d seen it before, but never so much in such a small space. It dripped across the wooden planks, seeping into blankets and sheets. It spilled over cots and prone bodies. Aladdin’s pale arm was flung over House’s slim form, his fingers splayed outward as his brown eyes stared upward at nothing. An effort to shield her from the attacker? It hadn’t worked. Rosemary didn’t look like she had even woken up. Her face seemed almost peaceful amidst her chestnut curls as a stain spread across her still-swollen stomach. Alexa didn’t need to check to see that the babies were dead. Too much blood.
Alexa felt sick, her gut churning as she braced herself against the wall of the wagon. Her body numb—as if she wasn’t even there. Something in the back of her head told her that she might be in shock, that she should take a moment to assess the fact that Rosemary was gone. Her limbs trembled slightly as she stared at a small stuffed animal that had fallen to the floor. Black button eyes stared back at her, glimmering.
Then her body was in motion. She was down the stairs and out the door, feet pounding the dirt as her breath rattled in her ears. Mickey and Feargus. She darted past the campfire and toward where she’d seen them last. They’ll help. We’ll track down the…
She slipped, her footing sliding out from under her as she stepped in something slick. Alexa’s arms flailed for a moment as she skidded, body adjusting to keep her on her feet. She paused for a moment, catching her breath—and then her breath stopped completely.
The world crashed around her. There was nothing but the darkness and the moonlight and the feel of slick blood underfoot. Then there was rough stone, breath in her lungs, sharp air that stabbed her exposed skin.
And then there was a figure in the darkness—a slim body running away from the caravan. Alexa stared, wondering how far she herself had run, wondering how much time had passed.
She decided it didn’t matter. Instead, she took off after the figure, arms pumping at her sides. Her hair streamed behind her, sword flashing out as she held it. You won’t get away. She was gaining on the figure—the woman. She could see how her target’s pale hair was pinned back, how her dark jacket flapped like black wings behind her.
Close enough. Alexa leapt, arms reaching for the other woman. The target glanced over her shoulder, briefly, eyes widening in surprise. Then Alexa tackled her to the ground.
They were suddenly kicking, biting, scratching. The woman’s hair came loose from its intricate knots, falling around her face as they struggled. Alexa knocked a knife from her hands and then held her own blade to her target’s throat, chest heaving.
For a few brief moments they remained still, staring at one another, breathing hard. That’s when Alexa realized who she’d caught—who had killed them all.
Alexa screamed silently, eyes focused on the thing in front of her. Green eyes stared back at her—eyes that pierced her, eyes that knew, eyes that hardened into stone. Familiar eyes. The eyes of a monster.
Alexa woke up.