The Living and the Dead

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Art by: Anastasia Kraus Marston

Art by: Anastasia Kraus Marston

Life is a fleeting thing—and that is why some cling to it so dearly. It’s the rush of wind in your face. It’s a friend holding your hand. It’s the sound of a child’s first cry. It’s silvered moonlight on a clear night. Life gives us joy and sorrow and pain—as fragile as a spring bloom. And yet no matter how strongly you grasp it, Death will claim it in the end.

At least, that’s what I thought.

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Clouds shrouded the moon, casting the woods and roads into shadow and darkness. The faint sigh of a breeze whispered through the branches of the nearby forest, rustling bare limbs that shook and quivered in the night. If you didn’t know any better, you might think that there was nothing there—no one lurking and lying in wait.

You’d be wrong.

Alexa darted through the darkness, cold air whipping against her face as she dodged trees and bushes, her feet flying across damp leaves and logs. The enemies were in sight, their shadowed forms hidden in the gloom. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see the others moving—each running toward an intended victim. She kept quiet, heart pounding in her chest as she surged toward the first one.

The sound of a shot suddenly rang through the air, almost deafening in the stillness of the night. Alexa jerked reflexively, ducking as she continued to run. There was no time to think about what might have happened if she hadn’t been quick enough.

The man’s shape stood out against one of the trees—uniformed in dark greys and greens as he tried to camouflage himself in the underbrush. She saw his eyes widen slightly as he quickly stood, dragging a gun with him. He probably wants to reposition himself. Too late for that. Alexa was on him, her blades striking out once, twice, three times. Another shot sounded and Alexa whirled to the side, acting without thinking. She struck out again, feeling the slight resistance of metal cutting through flesh, the feel of warm droplets spattering across her face.

The man crumpled, falling to the ground with a faint cry. He writhed for a moment, gasping—and then he was still. Alexa knelt next to the body, trying not to notice the way his eyes still stared at her, glimmering faintly in the dark—accusing. He knew what he was getting into. Her fingers reached forward, gently probing the insides of his pockets, searching for anything. He knew this was war. She removed a few clips of ammunition and stuffed them away in her bag before placing her blade at the man’s temple. This is what you were both trained to do.

“Are you all right, my dear?”

The voice made her pause and glance over her shoulder. A pale face stood out in the gloom, dark eyes watching her. She slowly stood from her crouch and nodded, trying not to meet his gaze, “Yes, I’m fine.”

He nodded slightly, still watching her as Alexa shifted under his gaze. He always does that—makes me think. There was no time, though—not now. She had to rejoin the others, “I should go.”

Alexa turned away from him and quickly slipped back into the woods. After all, there was more work to be done.

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There is something precious about a child. A child represents life—the future. A child holds almost limitless potential. And yet at the same time a child is fragile—their life easily snuffed out like a candle in the wind. A child can make men and women do the unthinkable, just to protect them.  And that, in the end, is what also makes a child so dangerous.

Alexa stared down at the baby in her arms. Zach, she said his name was. She never thought he could be so small—so delicate. Tiny fingers curled around the top of his blanket, his blue eyes closed for the moment. Soft fuzz covered the top of his pink head—dark hair that would grow with time. He stirred slightly in her arms, but didn’t wake; eyes fluttered beneath their lids.

I’m so out of my depth here.

Others milled around her in the room, wooden floorboards creaking as they got ready for the day ahead. Alexa glanced around as she gently rocked the baby back and forth. Rosemary wanted this—so much. She wanted to be a mother. Zach stirred again and Alexa looked downward as he opened bright blue eyes. The baby blinked for a moment, staring at her as Alexa traced the lines of the child’s face. I wonder if he’ll be anything like her when he’s older. He had Rosemary’s chin and her mouth.  I can only hope that she’s happy.

“Sit down.”

The low voice caused Alexa to jerk her head upward, startling her from her thoughts. Illest stood in front of her, his hard eyes looking down at the child in her arms. He cocked his head to one side, frowning faintly as he spoke, “If you’re gonna be holding the baby, you’re gonna sit down.”

Alexa’s brow furrowed as she looked up at the Yorker, “I can’t sit. If I tried, my swords would catch and it would be generally awkward.” Logic—learn to use it.

The man growled slightly in response, and he reached for the child. Alexa took a step back slightly, but he already was lifting the baby away from her, gently cradling Zach in his arms, “Then I’ll take him.”

Alexa stood for a moment, watching as the Yorker turned away from her with the baby, gently rocking him in his arms. He looks natural with him. Something twisted in Alexa’s gut, and she quickly turned toward the door. It was probably for the best; after all, she had no idea what to do with a baby—not really. Others were more competent—better suited for the task. When it came to children, she was as graceless and awkward as a newborn foal.

Alexa edged past others as they cooed over the baby in Illest’s arms. Another reason why I never want children. She grasped the metal door handle, smooth beneath her fingers as she pushed open the door, stepping outside.

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The dead rose.

They poured forth in an endless horde—clotted blood matting hair to rotten scalps, bones poking through mottled skin, pale eyes staring blankly at nothing at all. Voices gurgled through decayed vocal cords, air hissing through holes in damaged throats as broken fingers clawed at the living.

The dead rose—mothers and sisters, fathers and sons. They stumbled out from the shadow town, the pale shade of Hayven. The dead rose, and the living didn’t stand a chance.

Alexa stumbled backward as more of the undead walked toward her. She was breathing heavily, slow trickles of blood seeping down her arms. She reached up and brushed pale hair from her face, ignoring how more blood clotted there, threatening to pour into her eyes. Pain lanced across her body, encouraging her to stop—to rest. Not yet.

There were others around her. She could see the Professor with his pale skin and knife darting in and out of the horde. She could see Smiles with her masked face and Antigone with her gold hair and sword. They fought the tide of the dead as it washed over them—as inevitable as the sea.

Alexa gritted her teeth and darted forward. Her blades flashed as she turned, moving out of the way of grasping hands. She dodged and wove through the crowd, every so often slicing through sinew and flesh. Dark blood dropped to the ground, coating the packed earth and making is slippery. Death by a thousand cuts—that’s embarrassing. Alexa turned and slashed with her sword, her breathing coming more heavily as she spun. Here lies Alexa, killed by a scratch.

It was harder now. She wasn’t moving nearly as quickly as when she’d first started—and they just kept coming. Alexa glanced toward the others, wondering if they were feeling the same way—wondering how long they could keep it up. Her eyes scanned the crowd and for a moment, her heart stopped. It was a momentary distraction, but it was enough. She turned back to the fight just in time to see a bright light hurtling toward her from one of the undead—and then there was darkness.

Kill All of the Living.

She turned and walked toward the nearest man, cutting him down from behind. His companion stared at her with wide eyes before running, followed soon after by others. The undead were no threat; they allowed her to pass without giving her a second glance. They focused on others as Alexa surged toward the next person, slicing him from behind, as well. He fell to the ground and then Alexa turned, eyes seeking out the next…

Pain fired through her back as something cut into her. Alexa stumbled, gasping—and then another blow hit her. One more scar. Typical. Her legs gave out from under her as she toppled to the ground. Something slick and wet oozed down her side, throbbing as she tried to remember to breathe. Her vision blurred as a shadow passed in front of her, grabbing her arms, lifting her up.

She was suddenly moving, being carried across distance and space by someone. It’s the Yorker. Brock. Everything hurt. Cuts and bruises crisscrossed her body beneath her shredded armor. Breathe, Alexa. She was set down on something hard as pale strands hair fell in front of her eyes. Breathe. Her field of vision narrowed further, threatening to shut out entirely as someone desperately tried to sew her up. I’ve lost too much blood. The thread wove in and out of her skin, pulled tight by trembling hands. I’m not going to make it.

And then someone was suddenly pushing her hair from her face and pressing a bottle to her lips. Alexa resisted the urge to pull away and instead drank, ignoring the bitter taste of the liquid. It filled her mouth, choking her as she coughed, forcing it down. Her vision slowly cleared and she breathed.

Alexa glanced upward, eyes flickering to the man sitting beside her. Brown eyes met her gaze, shadowed beneath a bright red hat; he nodded slightly and glanced away, assessing his surroundings. An investment.

Alexa closed her eyes in response, feeling her gut churn as she leaned backward slightly.

She was still alive.

__

The sun warmed her back and shoulders as she sat at the wooden table across from him, her hands folded in front of her. She lifted her head slightly to study his face, shadowed beneath his dark hat. His expression was serious, dark eyes watching her in turn. Alexa lowered her own gaze before speaking, “Why would he? What’s the point?”

He didn’t respond at first as the silence stretched onward. Laughter sounded out across the field from others as idle chatter floated toward their outdoor table. Finally, he spoke, “Shepherding? Guiding?  I don’t know his motives, myself.” He paused for a moment before he continued, “I only know that we are potentially dealing with something very ancient and very powerful.”

Alexa looked down at her hands, scarred and callused and pale. She kept her silence as thoughts churned in her head, as the lines of the web began to reveal themselves. Was it all connected? It seemed likely. She turned her gaze to look at him once more, green eyes meeting his dark ones.

But who would really wish to live forever?

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“You can only truly hate after you’ve truly loved.”

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