“She turns…And appears from the darkness. Face pale and hard set. She knows what’s she’s doing. She measures the golden thread in one hand and cuts it in the other. She is stillness, the cold, the winter fear. She takes to the night and it takes to her. Her friend is the echo, her lover the pitch black, her eye the moon. And she turns.” –Quote from a letter, addressed to Alexa
Do you know that feeling of being watched? It’s the same way that prey feels around a predator—that prickling on the back of your neck. It’s the sudden and inexplicable rush of adrenaline—the way your breath quickens, the way your eyes dart everywhere at once.
It’s the way that person across the room glides through the crowd, never quite focusing on any other person, all animal grace and cunning. It’s the way their eyes settle on you—watching you when they think you aren’t looking.
That’s the way she felt around the “scavenger.”
Alexa gritted her teeth as they walked down the road, polished swords in each hand. She could sense him behind her—just a few paces away. It was strange to be so aware of someone—to be so on edge that their each and every footstep could be heard, despite the surrounding noises of birds and wind and branches and grass. It was strange to be able to hear his breathing through the half-mask that he wore, to sense how he moved with more grace than any scavenger should. It was strange—but perhaps not wholly unexpected.
After all, she was quite possibly dealing with Zodiac.
They had been walking for about half an hour now, making idle chatter—about the past, about the present. It was just small talk, really—nothing all that enlightening, a combination of jokes and banter and irrelevant information. Every so often, he would bend down, looking at rare plants or examining a bit of metal glimmering through fallen leaves. Each time, Alexa would pause, watching him through the dappled sunlight of the surrounding forest—how it patterned the large poncho around his shoulders and highlighted the black bag he carried slung on his back. The same one the “stranger” had right after that girl appeared—the one who had been captured.
The others in the group fanned out around the man in the mask, not willing to get close. Alexa recognized most of them from Brock’s crew—Runners that banded together. Sometimes, one of them would journey close enough to the scavenger to make Alexa nervous, but she quickly moved closer, heading them off. No reason to give him the opportunity if he does happen to be out for a kill.
Alexa breathed slowly, trying to calm her heartbeat down to normal levels as they continued to walk down the dirt road. Her booted feet stepped over rocks and puddles as she glanced over her shoulder every once in a while, careful not to let him approach too closely. She hoped that he had given up—decided that it was too dangerous. She hoped that he really was just a scavenger and not Zodiac.
“Hey, what’s that?”
Alexa glanced away from the scavenger and toward one of the runners in the group. Trench, she thought his name was. His rusted armor hung along his thin frame, muscled by combat and hard labor. He was looking up the steep hill that wound through the surrounding forest—the one that led toward the rest of the town. Faintly, she could hear the sound of yells—of cries and screams. Zed, most likely. It wouldn’t be surprising. Shambletown was fairly close to that area, after all.
Without further word, Trench sprinted toward the hill. Alexa frowned faintly as the others followed his lead, unsheathing their weapons as they moved. Rushing into combat unprepared. Instinctively, she moved to cover their backs—and then realized who was still behind her.
I can’t leave him unattended. Alexa took a few steps back toward the scavenger who watched her with dark eyes. They crinkled slightly as the man either grimaced or smiled, “Good to know that at least someone remembers this is an escort mission.”
Alexa smirked faintly at him, replying jokingly, “Well I do try to be professional.”
That’s when he struck. One moment he was standing there, calmly, and the next he was lunging forward with a dagger. Before she could move, before she could respond, he had slipped behind her. She felt something slam into her temple, stunning her momentarily as she fell to her knees. Her ears rang as she felt three hard strikes slam into the back of her armor, precise strokes from a professional. Shit.
Adrenaline surged through her body as she waited for a moment, her breaths coming in hard gasps. He stopped attacking, perhaps wondering why she was still kneeling, perhaps thinking that he had succeeded. Her ears stopped ringing, and Alexa couldn’t help the smile that curled across her lips. Big mistake.
She struck out with one sword and then the other, her blades aiming for his eyes. He stumbled back, avoiding the strikes. Then she surged to her feet and stepped to one side, slamming her blade into the side of his temple. He blinked for a moment, dazedly, and she struck him once, twice, three times. Her heart slammed against her ribs and she continued to strike, pushing him back. Kill him, Rook.
He shook his head and he turned, suddenly responding with his own dagger. Their blades rang against one another as they danced across the road. Out of the corner of her eye, Alexa could see the others had finally noticed the skirmish—and they were closing in. Shit. Why doesn’t he just give up? She struck again and he blocked it, turning away her thrust with an expert flick of his wrist. He suddenly slid to the side and was behind her again, his dagger once more slamming into the side of her head, causing her to stagger forward, vision blurring.
Then suddenly she heard the sounds of the others. They were yelling for help, crying out as their weapons hit the scavenger again and again. Alexa shook her head, trying to focus as her breath sounded in her own ears. Living on the edge, Alexa—life and death. She hardly noticed the blood that trickled down her side, slicking her shirt to her skin.
She looked up just in time to see Zodiac standing over one of the runners—a pretty blonde girl with wide eyes. His dagger was pressed to her throat, the blade slowly creating a red line as she screamed.
Everything slowed. Alexa surged forward, blade striking out. The scavenger dropped the girl and rose to meet her. Once again, they were exchanging blows, moving back and forth. She stepped to the side and struck out with her blade—once, twice.
He crumpled and then fell.
There was a moment of silence. He can’t be dead. Alexa stared at the body on the ground in disbelief, her breathing sounding in her throat—hard gasps that threatened to shake her body apart. She wasn’t winded—no. It was all about the rush, the instant that she thought she was going to die, the adrenaline. Can he?
“Is he dead?” Trench echoed her thoughts as he walked toward her, eyes fixed on the remains of the man in front of them. Brown cloth covered most of the body, hiding his hands from view. Alexa shook her head, still breathing hard, “Don’t know.” I hope he is. I can’t take another fight like that.
Trench shook his head, “I can’t check. Maybe one of the others can.” He nodded to Alexa and moved away, leaving her near the body. She shuddered slightly, trying not to think how close she had come to dying. You need to be more careful. You can’t afford to drop your…
Something rolled out from beneath the brown cloth. Alexa stared at it for a moment and had just enough time to notice that it was a bottle with a fuse before it shattered.
Everything went dark. Screams sounded. She felt a cold blade slide through her ribs toward her heart. She felt her legs fail her, her breath ceasing, her heart stopping. She felt her body slam into the ground, her hair pooling out around her as her eyes stared blankly ahead. She felt her blood trickling from the wound, flowing out of her body before slowing and congealing.
Then there was nothing.
The Earth opened up.
She became part of him—of them—of everyone.
She shambled with the dead.
“He’s wrong about one thing.”
“I would never be like him.”