Winter was definitely not Alexa’s favorite time of year. Unfortunately for her, Autumn had apparently decided to retire early, crawling back into the ground with decaying leaves and hibernating creatures. This meant that Winter had come in full force, bringing with in the first flurries of snow and ice on the ground.
Fuck the cold.
The cold didn’t seem to care what Alexa thought. The bitter air bit into her exposed skin, whistling against her forehead as she adjusted a piece of cloth covering the lower half of her face. The last leaves of autumn swirled down around her like patterned gems, covering the dirt road and causing it to blend in within the surrounding forest. A few strands of her pale hair flew outward from beneath her hat as she glanced behind her toward the small settlement she had just left.
Requiem was one of the only safe locations within the mountains—or at least one of the only warm locations. Its roaring fires and solid buildings were safe havens against the bitter winters, far removed from any other settlements. Add this to its twisting, winding paths, and it was no wonder that Requiem had remained isolated from the outside world for so long.
Unfortunately for Alexa, this meant it was one hell of a trip to the next rest stop where she could spend the night. They forgot to consider me when building their little mountaintop bastion. Rude.
She sighed, her breath pluming in front of her. The sun was already beginning to sink, and the cold would soon be almost unbearable as afternoon plunged into evening and then night. She grumbled to herself grumpily, reaffirming her earlier thoughts, “I hate the cold.”
The wind picked up and the branches of the trees rattled more fiercely against one another, as if they were saying: Yeah? Deal with it.
She wrinkled her nose, staring at the nature around her, “Well fuck you, too.”
Nature didn’t respond.
Alexa snorted and continued down the path, her booted feet crunching on the fallen leaves. She’d been hoping to find Mickey in Requiem—no such luck. It looked like she’d be searching for the man a while longer.
Instead, she’d found a town in the midst of their own politics and problems. She’d watched as the denizens of the place made backroom deals and conducted secret baptisms. When she asked, no one had seen a man that looked as if he could punch through a brick wall and who had tattoos spiraling up his arms. And so Alexa had decided that after a short stay, it was time to head south—blessed south, where it might actually be warmer. Not that I’m worried about him or anything.
Another gust of wind rattled the trees around her, and she picked up her pace slightly. She really didn’t feel like getting caught on the middle of a mountainside after dark—especially in a territory she didn’t know very well and especially with the fucked up types of undead around the area. I’d like to keep my fingers in tact, thank you very much.
Traveling made up its own sort of rhythm. There was the crackle of her boots on leaves. There was the swish-swish sound of her coat hitting her ragged pants, and there was the gentle clink of her blades rattling together. There was even the small shuffle of items in the pouches at her belt.
But what wasn’t part of the rhythm was the sharp snap of a twig from somewhere down the path in front of her.
Alexa paused, listening closely. A snapping twig could be anything from a passing animal to an undead threat to another traveler on the road. Paranoid? Yes, yes she was. But that’s how you kept alive when traveling alone.
She heard another twig snap, followed by crunching leaves. It was definitely someone or something walking. She listened for a bit longer, seeing if the steps stumbled and shuffled or if they were more precise—the steps of the living rather than that of the dead. They didn’t stumble, and she flipped both of her blades into her hands, staring down the path. They could just be travelers, or they could be thieves—or really, both. This was the path from Requiem. She doubted she was going to find any truly good-hearted people on the road.
It took her all of a split second to decide. She quietly turned and left the path, ducking into the wood-line and sliding behind a fallen log. She slowed her breathing, glancing upward as she continued to listen. The footsteps came closer and then paused.
“Hey, did you hear that?” The voice sounded somewhat high-pitched—but male. A second voice responded, lower and gravelly. Probably a retrograde or someone that smoked enough that the Infection couldn’t keep up.
“Hear what? The fucking squirrel?”
“Nah, sounded bigger,” High Voice responded.
“That’s what she said,” said Smoky.
“Shut the fuck up and listen.”
There was silence. Alexa chewed her lower lip as she considered what would happen if she just popped out of her hiding spot. Would it matter? It could be they were just travelers on the road. Maybe I am being overly paranoid. That’s when she heard a muffled snort, as if someone was trying to speak through a gag.
High voice spoke again, “Shut up, puddle jumper. We’re listening.”
There was another muffled sound and then a faint grunt. Alexa imagined that someone had just gotten punched in the stomach. Smoky spoke this time, “He said shut the fuck up, water rat.”
Alexa decided that now was not the time to pop out and say “Hi, I’m Alexa. I’m a Baywalker. Want to be friends?” There were a few more moments of silence, and then High Voice spoke, “Guess it was nothing. Come on.” Their footsteps began once more—several of them. Alexa waited for a moment, and then very slowly poked her head over the edge of the log.
She saw the retreating backs of four individuals. All were bundled against the cold, but she could see at least three of them wore piece-mail armor and weapons. The fourth had his calloused hands tied behind his back with rough rope. His legs were chained together so he could only take small steps instead of running, and he had been apparently stripped of his weapons. Unfortunately for her, she recognized the prisoner’s broad back and muscled arms—his bearded jawline and brown eyes. Goddamnit, Mickey.
She waited for a moment until they had retreated and then stood, her mind whirling. She could follow them until they made camp after dark. Then she could hopefully free Mickey, grab some supplies for him, and then fuck off back to Requiem before heading back to Hayven in a group. She was so caught up in plans that she almost didn’t hear the person behind her.
Leaves crunched and she had just enough time to duck to the side as a fist whistled through the air where her head had been. She spun around, slashing with one of her blades and her opponent jumped backward.
The person was small in stature, wrapped in cloth and rags with tinted goggles over her eyes—a Lascarian by the looks of her. She held a small knife and looked vaguely perturbed that Alexa had managed to get out of the way in time.
Alexa gritted her teeth, not speaking. If she did, she’d probably alert the travelers on the trail—and that was the last thing she wanted. Assuming this whole thing isn’t a trap, that is. She hoped it wasn’t. If it was, she was fucked twelve ways sideways.
The Lascarian hissed and then lunged again. Alexa flicked the knife out of the way with one blade and then struck forward with the other. The Lascarian somehow ducked beneath it, coming within Alexa’s guard and forcing her to step back again to avoid another stab toward her throat.
Unfortunately, that’s when she heard someone approaching behind her. She turned to the side so that they couldn’t catch her unawares and saw a slim man bundled up against the cold. His hair was slicked back beneath a fur hat, and colorful glass beads had been sewn into his clothes. He looked slimy even at a glance—the sort of person that made you want to take a shower after you interacted with them.
He spoke, and Alexa instantly recognized him as High Voice, “Put down your weapons, little girl. We don’t want you to hurt yourself. Let’s just talk.”
Alexa gritted her teeth, “If we’re talking, then why did your attack dog come at me?”
High Voice shrugged, “She thought you were sneaking up on us—honest mistake, as you can imagine. Now how about you go and…”
Alexa heard footsteps and inwardly cursed herself. He’s just buying time. She lunged at High Voice and he stumbled back, raising a knife. She stabbed forward and this time, her blade sunk into a shoulder. He cried out and she jerked the blade backward before sprinting like hell further into the woods. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.
Adrenaline pumped through her veins and she didn’t bother looking over her shoulder. Her only goal was forward at this point. And that’s exactly when she tripped over—something. She sprawled on the ground, her feet flying out from under her as part of her brain noticed the trip line that had been strung between two trees.
Instantly, two people were on her, slamming her to the ground and forcing ropes around her arms and legs. She screamed, biting one of them in the arm. The tang of metal filled her mouth and the person yelped, jerking their arm back, “Fuck! Did we catch a Lascarian?!”
“Don’t worry. I got ‘er.”
Alexa saw the flash of a knuckled fist heading toward her. There was a sharp pain, and then there was darkness.