“Twenty-one adults and five children, all present and accounted for, ma’am!” Jasper was always so formal.
“Good, now go get some rest, and please do not call me ma’am.” Alice knew that last part would be ignored, as always, but she said it anyway. She couldn’t help but like Jasper. He was eager to learn, willing to work, and hadn’t yet adopted the doom-and-gloom attitude of most of the rest of the group.
Erin was another exception; constantly running about asking questions. She seemed in high spirits regardless of the situation. She often claimed to be afraid, but never showed any signs of it. Indeed, Alice had never seen Erin in an anything-less-than-cheerful mood. Something wasn’t right about it, and Alice cycled through all her memories of Erin trying to put her finger on it, to no avail.
“It’s been a month since we came here, and two weeks since they attacked, and you still refuse to rest.” Sarah had climbed the makeshift lookout tower. “You need sleep.”
“Be that as it may, I can still feel them. They are everywhere and yet, apparently nowhere.”
“Well, you certainly picked a good spot to set up this thing, whatever it is. Erin has named it Fort Hilltop. She’s so creative, that one.”
Alice smirked. “Yes, and I heard Jasper refer to it that way, as well. Though this is definitely not a fort; we have no defenses.”
“We have you.”
They stood in silence for a bit, surveying the land. Their camp sat on top of a hill in what used to be an ocean of grass. They had burned all that, however, so that nothing could approach the camp without being seen. A series of shelters encircled the lookout tower on top of the hill. Some were tents and others were little more than blankets tied to whatever they could find to use as poles. Their lookout tower was an old tin shack that had been sitting alone atop the hill. Its roof was missing, but the rafters remained.
“It’s rare that you’re away from Micah this long. Has anything changed?”
Sarah sighed. “No. He still can’t see. He still hasn’t said a word. I think he was asleep when I came up here.” She shrugged. “But it’s so hard to tell.” She paused a moment. “He does tend to wander, now, so I suppose I’ll be going.”
“There’s no harm in letting someone else keep watch for a while, you know. Jasper would do it gladly, and so would Ben.”
Alice continued studying her surroundings.
“Well good night, then.” Sarah started down off the rafter, but then stopped to wait for a response.
Alice turned to her and nodded. Sarah smiled and dropped to the ground below and set off toward Micah.
Alice had no desire to lead a group of people. Never did she imagine she’d be doing anything of the sort; her thoughts had always been on fighting whatever it was that was coming. All her preparation and training had been bent on the fight. She was younger than most of these people, and she feared more than a few of them were on the edge of that insanity that seemed to have gripped the rest of the remaining populace.
Most of them seemed afraid of her, and she thought it comical, since they had yet to see Sarah’s capabilities beyond that third attack, and Sarah had held back during that one. She had held back quite a bit.
The ground rumbled, soft and hollow like a stomach that has been empty for too long. Alice thought nothing of it, at first, but it happened again. And again. It was louder the next time, and louder still the time after that. Alice, on full alert, darted her eyes back and forth in all directions, but she saw nothing. A scream erupted from a tent below.
Alice was in the tent in an instant. Several of them had emerged through the floor after having ripped through the bottom of the tent, though they were different from any she had seen before. The lower half of Otis was on one side of the tent, and the other half was nowhere to be seen. His wife, Pam, screamed and waved her limbs around wildly as she backed herself against the other side of the tent as they seemed to be trying to take hold of her.
Alice didn’t pause, her sword had been out the moment she heard the scream. The trio didn’t stand a chance, but that was only the beginning of the chaos. The entire camp erupted in a panic as more of them emerged from the ground. Alice could feel them in every direction all at once. There was too much commotion for her to gauge the best course of action, so she tore through the camp slicing the tops of every tent and makeshift shelter and pulling the freed fabric to the ground. In the next instant, she was back up the lookout tower to study the ground below.
It wasn’t the ground below that drew her attention, however, it was the expanse of burned plains surrounding the hill. Hundreds of them in all sort of varieties were charging the camp. And, in their midst was the largest of them she had ever seen. It was easily four times the size of the largest she had yet encountered. Fear took her and she could not focus it.
It was then that she noticed Micah standing next to her, and he opened his mouth to speak.
“He has arrived.”