Fort Hilltop

“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.”

Alice nodded.

“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.”

The Bathroom Window

When I was a boy, I shared a room with my brother.  We lived in a small square house. I’m not kidding, the house was remarkably square from the outside.  I’m pretty sure it was the exact same dimensions on each side, but that’s not important.

My room was across the hall from my parents’ room.  They were the only two bedrooms in the house.  The hall was tiny, about twice as long as it was wide, and had one of those old-timey floor heaters in it–the kind that’s basically just a huge grate in the floor.  I still don’t know how those heaters worked, I just know that I used to stretch my legs across it in the morning to get warm in the winter. Our bedroom was at one end, my parents’ at the other, and in-between them was a bathroom.  Imagine a small room about one and a half the width of a doorway, and twice as long.  That was the hallway.  The bedrooms were on the ends, the bathroom in the middle, and the other doorway opened into the living room.   The bathroom was the only one in the house.

The house was old and had been placed there, not built, or so I’d been told.  It was off the ground, sitting on a frame of those big concrete bricks, about three feet off the ground.  There was a crawl-space beneath the entire house, that usually only my dad would go into whenever there was a problem with the plumbing or something.  None of that is relevant to this story, though.  Not really.  But now you know what the house looked like I guess.

I had nightmares most of my childhood and would sneak into my parents’ room almost every single night.  I was terrified of what I imagined in the dark.  I always slept with a light on, as well, and that didn’t end until I was in my teens.  But it wasn’t without reason.

The bathroom had a small window.  The house set high above the ground, the window was high enough that it was above chest-level, and the neighbors were across a ditch that my dad had planted a row of trees along, and so there was never really any need to have a covering over the window.  Oh how I wish there had been one, though.

One night after I woke up and was on the way to my parents’ room, I looked at the bathroom window as I walked by, and there was a fucking face staring straight at me.  Excuse my language, but I’ll never forget it.  I was maybe five or six at the time.  It was plain and I couldn’t tell its gender.  It didn’t move and I couldn’t see any hair on its head.  In fact, I couldn’t make out a head, really, because it was so dark.  I thought I might be imagining something, but then it blinked.  It blinked slowly.  I didn’t even get to finish seeing its eyes open all the way because I got the hell out of there and dove between my parents in their bed and cried the rest of the night.

That wasn’t the last time I would see the face.  It wasn’t always there, and I didn’t always go to my parents’ room because I was too scared of the bathroom.  When the fear overtook me enough that I had no choice but to go to my parents’ room, however, I always made sure to run by the open bathroom door.  Sometimes the face was there, sometimes it wasn’t.

After that, I refused to go to the bathroom by myself.  My brother was almost exactly ten months older than me, believe it or not, and we were still taking baths together. We still always peed together, too, though mostly because I made sure to go when he did.  If I never had a chance to go with him, I’d just pee my pants.  The same went for number two, which we couldn’t do together, for obvious reasons.  As gross as it was, it was better than going into the bathroom alone, and so I would just wear it until somebody figured it out.  I was young enough that they would help me clean myself up, and thus I wouldn’t have to be in the bathroom alone.  I would also wet the bed no matter whether I was in my room or parents’ room.  I’m sure my parents just loved being peed on.  I’d try to keep it in my space, of course, but they’d always roll over into it eventually.

I never asked my parents to put a curtain or something over the window.  We were poor and I had learned to never ask for anything.  Plus I never wanted to inconvenience someone, especially my parents.  I was pretty sure they hated me do to my overbearing shyness, my peeing and pooping problems, and my being scared all the time.  I’m not even sure it ever occurred to me to put something over the window, until that one night.

On the very last night of my life that I went to my parents’ room, I woke up staring at the bathroom window.  I don’t recall walking there.  The face was not there, however, and instead, it looked like the sky was falling.  Stars and other shapes streamed down from the sky, or across the sky, really, but away from me.  I’m still not sure why, but that sight somehow gave me the courage to face the face.

The next night at bath time, as my brother again whined about not wanting to take a bath with me, anymore, I granted him his wish.  I said I would take my bath alone.  I was terrified, sure, but I had decided to face my fear.

Right after I shut the door to the bathroom, the light flicked off, and there was the face in the window, again.  I panicked and tried to escape, but the door would not open.  I banged on the door, but nobody came to open it.  I screamed at the top of my lungs for help, but it was as if nobody heard me. I turned toward the window.

The face was saying something and I still don’t know what.  I ran to the window, took the towel I still had in my hand and draped it over the window.  The house was old, and there were small gaps between the window frame in the wall, and the towel caught there and stayed.  The lights flicked on, and I found that I could open the door, again.

When I walked out, my parents wanted to know why I hadn’t taken my bath.  I asked if they heard me screaming, and they told me to stop playing and go take my bath.

I never saw the face again, but I always made sure to cover the window with something before shutting the door.  Eventually, it became habit, and I found myself unable to close the door without covering the window, first.  Often, the towel I would hang there would just remain there for days until my mom would take it down to wash it.  I always made sure to put a new one up before closing the door, though.

After I grew up and moved out of that house, I thought about the face less and less, and eventually figured it was just my overactive imagination.  That is, until I was out drinking with my brother one night, and I casually mentioned the face in the bathroom window as a joke.  He went white as a ghost and whispered, “You saw the face, too?”

The Three Cycles

Eliador was the purest of the Dùsgatàlaidar, being both pure of mind and of intention. Boundless creation existed within her and she became its symbol amongst the Dùsgatàlaidar and amongst all the planes of existence. Her wisdom was only surpassed by her husband, Entassada, with whom she shared an unbreakable bond.

In the elder days before the days of men, she walked among the mur (now known as trees) and elves and fey of what is now the mortal plane, befriending and teaching as she went. Life poured forth wherever she walked and she traversed the entirety of Everlast in those days, greatly extending the lives of the mur, fey, and elves. The mur were the first to endeavor their own creation and thus the bushes and grass and flowers and all the smaller greenery of nature were born.

It was when she walked among the hills of Belgaduin (now knows as Crimson Valley) that she came across Baeleir, a most peculiar woodland elf. Baeleir took great delight in the mur, feeling more akin to them than even his closest of elvish relatives, and he spent most of his days among them, befriending, teaching, and learning, whilst also caring for their creations. Indeed, the creations of the mur would not have been possible but for Baeleir, for their creations were unable to grow roots long enough to reach the Fothalamhbiadh: the great life-giving stream coursing deep below Everlast. It was Baeleir that first created the isgeacha, the first irrigation system, delivering nourishment to the mur’s creations from nearby lakes and rivers.

Eliador marveled at this new creation and Baeleir’s love of a species not his own. She befriended him immediately and taught him much in the ways of the wisdom of the Dùsgatàlaidar. She labored alongside him to maintain his isgeacha, which was toilsome and never-ending. Baeleir did not mind the toil, however, for he was glad to be of service to his beloved mur and their creations.

After a time, Eliador began to miss her husband and longed to see him. It had been many years since she had returned to him. But, she was reluctant to leave Baeleir to toil alone, and so, upon gazing into his heart, she took leave of him and sought him a mate that might toil with him. She again walked the entirety of Everlast peering into the hearts of all she came across, mur, elf, and fey alike. However, in so doing, something happened she did not intend; she began to learn that not every being is pure of heart. She saw jealousy and malice and sadness and all the negative things for which we are now so accustomed, and she saw them in the hearts of all mortals, be they mur, elf, or fey. She began to despair. This newfound knowledge had been hidden from her somehow, or else she had been unable to see it before, for she realized that it had always existed so.

Little did she know that Entassada had begun to yearn for his wife, and had begun searching for her within the mortal plane. It was at the height of her despair that he found her. She did not speak. She did not look at him.

“My wife, my love, my purist of light! You have seen that which you should never have seen! You have come to know that which you should never have known! The purity of your being is such that it cannot contest with these evils from which I have tried to protect you. I fear you have been tainted beyond mending! Woe for the planes that be for the loss of my dearest Eliador! Woe be the Dùsgatàlaidar for the loss of my dearest Eliador! My love, you must rise! You must walk! You must search your being for the rectification of your purity!”

Entassada wept as he left her, for he knew naught else could be done. No help could be found for Eliador, for no other soul was so pure. The reconciliation of her purity and this newfound evil would have to come within herself. And thus, she wandered. She wandered for years as if in a daydream. After a time, she found herself back in Belgaduin, Baelier still toiling away with his isgeacha as if no time at all had passed.

Enceilg of the Dùsgatàlaidar, then also known as The Curious, also walked the mortal plane at that time, and shortly after Eliador’s return did he find her together with Baelier. He too marveled at the creations of the mur and the isgeacha of Baelier, but he also saw the flaw overlooked. Water in those days was a finite resource, and Enceilg knew that it would run out eventually, and he began to wonder about things. He saw the sadness and despair of Eliador and knew of her purity and an idea began to grow within him, and his excitement could not be contained, and so he presented to her his idea.

“Eliador my friend, I wonder how you feel toward the mur creations you see before you.”

Eliador, bearing her never-ending sad demeanor, replied with a sigh, “They are wonderous.”

“Indeed, I agree. The mur give them life, they grow and are beautiful, but they eventually die. Do you see the constant drain on the waters to sustain this cycle?”

“Of course I do, Enceilg. But I also see the ingenious of Baelier’s isgeacha in his everlasting toil to provide the waters the creations require.”

“Ah, yes. It is ingenious, indeed. However, do you not see that the waters run lower than before? Do you not see the waters recede little by little with each cycle?”

And she watched for a time. The curiosity of Enceilg being infectious, she could not overcome her desire to confirm the truth of it. And she saw that he spoke true. She understood the ramifications and she became afraid for Baelier. Again, she looked into his heart and saw the purity therein, and her fear grew.

Enceilg had more to say, “I wonder. I wonder if there might be a way to sustain the cycle indefinitely.” He looked deep into her eyes so as to appear genuinely concerned. “The life out-flowing from you is never ending and I wonder. I wonder if you might be able to sustain their cycle instead of the water.”

For this, she did not know. She again peered into the heart of Baelier, yet this time she peered ever deeper and saw the nature of his purity: that being the love for the mur and their creations and an overbearing sense of wonder at the world around him. There was no malice or jealousy within him, only love and wonder, and for the first time in many a year, she felt a sort of joy. She could not allow this creation to die.

She began to give herself over to the mur’s creations. Her life force gave them a will of their own and they drank heartily. They ended their drink of the waters and only drank of the life force of Eliador. Soon, they sprouted seeds for their own procreation and more and more of them began to grow. They spread out from Belgaduin to the whole of Everlast before they had drained her completely and she was no more. All that was left of her was an abundance of red roses that grew about the place she once stood (now known as Carda Vale). The roses remain to this day.

Upon seeing what had transpired, Baelier felt something new within his chest, and he faltered. He looked around and found the flaw in his isgeacha and knew immediately what had transpired. He then realized his love for her and he began to weep openly. At the same time, Entassada sensed the life force of Eliador drain away and rushed to the place of her demise, guessed what had transpired, and also wept openly. Enceilg fled before him. Baelier and Entassada wept for many days.

Eventually, Baelier spoke, “Is she really gone? Is there no way to bring her back?! Oh, what cruel fate for pure Eliador!”

Drying his tears, Entassada searched deep within the mortal plane for any sign of her life force and after a time, he caught a glimpse of something that felt akin to her purity. He latched onto it and studied it for a time, but alas, he saw that it was not the same.

“She exists still, though she is Eliador no longer. She no longer has consciousness, though I sense there may be memories of her. Perhaps that is all that remains of who she once was. Furthermore, her life force is still being drained by the mur’s creations. Soon there will be nothing left.”

Baelier cried out, “No! There must be something we can do!”

Entassada searched himself for an answer. He poured the entirety of what creativity was given him to the task. At last, he found a solution, though the consequences would be dire.

“This new creation is unsustainable because it requires a cycle of renewal that does not yet exist on this mortal plane. Mortals die and their bodies fade, but this must change. Death must be used to fuel new life. Water consumed must be returned and water must be made readily available in all places where creation can grow. Energy must also be consumed and returned and made readily accessible. Accomplishing this will sustain Eliador’s (and the new creation’s) existence, and in so doing, we will create a new cycle for them to consume and take part in. Yes, we. You and I must do this. For it is not one cycle that need be created, but three, and three souls must be sacrificed in the doing.”

Entassada knew that no protestation would come from Baelier and he continued, “However! In doing this, I fear that we will lose all of who we are except for the memories that exist within our immaterial beings. Our memories will be all we have left until the end of this mortal plane, when even they shall perish.”

No words needed be spoken, for Entassada and Baelier knew that they would gladly give this sacrifice for their beloved. And thus, Entassada expended the entirety of his power, the three were unmade, and in their place, was born the cycle of nutrients, the cycle of waters, and the cycle of light. The only evidence of their prior existence is the scent of their collective memories which lingers after every rain.

I Have a Guardian Angel

I am an old man waiting to die. I’ve lost all desire, all drive, all interest in, well, anything at all. Heh, I don’t seem to do anything but sit here literally waiting to die every single day. The world took pity on me, probably because I’m so old, and stuck me in this place, which is barely better than living on the street.  At least I get food every now and then.

Let me tell you my story.

I have a guardian angel. I know most folks believe they do, but I’ve seen mine. I’ve interacted with it on many an occasion. In fact, she is part of my very first memory.

When I was four, I lived with my family in a small house in the country next to a lake. My father had built a pier so he could easily dock his fishing boat. It was a small lake, but damn was it fun. There’s nothing quite like having a large body of water to play in when you’re a kid.

Naturally, I was so young that I don’t remember much of that time, but there is one thing I remember distinctly: my mother warning me against wandering too close to the lake alone. But, I just couldn’t help myself. I loved the water and I loved to play in it even though I hadn’t quite mastered swimming. The water itself was a gorgeous crystal-clear blue and you could almost see the bottom, not like this bullshit we have for lakes in this area. You can probably guess what happened next. I fell in when I was alone.

Nowadays it seems absurd to think a child could get that close to a lake without supervision, but this was the country and a very long time ago. Children were never watched closely in those days, it just wasn’t necessary.

I drowned that day. I know I drowned. I very much recall running out of breath as I flung my arms and legs trying to reach the surface before everything faded to black.

I woke lying on the shore with a strange woman looking down at me. This woman was very tall and wore a bright white suit. In fact, I almost couldn’t tell where one part of the suit ended and another part began, but I remember studying the tie and tracing its outline with my eyes. She was enchantingly beautiful. In fact, she is still the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen in my entire life. Her face held a blank expression, a lack-of-emotion that I would get to know all too well, and as soon as I was coherent enough to pay attention, she told me, “Do try to be more careful next time.” I blinked and she was gone.

Three years later, our house burned down for reasons I don’t recall, if the reason was ever actually found in the first place. My mother, two brothers, and our three dogs did not survive. My father had taken me on our first hunting trip and, upon our return, we discovered the remains of our house with their charred bodies inside. I’d never felt such loss or horror. I can still see the way their bodies twisted together, huddled in the center of the common room as they were, a twisted mass of charred flesh. Even the dogs were in that pile.

I still grieve for them despite the years.  Those seven years were the happiest of my life.  Father and I moved to the city after that. I don’t think he could stand seeing any sort of nature, anymore, much preferring the paved streets and never-ending concrete of the city. He never stepped into the country again. We found a run-down old hotel apparently just awaiting destruction, and just kind of moved in.

It was a month after our move to the city the first time my father hit me, and I don’t mean a spanking. He punched me straight in the face and sent me flying backward. We had no money, he had no job, he couldn’t get a job, and what’s worse, he wanted me to look for a job, as well. But even in those days, who would hire a seven-year-old? I had asked around every single day. He broke my nose that day despite my efforts.

The second time he hit me was the very next day. He got drunk, though I still don’t know how he paid for the booze, and this time he was not content with just one punch. That was the second time I met my guardian angel. In my scramble to get away from my drunken, violent father, she appeared just outside the door I was heading toward and beckoned me to follow. I got up and ran.

She glided along, floating in front of me, always out of reach, leading me to where I did not know. The path I was led became etched in my mind (it still is, in fact), and it ended in a wide alleyway. She gestured toward some kind of small makeshift building in one corner and I moved in the direction she pointed. I turned around and she was gone.

Four children emerged from the little building. They were all my age and they would become the best friends of my entire lifetime. Indeed, one of them even became my wife, but I haven’t come to that part of the story, yet.

The beatings continued, but my sense of family and loyalty would not allow me to abandon him. I even found myself trying to help him in whatever way I could. I managed to find a factory job and gave him literally all the small amount of money I made, which was barely enough to afford our rent.  He didn’t feed me or love me.  He didn’t offer me anything but beatings and disdain.

It was through his drunken and violent rants that I discovered that he blamed me for the house fire. If he hadn’t taken me on that hunt, the house surely would not have burned down.

Factory work was hard.  Actually, that’s an understatement.  I worked 12 hours a day, every day, in a harsh environment, and was severely punished for the slightest transgression. If I was late, I was made to work naked for the entire day. If I didn’t meet quota, I was weighted for an hour or more, which meant carrying a huge weight around my neck that I sure as hell couldn’t hold up properly and then made to walk up and down an aisle for everyone to see. Beatings were common and they happened in front of everyone. Furthermore, injuries and even death were also common, often occurring weekly.

My friends took care of me, though.  They made sure I ate.  They begged me to stay in Camelot (our name for the little building we shared.) They were there for me no matter what. I miss them all terribly. Harry, Boulder, Chicken-leg, and Susan, my dearest Susan.  Boulder and Chicken-leg were hit by an automobile when I was 15.  I can hardly recall their real names.

As I had grown older, and what with the hard factory work and all, I had also grown stronger. Strong enough to contend with my father. It was shortly after Boulder and Chicken-leg died that the incident happened. In fact, it was because of their deaths and my grief that I would not put up with my father any longer. He came at me that night in his drunken stupor looking to hurt me yet again, but I was having none of it, and I punched him square in the nose just like he had done to me eight years earlier. Only he fell down and did not get back up.

The guilt of killing my father still haunts me and it is only made worse by what I did next. I ran away. That was the third time I met my guardian angel. After the incident, I fled and found myself in the commercial district, crying my eyes out. She appeared next to an army recruitment center and gestured for me to come to her. I enlisted that day. I had to lie about my age, but what with the War seeming inevitable, they didn’t question my lie.

The Great War began and I found myself in actual combat. I was not alone, however. Harry had joined after hearing that I did, and by some miracle, we were in the same company.

I will not recount the horrors I experienced in the War. Just know that it was far worse than anything I had yet experienced, and clearly that is saying something considering everything I’ve just told you.

Harry did not survive the war. He died in my arms, in fact. I do not wish to relive that event and will not say any more about it.

This is getting way longer than I thought it would. I will give a shortened version of the remainder.

The fourth time I met my guardian angel was just after I had returned from the War. My state-of-mind was not well (they call it PTSD, now), and I did nothing but drink. One evening in which I wasn’t completely shit-faced out my mind, my guardian angel appeared and, in the same manner as before, led me to a small restaurant just outside the city. It was where Susan worked.

We married six months later. I was wholeheartedly devoted to her, and damn it, I still am. She gave me four children, Harry, Steven, Elizabeth, and Catherine.

When Harry was seven and Steven was four, Harry accidentally drowned Steven as they played in the bath. Four years later, he intentionally killed Elizabeth by punching her repeatedly during an argument. He was put in a mental facility where he died in an accident with a malfunctioning ECT machine.  Catherine died of cancer two years after that. Susan’s grief was too much to bear and she committed suicide by blowing her own brains all over the wall with my .45.

I attempted the same, and just before I pulled the trigger, my guardian angel appeared and that was the second time she spoke to me. “You have more to do in this life before it ends,” she said to me. So I didn’t pull the trigger that day.

I attempted something of a normal life for a while, but there was nothing for me, so I tried to jump off the Golden Gate bridge.  I even made a special trip just to do it. Again, my guardian angel appeared to me and told me, “It is not time to die, yet.”

Ten more times, I made an attempt to end my own life over the following years. She always appeared to tell me the same thing, “It is not time to die, yet.”

Eventually, I didn’t care what she had to say, anymore. I rarely had a job, rarely had a home, spent most of the time living on the street, was constantly sick with some chronic cough or some other ailment to which I would find no cure, and did horrible, horrible things to survive when I couldn’t stand the hunger any longer, even at one point going so far as to pleasuring closet homosexuals in a filthy bathroom stall just to get some money to buy food.  I stole regularly, lied to everyone I came across, and became everything I hated in the world.

The only possession remaining to me was the .45 my dear Susan had used to end her life. I had saved it just for this occasion. I didn’t care what that damned beautiful bitch had to say anymore and pulled the trigger with her standing right in front of me. Click. Nothing.

She smiled at me for the first time in my life, and it was not a welcoming smile, it was wholly evil. “Tortured souls have the sweetest taste of all souls and the more ripe, the sweeter the taste, but the taste is ruined if they don’t die naturally.”

Sarah Claer

“I. Must. Find. Micah. Come. Through. The hole. Now.” Sarah was getting irritated.

“You keep saying that but how do you even know he’s in this direction? Besides, I can’t fit through here.” Erin was being unreasonable. Again.

“You just saw me come through there and I’m way bigger than you!”

“Yeah but you’re more limber.”

“This is not happening. I don’t have time for this. Come through now or I’m leaving you.”

“Alright alright, already. Calm down. Sheesh. You’re so serious all the time.”

What wasn’t there to be serious about? It was the end of the world and they had just come through another decrepit rubble-filled falling-apart building trying to hide from some unsavory characters they saw on the road. Well, literally everyone seemed unsavory now, but that’s beside the point.

Erin interrupted her thought. “I’m just scared, okay? You’re all I have, now.” She squeezed through the hole in the wall.

“We just met! And if you were scared, you’d keep your voice down!”

“Exactly. And before you, I didn’t have anyone at all.”

Sarah was incredulous. How did this little kid manage to convince her to take her along? “God I’m such a sucker,” she muttered to herself.

“I heard that. For real, though, how do you know he’s in this direction? Who is he anyway? And why is it so important to find him? Are you in loooove with him? It seems to me we’re better off finding a place to hide. A place with food. Do you have any food? What are we going to eat? I’m hungry.”

Damn it with the questions. Question after question after question. This girl couldn’t be but maybe ten-years-old. It occurred to her that she’d never asked the girl’s age. “How old are you, anyway?”

“I’m ten-and-a-half.”

“Only little kids add the ‘and-a-half.’ Are you a little kid?”

“That’s…” Erin let out some grunt noises. “Fine, I’m ten. How old are you?”

“I’m not going to tell you that!”

“But I told you my age!”

“So.”

“Why do you get to know my age and I don’t get to know yours? This is so not fair!” Erin crossed her arms and tossed her hair to the side and refused to speak.

Silence. Sweet, sweet silence. If only it could’ve lasted.

“So how do you know he’s in this direction?”

“I just know, okay? I can’t explain it. And, he’s my husband.”

“But how do you even know he’s still alive? Everyone I knew is dead. I mean, you can’t possibly think he’s still alive after all that’s happened.”

“I JUST KNOW DAMN IT SHUT UP!”

In the distance, they heard what-could-have-been yelling, and that settled the matter. They instinctively looked around for a place to hide. They spotted an alley to their right and settled down in the crawl space between two buildings inside the alley.

The truth was that Erin had a point. Sarah had not seen Micah since the world fell apart. After hiding in their home for a week, she made the long trek to his office only to find it empty and in ruins. Then she made her way back home, but checked every single building, alley, and alcove on the way back, hoping she would find him alive or maybe find his body. She found neither and was both anxious and relieved.

When she had arrived home, Erin had just kind of appeared in the hallway with a “Hello! I’m Erin!” Then she refused to answer any of Sarah’s questions and insisted that she had moved in because the house still had food.

Sarah whispered, “Look, you really need to tell me where you came from. Maybe we can find your parents or a relative or something after I find Micah.”

Erin whispered back, “I already told you I’m not ready to talk about that, yet. And we’ll never find my parents. Ever.”

Sarah sighed. It had been six days since she had awoken to the faint sound of Micah screaming. At the same time, she had felt a powerful pull in the direction she was now heading. It felt like Micah was calling for her. Or maybe that’s just what she had hoped. The pull persisted for four days, until two days ago, when it suddenly stopped. Sarah was beside herself with anxiety. Erin grabbed her hand and held it in both of hers.

They waited about an hour before they emerged from the crawl-space. Instead of going back out the way they had entered, they made their way to the back of the alley and were relieved to find that the alley extended behind a long row of buildings. They began their walk down it.

“Oh ho ho, what have we here? It looks like two chickadees,” came a voice from their left. Leaning against a doorway in the shadows was a man in a duster smoking a cigarette. They ran. The man shouted something at them, but they did not hear.

When they emerged from the back-alley, what they saw stopped them mid-stride: a pile of corpses in the middle of the road and a man with an ax beheading another man leaned over a chopping block. After his head fell, the man with the ax tossed the body into the pile and another man stepped up and willingly threw himself down on the chopping block. A line of men stood patiently waiting their turn. The man with the ax saw them and grinned. They ran again.

They ran until Erin could run no longer, and then Sarah carried her piggy-back style. They darted through streets, weaving in and out of alleys and buildings hoping they would lose anyone trying to follow. They didn’t care which way they ran so long as it was away from what they just saw. When it was dark, they finally stopped and found a place to hide inside an empty dumpster.

“Just what was that?!” Erin whispered.

“I don’t know, but let’s not go back that way. And let’s try to whisper from now on and only do that when absolutely necessary.”

Erin nodded. Sarah pulled two granola bars out of the small pack she had tied around her waist. She also pulled out her last bottle of water. She offered the water to Erin, first, and Erin took a drink and handed it back. Sarah whispered that she should drink more, but Erin refused.

Sarah drank heartily. She was so thirsty. And sweaty. She dared not drink it all, though, since she didn’t know when she might get to refill it. Again she offered it to Erin and Erin refused. Erin did take the granola bar, however.

Shouldn’t Erin be more sweaty and thirsty after that? she thought to herself. I guess it’s because I carried her the last half of the way.

Sarah’s underwear were a swamp after so much sweat and she didn’t dare risk a yeast infection in this new world, so she took all her clothes off and risked opening the top of the dumpster so she could dry out. She laid her clothes out as best she could in the small space of the dumpster. Holy shit how relieving it was to get out of her bra. Erin looked embarrassed.

“It’s not like you haven’t seen me naked before. You’ve hardly left my side since I found you in my house.”

Erin just shrugged and turned away.

They tried to sleep for a bit, but sleep was hard in a dumpster. After about a half an hour, Sarah put her clothes back on sans-underwear. They weren’t 100% dry, but she didn’t want to have to run away naked if something had happened. They heard a sound coming from the building across the field from their dumpster.

“What is that?” whispered Erin. Sarah shushed her.

“It sounds like them,” Sarah whispered. She could see the fear wash over Erin’s face. “Just be quiet.” Sarah closed the dumpster.

Suddenly she had a feeling that Micah was in that building. She tried to shake it off, but the feeling grew stronger. It was overwhelming. She had to see if he was there.

“I… I think Micah is in there.”

Erin’s eyes bulged and she shook her head no.

“I have to see. I’m certain he’s in there. I just know it. You wait here.”

Sarah crept out of the dumpster as Erin tried to grab her to keep her from leaving. Sarah was out before Erin could get a hold.

She made her way across the field trying to be as small and quiet as possible. Luckily, the grass was tall, having not ever been cut it seemed to Sarah, helping her to hide. She found the edge of the field where it met the concrete and crouched in the grass to examine the building.

It was a regular office building. It was five stories tall, but rubble and garbage surrounded the outside and piled well above the entire first floor. There was no sign of movement in the windows, but it was hard to tell in the dark of night. The feeling grew stronger. She crept closer.

When she reached the giant pile of crap, she could hear them clearly; their raspy laughter sounds and erratic movements. She felt drawn to a window on the third floor. Seeing no other way up, she began to climb. Climbing the rubble was easy enough, except for the noise she was making. She was glad to reach the building so she could stop sending rubble sliding down the mountain of crap she had just climbed. She crept along the top of the rubble trying to keep her feet on the solid-yet-small ledge between floors one and two until she was under the window. The feeling was so strong at that point, she would have leapt into the window if she had been able. Instead, she was able to climb the decorative bricks jutting out of the regular bricks.

She peered into the window and all color left her face. She could see Micah in the glow of their branding irons. He was nailed with some metal rods through his body to a table in a crouching position as they shoved things into his body from behind while others branded him repeatedly all over the exposed parts of his body. He was nothing but skin and bone. They gleefully danced around him with their chaotic movements and took no notice of Sarah.

She felt a rage the like of which she didn’t even know was possible, and she pulled herself into the window. The one closest to her turned toward her. She grabbed its grotesque mask with both hands only to notice that it wasn’t a mask, it was an actual part of the thing. She dug her fingers into it and pulled. Its head ripped in half.

The rest of them noticed her then, and she was glad for it. She jumped on one, grabbed its arm, and pulled. The arm quickly separated from the body entirely. She briefly considered using the arm as a weapon, but then dropped it and turned her attention to the dozen or so remaining. She would tear them apart with her bare hands.

When it was done, she pulled the wooden bat out of Micah and then the metal rods and she held him in her arms. He was so light. His eyes were open but they couldn’t see her. He was mumbling something; the same thing over and over again, “Let me die. Please let me die.” She held him close as tears streamed down her face. Her voice left her and she could say nothing.

She held him for a while and rocked back and forth like he was a baby. She could find nothing with which to cover his nakedness, so she just held him tightly in her arms. Eventually, he stopped shaking. Just then, a head popped into the window, and noticing the gore that had been unleashed upon the room, exclaimed “Oh my god, what the fuck happened in here!? Is that Micah!?”

Erin crouched beside them. “Look I hate to tell you this, because he doesn’t exactly look like he can move, but they are outside.”

Sarah could hear them. She motioned for Erin to hold Micah and gently let him into Erin’s arms so she could look outside. Erin wasn’t lying. There were probably a hundred of them outside and they were coming this way, albeit more slowly than she expected, and they were moving backward. Their attention seemed to be turned toward the field of grass.

Something like a blue glow emerged from the grass and sped throughout the mass of them. It looked like the glow-thing was killing them, and it was doing it quickly. They were fast, but the glow was faster, darting back and forth amongst them, and they could not even seem to react to its movements. Sarah strained to keep up with just her eyes.

Then it stopped, suddenly and violently. A flash of blue light erupted from the glow and then subsided and Sarah could see that it was a person. The person was being held on either side by two of the largest of them as the smaller ones attempted attacks, but the person was somehow resisting. Sarah felt compelled to help, and without a second thought, jumped out of the window and landed on the pavement beyond the pile of rubble.

She strode to the one closest to her, grabbed it by the head, swung it around in a full circle, and hurled it toward the blue-glow person. Around ten of them in its flight-path were knocked down or sent flying and it bounced against one of the large ones. The large one staggered for just a moment, and the moment was enough for the blue-glow person to break free. Was that a sword they held? Then with a flick of their wrist, the sword swung around and cleaved the large one in two.

Together they finished the rest.

When it was done and Sarah had caught her breath, she could see that the person was a girl; a girl in full plate armor and carrying a really big sword. The girl swung her sword over her shoulder and into its place on her back and approached Sarah. “I am Alice and I see you are one whom also wields the fire. Though this feels like the right place, I am quite certain you are not the one I heard screaming six days ago.”