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I watch with terrible fascination as Undead stumble toward us, reaching, always reaching. Wrinkled hands of the old form hooks that flex, grabbing for us even before they’re within reaching distance of us. Manicured nails form claws in a variety of colors and designs. Gray hair, black hair, blond hair, brown hair, red hair, white hair; the Undead create a gruesome rainbow. They still look human, not yet on their downward spiral. I stare into eyes that still carry the gentleness of humanity in colored irises that have not yet been obliterated by Infection.
Crystal Creek has never been so alive.
We are not even through the wrought iron gates that have been closed; I suppose someone had the foresight to close them, hoping to contain the disease within the village. The iron has been bent and twisted under the weight of Undead bodies, straining to get out, hoping to find fresh blood now that most of the human population is belowground.
The faster ones who have already sensed us are shoving their hands through the bars, fingers opening and closing as if there were a throat between those fingers, a throat they must smash the life from with brute force. Connor leads us close to these bodies, surveying them with a blank expression, emotions carefully kept in check for the Raiders’ benefit. My stomach is writhing with disgust and unease at the sight of all these bodies. So many lives have been ended. So many people have been Infected.
Connor steps so close that he could reach out and touch each of the bodies that squirm against the gate to get to him. I want to grab his arm and pull him back, but I settle for tightening my grip on my bow, prepared to let loose an arrow if any of the Undead get too close to him. He looks at them almost clinically as if they are his patients and he must diagnose them and prescribe them medication.
With a sudden movement, he slides the axe from his belt and brings it down through the bars, slicing a young woman’s head open. She drops, but there is another to take her place. The man that steps into her spot does not seem at all bothered by his comrade’s demise or at all perturbed that the same plight awaits him.
Connor brings his axe down on head after head through the bars until he’s breathing hard and the gate is free of Undead. I’m still shaken by the mindlessness of the Infected. Their eyes look intelligent, yet it is evident that they no longer think in rational terms. The disease has taken their self-preservation from them except for the need to feed, always to feed, no matter the cost.
Connor waves us forward and brings his axe down on the latch that secures the gate shut. He nudges the gate open with his axe, and motions us forward. I take the lead, wary eyes darting around endlessly, painfully conscious that one false move could end my life. More Undead are coming from open doorways of stores, climbing through broken windows of houses, crawling from alleys, coming in swarms from behind trees. My entire body is tingling with alarm, the sight of so many dead people making my throat tighten.
Cerulean is by my side and, despite the tension between us, I appreciate his presence. For now, I can forget about the awkwardness of our relationship and just be glad to have my partner back at my side. The Raiders crowd in through the gate, forming a tight group of men. Well, men and me. But in these situations, I have to count myself among the men. Weapons are raised, and already arrows are flying into the fast-approaching army of Undead.
“We can’t stay here,” I shout above the whistling of arrows, the thumps of the arrows sinking into bodies, and the rustling of many, many Undead coming to get us. “We’ll be cornered here if we do.”
“If we go any farther,” Cerulean argues, “we won’t have a way of escape if we get in over our head. We can always escape through the gate and wait them out for a few days and come back when they’ve settled down.”
I shoot him a withering look. “Crystal Creek does not have ‘a few days.’”
“Skylar, we should stay to—”
I dart off without waiting to hear his speech. The weight of the sword at my side is comforting; I am under no illusion that my supply of arrows is unlimited. It’s always good to have an alternative, although I’m not nearly as handy with the shiny weapon that bumps against my leg as I am with my sleek bow and quiver of arrows. I hear shouts behind me; Cerulean is not the only one concerned about the situation at hand. It is clear that the Raiders are divided in their uncertainty of what to do. I do not stop for the shouts, and I do not stop for the sound of my name.
I don’t know where I’m going, but I’m determined to find an entrance to the underground network of tunnels that is much more advanced in Crystal Creek that it ever was in Elysium. Little boys and girls, teenagers, men, women, and elderly blur past me as I run, watching me go with hunger in their eyes that I can’t see in my haste but know is there.
These people look just like the villagers of Elysium. They are dressed similarly in sensible clothing, many of the women wear their hair braided back or hanging loose around their shoulders like the women of Elysium, and the men are broad-shouldered like the men back home, muscled from hard work. They could be the villagers of Elysium. The only things that set them apart from the villagers I see daily are the yearning stretches of hands that reach hopelessly for me, lips that part in anticipation of the blood that runs through my veins, and the eyes that sparkle with desire and need.
I dart to the closest shop, one that looks, for the most part, untouched by Undead hands. The windows are intact and the door is undamaged. I turn the doorknob, praying the door will open under my insistent fingers. The door springs open, and I hurry inside, shutting the door behind me, immediately tensed in preparation for whatever blood-craving monsters might await me when I turn. The shop is empty of threats, the light above the counter still on although the other lights have been either shut off or burned out. I take a moment to imagine the shop as it must usually be with the lights on, children pawing eagerly through the bins of candy, women browsing the shelves of boxed cake and cookie mixes, selecting packages of flour and sugar, and taking down spices from the racks, and men conversing with the shopkeeper, leaning on the counter and laughing heartily.
I blink and the image is gone, replaced by the dim shop, bare of people, but full of food that has not seen light in some odd days. I approach the counter, warily, still not convinced that the shop is as free from danger as it seems, prepared for an Undead to jump up from behind the counter and grab me. I peer over the counter and feel relief wash over me with the assurance that the shop is blessedly empty.
I round the edge of the counter and try to kick the rug aside, but it doesn’t move. I crouch down, puzzled. My fingers probe the edge of the rug, nails gently running under the frayed material. I smile as I realize what has been done: the rug has been secured to the top of a trap door. Not only does it effectively cover the door, but it also serves to keep the door covered when it’s been replaced from the underside.
After circling the rug twice, I finally find the latch and lift up the door. I grin to myself, pleased.
“Clever, aren’t you?”
The voice comes from behind me and I jump, scooping up my bow from where I discarded it on the floor, and wildly fitting an arrow to the bow string. I stand up and turn slowly, relaxing after my initial reaction; this woman is human. If she’s talking, she’s still human. Undead may be able to form sounds, but those sounds are not coherent words like hers.
Despite my certainty that she’s human, I keep my bow raised. Just because she’s human does not mean that she intends me no harm.
The woman before me is probably in her early twenties. Her hair is a vivid red-orange, falling in wild curls around her shoulders. Her voice is a husky alto and her green eyes are sparkling emeralds, aflame with life. “I’m Vivien,” she offers with a slow smile. She raises her hands in surrender, but her eyes are dancing as if she’s laughing at me, one eyebrow arched arrogantly, her hands held lazily in the air.
I keep my weapon trained on her, still wary, weapon or no weapon. “Skylar,” I reply shortly. I narrow my eyes, trying to decide what to do with this bright-haired woman.
She lowers her hands slowly, and there’s something so mocking about her every movement that makes me bristle defensively. “Don’t shoot,” she says calmly, the lazy tone still present in her voice. She moves toward me, ignoring the arrow that follows her, leveled at her heart. She seats herself on the counter, drawing one knee up and leaving the other leg to dangle carelessly. “Although if you do feel so terribly threatened by me, be my guest; send that arrow straight through my pathetic little heart.” She smiles like a cat, her green eyes sparkling. “I have a death sentence riding right above my fiery head, so it really doesn’t make all that much difference to me.”
Her utter lack of fear unsettles me, but I try to push the unease away. “What do you mean?” I ask, although I’m fairly certain I know where this going.
“Why, I’ve been Infected!” she says with a laugh, as if this whole situation is nothing more than a story to gossip about, to laugh about, and then forget the next day.
“How long do you have?” I demand, even more wary, knowing she could die any time and rise again to crave my blood.
She shrugs. “I suspect a half hour. Maybe more, maybe less.” Her eyes are still laughing at me, but I’m missing the joke. Certainly I’m not the object of such ridicule, right? “You see, I ventured out to find my nephew. My sister was worried to the point of sickness, and sick people in an enclosed space are just no good. So I was on my merry way, hunting down my little nephew, knowing better than anyone that he was no longer my nephew, but a little monster with Jason’s face pasted on his dainty devil head. I figured, ‘What the hell? Might as well humor the poor woman.’ The tunnels were horribly dull, anyway. So I trotted on up here obligingly, and everything was dandy until I got out on the main drag,” she says with an adopted faux drawl, “and I didn’t see the little tyke coming up behind me, since he was so small that he escaped my notice. Jason’s demon sunk his teeth in my calf, broke right through my favorite leather pants, he did. So I decided to come right into this old place and die in peace when you came in. Didn’t your folks ever teach you to leave a woman to die in peace?” she demands, her eyebrows raised questioningly.
I am speechless, torn between sympathy for Vivien and annoyance that she’s so melodramatic with her fancy storytelling and her inside jokes unbeknownst to me.
“Oh, don’t give me that look,” she says with obvious annoyance. “You’re not the one with the death sentence. I guess this is what I get for wondering what it’s like to be one of them. But, hey, do me a favor, will you? Give me a few seconds to be one of them before you send that arrow flying. If I have to die to see what it’s like, just give me a moment to appreciate what I’m dying for.”
I finally nod, choosing to respect her decision instead of piss her off.
Vivien swings her foot against the side of the counter, the steady thump the only sound in the deserted shop. I back up against the wall behind the counter and lean against it, suddenly weak with exhaustion. “You don’t talk too much,” Vivien says, eyeing me. I feel like a specimen beneath a microscope, always being observed, small parts of me being magnified until I have no secrets. I shift uncomfortably against the wall, shrugging.
“So, Skylar,” she says. “Since I’m pretty much a dead woman, I think it’s only fair that I get to make a request.”
I shrug again. “Sure. Whatever. Make your request.”
“Tell me a story.”
I stop fidgeting, surprised. “What kind of story?”
She shrugs, mocking me again. “Whatever.”
I think for a moment. “In my village, Elysium, we have these people called Raiders. When I was a little girl, I was determined to be a Raider, although girl Raiders were unheard of. Elysium has always made it a point not to discriminate against girls, giving everyone a fair chance to be a Raider, but for the most part, no one wants to be Raider except the boys.” I go on to tell her about my birthday raid, smiling at the parts I remember fondly, and lowering my voice dramatically for the suspenseful parts. Vivien watches me intently, hanging on my every word. She laughs with delight at the funny parts and leans forward when I drop my voice. While I talk, I watch her. As I get farther into my story, I begin to see her not as the melodramatic character I’d first pinned her as, but as a human who is just as scared of death as any of the rest of us.
When I finish, her eyes droop, and for a moment, I’m sure she’s died. When she opens her eyes, I feel an odd relief that this strange woman has not died and left me just yet. Her eyes are shining with tears. “Thank you,” she whispers.
“Vivien,” I say urgently, suddenly panicking as her eyelids droop halfway closed.
“Mm?” she murmurs.
“Vivien, do you have a boyfriend?” The answer suddenly seems essential. While I’ve been talking, I should have been using the precious moments to memorize her favorite things, her memories, everything, so someone can remember her. But now numbered minutes have turned into precious seconds, and I have no time to ask more than this one question.
Vivien smiles at the question. “I do,” she says. “I’ll be with him soon.”
Her eyes drop closed and she slumps forward and tumbles off the counter, landing with a thud at my feet. I back away from her, raising my bow, remembering her request to have a moment after she reawakens.
She is still for one, two, three breaths, and then she is opening her eyes and pushing herself off the floor. Her emerald eyes survey me with recognition and her rosy lips curve into a smile. Her recognition does not stop her from lunging for me, but her mouth forms my name and then her hands are grabbing onto my bow. I yank the bow from her prying hands and let the arrow fly, my breathing shaky. As she falls to the floor once again, blood trickling from the puncture in her head, seeping from around the arrow, I sink to the floor beside her. I turn her over so that she’s on her back, sobbing silently as I do, and gently lower her lids to cover the green eyes that still sparkle with life. Her hand suddenly shoots up to grab my wrist and my eyes widen with fright. “Skylar,” she whispers, before her eyes close again, this time on their own. I fall away from her, shaking with terror. For a moment, she was my stranger-made-friend, the one who refused to quit fighting, the one with such a fire that even Infection couldn’t completely extinguish the flame. For a moment, I found hope that the disease could be beat.