Content warning: contains some profane language, death, and violence toward undead children.
Shale yawned and rolled over in her sleeping furs as the first rays of morning light peered through the curtained windows.
“Good morning,” Kelek murmured, smiling and brushing his lips against hers.
“Morning,” she smiled back, brushing her hand along his side.
He wrapped her in his strong arms and pulled her closer, planting a firm kiss on her forehead, then pressing into her lips again.
“I have to go,” she murmured through the kisses.
“No,” he whispered, working his way down her neck.
“No, really,” she insisted with a laugh, pushing him off and rolling out of the furs to dress. He watched her for a while, content to lay in bed.
“When will you be back?” Kelek asked.
“It’s a quick trip,” she told him, pulling back her black hair and weaving it into a thick braid, “tomorrow afternoon at the latest.”
“All right,” he groaned, getting out of bed and dressing.
She leaned over and kissed his cheek. “Get the children up, before I leave,” she said, then went into the other room to start on breakfast.
Kelek mumbled something and went to do as she asked.
They ate together. Shale leaned in and kissed her children each in turn: Lonnis, the oldest, her seven-year-old son with a constant grin on his curious face; then the two girls, Farin and Ki. Though they looked very much the same, their personalities were miles apart. Her sweet middle daughter, Farin, who was always the fighter; five years old and so much ferocity. Then her youngest, Ki, the girl with a thousand dreams; always imagining up another world in her three-year-old mind.
“I love you,” she told them all, and then she left.
Shale made the short trek back to her hometown after leaving the noblemen, who’d paid her well to guide them the shorter route through Stoneloft Forest. Being a forest guide didn’t always pay that well, and she was already thinking of how they could use the silver to fix that leak in the side of their house.
The day was bright and sunny, and her stomach rumbled with hunger. But she wanted to get home, so she continued through the outskirts of the town until she reached the southeastern side, avoiding the foot traffic on the roads. She was almost home when she heard the screams.
Shale dropped her pack and ran toward the town.
It didn’t take long for her to see the bodies. Men, women, and children. Bloodied bodies were scattered in the fields and outside of their homes. She didn’t stop to look at their faces. She pounded on tired feet to her house, screaming, “Kelek! Kelek!”
She pulled to a stop on the next street over. The bodies on the ground–the bodies of neighbours and friends–they were… moving. Stirring on the ground, though many had arrows in them, and others had their heads smashed in by something heavy. Blood and brains and guts leaked out of the corpses as they stood, shuddered, and began moving toward the centre of town. She went silent, not sure what would draw them to her if anything.
No, no, no, she thought, throwing herself against the side of a house to keep from view as a few more corpses shuffled by.
She saw Maydeen, the kindly old woman who’d always shared her garden potatoes with them. She was moaning, a large gash across her throat bubbling crimson. Shale gasped and the woman turned her dead eyes in her direction. She ducked, cursing herself, then waited until she heard the corpse move past.
She caught a glimpse of Anear’s thirteen-year-old son, face pale and unblinking, staring up at the sky, his hand twitching and mouth moving without words. He was on the ground at her feet, but he was starting to turn.
She clambered over a tall fence and ran through Maydeen’s garden, then climbed the other side and landed in her backyard. “Kelek?” She whispered frantically. “Kids?” She crept into the house, which was dark, and strung her bow.
She searched the entire house and found no one inside.
“Idiot,” she hissed. The children would be in lessons, across town. Kelek would be at the temple, helping the men fix the roof there. The temple, near the town square.
Not daring to put the thoughts in her mind, she bolted out the front door and ran through the town, the streets almost empty as all the undead gathered in the town centre. For what, she had no idea. She saw no sign of what creatures had killed them, nor if there were any living survivors.
Stop, she told herself, there are survivors. Her family was smart. They would’ve gotten away. The children would have been taken into the cellar at the first sign of danger. Kelek would have hidden inside the temple. Or, maybe he was still on the roof.
She slowed as the density of undead became too many, then snuck past, looking toward the centre of town. She saw a flash of red, then heard a booming, magically enhanced voice speak out in a harsh, guttural language she didn’t know. The figure floated up several feet above the gathered corpses.
Shale hid and glanced out to get a look at the one who had destroyed her home.
Though he was far away, she could see he was a man. He had white skin and a bald head inked with black tattoos, though it was hard to make out his facial features. Around him floated a crimson red robe, and in his hand, he held a flashing orb of light. The corpses looked up at him with dead eyes and listened to his foreign speech.
Shale tore her eyes away and crept through back alleys until she reached the school, and saw the front door smashed in. Forcing the tears away, she leapt through the splintered wood and peered inside. It was dark, the lanterns gone out. “Lonnis? Farin? Ki?” She said in a hushed, strained voice. “Kids?”
There was a thump, and she raised her bow in an instant as a figure rose and moved into the light. Kelek.
His eyes were white.
His dark skin was a sickly colour, and a few arrows feathered his back. He looked at her without seeing, moving toward her. She stepped back until her shoulders touched the wall, shaking her head as he tilted his and shuffled nearer. “Don’t,” she croaked, tears streaming down her face. “Don’t, Kelek. I—I love you. Please.”
Kelek stood a foot from her, then opened his mouth as if to scream, jumping toward her with supernatural speed. She dropped her bow and felt his body slam into her and knock her to the ground. He was stronger than her, even in death, and she felt his arms clawing at her neck, threatening to choke her.
She gasped and fumbled for her belt, where she kept her dagger. She felt the hilt and grasped it, lashing out, stabbing Kelek’s strong arms where he held her. He screeched inhumanly and pulled back, and she rolled onto him and stabbed him in the chest and torso, over and over, the blade making a sickly sucking sound as she drew it out and slammed it down. Drew it out, slammed it down. Her arms were soaked by the time her husband’s white-filmed eyes finally stared up at nothing, his hands dropping and his mouth going slack.
Holding back a sob, Shale kicked off him and crawled away, toward the cellar door. It was closed. Standing shakily, dagger still clutched in one hand, she turned the knob and the door creaked open without resistance.
She descended the stairs into the cold basement, but there was no one hidden inside.
Numb, she climbed the stairs, leaving streaks of Kelek’s blood along the wall as she ascended. She stepped through the shattered front door and came face-to-face with Paelor, the children’s lesson master.
His eyes were white and dead.
He lashed out when he saw her and she cursed herself for leaving her bow on the ground. She kicked the elderly man to his knees, then grabbed his head and turned it, dagger still in hand, breaking the neck. The corpse dropped, and she saw his original wound was a stab mark to the back.
She heard a moan and turned her head as several figures shuffled out from around the building.
“No!” She screamed. She couldn’t hold it back this time. “No, no, no, no,” she sobbed, clutching the dagger in her sticky, blood-covered hands. It was her children.
Lonnis, Farin, Ki, and several other children, all with dead eyes, all pierced with arrows. Dead. Undead. They reached for her as they moved forward on tiny feet.
Shale dropped to her knees and waited for them to come. “This is it,” she sobbed, letting her dagger clatter to the ground. She forced herself to look up, to meet each of their eyes with her own.
Ki. The three-year-old with the fanciful dreams, still unsteady in the way she walked.
Farin, the fierce one, her hair now matted with blood.
Lonnis, the boy who never stopped asking questions, his jaw broken and a deep gash along his forehead.
Shale raised her chin to the sky and closed her eyes, waiting for the pain to end.
No. She heard the voice in her head. It was a voice she hadn’t heard in a decade. It was the voice of her god. The god of the forest.
Get up, Shale. Don’t let it consume you.
Then, everything went quiet.
Shale’s mind cleared and she opened her eyes. She dropped her hand and darted for the dagger again, the wet hilt slipping in her hand. As Lonnis raised a dead hand at her, she grabbed her son by the neck and thrust the blade into his un-beating heart.
It was at that moment that the darkness, and the madness, claimed her.