Katherine woke up to the sounds of someone whooping for joy.
She looked at the window, but the usual amount of sunlight wasn’t peeping through the curtains. That meant she had woken up too early. She would have cursed if she was awake enough. She tried to go back to sleep, burying her head in the pillow, but the whooping didn’t go away.
After what were some very long minutes of indecision, she decided to grouchily see what all the fuss was about.
The sounds were coming from Kenneth’s bedroom. As she walked over, an exciting thought pulsed through her mind: had he got his ability? There weren’t many other reasons for Kenneth to be this excited.
She found his room door slightly ajar, and pushed her way in to find a room that had elevated being messy to some kind of chaotic art form. Papers and clothes were lying around like drunken partygoers long after the party had ended. And in the middle of everything was Kenneth, who was running to and fro, tossing small things about, and then catching them, and then tossing them again, his limbs dancing around like excitable monkeys.
She was about to ask him what on earth he was doing when she noticed just how fast he was moving.
“Big sister!” said Kenneth in a state of euphoria, “Look how fast I can move! This must be my ability! I finally have an ability! This is so amazing!”
Katherine couldn’t help grinning too.
“Yes! Oh my God, you’ve got enhanced speed!” she said happily as she moved towards him to hug him, “I knew you wouldn’t be a Dudder!”
“Wait a minute,” said Kenneth, suddenly frowning, “What’s wrong with your legs?”
Katherine, a little puzzled, looked down to see several wounds gaping out from tears in her pyjamas. What in the – they hadn’t been there when she woke up, had they? She touched one of the wounds and found fresh blood on her finger.
“Big sister, help!” came the sharp cry from Kenneth.
She looked up in horror to see him drowning in a sea of Zombies, his skinny arms flailing as the horde of hungry creatures began to tear at him, hack at his fair skin.
Katherine woke up to the sounds of someone painfully coughing.
Before she could get up to see who it was though, jolts of pain ripped through her body like a swarm of eels. The shock of it had her immediately flat on the ground again.
The pain wasn’t so bad the second time she tried though, and she managed to prop herself up into a sitting position, leaning heavily against the tree behind her.
Slowly, the details of a sparse forest at night began to bleed into her vision, and the eerie calls of undead birds began to seep into her ears. And through it all, the coughing occasionally popped its head in. The coughing, that was a person coughing, wasn’t it? She tried to locate the source of the sound, and found it reclined near another tree.
Katherine gasped. And tried to get up. The jolts returned, persistent but with less venom, and forced her to move much slower than she would have liked.
Lizbeth looked like she was just as exhausted as Katherine felt. She looked up as a distraught Katherine approached, and smiled feebly.
“Twinkle! Damn it, you need help!”
“No, no… koff….I patched myself up… after I did you… koff…”
But Katherine fussed over her anyway, looking for any wounds that hadn’t been dressed or wrapped up. When she couldn’t find any beside one gash on Lizbeth’s back, she quickly patched it up to the best of her ability, and then sat down on the ground in front of Lizbeth in an unsatisfied huff. Even now, with her friend – her only friend, it felt like – on the verge of something sinister, there was nothing much she could do.
“Where are we?” Katherine managed, when Lizbeth’s coughing began to grate at the uncomfortable silence.
“I don’t know…” said Lizbeth, “When we were up there… surrounded by Zombies… koff… I took us to the first… empty space that I saw… koff!”
The answer didn’t really give Katherine anything to go on, but she didn’t want to press Lizbeth, not in the terrible condition she was clearly in.
Katherine thought she had borne as much pain as she could already handle in the last few waking moments she could remember. But more pain had decided to pile itself on her regardless; the sight of a broken, dishevelled Lizbeth crumpled on the ground in front of her was too much for her to bear. She curled up into a ball and buried her face in her folded arms, fighting back the tears.
“I’m sorry I failed you, Lizbeth,” she half-choked, “Everyone I cared about here – Kenneth, you, Dodo, Trigger – I couldn’t save you when I was supposed to. And now Kenneth is dead, Trigger is dead, Dodo is probably dead, and you… you’re here in this mess, and you’re hurt all over, because I couldn’t do my duty. And there’s nothing more I can do to make any of that better!”
Lizbeth let her blubber on for a few more minutes, only coughing intermittently, before speaking once Katherine had run out of tear-fuelled steam.
“Big Sis, don’t be an idiot… koff!”
Katherine raised her head in confusion.
“Eagle and Falcon are alive… because of what you koff! … what you did… I was already infected… before I came back… koff… for you and Zippo… are you sure he’s koff dead?”
Lizbeth had always been fair-skinned, but Katherine had never seen her look this pale before. It was as if her skin was slowly turning into some soft variant of alabaster. Her own skin was also probably several shades lighter from the toll all the anguish was taking on her.
“I saw him get thrown into a house, yelling – he sounded like he was injured. And I couldn’t move a muscle to save him. And then…” Katherine choked up again, the words wallowing in the stickiness of her throat, “the Zombie horde swarmed the house, and they swarmed me too, just before you took me out of there.”
The tears were finally allowed to trickle down her face. There was no point in keeping them back anyway.
“I’ve always looked out for him, always had his back since we were kids. And at the moment he needed me there the most, I couldn’t do it. And now he’s gone, and I couldn’t even say goodbye. What the hell kind of a guardian does that make me!?”
Lizbeth was quiet. It could have been because she didn’t know what to say, or because she was saving her strength; it was hard to tell.
Katherine fished inside her battered bodysuit for the bear totem. When she found it, she gave it one last look. “You found the wrong person to follow,” she told it, as if it would actually listen, “I’m sorry I failed you. Find another warrior who’s more deserving of your guidance.”
She then flung it away into the trees as hard as she could. But, by some strange quirk, the totem slipped in her grasp as she threw it, and instead of going far away into the forest, it rebounded off a couple of trees in their vicinity before landing around the spot where Katherine had woken up at. She briefly contemplated going after it to pick it up and throw it further away, but found that she didn’t care enough about it.
Also, Lizbeth had suddenly started coughing much more severely, an ugly sound that could have been her insides trying to cough themselves out of her. When the flurry of noise had died down, Lizbeth reached out for one of her short-swords with a hand that was shaking so hard the rest of her body was vibrating along with it.
She knew the answer already, but Katherine still found herself asking the question: “Twinkle, what are you doing?”
Lizbeth struggled more than usual to bring out the words.
“I don’t want to become… one of them… koff koff… rather kill myself…”
Katherine stretched out a hand and restrained her friend.
“No! I can’t let you do that to yourself, not after everything that’s happened!”
That plaster-skinned face simply turned towards Katherine’s own, the once intensely blue eyes somehow draining themselves of colour as well.
“Then koff do it for me… please… don’t let me be koff! One of those… things…”
As Katherine stared at the short-sword that had been lightly tossed at Lizbeth’s feet by a trembling hand, she thought back to Captains Masterton and Carpenter and how they’d solemnly shot down the two infected soldiers. They hadn’t enjoyed it, obviously, but they must have been able to summon some immense kind of will to do it. Looking at the blade now, Katherine was very sure that she didn’t have that kind of willpower in her already. Killing anonymous Zombies that were out for her blood was one thing, but killing a dear friend like this? Someone who had risked their life to save hers?
“Please…I beg you, Big Sis…”
And then the image of the Zombie she had let go wandered into her vision. Those lidless eyes staring at her, that croak of a voice pleading for mercy… she hadn’t found the strength to do the deed back then, with a stranger; how on Entropea was she going to find the strength to do it now?
Lizbeth was starting to reach for her other short sword now, and Katherine was shaken out of her reverie.
“No, no! I’ll… I’ll do it,” she said, her voice shaking as much as Lizbeth’s hand, “I promise.”
She picked up the sword on the ground, trying to recall the prayer that the captains used to utter. Maybe there was strength to be found in the prayer, even though Katherine herself had very rarely considered herself a religious person, and had all but given up on the idea of a deity looking out for her well-being at this point.
“Our great God in Heaven, here lies… here lies a soldier who fought with her friends and for her people, to reclaim Mortanny – no, Faeritalum… your land… from the monsters who… from the Zombies who have been here since the Great Plague. She fought brave, she fought hard, and she fought with honour. She saved my life, and countless others. I wish I could do the same for her, but I can’t, so this is the next best thing I can do. But it’s not easy, and I need your help. I need to find the strength to do it, at a time when I have been drained of it both physically and mentally. And… and it’s not easy because I have to kill someone who has only ever been a dear friend, the best of friends even… oh God please, please help me…”
And then she remembered the bear totem. It was maybe a bit silly, but she needed anything she could get. Promising Lizbeth that she would be back, she walked over to the patch of ground where she thought it had fallen down it.
It had fallen around there, hadn’t it? It must have, because it hit that tree over there, and then rebounded here, so – ah there it was!
It had only been a little scratched up by the throw. She carefully wore it around her neck, and then returned to where Lizbeth was, short sword held firmly in hand.
She knelt down beside her friend, and took a deep breath. She clutched the totem in her hand for a few seconds, as though it would help. It didn’t. She took another deep breath.
“Please… koff… do it quickly…”
The surest way to do it would be to drive the sword straight through her head. Both of them knew this. Not only would Lizbeth be dead, but she wouldn’t be able to re-emerge as a Zombie that way. Anything else would kill her, but not for long.
But something inside Katherine stirred, a feeling that was a bit like hope, but wearing all the wrong clothes and having an odd expression on its face. The Zombie who had asked her for mercy, the others at the camps that had not tried to fight them… maybe, just maybe, there were some people who re-emerged as peaceful Zombies, who didn’t try to kill anything that wasn’t already dead. It was worth a try, wasn’t it? What other options did she have at this point?
“I’m sorry, Twinkle,” she said with a hint of grim finality, and then, drawing back her arm, she plunged the sword straight into Lizbeth’s heart.
As Lizbeth’s eyes flung open in shock, the life already beginning to soar away from them, Katherine tried to dig the sword in even further, as far as she could, until it began to pierce through wood. And then she pushed some more, as Lizbeth’s face stopped moving altogether, frozen in a morbid state of confusion and pain. Her slim body, already limp from the disease, slowly settled into a state of complete lifelessness.
Katherine kept pushing until she could feel Lizbeth’s cold body hit the hilt of the sword. And only then, her hands slowly inching away from the handle, only then did Katherine finally stop and move away from Lizbeth. She stretched out a hand to close the lids of those frigid blue eyes.
And then, curling herself up as tightly as she could as the chill of the night began to poke its sharp fingers at her from all sides, she began to cry once more. Big, sloppy tears washed her away into a fitful sleep, filled with more visions of familiar faces drowning in abysses filled with snarling Zombies.
Katherine woke up to the sounds of someone snarling.
She woke up, her body a little sore from having to endure the cold with minimal protection and a generous helping of scars. It was still dark outside, but the forest had gone quiet, as though it too was taking the opportunity to sneak in a nap.
Quiet except for the snarling, that is.
Lizbeth had turned, and was now a Zombie. And apparently a very upset, and hungry one at that. As Katherine slowly approached her, her head snapped towards Katherine with an odd jerk, and she began to snarl even louder, hungrily even. Her hands were trying to pull out the sword that was currently pinning her to the tree, but the effort was proving futile. Even though Zombies were capable of above-average feats of strength at times, this was one feat that needed strength far beyond average; Katherine had driven the sword deep into the trunk behind Lizbeth.
Katherine’s eyes began to well up again; she didn’t know how much more sadness and misery she could handle, but the sight of a re-animated Lizbeth that clearly did not have peaceful intentions was about to break past that limit.
This part should have been easy, thought Katherine. She had dealt the killing blow to so many Zombies before this; her knuckles twinged with a knowing sensation at the thought. It was especially easy to kill them when they very clearly wanted to do the same to her. And yet… even with its skin starting to turn the greenish-brown shade of decay, its short hair starting to fall off and its exposed wounds starting to fester and bubble with pus, the creature pinned to the tree still had too much of Lizbeth left in it.
Katherine raised a fist, slowly enlarging as she prepared to smash in the creature’s head – and then lowered it. It wasn’t any old creature’s head. It was Lizbeth’s head. She had already killed her friend once, and that had taken everything out of her. She couldn’t do it again.
But she also couldn’t stay around with those awful snarls pounding at her ears.
“Goodbye, Twinkle, my friend,” she said sadly, “if there’s any of you still in there, somewhere.”
After a pause, she then added: “You deserve better than this.”
And then she began to wander away from the creature, her every step soaking with regret and trembling from the cold. She walked as far away as she could, the snarls dying down with every yard she covered. The forest gave way to a few clearings here and there, but was otherwise devoid of any kind of milestones she could measure her progress with.
Even when the growls had finally disappeared, she kept moving, fuelled by the fear that if she stopped, the cold would freeze her in place. Her feet began to hurt from continuously slamming onto the winter-hardened forest floor. The thought didn’t occur to her that she could increase her size until her head cleared the forest, and she could then see which way to go; her mind had been taken past its limit and, like a trembling rubber band, it had broken.
She kept moving, her steps becoming less and less sure, until she tripped on an errant root and collapsed in a sad heap on the forest floor. She tried to get up, but then asked herself what the point of it was. Where was she even going? What was her plan when she got there?
Rolling onto her back so that the clear night sky could be made out through the web of branches that was the roof of the forest, she stared for a while. She tried to find stars, but none glimmered that night. There was a faint sickly glow being delivered by a crescent moon that looked like it too was fed up with life.
Maybe this was appropriate, she thought. After having failed to save her brother and her friends, the only people she cared about, the only ones who would have gone through hell to save her in return, it was only fitting that she die here, in the middle of nowhere, alone.
She closed her eyes, and a different kind of darkness filled her vision.