bury their paws in the stone
For all their training in dueling, the years of previous wartime, this war was different. One side had the distinct advantage of finality to their condition, while the other was forced to run and run until they eventually succumbed to the illness as well or died trying to avoid it.
It was ironic, in some way, that Tatiana Gray, the healer who could fix almost any ailment, was among the first infected.
It was her compassion that got her, in the end. The illness had just spread to the UK from the rest of Europe, so by then, she already knew what the other healers had known – there was no treatment, and once one was bitten, there was nothing that one could do to stop the spread. That didn’t stop her from trying any treatment she could on patients whose faces were contorted with pain, who begged for death if her cure didn’t work. It was one such patient, an old man who screamed even as she wrapped his wound, that reached forward and bit her squarely on the neck, effectively condemning her to the same fate as him.
Tatiana returned home with a lace handkerchief bound around her neck; all it took was one step inside her home for her husband to perceive that something was wrong.
“Oh, darling,” he said softly as she cast a hazel eye around to check for their children and then reluctantly rolled down the lace tie to show him the wound. He pulled her into the nearest room and then inspected the wound before stepping away, looking quite green – she wasn’t sure if it was from the gore or if it was from realizing her fate.
“I came as soon as I could,” explained Tatiana quickly. “I’ve got maybe a few hours at most before… you know.”
Benj stared at her blankly. Surely he knew what was going to happen to her; they’d watched the news together in rapt horror at the scenes in Prague and Paris and Berlin as the transformation was complete, but it hadn’t seemed to sink in for him yet. “There’s a way to stop it, right? Or at least slow it? That’s what you’ve been working on?”
“I haven’t found anything,” admitted the witch sharply, and then her tone softened as she re-tied the lace handkerchief around her neck. “You’re not safe with me around, Benj. You know what I have to do. Will you get the children, please?”
He still stared at her, not comprehending, but then nodded and left the room. A few minutes later, he was back with the four of them, bleary-eyed and confused at having been woken up at such an early hour, but the formality of the summons made them stand stiffly in front of her.
“My sweet—“ Tatiana had just begun when Clara pointed in horror.
“Mum, is that blood on that handkerchief?”
She bit her lip and then nodded. “I’ve been bitten,” she informed them slowly, and watching the horror dawn on each of their faces was even more than the pain of being bitten itself.
“I don’t have much time – don’t cry,” she added unnecessarily as she saw both Belle and Cece’s eyes immediately beginning to brim with tears. “Come here,” she said after a moment and then bent, opening her arms and receiving all four at once into a wide embrace. She squeezed their shoulders and planted kisses all over their faces, trying not to break down even as she heard them sobbing into the front of her shirt.
She stayed that way for a few minutes and then finally pulled back, holding them at arm’s length.
“You have to stay brave for your father and for each other, okay? And be kind. If there’s one thing I hoped to teach you, it’s kindness.” She didn’t add that it was what had put her into this situation, that maybe if she had been a bit selfish, she might have survived, but it’s not what she would have wanted. Tatiana had always wanted to do something useful before she died, and perhaps she finally had, even if it was simply by trying her best to ease the suffering of others at the cost of her own.
She pulled them closer again, pressing kisses to their foreheads and murmuring reassurances, last words and reminders before she finally stood again and extricated herself from the tangle of limbs and tear-stained cheeks. “Goodbye, my loves. Will you give me a few minutes alone with your father?”
They left reluctantly, Clara tugging out Amory who was still trying to cling to his mother, and she looked after them, biting her lip and trying not to cry. This was the last sight that her children would ever see of her; she had to set a good example for them.
He came to her at once, wrapping his arms around her so tightly that she almost thought he meant to hold her there forever as if the illness couldn’t reach her inside his embrace. Tatiana sunk into it, feeling his shoulders shaking even as she wrapped her arms around him just as tightly. Benjamin hadn’t had to lose someone to death before, but she had, many times; she could feel the waves of pain that rippled through his spine in a way that was too achingly familiar for her that it sent a fresh burst of regret at the unfairness of the whole situation into her.
She drew back and wiped a hand at her hazel eyes which were finally overflowing with tears. “You’ll take care of them,” she told him, her voice shaking, “and you’ll tell them how much I love them and how proud I am of them every day, won’t you?”
Benj nodded solemnly, and she went on, “And you’ll take care of yourself, won’t you? Keep each other safe.” He nodded again and she moved closer to press her lips to his, tasting salt for a few long seconds before she drew away.
Tatiana’s hands fumbled for her pocket and then she reached for his hand to place a gun in it. Benj started, jerking back as if she’d burned him, but she reached over to grasp his hand more firmly and close his fingers around the handle of the gun. He was already shaking his head at her, realization dawning upon his blue eyes, but there was no other solution.
“You have to shoot me in the head.”
“I won’t,” he said, more venomously than his wife had ever heard him speak to her. “There’s got to be another way. Or we don’t do anything at all, and it’ll just resolve itself.” His gaze held the last gleam of desperate hope that Tatiana felt guilty for dispelling when she shook her head mournfully at him.
“This is the only solution. If you don’t kill me now,” he winced as if slapped, “then I turn into one of them and I start coming after our children. You have to stop me before that happens. It could be any minute now.”
He pushed the gun back to her, but she wouldn’t take it, stubbornly tightening her grip with urgency on his fingers until finally they reluctantly stayed around the gun. Benj stared at her as if dazed, and then kissed her once more, long and hard, before he stepped back.
Tatiana stared back, trying to burn his face into her last memory. Her life didn’t flash before her eyes, but she did realize with hazy regret that she would miss so much that she’d looked forward to. She’d never see Clara graduate, or Amory fall in love, or Belle get married, or Cecilia have children. She wouldn’t grow old with Benjamin in their side-by-side armchairs. She’d die at thirty-two and miss so much of her life – but selfishly, she realized that maybe this was happier. If a cure wasn’t found, this would continue, and how long before her husband was killed, or one of her children? Better she die before them, she thought grimly, and that hardened her long enough to swipe at her eyes and give him a small nod.
“I love you,” she said finally.
“I love you,” he replied, his fingers still trembling at the trigger as tears ran down his cheek.
She closed her eyes and he pulled the trigger.
Clara Gray had tried so hard.
She’d done the necessary, hardened herself so that she no longer felt the sting of pain when another person she’d cared about was shot in the head or lost to the fever. She’d wept for her mother, and then her father. She’d hugged her sisters to her side, her shoulders shaking silently for Amory. But things were different now; the stakes were too high for her to waste her time on tears during every death – she’d learned to carry on, and so she did.
Almost all the children she’d grown up with were gone. She hadn’t seen Tyler since the infection had started. Rio had been among the earliest killed in a raid, caught in the crossfire. She didn’t know where Seren had gone off to, or what had happened to the Majors. Adults dropped into her life and then out inconsistently, seized either by illness or zombies or by some whim to leave everything behind and make it on their own. She’d learned to rely on none.
So when Cecilia took ill, it was her who sat at her side with Belle, who fussed and tore clean strips of cloth and cooled them in water before laying them over her younger sister’s forehead. Clara didn’t tend to her sister in the same way. She merely took a look at her sleeping form, cocked the gun left to her after her father had died, and then brandished it at anyone who dared come close or tried to tell her that her sister was beyond saving. She didn’t like being told what she already knew, but more than that, Clara Gray hated how helpless she was. She was useful in a raid for supplies or for guarding camp, but she couldn’t help someone when they were wounded or had taken ill.
Amory had been torn away by the monsters, but it would take Death himself to pry Cecilia from Clara’s now-vigilant grasp.
When she finally died, the eldest Gray child pressed her only sister left close to her and murmured over and over, “Be brave. Be strong. We have to survive.”
It was just the two of them left after that. She’d tried in vain, searching for Jude and Anastasia, but his house was abandoned, and all the adults she’d badgered for information hadn’t heard anything about the Penvranes. There was a small sliver of hope in Isabelle’s tone as she told her sister that they might still be alive, but Clara was more pragmatic, even if she didn’t say so. Just because she’d had to discard her innocence didn’t mean that everyone else had to.
Cecilia wasn’t the only one gone that day. When they’d buried the dead, the ones who were left, their faces dirty and weary from the long years of fighting to survive, sat around the fire quietly until finally Isabelle spoke. “Tell us a story,” she murmured to Clara.
So she did, melancholy pangs of grief threading their way through her words as she began her mother’s favorite story. She could almost hear her mother’s voice filled with awe, turning pages of the book, or her father’s stifled laughter at the ridiculous plot, but for a few minutes, just this one day, Clara had hope.
It didn’t last very long.
There was another incident, a few months later. The group of children had shifted; some had gone and others had taken their place, but one morning they’d almost all woken up, infected. Clara had suspected it first; the terrible fever that had claimed Cece was one thing, but this was another. This would manifest into the symptoms of the monsters that had killed her father and taken her brother from her.
She woke up Isabelle roughly with a shake, staring into her sister’s bleary eyes until she was sure that her younger sister hadn’t been infected as well before she leaned back with a sigh.
“What are you going to do?” Belle asked when she noticed the yellow-tinge to Clara’s blue eyes. She didn’t need to ask; it was already clear what Clara would do. She’d do what everyone else had done when they found themselves in the situation, but she’d be brave. She’d do what her parents had told her, to be strong for her sister. The only answer to Belle’s question was a look, and then she hugged her tightly and planted a kiss into her forehead just like her mother and father had done the days they died.
There were no last words. She simply rose and walked to Freya – one of the few adults she trusted to do it without hesitating – and asked her to kill her.
Clara Gray’s last thought was that she’d been good at survival but Belle – she’d have to be even better.
In the end, James Major had been the one to finish it.
As soon as the zombie sightings had started in his country he’d barricaded his house with his wife against the incoming zombies. The doors were fortified with all manner of heavy furniture to keep them out, though he realized that it meant that they were trapped in as well. For a while, that didn’t matter. They were safe for a month, living off the food in the pantries, holding their children close when the sound of zombies trying to break down the doors was too loud, too close.
One day there was a knock.
“Zombies,” Kennedy said automatically, but James didn’t think so.
He peered at the window. “Johnstons,” he corrected, and carefully moved a cupboard from the door long enough for them to scramble in – Edward and Maisie, both covered in dirt and blood.
James hadn’t even opened his mouth long enough to ask before Eddie shook his head. “Dead,” he managed, “Mum and Dad. Our sisters. Uncle Charlie.” His eyes were hollow, and James reached forward and tugged them both into a hug.
They couldn’t last inside for much longer. Their provisions were already running out, but he was reluctant to leave their home. “We’re safer in here then we are out there,” he argued to Freya one day in the kitchen, trying to keep his voice down as the children all slept upstairs.
“We won’t have food soon,” she replied, her eyes flashing. “It’s either risking us all going hungry or risking the zombies. We can outrun zombies, but we can’t outrun hunger,” she pointed out, and James was beaten.
They gathered what they had left, leaving behind anything non-essential. They weren’t sentimental people, but he felt a pang of regret as he looked at his bookshelf, at Ophelia’s Miss Legless Skullcracker doll to leave behind, before he gathered up his bag of saltines and started outside.
Living inside for so long meant that they were vastly unprepared for the reality of life outside. For all their training in dueling, the years of previous wartime, this war was different. One side had the distinct advantage of finality to their condition, while the other was forced to run and run until they eventually succumbed to the illness as well or died trying to avoid it.
They managed to all make it to a camp somehow, and that made it more real. The grim faces of the others who’d been driven from their homes and lost so much reminded James of what was at stake here. But with the safety of numbers came also the danger of attack, and one day they struck. The attack wasn’t very long, but it was bloody, and when it was over, they were left to tally the dead – Maisie and Rory among their numbers.
The death of their son sent Freya into a spiral. She trained harder, spending hours a day with target practice, leading raids while James defended the camp and the children he had left. Her grief she funneled into throwing knives – his, into vigilant watches of the camp for upcoming attacks. The months stretched out farther, and one day he finally confronted her.
“You’re training too hard,” he insisted.
Freya tugged her arm from his grasp. “I’m not training enough,” she persisted. “We have to be prepared next time.”
“The next time what?” James asked, gesturing widely with his arm. “You can’t keep blaming yourself for his death. We did all that we could.”
“It wasn’t enough!” snapped Freya. “If we can’t protect our own son, who will?”
As usual, he found himself beaten by her logic. James opened and closed his mouth several times before he sat down heavily, defeated. “I don’t know,” he admitted, “but you can’t continue on like this. We’re all that Ken and Phee and Eddie have left. You can’t forget them.”
“I’m doing this for them,” she said stubbornly, and strode in the opposite direction.
She earned a reputation as the tough one of the camp. James could never bring himself to kill the sobbing children who came to him, displaying a bite or signs of the illness he knew would turn them into the same thing that had killed their parents – he turned them to Freya, and she took care of things, no nonsense.
In the meantime, he became a seeker of information. At first, it was for the whereabouts of his friends; Lachlan he already knew had been killed, but Cordelia and Cecily as well as her children were missing. Later on, his information was about the illness itself. Months earlier – only it felt like eons ago – he’d been a researcher. Maybe he held the key to finishing this. He couldn’t quite fight, but he had to find a way to defend the family he had left.
It was a shock, therefore, when illness swept the camp and took his wife down with it.
“There’s no way I can fight this,” fretted Freya, “It’s an illness, it’s not something that I can shoot in the head or burn and be done with it.” She coughed feebly and James laid a hand across his wife’s head, feeling it burning to his touch. “Tell the kids that I died nobly.”
He nodded slowly; she’d already said her goodbye to them in the morning when she’d woken up and found herself ill, but the infection was quickly spreading, worsening before his eyes, and she’d refused to let them see her when she was so close to death.
“You don’t,” he started, and then swallowed, “You don’t want me to shoot you, do you?” His voice quavered; he didn’t know if he could. For as cold as James Major was, he wasn’t a killer, and he didn’t know how he could pull the trigger on his own wife.
She shook her head and smiled palely, showing him the gun already in her hand. “I’ll do it myself,” she told him, a last testament to their compromise; she’d deal with all the gore while he held their family together.
Remembering that, he added, “You don’t still blame yourself for Rory, do you?”
She paused, and then replied, “I can make amends with him. I’ll see him soon.” Freya turned to him, her blue eyes staring at him but not really seeing him. “You have to make sure that they survive. This war won’t take all of us. You promise?” She stared him down until he did, and then, at last, he placed a kiss to her burning cheek and quickly turned.
When the shot rang through the air, he flinched as if he’d been shot himself.
As if the previous day hadn’t been terrible enough, James woke the next morning from a fitful sleep to find that his eldest daughter had gone missing over the night.
“She said she was just going to keep watch,” sobbed Ophelia as soon as she saw her father, “I didn’t think that she’d actually go help with the raid or that she wouldn’t come back!”
As it was, of the seven people who’d gone to try and scrounge up more supplies, only one had returned and reported tearfully that zombies had descended on the rest, including Kennedy.
The death of both his wife and his eldest daughter only hours apart was enough to stir him to take action. He didn’t waste his time on tears for too long; while the sparse few left in the camp slept, he quietly woke up Eddie and Ophelia and slipped away into the night.
They relied on the cover of night to move, slipping around zombie infested areas until they stumbled into a better-fortified institution; James’s old laboratory, now repurposed for finding some solution to the zombie illness. It wasn’t safe, because nothing in their world was anymore, but it was the closest thing to safety that he could give the two of them, and he was finally able to get back to work to try and save the two he had left by finding a cure.
Years passed, and things were staring to change. Eddie and Ophelia grew into young soldiers, hardened to death and to fear, but one day, they no longer had to. Enough progress had been made in his lab when he’d collaborated with other scientists that they’d found the cure after years of attempts.
“The war is over,” exclaimed another scientist as they stared at the positive results of their tests.
James nodded, but he couldn’t help but realize that he was years too late to save those who he had set out to defend. He might have helped save the world, but he’d been too late to defend most of his own family.
He turned to Eddie and Ophelia and wrapped his arms tightly around them. “They didn’t die in vain,” he told them to try and convince himself, “It’s over. We’ve won.”
It was a hollow victory, a bitter, bloody one, but it was still a victory nonetheless. He’d made it. He’d survived.
(It wasn’t worth it if they hadn’t.)