Shane

Shane dribbled the ball passed Greg and passed it quickly to Jas. Jas darted across the lawn, her brows knit together in intense concentration as she weaved between her mother and father and shot the ball into the net.

Shane cheered, pumping his fist in the air as Jas ran circles around them. Greg leaned against his thighs, panting.

“Screw you, Shane,” he muttered between breaths.

“I’m not the one that scored,” Shane said with a smirk. “It was your daughter.”

“C’mon, Dad, you’re not even trying!” Jas whined, kicking the ball over to them.

“I say we switch up the teams,” Jas’s mother said. “It’s not fair to put the two worst players together.”

“Get good!” Shane teased, kicking the ball away from Jas and around them.

“Yeah Shane,” Jas said, throwing her hands on her hips. “Me and Mom verse you and Dad!”

“I don’t wanna be stuck with him,” Shane whined playfully.

“Let’s do it,” Greg said, straightening and glaring at Shane. “If I’m going down, I’m bringing you with me.”

Shane rolled his eyes and took his position in front of the net. He watched as Jas darted around her father with the ball, running right towards him. Shane grinned, preparing himself for the block as she neared. He watched the ball fly through the air and he dove across the net, blocking her shot.

“No fair!” Jas yelled. “You’re bigger than the net!”

“C’mon, Jas,” Shane taunted her, throwing the ball back into play. “I taught you better than that.”

“You forgot one thing,” Jas said, stopping the ball with her knee. She picked it up with her hands and glared at him with a devilish smile. “You also taught me how to cheat.” Jas ran towards him with the ball in her hands, throwing herself into his gut. When his arms came down around her, she ducked quickly and tossed the ball around him and into the net. “GOAL!”

“Cheater!” Shane yelled, grabbing her by her waist and flipping her upside down over his shoulder.

“You always cheat, Shane!”

“Never!”

“Shane’s a cheating jerk,” Greg said as he made his way to them. “Never trust a guy like Shane.”

Shane smirked as he put Jas back on the ground. “Don’t trust any guy,” he said, giving her a wink.

Jas crossed her arm and stuck her nose in the air before hurrying towards the porch where Aunt Marnie appeared with a pitcher of lemonade.

“Are you and Shane playing fairly?” Marnie asked Jas as Jas eagerly took a glass from her aunt.

“Mom and Dad are just mad because they can’t keep up,” Jas said into her cup.

“Thanks for teaching our kid good values,” Greg said to Shane, slapping his shoulder.

“She needs some kind of skill, and neither of you are good at anything.”

Greg shrugged and wrapped his arm around his wife.

“Clock’s ticking,” Jess said with a sly smile. “Jas needs a friend.”

“Shane’s gotta land himself a woman, first.” Greg laughed sharply. “Good luck with that.”

Shane narrowed his eyes at them. “Jas is enough kid for me.”

Jess laughed. “You’ve come a long way, I have to admit. I thought you were gonna piss yourself the first time you held her. Looked like you saw a ghost!”

“Babies are way too tiny. And that soft pot on their head? What the hell’s with that?”

“Typical bachelor.”

Shane shrugged. “I’m surprised she’s made it this far. Figured you guys would have dropped her or lost her by now.”

“Like you’d do any better,” Greg shot back at him.

“I could handle it. She’s passed the baby stage now.”

“Good to know,” Greg said, turning to Jess. “We can die now and leave her safely in his hands.”

Jess rolled her eyes. “I still think Jas needs a friend.”

“No friends,” Shane said. “No thank you.”

“He’s just mad ‘cuz I landed the prettiest woman in the city.” Greg planted a kiss on her cheek and she giggled.

“You two make me sick.”

They watched as Jas excitedly recounted every sly move she made in their soccer game. The sky grew dim and Jas turned her gaze to the sky curiously. Not a cloud marked the sky to explain the dimness. She turned to the adults who talked casually amongst themselves, unaware of the strange occurrence.

The world continued to grow darker around them until the adults finally turned their gazes in search for an explanation, but there was none. The sky darkened from a pale to midnight blue, and then to an eerie dark gray, as if shrouded in a dark mist, swallowing them whole.

“Mom,” Jas said slowly. “What’s going on?”

Marnie pulled Jas close to her. Shane and Greg exchanged unsure glances until they could hardly see each other in front of them. The world was suddenly silent except for their breathing and shuffling in the grass.

“Inside,” Greg muttered. “Now.”

The five of them hurried in the house, flicking lights on as they moved into the living room where breaking news flashed across the screen. The news reported flashed in and out amongst the unexplained static.

“…war… Shadow People… here…. Shadow People… here…”

The power in the house cut, engulfing them in the darkness once more.

“What the…”

They saw the golden dots, illuminated in the night, just outside the window, bobbing up and down the streets. First just two, and then four, and suddenly they were surrounded by golden pairs of eyes that they knew too well to be The Shadow People.

“Get in the basement,” Greg barked to them.

Shane felt his grip on his arm as Greg pulled him through the house. Greg shuffled through the darkness, throwing items aside as he searched through the dark rooms. Shane heard the familiar sound of a clip being shoved into place, secured with a satisfying click. Cool metal was in his palm. He wrapped his fingers around the gun, his heart racing. A hand gripped Shane’s wrist, and Shane could just barely make out Greg’s gaze in the dark.

“Don’t puss out on me, man.”

Shane shook his head, then cleared his throat. “C’mon.”

He followed Greg through the house, listening to his footsteps, his only guide, until they made it outside and onto the street. The familiar eyes of The Shadow People were gone. Shane cupped his hands around the grip of the gun and cocked it, waiting.

“Come out, come out, where ever you are,” Greg muttered, his low voice breaking the eerie silence of the unexplained night.

After a moment, a shriek pierced their ears, followed by another scream and another. Shane and Greg stiffened and spun on their heels, searching for the sound. Lights began to dot the street. Flashlights and lanterns. People were running from their homes and disappearing into the woods around them. Gun shots fired and suddenly chaos erupted.

“Fuck,” Shane muttered, stumbling backwards.

“Let’s go,” Greg hissed to him, pulling his shoulder and spinning him around. They darted back to the street, around the house, and pulled the bulkhead open. A faint light illuminated the faces of Jess, Marnie, and Jas. Greg motioned frantically with his arm, encouraging them out of the basement.

“Get into the woods,” he hissed to them.

Jess pulled at Greg’s arm. “No. Not without you.”

“Don’t argue with me, there’s no time. Run as far away as you can get.”

“Daddy,” Jas cried softly. “What’s going on?”

“Get them out of here,” Shane muttered as his eyes swept the yard. He squinted in the dark in an attempt to pick out flashlights from eyelights.

“Now,” Greg growled.

The wind blew gently and the trees rustled around them.

“Come on, Jas,” Marnie said to her, pulling her arm. “We need to leave now.”

“No,” she cried. “No!”

The trees rustled loudly and two pairs of eyes peered from the branches. Shane threw his body against Jas, knocking her to the ground as Greg let two shots fire into the trees. The creatures shrieked and emerged from their hiding, rushing at the humans.

Shane rolled over, keeping Jas behind his back, and raised his gun, but the eyes and the flashlight were out. He held his breath, waiting, listening. A thump and a grunt signaled that someone was knocked to the ground.

“Run!” Greg’s voice shouted, his breath cut off in a muffled grunt.

Shane scrambled to his feet, pulling Jas with him and pushing her towards the woods.

“No, Shane,” Jas cried, clinging to him.

Shane fumbled along the ground, picking up her dropped flashlight, and clicked it on, shining it in her face. Marnie appeared in the light, pulling Jas frantically towards her.

Shane whipped around as another scream sounded, just yards away from him. He let the flashlight sweep across the yard until it fell on Jess struggling with one of the Shadow People, it’s hands clenched around her throat, cutting off her breath.

Shane stumbled forward, but a snap stopped him dead in his tracks.

“NO!”

Shane watched as the body dropped to the ground, lifeless. The golden eyes met his.

Shane’s shaking hands fumbled with the gun. Three shots went off, missing the creature completely as it approached him. Two more shots sounded near by, briefly lighting the world around them, just enough for Shane to see Greg fall to his knees.

He scrambled through the darkness until he found Greg. His body shuttered in his arms. His breath gasped sickeningly. Shane swept the light across the yard once more, but they appeared to be alone. He let the light fall to Greg’s face. His gaze met Shane’s as he gasped, blood spilling from his lips.

“No,” Shane muttered. “No!”

“Jas,” Greg stuttered. “Please.”

Greg went limp in his arms. Shane let the body fall to the ground and scrambled backwards. A light swept the yard and stopped over them. Marnie’s voice called to him, but he was frozen. Jas cries rang through his ears. Three sets of eyes showed themselves once more, moving quickly towards Marnie and Jas.

Shane pulled himself away from Greg, searching for the gun that he dropped, and frantically got to his feet. He only had three shots left. He positioned the flashlight just under the gun, marking his targets, and he shot three times. The creatures shrieked and fell to the ground in a black blur. When the world was quiet once more, Shane let his light make another sweep, but Marnie and Jas were gone.

The world was dark and silent once more. Shane stared into the trees, waiting for them to emerge, but they did not. Maybe they ran through the woods. He could meet them on the other side with the car and leave the city. His flashlight scanned the yard once more, pausing over the lifeless bodies, and he bit back a sob. He pulled himself away from the sight, hurrying into the dark house, fumbling until he made his way to the safe, the flashlight dimming as it started to die. He spun the dial and the door opened for him, revealing an array of handguns and ammo. He shoved the gun in his back pocket, grabbing another that was in a holster and threw it around his hips. He stuffed a back pack with all the ammo he could manage and threw it over his shoulder. He made his way to the front of the house and outside where his loyal car waited in the driveway.

He threw the bag into the passenger seat of the ‘79 Trans Am and circled around and into the driver’s seat. He fumbled with the keys, shoving it into the ignition and the engine roared to life. For a moment, Shane felt at ease as he settled against the seat with a sigh.

Golden eyes blinked at him in the darkness, startling him. He quickly flicked on the headlights and the Shadow People shrieked and ran quickly from the light, burning them. Shane threw the car into reverse until he was on the road, then shifted into gear, flying through the suburban neighborhood until he reached the main street.

The city was quiet. Lifeless. The tires skidded as he turned the corner onto the main drag and accelerated down the road. They were just at the edge of the city, the trees the only barrier between the neighborhood and the river that separated the city from the rest of the world.

As the edge of the city neared, Shane could see headlights lining the bridge as other victims tried to escape the city and, hopefully, the clutches of The Shadow People, causing a literal traffic jam. Cars pushed their way frantically through in a desperate attempt to escape, while other’s climbed out of their windows, leaving their vehicles behind in an attempt to get ahead and out of the city.

Shane slowed as he neared the bank of the river and the edge of the forest. He pointed the headlights towards the trees and scrambled out of the car, calling for Jas and Marnie. He shuffled through dead leaves and mossy grass, searching the edge of the forest, the river, and the road. Something caught the light of the headlights, flashing in his eyes. On the ground, Shane recognized the familiar necklace that Jas wore, a gift from her parents. He picked it up carefully, turning it in his palm. They had made it through. Maybe they tried to leave the city, too.

Shane sprinted back towards the car, threw it into gear, and sped down the road once more towards the bridge. There was no way he’d make it across, and it was the only way over the river and out of the city. But maybe he could find another way. He knew further down, there was a shallow area in the river. Maybe he could drive across there.

He pressed harder on the gas, flying through the empty streets, passed the jammed bridge, and plunged into darkness once more, out of the safety of the other headlights. He couldn’t see anything on either side of them, so he focused on the world illuminated by his car until he found the area in the river he was searching for. He spun the wheel, careening into the river. The resistance of the water slowed the vehicle, but Shane pressed harder on the accelerator, encouraging the car through the water.

“C'mon, baby,” he muttered as the car splashed through the water. He cringed as rocks and branches scraped at the metal. The bumper crunched in as the car met the banking on the other side. He threw the car into a higher gear and it bounded out of the river forcefully and up the hill. He raced across the field until it met with the highway and he cut the wheel, bringing the car skidding around in the opposite direction, back towards the bridge where he hoped to find Marnie and Jas.

Traffic thickened chaotically as he approached as cars made their way out of the city, frantic. Shane weaved in and out, skidding off the road as he did so, his eyes searching the faces that ran down the road sans vehicle. He kept driving until traffic began to thin, cars disappearing in all directions into the darkness. People darted across the roads, waving their arms frantically, begging for a ride, a savior. Shane ignored the guilty twisting in his stomach as he continued his search. Before he knew it, he was alone on the road, a single set of headlights guiding his way, the dark city just a vast shadow behind him.

He slowed and stopped the car, staring beyond the headlights into the darkness, his stomach twisting. He forced open the door, which had dented and warped, and stumbled into the darkness. He called for Jas and Marnie once more, his voice breaking as he held back a sob. He ran down the road, calling for them, but no one answered his cries.

He circled in the street, staring into the dark void around him, hoping for a sign, but there was none. He made his way back to the car, staring at his feet. He kicked angrily at the back bumper of the car, shouting obscenities at nothing until he suddenly felt exhausted. He leaned against the car and stared up at the dark sky, watching as a dark haze swirled around him, as if it were all that blocked the sunlight from their world. A thick, dark, eerie haze.

Vivid visions of Greg and Jess flashed through his mind. He forced his grip to loosen around the necklace that was still in his hand and choked back another sob. He had to find Jas and Marnie. He wouldn’t give up until he did.

Shane shoved the necklace into his pocket and swung back into the driver seat. He threw the car into gear once more and sped down the dark road, going no where in particular, eager to get away from the memories of the lost city, eager to find Marnie and Jas before it was too late.

Shane drove well into the night, and then into the morning, the only indicator of the changing times indicated by the clock in the Trans Am and a slight lightening of the dark grey sky when the sun tried to force its way through. Despite the lighter sky, their world was still unnaturally dark, but Shane’s eyes were slowly adjusting to their new life.

He was long gone from the city now, and the highway was abandoned. He hadn’t come across another soul since he left the city. He was lost in a dark world, and his stomach growled with his growing hunger. Soon, he came upon an abandoned gas station. The door to the mini mart was closed, but unlocked. He invited himself inside, scouring it’s aisles for food. He crunched through an apple as he shoved food, matches, and other odds and ends into his bag. He returned to the Trans Am, waiting for him, and gassed it up, then peeled out into the road once more.

He kept to the highway, driving aimlessly, lost in thought until the Trans Am started to sputter sickeningly. He watched as the needle on the speedometer dropped drastically, the car slowing until it came to a painful, grunting halt.

“No,” he muttered, slamming his fists into the wheel. “No!"

He turned the key in the ignition, begging the car to start, but to no avail. He cursed loudly into the darkness and stared out into the road, still illuminated by the headlights. With a heavy sigh, he grabbed as much as he could, shoving everything into his bag and swinging it over his shoulders. He climbed out of the car, secured the two guns on his body, and slammed the car door closed. He stared at the faded, scratched red car for a long time as reality began to set in, twisting his stomach into knots. He bit his lip as he realized he was alone, in the dark, and now stuck on foot, without the only bit of his life he had left - his beloved car. He clung to the idea of having it around with him, no matter what, and he struggled with the realization that he would now have to leave it behind.

The headlights started to dim until he was surrounded in darkness once more, and his heart sank. He let his hand run over the hood of the car.

"You gave it your best shot,” he muttered to the car. “Thanks for getting me out of there, at least."

The world was silent. There were no crickets. No birds. No wind. Darkness lay ahead of him; an uncertain future. He let his hand drop to his side and walked down the road, away from the car, clicking on one of the flashlights he brought with him. He walked until he lost sight of the dark shape of the Trans Am, his heart shattering in his chest. He bit back a sob and pushed onward.

"I’m coming Jas,” he said softly. “I’ll find you.”

2: Harvey
Harvey

“Suction.”

The steady beeping of the heart monitor was a comforting sound - a constant reminder of the oath he took to save lives. And he was decent at it. Better than decent. He was good. Excellent. Outstanding. The words reflected on his many awards and certificates that hung in his office. He hated those things. It wasn’t him. He would have stuffed them into a drawer if the hospital had let him. But no - he had to show them off proudly, to assure his patients that he was more than qualified to have their lives in his hands. He was a humble man who only wanted to do good. To bring family members together once more, even for just a little longer, because it was what they deserved. It was what he deserved. Just one more moment…

“Dr. Harvey.”

He did not turn to the nurse. “Yes?”

“There seems to be a problem,” the male voice said.

He pinched his lips together. “What?”

“The city…” The man hesitated. “The Shadow People are here.”

Harvey felt his pulse race, but his steady hands continued to work, accustomed to working through panic and chaos.

But this was not a panic he was accustomed to.

The lights began to flicker and Harvey finally looked up from the body before him. The nurses murmured and looked to each other before turning to him for reassurance.

“What’s happening out there?” Harvey asked, steadying his voice.

The lights went out. The equipment went silent. Harvey froze, his hands still in the delicate, exposed body.

“What’s happening?” He shouted, growing anxious.

The male nurse spoke frantically on the phone. Harvey listened to the “uh-huh” and “mhms” as he withdrew his hands carefully.

“We need to close him up,” Harvey instructed as the emergency lights came on. He turned to the heart monitor as it began to beep again, and then the pulse quickened.

“He’s going into cardiac arrest,” another nurse said quickly.

“Get me the paddles,” Harvey instructed.

The emergency lights went out and the heart monitor ceased once more.

“Charge!” Harvey rubbed the defibrillator pads together as he watched the heart stop. “Clear!” He pressed the device pads around the fragile heart and delivered the shock. He watched the heart carefully, but it did not continue it’s pulse.

“Five hundred,” he demanded and repeated the process. “Clear!”

“Doctor,” the nurse said, hanging up the phone. “We need to evacuate.”

The heart began to pulse weakly. “Evacuate? Are you crazy? We have an open body here!” The heart stopped once more. “Shit,” he muttered. “Charge!”

The nurse hesitated, looking to him and her coworker.

“I said charge, dammit!”

The device charged and the shock was sent, but the heart did not react.

“Doctor…”

“The Shadow People are here.”

“Leave,” Harvey hissed. “Evacuate.”

“Doctor…”

“Call it.”

“Time of death 16:32.”

Harvey stared at the lifeless body in horror as the nurses began to hurry around him, leaving him along in the operating room. He finally started to recognize the screams throughout the hospital.

He ripped his scrubs off of him and peered down the hall way. It was dark and deserted. He scrambled along the walls until he found the stairs, taking them down to the ground floor. In the lobby, a ground of Shadow People blocked the exits, their golden eyes tearing through the darkness. Bodies were scattered on the floor. The survivors were huddled in a corner, panicked and sobbing. Security stood before them, their guns drawn.

“Stand down,” one of the officers shouted. A hiss of laughter echoed against the hospital walls as the Shadow People closed in.

The officers fired, but the Shadow People scattered, moving quickly about the room, blending in with the darkness around them and sending the guards into a panicked frenzy. Bullets whizzed around the room and Harvey threw himself behind the front desk for protection. His eyes searched the contents behind the counter, pocketing a flashlight, the only blunt object he could find should he need to defend himself. Of course there wouldn’t be any better weapon in a hospital. If only he had his scalpel…

He scrambled on his hands and knees, keeping low, across the room, quietly gathering the people around him as the room erupted into a war zone. He knew there was a vent against the far wall that would lead them outside.

Harvey felt along the wall with his hands until he felt the grate of the vent, then kicked it open. He pushed people through the vent, one by one, hardly noticing when the room fell silent. The gunshots had stopped.

Harvey looked over his shoulder as the last of the people crawled through the vent. He could no longer see the golden eyes or hear the commands of the officers. Had they all been killed?

The golden eyes appeared in the darkness once more, creeping in behind him, their hissing laughter slithering through his ears and sending chills up his spine. Without thinking, he scrambled to his feet and threw himself towards them, bringing one down with him. The others closed in eagerly around him. Harvey rolled over, pulling the flashlight out of his pocket and swung it towards them. His fingers slipped, flicking on the switch and illuminating the room in a beam of light.

The Shadow People immediately fled from the light, their haunting shrikes filling the room. Without hesitating, Harvey jumped to his feet, circling quickly with the light until he made it out the double doors.

He stumbled backwards and sprinted across the parking lot, slowing as he gazed over the city. Homes and buildings were on fire. Cars were left abandoned in the middle of the street as people fled in a panic. Traffic on the bridge out of the city was unlike anything he had ever seen as everyone tired to leave at ounce. He could only imagine the chaos that was over there, people pushing each other out of the way in order to save themselves. He cringed.

He hurried to his car, his head racing. This was beyond his capabilities. He could not save these people. His training was in medicine, not war. So many questions clouded his mind as he pulled out of the parking lot and flicked his headlights on. It was too dark for the time of day. Eerily dark. The sky was a dark grey haze. There were no stars, no clouds, no sun or moon. Just a purple grey sort of twilight darkness all around them.

Harvey found himself drifting along empty streets. Where was he supposed to go? Home? There was nothing for him there. He couldn’t stay in the city. No one could. They would surely be killed. If he wanted a chance to survive, he had to leave the city like everyone else and escape.

But he didn’t know what lay over the bridge. Was the rest of the world in the same chaos? And where would he go?

An idea came to him. He knew of a place on the coast where his parents used to take him as a boy. A place with small air crafts. He could fly one of those, easy. No sweat. But would they still be there? Or would everyone else have taken to the skies the first chance they got?

And what would he do once he got in a plane? He couldn’t fly forever. But he could fly somewhere else. Somewhere safe, if such a place existed. He believed there was. Maybe it was like the movies he saw. Maybe there would be some camp of survivors, protected by marines with dangerous weapons. They wouldn’t turn him away. He would be important to them. He could heal and save lives as they fought against the Shadow People. Maybe he would bump into those survivors on the way.

It wasn’t a very good plan, but it was something - a destination. All he had to do was get out of the city. Going across the bridge was futile. He had to find another way.

He spun the car around in the middle of the road and sped away from the bridge. He could hit the highway on the other side of the city, just passed the cemetery.

He cringed at the thought of busting through the beautiful gates and tearing across the manicured lawns. And the stones… the souls…

He prayed to Yoba silently as he neared the cemetery. Surely Yoba would forgive him for disturbing their peace. Desperate times, and all.

He closed his eyes tightly as the car careened up the slope and through the gates, bouncing along the paved road until he reached the graves. He navigated around them as best as he could, weaving in and out of stones and down the long, winding path until he came out on the other side, busting through the fence once more.

He peered into his rear view mirror as he spun the car around onto the highway, but it was too dark to see the destruction he had caused. He focused on the road ahead, orienting himself before pushing his little Ford to it’s max, speeding down the road and into the darkness.

 

3: Abigail
Abigail

Abigail held the sword out before her, her arms steady as she adjusted her stance. She narrowed her eyes at her target before bounding forward, swinging her sword across the dummy. It swung around her from the tree branch it was tied to as Abigail spun around and brought her sword across it once more. The dummy fell from the tree, landing in a heap at her feet. She smiled in approval before hanging it on the branch once more.

“I wish you would get rid of that thing,” Caroline mumbled as she tended to her garden. “You’re going to hurt yourself.”

Abigail rolled her eyes. “Mom, I’ve been training with this sword for years. I know what I’m doing.”

Caroline sighed. “I told your father it was a bad idea to get you into those self defense classes.”

“Because it’s so terrible that I, a woman, learn how to defend myself?”

Caroline narrowed her eyes at her daughter. “That’s not what I’m saying.”

“Why do you have such a problem with what I like?”

“I don’t,” Caroline snapped, turning back to her garden. “I just don’t know where you get it from.” Caroline got to her feet, dusted off her dress, and sighed. “I just wish we had some common interests,” she muttered. “I wish we were closer.”

Abigail turned her gaze to her feet. “I wish you would just accept me for who I am,” she mumbled.

“You’re my daughter, Abby,” Caroline said. “I love you no matter what.”

Abigail crossed her arms but did not meet her mother’s gaze. Caroline wrapped her arms around her daughter, pulling her into a hug and kissed her head. Abigail hesitated, then wrapped her arms around her mother.

“Is it heavy?” Caroline asked. “The sword?”

Abigail shrugged. “It’s not too bad. You get used to it.”

“Well, at least I don’t have to worry about my only daughter getting kidnapped. You could kick anyone’s ass with that thing.”

Abigail smiled. “That’s the plan.”

Pierre hurried out the back door of the house, his face white and his expression frantic.

“We need to get out of here,” he said between breaths.

“What are you talking about?” Caroline asked.

“The Shadow People… They’re coming…”

“The Shadow People?” Abigail echoed.

“Pierre, what are you talking about? The army-”

“There is no army, Caroline,” he hissed. “It’s all over the news.”

Around them, the sky began to darken into unnatural shades of dark greys and purples. A dark haze shrouded them from the light of the sun.

“Get into the car,” Pierre ordered his wife and daughter.

“Dad-”

Pierre pushed the two women towards the road. Abigail tripped over her own feet as she hesitated, turning back to grab her sword on the ground.

“Where are we going?” Caroline shouted to him. “Are you crazy?”

“We’re leaving the city,” Pierre said as they climbed into the car. He turned the key in the ignition and the car purred quietly to life.

“We can’t leave with nothing,” Abigail started, but Caroline’s screams interrupted her. Through the windshield, she could see a pair of golden eyes.

Panicked, Pierre stepped on the gas and the car lurched forward, knocking the creature to the ground.

“Pierre,” Caroline started, peering into the darkness. “Headlights!”

Pierre fumbled with the knob and the headlights turned on. At that moment, three more creatures were illuminated, shrieking and darting out of the way of the bright lights.

The Shadow People were scattered around the city, just starting to close in on their victims. Pierre pressed harder on the gas, winding through the city, in and out of cars, their drivers stunned at the sudden darkness, not yet aware of the danger around them.

“How did they get here so fast?” Pierre shouted. He blew through stop lights as he careened through the intersections, passed unsuspecting drivers. At the sixth intersection, they weren’t as lucky, blowing past the indicated stop light, into traffic, and hit by an oncoming vehicle. The car spun violently through the intersection before coming to a stop on the other side.

Abigail groaned and forced her door open, stumbling outside. Traffic had stopped, but onlookers were not focused on the accident. Instead, their gazes were turned toward the mass of Shadow People approaching them menacingly.

Caroline and Pierre were close behind, pulling themselves out of the wrecked car. Caroline was shouting at her husband, her voice cut short as Pierre threw himself against her, knocking her to the ground, just out of the way of a falling telephone pole.

The Shadow People dispersed, wreaking havoc around them. Cars were flipped and over turned, being tossed in every direction. People screamed and scattered in an attempt to dodge their attacks, but the Shadow People were quicker, taking them out by the masses.

Abigail watched in horror at the sight before her, still clutching her beloved sword in her hand. The weapon suddenly felt heavy as her legs shook under its weight. She watched the golden eyes as the shadows approached her. She raised her sword timidly, but all of her training was suddenly gone. Nothing had prepared her for an invasion of the Shadow People.

Gun fire erupted, hitting one of the creatures, causing the others to scatter. Abigail turned to see her father, loyally protecting his wife, gun in hand. His eyes widened as he realized he hit his target, and a small smile split his face.

“Dad!” Abigail hurried to her parents and Caroline pulled her daughter into her arms.

“Never thought I’d have to use this,” Pierre muttered. “Always kept it in the store. You know, just in case.”

“Pierre,” Caroline warned as her and Abigail backed away. The Shadow People were not finished with them, and they were angry.

Pierre raised his gun once more. “Come and get it,” he muttered. He fired twice more, missing his targets. The Shadow People moved in quickly and Pierre disappeared in their dark, eerie shadows.

“Pierre!” Caroline shouted. She pushed her daughter away, but Abigail was frozen, shaking. “Run!” Caroline yelled to her daughter.

The Shadow People dispersed once more, their hissing laughter filling the air as Pierre dropped to the ground. Their shadowy figures darted about as more debris flew through the air. The swung their shadowy weapons toward them as Caroline dragged her daughter out of harm’s way. Abigail stumbled and fell, rolling over just as her mother dropped to her knees, her face frozen in twisted fear before she landed face first against the pavement.

“No!” Abigail scrambled to her feet, taking her sword in hand, and straightened as the Shadow People closed in around her. Her heart raced erratically as her vision blurred, distorting her vision. She would fight the Shadow People or die trying.

But she didn’t want to die. She wanted to live. She wanted her parents to live. She wanted her world back.

Her stance wavered and a sob escaped her throat. This couldn’t be happening. It had to have been a dream.

The Shadow People neared her quickly and Abigail spun on her heels, running through the streets. She knew she couldn’t out run them, so she darted between the buildings that lined the city’s roads, in and out of alleyways in a desperate attempt to throw them off her path. She wound her way through the city, through every dark corridor until she was back at home. For a moment, the Shadow People seemed to be gone.

She took advantage of the moment of freedom to hurry back into the house, grabbing her car keys, a couple of daggers she hid in her room, and stuffed a bag full of batteries and flashlights. She darted back outside, just as the Shadow People made their way eagerly around the corner. She jumped into her little black car, shoved the key into the ignition, and slammed on the gas. The car shuttered for a moment before picking up speed, leaving the Shadow People in her dust.

Her eyes darted over the city as she drove, her mind frantic. They were close to the bridge already; she could just leave the city and never return. It would be safe out there, wouldn’t it?

The bridge was relatively clear of traffic. The city was just now becoming aware of the war at their doorsteps. Abigail could get out and leave before the creatures even realized. Before everyone in the city had the same idea she did.

She pointed the car towards the bridge, flying through the city as people continued to run about frantic and panicked. She ignored their blurred faces as she passed them. The car flew over the hill and across the bridge as she weaved in and out of cars. Before she knew it, she was alone on the dark highway, the city shrinking behind her.

She glanced in the rear view mirror before coming to a stop. She waited for her pulse to slow, and as she waited, she burst into tears. In a time of crisis, she ran. Instead of fighting off those creatures, she panicked and plotted her escape without regard to anyone else around her. And worst of all, her parents died trying to protect her. She wasn’t strong. She wasn’t brave. She was weak. And now she was alone.

She punched the steering wheel and cursed loudly into the darkness. The sword lay quietly beside her on the passenger seat, waiting to defend, haunting her. She got out of the car, marched angrily around to the other side, pulling the door open and taking the sword in hand. Without hesitating, she spun around and tossed the sword into the nearby river. Her chest heaved as she watched the sword disappear forever in the darkness, then she fell to her knees and began to cry.

4: Leah
Leah

The little green Camry puttered down the road as Leah turned onto the on ramp, merging carefully onto the highway towards Zuzu City. She winced as large, green signs directed her towards the city. She felt a pull in her chest, begging her to turn around. There was nothing for her in the city, not anymore. She wanted desperately to return to the cabin in the woods where she spent the last few weeks in seclusion, focusing on her sculptures and her art. She smiled in the rear view mirror at her creations in the back seat and sighed. That was the life she wanted. But it didn’t pay the bills.

She focused on the road ahead, lost in thought. There were plenty of galleries in the city. That was the one good thing about living there. Maybe she could showcase her art and sell a few pieces. If she could do that in the city, she could make it anywhere. And then she could have the life she wanted, living alone in a cabin in the woods, focusing on her art. Away from Kel.

Leah cringed. She was not looking forward to returning to Kel. He was angry enough that she left without him. She hadn’t even turned her phone on yet. When Kel wouldn’t stop calling and texting the first day, she turned it off for the rest of the time without regret. She’d probably have a ton of missed calls, angry voice messages. He’d probably accused her of cheating, too.

Leah sighed. It didn’t matter. She was determined to end it all once and for all. Her time away was just what she needed to unwind, think about her life, and gain the confidence she needed to finally leave the abusive relationship. But the closer she neared her exit, the less confident she felt. Kel would not react calmly if she just packed her bags and left. He wouldn’t let go without a fight. A long, exhausting, fight, that she would likely not be able to escape unless she left the city for good. The idea was too good, tempting her to pull across the median, turn around, and never look back. She glanced in the rear view mirror once more and bit the bottom corner of her lip. He would have no idea. She’d never have to see him again.

She felt her speed slow as her foot subconsciously lightened on the gas. She hesitated as she peered out the windshield at the darkening sky, turning to unusual shades of dark grey-purple as an eerie haze quickly blocked out the sunlight. Headlights flicked on quickly on the highway and then brake lights brightened as cars slowed, hesitant. Drivers and passengers pointed to the sky and leaned out their windows to get a better look at the surreal sky, unaware of the war unfolding before them.

Cars pulled to the side of the road as people continued to gawk at the sky. Leah continued on slowly, curiously, weaving through the cars as they stopped in the middle of the road or pulled over. She watched the sky in awe until she finally got to her exit. She took the exit, getting off the highway and onto the main road just outside of the city. But the road was unnaturally deserted. No traffic. Not a car, not a soul.

It was too dark to see, now, except for what her headlights illuminated. She drove down the road slowly, looking ahead towards the city. It was not illuminated like she had expected it to be. Dark, shadowy masses marked the tall buildings of the skyline. The city was as dark as the world around her. A shiver went up her spine; something was wrong.

Headlights started to near her. One first, speeding quickly towards her, followed by another, then another. The cars flew past her at speeds higher than any highway allowed them. They honked and waved to her frantically as they drove by.

“Turn around!” they shouted to her.

Leah let the car slow more as she peered through the darkness into the city. What was happening over there? She fumbled for her phone and turned it on. She tapped her fingers on the wheel impatiently as she waited for the phone to boot and the messages to flood in.

And they did. Old messages at first. Kel looking for her. Demanding she come home. Yelling that she would regret cheating on him.

And then recent messages followed. Warnings.

Leah’s hands shook as she played the most recent voice mail. She strained to hear through the static.

“Leah… The Shadow People… are you alive? The city… They’re coming… Don’t… back…. Don’t… Leah…”

The phone dropped from her hands. The message was left just a few minutes ago. The Shadow People were in the city, and people were escaping, running for their lives.

Leah saw another set of headlights, but these did not seem to move. Someone was stopped in the middle of the road. Leah hesitated; a trick? Or someone with answers? Someone who needed help?

She looked passed the car towards the city once more. Headlights started to dot the roads and cluster at the bridge as everyone desperately tried to escape the city.

Leah pulled up to the car. A girl with purple hair seemed to be heaving on the side of the road. Leah threw the car into park and hurried over to her.

“Are you okay?” she asked, her hand on the girl’s shoulder. She was sobbing. Her shoulders shuttered.

“I don’t know what to do,” the girl gasped between breaths.

“What happened?”

The girl met her gaze. “The Shadow People. They’re attacking the city. They killed my parents.” She sobbed loudly.

Leah pulled the girl into her, rubbing her back. She didn’t know how she could comfort this stranger, but she knew the girl couldn’t be alone. She was young, frightened, and running for her life like everyone else.

“We can’t stay here,” Leah muttered.

“I don’t know what to do,” the girl sobbed loudly. “I have no where to go. I’m all alone. I’m going to die.”

Leah put her hands on the girl’s shoulders and narrowed her eyes. “You’re not going to die. And you’re not alone. We can get through this. We can figure this out.”

The girl sniffed, quieting for a moment, then glared coldly at Leah. “I don’t even know you.”

“And I don’t know you,” Leah pointed out. “But it’s everyone for themselves, now. We’re at a war. I don’t think you should be worrying about what I would do, but what those creatures will do.”

The girl hesitated as she considered this. She had already seen what they could do, the power they had.

“Did they attack you, too?” she asked.

Leah shook her head. “I was just coming home from vacation,” she said. “The world got dark… I got a call from my boyfriend telling me what happened… I don’t even know if he’s still alive.”

“Probably not,” the girl said glumly.

Leah swallowed, feeling guilty. A strange part of her felt relieved, and it sickened her. She cleared her throat and stood, pulling the girl to her feet.

“We can’t hang around here any longer,” Leah said, glancing towards the bridge in the distance. It was packed tightly with cars. People began to climb out of their windows, sprinting out into the road desperately. “The Shadow People will come after the escapees.”

“Where are we supposed to go?”

Leah hesitated. They could go back to the cabin. What were the chances that the Shadow People would search the wilderness for people? Or maybe that made it a prime target, searching for survivors in hiding. But it was out of the way. Way out of the way. It would be something, for now. A way to escape, a way to hide. Even if it was only temporary.

“I’ve got this cabin in the woods, far away from here,” Leah said. “That’s where I came from. We could go there, for now.”

The girl nodded sheepishly. “Okay.”

“We should take one car. Harder for them to track.”

The girl glanced at her car. “We can take yours.”

“All right,” Leah started. “Let’s get out of here.”

They climbed into the car, still running quietly. Leah threw it into drive and traced the main road back to the highway.

“I’m Leah, by the way.” She forced a smile.

She returned the smile. “Abigail.”

5: Sam
Sam

“Don’t let go!” Vincent cried. His small hands gripped the handle bars, turning his knuckles white.

“I won’t let go,” Sam assured him as he pushed his little brother down the street on the two wheeled bike.

“I can’t do it, Sam,” Vincent said. The bike wobbled under Sam’s hold.

“Sure you can. Just sit still.”

Vincent stiffened.

“Pedal, dude, you gotta pedal.”

“You said to sit still!” His feet began to pedal the bike forward.

“You just need to practice balance.”

“I want my training wheels back.”

“Those are for babies,” Sam said.

“I don’t wanna be a big kid!” Vincent shouted as the bike picked up more speed.

“Watch where you’re going!” Sam reminded him. His voice was distant.

“Sam? Sam!” Vincent looked over his shoulder at his brother standing alone on the street. “I did it!”

Sam started running. Sprinting. “Slow down!”

“I don’t know how!” The bike started to wobble as Vincent lost his balance. Frightened, he stopped pedaling and slammed the pedal backwards, lurching him to a stop and sending him falling to the ground.

“Are you okay?” Sam asked as he hurried to his brother’s side.

Vincent groaned and inspected his scraped elbow. “I’m never riding a bike again,” he grumbled.

Sam smiled as he picked up the bike and walked his brother back to the house. “You’ll get it. It just takes practice.”

“I don’t want to practice,” his little brother said. “I want my old bike back.”

“Dad’s gonna make you learn when he gets back, you know.”

Vincent crossed his arms. “That’s gonna be in forever,” he said.

Sam pinched his lips together and shrugged. “He’ll be home soon.”

Vincent ignored his brother, hurrying into the house and leaving Sam alone in the driveway. Sam moved the bike into the garage for the night before making his way into the house to help Vincent clean his scrape.

“How’d he do?” Jodi asked her son when he came into the kitchen.

Sam shrugged. “He says he’s never gonna ride a bike again.”

Jodi smiled. “Go help him before he uses up all the bandages on that little scrape.”

The phone rang as Sam made his way into the bathroom where Vincent was standing on a step stool, admiring his wound in the mirror. He already had three unnecessary bandages open on the counter, ready to be crisscrossed on his elbow.

“You only need one,” Sam said, taking the elbow in his hand and wiping it down with a wet cloth.

“More are better. I look cool with more.”

Sam rolled his eyes and listened to his mother on the phone as he helped his brother.

“What do you mean?… This can’t be… Are you sure?… Are you coming home?… Why?… What are we supposed to do?… Where are we supposed to go?… Kent… Kent, please come home…”

Jodi hung up the phone. Sam’s heart raced, but he forced himself to remain calm as he finished bandaging his brother’s elbow.

“There,” he said quietly. “All better.”

Vincent hopped down from the stool and hurried into the kitchen where he stuck his nose in the fridge. “What’s for dinner?”

Jodi was still standing by the phone, now hung up on the wall. She stared at the receiver, as if expecting another call. She cleared her throat as Sam made his way into the kitchen, his eyes hard on his mother.

Jodi shook her head. “Nothing. We’re going away for a bit. Vincent, do you want to go on a trip?”

Vincent scrunched his nose. “Where are we going?”

Jodi hesitated. “We’re gonna go to the beach. How does that sound?”

“But I’m hungry.”

Jodi picked up her son. “Come on, we’re leaving. We’re going to the beach.” She turned to Sam, her expression hard. “Get your father’s…” she hesitated, her eyes frightened. “… things. In the safe.”

The safe. His guns. Sam’s heart pounded in his chest.

“Mom, what’s going on?”

Jodi turned to Vincent and forced a smile. “We’re just gonna go to the beach, okay?” She narrowed her eyes at her oldest son. “The things. Please.”

Sam hesitated before leaving his mother alone in the kitchen. He hurried up the stairs to his father’s office. His fingers fumbled with the dials on the safe until it clicked open, granting him permission to see its contents. Sam stared at the weapons; assault rifles, pistols, knives, and more ammo than he could imagine.

He fumbled with the duffle bag, filling it with assorted knives. He selected a couple of hand guns and their appropriate bullets and packed them carefully in the bag. His eyes scanned the rifles. He never cared for his father’s collection, nor had he ever shot a gun before. Were the rifles necessary? He didn’t know. He had no clue what was going on, or what had his mother so upset. His hands shook as he reached for one of the larger weapons. He packed it in with the rest, selecting it’s ammunition, and zipped up the bag.

His mother was at the car with Vincent when Sam made his way outside. She buckled her youngest son in the backseat carefully before grabbing the bag from Sam eagerly.

“Will you tell me what’s going on?” Sam snarled at her.

Jodi closed Vincent’s door and stared at her son over the hood of the car for a moment before fumbling in the bag. She grabbed one of the hand guns, slammed the magazine into place, and tucked it into her jeans.

Sam stared at his mother, dumbfounded. He had never seen her touch the weapons in his life. He met her hard gaze.

“We’re leaving the city,” she stated.

“Why?”

She grabbed another handgun, loaded it, and held it out to Sam. “We’re losing the war, Sam. The Shadow People have gained control, and they’re coming this way.”

Sam stared blankly at the weapon in his mother’s hand. “What?”

“Take it,” Jodi said, her voice hard. “If we get separated, you will need it.”

“Separated?” Sam hesitated. “I’ve never shot a gun in my life.”

“There’s a first time for everything.”

“This isn’t happening…” Sam took the gun from his mother and looked to her for assurance.

“I’ll show you what to do.”

“Show me?” Sam stammered. “How do you know about guns?”

“You think my husband goes off into war and he doesn’t teach his wife how to protect their family?”

Sam shook his head in disbelief as he stared at the weapon.

“Your father is going to meet us on the west coast,” she said to him as she opened the driver’s side door. “We need to get out before it’s too late.”

Sam looked up and down the street before he climbed into the passenger seat. “What’s going to happen to the city?”

Jodi shook her head. “I have a feeling we won’t want to be here to find out.” She turned back to Vincent and smiled. “Gonna be a long drive, kid,” she said to him as he stared out the window.

“S’long as I don’t have to ride a bike,” he muttered.

The engine came to life as Jodi started the car. They pulled out of the driveway and made their way through the city. It was still early in the afternoon and traffic was just starting to build as everyone left work for the day. They made their way casually to the bridge, leaving the city and making their way onto the highway.

*****

Sam drove them through the night and Jodi took over the next morning, stopping briefly at a small convenient store off the exit. They filled the car with food and water, a few medical supplies, flashlights, and anything else that looked useful to a few people on the run. Sam crunched on the potato chips in the car as they made their way back to the main road. The day drifted on with no sign of war, well into the afternoon.

Sam drifted in and our of sleep as they drove, the music turning to static. He stretched and yawned as he felt the car slow. He looked to his mother, who peered through the windshield at the sky. He followed her gaze as a dark, purple-grey haze started to cover the sky and darken their world. Cars slowed and stopped around them as people gawked at the sky.

“What the…” Sam muttered.

“The Shadow People,” Jodi said simply. “They’re here.”

6: Haley, Emily, Sandy, Elliott
Haley, Emily, Sandy, Elliott

“To girl’s weekend!” Sandy raised her wine glass. Emily followed suit happily, but Haley lifted hers begrudgingly.

“Stop being a grump,” Emily said to her sister, shooting her a glare.

“C'mon, Haley,” Sandy said, nudging her in the side. “Loosen up. We’re going to have fun.”

Haley shrugged. “I guess.”

“So you’re not with that stupid boyfriend of yours,” Emily said. “Who cares? He’s a tool, anyway.”

“I know you don’t like him,” Haley snarled at her sister. “But I do.”

“How can you like that?” Emily argued. “He’s a jerk to you.”

Haley shrugged and looked into her wine glass, sipping slowly.

“Stop bickering,” Sandy said to them as she adjusted her sun hat. “No guys. No jerks. Just us having fun at the beach, yeah?”

Emily rolled her eyes. “Tell that to Haley.”

Sandy looked passed Emily and smiled at Haley. “Girl’s weekend. It’s going to be fun.”

Haley nodded and forced a smile, but inside she was nervous to return home. She didn’t exactly tell her boyfriend she would be having girl’s weekend.

Sandy scanned the beach. “We need to find a good looking guy for Emily.”

Emily made a sound of disgust. “Why?”

“Why not? You’re single. Put yourself out there, girl.”

Emily met Sandy’s enthusiastic gaze with a hesitant glance and shrugged.

“I bet she’ll find Mr. Perfect,” Haley muttered. “Unlike me.”

“At least I don’t go for the assholes,” Emily snarled.

Haley opened her mouth to fire back, but Sandy stood and put herself between them.

“Quit it,” she shouted at them. “Or I’m sending you both home and having a vacation from the two of you.”

“How about that guy?” Haley said, pointing to a blond man who dragged a large row boat into the water. He straightened and flipped his long hair over his shoulder.

Emily rolled her eyes. “Ugh. No, thank you. Not my type.”

The man looked in their direction and smiled at the three women watching him.

“He looks like he’s more into his hair than you are,” Sandy muttered to Haley.

Haley got to her feet and brushed the sand off her dress.

“Where the hell are you going?” Emily called after her as Haley approached the man.

“Hey there,” she said flirtatiously. “My sister over there has been eying you.”

The man looked passed Haley towards Emily and Sandy. “Oh yeah? And which one is your sister?”

“The one with the blue hair.”

He smiled. “Is that so?”

“Oh yeah,” Haley said, nodding. “Way into you.”

He cocked his head to the side. “I don’t get that impression,” he said casually. “Your other friend, though…”

Emily hurried to Haley’s side, pulling at her wrist. “Don’t listen to whatever she’s saying,” she said to the man, then, to her sister, “Let’s go. No guys, remember?”

“No guys, huh?” he said.

“Not interested, buddy,” Emily said, narrowing her eyes.

The man raised his hands in defense. “What makes you think I’m not already spoken for?”

Emily looked him up and down and laughed.

“Don’t be rude, Emily,” Haley said, pulling her wrist out of her sister’s grasp.

“So now we’re into this guy?” Sandy said as she approached.

“Haley’s just being a bitch,” Emily said.

“At least I have a boyfriend,” Haley shot back. “You need to get laid.”

“Life isn’t about men, Haley.”

“I’m sensing a lot of tension here,” the man said carefully.

“This was a bad idea,” Sandy mumbled. “Girl’s weekend is a total bust.”

“Could I interest the three of you in a boat ride?” The man gestured to his boat.

“Disgusting,” Emily spat at him. “Do you really think we’re those kind of girls?”

“He means his boat, you idiot,” Haley said.

Emily rolled her eyes. “Please. I’ll tell you what he really means.”

“Ladies! Give me a break. You don’t even know me.”

“Exactly,” Emily said. “Thank you, but we’ll be on our way now.”

Sandy sighed. “Come on, get in the boat.”

“Are you insane?”

“Listen, I want to be far away from the public when one of you kills the other, and at least there’s a whole ocean to hide the evidence.” Sandy climbed into the boat and crossed her arms. “You guys are ruining everything. We’re going on a boat ride. Or I’m going without you.”

Emily and Haley exchanged a glance before hesitantly following Sandy into the boat. The man pushed the boat into the ocean and jumped in after it.

“Good choice,” he said to them as he navigated away from the shore. “We’re gonna fix this relationship here.”

“He’s gonna murder us,” Haley muttered.

The man smiled. “I’m Elliott.” He bowed to them.

“Sandy,” Sandy said. “Emily, Haley.”

“Girl’s weekend doesn’t seem to be going too well,” he commented.

“Blame that on them,” Sandy said. “They’ve never gotten along.”

“Why’s that?”

“Because Emily thinks she’s the perfect child,” Haley hissed. “I’m always the one that does something wrong.”

“You are!” Emily shouted at her sister. “All you care about it yourself and being the perfect trophy wife for your stupid asshole boyfriend.”

“She just hates that I have someone and she doesn’t.”

“He just uses you,” Emily hissed. “He doesn’t give a rat’s ass about you.”

All right,“ Elliott said slowly. “There’s no anger in my boat.”

Emily and Haley crossed their arms and turned away from each other.

“Emily, why don’t you like her boyfriend?”

“Because he doesn’t treat her right.”

“You’re just saying that,” Haley said.

“Haley, give Emily a chance to talk,” Elliott said. “Why doesn’t he treat her right?”

Emily turned to her sister, her face sad. “You call me all the time in tears because of something stupid he did. He’s always out late. He never takes your feelings into consideration. He’s cheated on you. Why can’t you see that he’s no good for you?”

Haley swallowed the lump that had formed in her throat. “I love him,” she mumbled.

“How can you love someone like that?”

“We’ve been together for so long. I can’t just throw that away. We can work these things out.”

“Are you insane?”

“Emily,” Elliott cut in in warning.

“You just can’t handle being alone.”

“Like you?”

“What’s so bad about being single? You don’t need to depend on any man. You go from guy to guy and for what? You have this need to be with someone, every minute of your life. You need to learn to be on your own. To love yourself. Because someday, there’s going to be no one left, and you’ll just be stuck with yourself. And I don’t think you’ll be able to handle that.”

The boat was quiet as Emily finished.

“Well,” Haley muttered. “I’m sorry I’m not perfect like you.”

Emily rolled her eyes. “Will you just stop it with the petty crap? You are perfect, Haley, and you deserve to be treated like a queen. Don’t be with anyone who treats you as less, okay?”

Haley looked to her feet. Emily sat beside her and pulled her into a hug.

“I don’t want to fight with you.”

Haley nodded as she blinked back tears. She leaned into her sister and let her head rest on her shoulder.

“The boat makes everything better,” Elliott said, happy with himself.

“I’m just glad we didn’t have to toss a body overboard,” Sandy muttered. “Can we get on with our weekend now?”

Elliott turned the boat around as the sky began to darken.

“Homeward bound, then,” he said happily. “A lovely voyage, if I do say so myself.”

“Do you really think you can smooth talk women like that?” Sandy said to him.

Elliott shrugged. “I only smooth talk women who appreciate a gentleman.”

“Just what Haley needs,” Sandy said with a wink.

“Haley seems to have a good head on her shoulders, and a good support system. I think she’ll find Mr. Right soon enough.”

Haley looked to the sky in hopes of getting lost in the beauty of the night sky, but there was only darkness. No twinkling stars, no moon to light their way back to the beach.

“Why is it so dark?” she asked, still peering at the sky. The others followed suit, turning their faces upward, curiously.

“Strange,” Elliott muttered. “This is no night sky I am accustomed to seeing.”

“Where are all the stars?” Sandy asked.

“It’s just cloudy,” Emily pointed out. “See?”

“Those don’t seem like ordinary clouds,” Sandy said.

The sky seemed to swirl in a deep, purple-grey color, blocking all light from reaching them.

“It’s not even twilight,” Elliott remarked, checking his watch. “The sun should still be out.”

They continued to watch the sky as Elliott brought them back to shore, but the beach was dark and empty.

“What happened to everyone?” Haley asked. It was too quiet. Only the water lapping on the shore could be heard.

“Something’s wrong,” Elliott said softly. He pulled the boat back onto the beach where the three women got out quickly.

“Can’t see a thing out here,” Emily said.

“Come,” Elliott’s voice said. “I live just up here.”

They followed him quickly on his heels until the stumbled into a dark building. A small hut, just on the edge of the beach.

“Don’t you have any lights?” Haley complained. Elliott hissed in the darkness, quieting them.

“Get down,” he instructed. “Away from the windows.”

Confused, they did as he instructed, keeping close to the wall, huddled together.

“What’s going on?” Sandy asked.

Elliott peered out the window before ducking down with them.

“Shadow People,” he said quietly.

“Shadow People?” Emily repeated.

“Here,” Elliott said. “On the beach.”

“What are they doing here?” Haley asked.

“I don’t know,” Elliott said. “But I have a feeling we don’t want to be caught, or we’ll end up wherever everyone else ended up.”

Sandy swallowed. “Are they dead?”

“Who knows,” Elliott said. “But I don’t want to find out.”

“What do we do?” Emily asked.

“Stay here, hidden, and keep quiet, and hopefully they’ll overlook us.”

They each held their breath and waited.

*****

It was near midnight when the Shadow People disappeared from the beach. Their eyes no longer glowed along the shores. They seemed to have give up their search for any left over survivors, ignoring the run down shack just as Elliott had expected. Elliott fumbled with the radio, searching through static, but They ventured out of the house and back onto the beach, flashlights in hand guiding their way. They were alone.

“What the hell…” Emily muttered.

“I don’t understand,” Haley whispered.

“We need to get home,” Sandy said quickly.

Elliott shook his head. “I have a feeling there’s no home left,” he muttered. “The Shadow People wouldn’t be here if the war was going well.”

“Wonderful,” Sandy muttered. “We’re captives in our own home.”

“The Shadow People aren’t creatures we want to be facing alone. We don’t stand a chance. Who knows what’s going on out there, but I have a feeling our best bet is to stay where we are and remain in hiding.”

“Perfect,” Sandy said. “Just what the creepy man wants. Three women at his disposal.”

Elliott narrowed his eyes at her. “We’re going to need to learn to trust each other.” He paused. “Of course, you’re free to leave if you so choose. I won’t stop you.”

“I’m not going out there,” Haley said crossing her arms. “We’ll be walking right into our deaths.”

Emily nodded. “Doesn’t look like we have a choice.”

Sandy sighed. “So much for girl’s weekend.”

7: Sebastian & Maru
Sebastian & Maru

“Can you stop with this moving out thing?” Maru snarled. Sebastian did not look up from his computer screen.

“Can you get out?” he said simply.

“You’re making Mom upset.”

“She’ll get over it.”

Maru leaned over the computer in an attempt to block her brother’s view. “Why are you being like this?”

“I’m not being like anything,” he muttered, pushing her head aside with his palm.

“Ugh,” Maru groaned as she backed away. “Get your nasty hands off of me.”

“Get out of my room.”

“Why do you have to be such an outcast?”

Sebastian narrowed his eyes at her. “What’s your problem?”

“My problem is that all you do is sit down here in your room.”

“I’m working.”

“You never talk to Mom or Dad-”

“Demetrius is not my father,” Sebastian snapped at her.

“Get. Over. It,” Maru shouted at him.

Sebastian stood abruptly. “That guy hates me. And you wonder why I stay down here. I’m not the one with a problem. It’s the two of you.”

“You’re right,” Maru said, her hands on her hips. “We have a problem with you. We all bust our asses off working and being together and you just sit here doing nothing all day.”

“I’m working!”

“Maybe you should work on your relationship with Mom instead of just deciding to leave.”

“Well, clearly no one wants me around here. Especially Demetrius.”

“You’re such an idiot,” Maru hissed at him.

“And you’re clueless and naive.”

“Me? Naive?”

“You think we’re some perfect little family.”

“Well we could be if you weren’t such an ass.”

“We’re not a family,” Sebastian hissed. “We never were and we never will be. Now get the hell out of my room.”

Maru started blankly at her brother. “Well,” she said quietly. “The truth comes out, doesn’t it?”

Sebastian made no effort to apologize for his remark, though the pit of his stomach twisted in a pang of guilt. He never meant to hurt Maru like that, despite how different they were. He moved his eyes back to his computer and sat back down in his chair.

“I guess it’s better for all of us that you move out,” Maru muttered under her breath before leaving him alone in his dimly lit bedroom.

Sebastian stared at the computer screen blankly. Maru would never understand. He didn’t expect her to. She was the one with the family. A mother and a father. She was the favorite child. She always was and always would be. He was just a part of his mother’s life that she wanted to forget about. The man she left. And he was just a reminder of that life. She would never admit it, but Sebastian knew it. They were a family - Robin, Demetrius, and Maru. He was just the left over from a failed marriage that no one wanted to talk about. He didn’t fit in with their picture perfect family. He never would. Demetrius made sure of that.

The computer screen flickered, catching his attention for a moment before it went black. Sebastian sat in the darkness for a moment, taking in the silence, and sighed. Of course the power would go out. He blinked in the darkness as his eyes adjusted, jumping when he heard Maru scream from downstairs.

Sebastian opened the door and peered down the hallway. “Maru?” The house was quiet. He called for her again, but there was no answer. He closed the door behind him and moved to the top of the stairs.

“This isn’t funny,” he called into the darkness. “Grow up.”

There was a loud thud as something went crashing onto the floor. Glass shattered and Maru shrieked again. Sebastian held his breath as his heartbeat quickened. He stood frozen at the top of the steps, listening. When he didn’t hear anything, he moved down the staircase slowly, taking one step at a time.

“Maru?”

A pair of glowing eyes illuminated the darkness and Sebastian stumbled backwards on the steps. A beam of light split the darkness in a warm, yellow glow, and the creature shrieked and fled.

Sebastian followed the light to its source, a shaking flashlight in Demetrius’s hands. The light bounced around the room until it landed on Maru, huddled in a panic in the corner of the kitchen.

“What the fuck was that?” she said, her voice shaking.

The light fell onto Sebastian. He shielded his eyes as Demetrius brought the light back to his daughter.

“Are you okay?”

Maru nodded quickly, her eyes still wide with fear.

“They’re all over the place,” Demetrius said as he went to her side. He pulled her up off the floor. “All over the city.”

“Where’s Mom?” Maru asked. “We need to find her. We need to get out of here.”

At that moment, Demetrius’s cell phone rang in his pocket. He fumbled with the screen, answering it as quickly as it could.

“Robin… No… I’ve got them… They’re okay… I’ll get you…”

Sebastian watched as his face fell and seemed to whiten in the glow of the flashlight. He and Maru listened closely to the muffled voice on the other line. There was a sound of panic. Screams.

“Robin!” Demetrius was still as the phone fell from his face. The line was dead.

“What’s going on?” Maru shouted in panic.

“We’ve been invaded,” Demetrius said quickly. “We need to get out of here.”

“Is Mom okay?” Sebastian asked quietly.

Demetrius nodded, but his expression did not show the same certainty. “We’ll find her,” he said. “She’s going to meet us outside of the city.”

“Where will we go?” Maru asked.

“I don’t know,” her father said with a defeated tone. “We’ll figure that out later. We need to get out of here first.”

“How are we supposed to get out of here if those things are in the city?” Sebastian asked angrily.

“We fight our way out,” his step-father said simply. “We don’t have a choice right now.”

Maru and Sebastian followed Demetrius out into the dark city. They quickly got into the car and the headlights illuminated their path. They navigated through the streets which started to fill quickly with more and more cars trying to escape the city. Demetrius slammed on the breaks as more of the creatures took over the intersection and cars collided.

Maru watched in terror out the window as a girl with purple hair ran towards a man and a woman. But they disappeared quickly as Demetrius sped the car around the corner.

“We need to help them!” Maru shouted at her father.

“If you want to get out of this alive,” he father hissed, “we need to worry about ourselves.”

“The bridge is packed,” Sebastian said as they made their way over the top of a hill, bringing the bridge out of the city into sight. “We’ll never make it through.”

“Shit,” Demetrius muttered as he spun the wheel quickly, turning the vehicle around abruptly. He sped through the streets in a desperate attempt to find an alternate way out.

“The graveyard!” Sebastian leaned from the back seat.

“We can’t go through there,” Maru scolded.

“Looks like someone already did,” Sebastian said as they neared. The fencing was torn down as if someone had sped through with a large car.

“Hang on,” Demetrius said as he stepped on the gas. The car lurched forward, following the torn up path out of the city.

Maru buried her face in her hands, muttering to herself. “This isn’t happening.”

The car sped through the opening on the far side of the cemetery, bounding across the field, down the hill, and onto the high way which had started to glow with headlights.

“What about Mom?” Maru shouted as Demetrius turned the car to follow the pavement. He quickly weaved in and out of cars.

Demetrius bit his lower lip as he focused on the road. “She’ll find us,” he said. He had to get them to safety before he broke the news.

8: Penny
Penny

“Miss Penny! Chantelle licked the crayon!”

Penny groaned. “Chantelle, that’s yucky. Take that out of your mouth. Josephine, don’t cut your hair! Lucas, I swear to Yoba…”

The children in Penny’s preschool class ran about the room wildly. It had been a long day of coloring and songs and she was only just starting to realize how exhausted she was. But at least it was Friday. She would have a whole weekend away from the chaos. A whole weekend stuck in her tiny one bedroom apartment with her mother. She would have rather worked through the whole weekend and clean up vomit then be stuck in that apartment.

She reminded herself that she loved her job. She loved the kids and their eager faces, so willing to learn and explore. But it had been a long week. Between field trips and picture day, their schedule was upside down and backwards, which only excited the children to be out of their usual routine. It made for a very, very long week.

But soon, their buses would be coming, their parents waiting outside to pick them up, and the room would be empty. And Penny would have to make her way, ever so slowly, back home for the night. Of course, she would stop at the library first. Pick up her favorite book. Sit in her favorite corner. Simply enjoy the peace and quiet. She was excited just thinking about it. Three o’clock was just twenty minutes away, but it couldn’t come soon enough.

She leaned back in her chair behind her desk and watched helplessly as they chased each other around the room, yelling and laughing. They quieted only for a moment as the lights cut out, shrouding them in darkness, and just as quickly they erupted once more.

“The lights!”

“I don’t like the dark!”

“Boo!”

Yoba did not want her to get out of this easily. Penny sighed and stood. It was pitch black in the room. Unusually dark. Something wasn’t quite right.

“What happened to the sun?”

Penny flicked on a flashlight she kept in her desk and shone it across the room. The children stood on their tip toes, peering out the window into the eerie darkness.

“Where did the sun go?” Their curious eyes turned to her as Penny joined them at the windows.

Penny searched the world beyond their window. The entire city was shrouded in an eerie, purple-gray dark haze. No lights lined the roads or marked the buildings.

“Look!” Chantelle shrieked, pointing at the window.

“What’s that?”

Penny followed their gaze to four sets of glowing eyes in the distance. They bobbed up and down in the darkness, nearing the school. The children started to scream and cry.

Penny’s heart quickened as she lowered the flashlight. Something wasn’t right. She needed to hide the children.

She spun on her heels as she heard quick footsteps coming down the empty hallway. Voices echoed off the walls. She hurried to the door, opening it slightly, watching as beams of light bounced off the walls and over the floor.

“What’s happening?” she asked the two men running down the hall. Principle Jones stopped at her side, grabbing her wrist and pulling her towards him. She met his panicked gaze as his eyes darted across the hall.

“Shadow People,” he muttered, his breath on her cheek. “We’re in a lock down. Hide those kids. Not a sound, Penny. Do you understand me?”

Penny swallowed and nodded quickly as he took off down the hall. She watched as the flashlight paused and turned, flashing over her face.

“Don’t get caught, Penny,” his voice, just barely audible, begged her. “I will come back. I will protect you.”

Her heart sank as the light disappeared around the corner. She hurried back into her classroom where her children waited for her, their eyes anxious and afraid. She forced herself to smile, reassuring them that they were okay.

“Okay, boys and girls,” she said quietly. “Everything is okay, but you need to listen to me and be very quiet. We’re going to hide in the closet, just like we practiced. Do you remember?”

Their little heads nodded quietly.

Penny’s gaze shifted uneasily to the window, then back to the children. The glowing eyes were gone. The Shadow People could be anywhere. She needed to act quickly. She forced her smile and held out her hand to them.

“All right,” she breathed. “Let’s get into the closet. Quickly and quietly.”

The children obeyed and quickly piled into the closet, just as they were taught at the beginning of the school year. They sat with their knees to their chests in the darkness, hidden behind jackets and brooms, books and pillows. With no windows outside, they would be safe, if at least for a little while longer.

Penny closed the door quietly behind her and let out the breath she had been holding. Her heart thudded loudly and her hands shook, but she fought to keep her composure. She forced another smile, though it was unlikely they could even see her.

“Good job,” she said quietly. “Nice and quiet now, okay?”

She sat on the floor with them, their little hands reaching to her. She held their hands as they sat in the closet, listening and waiting.

She lost track of time quickly as they sat there in uneasy silence. She didn’t dare turn her flashlight back on. Maybe they had drifted off to sleep. The darkness had a way of fooling the body and Penny could feel herself fighting to stay awake and aware of her surroundings. She jumped at every sound, though most of them she had probably imagined.

The one sound she didn’t imagine were the screams from the classroom next door. And her children had heard it, too. They started to whimper and cry. Penny pulled them closer to her, trying desperately to keep them calm and quiet.

“Listen to me,” she urged them. “Don’t listen to anything else. I’m right here, okay? We need to be very quiet. Shh.”

They quieted and waited. The muffled screams did not last long. They seemed to quiet, one by one. Penny’s stomach knotted and tears stung her eyes. She could only imagine the worst. One by one, children dropping, silenced forever.

Penny blinked through her tears as their world fell silent once more. The Shadow People were here, in the school, and it was likely they would come to her room next. She couldn’t let them win. She couldn’t stand by and watch these children die. And she didn’t want to die. Not yet. She still had hope - hope that her life would get better. That Principle Smith would pull through for her. That they could be together.

Penny stood abruptly. She had to do something. The children whimpered and called to her.

“I will be right back,” she assured them. “I won’t let anything happen to you. I promise. By Yoba, I promise.”

She squeezed through the closet door, closing it quickly behind her. “Lock the door, children,” she said to them. She listened with her hand on the door until she heard the familiar click of the knob being locked. She closed her eyes and prayed to Yoba that their lives would be spared.

“Keep those children safe,” she whispered into the door. She turned around and leaned on the door, letting her eyes scan the room. She could just barely make out the edges of the tables and chairs. But only one thing stood out: there were no glowing eyes. They had not come in yet. It was only a matter of time.

She sucked in a breath and pushed herself off the door. With nothing at her back, she felt exposed. Her body begged her to run, to hide, but she stood and waited, listening.

She saw their eyes first. Then she heard the door knob jiggle and turn. The door swung open silently as two pairs of eyes entered the room.

“Where are the children?” a voice like smoke hissed at her.

“G-gym,” she stuttered. “They’re in the gym waiting for their buses.”

The eyes seemed to exchange a look and scanned the room quickly before settling on her once more. Penny froze as an icy hand wrapped around her arm. She pulled back, but the hand was stronger than she expected. The grip tightened around her as the creatures murmured and hissed.

“Take her,” a voice said.

She twisted and shrieked as she felt material cover her mouth and nose. She blinked as the glowing eyes blurred and quickly disappeared.

9: Alex
Alex

Notes: Potential trigger warning? I opted to make his mother alive and bring his father into this, so there’s some abuse, heavy swearing, etc. Also a bit longer.

Dusty was barking erratically as Alex pulled into the driveway. His heart raced as he recognized the other car in the driveway. He slammed his car door angrily as he marched up the front steps, ignoring the dog barking at his heels.

The door swung open and a man stood before him, his face twisted in an all too familiar rage.

“What are you doing here?” Alex snapped.

“I don’t need to tell you why I’m here,” his father hissed at him, pushing his son aside as he left the house.

“You don’t live here.” Alex followed his father into the driveway. “What are you doing here?”

“Piss off, Alex.”

Alex stared blankly as the man before him opened the car door. Dusty barked loudly at his feet, and the man kicked at the dog angrily.

“Leave him alone,” Alex shouted.

“Control your damn dog.”

“Dusty!” his mother’s voice shouted. “In!”

Alex spun on his heels to see his mother’s tired, torn expression hiding from behind the door. There was a fresh cut on her cheek and her eye was swollen shut. She met her son’s gaze briefly before turning away and shutting the door behind her and Dusty.

“What the fuck did you do?” Alex shouted at the man, his blood boiling. “You stay the fuck away from her.”

“Fuck off, Alex. This is none of your business.”

“It is my fucking business when you beat the shit out of my mother.”

His father ignored him as he sat in the car, but Alex held the door tight in his grasp, preventing his father from closing the door.

“Let go you fucking bitch,” he shouted.

“Get the fuck out of the car you asshole.” Alex grabbed his shirt and pulled him out of the car, but his father’s hands were quickly around his neck.

“Get your hands off of him!”

Dusty flew through the open doorway and launched himself onto the man, his teeth locking on his arm. His grip loosened around Alex’s neck as he fought off the dog.

Alex choked on the fresh air that entered his lungs once more and, when he regained himself, threw himself into his father, knocking both of them onto the ground as Dusty continued to growl and cling to the man’s arm. Alex let his fist fly into the man’s face over and over again in a blind rage, unaware of the cops that had arrived on the scene. Their hands pulled at Alex, pulling him off of his father. He stumbled backwards, breathing heavy as his arms were pinned against his back. His heart stopped as he felt cool metal cinch his wrists.

He fell to his knees and waited for his breathing to slow before he was able to see clearly once more. He looked around anxiously. His mother was shouting to him from the front steps, a cop at her side, pulling at her arm to keep her from running to him. A paramedic inspected the cut on her face.

He turned and watched as his father was pushed into the back of a police cruiser. The man spat at the ground, his fierce eyes like daggers on his son. Alex stared at his bloodied and beaten face. His eyes had started to swell and purple, and his nose was clearly broken. The door closed, obstructing Alex’s view, but he was certain his father was cursing at him from behind the tinted window.

“On your feet.” A hard, rough hand pulled at his elbow. Alex stood up and met the eyes of the officer behind him. He pulled his arms, but they were still secured behind him. His heart raced in his chest.

“No,” he muttered, panicked. “Get off me.”

“In the car,” the officer instructed sternly.

“No.” Alex pulled away. “No! He beat her! Don’t!”

“Get in the car, son.”

“I am NOT your son!” Alex hissed. “Don’t take me away from her!”

“She’s going to be fine.”

“That fucking maniac beat her! You don’t know what you’re doing!”

The officer pushed him toward the cruiser and into the backseat, slamming the door. Alex stared helplessly out the window at his mother who continued to shout, tears streaming down her face. The engine to the cruiser came to life and the car backed out of the driveway. Alex watched as the house disappeared around the corner.

*****

Alex didn’t have to wait long before someone bailed him out, but it felt like an eternity of sitting on the hard bench in the city’s jail cell.

“Let’s go, Mullner,” the cop said, opening the door and letting him out.

Alex pushed passed the cop without a word and followed the guard through the station and into the main lobby where his mother waited. She stood eagerly as he turned the corner, but Alex pushed passed her and out the door. She chased him out into the parking lot as he strode to the car.

“Alex!”

Alex stood in front of the car and waited for her to catch up. She unlocked the car door and Alex slid in to the passenger seat. He waited for his mother to get into the driver’s seat, but she did not start the engine.

“I’ll kill him,” Alex muttered. “I will spend forever in that jail cell to see him dead.”

“Alex,” his mother hissed at him. “You don’t mean that.”

Alex met her gaze. “How can you stick up for him?”

Clara hesitated. “I’m not,” she said, breaking her gaze and looking out the windshield. She turned the key in the ignition but did not pull out of the parking spot.

“He better pray he never leaves that jail. Because the moment he does, he’s dead.”

“That’s enough, Alex.” His mother put the car into drive and navigated out of the parking lot.

Alex stared at his mother, dumbfounded. His mouth opened, but he was at a loss for words.

“I’m not bailing you out of jail again. If you keep this up, you’ll never make that team.”

Alex stared at his feet. “I’d rather be in jail than on that team if it meant he were dead.”

“Alex, that’s the only thing keeping your scholarship right now. Don’t be stupid.”

“Right,” he muttered. “Because I’m stupid. I’ve always been stupid. Too stupid to do anything in life. Too stupid to get into college.”

“That’s why you’re good at sports, baby.” His mother patted his knee. “At least you’ve got that going for you.”

“Do you really think that’s funny?”

Clara did not smile. She didn’t say anything for a long moment. “You do whatever it takes to hold on to that scholarship, Alex. I won’t see you drop out of college because you got yourself thrown in jail. At least one of us has a chance at a good future.”

Alex slunk back in his seat and stared out his window, guilt twisting in his chest. “I wouldn’t be so sure about that,” he mumbled.

Dusty waited for them outside and ran to the car as they pulled into the driveway. He put his paws on Alex’s thighs as he got out of the car and licked his face.

“Hey, boy,” Alex said, scratching his dog behind the ears. “Good boy.”

The dog returned to all four and whimpered up at his master. His ears pinned back and the fur on his back stood.

“Easy, boy,” Alex said softly to him. “He’s not here any more. He’s gone.”

Dusty growled long and low and stared into the trees across the street.

“C’mon, crazy dog,” Alex said as he walked up the driveway. He looked up at the darkening sky curiously at the dark haze that quickly covered the sun.

Dusty’s growls turned to ferocious barks. He trotted to the end of the driveway and barked at the trees across the road. Alex peered into the darkness and a pair of glowing eyes peered back. Alex stumbled backwards in surprise as three more pairs of eyes illuminated the darkness. Dusty whimpered as the dark creatures moved forward, across the street towards Alex.

“What the fuck…”

A hand pulled him backwards suddenly and his mother stepped in front him, her arm raised. Alex gawked at the weapon in her hand as she fired off two rounds. The creatures shrieked and scattered.

“Mom!”

Dusty bolted through the yard on the trail of one of the creatures. His fierce growling moved around them, fading and growing louder as the dog ran around the house. Another shriek pierced the night as Dusty caught his prey. Alex listened as the world quieted, breathing a sigh of relief as the dog trotted up to his side after a moment.

“In the house,” Clara hissed at her son. “There’s another gun in my closet.”

Alex didn’t dare to question her. He hurried into the dark house and fumbled around in the darkness until he felt the cool metal of a gun. His fingers found the trigger, then moved to flick the safety off. Further down, he found the release for the magazine and it slid into his palm. Loaded. He traced each bullet before pushing the magazine back into place. He gripped it tightly in his hand and sucked in a breath before returning outside, grabbing a flashlight in the process, but his mother was gone. In the distance, Dusty barked angrily. Another shot went off and another creature shrieked.

Alex sprinted through the night, following the sounds until he reached Dusty. He followed the sounds of the dog’s tags through the woods, stumbling over uprooted roots, fallen branches, and small holes in the ground. His eyes moved quickly, but there was only darkness around him. He flicked on the flashlight which provided just enough light to see where he was running.

Dusty ran ahead of him, panting as he darted through the trees, leading his master out of harm’s way. Alex continued to follow the dog blindly, hoping he would reunite him with his mother, but as the forest thinned, he realized they had made it out of the city.

“No,” Alex panted, turning on his heels. “Dusty! Where’s Mom? Find Mom!”

The dog sat on his haunches and whimpered. Alex let his flashlight move over the trees. She had to be in there, somewhere. But it was so quiet. Too quiet.

“Mom!”

Dusty barked at his master.

Alex ran back into the woods. The dog followed him and pulled at his pant leg.

“Stop it, Dusty!” Alex pulled forward, but the dog clung tightly. Alex hesitated and the dog barked at him once more.

“Dusty,” Alex sobbed. “What happened, Dusty?” His eyes followed the beam of light as it fell on trees and stumps. “Mom!”

But there was no answer.

Alex sprinted back into the woods, Dusty hot on his heels. He ran and ran and ran until he reached his road once more. He paused when his light hit a figure in the yard. He hurried over to inspect the body of the creature that Dusty had killed earlier.

Dusty’s frantic barking caused him to turn just in time to see the familiar glowing eyes, just yards away from him. There was a click in the darkness. An empty magazine.

The creature turned and lunged toward the sound. Alex’s light flashed through the night just in time to see the creature lunge at his mother. Alex dropped the light in a panic and he fumbled for the gun. Dusty’s continued barking drowned out the sounds of the struggle between his mother and the creature. The beam of light shined across the street, away from the struggle.

His mother shouted in pain. Alex needed to act quickly. He ran towards the flashlight, but a strong force knocked him to the ground. He struggled to his feet as another pair of eyes showed themselves before him. Cold hands gripped his neck, but this time he was stronger, knocking the being to the ground.

Clara’s shouts were distorted. Alex gripped the gun once more, searching, listening. The creature got up and he shot once. It shrieked into the night as the other continued to fight his mother. But she was no longer shouting.

Alex strained to hear as Dusty barked and moved towards the struggle in an attempt to fight off the creature. The dog whimpered in pain and the creature hissed in the night. Frantic, Alex focused on a dark figure before him and pulled the trigger. Dusty yelped and the creature’s shriek hissed through the night.

Alex let off another shot and the world fell silent.

Alex stood frozen to the ground, his gun still raised, his pulse racing in his head. He strained to listen, but there was no familiar sounds.

He jumped when he felt Dusty’s fur against his leg. The dog whimpered at his master’s side. Alex quickly pocketed the gun and found the flashlight. He inspected Dusty. Except for a few cuts on the dog’s body, he was fine. Alex let the light search the yard until it fell onto a figure. The first creature he shot. He moved the light further until it revealed two more figures.

Alex hurried over to his mother, pulling her out from under the second creature. Her body fell into his lap as the light moved across her face.

“Mom,” Alex choked out. “Wake up,” he begged. “Get up.”

He moved the light down her body, stopping at the place where his bullet had entered. The light dropped from his hand as he sobbed loudly.

“No, no, no,” he whimpered. He moved backwards and her body fell away from him and onto the ground.

Dusty sat at his master’s side and moved his nose under Alex’s arm.

“I did this,” Alex sobbed. “I did this.”

Eerie shrieks filled the air around them as Alex continued to sob. Dusty moved at his side, agitated. He whimpered and licked Alex’s face. When Alex did not move, the dog barked.

“Go,” Alex mumbled, pushing the dog. “Go. Get out of here. Go!”

The dog growled and pulled at his master’s sleeve.

“Let them come for me. I’ll go down fighting. I won’t make it easy, I swear to you.”

His hands rubbed at his eyes and he blinked in the darkness as more glowing eyes showed themselves.

“This is it, Dusty,” Alex said. “I won’t go down being worthless any longer.”

Alex stood as the eyes neared, but before he could make a move, a pair of headlights rounded the corner, lighting the street. The creatures shrieked and scattered into the darkness. The car stopped before Alex and the window rolled down.

“Get in,” a familiar voice said. His father leaned out the window.

“Bust out of jail already?” Alex snarled.

His father shrugged. “Easy when the cops are running for their lives.”

“And you wanted to make amends before they get you next?”

He hesitated but held his gaze on his son. “Go to Stardew Valley. You will be safe there.”

Alex spat at the ground. “Are you fucking serious? Is this a joke?”

“Alex, listen to me.”

“No, it’s time you start listening to me,” Alex shouted. “I’ve put up with your shit for way too long. If I’m going to die, I’m taking you with me.”

Alex raised his gun.

“Alex, don’t-”

He pulled the trigger and his father fell limp in the car.

Alex hesitated. He lowered his arm and pocketed the gun.

“We’re not done, Dusty,” he said. “Not by a long shot. If I’m going down, I’m taking all these bastards with me.”

10: 1
1

Najia lifted the bag to her nose and inhaled deeply. She was a child again, the rich, chocolate chips melting in her mouth. The cookie was soft and gooey, just the way she liked it, as if it were fresh out of the oven, despite the hours of driving it took her grandparents to get to the city. These cookies, however, were hard, prepackaged, and probably stale. But they were cookies nonetheless, and the smell was just the same. She grabbed the bags of cookies by the handful, zipping them carefully in her backpack, stopping only when she heard the eerie sound of a gun being cocked behind her. She froze, not daring to move, her heart racing as the fear tore through her body. This was it. Months on the run, all for nothing.

“Stand up,” a gruff voice said. A human voice. This was no one to be afraid of. Her heart flew; she hadn’t seen another human in months, since she first left the city. Najia obeyed, placing her hands on her head in hopes to show that she was friendly.

“Turn around.”

She turned slowly, meeting the gaze of the human that stood before her.

“I know it’s dark,” she muttered. “But give me a break. I’m human.”

The man held his aim on her. He didn’t budge. His arm didn’t shake or sway. Najia was impressed; he knew what he was doing to make it this far.

“Can’t be too sure these days,” he said.

“Fortunately for you,” Najia said. “You’d already be dead if I wanted you to be.”

The man smirked, amused, then lowered his gun. His eyes made their way down her body, resting on the gun on her hip.

“I’m not the one that let my guard down,” he said as he pocketed the pistol.

“My guard’s never down.”

He met her gaze one last time before turning away. Najia threw her bag over her shoulder and hurried behind him. The light of her flashlight bounced around the house as she ran.

“Wait,” she said as she ran to his side. “I haven’t seen another human in months. How’d you get this far?”

“Same as you, I’d presume.”

“Where you headed?”

He studied her from the corner of his eye but did not slow his brisk pace. “Looking for people.”

“I think we’re all looking for people,” Najia muttered. “You’d be lucky if they’re not dead.”

The man tried to remain composed, but Najia could see the pain that flashed briefly across his face.

“Family?” she asked.

The man stopped walking and turned to her.

“Listen. We’re not doing this. I don’t care about you, and you don’t care about me. You go your way, and I’ll go mine, okay?” He continued walking, quickening his pace.

“Why does it have to be like that?” Najia continued to follow him. “We’re at a war here. We could go together. Look for your people. Maybe find more survivors.”

“I don’t want to be slowed down.”

“I have a car.”

The man stopped suddenly and faced her. “You have a car? How?”

Najia hesitated. “I hot wired it.”

“You know how to hot wire a car?”

“Yes.”

He looked her up and down quickly, studying her.

“You can have it if I can come with you.”

“Forget it,” he said, turning abruptly once more and continuing down the road.

Najia watched the last human she had seen fade into the darkness. Determined to win his trust, she hurried to the car, waiting in the darkness behind the house, right where she left it, still purring quietly. She threw it into gear, making sure to keep the headlights off, and navigated around the disheveled building. She found him still walking and pulled up beside him.

“Have the car,” she said through the open window. “I can get another.”

The man stopped and peered at her carefully.

“Look,” she said. “I just filled it up with gas. There’s two empty tanks in the trunk. Stay away from the cities. It’s a wasteland out here, but there are a few stations with gas left where you can fill up. The Shadow People don’t venture out here often.”

“What do you want in return?” he asked skeptically.

Najia shook her head. “I just want our world back.” She shrugged. “Maybe you’re people will be able to help us do that, if you ever find them. Never know who turns out to be a hero around here.”

“Heroes don’t exist.”

“Guess we can agree to disagree.”

An eerie shadow flickered at the corner of Najia’s eye in the rear view mirror. She turned quickly.

“We have company,” she muttered, looking through the rear view window. Shots fired, hitting the bumper of the vehicle.

“Get in!”

The man dove into the passenger seat, slamming a new magazine into his gun and leaning out the window, taking fire as the Shadow People closed in around them.

Najia slammed down on the accelerator. The tires spun for a moment before lurching them forward into the darkness. They continued their attack as bullets hit the steel of the car. Najia pulled abruptly on the emergency break, spinning the wheel until the car faced their opponents head on. Najia flicked on the high beams and the Shadow People shrieked and scattered into the safety of the darkness. She threw the car into reverse and navigated down the road as the man reloaded and took aim once more.

When it grew quiet, Najia flicked off the lights and turned the wheel abruptly, spinning them around and throwing the vehicle into drive. She sped off the road, dust billowing around them. The man pocketed his weapon and leaned back against the seat, letting out a heavy sigh.

“That was exciting,” Najia said as the rush of moment left her system.

The man grunted.

“So, we’re doing this?”

“Doing what?”

“Traveling the world? Seeing the sights?”

“I told you,” he said, his voice hard. “I’m looking for people.”

“Fine, fine. I’ll help you look for your people. Okay?”

He didn’t say anything.

“Sorry,” Najia muttered. “I just don’t want to never see another human ever again.”

“Whatever.”

They drove in silence for a moment.

“So, where are you headed?” Najia asked.

He shrugged. “The coast.”

“Oh yeah? I’m heading in that general area, too.” She paused. “What’s there?”

“The end of the country.”

She raised an eyebrow but kept her gaze focused ahead as she attempted to navigate the dark world. “And you think they’ll be there?”

“Maybe.”

“So, who are they? What’s your story?”

“No,” he grunted. “We’re not doing that.”

“All right,” she said slowly. “I’m Najia, by the way.”

The man did not respond.

“What? We can’t even do names?”

He sighed. “Shane.”

11: 2
2

“Looks like as good a place as any,” Najia said, her hands on her hips.

Shane shook his head. “No. We’re not stopping. I’ll drive.”

Najia narrowed her eyes at him. “I disagree. We’re stopping. It’s late. I’m tired. You’re tired.”

“Stopping will only make us more vulnerable,” Shane hissed. “We can take turns driving.”

“I don’t think so. I don’t trust you that much to let you drive while I’m passed out.”

“Then you’re staying here alone and I’m taking the car.”

“That wasn’t in the agreement.”

“There was no agreement.”

Najia huffed, exasperated. Her voice softened. “We shouldn’t split up. We can do more damage together. Alone, we’re easier targets.”

“Being alone means I don’t have to pretend I care about anyone else’s worthless life.”

“You are a cruel, bitter man.”

“I’m honest and realistic.”

“You’re a jerk.”

“Big words from Miss Smarty-pants.”

“Smart enough to know how to hot wire a car.”

“I’m sorry. Not all of us lead some thug life before this.”

“I’m not a thug,” Najia hissed. “My father was a mechanic.”

Shane rolled his eyes.

“Of all the damned people in the world,” Najia muttered.

“Should have let me walk away, huh?”

Najia crossed her arms. Shane smiled, feeling as if he had won, and turned away from her.

“Keep the car,” he said over his shoulder. “I don’t need it.”

Najia dropped her arms as she watched the only other possible survivor walk away from her.

“Please don’t leave me alone out here,” she said softly.

Shane hesitated. He turned around and met her fearful gaze.

“I’m not as tough as I pretend to me.”

“Well, you’re not a good pretender apparently.”

“I want a chance,” she said. “A chance to survive.”

Shane narrowed his eyes at her. “I see what this is. You’re pulling the damsel in distress card.”

Najia smiled. “Is it working?”

Shane sighed. “Just a little bit. I really like the fact that you have a car, mostly.”

Her smile widened. “Then it’s settled. Build the damsel a fire.”

“Are you insane? That will draw attention to us.”

Najia rolled her eyes. “We have protection from these boulders. We’re way out in the desert. The Shadow People won’t dare to come out this far. And it’s going to get cold.”

Shane bit his lip, defeated. “Fine. But I’m not sleeping. Someone’s gotta keep watch.”

“Whatever, dude.”

Shane helped Najia bring some wood from the trunk of the car. He admired her provisions. It was as if she prepared her whole life for the end of the world. She had packed food, flashlights, candles, matches, water, wood, and even kindling.

“Someone’s prepared,” he muttered.

Najia smiled as she stacked wood in her arms. “Isn’t that the boy scout motto?”

“I wouldn’t know.”

“Clearly.”

They stacked the wood carefully and before long, a fire was crackling in the night. The thick, dark, gray-purple haze continued to hide every bit of the sky. The sun could not cut through, and the stars did not guide their travels. The desert was eerily quiet. No crickets or critters scuttled over the dusty land. Najia wasn’t sure what was worse; the darkness, or the silence. It felt suffocating.

But the fire was bright and warm. A reminder that they were survivors; they were life. They still had something, even if it was rather unpleasant company in each other. They had, by some sheer chance, found each other, and it was enough to give Najia hope.

She stared into the flickering flames as her mind wandered. It drifted to images of her grandfather, or what she remembered him to look like when she was a child. It had been years since she had seen him, but she could distinctly remember his voice when he called her just months ago, before the invasion.

“Come to the valley, my little Naj. When the darkness clouds the land, come to the valley. I will be waiting for you there.”

Crazy, her father had said. The man was crazy, ever since her mother had died.

But it was all Najia had left. Hope that her grandfather was there, in the valley, waiting for her.

“There’s this place where my grandfather lives,” Najia started. “Stardew Valley. He lived there with this crazy conspiracy theorist. Some guy Linus. He would tell me all about it when he came to visit me as a kid. When the Shadow People started taking over, just before they came to the city, he contacted me. Told me to come to Stardew. Said it was safe there. The Shadow People couldn’t take it over. He said there’s still light. Darkness would never claim Stardew.” She looked up, but Shane did not meet her gaze. He continued to stare into the fire. Najia continued. “That’s where I’m headed. Just north up the coast.”

“A place with light doesn’t exist anymore,” Shane said simply.

“Maybe there’s some hope in Stardew.”

Shane finally met her gaze. “I wouldn’t get your hopes up. Your grandfather sounds crazy.”

Najia pinched her lips together and turned back to the fire. Of all the survivors in the world, why did she have to be stuck with Negative Nancy?

“You’re awfully pessimistic,” she commented dryly.

“You’re way too optimistic.”

Najia sighed. “At least I have something left in my life. What do you have? Some half assed idea that your people are out there, somewhere? If you ask me, you have nothing left, so you’re just wandering around until you die. Waiting to die.”

Shane didn’t answer. He crossed his arms.

“I’m sorry,” Najia said softly. “That was douchey.”

Shane shrugged. “Probably the most honest thing you’ve said since I met you. I prefer that over bubbly optimism.”

Najia didn’t bother to argue with him. It was clear that there was no getting through to Shane. She didn’t care; she was still hopeful.

12: 3
3

Najia’s body ached from sleeping on the hard ground. When she was alone, she preferred to stop somewhere where she could make a decent bed for herself. The desert ground was less than ideal, but she knew she was already on thin ice with Shane. She figured, in the circumstances, she could learn to sleep on the ground. After a month on the run, it wasn’t the first time she had done so. But she still missed the luxuries of her life in the city. She adapted only because she had to, but made every effort to make things as easy as possible for her. Including packing the car with every single useful thing she could find during her travels, and moving those items from one trunk to the next when she needed to seek out a new vehicle. She supposed she learned that from her father. Always be prepared - it was the boy scout motto, after all.

Shane, on the other hand, did not care for such luxuries. Of course, having luxuries were much harder when all you had was what you could carry. And Shane carried the bare minimum.

As Najia wired the car, she started to realize that she would likely need to adjust further still if she wanted to make it to Stardew Valley. While it seemed foolish to give up her supplies, they wouldn’t last forever. Shane had obviously made it with the bare minimum; perhaps she would be wise to learn to do the same. But then again, the time hadn’t come for such drastic measures. Why not enjoy what supplies she had for as long as she could?

Najia dusted her hands together and smiled as the engine purred. She let Shane climb into the driver’s side and she slid in beside him. She pulled out the map from the glove compartment and found their estimated location.

“There’s probably an old gas station up the main road, somewhere,” she said. She traced the line on the map with her finger. “We could fill up a couple more tanks there it be set for a while longer. Assuming it hasn’t run dry yet.”

Shane shrugged. “Yeah, okay.”

They drove in silence. Najia focused her attention out the window, trying to imagine the desert scenery passing in the daylight. It was likely just as boring a view as it was in the dark. She sighed loudly, but Shane did not acknowledge her.

“We need some music in here,” she muttered.

“Too bad radio stations don’t exist anymore,” Shane remarked snidely.

“What if one did exist, though? Someone in some abandoned station trying to deliver an S.O.S.”

Shane peered at her in his peripheral vision. “Don’t you think the Shadow People would notice and capture them?”

Najia slunk back in her seat and crossed her arms. “You have absolutely zero sense of adventure.”

Shane tensed. “You think this is an adventure?” His voice raised. “You think this is some game?”

Najia hesitated. “No.”

Shane narrowed his eyes at the road before him as he continued driving in silence. Najia shifted uncomfortably before opening the glove compartment. She fished through the odds and ends she had secured in there, pulling out an old, tattered CD case. She smiled to herself as she zipped it open and flipped through the contents she had collected.

“What are you doing,” Shane said quickly.

Najia selected a CD with the word ‘mixz’ scribbled in sharpie on the front and pushed it carefully into place inside the radio. It hummed quietly as it read the disk and the first track began to play. Shane groaned loudly as the song started, and Najia did not miss a beat as she belted out the song.

“I stay out too late!” she sang. “Got nothing in my brain! That’s what people say!”

Shane rolled his eyes.

“I go on too many dates, but I can’t make them stay,” she continued.

“I can see why,” Shane muttered.

Najia ignored him as she continued singing. She turned the knob on the radio and the music got louder.

“But I keep cruising. Can’t stop, won’t stop moving. It’s like I got this music in my mind saying it’s gonna be alright.” Najia danced in her seat as she sang out the chorus.

Shane winced and, having enough, ejected the disk from the radio. Najia stopped dancing and stared at the disk as it popped back out.

“What did you do that for?”

“You’re singing is as terrible as Taylor Swift.”

Najia crossed her arms. “It’s a fun, upbeat song. We could use a little fun in here.”

Shane pinched his lips together but didn’t respond.

“Do you have some beef with my girl T. Swift?”

“Please stop,” he muttered.

“Fine,” she said sharply. “What do you want to listen to?”

“Nothing,” he said quickly. “No music. It will only draw attention to us.”

Najia watched him closely for a moment before returning the disk to its case. She shoved it back into the glove compartment, humming to herself. She focused her attention on the dark road, leaning back in her seat with a sigh.

“Wanna play a game?”

“No.” His voice was stern.

“Were you always this much fun?”

“Yup.”

Najia rolled her eyes and turned back to the road. “I see. I bet the women flocked to you.”

Shane said nothing. Najia turned back to him, eye brow raised. “Men?”

Shane shot her another angry glance.

“Both?”

He sighed loudly.

“I bet you had tons of friends with that charming personality of yours,” she muttered.

Shane shrugged. “Maybe I did.”

Najia scoffed.

“Can you really blame me for being Mr. Brightside?”

“You could at least make an effort to be happy at the fact that you’re not the only survivor.”

“Of all the people in the world to get stuck with,” he muttered.

“Funny, I was just thinking the same thing.”

“What does it matter?” he muttered. “We won’t survive much longer. Might as well not get attached.”

Najia sighed. “You’re right,” she said. “Might as well make this as miserable as possible for ourselves.”

“Might as well.”

“I don’t buy it,” she said. “There’s some hope left in you. You wouldn’t have made it this far if you didn’t have some kind of hope. You’re going after something; that’s hope. Hope that something’s still out there.”

Shane was quiet. His knuckles whitened as he tightened his grip on the wheel.

“Fine,” Najia said, sensing his tension. “I’m sorry. I’ll leave it alone.”

They drove in silence once more. Najia let her mind wandered as she stared into the darkness before them. It was still early in the day. Najia couldn’t imagine another six hours in the car with Shane. She didn’t know what was worse; the silence, or his bubbly optimism. She rolled her eyes to herself at the thought. She only hoped they would reach the coast soon. Maybe then they could part ways and she could make her way to Stardew Valley. If Stardew Valley even existed.

“Jas,” Shane said, breaking the silence.

Najia turned to him, but he continued to focus on the dark road ahead.

“My goddaughter. And Marnie, my aunt.” He hesitated. “We were separated when the attack happened.”

Najia looked at her feet. “I’m sure you’ll find them,” she said quietly.

Shane shrugged. “I hope so.”

13: 4
4

Despite his objections, Shane was able to find sleep in the passenger seat as Najia took her turn driving through the night. She was willing to give up a night on the hard ground, giving Shane a little peace of mind. They had stocked up on gas earlier in the day, which meant she could save the fire wood and take advantage of the heat the car provided them in the dark desert. Najia cracked the window just enough to give her fresh air. Music played softly as she hummed to herself. She licked her lips at the thought of fresh coffee; she would have given anything for just a small cup to get her through the night.

Except for Shane’s occasional snoring, the night proved to be uneventful, and for that Najia was relieved. It was just after six in the morning when her stomach began to growl, reminding her that she hadn’t eaten in several hours. Najia imagined the sun would have been rising over the distant horizon. She missed the feeling of its warm rays on her face.

Shane shifted and groaned beside her. He turned over groggily and his eyes opened. He peered at Najia for a moment before letting out a yawn and letting his seat lurch into it’s upright position. He rubbed his face with his palms and sighed.

“Good,” Najia said cheerfully. “Get some food. I’m starving.”

Shane nodded quietly, yawning once more before turning to face the back seat. He fished through their bags until he pulled out two prepackaged bags of pretzels.

Najia tore into her bag eagerly. The salt stung slightly at her chapped lips, but the stale pretzels could not have tasted better in that moment.

“Breakfast of champions,” she muttered between handfuls.

“Bar,” Shane said suddenly. And then, as the excitement grew, he pointed out the window. “Bar! Pull over!”

“Huh?” Najia said with her mouthful of food. She followed his gaze to the side of the road where their headlights illuminated an old, wooden sign. “Route 99 Bar and Grill,” it read. She pulled over and parked in front of the door, peering through the dirtied windows.

“Jackpot,” Shane muttered as he hurried out of the car. The door to the bar was unlocked and Shane made his way inside like a kid in the candy store.

Najia quickly finished off her pretzels as she followed behind him. Her flashlight swung around the room until it found Shane behind the bar.

“There’s still beer!” he shouted enthusiastically.

“It’s not even seven in the morning,” Najia said.

Shane stared at her blankly. “You’re kidding, right?”

Najia shrugged. “I guess you’re right,” she said. She sat on one of the stools as Shane helped himself to the tap, filling the largest glass he could find to the brim. He leaned against the counter and sighed into the glass as the beer trickled down his throat.

“I don’t think shitty beer has ever tasted so good,” he said with a smile.

Najia tapped on the counter. “Let’s go, barkeep. Don’t keep me waiting.”

Shane finished his glass quickly and grabbed another off the shelf. He filled both glasses until they flowed over and together, he and Najia drank.

“Oh yeah,” Shane said. He set his empty glass on the counter with a loud clang. “That’s what the doctor called for.”

“I can’t remember the last time I had a drink,” Najia said.

Shane shook his head. “Me neither.”

Najia lifted her glass. “To us,” she said. “The last two survivors.”

Shane filled his glass once more and lifted it to hers. “We’re taking all of this.”

“We are?”

“If I’m dying any time soon, I’m doing it drunk as fuck.”

Najia looked into her glass and shrugged. “Sounds better than any alternative.”

Shane smirked at her. “I’ve brought you to the dark side.”

“The dark side?”

“The dark, hopeless side.”

“Well,” she said softly. “It helps to have a back up plan.”

*****

Najia lost track of time and their beer intake as they sat together in the abandoned bar. They finally stopped drinking when they were simply too drunk to hold their glasses up right any longer. Shattered pieces of glass lay around them from earlier spills and soon, they were hunched together in a booth in a fit of giggles.

“I had this friend,” Najia said, her speech slurred. “Always got so drunk. We’d go to these clubs together. She peed in her own car!”

Shane wrinkled his nose and laughed. “I wouldn’t have picked you as a party girl,” he said between a burp.

Najia shrugged and leaned her head against her fist, elbow on the table. “Not as much as her.” She was quiet for a moment. “Um sure she’s dead,” she muttered. “But I wish I coulda seen her, yanno, before it all happened. Work had us too busy ta hang out.”

“Hmm.” Shane nodded and leaned back against the seat. “Prolly betta that way.”

“I didn’t get ta see anyone, yanno?” Najia sighed. “I wez jest mindin’ my own business when it all happened. Closin’ up Dad’s shop.” She hesitated. “I didn’t even go home, yanno? I just left. Didn’t even look for him.”

“At least you didn’t have ta watch him die,” Shane muttered.

Najia fingered the deep scratches in the table. She traced over the initials carved into the wood. She wondered what kind of person JS was.

“What do ya think happened?” she asked. “I mean. What happened to our army? Why didn’t they stop this?”

Shane shrugged. “Overpowered us?” he suggested. “We lost.”

“Yeah,” Najia muttered. “I guess we did.” She watched as Shane subconsciously fingered the necklace in his palm. “Wa’s that?”

Shane pocketed the necklace. “Jas’s.”

Najia smiled. “Pretty.”

Shane shrugged. “She wore it all the time.”

“Wa’s she like?”

“I dunno.” He shrugged again. “Cute kid, I guess.” He smiled at some memory. “We used to play soccer a lot.”

“Oh yeah?” Najia let her head rest on the table. It felt cool on her face. “Kids are pretty cute I guess.” She met Shane’s gaze and peered at him. “Not if she looks like you, though.”

“I was an adorable child,” Shane said, crossing his arms. “She’s not related to me, anyway.”

“That’s fortunate for her. I’d hate to see her grow up into a sour puss like you.”

Shane’s gaze drifted toward the window. “She looked like her mother.”

“Ex girl friend?” Najia asked.

Shane narrowed his eyes at her. “No,” he said sharply. “My best friend’s wife.”

“Oh,” Najia said with a hiccup. “So, you were the other guy?”

“You’re a rude drunk.”

Najia shrugged and smiled. “You’re not a very interesting person,” she said. “So, in my mind, you two were lovers who could never be together. You were in too deep with the city’s mafia. She was from the other side. East side.”

“You’re ridiculous.”

“Jas was your love child. Her husband never knew.”

“Stop it.”

“How fitting that you were chosen as the godfather. Or, was it too obvious? Would her husband ever find out? Stay tuned for the next exciting episode.”

“Stop,” Shane hissed.

Najia met his gaze. “So, it’s true?”

“It’s not true.”

“You’re awfully defensive about it.”

“The last time I saw them, they were lying in their own blood,” Shane snapped. “Excuse me for not wanting to talk about them.”

Najia was quiet. She pushed herself off the table and slunk back into the seat. She pinched her lips and met his gaze. “Sorry,” she said simply.

Shane turned back to the window and sighed. “Forget it,” he muttered.

Najia pushed herself away from the booth.

“Where are you going?” Shane called after her.

“Jest gonna lie down,” Najia said quietly. “Right here maybe, on the floor.” Najia stumbled toward the trash barrel beside the bar, leaned over to vomit, then made herself comfortable on the cold, wood floor and sighed.

She awoke to Shane pulling her by the arm. She groaned angrily and tried to ignore the pain in her head.

“Go away,” she muttered.

“Get up,” Shane hissed. “We’ve been here way too long.”

“Five more minutes.”

“You’ve been out for hours.”

Najia groaned again and sat up on the floor. Shane’s flashlight swept across her face and she winced. “I have?”

Shane pulled her to her feet and waited as Najia steadied herself. When she was stable, he shook a bottle of pills at her and smiled.

“Oh, yes, please,” she said, reaching for the bottle. “Gimme.”

Najia sat at the bar as Shane handed her a glass of water and she downed the two pills quickly. She leaned her head against her fist and sighed.

“Don’t be surprised if you see a keg in the back seat,” Shane said casually.

Najia rolled her eyes and emptied her glass. “What time is it?”

“Around five,” Shane said. “We drank the morning away.”

“And you let me sleep all afternoon? How thoughtful.”

“I didn’t last much longer,” he admitted. “I’m just better at keeping the hangovers at bay.”

“We can’t all be pros at drinking,” Najia muttered.

“Come on,” Shane said, pulling at her arm. “It’s gonna get cold in here.”

“Fine,” she said, getting to her feet. “But I’m not driving.”

“Just get the car running,” Shane instructed.

Najia groaned. “Can you give me an hour?”

Shane’s gaze shifted uneasily out the windows, but he nodded. “Yeah, okay, fine. But we’ll need a fire and food before we get moving.”

“I like that plan,” Najia said.

Before long, they were sitting by the warmth of the fire and finishing another bag of pretzels for dinner with a side of Twinkies. Najia stretched out on the ground, her headache just starting to fade.

“Drugs working yet?” Shane asked.

Najia nodded and closed her eyes. “Starting to.” She sighed.

“Don’t fall asleep on me,” Shane warned. “I’ll leave you here.”

Najia nodded. “Mhm. Okay. Just a few minutes and I’ll be good.”

14: 5
5

Shane could feel his eyes getting heavy as he stared into the fire. He was anxious to get moving, but he knew Najia would be useless until she was feeling better, and he needed her to get the car hot wired. Or, at least awake enough to show him how to do it himself.

He tried to let her rest as long as he could, but he has guessed it had been close to an hour already, and he wasn’t about to wait any longer. But it was then when he heard the all too familiar hiss of the Shadow People.

Shane’s fingers wrapped around the grip of the gun, ready at his side. He peered into the darkness, but even the light of the dying flames wouldn’t reveal the Shadow People that were lurking.

He crawled over to Najia, his gun in one hand, as he let his other hand caress her shoulder softly.

“Don’t move,” he whispered as she moved under his hand.

Najia held her breath, staring into the darkness, waiting, as Shane stood and stepped over her, blocking her from their predators.

Shane lifted his gun as the shadowy shapes slowly came into sight, circling around them, just outside the light of the fire. Najia stood, her gun in her hand, back to back with Shane as the creatures moved in.

“Looks like we sobered up too soon,” Najia muttered.

The low growl of an engine split the silence, growing quickly louder and louder, until headlights shown from over the hill. A Hummer flew over the crest of the hill, it’s headlights scattering the Shadow People, their agonizing screams drowning out the loud engine. The vehicle skidded around, coming to a stop, as a bearded man with an eye patch and a sword jumped out.

“It’s play time, Gil!” he yelled, a grin splitting his face.

“Does that man have a sword?” Najia muttered from behind Shane’s shoulder.

They watched, stunned, as the man called Gil stood out of the moon roof, rifle snug in the crest between his arm and chest.

“Leave me a few, Marlon, would ya?” Gil shouted as he cocked the weapon.

Shrieks erupted from the Shadow People as the two men began their attacks. Marlon disappeared into the darkness, swinging his sword at the creatures and pushing them closer to the headlights. As the creatures came into view, Gil took aim and fired, hitting them perfectly, one by one while Marlon battled the others. He swung his sword with precise ease and the creatures dropped around him until finally, their world was silent once more.

Gil jumped down from the roof of the hummer, throwing the rifle over his shoulder where it hung on his back. Marlon returned his sword to its sheath at his waist as Gil approached him.

“Thanks for letting me play this time ‘round,” Gil said.

“Well, I hate to have all the fun,” Marlon said. “And I know how you hate to lose to a guy with a sword.”

Gil tipped an imaginary hat towards Najia. “Miss,” he said in greeting. “We’re right surprised to see some more survivors ‘sides us.”

Marlon eyed the hand guns they carried and smiled. “I hope we didn’t take the fun away from ya.”

Najia pocketed her gun, but she felt Shane stiffen at her side. He kept his gun in hand, lowering it just slightly.

“Put it away, Son,” Gil said. “Why would we want to hurt you?”

Shane pinched his lips together, narrowing his eyes at them.

“He’s an unnecessarily suspicious person,” Najia said, stepping forward. “He probably would have killed me, too, if I didn’t have a vehicle.”

“Using a lady for her car,” Marlon said. “Classy.”

Najia smirked at Shane. “I’m Najia,” she said to the two men. “That’s Shane.”

“Well, it is a damn pleasure to see another human,” Marlon said. “I’m Marlon, and this is Gil.”

Gil nodded toward them.

“Where you guys from?” Najia asked.

“Up north of the city,” Gil said. “You know, until we were attacked.”

“They really don’t leave any stone unturned,” Marlon said. “We were way out in the middle of no where before we had to leave.”

“Where you headed?”

The two men exchanged a glance.

“No where, really,” Gil said. “Figuring we were the only folks left, we thought we’d do everything we could to take these guys down until they got us first.”

“What about you two?” Marlon asked.

Shane remained silent, so Najia continued. “We’re heading to the coast. Hoping to find some friends that we were separated from.”

“More survivors?” Gil said. “I’ll be damned.”

“It seems like you both have a good handle on things,” Marlon said.

“We do,” Shane said suddenly.

Najia narrowed her eyes at him. “Yes,” she said slowly. “I thought so, too.” She turned back to Marlon and Gil. “But I wouldn’t be opposed to having a couple more hands on our side.”

“Well, four is definitely better than two, and we wouldn’t want to leave any survivors behind.”

“Good,” Najia said. “Then it’s settled. You’re coming with us?”

Gil shrugged. “Seems a good a plan as any.”

“Great,” Shane muttered. “We should get moving.” He brushed passed Najia and towards the car. He waited at the door, his arms crossed.

Najia smiled at the two men before making her way to the car. “Come on,” she muttered to Shane. “I’ll show you how to do it.”

“Fine,” Shane said. “It will be good to know when I leave your ass on the side of the road.”

“Rude.”

“We don’t need to be hanging around with them,” Shane hissed.

“What is your problem?” Najia barked at him. “We’re not the only damn people out here. Why can’t you be happy about that? There’s hope!”

“I don’t trust them.”

“You don’t trust them?” Najia repeated. “Them? Two human beings? In this world, where we are being attacked by Shadow People, you don’t trust them? Do you hear yourself?”

“Are you done?”

“Are you?”

Shane sighed, exasperated.

“We’re all we have left in this world,” Najia reminded him. “If we can find any survivors, why would we give up on that? You wouldn’t leave Jas behind.”

“That’s different,” Shane hissed.

“We could use all the help we can get,” Najia said. “We’re in a war. If we have a chance to fight back, I’m doing it.”

“Just show me how to hot wire the damn car,” Shane muttered.

After a few attempts, Shane managed to get the car running. He slid into the driver’s seat, waited until Najia closed the door, and peeled out into the road where Marlon and Gil waited.

“After you,” Gil called from out the window.

Shane watched in the rear view mirror as the Hummer moved forward, close behind them, and followed them into the darkness. He glanced at Najia who’s attention was focused outside her window, leaning back in her seat quietly.

“So,” Shane said after a moment of silence. “What else is there for music?”

Najia turned to him, studying the blank expression on his face as he focused on the road ahead. She grabbed the CDs from the compartment and flipped through them.

“A couple of mixes,” she said. “Some country. Ugh, Eminem.” She continued to flip through. “Rusted Root.”

“That one.”

Najia looked at him skeptically. “Rusted Root?”

Shane met her gaze. “What?”

“You like Rusted Root?”

Shane shrugged and looked back out towards the road. “You know, that one song.”

Najia smiled as she put the disk in and the music started.

“I’ve always wondered what they were saying,” she said as she listened to the voices.

“I would like to reach out my hand,” Shane sang along with the music. “I may see you, I may tell you to run.”

“I don’t know what’s worse; you’re singing, or the fact that you know the lyrics.”

Shane met her gaze and smiled. “You know what they say about the young.”

Najia waited for the chorus and then joined in.

15: 6
6

Shane drove through the night while Najia slept, stopping briefly for the four of them to eat. Gil and Marlon set up a fire and brewed coffee over the flames, which Najia waited for eagerly. Marlon filled a mug and handed it to her.

“Oh my Yoba,” she said, taking the mug in her hands. “I can’t remember the last time I had coffee.”

Marlon leaned back in his wood chair, pressed his mug to his lips and smiled. “Can’t go without coffee, even if it’s the end of the world.”

“We have out priorities straight,” Gil said with a smirk.

“Can’t slay those beasts without a cup in me.”

A distant sound caught Shane’s attention. He stood and peered up at the sky.

“What’s up, Lassie?” Gil joked to him, but Shane shushed him immediately. The four of them strained to listen for any sound. After a moment, they heard it. An engine. But no ordinary engine.

“Is that a plane?” Najia said, her voice barely a whisper as she held her breath.

“Oh, Yoba, don’t tell me they fly now,” Marlon muttered.

Their eyes caught the blinking lights of the plan in the distance. It was moving quickly and getting lower. As it neared, the engine grew louder and louder until after a few minutes, it flew over them loudly.

“It’s landing,” Gil muttered.

“Shadow People?” Najia asked, panicked.

“Let’s get it,” Marlon said, swinging his sword around his hip.

Gil jumped up and followed suit, grabbing his rifle and running towards the Hummer. “You two coming?”

Najia met Shane’s gaze. “I don’t want to be here alone and find out they have back up,” she said and followed Marlon and Gil, climbing into the Hummer behind them. Shane pulled the gun out of his back pocket and followed suit.

Gil slammed on the accelerator, following the plane as it got lower and lower down the stretch of high way until its wheels touched down. Gil slowed and they watched, stunned, as the plane turned off the high way and into the desert before coming to a stop. They stopped and watched the still plane until its engine died out. The cockpit door lifted up and a human head popped out, staring at them.

“Human,” Marlon said quietly, and then louder, “Human!”

The four of them jumped out of the vehicle, their hands in the air, weapons at their feet as the pilot jumped out of the plane and hurried towards them.

“I can’t believe this,” he said as he neared them. “You’re real? You’re human?”

“About as human as you are, I’d say,” Gil said. He took the man’s hand in his and shook it enthusiastically.

“Nice plane you got there,” Marlon said.

The man looked over his shoulder and laughed quickly. “Not mine. Stole it. Unfortunately, there’s not much fuel in it.” He paused and looked them over and smiled. “Or perhaps fortunately, since I wouldn’t have been looking for a place to land and have found you. I’m Harvey.” He looked to Najia and smiled.

“Well, Harvey, I’m Marlon. This is my good friend Gil, and that’s Najia and Shane. We just came across them yesterday.”

“Amazing,” Harvey said. “In this hell hole, I never would have thought I’d bump into any survivors.”

Marlon put his hand on Harvey’s shoulder. “You just interrupted out breakfast. Would you like some hot coffee?”

Harvey practically melted. “I would so love that.”

“Please,” Marlon said. The five survivors climbed into the large Hummer and made the short drive back to their camp where the fire was still burning strong. They settled in around it’s warmth and protective light as coffee was served and passed around.

“So,” Harvey began after a few sips of coffee. “What are your stories?”

“Marlon and I worked together up north of the city,” Gil said. “Middle of the no where, really. It’s amazing those bastards even found us.”

“What did you do?”

“I used to work in the mines,” Marlon said, pointing to his eye patch. “That’s how I got this beaute. After a while, it was too much for me, so I moved away and started working with Gil.”

“We traveled around doing pest control,” Gil said. “You know, your slimes, golems, that sorta thing.”

“Slimes?” Najia repeated.

“Golems?” Harvey said.

“The things you city folk don’t hafta worry ‘bout, thanks to us,” Marlon said with a wink.

“And I thought the Shadow People were our biggest concerns.”

“They are,” Gil said casually, stirring his coffee. “For now.”

“Oh.” Harvey cleared his throat and sipped his coffee.

“What about you, Mr. Pilot? Is that what you did before all this?” Gil asked.

Harvey shook his head. “No, actually, I was a doctor. A surgeon.”

Marlon and Gil exchanged excited glances.

“Well, I’ll be,” Gil said. “What are the chances we get a doctor on our team?”

“We gotta protect this one,” Marlon said. “He’ll be useful.”

“Yes, well,” Harvey hesitated. “I’ve never exactly had to work in the field.”

“Ah, I’m sure you’ll be fine.”

“But we’ll try not to lose any more eyes,” Marlon said.

“That’s very considerate,” Harvey said cautiously. “I don’t exactly have supplies with me, anyway.” He turned to Najia and smiled again. “What about you?”

“Oh, we’re not very exciting,” Najia said quickly. “I bumped into Shane a few days ago. Shane doesn’t do backstory.” She turned to him and smiled. Shane rolled his eyes.

“Ah,” Harvey said with a nod. “Where were you heading?”

Najia shrugged. “The coast. I had a feeling my grandfather might be there.”

“Well,” Harvey began. “At least you have a plan. I wish I had thought my plan through a little better. I left the city and high tailed it for the airport. When I found it deserted, it seemed like a decent idea to hijack one of the planes. Once I got into the sky, I had to clue what to do from there.” He paused and shrugged. “Never been very good under pressure.”

“You’re a doctor,” Shane said.

Harvey smiled. “Well, I’m used to being under medical pressures and saving lives. Never exactly had to run for my life before.”

“Well, we sure have,” Marlon said, getting to his feet. “And I suggest we get a move on shortly. These kids are headin’ to the coast, so we figured we’d head there, too. You tagging along, Doc?”

Harvey finished his coffee and nodded. “Well, I sure as hell don’t want to be alone out here.”

“You never know if we find any more survivors,” Gil said. “And one o’ them’s needin’ your help.”

“I’ll do everything I can to be useful.” Harvey hesitated. “But please don’t make me fight those things.”

“Then it’s settled,” Marlon said. “I’m assuming you won’t be takin’ that plane, so you can hop on in with us.”

They packed up quickly and readied themselves for another long drive. Najia closed the trunk of the car as Harvey approached her carefully.

“Najia, right?” he said to her.

Najia smiled and nodded.

Harvey hesitated. “Are you… okay?”

Najia knit her brows together. “Yes,” she said slowly.

Harvey’s eyes darted around and he leaned in. “I mean, are you really okay? These men… they’re not… you’re not…”

Najia’s eyes widened. “Oh, no, no,” she said quickly. “No. Gosh, no.” She shook her head. “I am totally here on my own will. No kidnapping, nothing bad at all.”

Harvey straightened. “Okay, good. I just wanted to make sure. I mean, you never know who the real enemy is around here.” He hesitated. “And you never know what kind of person someone really is. End of the world, pretty girl like you… I mean, you know.”

Najia smiled. “No, it’s fine. I’m fine. They’re good people.”

“Good.”

Harvey paused as Shane approached. Shane held his gaze on Harvey as he opened the car door and slid in to the passenger seat.

“Can I tell you something?” Harvey said, turning to Najia. “That Shane kind of freaks me out.”

Najia laughed. “He’ll warm up to you eventually. He’s a stubborn grump that doesn’t exactly like change. Hell, he only joined up with me because I had a car and he didn’t.”

“He seems pretty protective of you.”

“What?” Najia raised an eyebrow. “No way. I’m pretty sure he hates me. Tolerates me only for the car.”

Harvey smiled. “Well, you let me know if he tries anything. I’ll kick his ass.” He paused. “And then, you know, fix him up, because that’s what I do.” He shrugged. “I’m a lover, not a fighter.”

“Let’s go, Doc Man!” Marlon called from the Hummer.

Najia smiled her goodbye to Harvey before sliding into the driver’s seat.

“That old doctor guy wants your shit,” Shane muttered.

Najia hesitated, her hand on the shifter. She turned to Shane, but he peered out the window at the Hummer in front of them. They started to move and Najia put the car into gear.

“No,” she said. “He was just making sure you guys weren’t taking advantage of a pretty girl like me.”

Shane scoffed but said nothing.

“You sure are pretty,” Najia said in a mocking voice.

Shane turned to her and met her gaze. “You two need a minute alone?”

Najia rolled her eyes. “I am the last woman left, you know.”

“As far as you know,” Shane said, turning back to look out the window.

“And as far as you know, I could be it.”

“Wait,” Shane turned to her again. “Are you upset that we haven’t jumped your bones?”

Najia shrugged. “I mean, you’re kinda stuck with me if we want to repopulate.”

“Repopulate?”

“Well, we can’t just let the human race die out.”

Shane laughed and turned away again. “Yes, we can.”

“I wouldn’t want to repopulate with you, anyway,” Najia muttered.

“Good,” Shane said simply, crossing his arms.

“Good.” Najia shifted uncomfortably and cleared her throat. “You’re weird.”

“You’re weird,” Shane said.

“Good.”

“Good.”

“Well,” Najia said. “Now that that’s settled. Pick a CD.”

Shane smiled to himself and fished through the glove compartment. He flipped through the disks and pulled one out. “T. Swift?”

16: 7
7

“Michael Cera was not in Zombieland!” Shane yelled at Najia.

“Yes he was!” Najia yelled back.

“That’s the guy in Juno,” he said. “You’re thinking of Jesse Eisenberg.”

“No,” Najia said stubbornly. “He was in both.”

“No he wasn’t!”

“Yes he was!”

Shane groaned loudly. They had been driving non-stop for the last two days and he was growing irritated with her. “Why you gotta be so stubborn, woman.”

Najia burst into tears. Shane jumped up in his seat and stared at her in disbelief.

“What the hell?”

“I can’t even look it up on my phone!” Najia cried.

“Seriously?”

Najia sobbed and let her head rest on the steering wheel. “Do you know how long it’s been?”

“Huh?”

“I need a god damn tampon,” Najia yelled. She slammed on the breaks and sobbed.

Shane pushed himself as far as he could get into the door. “That’s way too much information.”

“And drugs,” Najia muttered, leaning back in her seat. “And chocolate. And god damn internet so I can prove to you that you’re wrong!”

Shane pushed the door open quickly and stumbled out. The Hummer pulled up behind them and Gil leaned out his window.

“Everything okay?” he called to Shane.

Shane turned and shielded his eyes from their headlights. “No!”

“What’s wrong?”

Shane hesitated. “The problem is, I’m stuck in the only car with the woman driver.”

“Aw, Shane,” Marlon said, leaning out of the window. “She ain’t that bad. She can hot wire a car for cris’sake.”

“The woman thinks Jesse Eisenberg is Michael Cera!”

Marlon and Gil stared at him blankly. They both turned as Harvey uttered something from the back seat and they burst into laughter.

“This isn’t funny,” Shane hissed. “Tell Harvey to get out here.”

“What do you want with him?” Gil asked.

“He’s a doctor.”

Harvey leaned out his back window. “Is she okay?”

“Let’s just say, she’s definitely not pregnant.”

Harvey stared at him for a moment. “That’s good to know.”

“She needs a tampon!” Shane yelled.

Marlon and Gil slunk back into the car.

Harvey blushed. “Oh.” He hesitated. “Can’t help her there.”

Shane groaned and leaned against the trunk as Najia stumbled out of the car, clutching at her side.

“Move, dumbass,” she muttered as she made her way to the back side of the car. She pushed Shane away and popped the trunk open, muttering to herself. “Of all the people… all damned men… where are the women… can’t do nothing…” She fished through bags, pulling out the Advil and dug deeper still. “Yes,” she sung as she found what she was looking for. She held the tampon in the air in victory.

“Oh, hell,” Shane said, turning away.

“I might have just a couple left,” Najia said. “We need to stop soon for supplies.”

“That’s not my problem,” he said as he slammed the car door shut with him inside.

Najia looked around her quickly before hurrying into the darkness. After a few minutes, she returned to the car and made her way to the driver’s side where Shane was sitting. He crossed his arms and shook his head at her. Najia sighed and made her way around the car, sliding in beside him.

“Better?” he asked, stepping on the gas.

“Yes, much.” Najia settled into her seat. “Now, where were we?”

“We were talking about why I damned to be stuck in a car with you.”

“No, no,” she said, shaking her head. “I was about to tell you how wrong you - SHANE!”

Shane slammed on the breaks as a dog bolted out into the road. They stared at the dog who stood in the glow of their head lights, barking loudly.

“What the hell?”

“Dog!” Najia fidgeted with the door handle and hurried out of the car.

“Najia! Stop!” Shane followed quickly, pulling at her hand. “It could be rabid.”

Najia pulled her hand out of his grasp. “It’s a dog, Shane. It’s not rabid.”

The dog continued barking at them, but Najia did not move toward the dog, suddenly cautious.

“Get in the car,” Shane hissed at her.

“He needs help,” Najia said, turning to him.

“Leave the damn dog alone,” Shane growled.

Marlon, Gil, and Harvey stood at their side, watching the barking dog uneasily. The dog spun around, barked once more, and turned and ran off the road. After a moment, the dog returned, barking some more and hurrying to the edge of road, waiting for them.

“Maybe we should follow it,” Gil said. “Dogs are pretty smart, yanno.”

“C’mon,” Marlon said, his hand on the butt on his sword. “Let’s see what he’s got for us.”

Marlon and Gil moved into the darkness and the dog took off. Najia followed immediately. Shane groaned and he and Harvey followed suit, bringing up the rear.

They followed the dog for almost an hour into the desert before the dog finally stopped by an overhang of rocks. Marlon approached carefully, shining his flashlight in the darkness. His light showed them the body of a man likely in his early twenties. The figure groaned.

“Looks like you’re up, Harvs,” Marlon called over his shoulder.

Harvey hurried to Marlon’s side and followed his gaze. He got to his knees and inspected the body carefully.

“Something beat the shit outta this kid,” Gil said.

“I don’t know what to do for him,” Harvey said, feeling helpless. “He’s beat up pretty good. Needs drugs. Maybe some broken bones. Head trauma. I can’t be sure.”

The dog barked loudly at Harvey jumped.

“We can’t just leave him out here,” Najia said.

“We don’t need anyone slowing us down,” Shane reminded her.

“I can’t leave him here,” Harvey muttered.

“All right, all right,” Gil said, stepping forward. He sat by the man and cradled his rifle in his lap. “Go get the car. I’ll stay here with Doc.”

Harvey pinched his lips together, hesitant, but nodded.

“Sounds like a plan,” Marlon said with approval. “Let’s move.”

Shane and Najia followed Marlon through the desert quickly until they reached the cars, still purring in the middle of the road. Shane took the wheel and followed Marlon in the Hummer back through the desert until they reached Harvey and Gil. Harvey quickly began barking orders as the familiar feeling of being in the hospital environment washed over him.

“I need water. Clean, bottled water. Towels, clothing, some kind of cloth. Najia, get me those advil. He’s gonna need a lot.”

They worked quickly, getting the supplies Harvey requested. Marlon and Gil stood above him with their flashlights, giving him as much light as they could as Harvey began cleaning and bandaging the wounds.

“Really need some stitches here,” Harvey muttered to himself.

“Next supply stop, we’ll find what we can,” Marlon assured him.

The man groaned quietly as Harvey worked over him. When he finished, he poured water over his face and into his mouth until he came to. Harvey leaned back on his heels, pleased with himself.

The young man’s eyes squinted in the light and darted between the faces peering down at him. “What happened?”

“Tha’s a good question,” Gil muttered. “Ya dog brought us out here and we found ya. Yer lucky we’ve got a doctor here.”

“Wasn’t as bad as I thought,” Harvey said, looking over his work once more. “You’ll need to rest, though. Think you got yourself a pretty good concussion.”

He groaned again and rubbed his temples. “I was attacked by those things,” he muttered. “Came outta no where.”

“They do that,” Marlon said. “Let’s get you out of here before they track you down.”

Marlon and Gil lifted him into the back of the Hummer as Harvey slid in next to him.

“What’s our name, Son?” Marlon asked.

“Alex,” he said. “Don’t leave Dusty behind.”

17: 8
8

“That’s a good boy, Dusty,” Najia cooed to the dog who was crammed in the back seat. His tongue lolled out happily and his ears flapped in the wind as he leaned his head out the window.

“It smells,” Shane muttered.

Najia turned back around in her seat and shot a glare at him. “You smell, too.”

“Yeah, well, so do you.”

Najia crossed her arms. “He’s a good dog,” she said. “Dogs make excellent companions.”

“You mean, I could have stopped at the pet store instead of being stuck with you?”

“I guess,” Najia said with a shrug. “But at least I talk.”

“Yeah,” Shane muttered. “The dog wouldn’t argue with me about actors or talk about tampons.”

Najia sighed. “I guess we’re doomed to never find out who’s right.”

“It’s me,” Shane said. “I’m right.”

Najia rolled her eyes. They had made it back onto the interstate and were heading to the nearest store they could find. Despite Shane’s objections, they had planned to take the next exit they could, bringing them into the closest town for them to raid.

Shane shifted uneasily as the exit neared. He preferred to stay away from any civilized area where the Shadow People could have inhabited. Marlon and Gil were not unreasonable; Shane had a point, after all. But their supplies were low, and Harvey was anxious to get his hands on anything he could use for medical equipment.

They pulled off the interstate and made their way around the exit and into the next deserted city. They stopped first at a large department store, pulling right up to the front doors, which had already been busted open.

“More survivors?” Gil eyed the broken glass carefully.

“Either that,” Marlon started, “or those shadow bastards really wanted in.”

A chill went up Najia’s spine as they inspected the rubble.

“Well,” Gil said, his hand on his rifle. “Let’s get to work before we find out.”

Najia and Shane followed Gil in, Harvey in tow as Marlon waited outside with the vehicles.

The store was in shambles. It was clear that a battle had taken place. Shelvings were broken and carts were over turned. Products were scattered over the floor. But, for the most part, they were relative to their appropriate aisles, making their search a little easier.

Gil moved into the store first, stepping over a body as he did so. Najia, Shane, and Harvey stared at the body on the ground, covered in dust, broken pieces of wood, and torn bits of clothing.

“Oh,” Najia said quietly.

“You better get used to it,” Gil called over his shoulder. “This won’t be the last time you see something like this.”

Harvey swallowed, closed his eyes, and stepped quickly over the body. Shane turned to Najia, his eyes soft.

“You should stay outside,” he said quietly.

Najia hesitated. “But... I need stuff...”

“I’ll get everything, okay?”

Najia shook her head. “You don’t know what to get.”

“Tampons?”

Najia smiled sheepishly. “You don’t have to do that.”

Shane rolled his eyes. “Just wait outside.” He held his breath as he stepped over the body, wincing slightly, and hurried forward to catch up with Harvey and Gil.

Najia pinched her lips and turned away from the sight, making her way back outside. Marlon leaned against the Hummer, whistling to himself. He smiled at her when she approached.

“What’s up, Buttercup?”

“There’s, uh, bodies in there.”

“Ah,” Marlon said. He patted the hood of the vehicle and Najia leaned against it beside him.

“Marlon,” Najia began. “Do slimes really exist?”

Marlon met her gaze. “Well, yes. But never in populated cities.”

Najia looked at her feet. “So, they could be around here?”

“Yes, I s’pose so. But they’re not nearly as bad as the Shadow People.”

“Do you think they’re working with the Shadow People?”

“Well, that’s certainly a possibility. But I wouldn’t worry about it. We haven’t seen any, right?”

“Not yet,” Najia muttered.

“You’re awfully afraid of some little green jellies for someone who’s shot at those shadow creatures.”

Najia shrugged. “To be completely honest, I’m terrified of the Shadow People. I shoot when I have to, but I’d much rather run and hide. How do you think I got this far?”

Marlon smiled at her. “I don’t think you give yourself enough credit.”

“The adrenaline helps.”

Marlon nodded. “That it does.”

Dusty whimpered from the back seat and Marlon and Najia peered inside. Alex was sitting up, leaning his head back. He eyed them carefully as they approached.

“How ya feelin’, kid?”

“I’ve had better days,” he said.

“We’ll be able to rest up once we get our supplies and get back on the interstate,” Marlon said to him.

Najia scratched Dusty behind the ears. The dog leaned into her and sighed.

“That’s a good boy,” she cooed to the dog.

“I know that guy isn’t a vet,” Alex started, “but do you think he could look over Dusty? He’s been through hell and back with me. I want to make sure he’s okay.”

“I’m sure he could do that,” Marlon said. “You’ve got a pretty good dog, there.”

“I didn’t think there were any other humans left,” Alex said.

“We keep thinking that, and then we run into more survivors,” Marlon said. “Gil and I were on our own for a while until we found Najia here, and Shane.”

Alex looked to Najia and smiled. “That guy your boy friend or somethin’?”

“Yoba, no,” Najia said quickly. “He’s just some ass I bumped into.”

“Usin’ her for her car,” Marlon said with a smirk.

Najia shrugged and returned his smile.

After a few more minutes passed, Harvey, Gil, and Shane made their way out of the dark store. Plastic bags hung on Harvey’s arms as he trotted eagerly up to them, practically glowing from his finds.

“This is great,” he said quickly. “Needles, thread, alcohol, bandages, splints. Only thing that would be better is if I had my needles and IV.” He sighed. “But I can make do with this. Better than nothing.”

Shane made his way to them and shoved a plastic bag into Najia’s arms. “Here,” he said simply.

“Thanks,” she mumbled, avoiding his gaze.

“Oh,” Shane said, turning back to her. He fished through his pockets and pulled out two chocolate bars. He shrugged as he handed them to her. “Hopefully they’re not too stale.”

Najia’s eyes lit up as she immediately tore the wrapper off one of the bars. She took a bite and sighed. It was better than she remembered it.

“Thank you,” she said between bites, meeting his gaze.

“Okay,” he said and made his way back to the car.

Najia rolled his eyes as she finished the bar, licking what was left on her fingers.

“Let’s get out of here,” Harvey muttered. “This place gives me the creeps. You know, more than the rest of this dark, damned world does.”

Najia got into the car beside Shane who was waiting behind the wheel. He followed the Hummer out of the parking lot, through the little city, and back onto the interstate where he finally relaxed.

Najia hummed “On the Road Again” to herself as they drove. It would be a while before they would stop again, so she settled into the comfort of the seat, stretched out her legs, and sighed.

18: 9
9

It was late when they finally stopped. Najia’s stomach had been growling for hours. She got out of the car eagerly and stretched her arms as far as she could above her head. They worked quickly building a fire, then settled in as they waited for their cans of soups to boil in their brand new pots.

Alex was in much better shape at that point, and Dusty lay loyally across his master’s lap, enjoying the warmth of the fire before him. Najia sat beside them and scratched the dog’s ear.

“How long have you had him?” she asked Alex.

“Eight years.”

“I always wanted a dog,” she said. “It’s nice that he’s here with you, through all this.”

Alex shrugged. “We’ve been through a lot together,” he said softly.

Najia met his gaze and smiled. “Are you looking for anyone?”

Alex shook his head. “My parents are both dead.”

“Oh.” Najia shifted uncomfortably. “I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be.”

She hesitated. “Oh. Okay.” Najia cleared her throat. “So, what have you been doing?”

Alex shrugged again. “Not much of anything,” he said. “Thought I could take these bastards all on myself. Figured I was the only one left and that I could at least go down fighting.”

“Well,” Najia started. “Now you have us.”

Alex met her gaze but did not return her smile. “I guess so.”

Najia turned to the fire. “I just hope that if we run into any more people, they’re female.”

Shane snorted from across the fire. Najia narrowed her eyes at him.

“I’m way out numbered over here,” she said. “You guys are great and all, but you just don’t understand women.”

“And I’ll never try to,” Gil said, raising his flask in the air.

The wind picked up around them, slowly at first and then getting stronger, blowing their hair around their faces as they continued to eat and drink.

“Storm’s comin’ in,” Marlon muttered.

Gil nodded. “Don’t wanna be caught in one of them dust storms,” he said. “We best get packin’ up and spend the night in the cars.”

“Good ‘scuse to get some sleep,” Marlon said with a yawn.

Gil stood. “Yessir. Who’s bunkin’ with us? Lot’s’a room in the Hummer.”

“Doc and Alex with us,” Marlon said, pointing to the Hummer behind him with a thumb. “Yanno, in case the kid’s got some brain damage in that thick head’a his.”

Alex rolled his eyes. “Great,” he muttered. “Sausage sleep over.”

“You mean I’m gonna miss out on the pillow fight?” Shane teased him.

“Why can’t I bunk with Najia?” Alex whined. “I don’t wanna be stuck with the old guys.”

“Ouch,” Harvey muttered, getting to his feet.

“Yeah,” Shane spat. “That’s why you wanna bunk with Najia.”

“What’s that supposed to mean, asshole?”

“Oh my Yoba,” Najia groaned. “You’re both manly men, now take the testosterone down a few notches.”

“Well, since we’re all actin’ like a bunch of children,” Marlon grumbled. “The old guys are callin’ the shots here. Najia gets the car to herself.”

Najia smiled and got to her feet. “That’s more like it.”

“Najia can’t be alone,” Shane protested. “What if something happens?”

“What? She gets a little sand on her car?” Gil smirked.

“All right,” Marlon warned. “Gil, you’re with Najia.”

Shane started to protest, but Marlon cut him off.

“Poor girl needs a break from you kids.”

Gil bowed and held his hand out to Najia. “M’lady,” he began. “May I escort you to your quarters?”

Najia smiled and shot a teasing glance at Shane, his arms crossed stubbornly across his chest.

Gil climbed into the driver’s side as Najia stretched out in the backseat, fluffing a pillow she grabbed from the trunk.

“If I start snorin’,” Gil said, settling in. “Jest gimme a kick. Marlon complains all the time ‘bout my snorin’.”

“You got it,” Najia said with a yawn. She stared into the darkness for a moment before shutting her eyes. Not a moment after she did so, there was a knock on the window.

Gil groaned as he pushed the door open. “What, dammit?”

“Marlon kicked me out,” Shane’s voice said in the darkness as the wind howled.

“Fine, fine,” Gil said, closing the door. After a few seconds, the passenger door opened and Shane slid in with a sigh.

“You don’t get to kick me if I snore,” Gil said before turning over onto his side.

Shane pushed the seat back and turned away from Gil, facing his window and crossed his arms.

Najia listened in the darkness until Gil started to snore lightly. The wind grew louder still and before long, it drowned out the sound of Gil’s snoring. The sand picked up and blew violently around them. Najia sighed and adjusted her position. She almost preferred to be sleeping on the ground.

“Go to sleep,” Shane whispered.

“I am.”

“Hmp.”

Najia listened to their breaths in the front seats. “Why don’t you like Alex?”

“Because he’s an arrogant ass.”

“You’re an arrogant ass,” Najia pointed out.

“Nah, just an ass.”

“Do you think we’ll find more survivors?”

Shane didn’t answer.

Najia shifted again. “I’d like to think so,” she muttered.

She heard Shane move in front of her. He rolled over and peered at her, just making the outline of her body in the darkness.

“Maybe,” he said.

“Maybe?” Najia echoed.

Shane shrugged. “If you want to think so, then sure.”

“Oh.”

It was quiet for another moment. Najia held her breath, waiting for Shane to say something more. When he said nothing, she turned over on to her side.

“I never did thank you,” Shane’s voice said from behind her.

“For?”

“For giving me the car.”

“I didn’t give you the car.”

“Yes you did.”

She turned back around. “I don’t think so.”

“I know so. You were so desperate for my company that you gave me the car so I’d stick around.”

“That is not how it went down.”

“Yes it is.”

“Then why didn’t you just take the car and leave, Mr. Loner?”

Shane was quiet for a moment. “You probably would have hunted me down,” he finally said. “You’re stubborn like that.”

“I think you like my company,” Najia said. “You’re just too stubborn to admit it.”

“I’m still trying to figure out what exactly makes you good company,” he said. “So far, I got bad singing, clueless on actors, bad song taste, plus you make my dig tampons out of abandoned department stores.”

“And yet here you are.”

Shane shifted, turning back around. “Like I said, you’d find a way to hunt me down. I can’t escape you. I’m your prisoner.”

“I torture my prisoners before I kill them.”

“Sounds about right. I’m already praying for death.”

“Is this how kids flirt nowadays?” Gil muttered.

“No one’s flirting,” Shane shot at him.

“Then for crissake, shut up!”

Shane huffed an angry sigh and turned back toward his window, arms crossed once more.

19: 10
10

“Sleep well?” Alex asked Najia over their morning’s coffee. The sand storm had dissipated over night and they had gathered around their little fire pit once more before heading out on the road again.

“Like a baby,” Shane said with a false sense of cheerfulness as he sat across from them with coffee in hand.

“Wasn’t asking you,” Alex said snidely.

“Rude.”

“I slept well, too,” Gil chimed in sarcastically. “Thanks to those two.”

“Sorry, Gil,” Shane said. “I guess we were a little too loud.” He shot a glance toward Alex and smiled.

“Seriously?” Najia muttered.

“It sounds like someone’s neediness kept you up, Najia,” Alex said, his gaze on Shane’s. He turned to her, his eyes softer. “Next time you can bunk with me.”

Najia stood abruptly and stormed away from the fire towards the car.

“Oh, good,” Shane said. “You pissed her off. Real good with the ladies, aren’t ya?”

“Some ego from a dirtbag like you,” Alex said.

Shane stood. “That ego of yours is so big, that giant fucking head of yours has its own orbit.”

“Well,” Alex started. “I’m Shane. I’m brighter than the sun. The fucking universe revolves around me.”

The engine to the car started and the head lights flicked on. The five men turned toward the car and watched as it sped down the high way.

Marlon stood, his hands in his pockets, and sighed. “Good job, you fuckin’ dweebs,” he hissed at them. “Neither of you know how to properly woo a lady.” He turned toward the road, pointing. “Look at that. There she goes. The last women left and you drove her away.” He nodded to himself approvingly. “Good for her. Wastin’ her time with the lot of you shitheads.”

“For the record,” Harvey spoke up. “I think she liked me.”

“Shut it, Harvey,” Alex spat.

“That’s enough,” Gil growled. “Both of you.”

Shane moved toward the Hummer, but Marlon’s hand was tight on his arm.

“I don’t think so, cowboy,” Marlon muttered.

“We can’t just let her leave,” Shane said. “She can’t be alone out there.”

“She was alone for a long time before she had the unfortunate luck of bumping into you. I think she’ll manage.”

“You’ve got to be kidding me.” Shane pulled his arm out of Marlon’s grip.

“I’m the one with the keys, boy. What I say, goes.”

Shane smiled. “Fortunately you don’t need keys to start an engine.”

Gil’s rifle cocked from behind him. Marlon smiled at Shane.

“You better watch yourself, son. The world could use one less survivor.” Marlon stretched his arms and cracked his knuckles. “Now, how about we clean up here and get a move on?”

*****

Najia fumed to herself as she sped down the highway. How dare they treat her like some piece of meat? She knew Shane was an ass, but she never expected him to act that way. But then again, maybe she was being stupid for trusting a guy she had only known for a couple of weeks. She cursed under her breath. Stupid. Stupid, trusting, Najia. Always trying to find the best in people. Always trying to look at the bright side of the darkest situation. Shane was right; she was being stupid. She couldn’t trust any of them. She had no reason to. Any of them could have turned around and taken advantage of her. Hell, they had been alone for so long, it was a surprise no one had done that already. It was a good thing she left when she did. A good thing she had the courage to be on her own again. Alone. Out in the big, dark world, with enemies lurking in the shadows, alone.

Najia swallowed and looked back in the rear view mirror. Was it too late to turn around? What if they were gone? What if she lost them? What if they were the only survivors left, and she’d never see them again? Cursed to spend the rest of her life in this dark, cruel world, alone. Cursed to die, scared and alone.

She bit her lip and looked forward once more. No, she didn’t need them. She had gotten so far without them; without anyone. She could do it again.

But she had a taste. A taste of companionship. A being to talk to; to laugh with. Even if it was kind of an ass. She couldn’t imagine going on without that again.

But it was as if Yoba heard her fears and granted her one wish. Her headlights flashed over the body of a car on the side of the road, and there was a light flashing in her face, as if someone were trying to flag her down.

Her heart raced as she neared the car and pulled up beside it. She opened the window and peered into the darkness.

“Oh my Yoba,” a voice said. “Another person.”

Najia fumbled for her flashlight and shown it on the two women in the car. Their light swept over her face. She smiled to them.

“I can’t believe we found someone,” the other voice - a girl with purple hair - said.

“She doesn’t seem as excited to see us.”

“You’re not exactly the first people I’ve come across,” Najia said.

Their eyes widened. “There’s more?” the driver said.

Najia nodded.

“Where?”

She hesitated. “I kind of ditched them,” she said. “Quite a few miles back.”

The two women exchanged a glance.

“Why?” the girl with the purple hair asked.

“I don’t really know,” Najia said slowly. “They pissed me off.”

“Where are you heading?” the driver asked.

“The coast. You?”

They turned to each other once more.

“Don’t know,” the driver said. “We’ve just been driving aimlessly without much of a plan.”

“We had a plan,” the other girl pointed out. “It just kinda fell through.”

“What’s at the coast?”

Najia hesitated. “Hopefully my grandfather.”

“At least she has someone left,” the girl muttered.

“Do you think we could join you?” the driver asked carefully. “We actually kind of broke down and have been stuck here for a while.”

“Yes,” Najia said quickly, then hesitated once more. “I mean. Yeah. I don’t know. Sure.”

They didn’t wait for Naia to make up her mind. They hurried out of the car, grabbing their things, and piled in with Najia.

“I’m Leah, by the way,” the driver said, sliding into the passenger seat.

“Abigail,” the other girl said as she closed the back door.

“I’m Najia.”

“So,” Abigail started. “What happens when you get to the coast? If you’re grandfather’s there?”

“I’m not really sure,” Najia said as she stepped on the gas. “I guess he’s kind of crazy. He called me before this all happened. Told me to meet him there. He would be able to protect me. I’m starting to doubt him, though.”

“Well, that’s a chance I’d be willing to take,” Leah said. “You can always worry about it after you see for yourself.”

Najia pinched her lips. “Maybe.”

20: 11
11

“So, you’re really never going to go back?” Abigail asked.

Najia shrugged. “It’s probably too late to change my mind now,”

“You’re a strong woman,” Leah said. “And you have a point - you don’t really know what kind of people they are.”

“She doesn’t know who we are, either,” Abigail pointed out.

“Well,” Leah started. “If we ever start fighting over her, she’ll probably just get up and drive away.” She winked at Najia. “I think she’s capable of taking care of herself.”

“I still think a doctor would be nice to have with us.”

“I think he was genuinely a good guy,” Najia said. “He always looked out for me, even the first day we met him.” Najia hesitated. “Marlon and Gil, too.” She missed them already.

“Got it,” Leah said. “Stay away from Shane and Alex.”

She kind of missed Shane, too. There was still a chocolate bar in her bag. Najia sighed. “What about you guys?” Najia asked in an attempt to change the subject.

“I was on my way home to the city when it happened,” Leah said. “Just turned around and went the other way.”

“You didn’t have family?”

“I had an abusive ex who I really had no intention of returning to, anyway.”

“Oh. I’m sorry.”

Leah shook her head. “I see this as my second chance. Sometimes I wonder if I would have gone home to him, if this hadn’t happened.”

“I don’t think so,” Abigail said. “I think you would have turned right around, anyway.”

Leah smiled and looked at her feet. “Thanks, Abby.”

“You guys found each other after that?”

“Leah picked me up on the side of the road. My car broke down just outside the city as I was trying to escape.”

“I thought she was going to throw herself into the river,” Leah said.

Abigail did not respond. She looked out the window into the darkness.

“Her parents both died in the city,” Leah whispered to Najia.

“I threw out my favorite sword,” Abigail muttered. “Didn’t you say Marlon had a sword?”

Najia nodded.

“I think we should team up with him.”

“Well,” Najia said. “Sorry to disappoint you.”

Abigail crossed her arms.

“This is fun,” Leah said sarcastically. “Do you have any CDs? I brought some of mine.”

“No,” Najia said quickly. “No music.”

Leah’s hand stopped in mid air, hovering over her bag. “Okay,” she said slowly, leaning back in her seat. “Someone hate’s music.”

Najia bit her lower lip. “Sorry,” she said quietly. “Do whatever you want.”

Leah shook her head. “Nope, we don’t have to. No music.” She smiled reassuringly at Najia.

“How much longer are we gonna drive?” Abigail said, her voice on the verge of a whine.

“She gets cranky,” Leah said quietly.

“I don’t get cranky,” Abigail hissed.

“I don’t know,” Najia said with a shrug. “Until dinner.” She checked the fuel gage. She would need to find a station soon. The cans in the back were already empty.

“What about a stop at the next city?” Najia suggested. “I could use some more gas.”

“The city?” Abigail repeated. “Won’t they find us?”

Najia hesitated. “Maybe. But we won’t make it much further out here, and I don’t think we’ll find a station any time soon, either.”

“There’s a little town a few exits up,” Leah said. “May be a safer option.”

They continued to drive for another hour until they reached the exit. The headlights flashed around the exit ramp and lit their way through the empty town. The passengers were stiff as they drove through the town, uneasy, in search of a gas station. Najia pulled into the first one they found and Abigail and Leah ransacked the mart for anything they could get their hands on. She fueled up the tank, then proceeded to fill the two gas cans when an all too familiar hiss caught her attention.

Najia straightened, releasing her hold on the gas nozzle to immediately reach for her gun. She froze as she listened. The hissing wasn’t very close, but close enough to send her in a panic. The Shadow People were literally hiding in the shadows, right under her nose, and they were ready to attack.

She backed away slowly from the gas can and near the light from the headlights, but the Shadow People were quick to anticipate her movement. They swooped in around her, preventing her from reaching the safety of the light and knocking her to the ground. Najia let her arms swing desperately as they closed in around her. She shot off a couple rounds into the air and they scattered for a moment, giving her just enough time to roll away and get to her feet.

Alerted by her gun shots, Leah and Abigail ran out of the store. Leah held a pistol in her hand, ready to fend of the creatures. The Shadow People circled the three women, pushing in closer and closer, hissing loudly before bombarding them with attacks once more.

Abigail tried desperately to fend them off with her flashlight as Leah took aim, hitting two of the creatures squarely. Najia ran towards the car, but she wasn’t quick enough as another creature swooped in. She stumbled backwards, knocking the gas can over, gas spilling all around her and the car. She cursed loudly as she scrambled to her feet, flailing her arms as the creatures pressed in around her.

Abigail’s light found Najia, offering her a moment of protection as the Shadow People scattered away from the light, screeching. Najia ran to their side and the three stood back to back as the Shadow People began to close in once more, careful to avoid Abigail’s erratic light.

“Don’t shoot,” Najia muttered.

“I’m shooting,” Leah said.

“The place will blow,” Najia hissed.

“Then we better start running.”

“Oh, hell,” Abigail mumbled.

The three of them sprinted into the night, the Shadow People hissing loudly behind them. As they made their way out of the gas station, Leah took aim at the car and the spilled gas, firing off three rounds quickly. The gas ignited and flames engulfed the station quickly behind them. They could feel the heat on their backs as they just narrowly escaped. The shrieks of the Shadow People filled the silent air eerily.

“We’re not out of the woods,” Najia reminded them as they continued to run down the road. “We’ve just attracted a whole hell of a lot of attention.”

“And Leah just blew up our fucking car,” Abigail hissed.

“We’ve got plenty of cars around,” Najia said. “We can get another car.”

“Where do you expect to find a car?” Abigail shouted. “This place is a ghost town.”

“Used car dealership?” Leah pulled their wrists across the road. They ran through back yards, hopping fences, towards the old dealership sign that Leah had spotted.

“Great,” Abigail muttered. “Let’s sign the paperwork and get the keys.”

“No need,” Najia said as she quickly picked out a small SUV. The first was locked, but she moved to the next one at the end of the row, which proved to be unlocked and at their disposal. Najia slid into the seat and set to work hot wiring the vehicle.

“What a fortunate skill to have during the apocalypse,” Abigail muttered.

“I was fortunate to be with a doctor, too,” Najia reminded them.

“Well, then, please don’t leave us.”

“Keep up your sarcastic shit and I just might.”

“Enough,” Leah growled at them. “We don’t have time.”

In the distance, the familiar shrieks of the Shadow People rose through the darkness. They were drawn to the explosion at the gas station, alerted now to the human presence, and they were ready for vengeance.

Najia’s hands shook as she worked. The SUV sputtered, but did not turn over.

“Why aren’t you good at this,” Abigail yelled to her.

“I am good at this!”

“Najia,” Leah warned.

Abigail swung her flashlight across the parking lot. The cries grew louder, closer. The engine continued to sputter a few more times before it finally turned over and Najia breathed a sigh of relief. Leah and Abigail climbed in quickly and Najia floored it out of the parking lot, down the road and back toward the high way.

Najia peered through the night, catching sight of their glowing eyes as they made their way off the ramp and onto the highway. The Shadow People had found a short cut, beating the three women to the high way and cutting them off.

Najia pressed harder on the accelerator and the needle climbed up the speedometer. Leah rolled down her window, leaned out, and slid a new magazine into the gun.

“Take the wheel,” Najia yelled to Abigail. She hit the button for the moon roof and pulled herself through, taking aim with her gun as Abigail crawled over the console and into the driver’s seat.

The Shadow People scattered as the vehicle neared, escaping it’s head lights, but swarmed in quickly as Abigail attempted to spin the car around to catch them in the headlights once more. Najia gripped the side of the roof as she struggled to take aim at the dark creatures. She shot blindly into the darkness but did not seem to make contact.

“Just go,” she shouted down to Abigail. “Get us out of here.”

Abigail spun the car around once more. The tires skidded dangerously on the pavement and she lost control. The SUV careened off the road and into the desert before coming to a stop.

“Go!” Leah shouted.

Abigail slammed on the pedal once more and the SUV jolted forward, kicking dust up in their wake as they sped through. Leah and Najia continued to fire at the creatures until all they could hear was the roar of the engine.

Najia slid back into the car and fell into the back seat with a heavy sigh. Leah climbed back in, closing the window, and glared at Abigail.

“Who in the hell taught you to drive?”

“Uh, normal people who live in normal cities,” Abigail hissed.

“Just keep driving,” Najia said, suddenly exhausted from the excitement. “Drive and don’t stop.”

21: 12
12

Abigail drove them through the rest of the night and into the dark morning before they finally stopped. They huddled close together around the fire as they nibbled on what scraps they found at the station. Najia started to miss Marlon’s hot coffee. She would have given anything for a mug of it.

They didn’t bother to wait for their little fire to die out. They quickly got back into the car, this time with Leah at the wheel as Abigail stretched out to sleep in the back seat. They drove in silence for a while before Leah spoke.

“We can look for them, you know.”

“No,” Najia said quickly. “They’re complete strangers. I don’t know them. It doesn’t matter.”

“It does matter, though,” she started. “They’re survivors, just like us. And whether you know them well enough or not, they’ve traveled with you, saved you, fought with you. You’ve talked and laughed. You’ve bonded with them. There’s no shame in that.”

“Can’t trust anyone in this world,” Najia muttered.

“You’re trusting me,” Leah reminded her. “We could just as easily be worse than Alex and Shane.”

Najia hesitated. “They weren’t that bad,” she said softly.

“See? You miss them.”

Najia crossed her arms. “No, I don’t.”

Leah smiled. “Okay, tough guy.”

Najia uncrossed her arms. It seemed too much like a Shane thing to do. She sighed.

“It doesn’t matter,” she said. “We’re long gone, now.”

Leah turned off the road and sped through the desert.

Najia turned to her, puzzled. “What are you doing?”

“I know a quicker way to the coast,” she said. “A more direct route this way. I’m just avoiding the exit which is still miles up.”

Najia shifted uncomfortably. “I think we should stick to the road,” she said.

“What’s it matter?”

“I guess it doesn’t,” she said quietly. She looked in the side view mirror as the road disappeared from sight behind them, along with any chance she had of the guys catching up to her.

But Leah was right. Her short cut through the desert brought them to the next interstate, which brought them in a slightly more northern direction, which meant closer north on the coast, and closer to Stardew Valley, should it exist.

And further away from the guys.

“If we follow this route,” Leah said. “We could make it to the coast in a week or two, depending on how often we stop.”

A week or two. It seemed so close. After all her traveling, she would soon reach her destination, but it made her stomach twist uneasily. She didn’t know what she would find, or not find, at the coast. She didn’t know what to expect, and it made her less excited to get there any quicker.

They drove a few hours more through the rest of the day and into the night. Leah began to yawn at the wheel.

“We can take a break,” Najia said. “Or I can drive.”

“The less we stop, the better.”

“There’s no rush to get there.”

“There could be,” Leah said. “You never know.”

Najia peered through the windshield as a pair of lights dotted the horizon in front of them.

“What is that?” Leah asked, squinting through the darkness.

Najia’s pulse quickened. Headlights. Had they come across more survivors?

“Pull over,” Najia instructed as the headlights grew brighter.

Leah steered the car to the side of the road and they waited, watching as the headlights came closer. Leah flashed the high beams as the vehicle neared and slowed. And Najia recognized the silhouette of the Hummer.

“That’s them,” Najia said quickly. “It’s them!”

She stumbled out of the car as the Hummer came to a stop. The back door opened and Dusty bounded out of the car, jumping on Najia’s legs, licking her face.

“Najia!” Shane stood outside the Hummer. “Oh, thank Yoba. I cannot be stuck in this car with these asshats any longer.”

Another vehicle pulled up beside the Hummer, but no one stepped out.

Abigail and Leah stepped out of the SUV, standing in the Hummer’s headlights as Marlon, Gil, Harvey, and Alex climbed out of the Hummer.

“Well, look at that,” Gil said. “She found herself some women friends.”

“You don’t have to go with them,” Leah reminded her.

“What are you talking about?” Shane said. “She’s with us.”

Abigail crossed her arms. “She doesn’t belong to anyone, you damn, filthy dogs.”

Marlon smiled and pulled open the door. “That’s fer damn sher,” he said with a wave. “See ya around, Najia.”

“We’re not leaving her,” Shane hissed.

“Girl can do what she wants, Shane,” Marlon said.

Leah’s, Abigail’s, and Shane’s eyes were on her, waiting.

“This is ridiculous,” Najia muttered. “Let’s go.”

Leah and Abigail followed her to the car. Shane stared at them, dumbfounded.

“Are you serious?”

“Who’s leading?” Najia asked, her hand on the door.

“Well, that depends,” Gil said. “Are you planning on going back thataway?” He threw his thumb over his shoulder.

“That’s the plan,” Leah said.

“Then you’re on your own, ladies.”

“What do you mean?” Najia asked.

“We kind of stumbled on some secret head quarters,” Marlon said.

“Head quarters?” Abigail echoed.

“Maybe we should get caught up and make a plan,” Gil said. “Coffee, anyone?”

22: 13
13

Eleven surviving humans sat around the fire that night. Marlon introduced Najia, Leah, and Abigail to the three other survivors they had picked up earlier; Demetrius, Sebastian, and Maru - a family group.

“We were hopin’ to catch up with ya,” Gil said. “You know, after you had cooled down some.”

“Not like we were gonna chase you all over the country,” Alex muttered. “I mean, Yoba forbid we don’t have a chick to fuck.”

“And we thought we’d give the guys a chance to put their dicks away,” Marlon said, narrowing his eyes.

“No one’s dick was out,” Alex hissed.

Shane smirked and drank from his flask. “No one’s fucking anyone.”

“There was this huge blaze, just off the high way,” Harvey said, bringing them back on topic anxiously.

“Right, fire,” Gil said. “So, of course, we had to check it out.”

“Bombarded by Shadow People,” Marlon said.

“Our fault,” Abigail said with a smirk. “Figured we’d make a scene.”

“Of course,” Alex said, rolling his eyes. “We should have known.”

“Yes, well,” Gil continued. “That brought up some excitement for sure.”

“Almost died,” Alex said.

“One of us should have,” Shane muttered.

“Quite a few of ‘em,” Marlon said.

“We ran like girls,” Gil continued. “Wanted to get back onto the interstate, but they were every where, so we made our way through the town and onto this hear road. Continued our way up north when we bumped into these three, just escaping from their own lives. Right by their big, nasty headquarters.”

“The Shadow People?” Najia asked.

“Looked about like it,” Gil confirmed. “All kinds of ‘em wanderin’ ‘round, keepin’ guard. Thought we heard some human voices, too.”

“Prisoners?” Leah asked.

Marlon shrugged. “Could be.”

“We have to do something,” Abigail said. “We need to save them.”

“Now, look,” Gil said, his hand in the air as if to stop her. “I’m all for helpin’ you guys out if our paths cross, but I ain’t ‘bout to go raidin’ some Shadow Bastard HQ.”

“There’s more to this war than we realize,” Leah said. “They have headquarters. They have prisoners. And there are survivors. There’s something bigger at work here, and we need to stop it if we can.”

“Lil’ lady,” Gil started. “That’s right brave of ya, but yer a fool. This is above all of us, whatever it is. We don’t stand a chance against ‘em. We can fight ‘em off by the hoards, but that’ll only get us so far.”

“Don’t you think it’s at least worth a look?”

“It’s suicide,” Alex said.

“You know,” Maru chimed in. “They’re using an old warehouse for their headquarters. In fact, the government used to test weapons and bombs way out here. The floor plans for all those warehouses are essentially the same. We could easily sneak in if we wanted to.”

“This one’s a brainiac,” Alex said.

Maru narrowed her eyes at him. “You’ll thank me later when we can get in, rescue a bunch of people, and get out in less than twenty minutes.”

“I can hack the alarm system and any computer systems they have in there, too,” Sebastian said.

“Brainiac’s brother,” Alex muttered.

Sebastian ignored his comment. “They’ll never know we were in there.”

“Unless they see us,” Demetrius muttered.

“Dad’s a chicken shit.”

“That’s enough from the Peanut Gallery,” Demetrius hissed at Alex.

“So, it’s settled,” Abigail said. “We’re saving some people.”

“We could bring down the entire building while we’re at it,” Maru said.

“I didn’t go approvin’ no plan, here,” Gil warned.

“Good thing we don’t need your permission,” Najia said.

“Gil doesn’t like it when he’s not the one to come up with the good plans,” Marlon said with a smirk.

“Can I weigh in on this plan?” Harvey spoke up. “Where do I come in? Preferably hiding in the car?”

“Take my dad with you,” Maru said, rolling her eyes.

“You brought your dad to the party,” Alex said. “You gotta deal with it.”

“Demetrius and Harvey stay with the car,” Gil said.

“Alone?” they stammered.

Gil and Marlon turned to each other.

“Rock, paper, scissors?” Gil suggested.

Their hands bounced in the air. Marlon sent out paper. Gil had rock. Gil grinned. Marlon rolled his eyes and climbed into the Hummer.

“Let’s do this,” Gil said enthusiastically.

“Oh,” Harvey said. “Okay. We’re doing this. This is happening.”

“C’mon, Doc,” Marlon shouted.

Harvey, Gil, and Alex climbed into the Hummer. Demetrius, Sebastian, and Maru piled into their car while Najia, Leah, Abigail, and Shane took to the SUV. Najia slid into the driver’s seat and Abigail in the back. Shane reached for the passenger door, but Leah pushed him out of the way and slid quickly in.

“I don’t think so, stud,” she said to him.

Shane rolled his eyes and took the seat in the back besides Abigail.

“Nice ride,” he muttered.

“Thanks,” Najia said. “I thought it was time for a change.”

“You blew up my car.”

“It was my car.”

“I’m gonna miss her. We had some good times in that car.”

Leah turned in her seat and narrowed her eyes at Shane. “I’m watching you.”

“Jeez, what the hell did you tell them?”

“That you’re a serial rapist.”

“Ah,” Shane said, leaning back in his seat. “I was hoping that secret would never get out.”

“You were right,” Leah said, turning back around. “He is an ass.”

Najia smiled. “You get used to it.”

“So, you talked about me?”

“Don’t flatter yourself,” Abigail said.

“There’s way too many hormones in this car,” Najia muttered.

“Don’t worry,” Leah said. “I won’t jump your bones.”

Najia gripped the steering wheel as they drove towards the warehouse. Leah, Abigail, and Shane continued to argue relentlessly with each other, but Najia tuned them out until they arrived just outside the warehouse.

Despite the relatively flat desert, the road rose and fell and rose once more, bringing them to the top of a small mountain that homed a mini city. Various buildings lined the road ways, and just on the outskirt, sitting on the edge of a cliff, the warehouse that marked the headquarters of the Shadow People.

They turned off their headlights as they climbed the mountain, the road twisting this way and that until they found cover along a piling of rocks, acting as a man made rock wall. The eleven survivors gathered between their cars and peered over the wall as their plan began to take shape.

“This is suicide,” Demetrius said.

“Once Sebastian disarms the building, we follow Maru through,” Gil instructed.

“These warehouses are all one floor,” Maru said. “Our best bet will be to find a way in behind the building. I’m going in blind, here, but I think if we can get around, I’ll be able to pick out the best way in quickly.”

“I shouldn’t have let them watch so much tv,” Demetrius muttered.

“This isn’t our first break in,” Sebastian said.

“But Dad is definitely the guy that trips and breaks something loud,” Maru said.

“They don’t tell you that you lose control of your kids when it’s the end of the world,” Demetrius said. “I can’t even ground them.”

“Get in and get out,” Marlon said. “I don’t care if you come out with no one. Do what you can, but for crissake, don’t get caught.”

Gil through his rifle over his shoulder. “Let’s go.”

23: 14
14

They followed Gil quickly and quietly behind the buildings until they reached the warehouse. They then followed Maru quickly around the building as she scouted the best way for them to get in. They kept their weapons ready as she inspected the building and settled on an old bulkhead door that was chained and locked.

“I can pick it,” Najia said quietly as they inspected the lock.

“Of corse you can,” Shane muttered.

“We can’t touch anything until Sebastian finds the alarm system and disarms it.”

“Chances are, it’s at the front of the building,” Sebastian muttered.

“I don’t think we can just waltz up to the front door and fuck with the system,” Alex said.

“This is an old government building,” Maru said. “If we so much as touch a window from the outside, the alarm will go off.”

“So,” Alex started. “We’re screwed?”

“Maybe not,” Shane said as a plan came to mind. “We just need someone to get in there, right? It doesn’t matter how they get in.”

“He’s kidding, right?” Leah said, turning to Najia.

Najia pinched her lips and shook her head.

“What?” Alex said, looking between them.

“He’s gonna get himself captured,” Abigail said, aggravated.

“And what if he gets shot, first?” Gil asked. “What if they don’t want any more prisoners?”

“Then run for the hills and hope they don’t follow?” Shane suggested.

“This is stupid,” Najia mumbled. “We’re not these bad ass FBI agents or anything. We’re a bunch of clueless humans trying to go up against the creatures that took over our world.”

“I think that’s why they call it a suicide mission,” Abigail hissed.

“We’re wasting time,” Shane growled. “What are we gonna do?”

“I vote to send Asshat to get captured,” Alex said.

“Fine,” Shane said. He tossed Najia his gun and began walking around the building.

“Shane, stop,” Najia hissed, chasing after him. She grabbed his wrist and pulled at his arm, but he pulled away.

“Stop being stupid,” Najia urged him.

Shane stopped and faced her. “What’s the matter? Gonna miss me if I get shot?”

“Can you stop being an ass for two seconds?” she hissed at him.

Shane pushed her against the wall with his arm, his body almost on top of her. “Shh,” he hissed.

Najia’s heart raced as she strained to listen. Faint, hissing voices came from the front of the building. Before she had a chance to say anything, Shane had pushed himself off the wall and rounded the corner of the building.

Najia cursed under her breath. She turned to see the others poking their heads around the corner.

“Idiot,” Alex muttered.

Najia froze as the hissing grew louder. There was a grunt and after a moment, she could faintly hear the doors open and close. She stood still, waiting, gasping as Shane’s head appeared from around the corner. He smiled and disappeared once more.

They hurried around the building, following Shane as the door was propped open by three bodies of the Shadow People. They stepped over quickly and into the darkness, keeping close to the wall as Sebastian hurried to disarm the system. Shane and Alex worked quickly to move the bodies and let the door shut behind them.

“This was stupid,” Maru hissed. “Walking through the damn front door.”

The alarm pad beeped and Sebastian let out a breath. “We’re clear.”

“Now what?” Abigail hissed.

“We’re not good at making these plans,” Leah said.

“Everyone shut it,” Gil said. They listened as human voices drifted to them from somewhere in the building.

Abigail followed the sound, pointing at a grate in the floor. “Basement,” she whispered.

Gil cocked his gun. “Down we go, I s’pose.”

“It’s dark as hell in here, you remember that, right?” Alex said. “They have the advantage. They’ll see us coming.”

“Then don’t miss your shot,” Gil hissed at him. He lead the way through the building with Maru close behind as she made her best guess on how to get to the basement level.

Najia pulled at Shane’s gun. His fingers brushed hers as he took it from her.

“Were you worried?”

Najia shoved the gun into his chest. “I was hoping I wouldn’t have to see your dumb face again.”

“Oooh,” Shane teased. “Big dumby.”

“I swear to Yoba I’ll shoot you both right here, right now,” Gil hissed.

Shane pushed Najia ahead of him as they followed the others through the building. They made their way carefully down the steps Maru found and into a dimly lit basement. Along the stone walls, temporary cells were put into place. Most of the gates were open, the cells empty. The two voices came from the back of the room, where they found two prisoners talking amongst themselves.

They scurried quickly back to the corners of their cells as the human tactical team approached, still covered by the shadows. But as they stepped into the light, they pressed eagerly against their cells.

“It can’t be,” the man in the cell to the right of them muttered. “How did you get in here?”

“Get out,” the woman in the other cell hissed at them. “Get out while you still can.”

“Where are all the prisoners?” Gil asked.

“Gone,” the man said. “They took them. One by one. And they never came back.”

“We’re next,” the woman sobbed.

“We’ll get you out of here,” Gil assured them. He motioned for Najia who stepped forward and inspected the locks. She pulled two bobby pins out of her hair and began to work at the locks, biting the corner of her lip as she did so. Within moments, they heard a faint click, and the door slid open. Najia continued her work on the next cell, and just as quickly, it opened.

The two prisoners stumbled out. The woman threw her arms around Gil and sobbed into his shoulder. He stiffened, but patted her back lightly.

“There, there, Sweetheart,” he said awkwardly. “But we’re not safe yet.”

In the distance, they could hear the faint sounds of shuffling and hissing. The woman froze in Gil’s arms.

“They’re coming,” she stuttered, frightened.

“We’re all gonna die,” Alex muttered.

Gil cocked his rifle. “Get yourselves together,” he hissed. “We’ve only got one chance. Don’t fuck up.”

24: 15
15

Gil pulled the young woman behind him, raising his rifle, waiting for the Shadow People to come around the corner. Shane stepped forward beside him, readying his own gun, and Alex quickly did the same.

Najia slid a new magazine into her gun and cupped her hands around the grip. In the dim light, she saw Shane’s eyes on her from over his shoulder.

“Don’t even think about it,” he hissed.

Najia ignored him as she stood beside Gil and took aim.

“I’m gonna kick your ass,” Shane muttered.

“Not if the Shadow People do it first,” Najia said, holding her position steady.

“My money’s on the Shadow People,” Alex said.

They stiffened as four shadowy creatures rounded the corner, hissing violently when they saw the humans standing before them. The dim lights went out immediately as the creatures scattered around them. The humans quickly pressed into one another, back to back, their weapons steady. Their eyes darted around the darkness, searching for any sign of the glowing eyes, but when the eyes revealed themselves, it was too late.

Gil’s rifle went off first, illuminating the room brightly for a split second. He grunted and Najia felt his body leave her side, falling to the ground.

“Gil!” Najia dropped to her knees, searching for him with her hands until his hand found hers, squeezing tightly.

“I’m fine,” he grunted.

Another gun went off, followed by another, then another. The woman shrieked from somewhere behind Najia. A flashlight clicked on and a beam of light pierced the darkness. Abigail’s face was just barely illuminated in the glow of her flashlight.

The Shadow People continued to hiss, their voices moving quickly around them, making Najia dizzy. She tried to follow their sounds, tried to catch them as the light caught their shadowy edges, but they disappeared into the shadows just as quickly as she found them.

Gil’s rifle went off once more and a shrieking hiss immediately followed. Abigail’s light bounced erratically off the walls and around the room. Footsteps echoed, moving quickly through the room. Najia spun around as she heard the sound of glass shattering. A warm breeze brushed her face and she could distinctly hear the faint sound of an engine growing louder, moving closer.

Flashlight beams illuminated the room from the broken window by the ceiling. The Shadow People continued to screech as the lights brushed over them. Abigail’s light moved to the window where Marlon leapt down on to the floor, his sword in hand. The engine grew louder. From above them, through the ceiling, they could hear the sound of glass shattering.

More guns went off, illuminating the room it their bright flashes. Najia felt a hand on her shoulder as Gil pulled her towards the prisoners.

“Get them out of here,” he hissed at her.

Without hesitation - and eager to get out of the erupted war zone - Najia grabbed the woman’s wrist and pulled her out of the line of fire, towards the wall. Najia felt her way through the room, the wall at her back, as they hurried low toward the other side and back up the stairs on to the ground floor.

Headlights lit the room where they entered, the Hummer half inside, and half outside, Harvey still at the wheel. He stared at them as they rounded the corner, then stumbled out of the vehicle.

Red lights flashed silently along the walls, the alarm triggered as Harvey motioned them towards the vehicle. Najia pushed the woman ahead and waited with her gun drawn as the two prisoners jumped into the Hummer. Harvey climbed back into the driver’s seat and revved the engine, calling to her.

Najia spun on her heels as a cold hand grabbed at her and dragged her backwards, onto the floor, just out of the safety of the headlights. Her gun fell beside her, out of her hand. The dark, boney fingers gripped at her neck as the creature hissed in her face.

Najia grabbed at the hands, gasping desperately for air, but they were too strong. She patted the tiled floor frantically in search for the weapon, but her lungs started to burn and her head spun, deprived of oxygen.

The sound of gun fire grew louder as Najia felt herself fading quickly. She did not have the strength to fight back any longer. She let her body succumb to it’s imminent death and in that moment, she felt more relaxed than she ever had.

*****

Shane threw himself at the creature, knocking it off of Najia’s limp body. He straddled the creature quickly, pressing his gun against it’s head and pulling the trigger. He froze in horror as the head seemed to explode from under him. A dark, shadowy fog seemed to ooze and seem from the beast.

Shane stumbled backwards as he searched for Najia, Harvey was at his side as he pulled Najia onto his lap.

“Najia! Why didn’t you help her?” Shane pushed Harvey away from him, angry.

“I didn’t… I couldn’t…” Harvey stuttered.

“Get in the damn car,” Shane yelled to him, pulling Najia into him and getting to his feet. He threw her over his shoulder and fired two more shots as the creatures moved in around them before shoving his gun into Harvey’s hand.

Harvey stumbled after Shane as he bolted towards the Hummer and yanked open the back door. He grabbed his gun from the doctor, glaring at him.

“Fix it,” he demanded. He raised his gun once more and waited as the creatures moved in, firing at every opportunity that presented itself until Maru and Sebastian ran around the corner.

“We need to go, now,” Sebastian shouted to Shane over the sounds of battle.

“Working on it,” Shane muttered, but Maru pulled at his wrist violently.

“We planted a bomb.”

Shane stared at her, dumbfounded. “A bomb?”

“Long story,” Sebastian said quickly. “We’ve got sixty seconds.”

“We need to find Gil, Marlon, and Alex,” Shane said, his heart racing. His eyes darted, watching for the gun fire that came from Alex and Gil, just across the room.

“We don’t have time.” Maru’s voice shook.

“We can’t leave them to die,” Shane hissed. “Don’t you think you should have mentioned that you were going to plant a bomb?”

“Last minute decision,” Sebastian said, pushing his sister towards the vehicle.

Maru threw herself into the driver’s seat and threw the vehicle into gear. Shane hurried after her, pulling the door open and pushing her across, sliding in behind the wheel, muttering under his breath. He looked over his shoulder quickly as Najia gasped for breath in the back seat, her head in Harvey’s lap. Satisfied, he slammed on the accelerator and the vehicle lurched into the room, clearing the rubble with ease.

The creatures scattered as the headlights washed over them, illuminating Gil, Marlon, and Alex. Shane paused just long enough for them to climb into the vehicle before slamming down on the gas once more, crashing through the large glass windows at the front of the building.

The vehicle tore through the deserted roads, leaving the building behind quickly. In the rear view mirror, he watched as headlights tore into the road behind him, and then the building ignited into flames suddenly. He navigated through the abandoned city and back onto the interstate, stopping only when the glow of the fire faded behind them and he was sure they weren’t followed.

He threw the car into park and sighed. Maru jumped out first, running towards her father, leaving Sebastian standing on the pavement, his arms crossed. Gil, Marlon, and Alex fell out next, eager to get out of the cramped car as they stretched their arms and legs.

Shane turned in his seat. Najia lay across Harvey and the two rescued prisoners, her hands on her head.

“I’m gonna be sick,” she muttered.

“How about you two?” Harvey asked, turning his gaze away from Najia. “Are you hurt?”

The woman shook her head. “No, thanks to you guys.”

“C’mon,” Harvey said, sliding himself out from under Najia and out of the Hummer. The man and the woman followed suit, leaving Najia alone in the back seat. After a moment, she sat up, her head still in her hands. She met Shane’s gaze and sighed.

“Hey,” she said softly. “Where the hell are we?”

“The interstate,” he said. “Blew up the building. It was good. Shame you missed it.”

“My body hurts,” Najia groaned.

Shane pushed the door open. “At least you’re alive,” he said as the door slammed behind him.

25: 16
16

Najia yawned. Her lungs ached, but they welcomed the air. She pulled the blanket that Shane had given her around her shoulders and stared into the flames. Shane had driven the Hummer through the rest of the night as she slept in the back seat under Harvey’s watchful eye, stopping just long enough for Gil and Marlon to have their coffee.

As they sat around the fire, she had learned the names of the two prisoners they were able to rescue; Penny and Morris. Penny was quiet - shy. A preschool teacher back in the city. Morris a manager at JoJa Mart. Najia liked Penny, but Morris was an arrogant ass - even more so than Shane. She found herself cringing when he spoke.

Shane handed her a mug of coffee and smiled when she met his gaze. She accepted it without a word but did not drink it. She realized that everyone was looking to her, as if waiting for an answer.

“Maybe not,” Gil muttered.

“Sure,” Alex said. “We can all just squeeze into two cars. No problem at all. It’s not like we don’t all reek or anything.”

“What?” Najia finally spoke.

“Give her a break,” Harvey said. “She’s had a long night.”

“There were some abandoned cars not far from here,” Marlon said. “Before we found their little headquarters there.”

“Oh,” Najia said, then quickly, “Sure, yeah, I can hot wire them.”

“Listen, kid,” Gil started. “If that chokehold was too much for you-”

“I said I would take care of it,” Najia barked at him.

They fell silent. Uncomfortable, Najia stood and forced a smile. “Chokeholds,” she tried to laugh off. “Kinky.”

She made her way back to the car, sliding into the back seat and let her head rest against the head rest.

“Are you feeling okay?” Harvey’s voice asked her.

Najia peered at him and closed her eyes. “Yes.”

“You could have suffered a concussion,” he muttered. “Does your head hurt? Open your eyes, lemme see-”

“I’m fine,” Najia cut him off. She met his gaze and smiled. “Really.”

Harvey pinched his lips and nodded. “Okay. I just worry.”

“You don’t have to worry.”

“It’s my job to worry about my patients.”

“Well,” Najia started. “I’m not a patient, and you don’t have a job.”

“I’m certainly not getting paid,” Harvey mumbled.

Najia dug through her bag. “I can pay you in my last chocolate bar,” she offered.

Harvey smiled. “Nonsense. I’m joking. Saving lives is what I do.”

Najia shifted uncomfortably. “Well,” she said. “I guess I owe you thanks.”

“I’m not really the one you should be thanking,” he admitted. “Anyone can do CPR.” Harvey straightened as Shane approached. Shane shook a bottle of asprin in his hand.

“We ran out of bitch pills,” he said as he leaned against the car.

“Don’t let her take too many,” Harvey instructed. “I can only do so much out here. Brain bleeds are out of my control.”

“Got it,” Shane said. “Only ouchies that can be fixed with a bandaid.”

Harvey smiled. “That would be appreciative.” He made his way back to the fire.

“So, I have to thank you?” Najia asked, taking the bottle from him and popping a pill.

“Depends,” he started.

“For saving my life.”

“Oh, that,” he said with a shrug. “Nah, that was Harvey. I only, you know, kicked a shadow bastard’s ass.” He paused. “If I had known you were into chokeholds, though, I wouldn’t have bothered.”

“Funny,” Najia muttered, pushing passed him and getting out of the car. She looked down the highway, into the darkness, and sighed.

“What’s wrong?” Shane asked, sounding aggravated with her.

“Tired.”

“Well, cut the shit,” he said. “We’ve gotta get moving, and I don’t want to be stuck in the car with those morons.”

“Who said I wanted to be stuck in a car with you?”

Shane feigned being hurt, his hand on his chest. “And I thought we had something special.”

Najia met his gaze and smiled. “I know, Sweetie, but I don’t get tied down to no one.”

“Players gonna play,” Shane said, shaking his head.

*****

Just as Marlon said, they found a group of cars abandoned just off the interstate in a large parking lot. They waited patiently as Najia and Shane hot wired three more vehicles, bringing a total of five vehicles into their convoy. They split themselves between the vehicles; Shane and Najia in one, Penny, Abigail, and Leah in another, Marlon, Gil, Alex, and Harvey in the Hummer, Demetrius, Sebastian, and Maru together, and Morris bringing up the rear. Gil took the lead in the Hummer, which surprisingly still pushed on despite its forceful entrance the night before, with Shane at the wheel behind them. They drove in silence for a while before Najia finally spoke.

“You know how they say your life flashes before your eyes when you die?”

Shane hesitated. “Sure.”

“It’s not true.”

Shane smiled. “Maybe you’re life was just really boring.”

“Maybe I’ve been dead this whole time.”

“Plot twist.”

“If I could do one thing differently,” she started, “I probably would have gone to college and slept with more people.”

“Are… are those two in the same category?” Shane asked.

“Well, why else do you go to college?”

“Touche.” Shane paused. “I never went, either.”

“Virgin.”

“No,” he said quickly. “Definitely not.”

“Slut.”

“I prefer the term bachelor.”

“Lonely slut.”

“Look who’s talking.”

“I just said I would have slept with more people. Therefore, I can’t be a slut.”

“Smarty-pants slut.”

“At least I wasn’t a lonely arrogant ass.”

“You’re more arrogant then you realize.”

“Here we go again.”

Shane turned to her and smiled. “Just like old times.”

Najia rolled her eyes. “Are we there yet?”

“Yes.”

“No, we’re not.”

“Well, that sucks.”

Najia looked through her window, trying to imagine the landscape. The coast couldn’t be far. Couple days, tops.

“What do you think we’ll see?” Najia asked.

“Honestly?” Shane hesitated. “Maybe some bodies.”

Najia turned to him. “That’s morbid.”

Shane shrugged. “Welcome to war.”

“What about Marnie and Jas?”

Shane did not answer her.

“What will you do if they’re not there?”

“They’ll be there,” he said, not taking his eyes off the road.

Najia settled into the seat and looked out the window. They’ll be there. And they’d go north and find Stardew Valley, where her grandfather would be waiting, just as he promise.

26: 17
17

The convoy of survivors turned off the highway one last time, heading to the first store they could find to replenish their supplies before reaching the coast. They drove around the city in an attempt to draw out any of the shadow beasts, but the city seemed quiet and deserted. They made their way through the parking lot, between abandoned cars, parking and preparing themselves for whatever may lie in the store.

Najia shoved a loaded clip into her gun and flicked on her flashlight. Shane, Alex, Morris, Marlon, Maru, and Sebastian prepped themselves with their own weapons and lights and together, they made their way inside the store.

Najia wandered the aisles aimlessly until she came across a toy section. She peered at the dusty packages of action figures and dolls. She kicked at a ball on the floor and it bounded into the next aisle, stopping at a container of pool noddles. She fished through them, pulling out a lime green noodle, and hunted the aisles until she found Shane staring into a glass case.

“See this game?” he said, sensing her presence, but did not turn to her. He pointed at the glass. “I cheated so hard at this game.”

Najia peered over his shoulder, gripping the noodle behind her.

“So, you sucked at video games?”

Shane shrugged. “Just a bit.” He turned to her just as she let the noodle whip across his chest and he grunted.

“What the hell?”

Shane ripped the noodle out of her hands and let it come down across her legs. Najia stumbled backwards, bent low, and ran into Shane, flailing wildly in an attempt to grab the noodle from him. They fell on to the floor as Najia ripped the noodle out of his arms and held it over him.

“Any last words?”

“No!” a tiny voice squeaked.

They looked up to see a young boy staring at them in horror. They scrambled to their feet, hesitant.

“Don’t hurt me,” the boy said softly, his voice shaking.

“No, no,” Najia said quickly, dropping the noodle. She got to her knees and smiled at the boy. “We’re friends. Are you alone?”

The boy glanced at Shane, then back to Najia and shook his head. “Don’t hurt my family,” he begged.

“You’re family? Are they here?”

“Oh, they’re here,” Shane muttered.

Najia turned to see a young, blond man with his gun raised, pointing at Shane’s head.

“Drop the weapons,” he hissed.

Najia obeyed, carefully removing the gun from her jeans and placing it on the floor. She watched as the man pulled Shane’s weapon out of his back pocket. She met Shane’s gaze.

“We weren’t going to hurt him,” she said carefully. “We won’t hurt your son.”

“My son?” He hesitated. “No, no. That’s my brother.”

“Okay,” Najia said slowly. “We’re not going to hurt anyone. We’re here for supplies, just like you.”

“What makes you think we’re here for supplies?”

Shane rolled his eyes. “Why the hell else would you be here? You’re survivors like us.”

The young man hesitated, his gun lowering for a moment. “You’re not like, working for the Shadow People or anything?”

“Oh, Yoba,” Shane muttered.

“Please,” Najia begged. “Put the gun down before you hurt someone.”

His arm stiffened and he raised the gun once more. “I know how to handle a Glock,” he hissed.

“Technically, that’s not a Glock,” Najia pointed out. “It’s an SR9.”

Shane narrowed his eyes at Najia. “I don’t think this is the time to be pointing out his ignorance.”

“I’m not ignorant,” he hissed.

“Oh, give it a rest,” Shane barked at him. “If you were gonna kill us, we’d be dead by now, so quit with the tough guy act.”

“Sam is the toughest guy ever!” the boy yelled.

“Big words coming from a little kid,” Shane muttered.

Sam lowered his gun. “That’s enough, Vincent.”

“Can I have my gun back, now?” Shane asked, turning to him and holding out his empty hand.

Sam held his gaze on Shane as he shoved the weapon back in his hand.

“The lady’s, too,” Shane said.

Sam attempted to push passed him, but Shane held him back, keeping his hand on his shoulder.

“The gun,” he hissed.

“Fine.” Sam shoved the other gun into Shane’s hand.

Shane held the gun out for Najia, keeping his gaze on Sam. He waited for Najia’s fingers to brush against his palm before he broke his gaze and turned away.

“Where are you going?” Sam called to Shane.

“Away,” Shane said simply, stepping around Vincent.

Najia’s apologetic gaze met Sam’s. “Are you alone?”

Sam shook his head. “There are three others out back.”

“Where are you heading?”

Sam shrugged. “The coast,” he said. “My dad was supposed to meet us there. He was in the army.”

“Was?”

“We don’t really know if there’s much of an army left,” Sam said. “Don’t really know much of anything right now.”

“We’re heading in that direction, too,” Najia said. “You should come with us. We should all stick together, especially if your dad’s in the picture. He could help.”

Sam hesitated. “Yeah, maybe.” He looked passed Najia towards Shane.

“Don’t worry about him,” Najia assured him. “I call the shots around here.”

“You’re boy friend is kinda scary.”

Najia scrunched her nose. “Why does everyone think he’s my boyfriend?” she muttered under her breath.

“C’mon, Vincent,” Sam said, holding out his hand for the boy. “Let’s go get Mom.” He met Najia’s gaze. “We’ll meet you up front.”

“Stop picking up strays,” Shane said when Sam disappeared around the aisles.

“We need all the strays,” Najia said, pushing passed him.

They found the rest of their group waiting at the front of the store, supplies in hand.

“Najia picked up more strays,” Shane said, motioning with his head toward the back of the store. “We have to wait for them.”

“How many more?” Marlon asked.

“Five of them.”

Marlon whistled with approval. “We’ll have an army of humans in no time.”

“They have a little boy with them,” Najia warned. “Please don’t scare him.”

“Yeah,” Shane added. “And his little brother is with him, too.”

Najia shot a glare in Shane’s direction.

Two men approached first, making their way around the corner of the front aisles, their weapons at their sides, in their hands, ready for a sudden attack. They stepped carefully towards them before smiles split their faces. Sam and Vincent followed, and a woman brought up the rear.

“Well, I’ll be,” said one of the men. “There’s a whole lot of ya.”

“And more of us outside,” Marlon said, throwing his thumb over his shoulder.

“I’m Clint,” the man said, pointing to himself, then around the group. “That’s Gunther, Sam, Vincent, and their Mum, Jodi.”

“We’re going to find Dad,” Vincent said happily. “He’s at the beach.”

Jodi pulled her youngest son towards her, hesitant.

Najia met the woman’s gaze and gave her her best, reassuring smile. “We’re heading that way, too.”

“And,” Marlon added, as if to sweeten the deal, “we’ve got a doctor on board, too.”

Sam turned to his mother and they exchanged a wordless glance. Jodi met Marlon’s gaze.

“Can he fix this?” she asked. She carefully lifted Vincent’s pant leg, revealing a large gash that seemed to be at the beginnings of an infection.

Marlon pinched his lips together. “I sure hope so,” he muttered.

27: 18
18

Harvey examined Vincent’s wound carefully. The boy leaned against his mother in the back seat of the Hummer, biting back a sob as Harvey poked and prodded at the leg. Sam, Marlon, and Najia looked on over Harvey’s shoulder.

“It’s definitely infected,” Harvey confirmed as he dug through his make-shift medical kit. “It needs to be cleaned and stitched.” Harvey hesitated. “But I don’t have anything to dull the pain for him.”

“He’s just a boy,” Jodi said, her voice shaking. “He can’t withstand that.”

“I don’t exactly have any anesthesia or numbing creams,” Harvey said.

“I can do it, Mum.” Vincent turned to his mother and smiled bravely. “I bet Dad’s had to do it loads of times.”

“That’s different,” Jodi said quickly.

“Jodi,” Harvey began, hesitant. “If I can’t clean up the wound and stitch the leg, the infection will just spread and -”

“Yes, yes, I know,” Jodi interrupted him. “I know. It will kill him.” She sucked in a breath and met Harvey’s gaze. “Please, just help him.”

Najia turned away and made her way to the cars where the others were gathered, waiting. Shane leaned against their car with a beer in hand, casually talking with Gil. They stopped when she approached.

“What’s the prognosis?” Gil asked.

“It seems pretty bad,” Najia explained. “Infected, the whole bit. We might be here a while.”

“Hopefully not too long,” Gil said. “Can’t be sticking around longer than we need to.” He smiled to Najia. “And we’re so close to finding your gramps, too.”

“Maybe,” Najia hesitated. She was eager to get to the coast, but feared what she may or may not find.

Leah, Marlon, and Sam joined them after a moment.

“You just gonna hog all that beer?” Leah said to Shane, reaching around him and grabbing a can from the back seat. She waved the can in the air. “Anyone?”

Najia, Marlon, Gil, and Sam nodded and Leah passed four cans their way before grabbing one for herself.

“Sure, drink all my beer,” Shane muttered.

“You have a damn twenty-four pack,” Leah accused him.

“Best money can buy.”

“Tell ya what,” Leah started. “When we finish these off, I’ll go back into that store and buy you another case.”

“Big end of the world sale, yanno,” Gil added. “Can get ‘em for nothin’.”

Leah elbowed Shane and winked at him as she brought the beer can to her lips. Shane smirked into his own can as he did the same.

Najia shifted her gaze to her feet, then turned her back on the little group, staring out into the darkness.

“Your grandfather’s at the coast?” Sam asked her.

Najia shrugged. “Maybe. Hopefully.”

Sam sighed. “Yeah. I’d like to think Dad will be there. But who the fuck knows any more in this world.”

Najia hesitated. “What if he’s not there?”

Sam met her gaze and searched her eyes as he pondered her question. Finally, he broke his gaze and drank his beer. “I hadn’t thought that far ahead.”

“Me neither,” Najia muttered, turning to her beer. “That’s the only goal I’ve had in my life over the last couple months. I don’t know what I’ll do if he’s not there.”

“I guess we find a new goal,” Sam said softly.

“Like what?”

Sam’s gaze was on the Hummer where Harvey worked on his brother’s leg. “Survive. Live.”

“I don’t know how much longer anyone can survive this.”

“Then we make the most of it, I guess.” Sam turned back to her and smiled. “Do all the things we couldn’t have done before. Steal beer. Shoot shit.”

Najia smiled. “Those things just don’t seem as exciting when you know there’s no consequences.”

Sam’s lips twisted to the side and he nodded. “I guess that’s true. But I’m sure there are other things, too.”

“Travel the world.”

“Find bigfoot.”

Najia laughed. “See the northern lights.”

“Find Nessie.”

“You and I have very different ideas of exciting.”

Sam shrugged. “It’s a goal, isn’t it? And hey, who the hell knows what’s out there, surviving like we are.”

“Well,” Najia said, lifting her can. “To surviving.”

Sam tapped his against hers. “To living.”

*****

Vincent bravely made it through Harvey’s make-shift surgery in the back of the Hummer. The wound was cleaned, stitched, and wrapped carefully, preventing further damage and infection. Harvey admired his work as the boy rested against his mother in the back seat.

Under Harvey’s orders, they agreed to stay the night in the parking lot to let Vincent rest before beginning their journey once more. They positioned the vehicles carefully in a circle in an attempt to block light from the fire that would drawn in any Shadow People. They gathered around in folding chairs dragged out from the store and continued to drink.

Najia watched as smaller groups began to form. Penny, Harvey, and Maru formed one group across from her, none with beer in hand. Harvey seemed smitten with the pretty red head. When she spoke, he leaned in, listening intently, as if she were an angel whispering a prophecy. But when Maru spoke, Penny’s dimples revealed themselves and she looked away quickly, not daring to meet her gaze, intimidated by her brilliant mind.

Gil and Marlon kept to themselves as they often did, observing their group like two alpha wolves guarding their pack. Demetrius found comfort in Jodi’s company as she looked over her son sleeping soundly. Abigail and Sebastian had found their way to one another, but did not speak much, and Morris sat quietly by himself, seemingly disinterested with the people who had rescued him. Leah and Shane continued to enjoy each other’s company, drinking heavily, while Clint and Gunther spoke casually with one another.

Alex and Sam sat casually beside Najia as the three of them simply listened to the chatter around them. Dusty sighed at Alex’s feet, his face towards the heat of the fire.

“Looks like Shane found some new meat,” Alex muttered.

“We’re not meat,” Najia hissed at him. “Leah doesn’t even like him.”

“Why’s that?” Sam asked.

Najia hesitated. “I might have made him sound like an ass when I met Leah.”

“He is an ass,” Alex confirmed.

“I thought he was your boyfriend,” Sam said.

“He wishes,” Alex said with a smirk.

Sam shrugged. “You guys just seem close.”

Najia mocked Sam’s shrug. “He was just the first survivor I found,” she said. “We’ve only known each other a couple months.”

“I’ve only known you a day and I know you deserve better than someone like that, anyway.”

Najia hesitated. “Thanks, I guess.”

Alex cleared his throat. “Don’t try to flirt with her,” he warned Sam. “She’ll run away again.”

“Sam’s been kinder to me than you,” Najia hissed.

“Maybe more women would be interested in you if you weren’t so arrogant,” Sam accused.

Najia rolled her eyes. “That’s what I keep saying.”

“What’s it matter, anyway?” Alex said. “It’s the end of the world. Sooner or later, we’re all gonna die. Might as well not get attached.”

“I mean, if I could get laid before I die, I wouldn’t complain,” Sam said with a shrug.

“Well, yeah,” Alex agreed with a smirk.

“Unfortunately for you,” Najia said to Alex, “you won’t be getting any from me.”

“Please,” Alex said. “You’re not the only option any more.”

“I wouldn’t be so sure,” Najia said. “I warned them about you, too.”

“Give him a break,” Sam said. “Alex was probably the kind of guy that thought his good looks and suave charm could get him any girl he wanted. He’s never had to deal with a pretty girl denying him before. See?” Sam pointed to Alex. “He doesn’t know how to handle it, so he resorts to petty childish insults to make him look tough and manly.”

“Suave?”

“He’s got jock brain, too.”

“That jock brain,” Alex hissed, “got me a full scholarship.”

Sam leaned to Najia, whispering in her ear. “The best part is he has no idea he insulted himself.”

Najia smiled and looked down at her beer can.

“Whatever,” Alex grumbled. “At least I don’t pretend to be someone I’m not.”

“Forget it,” Najia warned them both. “You’re acting like children. Be nicer to each other.”

Alex slunk back in his seat and turned his gaze to the fire.

“I’m sorry,” Sam muttered. “I wasn’t trying to start anything. I just don’t like the way he talks sometimes.”

Najia sighed. “Me neither.”

“For what it’s worth,” Sam said, leaning towards her once more. “You deserve better than every scum bag guy here.”

“Including you?” she said with a sly smile.

“Yeah, including me.”

“You don’t even know me,” Najia reminded him. “I could be a big slut for all you know.”

Sam shrugged. “I’m pretty good at reading people.” He paused. “Abusive ex boyfriend who dominated your life until this war gave you a chance to escape and start over.”

“Actually,” Najia said with a smile. “I had a very lovely life before all this happened. Single, but I had some good relationships. Good friends. It was just Dad and I, but we did okay. I worked in his shop. He was a mechanic.” Najia turned her gaze away and hesitated. “I didn’t even get to see him,” she said softly.

“I’m sorry,” Sam said quickly. “I didn’t mean to.”

Najia forced a smile and met his gaze. “It’s okay. But I don’t think anyone could look at this war as a blessing or a second chance.”

“Maybe not,” Sam said. “But why not try to find the positives? A little light when we’re stuck in this darkness. Sure, we’ve lost people. But I might get to see my father again. And I got to meet you.”

“I used to think that way,” she said. “It just gets a little harder with each day.”

Sam nodded. “I get that,” he said. “But, we’re all in it together, anyway.” His hand rested on her arm and he smiled.

Najia looked across the fire, her eyes scanning the faces illuminated by the light. She stopped on Shane, meeting his gaze. His brows were knit together and he turned away quickly.

28: 19
19

Najia tossed her empty beer can down on the tiled floor as she searched the aisles for something that tasted better. She needed an excuse to stretch her legs and get away for a moment. She eyed the daiquiri mixed and contemplated the difficulty in crafting such a beverage when she heard shuffling behind her. She turned to see Shane trudging over to her side, bending down to examine the cases of beer.

“Out already?” she asked.

He shook his head. “Just stocking up.”

Najia fingered the old, dusty price labels absentmindedly. Her head was already buzzing. She really didn’t need to drink any more. Maybe she would just crawl into the car and sleep the night away.

“Sam your new buddy?”

Najia turned to him but he continued to stare at the warm cases of beer.

“Is Leah yours?”

“Do you have a problem?”

“Do you?”

Shane straightened and sighed. “Maybe.”

“Maybe?”

“We don’t even know him,” he said. “I wouldn’t be so quick to share your secrets with him.”

“I don’t exactly have any secrets,” Najia muttered.

“Whatever,” Shane slurred. “You know what I mean.”

“Not really.”

“The kid held a gun to my head.”

“Oh, poor Shane,” Najia mocked. “Like it’s not the first time you’ve looked Death in the face.”

“If I’m going down,” he said abruptly, “I’ll be damned if it’s by some kid who doesn’t even know the difference between a Glock and a Ruger.”

“Doesn’t matter what he knows as long as he knows where the trigger is,” Najia reminded him.

“Exactly. He could shoot anyone, any time, even by mistake, and that’s not a chance I’m willing to take.”

“Since when do you care if someone gets their brains blown to bits?”

“I don’t care, as long as it’s not you.”

“Oh.” Najia stared at the beer cases in front of her. She pointed to one at random. “How about that one?”

Shane huffed to himself and picked up the case. The make-shift cardboard handle ripped instantly and the cans tumbled and rolled across the floor.

“Fuckin’ dammit,” Shane muttered, kicking at a stray can. It bounced off the far wall and began spraying.

“Just get another one,” Najia said.

“I don’t want another,” Shane practically yelled.

“Alright,” Najia muttered, turning away. “Fine, Crybaby.”

Shane’s hand pulled at her shoulder and before she knew it, his lips were hard on hers. Najia stiffened but did not pull away until Shane did first. Her head spun as she stared blankly at him.

“What was that?” she asked softly.

Shane turned his back to her and grabbed another case of beer. Najia watched as he hoisted it into his arms and walked it down the aisle.

“Are you pleased with yourself?” Najia said, running after him.

“Should I be?”

“You can’t just go kissing whoever the hell you want.”

Shane shrugged and kept walking.

“I want it back,” Najia stammered.

Shane stopped, turned to her, and smiled. “Yeah?”

“No,” she said quickly. “No. Go away. You’re best friend’s waiting for you.”

“My best friend is dead,” Shane snapped.

“You’re trashed,” Najia hissed.

“Good.” Shane turned again and started walking. “You’re a shitty kisser.”

*****

Najia stared at the roof of the car. She was sprawled out in the back seat. She had half expected to see the sun streaming through the window. She turned to see two bodies sleeping soundly in the front seat. She pushed herself up and winced; her head was pounding. She drank more than she realized, but at least her stomach was still.

She stumbled out of the car and closed the door as quietly as she could. There was a fire going and Marlon and Gil stood with their coffee in hand. They looked up and smiled as she approached.

“What time is it?” she groaned.

“’Round five,” Marlon said.

“Who am I sleeping with?” The more important question.

Gil laughed. “Leah and Abigail.”

Najia sighed, relieved. “I don’t remember going to bed.”

“Leah put you to bed,” Marlon told her. “After you told her how much you hated men.”

“Oh.”

“They’re dick-weasels, as you put it,” Gil said.

Najia smiled apologetically.

“You also said we were best friends forever,” Leah’s voice said from behind Najia. She wrapped her arm around Najia’s shoulder.

“Sounds about right,” Najia muttered.

“’S’okay,” Leah said. “I could always use a BFF. And someone’s gotta take care of your drunk ass.”

“It won’t happen again.”

Leah smiled. “’Course not. But if you ever need me to kick someone’s ass, I’ll do it.”

“At least I have one friend in this hell hole.”

Leah pushed a bottle of pain killers into Najia’s hand. “We’ve got a coast to reach,” she reminded her. “If we get moving soon, we could be there by tomorrow.”

*****

Najia avoided Shane who in turn seemed to avoid her. Najia climbed into the car with Leah, Abigail, and Penny as they continued their journey to the coast.

“Do you want to talk about it?” Leah asked, looking in the rear view mirror at Najia.

“About what?”

“Why we hate men?”

“Oh.” Najia looked out the window. “No. It was stupid.”

“It’s okay,” Abigail said. “We can all hate men. They’re not exactly the brightest beings.”

“Did Shane do something?” Leah asked, narrowing her eyes in the mirror. “You warned me he was trouble.”

“You two seemed pretty friendly last night,” Najia muttered.

“Ah, that was just the booze talking,” Leah said, turning her eyes back to the dark road.

“Yeah, well, booze does a lot more than talk.”

Leah’s eyes flashed to the mirror once more. “What did he do? I’ll neuter him.”

Najia shook her head. “You don’t have to do that. That’s where his damn brain is.”

“So, it’ll kill him,” Abigail said. “What’s the problem?”

“What did he do?” Leah pressed.

“I don’t want to talk about it.”

“Talk.”

“It’s not a big deal.”

“It was to you last night.”

“That was the booze,” Najia pointed out.

“Something happened,” Abigail said. “They’ve been avoiding each other all morning.”

“If he so much as touched you-”

“Stop,” Najia shouted. She felt her face heat up in the darkness. “It was just a kiss,” she muttered.

“A good kiss?” Penny asked.

“No,” Najia said quickly. “I don’t know. I don’t remember. What does it matter? He was drunk.”

“Probably because Sam was flirting with you,” Leah said casually.

“Sam was not flirting with me.”

“Oh, please,” Abigail said.

“Men have such a dominance issue,” Leah continued. “Everyone wants to be the big dick in town.”

“They’re big babies with huge jealousy issues,” Abigail confirmed.

“No one has jealousy issues,” Najia muttered.

“Well, if it’s not a big deal,” Leah started, “then you should both be able to forget about it and move on. Just a little drunken mishap, hm?”

“Sure.”

“What if it was more?” Penny asked.

“Do you think his ego is too big to admit it?” Abigail said.

“Shane’s an arrogant ass that thrives off of making people feel shittier than he does,” Leah said.

“So?”

Leah turned to Abigail. “Oh, I don’t know, I thought we were just making fun on Shane. What were we talking about?”

“It wasn’t anything more,” Najia said. “Not to me, anyway.”

“Right,” Leah said with a nod. “So, fuck that guy.”

“Not literally, though,” Abigail said.

Leah shook her head. “Who cares what he thinks?”

“He’s an idiot if he thinks he has a chance with anyone,” Abigail said.

“Exactly.” Leah met Najia’s gaze in the mirror. “How’s that? Do I ace at being a BFF or what?”

29: 20
20

They stopped half way through the day to take another exit into town, scouting out a gas station where they fueled up for the last leg of their journey. Najia made her way inside the little mart where Shane stood staring at an assortment of hardened sugary treats, his hands in his pockets. Najia paused in the door way, sucked in a breath and walked passed him.

“Still avoiding me?”

She paused and turned to him. “You’re avoiding me.”

“Why would I be avoiding you?”

“Because you fucked up.”

Shane met her gaze, his lips pursed. “Yeah, I know,” he started. “I’m sorry. But don’t read too much into it, okay? I was just drunk. I think I even tried to pull something on Leah, too.”

Najia raised a brow. “Oh?”

Shane smiled. “You know you’ve had too much when you ask Gil if you can touch his weapon.” He turned completely towards her and shrugged. “I’m surprised he didn’t kill me right there.”

Najia pinched her lips. “Sounds like you had a fun night.”

Shane rolled his eyes. “Come on, I’m sorry. Can we just forget about it? People do stupid shit when they’re drunk. And there’s not much else to do in this wasteland.”

Najia forced a smiled. “Yeah, okay.”

Shane narrowed his eyes at her. “Try again, I don’t buy it.”

Najia sighed. “It’s fine,” she said. “I forgive you. I’m just exhausted and hung over.”

Shane smiled. “You’re telling me.” He pulled a CD out of his back pocket. “Can we be car buds again?”

“Depends,” Najia said. “What’s on the disk?”

“Three Days Grace.”

“Hell, yeah.”

*****

They stopped one last time for the night, building their fire and eating the food they packed in the cars. Vincent was back on his feet thanks to a couple of pain killers and enjoying spending time with his big brother. He bounced around excitedly, begging Harvey to let him show off his stitches, but Harvey remained firm, reminding him that it could get infected again.

Najia bunked with Leah and Abigail for the night, and to her surprise, Shane did not argue. Leah pressed Najia about the incident with Shane, but Najia assured them that her and Shane were on good terms.

In the morning, they gathered once more for their comforting ritual of hot coffee, prepped by Gil and Marlon as it always was. Awake and eager, they climbed into their respected vehicles one last time for the last leg of their journey.

Najia’s knuckles whitened as she gripped the steering wheel, her heart racing faster and faster with each passing minute. It was just a matter of hours before they reached the coast. Her stomach knotted sickeningly.

“I don’t think I’ve ever felt more scared,” Najia muttered. “Not even in a chokehold.”

Shane stared out his window quietly for a moment. “He’ll be there,” he said, his breath against the window.

“They’ll be there.”

Shane met her gaze. “What if they’re not?”

“We keep looking.” She tightened her grip on the wheel as if she were about to lose control of the vehicle and stared out the windshield.

“I don’t want to know,” Shane started. “I don’t want to see if they’re there or not.”

“All this could be for nothing.”

“We could turn around.”

Najia turned back to him. “Turn around?”

“Yeah,” he began. “We could not go to the coast. Drive around the country. Say we’re going to the coast. We’d get there, eventually.”

“But we want to get there,” Najia reminded him. “We wanted to.”

Shane looked out into the darkness. “We did.” He paused for a moment. “I’m scared, too.”

“You can’t be scared,” Najia muttered. “I was banking on you to be the sane one here.”

The highway split as they neared the edge of the country. The convoy followed it around the ramp until it brought them onto a narrower road which they followed across a bridge and into the city. They navigated the dark, empty streets until the buildings began to shrink and thin and they drove along beach houses big and small. They reached the main strip which stretched north and south, seemingly endlessly. The far side of the road was lined with lined parking spots, just on the edge of the beach, while the other side was lined with various attraction buildings.

The convoy pulled across the street, into the lot, and one by one, climbed out of their vehicles. They stood in silence as they listened to the waves crashing on the beach. Their headlights illuminated the beach. Trash and debris littered the sand by the lot. They could just barely make out the peaks of the waves crashing against sand and rocks.

Najia climbed over the damaged cement wall that separated the road from the beach. Her feet sunk into the sand as she neared the ocean. The other survivors stepped carefully onto the beach, wandering aimlessly, as if expecting a welcome party.

Najia stepped mindlessly over the bodies that were scattered along the beach. The Shadow People had been here, just months ago. The beach-goers suffered the same fate as the city dwellers. But Najia didn’t notice their untimely graves. Her eyes searched the beach as if expecting a sign from her grandfather. How much further north should she go? Would she know Stardew Valley if she saw it? Was it really, truly, a safe place? Or would she walk into a sight much like the one there on that beach?

A chill went up her spine at the thought and she tried to push it out of her head. Her journey wasn’t over just yet. She still had to go north, and north she would go. But what of the others? Where did their journey take them? Would they accompany her, or would they part ways?

Her eyes searched the beach for Shane, no longer at her side. She found him standing by the ocean, the waves crashing around his feet.

Shane looked out over the water, his hands in his pockets. He didn’t acknowledge Najia when she stopped at his side, and she didn’t speak. They stood in silence as the sea breeze cooled their sunburnt faces.

“I don’t know what I was expecting,” Shane said softly.

“It’s not over,” Najia reminded him. “It’s far from over.”

His brows knit together as he met her gaze. “It is over, Najia. We’ve traveled across the country and for what? Some stupid idea that we’d find family? They’re gone. There’s nothing left in this world. We lost.”

“How can you say that?” Najia hissed. “Look at all the people we’ve found. Survivors. We’re what’s left. We can fix this.”

“Sooner or later, we will all die at the hands of those bastards, and you need to accept that reality.”

“There’s still a chance,” Najia begged. “We’ve made it this far. If we just follow the coast, we could get to Stardew-”

“Stardew Valley doesn’t exist,” Shane barked at her. “Your grandfather is dead. Marnie and Jas are dead. Everyone’s dead.”

Najia turned away and bit her lip. “I’m not giving up,” she said quietly.

“You’re on your own, then.” Shane turned away from her and made his way across the beach.

“Where do you think you’re gonna go?” she shouted after him, but he ignored her. Najia called after him, but he stepped out of the safety of the headlights and disappeared into the night.

30: 21
21

Najia stared dumbly into the darkness where Shane disappeared, expecting him to return, but he did not. She did not even notice Sam and Leah standing at her side until Leah spoke.

“What now?”

Najia marched back to the cars, still fuming. “I’m following the coast north,” she said simply.

“Alone?” Sam asked, following her.

She paused in the parking lot and turned to him. “You guys can do whatever the hell you want. But I’m going north. That’s where Stardew Valley is. That’s where I’m heading.”

“I’ll come with you,” Leah said.

“You don’t have to do that,” Najia said, pulling the car door open angrily.

“Yes I do. We’re BFFs, remember?” Leah shrugged. “And I really have no where else to go, anyway. If you think Stardew Valley is safe, I’m going with you.”

“Us, too,” Sam said. “Maybe Dad knows about that place. Maybe that’s why he wanted us to meet him there. Maybe he’s there.”

“That’s a lot of maybes,” Leah said.

“Maybe,” Sam muttered. “But I’m not giving up yet.”

Slowly, the rest of the survivors joined them in the parking lot as they continued to debate their next move.

“Count me in,” Abigail said. “I’m not getting left behind anywhere.”

“You know you’ve got me an’ Marlon,” Gil said. “As long as Doc comes along, too.”

“I’m not getting left behind, either,” Harvey muttered.

“I’m down,” Alex said with a shrug. He patted Dusty’s head.

“Us, too,” Maru said.

“Doesn’t seem like I have a choice,” Demetrius mumbled.

Clint, Gunther, Penny, and Morris agreed to join as well, neither one of them anxious to be left behind.

“You don’t have to do this,” Najia muttered. “I’m not promising you anything.”

“Better than sitting around waiting to die,” Alex said.

“Let’s get movin’, then,” Marlon said. “It’s like D-Day over here.”

They piled into the cars once more and their convoy continued their way north up the shore. Leah, Abigail, and Penny joined Najia in her car, Leah taking Shane’s empty seat beside her.

“Are you sure you don’t want to look for him?” she asked Najia once more.

Najia shook her head. “Fuck it. He’s a self-centered ass who would rather just be alone to die.”

“Doesn’t mean he should be,” Leah said.

“He can do whatever the hell he wants. I’m not going to stop him.”

“I didn’t think you were the kind of person to leave someone behind,” Leah muttered.

“I didn’t leave him behind,” Najia hissed. “He chose to leave. There’s a difference.”

“Well, I don’t plan on leaving,” Leah said. “So, you still have me.”

“I don’t need anyone.”

“I know you don’t need anyone,” Leah said. “But BFFs stick together.”

“You’re never going to let me live that down.”

“What? We can’t be BFFs?”

Najia rolled her eyes but smiled. “I guess I could use someone on my side.”

“Don’t call me your BFF,” Abigail started, “but I can be on your side, too.”

Leah turned in her seat. “What about you, Penny?”

“I don’t normally label strangers I’ve only known for less than a week BFFs, but what the hell?”

“That’s the spirit,” Abigail said. “What have we got to lose?”

*****

The convoy slowed as a figure with a flashlight waved them down on the road. They had driven through the rest of the afternoon, continuing to follow the coast north before the figure approached them from behind a grouping of rocks. The figure leaned against the Hummer as Marlon rolled down his window. After a moment of chatting, the figure climbed in and the Hummer continued forward. Gil waved their group onward, signaling them to follow.

“Another survivor?” Leah said, peering through the window.

“Where the hell is he taking us?” Najia muttered.

“Should we even be trusting him?” Abigail said.

The Hummer turned off the road and bounced its way across a torn up, over grown, abandoned parking lot. They followed it down a dirt road where the trees thickened around them and the road seemed to turn into something more man made. They drove further still until the trees opened up to a small meadow where the tall grass was already flattened from previous entry with other vehicles. They followed this path out to where the old power lines stood tall. They turned downward, across an old railroad bed, and into the trees once more until the terrain grew rockier as they neared the base of a mountain where the Hummer finally came to a stop. Marlon, Gil, Harvey, and the figure stepped out of the vehicle and the headlights turned off.

Najia, Leah, Abigail, and Penny stepped out slowly as the others followed suit behind them. They approached the front of the group, flashlights in hand and inspected the figure before them.

“Daddy!” Vincent ran up to the man, jumping into his strong arms.

“Look who decided to show up,” the man said with a wide grin.

Sam and Jodi pushed their way through. Kent wrapped an arm around his oldest son and kissed his wife.

“Well, Kent,” Marlon said. “This is the crew.”

Kent seemed to look them up and down and nodded. “Quite a crew you’ve got here. Bigger than we’ve got.”

“There are more survivors?” Alex asked.

“A few others I bumped into. We’ve been hiding out down here mostly. But between you and me, I didn’t think I could take it much longer, being alone with them. Rather whiney bunch, really.” Kent motioned them to follow him and he lead the way through the woods until they reached a thicker gathering of trees. A large fire cast shadows against a grouping of rocks with an overhang, where three women and a man stood as their visitors approached.

“This is Elliott,” Kent said, pointing to the man first and making his way around. “Haley, her sister Emily, and their friend Sandy.”

Marlon took the liberty to introduce the members of their group.

“Welcome to our little hide out,” Kent said. “Make yourselves comfortable.”

*****

The survivors were gathered around the fire, getting to know the newest members of their group and talking quietly amongst themselves.

“So, where are you lot headin’?” Kent inquired.

“Stardew Valley,” Leah said confidently.

Kent raised a questioning eye brow.

“Najia’s grandpap is supposedly there,” Gil said.

“Assuming he’s not some crazy conspiracist,” Alex added.

“Claims it’s safe there.”

“Place probably doesn’t even exist,” Sebastian muttered.

“Oh, it’s real,” Kent said. “But it’s nothing more than its name suggests; a valley.”

“There’s legend that there is a bright star that can only be seen from the valley in the winter sky,” Marlon explained. “It has been known as the Winter Star. People believed anyone who laid eyes on it would be blessed with good fortune.”

“So, that settles it,” Alex said, turning to Najia. “Your grandfather is crazy.”

“There are a lot of legends that have formed around the valley,” Kent said. “But they’re only legends that have died over the years. Stardew Valley is nothing more than an inhabited valley between the mountains.”

Najia shifted in her seat and kept her gaze on the fire. “Well, I’m going there.”

“There’s nothing there,” Kent said. “You’d be wasting your time.”

“I’m going to Stardew Valley,” Najia practically shouted. She met Kent’s gaze, then looked around the group. “I need to see it for myself.”

31: 22
22

Najia couldn’t sleep. She tossed and turned, not just because the ground was cold and hard, despite the padding of the sleeping bag provided by the prepared Kent, but because her mind raced, stuck on the legend of Stardew Valley. What if Kent was right? She could essentially be walking into nothing more than a vast, deserted valley. But the possibility of that didn’t seem all that bad. So what if nothing existed there? So what if her grandfather wasn’t there? It was a place to be. It had been the only thing keeping her going for so long. Kent had been able to make a hideout there in the forest; why couldn’t she make a home for herself in the valley? If it seemed to mythical as everyone seemed to believe, there was a small chance that the Shadow People would even bother to keep tabs on the place. Whether her grandfather was there or not, it could be safe.

And after all this time, she wasn’t about to give up on it. She was going to get to the valley and she would take matters into her own hands, whatever may happen. With or without the rest of the group. It was all she had left; all she hung on to. She was going to see it to the end.

“Hey,” Leah whispered to her. She scooted closer to Najia until their arms touched in the darkness.

“Hi.”

“You’re not sleeping.”

“Sorry,” Najia muttered. “I didn’t mean to keep you up.”

“What’s eating you?”

Najia hesitated. “The valley.”

Leah didn’t say anything for a moment. Her voice was softer when she finally spoke. “Are you still going?”

“Yes.”

Leah was quiet again. She leaned into Najia. “I don’t think you should.”

“What? Why?”

“I’m afraid you’ll just be disappointed.”

“It doesn’t matter what’s there,” Najia said. “Or what’s not there. I’m seeing it through.”

“You shouldn’t go alone.”

“I thought you were coming with me?”

Leah hesitated. “There’s a lot of us, now,” she said. “We’re a big, obvious group. I don’t think we can chance too much traveling.”

“What happened to being BFFs?” Najia accused her.

“We are,” Leah insisted. “And as your BFF, I’m advising you to stay here. We’ve got a good thing going. A safe place to hide out. Hell, we’ve got a soldier on our side. A doctor. We can make a home for ourselves here.”

“A home? In this dark hell hole? This is what you’ve settled for?”

“Do you think it will be any different in the valley? It will be the same, dark hell hole.”

Najia moved away from Leah’s body, but Leah’s hand touched hers.

“Stay here with us,” she begged Najia. “You’ve been on the run for so long. Stop running.”

“I’m not running.”

“Please,” Leah said. “Just think about it?”

Najia sighed. “Yeah. Okay.” But her mind was already made up.

*****

Najia sipped her coffee quietly by the fire as Marlon, Gil, and Kent discussed heatedly with each other. Leah stubbornly brought up Najia’s intentions to continue to the valley. Not to Najia’s surprise, the other’s had quickly given up on that plan once Kent confirmed there was nothing there for them. They were all too eager to settle into the safety of the hideout that Kent had built up. Kent had tried to convince Najia to stay, but Marlon and Gil took her side in the matter.

“Let the girl do what she wants,” Gil said to him. “No one is forced to stay anywhere they don’t want to be.”

“There’s no sense losing survivors,” Kent said. “We need to stick together. Who knows how many more of us are out there.”

“We’ve already lost one,” Marlon said. “Took off and left. And that’s his choice.”

“She’s an easy target alone,” Kent argued. “She’ll be walking into her death.”

“I think she can hold her own,” Marlon said. “And what if she’s right? What if there’s something there?”

“Then she can come back and tell us,” Kent grunted.

Gil scoffed at him. “Why would she want to come back and share the good news with the people who tried to tell her it was all a lie?”

“Then she doesn’t have to and she can be safe in the valley.”

“It’s not worth arguing about,” Najia interrupted them. “I’m going and I don’t care who comes with me.”

“We’ll come with you,” Gil confirmed, but Najia shook her head.

“No. Kent is right. There’s no sense splitting up. It could be safer here.”

“Since when have we ever cared about safety?” Marlon pointed out.

“I don’t expect anyone to follow me on a whim.”

“We just figured there’d be a chance for us to fight some more of those bastards,” Gil said. “We’d never pass up an opportunity to fight.”

“Don’t argue with us,” Marlon warned. “We’re in this to the end and we’re going to go, guns ablazing.”

“Everyone else can stay and hide out here,” Gil said. His eyes scanned the group. “Anyone coming along with us?”

They were quiet as they exchanged glances with one another.

Marlon cleared his throat. “Good. We’ve weeded out the weaklings.”

Najia looked into her mug and said nothing. She felt more determined to get away from the group, now. She felt guilty that Marlon and Gil could potentially be following her to their deaths. While she had enjoyed each of their company over the last couple of months, she wanted to be alone again. She needed to take her own chance, and she wasn’t willing to let anyone else risk their lives. They had a safe place, and they deserved it.

*****

It was late in the morning when she followed Gil, Marlon, Alex, Leah, and Kent back towards the vehicles. They had transported most of their supplies back to camp and were about to make the trip into town to stock up some more.

Najia let Leah drive, following the Hummer across the power lines and back toward the coast where they followed the road south-east towards the larger city. They were closer to the interstate than Najia realized. The long, deserted road stretched north and south just outside of the city, which she could see below from the grocery store at the top of the hill.

She followed the others as they marched across the parking lot and into the store, pausing just outside the building as they picked their way carefully through the shattered glass doors. This was her chance to get away, alone, back on the road. She could take the interstate north as far as she could until it narrowed through the mountains and into Stardew Valley.

She turned her back to the store and looked over her shoulder. They were deep inside now, picking through the cans of food eagerly, anxious to bring back whatever they could. Najia jogged back towards the car, still running quietly, and slid into the driver’s seat. Without hesitation, she peeled out of the parking lot and followed the road to the interstate, heading northbound.

32: 23
23

The land was still flat near the coastal side of the country, and though it was too dark to see, Najia knew that the distant mountains would be looming before her as she neared them. The air was cooler as she drove through the day, further and further north, and the land gradually began to elevate. The interstate narrowed and started to slope and twist as it neared the mountain range, forcing her to slow her speed, which was well over eighty. She slowed even more as her headlights flashed over a dark figure, standing on the edge of the road. She pulled to a stop beside the man who had his hands shoved in his pockets.

“I wondered when you’d find me,” Shane’s voice said.

“Don’t get too excited,” Najia said. “I wasn’t looking for you. I’m going to Stardew Valley.”

“I know,” he said simply.

“What are you doing out here?”

Shane shrugged. “Stardew Valley or bust.”

“Why?”

“Well,” he hesitated. “I realized I really had nothing to live for, and wandering around the world aimlessly really wasn’t going to accomplish anything.” He paused. “I guess I wasn’t ready to give up, and the valley felt like another goal to work towards. Plus, I figured I’d find you there. And that didn’t seem so bad.”

Najia grew quiet. “And what if we don’t find anything?”

“Like you said; we’ll find something else to get to.” He smiled to her. “I heard the Fern Islands are great this time of year.”

“You know,” Najia said, returning his smile, “I’ve never been.”

“You have just got to go,” Shane said mockingly. “Their Maki Rolls are to die for.”

“So, Stardew Valley or bust?” She nodded to the empty seat beside her.

“Alright,” Shane said, climbing in beside her. “Just don’t go picking up any more hitch hikers. You got lucky, this time.”

*****

They climbed higher into elevation as they neared the night, pausing only for a moment to find the easiest way through the mountains on their map. If the map was accurate, and if Stardew Valley hadn’t changed since the abrupt invasion, the could make their way around the mountain range and follow a set of train tracks through them and straight into the valley.

They followed the route as best as they could, climbing higher and higher, slowly working their way around the range. Shane took a turn driving them through the night and by morning, they had reached the abandoned tracks. Though it was over grown with weeds, it was level enough for them to drive through, so Najia took over, following the tracks as they twisted their way through the mountains.

But as the day wore on, the temperature continued to drop and a light snow started to fall, illuminated by the car’s headlights.

“I wish I stole Kent’s sleeping bags,” Najia muttered. “I didn’t quite plan for the weather change in the mountains.”

“It will be warmer once we reach they valley,” Shane pointed out. “It’s not winter, yet.”

The snow fell more heavily as they drove into the night and the wind picked up, howling around them as they continued to navigate their way through the mountains. Before long, Najia found herself squinting through the windshield in an attempt to see through the heavy snow, but she had already lost sight of the tracks that guided her.

She argued with Shane but eventually agreed to stop for the night. He was right after all; there was no sense getting lost in the mountains and freezing to death. Of all the ways to die in this world, it would be a shame to be defeated by nature.

Shane draped the one blanket they did have over them and Najia turned off the engine. They stared up at the ceiling as the warmth quickly left the car and the cold took over until they could see their breaths. Najia crossed her arms in an attempt to hold the heat in her body.

“We could cuddle,” Shane joked.

“I’d rather freeze to death,” Najia said through her teeth.

“Ouch.”

Najia listened as his body shifted and he turned over.

“You can keep the car running.”

“We can’t waste the gas.”

“We can’t be that far,” Shane said.

“We can deal with a little shivering, too,” Najia pointed out.

Shane sighed. “You’re going to make this a long night.”

“Did you see all the sights while you ran away like a child?”

“Miles and miles of highway,” Shane said sarcastically. “Did you enjoy the beach?”

“We found five more survivors,” Najia said. “Sam’s father was one of them.”

Shane propped himself up in his make-shit bed. “Really?”

“They’ve got a whole hide out and everything. Living the good life.”

Shane settled back into the seat. “Hm.”

“Do you think its weird?” Najia asked. “That through all this, a family has managed to stay alive, together?”

“Lucky, I suppose. Dumb luck. Like winning the lottery. Doesn’t happen often.”

“Everyone else is alone. We’ve all lost people. Yet, they get to be together.”

“You’ve got ol’ gramps,” Shane pointed out.

Najia smiled a half smile at the ceiling. “I guess so,” she said softly. “And you’ve got Marnie and Jas.”

*****

When they awoke, the snow was still coming down heavily. They had made it through the cold night, letting the car heat up every couple of hours, but the fuel ran dangerously low.

“We can’t sit around,” Najia said anxiously. “We’ll be stranded here.”

“We’re already stuck in the snow,” Shane pointed out. “There’s no sense wasting the gas trying to get through.”

“So, we’re supposed to just wait and hope it stops and melts?”

“It won’t be melting any time soon,” Shane said. “But it will stop eventually. And when it does, we can trek through it.”

“We don’t have time for eventually,” Najia argued. “We don’t know when that will be, and we don’t have gas to last us much longer.”

“We’re not going out into the storm,” Shane said, his voice raising.

“I’m not going to sit here and hope it stops before we freeze to death.”

“You’re being irrational,” Shane growled.

Najia pushed the door open with all her might. The snow was still light and fluffy and fortunately had not grown too deep at that point. She stumbled into the snow, slamming the door behind her. Her flashlight illuminated the flakes falling around her, but proved useless in guiding her way.

Shane pushed his way out of the car, chasing after her and grabbing her wrist.

“Will you stop being stubborn, for once in your damned life?” he hissed at her.

“We don’t need the tracks,” Najia insisted. “We’re so close. All we have to do is follow the break in the trees. The valley isn’t far. We just have to go down and then we’ll be out of the storm.”

“We can wait it out until we can see better.”

“See better?” Najia yelled over the howling wind. “It can’t possibly any darker out here. There’s no sun to keep this warm. We can’t stay up here in this storm, Shane. We need to leave.” She pulled her hand out of his grip and trudged through the snow.

Shane followed her wordlessly, pulling his jacket tight around him. He wasn’t sure if she had gone completely mad or not. Maybe she had a point. Or maybe they were just walking to their deaths.

“No, Najia,” he shouted to her. “This is a bad idea.”

“It’s close,” she said to him. She pointed to the sky. “It’s lighter, Shane. See? It’s lighter. It’s real. Stardew Valley is real.”

“Najia,” Shane growled. “Stop. We’re going to die out here.”

“I’m not going back,” she insisted.

“It’s not real, Najia. You’re seeing things. There’s nothing out here.”

Shane started to lose sigh of Najia. Her dark figure disappeared into the darkness, her flashlight lost in the heavy snow which kicked up around them in the wind.

“Najia!”

Shane ran forward, but she was no where to be seen. He called for her again, but his voice was lost in the wind. He stumbled forward, his heart racing as he searched for her. He shouted, but the wind drowned out his voice. He reached desperately into the air, hoping to grab her, but his hands fell, grabbing at air.

He stumbled through the snow as he tried to run, but quickly grew disoriented. His heart raced and his head spun as, but he pushed onward aimlessly until a hand gripped his shoulder pulling him backwards. He turned quickly, panicked, as a grey bearded man stood before him, shining a light in his face.

“Where is she?” the man shouted at him. “Where’s my granddaughter?”

33: 24
24

Najia pushed herself off of Shane’s lap. She blinked in the bright daylight as her mind slowly came into focus.

“It’s about time,” Shane muttered. “Thought you were going to be out all day.”

Najia’s eyes scanned her surroundings. They were sitting on a road, just outside of a dark tunnel. The light was bright and warm.

“Where are we?” she asked, turning back to Shane.

Shane smiled. “Stardew Valley.”

“It’s real,” she whispered, taking in the sights. She turned her face to the sky, warmed by the son’s rays. “We made it.”

“Well, hello, Sleeping Beauty,” a voice said.

Najia turned to the familiar voice as he emerged from the dark tunnel. She pushed herself onto her feet, stumbling towards him. "Grandpa!“

"Easy now,” he said as he held his granddaughter in his arms. “Found you two hopeless souls in that snow storm. Here, brought you both some water. Drink it slowly, you’re dehydrated. When you’re able, I’ll bring you into town.”

“Town?” Najia stared at the canteens he pushed into her hands.

“Well, a little something Linus and I put together,” he said proudly. “There’s a few of us living here, you know. Got some good crops going. Plenty of sunshine and rain here. Just like life should be.”

“We have others, too,” Najia said quickly. “We need to bring them here.”

“In time,” he said, putting a hand on her shoulder. “We’ll need to wait for the storms to pass before it’s safe to go back out there.” He turned back towards the tunnel. “Rest up,” he instructed them. “I’ll get the ol’ truck.”

Najia watched as he disappeared in the tunnel, his cheery whistling echoing off the walls.

“This can’t be real,” she muttered, turning to Shane.

“I would have thought so, too, if he didn’t have a gun to my head.”

Najia stared at him. “What do you mean? What happened?”

“You took off into the storm like the stubborn woman that you are,” Shane reminded her. “Gramps there had seen us coming over the mountain, so he headed up to investigate and found us wandering around in the storm. He said if I lost ya, he’d have my head on a stake to scare off the crows in his garden.”

Najia looked up, studying the blue sky and the way the white fluffy clouds floated lazily passed.

“I thought I was going crazy at that point, but fortunately we found you and I could live to see another day. You were exhausted and disoriented and shaking like a damn leaf, but we managed to drag your ass out of the storm and into shelter for a moment where he kept his old snowmobile. Did not think that thing would get us off the mountain, but it did.”

Najia’s cheeks were wet as her eyes continued to follow the clouds. She neared the sun, which seemed far brighter than she ever remembered it, and she had to close her eyes and turn away from the glorious sight. She stumbled into Shane and sobbed into his chest. He wrapped her arms around her and rest his chin on her head until an old, puttering engine echoed off the tunnel walls. An old, battered green truck emerged, shuttering slightly as it came to a stop beside them.

“All aboard,” Najia’s grandfather said with a smile. “And I’ll show you a little place I call Pelican Town.”

*****

Her grandfather first took them down the dirt road into the little place he called Pelican Town. Two homes stood erect, the only buildings in the lush, green meadow. He drove the truck besides one of the houses, just by the edge of the river, and put it into park.

“Linus and I have been doing a lot of clearing and building,” he said as he walked them through the little town. A man made bridge arched its way over the river to the east, and to the south, a trodden path through some brush brought them to the beach. To the west, a thick forest lined the little town. “Lots of resources to use to our advantage, so that’s what we’ve been doing,” he continued. “Plenty of room for a whole crew of survivors. Come, I’ll show you the farm.”

He lead them down the dirt road they drove through to the west, north of the forest, to a wide open space, filled with crops growing high. In the fields, a man and a woman worked side by side, their backs to them.

“As you can see,” he said proudly, his hands on his hips, “life is pretty normal ‘round here.”

Shane squinted in the bright sunlight as the woman stood and stretched, her brown curls bouncing around her shoulders. She turned to the visitors, and her warm, welcoming smile disappeared when her gaze met Shane’s. Her hands flew to her mouth in disbelief.

Shane’s heart stopped. He wanted to run to Marnie, but something wasn’t right. Where was Jas?

“Shane!”

Shane turned towards the familiar voice, dropping to his knees as the little girl ran to him, jumping in his arms. He buried his face in her hair and held her tight.

“I knew you’d find us, Shane!”

“Ah,” Najia’s grandfather said to himself. “So, that’s Shane.”

Najia’s heart leapt as she watched Shane kiss Jas’s face. The little girl giggled, her arms locked around his neck.

“I knew you’d come,” she said. “I told you, Aunt Marnie!”

Marnie pulled Shane to his feet, into her chest, kissing his cheek. Shane winced like an embarrassed child, but did not pull away from her.

“How the hell did you find this place?” Shane asked when Marnie finally let him go.

“I could ask you the same thing,” Marnie said, her hands on her hips.

Shane smiled and met Najia’s gaze. “Fortunate enough to run into this stubborn women with the crazy conspiracist grandfather.”

“Well, I’ve been called worse,” her grandfather muttered.

“We made our way north away from the city,” Marnie said to him. She hesitated. “We tried to find you after we were separated,” she stammered, “but they were on our trail… I didn’t know what to do… I can’t believe you’re here.”

“Yeah,” Shane muttered. “Me neither.”

“We just kept going north,” Marnie continued. “It seemed the further north we went, the further away from those creatures we were. That’s when Lewis found us.” She indicated to the man that was working beside her in the fields. He stood beside her now, smiling at their new visitors.

“Fortunately for Marnie,” he said to them, “she was just outside our doorstep and I was that way on a mission.”

“A mission?” Najia repeated.

“We make it a point to scout out the area as often as we can,” her grandfather said. “Search for survivors, try to keep tabs on the Shadow People, truck in some outside supplies. Whatever we need to do.”

“There’s a hideout just south of the range, near the coast,” Najia explained. “There’s a lot more of us. They should be here.”

“Yes, of course,” her grandfather said. “We can bring them here once the storm settles. In fact,” he paused for a moment. “There’s someone else I should introduce you to.”

The five of them followed him south of the farm and into the forest where another small cabin stood. Penned in beside the house were a couple of chickens and cows.

“Lewis built us this house,” Jas said to Shane excitedly. “Look! We have chickens and cows. And they found me some books and dolls, too.”

Before them, at the edge of a lake, a man was chopping wood on a stump. He stood and smiled as they approached.

“Linus,” Najia’s grandfather said. “My granddaughter, Najia.”

“I could have guessed that, John” he said. “Fortunately she got the good looking genes from her mother.”

“Where’s Rasmodius?” John asked.

Linus threw his thumb over his shoulder. “Inside, fucking with the storm.”

“He’s our key to this war,” John said as he lead Najia and Shane deeper into the forest. After a quarter of a mile, there was a small opening where another little cabin stood. John pushed the door open abruptly. The house was dark except for a single candle in the middle of the room.

“That’s enough, Ras,” John called into the house. “Najia made it, after all.”

A shadowy figure moved about the room, lighting more candles as he passed. “What did I tell you about barging in, John?” the man muttered.

“Cut the storm,” John said. “You almost killed my granddaughter.”

The room lightened, revealing Rasmodius. He looked to Najia and smiled.

“Rasmodius is kind of a wizard,” John said, turning to Najia and Shane.

“Kind of?” Rasmodius echoed, insulted.

John ignored him. “When we see suspicious movement in the mountain, he calls for a storm to protect us from any unwanted visitors.”

“Have you seen Shadow People?” Shane asked.

“Not lately,” John explained. “When the invasion first happened, they were around more frequently, scouting things out. We were able to draw them away pretty quickly. Fortunately for us, they don’t bother fight with rough weather. After a few incidents, they decided to stay away from the range.”

“Is that why there’s light, here?” Najia asked. “Because of Rasmodius?”

“I have nothing to do with that,” the wizard said. “It’s a magic all in its own.”

“I don’t understand,” Najia said. “How did you know about this place? How did you know it would be safe?”

John shrugged. “I may have been here once or twice.”

Rasmodius snorted. John shot him a glare before continuing.

“Sure, I believed the legends. You know me, Naj; I can’t stay away from something interesting. I’ve seen the Winter Star with my own eyes, yanno. And I met Rasmodius who has lived here for many years, almost undetected.”

“I would have preferred to remain undetected,” Rasmodius said with a sigh. “But your gramps is a good man, and I knew our world was going to be in some trouble. He and Linus were here when the invasion happened, and they made it their goal to make this valley a safe place for any survivors to give humans a chance to win their world back.”

“It may be a bit or a stretch,” John said carefully. “But, look what we’ve got here; a place where the darkness can’t touch us. A place where the Shadow People wouldn’t be able to step foot. We’ve got a chance, here, and I’m taking it. And with a wizard on our side, nothing can stop us.”

“I can’t win this war, John,” Rasmodius warned him. “My magic isn’t as all powerful as you may think. There are limitations.”

“And we’re going to use every bit of your magic as we can.”

Rasmodius rolled his eyes. “I’m just a tool in your game,” he muttered.

“Don’t start with me, Ras. You agreed to help us out. In fact, it was your idea.”

“You’re just lucky I didn’t banish you from the valley the first chance I got.”

John smirked and turned his back to the wizard. “What do ya say we get those friends of yours, hm?”

34: 25
25

The old green truck groaned as it climbed the steep, mountain road out of Stardew Valley. There wasn’t any sign of the snow storm that had taken place earlier. The grass was green and lush as the truck sped through the mountain meadows. As they crested the peak, the sky began to darken and the valley disappeared behind them until they were back in the darkness of the world.

“I still can’t believe it,” Najia muttered as the dark mist shrouded over their world once more. “It doesn’t make any sense.”

“Magic, my girl,” John said to his granddaughter. “Just a little magic is all we need in this world. It grows each day. The light gets brighter.” He paused and smiled. “I swear, it reaches further and further away from the valley. Little by little.”

Najia smiled as she settled into her seat.

“So, tell me everything,” John said to her. “We’ve got a bit of a drive ahead of us. I want to know everything.”

“There’s not much to say,” Najia said quietly. “The invasion happened and I high-tailed it out of the city on some ridiculous quest to find the mythical Stardew Valley.”

“Don’t get sour on me,” John said.

“What do you want me to say?” Najia said, turning to him. “It was awful. You wouldn’t understand since you were up here in happy sunshine land.”

“Najia,” John warned.

“All you give me are some crazy directions and you expect me to just survive and get there? What if I didn’t?”

“Well, it would be a right shame, then,” he muttered. “But you did make it.”

“You have no idea what we’ve been through,” Najia muttered.

“I thought you were happy to find me.”

“I am.” Najia hesitated. “I’m happy this is all real. But…”

“But?”

Najia turned towards her grandfather, though she could barely see him in the darkness. “There are a lot of people that will never know of this place. People that have died in their most frightful moments. There’s a war going on. If you think I’m just going to kick back and relax while everyone else suffers… well, you’re wrong.”

“I never thought that of you for a moment,” John said. “Why do you think I’ve gone through all this trouble? I want every survivor to come here. We can build an army and take on those bastards.”

“It won’t be that easy,” Najia said. “They’re relentless. Tricky.” She hesitated. “They’re scary.”

John cleared his throat. “Tell me about these people I’m supposed to be bringing home.”

Najia let her gaze drift out the window. “Well,” she said softly. “There’s Marlon and Gil and Harvey - he’s a doctor.”

“No shit? We could use one of ‘em.”

“There’s a family, too. Jodi, Kent, their son Sam and Vincent. Probably around Jas’s age.”

John’s eyes flashed to the rear view mirror. “That girl never stopped talkin’ about ya, kid.”

Shane met his gaze briefly. “Thanks for keeping her safe.”

“She ya kid?”

Shane hesitated and looked away. “God daughter.”

“Well,” John said, turning his gaze back to the road. “She’s a smart one. Nothin’ gets by her.”

They chatted casually as they drove through the rest of the day. The trip was quicker without the snow storm getting in their way, and they reached the edge of the mountain range by midnight. Shane took over driving for John while he napped in the back seat, driving through until morning when they neared the coast.

“Are you okay?” Najia asked Shane quietly as she directed him the way to the hideout. “You’ve been quiet.”

Shane shrugged. “Just hate to leave her again.”

Najia smiled. “We’ll be back in no time. And at least you know she’s safe.”

Shane pinched his lips. “For now.”

“Stardew Valley is safe,” Najia said.

Shane met her gaze. “But for how much longer?” He paused and turned back to the road. “This isn’t over. Not by a long shot.”

Najia didn’t answer him as she peered out the window. They drove along the coastal roads, stopping when the headlights flashed over two figures. Shane leaned out of the window as Kent and Alex approached.

“Well, look who came back,” Alex hissed. “Two cowards.”

“Watch it,” Shane growled at him.

“Enough,” Najia warned. “Or you don’t get a free pass into Stardew Valley.”

“You’re kidding.”

The back window rolled down and John stuck his arm out. “I’m the crazy grandfather,” he said with a smile.

Alex stared at the man in disbelief for a moment but did not shake his waiting hand. “It’s real? You found it?”

“Bring your sunglasses,” Najia said. “You guys coming or not?”

*****

They followed Alex and Kent back towards the hideout. Leah was the first to greet them, pointing an angry finger at Najia.

“I can’t believe you left,” she hissed at her.

Najia pushed her hand out of her face. “Good thing I did,” she said, “because I found Stardew Valley.”

Leah stared at her blankly. Her gaze moved towards John who stood behind his granddaughter. The others began to murmur from around the fire.

“It’s real?” Maru said.

“Is it safe?” Jodi asked.

“It’s real, it’s safe, and there’s a one way train going back there,” Najia said. “Get in now or stay behind.”

They hesitated, looking to one another, then to Kent.

“Hell, I’m coming. No one said this was the place to be, yanno. Stardew Valley or bust.”

“There’s really light there?” Penny asked.

“Warm sunshine,” John said. “Cool rain, lush green grass, pretty pink flowers; you name it, we have it.”

“How can you be sure it’s so safe?” Morris asked.

“The light keeps those bastards away for one thing,” John said.

Morris narrowed his eyes at him. “And how is there still light there?”

“It’s a mythical little valley. Believe in a little magic, will ya?”

Morris crossed his arms, unconvinced.

“I’ve been there since the beginning of this mess,” John assured him. “We’ve had no trouble at all with the Shadow People. As far as they’re concerned, the mountains are too treacherous to even bother investigate. They have no reason to believe any human could survive up there.”

“If it’s so treacherous,” Morris argued, “then how are we supposed to be able to survive there?”

“Let’s just say it will be easy sailing for us. Come and see for yourselves. Najia and Shane here did.”

Morris still seemed unconvinced, but the others were, and they eagerly began packing their things for the trip to Stardew Valley.

35: 26
26

The convoy pulled out of the forest, leaving the little hideout behind and began their journey north towards the mountain range. They drove through the night, following the mountain road and reaching the valley by morning. The warm sun greeted them brightly as the survivors looked upon it in awe, unwilling to shield their eyes or turn away.

John gave them the grand tour just as he did with Najia and Shane, showing them the space dedicated for housing, and the farm where crops still needed harvesting. Marnie and Lewis were in the fields when they arrived, and Jas jumped into Shane’s arms once more.

“Incredible,” Jodi muttered as they looked over the rows and rows of fresh crops. She leaned into her husband and grinned excitedly.

“Do you want to see our chickens?” Jas asked, squirming out of Shane’s arms and pulling at Vincent’s hand.

Vincent nodded enthusiastically as she lead him across the farm and to the southern forest. The survivors followed the two children absentmindedly, still in awe as they took in the sights around them. They watched the chickens peck at the ground before John lead them back into town.

“It’s not much,” he said, “but it’s a start. We have plenty of resources to build some more houses. Linus is pretty good at that. Don’t have much for electricity or plumbing, though. But there’s a hot spring just north of the town a bit, and we’ve gotten our hands on lots of good soap and shampoo. That’s the plus side to the end of the world; you don’t gotta pay for anything.” John chuckled to himself. When he did not get the response he expected, he cleared his throat and continued. “Anyway, I’m sure you’ll all settle in just fine. We’ve got a nice, big building up this way where you can all bunk until you get your own spaces. Plenty of blankets, wood stove, pillows, you name it. Our own little community center, I suppose. We’ve been mostly using it to store supplies, but there’s plenty of room in there. Now.” John let his hand rest on Najia’s shoulder. “I’ll let ya’ll settle in, then. There’s lots of work to be done ‘round here. I expect you to all do your fair share if you want to stick around, but we can talk about that later tonight.” And with a tip of his hat, John made his way back towards the farm.

“Yeah,” Leah muttered. “I didn’t hear anything after he said hot spring.”

“Do you think he thought to get some razors?” Abigail asked.

“No,” Leah started with a smile, “but I did.” She winked at Najia. “Let’s get these legs looking female again!”

“That’s gross,” Alex mumbled.

“Welcome to the end of the world,” Sebastian said, crossing his arms.

*****

After the group split and explored the valley, they gathered together in the community center. The large, main room was prepped with cots, pillows, and blankets for the night. An old couch and a lazy boy chair sat against the far corner of the room around a carpet and small coffee table. Lanterns hung from the ceiling, burning brightly, and a fire roared in the fire place on the far wall. Penny read from a tattered nursery book in front of the fire as Jas and Vincent listened happily. She showed them the faded pictures and they giggled.

Najia, Leah, and Abigail crammed themselves together on the couch. Maru and Harvey chatted casually beside the fire. Shane, Alex, Sam, and Sebastian watched the children interact with Penny. Dusty curled up beside them, making sure to get as close as he could to the fire. He lifted his head only for a moment to see the visitor that had come through the door, then settled in once more. The survivors looked up as John entered cheerfully.

“It does my heart good to see this place full of people,” he said, making his way to the center of the room. “Now, if this is gonna work, surviving here in the valley and all, we need to work together and help each other out. We’re a community, now, whether we like it or not. And I figured some of you must like each other enough to have stuck around with this crazy caravan of yours. So.” He put his hands on his hips and smiled at his granddaughter. “This is the plan. I don’t expect you to all live crammed in here. Ya’ll need your own space. Tomorrow, I can make a trip out to the closest city and grab some more supplies. Maybe a few nice tents or something, if anyone would like to camp out.” He shrugged. “It’s better than nothing until you can all get something more suitable. And that’s what we’ll work on; building you all proper places to live. This is our home, now, so we might as well make it feel like home. If anyone’s willing to bunk together, that will mean less building for us to do. So figure that out amongst yourselves tonight and tomorrow.”

John turned to Shane, Alex, Sam, and Sebastian, standing together in the corner. “You boys seem young and able, so I expect you to be helping out us old farts. Linus, Lewis, and I can’t do it all ourselves. We need lots of wood. Wood for building, wood for cooking, wood for everything. The forest to the south of us is vast, and there are more than enough resources for us in the mountains. I see some good muscles on those arms; use ‘em.”

He turned to the children sitting at the fire place and smiled. “Jas has been a big help with the crops and the animals,” he said. “It’s nice to see she has a friend, now.” His gaze moved to Penny. “You certainly have a way with kids.”

“I was teacher,” she said.

“Excellent,” John said. “I can’t justify child labor, but I won’t allow them to sit around and do nothing. They deserve a right proper education.” John looked around and shrugged. “I know we don’t have a school here, but we can get you some supplies, some books, whatever you need. Would you be able to do that?”

Penny smiled, eager to be back in a familiar element. “Of course,” she said quickly. “I’d love to.”

John turned to Harvey. “I know we’ve got a doctor in town, too. Some dumb luck for us, but I’ll take advantage of everything I can. We’ll set you up something nice for fixing our boo-boos and ouchies, hm? You may have to come with us on a supply run, though. I don’t know what a doctor would need. But there’s a nice, stocked hospital in the city we can bring you to.”

Harvey’s eyes lit up. “That would be incredible.” He hesitated. “But I can work around here, too. Whatever you need.”

“Of course,” John said. “Anyone able to lift an axe had better be lifting an axe by tomorrow. That goes for every male here.” His eyes moved across the room, nodding at Kent, Morris, Marlon, Gil, Gunther, and Clint. They each nodded in response.

“Everyone else,” John continued. “We’ll need to keep this place sustainable. That means food and water. We need all the help we can get with those crops; tilling, planting, and harvesting. And Marnie could use some help in the barn, too.” He turned to Najia and smiled at her.

“So,” Leah started, “you’re saying the women should be in the kitchen? Because that’s what we do best?”

John hesitated, his eyes darting around the room as if looking for support. “No,” he stuttered. “Of course not. I just thought-”

“Listen here, old man,” Leah said, getting to her feet and pointing a finger at him. “We’re just as capable and just as able to cut down some trees and do your man work, yanno.”

“I am well aware of that,” John said with a nod. “You think Marnie’s farm sprung up over night? Hell, she built the whole barn herself. I don’t mean to place any assumptions, young lady. Just trying to run an organized community here so that everyone has a job and you all know what needs to be done ‘round here. By all means, if you would rather chop down some wood, all the power to ya.”

Leah crossed her arms and smiled. “I don’t know,” she said slowly. “I wouldn’t want to embarrass the guys.” Pleased, she sat back on the couch. “I’ll think about it.”

“Good,” John said, relieved. “Tomorrow morning, I’m driving out to the city.” He turned to Harvey. “I presume you’re coming to check out the hospital?”

Harvey nodded.

“We’ll come, too,” Gil said, patting the butt of this rifle and nodding to Marlon. “We want to check out the area. And you’ll need some help if you run into any trouble.”

“That’ll be just fine,” John said. “We leave first thing in the morning. Now rest up; we have a busy few days ahead of us.”

36: 27
27

Their clothes dropped in piles on the bank of the spring as Najia, Leah, Abigail, Penny, Maru, Haley, Emily, and Sandy hurried in to the warm water. They waded in until the water just barely reached their hips and settled in on the rocks scattered around the spring, sitting until they were submerged.

The water was refreshing on Najia’s skin. She leaned back and closed her eyes happily. She wiggled her toes and sighed.

Leah tossed still packaged shavers across the spring to each of them and they tore through them eagerly. They lifted their legs and passed around bars of soap, scrubbing until their legs foamed.

“I can’t remember the last time my legs felt this nice,” Haley said dreamily.

“Probably at the beach before the invasion,” Emily said.

“I can actually wear a bikini again!”

Sandy laughed. “Wear it tomorrow when you’re digging in the dirt all day. Give us something to look at, anyway.”

“The guys won’t get anything done if she does that,” Emily said.

“Especially with these legs,” Haley said proudly, lifting her smooth legs out of the water. “Hello again, girls.”

“Don’t forget the man pits,” Leah pointed out. “I can actually wear a tank top now.”

“And pluck our brows,” Penny added.

“Shampoo?” Maru offered, passing the bottle around.

They washed their hair eagerly, not caring when the shampoo stung their eyes. The burning was a familiar pain from before the invasion. They splashed water at their faces to clear the soap and rinse their hair before settling in to enjoy the hot water.

When they finished, they stepped out of the spring to dry off with the towels John had provided them earlier. They wrapped their hair and dressed themselves before making their way south, back into town.

“So,” Leah started as they made the short walk back. “Roomies, anyone?”

“I’m with Emily,” Sandy said, taking her hand. “I guess Haley can bunk with us, too.” She winked at Haley.

“Well, I’m not going to live alone,” Haley snapped. “I don’t know if I trust anyone here that much, yet.”

“I’ll likely just stay with my dad,” Maru said. “He’s scared enough as it is. It will make things sort of normal, anyway.”

“Must be nice to have a family to live with,” Abigail muttered.

“C’mon, Abs,” Leah said. “You’re rooming with me.”

“Me and you, then?” Najia said, turning to Penny.

“Seeing as I’m your only option,” Penny muttered.

“Not at all,” Najia said. “I could crash with Leah, or even my grandfather. But, if you’d rather be alone…”

“No,” she said quickly. “You have survival skills, and I don’t. You’re wth me.”

Najia laughed. “I’ll teach ya,” she said. She patted the gun in her pocket. “We’ll shoot shit some time.”

Penny stared at Najia’s pocket, then met her gaze and forced a hesitant smile. “Shooting guns, sure. Sounds fun.”

They approached the community center, illuminated by a large fire just outside where the guys stood. They turned to the women as they approached.

“Hair in towels,” Alex said, looking them up and down. “Dammit, we missed the bath party.”

“Hilarious,” Leah snarled at him.

“Would have been too dark for you to see, anyway,” Emily pointed out.

Alex shrugged. “Don’t worry, I’ve got a good imagination.”

They rolled their eyes, practically in sync with each other.

“Now, now,” Elliott said. “Leave the ladies alone.”

“Yeah, Alex,” Sam joined in. “Stop being a dog.”

“Give him a break,” Haley said, coming to his defense. She put her hand on his arm as she walked by. “He can’t control himself around pretty girls.” She winked at him as she went into the community center.

Shane whistled playfully. “There you go, Alex,” he said. “Someone who actually wants you.”

“Someone you haven’t scared off, yet,” Sam muttered.

“Oh, I’m sure she’ll figure it out soon enough,” Shane said, drinking his beer.

“Haley doesn’t need another asshole man in her life,” Elliott said. “Stay away from her.”

Alex raised his hands in defense. “Hey,” he hissed. “No one’s going after anyone.”

“By Yoba,” Marlon practically shouted to them. He, Gil, and John had been observing so quietly, the others had forgotten that they were there. “I’ve never seen a hornier group of people.”

“It’s like a college campus,” Gil muttered.

John shifted uncomfortably. “Well, this has been great,” he said, clearing his throat. He turned to leave, pausing for a moment and looking back over his shoulder. “Just remember, if anyone fucks with my granddaughter, I’ll bring you into the woods and introduce you to Betsy.”

They turned to Najia, their expressions a combination of confusion and fear.

“Betsy?” Sam asked.

Najia smiled. “His Winchester 12 gauge shotgun.”

“My Sharps, Jane, could do the trick, too,” John said. “But it would be more fun to watch you boys blow to bits.”

They watched as he disappeared into the night and stepped carefully away from Najia.

“Jeez,” Alex muttered. “Don’t piss him off.”

“Don’t worry,” Najia assured them. “I don’t need him to fight my battles.” Once more, she patted the gun in her pocket and shot them a sly smile.

“Guess crazy runs in the family,” Alex said.

“Watch out,” Leah warned him as they made their way into the community center. “Wouldn’t want you to get your ass kicked by a girl.”

Najia patted Dusty on the head as they passed. She took her hair out of her towel, fluffing it with her fingers, and looked over her shoulder, catching Shane’s gaze before she closed the door behind them.

37: 28
28

Najia sipped her coffee outside, watching as her grandfather packed his beloved rifle safely on the gun rack in the back of the truck.

“If all goes well,” he said, his hand on the driver’s side door, “we should be back by tomorrow night.”

“And if it doesn’t go well?” Najia asked, sipping from her mug. The morning was hot and muggy already, but the coffee was refreshing.

“Just make sure you get my gun back.” John smiled at his granddaughter.

Najia saluted him playfully. “Yessir.”

“Well,” John called. “Let’s go, boys.”

Harvey, Gil, and Marlon followed him into the truck. Marlon and Gil squeezed into the tight back seat, their arms hanging out the back windows. John winked to Najia as they drove down the dirt path and disappeared into the dark tunnel.

When they were gone, Najia made her way back to the community center. She found Leah waiting for her outside.

“Going out to chop some wood?” Najia asked her.

Leah shook her head. “They’ve got enough guys out there,” she said. “Figured I’d let them feel manly and spend the day with you. You’re more fun, anyway.”

They walked side by side towards the farm where work on the crops was just beginning. Marnie greeted them as they approached. She wiped at her already sweaty forehead with her dirty hands. Her hair was tied back in a messy bun, locks of curly hair bouncing in her face.

“What can we do?” Najia asked her.

“Well,” Marnie began. “Fall is just around the corner, believe it or not with this heat.” She sighed. “Most of the crops are ready to be harvested now. We need to get all these fields harvested before the first frost comes. At this rate, it might be a while, but can’t take any chances in the valley. Temps could drop over night.” She pointed to a large shed beside John’s cabin. “There are baskets and wheelbarrows in there. And,” she turned, pointing to the southern most field near the forest, “I’d start harvesting over there. We’ve got the other fields covered.”

Najia and Leah set to work immediately. They dragged two wheelbarrows out of the shed and brought them across the farm to the southern field.

“So,” Leah said, her hands on her hips. “How should we do this?”

The fields were sectioned off throughout the farm, growing blueberries, melons, peppers, cabbages, tomatoes, radishes, and wheat. The southern field was filled with rows and rows of corn.

“I guess we’ll just each take a row,” Najia suggested. “And start picking.”

They set to work, going stalk by stalk, picking the corn and working their way down each row, side by side. In the distance, they could hear the chain saws roaring as trees were sawed into for building material. The tree cracked loudly and landed a moment later with a thud.

Leah winced. “I hope they don’t clear out that whole forest,” she said. “It’s so quiet and peaceful.”

“It seems pretty dense,” Najia reminded her. “And I don’t think we want to be stuck in tents when winter settles in, or crammed in the same building together.”

“I guess you’re right,” Leah said with a sigh.

They continued to work through the rest of the morning, stopping only when Marnie came to them with sandwiches.

“It’s not much,” she said, “but you girls deserve a lunch break.”

They thanked her and eagerly too the sandwiches.

“I was thinking we could make up some shifts,” Marnie suggested. “Swap everyone between jobs. Figured I’d give you a break here with the fields and you could help us prep for dinner. We have a big crew, now, which means I can’t just throw some shit together for myself and Jas.”

Najia nodded. “Just tell us what to do.”

They followed Marnie to the community center and into the large, make-shift kitchen. Along the wall were saw horses with planks across them, acting as counter space. A large fridge stood in one corner next to a large pantry. In the doorless cabinets were various plastic essentials, from plates and bowls to cups and pitchers, along with rows of jars in all shapes and sizes.

“Electricity is obviously hard to come by,” Marnie said as she showed them the refrigerator. It hummed quietly. Inside were carefully packaged eggs by the dozens and various vegetables from an earlier harvest. “But we were fortunate enough to come across some solar panels. Just enough to run the fridge here, which allows us to keep things preserved a little longer, especially in these warm months.” She opened the pantry where most of the dry goods were kept. Various spices, some with labels that were clearly taken from various grocery stores. Flour, sugar, and coffee in bulk, along with dehydrated creamers. But what filled the pantry were the various canned goods that were taken from grocery stores over time, including boxes of pasta, sauces, and boxed mashed potatoes.

“I’m not planning on making a three course meal,” Marnie said. “There’s enough work to be done every day. We can survive on small, simple meals. Especially if it means I don’t have to slave in the kitchen all afternoon to get it done. No need to make things any harder than they already are.” She turned to them smiling, her hands on her hips. “So, whadda ya say? Shall we throw something together?”

“You’re the boss,” Leah said. “What are we making?”

“I was thinking some home made soup,” Marnie said. She opened the pantry and began taking out cans of soup. “We’ll tell ‘em we slaved all day preparing this.”

“This will take us a half hour, tops,” Leah said as she looked over the cans of soup. “All that needs to be done is warming it up.”

But Marnie wasn’t finished. She pulled out an unopened bottle of whine and fished through a basket on the counter for a corkscrew. She popped the cork off the bottle and took a swig.

“Like I said; we slaved all day.” She passed the bottle to Leah. “No one has to know,” she said with a wink.

38: 29
29

“Don’t expect this every day, now,” Marnie warned them with a giggle as the second bottle made its way back to her. She drank from the bottle and sighed. “These bottles are only for special occasions.”

“What’s the occasion?” Najia asked.

Marnie smiled as she opened a third bottle. “Well,” she started. “We have a whole crew of survivors here. It’s not just me and Jas and a couple of old guys. Shane is here and alive. Hell, there’s a whole lot of celebrating to do.” She sighed. “I guess we’ll have to share some of this with the guys after dinner. They deserve it.”

Leah raised an empty bottle, tapping it against Marnie’s. “To Stardew Valley, then.”

“To my bat shit crazy grandfather,” Najia giggled.

“Ah, he’s a good man,” Marnie said. “You seem to be all right yaself.”

Najia shrugged. “I’ve been called worse.”

Marnie waved a hand at her, dismissing her comment. “Shane says so, so I believe ‘im.”

Leah raised her eyebrows at Najia. “You hear that?” she said. “He talks about ya.”

“Only good things,” Marnie assured them.

Leah turned to Marnie, eager to hear more. “Like what?”

Marnie hesitated and looked to Najia. “Just that she’s a determined -”

“Stubborn,” Leah corrected her.

“- kind -”

“Sarcastic.”

“ - lovely,” Marnie hissed, narrowing her eyes at Leah, “individual.” She turned back to Najia and smiled. “He said he wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for you.”

Najia shook her head. “That’s not entirely true,” she admitted. “He didn’t believe my Stardew Valley story for a second. Just came along for the ride, I guess.”

“Well, nevertheless,” Marnie said. “Thanks for dragging him along.” She hesitated. “Jas lost her whole family. She didn’t need to lose him, too.”

Najia put the bottle of wine on the counter, letting it slam harder than she had expected it to. “We should probably grab some coffee and start on that soup.”

Marnie turned to Leah. “Did I say something?”

Leah shook her head. “They have unresolved sexual tension that neither of them will admit to.”

“What?” Marnie stuttered.

“Piss off,” Najia muttered.

Leah rolled her eyes and smiled. “So, I’m right.”

“No.”

Leah shrugged. “Hey, we all could get laid around here. I’ll admit it. It’s been much longer than the couple of months we’ve been in hell for me, that’s for sure. Everyone’s pretty tense.”

“That’s what we need,” Najia said. “A giant orgy.”

Leah seemed to consider this for a moment. “Hey, if that’s what you’re into. I’m all for trying new things.”

“Can we stop talking about this?” Najia asked hastily.

“Yeah,” Marnie muttered. “Let’s get going on that soup,” she said slowly. “I’ll, uh, be back in a few. Gotta get some… things…”

They watched her leave before turning to the cans of soup on the counter.

“Marnie’s getting laid,” Leah said. “She can’t be the only one around here.”

“You think so?” Najia asked, looking out the window to see where she was heading.

“Hell yeah,” Leah said. “She’s been here for a while and has her pick of four different men. She’s so getting it.”

“Oh, Yoba,” Najia muttered. “You don’t think she’s hooking up with my grandfather, do you?”

Leah laughed as Najia’s face whitened. “He’s not even in the valley right now,” Leah reminded her.

“Doesn’t mean they’re not hooking up.”

“She’s got her back up guys for when one isn’t around.”

Najia groaned. “Let’s just get this soup warmed up.”

*****

Marnie returned twenty minutes later, just as Najia and Leah were finishing up with the soup. The large pot was filled to the top of soup which bubbled slowly.

“Smells delicious,” Marnie said as she reached into the cabinets for bowls.

“Smells like sodium overkill,” Leah said as she scrunched her nose at the soup.

“Can’t be too picky right now,” Marnie reminded her.

Jas and Vincent poked their heads into the kitchen.

“I’m hungry,” Jas said. “What’s for dinner?” She sat herself at the small table on the other side of the room, just out of their way, and motioned for Vincent to sit beside her.

“Soup,” Marnie said. “Chicken noodle.” She turned to the two children and smiled. “Want some?”

They nodded eagerly as Penny made her way into the kitchen.

“What can I help with?” she asked Marnie as Marnie spooned soup into two bowls.

“You can give the kids some dinner,” Marnie said, filling a third bowl. “And have some for yourself.”

Penny brought the hot bowls of soup to Vincent and Jas, placing them carefully on the table. “Let it cool,” she warned them as she sat across from them with her own bowl.

Marnie joined them at the table. “What did you two do today?”

“Miss Penny taught us about the seasons,” Jas said excitedly. “And how different crops grow in different seasons. And about photo…” She paused and turned to Penny.

“Photosynthesis,” Penny said to her.

Jas turned back to Marnie, grinning. “Yeah! That’s how the plants turn the sunlight into food for themselves.”

“No way,” Marnie said, looking shocked. “Plants need food like us?”

Vincent nodded, bouncing in his seat. “Yeah! And plants are good for us, too. They make the air good for us to breathe.”

“Gosh, you two are smart,” Marnie said. “You must have a real good teacher.”

“Penny said she would help me ride a bike,” Vincent said. “Sam tried to teach me, but he’s not a very good teacher.”

“My mom and dad taught me,” Jas said. She stared into her soup quietly for a moment before she returned her gaze to Vincent. “And Shane taught me how to play soccer.”

“I wanna play soccer,” Vincent said.

Jas smiled. “I’ll teach ya.”

39: 30
30

One by one, people wandered into the community center searching for something to eat. Haley, Emily, and Sandy were the first to poke their noses in, sitting themselves at the table as Marnie brought them hot bowls of soup. Jodi, Maru, and Abigail were next, filthy from their work in the fields.

Not long after the women finished, the men paraded in. Kent and Demetrius lead the pack, followed closely behind by Shane, Alex, Sam, Clint, Gunther, Morris, Elliott, Lewis, Linus, and Sebastian. They, too, were sweaty and dirty as they filled the kitchen, looking eagerly on at the hot pot of soup.

“I just don’t think there will be enough,” Leah teased. She filled more bowls, making a point to hand the first few to Lewis and Linus, first. Clint and Gunther were next, then Kent and Morris, until only Shane, Alex, Sam, Elliott, and Sebastian remained.

Leah shrugged. “Looks like that’s all of it.”

“There’s enough to feed an army in that pot,” Sam whined.

“Must be your imagination,” Leah said.

“Must be our starving, malnourished brains,” Alex muttered.

Leah laid out the bowls in front of her and dragged the pot of soup over to them. “Fine,” she said. “But I’m off duty now. Serve yourselves.”

She left them to fight over the ladle. She and Najia made their way out of the warm kitchen, collapsing onto the couch.

“What a day,” she said.

“I don’t know what was harder,” Najia said. “The harvesting, or the drinking.”

Leah met her gaze and winked at her. “And tomorrow we get to do it all over again.”

“Except I don’t think Marnie will want to drink with us again.”

“Who would have thought we’d be stuck in a hum-drum routine again?” Leah said. “Get up, work, go to bed, repeat.”

“Makes the end of the world seem so tedious,” Najia said.

“We’re not even done,” Leah said. “We’ll have to do dishes.”

Najia groaned. “I’d rather be back in the darkness than do dishes. It was the one chore I hated as a kid.”

“Chores. That’s exactly what it is. We’ll make the kids do it.”

“We can’t do that,” Najia said slowly, considering the idea.

Leah shrugged. “Why not? They need to learn some responsibilities, too.”

“I guess we could always ask them…”

“Or tell them. We are adults, here.”

“Is that considered child labor?”

“Who’s gonna sue us? There’s no government.”

“There could be a trial,” Najia pointed out. “Lewis could be the judge since he would be an unbiased party.”

Leah shook her head. “He’s buddies with your gramps. I don’t know if that makes him unbiased.”

“Clint, then,” Najia said. “I hardly know him.”

“And if we’re found guilty,” Leah said, “we could be hanged.”

“I think that’s a bit extreme.”

“Put in the stocks?” Leah suggested.

Najia nodded. “Yeah. Stocks. For like, a day or two.”

“Seems appropriate.”

Shane made his way to them, sitting beside Leah and stretching his legs out. “What are we discussing so intently?” he asked, his bowl of soup in hand.

“Punishment of child labor,” Najia said.

Shane raised an eyebrow and shoved a spoonful of soup in his mouth. “What?” he said when he swallowed.

“You know,” Leah said. “For making the kids do the dishes. In case someone sued. Like Jodi or Marnie.”

“Clint would be the judge,” Najia said. “If we’re guilty, we’d be sent to the stocks.”

“We have stocks?” Shane asked.

“Not yet,” Leah said. “But it’s only a matter of time. One of us is bound to fuck up. We have a community here. Laws need to be enforced.”

“I don’t think we have laws here,” Shane said.

“Sure we do,” Najia said. “Don’t kill thy neighbor. Don’t steal. Don’t cheat.”

“I think those are commandments,” Shane pointed out.

“How about don’t be an asshole?” Leah said.

“Hey,” Shane started. “Unless it’s in writing and signed into law, I can be a dick all I want.”

“Yeah, well, you can clean your own dishes, then,” Leah muttered.

“What happened to your damn legs?” Najia asked, suddenly noticing the dried blood caked on his skin.

Shane lifted them, peering at the wounds for a moment before shrugging and returning to his dinner. “Attacked by a tree. You should see Sebastian. Kicked his ass.”

“They’re too stupid to chop some friggen wood,” Leah said.

“Hey,” Shane started, pointing his spoon at her. “That tree went rogue on us. We’re lucky we came out alive.”

“Well, can you build me a damn place to live before you guys go off and get yourselves killed?” Leah said.

“Just promise you’ll cremate me,” Shane said. “And put me in a big jar so I can freak everyone out.”

“Oh, I’ll cremate you,” Leah muttered.

“Excuse me, ladies,” Shane said as he finished off his soup and stood up. “I have a little girl to play dolls with.” He tipped an imaginary hat at them. “Good evening.”

“You were right,” Leah said as he rounded the corner into the kitchen. “He is different, now. He’s a total fucking sucker.”

Najia smiled. “I think it’s cute.”

“I kind of liked him better as an ass. Made things more interesting.”

Najia shrugged. “You could make fun of him for playing with dolls.”

Leah sighed. “I could. And I probably will. But for now, I’ll let him think he got away with that comment. I’ll give him his moment with Jas.”

“That’s so considerate of you.”

“Someone has to keep him on his toes,” she said, pushing herself off the couch. “You’ve been slacking in that department.”

“What?”

“Come on, you guys would bicker like siblings. Now you barely seem to look at each other.”

“It’s been a hectic few days,” Najia mumbled.

“What’s your deal? You’re not yourself.”

Najia shrugged. “Maybe I am.” She sighed. “The adrenaline is gone. We’re safe. I guess I let my asshole guard down.”

“I kinda liked that about you.”

“Things are good here,” Najia said. “Might as well enjoy it while we can.” She got to her feet and her and Leah walked outside.

“While we can? What could happen?”

“Anything,” Najia said. “We don’t know how long this will last.”

“I guess you’re right,” Leah said softly. “Make every moment count.”

“Yeah,” Najia said. “Something like that.”

“But don’t tell the guys that,” Leah said. “They’ll read too much into it and try to have their way with us.”

Najia shook her head. “Oh, obviously. I’m not an idiot.”

“I think I want to live in the forest,” Leah said as they walked towards the southern forest, wandering aimlessly. “Cute little cabin where I can work on my art. Just like the one I was staying at before all hell broke loose.”

“That sounds nice,” Najia said.

Leah stopped by the edge of the lake. “Right here,” she said. “Overlooking the lake and the trees.” She held her hands out in front of her. “Some flowers over here. A big fireplace for in the winter. One room will be much easier to heat up.”

“I like it.”

“And a big shelf in the corner full of wine.”

Najia grinned. “I really like it.”

Leah met her gaze and smiled. “You’ll have to come visit. We’ll drink wine and gossip and do nothing all day.”

“Sounds perfect.”

“A perfect little place in the depths of hell.” Leah sighed.

“Hell is no where close to here,” Najia reminded her.

“But it’s still there. You said so yourself; things won’t be perfect for long.”

“So we make the best of things while we can.”

Leah nodded. “Right.” She looked out over the lake, taking Najia’s hand in hers. “Every moment counts.” She met Najia’s gaze and smiled.

Najia looked into Leah’s blue eyes and for a split second, her heart seemed to stop. Her breath was caught in her throat. Before she realized what was happening, her eyes were closed, and her lips were against Leah’s. Najia pulled away.

“I’m sorry,” Leah said quickly. “What’s wrong?”

Najia hesitated and smiled at her feet. “I, uh, don’t know what to do with my hands.” She lifted her arms up like a limp doll. “It’s been a long time since I… Kissed someone willingly.”

“Well,” Leah said. “I’m not a drunk asshole.” She took Najia’s hands in hers and kissed her again. This time, Najia let her hands move to Leah’s hips. Leah’s hands moved to her neck where her fingers interlocked, pulling Najia closer to her.

40: 31
31

It was dark when Najia and Leah returned from their walk. People milled about the fire outside the community center, enjoying cold beer as their day came to an end. Haley and Alex stood side by side, talking quietly just at the edge of the fire’s light. Emily and Sandy sat together in lawn chairs with Elliott. Maru, Penny, Sam and Sebastian were together in a group, watching the children giggle. Jodi and Kent stood near by, watching Vincent and Jas play, while Abigail stood with Leah. Demetrius, Clint, Gunther, and Morris stood casually together, but made no huge effort to talk much to one another.

“No Marnie or Lewis,” Leah observed. She turned to Najia and winked at her. “That’s the second night in a row.”

Najia shuttered. “I don’t want to think about that.” She looked around the fire and noticed Shane was missing, too. She made her way into the community center, curiously, finding him in the dark with a bag over his shoulder.

“Going somewhere?” Najia asked.

“Marnie’s,” Shane said simply.

“Too cool to hang out here with us?”

Shane made his way to her and met her gaze. “Don’t be jealous because I have my own room and you don’t.” He pushed passed her towards the door.

“Where, in the chicken coop?” Najia said playfully, but Shane did not respond. He reached the door, his hand on the knob, and paused.

“Maybe next time you and Leah should get a room,” he mumbled. He yanked open the door and let it slam behind him, leaving Najia alone in the dark.

Najia stared at the door dumbly for a moment before making her way back outside towards the fire. Shane was already gone. She hesitated before returning to Leah and Abigail, her gaze fixed on the flames reaching toward the sky.

“What’s up wit him?” Abigail asked.

“I knew happy Shane wouldn’t last,” Leah muttered.

Najia didn’t say anything. She could feel Leah’s eyes on her.

“What did you say to piss him off?” she asked.

“I didn’t say anything,” Najia hissed.

“Okay,” Leah said slowly. “What happened?”

“Nothing.”

Leah hesitated. “Do you want to talk about it?”

Najia met her gaze for a moment, biting her lower lip, then turned her gaze back to the fire and sighed. “No.”

Leah turned back to the fire. “Well,” she started. “At least someone’s getting laid right now.”

“He saw us,” Najia said quickly. She could feel Leah’s eyes on her but she did not turn.

“So,” Leah started. “He’s upset about that?”

Najia shrugged. “I guess.”

“And,” Leah continued, “you’re upset about that?”

“No,” she said quickly.

“Then why do you care?”

Najia pinched her lips together. “I don’t,” she said after a moment.

“It seems like you do.” When Najia didn’t say anything, Leah continued. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to put you into this kind of situation.”

“There’s no situation,” Najia said quickly, meeting her gaze.

Leah’s lips twisted to the side. “Maybe we should talk.

Najia nodded slowly and followed Leah into the dark community center.

“I like you,” Leah said as soon as the door closed behind them. “But if you like Shane…”

“I don’t like Shane,” Najia insisted. “I don’t like anyone.”

“Oh.” Leah was quiet for a moment. “Okay. I’m sorry that I kissed you then.”

“I don’t mean that,” Najia said. “I mean… I do like you…”

“But you like Shane, too?”

Najia shook her head. “Look,” she started. “I… This isn’t the kind of world where I’m willing to get attached to anyone. I don’t want to like anyone.”

“Najia,” Leah began. “You can’t help who you have feelings for.”

“Maybe not,” Najia said. “But I can shove them way down and hide them and lock them up and kill them. That’s how it needs to be.”

“You can’t do that,” Leah said.

“I can,” Najia said sternly, almost interrupting her. “And I will.”

Leah hesitated. “If that’s how you want it to be, then.” She took Najia’s hand in hers. “I won’t talk about it anymore.”

“Thank you,” Najia muttered. She met Leah’s gaze. “We can talk again when the war’s over.”

*****

Leah and Najia worked side by side the next morning in the fields, finishing their work from the previous day harvesting the corn. Najia continued to look towards the dirt road, anxious.

“He’ll come back,” Leah assured her. “I’m sure everything went fine.”

“Yeah,” Najia said turning back to the wheel barrow full of corn. In the distance, they could still hear the rattling chain saws on wood. Najia tried to focus on something other than her grandfather. The sound of the axes and chainsaws only made her thoughts turn to Shane. She quickly dismissed those as well and sighed.

“What’s wrong?” Leah asked.

“These menial chores are killing me,” Najia muttered. “I need something more demanding than this or I’m going to go crazy.”

Leah smiled. “Funny thing, isn’t it? How boring safety and security is? And yet, how quickly we latch on to a familiar routine. We’re in a constant state of being torn between the life we knew, and a life of running and hiding and fighting, for our lives.”

“Getting philosophical, are we?”

“If you think about it,” Leah continued, “on some level, we’re all suffering from some form or another of PTSD. Some of us act like assholes, pushing people away to prevent us from getting hurt again. Some of us flirt obnoxiously in order to cover up some deeper trauma. Some of us sleep around as a distraction. And some of us form societies and a sense of order.”

“I think that’s a stretch,” Najia mumbled.

“Denial.” She met Najia’s gaze and smiled as she continued to work. “Just look at yourself, pushing me away.”

“I thought we weren’t going to talk about it?”

“You know what’s really ironic?” Leah continued, turning back to the corn and ignoring Najia. “This role swap you and Shane have made.”

“Excuse me?”

“He would have been perfectly happy if you had just left him alone, but you clung to him, and me, and Abigail, and every survivor we met on the way. Now that we’re here and, for the time being, safe, Shane is clinging to Jas and Marnie and you’re happy to just be alone.”

“What are you trying to say?” Najia hissed.

“Nothing at all,” Leah said, shaking her head. She met Najia’s gaze once more. “I just thought it was interesting.”

“Stop psychoanalysing me.”

“Can’t help it,” Leah said. “Harvesting corn is such menial work, my mind tends to wander.” She stretched her back. “Normally I would paint or sculpt. What would you be doing?”

“Get off of me!”

“Stop fighting me,” he snarled at her.

The straps around her wrists and neck tightened. She gasped for air as the leather bore into her skin.

“Where is it?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she sobbed.

The straps tightened again.

“Please,” she cried. “I know nothing about Stardew Valley.”

“Probably hanging out with my dad in his auto shop.”

41: 32
32

The old, green truck puttered down the dirt road as the sun began to set on the valley. The four men that had left the safety of the valley returned unharmed and eager. Leah, Najia, and the rest of the women in the fields left the farm for the day, walking passed John, Lewis, Linus, and Harvey, who were in the process of setting up a large, canvas tent.

“It will do until we can build a good structure for ya,” John said as they hoisted up a long pole. He turned to Najia and winked to her. “You should see all the stuff this guy grabbed. It’s like he was in Doctor Heaven.”

“I have an IV!” Harvey said excitedly.

“We’re sure ready for anything,” Lewis muttered. “Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.”

“Where’s Haley?” Leah asked, turning to Emily as they continued on to the community center.

Emily rolled her eyes. “Probably snuck off somewhere with Alex,” she said.

“We should have put money on that,” Sandy said. “I called it when I saw him. Just her type. Dumb, jerk, jock.”

“I’ll kick his ass,” Emily muttered.

“Well, they’re not the only two shacking up,” Leah said, looking over her shoulder. “Najia and I have money on Lewis and Marnie.”

They all looked over their shoulders at Lewis, who had their backs to them.

“He’s old,” Abigail mumbled. “That’s kinda gross.”

“You know who’s totally into Emily?” Maru said with a smirk. “Clint.”

“No way,” Najia said. Emily scoffed.

Maru nodded. “He thinks your hot.”

“Girl,” Sandy said, elbowing her friend in the ribs.

“He’s not really my type, anyway,” Emily said.

“How would you know? You haven’t even talked to him,” Sandy said.

“Okay,” Emily started. “Well, how about Harvey? He’s totally into Penny.”

“I thought Sam was into Penny,” Najia said.

“She’s cute,” Leah said. “I bet they both are.”

“You think so?” Maru said.

Leah nodded. “Definitely.”

Penny was outside with Jas and Vincent when they got to the community center.

“Just in time,” she said to them. “The guys aren’t here yet, and food is fresh and hot.”

They made their way inside, helping themselves to the dinner in the kitchen. They chatted loudly until the guys took over the kitchen, pushing them out as they reached for their own plates.

When dinner was finished, the group stood around the fire once more, beer in hand as they capped off the day’s work. Najia wandered away from the fire, finding Lewis, Linus, Harvey, and John back at their make-shift hospital tent, moving the equipment inside.

“Quite a sight, ain’t she?” John said at his granddaughter’s side.

“As long as he doesn’t have to perform any emergency surgeries,” Najia muttered.

“I think he could do it,” John said. “Let’s just hope he doesn’t have to, hm?”

“Hm.”

“Why aren’t you enjoying yourself at the fire?”

Najia shrugged. “I’m with them all day,” she said. “And have been for the last couple of months. They’re exhausting.”

“You’re twenty-six years old,” John said. “You’re not supposed to be exhausted by people your own age.”

“They talk too much sometimes.”

“What’s on your mind, Rōśanī? You’ve hardly talked to me.”

“What do you want me to say?”

John hesitated. “I want to make sure you’re okay.”

“You want to know what happened.”

“What happened?”

“The same thing that happened to everyone else,” Najia hissed. She avoided his gaze. “They attacked and I escaped.”

“Is that all?”

“You think I’m hiding something.”

“I know when you’re avoiding something.”

Red lights flashed up and down the long corridor. Her footsteps echoed loudly off the walls, her heart beat even louder in her ears. She forced her breathing to slow into a steady rhythm and her mind to focus. She remembered an open window in the next corridor. She could jump. She was on the forth floor, but she could do it. She would do it.

Angry voices shouted to one another as they rounded the corner, their hands on their guns, still pointed at the floor. Her feet slipped as she neared the end of the hallway and rounded the corner. The open window neared quickly.

She stopped in front of it and stared down at the concrete below. It couldn’t be possible for her to survive a jump like that. But maybe falling to her death wasn’t the worst solution in the world.

The men rounded the corner, this time their guns raised, and Najia jumped.

“I’m not avoiding anything, Nanaji.”

*****

Najia let her legs swing under her. She sat on the tailgate of the truck with a cold beer in hand. She stared at her feet as they disappeared and reappeared from under her.

“So, this is where you’re hiding,” Shane’s voice said from behind her. He pushed himself up onto the tailgate beside her.

“Obviously not hiding well enough,” Najia muttered.

“Hiding from me?”

Najia sighed. “Everyone.”

“Why?”

Najia shrugged. “Just needed some alone time, I guess.”

“All right,” Shane said, pushing himself off the tailgate.

“You can stay,” Najia said quickly. “If you want.”

Shane leaned against the truck. “Okay.”

“I gossiped today,” Najia said after a quiet moment.

“I don’t know how to respond to that.”

“The last time I gossiped with anyone was in high school.”

Shane smiled. “Anything juicy?”

“Alex and Haley are hooking up.”

Shane nodded. “Yeah, I caught them at the beach.”

“Everyone thinks Harvey and Sam are into Penny.”

Shane seemed to consider this possibility for a moment.

“I think Maru likes her, too.”

Shane turned to her. “Really? Why do you think that?”

Najia shrugged. “A hunch.”

“And,” Shane started. “Do you find this gossip interesting?”

“Not really,” Najia admitted. “I just find it funny that in the midst of all this, we have found a way to take comfort in gossip.”

“A sense of normality.”

“Leah lectured me today on the irony of everything.”

“Irony?”

“Yeah. She got way too philosophical for me.” Najia forced a smile. “I have enough to think about.”

“Mhm.”

“There’s nothing going on between us.”

Shane met her gaze. “Looks like it.”

Najia turned back to her feet. “I mean it. Everyone else may find comfort in hooking up, but I don’t.”

“Sure.”

“Shane, do you know how long it has been since I’ve had sex?” She narrowed her eyes at him. “I’m practically a virgin again. I’d be terrible at it. I’ve forgotten it all.”

Shane laughed. “I doubt that.”

“Doesn’t matter,” she said. “Getting involved with someone would be the worst thing ever.”

“And why’s that?”

“Because we could all die tomorrow.”

Shane drank from his beer. “Remember when you were Miss Optimistic?”

“Being here,” Najia said, hesitant. “This sense of safety and community… it will take some adjusting to, I suppose.”

“Well,” Shane said. “It’s definitely not as exciting as running for our lives. But I can’t complain.”

“Because you have family here.”

“So do you.”

“I have a crazy ass grandfather who I hadn’t seen or spoken to in years. And suddenly, we’re about to be invaded, and I get a call from him telling me to come to Stardew?”

“Why is that so odd to you?”

Najia sighed and shook her head. “I don’t know. I guess it’s not.”

42: 33
33

“Don’t let her die,” the voice hissed. “Not before she tells us what we need to know.”

“It doesn’t matter if she tells us,” another voice said. The language was not English. It was unfamiliar to Najia, yet she understood it perfectly. “You will follow her there.”

Najia opened her eyes. She lay on the cold, hard pavement, blinking up into the blue sky. Her mind was strangely alert and focused; she could still hear the alarm from inside the building.

Najia scrambled to her feet and looked up at the window she had jumped out of. It remained open, but there was no one inside, looking down at her. She turned suddenly as she heard voices coming from around the building. They had made it to the ground floor and were coming quickly.

Najia sprinted across the pavement toward a car that was parked against the building. She yanked open the door and fiddled with the wires until the engine started. She slammed on the gas as bullets peppered her bumper. She flew through the empty, early morning city streets, across the bridge, and onto the interstate, leaving the city behind her.

Najia bolted upright, shaking and sweating. She felt a hand on her shoulder and she threw a pinch behind her, right into Shane’s chest. He grunted and threw his hands up in defense.

“It’s me,” he shouted to her.

Najia scrambled backwards, bumping into the other side of the wall of the bed. “I’m so sorry,” she muttered. “What happened? Where are we?”

“Back of the truck,” Shane groaned. “I was sleeping until you started yelling and punched me.”

Najia rubbed her temples. “I had the strangest dream,” she muttered. She turned to Shane. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah, of course,” he said quickly. “I’ve been hit harder than that.”

“I wouldn’t doubt it,” she said. “You probably deserved it.”

Shane smiled. “Probably.” He moved next to Najia. “What the hell kind of dream was it?”

“I don’t remember,” she said quickly.

“You’re lying.”

“What does it matter?” she asked, turning to him.

“It’s clearly bothering you.”

“It was just a dream.”

“Then tell me.”

“I can’t,” she barked.

Shane stared blankly at her for a moment. “Okay,” he said simply.

Najia hesitated. “Did you know I was homeless?”

“I think we’re all homeless,” Shane said.

“No,” Najia said shortly. “Before the invasion. I was living on the streets.”

Shane was quiet. He watched her carefully as she spoke.

“My mom died when I was young,” Najia said. “Overdose. Dad killed himself in his garage seven years ago.”

“You were homeless for seven years?” he asked softly.

Najia shook her head. “No. Only the last year or so before the invasion.”

“That explains a lot,” Shane muttered. “I knew you were a thug.”

“I’m not joking,” Najia shouted. She slunk back against the wall of the bed. “I’m sorry.”

“No,” Shane said. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have joked about that.”

Najia’s fingers scratch absentmindedly at her jeans. Shane put his hand over hers and she stopped.

“So,” Shane said quietly. “Crazy gramps found out and told you to come to Stardew?”

Najia shook her head. “John doesn’t know.”

Shane hesitated. “I’m sure if you told him-”

“He doesn’t give a rat’s ass,” Najia hissed.

“That’s not true,” Shane argued.

“You don’t even know-” She felt Shane’s hand tighten around hers.

“I might not know your life story,” Shane said. “But I know he cares about you. Call it a hunch.”

Najia met his gaze, unconvinced. “Something else happened,” she said, turning away. “His call must have been intercepted or something. Because after he called me, I was picked up off the street. All ‘Taken’ like. Thrown into the back seat of a car, blindfolded, beaten.” Najia hesitated. “The government, I guess. They wanted to know about Stardew Valley.” Najia turned to Shane. “I sound like Crazy John, now, don’t I?”

Shane stared at Najia. “What happened?”

“They wanted information. Information I didn’t have. They tried everything to get me to spill.” Najia turned away again, her fingers scratching at her legs anxiously again, but Shane tightened his grip. “I got out. Escaped.” She met Shane’s gaze. “I jumped out a fourth story window and survived, completely uninjured. I took a car, and I left the city. All before the invasion even happened.”

Shane was quiet as he watched her. She did not break her gaze.

“Why do they want to know about Stardew Valley?” Najia whispered. “What’s here that they want?”

Shane turned away. “The answer to winning this war?”

“I didn’t know,” Najia sobbed. “I don’t know.”

“Hey,” Shane said, pulling her into him. “It’s okay. Okay?” He hesitated. “I know that’s not very comforting but… it’s over with.”

“What if they followed me?” she asked. “In my dream, someone said I couldn’t die until they got the information they needed. And someone else suggested that they follow me.”

“No one followed you,” Shane assured her. “We would know by now. It was just a dream.”

“What do they want with me and the valley?”

Shane wrapped his arms around her. “The light,” he said. “They didn’t want you to hog it all for yourself.”

Najia sighed and let her head rest against his chest. “I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it all since we got here,” she said. “Before, I thought there was a chance that it was all fake. A misunderstanding. But it’s here, and it’s real, and there’s something more to all this. I just don’t know what.” 

“Well,” Shane started. “When you figure it out, let me know, and we’ll take care of it.”

“You don’t mean that.”

“I do mean it. If it turns out some shadow brute followed you, I’ll kill it. If we have to blow up their headquarters, we’ll do it. If we have to leave Stardew Valley, we’ll go somewhere tropical. Travel the world and see the sights, remember?”

Najia pushed herself away and hopped out of the bed of the truck. She watched the stars twinkling in the night sky and sighed. “Yeah. Okay.”

43: 34
34

It only took them a week to replace Harvey’s medical tent with a more appropriate building, set up with a large fire place and solar power for lighting. They continued to cut wood for buildings and homes in preparation for the winter. The sun was low in the sky, casting orange streaks across the sky when they returned from another day’s work. The men united with the women on the dirt road as their paths’ crossed and they chatted amongst themselves until Vincent and Jas interrupted, running to them from the beach.

“A boat!” Vincent shouted. “There’s a boat and it’s coming right to us!”

They fell silent immediately, looking to one another.

“It can’t be the Shadow People,” Linus reminded them. “They won’t come near light.”

Curious, they traveled to the beach, standing on the shore as the boat neared. A man stood on the bow, waving excitedly as the boat came closer. When he was close enough to shore, he tossed his lines out onto the dock and the men secured the boat as he climbed over the side.

“Well, I’ll be damned,” the man said. “There’s a whole crew of ya here.”

Lewis approached and held out his hand. “Welcome to Stardew Valley,” he said.

The man shook his hand eagerly. “Willy,” he said quickly. “I saw the light. Drawn to it like a moth. Figured there was no way there would be Shadow Brutes here.”

Lewis shook his head and smiled. “Not-a-one.” He walked Willy onto the shore, who tipped his hat to the women and children.

“I was sure this would be some desolate area,” Willy said.

“This is our little survivor’s camp,” Lewis said. “Come, let me show you around and get some food. Marnie’s been cooking all day, I’m sure.”

“Drinking all day,” Leah said under her breath and winked at Najia.

They followed Lewis back into their little town. Najia and Shane trailed behind as the others walked ahead.

“Are you okay?” Shane asked, studying her carefully.

“Of course,” Najia said, not meeting his gaze. “Why?”

Shane shrugged and kicked at a small stone in front of him. “Just checking. Wasn’t sure if you had any more of those dreams.”

Najia sighed. “No,” she said. “Just the one.”

“Are you sure?”

“Well,” she started. “I did have this one dream where you left me the hell alone about it.”

Shane smiled. “Too bad it was just a dream, huh?”

*****

They each gathered in the community center in groups, hungrily eating their dinners. Najia sat with Leah, Shane, and Abigail, while Emily, Sandy, Elliott, and Clint sat together. Alex and Haley made googley eyes at one another from the couch. Sam, Sebastian, Maru, and Penny sat in the kitchen, while Jas and Vincent ate with Marnie, Lewis, Kent, Jodi, Linus, and Willy at the largest table.

When she finished, Penny grabbed another bowl, bringing it to Harvey who was still inside the hospital. She poked her head inside, knocking on the door. Harvey was rearranging the beds in the corner of the room. He looked up and smiled.

“Am I interrupting?” Penny asked.

“Of course not,” Harvey said. “Just trying to get everything all finished up in here.”

Penny made her way inside. “I brought you some dinner. I didn’t want the guys to eat it all before you had a chance.”

“Thanks,” Harvey said with a grin. He took the bowl from Penny as she looked around.

“It looks like a real hospital,” she said.

“Well, without the white walls and floors and the iodoform smell.”

“Is that what hospitals smell like?” Penny asked. “I never liked it, anyway.”

“Me neither,” Harvey admitted. “To me, it just smells like death.”

“I guess you’ve dealt with that a lot,” Penny said softly.

“It’s inevitable,” Harvey said. “Sometimes, there’s only so much I can do.”

“I don’t know how you do it,” Penny said. “Having someone’s life in your hands like that.”

Harvey smiled at her. “I used to think it a very powerful experience. Holding a heart in your hand. Bringing someone back to life. But I quickly learned it’s just terrifying. People are more than just their organs. I learned that their lives didn’t stop at the door to my OR. On the other side of those doors, their lives continued, waiting for them. Friends, family, lovers.”

Penny watched him as he seemed to drift off as he spoke, his eyes glowing.

“My patients became very personal to me. It wasn’t just about fixing them because it was my job. It wasn’t a thrill. It became a much deeper experience. When it came to life or death, they depended on me, and I had to fight for them. And when I lost patients, it crushed me.”

“I could not deal with that kind of emotional stress,” Penny muttered.

Harvey met her gaze. “I’ve learned to find a balance. I care for my patients, but have been able to distance myself just enough when that time comes. It’s been a skill that I’ll probably never perfect. But at the end of the day, I remind myself I did all I could, and at the beginning of each day, I tell myself to always do the best I can.”

Penny smiled at him. “Do you think it will be harder out here?”

Harvey sighed. “In that back of that Hummer, I’ve monitored concussions, I’ve performed CPR, and I’ve cleaned an infection and stitched it up.” He hesitated. “I think that will be the easiest thing I’ll have to do. I’m not used to not having my hospital and my staff around me. But all I can do is my best. I think I’m doing okay so far.”

“I think so, too,” Penny said. “You know, Maru was going to school to be a nurse. Maybe she could help you out in some way.”

Harvey’s eyes brightened. “I could always use an extra set of hands,” he said. “I’ll have to talk to her.”

“Don’t get lost in here,” Penny said as she made her way to the door.

Harvey held the bowl up in front of him. “Thanks for dinner.”

*****

The discussion in the community center was heated when Penny returned.

“Winter will be here before we know it,” Lewis said. “We need to stock up on all the supplies we can before it settles in and potentially blocks our way in and out of the valley.”

“The Shadow People don’t know we’re here in the valley,” Jodi said. “If you go out and they find you, they could potentially follow you back here, right to us.”

“The Shadow People cannot enter the valley,” John reminded her. “The light will drive them away.”

“But they’ll know we’re here,” Jodi insisted. “They’ll find a way in.”

“It will be a very long, cold winter if we don’t go out and prepare now,” Lewis said. “We’re working double time to get some more buildings up so you don’t have to all be crammed in this little space. But without supplies, walls are just walls. We could stock up the pantry, get our hands on some more solar panels, maybe some nice heaters. We have entire stores stocked full of supplies that we can take as we please. We need to take advantage of that.”

“Supply raids are not new for us,” John said. “And no one has to come if they don’t want to. Especially if you don’t have experience with raiding and fighting. We don’t need anyone holding us back or making things more difficult while we’re out there.”

“John’s leaving tomorrow morning,” Lewis said. “He’ll take all the help he can get from anyone who is able.”

“You know Marlon and I are down,” Gil said, patting his rifle. “We’re itching to get out there again.”

“Fine,” John said. “Lewis, keep the rest of ‘em in line while we’re gone. Don’t need anyone slacking on their fair share of work.”

Najia followed her grandfather out of the building, into the night.

“I know I don’t have to ask you twice,” he said over his shoulder. He stopped and turned to face her and smiled.

“I have a few things on my shopping list,” Najia said.

John looked passed her. “You might not get anywhere without that body guard of yours,” he said quietly. He winked at his granddaughter before heading back down the road towards the farm.

Najia turned as Shane approached. “What?” she hissed at him.

Shane smiled and walked passed her. “See ya tomorrow morning.”

44: 35
35

Shane joined Najia, leaning against the hood of the car. The old green truck was parked, ready to go, beside her. John was carefully arranging their weapons in the bed of the truck.

“Ready to shop ‘til we drop?” Najia said with a smile.

“Good thing I don’t have to worry about you taking my credit card,” Shane said, crossing his arms.

Najia rolled her eyes. “That would suggest we’re dating and you have money for me to spend.”

“Gold digger,” Shane muttered.

Najia shrugged. “Hey, work it if you’ve got it.”

“Ha,” Shane laughed sharply.

Gil and Marlon made their way up the road, Kent and Alex trailing behind.

“We’ve got some more volunteers,” Marlon said as they joined John beside the truck.

“Couldn’t let you guys have all the fun,” Alex said.

“Well,” John said. “At least Kent can take care of himself.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Alex hissed.

“There’s no bitchin’ on the road,” John said. “Now let’s head out.”

“Shotgun,” Alex shouted, jumping into the car before Najia.

She rolled her eyes and got into the back seat as Shane slid in behind the wheel. Kent, Marlon, and Gil climbed into the truck as John secured the trailer.

They followed the truck through the mountains and out of the valley to the large department store in the town outside of the mountain range.

Najia grabbed one of the carts that was strewn around on the floor and ran down an aisle, jumping on the bottom bar and cruising along until the cart slowed to a stop.

“Mature,” Shane said as he followed her into the aisle.

Najia hurried around the corner, peering down each aisle she passed until the found what she was looking for.

She stared at the rows and rows of paints, brushes, and other drawing media, puzzled. Some read charcoal, while others read pastels. She shrugged and grabbed a few of everything and tossed it into the cart. She grabbed two large sketchbooks and an easel until she couldn’t put anything more in the cart.

She came around the corner, bumping into Shane. He peered at the items she had collected.

“For your girlfriend?” he asked.

Najia rolled her eyes and pushed the cart around him. “She likes to paint. Everyone needs an outlet to relieve some stress.”

“What’s yours?” Shane asked, following her.

“Shooting shit.” Najia pushed the cart up to one of the registers. She looked at the imaginary watch on her wrist, tapping her foot, before moving to the end.

“Are you insane?” Shane asked, watching her.

She met his gaze and smirked. “Just doing my duty as a good citizen.” She reached into her pocket and counted imaginary bills. “Can you spot me a twenty?”

“Sorry,” Shane said. “Didn’t bring my wallet.”

Najia shrugged and pushed the cart away. “Guess I’ll just have to borrow these things.” She grabbed a chocolate bar as she passed the display, ripping the wrapper open with her teeth. “They’re on me,” she called over her shoulder.

Slowly, the trailer began to fill with boxes upon boxes of canned goods, jugs of water, batteries, lanterns, flashlights, blankets and pillows, and other assorted furniture and items. Shane wandered the parking lot as the rest of the items were crammed into the trailer. A familiar shape caught his attention. His flashlight bounced over a familiar red Trans Am.

“No fucking way,” he muttered to himself. He ran over to the car and peered inside. The keys were still in the ignition. He pulled the door open and slid in. His hand hovered over the key for a moment before turning it. The car roared to life and Shane laughed excitedly.

He pulled up in front of the store in the red Trans Am. He leaned out the window, grinning at Najia.

“Where the hell did you find that?” Najia said.

“The next lot over,” he said, beaming. “It’s almost identical to my baby.”

Najia raised a brow. “Your baby?”

“That car got me out of the city,” Shane said, his smile disappearing for a moment. “Drove it until she finally died on me.” He met her gaze and his smile returned. “We’re keeping her.”

Najia shrugged. “All right,” she said. “But you better take care of her. Feed her and walk her. I want nothing to do with it.”

Shane reached across the car, pushing the door open for Najia as she made her way around. She slid into the passenger seat and looked around.

“It kind of smells,” she said.

“Good,” Shane said. “If you don’t like it, get out.”

“Oh, Yoba,” Najia muttered. “You’re in love with a car.”

Shane smiled and revved the engine.

“Do you two need a moment alone?”

“Yeah, probably.” Shane threw the car into gear and they sped out of the parking lot. The car skidded onto the road and Shane cut the wheel as the car spun donuts into the pavement.

Najia gripped the bar above her. “Christ, cool it, will ya?”

The car came to a jerking stop. Shane turned the vehicle around, flying down the road back into the parking lot.

“You’re a crazy fucking bastard,” Najia muttered.

“Oh, come on,” Shane said, leaning back in his seat with a sigh. “That was awesome.”

“I dated a dumb jock in high school that thought shit like that was awesome.”

“You wouldn’t understand,” Shane said simply. “I loved that car. It killed me when it died.”

“Really? That’s what upset you most about the end of the world?”

Shane shrugged. “Kinda.” He sighed. “It was all I had left. I was really alone after that.”

“Well,” Najia said. “If you really love her, I guess you can keep her.”

Shane met her gaze and smiled. “Geez, thanks, Babe. Glad I have your approval.”

Najia turned as John, Marlon, and Gil made their way to the truck one last time, securing everything they gathered in the trailer.

“Let’s get home,” John said. “I’ve had too much of this darkness already.”

They followed the truck through the streets as it made its way out of the town and back onto the highway. They hadn’t driven more than a mile when Najia noticed an unsettling fleck of lights ahead of them.

“Headlights?”

Shane and Najia peered through the windshield, slowing as the truck slowed in front of them.

“Who is that?” Shane whispered, as if not to be heard.

“More survivors?”

Their answered pinged off the bumper of the vehicles as the two other cars sped towards them. They watched as the truck jerked forward, the tires cutting into the dirt as the rear end spun around, dragging the trailer with it until it let go and slid across the road. Marlon and Gil leaned out the windows, guns in their hands as they took aim.

“Move!” John shouted to them as the truck sped by.

Shane threw the car into gear and followed suit, chasing after the truck as the two enemy vehicles closed in behind them.

“What the fuck,” Najia shouted as she shoved a magazine into her gun.

“Sit down,” Shane barked as Najia stood out of the t-top.

Najia fired at the two cars closing in behind them as Shane reached over and grabbed her pants, pulling her down.

“This isn’t the time to be taking my clothes off,” Najia muttered as she ducked back into her seat.

“Stay the fuck down,” Shane hissed as his eyes moved to the rearview mirror. Kent leaned out of the car behind them and proceeded to fire his gun as Alex drove.

“Listen,” Najia shouted to him. “Don’t fucking talk to me like that. You knew this could happen, so I have to do something.”

“Woman, don’t fucking argue with me right now.” His gaze shifted to the side mirror. “Take the wheel.”

“Are you fucking joking?”

“Take the damn wheel!”

Shane let go, keeping his foot on the accelerator as he fished for his gun. Najia took hold of the wheel, climbing over into his lap.

“Do not fucking enjoy this,” she muttered.

Shane scooted out from under her as her foot replaced his.

“Don’t flatter yourself,” he grunted as he stood out of the t-top, guns in hand, and started firing.

“Shane,” Najia called to him.

“What?” he barked.

“There’s no more ground left.”

The edge of the ground came into view as they neared the canyon. The green truck shot to the left, following the edge of the canyon.

“What the hell is he doing,” Najia muttered as he spun the wheel, following close behind. The Trans Am skidded around, nearing dangerously close to the cliff. Najia straightened out the vehicle and stepped hard on the gas.

Shane slid back into the seat beside her as he reloaded the guns. “Didn’t want to go all Thelma and Louise?”

“Not ready to give up just yet,” Najia muttered.

She followed the truck as the ground began to slope and the terrain grew rough. The truck sped down the easiest slope of the cliff, down into the canyon, kicking up dust and rocks in its wake, pinging at the Trans Am.

“Don’t hurt my car,” Shane hissed.

“I’ll get you another one,” Najia barked at him.

They neared the bottom of the canyon and the five vehicles sped down the edge of the rushing river. Bullets continued to fly and ping against the metal. The truck pulled to the right, into a cave in the cliff, and Najia and Alex followed suit.

Marlon smiled at them in the headlights. She peered through the windshield at the object in his hand.

“He’s gonna fucking kill us,” Shane muttered.

Marlon pulled the pin out of the grenade and his grin widened. He tossed it over the vehicles and dropped back into the Hummer.

“What the fuck,” Najia muttered.

Three long seconds passed before the grenade went off, blasting away the rock behind them. The two vehicles that chased them skidded in the cave. Metal scraped against rock as they fought to regain control. The ceiling broke away and caved in around them as they sped faster forward, crushing the cars behind them and creating a wall, separating the survivors from their prey.

The truck did not slow until the cave widened. The three vehicles came to a stop just before a small lake. A river twisted away from the lake and into the dark cave, fed by the high waterfall that was just a trickle from outside.

They climbed out of the cars, standing together in the light of the headlights.

“That was exciting,” Gil said with a smirk.

“You could have killed us,” Alex hissed to Marlon.

“But I didn’t.”

“How the hell are we supposed to get out of here?” Shane asked.

“We better find that trailer,” Najia muttered.

“Calm down,” John said. “I know this cave like the back of my hand. It’s served me well running from those brutes.” He turned towards the shallow river. “We follow this river back outside into the canyon.”

“Those weren’t brutes,” Kent said. “They were human.”

Najia met Shane’s uneasy gaze.

“Human?” Alex repeated. “Why the fuck were they trying to kill us?”

“Not everything is so black and white in war,” Kent hissed. “There are humans on the other team.”

“What could they possibly have to benefit from that?” Alex asked.

“Safety,” Kent said. “Protection.” He shrugged. “They picked the winning team. I would have, too.”

“Awesome,” Alex muttered. “This just keeps getting better.”

“Let’s get out of here,” John said, climbing back into the truck. “We don’t want to get caught in a cave in.”

Alex continued to mutter to himself as they made their way back to their vehicles. Shane slid into the driver’s seat and sighed.

“It wasn’t the government that kidnapped me,” Najia said softly, staring out into the dark cave. “They were people - humans - working with the Shadow People.”

Shane pinched his lips together as he followed the truck down the cave, following the edge of the river.

“They wanted to know about Stardew Valley so they could destroy it.”

“They don’t know where it is,” Shane reminded her.

Najia turned to him. “They’re probably looking for me. They saw me. They know I’m here, alive, and I’ll bring them right to the valley.”

“They’re crushed to death under a pile of rubble,” Shane said. “They won’t be able to follow you or report back to anyone that they saw you.”

Najia turned away and said nothing. She wasn’t as confident as Shane pretended to be.

45: 36
36

Just as John said, the tunnel opened up, bringing them back into the canyon where they were greeted by six dark vehicles, parked around the tunnel’s entrance. Men stood outside of their vehicles, weapons raised.

“Get out of your vehicles,” a voice barked.

Najia met Shane’s gaze as fear flashed across his face.

“We’re dead,” Najia muttered.

“Get out, now! Hands on your heads!”

Najia’s heart raced, throwing itself against her chest, begging her to turn and run.

“Don’t get out,” Shane said, his voice barely audible. His hand pushed her shoulder down as he got out of the car, hands in the air. He put them on his head as he stepped in front of the vehicle. Najia watched as the others stepped out, one by one, their hands on their heads.

“Cooperate, and we may spare your lives,” the voice said.

“Spare our lives?” Gil hissed. “You’re working with the enemy. And they want us all dead.”

“We’re not working with the Shadow People.”

Gil spat at the ground. “Bull fucking shit.”

“We have our own stake in this war. We’re looking for a woman.” He held up an image of Najia. Her face was bruised. Her eyes were swollen shut.

Najia’s heart thudded violently against her chest.

“Never seen ‘er,” Marlon said. “What do you want with that poor girl that’s worth beating her like that?”

The man lowered the picture. “She has information we need. Information that is of no concern to you.”

“Can’t help ya, Pal,” Gil said.

Najia watched as another man motioned to the Trans Am with his assault rifle.

“Hiding someone?”

The rifles cocked around them.

“Out of the car,” he growled. “Now.”

“There’s no one else here,” Shane hissed.

The rifle turned to him.

“You’ll be the first to drop,” the man barked to him.

Najia stumbled out of the car, her body shaking as she raised her arms in the air.

“Don’t.” Her voice was too soft. “Don’t,” she squeaked. She stepped into the headlights, in front of Shane.

“Najia.”

“I’m the one you want,” she said softly. “Please don’t hurt them.”

“Najia,” Shane barked at her.

“Take her,” the man grunted. “Shoot anyone the moment they step a toe out of line.”

Two men pushed forward, grabbing Najia violently and pushing her into one of the dark cars.

“What do you want with her?” Shane shouted.

The man raised his gun and fired at the vehicles, popping their tires. Air hissed out of them as the cars slunk to the ground, useless. He turned to them and smiled. “Thank you for your cooperation,” he said. “We’ll be on our way now.”

The men piled into their cars and sped away, leaving them alone in the canyon.

Shane’s body shook, his breathing shallow as he watched the headlights disappear. A rifle cocked. He closed his eyes as he felt the barrel at his head.

“You better start fucking talking,” John hissed.

“What makes you think I fucking know anything?” Shane spat at him.

“You know something. What do they want with my granddaughter?” His voice shook. “What are they going to do with her?”

Shane met his gaze. “I don’t know,” he muttered. “Why don’t you tell me what you know?”

He pushed the barrel of the gun into Shane. “Excuse me?”

“You’re the reason this happened,” Shane hissed. “Do you even know what happened to her in the city?”

The barrel backed off just slightly. “What are you talking about?”

“Before the invasion,” Shane said. “Najia was kidnapped. People who wanted to know about Stardew Valley.” He hesitated. “They beat her for information she didn’t have, all because you told her to come here. She had no idea they were working for the Shadow People. She escaped, and they’ve been looking for her ever since.”

“I don’t understand,” John muttered, lowering his rifle. “How would they know that I told her about Stardew Valley?”

Shane shrugged. “Spies?” He shook his head. “She escaped the city, and the invasion happened right after that.” He sucked in a breath. “And now they have her.”

“They said they weren’t with the Shadow People,” Alex said.

“They’re lying,” Gil hissed. “They can’t be trusted.”

“Maybe not,” Kent said, shaking his head. “This war is bigger than we realize. This isn’t human versus Shadow People.”

“What do you mean?” Marlon asked.

Kent hesitated. “They could be from the Gotoro Empire. When I was oversees, we had intel of a possible invasion. We were fighting with the Gotoro, joining our armies. But they had other ideas. They wanted in on the invasion, to act as double agents. They thought they could destroy the Shadow People from the inside. They wanted to team up with the Dwarves, who had driven the Shadow People out of their homes in the first place and started this mess.”

“Let me get this straight,” Alex said. “Us, the Ferngill Republic, are in a war with the Shadow People, and at war with the Gotoro Empire and their Dwarven allies?”

“Something like that,” Kent said.

“So, what’s the deal with them and the Dwarves? Are they good guys or bad guys?”

Kent shook his head. “I don’t think it’s that simple,” he said. “They want to bring down the Shadow People just as much as we do. And while they’re not our enemies, we will quickly become the enemy if we get in their way and try to stop them from eliminating the Shadow People.”

“I don’t understand,” Alex said. “We both want the same things, don’t we?”

“The Dwarves are the reason the Shadow People attacked in the first place,” Kent said. “They’re not exactly innocent good guys. They should have kept to their damn selves.”

“So,” Alex started. “There’s good guys, bad guys, and basically asshole guys?”

“The good, the bad, and the ugly,” Marlon muttered.

Shane turned anxiously toward where the Gotoro army disappeared with Najia. “What’s the plan?” he said, his voice hard. “They’re getting away with her.”

“They won’t kill her,” Kent said.

“They’ll beat her until she dies,” Shane hissed.

“What do they want with her and Stardew Valley?” John asked.

Kent shook his head. “I don’t know. Likely just information. Anything that they can use to destroy the Shadow People.”

“They can’t just ask nicely?” Alex muttered.

“They don’t do anything nicely,” Kent said. “This war has become so twisted, no one can trust anyone else. They know what they need and they’ll do what they have to do to get it and end the war.”

“There goes my plan of knocking on their door and asking for her back,” Alex said.

“I have an idea of where they could have taken her,” Kent said.

“Great,” Shane muttered. “Let’s just drive on over there.” He gestured to the flat tires.

“And pick up our lost trailer while we’re at it,” Alex said.

“We’ll have to hoof it,” Marlon said.

“Where are we going?” John asked Kent.

“They have a base on the southern coast,” Kent said. “If we drive fast, straight through, we can get there in two days.”

“We can get back to the store” John said. “Get ourselves some cars there.”

Shane turned and started walking the edge of the river, back to where they entered the canyon. The five other men followed suit.

Within a couple of hours, they had hiked their way out of the canyon and made their way back onto the interstate. They followed the road back into town where they scoured for three more vehicles.

“Found an open one,” Marlon called from across the lot.

Shane slid in and hot wired the car. The engine sputtered to life. He searched the lot until he found a truck with the windows smashed open. He peered around inside before reaching in and opening the door. He hot wired it easily and closed the door behind him, sinking into the seat and sighing. He fiddled with the items left in the center console. A wallet with a license, a couple of bills, and a condom. Shane examined the picture on the license and rolled his eyes.

“Yeah, I bet you got laid a lot, dude,” he muttered to himself. He tossed the wallet onto the floor and fished through the glove compartment. He pulled out a cigar and a book of CDs. He flipped through them, disinterested, before searching the compartment for a lighter. He lit the cigar and sighed.

“You gonna share that?” Marlon asked as he passed the truck. He leaned against the door.

Shane shrugged and passed him the cigar.

Marlon peered at it for a moment. “Not what I thought you were smoking,” he said casually. “But, it’ll do.”

Two vehicles pulled up in front of them. John leaned out the car in front. “Let’s go,” he grunted to them.

Marlon slid into the car with Gil and the three vehicles pulled out of the parking lot, heading south towards the Gotoro base.

46: 37
37

The five men peered over the rock wall, just on the outskirts of the woods. They had left their vehicles hidden in some over growth as they neared the Gotoro base, walking the rest of the way through the forest. Wood fences stretched high around their base with barbed wire at the top. Armed men took guard at the entrances and marched around the wall.

“They’re not fucking around,” Alex muttered. “Where the hell is our army?”

Kent narrowed his eyes at Alex. “You think if we had an army left, I’d be here?”

“So, we’re the losers in this war?”

“You should be grateful you made it this far,” Kent mumbled.

“How do we get in?” John asked. “And how do we find Najia?”

“Getting in will be a lot easier than finding her,” Kent said.

“Whats the plan?” John pressed.

Kent pulled some rope out of his bag and proceeded to tie Alex’s wrists together. “Follow my lead.”

He tied their wrists in loose knots, grabbed Gil’s rifle, and pushed them out of the woods and onto the road.

The two soldiers that guarded the entrance looked up as Kent appeared around the corner with his four captives.

“More?” one of the men said, raising an eyebrow.

“Busy day?” Kent asked.

“Found that woman,” the man said. “Just brought her in not too long ago.”

Kent shifted the rifle in his arms, pushing it into Alex’s back. “Well, maybe they will be of use. They know of Stardew Valley.”

The guard grunted and waved a group of men over to them. “Bring them to Michaels,” he said.

Kent nodded as he followed the captives into the gate, but the soldier put a hand on his shoulder, stopping him.

“We have orders not to let in any grunts.”

“Excuse me?” Kent said sharply. “I found these fucking guys.”

“Then get back out there and do your fucking job.”

Kent jerked his arm out from under the guard’s hold. He watched helplessly as a group of men lead his team into the city. Alex looked back over his shoulder as they disappeared around the corner.

“Fucking awesome,” he muttered.

The Gotoro soldiers pushed them onward until they entered the back of a building where they passed a set of guards who didn’t even acknowledge their presence. The building was brightly lit and they blinked their eyes until they adjusted. They walked through the building, as gates opened and closed behind them until they were shoved into a large jail cell. Without a word, the soldiers locked the door and left them alone in the dim cell.

“Kent will find a way in,” John muttered as he pressed himself against the cell door, peering around the corner as best as he could.

“I’m not waiting for his rescue,” Shane hissed. He pulled two pins out of his pocket and slid his arms through the bars in an attempt to pick the lock.

“And then what?” Alex asked. “We raid this huge place?”

“I don’t have my rifle,” Gil muttered.

“We’ve got our guns still,” John said. “Stupid of them not to check.”

“They must have figured Kent took care of that,” Alex said.

Shane froze as a door slammed from around the corner. He slid his arms back inside the cell, listening as two men spoke.

“She won’t talk,” the first voice said.

“We’ve got four others from the valley,” the second said. “Maybe they’ll have information.”

“What do we do with the woman?”

“Kill her.”

“Michaels doesn’t want her dead,” the voice hissed.

“Then get her to start talking, at any cost.”

“Where are the others?”

“In the back cell.”

Footsteps echoed off the walls as the two men rounded the corner. They stopped in front of the cell, their arms crossed.

“Well, well, well,” the first voice said. “Look who got out of the canyon.” He shook his head as if disappointed. “I knew we should have just killed you while we had the chance.” He sighed. “Unfortunately, we’ll need you alive for just a little longer, hm?” He narrowed his eyes. “Someone’s missing. Where’s your friend?” He turned to the soldier beside him. “This is a set up. Find the other man. I want every soldier on patrol looking for him.”

The man nodded and hurried out to deliver the message.

The first man smiled at them. “Maybe I’ll have the pleasure of seeing you die after all.” He turned away and disappeared around the corner. The door slammed and clicked locked behind him.

Shane shoved his arms through the cell again, working frantically to pick the lock.

“Next time, we need a plan B,” Alex muttered.

“Get us out of here,” John hissed.

“I’m trying,” Shane grunted. He bit his lower lip as he felt around with the pins, his view blocked by the bars. No matter how he strained his neck, he couldn’t see enough of what he was doing. Finally, the lock clicked and the cell door swung open.

At that moment, red lights began to flash silently along the walls. They pulled out their guns, keeping them in front of them as they hurried down the hall and around the corner. On the other side of the door, two men stood guard.

“We’re going to kill humans,” Alex muttered. “Humans…”

“If you don’t, you’ll die,” Marlon hissed at him.

“They’re not Shadow Brutes,” Alex said. “They’re people. They’re supposed to be the good guys.”

“Snap out of it,” Gil said to him, grabbing his shoulder. “Its kill or be killed. You’ve got this, kid.”

Alex tightened his grip on his gun. “I never thought I would have to shoot another man again,” he muttered.

Shane kicked open the door, Marlon at his side, and they each grabbed one of the guards, catching them by surprise. Shane shoved his gun into the man’s back, firing once, and let the body slump to the floor. Marlon took out the other guard just as easily.

Shane stepped over the body and out the door, searching quickly for any sign of Najia.

“Where do we go now?” Alex muttered.

Shane peered into the corner of the room and shot at the security camera.

“Maybe we can find the room where all the security footage is,” John said, staring at the camera as it sparked.

“Front of the building,” Marlon said. “I think I saw some guards sitting at some screens.”

Marlon lead the way as they hurried into the main hallway and back around into the main lobby where they were brought in, keeping close to the wall as he peered around the corner.

“One, two, three… nine. Shoot them all,” he said. “Now.”

They leaned around the corner, firing immediately at their targets. The soldiers drew their guns and returned fire, but were quickly brought down. They sprinted across the room just as more soldiers rounded the corner, their guns drawn. They fired at the escapees.

Shane threw himself behind a desk as he reloaded. He peered around it, firing at the closest target. Within seconds, the room was cleared once more. They ran the rest of the way across the room to where the soldiers had emerged from the security room.

The wall was lined with screen after screen of black and white images. They searched each one quickly until they found Najia. She was slumped over in a chair, not moving.

“Where is that?” Shane hissed.

Alex peered at the controls at the computer, searching for any indication of what room she was in. “Basement level,” he said. “C’mon.”

They followed him quickly out of the room and around the corner down a dimly lit hall until they reached a stairwell. He jumped over the rail onto the next flight of steps as it wound it’s way down into the basement. They hurried down another hallway and through the door at the end. The door opened into another hallway, stretching to the left and to the right of them. In front of them, just to the right, was another door. The knob twitched and it opened. The man stepped out and smiled at them.

“Oh,” he said. “Are you here for her?”

Shane raised his gun and shot him. The man collapsed to the ground.

“We could have tricked him,” Alex muttered. “He didn’t have a clue.”

Shane pushed past Alex, stepping over the body and into the room. But it was empty.

His heart raced as his eyes scanned the room. Papers were scattered over a desk on the far side against the wall. Implements lay scattered on a metal table. He froze as he felt a blade against his throat. He met Alex’s confused gaze.

“What are you doing?” John hissed.

“You can’t kill me,” Najia shouted. “I won’t let you.”

Shane grabbed Najia’s arm and flipped her over onto the ground. He pinned her to the floor as she squirmed violently under him.

“No,” she shouted. “I’ll do it. I’ll jump again.”

“Najia, stop,” Shane hissed. He pressed his gun against her and she froze.

“I’ll tell you anything,” she said, staring into his eyes. “I’ll tell you everything.”

“We need to get her out of here,” Marlon warned.

“We’re getting you out of here, Najia,” Shane said.

“Please,” she sobbed. “Don’t hurt them. Don’t kill Shane.”

Shane loosened his grip on her, but Najia was quick to react, pulling him into her and bashing her head against him. She scrambled to her feet just as Gil and Marlon threw themselves on top of her. Marlon covered her nose and mouth with a cloth and she quickly lost consciousness.

Shane groaned as Alex helped him to his feet. His head throbbed painfully where she hit him.

“Kudos to Najia,” Alex said with a smirk.

“Shut up,” Shane hissed.

Marlon threw Najia’s body over his shoulder. “Now,” he said with a grunt. “How the hell are we going to get out of here alive?”

47: 38
38

The building started to shake around them as they hurried back up the stairwell. Muffled explosions could be heard through the walls as they reached the ground floor. They ran down the hallway and around the corner, back into the empty lobby. Marlon put Najia on the floor as she began to groan and slow come to.

“It’s too quiet in here,” Alex said. “Where is everyone?”

The explosions from outside were louder in the lobby. They peered out the nearest window as a tank moved through the city. The soldiers were firing at the tank as it moved down the road.

“Did Kent get his hands on a fucking tank?” John muttered.

Najia groaned louder as his eyes fluttered open. She turned onto her side, gasping, before vomiting on the floor.

“We need to get her to Harvey,” Marlon said, kneeling at her side as she collapsed onto the floor.

“We seem to be clear here,” Gil said. “The cars aren’t far, and the wall is likely unguarded with Kent causing a scene.”

“I can get one of the cars,” Alex said.

“Go,” John said. “We don’t have a lot of time.”

They waited in the empty lobby, watching the battle unfold outside. Another tank approached, firing at the first tank, until the two tanks were firing at one another. The soldiers climbed the first tank, dragging Kent out of the hatch on top and throwing him onto the ground.

“Christ,” Gil muttered, taking his pistol out of his pocket.

“Don’t go out there,” Marlon hissed. “You’ll draw attention to us.”

“They’re going to fucking kill him,” Gil barked. He pushed open the front door.

“Shit,” Marlon muttered, throwing Najia back over his shoulder. “I’m getting her out of here.”

“We’ll hold them off,” John said.

“Get Gil back in here now before you all get killed.”

Shane hesitated, watching as John ran out the front door, and Marlon out the back with Najia over his shoulder. He chased after John, watching as Gil fired aimlessly into the battle below them.

The tank turned its aim onto the men in front of the building and began to fire. Shane threw himself onto the ground as the missiles flew into the building. Shrapnel erupted around them. He looked up just as a man pointed a gun at Kent’s head. The man looked up at them and smiled wickedly as he pulled the trigger. Kent’s body fell over, limp.

Shane’s breath caught in his throat as the battle turned to them.

“Move,” John shouted to Shane as he pulled Gil’s arm.

They sprinted back into the building as the tank continued to fire. The walls and ceiling of the building began to crumble around them as they made their way across the lobby and out the back. They ran along the wall until they found a tattered shirt hanging, tied to a tree branch.

“Alex,” John said. He climbed the tree to the branch that hung just over the wall and jumped down on the other side. Gil and Shane followed quickly, dashing into the woods towards the cars.

They found Alex and Marlon just outside the woods, up the road. They crammed themselves in quickly as Alex sped the car around, back to where the other two waited.

“What about Kent?” Alex asked.

“Kent’s dead,” John barked at him.

Alex stared at the man beside him blankly.

“Drive, kid, drive.”

Najia groaned in the back seat, her body stretched out across the three men in the back. Her eyes fluttered open once more, meeting Marlon’s gaze.

“Please don’t head bash me,” he muttered.

Najia blinked at him. Her eyes moved along to Shane, then to Gil. She sighed and closed her eyes. “You roofied me, didn’t you?”

Alex stopped the car beside the other two, waiting just where they had left them. Marlon helped Najia out of the car and into the front seat of the truck.

“What happened?” she muttered.

“Don’t you worry about it,” Marlon said. “We’re getting you home.”

She winced as Shane slammed the door beside her. He leaned out the window, talking low to Marlon before he got into the car with Gil. The truck engine roared to life and they pulled out of their hiding spot, speeding down the road.

Najia watched Shane as he drove. His brows were knit together and his face twisted in a mix of emotions. She noticed the red lump on his forehead.

“What happened to you?” she mumbled.

He didn’t look at her. “You skull bashed me.”

Najia stared blankly at him. “I what?”

He shook his head. “How are you feeling? Are you okay?”

“I feel like shit,” Najia groaned. “Why do I feel like shit?”

“A number of reasons, I’d suspect,” Shane said. “You were drugged.”

“Drugged?” she repeated. “By who?”

“The Gotoros,” He hesitated. “And Marlon.”

“Marlon drugged me?”

“You were kind of trying to kill us,” he muttered.

“What?”

Shane shook his head. “It doesn’t matter.”

Najia pushed herself up in her seat. “It does matter.” She paused. “I don’t remember anything after being thrown into some jail cell.”

Shane finally turned to her, looking her up and down. “The Gotoro Empire is working with the Dwarves,” Shane said, turning back to the road, illuminated only by their headlights.

“Why?”

“To fight the Shadow People. Except their methods are twisted and backwards. I still don’t know what they think they could get from Stardew Valley, but they’ll do anything to get to it.”

“They asked me all these questions.” Najia hesitated. “I can’t remember. I didn’t know what they wanted from me.”

Shane’s gaze drifted to the rear view mirror.

“Thanks for coming after me,” Najia said softly. “Would have saved you a lot of trouble if you just left me, though.”

Shane’s gaze moved back to the road.

“Is everyone okay? My grandfather?”

Shane nodded.

“What’s wrong?”

Shane gritted his teeth together. “Kent was murdered,” he said.

“Murdered? What do you mean?”

“Fucking animals,” he said. “He was helpless and they just shot him right in the head. Just to make a point.”

Najia’s stomach twisted. “Oh my Yoba,” she said. She leaned out the window and vomited. “This is all my fault,” she sobbed.

“Stop,” Shane growled. “This isn’t anyone’s fault.” He sighed and turned to Najia. “You should sleep or something until we get you to Harvey.”

*****

They arrived back in Stardew Valley without incident, parking the vehicles just outside of the tunnel. They walked through the dark tunnel in silence, not bothering to light their way with their flashlights. Their footsteps echoed eerily off the stone walls around them.

“I saw him,” Alex said quietly. “When I was heading for the cars. Fucking tank. Thought I was dead until Kent popped out of it. I told him what happened. Where you guys were. He said he would make a distraction so we could escape.”

No one responded to him. They continued to walk on in silence, somber. When they emerged from the tunnel, they squinted into the bright sunlight, their eyes still not quite adjusted. Their footsteps turned soft as they made their way down the dirt road into the little town where everyone was gathered in the late afternoon light.

They turned to them as the team approached, delight on their faces to see them home safe, but their joy quickly disappeared as the team trudged forward, dirty and solemn.

Jodi was the first to speak, her voice shaking; panicked. “Kent. Where’s Kent.” It wasn’t a question. She already knew the answer. Her breathing shook as the team looked to one another, waiting for someone to answer.

“Jodi,” Marlon began, but he did not need to finish.

“No,” she said softly, shaking her head. “No, no, no.” Her voice rose as the tears began to stream down her cheeks. “No!” Her legs shook and she fell to her knees, sobbing.

Vincent ran to his mother’s side, crying softly. “Mama,” he said. “What’s wrong, Mama? Where’s Daddy, Mama?”

Jodi pulled her youngest son into her chest and sobbed into his messy locks. Sam watched at Sebastian’s side, staring at his mother, his face pale as her sobs grew.

“Don’t cry, Mama,” Vincent cried. He pulled away and tried to wipe her tears with his little hands. “Don’t cry,” he sobbed.

Sam turned away silently, his hands clenched into fists at his side, his breathing short.

“Sam,” Sebastian started, raising his hand to his friend’s shoulder, but Sam pulled away and made his way to the forest.

Jas ran across the square towards Shane. Shane picked up the girl, wincing slightly as he kissed her forehead.

“You’re way too big for this,” he whispered to her.

She wrapped her arms around his neck and rested her head against him. “Not today,” she said.

Najia blinked back the tears in her eyes and turned away from the group. She wandered aimlessly back to the farm until her vision was too blurred to see. She found the front steps of her grandfather’s cabin and sat down, sobbing into her hands until she felt a hand on her shoulder. John smiled at his granddaughter as she peered at him through her wet eyes.

“It’s not fair,” she muttered.

“War isn’t fair, Rōśanī,” he said softly.

48: 39
39

Harvey peered once more into Najia’s eyes, double and triple checking as her pupils grew and shrunk.

“I said I’m fine,” Najia muttered, pulling her head away from the light.

“The drugs they had you on are serious stuff,” Harvey said. “They can be very harmful if not used correctly.” He paused as he flipped through his notes. “How long were you vomiting for?”

“The whole drive home,” Shane said, standing in the door way, his arms crossed.

Najia groaned and leaned back against the hospital bed.

“I can’t exactly run a lot of tests and blood work,” Harvey said, turning to the monitors. “But I think it’s safe to say that there’s been no harm done.” He peered into her eyes once more. “You have a thick skull.”

“Tell me about it,” Shane muttered.

“You,” Harvey said, pointing to a chair. “Sit.”

“No, no,” Shane said, shaking his head. “I’m fine.”

Harvey turned back to his notes. “You have a concussion.”

“No I don’t.”

Harvey narrowed his eyes at him. “This is the easiest thing to recognize. You need to sit.”

“I ran through the fucking woods and drove across the country just fine,” Shane hissed.

“Men,” Najia muttered.

“You’re staying over night,” Harvey said to Najia. “For observation.” He turned back to Shane. “If you have any headaches, vomiting, vertigo, blood in your ears, or anything out of the ordinary, you come here.”

Shane saluted him. “Yes, sir.”

Harvey made his way across the room with his paperwork, sitting behind his desk and shuffling through the papers there.

Shane sat beside Najia, kicking his feet up onto the bed and sighed.

“So,” Najia started. “Why did I attack you again?”

Shane smiled. “You thought we were the bad guys. Thought we were gonna kill you or something.”

“Some drugs.”

“You threatened to jump out the window again. Wouldn’t have gotten you far since you were in the basement.”

Najia hesitated. “Is my grandfather okay?”

“He almost shot me.”

Najia met his gaze. “Why?”

“He thought I was hiding something from him, about why they took you.” Shane let his feet drop to the floor and he leaned forward. “You know, that’s the third time he threatened my life. Tell him the bit is getting old.”

Najia smiled. “You’re just an easy target.”

Shane leaned back against the chair and crossed his arms. “Well, stop getting into trouble, because one of these days, I think he’ll actually shoot me.”

At that moment, the door opened, and John peered inside, smiling at his granddaughter.

“How are you feeling?” he asked her.

“Fine,” she said.

Shane stood and let himself out. “See ya later,” he called over his shoulder.

“Are you sure?”

“Yes.”

John sat down. “Why didn’t you tell me what happened in the city?”

Najia looked at her feet. “I don’t know,” she said softly. “I didn’t even know what was happening. I thought it was all some kind of mistake. I thought they were just part of our government. None of it makes sense.”

John nodded. “Don’t keep secrets from me, okay? If I had known-”

“What could you have done?” Najia met his gaze.

“I wouldn’t have let you go out on the raid with us.”

“You still would have been attacked.”

“But they wouldn’t have found you.”

Najia turned away again. “Stop pointing guns at Shane,” she muttered.

John smiled. “Is that why he was here? To cry to you?”

Najia narrowed her eyes at her grandfather. “What’s your problem with him?”

“Every time something goes wrong, he just always seems to be conveniently there. Especially when it involves you.”

“He’s the one that stops things from getting worse,” she said. She shrugged. “He tries to, anyway.”

“Yeah,” John said with a sigh. “I know. He’s protective of you. That’s my job.”

Najia met his gaze and smiled.

“Even more reason for me to threaten him,” he said, getting to his feet. “Because he needs to know that if he fucks up and you get hurt, he’s going down.”

“Grandpa.”

John held a hand up. “You need some rest. I’ll see you in the morning.”

“Goodnight.”

“Goodnight, Rōśanī.”

*****

Najia watched as John and Marlon drove down the tunnel in search of their lost trailer just outside the valley. She made her way towards the farm as Sam walked towards her. His brows were knit together in fury.

“Sam-”

“You’re the reason my father is dead,” Sam spat at her.

Najia hesitated. “No, Sam. I’m so sorry. I had no idea.”

“He was saving all of your asses out there,” he hissed. “Because you guys fucked up.”

“Sam.” Najia’s heart raced. He was furious with her. “Things didn’t go as planned. We didn’t know that… that…”

“That what? That he was going to put his life on the line so you could escape?”

“No one told him to do that,” she sobbed. “Sam… I’m so sorry…”

Sam stepped closer to her, backing her into a tree. “You’re sorry?” he hissed. “You dragged us all into this mess. Are you sorry for that?”

“Sam-”

“Who else has to die because of you?”

There was a metallic click coming from the end of the road as a gun was cocked, but Sam did not waver.

“Back off, Sam,” Shane’s voice hissed.

Sam’s gaze shot towards Shane. “Go ahead,” he said. “Shoot me.”

Shane shot at the ground by Sam’s feet.

“You’re a shitty shot,” he muttered.

Shane cocked the gun again. “At least I know what a Glock is.”

Sam’s fingers curled into fists at his side.

“Put the gun down,” Lewis barked from behind Shane, but Shane did not budge.

“Get away from her,” he growled.

Sam raised his hands in defense, stepping away. He narrowed his gaze on Shane before turning away from them, storming off down the tunnel.

“If I see one more person raise a gun around here,” Lewis shouted, “you will be banished from the valley. Now get back to work.”

Shane pocketed his gun and made his way to Najia. “Are you okay?”

“I’m fine,” she muttered, turning away.

“I should have-”

“I can take care of myself, Shane,” Najia hissed at him.

Shane watched her carefully. “I know.”

“I don’t need you to babysit me.”

“I wasn’t.”

“Just stay away from me,” Najia stammered. She started to walk away, but Shane pulled her back to him.

“It’s not your fault,” he said to her.

Najia pinched her lips and looked at her feet. “It’s all-”

Shane pulled her closer. “Stop saying that.”

“Why?”

“Because you’re wrong.”

Najia sighed and looked down the tunnel where Sam disappeared. She leaned into Shane’s chest. He wrapped his arms around her as she cried into him.

49: 40
40

Najia pulled the sketchbooks out of the trailer eagerly. John and Marlon had just returned with the trailer the next morning, grateful to be back in the safety of the valley. Najia brought the sketchbooks to the forest where Leah and Abigail stood outside their newly built cabin.

“What do you think?” Leah asked, turning to her. “I convinced them to do ours first. Right by the lake.”

“Good timing,” Najia said, holding out the sketchbooks. “I got you a house warming gift on our raid.”

Leah’s eyes lit up as she took the sketchbooks from Najia. “Seriously?”

Najia smiled. “And paints and brushes and some weird kind of crayons.”

Leah wrapped her arms about Najia. “I can’t believe you did that,” she said.

Najia shrugged. “I just wanted to see some of your art.”

Leah smiled and turned to Abigail. “You’ll have to be my model,” she said.

Abigail rolled her eyes. “Why me?”

“Because we’re roomies now.”

“Fine,” she muttered. “But no nudies.”

*****

Over the next few days, another cabin was erected, just outside of the forest for Jodi, Sam, and Vincent. Jodi was too eager to lock herself away as soon as she could, still mourning the death of her husband. Sam, on the other hand, had retreated into his own shell, hardly speaking a word to anyone, working on his own with whatever needed to be done.

Najia and Leah made their way to the farm once more, ready to spend the day tending to the fall crops, falling back into their usual, comforting routine. Corn, yams, and pumpkins had been planted over the last few days, so they spent their morning watering and weeding. As noon approached, the men made their way to the farm casually, eager to take a break from their construction.

Najia stretched out on the grass beside Leah and sighed. She rolled over on to her stomach, her chin in her hands as she watched everyone mill about casually. They snacked on apples and talked cheerfully to one another.

The breeze picked up around them, sending a chill up Najia’s spine. She turned her face to the sun but did not find its warmth. She peered into the sky, expecting to see a cloud moving in front of the sun, but instead a dark haze seemed to move in around them.

The all too familiar dark purple haze moved in quickly, covering the sun and clouding the valley in darkness. Najia shuffled to her feet, her heart racing as the world darkened. The eerie sound of hissing filled the air quickly. She stiffened, not daring to breathe as she listened to the hissing of the Shadow People. The sound grew louder, cackling; they were laughing. The hissing filled her ears and disoriented her. She couldn’t tell where they were. The sounds moved around her, closer and further and closer again.

Najia saw the flash before she heard the gun go off, but she couldn’t tell who had fired. The creatures continued to hiss loudly, unaffected by the gunshot. Another shot went off, this time from a different source. The creatures shrieked. No, it was human. A woman.

Three more shots fired and the screaming grew. Another followed. Jas. Another gun shot, and the screaming stopped, but the hissing grew.

“No!” Shane’s voice. Najia couldn’t tell where he was. “Don’t fucking shoot!”

The humans were silent, listening; waiting. The hissing stopped.

“Don’t shoot!” Shane barked.

The seconds dragged on as the silence grew, overbearing. Najia could hear her pulse pounding in her ears. She strained to hear beyond it. There was a grunt and a thud. Another gun shot. A creature shrieked and fell silent.

“We’re going to die,” Najia muttered.

“Hold your fire,” Marlon shouted from across the field. “Hold!”

Najia gripped the butt of her dagger and waited. She spun around when she heard rustling in the crops behind her and saw the familiar green eyes glowing in the darkness. The creature lunged at her, but Najia let the dagger tear across her, and the creature fell limp.

She worked to steady her breathing, listening once more. There were more grunts and thuds. Another gunshot followed, flashing in the darkness.

And then in a blinding flash, the haze disappeared and the strong sunlight returned. The Shadow People shrieked violently as the light touched them. With no escape, they quickly burst into flames, falling to the ground in an ashy, burning heap.

The humans looked on, horrified. Najia could not pull her gaze away from the smoldering ashes. Her stomach twisted as she returned her dagger to the sheath on her hip. Shane’s distorted voice brought her back to reality. She looked up to see him on his knees, Jas in his lap, and her heart stopped. Before she could react, Marnie, Lewis, and Harvey blocked her view as they ran to Jas.

Najia spun around as Emily screamed. Emily was knelt over Clint, her hands over her mouth as she sobbed. The man lay in a pool of his own blood, seeping out from around him.

“Clint!” she yelled, but he did not respond.

Najia felt frozen to the ground as panic erupted around her. Haley and Sandy ran to Emily’s side. Harvey looked over his shoulder, his face anxious.

“Najia!”

Leah’s voice grounded her for a moment. She met Leah’s gaze, still struck with horror.

“Come on,” she said, pulling at Najia’s arm, but Najia did not move.

“What happened,” she muttered, less of a question but a shocked response. “I don’t understand.”

John hurried to their side. He held his granddaughter’s chin and looked hard into her eyes. “We’re fine,” he said to her. “We’re okay, Rōśanī.”

John turned to Leah, but Najia could not focus on his words. His hand left her face and he hurried out of the farm and into the forest.

Najia followed the tree line until her gaze was back on Clint. Harvey was at his side now, taking his pulse, shaking his head. His face was pained. Haley pulled Emily away as she sobbed.

Najia found Shane once more. He was smiling. Jas was alive. His eyes didn’t move from the young girl, oblivious to what was happening around them.

Najia let Leah pull her across the farm, stepping around the shadow corpses in the process. Najia followed aimlessly down the dirt road and towards the community center where she collapsed onto the couch. She leaned her head on Leah’s shoulder and sobbed.

After a few minutes, the door opened once more, causing Najia and Leah to jump. Sebastian, Maru, Penny, Abigail, and Demetrius practically stumbled in, still in shock. Right behind them followed Willy, Alex, Gunther, and Elliott, their faces pale.

“What happened?” Maru’s voice shook.

“The Shadow People,” Elliott said.

“How did they get into the valley like that?” Abigail asked. “I thought we were safe here.”

They sat together absentmindedly as they tried to sort out the event that had just unfolded before their eyes.

“He’s dead,” Najia sobbed. “Clint’s dead.”

Leah’s hand was around Najia’s.

They stayed there, mumbling amongst each other, confused, until John, Lewis, and Linus finally entered. Their faces were torn between exhaustion, confusion, and fear.

“What happened?” Leah asked.

John shook his head. “I’m not quite sure,” he said, hesitant. “I went to see Rasmodius… Harvey is tending to him. He mustered up all his strength to bring the light back for us. But I don’t know what happened. He was out cold when I got to him.”

“They know we’re here,” Abigail said. “They know about the valley.” Her voice was panicked.

“How did this happen?” Elliott asked.

“What are we supposed to do now?”

“We’re not safe here anymore.”

John exchanged an uneasy glance with Lewis and Linus.

“I don’t know,” John said simply. “I don’t know.”

*****

They remained in the community center well into the night, none of them eager to step outside alone. All they could do was wait until Rasmodius came to to give them answers.

Najia was too anxious to stay in the community center any longer. She hadn’t seen Shane or Marnie, and she worried for Jas. She made her way to the med cabin. Shane was sitting beside Jas when Najia entered. He held her little hand, his thumb running over her fingers as he watched her sleep.

“How is she?” Najia asked, still standing in the door way.

Shane met her gaze and smiled. “She’s fine.”

Najia pulled up a chair and sat on it backwards, letting her chin rest against the back of the chair. “You look like you need a coffee,” she said.

“If by coffee you mean beer, then yes.”

“She’s out cold,” Najia muttered. “What happened?”

Shane hesitated. “I don’t really know,” he said. “She said one of those brutes grabbed her and that’s all she remembered.”

Najia nodded absentmindedly.

“I’m going to kill all of them,” Shane said softly, staring intently on Jas. “Every last one of those bastards. They won’t get away with any of this.”

“Just say when,” Najia said.

Shane met her gaze once more, his brows knit together. “I don’t think so,” he said. “You’re staying here.”

“You can’t tell me what to do.”

“Look,” Shane said, matter of factly. “I can’t see anyone else die. So, you can’t come.”

“I’m not going to die,” Najia said, rolling her eyes.

“Right, because you’ll be here.”

“Don’t be stupid,” Najia said. “You’ll need help.”

“No I don’t.”

“Then what if you die?” Najia hissed. “You’re really going to do that to Jas?”

“She’s all I have,” he said quietly. “I will do anything to keep her safe.”

“Being dead doesn’t exactly help her.”

Shane sighed and looked at his feet. “You being dead doesn’t help me.”

Najia watched Jas as she slept peacefully. “This has been the week from hell,” she muttered.

50: 41
41

John was at his bedside when Rasmodius awoke the next day, pained and exhausted.

“I don’t know how it happened,” he said weakly, answering John’s questions. “They were able to get through the valley’s power. I did all I could to push the darkness away.”

“You saved us all,” John said, his hand on the wizard’s arm. “Almost killed yourself doing it.”

“Ah,” Rasmodius scoffed weakly. “Gonna take a lot more than that to get rid of me, hm?”

“Rest up, friend.” John left him in Harvey’s care, making his way outside where Lewis waited for him.

“Now what?” John grunted, sensing tension.

“Morris is missing,” Lewis said.

“Missing? Did the Shadow People get him?”

Lewis shook his head. “I don’t know. We’ve looked everywhere for him. No one has seen him since the attack.”

“Listen, now,” John muttered. “I can’t be babysitting all these damn people.”

“He’s one of us,” Lewis said. “This is supposed to be a safe place. We can’t let any more people get hurt or go missing.”

“We’re not some resistance group,” John reminded him. “We’re a rag tag bunch of people who somehow managed to stay alive this long. What are we supposed to do?”

“What are you saying?” Lewis narrowed his eyes at John.

“I’m saying we’re losing, Lewis. Whether we like it or not, we are losing this war.”

*****

The survivors of Stardew Valley gathered in the community center, listening intently at what John had to say to them.

“The Shadow People know of our whereabouts,” John said to them. “We owe Rasmodius our lives. If it weren’t for him…” He cleared his throat. “He’s a bit worn right now. That was some mighty powerful magic. But he, and Jas, are doing just fine under Harvey’s care.” John paused and shifted his eyes downward for a moment. “We’ll have a proper service for Clint, of course, later this evening.”

“He was shot,” Sandy muttered. “By one of us.”

“It was an accident,” John said. “The circumstances were not in our favor.”

“What are we supposed to do?” Leah asked, bringing the subject back on course.

John looked over the survivors before him. Their eyes were on him, waiting for an answer.

“I can’t stop you from leaving,” John said. “Stardew Valley isn’t a safe haven anymore.” His voice was pained with regret. “But I will fight for this place, and I will fight to live. And if we have a chance of surviving, it’s here in the valley.”

“We’re not soldiers,” Elliott said. “You can’t expect us to fight a losing war, no matter what kind of speech you throw at us.”

“It’s a miracle we’ve lasted this long,” Abigail muttered.

“The choice is yours,” John said simply. “You can stay or you can leave. You can fight or you can live. No one here can tell you what to do.”

“You know we’re fighting,” Gil said proudly. “To the end.” He and Marlon joined John at the front of the room.

Sam stepped forward. “I’m fighting,” he said simply.

John put his hand out. “Sam.” He hesitated. “Don’t do that to your mother.”

“I can make my own choices,” Sam hissed. “And I have a bullet with Dad’s murderer’s name on it.”

Alex stepped beside Sam. “What have we got to lose?” he said.

Abigail stood. “Me too.”

John’s gaze fell on Shane’s. “You in, kid?”

Shane crossed his arms. “When have I ever stayed behind?”

*****

Shane found Najia after the meeting, standing on the edge of the dock at the beach.

“Why are you hiding here?” Shane asked her.

Najia said nothing as she looked out over the ocean.

“Morris is gone,” Shane said simply.

“I know.” Najia’s voice was just a whisper. “I let him go.”

Shane narrowed his eyes at her. “What do you mean you let him go?”

Najia hesitated, biting her lower lip. “I’m the reason we were attacked.”

“What are you talking about?”

Najia met Shane’s gaze. It grew harder as she admitted the truth to him. “Morris was one of my kidnappers. He’s working with the Shadow People. He pretended to be a captive to follow me to Stardew Valley, and when we found it, he told them where we were.”

“And you let him leave the valley?” Shane hissed.

Shane’s voice was harder than Najia had ever heard it before. Najia broke her gaze and stared out into the forest. “Not willingly,” she muttered. “He confronted me. He threatened to kill everyone if I said anything.”

“So,” Shane started angrily. “You’re telling me that we had some double agent with us, who knows where we are, and has now escaped to tell our enemies everything he knows?”

Najia didn’t say anything. She looked down at her feet. Her throat tightened, making breathing difficult. “I didn’t have a choice,” she choked out. “I’m sorry.”

“You’re sorry?” Shane snapped. “It’s because of you Clint is dead. Jas could have died. And now all of our lives are in danger. They know where we are. We can’t stay here. They will come back and kill us. That’s all on you.”

“I know!” Najia sobbed. “Do you think I wanted any of this to happen?”

“You realize we have two enemies, now?” Shane growled. “What are you going to do to fix it, Najia?”

“I don’t know,” she said softly. “Shane, I’m sorry.”

“You betrayed us.”

“I didn’t-”

“I thought I could trust you.” His voice was softer now. It was almost worse than his yelling.

“You can trust me, Shane. I’ve told you everything I know. I didn’t know this would happen.”

Shane shook his head. He bit his lower lip. “Did you know that he was working with the Shadow People?” Shane asked. “Before he confronted you?”

Najia held her breath. “I don’t - I mean -”

“Did you know?” Shane was shouting now.

“I remember a voice. A human voice. It… It was Morris. I didn’t realize-”

“Shut the fuck up,” Shane barked. He turned away from her, fuming. “You knew and you said nothing while he followed us around.”

“Shane-”

“Don’t,” he snapped over his shoulder. He stood for a moment before walking away, leaving her alone on the dock.

Najia’s mind raced erratically. There had to be something she could do to fix her mistake. Her stomach twisted and knotted as she came to the realization that Shane would tell everyone, and they would all hate her. She wanted to hide forever. She wanted to die. Shane was right; she had betrayed them.

She quietly made her way back to the dirt road in an attempt to hide in the cabin, but a crowd had gathered just outside the road, and they turned to her angrily as she approached.

“Get out of here,” Emily shouted to her. “You killed Clint!”

“Is it true?” Lewis asked, his brows knit together.

“I didn’t have a choice,” she said, her voice shaking.

“What happened?” Lewis asked. “Why did they follow you here?”

Najia hesitated, shaking as they waited for her excuse.

“They thought I knew something about Stardew Valley.”

“Why?” Lewis pressed.

“Before the invasion,” Najia forced out. “John called me and told me to come to Stardew Valley. They must have intercepted the call or something…”

“And?”

Najia sucked in a breath. “I was kidnapped. By humans. I thought… I thought they were with the government or something. They thought I had an answer to the war. But I didn’t know anything about the valley.”

“The Gotoro? The people that killed Kent?”

Najia shook her head. “The Shadow People. They’re after me, too. After the valley.”

“Who were they?”

“More humans,” Najia sobbed. “Humans working with the Shadow People.”

“How long did you know this?”

“I didn’t,” she cried. “I didn’t until Morris confronted me after the attack.”

“What did you tell them?”

“Nothing,” she said. “I swear, I didn’t know anything. They thought I had information… I didn’t…”

“That’s enough,” Shane muttered. “It doesn’t matter what happened.” He met Najia’s graze briefly before turning back to the crowd. “What matters is that they know we’re here, and it’s only a matter of time before they attack again.”

“What are we supposed to do?” Leah asked. “Leave?”

“There’s only one thing we can do,” Lewis said through his teeth. “We fight back or we die.”

51: 42
42

Two pieces of wood, carved into the symbol of Yoba, stood erect in the ground. ‘Kent’ was carved into one, while ‘Clint’ was carved into the other, marking the graves of the two men who lost their lives. Wild flowers were picked and placed at the foot of each marker. The grass was browning around them. A fresh pile of dirt marked where Clint’s body was buried. Kent’s grave remained, the dirt undisturbed, his body elsewhere in the world.

Najia didn’t dare intrude on the services. She remained hidden inside her grandfather’s cabin, hugging her knees close to her in the corner of the room. She remained there for the entire day until night fell around them. Her grandfather shuffled in, looking exhausted.

“We missed you today,” he said casually as he kicked off his boots.

“No one missed me,” Najia muttered. She met his gaze. “Do you hate me, too?”

John held her gaze for a moment. A smile broke his face. “Of course not.”

“Why not?”

John’s brows knit together. “Why would I?”

“I’ve betrayed everyone,” Najia whispered.

John let his fingers fold on his lap. “You have not betrayed us, Rōśanī. You could not have controlled what happened.”

“I brought Morris right here,” she said through gritted teeth.

“You could not have known he was working with our enemy.”

“But I did,” she said. “I just didn’t realize… I didn’t put the pieces together…”

“You cannot blame this on yourself,” John said. “We’re at war. War is hell.”

Najia shook her head. “It doesn’t matter,” she said. “They’ll never forgive me.”

“They’ll come around,” he said.

“They won’t.” Najia’s voice was hard. “And they shouldn’t. I don’t belong here, anymore.”

John’s gaze hardened on his granddaughter. “You’re not going anywhere,” he said fiercely. “I will not have it. And if anyone has a problem with it, they will have to deal with me and Calamity Jane.” He threw his thumb over his shoulder at the two weapons leaning near the door.

Najia sighed and shifted her gaze to her feet. She wished she could just disappear forever.

*****

Najia looked out over the farm. Everyone was hard at work, back in their usual routine. Construction continued in their little make-shift town, and crops were ready to be harvested. Leah and Abigail worked together in the pumpkin patch, chatting happily. They stopped when they saw Najia watching them and met her gaze, their brows knit together.

One by one, the others noticed Najia as well, and Najia could feel every single one of their eyes on her, staring at her hard with burning hatred. Najia felt like a large target, standing alone at the farm’s entrance, just outside the cabin. All she wanted to do was try to make amends and help with the work that needed to be done, but she could see in each hard, hateful gaze that her presence was unwanted.

Najia shifted her gaze to the ground and backed away slowly, avoiding their stares at all costs. She didn’t dare turn away until she had bumped into a tree and slid around it. She hurried down the dirt road, tears stinging her eyes. She ran passed the men that hauled wood out from the forest, passed Penny, Jas, and Vincent playing by the river, until she was deep in the woods and finally out of sight.

*****

Haley buried her face in her hands. Harvey sat on the bed beside her, fiddling with his pen uncomfortably.

“What do you want me to do?” he asked softly.

“What can you do?” Haley asked, feeling desperate.

Harvey hesitated. “I can do whatever you need me to do.”

Haley straightened and sucked in a breath, steadying herself. “I need to talk to Alex,” she said simply.

“Don’t do what Alex wants,” Harvey said. “You need to do what you want and what you think is best.”

“Alex gets a say just as much as I do.”

“But you get the ultimate decision.”

Haley hesitated. “No,” she said. “It’s okay. I want it. I want this.”

“Are you sure?”

Haley met his concerned gaze. “Do you think I’m being stupid?” she asked quietly.

Harvey turned his gaze away from her and sighed. “No,” he said, shaking his head. “No. Of course not. We just… we don’t have the modern conveniences we used to.”

“Women did this before hospitals,” Haley said. “If they can do it, I can do it.”

Harvey nodded and forced a smile. “It won’t be easy, Haley. Not by a long shot.”

“I know,” she said, meeting his gaze. “I just… I feel like this is something I should do.” She shrugged. “Maybe the war will be over by the time the baby is born.”

*****

Haley found Alex leaning against the frame of the latest cabin. He smiled to her when she approached.

“Can we talk?” she asked carefully.

Alex looked around them quickly before hopping off the platform and onto the ground. “What’s wrong?”

Haley took his hand, leading him away, out of earshot. Her heart raced as she turned to him, biting her lower lip. “Something happened.”

Alex’s brows knit together. “What do you mean? What happened?”

“I’m pregnant,” she blurted out.

Alex’s face whitened. “What? For real? Are you sure?”

Haley rolled her eyes in frustration. “Yes,” she practically gasped. “Yes, I’m pregnant.”

Alex hesitated. His face softened. “What do you want to do?”

“I want to keep it,” she said confidently.

Alex nodded.

“Look, if-”

“What would we name it?”

Haley stared at him for a moment. “I don’t know,” she said quietly. “I hadn’t gotten that far.”

“If it’s a girl,” Alex started, “and you have no preference, I’d like to call her Clara.”

“Clara?” Haley repeated. “Don’t you think we’re hurrying into this?”

Alex turned to his feet. “Yeah. Maybe. You’re right.”

Haley took his hand in hers. “That’s a pretty name.”

Alex met her gaze. “It was my mother’s name.”

“Okay,” Haley said softly. “Clara it is.”

*****

Haley sat on the sleeping bag on the wood floor. Her toes played with the zipper as her mind wandered to the child growing inside of her. Emily sat beside her on a square, frayed pillow, her eyes closed. She breathed in deeply and sighed.

“Do you have to do that here?” Haley muttered.

“Does my meditation really bother you that much?” Emily said softly, her eyes still closed.

“The candles are a bit much,” Haley said, eyeing the plethora of lit candles that seemed to surround her sister.

“They’re calming,” Emily said. She opened her eyes and sipped from her tea. She put the cup bag in front of her feet as she breathed in deeply once more.

“What’s in that damn tea?” Haley asked, scrunching her nose at the smell.

“It’s Kava tea,” Emily said.

“Kava tea?”

“It’s a perfectly natural tea derived from a natural plant in the natural world.”

“Wait,” Haley said. “Is it natural?”

Emily’s eyes opened slowly to glare at her sister. “Totally.” She closed her eyes once more.

“Isn’t Kava a drug?”

Emily sighed. “It just makes you relaxed. It’s helping me cope with Clint’s death.”

“I didn’t know you guys were that close,” Haley muttered.

“He was very sweet to me,” she said. “We had a lot of deep, late night talks.”

“I aways did think he had a thing for you.”

Emily sighed deeply. “What troubles you?”

Haley turned to her sister, but her eyes remained closed. “Nothing.”

“I know when you’re lying, Haley.”

Haley turned away and stared at the zipper of the sleeping bag. “I’m pregnant.”

Emily’s eyes opened and she turned to her sister. “I guess I shouldn’t offer you some of my tea,” she said slowly.

Haley rolled her eyes. “I’ve decided to keep it.”

Emily nodded in understanding. She joined Haley on her sleeping bag and pulled her into her arms.

“Am I making the right decision?” Haley asked softly.

“Do you think you are?”

Haley nodded. “I know it doesn’t make sense, being the end of the world and all. But I want this. I need this.”

“She will be a beautiful little girl.”

“Or a boy.”

Emily pushed Haley away from her, her hands on her sister’s shoulders, and smiled. “I have a feeling about these things.”

52: 43
43

“I don’t get why he feels the need to be such an ass all the time,” Maru said. “Ever since we got here, he acts like we don’t exist. Like he was only with us because there was no one else in the world.”

“Has he always been that way?”

Maru rolled her eyes. “He hardly ever came out of his room at home.”

“I never would have guessed you were related,” Penny said.

“Half related.” Maru crossed her arms.

“Maybe that’s the problem,” Penny said, meeting Maru’s gaze. “You always call him your half-brother.”

Maru stared at Penny blankly for a moment. “So, you’re saying I’m the problem?”

Penny hesitated, sensing her anger. “I’m just saying,” she started. “You seem to push him away just as much. You know, you two have a lot more in common than you realize.”

Maru turned away from Penny, watching Vincent play by the river. “Yeah, well, he started it. He’s hated me since the day I was born.”

“I don’t believe that,” Penny said.

“He used to torment me.”

“That’s what siblings do.”

Maru rolled her eyes. “Stop being reasonable. I’m mad at him.”

Penny smiled. “Sorry,” she said. “I’ve always worked with kids, settling their fights.”

“Thanks, Miss Penny,” Maru said sarcastically.

“He’ll come around,” Penny said. “Give him a chance. I’m sure it’s not easy for him. You still have your dad. He only has you left.”

Maru looked at her feet. “I guess,” she said.

Vincent bounded up to Penny, a single wild flower in his hand.

“Look, Miss Penny. It’s almost as pretty as you.”

Penny smiled and took the flower from him. “Thank you, Vincent,” she said. “That’s so sweet of you to say.”

His smile widened as he turned away, hopping back to the river.

Penny turned to Maru and offered her the flower.

Harvey cleared his throat behind them. “Am I interrupting?”

Penny turned to him and smiled. “Of course not.”

Harvey walked to her side. “I just wanted to let you know that I’m releasing Jas tonight.”

“Good,” Penny said with a nod. “Vincent has been missing her.”

“You’ll have to ask her about my equipment,” Harvey said proudly. “She hasn’t stopped asking questions. Even quizzing me!”

“Maybe we’ll have another doctor in out future.”

“I could always use the help,” Harvey said. He turned to Maru. “I heard you have some experience.”

“I went to school for nursing,” Maru said. She hesitated. “I only had a year left. But the Shadow People had other plans, apparently.”

“Well,” Harvey started. “I’d be happy to offer you some on the job training. Nothing can beat that kind of schooling.”

Maru beamed. “I’d love that.”

*****

Sebastian leaned over the engine of the Hummer. “She’s so arrogant,” he said from under the hood. “Little Miss Perfect. She’s always been that way.”

“Uh huh,” Sam said, disinterested. He leaned against the vehicle, holding the oil stick for Sebastian.

Sebastian took it from him and replaced the cap, double checking the measurements. “Perfect little girl from the perfect little marriage,” he muttered.

Sam handed him the rag as he let the hood drop down. “You’re the mistake, man.”

Sebastian wiped his hands on the rag, staring at the Hummer. “I know,” he said. “I’ve known that from the moment I met Demetrius. He doesn’t let me forget it.”

“Fuck him,” Sam said. “What do you care, anyway?”

“I don’t,” Sebastian said, throwing the rag against the hood. “I’m not stuck with him anymore. He and Maru can have their perfect little father-daughter relationship and pretend I don’t exist. It’s not like they didn’t do that before the invasion. The only thing I had in common with them was my mother. I swear, Demetrius only let me live with them because I was his wife’s son.”

“Did he lock you in a tiny room under the stairs?”

Sebastian glared at Sam. “If only I had the power of magic to turn you into a toad,” he hissed.

Sam shrugged. “Maybe someone pretty will kiss me and turn into a prince.”

“No sane woman would kiss a toad,” Sebastian said. “Especially if they knew it would turn into you.”

Sam crossed his arms. “Maybe you would get along with them if you weren’t such an ass.”

“Demetrius is the ass.”

“He can’t be that much of an ass if your mother stayed with him,” Sam said. “I bet he’s better than your biological father.”

“I don’t remember him,” Sebastian muttered. “He left when I was little.”

“Demetrius could have left you,” Sam pointed out. “Give him a break. You’re a weird asshole that probably made his life hell.”

“He’s had all these years to be a decent step-father,” Sebastian snapped. “I didn’t need him then and I don’t need him now.”

“I’d take a step-father over a dead father,” Sam mumbled.

“You can have mine.”

“Get over your petty ass problems,” Sam hissed, “and grow up. Maru is your sister. Stop blaming your problems on her and just be happy you have some family left.”

Sebastian grabbed the rag and threw it at Sam.

“Ouch,” Sam said, rolling his eyes. “That was so hurtful.” He threw the rag back at Sebastian.

“Wipe the shit off your nose,” Sebastian said, throwing it back to Sam.

“It’s filthy.” Sam tossed it back.

“It would be an improvement.” Sebastian returned fire.

“Why don’t you go cry into it?” Sam threw the rag.

“Jerk off with it.” Sebastian tossed it back.

“You need it more than me,” Sam said.

Sebastian caught the rag and threw it on the ground. “Go to hell.”

“I’m already there.”

Sebastian watched Sam walk behind the Hummer. “What are you doing?” he barked.

“Drinking Gil’s driving whisky,” Sam said. He returned with a flask in hand and lifted it to his lips.

“Give me that,” Sebastian said, taking the flask from Sam and drinking.

Sam grabbed it when Sebastian was finished. “Don’t tell Gil.”

*****

Sam fell onto the couch beside Penny. They watched as Vincent flipped through an old book, admiring the pictures quietly and reading the words to himself slowly.

“Tough day?” Penny asked.

“All Sebastian has done is bitch about Maru.”

Penny smiled. “Maru’s had some words about Sebastian, too.”

“At least I’m not the only one that has to deal with their shit.” He turned to Penny and smiled. “Can I hide out here with you?”

Penny met his gaze. “Yeah. I could use some adult company.”

Sam stretched out his legs. “Being with Vincent all day must make you go crazy.”

“Not at all,” she said. “Teaching kids is what I’ve always loved to do. And it keeps his mind off of…” Penny trailed off. She met Sam’s gaze. “You know.”

“Our dead father?”

Penny shifted uncomfortably on the couch. She turned her attention back to Vincent. “I’m sorry, Sam.”

Sam shook his head and sighed. “No, I’m sorry.” He watched Vincent as he flipped a page in the book. “I didn’t mean to snap.”

Penny hesitated. “You can talk to me if you need to,” she said softly.

Sam shrugged. “Thanks for keeping Vincent busy.” He got onto the floor beside his brother and pointed at the book in his lap.

“Why is that bear wearing glasses?” Sam asked.

Vincent giggled. “Because he’s smart, Sam.” He pushed his older brother’s chest. “Smarter than you!”

“At least I know how to ride a bike,” Sam said.

“Bike’s are stupid,” Vincent muttered. “Teach me to ride a skateboard like you.”

53: 44
44

“How long are you going to stay out here?”

Najia turned to see Rasmodius standing behind her. She turned away from him, staring out over the lake once more. Just on the other side of the lake, the survivors were going on with their lives without her. It had been two days since she ran into the forest, and no one had seemed to notice.

“At least come in out of the rain,” Rasmodius said to her.

Najia followed the wizard inside absentmindedly. It had been raining most of the day, and the trees only provided some shelter from it. Her clothes were soaked and she was shivering.

Najia peered into the crystal ball in the middle of the room. It swirled in a silver haze before her eyes. “Crystal balls are real?”

Rasmodius shrugged as he moved past her. “Something like that.”

“Can you see in it?”

Rasmodius glanced at the ball and met her gaze. “Yes.”

“What do you see?” She squinted into the ball, hoping to catch a glimpse of their future.

“An army of Shadow People.”

Najia’s gaze shifted to Rasmodius. “They’re coming for us.”

“That they are,” Rasmodius said with a seemingly disinterested nod. He busied himself at the far end of the room, his back to Najia.

“What’s going to happen?”

“Well,” he began. “That depends.”

Najia looked at the wizard. He held a sword in his hands. She knit her brows together. “Depends on what?”

Rasmodius held up the sword. “Do you know what this is?”

Najia shook her head.

“It’s called the Galaxy Sword,” he explained. “One of Stardew Valley’s hidden treasures.”

“What’s so special about it?”

“It’s a very powerful weapon,” Rasmodius said. “And with my magic, it has the potential to end this war. I’ve been working on it for some time, but,” he hesitated, “it’s not ready. And I don’t have the time or the strength to continue working on the sword and fend off another hoard of Shadow Brutes.” He turned the blade over in his hands. “They’re strong. Only the strongest to invade the valley the way they can. I see what their power has done. What it can do. They chose to let Jas live, to serve as a warning.”

Najia hesitated, watching the blade turn in his hands. “What do you mean?”

“They’re touch is deadly,” the wizard said. “They’re not your average Shadow Brutes. They mean business, and they will not rest until they have the valley.”

“I don’t understand,” Najia said. “What is it that they want with Stardew?”

“A number of things,” Rasmodius said. “I can only begin to guess at some of them. The sword, for one thing. The magic that lies here, that could surely only strengthen their own.” He met Najia’s gaze. “This place, this sword… This is the only hope we have to surviving this war.”

“I can hold them off,” Najia said quickly. “I can do it, if it will buy you enough time.”

“They’re stronger than any creatures you’ve encountered in the past.”

“Let me take care of it,” Najia pressed. “It’s the least I can do,” she muttered.

*****

It was just past midnight as Najia walked down the tunnel and towards the cars. She threw her bag and gun into the passenger seat before sliding in behind the wheel. She had brought so much death and suffering to them already. This was all her doing, and it was her responsibility to fix it. Even if she had to go down trying. But she had a plan, and she was confident that her efforts would give the survivors at least a fighting chance.

She turned the key in the ignition. The engine startled her; it was too loud in the stillness of night. She put the car into drive and made her way over the mountains, leaving the valley behind her for good.

*****

John burst through the door to the community center that morning. “Where’s Najia?”

They looked around the room, then back to him, staring blankly.

“Can’t say I’ve seen her,” Gil said.

“She’s gone,” John said, panicked. “She’s gone.”

“What do you mean she’s gone?” Leah said.

“You fucking people drove her out of the valley and now she’s gone.”

“Good,” Emily muttered. “She doesn’t deserve to stay here.”

John’s face reddened with anger. “Don’t you dare try to blame her for what happened,” he hissed. “Morris threatened her life. Any one of you would have done the same thing if it were you.”

“We’re all going to die because of her!”

“You all would have been died months ago if it weren’t for her,” John shouted to them. “She brought you here to Stardew Valley where it was safe. She got you out of that dark hell hole, and this is how you thank her? By driving her out of the only home she has left?” John hesitated. “Najia made no mistake. It wouldn’t have mattered if she let Morris leave or not. The Shadow People already knew we were here. There was nothing that would have come out of keeping Morris captive here. It would have only made the situation more dangerous if he continued to live among us.”

John turned toward the door, adjusting the rifle on his back. “I’m going to find her and bring her back,” he said. “And if any of you have a problem with it, then I better not see your stupid faces when I get back. You are not welcome in this valley.”

Marlon and Gil stood. “You’ll need some help out there, John,” Marlon said. “Let us help you.”

“Fine,” John said shortly. “I’ll take any help I can get.”

Shane stood and pocketed his gun. Without a word, he joined John at his side.

“You better watch yourself,” John muttered to him. “You’re on thin ice with me. Don’t give me an excuse to shoot ya, ‘cuz I will.”

Shane ignored him as he pushed passed him, leaving the community center. John, Marlon, and Gil followed close behind. Rasmodius approached them outside as they got into the old green truck.

“I suspected you would go out looking for her,” the wizard said to them.

“Where is she?” John hissed at him. “What did you do?”

“I didn’t do anything, John,” Rasmodius said calmly.

“What did you tell her?”

“Nothing.”

John held his gaze as he started the truck. “I’m not finished with you,” he muttered.

“I suspected as much.” Rasmodius looked down the road towards the tunnel. “She went to stop an army of Shadow People, just outside the southern range.”

John stepped on the gas and the truck peeled out of the town and into the valley.

*****

The flare at her feet started to burn out, the circle of light around her shrinking rapidly. Najia pressed her back against the wall, her heart racing. She held her grip on her gun, jerking it towards every sound she heard in the darkness that surrounded her. The Shadow People were just outside the safety of light, waiting for their moment to strike their helpless victim. Najia was out of options. She had put herself in a corner and there was no way out. In just a few more minutes, she would be dead. And not long after, so would everyone in Stardew Valley. And it was all her fault. She should have just died when she jumped from that window. Why couldn’t they just let her die?

The flare flickered one last time before finally burning out. In one last attempt to save the valley, Najia dashed into the darkness, shooting her gun ahead of her in hopes of clearing any Shadow Brutes out of her path.

More shooting followed hers. She ducked and ran erratically, with only her flashlight to guide her. The light moved quickly over human bodies, running full speed after her from every direction. Their eyes were covered with peculiar eyewear, which Najia assumed was some kind of night vision goggles.

The concrete under her feet turned to dirt as she ran out into the desert. She pulled the grenade out of her pocket. Her heart raced in her chest. If she was going to die, she was going to take as many as she could with her. She pulled the pin as she ran, turned quickly and threw it into the darkness before continuing to run forward. She counted: one… two… three… four… five… She dove forward, just as the explosion lit up the night for a seemingly long moment. She covered her head as the ground shook briefly and the darkness consumed her once more. The world fell silent.

She waited on the ground as still as she could, listening to the world around her. She could not hear the familiar hiss of the Shadow People, or the voices of the humans chasing after her. She could not hear her own heavy, shaking breaths.

She could not hear at all.

Until she heard the ringing. It was shrill and piercing. She squeezed her eyes shut as the pain shot through her head. She turned over and forced herself up, her head spinning. And then she heard the voices. The gunshots. The roar of an engine.

She opened her eyes and blinked at the headlights in the distance. The sounds continued to buzz in her ears, and she fought to put the pieces of sounds together like a broken puzzle.

The headlights swerved before landing on her and the vehicle came to a stop. A dark figure stepped into the light, his arm raised. Najia winced, expecting a round of bullets to hit her chest.

A figure ran towards her, and John knelt to the ground in front of his granddaughter.

“Najia.” His voice was faint - distant - and fuzzy, but she recognized it. She recognized his features. She nodded as he pulled her to her feet. John gestured towards the other figures before turning back to her. “Are you okay?”

“Yes,” she muttered, her own voice sounding faint.

Shane stepped out of the headlights, standing at John’s side. John put his hand on his shoulder as he turned to him. His lips moved and Shane nodded, his gaze on Najia. John left them standing alone as he returned to the Hummer.

“You threw a fucking grenade?” was all that he said to her.

Najia looked at her feet. “Plan B,” she muttered.

Shane hesitated. “Are you okay?” he asked after a long moment.

“Why are you here?” Najia said through her teeth.

“Coming to your rescue, of course.”

“I had it under control,” she hissed. She gestured to the corpses in the distance and smiled wickedly. “I’m not a damsel in distress. I don’t need a hero, especially from any stupid man.”

The corner of Shane’s lips twisted into the slightest hint of a smile, but his gaze remained hard on her. “I know.”

“You were worried about me,” she practically accused him.

Shane turned away, making his way back to the Hummer.

“What? No snarky comment?” Najia called after him.

“Nope,” Shane said simply.

John returned to Najia’s side and peered into her ears with a flashlight.

“I’m fine,” Najia muttered. “I’m not deaf.”

John pushed her forward towards the Hummer. Najia rubbed at her temples as the pain began to subside. Shane pulled her into the Hummer and the vehicle lurched forward.

Marlon was behind the wheel, navigating themselves through the left overs of the army that had made their way into the desert, chasing after Najia. An army of humans and Shadow People. Gil fired at them as they sped through the desert, standing through the moonroof with his rifle in hand. John leaned out his window with his own gun. Najia turned and met Shane’s gaze.

“I thought you were mad at me, anyway?” she said.

Shane let the empty magazine fall into his hand. He slipped in more bullets, not meeting Najia’s gaze.

“John would have killed me if he couldn’t find you. I figured I’d probably die either way, so I could at least help look for you and try to redeem myself.” He slid the magazine back into the gun with the palm of his hand. “It was my fault, anyway.”

“Is this an apology?”

Gil let out a loud whoop from the moonroof as they lost sight of the army.

“No,” Shane said simply. “I don’t apologize to traitors.”

Najia turned away and gritted her teeth. “I didn’t betray you,” she muttered. “Morris had me cornered. There was nothing I could have done.”

“I know.” Shane turned his eyes to her. “You didn’t choose for any of this to happen. You were dragged into this war. I’m sorry I blamed you for what happened.”

Najia looked at him from the corner of her eyes, not daring to meet his gaze. “It’s my fault,” she said softly. “Clint is dead. Jas almost died.” She sucked in a breath. “Like you said, that’s on me.”

Shane pinched his lips and turned to look out the window. “Stop running off and getting kidnapped,” he said. “I’m not chasing after you again.”

“Good,” Najia mumbled. “I don’t need you to chase after me.”

John and Gil returned to their seats, securing their weapons beside them.

“Ears stop ringing?” John said to his granddaughter.

Najia nodded.

“Quite a move you pulled there,” Gil said from the font seat. “Could have gotten killed.”

Najia turned to her feet. If only that wasn’t her plan.

54: 45
45

“I can’t go back there,” Najia said as she stood outside the tunnel. “They all hate me.”

“We’ll get over it,” Shane muttered, pushing passed her and heading down the tunnel behind John, Marlon, and Gil.

“We?”

Shane stopped and sighed. “If you want to make it better,” Shane said over his shoulder, “then start thinking of a plan.”

Harvey was waiting for them on the dirt road as they made their way into town. His eyes were red from exhaustion.

“You look like hell, man,” John said.

“Up all night,” he muttered. “Listen.” He hesitated.

“What’s wrong?” Marlon asked.

“Linus is sick.”

“Sick?” John repeated.

“The best diagnosis I can come up with is lung cancer,” Harvey said. “But I have a feeling there’s a lot more to it.” He shook his head. “Possible liver cancer. Could have settled in his bones.” He hesitated. “The signs are all there.”

“Cancer? He was fine just the other day.”

“Cancer is the number one… it can be impossible to detect. Symptoms are often misinterpreted for other conditions. With no lab or x-rays, I can’t know for certain, but I can see the signs. And when left untreated, it will just sneak up on you.”

“So, what does that mean?” John asked, his voice soft.

“It means he likely only has a few weeks to live,” Harvey said. “It has finally taken over his body and his body is shutting down.”

“Okay,” John said simply. He cleared this throat. “Keep him comfortable, then.” He moved passed Harvey and down the road.

“You should know,” Harvey called to John. “I have a limited supply of morphine.”

John stopped but did not turn to them.

“I can’t keep the pain away for too long.” Harvey hesitated. “I was honest with him. He asked if there were other… options.”

John waited.

“Linus is a selfless man,” Harvey said. “And he’s too proud to admit defeat over a disease.”

“Get to the point,” John growled.

“He’s asked for assisted suicide.”

John’s brows knit together as he turned to Harvey. “You’re gonna take him out back and shoot him?”

“Of course not,” Harvey hissed. “There are drugs. They will make the process quick and pain-free. But you can’t just walk into any pharmacy and get it.” He hesitated. “I could likely find something in a hospital. They don’t have a long shelf life, though. The other option is to get more morphine and administer an overdose. That will work just as quickly.”

“So,” John started. “You need us to go out and get some drug that’s gonna kill Linus.”

Harvey didn’t answer him, but John already knew the answer. He sighed.

“If that’s what he wants.” John continued down the road, disappearing behind the trees.

Harvey turned to them and forced a smile. “Welcome back, Najia. I’m glad you’re safe.”

Najia looked at her feet and said nothing.

Marlon and Gil followed Harvey into town solemnly, leaving Najia and Shane alone.

“I know you’re mad at me,” Najia started quietly, “but-”

“I’m not mad,” Shane said. He hesitated. “I mean, I am. But I know it’s not your fault.” He sighed and met her gaze. “I don’t know right now.”

“I had a plan,” Najia muttered. “I was going to fix it.”

“You had a death wish,” Shane spat at her. “That wouldn’t have fixed anything. It was suicide.”

“At least they wouldn’t have to look for me anymore,” she shouted.

“The Shadow People know we’re here,” Shane said. “Wouldn’t matter if you were dead or not; we’re all going to die.”

“I guess you should have shot me when you had the chance, then,” Najia muttered.

“Maybe,” Shane said. “You’ve only prolonged the inevitable.”

Najia watched Shane walk away, leaving her alone. The shards of her broken heart ripped through her insides as her vision blurred. She fell to her knees and sobbed.

*****

John sat in the chair beside Linus’s bed. He smiled as his friend met his gaze.

“What’ll it be?” John said. “Morphine or a bullet to the head?”

Linus smiled weakly. “Take me out back like a damned dog,” he said, his voice hoarse.

John shook his head. “You can’t expect me to do that.”

“I don’t expect you to go out and risk your lives to get drugs for me.”

“Is Harvey keeping you comfortable?”

Linus sighed painfully. “He’s a good one.” His eyelids fluttered closed.

“Linus?” John’s voice was panicked.

“I’m trying to conserve the morphine,” Harvey said, walking to the bed. “It’s not enough to ease his pain. It’s too much for him.” Harvey checked his pulse and nodded. “He’ll be in and out as the pain gets to be too much.”

“I’ll get the morphine,” John said, getting to his feet. “Tell me what to do.”

“It will likely be in a glass bottle,” Harvey said quickly. “For injection. That will be the best option. You can also get it in pill form. The pill could look like anything, but it will have an M on it along with a number. The higher the number, the bigger the dose-”

“The better,” John said quickly.

Harvey hesitated. “If you can get both kinds… It would be good for in the future.”

“Get as much as we can. Got it.” John turned towards the door.

“John.”

He hesitated.

“Don’t risk your life over this,” Harvey said softly. “Linus is… we don’t need any more deaths.”

55: 46
46

“I don’t need your help,” John said sternly to his granddaughter.

Najia followed him as he walked around the truck to the driver’s side. “Please,” she said. “I want to at least get Shane his car back.”

John raised his eyebrows at her as he slid into the seat. “You just got back,” he said shaking his head.

“I’ve barely been here an hour and no one will look at me.”

He sighed. “You’ll have to learn to live with it for a while.”

“Let me help you,” she begged. “You need help. The cars are close.”

“C’mon, John,” Gil said as he opened the passenger side door. “Better she help in any way she can then be sitting around doing nothing.”

“There’s plenty to do around here,” John muttered.

“These people think she betrayed them,” Marlon reminded him. “Their lives have been live or die. Do you really want to trust her alone with them? After the move Sam pulled?”

John hesitated and met Najia’s gaze. “Fine,” he finally muttered.

Najia didn’t wait for him to say anything more. She slid into the tight backseat beside Marlon, more eager than ever to leave the valley.

*****

“I don’t like this,” John muttered as they drove into the parking lot just outside the hospital. “It’s too quiet.”

“Najia took care of the trouble,” Gil pointed out.

John shook his head. “It’s only a matter of time before another army makes there way here. I don’t like being out of the valley.”

“We don’t have much of a choice,” Marlon said. “They’re coming whether we like it or not. The valley won’t offer us much protection for long. We can’t hide anymore.”

John cut the engine and made his way across the parking lot.

“It’s time to start planning our next move,” Gil said as he, Marlon, and Najia followed closely behind John.

John shook his head. “We’re not soldiers. We can’t do this.”

“Probably not,” Marlon said. “But I’d rather go down fighting than cowering.”

“I don’t think you can expect everyone to be so willing to fight,” Gil reminded him.

“Maybe we should give them what they want,” Najia said.

John stopped and met her gaze. “You?”

“The valley. The way I see it, this war has three sides. We’re split with our own kind - the very people we should be working with.”

“The Gotoro are working with the Dwarves,” Gil said.

“And we’re fighting against them and the Shadow People? It’s ridiculous.”

“The Dwarves-”

“The Dwarves aren’t our enemies,” Najia said.

“They pushed the Shadow People out of their home,” John hissed. “That’s why we’re in this mess.”

“But they’re not the enemy,” Najia raised her voice at him. “We need to stop treating them like our enemies. If they’re willing to fight the Shadow People with the Gotoros, then we can work together to get rid of those brutes once and for all.”

“So,” John started. “What are you suggesting? We walk right up to them and suggest an alliance?”

“Yes.”

John held his gaze on her. “What if they say no?”

“Why would they?”

“They’ll want the valley.”

“All the valley offers is protection.” Najia hesitated. “Well, it did.” She shrugged. “Maybe when they realize that the valley isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, they’ll refocus on the war.”

“It wouldn’t hurt to talk,” Gil said with as shrug.

“Over a fucking cup of tea?” John growled. “Sure, and let’s bring a bottle of wine, and a nice house warming gift. Here you are. Welcome to Stardew Valley. Please don’t kill us.”

“Do you see another option?” Marlon asked.

John shook his head. “I can’t talk about this right now,” he said, frustrated. “I’m trying to find something to kill a good friend. Now, excuse me.” He shot at the glass door, stepping through, muttering to himself.

They searched the hospital up and down for hours before John finally found the morphine that Harvey had described to him. They worked quickly to fill their bags with every last bit of it before they made their way back to the truck. Despite John’s objections, they drove down into the canyon where the abandoned cars sat. Najia moved quickly, replacing the blown out tires and starting the engine to the Trans Am. It roared to life easily. Najia followed the truck out of the canyon and back towards the valley.

*****

They drove through the tunnel, down the dirt road, and pulled up in front of Harvey’s cabin. It was late when they got back, but people were still milling around a large fire, talking quietly amongst themselves. Najia felt their eyes on her as she stepped out of the Trans Am. She forced herself to straighten, in an attempt to exude confidence. The edges of the key bit into her palm and she forced her grip to loosen. She watched as Shane made his way to the car, his hands shoved in his pockets. He did not meet her gaze as he looked the car over.

“She’s a little bruised up,” Najia said. “But she runs beautifully.”

Shane nodded and met her gaze. “Cool.”

Najia held the key out in her palm. “You’re welcome.”

Shane’s fingers brushed hers as he took the key. He smiled crookedly. “Cool.”

Najia turned away from him, watching as John handed Harvey the bags filled with morphine. Harvey took them solemnly and nodded slowly. He turned and made his way into the cabin, John on his heels. The door closed behind him.

Najia pinched her lips as a single tear escaped her eye. She turned back around, but Shane was gone. She leaned against the car and waited, alone in the darkness. The fire died and everyone made their way to their homes for the night when John finally emerged from the cabin. His figure seemed alarmingly small, bent over in exhaustion. Even in the dim light from the window, Najia could see his face was torn with grief.

Najia walked to his side, hesitant, before wrapping her arms around him.

“Promise me one thing, Rōśanī,” he said softly. “Don’t go getting yourself killed.”

Najia said nothing as he pulled away and walked down the dirt road towards the farm. She stood alone outside Harvey’s cabin. Through the window, she watched as Harvey pulled a blanket over the bed, covering Linus’s body. She turned away and made her way to the truck, sitting cross-legged in the bed. She watched as Shane emerged from the darkness, a beer in each hand. He leaned against the truck and extended a beer towards her. Najia wrapped her fingers around the neck of the bottle, but Shane did not let go. She met his gaze, hesitant.

“Shane,” she started, her voice soft. “I’m sorry.”

“I know.” Shane released his grip on the beer. He fingered the label on his own for a moment before he spoke again. “You gonna sit here all night?”

Najia shrugged. She stared at the beer in her hands.

Shane pushed himself into the bed beside her, letting his legs dangle over the edge. They sat in silence as they drank their beer, staring into the darkness.

When Najia finished hers, she let the bottle roll towards the back of the truck. She lay down against the wood panels and stared up at the stars.

“How the hell did we, of all people, make it this far?”

Shane smiled and lay back beside her. “I don’t know about you,” he said, “but some of us have survival skills.”

Najia scoffed. “And you think you’re one of those people?”

Shane turned his head, looking at Najia. “When you find yourself killing your own race…” He hesitated and turned back to the sky. “Fuck yeah I’ve got survival skills.”

“You killed a human?”

“To save your stupid ass,” Shane muttered.

Najia was quiet for a moment. “I don’t think things could get more fucked up.”

“I’m sure they will,” Shane said simply. He turned back to her. “Are you prepared for that?”

Najia bit her lip. “No,” she admitted. Her heart raced as she thought about walking right up to the Gotoro army and turning herself in to them.

“I’m scared, too.”

Najia turned her head and met his gaze. “You can’t be,” she said. “You’re supposed to be the one with the survival skills. You’re supposed to have your shit together.”

“Not even close,” Shane said, turning his gaze back to the sky. “I had this idea that finding the valley would fix everything and everything would go back to normal.”

“Me too.”

“Sometimes I wish we never made it here,” he said softly.

“I wish I died jumping out that window,” Najia muttered.

“I don’t.” Shane turned and met her gaze. “Would have made a life on the run really boring.”

Najia smiled. “I don’t think you would have lasted as long as you think you would. Wouldn’t have been boring for long.”

Shane smirked at her through his narrowed eyes. “Hmp.”

Najia pressed closer to him. She bit her lower lip, hesitant, as she caught his gaze.

“At least I wouldn’t have to listen to-” Shane started, his voice cut off as Najia’s lips met his. “Taylor Swift,” he said softly when she pulled away.

“Don’t pretend you hated it,” Najia said quietly.

Shane pressed his lips against hers. “I hated every second,” he whispered against her lips.

Najia pulled away and met his gaze for a moment, searching his eyes. “Well,” she started. “Then we never have to do that again. I’ll go back and take it all away.”

Shane pulled her back into him and their lips met once more, harder this time. “I wouldn’t change any of it.”

56: 47
47

At the center of the community center was a large table with a map of the Ferngill Republic open out. John, Marlon, and Gil stood peering over it at the head of the table. Najia, Shane, Alex, Abigail, and Sam stood around the table, watching as they pointed to various areas on the map.

“We know the Shadow People have some kind of building out in the desert,” Shane said. “That’s where we found Penny and Morris.

Alex pointed to an area on the map. “This is where the Gotoro base is,” he said as Marlon circled it with a marker. “Kent brought us to it.”

“Is that all we know?” Gil said, crossing his arms and shaking his head. “Not the most impressive map.”

“What do you want from us?” Sam hissed. “We’re not soldiers or government spies.”

“It doesn’t matter,” John said. He pointed to the Gotoro base. “That’s where we’re going.”

Everyone but Najia moved their gaze to John.

“The Gotoro base?” Alex asked. “Why the hell are we going there?”

Shane shot a suspicious glare at Najia. “What are you doing?” he hissed.

John sighed. “I can’t argue with her. Najia brought up a good point last night. The Dwarves and the Gotoro aren’t our enemies. They’re not our allies, either. We need to change that if we want a chance of surviving this.”

“You want to team up with them?” Sam asked

“Did you forget they tried to kill us?” Shane hissed. “Kidnapped Najia?”

“All they want is the valley,” Najia said, her voice hard. “Once they realize that it’s not as safe as they had hoped, they may move on and focus their energy on other resources to take down the Shadow People.” She felt Shane’s hard gaze on her, but she focused on the map before her.

“So,” Shane started. “You’re just going to go up to them and hope they’ll welcome you with open arms?”

Najia met his gaze. “I’m sure they will be thrilled to see me.”

“Oh yeah,” Alex said. “Real thrilled that we ambushed them and stole you back.”

“This is suicide,” Shane said. “They’ll never go for it.”

“Then we wait to die,” Gil said.

“We can’t send Najia right to them,” Shane said.

“We can’t exactly send an army with her, either,” Abigail pointed out. “It will look like an attack.”

“Like we have an army,” Sam muttered.

“Just a few of us will go,” Marlon said.

“Unarmed,” Gil added.

“No.” Shane’s voice was forceful. “You’re kidding.”

“If we don’t present ourselves as a threat, they’ll have no reason to attack,” Gil said.

“We give them what they want and make things easy,” Marlon said. “The valley will be useless to them anyway.”

“I’m going,” Shane said.

Najia pinched her lips together as she met her grandfather’s gaze.

“Me too,” Sam said.

“No way,” Abigail said. “You’re not leaving me behind in this. I want in.”

“We can’t all go,” Najia muttered.

“A group of eight random people will hardly be a threat to them,” Sam said.

“Fine,” John muttered. “But I’m not dragging any bodies out of there.”

*****

Shane threw his bag in the back seat. It slid across, hitting the door on the other side.

“There are guns in there, you know,” Najia said as she walked by him.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” Shane slammed the back door closed.

Najia put her hands on her hips. “I didn’t know we were married and I had to run every decision by you.”

Shane pushed passed her and opened the driver’s side door. “How long were you hiding this from me?”

“I wasn’t hiding anything from you,” Najia hissed. “It’s none of your business.”

“It is my business,” Shane growled. “Because if you get killed, John’s just gonna shove that damn rifle up my ass.”

“At least you’d go out with a smile on your face.”

“Ha!” Shane slid into the seat and slammed the door shut.

Najia rolled her eyes and tapped on the window. It rolled down, but Shane did not turn to face her.

“Should I ride with Alex or…”

“Get in the fucking car,” Shane muttered.

“Watch your fucking language.”

The window rolled up. Najia slid in beside Shane and sighed.

“Stop being so dramatic,” she said.

“Stop making these ridiculous plans.”

There was a tap on the window. Shane rolled it down as Marlon smiled in at them.

“If the Mr. and Mrs. are done arguing, we’d like to get going.”

Shane started the engine. “Piss off.”

“Hey, Shane,” John’s voice called. He stood beside the truck, stroking the rifle in his arms, and smiled at him. “Jane’s never been up someone’s ass before, but she’s all for trying something new. Don’t get her too excited now, ya hear?”

“Get bent,” Shane muttered as he rolled the window up once more. He glared at Najia. “See? Always looking for an excuse to shoot me. This is the last time you’re leaving the valley.”

Najia leaned back in the seat and smiled.

“I’m glad you think that’s funny,” Shane muttered. He followed the truck and the Hummer down the dirt road and through the valley.

“That last one was pretty good.”

“Hilarious.”

“I’m hoping they get better over time. It was starting to get old.”

“We could write a book,” Shane said, waving his hand in the air. “101 Ways to Kill Shane.”

“Chapter one: Shot Gun Blast Up The Ass.”

“Don’t forget the classic Shove The Rifle of a Barrel in Shane’s Face.”

“Oh man,” Najia said. “That would be a hell of a book. I’d read it.”

“Ten bucks says he threatens be at the Gotoro base. Maybe this time Betsy gets some oral pleasure.”

“I’d take you up on that if I had cash.”

“Okay,” Shane said. “One kiss, then.”

Najia turned to him. “Oh, that’s how we’re playing this?”

Shane smiled but did not meet her gaze. “Yeah. That’s how we’re playing this.”

“Fine. You’re on.”

57: 48
48

They drove through the night and into the next day, not daring to stop for more than a moment. With the discovery of Stardew Valley, time was of the essence for the survivors. It wouldn’t be long before the Shadow People attempted another attack, and they were eager to do whatever they needed to do to survive the war. They were just an hour out from the Gotoro base, and Najia was quickly beginning to doubt their plan.

“This is gonna work,” she said softly to herself.

“It better,” Shane muttered.

“They’re reasonable people,” Najia attempted to assure herself. “They want the same thing we want.”

“Sure,” Shane said. “But the difference between us and them is that we won’t murder innocent people to get there.”

“Except we have,” Najia said. “We’re just as awful as they are.”

Shane gritted his teeth together. “Sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do,” he said. “This isn’t a game. People lie and cheat and steal to come out on top.” He hesitated for a moment, as if trying to convince himself as well. “We’re just trying not to end up at the bottom.”

“I stole this ring once,” Najia said. “Awful, ugly thing. They had balls to put this ridiculous price on it.”

Shane smirked. “How did you manage that?”

“It was shortly after my fat, bald, bastard landlord kicked me out for not paying rent. I needed a place to stay.” Najia shrugged. “I wasn’t very smart, but a blowjob will get a girl far when she needs to.”

“You’re kidding.”

“We pretended we were happy in love. I hung on his arm like a trophy wife.” Najia caught Shane’s gaze. “I clean up nice when I want to.” She hesitated and turned her gaze back to the road, watching the old, faded yellow lines run passed the car. “It wasn’t the most expensive ring. A decent one. Can’t be too suspicious, you know? He excused himself. Told me to pick out whatever I wanted. I picked that sucker. Put it on my finger, admired myself in the mirror, babbled on about this great wedding photographer we found, and how we decided to go with a live band.” She turned back to Shane. “Our colors were silver and gold.”

“Classy.”

“And wouldn’t you know it, the fire alarm went off. Everyone stayed pretty calm until smoke came out of the back room. And when they were distracted, I booked it. Straight to the pawn shop with a sob story. ‘Can you believe he got me this ugly thing? I can’t believe I almost went through with it. I’m SO done with men!’ Easy money.”

“You must have been heart broken.”

“I was feeling so good, I pocketed the cash and never saw that guy again. We were supposed to go 50/50 on it.”

Shane met her gaze. “That’s not a true story.”

Najia shrugged. “Believe what you want.”

“You did not blow a guy for free rent.”

“I did a lot more than blow him.”

Shane turned his gaze back to the road.

“Like you’ve never done something you regretted,” Najia muttered.

“Oh, I don’t think you regretted any of that.”

“I was just trying not to end up on the bottom.”

Shane turned back to her, but she was looking out the window.

“I was best friends with Jas’s parents,” Shane said as his eyes moved back to the tailgate of the truck, lit only by the dim tail lights. “Greg and Jess. Knew them for ever.” He hesitated. “I slept with Jess the night they got engaged.”

“Oh, that’s way worse that anything I’ve done.”

“How is that worse?”

“I was just a broke ass homeless girl trying to get by with her good looks. You chose to betray your best friend.”

“Fine, I’m worse,” Shane snapped.

“It’s not like you’re completely to blame,” Najia said. “It takes two.”

“Don’t even go there,” he hissed. “Jess was better than that. We never spoke of it. Greg never knew.”

“Sorry,” Najia muttered.

Shane hesitated. When he spoke again, his voice was just a whisper. “Jas was born nine months later.”

Najia turned to him, her brows knit together. “Is she…”

Shane shook his head. “No. No, of course not.”

“How can you be so sure?”

“Jess… Jess did a DNA test.”

“And made you her godfather.” Najia paused and turned her gaze out the window. “That’s definitely worse.”

Shane gritted his teeth together. “Thanks.”

“Why did you tell me that?” Najia asked softly.

Shane shrugged. “Figured it would make us even. We’re both shitty people.”

“Maybe I can seduce the Gotoro army into taken our alliance offer.” Najia smirked at Shane.

“Wish I had known sooner that that was all it took.”

“Please,” Najia said. “You are of no use to me. I wouldn’t have gained anything from that.”

In their headlights, the tall, wood gates of the Gotoro base loomed before them. Armed men approached as the three vehicles came to a stop. John, Gil, and Marlon stepped our first, their arms raised in defense. Alex, Sam, and Abigail followed suit.

Shane turned to Najia. His hand grabbed hers. “Don’t fuck this up,” he whispered.

“Right,” Najia said. “I know you don’t want a rifle shoved up your ass.” She pulled her hand away and stepped out of the car.

“Who are you?” one of the Gotoro men barked at them.

“What business do you have here?”

Najia stepped into the headlights, her arms raised, her heart racing. “I think Michaels is looking for me.” She forced herself to straighten in an attempt to appear confident, but her knees shook, threatening to throw her body to the ground. She placed her hands on her hips and pinched her lips. “Here I am.”

58: 49
49

“The cuffs really aren’t necessary,” Najia mumbled as the Gotoro soldiers pushed them each down to the ground. “We friggen came unarmed.”

“And you killed our men,” one of the soldiers hissed.

“Water under the bridge, hm?”

“How do you know about Michaels?” the soldier snapped at her.

Najia turned to Shane. “Can you believe this guy? Is that how we talk to women around here?”

“Najia,” Shane warned.

Najia turned back to the man standing above her and smiled. He cocked his gun.

“You think you’re funny?”

“No,” Najia started. “I think I deserve better treatment for turning myself in.”

The man’s hand came down hard against her face. Her cheek stung and she spat blood on the ground.

“I don’t think Michaels would be happy with the way you’re treating his most valuable asset.”

The man got down on one knee and peered at Najia, smiling wickedly. “I think you’re confidence is wearing thin, and you didn’t quite think this plan of yours through.”

Najia gritted her teeth together. “Where’s Michaels?”

“Michaels is no longer interested in you.”

Najia’s heart raced, panicked. “Then I guess he doesn’t want to know about Stardew Valley.”

The man held his gaze on her. “And why are you coming to us now?”

“We all want the same thing, don’t we?” Najia said. “We just don’t go around kidnapping innocent people to get that information.”

“And what is it do you think we want?”

Najia hesitated. “An end to the war? To defeat the Shadow People?”

The man got to his feet, his hard expression unchanging. He did not break his gaze on Najia. He reached for the radio at his hip and spoke into it. “Tell Michaels he has a special visitor.”

*****

The cuffs were removed from their wrists as they were lead down a long hallway and through a door at the end. The door opened up to a large room that looked like it was once used as a large storage facility. Two armed men stood at the door, their hard eyes on their visitors as the door closed behind them.

“Stop being a smart ass,” Shane hissed to Najia.

“Well, I can’t exactly come in a terrified mess, blubbering and begging them not to kill us. It kind of ruins the whole thing.”

Shane’s face softened. “Are you okay?”

Najia rolled her eyes. “I’ve been hit harder, and by women.”

“Who is Michaels, anyway?” John asked.

Najia shrugged. “Some name I overheard.”

“We heard it, too,” Marlon said. “When they threw us in their dungeon.”

“Must be someone important,” Alex muttered.

“I guess we’ll find out soon enough,” Gil said.

“Just do me a favor,” Shane said. “Don’t fuck with him.”

“Do you mean that literally, or figuratively?” Najia smirked at Shane as he narrowed his eyes at her.

“Michaels,” Sam said softly. “He’s the one?” His voice hardened. “The one who murdered my dad?”

“Don’t you damn make any rash moves,” Gil hissed at him.

“Not until we tell you to, at least,” Marlon said.

“He’s not leaving this room alive,” Sam muttered.

“Neither will you, kid,” John said. “You’ll get your chance. Just not today.”

“That’s the thing with war,” Marlon said. “It’s a chess game. You gotta pick your moves carefully.”

Gil let his hand rest on Sam’s shoulder. “His death will be much more enjoyable later on, I promise you that.”

Sam gritted his teeth together. His eyes shot towards the door as the knob turned. The men stepped aside as five more armed men entered. One walked in the middle of them.

“This certainly is a surprise,” Michaels said as he stepped out from the protection of his guards. He met Najia’s gaze and smiled. “What a pleasure it is to see you again.”

Najia held her gaze but said nothing.

“To what do I owe the pleasure?” Michaels asked, his arms spread apart. His green eyes seemed to sparkle under the unnatural glow of the LED lights hanging from the high ceiling.

“We’re here to strike a deal,” Najia said. “Allies, in exchange for whatever you want to know about the valley.”

Michaels folded his hands together and smiled. “I bet you don’t remember much about the last time you were here, do you?”

“I remember being pretty fucked up,” Najia muttered.

“A little something my guys put together.” He narrowed his eyes at Shane. “Unfortunately, you felt the need to shoot one of them.”

“It was my pleasure,” Shane hissed.

“I assure you it was not harmful,” Michaels continued, turning back to Najia. “Just a little necessity for us to get the information we needed from you.”

“And did the results please you?” Najia said through her teeth.

Michaels’s expression hardened. “Not particularly. Getting the truth out of you was easy enough thanks to that drug. But it was not good news.” He put his hands in his pockets. His suit jacket opened slightly as he did so, revealing a handgun tucked into his pants. “It seems as though the valley doesn’t hold as many promises as we had hoped. While the light may be magic or miracle, it means nothing if we can’t get out hands on its source.”

“Well, I hate to tell ya,” Najia said. “But I have a feeling whatever that source may be, it’s just as useless.”

Michaels cocked his head to the side slightly. “And why’s that?”

“We were invaded by the Shadow People,” she said. “The darkness got through somehow.”

“Yet here you are, still alive. Tell me - how did that happen?”

“A stroke of dumb fucking luck?”

“Is that all you came to tell me?” Michaels said. “That there’s some dumb luck in the valley that you think I can use to win this war?”

“I’m here to tell you whatever you want. Whatever I can to help us win. And in exchange, protection. You and I both know that there’s something in the valley that could help us. The valley needs protecting before the Shadow People get to it first. And they’re likely on their way as we speak. You help us, and I’ll tell you whatever you need to know.”

Michaels sighed. “That’s just the thing - you don’t seem to know as much as you lead on.”

“You don’t know so much yourself,” she said. “Did you know I was kidnapped by the Shadow People? Before the invasion even happened?”

Michaels stroked the stubble on his chin. “And what can you tell me about that?”

“What do you want to know?”

“Everything,” he said. “What did they want with you?”

“The same thing you do,” Najia said. “They wanted to know about the valley. But I knew even less about it, then.”

“What did they ask you specifically?” Michaels asked. “About the magic?”

Najia pinched her lips together. “I don’t remember much,” she said. “I would tell you if I knew. I remember escaping, jumping out a fourth story window, and somehow surviving unharmed.”

“I assume they didn’t simply ask you questions,” Michaels said.

“Yes, they beat the shit out of me, in ways you couldn’t even imagine,” Najia hissed.

“Oh, I think I could.” Michaels turned and paced before her, his thumbs in his belt. “And I think we could get some of those forgotten memories and see if there’s any good information in there.”

“More drugs?” Najia’s voice was on the verge of a whine.

Michaels smiled. “No, this will require deeper access in to your subconscious. Your repressed memories. Torture will do that to a person. It’s the only way we can survive through the pain.”

“And you’re an expert?” Najia searched his eyes when they met hers.

“We could put you under hypnosis,” he said simply. “See what comes to life.”

Najia hesitated. “And you think that will work?”

“Oh, it will work. It will work so well that you’ll likely be unable to repress those memories again.” He smiled at her. “The downside, unfortunately.”

59: 50
50

Michaels lead the way through the building. The Gotoro soldiers walked closely together around them, their weapons in their hands, ready.

“I don’t like this,” Shane muttered to Najia.

“You get the easy part,” Najia hissed to him. “You get to sit there while I get to relive hell.”

“You think that’s the easy part?”

“You just always have to one-up me, don’t ya?”

“Shane’s just ‘fearin’ for his life,” John muttered.

“I heard he was looking forward to it,” Alex said with a smirk.

“Fine,” Shane said. “Two can play at this game. You better hope we get out of this alive or you can blow the barrel of my gun.”

“Is that really how you talk to your elders?” John said.

“Yeah, Shane,” Najia said playfully. “Come on, man. Bad taste.”

“I can’t win,” he muttered.

“Plus, you’d both be dead, anyway,” Alex pointed out. “So, it just wouldn’t work.”

“Maybe you should just turn it around on him,” Abigail suggested. “Whenever he threatens to shoot you, you threaten to shoot him.”

“Yeah,” Shane said, narrowing his eyes at John. “What she said.”

“What the smart girl said for you because you’re too stupid to think for yourself?” John smirked at Shane.

“They talk a lot for prisoners,” Marlon muttered.

“We can’t be prisoners,” Najia said. “We came to an agreement.”

“No one shook on it,” Sam said.

Michaels stopped at a door and turned to face them, smiling. “Someone’s paying attention,” he said. He met Sam’s hard gaze before turning to Najia. “I’m a man of my word. We can help each other.” He held out his hand.

Najia stared at his hand, hesitant, before meeting his gaze. “I’ve come to learn that in war, no one’s word can be trusted.”

“Well,” he said. “That’s a decision you will have to make, as I am also making.”

Najia narrowed her eyes at him. “You think a rag-tag group of runaways have the ability to turn their back on a potential enemy?”

“I think anything can happen in war. I’ve been surprised enough myself to know that not everything is as it seems.” He smiled at Najia. His eyes seemed to look right through her, sending a shiver up her spine.

Najia took his hand in hers and they shook once.

“Then it’s done,” he said simply, opening the door before them. They walked into a room much smaller than the last, but certainly big enough for all the equipment it contained. In the middle of the room was a single chair, much like the ones Najia had seen in doctors’ offices. Around the chair were various machines and cords.

“That’s not creepy,” Najia muttered.

“We’re prepared to take care of you,” Michaels said. “We’ll do our best to keep you alive.” He gestured towards the chair. Beside it stood a man in a form of white scrubs. He waited as Najia approached the chair and slowly sat down. The chair leaned back slightly and the man began to prep Najia, attaching pads and wires to her head and chest.

“Just so we can monitor your heart race,” Michaels assured her.

Najia felt a pinch in her hand. She watched as an IV was placed. Her heart raced faster and faster as something new was attached to her. She looked across the room to where the others stood, heavily guarded. She could see the fear in each of their faces as they looked on and wondered if they could see fear in her. She leaned her head back and stared up at the ceiling.

The room was darker than the darkest night she could remember. Even darker than the haze that covered their world. A darkness that would have surely swallowed her whole, yet she could somehow see through it. She could see the dark, shadowy figure standing before her. It’s eyes glowed too brightly in the room.

“Where it the Sword of Light?” it asked her. It’s voice was deep and twisted. A painful bolt of fear seemed to rip through her chest.

“What is it, Najia?” Michaels asked.

Her eyes were wide as she stared up at the ceiling. Her chest heaved as she struggled to gasp for breath. The monitors beeped dangerously.

“It’s him,” Najia gasped. “Nox.”

“Who is Nox?”

“Their leader,” she said between gasps. “The leader of the Shadow People.”

“You can understand him? What does he want?”

“The Sword of Light.”

The monitors beeped faster, erratically. Najia’s fingers scratched at the arm rests. Her nails dug into the material, revealing the thin stuffing inside.

“What is the Sword of Light?” Michaels pressed. “Is it in the valley?”

The beeping spiked once more, growing faster as Najia’s heart raced violently in her chest.

“Sir,” the doctor said at his side. “She’ll go into cardiac arrest.”

“Where is it?” Michaels shouted to her.

“I don’t know,” Najia sobbed. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

A chilling sensation shot through her chest. Frozen air seemed to wrap around her heart as she gasped for breath. Her breath came out as an icy fog in the darkness. She gasped once more, but there was no air left to fill her aching lungs. Her body screamed in writhing agony as she tried once more to breathe.

“Go to the valley,” Nox said.

Najia choked on the air that suddenly filled her lungs. Her lungs burned as she fought to catch her breath. The chilling sensation passed through her and disappeared.

Najia gasped for breath as her eyes flew open. The bright LED lights hanging from the ceiling burned at her retinas. She closed her eyes as she waited for her breathing to return to normal. She opened her eyes slowly once more and peered to the side at Michaels.

“Najia? Are you okay?”

“Go to hell,” she muttered through her clenched teeth.

Michaels straightened and smiled, pleased with himself. He turned to the doctor, his lips moving, but Najia could not make out the words. She fought against her spinning head, fighting to keep her stomach at bay. She turned her head to the side, examining the room. Shane was on his knees as two men held him back, as if they were just fighting to keep him still. Najia stared at him blankly before turning back to the ceiling.

“I don’t think you have much more to tell us,” Michaels said as he turned back to Najia. “Fortunately for you, because anymore would have killed you.”

“It did kill her, you fucking prick,” Shane shouted to him.

“We may be in a apocalyptic war zone,” Michaels said. “But we’re not without modern technology, capable of bringing someone back from the dead. She was hardly in danger.”

Najia continued to stare up at the ceiling, her eyes searching the white panels.

“What did you see, Najia?”

“Darkness,” she muttered. Her eyes traced the edges of each panel in the ceiling. Her brows knit together. “But I could see Nox. I could hear him. I understood him.”

“It seems that way,” Michaels said. “Very interesting. What else?”

Najia hesitated. “It was cold. My chest… I couldn’t breathe.”

“The touch of the Shadow People,” Michaels said. “A chilling, deadly touch. An instant kill if they wanted it to be.”

Najia moved her gaze on to Michaels’s. “Are we done here?” she hissed.

The doctor checked her vitals quickly before removing the equipment attached to her.

“Easy now,” he said to her as she swung her legs over the side. She slid on to her feet and immediately collapsed under her own weight. Released from the hold of the soldiers, Shane ran to her side, pulling her into his lap.

“I had hoped that the sword was real, hiding in the valley,” Michaels said casually.

Najia gritted her teeth as Shane helped her to her feet. She leaned on him for support, glaring at Michaels.

“Is this the part where you go back on our deal?” she muttered.

“I’m a man of my word,” he said with a smile. “And I still believe the valley could offer us a chance at winning this war. I will defend it until I know for certain otherwise. My men will guide you back to the valley. They will set up camp around the valley where I will have an army stationed for defense. Please do treat them kindly.”

Michaels turned to his men, barking orders at them as John hurried to Najia’s side, wrapping her arm around him for support. The Gotoro soldiers guided them out of the building and back to their vehicles where an army was already waiting in various vehicles.

With Shane’s help, Najia feebly got into the Trans Am. She leaned against the seat, exhausted, her eyes closed as she sighed through her nose. She felt Shane’s hand on hers and she met his concerned gaze.

“Can we go home now?” she said weakly, her voice soft. She closed her eyes again.

Shane’s hand squeezed hers. “Yeah.” He stood and closed the door.

Najia watched as he and John spoke angrily to one another. Their voices were muffled through the car, but she was able to pick out a few words that suggested their conversation was of their dehumanizing treatment from the Gotoro soldiers. Surely Shane would be angry at her for suggesting this plan.

She watched her grandfather’s hand rest on Shane’s soldier for a moment before he turned away. Their eyes turned to Najia before John turned to get in to the truck. Shane slid into the seat beside her and stared out the windshield for a moment. As the vehicles started to pull out, Shane started the engine and joined them.

“The sword is real,” Najia said softly. She turned her head to check Shane’s expression. His brows knit together and his knuckles whitened on the steering wheel.

“Why didn’t you tell Michaels?” he asked.

Najia turned away and closed her eyes. “I don’t think he can know about it.” She hesitated. “Rasmodius has it. He’s working on it. He said it could potentially end the war. But they can’t know about him. I don’t know how much of the valley is dependent on him or not.” Her voice shook as she spoke. “I just don’t know. I don’t know what to do. But I don’t think Michaels can know. We have to keep the valley safe, Shane.”

“I don’t think the valley is worth dying over,” Shane muttered.

“Without the valley, we have nothing. We’ll lose the war.”

“Maybe we should let the trained soldiers protect the valley, then,” Shane hissed. “We’re nothing but people that accidentally found the one place everyone is after. They will kill us all to get to it. Maybe it’s time we high tail it outta there and let them nuke each other over it. This isn’t our fight.”

“No,” Najia said, her voice hard. “Maybe it’s not your fight, but it’s my fight. I didn’t choose to be in this, but I am. And I just have this feeling, Shane. We can’t just give up the valley. There’s so much more to all of this. So much more we don’t know about.”

“And when are we going to know?” Shane asked angrily. “Because time’s running out.”

“Soon,” Najia said. “This war is only just beginning.”

“Najia.” Shane hesitated, his voice softer. “This isn’t your fight. You don’t have to do this. You don’t have to die for the valley.”

“I’m not dying,” she muttered. “Not yet.”

“You did die,” Shane shouted. “You had a fucking heart attack and died. Right there in that damn chair.”

“I’m alive now,” Najia muttered.

“I can’t keep doing this, Najia,” Shane said angrily. “I can’t watch you get hurt or kidnapped or killed any more.” Shane met her gaze. “I will fight with you - for you - to the fucking end, Najia, but please don’t make me watch you die.”

“Shane…”

Shane turned his gaze back to the road.

“Why are you saying this?”

“Because,” Shane started.

“No. Stop. Don’t say anything.”

Shane turned to her. “What?”

“Just stop talking.”

Shane hesitated. “Why?”

“Because you’re going to say something stupid.”

“No I wasn’t.”

“Yes you were.”

“Why do you think its stupid?”

“Because you’re stupid,” Najia muttered. “You’re not thinking straight. Too caught up in the drama. We’re not doing this. No emotions.”

“You’re being ridiculous.”

“I’m being completely reasonable. We’re fighting for our lives. We could die at any moment. It will just be a hell of a lot easier if you just keep your hole shut.”

Shane’s brows knit together as he stared at the tail lights in front of them. “Just don’t make me watch you die again.”

60: 51
51

“Please,” Najia begged. “No more wires.” She waved Harvey’s hand away.

Harvey sighed. “I don’t like what they did to you,” he said. “You need to be monitored.”

John snorted and crossed his arms. “You don’t like it? I would have taken every last one of them down with me if something happened.”

“I don’t want wires,” Najia said, her voice shaking.

Harvey nodded. “Okay,” he said softly. “No wires. But you’re staying here tonight.”

Najia sighed and leaned against the back of the bed which was slanted upward as Harvey looked her over.

“You can’t stay up all night with her,” John said. “When was the last time you even slept?”

“I’m fine,” Harvey muttered. “I performed my first assisted suicide just the other day, but I’m fine.”

“Harvey.”

“I’ll stay,” Shane said. “Harvey needs a decent night sleep before he scares the kids. They already think he looks like a zombie.”

John nodded. “I feel like one, myself.”

“Fine,” Harvey said reluctantly. “But if anything seems off, you get me immediately.”

“Sleep tight,” John said to them with a nod before leaving the cabin.

Harvey yawned and let his mug of cold coffee sit on his makeshift desk in the back of the room. “I’ll just be in here,” he said as he made his way to the door in the back. “Wake me, please.”

Shane pulled up a chair and sat beside the bed.

“You don’t have to do this,” Najia muttered.

“Harvey says you need to be monitored.”

“Whatever.” She sighed and attempted to settle into the bed. Despite her exhaustion, her mind seemed to be on full alert. Her pulse felt uneven and anxiety twisted in her chest. Her fingers scratched at the sheets until Shane’s hand found hers.

“Am I doing the right thing?” she asked softly.

Shane hesitated. “I don’t think I can give you an unbiased answer. Everything you do is stupid to me.”

Najia turned her gaze to the ceiling. “It’s been six months since the invasion, and I’m still waiting to wake up from this nightmare. It just keeps getting worse.”

“You’ll just have to stop leaving the valley.”

“And let you guys have all the fun?” She forced a smile.

“Let me know when the fun starts,” he muttered.

“If you take away the darkness, the war, and the possibility of death constantly at your doorstep, it has been kind of fun. Like a road trip across the country.”

“A road trip with a really annoying stranger.” Shane returned her smile.

“You said you wouldn’t change any of it.”

Shane pinched his lips together as he considered this. “Maybe some of it.” He hesitated. “I could have really done without the Taylor Swift songs.”

Najia rolled onto her side. Her smile disappeared. “I wish I knew what to do. I wish someone could tell me what to do.”

“Not getting killed is a good start,” Shane said.

Najia shrugged. “I’ll try.”

“Najia.” Shane hesitated.

“You should go home,” she said quickly.

Shane shook his head. “You know I’m not doing that.”

“You’re going to say something stupid again.”

“I don’t say stupid things,” Shane growled.

“You do all the time.”

“Why do you have to be so difficult?”

“Because,” Najia said. She hesitated. “Because-”

Shane pressed his lips against hers. Najia’s heart leapt in her throat as he lingered against her for a moment.

“What was that for?” she asked softly when he pulled away.

“To shut you up.”

Najia sighed softly through her nose and closed her eyes. “I’m too tired to argue with you.”

*****

A chilling sensation moved over her skin, seeping through and touching her bones. It grew quickly colder as it seemed to deepen inside of her, moving through her body and freezing her organs in its wake. The cold clutched at her heart like boney fingers. It squeezed at her lungs until they ached painfully in her chest. Her breathing grew short and forced until she was left gasping for air that wasn’t there.

She watched herself collapse to the floor, alone in the darkest darkness she had ever endured. A single trail of blood fell from her eye like a tear as she continued to gasp on the floor. Her fingers reached and scratched at the surface in an attempt to pull her out of the danger she was in. Najia watched the creature dying on the ground with cold, dead eyes. She felt nothing as she watched and waited.

“Kill her,” Nox whispered in her ear. His voice shot a calming wave through her body and she sighed.

“Kill her.”

Najia lifted the seemingly weightless sword with one hand. She caught her own fearful gaze, pleading with herself. Her knuckles whitened as she gripped the sword in both hands and stepped over her target. She brought the sword down hard into her chest, holding her gaze, watching as her eyes darkened.

*****

Something was restraining her. She couldn’t move. And there was something loud. Very loud.

She opened her eyes and it was quiet. Her screaming stopped. Shane’s strong arms wrapped around her as she panted. Her hair was drenched with sweat. Her fingers clutched at his hands, her nails digging into her palms until they started to bleed. She looked down at the tiny drops of blood and pulled her hands away violently, gasping.

“What-what happened?” she sobbed.

“Hey,” Shane whispered to her. “I’m here. I’m here.”

Najia’s eyes darted around the dark room as her heart raced slowed. She shook violently in Shane’s arms and he pulled her closer to him. She relaxed against his chest and sobbed. She heard footsteps coming towards them. She squeezed her eyes shut as the images flashed in her mind. She heard Harvey’s voice, but could not make out his words.

“No,” Shane said sternly. “No drugs.”

Najia’s body shuttered as she gasped, her breathing still uneven. Shane’s arms tightened around her.

Harvey’s fingers found the pulse in her neck. “I wish she’d let me hook her up,” he muttered.

“No wires,” Najia sobbed quietly.

“I know,” he cooed to her. “I promise.”

Shane’s arms pulled away. Najia whimpered as the warmth of his body moved away from her. She curled up against the bed, her eyes still tightly closed as Shane’s hand found hers. His voice sounded too quiet and distant as he spoke to Harvey.

“I don’t know.” Harvey’s voice was heavy with regret. “This could last the rest of her life.”

“There has to be something you can do.”

“Let’s give her a chance.”

Footsteps moved away from her to the other side of the room. A door closed softly. A body moved beside her, sitting on the bed. Shane swung his legs up, pulling Najia to him.

“Don’t leave,” Najia whimpered.

“I’m not going anywhere,” he said softly. His fingers brushed against her cheek. “I promise.”

*****

Najia squinted in the early morning light. She blinked quickly as she took in her surroundings, her mind refocusing on reality. She was home. She was safe. Her eyes moved to Shane, meeting his gaze.

“Hi,” she said softly.

Shane smiled. “Hi.”

Najia hesitated. “Why are you still here?”

His smile disappeared. “Fine.” He pulled away, but Najia pulled him back. She lay her head against his chest and sighed.

“Did you sleep?” she asked.

“Probably less than you did.”

“You should go home.”

“I’m here as long as you need me.”

Najia stared at the equipment beside the bed. “I don’t want to be here anymore,” she said quietly.

“Okay,” he said. “Where do you want to go?”

Najia hesitated. “I don’t know.” She pushed herself up and looked around the room.

Shane swung his legs over the bed and stretched. “I’ll go tell Doc we’re getting out of here.”

Najia stared out the window as Shane disappeared in the other room. He and Harvey emerged a moment later. Harvey’s smile was bright as Najia met his gaze.

“How are you feeling?” he asked her as he grabbed the stethoscope from around his neck. It was cold against her skin.

“Can I go?” she mumbled.

“I know I’m not the most exciting person in the world,” Harvey said. “But I didn’t think my company was that excruciating.”

Najia stared at him blankly, waiting for an answer.

Harvey hesitated, then sighed. “Yes, you may go.”

Najia swung her legs over the bed and got to her feet. She hesitated, as if expecting herself to collapse, then moved towards the door and stepped out into the cool, early morning air.

Shane walked beside her as she walked down the dirt road towards the cabin. It was empty. She stopped in the middle of the room, eyeing the two rifles in the corner carefully.

“What do you want to do?” Shane asked carefully.

Najia pulled her shirt over her head and shimmied out of her jeans.

Shane turned around quickly. “You know, I can go…”

Najia grunted as she pulled a fresh t-shirt over her head and shoulders. Shane turned around again as she buttoned her jeans. She grabbed the clothes off the floor and tossed them into the unlit fireplace. She stared at them as if expecting them to jump back out. In her mind, a fire ignited, burning violently, flames flickering, reaching out towards her.

Najia backed away quickly until Shane’s body stopped her. Her knees gave out as she fell into him, shaking and sobbing. Shane held her close, his head resting against hers as he whispered in her ear.

“I’m here,” he said. “I promise.”

61: 52
52

Najia spent the next few days in the corner of the cabin, under Shane’s continuous watchful eye. Her tremors lessened quickly and Shane was finally able to convince her to leave the cabin. The warmth of the sun on her skin felt comforting. She took to watching Jas play with the chickens. Jas eagerly told her about their favorite treats and let her throw dried corn out for them.

The nightmares did not disappear completely, but Najia found herself adjusting to life in the valley once more. Autumn had come to a cold ending and the first flurries of snow had begun to fall around them.

The first weeks of winter were uncomfortably quiet. The Gotoro army continued to patrol the outskirts of the valley and mountain range. From time to time, they wandered in to town, looking for a hot cup of coffee, but they were often met with hateful glares. Helicopters often flew over the valley, dropping off supplies and switching out men in their troops. The helicopters moved over the land, keeping a careful eye for any sign of the Shadow People. But it was still much too quiet.

Najia found herself staring into the crystal ball one snowy morning in an attempt to interpret whatever message it contained.

“Thanks to your help,” Rasmodius said causally, “the Sword of Light is almost ready.”

Najia peered passed the crystal ball, narrowing her eyes at the wizard. “And thanks to that day, I’ll likely never be able to sleep again.”

Rasmodius smiled at Najia. “One thing at a time. I’ll fix you up next.”

“You can fix this?”

“One of the easier things I can do.”

“Good. You better, because this is all you fault.”

Rasmodius turned away from her. “Sacrifices need to be made in war, Najia.”

Najia straightened. “What other sacrifices need to be made?”

“There’s no getting anything past you,” he said. He held the sword in his hands, turning it over carefully. It seemed to glow softly with its latest dose of magic. “The Sword of Light is a very powerful weapon. There’s no way to really know for sure what it is capable of.” He turned and met Najia’s gaze. “But I can almost guarantee that the outcome, while successful, will be deadly.”

“Deadly for the Shadow People?”

“And potentially deadly for anyone in its path. Including the one who wields it.”

“Another sacrifice,” Najia muttered, looking into the ball once more.

“There’s still time,” the wizard said. “Decisions do not have to be made this moment.”

Najia turned her eyes upward at him. “Are you saying it needs to be me?”

Rasmodius shook his head. “I’m saying, eventually, someone will need to take the sword.” He hesitated, looking into the ball. “And the Gotoro army should be on alert, because the Shadow People are finally making their move.”

Najia’s heart raced. “What have they been waiting for?” she muttered.

“A few things, most likely,” Rasmodius said. “But they’re also not quite fond of cold weather, either.”

Najia rolled her eyes. “Why now?”

“I suspect they just want to do some damage. Get a good look. Weaken our defense. Gather some intel for themselves. Shake us up a bit. They’re into that psychological warfare.”

“I know,” Najia said simply, meeting his gaze. “Is it going to be like last time?”

Rasmodius shook his head. “This is a weak group.”

“Disposable,” Najia said. “They’re sending in their own kind with the expectation that they’ll just be eliminated.”

“Sacrificed.”

“Looks like we’re on the same page as our enemy,” Najia muttered.

Rasmodius ignored her remark. “They’ll be here late tonight,” he said simply.

Najia left the wizard alone in his tower. She trudged through the snow as it fell softly around her. She made her way through the forest and passed the ranch where Jas and Vincent were playing outside. They ran towards Shane, shoving him into a snow bank. He grabbed Jas in one arm and Vincent in the other as he got back up. He spun them around, tossing them into the snow pile in a fit of laughter. He turned and smiled at Najia as she made her way to them. His smile disappeared when he saw the worried expression on her face.

“What’s up?” he asked.

“I just talked to Rasmodius,” she said softly. “He said a wave of Shadow People are heading our way. They’ll be here tonight.”

Shane pinched his lips and nodded. “Do we stand a chance?” he muttered.

Najia hesitated. “I think so. Rasmodius seems to think its a weaker army. But I wouldn’t take any chances. Maybe a distraction for something bigger.”

“We need to tell the Gotoro,” he said, but at that moment, they could hear the faint sound of a helicopter coming over the distant mountain range. It grew louder quickly as the craft hovered low, flying over them and into the valley.

“I have a feeling they already know,” Najia said as they watched the helicopter fly past them.

Shane turned his gaze to Jas and Vincent, still playing in the snow. Marnie, Lewis, and John walked towards them at that moment, smiles on their faces.

“Why so glum?” John asked as he put his arm around his granddaughter’s shoulders.

“The Shadow People are on their way,” Najia said. “Rasmodius said they’ll be here tonight.”

John nodded. “You should know,” he started. “If anything ever happens to the valley… there’s a way out. Through the mountains. Old mining tunnels that go through the northern mountain range.”

“The valley was the only safe place,” Najia said. “If we are forced out of the valley, we have nothing left.”

“But you still have a chance,” Joh said sternly. “A chance to escape. And you should be prepared to do that if it comes down to that tonight.” He turned to Marnie. “You and the children should hide there. If no one comes to get you by dawn, you get out of the valley.”

Marnie pinched her lips together and nodded.

“There are guns and food and water stored in the tunnels you can take with you,” John continued. “Even a Jeep on the other side. I’ll show you where everything is.”

Marnie and Lewis followed John back through the trees and into town. Shane turned to Najia, his brows knit together.

“Stay with Jas,” he said.

Najia shook her head. “I’m not hiding in some damn-”

“Najia,” Shane growled. “Please don’t get involved in this.”

“None of us need to be involved,” Najia said. “There’s a trained army ready for their attack.”

“And they’ll need all the help they can get,” Shane said. “And I need to know that you and Jas are safe.”

Najia bit her lip and turned to Jas and Vincent as they rolled together the beginnings of a snowman. She didn’t dare argue with Shane.

*****

They spent the afternoon preparing themselves for the attack. Just before nightfall, Marnie and Penny gathered Vincent and Jas, bringing them into the mines where they would wait out the night. Maru, Haley, Emily, Sandy and Jodi accompanied them. Despite his arguments, Harvey too joined them in the mines, because according to John, he was their most important asset.

Najia watched as the last of the sun’s rays stretched out over the horizon. The men had packed their weapons into the Hummer and were preparing to join the Gotoro army as they waited for the Shadow People to attack. Leah made her way to Najia’s side.

“Room for me in there?” she asked. “Unfortunately, I’m not a very good shot. Otherwise I’d be on the front lines.”

“Wish they’d let me out there,” Najia muttered.

“I think you’ve been through enough, don’t you?”

“I should be out there,” she said. “After what I did… letting Morris go…”

“Don’t worry,” Leah said. “No one hates you anymore.”

Najia rolled her eyes. “That’s the least of my problems,” she said. She turned to the entrance of the mines where Shane was on his knees, Jas in his arms. He kissed her forehead delicately. His lips moved into a smile as she spoke to him. Najia turned away as Shane stood and Jas hurried into the dark tunnel. Shane shoved his hands in his pockets and walked toward the two women.

“Want to hide out with us?” Leah asked him.

“With the hormonal pregnant chick?” Shane said. “No thank you. I would rather be shot than deal with that.”

Leah narrowed her eyes at him. “Haley is doing an incredibly brave, selfless thing.”

“Shane doesn’t do selfless,” Najia said. “Everything’s about him.”

Shane folded his arms across his chest. “Clearly.”

“Its always about you,” she said. “I don’t even get a choice apparently.”

“What choice do you want?” he said.

“The choice to go out there and fight.”

“There’s no reason for you to be out there,” he said.

“There’s no reason for any of us to be out there,” Najia hissed. “You’re just being the same arrogant ass that you always are.”

Leah watched as Najia and Shane bickered. “Will you two just fuck already?” she shouted to them. They turned to her, their eyes wide.

“Excuse me?” Najia said, narrowing her eyes at Leah.

Leah pointed at the both of them. “The sexual tension between you guys is ridiculous,” she said. “It’s going to start rubbing off on everyone else if you don’t fucking control yourselves.”

Shane turned to Najia and smirked. She rolled her eyes and pushed him out of the way.

“Get over yourself,” she barked at him.

“Just do me and get it over with,” Shane called after her.

“You’ve got a hand,” Najia shouted over her shoulder.

“Smooth, Romeo,” Leah said to Shane. She followed Najia into the cavern.

Shane chased after them. He grabbed Najia’s hand and she stopped walking. She turned to Shane, ignoring Leah as she walked passed, winking at her, and disappeared around the corner.

“I’m not doing you,” Najia hissed.

But Shane’s playful gaze was gone. “No matter what happens,” he said. “If we don’t get out of this alive, take Jas and get the hell out of here.”

Najia swallowed and nodded slowly.

“Don’t come back for anything.”

“Fine,” she hissed.

Shane let her hand go, holding his gaze for a moment before turning away from her.

“Shane.” Najia wrapped her arms around his neck as he turned around. “Just come back.”

Shane held Najia tightly and rested her forehead against hers. “I’ll do my best.”

Najia pressed her lips against his. Shane’s hands moved through her hair as he pushed closer into her. He pushed her back into the rough wall and moved his lips against hers. Najia’s breath caught in her throat as his body pressed into hers. She tightened her arms around him, unwilling to let him go.

Shane hesitated, his lips hovering just above hers as voices grew from outside. He met Najia’s gaze, his mouth open as if he were going to say something, but he closed it and pushed away from her.

“See ya later,” Najia muttered.

Shane forced a smile, hesitating for a moment before turning away from her and making his way outside. Najia stood against the wall and watched as he disappeared.

62: 53
53

The rest of the survivors made their way into the valley where the Gotoro army waited for the attack. They stood anxiously beside their tanks and weapons, or hiding in trenches and behind man-made walls. They covered a vast, circular area of the valley in an attempt to catch the Shadow People, no matter which direction they came from.

“Well, if it isn’t the valley people,” one of the soldiers said, approaching them.

“The valley people?” Alex said. “We’re not hippies.”

The man laughed forcefully. “What are you doing out here? There’s an army of Shadow Brutes on their way here.”

Gil rested his rifle against his shoulder. “Well, we’re not just here to watch, now.”

The soldier looked Gil up and down with a skeptical expression. His eyes moved over the rest of the group and he smirked. “You’re kidding, right?”

“Hey,” Sebastian said. “We don’t have to help.”

“This is our valley,” Marlon said. “We’ve been protecting it, and ourselves, long before you folk got here.”

The man before them shrugged. “You should know our orders are to protect the valley, not the nut jobs that live there. No one’s going to protect you from whatever may happen.”

“Like he said,” John muttered. “We can take care of ourselves.”

“We don’t sit back and hide,” Lewis said. “So put us to use.”

The man looked them over once more. “I suspect the crazy old guys can handle their weapons,” he said, giving them a nod. “As for the rest of you...”

“I’ve played my share of Call of Duty,” Alex said. “I had the top kill ratio on my team, Dogs of War.”

The man nodded and rolled his eyes. “Good, because this is exactly like Call of Duty.”

“We are all capable of hitting our targets,” Gil said, his voice hard as he grew irritated with the arrogant soldier.

“Fine,” the soldier said. “It doesn’t look like you’ll be leaving us alone, anyway. Dog of War, since you’re so capable, why don’t you take the front line?”

Alex swallowed. “I mean, I’m not that good.”

The soldier smiled at him. “I suspect you’ll get pretty good then.” He turned to the rest of them. “If you can really hold your own, I could use some help on the cliffs. Who can handle an M39 EMR?”

They stared at him blankly.

The soldier sighed. “I need snipers.” His gaze settled on Shane. “You’re up. Bring Blondie, too. You guys look the toughest.” He turned to the older men in the group. “Sorry, fellas. I won’t deal with brittle shoulders.”

“What makes you think we’ll go with you?” Shane muttered.

“Because that’s how the army works, boys. Get moving.”

Shane and Sam made their way up to the cliffs as instructed. Sam muttered the entire way up.

“He’s not even anyone important,” Sam said. “Who is he to think he can boss us around?”

“Quit bitching,” Shane growled.

“No. I’m going to complain about the fact that this guy thinks we’re nothing but meat.”

“We are,” Shane hissed. “They don’t give a rats ass about us.”

“Fuck them.” Sam spat at the ground. “Fuck every last one of ‘em.”

The soldier caught up to them quickly, pushing passed them and leading them the rest of the way to his hideout in the trees.

“Pick your poison and don’t fuck up,” he said simply as he squatted on his legs next to his rifle. He watched Sam as he inspected the rifle. “Trigger’s over there, Blondie,” he pointed out.

“Sam,” Sam said in a huff. “It’s Sam.”

“I don’t care what your name is, Blondie.”

“You know,” Shane said to Sam. “I’m sure no one would even notice if he went missing.”

“He’s got a point,” the soldier said as he peered through the sight on his weapon. “I’m just another body to Michaels.”

Sam watched the soldier carefully. “Michaels runs this pathetic army?”

The soldier ignored him as he adjusted the weapon. “Better get ready. Those brutes’ll be here any minute. Try to keep up, hm?”

“We can’t all be trained soldiers,” Sam muttered.

The soldier leaned back on his hands, his palms against the pine needled forest floor. “That we can’t,” he said. “I was never involved in the military before the invasion. But when times get tough, they’ll take any pathetic body who offers themselves. They teach you how to handle an AR and throw you into battle. That’s it.”

“And you just do whatever the hell they say?” Sam asked.

“That’s right, Sammy.”

“Don’t call me Sammy,” Sam hissed.

The soldier turned to Shane. “You should have warned me he was a whiner.”

Shane smirked as he got onto his belly, peering down his own sight. “You didn’t ask.”

The radio on his hip buzzed with static as a voice broke through. “Eagle Eye Seven, this is Mark One, what’s your fix?”

“In position, Mark One. At the ready.” He turned to Sam and smirked. “His name’s Mark.”

“Copy, Eagle Eye. Stand by.”

“Eagle Eye?” Sam rolled his eyes.

“Code name for snipers, you nit-wit,” he hissed.

“And yet, Mark is Mark,” Shane muttered.

“Mark is an idiot that should have been shot ages ago.”

“Someone has Mark issues.” Sam smirked at Shane.

They turned quickly as a chilling hissing filled the air. In the darkness, they could just barely see the glowing eyes of the Shadow People. Tiny spots of light dotted the valley as soldiers ran to their positions.

“Heads up,” the soldier said. “It’s show time.”

Shane watched through the sight as the Shadow People, just glowing eyes in the night, quickly made their way into the valley. As they neared, he cocked the rifle and took aim.

Barrels flashed on the ground as the soldiers ran towards their enemy. Before he knew it, the valley had erupted into sounds of war. Beside him, Eagle made his first shot.

“Gotcha,” he whispered into his gun. He cocked the rifle and made another shot. “I’m going for three,” he said to them. “Try to keep up.”

Shane aimed between a pair of green eyes. He pulled the trigger and the weapon fired, recoiling into his shoulder. The eyes disappeared instantly.

“Keep shooting like that and we’ll make a soldier outta ya.”

“I’ll pass,” Shane muttered as he searched out his next target.

They continued in this manner for some time. Shane quickly lost track of the night as he picked out brute after brute. It wasn’t until he heard Sam shouting that he was pulled out of his trance of aiming and firing. He turned to Sam as he stood and pointed through the trees, towards town.

“Wassa matter, Lassie?” the soldier muttered. “Timmy fall down the well?”

“They got through,” Sam said. “They’re heading towards the tunnel.”

Shane jumped up from his rifle and pulled his gun out of his pocket. “C’mon,” he muttered.

“Don’t get killed, now,” the soldier called after them.

Sam and Shane sprinted through the forest, sliding down the dead leaves as they made their way off the cliff and into the valley. Barrel blasts ignited the walls of the tunnel as someone fended off the brutes. They raised their guns as they ran down the road. Flashlights darted off the walls as the creatures hissed loudly. A flare ignited and was tossed into the tunnel, causing the Shadow People to scatter and scream.

Abigail stood in front of Alex, who clutched at his shoulder on the ground. Her arms were still raised, gripping a gun tightly as Shadow Brutes lay motionless on the ground just yards away. Shane and Sam ducked as the brutes flew out of the tunnel, but they quickly doubled back, just out of the safety of the light, heading towards them once more.

More shots fired as Sebastian, Marlon, and Gil stepped out of the shadows and into the light of the flare, back to back.

“Not on my watch,” Marlon muttered as he raised his sword at an oncoming brute. He swung viciously as the creature attacked, throwing his body against it.

Shane stepped over the shadow corpses as he made his way to Alex, holding out a hand and pulling him to his feet. “That’s no way to get out of being a father,” he muttered.

“I’d die before something happens to Haley or my child,” Alex hissed. “No damn brute is getting passed me.”

“Funny,” Shane said with a smirk. “Looks like Abby was the one saving your ass.”

“I’m still in the positive,” Alex said, pushing passed him and shoving a clip into his gun. “Gotta keep that K-to-D up.”

63: 54
54

Jas rested her head on Najia’s lap as she slept soundly. Unlike the children, Najia and the other adults were wide awake, jumping at every sound that echoed off the walls of the mine. The minutes dragged into hours as they sat and waited, hardly speaking a word to one another as visions of a deadly battle flashed through their minds. Their stomachs twisted sickeningly as each hour passed them without word of the attack. Jodi paced the tunnels from time to time and the sky soon began to show hints of the approaching morning. Najia’s heart raced in her chest as the sky began to lighten without any sign that the battle was won.

Just as an early dawn began to shut out the dimmest stars, Najia heard Marlon’s voice, like music to her ears. Her heart soared as they approached, their voices cheerful. They hurried to the entrance of the mines, meeting Marlon and Gil just outside.

“That was thrilling,” Gil said. “Helluva fight, I tell ya. Took out every last one of em, we did. They didn’t stand a damn chance.”

Najia felt Jas’s hand pull away. She watched as the little girl ran into Shane’s arms as he made his way towards them. He held the girl close, smiling at Najia.

“So, we get the valley for another day?” Leah said.

“They’ll just keep attacking,” Sandy said. “We can’t protect this place for much longer.”

Gil’s triumphant grin disappeared. He turned to Marlon. “What a buzzkill.”

“She’s right,” John said as he made his way to them, standing at Marlon’s side. “We need to take matter into our own hands if we want to eliminate our enemies. The Gotoro only want to fight the waves. We need to dig deeper than that and take out the Shadow People at their source.”

“How are we supposed to do that?” Najia asked.

“We need to figure out their plan. We need to find their base. Find their weak spot. Take out their leader.”

“And you don’t think the Gotoro are trying to do that?” Sandy said.

“The Gotoro are not my concern. I don’t know what they’re doing, and they’re not so willing to work with us. Whatever it is they are doing, it is taking them a damn long time.”

“They lived under ground, right?” Maru asked. “Light is their weak spot. What if the source of their power is under ground?”

“That’s a lot of ground to go digging through,” Gil muttered.

“No, wait.” Maru held up a hand. Her eyes darted around the ground as a plan came to mind. “At home, back in the city,” she started. “I have these robots. I was using them to help Dad when he was studying the soil in the city and outside the city. They can detect unusually warm and cold areas in the ground. Maybe they’d be useful in finding something hidden under ground.” She hesitated and looked around as they stared at her.

“You made robots?” Haley asked. “For real?”

“I have more than just those robots,” Maru said. “I have an invisible drone.”

“How in the hell did you manage that?” Gil asked.

Maru blushed. “Well, its not really invisible,” she said. “I’ve utilized a technique to bend light on a mirrored surface which makes it appear invisible.”

“Now that’s something those Gotoros don’t have,” John muttered. “And you can get them?”

“They’re all the way back in the city,” Maru said. “But, yes, I can get them.”

“That drive could take a weel,” Marlon said, turning to John.

“Few days if they don’t stop.”

“Do you really think we have that kind of time?”

“What else can we do?” John asked. “Right now, we’re doing nothing but defending a valley, and we’ve got an army doing that for us. We need to get on the offensive. We can hold down the fort until then. Otherwise, we’re ambling about without a clue as to what we’re doing. That’ll get us killed quicker than standing around doing nothing.”

“Well,” Gil said as he adjusted his rifle on his back. “You better not expect me to stick around here and miss out on all the fun.”

“I’ll need all the defense I can get,” Maru admitted.

“You’ve got us,” Marlon said.

“I’m going, too,” Najia said.

John turned to Shane, waiting for his rebuttal. “Well?”

“Well, what?”

“Aren’t you gonna go, too?”

“Do I have to?”

“You’re the guy I’m gonna-” John caught Jas’s gaze and he smiled. “You’re gonna have a talkin’ to with Jane if something goes wrong.”

“And what if I’m not there when something goes wrong?”

“Jane’ll have a few words for ya, regardless.”

“You’re enjoying this too much,” Shane muttered.

“Who’s Jane?” Jas asked.

“Shane’s new girlfriend,” John said with a smirk. He turned to Maru. “Get yourself a team and get movin’, then.”

*****

Najia helped Maru and Sebastian pack their car as Marlon and Gil eagerly readied the Hummer. Leah leaned against the car as Najia closed the trunk. She turned to Shane as he made his way to her.

“You’re really not coming?” she asked.

Shane shrugged. “I really don’t want to go back to that place,” he muttered.

“And you know I’m going?”

“I’m aware.”

“And you don’t have a problem with that?”

“Why would I have a problem?”

“You’re life could be on the line,” Najia joked.

“Whether you come back or not, he’ll still kill me.”

“Come on,” Najia whined. “We’ll take the Trans Am. Listen to some T-swift. Just like the good old days.”

“And a little alone time,” Leah said with a smirk. “Just what a bickering husband and wife need. Fair warning, she’s a biter.”

Najia turned away, her face hot. “Really?” she muttered. She turned her gaze back to Shane, but he, too, was avoiding her gaze.

“You would know,” he said.

“Don’t be jealous, Shane,” Leah said.

“Don’t worry,” he said roughly. “I’m not.”

“Maybe I’ll get kidnapped again,” Najia muttered. “Yoba, I hope I get kidnapped again.”

“Well,” Leah said as she pushed herself off the car. “My job here is done. Have fun, Najia.”

Shane narrowed his eyes at Leah as she walked away, leaving them alone.

“So,” Najia muttered, still avoiding his gaze. “You’re really not coming?”

“You gonna miss me?”

Najia rolled her eyes and scoffed. “No. It will be nice not to have you breathing down my back.” She opened the car door, hesitating as Shane’s hand rested on it.

“You’d know I go with you,” he said. He bit his lower lip and averted his gaze. “But I can’t go back to that city.”

Najia forced a smile and cleared her throat. “I know.”

64: 55
55

They followed the quickest, most direct route to the city, cutting across the dry desert and speeding down interstates, stopping only to switch drivers in order to make it to the city in record time. They made it early afternoon on the third day, their only interruption fighting off a small group of Shadow People just outside the city.

They stood on the interstate just outside, looking over the horizon at the dark city below them. Cars were strewn about and abandoned on the road around them from the invasion that happened almost a year ago.

“Do you think any Shadow People are there?” Maru asked, hesitant.

Marlon nodded and Gil adjusted the rifle on his back.

“Where are we headed?” Marlon asked.

“The house is at the back end of the city,” Sebastian said. “Near the graveyard.”

“We could get in that way,” Maru said as images of speeding through the cemetery flooded her mind. “Stick to the woods and get to the neighborhood that way.”

Sebastian nodded in agreement.

“Lead the way,” Gil said.

They climbed back into the cars, Gil and Marlon in their favored Hummer, and Najia, Maru, and Sebastian in the little Jetta. Sebastian drove them around the city, their headlights off, as they made their way carefully in through the cemetery, following previously driven paths. They parked just on the edge of the city and climbed out, moving quickly through the woods and cutting through back roads until they stopped behind a house.

“Here we are,” Maru muttered as she looked up at the house. “This used to be home.”

Sebastian hesitated as he met his younger sister’s gaze. He forced a smile. “So, where are these bots?”

“Hopefully, still in my room.”

Maru and Sebastian lead the way through the dark house, their flashlights bouncing off the walls. They made their way up the stairs and into Maru’s bedroom. She fished through her closet, pulling out various pieces of equipment. When she finished, she sat cross-legged on the floor, tinkering with the items.

“The only thing is,” Maru began as she looked each object over. “Many of these were set up with my phone and laptop to transmit data.” She hesitated. “I had solar chargers for them.” She looked up sheepishly and shrugged. “I don’t think that will do us much good out here.”

“They’ll work in the valley,” Najia reminded her.

Maru nodded and returned her gaze to the objects in her lap. “Yes, but I was hoping to use them on the drive back.” She paused, flicking on one of the bots and it whirred quietly to life. “There might be enough life in them to collect data around here, though.”

“You’re the expert,” Gil said.

Maru began packing items into a large duffle back. She packed some of the equipment, her laptop, and various cords and small solar panels. At her side, she kept out a drone-like object. She zipped up the bag and picked up the drone, looking it over carefully one last time.

“Alright,” she said simply. She didn’t want to be in the city any longer than she had to. “Let’s get out of here.”

They hurried back down stairs, making their way to the back of the house once more, but Sebastian moved away from them, heading towards the front of the house.

“Where are you going?” Maru hissed at him.

“I’ll meet you out back,” he said over his shoulder. “I need to get something.”

Maru rolled her eyes as they made their way out the back door. They walked across the backyard, towards the trees when Maru heard the sound of Sebastian’s motorcycle roar to life.

“You have got to be kidding me,” she groaned.

They turned and watched as the bike pulled into the road, arching around as Sebastian drove it across the grass. He grinned at his sister as she narrowed her eyes at him.

“You’re not taking that,” she said, crossing her arms.

“Yes, I am.”

“And what if we get ambushed?”

Sebastian rolled his eyes. “I’ll be a smaller target than a car,” he said. “I could easily get away from any Shadow Brute.”

“You’re ridiculous.”

“Hey, you got to get your robots,” he pointed out.

“Come on,” Gil grumbled. “Enough bickering and let’s get out of here.”

Sebastian’s grin widened as he revved the engine. “See you guys over there.”

Maru turned away, marching towards the woods. The sound of the engine grew distant as Sebastian drove through the city.

65: 56
56

The city was quiet when they returned to their vehicles, just on the edge of the cemetery. It was in fact, too quiet. There was no sign of Sebastian and no roar of his motorcycle.

Maru looked around anxiously as she fiddled with the machine in her hands. It hummed quietly to life. She set it on the ground and worked the controls, commanding the machine to begin its job. The machine lifted off the ground, hovering for a moment before lifting further into the air and high above the trees. In the darkness, they could just make out the red beam of light that scanned the ground below them.

The drone moved through the air, across the cemetery, and into the city as Maru controlled it. “Might as well get some data while we wait,” she muttered.

“What the hell is keeping him?” Gil grunted.

“Maybe we should go look for him,” Najia suggested hesitantly.

“He knows his way,” Maru said. “He probably got caught with that damn bike.” Her voice hardened as she looked out into the city. “I told him not to take that thing.”

Najia strained to listen for the engine of the motorcycle, but the city was eerily silent, sending a shiver up her spine.

After a moment, she heard it. A faint, distant kind of roar that crescendoed higher, then broke as it shifted into a higher gear. The sound grew louder as the bike came closer.

They turned towards the city, each one recognizing the sound of the motorcycle, and they waited, listening. Headlights soon moved from around the buildings, marking a path on the road as Sebastian came into sight. He was moving fast; too fast.

Najia saw the glowing eyes first. She stumbled backwards as she turned to run towards the vehicles. “Move!” she shouted.

They quickly followed suit, sprinting towards the cars and slamming on the accelerator just as Sebastian flew by them through the cemetery. They followed the bike closely, navigating the make-shift path around and over the graves and back out onto the interstate.

The bike skidded across the pavement as Sebastian cut the corner quickly. The back tire fishtailed under him as he pulled the bike upright, still moving quickly, and straightened himself out. With the bike stable, Sebastian reached into his back pocket, pulling out a gun, loaded and ready to go.

Gil leaned out of the Hummer as Marlon drove up beside Sebastian. He cocked his rifle and took aim. But the glowing eyes were falling behind quickly as they out ran the Shadow People. Gil let a few shots off eagerly before turning to face the front of the vehicle as Sebastian popped off a round.

The glowing eyes were in front of them, then, and moving in quickly. Quicker than Najia had seen them move before. And their eyes seemed to move higher in the air as their shadowy forms flew passed them like the wind. Najia shivered once more as she felt the chilling sensation around her chest.

“These aren’t average Shadow Brutes,” Maru mumbled from beside her. She continued to fiddle with the controls of the drone, occasionally looking up to the sky in search for the red light as she navigated it as best as she could, keeping out of sight of the Shadow People while following their path.

Gil and Sebastian continued to fire at the Shadow People as they twirled and twisted in the air around them. Sebastian ducked low against the motorcycle as each brute swooped down around him. He dodged and swerved easily out of their path, shooting at every chance he got.

They raced further down the interstate for a few minutes longer until the Shadow People scattered and vanished into the darkness. Sebastian slowed, looking around them until he spotted a larger pair of eyes in front of them. He stopped short quickly as he gazed up at the glowing eyes. Marlon and Najia stopped quickly behind them, staring at the larger creature that stood before them.

His voice hissed into the night as he spoke.

“Little human,” he said. “It has been some time since I last saw you. Come out of your vehicle.”

Najia stared out the windshield, mouth gaping, as Nox spoke to her.

“What does it want?” Maru said, turning to her, her voice shaking. “It’s gonna kill us.”

Najia’s fingers fumbled with the handle on the car door as she pushed it open and stepped out. Gil continued to lean out of the window, watching as Najia walked in front of the creature.

“Yes,” Nox said. “You remember me, don’t you?”

“What do you want, Nox?” Najia hissed as she looked up at the glowing eyes.

“You know what I want,” he said. “I’m done with your games.”

“The Sword of Light doesn’t exist,” Najia said. “You’re crazy.”

“Fool.” His voice boomed around her.

Najia winced as she felt cold hands grasp at her heart. She gasped for breath as they released themselves quickly.

“You cannot lie to me. I have seen the weapon with my own eyes. I helped create the weapon.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Two great swords exist in our world,” Nox said. “The Sword of Light, and the Obsidian Sword. Light and dark. Two sides of the coin. One cannot exist without the other.”

Nox drew a large sword at his side. The weapon seemed to glow a dark glow in their already dark world.

“And I suppose you expect to kill us all with that thing?”

Nox laughed a hissing kind of laugh. “No,” he said simply. “The Obsidian Blade will not do anything I cannot already do to you.”

“Then why not just kill us yourself and get it over with?”

“Because I need the Sword of Light, silly girl. And you will bring it to me.”

“You must really be crazy if you think I’m going to just hand over the sword,” Najia spat at him.

Nox’s eyes seemed to lift at the corners as he smiled a deep, dark smile. “In time, you will,” he said. “And when that time comes, I will be waiting for you, and the fate of our world will be decided once and for all.”

The glowing eyes closed and Nox was gone.

66: 57
57

“So, you can talk to Shadow People?” Maru said, narrowing her eyes at Najia as she drove through the valley.

“Yes,” Najia said simply.

“And, what, did he invite you for tea?”

“Something like that,” Najia muttered.

Maru shook her head as they drove through the tunnel. She navigated the drone carefully back to the ground, hurrying out of the car to grab it. She inspected it carefully as Najia got out behind her.

“Get anything good?” Marlon asked as he and Gil joined them.

“I’ll find out soon,” she said eagerly. “Once I charge up the solar panel, I’ll be able to hook up the footage to my laptop and see what it caught.”

“Are you going to tell us what that whole giant Shadow Brute was all about?” Sebastian asked Najia. He crossed his arms and narrowed his eyes at her.

“He’s after the Sword of Light,” Najia said.

“Nothing we didn’t already know,” Gil muttered.

“So,” Sebastian started. “He asked for the sword, and when you said no, he just left?”

Najia hesitated, avoiding his gaze. “Yes.”

“You’re lying.”

“Don’t you think if we were in any real trouble, I’d tell you?” Najia hissed.

“I think we are in trouble,” Sebastian said forcefully. “He won’t rest until he gets his hands on that sword, which is somewhere here in the valley. Which means he will destroy us all to find it.”

“He won’t come near the valley,” Najia muttered.

“And what makes you so sure of that?”

Najia bit her lower lip. What was she supposed to tell them? That Nox thought Najia would just bring the sword to him? That maybe that’s exactly what would happen? That Rasmodius had the sword, and that it could potentially save them? And doing so would mean bringing it right to Nox, just as he wanted. She couldn’t tell them that. She couldn’t tell them that someone would be expected to take the sword and face off with the big shadow boss. She couldn’t tell them that whoever did it would likely die in the process. A sacrifice to save their world.

“He said so himself,” Najia said quietly.

“And you just trust him?” Sebastian said. Then, accusingly, “You’re hiding something.”

“The Sword of Light could end this war and save the world,” Najia said. “But it’s not just any old sword. It can only be used to defeat Nox. He holds the Obsidian Sword, which could just as easily end the war, making them the victors.”

“How do you know this?”

Najia hesitated. “Rasmodius has the sword.”

“So,” Maru began. “Someone has to take the sword and kill Nox with it?”

Najia shrugged. “Something like that.”

“Then what the hell are we waiting for?” Sebastian said. “We should kill him and get it over with.”

“It’s not that simple,” Najia said.

Sebastian rolled his eyes. “It never is, is it?”

Najia ignored him. “Rasmodius has been working on the sword for some time, infusing it with a magic that will help end the war. It isn’t ready yet, and Rasmodius can’t work on the sword and help defend the valley.”

“So, we have to wait until its ready?”

Najia just nodded.

“How much longer do we have to wait?” Marlon asked.

“I don’t know,” Najia said, hesitant. “Hopefully not much longer.”

*****

Najia made her way down the dirt road towards the farm. It would be some time before Maru had any information for them, if any at all, and she didn’t quite feel up to socializing. But, much to her dismay, she would not find the farm to be empty.

Jas and Vincent played happily in the snow as Penny, Sam, and Shane looked on. Lewis and John chatted casually among themselves, flasks in hand, as they stood outside the cabin. They were the first to notice Najia just at the end of the road, and they smiled to her warmly.

“Looks like you made it back in one piece,” John said.

His voice brought the attention of Penny, Sam, and Shane, each turning to see Najia, now at her grandfather’s side. She avoided their gaze.

“How’d it go, then?” John pressed.

“Fine,” Najia said simply. “Maru got her drones and Sebastian brought his motorcycle.”

John raised a curious eyebrow. “In the dead of winter?”

Najia shrugged. “He really wanted his bike back.” She forced a smile.

“What about those drones?” Lewis asked.

“Maru had one scanning the surface, I guess. She’s waiting for a charge on her laptop before she can see the results.”

“She’s a smart one, that girl,” Lewis said.

“No problems, then?” John asked. “I thought for sure you’d have some trouble in the city.”

Najia hesitated. It was no use keeping anything from them. They were bound to find out from Marlon and Gil, or even Sebastian.

“Just a little,” she said softly. She avoided her grandfather’s gaze and moved her eyes to the three adults, but their attention was back on the children playing in the snow. Even Shane did not seem interested in her return.

“Shadow People?” John asked, bringing her out of her thoughts.

“Yeah,” she said. “Nox. Their leader.”

John held his gaze on his granddaughter. “And?”

Najia pinched her lips together as she met his gaze. “And, what? He wants the sword, just like everyone else does.”

“So,” John started, “should we be expecting a visit from him soon?”

“He won’t come here,” Najia said.

John was quiet for a moment before turning away from her. “Alright,” he said simply. He put his hands in his jacket pockets and cleared his throat. “Looks like you get to live another day,” he called to Shane.

Shane met his gaze briefly, then Najia’s. “What a relief.”

67: 58
58

Najia, John, Marlon, Gil, Shane, Alex, Sam, Sebastian, Maru, and Abigail made up the make-shift tactical steam of the Stardew Valley survivors that stood together by candle light in the community center as the night closed in around them. They stood around an old, wooden table, Maru at its center in the glow of her laptop screen as she analyzed the data her drone had collected. She pointed a finger to the screen as she attempted to explain to the others what the data was showing.

“The droid picks up temperature on the surface and under ground,” Maru said. She pointed to red, orange, and yellow figures on the screen. “That’s us,” she said. “Waiting in the cemetery for Seb. All life forms appear this way because of their body heat.” She scrolled through the rest of the footage. The same red, orange, and yellow colors were on the screen, but this time something seemed to obstruct them. “This is us,” Maru said, pointing once more, “when we were on the interstate.”

She scrolled further until Najia could be seen, a red, orange, and yellow figure, standing in front of the vehicles and before a large figure, colored in shades of blue. Maru’s finger moved to the blue blob on the screen. “That’s Nox,” she said simply. She leaned back as everyone else moved closer, peering at the screen. “The leader of the Shadow People.”

“So?” Alex asked. “What does this mean?”

Maru moved back in, scrolling through the data. The screen seemed to zoom out. Tiny dots of blue seemed to dot the map, some in clusters, others alone in various locations. Maru moved a transparent image of the map over this view. The little blue dots glowed under the lines of the map.

“This is a map of the sewer systems,” she said simply. She pointed to various areas on the map. Some of the lines were many and some were few. “This is the city,” she said as she pointed to a chaotic grouping of lines. Under the lines were hundreds of thousands of little blue dots. Her finger traced one particular line as it led out of the city and seemed to disappear, but a line of blue dots continued onward, down the interstate until they were sparse.

“I have a feeling the Shadow People have extended these sewer lines out of the city and across the country,” Maru said as she pointed to a few individual blue dots. “This allows them to travel across the country, getting to various places while remaining under ground.”

“I don’t get it,” Sam said. “Why would there be so many of them underground when they can live on the surface in the darkness?”

Maru shook her head, equally perplexed. “I’m not sure,” she admitted. “Maybe they’re civilian Shadow People? Women and children?”

“We can’t hurt them,” Abigail said. “They’re innocent.”

“They’re just as deadly,” Alex hissed. “They’re not innocent in this war.”

“Just because some of them are attacking us doesn’t mean they’re all bad,” she said.

“How many of our own people have died?” Alex spat at her. “They were just as innocent. We’re all innocent. They don’t care about women and children. This is war, Abby. Get your head out of your ass.”

Abigail blinked blankly at his outburst. After a moment, she narrowed her eyes. “I will not be a part of any senseless slaughtering.”

“We’re the ones being slaughtered,” Alex barked at her. “We can’t even trust other humans because they’re slaughtering us, too!”

“I can’t be a part of this,” Abigail stuttered. “I won’t end someone’s life.”

“Can you really say that after you watched those brutes murder your own family?”

The room fell silent as Alex’s words hung over them.

“I can’t,” Abigail said softly. “I couldn’t bring myself to do it. To save them.”

“No one should have to end a life,” Marlon said. He let his hand rest on Maru’s shoulder. “It is a psychological trauma we cannot all bear.”

“This is war,” Alex said. “It’s kill or be killed.”

“When did you suddenly become so pro war?” Sam muttered.

“I have an unborn life to fight for,” Alex hissed. “If I can kill my father, I can handle a few Shadow Brutes.” Alex pushed at the table as he marched away from them. “Tell me when you have a damn plan.” He slammed the door shut behind him as he walked outside.

Abigail hesitated. “I don’t think I can be a part of this,” she said quickly, her voice low. She, too, hurried out of the room.

The room was silent once more until Maru cleared her throat. “Okay,” she said quietly. “So, uh, what’s the plan, then?”

“Is there a way to get in there?” Gil asked. “Maybe if we can see for ourselves what’s down there… There’s no sense in blowing something up that will only piss them off more. We need to end the war, not make things worse for ourselves.”

Maru nodded quickly. “We can use the sewers in the next town, outside of the mountain range,” she said. “I have a bot I can probably use for this. We can scout things out and try to get a complete map of the tunnels they have under ground.” She hesitated. “It could take some time, though.”

Gil nodded. “Let’s do it. The more intel we have, the better.”

68: 59
59

Najia stood at the edge of the road. Just across on the other side was the storm drain they had been searching out. A combined sewer drain, as Maru had explained to them. It consisted of water from storms and sewage, which were then separated with a damn that allowed the water to run off into a near by body of water while the waste went to a sewage plant. Maru had assured them that they would likely not have to deal with any particular kind of waste, or even go near any sewage plants for that matter. She was certain the Shadow People would stay away from those areas as well.

Marlon and Gil peered into the drain, confirming that it was safe to open as Maru prepared the machine that would be traveling the many tunnels. Najia felt Shane’s elbow jabbing her hard in her side. She shot a glare towards him as she rubbed the aching area. “What?”

“I asked you a question,” he said rolling his eyes.

“Oh. What?”

“Are you okay?”

“I’m not about to go trouncing through shit,” she muttered.

“What? No. I meant about Nox.”

“Huh?” She was so focused on the disgusting sewer drain that she had almost forgotten about her encounter with the leader of the Shadow People. “Oh.” She shrugged. “Yeah. I’m fine. It’s fine.”

“Why didn’t you tell me you saw him?”

“I did.”

“No,” Shane said slowly. “John told me.”

Najia sighed. She rubbed her temple. “It wasn’t a big thing.”

“Not a big thing?” Shane stared at her. “The thing that tortured you endlessly just waltzes back up to you, demands that you hand over some sword, let’s you go without a fight when you refuse, and it’s not a big thing?”

“What can I say?” she muttered. “He was feeling kind.”

“As soon as that sword is ready,” Shane said, “I’m gonna kill him.”

“No,” Najia said quickly. She hesitated when she felt his gaze on her. “You can’t.”

“Why not?”

“Rasmodius has to,” she said. “You know, magic and stuff.”

Shane crossed his arms. “Well, that takes all the fun out of everything.”

Najia watched as Maru finally lowered the tiny bot into the sewer. Maru leaned over the edge, peering inside as the bot came to life and immediately began the work that Maru had programmed into its system. Maru got to her feet and sighed. “It’s done.”

“Now what?” Shane asked. “We wait for data?”

Maru nodded. “Could be a couple of months before it makes it back,” she said. “If it makes it back.”

“Let’s hope it does,” Gil muttered.

“I’m pretty sure the Shadow People won’t notice it,” Maru said. She shrugged. “But, its out of my hands, now.”

“So,” Shane said. “That’s it?”

“That’s it,” Maru confirmed.

“Exciting.” Shane made his way down the road and towards the Trans Am. The rest of their little group followed suit, eager to get back in the protection of the valley. Najia slid into the front seat as Maru slid into the back.

They drove in silence until they reached the edge of the mountain range. They followed the Hummer through their familiar path through the mountains and into the valley, grateful to be greeted by the bright sunshine once more.

“Why are you being so quiet?” Najia asked finally, turning to Shane.

“I’m not quiet.”

“You’re quiet,” Maru confirmed.

Shane glanced up in the rear view mirror, meeting her gaze briefly before turning his eyes back to the road. “Well, excuse me,” he said in a mocking voice. “What do you want me to say?”

“Hi,” Najia said. “Welcome back. How was your trip?”

“It sounded exciting.”

“You missed out. The city is beautiful this time of year.”

“I bet. Full of evil, glowing eyes.”

“We met Nox,” Najia said casually, though he already knew.

“You don’t say?” Shane was really phoning in the sarcasm now. “Well, gosh, that sounds swell.”

“He invited us for tea.”

“Did he now?”

“And then threatened to end our lives.”

“That Nox,” Shane said, pushing the sarcasm further, a fake grin plastered on his face. “Always been a jokster.”

“What’s the deal with that sword, anyway?” Maru asked.

Najia sighed. “He wants it so we can’t use it to bring the light back.”

“No, not that one,” Maru said. “The one he had.”

Najia looked out the window, ignoring Shane’s glare. “The Obsidian Sword,” she said simply. “The dark sword.”

“Dark and light? What is this, a video game? Good versus evil?”

Najia shrugged. “Something like that.”

“Rasmodius will take care of that,” Shane said. “Right?”

He suspected. He always did. There wasn’t hiding anything from him. “Right.”

And he wasn’t about to let it go, either, when they got back to the valley.

“Can we stop playing this game?” Shane said to Najia as he followed her back to the farm.

“There’s no game,” Najia said simply.

“You’re hiding something like you always do.”

Najia turned to him and pinched her lips together. “I promise, I’m not. Okay?”

He didn’t look convinced, but his face softened. “Fine,” he muttered.

“Did you even miss me?” Najia pressed playfully.

Shane scoffed. “Not at all. The peace and quiet was nice.”

Najia rolled her eyes. “I bet it was.”

Shane shrugged. “It was a little weird without my sidekick.”

Najia raised an eyebrow. “Oh, yeah? I’m the sidekick?”

“The Robin to my Batman.”

Najia shook her head. “No, no, I don’t think so. You’re totally Aqua Man.”

“Aqua Man sucks,” Shane whined. “How about Iron Man?”

“You wish you were Iron Man.”

Shane smirked. “Yeah, that would be great.”

“I’m Batman,” Najia said sternly. “You’re the Boy Wonder.”

“Okay,” Shane said in an attempt to negotiate. “How about, I’m Superman, and you’re Lois Lane.”

“Lois Lane isn’t even a super hero,” Najia said. “I’d be Wonder Woman. She don’t need no man to save her.”

“Fine,” Shane said. “Go take a ride in your lame ass invisible plane.”

Najia smirked. “Well, I missed this,” she said. “Maru and Sebastian spent most of the time arguing with each other.”

“What do you want me to say? That I was worried about you? ‘Cause I wasn’t.”

Najia shrugged. “Fine, you weren’t. I don’t care.”

“I didn’t think you wanted me to be.”

“I don’t.”

“Okay, then.”

“Fine.”

“I think this is the part where you kiss me,” Shane said.

Najia wrinkled her nose. “Why would I do that?”

“Why not?”

“You just want to get laid,” Najia said. “Playing your little mind games so you don’t-”

Shane’s lips pressed against hers for a moment before he pulled away.

“Is this what we do, now?” Najia muttered.

“I missed -”

Najia pressed her lips into him. “Shut up,” she muttered against him.

Shane wrapped his arms around her, pulling her close as tiny snow flakes began to fall around them.

69: 60
60

The rest of the winter was uneventful, quickly melting away into another spring. Without much to do, they entertained themselves with games and drinking. Harvey took advantage of the lull to educate them on quick medical training in case something should happen while they were out on a raid of some sort.

After a few weeks since she sent the bot on its mission, Maru had taken to waiting for it in the valley to return to the coordinates she had programmed into it. With each passing day, she grew more and more anxious for its return. Without the convenience of internet and other once modern amenities, she had no way to keep in contact with the device and help guide it through any problems.

This must have been how the people in their space program felt: constantly wondering when their probe would reach its destination and turn on for the first time, bringing them new information they never had access to before. She never considered herself to be a religious person, but she found herself praying to Yoba every night for her bot to return safely. Anything to help in this war and, most of all, prove her worth in the valley.

“How’d I know I’d find you out here?”

Maru recognized Penny’s voice immediately and a sense of calm washed over her. Penny always knew just how to make Maru feel better. She turned to Penny and smiled.

“Anything?” Penny asked as she looked out over the valley.

Maru shook her head. “Not today, I guess,” she said softly, a pang of disappointment in her gut.

Penny let her fingers reach for Maru’s hand at her side. “It will come.”

“Maybe,” Maru said, hesitant. “But its more likely that it was destroyed weeks ago and I’ll just never know.”

“We’ll find another way,” Penny said in an attempt reassure her. “We always do.”

“This is the one way I can help in this war,” Maru said. “We need the information from that bot. We’d have a map of the sewers the Shadow People are using. We’d have video footage, audio footage - that thing could have collected top secret information that we need to win this war. Without it, we have nothing,”

“You’re putting way too much pressure on yourself,” Penny said. She squeezed her hand.

“Everyone is relying on this bot. On me.” Maru turned away from her and sighed. “For once, I could prove to Sebastian that what I do isn’t stupid.”

“I don’t think he’s ever thought it was stupid,” Penny said. “He wouldn’t have gone with you into the city if he didn’t think your drones would help.”

Maru stared at the device in her hand, waiting for the little light at the end to glow, an indicator to when the bot was in range. The light died quickly after the bot was released into the sewers. Maru felt so sure it would light up again.

“You’ve been out here all day,” Penny said. “Come back and get something to eat.”

Maru felt defeated every time she walked away from that spot in the valley. With every passing day, it was less and less likely it would return to her. Maybe it was time she face reality and accept the fact that the bot didn’t survive. She knew the chances were slim; she just hoped there was a chance at all.

Maru pulled her hand out of Penny’s and trudged through the brush, sliding down the cliff she had been standing on. She lost her balance, her feet sliding out from under her, and she tumbled the rest of the way down. The radio in her hand bounced away and ricocheted off a rock.

Maru scrambled to her feet and hurried to the device, her stomach twisting as she picked it up off the ground. It was cracked down the middle and the antenna was bent and mangled. Her heart sank as she inspected it. It was broken. If there was any chance that her bot had returned to the valley, she may never know.

Maru fell to her knees and sobbed. The radio dropped from her hands, back onto the ground, lying in the tall, brown grass. Penny dropped to her side, pulling her into her arms in an attempt to comfort her.

After a moment, Penny stiffened. Her arms fell away from Maru and she pulled at her hand. “Maru,” she said quickly, then louder, “Maru!”

Maru turned to Penny, then followed her gaze to the radio lying in the grass. The light at the end began to glow softly for a moment. As the minutes passed, it brightened until it flashed erratically, signaling the bot’s return.

Maru leapt to her feet, scooping up the radio, staring at it in her hands. She looked out over the valley, searching for some sign of the little bot. It was close - Maru just had to find it.

“Help me,” she called to Penny as she hurried into the valley. Her eyes scanned the ground by her feet as she stepped carefully so as not to step on the little bot.

They swept the area as best as they could, making sure to cover every inch in a fifty foot radius, and then some. It was well over an hour before Maru stumbled across the bot, a little worse for wear, but still going strong.

Maru cradled the bot in her hands lovingly as tears trailed down her cheeks. “It’s here,” she said. “It worked.”

*****

Najia peered into the window of the community center. Maru’s face was lit by the warmth of candle light and the cool glow of her laptop screen. She was completely focused on her work, oblivious to the people outside staring in at her.

“How long has she been in there?” Najia asked.

“Since the bot got back,” Penny said. “Going on sixteen hours.”

It was relatively early in the morning. Their stomachs were growling for breakfast, but no one dared enter the building where Maru had spent the entire night analyzing the data the bot had collected.

“She needs a break,” Najia muttered. “Someone needs to go in and pull her away.”

“She won’t budge,” Penny said. “She’s hyper-focused on that thing. Won’t stop until she knows everything she needs to know.”

“That’s almost two months of data,” Shane said. “That will take forever.”

Najia opened the door quietly, poking her head inside. “Maru?” She approached the round table in the middle of the room, standing on the other side. “You should eat something.”

Maru’s eyes were plastered to the screen, wide and red and exhausted. Large sheets of paper were spread out around the table. Her eyes shifted from the screen to the paper. She jotted down her notes quickly before returning to the laptop. She stood quickly at that moment, knocking the chair over onto the ground.

“Look,” she said simply, pointing at a large sheet.

It was, in fact, a large map of the country, yellowed and faded. Handmade colored lines were drawn over it as if representing a chaotic underground city.

The others had trailed in at this point and they gathered around the table as they peered at the map.

“These green lines are the sewers,” Maru explained. “The red ones are where they continue, likely expanded on by the Shadow People.”

The red lines continued where the green lines left off, connecting cities and towns together, providing an underground road system from coast to coast. The only place the makeshift sewer system did not reach was Stardew Valley. In fact, the red lines seemed to stop just at the edge of the mountain range. Maru pointed at the dead end red line.

“This was much shorter when the bot left,” she explained. “On its return, the line had gotten longer. They’re making their way into the valley.”

“Great,” Alex muttered. “Just what we need. A surprise underground attack.”

“Not a surprise,” Abigail pointed out. “We know about it, now.”

“What are we supposed to do about it?” Sam asked.

Maru shook her head quickly, her heart racing, a result of a severe lack of sleep, too much coffee, and valuable information she had left to reveal to them. “There’s more,” she said anxiously as she moved back to her laptop. “Listen.”

They moved closer as Maru typed and clicked at her laptop, loading audio footage. The speakers cracked for a moment, muffling the voices before they came in a little clearer. They immediately recognized two things at that moment: the familiar hiss of a Shadow Brute, and a human voice.

The hissing began the conversation on the recorded audio. Their eyes turned to Najia, waiting for her to translate. Najia squinted in an attempt to hear better.

A human voice followed. “My men are in the valley at this moment.”

A hissing followed.

“You just do your part, and I’ll do mine.”

Angry hissing. Najia’s eyes widened as she listened. Her heart raced.

“Don’t fuck this up, Nox, or your people won’t make it out of these sewers ever again.”

“What happened?” Shane barked at her. “What’s going on?”

Najia hesitated as the audio began to crackle once more and the voices disappeared. “That was Michaels,” she said, her voice shaking. “Michaels is working with the Shadow People.”