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The Final Wanderer

 

 

THE FINAL WANDERER

 

 

By

Ross Ray

 

 

SMASHWORDS EDITION

 

 

The Final Wanderer

Copyright © 2015 by Ross Ray

 

 

This book is a work of fiction. All characters, organizations, and events portrayed in this story are either products of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously.

 

All rights reserved. No part of this publication can be reproduced or transmitted in any form by or any means, electronic or mechanical, without permission in writing from the author.

 

 

More From Ross Ray to come…

 

 

  • * * * *

 

 

Once upon a time, there was a boy called Robin. He was loving, obedient; a social butterfly who lightly fluttered into every conversation as if it were a delicate flower. He saw life in all, and it was his many humble acts of genuine kindheartedness that got Robin to be not only know by all, but liked. His time with everyone was precious, and most proud of all was his father, King Cai.

“Takes after my side,” Cai would boast to his guards. “He’s the greatest thing that ever happened to me. And one day, he’ll rule my city with the heart of a true leader.” The guards listened with wide smiles and open minds. Robin was Cai’s pride and joy, but if he was to rule, Cai would have to begin treating him as a prince, not a son. Knowing this Cai took Robin to the highest lookout of his castle and shared the wealth of an aerial view.

“Wow!” Robin stammered as he looked over his father’s city, Navio. Horse drawn carriages and wagons lined between playing children and wandering hens, the lush green grass beneath them flowing like a carpet. “It’s so peaceful! They’re all so small from up here!”

“Yes,” King Cai gleamed, “and one day, Robin, you will guide them.” Cai patted his son on the head and beamed down his high expectations with a smile. After laughing, Robin continued to look about. “It’s a lot to take in. From up here, all of Naivo is yours to watch.” The king’s fingers aimed from church to barn, tavern to school, father to son. Robin’s ears absorbed the landmark lessons in his father’s rites of passage speech, but his eyes remained rouge and wandering. Life was such a gift to Robin; he saw it in everything.

As a wagon―one filled with the finest of crops―came through Navio’s gates, it occurred to Robin that something very vital from his life had been missing. He searched his heart for it, and then looked beyond Navio’s city walls into the rich healthy splendor of summer. He saw what appeared to be a family of five on the outside dancing in a circle.

“Father, my whole life I have been kept inside of Navio. Farmers and soldiers alike frequent visits here for plantation and protection, but why can’t I? Am I not of age? Do I lack?” Navio’s civilians had always remained safe and protected by the city’s walls by order of the King, but as a nearing adult, Robin felt it strange that he had never contemplated the wall’s specific purpose. Protection from what? All Robin could see from his father’s lookout were forests, prairies, one lake, and a five member family picnic.

Cai cleared his throat and said, “The walls don’t keep us in, Son, they keep other’s out.” Robin’s nostrils flared at this declaration, but Cai continued. “Navio is a healthy city. The people on the outside, those who are sick and homeless―”

“What?!” interrupted Robin. “There are sick and homeless people outside of Naivo? How can this be? You are king, father! Surely we can let them in? Are they suffering?” The purity inside of Robin was too bellowing to be reasoned with vocally. Wearing a scowl, King Cai wrapped an arm around Robin and pointed with his other.

“Look, Robin. Look at those five over the wall.” His finger aimed at the dancing family while his son squirmed.

“What about them? That they’re a sick health hazard to our city?”

Cai only sadly sighed, “No, Son. Just look.”

Robin pitied his father by closing the gap of the sun on his eyes with both hands and squinted. The five people were still dancing around, but this time Robin noticed that none of them wore cloths. He looked deeper. They weren’t dancing, they were stumbling. The smallest of the five fell over from exhaustion but did not get up. She instead kept moving her arms and legs as if she were upright. Two others fell on her, mindlessly tripping, and then the other two wandered away without a care in the world.

“They’re not human, Robin.”

The dog pile of three became wound like a pretzel. As they pulled apart, black lines streaked were skin tore.

The innocent prince jolted sideways and belched out his disgust in gags. Cai waited for it to pass. Many men acted this way the first time they saw the things outside.

“If they’re not human,” Robin stuttered, “then what are they?”

Cai spoke firm, with authority. “Before my reign―beginning with your great grandfather’s, the man whom you are named after―they were referred to as wanderers. The human shaped beings outside of Naivo wander aimlessly with various forms of leprosy and senselessness. They can’t talk, just as they can’t be reasoned with. They are all coldblooded animals. Merging them with humans only results in agony.” Robin felt an absence of his father’s presence. He looked from the balcony to see his father’s back. “That is how my grandfather died. He believed that the wanderers could be helped. He thought that with time, everyone, even those outside the walls, would show their good side if only given the chance.” Cai turned slowly, revealing glassy eyes. “On an expedition to prove himself, you’re great grandfather tried befriending a group of wanderers. We feared that he would get sick, become contaminated just by looking at them, but instead the group bit off his fingers when he strayed close and then began feasting on him. I was only a child when it happened. I watched the whole thing from over my father’s shoulders as he raced me, himself, and the soldiers who had been under the king’s order not to attack under any circumstance. They ate him alive. Not an ounce of humanity was in their eyes.” Cai’s finger pointed over the ledge, and this time Robin followed intently. They watched the life of Navio thrive. “No one deserves a fate such as that, but it was his foolishness that got him killed. There is no good in the hearts of those on the outside, not a shred, and for that reason alone we address them accordingly.” Cai’s son felt the burning embers of a stare on his side. Robin pushed up from the lookout and faced his father, all four eyes reverent. “They are called zombies, son, and it is up to you and I to make sure none of them get into Navio.”

 

In the days following Cai’s lecture, Robin watched the living beings on both sides of Navio’s wall co-exist from afar in the sky. He spent his time fascinated by the concept of evil and its rootless virtues, curious as to how it had swallowed his grandfather―literally.

“He must have seen something,” reasoned Robin. “A king never throws away his life for no reason. There has to be more, something we’re missing.”

“There is not!” roared the king. “For years I have pondered my grandfather’s logic, and always I have turned up nothing more than common sense: He was an old, dying, senile King who wanted nothing more than for everyone to live in peace. He was once valiant, only to end up old and weak.” Cai washed away his anger with a wave of his hand and shook his head. “Come with me, Son. There is more you need to see. Something I should have shown you long ago.” They exited Cai’s castle and walked into downtown Navio. Only when they were both on separate horseback did Robin dare to ask what was happening. “You and I are going on a little ride.” They neared Navio’s front gate, but even before it began winding open, Robin could already anticipate and clung desperately to himself to contain his excitement. “I hope to teach you many things today, Son, but most important of all is that you see for yourself what I saw when I was less than half your age.”

Robin had ridden up and down Navio many times by horseback, never truly wondering what it would be like to ride outside of the city’s walls. Now that he was out, he searched frantically for his father to see him just ten feet ahead, slowly trotting down the only dirt road. Robin raced to his side.

“Over here goes to the farmlands, and just past that path leads to the first outpost,” Cai said as the duo trekked into their thirtieth minute from home. “We have several outposts, Son. They stand to serve as warnings in case of a fire or oncoming attacks. Most recently with our towers, we’ve found that the soldiers who―”

“Attacks?” the teenage prince screetched. “The zombies attack? First you hide their existence from me, and now you tell me that towers are built just to serve as warnings for when they attack? How have I never heard of this? How have I never heard them?” Cai pulled back on his reigns. Robin braked after passing, and when he looked back, his father’s eyes were fierce and glowing.

“Have you not been listening? Have you not heard a single word from my mouth?” He didn’t wait for an answer. King Cai dismounted his horse tied the reigns. Robin hopped from his to only be confronted Cai as his feet hit the floor. “These things have no function or purpose in life. They eat,” Cai unsheathed his sword, “and they die.” He handed it to Robin.

“Father, I can’t―”

“But you can, Son. You can, Prince.”

Peaceful protest fluttered in the lungs of Robin. His world was caving in; everything he knew about Navio and prosperity was a fib. He had become accustomed to the bliss that came with living in ignorance, but now he worried that all royalty and knighthood would be absent in the curious being beneath it. He feared he was someone’s great grandchild more than he was someone’s loyal son.

The sword shook in Cai’s grip. Robin reluctantly obtained it.

“I was going to take you to a camp not far from here, was going to teach you how to wield.” The king grinned as Robin glanced around, searching for the owner of the moans drifting their way. “But now, I think it would be better if I taught you outside, away from others.” Robin finally saw it. The being was thirty feet away. It stood on its heels and bobbed back and forth with each groan. Finally, it saw Robin.

The naked man’s skin was pale and chapped like the dry bones of a decomposing rat. His penis was lopped and misshapen like a melting candle, giving it a concave complexion that dipped into negative inches. There appeared to be four bellybuttons; all were dripping. Chest hairs with nothing to grasp snapped from his body as he wandered a random step sideways. Robin thought he saw more hair fall from the armpits, but that was instead thin flakes of skin that mimicked thinly sliced cheese falling from a grater and smelling of mold. Bristling needles of loose placed teeth wiggled in his mouth as he sucked for air. Robin watched them dance only to witness one fall into the man’s black throat and become swallowed. This didn’t faze the wandering bag of bones. If anything, it gave him the much needed strength to simply stand without passing.

King Cai guided Robin forward with a gentle yet firm palm to his back. He pushed lightly and spoke in undertones. “A zombie wants nothing more than to eat. Use two hands. Bring it down in a quick, clean slice. The head works best, but the heart is just as effective.” The blade wobbled through Robin’s fingers as they inched closer. By ten feet, the prince was near close to panic. “Look it into its eyes, Robin. Look for its nonexistent soul.” Two black marbles shooting grey squares of sun glistened yellow rolled in the man’s skull like ball bearings. Robin began searching, genuinely searching, and attempted diving deep into the mind of what lingered before him. He tried so hard that tears trickled down his cheeks. “Nothing… It’s always nothing with zombies.” It blinked, and with its mouth agape, looked from father to son. If there was an emotion to be seen, Robin saw it: confusion.

The trio stood in an acute triangle for what felt like hours to Robin. Cai ordered him to strike, but neither would comply. The prince remained frozen, his father’s blade the only shaking part of his whole, and the naked man on edge, looking unsure as to what was happening, what would happen. Cai barked the order one final time before telling Robin that he expected more.

With the fists that bottled up all emotions tied to his grandfather, King Cai slammed forward with a charging straight that wrapped around into a spinning uppercut. The naked man’s teeth flew like pebbles, as did his eyes like marbles. The rotting body of malnourishment heaved an inhale that folded his throat flat enough for Cai to smash as a window pane. It shattered like one, too, and even after the decapitated body spread its arms and puffed to the ground, Cai remained above, expunging all remaining pieces of life from it.

The king snatched back his sword and the two rode back in silence, only one of them casually omitting the occasional moan or snarl coming from the thickets deeper inside the forest.

That night, Robin had his first nightmare. It would repeat over the next week, always ending with him in sweat reflecting over the haunting fact of who always swung first in his vision.

Brief days with restless nights whizzed by in silence as the only two royalties kept their distance. Robin would wander the streets of Navio with little to nothing on his mind until a casual bump of a stranger awoke him. All those who ran into him feared not a wrongful execution. He was the most beloved of all the bloodline. A shining star among men; a bringer of peace.

When Robin felt he had wasted enough of his life in blank walks and empty talks, he reunited himself with his father.

“I was beginning to worry about you, Son. Thought you were going softie on me.” His son urged him that it was only the shock of seeing his first zombie, but even Cai could see there was something more to his words. They were light, swift and precise. Cai spoke with a prose that made everything flowing from his mouth seem calculated. “You sure you’re ready for another go, Robin? I may have been too abrupt with you. I’m sorry if it affected you.”

“No,” said Robin. “I was affected in that I now have a booming urge to protect and serve Navio.” The prince caught a glimmer of sunlight that flicked his eyes to his feet. It was a forced excuse to hide the slightly showing grimace that came with a half-lie as he mumbled, “I am against violence and will stand to make sure no one dies.”

Cai instructed Robin that severe training was needed if he ever dreamed about taking charge, and on that note, the family of two re-saddled up and left Navio for Camp Cai, the location of training for all of Navio’s knight’s coming of age stories.

“I went to this exact same camp when I trained as a boy,” declared Cai. “Back then, though, it was called Living Quarters. You’ll see what I mean.” Their horses walked on with a silence replicating Robin’s. Cai’s lips drooped. “Robin, I’m really am sorry for killing that zombie the way I did. I just… You need to know, Robin. You need to know right now, right here, that there is nothing pure, nothing even remotely human left in those walking corpses. Not a trace of humanity―over all the years of my life―have I once seen in a zombie. They are unable and unwilling to show redeemable traits. They will stop at nothing to kill you. And if they ever did―”

The forest leading to Camp Cai was just as barren as it was calm; not a single zombie in sight. Robin pictured himself in the eye of a deadly storm, hoping not to be forced to attack. This pushed Robin to spark out a conversation drenched in curiosity that had been bugging him since he and his father had last left Navio.

“Father, you said there were towers, outposts built to guard our city. How often do the zombies attack? And how did you decide on where the towers were to be built?”

Cai gave Robin’s words much consideration. Robin nearly asked again before Cai lightly voiced out, “The last attack on Navio’s walls was under my father’s reign. It was a herd. His men weren’t ready. They were all too worn out from the surprise attack the day prior. The zombies came at our walls mercilessly, slamming into the brickwork as if it would somehow open with stupid brute force.”

“There was a surprise attack?” asked Robin. The prince’s eyes marveled at the concept, and then noted potential deceit. “I thought you said they were all brain-dead? Surely they would have been incapable of such an attack. Sneaking would require intellect, most likely human in nature, yet another thing they lack.”

“The zombies? Oh, no, they didn’t surprise attack us. We surprise attacked them.” Cai’s mouth reeked of patriotism. It made Robin’s nose wrinkle in disgust. “My dad got ‘em right in the heart, in one of their caves. He and his men had been following them, tagging the zombies with notes and labels. This lead to the discovery of their cave that nested hundreds upon thousands of zombies. My dad found and seized it. He set it aflame, trapping them all on the inside. When the fire ended, he thought them all to be dead, so you can imagine the surprise on his face when he woke up the next day to hear his walls shaking with the fists of nearly ten thousand unburned zombies with their rotting minds set on retaliation.” Cai’s lips curled with the pleasure he got in retelling his father’s tale of heroism and bravery. It had been years. “Finally decided on dropping rocks. When they ran out, the gates opened and all his men poured out. Through all the screams and gore, all the flying swords and knives and arrows and especially limbs, take a guess at how many of my father’s men died. Go on! Take a guess! How many fatalities?” Robin’s hidden disapproval shook, and Cai screamed, “Not a single one! My father lead his men into what could have been Navio’s final push, and no one, not even the horses, took a single injury!” King Cai removed the sweat clogging his brow with a quick flick and gave a half-hearted attempt at masking his excitement. He was breathing heavily, deeply. “The Purge is what that battle was called. You’ll learn all about it in camp. It’s a crowning achievement in Navio’s history. So significant was it to our people that the walls have never been attacked again, ever.” His lungs sighed and his heart feathered. “That’s why we’ve got to be ready. Prevention is always the best medicine.”

Robin had many words zipping through his head―massacre and slaughter belonging to third and second place―but above all the words his father’s story had triggered, one lay in loop with consistent sharp slaps to his face every time it replayed with the King’s voice echoing inside Robin’s thoughts. The prince spoke.

“Grandfather attacked a colony of zombies, their own cave shaped city, unprovoked and without reason other than to purge.” The abrasive gathering of pauses with each separate rung of Robin’s sentence made Cai grit his teeth. His son’s tempo was stern, calm and demanding of attention. It was as if the eighteen-year-old was lecturing. “You said a word, Father, in the middle of your story that strung me. You claimed the zombies retaliated, that they attacked and―”

“They did retaliate,” fumed Cai. “They are all mindless killing machines just conscious enough to know when they’ve messed with the wrong city. They attacked, we won, they died.”

Robin breathed in with his nose lightly, not wanting to sound anything like the angry red spectacle his father was turning into. There was much more Robin wanted to say, but uneasiness was convoluting the core of the conversation. Hinting at a young ambition found only in the still growing minds of teens who must always have the last word, Robin whispered to his dad in a gust-less tone that he wondered if his father even heard.

“The dimwitted do not retaliate, nor do the intelligent provoke.”

Camp Cai’s military grade means of training is what the King hoped would cleanse his child into manhood, but when the two finally reached its moat, King Cai’s steaming eyes and churning belly foreshadowed at potential hazards along the way. As ulcers formed, his fingers combed down the nape of his horse’s mane searching for something rational to cling on to. He didn’t want a killer, but wouldn’t tolerate sympathy.

The gate to the camp opened. “You’ll be camped here for a week. The men on the inside are good people, ones you can trust. They’ll help you, all you need to do is ask.” Robin rode onto the wooden entrance wordlessly. “Son, you know I love you, right?”

Knights in battered leather wrapped with fingernail deep cuts came from the gate and stared to their newest member as he turned around and asked, “Yeah?”

 

Robin and a reasonable sized handful of other teenage cadets with mixed emotions clustered under a tent made of hide and began to chit-chat. Robin spoke with his ears, voicing internal objections when he learned that most of the kids wanted nothing more than to satisfy their cravings for blood.

The first instructor was Desmond. He addressed the tent as the starting point for each soldier’s journey, promising years of following bravery and chivalry. “The passage into manhood starts with a single step. A single stab. A single thought. Everything you do from now on will determine the kind of person you become. Your worth, everything about yourself, will be tested here at Camp Cai, and I’d like to start it by requesting a volunteer.” Adolescence arms belonging to all but Robin shot up as flames. A bitter, collective anger churned deep within Robin, allowing sweat to bubble his face. He wanted to speak, but what would he say? Who would listen? Robin knew what insanity was―opinions deemed crazy against majority rule―and in feeling alone, the prince kept tongue tied.

Desmond eyed Robin before choosing a much larger child to rise to his call. When the pudgy teen went to Desmond’s side, he received a spear with serrated edges. As all the children ogled the stick of simplicity, Desmond snuck from the tent only to return with a woman in chains. She wore a thin sun dress of decaying white that hid the blisters and stab wounds on her skin. Desmond held her like a slave, dragging her when she stumbled.

“This, is a zombie,” Desmond rehashed. “She has no brain, no emotions, no sense of feeling or any signs of decency. There is nothing in her eyes but the black of hatred dipped in hunger.” Desmond’s free arm floated to the woman’s mouth, teasing at a morsel of nourishment, and then sank when she opened her mouth. “If I unchain her right now, how many of you think you’d be able to kill her?” Many uneven seconds dripped down onto the kids as all who were once brave showed their true courage by remaining silent, obedient, controllable. “No one then?”

Robin glared to Desmond and saw a killer bred to hunt and seasoned to teach. On his left and right, eager children with desires to slay―in groups―those weaker than themselves yet too cowardly to be anything more than a flock of sheep in metal armor rolled their fingers in idle, awaiting to be told how to gut.

“It’s looping,” thought Robin. “Hatred is leaking through the generations, being taught, and the only things changing are the blades.” The children by his shoulders all possessed clenched fists. “History is repeating itself…”

Flickers of sunlight pestered Robin as he scowled at his peers in the tent. Then, a shout. It came from the zombie woman as the spear impaled her chest. The reflective sun in her eyes diminished. All life was gone.

“Very good!” Desmond cheered. He dropped the deadweight chain and went to the killer’s side. The pudgy teen’s face was a red tomato with enough cold sweat to deem it refrigerated. He barely noticed when Desmond helmed the spear from him and removed it from the corpse’s body. “What’s your name, boy?”

“Bainter.”

“Bainter? What the hell kind of name is that?”

The chubby kid frowned. “It is my name, sir.”

Desmond tore a deep laugh from his gut and patted Bainter on the scalp. He liked the cadet’s spunk, and after one more round of quick questioning, he announced Bainter the kid’s leader.

The rest of day one consisted of terminology and common sense guidelines that even the most uneducated of kids could assume. Robin ignored Desmond’s warnings. Robin was never going to get bit. Robin was never going to kill.

“Your father told me a lot about you, Robin,” said Desmond, later that night. He had removed the prince from the others who were joking in mess hall, exchanging heroic fables of exaggerations stemming from their father’s and how many zombies each had killed. “Cai said he was concerned about you. Didn’t think you had what it takes.”

A fire much hotter than Robin’s discontent raged into anger, and the prince said, “For what? Murder? Am I unmanly for wishing not to partake in this forced freak show? Is it that wrong to aspire not to rob life?”

Desmond only smiled. “I used to be just like you. When I was your age, I was tilling dirt and watching over the entirety of my father’s plantation. I had inherited the farm. My father was ripped apart by a zombie.” Robin forced himself into a respectable stance. He went from hearing to listening. “He was out of Navio transporting bushels. His best friend was with him, and in the ten seconds it takes to piss, he watched from the wagon as a zombie lunged on my dad and pinned him down. It didn’t matter that the zombie was falling apart; he outweighed my dad, and that’s all it took.” There was no sorrow in Desmond’s voice, only acquired wisdom. “Everyone in Camp Cai has a story, kid. You’ll get yours soon enough. Just wait.”

 

When the sun rose and Robin awoke from a nightmare involving a merciless dictator with bear claws for hands, he was greeted at bedside by Bainter.

“I’m the captain,” he said, “and Desmond told me to keep an eye on you.”

“I am the heir to the throne,” said Robin, “and you are but a speck of shit keeping me from breakfast.”

After a silent meal of bold stares and threatening gestures, the kids were lead out of Camp Cai’s walls and taken to a prairie field hidden in the heart of the adjacent forest. Each child was given a spear. Where the trees collided with grass was a shed, and when Desmond opened it, naked people all in shackles stumbled out.

“Today, you will be hunting.” Desmond held the shed’s inhabitants at bay with his spear acting as a post, grounding the lead chain deep into Earth. “Bainter, for every team member, I want you to assign one zombie. It is up to all of you to find and kill ONLY your zombie once I release them and bring its body back here, to the shed. For whoever finishes first, an extra ration will be provided. For the unfortunate sap who comes in last, you will provide said ration.” Everyone, teacher included, looked at Robin. The prince fumed silently, not wanting to submit to whatever rumors were already spreading about him.

By default, Bainter was given the most versatile looking zombie. After assigning the bulk, he walked to Robin and barked, “Looks like you’ll get the runt, Robin. Or is that too difficult for you?”

She appeared to be no older than nine years old. Her hair was matted and parting, long enough to cover her non-existent breasts yet too thin to shield them from perverted eyes. The child’s black eyes wandered. Her fingers clicked in spasms as she tried to comb her hair, but when it began falling, she hugged herself and began trembling.

The chains fell and a belated warcry shot out from Desmond as the zombies exited for the forest. “Begin!”

Eager killers charged out as one wave of absolute authority while Robin trailed behind. To Robin, the moans of the hunted reverbed agony hidden in grunts. He watched them sigh out their last wisp life while everyone else watched them snarl out in anger before dying.

As the prince passed peers struggling with the best method for body transportation, Bainter, wielding his trophy over his shoulder, smiled at Robin and sneered, “Your dinner’s going to feel great in my belly.” In the greenery of the forest’s battlefield, the nude little girl with dying hopes wandered past a bush, obscuring Robin’s view. “Better hurry up, hole licker.”

His spear drug a thin trail in the dirt as Robin tiptoed nearer to her bush. The trail became deeper as his spear became heavier. Next were Robin’s footsteps. They too sank deep into the Earth as Robin attempted to balance the weight that came from the actions he would have to perform.

Peering through its leaves, Robin pushed through the bush and searched for his girl. She was nearly out of sight, her loose hair blowing furiously in the wind as she stumbled ahead in an acquired limp from the chains that once bound her. The way her arms flailed; the sudden jerky movements of her hips as she raced in a hobble; the demeanor of her only escape.

She spun back. When she saw Robin, she shivered immensely.

“Hey,” Robin lowered his spear and raised his arms, slowly. “It’s alright, it’s okay. I’m not going to hurt you. Everything’s all fine.” Still the girl trembled, but strong was Robin’s will for peace. “I’m not going to do anything. I won’t hurt you. I promise.” His left foot rose. The girl took off. “Slow down! I just want to talk! Everything’s good!”

But everything was not good.

The chase lasted thirty seconds. It took both of them through the trees and up a hill. When the girl reached the top, there was a scream. When Robin caught up, there were gags of disgust.

In her panic, the child had fled with wandering eyes that snapped shots of Robin every other second. When she got to the top and scanned back for her pursuer, she toppled forward and rolled down the broad side of a shallow―yet all the more lethal―cliff of twenty feet made of boulders. Her high pitched groan was still echoing when Robin looked down at her mangled body and coughed. The prince forced himself to look away, and only after holding down his breakfast did he muster up enough courage to look back. What he saw was worse than before.

With the nine-year-old’s snapped neck bleeding onto his left arm, a man wearing patchy brown with scattered leaves was hugging the child, crying, speaking.

“p… pwee… PLEASE! Please no!” He squeezed her limp remains as if he were a child finding his favorite teddy bear in the ashes of a fire. His muffled voice cracked and dripped out, “Karen, baby, come on now. Come on!” The arms loosened, and from them poured Karen like jello.

Others were coming: murderers.

The footsteps running to Robin were heavy, but he could not remove his eyes from the man’s skeletal exterior, now standing by Karen’s side. His ribs were shown and a stray bone protruded from his chest. The black eyes the man possessed stared into Robin, looking into the monster that killed his daughter, and then hobbled. When Robin could see him no longer, a strong blast to the back startled him back to life.

“Well well, looks like you managed to pull it off after all.” Bainter’s forced sarcasm made him appear more unintelligent than before, but Robin had no will to ridicule. Bridges were forming in Robin’s head, and he planned to Robin them very, very soon. “Better go get the body. There’s still other kids trying to kill their zombies. You might be able to eat tonight, if you hurry that is.”

Robin finished weaving his brain’s web of thoughts and growled, “You’re the captain. You do it.” Bainter leveled his feet and extruded his arms in an immature attempt to impress with showboating. As he flexed his arms, Robin spat in disgust, “I’m not even hungry,” and left the crime scene behind.

 

Outside of mess hall, Robin wandered the open training fields. His stomach growled with his anger.

“You sound starving,” chimed Desmond. Robin watched his teacher stride from mess hall. A biscuit was in his grasp. “Want it?”

“I don’t deserve it.”

“That’s not what I asked.”

Robin showed initial restraint with a frown, but the biscuit was gone in less than ten seconds. His belly cried for more.

“Your team captain has some colorful things to say about you,” said Desmond. “Care to defend yourself?”

“No.”

“Why’s that?”

“Futility.” Robin crossed his arms. “I don’t think you’ll truly listen to what I have to say, solely because of―”

“I’ve been thinking about you a lot, Robin. I’m trying to figure out just what I’m supposed to do with you.” Desmond stood directly before Robin, forced him into cold as granite eye-lock. “You came back with nothing, but Bainter clarified this for me. He told me that you killed your zombie, left her body at the bottom of a rocky ditch.” Desmond’s hands went to his hair and brushed it back. He sighed, “Did you kill her?”

Had he pushed her? No. Had she been running away from her pursuer and as a result stumbled down the broadside of a cliff?

“Yes.”

“But you didn’t. Bainter said there were no stab marks. You didn’t even have your spear when he found you. What the hell happened?”

“I chased her, and because I chased her, she died.” The biscuit in Robin’s stomach began to sink deep into his gut. It rolled back and forth like a cannon ball, sending tingles of regret through Robin as he contemplated what he had just said. “I’m a murderer.”

Dull, warm air bellowed into Robin as he discovered that Desmond was laughing at him. Robin bit his tongue, not wanting to go without rations for more than one night.

“Is a hunter not a murderer for killing deer? Is farmer not a murderer for taking the life from the plants he harvests?” These analogies only made Robin angrier, but Desmond he said, “I’ve murdered people, Robin. People. And I’ll tell you right now that whatever feelings of self-loathing you have for yourself are non-existent in the comparison to others, people who have truly killed.” The prince mulled this over as Desmond chuckled once more and began strolling away. He got halfway to mess hall and turned back when Robin finally spoke up.

“To compare myself to the low-minded barbarians that wander this camp with brains incapable of holding guilt is, if anything, juvenile to say the least, Desmond. I may have to learn the art of carving human shaped bodies, but as far as I’m concerned, you and all the other students need to learn the definition of mortality.” Visions of a so-called zombie clenching his daughter while speaking English flickered behind Robin’s eyes, but in them Desmond saw only rebellion. “I can teach you it, if you’re not too narrow minded, Desmond.”

Forced to retire the night early, Robin waited in his cot patiently while his peers finished up dinner. One by one, they veered into their beds from mess hall until only the captain remained. Bainter entered the barracks with an extra full gut. When he arrived to his cot, he plopped and held his stomach. There was no technical warning from the captain against absences, and there was also no one to talk Robin out of his nightly stroll.

Robin slipped by Bainter and his flock with ease, tiptoeing to the corner of camp where archery was taught. There, Robin climbed bushels of arrow-filled hay until his fingers could grasp Camp Cai’s wall. Using rope intended for novice arrows that seemed to Robin more like crutches than teaching utensils, the prince wrapped a bushel and tied. The rest of the rope belonged on Robin, and as he climbed the wall, he let it hang loosely around his shoulders until he finished scaffolding on the other side.

Before venturing off into the moonlit zombie terrain, Robin reflected on his actions. He contemplated the dangers he was putting himself in and teased the notion of retreat, but his thirst for knowledge was too strong and his passion for justice absolute. He dashed forward hoping to find the field they had trained in earlier but became too caught up in the happiness of his abandonment to focus. The optimism pumping throughout Robin kept him oblivious to his surroundings, and it was only after he caught himself from running off the very same ledge Karen had tumbled down earlier did he decide to pace himself. His pulse lowered with time only to rise when the moon became trapped behind a cloud. It was not the absolute blackness that stole away his security, rather the sounds of rustling leaves and his acknowledgement to the fact that he came ill-prepared and weaponless. If it was a zombie, Robin’s theory on humanity would be put to the ultimate test, and under the blanket of thin beaded sweat covering Robin’s face, the prince pondered the absolute certainty of his arguments. Closer still the rustling came, and then Robin’s fears bled into a furry figure either wolf or bear shaped.

Minutes passed. Robin remained motionless and curled up beside a tree, waiting for the footsteps to further dissipate. Snapping twigs and crunching leaves burned into a white noise of static; the being was leaving, it hadn’t seen Robin.

But Robin had seen it.

Karen’s father trundled along the slope of the cliff in a slouched style that radiated defeat and depression. His stagger walk bent backward at the knees every other step and Robin gasped every time the man lost his footing and nearly fell off the cliff side. Shadows of the forest hid the man as he continued his march, forcing Robin to follow. The prince kept a strong distance between himself and the man, but even when Robin could not see him, he had only to follow the cliff’s gradually steepening slope.

As time drifted, Robin declared to himself that this was the most exciting day of his life. The cliff was now at a considerably higher height, giving boosts of adrenaline to the Prince in addition to his already tiring pursuit. His heart quickened even more so as he followed the skeletal man out from the forest’s grasp onto an open expanse of grass and rock lying at the peak of the cliff, acting as a square of flat land that would be just perfect for a picnic under other circumstances. The man walked through this peaceful summit, not slowing down as he inched closer to the highest corner, his intended destination.

“Wait!” Robin’s voice was a pitch both shrill and dull at the same time. It cracked the surface of every animal’s consciousness within ears reach, but the blunt force behind the solo chocked word made all who felt it guess at if they really had heard a cry or merely imagined it from a sneeze of wondering thoughts. The man turned his head, revealing a face without a nose, and blinked. “Stop, just stop. Don’t keep walking. I don’t mean any harm. Look! I don’t even have any weapons!” Robin lifted his hands in the blue glow of night and rotated a slow three-sixty. When his circle was complete, he watched as the man became only two steps from the plunge. “Stop walking!” One step. “I know you can talk!”

His spine creaked back as straw and dangled his upside-down head in a wordless sigh. The black eyes in the head drooped down―technically up―as he licked his lips with a tongue of black.

“I know you can talk, and I know you’re not a zombie. In fact, you’re more human than a lot of people I know.” Robin went to reinstate the man’s worth but instead was left blank and dumbfounded at the man’s words which came first, accusing and dry.

“You who killed my Karen, will you ever know what it is to be human, to feel pain in the way I do, to lose all that you know?” He blinked, using his eyelids as suction cups for the balls that nearly fell from their sockets. “I didn’t think so.” The man with skin as leather allowed his legs to topple. They took him to the edge of the cliff and beyond.

“NO!” Robin lunged into a sprint that in any romanticized heroism would have left him holding the man up by the wrist, but Robin instead arrived at the edge of fate just in time to watch the man vanish into the darkness of treetops planted hundreds of feet below.

Dejected and weak, Robin trudged back along the cliff’s side in a style exactly as the man’s on the way up. There was much to be said, but no one would listen. The only key piece to the puzzle of all of Robin’s anxieties against violence had been tossed into the wind. The prince had nothing, and because of that alone, his word was nothing.

He found his way back to Karen’s scene and gazed down its rocky slide. “Not even thirty feet,” the curious prince murmured. He hoisted his legs over the side and tipped his feet onto a boulder larger than a horse. He applied his weight. The rock remained motionless. “Six, seven, eight,” counted Robin. There were eight boulders that lead from bottom to top, each one as coarse and thick as the last. He jumped down the rocky bubbles as a child crossing a shallow river, waving his hands in circles as he tried keeping his balance, and landed upright in the swaying grass at the bottom. The cliff’s giant wall of rock and dirt would lead a straight line to the man’s body, and so as he continued forward, he refused to let the absolute darkness that the cliff towered him in to scare him. All he had to do was walk. The man’s body would show up eventually, even if Robin had to look up in the treetops to find it hanging by strings of large and small tubes.

If there was a reason Robin was searching for the remains, he didn’t know it. His decent down the cliff was also one into denial. Choosing to risk his life on impulse with a hunch that seemed nonexistent was a mistake that should have been rewarded with surprise attack from a shadow covered shrub. But luck was on Robin’s side this particular night, and instead his endeavors were rewarded with dialogue.

The man was in a heap of skin and bone that connected to a neck with jagged scrapes surrounding it like tiger stripes. The face the neck was attached to had no eyes; they had swooped out in the fall. The weak jaw of a now nearly toothless frown of disdain was detached, but still the struggle of life trapped within the body shaped confines of degenerating skin managed to speak out in thin air that mimicked a leaking tire.

“Kill me, kill me, kill me, kill me,”

Robin walked to the mound of tree torn flesh and cradled the sightless head as if it were a pup. He spoke soothingly, nursing back the sanity he believed the head to once possess. “It’s alright,” Robin chanted, “just keep calm. Take slow, deep breaths. In,” he breathed, “and out,” he exhaled.

This process overtook a period of thirty minutes, and at no time was either Robin or his patient disturbed. They had no visitors, and aside from their therapeutic sputtering, not a noise was to be heard. They breathed as one in an empty forest absent of all other assumed life, natural or otherwise.

“Why won’t you kill me?” the head asked. “Please, you don’t know what it’s like. You never will.”

“Then tell me,” Robin said, “I want to know. I want to help. I didn’t come here to kill you.”

The man’s empty eye sockets seemed to sink into themselves. His lips parted disjointedly and hissed, “But you’ve killed before.”

Robin’s stomach clenched. “I was trying… I tried to talk with her. To reason. But she kept on running. I couldn’t stop her before―” What Robin held snapped its gums and bent at the neck. The loose head rocked back and forth as it tried to escape the prince’s clutch. It got much more than half way before the shock value wore off and left Robin flushed. He gently squeezed the head. Where his fingers touched, the skin sank. “You stop that! I have risked much more than just my free time to sneak out here and find you, and I’m not going to have you throw it all away like this! I’m sorry she died. It was out of my control. You think I wanted to kill her? You think I didn’t see the panic in her eyes?” The prince lightened his grip on the skin-covered mush his was pinning. “I don’t tolerate violence, sir. I fucking abhor it. But for me to come out here on a farce for peace that relies solely on the cooperation with a talking zombie just to have you try and squiggle away is infuriating enough to make me want to kill! I have no idea? You have no idea! My people want nothing more than to destroy you, so much so that they ignore all common sense and label you as brain-dead. They’re filled with such a collective hatred that I ponder if my beliefs are even worthwhile. And yet here you are! You and I, we can make others listen! We can change them.” Robin closed his eyes and forced his anger out through his nose. He breathed, “But before we do anything, I’m going to have to know your name.”

In his hands Robin felt the steady rhythm of a heaving sob. There were no eyes and of course no tears, but the man’s head rocked all the same.

“My name is Robin. I am the son of Cai, prince of Navio, and it is I who will bring peace to Earth.”

The legs of the man began to unwind. Robin set the head to the floor and stepped back as the rest of the body began to expand. The arms straightened with snaps and hammered down the ribs extruding from his chest as if they were merely nails. When both his legs and arms were done preparing, the man stood and realigned neck with head, griping the seams of flappy skin.

“My name is Goren, and I am the last wanderer.”

 

With the aid of Robin, Goren led them to a fallen tree. Robin was instructed to peel at the bark, and beneath lied a safe haven of topsoil and dirt. Goren laid in it as a vampire in a coffin, absorbing the worms and sighing in pleasure as they tickled his insides. Robin kept from showing his disgust, even with Goren’s eyes missing.

Goren’s nimble limbs flexed with a sneeze only to go limp once more. He bobbed his head in the dirt and asked the sky through his open tree casket, “Are you still there?”

“I’m here, Goren. I’m here.”

The old wanderer smiled. “I can’t remember the last time I talked to somebody, a human.” Goren’s smile was untouched. He reflected his past years with nostalgia. “Must have been at least fifty years ago. Back then things were different. The people were people. Life was easier. Simple.” Goren’s memories dipped back into days of farming and parenting. Robin did not split into Goren’s monologue, although when Goren paused at the remembrance of an old friend who also went by the name Robin, the prince seized his opportunity.

“Goren, where are you from? How can you talk?”

“My full name is Goren… Goren… Goren…” Like a record player he scratched in a loop. Robin touched his face to bring him back to life. “My name is Goren. I come from far, far away. Hundreds of farms. Thousands of miles. The city of… The city called…” A worm stuck out its head from Goren’s left eye socket while his bottom half wiggled out of the other. Revolting but somehow comical, Goren chuckled as he forced his lids shut and clamped the worm down into his noggin. “My Hometown. Hometown was a thriving city with schools, churches, bazaars, churches… I was a priest. I ran the Hometown Ministry. I kept the people from killing each other when Annalise came.”

Robin was now cross-legged and at Goren’s side. He squinted at the name Annalise and asked for more.

“It’s funny,” said Goren, “just how little I remember about Annalise. One day, she doesn’t exist, the next, she’s all that anyone’ll talk about.” Goren sat up from his bed of dirt and coughed up his worm. It flung like snot and slithered away into loose bark. “Hometown was living in peace until Annalise came. She just walked right into Hometown one day and started spreading rumors. She said she was a witch. Annalise claimed to have unholy powers, and she told anyone who would listen that she and her army of the undead would pillage Hometown flat to the ground if she could not speak to our king.

“After her arrest, our king went to visit her in the dungeon, privately. He came back out with eyes as blacker than coal, Annalise by his side, and a hunger that growled heavier than a wolf. He bit two guards. Everyone in Hometown began locking themselves indoors just to have Annalise and her minions break down the door. I and the closest of my followers were no different. We stayed bundled in my church, myself curled up in a confessional. When she came in, I witnessed her wrath firsthand. She took people by the throat, expelled black air from herself into them, and let them fall to the floor as if they were dolls. I thought at first she was sucking the life out of them, but they all stood up, pale and unsettled.”

Goren strayed from his tale and began crafting a tangent about his favorite assistant preacher, James. The assistant was in his twenties―less than half of Goren’s age at the time―and had no family. His mind and heart were pure in nature, but in the church, when Annalise came, he went mindless with one single toxic breath of rancid, black air. He ran to the only remaining survivor of Hometown and tore down the confessional’s door. The priest cried when James lifted him.

“I have no shame in admitting I cried. I was a different man then. I still feared death and the wrath that might await me on the other side.”

“But what happened next?” asked Robin.

“James held me in front of Annalise, and I too inhaled that unworldly buzzing black that poured from her lips.” Goren shivered. A pinky finger fell off. “It entered me like a gas. I felt every piece of my skin melt. The very fiber of my being dissolved.” He leaned in, making sure Robin heard every-single-syllable. “I choked, closed my eyes, and died. Everything went black, and I ceased to exist.” The man arose from his downed tree and took a step out into the forest. He ventured off down a hidden trail of cleared brush and patted dirt. Robin sprang after him when realizing Goren might not come back.

They traveled in silence. Goren’s dragging feet took Robin to an oasis of blue and green. Fish jumped for mosquitos in the small lake, their ripples leaving the whole body of water trembling. Goren picked up a flat rock and tossed it with a flick. It sank.

“That was about five hundred years ago, I think. Feels like forever.”

Robin wanted to ask for his age but thought better of it. Instead, he asked, “But you’re alive now?”

“Alive? Alive?” Laughter expelled from holes in Goren’s back. It sounded much rawer than the sounds scratching past his lips. “I’m still dead, Robin. I never woke up.” He began walking to the pond.

“Goren, I don’t know what to say.”

“I didn’t either, at first, but back then I believed in God.” Knee deep and sinking, Goren kept on walking, kept on talking. “I was a priest, and my dedication was rewarded with this ongoing hell that is my existence.

“Annalise? She’s from Hell?”

Goren disappeared into the water. No bubbles surfaced. Robin sat nervously in the dirt containing himself from diving in after him, but Goren came back up shortly, acting as if he had never taken the dip.

“There is no God, Robin. Therefore, there can be no Hell. That being said, my very existence is an everyday living Hell and Annalise is the devil. She planted malice into my heart, fueled it with those swarming black seeds of sin from her mouth, and she took control of me.

“After James fed me to her, I was blind and unconscious, but my body was not. I do not know what unspeakable evils this vessel,” Goren said, pointing to himself, “has committed, but it ranges from genocide to cannibalism. For everyone that Annalise took hold of, she manipulated. We were all at her disposal; undead grunts acting as soldiers to win a war with no cause: zombies.

“I heard the term from James.

“My first memory after dying is that of being smothered in hay. When I rolled out and checked my surroundings, I saw that I was in prairie with fences and skeletons. I wandered around for days, but somehow I had no hunger or thirst to abide to. I never had to relieve myself, never felt pain or ever got tired. I just simply existed, grey, emotionless, depressed.

“I found Hometown, but it wasn’t the same. The walls were down, the houses were empty, and bones from animals of all sizes littered the grass. And oh yes, hundreds of zombies were in the city, but none of them paid any attention to me. They were a horrible bunch to look at, but because they gave me no lip and walked right by, I minded my own business.

“James was in my church. Him and three other guys. About ten zombies or so, but him and three others like me.

“I approached cautiously. They must have thought I was still a zombie, but James was persistent. With the face of a monster, James asked me, ‘Goren? Goren is that you?’ and I responded, ‘What happened to us?’ my voice weaker than it is now.

“Since my death, about five-hundred years passed. James had been awake for fifty years. His three friends―Friend 1, 2, and 3―had come from other places and had been awake for much longer. Two-hundred years? James explained the zombies in simple terms, calling them controllable vessels for Annalise. Zombies can’t talk, can’t feel, can’t think. The whole lot of us, all five, were zombies at one point, but now we could walk around freely and give coherent conversations. James as well as his much older friends 1, 2, and 3 had no clue what was causing our condition, but they also had no complaints. They had been scavenging Hometown for nearly a year, collecting literature and artifacts from our original, natural, heritage. Antiques covered my pews, and with no room left, James told me that he and his friends were going to go to another city and start all over again, preserving history and―hopefully―finding others who could talk. I looked from myself to the skin of my new friends and the lingering zombies bumping into walls and windows. If they were zombies, what did that make us?”

“Wanderers,” said Robin.

Goren nodded. “So James and I left Hometown with his three friends and went on to wandering. After two cities and a few years, we began running in to large groups of wanderers. Apparently, there were more people, just like us. They weren’t cleaning up cities, though. They were joining forces.

“The leader of the largest group―maybe thirty or so―went by the name Shadow. We knew it wasn’t his real name, but we also didn’t care. It was more of a title than anything. Shadow had been a priest before Annalise, just as I, and he claimed to know all that was happening. He prophesized about it in visions―dreams. ‘I had another dream,’ Shadow once said as our league of wanderers sat up from our grassy beds. Zombies don’t sleep, and neither did we, but we could rest, and sometimes, sometimes we have dreams. ‘Annalise is getting weaker, she’s afraid!’ Everyone cheered on with him in low pitched grunts. He had been leading his group since the dawn of the wanderers, and his quest was a bold one: he would lead is own army of the undead onto Annalise, kill her, and break the curse once and for all.

“I asked Shadow about his dreams only after following under him for weeks. He responded with light air and optimism. I can see why so many people were following him. ‘My city was the first to be attacked by Annalise, and I was one of her first victims. My zombie-self followed her for long past the stretches of a human’s life span, and when I awoke, Annalise was talking to me. She pointed her fingers, snapped them, and told me to attack. I only looked at her, dumbfounded, ignorant and zombie shaped.’ Shadow then told me of Annalise’s complexion, old and haggled. ‘She looked much more like a witch. Her skin was pruned, grainy and dry like ash. When I did not respond to her attack, she went to the humans before her and possessed a man with her black breath. Instead of turning, the man blew up. His blood filled the room in one loud pop, and as I watched Annalise gag and topple backwards, I saw something else in her skin: age.’ No one knows how long Annalise has been alive, but since my Hometown’s falling, nearly half of a millennium has passed. I never joked about occults or witchcraft as a priest, but as a child I always heard stories of witches that lived to be hundreds of years old and ate up bad little boys who ran away from home. I never gave such hocus-pocus any real thought until after meeting Shadow. ‘Annalise is dying. Every night I dream, I feel her. I sense what little power she has left in me, and it tingles.’ Every night, that tickle would get weaker. Annalise was giving in to old age, and as she lost her power, she lost control. ‘There are more and more wanderers just like us born every day, Goren, and until we kill Annalise, that is all we’ll be.’

“Shadow led us to a cave. We camped there for a month. Shadow never had another dream.

“As the years went by, we were forced to deal with a new problem: our fortified tier of three-hundred plus wanderers were becoming heckled by zombies. They never attacked, but on more than one occasion had we caught them surrounding fellow wanderers and staring. Just staring. It scared Shadow, but I saw through what was happening.”

By now, Robin and Goren were a mile from the pond. Robin had been following blindly, and as they reached a pile of rocks, the prince tripped and smacked his head. No blood surfaced, and Robin chased up after Goren who had not stopped talking.

“They weren’t zombies anymore. They were different. You could see it in their faces. They looked dead, they couldn’t talk… they were zombies, yet under the glaze of their eyes was a flicker. A reflex. They responded to movements―in a not-so-wobbly kind of way―and better yet, they responded to my voice.

“I gave one a name. I adopted her shortly after…”

Goren stopped walking.

“You saw what I saw, right?” Robin asked. His words trailed off into the night. He waited for anything and got nothing. “They’re not zombies. They’re not rabid flesh eating monsters. They’re humans. Humans trapped behind a veil of rotten skin. They can feel fear just as much as you and me. I saw it, and you saw it too, didn’t you?” Goren sat. His feet clicked at the ankles. “Why can’t they see it? Why can’t anyone else?”

“It took Shadow a while, but with time he came around. We began harboring them. What else could we do?” Goren let himself fall back into the dirt. His head turned unnaturally far to the left, but words still poured from his lips. “They weren’t zombies, but they weren’t really like us either. They wandered just the same, but carelessly. Shadow said it was because they were not pure of heart. He thought that Annalise’s powers were stronger on some―the young and/or foolish―but were weaker on others―noble men, warriors of God: priests and followers.

“It was true that all of us wanderers were religious, and it was also true that most, if not all of the wandering zombies weren’t nearly as capable as us, but that didn’t make me love Karen any less. I treated her as if she were my own, and although she never aged, never learned, I always wondered, what if?

“What if.

“What if.

“What if.

“What if Karen had been saved? Would that have done anything? Would it have meant anything to anyone?” A skin flap on his chest was peeling with his words. He fingered it shut. “I guess that doesn’t matter; nothing does.”

Robin grew weary of standing, but even through his trust, he could not bring himself to sit next to Goren’s body. Instead, he leaned on the base of a tree, gripping a branch and squeezing whenever he felt an injustice stir within.

Goren said, “Then we made contact. Between the countless no-named zombies that filled our cave and roamed the Earth, Shadow and myself noticed that, gradually, as we were taking in more and more zombies, our population was never increasing. We were at a consistent peak, bubbling up to the low hundred thousands yet never expanding. The zombies weren’t running away. They were too scared to do much more than linger. After years of this, James ventured out alone, on a hunch, saying that he had nothing better to do with his life than explore. He never came back, and after three more years, I realized my mentality was just then catching up to James’s.

“I marched out until I came upon a wall. I had almost walked into it. I had been walking for days. The wall was Navio’s.” Robin’s eyes lit as fireflies. The prince began to sweat. Goren continued. “It was a general assumption that all humans were dead. We hadn’t seen any in who knows how long, yet there Navio stood, untouched, entirely preserved from the inside out. It was hard to take in, but more so the fact all of Navio’s people were killing all the zombies that came close. I had waited from a great distance, watching the gates open and close for weeks, and whenever anyone from inside got near a zombie, their blades met bone.

“I kept waiting. I had nothing better to do. Weeks bled into months. I had left Karen under Shadow’s care, but I wondered if she had wandered off, looking for me. She had all the time in the world to wait, but the very thought of her getting close to Navio seemed too eerily real. I kept to myself, worrying about what wasn’t happening, until a man came up from behind me and held his sword to my neck.

“I kept waiting.

“I was forced to stand, turn, and stare. I did all three, and then the man said, ‘You can hear me, can’t you?’ Tension mounted, but I was never struck down. He just kept asking the same question, and eventually, I answered.

“He was the king of Navio, King Robin.”

Robin shot from his tree, spraying the floor with his sweat. He knew how the story would end, and it didn’t make listening any easier. “My great grandfather?! You knew my great grandfather?!” Goren humbly nodded, not caring if Robin took his anger out on him. “What did you do?” Robin barked. “What the hell did you do to him?”

“I talked. All I did was talk. King Robin would come out every day from Navio, and with him he brought food and blankets. I couldn’t eat the food, but I liked how it felt, the muscle memory, and that fascinated King Robin. I told him about everything, and to my surprise, he took it in with stride. He was mostly oblivious to the severity of the situation. He―and the generations before him―lived isolated and in peace. Annalise had never taken over his walls, but the remnants of her ruin walked as zombies which had been dealt with for as long as King Robin’s history could allow him to remember.

“Then, after many secretl visits, King Robin decided dire action was required. ‘I’m going to bring my family out here,’ King Robin declared. ‘They will see what you are, what the zombies have become, and then maybe we can begin to move forward. The killing has to stop.’ I did not object. King Robin left me, vowing to return with his son, grandchild, and a handful of his men.

“I stood as a statue and refrained from making any sounds. I imagined all the prosperity that would come from our next meeting, and it made my heart melt. I kept envisioning a world where I could see a child with life still petering in his eyes, but that daydream cracked into dust as a cry rang out through the woods. It was bold, deep, and filled with anguish. I ran to the calling and watched the events play out as I remained unable to do much less than exist.

“King Robin was leading a pack of five, the prince and his grandchild included. The five had watched him approach a zombie and then watched as said zombie bit into his neck and dug at the flesh.

“I see it every day in my head. Was that zombie still under Annalise’s control? Did it feel threatened? Why had King Robin approached it? Had he thought it to be me? Was I to blame? Had my silent carelessness lead to the eventual extinction of my people?”

Gears rotated on end while Robin imagined his father, only a child at the time, witnessing the sole action that lead to the single most unjust massacre of all time.

Robin held his gut, not liking the warped feeling it gave off, and asked, “The Purge?”

Goren chuckled, “That is what humans call it. But we wanderers, we know it for what it really is: a holocaust. I was chased like a dog, but I wasn’t foolish enough to lead them back to the cave. Instead, I took off for a lake and sank to the bottom. I left later, long after they left me, but it still took days to get back to Shadow.

“From that moment on, every day was one of fear. We began losing more zombies than we were taking in. The humans were out for blood, and it didn’t take long for them to begin killing wanderers. We’d try to talk, but it never worked. Those who opened their mouths for peace were fed only divine justice at the hand of merciless soldiers. One by one, and then pack by pack, we were slain with no remorse. As the years went on, it became clear that there was only Karen and myself to care about. Shadow had lost his sanity. He created a new following, one that libeled humans as zombies and zombies as humans. It was war with him, and I saw the futility of trying to reason. Why shouldn’t he feel that way?

“In the black of night, while holding Karen from the cold of the dirt as she tried desperately to find rest, there was an explosion. ‘The Purge’ had started. I held her tighter than ever before and ran before the fires consumed us with our nameless non-talking family members.

“The next day, Karen and I came back to find nothing more than black piles of what once was. Shadow was taking the final bought of his followers―wanderers and zombies alike―into a march that would lead with every single one of them dying. I had no part in it, and Shadow didn’t care. I think he wanted to die most of all.” Goren lifted himself and rested against a tree stump, using it as a stool. Then, his mouth began to move without reason. Robin believed him to be meditating, and watched un-interrupting. Goren resumed midsentence. “―our numbers were cut drastically. For every city we had visited, for every farm we had trekked, we gained followers like a snowball rolling down a hill. After the purge, I think it would be foolish not to say that half of the world’s zombies were killed, myself being the final wanderer. Karen and I would run into a zombie from time to time, but we always kept our distance. There was no reason to make friends anymore. It all ends the same anyways.”

“But that stops today,” cut in Robin. “Your story has been heard, Goren, and it will be told.”

The old wanderer buckled his knees, let his eyeless head fall back on his shoulder blades, and asked the ultimate question: “Why?” The prince approached the question with shock at the audacity of its simplicity, but when no answer could be fitted, Robin began to fumble silently. “Look around, Robin. How many zombies have you seen? It’s just you and me here, Prince, and until humans come searching for you with swords built for me, we will remain alone. I’ve seen you and your people before. You build up camps made to train kids into zombie-hating killers. You capture zombies, children, Karen, and use them as if they were props. Your people have pillaged so much that there are nearly no zombies left to butcher. So wrapped up in fear is your whole lot that they fail to notice they have never been in danger to begin with.” Goren smiled crookedly, showing bizarre wisdom as he scoffed and used his fingers to hold open his sockets. “If I still had my eyes it wouldn’t change the future I see now.”

“You see the future? What does it look like?”

“Nothing.”

What would sharing Goren’s knowledge do? What would it accomplish for his already forgotten people? Would King Cai listen to anything Robin had to say on the matter? Would everyone think he was crazy?

Would it be better if no one knew?

“There is only one thing left to happen,” Goren whispered, “and it starts with my death.” He toppled off his stump and splayed himself at Robin’s feet. After begging for his head to be smashed, he growled, “Why do you torcher me so? There is no saving me. I am but a lost, daughterless man. Karen and I lived after the Purge for decades, but I was still unable to protect her. The sooner I die, the sooner you can forget what I have just told you. For the humans who have to live after this so called zombie apocalypse, it would be better if their history started off fresh, unknowing of their ancestors actions. We both know what bliss is, don’t we?”

The bag of bones by Robin’s feet bubbled as it struggled to flop around. It only knew pain and wished only to escape it. Robin’s eyes festered with anxieties and unsettling contemplations.

The prince raised his foot.

“I hear it moving. Thank you, Robin, for listening to my words. May you make of it what you will, and may your life be filled with peace. Live yours for me. Raise your children for my Karen.”

Robin’s foot slammed down, the force of an anger ten generations in the making dripping from his toes. His foot tore into the dirt by Goren’s head, its weight heavier than anything Robin had ever lifted.

“I’m not going to kill you!” Robin shouted. “I’m not like them! I refuse to believe that this is the only option! You and I are going to work this out. It may be hard, it may take days, but you and I are the start of something big, bigger than both of us, and I’m going to take you there with me even if I have to drag you!” His foot spun, digging a shallow grave for any passing by ants. “I’m sorry for what my people put you through, Goren, I really am, but submitting to the easiest way out is not an option.” His heart raced, his eyes blinked, and his hands shook. “We’re too close.”

Goren clung to the boot by his mouth and flexed his fingers. As he tried desperately to let go of all remaining wishes for suicide that pestered his thoughts, he wondered about Robin and the what-if that came with his name.

What if Robin is the one?

There was doubt in his voice, but it only fizzed with Goren as he praised, “You are King Robin.”

Robin clasped his hands, looking down at Goren and seeing only inspiration.

 

Hidden patches of moss pulled on Robin’s feet as he marched back to Camp Cai. On one occasion Robin fell over entirely―nearly spraining an ankle―but even a fracture could not stop the optimism beaming from within.

The forest branched out, revealing a wall with thin rope dangling off the side. As Robin climbed, he noticed the moon’s absence. He quickened his pace, and just as reached the top, a pair of chubby hands latched his wrists and pulled up. Robin’s legs tore along the wall but the true pain was in the sockets of his arms as they nearly disconnected. Before he could shout, the hands slammed him into the hay originally used to escape.

“Real cute, Robin! Real fucking cute!” Bainter’s foot met Robin’s chest. The prince heaved with the blow. “Where were you? Where’d you run off to? Where’s your weapons? It’s nearly daybreak! Desmond would have my head if he found out I let someone on my squad run away―even a runt like you.” Robin’s rhythm returned. He tried to stand but felt only the force of Bainter’s heel. “I don’t think so. We’re not done here.” Robin flattened on the hay, too pinned to do much more than squirm. “I’m in charge here. I make the calls. You’re not going anywhere until you tell me―”

“BAINTER!”

Both kids froze as the echo came to a close. Desmond was approaching. His arms were crossed, feet stomping, vision narrowed.

Robin used Bainter’s silence to his advantage, hissing forth, “If you tell Desmond I was over the wall, I’ll kill you, Bainter.” The captain looked down, more confused than alarmed. “I don’t know where, I don’t know when, but if you mess this up for me so help me God I will turn the rest of your life into an even more pathetic excuse of an existence than it already is.”

Bainter lifted both lips and feet when Desmond arrived. His smile seemed poisonous to Robin, as if the young captain had no true desire to play along with Robin’s ploy or even acknowledge the threat that was dished. Robin meant what he said, and Bainter’s arrogant underestimation is what scared Robin the most.

“What is this?” screamed Desmond. “Both of you, now! Explain!” Robin scurried to his feet while Bainter spoke.

“This little guy just threatened to kill me. He said he was going to start with my family, then work his way up to me. He’s sick. I don’t even know why he’s here.” Desmond scanned over the captain, and then glared to the prince.

“Bainter was attacking me for not wanting to kill zombies. I had to threaten him.” Robin jumped from the hay and stepped to attention. “I refuse to back down from someone as stupid and irrational as this loaf. It goes against my nature.”

“Big words for someone so weak,” sneered Bainter. He too hopped from the hay, but before he could finish his insult, his opening mouth met Desmond’s fist. The cadet captain flung back to the hay. He flashed his hand to his dripping nose, trying to hide the blood.

“I’m disgusted with the both of you,” said Desmond. “You, Robin, are disobedient. And you, Bainter, call yourself captain yet treat your own members lower than the dirt you stand on.”

“But Robin―”

Another blow, right to the face. Bainter began to cry.

“Don’t make me regret giving you your title. You have potential, Bainter, and right now more than ever you have to start respecting it. Act your age!” Desmond went to Robin, both fists clenched, shaking, but at his side. “If you weren’t the son of Cai…” The fists melted into palms, but even then the tips of the fingers flicked in rage. “Both of you, fifty laps, now!”

The two ran through breakfast. Everyone watched from mess hall, murmuring between bites. The captain led the race around camp for the first ten laps, but he found the errors of his sprints. Robin over lapped him eight times before finishing first and rushing to mess hall. There was enough food left for three rations―Robin force fed himself all three before Bainter arrived with a stomach and mouth growling for vengeance.

“This isn’t over,” he spat, smearing the drying blood on his face as he tried not to cry in front of his squad.

Desmond spent the day teaching the camp members how perfect the art of close quarters combat. A mock-zombie was hung from a post, and one by one the kids approached it from behind, the side, in front, and even under while Desmond called out what maneuver to perform.

Robin had volunteered to go first, and after following the cookie cutter directions required to pass Desmond’s approval, he spent his time sitting in the grass, contemplating while pretending to watch his peers learn. The day would only truly begin when the sun faded and Robin’s secret escort mission could start. He’d venture off into the night, relocate Goren, and take him straight to Navio where his father could see once and for all the errors of his ways. The operation was simple in nature, but Robin’s sincerest doubt lied with his father. It was entirely possible that the king would just off Goren and refuse to accept, just as it was possible that Cai could also not even listen in the first place.

“I can’t think like that,” Robin whispered to himself. “Goren his half alive, not half dead.”

When the dark blue of night blanketed Camp Cai, all but two people fell into sleep. Robin eyed Bainter’s bed. He could see movement, and although it was normal not to detect intelligence, Robin could not be certain if Bainter was still monitoring Robin or simply rolling in dreams. They had both been in silence for hours; if Robin didn’t initiate, he would have to wait another day.

The prince tipped past his peers in soundless strides. When he got to Bainter’s bed, he stole a glance. In it, blurry whites vanished into black, otherwise, Bainter remained motionless.

The second trip was much easier than the last. Robin went from hay to rope in one quick swoop then steadied himself into a jog. He used landmarks to pin his location, and after passing both training fields and the underbelly of a cliff, he came to the fallen wooden coffin. Robin opened it.

“Robin, Robin is that you?” Goren chocked.

“Yes, Goren, I came back for you, just like I promised.” The old man was unable to un-root himself from the dirt. Robin helped him up, working diligently to not accidently rip him in half, his skin like wet paper.

Goren stood with a slouch. Robin shouldered him as they began their long journey back to Navio. It would take all night, and with Goren’s limp, most if not all of dawn.

After a while, Robin began to feel the restlessness that Goren hinted his existence to thrive in. To keep his mind from straying, Robin struck up a question.

“What do you think is going to happen to us?” They walked on for minutes, Robin’s question only lingering. The prince didn’t know if Goren had heard or chose to ignore, but either way Robin kept quiet. After another several minutes, Goren began.

“I was a priest for all my life―my human life. I ‘saved’ people, gave them comfort when they needed it the most, but looking back at it all, I can see now what I didn’t, even without my eyes.” A groan exited from Goren onto Robin’s scalp. Robin slowed his pace. “Like clockwork, every Sunday, I’d refresh the pallet of sinners just to have them commit the same sins the very next day. They didn’t fear God nor did they necessarily respect my opinion. Most all seemed to act out of habit, fulfilling the religious norms that their friends acted on. Hypocrisy is strongest in religion, with both its teachers and its followers.”

Robin pondered Goren’s beliefs and guessed at their relevancy. There was much to ask, much to learn, but all too soon Robin realized he would never discover what truths Goren held.

A thin cut blade of piecing metal was poking out form Goren’s mouth like a robotic tongue. As Robin shrieked and jumped to the side, Goren remained standing, the blade holding him in place like a puppet. The blade pulled back. Goren fell to his knees and used the last of his energy to smile.

“…goodbye.”

His smile shattered. Goren’s lips contorted as if under electrical shock. The blade was now through his chest, a black non-beating heart resting on the tip like an appetizer from Hell. As Goren sank forward―now truly lifeless―Bainter stood behind, pulling his sword out from his freshest victim.

“Murderer!” screamed Robin. “Y-y-you killed him! You killed him!!”

Bainter held his blade with one hand in prone, parallel to the floor, it’s dripping point shaking at Robin. “I fucking saved you is what I did! That freak was on you! You have a death wish! Do you―” As Robin’s ankles clicked, readying for a lunge, Bainter wrapped his other hand around his blade’s base. “He bit you! You’re bit, aren’t you!?”

Robin’s lips curled. “You fuck! Even in death, you are nothing more than a stumbling fool!” Bainter struck first. The blade swished air and fell from grasp as Robin ducked beneath the amateur’s swing and wrapped his hands on Bainter’s head. He pressed inward with the thumbs, poking Bainter’s eyeballs far past their limits. The captain’s screams were only second to Robin’s which rang out, “Who’s the runt now?” Robin began pulling the sockets sideways as if trying to open a stubborn bag of chips. With adrenaline rushing, Bainter found his composure and used it to grab Robin’s left arm and twist. Robin didn’t feel the pain until he realized he had been thrown against a tree, his arm broken at the bicep.

Howling into the moon, Bainter dashed from his one-armed foe and barrel rolled into the dirt. He stood blindly with his sword, ready to finish the job but unable to coordinate his footing. He began to flail his arms, hoping to slice at anything in his path.

The prince skidded backwards on his hips as Bainter charged forward. His wobbly arm became tangled in a root. Robin panicked and tore at his flesh, but the root would not budge. He started kicking, began thrashing, and then started thinking. The blind buffoon was fast approaching. Bainter’s handicap would supplement his stupidity, acting as an aid to Robin’s escape.

With his feet only meters from becoming chopped, Robin used them to lasso Goren’s corpse. He pulled the old mentor’s body to himself, and when Bainter arrived, Robin kicked the airy corpse into the captain.

Bainter hugged the zombie and drove his weapon through its sides all while screaming, “Die you useless coward! Die-die-die-die-die!”

With a clear diversion, Robin used two seconds of time to push his arm―rather than pull―out of the root. Beside the root lied a skull-shaped rock.

“I hate you Robin! I hate you!” Bainter kept at Goren’s body, turning it to mush. “You’re useless! You’re a coward! You’ve―”

THUMP!

“―you’ve already used those insults!” Bainter’s words bubbled into disarray from the back of his tongue. The tip of his scalp dampened where the rock had pierced. Robin continued his slew of onslaughts. “Maybe if you had listened in school rather than jerk-off you’d have more than two insults to spit!” Bainter had long since dropped his sword, his arms now slanted and hovering awkwardly by his chest. The fingers twitched every time his skull poked down onto his brain. “So much for being captain! Look how special you are now, Bainter! You’re the fucking center of everything! Even this stone!” Robin brought down his rock one final time. It wedged its way into Bainter’s epicenter as a hatchet into stubborn slice of wood. “You happy now, Bainter? Are you happy that you finally had your chance to kill me? What’s that? Speak up! I can’t hear you! How does it feel to be me? How does it feel not to be listened to?” Robin reunited himself with the rock by foot, repeatedly stamping all of his weight onto it. For every lash of hatred, a new word sprouted. “You-don’t-deserve-the-air-Goren-breathed! You-and-every-one-else-deserves-to-DIE!” The final stomp left both Robin and Bainter entirely breathless. As the prince stared to his feet and tried to configure what he was standing in, a twig snapped. “Goren?” He spun.

Another adolescent member of Camp Cai, one Robin had never seen before, dropped his sword into the grass and began sprinting in the opposite direction of the prince. He screamed, “I found him! I found him!” and vanished into the forest.

Bewilderment swallowed Robin. The child had not run in excitement, but in fear; actual, factual, fear. This was a new feeling for Robin, one which upset him dearly, and as he tried one more time to sort out the shards of human beneath his feet in the dark of night did he realized that the fear was directed at him. He was the killer now. Robin was the bad guy.

The kid came back with Desmond, a river of children, and a dozen soldiers all following close behind. Robin watched as all of them went from relief to horror. Those who screamed ran away, leaving only those who became paralyzed in fear to stay. The only one with composure was Desmond, his eyes dead bolted on Robin.

“It wasn’t my fault,” Robin begged. “He attacked me! He killed Goren! He was going to kill me too, but I―”

“Goren?” asked Desmond. “Where is this Goren!? Who is he!?”

“He…” Robin’s vision trailed off with his voice. The whole group stared at the butchered zombie. Desmond’s face which had been dowsed in disgust went white. “He could talk. His name was Goren, and he wasn’t a zombie. He could talk, and he didn’t want to hurt anyone. Bainter killed him for no reason. Bainter―” Robin watched as Desmond’s snowy face remained absent of sympathy. It held only fear. “Desmond? Desmond, don’t you believe me? I’m not lying! I’m not!”

“Sure you ain’t, Kid. Sure.” Desmond inched forward a step. Robin tensed. “Hold up, Robin, just keep calm. I’m not going to do anything stupid. Just taking off my gear.” The man undid his belt. His sheathed blade dropped into the dirt with the weight of ten swords. “I just want to talk, Robin. Me and you.”

Robin was abrasive. He stumbled back and stuttered, “You think I’m crazy, don’t you? You don’t believe me?”

“Of course I believe you. And all I want to do is talk about it.” Desmond’s arm extended, offering a helping hand veiled in punishment. Robin saw it―he wasn’t stupid―but fleeing and failing would only make him appear more guilty. Robin grasped Desmond, not caring if submitting made him look even more insane than fleeing.

The two men hugged, and as Robin brushed his face against Desmond’s chest, he finally got a moonlit snapshot of the pile of Bainter oozing on the floor. It made Robin wish he was dead.

“I’m sorry, Desmond,” he cried, “I really am. I didn’t mean to.”

“I’m sorry too, Kid.” Desmond tightened his grasp on Robin and hugged out all the oxygen. As Robin gagged, Desmond kicked the back of his knees. The prince shot to the floor and became tackled by several men. A burlap sack was tied around his head, but Robin did not fight back.

 

Low drones of buzzing brought Robin’s attention to his right arm where a family of flies was splashing in and out of his torn skin. He felt nothing in the arm Bainter had broken, and as his third day of captivity came to a close, he gave up on caring. The flies continued to play uninterrupted until King Cai entered Robin’s cell, his cape gusting them aside. Robin could only look to his feet.

“My son,” The defeat in Cai’s voice was equivalent to Robin’s posture. The King cleared his throat. “Why?”

Robin forced himself to look up. His spine straightened as his right arm swayed, limp and confused. “I didn’t want to kill him. He made me.” His voice was cracked and weak, not from guilt, but from starvation and thirst. The prince’s parched throat was that of a prisoner’s; all assertive authority was lost in his frailty. “He attacked me, with his sword, so I fought back with everything I could.”

“Robin, you―”

“And it worked,” Robin rasped. “It was me, or him. I was defending myself, and I wasn’t about to lose to him.”

“Lose? Robin, what did you win? You didn’t kill that kid, you slaughtered him.” The prince’s worn eyes fell with his head, so Cai knelt. “Son, that wasn’t self-defense. You went far beyond, into vengeance.”

Robin whispered, “It became vengeance when my life became threatened.”

Cai stood, fist to mouth, and neared the cell’s exit. He stopped at the door and talked to the bars, keeping his back to the murderer. “You have been in here for three days, as we have been questioning your peers for three days. They say that you… You sympathize with zombies, say their human, that they have feelings and can talk.” The king’s arms crossed, hugging out tension that could be otherwise used for shouting. “You even gave them names, so I’m told.”

“So am I supposed to agree with you or deny it? Father, what do you even want me to say?”

“You and everyone else deserve to die.” Cai leaned to the dungeon cell’s bars, trying his best to not quaver. “Did you say that, Robin? Did you say those words, exactly?”

“If I lie, you’ll kill me. If I don’t, you’ll kill me. I’ll choose to remain silent.” He leaned forward, mockingly, not totally without insanity as his broken arm bled. “Kill me.”

King Cai turned to his son, revealing bloodshot eyes. “Your fate’s already been decided. Your punishment will be held tomorrow morning.” His lips became weary, nearly too weak to function. “This will be the last time you see me as a father.”

Robin felt whatever cockiness he thought to have possessed vanish. The severities of his actions were hours away from catching up to him, and although he didn’t care the outcome, he finally saw how much it would hurt his father. The prince yawned into a weak sneeze. His father was hugging him the moment he finished.

“There is nothing more I can do.” They breathed as one, but only Cai cried. “I’m sorry, son. I’m so sorry.”

Cai’s words fell on Robin and pinned him. They weighted him down, and in that moment, Robin felt he was at his weakest. His voice cracked again, this time slightly more damp than before.

“I’m sorry too.”

 

Robin was given a gracious breakfast but his arm remained untreated. He barely ate half the meal before becoming shackled. Soldiers lead him out from the castle while everyone else watching frowned and spat on him. The soldiers didn’t object, and one even joined in. When the soldiers and the prince made it to Navio’s central gathering place, the soldier made the mistake of spitting a second time. The spit splashed Robin’s face just as the soldier’s blood when King Cai slashed the man’s neck from behind. The soldier gasped, and then Cai sliced his sword again, entering the soldier’s shoulder. Not a sound in all of Navio could be heard.

“Get him out of here,” Cai commanded. The remaining soldiers drug their friend away, a trail of red snaking behind. Cai walked past Robin, emotionless and absolute, and stood on a platform, entitling him to be both judge and juror. “My son, Prince Robin, has been found guilty of treason, murder, and acts of insanity. He speaks to zombies, gives them names, and defends them as if they were human.” The crowd both fumed and gasped. No one spat, but most stomped their feet. What Robin was being accused of was absolute. There would be no need for Robin’s opinion in the matter. It would mean nothing. “It has been said by many, that Robin’s actions are worthy of death.” Cheers floated into clapping. Cai’s became louder. “That he should meet a fate just as bad as his victim’s, that he should feel a pain similar to the young man called Bainter.” The crowd now applauded their king. Children tried to begin a chant, but no words could be made of the roaring mob. Cai waited for them to calm, and when they didn’t, he raised his sword.

Robin lied with his right hand dangling in the dirt. It shook with the ground when the King jumped from the platform. With each heavy footstep, Robin’s left arm―wrapped around his chest―shook just as intensely. He held his breath, wishing for a calm. Robin remained shaking and only blinked as his father rested the sword on his head.

“Robin, I hereby exile you from Navio. You will be taken far from here, robbed of all your belongings, and left for dead.” The children’s chant finally broke; the word ‘sword’ started to bounce. “Anyone found helping this criminal will be executed on spot! Anyone found harming this criminal will also be executed! He is off limits! I want us all to move on after his exile! We shall heal, but not with my son’s execution.” Cai glared into his audience. Only children were left talking, their mothers quick to hush.

Robin was blinded again and forced into a box. He felt himself hoisted onto a carriage, and then he rolled around on the ride. Disoriented and sinking into an emotional wreck, Robin tried to pinpoint his emotions. After coming up blank multiple times, he decided anger was the easiest option to choose. He should be angry at the ignorant civilians of Navio. Maybe not all of them deserved to die, but the waves of blind injustice should surmount to the death of a handful at the very least. Someone had to die. He pressed his anger further, dipping it into the vengeance he was already labeled with.

“If you can’t beat them…”

The road to nowhere was filled with bumps. The bruises after his release would patch his body in plate-sized chunks wherever scabs where absent. Slivers poked from all angles, most working their bodies deep into the tear on his arm. He absorbed the pain, using it to fuel his hatred.

Fatigue eventually caught Robin off guard. It smothered him into ten minute naps with thirty second intermissions of sleep-talking, none of which was understandable. In and out of consciousness, he kept straying back to a conversation involving wanderers. After waking from a dream with no content, his sleep talk found rhythm.

“Treating me like a zombie; a wanderer. I am the final wanderer. It will end now.”

Daybreak. He had been dropped off in his sleep. Forest greenery stretched out for miles, and he lay at the center of it, naked and broke.

His first day was spent finding shelter when not gathering berries and fruits. Robin found only a pond, and he used it to clean his now infected arm.

When Robin awoke the second day, he found that hunger would be the driving force for the rest of his life. He could barely stand. The stinging pain jutting out from his gut swirled whenever he stood. It forced him to remain motionless in the grass, wishing for his troubles to go away. He stood with time, and just before noon, he was able to walk to his pond. The water soothed his skin and rinsed away the tensions of fluids from his arm into the water. Robin became lightheaded, but he preferred to be numb of his worries rather than tackling them head on. He idled in the pool until he felt his hunger squeeze his stomach and try to pull him deeper into the water. Out from the pond, Robin felt exposed and freezing. He searched around clumsily for leaves to cover himself in and fell into the mud. He slept there.

On day three, Robin couldn’t stand. His arm was bleeding yellow gunk, and whenever he pushed with his legs, he’d topple over drunkenly and almost always seem to smash his arm. He began crawling, channeling his struggle into an excuse for him to hate everyone without remorse.

“It’s not fair,” He crawled one mile before succumbing to a nap induced by blood loss. “It’s just life.”

 

The physical burden of living seemed too much for Robin. The ex-prince’s mind mushed into grey. Reality became a surreal canvas of moving oils that Robin wished rainwater to cover. For as wonderful as the painting looked, time would inevitably kill it. Robin thought it would be faster―more productive―to dispose of it sooner.

There would be times where Robin would run expanses of flower-filled prairies, but every time he stopped running, he’d wake up. He’d cry, wish his id to alter, and then wake up from his nightmare in a field of flowers. If Robin could remain where the grass is greener, all would be well with the world, but to do that, the nightmares would have to stop.

From blackness Robin saw red, purple and white. His arm slung. Skin dripped from it revealing inches of exposed bone. It had gone untreated, becoming his first truly zombified body part―his first right of passage in a bleak endangered community of shy neighbors.

Green now blurred his vision. Robin held on to a tree to keep whichever world he resided in from spinning. The green stopped, but a silhouette of grey didn’t.

“Hey! Hey you!” These were the words Robin wanted to shout, but these are also the words Robin’s throat refused to amplify. Weak air sputtered in a second attempt. “No. No! Stop! Please stop! I’m here!” Robin fell and landed on his head.

Robin and Cai rode horseback, laughing.

Robin rolled over. Above him was a man starving for purpose with ribs pressing out as if fingers behind a thinly pulled sheet of cloth.

“Are you a wanderer, or a zombie?”

The question drifted until both Robin and the man forgot it existed―neither remember who asked it.

“Please, kill me.”

They watched each other. The one with ribs of glass moaned and held his stomach. The one with the skinless arm cried and tried to wake up.

Robin dismounted his horse. He tied it to his father’s and ran after him, gradually catching up and never wanting to leave the giant footsteps planted in the grass before him.

Grey was now swarming the rims of Robin’s vision with each heart-beat. His chest was closing in on itself and the man with ribs was walking away.

Young Robin followed in his father’s footsteps and tugged on his cape when he finally caught up. Cai looked back and smiled, their horses in the background tied loosely to a tree. They were at the top of a cliff. All that the light touched radiated with life. Robin gazed down to Navio in the distance with awe humming from his lips.

“It’s beautiful,” King Cai chimed, “and one day, all of it will be yours, Robin.” The prince took in his father’s words with appreciation on every corner of his face. It was too bad it was all a dream. Robin had never been out of Navio as a child. Whatever his father said would be staged, rigged to please the dreamer’s wants and ambitions. But was there anything wrong with existing in a fantasy? Was it so bad to willingly ignore what was real, especially when it was a struggle? “It is son, but under your circumstance, just this once, we’ll allow it.”

“You’re only saying that because that’s what I want you to say,” the young prince said. “You’re me,” Anger flickered. “And I’m dead.”

“Is that supposed to mean I’m dead too?”

“You’re dead to me, so that counts for something, right?” Both characters laughed. Somewhere in the forest of a parallel universe, a sleeping ex-prince on his deathbed snickered with closed eyes. “Is there something you want to tell me, dad?”

“Should there be? If there is, I wouldn’t have to tell you. You’d know it already.”

“This…” Robin fiddled with the skin of his chin, wanting to appear reflective and insightful. “This is redundant. I’ve heard this conversation before. But where?”

“Maybe in a dream?”

He awoke at the base of a hill. Robin had rolled down it in his sleep. He had also loss a great deal of blood on the way down, his arm now riddled with freshly torn patches of dead meat that was only dead skin at the top of the hill. His arm made him feel something, either pain, sorrow, or anger, but definitely something. It existed. It was real, even if no one else saw it, and Robin was very, very aware.

Robin flopped through grass and dirt until he mushed into something both damp and flakey at the same time. It was a black body absent of all recognizable physical characteristics. The edges of the limbs were dry and charred; they turned to dust as Robin crawled over them.

After sliding over dozens of copses, Robin found one that seemed to have redeemable qualities hidden in its face. Robin didn’t wish to see this particular face dead, so he closed his eyes before talking to it.

“Father,” Young Robin started, “I think I hate you.”

Cai knelt to his son with a face apologetic. “Hey now, why would you ever think that?”

“Because you abandoned me. When I needed your support the most, you left me. I’m an abomination to you now, and you’re oblivious to my true motives. I stopped trying because I knew you wouldn’t listen. Do you have any idea how that makes me feel?” The king’s arm met Young Robin’s shoulder, but it was shoved away. “I’ll say it again, Father: I’m dead. You exiled me, and now I’m decomposing into a shell of what you and your people wish to kill. But they already want to kill me. It doesn’t matter if I look like a zombie or king. I committed murder, and with your close-minded followers trailing only slightly behind, that’s all that counts.”

“Then come back,” Cai pleaded, his eyes dampening with emotion. “Just come on back. Look out there, look at Navio.” The duo stared out from their cliff. Their city stood in the distance as a pillar of accomplishment. “We’ll let you back in. What I did to you is just eating me up on the inside, but I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to tell you in person. I want to, but no one knows where you are.”

Young Robin sat down. His arms shook as he tried to steady his head from bobbling. “But that’s a lie, father. That’s just what I want you to say…”

It took more than an hour, but when Robin finally realized that the dead body sleeping next to him was not of his father’s, he resumed crawling. The scores of bodies made traversing nearly impossible; they kept Robin in place with their silent stares, yet alone their physical bodies.

Robin’s head was spinning.

Half of the bodies were moving.

A large, obtuse hadow covered Robin’s path. In the shadow, bones piled as sand dunes. Behind it, the entrance to a cave.

“But Son,” said Cai, “you will never know with certainty unless you try. If you do not try to seek my forgiveness, you will never know if it exists.”

Bitter laughter flicked from Young Robin’s head as he shook. “I’m dead, Dad, dead! Why do you keep forgetting that? If I wanted your forgiveness, if I so much as even thought about circling backwards, where would I begin? Hmm? Do I start crawling? Do I call for help? No one will hear me, and if they do, no one will listen.”

Cai hugged his son. The unexpected embrace sent waves of shock coursing up Robin’s spine. This was more than unpredictable―it was borderline horrific. The last thing Robin wanted was to hug the man that sentenced him to death. He hated it, yet strangely, at the core of his heart, the young prince felt he needed it. It made him feel warm, wanted.

“Robin, please forgive me.” Cai began bawling. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”

Young Robin responded, looking at the illusion of his father in a dream but feeling nothing but genuine, unimagined love. “I want to believe that, Father… I really, really want to.”

From the largest of the piles of bones, a rotten arm extended and began dragging out the body it was connected to. Robin emerged with scrapes and cuts on every visible portion of his skin. The pile had scratched its unwanted visitor several inched deep, leaving his grey matter brain to wonder if he was a literal inch from death by overexertion both physical and mental.

The cave’s round entrance stretched hundreds of feet to the side all while cutting into the sky. The rocky insides were obscured by shadow, seeming more like a black hole than a forgotten civilization, yet Robin still crawled. He neared where the dirt turned to stone; he longed for the lifeless black of absolute silence.

Robin had been trying his best to ignore the pain surmounting in his arm, but it was extending into his chest, allowing the skin on the right-side of his ribcage join the infection. The pain’s toxic bite went deeper with each breath, pinning his lung with nettles of death. As he cried out, Robin decided the heart of the cave would be a perfect place to fall asleep and began writhing through his very temporary struggle―it would all be over shortly, he only had to reach the finish line.

Straying glances of imaginary fireflies would light Robin’s vision when his stomach heaved him into lightheadedness only to leave him blinded as his eyes readjusted to the darkness. Each time this happened, less sunlight would bleed through from the entrance. His pace was slow, but the heart of darkness was close. He could feel it in his bones. He could see it in his brain.

He heard it with his ears.

The heart of the cave thumped. It tapped lightly on the Robin’s skull and dissolved. He bit his tongue and held his breath―a near impossible feat given his health―and heard the heart once more. The beat did not push, merely hiccupped on an accidental loop of reflex that kept its owner filled with nutrient-lacking blood. Robin nearly mistook it for his own, discovering what it was not by how this heartbeat did not sync with his throbbing arm.

Mystery cooed Robin into a nocturnal, bat-like state filled with invisible rings of echolocation. He lied low, fought hard to keep his tolerance for pain at a manageable, silent level, and used all his senses to wander. The heartbeat was frail, brittle, dying with each tick, but Robin did not rush. He knew it literally impossible to hear a heartbeat from far away. What he was searching for was most likely something internal―mental―and it bugged him not to know his own delusions. The sound most likely mirrored his longing for the heart of the cave, but it could also be a hidden representation of his psyche, getting weaker with each second. If the sound was real, there was no way anyone could have heard it prior, that is, unless the previous, numerous inhabitants of the cave had found a way to emulate absolute silence. This fictitious heartbeat was so light, Robin doubted that anyone other than himself would have been able to hear it under similar circumstances. He had been looking for silence, and only by accidently acknowledging it to (possibly) exist had his search continued.

Robin slammed his head against a rock in the awkward blindness of his crawling. He passed out and dreamt of nothing.

After coming to and finding the heartbeat to still exist, Robin slid his only usable hand along the wall. A stone had fallen from where his head had collided. In the small gap, more stones could be felt. The wall felt stout and absolute, but as Robin flexed his fingers where the missing rock had been, more fell.

The wall was disassembling. The stones dropped out of place like books from a hidden shelf, and all the while, Robin felt the heartbeat grow. The very air around him was becoming infectious, pulsating to a rhythm that grew in tempo with every other rock. The heart’s owner was excited. It had been without visitors for ages.

Vigor and foolish willpower supplied Robin’s dwindling strength, but it was maddening curiosity that fueled his heart and kept him alive. He would not die before opening the hidden pathway. He could not submit to the black before uncovering its secret.

As the final stone dropped and echoed into silence, so did the beating heart. Robin listened on edge for any sign of life only to come up empty handed with his body numb and full of ice. He shivered in what he believed to be infection-induced shock, but he recognized it as fear when he heard the heart’s owner speak in weak wisps of whispers.

“Help me… Please, help me.”

The cave’s hidden voice was feminine. The air seeping out from the hidden doorway was stale and dipped in rancid odors tied to excrement and disease. Her throat was parched into cracks of dust that would be untreatable, but again she begged, refusing to believe that she could die after waiting so long for someone to uncover her.

“Who’s ever there, please, I can’t move.”

From the bending pathway that led to Robin’s unexpected discovery, only the faintest of slivers of graying sunlight remained. Robin could use it to make out his arms and guess at the outline of rockwork he was touching, but inside that secret room, only total darkness existed. The dying woman’s words reiterated their message, but this time, there was a tone to supplement her needs.

“I know you’re there. I can feel your heartbeat.”

Robin sensed a lust in her voice that made him entirely regret following the heartbeat. The woman’s voice needed water, treatment and nourishment, but her attitude was direct, nearly condescending. Her want for rescue seemed more like a greed, but for what he could only guess. When she spoke again, all signs of frailty were absent. In its place, sultry words of seduction.

“What’s the matter? Not afraid of the dark, are you? Come, help me.”

Sinister giggles puttered from her lips in high-pitched stabs. They slithered through the air to Robin’s torso and hugged, absorbing his sanity. He hobbled his left arm into a push up and tried backing from the voice, but the laughter took hold of him again, numbing him with fear-laced mobility.

A fresh batch of fireflies swarmed Robin’s eyes. He forced them away with frantic blinking only to reveal a face staring at him from the former sealed entrance. Her eyes―a shade darker than scarlet―rattled in pattern to reveal thin black veins throbbing across the sides every second. The intensity of the veins grew as she inched closer to Robin, every slight step revealing more of her figure to the dim sunlit cave.

“I’ve been waiting. It’s been a long, long time.”

Her teeth dripped with something foul from their filled tips. Their sudden splashes on the rocky floor sizzled, and behind them Robin saw two legs made of nothing more than skin and bone floating above the floor.

He had already accepted his death, but the epiphany of realizing that the woman before him was Annalise triggered a snap inside that pulled his brain and forced him of laugh. “You want me?” Robin asked. “Here I am. I’m all yours!” His back arched up as he presented his head, wishing his death to be sudden. “Kill me!”

Robin felt himself covered in heat. He stayed limp as Annalise tackled him, his mind racing with memories triggered from the campfire smell clouding around her. Her odor wafted, filling the cave with fumes of sulfur, sweat, blood. Annalise arose and began lifting Robin by the neck. When he was touching the floor with only his legs and hips, she lowered and cradled him against her breasts. Her grip lightened, but the smoke blowing out from her nostrils kept him choked.

A new fear, one filled with hours of sadistic torture scenes, flickered as a reality in Robin. He drove forward and shouted, “Kill me! Fucking do it! End me!”

“Oh, no,” Annalise whispered. “I’m not going to kill you.” Her arms slid down Robin’s chest and latched on to his right arm. They squeezed. Convulsive shock kept Robin screaming. “That’s right. Louder.” Her hands twisted further. The dead meat that had been hanging on the arm dropped as it should, and Annalise used the tips of her fingers to press on the bone.

His pulse raced into overexertion and made his body one of scorching hatred. The fire inside licked at every fiber of his being. It turned his heart to black, left ash trailing through his bloodstream and lava boiling his brain. The cold that came with dying was gone entirely. Robin growled and looked to the witch’s hand latched on his bone.

Chipping away into flakes of ash, the arms of what once belonged to Annalise vanished. The body they had connected to remained, but it too was peeling. The cheeks dissolved when she smiled, her happiness literally pushing them past their limits.

“What are you?” asked Robin.

“I am eternal,” She drooped down, kissed Robin on the lips. “And we are many.” What was left puffed into a mixture of grey and black. Her existence was gone, possibly only the dream of a man wishing for death.

The heat in Robin was flaring, making him feel as if his skin would melt. He became angry, not scared, and tried to rid himself of the burning. It took several minutes until Robin discovered he was standing. After that, he noticed his arm―while feeling as if it was on fire―had made a recovery. Bone still shown and the meat that had fallen off was never going to be glued back, but steaming from it was a cloud of thick black air, keeping it all together as if some otherworldly cobweb. He flexed and black swarmed with exact precision. Robin smiled, screamed in satisfaction, and filled the entire cave with darkness.

What emerged from cave was not a man. Robin looked over his new body in the daylight, admiring the pool of infinite strength he felt burning within. He looked into the pool. His father was swimming in it, drowning in it, and as flames consumed him, Robin felt his ambitions grow.

“I’m coming, Cai.” Robin closed his mind and drowned out all the fires inside him with concentration. He felt the coal between his lungs redden, and then he felt the beat of his father’s. It was miles away, caught between the heartbeats of other humans. It was the only city Robin could sense. It was all that Earth had left to offer.

Before sprinting off, Robin felt the smallest of raindrops prick his brain. It came from his left, and standing there when he opened his eyes was a soldier with ribs extending out from his skin, awaiting an order. Robin looked to the zombie and grinned, steam hissing past his teeth.

“Gather everyone. The reign of Robin has finally begun.”

 

The fiendishly hungry Robin sped about the terrain as if he were merely skipping rope. He was as lightweight as the flames that kept him alive, and with each hop, smoldered grass was left in place. He ran without pause, never tiring and finding that he would soon grow to love unleashing the Hell of torment inside himself upon others.

Cai’s heart was easiest to decipher. Robin sensed it at all times and kept its presence tucked tight in his brain, running to its source in a straight line. More raindrops tickled at his face like before, but they came and went in small packs. There were simply not enough zombies left to make much of anything, and sprinting past them without acknowledging their existence was the best he could do.

“I don’t need an army to kill Cai,” Robin thought, “but I will need one to flush Navio. A king can only do so much on his own.” He glided into a stop and lifted his arm. The black fuming from it quavered as he channeled his thoughts. Behind him, a cave with hundreds of weary souls slowly assembling. In front of him, a city of thousands all happy to have exiled someone they once loved. Robin narrowed his aggression into a bubble. It burst, and all his anger shot through his feet. The ground crumpled in wedges and hummed. There was no longer a trickle of raindrops tapping Robin’s head; only a flood of sin. Evil clarity made Robin relax as he felt Earth’s weight lighten, the bodies of all slain rising from its dirt. “Come, come to my voice.” Earth moved with his words, every obedient step one mocking life’s existence. “To Navio!” He resumed running with passion in his heart and malice in his soul, knowing that he would forever be known as Earth’s true king.

 

Blue skies with strokes of white shifted to pink as Robin caught Navio in his sights. The day was dying, and the night would be ripe with entertainment. He lingered to the city hoping to be seen and wishing to invoke fear. “Cai will fall before the sun,” Robin promised himself. “Tomorrow will be the dawn of a new era, one without the unlearning ways of humanity.” He crept closer, his sights set on the front gate. “My world will be absolute, without errors. It is no longer normal to be human―to be driven by lies and greed under the guise of love and justice.”

Robin’s journey landed him at Navio’s entrance with a sealed door and screaming inhabitants. “Do they already know of my arrival?” The screams in Navio were raw. The ones Robin heard the most were high pitched, belonging to civilians confused and terror-filled. “I’m flattered?”

His intentions were to be let in, relying on his charisma and newly gifted strength, but with no one at the door, actual planning was in order. Scenarios of high jumping and hole digging zipped as only outlandish possibilities. It was hard to think with all the screaming, but soon the answer came to him.

He closed his eyes and allowed his fires inside his brain to dance. Cai was not in his keep, but in the courtyard. The king’s pulse was adrenaline filled, as were the soldiers and residents running around him. The commotion blinded Robin from sensing the obvious, but he soon felt the raindrops that Navio’s panic had been blocking. “Ah, they’re rising.” The heartbeats of several men vanished in Robin’s brain to a cold poisonous trickle of pleasure. These drops mixed to form a puddle, sweeping through Navio as a unit. “Navio’s graveyard: birthing place for my people, slaughter house for Cai’s.”

One drop soared above the rest. Robin locked his thoughts into it and spoke with his consciousness. “Over here. I’m at the gate.” Robin opened his eyes and tapped his foot. It would take patience to rule the world, but if his father were to die at the hands of the undead army, what would be the point in ruling? This was as much a vengeance mission as it was the first step to his overlord domination. “Any day now…”

An arm wrapped lightly on Robin’s shoulder. His reflexes spiked and sent both his fists back. A mist of red was all that Robin saw when he turned.

Navio was opening. Its gate lowered a few degrees before entirely slamming down. Robin walked forward with prose, knowing he was better than the people who had made the gate he stood on. Before he shot into the hysteria of Navio, Robin decided thanks were in order for his first in command. He saw the wheel for Navio’s entrance with two skeleton arms dangling in it. The rest of the skeleton stood from the ground and began trying to nudge his arm back into the socket.

The smirk that had been perching on Robin’s face flew away at the sight of the living skeleton. When he envisioned himself commanding the dead, his followers had all worn skin―rotten or not―and had hidden personalities trapped behind their eyes. With this literal walking pile of bones, there was no resemblance to anything. It was like looking at a machine, fully functional, fully capable, but never likeable. Robin growled and went back to Navio wondering how many others of his undead would be clunky and animatronic.

The spread was almost even. For however many zombies lifted, just as many skeletons followed, but that wouldn’t matter much longer. Dozens of vile human bodies littered the roads and walkways, but hundreds of undead were scattered in pieces, their undead numbers lowering as Robin watched his father’s men butcher more zombies in―for the first time in several generations―genuine self-defense. Robin closed his eyes and guessed a safe approximation to Navio’s graveyard’s population, reasoning at least half of them still up and about. Robin wasn’t going to lose to a numbers game; he had to assert his authority.

Robin walked to two soldiers both in the heat of battle. They smelt Robin first, but when they saw him both fell to their knees and began praying. “I’m not that ugly, am I?” Robin didn’t wait for an answer. He expelled malice from his arm and watched it suffocate the men as a toxic cloud. “Keep praying. See what happens.” The four eyes rolled white then black. Skin pruned in on itself to bones that were eroding into decay. They gagged one last time as humans, and then remained gagging forever.

A child and her mother aimed fingers at Robin and his two newest members. Their dumbfounded state kept both from screaming, and Robin said, “I want Cai. Bring him to me,” He sashayed at speeds unhuman, hoisted the girl into his grasp. The mother remained silent, but Robin had to gently smother the child. “Give me Cai, and I’ll give you back your child. Tell him I’ll be waiting in the courtyard. You have five minutes.” She remained frozen, her eyes never lifting from her child. “Bitch, did you hear me? Find Cai, now, and bring him here!” Her child began kicking for air, and Robin found he was becoming annoyed. He clamped down and put an end to the kicking. “I don’t have time for this shit.” His palm hugged the mother’s face and began feeding on the life it touched. “I’ll find him on my own.”

Navio’s populace was thinning. Few were dying, but most were fleeing. They poured through Navio’s open gate as a rushing river, drops occasionally being flung to the side and trampled.

Cai wielded a sword engraved with the names of royalty, smiting all the zombies and skeletons it touched. He and the blade danced up streets in swirls, spinning and jumping and killing with eager intensity. He fought to protect his people, and it didn’t bother him that all his men―who had started the brave fight by his side―had left him. Soldiers are people too, and if Cai was to die protecting what he loved so dearly―even though he was unable to save the son he loved the most―he would pass happily. Cai charged into a swarm of fifty zombies and began to waltz. He sifted with each blow, fatigue gradually clamping his lungs, but remained a fighting king.

Robin and his newly formed posy reached the courtyard. He sensed only a few remaining scraps of humanity, his father’s the most vibrant of all. It took him past the courtyard onto a trail that led to Navio’s flower-filled park. There, he witnessed a mosh pit of shoulder-to-shoulder undead flaring to reach its center.

The packed crowd wedged through each other with separate but equal hunger-filled drives, one of which made its owner bite down on Cai’s sword. The king struggled to yank it out, and when he did, he fell backwards and dropped it at their feet. He scrambled to stand, but it was too late. The undead latched onto his limbs and pinned him with their combined weight. Cai exhaled and made a dying wish to see his son.

“Father!” Cai’s muscles tensed into frozen statues of their former selves. All that could function was his eyes, and when they flickered, he discovered his zombies had lifted. They had formed a circle around him, and at the opening, the spawn of something too sinister for words loomed forward. “Thought I was dead, didn’t you? Thought you’d seen the last of me?”

“Robin?”

“You guessed it!” The monster’s feet met his father’s, the tips of his toes rubbing the bottom of Cai’s. “But not really. I’m not the Robin you knew before. I am an enhanced version of what people used to spit on. I am a stronger, meaner more assertive being, and to be quite frank, people seem to respect what I have to say now that I’ve become fed up.” He rotated his arm, admiring the Hellish gunk bubbling inside it. “In not having anything to lose, I have gained the courage to do what is right.” His fist clenched, expelling a thin cloud of what looked to Cai like insects. “And I won’t let you hold me back any longer.”

The king and the demon forced glances to the largest tree in the park where sorrow could be heard as bolts of lightning. The tree held a group best friends―ranging from eight to fourteen years of age―that had taken refuge in their secret club, but now their youngest member was hanging by a branch, her fingers slipping, her words screaming, and the branch breaking. The teen on the tallest of branches began descending. He raced through the tree like a squirrel, his friends both cheering and shouting for him to hurry up, and when he jumped to the branch directly above the eight-year-old, he hung by his knees and extended his arms. The child reached to grab and fell. She landed on the zombies. Her body never touched the floor.

“It really is a shame, isn’t it, Cai?” Tisking sounds slithered out from Robin’s lips. “But to make an omelet, you’ve gotta break a few―”

“Son, son what are you doing? What could you possibly―”

“I’m creating an empire, one of peace and solace. True, I’m killing all of Navio in the process, but this city and its entire people are but a blemish to my vison, and all blemishes―excluding this one, on my arm―need to be removed before they fester and become infected. Before you and your following fucks decide I need to die a second time to pay for the lies you chose not to listen to.” Robin coughed, shooting flickers of fire from his throat. “God damn, just look at this. I’m ranting up a storm, and you’re actually listening to me! I must say, it’s a welcome change. Too bad it’ll only last for so long.”

More branches could be heard snapping. Cai couldn’t look; Robin didn’t need to.

“Why?”

“Why what, Cai? Go on, out with it.”

“Why wasn’t I a better father?”

“That’s a very good question, Cai. You’ll be able to think about it all you want when you’re dead.” Robin whistled. A skeleton emerged from the crowd of undead. It possessed Cai’s sword and presented it diligently, bowing his head and arching his back. Robin wielded it. “Good weight. Good form. Good style.” He slammed the sword on his delivery man. The bones flew into the air like toothpicks and bounced away on the heads of audience members. “Should be my sword, but it would remind me of a piece of shit called Cai.” Robin dropped the sword blade-up on Cai. It toppled sideways and rested by Cai’s head. “Pick it up. This ends now.”

Cai pressed up with his arms and brought himself to his knees. He stayed in place, staring to the grass, and breathed deep, long drags of air. Robin waited for anything to happen, but it didn’t.

“Cai, I’m not going to repeat myself. Draw your sword and fight. It’s just you and me now. Evil versus Evil. Should be interesting. I’ll go easy on you.” Cai nudged his face to Robin’s. “What’s this? Are you crying? Is the King of Navio nothing more than a pussy in tapestry?”

“My son, is this what you really want?”

Robin snarled and fumed in black. “Since when do you care about what I want? Don’t answer, I’ll tell you: Only when your life is in jeopardy. Stop drawing for time and act like a man! Pick-up-your-sword.”

“You want me, Robin, and I deserve everything that you have to offer. But my people? Our people? They can’t be held responsible for my actions.”

“I beg to differ,” laughed Robin.

“It is in your blood to be stubborn. I can’t help that, I can’t change that, but Robin, blind fury won’t solve anything. It will only create more problems.”

“I think you’ve created enough problems, Cai.”

“And that is exactly what I want you to see.” The king shook his head as if to rid himself of what was happening. “Robin, it was the biggest mistake of my life to exile you. I’m sorry for what I did, how I treated you, but nothing I say will change that.”

“You are correct. Nothing.”

“Then learn from me, Son. Learn from my mistakes. I disowned you, and the guilt I feel…” His lips thinned into white as he pursed them. Robin scoffed. “I can’t undo what I did, but I wish that I could more than anything.”

“Typical, for someone to confess their regrets just before execution. Formulaic.” Robin broadened his shoulders and inched nearer to Cai. He wanted to intimidate, but the king remained put. Robin stomped his feet. “You regret not being able to save you or your city, and you only regret your actions because they led up to this very scenario, the one where I take everything dear from you.”

Cai, winced. He became dejected and sank to the grass. As Robin approached, he made sure to make eye contact. “Robin, my actions killed you. I have nothing dear left for you to take.”

“So what you’re telling me is that you no longer value your life. I guess that runs in the blood as well, doesn’t it?” Robin’s arrogance took him to his father. He sat in the grass beside him and fiddled with the green blades as they blacked from his touch. “I can see now that the duel I wanted us to have is never going to happen. That makes me… angry, I think. It doesn’t really matter what I feel. I’m going to kill you, and even if you are deaf to my feelings―too busy fearing the inevitable―it is irrelevant whether or not I can feel them in the first place.” Robin smiled up from his black grass and gave Cai the most frighteningly malicious grin, ever. “How do you want to die, father? Decapitation? Strangulation?” Cai remained still, a single tear trickling down his cheek. “Okay then. Classic execution it is.”

Robin lifted from the grass and slid his hand to his father’s sword. He held it above him as Excalibur and posed, wanting lightning to strike it, wanting a fictitious other worldly ethereal being to justify his cause. Robin held his stance until he threw it to the floor and began howling hysterically.

“Just had a funny thought is all. Nothing much. Not even that funny to be honest.” Robin reunited the sword with his hand and went to Cai, who was waiting patiently for what he sincerely felt he deserved. The blade raised one final time. “All right, I’ll tell you the joke. This sword your heirloom. Why’s that? Because it runs in your blood!” Robin thrust with all of his might toward Cai’s head. The blade neared―all slow-motion and sad like―and when the king did not attempt to avoid his fate, Robin curved it at the last moment and sliced off Cai’s right arm. The king gasped and became pale. Robin picked up the arm and sniffed it. “Smells like shit…” He tossed it to his followers. They tore at it greedily. “Okay. You don’t have much time left, so I’ll try to make this quick.” Robin cleared his throat, comically exaggerating, and poked at Cai’s severed nub with the sword. “Beg, Cai. I want you to beg for your life, that way I can take it away from you. Beg for mercy, and watch what happens. See who listens.” Cai’s lips were now blue. He shivered and closed his eyes, so Robin woke him up by vigorously slicing back and forth on the nub. “Beg. BEG.”

King Cai’s body shook. His eyes rolled like marbles, only locking in place after blinking. Robin smiled down on him all the while.

“Robin, my son, please, I beg of you, please, forgive me.” Cai heard Robin’s grip tighten on the sword as the heirloom’s handle began to crack. “I’m sorry for abandoning you. It was the biggest mistake of my life. Please, forgive me.”

“Lies,” whispered Robin. “That’s all you people do: lie.” The blade trembled with his arm, which now shook dangerously fast near Cai’s face. “You and everyone else will say anything to skip judgment. You’ll even lie to your own son.”

A white blanket of skin now covered Cai’s dying face. As he petered into unconsciousness, he reinstated his plea. “I love you, son, and seeing what you’ve become hurts me more than dying.”

“It does?” Robin wound the sword over Cai’s head and sliced sideways into chest. “More than this?” He slid it back and forth, making sure to cut between two ribs. “I call bullshit. I think this hurts more.”

“Please, Robin”

“Shut up.”

“I bet of you, forgive me―”

“Shut up!” The blade seared through Cai’s side and sliced into his pelvis. He gargled. “You don’t love me! You don’t really care!” Robin unsheathed the blade from his father’s belly and began stabbing holes all along his chest as if preparing to carve a pumpkin. “You don’t! You don’t! You’re just saying what I want you to! You’re lying―what every human does―so you can worm your way out of your death! You want me to let you go? How convenient! Maybe if I do that, you’ll forget this whole thing ever happened! I’m sure everyone in Navio would agree. Let’s let bygones be bygones. Let’s forget the Purge ever happened and pretend that my letting you live would guarantee a re-creation from ever happening. I can trust you. I can trust Navio. They would never betray me! They would never try to kill me!” With red streaming down every newly formed slice of his body, Cai exhaled his final gust, spraying a thin mist from each hole. Robin placed the blade inside the largest of holes floppily opening and closing as Cai’s dead lungs gave a feeble attempt at prolonging the inevitable. The ex-prince wanted to smile, but he was too conflicted. Sad, angry, afraid… it didn’t matter what he felt. No one would see, and if they did, no one would care.

“Robin…” Cai’s frozen lips twitched, exposing teeth and bleeding gums, but all sound came from his chest, the air of his words seeping out as if from a deflating tire. Robin shook with emotion. “…I have failed you.” The dead king slumped and fell forward. The sword pushed through his weight, the handle and blade perpendicular to the ground sticking straight through Cai as a flagpole of defeat.

Robin stared at the mound of flesh that once had a voice. He searched for a something to validate his father’s existence and felt only his sweltering arm of malicious, foolish ambitions. Something inside of Robin’s hearth throbbed on end. As his army began eating the voiceless mound, Robin hoped it wasn’t regret.

He walked disaffected and without attention. This was the first day of the rest of his life, and although his revenge had been fulfilled, Robin still felt empty. This… angered Robin?

His walk was forced into a halt as he collided with a tree. He looked at the bark dumbfounded and confused before punching it with all his might. The base snapped and the tree wobbled. Robin readied his fists for an all-out brawl and arched back, but before he could bring himself to destroy the tree, an unripe fruit fell from its branches. The child hugged his legs and began crying. The fall had broken the boy’s ankle and his sobs covered his friends’ who all knew what fate awaited him.

Robin walked to the child and knelt, not attempting to mask his anger-filled smile that advertised a maniac wanting to destroy something beautiful. His non-infected arm caressed the child’s hair, the only part of his head not covered with shaking arms.

Robin closed his eyes.

Inside the child Robin sensed a thriving heartbeat racing far past its regular limits. Robin tensed and searched deeper. Beyond the rhythm of blood, Robin felt something more. It was cold, hardened and black, like a soggy square of coal picked from the extinguished pit of a campfire. This blackness rumbled gently with every other heartbeat, gradually acquiring momentum, but still far too weak to be anything more than speculation for a possible illness; an internal, emotional illness.

Robin lifted his arm and eyes to find the child staring into him. The boy’s face was red, his teeth grinding as tears washed down his cheeks. In this moment, Robin felt only blackness.

“I hate you,” the boy grunted. “I hate you and I wish you were dead.”

From the child’s hate-filled stare, Robin looked up the tree. The children still clinging to its snapping branches cried, gagged. They called for their parents―oblivious that they had abandoned them―and screamed at the very sight of the insidious monster below. Robin stood and returned his eyes to his mirrored duality.

“If you want to live, I suggest you start climbing.” Robin turned from the boy and walked numbly. He heard both bark and branches rip in a hurried panic as his army left Cai’s bones to rest and stomped their way to the tree. By the time both sounds collided, Robin was too far gone to care at guessing the outcome.

 

The two feet dragging Robin around Navio took him to the entrance that remained fallen and agape. He felt like an outsider looking in as he watched all who had only just fled come scampering back in as waves, screaming in unison as the leaders noticed Robin strutting towards them. More civilians pushed into the city, shoving down anyone who stood in their way. They were already freaked before seeing Robin, and even then, the crowd continued to pour in disregarding Robin’s hellish mindset for an even greater foe that existed outside: all of Earth’s remaining undead.

Robin kept walking. He followed the screams and entered the group of humans not caring if their filthy skin touched his own. The men and women that made the masses parted down the center, allowing Earth’s new ruler to glide down the middle with little to no unwanted friction. Many blank stares of defeat wrapped around Robin’s face from his future victims, but each strand broke with his passing. Robin didn’t feed off of their fears―he was unable. He just kept walking, continuously sensing a dwindling collection of heartbeats.

Forced winds of sweaty air brushed against Robin in front of Navio as he stood motionless and watched hundreds of civilians race for the city. Its gust was prickly on Robin’s skin, but he soon found that not to be the wind and instead the raining existence of millions of bodies, all without life, charging to Navio to clean up what Robin had started. Far off, a thin black line of bodies no larger than ants grew over a hill and stumbled down. Behind the first line was another, and another, and another. The hill was now all black, each undead being a separate cell of a single murderous unit.

Robin walked to it.

Skeletons and zombies engulfed Robin when they collided. They did not part like the humans nor did they give any attention to Robin. Their target―Navio―was in sights, and until everyone inside was dead, their master would never be pleased. Robin took one zombie by the throat and stared at its eyes. They were black―as he suspected―but lacking any remote luster for consciousness that Robin had once seen when he was a prince, a human.

A weathered voice soaked in wisdom began to play in his head. It sounded oddly like Goren, and it echoed, “I was blind, unconscious, but my body was not.” Robin squeezed in frustration, killing his grunt. “For everyone that Annalise took hold of, she manipulated. We were at her disposal.” Robin stormed though his army, his rage steaming from his eyes as and oozing dark liquid.

Atop the hill, an overwhelmed Robin looked over his shoulder. The flood of undead had made it to Navio. They were trickling in one drop at a time from a bottomless bucket of demise. Robin was far too distant to hear screams, but he could sense them, each one a separate heartbeat becoming lost in the undead sea.

“Soon, all of Navio will be empty, just like me,” Robin said. His arm thrashed as a fiery whip from under the skin, but the pain felt unpolluted, in a strange way, just. “I wanted this. This is what I wanted to happen…” The pain flickered, shot up his arm. He closed his eyes.

Goren’s voice bounced around Robin’s head once more, this time in a much more accusing fashion. “My very existence is an everyday living Hell and Annalise is the devil.”

The rancid blood that pumped through Robin’s veins tingled as the bulk of his hungry army slammed into Navio’s walls, impatient and unable to wait to enter though the front gate. Each slam revved at Robin’s heart. He soon felt himself burning with passion, his heart the core of its entirety.

“I am the puppet master,” Robin’s fingers crept to his chest and slowly, very, very slowly, began to burrow. “But what becomes of the puppets once the strings are cut?” His nails inched deeper, but any pain Robin should have felt was near non-existent. The numbness actually felt quite nice; a mixture of relief and clarity.

The slamming of Navio’s walls ceased. Robin literally felt his heart with his fingers and applied a thin strand of pressure with a finger nail. His army quivered as if being molested. Robin smiled and wrapped his palm around his heart.

A quote from Robin’s favorite priest ricocheted in the silence that followed his army’s halt. “There is no God, Robin.”

Robin pressed down with all fingers, pulling up each time he felt faint. The zombies and skeletons at Navio’s door fell and writhed.

Goren’s words became fuzzy, choppy and imagined. “You will not be remembered for saving the planet; you will be remembered for slaying the hundreds. Everything you’ve done can be considered an act against humanity. You’re existence will be that of a forgotten scape goat. Your name will live eternally as the incarnate of evil itself.”

Robin blinked. His vision was greying, returning to that absolute black he had only just been wishing for hours ago inside a cave. He asked, “My name… will be… remembered?”

“There is no God, Robin,” Goren recited.

There might not be, but what would that make His followers, His churches, or His rules? They existed, and although it physically impossible for something to come of nothing, Robin wondered just how often a flower sprouted out from dirt.

Robin laughed and beamed, “If it is normal to be human, then perhaps preservation is ascension.” He squeezed with all his might, wondering but not caring if time would forget him.


The Final Wanderer

  • Author: Ross Ray
  • Published: 2015-09-29 04:50:07
  • Words: 24632
The Final Wanderer The Final Wanderer