As a child I’d always feared graveyards to be endless night, a thick fog blanketing the ground with the only sound being that of the wind, twisting the dying branches of an old yew tree. But somehow, walking through these graves today, in bright sun and clear blue, I’m more terrified than I was as a child, passing the same church each morning in the car. My father telling me when the coast is clear and I can uncover my eyes, surviving once again. No comfort of his voice now, nor do I have the urge to cover my eyes. Wide and alert, scanning for grasping hands beneath loose soil. My attention drawn towards Lucian, running ahead with his tail wagging wildly, a bee darting between the headstones in fear of its life, saved by a sharp whistle from Alden’s lips.
“Not sure he was ready for a trip out just yet, Alden. Boy is still a puppy at heart.” I joke. Alden furrowing his greying brows at the goofy dog, his head tilted and big paws tapping at the ground.
“Experience is the best teacher, even I’m a student of it. So, taking him out will help. He’ll save us all one day I’m sure of it, then you’ll eat your words, Koda.” Alden replied, a proud grin.
“Maybe, but I think Lucian might eat that bee first.” Looking on at the dog as he vanishes between the headstones.
“No, Lucian!” Alden tongue-lashed with gritted teeth, chasing heavily after the disobedient pup.
“Is it okay to make so much noise?” asked Saturn, her eyes full and frightful. I forgot it was her first outing too, another new pup to worry about. But at least this one can take orders.
“Anything Alden does, assume it’s right, okay? He’s your north star.” Saturn had come to us a few months back, starving and pounding her red raw hands on the front gate. Unable to tell us where she came from or even string together full sentences. Now she’d gained some healthy weight, a slight roundness to her cheeks. “But if you’re that worried just stick to the moss-covered gravestones, the ones you can barely read, they’re the safest.”
“Right. Because they’re the oldest, and bone alone can’t rise.” she speaks confidently, a little less worry in her eyes now. As she walks backwards, she bumps into Mae, toppling her over into a half dug out grave.
“Shit, Mae I’m sorry.” Saturn apologies with her hands clapped together.
“It’s fine, it’s fine, just a little dirt on the knees is all.” Mae spoke, a gentle smile as she was fond of Saturn already. “Would you like- ”
“Watch where you’re fucking going next time.” Niklas interrupted, his rifle raised against his chest, a finger on the trigger as he stands between Mae and Saturn.
“It’s fine, it was an accident.” Mae spoke, her tone sharp and agitated.
And if the grave had been new? You could have been bit, Mae. What then?” Niklas barked, his face turning from a pale peach to red.
“What then? You would probably have shot a child. Take your finger off the damn trigger.” Alden spoke calmly yet stern. Lucian by his side with a swollen cheek, he must have caught the bee.
“Mae could have… one mistake is all it takes.” Niklas replied, his tone that of a scolded child.
“Then don’t make a mistake.” I order. “Now do your task, mark the safe graves, go.”
As he lowered his gun to his hip Niklas took off, picking up the bundle of flags, his feet scuffing against the wild grass. Saturn stood beside Mae, apologising multiple times. Mae was clearly furious yet only spoke softly to the newbie as they both dug out the grave. The headstone old and hard to read, I could only make out the last date, 1894. Looking around the graveyard, I saw Niklas, a sour face as he planted red flags deep into the soil of graves. Alden digging with Lucian by his side, dirt flying across the ground in a perfect arc. As Mae wiped away the last clumps of dirt, I forced the crowbar into the side, the stench hits different each time. But we’d struck gold, literally, three gold rings on one hand, and a silver bracelet on the left with what appeared to be a ring of rubies embedded around it.
“You must have beginners luck, Saturn, that’s the second best find we’ve ever had.” Mae boasted as she carefully and respectively removed each piece of jewellery from the bone. “What do you think?” Passing me one of the rings.
“It’s beautiful, a shame to melt them down.” I spoke in wonderment as the ring slid down past my broken nail and muddy skin, a perfect fit. A loud clap distracting me from my warped reflection in the gold. Niklas waving his empty hands, around him several red flags flapping in the soft wind.
“Looks like we’ve got a lot more bones to disturb.” Mae said, tying her brown hair back tightly, one thick strand too short to reach the hair tie curled delicately on her cheek.
* * *
“I guess it really was beginners luck, six graves and this is what we have to show?” Mae moaned as she sat down by the fire with a heavy sigh, her hair now loose from the hair tie, sticking to the sweat of her neck.
“We’ll hit a few more graves in the morning, point is we made something. After we melt all this down to coin, we’ll see the fruits of our labor.” Alden reassured the group, his hand delicately playing with Lucian’s ear, sound asleep beside him.
“We need a new way to get coin, besides making it ourselves.” I say, laying back and staring up at the stars, the sky turning from purple to black.
“Perhaps I can get my job back at the aquarium?” Saturn jokes.
“Is that what you did before?” I ask, intrigued. “You remember anything else?”
“Nope. Just that.” Saturn replied, defensively.
“You sure? Nothing else?” Mae prods with me.
“Like I said guys, just that. Anyway, what did you lot do before?” Changing the subject, Saturn turned away.
“Well I was a lawyer for a time, then right before all this I picked up garde- “
“No, no. Did your name come back to you?” I interrupt Alden, a grumble from him in response.
“Look you know me by Saturn, isn’t that good enough?” Trying to hide her blushed cheeks behind long sleeves.
“Won’t be more stupid than that, what’s the hold up? Spill it kid.” Niklas berated, taking a long sip from a dented silver flask.
“Enough out of you.” Alden scowled. “She’ll tell us when she’s good n’ ready.”
“Thanks.” A relieved Saturn sighed.
“Now, it’s time for me and this boy to get some shut eye. Keep it down for an old man, okay?” Walking off to his tent, a lazy pup following closely behind, his long golden tail brushing at the ground.
“Okay! Topic change. Something more joyful than what we did before everything became fucked?” Mae asked, breaking the short silence. A drowsy heaviness to her green eyes, but I knew she could never sleep on trips out.
“What do you all think started this?” Saturn spoke up. “Caused the dead to rise?”
“Ah, just the joyful topic I was hoping for.” sighed Mae as she gently fell back onto the ground, staring up into the dark along with me.
“A force of nature, evolution, a virus. You could argue for hours on what started this shit. Best to just accept it.” Sitting up, my head dizzy as stars still filled my vision as I stared into the dying fire.
“God.” Mae answered, a scoff from Niklas, as he tips the flask upside down, one drip of brown hitting a blade of grass. “Don’t. We killed his creations one by one, then the home we were given, ungratefulness doesn’t go unpunished.”
“I didn’t know you believed in God.” Saturn spoke politely, though I knew like me she had no belief for that stuff.
“Don’t fill the kids head with that shit, babe.” Niklas stood up, a weakness in his knees as he stumbled to gain his balance.
“I haven’t been your ‘babe’ in months, Nik. And I found the shit in my head from honest people, you found yours from drunken old men staring at the melted ice at the bottom of a glass.”
“At least what I say makes sense, It’s the fucking truth and you can’t seem to accept it.” Nikolas spat, the alcohol on his breath reaching past the fire, stinging the nostrils.
“Enough, you’ll wake Alden.” I argue under my breath. “Besides what is it this week? The chemical leak, the chips in our brain activating once we’re dead; what has the long-gone government done this time?”
“You… joke but, you know it’s all... truuue.” His words slurred as he loses his footing, falling into a grave we’d dug out earlier. The snap of the coffin that we’d left to crack open come daybreak.
“Nice, I guess he’s found his bed for the night.” Saturn quipped. Rather than the curses and anger I’d expected to hear from the hole, instead was a whimper, a struggle.
“Nik?” Mae asked, the softest she’d said his name all day. As she peered down into the hole, cupping her hands over her mouth, a muffled scream breaking through the fingers.
“What, did he hurt himself?” I ask, peering down myself I could see it. It’s rotten mouth tight around Niklas’s shoulder, one hand with long nails scratching at his face as he drunkenly tried to free himself. “Fuck! Saturn, the rifle.” I yell to the frightened girl, my hand held out far to catch as it’s thrown to me. As I came to a high-ready and chambered the round I remembered being taught how to shoot by Alden, ‘shooter ready? Standby… fire.’ But as I rested my cheek against the stock, I contemplated which target I should shoot, and froze. Before I even had a chance to thaw the rifle was grabbed from me by Alden, and without hesitation he fired a perfect shot through the corpses left eye. Holding Lucian back with my hand firm against his beating chest, Alden rested on his front and reached far into the grave, pulling Niklas from the dark with one hand.
“Thank…thank you.” Niklas gasped, now completely sobered up, but clearly in shock.
“Nik.” I say, hoping to help him come to terms with what comes next. “It got your shoulder.”
“Ah, shit yeah. Look at that thing, no legs, guess that’s why it didn’t rise. Laying right there waiting for me this whole time.” A quiver from his bottom lip, a huge gash across his face kept his right eye squinted while blood dripped from his nose to the ground.
“Lay flat buddy, you know the drill. We’ll bury you properly after and it’ll be easier.” Alden spoke as he picked the rifle back up again, chambering a new round.
“No, I’m good. Mae tell them I’m good. I always get into scrapes after a few drinks don’t I, I get into a few scrapes after a few drinks. A few drinks. Fuck, no. I’m, I’m good… I’m good.” It had already started, his movement’s had become stiff, and his mind had begun to fog.
“Nik, I’m sorry, I… I can’t watch this.” Mae wept as she turned and ran off, Lucian running after her, his tail wagging like it was a game.
“No, no I’m sorry.” Trying to stand he fell forward a couple times before again finding his footing, but it was too late, his skin paled and his eyes dulled a muddy yellow. A drip of blood from the corner of his lip slowing and hardening before it could fall. He was gone, and now just a statue.
“Fuck, what now?” Saturn asked, her hands trembling by her side.
“It’ll take a few hours for the blood to make its way around the body to form the chrysalis. At which point there’s no getting in. Koda, take Saturn and find Mae, Lucian too while you’re at it. I’ll deal with this.”
“Don’t waste the bullet.” I say as I pass him the crowbar, a gentle nod in response.
* * *
As the first rays of orange pierced through the morning clouds we packed up and carried on our way. Leaving the remaining coffins for another time, as there was a heavy weight on the group once we buried Niklas, his unrecognizable face after Alden had destroyed the brain, slowly covered up by the soil. Mae hadn’t spoken a word since we left, they took such different paths after they lost their child, her to God and him to drink. Before he was a kind man, and I think that’s how she’s chosen to remember him, as she hasn’t stopped wiping her eyes since we left.
“Stop.” Alden said, his arms stretched wide, all of us holding our breath in wait. Lucian in front, his tail high and head low, with his paws planted firmly on the concrete. A deep and angry growl as Alden gently lifts him from the ground to calm him. “Good boy.” Alden whispers softly.
Up front, a slender figure steps out from a shop, glass crunching as it walks slowly into the light. “A Monarch.” I mutter under my breath; I’d never seen this breed alive before. Dark grey scaled skin sprouting white fur from the shoulders, large webbed hands on the end of its thin long arms. The only facial feature a twisted smile of sharp teeth. As it knelt down, it placed one large palm flat to the ground.
“It’s feeling for movement, everyone still.” Alden ordered.
“Shoot it then, otherwise we’re stuck.” Mae’s first words all day.
“Niklas forgot to pack any extra bullets, we only have the one in the chamber.” Alden replied. His hands tight around Lucian, growing more restless by the second.
“And there’s never just one, there’ll be skipper’s waiting for its cry.” I add.
“Then we take another route and give it something to feel.” Saturn’s voice wobbled as she bent her knees, carefully and gently picking a stone from the ground. The Monarch's attention drifting towards our direction.
“I hope you have a good arm.” I say, as she cocks her shoulder back and launches the stone far into the air, crashing through a window of an apartment across the street. With a shriek it bolted it’s way towards the building, smaller red creatures jumping behind. “Skippers, I knew it.”
“Quick, this way!” Alden yelled as he dropped the restless pup, leading us through an alleyway. The roofing above kept the alley in near darkness, following the light ahead we finally reached the other end. All of us in silent terror at what we’d run into. Now surrounded by chrysalis of different sizes, some only half formed but most had turned a dark muddy red, ready to hatch.
“Guys.” Mae whimpered, turning back we could see the Monarch’s silhouette at the other end of the alley.
“Fuck, we were too loud.” I sigh, my stomach twisting and heart racing.
“It’s okay, we walk, carefully and precise.” Alden reassured, yet I noticed the fear in his response.
Making our way through the nest, I could feel the ground tremble, the synchronised heartbeats of each creature forming within their chrysalis. In a line we gently made it to the other side, even Lucian kept formation and never once strayed, only reprimanded once when he went to sniff at the veins spilling onto the dyed blood ground. Saturn turned towards me, her face had been tense the entire time, yet now it fell to a calm relief. I noticed the tear form through the dark red behind her, a long hand reaching forward from within, dripping blood onto her shoulder.
“No!” I screamed, gripping at her arm, and pulling her towards me roughly, the sound of her arm popping from its socket. Sharp teeth sinking into my wrist. Looking at the Skipper, it’s eyes hollow in the wet, red flesh I could see the human in them, before a bullet ripped its way through the creature's skull. Immediately I felt dizzy, and my arm fell numb.
“A knife, quick!” Alden yells, gripping the handle of a blade Mae had shakily passed to him.
“It’s alright.” I mewl.
“No, it isn’t, we can cut the arm and stop it.” I’d never seen him tremble before; he’d always seemed so calm.
“It’s done, Alden. Take them and run, you made too much damn noise.” I chuckle to myself.
“You feel it?” He asks, his eyes turn damp, Lucian sniffing softly at my hand, held back before he can lick the wound.
“I do.” The sharp sting of cold starting in the fingertips, creeping its way through my bones, my vision blurring and muscles tightening. I feel a warm touch, Saturn’s voice as she holds my hand tight. I can only just make out her outline as she comes closer and my eyes slowly and lazily focus on her. I wish I could tell her not to blame herself, but I know she’ll carry this forever.
“I’m sorry, Koda. I’m so sorry!” She cries, pulled back by Alden as Lucian barks at the other Chrysalis around me beginning to open. “My real name, It’s- “
The rest cut off by a dull ringing in my ears, watching them run off, chased by a hoard of monsters, thankfully still slow as their bodies have yet to harden. My mind becomes thick with fog and my thoughts harder to focus on. The strong beat of my heart slows to a gentle patter as the blood from my wound circles around me, preparing me for a gentle sleep in warming red.