The Undead

More Than Just Brains and Hauntings

Book Cover: The Undead
Editions:Kindle: $ 4.99
Pages: 260
ePub: $ 4.99
Pages: 260

A collection of forty speculative fiction short stories exploring the natures and interpretations of a variety of undead creatures. Warning you now. Not a lot of horror involved, although some of the Fantasy is a little darker than my usual production.

Published:
Publisher: Cyborg Bunny Press
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Excerpt:

From Brains

Wreck the Mall

When I start whistling to ‘I Saw Three Ships Come Sailing In’, I decide I’ve been coming to the mall too much. But even after a month, it’s still the best place to scrounge. The deadheads don’t seem to like being inside unless they’re chasing meat, so if you get in without being noticed, you’re fine until it’s time to leave. The trick is to not carry too much.

And to make sure you’re home by sunset.

The first few trips, I didn’t even bring a backpack, just picked one up at the K-mart. Too bad it wasn’t back-to-school time when things fell apart. Merry fucking Christmas.

          On Christmas Day in the morning. I bite my cheek. Whistling at the wrong time could get me killed. Or worse.

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I pat the butt of the shotgun sticking up over my shoulder. It’ll be irritating on the way out with the backpack full, but holding it makes me want to shoot something just to see if it still works. Not a good idea. I know it works. When I need it, it’ll be there.

It bothers me that the pickings are still so good. Good for me, but it means I’m the only one coming here, maybe, and that scares me a little. There had to be more people left than just me. Were they all busy starving to death in their apartments? Clutching their stomachs while watching TV to see if the Army was making progress? Good luck. With the whole state sealed and a half foot of snow on the ground, things wouldn’t be cleared by next Christmas and we were too far from the state line to make a run for it. Be thankful for electricity and satellite TV and enjoy the running water while it lasts. Buckle down and survive.

But how could I be the only one?

‘I Heard The Bells On Christmas Day.’

A loud smash freezes me mid step. Dozens of tinkles follow, bits of glass hitting the once polished floor. Not part of any Christmas music I’ve ever heard. It takes another crash to figure out a direction, back the way I came and down a short branch hall that leads to the big parking lot. What the heck is there? I don’t think I’ve ever been down that hall in the five years I’ve lived here.

It’s a tough decision. Backing off would probably be smart, but I need to know if something’s going to sneak up behind me. Paranoia is my best survival trait.

Maybe I’ll need the shotgun after all. It’s still pretty fresh from sporting goods at Kmart, fresh enough it’s only seen practice shots. I’ll hold onto Josie and my Glock for back up, but a shotgun looks pretty intimidating.

It’s easy to walk quietly through a mall when it’s full of people. Try it with only Christmas music for cover. I doubt it’s as bad as I think, but every little scuffle on the dusty floor sounds loud to me, at least until Burl Ives starts on ‘Holly Jolly Christmas’ and I feel like I can move a little faster.

The clothing store on the corner actually has a wall, so I dig into my pocket for the little makeup case I started carrying early on. If someone back there has good aim, I’d rather a finger shot with a little shattered plastic than my brain being take out for the next zombie that happens by. It takes a lot of wiggling to decide there’s probably no one going to shoot at me but I look a lot more before I’m willing to stick my head around the corner. Once I’m looking with my own eyes, it doesn’t take long to pick out the lurching shadow in the pet store.

Pet store. Oh God, there’s a pet store, right next to the parking lot doors. Cute paw-shaped decorations hang in the big window with a sign advertising Santa and elf hats and sweaters for small dogs. A smaller crash comes from inside, then something like a grunt.

I lick my lips and pull the shotgun free, a feeling like curdled milk in my stomach. Some pretty horrible and disturbing things have passed in front of my eyes during the last few weeks, people torn apart and things that used to be people eating the stuff inside. I’ve done some pretty nasty stuff to some of those things that used to be people.

But the thought of going into a pet store to find a bunch of rotting cats, dogs, and birds really creeps me out. I don’t think I could count the number of people I’ve seen die since the end of November but I guess I’m still a little bit human if I can’t stand the thought of something cute and fuzzy starving to death while the world goes to hell around it.

And if it is a zombie in there, a wandering deadhead that smelled something from outside the mall, I really needed to be careful. Unless that something had a smell rotting and putrid enough to overpower its decaying nostrils, the zombie would smell me coming. But how could there be? It’s been a month. It’s been more than a month. I think the date on CNN this morning January twelfth.

Come on. Move those feet. I need to see what’s going on and the dead cute things can wait until I’ve done that, at least.

I get about three quarters of the way to the pet store window before the smell blows in from outside. There’s more than one. Shit! How could I be so damned stupid? Never go towards the zombies.

But what if there’s a hamster or something left alive in the pet store? What is it about small, furry animals that makes people lose their minds?

‘It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas.’

I start backing up, too late. The zombie stumbles into view, bouncing off a door frame to help it turn the corner into the mall. Ragged clothes covered in dried mud and blood, I wonder how long it spent in the grave. It’s obviously been active since.

It shuffles forward, passing under one of the recessed lights to show me the remains of its face. It must hunt by scent or sound since the only eye in the green flesh is milked over. After a couple of steps toward the pet store, some little remaining sense turns its head in my direction and I hear a whuffling snort. Scent it is then. I raise the shotgun just as three more struggle into view.

Four. That’s not so bad. I’ve managed four with a pistol and Josie without too much difficulty. But five more appear behind them and I feel my stomach harden into a knot. The mall might not be so safe for shopping anymore, and that’s going to make my life a lot more difficult.

My hands a little damp, I chamber the first shell. God, it’s just like pumping a water gun, but it feels more permanent, special, like it means something very specific and the next time I pump it will have a whole new meaning.

I hold the weapon as steady as I can, wetting my lips again. How close should I let the first one get? Every shell should count. Shot spreads out pretty quick. Maybe I should carry the rifle instead, but it’s way too late to be having that thought.

I jerk hard on the trigger and the shotgun bucks. Trying to pump again even as I’m pulling it back in line, I’m disappointed none of the deadheads even flinch. Maybe I should practice more but it’s not like I have an unlimited supply of ammunition and I probably have to survive at least a year like this.

My second shot is better, knocking that first zombie from its feet. It’s not dead and starts struggling to get up in a second or so, but I’m already tracking the next one by then.

Time doesn’t usually mean a lot to me, but when I pull the trigger things sort of stretch out. I can’t see the little balls of shot, but I see the flesh strip away from the zombie’s face, the bone crack and shatter, and the head disappear in a red and grey shower.

The close one is up on one knee. I’ve got time for a shot at one that’s further away before coming back to it, but this is the moment when not one, but two zombies blunder out of the pet store. Startled by the new crash of glass, my shot goes wild and swear, trying to pump the handle again. What can possibly be in there that’s attracting them all of the sudden? Has there even been a zombie in the mall since the crash?

Time to think about retreating. Or actually do it. The first zombie, the one with the milky eye, stops trying to get up from its knees. Instead, it drops and crawls to the one I managed to shoot and starts licking up the gore leaking from the shattered skull. A month ago, I would’ve stopped to throw up, and probably died for my weak stomach, but things are different now. Now it’s a zombie I can ignore for a bit but the rest of them won’t stop just because I don’t feel well.

Or I can just be quick and probably still get my shopping done. Maybe I couldn’t make all the stops on my list, but a little bit of frozen meat and vegetables from the K-mart grocery section is all I really need at the moment.

And leave the deadheads wandering around the mall. Yeah, awesome idea.

I start backing up, firing as I go, and I run through the rest of the magazine with only three zombies down to show for it. Now I need some distance just to get some reloading time. I’m not quite ready to fall back on Josie yet.

Maybe I can reload on the move. I dig in my pocket for a handful of shells as I walk, figuring as long as I don’t jiggle around too much trying to shove them in, it might work okay. The first two go pretty easy, but I fumble a bit with the third, and that’s when I hear the bark.

It’s a loud, high pitched bark that echoes over the last bars of ‘Oh Christmas Tree’. I can’t believe it and turn to look as ‘Mary’s Boy Child’ fades in.

So much for reloading. I jam the third shell in and raise the shotgun, firing off all three shots in fewer seconds. The first is good, tiny lead balls tearing through a zombie’s throat and all but severing the neck. It stands there, like it’s in shock or something, head tilted far to the left. There isn’t much blood. Without circulation it just congeals. Beyond splatter from the impact, there’s never much. It starts to topple just as I pull the trigger again, a wasted shot, missing everything but the far wall, and maybe even that.

I pump and pull the trigger. My last shot tears into the closest zombie. She, it spins from the impact, careening to one side to flip over a wrought iron bench and land with a sickening crunch. But it isn’t down for the count. Struggling against missing tissue, it tries to get up. I don’t wait and don’t stop to reload, tossing the shotgun away. It hits the floor and skitters several feet. My Glock jumps into my hand and I squeeze off two rounds even before the shotgun stops its slide.

The pistol won’t be enough. Goddamned things don’t know when to give up. I don’t either. Brains and instincts should have told me it was time to get out, leave the rest behind. Oh wait, they had. But I can’t, not now that I’ve got a dog to rescue.

Cute and furry might get me killed.

The gun sings in my hand and every shot hits something even if it isn’t always a head, but there are still three left when I’m out of bullets. No, four. That first one is still busy licking the floor. Not quite the most disgusting thing I’ve ever seen, but at least it’s distracted. God, more bullets would make this so much easier. I should carry two Glocks. The one I have works better for me than the shotgun.

I don’t try to reload. The three mobiles are closer now, almost close enough to reach out and touch, but I don’t feel stupid or particularly tired of life at the moment. I do feel the need to pull out Josie.

We’ve been through a lot together, Josie and I, killed our first zombie together, and more than a few in those first couple of weeks. I twirl her a bit, loosening up my wrist and getting her ready for a fresh taste of deadhead. Head shots. Always go for the head. Anything else is just playing and you don’t really want to waste the time when there’s more than one.

I swing hard, full of pent up energy, a whistle trailing the bat. Josie connects, if not quite as hard as I want her to, slamming into the lead zombie’s mouth with a satisfying crack and a spray of rotten teeth and foul blood.

Letting the momentum carry me just a little bit, I take two dancing steps and spin into an overhead swing that would make any new age Jedi jealous. I feel the impact in my shoulders as Josie turns its skull into a bowl. The crunch and split send a shiver up my back. Shit, what is it about taking a zombie hand to hand that thrills me so much? This one had been someone’s son, maybe father or uncle or something, before turned into a walking corpse with an appetite for living flesh.

I’ve got to stop thinking in clichés.

The zombie collapses into a pile and as I jerk the bat free of pulped skull, one of the others gets close enough to grab my jacket. Clawed fingers dig into the brown leather, leaving little tracks of filth and rotted flesh on my shoulder. I jerk the arm free, and smash back with my elbow, but it opens wide and bites down on the leather, not even noticing the impact.

Unable to swing Josie, I half let go and start pounding it one-handed. Not nearly as effective but after giving it six or seven shots in the side of the head, I manage to pull my arm free, turn and push away into the waiting arms of the other zombie, arms that close around me like a vice.

Fuck. Not good.

Josie drops with a metal clatter and I raise my arms over my head, but slipping free isn’t an option. Too tight. I feel fetid breath on my neck and my hair tries to stand on end. Why hasn’t it tried to bite me yet?

The other zombie takes a step towards us, teeth bared and dripping green saliva. I lift both feet from the ground and kick out against its chest with just enough force to overbalance all three of us.

Landing on top of the zombie holding me, I enjoy having one be useful for once, cushioning my fall. The impact breaks its grip and I roll away, bouncing to my feet. It stares up at me with completely vacant eyes. Nothing left in this one but hunger. Sometimes I’m not so sure. Sometimes I think there might be something left, but this one is completely gone. I jump up in the air and stomp on its forehead with every ounce of strength I can muster and gravity can add.

The crack isn’t audible, but I feel it through my shoes. Steel-toed boots, that’s what I need. It’s my weight doing the work, but heavier, solid boots would be better. I slip a little, but keep my footing and go up into the air again. This time the weak, rotted bone gives and my stomp moves its forehead halfway to the back of its skull. Semi-liquid gelatine squirts out the ears and I’m pretty sure I can call this one dealt with.

Two left.

I back up a little, looking for Josie but not seeing her right away. The last fully mobile deadhead is almost on its feet and I think the blind one is nearly done licking the floor. He snuffles and shakes his head. It. Don’t make that mistake. Don’t humanize. Just kill.

And there’s Josie. There’s my aluminum darling. Just on the other side of the blind one. The only patch of completely clear floor in the entire hallway and it’s right here to cause me maximum inconvenience.

But I can move faster than any zombie. Being dead tends to slow you down a bit. I scuttle over behind eyeless and scoop Josie up by the handle. No hesitation, I turn the scoop into an overhand swing and bring Josie down on the back of its head, well neck. Bone crunches under the blow, but it’s a zombie so its head just slips to the side and it starts to get up.

Maybe I shouldn’t have disturbed it. Too late now. I smash down twice more with the bat then have to back away a little because the last one’s getting close, eyes wide and with an actual expression on its face, something beyond mindless hunger, like there are still a few neurons firing somewhere in its decomposing brain, like it still feels something.

Lips peel back in a snarl and it growls, the sound low in its throat. It feels the hunger, but the difference is this one knows it’s hungry, knows what it wants. There are still a few neurons firing. This might be the first time I’m sure of that and it scares me.

Taking a step in close, I risk another swing at the blind zombie and feel the skull crack. Is it enough? The deadhead slumps to the floor, leaving me to face the scary one. A single zombie should never be a problem unless you’re so clueless it manages to sneak up on you, but I haven’t stayed alive by being cocky.

It lunges as I swing, mouth wide and tongue twisted, and actually flings up an arm to block Josie. Both forearm bones break, probably shatter, but it reaches out with the other hand and grabs the front of my jacket so tight the clutch yanks hair out of my chest. It pulls me close so its rank, putrid breath spills across my face.

And it holds me there.

Runny yellow eyes stare into mine. Some spark of something bores into me, twisting a knife in my soul. I don’t like the look and I don’t like the feeling. I can’t believe it’s just holding me and I can’t believe I’m holding still. The walking corpse keeps staring as I take one hand from Josie, draw back and punch it in the forehead as hard as I can.

Knuckles crack and part of my brain laughs at how much that’s going to hurt tomorrow, but it works. The zombie’s fingers spasm. I jerk loose and start swinging Josie, smashing over and over until it lies on the floor with a skull nothing but pulp and grey-green muck.

Blood and brains spatter my hands and arms. I feel a few bits of cold jello hit my face, but have a hard time caring. My chest heaves and I realize just how hard my heart is pounding. I gather up my shotgun and pistol and give Josie a quick wipe down on the least filthy corpse. Grinning like an idiot, I suck in air until it hurts and let it out as a long sigh.

‘Silent Night.’

Nothing’s moving. I still need to do my shopping, but the dog barks.

Pitched that high, it has to be a pretty small dog. I look around the ruins of the hall. Between the shattered pet store windows and the collection of now inanimate corpses, it’s not the best place for a dog. I wonder if it will let me save it, or if it can be saved.

I step around the bodies, moving slowly to reload the Glock as I walk. I stop to do the same with the shotgun before I get too close to the store. No point in taking chances. There are stragglers everywhere, but eleven is still a small hunting pack. Raising the shotgun, I take three quick steps to the door for a good view inside.

One of the two aisles runs from the door and I can see a pair of booted feet sticking out from behind the shelves at the end of it. The smallest purse dog I’ve ever seen huddles next to one boot. I growls when it sees me, barks once, then whimpers.

I take a couple of slow steps into the store. There are a lot of empty cages and tanks so at first I think someone let everything out, but then I see a dozen desiccated budgies in the bottom of one big cage and a bunch of smaller birds I can’t identify in another. The rodents are all dead, and some well on their road to decomposition and some just little skeletons picked clean by the ones who lasted longer. I jerk the Glock up at a slither of movement, but it’s only a snake. I think snakes can go a long time without food, but after more than a month anything left alive in here has to be pretty hungry. I don’t know if I feel up to rescuing snakes and letting it go would just be a different kind of death sentence. Maybe faster, though.

The dog growls again, all two pounds of canine fury ready to defend her dead owner against someone who might react. I scan the pegboard hooks for a distraction. Ah, perfect. Tearing the top off a package of bacon treats, I shake a few into my hand. As the bringer of bacon, I can’t possibly be a bad guy. She’s eating out of my hand in a few seconds and it only takes a few more before I can scratch her tiny back.

I don’t examine the owner too closely. With her side torn open and part of her skull ripped away, there’s not much chance of reanimation but don’t intend to stick around. I guess she came to get some dog food. Too bad. If she’d gone to the grocery store I might have had someone to talk to.

She’s snuffling my hand now, trying to get the last treat without biting me.

Maybe I still have someone. She just wouldn’t talk back much. And she’s also small enough to fit in my pocket. Miniature Chihuahua? I wonder how small they come. She starts licking my hand and I shake out a few more treats to boost the trust level. Better add some to the grocery list.

‘There’s Something About Christmas Time’. I sigh and scratch her a little more. It’s better than dogs barking ‘Jingle Bells’, I suppose.

 

 

From Hauntings

Love and Vengeance

How many ghosts can dance on the Head of a pin?

You know it's a trick question, my love, and you know it regardless of what you think you’ve seen. The mind plays tricks, yours as much as anyone's. Don't look over your shoulder at the creaking floorboard. Don't try to follow that flash of motion in the corner of your eye. Don't turn to see who's staring at you from behind. There's no one there, and you know it.

Only there is. The world is full, overcrowded, stuffed to near bursting with spiritual residue. Any thinking or feeling creature might have unfinished business, unrealized hopes and dreams and fears. Most don't have the strength of will to remain coherent after death, though, which is good. Throw away your notion of good and evil, heaven and hell. There is no eternal reward or punishment, and you know it. You've seen too much and understood too little to believe in anything other than a corporeal existence, in the fragility of life.

There may be a dim shadow of life after, but only for the strong.

The weak, the content, the happy, all dissipate after death. So too, the discontent, the unfulfilled, the miserable. Only those with something left undone, something more important than life itself, can persist even for a short time.

Love and vengeance, these are the greatest emotions. Anything else is too weak, lacks focus, not enough to bring the will to persist after a mortal existence.

Feel the hands like claws around your throat. They can't hurt you, can they? They aren't physical, aren’t real in the way you normally think. Yet you know they long to crush the life from your body.

Feel the breath on the back of your neck. No, it is not real, it is not there, and yet you feel it, don’t you? Feel the fear raise the hair there.

Hear the words whispered in your ear, and know there is no voice to make them, that they come straight into your soul.

Feel your heart race at the presence you feel, but that cannot be real.

Remember how you stood and watched me die, staring down from above, unwilling to move, or even to come close. Hand, arm, rope. It would have been so simple.

But you just stared. At me. As I died.

Stared and smiled.

We were close, so close, what you and I had. That eternal love.

I thought.

Vengeance. Now I want what you have, though I know it is impossible. And I don't care. It doesn't matter. I can give you what you gave me, if I’m strong enough.

Love. We had that too. And yet it was not enough for one of us.

The two strongest emotions. Love and vengeance. We had one, and now I have both. Love and vengeance, focus and the will to continue.

Know that I am wherever you are, know that I will be wherever you go. You are mine, and always will be. There will come a day, when you will feel my hands about your throat so strongly that you will believe it, that it will be real. You will breathe your last, my love, believing that I've killed you. And in a way, I suppose I will have. But when you die, that's when it begins.

I have love and I have vengeance. When you join me, you will know both.

And one of us will know joy again.

 

From Blood Suckers

It's Only Natural

Really, now. Why shouldn’t I continue to feed on humans?

Don’t be silly. That’s a ridiculous idea.

Yes, I’m quite aware blood banks and butchers could supply all of my nutritional needs. Completely beside the point.

Of course it is. We did not evolve to sneak up on a bag of blood with straws in our hands. That’s not natural at all.

Natural is important. See the fangs? They’re for penetrating flesh to let the blood out, warm and fresh, the way we’re meant to drink it. Not out of a glass or a bag, but fresh from the vein. It tastes different from the blood bank, almost like it’s not even blood anymore.

Yes, it’s still blood, but it’s no longer quite as alive, do you understand? It’s not pumping from a fresh wound, hot and steaming and pulsing with every heartbeat, so yes, it’s still blood, but it isn’t blood. It’s the difference between sustenance and a home-cooked meal, between a fast food burger and a choice cut of beef in the hands of a master chef. Don’t tell me it’s the same. It’s the same in the way five-day-old French fries sitting on the counter are the same as oven-roasted seasoned potatoes fresh from the oven.

Oh, that’s enough information for you, then? Perhaps even a little too much? Too many… uncomfortable food references? I’m terribly sorry, but you must remember, that’s what it is to me. That’s what you are to me.

Food.

Does that shock you? I don’t know why it should. I’m evolved to consider anything with blood as a potential food source. Humans taste better than anything else I’ve tried, that’s all.

Really. You’re delicious. It’s that simple. Well, that and I don’t really feel like changing my nature. I like the way I am. I like the way you are, too, all soft and ignorant and tasty.

You’re just food. You’ll have to come to terms with that, I’m afraid.

 

From Unfinished Business

Waiting in the Barrow

Sometimes, the scratching stopped. That disappointed Julfr. The scratching was something different and different was, well, if not good, exactly, then it was at least different.

Long after the passage of time had ceased mattering, Julfr had lost the hearing of all sound but the most persistent of winds above, and even thunderclaps had to be almost directly overhead to reach through earth and stone. Occasionally, he’d heard the rooting of some small burrowing animal above him, but these were rare.

And this was different. This scratching had been persistent.

Julfr wanted to say it had lasted for days, if not weeks, but time was hard to mark in darkness without even your own breath or heartbeat to measure against. But persistent seemed to be the right word, and slowly growing louder, or perhaps closer. Either way, it gave his glacial mind something to hold grasp at and he felt an old sensation, one he’d missed for a long time. Curiosity.

Today, if the idea still meant anything, the scratching seemed closer than ever and, his curiosity roused more than any time since his burial, he wondered what might cause it. When it stopped, his curiosity fell back, but not for long. The sound of a gentle tapping, metal on stone, brought it back, but only until his instincts took over.

Metal on stone meant something.

Metal meant something, something it took him a long time to retrieve from the depths of experience.

Metal meant men.

A low growl started deep in the back of his throat as he began to remember. Slowly, the pieces came together in his mind. Metal meant men and men meant danger.

Danger meant death for those who came to rob his barrow.

He waited.

The tapping went on for a long time then stopped for even longer, long enough for Julfr to relax, long enough for him to forget. When it began again after some amount of time, he remembered, ears searching for the place that would show him men. And then the tapping stopped.

He waited through the cycle again and again, each time a little less tense, a little less ready for a call to arms. The tiny grinding of stone on stone, when it came, seemed less alarming than it might have on the first day of tapping.

Without warning, a shaft of blinding sunlight speared through the wall of his barrow.

Julfr’s eyes flinched shut and it took slowly gathered will a long time to allow them open the tiniest slits. During those moments, he heard more grinding and several small thumps.

How long since light had touched his eyes? That thought finally pried them open to find the beam a little less blinding and not even directed at him. The light streamed through the darkness above him, sudden dust dancing through its path an arm’s length away.

Almost on its own, his hand rose, fingers outstretched, to intersect the light and feel the first bit of true warmth he could remember since… since he could remember. And he almost couldn’t feel it, the light barely caressing his cold flesh.

He turned his hand back and forth, not daring more, not wishing for more, all thought and sound forgotten until he heard the voice. Harsh, atonal sounds he couldn’t understand filled his space, stealing the wonder of the light and igniting his rage.

Surging up from the pallet, he let the anger take full control, felt it flow through his body, swelling his fists and bones, battle rage remembered and cherished. Three hunching steps carried him to the wall he’d never seen, pushed the burning light into his eyes to fuel his rage. Voices, more than one, babbling incoherent sounds, a combination of excitement and panic as awareness of him spread.

His swollen fists, each half the size of an anvil, struck the wall, shattering it and sending stone dust and sifted soil in a thousand directions and, for the first time in uncountable years, Julfr strode out into daylight. He did so to panic and screaming.

And the screams were pleasing to his ears.

He tasted fresh air, felt the warmth of a late spring sun and reveled to feeling of the breeze kissing his cheeks, but the screams made all the difference. Dirt and grass between his toes, he moved ahead and flailed his arms, smashing anything in his path or near it.

Tables and benches sturdier than they looked, oddly shaped chests of wood and metal and materials he did not know, well made shovels and other tools. The destruction brought great joy to his long-cold heart.

“Hold!”

The word caught him by surprise as much as the voice which spoke it, yelled it, enough that he stopped with both fists raised high in the air. He turned to the right as he lowered them to find a little slip of a woman staring up at him through bits of metal on her face. Confusion seeped past the rage and he felt himself beginning to shrink again, dropping back into the shape he died with. “Who… who are you?” His voice sounded unused even to his own ears, a heavy grinding in his throat.

The woman scrunched up her face. “Name, my name, Laura.” She shook her head several times. “North language hard for me. Old. No one speak today.”

How long had he waited in darkness? How long had his barrow lain undisturbed? Rage began to build again, but didn’t get far as he looked down at her. “You speak.”

“Little. Badly.” She frowned, and he wondered why she wasn’t afraid. “How you here? What you?”

Hard questions to answer when his mind moved so slowly. “I died and returned. I wait and protect.” How could he explain what he didn’t understand? Julfr shrugged. He just was.

She appeared to consider this for a while, opened her mouth, closed it and then paused even longer as she tried to find the words for what she wanted to say. “Protect this place. The things here.”

His body tightened, ready to swell again, ready to rage again. “Yes. Protect.”

She nodded. “We not want take. Want see. Look at. Ask questions. Learn.”

“Why?” What could they get from asking questions? Wasn’t it better to have the things than merely know about them?

“Learning. You long ago. Most lost. Forgotten. We learn.”

The rage drained away completely but curiosity remained. Julfr had been long away from the world and that somehow had value to these intruders. If they were true to her words, there could be benefit to him, to his need.

And if not, he could certainly smash them later.

COLLAPSE

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