The breath of the world will rise in the chilling fog,
Flowing over low-lying graves where the throat of the earth opens;
Once taking in the dead, now it breathes them out...
Maia stared in stunned despair as the zombies emerged from the deep crevasse that split the ground of the cemetery. The Grim Reaper had uttered an incantation, breaking the barrier which confined the hordes of undead to the underworld for centuries. Now the zombies were unleashed upon the world, just as had been foretold. The prophecy of the Serpent Mistress had come true, but it was not by Kadru’s own actions...
Turning her tear-streaked face to Samael, Maia struggled to speak. There were so many thoughts whirling uncontrollably in her mind that she couldn’t get a grip on any of them, and the only word that she could manage to force out was, “Why?!”
“Because I finally had the opportunity to act, and this way is guaranteed to kill Kadru. She was the one who created these zombies, tearing the living souls from all these people and imprisoning them in the deepest underworld pit to amass an undead army. Their memories are long; the zombies will recognize her and take their revenge. And they won’t stop until she is destroyed forever,” Samael said.
“I don’t understand! How would she be able to use them to take over the world if they would turn on her so readily?”
“She never meant to command them personally. Kadru would’ve had her other undead followers lead the attacks on the cities of this world, systematically exterminating every living being on the planet. And once she had taken control of this world, she would have the means to do the same to countless other planets. But by releasing the zombies myself before Kadru was prepared, I’ve thrown her plans into chaos and ensured her demise—cutting off the head of the snake, so to speak.”
By then, the undead had noticed Kadru. “Look how they race to surround her!” Samael exclaimed. “And after so many years of perpetual darkness, she must glow so brightly to their eyes with the souls of all those she has consumed!”
Kadru had attempted to weave a spell to save herself, but within seconds the zombies had rushed her, trapping her among them with the press of their bodies as they slammed into her and one another in their attempts to seize her. The Serpent Mistress screamed once, shrilly, but her voice was cut off abruptly as the sheer weight of her many attackers crushed the breath from her. And in the silence afterwards, Maia could hear small bones breaking and strange liquid sounds.
“They will feed on her flesh while she is still aware, until every soul she has ever devoured has been released. It will take some time and she will suffer at least as much pain as that she has inflicted on others during her lifetime,” Samael said quietly, “so you may prefer not to watch.”
Maia gagged at the thought and turned her head away, but she couldn’t block out the hideous noises of the zombies feasting on Kadru’s still living body.
“And what then?” Maia asked loudly, trying to drown out the sounds the zombies made as they fed. “What will they do after they’ve had their revenge on her?”
Samael sighed. “Once Kadru has been destroyed, the zombies will continue to seek out any being that glows with life—anyone that has a soul—and they will feed on each one until that soul is released in death, but their bites will transfer the reanimation magic like an infection to the uneaten remains, making those bodies become zombies as well and further increasing their own numbers. Kadru designed the spell that way to make up for expected battle losses through attrition during her intended takeover of the world. In fact, now may be a good time for you to go before the zombies become aware of your presence.”
“But what about you?”
“I once shared the pit with them, remember? I’m undead and no longer have a soul harbored within my body; they will have no interest in me.”
“But can’t you get them back into the pit and reseal it?” Maia asked, afraid she already knew the answer.
Samael shook his head slowly. “There is no returning them to the underworld now. I have power as the Reaper to collect and guide dead souls only; I have nothing in me to sway the undead.”
“Then I will stay and fight them,” Maia said with determination. “As a witch I have the power and the responsibility that it entails. My daylight spells can destroy them, one by one.”
“No! Even Kadru, with all her own power and that of the souls she has devoured, wasn’t quick enough to stop them all—you saw it with your own eyes! And this is only the first wave; you can’t fight an entire ocean of undead alone! I didn’t go through everything I have for all these years only to see you die now! You have to run!”
“Run to where? If what you say is true, these zombies will eventually destroy the entire world and everyone I love in it! I thought you were supposed to keep the zombies imprisoned in the underworld—how could you even think to release them, fully knowing what was to come??”
“I couldn’t bear the thought of your soul’s torment in a burning star again! How could I simply return to the underworld after opening the portal for Diana, knowing what suffering awaited you, knowing that I had the power to stop it?”
“So you ‘saved’ me from burning in a star only to sentence me to die and become a zombie, as well as condemning everyone else on this planet??” Maia asked with shocked incredulity.
“You at least have a chance of escaping to a safe place this way; there was no hope for you at all against Kadru and I love you too much to lose you again!”
“I don’t care!” Maia screamed as she slapped him as hard as she could. “You’ve destroyed my trust in you with all your secrets and half-truths! You’ve destroyed the world, Samael! You’ve destroyed everything and left me with nothing! I HATE YOU!”
And then Maia turned her back on Death, and ran for home.
Samael watched Maia until she was out of sight. For now, he would have to content himself with the thought that she would escape. Then he turned back to witness the zombies put an end to Kadru forever. It wouldn’t be long now...
Maia raced for home as quickly as she could. She should’ve gotten winded by now, but her breath control had improved greatly from all her nights of jogging with Diana.
Oh, Diana! Maia thought, her breath catching. The loss of her familiar and beloved pet made Maia want to drop to her knees and weep.
No, it was best not to think of Diana now. Better to plan what she was going to do to save her children and anyone else she could, and think of where they might go to escape this nightmare come true.
Maia reached her house and, still running, flung open the front door.
Isak, who had stopped over to do his usual maintenance on A.C.E., dropped his tools at her abrupt entrance and the look of panic on her face.
“Maia, what’s wrong??”
“The zombies... released... from the underworld,” Maia panted. “Not safe here... have to leave now!”
“Get the children,” Isak commanded. “I’ll pack some bags while you do.”
Maia snatched Gavin from his crib, wishing there was time for more gentleness, but doing her best to soothe the now cranky toddler, then raced upstairs to wake Celeste and Avalon.
Meanwhile, Isak packed some clothing fresh from the dryer, and directed A.C.E. to gather some food from the fridge for the upcoming journey, enough to fill a couple backpacks. Then he instructed the Plumbot to power down. There wasn’t enough room in the vehicle for everyone, and A.C.E., being a non-sentient Plumbot, had nothing to fear from soul-devouring zombies.
By that time, Maia had the children ready to go. She shouldered one of the backpacks and then she, Isak and the kids all raced to the car.
“Where should we go?” Isak asked her.
“I don’t know yet!” Maia wailed. She hadn’t gotten very far in her planning; this whole situation was entirely too sudden, and despair had left her heart and mind exhausted.
“Okay,” Isak said, trying to keep his voice calm. “But we need to decide very soon; time is running short; it’s almost dawn already.”
“Almost dawn,” Maia repeated, feeling the weight of the words on her tongue. She had the sense there was something in that phrase that would help lead her to where she needed to go. “Almost dawn... almost dawn,” she chanted repeatedly as she tried to force an understanding. And suddenly she had it.
“The darkest hour is just before dawn! The darkest hour! Shravan said that if I didn’t know where to turn in my darkest hour, to go to him and he would help me through it! We need to get to Lucky Fortunes and find Shravan!”
With that, everyone piled into the car and they sped through the empty pre-dawn streets of Lucky Palms.
When they arrived at Lucky Fortunes, Shravan was sitting at the table outside, staring into the scrying crystal. “So dark...” Maia heard him mutter to himself.
“Shravan!” Maia called out, and her fortuneteller friend looked up at her.
“It is truly upon us then; the time of darkness?” he asked her.
Maia nodded regretfully. “The undying evils from the underworld have been released into the world,” she confirmed. “You said I could come to you in this dark hour, but... where do we go from here?”
“There are a few locations that may be secure,” Shravan answered. “The likeliest places are where large numbers of various supernaturals live, like Moonlight Falls. I suggest you tell everyone you love to flee there; if it comes to a siege against the zombies, they are the best prepared to fight them off and survive. Islands are even safer—zombies cannot cross water unaided and piloting a boat is beyond their intelligence—although I don’t know if there are going to be many ways to reach distant islands once the undead begin to swarm the land in greater numbers.”
Maia immediately sent out mass text messages to everyone in her phone that the zombie apocalypse had begun, and to escape to an island if they could manage or a supernatural-heavy location like Moonlight Falls. She was grateful that many of her older children and their families were already in such areas, and those who were not could get there quickly with the head start she had provided them.
“But what about everyone else in Lucky Palms?” she asked Shravan.
Shravan hesitated for a moment before answering. “After you leave I will trigger the city’s evacuation sirens to sound a warning. I can’t promise all the townsfolk will heed them, but it’s the best I can do with so little time left. But more importantly, we need to get you to a safe location.”
“But shouldn’t I just drive back to Moonlight Falls too? I can help fight there and...”
“No!” Shravan interrupted her. “Where there is guaranteed to be fighting is somewhere you cannot go! I will use my magic to open a portal for you to go through, which will transport you to a distant island location instead. You are too valuable to risk!”
“But it’s my duty as an expert witch to help!”
“No, Maia. Your duty is to complete your baby challenge and you have not yet finished this task!”
“But the zombies have already been released, and Kadru, the originator of the prophecy, is either dead or being devoured by them as we speak! What possible use is finishing my challenge now?”
“Not all curses end with the death of the one who cast it. And although I can no longer see past the darkness that surrounds the future to know for certain, perhaps finishing the task will put right the wrongs Kadru and her allies have inflicted upon our world. I can only speculate about that, but I know that there is no hope for this world without you, so you must survive! Are we in agreement?”
“No! But I will go anyway, if only because I know it will be safer my children,” Maia answered with reluctance.
“Then tell me, what islands have you visited? The teleportation spell I must use only works when one of the people traveling has been to that location before.”
“I’ve only ever been to Isla Paradiso,” Maia replied doubtfully, as she considered having to endure the apocalypse in the vicinity of her ex-husband, Reid.
Shravan seemed to instinctively understand Maia’s aversion to return to that particular island. “What about you, Isak? Have you ever been to an island?”
Isak’s face turned pale. “Only Aurora Skies. But I really don’t think we should...”
“Aurora Skies?” Maia interrupted. She remembered the brief vision of the beautiful, wintry landscape she’d had when she had tried to do a reading on Isak years ago. She also recalled the sense of emptiness and pain she felt when seeing it, as well as the bleak and lonely future she interpreted would come from it. With all that had happened recently... those feelings of bleak emptiness now made a great deal of sense. Perhaps her reading hadn’t been so very wrong after all.
“Maybe the reading I did for you was accurate, Isak,” Maia mused aloud. “Maybe my vision of Aurora Skies was a prediction that we would go there in the future!”
“Perfect!” Shravan said, and he slapped his hand over Isak’s face to reach into Isak’s memories and get a fix on the island where he intended to send them.
Suddenly, a magical gateway appeared and Maia gaped as she recognized the place she had seen in her reading. It hardly seemed real, and yet she could feel the wintry chill emanating from the doorway into the dry desert air of Lucky Palms.
“You’ll feel a bit of disorientation as you’re transported there, but that will soon pass,” Shravan was saying. “But you need to go through quickly; I can’t hold the portal open for very long, and time is short!” Sweat already beaded on Shravan’s forehead with the effort it took to hold the passageway open.
“Hang on a second, Maia,” Isak said. He turned to Shravan and said urgently, “Aurora Skies may be safe from the zombies, but... there are other problems there we don’t have time to discuss now. There has to be somewhere else we can go! Can’t you open a different doorway for us to go through?”
“I’ve already expended all the magic reserves I had hoarded for this very moment; it is the only option now,” Shravan said, beginning to tremble with the strain.
“But I swore I would go back after all that has happened there!”
“It’s either there or nowhere!” Shravan snapped, running out of patience and nearing the end of his strength. “Maia cannot stay here and if she is to go through this passageway, so must you! Even if your presence were not a requirement for her to pass through this portal, whatever trials she may face in Aurora Skies will have a better outcome if you are there to guide her. You are her friend, Isak! Maia needs you. Your vow to never return there is nothing next to that!”
When Shravan put it that way, Isak knew he had no other choice. He only hoped the decision wouldn’t be one he regretted. “Then I will lead her through,” he said in resignation.
And the world held its breath as they all stepped through the portal...