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it's the end of the world as we know it

Chapter Text

Rayla wakes up to the sight of Runaan leaning over her, silent.

The silence in and of itself is not alarming. Runaan has always been sparing with words. The proximity is decidedly less normal. Runaan is very much a “personal-space” type of guy. Fearing a scolding, Rayla takes a frantic moment to catalogue all her potential transgressions. Doors? No, no, she’d definitely locked and barred them last night. Weapons? She’d sharpened and cleaned them yesterday afternoon, in full view of him. So that isn’t it.

So what is it?

Deciding to test his mood, she cautiously extracts herself from her tangle of blankets and gets out of bed. He doesn’t even straighten, just turns his head while slightly bent over so that his eyes track her movements. They are shinier than usual today. The reflection of the morning light off their icy irises, combined with the slight glow that always seems to outline his snow-white hair, makes him look like a ghost. Rayla suppresses a shiver.

“Ooookay Runaan. You just stay there and stay creepy. I’ll start on breakfast.”

She all but dashes from the room to their tiny kitchen, desperate to escape Runaan’s strange mood. Her eyes catch on a framed photo perched on the table. In it, Ethari’s gentle face beams into the camera, sunlight setting his bronze skin alight.

Ahh, that must be it. Precisely two months ago, Ethari died. This was before the disease had really kicked off and pretty much decimated the world, so they had time for a funeral. Rayla remembers the gaping emptiness she felt that day, the grief that clamped itself on her throat. She’d loved Ethari like a father. Still, she knows the loss could never be as bad for her as it is for Runaan. Ethari had been her dad, but he was Runaan’s whole world.

In the days after, when more and more people started dying--worse still, turning into those things--Runaan descended into full preparation-mode. Together they gathered supplies and turned their dingy little house into a veritable fortress. When it came to her in particular, Runaan seemed possessed by a supernatural urgency. Before the disease, he’d already trained her thoroughly in swordfighting, and growing up in their wild homeland had afforded her a decent arsenal of survival skills, but in those grim months he drilled her relentlessly in more obscure topics--herbology, toxicology, emergency first-aid. Through it all, he was as strong and stalwart as ever, but the shadow of his grief still lingered. It was impenetrable darkness in their little space.

Night’s come again, Rayla thinks sadly. She is so caught up in her thoughts that she does not notice Runaan standing in the doorway until she hears a whistling breath. She whirls around, alarmed--Runaan doesn’t breathe loud enough for others to hear. Doesn’t wheeze.

He’s staring at her again. Still not speaking. Well, if he’s gonna be weird, she’s gonna be weird right back, she decides, meeting his blank gaze with her own. Now that she’s paying closer attention, she can see the slight sheen of sweat on his forehead. That’s really weird. Runaan never breaks a sweat running, let alone standing in their perpetually cold house. The odd shine in his eyes she’d noticed earlier too merits scrutiny. It’s really more of a clouded gloss, and there is a yellowish tinge to the whites.

For a moment, she is far away, gripping Ethari’s hand as he thrashes about in the hospital bed. Runaan looks a little bit now like Ethari did then. Runaan looks sick.

She realizes it right as Runaan lunges for her. It’s only a decade of training that allows her to overcome her shock and dodge. Raising her leg, she aims a vicious kick at his chest. He stumbles back from the force, granting her a few precious seconds to put some distance between them. Still facing him, she scrambles away, pressing herself into the farthest corner in the kitchen. It’s a stupid move, but she doesn’t have the sense to think right now. Her mind is a haze of screaming panic. This can’t be happening this can’t be happening this can’t be happening--

“Jesus fuck, Runaan!” she screeches as he lurches towards her again. Some distant part of her mind registers how goddamn lucky she is he’s sick. If he were attacking her at full capacity and she was acting like this, she would have been dead already.

They dance around the table for a while, his movements sluggish, hers clumsy with panic. She could end this right now, grab a kitchen knife and run him through, but it’s as though the rational part of her brain has shut down. All she can think about is Runaan, that he’s sick--he wasn’t supposed to get sick.

“Runaan, please! Snap out of it! You can fight this, I know you can--” She cuts off, throat too tight to speak. To her horror, tears slip from her eyes, coating her cheeks and soaring off the edge of her jaw. Her vision blurs slightly. Normally, crying would be humiliating. Right now it can be downright fatal.

Pull yourself together, Rayla. She will not die today. She reaches deep inside herself, to that yawning well of ice and rock that allowed her to weather her youth. Touching it, letting its cool stability wash over her, dry her tears, she takes a steadying breath. She will not die today.

A few sidesteps to the left bring her close enough to touch the knife block. Unfortunately, she’s a lot closer to Runaan now too, a fact made very clear to her when he snarls, revealing purulent sores all around his tongue. Oh, Runaan. In a smooth motion that belies the tremor in her hands, she draws the bread knife out of its hold. She lets instinct guide her movements as she draws her arm back and adjusts her grip.

Runaan snarls again and leans forward to rush her. Slick as oil, she slides under his reaching arms, momentum drawing her to him so that her elbow is aligned with his center.

“I’m sorry.”

She plunges the knife into his chest.

Chapter Text

For a moment she’s not sure if Runaan is even dead. Is this a true zombie sort of thing—does she have to strike the brain? Is she going to have to go through this nightmare again? The panic creeps back in, gnawing at the icy calm that led her hand before. But then there is relief: he sways a bit on the spot and finally falls back, somehow still graceful and definitely very dead.

There’s a dead man in their kitchen.

She killed a man.

She killed Runaan.

She stares at him for a while, oddly blank, eyes absurdly fixated on the handle sticking out of his chest. Her traitorous mind conjures the image of him rising, the picture of health as he yanks the knife out and congratulates her on a job well done.

He isn’t going to be doing that. He isn’t going to be doing much of anything, Rayla, because you fucking killed him.

The panic returns full force. She staggers back, clutching the table for support. She wants nothing more than to get the hell out of here, but leaving the kitchen would mean she has to step over Runaan’s corpse. She’s not ready for that yet.

So she retreats, going as far away from him as space allows, and lets herself unravel. Her parents. Ethari. Runaan. When will it ever stop? What more does she have to lose?

Yourself. You can still lose yourself.

It honestly doesn’t sound too bad. She hasn’t truly felt like herself in a long time, stuck in a foreign country with too few friends and too much anger. She’s already been fading. It wouldn’t be that hard to just...let it continue. Still, some deep-buried instinct in her--the survivor, she supposes--revolts against the thought. You didn’t just pike your de-facto father to give up now.

She’ll live. She’ll go home. Leave behind this lonely city and return to Shab, to their tidy farm blanketed by reaching trees. She’ll eat moonberries again and smell air spiced with pine. She’ll make her family proper graves, even if they’ll be empty. Maybe someday she’ll even be able to forget all of this ever happened.

It’s a childish dream, but something to aim for nonetheless. She can work with that.

She feels a bit shaky when she finally gets up, but her vision is clear. At the heels of her receding panic comes the inkling of organization. First order of business: deal with Runaan. Wincing at the crassness of the thought, she forces herself to look at him, to take in his empty stare and try to think objectively. She’s a badass spy; she can do this.

She should bury him. It’s the right thing to do—it’s what he deserves—but logistically she has some reservations. Runaan has (had, it’s had now) just shy of a foot and four stone on her. Under the best of circumstances, he’d be difficult to move. Under current circumstances, he’ll be near impossible. Two months of eating ration portions have sapped her strength; not to mention, he fell on the side of the table farthest from the yard door. To get him to it, she’d have to somehow lift his body over the table or negotiate it through the narrow space between the table and wall.

You’re in no condition to be digging graves, either. The soil out there is hard as rock. The effort could cost her days, nevermind the risk of that much exposure to a dead body. A proper burial just isn’t in the cards.

I’m sorry, Runaan. Funny how even in death she lets him down.

Enough of that. She still has a lot to do. Sucking in a breath, she steps over him, nearly coming undone again when her foot brushes his bare arm and she is violently reminded of how cold, how gone he is. Enough of that. You need to focus, you fool.

Swords, she needs her swords. Clothes. Food. Shoving all feeling away, she sets about raiding the house for supplies with a precision that would make even Runaan proud. Into two backpacks she crams a few changes of clothes and her thick winter jacket, a blanket and bottled water, a shallow pot, cans of beans and jars of peanut butter, trail mix, antiseptic and a thick roll of bandages, a neat little blade, and a lighter. Using a length of rope, she ties the inner straps of the bags together. This way, she’ll be able to wear both bags as if they were one, with the outer strap on each on her shoulders. Her back twinges at the thought of their weight. At very least, they won’t bounce as much as they would if kept separate.

On her final pass through the storage room, her eyes catch on the jug of gasoline in the corner. That’s the ticket. With grim triumph she grabs it and as much paper as she can find.

When she finally steps out from the front door, she is greeted by an overcast sky and empty streets. She hasn’t actually been outside in weeks and feels inexplicably altered for it. Breathing in once, twice, she closes the door on the hot blast of air from behind her. Turns around. Looks at the house.

She’s hated it ever since they got here. Looking at it now, though, she can’t deny that it’s guarded her well for the past few months. He’s guarded her well. She only hopes that the fire consumes him before the rain comes. He would not appreciate having his body set upon by scavengers.

The air’s getting a bit thicker now. Time to go.

A part of her considers staying. It would be so easy to curl up next to Runaan, to hold Ethari’s picture, to let her sadness and soul rise with the smoke.

This family will not end with you. Get moving.

She’s not sure who the voice belongs to, but the survivor in her sings with it all the same. So she takes one step, then another, walking down the silent street away from the sun. Towards home.

Chapter Text

She’s been walking all of ten minutes when the sky opens. The rain is viciously cold. It seeps easily through her thin sweater and chills her bones. Only her boots, high and tight as they are, are spared getting soaked through. Rayla flicks her hood up and grinds her teeth, fighting her automatic disgust at the sensation of water on skin. Get a grip, you big baby.

She forces herself to look up and around, but really there’s not much to be seen. The street is still eerily empty. She’s passed one body and a whole lot of trash, but nothing alive. Even the strays that used to wander the city and entertain passerby are mysteriously absent. In their place is an almost tangible hush that chokes the air. This city and what it represents may have caused her endless pain, but even she can admit she misses the noise. The life.

During her months quarantined with Runaan, he’d insisted she stay inside. It’s chaos out there, he would say, eyes darker than she’d ever seen them. Tight-lipped and abstruse as ever, he’d never gone into too much detail, no matter how much she asked, but his expression had done enough explaining.

To think so much has changed since then….

Shaking away the sadness, she looks up again. She’s getting on to some of the richer blocks now. These houses, much larger and cleaner than her own, array in neat rows, flowers bursting from boxes on their windows. Some of them even boast a few moon lilies. The sight of them feels simultaneously like a sucker punch and a warm hug. Back home, Ethari used to collect them and braid them into her hair at the end of a hard day. It’s been a long time since she’s had a lily braid.

She’s so distracted that she doesn’t notice the boys until she is close enough to hear them. Their cries startle her. Embarrassed with herself, she whips her head towards the noise. There. They are on the balcony of one of the houses at the end of the street, jumping up and down and waving their arms like madmen. She isn’t close enough to see much of their faces, but she can hear the fear in their calls. Whoever these kids are, they’re in trouble.

Don’t be a hero Rayla. You’re gonna get yourself killed.

Even as she thinks it, she’s walking faster. Looking at the house. The doors seem heavy--it’d be a pain to break them down. And she’s a shit lockpicker. The windows though….

By the time she reaches the house, the boys have disappeared from the balcony, or at least as much of it as she can see. Urgency pricking at her chest, she picks up a big rock and chucks it through the nearest window. The glass shatters. Loudly. Loud enough for anyone in the house to hear.

Please don’t let zombies have good hearing. Or hearing at all.

She leaps cleanly through the window and lands silently on the tiled floor of what has to be a sort of living room. The ceiling is ludicrously high, the furniture sleek and expensive-looking, if a little dusty. It’d probably be a very nice place in the sunlight, but now, in the dim, it looks like a tomb. Rayla shivers.

She can’t hear anything out of place, but that doesn’t mean much. Runaan had been quiet enough before he’d tried to eat her, after all. So Rayla draws her swords and stays low, creeping across the tile towards the staircase. She climbs it unmolested.

Unfortunately, that’s where her peace ends. The staircase leads into the middle of a long, narrow hallway lined with an absurd number of doors.

This would be a horrible place to get attacked, she thinks, right before she’s attacked.

A figure throws itself at her from the dark of the room right in front of the stairs. The impact knocks her to the side, and her head hits the wall hard. Dazed, she can only raise her left arm when he lunges at her again. Too slow. He sinks his teeth deep into her wrist.

She’s been bitten before. Raising animals, near wild shadowpaws included, always had its accidents. It’s never hurt like this, though. Maybe it’s the disease, maybe this zombie just has super fucking human jaws--whatever it is, it sets her whole body on fire. Overwhelmed by the pain, she drops her left sword. Her vision goes black for a moment.

When she returns to reality, the monster is still clamped to her arm. With a shout she drives the hilt of her right sword into his head, once, twice, until he finally releases and stumbles back.

I’m not done yet. Something savage in her has come alive. Letting her left arm flop to her side, she brings up the right again, slicing swiftly into his throat. She does it once more for good measure. The man finally drops.

Ears ringing, Rayla picks up her sword and steps back to take in the carnage. There’s pus and blood and something... else splattered on the walls, some on her front too. All the remains of the second person she’s killed today, fuck. Forcefully pulling herself away from that train of thought, she turns to the more cheerful matter of her left wrist. Delicately she brings it up to eye level and immediately looks away from it again. The glimpse she got was more than enough—the skin there is mangled, though the worst of it is obscured by a generous amount of blood. She can’t really feel it anymore.

You’re in shock. Get the boys and get the hell out.

She continues down the hall, keenly aware of all the open doors and dark rooms next to her. Right now she’s in poor fighting form. If she’s ambushed again…

Garlath must’ve taken pity on her, finally, because she reaches the closed door at the end of the hall relatively whole. Trying the door knob reveals it’s locked. Annoying, but a good sign. If the boys are anywhere, it’s probably here. Still, she’s not going to risk shouting out for them. If her wonderful encounter at the stairs is anything to go by, the boys aren’t the only ones here. On the off chance that it’s zombies and not them in this room, she’s going to hold onto the element of surprise as long as she can.

Guess I’ll have to kick the damn thing down. Impossible at the front, but this door is not unlike the ones in her house. It’s flimsy. Still, she’ll have to get this right the first time, or she can kiss her goddy surprise goodbye.

Bouncing a bit on her toes, she backs up. Adjusts her grip on her blades. Takes a breath, long and easy. Then she’s powering forward, quiet and quick, coiling her leg in and whipping it straight into the space above the doorknob.

The door blows inward, momentum bringing her with it. She’s hardly straightened when something dark and small hurtles towards her face and hits her square in the forehead.

She blacks out.

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Three days. It’s been three days since Harrow came to them, sweaty and jaundiced, and told them to stay put. Told them he was going out for more food and would return with their secret knock and that, under no condition, should they open the door for anything else. He’d made Callum promise to take care of his brother.

Callum should’ve known then that he wasn’t coming back.

The first day had been okay. Callum and Ezran had spent the hours playing cards and drawing. They’d eaten crackers and washed them down with cool water. It’d almost felt like old times. When they’d gone to bed, they had been content, even hopeful.

They’d started hearing moans outside the door the second day. Something--several things--banged against the door periodically throughout the evening and well into the night.

The scratching began the next morning. It was quieter than the banging but somehow more sinister. Callum had known then that they should leave, but he’d known equally well that they’d probably be killed the second they tried. He’s no fighter, and Ezran’s, well, ten.

So he’d ushered his little brother out onto the connecting balcony under the guise of fresh air, nurturing the secret hope he might spot help, or better—Harrow. Seeing the figure in the distance had been a miracle. It was too small to be an adult, but its gait was normal, not the limping slog of the few zombies they’d seen from their windows.

Unfortunately, Callum never saw Rayla enter the house. He’d only heard the sounds of a fight and assumed the worst. His heart had stopped when the door knob turned, more force and intelligence in the motion than anything else in the previous days. It seemed whatever had been there before had come to get them once and for all.

Ezran can’t die. I have to protect my little brother. So he’d picked up his sketchbook and, in a rare feat of athleticism, chucked it at the first thing to come through the door.

Which brings him here. To the present.

He is rooted to the spot, gaping at the unconscious girl on their floor. Her hood is up, so he can’t see her face, but she is unmistakably a kid. Someone he definitely should not be attacking—

Oh god oh god did I kill her????

With a little gasp, Ez rushes to her side. The motion breaks Callum out of his stupor, and he follows suit, hands fluttering nervously over her prone form. He still can’t really process that he did this. Of course the one time he can actually throw, he knocks some random girl out. Of course. Callum leans a little closer, half to check for injury and half to better see her face. His breath ghosts across her cheek.

Suddenly her eyes fly open and, faster than Callum can even process, she shoots up to her feet. With an undignified scream, Callum falls back, right on his ass.

He can’t even think to be embarrassed because he is too busy staring. Her hood has fallen, revealing features unlike anything he’s even seen before.

Radiant white hair. Big purple eyes. Silvery, slightly luminescent skin.

Beautiful.