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World on Fire

Book Two of the Stone World Saga

By Cassiopeia Fletcher

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Chapter One
Oahu, Hawaii

Hina Gulch, Oahu
July 22, xxx6
07:09

Jason Stone was not an emotional man. He also wasn’t much of an excitable, sensitive, romantic, or even generally expressive man. Stoic was the word Kanae preferred. Although, after six years of getting on her nerves, ‘stoic’ had become less of an insult and more of a pet name. Stoic Stone, she called him, like the dad from How To Train Your Dragon. Jason held that Kanae was genuinely amused when he grew a full, bushy beard of strawberry blond curls.

He was, however, a happy man. And he occasionally allowed that to show.

“You’re grinning,” Zac said, his voice barely a whisper as he timed his words to the rustle of wind through the trees. “Like an idiot.”

Jason shrugged, not bothering to stifle his supposedly idiotic grin, and went back to working on the pig carcass hung by its back ankles over the duff mottled forest floor. There was hardly any blood, as expected after such a long bleed, so his knife wasn’t slick as he worked the blade through the thin but durable skin on the pig’s underside. He slit the pig from crotch to nose, careful to avoid rupturing the bladder or intestines and ruin the meat. This was for his wedding, and his wedding was going to be perfect.

“Seriously, Jason,” Zac continued. “You never grin this much. It’s starting to freak me out.”

A low chuckle rumbled in his chest, and Jason rubbed his forearm across his face to mop up the thin sheen of moisture clinging to his skin after the earlier rain. It wasn’t a storm or even a full shower, just a light misting of rain falling from a crystal blue sky. Those warm rains were Kanae’s favorites.

“I’m allowed to grin like an idiot,” Jason said, looking over his shoulder at his stone-faced little brother. His grin broadened. “I’m getting married tonight.”

Zac’s clenched jaw twitched at the reminder, and Jason rolled his eyes. He’d known about his brother’s psychosis for far too long to feel offended by Zac’s lack of enthusiasm for his upcoming nuptials.

“Zac,” Jason said, waiting until his brother reluctantly met his eyes. “This isn’t our first rodeo. We have sentries lined up and everyone knows to keep the noise level to a dull roar. Nothing is going to happen.”

“Nothing has happened before, but that doesn’t mean it won’t. We shouldn’t take chances.”

Jason snorted and turned back to the pig he’d split open, reaching inside to pull the guts free and into the short barrel that had held the pig’s drained blood not an hour before. The sight of the red-handprint stained barrel didn’t bother him. Jason knew they’d find it empty—the barrel overturned with the blood soaked duff ravaged by desperately scraping hands as zombies shoveled the warm, frothy filth into blackened, lipless mouths—because every time they’d done this before, Jason had stayed behind to watch and wait until the zombies left and it was safe to move the carcass to a bloodless clearing for cleaning and gutting.

Today, however, Jason had more pressing things on his schedule than watching mindless, naked human-animals scrape their brittle, broken fingernails in the dirt to draw up every bite of blood-soaked earth. Zac took over that duty instead. Which accounted for his higher than usual tension; the way he kept his bow strung and fitted, why his eyes constantly darted along the trees that edged the small clearing they’d stopped in to dress the pig. Of course, after the attack last week, Zac probably would have been on edge regardless of the Zombie Feast.

Still, after what was an undeniably gruesome show, it had surprised Jason when Zac decided to stay near him in the clearing rather than slipping off to nest in the trees. He should have known it was in preparation for this moment. It was the perfect segue into why Jason should cancel the village-wide festivities and simply add Kanae to their family registry.

“Kanae deserves a real wedding,” Jason said as he carefully cut free the pig’s liver and kidneys before setting them aside to be cleaned and prepped for the wedding feast.

“Kanae doesn’t want a ‘real wedding,’” Zac returned. “She’s only said so a thousand times.”

“You’re listening to what she says, not what she means. Believe me, I would never hear the end of it if I didn’t go through with the whole shebang.”

Which reminded him, he needed to dig up some taro for poi before they headed back to the village. He’d seen a wild patch growing alongside Kamehameha Highway a few weeks ago that should be more than enough. They had taro in the village, of course, but it was always best to supplement their supplies with wild produce when possible.

They would need something to carry the roots home in, but he could probably guilt Zac into weaving a basket since he was just standing around leaving Jason to do all the dirty work—

“Do you smell that?”

“Not unless you’re talking about porky’s insides.” Jason half turned and raised an inquisitive brow. Zac wasn’t watching him; instead he’d stiffened further—if that was even possible—his blue eyes darting frantically along the shadowed patches of forest. It was barely seven a.m., so there were more shadows than not as the sun slowly crept toward its zenith. Deep shadows that seemed to stretch into an endless void.

“Zac?”

Adrenaline itched at his skin, and Jason reached for his short sword with one hand while still clutching the gutting knife with his right. He still couldn’t smell what Zac did, but he could feel it. Jason cursed himself for leaving Strages, his claymore, at the forge, but at the time, it hadn’t seemed like much of a choice. After yesterday’s Hunt, he’d needed to strip it down and submerge it in a sanitation tub after zombie blood had seeped into the crevices and leather hilt wrapping. Instead, he’d brought a common gladius and his hunting knife, but that should have been enough. This clearing was well away from any zombie nesting grounds; there was too much ground water.

But then, water hadn’t made a difference a week ago.

Zac had his bow drawn back so far the goose fletching brushed his right cheek as he sighted down the shaft. Jason stood and switched his blades so the sword was in his right hand and the knife in his left. He still couldn’t see anything, or smell it for that matter, but he trusted his brother’s judgement. If Zac thought something was out there, then Jason would assume something was out there.

They stood there for a long moment, their backs against the lone tree in what was otherwise a decent sized clearing. Neither man moved nor blinked; they barely breathed. It was possible the zombies would leave if they stayed motionless, but not likely. Jason tossed a glance at Zac, whose right arm was beginning to tremble minutely from the strain of his drawn bow.

“What are they waiting for?” Zac hissed, glaring down the arrow shaft.

“Hard to say,” Jason returned. He couldn’t see the zombies himself, but he doubted Zac could either. Their presence was less of a sense and more of a feeling. “They’ve been getting smarter. Maybe they’re trying to ambush us.”

A tense silence followed. Both turned at once, and Zac barely sighted before releasing his arrow into the breast of an encroaching zombie. It shrieked and jerked backward off its feet as bright orange-red blood mingled with the caked filth on its naked skin. Three other zombies followed behind the first, but they stopped their terrifyingly stealthy approach and instead sprinted for the freshly spilled blood of their injured companion, tearing off chunks of the half-dead creature’s flesh and stuffing them into their chewed mouths.

Jason cringed but was otherwise unaffected. It was a gruesome sight, but not an unfamiliar one. One of the Hunters’ primary tactics when dealing with zombies was to use their cannibalistic tendencies against them. He’d long grown used to their rabid, animalistic natures and pitied the creatures more than anything. Not that his pity would stop him from killing them. Or, more accurately, stop him from using them to kill each other.

With the three zombies distracted by their impromptu meal, Jason shot Zac a quick glance and motioned for him to circle around the clearing. Zac nodded, and they broke apart, Zac going left and Jason right. As expected, the remaining zombie pack broke rank under the scent of fresh blood and raced into the clearing, screaming wildly as they charged. Zac let loose two arrows at once before following immediately with a third. The first and third arrows lodged neatly in the eye and throat of two separate zombies, who were quickly overcome by their fellows, but the second arrow merely clipped a third zombie when it ducked the shaft, drawing a thick, bloody gash across its scarred skull. None of the other zombies even tried to attack this one despite the wound; it was clearly the Alpha.

A burly, bronze skinned zombie lunged at Jason, moving faster than its massively muscled body would suggest, but he was used to that. Zombies were always faster and stronger than their human counterparts; that was the main reason why wounding and moving on had become the Hunters’ primary offensive strategy. It might take a human two or three blows to finish a zombie if he was lucky, but two or more zombies on one was no contest.

Ducking beneath the creature’s beefy arm, Jason switched his grip on the Roman style sword he held and gutted the zombie with an in-and-out sideswipe. He straightened and back-stepped the creature’s flailing as it bled-out. Another zombie raced toward the fresh meal, but Jason saw it—him, technically—approaching from his peripheral vision and took a single step to the right. He raised his knife, the blade held out backward, and the charging zombie impaled itself straight through the heart. Jason back-kicked the zombie off his knife and flicked away as much blood as he could, not wanting it to pool over the guard and slick the hilt.

The bronze skinned zombie lay sprawled on its back, flailing and struggling to stand despite its intestines hanging out. Jason stepped up beside it and swung down with his sword, severing the creature’s neck to its spine. It stopped struggling but still twitched and gurgled. The spark of pity in his gut swelled, but Jason didn’t have time to finish the creature off before another one was on him.

The new creature’s iron-gripped hand locked around Jason’s right arm, and its long, filthy nails dug sharply into the tender flesh on the inside of his wrist. He didn’t try to break free—he’d only manage to break his wrist—and instead turned into the zombie’s naked chest and juggled the knife in his off-hand from a back-grip to a fore-grip before driving it point first through the fleshy underside of the creature’s jaw. The zombie screamed and reeled back, ripping the knife free on its own and releasing its grip on Jason’s arm out of reflex. It keeled backward, stiff as a board.

“Down!” Zac yelled, and Jason dropped to one knee without thought. He felt the displaced air on his back as an arrow shot passed and buried to the fletching in the neck of an approaching zombie. How many did that make now? Seven? Eight? A normal sized horde was around 12-15 zombies, so how many did that leave? He probably should have been counting.

“Going over,” Zac announced milliseconds before he arrived, rolling over Jason’s back to land on his other side. Jason rose as Zac landed, and they stood back to back. Taking comfort from one another’s sturdy presence, they stood at the ready, Zac with his bow and Jason with his knife and sword.

“I’m out of arrows,” Zac said, releasing a final volley as he spoke. Two zombies went down with arrows buried in their left eyes.

Jason did a quick scan of the clearing that had seemed almost uncomfortably large before it was suddenly filled with bodies in various states of alive-ness. There were twenty-three either dead or incapacitated with six others feasting on the remains while seven more hung back as they seemingly calculated a means of attack. Thirty-six zombies in all. It was by far the largest horde Jason had ever seen—most zombie hordes tended to scale themselves down when food got scarce. A horde this large meant they were all well enough fed to deter cannibalism, and that made Jason nervous.

The Alpha was among the seven watchers, his dark brown eyes shining with an almost terrifying intelligence. Like the others, its lips were chewed to a gruesome, blackened rim, but its rich brown skin, while dirty, lacked the usual layer of crusted dermis common to the zombie hordes; as if this zombie had recently bathed. That, more than anything else, disturbed Jason down to his gut. Zombies weren’t supposed to like water.

“Most of them are ignoring the wounded,” Zac said, his back pressing harder into Jason’s. “It’s just like what happened before.”

“Good, that means we know how to handle them: kill them from the start.”

“Yes, because it’s that easy. We’ll stroll right over and slit their throats one by one while they wait for us to finish.”

Jason nudged his brother with one brawny shoulder. “You managed before.”

“There were six last time, I had twice the numbers we have now, and I still came back half dead.”

“You’re a glass half-empty kind of person, aren’t you?”

“If I am, it’s because I was dumb enough to take a drink before I realized it was poison.”

“Don’t be such a drama queen.” Something shifted, and Jason glanced down at the writhing body at his feet; it was the zombie whose neck he’d partially severed. He flipped his knife to hold it by the tip before flinging it down into the zombie’s eye. It stopped moving.

“Did you bring Fire and Brimstone?”

Zac grunted. “Stop calling them that; it’s the stupidest name for a pair of swords.”

“Yeah, because ‘Shadow and Soul’ is so much better.”

“It’s Kage to Tamashi!” Zac dropped his empty quiver but kept the bow in hand as he pulled a pair of identical black swords with red corded grips from the leather sheath on his back. “And where’s your monster blade? Don’t tell me you left it at home.”

“All right,” Jason agreed, ducking to retrieve his knife from the dead zombie’s eye. “I won’t.”

Zac dropped his bow next to the empty quiver and groaned. “Seriously? Today of all days?”

Jason would have rolled his eyes if he wasn’t locked in a staring contest with the Alpha. “Yes, because I totally planned a Zombie Run on the morning of my wedding and thought, hey, you know what would be fun? Leaving my sword at home. That would be awesome.”

“You should always expect a Zombie Run. I don’t care what day it is.”

Jason snickered. “I’m sorry, which one of us is the older brother?”

“Older, not smarter.”

The Alpha grunted, though it was more of a bark, and the six feasting zombies instantly froze. It grunted again, and the zombies stood to join their fellows, blood dripping from their fingers and teeth as they formed a crude flanking position.

“Well,” Jason said, a nervous thrill shooting through him from head to toe. “That’s new.”

“They’re not going to wait forever,” Zac said, and Jason knew he was right. The thirteen functional zombies were already circling closer as they grunted back and forth in communication. A shiver teased the base of his spine, but Jason shook it off. He didn’t have time to be afraid.

“Right,” Jason said. “Here's the plan: you take the six on the left, and I'll take the seven on the right.”

Zac was silent for a moment, waiting. Nothing. He elbowed his brother hard in the ribs.

“Easy! I need those.”

Zac ignored him. “In what way is that a plan?”

“What?” Jason asked, his cheeky grin wasted as Zac couldn’t see it. “Did I give you too many?”

“This isn't a game, Jason!”

“You're only saying that because you know you’ll lose.”

“Fine,” Zac hissed. “Fine. But when we show up to your wedding dead, I'm telling Kanae and Mom it's your fault.”

“That's cold, little brother.”

Zac launched himself away from Jason’s back and dove into the horde. Jason's heart lurched, but he forced it down. He had to trust that Zac could handle himself because if he got distracted for even a moment, he really would end up dead. Or worse.

Jason ducked a grasping arm and drove his Roman sword up through the zombie’s armpit. It shrieked and convulsed, but Jason had already twisted out of the way. He yanked the sword free of its not-actually-undead sheath with a back-handed grip and shifted into a horse stance to drive the sword through the jaw and into the brain of a second zombie. He had to remind himself with every attack that he was aiming to kill, and for some reason, that bothered him.

He’d killed before—animals and zombies alike—but this blatant slaughter felt less like self-defense and more like murder. Which was ridiculous. These creatures would sooner tear him apart and feast on the pieces than show any sort of mercy; assuming they even understood the concept of mercy. Which they didn’t.

Jason worked his way through the creatures, though he’d already lost count on how many he fought. But he must have gotten them all because they suddenly stopped coming. Jason looked around the clearing as he tried to catch his breath, his body trembling slightly from exertion and adrenaline. And maybe a little fear. Not all the zombies were dead, despite his best efforts, but they were all, thankfully, incapacitated, and his eyes flicked from body to body as he counted. Sixteen bodies on his half of the clearing, two of which were Zac’s earlier kills as evidenced by the arrows pinning them in various vital points. Mostly the eyes; they were the easiest path to the brain.

Scarred, empty faces stared skyward and blackened mouths worked slowly, almost mechanically, as the few living zombies died. Jason looked down at them in grim satisfaction. He’d survived another Run, and he didn’t even have Strages.

Jason glanced down at the bloody weapons he held and grimaced at the smears of orange-red blood that streaked his bare arms and sleeveless blue t-shirt. He may have managed without his preferred sword, but the fight would have been much easier and cleaner if he’d brought it. The blood smelled odd, less metallic than it should, and Jason’s stomach churned at the unnatural stench. He moved away from the carnage, stumbling a bit from exhaustion as a tickle of sweat trailed from his temple to the curve of his jaw.

At least, he hoped it was sweat.

“Zac?” Jason called then frowned. His voice sounded muffled, distant, and he belatedly realized his ears were ringing. He flexed his jaw, and his ears painfully popped. Low grunts and pained squawks reached him, and Jason cursed. Zac was still fighting. Jason hefted his sword and started around the large tree where, miraculously, the pig still hung both intact and unblemished.

Something slammed into Jason from behind, and he yelled as whatever-it-was barreled him face-first into the ground. Dropping his weapons, Jason hit the ground on his hands and twisted at once. He brought one leg up and around, hooking his knee around the waist of his attacker as he pivoted backward to throw the creature off. Assuming it was a zombie. Because if it was Zac, Jason was going to kill him.

The stench of unwashed flesh assaulted Jason’s nose as he fell into a partial kneel with one leg up and one leg down. Where was his attacker? Sinewy fingers tipped with ragged nails wrapped around his neck from behind, yanking him off balance, and Jason choked. He grabbed the hands with one of his own, trying to loosen the strangling pressure, and brought his left elbow up and back in a blind attack. He connected—thank the stars—and the creature yelped as its nose caved beneath his strike; its grip loosened just enough for Jason to slip his fingers through the noose-like hold it had around his neck.

Now that he was pushing against the zombie instead of pulling, it was easier to force its arms apart. They flew in opposite directions, and Jason lunged forward, tucking and rolling before coming up in a crouch with his hands raised defensively. The world spun for a moment before rightening, and Jason spotted his attacker; dark, recently washed skin, bloodshot eyes, and a lipless mouth with a gaping grin. It was the Alpha.

This creature was larger than most and looked unexpectedly well fed; a layer of healthy fat softened its densely muscled body. Scars crisscrossed its chest, but there were far fewer than what decorated most of the zombies he’d seen in the past, and it had a frightening level of intelligence sparking in its dark brown eyes. This zombie wasn’t like the others; it was evolved. More human somehow. That only made it more dangerous.

They eyed each other, Jason warily and the Alpha hungrily. No, not hungrily, primally. This wasn’t about food for the Alpha—it hadn’t so much as sniffed the more easily available feast of corpses littering the small clearing—this was about dominance. The Alpha intended to prove it was the not only the leader of the pack, but that it could dominate all other alphas. And Jason, despite his attempts toward the contrary, was an alpha. At least in the eyes of this zombie.

Jason’s gaze darted left to where his weapons lay glinting in the smattering of sunlight that filtered into the clearing. The Alpha stood between Jason and the sword, and a pair of mostly dead zombies were between him and the knife. Even only slightly alive, the two creatures could be trouble without a weapon.

Without a weapon. Jason gritted his teeth. When did he become so complacent that he had stopped carrying around more than one knife? If he made it out of this, Kanae was going to skin him alive.

The Alpha lunged. Jason didn’t try to run or dodge, he knew the zombie was faster, and instead braced himself. Their bodies crashed in a spectacular display of strength, force, and pain. Jason’s shoulders wrenched from the effort of holding the monolithic Alpha back. He tried grappling it, looping one leg behind the creature’s knee, but he couldn’t afford to stop pushing against the zombie’s torso long enough to pull it off balance.

Using its greater height, the Alpha pushed down on Jason, and his back and shoulders ached as he pushed back. If the Alpha took him to the ground, Jason was done for.

Bracing himself, one leg back and one between the zombie’s legs, Jason ducked and twisted; dragging both of the zombie’s arms over his right shoulder for a throw. It roared in his face, turning its gaping teeth toward his cheek, and Jason thrust upward with his shoulder in a picture-perfect judo throw. The zombie landed on its feet and pulled Jason off balance.

“Whoa!” His eyes went wide, and Jason scrambled to think, but time was speeding up and—

An arrow lodged in the Alpha’s left eye, the momentum throwing it backward. Jason stumbled, shaking off the zombie’s hands, but managed to stay on his feet. His heart thrummed a million miles a minute as he stared wide-eyed at the creature. He glanced backward and saw Zac standing with his bow raised and his lips pressed in a disapproving line.

“Seven.” Zac lowered his bow. “I win.”

Jason stared uncomprehendingly before understanding jolted his brain back to the present. He looked around, counted bodies, and realized Zac was right. Out of the remaining thirteen zombies, Zac had seven kills to Jason’s six.

“You’re never going to let me live this down, are you?”

Zac smirked. “Not a chance.”

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About Cassiopeia Fletcher

I wrote my first book when I was six-years-old about a fat cat named Stephanie who wandered around the city looking for her family, and I never looked back. As a writer, my goal is to continually move forward, learning from my past self, as well as others, in an effort to become the best I can at my chosen craft. I’m blessed with a wonderful, loving family —Mom, Dad, six brothers, one sister, and five sisters-in-law—that has supported me every step of the way, even if they don’t always understand what I’m trying to do. And while I believe life is education, not everyone always agrees, so I’ve made pursuing a formal education a huge priority. Currently, I have an MFA in Creative Writing and am attending grad school for the second time pursuing an MA in Mass Communications. Eventually, I’ll get my Ph. D., but who knows if that will be before or after I settle into a job teaching Creative Writing to undergrads? Life is a mystery, and I’m happy to discover it all, one day at a time.

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