Welcome, everyone! These first couple chapters are largely going to be focused on original characters of mine...but trust me, I'm tying everything together right afterwards. I have some gnarly things planned for this group. I've read the comics, watched the shows, and adored the game, but this will have many non-canon elements all the same, just because...well, where's the fun in having boundaries?
This is rated T for now, but honestly, I see myself possibly taking it up to M, if only because this definitely isn't going to be a happy-go-lucky story...oh, it'll have it's moments, but I plan on making you even more upset than you were in the games. It'll stay T because it isn't borderline pornographic like some other fics rated M here, but if anyone is overly offended by it, just shoot me a PM and I'll definitely consider changing it. If you're interested in a fic with Carley and Doug both alive, where almost everything is simultaneously breaking and tying in with the canon, in a fic where I kill people in a jolly Whedon-esque manner...this is the fic for you.
Reviews are much appreciated, as it helps me to hone my skill as a writer (if I have any, heh). Be critical. I like critical...yeah. If anyone wants to beta for me, that'd be cool too.
With no further ado, I hope you all enjoy A Light That Does Not Dim. For shizzle. My nizzles.
Chapter 1: Survival
Sometimes, when I close my eyes, I can picture the world as it once was.
In this world, the hotel is relatively quiet, but for the constant thrum of overhead lighting and the occasional running water inside a room. The sound of wheels rolling on carpet is almost imperceptible as the maid checks each room, touching the "Do Not Disturb" sign with a finger as she passes, as if it would change just because she examines it more closely. I hear shouting down the hallway and to the right. A spat between lovers. Maybe a husband and wife. More likely adultery in progress. The hotel is the easiest location for both parties to meet away from prying eyes. I imagine myself, loose fitting clothes and free-running shoes, military style brown hair, fairly tall…and maybe a girl next to me, a hair over five feet tall, black hair and blue eyes. We're both smiling phony smiles, blending in with the hotel, arms interlocking in a corny, jovial way.
It's all excruciatingly private. Maybe that needs better phrasing…it all attempts to be private. But the red wallpaper is a veil for the paper thin walls, all barely concealing what hides behind the white keycard operated doors. Everything is quiet, but that just means discrepancies are more easily heard. The walls might as well be transparent.
In reality, the hotel is even quieter.
Rafael is humming, twirling his crimson-stained machete dangerously as we advance through the hallway. Gone are the lights that once lit our surroundings. All we have now is the dim glow emanating from a window, and the flashlight Nora's holding, shaking ever so slightly. I shift my stance and check behind us, a shiver crawling up my spine.
"Bury me not on the lone prairie," Rafael's saying now, his deep voice reverberating in the empty building. I recognize the song immediately, but don't bother saying anything.
"Where the coyotes wail and the wind blows free…and when I die, don't bury me beneath the western sky on the lone prairie –"
"Cut it out, man." The pale-skinned man at the back of our group takes a deep breath and runs his fingers through long brown hair, exhaling slowly. "Like, I'm not trying to bitch or anything…but we don't know what's in here. And that song isn't making matters better, creepy as it is."
The much larger black man smiles, flawless white teeth glinting for a moment in the shadows. "Haven't you heard, Fraser? Singing well is praying twice. And God rewards those who pray."
Rafael is the reason we're here in the first place. Look for where his parents had been staying, see if we can get any hint on what happened to them, scavenge along the way…Fraser sighs, placing a Dunhill cigarette in his mouth and lighting it. His knapsack is almost empty, filled only with the odd toothbrush and hygiene product we'd found along the way. My own bag has several non-perishable food items, but hardly any given the amount of rooms we checked. Figures. People in hotels aren't really thinking about the long term.
A door on the left is open just a crack, and I square my shoulders, careful not to lock my elbows. The 9mm Beretta in my hands stares blankly ahead, and I use it to nudge the door open, slowly at first, then all the way. I enter first, followed by Rafael, and then Nora, and lastly Fraser. Light is flooding the room from a large window, but I stay in the shadows, creeping along the corners of the room, peering under beds, flattening myself to the floor.
"Lighten up a little, Lyle. No one ever got shot for smiling." Rafael nudges my shoulder as he walks by, opening drawers with the tip of his machete blade. I shrug.
"Why risk it? No one ever got shot for refusing to smile, either." A pause. "I think."
"Sarcastic as always," Fraser snorts. "One of these days, you'll mouth off to the wrong guy and get a swift kick, right in the dick. It'd serve you right, too."
Nora rolls her eyes. "Real cute, Fraser. Epitome of class." She's rummaging through cabinets, humming as she does so. "Jackpot," she finally says, clicking her tongue. "Check it out. Chex Mix, potato chips, cashews, honey roasted peanuts, pistachios…I swear, if anyone makes a nut pun, they're getting…what Fraser said."
"Looks like someone loved to snack," Fraser replies, opening the fridge. He recoils swiftly, coughing and holding his nose as he kicks the door shut. "Ugh, fucking cheese. Rotten chicken and sandwich shit too. No good."
I glance at the suitcases on the floor, wincing. This part was never easy. One was unzipped, so I flicked it open with the toe of my shoe, revealing a vast array of clothing, all of which looked perfectly intact. Not that we needed extra clothing in the first place. I rummage through it, feeling for a plastic bag, for a container…there it is. I tug the Zip-Lock baggie from its spot, lodged under pajamas and jean shorts, and examine its contents curiously. "Ibuprofen, Tylenol, Nyquil…just the basics, but they'll be handy all the same."
"Best thing we've found yet," Nora agrees.
I keep digging through the luggage. My stomach's a little sick as I think about what I've been reduced to, and I do my utmost to ignore the pink, star studded pajama pants that I accidentally unearthed in the midst of my search. The owner couldn't be more than eleven or twelve; given how small the pants are…
"They were probably out in the city when this was happening," says Rafael behind me, his voice husky and troubled. He moves like a cat across the room, hand gently touching an indentation on the bed. "Tourists, maybe. Or visiting family. They had children here."
"They got going while the going was good," Fraser says, shrugging. He heads into the bathroom, followed by the trail of cigarette smoke. "Hopefully they're okay, but I wouldn't keep my fingers crossed. Got to worry about those you know are alive, this day and age."
"Pretty much." I take out another two plastic bags, and feel an involuntary tug at the corner of my lips. "Jesus, Joseph, and Mary Jane…man, I've missed you."
"It goes with the rest of the meds," Nora says behind me, but she's grinning a little too. Maybe the little brown and green bits of weed remind of us college, of better days, of the world as it was. Either way, it looks good on her…the smile, I mean. I don't see it too much anymore. Her skin is tan and smooth, matching medium length auburn hair, greyed blue eyes, and then there it is again – a blank look, cold. She takes both bags as I examine the third, and the blank look turns to a frown. "Cough meds and Methyl…um…we'll just go with Ritalin for now, that word's too long and I'm too damn tired." She blinks. "Huh. Recreational? What do you think?"
"Could be for the kids," I suggest. "ADHD is on the rise."
I pack the food into my pack. It's more than the rest of the food we'd found today combined. Nora has the meds, Fraser is packing what he can find in the bathroom, and Rafael has…his knife. He's frozen in place right now, the gold crucifix around his neck raised to his lips as he mouths something wordlessly. He glances at me afterward, noting my expression. "For the family," he says, as if that is explanation enough. In a way, it is.
We move on, continuing upstairs. We're on the fourth floor now, the top floor, the floor where Rafael's parents had been staying when the attacks had occurred. Part of me felt that he was just trying to get closure by coming here, and another part of me felt sick when I hoped for his sake that he could find them dead, just so that he could move on.
What the hell happened to you, Lyle?
I shake my head, clearing it, and realize that we're at the door now. 403. Naturally, it's locked.
Fraser shrugs, his brown locks bouncing as he pivots on the heel of his shoe. "Well, it was worth a shot, but –"
Rafael ignores him, unslinging the shotgun strapped across his back. One shot is all it takes to decimate where the lock had once been, leaving a fragmented crater in its wake.
"Fuck!" Fraser shouts. "You know those things are still there on the second floor, right? They've been following us ever since we lost them running upstairs…they probably heard that. They'll be here any minute now. They'll –"
"We're faster," Rafael replies. Fraser opens his mouth but shrugs, shoulders falling in defeat.
I ignore the harmless spat and ringing in my ears, nodding at the door. Even partially deafened, I can hear the stirring of movement inside, along with the soft groan and snarl of something not quite human. I glance at my friend, searching his face for a hint, but his eyes are as steady and cold as ever.
I throw open the door, pistol swiveling to aim at something twitching pathetically on the ground, but Rafael knocks my arm aside as he steps inside, glancing apologetically back at me. My first impulse is to scream at him, but then I realize why. Something is tied to a chair rather unconventionally – knotted up shower curtain, a couple rain coats, computer cables and an iron cord. Strangely enough, it's done the job just fine, and the struggling thing at our feet is completely incapacitated.
It's a zed. The monster's face is rotted away more than any other zed I've seen before, but it's unmistakably one of them. The air is thick with its stench of decaying skin, an almost sulfuric odor. It pervades my senses violently, as though physically forcing me to acknowledge its presence in the room. The zed itself is keeled over, having knocked the chair over in its efforts to escape, and it twitches angrily as we approach, snapping its jaws and grinding its teeth hungrily. The flesh on its face is peeling away like dried out leather, revealing blackened, bloody gums, and teeth yellowed with age.
"It's him." Rafael interrupts my perturbed inspection of the undead creature, bending down slowly, appearing completely unafraid. The thing starts to make even more spastic gestures, but he holds it at bay with the tip of his knife, pushing gently with the flat of his blade.
"What do you mean?" Nora asks, edging her way inside. Fraser closes his eyes, grinding the butt of his cigarette out against the wall. There isn't much to say. Nora glances back and forth between the two of us and a crestfallen look comes over her face, dismayed realization. "Sorry."
The walker's still snarling, but it's more like a trapped dog than a vicious beast at this point. I sigh, then look back at Rafael. "How can you be sure?"
His eyes are suddenly old and sad, darker and more solemn than I've ever seen him before. Not one of us was over twenty five, but the world has a way of aging you in ways entirely independent of your birth year. I kneel down beside him, biting the inside of my cheek as I search for some form of consolation. Nothing would matter at this point anyways.
"Just spent too much time with him, I guess. It's not hard to tell. Looks a lot like my old man, if I just picture him and hold it in my head for a sec. He's got the same crinkled nose, same clean cut hairstyle, same laugh lines around the mouth, if you really focus…" Rafael's father is nearly hairless, and most of his face is missing or falling apart, but now's not the best time to mention it. "He's even got his old Archie Manning jersey on, the poor guy. I always hated the Saints. Seemed natural, being a Falcon fan and what-not. But it took a brave man to wear that jersey in Georgia the way he did. Practically flaunted it." He smiles. "Took a brave man to ask his wife to tie him to the chair because he knew he was turning. Give her enough time to make her way out of Georgia. Find somewhere safe."
"I'm sorry, Raf."
He smiles even wider, but it isn't manic. Just…content. "No need to be sorry. Not your doing. What matters is that one of 'em made it. My mother's tough. She could still be out there, fending off the wild, staking her claim somewhere. Even the thought's enough. You know?"
"We should finish him off," Fraser says, and his voice brings us a little bit closer back to reality. "One of us can do it if you're not up for it. Christ. Can't imagine how hard it is for you. He's just –"
"Not he," corrects Rafael gently. "It. My dad died…God knows how long ago. Could've been months. This is just the monster under the bed, and he happens to be wearing my pap's skin." Rafael stands up, using his machete to peel away the zed's face back even further, revealing bits of bone underneath. I hear Nora dry heave in the background. My own stomach does a quick backflip, just for good measure. Fraser is looking away, shaking his head.
But Rafael is unfazed. His smile dies down to a wry little smirk. "See? Just wearing his skin."
He shoves the knife forward, embedding it an inch or so in the zed's skull. He lifts his boot, and then shoves on the knife shaft, driving the blade in another several inches, all the way out the back of his former father's head. The image is frozen in my mind, but I don't bother looking away. Hell, this might be therapeutic for him. The world turns all of us into something more or less crazy.
Nora dry heaves again.
"Fuck's sake, man," Fraser says, though he isn't nearly as mortified as the girl beside him. She might have been throwing up, had we not all been half-starved at the time. "Have a bit of pity on the new girl, will you? She's not used to this kind of shit just yet."
"She's the one who asked to come," he replies nonchalantly, yanking out the machete in one smooth stroke, shunting gore off the blade without a second glance at the corpse. It's lying there, unnervingly still on the hotel carpet. "And if you're really gonna crack down on being a gentleman, you might want to check your mouth, homie."
"Let's just get out of here," I say softly, standing up tenderly. Something is driving me to run, to finally be done with this ugly place. Something isn't right, not at all. "We've got ourselves a good bit of food, our health, and what we came here for. We need to go."
"Yeah," says Nora. "Think I've had enough for one day." We picked Nora up all alone in a grocery store when we were traveling through Atlanta, and she'd only had a couple close encounters with the chaos that Earth had become before joining us. Now, she was safer, but beforehand, she'd always stayed back at camp. This was the result of her trying to help us. She was perky and enthusiastic, given the circumstances, but I couldn't help worrying what the world might do to her. I meet her cool blue eyes for a moment before looking away, this time to Fraser.
"Let's not chicken out just yet," he says. "This place has been fucking great to us so far. Still got the rest of the fourth floor to clear out. Who's to say we won't get lucky?"
That's when I saw it. Now, I might not be the strongest guy in our group of medley survivors – hell, I definitely wasn't the strongest. My aim wasn't the best, I wasn't a knife-wielding extraordinaire, and I'm not all that great with using my fists, either. Come to think of it, I can't even whistle. But I'm fast. I'm smart. And I have a sixth sense sort of instinct like a mother fucker.
My gun was raised an instant before the zed crept up behind Fraser, and his eyes widened as I pointed the pistol in his direction. "Get the fuck down!"
He was slow to react, and the undead monster yanked him by the hair, baring its teeth dangerously. The next several moments were a blur. I shot, twice, and I remember the zed falling to the ground, one bullet lodged squarely in its head. Then we were all scrambling out the door, wary of being backed into the tiny room with nothing but a four story drop as means for escape. Maybe our ears were still ringing from the shotgun blast before, and we couldn't hear them creeping up on us. Maybe we hadn't realized just how they close they were in the first place. Maybe they were just quiet as hell for once. But it didn't matter at this point. All that mattered was survival.
I was at the front of the group, and I chanced a glance back, heart skipping a beat as I took stock of the situation. All the zeds from the second floor were shambling their way towards us now, pouring out of the stairwell, having lugged their slow asses up in pursuit of the gunshot they'd heard minutes earlier. I'm heading towards the second stairwell, but as I round the corner, I see dozens of the things, waiting placidly, their stiff heads swiveling at the sudden appearance of strangers.
I swallow. "Fuck."
"This way!" calls Rafael, and I follow instinctively. We race down the hallway with reckless abandon. A walker is sulking just ahead and it starts to get up, stretching its jaw like an angry python. Rafael doesn't even break stride, just swings his machete in a downward arc, leaving a four inch deep gash halfway through the thing's head. He barrels through a glass door leading outside to the rooftop and we're right behind him, adrenalin driving us onward.
There's a pool out here on the rooftop, along with uncomfortable plastic chairs and pool accessories, all scattered about as though the world hadn't ended months ago. I race towards the edge of the building and search frantically for a fire escape, anything that could save us – anything. I finally find what I'm looking for, but it's beyond repair, something I wouldn't traverse under any circumstance – at least we have a chance against the monsters in the hotel.
Reality starts to set in. Nora's shaking, nearly hyperventilating, but she's obviously making an effort to control it, fists clenched angrily. Rafael swings at one of the pool umbrellas and continues to search, eyes wide and unrelenting. And Fraser…Fraser is tight lipped, fingers reaching up to brush his shoulder, coming away bloody.
"You're bitten." It's a statement, not a question. He looks back up at me, face uncomfortably still, unnervingly so. He raises his single-action rifle slowly, holding it surprisingly steady, given our circumstances. Nora and Rafael are both looking towards him now, utterly wordless. This is happening. Right in front of us.
"No," Fraser says, and there's a quiver of resiliency in his voice. "No, I'm going to be alright. He barely got me." An ironic grin tugs at the corners of his mouth. "Besides, it's not like it really matters, does it? We've got a whole fucking world of hurt coming down on us. We're all about to be bitten. Might as well go out fighting, huh?"
"We can make it out alive." Rafael seems even taller somehow, his ebony frame casting a strangely contorted shadow in the afternoon sun. "You know that we can. You know what we have to do. What you have to do."
Fraser shakes his head. "Fuck that, man. I'm not dying alone. Please, just stick with me right now…you've got to just get it through your head. We're all fucked." He looks toward me, and he's starting to shake now, gritting his teeth in a crazily forced grin. "Tell 'em, Lyle! You'll stick with me, won't you? We've been friends for ages…you can't just leave me. We stick together. One for all, all for one."
I feel the words freeze in my throat. The sound of zeds finally pouring through the rooftop doors thrusts me harshly back into the moment, and I choke it out. "That's…that's just selfish, Fraser. Please."
"Please?!" he screams, swinging the rifle up, leveling it at me. At my chest. He's afraid. Not ready to die. "You're asking me to just lie down and be zed food, while you guys go waltz off to fucking Wonderland – no, fuck that. I love you, man, but please…just stay with me." His voice breaks. "I'm not ready to go."
Nora takes several steps forward, her slender arm outstretched. "Fraser, listen –"
"No!" Fraser yelps, the noise almost pathetic, in perfect synchronization with the jerk of his rifle. The noise of the shot is like a whip cracking in the air, violent and unexpected, and my heart skips a beat. I stare down at my torso, expecting to see a hole. There's nothing. I look back up.
Nora crumples to the ground like a sack of bones, a sad little whimper escaping her lungs. For a moment, it's as though time stands completely still. I see her eyes, wide and disbelieving, and my stare swivels to Fraser. He's frozen in place, the rifle clattering to the ground. He falls to his knees, and I see the shaft of something embedded in his chest, silvery and dark…
I sprint over to Nora without even thinking, skidding to a halt on my knees, feeling for a pulse, for breathing, anything – it's still there. The shot was recent. She took it in the shoulder. But she's bleeding, she's bleeding so much – I can't breathe. I snatch one of the hotel towels from the ground and start pressing, hard; start tying it off to try and stop the blood from oozing out. My eyes are stinging.
"Just stay with me," I mutter to her, even though I know she's deaf to the world, wholly unconscious. I might even be talking to myself. Everything is muddled. "Just think about getting back, think about the people you'll leave if you go now – God, we can't lose two in a day, fucking Christ!"
Rafael is by Fraser now, who stares up at him, still in shock, eyes streaming tears as he struggles with breathing. "I didn't mean to kill her," Fraser says raggedly, blinking over and over again. "I just didn't want to die. God, Nora, I'm so fucking sorry…I'm sorry Raf, I'm sorry Lyle, please, just, I don't want to –"
"It's alright, man." Rafael is on his knee, cradling Fraser with all the tenderness you might cradle a child. He crosses Fraser's head with his thumb, and then he holds my friend even closer, eyes shutting briefly, breathing deep. "It's my fault for bringing you here, my fault for firing and drawing attention to us…it's alright. I'm sorry, Fraser. You'll be alright, man."
My hands are wet with Nora's blood as I keep up the pressure on where she was shot. I make sure that the knot is tight, but not so tight that it would function as a tourniquet. She's so small, so frail now that she's broken…I lift her up as I was taught to do so, the fireman's carry. The world is surreal. I can't control my hands as I stand up with her on my back, staring at the zeds surging towards us. They're fifty feet away and closing, stumbling over the chairs, some even knocking each other over into the pool. We're cornered. There's no escape from this. I look behind me, at the forty foot drop, and my heart leaps at the idea of ending it all, of going out on my own terms.
"You…you really think I might pull through?" Fraser is looking up at Rafael with hope, his hair wet with the tears he'd been shedding. "We…we can try to cut off the skin…where I was bitten…I can't believe you stuck a knife in me, man…please, just take it out. I just want to say goodbye. To everyone at the camp, I mean. Please, I'm so sorry, it won't happen again."
"I'll make sure you're alright," Rafael says, his voice now a mere whisper. Rafael's hand closes in on the hilt of the throwing knife that has embedded itself in Fraser's chest, his grip tender. The hand tightens, and he twists it violently, causing blood to spurt out in a near geyser, bright red and ebbing like a river. Fraser lets out a nearly inhuman scream at the pain, his voice rising to a fever pitch, but Rafael holds the knife resolutely, twisting it even deeper, pushing it farther in.
"I'll make sure everyone's alright," Rafael says, louder, gritting his teeth as he starts to tear up. With a surge of strength, he lifts Fraser in both arms, flinging him into the pool, causing a huge splash. Fraser keeps on screaming, even louder, starting to flail violently, water flying in every direction. Rafael stares him down, swallowing back the lump in his throat. "I love you man. You'll be alright. You don't have to worry about any of this ever happening again, about ever being in danger, about pain, about loss, never again…take care, brother."
The zeds that were surging forward are in frenzy now, swarming into the pool clumsily, slowly drifting in Fraser's direction. He looks at me, face white, still screaming, and his eyes slowly scrunch up, face contorting as he writhes around, his blood staining the once clear water around him. Every zed on the rooftop is converging on the floating, struggling morsel in the water, fascinated by its strange movements, by the smell of blood, by the scream of an injured animal. Rafael meets my eyes.
We race back through the doors to the rooftop, and the hallways inside the hotel are like a ghost town. The zeds are all on the rooftop now, ignoring us, and I hear Fraser's screams get more intermittent, dying down, finally falling silent. I can still see him in my mind, afraid and alone for those last few moments. And with Nora on my back, we might have another loss on our hands, unless we act soon.
But we're alive. Against all odds, flying in the face of reason, we somehow made it out alive. We're racing back to the camp and as sick as I feel…I understand. It hurts to see my friend – one of the few true friends I have left in this hell – die in such a fucked up way.
But, God help me, I understand.