Darkness spread across the surrounding forest as Cathryn made her way across the dirt path. The wind lightly blew her dark hair across her face, it was starting to get chilly. She wrapped her jacket tightly around her upper body. She shivered. The smell of rot crawled into her nose as the first couple of tombstones came into view. Like rotten tooth stumps, they stuck out of the grass, not a single one of them lined up straight. Some of them were so ancient, they stemmed from a time before the civil war. Undead folks, their remains nearly skeletal, wandered in between their open graves, dark shadows in the dusk.

Cathryn walked towards the gate that led to the newer parts of the cemetery. The moans, gurgles and other strange noises sent goosebumps up her spine. The nagging urge to turn around and get out of the lion´s den kept flaring up inside of her, but she kept her steps steady.

As she passed through the gate, as a shadow appeared in front of her. It rose above her, several feet taller than her. Without thinking she grabbed the metal bar and swung it blindly in the general direction of the creature. Instead of being pushed back by the impact it simply dissolved. Dark particles trailed through the air like a swarm of tiny fish in the ocean. After a few long seconds, they drew together again and became dense in their middle, creating a dark featureless figure. It floated, stayed dense for a while and then dispersed, particles scattering through the air before becoming halfway solid again.

It was beautiful, yet intimidating and shook her to the core. She had seen skeletons, barely deserving of the term "corpse", that were staggering and crawling around through the dry dead autumn leaves. Their bones polluted by the dirt.

But to see cremated remains animated was beyond her comprehension. She expected to see more of those floating undead clouds around the cemetery but there was only this one.

It didn´t attack her. It moved away, beckoning her to follow it. She followed it, keeping her distance, wary of a potential trap.

They moved across the graveyard, passing by hundreds of tombstones. The undead kept their distance from the figure, one even radically changing its general direction as it came across the mist. The figure floated onwards and onwards and soon Cathryn knew where it was heading. Her mother´s grave. Her heart skipped a beat as she saw her mother´s grave from afar. It was open indeed, and a shadow rested at its opening. She clutched the bat tighter, in both anticipation of her task and to have some kind of anchor in this dreadful situation.

Soon she was facing her mother´s back. Long black hair was trailing down her bluish skin, she could barely see in the darkness, she wore the light white dress she had been dressed in by the mortuary workers. She sat at the edge of her grave, her legs swinging back and forth inside of it, like those of a child sitting on a swing.

As Cathryn circled her she caught a glimpse of the face that was so similar to that of her and Alistair. The high cheekbones, the dark slanted eyes and the wide lips. Her eyes were completely dried out and the lids were sagging. But despite the undeniable reality of death looking back at her, she felt the warmth of recognition inside of her. Her mother smiled.

"She can´t talk, her vocal cords are no longer usable. She can´t see either but I am giving her the awareness of what is going on. She is in a lot of pain. Her spirit isn´t meant to dwell inside the decaying body." said a voice. The voice felt like a worm eating itself into an apple. It was inside her head and she suspected it was coming from the mysterious ashen figure. It was the voice of a man. His accent was strange but had an unusual familiarity to it. She had heard this kind of accent before. Somewhere.

"Mom. I don´t know if I can end this apocalypse or whatever it is, but I will save you." Cathryn said, her voice trembling. She held up the bat and looked at it. The thought of bashing her mother´s head in with it made her violently ill.

"She is at peace. She is very proud of you, Cathryn. She warns you of the dark path. The existence inside a decaying body is quite painful. She wants to be released now…" the voice trailed off, becoming weak inside her mind, she turned her head to look at the figure. "You need to hurry." The voice said again, stronger and firmer this time. It was an order.

Cathryn clutched the bat tightly and rammed it full-force into her mother´s forehead several times. Foul black liquid oozed out of the wound, her mother´s body leaned forward and fell back into the grave with a thud. Cathryn was sick to her stomach and her fluttering heart didn´t ease the situation for her. She threw up, dizziness taking over.

Once she was finished she looked up at the figure made of floating ashes. The other undead just dropped immediately after their brains were successfully destroyed. How could cremated remains exist in this manner, she wondered.

"What are you?", she asked, this simple question to combining all her previous thoughts. The mist grew dense once more and she made out the figure of a man with long hair. "I was once a holy man. My spirit carries great power and responsibility. I am able to persist in such a form during events such as these. You need to help me turn back things to the way they were. For now, this problem is only occurring in your town but it will soon spread if we don´t do something. There is an abandoned woodworking factory at the edge of town. Follow me there." the voice in the mist said. He didn´t wait for her to respond. He just turned around and swarmed away to the exit of the cemetery. After a last glance at her mother´s grave, she hurried after him, glad to leave this wretched place.

The two of them managed to make their way through numerous zombie hoards. The spirit used its form to confuse the undead, taking their sight, as Cathryn moved through. After twenty minutes they got to a quieter part of town and she remembered her meeting with Alistair. She flipped out her phone and texted him about their change of plan.

x

The noise of breaking glass and cracking metal repeatedly echoed across the parking lot of a large grocery store. It was pitch black around the area but Alistair´s keen eyes made out no zombie inside. After several minutes of trying to open a random car´s door with his machete, he had resorted to just kicking the window and door in. Once in the car, he made his war to the church. Not the old one he was supposed to meet Cathryn at. The one he was going to had been built fifteen years ago. Quite new. In that church, he would find the last person to take care of. After fifteen minutes he slowly and quietly rolled onto the parking lot of the church and turned off the motor. His next move had to be calculated. Pastor Wilkinson was unpredictable.

Alistair snuck around the building, checking every entrance, but all doors were locked. He stopped to listen for any signs that someone was there. He heard the footsteps of a single person. It was as he had suspected. The pastor had locked himself in, keeping everyone out, so he alone could be saved. Alistair, admittedly, would have done a similar thing and this wasn´t why he had come here.

After a few more minutes of waiting in silence, he kicked in one of the back doors that led into a room used for preparing services. Two desks and several large bookshelves were located inside. Bibles of all ages and sizes seemed to have been torn out of their shelves. Had the pastor been looking for something? Something to hide? Or maybe it was something he had hidden and something had made him look for it to see if it was still there. This was the end of the world, after all, so why not?

Alistair ducked and entered the nave. Crouching and sneaking in between the rows of chairs and benches, he saw the pastor behind his podium, flipping through several fat bibles, muttering in a low voice. From what he could tell the man was throwing English, Latin and Hebrew words around. Despite being anti-god, Alistair had always paid attention in religious education classes. He and his classmates had learned a couple of Hebrew and Latin words here and there. The perks of being sent to a private school by his father. Most of it was forgotten, though. Once the pastor was finished with one of the bibles, he carelessly wiped it off the podium. With a heavy thud, it landed on the stone floor.

"I know you´re here, savage. I have been waiting for you. You brought this to our town. The last thing Pascalville needs, after the tragedy at the high school, is this demonic activity you have called forth. It was you, wasn´t it? Who else?" Wilkinson said as he looked up from the podium. Alistair stood up to his full height, facing the other man straight on.

"Or, perhaps, it was you. If it wasn´t for you, the entire ordeal at the school back then wouldn´t have happened!" Alistair shouted.

He clutched the machete ran towards the other man. Pastor Wilkinson bent down and stoop back up, holding a shotgun. Alistair´s eyes widened and he threw himself into one of the rows, dodging the deer shot bullet by a hair´s length. The noise of the gunshot echoed and thundered throughout the church. Wooden splinters rained onto his black hair. As fast as he could, he crawled on all fours down the row of chairs. Two more gunshots thundered through the building, more chairs were destroyed in the process. Then he heard footsteps and turned around. Wilkinson was moving towards him, the shotgun still held up. He wanted to make a mess of him, he knew that right then and there. He had to think fast.

"A catholic...reading King James?" Alistair coughed as some of the dusty wood particles entered his nose and mouth. Wilkinson stopped for a moment, looking confused. The young man took the opportunity to get up and run to the other end of the nave. Several gunshots fired but he wasn´t hit. Then the pastor proceeded to run after him. It was only a matter of time until there was no more ammunition left, Alistair thought.

He kept his eyes on the weapon´s barrel as he zig-zagged in between chairs, ducking here and there and running as fast as he could to keep his distance between himself and the pastor. Wilkinson wasn´t a sniper, he could tell that by now. Soon the older man was breathing heavily and as he pointed his gun at Alistair again, he pulled the trigger. Click. No more bullets left.

Laughter came forth between each heavy breath the man took. "Hah, you... a little piece of shit. You were always one of the smarter ones in my class. I knew you wouldn´t find your way to our Lord and saviour. But still, I saw potential in you. I should have snuffed you out, then and there. Like I did with your friend Ronny. He was such a nice piece of ass," Wilkinson said, winking at him as he said that last part.

Alistair roared and ran towards the older man. Wilkinson landed his fist into his face but that didn´t stop him. They fought for a few seconds but Alistair´s machete won against the pastor´s fists. He rammed the blade into the other man´s abdomen, again and again. Blood was everywhere, the man barely breathed, his lungs and heart torn to shreds. His eyes widened and went glassy as Alistair bent over him and whispered into his ears.

"Go to hell now. The devil can have your ass."

He didn´t wait for the pastor to breath his last breath. He simply dragged him onto the yard behind the church and made his way back to his car. As he sat down behind the steering wheel he felt Richie´s phone buzz. Cathryn had sent him a message. The darkness of the moments before vanished a bit as he read her text. He was genuinely glad to have her in his life.

x

The holy man´s mist changed shaped and moved underneath one of the doors in the lower levels of the woodworking factory. Then the lock magically opened. He had performed this particular trick several times that night but it still amazed Cathryn each time. As she opened the door she came into a utility room. Machines in varying sizes where neatly organized and stacked against the walls. It was one of the only rooms that reminded of what was once a living, breathing factory. At the end of the room, she spotted two people. One face was all too familiar.

"Richie?" she called, moving towards him. Richie stood up and smiled at her. They were about the same height, his brown hair was tousled and his eyes appeared large behind thick glasses. A young blonde man stood up next to him, eying her curiously.

"Hey Cat," Richie said, as they both hugged.

"What happened to you? You didn´t reply to any of my messages and I found your stuff scattered throughout your apartment," Cathryn said, handing him the laptop.

Richie signed "I´m sorry. Everything went so fast. My friend here, Ben, was in trouble. I just dropped everything and made my way to his place. We thought we could make it back to my apartment and grab everything and get you too but it didn´t happen that way. Man, this entire situation is so complicated."

Cathryn nodded and greeted Ben with a smile. Then her smile faded as she looked at the floor. Several ouija boards and other strange esoteric devices lay scattered across the floor. "Please don´t tell me you caused the apocalypse. Do you know what kind of chaos is going on? The dead are rising and people are killing each other to get the last package of Maccaroni and Cheese!," anger boiled up inside her as she said this.

Richie shook his head "No, no, this is a misunderstanding. We were trying to stop it. I..."

The holy man´s misty shape entered her peripheral vision. Richie and Ben´s eyes widened as they beheld him. They backed away against the wall.

"It´s okay. He´s a friend of mine. He is going to help us", Cathryn said turning her head towards the holy man. The ash particles build the shape of a head nodding. "You´re not doing it right. I will help you. This is why we´re here." the strange voice said.

Richie´s only response was a quiet nod.

x

Alistair´s stolen car rolled onto the factory lot. As he glanced out of the broken window he breathed in the cold night air. The sky was a strange reddish-brown colour and fog trailed through the dense forest that surrounded the place. Cold gushes of wind ruffled the pine trees.

He decided to stay on the outer edge of the large parking lot. He knew Cathryn was inside the building but he was wary. He had to be cautious, just in case. Richie´s phone buzzed again. It was Cathryn. She was asking if she was okay.

"I´m almost there," he texted back shortly. He didn´t move though. He leaned back in his seat and signed. The thought of suicide went through his mind. After all those years and the events that had unfolded throughout the past two days, he had lost the will to live. He remembered his conversation with Kaufmann. It seemed like an eternity had passed since then. What about Cathryn? He couldn´t abandon her. But was he really worth her time? Did she deserve a monster like him? He would decide once this entire apocalypse situation blew over. His thoughts wandered to the companion Cathryn had mentioned. She had said something about a medicine man. He wondered if the guy was from the reservation down the highway. He would find out soon enough, he thought and got out of the car.

x

Air, thick and warm, rolled through the hallway. Unbreathable. He saw dust particles floating through the air in the shine of his flashlight. The elevator was right in front of him, across the thin hallway. Both plants standing on both sides of the doors looked madly thirsty.

He was at the heart of the building, far away from the windows to the outside world. He was within the beast´s belly, and there was no going back. Not after he'd gotten so far.

There was no telling how long the hallway was. The shadow obscured both ends, and he didn't have the guts to point his flashlight in their directions. Thanks to the emergency power system the elevator was still running. The elevator button glowed red, the only other light beside of his flashlight, which began flickering that very moment. He turned it off in hopes of saving some energy for it to run later. In situations, he would need it most likely.

Surrounded by complete darkness now, he quickly pressed his finger to the button. A low humming sound, announcing the arrival of the elevator, occurred.
A thin beam of light appeared in front of him and the doors to the elevator opened. Almost expecting someone, or something, to be inside he squeezed his machete tighter.

To his luck, no one was inside. He quickly slipped into the elevator and waited for the doors to shut, so that the impenetrable darkness would disappear. He wasn't ready to press one of the buttons leading to the lower levels yet, so he simply activated the emergency switch to keep the elevator from moving anywhere he didn't want it to move. He knew he had to go to the 14th floor, which required the special key.

He turned around and looked at his image in one of the two mirrors on the walls. There were mud and blood all over him. His own blood? His high cheeks were sunken to a small degree. Cathryn had been right. He hadn't gotten a lot of food. He had been starved in the asylum. He wondered what he would have ordered as a last meal if he had been sent to state prison to be executed. A steak, medium rare. His reflection grinned at him.

He tried to look elsewhere and decided to read one of the advertisement posters on the wall. One was about the history of the company. Suddenly the elevator moved by itself, despite the emergency switch is on. Someone or something wanted him down there. He had to face it.

x

The elevator shook as it stopped at the lowest level. Alistair tried to pry the door open but it wouldn´t budge. Then he remembered emergency switch and the door opened again. As he carefully walked down the dark hallway he heard voices from the far side. Cathryn´s voice was among them and he increased the speed of his steps to reach her. As he opened the door he saw her. She came running towards him and they hugged tightly. He caught eye contact with two young guys in the back and nodded at them. Then he saw the thing. A strange dark mist. Like Ashes. Cathryn slowly released him from her grasp and he hesitated to let her go as he looked at the strange being. He kept his expression tight. He had seen enough crazy sit, he wouldn´t lose his cool just now.

For the next half an hour he leaned on the wall as the others followed the instruction of the ashen ghost. ouija boards were placed in strange arrangements on the ground. The ghost ordered the three to take the boards apart and rearrange them in an order that was completely foreign to any preconceived notions they had of witchcraft or anything of the like. Alistair couldn´t focus entirely on what they were doing. The strange haze he had felt the day before during the shootout had returned to him. It was like floating in a dream. Everything felt so unreal. He wasn´t entirely part of this reality anymore. He wanted to sever the ties that bound him to the world. He looked at Cathryn as she bent over one of the boards and said something to the creature. He loved her dearly but something inside his chest tugged at him. He wasn´t meant to be here. Existence was painful for him. He woke up from his trance as he heard footsteps in the hallway and banging on the door. He quickly rushed over to lock it, before the others could react. The undead had followed him here, hadn´t they?

x

The moans and groans were coming closer. The dead were rattling at the closed door. Somehow they had followed them here. It was only a matter of time until they broke in.

"We need a sacrifice. A life has to be given." The ashen figure said in a sombre voice. Cathryn and Richie stared at him in disbelief, while Alistair looked to the ground. A gloomy silence lay upon the group as they contemplated what had just been said.

"I´ll do it," Ben said, his hand raised in the air. Richie turned around to protest but his friend steadied him with a wave of his hand.

"I am tired of this world. The depression. You know I have been suicidal for months. I have suffered for nearly my entire life. I want to be free." he said, his expression growing more serious by the moment. "Give me the blade" he commanded, looking at Alistair.

The holy man nodded at the decision. Alistair grabbed his machete and carefully handed it to the other young man.

"I will have someone meet you on the other side," the holy man said, referring to the ambiguous beings he called spirits.

Before Cathryn could have a say in this situation, Ben violently slid his throat. Blood spurted out of the wound and he fell to the ground immediately, gurgling his last breaths. Richie screamed, Alistair just stared at Ben and the holy man prepared the rest of the ritual using the blood of the body.

The holy man spoke in a strange tongue, the air tingled and lightning and thunder roared. Then there was stillness. Cathryn looked around her, a strange noise was coming closer. It sounded like giant dominos being tipped over. One thud after another sounded outside of their room. The dead were dropping dead. Cathryn was still staring at Ben´s body. Not comprehending what had just happened. How could this have happened? Why did he have to die? A shadow moved behind her and she turned around.

A stranger stood before her. Long strands of raven hair moved in the wind that was coming in from outside of the building. The grey ashes he had consisted of seconds earlier had dissipated. He was now flesh and blood. The bronze skin had replaced the ambiguous greyness. His dark eyes reminded Cathryn of Alistair, but there was something much more ancient and mischievous in them.

"You did a fine job there. The dead are done. Look around you." The holy man opened a nearby door and the stench of putrefaction hit their faces. He didn´t seem to mind. All of the zombies that had been eager to consume them were silent, once again. They covered nearly the entire surface of the ground below them. So many had found their way here, even though she didn´t remember seeing any of them near the building when she came here.

Cathryn was flabbergasted. Wasn´t the holy man supposed to return to the spirit world? He turned to her and smiled wickedly. "I know, that is what I said. But I have great plans for the four of us. Great plans, indeed."

The holy man turned around and started tearing Ben´s clothing off. He covered his naked body with the blue sweater and the pair of jeans. Richie protested, tears running down his face. He was utterly furious, shocked and grieving. "What the fuck are you doing? What have you done!?" He stood up and threw himself against the holy man. The older man slapped Richie, he was thrown against the wall by the sheer force of that supernatural hand. He fainted on impact as his head slammed into the concrete.

"I have rid you of your problem. Be more grateful. Don´t you think I deserve a reward? Living again! If you knew what that meant after aeons of being numb. We weaker spirits can only smell and hear. But now I can taste and touch. I can revel in the joys of the flesh." He clothed himself in the light blue fabrics Richie´s friend seemed to have enjoyed. "I admit, a sacrifice wasn´t necessary to get rid of those zombies. The zombies represented an imbalance, it was therefore imperative to get rid of them. No sacrifice necessary. Bringing me back to life, however, is definitely against the rules. Ben will fill in the gap I left. Don´t worry, he´ll be fine," he said as if he were reading from a script. Cathryn suspected this wasn´t the first time he had done so. Gears turned and turned inside of her head. Of course! He...

The holy man met her eyes and laughed. "You are quite smart, aren´t ya? You figured it out. Yes, you could say I hired the zombies. It was part of the plan. I would find the perfect people to do the ritual. Kids, like you. Kids who would go through with such a thing. A chubby taxidermy enthusiast, a sociopathic killer and mister paranoid schizophrenic nerd." As he said that last part he bent down next to Richie, gently putting a finger on his forehead.

"He´ll wake up soon. Can´t have him die on us. I need you guys," he muttered.

"What for?!" Cathryn demanded from him, finally waking up from her stupor. Despite her usually shy nature, she was furious. She didn´t understand how Alistair could stay quiet in this situation. She had to step in. "What the hell do you want?" she demanded again. The holy man spun around. She didn´t see him move and he had already grabbed her at her collar. Alistair jumped into action and grabbed his machete.

"Careful, Alistair! I´ll break her neck if you come closer" he laughed. Alistair glared at the older man furiously. "Who are you?" he growled.

The holy man eased his grip. Cathryn gasped for air. "Eh, I am many things. You can call me Mato Witko. We have a long journey ahead of us."

x

Michael Gardner´s ears flicked up as the doorbell rang. It was barely audible as the sound of his TV overpowered every other noise in his house. "Shit," he mumbled as he heaved himself out of his couch. He looked forward to eating the pizza he had ordered but getting up out of his couch had always been an ordeal. As he walked through the hallway to the front door he didn´t bother switching on the light. He grabbed the twenty-dollar bill he had placed on his key counter earlier that night and opened the door.

The smell of delicious pizza and the cold October air mixed. He stared at the carton in the man´s hand and then looked into his face. Something was familiar about the guy.

"Hey, how´s it going," Mike said as he grabbed the carton and put it aside. As he turned back to the delivery guy he was punched square in the face. He fell back and before he could scream a large warm sweaty hand pressed itself upon his mouth. He heard the heavy front door falling shut. Was he getting mugged?

"Calm the fuck down. It´s me. Tommy. You rich motherfucker still didn´t get security?" The hand was lifted from his mouth and he just stared at the other man with an open mouth. The man removed the pizza boy cap and it was him, indeed. Thompson helped him up. Mike´s heart was pounding. This wouldn´t end well if he panicked so he stayed calm. He looked into Tommy´s face. Despite his ripe age, he hadn´t changed much since they had last hung out together back in the 90s.

"Black don´t crack," Mike said after getting over the initial shock. Tommy´s hair, though. It was snow-white. One thing that had radically changed.

"Hey man, uh...I don´t know if I want a murderer in my house," he said, quickly regretted it and held up his hands in defence. Tommy just snorted in reply and told him with a nod for them to move to the living room.

"What part of ´we declare the defendant not guilty of the crime of murder´ didn´t you understand? Now shut up and sit down. Where do you have your guns?" as Tommy asked that he went around the living room looking for weapons.

"I don´t keep guns in my house," Mike said, truthfully. Tommy snorted again and shook his head. He took a pair of handcuffs out of a blue duffle bag he was carrying and cuffed Mike´s hands together. Then he grabbed the pizza from the hallway and set it on the younger man´s lap. Tempted as he was to just dig his face into the pizza he watched Tommy as he grabbed a pair of scissors and cut all phone cords and then smashed his smartphone earning an "Oh, c´mon" from him in response.

"Considering your get-up," Mike said, nodding at the grey prison jumpers Tommy was wearing, "they didn´t release you on parole. Are you on the run?"

Tommy turned around and looked him straight in the eye, a haunted expression on his face. The silence between them lasted too long for Mike to handle. He squirmed under his glance and then Tommy thankfully broke the silence "You don´t watch television? Watch the damn new sometimes instead of that reality TV bullshit." The older man grabbed the remote control and turned on the news.

A great break out at the psychiatric state prison of Pascalville, Colorado had taken place. A huge fire had broken out killing many staff, prisoners and law enforcement officers.

"How did you get all the way from there to here?" Mike asked but Tommy didn´t respond. "Please don´t tell me you killed the pizza guy," Mike said as he looked down at his delicious pizza again.

Tommy chuckled. "Don´t worry. He will keep his mouth shut." Then he went over to Mike and loosened the handcuffs. Mike rubbed his wrists before grabbing a slice of pizza and putting it into his mouth.

Tommy shook his head. "You haven´t changed one bit," he said, and they both sat down on the couch and ate their pizza.