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Emily, a deadly, but broken bodyguard will sacrifice everything to keep her princess away from the hordes threatening to devour them

Horror / Action
Age Rating:

Chapter 1

Emily’s eyes snapped open. With exception to the princess’ steady soft slumbering susurrations, suffocating silence saturated the safe house. Emily should have heard the hissing, screams, and rumblings of the Ragers at this time of night. Nighttime silence lay outside the norm of this new apocalyptic world. Years of harsh experience taught Emily to interpret activity out of the norm as bad news. The many various thoughts of what could chase Ragers away all brought Emily to the same conclusion: retreat.

“Princess,” Emily whispered, nudging the golden-haired girl.

The princess shot up with a gasp. “Does peril come our way?” she breathed. Then, after a moment’s pause, “Why is the noise level so diminished?”

Emily turned to face her lone companion and pressed her index finger over the girl’s lips. The princess’ mouth snapped shut. Her angelic face radiated resolved fear. Emily had seen professional warriors harden or shatter under less than the endless nightmares they had lived over the past three months. Intense pressure forced people to sacrifice either their hearts or spines. Emily chose her heart. However, this dead island-nation’s princess somehow survived without compromising either. The princess’ uncommon courage complemented with compassion commanded respect. Even from calloused killers like Emily.

“We're leaving now,” Emily whispered.

Quickly and quietly, they swapped their night clothes for combat gear. Emily pulled her crimson leather jacket over her Kevlar-weaved undershirt. She tugged her Kevlar pants around her thighs and holstered her machine pistol and hookshot around her legs. Kevlar would keep bites from drawing blood, but bites still hurt. The thought of her princess enduring the pains of gnashing teeth washed a wave of dread over Emily. Emily forced the fear back. She would protect the princess. Emily had kept the princess alive this long and this night would be no different. Emily would not fail her princess. She wouldn’t. Emily fastened her scabbard of short-swords around her back. The princess grabbed her .38 caliber from under her pillow.

Emily’s machine pistol served as an excellent sidearm. Still, she preferred additional punch for close encounters with the infected. Emily reached to the nightstand for her multipurpose rifle. The top half of the rifle was an M-16 machine gun, with a shotgun on the underbelly. Her ability to switch instantly between shotgun and assault rifle firepower was invaluable, even if the shotgun felt a little awkward. The princess stood behind her with the ‘quick retreat’ duffle bag of MRE’s, medical supplies, and ammunition slung over her shoulder.

Emily pushed the princess’ hair behind her ear before drawing the girl to her and whispering, “Go to the garage. You drive; I shoot.”

The princess swatted her protector’s hand away, “Emily my patience thou doth strain! I have learned what thou didst train!”

“Don’t get your royal panties in a bunch, highness.”

The princess eyes narrowed with exasperation and her lip trembled. “Now is not the time to play,” she whined. “Focus thyself on survival I pray!”

“Stay close to me Princess. I'll keep you safe. I promise. You don't need to be afraid.” Emily whispered.

“You will ensure the safety of both our persons,” the princess corrected. “You must desist in your belief that my life is more important than your own.” The princess’ eyes misted and her voice cracked. “I would elect death over loneliness. I forbid you to endanger your life for my own.”

Emily didn’t have time to persuade the princess away from her foolish notions that they were somehow equal. The princess was a supernova of celestial light. Emily, a black hole. “I don’t have a death wish princess,” Emily grinned. That was the truth. It had been ever since the princess had illuminated her existence.

The princess’ sapphire eyes bored into Emily’s brown sewer-water eyes. “We both know I am the weak link,” she began, “You can survive without me. I would perish without you. You must swear to prioritize your security above my own.”

“Fine. I promise,” Emily lied. “Can we go now? Or did you want me to carry you to the truck?”

The princess lunged forward and snuggled Emily tight against her. “I love you Emily,” she breathed. “Your soul is an undiscovered treasure which I yearn the world to see. You must preserve your beauty that it might edify humanity.”

Emily pressed the princess to her bosom and willed her constricted throat not to let out the sobs within her. Why did the precious little wretch have to say stuff like that now? This wasn’t exactly a convenient time to cry.

The front wall shattered into drywall dust and debris. A seven-foot tall man in a black overcoat stepped through the wrecked wall. Emily’s stomach twisted with fear. Not a Hunter! The merciless titan briefly scanned the room until his milky eyes landed on his target. Then he charged the princess.

Emily shoved the princess behind her. “Last stand Princess,” she shouted. The princess bolted back to the bedroom and Emily jumped in the Hunter’s path, pumping two shotgun rounds into its chest. The buckshot blasts bowled the beastly behemoth into the wrecked wall.

The Hunter rose and rushed Emily, ignoring the gory mess of wounds drenching its black trench coat. Emily fired another shot into its gut before it launched its ham-sized hand at her and latched its tough gray fingers around her neck. The Hunter’s lips pulled back in a moldy-toothed grin. It lifted Emily off her feet and smashed her into the wall behind them. Emily’s gun fell from limp fingers. The air left her lungs and her vision darkened. The Hunter would strangle her before its wounds bled it out. Rotten smelling infected Zoldiers poured in behind the Hunter.

Emily grasped at her short-swords as the Hunter slammed her from wall to wall. After what seemed an eternity, Emily gripped the short-swords and jammed the twin blades into the Hunter’s neck, nearly severing its head. The Hunter dropped her and slumped to the ground. Emily pushed the bald giant’s body off her and tore the short-swords from its cankered flesh. She severed, slashed, and sliced the score of Zoldiers surrounding her, sending scalps and stumpy limbs sailing to the stained floor.

Emily sheathed her swords and opened fire with her machine gun. Every bullet splashed their snow-camo uniforms with blobs of blood, bits of bone, and brains. Emily batted away the stinky greyish green arms of one of the Zoldiers, and crushed its nose with the butt of her rifle. Another set of hands, ending in sharp dirty fingernails, yanked Emily's hair.

Emily twisted the thing's hand away and cracked its arm at the elbow before jamming a grenade into its withered mouth and shoving it into a crowd of Zoldiers. She turned away and the grenade let loose an ear-splitting boom, bathing the entire room in a macabre meat shower. Emily dropped back.

Resuming machine gun fire, Emily put a priority on the Zoldiers sporting guns. Fortunately, the Zoldiers were slow and inaccurate with firearms. Although their killing efficiency deeply declined with weapon complexity, their close-quarters lethality increased substantially with melee weapons such as blades, clubs, and stun rods. Emily converted every bullet into scrambled zombie gray-matter, but there were too many. The Zoldiers would overtake her soon. She had to think of—

The entire front room flared into a furious fiery inferno, flinging Emily back and turning the Zoldiers to cooked flesh. Emily struggled up on wobbly legs. She looked for her gun. Emily fought to keep the pain at bay, but no amount of mental discipline could ignore the consequences of a broken body. She did a quick physical inventory. No busted bones, but hot diggity damn she hurt. She hoped to avoid future explosions, at least for tonight.

A straggling Zoldier sprang at Emily. She steadied herself and prepared to put her knife between its eyes. A gunshot cracked beside her and Emily watched the Zoldier zombie lose its mind out the side of its head. A moment later the princess, covered in blood Emily hoped wasn’t the girl’s, laid Emily’s arm around her neck and slipped her arm around Emily’s hips.

“Let us flee from this place!” the princess panted, pulling her protector beside her. “I beg pardon for my inexcusable delay in executing the Last Stand protocol,” the princess apologized. “I encountered a substantial number of the Zoldiers en route to the trigger.” She bent down to retrieve Emily’s gun.

“You did really good Princess,” Emily said. “Are you hurt?”

“No. It was, as you Americans would say, a walk in the park.”

Once in the garage, the princess dumped the supplies in the back seat of the military Humvee. Then looking to Emily with teary-eyed concern asked, “Will you succumb to the physical hardships of today?”

“I'll be fine exalted one,” Emily panted with a smirk. “Drive!”

The princess took a moment to scowl at her last living friend before running to the driver’s seat. Emily got behind the mounted .50 caliber machine gun just as the reinforced garage door jolted to open. Emily sawed down the Zoldiers waiting on the other side; leaving their piled flesh to steam in the frigid air.

A Zoldier pushed past the .50 caliber and jumped on the hood. Emily chucked a knife into its squishy forehead, freeing the demon-spawn from its wretched existence. More Zoldiers swarmed the truck. The garage door finally opened enough to let the Humvee exit. The truck screamed forward. Its knobby tires plowed through the crowd of Zoldiers, grinding their foul flesh and spraying it on the wall.

A Zoldier, missing most of the skin on its cheek, swung a bloody combat knife at Emily’s face. The princess swerved left to dodge an abandoned car, throwing the Zoldier-zombie off balance. Emily drew her machine pistol and fired. While wildly inaccurate with one hand, she still punched the three-round burst into its chest, knocking it off the hood and under the Humvee with a satisfying thud and squish. Emily holstered her handgun and readied the .50 caliber.

The whining buzz of approaching motorcycles fueled Emily’s blood with adrenaline. About a dozen Zoldier-driven bikes surrounded the Humvee. One of the Zoldiers threw a Molotov cocktail at the passenger door igniting the side of the Humvee in flame. The princess’ screams pierced through the mechanical roars of the speeding vehicles. Emily abstractly noted the bizarre similarities between the flame’s white-hot heat and the bitter cold bite of Corpacia’s winter. She continued to fire, mutilating six cyclists with a storm of hot .50 caliber metal. One Zoldier crashed into two others while concocting another Molotov cocktail, sending all of them to an ignominious death. Multi-tasking wasn’t really a Zoldier strong suit.

Emily disposed of the rest without further ado and ducked back into the cab. She pulled the fire extinguisher out of its clamp. “You’re doing really good,” Emily said.

“My location objective is the alternate safe house. My course of action is in line with your training protocols,” the princess called out. “We will survive if I do as you trained me. Correct?”

Equal parts pity and pride for the princess pushed against Emily’s heart. “We’ll make it Princess,” Emily reassured, giving the girl’s shoulder a squeeze. Emily hated that she couldn’t protect the girl from the terrible dread she must be feeling, but Emily would protect her from these monsters. She popped her head back up into the icy wind and extinguished the Molotov’s fire. The distant screams of the Ragers reminded Emily they weren't out of the woods yet.

Ragers were easier to kill than Zoldiers because Ragers were dumb as a bag of rocks. They didn’t use weapons, and while Ragers did sort of work together it was primitive. In fact, it was more accurate to say they ignored each other while looking for someone to eat. The real danger the Ragers posed was their numbers, there just weren’t enough bullets to cure them all.

The whoosh of helicopter blades in the distance dismayed Emily. Why were the Zoldiers so intent on killing them? “We have company Princess, just keep driving,” she called to the front. The blinding searchlight of the helicopter violated the serenity of the night sky.

“I cannot make this truck fly! Oh Emily, we shall surely die,” the princess shouted.

Emily fired at the metal menace hovering over them. At least the infected birds aren’t attacking anymore. Emily thought. Those things had been nasty before their twisted creator snuffed them out.

Despite her admirable efforts, the princess wouldn’t be able to ditch the helicopter. The .50 cal .offered their greatest hope but the helicopter stayed directly over them, making it difficult to hit. Four trench-coat-toting Hunters rappelled from the helicopter. She couldn’t believe the fearless fools dared rappel at this speed. Emily ground two of them to pieces. The helicopter sank low and shot ahead of the Humvee, letting the two remaining Hunters and half a dozen Zoldiers jump out directly in front of them. “Get down!” Emily warned, before sheltering herself in the cab. She strapped her seatbelt a breath before the Humvee crashed into the crowd of Zoldiers and flipped into a wild tumbling roll.

The world spun around them in slow motion. Windows shattered. The disjointed screams of the princess mixed with screeching metal. Emily’s limbs raggedly jerked and danced, crashing into the door or bending in unnatural angles when nothing stopped their momentum.

Finally, everything stopped.

Emily’s whole body hurt. She examined herself. The crash bruised Emily, but it didn’t break her. The shuddering and bawling of the princess tore at Emily. “Princess!” Emily called, “Princess! Are you hurt?”

“Death would bring peace, but I shan’t seek its seductive release,” the princess choked.

“Just tell me if you can walk,” Emily groaned. The way the princess’ people talked grated her nerves sometimes. If Emily was honest with herself, she would have to confess she found the princess' mannerisms adorable. Not that she would ever admit it, but that didn't make it any less true.

“Not nearly so well as I can endlessly talk, but yes I am able to walk,” the girl tried to joke.

Emily and the princess struggled to get out of the mangled vehicle. The hisses and shrieks of the Ragers surrounded them. Emily screamed with indignation. A Rager wouldn’t snuff her out! Gun-in-hand, she forced herself out the shattered window. She greeted the first Rager, a wrinkled noble, with a close-up shotgun blast to the neck, vaporizing the putrid flesh, and sending its sneering head rolling down the street. Two others slammed Emily back against the Humvee, knocking her gun to the ground and gnashing their yellow teeth at her neck. She kicked one away then grabbed the other, a teenaged girl, and snapped its neck. She cured the former with a Beretta round between the eyes.

More came.

She picked her rifle up and splattered two more all over herself with the shotgun. She tried to show a third back to hell the same way, but the pump action produced a disappointing click rather than an earsplitting bang. Out of ammo. She smacked the Rager in the nose instead, sending it reeling backward before planting a machine gun bullet in its fetid face. Emily pushed the horde back with the machine gun until it too ran out of ammo.

More came.

Emily threw the gun down and drew the short-swords. Shambling masses of Ragers sprinted toward them. This battle would be over quick if they didn’t move. It was time to arrange some meetings with the reaper. Emily spun her blades and rushed to meet the horde.

“Fire in the hull!” the princess grunted behind her. Then a grenade arced over Emily and into the charging crowd. The princess threw another close behind. Emily abruptly changed course and took cover behind a broken bus. Bone-jarring booms shook the earth spewing Rager bits everywhere. Emily darted from the cover of the bus to sever and slash the surviving abominations with her short-swords. The path ahead was clear, for now.

Emily wiped the zombie sludge tarnishing her short-swords onto the clothes of the carcasses and sheathed her blades. The princess strapped the bag over her shoulder then ran to Emily, and picked up her rifle. The girl’s trembling fingers loaded a new clip before pushing the gun back into Emily’s hand.

Hosts of ambling bodies clogged the horizon on all sides. “We need to get inside.” Emily announced, clasping the princess’ hand and sprinting toward a hardware store down the road. The menacing growl of infected wolves sent a gush of fear pulsing through her. Emily drew her machine pistol. Hellish red eyes shone between them and the store door.

The wolves, still snarling, slinked from the shadows. Foam and slobber dripped from their exposed fangs and the pack of six, six-and-quarter if you counted the wolf that had grown a second head, deliberately surrounded them. The wolves’ pre-infection pack hunting instincts were hardcoded deep enough to protect them from infection. Emily found herself wondering if infected beavers would still built dams. Would woodchucks still chuck wood? The growls closed in. If the wolves flanked them it was over. Rager shrieks trumpeted the inevitable arrival of the hissing hordes hunting them.

The princess took a shot at two-heads. The wolf shifted left and the pack lunged after them. The damn dogs always dodged. Emily squeezed off four rounds before two-heads jumped on top of her, bringing her roughly to the ground. Thankfully, she'd to put a bullet into the left head, which now hung limp. The yellow teeth of the other head snapped an inch from Emily's skin, spraying foul hot mist at her face, while she pushed back against the scabbed skin and matted fur of its neck.

The princess screamed at the remaining two wolves biting into her arms in a gruesome tug of war. Emily freed one of her hands, grabbed her belt knife and gutted two-heads from rectum to ribs. Shoving its carcass aside, she rose and plunged the knife into the hips of the wolf nearest to her. The demon-hound released the princess and launched at Emily. Emily used the wolf’s momentum to shove its head into the dirty brick wall behind them, cracking its neck before it landed in a twitching heap.

Emily moved her attention to the last wolf, furiously thrashing the princess’ arm between its teeth. Anger flowered inside Emily. That mutt was going to die! Emily stepped over the princess and tore at the wolf’s disgusting throat. The most rotten patches of flesh gave way to her fingers while she squeezed and twisted at its esophagus. The crazed animal released its grip from the princess and gaped at Emily with bulging eyes in its fruitless struggle for air. Emily threw the nasty beast aside once its tongue dangled loosely out the side of its mouth.

Emily wiped the gore from her hands and pulled the princess up. Then she grabbed their guns, jerked the girl close and rushed toward the hardware store.

“Did the wolves get past your Kevlar princess?”

The princess didn’t respond.

Emily twisted the handle. Locked. The flesh lust of the Rager pack intensified their hissing to screeching sirens. Emily popped the closest’s heads into shattered melon with her berretta then slipped a round into the shotgun and breached the door.

Emily’s stomach churned at the wave of aged stench spilling out of the store. She slammed the door behind them. Emily’s eyes scanned the darkness cloaking the sloppy slurps and crunches nearby. Apparently, not all of the death stink was old. The princess’ flashlight clicked and illuminated a group of Ragers hunched over a corpse in the middle of the floor. Emily smothered the princess’ screams with her palm. Some shot angry mildew-eyed glares at them, but most focused their energy on shoveling more innards in their mouths.

“They’re feeding princess,” Emily whispered to the quaking girl, “They won’t care about us until they’re done.” Emily shoved a new clip in her berretta and ended the Rager fancy feast. Trampling footfalls, much too close for comfort, sounded behind them. She braced against the door and the impact of the bodies slamming into the thick wood nearly threw her to the floor. Emily pushed more rounds into her shotgun.

“The darkness is victorious,” the princess bawled. “We shall perish in a palace of pain.”

The door groaned under the pressure of putrid people pounding against it. “Stop being a drama queen!” Emily ordered. “Get those two by fours and a hammer and nails.” Then Emily poked her shotgun through the hole where the door handle used to be and unloaded.

The princess bawling didn’t wane in the least degree but she complied with Emily’s orders. Emily erased some more ugly with another barrelful of buckshot then she and the princess secured the door and reloaded their guns.

“That door won’t hold forever,” Emily stated. “We have to keep moving. We need another vehicle. Do you remember how to hot-wire cars?” Emily asked.

“Death will be the sweetest part of our fate. They will tear our flesh from our bones while we live?” The shivering princess shifted her grieved gaze to her protector, “Fear consumes me Emily.”

“Oh princess,” Emily whispered. “It’ll be okay.” Emily gathered the princess in a tight one-armed hug. The princess slipped her quivering arms around Emily’s waist, letting out a strangled sob against her shoulder. Emily pushed back a little and looked at the girl who represented everything good in life. She wished she could take away the horror dancing in the princess’ blazing blue eyes. Emily picked a few chunks of glistening zombie meat off the princess’ cheek. She probably should have wiped those away before hugging her poor girl. Oops. The banging door prompted Emily to refocus her energy on escape. She could give the princess her hugs later.

“We will not give up! We will fight, we will kill, and we will win! Do you understand that Princess?” Emily demanded, “We will win!”

“I understand,” the princess trembled.

“Say it with me princess. Fight! Kill! Win! Fight! Kill! Win! FIGHT! KILL! WIN!” Emily chanted, shouting the last.

The princess joined in, “FIGHT! KILL! WIN! FIGHT! KILL! WIN!”

Continuing the battle cry, Emily drew her swords and led the charge out the back door and into the city street, lined by multi-story business buildings, where they engaged in gritty hand-to-hand combat with the Ragers.

The helicopter’s spotlight shone down on them. The princess holstered her gun and drew her knife, “FIGHT!” she screamed sheathing it in the ear of an obese male in dirty denim overalls. “KILL!” she cried, ripping the blade from its head and jamming it in the back of a skinny woman’s skull before it could sink its teeth into Emily. “WIN!” Tearing it out of the skinny lady, she swung to plunge it into the nearest Rager, a boy of about twelve.

The princess hesitated and the boy Rager tackled her, followed by six others, burying her in a morbid dog pile. Emily watched helplessly as she fought against a muscular Rager pressing its foul body to her and gobbling at her throat. Emily thrust her blade up its double chin and out the top of its head, and then moved to aid the princess. She split all seven soft skulls with surgical precision in less than twenty seconds before, sheathing her slimed swords and scooping up the weeping princess.

The princess’ Kevlar suit would have protected her vital parts from bleeding, but bites still left bruises. And nothing could shield the princess from the emotional trauma. This night would intensify the poor princess’s plague of perpetual nightmares. Sorrow and sympathy nearly brought Emily to tears, but she put off her emotions. They didn’t have time for any of that now. She lugged the princess to a Ford F-450 service truck, bashed the window open with her rifle, and opened the door.

“Hot-wire it princess,” Emily ordered, decapitating two more hissing human husks, “I will hold off the Ragers. Hurry!”

The princess pulled herself together and climbed in the truck. Armies of Ragers encompassed them. Emily thinned them out with the machine gun. She wouldn't be able to hold them back much longer.

Emily maintained a twenty-foot perimeter.

The truck started to turn over then died.

“Piece of trash I would thou wert a Rager; Then thy brains I could bash,” the princess screamed

Emily’s Rager perimeter shrank to nine feet.

The Ford almost started a second and third time, but to no avail.

Three feet.

No more bullets.

“No! Why cans’t thou just go!” the princess howled.

The monsters were on them.

“You have to leave without me Princess,” Emily called, drawing her short-swords and slamming the blood-slicked blades into the noses of two attacking Ragers.

Emily roared and jumped into the fray. She fought like a dragon, stabbing, kicking, killing. Every second she could buy for the princess could be the difference between life and death for the girl. The sea of Ragers enveloped Emily knocking her down and piling on her. She guarded her neck and the Kevlar protected her chest, arms, and legs but she couldn’t hold back her screams from the agony of their gnawing teeth.

They were eating her alive.

The truck came to life. Relief washed through Emily. The princess could still get away. Emily ignored the panic pressing against her as the suffocating fleshy darkness squirmed over her, crushing and biting her body. The stinky soiled bodies snuffed out the harsh spotlight from Sinamor's helicopter. It would all be over soon.

The truck door opened.

“Demon spawn thou shall not my guardian touch. Thy rancid bones I shall crunch,” the princess yelled.

The princess would die trying to save her. "Please run Princess!" Emily screamed into the pile of bodies stifling her words.

Heart splitting sorrow stormed and shattered Emily’s sanity. She writhed and sobbed under the piles of fetid flesh biting at her. There would be no redemption. Every good thing she had ever tried to do ended in tragedy. The bounteous hope the princess gave her evaporated in noxious grief. How had she ever believed she could be better than filth? The sour seed of incessant sorrow, centered in her soiled soul’s sins, blossomed in her chest and tore out of her mouth in a series of sad scornful shrieks.

Shock routed horror when a Rager was lifted off Emily’s head and thrown through the air. Emily did not quite believe her eyes. Another flew over her, crashing into a Rager crowd. She turned her head. Hunters and Zoldiers fought the Ragers. A Hunter picked up a woman in an expensive but ruined business suit, and hurled it through the Ford’s windshield. Four Ragers attacked a Hunter only to have their bodies torn and mashed. Emily tottered to her feet. The harsh throbbing pain of the Rager bites pulsed throughout her body. Fortunately, they hadn’t penetrated her Kevlar.

A group of Zoldiers surrounded the princess. They were protecting her. What was going on? Eventually the Zoldiers and Hunters eradicated the Ragers. The sobbing princess broke away from the Zoldiers and plunged into the safety of Emily’s embrace.

“Me thought thou they would kill! Thy precious crimson blood spill,” the princess shuddered.

Emily tightened her sore arms around the princess. She ran her fingers over the girl’s head and down her back while she tried to stifle her own tears. Her precious princess was safe. There was still hope.

The scores of Zoldiers surrounding them stayed in place while three Hunters lined up side by side in front of Emily and the princess. The powerful beam of the spotlight lowered until it the helicopter touched the ground. The Hunters, each of them bald and adorned in a black trench coat and gloves, stared them down until a tubby man with an obnoxious smile pushed himself in front of them.

“Damn this place is cold!” Sinamor complained, blowing onto his fingers. “I know the little princess here hasn’t known any better, but Emily you’ve got to admit that this place sucks.”

“I’ve found Corpacia to be quite pleasant actually,” Emily replied.

Sinamor shook his oversized head. “Whatever floats your boat,” he said. Sinamor let his gaze wander up and down the length of Emily and the princess’s clinging bodies. “Emily I‘m very impressed,” Sinamor beamed, pressing his thick glasses up the bridge of his pug nose.

Emily pushed her tears deep inside her. There was no way this ass wipe would see her cry.

“You’re a real spit-fire! You’re probably wondering why I saved you,” he grinned.

The princess tried to turn her gaze to Sinamor and his army of butchers.

“Close your eyes princess,” Emily whispered, nudging the girl’s head back to her shoulder and planting a kiss on her crown. The princess shivered against Emily, wetting her protector's neck with her hot breath and tears.

“I wouldn’t say you saved me,” Emily answered. “I had the situation under control.”

Sinamor burst out with laughter. Then he turned to the Hunters behind him. “Well laugh you fools,” he commanded. “We’ve got some real comedic talent here.”

Inelegant laughter left the lips of the looming giants. Their breath misted against the winter cold. Even though their mouths moved, their expressions remained vacant.

“Oh Emily, I do like you! I like you so much I'm going to hire you. After all, you are just a mercenary, and the princess isn’t really in a position to pay top dollar anymore.”

Emily cringed at the accusation. Emily wasn’t a mercenary anymore. She was something better. Maybe not something good, but she was something better. She was!

“The only thing you need help with is pulling your head out of your giant ass,” Emily beamed. “And there’s not enough money in all of Corpacia for me to do that.”

Sinamor’s guppy grin withered in fury. “Don’t screw around with me!” he shouted, sending the princess into hysteria.

“Stay calm princess,” Emily whispered, running her fingers along the girl’s spine. “Stay calm.”

"Death, I feel its foul breath," the princess whimpered, trembling against Emily as she clung to her.

"Keep your pretty head in the game, Princess," Emily cooed, "Stay with me, stay calm."

The princess nodded against her shoulder and the girl’s trembling waned but didn't stop. How would the princess ever feel safe again?

“What exactly do you want me to do…sir?” Emily asked in as subservient a tone as she could muster, almost choking on the last word.

“Now that’s the kind of talk I want to hear from you,” Sinamor harrumphed. Sinamor’s lips shifted back to the smile that somehow managed to be even uglier than his scowl. “You see Emily, I’ve been forced to do some…restructuring,” he explained. “Which has led to an employment opportunity for you. I need someone to oversee my non-exposed personnel.”

“Sounds fun,” Emily said.

“Working for him will cost you your soul,” the princess whispered against Emily’s throat.

“You're the only soul I have,” Emily muttered back. “Now shush.”

“And we’ll have the princess doing a …” Sinamor’s ran his tongue over his fishy lips. Desire danced in his eyes. “a special assignment in the lab.” His puffy hand reached for the princess and Emily batted him away. The Hunters roared down on them. The princess cleaved closer to Emily with a shreik.

“I’ll kill you Sinamor!” Emily screamed.

The Hunters advanced.

Sinamor retreated behind a Hunter.

“Run princess,” Emily ordered forcing the girl behind her and hurling herself at the Hunter between her and Sinamor.

Emily landed three lighting strikes on the Hunter’s throat. Its enraged roar exited its crushed esophagus as more of a wheeze and it threw a punch at Emily. She side-stepped the punch and was about to tear Sinamor’s eyes out of his petrified face before something clammy and strong wrapped around her neck and lifted her off the ground. The Hunter yanked Emily close enough to its mouth to count its yellow teeth and bathed her in the stink of rotted meat and blood. Emily boxed its ears, prompting it to put the distance of its gargantuan arm between them. Emily chopped at the Hunter’s elbows, but she knew her air-starved lungs would give out before she broke the Hunter.

A golden blonde flash launched at the Hunter and hammered at its pasty face and neck. “Release her from thy grip before thy skin from thee I rip!” the princess shouted.

Emily uselessly kicked her dangling feet at the Hunter. “No, princess!” she gagged.

The Hunter wrapped its massive fist around the princess’ delicate neck and suspended them both three feet in the air at arm’s length. The princess’ gasped and hammered at the Hunters horrible hands. Her eyes swelled until they looked as they would burst from their sockets. Emily reached for the princess but her limbs refused to obey. A dark circle encroached on her vision. This couldn’t be happening! Then the princess’ hands slipped to her sides. Her feet twitched a bit and she was still. The Hunter’s scowl slid into a smile.

“Don’t kill her you moron!” Sinamor howled. He did a hurried waddled to the Hunter’s side and stood on tipped-toes to deliver a slap to the Hunter’s chin. “Let her go!” Sinamor demanded. The Hunter complied and the princess fell to the ground.

“I swear by all that is holy if you killed the little bitch I’ll put you on the dinner menu!” Sinamor threatened. The Hunter’s face was impassive, but it did ease its grip on Emily’s neck enough to allow her to breath.

Sinamor knelt down and patted the princess’ cheek. “Hey wake up,” he called.

“Princess!” Emily gasped.

“I think you killed her you moron!” Sinamor shouted.

“Let me see her!” Emily gagged.

Sinamor twisted his smiling face to Emily. “You two really do love each other,” he observed.

“Please let me go to her.”

He pushed his glasses up and pointed his stumpy finger to Emily. “If you even so much as look at me dirty I will make you watch the Hunters chew your pretty princess’ cute little toes and fingers to the bone,” he scowled.

“I just want to see her.”

“Let her go you moron,” Sinamor commanded the Hunter.

The Hunter released Emily and she scrambled to the princess. Please be alive. Please be alive. Please be alive.

“Princess, wake up baby,” Emily choked, unable to hold back her tears, but still managing not to sob. “Please please wake up.”

The princess’ chest gently heaved up and down. And she stirred. How could Sinamor think she was dead? He was a doctor for hell’s sake.

“Tricked ya!” Sinamor giggled.

Emily drew her fist back. It would feel good to pop his squishy little head right off his neck.

Sinamor flinched behind his arms. “Remember what I said about that little slut’s toes,” he squeaked. The Hunters, less the one with the crushed esophagus who lay dead at Sinamor’s feet, approached. Emily turned away from all of them and gathered the princess close.

“My attempt to save you was futile,” the princess cried. “My utility to you is less than nothing. You would be free I were not a barnacle to you.”

Emily urged the princess to her feet. They’d need to be mobile. “Hush now,” she whispered, “You freed me from a worse kind of darkness. I will be indebted to you forever.”

“Such sweetness,” Sinamor whispered to himself. “Such yummy sweetness.” The fervor of his words sickened Emily. “Now, that we have established who’s in control,” Sinamor continued, his tone all business, “I think we can get on without any further problems. Emily will go back to the garrison with the Zoldiers, and the princess will fly back to the lab with me.”

“The princess stays with me,” Emily demanded.

“You disappoint me Emily. The royal brat has made you soft and stupid. That will have to change. Besides, you're not exactly in a position to make ultimatums. Take the mercy I have extended you and be grateful.”

Emily remained silent a score of seconds, sliding her fingers through the princess’ messy hair, while she considered the best course of action.

The princess broke away from Emily and stepped back. “Accept the offer Emily,” she said.

Emily wondered if the clattering of the princess’ teeth was due to the biting cold, or terror.

“It is futile to proceed on a path in which both of us parish when given the opportunity to take the path in which one may live. Moreover, he is correct. I am not in a position to pay.” The princess tried to form a smile on her heart-shaped face through her tears. “To an utterly dead nation, princess is a senseless station.”

Emily gazed down at her tattered crimson coat, a symbol of her commitment to sanctify herself of her sins through her blood. She looked back to the princess, her life’s purpose and calling. Then she scanned her eyes over the hundreds of Zoldiers surrounding them. Their options were limited.

“I pray you go Emily. All will be well with us both in the end,” the princess encouraged. Stepping further away, she struggled to stifle her sobs behind quivering lips.

Emily yanked the princess back to her.

Then looking to Sinamor said, “I already have a job and there is no way you’re going to touch the princess.”

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