by Dan Stout
Jenna shifted to her right, then her left. The orc mirrored each move, its sunken, no-longer-human eyes locked on her own.
She risked a glance at her machete, sitting by the sink where she’d left it in a moment of temporary foolishness. She’d been so glad to find running water and electric lights in the old public bathroom that she’d let her guard down. For just a moment she let herself believe that the world wasn’t going mad, and that a rooftop reservoir and fluorescent lights weren’t extravagances. What had that gotten her? An orc that stood two long paces closer to her weapon than she did.
“You gonna make a move, big fella?” She smiled, showing her teeth, and the orc did the same. Its double rows of jagged shark’s teeth almost obscured the human molars behind them. Even if she managed to survive this, any one of those teeth dripped with enough virus-laden saliva to infect her a hundred times over.
The orc thumped its chest and worked its misshapen mouth.
“Yeah. Evil.” Jenna hated it when they talked. Most orc-infected were driven mad by the transformation, but some stayed self-aware.
The thing’s head wagged. Its jaw worked harder, lips stretching almost to splitting as they strained to form syllables around protruding fangs.
“Nuh. Eeuh-VAUGN.” It thumped its chest once again. Was it trying to tell her its name?
Jenna looked closer at it. The orc cocked its head, as if listening to something. Its eyes widened, and thick claws gestured her away.
“Baaughk. Geh baaughk.”
Now Jenna heard it, too. The pitter-patter of over-sized feet. The orc turned its back to her, facing the door just as it broke open. A pack of wee ones flooded into the bathroom. Each the height of Jenna’s thigh, they were clad in earth tones and long capes, their eyes wild as they gnashed at the air with mouthfuls of rounded teeth.
Orcs were bad. Hobbits were the worst.
They came at the orc, and the bigger creature slashed out with its claws. Hobbit-blood splattered the walls, infusing the air with the smell of hops and barley. Jenna grabbed her machete and leapt atop the sink. The orc should have been able to cut a swath through them and exit, but he stood firm. Like he was protecting her.
The whole situation was Frodo’d up beyond belief. But Jenna knew that there was no fighting defensively against superior numbers. She sprang off the countertop, feeling it give way beneath her and hearing the snap of metal piping. She felt a twinge of remorse for the water spraying from the wall, but it was quickly forgotten as she landed next to the orc and began hacking into the large-footed potato grubbers. There was nothing she hated more than hobbits.
It started when archeologists found diminutive human skeletons. Small femurs and skulls, the same size and structure as the ones she now slammed into the bathroom floor. ‘Hobbits’ had seemed like a cute name. And when the paleo-biologists decided to go all Jurassic Park on the remains, no one thought there would be any real consequence.
The orc beside her– Evan? – he seemed to be filled with hatred for the little monsters as well. He continued to attack, ignoring the jabs of their small blades and struggling to keep his balance on the water-soaked floor.
The hobbits—or leprechauns, or whatever they were –had caused the orc virus. Something about them was supernatural, and when science brought them back from the dead, magic swept the world like a fungus. Cities collapsed, leaving verdant green hills with homes in their sides. Cows sprouted wings and breathed fire. That’s what ended the world: the Hobbi-pocalypse.
Around Jenna, the hobbits were fading. It hadn’t been a large pack, and she and Evan – dammit, she and the orc – faced the last few. But the floor was too slick.
With a roar, Evan went down to one knee. A hobbit clung to his neck, clawing at his eyes while two more advanced. The orc peeled the attacker off his throat, but he was vulnerable to the blades of the other two. Jenna found herself running towards him and screaming.
She jumped high just as she reached him. Her machete sliced into both hobbits, but her knee caught Evan squarely in the face. He went down on his back, the last hobbit squeaking as its bones crunched underneath his bulk. She landed hard on the tile floor. The spray of water was down to a trickle, the remnants of the hidden reservoir emptying across the carnage like a light spring shower.
Groggy, she rolled over and stared at her leg. Blood welled from a ragged tear in her jeans. Jenna tried to curse, but her throat constricted. She’d slashed herself on Evan’s deadly teeth.
No shot of penicillin was going to fix this. There was only one way to stop an infection of the orc virus. She’d have to kill the one who infected her. Perform a ritual and scatter his ashes by the cover of night.
A shadow fell across her prone form. Evan stared at the cut, rubbing his jaw where she’d hit him.
“Ehn-fectshun,” he said, then squatted down beside her.
She struggled to sit, putting some distance between them while tightening her grip on the machete.
“Eew knaugh whaut too doo.” He held his chin up, exposing his throat.
Jenna watched him as she stood, favoring her wounded leg.
“Look,” she said, “I’m sorry.”
“Yeah. Evan.” She drew her arm back, the machete’s handle slick in her hand.
“Naught E-vaugn.” The orc still held his head up. “Eeuhs-vaughnd. Yeuur euhs-vaughnd.” The orc raised his left hand, and Jenna saw a gold band around the third finger.
Jenna blinked, and the bathroom blurred. Her tears turned the fluorescent lights into stars, and she made sure to take his head in one swing.
Getting his body to the roof was a struggle, but she managed. While she caught her breath she peered into the rooftop reservoir. As she’d feared, it had been drained to its dregs. She swore and looked back at the Evan’s body, still covered with gore and wounds he’d received trying to help her.
She’d never been married. The orc’s madness had made him see in her a woman who was almost certainly long dead. But the fact that the he had done so much for the woman he thought was his wife… some days even Jenna wanted to believe in a fantasy like love.
Jenna filled her canteen half-full and, with a muttered curse at her sentimental foolishness, she used the last of the clean water to bathe Evan’s body. She was extra careful with the wedding ring, scrubbing it until it shone as if new.
When the ceremony was over and the fire died down she scraped together his ashes with a spare bit of corrugated metal, holding her breath careful to not inhale any of the fine grit. Carrying them to the roof’s edge, she paused to look out on the skeletal remains of the city. She recited no prayer, no words of mourning. But a careful listener may have heard a whispered, “Thank you,” as the metal upended and ashes were given to the sky.
The wind caught them and they flew, scattering, disappearing like his curse across the starry night.
Dan Stout lives in Columbus, Ohio, where he writes about fever dreams and half-glimpsed shapes in the shadows. His fiction draws on travels throughout Europe, Asia, and the Pacific Rim as well as an employment history spanning everything from subpoena server to assistant well driller. Dan’s stories have appeared in publications such as The Saturday Evening Post, Nature, and Mad Scientist Journal. Follow him on Facebook or visit him on the web at www.DanStout.com.