This short tale was one of the first things I wrote which fully used the 3-act structure. It was designed specifically to showcase that structure in as concise a setting as possible.
Verin heaved himself out of the water, his tired muscles shaking and failing, and climbed onto the buoy. He rolled onto his back and lay on the hard metal surface, staring up at the night sky, his breath coming in quick gasps. The bitter wind sliced at his wet skin and soaked clothes with all the chill of a Valhallian winter, but Verin didn’t move. The water was warmer, but he wouldn’t get back in it. If he had his way, he would never get back in any water as long as he lived.
Verin closed his eyes. The memory was still too clear. Dark shapes in the water as he swam, arms and legs bumping against him in the cold wetness, something grabbing his leg and threatening to pull him under.
Verin forced his eyes open. He wouldn’t let his mind sabotage him like that. He couldn’t afford it. Later, he could sleep. He could rest. But right now, he still had to escape.
Verin didn’t know where the zombies of Morindan had come from, or how they had overrun the elven command post so quickly. All he knew was that he was the only one left. Terror lapping at the edges of his sanity, he had run for the only thing which was not a writing mass of decaying bodies: water. And now he sat in the middle of the Bay of Sorrows, atop a floating buoy, in the dead of night, for all he knew surrounded by zombies.
Verin looked up at the sky. Help would come. A command post wasn’t overrun without it being noticed by someone. Eventually, a squadron of kyrie would fly over the place, scouting it, and they would see Verin. He just had to avoid freezing to death until they came. As long as he was quiet, the zombies would never know he was here.
What was that?
The buoy swayed slightly in the water. Verin gripped it harder, the coldness of metal seeping into his already-chilled hands.
The buoy shook again. Something was down there, below it, bumping into the chain. Verin scrambled to the very middle of the buoy. The buoy was small, just a cylinder of metal about as long across as Verin was tall. But there was a metal pole in its center which extended up above Verin’s head, carrying a tattered orange flag. Between the small surface area and the pole, Verin didn’t have much room.
He clung to the pole tighter.
And then something, something black and slimy, something which reeked of rotten flesh and which was still alive, reached up and grabbed the edge of the buoy. It was the hand of a zombie of Morindan. Verin’s fears were confirmed: they were in the water.
The zombie hauled itself up onto the buoy much as Verin had done. Bits of skin and flesh scrapped off on the metal as it dragged its limbs over the side, but it seemed not to notice. It took one rattling breath, and locked its soulless eyes – devoid of anything but black hunger – on Verin. And then it stood, and took a shuffling step towards him.
Verin was a soldier of Ullar’s ninth elven division. He was perfectly capable of simply kicking the zombie off the side. But he couldn’t. His mind was locked into a survivor’s terror. Even if he did strike the zombie down, it would just get back up again. It would keep coming until he ran out of energy. The water must be full of them, so escape was no option. But he had to escape. He must! Verin’s panicked eyes watched the zombie slowly shuffle closer.
Verin circled around the pole, keeping it between himself and the zombie. Its putrid stench smote him in the face as it drew closer, its arms outstretched now, eagerly grasping for him.
It ran into the pole. Clearly, night vision was not a zombie’s strong suit. Verin backed away from the pole, getting as close to the edge of the buoy as he dared. But it wasn’t enough. The zombie pressed its body to the pole, and reached out for Verin with arms which seemed too long to be allowed.
Verin was out of options. The zombie’s arms were on either side of him. The water was behind him, lapping against his heels in a cruel imitation of fingers clutching at him. Before him was the zombie’s waiting mouth. He shielded his head and curled into a ball, terror overcoming him.
He felt the icy touch of fingers on his arm. The fingers closed in with a grip like a soulborg’s cyberclaw. And then the zombie began pulled him towards the center of the buoy, where he knew it stood, mouth hanging slack.
For a moment Verin was limp. For a moment panic ran rampant in his mind. Then pure instinct took over.
Verin’s free hand shot out, almost of its own accord, and grabbed the edge of the buoy. Verin ignored the water lapping against his fingers, and held on with all his might. For a moment nothing happened. Zombie strained against elf, and the buoy bobbed gently up and down as the silent struggle raged upon it. Then the zombie changed tactics. It inched forward, keeping a grip on Verin’s arm, and latched onto one of his legs with its other arm.
Verin immediately shot his free leg over the edge of the buoy. Any human would probably have cried out in pain, but all elves were double-jointed anywhere their skeletal structure permitted it, and Verin was able to maintain the precarious posture. He hooked his free leg around the underside of the buoy, anchoring himself against the renewed pull of the zombie.
Slow and decayed as it was, the zombie was surprisingly strong. Its grip never weakened; its inexorable tug never slackened. It simply kept up a constant pull on Verin’s side, while Verin kept up a constant resistance on his other. Behind the zombie, the sky began to turn gray.
Verin knew he couldn’t stay like this forever. His strength would wane. The zombie, fed by dark arcane magics, would never give up. Ultimately, Verin would tire, and, too weak to resist, would be hauled in by the zombie, like a defeated fish caught on a line.
Verin looked up. He was able to see the zombie’s face now, half eaten away by rot. The sky was just barely light enough to make out its decayed features.
He had survived the Kinsland campaign. He had shaken off the chill touch of a Shade of Bleakwoode. Injured, he had dragged himself halfway through the Volcarren to safety after the Obsidian Massacre. He wasn’t going to die here, to this half-eaten remnant of a warrior, on a buoy in the middle of the water. He couldn’t escape the zombie. But he could still kill it.
Verin loosed his grip on the buoy, and unhooked his leg, swinging it around to the front. The pressure from the zombie instantly pulled him in.
Just as the zombie’s mouth opened wide, Verin planted his foot on the pole, stopping his forward motion. The zombie blinked for a moment, trying to use whatever was left of its mind to understand what had happened.
Verin gave it no time, but locked his free leg against the pole, and reached up with his free hand and grabbed the pole also. He had to move fast. It would only take the zombie a moment to realize that it had Verin in a very precarious position. If the zombie moved to the side, or released its grip, Verin would have no chance.
Verin got a better grip on the pole, and then snaked his free leg around it, and kicked with all of his might at the zombie’s legs. They gave way with surprising ease. The zombie crashed to the surface of the buoy, and its grip on Verin slackened. Verin instantly pulled his other foot and hand free, and stood. This was a battle he could win.
The zombie slowly got its arms under it, and began to push itself up, but Verin kicked at its elbows, sending the dilapidated corpse back to the metal. And then he lifted his leg and stamped as hard as he could on the zombie’s head.
The zombie let out a gurgled screech, but otherwise appeared unhurt. Verin, on the other hand, staggered backwards, as barbs of pain shot up his leg. The zombie’s skull was incredibly thick. Still, there was no other option. He had to reach the brain. Nothing else would kill the zombie.
Determined, he moved forward, and stamped on the zombie’s skull once more. Again, the zombie screamed, and again, pain shot up Verin’s leg, rendering it numb for a moment. Verin stamped again. And again. But the only change was that he could no longer feel his leg.
Finally, limping, holding onto the pole for support, Verin had to admit that killing the zombie might not be as easy as he had thought. Both of his legs were shaking, and one was completely useless and devoid of feeling. The zombie slowly began to sit up.
Verin wasn’t standing for that. He let go of the pole and fell towards the zombie, tackling it back to the metal. But now the zombie fought. Perhaps it at last sensed that Verin’s own skull was close at hand, but it wrapped its long limbs about him, even as Verin fought to keep them off. They struggled, first one with the advantage and then the other, until Verin finally found himself beneath the zombie, at the edge of the buoy.
Almost without thinking, he shot his arms upwards, straight into the zombie’s chest (he thought he heard a rib crack), and locked his elbows. The zombie was thrown off of him at the impact, and Verin quickly rolled, launching the zombie into the cold gray water. He quickly scrambled back to the middle of the buoy and pulled himself upright.
The water was still. It lapped gently against the buoy, and the buoy bobbed up and down slowly, up and down, up and down. Verin waited for a vibration. Anything. Any sign that the zombie was coming back. But nothing came. He had won.
The first rays of the sun broke the horizon to the east, and the sky, covered by clouds, was lit with a fiery golden light. Verin allowed himself a breath of relief, and sank to the metal of the buoy, cradling his numb legs and sore arms.
And then in an instant everything changed.
The zombie launched itself from the water, much like a whale breaching for air. It landed fully on the buoy and scrambled for Verin. Gone was the slow shuffling. Now the zombie raced towards Verin, its black eyes locked keenly onto the back of his skull.
Verin rolled out of the way, and the zombie skidded to a halt. However, its momentum carried it too far. It slipped off the edge of the buoy, and almost fell into the water. It gripped the slick metal, dead fingernails scrapping as it dug into whatever it could. It came to a halt, head and shoulders out of water, and immediately began to pull itself up.
But Verin had decided. He had dragged himself halfway across the Volcarren after the Obsidian Massacre. If he could do that, he could kill one lone zombie.
He launched himself at the zombie, and landed on its hands, pinning them down. The zombie immediately opened its mouth, trying to get at his head, which was only inches away, but Verin shot out his own hands, and grabbed the head on either side, holding it securely. For a moment the zombie struggled, but it was stuck.
And then Verin pulled the zombie’s head back, and slammed it full force into the side of the buoy. If his foot couldn’t crack the zombie’s skull, maybe the buoy could.
The zombie let out a piercing scream. Verin slammed its head into the buoy again, mostly just to silence it. The zombie’s cry lost some volume, as if something had broken. Again, Verin struck the buoy with the zombie’s head, as if he were striking a gong with an oversized mallet. He thought he heard something crack.
The zombie thrashed, splashing water over Verin and over the buoy, making it slippery. Verin found the pole with one foot and hooked his leg around it, securing himself. And then he slammed the zombie against the buoy again. And again.
He could feel the zombie’s arms writing beneath him, muscles constricting and pulling, tendons popping, but they were pinned beneath him. He could see the zombie’s legs beneath the water, propped against the buoy, trying to pull itself free of his grasp, but he held its head too tightly. Once more he smashed the zombie’s skull into the buoy, and the long cry which had been issuing from its mouth suddenly ceased.
Verin didn’t stop, but smashed the zombie’s head three more times. Finally, when he could see that the head had clearly been caved in, and the skull fractured, he let go. The zombie’s head lolled back in the water, its black eyes now truly devoid of life. It was still, save for the motion caused by the water eddying about it.
Verin lifted himself up, and the zombie’s arms slid into the water, allowing the rest of it to quickly sink out of sight.
Golden light struck Verin’s side. The sun had risen. He took a shaky step backwards, towards the center of the buoy, and forced himself to take a deep breath.
He had done it. He had won.
Behind him, flying out of the sun, three dots emerged. Verin turned, saw them, and knew them to be a kyrie scouting party.
He had dragged himself halfway across the Volcarren. He wouldn’t be defeated by a little zombie apocalypse.