Dark Paths:Apocalypse Riders

By: Britten Thorne

They clasped their hands and bowed their heads. The long dining table was lit by candles, the dim orange light flickering with the faint breeze that drifted in through the boarded up windows. There were nine at the table - four down one side, four down the other, and the minister himself sat at the head and lead the prayer.

She peeked at him now as they sat in silence, waiting for him to feel the moment was right while their food grew cool in front of them. Lia always jumped when his booming voice began to speak.

“Bless us, oh Lord, my children and myself and the food we are about to eat.”

They called him Father, like a priest, a spiritual leader. All of their real fathers were dead.

“Bless our loved ones who have passed. We pray for their souls.”

There were a disproportionate number of young girls at Father Speer’s table. His son sat at his right side. Mikey. A younger version of the broader older man, both had the same thick black hair, the same disapproving brown eyes. The rest were his adopted family, his people that he’d taken in and sheltered.

“Bless those living who look to you now, who live virtuous lives during these trying times.”

Lia had kissed Mikey once, behind the barn at sunrise. Both still bore the scars of their punishments. They hardly even looked at each other anymore.

“Shelter us from the living corpses. Shelter us from evil men. Protect this farm, that we may continue our good works for you.”

Good works like turning away travelers? Good works like pointing guns at trespassers? Lia wrung her hands. Good works like protecting each other, taking care of each other. It was important to focus on the positive. She always tried her hardest to do so, though it grew harder every day.

"Keep my son strong and my flock of young ladies virtuous, that they may praise your name with pure hearts through these, the end of days. Amen."

"Amen," they all replied. Lia poked at her plate - a formless mound of meat and beans. Probably dog food. Better than starving. She ate without tasting anything. There was no conversation over dinner - just the metallic clinks of forks on plates. Father Speer's calculating eyes roamed over each of the girls as they ate. His little parish. His flock.

"Mikey and I are going foraging again tomorrow," he announced once his plate was empty. "We'll be back before dark." Lia's eyes flickered to the minister and back to her plate. "Something you'd like to say?" he asked, one thick eyebrow raised.

"No," Lia said softly. Just that you went out only two days ago. Just that this must mean our stores are really low. You have seven other able-bodied people who could help out there.

He wouldn't want to hear it. The girls didn't go further than the perimeter of the farm. Not because of the dead - he'd taught each and every one of them how to deal with the corpses - with guns, with knives, with blunt objects. He wanted to keep them away from the living. To "protect their purity." "Unclean women" were turned away from the farm almost as quickly as any wandering men. Only one type of woman was allowed on his farm.



Lia lived with eight other people but was starved for human touch. Father Speer allowed none but what he allotted out himself. Her kiss with Mikey behind the barn had lit a spark in her belly - a glowing ember that wouldn't die, despite the incident being weeks ago. But she didn't have the freedom even to soothe herself.

"Harlot!" Father Speer's bellow was followed by a light pair of feet running down the stairs. Lia slept in the corner of the living room, as the third upstairs bedroom was full. Two other girls slept in the other corners and they stirred at the sounds as well. The room was cramped between their mattresses, the coffee table, the couch, and the separate chests for each of the girls’ belongings, but it made it easy for her to remain unseen if she kept her head down.

She had full view of the foyer as Emily descended, tears trailing down her pale cheeks. A ball of dread formed in her stomach. She sat frozen, not daring to draw any attention to herself.

Father Speer stamped down after the raven-haired girl. "The devil is in you, Emily. I've always seem him there."

"No!" She crashed into the front door, only briefly holding the knob in a trembling hand before sinking to the floor. "No."

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