Unbreaking

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Life on your own is full of dirt. Away from the Colony, away even from villages and what safety and succor they can provide, the dirt gets into your hair and your hat and your hide. When you cross a stream, mud cakes on your boots, and when you clean your catch, the blood that won't wash out of your clothes makes a brown stain, a more lasting testament to the soil than the soil itself can provide. Though the air may be clean, the work of walking and chopping and living raises dust that cakes your nostrils and coats your tongue with clay. When Owen Marson imagined life on his own, he knew some of this. When he escaped to the wilderness, though, the dirt snuck up and captured him, until he became more a thing of the soil than he'd ever been of the streets and stones.

He walked slower these days, but got places faster. Understanding of the terrain and a steadier gait meant fewer stops and fewer detours. A deliberate pace let him listen and watch, and avoid disrupting the incessant chattering sounds of the woods. Even in these blasted lands, music of the birds and beasts filled the ears. Marson barely seemed to register among the wildlife, either because he smelled more like dirt than man or because mankind had grown so rare that the creatures no longer knew to fear. He did not matter here, except as the one who set the snares.

He gathered food as he went. Two rabbits, hanging at head height, necks broken by the upright snap of the saplings that held their death. A fish in the basket trap, too small to mean much food. Grains, shriveled and blighted, but collected as diligently as gold ever was. Winter is always coming, even in August, even in Spring.

Marson was setting a new snare when his throat started to tighten and his hackles went up. Without hearing a sound, he became suddenly, dreadfully certain that something was on his scent. His head snapped up and he stared wildly as he gripped the tree beside him. With effort, he listened, standing still, and heard nothing. He tried to see any sign of danger and saw nothing. He kept all his senses pricked and no smell nor strange wind nor unsteady ground gave him reason for such sudden panic.

People. It had to be people, because this was not him feeling afraid. The feeling grew stronger and more painful, but easier to resist now he was sure it was not his own. But he was not a man to love the pain. Dizzily, he abandoned his unfinished trap and stumbled away to shelter.

It had been only a year after the invasion was repulsed when Marson had started to know what others were feeling. At first he thought it was because he'd grown to know his companions so their hearts were, to him, an open book. But after a few years, the sense grew so powerful that he had no barriers between his own thoughts and theirs; any powerful emotion could override his own. And what a cacophony of fear, lust and hatred there is in the smallest of settlements! So he had fled until his feelings were only his own, and kept moving until he was far enough that no person had crossed within range in over two years.

The fear began to flicker and fade into a numb red haze. Marson began to relax, though the sharp fear still stabbed into his mind. But his footsteps grew ever more unsure until he realized he had lost his path. He stared around, the silence about him as empty of meaning as it had been full before. The sky seemed to be red. Had an hour passed already and the sun touched the horizon?

Backtracking. Not a difficult task, but his mind could not grasp the memory of where he'd been. He stood still, and felt his eyes draw down to the rabbits whose blood he was sure he could smell at his side. His mouth began to water and his hand drifted up to tear them off his belt.

This wasn't him, either. It must be human, because other creatures had no impact on his mind. But it was more wild even than a starving man - what sort of person... What sort of monster might be touching and twisting his heart?

He gasped and worked to control the weird hunger that ate into his mind. Whatever the thing was, the feeling from it was unbelievably powerful. He blinked and struggled to still his thoughts until he thought he could find his way up to the cave. Higher ground first, and he would see his position. Or at least he could just walk around the hill until he recognized the area around the cave.

A slow, uncertain hike through the buzzing madness led him above the forest, out on the rocks. He began to imagine he heard another climber groaning about the ascent, but the rising wind grabbed at his coat and he couldn't be sure. He also began to wonder about the rabbits at his side, since he thought he smelled rotting flesh.

Then ahead of him around a curve he saw the source of both sound and scent. 50 yards off, it looked like a man, clothes and all, but it was torn and broken. Clothes and all. Great gashes shone, open and slick with blood, over its chest and arms and head. His eyes lost focus with fresh hunger as the thing neared, and he could barely hear the fear his own mind tried to scream over the creature's red madness.

It picked up fresh speed and began to shamble toward him with greater speed. The ground gave it surprisingly little difficulty - perhaps because the thing's hunger crowded out its sense of danger. Marson stumbled back and turned to escape, barely seeing the ground himself, sharing the creature's handicap of mental haze.

The rock snatched at his knee as he rounded a sharp corner, and he fell into the ditch at his side. He didn't fall far, but the sickening crack he heard and the rush of pain in his leg woke him for a moment from the monster mind. He wouldn't escape, with his leg broken.

The thing moved inevitably closer and Marson began to lose his mind.

He smelled meat and struggled against the ground, eager to taste the ambrosia of blood and brain. But the stab of pain would almost clear his senses and he'd shift his effort to avoid damaging his leg, only to succumb again to the strengthening crimson blindness. Finally, in a lucid moment he placed his hand over the break and squeezed. He didn't bother to stop his scream as he sought a way up and away. A large branch to lean on, a tourniquet loosely tied over the break itself to keep the pain to clear his mind, it would work, it must, until he could escape the shambling menace!

But it was closer yet, and the pain faded still into monster mind. He breathed fast and hard, thinking "I must, I must be myself, I am not this thing of rot and hunger. I am not hollow flesh."

The hunger began to fade.

"I am not going to succumb."

The red haze began to lift.

"I shall be free, and shall be human."

The madness left, but without returning pain. A sort of wonder, mixed with fearful confusion took its place. Without shifting his feet or his crutch, he turned enough to see the zombie stood right behind him, with human eyes, lost and amazed.

Marson was silent as the zombie's throat worked and eventually emitted a croak of words. "Who are you in my head - and what am I?"

"In your head? You are in mine, as any person within a half mile would be."

Wary but exhausted, Marson found a boulder that would serve as a seat and sat with his hand over his knife. He watched the thing as they talked. It had heard his panicked thoughts as he struggled to escape the monster mind. Its - his - will had grabbed on to Marson's as he kept his mind from drowning, and washed ashore beside Marson, out of the sea of zombie lusts.

The zombie's name was Marvin Case.

Sorting his own feelings out from the mix, Owen Marson examined the creature. It was exhausted and confused, and relieved. As little as it understood its own malady, it was determined to maintain its newfound freedom. Marson decided that if his companion's concentration slipped, there would be little he could do to resist him, and he needed help if he was going to manage with his leg anyway. Whether he could trust the man or not, he would have to.

Ready and eager to make amends, Case carried Marson back to his cave, as easily as if Marson had been a tiny doll. Under his direction, Case carefully set his leg, and Marson tried to bandage Case's wounds in turn, even though they didn't bleed or seem to give Case any difficulty. It might at least soften the stink.

One of the rabbits had been lost in the chase, but other stores were available and they prepared dinner together. The fire crackled under the stewpot as the two sat silent in the gathering dusk.

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