By Yaasha Moriah
Six months into the sleep-zombie catastrophe, the survivors knew one thing: they were grateful for the winged, magic sloths.
One such survivor, Leesia, leaped over a crumbling stone wall marking an old boundary between fields. Gasping for breath, she dropped to her knees. Her brother-in-law Rayth joined her a moment later. He lifted his head above the wall, scanned the landscape behind them, then slumped.
“Can’t see them,” he growled. “What does Uvu say?”
Leesia lifted the small, purple sloth toward him, its broad, translucent wings opening and closing lazily. “No glow; no zombies. We’re lucky that a creature that sleeps so much can sense creatures that don’t sleep at all.”
Rayth rested the back of his head against the wall and closed his eyes. “It’s only a matter of time before they catch us. Just our luck to get zombies that are the opposite of zombies from other worlds. Not slow. Fast. Too fast.” He paused, stroked his blond goatee, and grumbled, “It should work the opposite way. If they can’t sleep, they should be staggering with exhaustion.”
Leesia petted Uvu’s coarse, algae-crusted fur. “Clearly, that thieving wizard did not realize that stolen sleep is different than lost sleep.” She shuddered. What did it feel like to have that essential peace stolen from you? To forever wander in a desperate craving for rest? To hunt down any shred of sleep that still existed in a living soul?
Rayth glowered. “Well, we’re lost without a cure that can heal a zombie without making another one. We’re dwindling, and the accumulated sleep debt will zombify all of us if we don’t find that wizard.”
“Shard said he already returned to his own world,” Leesia replied, feeding Uvu a slice of pink fruit. “Apparently, the wizard claimed he needed to sleep until his king returned—whatever that means. Shard suspects that he had no idea what a nightmare he would leave behind.”
Rayth rolled his eyes. “My brother thinks too well of people. And too optimistically about certain doom.”
“Optimism has its uses. Shard will return with a cure. You’ll see.”
“Well, that’s foolish idealism, but I’ll try to keep you un-zombified as long as possible.”
“Is that a hint of sentiment, Rayth? There might be hope for you yet.”
Rayth cast his sister-in-law a disapproving glare. “Sentiment has nothing to do with it. I made a promise to my brother, and I’ll keep it. Not that it will do either of you any good. Where will he find a few hundred years of accumulated sleep to heal the zombies?”
Uvu the sloth interrupted with a soft vocalization, like a baby’s cry.
“Rayth!” Leesia leapt to her feet, her eyes locked on the sloth. Each strand of its fur glimmered with a lavender illumination that quickly intensified, and the sloth’s round eyes turned upward in a mute warning. Its wings fluttered anxiously.
“Dragon’s teeth!” Rayth swore. “Where are they?”
Uvu’s nose ascribed a semi-circle beyond the wall, toward the hill that Leesia and Rayth had just descended. Seconds later, a dozen zombies crested the rise.
Even from this distance, Leesia could see the eyes—those horrible eyes—dark-rimmed and drooping with fleshy bags underneath, lit from deep within by a wakeful craze. The same craze that fueled their speed: an unflagging sprint that swallowed distance. It would be mere moments before they leaped over the crumbling wall to reach their victims.
Leesia catapulted into a full gallop, the magic sloth thumping gently against her chest in her cross-strap satchel. Rayth kept pace just behind her. As he had said once, if the sleep-zombies caught him first, Leesia might have time to get away.
Thankfully, the last few months of flight had trained the survivors into fleet-footed, quick-witted warriors, adept at avoiding that devastating skin-to-skin contact at all costs.
So far, anyway.
Leesia skidded down a slope toward a narrow creek, earth crumbling beneath her feet. She gained her footing at the bottom and splashed across the stream, sending glittering sprays upward in her haste. Neither the rapid drumbeat of her own pulse nor Rayth’s ragged breaths could drown out the thunder of those furious feet and the guttural gasps of the zombies.
Rayth cried out, and Leesia risked a glance over her shoulder. Her brother-in-law had turned his ankle on a loose stone and fallen. In that single lost moment, the foremost of the sleep-zombies clenched a hand around Rayth’s neck.
Skin to skin.
As she watched, his eyes retreated into dark hollows.
Terror choked Leesia into silence. Rayth had turned.
She could only save herself now.
As she scrambled up the opposite rise, the sloth lifted its head and uttered a soft, excited cry.
Two figures appeared at the top of the bank. More zombies! Leesia froze. But no, it wasn’t more zombies. It was…
“Shard?” The sight of her husband ignited a spark of hope. But who was the pale woman beside him with long hair the color of corn silk? Uvu seemed as attracted to her as he was repulsed by the zombies.
Shard caught his gasping wife at the top.
“We have to go!” Leesia tugged him away from the creek as the zombies—with Rayth—began scaling the steep incline.
Shard resisted her. “No, darling, we’re safe!”
“How?” Leesia asked, raising an eyebrow.
Shard grinned. “Leesia, meet Aurora. She is from a distant kingdom, and once slept for five hundred years. She has more than enough sleep to stop this madness.” He lifted and spun his wife with spontaneous joy. “We’re saved!”
Leesia turned to Aurora, who smiled and nodded. Then, as the first zombie crested the bank, Aurora stretched out her hand and touched him.