The night was dark and full of hostile mobs.
Ben could hear them, just beyond the light of his torches. He heard shuffling footsteps, the clatter of bones, and in the distance, a low, inhuman moan.
Every instinct told Ben to turn around, to go back inside . . . to run away from those eerie nocturnal noises.
Instead, he moved toward them.
Ben shuddered with fear as he left his small circle of light. The light was cast by torches that he’d placed all around his modest shelter. The squat, stone-and-dirt dwelling was not at all impressive. But in the warm yellow hues of the torchlight, it was like a bright and welcoming island in a sea of darkness.
Ben hated to leave his little oasis. But even without the torches, he could see well enough. The moon overhead was bright, and the plains stretched out all around him with only the occasional tree to block his view. With a bit of luck—and some skillful sneaking—he would be able to avoid the monsters that prowled the night.
He saw red eyes glowing up ahead. They were the eyes of a spider on the hunt. He crouched low and stopped moving; he stayed completely still. He watched, for a moment, to learn if the red eyes were watching him back. But they moved haphazardly, drifting off to the west.
Ben went east.
It wasn’t that Ben was helpless. He had survived his fair share of fights. He was equipped with an iron sword, a shield, and iron armor—not the best equipment he’d ever used, but good enough to give him the upper hand against any Overworld mob he might encounter.
But on a night like tonight, on an open plain like this one, a battle would draw too much attention. Ben might easily be outnumbered and overwhelmed. He was better off staying low and quiet and avoiding fights, if he could.
This had all been a lot easier when he’d had a partner. But things were different now. These days, Ben was less an adventurer . . . and more a babysitter.
And he hadn’t been doing a great job of that.
“Johnny?” he whispered. “Johnny, are you out here?”
As if in response, that low moaning sounded again, closer than before. Ben peered into the gloom, scanning the horizon. In the middle distance, he saw the outline of a humanoid figure. He couldn’t see much detail in the moonlight, but he could see the outstretched arms and the sickly greenish hue of the skin.
It was a zombie. But was it the zombie Ben was looking for?
Ben crept closer before speaking again. “Johnny, is that you?”
A growl was his answer. A growl—and a mindless, vicious lunge.
Ben acted instinctively, jumping back while slashing his sword ahead of him. The move kept him out of the zombie’s reach, even as the creature took damage.
At melee range, by the light of the moon, he could clearly see that this was not the zombie he was looking for. Which was lucky for him, actually—he was supposed to keep Johnny safe, not hit him with a sword.
This zombie, however? This zombie he could fight to his heart’s content.
Ben lunged, slashed, then stepped back, careful to always stay out of the mob’s reach. After avoiding trouble for so long, it felt good to let loose.
But he was rusty. Ben misjudged the timing of his final lunge, and the zombie’s clawed swipe struck him in the chest. Ben stumbled back. Even through his chest plate, he felt a flare of pain.
“So rude!” he said, slashing out with his sword. The zombie collapsed, defeated, and left behind a scrap of rotten flesh. Ben knew it was edible, and his food supplies were running low. But he wasn’t that desperate. Not yet.
Nearby, another groan sounded. It was just as he’d feared; the battle had drawn unwanted attention. Ben whirled around, sword raised—
And just barely stopped himself in time.
“Johnny!” he said. “I nearly cut you in half. Bad baby!”
The mob standing before him was, in fact, a baby . . . but not a typical one. Johnny had been attacked during a zombie siege and transformed into one of the undead. His skin was green, his eyes shone red beneath a heavy black brow, and his clothes were dirty and tattered. He also wore a lead, which Ben reached for immediately.
Johnny growled and snapped at Ben’s hand.
“Hey! No!” said Ben. “Just because your sister isn’t here doesn’t mean it’s back to bitey-bitey. Behave yourself.”
Johnny growled again, but it was a low, quiet growl that sounded to Ben almost like an apology.
Or maybe a growl was just a growl, and Ben had been spending far too much time in the company of zombies.
Ben had encountered plenty of zombie villagers before, and those encounters usually ended in a fight—one that only Ben walked away from. But a strange and special bond had developed between him and Johnny. It helped that Johnny’s big sister, Bobbie, had somehow been able to teach him basic manners.
When they first met, Bobbie had hired Ben to help her find a cure for her brother’s condition. But they’d become separated—and the last thing Bobbie had said to Ben was that it was his responsibility to keep her brother safe.
Ben liked responsibility about as much as zombies liked sunlight. Which reminded him . . .
“We need to go back home,” Ben said, and this time he grabbed Johnny’s lead without any complaint from the young zombie. “The sun will be up soon. So unless you want to wear your special hat . . . ?”
Ben held out a carved pumpkin. When worn as a helmet, it kept Johnny protected from the sunlight, but the baby absolutely hated wearing it. As soon as he saw it, he growled and grumbled, pulling on the lead as if trying to get away.
“Okay, I’m putting it back in my inventory!” said Ben. “But that means we need to go back to the house right now. Bobbie will never find us if we stray too far. And she’ll definitely never forgive me if you catch on fire. I might feel a little bad about it, too.”
At the mention of his sister’s name, Johnny emitted a low, mournful growl. He pulled again at his lead, but softly this time. He wasn’t trying to escape Ben’s grasp—he was trying to lead him across the plain.
“So that’s why you wandered off,” said Ben. “You miss your sister, is that it? You want to go find her?”
Johnny’s growl sounded almost like a purr.
“Sorry, buddy,” Ben told him. “The Overworld is too big. She could be anywhere.” He shook his head. “We have to stay where we are and trust that she will find us.”
Johnny almost seemed to be sulking on the walk back to their shelter. He dragged his feet, ignoring Ben’s whispered requests to hurry up. Of course, Johnny had nothing to fear from the night. The monsters of the Overworld recognized him as one of their own; whereas they recognized Ben as a potential meal. A tasty one!
“We’re almost home,” Ben whispered. “We’ll get a good night’s rest, and then things will look better in—ooh, treasure!”
Even in the face of danger and uncertainty, Ben was an adventurer at heart. And adventurers loved loot. “A little detour won’t hurt,” he reasoned.
Ben hadn’t walked this path before. What he’d thought, at a distance, was a simple tree turned out to be an arc of stone and obsidian. It looked almost like a portal, but an incomplete one—or perhaps one that had fallen into disrepair. He didn’t have the tools to harvest the obsidian, but there was a chest tucked up against the structure. Whatever it contained was his for the taking.
Ben lifted the lid, and when he saw the glint of gold, his heart soared. For a moment, he thought he’d found a golden apple—a key ingredient in the cure they needed for Johnny.
But he was wrong. It wasn’t a golden apple within the chest, but a golden carrot.
“Maybe it works the same?” he wondered out loud, and he held it out for Johnny to take a taste. The zombie boy swatted the gold-plated vegetable away.
“Yeah, probably not,” said Ben, and he stashed the carrot in his inventory.
After they left the ruined portal behind, it was easy to find their shelter. On a night like this one, its lights were visible at a great distance.
As they reentered the glow of the torches, Ben felt a rush of relief. He allowed himself to feel safe again. He stopped looking over his shoulder for fear of an ambush.
He had dropped his guard too soon.
Torchlight stopped new monsters from spawning. But it didn’t always keep away the monsters that already prowled the night. And one monster had found its way to the shelter. As it rounded the corner and came into view, it made its presence known . . . with a sudden, urgent hisssssss.
“Creeper!” cried Ben. “Get back!”
Copyright © 2023 by Nick Eliopulos. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.