"No! Get away!"

That was definitely Archer's voice. Aidan ran faster and flung open the door to an empty classroom. His brother was holding a chair in his hands, blocking attacks from another fifth-grader. Wait... Was that...

Yes, it was. Max had been infected. Archer was fighting off his own best friend.

Max lunged, batting aside the chair, and Aidan felt the world move in slow-motion. "No!" he cried as the infected boy sunk his teeth into his brother's neck, Archer's young face a mask of fear and shock. He fell to the ground, limp, dead, lifeless, gone.

Max turned and bared his teeth, his eyes and veins dead-shot, snarling soundlessly.

Aidan felt the world collapse.

He'd barely raised his arms to defend himself when a whirlwind of gold stepped in between them. Ruby. Max's momentum carried him right into the path of her whirling blade, and his arm fell to the ground, the empty socket leaking blood. Not even reacting, Max—no, not Max, he wasn't Max anymore, he wasn't an anything anymore, he was just an it and that was all—continued its assault.

"The infection has to do with the brain," croaked Keelin, coming up behind them. The scratch on her cheek was still bleeding, and her hoodie was stained with blood. Ruby sunk her dagger in the infected boy's eye, and he finally slumped to the ground, lifeless.

Aidan ran to his brother's body and cried. "He's dead."

"I know," said Keelin grimly.

They waited. Aidan let the tears flow, flow down over Archer's motionless form, as he cried out of his pain and loss and heartbreak.

Finally, he stood up and wiped away the last drops of wetness. Zac was at home with his mother. What if... one of them got infected? He shuddered. Think positive. "I..."

Keelin gave him an almost sympathetic look. "Give me your address."

"83 Portwell Road," he said automatically, then realized what she was going to do. "Are you seriously going to go in by yourself? Again?"

Keelin glared venomously at him. "I'm still royally pissed at you two for not staying put like I told you," she retorted. "You could've died."

"You could've died!" Ruby snapped. "You were fightin' six a' those things. You would've been dead too, if we ha'n't came in like we did!" The accent was stronger now—probably thickened when she was in a mood.

Keelin started to argue, then winced. "My shoulder hurts," she grumbled through gritted teeth.

"It's probably dislocated," said Ruby gruffly. "Here. This's gonna hurt bad."

Ruby grabbed her arm at the shoulder and pushed it back in one swift movement. There was pop as it slid into place. Keelin growled in pain, then carefully tested it, swinging her arm back and forth. "Feels better," she admitted. "Fine. You guys can come with. Just don't do anything stupid or I'll kill you."

Ruby shrugged, a sly smirk appearing on her lips. "No promises."

Keelin gave her a half-hearted scowl and then stomped over to the window, grabbing a desk and throwing it through. The glass shattered and she swiftly climbed out.

Aidan's jaw dropped. "Did she just throw a desk? Hard enough to break a window?"

Ruby sighed. "Showoff. Let's just go already."

Aidan cast one last look at his brother. Dead. Nine years old.

He boxed away his pain and ran.

The house was quiet. Too quiet. Aidan's heart stopped when he saw the blood spots on the inside of the door, which was swinging open lazily.

Keelin swore and ran inside, her knives already out. A slumped shape lay motionless at the entrance, and Aidan's head swam. "No."

Keelin cast a glance behind her. "Ruby—"

"I've got it." Ruby gave a curt nod and stood guard at the door, her dagger drawn and a fierce expression on his face.

Aidan fell to the lifeless form of his three-year-old brother. Zac had festering bite wounds all over his arms, and his throat had practically been ripped out.

Their mother was nowhere to be seen.

"She killed her own son." Aidan buried his head in his hands, feeling like he might drown in his own tears. "She loved him. She killed him."

"She is gone already," said Keelin sharply, satisfied there weren't any threats close by. "She was infected. This weird virus scrambles their brains. They aren't them anymore. Didn't you see that kid, when Ruby cut off his arm? He didn't even stop."

"Zac is still dead," said Aidan, crying. "Him and Archer. Him and all those others. The... the infected things killed them."

"I know."

"They were people," sobbed Aidan. "They were people. Just like us."

"You have to forget that," said Keelin, standing next to him. Her hand hovered over his shoulder, but didn't actually make contact. "Look, they obviously aren't people anymore. When you look at them, don't look at the person. Look at their veins. Look at their eyes. They're not people anymore, they're just mindless killers."

"But what if, I don't know, you were infected?" he asked, his eyes blurry. "You're a person. I know you. You're not a killer."

Keelin flinched slightly at that. "If I were infected, you would kill me," she said coldly. "I'd be dead for all it counts if that black stuff got to my brain."

Aidan rubbed his eyes and stared at his dead brother. Sad couldn't even begin to encompass what he was feeling right now. "I couldn't kill you," he said softly. "You're... well, I know you're kind of broody and mysterious to everyone, but you're a friendish person."

"We don't know how this sickness is spreading," she replied. "If I fell and the black starts going up my veins, I'm dead. Simple as that. You wouldn't even be killing me, you'd just be killing a thing." She enunciated the last word. "No offense, but I'm not great with feelings or pep talks. And I have that thing to take care of back at my place."

"Right." Aidan stood up and gently closed Zac's eyes, feeling the cold chill of death in the air. "Should we take a knife from the kitchen? Do you have any other weapons on you?"

Keelin patted her pockets. "Unfortunately, there's only so much you can sneak past school admin. So yeah, go get a knife." She then looked at Zac's little body. "Should we do something with the body? I'm not an expert on what to do when someone you love dies, but—"

Aidan returned from the kitchen with the sharpest, scariest-looking knife he could find. "It's fine," he said as they walked outside. He locked the front door behind them, pressing his forehead against it for a moment. "Let's go."

Aidan left it all behind.

"Are you okay?" was what Ruby said.

Then: "I'm sorry."

He just stared ahead, eyes flat. "Okay," he said simply. "I loved them."

Which was all they got.

So Ruby just gave him a hug and life moved on.

"Okay, so you three hide in these bushes," Keelin instructed them once they got to her house. "I'll be right back."

"Whoa there, Nellie!" Ruby grabbed her hand as she started out of the bushes. "What's goin' on? Didn't we just have a talk about the likeliness of you gettin' killed?"

"This is different," Keelin responded. As usual, the brim of her hat cloaked her eyes in shadow. "We're not dealing with those infected things here."

Ruby refused to let her slip out of her grasp. "Will you stop bein' all Batman-y for one second? What are you talkin' about?"

Keelin watched the house nervously, then turned to look at them. "Just... I'm serious. Don't try anything."

So she left them in the bushes and rushed off. And of course, she had to climb the pipe to the roof and jimmy open the lock on the window, instead of just using the door like a normal person with house keys.

Ruby threw up her hands. "I hate her. I mean, she's awesome. But sometimes. Hate."

Aidan looked at her curiously. "You used to go to Birchall with Keelin, right? What was she like?"

She smirked. "A tiny bit less dark and broody, but... well, we were friends. Really good friends."

Aidan stared at her. "Friends? But Keelin only has polite acquaintances."

"Yeah, well, we're talkin' third-grade Keelin here. Third to eighth. She's definitely changed, I'll say that for sure."

"More details?"

"Smartest person in the class, no contest," Ruby recalled. "I'm talking straight A's in everything. Especially gym. Though she didn't join any teams because she 'doesn't do organizational stuff.'"

"That does sound like her."

Ruby started to say something else, then her eyes widened in alarm. "Shh! Someone's coming!"

They quickly fell quiet and ducked down. Through the leaves, Aidan could make out three people, two women and one man, all dressed in dark red—the color of dried blood, with black masks hiding their mouths. They wore billowy pants tucked into shin-high toe boots, and moved silently, like cats on the prowl. He saw a scary-looking spider insignia on their chests, also noting the sharp-looking swords strapped to their backs and the throwing knives attached to their belts.

"Are those ninjas?" whispered Ruby incredulously, and Aidan shushed her just as one of them turned to look at them. The woman's eyes narrowed, but thankfully turned back to the house. They easily picked the lock on the door and slid inside without a sound.

There was a silence as they each contemplated their options.

"Three ninjas against one high school girl," said Ruby. "I don't like the chances."

Aidan frowned. "Keelin will kill us if we interfere."

Ruby looked at a crossroads. "She did say they were more dangerous than the zombie people... But ninjas."

"Keelin's pretty dangerous too," argued Aidan. "She did say she has more weapons at home."

"We'll be super quiet," mused Ruby. "They won't notice us."

Aidan gave her a look. "Ninjas."

Ruby shrugged. "We're goin' in. C'mon."

And so, they blatantly disregarded Keelin Fang's orders, yet again, and went inside.

Shorter chapter this time! Sorry, I couldn't resist adding ninjas. Also I think Keelin is the coolest character I have ever made, I wanna be her best friend :,(