Daryl began the short walk from what had once been the Greene family farm into the dense woodland that surrounded it on all sides.
The forest floor was soft, rich black soil carpeted with pine needles. This was where he shined. The place he should feel most at ease, but something was off. His boots should be gripping, sinking in to the soil, but he couldn't feel it. Everything seemed fake, like a low quality back drop that he'd been carelessly dropped into. The physical incongruence had triggered the alarm coursing through his bloodstream. Whatever had decided to haunt him had more tricks in store tonight.
There was no answer, and the scraping didn't let up. It was a shovel, he realized. Somebody was out here digging. His hands fidgeted, fingers rubbing against his cool clammy palms. He wished now he'd take the time to pick the knife Dale had given him out of the overgrown tangle of grass. He knew it wouldn't help him out here on some nonexistent hallucinatory plane of sermonizing ghosts, but the reassuring weight of it would have done a hell of a lot for his nerves.
He could see someone now. An unremarkable man, tired and sweaty in a dingy flannel shirt and a ball cap. If he had noticed Daryl's approach, he didn't let on. He just kept to the steady pace of his shoveling, gouging and pitching like a human metronome.
He couldn't remember the name, but he remembered the man. Daryl had been primed to end him quick and brutal with a pick axe. Rick was the only thing that stopped him, holding him back from his base impulses like he always had in the beginning. In the end, they'd driven away and left him in the rear view to die slow, slumped at the base of a tree. Daryl had thought that was unconscionable, but it was what the man had wanted. Or rather, it was what he'd asked for.
The man lifted his shovel for another go, but faltered in deference to the voice behind him. His hands wrung the warped wooden handle of the shovel as he hesitantly looked over his shoulder to meet Daryl's gaze.
"Why ya out here diggin'?"
The corners of the man's mouth turned up slightly in response to the question, more of a grimace than a sad smile. A silent postulation that the man standing in front of him couldn't comprehend the scope or the meaning of his function. The expression only served to accentuate how the melancholy that surrounded him, liquid heartache glimmering from his pacific brown eyes. He bowed his head, and drove his spade deep into the ground.
Daryl was struggling, trying to work up a different line of questioning when he felt the shadow swiftly rise and lengthen over him. His skin crawled at the new presence, already uncomfortably close by. He whipped around with a start to find that Christmas Future had come in the guise of Shane Walsh.
"All night long… I swear, not one of you clumsy sonsabitches coulda crept on me while you was alive. Best remember that!"
Shane's coal black eyes shone cold with amusement that did not reach the hard line of his mouth. He stood straight and tall, shifting the matte black shotgun slung over his shoulder more out of tedium than discomfort.
"So what now. What is this?" Daryl gestured impatiently to the man with the shovel.
Shane shook his head dismissively and gestured for Daryl to follow him. They'd only traveled about 20 yards before Shane stopped and pointed out a small patch of young bushes.
Daryl glanced over to Shane quizzically, but Shane's face held no answers. He simply stood there, devoid of expression waiting for Daryl to comply. Daryl lowered himself into a crouch. He reached out to grasp a section of the most exposed branches, scrutinizing the markings on the young wood.
"Somethin' been through here all right." He confirmed, "Whatever it is, it's hurt, stumblin'… been run ragged."
Shane took a few more steps and pointed again, this time to the ground just a few feet in front of them. Daryl dropped again. There was a clear set of fragmented footprints. Definitely a man. He studied the tracks a few moments longer than was strictly necessary, frowning. Something nagged at him as he looked over the patterned boot tread, but he didn't remark on it. He just straightened up and nodded to Shane.
He'd been set on a trail. It was pretty clear by now that he was intended to follow it. He tracked diligently, growing curious himself as to what exactly this was leading up to while Shane shadowed him impassively.
Daryl slowed at a small clearing. The bodies of three walkers lay on the ground.
"Looks like our guy was doin' okay until he gets here. Then all hell broke loose." He looked over the chaos of footprints, trying to recover some lead on the direction the original guy had headed, but it was useless.
"Prob'ly ran right into a herd the way he was bookin' it. Panicked. Took out a few, but there were too many. This is where he went down. Must've already turned."
Shane looked at him expectantly.
"You serious? I can't make nothin' out of this. Look at this mess… geeks been shamblin' all over this place. Trail's cold."
Shane disregarded Daryl and began moving ahead. Daryl sighed with exasperation and let Shane take over. Of course this thing posing as Shane didn't need him to track. Of course it had all been for show. Just another game, another riddle to make a fool of him. Daryl's jaw tightened as the two of them progressed further down this long winding path.
Shane stopped and held up his hand for Daryl to follow suit. There was a something, or someone shuffling through the moss ahead of them in the low light, oblivious to their approach. Daryl craned his neck and squinted to see in the low light.
The walker had a ragged applique on the back of its vest. Dirty, blood-spattered wings on black leather. It was hung up in a crossbow that hung ineffectually from a tangled strap hooked around its neck and under its arm. He looked to Shane for some kind of explanation. None of the other spirits had been able to stop prattling, but this apparition upheld its ominous silence, intent on watching the dead thing wind out a meandering path through the wood.
Abruptly, Daryl grabbed for the shotgun Shane wore slung over his shoulder. He had been prepped to have wrench it away, but the ghost never resisted. It readily released the weapon to Daryl, causing him to stumble back a few steps with the surplus momentum. He recovered, and stalked forward. The walker seemed to hear his advance and turned, interested towards the sound.
Daryl faltered. He hadn't been ready to be here, staring into his own lifeless face. There was a crimson void where something had bitten on a large chunk of his left cheek, and there were long ragged claw marks down the other side. His shirt was torn open, and most of the flesh there had been eaten away, leaving his breastbone and several of his ribs exposed. His eyes glistened hungrily, a bright opaque silver. Daryl took a deep shuddering breath and leveled the barrel at the space right between them.
Then he squeezed the trigger.
The gunshot cracked loudly in the still night air, and then… nothing. The bullet, like the gun, like the ghosts had no material substance. The walker moaned in agitation, and swiped at him. Daryl flinched, but its lunges passed through him, harmless.
"Bet you could have told me that, right?"
Daryl hurled the gun at Shane with every bit of fury he could muster. Shane caught the gun, graceful as you please and slid it back over his arm. Then he planted both feet a shoulder's width a part, hands clasped loosely in front of him.
"What the hell good are you? What are you even here for?"
Shane tilted his head and watched Daryl froth and rage, unaffected.
"Ain't you had a hand in ruining enough lives yet? Had to come back for one more?!"
Shane shushed him. Once he was still he was still he realized there was a faint sound of rustling in the trees. Something was coming.
The ghost pointed in the direction the movement was coming from, and Daryl watched anxiously until he saw Tyreese materialize out of the darkness. He raised a hunting rifle directly at Daryl, and looked through the scope. Then the gun lowered until Daryl could see the defeat in the big, kind man's face. He turned back towards where he'd come and held up a hand, signaling a stop.
"He's here… up ahead. They got him."
He could heard the strains of disbelief bordering on desperation in Carol's voice as she came bursting through the trees. Tyreese's size was impossible to overcome. He simply took a step in front of her, and let her crash into his chest. He held his arms out at a respectful distance, ready to stop her if needed. She didn't make him. Rick was close behind, and when he laid a hand on Carol's shoulder. She turned to him, eyes wide and bright with tears, and he lowered his head and shook it, his way of expressing he couldn't understand how this could have happened either.
Walker Daryl was noticing the commotion behind it now, and it began to turn around.
"No! No no no no no… Hey!" Daryl's panic spilled out of him as he tried regain the walker's attention and keep it from going towards his friends.
Rick lowered his hand then, confident that Carol wasn't about to bolt. He took a deep breath, and steadied his grip on the crowbar he carried with him. He started forward, but Carol stopped him with a hand on his arm.
"I can't let you…"
She trailed off and cleared her throat, seeking out his eyes.
"I need to do this."
Rick looked back at her, searching his face until he'd accepted there was no give in it. He nodded, and stepped back.
"Fuck that, don't let her come out here alone! RICK! Come on!" Daryl shouted at the scene in front of him, realizing that nobody would hear it but still needing to vent his frustration. He had lost the battle for his walker's attention. It was turning towards the group now and there wasn't a damn thing Daryl could do to stop it.
Carol cautiously stepped out into the clearing, alone.
Daryl's corpse growled, and took a few unsteady steps in her direction.
"So this is it, then?" she asked it flatly as to came for her.
Daryl tensed, eyes darting from the walker to Carol and back again as the gap between them rapidly closed.
"Carol, be careful." He hissed.
"You feel like you proved something now, coming out here all on your own?"
She trailed off at the end, so quiet that Daryl almost missed it, "Stupid…"
The walker was almost on her now, and she shoved it roughly. Its ankle caught on a root and without the use of both arms to steady itself it topped over onto its back.
She stood over his corpse, flailing to right itself on the ground.
"I needed you." Her words soft enough so as only to be for herself, but Daryl heard them.
"and you needed us too, but you were so proud… so proud that you're dead. And now I'm all alone."
Carol's voice broke pitifully on the last syllable, and Daryl's heart wrenched at the sound of it. She lifted the pick axe resting by her side and brought it down on Daryl's head, felling him for good.
She lost her grip on the handle then, let it slip indifferently to the ground and drew her bloody hand to her mouth. Her body heaved with silent sobs. Daryl moved to gather her up into his arms, but he only moved through her while she sank to the ground. It was Rick that finally walked forward and lift her up into a tight embrace while the others watched with due respect.
"I'm so sorry." He whispered earnestly against her temple as she buried her face deep in his shirt.
They held each other, Ricks eyes bloodshot and rimmed in red settled on Daryl's body over Carol's shoulder. His tears fell silently.
Daryl's mind raced, thoughts and memories overlapping in a blur as his gaze lowered to the ground. He stared hard at the mangled, twisted ruin of his own corpse and he hated it. You deserve better. Hated himself for allowing it to happen here, in front of his family. You're a decent man. To his family. I know what you did for me. Profoundly good and true people that had managed to come together and bolster each other at the end of the world, when everything was truly at its worst. I'm sorry about your mom. All of them had seen beyond where he'd come from, where he'd been when he'd met them. I'm glad you came back. They'd seen everything he could be. Look at how far you've come. And they weren't afraid to invest in the goodness of others. My family is standing right here, and you're a part of that family.
Except him. He'd been afraid.
Nearby movement startled Daryl out of his trance. Carol had put a hand to Rick's chest. She pushed him back and shook her head, wiping at her tear-streaked eyes resolutely.
"No, it's okay. I'm okay. There isn't time for this. We need to get you back to your little girl. We need to be there for the living."
Their eyes locked, and Daryl caught the grave understanding shared there. Rick nodded at her in silent thanks.
"Someone should take the crossbow." Carol said neutrally to no one in particular as she turned to walk back in the direction they'd come.
Glenn and Tyreese shared a look of lingering discomfort before Tyreese broke it to look back at the dead man's body. Glen took the chance to catch up with Carol and Rick leaving Tyreese with the dirty job at hand. Tyreese sighed and quickly picked out a path Daryl's body.
"Sorry, man… every little bit helps. You understand…" He said by way of apology, as he gingerly wound the weapon off Daryl's body. He slung it over his shoulder and hurried to catch up with the group.
Daryl sat in silence with Shane for a moment, taking in everything that had just unfolded. He pressed his face into his hands and groaned.
"I fucked it all up. Everything. So bad. Take me back so I can fix this."
Shane shrugged, stiffly. Then he dispersed into a fine grey mist and disappeared.
"Man, you always were such an asshole…"
Daryl started walking. He'd only made it a few steps before he heard a groaning behind him. He snorted, unafraid.
"Sorry, boys. Dixon's not on the menu."
The walker continued ambling towards him, and Daryl felt a hand close tight on the back of his vest.
He jumped and reeled forward, spinning around to see just what the hell was behind him.
The walker was Carol, exactly as she'd been only moments ago, but her skin had gone sickly waxen and her eyes… Her perfect blue eyes were gone. Now they glowed bright yellow shot through with red in the moonlight. Dead. Undead.
"No, get off! It ain't gonna end like this!"
She growled and reached for him again. There was crashing in the trees. Daryl's neck darted sideways and he broke out into a run when he saw more walkers spilling from the trees. Rick, Carl, Glen, Maggie, Beth, Hershel, even Michonne. They were all there, and they were gaining on him. Grouping in with Carol they formed a pack behind her. They moved faster than any walkers.
He shouted for Sophia, Dale, even Shane. Suddenly the ground gave way beneath him and he was falling. He hit the ground with a grunt, and looked up to find he'd stumbled into the grave Jim had been digging.
Daryl screamed hoarsely as one by one the corpses appeared at the edge of the pit below dropped down on top of him, tearing away at his flesh with their claws and wicked blunt edged teeth.