My father always said that if the collapse came in our lifetime – this was back when we expected natural or manmade disasters – we would be the best-prepared family. Between the extensive "worthless knowledge" of my father, their collection of black powder rifles, my brother's knowledge on how to make explosives, my mother's medical knowledge, and my sword-fighting ability we could handle ourselves quite well. I expended the last of the gas in my tank getting back home. Cell phones weren't working. Computers weren't either. And cars stopped working after a few days. Houses started to deteriorate, highways were broken up, and skyscrapers either collapsed or just vanished. The earth was reclaiming the land in a horrible way.
My own neighborhood had been swept away into a giant chasm that steamed and belched smoke. My parents had evaded the destruction but many other households had not been so lucky. Everything we knew was gone. So the survivors banded together and we started to carve out a new life in a new world.
Three months later and all traces of America were gone. All traces of the world pre-apocalypse were gone. The earth swallowed them up and remade itself into something different, something entirely hostile towards human life. We saw doomsayers of all types – those proclaiming that the Second Coming was here and that Christ would appear – to those that were making stuff up on the fly. The most prevalent notion was that Mother Earth had rebuked her children and was trying to eradicate us and restore the world to the animals. Funny thing is, those animals were suffering just as much as we were. Those that were not killed were changed. My family was lucky. Our cats did indeed turn into mutated ravenous beasts that resembled a half-starved greyhound with feline features but they also retained a liking for having their ears scratched and bellies rubbed. The neighbor's dog grew big and lanky as well and we used it for a pack animal.
Four months into the new existence and we discovered that the new earth would not let us resettle and reconstruct new lives. Settlements vanished mere weeks after being erected. Monsters would descend upon them or a storm would wipe them out or any sort of crazy happening. Sometimes the entire populace would be changed into monsters themselves and we started calling those Forsaken. I thought the name was a bit cliché but it stuck.
My father was the leader of our rag-tag group. We decided to go west as several members had family out there and wanted to try and find them. It was probably a lost cause as all communication had broken down but we needed some purpose. There was no way we could stay in one place. We were nomads now, the entire human race, in one fell swoop.
Everyone had a roll. The weak stayed with the caravan and helped carry the supplies and keep the children together. The young and strong, like my brother and myself, would form a scouting perimeter around the group watching for danger. I was the forward scout, which meant that I went ahead of everyone and found the safest way. It was also because I could use the most reliable weapons of our new world.
The black powder rifles – muzzle loaders - worked only about half the time. The rest of the time they would jam or simply not fire. Besides, bullets were limited. More modern guns didn't work at all. We had to resort to more primitive weapons and thankfully I knew how to use those. Before the collapse I was part of an organization that did medieval reenactment and I had been taught how to handle a sword. Although I never got past being a 'green fighter' it was more than most people. I spent the evenings teaching the other scouts and warriors – as we identified ourselves now – of the group how to fight similar. Someone else taught us karate in turn. And we all attempted to learn archery together.
I carried two swords as well as a knife and shield. One was a metal sword I owned back in my apartment when I was still a college student. It had been one of the things mutated in the change and I suppose since it was primitive it was not destroyed but enhanced. Meaning, it was no longer just for display. It worked. The other weapon was a wooden sword. I used it when we encountered non-monsters as I could not yet bring myself to kill other humans. Break bones, yes, kill, no. Some members of our group grumbled at this but my father told them to shut up and leave his daughter alone, I was taking enough risks.
Believe me, it was hard as hell to convince him to let me be the forward scout.
I always took one of the cats with me. Nemo was mine so he was the one that followed me. He was about the size of a great dane and his tail had split into two separate limbs, each tipped with a claw. If I needed to move fast I would climb on his back. He could carry me at a full run for short distances.
We were passing through what might have been Dakota. It was hard to tell nowadays. Eventually we would reach California, or what was left of it. Travelers from that direction told us that it had broken apart into ruined islands where strange things lived in the shallow waters between. Apparently the entire city of Los Angeles had been converted to an underwater den of monsters akin to kelpies.
The land here was barren of most life and we were hard-pressed to find water and food. Most of the plants were a new variety and we had already lost one of our members due to poison. Now we tested each food on the cats. If they refused to eat it we wouldn't either. Of course, this was imperfect, as everyone knows that cats are finicky. But what choice did we have? Water itself was hard to come by, as what appeared to be the bottom of a pool of water was quite deceiving. We'd almost lost someone else that way. Thankfully the rifle had worked and the bullet had taken out the Forsaken that had leapt out and tried to eat Aaron's face when he went to get a drink.
Early in the day I saw something other than flat desert. Up ahead was what appeared to be a man-made structure, but it looked more like something I would have seen in a modern art museum, or the college art building. A narrow canyon rose out of the sandy surroundings and in it were strung hanging pieces of glass of all colors, spinning and twirling at all levels in the interior. I ventured closer and saw a small boy sitting just outside the entrance.
"Looking for paradise?" he called out as I approached.
He jerked his head towards the canyon. The glass sent light dancing across my face.
"Don't listen to the doomsayers and the evangelists," he said, "We've found paradise and it's not the new Zion or anything like that. It's in here."
I scratched Nemo's neck and studied the boy. The cat was sniffing the air but the boy appeared normal. No sign of defect – just a small boy with brown skin, black hair, and wearing a loincloth.
"Beyond the glass?"
"Yeah. That keeps out the evil. You know, all the stuff that's changing this world. There's ways to fight it, you know. We found it."
"Who are we?"
"The people that survived. A group, like yourself. Someone figured it out and now we're safe. How many are with you?"
"Forty-eight. Is there really people beyond there?"
"We're creating a city. I've been set out here to watch for travelers and invite them in. We take turns. I get every seventh day."
I thought on this.
"I have to go report back to our leader."
"Alright, I'll still be here when you return."
We stopped the caravan and held a meeting. Some of us thought it was insane. Others thought I was heat-stroked. Some of us wanted to try it, were desperate to try it. And my father was reluctant to give the go-ahead.
"Dad, why don't we send in a small group? A scout party?" my brother finally suggested, "They can scope it out and if it's bunk return and get the heck out of here."
"And if it's some sort of trap and no one returns?"
"Then we know for sure it's bad."
Silence came across the group. I looked around and saw hope in the eyes of some of our members. A lot of hope. And some fear.
"I'll go," I said and was surprised to hear myself speaking, "Me and someone else. Just two of us."
A couple seconds passed and then Eric volunteered. He'd been my next-door neighbor before. We shot him down on account of him having a young child and then one of the other young adults volunteered – Greg. I'd gone to highschool with him.
My father had lost all ability to speak. He was giving me the angry father look but I was ignoring him. We'd had this fight many times before. I was old enough to do as I wished now and we had to think of the group before ourselves.
If this was a chance to get out of the hellhole our world had become than I would take it.
The caravan settled down into camp for the rest of the day and the coming evening. They would give us a day and a half and then move on. Greg and I brought two of the cats with us – Nemo and McKenzie – and started towards the canyon. In all rights, a city shouldn't exist beyond it. It was just two sheer cliffs rising out of the desert and nothing beyond on either side. But we couldn't see anything beyond the glass and that was what made a difference – this was a strange place and nothing was what it seemed.
The boy was still there. I told him that us two were to go in.
"Sure, just ride through. Try not to disturb the glass too much, but don't worry if you do. Someone will meet you on the other side."
I nodded to Greg and we entered. The cats ran ahead of us, making it a game to chase the refracting light off the hanging glass. Us? We ducked and weaved. The glass was larger than it had seemed, panes about half as big as me spaced out far enough to provide just enough distance to slip through each one. They were above and around us and I knew my mother would have trouble getting through, being claustrophobic. If we weren't walking to our deaths. I didn't share that particular thought with Greg.
Up ahead the glass thinned out and I could see clear sunlight and bare earth beyond. It looked like there were plants.
"Swords out," I said and he drew his and I drew mine. The bladed one. I pulled my shield off my back too – a wooden thing with a strap and hand grasp. It was what I knew and it had protected me from monstrous claws more than once. Course, I had to build a new shield on more than one occasion too.
We entered into an expanse of grass. In the distance was a forest. The only sand was the small patch we stood on. Greg started to take a step forwards but I stopped him. The cats were sniffing around the edge.
"Let's see what they do," I said.
One pawed at the grass. Pawed harder. Used claws. It hooked something and with a tug, Nemo drug out what appeared to be a bone from under the soft dirt. My breath froze in my throat. I knew enough to recognize a human rib bone by now.
"Okay, let's leave," I said, and started to back away and into the canyon.
But something knew we were there by then. White vapor seeped up from the dirt and materialized before our eyes into a monster out of nightmare. It had four wings, feathered, sprouting from a long sinuous body. The tip of its tail had two tiny wings and blades showed from between the feathers. It had six legs, all clawed, and a narrow snakelike head with no discernable eyes. The entirety of its body was mottled white with colorful patterns etched all across it, like tribal tattoos in rainbow ink. The cats continued to sniff the bone they'd found.
"Holy shit," Greg said, "What the hell is that?!"
It didn't answer, only leapt forwards without even touching the ground and in a second, Greg was gone from my side. I screamed, rushed forwards, and was stopped by one of the cats blocking my way and hissing before I could touch the grass. The creature closed its jaw, there was a crunch and Greg was gone. Blood dribbled down onto the grass.
"That," a voice said from behind me, "is a demon. At least, that's what I call it. Construe it however you want."
The boy from the entrance. He walked past me and the creature twined around him, momentarily obscuring the boy from my view. I could still hear his voice.
"It has a very keen sense of smell and hearing but its eyes are lacking entirely. I am its eyes. It protects me and I bring it people and it sees through me. You had forty-eight in your group – well – forty-seven now."
I tried to find words. Horror had stolen my voice though. Beside me, the cats had finally left their bone and were hissing at the direction of the demon. Nemo bumped close to me.
"A tasty meal, I'm sure. And you are just the appetizer."
I threw myself onto Nemo's back. Held on. He bolted, down into the canyon and I could hear a roar as the creature followed and the sound of shattering glass pursued us. There was no plan in my mind. Just run. Hopefully the caravan would be ready to fight. They usually were, especially when a scout came streaking out towards them. If I made it there. Color flashed through me as Nemo ducked and wove through the canyon. A rainbow of light danced over me. Behind me, the sound of breaking glass stopped. I counted that as an ill omen.
The two cats and I burst out into the open desert beyond. Then the demon appeared, diving out of the sky above us and hitting the earth. I expected Nemo to make a hard turn but he didn't and I panicked, dropped off his back and rolled. The cat ran straight into the demon and it kicked him aside with one of his legs. Nemo flipped, picked himself up, and whirled around to stare. The boy was approaching from the side. My cat hissed.
"He wants you to know he's going to devourer you all the more slowly for that now," the boy said, "Do make a good spectacle of it, will you?"
What was wrong with my cats? Why weren't they even noticing the demon? I dropped into fighting stance. The demon lashed one of his clawed legs out at me and I caught it on my shield and retaliated with my sword, a high slash that left a mark in the monster's arm but resulted in no blood. That was not so odd – we had found bloodless monsters before. The cats continued to circle and snarl at the boy.
"It's toying with me," I whispered.
"Of course. My master likes to play with those that annoy him."
Well, that was all the better for me, because I was starting to catch on. Throughout all that had happened I had learned one very important thing: always trust the cats. They were more in tune with this world than we were.
The next blow came from the left. I allowed it to hit full-force and it lifted me off my feet, threw me through the air, shattered my shield, and landed me on the sand mere feet from the boy. I coughed and made a mental note to ask my mother about broken ribs that evening. If I survived.
"That was pathetic. My master is growing bored."
"Good for you," I said, grabbing up my sword, "I'm getting sick of your chatter anyway."
And I charged the boy. He had one last look of surprise before my sword went straight into his body up to the hilt and out the other side. This time there was blood. And behind me, the demon vanished without a sound.
"Are you a demon," I asked the dying boy, "a monster in human form? Or one of the Forsaken?"
His eyes shut before he could answer. I let him slide off the end of my sword and staggered away. The cats started sniffing at his body. I fell to my knees and threw up, shuddering and smelling blood. It was several minutes later before I recovered from the dry heaves. Then I staggered to my feet and started back towards caravan.
I must have been quite a sight, staggering in with a bleeding shield arm, blood all over my hands, and without Greg. His mother started wailing immediately and the other woman led her off. Then, in the presence of my father and the other leaders I told the story. My mother cleaned my hands and wrapped my wounds while I talked.
It was a monster. A monster in human form that used either illusion or some summoned thing to do its work. Who knows how many people it had lured through that canyon? But it was gone now. I killed it. And that was when I started crying.
The group went to the site of the canyon the next day. Three of us, able-bodied, climbed to the top of the ridge and started cutting the strings that held up the panes of glass. For a couple hours the only sound was the explosion of shattering glass until finally, there was no more. It rested in broken shards at the bottom. Then a portion of the group passed through the middle, the rest went around, and we all met on the other side.
There was no grass. No forest. Only a stretch of desert littered with bones. I heard weeping coming from the back of the group.
"Let's go," my father said, "We should keep moving."
We picked up our feet and started out again. I broke into a jog, the dry bones breaking under my feet, and Nemo ran beside me as we headed out to perform our duty as the forward scout. There was no Zion here. No paradise. And we were fools to expect there to be one.