Sʜᴇ ɢᴀsᴘᴇᴅ ᴀɴᴅ sʜᴜᴅᴅᴇʀᴇᴅ as her consciousness blazed to life. Her lungs filled with dust and smoke and a cough erupted from her throat. It was dark, cold. She lay flat on her stomach, legs trapped beneath a piece of collapsed ceiling, surrounded by debris. A trickle of wetness rolled down her temple. With a groan, she manoeuvred one arm out from under her, sending a cloud of ashes into the air, and touched the liquid to her tongue. It was salty and metallic… blood.
Above, the beams that had saved her from being completely crushed buckled and groaned. Any minute now and they'd give way. Hastily, she twisted herself onto her back and wrenched her legs out from beneath the collapsed section of drywall, biting back a scream of pain as her tendons protested to her violent pulling. She dragged herself to the closest of the fallen walls and tumbled out into the street just as the beams gave way and the rest of the building came crashing down in an explosion of dust and ash.
That cloud will be visible for miles. I have to get out of here before They come… She pushed herself onto unsteady feet and then paused, confused by the thought. Who on Earth were They?
A sharp pain sliced through her head as a trickle of blood dripped down cheek. She placed a hand to wound and pressed down hard as she tried to remember. A blur of images flickered across her mind and a cacophony of phantom sounds abused her ears. The blare of klaxons as shadows passed overhear; the shrill screams of the injured and dying.
She'd been dragged into a building, wedged in with the panicking masses. Doors slammed shut, locks clicked as they were turned and bolts screeched as they slid into place. They held their breath, waiting for the silence that indicated safety—then something smashed; a crack rippled through the ceiling and the building caved. Then… darkness.
She whirled to face the smouldering ruin behind her. There could be survivors, knocked unconscious and trapped just as she had been. She could find them, help them, but instinct was telling her to run. Run, and get the hell away from this godforsaken place.
She glanced at the smashed up asphalt and along the cracked, ruined streets. She expected to hear cries for help, the yells of those who were searching for survivors, but only an eerie silence filled her ears. A godforsaken place indeed… This place was no longer a city; it was a ghost town—a graveyard, and all that remained were the burnt out, dried husks of abandoned vehicles and the desiccated corpses of collapsed buildings.
I have to get out of here.
She took one drunken step forward, and then somehow managed a second. With great effort, she dragged her aching legs along the broken path, her laboured steps echoing a beat as she headed for the outskirts.
The back of her neck prickled with the sense of being watched as a second pair of footsteps sounded, a fraction of a beat behind hers. Then she heard a third, and a fourth, and a fifth. She stopped and looked around her. Instantly, the phantom footsteps stopped too. She probed the shadows for signs of movement, but nothing caught her eye.
"Hello?" she called out. "Is there someone out there?"
The silence made her skin crawl.
Maybe it's Them… thought her treacherous mind.
Her heart thudded erratically as she took another step forward and heard the phantoms take one too. Beads of sweat collected across her brow and mingled with her blood. Whatever was making the sound, it was getting closer.
"Who's there?" she shouted, unable to keep her voice from cracking. "Show yourself!"
There was movement in the buildings beside her. People? They looked like people. And there were at least a dozen or so of them too. She breathed a sigh of relief. So she wasn't the only survivor. But as they got closer she realised that something was wrong. Their skin was clear with a yellow tint—like layers of melted tallow, and their bulging veins were a sickly black. Eyes glinted red in their sockets, and rows of pointed fangs gnashed instead of teeth.
She swallowed and stepped away. They weren't people, so what were they?
Them, whispered her brain in panic. It's Them...
Pain seared her skull as another vision flickered before her eyes: the glint of red eyes as fangs gnashed and tore through skin, rending flesh from bone. She stood in an alley, watching silently as blood ran down the streets. She flinched as a hand seized her wrist. "Scavengers," hissed a voice in her ear. "Don't just stand there, run!"
A low snarl brought her back to the present; to the red eyes of the creatures stalking towards her. The man's voice repeated in her head, "Don't just stand there, run!"
Without another thought, she did.
Pain and fatigue forgotten, she fled as fast as her feet would carry her. The Scavengers shrieked a bloody-thirsty cry and gave chase, bounding after her on spindly limbs, like a pack of mutant wolves.
Left. Right. Left. Right. Her feet pounded desperately across the ground while behind her, the Scavengers snarled and shrieked, getting closer and closer and closer. Her chest burned, her throat wheezed, and her legs began to buckle beneath her. She wouldn't be able to outrun them much longer.
Foolishly, she looked back to check the distance, and tripped on the uneven ground. She screamed and flailed her arms uselessly as she crashed heavily onto the pavement.
The Scavengers screamed with delight and slowed their pace, taking their time as they surrounded her. She backed away on her hands and knees and tried her best to suppress her whimpers. What were they going to do? Maim her, kill her, eat her? Turn her into one of them?
"Stay away!" she yelled as they bore down on her, but they only cackled and snarled.
Leto leaned against the broken-down, window-less jeep, impatiently knocking a rhythm against the clay-baked earth with the butt of his rifle. The blood-red sun beat down on him, sitting low on the horizon just as it always had. Never rising, never setting; forever stuck half-way across the line that used to separate night from day. Sweat rolled down his temple, trickling through his stubble and dripping onto his dirty, red flannel shirt. He sighed; this was taking too long.
"Hey, Fennick," he called out, "you almost done?"
"One more sec. I just have to do this and—boo yeah!" A triumphant crow sounded from beneath the hood as the engine let out a growl and spluttered back to life.
"It's about bloody time…" muttered Leto, straightening up and rounding the car to check what was happening.
Fennick extracted himself from the vehicle and wiped the back of his hand across the bandana tied around his forehead. He grinned brightly at his companion, white teeth flashing against tanned skin and sun-bleached hair as he proclaimed, "See that, old man? I am a genius! What would you do without me?"
The older man just raised an eyebrow and yanked the youth's bandana down over his eyes as he crossed over to the driver's side to take the wheel.
The teenager scowled and pushed it back up. "What, not even a thank you?" he grumbled loudly, following Leto around the car like a sulking puppy. "If it wasn't for me, you would be stranded out here with some other poor sod for the Scions to…" His voice trailed away as he spotted something on the horizon.
"What are you doing? Get in the jeep."
Fennick ignored him and pointed off into the endless twilight. "Hey, do you see that?"
"Seriously, kid. If this thing dies—"
"Humour me for a bit, old man."
"Twenty-six is not old, you brat," muttered Leto under his breath, but he shielded his eyes and did as the boy bid.
Somewhere off in the distance was a darkened patch of sky. He eyed it warily. The sky never darkened, not naturally, not around here anyway—not since the Cataclysm occurred and the Earth had stopped spinning on its axis. This was the land of Eternal Twilight, and a shadow in the sky usually meant one thing…
"Scion," he growled, but Fennick shook his head.
"No look closer, it's not dense enough. Looks like smoke to me. Could be a city, and a city means supplies. That's why we're out here isn't it?"
"Yeah, yeah. Good boy," said Leto, reaching out to pat the youth on the head. "Now hurry up and get in the car, Fen."
The teenager glowered as he opened the door and hopped in. "What am I, a dog?"
Fennick had been right in guessing that the shadow was a city. A damn good thing too, considering that if it wasn't, it would be Scion, and it if was a Scion, they'd both be dead. But one look at the burning piles of rubble and the craters in the streets and it was clear to both men that one had been here—recently too.
"Poor whelps," murmured Fen as he surveyed the destruction around them. "If only we'd come earlier…"
Leto snorted. "If we'd been here earlier we'd be gone as well," he said, as he manoeuvred the jeep over the debris. Then the engine spluttered and died. "Aaah, fuck, I thought you'd fixed it."
Fennick held up his hands. "Hey, don't blame me! Best I could do was a patch job; it needs new parts alright."
"Yeah, yeah, whatever. You get it started again and I'll go scrounging for supplies."
"Aye aye, Captain," replied Fennick, treating his companion to a mock-salute as he retrieved his tools and got out.
Leto rolled his eyes. Smart-assed brat. "Don't leave your gun in the car, fool. What if there are Scavengers about?"
Fen just waved him off. "I wasn't born yesterday, old man. You worry about not getting jumped while you search the buildings and I'll worry about not getting bitten in the ass while my head's in the hood, okay?"
Leto shook his head and walked away. With an attitude like that, it was nothing short of a miracle that the kid was still alive today.
He clambered across the rubble, mapping the city out in his head. If this place was similar to most other settlements, the outer buildings would be useless to him; usually they were watchtowers and armouries. He was after the bunkers and food stores, which were, more often than not, in the very centre of the town and buried underground. Though seeing how tall the buildings here were, he was beginning to doubt that was the case.
This city looked like it was pre-Cataclysm, with towering blocks of offices and apartments all lined up in grids, though almost all of them had collapsed in the Scion attack. He tsk-ed quietly at their foolishness and shook his head; rookie mistake, living in a place where the structures were so tall. They might as well have painted targets on their foreheads. Ah, but he shouldn't think ill of the dead—or the not-so-dead in the case of the unlucky ones.
He raised his gun as an ear-piercing shriek shattered the air. Speak of the Devil and he shall appear, thought Leto somewhat irritably. There were Scavengers about after all. He hoped Fennick had listened and put a firearm somewhere in reach; though the noise was coming from somewhere in front of him, rather than the direction of the jeep. Well, so long as they were distracted he could go searching in peace.
"Stay away!" He turned his head as a panicked voice met his ears. Ignore it, Leto, ignore it, he told himself. While they're distracted you can go gather food.
He took two steps in the other direction, then halted as the woman began to scream.
Aah, fuck it…
He checked his magazine and ran towards the sound.
The Scavenger jumped out at her. Acting on pure, raw instinct, she kicked the creature in the face. It yelped like a wounded animal and flew backwards; its nose was crushed and black ooze dripped down its face where its translucent skin had broken. She blinked. She hadn't even lashed out that hard.
"Scavengers are as dangerous as rabid dogs, but physically they're weak," said a man's voice in her head. Whose voice was that? Shit, she couldn't remember.
The unwounded Scavengers snarled at her. She could see their muscles tensing to pounce. Terror welled up in the back of her throat. That previous kick had been a fluke. There was no way she could take them all!
A voice roared out in the distance. "Cover your ears and get down!"
She froze. What? Then the words processed and she flattened herself onto the concrete as the sound of gunfire exploded from out of nowhere. Her ears rang painfully. She heard the Scavengers shriek and yelp. Something wet splattered against her cheek.
When the rattling of bullets finally died down she sat up and opened her eyes.
The Scavengers were dead. More or less shredded to pieces and scattered along the asphalt. She touched a hand to her face and wiped black Scavenger blood from her skin—no it wasn't blood, it didn't have the same consistency. It was more of a thick slime than a liquid...
Her stomach heaved and she lurched, ejecting a small puddle of vomit and bile onto the ground as she coughed, hacked and retched. What the hell is going on in this place? What happened to the city? What the fuck is wrong with those things? She gasped for air as all her confused thoughts surged forward, and burst into chest-wracking sobs.
Footsteps came towards her and stopped. Someone crouched beside her. A large hand rubbed her soothingly on the back. "It's okay," said her saviour. "You're safe. I've got you."
She just leaned on her hands and knees and cried.