Nobody knows where the mist came from. It happened one morning, in the Summer of 2013. All of a sudden, Alexandria, a town of 30,000 in Southern Illinois, was enveloped in fog; thick, grey, and surprisingly heavy. It was strong, far too strong to be any ordinary mist. But people got through okay. After all, they had mouths to feed, places to go, futures to tend to.
It wasn't long before the monsters came out too. Hideous, nightmarish forms inconceivable to the minds of men. "Manticores," Feline creatures as big as lions, with chitinous armor and scorpion like tails that shot some kind of sticky goo. "Billhooks", chitinous quadrupeds that had beetle-like bodies and heads like snapping turtles, their forelimbs ending in a wickedly sharp hook. "Gargoyles" Bat-like creatures with bird-like, taloned feet and a head shaped like goat's, except for the rows upon rows of sharp, canine teeth. There were probably more creatures out there, but nobody was gonna go looking for them.
The town was near a uranium processing plant, so people hunkered down in the fallout shelter nearby, a sprawling rabbit warren of tunnels dug into an old coal pit, loaded with provisions and fitted with hermetic gates and air filters. They stockpiled weapons, scavenged food and resources from outside, checking clocks, calendars, and radios. After the first two months, their hopes diminished. By the time six months had passed, they knew that no one was coming for them. But still, Life goes on.
On that day, three men in the shelter were supposed to go out "Grocery Shopping". While these men were literally going to the grocery store, this excursion was more than just an errand run. When the air was filled with fog so thick that you could barely see the tip of your nose, and worse yet infested with creatures that one could barely see, the one and a half mile journey into town became a dangerous expedition, where every journey could be your last.
"So, where are we going to this time?" Asked the first man, a nineteen-year-old of Indian extraction named Chirag Gupta. Chirag just graduated from high school when he the mist came around, and was supposed to go to Northwestern. He fiddled with a pump-action hunting shotgun. In the mines, they gave this to kids and amateurs heading out.
"The Grocery Store," replied the second one. This was Calvin Brown, a forty-year-old black man and a former police officer. Brown had a semiautomatic police shotgun, taken from the backseat of his own cruiser. "Our job is to grab food whatever food and medicine we can get our hands on."
"If there's anything else that catches your eye, and you've got room in your bag, then take it. But don't get greedy." said their third companion, Old Tom McCracken. He carried an SKS, a Soviet-Union carbine that used to be his hunting rifle. He was in his late fifties, his greying stubble a blued steel mask on a grim, tired face. The Southern twang in his voice lost a bit of its bounce after years of fearing for his life.
"Uh huh," Chirag picked up his shotgun and stood up. It felt full, and he had more than enough ammo draped around him if he needed it. The other two men joined him, and they walked to the entrance, opened the door, and pressed forward.
McCracken took point, as usual, with the other men behind him. The change in lighting blinded him at first, but his eyes adjusted quickly. The mist had thinned out enough that you could see a hundred, maybe two hundred yards in front you. Chirag could see the edges of the coal pit, looming above him, and the shallow incline leading out of the mines.
"Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death..." Began Brown.
"I will fear no evil." Replied McCracken. This tired psalm was their talisman, a prayer to help them keep their courage in the face of almost certain death.
"Amen," Chirag completed the ritual.
The men walked walked forward, the soft crunch of gravel underfoot. Chirag and Brown were scanning the left and right flanks respectively, They tried in vain to see beyond the fog and to hear beyond the sound of their own footsteps. But despite the pit's gloomy atmosphere, they were pretty safe here. The real danger was when they reached the highway.
The mile or so from the mines to the city limits was a half-hour trek through No Man's Land. The road was paved, and the mile markers mercifully legible. But the highway tracked through jagged bluffs, or flat, featureless plains, neither of which offered much protection. If anything snuck up on them here, they'd have to shoot their way out, and run.
McCracken clutched his rifle firmly. He used to be a Marine Corps drill and instructor, and trained every man, woman, and child in the mine how to use a gun. He wasn't a bad shot himself, and he trusted the men behind him as much as they trusted him. But nonetheless, he shared the one unspoken fear held by everyone in the mist: That every expedition could very well be their last.
The men completed their trek without a hitch. they were still on the highway, their vision clouded by the mist, but they could see the sign saying "Welcome to Alexandria IL." All three of them let out an audible sigh of relief as they crossed into town. They walked past several empty, gutted cars. Some parked forlornly on the road, others flipped over or smashed into trees. Unsurprisingly, they were all empty.
"Hey, Officer Brown, Mr. McCracken?" Chirag started
"Son, It's been a long time since I worked for the Alexandria P.D. Mister Brown will suffice." replied Brown, smiling good-naturedly "But what did you want to ask us?"
"Do you think anyone else survived?" replied Chirag.
Brown and McCracken exchanged glances, and McCracken began to speak:
"Truth be told, Chirag, I don't know. Most of the people who were still alive came to the mines, and we brought back everyone we found on expeditions."
"Yeah," Brown bristled thinking about the people they found. Most of them were scared and exhausted, and wept with joy at finding out other people survived. A lot of them, sadly, were so strung out, on meth or opioids or plain old liquor, that they either couldn't or wouldn't go back to the mines with them, and the expedition party usually left them some food and water. The worst ones were the suicides: overdoses, hangings, bullets to the brain. Of course, when Brown was Officer Calvin Brown, he saw shit like that before, but it still deeply troubled him how some things never changed. And how little he could do sometimes. "I think, there might've been some Militia," Chirag's ears seemed to perk up. McCracken just shook his head and smiled balefully.
"I remember hearing something in the news about those fellas. 'Doomsday Preppers', got themselves some land a little bit north of here. Tinfoil-hat-wearing, wannabe minutemen, who thought they were the toughest motherfuckers in a five hundred mile radius of them,"
"So you think they're out there?" Chirag asked, trying desperately not to imagine guys in cheap camo with whole armories strapped to their backs.
"Of course not," chuckled McCracken. "If there's anything you learn about the military, it's that logistics are everything. Eventually, they're gonna run out of freeze-dried rations, tinfoil, ammunition, anything they thought they could stockpile before World War Three or whatever, and that'll be that."
"You're assuming they'd even last that long." Interjected Chirag. "Bunch of disgruntled, overweight Boy Scouts waiting for the world to end. They'd probably shoot each other over a can of beer."
Brown and McCracken chuckled half-heartedly. They knew that Chirag didn't mean anything by it, that this was only his third time out, and so he didn't see as many of the broken lives the older men did, like the corpses of a man and a woman who maybe did shoot each other over a can of beer. And so, they didn't take it personally. But Chirag knew well enough that he struck a raw nerve, and so kept silent for the rest of the trip.
A few minutes later, the expedition saw the peak of the Alexandria Obelisk, erected in the spirit of the town's Egyptian namesake. It stood 100 feet tall, smack dab in the middle of Town Square in Old Alexandria. Everything that the people in the mines needed, they took it from around the shops around the square. Medicine, scrap metal, fuel or food. The Mist thinned out enough for exploration only a few hours a day, usually from noontime to the evening. In a land where the sun was lost under a blanket of fog, the only meaningful way to know the time was how bright it was outside, and how far you could see in front of you.
The men kept moving forward, peeking at the buildings in front and behind them. Old, squat, 19th Century brick and stucco structures, emblematic of Middle-America Main Street. But these familiar sights were now sad and sinister. A pride of manticores could be lurking behind a corner, or gargoyles perched up above, howling like hellhounds. But in town, they could run and hide, seek shelter in a storefront or some alleyway. And they could take what they needed before slipping back into the safety of the mines.
McCracken, Brown, and Chirag wasted no time sneaking through the mist. As they sneaked through the road, they didn't hear anything, except for gargoyles howling in the air. Chirag looked up to see three of them howling in the air above him, in a circle of three like vultures.
"Hey, everyone," he started, pointing to the Gargoyles. "I got a bad feeling about this." The two other men looked at him.
"Yeah, I know what you mean," said McCracken. "I've never seen those things act like that. "
" which is a problem, 'cause the grocery store's right there." Groused Brown. "Everyone do an ammo count. Man, what I wouldn't give for a SWAT team and an M4."
Chirag's eyes went wide as dinner plates. "You're kidding me. We're gonna shoot whatever's out there?" Both men nodded grimly. Each man counted the bullets and shot shells on their bandoliers, then padded slowly on the road, their hearts pounding to the beat of their footsteps. The howls of gargoyles grew louder, and when the men looked up to see, the gargoyles still howled in their circle above. Nothing could prepare the men for what they'd find at the obelisk.