Folklore

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Chapter 1 - 04/11/2016

"It's a beautiful day today."

Aaron Harver was barely listening, but it was true. The sun was out, and there were just enough clouds to give cover from the summer heat that you could appreciate the outdoors. His father used to call it a 'Garden Day' because you knew you could get all those chores done without complaining about the heat.

He could hardly appreciate it. To Aaron it just looked like any other day since their group had taken to hitting the road. The grey concrete of the backwoods interstate blended in with grey-toned woods that dotted the north-east American landscape. Smokey pine trees left ashen shadows in every direction.

Above a slate-colored sun above shone past dull and lifeless clouds.

"There are wildflowers on the side of the road. Lavender, that soft purple, with a mix of something else. Those tiny white flowers -- I think they're weeds?" Claire explained colors to Aaron like he was a child. As if sight was just like filling in a picture book one crayon at a time. He hated it, but at least she gave a shit.

She had stuck with him since the incident. Since the Dust settled. It seems stupid to complain about now. While Aaron's friends, his family, were tearing themselves apart the most he had felt was a stinging pain. Reds were one of the first colors to go. Then blues, and greens, and yellows disappeared somewhere between all of that. He remembered looking at one soldier lying face first in a pool of blood and thinking how strange a scene it was. Like drowning in a slick patch of oil.

His friends had died at Bastion, but Aaron Harver had lived. Maybe he would have died too, if not for Claire.

As uneven concrete gave way to the crack of vegetation both Claire and Aaron braced themselves in the back of the old pickup truck. Work was plentiful these days, but food and medical supplies were scarce. Claire's talents as a field medic had proven to be invaluable, and though his vision swam in a blur of grey Aaron was more than capable as a fit helping hand.

The village ahead was just like so many others -- makeshift and filled with uncertain, frightened people. Claire had told him this one used to be some kind of sleepaway camp. Log cabins with fireplaces right off a nearby lake. The kind of place rich families sent their kids so they could pretend to know what living outdoors would be like.

They arrived late at night with little fanfare, greeted by fearful expressions and nervous glances between friends and family. Then came the reactions. Wave after wave of emotion flooding the men, women, and children of Camp Houndstooth. Fear at seeing their truck, an unknown entity, roll down into the heart of their community. Relief as their small band step out to greet them, moving carefully while displaying their Federation-branded attire.

Disappointment. No supplies. Just more bodies to feed.

"Where are your injured?" Claire didn't waste any time, dragging her lantern and medical kit off the truck's flatbed in what had become a routine for their group.

Tend to the wounded, patch up their defenses, advise and assist. Aaron knew that for many of these camps it would be a waste of time. Heavily armed bandits or splintered remnants of Federation defectors would chew through these refuges without missing a step -- and then there were those things.

You never knew what they were capable of.

"Hey, so are you the guy in charge?" a teenage boy holding a mallet in one hand approached Aaron, closely hounded by a set of older men.

"No." he replied distractedly.

"Oh. So what do you do then? I mean, for the Federation." the men beside the boy looked uneasy, but the teenager was clearly unfazed.

"Help where we can. Give our advice where we think it'll take."

"What were you before all this?"

"A soldier." the crack of Aaron's reply made the boy pause warily before turning to one of the older men beside him.

"He didn't mean nothing by it." grumbled one man with a voice that sounded like aged cigarettes and a beard that hadn't seen a razor in months. "We just weren't sure who to talk to, that's all."

"We've got ourselves a problem." the other fellow spoke, adjusting his glasses while gesturing toward the lake. He was thinner, older, but sharp. "Been trying to keep it quiet, but it won't stay that way for long. Could use a bit of outside expertise."

Aaron watched the way they shifted uncomfortably. A murder was most likely. It was becoming more and more common with these isolated communities. Sometimes a friend or family member had gone feral. Sometimes they just let the wrong kind of person in. The kind of person who was desperate enough hurt anyone and everyone just to carve themselves some kind of safety in uncertain times.

"Lead the way." Aaron spoke with as much confidence as he could muster, and it seemed to help calm their uneasiness.

They led him through the moonlit night across the street and down towards a cabin isolated from the others. They had introduced themselves along the way, but Aaron was barely listening. He wasn't going to stay here long anyway. Why waste the brainpower?

A sign on the pathway carved into driftwood read Guidance Lodge. He could only assume it belonged to some kind of counselor or camp authority. Unlike the other cabins it looked more like a home, complete with a patio that faced the lake and an attached garage.

As they walked closer Aaron could already tell something was amiss. Windows were cracked and
shattered, and large shards of glass were scattered across the lawn. The front door was intact but clearly broken, as though someone had pushed the entire frame in with remarkable force; bending the hinges to prevent it from ever being shut. A trail of blood leading inside the home from the outdoor patio confirmed his fears, but there was something odd about it. Were the drag marks coming, or going?

The villagers gave him distance as he drew closer to the home. Aaron heard one say they would wait until he was done investigating. They didn't want to mess with the site any more than they had already. Looking beyond the broken door he wasn't sure that was possible.

Furniture was upturned and torn apart to spew white cotton innards across the living room entryway. Whatever remained of bookshelves, a television, stereo system, chairs, and lamps were twisted and toss about; snapped in half or crushed into a splintered pulp. The interior was lit using battery-powered lanterns, but they had been set low, likely to conserve power.

There were two bodies, both equally broken but shredded in a way that only an animal could. Limbs were twisted, punctured and bent violently in directions that didn't belong. Large teeth or claws ripped these people apart. Judging by the axe on the floor, stained with a slick wetness, whomever had died here died fighting.

"When did this happen?" Aaron called out, stepping deeper into the home, eyeing a stairway to the second floor.

"Found em like that this morning." the teenager called out, his voice cracking fearfully.

Thick trails of bloody drag marks flowing up the stairs made Aaron draw his pistol before following with caution. The second floor's single bedroom was no different. Violent claw marks tore apart cloth and wood alike leaving deep marks in the floor, ceiling, and walls. Blood splatter reminded Aaron of flicks from a painter's brush, wild and in every direction.

A cool breeze passed through the open window and Aaron stepped over to it slowly, ready to jump at any shadow. Whatever it was had left through here, and it was clear by the thickness of grey plasma that the third body had gone with it. Peering out from the second story window Aaron could see where the trail led out into the nearby woods. A splash of gore on the ground showed where the body had hit the earth before being pulled towards the woods that marked the edge of the campground.

He was about to turn away when he saw it. A flash of red, buried somewhere between the flat grey trees. He rubbed his eyes in disbelief, searching hard into the distance.

It was a trick of his mind. It had to be. Too many nights on the open road, and not enough sleep. He still dreamed in color, after all. It was only the real world that felt like a shaded joke.

"Everything alright up there, officer?" the man with glasses called up from below, hovering on the entrance of the crime scene.

"As well as can be." Aaron yelled back, eyeing the window one more time before walking back
downstairs.

"Our first guess was some kind of bear got tangled in here. Rabid or crazed." the other man called from outside.

"Could be a bear. Definitely some sort of animal." Aaron pondered, bent over the pair of mauled bodies in consideration. "No one heard anything?"

"We have a guard rotation but they keep a close eye on the road." the man in glasses spoke sheepishly. "We thought with the lake to our backs..."

"David, was it?"

"Daniel, actually." Daniel adjusted his glasses, looking nervously behind his shoulder. "Is there something wrong?"

Aaron stood up, giving the room one last look before stepping over to the door while holstering his weapon. Daniel looked on in silence, waiting for an answer while his companions glanced nervously back up the road to Camp Houndstooth.

"I won't pretend to be any kind of expert on animals, but I think we can all agree no bear did that." he finally said, gesturing up toward the camp. "How are you all on weapons and ammo?"

"You think it's coming back?" fear lined the edge of the teenager's voice, and he clutched wooden mallet in hand tighter.

"It might. Listen, uh, John-"

"-Josh."

"Yeah, sure. Look, whatever's out there came here for a reason. I don't know how long your group has been here but it's clear you're not wanted." Aaron led the others back up the road, keeping a close eye on the woods. "Our truck can't take everyone, but if you've got transportation-"

"We don't." Daniel hastily interrupted. "It took us a week just to find this place, and we almost starved to death doing it. If it weren't for the radio we would have probably been stranded without ever getting in touch with you."

"Then we'll see about lasting out the night. We've probably got enough firepower to keep whatever it is at bay. If we get everyone into one building and secure it then we can work on making our next move."

A brilliant flash of reds and yellows standing at the edge of Camp Houndstooth caused Aaron to
stumble to a standstill. It was like looking at a sunset drawn in crayon, constantly moving and hard to define. Something like a leg stepped forward, a scramble of color and light causing a flash of illumination across the flat grey earth. A swirling maw of blue and violet hues opened up on its body, echoing a low growl from within.

Aaron's sudden stop brought concern to the others, and Daniel was about to speak when the predatory growl froze their group in terror.

"Did you hear that?" Daniel whispered, trembling in place.

"I hear it." Josh stepped closer to Daniel, brandishing his mallet against the darkness. "Can you see it?"

Aaron turned to the townsfolk, watching their eyes shift uneasily in the darkness. At the edge of camp the creature burned defiantly, casting his dull grey world in violent hues of crimson and gold. It took another step away from them, causing a painful flash of light that made Aaron wince in the darkness. The others hovered closer in fear, trying their best to peer into the night.

"Let's break for Marris' place. We've got a weapon in every home." the bearded man grumbled in a low tone, gesturing to a cabin nearby while searching frantically for the source of the predatory noise.

"Once we're armed, we can probably hold up in the cafeteria lodge."

"Yeah. Lead the way." Aaron tried to sound as certain as he could, looking over his shoulder while keeping close to Daniel.

If the creature could understand them it seemed unphased. One blazing limb extended forward. Then another. Each step it took was a burst of light and color. Each step took the creature further away, draining hue and tone from Aaron's sight until it was gone. The world was monochrome once more, but he hardly felt safer for it.

In the distance he heard a scream, and Aaron told himself there was nothing he could do to stop it.

Chapter 1 - 22/07/2017

When you sign up to join the Federation there's this really adorable icebreaker they run you through. Candidates are broken into two groups -- those with powers and everybody else. If you're normal you get a tour of the 'campus'. A trip up to the central tower, a basic layout of Bastion, maybe a cake and some downtime so that everyone can get to know each other. I heard it's actually pretty nice.

If you've got powers, if you were considered 'gifted', that's a different story. They'd group us up in small teams. Five or six, depending on what kind abilities we had. Variety was key. They didn't want a whole team of flying badasses that would get picked apart without ground cover.

We all meant to be like some kinda special ops squad. It didn't matter if we were going to hunt down terrorists or provide aid for hurricane relief. Every man and woman had to perform a specific job in concert with the unit.

You were lucky if you got grouped with someone you knew. Most of the time it was you, a group of total strangers, plus a marketing rep from the Federation. They were there to guide the icebreaker dinner.

See, in the early days of the Federation everyone got to pick their own code names. Some got them from the media. Helios, Titan, Miracle. That whole trio got their name from a bunch of journalists who probably worked as a team. A superhero marketing division or something like that. Then the standard was set.

The second wave had to be just as interesting. Just as exciting. Breaking Point, Mindbender, Dynamo, Daybreak. There were a ton of people that just broke stuff.

So what happens when you get two people from two completely different parts of the country who both want to be called "The Drillinator"? Welcome to the third generation. Helios would have none of that on his watch. We had to look professional.

Orientation was just that. We would gather together in a room, sat down at some crazy fancy dinner, crack a beer, and just talk. About family, where we were from, what we were going to miss most. Then we'd talk about our powers. How we discovered them. When they manifested. It would go around the room, one at a time, and once you were done telling your story everyone would take turns trying to find a name that fit you

Sometimes it meant everyone coming up with a name like Southern Bramble, or Wick. Maybe you didn't look like an Egyptian god, or maybe your name didn't quite match your posture. It didn't matter. That name was yours. Completely and absolutely, you owned it. I can't speak for everyone, but for me the icebreaker was a cathartic experience.

It's funny thinking about it now. But I guess that's what people do, right? Once everything comes crashing down you try and go back to the parts of life that seemed to really make sense.

I first discovered my gift in high school. They say that a full manifestation can occur any time during puberty, but there are always signs when someone starts showing a talent for the extraordinary. I could always tell when storms were coming. Bad ones would keep me up all night, like I had eaten a bag of sugar. Mom used to call me her little thunderbolt because I'd be off the walls anytime the sky got dark. I tried pitching that one, but LeAnn from marketing told me it was already taken.

It was math class, and I lived in a pretty good school district. The kind that had enough money for tvs in every classroom, and not just ones that are strapped to those wheel-in tables. My friends and I used to fight to sit closest to this old, spare tube tv near the front of the room. The kind that would make that digital clicking noise anytime to turned it on or off. Sitting in your desk, if you leaned in close, your palm could touch the screen and sweep the static electricity off it.

Most of the time you'd sit and try not to get called on to answer some crazy quadratic equation, but if you sat in that special chair you were only worried about one thing: the perfect shock. You had to time it right. One or two hand sweeps would do, but it had to be when the teacher wasn't looking, otherwise it would just be a waste. Then you couldn't touch your desk, or you'd lose the charge. The stakes were about as high as you can imagine for a 10th grader, but if you could navigate the risks the reward was a static shock so bad it felt like a bee sting.

One fateful day the stars seemed to align for me. I got the seat. I swept my hand across a few times. Felt that bristle of static against my hand. Didn't touch the desk. Even ran my shoes against the carpet a few times for good measure. The girl beside me, Carla, knew what I was up to. She was bracing for it, I think.

The first thing that hit me was how awful the air smelled. That's what I'm reminded of now. Burnt flesh.

The first electrical shock I released tore through her body faster than I could see. But you could tell where the initial burst of lightning traveled. It left a spiderweb of burst blood vessels up her arm and through her neck before rupturing her eyeball. I wish I could tell you that's where it stopped.

Twelve students were hospitalized from my little episode, mostly with superficial cuts or burns. Some had suffered scalding from superheated metal. Necklaces, earrings, bracelets, or anything metal that was touching skin. A few had to undergo cosmetic surgery to remove shards of glass that had been blown into their face. Electrical discharge across the building affected computers, televisions, appliances; basically anything plugged into a wall socket exploded or was shorted out.

Carla died. She took the brunt of every bolt of lightning that I couldn't control. It all passed through her, again and again. I think if it wasn't for her more kids would have died that day. Not that it's any consolation.

I thought I had put that life behind me, but here it is happening again. At the gates of Bastion, alongside friends and family, I've lost control. It happens in slow motion. I can feel each bolt pass through me and through everyone around me. I try my hardest to control myself, but the focus and self discipline I've learned from years of training all seem so far away. I am a danger to those around me, but I cannot stop. Somewhere in the back of my mind I realize that no one is standing close to me anymore. They're all so far away, or laying down.

Please, let them live.

Then the pain hits me. It feels like I'm being peeled apart, layer by layer. My skin is on fire, until it suddenly isn't anymore. I open my eyes and can see my arms wither and scatter to the wind like ash. I'm blinded as another white streak of light erupts from within me. I can no longer hear the crack of thunder that sounds off from every bolt. The ringing in my ears fades to silence. I know that if I can still make sound, I'm screaming.

If this is what death feels like, it's fitting. A tremendous amount of pain, followed by blackness. Did Carla experience this? Was this the last thing she felt before I killed her? It was an accident, but it doesn't matter. I understand if I still deserve this.

Somewhere in the distance there's a thunderstorm. I know because I can feel it. The magnetic tug of ions in the air that used to make me feel so refreshed.

I don't know how much time has passed since it all went dark.

I think I'm still alive.

Chapter 1 - 17/10/2017

Jane Pilton was luckier than most.

She reminded herself that every day that she woke up, sometime just after the first morning alarm would sound off. Her home was modest. Two bedrooms, a kitchen, living room, and a bathroom with one of those fancy standing bathtubs that you could really soak in after a long day’s work. It was her first major purchase after she moved in. The only real ‘modern’ part of her country home.

The sun had just begun to creep into her home through her bedroom blinds. It always took a little longer for daylight to make its way in. This close to the waterfront the surrounding hills and mountains kept the residents of Beryl Lake cloaked in cool shade while the sky roared in tones of bright orange and blue. It made everyone in town sleep in a little later. Everyone but Jane.

She was always an early riser. Part of it came from her old job. It was the reason she kept her brunette curls on the shorter side. Easier to pull up into a ponytail. Plus, she thought it looked better with a uniform.

Once the second alarm went off it was time for business. Tying on a thick robe she would go about preparing to start her day. Set the coffee maker on. Lay out her clothing. Check the shortwave radio. Crank up the electric stove and cook a couple of eggs. Maybe bacon, if she felt like she needed the boost.

It wasn’t something she took for granted. She knew most towns weren’t as lucky. Beryl Lake wasn’t a very important blip on the map. Highway 47 was an hour north, and the closest Federation outpost was three hours away -- before abandoned cars and bandits made travel a dangerous endeavor. Surrounded by a mix of wooded hills and flat farmland, it was only thanks to its namesake that Beryl Lake thrived while the rest of the world buckled under the collapse of the Federation.

Only a few miles away was Beryl Dam. Fed water from man-made reservoirs the dam was just close enough to provide power to the small town. The residents of the dam did what they could to provide the surrounding area with electricity in exchange for food, supplies, and protection. Beryl Lake, Anvil, and Open Sky Reservation were the only populated regions in the state lucky enough to be able to keep the lights on at night.

Most of the world lived in the dark, but Jane’s small home had power. More importantly, she had purpose.

“Hello? Sheriff?” There was a soft knocking at the front door, heralded by a woman’s voice; loud but clearly timid. Someone afraid of intruding.

“One minute!” Jane said, checking to make sure she was presentable before turning off the stove.

She recognized the voice right away. It was hard not to. Everyone knew who everyone was in a small town like this. Still, she checked the peephole before unlocking and opening the door. You could never be too careful.

“Good morning Barbara. What brings you around this early?”

Barbara Kline was a small woman. Nervous and anxious in social spaces, Jane never saw her around town often. Even less so since the Federation dissolved. Her husband had a keen eye for hunting and several years of mechanical know-how. It made him a popular man, which left most of the housekeeping and caretaking to Barbara.

“Nothing. I mean, ah....” Barbara spoke softly, though her voice sound strained. “Can we talk?”

It was a cool day outside, but the way Barbara buried herself within her heavy coat it was easy to think that winter had settled in. Jane nodded and stepped aside to let her pass before closing and locking the door.

“I’ve got a pot brewing if you’re interested.” said Jane, walking back to the kitchen.

“Uh. Yes, thanks.”

There was a moment of strained tension while Jane poured drinks into a pair of mismatched sports mugs. Barbara stood in the den looking unsure what to do with herself. Jane did everything she could to be an accommodating host. She mentioned the weather (cool, but sunny). Showed off her favorite art piece in the house (a painting of a beachside house in watercolor, given to her from a friend). Made a bad joke about running out of her favorite breakfast cereal (Sugar Barks).

She also quietly took note of the things that didn’t seem quite right.

Barbara kept her jacket wrapped tightly around her, but below the knee the silk of her pink and white pajama bottoms were showing. Her hair was pulled into a hasty bun, with strands left to sit wildly between her scalp and the hair elastic. Her eyes were red with exhaustion, like she had spent too long crying or rubbing them vigorously. Her voice seemed strained, despite its hushed tone. Perhaps she had been yelling, or had come from a lengthy conversation.

“So, I take it this isn’t a social visit?” said Jane, smiling across from her coffee.

“I, ah. Listen, Sheriff-”

“Please, just Jane is fine. I’m not a Sheriff anymore.”

“Jane. I know things aren’t...normal.” Barbara set down her coffee, leaning in to talk. “But everyone knows you. You were supposed to be Sheriff, right? Hilkins says you solved the Silkie Murders a few years back. And you helped find that lost boy a few months ago.”

“It wasn’t a bad gig, but things are different now.” Jane smiled, taking a sip. “We voted on who would take care of security around here. Andy and Sophia’s kids can handle it. ”

“But they wanted you to have the job first. Because you have experience.”

“It’s more than a one-woman job. Those kids will do fine. Good at hunting. Brian ain’t bad to look at either.” she chuckled.

“I...that’s not what I mean.” Barbara’s voice seemed to fade away. “Lynn’s gone missing.”

Of the three of Barbara’s daughters, Lynn was the oldest by a couple years. Maybe more, it was hard to keep track. She was tall, vibrant, with long hair that settled somewhere near her hip. Jane always wondered how long it took to keep it straight. It seemed like such a hassle, but it certainly made her easy to pick out of a crowd.

“How long has she been gone for?” Jane asked.

“A day now. She went to her boyfriend’s place, but never came back.” said Barbara, wringing her hands. “She normally calls if she’s going to stay longer.”

“Who’s she dating?”

“He’s...ah, he lives on the reserve. You know...”

Jane frowned. She knew where this was going. In small towns like Beryl Lake you were either involved in the local gossip, or you quickly became a source of negative attention. The Indigenous residents of Open Sky often found themselves on the latter. She had lost count over the number of complaints she received over the months prior that had escalated from petty accusations to outright lies.

Stolen animals, broken electronics, antagonizing citizens. Those were the easy ones to take care of. Most of the time she would follow up with a phone call to investigate and the charges were already dropped. It was easy to accuse anyone with anything, but to prove it required a lot of work. Drunken rambling in a small town was rarely given real credibility. Plus, if you’re ever proven wrong about something, you end up looking like a troublemaker. No one wanted to risk that.

“So have you tried calling his house? Landlines still work.” Jane took another sip from her coffee.

“What? No. She always calls me, always. Sheriff--” Barbara took a moment to regain her composure. “Jane. I know her. I know she would have called. Even if her phone didn’t work, she would have found another. They must have done something to her.”

“Did she have any enemies?”

“No, but--”

“No one that would want to see her hurt? A jealous ex?”

“Lynn’s a good girl. Smart. Keeps her nose out of trouble. Or she did until she met him.”

“This a bad kid?”

“He’s typical.” snorted Barbara. The loudest sound Jane had heard her make all morning. “I told her not to get mixed up with his type. Those people. Always talking about travel and seeing the world, whatever that means. No plans. No job security. Just goddamn daydreams.”

“Well, you know how kids can be.”

“Lynn doesn’t need that shit in her life. She’s a good kid. Works hard. My girl. Now she’s gone. I know she is, and I know they did something to her.” Barbara’s quiet facade began to crack under the weight of her stress. A tear rolled down her cheek.

Jane passed her a box of tissues, then took another sip from her mug. Barbara was trying hard to hold her composure. They sat in silence while she slowly regained control of her shivering hand. Clutching the tissue box close Barbara turned her eyes away from Jane, looking elsewhere in the apartment while she spoke. Jane wondered if it was easier for her to pretend she was talking to herself.

“John wants to gather up a group to go and search for her. Talks about getting his gun and fucking doing something about it. About them, Sheriff. But if he goes out there and gets shot in the back by some native...if I lose them both...I can’t. I can’t.”

“You want me to go looking for her.”

“You have a history with them, right?

“A history? Yeah, you could say that.” Jane said into her mug before draining it at last.

“You have a better chance than anyone else. If the men go...you know how they are. God knows who will start shooting first. But we’re outsiders. I heard from Tom Hurdan that you lived there for a while. They trust you, don’t they?”

The question hung in the air for a moment before Jane placed her mug on the coffee table between them. She turned the drink carefully, rotating its logo in thought.

“I served this town for five years until things fell apart.” Jane mused, leaning back into her couch. “Before that I worked in Las Vegas. Pre-Federation, do you know what the crime rate was? About one in a hundred. Even when they started bringing in officers with ‘abilities’, it took some time to really hone in on the problem.”

“I don’t understand.”

“People. People are like a natural disaster. Sometimes you can predict it. You see the signs and can act accordingly. But now and then you can see the signs, make all the right choices, and you’re still not prepared for what’s ahead.”

“What...what did you do?”

“Education and intervention, Mrs. Kline.” Jane slapped her hands down on her knees, using them to push herself up to her feet with a groan. “We taught people that there’s always a better way. When they wouldn’t listen, we stepped in to show them”

“I...will you help?” Barbara stood as well, still holding the box of tissues nervously.

“I can’t promise I’ll find her. Maybe she went to the reserve. Maybe she went elsewhere. But I’ll see what they have to say.”

Barbara Kline broke into tears. Jane did what she could to comfort her, offering a hug and soft words of heartfelt consolation. Standing by the front door she tried to glean as much information as possible about the day Lynn left. She was wearing a yellow summer dress. She rode a red bicycle. She always carried a worn-down looking jean backpack when making a trip.

Escorting the weary mother from her home Jane worried what the girl’s disappearance meant for the community. They survived by working together. If Lynn Kline was taken by an outsider things would be difficult, but manageable. If someone, anyone, from their small cluster of towns was responsible, it wouldn’t take long for their peace to fall apart.

Jane spent the rest of the morning moving with purpose. Digging through her closet she pushed past her old officer’s uniform, opting instead for jeans and a comfortable shirt. Pulling her hair into a ponytail she took a peek outside the kitchen window to see if the rest of Beryl Lake had already begun to stir awake. Fastening her gun holster she watched them gather to socialize in the town’s single main road before getting into the morning’s chores.

Word spread quickly in a small town like this. They already looked tense. John Kline stood in the center of them, arms folded, caught in a heated discussion with the group.

Jane stepped out into the morning sun with a stretch, well aware that all eyes were on her. Each home of Beryl Lake was scattered across the waterfront, with little in the way of vegetation between. It was undoubtedly scenic. One of the reasons she moved here, in fact. But for once Jane wished she had a little bit of cover.

“Morning gentlemen.” she nodded, fixing her baseball hat to help cover against the glare of the sun.

“Mornin’ Jane.” one man nodded with a smile. Several others echoed the sentiment, tipping hats or waving hello.

She quietly unlocked the door to her jeep and stepped inside. Turning the ignition and backing out of her driveway she saw the group of men had already begun to step onto the off-road dirt. Lowering her window she gently slid to a stop between them.

“You boys keep out of trouble today.” Jane said, eyeing the lot.

“Last I checked, you ain’t Sheriff no more.” John Kline’s deep voice boomed from the crowd.

“Nope. I ain’t. But I still know a thing or two about not acting like an idiot.” she smiled. “Just the beginner’s course though.”

John pushed his way to her jeep, placing a hand on the roof of the vehicle to lean in close. Jane sat quietly, looking up at the man.

“You really think you gonna find somethin? Ain’t much detective work here, way I see it.” he said.

“Maybe. Maybe not. If you’re right, I should be back in a day.”

“If they did anything to her. To my girl...”

Jane reached out and gently placed a hand on his shoulder. His expression was calm, but she could see the tears in his eyes, held in place by years of practice.

“I promise you John, I’ll do everything I can to find the truth.” Jane said as quietly as she could manage.

She let her hand linger for a moment, until the weight of her words seemed to take root. He nodded thankfully, and Jane pulled her hand away.

“Then you got one day Bear Lady.” he spoke loudly, patting her car door with a faux affection. “You bring my girl home.”

Jane smiled. She always liked that nickname. It was meant as an insult at first, of course, but the people of Beryl Lake grew to have immense respect for Sheriff Jane Pilton. As she pulled away from their small town and toward the back roads leading to the reserve, they knew only one of two things would happen.

Either Jane would catch the one responsible for Lynn Kline’s disappearance; or her kidnapper would run, and die tired.

Chapter 1 - 15/08/2018

Maria was glad when they had finally installed new elevators.

Most of the stores in Grand Views Shopping Center were on a single level, except for Reikman’s and Dollartown. She didn’t often need new clothing these days, but the escalator up to Reikman’s second floor made the trip a little easier. The elevator made a world of difference to those with movement-related disabilities.

Dollartown was worse. It was built into the basement of the mall -- a complete floor below the rest of the shopping center. If you wanted to get to Dollartown you used to have to take a steep concrete stairway built right off of a busy indoor avenue. If it wasn’t for the bright green sign hanging over the stairs you would probably miss it while walking by. There were no automated options until recently, and the stairs were a bit hard on her knees these days. Old joints that had already seen a lifetime’s worth of travel. It made visiting the store more trouble than it was worth.

The elevator was a small comfort. That was something Maria learned the older she grew. You need to make time to appreciate the small comforts. Most of her friends were well enough to be independent, and she counted her blessings that she could still make trips to the mall without an aide.

Well, normally. Today was the exception.

Her hip surgery had come and gone without any complications. Thomas, her son, had arrived from out of town with her grandchildren to help with her recovery. He was a good man. Against her protests he had taken time from work to make sure she could get to and from the hospital. Since she had only been held a couple of days after the operation the entire event had turned into an almost mini vacation as she got to enjoy some quality time with her family. With crutches she could move around the house freely, and her surgeon had even told her told that it would only be a few weeks before life would be mostly back to normal.

Maria knew she should have probably just stayed home, but with Thomas leaving tomorrow morning she wanted to make sure they went away with a gift. What was the point of even having grandchildren if you couldn’t spoil them?

And so it was with her family as motivation that for today, just today, she would swallow her pride. All of the automated chairs were taken, but the mall’s senior services would help her around the few stores she needed to go. Maria swore she wouldn’t waste their time lollygagging through every aisle. Her route was meticulously plotted out.

First, some candy for their trip. A few bags of sweets she knew her son liked to help get through the plane ride back. With any luck the kids would devour a bag on the ride to the airport then crash hard in their seats just before takeoff.

After the candy, one of those Japanese toys they were always messing around with. Lord knows she couldn’t pronounce it to save her life, but she wrote it on some paper so she wouldn’t forget. Hopefully it wasn’t too expensive.

Finally, her son’s gloves looked absolutely disgusting. The years had taken a toll on them and fall was just around the corner. She knew a store that sold a nice leather pair. Comfortable and warm. Something that would last.

And so she sat, waiting for the elevator. The mall wheelchair seat looked cheap but she had dressed comfortably for the occasion. The weather was still nice enough for her to wear a sundress, but she kept a light jacket on just in case. Malls often kept the temperature frigid to make up for even the slightest bit of warmth. She always found it strange that people would rather freeze than be made uncomfortable from a little sweat.

Maria watched as a family of four passed by, taking the cement stairway down to the store below. Firmly gripping the wheelchair’s handles behind her was her assigned mall attendant, Anita. Anita couldn’t have been more than her late teens, judging by the girl’s disinterest in the job and the vacant expression kids get when they’re thinking about something more important than what they’re doing.

With a cheerful ding the elevator arrived. Anita pushed her inside where they bristled both with impatience, waiting for the machine to do its work. Doors closed. The lift dropped. Doors opened. Anita pushed her out.

It was a tremendous amount of fanfare just to descend a double flight of stairs. Maria tried not to think about it. The moment she entered Dollartown she had only a single mission, and no amount of personal embarrassment would distract her.

“It’s alright sweetie. I can take it from here.” Maria craned her head back at the teenager, who simply shrugged and took out her cell phone.

“Yeah? I’ll be here when you’re done.”

Wheeling herself forward into the store, Maria did her best to navigate around shoppers and decor alike. Most were happy to step out of the way or help clear a path. One even offered to help her, but she politely declined. The chair’s thick wheels made it easy to move forward. Not as easy as one of the fancier electric chairs, but she was happy to work with what she had. She still valued her freedom.

Maria liked Dollartown because it was simple and to the point. An aisle for seasonal decorations. One for cheap utensils and kitchen supplies. Another for fake flowers, and for tupperware, and for cheap bathroom toiletries. Candy was located on the far side -- an entire wall of low-priced budget snacks that tasted just as good as the name brand stuff.

The store was branded in an obnoxious neon green that Maria thought they could do without. It was like a leprechaun’s closet vomited all over the store, which was only made worse the closer it actually got to Saint Patrick’s day. Or any holiday with green in it, really.

She loathed the effort it took to get down here, but now that she had arrived she let herself enjoy the process. Like any good grandmother she had memorized all their favorite treats. It was just a matter of locating their off-brand equivalent. Crunch-o bars, Stretch Stix, and Boba Pop were clear favorites, but she also threw in some jelly beans and peanut butter cups for good measure.

A small gathering of candy bags sat in her lap. Not a terrible bounty, and Maria was just debating if she wanted to pick up something her son would enjoy when the rattling of metal made her pause. She had thought it must have been a pair of teens rough housing on the other side of the isle. A ringing noise that she couldn’t quite make out, until flakes of dust began to flutter down from the ceiling tiles above.

Bags of candy set out on display began to shake free as the tremor began to build momentum. Maria felt the collection in her lap begin to slip away. Her chair did little to absorb the vibration. One of her wheels bumped into a nearby support beam that rattled as metal struck metal. The building seemed to groan in pain. Dust flung itself from every corner of the basement shopping center, saturating the air. Maria watched employees rush to try and keep a display from falling over before disappearing out of sight. A powerful boom echoed through the store, heralding a crack in the cement foundation.

Maria looked around, desperate for a sign of order. She made eye contact with a store clerk before everything went black. A panic set into her heart as she thought something had struck her blind. There were screams. A rumble. The shrill crack of something metal snapping under immense pressure. She gripped her chair, grasping the rattling arm handles as tightly as she could.

Her eyes had just begun to adjust to the dark when something knocked into her wheelchair, tipping her over and spilling her onto the cement floor. Pain rocked her body. Her hip felt like fire shooting down her side. She thought she could hear more heavy footsteps approach, but the roar of trembling earth made it hard to tell. Unable to hold back a groan of pain she pushed against the bottom of the store display rack.

It was hard to keep still. The trembling cement floor was like an unending jab into her hip. Breathing became difficult as the air thickened with dust. Small things fell on her from the shelving above, and it was a struggle to keep herself pressed against the shelf for safety. Minutes seemed to pass before there was any sign the earthquake would cease.

But then it all stopped. Maria noticed the silence before she realized the ground had stopped moving. Slowly, carefully, she tried to stand. The air tasted like dirt, and there was little she could do to keep from coughing.

Emergency lights began to sound off with a loud thoom, activating pairs of small floodlights across the walls. Clouds of dust made it impossible to see further than a few feet ahead. Eyes watering, Maria tried to hold her breath while she used the nearby shelf to pull herself up. She felt bruised, but not broken. Cupping her jacket sleeve to her mouth she peered at her surroundings, breaking the silence.

“Anita?”

Just trying to speak made her cough. Even worse, every cough made her side jolt in pain. She pulled her wheelchair upright, mindful of the bags of candy and other goods that now littered the ground. Sinking into the chair Maria pressed her sleeve to her mouth in a futile attempt to not breathe in any more dust. It was settling, slowly, but she didn’t want to wait. She called out again.

“Hello? Anita!”

Maria sucked in as much air as she could, feeling the tingle of another cough at the back of her throat. Carefully she navigated her way down the aisle. Bags and hooks from metal racks littered the ground, and it took her several minutes just to push her way to the front of the store. Each time she would pause for any signs of fellow survivors.

The store was empty. She knew that some had run for the exit, but it seemed so unlikely that everyone had just left. Where were those emergency helper people? Where were the cops, or sirens, car alarms that must have been rattled by an earthquake of this magnitude?

Wheeling herself toward the elevator Maria glanced up the stairs, hoping to spot someone. A part of her wanted to call out again. It seemed like the logical thing to do, but the eerie silence made her feel uncomfortable. Instead she pushed herself toward the elevator doors, pushing the ‘up’ button with a resolve not to let her imagination get the best of her.

At first she thought she made a mistake. She pushed the button again, making sure she gave a firm press with a satisfying click. She waited, hopeful, but there was no hum of a motor or gentle creak of a pulley to be heard.

Without any backup power the mall was left only with its battery-supplied floodlights. At the bottom of the stairs, Maria felt she had been imprisoned. Only two flights separated her from the rest of the mall, but her hip ached terribly and she was afraid her fall had caused something to be undone.

She could wait. With an earthquake of this magnitude, someone needed to come and clear out the building and make sure everyone had escaped. At the first sign of a rescue worker all she needed to do was hollar.

Parked at the bottom of the stairway, resting quietly in her wheelchair, Maria sat in the dark.

Chapter 1 - 05/09/2018

“Alright, so I move three spaces. That puts me around the corner.”

“How many power cards do you have?”

“Three, but all of em are garbage.”

“Oh! Hey, if you have a knockback card then we can play a combo.”

“I don’t.”

“Any ranged attacks?”

“Can I just show you my hand?”

“Oh, yeah. It’s fine, we’re all on the same team.”

Matt put aside his own hand while Dante passed his cards from across the game board. He was right. They were mostly garbage. Lu waited patiently, sorting through her own hand of cards while the pair tried to formulate a plan.

The trio made for an unlikely group. Dante was an academic. A clean shaven black man who wore button up shirts and khakis so that no one would ever wonder if he came from the hood. Even now he did his best to look presentable. His shirt was tucked in neatly underneath a sweater that made a slimming impression on his fit frame. He looked incredibly sophisticated, yet out of place against his companions wearing jeans and weather-beaten t-shirts.

Despite going to the same school neither Matt or Lu knew him very well. Before fate had brought them together all three were practically strangers. Each had to endure that awkward social navigation of getting to learn personal boundaries. Dante hated when someone worked slower than he did, no matter the reason. Matt had to explain why he always frowned when his food touched. It took both men days before they caught on that Lu preferred the shorthand of her name over Louise.

Lu’s bright red hair made her easy to spot around the building. She was like a torch, burning with a vibrant artistry that made Matt’s cheeks flush in turn. It was her idea they repurpose the upper penthouse into a common area instead of fighting over who got to live there. A three bedroom, two floor luxurious rooftop home converted into a garden and wellness center. They used scavenged cans of paint to make the place brighter and filled it with games, chairs, art, and books. Everyone in the group added their own little touch. It was a mess, but it was theirs.

Like Lu, Matthew preferred the shorthand of his name. It was hard to believe the two had never spoken beyond a few short conversations as college freshmen. They were just acquaintances then. Matt was almost glad for the Dust. In the wake of terrible devastation and appearance of horrific monsters he had made a close friend. Often the pair would take on tasks together; gathering supplies while laughing over things they shared in common. Trading new ideas like a secret currency.

“I told you, we’re fucked. This game is fucked.” Dante waved his hand over the game board designed in the style of a sprawling metropolis. Miniature plastic heroes and villains stood, poised for action in dramatic poses.

“Well, not exactly. If you take the hit this turn by drawing them out then we could probably knock one of the villains off the board next turn.”

“Oh so I die?”

“You might not.” said Lu. “It depends on the roll, right?”

“Yeah, they could miss with their attack. They’ve got to beat your defense score first.” Matt passed the cards back. “Which is fifty-fifty but that’s better than nothing.”

“Oh, so I have a fifty percent chance of dying so that you guys can win?”

“We all win together. It’s a cooperative game.” Lu spoke gently.

“Yeah. I guess it’s like a sacrificial play.” Matt nodded in agreement, picking his cards back up. “And look, see, if it doesn’t kill you then I can heal right at the start of the next round and you’ll be in the perfect spot to do a combo.”

“And if I die?”

“Well, if Lu has an energy restore upgrade we can bring you back--Oh. Ok. Well, then if she has--”

“I just have a few offensive spells.”

“--well, then we can kill this guy and work on the last objective.” Matt shrugged.

“Without me.” Dante looked at the pair flatly, unimpressed. Lu set her cards aside to pass the dice over.

“Hey why don’t we just see if you get hit first. Then we can worry about starting a new game or something.”

Dante took the three dice in his hand, each containing special symbols denoting different effects. With two health left he would need to miss with at least two of the dice to survive. This was the part of the game everyone normally enjoyed the most. Dante frowned. It didn’t seem as fun when you were forced to gamble with your own life.

Carefully holding his hand over the table Dante shook the dice within his palm before setting them loose. All he needed were two blanks in order to survive. Plastic scattered across cardboard. The trio pulled close over the table, eager for results.

Hit. Hit. Hit.

“Alright then.”

The entire table shook as Dante pushed himself out of his chair and away from the game with a heavy sigh. Lu and Matt didn’t bother trying to remember where the scattered board pieces once stood. The game was over. They watched Dante leave the penthouse common room out the front door, waving a silent goodnight to them both.

“We should probably stick to the simpler games when he’s playing.” Lu sighed, gently scooping several loose pieces back into the box.

“He’s the one that said he wanted to try something new. We can always play this tomorrow with Chaz or TJ.”

“Yeah, we should have time. The garden’s all set up here. I heard they just wanted to search the last few apartments on the twenty-first.”

“I think they just did that. We should be starting the twenty-second floor soon. Then only another dozen to go before our building is fully explored. A hundred percent map completion!”

“Then we find another?”

“It would be smart to hit up the ones around the block. All the local stores are cleared out anyway. Plus you never know what treasure you can find.”

Together they carefully placed each figure back in their slotted section of the game box. The pieces were plastic and sturdy, but they took their time as though it were more delicate work.

Three months had passed since the Dust fell across the globe. It was sheer luck that they didn’t die in the initial chaos. Instead they were on a harbor tour of Lake Ontario when it happened. The college had received a good deal on group tickets, and it seemed like a fun enough activity for a Saturday afternoon.

From the water Matt, Lu, Dante, and their classmates watched the coastline explode into a flash of violet light. They had thought it was a bomb at first. An attack, primed in the heart of their beloved city. Now they knew it was the side effect of some kind of weapon. One that somehow illuminated the entire coast in violent flames and jagged streaks of lightning for miles in every direction. Their small tour vessel had almost run out of fuel in trying to search for a safe plot of beach to land on.

“I keep hoping we’re going to stumble across the expansion for this.” Lu smiled as she folded the last of the game’s pieces into the box, closing it tightly. “It’s a lot of fun.”

“Oh yeah? What’s in it?”

“I used to have the whole set. It’s got all these cool weapons and items that heroes can use. Really helps balance out some of the weaker villains with neat abilities too. They released it about a year age with a huge updated rules FAQ, it really felt like the proper way to play.”

“That sounds awesome. The game could definitely use a bit of balance.”

“Yeah! It came with a bunch of new characters too. Oh man, there’s one that’s just a dog with a sword. It’s got a jetpack and can run up walls.” she sighed. “Golden Age is such a great game. I had all my models painted. I guess I could do it again.”

“I’m sure there’s got to be one nerd in this whole building.” Matt smiled. “Everyone here knows we play games. The second we hit a place that has a collection they’ll tell us so we can rummage through.”

There were ten members of their group in total. Most followed from the tour ship, without a home and unsure of what to do. A few they picked up along the way. Only one lived in the building they currently called home. It was all thanks to a chance run-in with Roger.

An elderly man who was more than happy to let them into his expensive apartment complex, Roger had given them shelter and a plan at a time where they may have just wandered to their death. The sole occupant of the building, no one had asked if Roger had chosen to stay due to his age or was abandoned for the same reason. He seemed pleasant enough, and was happy to share his considerable knowledge of the area to help them gather supplies.

At first it seemed so strange that everyone had left. A city of hundreds of thousands, mostly gone. Stragglers had joined their group over the coming days, helping to piece together the events leading up to the catastrophe and beyond. The Dust. The unintended consequences. The unpredictable terror that swept the world.

But it was one important detail spurred them to action: Monsters were real now. If they were to survive, they needed a safe place.

They boarded up the first, second, and third floor windows. Balconies were sealed and barricaded. Unnecessary entryways were blocked off with anything they could find. Food was to be rationed. Lights were only to be used during the day, and only deep within the building where their location couldn’t be noticed. There would be a guard posted at night. Raids for food and supplies would need to be organized.

Things went well. Matt was shocked at how amicably everyone got along. He had expected someone would disagree with their plan or try to argue that they should look for safer shelter. At first they had all resigned to wait for help, but three months later it seemed unlikely help would ever come. They were on their own and had to prepare for the long haul -- whatever that may look like.

If there were others wandering the streets, scavenging in the dark, neither Matt nor any other member of his group had seen evidence of their existence.

It was a thought that crossed Matt’s mind whenever he left the penthouse at night. With the lanterns off you could see over almost the entire city. Violet fires and streaks of lightning still rumbled in the distance in the northeast where they had narrowly escaped.

Was anyone else out there, waiting for help? Searching for survivors? Hunting for stragglers? No matter the question, he preferred not to find out. Things were good here. He was certain that as long as they stayed smart and kept to themselves, they would endure.

With the board game packed and nestled safely under Lu’s arm the pair made their way out of the penthouse. Together they passed down the hall and into the stairwell. A battery powered lantern provided their light, but they still took every step carefully. Their group couldn’t afford even a minor injury.

“So, today’s fact.” Lu turned to him expectantly while they walked.

“Ok, this is a good one.” Matt rubbed his hands together. “Did you know that you could eat a tulip bulb the same way you would use an onion in a recipe?”

“Where did you learn that?”

“I found this book on wartime oddities. Things soldiers used to do to survive, back in the day. At one point in World War II the Dutch were cut off from supplies and Allied forces. To try and keep from starving to death they had to eat whatever they could. There were stores of tulip bulbs that went unplanted due to the war, so they ate them.”

“What do you think it tasted like?”

“Well, these bulbs were old so probably not very good. But it did say that normal tulip bulbs have a sweet flavor.”

“Ah. That’s a good fact then.” Lu smiled, opening the door to the next floor. “And topical too. Who knows when we’ll be eating tulips.”

“I guess there’s worse things to eat. I haven’t had my name added to the cooking rotation yet.” Matt stepped into the hall, drawing out his own flashlight. Without power there was no difference between night and day in the halls. Carrying a flashlight was more necessity than habit.

Both had their own apartments on this floor. Lu had chosen hers because it gave a beautiful view of the lake in the morning any time she left her living room curtains open. She had decorated it with art they had collected from a small gallery a few blocks down the road. Visitors enjoyed the small touch of the fake plant she left outside her door. Matt remembered her saying that if she found any more she’d decorate the entire hall to create a plastic garden. They’ve been keeping an eye out since.

Matt had settled on an apartment a few doors down from hers, partly because it had an extremely comfortable couch. Partly because being close to Lu made him feel a little safer. A little more content with the end of the world.

Lu jiggled her lantern gently while walking down the hall to her door. “We’ll get another game in tomorrow.” Balancing the board game under her arm she carefully twisted the knob to step inside. “Dante-free!”

“Definitely! Night, Lu.” Matt smiled, walking past her door toward his home. With a sudden realization he paused, and rapped a knuckle on the wall loudly. “Woah, woah, woah. What’s your fact?”

“Oh, shit.” Lu placed the game on the floor, then took a moment to tap her chin. Lantern in hand she scrunched her face in thought. “Alright give me a moment...”

“You don’t have one ready?”

“I’m thinking.”

“I prepared mine. I even had a source cited.”

“Well you’ve got me thinking about flowers now and I don’t want to copy you.”

“Whatever. You can just forfeit today if you want.”

“Did you know,” Lu loudly cleared her throat, “that scorpions are extremely hearty little arachnids? They can survive for up to a year without eating when food is scarce, in addition to being able to endure extreme temperatures.”

“I knew they were tough.” Matt said as he walked backwards, toward his apartment door. “But I didn’t know they were so good performing tiny hunger strikes.”

“Yes well, consider yourself educated.”

Matt reached out and felt the cool doorknob rest in his palm. They stood for a moment, a few doors apart. There were times where he wanted to close the distance. He was guilty of walking slower than he needed on several occasions just to draw out the evening, but to do anything more felt incredibly rude. Or worse, inappropriate.

Would there would be time to explore these kinds of feelings in the future? Did she even feel the same way? For now, life was hard. Things were only going to become more difficult in the days to come. Friendships were a valuable resource. Complications could wait. He couldn’t risk it.

“Goodnight Lu.” Matt said, before stepping into his home.

“Goodnight.” her voice trailed back, slipping into his home moments before he shut the door.