Folklore

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Chapter 5 - 03/10/2018

When Kane arrived back from his meeting it was to find Matt sitting close to the glass, sketching the ooze. Matt knew it would look a little odd but he needed to relax and doodling always helped calm his nerves.

Without knowing how long it would be till Kane’s return Matt and his afflicted ally rushed through the basics of a plan. Twice Matt went to check the entrance of Cavernous Crawlies, listening along the way for Kane’s return. Afraid that any passing moment could expose their plot, their final idea felt like a mess of rushed improvisation. A single mistake in their flimsy plan likely meant death. At the very least, no matter where things went from here, he didn’t want to be executed during the planning stage.

A part of him still wondered if he could trust the ooze, but given that the alternative would mean being forced to fight it Matt’s options seemed slim. He felt more confident than ever that working with the creature was his only chance. The ooze’s display of weakness was also a display of strength. There was no way he could get past a single arm, let alone a dozen. Still, he had a nagging doubt.

To reach such an alliance Matt knew he had to come to terms with a single crucial fact: He wasn’t going to kill the ooze, and because of that Father was going to kill him. It was a hard pill to swallow. Over and over he reminded himself of Kane’s veiled threat. Of Father’s demand. Of the prison he shared with these unusual captives. He couldn’t trust these people any more than he could trust the monsters they kept.

“Makin much progress?” Kane peered at his work.

“A little. Trying to picture where the arm comes from. Thought if maybe I sketched it out it would make more sense.” said Matt. Kane seemed satisfied enough, looking between the sketch and the ooze as he tried to follow the logic.

They left the cavern shortly after. Their evening routine was quick and easy, likely because Kane was tired of playing the role of jailor. They went back to the central hub for dinner -- a warm meal of stew and potatoes harvested from the sanctuary garden. Matt overheard a table of soldiers chat with excitement about the hunt tomorrow. It sounded as they they were travelling further than normal in search of something.

Though he kept to himself for the evening their banter did wonders in settling Matt’s own nerves. With so many experienced hunters leaving early in the morning the odds of his escape felt a little better. Still a slim chance, but better than none at all.

After dinner Kane escorted Matt back to the apartment, where he was locked in his room until morning. An armed guard was posted outside. It was made very clear that under no circumstances would the door to his apartment be opened without express permission.

Once inside Matt spent some time collecting himself. Out the window he could see lights from a jeep patrolling the sanctuary grounds in the dusk. He regretted not asking more questions, or paying closer attention to the layout of Filheart Sanctuary. So defeated by his captivity he never thought to look any further than his immediate surroundings. Matt hoped it would be to his advantage. Perhaps knowing how cooperative he’d been they’d never suspect a plot to escape. He hoped that would be the case.

If the hunt began in the morning then he had little time to make his few preparations. He stuffed the copy of Dawnblade into his backpack, wrapping a pillow around it to make the bag soft and cushioned. Several snack size bags of trail mix fit nicely in the front pouch. A small portion of the box stuck from the top and it took him a few minutes to find a proper solution. Floss wrapped around the top zipper would at least keep the game secure in the soft enclosure.

Opening the bedroom window he looked down at the ground below. A jump or climb would have been impossible, but luckily his plan required neither. Matt spent an agonizing hour determining the best way to angle the drop, trying hard to differentiate between trees and bushes in the cover of night. When he was sure that he had the right angle and when he was certain no one was watching Matt carefully tossed the bag out the window. It landed with a soft thud, vanishing out of sight.

Standing by the window he held his breath while waiting to see if anyone else had heard the noise. It was too dark to see if his accuracy was correct. If he had miscalculated the drop, or if someone spotted the bag during a patrol, it would all be over. After a few minutes he was at least satisfied his plot wouldn’t be revealed till daybreak. He had to move on. There were other things to do.

He took a shower, cleansing himself of a layer of filth that had accumulated over the past few days. Standing under the water it felt like a weight had settled over his heart. The warm water helped clear some of the anxiety away. A small part lingered. How desperate was he to escape this place? What would he do to see his friends again?

After drying himself he returned to the kitchen and made a snack. A sandwich bag full of candy leftover in the fridge. He zipped the sweet-filled plastic shut, left it on the counter for the next morning, then crawled into bed.

He was surprised the shroud of sleep fell over him so quickly. He would be ready for the day to come.

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A knock at the door woke him up. A heavy pounding that meant he was late and keeping Kane waiting.

“Yeah! Hang on!” Matt yelled, while quickly getting dressed. On his way out he plucked a candy from his small bag of treats and stuffed the rest into his pocket. He gave a sheepish “Sorry!” as he opened the door.

If Kane was bothered it didn’t show. Together they walked downstairs, out of the hotel, and straight over to the automated shuttles. It was a trip made in silence. Along the way Matt resisted the urge to look over his shoulder where his bag must have landed. Either it was there, or it wasn’t. If it wasn’t, he was certain they would confront him about it soon.

At breakfast Matt kept himself apart from the rest of the group. For the first time since his capture, he took a real inventory of his surroundings. There were at least twenty men and women in the dining room alone. Many of them were set to leave today to begin the next hunt. The rest had to be patrolling the grounds, or keeping guard elsewhere. Kane sat with a group of is companions. Matt assumed they must have been the hunting party, speaking in serious tones while making pointed gestures.

After breakfast came their usual round of chores. Kane and Matt helped Cecilia load some medical supplies into three vehicles parked outside the diner. One truck and two SUVs that were lined up, fueled, and ready for the hunt. Matt had learned the term ‘loaded for bear’ from Lu during one of their fact exchanges, but he had never had an appropriate time to use such a phrase until now.

Kane had made the hunt sound like a light expedition, or a scouting, but with the amount of weaponry each vehicle was carrying the odds seemed low that they were just going to observe anything. They had rations enough to handle several days of travel and more ammunition than Matt had ever seen gathered in a single area. More than enough to handle a single bear. Plenty to handle several at once.

What was originally meant to be a quick task quickly became a more involved project as Kane noticed a discrepancy with the cargo. Unpacking and loading all three vehicles with an even number of supplies took the last hour of the morning. It was hard to resist asking questions about their mission and destination, but Matt knew better than to expect any real answers from anyone.

They left the sanctuary’s main gate, riding a shuttle back to Kingdom Animalia. Matt watched soldiers slowly filter out from the diner, gathering around their respective cars. They stood close to each other, discussing something with enthusiasm. Matt wanted to see them leave, if only for his own peace of mind, but a slight bend in the road slowly tucked the soldiers away behind a flowing wall of stone animals. By the time the entrance to Filheart Sanctuary behind them was completely out of sight, Kingdom Animalia was coming almost fully into view.

The cloudless sky and beating sun were both a blessing and a curse during their inspection of the afflicted exhibits. It made the day hot and sweaty and uncomfortable, but it also made the review of each enclosure a little easier. The shapeshifting woman seemed too hot to put up much of a performance, and the bone spider had sunk deep into its miserable swamp. Even Mr. Pompeii didn’t seem to be as enthusiastic in venting heat. Instead it basked in the summer sun, occasionally releasing a gout of flame from its fractured chest.

Only one alteration was made during their route, just before walking their way back to Cavernous Crawlies. It was at the emicated man’s enclosure. Kane lobbed a crumb to the far end of the pit. They watched the man drag himself to it. They waited to confirm that he would pick it up, and observed as he drew it into his mouth slowly. As usual, the man savored its meager flavor while his muscles inflated to more natural proportions. Then he walked away, not bothering to make eye contact as he moved to hide in the shade of a nearby rock.

Kane and Matt did a final pass of the enclosure to check each of the rat traps that had been placed outside. It was then, while Kane was occupied with a spent trap, that Matt reached into his pocket. Trailing just behind his captor, Matt glanced into the enclosure to see if the prisoner had moved. He gripped the bag of candy tightly, then tossed the entire collection of treats over the enclosure’s wall and down into the pen. He flinched as the plastic bag made a single slapping sound after it hit the ground.

If Kane had noticed the noise he showed no sign of it. Instead they moved on, eager to get out of the heat now that the final stop on their patrol had been completed.



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Cavernous Crawlies was a welcome sanctuary from the sun, and they took a moment to enjoy the shade as their eyes adjusted to the dark.

“Father’s gonna want to check in on your work soon.” said Kane, gesturing for Matt to start walking. “Might be a good idea to clean up your notes if you have any.”

“Have you guys done this kind of thing before? Like, held someone hostage.”

“No.” Kane frowned, shaking his head. “No. We put our lives on the line trying to figure out how to take these things down. Not much time to do babysitting between all that.”

“So why start?”

“Look, I get it. A lot of us don’t always agree with Father, but he’s rarely done us wrong. What we’re doing here is important. It’s good work.” Kane paused, searching for the right words. “You’ve got friends out there, right? How long do you think your group would last against some of the shit you’ve seen here? Every one of those things we kill or capture saves lives.”

“Right. And that makes your life more valuable than mine.” Matt couldn’t help but roll his eyes, and was glad to be walking in front of Kane.

“Your life? We saved your life back there. Kept you from being torn apart. As far as I’m concerned, you owe us.”

“Yeah, sure.” Matt frowned. “You saved me then, so you can keep me here for your monster science fair project. You guys are really taking the high ground here.”

“High ground? Cut the shit. What would you know about sacrifice? I bet you never--” A tremor in the earth forced them both to stumble. Kane’s hand went to his sidearm, and he motioned for Matt to stay still when a second powerful shockwave rolled underfoot.

“Stay here.” Kane pointed for extra effect before running to the cave entrance.

The moment he was out of sight, Matt ran. Down the hall, past every exhibit until he found the first door labeled ‘Staff Entrance’. Behind the scenes of Cavernous Crawlies was unfamiliar to him, but the Federation that built this place was nothing if not organized. Fluorescent lamps hung cheerfully overhead, making it easy to read the maps posted at every corner. What would normally be a maze of passageways, ramps, and sterile corridors were instead neatly labeled destinations.

Just past a long-abandoned exhibit on reptiles was his goal: the ooze’s prison. The exhibit it inhabited was designed to look as natural as possible for visitors, but for staff there were dozens of panels, switches, buttons and readouts all designed to help maintain the ideal environment for its inhabitant. Several cameras inside the enclosure gave full view of the ooze from multiple angles. Some monitors even provided night vision and infrared options.

Another tremor shook the ground, but Matt was used to them now. They were becoming more consistent with each passing moment. Though it never stole his balance, each one reminded him of time slipping away.

Scanning the area for a way to release the ooze Matt realized he wasn’t sure how to undo the magnetic lock. Stickers and guidelines posted on the walls showed a loading procedure to follow. Some kind of key was needed to start the process, and the odds of it being nearby were certainly low. If there was no way to set it free from the inside, then he would have to try another route.

Matt ran back the way he came, pausing only to use his elbow against the emergency glass in front of a fireman’s axe. Plucking it from the wall he traced his steps back into the darkness of the cave, turning a corner to get back to the ooze’s exhibit. The tool felt heavy in his hands. Durable. When Matt reached his destination he didn’t hesitate to test its strength.

He swung the axe hard against the ooze’s exhibit. Matt braced himself for a crash of glass shards but instead only saw a single crack cut a jagged scar across the pane. On the other side the ooze sat motionless. His second swing did far more damage. The tip of the axe cracked hard against the glass and he pulled it out for a third, fourth, and fifth swing.

Eventually the blade of his axe caught purchase deep within the splintering glass. Using the strength of his weight he twisted the handle, forcing a chunk of the broken glass pane to fall away. A few more swings opened a hole large enough for the ooze to slip through, and Matt took a step back to catch his breath.

With the hole now large enough for escape the ooze rolled forward, narrowing itself as much as possible to avoid touching the sharp edges. Free of its enclosure, it slushed itself only an arm’s reach away from Matt. So close and no longer behind glass it seemed much larger. Menacing, even.

“Well, if your plan was to kill me then now’s the time.” Matt gripped the axe in his hand, looking down at the afflicted. “If not, we gotta move.”

“What the fuck?” Kane stood just around the corner, dirt and grime covering his face.

Matt had no time to explain. Their eyes met. Kane’s gaze flashed down to the axe. His hand slid down to the gun holstered at his side. With the fluid practice of a combat veteran Kane brought his weapon up just as Matt was lifted from the ground, tossed through the air with unexpected force.

Matt hit the floor in a roll as a bouquet of limbs across the ooze’s surface. Kane’s pistol sounded off in rapid succession. The ooze tumbled forward, propelling itself forward with uneven hands and disjointed limbs in a macabre cartwheel. One of its limbs went limp and pulled itself back under the wet layer of flesh after being struck with a bullet. The rest drove onward, barreling into Kane with tremendous force.

Kane tried to fire his weapon but several mismatched fingers gripped around his wrist. Bone crunched under the strength of its grasp. He toppled backwards as more hands reached out. With every grasp came the same violent action. The squeeze of flesh. Bone splintering under muscle. It was impossible to tell if the soldier tried to resist as more limbs reached out to grasp for his hair, neck, chest, and mouth.

The ooze crept over its prey, hoisted on a collection of stilted arms. It shook and pounded and ripped and tore at Kane like he was made of paper. A scream tried to erupt from the man’s lungs but fists pulped a wet gurgle from his throat instead. Matt watched in horror, his back to the wall and axe in hand. A spray of blood from the ooze’s red-soaked limbs flecked in every direction until it had finally decided its work was done.

Though it had no expression Matt could read the ooze unmistakably as it turned to regard him. Balanced upon its hands it crawled away from Kane’s meager remains, standing near the glass of its former enclosure.

“Who were you? What are you?” Matt whispered. He did everything he could not to look at Kane’s remains.

With a blood-soaked hand the ooze pressed a finger to the glass, scrawling three letters in gore.

“Sam? I can’t...I don’t know if I can do this anymore...”

Matt wanted to stand. He wanted to run, and cry, and hide. He screamed at himself for being so stupid. What did he think would happen to these people? How can he trust this creature? This monster. Because it was captured too? Maybe it was here for a reason.

Sam, the ooze, crawled forward. Its wet hands slapped the ground in a rhythmic precession of blood. Matt turned the axe in his palm defensively as Sam’s uneven limbs bent and twisted until its oozelike mass was arched in an unmistakable bow. A hand slowly emerged from its core, slipping from its rippling skin with fresh and unbloodied fingertips. It was the most human hand Matt had seen it produce yet. It looked soft, delicate. Almost feminine. Sam extended it just beyond Matt’s reach, letting the gesture hang.

Swallowing his fear Matt eased his grip on the axe. He looked to the pulped remnants of Kane, so easily crushed underneath a wave of unnatural strength. It had taken Matt almost a minute to break the glass, one swing at a time. How many swings could it perform in a single second with its disfigured arms and monstrous power?

“You could have left.” Matt looked back its hand, extended. “At any time, you could have broken free and left. Maybe hid somewhere.”

A wet tap sounded on the ground.

“You stayed for me? Did you need my help? Is it because I couldn’t leave without you?”

There was a hesitation. Sam’s human hand drew back a little. Its arched bow was less pronounced. It rolled its bloody fingers against the ground three times in succession. A wet tap tap tap. Matt frowned, then reached out and grabbed its hand into a firm shake. It was warm. Slick. There was a stickiness that reminded him of a fruit chew left out in heat.

With a delicate care Sam helped lift Matt to his feet. A rumble shook the man-made cave, followed by the boom of an unmistakable explosion. Matt felt the color drain from his skin in a chill. They had wasted so much time.

“Alright.” Matt shook Sam’s hand firmly. A final confirmation of their alliance. “We leave together.”

Sam bowed again, raising one of its free thumbs up in agreement. Afraid but determined to make the best use of the opportunity he created Matt ran past Kane’s body and back to the entrance of Cavernous Crawlies. Behind him, the sound of Sam’s palms slapping against the ground. They reached the cave’s mouth together, Matt gesturing Sam to stay hidden so that he could peer ahead.

Kingdom Animalia was a battlefield. There were bodies, both whole and in pieces, strewn in every direction. The center courtyard was covered thick in blood and the entrance was roughly blocked off by a pair of armored jeeps.

At the center of the chaos was the emaciated man, now grown to tremendous proportion. His muscles had inflated with the consumption of food beyond what his skin was able to contain. The strain of its mass forced the colossal afflicted onto all fours like a primate. Broken flesh hung in tatters from its arms and neck like ripped strands of cloth from an ill-fitting shirt. Its chest was a literal wall of flesh. Bursting tendons of corded muscle, it heaved with the strain of trying to breathe.

The only part of it that seemed to be devoid of muscle was the skull. Thick plated bone swelled beyond containment under flesh. The colossus’ eyes seemed to have sunk into black pits within its socket, and only the semblance of a face remained from its transformation. Skin had spread like a thin sheet of plastic wrap around a skeletal smile. Ragged patches of hair clung to its scalp.

Gripped within its meaty fist was a soldier who squirmed in post mortem. Pressure from the afflicted’s crushing grasp was slowly pushing the meat out of its combat uniform like red paste expelled from a tube. Nearby soldiers were firing wildly, retreating behind cars, kiosks, and benches. Anything that could grant a barrier between them and the colossus. One of the soldiers had begun to reload what Matt assumed was a rocket launcher when the afflicted raised the remains of their fellow soldier to its skeletal maw. Another wounded soldier was trying to crawl her way back to cover, clutching at a twisted and mauled leg.

If their bullets had an effect, Matt couldn’t tell. Chunks of meat flaked away with every round they fired, but as it consumed the flattened remains of their companion its muscle seemed to expand and grow, replacing what was lost. Matt turned back to Sam who stood perched on its palms, ready to pounce.

“We’re not getting through there.” Matt stepped aside as Sam gently eased its way to the corner, bending a portion of its gooey mass for what Matt assumed was a peek. The roar of gunfire was so loud he could barely hear himself think. One of its hands tugged at Matt’s leg while another pointed to the jeeps blocking the park’s entrance.

“We could. Maybe if we sneak closer. Can you hide?”

One tap against the wall. Matt was about to make a dash for a nearby information kiosk when an oversized hand held him back and poked him with a finger. Tap tap.

Matt drew himself back into the shadow of the cave as a third jeep pulled up between the two blockading. More soldiers joined the fray as its doors flung open, heavily armed and already adding their firepower to their companions. From their ranks, emerging from the driver’s seat, was Father.

As the colossal afflicted finished its meal the rocket launcher fired with a high-pitched screech. There was no missing such a large and slow target. The rocket bored deep into the fleshy meat of the arm before detonation, spraying the area with a red mist after a blast of heat and fire. It gave a hollow roar, stumbling from the blast before tripping and falling to the side. A chunk of its arm had been blasted down to the bone, but already its muscle was straining to regenerate.

“Rich, spin up the gatecrasher.” Father yelled, limping his way across the battleground closer to the fallen beast. “Focus its legs! Keep it still!”

They moved up in unison, focusing bursts of weapons fire to keep the hulking monster in place. Still dazed from the rocket blast the colossus swept an arm out, flattening a kiosk and several trees in an attempt to grab a nearby soldier. Flailing its legs in a tantrum it managed to catch someone standing too close, blasting them through the air limply with the sound of cracking whip.

Rallied by their leader, Father’s soldiers moved in unison. Their enemy was unusual and unpredictable, but this is what they had trained their lives to do. Exchanging bursts of fire they focused on the closest truck-sized leg. High powered rifles peppered its achilles, first puncturing the tendon then slowly wearing it away. Only one of the men broke rank, stowing his rifle over its back to help the wounded soldier crawling away from the heat of battle.

The moment he wrapped his arm under her shoulder she split open into rows of sharp teeth governed by a powerful jaw. It snapped like a viper, crushing the man’s body while ripping him in two.

“Shit, there’s more of em loose!” Father swore, leveling his sidearm at the new monstrosity. “Leave it, leave it! Focus on the big one!”

As Father unloaded his weapon into the chewing maw of the split woman Matt saw his opportunity. He turned turned to Sam, gesturing ahead with excitement. This was their moment. The colossus was wounded. The soldiers couldn’t look away from their task. Father was occupied. If they could make it to one of the cars it would be easy to drive away before anyone could stop them.

Sprinting from Cavernous Crawlies Matt plotted out his route as he ran. Behind a kiosk, while Father was turned away and firing his weapon. Another dash to a bench, then a quick crawl to a nearby bush as the afflicted colossus gave a deafening low roar that made everyone hunch in pain. Around the corner of a t-shirt stand he watched Father draw a massive knife from his side, stabbing down into woman’s head as her face split apart into a second mouth. Somewhere behind Sam followed, completely silent and eerily quick as it skittered across the pavement like a grasping centipede.

“All clear! Eyes shut!” someone yelled, and at once the weapon’s fire ceased. A single soldier with a heavy black case strapped to his back moved ahead of the others. In his hands was a thick tube gripped with handles from above and the side, cradled like an oversized blowtorch. Matt had never seen anything like it.

“Fire!” Father screamed, his back turned away from the colossus. Matt could feel the force of his knife cutting through something with enough ferocity to crack into the pavement underneath. “The arm! Take the other arm!”

A green light flashed the soldier’s black case. Matt turned away and closed his eyes just as the trigger was pulled. A beam of energy, steady and powerful, shot from the end of the weapon. Guided with careful precision the operator held the beam aloft before lowering it down on the giant’s shoulder. For only a second did the muscle seem to resist. Then it give way like melted butter.

It happened so quickly Matt wasn’t entirely sure it was real. He knew the weapon fired, and a flash of light shone around the corner through his eyelids. There was a scream of fury bellowed from the heart of the colossus. The earth shook as its severed arm rolled from its body and onto the ground, then a second tremor came when it twisted onto its side in a fit of pain. One arm wounded, the other severed, it struggled to stand and make an escape -- something the soldiers wouldn’t allow.

“Recharging!” the gatecrasher’s operator yelled, stepping back to let his weapon recover. Immediately the other soldiers resumed fire, pulping its oversized muscles with a storm of heat and metal.

The soldiers were regaining control of the situation. The window of opportunity was closing. Matt looked to the blockade of cars only to see Sam huddled beside one, already manipulating the driver’s side door open. Another of its arms beckoned Matt to approach. He took a quick peek around the corner of the stand to make sure he was clear, then crawled out from his hiding space with his axe in hand. He kept low, not wanting to attract any attention.

Halfway to the car he locked eyes with Father, who stood blooded and panting with knife in hand. The trauma of death had changed the woman at his feet. Father had used the serrated edge of his combat knife like a saw to pull the false head from its body. Its disguise was still somewhat intact, but half the female soldier lay folded open to reveal its true nature: a silent, gaping maw of jagged teeth. Its alien entrails spilled across the concrete.

“Where do you think you’re going?”

“I’m just going, alright?” Matt backed closer to the car. He needed to raise his voice to be heard against the weapon’s fire nearby. The axe turned nervously in his hands. “I just want to go.”

“Go?” Father laughed, wiping sweat from his face with a bloodied arm. “Where the fuck do you think you’re going to go? Out there, to get killed by some monster you don’t know shit about how to handle? Or maybe to your friends. Tell em what we’ve got going on here. Keep to yourselves for a few months till the winter sets in and you realize there’s a place filled with all the supplies you could possibly want.”

He took a step forward, brandishing his knife at Matt. Each word was accented with the cutting thrust of the keen blade.

“This is the truth of things. There’s monsters in this world now, boy. And I’ll tell you the exact same thing I told these punk nobodies when I caught them wandering the streets, tail between their legs. You’re afraid to get your hands dirty. Afraid to do what needs to be done to make this world right again.”

Father stepped closer.

“Well fear ain’t gonna do nothing for you. It’ll turn you desperate. Make a fool of you. When you’re afraid, you die afraid. That’s why we’re here. That’s why we fight. To conquer fear. To make a world where no one needs to be scared again. Where no one needs to die afraid that some abomination is gonna creep up on them in the night.”

Matt took a step back. Father’s expression softened into a smile, and he lowered his knife.

“You stay here, you put that axe to use cleaning up this mess with us, and I promise you’ll never have anything to fear again.”

The sound of rapid gunfire was beginning to die down. Whether it was due to the colossal afflicted no longer struggling or ammunition running low Matt couldn’t tell. He looked beside the car and saw Sam huddled low. Ready to move. Ready to strike.

“They were people once.” Matt said, turning back to watch Father carefully. “What if some of them are still like us? Just trying to survive.”

Father laughed. His face twisted into bewilderment. “Like us? You’re pathetic. They’re monsters Matt. Mistakes. When you see one, you take matters into your own hands. And you can trust me, I’ll correct every one of those fucking things. With or without a little ingrate like you. There are other rats in the city we can put to use. Maybe even one of your friends.” Father spat.

“All clear! Eyes shut!”

The struggle against the colossal afflicted had almost come to a halt. Concentrated fire had ground the afflicted’s tendon to the very bone. They struggled against its impressive regeneration as the specialist with the gatecrasher stepped into position. Father smiled, his eyes locked onto Matt’s.

“Kill it.” Father shouted, turning his face into the crook of his arm’s sleeve to cover his gaze.

Matt raised his own arms protectively, not wanting to be blinded by the weapon. He could still see the flash of light through his eyelids. Its operator, experienced at handling the beam, guided the beam of destructive light into the monstrous reinforced skull. It resisted for a moment, then cracked and began to melt under the relentless energy of the weapon. A hollow groan of air escaped its gaping maw before it collapsed, lifeless.

Radiance from the laser weapon died down, and as Matt heard the call for ‘Recharging’ he opened his eyes in time to see Father bearing down, knife in hand. Matt stumbled backwards, bringing the axe up to defend himself. Father was too close to swing at. Even with an injured leg the man moved fast and with the confidence of a trained killer.

Father drew his arm back to plunge forward, but was thrown several feet across the pavement by a set of raw, pink arms.

“Sam! The others!” Matt shouted, running to Father who was already beginning to recover.

He heard the slap of palms against concrete and renewed gunfire somewhere behind him, but there was no time to look to see how his ally fared. These men were well trained. Well armed. They had purpose and a plan. As long as they had a leader, they would endure.

Matt found himself unafraid. Father was pushing himself to his hands and knees when Matt’s kick struck across his face. Matt moved to kick again but Father had somehow grabbed hold of his knife. They both paused, deciding their next move. The veteran slashed outward but was dazed and too slow to find his target. Matt’s axe, however, swung true.

The axe’s swing bit into Father’s arm, shallow. Matt’s trembling grip robbed the weapon of its force, and a shriek of pain made him pull the weapon back as a reflex. Spittle churned from Father’s lips. He muttered something under his breath but Matt had heard enough. The axe fell into a brutal arc that cut deep into the side of Father’s neck.

To his credit, Father never moved. Blood wept from his wound, and though his body quivered with weakness and a growing cold the old soldier found the strength to sit upright. Matt kept his grip on the axe’s handle while fighting back the urge to vomit.

“It’s like you said. There are monsters in this world.” Matt said, standing over Father as precious red life slowly drained from the fatal axe wound. “When you see one, you take matters into your own hands.”

Matt had grown so used to the sound of gunfire that its sudden absence seemed unnatural. He looked up to see Sam gripping the last of the soldiers in its hands. Others lay nearby, bent and contorted into unnatural positions. One’s head had been twisted completely off. The ooze turned to regard him, giving a casual thumbs up with an unoccupied limb.

He waited until he was sure Father had died before he tried removing the axe. Using his foot for added leverage he twisted the blade from bone, then walked back to the nearby vehicle blockade. Approaching the open driver’s door he took a seat, back turned away from the carnage that swept across Kingdom Animalia.

Exhausted and overwhelmed by the silence, Matt let the axe rest in the passenger seat while he slowly took a deep breath. No longer driven by fear and adrenaline, emotion had already begun to catch up with his body. He leaned over the the side of the car and vomited. Nausea was being vented from his spirit. Matt surrendered himself to the urge to cry.

Nothing had gone according to plan.