Folklore

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Disqus - 15/08/2018

Chapter 1
“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.

Chapter 2
Matt woke up the next morning with an uneasy anxiousness settled on his chest. In the quiet of night his apartment wasn’t much to look at, but come morning its large glass windows flooded the room with light. More so than usual, since he had woken up late.

Having selected his apartment with the arbitrary criteria of ‘good couch’ Matt was pleasantly surprised to find its former occupants shared his personal taste in other ways. There were shelves full of books he wasn’t sure he’d ever read, but certainly made him look smart for owning. Its decor was modern; clean and functional without looking snotty. A large tv and several racks of movies held the promise of future entertainment should power ever return.

There was art on the walls, but Matt had removed and replaced the floral and panoramic paintings with subjects more his own taste. Several gaming and comic book posters he had secured from a comic shop lined the living room instead. It seemed stupid at first, but the longer he stayed there the more he appreciated how it reflected who he was. Like a proper home.

He never had the heart to throw away any of the previous resident’s personal belongings. It seemed like such a heartless thing to do. Instead he shoved them all into an unoccupied apartment across the hall. He called it his ‘personal storage area.’

Propping himself up against the headboard of his bed Matt wiped grogginess and crud from his eyes. The mattress sat directly across from a wall of glass, and it was hard not to admire the view of the city below. It was hard not to appreciate this good fortune.

He could never afford a place like this before. Not as the student he was, and certainly not as the photographer he was hoping to be. He had a good eye, but his shots never seemed to capture the same energy needed to impress his teachers or peers. Another year in school would have likely convinced him to move to film, maybe get credentials as a cameraman or a grip. Good professions, but ‘survivor’ just seemed so much more impressive.

Matt brushed his teeth and rinsed his mouth with clean water from a plastic jug, pouring the excess backwash out the balcony window. His attire was simple and comfortable. Jeans, a t-shirt, and a pair of running shoes. A crowbar, empty backpack, and a pair of workman’s gloves helped complete his look.

Checking his watch Matt quickly made his way out the door. Breakfast had likely started already and being late meant missing out on whatever had been prepared for the day. Everyone learned fast that it was always better to eat with the group. The morning check-in made it easier to communicate plans with each other beyond their routine meetings. Even the few who weren’t active talkers would make sure to arrive early to share their thoughts on what the group should tackle next.

It was thirty flights of stairs to the ground floor. By the time Matt arrived from his late start most of the hot food had been cleared away. Only his closest friends had stayed behind to wait for his arrival. Dante had saved him a bowl of hot oatmeal and an apple, though whether it was out of friendship or guilt for last night’s behavior he was unsure. Lu was cheerfully carving a piece of wood into what appeared to be a small ghost or an odd napkin. Matt wasn’t sure, and was too hungry to care.

They sat and talked about their plans for the day while the occasional resident passed by to say good morning. Apartments on the first floor had been converted into more essential things. A dining area, storage for supplies, and an extremely meager armory. Beyond food and fuel, weapons were next in high demand. Their looting so far had only yielded a single rifle and shotgun, which were left in the hands of those assigned to take up the evening watch.

“I was thinking I’d hit up the Plaza again.” Matt set aside his bowl, feeling much better with a full stomach. “They’ve got a parking lot that should still have a few cars I could tap for gas. Plus maybe a store or two.”

“That’s kind of a way’s out.” said Dante. “Do you need a hand?”

“It’s not that far. I just want to be fast. In and out. I’d take a bike.”

Lu blew wood shaving from her carving before setting it aside. “Well if you’re going to go you should at least take the one with the basket. If you do find something you can just strap it in.”

“Yeah. Between my bag and a basket I can come home with something decent. No one else is going out today right?” Matt looked between the pair. Lu shrugged, leaving Dante to speak up.

“I don’t think so. Everyone wants to just finish clearing out this place. I think not having the building fully explored is makin em anxious. Like we focused too long on the block.”

“Well, whatever. We can clean up the twenty-second while you go find us something valuable. Like fully functioning electricity or water I don’t need to carry in a bucket.” Lu said while standing from her seat.

“Oh yeah, I’ll get right on that.”

After breakfast the trio parted ways. Dante and Lu began their journey back upstairs to assist with the long overdue floor-by-floor cleanup. Matt promised to bring them both back a souvenir from his journey, and his mind was already starting the spin with ideas.

The Plaza was a small mall they discovered several weeks ago during their exploration of the city. Not being locals their group had focused their attention toward major landmarks first and foremost. Grocery stores, farmers markets, and hardware supply shops. Places that were easy to identify, loot, and then leave.

An unfamiliar mall was filled with its own dangers, no matter how small it may be. Stores were jumbled about. Coveted supplies were often hidden behind locked rooms or secure loading bays. They had never encountered any survivors, but that didn’t mean some weren’t out there either. Matt knew if their band of misfits had somehow managed to endure the chaos then others must have as well. It was only matter of time.

There were other places in the city he could have looted instead. Safer ones. But he had been to the Plaza once before, and he knew it contained the store he was certain would have what he needed.

It was a beautiful, clear day. Without traffic, without people, the roads and sidewalks were clear save for the occasional parked car or bag of trash. Though he tried to keep out of the open, Matt was free to weave his bicycle through lanes and across the sidewalk. The basket on the front of his bike rattled with every bump of the road. They had taken it, and several others, from a pizza place early on in their exploration of the city.

In the twenty minutes it took to ride to the Plaza Matt kept a close eye out for changes in his surroundings. A car moved aside, or maybe a newly broken window. They had heard a few stories from survivors like CJ of the things that lurked in the shadows beyond the city. He had no idea what to look for, but any sign of an abnormality was better than nothing.

The Plaza was roughly the size of a city block, with a portion of that being dedicated to underground parking. Before the Dust settled it was a fairly popular spot for clothing and electronic stores. There were only two floors and a wide walkway on the first was filled with kiosks that changed from season to season. Matt had only been here once with his family years ago -- not exactly a tourist trap, but still handy if you wanted to get some extra shopping done.

Matt guided his bike across the road and down into the underground parking. Slowing and stepping off the seat he guided the bicycle to the mall’s entrance, letting it rest against a nearby wall. Crowbar in hand he quietly eased open the heavy metal door, scanning the area for any signs of movement.

Outside the sounds of nature helped mask your position. The wind alone would prompt building doors to open, flags to snap, and shudders to swing with the pulse of the air. Inside the mall, without the cover of nature, there was only silence. The absence of humanity in a place that was once a hub of life.

Normally Matt didn’t mind a little quiet, but the Plaza wasn’t a place designed to sit quietly. Its high glass ceiling and wide hallway captured and echoed noise throughout. Everything was dressed opulent golds and regal reds, which at one point may have lent an air of wealth to its vendors and patrons alike. Now, without its regular cleaning, the Plaza looked like abandoned royalty.

He was always expecting some kind of sound would break the silence. The Plaza’s main hall was like an inflated lung that was ready to exhale at any time. His footsteps felt too heavy against the tiled floor. Too hard to conceal. Not wanting to spend more time than necessary he jogged over to the nearby mall directory to quickly sort out his trip.

There were only two stores Matt cared about, and the first was nearby on the first floor. He moved quickly, risking the extra sound his running shoes made against the tile. Crowbar in hand he was glad to see the door to Circuit Kid was wide open.

Rows of inoperable computer monitors and dusty televisions sat all along the edge of the electronics store. In a different time this would have been a looters paradise. Cell phones and freshly sealed games sat open for the picking. In another timeline Matt would have probably been here to pick up his own copy of Breathless Saga 3. Jumping over the front counter he wondered if it held up to the original at all.

His search of the store was fast and precise. Batteries of every size and grade were swept from display racks and end caps. Twice he used his crowbar to break into locked shelves, yielding an extra flashlight and a small solar powered lamp. With so many valuables left behind it seemed unlikely that anyone had been here before, but that didn’t mean he was eager to stay long.

Once his bag was almost completely full he made for the exit -- but not before snatching a copy of Breathless Saga 3. If they ever got power to work again he’d be ready.

The second stop was upstairs, past the escalator that was now conveniently just a flight of stairs. Despite trying hard to keep quiet his footsteps rang clearly against the hollow metal. The effect made him wince. He looked around fearfully, making a mental note to use the parking lot stairs when it was time to leave. The hard cement wouldn’t be as eager to betray his movement.

A different kind of fear gripped his heart when he reached the second floor. Just past the escalator were the glass doors to The Dragon’s Riddle. It was a locally owned gaming shop that grew an incredible reputation with its customers for friendly service and weekly contests. Puzzles would be posted online once a month for customers to solve, and a correct answer would earn you a reasonable discount on certain items in store. It was a cute gimmick, and the puzzles would often make their way to different web communities.

Reaching out to open the doors Matt found neither would budge. Locked, perhaps by the mall’s automated system. He took a moment to think, checking all around to make absolutely sure no one was watching.

It was entirely possible there was another way in. A back door, loading dock, or even a vent he could climb. Walking more than thirty flights of stairs a day had put him in fairly good shape, and if the wall were basic drywall material it would be easy for him to break through. If it were anything else he’d be making a terrible amount of noise for nothing.

Still, he was here for a reason. There’s no reward without a bit of risk, he thought while taking several steps back.

Winding up his crowbar Matt charged the glass door, stopping just short of it to add momentum to a heavy swing of the metal tool. The dull THUNK it made ringing against the glass made him cringe as it echoed off the mall’s high ceilings. Where he was hoping the door would have shattered, a fracture formed instead. A telltale spiderweb of cracks spreading across the pane.

Not sparing a single moment Matt stepped back and swung again, this time feeling the glass door buckle and start to give way. One final swing prompted the bottom half of the door to shatter inward into thick, uneven shards. If no one had somehow heard the sound of metal cracking against class they would most certainly have heard the door’s collapse.

Anxiety that suggested someone could be near gripped his heart. Scrambling forward he reached in through the breach and undid the lock that kept both doors set in place. Matt pulled the flashlight from his side and began to scan the store’s inventory for his game of choice. Every minute that passed he felt his heart race faster, until he finally stumbled upon what he was looking for on a display rack near the back.

The Dawnblade: A Golden Age Expansion. Its silver letters were scrawled into the side of the box in an elaborate cursive. Matt pulled the box from the shelves and was thankful it didn’t feel too heavy. It must have been mostly cards and a few plastic figures. Normally he’d read the back of the box to see what he was getting into, but if it made the core game more fun to play then that was all that mattered.

Cradling the game in his hands Matt turned to leave when something caught the corner of his eye. There was no shape to it. Just a mass of flesh, twisting and writhing in on itself with the consistency of molten goo. Somewhere near the center of its form placid skin rippled and began to part. Long fingers stretched out as though emerging from under the surface of water, parting its flesh with ease as it extended first into a full hand, then an elongated arm.

More than anything else, it was close. Danger screamed in Matt’s mind. How did it get so near to him? Was it fast, or just silent? Despite it’s revolting appearance there was no accompanying foul smell or monstrous shriek to herald its arrival. It simply was. And it was moving closer to him.

Matt didn’t want to wait and see if there was more. He pulled his eyes away from the mass of flesh in time to hear the clanging thud of metal against metal above. There was a flash of light and cracking boom like thunder. A painful ringing sound filled his ears and he stumbled backwards, his vision a swimming mess of white spots. Reflex told him grab onto the nearest thing for balance, but fear quickly paralyzed his body.

With fingers clutched tightly onto The Dawnblade Matt struggled to keep standing. His other hand gripped the crowbar, half swinging to make sure nothing was near. Matt knew the creature was nearby, but it was impossible to tell where it may have gone now that he had been robbed of his senses. A part of his mind told him it was safe to take a step backwards.

Something with incredible force slammed into his stomach and he doubled over. With his ears robbed of all but the endless ringing Matt wasn’t sure if he had cried out in pain, although his mouth did open. He tried to catch his breath when something strong suddenly pulled around his neck. The crowbar in his hand seemed to vanish, slipping from his grasp. A hand, or a grip like it, grabbed at one wrist and then another.

He couldn’t move, he couldn’t breathe. As consciousness faded from him Matt thought of his friends. Whatever trap he had fallen into, let it be satisfied with his death. Don’t go looking for him. Stay away.

Chapter 3 - 19/09/2018
Matt woke up to the feeling of disorientation. His body was shaking. A panic flooded him remembering where he was last, and he opened his eyes to find the harsh white light of a glaring lamp nearly blind him.

“Oh no! Oh God, I’m so sorry!” beside him a woman quickly placed a hand on his shoulder. She reached to turn the lantern away. “No, no you have to lay down a moment. I didn’t mean to knock into your bed, ugh! Stupid!”

With the glaring light gone Matt could get a better measure of where he was. His bed was a simple cot in the far corner of some kind of tent. A makeshift hospital if he had to guess. Nearby a tray on wheels held several medical tools, and all around similar were storage drawers and tables waiting to be pushed into use. A strong wind caused the entire tent to shift and lean, though its several metal support beams seemed to hold fast.

The woman beside him swore again, shaking her head while she rolled her eyes. Her voice and accent were unmistakably local, but the dark tone of her umber skin and braided hair made her background difficult to pin. Matt moved to sit up a second time and she eased him back.

“Hey, sorry but give me another moment. I know this is kinda weird but I just have to make sure they didn’t rough you up too badly.” she pulled a stethoscope from the table, affixing it to her ears.

“I’m sorry, where am I?” Matt did his best to sit still, keeping an eye on the exit.

“You are at what the boys call Staging Ground One. Or, the S.G.O.” she lifted his shirt up with one hand to better hear his heartbeat with the other. “Do you know where the Filheart Sanctuary is?”

Matt nodded in a silent, cautious reply. Back when the Federation was ramping up its public works efforts, several projects were put into place to immediately improve its citizens quality of life. Major overhauls that required massive governmental cooperation between its labor force and the Federation’s own superhumans. The intercontinental superhighways were one such project, as was the Reforestation Initiative. Both were incredible efforts designed to help integrate Federation personas into less combat-focused positions.

The Sanctuary Initiative was one of the last programs set into place, but it was by far one of the best received. A complete overhaul of every qualifying academic facility that handled environmental education and awareness. Everything from public zoos to butterfly gardens were given teams to help properly modify their facilities to meet more modern standards.

Renamed from its previous identity, the Filheart Sanctuary was everything you could want from a zoo and more. Large enclosures with impressive multi-angle cameras that displayed to live feed monitors around each exhibit. Regularly scheduled featurettes on various flora and fauna throughout the facility. Residential areas for staff, interns, and potential school attendees. An automated shuttle system to help guests move from venue to venue. Staffing overhauls and improved facilities to help with the care, relocation, treatment, and potential medical triage for all their inhabitants -- human or otherwise.

The significant upgrade had come with a few costs, and not just financial ones. Acres of land across country were claimed by the initiative to help facilitate the relocation of certain buildings. Matt had heard that those moved were fairly compensated by the government, but who really knew the truth of these things. Even still, the Sanctuary Initiative was a hit with very little opposition. Filheart Sanctuary was no exception.

“We’re in the zoo?”

“Welcome to Kingdom Plantae! Though I guess it’s hard to tell.” the woman smiled, setting her stethoscope aside to offer him a hand. “Cecilia Cross. I patch people up around here.”

“Uh, Matt.” he said as they shook hands.

“Well Matt, the good news is that aside from a bit of fatigue you’re doing great. That’s just a side effect of the tranquilizer. Your neck will probably feel a little sore for a day too. You’ll have to blame that one on Kane.”

A man entered the tent carrying a large box as if on cue, smiling warmly to the pair before setting it on a nearby table with a grunt. The combination of his posture, black fatigue pants, grey sleeveless shirt, and obvious sidearm set him apart from being a normal civilian. Cecilia turned in her chair to give the man a friendly wave. He returned the favor, and walked over to shake hands.

“Hey, you must be the new guy! Kane. Sorry about the whole neck thing.” said Kane, looking somewhat embarrassed. “We weren’t sure if you were one of the afflicted or just caught in its path.”

Matt’s memory came back in a flash. The ooze-looking creature from the game store. Its weird arm growth.

“Wait, that was you?” Matt sat up, this time with some assistance from Cecilia as she pushed back her chair to give him more room.

“Well, me and a few others. We’ve been hunting that critter for that past few days now. It’s slow, but can more pretty fast when it feels inclined. We weren’t sure the sedative we had would work but it seemed to go inert after a few rounds.”

“I’m sorry, this is a lot.” Matt shook his head. “So you tranquilized the ooze-thing, and then you sedated me? How long have I been here?”

“Just a day.” Cecilia placed a hand on his arm gently. “They weren’t sure if you had been attacked or not and didn’t want to just leave you there.”

“Yeah, sorry man.” Kane sighed. “We’re pretty sure this guy wasn’t wandering alone, and leaving you back there seemed shitty after what we did to ya. I hope there’s no hard feelings.”

Matt frowned. It was a lot to take in all at once. If these monster hunters made their base at Filheart Sanctuary he was a couple hour drive away from the rest of his group. Not ideal, but at the very least he was glad to be safe.

“No, it’s fine. Thanks. I think it was trying to get me. You said you knocked it out? Did you kill it?”

“Wanna see?”

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Once outside the medical tent there was certainly no questioning Cecilia’s claim. They had erected the tent in the center of a botanical garden. It was a massive greenhouse that made Matt feel as though he was stepping out into a well-maintained jungle. Fans blowing around the facility simulated a swaying wind. Kane led the way out and of the building into open park.

Little had changed since the Dust had fallen. Whatever power supply the park had seemed largely disabled, but as much of the facility was environmentally friendly there were still signs electrical life all around. Solar powered shuttles still moved on their automated tracks, pausing at intervals to let would-be passengers on. Vending machines, fountains, and certain lights seemed to be functioning off the same technology.

A massive sign made of rolling metal leaves and blossoming flowers welcomed them both to the Kingdom Plantae. Matt could see clearly that they had just left a structure labeled Deciduous Delights -- one of several literal branch paths that forked from the main entrance. The paved road was designed to look like a tree and offered other routes that explorers young and old could take.

“You ever been here before?” asked Kane, his eyes scanning the area like a watchful hound.

“Not since they finished renovations. How far in are we?” Matt was guided over to a nearby shuttle that had just parked to let on new passengers.

“On foot we’re a pretty decent hike to the main entrance. Residential units aren’t far from here so we keep this plant-whatever area as our primary medical hub.” Kane gestured ahead of the road as the shuttle began to move. “All these roads feed back to the main gate. From there we can hop over to any other spot in the park.”

“These things just run all day?”

“Pretty much. We’re ready for the day they break down, but they’re built to last. Plus there’s a garage with a ton of replacement parts.”

“How many are in your group?”

“You scoutin us out?”

Kane flashed a playful smile that made Matt suddenly feel uncomfortable. He was so taken in by their surroundings he had completely forgotten the circumstance. He was an outsider, and one that they may not even trust despite having brought him here.

“Sorry, that was rude. I didn’t mean--”

“Our group’s a bit slimmer these days. Got about thirty bodies in total.” Kane waved off the apology. “Not all here though. We rotate out, going on expeditions. Hunts, if you wanna call em that.”

The shuttle was a smooth ride across a paved road. Sprawling across both sides of the lane were rows of trees and shrubbery, with an arc of vines crossing above to provide some extra shade. It made the trip feel rather enchanting while serving a dual purpose of preventing guests from seeing what took place behind the scenes. Even with natural weathering it would take a long time for these roads to break down and become unusable.

It was only a ten minute ride to the central hub, and the pair spent it mostly in silence. Matt wasn’t sure what questions were safe to ask and Kane seemed happy enough to keep to himself. Now and then the pair looked to each other, then smiled awkwardly before looking aside. Mercifully, their arrival in the park’s main gate gave them something to talk about.

The Filheart Sanctuary’s entrance was originally designed to be a tourist checkpoint between each major branch. There were gift shops, restaurants, and a visitors center for answering questions and checking baggage. Signs of the original Sanctuary’s designs were still there, but many changes had been made to repurpose the hub to the needs of its new residents.

Several cars and trucks were parked in the square, filled with various supplies. Soldiers moved about, some busy rearranging cargo while others kept guard or made idle chatter. The entrance to the park wasn’t far off from the highway, so tension was understandable. Kane gestured at notable areas as their shuttle began to slow down to a complete stop.

“This is the main entrance. We keep most of our vehicles here, with exception to a few that patrol the sanctuary grounds. The diner over there still works. One of the few places that used gas but we rigged it with some solar panels so we can make hot food year round. The apartment block has power too. Running water and everything.” Kane smiled proudly.

A group of soldiers waved and said hello as the pair left their shuttle. Another had just arrived and Kane seemed eager to reach it. Matt waved back politely while they jogged over, cracking a smile as one soldier made a choking gesture and laughed. Kane waved it off.

“Fuckin comedian. Anyway, the visitors center is our social area. We’ve got games and everything. Some arcade machines, movie nights, puzzles, you name it. There’s also a secondary first aid station in the back behind the diner. We’ve got one at each hub, just in case.” Kane tapped Matt on the shoulder to bring his attention to their next destination.

They passed under a large arching metal sign that read Kingdom Animalia. There were no rows of twisting plants or trees to line the road here. Instead there were carvings. Animals of all shapes and sizes, flowing with each other in a single stampede. Care was taken to fit as many creatures of various sizes as possible, so that the eye needed to travel with the natural movement of the carvings until the destination was finally reached.

The journey to Kingdom Animalia felt longer than the ride from Kingdom Plantae. Matt would have asked how long it would take, but needling Kane with questions seemed like a quick way to irritate the man. So instead they sat in silence. Matt watched the stampede sculpture as they rode, trying to name each one as they drove by. Kane stared off into the distance ahead. When the soldier finally spoke, it almost startled Matt from his seat in the shuttle.

“Looks like you get to meet Father a little early.”

“Who?” Matt craned his head to look past the shuttle interior at their destination.

Five men stood at the entrance to the park, speaking casually to each other. Their attire and weapons marked them as soldiers cut from the same cloth as Kane, but one in particular stood apart from the rest.four

The man was tall, dressed for travel, and wore a metal leg brace that seemed to require a cane for him to use. The way the other four men looked to him it was clear he was the leader, at least in terms of their conversation. An unruly beard, shaved head, and very slight gut reminded Matt of a backwater survivor. Someone more comfortable hunting ducks in a swamp than giving orders to organized paramilitary forces.

“The one with the bum leg. That’s Father.” Kane leaned back in his seat as their shuttle slowly approached. “He’s an American. Was special ops or something like that back in the day. So he says. I don’t pretend to know the whole story. Don’t really care either. What you should know is that when one of those creatures came charging down on me and my men, it was the Father over there that stabbed that motherfucker with a homemade spear.”

“By himself?”

“All alone. Said he’d be hunting it for days. Told us there were more. Asked if we wanted to help.” Kane spoke quietly, shifting in his seat. “Everyone here is working together to make things right again.”

“So he’s in charge around here then?” Matt paid close attention to Father as they drew closer, trying to capture whatever details he could.

“More or less. Without his expertise I can’t say I’d still be standing here today. There’s a reason this all works so well. This guy gets it. If you want some helpful advice, he’s probably going to ask you a question or two. Just be honest, alright?”

Matt gave a respectful nod in reply. His mouth was a thin line of concern. How far away was he from the entrance now? Were they going to let him leave, or was this all some kind of a test? Why should he care about any of this?

Their shuttle pulled into its designated temporary parking area, catching the attention of all five men standing at the entrance. Quietly the group concluded a low-speaking conversation while Matt and Kane stepped from their shuttle. A round of laughter echoed from them before the Father eventually stepped forward with his stiff leg. It was an act that took a while to perform, requiring a considerable number of smaller steps just to properly turn.

“It appears our young guest is awake.” Father’s voice had a warm and undeniably southern accent to it, though Matt couldn’t place from where. It was like listening to an old cowboy, or at least someone’s idea of one. “Calvin Barrow, but folks around here just call me Father. Pleased to meet you.”

Matt shook Father’s hand, expecting the other men to introduce themselves only to watch them turn and walk away. “Uh, nice to meet you. I’m Matt. Thanks for helping me out. And, I guess, taking me here?”

“Oh it’s no problem. It looks like Cecilia has been treating you well. Did my associate here tell you anything about me?”

“He says you’re the one in charge.” Matt followed slowly as Father began to guide them deeper into the sanctuary, cane tapping rhythmically on the ground as they went.

Here the sanctuary felt more like a proper zoo. A few shops and a visitors center dotted the surroundings before pathways representing various animal classifications branched away from the main street. You didn’t need to walk far before reaching the first few viewing areas, though each exhibition was given ample space to shine on its own

“You could say that.” Father’s leg creaked as they walked. “I prefer to see myself as more of a guiding hand than a...leading one? I don’t do analogies. Still, someone needs to keep things organized. I leave decisions in the field to the boys. Here, within the sanctuary? I keep the order.”

Father turned to look at Matt as they slowly approached what appeared to be a viewing arena. A nearby sign displayed colorful facts about lions, lionesses, and their natural habitats. They paused in front of it, just short of the enclosure, and Matt felt as though he was on some kind of an automated tour.

“We prefer to keep to ourselves but now and then they bring in someone like you. I know you’ve got questions. I’ll answer as many as I can but if you’d humor me a moment, perhaps I can answer a few of your more pressing concerns.” Father waited for Matt’s response, then continued to speak, leaning heavily on his cane. He sounded practiced, like an old storyteller recalling their favorite tale.

“I’m no local. Came here with my daughter. We were on vacation, staying in the city, being tourists. This was just another stop on the journey. One of the reasons I planned it actually. War hadn’t reached the north yet. Federation controlled. It was supposed to be safe.

“Then those red flakes fell from the heavens and all hell broke loose. You’re a local, so I know you’ve seen some of it. According to the military this is likely a side effect of that shit they put in the sky. The Dust. It was supposed to make the extraordinary just ordinary again. Instead we got this. Half the lake burning under some crazy ass purple fire. A fucking whirlpool floods downtown, flushing the population into God-knows-where.

“That ain’t what killed my little girl though. She got run through by a monster. Some bone demon crashed through a window while we were trying to get out of town. Maybe it was a person once. Maybe Federation, maybe a Separatist. Maybe one of those gifted that slipped through the cracks in the system. Doesn’t matter. Whatever it was before, I watched it tear my little girl apart like a wild animal. Just shredded her, and ran. There wasn’t a piece left I could hold.

“So I did the only thing left I could. I hunted that piece of shit down, and I killed it with my own two goddamn hands.”

Matt wanted to speak but he knew the story wasn’t over yet. He had expected the man to go on. Instead Father gestured they follow, guiding them ahead. All three stopped just shy of the lion enclosure, where a thick glass barrier separated them from a quick drop into the concrete pit.

It was built to look like the edge of an oasis. A pool of water sat along the edge of a muddy bank, natural earth rolling up into several small hills. There were trees that could provide shade, a large tire that appeared to be some kind of a toy, and in the far rear of the enclosure were several avenues that the inhabitants could retreat from view entirely. Matt remembered hearing somewhere that every enclosure had an area closed off from public access.

The lions had long gone. In their place, standing at the top of the tallest hill, was a chittering mass of flesh and bones. Two legs stood to support a blossom of gore that used to be a man’s rib cage. Sharp bones had burst through the chest and interlocked with strips of muscle woven between. Even at a distance it was easy to notice heat emanating from within. Blackened skin surrounded the core of the flesh furnace. Its chest was arched backward while its body contorted to give the crest of protruding interlocked bone a full display. Like a volcano of sinew ready to erupt.

Matt was fascinated. Transfixed. He searched for a sign of humanity within the creature. It’s head and face were charred and twisted to become unrecognizable from the rest of its bone-punctured chest. There were too many splinters shearing the flesh along the curve of the neck. Too many ribs entirely. Its arms sagged at its side, held in place by limp shoulders.

Father cleared his throat before speaking, as if to make sure that Matt was really listening to what he had to say.

“We found this guy wandering the sewers like a walking landmine. Up until Mr. Pompeii here we’d been just killing em under controlled circumstances. Lure em into a trap then light em up. But this thing? Just stood there. Only time it moved was to spit out some nasty looking fire anytime something came close.

“That’s when I realized we were doing things all wrong. Just wandering out into the world, hoping to stumble across afflicted freaks. No idea what we were ever walking into. If this is a war then we need to learn about our new enemy.”

“Did you know that one percent of the world was alleged to be superhuman?” Kane said, peering down into the enclosure. “There were over two million people in this city. Let’s say the Dust was ninety-nine percent effective. What’s that left?”

“A few hundred?” Matt struggled to do the math in his head, still looking down at the monster below.

“A couple hundred.” Father corrected, tapping his cane against the protective glass. “A couple hundred of that. Creatures that explode when you go near em, turn into weapons, spit acid, whatever. That’s not even including the ones that killed themselves transforming into wildfires the size of football stadiums.”

Matt watched as the twisted remnants of a person vented a small pillar of flame from its chest. The way it bulged made him think of a pipe releasing excess heat or pressure. “So what, do you just wrangle them in here?”

Father tapped his cane on the glass again before gesturing that they continue onward. Matt kept his eyes on the afflicted for as long as he could as they walked away. It shuddered and spit another gout of flame. Father continued on. His words felt accented with every click of his cane and creak of his leg brace, as though he was reciting lines to an slow, sad beat.

“I don’t. I leave that work to Kane and his boys. Some you just can’t catch. Too weird, too dangerous. If that’s the case they put em down where they can find em. But the ones we can get a hold on? We bring em back here, and study our enemy as best we can.”

Ahead was a large cave, or at the very least a building designed to look like one. It wouldn’t have surprised Matt to learn that some Federation-registered geomancer constructed a building made of rock just for a bit of extra show. A sign above the cave’s mouth read Cavernous Crawlies.

There was power in this part of the sanctuary. The cave was dark, but atmospherically so as dim lights above gave just enough illumination so that visitors could see their way. Wall mounted tablets flickered small details about inhabitants. Snakes, lizards, spiders, scorpions, and all manner of insect called this part of sanctuary home.

Moving through a winding tunnel Matt listened to Father speak loudly. His voice echoed in the fake cave, which left an uncomfortable feeling in Matt’s chest. Inside, in the simulated dark, it was hard to force back the natural urge to be still and silent. They way prey kept safe from a predator.

“It doesn’t matter if they can spit fire or shit lava. These creatures have rules, Matt. They were human once. Their power was great but it had limitations then. Same rules apply here. We know bullets can kill most of em. Hell, a good knife would do the trick if you get close enough. But how do you get close to these monsters? Tell me how to sneak up on something that can just grow eyes out of its back. Or arms.”

They stopped in front of a large enclosure built into the cave wall. Thick glass separated their group from the scene of a bamboo garden at night. A light in the upper corner of the display imitated a full moon shining above. Information panels all around suggested this was a home for some kind of snake, but at the center was a sight familiar to Matt. A mound of flesh with skin that rippled like water. It sat in isolation, unaware or unable to recognize their approach to its enclosure.

“You got picked up nearby this thing right?” Father tapped the glass gently with his cane, trying to prompt its attention. The mass of flesh didn’t budge.

“Yeah. It snuck up on me.”

“Well then, you can understand just how dangerous these things are.” Father put his hand on Matt’s shoulder. “I won’t ask if you’ve got people out there waiting for you. I can see it in your eyes. Eager to leave. Happy to go. But if we’re going to survive as a race we need to work together.”

Father put his hand to the glass. In the blink of an eye the flesh across the ooze convulsed and rippled as several hands violently exploded out from within its mass. Stretched fingers and wide palms grasped against the glass to frantically bring Father into grip. They slapped wet against the glass harmlessly, then slowly reeled back into the ooze. Elongated arms clicked their multiple elbows, bending and snapping their way back under the surface of liquid flesh.

“You’re going to stay here and help us Matt. We could use the extra body, and you owe us your life. You’ll work around the sanctuary with Kane here until you’ve earned the right to leave.”

“Earn the right? How am I supposed to do that?” Matt looked between Father and the afflicted, suddenly aware of how close Kane was behind him.

“Knowledge is the only currency that matters anymore, kid. Figure out the secret to killing this abomination. Teach my men. Prove it works. Then we let you go.”