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A mythical iron bird stood sentry over the ruins of a great city, while malevolent clouds arranged themselves around its head. Once one of a legendary pair, it now stood alone. It’s partner lay twisted and scorched in the rubble beneath. The winged creature, now a symbol of resistance and defiance, stared out across the dark river to the sea beyond, watching and waiting for the coming storm.
Down on the strand below the gathering wind chased a young boy and his sister, as they weaved their way through fallen blocks of concrete, pulling a shopping trolley laden with bounty behind them. They turned left into Water Street, their pace quickening as they spotted their mother in a doorway. She was glancing anxiously up and down the street, and her expression brightened when she spotted them dashing toward her.
It was growing darker, and Beth Murray had been growing increasingly worried about her brood. They had left several hours ago looking for food, and supplies. It was a mission that should have taken no more than an hour or two, but they had been gone for twice that length of time. Foraging was the duty of every member of the colony, young or old. It was a fact she accepted but had never been happy with, especially when it was the turn of her own flesh and blood.
“Get in quick, the light is fading.” She yelled, adding “Where the hell have you two been?”
“We had to hide mum, there was a Ruk.” The younger girl piped up. “We thought it would never leave us alone.”
“I’m sorry sweetheart you must have been so scared. Come inside you can tell me all about it.”
The giant bird was a major predator near the waterfront. The colony had so far been lucky, having only lost two kids in ten years, but its image haunted all of their dreams. Knowing they had been hiding from one, probably trembling, and frightened out of their little minds made Beth feel physically sick.
The boy chimed in next “Wasn’t scared, I’d have caught it and brought it home for tea mum, but Charlotte was crying so we hid in a bin.”
Charlotte glowed bright red. “I was only a little bit ‘fraid mum. Dominic was brave though.”
Beth’s heart sank, and she wiped a tear from her cheek as she ushered them inside, cart and all before closing the door on the shadows that were gradually materialising in street outside. As the door slammed shut and the sound of bolts being rammed home echoed in off the surrounding buildings, the dark things began to howl.
Beth and the children began to unload the trolley. She separated the medicines from canned foods, shoving the bottles of pills and packets of tablets into her shoulder bag. Then they each took turn to toss the cans into a shoot which led to the basement below. Charlotte insisted on waiting until she heard the sound of the last one landing before agreeing to throw in another, much to Dominic’s annoyance. Once done they made their way along a narrow corridor until they came to a set of large mahogany doors.
“Everyone is going to be so pleased to see you two, we’ve all been worried sick.” Beth pushed the door open with her backside and ushered the children inside.
A loud cheer went up as they stepped into the main hall. Charlotte and Dominic were grinning from ear to ear, and for that moment all thoughts of their ordeal were forgotten.
A tall man approached, and Charlotte ran to him, arms raised in expectation. He didn’t disappoint, lifting her high in the air and twirling her around, before setting her back down on the ground. she giggled, and wobbled on her feet. She was dizzy and excited.
“Well was it mission accomplished young Charlotte?” He boomed. The girl laughed before replying shyly.
“Yes we got loads of stuff Henry, and Dominic saved us from a Ruk. He was dead brave.”
Henry’s expression darkened. “Is this true Dom?”
Dominic acted like it was all no big deal, but he had been terrified in the shopping centre. They had been coming out of the Metro Market when they spotted it in the middle of the upper concourse. The two of them froze. It was stripping the flesh from what looked like a dead dog. Their trolley was fully loaded and they were about to return to Water Street. This was a disaster.
Charlotte almost screamed, but her brother placed his hand over her mouth. There were barely seconds to decide, and Dominic felt his mouth turn dry, and he felt like he was going to vomit. He didn’t instead he gripped his sister’s arm and backed them into the store, leaving the trolley behind. He held his hand over her mouth the whole way. He was so scared, even though there wasn’t time to be, he was.
As they re entered the shop, he thought he saw the creature look up from its meal and glance in their direction. He still wasn’t sure if he imagined that or not. He dragged Charlotte further into the shop, and into the back storage area. It was there they found the wheelie bin full of cardboard. He lifted the little girl into it first before clambering in after her. They stayed in there for what seemed like forever. It was actually three hours.
The bird had entered the store. They had listened as it crashed around, knocking over shelves and spilling merchandise onto the tiled floor. Luckily it hadn’t gone in after them. Dominic had actually imagined that it saw them, instead it had simply finished with the carcass outside and was still hungry. Eventually the shop went quiet and the pair decided they could wait no longer, and that they had to get back home.
When they had emerged the shop was empty, aside from the extra mess the bird had left behind. They edged their way almost on tip toes to the door, and peered outside. The cart was on its side and the contents had spilled out onto the floor. The dead animal was gone, apart from a bloody stain where it had been.
“Dom! Are you alright lad?”
Henry looked really concerned, and Dominic realised he had been a little too lost in the memory.
“Er yes. Yes I’m alright Henry. We hid from it in a bin. It was no problem just took a bit longer to get back that’s all.”
Beth stepped forward and wrapped her arms around her son. She looked at Henry, another tear had escaped and was rolling down her face. he picked up Charlotte and stepped over to the mother and her son placing his free arm around them both.
“It’s not kids work Henry, they shouldn’t……” She broke down completely.
From behind another voice forced her to regain control.
“Did they get the medicines Beth?”
The group moved apart and Beth tossed the woman her shoulder bag, wiping her face on her sleeve.
“I think they managed to get everything on the list Jenny, but you’ll have to check.” Despite her best efforts her impatience leaked out.
Jenny caught the bag and smiled at the two children, choosing to ignore Beth’s tone.
“You did a great job kids well done.” Her face became more serious, and she made eye contact with Beth. No words were exchanged but Beth felt her gratitude, and immediately felt guilty.
“Well I’ll get these to the dispensary. You lot get yourselves to the kitchen, there’s sop on the go.” The she was gone.
The kids devoured the soup and stale crackers like it was going to be their last. Dominic finished first and looked up at Beth.
“Think you could manage a bit more son?” She laughed. “Why don’t you go and see if chef will let you have another bowl.”
Charlotte’s expression was a portrait of jealousy, and Henry whispered in her ear, “You too baby, off you go.” Neither of them needed asking twice.
Henry, watched as they ran off and turned to face Beth. He stretched out his arm and took her hand in his.
“I wish I didn’t have the night watch tonight honey.” He said.
“You and me both, but at least it’s your last for a few weeks.” She paused, squeezing his hand without really meaning to, What she had to say was difficult.
“What is it?” He sensed her discomfort.
“I’m going to have to say something to David, I can’t have the kids going out there alone again.” Saying the words seemed to release the tension in her body and she sighed heavily.
“You know what he’ll say Beth. Why are your kids different from the others. Everybody is taking risks here. This isn’t a normal situation.”
“I know. I know Henry, but I honestly don’t care.” She stopped, realising how callous what she was about to say would sound. “They’re not my kids. I’m not saying I don’t worry about them too but………” The tears were coming again. “Can you see what I mean?”
“I do believe me, but we owe David and the others so much. We were screwed until we stumbled on this place. I’m just scared. I don’t want to be back out there on our own again Beth.”
“Do you really think he’s kick us out? Surely not.”
“I don’t know love. I honestly don’t. All the rules have changed. I’ve heard him speak, and he’s so clear that order and unity are everything. I’ve got to be honest, I kind of agree with him.”
She pulled her hand away, as the kids returned to the table. She needn’t have bothered, they were so engrossed in their meal. Henry lowered his voice.
“You know what I mean Beth. I don’t want those kids, or any kids for that matter, to be out there foraging on their own. Those are the rules of this community though. All the others are on board with it, I really don’t want us to be the ones who start rocking the boat.”
“You wouldn’t be saying that if……” The words were out before she could stop herself, and she knew instantly that she was wrong.
“Don’t go there Beth. Just don’t ok. I love these two like they’re my own ad you know that. We are just safer in her than we ever would be if we had to leave, and that’s including these periodic missions we all have to do.” There was anger in his voice, but he thought he’d done a pretty good job of minimising it.
“I’m sorry Henry. I just can’t stand it. I know they won’t have to do it again for a while, but when I think about what could happen well…..”
He held her hand again. There were no words he could say, and they both sat silently watching the young ones eat.
K.C. Sat on the hard stone floor. She held George’s head in her lap and gently stroked his head. The image of tenderness could not have been in starker contrast with the one that had greeted Rick and Ben moments earlier. Rick was kneeling next to Harry, wondering whether to attempt rousing him.
The beast was perilously close to death now. The silver had entered it’s heart and mind, stifling each beat and scrambling its thoughts into incomprehensible noise. Its breathing was laboured and Ben knew he had to move with great haste. He laid his hands on the animals chest and closed his eyes. It seemed to shiver at his touch and moaned pitifully.
The Remnant had taken everything in. The carnage inside this dwelling was far too familiar, but the creature lying on the ground was not. Even from the perspective of Ben’s consciousness it could feel the animal’s power, and for the first time in an age an emotion swept over it, paralysing and dreadful. It was fear, an old foe, dormant but ever present.
Ben immediately felt the animals pain flood through his fingers, and wash over him. For a moment he wanted to let go. Such was the intensity he couldn’t help but cry out. Rick left Harry and ran to his side. The contorted expression on Ben’s face alarmed him greatly, and he reached out gripping the Watcher by the shoulders. There was no moving him. It was like he had become fused to the creature. His eyes were clamped shut, and Rick could see the eyeballs rolling around behind the lids, and knew his new friend was very far away right now.
“What’s happening over there?” K.C. sounded alarmed, but she didn’t stop comforting the unconscious George.
Rick turned “look we just need to wait. When it’s done we’ll know.”
K.C. was exhausted, and as she sat there, she began to doubt if she’d have had the energy to take out the monster on the floor anyway. Every muscle and joint ached, and she barely had the will to speak. Only her intense will to survive prevented her from winking out.
She feared for George. He had hit the ground hard and was showing no signs of waking up. As she ran her hands over his head she felt a swelling under his hair. It was damp, and as she pulled her fingers away she wasn’t surprised to see they were bloody. Her heart sank, and a tear leaked from the corner of her eye. K.C. had fought so hard ever since the attack, and the man she cradled had always been by her side. The thought of losing him was hard to bear.
Rick was too busy wrestling with his own state of near collapse, to pay the girl any more attention. There was so much to take in and make sense of and his head was spinning. Harry looked bad. he hardly knew the guy really, but felt closer to him than seemed rational. For some reason he needed this old guy to make it. The old man had actually been the first normal person he’d interacted with for a very long time. Maybe that was it, he told himself, but he didn’t really believe it.
His thoughts turned to his own family, and his father. He was in the other Liverpool, the one that had once been normal for Rick, but had become recently infected by this madness. How far had the contagion spread. Where his parents safe, and if they were how long would that last? Suddenly he felt torn. What am I doing here with these strangers? I should go back and warn them, protect them. The weight of it all began to crush him.
The last time he’d seen his father, they had been fighting. Their relationship had grown strained over the years, and deteriorated further when Rick went into nursing school. There were all too brief moments of respite, but they were infrequent. His dad was a difficult character. However, in a rare moment of openness, aided and abetted by alcohol, he had allowed Rick into his world. The truth eventually found a way out. His father, it turned out had been adopted. He hadn’t been told until the man he had thought was his Dad (Rick’s Grandfather) Will’ was murdered on his way home from work.
Rick remembered the night he had heard the story. He had been in bed. He was about fifteen at the time, and his Dad had been out after work. His mother had taken an early Mogadon and was practically comatose. Rick was in a deep sleep of his own when heard the front door crash open. It was one of those moments when your so embroiled in the nightmare, that your brain tries to incorporate the sound into the dream. Back then he had been severely afflicted with night terrors.
Eventually he realised the new sound was part of the waking world and forced open his eyes. As usual the bedroom light was glaring, and it briefly stung his retinas, before they eventually recovered. He had gone downstairs to investigate, only to find his Dad struggling with the TV remote in one hand a can of Lager in the other. Unusually he didn’t chase Rick back up the stairs. Instead they sat talking for hours.
The experience was a revelation, and the pair exchanged more words that night than they ever did since. Charlie Carter, Rick’s Dad, had obviously been deeply traumatised by the loss of his own father. learning that he was actually adopted had been a double blow. Suddenly a lot of things began to make sense to Rick. Sadly though as the morning sun brought sobriety and a hangover, it also heralded the restoration of the frostiness that had existed between them before. His father never spoke of it again.
Back in the present day, Rick became aware of movement to his right. His attention refocused, to take in a strange scene unfolding between Anun and Ben. The Watcher was gripping the hair on the creatures chest. Great clumps of it stuck up between his fingers. He was shaking hard and the expression on his face was intense. The Lu Garu was writhing, as if trying to break free, though Rick doubted this was the case. It’s eyes were open now, and it seemed aware. Suddenly Rick felt in danger once more, and backed away from the pair. He called to K.C.
“Quick your crossbow, get it something’s happening.”
His voice must have accurately portrayed his feeling of anxiety, because she quickly repositioned George’s head on the ground, and leapt over to the weapon that was lying on the other side of the room. She pulled an arrow from the woodwork, and primed the crossbow. Rick noticed a gun in the belt of one of the corpses lying in a collapsed and splintered table. He lifted it out, all the time worrying that he may not know how to use it even if he had to.
Ben had been locked in a terrible struggle. The beasts body was so powerful, and despite the fact he was attempting to help it, the thing seemed to be resisting his efforts with everything it had. He dug his fingers into its flesh. Deeper and deeper, until he felt at one point that they were actually inside it. That wasn’t possible, was it? Eventually the monster’s defences weakened, and he felt like he was in some kind of control.
He became aware of a metallic substance coursing through the creatures veins. It was all pervading, and had begun to seep into the Lu Garu’s musculature and nervous system. The effect was obvious and devastating.
Slowly The Watcher began the cleansing process, and the poison began to evaporate. Even then the creature tried to fight, but it was too weak now. Perhaps some part of its brain was beginning to wake as the toxins melted away. Ben pressed on, until it was all gone. There was damage, most of it looked permanent, but he guessed the thing could live with it. Maybe it was weaker for the purging, but the alternative was surely worse.
His task complete, Ben let go. He immediately fell flat on his back. The procedure had clearly taken everything he had. There was a moment of clam. All was still. Then it moved. This time it wasn’t the random spasms that Ben’s ‘treatment’ had induced. This was purposeful, and deeply worrying. The Watcher made himself sit up again. He appeared deep in concentration, and was staring intently at the creature.
Anun sat up, and looked around the room. He looked like he’d just emerged from a winter hibernation, and was surveying the Spring landscape for the first time. His eyes were clear, and his face had lost all vestiges of rage. He felt at peace for the first time in many years.
“Ben, get away from it. it will rip you apart.” Rick screamed and the thing turned its gaze on him, though it made no hostile movements.
K.C. lifted the bow, and took aim. Her finger hovered over the trigger.
“No. Lower your weapon.” Ben shouted so loud, she jumped and almost accidentally discharged the weapon.
Anun lifted his frame up, and cautiously raised himself onto two feet. He staggered momentarily, but eventually he was erect and towering over Ben.
“What now?” Called K.C.
Ben stood up, and turned to her.
“I’m trying to communicate with it, but I can’t get through. It’s a telepath.” He shouted. “But I can’t reach it. I don’t know if it trying to speak to me.”
Anun took a step forward, causing the three of them to recoil. As if sensing their fear, he stopped and held up his hand in an attempt to reassure. Rick and K.C. were taking no chances and continued their retreat, but Ben stood firm. The LuGaru saw this and slowly moved toward him, reaching out and cupping The Watcher’s face with both it’s hands. It’s eyes narrowed, and even K.C. could see it was trying to communicate in some way.
“I don’t know what you are trying to tell me.” Ben cried, his voice laden with exasperation.
Rick had halted his backward motion, and instead was now crossing the ground between them. Ben became aware of Rick’s hand resting gently on his shoulder, and felt his hot whispery breath in his ear.
“It’s saying thank you Ben. I can hear it. It wants to thank you.”
Henry had taken up his position on the night watch about four or five hours ago. He was tired and yawned for the umpteenth time. From his post in the roof space of the building he was able to peer through a very narrow gap in the wall, and had a pretty good view of the Strand below. he could actually see as far as the old shopping centre. the road was littered with great slabs of fallen concrete and broken vehicles. Their occupants were long gone, or most likely taken.
From this high point it was possible to observe the world from all four corners of the hideout. He was joined by three other, each taking up a position ensuring the perimeter was well covered. They had all seen their share of horrors out on the streets. They were safe inside though, for some reason the dark things seemed unable to impregnate their sanctuary.
The first responsibility of a member of the colony was to the safety of the group. Rule number one was, under no circumstances was anyone on night watch duty to leave the building, even if it was to come to the aid of another human being. Unless that human was a colony member.
It hadn’t always been easy. Henry’s mind flashed back to an incident the previous year. He hadn’t been able to get any sleep during the day ,and when darkness fell and he took up his post, he knew he was going to struggle. By four am he was so tired he felt physically sick. Then he spotted what appeared to be movement out on the street, and instinctively reached for the panic alarm, only just stopping himself in time.
It was a young woman. She must have been in her early twenties. From the look of her she’d been hiding away below ground, or in some deserted hovel. She was filthy, and her clothes were rags that hung off her. She looked thin and hungry. The delirium of starvation had probably driven her from her hiding place. They all knew there were others hiding all over the city. They had occasionally seen them out on the streets, like refugees from a zombie film set. Without the safety of numbers, they never lasted long.
she was calling out. Henry couldn’t make out what she was saying. Through the sight on his rifle, he could see her eyes. She looked vacant. That much would prove a blessing, because what he saw next was a nightmare dreamt up in the deepest recesses of hell. They were on her in an instant. No more than shadows, and difficult to discern the dark things stripped her bones clean, leaving only a ragged skeleton to collapse to the pavement twitching and jerking.
Henry had vomited so hard that night, and for so long he had become severely dehydrated, and in need of intravenous fluids. He would never get that image out of his head. Nor did he think he would ever grow hardened to such sights.
He shuddered, in attempt to shake the memory away. Think happy thoughts, he told himself, reaching into his pocket, and pulling out a pack of stale biscuits. He wasn’t hungry, but felt he was going to need the sugars, if he was going to make it to the end of his shift. Past their use by date or not they were just what he needed, and he devoured the entire pack in no time.
Then he saw something. What is that? He thought, as he desperately tried to focus on the darkness just beyond the shopping centre. He could just make out a small light in the distance, and he was convinced it was getting closer. The light kept getting bigger, indicating movement. Then came the sound of an engine. It was a car or a van. People. It had to be, the dark things had little use for vehicular transport.
Just move on by guys. Whoever you are just keep on going, nothing to see here. He whispered under his breath. The van was travelling at some speed, and by the time it reached the rubble and traffic pile up it was too late. It barrelled straight into an abandoned truck. There was a crash of glass, and a human projectile was launched through the windscreen and into the road. Whoever it was, it landed with a sickening thud. The body wasn’t moving, and he thought the poor guy had bought it. However, there was movement inside the van.
Shit, shit, shit.
He couldn’t bear to watch another feeding frenzy. Not tonight. He wanted to help, but going outside in the dark was suicide. Looking at his watch, Henry noticed it was 5.30 am. The sun would be up very soon. If only they could hold out that long. Henry hated all of the creatures that had invaded their world, but the dark things were the worse.
At least, you stood a chance with a Skin Walker. Not much to be fair, but a far better chance than you had with these phantoms. The problem was you never saw them coming. If you were unlucky enough to encounter one close quarters, you were dead before you could move a muscle in self defence.
In the years that lay ahead, Henry would never be able to explain why he did what happened next. He took the stair two at a time, and arrived at the entrance to the hideout just as the sun was beginning to illuminate the street outside. In minutes the dark things would have to fade away to wherever their lair is. He had never been a religious man, less so these days obviously, but he prayed to whatever, or whoever would listen that those people in the car could just hang on.
Another glance at his watch, 5:40. He could wait no more, and reached for the bolts holding the door shut. One by one he yanked them open. Then he opened the door, allowing the weak morning sun to flood into the hallway. He didn’t think. Instead he leapt into the outside with an abandon he would later be castigated for. As he approached the vehicle he was able to make out the faces of its occupants. They looked as shocked as he was afraid.
“Get the fuck out of there now!” He screamed.
There was a moment of stunned silence, before they eventually registered what he was saying. The passenger door flew open shortly followed by the left rear door, and two men in their early thirties clambered out. Their faces were full of fear and apprehension. Their clothes were covered in blood.
“Follow me, and you just might live. The sun might be up, but its still not safe out here.”
The taller of the two spoke up. His voice was trembling, but there was a grim certainty in his words.
“Friend we’re not safe anywhere. Believe me we’ve seen what’s coming this way and it’s only a matter of time. Soon we’ll all be gone.”