~~~

Russell was getting increasingly edgy. It had been two days since sitting with (murdering) Albert and his people and still… no Gina. To make matters worse, the savage continued to push forward in his thoughts, demanding blood and abandoning the fruitless quest for the golden goddess.

Has it even occurred to you, boss, that she’s probably something else’s food by now?

Russell tried to ignore him as he pressed on, searching for evidence of Gina’s whereabouts. He had already doubled back twice, following ghost trails deeper into the forest, dipping farther southeast and away from the interstate.

The bitch is dead… face the facts, boss. It’s time to seek greener pastures… with a healthy dose of splattered crimson.

“Shut up,” Russell snapped.

The other one laughed.

“If you’d stop fiending for a fresh kill and help me for once, I might actually find a trail to follow.”

Now you want my help? That’s rich, boss… really. But let’s be honest. You just want me off your back for five minutes while you figure out how to shut me out again.

“I like that idea,” Russell said with a smirk. “See, you’re already proving helpful now that you’ve stopped babbling on about slashing and dashing every few minutes.”

The other one was silent.

To Russell, it was the savage’s equivalent of brooding. He stopped for a moment to scan the dense forest. It was surprisingly quiet.

What now, boss?

“Do you hear that?”

I don’t hear shit. What… are you hearing another voice behind my back? You cheatin’ bastard!

Russell ignored him. This section of the forest was too silent. “Where are they? The dead?”

Probably eating someone, boss. That’s the only time they’re-

“Shhh!” Russell stopped moving.

There was a sound… several sounds in sequence. It was faint but coming from the north and back toward the freeway.

That’s wood knocking, boss.

“What?”

You know… that shit those idiots do on trees when the Bigfoot chasers want the monster to come out and eat them? Geez, have you forgotten everything we’ve watched on television?

The woods went silent again. Russell moved in the direction of the sounds, listening more intently this time.

He stopped when he heard it again. Five distinctive knocks this time.

See, told you, boss. Wood knocking.

“Why would anyone be giving away their position out here?” Russell continued to move toward the sounds. “Do they want the beasts to find them?”

Maybe someone’s knocking in code, boss. You know, letting someone else know that your dumb ass is about to walk right into their trap?

“As usual, you’re useless.”

I try, boss.

Russell heard the knocking again. Much closer this time. That was when he realized that he wasn’t the only one following the sounds. Just ahead, the forest came alive with activity as the dead pushed in, following the sounds.

Russell crouched down behind a bush and watched the strange procession of reanimated beasts head north.

“This reminds me of something,” he whispered.

Sure it does, boss. The fucking Pied Piper. You really should have paid more attention to public television in your dysfunctional youth.

That was exactly it. For once the savage did prove helpful.

“Someone’s deliberately luring the dead north… but why?”

Sounds like someone doesn’t want to share the forest, boss. What a shame because they all looked like such a nice batch of drooling drones.

Russell’s eyebrows shot up. “Luring the dead out of the woods would be pointless. They’d just come back.” He started calculating. “But an organized mob of the dead would be a great way to keep something else from entering… especially if they’re alive.”

Now, boss, besides yourself, who else do we know that’s not fond of the living? the other one teased.

Russell smiled. “It’s Gina. She’s doing this.”

Bingo!

Russell looked south. “She’s got a camp back here somewhere.”

We could just follow the herd right to her, boss.

He closed his eyes and tried to remain calm. Russell wanted to find Gina as much as the savage did, but if he spotted her now, with all this excitement brewing with the dead, the other one would take control… and he knew it. Everything had to be right first… perfect.

“No. Not yet,” he said. “We’ll wait nearby for all this activity to die down. Gina will eventually come back this way with her guard lowered… and it will be closer to evening by then.”

I like where this is going, boss. It feels all… ‘Old School’.

“She’ll lead us right to her camp. We’ll hang back until dark… wait for the fire… then slowly get into position.”

I’m getting’ chills, boss! You gonna go all Camp Crystal Lake on her ass?

“Then… when she falls asleep… we’ll make our move.”

And slit her open down the middle, soak our hands in that fuckin’ pool of flesh, and then toss it above our heads ‘till it comes back down like crimson rain! Oh, boss… I’m so damn excited! It’s finally time to gut the golden goddess!”

Russell frowned. “Yes… it’s time.”

~~~

The ominous night moved in, surrounding the trees like a large black glove, and then quickly closing its grip around the vestiges of the dying day. The darkness in the new world came abruptly now, ever since the artificial lights of Man had been snuffed out as easily as a candle in the wind, killing off the old illusions that evenings had once been tamed by such a naïve species. Night had reverted to its original calling: The origin of nightmares and the hiding places of monsters no longer restricted to bedtime stories and free to devour the landscape.

Late night. All that remained of the illusion was a dull sliver of primitive light from the embers of a small campfire which barely penetrated the dense ring of pine trees that hid Gina’s camp.

By the time the full moon, the ancient appointed overseer over the long night, had finally navigated its way through the thick forest canopy, the last real predator of the forest had already moved into position.

The indifferent sphere above, mother of distorted shadows that scratched against the ambient light, tried several times to give up Russell’s position… and failed.

He looked up at the moon and smiled.

I see you.

The moon had no response.

Russell raised the hunting knife before his face. There was no reflection in the blade—a sharp shadow holding another—just two instruments that had become one to pierce into the darkness. He was reminded once more of his true calling and felt a sense of freedom he had not felt in a very long time.

Even the savage remained as silent as the surrounding forest, everything holding its breath until the deed of deliverance was made manifest.

Salvation, Russell thought.

Death, in her true form, was not something to be feared. She was the Lady of Shadows and not a catastrophic natural event, man-made explosion invoking terror, or even a supernatural uprising of the dead. Yes… these were all instruments to promote her cause, as was Russell, but he knew the difference between her hand and the beauty found within her precious face. The Lady was graceful—she was the whisper. She was the illuminating moment shared once the eyes of the instrument gazed into the eyes of the redeemed, released from this world to join with her… forever. Both predator and prey transcending into something… well… something he had no adequate words to describe.

And now, the moment had come to deliver someone precious, someone who had danced with the Lady several times, who had grown in her grace like a daughter with her mother and was now ready to sit at her appointed place alongside the only real goddess who cared about this perishing world.

All things die, Russell thought. But it’s how we live that determines whether we’re worthy of Her. Indeed, Russell could appreciate the irony in the Lady’s cause. So many… so many… squandered what she gave them. She gave them life… but branded them with a piece of herself. Death had always been there. Even at birth, the Lady was right there… waiting. Her sole purpose: To make them all value the vapor of life they’ve been given and embrace that life without fear of the inevitable conclusion… as was intended. Without her, life had no meaning. But the promise of Death had been distorted by this sick world, and instead of embracing life, people feared it. Instead of raising their heads toward the end… they ran from it… and became slaves to Fear.

Russell wiped a tear from the corner of his eye with his free hand. He felt blessed and humbled to be a part of it. His purpose: To help them all rediscover what it meant to really “live” and then deliver them to the Lady. He was the instrument of her grace for as long as he continued to prove himself worthy.

Am I… still worthy?

The question shook him at the foundation. Since the Lady had accelerated her plans by bringing forth the dead, Russell had lost his way. But now, he felt right again. Out here, in the darkness, he felt a peace he had not experienced since saving Janet Schuler from this world. As far as the question was concerned, he dared not think it again. Hearing the answer was the only real thing he still feared.

He closed his eyes and took a stabilizing breath. He started calculating his final moves.

It’s time.

Russell opened his eyes and slithered out of the shadows of the pine trees and into the faint light of Gina’s camp.

He stood over the exhausted woman, his shadow falling gracefully over Gina’s battered and bruised vessel. He smiled down at her, holding the knife firmly to his side, as he watched her chest slowly rise and fall. Russell watched as the filthy red-headed woman’s eyes moved behind her dirty lids. Even now, she continued to put up a fight in the nightmare realm as she wrestled whatever demons assaulted her in her sleep.

She is remarkable, he thought. Gina has never once turned her back on the Lady, refusing to lie down and let fear win. She fights, the only way she knows how… whether it’s against the beasts in the world, or the people who have abandoned her, or the monster from within… she fights to live with every damn breath!

Suddenly, he was overwhelmed by flashes of his journey with the fiery woman ever since meeting her at the Percy Power Plant. He had been honored to be there, to protect her on her road to discovering her path toward the end, watching her grow in the Lady’s grace, and become the fearless woman who slept before him now. Even out here, facing the relentless enemies of Loneliness and Despair, Gina continued to fight… to live. Russell marveled at her passion for survival. I will miss you, my dear friend. The thought struck him, causing him to relax his grip around the knife hilt.

What are you doing, boss?

The savage had no business speaking before the appointed time. Something was… wrong.

Why am I… hesitating? he thought to himself.

That’s a good fuckin’ question, boss. You’ve never done this before. Kill the fuckin’ bitch… NOW!

Russell shook it all off. He raised the knife and moved in toward Gina’s throat… and stopped. He couldn’t explain it, but something felt… off.

What the fuck are you waiting for, boss? If you don’t finish this… I WILL!

Before he could assess what was happening, something shifted near a pine tree off to his right.

Russell immediately retreated toward the edge of the camp.

A young woman rose up from beneath the pine tree and stared at him.

Russell was still as stone. “Ashley?” he whispered. He immediately began recalculating.

For a moment, all he saw was Greg’s daughter staring back at him. The apparition then opened its mouth and uttered two faint sounds.

Russell nearly stumbled back a step but caught himself. What the fuck?

And then the young woman’s face shifted in the firelight, revealing the truth, as her face distorted until something savage replaced the young girl. It was just another monster.

Russell quickly but quietly retreated into the forest as the dead-head screeched after him.

He just made it to his hiding spot when he heard Gina’s silenced hand gun repeatedly tap across the silent night.

Russell struggled to breathe as he sat still with his back up against the pine tree.

You’ve fucked this all up, boss. The savage had an unfamiliar and disturbingly calm finality to his voice. You’ve screwed it all up… and now… you and I are done.

Russell closed his eyes and tried to clear his thoughts. He forced out the savage and everything else, replaying the last few seconds before the dead thing that resembled Ashley Dermont spoke.

Where the fuck are you right now, boss?

Russell opened his eyes. “I heard her,” he whispered.

The other one waited.

Russell’s face, if anyone could’ve seen it, would have displayed his complete bewilderment. He finished, “I saw that young girl. She spoke two words… and then… and then she was gone!”

You’ve lost it, boss. You’ve let some damn dead girl spook you the fuck out!

Russell ignored the savage.

He remembered what it… Ashley… had said:

“Not yet.”

~~~

Next Episode 45-3

Previous Episode 45-1

~~~

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__________________________________________
“Chapter 45-2: Predators” Copyright © 2018 Scott Scherr, from the novel, Don’t Feed The Dark, Book Five: Remains. All Rights Reserved.

No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission by the author.

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