~~~

“Holy shit, Orosco!” Nine said. “Where the hell have you been?”

James Orosco removed his bulletproof vest and sat down at the fire across from Tony. He glanced at Nine with a big shit-eating grin, then to Diane—his gaze lingering with concern on her missing arm. Then he smiled at Tony and then finally turned to the older man he did not recognize.

“That’s Sergeant Hash,” Tony said. “He’s one of the good guys.”

The seven armed men with Orosco kept their distance, forming a small perimeter around the top of the hill.

Orosco laughed, feeling emotionally overwhelmed. “Damn,” he started. “When my people spotted your group at that gas station and returned with descriptions… I had to see for myself.”

“You knew it was us?” Tony said.

Orosco shook his head. “No… no, I didn’t. Hell, I thought they were describing ghosts. After discovering what happened to the underground compound, I wanted to believe every time we came across survivors that I might recognize faces… and then I never did.”

“You were at the compound?” Diane said.

Orosco nodded. “A few weeks back. We found the camp destroyed. It looked like that massacre Gina had always been warning us about.” He gazed at the ground. “I guess I should’ve been listening instead of giving her so much grief, especially… you know… when the group split due to all those unpleasant circumstances.” He gave Tony a haunted look. “Shadow Dead?”

“Yes,” Tony said. “They struck us about month after the Lunatics hit your peninsula camp.”

Orosco’s eyes went wide. “You know about that? About them?

“Let’s back up.” Tony examined the black man. Orosco’s short hair had started going gray. His face had a few more wrinkles. It seemed like the man had aged five years since he’d last saw him. We probably look the same to him, he thought. If things keep going the way they are, we’ll all be senior citizens in the next ten years.

“The Shadow Dead hit us hard. Must have been about…” Tony paused, then looked to Nine.

“Roughly six weeks ago,” Nine said.

Tony looked as surprised as Orosco. “Damn, I guess it has been awhile. Anyway, we barely made it out alive. There was a few more of us back then.”

Orosco nodded. “I know the feeling.”

“We made our way south to find you at the peninsula camp. That’s when we found out what happened to your group.”

“Yeah,” Orosco said sadly. “Those… Lunatics… blindsided us. They struck at night when everyone was sleeping and started killing people immediately. They took out our sentries like they weren’t even there.” The black man sighed heavily and closed his eyes. “You saw the bonfire?”

“Yes,” Tony said. “I’m… sorry.”

“Well, then you know the rest,” Orosco said, wiping a tear away from the corner of his eye. “They treated us like animals… it was damn awful.” He looked up at Tony with a look he recognized immediately: Guilt. “I never should’ve led them out there, Tony. We were… overconfident. We had no idea how bad everything had become topside. Winter had been bad enough… and then the attack.”

“Well, we didn’t fare any better, my friend,” Tony said gently. “Clearly none of us were ready for what this sick world threw at us after that long winter.”

Orosco nodded. A heavy silence settled around the fire as everyone took a moment to remember the departed.

Nine shifted uncomfortably and said, “We did the math, Orosco. We knew that a handful of your group survived so we decided to follow you.”

Orosco gave the young man a strange look. “Follow me? You mean-”

“Yeah,” Tony said, shaking his head. “We went after the Lunatics who attacked you. We thought they took the rest of you back to a town called New Cleveland. Of course, we didn’t know anything about that place at the time.”

“You know about New Cleveland, too?”

“That’s where we’ve been the last two weeks,” Hash said. “We just escaped… barely.”

Orosco was shaking his head. “So, you went after them to rescue us… and got captured instead?”

“Long story,” Tony said with a laugh. “But something along those lines.”

“Where the hell were you?” Diane said. “We thought you were dead… blown up in some storehouse in New Cleveland.”

“And if you weren’t captured by the Lunatics, why didn’t you and whoever was left come north for help?” Tony said. “I know we weren’t… together… but you know we wouldn’t have turned you away.”

Orosco nodded with a faraway look. “There were only five of us left after the Lunatic attack.” He balled his fists up in shame and anger. “They… they kept me and the others alive to… watch the fires… the ‘festivities’ as that sick bitch put it.”

“That’s horrible,” Nine said.

“You’re talking about Briana,” Tony said. “Face-painted gunslinger with the long black hair?”

Orosco nodded.

“And after?” Diane said. “Why didn’t they kill the rest of you?”

Orosco shook his head. “She saw how much pain we were in. I think she only intended to burn a few of us and then take the rest with them… but… she got carried away and killed almost everyone. They made a damn party out of it!” Orosco settled down. “After they were finished, that… Briana… lined the rest of us up along the beach the next morning. I think she intended on gunning us down and then changed her mind. Get this, she actually told us that because of her hangover, she didn’t feel like shooting us that morning.”

“Sounds like her,” Diane said.

“Then what happened?” Tony asked.

Orosco shrugged his shoulders. “We stood on the beach for a good long hour, contemplating taking our chances in the lake… assuming the couple of Lunatics they’d left on the beach didn’t shoot us in the water. But the thought of drowning didn’t seem like an answer… so we waited… and waited. Then, the two on the beach were called away. They gave us a smile, waved, and then… left.”

“They just left you there?” Nine said.

“Yeah. Apparently, we weren’t worth the bother. So, she took her murderous group and left us on that beach. I just remember that they seemed in a hurry… like they were late for something. Honestly, at the time, we didn’t care. We didn’t care about much after that… except for revenge.” Orosco looked away.

The others waited patiently.

Orosco sighed heavily, then continued. “We had a stash of weapons nearby, in case of emergencies. There was no question in anyone’s mind what we wanted to do at the time. All of us were filled with so much rage and grief. So, we armed up and started after them.” He paused then continued. “I think that was when the rest of us died. The moment we gave in to all that anger and hate… we just… well… we just weren’t thinking straight any longer. It’s hard to explain unless you’ve been there, Tony.”

Tony smiled weakly and glanced at the others. “I think we understand, Orosco. More than you know.”

He nodded at the big man and continued. “We tracked them for a little while, starting west, then ran into some trouble with the dead as a herd of the reanimated pushed us farther south. Then we lost the trail… and lost ourselves when the anger that fueled us finally gave out. We ended up too far south as it turned out.” He gave them all a grave look. “We were wandering a while, foraging what we could from towns on the east side of a place called Mosquito Creek and trying to get our bearings back. That’s when we started finding all these small towns that looked like a wave of violence had just come crashing through. At first, we thought it was those Lunatics… but no humans could account for the brutality left behind in those towns. There was so much blood… and not one body. It was eerie as hell. And then we started hearing them at night, moving in small packs, hitting up towns just ahead of us.” Orosco’s eyes went wide. “I have to warn all of you right now! Go nowhere near Mosquito Creek! That place… my God… there were so many of those yellow-eyed monsters there. I had no idea the dead could gather in such a large number!”

“We’ve encountered them, too,” Diane said. “While we were tracking the Lunatics near Orwell, we traveled south, bordering the west side of Mosquito Creek… and saw them.”

“They looked like they were all dormant,” Tony said.

“Not on the east side,” Orosco said. “They were very active, feeding on whoever they could find in those smaller towns. Those were some of the most frightening evenings I’d ever spent anywhere. The roads between those towns were not safe… not even for the reanimated dead. The horde we were ahead of never ventured down there… it’s like they knew to stay away. Creepy stuff.”

“What did you do?” Tony said.

“We started to travel further east, into the state forests beyond the Pennsylvania border. Then we saw more of those yellow-eyed monsters. From there, we started pushing northeast toward the mountains.

“Shit!” Nine said. “How many of these things are there? We guessed there were at least five-thousand at Mosquito Creek.”

Orosco nodded. “There’s more and more coming from all over the place. It’s like they’re been drawn here by something.”

“Or someone,” Hash said. “The Alpha.”

“What’s that?”

“Apparently one of the dead is leading those fuckers,” Tony said. “I’m sure you’ve noticed… they’re getting smarter.”

“Have you seen this… Alpha?”

“No,” Nine said. “We’ve just heard stories circulating through New Cleveland. And the asshole running the joint has an arrangement with this Alpha. He sends truckloads of the living out to Mosquito Creek, and in exchange, the dead leave New Cleveland alone.”

“That’s sadistic as hell,” Orosco said. “Who would make such a foolish deal with the dead and expect them to keep their end of the deal?”

“Calls himself Candyman, leader of New Cleveland,” Tony said. “Though I expect that’s over. That massive army we’ve been talking about, they just attacked New Cleveland.”

Orosco looked stunned. “So… the dead are moving out of Mosquito Creek?”

“Looks that way,” Tony said.

Orosco stood up. “We need to get back. My people need to know about this.”

“Your people?” Nine said. He looked back at the armed men. “I don’t recognize your traveling companions. Which ‘people’ are you referring to?”

The black man laughed. “There’s so much to explain… so little time.” He sat back down. “When we crossed into Pennsylvania, we found another army… but not of the dead sort.” He laughed. “I should say, they found us. Anyway, long story short, this army was relocating from the mountains to a secondary camp already established in Ohio.”

“Woah, slow down,” Tony said. “Army? Are you talking about the military?”

“No… not exactly,” Orosco said. “Though we do have some ex-military with us.”

“Who exactly is ‘Us’?” Diane said.

Orosco smiled. “When I said I found the compound destroyed a few weeks back, that was when I was finally allowed to bring a group out to retrieve the rest of you… and that’s when I thought you’d all perished.” He couldn’t stop smiling. “But now, I’m sitting here with old friends… who are not ghosts after all. Did anyone else make it out?”

“Gina and Marcus weren’t there when the Shadow Dead attacked,” Tony said.

Orosco gave him a puzzled look.

“That’s a long story, too,” Tony said with an exhausted laugh. “We obviously have a lot of catching up to do.”

“Indeed,” the black man said. “The only reason we’re even out this far south is we’ve been monitoring the patterns of the reanimated. Just recently, they all started moving in large herds toward the south, and we’ve been following them to find out why. Usually, when they behave like this, it’s because something major has happened elsewhere, causing them to shift directions. When one herd moves, it attracts the rest until they all start moving.”

Nine’s eyes lit up. “It’s the explosions!”

Orosco waited.

“We used dynamite to cause a diversion in town, around dawn.”

“Yeah, then someone blew something else up after we got out,” Hash said.

Orosco nodded. “Yes, we heard the second explosion, that’s how we ended up here. But the reanimated have been slowly moving south for the past three days… long before your dynamite.”

They all gave him a puzzled look.

The black man nodded with a smile. “That’s about how we feel. None of us know what’s causing them to move… just that they’re moving south.”

“You think they’re joining ranks out at Mosquito Creek?” Nine said.

“Not likely. As we all know, the dead don’t mix well.’

“Great,” Diane said. “Another damn mystery.”

“One that can wait,” Orosco said. “First things first. Let’s get you somewhere safe where you can rest, eat, and heal.”

“Where might that be?” Tony said, his trepidation easily apparent.

Orosco gazed into their distrustful faces and laughed. “You all have the same look we had when they found us out in PA. We didn’t trust anybody but each other.”

“Who are ‘they’?” Diane said.

Orosco smiled. “Do you all still trust me?” he asked.

“Of course,” Tony said.

“Then I would ask you to hold off on your questions until we get there.”

“And where is ‘there’?” Hash pushed.

Orosco turned to the good sergeant and answered, “I can’t tell you that… not yet.”

“That doesn’t sound inviting at all,” Nine said.

“Trust me,” Orsoco said. “When you see what’s happening, you’ll understand. My people, my new people, have good reasons for enforcing secrecy.”

“Then why does it feel like we haven’t been approved for membership into your secret society?” Tony said.

“It’s not like that, Tony. Believe me, if it were up to me alone, I’d tell you anything you want to know.”

“But it’s not up to you,” Diane added suspiciously.

Orosco frowned. “No. I’m just one of many voices with a say in what happens in our community.” He looked straight at Tony and finished, “And that’s something I’ve always wholeheartedly supported… as you well know, Tony.”

Tony nodded. “Okay. I’m too damn tired to play ‘twenty questions’. Just let us have a minute to make a decision.”

“A decision?”

“Yeah,” he said. “I’m with you, brother, on the whole ‘everyone has a voice’ thing. That’s what we’ve been doing since we’ve been out here. No offence, but after what we’ve just been through in the last ‘community’ of people, you’ll understand if we are a little apprehensive about your new secretive group.”

“Of course,” Orosco said, he started to fidget nervously. “Talk it over. I know you’ve been through a lot and I’m asking a lot now. Just… please… we need to leave this area as soon as possible.”

Tony nodded and stared at his old friend.

“Oh… right,” Orosco said. He stood up and stepped away from the fire to give them a moment alone.

Tony took in the exhausted faces of his friends and smiled. “So, what do you think?”

“It’s Orosco, Tony,” Nine said. “He wouldn’t steer us wrong. If he’s being secretive there’s probably a damn good reason.”

Tony nodded. “Agreed.” He looked over at the hunter.

She sighed. “Something’s off about all this. It’s great that Orosco’s alive… but how the hell did he find us out here? It all just seems too… coincidental. Maybe I’m just being overly paranoid.”

“I know I’m the new guy here,” Hash said. “Far be it from me to question your friends. It’s clear that you all have history together. But… from an outsider’s perspective, I’m with the hunter on this one. The way these guys are dressed and armed, how they carry themselves—they mean business. Whoever’s running this operation, and you better damn well believe that somebody’s calling the shots, if I didn’t know any better I’d say they came out here specifically to retrieve us.”

Tony gave him an irritated look and then stared at the others with an unbelieving laugh. “Have we all changed so much that we’re now willing to question our own? It’s Orosco. We went through hell to find him and the others, and now, now that we know they’re safe… what… we’re going to treat him like another bad guy?”

Hash raised his arms in surrender. “Just making an observation. You all decide what’s best. I trust the rest of you with my life, if it comes down to that. Just know, friend or not, Orosco’s not playing it entirely straight. I’d bet real money on that, if it mattered.”

Tony nodded. “Okay. Let’s fish a bit more first.”

They all agreed.

Orosco came back over. “All good?”

Tony laughed. “We need to know something, Orosco. You can’t tell us where we’re going, and you haven’t told us much about what happened after these people found you in Pennsylvania. How about telling us a little about who they are?”

Orosco frowned. “I really want to, Tony. Believe me, I do. I just… it’s not up to me.”

“Well, that’s not good enough.” Tony was getting angry. “We come all the way out here to find you, get all mixed up in that fucked-up Lunatic town because we thought you were there, and then here you come just strolling up on us at the end of it all, talking about some new group of people. It’s too much. We need assurances.”

“You have my word, Tony,” Orosco said. “I can vouch for them.”

“But you can’t tell us anything about them?”

“Correct.”

“That’s bullshit.” Tony shook his head. “It’s good to see you, and we’re glad you’re alright. But we need time… on our terms. You want us to trust you, but your ‘group’ won’t trust us. You know us, Orosco. Can’t you speak on our behalf and get them to tell us something about who they are?”

Orosco hesitated. He looked back at the ring of armed men, then sat back down. He lowered his voice. “This is bigger than you and I and everything we’ve been through, Tony.”

“What are you talking about?”

“This… apocalypse! There’s a whole lot at stake… more than we ever knew. This group has clued me in on that fact… and it’s mind boggling.”

“Well then, fill us in.” Diane said.

“Yeah,” Nine said. “We’ve been out of the loop a while and didn’t get the memo.”

Orosco shook his head. “These people, they understand what’s at stake. That’s why all the secrecy. They’re watching for infiltrators from the other side.”

“‘The other side’?” Tony said. “What… you mean Mother?”

“The stakes are much bigger than that, Tony,” Orosco said. “Mosquito Creek, New Cleveland, The Shadow Dead… the underground bunker… and so much more… it’s all tied in to the bigger picture.”

“Well… paint if for us,” Tony said.

“I can’t. Not until they know you’re not… infected.”

“Infected?” Nine laughed. “I think it’s pretty damn clear we’re not infected.”

“I’m talking about the half-deads,” Orosco clarified. “Like the others, they’re getting smarter, too. And they know how to hide among the living.”

“Like Taven,” Diane said.

“Where did you hear that name?” Orosco said.

“You know him?” Tony said.

Orosco hesitated again. “Let’s just say, if there’s a ‘most wanted’ top ten list, that name is on it.”

“Shit,” Nine said. “I’m not liking the sound of this.”

“So, you’ve seen him?” Orosco said.

“He tricked us,” Tony said. “He pretended to help us escape, but I think he was just paving the way for that horde out at Mosquito Creek to take over New Cleveland. That’s where Taven was when we last saw him.”

Orosco nodded. “That’s a development my people will be most interested in.”

“Why?” Tony pushed.

“Because… because we are in some deep fucking shit, Tony. The kind of shit I wouldn’t have believed in before the dead came back. Shit I’m still struggling to wrap my mind around all of it.”

“You’re scaring me, Orosco,” Tony said. “If your people are on the side of the living, we have that in common. Isn’t that enough?”

“No,” Orosco said. “It’s not… not anymore.”

Tony leaned in and said, “Tell me why you’re really here?”

Orosco was caught off-guard. “I told you. We-”

“Bullshit. You knew it was us at that gas station.”

Orosco closed his eyes and sighed. “Yeah. I knew. Ever since we found the compound destroyed, we’ve been looking for… survivors.”

“Why are these people looking for us?” Tony pushed.

Orosco met his intense gaze. “They want Meredith, Tony. They’re looking for Meredith.”

Tony leaned back. The distrust on his face was evident.

“Come on, my man! Don’t look at me like that.”

“She didn’t make it out with us,” Tony said. “Most of us were topside for the attack. Meredith was below. You’ve been to the compound. You’d know more than we do at this point.”

“So, you haven’t heard from her?”

Tony shook his head. “If I didn’t believe she was already dead, I wouldn’t tell you a fucking thing,” Tony said. “What’s happened to you?”

“It’s not what you think, Tony. Come back with us and you’ll understand, too.”

“I don’t know, Tony,” Nine said. “Sounds like someone’s been drinking too much of the Kool-Aid.”

“Agreed,” Diane said. “We should leave.”

Hash didn’t say a word. He was watching the soldiers like a hawk. They started staring back at Orosco.

Orosco laughed. “It’s good to see all of you,” he said. “I really mean that. And I appreciate everything you went through to try and find us. But everything’s different now. And we’re running out of time.”

“Just tell us who your group is and why they want Meredith so badly,” Tony said. “Or we walk away.”

“Everyone wants Meredith… and that’s a big damn problem.”

“I have no idea what that means,” Tony said.

Orosco leaned in and whispered, “She’s alive, Tony. She made it out. And from what we determined, she wasn’t alone.”

They all looked shocked by the news.

“How?” Tony said.

Orosco smiled. “She used the door, Tony. She used that fucking mystery door.”

Tony’s eyes went wide with understanding.

“Alright,” came a calm but stern voice from behind them. One of the soldiers, a tall man wearing a dark ballcap flipped backwards atop his wavy brown shoulder-length hair, came over. He stroked his mustache and sighed. “We tried this your way, Orosco. You said they’d come willingly if I let you speak to them first.”

“And they will,” Orosco snapped. “They just need to know… something… anything!”

“And we’ve discussed this,” the man said, sitting down next to the black man. “After they check out, they can know everything. But not before. You know the rules.”

Orosco nodded and sighed.

“And who might you be?” Tony said, addressing the man.

The man gave Tony a probing look, then answered, “Not that it matters. But you can call me, Cole.”

“Sorry for the ruse, Tony,” Orosco said. “But everything is still okay. These people are the good guys.”

Tony stared at his friend a moment longer then turned his attention to the ballcap soldier. “Are you the leader of this group?”

The man laughed. “Hardly. I just run security operations. In this case, a retrieval operation.”

“So, I’m guessing the whole ‘leaving with you willingly’ is the only option,” Hash said with a laugh. “Man, when you’re right, you’re right. I need a damn drink.”

The man smiled at the good sergeant. “You ex-military?”

“Something like that.”

“Excellent,” the man said. “When you all check out, we could use another good head over in security. Assuming you’re interested.”

Hash shrugged his shoulders. “I’ll check my schedule and get back to you.”

The soldier, attempting to seem less threatening by laying his rifle across his lap, scanned all their faces then rested his gaze on Tony. “Look. I know you all are tired. I know you’ve been through hell and back. But as your friend pointed out, you have no idea what’s coming.”

“And your ‘group’ does?” Tony said. He laughed. “Why is it every time we come across survivors out here that it constantly feels like we’re playing another card game with our lives? I suppose your secret group is holding all the damn cards?”

The man laughed. “No, Tony. We don’t have very many cards left. However, we do understand the game that’s being played.”

“Great… more games.”

Cole laughed. “Are you a religious man, Tony?”

Tony found the timing of the question funny. He laughed. “Not that it’s any of your damn business, but recently, I’ve been coming around.”

“So, you believe in God?”

“I thought I just made that clear.”

“And… do you believe in demons?”

“The living or the dead kind? We’ve encountered both.”

“I’m being serious,” Cole said. “Do you believe in the possibility that demonic forces have, and could still be, influencing affairs on our planet?”

Tony shook his head. “That is too damn heavy a question for my tired ass mind to wrestle with at the moment. Let’s put the cookies on the bottom shelf and let me ask a simple question.”

The soldier smiled. “Okay. You can ask.”

“Who the hell are you people?”

Cole looked to Orosco. “Your friend is relentless.”

Orosco smiled. “That he is. That he is.”

“He isn’t going to understand yet… if I tell him,” Cole said.

“Neither did I when you all told me, remember?”

“That’s a good point.” Cole turned back and said, “If I answer you this, will you come back with us willingly and let my people explain the rest?”

Tony stared at the man. “Doesn’t sound like we have a choice, do we?”

Cole smiled. “I’ll answer the first question. I prefer not to have to answer the latter.”

Tony glanced at the others.

They all just shrugged their shoulders.

Tony looked back at the soldier and said, “Okay. But only because I still trust the man sitting next to you. Although, that trust hinges on what happens after.”

“Fair enough,” Cole said. He sighed and then scanned their tired faces. “I’ll need for you all to keep an open mind before I tell you who we are, because you’re not going to like it.”

“No promises,” Tony said.

Cole laughed. “Orosco was correct. We are an army, but we’re not military. You can call us anything you want after we’ve had a chance to explain ourselves. We started off as the organization you’ve come to know as… Mother.” Cole paused, letting their shock sink in. He finished, “We are what’s left of the real Mother.”

~~~

Darkness settled over the remains of New Cleveland like a thick gauze over a bloody wound. The generators had all gone out. A few slowly dying fires spread across town provided the only illumination. Most of the town’s citizens had been consumed before dusk.

The dead filled every available space in New Cleveland, lying in the praying (preying) position on their knees, faces bowed down and resting in their bloody hands, their backs rising and falling rapidly but slowing down as they went into dormant mode—bellies full.

Outside the city—in the fields, forests and suburbs surrounding New Cleveland—thousands of the dead continued to feed on the bodies relocated outside the city walls. By dawn, they, too, would all be hibernating until called once more by the blood.

A lanky, middle-aged dead man hunched over until his long arms touched the ground, the back of his hands dragging across the dirt, shambled through the marketplace, toward Candyman’s courtyard. The man, standing upright, was almost seven feet tall. He was pale, bald, and resembled a scarecrow in his torn coveralls which hung loose over his body. The man’s blue veins bulged beneath his pale skin. His eyes were a blazing yellow fire. His long, bony arms and legs extended from a much smaller frame and made him look less like a former farmer, and more like some exaggerated cartoon of a man turned beast.

Or the boogeyman.

Taven waited in the center of the courtyard, unnerved by the pack of wild animals that surrounded him and wanted to tear the silver-eyed monster apart. He still wore his dark sunglasses. He held a rope over one shoulder. Attached to the other end was a sack that he’d dragged all the way from the lake. Something barely living moaned in pain from within the sack, teetering in and out of consciousness.

Between what was in the sack and the offensive dead thing in the glasses, the yellow-eyed monsters howled and screamed at him, barely able to keep from ripping them both apart. It wasn’t the blood-lust that drove them to want to kill the strange man in the bathrobe… but a deep hatred toward this half-dead thing that was not like the rest of them… or like the blood bags which they fed upon. To the yellow-eyed beasts, Taven simply smelled… wrong… and that scent drove them wild with a need to destroy it.

But something stronger than their hate, stronger than their compulsion to feed, held them back.

Taven waited patiently. He understood why he was there more than these beasts did.

The tall man, known as Alpha, entered the courtyard, causing the savages to all fall silent as they stared absently at the one who commanded them. The man approached Taven with the same disgust on his face, stopping five feet from the silver-eyed abomination as if he considered him contagious. He stood up straight, lifting his long arms off the ground and revealing his bloody knuckles. The one known as Alpha towered above Taven, breathing rapidly and glaring down at him with those intense yellow eyes.

Taven smiled up at him. “It’s time,” he said. “One kingdom falls. One kingdom rises to replace it. All is as it’s supposed to be… all in its time… all in its ‘when’.”

Alpha cocked its head at the strange speaking creature. He then raised one long arm and pointed at the sack behind him.

Taven laughed. “Yes!” he hissed with delight. “Yes! Yes! It’s time for change! It’s time for all things to change!” Taven turned toward the sack and bent down. He loosened the ropes holding the sack closed and opened it, revealing the half-burned body he’d retrieved from the water.

Alpha stared at the thing lying on the ground that was barely alive. The smell of charred flesh and lake water assaulted him. But then he caught the scent of something much deeper—beneath the skin, blood and bones. Alpha could almost taste the vile darkness of the soul within the damaged carcass. He turned toward Taven with an expressionless face and then pointed at him, then back down toward the burnt mass of flesh.

“Yessss,” Taven hissed. “You know what I know, don’t you? You can sense it! You can trust Taven. Taven has found one who will please you. A gift from Taven. A gift of change… and change comes for us all… even you.” Taven pointed back at Alpha, mockingly.

The thing called Alpha had no response.

“Soon Paradise will come… and all will be as it should be!” Taven turned toward the body in the sack and kicked it three times until a woman’s voice shrieked in pain.

The woman with singed long black hair opened her eyes wide, saw the dead all around her, then tried to move.

Briana could feel the burnt remains of her long leather trench tearing at the skin around her shoulders and back. The coat had helped her survive the explosions on the dock when she was propelled through the air and into the water… but not without a cost.

More than two-thirds of her body had been severely burned by the blast. She couldn’t feel most of it—but what she did feel tearing into her charred flesh was a pain that dominated all else.

Briana squirmed on her back. She couldn’t stop screaming. The more she moved, the worse it became. The Lunatic gunslinger lifted her burnt arms toward her face and stared in horror at her hands.

She still held both blackened guns in two badly burned hands. Metal and flesh had merged around the pistol grips, permanently welding the guns to her flesh. Briana was no longer screaming. She was laughing… laughing from the overwhelming pain the assaulted her body… laughing as she welcomed death that would not come as her mind snapped.

The dead stared down at the damaged woman with no emotion, only hunger.

Taven gave her a curious glance, then turned to Alpha. “She’s not long in this life. The pain will finish its job. We should begin, yes?”

Alpha turned to him and nodded.

Taven turned back toward Briana and smiled, revealing his razor-sharp rotting teeth. He managed to catch the insane woman’s attention. “You don’t begin to understand what real pain is, blood-bag… but you will.”

Briana started laughing again as she waved her useless guns into the air, trying to pull triggers that no longer functioned with unrecognizable fingers.

Taven shook his head sadly as the woman started to pass, the pain too much for her body to endure. He opened his mouth wide and bit down into her neck.

Briana screamed… then stopped… staring off into a space that only the dead could perceive.

Taven got up and waited.

Briana stopped struggling for breath.

Moments later, her eyes began to change as the yellow fire consumed her.

Taven turned toward Alpha. “Now,” he said. “Now is her ‘when’. Now is your ‘when’.”

Alpha pushed Taven aside and knelt beside the dead woman.

Briana started to twitch involuntarily.

Alpha reached down to touch the wound on Briana’s neck. He retrieved two bloody fingers. He stared at the blood for a moment, then gazed into the dead thing’s yellow eyes.

Alpha’s eyes suddenly went from fiery yellow… to blood red.

Taven stepped back in awe. He had never seen the Transformation. Very few ever had.

Briana stopped moving as her yellow, hate-filled eyes changed once more, turning red.

Taven had known that some of his kind could do this… but to see it for himself! He felt humbled. The Alpha had remained alive for a very long time because no one ever knew where to find it… or what it looked like. The Transformation was why.

Suddenly, the tall shell that housed the Alpha collapsed into a rotting pile.

The thing once known as Briana, leader of the Lunatics, started to rise.

Taven laughed excitedly and clapped. “As I’ve seen… so it comes to pass! Welcome! Welcome to the one who was once the Alpha! Welcome to the flesh once called Briana! Welcome to the Paradise that comes! Welcome to the New Age!”

The creature once referred to as Alpha turned its new head toward the dead… and smiled.

~~~

Next Episode 53-1

Previous Episode 52-11

~~~

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__________________________________________
“Chapter 52-12: Sodom” Copyright © 2019 Scott Scherr, from the novel, Don’t Feed The Dark, Book Six: Mother. 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.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

Comments
  1. Brandon Vermilyea says:

    I felt like New Cleveland was starting to drag but I completely understand why you took your time with it, the story is picking up at a neck breaking pace again. Can’t wait for more!

    Liked by 2 people

    • sscherr says:

      Hello Brandon and thanks for reading and commenting. I never know what I’m getting into with each chapter and the New Cleveland arc length, especially the last chapter, surprised me as well. Book Six has been a challenging affair all the way around. This will be the closest we get to an ‘origin’ story of sorts. The final arc should move a bit faster as we snowball toward the conclusion of this book.

      Like

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