Posts Tagged ‘Predators’

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Exiled – Day 20

Gina quietly advanced through the valley north of the ruins camp following an old dried up river bed. A mist had settled in all around her as the last traces of twilight began to fade before her twentieth morning in exile.

The air felt thick down in the valley as she adjusted her breathing, keeping her bodily sounds at a minimum. She stopped behind a large rock, placing it at her back, and crouched down to listen to the trees, the wind, and the ghost whisperings of the river that once flowed through this area. She laid her sword-length training stick beside her and closed her eyes, using her ears to search the area for her elusive prey and any dead-heads that might have wandered into the area. So far, everything sounded as it should.

“Where are you, fucker?” she whispered to herself, opening her eyes and scanning the area. “Okay… don’t let your frustration get in the way,” she reminded herself. She closed her eyes again and waited, reaching out with all the rest of her senses to locate the anomaly that would give him away.

And then she heard it. It was very brief—a slight break in the collective rhythm that made up Mother Nature’s pulse… but it was there… coming from directly behind her.

She opened her eyes and smiled as she slowly reached down for her weapon. I’ve got you this time. She remained calm, patient… ready.

Russell came up over the top of the rock and swung his stick directly down toward her head.

Gina rolled to the left, barely avoiding the blow. She quickly rose to her feet and swung her wooden weapon at Marcus’s exposed legs. He jumped over the sweeping stick and off the back of the rock as easily as a cat.

He was already charging toward her from around the blind spot side of the rock, lunging his stick toward her chest. She deflected it with her stick and then countered by swinging toward the side of his head. Marcus blocked the attack with his stick and stepped back three feet.

They both stood there for a moment, breathing hard, and holding their wooden weapons up like lightsabers.

Russell nodded with a smile. “Very good. You heard me coming this time.”

She smiled back, wiping sweat from her brow. “You were fucking loud enough,” she teased.

“Again,” he said, and charged straight toward her.

Gina was caught off guard by how fast he moved—faster than before. He ducked right beneath her late swing and brought the blunt ended weapon straight up into her stomach.

Gina felt the wind get knocked out of her as she went down to one knee, using her stick to support herself. “Shit,” she hissed, struggling for breath. “I should’ve seen that coming.”

Russell stood up. “If you’re looking for it, it’s already too late. All you can do is respond and adapt.”

“Yeah… so you keep telling me.” She slowly got to her feet. “But I lasted much longer this time. That has to count for something.”

“Dead is dead,” Russell said coldly. “You are getting better, faster, stronger… smarter. But as long as you keep holding back, I’m always going to have the advantage.”

“I’m not holding back,” she defended. “You’re just way better at this than me.”

Russell stared her down. “You need to stop considering who I am while we’re training. Out here, there is no Marcus, no Gina. There’s only the battle and the blood. Stop worrying about what might happen if you actually land one of your blows to me. You do that down at the airport, someone’s going to kill you.”

Gina sighed, lowering her weapon. “I get it, Marcus. But it’s one thing to fight against a real enemy, and another to attack your-”

Russell cut her off with a sweeping kick to her legs, knocking Gina on her ass. She had just enough time to lift her stick and block his downward swing toward her face. With their sticks still connected, she barked, “What the fuck?!”

Russell backed up, allowing Gina to get to her feet.

“You cheated, asshole!” she said, wisely keeping her weapon up this time. “We were talking just then, not fighting!”

“There is no such thing as cheating in combat,” he said. “It’s not my fault that your ever-flapping jaw provided me an advantage.”

She smiled wickedly as her temper sparked. “Oh, you’re a fucking dead man, dickhead.” She charged toward him swinging repeatedly toward his head with much more intensity as Russell blocked each blow. She backed him up against a tree and she stopped.

“Good,” he said, staring into the blaze within Gina’s eyes. “I’m actually starting to break a sweat now… now that you’re really trying.”

He countered, taking the offensive and pushed Gina back toward the rock, delivering several swings at her face, arms, and lower body. She just managed to block them all.

Russell stepped back, allowing her time to gather herself. “That’s much better.”

Gina was breathing rapidly, trying to catch her breath. “You pissed me off… on purpose.”

“Of course,” he said. “I already know you can fight. I’ve seen your intensity against the dead. They’re no match for you and your fire. But, against a thinking foe, your emotions make you vulnerable.”

“My emotions are what drive me, Marcus. I feel intensely and react accordingly.”

“Yes… you do. But you also have to learn how to feel nothing… and react very violently.”

“I don’t get that,” she said. “If I didn’t feel what I feel… then how could I defend the people I care about?”

Marcus paused and nodded. “That’s the part your failing to understand here, Gina. We’re not on the defensive this time. We are planning on invading an unknown camp to assassinate their leader. We’re the killers, not the defenders. Your emotions won’t be able to help you, they’ll only make you hesitant… and then dead.”

“We’re not ‘killers’,” Gina said. “That’s a bit harsh. They’re the enemy, remember? We’re not just attacking a random group of survivors. This is Mother’s people!”

“Yes. But they’re still human beings,” Russell said. “And they will act just the same as all human beings do when death comes for them. You will see it in their eyes, Gina, and it won’t matter then who they serve or to what evil end. Make no mistake. We are the killers, the predators… and they are the prey.”

“Well… let’s not forget that we’re still the good guys,” Gina protested. “I’m not doing this because I’m a… killer. I want to stop Mother, and ending that woman is a step toward doing so.”

Russell shook his head and stared at her. “Remember that when you appear before the foot of this woman’s bed in the dead of night, a woman you’ve never met. She will be vulnerable. Her eyes—full of fear. She’ll be pleading for her life, weeping to whoever god she serves, right up to the point you slit her throat and watch her bleed out.”

Gina had no response.

He sighed, lowering his intense gaze. “I apologize for putting it so bluntly, but you need to understand exactly what we’re up against down at that airport. We will certainly not be ‘the good guys’ when we set out to do this dark deed. Most of them will defend what they care about with the same emotional intensity you speak about. How could they not? But a few of them will be better than that. That’s why you can’t bring your emotions into this. You will see yourself in their eyes and falter. If you can’t be cold, calculated, calm, clear… then we should call this off now, rather than show hesitation when it’s too late to turn back.”

“No way. Fuck that!” Gina sighed heavily. “This is bad, isn’t it? What we’re about to do?”

“This will be brutal… and bloody,” he said. “Good, bad, right, wrong… all irrelevant. I’m not out here to make you feel better about what we’re preparing for or justify it. I’m trying to help you not feel anything. That slight advantage may save your life when faced with a physically superior, or more skilled foe.”

“How do you do it, Marcus?” Gina said, shaking her head. “How do you just… turn it all off?”

“Death is not the end result of some inexcusable act where conscience and morality are threatened. Death… is beautiful. When you realize this, you’ll understand that it is your emotions that wrestle against this truth because your mind has been taught and hard-wired into believing that Death is something frightening and final… and that could not be any further from the truth.”

Gina considered this. “So… what… in order to turn off my emotions and ‘kill’ without conscience getting in the way… I need to… redefine what I’m doing? Instead of murder… it’s-”

“Salvation,” Russell finished. “You are not taking anything away from those you put down… you are simply delivering them from this life… into a better one.”

“That’s fucked-up, Marcus,” Gina said nervously. “Sounds like you want me to develop a ‘god’ complex. How the hell does killing people save them? That’s crazy!”

“We all serve someone or something greater than ourselves, Gina,” Russell said, losing interest in the conversation. “Whether you want to admit it or not, Death is one of those things. I’m not telling you to ‘play god’… but to serve one… at least, for the time being.”

“What are you saying? Serve… Death?” Gina couldn’t believe what she was hearing.

“You don’t understand… yet. Let’s get back to training,” he said, abruptly ending the subject and turning his back.

“No,” Gina pressed. “Explain what you mean?”

Russell started walking off.

“Hey! Don’t walk away when I’m talking to you!” Gina raised her weapon and charged him from behind. She swung her stick at his back.

Russell turned quickly, blocking the blow with his stick. He then struck the hand holding her weapon, causing Gina to cry out and drop it. He then charged in striking Gina several times on the arms, legs, chest, and once to the face, causing her to fall backwards to the ground.

“What the fuck, Marcus?” she said, staring up at him while wiping blood from the corner of her mouth.

“Get up,” he said coldly.

“No.” Gina started rubbing her sore arms. “We’re done for the day, asshole. You win… again. That shit was really starting to hurt!”

Russell bent over and picked up Gina’s stick. He then tossed it at her feet.

She stared at the stick and then back to Russell questionably.

“Pick it up,” he said.

“No.” She glared at him. “I said we’re done today, Marcus. Deal with it.”

He nodded and then walked toward a tree. “Death is not a game. No one ever wins or loses. She is strong and powerful, wise and beautiful.” He slammed his stick hard against the tree until the end snapped off, leaving a jagged tip. “When she calls, you don’t just get to lie there and call ‘time out’.” He turned to her with a face of stone.

Gina saw the dark look in her friend’s face, then looked to the jagged stick. “What are you going to do with that, Marcus?” She reached for her stick.

Russell smiled. “There. I see it now. Death has gained your complete attention, now that She’s right at the door. The question is, what will you do, now that Death has come for you.” Russell immediately charged Gina with the sharp end of his stick.

Gina deflected Russell’s blow before the sharp end pierced her throat. She rolled to the right and got up quickly.

Russell immediately backed up, looking shocked by his own actions.

She wiped blood from her neck and stared at him questionably. “What the fuck, Marcus! Have you completely lost it?” Gina held her weapon up and slowly backed off.

Russell looked at the sharp stick in his hand, as if realizing it for the first time, and then immediately dropped it to the ground. He looked at her. “I’m… sorry, Gina. I think I got a little carried away.”

She pointed at him. “You broke that fucking stick and charged at me! You could’ve killed me just then!”

He quickly regained his composure. “I only wanted to make you feel threatened… as part of our training. I’ll admit… that was a little closer than I intended.”

“Well… we’re fucking done today… alright?”

Russell smiled. “Of course.”

Gina finally lowered her weapon. “I think we’ve both been pushing a little too hard lately. Time for some rest.”

“Agreed.” Russell put his hands in his pockets and let his shoulders drop. “Again, I didn’t mean to be so… aggressive. I never would have harmed you. I knew you’d deflect the blow.”

She gave him a suspicious glance then softened up. “Okay. All’s forgiven. Let’s just get back. It was a good day of training… except for that sharp-ass shit at the end.”

Russell laughed. “Yes. Except for that. I’ll not do that again, Gina.”

She smiled and then turned south toward the ruins camp. “I’m so fucking hungry I could eat a zombie right now… and I’m talking about one of those big, smelly fat ones…”

Russell let her go on ahead a bit as he turned his face down and gritted his teeth. “That was uncalled for!” he hissed towards his feet.

Just wanted to let ‘ya know I’m still here, boss… and that I can step in any damn time I want and end this bullshit. Ya’ better be makin’ my patience worth it with all this silly trainin’ crap—talk about getting the turkey fat before the fuckin’ slaughter.

Russell looked toward Gina. She was still rambling on about food. He hid his face and whispered, “You nearly ruined everything with that move.”

What… like when you nearly spilled the beans to that bitch about what you did to your family? Why the fuck are you talking to her about that?! That’s none of her fuckin’ business!

“She needed something real… something personnel,” he hissed. “Now… we’re even closer than before.”

Fuckin’ wonderful, boss! Really, I’m delighted. But don’t get too close. The golden goddess has an expiration date… real… fuckin’… soon. I won’t let you fuck this up again.

“I won’t. But you need to back off,” Russell nearly pleaded. “We’re so damn close… so close. If you could just… hold off a little longer.” His hands began to shake.

Gina turned back. “You coming?” she called.

“Be right there,” he called back. “Go ahead, I’ll catch up in a minute.”

She turned and continued south down the old riverbed.

I’ll hold off, boss… for a little longer. I can see how important this is to you, and since we go ‘way’ back and all, I’ll give ‘ya a little more time. But… just do me a favor first.

“What do you want?”

Answer me a question, boss.

Russell waited.

Who’s in control?

Russell wanted to reach a hand within himself and rip the little fucker’s head off… figuratively, of course.

I’m waiting…

He frowned and spat out the words. “You are.”

~~~

Next Episode 46-1

Previous Episode 45-6

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“Chapter 45-7: 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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Exiled – Day 16

Moonlight penetrated the late evening forest causing the shadows to come alive all around her. With the absence of wildlife, the woods felt much more menacing at night. Every sound from a snapping twig beneath her foot, to a dead branch falling from a rotting tree was amplified in the darkness. A cool but pleasant breeze made the tree tops dance and every swaying branch looked like the arms of the dead. Eyes had replaced the animals… and they were everywhere.

“Don’t trust your eyes at night, Gina,” Marcus had told her. “They lie, distorting perception. It is the one sense that can cause you trouble if not tempered with the others.”

Gina remained still, crouched down within the shadow of a large oak tree as she tried not to let her imagination cause her to panic. She knew Marcus was nearby but had not revealed himself.

Keep your shit together, she reminded herself. Remember what Marcus said: “You are not here”.

She focused taking deep breaths to slow her heart rate.

The point of tonight’s exercise was to travel through the forest and not be discovered. Marcus had assured her that he would watch her back and intervene if necessary, but he refused to tell her if the dead were in this part of the forest. That was for her to find out and adapt accordingly… whatever the hell that meant.

Her scent was already masked by her time spent in the woods, but if she wasn’t careful, she could betray her position with any sudden sound or just by stepping into the moonlight where the movement of her elongated shadow could easily give her up.

The reanimated dead which occupied these woods were not very intelligent, but their hunger and inability to feel fear or be hindered by any other emotion gave them an edge in the darkness, especially if there were several of them in the area.

You are not here, she repeated in her head. She picked out her next location, waited for the wind for cover, and then quickly rolled forward into another tree’s shadow. She stopped moving immediately and waited for the night to catch up.

There was no attack. The dead did not charge blindly through the brush the moment she moved. She was not there. She was the wind… the rustling branches… and now… the newest tree. She used it all to mask her movements, encouraging herself that nothing lurking in the night could locate her if she simply became… the night.

She continued to calculate and stealthily move across the dark. Gina laid down flat in the spider-like shadow of a swaying bush, stretching her arms outward and gently swaying them in rhythm with the slender branches until her shadow and its shadow merged. I am the bush, she thought to herself and smiled. She thought back to two nights earlier when Marcus spoke about stealth…

“What’s your secret, Marcus? How the hell do you creep around so well without being detected?”

“There’s no secret, Gina… no trick. You just need to remember that when you’re trying not to make a sound, by trying not to make a sound, that’s when you get caught.”

“What the hell does that even mean?”

“When you take a cautious step forward to avoid producing sound, you’re trying to be something impossible. You cannot become silence. You begin to overcompensate, placing your body into an unnatural state. The harder you try to ‘be’ quiet, the harder it is to do so. The way to move quietly is not by being quiet… that’s ridiculous. It’s far easier to emulate whatever sounds are available to mask your own movements… and in sense, becoming what makes those sounds.”

“So… you’re saying that if I want to move with stealth, then I need to learn how to… be something else?”

“You need to learn how to not be there at all. Answer me this, Gina. When you see a branch on the ground, what should you do?”

“Step over it.”

“Wrong. You’re trying to avoid stepping on it because it might break and give you away. By avoiding the branch, you’ll surely step on something else you can’t see or anticipate, which then will betray you.”

“So… I should step on the fucking branch?”

“No. You should blow across the branch by becoming like the wind. Should the branch break, it will sound like something the wind did, and not your out-of-place awkward stepping over or on top of it. Understand?”

“I think so.”

“We will practice this… a lot.”

…Gina studied a pile of leaves, watching which way the wind started to scatter them and how. She calculated her next move. When enough of the pile started to twirl into the air, Gina quickly spun with them and cleaved to the trunk of a small tree by wrapping her arms around it. She took a long slow breath and waited. That’s when she saw one of them.

She’d almost missed the tall dead thing standing in the moonlight less than fifty feet away. It resembled a man, what was left of it anyway. The man stood still, staring up at the moon, his long, rotted arms hanging at his side. He was completely naked. His flesh looked brown, black and wrinkled over old bones. To Gina, the man could easily be mistaken for the trunk of an old dead tree. Its jaw bone hung down from one side of its saggy face, the side facing Gina, revealing its rotted upper teeth. A few faint strands of long hair were blown across its balding scalp—details that only the moonlight granted her. The darkness spared her the rest.

What is it about the fucking moon that gets these beasts all calm and quiet? she wondered.

No matter. She was feeling good about herself and decided to take it out.

Gina moved within ten feet of the creature.

It still had no idea she was there.

Marcus would be so proud.

She looked at its long narrow shadow set directly behind the dead-head. The creature continued to stare up at the moon as if worshipping it in some ancient zombie ritual.

Gina waited on the wind and started calculating.

When her moment arrived, Gina rolled forward and stopped directly in the beast’s shadow, less than a foot behind it. The monster continued to stare skyward, oblivious to her presence.

Gotcha fucker!

She slowly unsheathed her hunting knife and carefully rose behind the creature, matching its posture perfectly so as not to reveal her own shadow coming out of his.

I am not here. I am… the dead, she thought with a wicked little smile. She turned the knife point up toward the soft spot above the creature’s neck, just below the base of its skull, for a fatal thrust into its brain. She took a victorious half-step forward, putting her within easy arm’s length of the tall creature and then…

The small branch snapped loudly under her foot.

Fuck me.

The creature turned surprisingly fast, swinging one long arm toward Gina’s face as it growled. Gina had just enough time to duck beneath the monster’s arm, losing her balance in the process, as she fell back on her ass.

The tall zombie was about to pounce on her.

Gina raised her hunting knife, hoping to land a lucky blow to its face as it fell upon her.

From behind her right shoulder, an arm shot out as the machete pierced the creature right between the eyes.

Russell quickly retracted his weapon.

The beast fell limp right on top of Gina.

“Sonofabitch!” she cried out as she pushed the dead thing off her.

She turned just in time to catch Marcus’s shit-eating grin as he stepped to the left and away from where his shadow had been hiding within the monster and Gina’s shadows a few moments ago. He turned his back and said, “Not bad. Except that you stepped on that branch.”

“You were right behind me and I never even knew it,” she said. “For how long?”

“Only for that last bit,” he said, turning. “I couldn’t resist.”

“Asshole.” She shook her head and smiled. “And here I was thinking I was the fucking ninja bitch of the damn forest.”

Russell laughed. “You are getting better. It’s late. That’s enough for one night.”

Gina got up, stared down at the dead thing, and then kicked it once in frustration before following Marcus back into the shadows.

~~~

Back at the ruins camp, Gina washed her hands and face in an old bucket Marcus had found two days ago. He’d filled it with stream water each afternoon and placed it in a corner, so they could clean up a little each night after training. As per their post-training ritual, Gina would get the food ready while Marcus collected wood for the fire. They’d already located a portion of Gina’s hidden food stash and brought it up the ridge.

“Looks like cold baked beans tonight,” she said, holding up two large cans. “It’s too bad that group at the underpass didn’t leave a pot behind.” She watched Marcus silently collect branches from around the perimeter of their camp. She looked up into the late evening sky and watched the moon disappear into the clouds. Gina smiled and said a little louder, “I think I’m starting to get used to this. I haven’t done the up-all-night, sleep-all-day gig since my stripping days… God, I can’t even picture that girl anymore.”

Russell came over and dropped a large pile of branches beside the fireplace. “I’ve always been a night owl,” he said, placing his hands on his hips and staring out into the darkness. “I’ve always found you can get so much more done at night.”

“Peaceful,” Gina added. “I like the quiet. There’s none of that busy bullshit of the day to contend with… you know… like back how it was in the old world. Though, I guess it doesn’t matter anymore.”

Russell washed his hands and then sat down in front of the hearth across from Gina. “We’re going to keep this schedule for a little while. Sleep during the day and keep training at night.”

“Where do you go during the day?” Gina said. “You’re gone every time I wake up. I’m starting to think you never sleep.”

Russell smiled as Gina handed him an opened can of beans. “I sleep. You just sleep longer… and you snore.”

“Do not.” She opened her can of beans with her hunting knife.

Russell continued, “I’ve been keeping an eye on our friends at the airport and searching the forest for anything we can use.”

“You mean anything you can use to make my training more… exciting… right?”

He winked at her.

Gina started eating her beans with a plastic spoon. “So… anything new happening down at the airport?”

“You always ask me that.”

“Yeah,” she said. “And you always say the same damn thing!”

He raised his eyebrows and said, “They’re still there…”

“…and we’re still here… got it, asshole,” she laughed. “Translation: Nothing’s changed.”

“There… now you’re answering your own questions,” he teased. “I call that progress.”

“Just eat your damn beans.”

They sat in comfortable silence for a couple of minutes, enjoying the fuel. Training at night was very exhilarating… but also exhausting.

Gina finally looked up from her empty can and watched as Marcus appeared to study the beans on his spoon. “Not hungry?” she said.

“I’m just… thinking.”

“You’re always thinking,” she said, pointing her spoon toward him. “I swear your face only has two expressions: Stone face or Constipated face… like the one you’re wearing now.”

Russell smirked. “Well… in all fairness… we have been eating cold canned food.”

Gina laughed. “So… when are you going to share those heavy thoughts you’ve been hiding? I know you’re working on an attack plan for the airport.”

“Patience, Gina… remember? We’ll talk plans after we’ve trained.”

“Yeah… yeah… yeah.” She shifted gears. “You know, this is kind of nice. Eating beans out in the wild and just bullshitting with a friend. Hell, you and I never had this kind of time together… not since the tracks out of Percy.”

“The good old days,” he said with a smile. “As I recall, things got busier the bigger our little group became.”

“Yeah,” she said with a sad note in her voice. “They certainly did.”

“Do you miss it?” He abruptly said. “You know, being in charge of so many people?”

Gina frowned and studied the inside of her can. “No… I really don’t. I think I was addicted to the action being the leader afforded… but none of the rest.”

“You had your moments,” Russell defended.

Gina rolled her eyes. “Bullshit, Marcus. Stephen… now that’s someone who can lead. I was just good in the… crisis situations. Hell… I only felt comfortable when shit was hitting the fan… that’s when I knew what to do. But that long winter in the compound… with no enemy to fight… that was hard… very hard.”

“Well,” Russell said, putting his beans down. “You may not have been the ideal choice for leadership while everyone was hiding beneath the ground, but when it came to our backs up against the wall… you always rose to the occasion… and I mean that.”

“Thank you, Marcus. That means something coming from you.”

“You’re welcome.” Russell got up to put some wood on the fire.

She watched the strange man and said, “I’m surprised I never asked before… but… how do you know so damn much about fighting and all that other ninja shit? Were you in the military or something?”

“No,” he said, sitting back down. “I took advantage of several opportunities presented to me when I was young… and simply adapted.”

“‘Adapted’? Really? That’s all I’m going to get? Come on, Marcus. It’s just you and me out here. No more secrets. You already know too damn much about my shit.”

Russell gave her a serious look, nodded, then said, “I was once a defenseless child in a world where I was led to believe monsters did not exist. After I learned the truth, I chose not to be defenseless ever again. When you make a commitment like that at an early age… the ability to fight finds you.”

“Cryptic as ever,” Gina said with a laugh. “I might as well be listening to a fortune cookie speak.”

Russell frowned and stared into the fire.

“Well, I’m beat,” Gina said, getting up. “Maybe one of these days you’ll decide to open up to me. But I’ll respect your privacy until you-”

“I witnessed my mother and her secret lover murder my father.”

Gina froze.

He turned to her and continued. “That was after finding out my mother had been poisoning my food to murder me, too.”

Gina sat back down. “Marcus… I… don’t know what to say. That… that must have been horrible.”

“Life-altering,” he corrected. “But that’s all I’m going to say about that old life, Gina, so please… don’t ask anymore. It’s all irrelevant. But… I’ve just told you more in two sentences about me than I’ve told anyone. So, don’t think that I don’t appreciate what you’ve shared with me… because I do.”

She smiled uncomfortably. “Okay.”

Russell hesitated, then said, “There is one more thing I want to tell you… about my past.”

Gina’s face went pale as she reminded herself to breathe. “Sure… go ahead and tell me, Marcus. I’m listening.”

He smiled at her and finished, “I once had a cat named Mr. Patches.”

~~~

Next Episode 45-7

Previous Episode 45-5

~~~

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__________________________________________
“Chapter 45-6: 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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~~~

Russell stood behind a tree on the top of a ridge on the southern border of the forest and studied the structures surrounding the small airport terminal. Aside from the armed men who vigilantly patrolled the area in pairs, there was no other activity revealing what was happening down in that camp, especially from within those structures.

“Seems quiet,” he said, turning to Gina. “If there was a massive search to find the man you… to find him, they’ve either given up on the search, found his body already, or… they never bothered to search the woods at all.”

Gina nodded, pacing anxiously from three feet back. On the thirteenth morning of her exile, she’d finally convinced Marcus to come with her to the airport. After carefully advancing through the woods, avoiding the dead along with Mother’s potential patrols, they had found a better vantage point to observe the airport undetected. “His name was John… John Sterling,” she said.

“Of course.”

“I don’t believe he was lying to me,” she added. “He was genuinely afraid of these people. Maybe… maybe they don’t realize he’s missing yet?”

“Perhaps. But unlikely. If this group is associated with Mother, then we can’t rule out the possibility that they simply him go.”

“Yeah, I thought of that,” Gina said. “What do you mean ‘if’?”

Russell sighed. “I’m not doubting you, Gina. I’m just trying to add up the facts. From what I’ve observed, there doesn’t seem to be any sense of urgency at that camp. We’ve seen no one in these woods. It looks exactly as you described it to me when you first found the airport, other than it looks like they doubled up on the guards. And that could be attributed to your gunfire the other night. Did this… John… actually say the group at the airport was Mother, or did you say it, and then he agreed with you?”

Gina looked irritated. “You weren’t there, Marcus. The way he described these people… how dangerous they were… how terrified he was to get away… no… he never actually called them ‘Mother’… but he might as well have. That’s them Marcus! I’m sure of it.”

“Okay. Let’s assume that for the time being,” Russell said. “What do you suggest we do about it now? Whoever this Lady Clementine is, we’re clearly not going to get to her. She’s well defended down there.”

Gina stopped pacing. “I haven’t figured that all out yet. I just wanted to show you what we’re dealing with. So… you know… we could start coming up with a plan.”

“A plan to kill this woman, who may or may not be the leader of Mother?”

Gina suddenly wanted to push Marcus off the ridge. Since rescuing her from the farmhouse two days ago, Marcus had done everything he could to avoid coming out here. He’d insisted that she rest yesterday at the ruins camp while he retrieved her weapons bag from the forest. After that, they’d played “catch up”, when she had a chance to fill him in with more details about what John Sterling had told her.

Marcus had told her about his three weeks with the mysterious woman who had saved him from the fall off the cliff, or some of it, since it was clear he was holding back.

Every time she’d mentioned the airport, Marcus had found some way to stall, complaining about his own ankle needing rest, or that they needed to recover some of the food she’d hidden in the woods. Finally, she got him to come out here, and now, he was treating her like an idiot.

“If you don’t want to do this, Marcus, just say so. But stop trying to get me to doubt myself. I know who these people are, and I intend to make them pay for what they’ve done!”

Russell frowned. “Sorry, Gina. I’m just trying to keep you alive… again. I don’t care who those people are. What I do know is that they’re heavily armed, and apparently, content to stay right where they’re at. Why stir up the hornet’s nest?”

“Because they’re fucking Mother, that’s why! Do I need to remind you of how many friends we’ve lost directly or indirectly because of them?”

Russell shook his head. “No. I understand. But we’re clearly outnumbered here. We just can’t sneak into their camp, find this leader, and then kill her, and expect everything to be square again. Do I need to remind you of how well that worked out last time when we killed those kids who shot Greg?”

Gina felt like he’d just slapped her across the face. “That was different… and you know it!”

“Do I, Gina? You were seeing red then, just as you are now. Going after these people with rage in your heart is just going to get us killed.”

“Fuck you!” she growled. “Don’t you dare make this about me!”

Russell changed tactics. “Then prove it to me. Why should I risk my life on such a dangerous endeavor just because you clearly don’t value your own life?”

Gina was about to speak, then stopped. She turned away and started walking. “We’ve seen enough. Let’s get back before it gets dark.”

Russell shook his head.

Fuck me, boss. With that temper she could set this whole fucking forest ablaze! We’re not really gonna get into that mess down there, are we? As much as I enjoy a good slaughter… I don’t enjoy the thought of getting filled with bullet holes. Seems like a suicide mission.

We will do what we must, Russell thought back.

I don’t like the sound of that, boss. Not… one… bit. What’s your game plan here?

Russell smiled, and offered nothing.

He silently followed Gina back toward the ruins camp.

Russell continued to calculate.

~~~

They hadn’t spoken much since returning to the ruins camp and Russell wisely kept his distance, allowing Gina time to simmer down as he collected wood to build a new fire in the ancient stone fireplace.

Gina had kept busy by making another inventory of their small supply of weapons before dark and then patrolled the small perimeter of their camp to privately sulk. Between the two of them, they shared one shotgun with four full boxes of shells, two handguns—she’d lost her other gun with the silencer. Six boxes of 9mm ammunition. Two hunting knives. And of course, one machete.

They sat down to share a cold canned meal. Gina finally broke the silence.

“I’m sorry for being so damn… hot-headed. You’re right. I was acting impulsively because I’m so damn… angry.”

“It’s alright, Gina. I’m sort of used to it.”

She glared at him.

He smiled with a wink causing her to lower her shields and laugh.

“I guess you are,” she said. “It is good to have you here. Being alone out here has made me… volatile… more so than usual.”

“You’ve been living on the edge, Gina. A little bit of volatile mixed with paranoia is to be expected… if you want to survive.”

“Well, that doesn’t give me an excuse to be a crazy woman. You’re right. I really need to calm down and think things through.” She then added emphasis. “But I am going to kill that woman, with or without your help.”

Russell gave her a thoughtful glance. “May I ask a question without you getting upset?”

“Probably not… but go ahead.”

“Say we go down to that airport and slaughter everyone, will you be satisfied?”

Gina gave him a strange look. “I didn’t say ‘everyone’… just the leader. You know, like chopping the head off the fucking snake and causing the rest to scatter. And what do you mean, ‘satisfied’?”

“Well,” Russell carefully said. “Leaders come, leaders go. Surely Mother has other camps with other leaders. So, unless you intend to hunt them all down wherever they are, and kill every last person associated with Mother, there’s no guarantee that attacking the airport will accomplish anything.”

“Yeah, but it’s a start,” Gina defended. “Mother is much bigger than this airport camp, I know that, but maybe this is the only camp they have left around here. We’ve already stopped them at the compound and seized that place. Maybe by eliminating them at the airport, our friends will have a little more time to breathe and figure shit out.”

“So… you believe that striking this camp, and this leader, will make a difference?”

“I don’t know, Marcus,” she said. “For all we know, that airport is a central staging area for everything they’re doing, and planning to do, to everyone and everything on this side of the Interstate. If taking that one snake out will mess up their agenda… even for a few months… then I believe it’s worth it. Let Mother have the rest of the fucking world… for now. But they won’t be here. Not in my damn backyard!”

Russell nodded. “And you would risk your life to achieve this… even if it was temporary fix?”

“Absolutely,” she said. “Our lives have been in the ‘temporary’ status since the beginning of all this bullshit. I’ll do whatever it takes to give the people I care about one more damn day out in this mess.”

“But… they kicked you out, Gina. Why does it matter if you can’t have one more day with them?”

Gina sighed heavily and nodded. “Yeah. I hear what you’re saying, Marcus. I do. But I don’t resent them for exiling me. They probably did themselves and me a huge favor.”

“How so?”

She smiled. “I’m not like them, Marcus… probably never was.” She looked around at the trees and inhaled deeply with a smile. “I’m getting used to this… getting used to me. With the others, I questioned everything I did. I felt… well… I felt wrong.”

Russell raised an eyebrow in surprise. “What does that mean?”

Gina laughed lightly. “Shit, Marcus. I’ve done horrible things… and justified them in the name of the greater fucking good. What kind of person does that make me?”

“No. You did what you had to do, Gina. The world was never so black and white, light or dark… it’s always been this way… like it is now. Life and death are one in the same. The only difference is that all those morality illusions from that obsolete world have been stripped away. Only the truth remains… as it’s always been.”

She shook her head with a smile. “Most of the time, I can’t follow your logic, Marcus. I’ve tried but failed. But then again, you’ve always had an unusual perspective of this new world. You probably understand it more than anyone I know… even if I don’t. But I’m starting to understand my place in it.”

Russell grinned from ear to ear. “And what is Gina Melborn’s place in this new world?”

Gina smiled and looked out at the trees. “I belong out here, in the dark. There’s no judgment out here. I do what I must, when I must, and… frankly… I find it-”

“Liberating?” Russell finished.

She laughed. “Yeah. That’s a good word for it. Say what you will, Marcus, but the others, my family, they belong in the light where there’s rules to follow and consequences for breaking them. And they need them to feel good about themselves. But… there aren’t any rules out here… not anymore. Good, bad, indifferent… doesn’t matter. Out here, I can just be myself, no matter how dark or ugly that really is. I don’t know if that qualifies me as evil or not, but what I do know is that I can help them… and those who belong in that light… by operating the way in need to out here… in the darkness. And that is my place, Marcus… for better or worse.”

Russell was speechless. He felt like he was no longer listening to the words of his friend, but rather, the words of the Lady, herself, manifesting through this unique woman.

Do you see it now? he thought. Can you understand now why the Lady finds this one so precious?

For once, the savage remained silent.

“Well, say something?” Gina said. “You’re starting to make me feel like a freak for saying all that.”

Russell laughed. “That’s the last thing I would ever think about you, Gina. You are… very special to me.” He looked away, genuinely embarrassed.

She smiled. “I feel the same about you, Marcus. And not in a weird, I’ve-been-alone-in-the-woods-too-long sort of way, either. So, just relax.” She added a wink.

Russell smiled. “I completely understand. You and I… well… our relationship doesn’t require anything further.”

“Are you saying that we’re not going to fuck each other’s brains out after dinner?”

“Excuse me?”

“Gotcha,” she teased.

Russell relaxed. “I wouldn’t have put it so… bluntly… but, yes… no fucking required.”

This made Gina snort with laughter.

Russell laughed and nodded. “I’ll help you.”

Gina stopped. “Seriously? I mean… you’re right… I don’t want you risking your life for my crazy shit. That’s the last thing I want. I’ve lost too many friends already, so I’d completely understand if you’d rather-”

“But if we’re going to go after this leader… Lady Clementine… and we want a chance at succeeding… then we’ll have to do this my way.”

Gina folded her arms across her chest and smiled. “I’m fine with that. I know you’re good at the ninja stuff. Why do you think I dragged you to that fucking airport in the first place?”

“It will require some patience from you, Gina,” Russell said. “We can’t rush in with anger and expect to succeed with this mission. Can you be… patient?”

She sighed. “I can try. What are you thinking?”

Russell smiled. “I’m thinking that you and I need to prepare for this mission.”

“Which means?”

Russell added cryptically with a devilish smile, “If you’re going to live in the darkness in order to serve the light, you’ll need some training in how to do some very dark things.”

~~~

Next Episode 45-6

Previous Episode 45-4

~~~

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__________________________________________
“Chapter 45-5: 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.

~~~

After escaping the farmhouse, Russell and Gina fled northeast into the forest for about half-a-mile, dodging the dead, before reaching the top of a tall ridge that plateaued out before an ancient stone foundation—the remnants of a house from another time, hidden in the wilderness. The only other structure still intact was the bottom portion of an old stone fireplace—everything else had been reclaimed by nature.

Russell helped Gina into the foundation and laid her down beside the raised hearth. She tried to get up but was overpowered by exhaustion and passed out almost immediately. Since leaving the farmhouse, Gina had pushed with all the strength she had left to help Russell manage, struggling in and out of consciousness several times on the ascent up the ridge. But now, she was spent.

Russell examined the surrounding area. The top of the ridge afforded them excellent cover and the advantage of higher ground on two sides. They would be safe up here… for now.

What do we do now, boss?

For once, the other one wasn’t demanding Gina’s immediate slaughter. Clearly, what they both witnessed last night left as much an impression on the savage as it did Russell. Gina had brutally murdered a man. This changed the game considerably. Russell was just grateful to have the beast under submission for the time being, but he knew that wouldn’t last. He needed to know what the Lady wanted him to do now… and he needed to know quickly.

“We’ll stay up here tonight.” Russell kept his voice down while gathering branches to make a fire. “We’ll do what we’ve always done and keep Gina safe. The rest will reveal itself, I’m sure of it.”

It felt wonderful slashing up that family of little piggies, boss. Did you see the look on the mother’s face when we-

“We did what was necessary to keep Gina safe,” Russell interrupted. “Besides, they let that little girl die in the field when they should have been watching out for her.”

The other one laughed. My, oh, my, boss. I’m always forgettin’ that soft spot you have for the kiddies. If it didn’t infuriate me so damn much, I might find it endearing.

“Just… revel in your bloodshed privately, savage. I need time to think this through.”

Anything you say, boss. I’m full for the moment. But don’t take too long. You know what kind of appetite I have.

Indeed, he did.

~~~

Gina sluggishly opened her eyes and felt the warmth of the fire coming from the fireplace. It was night. She sat up with alarm as disorientation set in.

“It’s okay, Gina. We’re safe.” Russell approached from just outside the stone foundation carrying a bundle of dead tree branches. He set them down near the hearth and then sat down across from Gina.

She ran a hand through her mangled hair and yawned. “Fuck me, how long?”

Russell smiled. “You’ve slept the whole day away. Sun just set an hour ago.”

“Sorry. I… shit… I feel like a fucking idiot.”

“No apology needed. You were exhausted and pretty banged up, especially judging by that nasty bruise on your side. I’m surprised you made it this far. Your pain threshold must be considerable.”

“And… where are we?”

“Not too far from where I found you,” Russell said. “We climbed up this ridge and found this old place. It’s safe, unless the dead-heads have evolved into better climbers.”

Gina laughed. She felt pain in her side, but it was not as bad as before. “I thought I’d broken a rib or two. Guess I caught a break for the second time today.” She then looked at her old friend and smiled. “Thanks for saving my ass… again.”

Russell laughed. “I think I’m getting really good at it. Lots of practice.”

Gina frowned. “I thought… shit… I thought you were dead. After everything else that’s happened, I left you behind in those burning woods, too.”

“Not your fault, Gina. It was a crazy time. You had every reason to believe I was dead. As I recall, the forest was on fire at the time. I’d be a liar if I didn’t say that the thought crossed my mind you all might have perished, as well.”

“What happened to you?”

Russell smiled. “I ran right off a cliff… and lived to tell about it.”

“How the hell did you survive that?”

“I landed in a tree. It broke my fall… mostly. Then someone found me, a woman, she brought me back to her cabin, and nursed me back to health. Unfortunately, she died afterwards.”

Yeah, it was fucking Disneyworld, the savage injected. As she fed me magic mushrooms—the ‘not fun’ kind—she tried to mind fuck me and ride the wild pony at the same time!

You’re not helping, Russell fired back.

Sorry, boss. But if anyone ever offers us a goddamn cup of chicken noodle soup ever again—I’m going postal. Just sayin’.

Russell covered his mouth to hide a smile.

“That sucks,” Gina said. “I’m sorry for your friend. But I’m glad she found you. So, what happened after? Did you make it back to the compound?”

“I was held up for three weeks at that cabin… but yes. You were already… gone… when I got back.”

Gina averted her eyes. “You can go ahead and say it. I was ‘exiled’.”

“Yes, I’d heard that. Something about those men you sent away over the winter?” Russell baited.

“I… shot them,” Gina said. “And… I wanted to.” She was surprised by the admission.

Damn, boss. She’s a stone-cold killer. How did we miss the memo?

“Well, enough of all that,” Russell said. “I don’t care how you ended up out here. We go way back and I’m sure you had your reasons. I’m just glad I found you.”

Gina looked up and smiled. “I’m ecstatic to see you… and that you’re alive. It’s been difficult out here alone. I can’t even remember how long I’ve been gone.”

“Eleven days now,” Russell said. “As soon as I got back and found out what happened, I came after you.”

Gina’s eyebrows went up. “Eleven days. It feels so much longer. I guess time changes out here.” She drifted back. “And… how was everyone? Did you see… Tony?”

Russell looked away with a frown. “Yes, I did. Right before I left, in fact.”

“So, he sent you after me? Is he out here somewhere, too? And how’s Meredith? Stephen? Damn—I’m babbling. I guess I didn’t realize how much I missed you all.”

Russell said nothing.

“What is it?” she said. “Is everyone okay? Is… Tony alright?”

“We talked. Tony seemed… upset.”

Gina shook her head. “Yeah, he blames himself for turning me in. But I talked to him afterwards. He knows I don’t hold it against him. I was pretty fucked-up at the time. He did the right thing.”

“That’s not why he was upset,” Russell lied. He shifted uncomfortably to support the lie.

“What is it, Marcus?”

Russell sighed. “He… I think he needed someone to unload on. I just happened to be there. He was concerned about what was happening to you… and how ‘dark’ you’d become.”

“He said that?” Gina shifted. “He actually said, ‘dark’?”

“In so many words, yes. I tried to console him and let him know that the world was different now, that we all had to adapt to that world, but he still seemed… disquieted.”

“So… what? He’s worried that I’m getting… worse? Is that why he sent you after me? To bring me back?”

“He didn’t send me, Gina. In fact, none of them did. They all believe your dangerous.”

“No… no, they wouldn’t believe that… they couldn’t… could they?”

“When I talked to Tony, I got the impression that they’d all been talking about what to do about you, especially since they were leaving.”

“Leaving? Where are they going?”

“I think they finally believe the Shadow Dead are a serious threat, especially now that the winter’s over.”

“I’ve been telling them that since we fucking moved in down there!”

“Well, Gina, they’re finally listening. I believe they were talking about going into Pennsylvania… I’m not sure. I’d just returned. But I do know they are definitely leaving the compound.”

“Well… good,” she said indignantly. “I may have done some shitty things, but I did try to warn them… prepare them… even if they all think I’m fucking ‘dangerous’.”

“I believe Tony was wrestling with the decision the hardest, but in the end, even he decided that leaving you out here was for the best. Especially after finding out what happened in Andover… when we killed those kids that shot Greg.”

Gina was stunned. “He read it? He read my letter? I never knew he did that.”

“Yes, I believe he did,” Russell lied. “He spoke about it for some length. Of course, I didn’t help matters when I opened my big mouth trying to defend your actions.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Honestly, Gina. I thought he already knew. When he kept talking about your ‘darkness’, and all those things you did, I tried to explain that you had a rough go of it after being raped at the beginning-”

Gina covered her mouth and gasped. “You talked to him about that? Fuck!”

“Sorry, Gina. Again, I thought he already knew.”

Tears were streaming down her cheeks. “And… and what did he say when he found out?”

Russell’s shoulders dropped. “At first, he was angry at himself, then… well… I think he was angry with you. I believe he felt betrayed that you didn’t share that with him. He started wondering how many more secrets you were keeping and-”

“Betrayed! Are you fucking kidding me?! I get gang raped and he’s angry… with me? I kept that from him to protect him!”

Russell held up his hands. “Please, Gina. Calm down. I believe he was just in shock. He never knew. Hell… he almost attacked me after I told him. Anyway, he started questioning everything after that. I believe he feels betrayed because of all of it. Andover, how you made him cover for you, finding out about the rape from me when he feels like you should’ve come to him… Before I left to find you, he told me to ‘leave it alone’, his exact words. When I asked him what he meant, all he said was, ‘We can’t afford any more secrets. Gina’s where she belongs now. It’s safer for all of us this way’.”

Gina was speechless. She sat motionless, staring into the fire, her thoughts a million miles away.

Damn, boss! I thought you said we weren’t gonna cut this bitch open. But here you are, rippin’ her fuckin’ heart right out of her chest!

She needs this, Russell thought back. Gina needs to believe that there is no going back. She must move forward now. It is her destiny. It is ‘our’ destiny to see this through to the end… as the Lady demands it.

Whatever you say, boss. Dress it up any way you want, but I know a slaughter when I see one.

“He’s right,” Gina finally said. “Tony’s right. They’re all right. This is for the best. I knew this before you found me, Marcus. I guess seeing you brought it all back… all that I couldn’t have… all that I didn’t know I still wanted. I am dangerous and full of secrets.”

Yes, you most certainly are, and you most certainly do, Russell thought.

You two ‘are’ the same, boss. Hell, I’m startin’ to understand what makes this piggy so damn glorious! It’s like lookin’ into a goddamn mirror or something! Except she’s got better tits.

Gina turned and looked at Marcus. “Well, I’m glad you’re here, Marcus. You’ve never judged me. Perhaps it’s fitting that you’ve arrived to save my ass this final time. I can’t think of anyone better to have at my side for what’s coming next.”

Russell was genuinely surprised. “And what’s that, Gina?”

She looked back toward the fire. “I think we were both destined to be in these woods. Until you showed up, I thought this was my punishment… but now… I’m seeing the bigger picture.”

Fuck, boss, did she just say ‘destiny’?

Russell waited.

Gina continued to stare into the fire—half her expressionless face illuminated by the flames, the other half, hidden in shadow. “I murdered a man last night,” she finally said.

Oh, we know, you fuckin’ psychopath… we know, the other one laughed.

“Go on, Gina,” Russell calmly prodded. “Like you said, I’m not here to judge you.”

“I’m not going to lie to you, Marcus. It wasn’t in self-defense. I think… I think I always intended to do it. That’s why I knocked him out and dragged him up the river with me. Maybe I didn’t know at the time… but I’m pretty sure of it now. And after… after this man said what he said to me… part of me felt like I was supposed to kill him… that it all made sense… somehow. I blamed it on the rage… but I know better.” She turned to Russell and finished, “And you know what, Marcus… I don’t feel bad about what I did.”

Russell treaded carefully. “Do you… do you think it was your destiny to kill this man?”

“I don’t know. But I do know that I’m not done killing.”

Russell’s eyebrows shot up.

Gina continued. “I can’t live in the past… I know that now. There’s nothing left for me there. There’s only this moment, followed by the next, and the next one after that… and somewhere in one of those moments, I’m quite certain I’m going to reach my end.” Gina eyes lit up. She smiled like the devil. “But I also know that you and I have been brought here to end something first.”

Russell smiled back. “And what’s that, Gina?”

“We’re going to end all this bullshit once and for all, and make sure our friends, our family, have a chance to survive in this shit-hole world.”

Russell waited.

Gina glared at him and finished, “We’re going to assassinate the queen bitch herself—the fucking leader of Mother.”

~~~

Next Episode 45-5

Previous Episode 45-3

~~~

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__________________________________________
“Chapter 45-4: 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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Thanks again for all your support and for reading.

-Scott

~~~

We are finishing this, boss. Ya’ can’t hold me back for much longer… and you fuckin’ know it!

“No!” Russell ducked down, avoiding the arms of the monster, and swung the machete just below the knees of the dead man wearing blood-stained jeans. The tall zombie with long black hair fell forward to the ground like a rotting tree after the maniac severed its lower legs.

The former man, resembling a lead singer in some ‘80’s rock band, continued to crawl toward him, screeching in frustration toward his elusive prey.

Russell rolled to his feet and walked past the corpse as two more maneuvered through the trees to get to him.

Ya’ think this is good enough, boss? This is pathetic! It’s like poking sticks at week-old road kill… this is fuckin’ unacceptable!

“You want to kill something! Well… here’s you damn chance, savage! Get your fill because we’re not going after Gina!” Russell dismembered the right arm of a mangled woman wearing the torn remains of a filthy red dress. He then kicked it in the stomach, knocking it back into a shirtless teenage boy with half its rotting rib cage sticking out. They both fell to the ground and Russell quickly removed their heads with two deadly swings with the machete.

Several more dead things were approaching through the maze of dense trees.

Russell took advantage of the lull to catch his breath and try to calm down. His insides were burning with the blood lust as he continued to take out his need for brutality on the worthless woodland creatures.

THIS IS NOT GOOD ENOUGH! The savage yelled within his head. LET ME KILL THE FUCKIN’ BITCH… NOW!

“I… said… NO!” Russell hacked at a small tree repeatedly, sending fresh shards of wood into the air. He could smell the pine bark from the young tree. It reminded him of Pine-Sol, which made him imagine the smell of bleach—both he’d used in his former life to clean up the other one’s messes. Russell regained control… barely.

For two days he’d followed Gina south, deeper into the forest. She’d chosen to travel at the base of a small valley along a river while he traveled along the top, staying as far back as he could without losing her and avoiding cutting Gina to pieces. As a result, he’d wandered into a heavily populated portion of the forest and the dead were hungry. Instead of trying to avoid them and stay hidden, Russell had chosen to take out his need to spill blood on the re-animated corpses, hoping the savage would stop pushing.

But like the dead, the savage was relentless. After Russell had failed to deliver the golden goddess, the other one had become extremely difficult to manage.

Russell rammed the end of the machete into the mushy face of a slender naked girl. Slender was not the right word as Russell was immediately reminded of a rotting tomato. The girl’s dark skin was wrinkled and barely covering her skeletal frame. The tomato girl collapsed to the ground in a pile of sickening flesh. He could hear her bones rip through skin as it fell.

More were coming.

This is pointless, boss. They won’t stop. Neither will I. You’re gonna get tired and feed these bitches if ya’ keep fighting back! Even if you get away, you’ll have to rest eventually… then I’ll take control.

“Shut the fuck up!” Russell, in a fit of rage, hacked at a short bald man with a large bite mark in his left cheek. The bald man’s grimy t-shirt was ripped open at the chest as Russell hacked into it, sending pieces of rotting innards spilling to the forest floor.

Russell’s intensity finally quieted the other one, as the savage went back into hiding with a mocking laugh. You win this round, boss. But I’m gonna gut that bitch after sundown. So, keep on biting at the dead if it makes you feel better… but I’m gonna take care of business very, very soon. Try not to dull the blade on the dead meat.

And just like that, Russell was back in full control. He immediately ran off away from the dead, losing most of them in the thick foliage. His lungs hurt. His arms felt heavy. His body ached from overexertion. He circled back toward the valley and found a large tree leaning along the edge with half its root system exposed, sticking out beneath the edge. He crawled down over the edge and beneath the tangle of roots and laid still. His eye lids felt like skyscrapers, but he refused to close them. Russell concentrated on breathing and clearing his thoughts. He started calculating the time it would take to catch up to Gina and if he could keep his distance until the next morning. But the answer was obvious.

No.

Deep down he knew the other one was correct. He could fight him off all damn day, but after the sun went down, the savage would return and take charge. Russell would be too exhausted to resist.

And Gina would be dead long before dawn.

He thought about the other night before Gina’s campfire. Had he really heard the Lady speaking through the corpse of the young zombie girl who resembled Ashley? “Not yet”, she’d said. Or, like the insanity that spawned the savage voice within him long ago, was he just hearing what he wanted to hear… what he needed to hear… to keep from slaughtering his-

Friend?

Russell’s conflicted emotions were the new enemy. He needed to know what was happening within. Was the Lady really guiding his actions now, or was he betraying her because of… Marcus?

One way or the other, he had until nightfall to learn the truth.

After losing the dead, Russell forced his heavy eyelids open, crawled out from beneath the tree roots, and then climbed down into the small valley to follow Gina. He decided to close the gap between them, convincing himself that he did not want to risk losing her in the vast forest before dusk. But deep down, from the dark primal place, images of the red-headed woman lying in a crimson pool, her vibrant green eyes staring back at him before becoming vacant—her blood dripping from the tip of his hunting knife—all of this compelled him forward.

Russell’s hands shook with anticipation which made him feel nauseous.

Closer… closer… closer…

~~~

What the fuck have you gotten us into, boss? I leave for a spell, and now, we’re surrounded by ghouls while the golden bitch is havin’ a tea party with her new boy-toy down by the river. I still can’t believe she dragged his ass all the way here.

“Be still,” Russell whispered. He quietly repositioned himself on the tree branch overlooking Gina’s camp below, while the dead slithered in the darkness near the base of the large pine tree he used as an observation post, just at the top of the other side of the valley. He could make out Gina’s silhouette sitting before her tied up prisoner. She was holding a cupped flashlight and using it to monitor the stranger like a hawk. It appeared they were talking. Russell was too far away to overhear them.

This changes nothing, boss. As soon as the two of them let their guards down, I’m gonna go down there and slit their fuckin’ throats. Two little piggies are always better than one—lots more blood that way.

Russell tried to distract the savage. “Why did she take him with her?” he whispered. “She clearly could’ve left him behind after knocking him out.”

She’s fuckin’ lonely, boss. Hell, even a woman like that needs a good stirring between the legs after a while.

Russell ignored him. “She’s made it clear that she values her isolation. The stranger must have said something to her, something that made him valuable.”

Or maybe he just has the biggest cock available, boss. Slim pickings these days.

“There’s something happening. We should’ve spent more time investigating the airport. That’s where the stranger-”

Stop fuckin’ stalling, boss. It’s not gonna work. Doesn’t matter where the other piggy came from. Might as well get your blade ready ‘cause we’re gonna skin the golden goddess tonight. I’m gonna cut her eyes out when I’m finished and feed ‘em to the dead. You and I both know she ‘ain’t shit without those precious fuckin’ eyes.

“We… can’t.”

Oh… but we can, boss… and we will.

“The Lady has forbidden it… for now. Gina’s not ready.”

Don’t start in with that horseshit again, boss. You didn’t hear shit. That bitch is still alive ‘cause you hesitated. You’ve lost your way, boss. Been spendin’ too much time makin’ friends when you should’ve been partin’ ways… if you catch my drift.

“That’s not… true.”

Of course it is, boss. You’ve become as soft as all those little piggies, lettin’ them fill your head with all their piggy ways. Now you think you’re one of them. But don’t worry. I’ll get us back on track. There’s nothin’ broken that a good old slaughter can’t fix.

Russell was surprised to find the hunting knife back in his hand. The sight of it both repulsed and excited him. He closed his eyes, tried to shut out the savage, and whispered into the darkness, “Lady, what would you have me do? Is… is it Gina’s time? I need confirmation… anything… anything at all.”

The savage was laughing inside his head.

You’re a damn fool, boss. You, your golden goddess, and your whore of a Lady can fuck-

From the bottom of the small valley, Gina’s voice was getting louder. She was now on her feet. The dead were getting riled up beneath the tree, responding to Gina’s rage.

Perfect, boss. You’re precious Gina’s picked a hell of a time to have a hissy! Time to relocate before the whole damn forest-

“Wait!” Russell eyes went wide. “Look… what is she doing with the axe?”

Both Russell and the savage watched in wonder as Gina suddenly raised her hand axe and brought it down into the stranger’s shoulder.

Oh… I could feel that, boss.

Russell could not move.

The stranger started screaming.

Gina brought the axe down again… and again… and again.

Holy shit, boss! I didn’t see that coming! Gina just hacked that piggy to pieces!

Russell was smiling. “She’s finally embraced it… all of it,” he whispered excitedly.

Your golden goddess can put on one helluva show, boss! I think I just creamed my pants… well, your pants!

From all around the forest, the dead were moving in toward Gina’s location. The scent of the fresh kill, along with the screams had aroused them into a frenzy as the beasts started falling off the cliff, stumbling down into the valley.

Time to go, boss.

“Do you see now?” Russell asked, his sharp tone demanding attention. “Do you understand now what you almost did, you fucking mindless beast?”

The other one remained silent.

“The reason the Lady stayed my hand was to show us THIS!”

What was that, boss? the other one asked timidly.

Russell laughed out loud, surprising the savage.

“All this time… and I never saw the obvious!”

What, boss? What does it all mean?

Russell shook his head and laughed again. “We’re not here to deliver Gina to the Lady… Gina is here to deliver us!”

But that would mean… the other one was confused.

“Let me put the cookies on the bottom shelf for you, savage. We’re here to finish what the Lady has started, because Gina is like us now. After a little more pushing… and some fine tuning… the real hunt will begin!”

Killer vs. Killer, boss? Shit… that never happens!

“No, it certainly does not,” Russell said. “And we will see to it that it does, savage.”

Okay… boss. The other one retreated into the maniac’s mind.

Russell smiled wickedly and began calculating as he watched Gina ascend the cliff, bloody hand axe still in hand, as she fled into the night.

~~~

Next Episode 45-4

Previous Episode 45-2

~~~

If you’re enjoying Don’t Feed The Dark so far, please consider voting for it on Top Web Fiction and Top Site List by clicking the links below. This will help increase its visibility and draw in more potential readers. No registration is required. Thanks for your support and for reading :)

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__________________________________________
“Chapter 45-3: 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.

~~~

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

~~~

If you’re enjoying Don’t Feed The Dark so far, please consider voting for it on Top Web Fiction and Top Site List by clicking the links below. This will help increase its visibility and draw in more potential readers. No registration is required. Thanks for your support and for reading :)

Vote for DFTD at topwebfiction

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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.

~~~

Gina Melborn’s trail went cold once Russell Bower departed the Wasteland woods and entered the much larger forest. What made tracking her difficult was the abundance of the dead that flourished in these new woods, creating false trails all over the place. Since leaving the underground compound four days ago, he’d pushed too hard on his sprained right ankle, slowing down the healing process and forcing him to rest it more than he desired. Gina had been living in exile for six days now, which meant she could be anywhere in these dangerous woods. As nightfall approached, all Russell knew was that it appeared Gina had chosen to stay just south of the interstate, perhaps using it to forage for supplies.

As evening twilight dwindled to black, Russell caught the faint traces of a campfire through the thick forest foliage. He stopped to rest behind a large tree trunk as he considered his next move.

Do you think that’s her, boss? Have we finally found the bitch at last?

Russell closed his eyes and took deep breaths, trying to ignore the savage who had done nothing but push and push for blood ever since leaving the compound. The other one had made tracking Gina, while staying invisible from the dead, increasingly difficult, as Russell continuously struggled to maintain focus… and control.

He stared down at his shaking hands, feeling like an addict suffering from withdrawals. He lifted his right hand in front of his face, staring at the black leather glove he now wore to conceal his branded palm. “Be patient,” he scolded. “All you ever want to do is rush right in to every situation.”

Fuck patience, boss! We’re free now. Free to do whatever we want, when we want. If not for your fuckin’ quest for the golden goddess, promising me again and again that we’d be bathing in her blood, we could’ve been roamin’ the countryside, all free-style like, slashin’ and dashin’ on the local bumpkins. Ya’ know we’ve seen signs of some truly unrighteous kill potentials out here.

“You’d like that,” Russell hissed. “You’d like nothing more than for me to let you off your leash so we could just go slaughter anything that moved.”

Damn straight, boss. And why the hell not? Your fuckin’ way hasn’t yielded any results in a very long time. All this damn prentendin’ to be somethin’ we’re not. Tryin’ to fit in and become some goddamn member of a group of piggies who have done nothin’ but put us in harms way, is getting’ fuckin’ OLD!

“Be silent!” he hissed.

No fuckin’ way! I’m tired of lettin’ you run the show, boss! You promised me blood, and I mean to get dirty!

“Soon.”

YOU PROMISED!

Russell was surprised to discover that he had retrieved the machete, holding it fiercely in his non-branded hand. He let go of the weapon, made a fist, and started pounding it into the earth. “I said… WAIT!” he pushed back.

The other one finally relented… this time.

Russell forced himself to remain calm. Whoever started the camp fire, he believed it wasn’t Gina. She was much smarter than that. The camp site was too exposed. Gina would’ve found somewhere more strategic. Russell knew the savage also understood this… but he had another agenda… always a bloody one. Regardless, there were people nearby, people who might have seen her. It was worth revealing himself to find out.

Gina or no fuckin’ Gina, we’re killin’ somethin’ tonight, boss.

Russell exhaled and strapped his machete to his pack. He stood up and started planning his route toward the fire. He wanted to move in close enough to see who he was dealing with before revealing himself. Russell crept through the forest toward the camp fire and stopped when he noticed the aluminum can trip wire surrounding the perimeter.

Fuckin’ amateurs, boss.

He ducked down, staring through the dark trees. He could make out two tents near the fire but could see no movement.

He listened to the too-silent woods, smiling at himself when he realized his mistake. They’re not that bad, he thought back, understanding that someone was already waiting for him.

You’re losing your edge, boss. All that peaceful lack-of-killing bullshit has made you dull.

Russell stood up slowly and raised his hands to show he wasn’t carrying anything.

As expected, they made their move.

“If you fucking flinch another inch, friend, I’m going to blow your damn head off.” The low gravely male voice was coming from just behind a tree, ten feet to Russell’s right.

Russell didn’t move. “I’m… I’m not going to cause any trouble. I’m alone. I just saw your camp fire and was curious. I haven’t seen anyone in these woods for days.”

He’d already located the other two people before they moved out of their hiding spots. One was a man, the other, a woman.

The woman, carrying a shotgun, stepped in front of the fire light. Her silhouette was tall and very thin, making her look like one of the dead. “What do you want?” she barked.

“Just a little warmth from your fire… and to be honest… a little company,” Russell said.

“What’s in the pack?” the third man, who sounded much younger, asked. He remained behind another tree.

“Just some supplies and a few weapons to defend myself… I’ve got canned food if you’re interested.”

The first man stepped out, holding a rifle. He was a big, burly man with a long curly black beard, wearing a faded green ballcap backwards. “Drop the pack and keep your arms up.”

Russell obliged.

“Now, step on over closer to the fire so we can get a better look at you. Don’t fuck with us. You’ll regret it.”

Russell nodded. He stepped over the trip wire and through the remaining brush until the small camp site came into full view.

All three of them moved in to surround him, leaving plenty of distance. The burly man took up the rear and grabbed Russell’s pack. After a few moments of investigating the contents of Russell’s pack, the burly man nodded to the other two. “Just a handgun, machete, a hunting knife and the food he mentioned.”

The woman stepped in front of Russell. She looked much older up close—her bony frame holding up a loose-fitting dirty black tank-top that made her chest stand out from the rest of her thin frame. She also wore tight-fitting jeans, ripped in several places. The woman had straight black hair tied back in a ponytail with streaks of gray showing through. The creases in her face stood out as she frowned at him. The woman lowered the shotgun and said, “I’m gonna search you. Don’t give me any shit about it, okay?”

Russell nodded.

She roughly patted him down, slowing down considerable around his crotch and ass areas. She smiled up at him, noticing his discomfort. She stood back up. “He’s clean, Albert.”

The burly man with the beard stepped into view, dropping his pack at Russell’s feet. “You can have your shit back. We’re not thieves, just careful.”

“I understand,” Russell said.

Albert gave him a final glance and said, “Well, come on over to the fire. Just leave your shit in the bag, especially that gun, and we’ll get along just fine.”

Russell nodded and picked up his pack.

The younger man had already moved back to the fire pit. He sat down and laid his rifle across his lap. He was no more than nineteen or twenty years old. He had short blond hair in the back, with long bangs that hid his eyes. The young man wore a red t-shirt with a long-faded design on the front and loose-fitting jeans with holes in the knees.

“That’s Calvin,” Albert said, sitting down next to the young man. His big frame made him look uncomfortable sitting near the fire. He motioned toward a spot next to the woman. “Please, sit. You look like shit.”

Russell laughed. “Thanks. I feel worse than I look.” He sat down by the fire.

Albert smiled. “That’s Tonya next to you there. Don’t let her get too close. She bites.”

Tonya winked at Russell and smiled.

“The kid here doesn’t say much. And I’m sick of talking to this bitch,” Albert said, earning him a teasing glare from Tonya. “We don’t see too many fresh faces around here… and the company is starting to get real stale.”

“Amen,” Tonya added with a laugh.

“Thanks for your kindness. My name’s Russell. I think I’ve said more words in the last five minutes than I have in the last five days. I was starting to think I was the last person still alive… and that’s not a comforting thought.”

“I hear you,” Albert said. “Myself, Tonya and Calvin over there… well… I guess you could say we’re the scouting party for our larger group. We go out, search for supplies, weapons, or whatever else we can find. We also try to recruit good people when possible. We just don’t find too many of those. Are you good people, Russell?”

Russell smirked. “I don’t know. I’m a poor judge of character on my best days.”

This made Tonya laugh. “I like this one,” she said. “He’s got jokes.”

Albert shook his big head with a smile. “So… Russell… why the hell are you out here?”

Russell didn’t hesitate. “I’m looking for a friend of mine. Maybe you’ve seen her. She’s got red hair, green eyes, and a temper. Her name’s Gina.”

They all looked at each other questionably.

“No… doesn’t sound like anyone we’ve seen,” Tonya said. “Sorry.”

Russell nodded.

There, boss. Q and A is done. Now let’s skin these fuckers while they’re feelin’ all friendly. We can cut ear muffs out of Ms. Perky Tits and-

“Well,” Russell said. “I had to try.”

“Sure,” Albert said, half-heartedly. “These are some pretty big fucking woods. Just ‘cause we haven’t seen her, that doesn’t mean your friend is… gone. Is she alone out here?”

“Yes. But she’s a resourceful woman. I’m sure I’ll catch up to her eventually.”

Grab the fuckin’ machete, boss. Do it now, while they’re all sittin’ stupid by this fuckin’ fire. We can end this in seconds.

“So… how did you lose your friend?” Tonya asked.

“That’s a long story,” Russell said. “Why is it just the three of you out here? Didn’t you say you had a larger group?”

“Yeah,” Albert said. “We’re heading back tomorrow. We do this shit a lot. I don’t know. Makes us feel like we’re actually accomplishing something, know what I mean?”

Russell stared into the dark forest. “Seems risky. But I get it. Can’t really live if your too busy hiding all the damn time.”

Albert laughed and stared at the others. “He gets it.” He looked back at Russell. “Maybe you’d consider coming back with us. I don’t want to get your hopes up, but maybe some of my friends have seen your friend.”

“Are you sure? You don’t even know me.”

Tonya laughed. “None of us knew each other before the winter. We’ve… grown on each other since then.”

“Yeah, like warts,” Calvin chimed in.

“He speaks at last!” Albert teased, making the young man shake his head. “What Tonya’s trying to say is that we didn’t get a group together by being afraid of everyone. We’ve learned to take chances on people. We’re cautious… but we haven’t given up on the rest of humanity yet. When this shit finally runs its course, we’re gonna need to learn how to trust each other again.”

Russell raised his eyebrows at the big man. “But how do you know who to trust? I could be a serial killer for all you know.”

Good one, boss.

Albert shook his head and laughed. “Doesn’t really matter what we were. It’s all about the big damn reset button now. Ever since the shit hit the fan, we’ve all been given another chance to un-fuck this world. That’s how I see it, anyway. Besides, you don’t look like the killer type.”

How did this big fuckin’ idiot survive this long, boss? If we wait long enough he’ll probably have us all holding hands before the night’s over.

“You have a refreshing perspective on things,” Russell said. “Don’t know if I buy it, but it’s better than the doom and gloom perspectives others have shared with me. So many have misunderstood this new opportunity we’ve been given, and chosen to wallow in everything they’ve lost, instead.”

“Yes… you’re right, Russell,” Albert said. “But that’s the problem, isn’t it? Anyone left who’s still really breathing knows that we can’t go back to the way things were. Somewhere in all that bullshit is how this all happened… I’m sure of it. But surviving isn’t enough either. We need each other now. That was the only thing we lost that mattered, and we lost that long before this fucking apocalypse ever started.”

Oh… please! This dumb fucker’s gonna make me vomit in your mouth, boss. He wants peace… I say… give ‘em pieces.

“So, this group of yours,” Russell started, “are they close?”

“We found a construction site before winter,” Tonya said. “Some new neighborhood development. They’d built a couple demo-houses, fully furnished, before everything went to hell. The entire site’s surrounded by a tall chain-link fence. It was perfect, so we took it over.”

Albert finished, “It’s just a few miles southwest of here. You’re more than welcome to come back with us. I know it doesn’t sound like much, but the houses are quite large. There’s room for you and your friend.”

Russell smiled. “I’ll consider it.”

“I wouldn’t wait too long, though,” Albert laughed. “Got room available now, but pretty soon, after we find more people like yourself, we’ll have to relocate. It’s hard work rebuilding society, my friend, but we intend to bring it all back… eventually.”

Russell looked confused. “But didn’t you just say, ‘we can’t go back to the way things were’?”

“Well… yeah… sure. What I meant was the people. We can’t have those same old attitudes that brought us to this point. We have to change up here and in here.” Albert pointed to his head and then to his chest.

Russell looked toward the fire.

“What do you think he meant?” Tonya said, flabbergasted by Russell’s lack of enthusiasm. “Did you think we’d all just live out in the woods forever? After we gain strength in numbers and resources, we’ll start getting back what’s ‘ours’, and then put the dead back in the ground where they belong.”

“When the lights finally come back on and shit gets back to normal,” young Calvin started, “I’m going to spend my first week doing nothing but sitting in front of the TV and just flipping through the channels, staring at the remote like a damn caveman discovering fire for the first time.”

This made Albert and Tonya laugh.

Russell stared into their faces like they’d just gone insane.

What did you expect, boss? These piggies had their straw, wood and brick houses blown the fuck down… and all they can think of, while they’re asses are turned to bacon, is killing off the latest wolves and going back to business as usual. Pathetic. They still don’t get it, do they, boss?

Russell had no response.

“All joking aside,” Albert said. “We’ll get it all back, including what we took for granted. People will change, you’ll see.”

“People have changed,” Russell said, unable to pretend any longer. “Under the threat of their very existence, day in, day out, those of us who are left have had all those ridiculous distractions removed from the equation. We went from slowly dying in our indifference and fear… shedding all illusions of safety, arrogance, and acting like we were immortal… to understanding what it means to truly be alive. It took Death to get us here. Why would any of you give that up?”

All three of them gave each other an uneasy look, not expecting such a dire turn in the conversation.

Albert smiled and said, “Look. I get it, Russell. I really do. But-”

“We are free of the cages,” Russell pushed. “And you, and others like you, want to fight to rebuild the prisons. That’s not progress, that’s not change,” Russell spit out the last word. “That’s the age-old voice of Fear calling out in the darkness, calling out to all its children to come back home and forsake real freedom in exchange for the comforts of familiar shackles.”

Calvin shifted uncomfortably. “I don’t like this guy. I think he’s been out here too long. Make him leave.”

“Agreed,” Tonya said, staring with concern into the intense man’s eyes.

They both tightened their grips on their weapons.

“Relax everybody,” Albert said, raising his hands. “Russell has some strong opinions. He’s entitled to them. Hell… he’s fucking earned them after surviving all this shit.”

“I am not… a survivor,” Russell said, staring into the fire.

Albert raised an eyebrow. “Then what are you, friend? You have a death wish we should know about?”

He’s the mother-fuckin’ storm that’s gonna blow your fuckin’ house down, little piggies.

Russell gazed into Albert’s eyes, appreciating the irony of the foolish man’s final words.

The firelight shimmered in the reflection of the blade. Before Albert and Calvin could register what just happened, Russell had slipped the machete out of the back of his pack, turned, and with one upward slice beneath Tonya’s chin, he’d completely removed her face… her revolting, primitive face.

Tonya’s hands reached up in shock, the pain not yet registering, as blood dripped down between the cracks in her fingers. What was left of her face, was laying in her lap. The woman started screaming like a banshee.

Now that’s what I’m fuckin’ talkin’ ‘bout, boss! Kill ‘em all!

Calvin raised his rifle late, firing wildly in a panic, and shot Tonya in the chest.

Russell was already moving behind the dying woman by the time Albert stood up and retrieved his handgun from the back of his belt.

Albert extended his arm to aim but Russell quickly dismembered it at the elbow. The big man stared in shock as his limb fell into the fire, his gun spinning free near Russell’s feet. Russell ducked down and spun his foot just above the big man’s feet, while grabbing the handgun. By the time Albert fell to the ground, screaming in pain, Russell had fired four rounds into Calvin’s chest before the young man could get a clear shot. Calvin collapsed, dead.

Russell discarded the gun and moved toward Albert. His elongated shadow holding the machete fell over the terrified man who was putting pressure on his severed arm, trying not to bleed out.

The big man looked up into Russell’s expressionless face. “Why… why would you… do this?”

There was no way Albert would understand. None of them would. But he said it anyway. “Because the Lady has commanded it.” He moved in to remove Albert’s head.

NO! Not like that!

Russell hesitated. The machete shook in his hand.

Slowly, boss… slowly…

“I’m not like you, savage,” Russell spoke out loud. “This is finished.”

You owe me, boss. I’ve waited too damn long!

“No.”

YOU OWE ME!!!

“No! I will not… I can’t…”

Albert was losing consciousness. He was convinced of two things: He was about to die… and this man was insane.

You can, boss. And you WILL! Tonight, you are the savage. Give in.

“NO!”

GIVE… IN… NOW!

Russell Bower approached the dying man. He raised his machete and brought it down again… and again… removing his feet first, then the other arm. Albert screamed until he passed out from the pain. He was dead long before Russell tore him open down the midsection, leaving his intestines spilling out beside the fire.

When he was finished, Russell looked into the vacant eyes of the dead man and turned away in disgust from the bloody mess, dropping to one knee and breathing heavily.

By now, the dead were stumbling through the trees, attracted by the screams and gunfire. He heard the aluminum can trip wire sound off.

You did good, boss. Real good.

“Enough,” he said. “It’s done.”

Not quite yet, boss. There’s more bacon back where these piggies came from.

Russell closed his eyes. He started calculating.

A minute later, he grabbed his pack and headed southwest into the night. Hopefully the dead would be satisfied by the butchery he left behind, and not pursue him toward the neighborhood development site.

~~~

Next Episode 45-2

Previous Episode 44-8

~~~

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“Chapter 45-1: 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.