Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Land of Shadows: Chapter VII - Runaways

James was roused from a fitful slumber by someone shaking him. He was not surprised to see Allison staring down at him. He glanced at his watch. Three thirty-eight. She had lasted about half an hour longer than he expected. She gestured him towards the back of the garage where there was a steel door just big enough to get the bikes through. He thought about arguing the wisdom of going out alone with her, but knew it would be pointless. As dead set as she was she would relent now only to go off alone as soon as he wasn't looking. At least this way he knew some one would have her back. They quietly rolled the bikes through the steel door. It would latch behind them. The two rotties watched them go quietly. They were trained to watch out for wraiths and other dangerous animals not two errant teens leaving on their own when they had no business doing so. Duke whined briefly at the door and then went and laid back down next to Dee.

They waited until they were well away from the quonset hut before starting up the bikes. If the sound did carry all the way back to Dee's ears they would be well away from there before she got around to going after them and there was no way the Volvo could catch up to them. James neglected to point out that Dee would know which way they were going. It would only piss Allison off to have a hole in her reasoning pointed out. Besides, he would not have been entirely comfortable leaving Dee clueless to where they were going. If he'd been given the opportunity he would have left a damn note or just skipped this ill advised endeavor altogether. Alli could be such a hothead and stubborn as a mule.

They continued out Calumet using only their night vision goggles. Even in the dark it was fairly easy to track the little microvan Dee had described. The condition of the road meant that it often had to cross muddy patches and leave tracks. No other vehicles had passed this way in years, so the tracks were obvious.

About a mile and a half down the road they came to a railroad crossing partially blocked by a train wreck. A west bound tractor trailer rig that was suddenly left unmanned had collided with a similarly staffed freight train. It had hit with enough force to knock a few boxcars off track. The remaining cars had piled up behind the others leaving a clear path almost wide enough for a small car to squeeze through. But not quite. A small car had recently come through and scraped off its passenger side mirror. The glass glittered in bright little shards on the dirty pavement. Allison looked at the shards of glass and a pair of tire tracks leading through the gap between the twisted remnants of the trailer and the box car and started through.

James did not know why he grabbed her jacket collar, it was just pure instinct. The little Honda continued on through the gap as Allison slid off the seat. Alli was protesting up until the point the wraith hit it from the side. The bike clattered to the pavement under the 300+ pounds of the beast. James was already firing. His first two shots missed, but the next three caught it full in the chest. This only succeeded in alerting it to his presence and making it angry. Although, truth be told, no one had ever seen a non-angry wraith before. Their lives were violent from conception to death.

The wraith stopped mauling the dirtbike and bounded towards them, its head down. The massive skull could be quite effective as a battering ram but the mouth parts were delicate and needed protection. By this time Alli had her Glock ready and began firing. It took another two shots to the skull to stun it long enough for James to put a bullet through the magic spot at the base of the skull to finally kill it. And it was a lesser wraith. They carefully peered out past the wreckage of the train to see if there were others but no significant heat traces could be seen.

They quickly inspected the Alli's bike. The only obvious damage was the smashed mirrors and broken plastic fairing on the left side. The bike started on the first kick and they continued on.

The trail was easy to follow. The little car had continued straight on Calumet heading into Valders. It had blown a tire on chunk of pavement. No attempt had been made to change it. From the look of the tracks it was a rear tire. James was beginning to feel faint sense of foreboding the further they went. It was too easy, he was making no effort to conceal his tracks. When they briefly lost the tracks where a small residential street he tried to voice this to Allison, but she refused to listen.

A faded and tattered banner hung from a light pole reading V-A-L-D, the rest being lost to the elements. Frayed nylon threads fluttered in the cool breeze. Neither one of them were very familiar with the area, they had never been further south than Kewaunee before this trip. Mr. Parsons had usually taken them north, where the colder weather made hunting and travelling safer. Even on the wraith hunts they had usually just gone west. James wanted to consult a map, again Allison was too impatient.

They had only gone maybe two and a half miles and the sun was already coming up. Light was glinting off a nearby water tower. The sun slowly hauled itself above the eastern horizon as they argued the matter in a parking lot. James could just make out the name Valders from the faded and flaking paint and rust of the water tower.

The town was dead silent. One would think that in a city devoid of people that would be the case. But in every empty abandoned town he had ever been in there was some life, some furtive little sounds. Cats would go about their business of hunting local rats, raccoons would be foraging in the undergrowth, moose and deer would be grazing in the grasses growing up through the crumbled pavement. Birds would be singing or fluttering about. But there was none of that here. James paused in his attempts to dissuade Allison from going further and took a good look around. Eventually even Allison noticed. She got back on her bike and started it up. To James unsurprised horror, she continued on into town. Left with the choice of abandoning her or following her, he did the only thing his conscience would allow. He too headed into town on what was beginning to look more and more to him like a fools errand, if not an outright suicide mission.

* * *

Dee locked up the quonset hut and headed out. She knew she could not hope to catch up to them in the Volvo as long as they were moving, but they would have to stop to eat or rest sometime. Bo and Duke rather sheepishly climbed into the front of the Volvo. The scolding she had unleashed upon them for not letting her know of the twins departure was still fresh in their minds.

* * *

The stench was almost overwhelming, even from the fourth floor window of the apartment building. Neither one of them had even heard of a wraith colony this big before. They had completely overrun the Valders High School building. There were only a few in sight but they were nocturnal creatures. Excrement and other waste was piled up under the windows and coated the walls. Tiny red dots dusted the waste piles. It was only after a few moments watching that they realized that these little red dots were moving that they realized what they were.

A crude pen constructed from broken furniture, dead branches and other junk confined about two dozen assorted deer, moose and cattle. Most had distended bellies indicating the impending birth of new wraiths.

As they watched a large bull began to bellow in pain. Several wraiths poured out of the main doors of the school. They swarmed over the walls of the pen and gathered around the doomed bull. As first they thought the wraiths were going to take down the bull in a feeding frenzy, but they just squatted there in a rough circle, each clutching a wad of wet dripping matter in one clawed fore paw. It looked to be crudely butchered meat from some unfortunate creature. The bellowing of the poor bull became more desperate as its birth pangs increased. Some large mass began to writhe about under the skin on its side. Suddenly a pair of blood drenched claws burst through the thick hide of the bull, it was soon free and clear of its fleshy prison and rapidly followed by five others. One was obviously smaller and weaker than the others. It was quickly set upon by the other five. James expected the adults to intervene on its behalf, but that was merely the hardwired human reaction to protect one's offspring and expect others to react in the same manner, but they just stood back and let the other juveniles tear apart the helpless runt. It was only a matter of twenty brief seconds before it was completely devoured and they turned their attention to the dead bull. All that was left when they were done were the skull and bones too large for them to swallow whole. And they were still hungry. That was when they started to turn against one another. It was only then that the adults interfered. Two of them waded into the fighting juveniles, clubbing them with their tails, head butting and kicking them with their balled up paws. It looked to be quite brutal, but was actually calculated to do very little actual damage. But they were effectively separated. The other adults approached the little abominations with the still dripping hunks of meat and began feeding them. They would fling the football sized hunks of meat at the newborns. The infants would open their mouths wide enough for an adult man's head and the meat would disappear. It was both fascinating and repelling. When they had gorged themselves so thoroughly they could barely move the adults bent down, mouths opening wider than James would have believed possible and scooped the infants up. Carried in such a way,only their snouts were visible. After this grim display the entire assembly trooped back into the school building. Little red dots were already congregating on the bull's carcass.

Allison tapped his shoulder and pointed. It took him a few seconds to see what she was pointing at. In the faculty parking lot there were several cars. This was to be expected, school had been in session when the Disappearance had occurred. But one vehicle stood out. A little Ford microvan with a ragged remnant of a blown rear tire and far too clean to have been sitting exposed to the elements for several years. They had found him, but now what?

It was standard procedure to torch wraith nests, but this one was huge and better organized than anything ever seen before. They would never be able to get close enough to set it ablaze even if they had enough gasoline to do so. It was clear that the rules of the game had changed.

The only option now was to go back and report what they had seen.

The two of them quietly crept downstairs. On they way up they had not noticed any wraithbugs but by the time they reached the third floor landing there were dozens on the stairs. They simply sidestepped them careful that none dropped on them from above.

At the second floor there were hundreds and they were spraying the steps ahead of them with the bottles of Windex they had picked in a Dollar General this morning. Anytime the Windex touched one of the black and red bugs it started flailing about or running in circles trying to get away from the deadly poison. But it was rapidly becoming clear that they would run out of Windex before they ran out of wraithbugs. And more were appearing.

They decided to just abandon the notion of shooting their way out and just run. Fortunately they both had good boots and gloves. They squashed countless bugs under their heels going down the stairs. So many that their boots were getting slick and putting them at risk of falling. Their gloved hands slid along the rails, knocking bugs off by the dozens. They burst from the stairwell and raced for the big glass front doors. They realized before they got there that the lobby was empty, completely devoid of black and red bugs. They paused there in the lobby for a moment wondering what had happened to them. When no wraiths rushed in from the adjoining corridors Allison pushed open the door and the rushed to the alley where they had parked the bikes.

The wraiths attacked as they approached the bikes. They were completely blocking one end of the alley and more were coming, they were dropping down from the fire escape and roof. There was a fence at the other end of the alley, but the gate was off its hinges leaving just enough room for a bike to get through. Ally fired off several shots into the mass of wraiths approaching as he started his bike. Then he emptied a clip while she got her started. When he was sure that she had hers running he headed for the gate. He dared not even look back to see how she was doing, the alley was too full of the monsters. One leaped out from behind a dumpster as he approached the gate, but he managed to get past it. He heard one round fire from Ally's gun and risked a glance back after he cleared the gate. He saw her toss the gun away to get better control of the bike and zip clear of the gate just half a second after him.

They whipped around the corner and were home clear, or so he thought. That was when he felt twin barbs of searing pain in his neck and back. He had not noticed the bugs fall down the back of his jacket. He fought against the pain, it was all he could do to keep his focus on the road ahead and the bike under him. He did not stop until he realized that he had just passed a red blur that had to be Dee heading into town in the Volvo. She turned around and came back to him just as he dropped the bike. He staggered to his feet and stumbled towards the oncoming truck. His vision was constricting to a narrow point and he was barely aware of the Volvo screeching to a halt directly in front of him and Dee jumping out. She was shouting something in his face and shaking him painfully. He made out the word Allison and pointed back the way he had come, only then realizing that she was nowhere to be seen. He had lost her. His vision finally constricted down to a bright white dot, like an old CRT television as it died, and slowly faded out leaving him alone in the dark.

© 2010 R. Keith McBride

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