Posted September 9, 2020 at 12:49 am

While most of our short stories can be enjoyed independent of Folklore’s plot, this particular story takes place immediately following the events of Issue 6 and ties directly into the world following the conclusion of that story arc. 

    Clarice Higgs didn’t consider herself a mayor anymore. Several times she thought about renouncing the title. Mayors didn’t lead hunting parties in search of salvageable food. They didn’t learn how to weld, or help organize guard rotations. These days people felt comfortable knowing that some kind of leadership still existed, but there had to be a better title for whatever it was she had become to the people of Brookville.

    Before a murderous shadow monster had turned her quiet town into a hellzone, Clarice had been in an argument with the Brookville Homeowners Association over the placement of solar towers. It had been going on for months with no real end in sight. Paul Denton, the association’s lawyer, had argued that the towers were an eyesore driving down the value of their well-established community. There were petitions demanding their removal. A social media group took the time to message her office regularly.

    These days the towers were considered a blessing. Local soldiers had been staging raids every day at noon to harvest their solar panels. Using clever diversions to protect their engineers they had managed to repurpose the tower’s parts into a large enough power supply to keep the school, their base of operations, online during the day. Power meant heat and air conditioning. It brought luxuries like warm showers and enabled necessities such as refrigerators and security cameras.

    Clarice would have thrown all this back at Paul’s face, but he had disappeared in the early chaos of Quietus’ arrival. She hoped he was still alive. Not because she was particularly fond of him, but because it would be nice to have one final ‘I told you so’ to round off their relationship.

    “Do you think they got the wires alright?”

    Clarice looked down at Danny, focusing her attention back to the present. She didn’t realize she had zoned out. There was so much on her mind these days it was hard to keep focused. Clarice had been spending time with the young boy in the school gymnasium, working on completing a puzzle. Brian’s son was old enough to look after himself, but she hated the thought of Danny being alone. Unlike some of the other parents here, his father was often out risking his life to gather vital supplies. 

    She smiled, and fit an orange puzzle piece into the center of a mostly-assembled creamsicle. “Oh, I’m sure they found exactly what we need. Your father isn’t the kind of man to leave any business unattended.”

    Danny didn’t look entirely convinced. The young boy went back to sorting through his remaining puzzle pieces. Clarice couldn’t blame him for doubting her. Brian and the others had been gone for some time now. Even when factoring in a small search to gather the wiring they needed, he should have been back by now. 

    Times like these she wished they had more cameras. They learned the hard way not to post guards standing outside where Quietus could snatch them away. Sacrifices were made sealing the school to the outside world. All but a few doors were welded shut, and every window was blocked and reinforced. Now they quietly hid indoors, where the shadows couldn’t reach. With the few surveillance cameras they had they could safely view their immediate surroundings as well as a few dozen feet beyond the staff parking lot out back. Most days that felt like enough. Today, Clarice wished they could see further into the outside world.

    “He’s a good man, Danny.” she said. “I’m sure we’ll be seeing him soon enough.”

    She wasn’t sure if her words provided any comfort. Danny certainly didn’t acknowledge her optimism. Instead the young boy continued to work on the puzzle. Clarice checked the time. It was getting late. Her mind was already trying to formulate a plan for a rescue party, but that kind of thinking was premature. She needed to relax. Doing a lap around the school would put her more at ease. She picked up her handheld radio from the table. 

    “Hey, I’m just goin’ for a walk. I’ll see if your dad’s checked in yet. You good to keep things held down here?” Clarice gestured around the gym. Several families had gathered for the evening, playing quiet games. “Tell me if anyone gets out of hand.”

    Danny didn’t look up from his puzzle work. She barely got an “Uh-huh” out of him as she stood from the table with a stretch, but Clarice knew better than to take it personally. Everyone processed their fears differently, even children. 

    Clarice left the gymnasium as quietly as she could. Laminate wood floors announced every step with a cheerful squeak from her boots. She smiled and waved encouragingly to anyone who caught her eye. There was no time for small talk, but it was important to look calm and confident. The adults would take note of her poise. The children would feel safer seeing her be calm and in control. Encouraging others to do their best had always been a talent that had come naturally to her, especially when times were tough. Maybe that’s why she had the job.

    She checked her watch for the fifth time that evening, then took a step from the gymnasium just as the sound of gunfire rang through the hall. Clarice felt a chill sweep across her skin. It was fully automatic. There were screams. 

    “Keep the lights on! Close these doors, get to the corner, under the fusebox!” Clarice yelled into the gym. Her tone was stern and final. “Like we practiced, go! Hide! Robin!”

    A young woman who had been playing with her daughter ran to Clarice’s side, passing her child’s care to one of the local teachers. Robin was still dressed in her Federation fatigues. The white coat had seen better days, but it almost fit her better now. Dusty, to match her braided brown hair and scattered freckles.

    “Ma’am?” Robin drew a pistol.

    “I need ya to round every civilian up. Bring ‘em here. Keep ‘em away from the windows and doors. Keep that radio on low, and for God’s sake if you get the order to run you take everyone and get to the woods. Get ‘em moving fast and as far as you can.”

    “I’m on it.” Robin gave only a brief nod of agreement before running down the hall.

    Clarice went the opposite direction, following the sound of gunshot. She couldn’t understand what went wrong. Even if Quietus had entered the school, they had planned for this. There were floodlights in every hall, and luminicents installed near windows and doors. The amount of lighting they had in this building was almost oppressive. Its shadow shouldn’t have been able to extend more than a few inches at best. Things shouldn’t have devolved into chaos so soon.

    She made her way toward the front entrance of the school, afraid of what she was about to see. There was a scream somewhere in the building, near the science hall. Gunfire sounded off in short, controlled bursts. Soldiers were leading Quietus away from the gymnasium. Clarice reached for the radio at her side and was about to call in the order to retreat when she turned the corner.

    The front door had been opened. There were no signs of immediate struggle to get in. Four guards bled to death on the ground. Two had clear signs of Quietus’ work. Mangled body parts twisted in ways that would have been terrible to experience. But the other two were strangely intact. Clarice’s gut wrenched, but she forced herself to reach out and push the closest body to face her. Bullets had impacted against the man’s chest and shoulder. The fatal shot had gone through his cheek. 

    Clarice took a step back, holding down the urge to vomit. There were other signs of gun violence. There was broken glass strewn across the tiled floor. The floodlights that had been poised to guard the main door had been broken. Bullet holes were visible through the frame of each floodlight. The metal had been pierced with small caliber rounds. Sloppy, but enough.

    It can shoot. Clarice backed away from the grisly scene, drawing the radio from her side. She spoke calmly, though the device trembled in her hand. “This is Higgs. It can shoot. It learned how to use guns. Over.”

    There were more shots from somewhere in the building. Clarice couldn’t tell if it was from the second or third floor. A man’s voice over the radio spoke frantically between the sound of gunshots. It was Corporal Li. She let out a sigh of relief, knowing he was still alive.

    “Confirmed. We’re leading it upstairs now. If you can clear the gym, do it. We’ll buy time. Over.”

    Clarice’s mind raced for what to do next. Go back to the gym. Meet with Robin. Guide them to the treeline. North? What next? Corporal Li’s voice crackled through the radio again, breaking her train of thought.

    “We’ve got eyes on Quietus. It’s Captain Russo. It came in as the Captain.”

    It was Brian. Clarice’s heart felt wrenched from her chest. None of this made sense. What had happened out there? Was this because of Helios? 

    Leaving the school was a final, desperate solution to a problem with no real answer. They had sent others away from Brookville before. None had returned. It was always assumed that Quietus had got to them. What would stop that from happening again? They tried killing it. They tried avoiding it. They failed at hiding from it. None of that had worked before, and there was no reason to believe it would work now. It was time to try something new.

    Clarice ran down the hall, away from the gymnasium. She brought the radio to her face. “Stay alive. I’m turning off the lights. We’re going to lock it in. I need someone to meet me at Maintenance. I’m heading there now. Over.” 

    “En route to Maintenance! Ovah!” Private Kingston’s reply was sharp and labored. 

    “Don’t know how long we’ll last. I think we’re cashing out up here. I’ll get you all the time we can afford. Over.” Corporal Li’s response ended with a dull click. 

    Their trust in her word made Clarice run faster. This was her town. Their lives were her responsibility. She was in charge. It was down to her to make sure no one else died today. She tore down the main hall in a sprint, past the science labs toward the basement entrance. The gunfire above sounded strangely distant, muffled through the floors. The pounding of her footsteps felt somehow louder. Or was that just her heart?

    She reached the door to Maintenance just as Private Kingston arrived, two duffel bags of equipment slung across his short frame. A shotgun dangled from a strap hanging over his back, as if to remind someone that he was a soldier. The small man looked exhausted, and Clarice was quick to take one of the bags from him. It was heavy, and poorly balanced. With the load lightened he led the way through the heavy set of double doors leading into the basement below.

    “We need to shut everything off. No lights, no backups. It needs to be pitch black.” Clarice said, following Private Kingston around a corner into a room humming with electrical current.

    “Well, good news is that our shitty rewiring of this entire grid has made it really, really vulnerable. The great news is that because this is all just a massive hack job, we can shut the power off easy. Killing the backups though...” Private Kingston set his bag down, fishing out a tablet from within.

    “It has to be done. There can’t be any light inside, or this will all be worthless.”

    “Right, but they’re battery powered, charging off the existing power lines. It’s all automated, for safety. So we got two options. Destroy every backup floodlight manually, or wait until-”

    “How many floodlights are in the gymnasium?” Clarice put a hand on the private’s shoulder. “Can you tell me where they are?”

    “Yes...yes, hang on!” With practiced dexterity Private Kingston sorted a map of the school on his tablet. “Six in total, but each pair is connected to one battery. Two above the main door, two at the rear exit, and two at the emergency. Big suckers, behind bars so kids can’t fuck with em.”

    “What about floodlights from the science labs over to the gym?”

    “Maybe a dozen.”

    Clarice clicked her radio on. “Robin, do you read me?”

    “I’m here, over.” Robin’s voice chirped over the handheld.

    “Private Kingston is going to kill the lights. Once they go out, the emergency backups are going to power on. The second that happens I need you to evacuate every civilian we have away from Brookville. Use the rear exit. Bar the door shut from the outside and don’t stop running.”

    There was silence over the radio. Private Kingston clutched at his tablet as he watched Clarice dig through their two bags for something of use. She found it, in the form of a box of flares. She tore open the lid, pouring out the contents and stuffing as many as she could into her coat pockets. Robin’s voice crackled into the room.

    “Clarice, are you sure?”

    “We’re doing this. Get ‘em far away from here.” 

    Robin’s radio clicked on, then off. When it clicked on again her voice was firm and filled with resolve. “I will. I promise. Over and out.” 

    With a soft click the radio settled into silence. Clarice put a hand on the Private’s shoulder and after a grunt of acknowledgement, he unslung the shotgun from his back and passed it to Clarice. She took it reluctantly before hanging it over her shoulder.

    “Once I start this, everything goes down quick. Thirty seconds.” she said, already hurriedly moving back upstairs.

    “Perfect. Once it’s done, leave and join the others. They’ll need you.”

    “Don’t die out there, Mayor!” he called out. 

    “I don’t plan on it.” Clarice said under her breath, reaching the first floor.. 

    At the top of the stairs Clarice could already hear that cracking pop of the school’s electrical grid dying. Interior floodlights burst to life with the force of a muted gunshot. The hallway went dark before white spotlights illuminated emergency exits with a loud chain of popping cracks. 

    With the emergency lights casting their sterile white glow Clarice was stunned by the sudden wave of silence. There were no sounds of gunshot in the distance. No screaming. Even her breath felt muted. Clarice cracked open a flare, filling the air with a sparking sizzle while staining the hallway in a flash of red light. Light and noise. The gymnasium was one building away. Three long hallways. She had to go now. She had to make it.

    Clarice ran, tossing the first flare on the ground while she lit another. The hallway was bathed in another wave of bright red before she cast it aside. It clattered against the floor with a hiss as she rounded the corner, immediately fumbling for another. The act of lighting a flare slowed her pace, but she needed to guide the creature. It couldn’t run free. Clarice risked looking over her shoulder as she dropped another flare. She prayed Quietus was far behind her. Following, but far.

    Twisting through the school’s halls Clarice could feel a surge of hope pounding in her chest as she reached the gym, dropping a flare just outside of its double doors before yanking them open and slamming them shut behind her. The gymnasium was empty. Desks and chairs had been knocked over in a panic. An unfinished puzzle of an orange creamsicle was scattered across the floor. The floodlights were on, exactly where Kingston had said. Clarice swung the shotgun from off her shoulder, checked the chamber, and aimed at the battery between the lights. 

    The empty space of the gymnasium echoed the thunderous roar of her explosive slugs. Clarice winced in a reflexive fear, but felt suddenly emboldened. There was no questioning where she was now. It had to know. She fired another slug, decimating one set of lights before pumping a new round into the chamber as she moved to the next. Her next shot flawlessly shredded the battery, killing another set. Clarice ran to the back of the room and took aim for the final set of lights when she heard the mechanical bang of a door violently opening.

    Brian was long dead, though it was impossible to say what killed him. His body was dripping in blood. Skin sagged from his face where something must have burned away at his flesh. There were bullet holes in his shirt and jacket, and one arm had been pulverized by gunfire. Tendrils of dark shadow illuminated by the flare in the main hall held the body upright, imitating the movement of legs. Clarice could see dark pools of something congregating under Brian’s boots. Darkness boiled from his form, staining the air around him like spilled ink

    Clarice steaded herself, swallowing hard before calling out to him. “Can you talk?” She waited for a sign, and when none came she spoke again, louder than before. “Do you understand me?”

    Brian’s mouth opened, and a low growl seeped from the man’s lungs. An unnatural sound that rattled from his chest. The way his body moved reminded Clarice of a dog panting. She fought back the urge to scream at the defiled corpse of her friend. Quietus puffed Brian’s chest outward, though his head lolled and sagged with the effort. Blood and shadow dripped from his mouth, but she was too angry to be afraid. Her hands tensed around the shotgun as she waited for a sign that the shadows would do more than twist and contort Brian’s body like an ill strung puppet.

    Brian’s body took a step forward, exaggerated and slow. The gymnasium door clicked shut behind it, cutting off the red torchlight in the outside hall. Quietus’ shadow shrank in size, and Clarice turned her back to the creature to raise her weapon at the final floodlight.

    A sharp pain needled through her left shoulder as she pulled the trigger. Her weapon erupted a thunderous echo throughout the gym, then fell limply to the ground. Her fingers simply wouldn’t hold it upright anymore. A fleeting coldness swept through her body as the feeling of several blades embedded in her back suddenly vanished. Shadow. Her arm felt heavy, and refused to move. Clarice didn’t mind. The weapon was empty, and the room had gone dark. Pitch black.

    There was a squeak of rubber and the thud of something heavy striking the ground behind her. Clarice held her breath so she could better listen, but the act broke a sharp wave of anguish across her chest. Her back felt wet. A low, primal growl echoed only a few feet away. 

    “I got you.” she said, reaching down to pick up the shotgun with her still functioning hand. “You dumb, body stealing sonovabitch.” 

    Clarice slowly followed the sound of labored growling in the pitch black of the school gymnasium until she almost stumbled into its source. Brian’s body, laying limp only a few feet away from her. 

    “You can hear me. I know. All this time, we treated you like a dumb animal. Never thought to put you in a cage.”

    Quietus rumbled within Brian. Clarice heard the squeak of a rubber sole. It wasn’t hers. 

    “You can still move in there. He’s just a suit to you. But...I bet...” Clarice winced, rotating the shotgun in her hand to wield it like a club. 

    Her first downward swing was weak. She heard the butt end of the rifle slap against the laminate wood and adjusted herself for another. Clarice wasn’t sure what part of Brian’s corpse she hit. She was thankful for the darkness. Every club of her weapon against his body was like hitting a foreign mass. Her imagination wandered and she pictured mining in the heart of a mountain. Every strike against his flesh was meant to harvest something precious. She was hunting for a sound. Not the thud of meat muffled under cloth. Not the scrape of her shotgun against the laminate floor as she dragged it back for another downward swing. She wanted the snapping crack of bone.

    Clarice beat her weapon into Quietus with all the fury she could muster. She swung until she was certain the creature wouldn’t be able to walk, or limp, or crawl its way out from this dark prison. She ignored everything else around her. The pain in her muscles. The feeling of dead weight in her left arm. The dripping warm wetness that soaked her clothing and slowly ran down her back. Quietus growled, but made no move to stop her. She could feel its hate seething from Brian’s mangled form. She knew it wanted to get at her, to finish rending the flesh it had just managed to taste, but in this total darkness all it could do was hide inside its human shell. 

    A thunderous boom broke Clarice from her trance. The shotgun slipped from her hand, clattering to the floor. Clarice fell backwards, crying out in pain as her body crashed against the ground. Her eyes darted through the dark fearfully, but there was nothing to see.  Another boom echoed somewhere outside the building, and a tide of rain slapped hard against the exterior of the school. The gymnasium echoed the sound of thousands of droplets scattering across the ceiling.

    The storm had finally arrived. She closed her eyes and listened to the sound of falling rain. It was soothing. She didn’t need to focus to drown out everything around her. The world just seemed to melt away. Clarice was exhausted, but she listened to the rain as long as she could. It crossed her mind that this wasn’t the worst way to fall asleep, cocooned in a natural white noise to block out the terror of the dark. 

    She was tired of being afraid of shadows. Enveloped in the gentle roar of a sweet summer shower Clarice Higgs lay on the gymnasium floor, smiled, and let herself drift into a well earned rest.