“It’s a beautiful day today.”
Aaron Harver was barely listening, but it was true. The sun was out, and there were just enough clouds to give cover from the summer heat that you could appreciate the outdoors. His father used to call it a ‘Garden Day’ because you knew you could get all those chores done without complaining about the heat.
He could hardly appreciate it. To Aaron it just looked like any other day since their group had taken to hitting the road. The grey concrete of the backwoods interstate blended in with grey-toned woods that dotted the north-east American landscape. Smokey pine trees left ashen shadows in every direction. Above a slate-colored sun above shone past dull and lifeless clouds.
“There are wildflowers on the side of the road. Lavender, that soft purple, with a mix of something else. Those tiny white flowers -- I think they’re weeds?” Claire explained colors to Aaron like he was a child. As if sight was just like filling in a picture book one crayon at a time. He hated it, but at least she gave a shit.
She had stuck with him since the incident. Since the Dust settled. It seems stupid to complain about now. While Aaron’s friends, his family, were tearing themselves apart the most he had felt was a stinging pain. Reds were one of the first colors to go. Then blues, and greens, and yellow disappeared somewhere between all of that. He remembered looking at one soldier lying face first in a pool of blood and thinking how strange a scene it was. Like drowning in a slick patch of oil.
His friends had died at Bastion, but Aaron Harver had lived. Maybe he would have died too, if not for Claire.
As uneven concrete gave way to the crack of vegetation both Claire and Aaron braced themselves in the back of the old pickup truck. Work was plentiful these days, but food and medical supplies were scarce. Claire’s talents as a field medic had proven to be invaluable, and though his vision swam in a blur of grey Aaron was more than capable as a fit helping hand.
The village ahead was just like so many others -- makeshift and filled with uncertain, frightened people. Claire had told him this one used to be some kind of sleepaway camp. Log cabins with fireplaces right off a nearby lake. The kind of place rich families sent their kids so they could pretend to know what living outdoors would be like.
They arrived late at night with little fanfare, greeted by fearful expressions and nervous glances between friends and family. Then came the reactions. Wave after wave of emotion flooding the men, women, and children of Camp Houndstooth. Fear at seeing their truck, an unknown entity, roll down into the heart of their community. Relief as their small band step out to greet them, moving carefully while displaying their Federation-branded attire.
Disappointment. No supplies. Just more bodies to feed.
“Where are your injured?” Claire didn’t waste any time, dragging her lantern and medical kit off the truck’s flatbed in what had become a routine for their group.
Tend to the wounded, patch up their defenses, advise and assist. Aaron knew that for many of these camps it would be a waste of time. Heavily armed bandits or splintered remnants of Federation defectors would chew through these refuges without missing a step -- and then there were those things. You never knew what they were capable of.
“Hey, so are you the guy in charge?” a teenage boy holding a mallet in one hand approached Aaron, closely hounded by a set of older men.
“No.” he replied distractedly.
“Oh. So what do you do then? I mean, for the Federation.” the men beside the boy looked uneasy, but the teeanger was clearly unfazed.
“Help where we can. Give our advice where we think it’ll take.”
“What were you before all this?”
“A soldier.” the crack of Aaron’s reply made the boy pause warily before turning to one of the older men beside him.
“He didn’t mean nothing by it.” grumbled one man with a voice that sounded like aged cigarettes and a beard that hadn’t seen a razor in months. “We just weren’t sure who to talk to, that’s all.”
“We’ve got ourselves a problem.” the other fellow spoke, adjusting his glasses while gesturing toward the lake. He was thinner, older, but sharp. “Been trying to keep it quiet, but it won’t stay that way for long. Could use a bit of outside expertise.”
Aaron watched the way they shifted uncomfortably. A murder was most likely. It was becoming more and more common with these isolated communities. Sometimes a friend or family member had gone feral. Sometimes they just let the wrong kind of person in. The kind of person who was desperate enough hurt anyone and everyone just to carve themselves some kind of safety in uncertain times.
“Lead the way.” Aaron spoke with as much confidence as he could muster, and it seemed to help calm their uneasiness.
They led him through the moonlit night across the street and down towards a cabin isolated from the others. They had introduced themselves along the way, but Aaron was barely listening. He wasn’t going to stay here long anyway. Why waste the brainpower?
A sign on the pathway carved into driftwood read Guidance Lodge. He could only assume it belonged to some kind of counselor or camp authority. Unlike the other cabins it looked more like a home, complete with a patio that faced the lake and an attached garage.
As they walked closer Aaron could already tell something was amiss. Windows were cracked and shattered, and large shards of glass were scattered across the lawn. The front door was intact but clearly broken, as though someone had pushed the entire frame in with remarkable force; bending the hinges to prevent it from ever being shut. A trail of blood leading inside the home from the outdoor patio confirmed his fears, but there was something odd about it. Were the drag marks coming, or going?
The villagers gave him distance as he drew closer to the home. Aaron heard one say they would wait until he was done investigating. They didn’t want to mess with the site any more than they had already. Looking beyond the broken door he wasn’t sure that was possible.
Furniture was upturned and torn apart to spew white cotton innards across the living room entryway. Whatever remained of bookshelves, a television, stereo system, chairs, and lamps were twisted and toss about; snapped in half or crushed into a splintered pulp. The interior was lit using battery-powered lanterns, but they had been set low, likely to conserve power.
There were two bodies, both equally broken but shredded in a way that only an animal could. Limbs were twisted, punctured and bent violently in directions that didn’t belong. Large teeth or claws ripped these people apart. Judging by the axe on the floor, stained with a slick wetness, whomever had died here died fighting.
“When did this happen?” Aaron called out, stepping deeper into the home, eyeing a stairway to the second floor.
“Found em like that this morning.” the teenager called out, his voice cracking fearfully.
Thick trails of bloody drag marks flowing up the stairs made Aaron draw his pistol before following with caution. The second floor’s single bedroom was no different. Violent claw marks tore apart cloth and wood alike leaving deep marks in the floor, ceiling, and walls. Blood splatter reminded Aaron of flicks from a painter’s brush, wild and in every direction.
A cool breeze passed through the open window and Aaron stepped over to it slowly, ready to jump at any shadow. Whatever it was had left through here, and it was clear by the thickness of grey plasma that the third body had gone with it. Peering out from the second story window Aaron could see where the trail led out into the nearby woods. A splash of gore on the ground showed where the body had hit the earth before being pulled towards the woods that marked the edge of the campground.
He was about to turn away when he saw it. A flash of red, buried somewhere between the flat grey trees. He rubbed his eyes in disbelief, searching hard into the distance.
It was a trick of his mind. It had to be. Too many nights on the open road, and not enough sleep. He still dreamed in color, after all. It was only the real world that felt like a shaded joke.
“Everything alright up there, officer?” the man with glasses called up from below, hovering on the entrance of the crime scene.
“As well as can be.” Aaron yelled back, eyeing the window one more time before walking back downstairs.
“Our first guess was some kind of bear got tangled in here. Rabid or crazed.” the other man called from outside.
“Could be a bear. Definitely some sort of animal.” Aaron pondered, bent over the pair of mauled bodies in consideration. “No one heard anything?”
“We have a guard rotation but they keep a close eye on the road.” the man in glasses spoke sheepishly. “We thought with the lake to our backs...”
“David, was it?”
“Daniel, actually.” Daniel adjusted his glasses, looking nervously behind his shoulder. “Is there something wrong?”
Aaron stood up, giving the room one last look before stepping over to the door while holstering his weapon. Daniel looked on in silence, waiting for an answer while his companions glanced nervously back up the road to Camp Houndstooth.
“I won’t pretend to be any kind of expert on animals, but I think we can all agree no bear did that.” he finally said, gesturing up toward the camp. “How are you all on weapons and ammo?”
“You think it’s coming back?” fear lined the edge of the teenager’s voice, and he clutched wooden mallet in hand tighter.
“It might. Listen, uh, John-”
“Yeah, sure. Look, whatever’s out there came here for a reason. I don’t know how long your group has been here but it’s clear you’re not wanted.” Aaron led the others back up the road, keeping a close eye on the woods. “Our truck can’t take everyone, but if you’ve got transportation-”
“We don’t.” Daniel hastily interrupted. “It took us a week just to find this place, and we almost starved to death doing it. If it weren’t for the radio we would have probably been stranded without ever getting in touch with you.”
“Then we’ll see about lasting out the night. We’ve probably got enough firepower to keep whatever it is at bay. If we get everyone into one building and secure it then we can work on making our next move.”
A brilliant flash of reds and yellows standing at the edge of Camp Houndstooth caused Aaron to stumble to a standstill. It was like looking at a sunset drawn in crayon, constantly moving and hard to define. Something like a leg stepped forward, a scramble of color and light causing a flash of illumination across the flat grey earth. A swirling maw of blue and violet hues opened up on its body, echoing a low growl from within.
Aaron’s sudden stop brought concern to the others, and Daniel was about to speak when the predatory growl froze their group in terror.
“Did you hear that?” Daniel whispered, trembling in place.
“I hear it.” John stepped closer to Daniel, brandishing his mallet against the darkness. “Can you see it?”
Aaron turned to the townsfolk, watching their eyes shift uneasily in the darkness. At the edge of camp the creature burned defiantly, casting his dull grey world in violent hues of crimson and gold. It took another step away from them, causing a painful flash of light that made Aaron wince in the darkness. The others hovered closer in fear, trying their best to peer into the night.
“Let’s break for Marris’ place. We’ve got a weapon in every home.” the bearded man grumbled in a low tone, gesturing to a cabin nearby while searching frantically for the source of the predatory noise. “Once we’re armed, we can probably hold up in the cafeteria lodge.”
“Yeah. Lead the way.” Aaron tried to sound as certain as he could, looking over his shoulder while keeping close to Daniel.
If the creature could understand them it seemed unphased. One blazing limb extended forward. Then another. Each step it took was a burst of light and color. Each step took the creature further away, draining hue and tone from Aaron’s sight until it was gone. The world was monochrome once more, but he hardly felt safer for it.
In the distance he heard a scream, and Aaron told himself there was nothing he could do to stop it.
The villagers used the screams as a kind of proximity alarm, hoping that each cry of agony would be enough warning before the creature arrived. A gut-wrenching plea for mercy would mean the lives of another family could be saved. Silence became the enemy. Their rescue team sat in panicked terror after the wet gurgle of a final breath, praying the next voice would sound off just a little further than the last.
It had taken forever to gather the closest five families to the centermost cabin, and Aaron saw to it that every man and woman with a capable pair of eyes was staring out into the darkness. Not that they would see anything. While the others used the twisted cries of their friends and family to locate the beast, Aaron Harver could see it clear as day.
A harsh contrast against the dark night, the creature shimmered in brilliant hues as it crossed from cabin to cabin. It moved with curious purpose, and on several occasions he saw it even stop as if to consider which home it preferred. Every step it took set off another painful flash of light, and he did his best to keep from wincing.
“We’ve got every possible entrance locked down, but we’ve got to assume that whatever is out there can probably get in if it really wants.” Claire sighed heavily while speaking in a hushed tone.
“You’re probably right.” Aaron grimaced while taking a peek through a nearby window. ‘Whatever it is, it’s big.”
“Between the ten of us there’s enough firepower to lay out an elephant from across the street.” said Josh, the youngest of their group, while peering out between blinds.
“We still have the emergency flare gun from the lake medkit.” Daniel mused. “In case we need to see it.”
“Once we shoot that thing we’re giving away our position.” Aaron said between his teeth. “No sense in telling whatever’s out there where it can get a free meal.”
“We don’t even know what it is!” whispered a woman from the living room couch, her young son cradled protectively in her arms. “What if it just goes away?”
“Whatever it is, it’s not taking a step closer without us seeing it.” Stanton, the bearded man, said with determination. “An eye at every window. Anyone the beast gets past would have to be asleep not to notice-”
A loud scream outside caught everyone’s attention, causing men and women to crane their necks to see through the slits between blinds and floral curtains. It was a woman’s voice, cracking between the mixed experience of pain and exhaustion. Somewhere out in the dark of night her voice drifted, steadily growing closer.
They knew from the sound of her voice that she was in terrible condition. One of the men even gasped, clearly hoping they had not recognized the tone and pitch of her voice. Aaron tried to stay quiet as the voice approached. It was hard to keep his hands from shaking as he reached for the rifle at his side, staring out into the darkness.
It was Daniel to break their silence first, swearing in disbelief as the woman’s body came into view. Hovering off the ground she was sprawled dangling mid-air, blood soaked so deep into her nightgown it was impossible to discern its original color. One of her arms was draped behind her back, twisted and locked against her body as though it were crushed into her spine. Another arm hung limply at her side, swinging like a pendulum as she drifted unnaturally closer.
“What the fuck is happening? Are you seeing this?” Josh’s voice cracked, slipping an octave higher than he would have liked
“Oh God. It’s haunted. This whole campground’s possessed.” another survivor cried out, scrambling from the window.
“No. It’s not.” Aaron’s words were uncertain, but his voice cut through the fear in those nearby. “It’s not a ghost. It’s a creature.”
“What?” Claire grasped his arm while leaning forward, trying to peer into the darkness from his perspective. “I don’t see anything.”
“I do.” said Aaron, staring at the beast only yards away.
It looked ready to pounce at any time. Its body was larger than their truck, wreathed in a swirling, flickering light. A swirl of oranges, reds, yellows and whites that burned furiously in place. Deep within its blue maw was the woman, cradled in the vivid turquoise and violet textures that seemed to be its mouth.
The others looked to Aaron for answers, but he was at a loss. How could he even begin to describe what he saw? Even now as he watched an enormous, blazing paw take another step forward it was difficult to think anyone would believe what he was seeing.
Words began to form in his mouth when he noticed the cavern of swirling blue begin to slowly disappear. The woman cried out in agony. Her body wrenched under some unseen pressure. It was closing its mouth.
Without another word Aaron drew his rifle, butting out a corner of his window to clear the way for his shot. A single flash from the muzzle flared the outdoors in light, sounding off an otherworldly roar from somewhere in the dark. Without warning the bloodied woman dropped from her cradled position in the air, and all eyes turned to Aaron expectantly as the beast’s anguished howl sounded off into the distance.
“It’s gone.” he sighed in relief, letting his weapon slip down to his side.
Several men and women scrambled outside to the woman drenched in blood. John gave Aaron a fearful look, before stepping outside as well. Claire only shook her head in disbelief.
“Can you really see it?” she marveled, leaning close to examine his eyes. “A side effect maybe?”
“A side effect of what?” Stanton growled at the pair, hand resting nervously near the weapon at his side.
“He has a medical condition.” Claire flared up defensively, watching other villagers nearby begin to approach. “It’s nothing--”
“I’m Afflicted.” Aaron sighed, resting a hand on her shoulder in thanks. “It’s alright. I didn’t know what I was looking at before, but I can definitely see it.”
“What was your power? You know, before...” John trailed off, and their group stepped aside as the woman bathed in gore was gingerly carried into the cabin.
“They had a fancy name for it. Directional Photokinetic Wavelengths, or something like that. Heat vision. I was never into the science, but I know the Dust took it away. Left me colorblind.” Aaron sighed, running through the story with a practiced exasperation.
“So you think the Dust lets you...see invisible things?” Claire’s brow furrowed, and she visibly fought the urge to examine Aaron’s eyes with closer scrutiny.
“I don’t know what it did, but I can tell you right now I see it. It’s just shapes and colors. Like it’s on fire.” Aaron glanced out the window. “I know I wounded it, whatever it is.”
Aaron looked outside at the trail of liquid left in the creature’s wake thick pools of liquid that left streaks of vivid reds and pinks where they sat. Was it remains of the creatures energy? Radiation? A scent or smell? He frowned, agitated at the new perplexing limits of his cursed eyes.
Somewhere behind him an argument had broken out. The lady drenched in blood needed desperate medical attention. Their team only had only so much space in the truck, but if they moved quick it would be possible to get the woman back to the Federation forward camp in only a couple of hours. Claire and a few others could go, but some of the townsfolk were less than enthusiastic about staying behind.
Aaron stepped outside the cabin to give the beast’s footprints a closer inspection. Warily he slung his rifle onto his back. He could still see the color, although faint, bounding off into the distant woods. Bending down he reached with an open palm to where it had stood and was shocked to find how warm the print was. In the shape of a paw, but unlike any he had ever seen. Feline, but wrong.
“You can really see it?” Daniel asked curiously, kneeling down beside him.
“Yeah. It’s kind of hard to miss.”
“Then we can track it.” the professor adjusted his glasses in the dark, trying hard to see what Aaron could.
The commotion from inside the cabin had spilled into the night, with several members of the community carefully transporting the wounded woman using a sleeping bag as a stretcher. Claire was at the head, directing how to place the injured carefully into the flatbed. Close behind were men and women yelling in protest.
“I’ve told you, she’s stable for now, but unless we can get her some proper medical care there’s no telling how long she’ll last.” Claire climbed into the flatbed, protectively keeping others from following. “Leaving the supplies we brought here, we can take four people with us.”
“Five.” Aaron corrected her, following the trail of colored residue slowly fade into the woods. “The teacher’s right. It bleeds. I can track it down and put an end to this.”
Claire was ready to argue but lost her voice amid a tide of villagers vying to take the new vacancy. Stepping away from the group with a grunt was Stanton, hand still resting on his pistol.
“Then we should start moving now while the trail is fresh.” Stanton grumbled through his beard.
Daniel had already procured a bundle of flashlights, passing them between Aaron and Stanton while carefully cradling a shotgun under his arm. Aaron briefly saw the teenage John prepare to go with them before being turned back to the others. It was the right decision. He was too young to face whatever was ahead of them.
The three men exchanged a look before Aaron turned to Claire one more time. He wanted to say something to her. A thanks or reassurance before he left. She only had a moment before the small crowd would demand her attention, and he knew anything he said would fall short of the appreciation he felt for all she had done.
“See you soon.” Aaron called out to her. It was the best he could come up with, but she smiled anyway.
“Back in five hours, soldier.” Claire held up a hand then turned to the crowd. “We’ll have room for everyone then.”
Aaron didn’t stay to hear her finish explaining to the villagers. The tracks were fading fast. Stanton and Daniel stuck close to him the moment Aaron led them into the woods. It was like following a series of candles flickering in the night. To the others Aaron imagined it was more like wandering blindly in the dark.
As the drops of the creature’s liquid trail became more vivid Aaron couldn’t help but wonder how badly he had hurt it. Could it die of blood loss? Was he even looking at blood? He didn’t have the imagination to assume it could be anything else, and either way it seemed like a bad time to bring it up. Daniel looked afraid enough.
It was difficult to tell how long they followed the trail. In the pitch darkness of the woods Aaron nearly tripped himself coming to a stop, causing the others to stumble in kind. Ahead of him puddles of swirling crimson and lilac scattered around the remains of what Aaron assumed had once been an military aircraft carrier. It was snapped like a twig, its innards spewed across the woods.
A quick inspection revealed that it had slid for quite a distance. Trees all around lay broken or snapped in the wake of its momentum. The front half lay as though it had seen the brunt of the crash like a pummeled but mostly intact cave. Its cargo hold was only a few meters apart from the rest, upside down and impaled through several thick trees. The beast’s erratic movement had left a spray of blood across the warped shards of debris leading deeper into the wreckage.
“Looks like it’s been here for a while.” Stanton clicked his flashlight on warily, careful not to extend the beam recklessly into the night.
Drawing their weapons the trio eased forward, flanking Aaron as he worked to figure out where the creature may have gone. A thick pool of violet swirling just at the base of the plane’s cabin made him hesitate to go any further.
“We could be close. The tracks are bright here.” Aaron gestured his rifle toward the exposed center of the wreckage.
“Well at least you can see shit.” grumbled Stanton.
“Cover me then. If I make any weird movements, I guess you’ll know where it’s at.” Aaron gave the others a grim smile before stepping forward.
“Not the best plan, really.” Daniel huffed, watching Aaron slip his head around the corner and into the depths of the aircraft.
Gripping his weapon tightly Aaron slipped his body against the plane, slowly craning to turn his head around the corner while both villagers stood guard. The interior was in surprisingly good shape. Rows of seats lined the aircraft walls and some cargo had even remained fastened in the center under a web of thick belts. There were no bodies, although open lockers and some unzipped travel bags gave the impression that this place had been quickly searched at one point. Aaron could imagine someone hastily searching through the wreckage in the dark. He, on the other hand, could see quite clearly.
In the far reaches of the aircraft, curled tightly into a swirling mass of color, was the beast. Its powerful glow bathed the inside with waves of color. Blues faded into tinges of orange and yellow and greens Aaron wished he knew the names of. If it could see him it made no indication, though he tried hard to see where a form could be hidden within its mass of vibrancy.
Aaron raised his weapon slowly, waiting for a sign. What if the creature was intelligent? What if it was once human? Was it being transported, or did it simply claim this makeshift shelter as its own?
“What’s happening?” a voice from behind him whispered in hiss.
Aaron looked down the scope of his rifle, taking aim. When was the last time he had seen so much color? He knew the answer but the question still clung to him. If this would be the last time he could ever truly witness a sunset, or watch the foam of an ocean crash into an open beach he would soak in every single second of it.
His finger gently moved over the trigger. It looked so much more radiant earlier. Like a ravenous storm that could never be contained. Now it looked more like like a candle. Strong but fragile. A wisp of yellow that reminded him of cornbread formed at the peak of its form and Aaron thought for a moment it had moved. Maybe it was watching him all this time.
“There’s nothing..” Aaron said firmly, ending their hushed tone. He lowered his rifle. “It’s gone.”
It never moved. He watched it for a moment longer, waiting for some kind of retribution for his arrogance. Instead it simply flickered like a small sun. Brilliant colors danced between them, like a rainbow come to life.
“Where do you think it went?” pondered Daniel, lowing his weapon with a sigh of relief.
“Who knows.” Aaron took a deep breath, then turned back to the others. “There’s an abandoned town north of here it could hide. Or if it’s smart it may just circle back till it hits the main road. A lot of stragglers there.”
“Easy prey.” spat Stanton. “No one’s gonna believe some see-through monster is tearing up the backwoods.”
The trio quietly made their way back to the camp. Scanning their surroundings in the dark. Daniel and Stanton’s flashlights cut fragmented lines through the thick woods. Together the pair lit the way ahead, keeping a fearful eye on any moving branch or crunch of twigs underfoot.
Aaron’s flashlight was by his side, but never once did he stumble in the dark.