Posted August 26, 2019 at 11:52 pm

    “Alright, so I move three spaces. That puts me around the corner.”

    “How many power cards do you have?”

    “Three, but all of em are garbage.”

    “Oh! Hey, if you have a knockback card then we can play a combo.”

    “I don’t.”

    “Any ranged attacks?”

    “Can I just show you my hand?”

    “Oh, yeah. It’s fine, we’re all on the same team.”

    Matt put aside his own hand while Dante passed his cards from across the game board. He was right. They were mostly garbage. Lu waited patiently, sorting through her own hand of cards while the pair tried to formulate a plan. 

    The trio made for an unlikely group. Dante was an academic. A clean shaven black man who wore button up shirts and khakis so that no one would ever wonder if he came from the hood. Even now he did his best to look presentable. His shirt was tucked in neatly underneath a sweater that made a slimming impression on his fit frame. He looked incredibly sophisticated, yet out of place against his companions wearing jeans and weather-beaten t-shirts.

    Despite going to the same school neither Matt or Lu knew him very well. Before fate had brought them together all three were practically strangers. Each had to endure that awkward social navigation of getting to learn personal boundaries. Dante hated when someone worked slower than he did, no matter the reason. Matt had to explain why he always frowned when his food touched. It took both men days before they caught on that Lu preferred the shorthand of her name over Louise. 

    Lu’s bright red hair made her easy to spot around the building. She was like a torch, burning with a vibrant artistry that made Matt’s cheeks flush in turn. It was her idea they repurpose the upper penthouse into a common area instead of fighting over who got to live there. A three bedroom, two floor luxurious rooftop home converted into a garden and wellness center. They used scavenged cans of paint to make the place brighter and filled it with games, chairs, art, and books. Everyone in the group added their own little touch. It was a mess, but it was theirs. 

    Like Lu, Matthew preferred the shorthand of his name. It was hard to believe the two had never spoken beyond a few short conversations as college freshmen. They were just acquaintances then. Matt was almost glad for the Dust. In the wake of terrible devastation and appearance of horrific monsters he had made a close friend. Often the pair would take on tasks together; gathering supplies while laughing over things they shared in common. Trading new ideas like a secret currency. 

    “I told you, we’re fucked. This game is fucked.” Dante waved his hand over the game board designed in the style of a sprawling metropolis. Miniature plastic heroes and villains stood, poised for action in dramatic poses.

    “Well, not exactly. If you take the hit this turn by drawing them out then we could probably knock one of the villains off the board next turn.”

    “Oh so I die?”

    “You might not.” said Lu. “It depends on the roll, right?”

    “Yeah, they could miss with their attack. They’ve got to beat your defense score first.” Matt passed the cards back. “Which is fifty-fifty but that’s better than nothing.”

    “Oh, so I have a fifty percent chance of dying so that you guys can win?”

    “We all win together. It’s a cooperative game.” Lu spoke gently.

    “Yeah. I guess it’s like a sacrificial play.” Matt nodded in agreement, picking his cards back up. “And look, see, if it doesn’t kill you then I can heal right at the start of the next round and you’ll be in the perfect spot to do a combo.”

    “And if I die?”

    “Well, if Lu has an energy restore upgrade we can bring you back--Oh. Ok. Well, then if she has--”

    “I just have a few offensive spells.”

    “--well, then we can kill this guy and work on the last objective.” Matt shrugged.

    “Without me.” Dante looked at the pair flatly, unimpressed. Lu set her cards aside to pass the dice over.

    “Hey why don’t we just see if you get hit first. Then we can worry about starting a new game or something.”

    Dante took the three dice in his hand, each containing special symbols denoting different effects. With two health left he would need to miss with at least two of the dice to survive. This was the part of the game everyone normally enjoyed the most. Dante frowned. It didn’t seem as fun when you were forced to gamble with your own life.

    Carefully holding his hand over the table Dante shook the dice within his palm before setting them loose. All he needed were two blanks in order to survive. Plastic scattered across cardboard. The trio pulled close over the table, eager for results.

    Hit. Hit. Hit.

    “Alright then.”

    The entire table shook as Dante pushed himself out of his chair and away from the game with a heavy sigh. Lu and Matt didn’t bother trying to remember where the scattered board pieces once stood. The game was over. They watched Dante leave the penthouse common room out the front door, waving a silent goodnight to them both.

    “We should probably stick to the simpler games when he’s playing.” Lu sighed, gently scooping several loose pieces back into the box.

    “He’s the one that said he wanted to try something new. We can always play this tomorrow with Chaz or TJ.”

    “Yeah, we should have time. The garden’s all set up here. I heard they just wanted to search the last few apartments on the twenty-first.”

    “I think they just did that. We should be starting the twenty-second floor soon. Then only another dozen to go before our building is fully explored. A hundred percent map completion!”

    “Then we find another?” 

    “It would be smart to hit up the ones around the block. All the local stores are cleared out anyway. Plus you never know what treasure you can find.”

    Together they carefully placed each figure back in their slotted section of the game box. The pieces were plastic and sturdy, but they took their time as though it were more delicate work. 

    Three months had passed since the Dust fell across the globe. It was sheer luck that they didn’t die in the initial chaos. Instead they were on a harbor tour of Lake Ontario when it happened. The college had received a good deal on group tickets, and it seemed like a fun enough activity for a Saturday afternoon.

    From the water Matt, Lu, Dante, and their classmates watched the coastline explode into a flash of violet light. They had thought it was a bomb at first. An attack, primed in the heart of their beloved city. Now they knew it was the side effect of some kind of weapon. One that somehow illuminated the entire coast in violent flames and jagged streaks of lightning for miles in every direction. Their small tour vessel had almost run out of fuel in trying to search for a safe plot of beach to land on.

    “I keep hoping we’re going to stumble across the expansion for this.” Lu smiled as she folded the last of the game’s pieces into the box, closing it tightly. “It’s a lot of fun.”

    “Oh yeah? What’s in it?”

    “I used to have the whole set. It’s got all these cool weapons and items that heroes can use. Really helps balance out some of the weaker villains with neat abilities too. They released it about a year age with a huge updated rules FAQ, it really felt like the proper way to play.” 

    “That sounds awesome. The game could definitely use a bit of balance.”

    “Yeah! It came with a bunch of new characters too. Oh man, there’s one that’s just a dog with a sword. It’s got a jetpack and can run up walls.” she sighed. “Golden Age is such a great game. I had all my models painted. I guess I could do it again.”

    “I’m sure there’s got to be one nerd in this whole building.” Matt smiled. “Everyone here knows we play games. The second we hit a place that has a collection they’ll tell us so we can rummage through.”

    There were ten members of their group in total. Most followed from the tour ship, without a home and unsure of what to do. A few they picked up along the way. Only one lived in the building they currently called home. It was all thanks to a chance run-in with Roger. 

    An elderly man who was more than happy to let them into his expensive apartment complex, Roger had given them shelter and a plan at a time where they may have just wandered to their death. The sole occupant of the building, no one had asked if Roger had chosen to stay due to his age or was abandoned for the same reason. He seemed pleasant enough, and was happy to share his considerable knowledge of the area to help them gather supplies.

    At first it seemed so strange that everyone had left. A city of hundreds of thousands, mostly gone. Stragglers had joined their group over the coming days, helping to piece together the events leading up to the catastrophe and beyond. The Dust. The unintended consequences. The unpredictable terror that swept the world. 

    But it was one important detail spurred them to action: Monsters were real now. If they were to survive, they needed a safe place.

    They boarded up the first, second, and third floor windows. Balconies were sealed and barricaded. Unnecessary entryways were blocked off with anything they could find. Food was to be rationed. Lights were only to be used during the day, and only deep within the building where their location couldn’t be noticed. There would be a guard posted at night. Raids for food and supplies would need to be organized.

    Things went well. Matt was shocked at how amicably everyone got along. He had expected someone would disagree with their plan or try to argue that they should look for safer shelter. At first they had all resigned to wait for help, but three months later it seemed unlikely help would ever come. They were on their own and had to prepare for the long haul -- whatever that may look like.

    If there were others wandering the streets, scavenging in the dark, neither Matt nor any other member of his group had seen evidence of their existence. 

    It was a thought that crossed Matt’s mind whenever he left the penthouse at night. With the lanterns off you could see over almost the entire city. Violet fires and streaks of lightning still rumbled in the distance in the northeast where they had narrowly escaped.

    Was anyone else out there, waiting for help? Searching for survivors? Hunting for stragglers? No matter the question, he preferred not to find out. Things were good here. He was certain that as long as they stayed smart and kept to themselves, they would endure. 

    With the board game packed and nestled safely under Lu’s arm the pair made their way out of the penthouse. Together they passed down the hall and into the stairwell. A battery powered lantern provided their light, but they still took every step carefully. Their group couldn’t afford even a minor injury.

    “So, today’s fact.” Lu turned to him expectantly while they walked.

    “Ok, this is a good one.” Matt rubbed his hands together. “Did you know that you could eat a tulip bulb the same way you would use an onion in a recipe?” 

    “Where did you learn that?”

    “I found this book on wartime oddities. Things soldiers used to do to survive, back in the day. At one point in World War II the Dutch were cut off from supplies and Allied forces. To try and keep from starving to death they had to eat whatever they could. There were stores of tulip bulbs that went unplanted due to the war, so they ate them.”

    “What do you think it tasted like?”

    “Well, these bulbs were old so probably not very good. But it did say that normal tulip bulbs have a sweet flavor.”

    “Ah. That’s a good fact then.” Lu smiled, opening the door to the next floor. “And topical too. Who knows when we’ll be eating tulips.”

    “I guess there’s worse things to eat. I haven’t had my name added to the cooking rotation yet.” Matt stepped into the hall, drawing out his own flashlight. Without power there was no difference between night and day in the halls. Carrying a flashlight was more necessity than habit.

    Both had their own apartments on this floor. Lu had chosen hers because it gave a beautiful view of the lake in the morning any time she left her living room curtains open. She had decorated it with art they had collected from a small gallery a few blocks down the road. Visitors enjoyed the small touch of the fake plant she left outside her door. Matt remembered her saying that if she found any more she’d decorate the entire hall to create a plastic garden. They’ve been keeping an eye out since.

    Matt had settled on an apartment a few doors down from hers, partly because it had an extremely comfortable couch. Partly because being close to Lu made him feel a little safer. A little more content with the end of the world.

    Lu jiggled her lantern gently while walking down the hall to her door. “We’ll get another game in tomorrow.” Balancing the board game under her arm she carefully twisted the knob to step inside. “Dante-free!”

    “Definitely! Night, Lu.” Matt smiled, walking past her door toward his home. With a sudden realization he paused, and rapped a knuckle on the wall loudly. “Woah, woah, woah. What’s your fact?”

    “Oh, shit.” Lu placed the game on the floor, then took a moment to tap her chin. Lantern in hand she scrunched her face in thought. “Alright give me a moment...”

    “You don’t have one ready?”

    “I’m thinking.”

    “I prepared mine. I even had a source cited.”

    “Well you’ve got me thinking about flowers now and I don’t want to copy you.”

    “Whatever. You can just forfeit today if you want.”

    “Did you know,” Lu loudly cleared her throat, “that scorpions are extremely hearty little arachnids? They can survive for up to a year without eating when food is scarce, in addition to being able to endure extreme temperatures.”

    “I knew they were tough.” Matt said as he walked backwards, toward his apartment door. “But I didn’t know they were so good performing tiny hunger strikes.”

    “Yes well, consider yourself educated.”

    Matt reached out and felt the cool doorknob rest in his palm. They stood for a moment, a few doors apart. There were times where he wanted to close the distance. He was guilty of walking slower than he needed on several occasions just to draw out the evening, but to do anything more felt incredibly rude. Or worse, inappropriate.

    Would there would be time to explore these kinds of feelings in the future? Did she even feel the same way? For now, life was hard. Things were only going to become more difficult in the days to come. Friendships were a valuable resource. Complications could wait. He couldn’t risk it.

    “Goodnight Lu.” Matt said, before stepping into his home.

    “Goodnight.” her voice trailed back, slipping into his home moments before he shut the door.


    Matt woke up the next morning with an uneasy anxiousness settled on his chest. In the quiet of night his apartment wasn’t much to look at, but come morning its large glass windows flooded the room with light. More so than usual, since he had woken up late.

    Having selected his apartment with the arbitrary criteria of ‘good couch’ Matt was pleasantly surprised to find its former occupants shared his personal taste in other ways. There were shelves full of books he wasn’t sure he’d ever read, but certainly made him look smart for owning. Its decor was modern; clean and functional without looking snotty. A large tv and several racks of movies held the promise of future entertainment should power ever return.

    There was art on the walls, but Matt had removed and replaced the floral and panoramic paintings with subjects more his own taste. Several gaming and comic book posters he had secured from a comic shop lined the living room instead. It seemed stupid at first, but the longer he stayed there the more he appreciated how it reflected who he was. Like a proper home.

    He never had the heart to throw away any of the previous resident’s personal belongings. It seemed like such a heartless thing to do. Instead he shoved them all into an unoccupied apartment across the hall. He called it his ‘personal storage area.’

    Propping himself up against the headboard of his bed Matt wiped grogginess and crud from his eyes. The mattress sat directly across from a wall of glass, and it was hard not to admire the view of the city below. It was hard not to appreciate this good fortune. 

    He could never afford a place like this before. Not as the student he was, and certainly not as the photographer he was hoping to be. He had a good eye, but his shots never seemed to capture the same energy needed to impress his teachers or peers. Another year in school would have likely convinced him to move to film, maybe get credentials as a cameraman or a grip. Good professions, but ‘survivor’ just seemed so much more impressive.

    Matt brushed his teeth and rinsed his mouth with clean water from a plastic jug, pouring the excess backwash out the balcony window. His attire was simple and comfortable. Jeans, a t-shirt, and a pair of running shoes. A crowbar, empty backpack, and a pair of workman’s gloves helped complete his look. 

    Checking his watch Matt quickly made his way out the door. Breakfast had likely started already and being late meant missing out on whatever had been prepared for the day. Everyone learned fast that it was always better to eat with the group. The morning check-in made it easier to communicate plans with each other beyond their routine meetings. Even the few who weren’t active talkers would make sure to arrive early to share their thoughts on what the group should tackle next.

    It was thirty flights of stairs to the ground floor. By the time Matt arrived from his late start most of the hot food had been cleared away. Only his closest friends had stayed behind to wait for his arrival. Dante had saved him a bowl of hot oatmeal and an apple, though whether it was out of friendship or guilt for last night’s behavior he was unsure. Lu was cheerfully carving a piece of wood into what appeared to be a small ghost or an odd napkin. Matt wasn’t sure, and was too hungry to care.

    They sat and talked about their plans for the day while the occasional resident passed by to say good morning. Apartments on the first floor had been converted into more essential things. A dining area, storage for supplies, and an extremely meager armory. Beyond food and fuel, weapons were next in high demand. Their looting so far had only yielded a single rifle and shotgun, which were left in the hands of those assigned to take up the evening watch.

    “I was thinking I’d hit up the Plaza again.” Matt set aside his bowl, feeling much better with a full stomach. “They’ve got a parking lot that should still have a few cars I could tap for gas. Plus maybe a store or two.”

    “That’s kind of a way’s out.” said Dante. “Do you need a hand?”

    “It’s not that far. I just want to be fast. In and out. I’d take a bike.”

    Lu blew wood shaving from her carving before setting it aside. “Well if you’re going to go you should at least take the one with the basket. If you do find something you can just strap it in.”

    “Yeah. Between my bag and a basket I can come home with something decent. No one else is going out today right?” Matt looked between the pair. Lu shrugged, leaving Dante to speak up.

    “I don’t think so. Everyone wants to just finish clearing out this place. I think not having the building fully explored is makin' em anxious. Like we focused too long on the block.”

    “Well, whatever. We can clean up the twenty-second while you go find us something valuable. Like fully functioning electricity or water I don’t need to carry in a bucket.” Lu said while standing from her seat.

    “Oh yeah, I’ll get right on that.”

    After breakfast the trio parted ways. Dante and Lu began their journey back upstairs to assist with the long overdue floor-by-floor cleanup. Matt promised to bring them both back a souvenir from his journey, and his mind was already starting the spin with ideas.

    The Plaza was a small mall they discovered several weeks ago during their exploration of the city. Not being locals their group had focused their attention toward major landmarks first and foremost. Grocery stores, farmers markets, and hardware supply shops. Places that were easy to identify, loot, and then leave.

    An unfamiliar mall was filled with its own dangers, no matter how small it may be. Stores were jumbled about. Coveted supplies were often hidden behind locked rooms or secure loading bays. They had never encountered any survivors, but that didn’t mean some weren’t out there either. Matt knew if their band of misfits had somehow managed to endure the chaos then others must have as well. It was only matter of time.

    There were other places in the city he could have looted instead. Safer ones. But he had been to the Plaza once before, and he knew it contained the store he was certain would have what he needed. 

    It was a beautiful, clear day. Without traffic, without people, the roads and sidewalks were clear save for the occasional parked car or bag of trash. Though he tried to keep out of the open, Matt was free to weave his bicycle through lanes and across the sidewalk. The basket on the front of his bike rattled with every bump of the road. They had taken it, and several others, from a pizza place early on in their exploration of the city. 

    In the twenty minutes it took to ride to the Plaza Matt kept a close eye out for changes in his surroundings. A car moved aside, or maybe a newly broken window. They had heard a few stories from survivors like CJ of the things that lurked in the shadows beyond the city. He had no idea what to look for, but any sign of an abnormality was better than nothing.

    The Plaza was roughly the size of a city block, with a portion of that being dedicated to underground parking. Before the Dust settled it was a fairly popular spot for clothing and electronic stores. There were only two floors and a wide walkway on the first was filled with kiosks that changed from season to season. Matt had only been here once with his family years ago -- not exactly a tourist trap, but still handy if you wanted to get some extra shopping done.

    Matt guided his bike across the road and down into the underground parking. Slowing and stepping off the seat he guided the bicycle to the mall’s entrance, letting it rest against a nearby wall. Crowbar in hand he quietly eased open the heavy metal door, scanning the area for any signs of movement.

    Outside the sounds of nature helped mask your position. The wind alone would prompt building doors to open, flags to snap, and shudders to swing with the pulse of the air. Inside the mall, without the cover of nature, there was only silence. The absence of humanity in a place that was once a hub of life.

    Normally Matt didn’t mind a little quiet, but the Plaza wasn’t a place designed to sit quietly. Its high glass ceiling and wide hallway captured and echoed noise throughout. Everything was dressed opulent golds and regal reds, which at one point may have lent an air of wealth to its vendors and patrons alike. Now, without its regular cleaning, the Plaza looked like abandoned royalty.

    He was always expecting some kind of sound would break the silence. The Plaza’s main hall was like an inflated lung that was ready to exhale at any time. His footsteps felt too heavy against the tiled floor. Too hard to conceal. Not wanting to spend more time than necessary he jogged over to the nearby mall directory to quickly sort out his trip.

    There were only two stores Matt cared about, and the first was nearby on the first floor. He moved quickly, risking the extra sound his running shoes made against the tile. Crowbar in hand he was glad to see the door to Circuit Kid was wide open.

    Rows of inoperable computer monitors and dusty televisions sat all along the edge of the electronics store. In a different time this would have been a looters paradise. Cell phones and freshly sealed games sat open for the picking. In another timeline Matt would have probably been here to pick up his own copy of Breathless Saga 3. Jumping over the front counter he wondered if it held up to the original at all.

    His search of the store was fast and precise. Batteries of every size and grade were swept from display racks and end caps. Twice he used his crowbar to break into locked shelves, yielding an extra flashlight and a small solar powered lamp. With so many valuables left behind it seemed unlikely that anyone had been here before, but that didn’t mean he was eager to stay long. 

    Once his bag was almost completely full he made for the exit -- but not before snatching a copy of Breathless Saga 3. If they ever got power to work again he’d be ready.

    The second stop was upstairs, past the escalator that was now conveniently just a flight of stairs. Despite trying hard to keep quiet his footsteps rang clearly against the hollow metal. The effect made him wince. He looked around fearfully, making a mental note to use the parking lot stairs when it was time to leave. The hard cement wouldn’t be as eager to betray his movement.

    A different kind of fear gripped his heart when he reached the second floor. Just past the escalator were the glass doors to The Dragon’s Riddle. It was a locally owned gaming shop that grew an incredible reputation with its customers for friendly service and weekly contests. Puzzles would be posted online once a month for customers to solve, and a correct answer would earn you a reasonable discount on certain items in store. It was a cute gimmick, and the puzzles would often make their way to different web communities. 

    Reaching out to open the doors Matt found neither would budge. Locked, perhaps by the mall’s automated system. He took a moment to think, checking all around to make absolutely sure no one was watching. 

    It was entirely possible there was another way in. A back door, loading dock, or even a vent he could climb. Walking more than thirty flights of stairs a day had put him in fairly good shape, and if the wall were basic drywall material it would be easy for him to break through. If it were anything else he’d be making a terrible amount of noise for nothing.

    Still, he was here for a reason. There’s no reward without a bit of risk, he thought while taking several steps back.

    Winding up his crowbar Matt charged the glass door, stopping just short of it to add momentum to a heavy swing of the metal tool. The dull THUNK it made ringing against the glass made him cringe as it echoed off the mall’s high ceilings. Where he was hoping the door would have shattered, a fracture formed instead. A telltale spiderweb of cracks spreading across the pane. 

    Not sparing a single moment Matt stepped back and swung again, this time feeling the glass door buckle and start to give way. One final swing prompted the bottom half of the door to shatter inward into thick, uneven shards. If no one had somehow heard the sound of metal cracking against class they would most certainly have heard the door’s collapse. 

    Anxiety that suggested someone could be near gripped his heart. Scrambling forward he reached in through the breach and undid the lock that kept both doors set in place. Matt pulled the flashlight from his side and began to scan the store’s inventory for his game of choice. Every minute that passed he felt his heart race faster, until he finally stumbled upon what he was looking for on a display rack near the back.

    The Dawnblade: A Golden Age Expansion. Its silver letters were scrawled into the side of the box in an elaborate cursive. Matt pulled the box from the shelves and was thankful it didn’t feel too heavy. It must have been mostly cards and a few plastic figures. Normally he’d read the back of the box to see what he was getting into, but if it made the core game more fun to play then that was all that mattered.

    Cradling the game in his hands Matt turned to leave when something caught the corner of his eye. There was no shape to it. Just a mass of flesh, twisting and writhing in on itself with the consistency of molten goo. Somewhere near the center of its form placid skin rippled and began to part. Long fingers stretched out as though emerging from under the surface of water, parting its flesh with ease as it extended first into a full hand, then an elongated arm.

    More than anything else, it was close. Danger screamed in Matt’s mind. How did it get so near to him? Was it fast, or just silent? Despite it’s revolting appearance there was no accompanying foul smell or monstrous shriek to herald its arrival. It simply was. And it was moving closer to him.

    Matt didn’t want to wait and see if there was more. He pulled his eyes away from the mass of flesh in time to hear the clanging thud of metal against metal above. There was a flash of light and cracking boom like thunder. A painful ringing sound filled his ears and he stumbled backwards, his vision a swimming mess of white spots. Reflex told him grab onto the nearest thing for balance, but fear quickly paralyzed his body.

    With fingers clutched tightly onto The Dawnblade Matt struggled to keep standing. His other hand gripped the crowbar, half swinging to make sure nothing was near. Matt knew the creature was nearby, but it was impossible to tell where it may have gone now that he had been robbed of his senses. A part of his mind told him it was safe to take a step backwards. 

    Something with incredible force slammed into his stomach and he doubled over. With his ears robbed of all but the endless ringing Matt wasn’t sure if he had cried out in pain, although his mouth did open. He tried to catch his breath when something strong suddenly pulled around his neck. The crowbar in his hand seemed to vanish, slipping from his grasp. A hand, or a grip like it, grabbed at one wrist and then another. 

    He couldn’t move, he couldn’t breathe. As consciousness faded from him Matt thought of his friends. Whatever trap he had fallen into, let it be satisfied with his death. Don’t go looking for him. Stay away.


    Matt woke up to the feeling of disorientation. His body was shaking. A panic flooded him remembering where he was last, and he opened his eyes to find the harsh white light of a glaring lamp nearly blind him. 

    “Oh no! Oh God, I’m so sorry!” beside him a woman quickly placed a hand on his shoulder. She reached to turn the lantern away. “No, no you have to lay down a moment. I didn’t mean to knock into your bed, ugh! Stupid!” 

    With the glaring light gone Matt could get a better measure of where he was. His bed was a simple cot in the far corner of some kind of tent. A makeshift hospital if he had to guess. Nearby a tray on wheels held several medical tools, and all around similar were storage drawers and tables waiting to be pushed into use. A strong wind caused the entire tent to shift and lean, though its several metal support beams seemed to hold fast.

    The woman beside him swore again, shaking her head while she rolled her eyes. Her voice and accent were unmistakably local, but the dark tone of her umber skin and braided hair made her background difficult to pin. Matt moved to sit up a second time and she eased him back. 

    “Hey, sorry but give me another moment. I know this is kinda weird but I just have to make sure they didn’t rough you up too badly.” she pulled a stethoscope from the table, affixing it to her ears.

    “I’m sorry, where am I?” Matt did his best to sit still, keeping an eye on the exit.

    “You are at what the boys call Staging Ground One. Or, the S.G.O.” she lifted his shirt up with one hand to better hear his heartbeat with the other. “Do you know where the Filheart Sanctuary is?”

    Matt nodded in a silent, cautious reply. Back when the Federation was ramping up its public works efforts, several projects were put into place to immediately improve its citizens quality of life. Major overhauls that required massive governmental cooperation between its labor force and the Federation’s own superhumans. The intercontinental superhighways were one such project, as was the Reforestation Initiative. Both were incredible efforts designed to help integrate Federation personas into less combat-focused positions.

    The Sanctuary Initiative was one of the last programs set into place, but it was by far one of the best received. A complete overhaul of every qualifying academic facility that handled environmental education and awareness. Everything from public zoos to butterfly gardens were given teams to help properly modify their facilities to meet more modern standards.

    Renamed from its previous identity, the Filheart Sanctuary was everything you could want from a zoo and more. Large enclosures with impressive multi-angle cameras that displayed to live feed monitors around each exhibit. Regularly scheduled featurettes on various flora and fauna throughout the facility. Residential areas for staff, interns, and potential school attendees. An automated shuttle system to help guests move from venue to venue. Staffing overhauls and improved facilities to help with the care, relocation, treatment, and potential medical triage for all their inhabitants -- human or otherwise.

    The significant upgrade had come with a few costs, and not just financial ones. Acres of land across country were claimed by the initiative to help facilitate the relocation of certain buildings. Matt had heard that those moved were fairly compensated by the government, but who really knew the truth of these things. Even still, the Sanctuary Initiative was a hit with very little opposition. Filheart Sanctuary was no exception.

    “We’re in the zoo?” 

    “Welcome to Kingdom Plantae! Though I guess it’s hard to tell.” the woman smiled, setting her stethoscope aside to offer him a hand. “Cecilia Cross. I patch people up around here.”

    “Uh, Matt.” he said as they shook hands.

    “Well Matt, the good news is that aside from a bit of fatigue you’re doing great. That’s just a side effect of the tranquilizer. Your neck will probably feel a little sore for a day too. You’ll have to blame that one on Kane.”

    A man entered the tent carrying a large box as if on cue, smiling warmly to the pair before setting it on a nearby table with a grunt. The combination of his posture, black fatigue pants, grey sleeveless shirt, and obvious sidearm set him apart from being a normal civilian. Cecilia turned in her chair to give the man a friendly wave. He returned the favor, and walked over to shake hands.

    “Hey, you must be the new guy! Kane. Sorry about the whole neck thing.” said Kane, looking somewhat embarrassed. “We weren’t sure if you were one of the afflicted or just caught in its path.”

    Matt’s memory came back in a flash. The ooze-looking creature from the game store. Its weird arm growth.

    “Wait, that was you?” Matt sat up, this time with some assistance from Cecilia as she pushed back her chair to give him more room.

    “Well, me and a few others. We’ve been hunting that critter for that past few days now. It’s slow, but can more pretty fast when it feels inclined. We weren’t sure the sedative we had would work but it seemed to go inert after a few rounds.”

    “I’m sorry, this is a lot.” Matt shook his head. “So you tranquilized the ooze-thing, and then you sedated me? How long have I been here?”

    “Just a day.” Cecilia placed a hand on his arm gently. “They weren’t sure if you had been attacked or not and didn’t want to just leave you there.”

    “Yeah, sorry man.” Kane sighed. “We’re pretty sure this guy wasn’t wandering alone, and leaving you back there seemed shitty after what we did to ya. I hope there’s no hard feelings.”

    Matt frowned. It was a lot to take in all at once. If these monster hunters made their base at Filheart Sanctuary he was a couple hour drive away from the rest of his group. Not ideal, but at the very least he was glad to be safe. 

    “No, it’s fine. Thanks. I think it was trying to get me. You said you knocked it out? Did you kill it?”

    “Wanna see?”


    Once outside the medical tent there was certainly no questioning Cecilia’s claim. They had erected the tent in the center of a botanical garden. It was a massive greenhouse that made Matt feel as though he was stepping out into a well-maintained jungle. Fans blowing around the facility simulated a swaying wind. Kane led the way out and of the building into open park. 

    Little had changed since the Dust had fallen. Whatever power supply the park had seemed largely disabled, but as much of the facility was environmentally friendly there were still signs electrical life all around. Solar powered shuttles still moved on their automated tracks, pausing at intervals to let would-be passengers on. Vending machines, fountains, and certain lights seemed to be functioning off the same technology.

    A massive sign made of rolling metal leaves and blossoming flowers welcomed them both to the Kingdom Plantae. Matt could see clearly that they had just left a structure labeled Deciduous Delights -- one of several literal branch paths that forked from the main entrance. The paved road was designed to look like a tree and offered other routes that explorers young and old could take.

    “You ever been here before?” asked Kane, his eyes scanning the area like a watchful hound.

    “Not since they finished renovations. How far in are we?” Matt was guided over to a nearby shuttle that had just parked to let on new passengers.

    “On foot we’re a pretty decent hike to the main entrance. Residential units aren’t far from here so we keep this plant-whatever area as our primary medical hub.” Kane gestured ahead of the road as the shuttle began to move. “All these roads feed back to the main gate. From there we can hop over to any other spot in the park.”

    “These things just run all day?”

    “Pretty much. We’re ready for the day they break down, but they’re built to last. Plus there’s a garage with a ton of replacement parts.”

    “How many are in your group?”

    “You scoutin' us out?”

    Kane flashed a playful smile that made Matt suddenly feel uncomfortable. He was so taken in by their surroundings he had completely forgotten the circumstance. He was an outsider, and one that they may not even trust despite having brought him here.

    “Sorry, that was rude. I didn’t mean--”

    “Our group’s a bit slimmer these days. Got about thirty bodies in total.” Kane waved off the apology. “Not all here though. We rotate out, going on expeditions. Hunts, if you wanna call em that.” 

    The shuttle was a smooth ride across a paved road. Sprawling across both sides of the lane were rows of trees and shrubbery, with an arc of vines crossing above to provide some extra shade. It made the trip feel rather enchanting while serving a dual purpose of preventing guests from seeing what took place behind the scenes. Even with natural weathering it would take a long time for these roads to break down and become unusable.  

    It was only a ten minute ride to the central hub, and the pair spent it mostly in silence. Matt wasn’t sure what questions were safe to ask and Kane seemed happy enough to keep to himself. Now and then the pair looked to each other, then smiled awkwardly before looking aside. Mercifully, their arrival in the park’s main gate gave them something to talk about.

    The Filheart Sanctuary’s entrance was originally designed to be a tourist checkpoint between each major branch. There were gift shops, restaurants, and a visitors center for answering questions and checking baggage. Signs of the original Sanctuary’s designs were still there, but many changes had been made to repurpose the hub to the needs of its new residents.

    Several cars and trucks were parked in the square, filled with various supplies. Soldiers moved about, some busy rearranging cargo while others kept guard or made idle chatter. The entrance to the park wasn’t far off from the highway, so tension was understandable. Kane gestured at notable areas as their shuttle began to slow down to a complete stop.

    “This is the main entrance. We keep most of our vehicles here, with exception to a few that patrol the sanctuary grounds. The diner over there still works. One of the few places that used gas but we rigged it with some solar panels so we can make hot food year round. The apartment block has power too. Running water and everything.” Kane smiled proudly.

    A group of soldiers waved and said hello as the pair left their shuttle. Another had just arrived and Kane seemed eager to reach it. Matt waved back politely while they jogged over, cracking a smile as one soldier made a choking gesture and laughed. Kane waved it off.

    “Fuckin' comedian. Anyway, the visitors center is our social area. We’ve got games and everything. Some arcade machines, movie nights, puzzles, you name it. There’s also a secondary first aid station in the back behind the diner. We’ve got one at each hub, just in case.” Kane tapped Matt on the shoulder to bring his attention to their next destination.

    They passed under a large arching metal sign that read Kingdom Animalia. There were no rows of twisting plants or trees to line the road here. Instead there were carvings. Animals of all shapes and sizes, flowing with each other in a single stampede. Care was taken to fit as many creatures of various sizes as possible, so that the eye needed to travel with the natural movement of the carvings until the destination was finally reached.

    The journey to Kingdom Animalia felt longer than the ride from Kingdom Plantae. Matt would have asked how long it would take, but needling Kane with questions seemed like a quick way to irritate the man. So instead they sat in silence. Matt watched the stampede sculpture as they rode, trying to name each one as they drove by. Kane stared off into the distance ahead. When the soldier finally spoke, it almost startled Matt from his seat in the shuttle. 

    “Looks like you get to meet Father a little early.”

    “Who?” Matt craned his head to look past the shuttle interior at their destination. 

    Five men stood at the entrance to the park, speaking casually to each other. Their attire and weapons marked them as soldiers cut from the same cloth as Kane, but one in particular stood apart from the rest.four

    The man was tall, dressed for travel, and wore a metal leg brace that seemed to require a cane for him to use. The way the other four men looked to him it was clear he was the leader, at least in terms of their conversation. An unruly beard, shaved head, and very slight gut reminded Matt of a backwater survivor. Someone more comfortable hunting ducks in a swamp than giving orders to organized paramilitary forces.

    “The one with the bum leg. That’s Father.” Kane leaned back in his seat as their shuttle slowly approached. “He’s an American. Was special ops or something like that back in the day. So he says. I don’t pretend to know the whole story. Don’t really care either. What you should know is that when one of those creatures came charging down on me and my men, it was the Father over there that stabbed that motherfucker with a homemade spear.”

    “By himself?”

    “All alone. Said he’d be hunting it for days. Told us there were more. Asked if we wanted to help.” Kane spoke quietly, shifting in his seat. “Everyone here is working together to make things right again.”

    “So he’s in charge around here then?” Matt paid close attention to Father as they drew closer, trying to capture whatever details he could.

    “More or less. Without his expertise I can’t say I’d still be standing here today. There’s a reason this all works so well. This guy gets it. If you want some helpful advice, he’s probably going to ask you a question or two. Just be honest, alright?”

    Matt gave a respectful nod in reply. His mouth was a thin line of concern. How far away was he from the entrance now? Were they going to let him leave, or was this all some kind of a test? Why should he care about any of this?

    Their shuttle pulled into its designated temporary parking area, catching the attention of all five men standing at the entrance. Quietly the group concluded a low-speaking conversation while Matt and Kane stepped from their shuttle. A round of laughter echoed from them before the Father eventually stepped forward with his stiff leg. It was an act that took a while to perform, requiring a considerable number of smaller steps just to properly turn. 

    “It appears our young guest is awake.” Father’s voice had a warm and undeniably southern accent to it, though Matt couldn’t place from where. It was like listening to an old cowboy, or at least someone’s idea of one. “Calvin Barrow, but folks around here just call me Father. Pleased to meet you.”

    Matt shook Father’s hand, expecting the other men to introduce themselves only to watch them turn and walk away. “Uh, nice to meet you. I’m Matt. Thanks for helping me out. And, I guess, taking me here?” 

    “Oh it’s no problem. It looks like Cecilia has been treating you well. Did my associate here tell you anything about me?”

    “He says you’re the one in charge.” Matt followed slowly as Father began to guide them deeper into the sanctuary, cane tapping rhythmically on the ground as they went.

    Here the sanctuary felt more like a proper zoo. A few shops and a visitors center dotted the surroundings before pathways representing various animal classifications branched away from the main street. You didn’t need to walk far before reaching the first few viewing areas, though each exhibition was given ample space to shine on its own

    “You could say that.” Father’s leg creaked as they walked. “I prefer to see myself as more of a guiding hand than a...leading one? I don’t do analogies. Still, someone needs to keep things organized. I leave decisions in the field to the boys. Here, within the sanctuary? I keep the order.”

    Father turned to look at Matt as they slowly approached what appeared to be a viewing arena. A nearby sign displayed colorful facts about lions, lionesses, and their natural habitats. They paused in front of it, just short of the enclosure, and Matt felt as though he was on some kind of an automated tour. 

    “We prefer to keep to ourselves but now and then they bring in someone like you. I know you’ve got questions. I’ll answer as many as I can but if you’d humor me a moment, perhaps I can answer a few of your more pressing concerns.” Father waited for Matt’s response, then continued to speak, leaning heavily on his cane. He sounded practiced, like an old storyteller recalling their favorite tale.

    “I’m no local. Came here with my daughter. We were on vacation, staying in the city, being tourists. This was just another stop on the journey. One of the reasons I planned it actually. War hadn’t reached the north yet. Federation controlled. It was supposed to be safe.

    “Then those red flakes fell from the heavens and all hell broke loose. You’re a local, so I know you’ve seen some of it. According to the military this is likely a side effect of that shit they put in the sky. The Dust. It was supposed to make the extraordinary just ordinary again. Instead we got this. Half the lake burning under some crazy ass purple fire. A fucking whirlpool floods downtown, flushing the population into God-knows-where. 

    “That ain’t what killed my little girl though. She got run through by a monster. Some bone demon crashed through a window while we were trying to get out of town. Maybe it was a person once. Maybe Federation, maybe a Separatist. Maybe one of those gifted that slipped through the cracks in the system. Doesn’t matter. Whatever it was before, I watched it tear my little girl apart like a wild animal. Just shredded her, and ran. There wasn’t a piece left I could hold.

    “So I did the only thing left I could. I hunted that piece of shit down, and I killed it with my own two goddamn hands.”

    Matt wanted to speak but he knew the story wasn’t over yet. He had expected the man to go on. Instead Father gestured they follow, guiding them ahead. All three stopped just shy of the lion enclosure, where a thick glass barrier separated them from a quick drop into the concrete pit.

    It was built to look like the edge of an oasis. A pool of water sat along the edge of a muddy bank, natural earth rolling up into several small hills. There were trees that could provide shade, a large tire that appeared to be some kind of a toy, and in the far rear of the enclosure were several avenues that the inhabitants could retreat from view entirely. Matt remembered hearing somewhere that every enclosure had an area closed off from public access. 

    The lions had long gone. In their place, standing at the top of the tallest hill, was a chittering mass of flesh and bones. Two legs stood to support a blossom of gore that used to be a man’s rib cage. Sharp bones had burst through the chest and interlocked with strips of muscle woven between. Even at a distance it was easy to notice heat emanating from within. Blackened skin surrounded the core of the flesh furnace. Its chest was arched backward while its body contorted to give the crest of protruding interlocked bone a full display. Like a volcano of sinew ready to erupt.

    Matt was fascinated. Transfixed. He searched for a sign of humanity within the creature. It’s head and face were charred and twisted to become unrecognizable from the rest of its bone-punctured chest. There were too many splinters shearing the flesh along the curve of the neck. Too many ribs entirely. Its arms sagged at its side, held in place by limp shoulders.

    Father cleared his throat before speaking, as if to make sure that Matt was really listening to what he had to say.

    “We found this guy wandering the sewers like a walking landmine. Up until Mr. Pompeii here we’d been just killing em under controlled circumstances. Lure em into a trap then light em up. But this thing? Just stood there. Only time it moved was to spit out some nasty looking fire anytime something came close.

    “That’s when I realized we were doing things all wrong. Just wandering out into the world, hoping to stumble across afflicted freaks. No idea what we were ever walking into. If this is a war then we need to learn about our new enemy.”

    “Did you know that one percent of the world was alleged to be superhuman?” Kane said, peering down into the enclosure. “There were over two million people in this city. Let’s say the Dust was ninety-nine percent effective. What’s that left?”

    “A few hundred?” Matt struggled to do the math in his head, still looking down at the monster below.

    “A couple hundred.” Father corrected, tapping his cane against the protective glass. “A couple hundred of that. Creatures that explode when you go near em, turn into weapons, spit acid, whatever. That’s not even including the ones that killed themselves transforming into wildfires the size of football stadiums.”

    Matt watched as the twisted remnants of a person vented a small pillar of flame from its chest. The way it bulged made him think of a pipe releasing excess heat or pressure. “So what, do you just wrangle them in here?” 

    Father tapped his cane on the glass again before gesturing that they continue onward. Matt kept his eyes on the afflicted for as long as he could as they walked away. It shuddered and spit another gout of flame. Father continued on. His words felt accented with every click of his cane and creak of his leg brace, as though he was reciting lines to a slow, sad beat.

    “I don’t. I leave that work to Kane and his boys. Some you just can’t catch. Too weird, too dangerous. If that’s the case they put em down where they can find em. But the ones we can get a hold on? We bring em back here, and study our enemy as best we can.”

    Ahead was a large cave, or at the very least a building designed to look like one. It wouldn’t have surprised Matt to learn that some Federation-registered geomancer constructed a building made of rock just for a bit of extra show. A sign above the cave’s mouth read Cavernous Crawlies

    There was power in this part of the sanctuary. The cave was dark, but atmospherically so as dim lights above gave just enough illumination so that visitors could see their way. Wall mounted tablets flickered small details about inhabitants. Snakes, lizards, spiders, scorpions, and all manner of insect called this part of sanctuary home.

    Moving through a winding tunnel Matt listened to Father speak loudly. His voice echoed in the fake cave, which left an uncomfortable feeling in Matt’s chest. Inside, in the simulated dark, it was hard to force back the natural urge to be still and silent. They way prey kept safe from a predator.

    “It doesn’t matter if they can spit fire or shit lava. These creatures have rules, Matt. They were human once. Their power was great but it had limitations then.  Same rules apply here. We know bullets can kill most of em. Hell, a good knife would do the trick if you get close enough. But how do you get close to these monsters? Tell me how to sneak up on something that can just grow eyes out of its back. Or arms.”

    They stopped in front of a large enclosure built into the cave wall. Thick glass separated their group from the scene of a bamboo garden at night. A light in the upper corner of the display imitated a full moon shining above. Information panels all around suggested this was a home for some kind of snake, but at the center was a sight familiar to Matt. A mound of flesh with skin that rippled like water. It sat in isolation, unaware or unable to recognize their approach to its enclosure.

    “You got picked up nearby this thing right?” Father tapped the glass gently with his cane, trying to prompt its attention. The mass of flesh didn’t budge.

    “Yeah. It snuck up on me.”

    “Well then, you can understand just how dangerous these things are.” Father put his hand on Matt’s shoulder. “I won’t ask if you’ve got people out there waiting for you. I can see it in your eyes. Eager to leave. Happy to go. But if we’re going to survive as a race we need to work together.”

    Father put his hand to the glass. In the blink of an eye the flesh across the ooze convulsed and rippled as several hands violently exploded out from within its mass. Stretched fingers and wide palms grasped against the glass to frantically bring Father into grip. They slapped wet against the glass harmlessly, then slowly reeled back into the ooze. Elongated arms clicked their multiple elbows, bending and snapping their way back under the surface of liquid flesh.

    “You’re going to stay here and help us Matt. We could use the extra body, and you owe us your life. You’ll work around the sanctuary with Kane here until you’ve earned the right to leave.”

    “Earn the right? How am I supposed to do that?” Matt looked between Father and the afflicted, suddenly aware of how close Kane was behind him. 

    “Knowledge is the only currency that matters anymore, kid. Figure out the secret to killing this abomination. Teach my men. Prove it works. Then we let you go.”


    Father spoke for a while longer, but Matt could barely register what the man was saying. Something about a schedule. Maybe details about food and water. They stood in front of the exhibition until it was suddenly time to leave. From there he was guided out of the cave and toward the sanctuary’s on-site apartments.

    If Matt wasn’t so distressed he would have been impressed. The apartment block was like a small hotel only fifteen minutes from the core of Kingdom Animalia. Along the way there were other exhibits -- sunken enclosures, and large decorative pens designed for the maximum comfort of its former inhabitants. Most were empty, but on occasion Matt thought he spotted something else lurking within. 

    His apartment wasn’t quite the penthouse, but it was certainly a fancy accommodation given the circumstances of his captivity. There was power, just as Kane had promised, but after spending so much time in the dark it seemed strange to use it now. They were kind enough to leave a few items in his fridge, including some bottled drinks and snacks. Kane let him know he’d have a guard outside, in case there was anything else he needed. It wasn’t a comforting thought.

    Much like the rest of the apartment, his bedroom was clean and likely hadn’t been touched in months. It was there Matt found his backpack, largely empty save for a single flashlight. All of the batteries he had found were gone, as well as the solar-powered lamp.

    Underneath the deflated canvas bag was the copy of Dawnblade. It was in good condition, still sealed with the store’s plastic wrap. He sat on the bed and picked it up as gently as he could. It felt heavy. He wondered what the others were doing. Would they go looking for him? Should they?

    He had only been gone a day, but it felt like an eternity had passed. Staring out of the window of his unfamiliar bedroom he realized there was a reason why they had picked this to be his room. Up so high you could see almost half the sanctuary. It was a gorgeous view of the zoo’s grounds, almost like looking down at a map.

    Up this high there was no chance for escape. His door was most certainly being guarded. Climbing down wasn’t an option. There was nowhere to run and nothing to do but enjoy the stunning view of his new prison.


    The next three days were spent in constant observation. Kane was assigned as Matt’s personal guard, a task the man seemed reluctant to take on. Each morning they would travel to the diner for breakfast then help with tasks around the park. Cleaning dishes, gathering firewood, and occasionally moving supplies were part of their regular duties.

    Despite requiring Kane as a constant companion Matt found there were frequent moments in his day when he could keep to himself. He ate alone, preferring silence rather than to talk amongst the soldiers that held him captive. Cleaning was often done when others had left to perform their own tasks; and ferrying around supplies at least made him feel somewhat helpful to Cecilia, who was always appreciative with an extra hand at the medical station.

    Afternoons and evenings were filled with chores of a different nature. Each day they would patrol Kingdom Animalia and observe its new inhabitants. The flame-spewing captive in the lion’s pen was always the first stop. Not every enclosure was occupied, but many were, and Matt tried his best to observe them for as long as possible before Kane decided they should move onto the next. 

    They visited a woman, half naked and afflicted with several bruises, wounds, and cuts. She huddled to herself, bawling while surrounded by exotic and dense flora. Her prison was an outdoor glass enclosure shielded from the sun that once held a display of birds. She seemed so fragile, but Kane was quick to point out a flaw in her image. She was a shapeshifter, both a lure and maw projected by the real creature hidden nearby. Three men had been killed trying to save her. It wasn’t until two soldiers described seeing different women at the same time that they figured out the ruse.

    Past her enclosure was another sunken environment designed to hold a bear. It’s inhabitant sat in a pool of water trying hard to submerge itself under a layer of green algae. Like a chitinous spider its legs fidgeted under the surface as it sensed their approach, openly shivering when they came into view. They watched it from above each morning to ensure it hadn’t moved.

    “Killed two of our own with a spear on its underside. It’s loaded with toxin. Made em vomit blood till they passed out.” Kane remarked in passing. “I still think we should just shoot it.”

    One afflicted reminded Matt of a harpy. A body twisted and blended between two species. A man with wings for arms, talons, and a wicked looking beak. Near the man-harpy’s habitat was another afflicted that sang like a wind chime despite its heart being pierced with a glowing green crystal. At first it seemed like the creature was someone caught within a transformation, but Kane assured otherwise. The threat wasn’t the man, but the gemstone. Upon closer inspection Matt could see where the skin cracked and seemed to give way to a growing infestation of crystal underneath. Its host wandered aimlessly, mouth agape. A ringing chime sounded loudly from within its pierced and corrupted lungs.

    Of all the afflicted they visited only one was given special attention. An emaciated shell of a man who seemed barely able to support himself enough to crawl. They kept him isolated in a pen on the far side of Kingdom Animalia. Matt watched as Kane pulled a protein bar from his pocket. Taking great care to remove it from the wrapper Kane broke off a small piece no larger than a sugar cube and tossed it into the enclosure. 

    The crumb landed in the concrete pen, barely noticeable at a distance. Immediately the frail body began to move itself toward the treat. Whatever strength it had seemed focused in only a single area. Legs dragging behind, its arms did most of the work in pulling the body forward. More than once its strength seemed to give out completely, forcing an exhausted rest before the man could renew its crawl toward the meal.

    Eventually it reached the scrap of food, grasping its morsel of the protein bar with a skeletally-thin hand. They watched it strain to chew. It seemed to savor the act for as long as possible, and with every second that passed Matt witnessed vitality began to course though its veins. Musculature pumped into its body, hiding away a bony frame under proper layers of fat and tendon. It reminded Matt of a balloon inflating.

    Within seconds the emaciated man looked completely normal. Matt locked eyes with him for a brief moment before he turned and walked away, finding a shaded and isolated part of the enclosure to tuck himself under. 

    It was a ritual of sorts. Kane had said he was to be fed only once a day. Before and after each feeding they would do a round of his perimeter to check several live rodent traps. There weren’t enough insects in his enclosure for them to worry about, but a single rat caught unaware could prove disastrous. 

    After they patrolled the grounds Matt spent the most time becoming familiar with the subject of his assignment. Kane would stand or sit nearby and read a book while Matt quietly panicked over the task at hand in the darkness of the artificial cave. For hours he stared at the rippling wet skin of the ooze, hoping that with enough time he could divine some kind of secret weakness. Unlike the others kept in the sanctuary it seemed relatively active. He would watch it slowly glide from one end of the reptile enclosure to another, as if patrolling its territory. 

    Determining the best way to kill it felt like an impossible task at a distance -- not that he wanted to be any closer. Hoping to motivate some level of creativity he wrote down each idea in a journal picked up from the sanctuary gift shop. After three days of consideration he had come up with a list he was embarrassed to have spent any amount of time on:

  • Crush it with a rock (can it be crushed?)
  • Convince it to eat a grenade (does it eat?)
  • Lure it into a hole?
  • Rocket launcher?
  • Cut off a

    He had stopped before the last idea had manifested itself into uncertain scrawling. One of Father’s conditions was that he perform the act himself, and the idea of getting close enough to cut any part of it seemed daunting. Of the two times he had seen the ooze move, only one had been a slow and labored action. When it struck out at Father it was with incredible speed. Matt couldn’t hope to match such a supernatural force.

    Once he tried probing Kane for answers, but the soldier had given him very little to work with. They had stumbled across it in a construction yard. After breaking someone’s leg with its malformed limbs it slunk away -- but not before they fired several rounds into it. If bullets had any effect they weren’t sure. It didn’t seem to bleed, but must have been hampered in some way. Its trail had become easier to follow over time, until they found it in the mall. The sedation darts they fired were simply absorbed into its skin, but still seemed to do the trick.

    It wasn’t until the fourth day that Matt had made a proper breakthrough in his investigation of the creature. They had just finished their rounds of the other afflicted, and Kane had stopped outside the entrance to Cavernous Crawlies to place a hand on Matt’s shoulder. 

    “We’ve got another hunt coming up. I’ve got to keep an eye on you so I won’t be going, but there are some details I need to clear up with the group. Maybe an hour or two at most.”

    “What are you hunting?” 

    “No idea. They may not find anything, but we don’t want to cover areas we’ve already gone through. Anyway, I’m leaving you here to do your research. I’ll come pick you up when I’m done.” Kane paused, letting the weight of his words hang. They trusted him, but not enough to keep from using subtle threats. Kane’s other hand sat comfortably on his holstered pistol. 

Matt hardly felt he needed a reminder. As his jailer left to attend to other business Matt wandered into Cavernous Crawlies, notebook in hand, ready to come up with new ways to end a life.

    Without Kane by his side the cave didn’t feel quite so oppressive. Most of the inhabitants had been cleared out, but some of the smaller exhibitions had been left intact. There were several incredible displays on the way toward the ooze’s prison and he spent some time admiring them for a change. Many of the displays existed within their own isolated ecosystem, and its insect inhabitants had yet to notice the absence of human contact. 

    Matt took the time to read each enclosure’s data panel. He would have explored more had he not come across a scene of jagged rocky outcroppings. According to a nearby plaque it was designed for the Arizona Bark Scorpion. Something about the arachnid made his heart feel uneasy.

    He wondered when it was last fed. He wondered if it would survive the year.

    The ooze didn’t seem any different from the day before. It was still sulking around the enclosure, making an occasional pause as it seemed to notice something before moving on. Matt pulled a chair closer to the glass. Maybe he would find something new if he just sat a little closer.

    “Another day huh?” Matt said, opening his journal to a fresh page. “It’s just you and me today, so if you have any crippling weak points or severe allergies I’d really appreciate you just letting me know. Peanuts, bee stings. You know.”

    The ooze continued to move, squelching throughout its enclosure. Matt watched it quietly. He considered sketching it but decided not to. It probably wouldn’t look like much, and if Kane or anyone else saw him shading uneven circles instead of actually working toward a solution they would likely just feed him to the creature sooner than later.

    On its first pass around the enclosure Matt noticed a few things worth jotting down. When it came closer to the glass noticed its skin was always rippling. It reminded him of the way water droplets moved near loud music or a heavy bass. He wondered if perhaps that was how it moved; via some kind of humming from within that rolled it forward.

    The second time it approached the glass Matt tried a closer inspection. Pressing against the barrier he tried to spot more details within its flesh, but ultimately gave up the endeavor. It was like trying to see though muddy skin-toned water. There was something beyond it, but what? The arm? Organs?   

    Matt pressed a hand to the glass as it drew closer, curious to see if it was emanating any kind of heat. As he waited to determine a difference in temperature the ooze suddenly came to a halt. He braced himself for it to lash out like it did at Father. Instead it sat inert and unreadable.

    “Can you see me?” Matt leaned closer, searching for some kind of reaction.

    A ripple pulsed across its liquid flesh. He watched as fingertips slowly pierced the veil of its unnatural skin. The hand that emerged was still malformed and elongated but seemed more definitively human than the last. The wrist and arm were raw by comparison. Pink like the flesh of a newborn. It pressed its palm against the glass where Matt kept his. Even through the thickness of the reinforced glass he could feel its warmth.

    “Can you hear me?” Matt whispered. Remembering the barrier between them he spoke again, loudly. “Can you hear me?”

    There was a moment of hesitation before the hand slowly turned into a fist. Then, very slowly, its thumb unfurled and raised into an unmistakable sign.

    “Holy shit. Ok, wait. Wait.” Matt quickly flipped his notebook to a blank page, clicked his pen, then paused. The ooze’s malformed hand firmly held a thumbs up with grotesque enthusiasm.

    “You’ve been listening this whole time. So you know what I’m trying to do?”

    The fist unclenched and hung the air. The ooze pressed its palm flat against the glass, then tapped a finger along the surface.

    “Right. So you can’t talk. But you can hear me.” Matt paused, scanning the room quick to make sure they were still alone. “One tap for yes. Two for no. Uh, three for ‘I don’t want to answer’. Ok?”


    “Did you understand Father, when he brought me here?”


    “So you know I’m a prisoner too.”


    “When they caught us, you were reaching out to me. Were you trying to hurt me?”

    Tap. Tap.

    “What were you trying to do? No, sorry. How am I supposed to believe you? You’re an afflicted, so you had powers. Were you Federation?”


    Matt frowned. “I guess you’d say that, though. I want to believe it. These guys seemed alright too. Some of what they’re doing is good, yanno?”

    Tap. Tap.

    “Don’t say that. Look, you used to be human, right? I’ve seen the shit they’ve captured out there. It’s like a nightmare zoo. What would you do if you ran into a woman who was actually some kind of deadly mouth? Or a swamp spider made of bones?”

    There was no reply. Matt looked away. He told himself he needed to keep an eye on the door for Kane’s return, but it was also easier to pretend this way. That he was talking to a person.

    “Sorry. That wasn’t fair. I know you didn’t ask for this. But, whatever you are now, you know the world is dangerous. How can I trust you?”

    There was a pause. The hand twitched. It pulled away from the glass and settled on the ground. Matt’s heart sank as he realized he must have offended it, then watched in fascination as the ooze began to convulse. Another hand slowly broke the layer of rippling skin. Then another, and another. Each one was like a mockery of human form. Fingers that were too large, or arms with far too many joints. Several had palms wider than should have been, forcing its fingers to spread unnaturally. 

    They broke the surface of its form one after another, a blossom of limbs extended from every inch of its body. As each hand emerged it bent and twisted to reach the ground underneath. Palms outstretched, elbows bent, they worked in unison to lift the ooze off the ground. Surprisingly, it held form. A sphere of liquid flesh that was now much thinner than it seemed before. 

    Beyond the layer of semi-transparent skin its insides pulsed rhythmically. Matt tried his best to understand what he was looking at. A stomach? Veins? Tendons? The entirety of its being seemed to unfurl within. Its insides moved and twisted. A curtain of gore was drawn apart. In the center of its mass beyond the tangle of unnatural organs Matt could see without question the unmistakable pump a beating heart.

    “That’s how to kill you. You have a heart.” Matt watched in awe.

    Dozens of hands moved in tandem. Tap.

    The display of its weakness was impressive, but it clearly caused a strain to the ooze. Its arms began to tremble before it was forced to release some of the pressure. Organs tumbled back into place, hiding the heart behind a layer of thrumming meat. One after another arms folded back into its body. Each made dark ripples flow across its flesh as it slipped under the skin. There were dozens of arms supporting its weight, but after several had folded back under the surface its skin returned to a glistening opaque norm. 

    “Alright. I get it.” Matt nodded. “That was really gross, but I get it.”

    Folding all but one of its hands back underneath the ooze slowly approached the glass. It raised a hand to rest on the surface. A gentle act done with a careful, if macabre, grace. Matt hesitated for a moment before slowly raising his palm to meet it. 

    Even through the glass it felt warm. This was a living being.

    “We can’t stay here. You’re just a monster to them, and I’m only alive so they can figure out what makes you tick without putting themselves in danger. They’ll kill me if I don’t try to kill you, which means we don’t have long. We need a plan to escape.”


    “Alright. We’ll do it. Together.”



    When Kane arrived back from his meeting it was to find Matt sitting close to the glass, sketching the ooze. Matt knew it would look a little odd but he needed to relax and doodling always helped calm his nerves.

    Without knowing how long it would be till Kane’s return Matt and his afflicted ally rushed through the basics of a plan. Twice Matt went to check the entrance of Cavernous Crawlies, listening along the way for Kane’s return. Afraid that any passing moment could expose their plot, their final idea felt like a mess of rushed improvisation. A single mistake in their flimsy plan likely meant death. At the very least, no matter where things went from here, he didn’t want to be executed during the planning stage.

    A part of him still wondered if he could trust the ooze, but given that the alternative would mean being forced to fight it Matt’s options seemed slim. He felt more confident than ever that working with the creature was his only chance. The ooze’s display of weakness was also a display of strength. There was no way he could get past a single arm, let alone a dozen. Still, he had a nagging doubt.

    To reach such an alliance Matt knew he had to come to terms with a single crucial fact: He wasn’t going to kill the ooze, and because of that Father was going to kill him. It was a hard pill to swallow. Over and over he reminded himself of Kane’s veiled threat. Of Father’s demand. Of the prison he shared with these unusual captives. He couldn’t trust these people any more than he could trust the monsters they kept. 

    “Makin much progress?” Kane peered at his work.

    “A little. Trying to picture where the arm comes from. Thought if maybe I sketched it out it would make more sense.” said Matt. Kane seemed satisfied enough, looking between the sketch and the ooze as he tried to follow the logic.

    They left the cavern shortly after. Their evening routine was quick and easy, likely because Kane was tired of playing the role of jailer. They went back to the central hub for dinner -- a warm meal of stew and potatoes harvested from the sanctuary garden. Matt overheard a table of soldiers chat with excitement about the hunt tomorrow. It sounded as they they were travelling further than normal in search of something. 

    Though he kept to himself for the evening their banter did wonders in settling Matt’s own nerves. With so many experienced hunters leaving early in the morning the odds of his escape felt a little better. Still a slim chance, but better than none at all.

    After dinner Kane escorted Matt back to the apartment, where he was locked in his room until morning. An armed guard was posted outside. It was made very clear that under no circumstances would the door to his apartment be opened without express permission.

    Once inside Matt spent some time collecting himself. Out the window he could see lights from a jeep patrolling the sanctuary grounds in the dusk. He regretted not asking more questions, or paying closer attention to the layout of Filheart Sanctuary. So defeated by his captivity he never thought to look any further than his immediate surroundings. Matt hoped it would be to his advantage. Perhaps knowing how cooperative he’d been they’d never suspect a plot to escape. He hoped that would be the case. 

    If the hunt began in the morning then he had little time to make his few preparations. He stuffed the copy of Dawnblade into his backpack, wrapping a pillow around it to make the bag soft and cushioned. Several snack size bags of trail mix fit nicely in the front pouch. A small portion of the box stuck from the top and it took him a few minutes to find a proper solution. Floss wrapped around the top zipper would at least keep the game secure in the soft enclosure.

    Opening the bedroom window he looked down at the ground below. A jump or climb would have been impossible, but luckily his plan required neither. Matt spent an agonizing hour determining the best way to angle the drop, trying hard to differentiate between trees and bushes in the cover of night. When he was sure that he had the right angle and when he was certain no one was watching Matt carefully tossed the bag out the window. It landed with a soft thud, vanishing out of sight. 

    Standing by the window he held his breath while waiting to see if anyone else had heard the noise. It was too dark to see if his accuracy was correct. If he had miscalculated the drop, or if someone spotted the bag during a patrol, it would all be over. After a few minutes he was at least satisfied his plot wouldn’t be revealed till daybreak. He had to move on. There were other things to do.

    He took a shower, cleansing himself of a layer of filth that had accumulated over the past few days. Standing under the water it felt like a weight had settled over his heart. The warm water helped clear some of the anxiety away. A small part lingered. How desperate was he to escape this place? What would he do to see his friends again?

    After drying himself he returned to the kitchen and made a snack. A sandwich bag full of candy leftover in the fridge. He zipped the sweet-filled plastic shut, left it on the counter for the next morning, then crawled into bed. 

    He was surprised the shroud of sleep fell over him so quickly. He would be ready for the day to come.


    A knock at the door woke him up. A heavy pounding that meant he was late and keeping Kane waiting. 

    “Yeah! Hang on!” Matt yelled, while quickly getting dressed. On his way out he plucked a candy from his small bag of treats and stuffed the rest into his pocket. He gave a sheepish “Sorry!” as he opened the door.

    If Kane was bothered it didn’t show. Together they walked downstairs, out of the hotel, and straight over to the automated shuttles. It was a trip made in silence. Along the way Matt resisted the urge to look over his shoulder where his bag must have landed. Either it was there, or it wasn’t. If it wasn’t, he was certain they would confront him about it soon.

    At breakfast Matt kept himself apart from the rest of the group. For the first time since his capture, he took a real inventory of his surroundings. There were at least twenty men and women in the dining room alone. Many of them were set to leave today to begin the next hunt. The rest had to be patrolling the grounds, or keeping guard elsewhere. Kane sat with a group of is companions. Matt assumed they must have been the hunting party, speaking in serious tones while making pointed gestures.

    After breakfast came their usual round of chores. Kane and Matt helped Cecilia load some medical supplies into three vehicles parked outside the diner. One truck and two SUVs that were lined up, fueled, and ready for the hunt. Matt had learned the term ‘loaded for bear’ from Lu during one of their fact exchanges, but he had never had an appropriate time to use such a phrase until now. 

    Kane had made the hunt sound like a light expedition, or a scouting, but with the amount of weaponry each vehicle was carrying the odds seemed low that they were just going to observe anything. They had rations enough to handle several days of travel and more ammunition than Matt had ever seen gathered in a single area. More than enough to handle a single bear. Plenty to handle several at once.

    What was originally meant to be a quick task quickly became a more involved project as Kane noticed a discrepancy with the cargo. Unpacking and loading all three vehicles with an even number of supplies took the last hour of the morning. It was hard to resist asking questions about their mission and destination, but Matt knew better than to expect any real answers from anyone. 

    They left the sanctuary’s main gate, riding a shuttle back to Kingdom Animalia. Matt watched soldiers slowly filter out from the diner, gathering around their respective cars. They stood close to each other, discussing something with enthusiasm. Matt wanted to see them leave, if only for his own peace of mind, but a slight bend in the road slowly tucked the soldiers away behind a flowing wall of stone animals. By the time the entrance to Filheart Sanctuary behind them was completely out of sight, Kingdom Animalia was coming almost fully into view.

    The cloudless sky and beating sun were both a blessing and a curse during their inspection of the afflicted exhibits. It made the day hot and sweaty and uncomfortable, but it also made the review of each enclosure a little easier. The shapeshifting woman seemed too hot to put up much of a performance, and the bone spider had sunk deep into its miserable swamp. Even Mr. Pompeii didn’t seem to be as enthusiastic in venting heat. Instead it basked in the summer sun, occasionally releasing a gout of flame from its fractured chest.

    Only one alteration was made during their route, just before walking their way back to Cavernous Crawlies. It was at the emicated man’s enclosure. Kane lobbed a crumb to the far end of the pit. They watched the man drag himself to it. They waited to confirm that he would pick it up, and observed as he drew it into his mouth slowly. As usual, the man savored its meager flavor while his muscles inflated to more natural proportions. Then he walked away, not bothering to make eye contact as he moved to hide in the shade of a nearby rock.

    Kane and Matt did a final pass of the enclosure to check each of the rat traps that had been placed outside. It was then, while Kane was occupied with a spent trap, that Matt reached into his pocket. Trailing just behind his captor, Matt glanced into the enclosure to see if the prisoner had moved. He gripped the bag of candy tightly, then tossed the entire collection of treats over the enclosure’s wall and down into the pen. He flinched as the plastic bag made a single slapping sound after it hit the ground.

    If Kane had noticed the noise he showed no sign of it. Instead they moved on, eager to get out of the heat now that the final stop on their patrol had been completed. 


    Cavernous Crawlies was a welcome sanctuary from the sun, and they took a moment to enjoy the shade as their eyes adjusted to the dark. 

    “Father’s gonna want to check in on your work soon.” said Kane, gesturing for Matt to start walking. “Might be a good idea to clean up your notes if you have any.”

    “Have you guys done this kind of thing before? Like, held someone hostage.”

    “No.” Kane frowned, shaking his head. “No. We put our lives on the line trying to figure out how to take these things down. Not much time to do babysitting between all that.”

     “So why start?”

    “Look, I get it. A lot of us don’t always agree with Father, but he’s rarely done us wrong. What we’re doing here is important. It’s good work.” Kane paused, searching for the right words. “You’ve got friends out there, right? How long do you think your group would last against some of the shit you’ve seen here? Every one of those things we kill or capture saves lives.”

    “Right. And that makes your life more valuable than mine.” Matt couldn’t help but roll his eyes, and was glad to be walking in front of Kane. 

    “Your life? We saved your life back there. Kept you from being torn apart. As far as I’m concerned, you owe us.”

    “Yeah, sure.” Matt frowned. “You saved me then, so you can keep me here for your monster science fair project. You guys are really taking the high ground here.”

    “High ground? Cut the shit. What would you know about sacrifice? I bet you never--” A tremor in the earth forced them both to stumble. Kane’s hand went to his sidearm, and he motioned for Matt to stay still when a second powerful shockwave rolled underfoot. 

    “Stay here.” Kane pointed for extra effect before running to the cave entrance.

    The moment he was out of sight, Matt ran. Down the hall, past every exhibit until he found the first door labeled ‘Staff Entrance’. Behind the scenes of Cavernous Crawlies was unfamiliar to him, but the Federation that built this place was nothing if not organized. Fluorescent lamps hung cheerfully overhead, making it easy to read the maps posted at every corner. What would normally be a maze of passageways, ramps, and sterile corridors were instead neatly labeled destinations.

    Just past a long-abandoned exhibit on reptiles was his goal: the ooze’s prison. The exhibit it inhabited was designed to look as natural as possible for visitors, but for staff there were dozens of panels, switches, buttons and readouts all designed to help maintain the ideal environment for its inhabitant. Several cameras inside the enclosure gave full view of the ooze from multiple angles. Some monitors even provided night vision and infrared options.

    Another tremor shook the ground, but Matt was used to them now. They were becoming more consistent with each passing moment. Though it never stole his balance, each one reminded him of time slipping away.

    Scanning the area for a way to release the ooze Matt realized he wasn’t sure how to undo the magnetic lock. Stickers and guidelines posted on the walls showed a loading procedure to follow. Some kind of key was needed to start the process, and the odds of it being nearby were certainly low. If there was no way to set it free from the inside, then he would have to try another route.

    Matt ran back the way he came, pausing only to use his elbow against the emergency glass in front of a fireman’s axe. Plucking it from the wall he traced his steps back into the darkness of the cave, turning a corner to get back to the ooze’s exhibit. The tool felt heavy in his hands. Durable. When Matt reached his destination he didn’t hesitate to test its strength.

    He swung the axe hard against the ooze’s exhibit. Matt braced himself for a crash of glass shards but instead only saw a single crack cut a jagged scar across the pane. On the other side the ooze sat motionless. His second swing did far more damage. The tip of the axe cracked hard against the glass and he pulled it out for a third, fourth, and fifth swing. 

    Eventually the blade of his axe caught purchase deep within the splintering glass. Using the strength of his weight he twisted the handle, forcing a chunk of the broken glass pane to fall away. A few more swings opened a hole large enough for the ooze to slip through, and Matt took a step back to catch his breath.

    With the hole now large enough for escape the ooze rolled forward, narrowing itself as much as possible to avoid touching the sharp edges. Free of its enclosure, it slushed itself only an arm’s reach away from Matt. So close and no longer behind glass it seemed much larger. Menacing, even. 

    “Well, if your plan was to kill me then now’s the time.” Matt gripped the axe in his hand, looking down at the afflicted. “If not, we gotta move.”

    “What the fuck?” Kane stood just around the corner, dirt and grime covering his face.

    Matt had no time to explain. Their eyes met. Kane’s gaze flashed down to the axe. His hand slid down to the gun holstered at his side. With the fluid practice of a combat veteran Kane brought his weapon up just as Matt was lifted from the ground, tossed through the air with unexpected force.

    Matt hit the floor in a roll as a bouquet of limbs across the ooze’s surface. Kane’s pistol sounded off in rapid succession. The ooze tumbled forward, propelling itself forward with uneven hands and disjointed limbs in a macabre cartwheel. One of its limbs went limp and pulled itself back under the wet layer of flesh after being struck with a bullet. The rest drove onward, barreling into Kane with tremendous force.

    Kane tried to fire his weapon but several mismatched fingers gripped around his wrist. Bone crunched under the strength of its grasp. He toppled backwards as more hands reached out. With every grasp came the same violent action. The squeeze of flesh. Bone splintering under muscle. It was impossible to tell if the soldier tried to resist as more limbs reached out  to grasp for his hair, neck, chest, and mouth. 

    The ooze crept over its prey, hoisted on a collection of stilted arms. It shook and pounded and ripped and tore at Kane like he was made of paper. A scream tried to erupt from the man’s lungs but fists pulped a wet gurgle from his throat instead. Matt watched in horror, his back to the wall and axe in hand. A spray of blood from the ooze’s red-soaked limbs flecked in every direction until it had finally decided its work was done.

    Though it had no expression Matt could read the ooze unmistakably as it turned to regard him. Balanced upon its hands it crawled away from Kane’s meager remains, standing near the glass of its former enclosure.

    “Who were you? What are you?” Matt whispered. He did everything he could not to look at Kane’s remains.

    With a blood-soaked hand the ooze pressed a finger to the glass, scrawling three letters in gore.

    “Sam? I can’t...I don’t know if I can do this anymore...” 

    Matt wanted to stand. He wanted to run, and cry, and hide. He screamed at himself for being so stupid. What did he think would happen to these people? How can he trust this creature? This monster. Because it was captured too? Maybe it was here for a reason.

    Sam, the ooze, crawled forward. Its wet hands slapped the ground in a rhythmic procession of blood. Matt turned the axe in his palm defensively as Sam’s uneven limbs bent and twisted until its oozelike mass was arched in an unmistakable bow. A hand slowly emerged from its core, slipping from its rippling skin with fresh and unbloodied fingertips. It was the most human hand Matt had seen it produce yet. It looked soft, delicate. Almost feminine. Sam extended it just beyond Matt’s reach, letting the gesture hang.

    Swallowing his fear Matt eased his grip on the axe. He looked to the pulped remnants of Kane, so easily crushed underneath a wave of unnatural strength. It had taken Matt almost a minute to break the glass, one swing at a time. How many swings could it perform in a single second with its disfigured arms and monstrous power?

    “You could have left.” Matt looked back its hand, extended. “At any time, you could have broken free and left. Maybe hid somewhere.”

    A wet tap sounded on the ground.

    “You stayed for me? Did you need my help? Is it because I couldn’t leave without you?”

    There was a hesitation. Sam’s human hand drew back a little. Its arched bow was less pronounced. It rolled its bloody fingers against the ground three times in succession. A wet tap tap tap. Matt frowned, then reached out and grabbed its hand into a firm shake. It was warm. Slick. There was a stickiness that reminded him of a fruit chew left out in heat.

    With a delicate care Sam helped lift Matt to his feet. A rumble shook the man-made cave, followed by the boom of an unmistakable explosion. Matt felt the color drain from his skin in a chill. They had wasted so much time. 

    “Alright.” Matt shook Sam’s hand firmly. A final confirmation of their alliance. “We leave together.”

    Sam bowed again, raising one of its free thumbs up in agreement. Afraid but determined to make the best use of the opportunity he created Matt ran past Kane’s body and back to the entrance of Cavernous Crawlies. Behind him, the sound of Sam’s palms slapping against the ground. They reached the cave’s mouth together, Matt gesturing Sam to stay hidden so that he could peer ahead. 

    Kingdom Animalia was a battlefield. There were bodies, both whole and in pieces, strewn in every direction. The center courtyard was covered thick in blood and the entrance was roughly blocked off by a pair of armored jeeps.

    At the center of the chaos was the emaciated man, now grown to tremendous proportion. His muscles had inflated with the consumption of food beyond what his skin was able to contain. The strain of its mass forced the colossal afflicted onto all fours like a primate. Broken flesh hung in tatters from its arms and neck like ripped strands of cloth from an ill-fitting shirt. Its chest was a literal wall of flesh. Bursting tendons of corded muscle, it heaved with the strain of trying to breathe. 

    The only part of it that seemed to be devoid of muscle was the skull. Thick plated bone swelled beyond containment under flesh. The colossus’ eyes seemed to have sunk into black pits within its socket, and only the semblance of a face remained from its transformation. Skin had spread like a thin sheet of plastic wrap around a skeletal smile. Ragged patches of hair clung to its scalp.

    Gripped within its meaty fist was a soldier who squirmed in post mortem. Pressure from the afflicted’s crushing grasp was slowly pushing the meat out of its combat uniform like red paste expelled from a tube. Nearby soldiers were firing wildly, retreating behind cars, kiosks, and benches. Anything that could grant a barrier between them and the colossus. One of the soldiers had begun to reload what Matt assumed was a rocket launcher when the afflicted raised the remains of their fellow soldier to its skeletal maw. Another wounded soldier was trying to crawl her way back to cover, clutching at a twisted and mauled leg.

    If their bullets had an effect, Matt couldn’t tell. Chunks of meat flaked away with every round they fired, but as it consumed the flattened remains of their companion its muscle seemed to expand and grow, replacing what was lost. Matt turned back to Sam who stood perched on its palms, ready to pounce.

    “We’re not getting through there.” Matt stepped aside as Sam gently eased its way to the corner, bending a portion of its gooey mass for what Matt assumed was a peek. The roar of gunfire was so loud he could barely hear himself think. One of its hands tugged at Matt’s leg while another pointed to the jeeps blocking the park’s entrance.

    “We could. Maybe if we sneak closer. Can you hide?”

    One tap against the wall. Matt was about to make a dash for a nearby information kiosk when an oversized hand held him back and poked him with a finger. Tap tap. 

    Matt drew himself back into the shadow of the cave as a third jeep pulled up between the two blockading. More soldiers joined the fray as its doors flung open, heavily armed and already adding their firepower to their companions. From their ranks, emerging from the driver’s seat, was Father. 

    As the colossal afflicted finished its meal the rocket launcher fired with a high-pitched screech. There was no missing such a large and slow target. The rocket bored deep into the fleshy meat of the arm before detonation, spraying the area with a red mist after a blast of heat and fire. It gave a hollow roar, stumbling from the blast before tripping and falling to the side. A chunk of its arm had been blasted down to the bone, but already its muscle was straining to regenerate.

    “Rich, spin up the gatecrasher.” Father yelled, limping his way across the battleground closer to the fallen beast. “Focus its legs! Keep it still!”

    They moved up in unison, focusing bursts of weapons fire to keep the hulking monster in place. Still dazed from the rocket blast the colossus swept an arm out, flattening a kiosk and several trees in an attempt to grab a nearby soldier. Flailing its legs in a tantrum it managed to catch someone standing too close, blasting them through the air limply with the sound of cracking whip.

    Rallied by their leader, Father’s soldiers moved in unison. Their enemy was unusual and unpredictable, but this is what they had trained their lives to do. Exchanging bursts of fire they focused on the closest truck-sized leg. High powered rifles peppered its achilles, first puncturing the tendon then slowly wearing it away. Only one of the men broke rank, stowing his rifle over its back to help the wounded soldier crawling away from the heat of battle.

    The moment he wrapped his arm under her shoulder she split open into rows of sharp teeth governed by a powerful jaw. It snapped like a viper, crushing the man’s body while ripping him in two.

    “Shit, there’s more of em loose!” Father swore, leveling his sidearm at the new monstrosity. “Leave it, leave it! Focus on the big one!”

    As Father unloaded his weapon into the chewing maw of the split woman Matt saw his opportunity. He turned turned to Sam, gesturing ahead with excitement. This was their moment. The colossus was wounded. The soldiers couldn’t look away from their task. Father was occupied. If they could make it to one of the cars it would be easy to drive away before anyone could stop them.

    Sprinting from Cavernous Crawlies Matt plotted out his route as he ran. Behind a kiosk, while Father was turned away and firing his weapon. Another dash to a bench, then a quick crawl to a nearby bush as the afflicted colossus gave a deafening low roar that made everyone hunch in pain. Around the corner of a t-shirt stand he watched Father draw a massive knife from his side, stabbing down into woman’s head as her face split apart into a second mouth. Somewhere behind Sam followed, completely silent and eerily quick as it skittered across the pavement like a grasping centipede. 

    “All clear! Eyes shut!” someone yelled, and at once the weapon’s fire ceased. A single soldier with a heavy black case strapped to his back moved ahead of the others. In his hands was a thick tube gripped with handles from above and the side, cradled like an oversized blowtorch. Matt had never seen anything like it.

    “Fire!” Father screamed, his back turned away from the colossus. Matt could feel the force of his knife cutting through something with enough ferocity to crack into the pavement underneath. “The arm! Take the other arm!”

    A green light flashed the soldier’s black case. Matt turned away and closed his eyes just as the trigger was pulled. A beam of energy, steady and powerful, shot from the end of the weapon. Guided with careful precision the operator held the beam aloft before lowering it down on the giant’s shoulder. For only a second did the muscle seem to resist. Then it give way like melted butter. 

    It happened so quickly Matt wasn’t entirely sure it was real. He knew the weapon fired, and a flash of light shone around the corner through his eyelids. There was a scream of fury bellowed from the heart of the colossus. The earth shook as its severed arm rolled from its body and onto the ground, then a second tremor came when it twisted onto its side in a fit of pain. One arm wounded, the other severed, it struggled to stand and make an escape -- something the soldiers wouldn’t allow.

    “Recharging!” the gatecrasher’s operator yelled, stepping back to let his weapon recover. Immediately the other soldiers resumed fire, pulping its oversized muscles with a storm of heat and metal.

    The soldiers were regaining control of the situation. The window of opportunity was closing. Matt looked to the blockade of cars only to see Sam huddled beside one, already manipulating the driver’s side door open. Another of its arms beckoned Matt to approach. He took a quick peek around the corner of the stand to make sure he was clear, then crawled out from his hiding space with his axe in hand. He kept low, not wanting to attract any attention.

    Halfway to the car he locked eyes with Father, who stood blooded and panting with knife in hand. The trauma of death had changed the woman at his feet. Father had used the serrated edge of his combat knife like a saw to pull the false head from its body. Its disguise was still somewhat intact, but half the female soldier lay folded open to reveal its true nature: a silent, gaping maw of jagged teeth. Its alien entrails spilled across the concrete.

    “Where do you think you’re going?”

    “I’m just going, alright?” Matt backed closer to the car. He needed to raise his voice to be heard against the weapon’s fire nearby. The axe turned nervously in his hands. “I just want to go.”

    “Go?” Father laughed, wiping sweat from his face with a bloodied arm. “Where the fuck do you think you’re going to go? Out there, to get killed by some monster you don’t know shit about how to handle? Or maybe to your friends. Tell em what we’ve got going on here. Keep to yourselves for a few months till the winter sets in and you realize there’s a place filled with all the supplies you could possibly want.”

    He took a step forward, brandishing his knife at Matt. Each word was accented with the cutting thrust of the keen blade.

    “This is the truth of things. There’s monsters in this world now, boy. And I’ll tell you the exact same thing I told these punk nobodies when I caught them wandering the streets, tail between their legs. You’re afraid to get your hands dirty. Afraid to do what needs to be done to make this world right again.”

    Father stepped closer.

    “Well fear ain’t gonna do nothing for you. It’ll turn you desperate. Make a fool of you. When you’re afraid, you die afraid. That’s why we’re here. That’s why we fight. To conquer fear. To make a world where no one needs to be scared again. Where no one needs to die afraid that some abomination is gonna creep up on them in the night.”

    Matt took a step back. Father’s expression softened into a smile, and he lowered his knife.

    “You stay here, you put that axe to use cleaning up this mess with us, and I promise you’ll never have anything to fear again.”

    The sound of rapid gunfire was beginning to die down. Whether it was due to the colossal afflicted no longer struggling or ammunition running low Matt couldn’t tell. He looked beside the car and saw Sam huddled low. Ready to move. Ready to strike.

    “They were people once.” Matt said, turning back to watch Father carefully. “What if some of them are still like us? Just trying to survive.”

    Father laughed. His face twisted into bewilderment. “Like us? You’re pathetic. They’re monsters Matt. Mistakes. When you see one, you take matters into your own hands. And you can trust me, I’ll correct every one of those fucking things. With or without a little ingrate like you. There are other rats in the city we can put to use. Maybe even one of your friends.” Father spat.

    “All clear! Eyes shut!”

    The struggle against the colossal afflicted had almost come to a halt. Concentrated fire had ground the afflicted’s tendon to the very bone. They struggled against its impressive regeneration as the specialist with the gatecrasher stepped into position. Father smiled, his eyes locked onto Matt’s.

    “Kill it.” Father shouted, turning his face into the crook of his arm’s sleeve to cover his gaze. 

    Matt raised his own arms protectively, not wanting to be blinded by the weapon. He could still see the flash of light through his eyelids. Its operator, experienced at handling the beam, guided the beam of destructive light into the monstrous reinforced skull. It resisted for a moment, then cracked and began to melt under the relentless energy of the weapon. A hollow groan of air escaped its gaping maw before it collapsed, lifeless.

    Radiance from the laser weapon died down, and as Matt heard the call for ‘Recharging’ he opened his eyes in time to see Father bearing down, knife in hand. Matt stumbled backwards, bringing the axe up to defend himself. Father was too close to swing at. Even with an injured leg the man moved fast and with the confidence of a trained killer.

    Father drew his arm back to plunge forward, but was thrown several feet across the pavement by a set of raw, pink arms. 

    “Sam! The others!” Matt shouted, running to Father who was already beginning to recover.

    He heard the slap of palms against concrete and renewed gunfire somewhere behind him, but there was no time to look to see how his ally fared. These men were well trained. Well armed. They had purpose and a plan. As long as they had a leader, they would endure.

    Matt found himself unafraid. Father was pushing himself to his hands and knees when Matt’s kick struck across his face. Matt moved to kick again but Father had somehow grabbed hold of his knife. They both paused, deciding their next move. The veteran slashed outward but was dazed and too slow to find his target. Matt’s axe, however, swung true.

    The axe’s swing bit into Father’s arm, shallow. Matt’s trembling grip robbed the weapon of its force, and a shriek of pain made him pull the weapon back as a reflex. Spittle churned from Father’s lips. He muttered something under his breath but Matt had heard enough. The axe fell into a brutal arc that cut deep into the side of Father’s neck. 

    To his credit, Father never moved. Blood wept from his wound, and though his body quivered with weakness and a growing cold the old soldier found the strength to sit upright. Matt kept his grip on the axe’s handle while fighting back the urge to vomit.

    “It’s like you said. There are monsters in this world.” Matt said, standing over Father as precious red life slowly drained from the fatal axe wound. “When you see one, you take matters into your own hands.”

    Matt had grown so used to the sound of gunfire that its sudden absence seemed unnatural. He looked up to see Sam gripping the last of the soldiers in its hands. Others lay nearby, bent and contorted into unnatural positions. One’s head had been twisted completely off. The ooze turned to regard him, giving a casual thumbs up with an unoccupied limb.

    He waited until he was sure Father had died before he tried removing the axe. Using his foot for added leverage he twisted the blade from bone, then walked back to the nearby vehicle blockade. Approaching the open driver’s door he took a seat, back turned away from the carnage that swept across Kingdom Animalia. 

    Exhausted and overwhelmed by the silence, Matt let the axe rest in the passenger seat while he slowly took a deep breath. No longer driven by fear and adrenaline, emotion had already begun to catch up with his body. He leaned over the side of the car and vomited. Nausea was being vented from his spirit. Matt surrendered himself to the urge to cry.

    Nothing had gone according to plan.


    Matt wasn’t sure how long he had been staring at the ground for. Sitting sideways in the driver’s seat he could look down at a pool of dried vomit that had barely missed the jeep’s interior. If he craned his head to the left he could see the remains of Father laying out on the hot pavement. He didn’t want to look left.

    There was a hand on his back. It had gently nudged him from his trace, and rested peacefully there. The size and unusual shape of it would have normally startled him, but he was too tired to feel much of anything. Instead he just kept staring ahead. Down the road away from Kingdom Animalia, where gentle stone carvings of animals lept over each other in excited glee.

    “Are they all dead?” Matt spoke gently.

    A finger slowly curled, and pressed into his back with a gentle tap

    “This is all my fault.”

    Tap. Tap.

    “It’s ok. You don’t have to lie. I know it is.” Matt sighed, closing his eyes while leaning his head back. “I thought I could just make a distraction. We’d sneak out in the chaos. Maybe steal a car. Quick and quiet, you know?”


    “There are still others here. We’ve got to go.”


    “Ok. Alright.” Matt twisted himself behind the driver’s seat and turned the key. “We just have one stop to make quick.”

    Sam had already settled into the passenger’s seat. Unusual fluid mass pressed tightly into the confined space. Its arms were folded somewhere within a layer of rippling flesh, and Matt wondered how comfortable it was to sit in such a form.

    The courtyard Kingdom Animalia was a nightmare of gore. Father’s hacked corpse. The bodies that had been twisted apart by Sam. Matt had to slowly drive around the colossal afflicted corpse in order to prevent spraying a wave of blood out from his vehicle’s thick tire treads. He would have preferred to ignore it all if he could, but a part of him wanted to experience this. There was no outrunning the consequences of his actions.

    As they drove to the apartments Matt kept an eye out for anything that could threaten their quest. If the illusory woman had been broken free, how many other afflicted once more roamed the earth? How many were genuinely dangerous? His foot press the accelerator a little harder at the thought, and they reached their destination with a desperate urgency.

    Matt pulled up to the back of the building, hopping out the driver’s door as he jerked the jeep to a halt. Dashing to the nearest bush, he glanced up to try and determine the arc of his late night throw. After several moments of searching he found the bag buried deep between two floral bushes. Not too far off from his original estimate. 

    The pillows stuffed within the bag had done their job. His copy of The Dawnblade was safe. Not even the plastic seal had broken in the fall. 

    Looking at the jeep he could see Sam watching him from the passenger seat. Or, he felt like he was being watched. Without eyes it was hard to tell where Sam was looking, but it seemed to have an extrasensory awareness of its surroundings. He brought the game back to the jeep, tossing it in the seat behind once he settled behind the steering wheel. He reached for the ignition key, then paused.

    “It’s a game.” Matt turned to Sam. “A board game. I wanted to get it for a friend. A girl.” 

    A moment of silence passed between them. Matt coaxed the jeep to life with the twist of a key, then slowly turned them around to head back towards the park exit.

    “I know it doesn’t matter at this point. I just feel like you should know how this whole mess started.” Matt paused as a hand began to slowly emerge from the sheen of flesh. It rested on his shoulder gently with a comforting squeeze.

    Matt brought the jeep wide around the colossal afflicted corpse, driving around much of the blood, bodies, and gore. This time he tried to avoid looking at it. Once they had driven far enough past he lowered the windows, trying to appreciate the fresh air. The automated shuttles moved lazily in comparison, and he drove closer to the center of the road to avoid their predetermined routes.

    “Ok. We’ve got one more checkpoint to get through. After that I can drive us home. I’ll be back with the others, I can give Lu this game, I’ll take a nice long nap and you can go back to...whatever. Whatever it is you do.”


    He smiled, appreciating the vote of confidence. “I didn’t really plan this far ahead, but seeing how the last thing I planned went really well I figure we should just improvise from here on.”

    The main courtyard was coming into view. Cecilia was standing near an ambulance that had been parked strategically on the road. The back doors were open and a stretcher lay out, ready to receive a patient. Three armed guards stood near a black van, watching their jeep with weapons raised. Matt could feel Sam’s unnatural hand tense, and he quickly slowed their approach.

    “No! No. No more killing. You stay there. Slink down a bit. Just play dead. Ham it up.”

    Sam hesitated for a moment, then seemed to deflate. Its arm twisted back into its fluid mass just as Matt slowed the jeep to a stop a few yards away, making sure to clearly show both his hands raised on the steering wheel.

    “It’s just me! I’m gonna step out, alright?” he called out, waiting for the sign that it was safe to exit. 

    “What happened?” Cecilia rushed over to his driver’s side only to step back with a gasp as he exited. “Oh my god, is that...”

    “Yeah, it’s dead. Just, don’t open the door there. The skin is toxic or something. Don’t want it to splash.”

    “Where’s Father?” one of the guards grimaced, peering into the passenger side window. 

    Matt frowned, looking back up the road to Kingdom Animalia. “They’re all dead. I think the one that wasn’t supposed to eat got hold of something. Grew huge and broke open a few other exhibits along the way. Kane and I got caught in the cave...but...”

    He sighed. His eyes settled on the axe near the ooze. He tried to imagine how insane he must look, splattered in blood. There was no lie he could tell that would outdo the madness he had witnessed and he wasn’t a very good liar anyway. Instead he told the truth, omitting only certain details.

    Kane saved his life trying to kill Sam. Father’s guidance and wisdom organized the others into killing the colossus. They were ambushed by another afflicted, which Father killed by hand...only to be attacked by the ooze. Matt managed to only just kill the monster with his axe, still covered in blood nearby. He didn’t know what to do. He waited for others, then decided to drive here.

    The guardsmen listened intently, transfixed at the story. Gradually they lowered their weapons as he shared details of the encounter. Matt was happy to stay and wait if they didn’t believe him. The proof was only a few minutes away, scattered across the sanctuary grounds. Cecilia started to cry but held herself together. Instead she blew her nose into a clean tissue she pulled from her jacket.

    “So that’s it? It’s over?” a guard said quietly.

    “Like fuck it’s over. We’ve still got this place. We just need to clean it up. Call back the hunt.” another spoke with determination.

    “That’s right.” Cecilia sniffled. “We still have this place. It’s secure. We can just get rid of the other captives, right? No more prisoners.”

    “I’m leaving.” Matt said firmly. The others looked to him with consideration, and he swallowed hard to help clear his throat. He needed conviction in his voice now. This was his chance.

    “With all due respect, I’m not a soldier. I didn’t sign up for this. I was brought here as a lab rat, and I did my part. You lost family here today and I get that. But my friends are out there. My family is out there.” he paused, cautious.  “I did my part. I just want to go home now.”

    The soldiers exchanged glances, then turned to Cecilia for guidance. She watched Matt carefully. Pursed her lips. 

    “He’s right.” she said. “A deal’s a deal. I think Father would have honored that.”

    Matt couldn’t help but exhale a sigh of relief. “Thank you. I can park the jeep in the lot if you like. Or, wherever.”

    “Just take it.” one of the soldiers gestured out the gate, stepping aside with the others. “You can park it and burn it, and whatever that thing is, once you get on the highway.”

    As the others stepped aside Matt prepared to sit behind the driver’s seat when Cecilia gestured he wait. She picked up a nearby metal box, white and labeled with the universal symbol of a medical cross. With careful reverence she pressed the box of supplies into his lap, then stepped away with a sad smile.

    “For your family. For everything you did for ours.” 

    Matt closed the door and turned the key, coaxing the jeep’s engine to life. Tears were welling in his eyes. He was afraid to say anything. Afraid he couldn’t keep up the facade any longer. Struck with the sudden urge to confess the truth he drove away from their small barricade, leaving the remaining inhabitants of Filheart Sanctuary to pick up the pieces of the nightmare left behind.


    Sam continued to play dead long after they had left the sanctuary. Matt worried they may have scouts nearby, or perhaps even security cameras that could verify their duplicity. These were a well-organized and resourceful group of soldiers. Anything was possible.

    After they reached the highway they both dropped the facade. Sam twisted and turned in what appeared to be an effort to better view its surroundings. Matt kept quiet -- until a curious thought prompted him to ask:

    “Do you want me to talk?”

    Sam reached out a malformed hand to the dashboard. With a large, oversized finger it replied, tap.

    “I guess I just realized you probably haven’t talked to anyone in a while. You probably miss it.”


    “Uh, alrighty. So, I’ll just toss out some subjects and you can tell me if you want to hear about it or not.”

    They talked about everything. Matt spoke of his friends, their building, and what his apartment looked like. He spoke of his hobbies in board gaming, his old passion for photography, the weather, and why his favorite animal was a manta ray. They had an argument when Matt had brought up film. Matt insisted that modern science fiction was in a better place today than it ever had been, but Sam would hear none of it. It slammed its large hand against the dash over and over while Matt yelled out reasons why Galaxy of Tomorrow was a way better movie than the book. 

    Matt spoke of Lu. The facts they exchanged, the board games they played together, and all the quiet moments of adoration he felt when they were alone. Sam was a gracious and polite conversationalist. It listened with intensity, only pausing to interrupt or ask for more information with a subtle gesture.

    Their ride was smooth. The highway was littered with cars, but not so many as to provide a roadblock to their destination. Out of habit Matt signaled right once they reached the proper exit. He quickly turned it off, then sighed, chiding himself. Despite his company things had felt so normal for a moment. Did he deserve such a thing?

    The pair grew silent as they drove into the city, passing a mix of unfamiliar buildings and human refuse. Sam drew its hand back into itself to sit quietly. Matt focused on trying to find his way back to a neighborhood he was familiar with.

    Slowly, almost by accident, their jeep pulled up to the front of The Plaza. Matt brought them to a stop, then turned off the engine. 

    “I guess this is it. I wonder if my bike is still inside.”

    Several hands slowly pushed themselves from under Sam’s liquid skin. It opened the door and crawled its way out. Matt opened his door as well, and he closed his eyes to appreciate the growing chill of the evening. He was about to speak when Sam waved an arm to beckon him closer, crawling toward the downward ramp that led to the Plaza’s underground parking garage. 

    Following close behind, Matt used the slap of Sam’s hands as a guiding beacon while his eyes adjusted to the dark. Unerringly, Sam guided him toward his bicycle. It lay on the floor exactly where he had left it.

    “You saw me come in, huh.” Matt shook his head. “Where?”

    Sam pointed above to ventilation system that worked its way through the garage ceiling, exposed and set along rows of colored piping. It wasn’t hard to imagine how a creature like Sam could slip so easily between that tight crawl space. How difficult it would be to find. The thought made Matt’s skin crawl. 

    “So, do you live here?”

Tap. Tap.

“Do you just kind of wander?”


    “Well.” Matt huffed out his nose. “I’d invite you to come with me but I don’t know if that would be a smart idea. I don’t even know if they’ll take me back...after everything.”

    Sam placed a hand on his shoulder. It felt heavy and warm.

    “Thank you, Sam. Will you stay in the city?”


    Matt smiled. He placed his hand on its own, and squeezed gently. 

    “Then stay close. We’ll see each other again. You won’t have to wander this place alone anymore. We’ll figure something out. I promise.” 

    The pair stood quietly in the dark of the garage for a few minutes, unsure if anything more needed to be said. Sam squeezed his hand with a gentle affirmation, then kept close by as Matt guided the bike onto a rack at the rear of the jeep. When Matt finally drove away he watched Sam wave goodbye in the rear view mirror, until his vehicle eventually turned a corner and pulled the afflicted out of sight.


    It had grown dark by the time Matt made it home. Slowly pulling up in front of the building, he wondered if it were better to arrive during the day. At night there would only be whomever was assigned to guard rotation -- and getting mistakenly shot at night by his companions seemed like an ironic way to end his journey.

    Memories of his friends and a familiar bed urged him forward. He parked the jeep on the street just in front of the entrance, then grabbed his backpack and slowly stepped away from the car. Arms raised passively, he walked closer toward the front windows where he knew the guards would be able to better see his face.

    “Uh, hey.” he said, stepping closer to the front of the building. “It’s just me. I know I should have waited till morning but--”

    The front door flew open. Lu ran forward, shotgun in hand, tears streaming from her face. She kept the weapon wide when she threw her arms around him, her words muddled by a sobbing cry. Dante was close behind. He was followed by Chaz, who stood in the door dressed in second-hand military fatigues, adjusting a huntsman’s rifle in his grasp.

    “I knew it.” she said. “I felt it in my heart, you know?”

    Matt held her close. She felt so warm and smelled like fresh tilled earth. He wanted to close his eyes and stay in that moment, but was thankful when she began to recover from her initial shock. He wasn’t sure he had the strength to do the same. She wiped tears from her face with the sleeve of her shirt, laughing.

    “We went out to look but didn’t know where to start. Dante and I took every watch we could. No one gave up hope.” she took a step back, looking him over. “Oh my god, Matt is that blood? What happened? Are you hurt?”

    “No...” Matt shook his head as Dante approached, giving him a close embrace and a pat on the back. “I’m fine, really. It’s not...mine”

    Dante and Lu exchanged a glance with each other before taking a step back from Matt to truly review his appearance. His hair was tangled with dark flecks of dirt and blood -- the same substance that coated his shirt and jeans in uneven sprays of filth. His shirt was torn. Scrapes covered his arms.

    “It’s alright. You can fill us in later. You’re back now.” Dante said, pointing to the jeep. “I’ll take the bike inside. We don’t want to be out here long.”

    “Yeah, definitely. I’ll help in a sec. There are some medical supplies too. Back seat.” 

    As Dante worked to remove the bike Matt unslung his backpack. Fishing out the plastic-wrapped copy of The Dawnblade from its fabric he passed the box to Lu with a smile, watching as she gently took the game in her free hand. Still tending to the shotgun she cradled the game expansion to her chest protectively.

    “You went looking for this?” her brow furrowed in disbelief. 

    “Yes and no. I did at first. I was over at The Plaza when--.”

    “Yo, what the fuck!?”

    They turned to see Dante turning an automatic weapon over in his hands. Matt and Lu rushed over to his side, confirming his discovery. Both the bike and the box of medical supplies had been unloaded. In the process Dante had opened the trunk door, revealing a rear cabin that had been hidden under a thick blanket. A small pile of weapons sat next to boxes of ammunition. Underneath it all, in a hollowed out hub where a spare tire once sat, was a familiar black battery worn by one of the Federation laser weapon operators.

    The trio exchanged looks, and Matt simply shook his head. It was too much to explain now. Without a word they began to unload the weaponry into the apartment as quickly as possible. No one questioned the supplies any further than the good fortune of their immediate existence. Perhaps it was the look on Matt’s face, or the fact that he was still covered in old, dried blood.

    With the last of the ammunition brought inside Dante had just prepared to close and bar the front door when Matt stopped him. He needed to recover one more thing. Jogging over to the passenger’s side he reached in through the open window to pull out his axe. Its blade was tarnished with old gore, but streaks of a silver edge gimmered in the moonlight. From the front door the others watched him curiously. When he turned Matt caught a glimpse of their unfiltered expressions before they adjusted to his gaze.

    Chaz gripped the rifle nervously, fear and uncertainty tracing his blue eyes.

    Dante took note of the axe, then his friend. There was no judgement. No doubt. Just a subtle nod of support.

    A sadness in Lu’s eyes nearly broke his heart. Matt knew that feeling all too well. As though she could have done more to help him. As if he had experienced a terrible personal loss, and she was to blame.

    Matt knew then and there what he had to do. He would tell them everything. Filheart Sanctuary. Kane. Father. Sam. The afflicted both captured and set loose. The survivors. He would make them understand the truth of the world beyond their walls. Of the creatures that roamed in the darkest of places. Of monsters who acted as people, hiding in the light of day.

    This place was his home. His family lived here now.

    He would do anything to keep them safe.