Fell Pass Prologue-chapter 4

This is a piece I worked on for a while but have since shelved in order to finish some other projects first. I do hope to come back and continue work on this someday, but in the meantime I decided to place this up here for people to enjoy.

 

Fell pass

Prologue

May 26th 2317 North America, 0200 hours.

Steven wrapped his coat more tightly around himself, trying to block out the chilled night breeze that was seeping up from the direction of the old dam. The night was turning out to be a peaceful one, though darker than Steven would have liked due to cloud cover. Leaning back against one of the large posts of the wall that blocked the pass, Steven felt a yawn building which soon escaped before he could suppress it. This brought the unhappy gaze of his commanding officer, and Steven brought himself fully to attention as quickly as he could to appease that gaze.

“Pull it together Steven.” The officer said, “The fell beasts have been quiet for just over a month now, that’s almost a new record and I don’t like it.”

“Yes Sir.” Steven replied before returning to his watch with a fresh edge of fear in him.

Steven was 16, and only just graduated from the guard training program. Unfortunately for him, he’d done particularly well in training, and been assigned to the pass wall itself for his first assignment. Being able to say he kept watch on the wall for his first assignment was worth its weight in bragging rights, but you had to live to tell about it. So far all Steven had been able to do was feel either terrified or bored since his posting. Ever since he could remember, his parents had told him stories of the horrors that had grown up beyond the mountains, and now he was one of the brave souls tasked with keeping the horrors on the other side from reaching the village.

The wall itself was actually fairly impressive by the days standing. Large spotlights swept back and forth over the narrow portion of the pass from the top of a sturdy wall of solid wood, 10 feet thick, and 12 feet high, with the only way up or down being steep stairs on the village side, or a lowered ladder on the other. Those assigned to the wall slept in shifts in a fortification built on the village side, while on the other side ran a fortified metal fence that hummed with electrical energy produced at the dam.

Even with all of that, and the heavily armed men and women who kept guard with him, Steven was silently praying that he wouldn’t have to deal with any monsters during his watch, even if it did offer him the opportunity to make his first fell kill and claim a last name.

Something moved into the light of one of the spotlights just then, drawing the attention of several of the guard, including Steven. The thing in the light looked like a stout man, but was covered in enough brush and mud that Steven couldn’t be sure as he lined it up with his sights.

“Don’t shoot, it’s Hare and Crawler!” The creature shouted, revealing itself to actually be a man wearing a ghillie suit, one of the village scouts sent out on occasion to spy on activities in the fell lands, his companion remained hidden.

“What’s the report?” Steven’s commander asked.

“Something strange for sure, we were checking out some old world structures a few days southeast of here. Looked like someone or something had been there before us. Odd tracks fresh in the dirt that neither of us recognized. We’ll fill in the details once you let us past the fence, I don’t care for more shouting with my back turned and little else between me and the fells.”

“Alright give us a minute to flip the switch”

The breeze picked up just then, and something rank smelling drifted over from the direction of the dam. The next moment the fence stopped humming and all the lights went out, casting them all into the natural blackness of the night.

“Aw shit.” Steven cursed as his commander shouted at some of the others to sound the alarm and get some fires lit.

 

Chapter 1

Fell pass fortification, stationed ten minutes from the wall, 0203 Hours.

Joel Rotter woke with a start as a hand cranked alarm sounded through the barracks. A stab of fear shooting through him as he realized that everything was dark. The fear didn’t lessen as his mind came awake enough to confirm that he hadn’t gone blind in the night. That meant that the mountain pass was in danger of invasion from the fell lands. The power had gone out, and if they couldn’t get it back on, and push back any attackers that might take advantage of the darkness, then the entire settlement would be in danger of destruction as well.

The sky was overcast tonight, blocking out the feeble light of the moon that was only beginning to wax larger in the sky. As a result, it took Joel an extra minute to locate and grab his pistol and machete from his nightstand. He then counted paces to reach the closet and obtain his rifle, along with his thick hide coat for warmth against the early spring cold.

With trained skill, Joel dressed in the dark. Making sure that his belt was easily accessible with its spare magazines of ammo, and that his hiking boots were on tight, with his knife secure in its ankle holster on his right leg.

Stepping out into the hall, Joel could hear the other guards working their way towards the exit marked by a flickering lamp held in the hands of Captain Warner. The single light did little to lighten the mood of the gathered fighters as they stepped outside, knowing in their hearts that they might not return alive from the job before them.

“Rotter, see that the men are assembled in the courtyard and the equipment’s in order.” Captain Warner ordered as Joel passed him, trying not to look at the unnerving way the lamp light animated the scars on the Captain’s face.

The Captain had earned those scars in battle several years before, when a pack of twisted fell wolves had assaulted the pass in an attempt to break through to the village beyond. If they were lucky the current problem wouldn’t involve more wolves, though if it came down to a fight, Joel would take the wolves over some of the other things beyond the pass any night.

Joel had been on the pass defense force for five years now, ever since his sixteenth birthday, and he had seen things in that time that still haunted his nightmares. One of those things had been the rotter that had been his first kill, the kill that had given him his last name, and earned him his position as second in command of the pass guard. The rotter had also provided him with the hide coat he now wore as armor against both cold and attack. If another rotter attacked, or heaven forbid more than one rotter, then they all might die that night.

Rotter’s were great hulking beasts with venomous claws, mutated at some point from what Joel could only assume to have been some unfortunate bears caught in the after effects of the bombing some two hundred years ago. The worst thing with a rotter was that even if you survived the venom that devoured you from within, you would still likely die from the countless diseases that the beasts seemed to inflict on their victims with the slightest scratch.

Joel had been lucky the last time. The monster had burst through the electric fence and scaled the wall, killing four men in the process and shrugging off their assault as though it had been nothing. Then it had gone for him. Joel had emptied his rifle, and was most of the way through his pistol when it reached him. The rotter had reared up to tear his head from his shoulders, but his last shot had found its way through the roof of the beast’s mouth and into its brain. He didn’t fancy he would be so lucky twice in a row.

The men and women of the pass defense force had been trained for the event of a power outage countless times. Without the electricity from the generators at the dam, the reinforced electric wall and heavy duty spotlights would do little good in deterring the monsters from beyond the mountains.

Joel found he had little to do in complying with the Captain’s orders to make sure all was ready. Everyone knew the procedure and was ready to go in minutes, but Joel did what he’d been told anyway, double checking everyone’s packs before retrieving his own, and checking it over as well. Joel was thankful that his fellow defenders were as prepared as himself, but a part of him also regretted not having more to occupy his mind from the potential dangers of what they were about to do.

There were so many things that could be waiting for them, so many different monsters that might attack. Monsters that man had made themselves during their own fighting long ago. As the stories went, the world had come to war once again, only this time the war ended with all sides losing far more than ever before. In desperation the people of the world had used weapons forbidden in ages past, and the effects of those weapons had killed entire nations. Many that didn’t die at first had died afterwards for various reasons. The few that remained after that had either managed to survive as Joel and his people had, mercifully sheltered from the war and its aftermath by the natural land, or else had been warped by the after effects until they could no longer be considered even remotely human.

Captain Warner stepped out of the barracks then, bringing Joel out of his thoughts as he lit the end of a stick with his lamp and then used the stick to light a great metal basin of logs soaked in oil.

“Alright, you know your orders. Team one will check the lines from here to the dam. Teams six and four are going with me to keep watch on the wall with team seven. Depending on the state of the wall, and team seven’s condition, we will decide what to do from there.” Said Captain Warner, his voice cutting clearly through the crisp night air. “Team five will guard here and make sure we have more torches ready if needed. Teams two and three will follow Rotter and check the lines down to the village. If you don’t find anything out of the ordinary then coordinate with the home guard to protect the village. That is all. Everyone grab a torch and move out!”

Moving quickly in two single file lines, every person grabbed a torch from a stack placed near the flaming basin. The torches didn’t provide the best light, but the defense force used them because the flames tended to be more effective as a weapon and deterrent to any mutant life that had developed a taste for non-mutated flesh.

Joel was a little relieved to be in charge of the village guard teams. Chances were good that since the barracks was out of power that meant the breakdown was on the dam approach. It also meant that Joel and his teams wouldn’t be spending the night at the wall in the dark, and so were less likely to run into anything more than the wild deer that roamed the village valley. His relief didn’t last long however, his training didn’t allow him to let his guard down once they stepped beyond the fort. A lack of attention to the situation based on the mere likelihood of everything being fine could prove fatal to not only himself, but everyone else.

The land immediately around the fort had been manually cleared for several yards in each direction, allowing a degree of security from unexpected attack from the evergreen forest that otherwise covered the landscape. The fort was the largest guard station that the village had. Strategically placed so as to not only have easy access to the dam that supplied power to the village and the towns beyond, but also to serve as the barracks for the guards on the wall, guarding the pass between the mountains that separated the village from the war tainted lands closer to the coast. The other guard posts that the village maintained were further down in the valley, serving as a precaution more than anything else. If anything managed to get past the mountains by some other way, it wouldn’t be able to catch the village unprepared. Mostly though they served as guards for the trade roads kept between the neighboring settlements, keeping the peace when more human trouble makers came around seeking to make a living off of the lives of others of their own kind.

Heading downhill from the fort, it wasn’t long before Joel lost sight of the Captain and those with him as they disappeared behind a line of trees that bordered the paths cut out for the security of the power lines.

The night seemed safe enough on the way towards the village. The power lines were intact, and the relay stations were functional as far as could be ascertained. They even startled some deer along their path, a good sign that nothing from the fell lands had come through the area as the untainted animals wouldn’t be found anywhere near the monsters if they could help it.

The power lines took a few turns here and there, cutting around natural obstacles as needed in order to maintain a course reachable by the teams. This hadn’t always been the case. The ruins of old towers showed that once the lines had gone for the most direct path over the most easily maintained, but then as the stories went, man had had access to better technologies in the old days that had made keeping the lines maintained easier. As it stood currently, the village was lucky to be able to maintain the old dam for power and water.

A final turn in the lines some time later brought the teams around a bend of trees, revealing the glowing fires of the village below. Joel was glad to see the fires burning, it meant that the home guard were responding effectively to the power outage. No doubt they were gathering everyone to the rise where the village shelter stood in case the dam were to break and flood the valley. The rise shelter also allowed for the guard to better focus their defensive grid, ensuring that no fell beast could sneak through unmolested to harm those unable to defend themselves.

Everything was quiet back the way they had come, likely a good sign. If a gun were fired from the dam, wall, or outpost, then they should be able to hear it from the village and vice versa. Since no gunfire could be heard, that likely meant that either something new and horrible had come from the fell, slaying the guard teams without giving them the chance to fight back, or else more likely, the teams at the outpost and on their way to the dam had encountered nothing to cause alarm.

“Hoy who’s that there?” Someone called from the village gate as the teams came into sight.

“It’s Joel Rotter, with teams two and three to join in the guard!” Joel called back.

“Crap! The powers still out, and if you’re here I suppose that means something’s wrong dam side. Well get yourselves inside the walls. Let’s hope old Warner and his bunch can get everything sorted before anything from the fell decides to take a look at the pass.” The voice called back as the village gates swung open to admit them.

“Alright teams, you know what to do here, go get your orders from the wall leads and keep this place safe. We’ll be on the lower wall until the village is evacuated to the rise. I’ll be joining you once I’ve made my report to the council.” Joel said, sounding more confident then he felt. The council consisted of the top officials for the village, and every single one of them had served on the guard in their younger days. So for Joel, it would be the same as an army grunt making a report to several far senior officers.

The council itself wasn’t hard to find, they were right where he expected them to be, at the top of the village rise, overlooking the entire defensive operation in addition to seeing that the villagers were kept safe under the protection of the elite home guard team.

The council headquarters had always been located on the rise, housed in a worn building of flaking stone. Some claimed that the old structure had stood before the days of the last Great War, and gazing on its sturdy exterior of carved stone blocks, Joel could just about believe it. Whatever its purpose had been in the past he didn’t know, but it was built like a castle with a single steeple near the front that made a good sniper point, though getting up to it had required the installation of a ladder.

Pushing his way through the crowd of villagers that had already gathered to the rise, Joel entered the building. The council were nearly all gathered at a large egg shaped table placed just inside a massive hall guarded by two sets of great double doors. Joel could see that a few of the council seats were empty, likely due to some of the members being needed elsewhere to help oversee the gathering of the townspeople.

“Ah Rotter good, what do you have to report?” Asked the senior council member as he noticed Joel enter the room. The senior member had been leading the council for as long as Joel could remember, but despite his age he held himself tall and straight-backed in his unpadded chair.

“No breaks in the lines from the fort to here, teams two and three are with me and should be stationed with the guard now along the lower wall. Team five is holding the fort. Team one went to check the dam. Team seven had the wall tonight and Captain Warner went to check on them with teams four and six. No shots were heard to be fired on our way down, so hopefully that means the wall is still held. Team one is estimated to reach the dam within the next half hour.” Joel reported.

“Very good. Let’s hope that is all we will have to deal with tonight. Rotter, locate your men and join them in the guard. Dismissed.” The senior council member said before turning to deal with another matter.

Relieved to be able to return to his teams so quickly, Joel snapped a salute and turned for the doors. He had only begun to move towards them however when a man burst through, out of breath from running. “Shots….Shots heard from the…From the pass.” The man gasped, sending Joel into a run to reach the wall. Shots heard from the pass could be coming from any of the teams still up there, and could mean any number of things, none of them likely to be good.

Pushing through the gathering townsfolk, Joel made for the outer wall, the echoing sound of gunfire occasionally audible over the noises of the crowd. By the time Joel had reached the wall the gunfire had abated.

“What’s the report?” Joel questioned the first guard he found.

“First shot fired approximately six and a half minutes ago. A flare was fired around the first minute. Looked like it was coming from the direction of the dam.” The guard reported, recognizing Joel as one of his superiors.

“Where are my men stationed?” Joel asked next before heading off along the wall at a run in the direction the guard indicated. The flares had one major use in the guard’s arsenal, and that was to signal where a squad had come under attack. A second flare meant that the situation was dire. Most of the time it also meant that by the time help arrived there wouldn’t be anyone left to save. Since there hadn’t been a second flare, Joel hoped that the team had been able to overcome whatever they had encountered.

Joel had just spotted his men ahead when the sound of gunfire began again, a look towards the pass revealing a glowing flare as it shot into the sky. The only problem was that unless he was mistaken that flare had come from the fort.

What kind of creature could cover the distance to the dam and the fort in a matter of minutes? Where there multiple attackers? How had they gotten past the wall undetected in the first place? Joel pondered.

Joel’s questions and worries grew a moment later as a second flare took to the air from the fort, followed shortly by a third before the sounds of combat died away again. Had something just taken out at least one team in the space of a few minutes, and why had they fired a third flare?

“All teams be ready for anything!” Joel ordered as the silence stretched into a minute and then two, all the while with Joel’s mind churning over what little information he had.

“You don’t think something’s actually going to try for the village do you?” Joel heard one of the newer squad members ask his neighbor quietly.

“I don’t know what to expect right now, but if something other than our men shows its head beyond that tree line then we are going to make sure it doesn’t get a chance to consider trying again.” Joel said, causing the man to jump at the realization that he had been overheard.

Several more minutes ticked away in silence after that, only broken by the occasional whisper or someone’s shuffling nervously. Then the wind shifted and a strange and nauseating smell like a half decomposed corpse drifted over the wall.

“Everyone eyes sharp, what do we know that might smell like that?” Joel asked.

He didn’t get an answer to his question though, as a scream erupted from somewhere back towards the rise of the settlement, joined shortly by more panicked yelling and the beginnings of gunfire as the defenders fired at whatever had caused the commotion.

“That’s coming from the rise, how did something get past us?” Joel shouted as someone sent a flare into the air. Then he saw them, and the reason for the forts third flare became obvious. The attackers weren’t coming from the ground, they were flying. Nothing from the fell lands had been known to fly, certainly not anything as big as what Joel had seen as the flare shot into the sky. Flying could explain how something had gotten past the wall unnoticed, and whatever these things were, they appeared to be manmade. Nothing natural would be flying silently without wings, while also being the size of a large van. Joel couldn’t make out any further details from that distance, but he had seen enough from the flares light to know what they needed to do next, they needed to get to the armory.

“The enemy is in the sky! Everyone off the wall and stick together so they don’t pick you off. My teams with me. We need to reinforce the guard on the rise, but first we need some heavier firepower to bring those flyers down. Get the flares ready so we can spot them coming. Our goal is the armory. Now move!” Joel shouted before leading the way off of the wall and into the mostly emptied streets of the lower settlement.

 

Chapter 2

“Team three, circle around and come up on the rise from another direction!” Joel ordered, shouting to be heard over the sounds of nearby battle that echoed off of the walls of the surrounding structures like rolls of thunder from the top of the rise. The settlement’s armory would be at the top, mixed in with the food stores in the basement of the council building. Hopefully they would be able to make it through any panicked masses outside without trouble and find something that might do some good against the flying attackers.

Up ahead, a fresh wave of screaming and gunfire suggested that the first part of Joel’s plan wasn’t going to go as smoothly as he might have liked. Then Joel noticed the light of muzzle flashes coming from the council building tower. The stupid soldiers up there were going to get themselves killed if he couldn’t get them down. It seemed pretty evident that their rifle’s weren’t cutting it against the flyers, and while the tower offered a nice vantage point to snipe at targets below, it just offered the flyers a prime target from above. Then as he neared the building Joel realized that the tower snipers weren’t aiming up at the flyers, they were aiming down into the crowd of people pressing to gain entrance to the shelter of the council building.

Calling a stop and taking cover around the corner of a store, Joel grabbed a pair of binoculars from one of his men and edged around the corner of the building until he could get a clear view of the tower. It was difficult to make out details in the dark, but he could tell by the light of the muzzle flashes that the soldiers up there were their own home guard. That left the question of why were they firing on their own people?

It was even harder to make out anything from the chaotic mass pushing into the council building and other nearby structures. There were guards at the door letting people in, but they were moving things along slower than they normally would have, almost as though they were checking for something among the crowd. One of them had a set of strange goggles that Joel recognized as some of the old war tech from the armory. Goggles designed to help the soldier see better in the dark as he surveyed the crowd for something. In his other hand was a radio that Joel suspected was being used to communicate with the soldiers on the tower. Following the surveyors lead, Joel moved his own gaze to the crowd, his job a bit more difficult as he only had the light of a few scattered torches to work by.

Then one of the flying shapes swept by above the crowd, only visible as a patch of night darker than the rest, and Joel watched as something plummeted a good fifteen feet to the ground below. The thing landed among the crowd, bringing a fresh tide of screaming as the people it landed on struggled to distance themselves from whatever it was.

“Move in!” Joel shouted as he watched the shape move, picking itself up from the ground until it appeared as a distorted humanoid shape in the dark. Whatever it was, it stood a good head above the majority of the crowd, and held a large rifle of some kind that gleamed in the flickering lights.

As Joel and the others rushed forward to protect the civilians, the snipers opened fire on the new threat, their shots coming slowly as they sought out clean shots to put the thing down without hitting any of the scattering crowd.

Joel had just reached the edge of the conflict when the thing opened fire, its rifle sweeping across the crowd while emitting a series of loud popping sounds. Those it hit only made it another step or two before collapsing to the ground, no wounds evident on their bodies except for the fact that they weren’t moving.

Closing the distance till he had a clear line of sight, Joel shouldered his rifle and fired, his shot catching the thing cleanly in the chest about where the heart would have been on a human. The thing hardly seemed to notice the wound or any of the others that the tower snipers had inflicted on it. Whatever it was, it didn’t appear to be human.

Maybe the thing had been human once, but now it certainly wasn’t. Its skin was an unhealthy hue of grayish brown, and even in the poor lighting, Joel could see its veins clearly visible as large green ropes that spread throughout an emaciated body. On the other hand, its added height was not due to actual physical growth, but rather due to some sort of mechanical exo-suit that appeared almost necessary for it to properly move. What was truly disturbing though, was the fact that even while it shrugged off normally fatal wounds, Joel could almost have sworn that the face it turned to look at him with was already dead, it certainly smelled like it.

Joel dove to the side as the thing fired in his direction, several shots striking him painfully in the midsection, whatever it was shooting him with though, it thankfully didn’t have the power to break the skin after impacting with his thick hide coat. Some of his following team members weren’t as lucky and collapsed to the ground as a number of small darts crashed into them.

The creature’s attention didn’t linger on them for long, seeming only to take the time to confirm it had hit its mark before turning back to the escaping crowd. Joel took advantage of this to sling his rifle over his shoulder and draw his machete, hitting the monster from behind, his blade sparking as it cut into a patch of casing that looked important to the exo-suit’s functionality. An electric shock ran up Joel’s arm, causing him to lose hold of the machete, but it appeared to have done the trick, the suit shuddered and collapsed, dragging the creature it held to the ground with it.

Joel didn’t have time to celebrate his victory though, as a flyer chose that moment to return to the scene, actually touching down in front of him while a second flyer with mounted guns opened fire on the sniper tower, decimating it in a hail of chain fed death.

“Get to the armory!” Joel shouted at his surviving team members as the wall of the flyer in front of him slid away, revealing the interior of a cargo carrier, nearly empty except for four more of the robotically enhanced humanoids. Thankfully these ones didn’t appear to be armed like the last one, but then they moved forward faster than he had thought possible, stepping out of the vehicle and tossing their downed companion in as though it were little more than a small bale of hay.

Once their companion was aboard the vessel, the creatures turned their attention toward the mass of fallen villagers who had been victim of the lone monsters assault. First they extracted a couple bodies that looked like their own, only without the mechanical support, likely the things the guards at the council doors had been looking for. Then the creatures began tossing the bodies of villagers in after their companions, seemingly with no care as to whether or not they broke anything in the process.

Drawing his pistol, Joel advanced on the nearest of the humanoids, intent on doing his best to thwart the creatures plans and save as many of his people as he could. The monsters didn’t take any notice of him as he advanced, or of the occasional shot that struck them from some of Joel’s people as team three arrived, the creature’s attention seemingly swallowed up in their single task of loading the victims into the carrier. Joel added several new holes to one of them himself, but gave up on the pistol before long, deciding to try his boot knife instead. He hoped that if he could cut into one of those control cases again he might be able to stop at least one of them before they did him in. Just as Joel was about to sink his blade into his target though, the creature reacted, taking hold of Joel’s arm just below the wrist. Its touch felt like rough leather against his skin, its grip unnervingly strong despite the fact that it didn’t seem to have a solid bone structure. Before Joel’s mind grasped what was happening completely, pain shot up his arm and he found himself airborne, on rout to the interior of the cargo carrier as though he were just another of the fallen victims. Joel clipped the top of the carrier with one shoulder before landing hard next to the creature he had taken out before, His knife slipping from his grasp during the impact.

Doing his best to ignore the pain in his shoulder and think fast at the same time, Joel grabbed the strange rifle from the fallen creature. The weapon was heavy and a bit larger than he was used to handling, but it appeared to function like almost every other gun Joel had used over the years. Hefting the weapon to his shoulder, Joel took aim at the monster that had thrown him and pulled the trigger, sending a stream of tiny darts into the creature’s leathery skin. Unfortunately the darts didn’t seem to effect the monster in the same way it had Joel’s people, and instead of collapsing, the creature simply turned towards him with restored interest. Just to be sure, Joel emptied the rest of the weapons clip into the creature as it took a step towards him, hardly aware of the bodies being flung past it by the others as they continued their work.

The carrier was filling up fast now, and Joel cringed at the sound of breaking bones and tearing flesh as the monster took another step towards him with little mind for what it was stepping on, the exo-suit it wore adjusting automatically to the uneven footing conditions.

Chucking the useless weapon at the towering monster, Joel looked around for his dropped knife before quickly giving the idea up as hopeless and grabbing for his rifle instead. The only problem was that it wasn’t there, and all he had was its sling with a broken clasp, which left him with his ineffective pistol as a last resort. Slotting a fresh clip, Joel fought off a wave of panic as his mind chose that moment to interpose the memory of the rotter attack over his current attacker. Shaking his head to clear it, Joel took aim at the monster now a mere five feet from him, hoping that he might get lucky again. His target wasn’t cooperating though and Joel couldn’t get a shot at the exo-suits casing from his current angle. He was about to give up on the casing and just pepper the humanoid in the hopes of hitting anything vital, when something else caught his eye back towards the council chamber. A man had just run out of the building with a large tube over his shoulder which he was now aiming at the three humanoids outside of the carrier.

“O shit!” Joel exclaimed as he realized what was about to happen, doing his best to dive for cover behind the gathered bodies, narrowly avoiding a swing from his attacker in the process. Then the world exploded as a concussive blast rolled over him, its force reverberating off of the walls of the carrier to strike him again and again. Finally the sound faded away to a ringing in his ears, but before he could recover completely he found himself thrown hard against the wall of the carrier. Not by his attacker who he saw was lying on the ground, unmoving and on fire, but rather by the force of the carrier itself as it left the ground.

Joel only got a quick glimpse out the back of the carrier before it shut for travel, but in that glimpse he had seen the smoking remains of the other three creatures scattered about the ground amidst a mass of carnage. Then the carrier took a sharp turn and Joel was thrown across the cabin, his head striking hard against the wall before his world was lost to unconsciousness.

 

Chapter 3

Joel woke to pain and the stench of death, a combination powerful enough to quickly pull him back to the world of the wakeful. His head was throbbing, and it took him a moment to push past its pulsing beat to be able to take stock of the rest of his body. He noted that the arm the creature had thrown him by felt as though it had fallen asleep, but strangely only in part, the rest burned with a painful itch, his other arm was pinned down by some kind of weight, and the shoulder that had clipped the carrier felt like a giant bruise. Several other bruises and scratches that he hadn’t noticed acquiring in the heat of battle also made themselves known as the memory of the combat returned to him, bringing him the last few steps to full consciousness.

Opening his eyes, Joel’s heart jumped into his throat, nearly sending him back into the blackness as he found himself face to face with one of the green humanoids. Its mouth was slack and gaping at him with unblinking yellowed eyes, as though it were about to take a bite out of his face. Kicking out, he knocked it back, only to have it sprawl lifelessly onto the ground. It was only then that he realized that the creature was truly dead, and not only was it dead, but so were all the other bodies that he was partly buried under.

Extracting his pinned arm from under the corpse of a rather heavyset villager, Joel forced himself to his feet. He wasn’t in the carrier anymore, that much was clear. Wherever he was, it was larger than the carrier and had a cracked cement floor, though he could hardly make it out underneath the layer of bodily fluids that was seeping slowly from the pile of corpses he had been lying in. There weren’t any windows present, but a pale luminosity seemed to emanate from various patches of fungus spread throughout the room. The patches were most notable on the rotted wood wall paneling of a hall that he could see extending beyond the rooms single entranceway, ensuring that he would be able to see anything coming before it reached him.

The arm the creature had thrown him by tingled painfully and locked up as he moved it to balance himself on the slick flooring, bringing his attention back to it now that he could see he wasn’t in any immediate danger of attack. To his surprise and horror, he realized that where the creature had grabbed him was indeed the source of the irritation, and not only that, but there was something on his arm, attached to the exposed flesh.

Holding his arm up towards one of the glowing fungus patches, he could see that where the creatures hand had found purchase on his skin there now resided something hard and black, about the size of a cherry. The thing was latched onto him like a tick or leach, and he could see several green appendages burrowed into his arm, radiating out from the central core, even as he watched one of the appendages moved, slowly but surely crawling further along just under his skin.

Trying to remain calm, Joel took stock of what he had on him to possibly deal with this strange new threat. His rifle and machete were gone, as were his boot knife and pistol, likely still on the carrier, wherever that was. Amazingly he still had his ammo belt and patrol pack on him though, and that meant he had a light, a multi-tool, and a first aid kit to work with.

Positioning himself so as to be able to keep watch on the hallway while he worked, Joel dug a bottle of pure alcohol from the pack. The first splash felt as though he had just set his arm on fire, but it seemed to do the trick in agitating the black pod. A second splash had it withdrawing some of its tendrils, almost as though it were attempting to shield itself in some way. At the same time, an intense numbness began to creep up his arm, leaving the joints stiff and unable to move. Worried about poison, Joel latched on to the pod with the plier portion of the multi-tool and began to carefully pull. He could actually feel as the thing came loose and its tendrils were slowly pulled from his flesh. Finally he had it off and out, its tendrils squirming about as they sought for purchase in his flesh once again.

Now that he wasn’t worried about it feeding on him, Joel set the thing aside to inspect his wound, gritting his teeth against the pain as he applied another cleansing splash of alcohol to the ugly hole the pod had bored into him. The stiff numbness stopped spreading and a minute later the feeling and movement began to slowly return to his arm. A thorough inspection and a roll of bandage later, left Joel satisfied that nothing of the creature had remained in or on his arm, though the worry of infection or poison was still a possibility. Tending to his lesser wounds with an alcohol soaked swab, Joel watched as the pod continued to squirm in the grip of the pliers before seeming to give up and die.

Prodding at the pod carefully to make sure it wasn’t faking death, Joel released the pliers hold on the thing in order to use the knife on the multi-tool, he wanted to know more about what had just been feeding on him.

Cutting off a tendril was easy enough, its ropy form proving to be more like a thick tube that oozed a thick clear liquid tainted with what appeared to be his blood. The pod itself was something else entirely, its body protected by a hard shell that Joel eventually had to smash with the butt of the tool in order to crack. On the inside, the pod was fairly simple looking, mostly consisting of a thick fleshy substance that made him think of the inside of a sunflower seed.

A jerk of movement caught Joel’s attention then, not from the hallway but rather from the pile of bodies he had escaped from, and he berated himself mentally for examining the dead pod before checking for any other survivors. Rolling a body aside, Joel found the source of the movement, but it certainly wasn’t a survivor. A woman’s corpse stared back at him with unseeing eyes, clearly dead with a broken neck and a crushed skull. Joel didn’t know what to make of it, he knew he had seen movement. Maybe it had been one of the other bodies.

Before Joel could move to check for survivors amongst the other dead though, the woman moved again. Then Joel saw it, a pod like the one he had just removed from himself, only smaller, partly hidden by the woman’s hair. No it wasn’t smaller he realized, it was dug in deeper, nearly half submerged in the flesh of the woman’s shoulder and neck.

Pulling the woman from the pile to get a better look, Joel saw that the pods tendrils had extended a great distance throughout her body. Some of the finer tendrils had even wrapped themselves along her spinal column, their continued growth causing the body to react somehow. Then a horrible thought struck him and he quickly moved to examine the body of the fallen humanoid creature.

Yes, the veins of the creature looked exactly like the tendrils of the pod, only perhaps more developed. Following the creatures veins confirmed his thinking. There was a central node terminating in a particularly dark patch of flesh just under the creatures skin. Following two of the larger veins from there led him to the end of each arm, where he now noticed a sort of slit in the skin, just below the palm of the hand. These creatures weren’t mutated humanoids, they were puppets, animated corpses bent to the will of some sort of plant or parasite. Joel hoped for the plant over the parasite though, as a parasite might be better suited to living on in a host without the pod. Either way he would be keeping a close eye on his own wound for further signs of infection. In the meantime he had more pressing concerns, the biggest one being the woman’s body becoming gradually more coordinated and some of the other bodies beginning to move as well.

The pod was too imbedded in the woman’s shoulder for him to simply pull it out like his own pod. He could still do some damage though, which while it might not kill it, would hopefully buy him enough time to think of something more permanent. Crushing as much of the woman’s pod as he could in the grasp of the pliers, Joel hurried to locate and destroy any other pods he could find. Once he was done and the bodies movements had died down to mostly light twitches, Joel decided it was time for him to explore beyond the room, leaving the eerie corpse pile behind that mysteriously lacked any sign of the flies and bugs that so often sought out dead flesh.

Grabbing his pack, he first removed a small Geiger counter and swept it over the area. If the place was radiated it was too late for him to escape a slow death, but at least he would know. A wave of relief swept through him as the readings came back within acceptable levels, wherever he was, it didn’t appear to be in one of the nuked zones.

Returning the Geiger counter to the pack, Joel took stock of everything else he possessed in addition to the first aid kit, the now partial bottle of alcohol, the multi-tool, Geiger counter, flashlight and the ammo clips still on his belt. He found he also had 30 feet of tightly bound climbing rope, some dried rations that would last him about a week if he was careful, a flint and steel, enough water for roughly four days, some water purification tablets, and a tightly rolled sleeping bag. It wasn’t much. But it would hopefully be enough to get him home. Thankfully the flashlight was powered by a small electromagnet he could charge by shaking, so at least he wouldn’t have to worry about being completely blind if he was still lost come nightfall.

 

Chapter 4

With a final glance back at the pile of twitching corpses, Joel crept out into the hall with the flashlight in hand. He moved slowly to reduce the noise his steps made in the still air. The rotten wood paneling of the walls seemed to help soften and absorb any sound, providing both a blessing and a curse. A blessing because even moving with caution, Joel’s steps still made more noise than he would have liked, a curse because that also meant that the noise from anything else would also likely be softened before reaching his own ears.

The smell of decay reached his nose as he neared a passage on his right. The smell wasn’t that of a fresh death though, it was old decay, much older than the smell of a few days old death when the gasses began to build and escape. The same fresh decay that would happen shortly with the bodies he had just left. Assuming those bodies he had left actually did decay and didn’t instead start walking around again, the thought of which sent a shudder down his spine. Joel’s world had been messed up enough without the addition of some sort of puppet corpse creatures in it.

Stopping just outside the right hand passage, Joel stopped and listened, but he couldn’t hear anything over the sound of his own breathing and the pulse of his heart. He stood there frozen for a minute longer, working up the courage to look into the room and possibly come face to face with some fresh horror to haunt his dreams.

A quick peek around the corner didn’t tell him much except that the room beyond was dark. So with the blade of the multi-tool at the ready, and his flashlight in hand, Joel swung into the room, keeping low in case something lunged for him once disturbed by the flashlights beam. He needn’t have worried though, every creature in the room was dead, and not the walking around kind he had seen too much of already.

The room had been an old recording studio judging from the look of things, an open door and a large grime coated window separating the remnants of a control board from a room beyond. In that far room Joel could see the semi-skeletal remains of a pack of fell wolves, their twisted forms shrunken and crumbling with age, possibly either dead long before the puppet creatures could reach them, or else proving incompatible as hosts in some way.

Returning to the hall Joel continued his exploration, passing a couple empty rooms filled with broken furniture but little else. Finally he reached the end of the hall, and a broken stairway to a floor above. The old wooden steps had rotted away at some point, but someone or something had replaced them with a mound of dirt, packed tightly into the narrow stairway to form a rough ramp.

The ramp ended at a doorway that no longer had a door, and stepping through that Joel found himself in a lobby, his dark accustomed eyes stinging against the light of day as it glared in through where large panes of glass had once been. Dirt had covered the entire room over the ages, all except for a single computer terminal, setup against a wall with wires disappearing into the ceiling, this looked like a fairly recent installment. Across the lobby a door stood open leading outside, and Joel froze as he caught the gleam of sunlight off of one of the carriers that had attacked his people.

There was only one of the carriers outside as far as he could see, scorch marks along its back end identifying it as likely being the one that he had been brought in. For several minutes Joel just stood there in the shadows watching and listening, but nothing could be heard or seen to move anywhere nearby, and so Joel took the risk of crossing the room. He was nearly a third of the way across when something moved out of the corner of his eye, sending him reflexively for cover behind the remains of a desk. Looking out from behind the desk, all he saw was the computer terminal, still and lifeless until the camera above the screen swerved to focus on him.

A whirring noise emanated from the terminal and the screen beeped as it came to life, projecting a laser keyboard onto a flat space just in front of the screen. Nothing extensive appeared on the screen, only a black background and some typed font that Joel couldn’t read from where he was.

Seeing no further sign of movement around him, Joel approached the computer with caution until he was standing in front of it, well aware that the camera was following him the entire time.

The words on the screen were simple, “User identify yourself.”

Unsure what to do, but hoping to get some answers, Joel did as the computer directed, giving his name and rank in the guard, typing carefully to avoid some of the non-letter characters that he didn’t recognize.

“I don’t recognize you, why are you at my relay station? Are you of the serpent?”

Of the serpent, Joel had no idea what that meant, should he say yes in the hopes of acceptance and answers, or should he say no and hope that didn’t turn on him. There was a third option though that he decided to try, avoiding the question.

“Who are you? I was captured from my village, where am I? Joel asked.

“I am Yog. Were you shot?”

“Yes”

“Are you human?”

“Yes”

“Probability of survival 0.001%, conclusion anomaly, acquire for study, rerouting.”

“Rerouting what? What is the serpent? Joel typed quickly, feeling that something had just gone wrong.

The serpent is the enemy, destroyer of Gaia, monster, killer, man.”

“Shit!” Joel exclaimed as the keyboard vanished with the final message from Yog, whoever or whatever, that was. He didn’t know what was being rerouted, but given Yog’s final statement Joel could guess that he needed to get out of there fast.

Running outside, Joel made for the damaged carrier, hopefully he could use it to escape quickly. The carrier’s floor was slick and rank with death from its former occupants, but the entrance to the cockpit was open, so Joel climbed inside. He hoped the carrier had an autopilot feature that could backtrack to the village, because the controls were a foreign thing to him, and he didn’t feel confident trying to fly it manually.

A large flashing button looked promising, and pressing it brought the carriers power back on. A screen burst to life before his eyes, blurring with information that Joel didn’t understand. One part was fairly clear though, a topographical map with a grid overlay that had a course sketched out over a portion of it.

A line of mountains lay near one end of the course, while the other bent away to the Southeast, and Joel could guess where he needed to go from there, the only problem was he didn’t know how to get the carrier moving in the right direction, all of the controls were unfamiliar?

Joel tried a random button or two, with no apparent result, and was reaching for a third when the map and flowing text vanished to be replaced by an angry red strobe effect.

Startled, Joel stepped back into the main portion of the carrier, just in time to have the door to the cockpit slide shut in his face. He tried to open it again but it wouldn’t budge and then the exit panels began to grind, slipping shut slowly, their progress hindered by some bent paneling.

Not wanting to get trapped inside, Joel dove for the exit, making his escape well ahead of the closing door.

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