“It’s a beautiful day today.”
Aaron Harver was barely listening, but it was true. The sun was out, and there were just enough clouds to give cover from the summer heat that you could appreciate the outdoors. His father used to call it a ‘Garden Day’ because you knew you could get all those chores done without complaining about the heat.
He could hardly appreciate it. To Aaron it just looked like any other day since their group had taken to hitting the road. The grey concrete of the backwoods interstate blended in with grey-toned woods that dotted the north-east American landscape. Smokey pine trees left ashen shadows in every direction. Above a slate-colored sun above shone past dull and lifeless clouds.
“There are wildflowers on the side of the road. Lavender, that soft purple, with a mix of something else. Those tiny white flowers -- I think they’re weeds?” Claire explained colors to Aaron like he was a child. As if sight was just like filling in a picture book one crayon at a time. He hated it, but at least she gave a shit.
She had stuck with him since the incident. Since the Dust settled. It seems stupid to complain about now. While Aaron’s friends, his family, were tearing themselves apart the most he had felt was a stinging pain. Reds were one of the first colors to go. Then blues, and greens, and yellow disappeared somewhere between all of that. He remembered looking at one soldier lying face first in a pool of blood and thinking how strange a scene it was. Like drowning in a slick patch of oil.
His friends had died at Bastion, but Aaron Harver had lived. Maybe he would have died too, if not for Claire.
As uneven concrete gave way to the crack of vegetation both Claire and Aaron braced themselves in the back of the old pickup truck. Work was plentiful these days, but food and medical supplies were scarce. Claire’s talents as a field medic had proven to be invaluable, and though his vision swam in a blur of grey Aaron was more than capable as a fit helping hand.
The village ahead was just like so many others -- makeshift and filled with uncertain, frightened people. Claire had told him this one used to be some kind of sleepaway camp. Log cabins with fireplaces right off a nearby lake. The kind of place rich families sent their kids so they could pretend to know what living outdoors would be like.
They arrived late at night with little fanfare, greeted by fearful expressions and nervous glances between friends and family. Then came the reactions. Wave after wave of emotion flooding the men, women, and children of Camp Houndstooth. Fear at seeing their truck, an unknown entity, roll down into the heart of their community. Relief as their small band step out to greet them, moving carefully while displaying their Federation-branded attire.
Disappointment. No supplies. Just more bodies to feed.
“Where are your injured?” Claire didn’t waste any time, dragging her lantern and medical kit off the truck’s flatbed in what had become a routine for their group.
Tend to the wounded, patch up their defenses, advise and assist. Aaron knew that for many of these camps it would be a waste of time. Heavily armed bandits or splintered remnants of Federation defectors would chew through these refuges without missing a step -- and then there were those things. You never knew what they were capable of.
“Hey, so are you the guy in charge?” a teenage boy holding a mallet in one hand approached Aaron, closely hounded by a set of older men.
“No.” he replied distractedly.
“Oh. So what do you do then? I mean, for the Federation.” the men beside the boy looked uneasy, but the teeanger was clearly unfazed.
“Help where we can. Give our advice where we think it’ll take.”
“What were you before all this?”
“A soldier.” the crack of Aaron’s reply made the boy pause warily before turning to one of the older men beside him.
“He didn’t mean nothing by it.” grumbled one man with a voice that sounded like aged cigarettes and with a beard that hadn’t seen a razor in months. “We just weren’t sure who to talk to, that’s all.”
“We’ve got ourselves a problem.” the other fellow spoke, adjusting his glasses while gesturing toward the lake. He was thinner, older, but sharp. “Been trying to keep it quiet, but it won’t stay that way for long. Could use a bit of outside expertise.”
Aaron watched the way they shifted uncomfortably. A murder was most likely. It was becoming more and more common with these isolated communities. Sometimes a friend or family member had gone feral. Sometimes they just let the wrong kind of person in. The kind of person who was desperate enough hurt anyone and everyone just to carve themselves some kind of safety in uncertain times.
“Lead the way.” Aaron spoke with as much confidence as he could muster, and it seemed to help calm their uneasiness.
They led him through the moonlit night across the street and down towards a cabin isolated from the others. They had introduced themselves along the way, but Aaron was barely listening. He wasn’t going to stay here long anyway. Why waste the brainpower?
A sign on the pathway carved into driftwood read Guidance Lodge. He could only assume it belonged to some kind of counselor or camp authority. Unlike the other cabins it looked more like a home, complete with a patio that faced the lake and an attached garage.
As they walked closer Aaron could already tell something was amiss. Windows were cracked and shattered, and large shards of glass were scattered across the lawn. The front door was intact but clearly broken, as though someone had pushed the entire frame in with remarkable force; bending the hinges to prevent it from ever being shut. A trail of blood leading inside the home from the outdoor patio confirmed his fears, but there was something odd about it. Were the drag marks coming, or going?
The villagers gave him distance as he drew closer to the home. Aaron heard one say they would wait until he was done investigating. They didn’t want to mess with the site any more than they had already. Looking beyond the broken door he wasn’t sure that was possible.
Furniture was upturned and torn apart to spew white cotton innards across the living room entryway. Whatever remained of bookshelves, a television, stereo system, chairs, and lamps were twisted and toss about; snapped in half or crushed into a splintered pulp. The interior was lit using battery-powered lanterns, but they had been set low, likely to conserve power.
There were two bodies, both equally broken but shredded in a way that only an animal could. Limbs were twisted, punctured and bent violently in directions that didn’t belong. Large teeth or claws ripped these people apart. Judging by the axe on the floor, stained with a slick wetness, whomever had died here died fighting.
“When did this happen?” Aaron called out, stepping deeper into the home, eyeing a stairway to the second floor.
“Found em like that this morning.” the teenager called out, his voice cracking fearfully.
Thick trails of bloody drag marks flowing up the stairs made Aaron draw his pistol before following with caution. The second floor’s single bedroom was no different. Violent claw marks tore apart cloth and wood alike leaving deep marks in the floor, ceiling, and walls. Blood splatter reminded Aaron of flicks from a painter’s brush, wild and in every direction.
A cool breeze passed through the open window and Aaron stepped over to it slowly, ready to jump at any shadow. Whatever it was had left through here, and it was clear by the thickness of grey plasma that the third body had gone with it. Peering out from the second story window Aaron could see where the trail led out into the nearby woods. A splash of gore on the ground showed where the body had hit the earth before being pulled towards the woods that marked the edge of the campground.
He was about to turn away when he saw it. A flash of red, buried somewhere between the flat grey trees. He rubbed his eyes in disbelief, searching hard into the distance.
It was a trick of his mind. It had to be. Too many nights on the open road, and not enough sleep. He still dreamed in color, after all. It was only the real world that felt like a shaded joke.
“Everything alright up there, officer?” the man with glasses called up from below, hovering on the entrance of the crime scene.
“As well as can be.” Aaron yelled back, eyeing the window one more time before walking back downstairs.
“Our first guess was some kind of bear got tangled in here. Rabid or crazed.” the other man called from outside.
“Could be a bear. Definitely some sort of animal.” Aaron pondered, bent over the pair of mauled bodies in consideration. “No one heard anything?”
“We have a guard rotation but they keep a close eye on the road.” the man in glasses spoke sheepishly. “We thought with the lake to our backs...”
“David, was it?”
“Daniel, actually.” Daniel adjusted his glasses, looking nervously behind his shoulder. “Is there something wrong?”
Aaron stood up, giving the room one last look before stepping over to the door while holstering his weapon. Daniel looked on in silence, waiting for an answer while his companions glanced nervously back up the road to Camp Houndstooth.
“I won’t pretend to be any kind of expert on animals, but I think we can all agree no bear did that.” he finally said, gesturing up toward the camp. “How are you all on weapons and ammo?”
“You think it’s coming back?” fear lined the edge of the teenager’s voice, and he clutched wooden mallet in hand tighter.
“It might. Listen, uh, John-”
“Yeah, sure. Look, whatever’s out there came here for a reason. I don’t know how long your group has been here but it’s clear you’re not wanted.” Aaron led the others back up the road, keeping a close eye on the woods. “Our truck can’t take everyone, but if you’ve got transportation-”
“We don’t.” Daniel hastily interrupted. “It took us a week just to find this place, and we almost starved to death doing it. If it weren’t for the radio we would have probably been stranded without ever getting in touch with you.”
“Then we’ll see about lasting out the night. We’ve probably got enough firepower to keep whatever it is at bay. If we get everyone into one building and secure it then we can work on making our next move.”
A brilliant flash of reds and yellows standing at the edge of Camp Houndstooth caused Aaron to stumble to a standstill. It was like looking at a sunset drawn in crayon, constantly moving and hard to define. Something like a leg stepped forward, a scramble of color and light causing a flash of illumination across the flat grey earth. A swirling maw of blue and violet hues opened up on its body, echoing a low growl from within.
Aaron’s sudden stop brought concern to the others, and Daniel was about to speak when the predatory growl froze their group in terror.
“Did you hear that?” Daniel whispered, trembling in place.
“I hear it.” John stepped closer to Daniel, brandishing his mallet against the darkness. “Can you see it?”
Aaron turned to the townsfolk, watching their eyes shift uneasily in the darkness. At the edge of camp the creature burned defiantly, casting his dull grey world in violent hues of crimson and gold. It took another step away from them, causing a painful flash of light that made Aaron wince in the darkness. The others hovered closer in fear, trying their best to peer into the night.
“Let’s break for Marris’ place. We’ve got a weapon in every home.” the bearded man grumbled in a low tone, gesturing to a cabin nearby while searching frantically for the source of the predatory noise. “Once we’re armed, we can probably hold up in the cafeteria lodge.”
“Yeah. Lead the way.” Aaron tried to sound as certain as he could, looking over his shoulder while keeping close to Daniel.
If the creature could understand them it seemed unphased. One blazing limb extended forward. Then another. Each step it took was a burst of light and color. Each step took the creature further away, draining hue and tone from Aaron’s sight until it was gone. The world was monochrome once more, but he hardly felt safer for it.
In the distance he heard a scream, and Aaron told himself there was nothing he could do to stop it.
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