By the Shores of Time
A thunderous shot rang amidst the growls of the voracious pack. A single thump knocked one of them, resulting from a high-capacity round. The bullets were familiar, and from what he could discern, high caliber. A bullet-like that would kill anything else with a vital, but they proved resilient. Gabriel didn’t waste time as he scrambled toward the pair of reflective lights. All reason escaped him, disregarding whether he’d encounter a guardian angel or another harbinger of death. The wounded hound prowled within the mist along the side of the buildings. Another shot followed, striking another as it attempted to pounce on Gabriel.
Either they have a good eye or a thermal, he thought.
The persistent pack kept along the sidewalks, stalking him while waiting for the right opportunity to pounce. Withered trees aligning the sidewalks provided them cover from the watchful sniper. He glimpsed the outlines of the devilish creatures as they kept close to the cars. Perhaps he was provided a moment of peace before meeting his horrific end. Yet the guiding lights provided a comforting illusion like a pair of eyes watching over him. A black dog leaped over the top of a car, driving his panic when he looked over. But a clumsy misstep saved him from being mauled to death.
A bullet knocked it away before it went back to its cover. Gabriel wondered why they haven’t killed him with their sheer numbers. He kept a close eye, finally making out the building’s outline. As he entered the open three-way street, he caught a better look at the derelict building. Floorboards covered most of the windows of the long-abandoned apartment building. Gabriel limped toward the front door, discovering he couldn’t budge it open. He looked over his shoulder, unable to see his stalkers. The scope’s light remained reflective when he took a few steps back to look up. He went around the building, finding the back door broken in. The overhead fire escape didn’t go without notice as he cautiously entered.
The air filled with a horrid stench, giving pause as he tried to discern what it was. He passed several rooms, provided with little light as he tried to make out the shapes scattered in each room. A low-hanging mist wrapped around his ankles, reminding him of its perpetual presence. The buzzing of flies filled the silent rooms, leaving much to his imagination as he pressed on. When he reached the stairs, he looked toward the top, finding a dim light cast against the upper walls. There was no mistaking that’s where the sniper was. But it begged the next question: who was the sniper?
The cracked tile crumbled with each footstep during his ascent, while the flimsy railing gave the impression of its inevitable collapse. He wondered whether he should call out the sniper, hoping it was someone he knew. However, footsteps drew from above before he glimpsed the silhouette of a man. Gabriel strained his eyes, not long before the man above spoke.
“Yo, Gabe, how long are you gonna be staring up here,” a familiar voice called.
“No way,” Gabriel winced. “Ricardo?”
“I’m glad I found you in time. I heard the wolves—”
“They’re definitely not wolves.”
“Whatever, you’re alive though, no?”
“Yeah, thanks to you,” he smiled.
They took a moment to breathe once he reached the top floor. He saw a man in a military getup, leaning against the windowpane with a near-finished cigarette. His well-worn fatigues, dull boots, and a tank top that clung to his lean body were all part of his signature look of Joe Schrödinger. His bald head shone against the faint light, revealing his five o’clock shadow. He noted Gabriel with a silent side glance of his dark, puffy eyes. Being one of Victoria’s best men, Gabriel wondered why he was sent out with Ricardo.
“Nice to see you, Joe,” Gabriel waved as he walked toward him.
“You seem chipper for someone that almost got mauled to death,” he responded coldly.
“Well, I’m glad to have made it in one piece. Is it—Just you two?”
The soldier and Ricardo looked toward each other, confirming Gabriel’s suspicion. He observed the heavily cloaked streets, wondering how many were lost as he heard Joe down a bit of his flask. He looked over, finding the soldier’s hardened expression. Was it hate, sadness, or despair that laced his nameless glare, he couldn’t be certain?
“We lost quite a few to those things out there,” he muttered angrily.
“Why did she send so many?” Gabriel questioned, following Joe’s nod toward Ricardo.
The foggy light cast against his dark skin, muscular fellow revealing his long sage-like beard. His afro poked out, long and a bushy mess. His eyes delivered a freezing gaze even in the friendliest of times, but this was to be expected from his long-time friend. He wore a lightweight jacket over his black shirt and distressed jeans over beaten brown boots. Ricardo took a moment to surmise a response regarding their rescue operation.
“You’ve been out for two weeks,” he answered, waiting to see how his friend would react.
“But—How?” he questioned. “We were only out for less than a day.”
“Where are the others?”
“Johnny was wounded and turned, so Celeste had to put him down. And Celeste split up when the dogs boxed us in.”
“We call them hellhounds,” Joe chimed, meeting Gabriel’s reluctant glance. “You hear stories about them in Europe—”
“I—I know, we have similar things in Latin America,” he nodded.
“And Alex?” Ricardo continued.
“He ran away before we could find him. We were swarmed with infected after—Some woman summoned them through her cries.”
“Come again?” he winced from the strange detail.
“Yeah, exactly that. A woman drew a bunch of clickers into the building after the power failed. It got really hectic.”
“Let’s hope he’s alive. He comes up missing for too long, well—”
“I should’ve never spared that fucker,” Gabriel muttered. “But, Celeste—”
“Celeste convinced you,” he reminded.
“Her heart was in the right place, Ricardo. Although, I’m really starting to regret that.”
“As you should,” Joe scoffed before taking another swig. “You let a softie decide for you.”
“Maybe—Maybe this is it,” Gabriel conceded.
“It ain’t over til’ the last bullet,” his friend spoke.
“We don’t have much of those either.”
Gabriel returned his gaze upon the foggy skyline. Everything disappeared into the dense thicket. He wondered how Celeste faired after they split up, remembering her reluctance for her to leave him behind. The unintentional consequences of everything that happened were no small part due to her compassion.
“Hell—” he sighed before hearing growls in the lower floors.
Gabriel met his friend’s nod before tossing his rifle toward him. Growls echoed from below as they made their ascent. A hellhound raised its nose to the musky air, snorting the survivor’s scent. They began howling, rallying the other pack members into action. The men avoided coming into sight as they walked silently into the apartment unit across. The beasts trampled over the other while ravenously tracking their scent.
After gently closing the door, Ricardo and Joe rushed toward the window, looking for a way down. Ricardo crashed through a wall, entering the next apartment unit when the hellhounds breached the door. With two slams, the door flew across the room, overlapping the door’s burst from the other room. Ricardo shot the hellhound in the face without batting an eye as his friend noted their coordination.
“C’mon, out the window,” he smashed the window with the butt of his rifle.
Gabriel got out as quickly as he could, slamming onto his face after tripping over the ledge. Ricardo helped him up, seeing his bloodied nose dripping along his beard. A hellhound burst onto the platform, rattling as its weight twisted its metal. Joe hopped out, raising his rifle at the beast.
“They’re trying to corner us,” he muttered. “You two go ahead.”
“What?” Gabriel uttered.
“Get to it!”
The soldier ran toward the hellhound, buying them time to ascend the fire escape. Large fans lined along the inside of the otherwise barren roof, giving a bit of hiding place while Ricardo calculated their next move. They hid behind cover as the persistent beasts burst through the door, growling with an insatiable hunger. Gabriel looked over, seeing him count the bullets he had.
“So, what now?” he asked, watching him cock his rifle. “You got enough bullets?”
“What’cha mean?” his friend replied. “I got all the bullets.”
“Now isn’t the time for your quirky responses.”
As Ricardo readied to take aim, he looked toward his friend. The reluctant thumbs up marked a go ahead, as it was all or nothing.
* * * * *
Her hoarse breathing dragged on as she came to a crawl. She wondered why the hellhound didn’t give chase when she turned to see the white wall of fog. The eerie silence lingered against the hollow air, with the exception of the flowing water nearby. Her tired eyes peeked at a bridge leading over a shallow river. When she came close, she saw the slope toward the river. Sudden whispers bombarded her, indiscernible and cryptic, as she kneeled down at the river’s edge. Celeste felt along her tired face, finding distress melded with her listless gaze. The longer she looked the redder the water became.
“What the hell,” she slowly backed away.
A set of bloodied children’s hands sprung from the water, evoking her terrified shriek. Celeste fell back, closing her eyes as the water splashed against her. She opened her eyes reluctantly while her body shivered. Her eyes trailed along the river, seeing it clear once again. Taking a deep breath, she sat up, clutching her stomach while staring at the gentle stream. She sighed, returning her gaze toward the blanketed sky. At that moment, she wanted to forget the things she’d done.
“I’m sorry,” she uttered, with a tear trickling down her cheek.
“Sorry about what?” Alex appeared from behind her.
“N—Nothing, just something I was thinking about. Where did you go?”
Celeste turned to find him in his bloodied attire. His breath still reeked of alcohol when he sat next to her, setting aside the blood-smeared knife. She glimpsed the droplets of blood trail into the stream. His daze left her curious about what he thought while watching the river flow. The longer he spaced out, the more she realized she wouldn’t get an answer.
“This is probably the most peaceful spot in this shithole,” he finally spoke. “Everything else around here, well… It doesn’t feel like it’s part of this world.”
“What do you mean?” her eyes narrowed upon seeing his weak smile.
“C’mon, Celeste… You’ve always been so sensitive to the things around you. I know you can feel how fucked up this place is.”
She glanced upon the river once more, observing the current heading south. It had been a long time since they sat together in relative peace. Every time she’d glance over, she was slowly reminded of how everything unraveled. Oddly, there was some modicum of peace in the chaos that hid beneath the eternal fog.
“You—Still haven’t answered my question,” she reiterated.
“I came across these—things,” he responded. “They came in droves. I barely got away from them.”
“Things? Like black dogs?”
“Dogs?” he scoffed with an uneasy chuckle when he reached for his knife. “No, they weren’t any dogs I’ve ever seen.”
His eyes reflected against the thin layer of blood. Alex cleared his throat before continuing to speak.
“I watched as they drained the blood of the infected with their long—beaks?” he looked toward her. “When one of them spotted me, I ran. I ran as fast as they could while they crawled along the walls. The blood? It's from one of them. I don’t remember how many times I had to stab it before the damned thing stopped squealing.”
Why—Do they sound so familiar? she wondered.
She could tell by the look in his eyes that he was telling the truth. Whatever horrific thing he came across left him even more paranoid as he wiped the blade along the dried, crinkly grass.
“But, there was one thing that bugged me,” he continued.
“And what’s—” she was interrupted by something upstream.
Alex quickly stood on his feet, clenching the knife as they heard weeping from the other end of the thicket. Celeste strained her eyes to find a woman’s silhouette. A veil hid her face as she floated toward them. Her white dress was drenched in blood in her midsection. The pitch of her weeping didn’t change, even as she came within range.
“We—Gotta go,” Alex suggested as he grabbed her shoulder.
The weeping stopped as the woman raised her head, revealing her ghastly face. Her white eyes peered into Celeste’s soul, striking an unmistakable feeling. Her clawed hands dripped with blood as her face contorted in agony. Her stringy black hair wafted against the still wind.
The pair ran away while the woman’s distorted cries echoed. A sudden gust slammed Celeste away from Alex, sending her into the river. The river seemed to have no bottom as she tried desperately to reach the surface. Its fierce current sent her tumbling through. She began blacking out, asphyxiated by the lack of oxygen.
She finally caught an obstruction, pulling herself out. The distorted wailing intensified, intertwined with anguish and sorrow. The young woman somehow sympathized with the spirit inhabiting the river. As her tension eased, she walked up to the street as the cryptic wails faded.
She rested against a car’s hood while observing her surroundings. Without having lost her sense of direction, she looked toward the industrial buildings leading north.
But it wouldn’t be long before her moment of respite would come undone by what lay ahead.