Chapter 10:

Ash & Snow

By the Shores of Time

A passing breeze filled the hall from the gaping hole. The layered ashes and snow spread further into dull marble floors. From where the edge rested, blood mixed into it, forming a mushy substance. Elizabeth froze, finding the dark red puddle underneath the nearest door. Cold and curdled, Elizabeth shuddered to the horrific realization before pulling the fire alarm. The weak sirens echoed throughout the once dormant building, soon followed by the emergence of the confused survivors who investigated. Armed soldiers quickly brought order, blocking the western corridor.Bookmark here

Celeste awoke to the commotion outside her door, glimpsing the shadows beneath the door frame. She slowly sat up, stretching out her body with each subtle crackle from her joints. She slipped on her sundress before poking her head through the door. A small crowd gathered across the main hall.Bookmark here

“What’s—Going on?” she muttered tiredly.Bookmark here

Celeste threw over a warm blanket over her shoulders, hurrying to see what happened. The cold breeze was worse than she imagined. She squeezed through the crowd, being met with a small blockade of armed guards. Victoria allowed her in after finding her watching from the crowd. The young woman saw the pooled blood from the open doorways. Flurries of snow continued their gentle descent, layering the red stains along the floor. They approached one of the rooms, finding mutilated bodies laid next to each other. Elizabeth leaned over once, determining their death while maintaining her steely gaze.Bookmark here

“There’s another room full of them,” Victoria sighed, flashing her light upon the bodies.Bookmark here

“Why?” Celeste saw the younger victims lined up to the left.Bookmark here

“Maybe, a murder-suicide?” Elizabeth suggested as she glanced over.Bookmark here

“A suicide pact?” Victoria added, meeting the distress in the nurse’s eyes.Bookmark here

“But she was fine yesterday. A little burned out, but—”Bookmark here

Things aren’t what they seem to be, Celeste thought, glimpsing the frozen faces of horror along the victim’s face.Bookmark here

“There has to be more to it,” the young woman insisted.Bookmark here

“Well, the next room looks no different,” Victoria informed tiredly.Bookmark here

“Maybe we can get Greg to help?”Bookmark here

“And what? Give us a dose of theoretical jargon? Actually—Where is he?”Bookmark here

Victoria walked over to his door, knocking heavily only to find it open to the first knock. A cold draft pressed against her skin as she brandished her pistol. She slammed the door open while drawing her pistol. Greg shivered, holding a bloodied instrument in his hand by the window. His lips trembled as he tried to speak. Celeste followed, seeing his panic.Bookmark here

“I—I can explain,” his voice rattled as he looked into the barrel of the gun.Bookmark here

“Put it down,” Victoria ordered. “Gently—Greg, what the hell did you do?”Bookmark here

“I didn’t do anything!”Bookmark here

“It’s strange you didn’t come out here.”Bookmark here

“I just woke up! I’ve been up all night.”Bookmark here

“Do I look like a dumbass to you?”Bookmark here

“Victoria,” Celeste spoke, placing her hand upon the pistol. “Lower your gun.”Bookmark here

“I didn’t do anything, I swear!” he cried, drawing her sympathy.Bookmark here

“Then, lower the knife.”Bookmark here

His hands trembled as he finally set the knife down. He took a few steps away, allowing the lieutenant to snatch the blade with her gun drawn. She summoned soldiers to take him away, which he conceded with a whimper. As they left, there was an uproar upon seeing his bloodied hands. Victoria slammed a chair next to a table, startling Celeste who remained by the doorway. The irritated lieutenant gestured her to close the door.Bookmark here

“What the hell is going on?” Victoria uttered while keeping her cool. “Alex shows up. Then, we have—this?”Bookmark here

“There has to be an explanation. He wouldn’t do it—”Bookmark here

“He had the knife in his hand! He didn’t come out when the alarms went off.”Bookmark here

“Have you considered he may have been too scared?”Bookmark here

“Scared? Come on, man!”Bookmark here

“You haven’t been exactly receptive.”Bookmark here

“I’m trying to keep this place from going under—”Bookmark here

“And if you want people to cooperate, you need to give them a chance to explain themselves. You’d be no better than how Alex handled—”Bookmark here

“Don’t you compare me to that ingrate!”Bookmark here

Victoria noticed her reluctance to speak as she pocketed the knife. She brushed past her as she swung the door open. Celeste knew well than to egg on her fury. Looking over her shoulder, she saw the bodies being carried out while the crowd parted. Many of them grew to know the victims, feeling injustice in distraught expressions. Celeste wondered how far Victoria would go to maintain her brand of order, but it’d become clear it mimicked Alex’s. She soon glimpsed Elizabeth, who felt her observant gaze. Sadness and confusion showed through her frown as she saw off the rest of the bodies.Bookmark here

Sometime later, Celeste walked along the rooftop to overlook the main gate. The silhouettes of the infected lingered in the mist. The once-lush greenery had dulled throughout time, leaving the skeletal remains of the forest. She wanted to be away from the strange aura of suspicion. The young woman wondered what they did with Greg, hoping the lieutenant didn’t do anything drastic. Her eyes drifted toward the distance, feeling melancholy set in as being wrapped up by the day-to-day events began to take a toll on her.Bookmark here

Where are you, she thought with a fixated gaze into the depths of the fog.Bookmark here

Footsteps shuffled from its blanketed expanse as she strained her eyes. The watchmen glanced over, aiming down their scopes. Celeste grew anxious after hearing them cock their weapon. A figure emerged, wheezing, as they chugged along toward the entrance.Bookmark here

“Stay right there!” one of them ordered before the other one squeezed the trigger.Bookmark here

“Hey, shit!” a familiar voice shouted after the bullet ricochets past him.Bookmark here

“Hold your fire!” Celeste yelled, glimpsing the shooter’s hesitation. “That’s Gabriel.”Bookmark here

“But—How?” the other muttered while she made her way down the ladder.Bookmark here

“Hey, we can’t let anyone in without approv—Shit!”Bookmark here

Celeste missed her last step down in her rush to get to the gate. Her eyes trailed along the gated perimeter before she got up. She came to a crawl upon seeing his dirty face. The bags under his eyes stood against the ghastly backdrop, and his hair greasier than she recalled. Underneath his beard was a smile, she couldn’t help but return. Her warm tears trickled down, happy to see him once again. He staggered forward, holding onto the bars as she tried to get the door open.Bookmark here

“It hasn’t been a whole week, has it?” he muttered in his usual dry humor.Bookmark here

“Shut up,” she smiled while trying to figure out how to open the chained gate.Bookmark here

“Celeste,” Victoria shouted from behind. “What do you think you’re doing?”Bookmark here

“What do you mean?” she turned to see the lieutenant inch closer. “I’m letting him in—”Bookmark here

Victoria pinned her against the gate, glimpsing Gabriel’s indifference. He knew it was ill-advised to get her even angrier. Anger seethed underneath the former guerilla’s cool demeanor. Celeste averted her gaze as she let go of her sleeve.Bookmark here

“No one comes in or out, remember?” she reminded coldly.Bookmark here

“He’s been out there all this time,” she responded in subtle defiance.Bookmark here

“He’s a risk, just like Alex was.”Bookmark here

“But we won’t know until he comes in.”Bookmark here

“Where’s Ricardo and the others?” she questioned him.Bookmark here

“I don’t where Ricardo is,” he complied.Bookmark here

Victoria’s piercing green eyes glanced upon the messy man beyond the gate before reaching for the chains that bound the gate together. She couldn’t imagine sending capable men out to perish while the one they were looking for stood before her. Celeste glimpsed his silence, sensing something was amiss. There was a cold quality about his presence, as though he’d seen much until he came. Realizing she was looking into his eyes, she found darkness.Bookmark here

“Celeste,” she sighed after letting him in. “He’s under your care. If he acts up—”Bookmark here

“Understood,” she cut her off abruptly, prompting the hardened woman’s raised eyebrow.Bookmark here

“Don’t get too cocky, since your man is back. He looks just as fucked up as Alex. That’s interesting…”Bookmark here

“What do you mean?”Bookmark here

“It’s nothing, nevermind. He’s to go to your room immediately. I’ll check up on you after I finish with Greg.”Bookmark here

“What’s going on?” Gabriel asked, meeting the woman’s glare.Bookmark here

“I’m sure you two can catch up,” she responded before entering the building.Bookmark here

As they followed close, Celeste noticed his uneasiness when he entered. The eyes of the people glared upon him as though he were someone totally different. Feeling the unfair impressions, she took him by his hand, noticing his tension eased upon her gentle touch. He took a deep breath, forcing a smile before they ascended together.Bookmark here

* * * * *Bookmark here

It wasn’t long before Gabriel washed up for the evening. The soldiers kept a close eye on them as she kept him at arm’s length. Guards would remain nearby when the two entered her room. A dimly lit candle cast its glow along the interior. Elizabeth’s guitar sat on a chair near the table with her belongings laid on the desk. By the candle were lyrics she wrote since they first arrived at the once-abandoned precinct. Everything was exactly what he remembered as he shuffled to their bed.Bookmark here

“Looks like we’ll be sharing the same bed,” she cleared her throat as he collapsed onto the bed. “Liz, she does come by to take naps and all.”Bookmark here

“I’ll try not to hog the bed,” he spoke with his voice muffled from the pillow.Bookmark here

“That’s not what I—Never mind. Eh, anyway… There’s a lot to go over.”Bookmark here

“That doesn’t sound too good.”Bookmark here

“I’ll be quick, I promise.”Bookmark here

An hour had passed, Gabriel found himself facing the ceiling, listening to everything that happened. Something didn’t sit well about her story, especially her time out there. His confusion became apparent as he slowly sat up, putting a stop to her long-winded story. His aches lingered when he stretched with a yawn that followed.Bookmark here

“There’s one problem with your story,” he said, meeting her deadpan expression. “Well, one big one outta the many.”Bookmark here

“And what’s that?” she leaned forward.Bookmark here

“We never met up at any point when we separated.”Bookmark here

“You’re—Bullshitting for kicks, right?”Bookmark here

“Does it look like I am?”Bookmark here

“I could never tell with you.”Bookmark here

“Why exactly would I want to make anything up if I’m trying to figure out what’s going on? We never came across Alex and Ricardo got separated by infected that swarmed a building we passed through.”Bookmark here

“But—It had to be you.”Bookmark here

“How so?”Bookmark here

“Because I’m familiar with your touch,” she balled her fists with watery eyes. “Your warmth… You were there—”Bookmark here

“Celeste, the fog can play tricks on you,” he argued without raising his voice.Bookmark here

“Then… Who did I see?”Bookmark here

“I don’t know. But there is another thing that’s bugging me. You said you fell into a river, but—”Bookmark here

An abrupt knock kept him from questioning further as they looked toward the door. After Celeste answered, Victoria walked into the room with blood staining along parts of her fatigues. She could only imagine what kind of torture the leader put the hapless scientist through. The lieutenant cast her cold gaze toward Gabriel, assessing him as he stared back. Celeste felt the tension between them but remained unsure of how to intervene.Bookmark here

“It’s funny you decide to show up of all times,” she nodded while sitting next to Celeste.Bookmark here

“Should I have shown up the next day?” he responded while she withheld her laughter.Bookmark here

“I should’ve expected that from you, but unfortunately this isn’t some game of wits. Has your lover filled you in?”Bookmark here

“Lover?” Celeste uttered.Bookmark here

“Am I wrong?” she shrugged teasingly. “You cling to him at every opportunity.”Bookmark here

“I—Don’t.”Bookmark here

“The guards told me about how you climbed down as quick as you could—”Bookmark here

“So,” he interrupted. “Can you tell me what happened?”Bookmark here

“Well,” she refocused her attention. “I’m not sure if you noticed how light we are with other survivors, but we had another outbreak when you lovebirds were out. We lost half of them.”Bookmark here

“What? But how?”Bookmark here

“We don’t know… Not yet at least.”Bookmark here

“What do you mean?”Bookmark here

“Well, little Greg mentioned a little hypothesis, but it sounded really—eh, strange, but—”Bookmark here

“And Father Nathaniel?”Bookmark here

A smug smile swept across Victoria’s stoic face.Bookmark here

“A pain in my ass like always,” she sighed. “Especially with Alex here—Well you know what kind of problem that’s going to cause. A lot of people who died during the outbreak happened to be those who didn’t like him. I liked him better when he was a hermit, but he’s become disturbingly like Rasputin or something?”Bookmark here

“What?” Celeste’s face contorted.Bookmark here

“Look, I’m not some political science major!”Bookmark here

“That would be more like Russian history,” Gabriel cleared his throat, adding more to her annoyance.Bookmark here

“Point being,” she continued. “They’ll be a real problem soon.”Bookmark here

“And why are you telling me this?”Bookmark here

“Huh? That should be clear enough. You’ve always done your own thing, which has helped us get by. I need to know if you’re with me and—”Bookmark here

“There has been one thing,” His eyes met hers after interrupting. “No, one of many things about what I’ve come to realize. There’s nothing out there, just those things lingering in the fog. What the hell are you trying to accomplish?”Bookmark here

“Gabriel?” Celeste furrowed her brows upon seeing him become tenser.Bookmark here

“We can’t keep this going Victoria and we both know that,” he declared with a cold sweat.Bookmark here

“So, you won’t be siding with me?” she stood up while keeping her cool.Bookmark here

“What? Did you listen to a word I said? Why are we going to fight if there’s nothing left to fight for?”Bookmark here

“Then why the fuck didn’t you die out there?”Bookmark here

Her question gave pause as the candlelight reflected against her green iris.Bookmark here

“Because I didn’t want to die,” he answered, seemingly nervous by her hardened expression.Bookmark here

“That’s it,” she broke character, which Celeste thought to be strange. “Because you want to live? Well, then there’s your answer too. How about you Celeste, what keeps you going since we’re here to share his stupid question?”Bookmark here

Her heart thumped before glimpsing the man across her. The purple glint in her eyes pulsed faintly as her lips parted. While they awaited her response, the words she wanted to say couldn’t leave her tongue. But her fixated gaze confirmed the lieutenant’s observation as she continued to the door.Bookmark here

“Looks like I’ll leave you lovebirds alone,” she said before closing the door.Bookmark here

She glanced away, clearing her throat after taking a deep breath. Finally alone, she felt more at ease as their eyes met.Bookmark here

“I—I couldn’t do this without you,” her voice cracked.Bookmark here

They're finally reunited in a dance of chaos
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