Chapter 22:

The Path Forward

By the Shores of Time

Darkness reigned as the fleshy substance crawled beneath the white, blanketed atmosphere. The agony echoed within while those who remained behind the temporary safety of the eastern wing. The blobs surrounded them as the odorous rot lingered in the putrid air. Smoking her last cigar, the lieutenant watched the double doors rattle violently without unflinching. The remnants of her soldiers trembled, fixated on the droning rhythm of the slams.

“Are we really going to stay here?” one whimpered, drawing her frigid side glance.

“We stand our ground,” she maintained her authoritative tone.

“What the hell are we defending?” another protested, turning around slowly. “Everyone is dead!”

She watched his subtle movement, barely seeing his finger on the trigger. She saw the fear in his eyes, represented in so many others. It didn’t come as a surprise, not after the rapid degradation of the precinct. Yet it didn’t move her resolve in the face of certain death. Victoria knew there was nothing beyond the confines of the abandoned police station. What’s worse is that her soldiers begun exhibiting symptoms that unraveled so many.

“Eyes front,” she ordered, seeing his hesitation.

“No, I don’t want to die,” his voice trembled as his barrel inched toward her. “Not like this, not like—”

A gunshot went off, exuding a trail of smoke from the barrel of her gun. The soldier’s body laid sprawled on the ground while blood trickled out his sweaty forehead. His lifeless eyes were wide open while cast upon the dingy corridor’s dingy ceiling. Her stiff hand waved at the soldiers, who looked over their shoulders.

“Anything else?” she added without remorse.

The door down the corridor behind her slammed open, quickly shutting as it drew their attention. The spooked soldiers fired in its direction while a young woman hid behind cover.

“Celeste?” Victoria called. “How did you—”

“I’m not here to harm anyone,” she responded, winded by a lengthy run.

“Then you should answer my questions!”

“This is so much bigger than this, Vicky,” Celeste raised her shaken voice. “Greg, Nathanial, Alex—”

“What about them? You saw them? They’re—Here?”

The doors behind Victoria broke down, but nothing emerged from the darkness. With everyone’s barrels drawn, their flashlights couldn’t discern anything beyond as they eased back. Celeste’s voice cracked as she tried to call the lieutenant’s attention. She scrambled onto her feet, trying to use the distraction to get to Ricardo.

Please be in there, she repeated after slipping past Victoria.

“Hey,” she caught her by her arm, subduing her quickly.

Celeste’s head slammed against the nearby water fountain as she felt the lieutenant’s knees against her lower back. Disoriented, she saw sink its bony tips against the walls which was quickly met by sporadic gunfire. A soldier was disemboweled before his torso snapped off from the lack of support. Blood gushed along the once dull ground, reached Celeste who tried to break free. Her breathing grew erratic, barely hearing the profanities spewed by Victoria upon drawing her pistol. Adrenaline coursed through her as she slung the lieutenant to the side.

Please be there, she darted toward the door, ignoring Victoria’s warnings.

As she opened the door, a bullet struck her arm, but she ignored the pain. After shutting the door, she took a few steps back, clenching her arm in pain. Her knees wobbled, hearing the silence beyond the door.

“You came back,” Ricardo spoke as she looked over.

“I did,” she nodded with a faint smile. “I’m getting you out here. We’re leaving here for good.”

“And go where? Some beach out on the coast?”

“I don’t know, but—”

“Where’s Gabriel… and Elizabeth?”

“I haven’t found them yet, but I will.”

“Celi,” he interrupted her growing distress. “There’s something you aren’t telling me here.”

“I’m just as lost as you are.”

Ricardo didn’t press further upon observing her follow-up reaction. She fixated on the door, its silence leaving her to wonder what lied beyond. Blood smidgen along her shirt from her narrow escape from the hall. Tired, she slowly came to terms with everything happening. Celeste came to save Ricardo without a plan as the lieutenant lost her mind. When she looked over, she found Gabriel’s friend dumbfounded by her calm demeanor.

“How are you holding up?” she asked, tracing where his eyes looked.

“You don’t hear all that?” he asked.

“No, I can’t hear anything beyond this door. I know this sounds crazy, but… I can go to different rooms, it seems.”

“Like portals?”

“I can’t always control where I end up. I just got chased by Greg—Or what was left of him.”

“Well, you better focus on a way out the door.”

“I—Can’t leave without you all. Not like this.”

He conceded, seeing the doubt laced within her expression. She could’ve left them closer to the entrance if she could, but after all they had been through, she couldn’t. The young woman didn’t know where they’d go in the mist beyond the compromised sanctuary. She leaned away from the desk, walking over to help him up.

“Where are we going?” he asked.

“Through there,” she replied, gesturing the door.

“You seriously don’t hear that?”

“I don’t. Now, trust me, will you?”

Celeste offered her hand as he staggered close. The surprising confidence lingered within her tired eyes, reminiscent of his dear friend. It would be ill to say she didn’t remind him of Gabriel with the sudden bravado. Holding his hand, she opened the door, being met with darkness. Ricardo stammered, amazed by what she was able to do. But he didn’t know, much of it wasn’t to her accord. She knew she was being led in a constant descent to the unknown. Ricardo felt the sudden change in atmosphere as they walked through.

“What the hell?” he uttered in awe.

“It’s another world,” she answered his curiosity. “A world that actually overlaps with ours.”

“But, how? And how do you know that?”

“I don’t. But, I can feel it.”

Ricardo tried to wrap his mind around the ethereal emptiness of the void they traversed. The initial silence gave way to strange gnawing sounds echoing throughout the empty expanse. His nerves began unraveling upon feeling it through his feet and the constant bombardment. Glimpsing Celeste, she seemed at ease in the darkness as the fog’s lowly lights gave depth to their path. A low rumble echoed, followed by the fast pacing of something large. She stopped in her tracks, glancing toward him with a grave expression.

“He’s here,” she whispered.

He didn’t bother to answer as the blanketed floor gave way to an ominous outline. A strange, bloated creature on all fours crawled along, towering above them, sniffing them out. Its grotesque silhouette revealed its horrific features with faces outlined along its pale bodies and hanging intestines that whipped about. Ricardo’s hand subconsciously withdrew from her gentle hold. Her lips parted, speaking inaudibly but enough to let him know they needed to run. It let out a triumphant cry upon sniffing them out. Celeste’s fear surged as she shuffled away from the charging beast.

They ran in the same direction as the lumbering beast gave chase. Ricardo couldn’t get ahead of the nimble woman, who made sure he didn’t lag behind too far. The darkness continued to envelop them without heed of where they were going. Her whimpers didn’t go without his notice as she kept him close. She reached her hand toward him, grasping it just before she slammed through the door. They tumbled forward as the door slammed shut again. While catching her breath, Victoria emerged from her side, punching her in the face. Ricardo watched the lieutenant go after the defenseless woman, trying to recover as quickly as he could.

“You bitch!” Victoria slammed her boot into her stomach. “Look at what you’ve done!”

After repeated strikes, Celeste laid clutching her stomach. She saw the morbid condition of the lieutenant, bloodied by the horrendous gashes along her waist. She leaned against the wall before she reached down for her shotgun. Cocking it once, she walked over, pressing it against her head. Celeste whimpered, looking toward Ricardo who charged at her. In his attempt to tackle her, she swung around, pulling the trigger. His shoulder and arm blew off violently as he collapsed with a loud thud. Celeste’s gasp quivered, welling with tears while the madwoman threw her jammed shotgun in a fit.

“Son of a bitch!” she yelled. “Why? Why?”

“It didn’t have to be this way,” Celeste tried to get on her knees.

“Who gave you permission to get up?!” Victoria stomped against her back, prompting a pained holler from her. “It’s all because of you! We’ve lost everything you pathetic little whore.”

Victoria kicked the hapless young woman in the stomach again, slamming her against the wall. In a blind rage, she got on top of Celeste and began to choke her. Feeling her airways constricted from the soldier’s vice, she realized this is where she could die. Victoria’s teeth grit in satisfaction as she heard her gasp and her hands weaken while trying to hold her off. Her legs flailed, hoping in vain for a way out.

And it seemed hell answered, when the door behind the lieutenant burst into pieces, springing a large tentacle. Victoria glanced in awe before its massive spike drove through the side of her chest. With a blood-filled gasp, the spike dislodged her other arm, crushing her organs within. As it lifted her up, her body convulsed before it dragged her into darkness.

Celeste thought it would come for her next as she glimpsed the open doorway. But that never came to be. Staggering onto her feet, she couldn’t look at Ricardo’s shredded corpse. She walked along the trail of bodies, picking up one of the rifles before standing before the open path. She knew what waited for her on the other side, and it was the only way forward.

Things really picked up, pushing things closer to the story's conclusion!
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