It was a cloudy day when the slow and steady life of Kage was thrown out of control. Once he saw it—he remembered everything. The pain, the sorrow, the anger…the hatred. Everything had become cut and dry over the years. Patrol, hunt, and rescue. It was like how it used to be, except a lot more was on the line these days.
Kage didn’t really mind it, though. It was his job to serve the common man, and protect them from anything but. He and the fellows he had teamed up with over the years had felled literal giants, prevented multiple nuclear fallouts from occurring, and even fought with a dragon and other mythological. Yet, none of it mattered now.
All that he gazed down upon now were dilapidated homes and cars that were cultivating new plants beneath their shattered hoods and ripped wheels.
It had been nearly two years since everything changed and even longer since his best friend had disappeared, never to return. Since then, Kage had to step up and take charge of people for more than just a day or two. They needed him and he needed them all the same.
In the morning, he could hear the rumbling of storm clouds, and in the afternoon Cypher forecasted it to rain that night. It was beyond unlucky due to almost all the districts having run low on food as of late.
The attacks had gotten more frequent, but Kage took care of them all the same. Cypher never missed a single moving corpse, and neither did Asad or Artoria. The three of them were the bastions of hope over what remained of Santa Monica, while Cypher was his eyes and ears around the Refuge. After all, the only thing scarier than the walking dead was the sinister plot of deranged humans.
Unfortunately, the earpiece that he used to talk to her was being repaired from an issue from the previous day. He would manage just fine, even without her input and instructions.
He had made his rounds like usual and decided to meet up with the scavenger squad. He reached the end of the street where the Border and a few homes that housed the better-equipped members of the Refuge within them. Even though there wasn’t much gunfire anymore besides Asad, he could still hear the constant chattering of teeth from outside the fences and barricades—even if he couldn’t see them. A neighborhood camera swished back and forth above him as he approached the exit gate—for cars and trucks only. They had three of each in working order thanks to their local wizard.
“Going off so soon, James?”
He shook his head. “Call me Kage, Damian. Only my close friends call me otherwise.”
The pale and skinny man knocked on Kage’s augmented motorcycle helmet and grinned with the revolver in his other hand. “Um, hello? We have been together for nearly three years, man, and I have been a fan for even longer.”
Kage sighed. “Sure. Do what you please. Just don’t do it when the others are out and about. It makes them feel more relieved if we seem like we are on another level—the pinnacle of humanity or something like that. You feel me?”
“I feel you, sure, but working from dusk till dawn isn't something anyone—even you—can handle. You should chill every once and a while. Let someone else save the day.”
What did he just say? That ticked Kage off. “ ‘Let someone else save the day,' you said? You know what happened to Cultist and Rebound when we were more lenient! This place only has a few of us left. If another breakout happens…I don’t know what I will do…”
Damian grew silent, his lips quivering, but nodded for Kage to continue.
Kage nearly removed his helmet but thought otherwise. What if someone else was around—especially the kids? He had to uphold the images of the heroes, even if most of them had turned tail, perished early, or turned once it started getting bad.
“Look…my family has been hard workers for generations, especially my grandfather when he worked his ass off to leave Kyoto. I’m just returning the favor for everything he and my father did for me. Even now, it’s never enough.”
Damian grimaced but nodded. “You’re right. We really do live in different worlds. Before all of this, I just delivered pizzas.”
“Oh, how I could go for one of those now. The garden food just doesn’t do it.”
“I hear ya with that one. Meat every few months is too tantalizing for me. I wish we could find some cattle…”
“Pshh, in LA? Hell no. Maybe over in Santa Clarita or farther upstate, but that was an hour's drive away before the Corpses and wreckage got in the way. Hell, the reason we are risking our asses today downtown is that we need more gas. Everything here is licked clean.”
“If I had the time to just leave—and somehow know that everything won’t go to shit like last time…I would get Artoria to send a rock as far as she could so I could. Maybe I could find out what the others are up to. Prove that we aren't alone in this dying country. Cyph wants to know what those idiots up north are up to as well. They probably still want this place, right? It’s a pretty sweet deal.”
“Yeah, I pray to God every day for allowing me to be here with the Seven Star Ninja, Kage.”
“Please don’t call me that. It was picked out by my brother when we were a lot dumber—at least, he was.”
“Don’t forsake your destiny, James—AH! You hit me! Some 'pinnacle of humanity' you are. ”
“I said, don’t call me that out in the open. Anyway, aren’t you supposed to be watching the—shit. I gotta go meet up with Asad. Corpses love to make a ruckus during the rain. Get back to work!”
Damian grinned and gave him a salute. “Yes sir! I’ll go stare idly at the fence, while I pick my teeth with my muzzle.”
Kage nearly tossed his helmet at him. “Where the hell are Jamie, Bobby, and Morris? They are with you for District Three this week, right?”
“Jamie and Bobby were moaning all night while I was beating—I mean—reading a great book. Morris got wasted with two of the guys from District Two and…”
“Okay, okay—sorry I asked. Just tell them to get back on patrol since I’m heading out. It’s only Artoria and Cyph until we get back. Seriously, why is no one ever doing their job? Someone who’s messed up in the head could snag one of our rides and dip. Or, they could even release the barricades.” He rubbed his helmet. “Just thinking about this is giving me a headache. Also, what’s the deal with everyone still living in the front-line homes? I swear I told some of you guys to hole up in the house that looks like a miniature palace and keep watch from above the walls.”
Damian scratched his head. “I felt like you said that, too, but the memory is hurting my head. It makes me want to do anything but that.”
“I feel the same. Has anyone even checked in there yet? Cyph said it was off-limits, but…” He clutched his head again. "Forget it. For now, just get everyone ready. It’s probably gonna rain.”
“I can see the clouds already forming. Hope you can swipe me a Jack Danials or two before it starts pouring.”
“Don’t push your luck. I’m already going to have to pray to Artoria later for more gas, but the exchange rate really isn’t working in our favor anymore. Just get to it.”
“Sure, Boss. You got it, Boss.”
Am I the only one taking this seriously anymore? We’re going to starve in a month or two at this rate. He was starting to get really annoyed with everyone’s lax attitude. Just because life here had become relatively normal behind the barriers, did not mean a world of terror and death lurked right outside. They would understand that if they were actually scavengers like the brave few who are out there right now. If he wanted dibs on beer, he should be out there with them.
“See ya.” Kage blinked out of existence, the only things moving with him were his concealed body and the Ninjato that dipped down from his waist. It was showtime.
“Glad to see you’re here after the tough part, James.”
“Hey, I had to break up a few in-fights from our child gangs, Asad. And we really need to send more people out to the Border. Everyone there is a slacker. And if we don't finish soon, the tough part has yet to come.”
“My father would beat me if I didn’t do my work.”
“Really? Same here!”
Kage had been transported into the back seat of a black 2006 minivan. The crescent mark of his clan slowly faded from view. It and its sister were the only running cars for miles. Kage believed all the vacant cars around here were too damaged to ever run again. Time was not their ally.
He drew his sword as all three of the scavengers made their way out of a gas station. Kage wanted more people like usual, but the rain warning was too risky to ignore when they could get back in the middle of it. Apparently, they were lugging something pretty heavy if it took the three of them to move it.
The eyes under Kage’s visor widened. “Please tell me that’s not a beer box.”
“Okay, I won’t. It can be whatever you want it to be, James.”
God dammit! Booze is not the priority! People's lives are at stake! Kage wanted to scream that at them, but there was a chance he would draw over a few Corpses from Asad’s Drummer. Then he would run the risk of them noticing the whole party.
He sighed for what felt like the tenth time today. “Whatever. I’m not bringing it back with me. I’m taking only the essentials.”
Asad removed his head from the sniper scope. “It is essential.”
“888 is right, Kage. We need this stuff!” one of the scavengers called up to him as he loaded the ice trunk into the other van’s backseat. “But we also have some normal drinks and even some ice cream for the kids. We still can’t believe the power was still running here.”
That caused both Asad and Kage to raise an eyebrow. “You said the power was still running?”
“You guys aren’t bullshitting me, right?”
The three shook their heads. “Go look for yourself. Can’t you see the lights are still on?”
“Yeah, it’s like a zombie was living here or something.”
“That’s stupid, but yeah, this place wasn’t as broken down and forgotten as the other places we hit today. It’s strange…”
Kage and Asad both looked at each other.
“You want me to find the straggler?”
Asad shook his head. “My sensors aren’t detecting anything living. They must have got scared when we pulled up.”
“Alright…but I’m still going to go check.” He dropped out of the minivan, light as a feather. All the Corpses that should have been swarming around the area were preoccupied with some of Asad’s unique “toys” as he called them. They had at least half an hour before they would need to leave.
“Suit yourself,” Asad replied as he pushed up his sunglasses, despite the cloudy weather.
The gas station used to belong to Shell or something like that, but the icon had all but degraded to the point where it was barely recognizable. The pump stations were in even worse shape than the sign. The majority of the station had been ripped off as if it had been on the receiving end of a dragon's jaw.
Kage looked back at Asad, who was now helping himself to the spoils of war while wiping sweat with his green bandana. “What are the statuses of every dragon we know of?”
“Ah, I thought you would ask about that.” He trained his gaze towards a group of two dozen Corpses, resting his miniature sniper rifle over his shoulder. “While I don’t have a massive database to dig into like our girl back home, I did keep track of the scaly bastards that couldn’t be harmed by my weapons and what not. Dragonoid died against Mr. Extinction within the first month of the virus. A shame for him to have been killed during all the commotion. As for Fafnir, one of my guys spotted him over in Hollywood about a month ago. He’s one of them now. Ain’t that wild? A zombie dragon man. If Rebound was still around, I would have asked him to join me, but you know…”
Kage nodded. “And the others?”
Asad placed a metallic hand on his chin. “Hmm, the rest that I know of should still be in Europe, but who knows if there's anything else there.”
Kage thought it could have been the bane of his existence, but that being had apparently been slain by Crimson, the best of the best. I wonder if he’s still kicking over in the East? The fact that he hasn’t flown over to check on us since Year One isn’t a very good sign. But a Corpse version of him… Could even Artoria with all our life-forces combined win? I doubt it… Ahh, forget it.
Kage knelt down and examined the decimated pumps, while the scavenger group came out of the store with some actual essential supplies. “Anyone else you can think of? Cyph would kill me if she discovered that some lost hero or evil bastard that wasn’t in her database was lurking around, and if they are a Corpse…”
Asad still didn’t meet his gaze, but he did take another sip from his beer. “We sure had a lot of animal bastards in California, but there are only two others I can think of—and one of them has been missing for over four years and supposedly dead.”
“And the other?”
“He… Well, he was a good friend of mine back when I first came to this country. Jay… I haven’t seen him since Smash High.”
“The high school you were at before the Refuge?”
“You have a good memory, James. But, yes. He and I ran a tight ship—though there were really only kids there with us. Jay was a real freak, a former zoologist or something like that. Anyway, he could probably take a chunk out of that, but I don’t know of any animal that drinks gas right from the tank. That’s just beyond repulsive.”
“So we don’t know, huh? Shit!” Kage kicked the poor pump station. “This could be a bigger problem than our missing inhabitant.”
“Do you think they could be connected?” the blond scavenger asked who was built like a football player. Kage was pretty sure his name was Ray.
“It’s possible, but I don’t see why they would still be living in a dump like this if they fed off of gas. Whatever it was probably just passed by on its way to who knows where. The important part is that it isn’t here now.”
“Amen to that,” another scavenger commented as he played around with his metal bat. “If it wasn’t for the monster, we could have got what remained of the gas.”
“You know that any gasoline that Artoria hasn’t messed with is already bad by now. But yes, it would have been nice. Did you find any from the other spots yet?”
“About four gallons so far,” the last scavenger said. “We will probably need to go deeper for more, but…”
“Yeah, the storm. We should get a move on. Asad’s gadgets don’t work too well in the rain.”
“But my gun does.” He tapped the silencer on the muzzle. “Like the old days—silent, but deadly.”
Sheesh, this guy is always so delusional when he drinks, Kage thought. He decided to table the discussion about the gasoline attack until he met up with Cypher and Artoria. He stood back up and headed inside.
“This is…suspicious, to say the least,” he muttered to himself as he looked around. Empty cup noodle containers and chip bags were sprawled all over the floor. Tabloids had been ripped and tossed around like trash (which they were), while shelves sat on the ground like fallen dominos. The excessive amount of food wrappers led Kage to believe that there really was someone holed up in here until recently.
“But how did they…?” Even with all the evidence, it didn’t explain what he saw above him. Like the blazing sun, the lights from above bathed Kage in their brilliance. “How did they maintain the power for this long?”
It didn’t make sense. Even with backup power, the most it would last was six months after the Collapse. It has been over five times that now. There was no natural conclusion, so it had to be an unnatural one.
He spotted the bathroom door as the only area that was still concealed from his view. He didn’t think anyone was in there, but he had to be sure. Kage readied his sword and slowly opened the door.
It was locked.
Kage clicked his tongue and pulled out one of the few remaining lockpicks from his belt. He broke through with a record time of 1.2 seconds—.5 seconds faster than last time.
A faint stench wafted through his concealed nostrils. He was used to this smell, as was he used to this sight. For in the bathroom was the shattered body of a human skeleton.
Kage took in the view with little change to his expression. He had seen a lot worse in his many years as a hero of SoCal, but even more since the virus had decimated the world.
“When was the last time I saw a skeleton? Was it with Extinction? Or after seeing Badger regenerate from nothing after falling into a vat of acid? Either way, it had been since before the Collapse. Bodies were burned or turned into Corpses that were then burned. For a clean skeleton to be around…well, it was very abnormal.
Interestingly enough, the smell that assaulted Kage’s nostrils wasn’t from any leftover decayed meat from the skeleton, but the crime that had been left in the open toilet. It had been stewing there for quite some time, but also recent enough for it to have been dropped within the same day.
Kage left the bathroom, running for some of the preserved food, and touching it with his gloved hands. As if zapped by a laser, the food vanished from existence. As he did this, again and again, his breathing became more and more ragged. He looked out of the window.
It had begun to rain.