The world has changed, as a group of survivors huddled in a gas station are all too aware
|The rider nonchalantly approaches the abandoned town on its mount. Although the sun is igniting vegetation within a ten-mile radius, the rider is wrapped in an enormous jet-black cloak that covers its entire body. The coat is so voluminous that it appears to cover the rider's mount as well. Only by careful inspection can it be seen that the mount has its own shadowy covering, cloaking and hiding. Both materials completely hide their respective recipients from view. Even the hood of the rider's cloak, though broad and open, casts an impenetrable shadow that masks what's beneath. Behind the rider, strapped to its back somehow, bobs a giant scythe. While the handle looks torn from the nearest dead tree limb and appears ready to collapse at the slightest forceful gesture, the blade gleams unnaturally with wicked silver. Nothing else can be deduced from pure observation. Not even where the rider might have come from. If an individual had been watching the road when the rider's presence was made known, the individual would have sworn that the rider seemed to just appear in the middle of the broken highway, implacably but slowly making its way to its unknown destination. That individual might have incorrectly assumed that the rider had come from the nearest city...San Antonio possibly, or even Austin. There has been no traffic; not even a working automobile, in what is now years, but there's always the fervent and irrational hope that life is continuing as normal somewhere else. That the present hell is merely temporary until the cavalry shows up to make it right again.|
The town is seemingly deserted. Not a sound in the air. The rider's mount makes a noise between a snort and a cough and continues deeper into the glorified highway stop. Its...feet? hooves? paws?...languidly touch the ground but each stride is full of purpose. The rider's head comes up once, quickly, as if sniffing the air, then resumes its watchful indifference. There's a twitch in the cloth where the arms would be, as if to guide the animal in a different direction. The animal repeats the barking cough and complies, changing its direction without further comment. The air is pregnant with the sound of ghostly stillness. Three birds can be seen in the distance, circling a gray mound that might have been a large stray dog or a small child. The echoes of the creature's steps occasionally drown out the resounding silence as it makes its slow way down each guided street. Occasionally there's the impression of a serpentine tail that wipes the dust behind it.
The rider makes its way to a gas station and stops, just outside the remains of the gas pumps. The mount is no longer a creature in motion, but a statue, completely still. The rider simply sits. There is nothing to distinguish this gas station from the others the rider has passed. The sign displaying gas prices that have long ago lost meaning has collapsed and is nearly indistinguishable from the sand itself. The building is boarded up, the adobe brick worn away from years of wind abuse and neglect. A hulk of metal that in better times was a Volvo briefly disgorges its hoard of flies at the rider's approach. There is no telling what color it was or even what model it could have been. Minutes pass. A crow passes by overhead, cawing from the perceived safety of the air at the two. The flies return to their nest, taking no more notice of the sudden change in their environment. The rider sits...
Inside the gas station's building, the old man clutches his granddaughter and great-grandson closer to him. He is crouching next to a boarded up window, peering out from between the weathered boards at the creature, heart pounding faster with every passing minute. He knows what this is. Not the specifics, of course. But ever since the demons had poured out across the world and waged genocide on every living thing, there's been nothing but torment and death across the world as the people are slowly hunted down. The old man stares fixedly at the creature, knowing that this is a hunter, seeking out the remnants of humanity desperately hiding from the slaughter, hunting defenseless fugitives in the far-flung hidey-holes across the land. He clutches his granddaughter closer. She is barely out of her teens, but old now in a way that no person should have to be. She is still young enough to vaguely remember how the world was before the dark times. To have a smoky recollection of laughing so hard she threw up, of other girls her age smiling and singing, of a birthday cake with candles. She cries silently to herself as she holds her infant son in both arms, with one hand over the boy's mouth in case he slips up and makes a sound. He is still too young to understand.
Behind them, toward the back of the small store, the other three people that the old man had been sheltering are fearfully curled up on the floor. Or at least they were. The young kid in the jean jacket with cut-off sleeves and a chain belt had stood up when the creature had appeared, his eyes wide with terror. The old man is very worried about him. Not for the kid's sake, but for his own. He has been fighting for a long time now, and he has learned to trust his instincts. The boy is a weak link. He had arrived only several days ago, still gibbering with fear. He had nothing with him but an empty pistol and the clothes on his back. He hasn't done a lick of work since he had arrived, just sniveled uselessly in the corner. He claimed he was the sole survivor of the massacre in El Paso. The old man doubted that, even if it were true, the kid had really escaped by fighting his way out.
The young couple next to him that are trying to get the boy's attention to bring him back down is also obviously scared, with admittedly more reason. Miraculously, the woman is pregnant. At least the two, barely married if their story could be believed, admitted that they did not know what they were doing. They had been raised in one of the few remaining human communes that still resisted the advances of the demonic armies, Denver. They had traveled here to find more people to bring in, as their numbers were starting to dwindle and inbreeding was becoming a real concern. The old man believes that part of it. They were simply missionaries that had now been caught at the wrong place at the wrong time. And the old man is no fool. The girl has not looked him in the eyes since they've arrived, but he could still see some elf in her face. He does not judge them too harshly for that, surprisingly. The antipathy between human and fey was a carryover from before the demon invasion, when the fey ("elves" and "faeries" they had been called with distaste) had appeared to warn the humans of the demons. Of course, they had not been believed. The fey were as much victims of the misery as the humans were, but they mostly kept to themselves in their own dwindling communities. The old man had once been part of the opposition to their acceptance, but he has been through too much now to hold onto senseless hate. Besides, if the two races are able to co-mingle, it may be the only way to stay alive long enough to keep fighting the demons.
He looks down at his great-grandson, and his face softens for barely an instant. His wife, God rest her soul, has long been in the grave, a victim of a demonic attack on their home that also took his oldest son and most of his family. And the bastard that had fathered the boy had disappeared in the night shortly after the birth. The old man has had quite a track record with punks and a very low opinion of them. He is very worried about the kid in the jean jacket. It's looking more and more like he has been cut of the same cloth.
The old man looks back out the window crack. The figure outside is still unmoving. It's almost like the blackness of its presence is swallowing the sunlight. It has been over half an hour. The old man can feel the tensions behind him building. He prays that the figure is just doing a routine patrol and will move on soon. He knows they cannot stand against a prepared enemy. And he is afraid that it's not a routine patrol. It's been too long for just that. He fingers the 9mm in its holster under his armpit. They have maybe a dozen bullets between them all. He is on the verge of suggesting a silent retreat to the basement when there's the slightest whisper of movement behind him. He feels more than hears the sob the young mother-to-be breathes out. A slight frown blends into the old man's hardened features, and he glances back in irritation to remind them to keep quiet...and he sees what has caused her to curl up into her husband's arms, inaudibly whimpering. He stares in growing horror at the open back door, and can't quite get his head wrapped around the fact that the jean jacket boy is gone. The young groom stares at him in dismay over his wife's head. Then they hear the screaming. The women flinch simultaneously.
The old man's head snaps back out front and his eyes find the window. He is just in time to see the boy running out into the street his eyes wide and screaming in hysterical terror. He is still clutching his useless pistol and is firing it widely toward the cloaked creature, the clicking sounds reverberating up and down the empty street. With horrified fascination the old man watches the scene, his own hand clenching his gun. The young groom has separated himself from his inhuman bride and has joined him at the window, his own hands full of a 20 gauge shotgun, his face grim.
The figure in black is still fixed in place. It hasn't moved yet. The kid, finally realizing his pistol is not doing anything, throws it in the direction of the pumps and then turns to run. And now, now there's a twitch of the cowl, a suggestion of the head raising up, the rider taking notice of its futile assailant. And a hand shrouded in shadow reaches inside the cumbersome cloak. The old man draws his gun. The rider pulls out something metallic. On clearing the dusky material it falls beside him to reveal two metallic weights, steel balls, hanging by a near-indistinguishable wire. There is a harsh chink of metal on metal, and circular blades pop out in parallel hemispheres around the balls and start to spin. Within seconds the blades have morphed into blurred disks whirring around the balls. The figure has been holding these away from itself, and now it lifts its arm over its head and started to spin them around itself, faster and faster, until the whistle of the razor-sharp wire and the buzzing of the blades have blotted out all sound in the world. Then it swings forward and lets them go.
This has happened within the space of seconds. The bolas fly the length of the street, quickly catching up to the boy, who has only made it the width of a football field down the street. By some trick of the wind, he seems to hear the screaming cyclone of death coming upon him, and he turns to meet the projectile head-on. The old man flinches as he sees the boy's completely white eyes. The sheer force of the impact almost bowls him over backward as the wire cuts deep into his neck, blood spurting out in a rosy spray. He flings his hands up to yank it away, but it was already too late, it was too late before he had even started running. The balls have reached the end of their arc and have already started back on another revolution. The young groom has turned away by now, sick at heart, going back to his wife in a belated attempt to comfort her. But the old man doesn't move. He is determined not to let this death be unacknowledged. He has seen it far too many times to be bothered by it anymore. He stares resolutely as the silhouette of the boy changes drastically, losing a foot from the top, and shakes his head. Stupid boy. Like so much chaff, he was cut from the show. These times called for men, and women, made of sterner stuff. Like his beloved wife, who would have never put up with that punk kid staying more than one night. The old man sighed quietly to himself. He was getting soft in his old age, he mused. He should've done a better job of protecting his wards.
Mournfully his eyes flick back to the black monster. It's gone. His eyes widen and he blinks, but his vision is not impaired. The mount stands still as a statue, riderless. He quickly scans the street, his eyes skittering past the freshly dead body, but nothing else has changed. He opens his mouth, he doesn't know what he's going to say, but stops abruptly. His back prickles as he feels a keen presence behind him, and he whirls around to stare aghast at the open doorway, no longer empty. The rider stands there, gripping the razor-sharp scythe in pale bone-white fists. Through the haze that has overcome him, he acknowledges at some level the screaming and crying around him, but all he can see is his wife's face, smiling at him on their first date. All he can hear is his own words, echoing back to him mockingly; he should've done a better job of protecting his wards. A fleshless grin can be seen beneath the shadow of the hood, a grin that proffers no blood, no mirth. That grin stays in place, skeletal teeth shining through the screams, shining through the blood.