Christian was tired of running. His legs ached, his lungs burned and his body was beginning to fail him. Each step was becoming shorter and slower and it wouldn’t be long before he collapsed from exhaustion. They would find him then. His time of fleeing on foot was coming to an end and he would have to find somewhere to hide soon or else risk a fate worse than death.
What had once been a great city was now nothing more than a barren wasteland. No life. Just piles of rubble and the burned-out husks of buildings barely left standing as Christian entered the city limits. The air was thin and dry as if the very moisture of life had been stripped from it. What little light managed to break through the dark clouds was blocked by the ruined towers, leaving cruel, moving shadows dancing on the floor. Shadows like grasping claws. Christian couldn’t help but feel as if the phantom claws were trying to grab at him and pull him away into darkness. Maybe that wouldn’t be that bad he thought. Hidden by the murkiness, the raiders might pass him by. A silly, fleeting thought. They would never stop hunting for him. No mere shadows would be able to keep him safe from them.
For a time, he had been part of their group. He had been taken in and protected from the harsh brutality of post-war life. He was amongst them, but never truly one of them. In these times, you had to do unforgivable things and ally yourself with unforgivable people if you were to survive. He would tell himself that he had no choice, that it was dog eat dog. Eat or be eaten. When the nightmares had come for him, he would wake up startled in the cold and have to repeat that mantra to himself to ease himself back to sleep.
I had no choice. It was do as they say, or die. Again and again, he would say it in his head. Sometimes whispered out loud if the nightmares were truly troubling, as they often were. The mantra would only offer his conscience a brief reprieve, but it was better than nothing.
Since leaving the gang, the nightmares had been replaced with a feeling of impending doom. A constant state of anxiety and worry. Looking over his shoulder at every corner and knowing that they were never too far behind. Hunted like common prey. If he were being hunted just for fun or for sport, then he could hope that they would eventually grow bored and seek out easier victims for their games. But this was personal. Not something that would ever be forgotten or set aside. He was one of them and he had fled. If you were a member, you were a member for life. Wherever he would run, they would follow.
The asphalt roads were covered in thick, tight packed dirt that sent shockwaves through Christian’s throbbing, bony feet. His breath was ragged and strained as his protruding rib cage heaved up and down. What was left of most of the buildings were coated in a layer of ash and filth. The bombs didn’t land here. Not in this city. But it made no real difference. When they fell, no city was left untouched and no facet of modern life was left unharmed. Trees stood neat and orderly on street corners but they had been stripped of their leaves and their life, sticking out like sharpened stakes. Stakes even thinner than he was. Being hysterical due to being deprived of food and sleep for months, and having very little access to water, the trees seemed to bend and twist in horrible, unnatural ways as Christian passed them. Some like they were beckoning him closer, others as if they wanted him to keep his distance. Plump carrion crows sat perched on the high branches and their eyes followed him as he ran beneath them. Their eyes turned back in search of a better meal.
There were cars lining the road but almost all were burned black and useless to him. Working cars were incredibly rare and even if you did manage to find one, it was damn near impossible to get fuel to get it to move an inch. Christian knew this well, but in his desperation, he had no choice but to try. He went from car to car, prying off the front panels with thin, nimble fingers in an attempt to hot-wire them. A few of the cars even had keys in them but it proved to be futile. None would start. He knew that he had almost no chance of making a quick getaway in an automobile but the failure was a crushing blow nonetheless.
Most of the buildings had been levelled and reduced to piles of brick, wood and iron, but not all of them. Some were left standing, though in various degrees of disrepair. A skyscraper was still intact, it’s tip disappearing into the bloated, grey clouds. It probably used to be a bank or some center of commerce. Now, it was nothing. The high-powered businessmen and CEO’s that used to walk its halls were probably dead. A few would’ve died quickly, possibly even painlessly. They were the lucky ones. Many would’ve fled to perceived safety, only to find that safety didn’t exist anymore. Christian wondered how many of them would’ve been robbed and murdered. Not for their money or their watches and suits. But for food and water and gasoline. Material objects were rendered useless almost immediately when the bombs fell and those businessmen were probably the last ones to realize that their status and power counted for nothing anymore. Months ago, Christian and the gang had come across one such man. A man and his family.
You could tell instantly that they had been well off. They were pushing a shopping cart full of canned goods, bottled water and a plastic petrol canister, but he also had a gleaming, golden watch on his wrist. The kind that was gaudy and garish and expensive. His wife wore a thick silver necklace and even though the fabric of their clothes had faded and worn away, it was obvious that the daughter was wearing expensive, designer garments.
As the gang descended on them from the hills above, they had frozen. The mother pulled the daughter close to her and the man had clutched them both. Armed with baseball bats, heavy clubs and machetes, the raiders had surrounded them. One of the raiders had fashioned a wooden mop into a spear and was prodding the family, herding them cattle. The daughter, only twelve, had begun to sob and the mother was doing everything she could to keep herself together. Most likely for her daughter’s sake.
The man had taken off his watch, begrudgingly, and offered it to the leader, a man who called himself Titan. The Great Titan of the Wastelands. Titan and his raiders moved closer to take the offering and that’s when they had gotten a good look at the wife. She had looked too young and too attractive to have a daughter that age. The husband noticed the leers and had produced his wallet, hoping to keep them safe. He finally offered their cart of food and water too. Anything to ensure his family’s well-being in that moment. He realized too late that the raiders were taking all of it. Everything. Including the wife and their daughter too. There was nothing he could do to stop them.
Christian remembered the smell of the man’s flesh baking in the sun. Titan had flayed him alive and hung him from a tree. As the raiders grew fatter from the canned food from the shopping cart, crows picked at the mans skinned torso. The wife and daughter were forced to watch before it was there time to suffer, though Titan claimed he was merciful by letting them live as slaves. A life not worth living for most.
I didn’t participate. I had no choice. It was eat or be eaten. Christian had told himself that same story over and over but that time it didn’t work. Whilst the sounds of the agonized screams and the pungent smell of rotting flesh were bad, the wife’s call for help as he was skinned was worse. Some memories can never be erased.
I didn’t participate, I just watched. I had to watch. If I didn’t watch, Titan would have flayed me instead, he told himself again just as the sky turned red and angry and the rain began to fall. He instinctively began to move towards the skyscraper but what was left of his wits knew better. Titan would look for him here. It would probably be one of the first places he would look. Even if he climbed to the top floor, he would just be trapping himself with no way out but jumping to his death. A quiet, yet growing voice in his head told Christian that it didn’t matter where he ran and hid.
It’s too late. There is no saving yourself from his wrath. Christian mustered all his willpower and banished the thought from his mind before it settled. He had survived this long, against all odds. He would live another day, he told himself. Yet that dark voice was still there, quieter now yet still gnawing at his subconscious.
Christian dashed past the skyscraper, searching wildly for anywhere else he could go. The rain poured down now. A flash flood. The way it always rained now. Fast and hard as if to drown any life that remained after the war. A scarlet fork of lightning struck a building and a deafening crack followed. The crows flocked away from the trees and the ground began to rumble. Through his rain-blurred vision, the trees seemed to twist away and descend back into the earth.
The only place left to go was down the subway. He could see it lying straight ahead of him. The only place left that he could go. Everything else around him had been shattered and left open to the elements. Houses and shopfronts alike had had their roofs torn off and their windows and doors blown out. But something made him pause. There were stories about the subways and the people who inhabited it. Folk stories and made up tales about people who live in the darkness and feast on strange meats. Christian knew they were just made up stories, the kind of stories you tell to a child to keep them in line. Do what you’re told or the tunnel dwellers will eat you. Complete nonsense. Yet he still felt hesitant. He couldn’t ignore a sense of dread in his gut.
The sky grew ever more crimson as the rain poured harder. Another fork of lightning struck, blinding Christian. Before he could open his eyes, the thunder came, almost leaving him deaf too. It was as if the planet had come alive to punish mankind who had been so cruel and harmful to it. He opened his eyes, shielding his ears from the painful thunderclap and soon wished he had kept them closed. In the distance, behind him, he saw the silhouettes of men.
Ten, twenty, maybe even more as they emerged out of the darkness. They walked closer, unperturbed by the raging storm. Christian’s innards turned to ice as he saw the man leading them. Titan towered above the rest of the bandits with his machete raised high.
A third lightning strike and for a split second, he saw Titan and the raiders in all their horrific glory. Titan’s manic grin and wild eyes, topless in the cold with all of his pink scars clearly visible. His broad, powerful shoulders and protruding gut glistened from the rainfall. Christian was sure he could even feel the ground rumbling as his heavy boots stomped the ground.
The rest of them marched towards him, almost as crazy, swinging their weapons and screaming their war chants. Most people in the wasteland were thin and weak, easy to exploit and hunt down. Titan’s gang thrived on their weakness and grew strong on it; taking the supplies of others and gorging on their urban foraging. These were thick, fleshy men with raw strength behind them. Some had lean, rippling muscles whilst others had layers of fat to insulate them. But all were deadly. With his scrawny, staved physique, Christian had no chance in a fight against any one of them.
Half of the bandits were holding lit torches, with the flames wavering in the fierce winds. Christian wasn’t sure if they had seen him clearly through the storm but he didn’t want to wait and find out. For all he knew, they could think he was just another guy in the wrong place at the wrong time. Until he heard a voice cry out that was louder and harsher than any crack of thunder.
“Christian!” Yelled the cold voice. The hair on the back of his neck stood up and his heart fell like it was going to either stop or burst out of his chest.
“Enough games, Christian! I took you in! I took care of you, I kept you safe and kept your belly full and you put a knife in my back. Everything I did for you and you betrayed me? Was she worth it? Was she?!”
Without thinking or waiting for more, Christian broke into a full sprint towards the subway station.
He descended the subway steps and was surprised to find that a few of the lights were still on. It was still very dim yet visible. Christian had expected to enter complete darkness, to have to grope along the walls and walkways like a blind man with no way of knowing where he was going.
Any thought of the strange subway people he previously had had faded away. Any fear of fairytales and made-up campfire stories disappeared when being chased by Titan and his crew of murderers, thieves and rapists. He hauled his skinny, almost emaciated frame over the turnstiles and ran further into the subway, towards the tracks.
He had a faint glimmer of hope that as the lights were still on, the train might still be active. If the trains were active, then he would be able to attempt to drive it away. It didn’t matter where he was going. Just get away and get away fast. Somewhere too far for even Titan and his raiders to follow. He had never even come close to driving a train but it was worth a shot when it was the only shot he had.
But as he entered the platform, that fleeting moment of hope was taken from him. The platform was empty and there was no train. Christian kicked himself for being such an idiot, for being such a silly, little child and for being a dreamer. That little voice came back, louder now in his head, telling him that there was no chance, nowhere to run, no hail Mary plan to save himself. It was all too late.
He could hear slow footsteps coming down the stairs. There was no reason for them to rush. They had him now and they would take their sweet time in making him suffer. Titan’s laughter echoed throughout the abandoned subway. A cold, icy laugh devoid of any humanity.
“Come to me, Christian.” Said Titan. “Where do you think you’re gonna go? Was that bitch really worth all of this?”
The raiders beat their bats and sticks against the wall, like an ancient barbarian tribe about to go to war. There was a loud crash of glass and then a hiss as a crowbar was slammed into the vending machine and a metallic clanging as the station sign was pulled off its placard and chucked on the floor. Followed by a clatter of feet as some of the gang climbed over the turnstiles and then a boom as Titan made his way over as well. Christian lowered himself onto the train-tracks and inched his way into the darkness through the tunnel.
There was even more clanging and banging as the raiders made their way closer to the platform, smashing anything in their way and pulling off anything that wasn’t nailed down. They were so close to Christian that their bloodlust was building. They were turning into wild animals, ready to kill. To rip and to tear and splatter the walls with Christian’s blood. It had been a long time coming but they were finally about to get their coveted prey.
As Christian inched along the tunnel, he couldn’t help but ponder Titan’s question.
Was she worth it? With his death so close and so certain, he wasn’t sure. After all, she had died anyway. It was a couple of days in, maybe a week at most before she had perished. Christian couldn’t shake the feeling that she was dead before they even left though. More haunting than the smell of her father’s flesh or even her mother’s piercing scream, was the daughter’s eyes. There was nothing left behind them. A zombie. Like the ruins outside where the buildings once stood, she was nothing but a shell where a living human had once been. Her mother hadn’t lasted long at the camp. She was too weak to work and Titan had grown sick of her screaming and wailing. He took her head clean off with one swing of his machete and even offered it as a gift to the daughter. The daughter didn’t even react. There wasn’t anything human left in her at the point. They had taken it all from her.
“Stop running and stop hiding. You know I’ll get you. Come to me now and I’ll even let you decide how I kill you. Would you rather I cut you in half? Roast you on the spitfire? Maybe you’d like it best if I cut your traitors heart out and shove it in your gaunt face?” Titan was losing patience. Christian could hear the anger in his voice building with each word. He was getting closer too. It wouldn’t be too long before Christian would be able to feel his breath on his skin and smell his putrid stench.
He continued moving down the tunnel as the raiders made their way ever closer to the platform. There they would have to either choose which direction to go or split up. Not that it would make much difference to him if they split up. In his current state, he wouldn’t be able to take any of them head on. He had no choice but to continue his journey into the black. The darkness seemed to shift and move to let him pass.
Something brushed against Christians leg as he walked and his whole body shivered.
Obviously just a rat. With everything going on, rats are the last thing you should be worried about. He continued onwards. The heavy footsteps increased behind him as the raiders followed, as they always did. He was so deep into the tunnel now that he was shrouded completely in the shade, trying to keep his clumsy feet from catching on the tracks.
Another rat rubbed against his leg. Its body enveloped round his entire ankle, like it was cupping it or taking its measure before letting go and disappearing. The sounds of the raiders following was ever present but there was a new sound in the cold air. Muttering or whispering. Like a low-level hissing. Once again, Christian told himself it was the rats but the cold feeling of dread was building up in his stomach.
“Harris, you and a dozen men go down that tunnel and I’ll take the rest this way. I can almost smell him. He’s close” called out Titan. Christian increased his speed but tried to make as little noise as possible so not to send echoes down the tunnel towards Titan. As he moved faster, the hissing and whispering increased.
“Not enough meat.” said a faint voice from the shadows and Christian froze. It was pitch black darkness. He couldn’t see anything. But he could feel it. Something strange was moving.
From the other end of the tunnel came a blood-curdling scream. Then silence. All noise and footsteps halted. The silent pause seemed to go on and on. Christian assumed one of the raiders must have tripped and fell or had some other kind of accident. Maybe hit their head on a low-hanging beam. Christian carried on moving and the footsteps and banging continued once again. Titan was still on his trail.
The sick, strange feeling Christian had been having grew stronger the deeper he went. It was so dark that he couldn’t even look back and see the lights from the platforms or the torches of the bandits. A familiar smell filled his nostrils. A smell like rotting meet and festering feces. He almost had to gag. It reminded him of the man Titan had killed and the stench of him as his body swayed in the breeze. It also reminded him of the man’s daughter.
Christian had rescued her in the middle of the night and fled the camp. He knew what it meant, what would happen to him but he did it anyway. He even had to stick a knife in the neck of the man guarding her to get away. Not the first man he had killed, but probably the only person that actually deserved it.
There was no big plan. Before he even had time to think he was five miles north of the gang’s camp with the guy but without any idea what to do next. It was too late by that point and they just had to continue running, as he had been for the past few months.
Before she had even died she smelled like she was rotting away. Her skin was turning a greyish green and her skin was hot to the touch with fever. Even deep in illness she would make no noise. No whimpering or moaning in pain, though she was clearly in agony. She didn’t utter a word either. One morning she didn’t wake up. Even with the gang hot on their heels, Christian still took the time to dig her a grave and give her a proper burial. That much she deserved at least. But still, Christian could still remember the horrible smell clearly. The girl was like a walking corpse.
Another scream. This one louder and full of both pain and terror. This wasn’t an accident. This raider hadn’t just tripped and fell. Something was in the tunnels with them. Something was writhing in the shadows and hunting them like cattle.
Christian was fixed in place. Frozen in the spot. More screams, each one worse than the last. It was chaos at the other end of the platform, but up here he could feel the shadows beside him move. Rough fabric brushed against his thin arms towards the screams. The whispers were close to him now. Close enough to tickle his ears and send chills up his spine.
“No, not you. No meat on you. Worthless.” whispered a voice as it passed beside him. Even in the darkness, he could make out vague human figures with pale, rheumy eyes slither down the tunnel.
Christian felt hot urine trickle down his legs and soak his faded jeans. He couldn’t move if he tried. The smell grew stronger, except now it smelled even more putrid and stale. Christian’s breathed short and fast and it frosted in the air. In the distance, lit torches were moving closer and moving faster. One torch was lifted far higher than the other. It was Titan.
Titan’s shouting and hollering was not the same as it was before. There were no threats and arrogant bluster. It was unbridled fear. He was telling his men to run. To get away from them. But his commands were too late, as the shadows got him.
“It’s eating me! Its eating me! It’s eating my legs!” Shrieked Titan as he fell to the ground, flailing his arms wildly to beat away his assailant. His torch fell onto the ground and Christian finally got a clear look at them. They were rail-thin, like he was. Garbed in rough cloaks and robes in colors of grey, black and dark green. All were threadbare and faded. Their hands, feet and heads were unclothed. Even in the torchlight you could see that they were deathly pale. These people hadn’t seen sunlight in years. Their skin was waxy and pale, almost yellow. Long curled nails on both toes and fingers and all of them were hairless. Their mouths were covered in claret as they bit into the thick flesh of the man’s legs. Another raider swatted the creatures with his torch but was soon overwhelmed by them. Soon, all the raiders fell to them.
The shrieks and screams subsided as the slurping and gurgling sounds increased. The creatures devoured the men alive from foot to head. One of the robed creatures took a raiders club and used it to smash the bones of one of the raiders. From there, his hands reached deep into the flesh and tore out hunks of meat which he ate ravishingly then and there. He looked up to Christian and smiled through long, yellow teeth like antlers. Urine ran down Christian’s leg again.
Titan crawled towards Christian. Long, labored crawls. Out of breath but struggling with all of his might to get away from them. His legs had been eaten to just above the knee and his right arm was missing. Only when he got to Christian’s feet did he look up and see him.
“You… You.” He said, whimpering with pain. He looked back at his mutilated limbs and sobbed like a baby.
“Help me Christian. Please. Help me.” He begged. Christian was unable to speak. He simply looked down at him with a mixture of pity, contempt and horror. The Great Titan didn’t look anywhere near as tall or imposing down on the ground like this.
Titan gripped at his ankle with the hand he had left.
“Help me or I’ll cut you into tiny little pieces and eat you.”
The torches were slowly going out and it was growing darker in the tunnel again. The creatures were finishing up the feast and the partially eaten corpses were beginning to fade from view. Christian pried the machete from Titan’s hand and lifted it high in the air. The last torch went out as the machete fell.
Christian walked out of the subway and into the daylight. The rain had stopped and the scarlet skies had subsided. Bright sunlight parted the clouds to dry the damp, dirty ground. He stood in the sun to dry his rain-drenched, sweat-soaked and blood-soaked clothes. He studied his new machete in his hands before running the blade against his jeans to clean the crimson from it. The clouds parted further still to let even more rare sunshine through and Christian took a long moment to enjoy his new freedom. With a full belly for the first time in months, he took one last look back at the subway station and smiled before leaving the city.