After Days - Chapter 1
Nightfall came once again to the city of London, though the transition was barely noticeable through the dense, black clouds that lined the sky. Darkness, that was all that the world was. No details, no silhouettes, no horizon, just a black labyrinth of streets against a black curtain of smog.
These were the perfect conditions for everyday life. Walking around, gathering supplies, both things that the night made safer. This time around it was Leon's task to gather food for his group.
He looked down at the street below while he gulped down flushes of cool refreshing water from his green canteen. Droplets escaped as he quenched his thirst. Tiny flakes of dirt and ash tickled as they rushed to his stomach. It was a familiar feeling, so much so that he didn’t even notice it anymore. Almost immediately, his body fought off any chance of illness or infection. It was just one of the many benefits of being him. With his head as far back as it could go, he focused on the shop fronts, his eyes like sharpened tools after a lifetime of adjusting. As he looked from place to place, a single thought sparked in his mind. 'Been there, raided that.'
Days had passed since he left the hideout in search of a meal, travelling back and forth, and still he struggled to find new ground that he had not already scavenged. That made no difference to him since he knew he might get lucky. With no one around it was surprising just how often the playing field changed, with new visitors coming through, old ones moving out, there was a constant chance of stumbling across a camp. It wouldn't be the first time that he'd stolen from other groups, more careless than his own, as they moved through his territory.
'This place is dead.' He thought to himself as he twisted the cap back on his flask before latching it on his hip. 'I’d be better off looking at the bottom of the river.' He hopped up from his crouched position at the top corner of an end terrace, turning away to try his look on another street. In the emptiness, something twinkled from inside a store.
Leon's head snapped around, his eyes wide, alert and sharp despite his lack of rest. It twinkled again. His attention darted around the blown-out entrance, planning his course of action in his head. He glanced up slightly to the large remains of an 'HMV' logo, hanging above the store.
He took a moment to smile as he looked on in disbelief. "Amateurs." he chuckled. "Far too open-plan, you'll never keep warm in that place. Stand more chance of a getaway I suppose."
Without a moment’s hesitation, he stepped off the roof, leaping down between the exposed, jagged floors of the house. His scuffed, black lace boots hit the ground with a thump, though their thick soles were enough to cushion his fall. He let the momentum bend his knees as he scurried behind the nearest source of cover. The rusted wagon he had raided once before suited his needs perfectly. The corroded shell itched against his fingertips as he slid alongside.
Creeping from the rear of the container he was sure to tread lightly, rolling on his steps to ensure he didn’t make a single sound, even on the littered street beneath. He squatted further, peering through the upside-down opening of the missing passenger door. Constantly shifting his weight on his toes, he knew he was vulnerable, especially to a far off Whisper who’d be lucky enough to catch him in his sights.
A metallic ring pierced through the air, setting his muscles on edge. He flinched further behind cover. ‘I swear these snipers are going to make me sick one day.’ His eyes remained fixed on the opening to the store, like a predator stalking its prey.
The flickering light had stopped. Perhaps it was just his desperate imagination playing tricks on him.
There it was again, that loud, chiming clang. It couldn’t have been a sniper, it was far too close and they never miss twice. This time he knew it came from inside. It sounded like an old shelving unit toppling to the ground, or perhaps a tired wanderer setting up a blockade. Tonight, he would take either option as opposed to a round ripping through his face. In Leon’s mind though, the metal clunk only lead to one outcome. Food, probably tinned food.
He often found his thoughts jumping to similar conclusions as supplies became more and more difficult to find. A person can only go without food for so long before it dances around their mind like an illness. The warm promise of a slab of tinned meat landing in his stomach was enough to make him ache. Though he almost wished he wouldn’t find anything. If one of the other clans caught scent of the grub, well, Leon could stand a chance of being served along with his find. The world had turned people into something that should never be, murderers, cannibals, rapists, tyrants, each an ever growing feature amongst survivors.
Decency was a rarity that could not be found easily, in fact, it would be safe to assume that the only ones left with a moral code were Leon and his family. This was not always the case, given the circumstances, it was obvious that Ueda, the mother of his group, misjudged a character or two before welcoming them into the family. If someone snapped, or went against Ueda’s code, they were quickly put down.
Leon couldn’t wait for too long, risking the owner of the food making a run for it could lead to a chase. Just one more drain on his dwindling energy. Thanks to Ueda, his body was still able to press on, but her gifts had their limits.
Quickly but quietly he skimmed across the road, dodging rubble and abandoned cars until he finally had a direct line of sight into the store. It was gloomy and in tatters but there was definitely something inside, towards the left back corner. He watched for a moment, analyzing and waiting for any hint of what it could be. Years earlier he had made the mistake of rushing into a situation without fully understanding it. The scar branching from his right shoulder to the base of his spine reminds him of it endlessly, but it did help him learn.
Something moved. It crouched to the floor and crept swiftly with a gliding yet harsh path. Whoever it was, Leon knew they were quick, maybe more so than he was. Keeping his wits about him was as important now as it had ever been, he had people relying on him and he had to make it home.
“Come on, come on.” He repeated to himself, his fingers flexing and twitching at his hip. Psyching himself up wasn’t the problem. He was ready to do what was needed the moment he left the hideout. All he wanted was for the shifting silhouette to venture into the open so he could get the job done.
His breathing was heavy and deep, as a calm breeze brushed the sweat on his brow, blowing his makeshift hood across one eye. He snapped it down to the back of his shoulders. He had to keep both eyes open. The sweat on his palm soaked into the back of his tired, black jeans as he prepared himself.
The shadow wandered from behind arrays of stocked, shelves, still too far away for Leon to make a dash for it. The only way to get this done quickly would be to draw it out, the exact same way Leon himself had been drawn to it. Curiosity. With 16 or so years of experience in the art of survival he had picked up a few strategies.
He glanced down to the rubble that sheltered him from sight before snapping his attention back to the shadows. Good, the shadow hadn’t moved. Searching with his fingertips, he found a small cluster of tarmac. ‘This’ll do the trick.’
He rolled the rough shard between his fingers while he got a feel for its weight. He had to be sure it didn’t land too close. Drawing his arm back, he stood slightly and tossed it as hard as he could. It rocketed across the street before shattering against a flaking window frame. The stones and dust rattled to the ground like hail, scattering across the entrance.
It had worked. A pair of bright yellow eyes ripped through the night as the figure’s attention darted out to the crouching young man. The two locked eyes, one considerably more startled than the other. Fear didn’t so much as gleam in the glowing eyes, only instinct and hunger. Gradually, the hovering eyes were joined by an ever growing set of shining, razored teeth.
Leon slipped back deeper behind the stack of rubble, shocked by the beast he has aggravated. He peered through a small parting in the stones, his eyes still met with the same, empty stare.
“What the hell are you?” He questioned under his breath. Be it warped humans, modified soldiers or crazed survivors, Leon had seen it all, but this sight was new to him.
The eyes narrows to slim, furious slits underlined by fangs which began to snarl and quiver. It had spotted him, and just like him, it was not leaving without a meal.
Suddenly the creature sprinted towards the street, barging against storage and wreckage that lay in its path. Leon was quick to leap to his feet, hurdling over his cover. As the beast ran towards him, the brave man charged to tackle it. Within moments they were both out in the open.
Leon reach up into the back of his unfastened coat, and with one swing of his arm, drew a short, oriental blade from his belt. It gleamed with the reflection of the beasts features in its clean, maintained, respected surface.
He prepared to strike down the pouncing enemy, dragging his arm backwards and shifting his weight for a more powerful lunge. Though his attack had come too late, the animal was already upon him, knocking him to the ground and sending his weapon spinning across the road with ear wrenching scrapes.
Leon slammed to the ground while his enemy thumped down on the bonnet of a maimed taxi. For a moment the yellow light on its roof flashed. Long enough for him to see what he had really disturbed from the shadows. The creature’s tail was like a whip. Long, narrow and sharp as it flicked through the air. Its arched back led to a pair of strong, hunched shoulders, flexing as it once again prepared to charge. Pointed claws ripped into the bodywork as if it was paper. The beast stood tall, massive compared to the initial impression, beaming down to its victim as he shuffled away on his hands and heels, gaining some distance.
The slobbering jaws parted once again as a fowl bark rumbled in its throat. Its prey was cornered, perched against the belly of an overturned motorcycle. Leon glared up with clenched fists, his lips pressed together. He survived the Celestia this long just to be eaten by some dog? Not a chance. Without looking he knew that his blade was out of reach, leaving him with only two option. One of which would surely wide up killing him and the other being the one thing he loathed.
The taxi’s suspension moaned as the creature bound towards the man, its teeth bare. Leon’s fists began to shake as he tensed himself, each moment of hesitation bringing him closer to his death. As the beast took a final leap into the air, claws at the ready, Leon let out a deep scream. Not one of fear or pain, but indecision.
Regardless, he reached inside the chest of his jacket and pulled a small, silver pistol from its holster. With shaky aim he pointed the light-guided barrel towards his soaring foe and pulled the trigger. A bright swirl of green and blue trailed behind a beaming shard as it pierced through the creature’s cheek, spraying the air with oily blood and torn flesh.
The animal crashed on top of Leon, but still he fired the weapon time and time again, yelling all the while. He wasn’t sure how many rounds he had fired before the exhausts kicked open from either side of the boxy cartridge, six maybe seven.
The beast lay limp over the distressed adult. His breathing was sharp and erratic, furious with himself as a tear or two rolled to his chin. With a harsh thrust of his arms, Leon heaved the creature to his side, where it lay silently.
Blood added to the grunge on his pastel vest and hands as he stared at them, clutching the gun tightly by the handle and steaming barrel. His arms tensed as he willed to snap it into pieces. When it didn’t, his rage only grew.
Creases covered his blood splattered face as his emotions flared violently. He cried out, closing his teary eyes as he tossed the weapon out into the darkness. With a slap he clasped his hands over his face as he straighten out on the ground, his shoulders barely propped up by the bike. His screams of anguish were for himself, for the actions he had decided to take. “You stupid bastard!” he cursed while he slammed the back of his head against the metal casing behind him. “You’re no better than them! Why don’t you just fucking die?!”
His pain was interrupted by a loud gurgling rush. His hands lifted from his face as he snapped his head around to the motionless beast by his side. It was still taking long, strenuous breaths, hiccing as blood trickled into its torn airway. Its wide, glowing eye locked on Leon, its centre growing paler by the second.
Leon dropped his hands to his lap as he looked into the eye of the beast, his heart aching in his chest. “You shouldn’t have been here.” He sniffled, shaking his head. “That wasn’t meant for you.”
He took a deep breath and turned to look the other way, though he could still hear the efforts of his dying victim. Through rippled eyes, he saw his blade, lying in the road, waiting for its master to claim it.
Slowly, with a weak body, Leon crawled over to the knife, curling his fingers around the golden, carved handle. For a moment he saw his reflection in its blade, taunting him to drive it through his own chest. The thoughts of what he had done spiralled in his mind, tearing him apart. Everyone he had lost had been taken by men behind the trigger and now he had become one of those men. He had two options, and he picked the wrong one. How is it that he got to walk away from this alive, and the animal, who was only acting on instinct, did not. Even as he tried to calm himself he could not see any justice in that.
He lifted the dagger to his sternum, handling the weapon with both hands as he sat back on his feet. He heard the hound choke once again.
‘Wait…’ he convinced himself, turning his shoulders so he could see his attacker. ‘…this isn’t how it ends.’
Lowering the knife from his chest he sprung to his feet and darted over to the shaking animal. He skidded against the ground, chipping away at his boots polish, until he stopped by its side. It watched him as the light in its fangs began to dwindle. The shredded tatters of dark muscle and tissue began to bleed a little less as its crimson, flowing halo spread further.
Gently, Leon placed a hand on the animals shoulder, running his fingers through ragged, black patches of fur. “Looks like you get to die by my blade after all.” He praised with a smile as his eyes cleared. With a single, heavy blow, the blade was plunged deep into the dog’s chest, crunching as it shattered through bone. “Thank you for fighting back.” The animal whimpered as its legs began to kick pathetically at the agonizing blow. Without any further delay, Leon pulled the creature’s shoulder towards him as he twisted the knife, tearing through its heart.
All struggling stopped. The animal’s body grew limp as it gave one last breath. Leon watched closely as the eye was consumed by a frosted mist, laying it to rest. It was over, done, as was that chapter of his life. He had been carrying that gun for many months, easily more than a year, but all of this helped him to see that it would have brought him no satisfaction, even if it had found its true target.
Leon’s moment of peace was invaded by a hand wrapping itself around his scared shoulder. Startled, Leon ripped the dagger from the corpse, twisting to his feet to confront the unknown. With a strong snap of his fingers he seized the new arrival by its neck, the tip of the blade drawn back and ready to kill again. However Leon could not be more thankful for his hesitation. Through the dim radiance of night he was able to make out a small, frail figure with scruffy hair, clasped at arm’s length.
“Christ Elliott.” Leon sighed as he pushed the terrified boy away. Elliott stumbled back, shaking and speechless. “What are you doing out here?”
“W…well you’ve been gone for days. I didn’t know if you were coming back.” He stuttered.
Leon groaned as his back relaxed. He tutted as he stepped towards the child, reaching out to the back of his scruffy hair and cuddling the boy into his chest. “Well I couldn’t come home empty handed now could I, but I was always going to come back.” He comforted, being sure to hold the dripping blade out of sight.
Elliott stayed quiet as he snuggled his head into Leon’s grubby vest. He must have been searching alone for some time, it is only natural that he was glad of the company.