~At Arms Length~
Running has been the name of the game for a while now. Miles of pavement, darkened buildings, abandoned automobiles, occasional dried out husks of trees. It all seemed to blur together. Sometimes there were others, but something always happened; they always ended up going away, abandoning her once again. For now, she was alone, the last group fading into memories of screams of terror and anguish after what seemed like only a day or so.
Night time was best for finding others. She would skirt the streets looking for lights in once abandoned windows. Sometimes she would see them in the distance, but by the time she had traversed ten city blocks to the building, climbed twenty flights of stairs, the occupants would have left already. She would scavenge for leftovers, and rest.
She had been on the trail of one such group that was particularly evasive when she came across him. He was sitting back against a long burned out lamp post. One of his arms was a stump hastily wrapped in bandages soaking through with blood that shimmered in the fading orange glow of the setting sun. He let out a weak laugh as soon as he noticed her approaching him and reached out with the still intact arm and waved.
“And here I was starting to think I was completely alone in here.”
“Naw, your not alone,” she responded, “but people are definitely few and far between around here.”
He nodded and started to get up, before his effort was halted by a arrow on a taut bowstring.
“How'd you get that wound, mister?” She asked, pulling the string back even further, ready to let it lose at the slightest provocation.
He held a hand up, motioning her to stop. “And whats your name, miss?”
“How'd you get that wound?”
“It was shot off..” he relented.
She let out a breath of air and relaxed immediately, sliding the arrow off the bow and back into a quiver on her waist. She offered a hand and helped him to his feet. “Names Missy.”
He stood up and shook the hand that had aided him. He let go and bowed deeply. “Call me Ezekiel.” He explained the circumstances leading up to him being at his present location, though she got the distinct feeling that he was omitting key aspects of the story. It didn't matter though, there were more pressing matters, like trying to find shelter before twilight settled in.
She began walking and he followed close behind, clutching the stump where his arm ended, just above the elbow. The bleeding didn't stop and they both knew that they couldn't strain it much without fear of his condition worsening.
“I've been here for almost an hour now and your the only person I've ran into,” he noted, “where is everyone else?”
They stopped in front of a large building that may have once been a hotel or a department store. She walked up the short flight of steps and tested the door. “Locked tight,” she mumbled to herself. She pulled out a crowbar and began trying to force a way in. “Its been like this.. ehh... for a whaa-aaiile.” She held on to the last part as the frame finally gave way and the door swung open. “The city goes all the way to the coast in all directions, the most people I've seen at one time here has been maybe ten, fifteen.”
She lit a torch and wandered in, and he followed fearing anything that may lurk in the darkness. The fading light of the day was null in the pitch blackness of the shell of a building. Torchlight illuminated a scene of chaos frozen in time and covered in dust. Pairs of clothes occupied occasionally by skeletons in various states of decay sat grinning at each other as if taking part in a long lost conversation in dusty thick cushioned arm chairs. Others lay on the ground forever trapped in silent slumber.
“Any idea what happened here?” Ezekiel quickened his pace to catch up to his new partner, fearing being left out of the crackling iridescence of the torch for even a moment.
They came to a door with a arrow pointing in an upward angle with a jagged tail. She tried the handle and they were both surprised when the door opened with little effort. They stepped into a corridor flanked on both sides by stairs leading down and up. She followed the later.
“I came here after all this happened, just like you, except about a month and a half ago.” She looked over her shoulder as they ascended up past the 2nd floor door, “I have run into others who had all sorts of stories to tell me. Some say that demons were let loose in the city and in about a week slaughtered the population wholesale. They said that the monsters always came at nightfall.”
He picked up his pace again to close the distance between them even more. He was practically on her heels by the time they reached the 5th floor.
“Most of the survivors stay off the streets during the night,” She continued, “no one can agree if the things still exist out here, but the fact that the Steppe's population has never returned to anything near its old capacity isn't just due to people giving up hope and climbing a tall building to see how long they can fly for.”
“It can't be,” he agreed.
They stopped to rest at a landing between the 10th and 11th floors. The blood had spread quite far on his bandages. She offered to aid, removing them and cauterizing the wound with the torch. It hurt, but he removed a jar of red fluid from his belt pack and gulped the substance down. To her amazement, his pallor returned to something a bit less ashy and sickly. He tried to share a sandwich someone from somewhere else had packed for him before he had moved on to this plane of existence; but she refused, feeling no particular hunger at the moment and reminding him of the importance of conservation here.
When they reached the 20th floor, she opened the exit door and they peered down the musty hallway. Outside the end window, the last glimmers of the suns purple-red light finally faded to darkness. She shut the door and they continued up.
“So... What brings us this far up?” Ezekiel ran his hand across a dust coated sign that denoted '22nd floor.'
“I saw light up here last night,” she responded without stopping.
“I see, looking for survivors.”
She nodded back in silence.
At the 30th floor, she opened the exit door again and held the torch into the hall. A couple pieces of paper twirled about in the hall, and a gentle breeze blew against the flame, causing its light to waver slightly.
“Here we are,” she said over her shoulder to him.
Darkness nipped away at the light as if a great black abyss awaited just out of reach, ready to swallow them whole. They passed by doors and stepped over skeletons in regular intervals. Occasionally, the nighttime wind, originating from somewhere on the floor, picked up clouds of dust and blew waves of it past them, reducing the visibility in intervals of a few seconds.
The light revealed an open door at the end of the hall. Ezekiel tried to look out the window, but the outside world had long since been enveloped in near total blackness. “Not even a moon tonight,” he said to himself. She barely noted the comment.
The window in the room was smashed open, and what looked like the remnants of a campfire lay on the floor about four feet from it. She motioned for him to stay and wandered back out into the hall, leaving him to the absolute of the darkness for a short while, till she returned with a wooden chair in one hand.
She broke the chair to pieces and piled them neatly in the remains of the previous fire, then laid her torch on it. Her silver-white hair shimmered with various shades of red and orange as the small fire caught and began to burn bright enough to illuminate the room they sat it. She appeared far younger than he, yet her dress appeared to be much older and far more tattered.
A desk was pushed into one corner, while a couple metal and leather chairs were pushed against either walls. “Must have been a office at back in the day huh?” Ezekiel said this mostly to himself, but she still offered a 'mmm hmm' in response. They both grab their respected chairs and brought them near to the flame and sat down.
“Was this the first Steppe you've been to?” Ezekiel inquired of her.
“No,” she responded, “I've played on a couple before, but this is by far the most interesting.”
“This place is so empty though, how have you not grown bored yet?”
“I guess it's kinda like a cat.”
He looked up from the fire, eying her with a air of concern. “Like a cat?”
“mmm hmm,” she nodded back to him. “You know how cats can find the simplest of things amusing, like a small strand of yarn hanging off the end of a table, or a empty box that can barely hold their body.”
Ezekiel shook his head. “Never been much of a cat person myself, let alone a animal person.”
“That's too bad,” she responded promptly, “they can make for good entertainment and great companions.”
“All I need is myself,” he said in a exaggerated low raspy voice. He smirked and they shared a brief laugh.
He thought he noticed something odd about her, but held his silence. His imagination was clearly playing tricks on him, thanks to a ominous setting and the earlier ghost stories she had fed him.
“They can be a lot of fun,” she continued, “though a bit introverted sometimes. I personally have always found cats to be more amusing than dogs.”
“You own a cat then, I am guessing?”
“Did, it passed about four months ago.”
“I'm...” He thought about what the right response would be, finally settling on the classic: “I'm sorry... for your loss.”
The fire grew smaller as the wood burned off. Darkness crept back into the corners of the room again.
She smiled back at him. “Her name was Millard, you know, after the singer of that one band: 'Fool.' She was almost sixteen years old, so I guess it was bound to happen sooner or later.”
He knew the band. Remembered them from back in the day. Only half crazed 30ish women who believed they were actually 15ish, and far older men who tried to pick up said women because they hadn't realized they were pedophiles yet listened to that band. At least that's what a friend had warned him about several years back. He smirked to himself.
The wind outside picked up a bit, blowing gently across the fire, which dimmed even further for a few moments. Ezekiel was sure he noticed something about her that time.
“I loved to watch her play though,” she continued, “cats are strangely elegant when they are at play. Every movement seems so timed, so thought out, so graceful. You know what I'm talking about right?”
“All I know about cats is that they always play with their food before they finally snap its neck and drag it off somewhere private to eat. Dreadful little things if you ask me, no offense to your cat.” He sat back in his chair, eying her carefully. How much of this...
“None taken, its what they do.”
He looked down at the fire that had grown quite weak due to lack of attendance. “I'm going to go grab some more wood. I'll be back in a second.”
“Here,” she said motioning for him to sit back down, “let me, you're in no condition right now. Eat something and rest, you need it after losing so much blood.”
He stood silently for a moment before letting loose a quick laugh, trying not to sound nervous. “Its the least I can do, besides, I need to pay you back for taking me in off the streets.” He waved his stub of a arm in conjunction with his still intact one, stopping only once he'd realized how silly it actually looked.
She smirked and nodded while he grabbed a half intact still burning chair leg from the fire to serve as a torch and made his way out of the room.
About halfway down the hallway, he looked back at the room. He let out a breath of air in relief, she wasn't following him. He quickened his pace till he reached the end of the hall, the stairwell they had come from. “Shiiiiit.”
The door was completely blocked off by a huge desk and some chairs that she was able to move into place before she had returned earlier with the one she used for firewood. He pushed the chairs away with his hip and started nudging the desk, trying to move as quickly as possible before the length of this absence was investigated. How much of all this is your fault? You psycho b...
“She use to bring home little mice she would find in the woods,” Missy's voice sounded abruptly from back down the hall, behind him.
He jumped in surprise, almost dropping the makeshift torch. He spun on his heels and held the torch up in front of him, trying to cast light down the hall.
“I use to love watching her play with them, letting them think they were getting away and then pouncing on them again, breaking another leg or paw, leaving them more crippled every time.” She was a vague silhouette in the faint red-orange light of the torch. Her only discernible features were her ragged white dress that ended down at her knees, her long white hair that stretched down to the small of her back, the white of her teeth that appeared more jagged than should be normal, and the two dots of her pupils, glowing a sickening deep red that put his torchlight to shame. He wasn't going crazy.
“Stay back whatever you are!” He yelled the words down the hall to her. Then in an attempt to add a bit of intimidation to them, he tried to motion to the gun on his hip before he realized a key fact. Shit, only one arm, dammit.
“I use to brush her, you know?” She began walking slowly towards him now, obviously not threatened at all by the cripple of a man, as well as being driven by what he guessed was her possessed lunacy. “Brushed her extra good after she would let me watch her play. Such a good kitty. Such lovely long white fur, perfect for rubbing my cheek against.”
He was back at the desk, pushing it with his hip as fast as he could. The obstacle moved enough out of the way, he returned his attention to the lurking doom down the hall. She was half way now, her head swaying from side to side. Her red pupils seemed to grow larger and glow brighter with her excitement, her fanged grin growing ever wider.
“I'm warning you, Missy, I will shoot.”
She continued at the same pace, leaving him no choice. He threw the burning chair leg at her.
Thankfully, she was quick, she caught it in mid air as if it had always been in her hand, and she continued as if nothing had happened.
He drew the heavy revolver from the holster on his left hip, the motion was a blur of practiced deathcraft. He fired three shots in rapid succession and each hit their mark.
Her body stopped when the first round impacted her, and the next two pushed her back a step as they ripped through the front of her dress and passed through her torso, leaving much larger holes upon exit.
He quickly holstered the gun and retreated into the darkness of the stairwell. He turned and followed the path down based purely off his memory. He almost fell when he turned too soon on the landing between the 30th and 29th floors, and he stumbled on the next few steps before re-righting himself.
“Then Millard left me,” the voice echoed into the stairwell above him; the soft patter of bare feet on concrete steps resounded from above when he paused on the landing between the 29th and 28th floor. “Oh, I hope your not going to leave me, Ezekiel. Not like the others. Cause if you think you can leave me, I'm just going to have to play with you!”
He fumbled around quickly and found the door. It opened with ease and he ran blindly through the dark, down what he guessed was a similar hallway as the one back on the 30th. At what he guessed was about halfway down, he stumbled and tripped on what were probably skeletons. They crumbled and snapped underfoot as he climbed back to his feet and staggered across them the rest of the way down the hallway. He abruptly ran into a window at the end of the hall, fortunately not fast or hard enough to send him plunging 28 stories to the cold hard pavement below.
“I truly hope your not planning on being boring like the others,” her voiced entered the hall from the open stairwell entrance. Light from the burning chair leg she was still carrying brightened the doorway more and more as she drew near. “I hope your not planning on leaving before I at least get a chance to play with you.”
He ducked into the doorway on his left moments before her torch-wielding figure entered the 28th floor main hall. He worked his way through the room, hugging the right wall whenever it wasn't obstructed by a random set of chairs or desks. After climbing over the third desk, he crouched down, his back to what he hoped was a large window that ran the length of the wall. Out in the hall, the girl had thrown the torch away, and the building was once again consumed by complete darkness.
He could hear the sounds of bones snapping and skulls shattering underfoot as she steadily approached the room he was hiding in. Then, there was pure silence.
“There was more than just me once,” two red floating dots suddenly appeared out of the dark and hovered into the room, “I wasn't always alone.” The dots swam to the left till the far left dot disappeared. Then they swam to the right, till the right one disappeared. They appeared to flicker on occasion, he guessed because she was blinking. “But people claiming to be hunters killed a few of us before we could stop them.”
The dots moved across the darkness, seemingly swimming through pitch black as if it was water. A chair suddenly smashed against a wall, then a table or desk flipped over on its side. Ezekiel tried with all his might not to flinch.
Three rounds... Useless he thought to himself. Right now they were a complete waste of time, there had to be something else. He rummaged through his pack until his hand settled on a very familiar oval shape.
“The others realized that there wasn't enough food to go around. The good doctor, the one that helped us get this way all those months ago, he didn't factor in the damage we could do to the ecosystem.” The red dots and her voice grew closer. “So some of us turned on each other, said it was for the greater good. With so little left, they ripped each other apart, they fed off each other, like animals. Then there was just me...
I'm sorry, I'm probably boring you. You know, I always loved how my cats eyes looked like two glowing dots in the dark of night. It comforted me knowing that even though I couldn't see anything, my cat was always watching me while I sle...”
Ezekiel made peace with the gods and stood up abruptly. The two red dots shot around and focused on him. The witch screamed and suddenly he was in her grasp and they were flying out the window and plummeting down twenty eight stories to the street below.
“Haha! I got you, your all mine. YOUR ALL MINE!”
“Thank you, James,” Ezekiel interjected. He flicked his thumb and the pin popped out of the hand grenade. He wrapped his arm around her tight, squeezing the grenade into the left side of her stomach before she could start to sink her fangs into the nape of his neck.
The blast echoed across the silent city. Bright orange light flashed against the surrounding buildings as the couple exploded half a second before impact. Then, soon as it had left, silence returned to the abandoned city once more.
The smoke cleared, and she realized she was on her back, staring up at the star filled night sky. It was beautiful; she had almost forgotten just how much so. She tried to get up, but something was wrong. She looked down towards her feet, but her body was missing after the waist. She tried to prop herself up to get a better look, but her left arm was gone as well.
She tried to regrow, but she didn't have enough strength in her to pull it off, and she was too exhausted and starved to try and drag herself to another meal. Little bastard actually got me. She looked around; Ezekiel was strewn about in small bits and pieces. Useless son of a...
She looked back up at the sky. After a few moments she came to terms with the current circumstances, and realized that to just let herself slip away was the only course of action she could follow. The pool of blood spread out around her, and for the first time since she had come to the Steppe, four or so months ago, the darkness crept back into her vision.