A brisk wind from the darkness brought a slight chill to the Hunter’s back as he overlooked the barren city from his tower, an amalgam of steel girders, scaffolding, and miscellaneous building materials, standing over a hundred feet above the cracked streets, lined with burned automobiles and the incomplete skeletons he had become so accustomed to seeing. The Cleaning Crews didn’t always have time to recover all the bodies of fallen comrades, because one could never be sure when they would appear. As his ears tuned out the incessant howl from his Death Caller, he checked the scope of his rifle, peering into the distance, seeking prey. None. Hunting in the night was often difficult, no matter how well one’s eyes could adjust or what equipment was at hand. This trip had not been kind to the Hunter. The weather had been unwelcoming to say the least, as it seemed the entire earth had poured every drop of water it possessed upon him, while a continual wind from the north brought a steady numbness to the Hunter’s skin, in which he only felt cold in those times the wind grew strong. Not to mention the lack of food that left his body heavy and mind dragging. There hadn’t been more than an single emergency pack rationed out to Hunters per week for at least six weeks. Food was hard to come by these days, especially in this barren existence. Most men had long left this place for greener pastures, so to speak.
Death’s smell lingered in all directions. In fact, the cursed smell never died! Looking down from his tower into the streets, the Hunter shook off his fatigue and began his hourly search of ever inch of the city he could see through his scope. It was maddening. The Death Caller had been wailing for three days and not a single one of the creatures had come forth! Not one! Suppressing his anger, he allowed his logical mind to remind him that the slow-moving pace of these things did not allow them to travel large distances well, especially if having to maneuver around obstacles. The only thing about their travel that gave them any semblance of speed is that they did not stop. They never tired. They were always dragging on, with their never-ending hunger, and inability to feel pain. No will, save hunger. A beast in the greatest sense of the word; worse than any animal that had ever existed. Regardless of his logic, the wait was nearly more than he could stand.
Kneeling amongst what little gear he had carried, the Hunter let a long sigh from his lips, which against the cloth raised over his mouth and nose, brought back a small feeling of warmth. Adjusting the body armor covering his hands and forearms, the Hunter gathered his few belongings from inside the steel box in which he had to sleep to escape the elements. After sliding the visor of helmet up, he holstered his pistol-grip shotgun along his left thigh, grabbed up two boxes of shotgun ammo and his flashlight and slid them into a satchel containing a small blanket and the rest of his rifle’s ammunition and strapped it across his back with his rifle. Three days. The Death Caller would cease soon. The most dangerous part of the mission was upon the Hunter: the return. There was really no way of knowing how many of the monsters were headed towards the screeching sound of the horn beneath him, but once it stopped, he would be forced to make his way back to camp, regardless of what he would run into on the way. Rules and regulations existed to make sure things were done efficiently, regardless of the dangers they could create. Then, it stopped.
After checking the twin .45 caliber pistols at his waist and sliding his machete out of its sheath once to look at it, he quickly descended the ladder in the center of the tower onto the streets. The only sound that touched the Hunter’s ears was the whistling of the wind through the man-made caverns of skyscrapers. Not much of a replacement for the howling of the Death Caller, but it would have to do. Stepping over the rubble of the fallen society of man, the Hunter shot cursory glances in all directions, while his ears strained to hear the sounds of dragging feet or guttural groaning. He had walked for the better part of half an hour through the city when he stopped at the threshold of man’s former domain and nature’s realm. The bare trees through the woods hinted death at every side. The darkness and the shadows played tricks on the Hunter’s eyes as he crossed from the city, dimly lit by the moon, into woods which seemed far darker than the lack of leaves should have allowed.
The Hunter had no need for a light. In fact, he didn’t even need his night vision equipment. He had traveled this path many times before and it had become almost second nature where to step; where to jump; where to duck. He walked silently along the path, hand on his machete, listening to every leaf crackle underfoot. It would take almost three hours at this pace to reach camp, but thoughts had to be on now. There was no telling when--
A shrill cry ringing out in the distance drew the Hunter’s full attention. Not a monster. A man. There was a man out there. Drawing his machete, he listened once more. He thought he had heard the direction, but the forest could often distort distant sounds. Again, a scream, followed by gunshots. The man was not alone. Although the Hunter could not yet hear the death-filled gurgling of the creatures, he knew they would be there. Leaping off the path, he darted towards where the scream had been and, at the behest of the sound of more gunshots, slightly corrected his course. Machete drawn, he sliced through small vines and limbs in his path, quickly, but carefully darting towards the endangered man. He ran hard for many minutes, until he came out of the woods and back into the city. Another part of the city, but the city, nonetheless.
This was not a good thing. In the city, there were too many uncertainties. Too many corners and crevices for things to hide in. The street was just as every other street: abandoned, ruined, and smelling of death… except, this street was different. There was a man on this street in danger and that was all that was important. Some crashing noises spun him on his heels to face an enormous building with most of the glass in the front doors smashed out already. That was a good thing, the Hunter decided. He did not treasure the idea of cutting himself on broken glass or wasting ammunition having to break into a desolate building. Gripping the handle of his machete tightly he sprinted up the few stairs and slid through the shattered glass doors, ready for a fight. However, there was no fight here anymore. The monsters that had been here were already dead. Four of the creatures lay in a huddle in front of the door labeled “Stairs”. Approaching them slowly, he examined them closely, but not too closely. Head shots. All of them. At least this man knew how to deal with the creatures. Oftentimes, in fits of panic, the untrained just emptied a clip into one of these things, expecting it to go down. They usually didn’t live long enough to make that mistake twice.
Dragging the creatures out of the way, he cursed at their stench. The worst part of it all was having to see the faces, or what was left of them. With the emergency lights somehow still working in the building, he managed to see the face of a woman, a diamond earring still hanging from her ear and three men, nearly indistinguishable from each other. The men had been changed for some time now. To think that these had once been human. It was sickening.
Pulling a pistol from his side with his free hand, he gripped the door handle while holding tightly to his machete. No use in limiting his killing options. Pulling the door open quickly, he pointed the pistol up the stairs. Nothing. Just a dimly lit, concrete staircase. It was amazing the emergency power in this building still worked. A relic of human ingenuity. Stairs were easily defendable, that is, if you were on top. Climbing stairs could be very dangerous, since you couldn’t be sure what was waiting just above you. Adjusting the sack strapped across his back, he quickly made sure the string was tight, so it wouldn’t be caught on anything if he had to make a run for it. Moving with all the agility he could muster with his heavy body, he tried to stay alert, eyes darting back and forth. This was going to be difficult. He was tired and hungry and had no idea where this man he needed to save was in this huge building.
At every floor, he quickly darted in and out of the hallways, trying to find a sign of life. After going fifteen or twenty almost identical floors upward, the Hunter slid into a hallway, eyes moving, pistol ready. An series of echoes in the nearly empty hallway tensed every muscle in his body. Was it the slow shuffle of the creatures’ walk, he questioned in his mind. No. Not that. With the softest steps boots could make, he moved as quickly as he could down the hallway. As he approached where he thought he was hearing the tapping, it stopped. Slowly, he began to round the corner. A clicking sound brought years of training into service as his hand snapped reflexively to defect the gun coming towards his face and, as the gun fired, he had already placed his own at the throat of his would-be attacker.
“Don’t move,” the Hunter said hoarsely. Wide eyes stared trembling down the barrel of the Hunter’s pistol as he motioned for the other man to step back into the room. Stumbling backward, the balding man held his own pistol high.
“What are you doing here?” the Hunter questioned threateningly at the middle-aged man.
“Liar!” The Hunter snapped, “No one lives here! This is a graveyard, if you hadn’t noticed.”
Looking anywhere but the Hunter’s eyes, the stranger answered slowly, “It’s complicated…”
Irritation tickled the back of the Hunter’s mind, “It doesn’t matter.”
“What are you doing here?” asked the stranger, obviously holding back the urge to yell.
“Getting you out of this city,” said the Hunter gruffly as he surveyed the room. “You are a just a hunk of meat, after all. Hell, we both are, but you are far more useful alive than as one of those creatures.”
“So, that’s why you’d risk your life for me, eh?”
“One less monster, one more human,” The Hunter scoffed “It’s a game of numbers. That’s it. And whatever reason you were here for,” continued the Hunter, pointing at the door, “you are done with it now. Let’s go.”
Motioning the man on with his gun, the Hunter followed close behind through the doorway, the man‘s hands still up. The Hunter knew that what came next would be the hard part of the journey. Two bodies moving through the streets made more noise and the smell could easily attract every creature in the area. As the two entered the stairwell to return downstairs, the stranger mentioned that his name was Jack just as the Hunter handed the him his remaining pistol.
“I don’t know how much ammo you have, but you’re gonna need this, regardless,” the Hunter said unemotionally, his logical mind running through every possible scenario downstairs. What could await them was not comforting. At every floor, the Hunter carefully peered down the stairs to make sure there were no unwelcome surprises waiting for them. Pistols drawn, the two reached the door to the lobby. The Hunter cursed the lack of a window in the door and, putting his ear to it, listened intently. The sounds echoing on the other side of the door brought another curse across the Hunter’s lips.
“We’ve got company,” the Hunter sneered. “I hope you know how to use that thing well enough. Make every shot count, Jack.” He said the name as an afterthought.
The other man nodded as the Hunter prepared to open the door.
Bursting out of the door with a leap, the Hunter’s reflexes guided his body in between two of the creatures and, sliding across the floor, spun to fire two shots into the craniums of the decaying beasts. Each dropped instantly, but the Hunter had no time to stop. No time to think. The Hunter quickly turned to the outside. Three more coming up the steps. Luckily, they had a hard time with climbing, for two of them fell atop the steps and continued along at a crawl. Glancing back at the man, the Hunter growled.
“Come on, damn you! And kill every one of these things we come across!”
Redirecting his attention forward, the Hunter picked off the standing creature with ease, before dashing through the smashed glass entryway. Bounding over the steps, the Hunter inverted himself, midair, and disposed of the other two mindless devourers with a single bullet each. Landing just in front of the steps, the Hunter snapped his gun up in front of him, glancing in every direction for another attacker. It seemed there were none.
“It’s done,” the Hunter sighed. “For now, at least.”
From behind him, Jack’s cracking voice asked, “What are you?”
Turning to face Jack in the dark of the city, the Hunter scoffed, “I’m a Hunter.”
“You mean, you actually look for these things?” Jack questioned, throwing his hands up.
The Hunter’s anger flared, “And we save pitiful lives like yours! In this world that we live in, you should be thankful anyone would spare you this long. We don’t have much time.”
With his nerves slightly shaken and still angry, the Hunter pulled his visor down just over his nose. There was a benefit to having technology. The night vision lens that made up his visor extended the Hunter’s vision to the point that night appeared as day. Breaking off into a steady jog, he motioned behind for Jack to follow. If he was going to make it back to base before morning, he was going to have to keep this pace the rest of the night. No Hunter wanted to be out during the day when not on duty. During the day, home base would be sealed entirely and, more than likely, there would be some creatures that had made their way to the base. Waiting until nightfall one more time was not a welcoming thought to the Hunter. As the two jogged along the street, approaching the trees, Jack began a conversation, much to the Hunter’s dismay.
“You know, with all that gear on, you can’t see any part of your body,” Jack chortled.
Used to being alone, the Hunter tried to ignore Jack as they moved and kept his eyes constantly moving. Continuing through the threshold of the city into the forest, the Hunter could hardly stand the man’s incessant jabbering behind him. Clearing his throat, the Hunter warned Jack that the creatures are attracted to sound, quieting him finally. A pang of hunger hit the Hunter full force as the two jogged amidst the trees. It would have to wait, though. On the outside, stopping for anything was dangerous. There were always other things on the move, drawing ever closer. Suddenly, the Hunter froze in his tracks and, from behind, Jack slid to a stop, quickly spouting an objection for their stopping.
“What are you-?”
Cutting him off, the Hunter interjected, “How long have you been traveling?”
“What does that…” Jack trailed off, sensing the Hunter’s irritation, “About a month.”
“How long on foot?” Asked the Hunter breathily.
“Two weeks or so,” Jack responded quickly. “Why?”
“Why!?” The Hunter spat out. “I should have considered this before! You’ve been on foot for two weeks straight. It’s impossible to know how many of these damned creatures you’ve passed in the process and every last one of them you’ve passed will be following your scent. But that’s not the worst part!!” The Hunter cursed through his teeth, “The worst part is these creatures let out a loud roar when they sense prey. Other monsters hear it and head towards the sound. We could literally be assaulted by a hundred of them.”
As the Hunter explained, fear washed over every inch of Jack’s face. The Hunter could see Jack was breathing harder and harder each second. Perhaps he would just have a heart attack and then he‘d be free of him, the Hunter considered. Dismissing his thoughts, the Hunter motioned for them to keep moving, but kept the pace at a light run. They needed to get to shelter and they needed to get there fast.
Several minutes later, the Hunter could hear Jack’s deep, broken breaths and decided that they should slow down slightly. They couldn’t afford to stop. Movement, however small, was of the utmost importance in this situation. The darkness wrapped the trees like ink-stained cotton. Pulling the satchel from his back, he removed his flashlight and handed it back to Jack. Perhaps a source of light would calm the other man, considered the Hunter.
Turning to look ahead again, the Hunter’s body tensed all over. Directly in the path, not fifty feet ahead, one of the creature’s loomed in the gaze of his night vision. If it saw them, it would cry out. The others would come. The sound of gunfire was far less drawing to the creatures than the call of one of their brethren. Snapping his pistol out of its holster as fast as he could, the Hunter fired a single shot, ending the monster’s pseudo existence.
“Thank God!” Shouted Jack.
The Hunter was not so ready for gratefulness. Very rarely was there only one creature at a time. Looking to his left, through his visor, his eyes widened. Movement speckled the edge of his vision. To the right was the same. A moment later, movement had definite form. Slouching, feet-dragging beasts approached from every side. Jack, unable to see as far into the darkness, still reeled from victory.
“Unfortunately, Jack,” said the Hunter dryly, “it’s not over yet.”
A monstrous, gurgling roar stung the Hunter’s ears, which seemed to multiply on into infinity. The Hunter growled loudly, drawing his shotgun. The smell of prey drew the creatures in as fast as their degraded bodies would move them. Wasting no time, the Hunter picked off as many as he could with his pistol, before the ominous clicking forced the Hunter to throw his bag down so he could pull his rifle from his back.
“Don’t stand there looking stupid,” the Hunter yelled to Jack. “Kill as many as you can.”
Jack’s two pistols fired into the night at the approaching horde. Quickly, the Hunter was on his feet again, with his shotgun re-holstered and his bag strapped to him again. As useful as it would be, he needed both hands to be stable enough to one-shot-one-kill the creatures. With skillful aiming, the Hunter’s shots were able to take out several of the creatures in just a few moments. The shots continued behind him from Jack as the Hunter picked off more and more with his rifle. But, they would not stop coming. There were so many! Jack’s pistols clicked empty and, pausing for a moment, the hunter tossed him the pistol-gripped shotgun previously re-holstered. The Hunter had managed to form a small path in front of them with his assault. Yelling at Jack to follow, he broke into a dash through the oncoming attackers. Periodically, the Hunter had to remove one of the beasts from his path, but he never stopped moving. Several moments into the run, a scream from behind brought the Hunter’s gun around, firing like a reflex, taking the top of one creature’s skull off as it clutched Jack’s hair in hand.
“Come on!” The Hunter screamed at Jack, turning to run again.
Running as quickly as Jack as not to lose the man, the Hunter’s rifle swung from side to side, killing any creature in his path. Unfortunately, he ran out of ammunition as he ran and, with no time to reach for more, he bashed any creature that came close enough with the butt of his rifle. Even if he couldn’t kill the things, he had to keep them away. One bite was all it took. Then, the Hunter stopped.
In front of them hobbled a line of the beasts too thick to run through. The Hunter broke off the path through the woods, seeking for another way. Yelling behind him for Jack through the gurgling snarls of the monsters, the Hunter’s eyes looked for an opening. There was none. The Hunter could hardly fathom the sheer numbers of them. Hundreds, maybe over a thousand of the creatures. Stopping, the Hunter stared with determination at the wall of bodies.
“Jack,” the Hunter shouted as the other man approached with labored breath. “Stay right behind me.”
The other man just nodded.
Sliding his machete out of it’s sheath, the Hunter dropped his bag of rifle ammunition and his rifle amongst the fallen leaves. As valuable as the tools were, they were liabilities now. Just more things for those monsters to grab on to. Pulling his shotgun free, he emptied it into the horde before tossing it to the ground as well. Muscles ready for action, the Hunter burst toward the crowd, Jack and the ensuing horde following close behind. As he approached the huddled mass of flesh, his machete fell across limb and skull. His reflexes kept the monsters from getting too close as he dodged their mindless grasps, countering with kicks to knees and short fore-fists to sternums. He worked his way through the crowd, hacking and striking, all the while trying to protect Jack, running close behind. The moving was slow and methodical, but fortunately, the instinct-driven creatures could not form any kind of strategy to more effectively attack him.
Just keep moving, the Hunter told himself. Don’t stop. Keep moving. He lodged his machete into a skull. It stayed. He had no time to wrench it from the beast’s brain. He roared as his gloved fists and booted feet launched monsters back in all directions. Jack pushed desperately at any that came near, as the Hunter placed all of his attacks without thinking, relying on years of training and pure rage. Screaming, the Hunter thrust-kicked a creature in the chest, slamming it through several others and into a tree. A hand from behind grasped at his helmet, just under his visor, pulling it from his head, but he pushed on, paying it no heed. Slowly, there was more and more space for the Hunter to move in. The fighting became less frantic, more strategic. As the monsters approached from all directions, the Hunter would snap a leg or shove a beast over, but he kept moving onward, all the while spitting curses through the cloth raised over his nose.
Jack got close to the Hunter just for a moment in order to speak. “Let’s run,” he said calmly. “Forget about stopping these things.”
The Hunter, caught up in his rage, didn’t realize that there had been an opportunity for escape. How long had he been fighting? Grunting his agreement, he sprinted in the direction he knew the base was in, smashing a creature in the side of the head with his fist as he went by. They ran hard, howls passing on every side in the darkness of the surrounding wood. Obstacles had to be taken at near break-neck speed. Leaping a ditch. Ducking through low-hanging limbs. Pushing through thick, intertwined brush. They had to go faster; had to go harder. Time had lost its meaning in the rush. An amber hue touched the very edge of the Hunter’s vision, smashing him into reality. Daylight!!
The Hunter jerked his head around, searching for the familiar signs of home, when he actually leapt into the main trail leading to home base. Jack stumbled out behind him, breath growing heavier and heavier with each passing moment. No time to see if he was okay. Pulling out everything he had, the Hunter sprinted down the trail, the wind blowing past his ears, removing the sound of everything else. His eyes were only on the trail. If the man behind him didn’t keep up, it would indeed be a travesty. It was of the utmost importance he get the man back to base, but he would not sacrifice everything for the man if there was no hope of getting him there.
Suddenly, in his view, a risen dome of earth appeared. That’s it! The Hunter pushed harder and harder! The metal of the dome glinted slightly in the distance. NO! Only a few minutes at most! An accursed roar broke his focus a final time. A solitary foe in between the Hunter and salvation. Pushing even harder, the Hunter’s vision tunneled and he saw nothing but the creature ahead. When he came within reach, the Hunter reared back, threw a punch and smashed the monster’s head like an egg. Clamoring up the step incline of the dome, the Hunter looked back for an instant, thankful to see Jack just behind him, starting his climb as well. Eyes ahead, there was the opening. Only a few moments left, as the sun left a small imprint on the sky in the distance.
Looking behind, the Hunter witnessed two more creatures pulling Jack down. In desperation, the Hunter spun and grabbed Jack’s arm, pulling him from the monstrous grip of the beasts with all his might and falling backward through the opening, as the door above closed, sheathing them in darkness as the sun arose outside. Both Jack and the Hunter breathed heavily, laying on the cold concrete on which they had landed. Blue emergency lights illuminated the darkness of the small room little by little, as the two stood, nursing injuries from the fall.
The Hunter raised his eyes to meet Jack’s, whose enormous grin was an idle tribute to the last-second victory. The Hunter was not so amused.
Moving to Jack swiftly, he put he hands on his shoulders, eyes examining the man’s body as best he could, “Did they bite you,” he kept yelling. “Did they bite you?!” The fatigue, the excitement, the rush of it all slammed into the Hunter with an unyielding force… but, mostly, his hunger. The pain from his hunger pounding in his head and his chest, he gripped tightly onto the man, the Hunter’s eyes rolling back in his head for just a moment.
Jack, laughing, put his hands on the Hunter’s shoulders, resting them across the body armor lightly. “Don’t worry,” he cackled. “Everything’s gonna be fine, now!”
He didn’t answer the question! He needed to know now! They wouldn’t open the gates to the main base until it was confirmed. The continuous action over the past few hours made the Hunter’s hunger even more apparent. Once it was confirmed, they’d open the gates. Once it was confirmed, the staggering hunger could be satiated. He had done his job. He had even rescued a man from the clutches of the creatures. Given that, it was apparent the other Hunters, too, waited desperately for confirmation. It would be such a waste to have to kill this man and discard his body. Such a waste. Confirm! Open the gates! So hungry!
“Did they bite you,” The Hunter snarled at Jack violently.
“No, they didn’t bite me,” Jack exclaimed, throwing his hands upward, finally confirming it.
The Hunter’s eyes widened as he tossed the cloth covering his nose and mouth to the ground, screaming, “Open the gates!”
He looked back at Jack.
“You are sure,” he asked, eyes fixed intently on the man.
“Yes,” Jack sighed, “I’m sure.”
“Good,” the Hunter growled, “Good”
Sliding his tongue across lengthy canines, the Hunter moved faster than he thought he could, pushing Jack to the floor and sinking his fangs into his neck deeply as the gates behind him opened. There would be a feast tonight for the shepherds of the world of men. Jack, twitched in the Hunter’s grasp. This poor man would fuel the fire to wipe out the plague of monsters upon this globe. But, the pity for his existence made the blood from his veins no less sweet.