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Twisted Reality - Chapter 21

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Chapter 21: Monsters of the Past

With a grunt, Korin shifted the bags across his shoulders, trying to move them over a slightly-less-sore spot. His eyes squinted as they inspected the landscape, the surrounding rocks and cliff-faces reflecting the sun's light and heat back at him. More of the same, with winding dirt, rock, and dried plants almost as far as he could see. Hills scaled the surrounding area as well, though not as smooth as they had been a few days ago. These were more like cliffs, a miniature mountain range of jagged rock and earth. "We haven't been going in circles, right?" he called out behind him, the wolf turning slightly as he crested a jagged outcropping. Nianika was crouched down on a knee, helping Kathrin climb up and over a small boulder. It may have seen like a waste of energy, but, ironically, they were taking the easiest route.

"No, we've pretty much stuck to following the sun and my compass," the Ranger said, dusting off her knees. Malini came up after Kathrin, doing a half-vault jump from another rock and scrambling to the top. The sun beat down around all of them, with gentle breezes seeming to do nothing but move the stifling air around. Korin's tongue hung out of his mouth slightly, the Keidran giving slow, deep pants.

"We should probably take a break," Malini called out, quickly catching up with Korin.

"Another one?" Nianika let her arms drop to her sides, a slightly exasperated look on her face. "We just stopped half an hour ago."

"Yeah, but you don't have fur," Malini countered, sitting down on the edge of the small ledge that she and Korin were on. It was about eight feet down to the next embankment, and she scooted herself over the edge, dropping with the grace of an acrobat. "There's some shade down here, might as well use it while we have it." The sun had abandoned its post above their head already, in the painstakingly slow process of falling towards the far western horizon.

Nianika conceded, following Kathrin as they made their way over the embankment. The human simply stepped out into thin air and leapt down, taking the impact with her knees, while Korin, after dropping his cargo, held his hands out and caught Kathrin as she dropped.  The fox Keidran mutely nodded in thanks, before slowly allowing herself to collapse against the wall of rock. "Pass the water," she said, wiping her sleeve across her brow. The others quickly huddled in what little shade was present, Malini unhooking one of several canteens from her belt and passing it to the Mage. She gripped it, and, with a brief flash of light in her eyes, she took a drink and passed it around, a thin layer of chilled frost now covering the flask.

"Where'd you get more crystals, Kat?" Malini asked, letting cold water flow down her otherwise-parched throat a moment later. The wolf dabbed a rag with the liquid and pressed it around her neck, sighing slightly in comfort.

"I...didn't, really," she admitted with a shrug, closing her eyes and leaning her head against the rock. "I kind of just found some new source of Mana. You think there's a wrecked tower somewhere nearby?"

"Could be," Nianika said, taking her turn with the water. "I know we had a lot more than we needed. Precaution and all that." The fox replied with nothing but a slight hum, letting her eyes rest for just a few moments. It seemed as if the continuous heat and exertion had given her a constant headache, though it was nothing she couldn't handle. Even now, just from the break, it had diminished.

They had been hiking for what seemed like weeks, when it was actually only a handful of days since they had abandoned the shattered Humvee. The landscape had gradually become less and less friendly, dried plants and trees becoming fewer and farther between and the dirt-covered ground eventually giving way to a more rocky, almost mountain-like appearance. Malini surmised that they were near a fault line of some kind, and that the ground would get flatter as they moved away from it. The patrols had stopped, too. Not that they weren't still in Monarch territory, but rather the military hadn't expanded their containment zone, yet.  

The dark line of shade slowly crept across the ground, serving as both a comfort and a warning that the sun wouldn't stay out forever. "Well," Korin said, rubbing his shoulders slightly before standing, "we should probably keep going and use as much daylight as we can." With a collective silence, everyone stood and returned their packs to their previous locations. Malini silently flipped open a small, pocket-watch-sized compass,  and, after inspecting it and turning in place, she started to lead the way. Stepping across a series of rocks, she reached a small canyon-like trench that had embankments on either side. It wound around for a few yards before disappearing around a curve, reducing them to single-file as they journeyed on. The ground sloped up and down at some points, but it was relatively smooth, though the way that Nianika kept looking up and around made it perfectly aware that she wasn't comfortable in the situation.

"Y'know what'd be nice right now," Korin said, trying to break the silence.

"Don't go through this again," countered Kathrin, annoyed.

"A cheeseburger,"  he continued anyway, his stomach growling slightly in reply. The fox Keidran simply sighed, shaking her head. "That, and a show-"

"Don't say it," Kathrin bit back, her face sour now. And it was for good reason, too; of all of them, Kathrin was the least suited for the situation at hand. Nianika and Malini were both trained soldiers, so they were used to going for days, sometimes weeks, at a time without physical comforts. Korin, while a civilian, had a lot less to maintain. Silence, once again, filled the vacuum between them, with only the shifting of a rock, the cry of a bird or an occasional grunt breaking it.

Eventually, the ravine reached an end, a small wall of rock that Malini climbed up. She turned , and reached back, helping the rest of them up before standing. The area they came out at was apparently the low point, a less-steep pile of jagged earth all around them. "If there is a Hell, I think this is it," Nianika said roughly, moving forward and climbing on her hands and feet up the edge of the slope. Her gun gently bounced against her back, and slowly, the others followed. She dusted herself off at the top, looking around for a moment. Her jaw dropped, eyes widening as she saw something the rest of them couldn't. "Holy shit, guys...."

A large complex rested in the middle of a relatively flat area of land, the proverbial oasis in the desert.  Three buildings -- two rectangular, one hexagonal -- surrounded by fencing stood, dressed in a dusty white that compared harshly with the surrounding brown. Their walls were chipped and some windows broken, but they seemed marvelously intact. The others gathered near the top of the hill, looking down into a sloping plain and eventually to what appeared to be an abandoned front gate.

"What on earth..." Malini gawked for a moment, before swinging her rifle from around her shoulder and raising her scope to the buildings.

"It looks like a prison or something," Korin said, frowning slightly.

"Nah, there'd be more fencing and open areas," Nianika countered, taking a knee and looking closer. "And it's not a military base...I haven't been told of anything out here."

"Korin, get the map," Malini said, sweeping her scope from building to building. The wolf Keidran reached behind Nianika and opened up her backpack, digging out a military-issue hazard map. He unfurled it and laid it out on the ground around them, inspecting it. "I don't see anything moving down there," she said, lowering her rifle after another few moments.

Korin shook his head. There was plenty of information on the map -- potential radiation zones, believed contingencies of Afterdead, but nothing on where he thought they were. "I don't know, Mal," he said, showing her the map. "I don't see it on here. Wouldn't the army have everything mapped out?"

"Not if they don't want us finding it," Nianika mentioned softly. That was unsettling enough, the four of them exchanging glances.

"Well," Kathrin said, "the sun's going to be down in a couple hours anyway...we could use it to clear out around here." There was some silence that followed, and she piped up again. "It'd be a lot better than sleeping outside, and we'd have a roof over our heads."

"Well...hell, let's do it," Korin said, looking at Malini. "It could have more supplies."


The four of them darted across  the open ground, freed of the extra weight of the supplies. Korin was in a full sprint to the gate, his rifle gripped tightly in both paws as he glided across the ground. Nianika was only a little behind, keeping pace pretty well for a human. Malini brought up the rear, her rifle stripped of its scope and anything else that would add extra weight. They jumped the thin wooden band that served as the stopping gate for cars, slowing to a trot as they made it beyond the fence and entered a central courtyard area. Nianika moved forward with her training taking over, M-16 mounted to her shoulder and swinging from roof to roof. "Rectangle left, let's move," she said, her voice flat and even. The others darted past her, covering the flat, featureless ground in a few strides.

Korin stood in front of the door, rifle leveled. Kathrin, panting slightly, slid the action on her pistol, even though a small itch at the back of her head felt it would be safer to tap into the magic source. Korin nodded at the fox, who gripped the handle. She waited a heartbeat before turning it, just to see if it was unlocked. Surprisingly enough, it was, and the door slowly slid inward on well-oiled hinges. "It's open...guess they were expecting guests?"

Malini shook her head, glancing into the darkened interior. "I don't like this very much." Nevertheless, she stepped through the door, rifle level with her eye as she panned from left to right. From what she could see, it looked like a kind of maintenance entrance, with several shelves of supplies -- mortar, oil, light bulbs, that sort of thing -- leading further into the building. There were a few windows near the roof that let in just enough sunlight to make things visible, though not enough to get rid of all the dark corners.

The four slowly spread out through the room, closing the door behind them. There were two rows that lead into the back of the room, making four small isles for each of them. "This is...weird," Kathrin said, her voice echoing a little among the concrete room. They could see each other through the thin shelving units, though that didn't stop the feeling of isolation. They quickly made their way to the far wall, where another, nicer-looking door stood. Kathrin tried this one's handle, unfortunately not having the same luck as the first one.

"Alright, stand back, guns up," Nianika said, gripping her rifle tightly. The others readied themselves, before the Ranger leaned back, hiking her boot up. She fell forward into the door, her reinforced boot crashing through the wood with a thunderous shatter. What was on the other side, none were prepared for.

"Are those....beds?"

Kathrin felt her jaw drop a little, lowering her pistol as the larger room in front of them was obviously clear. They appeared to be in a dormitory of sorts, with several rows of bunked beads. Each was adorned with pristine, white sheets, appearing almost as if they'd never even been touched. "I take it back...this is weird." They slowly wandered into the room, the air not conditioned but noticeably cooler than the outside. The room was well lit with several shaded skylights, revealing the condition of the beds and the smooth, light-blue paint on the walls. The floor was even carpeted, a dark blue for contrast.

"It looks like there was a maid here or something," Nianika said, looking down as she tracked some dust in with her boots. "Everything's....clean." The four of them wandered into the hall, slowly spreading out amidst the rows of beds and footlockers.

"Don't wander too far off," Malini said half-heartedly, laying her rifle down on one of the beds as she looked around, at least partially still in shock. She gently set herself down on the bed, disturbing the folded, cream and white sheets with wrinkles. The mattress was soft, slightly bouncy to her weight. She just couldn't get over the comfort of the situation; it seemed to normal in here, and yet, at the same time, completely unexpected. It was like they walked back in time through the door, before the war. She glanced up, something colorful catching the corner of her eye. In the headboard, where the top of the bed she was sitting on arched up into the bottom of the bunk of another, were a few photos, stashed into the seam of the wood. Her large paws slid over the pictures, showing a young, healthy-looking human woman in several different poses with either a blonde-haired child, likely her son, or an older-looking blonde-haired man with glasses and a bright smile. She sifted through the pictures, before lowering them softly onto the pillow. She looked around, her mind completely blank. 'Where in the hell are we?'

The wolf Keidran slowly stood, poking her head over the row of beds. She saw the others looking around, the sound of footfalls echoing among the full-yet-empty room. Korin was trying to force open one of the footlockers, all of which Malini noticed were securely padlocked, while Nianika took a look around the front-end of the room, which had fewer beds but replaced them with a few couches and a pair of tables. It hit her a moment later that Kathrin was nowhere to be found. "Hey, wait a minute, where'd Kath-"

A short scream ripped through the air, shattering the silence as if it were glass. Malini's head snapped toward the source, emanating from a small, offshoot hallway that bent around a corner at the far end of the room. The three of them tore through the obstacle course of beds, the wolf grabbing her rifle from its literal resting place. Korin rounded the corner first, head snapping back and forth to try and find where she went. There were several doors along the right side, ending in an eventual dead end. "There!" Nianika said, seeing the second-to-last slightly ajar. They bolted down, the Ranger giving the door a swift kick in as they all leveled their weapons.

Kathrin stood at the far end of the room, a spray of water coming from a nozzle affixed to the wall. She was ringing her hands through the water excitedly, turning to look at the others. "They have running water! And it's hot!" Slowly, her grin turned into a little bit of a frown, giving a slightly perplexed look. "What?"


Malini ran one of the towels that they scrounged up from a nearby closet through her damp hair, pulling a fresh shirt over her head with a wince. Her shoulder, while not in much pain anymore from her gunshot wound, still stung if she moved it the wrong way. She grumbled silently to herself, affixing the cloth top over her chest and stomach. Her military coat lay on one of the beds back in the main room, along with her rifle, though her sword remained with her, leaning against the nearby wall for safety. It wasn't just her training her that was telling her to keep a weapon; something still felt off about this place. Working facilities and beds, without a soul to be found. She finished dressing and walked back to the dormitory, hoping that it was just her mind being paranoid.

"I just don't see why we even need to," Korin's voice drifted forward as Malini entered the room, the others sitting in the far-back corner of the room.

"Need to what," the other wolf Keidran asked, interrupting the conversation. Kathrin was laying sprawled out of the top bed of one of the two bunks they were occupying, lightly dozing, while Nianika was busy scrubbing her rifle.

"Wear clothes," he replied with a grin, which almost made Malini stumble from the unexpectedness of it. "I remember hearing stories of Keidran naturally being in the buff, anyway, 'cause the fur kind of makes it hard to wear anything."

"There's two things wrong with that," Malini said, shaking her head as she tossed the towel and sword onto her bed. "One, it's an over-exagguration. We don't usually wear as much as humans, but we still wear something most of the time. Two, I don't know about you, but I'd rather have some kind of protection out here, heat be damned."

"You forgot that nobody wants to see your ugly ass, anyway," Nianika said with a smirk, earning a chuckle from the girls.

"I can't help it if I'm beautiful," Korin said in a mock pomp-and-circumstance accent, taking a small bow at the waist. "Anyway, if the girls are done, I'll get my shower now." He rose and cast his shirt off, humming as he made his way out of the hall.

"No more than two shakes!" Malini called after him, resulting in more snickering. She sighed, smiling a little at herself. It was amazing what something as simple as a wash and change of clothes could do for one's charisma, especially in times as hard as they were. By now, it was dusk outside, and Kathrin's doze was likely to turn into a full sleep soon.

"You feel it too, don't you," Nianika said softly, without so much as looking up from her rifle. She had stripped the barrel and action, cleaning sand and dust out of individual pieces.

"Feel what," Malini asked, glancing down with a slightly raised eyebrow.

"You know what. This place...it just isn't right, you know? It has all the signs of people living here, working here, for a long time...but no people. No anything." The Ranger looked up, a small frown on her light-toned face. Her hazel eyes showed hints of worry, reflecting the light from one of the overhead lamps. Malini slowly nodded, silently letting her eyes wander over to Kathrin, her chest rising and falling slowly in her sleep. The Fox Keidran was curled up, her robe bunched up as if it were a blanket. It was, as Malini thought about it for a moment, probably the first moment of peace she'd received since Ryan's death.

"I want to look at that bigger building," Malini said, glancing back at the human, surprised to find her rifle already assembled again. She gave the woman credit; the military trained them damn well.

"Good, I was thinkin' the same thing." Nianika stood, rolling her shoulders before she reached back and slid her vest on. "You think Korin and Kat will be fine here?"

"They have been so far," Malini replied, sliding her coat on and securing the middle straps. She secured her scabbard to her lower back, laying it horizontally as she twisted the blade in her hand end-over-end.

"You're not gonna bring your gun?"

"S.O.P. for close quarters. Guns are heavy and bulky, a sword's a lot faster, especially if you know how to use it." Malini flipped it rapidly between her fingers, rolling it between her hands, behind her back and into her palm again in one, fluid motion. "And I know how to use it."

"I always wondered how the hell our guys would come back sliced and diced when they had their pistols drawn already," Nianika said bluntly, affixing her helmet on top of her short, brown hair. "Guess I know now." Without a word to each other or Kathrin, they walked toward the front of the dormitory and out the center doors, stepping into the warm, still air of the courtyard. It was eerily quiet outside, the only sound being that of their feet padding against the dry or gravelly ground. They neared the main building's front, only a pair of large, imposing doors standing to greet them.

"Okay...now how do we get in..." Malini tried the handle to no avail, feeling it locked securely from the inside. Nianika gave them a swift kick, instantly regretting it as she gingerly gripped the toe of her boot.

"That's reinforced steel...ow...we're not getting in that way." The Ranger shook her head irritatingly, easing her foot back to the ground as they looked around. Up and down, the sides of the building were smooth and solid, and no apparent windows to force open.

"Hey, there's an idea," Malini said, elbowing Nianika's shoulder slightly as she pointed upwards. A series of thick cables laid along in the dirt, apparently torn or cut from the opposite dormitory building. "How good are you at climbing?"

A few moments later, the two hoisted themselves over the edge of the roof, seeing several skylights like the ones in the other buildings. The one nearest the doors appeared to be shattered, dropping into an inky darkness below. The two looked at each other hesitantly for a moment, Malini crouching down to peer inside.

"I can't make out anything," she said, digging through one of the pockets that adorned the coat. She pulled out a small, finger-sized glow rod, cupping it between her fingers. She breathed on it a few times, warming up the chemicals within it to begin the reaction that produced the faint green glow. Satisfied, she dropped it in, measuring about ten feet between the roof and the floor of the lobby. Nothing moved inside, and, after a moment of searching, Nianika vaulted down first, boots crunching against broken glass.

"Careful with your feet," she said, panning around the area with her M-16. Malini dropped and swung from the corner of the skylight, landing outside of the broken glass and onto a more professional, and much less forgiving, hard tile floor.

The room was dark, the glow stick only partially letting them see. Unlike the other building, this one wasn't filled with beds. They appeared to be at the lobby area of an office, with a small checkpoint leading farther off into the darkness. Nianika flipped on the flashlight of her rifle, panning it back and forth slowly. Tables were overturned, glass was shattered, and the tiles stained. "That's...blood," the Ranger realized slowly, taking a few steps forward to scuff it with her boot. It flaked and dusted, staining her boot like the dirt outside. "Old, but that's blood...told you this damn place wasn't right." She looked around, Malini  foraging through one of the desks. She found a small pair of keys, holding them up for her to observe.

The two made their way down the hall slowly, eventually coming to a stop at a large, imposing reinforced door. Easily eight feet tall, this one was locked, bolted, and sealed in just about every imaginable way. What stalled them, though, was the fact that there was an assortment of furniture -- desks, tables, and even a couch -- crammed against it from the outside. "What in the fuck," Nianika said, shifting a few things aside as she made her way towards the door.

"Don't," Malini said suddenly, grabbing at the Ranger's shoulder. She looked at the makeshift barricade, the pieces starting to fit together. She slowly shook her head. "I don't think the door is to keep us out...it's to keep something else in." Her voice echoed for a moment, letting the thought sink in. Nianika slowly backed away, her rifle aimed in the door's direction.

"Damnit...I always hated horror movies," she said in a not-so-joking manner, shaking her head. The woman was obviously spooked, looking back down the hallway that they came. Her light reflected off of something, a door handle, and they slowly made their way back, spying a locked door that they didn't notice before. Malini tried the keys that she found, a satisfied (and surprised) grin coming to her face when the door eased open. Inside, a small bank of television monitors stood silently black, an array of keyboards on a table beneath them.

"It's the security room," the Keidran said, stepping in and attempting the light switch. The light popped in its socket, making the two of them jump.

"Giving me a damn heart attack," Nianika said with a shake of her head, hovering her light around. A small closet rested in the back corner of the room, apparently the owner of the other key that Malini had found. The Ranger gave out a long, low whistle when it opened, seeing several racks of weapons. "There's enough firepower in here to equip a small army," she said, eying the goods. Her light flashed over different makes and models, before Malini stepped forward.

"Wait, what the hell? Some of those are UKT guns." The wolf went in, grabbing one of the Keidran-made rifles. "See how it's got a bigger stock and grip? Hell, I used one of these."

"So, what does an unmapped outpost in the middle of human territory need with a bunch of guns, let alone a bunch of Keidran guns?"

"That's the million-dollar question, I think," Malini said, standing and putting the gun back. They returned to the small security room, Nianika giving an aimless glance over the dark television monitors. She blew the dust off of some of them, randomly pressing a few buttons on the keyboard beneath. Static burst out from the monitors, again making them jump.

"God damn, this is like the haunted house from hell," the Ranger said, watching with Malini as the monitors slowly began adjusting. Security camera footage rolled across them, date and timestamps reading as "inconclusive," along the bottom.

"I guess there's a backup generator that the system's on, somewhere," Malini said, glancing from screen to screen. Nianika wandered to the other end of the room, prying the lock off of a small filing cabinet with her combat knife. Malini squinted, trying to make out the fuzzy images on the monitors.

"Look at this, they're like, reports or something," Nianika said, flipping open a small file. "What the hell...'Subject A23-9. Healthy upon dose of compound four but with similar results'....I always hated science."

Malini ignored her, using a small control pad near the televisions to move the cameras. Most of the rooms were too dark to see, but one in particular glowed a faint grey, resembling light on the black-and-white projection. "Hey, Nianika, c'mere," she said, trying to zoom in with limited success. It was off-camera, but the light showed enough to make out some other shapes.

"Those almost look like giant test-tubes," the Ranger said, squinting next to her.  Several tall, tube-like objects stood in a row along a wall to the left of the camera, only one currently lit. "Pan over a bit." The Keidran did, finally centering on the glowing object. The resolution was bad, fuzzy waves making their way across the screen, but eventually the camera adjusted enough to make out the faint outline of a slightly-darker silhouette within the tube. "Oh my God," Nianika said, nearly pressing her face against the screen, "someone's in there!"

Malini's jaw hung open slightly, trying to zoom in more. The figure resolved itself into a male Keidran, arms wrapped around his midsection, his head bowed and eyes closed. Her mind began piecing together the pieces of the puzzle, trying to figure out what was happening.

"Wait...what's wrong with him," Nianika said, pushing Malini aside as she tried to work the camera controls. The view fidgeted a little bit, the resolution trying to compensate. There was a wound on his neck, but no blood was visible. The Ranger gasped as the camera showed black orbs where his eyes should be. "That's...my God, is that an Afterdead?"

A startling realization came over Malini, everything starting to fit together. The blood on the floor. The weapons in the heavily-monitored security room, both human and Keidran. The blocked and barricaded door. The 'scientific testing.' The wolf Keidran panned the camera to the tanks opposite side of the illuminated one, using the glow to prove her hunch. There were other forms inside of them, as well.

"They're....they're making Afterdead."
Took a bit longer to load up, mostly because I forgot about it. Apologies.

Enjoy the length, plot, and whatnot. Comments and CONSTRUCTIVE criticism encouraged and appreciated! Spread the word to your friends.

As a side-note, the story reached over 4 THOUSAND reads on the original forum I post it on. Bonus points!
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WONDERFUL, it kept me on edge thoughout the whole piece and a little of nervousness. Making Afterdead. Someone is in trouble. Hurry up with the next part.