PrologueMature

A young woman struggles to survive in a post-apocalyptic world, filled with monsters.

The creature was hunched over a corpse when she found it, near a shelter built within a small garbage dump. Silhouetted in the evening light, it fed, ignorant to her presence. Its hind legs fought for traction in the loose refuse as it strained to grasp a tougher morsel; she could hear its nails scraping against whatever textured metal it stood upon. It made a wet coughing noise each time it lurched forward in another attempt. Matted hair, jet black and caked in oil and dirt, covered all but the creature's face; and while it tore at the carcass, one could not tell its swollen, drooping jowls from the meat it sought so wildly. The same raw skin framed two dark pits in the face, which may once have held eyes.

Despite it all, their faces had a human quality about them.

The air was stale (though the stench was unbearable, she did not wish for a breeze; tempting fate would surely place her upwind), and the dense clouds themselves hung unwanted in the sky. From where she was standing, behind a garbage compactor sitting on a hill - geography whether naturally or unnaturally formed was anyone’s guess - she could observe much of the area. Positioned in a clearing of sorts, the shack itself looked to be little more than a patchwork of sheet metal and wood fashioned into a crude box. A towel hung in the door frame; there were a few bars over the roughly cut holes in the walls serving as windows. No more than a few meters away lie what little was left of the person who lived there. There too, the creature was invested in stripping the remains of the rest of its flesh. Once or twice it stopped to drag the body over some rubbish; the lifeless limbs flopped as in sick and exaggerated comedy.

Urgency formed a vice around her chest as she begged any witnessing higher power to keep her presence unknown. She was inexperienced with the feeling of having the upper hand, and it brought with it an unorthodox thrill. Even with this alien excitement, she still felt a strong undercurrent of fear, as the light would soon leave her. Time was short. Facing her was a decision she dreaded: leave now, forfeit her discovery, with her life spared but her efforts wasted - it was unlikely she would ever find this creature again in its relative state of vulnerability - or seize this opportunity. Destroy the monster. Risk everything for a small victory. No one would ever know. No one had to know. It would be a victory for her and her alone, and that was all she needed. She didn’t want to be afraid anymore.

Slowly placing her pack on the ground, she crouched down behind a pile of discarded crates which she would use for cover and to help steady her aim. It was an uncomfortably short shot -- while a hit was guaranteed, a kill was not.

Under the weight of her choice the gun felt heavier than it usually did. She carried it with so much ease before, though she often wished this weren’t the case. When she had the time, in some of her lonelier hours, she imagined for herself another life. Perhaps she would have had a home, a family, and they would sleep soundly. She could have sat out on a front porch, with her friends, idly scanning the horizon for…nothing. Not these things, not anything like them. There would be proper beds and no night watches. Nobody would be carried off in the middle of the night and found later as an unrecognizable mound of bones and partially devoured meat. She brought the rifle back to rest against her shoulder and peered through the scope.

Suddenly feeling the weight of a new presence, a new pair of eyes observing its movements, the creature stiffened. From the depths of its broad chest came a low rattle. The only answer was stillness. It retched and bellowed with a series of hideous convulsions, nearly falling over itself, and with the support of a broken refrigerator pulled itself upright. This she watched, fighting the impulse to run or hide. The movement disturbed some glass bottles and empty cans, the only noise in the silence. It felt as though the whole yard held its breath. Though it advanced no further, the coarse hair on the creature’s neck bristled. The light was failing; it probably couldn’t see her yet.

“Are you there?” came a voice.

A chill overcame her as the blood fled from her face. It didn’t speak. But she felt those words.

They had never been known to speak or communicate in any way with humans. Always solitary, usually nocturnal, they hardly even seemed to communicate with each other, and if they did, it lay beyond imagination how. Or at least it had in the past. Maybe she was finally losing it; that wouldn’t surprise her, considering how long she had been traveling alone, considering the conditions in which she traveled…

She lined up the shot. She didn’t want to be afraid anymore.

She pulled the trigger.

The End

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