“In the Fullness of the Moon”

    Sarah stood on the hollowed out ruin that was the corpse of Gateway One, watching the swollen red orb of the Sun make its way toward the western horizon. In the east, the Moon was rising, it’s silver face even larger than it had been the day before. She flinched as she thought she heard the raucous croaking of the frogmen in the streets below, but she calmed herself with the knowledge that it had been months since she had seen any of their ilk within the Golden Triangle.

    And even if they were in the streets below, would it make any difference?

    Sarah, like most things, was not long for this world.

    Above her, the Moon loomed like a macabre, grinning skull, taking up a full sixteenth of the sky.

    Some would say that all this started with the comet, others with the black stars that had heralded tumult and chaos, some – those who had survived long enough – might have marked the Canters as the true beginning of the end.

    For Sarah, though, it was her mother’s last migraine.

    She’d been nine years old then and her mother had been crippled with a horrendous headache for two days straight. Sarah’s father had almost been ready to call for an ambulance when Liz, Sarah’s mother, had come stumbling into the great room of their old house, still reeling from the pain and disorientation. She had muttered something about a dream she’d had – a group of people gathered, some presence compelling and entrancing them all, touching them with “its fire” – before she had roused herself from her trance-like stupor.

    A week later Liz had disappeared. Only a hastily scrawled note saying that she had to meet “Them” was left to explain to her family where she’d gone.

    The very same day the comet, 2016 E7, impacted Rome. A crater thirty-two miles wide replaced the city and the surrounding countryside and at its center had sat a golden sphere, inscribed with abstract lines of the darkest black that wavered and squirmed seemingly of their own accord when stared at too long, half a mile in diameter.

    Sarah shivered and stepped away from the edge of the high-rise’s roof, suddenly aware of how precipitously close she’d been to falling without even knowing it.

    She’d gazed down at the half-block strip of land between the base of the tower and the Allegheny River. There had been many times that she stared at that expanse over the last few months that she had been back in Pittsburgh, wondering if she had the courage to end it or if she would wait for the cosmos or God or whatever there was directing these things to snuff her out like everyone else. Sarah wasn’t even sure if there was anyone else at this point, it’d been so long since she’d seen anything…human.

    She made her way back across the deserted roof to the ramshackle lean-to she’d made in between dead air handling units. Flames licked at the carapaced form of a giant mite-like creature suspended above them on a makeshift spit. She hated the taste of the things, but there was little left to actually eat. Canned and preserved foods had been either consumed or destroyed years ago, and it had been long enough since Sarah had seen a normal animal or freshly grown fruits and vegetables that she couldn’t remember the last time she’d come across any. Mostly, she trapped and ate the mites, those dog-sized insectile creatures that had proliferated over the past few years birthed by the Afflicted before those that remained threw themselves into the last few sources of freshwater that hadn’t already been poisoned or made toxic over the preceding years.

    After filling her stomach on mite – which never failed to remind her of crab – Sarah withdrew into her shack and huddled under the dirty blankets and sheets she’d scavenged. Even with it being summer and the Sun being engorged, the nights were dreadfully cold. So cold, in fact, that Sarah had woken more than once in the past few weeks to find her teeth chattering and her breath misting on every exhale.

    She dreamed of her family.

    She hadn’t seen her brothers in at least three years, her father in five. Sarah found herself in one of the military refugee camps that had been established all over the country once things had really begun to deteriorate: the massive storms with their red spores that birthed the Afflicted; the mountain that had risen in the middle of the Atlantic and inundated coastal towns on both sides of the ocean with horrible tsunamis; the seas turning to rotting blood; and so much more.

    She was in one of the large tents that was packed full of bunk beds and trunks, sitting on one of the beds opposite Michael, her eldest brother. Nearby, her father, Luke, stood with her other brother, Jacob, consoling the teenage boy whose skin was covered in splotchy, red rashes. Jacob was crying and scratching at his skin, blood welling up under his fingernails as he manically attacked his own flesh.

     “There’s no chance for him,” Michael said to Sarah flatly, emotionlessly. And the lucid portion of Sarah’s mind knew that he spoke truth. Within six months of them getting to the camp, Jacob’s Affliction would have him experiencing a complete psychotic break. He attacked Michael and a group of children, killing two with his bare hands and his teeth, before being shot down by military police.

    “It could be worse,” Sarah heard herself say. “At least he won’t be a part of the Towers.”

    On the bed above Michael’s head, a TV flickered on, displaying images of the Tigris and Euphrates that Sarah had seen in waking life during their time in the refugee camp. Above the plain where the two rivers met, shone a black star – one of the five that had blossomed into being around the planet in the wake of Rome’s extinction – and below its shining, inimical light were arrayed four towers of strange angles and substance that seemed to writhe and sway on their own. Bits of the towers material would break away and move about the structure’s surface, and Sarah needed no greater resolution to know what the towers were constructed from: the Afflicted.

    The four towers swayed and rippled and their peaks opened like blossoming flowers, strange and gigantic forms within beginning to emerge.

    “War, Pestilence, Famine, and Death,” Michael said.

    Things had gotten much, much worse after the Towers had opened and their titans had swept across the landscape, spreading chaos and destruction in their wake. But as horrible as things had become after the Four had been unleashed, it was nothing compared to when the Kingdom of the One Who Eternally Is had marched forth.

    The TV above Michael’s head flickered and the image was replaced by a shot of the Australian outback. One moment there was nothing but desert scrubland for as far as the eye could see, the next moment there was a strangely-angled city that was so large large it occupied most of the continent’s interior. The TV changed to a shot showing the black, cyclopean walls of the city and a set of gates that were larger than some buildings smoothly opened outward…

    Outside the tent, the screams of people slowly grew louder in a hellish duet with the inhuman sounds of what Sarah instinctively knew were the soldiers of the Kingdom.

    “All is ash and bitterness,” Michael said as Jacob let out a piercing scream. Sarah turned to look at her older brother and saw that Luke was no longer there consoling his youngest son. The teenage boy knelt upon the ground within the tent, his body in a spasming rictus of agony as the blotchy, red rashes that covered his skin rippled and swelled until they burst open. Mites – some the size of a dime, others the size of a large man’s thumb – poured out of his wounds, his screaming reaching a fever-pitch until his chest and abdomen burst open, unleashing mites the size of house cats into the tent.

    Sarah found herself wailing in terror and panic, though she felt no such emotions. It was an echo, a memory of the event that had already faded into the past.

    “Such is the way the world ends,” Michael said emotionlessly from his seat across the small aisle between bunk beds. Sarah’s gaze was fixed upon her dead brother, though, still kneeling upon the ground. The skin of his now exsanguinated body had become exceedingly pale and almost seemed to shine silvery in the electric lights hanging from the tent’s canopy. The cavernous hole in the front of him where his guts and lungs and heart had been had become deep and inky black in the wake of birthing the mites that been inside him. It was like looking into an infinite void.

    “Such is the way the world ends, a heralding of the Dead King Who Walks.”

    As Sarah stared into black abyss, she saw a form moving within it, approaching the space which she and her brothers occupied.

 

    Even in daylight, it was dangerous to descend to ground-level.

    Along with the mites that roamed and various stragglers of the armies of the Kingdom, there were the amphibious man-like creatures that had appeared not long after the Sun had expanded into its current, balefully red state. Those alien beings had rounded up what had been left of humanity after the horror of the previous seven years and forced the survivors to fight bloody wars for the amusement of their captors.

    Sarah had been lucky enough to hide so well that she had eluded the various slaving sweeps that the frogmen made until they had seemed to have given up on the Golden Triangle all together.

    Despite the many dangers, though, it was still necessary for Sarah to forage and scavenge to keep her half-life going in the surreal wasteland that the world had become. Every time she made her way down the twenty flights of stairs within the highrise, she thought about flinging herself to the bottom. Or out a window.

    Something to end the loneliness and the horrific knowledge that all she had ever known was completely gone.

    But, every time she did she flinched back from the metaphorical edge. She was unable and unwilling to end her own life, not matter how horrid it had become.

    Sarah had jury-rigged mite-traps spread throughout the ruined landscape of the Golden Triangle: in the Gateway Center buildings, in the old Fifth Avenue building, in the hotel that stood across from Point State Park. She had considered putting some in the underground tram station, but had balked from that when, half-way down the descending flight of stairs, she heard the cacophonous chittering of the mites echoing up and down the subway tunnels. It had taken most of the young woman’s willpower to not turn, screaming incoherently, and flee back to the surface at the monstrous sound. Instead, she’d calmly turned, focusing on her barely stable breathing, and walked back up.

    As she made her way through the deserted and cracked streets of Pittsburgh’s Golden Triangle on the hunt for trapped mites and whatever other goods she could luck upon, a backpack slung over her shoulders and a makeshift spear made from a butcher’s knife epoxied and duct-taped to a sturdy metal pole that was three feet taller than Sarah, she caught sight of herself in a mostly unshattered storefront window.

    Sarah had never been a big girl in either height or weight, but the last few years had worn her down in ways that she hadn’t realized until she saw herself on that summer day. She’d looked in mirrors before and known that her long, brown hair had become dreadlocked and dirty, her face oily and smudged with various substances due to the fact that she hadn’t showered in months. But seeing herself standing there on the hot street, dressed in shorts and a T-shirt in the smallest sizes that she could find and still having them hang from her gaunt, teenage form shocked her slightly. Her eyes were sunken and dark, her cheeks bony and prominent. She looked like a skeleton masquerading in a girl’s old skin.

    After several long moments, Sarah forced her gaze away from the dark reflection, trying to banish the sight from her mind as best she could. Being hypnotized by the truth – that this hellish world had beaten her down just as ably as it had everyone else, though it had sadistically spared her life for more beating – would do nothing but get her killed standing out in the open like that.

    The first three traps she checked on were empty, but the fourth – located in an old office – had one of the chittering insectile creatures struggling within the chain “netting” that kept it suspended in mid-air. It took several stabs with her spear to kill the thing, what with it rocking itself back and forth within the trap, but once the knife blade sank deep through the shell of its carapace, the mite let out a piercing shriek that made Sarah flinch backward at the pain in her ears.

    Her ears were still ringing from the mite’s death-cry when she felt a sharp sting in left calf. Screaming in surprise and pain Sarah whirled, trying to yank the spear out of the dead mite as she did so, but the knife blade stayed stuck within the dead beast. Attached to her left leg was another of the mites, its chitinous mandibles sunk into the flesh of her calf while its forelegs wildly raked in her direction. Sarah yanked on the spear again and again, before it finally came loose. Spinning the weapon in her hands, she initially stabbed downward at the creature, but the blade simply glanced off of its carapace. Gritting her teeth against the pain as the mite’s jaws tightened on her leg, she whirled the spear once more and slammed the butt of it in the insect’s face, aiming for its cluster of odd-numbered, compound eyes. After several blows, the mite finally let go of her leg and Sarah was able to punt-kick it away from her quickly with a swing of her right foot. The creature let out a warbling yelp as it flew a few feet through the air, smacking into an old office desk. Once it landed, the mite righted itself and scurried lightning fast toward Sarah as spun the spear one more time and jammed the knife blade down the over-sized insect’s gullet.

   The mite swallowed a full eighth of the spear’s length before it stopped, its body shuddering through its death throes. Her heart was hammering in her chest and already her head was beginning to feel light and dizzy. Looking down at her injured leg, Sarah could see blood running freely down onto the floor from where the creature had bitten her and in that moment, all of the pain that her adrenaline-fueled mind had been blocking rushed over her. She whined through gritted teeth, her eyes darting around the ruined room.

    She found a janitor’s closet down the hall that still had some clean towels and rags sealed in plastic bags within, which Sarah tore into and immediately cinched around her wound. Though it was a task that would’ve have been laborious even without her injured leg, Sarah hauled both mites away from the office in cloth sacks, tying them to either end of the spear’s metal shaft and draping it across her shoulders.

    She would be damned if she was going to let the little bastard that had bit her go to waste.

 

    When she heard the wet gibbering sound of the frogmen’s inhuman language carrying across the rooftop, Sarah intuitively knew she should have expected this.

    She woke in the middle of the night, the light of the ever closer moon – waxing its way toward full – slipping in through the cracks and chinks of her makeshift shelter. The croaking, gibbering noises echoed outside in the chilly night air, making Sarah’s skin crawl. It had been her blood or the ichor from the mites she’d killed, something had led the frogmen back to her. She felt her heart already racing in her chest as she slipped out from under her masses of blankets and grabbed her spear and spare knife from the floor – the entire shelter was “floored” with old shipping pallets she’d scavenged – as she crept toward the sheet of corrugated metal that served as her door. Peering through the crack between the edge of the door and the adjoining air handling unit, trying to keep her breathing slow and silent.

    The sounds of the abhorrent, amphibious beings came closer and closer before she finally saw their misshapen silhouettes on the rooftop beyond, eliciting a barely contained yelp of fright from her. The shapes outside paused, there neckless heads turning this way and that as they tried to zero in on the sound, and Sarah found herself instinctively backing away from the shack’s opening.

    They took her.

    It was swift and terrifying and she tried to fight, but the inhuman creatures were too quick, too strong, too numerous for her to do much more than leave a handful of them with fleshwounds. They knocked her out with clubs made human femurs and the last thing that Sarah saw on the rooftop as her vision bled to black was the enormous, leering face of the silvery moon as crept ever closer to the Earth.

 

    When she came to, she was in the back of a wagon.

    It was closer to dawn, the eastern sky drenched in ruddy light that made it look like the sky was bleeding, and she could hear the loud, angry croakings of the frogmen followed by the yelps and cries of other humans. For a split second, Sarah’s addled mind exalted at the notion of other people – it had been so long since she’d seen another living soul – but then her memory began to return and her joy soured into fear and dread.

    The frogmen had finally caught her. No doubt she was to be enslaved and pressed into whatever sadistic gladiatorial games the creatures now inflicted upon the quickly dwindling human population.

    She had little time to ruminate on this prospect, as soon as one of the frogmen saw that she was conscious, she was hauled from the back of the wagon and her already bound hands were clipped to a long length of thick chain. Several of these chains were hooked to a number of wagons on the deserted turnpike she saw that they were all traveling on, and all of the captured humans like herself were attached to the chains. Silence among the enslaved was enforced by inhuman gibberings and blows from femur-clubs, but even if Sarah had been allowed to talk she wouldn’t have.

    What would she say? What could she say?

    What’s your name? Mine’s Sarah. So this is how it ends for us? Why has God forsaken us?

    No, there was nothing to say. Nothing that words would change or give succor to.

    The only solace for her, for any of them, was the physical weariness from walking miles upon miles. Walking for so long that the mind itself dulled to anything outside of it.

    And they walked for days. Once or twice the frogmen let them stop and gave them some sort of liquid that was thick and cloying and smelled of rotten fruit. Sarah vomited the first time it was given to her and received a light beating about her legs and abdomen with one of the creature’s bone clubs before more of the drink was forced down her throat. That time she kept it down, but every time one of the man-like amphibians gave the drink to her she gagged so hard she fear that she would expel the meager contents of her stomach once more.

    The frogmen forced them to continue walking with beatings and yelled gibberings, prodding the enslaved mass of humans day and night. The days were a red-litten hell as they walked through the heat and humidity, and the nights were filled with silvery dread as the moon grew larger and larger in the sky.

    Six days after she woke up in the wagon, they entered a ruined city whose highway signs declared that it had once been Ocean City, Maryland. However, new obsidian walls several stories high loomed within the middle of the old city, demarcating a boundary between the decaying ruins of humanity and the novel artifices of the inhuman usurpers. Sarah and her fellow slaves were led through a gate crafted from the same obsidian as the walls, and from the heights above she could make out the humanoid forms of soldiers of the Kingdom of the One Who Eternally Is gazing down upon them. Within the obsidian walls she saw that the old buildings of concrete and steel were being torn down and replaced with structures whose angles hurt Sarah’s eyes and mind to gaze upon, made from some strange black stone that was veined with baleful crimson.

    They were led to the shore where the nauseating reddish-green waves lapped at the sands. If she’d had anything in her stomach, Sarah probably would’ve retched at the stench, but her attention was quickly captured by the enormous peak that rose up on the far eastern horizon. It was quite distant, she knew that from the days after it rose from the ocean’s depths and before global communications completely collapsed. She’d seen the satellite feeds of its barren bulk and prodigious plateau and knew that from how far away it was, it must be truly titanic in size to be as large on the horizon as it was.

    “Leng,” she heard one of the other captives whisper, almost reverently, next to her before one of the frogmen slammed the medial condyle of its femur-club into the man’s face, blood and teeth spraying across her.

    They were herded into a large pen made of scavenged metal – chain-link fences, guard-rails, plumbing – and Sarah saw as they were guided that there were a number of such pens lined up and down the beach. A dozen from her count, but likely more. What were the amphibious creatures planning?

    That night as the moon waxed almost full, its bulk looming above them in the night sky and taking up most of it, one of the other captives whispered to her that they were all meant to be a gift.

    “A gift?” Sarah whispered unsteadily back, her voice raw and uncertain. It had been a long time since she’d spoken to anyone.

    The old woman, who was just as dirty and dishevelled as Sarah was, nodded enthusiastically. The woman’s eyes grew large and she smiled in a manic kind of religious joy that showed off her mostly empty mouth. “A gift! A gift!” she crowed, her voice beginning to carry and eliciting some warbling, warning croaks from the guards. “A gift for the Dead King Who Walks!”

    Sarah withdrew from the woman at that point, finding a corner of the pen where she huddled until the oblivion of sleep finally took her.

    In the morning, she watched through the chain-link fence of the pen as some of the Kingdom’s soldiers led a robed and hooded figure that was nearly twelve tall down the beach to the tide line. As the figure stood there gazing east, some of the frogmen lead a group of captives, nearly two score, to just behind the giant where they were surrounded by the soldiers. A dread filled Sarah’s stomach as she watched, unable to tear her gaze away from the scene. The figure discarded its robe in one flourishing gesture, revealing it to be almost impossibly thin, its humanoid back covered by a dozen wings while a thousand-eyes covered each of its faces. Sarah felt a pounding in her head that was like someone jabbing an electric drill in through each of her eyes, but was still unable to look away.

    It was one of the Canters.

    After the Kingdom of the One Who Eternally Is had appeared, before the final breakdown in communication, she’d seen on TV as the great golden sphere in the crater that had once been Rome opened like a dilating sphincter and had issued forth seven winged giants. The Canters had sung their songs and with each performance, more and more wrath had been unleashed upon the world. Six songs had been sung in all and Sarah had always feared what the seventh song would bring.

    She watched, enraptured, as the Canter drew strange sigils in the sand just outside the tide line before gesturing to the soldiers. The inhuman warriors began slaughtering the nearby humans, their screams filling the air as their blood soaked the sands of the beach. All the while, the Canter gesticulated in ways that made Sarah’s eyes hurt and her head feel both dizzy and hyper-aware simultaneously, before casting a gesture toward the mountain in the east.

    There was a deep, basso rumble from the earth beneath their feet and the ocean seemed to bubble and boil for a long time until vast slabs of rock like cyclopean paving stones rose to the surface. They stretched from the shoreline at the Canter’s taloned feet out toward the distant peak on the horizon, staying a few inches above the rotting waters of the Atlantic. A strange, otherworldly cheer went up from the soldiers and the frogmen once the path was finished rising and the rumbling the earth ceased. One of the soldiers handed the Canter its robe and the giant donned the garment once more, before walking back toward the city.

    The corpses of the slaughtered slaves were left to rot upon the sands.

    Sarah woke in the small hours that night, her eyes hurting briefly from the silvery light that lit the countryside up like it was day. There was some kind of strange singing, interspersed with the gibbering croaks of the frogmen, coming toward them and she could hear drums and tambourines and tinny flutes – whose music instantly made her skin crawl –  in accompaniment to the singing. As she began to regain her bearings, Sarah saw that the moon was now so large and close that it looked like it was touching the eastern horizon.

    Sarah, like the others in her pen, stood and crowded against the fence. The Canter, naked, was at the head of the vast assembly of soldiers and frogmen and other strange creatures that Sarah had never seen before. It was like watching a parade birthed by her deepest, most primal nightmares and she felt her sanity hanging on by only the barest threads. At the foot of the first of the paving stones that stretched out toward the mountain in the distance, the parade stopped and the Canter held up its arms. The singing stopped, though the music continued at a subdued volume, as a preternatural stillness spread through the air.

    And then the Canter sang.

    The sound was beyond description. It was like the most beautiful choral singing that Sarah had ever heard, but also like the sound of animals screaming during their slaughter, like the rending of metal, like the peal of a thunderstorm, like the first cries of an infant as it is birthed into the world. It hurt her head and heart and soul, and Sarah instinctively dabbed at her nostrils with her fingertips after a few moments of the Canter’s song.

    They came away stained with blood.

    Her attention was quickly drawn eastward, where she saw the moon touch the peak of the distant mountain. The earth rumbled beneath her feet at that moment and Sarah knew in her bones that the two celestial had just touched each other for the first time in billions of years. The Canter’s song rose in volume and tempo, joined by the musicians and the others in the parade, as a black spot on the silver face of the moon appeared. The spot grew until it covered a full quarter of the moon’s face, all the while Sarah’s head hurt more and more. Distantly, she heard screaming from the people around her and it took her a few moments to realize that her own throat was growing ragged from her own horrified cries of agony and terror.

    Sarah watched the moon as her eyes and ears lit up in agonized pain, watching as a humanoid figure appeared within the darkness surrounded by silver light and stepped down down upon the peak that rose from the ocean. She felt the last vestiges of her sanity flee as she watched the Dead King Who Walks step upon their world before her eyes and eardrums burst, sending her into dizzying darkness and silence, mentally thanking the Heavens for the gift of seeing His glory arrive.

Nicholas Egelhoff © 2016

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