Author’s Note: These stories can be quite dark and disturbing in terms of death, profanity, and other potential content. If you cannot stomach violence, illnesses, and other adult content, I would advise giving Static Signals a pass. Otherwise, please enjoy.
Also, some of these stories have not been one hundred percent edited. Most will be given a solid drafting/revised over time (One story a week to give proper a pass over). So, please bear with me as I make it more professional. Danke.
I only had to walk ten more miles along that lonesome 65. A hundred and thirty miles from the Ferry up to the Verandian border was a hike for a fifteen-year-old backwater kid. But, I had little choice with my sister’s seal almost broken and a single Distorted, a burned out human husk, standing between us and salvation.
The Distorted grabbed at a corpse; the corpse was burnt and leaked mana from its wounds. The Distorted slurped the residue and sucked out what mana remained in the corpse’s nerves. It stopped a moment cradling the body and wept as it begged for forgiveness. It called out for the Living Trinity–the three siblings that ruled the Union’s favored religion–to forgive her, to ease her pain, to let it all end.
Stella wheezed behind me with her torn blanket wrapped around her. She crawled out from the shed and I stopped her. “I don’t feel good, Ben,” She coughed up thick phlegm.
There were no repressors left from our house in our backpacks. I’d used them all up to keep her seal in check. The nearest pharmacy wasn’t for another five miles. I could only provide Stella with what mana I could spare to ease her pain. “Stell, you got to keep quiet. Will rest once we get through,” I shut the shed door quiet like.
“But when, Ben?” Stella fell back to sleep.
I couldn’t hotwire a car with the massive pileup leading to the last checkpoint before the Verandian border. It’d draw too much attention.
I went back to my perch behind the red bush covered fence. I rested my father’s Ansem bolt caster rifle along the upper fence. I stared down the old sight and narrowed my good eye to get a look at the Distorted.
The Distorted stared right at me; it dropped its former prey and stood up. It started to walk toward me with its translucent shape burning up. Black and gold mana erupted from its destroyed body. It was something straight out of the history books. You never expected to see something so raw and primal during the Long Peace.
It licked traces of black residue from its lips and held its hands out. “I just need a little,” She cooed like a sweet mother calling for her child.
I adjusted the power ring of my scope to four times its magnification. I needed to compensate for the slight wind coming in from the west. Otherwise, the bullet would’ve veered off course and probably hit a corker’s feathery ass. As I adjusted my shot, the Distorted picked up speed and howled toward me screaming for mana, for forgiveness.
No one can save the lost, they’re too mana-addled, and a threat to the living– the ignorant masses. I took a deep breath and aimed for its central nerve. It was the one weakness all humans shared, and mother nature hadn’t corrected it in millennia. I pulled the trigger.
The shell spat out from the rifle’s bolt chamber. A thin gold bullet ripped through her nerve and left a gaping wound that blew off her right arm and parts of her burning upper torso. The air hissed around her and the drainer shell sucked what remained of her mana into the atmosphere.
She screamed and begged she didn’t want to die. The calm black and gold ember enveloping her erupted into a madwoman’s fire. “Mana, mana, mana,” She licked at the ground with her phantom like tongue. You never get used to watching a person devolve into a monstrous mana devouring beast.
I loaded another shell into the chamber and cocked the bolt forward. Stella coughed from the shed. I aimed back down the sight and waited a moment. “Help me,” The Distorted screeched.
I shot clean through her head and she burned away. Only black ash and her liquid gold residue remained. I gripped my rifle steadily and slung it over my shoulder. “May you find peace in a better life,” I offered the Matriarch’s prayer for the poor woman.
I headed back into the shed and Stella was fast asleep. I checked my backpack for what few supplies I had left. There were a few cans of sausages, ten bolter rounds for various purposes, and an emergency radio. I still have that busted radio in my workshop to this day.
I turned the radio on and the emergency message continued to play like it had two hours before.
“This is the Orsen Emergency Broadcast System. All evacuation points will cease operations at the end of this week. Please proceed to your nearest evacuation checkpoint. I repeat, this is the Orsen…” the broadcast repeated.
“Come on, Stell,” I pulled her up and wrapped her arms and legs around my back. She clung to my shoulders and whispered in my ear.
“Mama, where are you? Papa, where are you?” she hacked spit on my dusty white t-shirt. I shut the shed doors and tucked my small caster into my right thigh holster. I’d loaded a new clip into my sidecaster just before finding the Distorted.
The redwood trees shaded me and her just like the ones outside of the Ferry. I pulled her legs up around my waist and started to walk along the metal graveyard of abandoned cars, bikes, and freighters. “Ten mores miles,” had become my survival mantra.
It was the longest ten miles of my youth.
We passed an abandoned trail of cars, bikes, and cargo trucks. Stuffed suitcases, children’s action figures, and the stench of Telvian tobacco remained scattered along the 65. Matriarch be damned did the old timers smoke so much of that cheap tobacco. They still smoke the shit up in the Reacher Quarter in Prade.
There were no Distorted around which meant mana was thin. I couldn’t feel any nearby sources or pools from loose mana tanks. Granted, I had little knowledge of mana disciplines at the time.
I noticed a Beef Queen with the windows smashed in and scorch marks burnished into the sassy face of Beth Anne, the smiling and winking mascot of my favorite burger place in the state. Beef Queen’s huge; nowadays, you can’t go two blocks without finding one around Argon’s Arcade in Prade.
I kept to the left side of the road and used the freighters to avoid anything that might draw attention. I suppressed my signature–the unique aura every human gives off when they use mana artes–using the method my father taught me; we used suppression, when we went hunting gnarl horned deer, in the redwood forest just north of my home. It worked like a charm almost every time.
Stella continued to burn up and I had to stop a few times to give her the last water bottle we had. She guzzled down the bottle quicker than I imagined she could. The way she drinks wine nowadays is a lot like the way she sucked down that bottle. Once she had her fill, I attuned with her to give what mana I could spare without losing my strength (Which wasn’t much. I was fifteen and close to losing my mind).
Along the 65’s surroundings, I noticed something I didn’t think I would ever see.
To the left of the cluttered road, a rock formation along a jagged cliffside barely stood out. I squinted my eyes at one particular area after noticing something in the disjointed rocks. What caught my attention was a small red emblem with two crescent circles and three straight lines running through those circles etched into the rock. It was some clan’s personal brand I later realized. But I knew what that marking meant, any Reacher would.
People knew the Hunters worked across the south. They skulked under the cover of dark and cut down any wayward Distorted. They said the Hunters wore tattered cloaks that shimmered and dampened any mana discipline. The Hunters could burn the Distorted from the inside out, or at least that’s what Johnny Rocco told me one time outside Beef Queen. No, gotta keep going, I thought.
It was three miles to the nearest town. I didn’t have time to stop to chase some old Confederate fisher’s story. Stella needed to rest and I had to cook dinner somewhere secure and out of the way. I moved away from the Hunters’ hidey-hole and continued along the 65. I kept a careful watch heading up to Shawville.
You never knew where a Distorted might pop up.
Shawville. Population: 5,000.
I stopped at the torn town sign and shook my head.
I’d passed through Shawville more times than I could count going to see the dueling leagues in Mar. Telv was a smaller hold compared to the greater ones out east like Markov, Karstel, and Medeas. Life on the west coast of the Confederacy could be dull. Well, almost dull.
I turned back around. There was no looming presence, but I knew that whatever had been out there a week before could still be in the vicinity. The stench of decayed mana never did sit well with me. It’s why you don’t leave out rusted mana tanks for too long. The shit will attract the few Distorted that still linger in the Union.
“Ben,” Stella stirred from her half sleep.
“I’ll cook us dinner soon,” I said rubbing her short black locks.
Shawville wasn’t exactly awe-inspiring. Most of the main street housed the general necessities: a local food market, a barber shop, some cheap diner like the one back home, and 5th century styled Continental houses they imported from the old Dominion right after the Great War. Damn those houses were ugly.
Keep to a quiet neighborhood, it’ll be best that way. I took Stella past the local market and down a quiet side street. I walked along a gravel laden road and listened to the silence. No corkers squawked above, no bluebeaks chirped, not even crickets humming in the midafternoon haze.
We came to an older neighborhood. The houses were larger and more stylized compared to the others in town. They had traces of old Linere in them with their red bricked walls. Some were burned from the Void while others had survived unscathed. I figured the burn radius varied but I wasn’t some scientist or Temple researcher. Doc Hargrave has a better idea about that sort of stuff.
I chose a double decker old country house fully intact to rest for the night. I checked the red fenced yard; I only found an empty doghouse and an ash blemished swing set. Stella coughed and sneezed into my back. Her boogers smeared my cheap t-shirt.
“Come on Stell,” I shook my head.
I walked up the back porch and reached for the back door. It was locked, but the lock itself was old. I took out my small handle (piece of shit that it was) and sliced through the metal lock. The handle hissed cutting through the lock. I quickly opened the door and placed Stella down on a nearby black, leather couch.
The house was dusty but otherwise clean. The kitchen had an old newspaper sitting on the table, a couple broken plates, and an old milk saucer for a cat I imagined.
I went into the kitchen and checked to see if the heat was still running. The modern gas stove hissed to life. “Yes,” I whispered excited. I was never a good cook but I tried.
“Ben, what are we having tonight?” Stella murmured from the couch. I walked around the kitchen and began to shut the curtains. I made sure to lock every window and pull the curtains down as far as I could. I doubted there were any Distorted in the area at that point. Still, better to be safe than dead.
I pushed one of the living room chairs up against the back door with the busted lock. I placed cushions, a basket, and whatever else I could think of to make a barricade. I heaved the unused chairs against the front door past the living room as well. It’s not like I had a portable mana barrier to keep out the freaks.
I’ll need to move that couch tonight too. Once I secured the house, I lit a few candles to keep light shining in the darkened first floor. Stella continued to murmur; she came in and out sleep every few minutes.
I prepared our usual dinner. A package of stolen sausages a couple days old, Hundmas style brown beans that gave you bad gas, and a small glass of milk I’d saved from one of the intact shops along the bumfuck Telvian dust towns. It was starting to spoil but I didn’t need to worry much longer about our situation.
I cooked the sausages in the oven and gave it the right amount of time to cook. I stewed the beans in the pot while watching Stella to make sure she was alright. The kitchen had life and a sense of normalcy I forgot existed after what happened in the Ferry. I still get those same Matriarch awful beans every Thursday with a bottle of ketchup. You learn to love terrible things in life.
Of course, that was a lie I told myself. There was no normal after the Ferry.
“I’m still here,” Maya Carrington said sitting at the kitchen table.
She was still wearing that white summer dress with her wide brimmed yellow sun hat. Her eyes betrayed her Distorted state. Every part of her body burned with black fire mana. Other than that, it was still my Maya. I’ll never get that image of my memories even after all these years.
“I know. But, I’ll be going soon enough. I won’t see no more,” I focused on cooking our meal.
She sat down at the table and kicked her cut legs back and forth. She watched me with her gold eyes, those burning eyes all the mana-addled bastards have. “I know,” She said.
“You’re in pain?” I swirled the pot.
“No, I’m not sure,” She picked at her burning nerves.
I scratched at my nearly broken seal and figured I’d need to get it fix soon. That was an understatement at the time. It’d cracked more in the last week since I jammed a sharp repressor into my central nerve. Still, I was amazed I hadn’t distorted after a month skulking up the 65.
“There’s nothing left. Mama, your parents, me–’’She shrugged her shoulders like it was nothing. “I’m just in your head,” Maya rested her twisted face on the table. I swirled the brown beans and took a sip. I winced and dropped the cooking spoon on the floor. It tasted like shit and even today I can barely cook them right.
“Ben?” Stella got up from the couch holding her blanket. Maya was gone. I still don’t know if Maya was real or I’d complete lost it at that point. I think it might have been both somehow.
I helped Stella into the kitchen chair opposite me. I poured a larger portion of beans for her on her plate. I took out the sausages, two for the both of us, and placed them on our plates. I snagged the milk glass from the still cold refrigerator. I poured two tall cups for Stella and me I’d found in the upper shelves above the stove and microwave.
Stella devoured the sausages with ketchup and bits of processed meat hanging from her thin lips. “Is there anymore?” she said.
“No but we’ll be at the checkpoint tomorrow.”
Stella chewed on the beans; she faded in and out of consciousness. She did her best to stay awake but her sickness was worse than when I had Caldris at eight. “You need to get a good night sleep. We got a big day tomorrow,” I swallowed half of my last sausage.
“I’m tired, Ben. When can we go home?” she mewled.
I went silent and gathered my thoughts. “We can’t go home anymore Stella. Mama and Papa went to sleep,” I said.
“They’re dead, not asleep,” She stared at her half-eaten plate. Stella was always sharper than my parents gave her credit for. It’s why she’s one of the best circuit singers in Prade today and runs that music school in Uptown.
“A lot of people are Stella. You remember Johnny Rocco?” I changed the subject.
“Yeah, I think he was going to race somewhere on the 65,” She clapped her hands together quickly losing track of the truth. Thank the Matriarch she’s still fuzzy on the details of that month.
Caldris has a nasty habit of messing with your memories. Your body burns up and then suddenly you come down with the chills. It was a part of growing up, but the condition only appeared after the Great War. My father had it, my mother had it, and most people got it somewhere between seven and ten.
“Johnny’s ok. Maya said he went east!” she beamed finishing off her beans.
“Mmmhmm, I bet Johnny’s racing out there with the big fakers,” I played along.
Stella let out a burp and rubbed her thin stomach. She started to fall back to sleep. I got up and put our empty plates in the sink. I made sure to shut off the stove and oven so the house wouldn’t blow up; Mama drilled that into my head whenever I helped her cook dinner on the weekends.
I blew the candles out and pulled Stella onto my back. I trudged through the kitchen, into the living room, and up the stairs. I picked up my small caster and kept it raised. I stopped at the second step and heard nothing. I continued up the stairs and glanced down the small second floor hall.
There were four rooms: one like a parents’ bedroom, a bathroom, and two separate bedrooms leading into rooms that looked like the ones in our house back in Corvin’s Ferry. I went into the largest bedroom and placed Stella on the soft, white bed.
I headed back down the stairs and grabbed our backpacks. I picked up my Ansem Long Arm and went back upstairs. I placed our supplies in the master bedroom and shut the shades in all the other second floor rooms.
The sun dipped just over the eastern horizon as the stars illuminated the Orsenian sky. The fireflies kicked up and buzzed around the spaced-out lots below. Maya loved trying to catch those stupid bugs with Stella, I thought.
I shut all the doors on the second floor. I went back downstairs and stacked the free chairs along the stair’s steps. I reinforced my legs, mana surged through every fiber of my leg muscles, and dragged the couch carefully from the living room. I breathed slowly lifting the long couch awkwardly over the banister; I used it to create a barrier between the upper and lower floors. I’m a lot better at reinforcing my body nowadays.
Once I blocked the lower floor, I pushed an ugly wardrobe against the master bedroom’s door and two brown bureaus against the windows to block out the light outside. I sat on the bed and loaded my last stunner shell into the rifle’s bolt chamber. I rubbed the ashes and the smudges along the rifle’s wooden stock off with a trained polish my father taught him. Treat your caster right, and she’ll save your life, Papa used to say.
“Ben?” Stella grabbed my hand.
“It’s ok. I’m ok,” She didn’t cry this time.
I tucked her under the covers and sat on the bed guarding her. “I know Stella. I promised Mama and Papa,” I listened in the shaded bedroom. She was soon back to sleep. I stroked her messy hair to keep my sanity and not crack hearing Maya sing throughout the house.
Somewhere near the main Shawville drag, something screamed outside the house. A soft, inhuman cry gave way to an even deeper howl that suddenly cut off. I slapped my cheeks and listened as night settled in.
I shut my eyes but couldn’t fall asleep. I took a deep breath and recalled how it all went wrong. Everything started with Maya asking about starting high school.
It always started with her.
“So, I think we could go to Sumser or maybe Mar if I can convince my parents,” Maya stood on a rock outside her two-acre home. “Are you listening, Ben?”
I shook my head and looked over my swollen right arm. Doc Harrend, the local mana researcher, had taken another sample from me and said I was showing progress.
I didn’t understand the details of the countless tests, trials, and exercises, but Doc Harrend said it would help me, Stella, and a whole lot of other people in the decades to come. Doc Harrend always knew what was right and I did feel different after the injections. Not stronger, but more aware of the world around me.
“Yeah, but I want to work with Johnny on fixing up that old bike,” I scratched the back of my raven black wavy curls.
Maya rolled her eyes and did a handstand down from the rock; she landed it perfectly. I covered my eyes when her dress went down the opposite direction.
Maya came up to me and leaned forward. She narrowed her dark hazel eyes and pulled her thin summer top open a little bit. I didn’t want to see that, so I covered my face and she laughed pulling her top back. “You’ve seen more than that, Benjamin Anais,” She knew how to make me squirm.
“Only a little bit,” I said, smiling at her.
She returned my smile with her slightly large front teeth exposed. “I don’t even want to think about going to school. I can’t believe we’re going to be in high school,” She sat down next to me. “You’re really tall. How big do you expect to get?” she measured the top of my head with the flat of her palm.
“Six three to six five if I keep growing,” I looked through my phone and glanced at various headlines about the bike racers up north. I kept up with the Marian racers every quarter given they ruled the 65 past the Orsenian border.
“You’re going to be like them, huh?” she grabbed the phone.
“I hope so. Johnny knows a guy in Hawkeye. Says his uncle’s an amateur race fixer,” I took the phone back.
“You’ll have to get a cool patch on your jacket. Something like a blackdaw or no–a big red corker with something awesome on the back like “Born to die,”” she patted my back.
“That’s too morbid, what about…”
“Maya, come on in. It’s time for your appointment,” Her mother called from the front door of their white triple floored Continental. Maya got up and winked at me. “I want to stay, but I’ve got a big test today with the doctor,” She headed to the white stone gate.
“Yeah, my nerves hurt from that last test.”
“Stella’s still sick?”
I nodded and raised my hands over my head. “The repressors are helping keep her Caldris in check, but you never know,” I played it off. Maya didn’t prod me like usual. Instead, she shrugged her shoulders and turned her back to me. She raised her thin left arm up and waved it like crazy. “You better show up tonight. I won’t accept some lame excuse.”
“I’ll be there,” I started walking down the street to go meet Johnny.
“Ben!” she said.
I turned around and she pecked me right on my chapped lips. Her olive-skinned face flushed a bit as she pushed me back and ran up to her house.
“Don’t forget!” she ran inside and was gone.
I stuck my rough hands in my jeans’ pockets and decided to catch Johnny before he headed out. I walked through my old neighborhood toward the local diner along the main drag of the 65. It was about a ten-minute walk to the main road.
“Don’t get yourself killed, Johnny,” Mrs. Ainsley came out from the diner and gave him his usual doggy bag.
“Me die? I’m the king of Corvin’s Ferry. Nobody can go as fast as me. Or look as good as me doing it,” Johnny Rocco swaggered out of the diner and shot his fingers at Mrs. Ainsley, the local diner owner.
“You can’t charm me with those eyes of yours, Jonathan Rocson,” She snorted. Oh, Johnny hated when people called him by his proper name.
“Come on Mrs. Ainsley, don’t call me that in front of people,” Johnny lost his bravado when she called him that.
“Goodbye, Jonathan,” She went inside.
I stopped and gave a wave to the king, the one and only Johnny Rocco, ace of the faker scene. “Hey Johnny,” I said.
Johnny lowered his amazing black shades and opened his driver side door. “Little man–no big man, shit Ben, you’re almost as tall as me,” He whistled.
“I grew two inches the last six months. Soon enough I’ll be towering over you,” I folded my arms, proud. I did end up taller than him.
“Might become taller than me, but you’ve got a long way to catch up to me when it comes to racing,” Johnny took a comb out of his glove compartment and smoothed his slicked back hair several times to keep it straight.
“You coming to the race later tonight?” Johnny sat in his driver seat.
Johnny Rocco’s dark blue Preston Motors 675 Cutlass Classic purred when he hit the ignition. He revved the super drive engine for me. My eyes lit up like saucer plates whenever he roared that Orsenian old school muscle. Johnny knew it always got me excited; we played the gag over and over until Mrs. Ainsley screamed at us to get out of her parking lot.
“Spent all my odd job money on getting her repaired but this kind of classic muscle, Bennie,” He tapped the dashboard affectionately.
“Are we going to fix up that bike?” I leaned on the open window.
Johnny shut the car door and ruffled my hair. “You stick with me, you’ll be cutting up the 65 in a real bike, little man. Anyways, I got to catch a guy about some money for services rendered by yours truly,” He pulled his black shades back up.
“I’ll see you tonight, Johnny.”
Johnny winked at me and bolted out of the diner’s parking lot. He gave the Cutlass a few revs for show and disappeared over the horizon heading north.
I watched Johnny blaze into the midafternoon sun. I hoped to be cool like him and know everything like him by the time I was his age. I ended up racing for years with my bike and became known as the White Rider in Prade. Not cars, but bikes were my thing.
My mother texted me and told me to be home to help with dinner. Summer was going to be great that year and high school would start in the fall. I walked across the 65 and crossed main street back toward my house.
Something boomed from the direction of Dr. Harrend’s lab up on the grassy hill. I turned toward the explosion and suddenly felt my insides churn.
Maya reached her hands out to me. She burned with black and gold mana consuming every part of her body. She fell to the ground and scratched at her throat. “Ben, help me. I’m…I’m sorry, I didn’t…”
I sprinted to Maya and touched her left hand for a second. I pulled her close and she burned to black ash in my hands. I fell to my knees clawing at my central nerve cluster. Every part of my body felt like it was going to melt from under my skin. I can’t feel her. where is she? where is she? Maya, Maya, MAYA!
I stared at the sky and saw it.
High above Doc’s lab, a black swirl appeared. I couldn’t recall where I’d seen it before at first, but slowly the black maw grew. It ruptured like something trying to throw up last night’s reheated dinner.
A hissing sound popped all around me. Mrs. Ainsley came out and fell to her knees. Her seal burned away and she started to turn to ash. “Ben, run, Matriarch, run,” She screamed before burning away.
I stared into the black sun and then?
The Void burned through Corvin’s Ferry like a late summer hurricane. I can still feel the pain sometimes. Most of the survivors have some side effect from the rift.
I was lucky I survived.
Every nerve in my body burned from within. I wiped the black bile from my chapped lips and stood up. The entire world hummed and I had trouble seeing in front of me. I wiped the heavy traces of black ash from my face; I realized I was covered in it from head to toe.
The entire town had been burned. Giant black scorch marks marked the Ferry in various directions; they were like lashes of a notched whip. Mrs. Ainsley’s diner was partially singed and in ruins. Entire houses had blown away; other homes had their windows shattered and portions of their walls blown out.
People screamed, people howled, and the stench of highly concentrated mana filled my nostrils. “I need to get back home,” I swayed toward my house.
Caster fire rang out from the Carrington estate. I saw Mrs. Carrington’s standing in front of her driveway partially burned away. Three people stood around her and lunged toward her. The three charred husks were instantly cut into pieces. Their mana dissipated into the air.
“Mrs…” I rushed toward her.
She pressed the caster against her temple and shot herself. A small blast hole appeared on the other side of her skull; blood and mana spilled from her headshot. She dropped dead a second later.
I shut my eyes, covered my mouth, and ran as fast as I could to my home.
A bolter round shot passed me from an open window in my living room. I heard Stella screaming from the back of the kitchen. Mama aimed the old Ansem rifle out the window and killed Mr. Branson. He splattered against our mailbox and burned away like so many others.
“Ben, get in here now!” Mama opened the front door and aimed her rifle at another rogue madman.
My mother grabbed me by my wrist, brought me inside, and slammed the door behind us. Mama bolted the door shut and dragged me into the kitchen. “Eric, I got Ben,” Mama handed Papa the bolt rifle.
My father coughed up black bile and wiped the blood from his bruised face. Stella hunkered under my father’s right arm. “We gotta get to the highway, Marie,” Papa loaded another shell into the rifle.
Something slammed against the chain locked front door. Mama shook her head and said, “Everyone’s going that way. The whole town’s filled with them Distorted.”
“Shit,” Papa winced scratching at his missing left arm. My father’s eyes burned with a faint gold while I finally noticed Mama’s right face was starting to burn away. I still see them burning in my dreams, sometimes.
“Mama, Papa, what’s happening?” Stella gripped my hand.
“I ain’t gonna last much longer, Marie. You need take the kids and…” Mama reached down and hugged my father.
“My seal’s cooked, Eric. I won’t make it more than two miles, if that,” She grabbed two backpacks from our kitchen table.
“Mama, what’s wrong?” I snapped back to reality.
Mama wiped black ash from her face and handed one pack to me and the other to Stell. She slung the Ansem rifle off her shoulder and handed it to me. Father gave me one of the smaller family casters we kept locked in the basement. My father gave me the remaining shells from his private collection; there were about forty. Mama tucked a couple weeks’ worth of canned food into our backpacks. “You got to get to the border Ben. You take your sister and you keep her safe,” Mama gripped my face tight.
“Mama, we’ll sta…”
“No, Matriarch’s sake, no Ben,” My father wheezed clawing at his chest.
Mama gave me her favorite necklace and kissed me on my forehead. She did the same to a wailing Stella confused by everything falling apart. “You go to that old barn outside town. You stay away from the town and after two weeks, you stay on the back roads,” She emphasized that last point. “Don’t go on the highway until it’s quiet. Do you understand me?” Mama dug her fingers into my wet cheeks.
They were burning away and no amount of resealing could bring them back from that. Maya stood in the kitchen and burned like my parents. She pointed to the outskirts of the Ferry. I bit down on my lower lip drawing blood and held back my tears. I nodded to Mama and embraced her one last time. She was so light burning away.
“Ben, you’re a man now. You gotta take care of your sister and don’t let anyone or anything get in your way. Promise me, son,” My father pulled me into his arms. I hugged Papa and tugged too tight around his neck. “I promise, Papa,” I clenched my ashen fingers into his sooty gray shirt.
The front door broke down and a Distorted rushed through the hallway. Father shot it clean in the head and it went flying back through the front door.
“Ben, what are you doing?” I grabbed Stella’s hand. Mama opened the back door and pointed to the creek past our backyard.
I held it together trying not to break down. I took a deep breath and nodded. “Ok.”
I yanked my sister onto my back; I sprinted through the tall grass like I did with Maya just the day before. The town burned all around me. I didn’t stop running until I got to the old barn outside of the Ferry. I headed inside and locked it from within. I dragged a hysterical Stella up to the second floor where we used to play hide and seek around the old farmstead.
I hushed my sister’s screams and sobs; I muffled her tantrum and heard something worse than any of the victims and Distorted stragglers in the town ever cried. Something inhuman screeched in a broken tongue to the south near the main road.
It was something not of the material world.
I could only hold my sister and keep her safe from the nightmare outside. I didn’t sleep the whole night. Or the next two nights.
The Ferry burned and with it my old life died.
Mana has a peculiar smell when it spills from the body. Residue from stasis coffins, cars, and machines smells foul and burnt. Mana from the body though? It’s a subtle, sweet smell that’s enough to drive a Distorted into a frenzy. You see it all the time when you hunt them.
It’s a primal urge; the scent scratches at the back of mankind’s lizard like brain.
I woke to the rumble of something outside the house. Stella had stopped coughing and huddled next to me for warmth. The rumbling grew louder and then suddenly it stopped. I gripped my father’s rifle and aimed it toward the shut window on the left side of the bedroom. I rested my finger around the underside of the trigger guard; I pushed myself in front of a half-awake Stella. Everything went silent. “Keep quiet,” I whispered.
Stella coughed a few times and I covered her mouth. The front of the left wall suddenly cracked under the weight of a burning mass. Wood chips flew all around us and cut me and Stella sitting in the bed. I grabbed my sister and tossed her out into the hall along with our bags. “Get in the other room, now!” I aimed my rifle at the source of the destruction.
The Distorted finally revealed itself after stalking us for a month. It clutched at its chest and wheezed like a wounded animal. Black liquid gushed from its burning body. All Distorted burn away, but the fact it bled something like black blood made no sense to me. Even years later, I’ve never seen a Distorted like that since.
The beast’s left arm was overgrown and bloated with black mana. Its entire face was burned and only its yellow eyes were visible like tiny fireflies. It narrowed its eyes and reached toward me with its monstrous limbs.
I aimed for its central nerve and pulled the trigger.
The shell whirred from the barrel and burned through the beast’s open wound. The drainer wedged inside its nerve and hissed depleting its mana. The beast fell back from the roof and collapsed onto the ground; it writhed in pain clawing at its burning hole. It cursed and howled in a broken tongue that didn’t sound anything like the Union’s language.
More cries broke out from the ground below. Tainted mana suddenly loomed near the wounded giant and circled around it. Where the hell did they come from? I thought. I was lucky those thinned Distorted were out there at the time.
“Ben,” Stella coughed from the other bedroom. I grabbed both our bags and burst into the other bedroom. I scooped up Stella and helped her onto my back.
“We gotta run Stella. I need you to keep quiet like when we played at the creek,” I wiped the sweat from her wet forehead.
She nodded barely aware of what was going on. Stella wrapped her arms around my back and I realized how light she’d become. I gritted my teeth and headed down the rickety stairs. I climbed awkwardly over the long couch and bolted out the front door.
The checkpoint was three miles away. I felt my seal starting to crack under the pressure of so much tainted mana. I didn’t stop to look behind as something rumbled behind the house and a wave of twisted mana shot out from the beast.
I fled Shawville with only the 65 to guide us to safety.
One mile left.
I hurled up bits of black bile up every hundred feet. All my strength had suddenly drained in the last mile and a half. Stella’s fever and coughing stopped though, which was a fair trade off. “We’re almost at the checkpoint Ben. Keep going straight,” Stella comforted me and pointed to the border.
“I must have caught your sickness,” I laughed knowing that wasn’t true. I was close though.
An ominous aura burned behind us. The beast followed but its trail was faint; I couldn’t sense it in the 65’s scrapped graveyard. I hiked along the right side of the 65 and finally caught sight of our destination.
The border barrier shimmered with a familiar thick, gold glow of natural mana. A waystation had been setup, but it looked largely abandoned. Two lonely sentries stood on an imported watchtower from some Templar base from Verand. “Almost there,” I wiped the sweat from my face.
The beast came out from the woods and slammed its bloated left arm into the scrap pileup. Cars smashed under the weight and pressure of its burning cudgel. The Distorted bled even more; the outline of its former nerve system was covered in countless open tears along its inhuman body. It cracked its head to its right side and snapped its large incisors at us.
“Stella,” I called for her. Stella climbed up on top of a four-door sedan; she leapt from the sedan’s roof up to the hood of a white freight truck. She pulled herself up the hood of the freighter, up its roof, and aimed her side caster at the beast. The shell spat out and a stunner passed through the Distorted’s open wound. It howled and its fire burned even wilder than before.
“Get to the checkpoint now,” I pointed to the gate.
“DISTORTED!” One of the sentries called out and aimed a rifle from the watchtower.
“No, you idiot. There’s someone out there,” The other sentry stopped the shooter.
Shit, Stella, I can’t feel my arms. I reached into my backpack and loaded the last stunner I possessed. It wouldn’t do nearly as much damage as a drainer, but I didn’t have any other options.
I bit down on my lower lip steadying my aim. I slid back the bolt, loaded the shell into the chamber, and pushed the bolt forward.
The beast lumbered toward Stella.
I got up on the hood of a red truck and flared my entire nerve system like a firefly’s wild buzz. Every nerve in my body lit up as my head rang and my vision spun. I took a deep breath and saw the beast turning back to face me.
“BEN!” Stella screamed.
“Come on, you piece of shit!” I set myself up as bait.
The beast lost interest in Stella and charged toward me on all fours. It lunged its twisted left arm out and swung straight at me. I pulled the trigger and the drainer hit just above its central nerve. The burning limb smashed the hood of the truck. I went flying back ten feet and hit the concrete with a loud thud.
I was sure I’d cracked a rib or the blowback from its fucked up mana had cooked my left arm’s nerve junction. I winced getting up and saw the beast towering over me. It raised its makeshift club arm over its head and suddenly stopped.
It scratched at its throat with its smaller hand and wheezed almost like it couldn’t breathe. Its mana siphoned out its back and I gaped as my sister burnt up like when Doc Harrend used to run her tests on me and Stella. “The handle, Ben. Cut it,” Stella screamed.
I felt her attune with my nerve system just like I had with Maya during Doc Harrend’s trials. I realized then what Doc Harrend had designed us for. I pushed the thought of my head since living was more important at the time. I pulled my Mama’s handle, a short cutter with only a seven-core system, off my belt. I powered the small cutter on and it took on a lukewarm shape of a straight blade.
The beast staggered about smashing cars and snapping at me in feral fury. I charged underneath its gaping chest and jammed the mana powered blade straight into the beast’s bloody wound. I cut through the thick tangle of nerves around its center core and tore the handle out the right side of its chest.
The black poison spilled out from its body and the best fell to the ground whimpering and screeching. There was no humanity left in it, just a disturbing reminder of what humans could become underneath our weak masks.
I only saw the terror of the Void it its form. I curled my fingers together, shaped my right hand into a fist, and channeled my remaining mana into my free hand. Every muscle and nerve in my arm swelled and started to burn from the buildup. I charged my twisted arm with my remaining mana reserves; it took on a similar shape to the beast’s mangled claw.
I let out an inhuman howl much like the Distorted I’d killed and fled from over the last month along our desperate escape. I gutted the beast clean in its open wound and yanked every nerve out from its exposed chest.
The beast staggered back in shock and lost its dark fires. What was a once a great terror faded slowly. Its form weakened and only black ash in a vague human shape burnished into the ground proved the beast once existed.
I pushed my bile back down my sore throat and Stella ran toward me. She hugged me tight. “It’s ok, Stella. We’re going to be ok,” I coughed up spit and mana residue.
“You weren’t a failure like the Doc said. You were…” Stella stopped. I shook my head and used the rifle to steady myself as we walked toward our salvation.
“We’re safe, Stella.” I said.
We approached the checkpoint gate and the two sentries came out.
“Hold up, son. Where are you coming from?” One sounded like she was a Coastlander, maybe from Prade, but that was on the east coast of Verand.
“Corvin’s Ferry,” I rasped.
“Please, we’ve been running for a month,” Stella tugged at the armored vest of the other sentry.
“That’s a hundred fifty miles down the coast. How’d–doesn’t matter, we need to check your seals and then everything will be good,” The female sentry smiled and opened Stella’s shirt.
“Ben, what are they doing?”
“It’s just like when the Doc checked you, relax Stell,” Stella relaxed and the sentry checked her. She took a small needle from her Templar issued belt and placed it into Stella’s upper left shoulder blade. It pricked Stella and yellow mana spilled down her backside.
“Your seal is completely intact. I’m amazed,” She said. Stella gave a weak smile and the male sentry waved me forward.
“Alright kid, it’s your turn,” The male sentry said.
I shambled over to the female sentry and sat down a moment. She pressed her light steel talons into my back and placed the needle into the center of my seal. She let out a gasp and pulled back. “He’s nearly cooked and he’s completely built up,” She aimed her caster at him.
I reached for my rifle and aimed it at her. “What are you talking about? I haven’t cracked yet. I’m fine,” I coughed up more bile.
“No, you are not. I–how did you even survive this far?” the female sentry held my sister back a bit.
I stood up and aimed my empty rifle at the Templar sentries. “I’m walking through that gate with my sister,” I rested my finger around the trigger guard. I’d come too far and in my confused state, everyone might as well have been an enemy.
“Put the caster down and ease up son,” The male sentry held his hand over the female sentry’s rifle.
“Ben, what do they mean? Stop, he’s fine,” Stella got between me and the sentries.
“Annie, for Matriarch’s sake, put the rifle down,” The male sentry placed his right hand over caster’s sleek barrel.
Stella, you did this. You saved me. I recalled the doctor’s vague description of what me and Maya were supposed to be. Explorer and controller. I didn’t understand it at the time but Stella had the same tests and trials like Maya. Stella had no explorer and even to this day, I’m not entirely sure what Dr. Harrend intended for us. I still search for answers but I don’t worry as much.
That whole time she was a mess, I only held on because she acted as my proxy. We were both failures of something unknown but ironically survived because of that.
Something warm and familiar pressed against my back and wrapped its arms around mine. It helped me lower the caster and whispered in my ears. “It’s ok, Ben. It’s ok,” Maya eased my tension. I lowered the rifle and Stella grabbed hold of me. I squeezed Stella tight in my free arm; I looked to the confused Templars and knew what I had to do. I gave Stella one last bear hug and pulled her toward the sentries.
Annie, the Templar, held her hands up. I took Annie’s hand and placed Stella’s hand in hers. I moved back and folded my arms thinking about nothing for a moment. “Take her to wherever she needs to go. If you can, let Dr. Yorin Hargrave know my sister is alive.”
“The old snake, what would he want with her?” Annie said.
“My sister and I were patients of his colleague, Moira Harrend. She said if we ever needed help, the doctor could help us,” I remembered Harrend speaking fondly of the old Matriarch’s Chosen—those personally blessed by the Matriarch- mana researcher. Stella looked between the sentries and me confused.
“Ben, you’re coming with me,” She reached her cut right hand out.
“No, you’ll be alright Stell,” I winced cracking a brave smile.
“Tom, what can we do?” Annie said.
Tom shook his head and pulled out a black walkie-talkie. “I shouldn’t be doing this, but they came this far,” Tom handed me the walkie-talkie.
“We’ll make sure your sister gets to the evacuation camp and let the authorities deal with her,” Tom explained. “You’re at the end of the line, but there’s a patrol about fifteen miles back. A day at most if you reinforce yourself,” He pointed back down the highway.
“They’ve got a proper sealing team there and you can link up with them around Shawville,” He said.
Tom picked out something thin and metal like from his satchel. He handed it to me and I recognized it instantly. “That’s a Templar issued repressor. You know how to use it?” he pointed to the repressor.
“Right in the central nerve every few hours for a regular dose. I might get two days out of it,” I tucked it into my backpack and slung my rifle over my right shoulder.
“Ben…” Stella sniffled snot dripping from her nose.
“I’m sorry, son. There’s not much else we can do. Anyone burns up and becomes Distorted, we got orders…” Annie said.
“Stick to the redwoods and you can make it,” Helpful Tom walked back to the gate.
“Ben,” Stella yelled as the Templars took her through the checkpoint.
I turned my back to the checkpoint and gazed into the sun. I loaded my last shell into the bolt rifle and slung the rifle back over my aching shoulder.
Mama and Papa were ash, Maya burned away in the Ferry, but Stella was safe. That was all that mattered.
I clenched my battered fists tight and swallowed my growing fear. The black sun burned high in the sky for a moment, but it wasn’t really there. I marched without looking back.
And so, I walked back into hell down the lonesome 65.
I stand at the old border gate. The barriers still burn over sixty something years later. What I found down in the Reach changed me and made me realize we forgot the old truths our ancestors buried.
Now, some kid a lot like me chases after the past I thought I buried. He burned like me only a couple years younger and lost a lot more than I ever did. I fear what he’ll find will break his already fragile mind.
“I see him,” the Old Bear calls on the radio.
“I’ll wait for the team, there’s no word on the cleanup back in Prade?” I lit a Telvian cigar. I smoke it waiting for the rest of my team to arrive.
“Nah, the Temp boys and girls are cleaning it out. That sucker was huge compared to some I’ve hunted and no doubt that unknown cell has something to do with it,” The Old Bear says. “But, yeah the kid’s fast, I didn’t expect him to get here so quick,” the Old Bear laughs. The first Darkstalker sure has a strange sense of humor for such grim business.
“What do you expect? Yorin sealed the whole affair with his niece’s blessings. What about—-“
“The girl’s fine, but I’m getting interference. I think that thing is—-“The comms went dead.
“Yorick, are you there?” I switch to another channel.
“Ben,” She calls.
I raise my rifle and spin around. She looks the same as the day she burned. Maya reaches her hands out to me and her hands scorch my nerves. “I’m here,” I touch her phantom.
“Kill me, please,” she vanishes.
I load a drainer, new and freshly crafted from Ansem Armaments, into my remodeled bolt rifle. It’s the same model I used to survive the Reach. The wonders of trade in updates.
Something skulks in the distance. Maya’s phantom lingers near it.
It is the thing that stalks the boy and why I am here. It hunts him and yet it protects him. My memory is hazy when near it and I think it’s like Maya.
How? I don’t know yet.
I take aim, adjusted the power ring, and pull the trigger.
The phantom screeches and conceals itself in the deep redwoods.
“I’ll get you,” I empty the spent shell into my disposal pouch.
And so, I march down the lonesome 65 to prevent the past from bleeding out once more.
For that is a Darkstalker’s path.