This story was written by one of my patrons. Published with permission.
By: Cilo Hugihard
Johnny trudged along the deserted road, head and back bowed against the weight of another sleepless night. The nightmares were growing more vivid with each passing day. Fluid, pulsing images shape shifting their way through his mind. Everywhere and nowhere, they spun a web of formless terrors in his mind.
And no sleep meant no respite from the waking illusions that stalked his mind. Shadows shifted across his vision as he fought to keep his everyday world in focus. Through it all, murmuring voices grew louder, not yet coherent but clearly burrowing into his mind like the vines slowly deconstructing buildings everywhere in the once great city. And always, a sense of dread that splintered his brain more with each passing day.
Mim and Bard walked a few paces behind. As always they were thinking about the next issue of Caretaker Rager, their wildly successful ‘Zine; Mim always on the hunt for paper and ink, Bard weaving stories in his head. At the same time their senses were fully tuned to the possible dangers hidden in the ruins. They shared a furtive, sidelong glance.
“We can’t go on like this for much longer,” Mim whispered. “He’s turning rotten, just just like the others.”
“Sssshhhhh,” hissed Bard just as Johnny swung his head back towards them. “Keep up,” he barked harshly. As sleep eluded him his temper flared easily these days.
‘Mim’s right,’ he thought. ‘I’m knackered. I can’t go on like this for much longer.’ Even attracting new followers to Caretaker Rager, rewarded always with gifts from The Caretaker, didn’t make him happy anymore. No matter how good Bard’s stories were he just didn’t care – about anything. Johhny’s mind wandered, as it often did during the increasingly infrequent moments of calm afforded his troubled mind; back to the stories of The Change.
Johnny, and everyone in the Tribe, was yet to be born. But the tales of the colours in the sky had been shared so many times he felt as if he’d been there; as if it had happened yesterday.
Night had fallen over London as it always had, shadows spreading across Trafalgar Square, Hyde Park and The City as the sun dropped lower in the sky. As the great metropolis’ heartbeat thrummed steadily, barely missing a beat from day to night, the darkness shrouding the city shifted from the ordinary to the very different. An iridescent, purplish aurora danced across the sky; lights so bright that people who had long ago lost touch with the stars paused to gaze in wonder at the heavens.
At first everyone was gobsmacked by the strobing curtains of purple fire. But as the colours descended, eventually disappearing as if absorbed by the earth itself, people went back to their routines – well, at least all the fogeys did. Most of the sprats and mops remained outside, buzzing with excitement, sharing their excitement with others experiencing the same thrill around the world.
Then came morning, and the world shut down: the lightning that lit the city disappeared; cyberspace fragmented and evaporated; planes, trains and automobiles simply stopped. Everywhere there was an eerie quiet, such that few human beings had experienced for thousands of years . The hum of the great city had been silenced; the blazing lights that once turned night to day were no more. Instead, only the occasional pulsing of an eerie purplish glow from the earth illuminated the darkness – a flickering reminder of the night everything changed.
The population drifted into respective territories and stockpiles of food and clothing dwindled; the fogeys became increasingly desperate. Many simply went barmy; they walked away from their camps, never to be seen again. Then the ‘zerkies came. Fogies staggered through the streets as disembodied voices tortured their minds with almost constant hallucinations. Sleep brought no relief. Blood curdling screams echoed across the city as horrific nightmares rendered souls from minds. Eventually the ‘zerkies would either kill each other, or more often disappear without a trace. The city grew eerily quiet again, a silence overlaid with the constant sense of dread.
Johnny broke from his reverie, suddenly aware of a change in the stillness amongst the buildings bracketing their path. Tendrils of fear clawed their way from the base of his neck to the top of his skull; something wasn’t right. He turned to Mim and Bard, gesturing for them to spread out and look for cover. His eyes scanned the empty buildings; his hand lingered over the pommel of the blade strapped to his waist. There was something very wrong.
As he turned once more to gesture at his mates a flash of movement caught his eye. With crazy speed a ‘zerkie burst toward him from behind a pile of rubbish, howling with rage and swinging a huge mace. Johnny dodged a blow aimed at his head, staggering backwards and losing his footing on the skree in the street. He fell, helpless to defend himself from the next blow. As he braced himself for death a crossbow bolt ripped into the ‘zerkie’s throat, raising a fountain of blood and changing howls of rage into a gurgling incoherence. The fearsome eyes bulged wide, hands scrabbled at the bloody wound, and the creature slumped to the ground.
‘A crossbow? We don’t have a crossbow!’ Johnny looked around quickly to see where the shot had come from. The tall, slim figure of a girl emerged from the ruins to his left. She glanced down the street to where Mim and Bard were still crouched behind cover.
“Tell your boys to sit tight,” she commanded, voice firm and steady.
“Sit tight, lads,” Johnny shouted. “The ‘zerkie’s all done in. And this one’s on our side.”
“Right?” he said, eyes on the girl as she strode across the street, drawing a blade from her boot. Johnny scrambled to his feet and reached for his knife, but paused when she rolled her eyes and crouched over the dead body. She pulled the head back, plunging her knife deep into its throat and cutting out the bloody bolt, dropping it into a pouch slung from her shoulder. She looked over and said: “I’m meant to meet a bunch of sprats from Caretaker Rager. Would that be you?”
Johnny nodded, saying nothing as he assessed her. Tall, long limbed and clearly strong, long brown hair tied back, dancing occasionally in the breeze. She was likely no more than eighteen but her sinewy muscles and confident air made her seem older. Something stirred in him, a flare of excitement that he’d not felt in a long time.
She stared back at him, eyes never wavering from his. “Which one are you, then?”
“I’m Johnny. My hidey hole mates over there are Mim and Bard. Oiii, lads, it’s time to come out.”
“So you’re Johnny,” she quipped, a smile forming on her lips. “You’re meant to be the blazer in these parts. How did that ‘zerkie get the drop on you, then?”
Johnny winced slightly, stung by the truth in her words. He should be dead, head mashed to pulp. He was slipping and she’d seen it.
“Not my best day and no mistake,” he shrugged, forcing a wry smile. “Must do better, eh, or get done lickety split.”
He reached out and shook her hand, still wet with the blood from the crossbow bolt. As they touched Johnny looked into her eyes; it felt like the pain of the last few days was washing away – he caught his breath.
“Jillie,” she said, meeting his gaze steadily. Her eyes flicked down his body quickly, assessing without modesty. She squeezed his hand a little more firmly before letting go, stroking his palm gently as she did. She smiled broadly and he once more found his head swirling.
‘Steady on, boyo. Twenty five and you’re acting like a newbie sprat. Just breathe.’
As Bard and Mim joined up, Jillie simply nodded, then turned on her heels. “Time to move, boyos. There’s a lot of ‘zerkies about. I know a safe place for a kip but we’ll have to leg it to beat the dark.” They walked quickly, mostly in silence, struggling to keep up with the girl’s pace.
“Shouldn’t we whoa up a bit,” asked Mim. “Take some time to scrounge up some nosh. I’m slavering.”
“Plenty of food at this hidey hole – you’ll see. Just keep up.”
‘So much moxy for someone so young,’ thought Johnny. ‘If her tribe was like this, why had they reached out to his mob for a confab?’
As the light began to fail they saw a pale, purplish flicker dancing around a building entrance.
“There! That’s our hidey hole. Warm and safe – and there’s nosh, “Jillie explained, with a glance at Mim, who blushed. Johnny wasn’t the only one bewitched today.
“It’s safe? We’re only four; a steady watch will be a stretch tonight if it’s wonky.” Johnny was thinking more clearly now than he had in weeks. It felt good.
“No worries; The Caretaker protects us here. Look.” Jillie gestured into a room off a corridor, a room stacked with cans of meat, veg and sweet fruits, and reams of paper. Mim’s heart soared – he hadn’t seen this much fresh paper in one place ever. He could mimeo dozens of issues with this hoard.
And Johnny hadn’t seen a stash this wicked for months; his mouth spritzed with joy, mouth agape. “Now that’s a beauty and no mistake! How did you suss this place?”
“Our scouts scoped it just after we dropped notes to you,” Jillie shrugged. “It was then that we knew we were doing right. The Caretaker’s blessing our gangs joining up – ya?”
No answer was expected. They settled and tucked in. The food was delicious, and there was more than they could eat at a sitting – a feast day. When they sat back Johnny turned to Jillie.
“So, you’re a blazer yourself, and a young one at that. And The Caretaker blesses you. Why are you looking to hook up with us?”
Jillie sat back on her haunches, leaning against the wall and sighing.
“Things haven’t been so sweet for us in the Wilds – not for a long while. Our Bard got cracked long ago, and without her tales wandering sprats weren’t picking up on what our ‘Zine was selling. Seems no one wants to learn about growing things in the Wilds – ‘specially since we can’t seem to grow enough to feed ourselves, let alone any newbies.”
“And you know the score; fewer newbies, fewer Caretaker gifts. And we can only pop out so many Mops,” she blushed a bit; looking at Johnny as she said it. “And new Mops are just new mouths. We’re hungry, and Caretaker Rager is tops. We need you if we’re to come in from The Wilds,” she finished, her voice dropping as she shrugged.
‘There. That’s done. Nothing more for it than to see what he has to say.’
Johnny gazed at her for a long while, his face softening. He made up his mind. “Boyos, time for you to set up watch,” Johnny barked.
Mim and Bard grinned at each other as they packed up their weapons and headed for the door.
‘Watch? In a Caretaker’s kip? Ya, right!’ They knew the score, and scrammed lickety split.
Johnny was silent for a few moments as he moved close to Jillie. She leaned her head on his shoulder, looking into his eyes.
“Maybe it’s time to give The Caretaker a gift, ya?” She smiled and leaned in to brush his lips with hers.
Loosening her clothing, her long, smooth limbs caressed as she straddled him. She leaned forward, her breasts pressing into him, rampant nipples skidding across his lean chest. He held her close for a moment before she raised herself, reaching down to position him at her impossibly wet, warm quim. As she settled on him he let out a shuddering sigh, gasping at the intensity of the pleasure. Undulating over him, eyes closed she caressessed her breasts. He was on the edge of release; she shuddered on his shaft, then held him tight and rolled onto her back without releasing him.
“Give me your gift,” she sighed, closing her eyes as her sheath caressed him. He felt his spend rise and howled his pleasure, lights flashing behind closed eyelids, whole body shuddering. As he came neither of them noticed the rapid pulses of purple light, or the almost sub-sonic thrumming, that briefly filled the room.
She held him close and caressed the back of his neck. Sleep came quickly as they lay together, limbs entwined as their breath mingled – low and steady. Johnny hadn’t
known such peace, and joy, since he was a wee mop.
After a blessed sleep free of night terrors an insensate fear clawed Johnny awake. Jillian was putzing about; when she saw Johnny awake she reached for him, tenderness etched on her face.
Johnny recoiled as her face melted, her hand turning into an insectoid claw. He scrambled backwards, screaming in terror. The thing before him retreated, joined by two more horrors. He lashed out, then ran, driven by a cacophony of inner voices urging him to flee.
As soon as he was outside a soothing voice penetrated the chaos. ‘Come to me, my son. You will be healed. Come.’ Gibbering voices still drove his pain and fear, urging flight, but through it all that single, deep voice held sway.
Stumbling through the ruins, he sensed the source of the calm. He veered right, eschewing an obvious path of promised escape. Just ahead a brief shimmer beckoned over a yawning pit; he leapt through the purple curtain without fear, certain of salvation.
Beyond the veil he was suddenly suspended in a formless void pulsing with purple nodes of light and suffused with a palpable fear. Something was terribly wrong.
‘What is this!?’, his tortured mind screamed.
Shapes amorphous and terrible shimmered in and out of focus, lacing his mind with terror. As his vision gained focus he saw rank upon rank of desiccated human corpses, many gripping pages of ‘Zines as if paying homage to The Caretaker. But instead of joy their faces were locked with the rigor of their final horror.
Above it all was a formless dread, beckoning him closer.
‘You have done well, my son. Come to me and be healed.’
A leathery tentacle wrapped itself around his waist, drawing him up and forward. His vision cleared and he stared into the maw of the horror that had stalked him these past weeks. Drooling mandibles chittered with hunger below a rank of black, cold eyes.
As the jaws drew near, the cold realization of death gripped his mind, restoring reality for a moment.
“Jillie!!” he cried, feeling one last rush of joy as tears streamed across his cheeks. Her smile was clear in his mind – The Caretaker’s last gift as the mandibles closed on his soft flesh.