Human skin gives way so easily to the sweet, iron blood underneath. Humans are blood cattle, a lesser species, living only to keep a stronger race alive, and now, in that way, Mason would die.
He used to feel their fangs sink into him. As a child, he winced and cried as his skin betrayed him, offering no resistance as they tore him open and fed on the blood that should be his.
But that was long ago, and now his end was here. Finally it was over. He welcomed death, but ran anyway, exhilarated by the end. His feet caught something he couldn’t see, and he fell to the ground. The pain, so constant in his life, comforted him.
He closed his eyes expecting only darkness and fangs and blood, but he saw light. He saw the sky. A beautiful blue he could put his hand right through. And the sun. He had forgotten what it looked like, but he saw it shining on the ringlets of his mother’s hair.
“Mason? Do you remember the trees? How the sun would shine through the leaves like they were glowing from the inside?”
He saw her face, gone pale from the eternal night, “It’s ours. The world was made for us.”
He heard her scream.
“We’re the ones who breathe the air.”
Around her neck was a silver sun.
“We drink from the streams.”
He saw her blood.
“We live in the shade of the trees.”
Yes mom. We do.
“We eat the fruits grown from the dirt of the earth.”
But so does cattle.
Fangs ripped into his throat.
Her skin was brown anyway, with the dirt and sweat it became even more so. Soka’s arms, powerful and tireless, forced the shovel deep into the earth. Her hands were protected by the black fabric always wrapped around her palms, circling her thumbs, and passing her wrists in ratty, fingerless gloves. The sleeves of her battered shirt were ripped off, showing her strength and her scars. She was carved over and over with them, some of the old wounds deep and jagged, others were thin and white, each holding their own stories of battles and victories, survival and pain.
She kicked the shovel down and lifted away a piece of the earth. In recent years, the struggle of survival and all of its intricacies and risks had been reduced down to one simple task - get water. She stood at the bottom of a well, waging her daily battle against the ground, every day going deeper and deeper as human and earth fought for the water they both needed.
Soka dumped a shovelful of dirt into the bucket that hung from a rope beside her. With the bucket overflowing, she dropped to her knees and dug with her hands into the dry, aching ground. She sunk her fingers into the dampness and moved handful after handful of the dying earth until she was churning up mud.
Trying to separate dirt from water, she caked the mud into hills around the center until the ground surrendered a small puddle. With two metal canteens, she collected what water she could, then stood and wiped the mud from her hands onto her already dirt-covered pants. Grabbing the rope that held the bucket, she climbed hand over hand to the ground above. Her toes pushed notches into the unstable dirt walls.
Her arms were shaking when she surfaced to a world with no name. A city overtaken by the wild. A woods growing for hundreds of years through the metal and plastic and concrete of a different world. Nature humbly and quietly defeating the race that had tamped it down. Plastic, metal, and other junk lay in shards, on the ground, in the ground, no good to anyone yet refusing to rot. The carcasses of buildings were everywhere, their walls eroded, the shelves of their different floors visible. Trees grew through their floors and plants thrived on their roofs as the buildings wore away.
The flora had taken over the remains of the old world, making the cities look like they were always there, as if skyscrapers were a primeval part of the forest. Chunks of roads or sidewalks or buildings would trip you as you walked, but they seemed as natural as the rocks in the ground, like trees and concrete both grew from similar seeds. This was mostly the world that Soka knew, but not entirely.
She remembered green. The color of contentment. She remembered soft ground and running streams. Now everything was brown. The world was dried, cracked, hard and broken. The trees were naked, no leaves or buds or flowers, only dead branches snapping off at a touch. The ground was hardened in thirst. The dirt was becoming more and more rigid as moss shriveled in brown balls like dead spiders. The vines, which once seemed to be ornate decorations for the remnants of the old world, were now bare brown creepers, holding buildings and trees ominously like the bones of witches’ fingers.
Soka didn’t disturb the woods’ peace as she moved. She was a part of this world as much as the ground or the breeze, natural as the bugs and the trees. She pulled the bucket up and dumped the dirt, then rested for a moment and wiped the sweat from her eyes.
With the canteens clashing around her neck, she pulled a sheet of rusted metal over the well and covered it with leaves, tucking it safely away. She left with the muddy water around her neck. She reached a rocky mountainside and her pace never changed. She stepped from one rock to the next, walking up the mountain with ease. Her door was an opening that looked like a shadow of the rocks around it, a hidden mouth that led into the mountain’s belly.
Clutching the canteens against herself, Soka squeezed in the opening and maneuvered through the tight rock walls until they morphed into a wide and open cavern. It was a different world inside of the mountain, a darkness made from millennia of liquid rock rivers. They formed the walls, the above and below, solidifying into open rooms and tight passageways, their ripples and tides still visible in the waves and depressions fixed into the stones. The rocks leaked down and froze, some in thin, reaching fingers, others in large, sharp fangs. There were winding paths that dropped off or caved in, small, unassuming holes that led to other worlds, and dead ends that fell into the darkness of the earth’s center. The caves were a treacherous labyrinth. And the caves were home. Their twisting, dark depths provided a place of safety, with alcoves of cozy dens lit dimly in lantern light, and vast, airy rooms where traces of the sun broke through. All were hidden from the vampires.
Soka walked with one hand guiding her through the dark maze to a furrow in the rock ground, a pool as smooth as marble, worn and weathered by the countless centuries of water that used to fall into it from above. The cave’s waterfall, a surge of life gifted from solid rock, now gone dry.
Soka poured the water from the canteens into the empty pool. It made a pitiful, brown puddle at the bottom. Soon, the rock would leak it down into fresh, filtered water below.
She walked into the darkness to where the water fell, seeing with her hands along the way, hearing the water, one small drop smashing into the others below, echoing painfully in the thirsty world. She laid down beside the drinking water, feeling the relief of the cool rock. Her eyes, solid black in the darkness, watched each drop fall against the surface of the water like a kiss, and Soka’s cracked lips were envious.
Soka looked to Elora, sunless and scarless, she glowed like the moon in the ever-present night of the caves. Elora reached out and took a metal cup from its rock shelf. She moved with precision, with hands and fingers that knew the darkness and could move purposefully through it. She dipped the cup into the water and held it out to Soka, “There’s enough.”
Soka looked at their puddle of water, then took the cup and drank. Her work-worn body, getting a taste of the liquid life, couldn’t stop itself, her hand dove back into the water and she gulped down another cup. Rivers surge through her and she laid back down on the cool rock to enjoy the feeling.
With the shrunken puddle beside them, they looked at each other, the weight of the drought sitting unsaid in their dry throats.
Elora held up the little piece of bone in her hand, “It’s a bird. A little one, like a sparrow. Its ribs are all shattered and broken, but its wings are okay, like a bigger bird caught it and ate it. I think the marks are from a beak or talons. Look, they snapped it right in half.”
She twirled the bone between her fingers.
Soka watched it, “I have to leave. For water.”
Elora brought the bone down and looked at Soka. She heard a meager drop fall into the water. A drop. Just one. She had spent her life in these caves. They used to surge with running water, it would pour down into this spot, making a rushing echo that lulled her to sleep. She remembered the silvery coolness of the water running over her hands. But memory couldn’t keep her alive. Elora looked at the lines in the rock where water used to settle. She held her hand out and caught one single, empty drop. She licked it from her palm, “I’ll go with you.” Into the world of the scorching sun, scarred survivors, and monsters in the moonlight.
“I can go alone.”
“And I can’t stay here forever.”
Soka looked at the water, her thoughts were so quiet Elora couldn’t hear their whispers. “I’ll get more water. We’ll leave when we have enough.” Already exhausted, Soka got up and went back to the well.
Soka dug and hauled water until nightfall. When the sun came again, it was time to leave. Elora felt her heartbeat echo off the rocks. She held onto the solid walls of her world, the only one she knew, as she stared into the sunlight of another realm. The white light rendered her blind. She panicked. Her breaths came too quickly, her heart was too loud. She covered her eyes to protect them and nearly screamed when Soka grabbed her arm.
Elora held onto Soka and felt her calm. She let Soka guide her into the outside world. The caves couldn’t protect her forever. She squeezed Soka’s arm as she tried to focus her eyes on the ground and move from one rock to the other. Her eyes hurt. The sun turned everything an unbearable, burning white.
She nodded again, blinking rapidly. Soka squeezed her arm tight, then let go and bounded down the mountainside. Her long, powerful legs leapt nimbly from one rock to another in surefooted mountain goat strides.
A rock shifted under Elora's weight, and she nearly fell. She wanted to dive back into the caves. She ached for the comfort of the solid rock around her, for the darkness her eyes had grown in, for the cool, comforting cradle of home in the mountain. This world wasn’t her’s. She couldn’t see. She couldn’t walk.
Out here, she was going to die.
She forced one eye to crack open and looked back into the caves. She remembered the sounds of waterfalls bouncing around the caverns, and she remembered swimming in the cold, green water. Now the rocks flaked and cracked in their own tears of thirst.
She would die in there too.
She took deep breaths, and her heart slowed as her eyes adjusted to the sun. Elora put her foot on a rock. It didn’t wiggle under her weight. She stood on it, gave herself to it completely. It held. She stepped on another. One rock, one step, then another.
When Elora was on the ground in front of Soka, she smiled, small and shy, but it disappeared when Soka handed her a knife. Elora looked at the sun glistening silver and shook her head, the panic starting to rise in her throat once again, “Vampires don’t come out during the day.”
“People like us.”
Soka, strong, tall, immovable, held the knife out to Elora like a statue.
"I can’t.” Elora's voice was small.
"You have to."
She took it unsteadily. It didn't fit in her hand.
“There was a stream.”
Elora didn't hear her, she awkwardly tucked the blade into her backpack. It didn't fit there either.
Soka walked to the earth’s memory of a stream, a long dent in the ground, a useless ditch of dirt. “Flowed this way.” She looked off into the woods, then back to Elora, whose skin shined white and scarless, unlike any humans of this world. She pulled off her backpack and dug out a long sleeve shirt, “Put this on.”
Elora looked at the gashes in Soka's dark arm and complied, despite the heat.
They walked downstream. No other souls stirred, not even squirrels in the trees. With every step, more brown came into view, dead trees from a dead ground covered in dead leaves. There wasn’t much else.
Elora struggled to keep up. She breathed heavily, her skin turned red as she sweat out water she didn’t have. Soka thrived in the sun. It woke her and warmed her and propelled her forward.
When a fallen tree lay in their way, its thick trunk the same height as Elora herself, Soka didn’t slow. She grabbed a branch on the top, pulled herself up, and jumped to the other side. Elora stared at it. She was too hot and too tired, but with a deep breath, she wiped her face with her arm and climbed. She didn’t care when the bark snagged her skin, or the branches ripped her pants. She climbed to the top and fell to her feet on the other side. When she landed, Soka stared at her, her eyebrows pulled together as she examined her up and down. Then she pulled her backpack off and sat on the ground, leaning against the log.
“No. I can keep walking.”
Soka dug through the backpack.
“We have to get to cover before the sun goes down. I can keep walking!”
“We can sit.” Soka unscrewed the cap of a metal water bottle and offered it to Elora without drinking.
Elora dropped to the ground, forgetting all of her determination, and took the water. With four big gulps she got the mind to stop herself and gave the water back to Soka while her body screamed for more.
“There’s more. Drink what you need.” Soka pulled out a piece of twine and started tying it.
Elora took another small sip. Then another.
Soka pushed her fingers through the loop she had made in the twine, it closed around them. A little noose.
Elora watched Soka tie the twine to a branch and positioned the loop around a circular hole at the bottom of the tree trunk.
Soka shook her head with the pointlessness of it, “Everything’s dead.”
“It’s worth trying.” Elora tried to console her.
They relaxed and breathed in the sun brown stillness.
“How many days of water do we have?”
“Five if we have to,” Soka put the water back into the backpack and started closing it, “But it should be two days out, two days back.”
“That doesn’t get us very far.”
Soka stood and adjusted the pack, “It’s all we’ve got.” She walked on.
As the sun sunk, Soka pushed the pace. Elora fell into a rhythm, it was easier to keep up as the day cooled off. Just as it was getting too dark to see, they found some old bones of buildings, a perfect shelter for the night. After some meager meat rations from a rabbit Soka had killed, they tucked themselves into a corner and laid down on a blanket to sleep.
Elora was exhausted, her eyes closed and she drifted towards sleep, but every rustle of the leaves on the ground, every creaking tree branch awoke her with a shot of adrenaline. She was used to being tucked securely away in a den of rocks. Now she felt exposed and vulnerable in the open night where the monsters came out to feast. Taking the sweatshirt she was using as a pillow, she opened the bottom, tucked her head inside, and pulled it down to her armpits, creating her own weak cave.
Soka, who was settled next to her, lay stretched out on the blanket, exposing what she could to the night air. It didn’t have the dampness she remembered, but the light breeze felt like a swim in a lake. She strained to listen to the bugs. The chorus wasn’t as loud, but it was there and made Soka smile. She and her sister used to pretend the bugs in the night were singing them a lullaby, gently putting them to sleep. Night was the time of fear and worry, but Soka couldn’t muster fear while she listened to the songs of the bugs, felt the breeze against her sweating skin, and saw the glowing dust of the night sky.
She had missed being aboveground.
Voices. There were voices. Soka woke in an instant. There was sunshine, low walls around her, a blanket under her, and the sound of walking. A metallic bang rang out through the empty morning air. Soka spun around as Elora dropped one of the metal water bottles in the pack against the others. She dove for Elora, putting her on the ground, laying on top of her with a hand over her mouth. Elora’s heart stopped, then beat so furiously Soka could feel it in her own body.
Soka strained to hear the footfalls again.
“They know we’re here,” Soka reached down and pulled her hatchet from her waist.
“How do you know?”
“Because I can’t hear them.”
Soka crawled silently from Elora, reached the long sleeve shirt, and tossed it towards her.
Elora dutifully put it on. Soka peeked through a hole in the brick wall and pulled out a knife too, the strands of her muscles tightened and tensed, readying to strike.
“Soka?” Elora’s voice shook with the rest of her, “What’s happening? What are you going to do?”
Elora looked at the hatchet in her hand, at the tension in her stance, “Maybe they’re just like us!”
With her back against the wall, she crept towards the open doorway.
There were footsteps and blades. The man’s knife on Soka’s throat, her hatchet on his. The crumbling doorway was filled with his wide frame. He was dark as midnight, but he had more scars than skin. He wore the endless slices like clothing, over his arms, his hands, his face, his neck, even the skull of his shaved head was covered with the marks.
He looked at them, Soka with her blade against his neck and Elora, frozen and shaking with fear. Then he smiled. It was a big, bright thing that softened him, overriding the size and scars. He dropped his knife in his fingers, letting the blade point towards the ground and backed away from Soka, “I’m nice if you are.”
Soka stepped with him, not letting him escape the bite of her blade.
She ignored Elora. She had heard people, not person. “How many others?”
“Just one.” Slowly he put his knife back in his belt, showing her his palms, “He’s not quite as friendly as me. But you don’t seem as friendly as her, so we might be even.”
He smiled at Elora, who looked frantically between them, “Soka, he doesn’t want to fight!”
“Where is he?”
He jerked his head towards the door, “Out there.”
“Get him here.”
“Mads! They want to meet you! They’re half friendly!” He laughed lightly at himself.
Soka heard him approach and backed away with a hatchet in one hand and a knife in the other, she was ready to have both weapons ready for both people. Mads walked in. He was small, old and sun-dried, like his skin would crack if his joints bent too far. A scar cut across his face, over an empty eye, the puff of his scar bulged out from his sunken eyelid. “Where’s your water?” He spat it out, lifting the blade in his hand.
“Play nice Mads.”
“She isn’t!” He ran to Soka, blade raised.
Soka lifted her hatchet, but the scarred man snatched Mads away, “Easy.”
Elora ran in front of Soka, but instead of a weapon, she held out a bottle of water. The one-eyed man stared at her.
Elora tried to hide the traces of trembling in her hands and voice. “Here. It’s water.”
No one moved, the one thing they all needed was held out between them. With his mouth twisted into a snarl, Mads swiped out at Elora and the water bottle. “What is that? What are you trying to give to me?”
“It’s water! It’s just water!”
Mads went wild, thrashing around in the arms of the much bigger man, “Bray! Fight them!”
Elora yelled while Soka pulled her away, “Fight us for what!? The water I just offered you!?”
“Elora!” Soka dragged her and grabbed the backpack.
“They have a water source!” Mads sliced Bray’s forearm.
Bray dropped him to the ground where he rolled and lunged at Elora. Soka’s leg came up with such power, when her foot connected with his face, he went spinning onto his back as an arch of blood spewed from his mouth. She pulled Elora around him and out the door, dragging her through the woods, doing anything to keep her moving.
Elora struggled against her, “Wait! Wait!” She struggled to get away, but the two women were an unequal match. Lean and willowy, Elora couldn’t out strengthen Soka.
“We can’t just leave him. The one was helping us! Soka! Stop!”
Soka ignored her cries as she pulled her through the woods.
Mads looked at Bray with all the power of his thirst in his one wild eye. He wanted to go after them, to devour them and drink them like he was a vampire himself.
“Just let them go.”
“They know where to get water!”
“Or they’re getting little bits from everywhere, just like us.”
Mads fired off in all directions, crazed with thirst. He attacked Bray while he screamed. Bray, strong, rooted, bigger than Mads, threw him to the ground.
Mads looked up at Bray, who stood over him with a knife in his hand. “You’re going to hurt me to save them! Two people you don’t even know!”
“You don’t have to hurt them.”
Mads growled, a primal sound rising from his dry gut and breaking free from his bleeding lips, “You’re a betrayer. No wonder you’re full of scars!”
He threw a rock at Bray, and when he lifted his arm to block it, he felt Mads’ foot slam into his stomach. “What they have could keep us alive!”
Mads took his knife and ran at Bray, who grabbed his arm and used Mads’ own force to fling him to the ground once again. “I’m not going to let you kill me!”
“You’re killing us both!” Mads got up in a frenzy, slashing his knife through the air. Bray took another slice on the arm before he thrust his knife out, the blade sunk into Mads’ gut. No surprise registered on either of their faces, this was the world, scars and blood, thirst and death.
Bray pulled the knife from the stomach of his sole companion. Mads choked, blood spurted from his mouth. He fell to the ground wheezing liquid blood breaths. Bray took the knife from Mads’ hand, the last of his water, then left.
There was still plenty of sun in the sky when Soka decided to stop walking, hoping to find something to eat before nightfall. Elora fell to the ground, she had shed the long sleeve shirt, and her skin was red and hot to the touch. She was burnt, shaken, exhausted.
She was aboveground.
She sat with her face in her hands, unaware of their open surroundings or the fact that Soka had left to find food.
Elora didn’t become aware of anything until Soka gave her a handful of small, shriveled red-brown balls - tomatoes. Their ancestors had probably kept a group of people fed and were surrounded by other lush and colorful plants. Green cucumbers that blended in with the grass, squash that shined like little suns, and bright red tomatoes, bursting with juices and nutrients. These looked like they died on a dried up vine. Elora looked at them in her hand, “I was giving him water.”
Soka chewed her own pitiful dinner.
“I was giving him water. Why did he do that?”
“People lose their minds when they feel themselves dying.”
“The other one didn’t. He was helping us.”
“He protected the one he was with.”
“He was protecting us. And we left him.”
“We have nothing for him.”
“Humans want other humans Soka. They weren’t meant to be alone.”
Soka laid down. “Humans die,” she rolled over on the blanket, turning away from Elora, “Everyone will be alone.”
Elora’s mind drifted from the one with the thirst crazed eye, to the one they shouldn’t have left. “Is that normal up here? To be nothing but scars?”
Soka was still on the blanket, “No.”
“What does it mean?”
Soka didn’t respond. But they both sat with thoughts of madness and scars. Thinking that the few humans who were left in this world were feeling themselves die.
Soka clawed at the ground. Her fingers curved to dig deeper and deeper. The dirt came up in flakes that dissipated to dust at her touch. She pulled out her knife, screamed as she stabbed the ground and pulled the blade through the dusty lungs of the earth as it coughed up the dirt of its dying breaths around her. With another yell she stabbed and dragged the blade again, making waterless troughs, churning up more drought, thirst, dehydrated death.
“Soka!” Elora yelled.
Soka stabbed the earth that wouldn’t save her.
“It’s empty Soka. There’s nothing left here.”
She threw the knife and again clawed the earth with her own fingers.
“Soka,” Elora quieted her voice. She tried to be calm and soothing, “Please. Let’s just go.”
Breathing heavily in her sweat, thirst, and exhaustion, Soka fell onto the brittle earth. They had followed the corpse of the stream here, to a wide and deep indent in the ground, just as scorched as the stream itself.
Elora walked to her and sat down, not able to offer any solace. They’d found nothing. They’d done nothing.
Soka sat up, took her knife, and wiped the sweat from her face onto the fabric wrapped around her forearms. Then she walked off, snatching up the pack as she stormed away.
“We should rest,” Elora was gentle.
“Don’t have enough water. We have to get to the well.”
Elora went after her. The muscles in Soka’s long legs pulsed in her anger, pushing and pulling her along, making her glide across the ground, quick with fury.
Elora kept her within sight as she struggled to catch her breath.
They walked on, hour after hour, Elora had no awareness of what was around her, all of her energies were on moving forward, on not losing Soka, who grit her teeth and pushed harder as the day wore on.
“Soka, I need water.” Pushing their water supply to the edge, they hadn’t drank anything all day, “Soka?”
Soka didn’t hear the faint words, she turned at the sound of Elora falling to the ground.
Elora gasped for air that wouldn’t come.
There was something on her lips, then a stream flowed down her throat. She drank it hungrily and felt herself being pulled onto the blanket, without feeling the pull into unconscious sleep.
Elora woke up to Soka shaking her shoulder. “Elora! Elora!”
Elora opened her eyes and grabbed her head, her face scrunched in pain.
“It’s the thirst. We have to get back.”
She moaned, bending forward and digging her palms into her eyes.
“Walking will distract you.”
Soka pulled her up. Elora stood on her own and looked around with squinted eyes, the sun too bright for her throbbing head.
Soka hurriedly packed the blanket. She held Elora’s arm, supporting her as they moved.
“I need water.” Elora’s tongue stuck to her mouth as she spoke.
Soka looked at her. Elora’s breaths were quick, her eyes were far away, and her body swayed. She gave her the last of their water.
“How much farther?”
Soka walked as quickly as dragging Elora would allow. She felt the thirst split her own head in half. She struggled to make spit in her cottony mouth to swallow for her sandy throat. Elora mumbled unintelligible things at her side, her hand was over Soka’s shoulder and, as she sunk down more and more, Soka knew what was coming. Life drained out of Elora and her body went limp. When Soka looked into Elora’s eyes, she hoped her companion would look back.
Dropping the pack to the ground, Soka bent and put Elora across her shoulders. She stood and grunted under the pain.
She took one step, then another. Her legs picked up momentum as they continued, their desire to get to water stronger than the pain. Soka focused every spare thought down into her legs. Flex your hip. Bend your knee. Place your foot. Move or you both die.
Elora inched down, Soka faltered and grit her teeth as she pulled Elora back up her shoulders. There was pain cracking the inside of her skull. Her body was drying itself out, her muscles were starting to knot painfully, her joints tried to freeze in place.
Hip. Knee. Foot.
Hip. Knee. Foot.
A mountain. Their mountain. The one with water inside.
Soka stepped on the familiar rocks. Her knees gave up and slammed down on the unforgiving solidity of the stones. She couldn’t stand again under the weight of Elora. Every movement was a new pain as her muscles cramped. With her hands under Elora’s arms, Soka pulled her from one rock to the next, up and up. She got them into the caves, then pulled Elora to their pool of clean water. She couldn’t see in the sudden dark, but the water droplets echoed like a bomb throughout the woods. She could feel it in her skin.
Lowering her face, she drank down the water. Then grabbed the cup to pour some into Elora’s mouth, feeling relieved when she thoughtlessly gulped it down. She kept lowering her lips to the water, then filling the cup for Elora, and when she felt the water fill her stomach, she collapsed. Her eyes closed like Elora’s. The water now tasked with bringing them back to life.