A foul wind pushed up from the south with a smear of cloud as Arlo tried to get ahead, leaving the crumpled roads of a forgotten world behind him. He rushed into a decaying forest, the concrete beneath his feet turning to dirt. There were screams among the gunfire, the sounds joined by a deep rumbling that vibrated the earth. The ground sloped sharply in front of him. He slowed his pace to avoid falling.
The screaming grew louder, followed by a gurgled screech. Arlo stumbled down the slope, finding a splintered tree stump to hide behind to catch his breath. The sun had hardly risen, making it difficult for him to see his surroundings. He heard the crunch of footsteps moving closer, eventually coming to a halt.
Pulling out his knife, Arlo glanced back up the hill now that the screaming and gunfire had started to settle. Several metres up the hill, a woman stepped into view, wearing a thick black trench coat and holding a rifle. She aimed into the forest, away from him.
He could approach her from behind, grab her gun. Arlo hesitated, and moved back out of view. He rubbed his rough, worn face. Attacking from such a distance would be foolish.
The dead silence made him curious, and he placed a hand on the tree trunk to lever himself into a better view. A sudden loud crack sounded and his hand fell through the rotten wood. The woman ahead turned in one swift motion, aiming at the tree he hid behind. A few moments of quiet passed before Arlo took another peek. The woman still faced in his direction.
Bubbled screeching erupted from the forest behind the woman and a pale-yellow figure of drooping flesh jumped onto her. Bullets rattled off into the air from the gun, followed by another shriek coming from the forest. Arlo jumped up and stepped backwards, watching the woman struggle against the creature as it sank its teeth and nails into her.
Behind them, a thick cloud of yellow haze blew through the forest, shrouding the creature and woman and hiding them from view. Arlo turned, grasping for the mask that clung to his belt, and hurried down the hill, attempting to keep ahead of the haze while putting the mask on. He placed the straps over his hair and tightened the seal, slowing his descent as the haze engulfed him.
Two weeks had passed. Arlo had met back with his family, the idea of escaping at the forefront of his mind once again. It was different this time, now having witnessed the danger himself. Explaining it to his partner and daughter had been difficult; they were still unconvinced about what he had seen. To him, there was no longer a choice. They needed to leave and find safety.
The family of three carefully made their way down through the rocky remains of a dead woodland, the ground uneven and steep. Rotting trees gave no support, an honest reflection of the surrounding wasteland. The branches and trunks snapped and crumbled each time they dared to lay a hand on them, reminding Arlo of the events in the forest two weeks prior.
‘Over there, Evaline.’ Arlo pointed to a shape between the trees. ‘Grimsfoot.’
On the horizon stood an immense rocky ridge that hollowed into a cavern beneath itself. The overhang curved into a blade-like point, touching down into the ground.
‘Sure we’re welcome?’ Evaline eyed the cold and uninviting shape as she moved down the slope with their daughter, Kiera.
‘They welcome anyone inside who won’t give them trouble.’ Arlo smiled. ‘We’ll be fine.’
All three of them moved down the hillside, hastening towards the ominous rock face. Both parents glanced behind them every so often.
Several figures appeared, encircling the family.
‘Hands in the air,’ a voice growled. ‘Including the child.’
With slight reluctance, the family raised their hands and moved closer together.
‘Just checking you over, is all.’ The voice had softened.
One figure approached and started to pat down their tattered clothing.
‘Bags,’ a woman barked after searching them.
All three of them removed their backpacks and held them open.
‘Been here before?’ A man ahead of them stepped closer, holding a crossbow.
‘No, first time,’ Arlo said. He kept his attention on the woman rummaging through their belongings.
‘Alright. Well, if you hear a low hum and the lights cut out, keep your mouths shut. Routine patrols pass by every so often, and we might be due one today.’ The man looked westwards before turning back. Arlo watched him scan over them. He knew how tired they looked, their dark skin dried and scarred.
‘So, reason for entering?’ The man stared at him.
‘Looking for a way out,’ Arlo said. He glanced at his daughter.
‘A couple of blades, but they’re clear otherwise,’ the woman said, returning to the formation around them.
‘In that case, head to Matteo’s on the second floor. He’ll have some info for you. Keep moving ahead and you’ll find your way. Now, no violence. We’ve got zero tolerance for it.’ The man backed away with the others, disappearing from sight.
They dropped their arms and Arlo nodded towards Evaline. ‘It’ll be alright, trust me this time.’
All three of them moved under the vast rocky overhang into the cavern, following the dim yellow lights that hung along the damp stone walls. After a minute of walking, the walls opened out into a cave. They passed over some vents in the floor in line with two huge metal doors that stood on either side. Ahead, a rusted cage came into view with a man wearing a top hat leaning against the wall beside it.
‘Where can I drop ya?’ The bloke gave a yellowed smile and turned to open the front of the cage.
‘Matteo’s,’ replied Arlo.
‘Matteo’s it is.’ The man gestured to the cage. ‘It’s a little bumpy but does the job.’ He closed the front and pulled a lever. ‘Well, usually.’ He let out a laugh, disappearing from view now that the cage had started lowering.
Darkness surrounded the family, with only the deafening clank and rattle of chains keeping them company, along with the occasional jolt.
Minutes passed before the cage came to a stop, the family now being able to see two dim yellow lights on the walls opposite. A woman stepped out in front, opening the cage door. Ahead they could see a narrow passageway with noise and light bleeding in from the other end.
‘Matteo’s?’ the woman grumbled.
‘Uh, yeah, yes,’ Arlo confirmed.
‘Second turning on the right,’ she said, stepping behind them and shutting the cage door with a clang.
The family huddled together and moved down the walkway, following the yellow lights on the wall once again. Eventually, the passage opened up to reveal an underground street ahead of them. The ceiling was low and dotted with more lights but high enough to accommodate the small buildings that lined either side of the wide pedestrian pathways. Dozens of people filled the street, roaming, drinking, shopping and talking among themselves. The sight of them made the parents freeze and glance at each other. They gripped each other’s hands and cautiously made their way through, uncomfortable at the sight of so many people.
Arlo and Evaline warned Kiera not to make eye contact when passing the bars, shops and various merchants; some of whom attempted to gain their attention.
Eventually, they reached Matteo’s, a small shop with barred windows on the front, wedged between a gas mask shop and clothing merchant.
‘Wait here,’ Arlo said, before entering the shop.
‘Where’s Dad going?’ Kiera pulled her mother by the hand towards the door he disappeared behind.
‘He’s gonna get us someplace safe, apparently.’ Evaline twitched at the words, pulling her daughter back. ‘Away from all this. Out of here completely.’ She smiled briefly.
‘Can’t we go with him?’ Kiera took a step towards the door, wanting to see inside.
‘We are going with him.’ Evaline turned to face her. ‘He’s just finding out how we’re gonna get there, my darling, that’s all. We’ll be together like always.’ She pulled her daughter in for a tight hug, her eyes still focused on the passing strangers. ‘Regardless of what dream your father’s on again.’
Shouting flared up down the street as two women attacked each other. Evaline stepped closer to the shop door with Kiera, keeping an eye on the two people fighting.
Bystanders formed a wide berth around the dispute, keen to avoid involvement but still wanting to witness the fight. A few seconds later, guards appeared and split the women up, forcing them to their knees before cuffing them and dragging them away. Within moments the street noise returned to normal.
Arlo emerged from the shop holding a scrap of paper, glancing over to where the commotion had occurred.
‘Well, the man knows of two ways currently used.’ He spoke slowly and cautiously. He turned to Evaline. ‘The first one is heading north around the mountains, which is what we’ve heard before. It’s both slow and dangerous. The other route is west and much faster, though still dangerous.’
‘Your idea, you choose,’ Evaline said sharply. ‘Quicker is surely better, though?’
‘I would say the same. However, it would mean crossing—’
A low rumble echoed through the ceiling followed by the lights switching off, making everyone fall silent. Only a few lanterns and luminous rocks remained to light the place.
‘They must be near,’ Arlo whispered. Both he and Evaline took their daughter’s hands and slowly headed back towards the exit.
They reached the small area where the rusted cage swayed.
‘No use of the lift for the time being. Patrols nearby,’ the woman stated, standing in front of it with a rifle in her hand.
‘Happen often?’ Evaline hoped it was a usual affair with little to worry about.
‘For the past couple weeks, it’s been almost daily. Used to be once a fortnight but something’s stirred the hornets’ nest,’ the woman replied, now staring up above. ‘They haven’t spotted us yet.’
The lights flickered back on, followed by the distant noise of people continuing with their dealings in the street. The woman opened the cage door, gesturing the family in.
It wasn’t long until they emerged out into the open from the same cavern they had entered through. A dark smudge of grey filled the sky. None of the figures that had appeared on their arrival were anywhere in sight.
The wind still blew harshly from the west, making them hurry up the hill and sigh with relief at the sun still shining, even if it was only for another hour.
‘A bridge, far north-west,’ Arlo said between heavy breaths. ‘That’s our way out.’
‘Is it really good on the other side?’ the daughter asked.
‘Apparently so.’ Evaline sighed. ‘At least that’s what your dad would have us believe.’ She flicked a glare towards him.
Behind them, Arlo could see a large plume of yellow haze fast approaching and filling up the sky.
‘Masks on now,’ he called out.
All three faced away from the haze and strapped their gas masks on. Evaline checked her daughter’s twice over to make sure the straps were tight and the mask sealed.
‘It’s on.’ Kiera brushed her mother’s hands away, stepping back to watch the haze thunder across the landscape towards them.
‘Gotta make sure,’ Evaline replied, now checking over her own mask and tightening the straps.
‘It’s getting denser,’ Arlo warned from inside his mask, but he doubted Evaline heard.
They stood holding their hands out for one another, waiting for the yellow mist to arrive and bring their visibility down to several feet around them. Once in the thick of it, the family stepped forwards, continuing up the hill.
The haze began to clear after an hour of walking, though little daylight remained. They followed along the edge of an old forest, looking for a place to spend the night. All three had spent the time in silence, the masks making it too difficult to talk without shouting.
Evaline took off her mask. ‘I won’t do it.’
‘What? Why?’ Arlo pulled his mask off, turning to her. ‘This is for the better, for all of us, and especially for her. You know that. Particularly after what we’ve seen this time, it’s not just some tale any longer.’ He glanced towards his daughter who still held their hands between them. ‘You promised this time, Eve.’
‘What we’ve seen? I’ve seen none of the things you talk about,’ hastened Evaline. ‘What was it again besides some sick starving person attacking those Legion soldiers?’ She sharpened her tone. ‘We do the same damn thing!’
‘Evaline, I’ve told you. It wasn’t… wasn’t a person.’ Arlo shook his head. ‘Their teeth were far too long… and their skin looked sickly… melted…’
‘Yeah, well, some people get it worse, and they often end up doing worse. We’ve seen plenty of mangled things, I know it. But who’s to say where we’re heading won’t be more dangerous? Huh? I’m bettin’ we’ll get shot at before we come close to this bridge of yours,’ Evaline spat.
‘It’ll be worth it,’ Arlo said, raising his voice. ‘We can deal with the danger if we take it slow. And the haze, it’s been far more frequent and thicker than it usually is.’
‘No.’ Evaline froze. ‘It won’t be worth it.’
‘It will.’ He stopped moving and turned to their daughter. ‘What do you think, my love?’
Kiera removed her mask and ruffled her matted hair. Arlo thought she looked like the spitting image of her mother, sharing her same deep brown eyes and thick black hair, though he was thankful she lacked her stubbornness.
‘I want to leave,’ Kiera replied quietly, avoiding her mother’s stare.
‘She is a child. She doesn’t know. You don’t even know,’ Evaline snapped, making her daughter flinch.
‘And you do?’ Arlo challenged, keeping his volume low. ‘Now come on.’ He turned with his daughter to continue walking, pulling Kiera and her mother’s hands apart.
After several paces, Arlo and Kiera turned back to find Evaline still standing in the same spot.
‘Come on, Mum.’ Kiera held her hand out, her eyes filling with tears. ‘Please?’
‘Now you just come here, my love. Come here.’ Evaline beckoned her daughter over, but Kiera resisted.
‘You really want to do this again?’ Arlo’s voice became brittle. He felt a lump form in his throat. ‘Just come on already.’ The strain worsened. ‘Why are you doing this again? After what we’ve seen?’ He stopped, attempting to hold in his tears. ‘You know it’s for the best. Those things, they aren’t natural. I don’t want our girl near them, or us either. Trust me on this.’
‘I don’t care. This is my home. Our home. How do ya know what you saw? You said you were in the haze. It coulda been some animal or just someone like us, desperate to survive. This ain’t no reason to go walking into some sorta trap. These stories of a better place, they ain’t true. How can you believe them? You trust the words of a stranger.’ Anger filled Evaline’s voice and she choked back tears. ‘Who knows what this Matteo guy has waiting for us? It’s where everyone’s been heading, right? Lady knew where we were going before you even said it. So why choose them over us? Why this Matteo? He could be the one laying out some rotten bodies and spreading crazy stories. Getting people all riled up to go!’
‘Alright, it’s alright,’ Arlo said. Evaline had worked herself up into a panic. He paused, unsure what to say. After a minute of silence, he moved towards her. Fighting head-on would only make the situation worse.
‘We’ll stay,’ he muttered, putting his arms around her.
Evaline’s eyes narrowed at him for a moment. ‘We are doing fine just here, the three of us.’ Her words were bitter. ‘We know this world. Our world. It’s real, and nothing needs changing, we do just fine by it. Whatever you think is out there, ain’t. We can deal with it just fine, the haze and all.’
Arlo let out a quiet sigh and gestured for Kiera to join him in hugging her mother.
‘Now, let’s get some food sorted so we can rest our eyes. It’s getting too dark to travel.’ Arlo dropped his rucksack on the floor beside a row of old tree trunks that marked a clear edge to the forest. ‘We’ll all think better on a full stomach.’ He smiled, taking out a tin and some dried meat. ‘I’ll take the first watch.’
The night had been peaceful. Evaline woke up to the same usual smudge of greys in the sky and stretched, her eyes adjusting to the light.
‘Morning,’ she mumbled, before realising what she had said. The sun had risen already, yet she had not done her watch. Only silence met her ears.
Bolting upright, she turned and scanned the ground beside her. Neither Arlo nor Kiera were anywhere in sight. She searched around the trees and stared at the floor for any sign of them, finding only a few dead leaves and broken branches.
Then she caught sight of a smear of charcoal on a tree stump reading, ‘Sorry’.
Her mind crumbled at attempting to piece together what was happening, a scream failing to escape from her throat. Evaline fell to her knees, still scanning for Arlo and her daughter, but only the charcoal word remained. She hid under her arms for a second before letting out a coarse shriek. Her family was gone.