I paused. The night was filled with the sound of crickets and running water from the river. A pale sliver of moon jutted over the distant hills, and the stars littered the night sky.
“Go on,” Infinity urged me.
“That’s…that’s all I remember,” I muttered, feeling ashamed.
“Well, that’s a start,” Infinity said. “More will come later, I’m sure.”
“Hope so,” I said. “It got me wondering what happened to Obstinate—I mean Damien.”
“You mean, was he the one who led us to the camp with the soldiers.”
“Well yeah, but like Evangelist said, it was two years. A lot could have happened.”
“Well, you may wish you could remember more. I wish I could remember anything.”
“Like you said, it’ll come,” I said. “You do remember your dad, and that’s good. I have a hard time remembering my mom and dad. Mostly just stuff from when I was little.”
My words were followed by the sound of a howl. I had heard coyotes before, but this was different. It came from something larger, and the hairs on the back of my neck stood up.
“What’s that?” Infinity said.
“Just a coyote,” I lied. “He’s probably miles away from here.”
Another howl broke the stillness, and then another, and then a third. We looked at each other through the darkness.
“That’s no coyote,” Infinity said.
“Sure it is,” I said. “I’ve heard them before many times when I went camping.”
“You said you went shopping, not camping.”
“My dad took me camping when I was little.”
Another howl soared through the air, followed by something surprising. A cough. It was the sound of a human coughing. And then a laugh.
We looked at each other again. Whoever they were, they were not afraid to make sound in the darkness, unlike Infinity and me. We stared at each other for a long time. Finally I broke the silence with my whisper.
“What do we do?”
I could see Infinity’s silhouette in the darkness and she didn’t move, so I could tell she was thinking. When the howls began, the first thing I had wished for was a campfire. Now I was glad we didn’t have one. The real question was who was out there, and whether they knew where we were.
“We have the advantage of a high spot,” she whispered back to me. “We lie still at the edge and look to see what we can see. If they are coming toward us, I guess we run.”
“Run?” I repeated hoarsely. “Run where?”
Infinity shrugged and I cringed. I was liking this plan less and less.
We pulled away from our sleeping bags and slid on our bellies to the edge of the plateau where we had camped. We looked out at the grassy slope toward the river and the forest on the other side. I tried to control my breathing so that I wouldn’t make any more noise than was necessary, and watched the area below.
For a long few minutes we saw nothing. Even the howling had stopped. Then Infinity pulled at my sleeve and pointed to our left at the edge of trees two hundred yards away. I saw dark shapes coming out of the trees, some looking like people standing up, while others moved on four limbs, like animals. One capered around as if it were a monkey. I watched as they left the trees and counted, ten, then fifteen, and finally nineteen figures.
“Friend or foe?” I whispered.
In response, one of them threw back his head and howled again, and two others responded in kind. One of the figures standing up made a gesture and others unhooked those on all fours from a line of some sort. Immediately, six of the shapes on all four came galloping across the grass in our direction. They covered the open ground with amazing speed. The others trotted behind.
“I don’t think they’re friends,” Infinity muttered, and slid back to the camp, away from the edge. I followed.
“What do we do?” I asked.
I started to stuff my sleeping bag into my backpack, but Infinity stopped me.
“Leave it. Run,” she hissed.
I watched as she ran off the hilltop in the opposite direction from the howling figures. I hesitated, then ran after her.
The hill had been surrounded by low green grass in the direction we had arrived from. But the backside of the hilltop was covered by scrub brush with sharp spines that came up to our waist. It was one thing to wade through the brush during the daytime, but to do it in almost total darkness while being chased was unnerving. More than once I found myself at a dead end, surrounded by heavy brush and small trees that I couldn’t get through, and had to back up and try again. After ten minutes of wading through the brush, I realized that I had lost Infinity.
“Finn!” I hissed. “Finn!”
“Over here,” she said. I followed her voice to the left and discovered that she was standing on a levee with a raised trail that must have been used for irrigation at one time. I climbed to the top and saw only darkness on the other side.
“Thank goodness we are out of those bushes,” I said quietly.
I was rewarded with the sound of howling again, back in the direction we had come from, and much closer this time. Infinity shoved me and we began running again.
It was much easier going on the top of the levee, but a full day of hiking in our condition had worn me out. I ran as fast and as far as I could, but soon realized that I could not run far. I looked ahead of me and saw Finn’s feet scuffling along as well. We would have to come up with another plan before they caught us.
Infinity slowed to a stop, and I stopped too. I looked ahead of us. The irrigation canal that we had been following disappeared, the dike we were standing on dropping below our feet. Beyond, about 20 feet away, we saw that it continued. But we would have to climb down the embankment, mixed with dirt, boulders and broken concrete, and then back up the other side.
“Finn,” I gasped. “I can’t do it. Just let them take me back to the camp.”
“I don’t think those are soldiers,” Infinity said through heavy breathing. “I think those are the demons Flo talked about. I’m not sure what they would do with us.”
“Demons?” I echoed. “I don’t want to know. Come on, let’s go.”
I climbed down the broken embankment with Infinity at my heels. When I got to the bottom, I saw that a small road was off to our right. Beyond that was a small sign that read: “Despond, Tenn. Pop. 322.”
“This way,” I said over my shoulder, and stumbled down the road toward the small town.
It wasn’t much of a town. Harmony had been a wide place in the road; this one didn’t even merit a wide place. What it did have was water.
The road took us up a rise, and then down the other side into a small valley. At the bottom of the hill, in the valley, was what was left of Despond. The town, as far as we could tell, had been abandoned long ago, mostly because the town’s dam had broken and flooded the valley. The road we were on dropped down into the town center and disappeared into water. I didn’t hesitate as water met road, but began wading into the darkness.
“Ellie, wait,” Infinity said. “Are you sure about this?”
I turned, but kept walking.
“I’m sure,” I said. “Those things on all fours were tracking us. Nothing, not even a bloodhound can track you over water.”
Infinity was unsure, but she followed me anyway. I pushed through the water, which grew deeper and deeper as we pushed forward. Eventually we were swimming with broad breaststrokes in the darkness. We were about 50 yards out into the water when Infinity hissed behind me. I stopped swimming and tried to be quiet, turning back to look in the direction we had come.
In the darkness, I saw motion on the hillside we had come down. And I heard grunting and a little splashing. Then as we watched, other figures topped the hillside and followed the tracking figures. Then there was the sound of low voices.
“They are out there. I can smell them.”
“Yeah, young ones. Oo-wee.”
“Pretty girls,” one of them said in a loud voice. “Pretty girls, won’t you come out and play?” The voice was followed by coarse laughter.
“Aw, come on, sweet things,” another one said. “I got something to show you.”
I tried hard to keep from making noise, and I was close enough to see Finn’s face. She wanted badly to scream at the men behind us. But somehow she had learned how to hold her tongue, especially if it meant saving our lives.
We tread water silently for a long while, realizing that they could not see us. They knew we were close, but couldn’t tell where we were. And after a few minutes that began to piss them off. One began screaming, and then another. Finally their anger led them to fire their guns.
We watched as flames came from the rifles that were fired into the air. They were a lot closer to us than I had thought, and I realized that sooner or later, they would begin shooting in our direction. Infinity had the same thought, and she grabbed my sleeve. Together, we swam to the back side of a rooftop that was nearby, our splashes covered by the gunfire.
We climbed onto the rooftop and rested against the wooden shingles, the night air filled with the sound of gunfire. We were both exhausted, but neither one of us could sleep. At least that’s what I thought.
When morning broke, we were still perched on the wooden rooftop. I woke up with the rising sun in my face, my legs still partially in the water. I looked up to see Infinity sitting on the roof a little higher on the incline. She smiled at me and gestured above us. I looked and saw a tower and a large cross on the top.
We had been saved by a church.
“I think it’s time to go,” Infinity whispered to me. “With the sun up, they will be able to find us.”
I nodded, sad to leave our sanctuary, but I knew Finn was right. She quietly waded into the water, and I followed her until we were both swimming again. I followed her, keeping the church between us and the men that were looking for us on the shore. I wasn’t even curious about what the men were doing. I just wanted to get as much distance as I could between us and them.
After about another 50 yards or so, Infinity stopped being worried about making noise and swam normally. The valley stretched from north to south, and I saw the road climb out of the water in the west. I gestured toward it, but Infinity shook her head.
“We’ve got to get back to the river,” she said. “That’s where Evangelist said he would meet us.”
“Evangelist didn’t show last night,” I said. “What makes you think he will show up at all?”
“If he doesn’t, we’re pretty much screwed. But I think our best chance is the river.”
“But the road goes west….” I whined.
“And that’s what the demons will expect us to take. No, we follow the water to the south and find the river.”
I sighed, but agreed.
We continued swimming for a long time, and my arms grew heavier and heavier. Finally, when it seemed I couldn’t take another stroke, my foot touched the bottom.
“Hey, it’s shallower here,” I said.
Infinity nodded, then pointed to a clump of dead trees by the water.
I pulled myself out of the water and threw myself down for a long minute to rest. When I had taken my minute, I joined Infinity, who stood at the edge of the trees, looking in the direction we were headed. I realized that we were on a small island.
“Which direction now?” I asked.
“Downstream,” she said, still staring.
“Look.” I pointed at a small wooden shingle similar to those that had been on the church roof. Instead of floating downstream, it swirled in the water beside our small island, never leaving.
“Which way is downstream?”