The howling echoed through the hills around him as Eldar scrambled up the slope. Leaves, sticks and scrub all slid beneath his hands and feet, and he began to feel like he was moving in place. His hands slipped and he fell flat on his face and slid down slope a few feet. Exhaustion took its hold and reverberated through him.
Four days the hounds had ghosted them. Stalked them. Probed them at night and traced their movements in the day. At first they thought them scavengers looking for any leavings. Then last night the pack seemed to make its decision. They knew the pack had grown but it seemed that the hounds were actually hiding their numbers, never showing more than a few at once. When they came there were so many more of them than Eldar had imagined.
Tarrelson had tried to fight them off. Eldar had watched as the hounds gauged him and the burning brand he swung at them. Three had stayed in front of him, barking and nipping at him. He never saw the two that circled behind. They came on him from his blind spot and tore out the back of his legs. As soon as he was down they were on him. His struggling only went a few more seconds. Eldar winced at the image of the man’s limbs becoming still beneath the wagging tails of the large hounds. He knew that would be with him the rest of his days, however many more he had.
The howling struck up again, closer now, as if to accentuate that thought. Eldar pounded the ground. There had been seven of them. A good number. A fortuitous number they had all agreed. As they ran from the hounds into these forsaken mountains there were only five left. The pack stalked them. They did not attack again en masse but rather seemed content to pick off the group one by one. Any hesitation, any slip or fall, any lack of strength and the hounds took you. Eldar was the last, and only because Tok and Clutch had turned to try and fight. Exhaustion was taking its toll and the two men decided to turn and fight the pack hoping to scare the hounds off. Eldar could hear the snarling of the hounds and the gunshots. He ran for high ground hoping to find a place to hide and that the two men might fight them off. It had only been a few minutes before the guns went silent. Shortly after that the howling started. It surrounded him and he drove harder up the slopes. He chose paths that would be harder for the pack to traverse. These were also incredibly hard on him, but he hoped to gain some space to be able to find a good place to hide, or to fight, but most likely to die. The Howling echoed from all around him. They were communicating to one another, sharing his location across the pack as they moved to channel him to where they could surround him.
But something would not let him stop. Somehow he knew that if he just kept going a little longer he would survive. He pounded the ground again. They had been seven! Now it was just him.
Slowly, his hands reached up and grabbed an exposed root on the hillside.
Somehow his grip was strong and he pulled himself up.
Somehow his feet found purchase on a rock slightly jutting from the loose ground of the slope.
Somehow he pulled and pushed and clawed and scratched his way up.
Eldar found a gravel trail cutting across the slope and somehow he knew to follow it. Staggering, scrambling, crawling and running he made his way along the trail. Trees rose alongside the trail like ancient sentinels. Branches that reached out into the trail clutched and pulled at him, but he was not even aware of them. His mind had devolved to just one thought: Keep taking the next step. Keep moving. There was no room in his mind for anything beyond the effort it took to drive his hands and feet forward. The howling struck up again and seemed to be everywhere. Eldar pushed through a bramble and stepped over something. He had no mind for what it was, but the post with writing from Before rocked back and forth as he stepped across it.
The howling erupted again and Eldar looked about in panic. Shadows moved in the trees around him and he knew they were taking their time. Assessing him. Circling him. Surrounding him. He rolled off the path and crawled towards a depression in the ground. It would be his grave he knew. As he started down into the shallow in the ground he started to slip on wet grass that lined the depression. He panicked as whatever strength had possessed his fingers for the last few minutes fled him and he slid down the slope. The crunch of gravel alerted him to several of the hounds racing after him. He looked back as he slid and saw their over-large torsos appear at the top of the pit he was falling into. They were silhouetted against the darkening sky and the sentinel trees that surrounded them.
The ground fell away from him and he was weightless for a second before another surface slammed into him. The air exploded from his lungs as he lie on his back looking up out of the pit he had fallen into. He collected his breath again in huge gasps and the world stopped blinking before his eyes. Now he could hear the whining and growling from the pack above as they assessed the slope and how best to get at their prey. As air heaved into him, he started to realize that the ground he was on was flat. Perfectly, unnaturally flat. It was also very hard and cold. He ran his hand over it and felt its cool smoothness. He had felt this sort of material a few times in his life and knew this was a thing from Before. No one After could make a surface this perfect.
Eldar turned and pushed himself up to his knees looking around. He was about ten feet down in some sort of silo. Above he could see the sky and the branches of the trees overhead. He could not see any of his pursuers but he heard them moving around the edges of the slope which led down here. They had shown uncanny intelligence up to this point so Eldar was not surprised and more than a little thankful they had not tried the slope yet. He had no doubt that they would slip the same as him and it would rain immense, ferocious, man-eating hounds on him as soon as they did. It was only a matter of time though so he needed to figure out where he was.
Reaching his hands out Eldar felt walls of the same smoothness as the floor under him. Slowly his eyes adjusted to the darkness and he could make out the confines of the narrow shaft he was in. It looked as if there was an alcove in the wall to his left and he reached toward that. He did not have the strength to stand and so he crawled towards the darkness of the alcove.
A scrambling sound from above preceded a whine from one of the hounds and a rain of dirt from above. They were getting adventurous and he knew the lure of their prey would override any fear of the strange terrain very soon.
Lurching forward Eldar’s hand pressed against a firm surface inset a few hand widths inside the alcove. The metal ring on his finger connected with the new surface in a resounding metal on metal ping. A metal door? Eldar was amazed as he ran his hands over the surface.
There was a sudden snap-hiss and light flooded the silo from the inset of the alcove. The lights were blinding at first and Eldar’s eyes reversed their light sensitivity to accommodate as he shielded his eyes. A low hum resonated from the door and a green light flashed over the inside of the silo. What Eldar could only describe as a beam scanned down the interior of the silo and over him, and then back up and snapped off as the hum faded.
“Please identify yourself for admittance beyond this point.” a warm female voice spoke from seemingly everywhere and nowhere all at once.
Eldar coughed and tried to speak but could not find his voice.
“Please try again. Please identify yourself for admittance beyond this point.” the warm voice intoned again. “Are you in need of assistance?” it continued in an almost too solicitous voice.
“Yes! Yes! Let me in please! By the light of Before!” Eldar croaked in the voice that the last few days had left him with.
“No Match. Please try secondary biometric identity scan for admittance beyond this point. Please be advised that unauthorized access is subject to, but not limited to, significant fines and may result in imprisonment and, in rare cases, execution.” While the warm female voice politely spoke of executing him, Eldar saw a hand sized green square light up at about his shoulder height had he been standing. The image of a hand pulsed brighter and darker upon the square.
Eldar tried to pull himself up, but there were no hand holds in the smooth silo he was beginning to think would be his tomb. So far he had come, and so hard he had struggled these last few days and now all he had to do was stand up, and he couldn’t.
“Do you require assistance?” the warm voice inquired. Was there a hint of superiority in her tone? Eldar thought maybe he had finally snapped. Was he dreaming this?
“Yes! Damn you, please!” he croaked.
“Please do not be perturbed. What is the nature of your distress so that the proper assistance can be given?”
Eldar stared at the green blinking hand and loathed the voice with the deepest part of his being. He coiled what remaining strength he had and lunged at that green hand.
Three things then happened near to simultaneously. First, Eldar’s hand slapped onto the green square with a wet smack. The blood and grime on his hands leaving a distinct shape on the glass. The force of his slap spiked back thought him as pain shot up his arm. Second there was a scrambling from above, a rain of dirt and the howling yip of one of the hounds as several hundred pounds of snarling hound came slamming to floor of the silo. Third, the warm female voice intoned, “Positive Identification. Welcome Maintenance Worker number 7424.” Then, and Eldar later would swear there was a tone of sarcasm, “Was that so hard?”
Eldar stared at the green pad incredulously. Somehow the smear of his handprint had registered with the disembodied voice.
A growl filled the silo and Eldar turned to look at the hound raising up on its legs and shaking the fall from itself. Eldar fell back against the metal wall of the alcove and stared at the hound. He found himself memorizing every detail of its snarling visage. From the wet gleam of its nose to the saliva lining it’s jowls as it exposed it’s reddish yellow fangs to him. The movement of each muscle as it moved forwards. It was the last site he would see so he absorbed its every nuance.
The hound stepped forward again and apparently crossed some threshold within the silo as the hum and green beam came to life again. It ran down over the beast and then back up again. The hound blinked at the light but was not put off from its prey and stepped forward again.
“Security override Seven Nine Delta One. Assume BF mode alpha.” the warm female voice spoke with authority now. Eldar believed he saw a green flash deep within the hound’s eyes, but he could not be sure. The effect though of the command was immediate. The hound laid down on the floor of the silo, head up and attentive, tongue protruding from the side of its mouth panting lightly. There was no trace of aggression left at all to the beast.
Eldar stared in amazement and somehow missed the brief vibration in the metal wall he leaned against. It was brief, as the vibration was followed by the wall suddenly lurching up and out from behind him. Exhausted, Eldar promptly fell back, inside what he now knew was a door, and slamming his head on another unnaturally smooth and perfectly hard floor.
As the world dimmed around him and Eldar felt consciousness slipping away from him he heard the too warm and too polite female voice.
“Leaning on blast doors is not recommended. This is a dangerous practice that can result in loss of limb or other serious injury. Safety mechanisms should have disabled this door from opening when it was leaned upon. Please report this to maintenance referencing error ID 10 T.”
And then, “Thank you for your assistance.” and all was dark.
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