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Umbra Ac Cinis (Part Three)
Posted By: Arthur Wellesley<arthur_wellesly@hotmail.com>
Date: 22 December 2006, 4:15 am

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       "At her throat, you say?"

       "Yes," Haverfield affirmed guiltily. He could not even bring himself to look into the eyes of his friend, Daniel Smith. Partners before the exodus had necessitated their separation, they had been each been the other's crutch through the years of hard police work of their early careers. Over a round of beers they would relieve their pent up stress in the form of great torrents of half-drunk anger and vague complaints at the inefficiency of the justice system. He was oft to say that wife-beaters were the scum of the earth and that the only suitable punishment would be one that fit the crime. The hypocrisy of his present circumstance made him cringe in self-disdain.

       "What led up to this?" Smith asked uncomfortably.

       "We had a falling-out—nothing big, just a small spat—and the next thing I know, I am on top of her, trying to…" He found himself unable to go on, the freshness of the memory bringing too much pain to the remembrance. He dared not reveal his hallucination to his friend either, lest he think him entirely mad and have him turn in his badge.

       "We've all been under a lot of stress since the Covenant came," Smith said.

       "Have you yet beaten your wife?" Haverfield snapped.

       Smith averted his eyes, embarrassed for his friend. Haverfield shook his head angrily and ran his hands across his face and through his hair. "I think I'm losing my mind," he confided quietly.

       "Well, you look like shit," Smith observed. It was true; he had studied his own face with disgust after the incident with his wife. His skin was pale and coarse, his hair dull and ragged. His face was gaunt, his cheeks sunken so that his eyes seemed to protrude at unnatural length. He had not noticed his descent to the wretched state he had found himself in. This city was ruining him, turning him into that which he hunted—that which he loathed.

       "I think I'm losing my mind," he said again.

       "Stay with me now," Smith said, resting a hand on his shoulder. "This can't last. People will come to their senses, and they will come back."

       "How many months have we told ourselves that, Dan?" he asked. "It's only getting worse. We've not yet reached the valley of our despair."

       A woman approached their table carrying a large metal tray. She was once the station's receptionist, though since the desertion of the city she had assumed nearly all clerical and maintenance positions, including cafeteria chef. At one time, morning was a busy time for the precinct's lunchroom. Officers coming off their shift would mingle with those coming on; the former grabbing some free breakfast before their day's sleep, the latter grabbing some coffee to prepare themselves for the day's work. Only two men were present here this day, however, served by a single cook. They looked grotesque, somehow, sitting in the wide, open space beneath the rows of flickering fluorescent lights.

       The food the woman brought was no less obscene. She brought two plates of what looked like tepid gruel poured on top of some unidentifiable, lumpy mass. It was an entirely gray affair; even the water that accompanied the meals seemed tainted by it.

       "I'm sorry," the woman apologized, looking at their downcast faces. "The city's been going through brownouts and I can't get the stove to any decent temperature."

       "Some fruit, perhaps?" Smith suggested hopefully.

       "Fresh fruit?" the woman laughed incredulously.

       Haverfield brought his fist down on the table with tremendous force, rattling the dishes and shocking the woman into silence. "I can't take any more of this fucking bullshit!" he cried.

       "That will be all, dear," Smith said, dismissing their wide-eyed attendant. As she hurried away, Smith leaned forward and flashed his friend a harsh gaze. "You've got to pull yourself together, now."

       "This can't be happening," Haverfield whispered.

       "It is."

       "How can civilization crumble in a matter of months?" he asked, more of himself than his friend. "How can they abandon everything at a whim?"

       "People just need some time to get over the shock…"

       "Only they're not!" Haverfield interrupted his friend with a near maniac pitch. "They go off into the wilderness and seem to evaporate. How is it that we hear close to nothing of those who left?"

       "Perhaps they left to avoid just such scrutiny that civilization heaps upon them… upon all of us."

       Haverfield tore at his face with his hands at this, half laughing, half crying into his palms. "Why does everyone around me insist on justifying this insanity?"

       "This is borderline paranoia, my friend," Smith said quietly. He pushed Haverfield's plate coaxingly towards him. "Come on, try and eat. You look like death."

       Haverfield eyed the quivering gray mass distastefully with no real mind for eating. He prodded it with his fork, using it as a distraction so that he would not be compelled to look into the eyes of his friend. At length, he saw that the food before him shriveled and crumbled into ash, his fork raising great plumes of it into the air.

       "My God!" he exclaimed, knocking over his chair as he backed away from the spectacle. "It turns to dust before my very eyes!"

       "Calm down, man," Smith urged, rising from his own seat. "There is nothing there to see!"

       When at last his eyes wandered back to his plate, it held once again the glistening gruel upon its surface. He shook his head and held up a warning finger to Smith who was slowly approaching him. "That is not as it was," he said, trying desperately to seem reasonable.

       Smith stopped several paces from Haverfield, unsettled by the look in his friend's eyes. "You should probably take the day off, Travis. I can't let you patrol like this."

       "No," Haverfield conceded distantly. "I agree." He turned to leave, striding with undue haste towards the exit.

       "Travis!" Smith called after him as he left. "Let me drive you, at least. Your car was destroyed!"

       His friend's words were a faint echo to Haverfield as he ran up the stairs. He did not turn at their utterance; he barely even heard them. He was desperate for the respite fresh air promised, nearly sprinting towards the door. The woman was not at her desk in the foyer. Nor was anyone at their appointed positions—the department was empty, silent, lifeless.

       Haverfield burst through the exit, flinging the double doors ajar and letting their open air fill his lungs. It did nothing to calm his nerves, though; instead it was airless and oppressive, and far colder than it should have been. The thoroughfare on which the precinct was built was utterly empty, devoid of pedestrians or passing cars or any movement at all. Throwing back his head, he screamed incoherently towards the heavens, willing only that someone might hear him, revealing themselves from behind this gauze of desolation.

       No response came to him, only a rushing silence and a blinding motionlessness. He looked up and down the abandoned street, the desperation of a trapped animal in his eyes, and beheld nothing at all. No deserted vehicles, blowing trash, or broken windows. No sign to speak of that anybody had once called this place home. The buildings, too, no longer looked as they did, but rather extensions of the earth itself, great mounds of crumbling dirt piled to the sky. Bereft of human life, Paradiso no longer looked like a city; rather, a shadow of a shadow.

       It had at last happened. The last vestiges of sense and reason had fled the city, and with it all hope of a return to the way things were. Paradiso would not be able to endure such complete abandonment, especially now that those who had taken leave of their sanity but not the city would be free to roam its depths…

       The image of the little girl flashed like a bolt of lightning across his mind's eye, along with the inhuman figure that accompanied her. Maya would not yet have left without him. He bounded down the department's steps and ran down the opposing street towards his home. Worry gripped his heart and guilt drove his weary legs.

       He ran past the tall buildings of the commercial district, the structures around him becoming progressively lower and smaller. In the indistinct blur of his peripheral vision he saw the buildings decay, as if they had contracted rot and were suffering its symptoms at an unprecedented rate. Cracks appeared on their surfaces out of which seeped clouds of dust as beams buckled and floors collapsed. He did not turn to see if this was indeed happening or if it was just the projection of his own mind. In truth he had neither the compulsion to check its veracity nor the will to deviate even for a moment from his intended path. All that mattered now was Maya.

       His house was as he remembered it, but darker. He leapt several steps at a time to reach his front door, shouldering it open when he reached it. He ran past the bottom of his staircase where only hours earlier he had half-strangled his wife in a fit of rage and slid unceremoniously into the kitchen.

       There, lying crumpled upon the floor, lay Maya, her body looking very much like it had been mauled by a large animal. Haverfield collapsed on a nearby chair, looking briefly at the almost unrecognizable face of his wife, and then hung his head in defeat.

       "You weep for her?" a voice asked him.

       He snapped his head upright at these words, and through his tears he saw a figure seated atop his granite countertop opposite him. It was one of the disaffected, if possible even more emaciated than the one who had claimed the life of the little girl. He wondered how he did not notice the man earlier, for the rasping of his breath was piercing and quickly grated on the senses.

       "Why shouldn't I?" he answered blankly. He felt no urge to attack this monstrosity of a man—he did not even hold any ill will against him. He simply sought the answer to the question that filled him with an unnatural heat. To why he stood over the body of his dead wife without surprise.

       But the intruder offered no absolution, saying nothing, his lips only parting to draw rattling, almost desperate intakes of air. As he sat there, staring into the dead eyes of this near dead man, Haverfield began to realize no satisfaction was offered because there was none to be found.

       "Did I kill her?"

       The man nodded once, silently, the stretched skin of his mouth looking for all the world like a ghastly grin.

       "I could never do this," he said, choking on his words. He collapsed from his chair to kneel by his wife. "Why would anyone do this?"

       "What if she wanted you to?" the disaffected asked him in a voice that made his skin crawl. "What if the world is not as it seems?" He cocked his head to one side, his unblinking eyes boring through his skull. "It rarely is."

       Suddenly, the rot which consumed the buildings outside spread to the kitchen, black veins crawling along the walls and the ceiling and the furniture. Dust fell from cracks which rent every surface, metal turned to rust and then to nothing it all. It was as if millennia passed before his eyes like the passing of seconds. He shut his eyes from the sight, willing it to be a lie, but he could not escape the sound of his reality coming undone.

       "What are you saying?" he begged, sobbing over his wife's still face. "What's happening to me?"

       "Your eyes are opening," the man told him. "Behold, the world as it is!"

       Haverfield turned his head to see, and his dreams came to life. Before him lay an expansive plain, barren but for a few blackened and gnarled trees. The sky was matched only by the ground in bleakness, being at times entirely indistinguishable from the other. There was only grey to be seen; his world was saturated by it.

       He tried to scream, but he could produce no sound. He coughed instead, retching horribly at the dryness in his throat, and from his mouth descended a plume of ash. Ash. That was it. It was everywhere, on every surface; it was the bed in which he lay.

       He collapsed, weakened by his exertions, marveling at his frailty. He looked at his hands in amazement, and saw only a skeleton, his skin hanging desperately to the protruding bone. His whole body was impossibly thin, emaciated to the very brink of death.

       With what strength was left to him, he turned on his side. Next to him lay what must have once been a body, but was now only a collection of twisted bones with meager bits of rotting flesh hanging from them. He wept tearlessly at the terrible sight. Hunger gnawed persistently at his stomach.

       A hot wind blew against his face. He closed his eyes. A few drops of rain fell from the sky, landing on his leathery skin and making him wince. He reached for them with his tongue, in dire need of water to quench his thirst. It tasted metallic, acidic, but he swallowed it anyway.

       The warm breeze became more insistent, and the raindrops cooler and fresher. He opened his eyes, and was surrounded by an intense white light. He blinked again, and a face was silhouetted above him.

       "Maya," he breathed.

       "Travis!" she cried, throwing the wet facecloth on the kitchen table. She knelt down and embraced him, holding his head lovingly in her arms. "You had me worried to death."

       He weakly raised a hand to pat her reassuringly on the shoulder. "What happened?" he asked her. "Where am I?"

       Maya looked at him concernedly, placed a hand on his forehead as if checking for a fever. "You collapsed at the table, my dear," she told him. "Perhaps at the news."

       "What news? What are you talking about?"

       Maya laughed excitedly, bringing him once again into her arms. "They have come back, Travis. All of them! Soon, we will be whole again!"

       - Arthur