The strangest thing about the end of the world was the way in which the stars became brighter. It made sense of course, without electricity to power the cities there was nothing to create the masses of light pollution that had obscured the sky. Now, the monsters were illuminated from above, and they could only appear as shadows to the people below, until they came down to the ground.
Martha rubbed the blood away from her chin with the back of her hand and lifted her eyes to the sky.
“Do you see them?”
She held up a hand to silence her companion and then pulled the hood of her jacket over her head to cover the colour of her hair.
“Quickly,” she said. “I can’t see them but they’ll be on their way.”
Her companion spat on the body that lay between them on the ground, and then hauled the duffle bag up from the ground. Not all of the blood on it was fresh.
“Far enough,” said Martha. “Then a little further.”
Her companion spat on the body again.
“Filthy thieving bastard.”
“Abby,” Martha hissed, grabbing the girl by the shoulders and pushing her through the door into the cold and dark of an abandoned house. Once upon a time it had been warm and welcoming, but now the window were smashed in and the valuables had long ago been looted.
The silence of the world outside had been absent for days, with only the distant chanting of the Devoted Ones to break the screeching and crying of the dregs of humanity.
“Abby,” Martha said again. “Let’s go.”
Abby hitched the duffel bag more firmly onto her shoulder.
“You are sure that this place has a back door?”
Martha was never sure of anything, but false bravado seemed better than no bravado at all.
“Sure enough,” she said. “Now keep your voice down, I think the believers are coming closer.”
Whether they were or not was hard to say, because the chanting was constant and on all sides. Much like the presence of the monsters that they worshiped as though they were gods.
The two women made their way through the house, feet quiet unless their boots landed on pieces of shattered glass or the remnants of broken furniture. If they did hit the rubble it passed unnoticed, the destruction had become as normal as the dirt on their faces and the blood on their hands.
There was a back door, but it had been boarded shut, so Martha pulled the ragged scarf away from her neck and wrapped it around her closed fist, using it to knock the last bits of glass out of the frame of the already broken window. It was an action that she had taken so often that it could now be considered second nature.
“Feet first,” said Abby, and Martha made a sound of irritation at her.
She slid through the window like a knife through flesh, and there were at least two new splinters in her hands by the time she was entirely on the other side. This street was just as cold, and just as bright as the last, though without the presence of an entrepreneurial mugger. Even the shadows cast from the monsters above felt the same.
Abby pushed the duffel bag through the window, and pushed it harder when it got caught half in and half out. Even as she swore Martha was biting back a curse of her own.
“We don’t have time for this, Abs,” she said, voice pitched to a whisper now that she was back in the open.
There was a grunt from Abby and then the bag tumbled through, followed by the woman. This movement was also accompanied by profanities. Martha made a hissing sound at her until she was quiet, they both remembered a time when they had not been mindful of the noise they made and had shortly thereafter been running for their lives. Neither of them had enough memory of the time before the monsters had made the silence necessary.
Abby landed on her feet much more smoothly than Martha had, but when she turned her gaze to the mouth of the alley she froze. There were a few seconds of hesitation, and then she dropped the bag on the ground and strode directly to the pale lump that was huddled in the shadows just ahead of them.
“Abby,” Martha hissed. “What are you doing?”
“He’s still alive,” Abby whispered. “We have to help him.”
“No, we don’t,” said Martha, her own whisper sharp and angry. “He’s got the paint around his eyes, he’s a believer.”
“He’s still a person,” said Abby. “And he’s hurt. C’mon, help me get him upright.”
“No,” said Martha, she retrieved the bag from the ground and followed Abby’s chosen path, but she stopped a few steps away from the man who had been left to die on the cold ground. Now that she was closer she could see the blood dribbling out of the corner of his mouth and the bruises that were blossoming in yellows and purples on his pale skin.
“Hey,” said Abby. “What’s your name?”
He groaned at her, and Martha darted forward to clap a hand over his mouth.
“Quiet,” she hissed. “Or you’ll bring the whole lot of them down on us.
Abby pushed her hand away.
“Help me get him out of the open,” she said.
“This is insane,” said Martha. “I’m not going to help you get yourself killed!”
She was ignored, as Abby hooked the man’s arm around her shoulders and pulled him up from the ground. They shuffled together, her feet more firm than his, and even though they only had a short way to go to get to the nearest doorway it took them a painfully long time.
In the end, Martha’s frustration lurched out of her chest and carried her to his other side so that they were both hauling him through the door. Once they were inside, surrounded by the colder shadows, he tilted forward and collapsed on the floor, groaning all the while.
“This is the most stupid thing that you have ever done,” said Martha, and once again she was ignored.
“Hey,” said Abby. “What happened to you?”
The pale man on the floor rolled over and peered up at them, then he clasped his hands over his eyes and began shouting.
“Blasphemers! Blasphemers! Blasphemers! Blasphemers!”
“No, don’t hit him!” cried Abby when Martha raised a fist, and the man fell silent. “He’s been hit enough already!”
He shifted himself so that he was sitting in an upright position and stared at them warily. The paint around his eyes that marked him as a Devoted One was smeared and smudged, and the blood on his mouth had dried enough to show that it was from a split lip.
“Blasphemers,” he whispered.
“Hey,” said Abby. “We are trying to help you. Who did this to you?”
He tore at his face with his fingers, and though his nails were not long enough to break the skin he still left red stripes running perpendicular down his cheeks.
“I am punished for my transgressions,” he said in a terrified whisper. “They heard my every lie.”
“Who?” asked Abby.
“The gods,” he said, and clasped his hands over his mouth to stop himself from wailing.
“There are no gods,” said Martha sternly. “The gods are dead and so are we, come on, Abby. There’s no helping him now.”
He let out a gasping cry and grabbed at her leg so that she could not get away.
“Do not leave me in the brightness! They will swallow me whole!”
“You should have thought about that before you joined a cult,” said Martha, pressing her foot down on his hand until he released her. “Abby, let’s go.”
“We can’t just leave him here!” said Abby. “They’ve already beat him up once!”
“He’s half crazed and confused, he’ll only slow us down and you know we cannot afford to be slowed down!”
Abby knelt on the ground next to the Devoted One and gently took his arm, stretching it out so that they could properly see the bruises. The only light was coming through the broken windows and the half open door, but it was enough to catch the colours on him.
“If we take him with us he’ll have the time to heal.”
“Only if we get there before he decides to betray us,” said Martha. “They are all lost causes, you know that.”
The man grabbed at Abby’s wrist.
“Do not let them take me back! I do not want to be swallowed!”
“No one is going to swallow you,” said Abby in a soothing voice. In another life she would have been a mother or a teacher or some other kind of caretaker of small children. In another world she would not have been adept at climbing through broken windows and defending herself from desperate would-be thieves on the street.
“Hey,” said Martha, poking him with the toe of her boot. “Why did they hurt you? Tell us why they did this to you and maybe we’ll think about bringing you along.”
“They left me there to die,” he whispered. “I am the sacrifice because my mouth was full of lies.”
“He’s too far gone,” said Martha.
“No one is ever too far gone,” said Abby. “Tell us about the lies.”
He clapped his hands over his ears.
Martha kicked him, and the pain of it fled his body with a gasp.
“There are no gods,” he whispered. “The gods have been killed by the demons!”
There was a moment of silence in which he bore such an expression of terror that he began to shake, and then his eyes rolled back into his head and he slumped against the wall.
“Damn,” said Martha. “Well, there’s no bringing him along now.”
“Don’t be such a bitch,” said Abby, she leaned over and gently slapped at his face with the back of her hand. “Of course we have to bring him. If there is anywhere he will be given the time to heal it will be paradise.”
“We don’t even know if the place exists,” said Martha.
“That hasn’t stopped us from looking so far,” said Abby. “Hey, wake up.”
“Do you want to come to paradise with us?”
The man began to shake again, but this time Abby grabbed his shoulders and held him still.
“The monsters will not find us there,” she said softly. “Nothing will try to swallow you.”
He tore at his hair with his hands.
“There’s no such place.”
“But if there is, don’t you want to take that chance?”
He considered this for several seconds, and then wiped the paint away from his eyes with his hands. It made his face dirtier, but they were all dirty in the monsters’ world.
“How far?” he asked.
“Far enough,” said Abby. “Then a little further.”
He thought again, but then he shook his head wildly and covered his ears with his hands.
“Hey,” said Martha. “We have to leave, and if you’re going to come with us then I won’t stop you, but we don’t have the time to drag you along.”
“Abby, no, I’m not delaying any longer, if he follows us he follows us but you and I are not going to waste any more time.”
She held out a hand and pulled Abby to her feet, then hitched the duffel bag full of their supplies more firmly onto her shoulder. Their hands remained twisted together until they were back on the street, and then Abby shook herself free and pushed curled fists into the pocket of her jacket.
“Thank you,” she said.
“Don’t thank me yet,” said Martha. “Is he following?”
Abby cast a glance over her shoulder.
“Yeah,” she said. “So, how much farther?”
“Far enough,” said Martha. “Far enough.”
Abby looked at the sky, at the monsters blocking out the stars, and said nothing.