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Short Fiction: End Game

Updated: Mar 19, 2021

Her footsteps slapped in a panicked staccato as the woman ran down the street. Like the shadow of a frightened cat, she scurried from patches of dark and into the misty islands of light cast by the sentinel forms of street lamps, and then back again into the dark. The desperation of her palpable horror was acrid against the gentle rain of the early November evening. But passing traffic did not heed this bundle of terror pelting through its midst; the few people she encountered went about their business as if they did not see her. Driving home from work, planning their meals, their entertainment for the remainder of the day, they were in their own bubbles of trivial concerns and saw nothing amiss.

Nearing a home with warm lights glowing in the curtained window, the woman stumbled wildly up the front steps and hammered on the door. After an eternity, the home owner answered and peered in guarded curiosity at the bedraggled figure with rolling eyes and sweat-sheened brow.

“They're coming,” sobbed the woman. “They're coming---we have to do something--!”

Through the narrow slit between the edge of the door and the jamb, the older man frowned in puzzlement. “Who's coming?”

“They--!” In her trembling urgency, that one word contained a universe of unspeakable dread.

The man squinted past her into the dark. “Sorry—I don't see anything.”

He made a move to shut the door, but she thrust her body into the crack. “You have to help me stop them—please, please help!

His mildly regretful face disappeared as the painted wood panel of the door slammed heavily into its position of solid ignorance. Clattering back down the steps, the woman plunged over to the next residence. Despite her frantic pressing of the bell, no one answered. I know you're home, she whimpered under her breath. How can you ignore me? Don't you know how important this is? Looking over her shoulder, she noted the street behind her was deserted. For now.

The woman rapidly moved to the next house; her ankle turned beneath her as her foot hit the edge of the concrete walkway. The resulting pain was unregarded as she hurled herself at the door. This time, the scowling woman who answered listened with an air of impatient disbelief as the desperate figure chattered out her incoherent warning. “Please, please—you have to help me warn everyone! They're coming!”

“What are you talking about? You're crazy—there's no one out there.” The voice reflected an insurmountable unconcern; already the door was swinging shut in the frantic messenger's face. “Go away.”

The woman obeyed; there was no point wasting her time here, she needed to move on quickly.

The streetlights gleamed on the rain-wet leaves of a laurel hedge looming in the shadows between this house and the next. The next few houses had no lights in the windows. Fighting to catch her breath, to stop shaking convulsively, the woman limped down the pavement. Someone has to listen to me, she thought as she attempted to stave off mounting despair. Someone has to believe me. She had grown up with vague tales of ‘Them’ and their stealth plans, of rumors of an ever-expanding shadow network thrusting its tendrils into every level of society. Draining life while gathering power. These claims had formed mere background noise to her existence, were mere irritants to be dismissed as unproven fables. But tonight she had seen proof, and so continued to reel through the city in dazed horror.

Ahead of her, the walkway was slashed with the shadows of the old trees lining the street, their bare branches netting the smear of the nearly full moon scudding behind a cloud break. From the blackness swirling below of one of these thick boles, a menacing figure stepped out, blocking the woman's path.

Her voice squeaked uselessly; for a split-second, she remained paralyzed, then dashed to one side of the man's indistinct shape. Slipping on wet leaves, she crashed to the sidewalk, falling hard on her hip and shoulder. Stunned and immobile, her every atom shrunk in visceral disgust from the man now looming over her. There was nothing remarkable about his appearance, nothing to mark him as anything other than human, yet still she knew deep in her being: He was one of Them.

“You can't escape,” he said mildly. There was nothing taunting or triumphant in his tone; he spoke flatly, with no pleasure. He drew a strap from his pocket and bent over her. In another moment, he'd be tying up her hands and leading her away. As everyone would be led, into the darkness. He explained dully, “None of you will escape in the end. It's all over.”

Gasping, she twisted away from him and lurched to her feet. With a burst of speed, she blindly made for the end of the street, too frightened to cry out for help. Her heart thudded in her throat, she hardly looked to either side as she rushed through the empty intersection.

Up ahead, the lines of the street and sidewalks converged in a plaza stretching before a large building sheathed in white stone. Warm, welcoming light blazed from the windows, and the woman ran directly towards this beckoning haven. Obviously many people were inside—surely she could convince someone to heed her warnings, surely they would stop her pursuer. She could hear no following footsteps, but did not dare slow down to look over her shoulder. She felt he was mere inches behind her, silent as smoke and unstoppable.

Cutting directly across the sodden grass of the manicured lawn bordering the plaza, she made for the large glass doors at the front of the building. On the main floor, behind the decorative pillars of the temple-like structure, people were gathered, conversing in elegant, self-assured knots beneath the shimmering illumination from elaborate chandeliers that hung throughout the large chamber. The woman stood a moment studying this scene through the expansive windows. Outside, in the cold and menacing dark, she was entranced by the vision within of security and affluence. Those occupying the huge chamber wore luxurious robes of deceptively spartan design; they seemed to be speaking among themselves of vast matters, in tones of solemn confidence and power. If any could stand against Them and be victorious, it was surely These.

Clutching at this last thread of hope, the woman pushed open the front doors and stepped into the gathering. Men and women halted their numerous conversations and turned in expectant silence towards her.

Her tremulous voice rang out, “Please—you have to help! They’re coming—they’re almost here!” Her thin, mewling warning scarcely reached her own ears. A few glances were exchanged from one complacently prosperous face to another, but no one questioned her or stepped forward to offer comfort. She tried again, faltering. “You can stop them, if you try now…,”

Haughty frowns replaced the scattered looks of mild interest. Whispers now passed among the elect groups. A man, stone-faced and imperious, light glinting off the bald dome of his large skull, left his companions and approached her. "Please tell me---who are ‘They”?” he demanded. Arrogant contempt, with an edge of ridicule, underlay his voice and hardened his pale, merciless eyes.

Further warning died on her tongue as full understanding rose in her heart. These were They. They were everywhere, and it was too late. This place was their headquarters, the heart of their vast operation, and tonight they met to celebrate their final triumph. Tomorrow there would be no dawn, but night unending was the lot of all excluded from that glittering temple.

From deep within the woman rose a vast, inarticulate cry of dismay, But as the sound left her, it formed words. And as the words flew from her mouth, they became the shape of a vast bell, and the air resonated with the ringing of it, and the walls of the temple shook beneath its blows.

‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.’

The words crashed outward again and again; chandeliers swayed and broke from the crumbling ceiling and rained heavy fragments upon the assembly. And those gathered screamed as blood spilled from their eyes and ears, but they were too confused to flee and so were crushed by falling pillars and swallowed by the vast chasm that opened below their feet.

And still the words rang from the woman’s open mouth, like a great rushing wind, destroying everything in its path.

(c) S.Kirk Pierzchala, 2020

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