The world did not end with a bang or a whisper, but rather one scream at a time. Ben raced through the streets, pushing his way through the frantic crowd. He knew he could not outrun the disease, but he could outrun the gangs. He hurtled over the rusted frame of a motorcycle and veered towards the park. The gang lines were constantly changing, but the park always seemed to be neutral ground. The screams echoed off the crumbling skyscrapers as people fell victim to the gang. Ben knew what the gangs were hunting for and he refused to be their next meal. He had too much work to do.
His panic subsided a bit, but he did not slow down as he crossed into the park. He ran past the warning signs barely registering the skeletons. Death was everywhere now and the skeletons were the least of his worries. He could feel the eyes watching him, waiting to see if he would respect the neutral space or if they would need to take action. Ben was not sure who had set up their camp in the park, but they did not hunt other humans. His hideout was just on the other side of the park, he listened to the screams as he ran. He did not want to hang out in the park while they hunted near his hideout. Thankfully, the screams were still behind him.
* * *
Ben silently crept along the street, careful to not give away his position. The screams were gone, which meant the gangs were done hunting for now. That did not mean they would not use him for sport if they found him. His hideout was not far from the border of the park, usually only a ten minute walk. Hugging the shadows and taking extra care to not make a sound caused it to take much longer than normal though. When he finally reached the entrance to his hideout, sweat soaked through his shirt.
The doorway was well hidden behind a dumpster. Ben had to slip in sideways and then slide through the tiny hole in the bricks. The small room was empty with a small hole in the ceiling leading to a room above. Ben used a stick to pull down a ladder and quickly climbed into the room, pulling the ladder up behind him. After a hasty search confirmed that he had not had any uninvited company, he finally settled in for the night. While laying in bed, he made a mental list of everything he needed to find tomorrow. Ever since the end had come, food and necessities where hard to come by.
He had some caches built around the city for emergencies. They contained the bare minimum and he did not like using them unless it was an actual emergency. They were not as secured as his hideout. Ben had been in his current hideout for almost six months, the longest period of time he had spent in one place since the end. The key to survival was to keep moving, but something about this hideout made him linger. It felt like he was meant to be there.
When sleep finally took him, it was filled with the usual restless nightmares. They had come every night since the end. The nightmares were filled with the decaying bodies of the diseased and dying. As soon as the plague reached his hometown, Ben knew he needed to leave. He left as soon as he gathered what he needed. In the dreams, he tried to outrun the disease, but no matter how quickly he ran the plague victims overtook him. The monsters started to pull on him and throw him to the ground. Right before one monster ended his life with a clawed hand, he jerked awake.
Ben held his breath as the sound of footsteps on the street outside reached his ears. An odd sniffing sound echoed in the silence. The gangs sometimes used dogs in their hunts. His heart was beating so loudly that he was sure the dog would hear it. The dog scratched at the dumpster before moving away. The footsteps faded, but Ben knew it was time to move again. That was too close and they would only get closer. He waited for what seemed like hours before throwing everything he could carry into his backpack. Traveling at night was risky, but that dog would come back.
He inched his way down the street, keeping a wary eye out for other gang members. His fall back shelter was in a small cave in the park. He just needed to make it there tonight and figure out his next move in the morning. His heart plummeted as soon as he stepped on the park grounds. The dog had picked up his scent and was howling for the others. Terror raced through him as howls answered all around him. He knew he would never make it to the cave.
He ran deeper into the park, hoping that the watchful eyes would protect him. His hope died suddenly as a huge dog appeared snarling in front of him. The woman holding the dogs leash sneered, revealing teeth that had been sharpened to points. She let out a shrill whistle to alert the others to their position. Ben turned to run away, already knowing that it was pointless. A second dog was blocking his path. Panic was clear on his face as a third dog showed up. He knew his nightmares were about to become a reality.
He screamed for help, but he knew no one would come. It was every man for himself in the world now, unless you were in a gang. Even gang members had to watch their backs though. No one was safe and no one would help him. As soon as the leashes were dropped, the dogs lunged. Ben tried to run again, even though he knew it was hopeless. He cried out as the dogs tore into his skin. His cries were punctuated with snarls and laughs as the gang members watched.
As quickly as the mauling had started it ended. Ben tried to look around, but he could not move. He was forced to lay in the dirt and listen to the whimpers and retreating footsteps. He tried to assess his injuries, but his mind seemed to be in a fog. The only thing he could register was the pain. He did not even have the strength to fight as he was lifted into the air. He could hear the crunch of footsteps on the dead leaves, but the sound seemed miles away.
The man who carried Ben moved quickly despite the added weight. He had been watching from the shadows and intervened when the peace had been broken. He walked towards the heart of the park. When he reached the center, the brambles parted and he entered. An elderly woman turned away from a table and walked over to him. She shoved her dark wrinkled face close to Ben’s.
“He is almost gone. Get him on the table,” she whispered after she checked Ben’s wounds.
The man laid him down on the table and stepped away. The man left the clearing to look for the other elders. The wise woman would need help, the strangers wounds were severe. The wise woman moved along Ben’s wounds, cleaning them and chanting under her breath. Ben strained to understand what she was saying, but nothing made sense. His vision clouded over and he welcomed the darkness.
The wise woman chanted more fervently as the stranger’s eyes closed. She was not sure if he was the one they were waiting for, she needed to save him to find out. She turned slightly as the brambles parted again. Three more wrinkled men entered. Their skin looked like tanned leather and their hair hung in long gray braids. They immediately got to work cleaning and stitching up the wounds. They added their voices to the woman’s chanting. Ben’s rescuer watched the elders work, daring to hope that this man would be the one to fix everything. They worked on Ben until the sun started to filter through the trees. When they had done everything they could for him, they sat and waited.
* * *
Ben gasped and tried to sit up. He winced as some of his wounds reopened. His mind raced as he tried to remember what had happened. His eyes found the strange people sitting around him.
“Who are you? What did you do to me,” he groaned.
“We live in the park and maintain the peace. Adahy brought you to us and we healed you,” the oldest man answered.
“I thought I heard chanting. What was that,” Ben asked as some of the night’s events returned.
“It is an old thing, if you are the one we have been waiting for, you will be different, if not, nothing.”
“Who have you been waiting for,” Ben looked at them in confusion.
“We have been waiting for the one who would lead. One of the four who will bring back balance.”
Adahy stood and handed Ben a folded bundle of clothes. Every scrap of clothing in the bundle was as black as night. Ben stared at it, his mind racing to make sense. He looked up as a weird whirring sound reached him. Without realizing what he was doing, Ben caught the dagger that the wise woman had thrown at his chest.
“You are the one,” the wise woman uttered in a hushed voice. “You must gather the other three and restore balance.”
“The other three,” Ben did not even realize he was talking again, he was so fixated on the blade.
“Pestilence, War, and Death. You will know them when you find them and you will know what needs to be done,” Adahy answered.
Before Ben could ask anymore questions, the elderly Indians left the clearing. Adahy followed behind them without looking back. Ben changed into the black clothes and tucked the dagger into his belt. He could feel a tugging sensation in his stomach. He knew he needed to follow it as surely as he knew that he was no longer Ben. He had entered the clearing as Ben, but he left as Famine.
(The picture is “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” by Viktor Vasnetov)