Darkest Of Winters
Prologue: Crimson Sun Rise
As the wind blew across the yellowed grass, I glanced up at the reddish gray clouds, catching fleeting glimpses of the yellowed sky in between. The cold autumn wind ruffled my knee length dress and billowed my black leather and fox fur trench coat out behind me like a cape, the faintest hint of apples mixed with smoke drifting towards me.
"It wasn’t always like this." I whispered to Jeloo, my small pet, his furry tail twitching ever so slightly at the sound of my voice, the porcupine like quills barely visible among the dark fur of his body, vanishing again as he returned to picturesque stillness. As I glanced at him, I was once again amazed at the strange combination of chemicals, radiation, and god knows what that created his kind; roughly the size of ring tail monkey Jeloo vaguely resembled one, in that he had monkey like black fur, a tail and humanoid hands.
But there all resemblance to any normal life ended and the nightmare began. His facial features resembled more that of a rat skull flesh drawn tight and leathery across his muzzle, with deep-set eyes that seemed to almost glow ice crystal blue. Numerous rows of teeth, much like a sharks filled his mouth, though his were thin and needle sharp, a sharp contrast to the thick bear like claws that protruded from the tips of his fingers and toes.
As if sensing I was staring at him Jeloo lowered his head and scratched behind his pointed wolf shaped ears and whined softly in embarrassment. "Sorry, just remembering how I ran across you way back-" my reminiscence was interrupted by the alarming sound of leaves rustling to our left.
Dropping to a crouch I tore my revolver from its shoulder holster and thrust it towards the tree line, thankful the swiftly approaching darkness wasn’t upon us yet. Jeloo had already vanished into the tree tops with a lightning fast blur and for all I knew was ready to pounce upon whatever was lurking in the brush at my command.
The slanting rays of the setting sun struck through the bare tree branches and fell across the leafy ground like a scattered spot light, illuminating the bushes with a tired yellow incandescence, and glittered off the brownish yellow scales of a eight foot rattler.
Its right eye shimmered in the setting sun like a jewel, the flicker of a forked tongue the snakes’ only movement. With a chill I realized the distance between me and the reptile was maybe ten feet, and if it chose to strike the chances were I’d be dead before I could squeeze the trigger.
Scarcely breathing I slid the selector switch of my le-mat from .44 bullets to the single .63 caliber grapeshot flechette, the snake swayed slightly let to the right its tongue flickering in and out, the shining eye fixated on me.
Being careful to keep my movement to a minimum I slowly angled the barrel until it was dead center with the snakes’ head, its swaying back and forth carefully matched by the movement of my hand cannon.
Slowly I increased pressure on the trigger, tracking the serpents swaying as it increased in pitch, understanding anything less than a direct hit could sent the mutation Convulsing towards me, possibly planingt a shattered fang through my armored coat and kill me as sure as any bullet.
The explosion of the round echoed deafeningly, the dozens of steel darts slamming into the monstrosity and transforming its head from the jaw upwards into a welter of blood and gore. Spraying it over the landscape, the remainder thrashing in tangles, the contents of its stomach flung wildly across the clearing.
I wrinkled my nose in disgust as the acidic stench of bile filled the air and a mostly dissolved rabbit landed next to me with a sickening squish. Climbing to my knees I reloaded the le-mat and brushed specks of blood off my face.
Glancing around first to make sure nothing else threatened me, I let out a low whistle to Jeloo and smoothed out my dress, the specks of snake blood lost amid the dark, almost midnight blue silk. With scarcely a sound Jeloo sprang out of a near by tree to land cat like on my shoulder, his tail wrapping around me for balance, the quills flat against his skin and covered by thick fur.
"I would have let you kill it but I couldn’t risk letting you get bit, even if the venom didn’t effect you those fangs were long enough to run you through." I told him in response to his questioning glance. "Besides, the poison on your quills would have ruined the meat."
With a low hiss Jeloo seemed to agree with my reasoning and snuggled against my shoulder, his thick fur warm across my cheek. "We’ll head on and look for another clearing to make camp, this one’s covered in snake puke, and the shot’s likely to attract all kinds of attention." As Jeloo slipped off my shoulder to lope along side me I shouldered my pack and gathered up the huge snake body, which was thankfully much lighter than I had feared, and dragged it behind me.
I continued to travel through the hilly forest for the next hour and a half, the twilight descending into darkness until I discovered the perfect place to spend the night.
* * * * *
The small stone building sat nestled next to three wooden lean-to’s and overlooked a breathtaking view of the countryside, which spread out below the cliff like a tapestry, the rising moon lending an ethereal beauty and turning the winding river far below into a ribbon of silver. A faded sign marked this place as Maplewood Campground, with an even more faded bulletin listing the safety regulations for cook fires and reminding visitors not to litter.
"This looks safe enough." I told Jeloo, who rubbed affectionately against my leg and looked meaningfully at a faded neon green portable toilet that listed drunkenly to one side in between a stand of huge pine trees, the words the shit never ends spray painted on the door in bright red letters.
"Don’t worry we’re not spending the night in there." I said quietly, dumping the body of the snake off my shoulders and heading over to the cabin door, surprised to find it firmly shut and still intact.
Lowering my pack gently to the ground I slid the shotgun off my back and chambered a round, flicking on the light attached beneath. Carefully I lifted the latch on the door, ordering Jeloo to watch my back with a quick hand gesture.
As Jeloo melted into the inky blackness beneath the trees I thrust the door open with my foot and swept the shotgun across the room within. Dead leaves covered the floor near the glassless windows and a small wooden table huddled in the corner along with two crude benches that looked to have been carved from logs with a chainsaw. Aside from that my light revealed a gaping fireplace, woodbin and several spider webs in the corners.
Giving a all clear whistle to Jeloo I hauled my pack and the rattler carcass inside, surprised to find the woodbin still a quarter full. In less than ten minutes I had a warm fire burning and was busy preparing the rattlesnake for roasting, Jeloo lounging in a window and gazing at the moon.
"If you howl at the moon Jeloo and attract a pack of wolves to the front door I’m giving them your share of this." I warned him, gesturing to the rattlesnake with my knife, his eyes shining like welding torches.
In response Jeloo let out a loud growling yawn, his pale gray dagger shaped tongue sliding over his rows of inch long piranha like teeth. With a lazy cat stretch Jeloo flexed the rows of quills hidden under his fur and padded over to set at my feet expectantly.
"On second thought you’d probably eat the wolves, fur and all." I muttered tossing a hunk of rattler and folds of slimy snake skin on the floor where he quickly set to munching with an eagerness I still found frightening, even after all the time we’d spent together.
By the time my pet was finished gnawing the bones to nothing I’d not only managed to cook myself supper but smoked some of the meat and stored it safely in my pack. "Ready to rest?" I asked Jeloo after answering the call of nature and making sure the front door was secured shut with a bench wedged firmly against the frame. I’d barricaded one of the windows with the table and the other with the wood bin earlier.
He only eyed me lazily and twitched his tail as if in a shrug. "Suit yourself." I said unrolling my sleeping bag next to the fire and arranging my weapons in easy reach. Then slid into the sleeping bag with a sigh of tiredness. Before long I dropped off into a dreamless sleep, awakening to a thin sliver of sunlight that slipped through my table barricade to strike my eyes like a laser.