Potato Creek State Park, Illinois,
The storm came of nowhere.
Grey clouds bubbled and roiled above. Rain fell in sheets from the horizon, washing over the landscape and turning the sun-dried earth into sludge. Worms and insects, untouched by any of the corruption the Madness had brought, rose to the surface and sniffed the air, unaware of the many passing feet about to tread their way.
The lake swelled in an instant—one of the main features of the several kilometre square of, what had once been, a natural visitor spot for the locals of the city, hundreds of years ago before the world collapsed and foliage claimed back the land.
It had been beautiful at one point. Hell, was still beautiful on an average, moonlit evening in the Age of Madness.
But now, as Helena dashed through the forest, all she could think of was how the hell she was going to make the distance to her house before they came.
And come, they did. In their herds and droves as they had done for decades and would continue to do until something monumental stopped them. The creatures she had been studying for almost a century, trying to find a way to reverse the effects of the event which had brought on the feral rage within the majority of the human (and Unknown) population.
The Mad. A name that was apt.
Over the years she had seen them all across the great continent. Her travels had taken her to the four corners of America, and even beyond that to their Canadian neighbours. She had seen a world crumbled and torn. Had met colonies, stayed with the devastated, and then struck out on her own with a dogged determination to find the answer that everyone was looking for.
What the hell was the cure?
Progress had been made, of course. Even continents made glacial progress, moving millimeters a day. But, over the course of her travels and the years she had spent dedicating her life to the discovery of something which could reverse it all, had it been enough?
She felt old, now. Tired in her old age. Even a vampire has their limits. Without a regular supply of fresh human blood, even the strongest vampire will wither and crack.
Much like the world around me, she thought.
Still, she had learned something, at least. She had learned how to slow the transition of the newly-infected as they spiralled into Madness. Logged the concoction in a series of books—many of which she had friggin’ forgotten and left behind on her travels. Perhaps she was losing her mind in her old age.
She had even made an attempt to halt the affliction that caused the Weres to get stuck in their creature or human form, free of the curse of finding themselves stuck in the inbetween and morphing into hideous lycanthropes.
Ultimately, that hadn’t panned out. But at least she’d given it a go.
And then there were the vampires. The creatures who were the most frightening when afflicted with the Madness. The creatures whose nanocytes in their blood were the most corrupt, and caused them to become primal beasts of a nightmarish magnitude.
She had seen it happen. Far too often, in her opinion. She hadn’t enjoyed staking her brothers and sisters, but what choice did she have? A vampire struck with the Madness had the capacity to raze entire cities to the ground, let alone the remaining clusters of terrified survivors living in the current times.
One day…Helena thought, as she always did. One day it’ll all be over.
But that day wasn’t today.
Helena’s breath caught in her throat. Her eyes pulsed dimly with red light.
She ran, the sounds of their gnashing and their cries close behind her. A healthy horde of Mad drawn out of their hiding by the clapping of the thunder at the chance moment that a vampire had strolled past. Reaching for her, driven by instinct, now hot on her tail.
Helena aimed for a gap between the trees. A place where the path was broken and crumbled from years of neglect. She knew she had been pushing her luck when she roamed outside of the park’s limits and into the remains of the old city, but she needed a way to act on her latest hunch. An idea that had come to her last night in her dream.
An idea that you’ll never get to execute, Millican. You know that, right? You can’t keep running and hiding forever.
As if to confirm her own thoughts, her foot lost traction and slipped.
Helena slid several feet across the mud, doing her best to dig her toughened nails into the ground and slow herself down. She hit the twisted trunk of an old oak and grunted as the wind knocked out of her and something in her back clicked.
The Mad were ravenous. Seeing the opportunity to attack, they flooded towards her, several slipping in the mud in crude mimicry of the ancient vampire.
“Not today, thank you,” Helena said, pushing herself quickly to her feet. She struggled to gain ground but was able to withdraw her GLOCK 19 from the holster around her waist.
A relic from the old ages. That was what people considered it to be, these days. In all of her travels, people had been stunned that such technology could still exist.
What Helena never had the heart to tell the colonies who had found themselves barricaded and fenced in old wooden shanty towns was that the technology was still very much alive. That there were still some groups that were trying to rebuild. Groups which had salvaged the relics and gathered them together, hell-bent on reviving the ways of the past.
Her trusty little pistol was something that had seen her through many adventures. Something which she knew would be key to survival in this world. At any chance she had, she gathered ammunition and stockpiled, using the strength her vampire gift granted her to cart around the large load and arm herself against the elements.
And the Mad, of course. You can’t forget the Mad.
Helena smirked. I never do.
Light exploded before her eyes. The report from the shots hurt her ears, but she knew the alternative was worse. Several of the frontrunners of the group—those who had been the most recently converted to the Church of Fucked-uppery—went down in a spray of gore.
A small gap of breathing room.
Helena seized the opportunity to make her exit.
Disorientated from the afterglow blossoms of the light in her eyes, Helena tried to blink them away. The rain had joined the blurs in her eyes and no amount of sawing with her sleeve would fix that. She had to get home, and soon.
She took a left at a park bench overlooking the lake. The bench was crooked. Only one leg remained strong. Helena had often passed by and wondered when the last time was that someone sat on that bench in the quiet peace of the world and fed the ducks.
Had it been two lovers? A loner? An elderly woman pining the loss of her husband and finding comfort in the creatures of the park?
These were the types of thoughts that kept Helena’s dream aflame. A world in which safety was the norm, and the Mad were no more. A world in which, maybe, she could finally settle down and relax, basking in the satisfaction that saving the world could bring.
Vampires had done it before. God knows that she had heard the legends of Bethany-Anne and Michael. They were vital tales told around the campfire to all vampires, about the most powerful female vampire and how she had taken to the stars to protect Earth from the Kurtherians.
So now it was up to vampires to save the world again. Surely? To defend the world in the Queen Bitch’s absence and bring it to rights should she ever return again?
Up the forest road ahead, twin willows, leaning against each other like ancient lovers signaled the way back. Helena breathed a sigh of relief. She knew her way, now. Wasn’t too far from home at all.
She picked up her pace, immediately regretting her decision as all friction failed and she went skidding once again. The momentum took her off the path where she slid along mud that may as well have been frying pan grease and carried her towards a small dip where rain had collected and water-logged the ground.
Helena spluttered on the water. The Mad closed in. At least two dozen by an initial count, and no time to pick herself up and dash off.
“Okay, fuckers. You want it. Come get it.”
She managed to push herself to her knees before the first Mad came. With a strength that surprised her, she grabbed the tattered remains of the Mad’s clothes and pulled it down into the mud behind her. The Mad gargled on the filthy water, disorientated as it fought hard not to drown.
Helena got to her feet and reached for her pistol. Her hand met empty space.
“Shit.” She looked wildly around, realizing that the pistol must have fallen out when she fell over and was now somewhere beneath the surface of the murky water.
Another Mad attacked her, now. In a panicked whirl, Helena grabbed either side of the Mad’s head and yanked upwards. It was a trick she’d used a hundred times before, learning very early on that Mad didn’t cope so well without their heads.
Neither do most creatures.
Only, with hands slick with mud she could only grab the Mad’s ears. These she yanked off with very little resistance, hurling them as far away from herself as possible when she realized what she was holding.
“Don’t judge me.” Helena frowned, meeting the angry stare of the Mad. “If you must, you could always summon me to a hearing.”
The Mad growled and reached for her. Maybe he understood her humour. Maybe he was just pissed. Helena ducked under his arms and drew out a small knife, glad to know she always had a back-up, should things go…Well…Exactly like they were.
She plunged the knife into the Mad’s back, right between the shoulder blades. Another two were approaching fast. She withdrew the knife, gave the Mad a gentle nudge, then booted it in the chest. The Mad flew backwards and bowled over the other two. She imagined the sounds of bowling pins smacking into each other in her head.
Bubbled gargles and the Mad in the puddle now worked its way free. Helena took the split-second opportunity to stamp around in the mud and wait for the tell-tale metallic feel of her pistol underneath her boot.
Her foot sunk into the mud. The cloying mud at the bottom of the puddle hugged her foot and tried to suck her in. More Mad were gaining on her now. Another few seconds and she’d be nothing more than food for the Mad.
“Gotcha!” She celebrated, dipping a hand into the filthy water and withdrawing her pistol. She wasn’t sure if it would work now that it was soaked, but it was worth a try anyway.
She spun at the last moment and pulled the trigger. A low whine met her ears as a Mad’s face exploded into a thousand tiny fragments.
Helena fired again, and again. Several more heads exploded, the gunshots sending a flock of nearby crows into the air. A handful of Mad ran headless until their bodies fell to the ground.
Helena seized the opportunity to run again. Her legs were numb and wet, her clothes clung to her skin. She felt hands on her leg, saw the hungry look in the Mad’s eye, its teeth inches from her ankle.
“Helena! Watch out!”
A man shot through the trees, arms pumping as he sprinted along the path. He closed the gap in moments as Helena shook the Mad from her leg.
The man’s eyes pulsed with a dull red colour. A second later and a small explosion fired into the water, freeing Helena from the Mad’s grasp.
“Thank you,” she breathed.
“Don’t thank me, yet,” the man replied. “We’ve got to kill off the rest of them yet.” He tugged her arm and led her back towards the trees.
“Save one for research,” Helena groaned.
The man rolled his eyes, a small grin on his face from his mentor’s ludicrousness.
The pair of them would come to kill off the rest of the Mad. A short distance away they would find the small wooden shack which they shared in the isolation of the woods. The Mad would fall into their traps, caught in rope, or stuck in pits, and the light would extinguish from their eyes.
Later, when the rain subsided and the moon was bright, they would clean up the mess and bring survivors in for experimentation. More research subjects to work towards their noble purpose.
But little did either of them know in that moment, in the final dash through the trees and towards their wooden front door, that this encounter with the Mad would trigger the change of all that was to come.
The cut on Helena’s ankle oozed with dark blood, as the Madness set to work, racing through her blood to undo everything that she had done.