Chapter 14

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Tucking the skull into his backpack, Gray left his rocky lookout and descended the grassy slope. He ducked into the shadowy woods and became one with the tall, ashen trunks. He could easily be mistaken for a tree, albeit one with few limbs.

He had heard the unmistakable discharge of a gun, despite believing it to have had one of those muffling devices attached to it...what was it called? After a pause, he whispered to himself, "Silencer, dummy."

To Gray the sound had been piercing, even with the silencer. His ears were very good at what they did – hearing. He detected other auditory clues that something unusual was going on. Two-legged things moving through the underbrush toward the road, muffled voices. He also detected the acrid stench of smoke and charred flesh. He would investigate that next.

With a wraithlike shamble, Gray arrived at the edge of the tree line, undetected by what he now realized were two men. He leaned away from the coverage of a tree trunk to get a better look and his backpack snagged a low-hanging branch, causing a slight cracking noise. He snapped his head toward the backpack and shushed it.

The men, wearing domed helmets and heavy-looking gray protection suits, stowed their rifles somewhere on the two riding machines they had brought. "Cycles," Gray whispered. They mounted the cycles, then departed the area.

When they were out of sight, Gray turned from the road and meandered back into the trees, following the scent of smoke until he came to a decline that led to a large, rocky spot. He made his way down to the rock and walked to the farthest point, where the remains of some wicked thing lie, consumed in flames. Ordinarily, the scent of roasting flesh would torment Gray with hunger pangs, but this meat was foul, which is probably why the men had burnt it. There was something wrong with this thing before him. It didn't just stink, but it almost seemed to release a strange vapor, as if it resisted the cleansing properties of fire. This likely was just his imagination, but just in case, Gray placed his hand over his mouth.

From his left, in the darker regions of the wood, but still plainly visible to him, came a dog. It trotted along with a carefree gait, despite being aware of Gray's presence. This gave the impression of it possessing intelligence superior to that of its kin. It exhibited confidence and a domineering attitude. Stopping on the opposite side of the flaming black heap, it stared at Gray, then at the heap, then at Gray again.

"I don't want it," said Gray, pointing to the flames.

The dog sat and seemed to study Gray, as if it didn't at first believe him. It raised its head and sniffed the air.

"I wouldn't eat it if I were you. It's a rotten, wicked thing. Can't you smell it isn't right?"

Gray didn't expect the dog to answer, but he believed it understood him. He remembered having seen this one before and knew it to be much smarter than any other dog he'd come across, which also made it more dangerous. It thought things through and problem-solved. It had a strange face, sort of like a person and a dog, all mixed together. The way it stared at Gray caused him to wonder if it could read his mind. 

Setting the backpack down, Gray sat on a raised ledge of rock. "What am I thinking, then?" he asked the dog. It didn't answer. "Cat got your tongue?" Gray burst out laughing. "It's funny because dogs and cats dislike one another."

The dog looked away in apparent disgust, then got up and went to the stream beside the burning corpse. Turning its back, the dog began scooping water between its hind legs and onto the flames. It did this for several minutes until all traces of fire had been extinguished, leaving only withering trails of smoke rising into the cool evening air.

"You're not going to eat it, are you?" asked Gray. Then he heard some things approaching from the direction the dog had come. Bursting from the darkness came a pack of five mangy canines. The first dog stepped aside as three of the pack leaped upon the blackened corpse, tearing chunks of flesh away from the torso. The other two busied themselves with devouring the legs.

"Stupid things," muttered Gray. He watched as the first dog sat nearby, watching the disgusting feast. Then it dawned on him. "You did that on purpose. You're hoping they get sick and die...less competition. Smart, I guess. But you might've spread whatever that thing had wrong with it, too."

The dog looked at Gray once more with that all-knowing stare. After a moment, it dashed off into the gathering night.

Gray thought he heard the whir of the cycles somewhere in the distance. Those men were looking for someone. "If they're anything like this wicked thing, I hope they find them." One of the feasting dogs looked back at him, as if wondering who Gray was speaking to, then resumed eating.

Hope they find them...

Hope they find them...

Rising from his seat in alarm, Gray tried to understand why these words bothered him so much. "Damn, rotten brain! Remember!" He slammed his hammer-hand against the rock ledge, shattering it into tiny fragments. The pack of dogs started, leaping away from the corpse. Two of them issued warning barks, then they all crept back to their meal.

What had he been doing before hearing the gunshot? He was supposed to be somewhere, but not here...supposed to do something. The two men on the cycles had reminded Gray of someone else and his sudden fear had something to do with this person. Same suit. Same cycle. Same rifle.


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