Another day, another silent march.  Luke stalked behind Carver, glaring daggers at his back while the old man watched their surroundings, alert and apparently unperturbed by the tension.  He flatly refused to tell Luke anything about the woman who had appeared in his dream or his relationship with her. The old man’s reaction at the name made it clear that he knew something, however, and convinced Luke that he was withholding information purely for the sake of being an asshole.

Carver wouldn’t even address what she had said about being the one who brought Luke to this dimension.  He would either respond to Luke in monosyllabic denials or refuse to say anything at all. He had given up by the time they started walking, seeing that nothing he said made any impression on the old man.

It still ate at him, not knowing anything about the world he’d been brought to.  Not even three full days had passed and Luke had seen things that suggested that there was far more going on than what he had been told.  First the Empty and all the weirdness associated with them, then the more recent invasion of his dreams by some kind of supernatural being.  Not to mention his transport between dimensions to begin with, if that was even what happened. There was so much that he’d seen already that he would have called impossible a few days before, and he couldn’t even begin to get a handle on it without some answers.

A small part of him had started wondering about a theory that he had dismissed early after his arrival in the ruined city.  After seeing Sandy, it was harder to reject the idea that this was all an elaborate dream. Luke tried not to think about it, since anything he did was more or less inconsequential anyway if he was stuck in a coma.  

Plus, he could only hope that his brain didn’t hate him enough to conjure up an obstinate jackass like Carver as his only company.

The man’s insistence at keeping him in the dark was getting to be more than just an annoyance, it felt like he was actively worsening Luke’s chances at survival in this world.  He wouldn’t even say anything about their destination beyond the fact that it was a “settlement”, which might mean anything in a universe twenty years removed from the apocalypse.  What if society had collapsed into an absolute oligarchy and he would be forced into menial labor with the peasant class? Or what if they had some kind of ritual where he had to kill an Empty with his bare hands before he was allowed to live there?

Or what if they just don’t like certain people?  That was one of the more persistent thoughts that nagged him.  If society had turned into a bunch of tiny communities, there was a good chance that they would be isolated enough to be biased against outsiders.  Even someplace “big” like Crater could be intolerant to people…unlike themselves. 

He just didn’t know.  And it was impossible to find out as long as Carver refused to even talk about the most mundane aspects of the place, let alone something as surreal as a fucking sapient dream-creature.

So went the circle of Luke’s thoughts.  And the longer they circled, the angrier he found himself.  He never thought he had much of a temper before, but apparently getting dropped into a dimension with creatures who wanted to eat his soul and having to fight for scraps of information really brought it out of him.  He held out for two hours, but after that, since there was no brick wall nearby to ram his head against, he started talking again despite himself.

“Where exactly is Crater?  Is it where a town used to be?”  He fought to keep his tone reasonable, and thought he succeeded rather well.  Carver must have seen through the attempt though, because he shot a wry look behind him without breaking stride.  

“You’ll see before the end of today.  Coincidentally, right around then’ll be the time to ask everything your heart desires.”

Luke scowled behind Carver’s back, but it had been more of a response then he’d gotten all morning.  The rebuke was logical too, if condescending, but Luke was upset enough that his normal filter wasn’t very functional.

“Why can’t you answer now and save some time?”

Carver stopped and let out a heaving sigh.  “Listen,” he said. “I know what you’ve been asking all morning and I can guess what else you’d want to know.  I don’t know the answer to half of it and someone else can explain the other half better than I can. I’m being straight with you.  If you can wait four or five more hours, if that, you’ll get a much clearer explanation than you would right now. Just bottle it up for that long and we’ll both be happy.”

It was a better explanation than he’d gotten so far, at any rate.  Luke was on the verge of accepting the implicit deal, but the part of him that was still angry felt like he had to get something out of the old man.

“I get that,” he said.  “I do, but-”

Before he could finish, Carver cut him off with a violent motion for silence.  Luke felt like he was about to explode, but before he could say anything he heard a sound.  They were still near the freeway, a little off the shoulder to avoid the long line of old, abandoned cars that covered the road.  From somewhere off in this range of rusted metal echoed a muted drumbeat. Da-dum, da-dum.  It repeated every few seconds at a regular interval, and sounded somehow familiar to Luke. 

 Carver had gone still.  He might have been a statue but for his eyes, which darted back and forth across the rows of rusted vehicles, searching relentlessly.  He spoke to Luke in a low tone.

“Don’t move a single step.  When you had that dream last night, was there anything Sandy wanted you to tell me?”

Luke’s anger gave way to fear with the old man’s change in demeanor.  “I don’t think so,” he said in the same quiet voice. He had to stop himself from shifting his feet.  “She didn’t say anything about—wait. Maybe. There was something right at the end, but I was yelling at the same time.  I’m not sure.” He thought for a moment. “Something about bleeding, maybe?”

Carver’s face darkened, but he was already unslinging his pack from around his back, avoiding any quick motions.

“We won’t be able to avoid it,” he said.  He squatted and balanced his pack on his leg, rummaging through as quietly as he could.  “Stay still as much as you can. It senses movement through the ground, but noises attract it too if they’re loud enough.  Do not let its spray touch you, don’t get closer than ten feet from it. I’m going to get its attention. The second I do, you need to run.  Go the same way we were walking, use the cars for cover. After that, try not to move and let me handle it.”  

While he spoke, the sound of the da-dum, da-dum gradually became louder, though the speed of the rhythm remained constant.  It was impossible to tell where it was coming from among the wreckage that lined the highway.  Carver withdrew something from his kit and shoved it into a pocket before standing up, still holding the pack in his hand. 

“What-” Luke started to ask.  Carver shook his head violently and held up his hand up to his lips.  Luke shut his mouth.

After he quieted, the old man took a deep breath and moved his hand in front of him, three fingers held up.  Luke desperately tried to remember everything Carver said, to hold all of it in his mind at the same time. Some dim part of him was grateful that the danger, whatever it was, had started so quickly.  If there was more time he might have shut down completely from pure panic. 

Carver dropped each finger, giving Luke time to tense and ready himself to bolt.  The instant before the old man acted, Luke realized why the sound around them was so familiar.  The same rhythm was thundering in his ears at that exact moment.

It was a heartbeat.

Carver raised his foot and stomped on the pavement.  Before he even brought his foot down, Luke was sprinting for the nearest car.  He dove behind it, taking what cover he could behind the rusted husk. Without moving his feet, he twisted to peek through the shattered windows toward the spot where he and the old man had been standing a moment before.

His companion was nowhere to be seen, but the ground where they had stood was coated in some kind of dark red substance, while a large person painted a brighter red stood a few feet away.  No, Luke realized after a moment. Not a person. It was shaped the same, but there were holes all over where he could see straight through it. The thing was made up of what looked like red cords, thick at the center but that branched out smaller and smaller until they terminated in thousands of tiny threads that made up a detailed outline of the human body.  The largest cords were in the chest area, extending out from a mass in the center of the creature that pulsed in time with the sound that caught Carver’s attention.  Its head turned, putting the “face” toward Luke where he crouched behind the car.

It moved, but not the way humans did.  None of its limbs changed position. Instead, it seemed to hover across the ground as if it were sliding on ice.  It was unnatural to look at, but it wasn’t slow.  In the time it took to blink, the monster stood over the car, craning its head toward Luke.  He froze, unable to move or think. The creature raised its hand and pointed it at him through the empty window.  

Then its head exploded, and something spattered across Luke’s body, coating his face and hair.  He was blinded while he worked the stuff out of his eyes, and by the time he could see, the monster was gone.  He couldn’t summon the energy to feel relieved. The visceral terror he felt when the creature was in front of him faded, but in its wake everything seemed disconnected, like his thoughts and emotions were coming from someone other than himself.

Even when he glimpsed a flash of red through the car window, Luke felt nothing more than distant horror, a feeling that pulsed in sync with the beat emanating from the monster’s chest.  The thing was sliding in the same odd way, moving between lanes at random with its hands raised. There was now a V-shaped hole in the top of its head, a gap several inches wide that didn’t seem to inconvenience it at all.  Carver was still nowhere to be seen.

While Luke watched, the rhythm of the monster’s heartbeat sped up.  The mass at its center throbbed wildly, expanding and deflating far beyond the limits of a human heart.  Tendrils of red shifted in its head, wriggling in a way that made Luke shudder. A few poked into the gap in its head, reaching across to bridge the chasm.  More and more of the small filaments followed suit, covering up the damage that had been done. In less than a minute, the hole was gone, indistinguishable from the rest of the creature.  The pulse fell back into a slower beat, even as the monster continued its search through the maze of cars.

Without deciding to, Luke started to clean off more of the stuff he’d been covered in when the thing was injured.  It was bright red, the same color as the monster itself. Flecked across his hands, the substance was indistinguishable from blood.  It even smelled of iron. As he rubbed it between his fingers, a thought floated across Luke’s mind that it was blood, sprayed from the creature when it took an injury.

He frowned.  An incongruity pierced the fog, creating a dissonance that sharpened his attention.  He turned to the car window again, stared at the monster hunting its quarry., It didn’t make any sense.  The creature was certainly the color of blood, but how could it carry liquid in its body? It had holes and gaps all over that the blood would drain through in minutes.  Unless… 

In a flash of insight, Luke realized what he was looking at.  Blood vessels. The cords that made up the creature’s form were the countless arteries, veins, and capillaries that were spread throughout the human body.  The thing was entirely made up of a human circulatory system, complete with a beating heart at its center. Except, of course, that it could move under its own power and apparently regenerate far faster than anything humans were capable of.  It still seemed to be searching for the one who injured it, moving row by row through the vehicle graveyard with upraised hands.

The realization of the blood monster’s nature seemed to kickstart Luke’s brain into a semblance of normal function.  The fear was still there, but the mental paralysis was no longer crippling. He went through everything that had happened since he started running.  Carver still hadn’t made his presence known, which was worrying. His first attack hadn’t seemed to do much to the creature other than get its attention away from Luke.  He hoped that Carver hadn’t been forced to use his only weapon to save him. The old man was clearly keeping his distance from the monster, though Luke wasn’t sure why he hadn’t used a gun yet.  The weapon he had used though… Luke glanced behind him, but saw nothing that could have caused the damage he saw on the creature.

He did see a ring of blood though, red spatters on the ground and car that marked where the attack had been.  It was a tight radius except for one dotted red line that extended past the boundary of the rest. Spots of blood made a trail leading away from the direction of the creature, but it was impossible to see where it led from Luke’s angle.

He turned back toward the monster.  Its movements were the same as before, a search pattern through the grid of cars that took it further away from Luke as it went on.  So far nothing had happened, but Luke didn’t think that could last much longer. Either Carver would do something, which seemed increasingly unlikely, or he would be found.  His instructions had been to stay still, but that was before Carver had been forced to save him in the first few seconds of the fight. Luke was still petrified, but the monster’s attention was off of him and if he did nothing, they might both die because of his inaction.

Glancing over one more time to ensure the blood monster was still occupied, Luke took a breath and jumped on the hood of the car he was crouched behind, taking care not to shuffle his feet beforehand.  The front of the car dipped toward the ground, but it didn’t touch the asphalt. His instincts screamed for him to hide somewhere less open, but the creature didn’t react to his movement and he fought the feeling down.

Eyeing the trail of blood, Luke mapped out a path of cars that didn’t look too dilapidated to bear his weight.  He stepped from hood to hood, cringing each time at the sound he made. Apparently he was quieter than he thought, because the blood monster never turned his way.  It took a frantic minute of searching to find the end of the trail, but eventually Luke saw an axe on the ground, covered in red and in much better condition than anything else on the road. 

Gingerly, he made his way to a truck near the axe and stopped to consider how to retrieve it.  It was really more of a hatchet, probably made for throwing though Luke hadn’t the faintest idea how to tell.  It seemed an odd choice for Carver who certainly had at least one handgun with him, but Luke had to hope the old man knew what he was doing.  He dropped to his belly on the truck’s hood, careful to avoid making a sound, and reached down toward the axe.

His weighted shifted to the corner of the truck, causing the metal beneath to groan in protest.  Before he could move from his compromised position, part of the rusted hood broke apart from the rest, bending down under his weight and making a screeching noise as it scraped against the metal of the truck.

Alarmed, Luke scrambled back, but it was too late.  The blood monster had already turned, racing back towards him.  He gave up on stealth, jumped off the truck to stand on asphalt once more. With little time before the creature reached him, he snatched up the axe and held it up in front of his body, unsure whether to run or fight.  There was a flicker of movement in the corner of his eye, but all his focus was devoted to the monster bearing down on him.

There was little chance of escape, fast as the creature moved and able to squeeze between spaces far too large for its frame.  Panicking, Luke threw the axe at it, aiming for the pulsing center of the monster. It went far wide, off into the brush somewhere to the side.  He turned to bolt, but it bore down on him, fingers splayed out in his direction. Liquid gushed out like a hose, covering Luke. The stuff was red, but darker than the blood he had seen so far.  It had aimed low, coating his legs and thighs in the stuff first. Luke tensed, worried that it might be some kind of acid or poison, but he felt no pain where it landed. He made to run, but his feet stuck fast to the ground.  Where the dark blood landed it hardened instantly, trapping Luke where he was. Whatever the blood was it was hard; all of Luke’s strength couldn’t budge it an inch.

The spray didn’t falter, and climbed Luke’s body inch by inch.  By the time his hips were covered he was unable to even pivot on the spot; it was like being sealed inside of a rock.  Desperately, Luke looked for something he could use, but without the ability to bend over his options were limited. He held his hands high above his head to avoid getting them caught in the stream, but that was a temporary fix at best.  The stream of blood had crept up to the level of his belly button and was still rising. There was nothing he could do but close his eyes and wait for the inevitable end.

When the heartbeat stopped, at first Luke thought his ears had been sealed up.  But he hadn’t felt anything and his airway was still clear, judging by the rough breaths still coming out of him.  He opened one eye to see the monster leaning back, all rigidity gone from its body. Something poked out from the heart at its center, unidentifiable beneath all the blood.  Behind the body, Carver heaved with a grunt and threw the limp carcass on the ground, where it collapsed into a pile of grisly red rope. 

The man himself was covered in blood nearly as thoroughly as Luke, though it was all of the bright red variety rather than the solidified black gunk that still held Luke in place.  For a moment they both stood there, panting heavily in the sudden silence. Then Carver reached down and plunged his hand into the remains of the creature without hesitation, withdrawing the largest knife Luke had ever seen from within the remains.

Luke struggled to fight off the disassociation he felt before, with a little more success.  Now that the danger had passed, he focused on the next task of getting himself out of the stuff he was trapped in.  He felt drained, though, and the hardened blood was strong.  While it was possible to chip away at the spots that weren’t well-coated, Luke found himself unable to do much more than scratch the dark material at the bottom where it was thickest.  Carver had turned away toward the pack he had left on the ground, now as red as anything else in the vicinity.

“Hey!”  Luke called.  “Can you help me out here?”

Carver didn’t so much as glance up as he rifled through the kit.  “Told you not to get sprayed. I think you managed not to follow every instruction I gave you.  Almost impressive. Keeping you alive is more of a chore than I expected.”

He took something in his hand and walked back over to Luke, kneeling in front of him.

“You,” Carver said, “are one lucky son of a bitch.  I don’t personally know anyone who got coated as good as you and lived to tell about it, and if you were on your own that still wouldn’t be a given.  This stuff isn’t impossible to break off, but it might as well be if you don’t have help. Even from here I’d have to spend all day chipping away at it if it wasn’t for this.”  

Luke felt far from lucky, but he stayed quiet as Carver held up a nondescript black bottle.  He poured it over the blood and rubbed it in one section at a time. Whatever the stuff was, it dissolved the hardened material holding Luke in place like wet paper, thinning it enough so that after a few minutes he managed to break the rest of it and wrench his feet off the pavement.  There was still a large amount of the dark substance on his clothes and body, but Carver put the top back on and stuffed it into a pocket.

“Can’t waste it,” he said when Luke shot him a pointed look.  “You wouldn’t believe the shit I had to go through to get this stuff.  It’s not long-lasting. Should fall off in the next day or two.”

Luke was too exhausted to argue, though the idea of carrying around a blood carapace was far from appealing.  He changed the subject rather than arguing with Carver, a prospect bound to get him nowhere.

“What was that thing?”

“Bleeder,” Carver said shortly.  “A walking, killing mock-up of human circulation.  They cover you in that shit up to your neck and suck the blood out of you while you’re immobile.  Need to replenish their own supply, I guess.

The thought of how close he had come to that fate horrified Luke.  “But…how? How do they move, or trap people or do anything?”

Carver shrugged.  “The vessels on its feet are how it moves.  They carry it like a centipede’s legs. As for how it’s alive…I don’t have the slightest idea.  The question ‘how’ doesn’t really have a lot of relevance anymore. You should get used to the idea that anything you think is impossible…isn’t.”

Luke considered that in silence while he sat on the pavement, working chips out of the thick blood that covered his leg.  After a minute or so, Carver turned to him, deadly serious.

“I don’t like to lecture, but one important point.  Next time you get a warning or instruction from Sandy, you damn well better listen.  She’s the only reason I’m still alive, and if you had told me what she said straight away, that whole thing would have gone a hell of a lot smoother.”

Luke shuddered at the thought of a ‘next time’, but he didn’t argue.  There was an edge to the old man’s tone that made him wary.

“I’m sorry,” he said.  “I just forgot.”

The look in Carver’s eyes hardened, and he seemed on the verge of raising his voice, but instead just sighed.  When he spoke, his tone was milder. “You can’t forget. That’s how people die. All in all though, you could have done worse.   You froze up, but you snapped out of it fast enough to make a plan, and that’s more than I can say for a lot of people in your situation.”  He snorted. “The plan itself was idiotic, though. What exactly were you going to do with that axe?”

“I was going to get it to you,” Luke said defensively.  He was amazed Carver had managed to see all that without revealing himself at all.  “I didn’t think I could do anything with it, but I thought you needed it to get the thing without moving close.  How did you sneak up on it without it realizing you were there?”

A rare smile crossed Carver’s face.  “These,” he said. He lifted up his foot toward Luke.  There were five small bags attached to the sole, filled with some kind of gel.  “Bleeders aren’t common, but it’s not my first rodeo. Plan A would have been to get it with the hatchet when it rushed me, but you cocked that up when you bolted before I got its attention.”  He waved off Luke’s stuttered apology. “After I used the axe to get it away from you, it was all about finding an opportunity to get up close to it. Any gun I have would make a hole small enough for it to seal up; it was the knife or nothing.

“I put the gel packs on while it was looking for me—it probably would have sensed me even with them on while it was focused on searching, but after its attention was on you as its prey it wasn’t as careful.  Not the distraction I would have chosen, but,” he shrugged again, “everything more or less worked out.”

Luke eyed the congealed red mess that covered them both, but didn’t argue.  He didn’t want to ruin Carver’s mood, which in contrast to Luke’s seemed to be the best it had been any time since they had met.  Despite his claim that he didn’t enjoy lecturing, he seemed amiable enough when going over the blow-by-blow of the fight. Even if he would be more willing to talk, though, Luke wasn’t sure he could take getting answers to his questions at that moment.  Best just to push on.

“So do we keep going?” Luke asked.  “Is there a chance we’ll run into any more of them?”

Carver shook his head.  “They’re loners. I’ve never heard of multiple Bleeders hunting in the same area.  Should be safe enough here.” He went on in a gentler voice. “Do you need more time?  The first few situations like this are never easy.”

The concern in his voice was oddly touching, but Luke looked around at the blood that was splashed throughout the freeway and couldn’t stand the thought of staying there any longer.  

“Thank you,” he said.  “I want to get where we’re going as soon as possible, though.”

Carver nodded once, sighed and stood up.  “Alright, then.”

Luke followed suit, and they started down the highway once more.

They walked through the day, and by the time night fell, they arrived at Crater.

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