One morning after Luroteo’s nightmare, everything seemed like every other; the children were gone, as they had to be. What we did not know was that he was gone, as well.
The creature, long since gone, had come to him in his dreams, summoned by the feather, by the song of itself left behind, by the Captain, who had long ago made the choice for us all. It came to him in his dreams, and it showed his what the time Before had wrought, and what it had awakened, and the cost of our survival. It showed them what it had been showing the children, night after night.
It showed him what it had showed the Captain, and what the Captain had done.
When we woke, Luroteo was gone, but we did not miss him at first. We were busy, with our day, with our minds and hearts and hands. Our camp was an oasis amidst the Desolation; the earth was workable, and the grass was green. Our stone huts grew moss, and the sounds of birds and animals and cheer dared to be heard above the scouring wind that kept the dust blocking out the sun.
As he dreamed, he followed the children, and when he woke, it was from one breath to the next, one step to the next, and he was no longer in his bed, but within a small leanto, kneeling on rubble, protected from the howling wind by the carefully constructed shelter. None of the children were with him, but some of their meager belongings seemed to be stored here: a water bottle here, a tiny ragdoll there.
He stepped out of the shelter and into the Desolation.
Our band of survivors, as it had slowly gathered, had told tales of all the places from which each of us had come, great wide swaths of nothingness, an earth without tree or river, where buildings, grass, people, cars, cows, newspaper stands and gas stations had been all but vaporized, everything destroyed down to blasted rock. The world as we knew it had gone from wild and varied to a vast expanse of rolling mounds of pea-sized gravel and thick, choking dust. Occasionally an artifact like a license plate, a shoe, bones, or a perfectly-preserved teacup would be found, half-buried. There were larger stones, chunks of concrete and cement, asphalt, marble, and indeed, once we passed through what must have once been a graveyard, where huge facets of polished granite stuck out of the ground, ragged bones from a bloody wound.
Luroteo recognized what he saw from the Captain’s tales of Central City. He stood within the lip of a crater, that far down below there was something blindingly red, painfully hot — it burned to look at. Radiating from this central pulse, this throb like an angry tooth, were the shattered remains of the industrial complex that the military had said was bombed by The Enemy. The children crawled over the crater like ants, excavating the rubble, hauling handfuls of stone, uncovering the blasted earth and the secrets it held.
He began to walk down the crater’s steep side, drawn to the center, toward the burning, blistering light, watching it pulse and throb, feeling his heart in his throat the nearer he walked. He knew what he would find, and yet his heart ached, and he wept as he continued on.
All around and within the rubble were the bones of those who had not survived, clad in tatters of labwear and hazard suits.
He stepped closer, and closer — none of the children who saw him stopped him; it was as if they didn’t recognize him at all. At one point, he realized the pulsing light in the midst of the crater was surrounded by the rest of the children; they circled it like a teacher, even the infants were held up to gaze upon the light, so furiously red it seemed to burn white, so bright it left an afterimage when Luroteo blinked. The closer he got, the more he could sense a strange swelling, an ominous building, the tension in the air so thick it made it hard to take any more steps toward the light.
When he finally pushed forward, and stepped into the circle with the children, he stumbled, the pressure breaking like a wave, and the resultant rush left him weak-kneed. He fell, kneeling before the light, his hands on the rocks near it.
The sound that poured over him was that of the fallen thing, purified and perfect, an all-fire that drove him to agony and ecstasy at once. He did not know it, but he was screaming, the sound of it added to the song, doubled and doubled and doubled, still, until his ears began to bleed. It didn’t matter; the sound wasn’t for his ears — he could hear it no matter what. He wanted to look upon the source of the light, but before he could turn his face up, he felt a hand rest on the back of his head, as if in warning. He lifted his head anyway, and gazed upon the light fully, his eyes wide.
The light was a blade, was a song, a perfect note, shimmering and pure, and impaled upon it was the child none of us had claimed, none of us had wanted, the boy beloved only by the fallen thing.
Eternally dying, the heart of him bled and burned, and his cry was transformed from agony into beauty. Tension gripped his chalk-white frame; all color had been drained from his skin. His eyes had long since been lost, destroyed by the light, a strange hollowness burning there.
Children in turn walked closer, and touched him, held his hand, curled fingers around his ankle.
As each of them touched him, he was briefly suffused with color, his skin darkening, his lips flushing.
Each touch drained the children, left them a little more pale, a little less full.
Even the infants were lifted in offering, tiny hands patting searchingly, fingers grasping.
Luroteo reached out to do the same, but the touch shocked him — Luroteo fell back, a deadening cold suffusing his fingers. He watched, in horror, as his hand began to blacken, as if burned. He watched the cold of it slide up his wrist, his arm, his shoulder. As it passed his collar, blackening, smoking, and came crawling over his flesh, he reached out to the children, as though for their help.
All the while, the song burned on, bled on. They carefully stepped out of his way as he reached, all of them still singing.
When the sun began to set, the children each touched the light one last time, and then slipped away, returning to the camp in that dreamlike way we had gotten used to without realizing. Luroteo was left behind, between the dark bleeding over the horizon, and the horror of the light before him.
When he was at last alone, the frozen smoking black of it finally reached a cold fist into his guts, and around his heart, and began to squeeze.
Luroteo began to scream again. The sound of it doubled and doubled and doubled, still, and was added into the song.
That night, the Captain curled his fingers around the remnant of the fallen thing, and dreamt in the red dark. He knew that sound, but he did not let go of the feather. He listened, determined to stay awake until he knew it was over.
Dawn was coming when the Captain realized he could no longer tell if the sound was Luroteo, or only the afterimage of his cries, seared into his own heart.
Even when he let go, and watched the feather flutter to the dusty earth, he could still hear that song, in the beat of his own heart, and the rasp of his own breath.