Being always right is easy. When you don't know something, say: "I don't know."
- Dreamer's Handbook
Nerat stumbled, but that didn't slow him down. He scampered on all fours until his balance was restored, and continued running.
Go, go... Don't stop... His breathing was erratic. I'll make them regret what they did to us...
The plants and trees of the forest thrived due to ample sunlight, high humidity, and leftover radiation from ages past.
Nerat's mind focused on keeping the body running without losing consciousness. His subconscious used whatever emotions it could to achieve that goal: fear of death, of motionlessness, and a burning, but wholly unrealistic desire for revenge - sprinkled in with a dash of excitement. The fear of the known overpowered the fear of the unknown.
Born in captivity to the Crimson River clan, Nerat's mother raised him the best she could. Childhood was denied to all young ones - the vampires kept them fed, but treated them like cattle. When she died, he mustered the courage to escape.
She had told him tales of vampire clans that treated their humans with respect. They had the freedom to walk away, and the trade was a fair one: food, shelter and protection in exchange for clean blood. These mythical vampires thought blood tasted better when it was voluntarily given, but in Nerat's experience, the Crimson River preferred the flavor of stress-inducing hormones. He believed the tales when he was younger, but wondered: why didn't these strong and just vampires come and rescue them? As he grew older, he came to the conclusion that even if they existed, they didn't care about humans enough to interfere with other vampire clans.
Nerat dreamed of a place where humans lived free from everyone else, yet, strangely, his mother told no such tales - the closest to it were stories of deranged people living in the desert, unwanted by anyone except the scorching sun, the cold embrace of desert nights, and the deadly caress of sandstorms.
I should have escaped before blood-draining, not after... I should have waited for another opportunity...
Another misstep yanked Nerat back to the present. No! He forcefully cleared the doubts from his mind - he couldn't afford to have them.
Although maintaining coherency of thoughts was hard, at least his legs carried him forward. Running more on adrenaline than blood, Nerat's brain adjusted to the deficiency by alternating between the senses: the colorful and humid scent of the forest was accentuated by the smell of the animal excrement he stepped in a while back and got smeared over his left shoe.
When the smells retreated, for a short while, his vision unblurred and came into focus. He could see the path ahead: Those branches will make too much noise when stepped on. I'll hop over that big rock and go around that patch of thorny plants - they might be poisonous.
When his sight blacked out like a fading memory, hearing took over. He heard his own steps hitting the soft ground - the rustling of leaves, the birds' song, his own heartbeat, and the loud absence of sounds that would give away pursuers. I know you're there.
Nerat didn't even notice when hearing turned tactile. Awareness of his footsteps and heartbeat remained the same, and the wind that rustled the leaves conversed with him through his skin. When the sensation of the sun's warm rays turned into sight again, the circle began anew.
Taste imposed now and again, but it was suppressed at once: his subconscious decided that being reminded of the foul, dried up feeling in his mouth served no useful purpose - it tasted too much like defeat.
Nerat's sense of time fell casualty to the jumble of perceptions. The run wasn't something he was doing, but a state he existed in. He ran and ran, keeping up the will not to faint and not even noticing the occasional stumble anymore.
A distant sound broke this strange continuity of awareness. He stopped, and listened. His focus narrowed almost to a single point. The sound didn't repeat itself, but he replayed it in his memory while it was still fresh: the sound of a large twig breaking. Have they caught up? How did they know where I am?! I have no open wounds, they couldn't have smelled my blood!
Nerat knew he had to make a decision before his focus diminished. He inspected the surroundings; nothing but trees and leaves everywhere. A grim realization brought cold sweat on top of regular perspiration - I hope I haven't been running in circles!
He calmed down and dismissed the thought. Not much I can do about it. He looked around again, and headed for a denser part of the forest. I have to find a place to hide. Who knows how long I'll have strength to run, and if they're near, they'll hear me.
Darkness descended as less of the sunlight penetrated the leaves, and the ground got muddier, too. If I go farther, they'll surely be able to track my footprints... I'll just hide here. He hunkered down behind a mound of earth raised by the roots of a large tree.
The tiredness hit him as soon as he stopped moving. His lungs burned with each shallow breath, and he could barely keep his eyes open.
In the next moment - he didn't notice he dozed off for a considerable length of time - he heard the sound of another twig breaking, merely a few steps away.
There was no time for panic to set in. A hideous creature - what's wrong with that face? - lunged for him. Before Nerat could fully stand up and run away, the creature scratched his side and grabbed him at the waist. Nerat turned around and kicked up with his knee, but the creature didn't let go.
A zombie! Its clothes were ragged and most of its flesh decomposing. Nerat saw zombies before; the vampires brought them in for sport when fleeing captives didn't provide enough entertainment. The worst were the eyes - those empty, disconcerting eyes.
Nerat fell on his back, which gave him the opportunity to kick with both legs. He managed to knock back the zombie, but couldn't get up fast enough before it closed in again.
Nerat felt the zombie's teeth sink into his upper left arm, and its bony claws draw blood on his right shoulder. Pus and diseased fluids pressed against and smeared all over his torso.
Even in such a moment of pain and lethal danger, his fear of vampires was dominant: The blood! They'll sense my blood!
He pummeled the zombie's face with his elbow as he tried to shake it off. Was that 'crack' its nose breaking or my elbow?
The zombie's grip lessened. Nerat pushed the decaying mass off - it stumbled backwards and fell. Not letting the advantage go to waste, Nerat followed up with kicks as strong as he could muster.
The zombie groaned with each kick.
Momentarily catching his breath, Nerat backed off and got hold of a thick branch. He started striking the body with wide swings and pestling it with deadly pokes.
When the zombie's skull was smashed to pieces and its brain to pulp, Nerat let go of the damaged piece of wood and slumped down beside the corpse.
He expected to faint from exhaustion, but minutes passed... and instead of feeling worse, he started feeling better.
Nerat's breathing steadied; shallow breaths were just as good as deep ones. That hazy, dreamlike feeling... gone. All his sense were alert and functional - he felt not only rested, but better and sharper than ever before in his life. The taste of freedom brought exhilaration, sure, but it went deeper than a mere feeling. His wounds already clotted and he felt no pain from them whatsoever.
With newfound sharpness, his mind pointed out matter-of-factly and without mercy: I'm becoming a zombie. My brain is cannibalizing itself. If I don't find brains to eat, I'll become mindless like this corpse.
Nerat was running out of time in more ways than one. The vampires could be on his trail, and though he probably had a lot more time before becoming completely mindless, his sharpness would certainly fade sooner than that.
Getting used to who I am now will take a while, but the decision what to do next was easier - rational detachment brought clarity of consequence.
I'll stand my ground and fight. If I succeed, I'll be free of the Crimson River and have food and equipment. I'll feast on their brains. The notion no longer disgusted him. If not, at least I die a free man.
A plan slowly formulated in his mind. I'll need a weapon. Tools. I'll set up traps if there's time. Even though he knew nothing about traps, the inter-connected functioning of many things was clear to him. False tracks and trails of blood. Maybe I'll find more zombies to distract them with. I'll split them apart and surprise them one by one - I doubt they're used to resistance from fleeing captives. Arrogant, egoistic bunch... they won't see me coming.
Nerat walked to the corpse and looked for a protruding bone fragment. He jerked it free, and with it, started slicing off the flesh to get to the femur. It wasn't too difficult; the decaying flesh was softly obedient.
When he retrieved the bone, he checked if it was brittle - it was not. He carefully cracked the bone on a nearby stone, and then snapped it in half, resulting in a clean break with sharp edges on both ends. "Excellent! My first weapons!"
Self-confidence was an unfamiliar, but welcome feeling.
I'm at peace. Let's get to work.