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From the Ashes of Our Fall

by Bryon Havranek

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Chapter 2: The Ruins of Valley Sprung

In the dark embrace of the night, I crept along what had once been a supersized roadway, bigger than the bumpity sideline that the Lordsmen had taken, yet it was far more treacherous. The wrecks of motorwags lay scattered about like a youngling’s toyset amidst the gaping holes of a real holocaust. It did offer lots of cover, but that worked both ways, since something from my darkest nightmare could be out here waiting for me unseen. If the moon had been up, I could’ve spotted trouble before it made a grab for me but, here in the dark, I was just an easy meal on fleeted foot.

The sound of crickets filled the still night air, their sweet lullaby so soothing that I yawned, suddenly relaxed and weary. It had been a long haul already, 12 klicks or more with my outbound destination yet to be reached, and the dust lay heavy upon my feet. But I didn’t dare give in to the urge to sleep, not way out here and exposed as I was. The insects’ music assured me that nothing lay in wait for me up ahead, but that didn’t mean that something nasty wouldn’t come creeping along while I napped. Best to keep moving, then.

Repressing another yawn, I took a cautious sip from my water bottle and put it back in my pack. My senses on overdrive now, I crept quietly down the splintered road, disrupting not a single nightsong in my passage. The cache of swag had to be close by, so long as the Man’s directions were solid.

The ruins of what must’ve been dozens of homes encroached upon the road to my left, jutting from the earth like the ragged teeth of some rabid beast, ready to snap shut with ferocious hunger at a traveler’s first misstep. Somewhere in that gutted waste lay the school that I sought but, without some other landmark to go by, I couldn’t tell one place from another. And until I found what I sought, I was not stepping foot from the relative safety of the path. I hurried on, bent nearly double to offer the smallest possible profile to any would-be watchers waiting in the dark.

Twin spires suddenly appeared on the road ahead, pointing towards the sky like gnarled fingers, and I gave a soft sigh of relief; I’d reached my destination at last. I hefted my pack and moved along a little faster then, just wanting to finish the job and get home.

Reaching the two large pylons, I hugged up close to the nearer in order to get a good look at the tumbledowned old school, and it looked so bad I wouldn’t have lived there as dirt. The place looked on the verge of collapse, with several of its buildings leaning against one another like a gang of drunks, their walls showing more cavities than surface in places. Even as I watched, a chunk of rubble came crashing down from one of the rooftops, slamming into the ground with a dull thud. I’d need to be extra careful once I entered this deathtrap unless I wanted to find myself buried alive.

With great care I crept into the ruins, ready to leap away at the first sign of a cave-in. Plowing through layers of thick cobwebs, my feet stirred up a carpet of dust, which rose to hover about my knees like a filthy blanket. My breath began to come in gasps, my eyes watering as I fought against a monumental sneeze, and just as it erupted I stumbled out into some sort of courtyard. Bent over, I let my nose clean itself out, oblivious to anything else at the moment.

“Bless you,” came a woman’s voice from somewhere out in the darkness. I let out a yelp of surprise and fell down onto my butt. In a panic, I scrambled until my back was against the nearest wall, my senses expecting an attack at any moment. The ruins weren’t so abandoned after all, I thought bitterly, yanking out my knife as quickly as I could.

“Well, I reckon you aren’t one of the Howlers,” came the voice, now highly amused, “nor one of the Lordsmen. All the same, stand up slow and easy, and sheath the weapon. No sudden moves now, for I’m packin’ heat.”

I did as I was instructed, though I glanced about for possible cover in case I needed it fast. There came the sharp click as a torch turned on, and a beam of white light washed over me where I crouched. Right then, I felt more humiliated than afraid. Having forgotten all of my survival training, I’d blundered right into the first trap that had been waiting, and now my prospects didn’t look so hot. But before I could work myself up to try something desperate, the light shut off.

“You’re from the Bunker. All right, come on over to my camp,” said the woman, now sounding very tired and relieved. “Mind that you watch your step; there’s an old sewer drain about ten feet in front of you.”

My heart racing, I slowly crept over towards the voice, now making out the faint glow of a banked fire nestled snugly behind some brush. As I neared the camp, a figure emerged from the shadows, moving slowly as she matched me step for step.

“Why, Doc Matheson!” I said excitedly, recognizing the slender black woman. “What are you doing way out here in the barrens? We weren’t expecting you up to the Bunker for another month or so, but I’m sure glad to run into you!”

The traveling doctor was as famous for her fighting skills as for her healing ones and, with her at my side, I was as safe as safe could be out in the wasteland. I dropped my pack to the concrete and sat down on top of it, making myself right at home.

“A long way from home I see, Risker Dee,” said Doc Matheson, a smile creasing the dark brown skin around her eyes. “Norman have you out looking for the Holy Grail again?” She chuckled at my vacant stare and settled herself onto the ground, grimacing as she did so, a small hiss of pain escaping from her lips as she favored her right leg.

I half rose to my feet in concern, staring at the small hole and the large patch of red that stained her denim pants. “You’ve been shot, Doc! I have a first aid kit in my pack if you need it.” Wounds in the wasteland were no joke, where even the slightest scrape could turn septic in a blink, and the Man made sure that his students knew how to treat such injuries out in the field.

Doc Matheson waved me back, shaking her head. “I’ve already done what I can for it here in the dark, child,” she said clinically. “Anything more will just have to wait for sunrise and better light.”

“How did it happen? Who shot you?” If someone could get the drop on the Doc, they were way out of my league, and I wanted to know the details so that I could avoid trouble on my return trip.

“Lordsmen, a whole passel of them,” replied Doc with an angry glare. “But we can talk more about that in the morning. They moved on, so we’re safe enough. Now here, let me get a look at you.” She lifted an eyebrow as she gave me the once over. “Gracious, Risker Dee, you’re all grown up now, or nearly so. You must be about ready to join the trackers, am I right?”

I nodded my head, scratching idly at the matted locks of my short black hair. “Yeah. The Man promised me my graduation once I did this last job for him. No more slinkin’ around the dustbin looking for scraps.”

The doctor snorted derisively, picking up a stick to stir the coals of the fire back to life. “Just like that infuriating man, to offer something you’ve long since earned as a reward for doing his dirty work for him.”

I frowned. “I couldn’t argue with him, Doc. He calls the shots, and if he says I need to go on a scav run, I go. It’s either that or I starve.” But both of us knew that the Man would never actually punish me if I refused his request; he tried to act the tough guy, but we all knew that he was a gentle man underneath. “Besides, I was curious to see this swag for myself.”

Doc Matheson nodded as she reached down to scoop up a handful of wood chips and tossed them into the fire. “What are you after this time, if I may ask?”

“Just some books,” I replied. “The Man said he hid them down here years ago and figures it’s time to put them to use.” My stomach rumbled and I looked away, an embarrassed look on my face. “Er, you don’t happen to have anything to eat, do you?”

The doctor tilted back her head and laughed. She opened one of the large pockets on her baggy shirt and pulled out a packet sealed in black plastic. “Here’s one of the MREs I was saving for breakfast. Figures that Norman would send you all the way out here without a scrap to eat.” She tossed it to me and tried to settle more comfortably by the fireside. “You’d best eat up and grab some sleep. It will be light in a few hours, and we’d best be on our way to the Bunker before more trouble comes around.”

“Trouble?” I mumbled around a mouthful of chewy biscuit. “You said the Maskers were gone, right?”

Doc hunched herself forward and jabbed, hard, at the coals. “That they are. But they left something worse behind. I’ll tell you more in the morning, over breakfast. For now we get what rest we can. You sleep and I’ll stand watch.”

Fatigue washed over me as I finished my meal, so I tossed away the empty packet and stretched out by the fire, resting my head on my pack. “But what about you, Doc? Don’t you need some rest too, ’specially if you’re hurt?”

But Doc Matheson merely shook her head. “Can’t, as much as I’d like to. I used a slap patch to nip the pain and stem the blood, so I won’t be able to catch a wink while it’s on. Don’t worry about me, won’t be the first night’s sleep I’ve lost.”

I nodded, too tired to argue. If Doc was right, I would need to be at my best tomorrow, so I turned on my side and shut my eyes, and was asleep in a blink.

Proceed to Chapter 3...

Copyright © 2017 by Bryon Havranek

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