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From the Ashes of Our Fall

by Bryon Havranek

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Chapter 4: The Sweeter Res

The rustling sound came again, and Doc silently drew a Magnum revolver from its holster on her hips. A knife wasn’t much back-up for all that pistol, but I pulled mine out anyway; any weapon was better than an empty hand.

We crouched down and moved along to the edge of our building, looking for any sign of trouble. The wall had collapsed at this end, revealing a large, single room filled with the remnants of the rooftop. All was quiet in the shadows, so we crossed the space to the next shack over, and pressing up against the wall, we listened.

From deep inside came the sound of crunching, like the sound of feet crossing over a gravel path. With no breeze to speak of and the slow-and-steady repetition of that grinding, we knew that this wasn’t a natural noise. We moved along until we reached the corner, and looking around we saw a single door of reinforced metal standing partially ajar halfway down the brick-lined wall. Above the door protruded the remains of a metal awning, twisted and clinging by its fingernails to the shack. A plan of sorts began to form in my mind, deviously simple.

I bent until my lips were brushing Doc’s ear. “We need to see what’s inside,” I hissed breathlessly. “Could be anything, maybe even something non-lethal. You cover me while I take a quick peek.” I slipped out of my packstraps and moved along on tippy-toes until I made the door. It was open maybe an arm’s length, no more, but was wide enough to allow me a good view inside.

I got down on all fours so that my head would be nearest the ground, my hair matching the color of the tarmac, and I eased forward at a crawl until I could see what was what. The smell drifting from within was enough to nearly make me toss, but I managed to swallow down the gag before I made a scene.

There, deep in the darkness, I could just make out movement, accompanied by the sounds of tearing and chewing; soft gibbering blended with wet slobbers as something went about a sickening repast. Then, as I watched, I saw a second shape blur in the shadows and I heard a hoot of anger as the shape made a grab for whatever it was that the first one was eating.

There came the sound of a blow, and then the room exploded as the two fought for the prize. More figures sprang from the darkness lining the walls, forming a ring around the combatants. Hoots and howls rose from inhuman lips as the savage spectators watched the bloody sport at their feet.

I jerked away from the door and sat up in a crouch, fear making my blood run cold. A hand dropped over my mouth to keep me from making any foolish sounds and, before I could react to the touch, I heard Doc’s voice in my ear. “Easy, Dee, it’s just me. Just take some deep breaths and nod your head when you are in control.”

I swallowed and nodded my head, the edge of panic already subsiding beneath years’ worth of drill. Doc withdrew her hand and we moved back to the corner, where we could whisper in safety.

“Howlers,” I spat, “a whole pack of them. A pair started a fight over dinner, and the rest are egging them on.”

“How many did you count?”

I paused, remembering. “It was hard to make out, but I’d say that there were at least a half dozen, aside from the two beefing it up. A regular crowd.”

Doc cursed softly. “Way too many to drop, even with a cylinder of hollow points. I’d say we make a run for it, but those creatures will run us down as soon as they catch our scent.” She looked over at me, her face neutral. “I’m open to suggestions at this point.”

“I’ve got an idea. Risky, like my name, but it’s our only chance.” I pointed up to the twisted awning looming above the door. “If we could drop all that metal down at once it would block up the door, giving us the ticks to get clear. But how to do it?”

Doc Matheson looked the structure over for a moment. “I’d shoot the supports out from the wall. Looks like there is just two holding that thing up. But there are problems with that idea.”

“Problems?” I asked, frowning. This didn’t sound good, coming from her.

“Yes. After the first shot the Howlers will know we are out here and come to life. The second shot cannot miss or they’ll be all over us. The other problem is that the gunshots will alert any other Howlers nearby to our presence.”

“Talk about rocks and hard places,” I muttered. Then a devilish gleam twinkled in my eyes. “How good of a shot are you, Doc?”

Doc Matheson smiled sweetly at me and gave me a rude gesture with her middle finger. She then turned and faced the awning. “The best angle should be from about here. I’ll cap the further support first, since it’s the harder shot to make.” She unslung her satchel and handed it to me. “You get around the corner and hunker down. If this doesn’t work, I’ll try to draw them off so that you can get away.”

I did not like this plan. “Doc, you’re talking suicide!”

“Look, Dee, it comes down to brass tacks. I’m injured and am not going to be winning any footraces for some time. One of us needs to get word back to your people about what the Lords are up to with the Howlers, and that one of us is you. Now stand clear!”

She gave me a gentle shove and turned to face her mark. I wanted to argue the point but came up with a desperate idea instead. Doc wanted to play hero, that was plain as rain. But every hero needs a Plan B, and in this case that was me.

I placed the pack and satchel around the corner and began to limber up, making sure that I was as loose as possible. I then picked up a fist-sized chunk of concrete and moved to where I could rush the door without getting in the line of fire. Timing would be everything, the difference between success and my getting torn apart by monsters.

I licked dry lips as Doc took aim, my breaths coming in pants as adrenaline surged through my veins. She cocked the hammer back, single-firing a revolver making for a more controlled shot, and the ruckus inside stopped so suddenly that it was like a switch had been thrown. And even as she pulled the trigger the door was thrown open, and I knew that she wouldn’t get the chance to take that second shot.

Like a machine my body sprang into action, my feet racing across the tarmac so fast they barely touched the ground. My sudden appearance threw the Howler into a second’s hesitation, its scrambled brain slow to register my presence. As I sailed by, I threw the rock with all my strength, the cast so powerful that it sent me twisting off-balance to collide with the ground.

As I fell I let my body roll with the momentum, and in a split second I saw that the missile had hit the Howler dead in its skull-like face, sending it staggering backwards into the shack. Then the revolver thundered for a second time, and the sky fell in all at once. My tumble carried me clear, just barely, and I lay on the hard surface for a moment like a dead thing.

Doc Matheson came storming over to me, screaming and cursing all the way. When she saw that I was unharmed but for some scrapes, she bent down and thumped me good on top of my head. “Risker Dee, that was the stupidest thing I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen aplenty in my time! If you were any younger, I’d give you a few good licks with my belt for scaring the life out of me!”

She helped me to my feet and I could see the concern written plain as rain on her face. I grinned sheepishly and shrugged, which caused a fire to blaze up in her eyes. “I’ve a mind to take that belt to you anyway, youngling!” The sound of twisting metal caused us to turn around as one, to look over at the scrapyard we had just made. Even as we watched, the twisted remnants of the awning began to shudder, as hundreds of pounds of metal ruin came under assault from the fearsome power of the Howlers trapped within.

“That lickin’ will just have to wait,” Doc said in a squeaky voice. “Let’s grab our goods and clear out before those things tear their way free!” She holstered her pistol, and we quickly picked up our bags before setting off at top speed. Running was right out, so we settled for a light trot which, though painful in the extreme, Doc was able to maintain for a time.

Every footstep that we gained on those skulks was one step closer to safety, yet we both knew better than to blow ourselves in a mad dash all at once. The hunt would be on soon, and a long chase would require every ounce of energy we could muster should we have any chance of winning clear.

As I knew the way much better than Doc, I was in the lead, and I made sure to choose the easiest path I could. Due east of Swap Meet, the landscape was lightly hilly, though a shallow valley zigzagged between the humps and it was here that we made our way.

The slopes on either side were lined with the weedy growths of olden times, bits of drywall and concrete-lined beams thrusting up from the brush like tombstones marking Man’s mortality. Bits of debris had fallen down the embankment over time, but most of it was little better than gravel; it proved no burden for us to cross. I could’ve chosen to run along the ridgeline and made an obstacle course of our trail, but from what I knew of the skulks they would not be inconvenienced by such a plan.

No, our best bet now was to get to the water and swim for safety on my hidden raft. Once we were across, the trackers that guarded the approach to the Bunker would cut down any Howler that didn’t have the decency to drown in the crossing. Or so that was my thoughts on the matter, anyway.

The Howlers, of course, had other ideas. As we rounded the latest bend in the ravine, we saw the large body of water known as Sweeter Res lying spread out before us, blocking further progress. I smiled between gasps for breath, relief flooding through my heart. But it was short-lived, for over the horizon of our backtrail there came the haunting, wolf-like howls of voices raised in frenzy, and I knew that the skulks had finally freed themselves and found our spoor. The hunt was on, and from the rapidly increasing clarity of those inhuman shrieks, I knew that our time was almost up.

Doc and I pulled up on the mossy, muddy shoreline of the Res, bent over and gasping for breath, nearly played out despite our danger. After a moment or two, we turned to look back the way we had come and then glanced out over the water towards the Miguel, the stubby mountain dominating the far side of the shallow lake. The water was still, with hardly a ripple to be seen; crossing would be easy, though slow. I looked left and right, scanning the clumps of cattails until I spotted the one where I’d left my floater after making my first trip a scant two days before.

“C’mon, Doc, we’re almost there,” I panted, taking hold of her gloved hand. “Just a little more go and we’ll be safe!”

Doc Matheson stumbled and fell face down in the oozing mud, her hand torn from my own. I moved to her side and turned her over, noticing at once that the wound on her leg was bleeding fiercely. Doc wiped the muck from her face with a tired gesture and looked up at me with resignation. “I’m afraid I’m all played out. Got no more to give.”

“We’re almost there!” I said, my voice rising along with my emotions. “You can’t quit now! Here, I’ll carry you!” I bent down to grab Doc but was brushed away.

“You’d best git, child. One of us needs to bring word to Norman and your people, and that someone is you. Get along now and I’ll cover you.” She made a brave noise but from the look of her the only way she’d distract the Howlers that were even now cresting the slope behind us was by letting them devour her.

I growled like a beast and grabbed Doc under her arms and began to drag her to my stashed raft, being none-too-gentle in the going. “Dee, you’ll kill us both, you stubborn, stupid girl!” She made complaint but fortunately for the both of us that was all the fight she had left in her. In a few ticks we entered the frigid lake water and rounded the far side of the clump of reeds to my waiting raft. With a grunt of effort, I heaved Doc onto the body-shaped patch of woven branch and pulled it deeper into the concealment of the cattails. Out of sight we were, but none too safe.

Proceed to Chapter 5...

Copyright © 2017 by Bryon Havranek

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