From the Ashes of Our Fall
by Bryon Havranek
Chapter 5: A Mad Dash for Home
The chorus of howls and bloodcurdling screams was near-deafening; the approaching storm of savagery was just scant ticks from reaching our hidey-hole, and Doc Matheson smiled sadly at me, reaching up to touch my dingy cheek. “Dee, bless your heart, for trying to save me. But you know as well as I do that the Howlers will just catch us out on the water and finish us for good; this here raft is just too small to carry the both of us to safety.”
“The way I see it, Doc,” I said in a panting whisper, “is that we are both getting out of this, whether you like it or not. Now here is the plan.” I shed my pack and placed it on the raft next to Doc’s head. “You will stay holed up here in this patch of reeds while I lead those muckers off on a wild chase.
“Once I’ve done that, you get this raft in gear and head on across the Res. The guards on the other side know you; they won’t cap you when you approach, but you need to row like there’s no tomorrow. Can’t promise that the pack will all stay with me; some may double back and you’d best be so far gone that they don’t see an opportunity to pounce.”
Doc opened her mouth to object but I covered her mouth with my hand. “We’re wasting time. I’ve made up my mind and that is that!” I turned to leave but Doc grabbed my arm.
“Dee, wait.” She unbuckled her pistol belt and pulled it clear of her waist. “I know that you can use one of these, I’ve seen you shoot before. It’s not much but there are four rounds left in the cylinder. That’s four chances to alter the rolls of Fate.” She pulled a small round packet from her shirt pocket. “Here, this is the last slap patch I have on me. The stimulants will give you one hell of a second wind, but don’t dawdle; they won’t last forever. Now git.”
I smiled my thanks and tiredly pushed through the reeds, strapping the gun belt around my skinny waist. Once clear of the cattails, I tore open the packet with my teeth and slapped the sticky patch onto my left bicep. Almost at once I felt a surge of energy flood through my veins, the aches and fatigue of the road vanishing before the rush of chems. Never before had I felt such power. As I sped along the muddy edge of the lake, I began to feel invincible.
Against better judgement I stopped when I reached a large bolder thrusting up from the muck and leaped atop it. There I waited, in plain sight, for my enemies to arrive. Within a few heartbeats the Howlers burst onto the scene, tearing down towards the patch of cattails where Doc lay hidden.
Putting my fingers to my mouth, I let out a whistle that pierced the quiet afternoon air. As one, the throbbing mob of skulks turned from the water’s edge and headed my way. Part one of my plan had worked. The Howlers had been pulled away from Doc Matheson and were now coming for me. Now to implement part two.
Leaping from the boulder, I angled away from the muddy edge of the Res until I reached the more compacted soil of the upper embankment. From there, I lit out in a flash. The stims fueled my muscles, giving them a seemingly unlimited supply of energy, and I raced at top speed, surpassing distances I’d never thought to make at such a rate. And I kept going. God this stuff was the bomb!
The frustrated cries of the skulks told me that I was at least keeping my distance from them and they were not happy about it. I pictured their ugly, rotted little faces and couldn’t help but laugh at their futile chase. I was all-powerful, and nothing on earth would ever catch me now! Howlers, being single-minded predators, only redoubled their frantic pace to catch up.
And so we raced a race most severe, with death waiting in the wings for the loser. Ahead, the lake’s width began to close up, its bank turning from flattened dirt to rising rock as I drew nearer to the narrows where the old Sweeter Dam lay, which was my goal.
I’d never crossed this way before, but my options for getting over the Res were limited. It was either the ancient structure, or a long haul beyond, and I didn’t have the ticks or inclination to make that trip.
Clambering over one particularly steep chunk of jagged stone, I looked down and saw the sharp grayish mass of my destination. My people maintained an armed command post on the far side, to guard against forbidden incursions, and if I could reach them I would be safe.
The dam itself spanned the reach like a giant elongated letter C, the mouth of the structure pointing away from the water that it held at bay and, as I scampered down the steep slope towards its foot, I was glad that I was going downhill all the way. With luck, I could make my way across in perhaps a few dozen ticks, and I could then put this whole sorry adventure behind me. As my foot touched down on the cement walkway, I all but leaped forward, eager to reach safety. The way looked clear and I sped out onto the path, but I was in for a cruel surprise.
Within maybe 50 paces the road ended abruptly at a ledge, and as I peeked over the side I saw that it dropped straight down about twenty feet or so. From there the dam resumed its spanning reach across the narrows to safety, but for the moment I was trapped on the wrong end of the thing. I was furious and I stamped my foot in rage. What stupe would’ve lame-brained such a botchy thing?!
However, I had no space to vent, for the barks and shouts of the pack began to grow to a fevered pitch as they closed the gap, and I knew I had to do something right quick or I was dead. Still feeling almighty, I scanned the ledge on which I stood and it was then that I spotted an old metal ladder embedded in the wall. Without hesitation, I sprang to it and began to monkey my way down it.
The metal rungs proved to be rusted to hell. If I had been well-fed and heavier, the geezer thing would have crumbled beneath me. Yet the crappy shape of the ladder would help buy me the time I needed to get to safety; any Howler that tried to follow would quickly crash down on his skull head. Comforted by that thought, I turned and beat feet soon as I touched down onto solid surface.
And not a moment too soon, either. For as I raced along, I glanced over my shoulder to see the pack all lined up along the concrete ledge, their barks of joy turning into shouts of confused anger. A few of the less-damaged skulks bent down and picked up stones, which they tossed after me in helpless wrath.
I pulled down my head like a turtle as the rocks fell down around me but, aside from one that glanced off my shoulder, none struck home, and I was soon out of range of their crude missiles. Safe for a bit, I slowed to a quick walk, knowing that I had bought enough ticks to regain my strength before the pack figured out a way down that cliff.
The walkway was surprisingly well-preserved considering how old it was, with hardly any dings or potholes on the surface, and it made for a smooth and easy passage. To my right, past a ragged screen of chain-link fence, the dam dropped down into a steep canyon, where a thin trickle of water ran along the very bottom, and dead ahead lay the finish line. Soon I neared the further shore, but I stopped dead in my tracks when I came face-to-face with another concrete cliff blocking my way, a twin to the one I’d just clambered down.
Stopping at the foot of the towering face, I looked for another ladder with which to climb up. Finding it almost right away, I moved over to grab the nearest rung. But before I had a chance to start up, I heard the sound of slapping feet approaching rapidly from behind, and, not knowing what to expect, I whirled around in alarm.
Coming in fast was a solitary skulk, withered and menacing as it raced ever closer. Reaching down to my waist, I pulled out Doc’s Magnum and leveled it at my enemy. With little more than skin stretched over a skeletal form, the Howler radiated an inhuman menace that matched the stench of rotting flesh surrounding its naked body like a cloud of death. Eyes black as the pit of Hell glared at me from the depths of its sockets, and as it came closer it bared its sharp fangs in mindless hunger.
I cocked the hammer back and took careful aim, my mind shutting down as the training and chems took control. Heedless of the pistol, the Howler kept running, and when it was maybe a dozen paces away, I pulled the trigger. The gun thundered and kicked in my hand, but I was elated to see the skulk’s head jerk back as the hollowpoint made deadly impact with its face.
But my elation turned to disbelief as, before my very eyes, the Howler shook its head and glared at me. Half of its face was gone, yet its eyes still glowed with evil appetite! I fired again, this time aiming at its chest, but the round didn’t hammer it off its feet as I’d hoped it would.
Knowing that I had only two shots left to finish this mucker off, I had to think quickly on what my plan would be. There was no guarantee that I could drop it for good, not after it had shrugged off two deadly wounds already, but maybe I could disable it enough so that it couldn’t follow me up the ladder. I fired again, this time at its right knee, and was satisfied to see its leg give out beneath its weight.
My attention suddenly shifted as I looked past the fallen brute to see several more ghoulish shapes bearing down on me. I gauged that I had maybe a couple dozen ticks to get clear before the frontrunner reached me. I turned to the ladder, intent on escape. But a vice-like hand grabbed me by the ankle, nearly crushing the bones. I howled in agony, the pain piercing through the thick fog of the chems, and I looked down into the leering face of madness.
The fallen Howler wasn’t out of commission. Despite its wounds it had covered the distance in a crawl and was now on the verge of consummating its feast. I snarled and screamed such a scream as to put even the hideous howls of the skulks to shame. So close to victory, I wasn’t about to let anything stand in my way!
I thrust the barrel of the gun into the mucker’s left eye and squeezed off the final round. Lead bypassed the armored skull and expanded deep inside the cranium, turning flesh to hamburger in a heartbeat. The Howler collapsed lifeless to the ground, its deathly grip loosening enough for me to pull free.
Not a moment too soon. In the time that it’d taken me to drop the one skulk, the rest of the pack had nearly halved their distance to me. Without a thought, I leaped as high as I could, reaching out for a rung on the ladder even as I thrust the empty pistol haphazardly into my belt.
Fingers brushed rusty metal and closed, and I pulled myself up for all my worth. Beneath me I heard the pack reach their fallen comrade, and heard the unmistakable sounds of feasting as the muckers tore their companion’s corpse to pieces and devoured its unholy flesh. Disgust made my stomach lurch, but I figured that it was better him than me, and at least I now had a shot at making it to the top alive.
Yet I’d forgotten the unearthly power of my enemies. Just as I neared the top of the wall, I felt as much as heard something impact the concrete just beneath me, and in a tick I felt fire erupt from my left calf as broken talons raked across my exposed flesh. A Howler had actually jumped nearly twice its height straight up into the air!
In disbelief I looked down into the face of the skulk and saw my own death waiting. I kicked at its face but it was like striking against a log, and my bare foot came out the poorer in the exchange. It chortled in glee at my seeming helplessness, and drew back its arm to strike another blow, this time meaning to tear me from the wall and fling me back down to its fellows.
And that was when all hell decided to break loose. From above my head I heard the roar of automatic weapons fire, and I watched in a sort of stupor as several incendiary rounds tore my enemy to shreds. All I could do then was hug the wall, catching glimpses between my feet as the Howlers below came under concentrated fire.
A rain of flaming lead hammered down amongst the skulks, delivering destruction from above. Nothing could last long under such punishment and, sure enough, within a few breaths the last of the pack had been ripped apart.
I then cast my gaze above me and gasped as I saw the Man looking down at me, his aged face drawn with worry. Two of the trackers flanking him reached down and pulled me gently from the rungs, my fingers reluctantly surrendering their near-deathgrip on the rusted metal.
From there it was all a blur, until I found myself sitting down on a lumpy cot near a sputtering fire. Someone draped a blanket over my shoulders as I began to shiver, the aftereffects of the stress and the chems combining to shake me apart at the seams.
The Man sat down next to me and held a flask to my lips since my hands were unable to grasp it. I drank deeply, enjoying the burning sensation of the whiskey as it worked its way down, and soon the warm glow of the liquor had worked its wonders, helping to take the edge off of my shattered nerves.
The Man looked me over thoughtfully. “Well, Dee,” he said in that soft, nasally voice of his, “I see that you made it back to us in one piece. I would ask how your trip went, but seeing as how you arrived on our doorstep and without your pack, I already know the answer.”
“Not quite that way, sir,” I said, and then I proceeded to tell him all that I’d learned from Doc Matheson, of the Howlers, their psychotic maker, and of that mucker’s master plan, leaving the Man speechless for once in his life. I’d always dreamed of getting in the last word over my old teacher but, now that I had done so, I wished that I’d never had to make such a horrifying report.
Finishing the news, I lay back on the cot, closing my bloodshot eyes. Best to get some rest and prepare myself as best I could, for war was coming to ravage the land, and I had been its unwilling messenger.
Copyright © 2017 by Bryon Havranek