APOCALYPTIC ORGAN GRINDER
William Todd Rose
This is how our world died…
Once upon a time, in a kingdom called the United States, there lived an evil wizard who thought he was good. He lived in the middle of a vast desert and spent most of his days seeking guidance from a book of stories. One of his favorite tales in this book told of a time when the kingdoms of Earth would be overrun by the wicked. During this time, sickness and death would hang over the world and herald the coming of a great hero. The hero, it was said, would vanquish evil and lead His people into a land far, far away where they would live happily ever after.
The wizard believed in this story so much that he wanted to do everything within his power to help the foretold events come to pass. Because he was a wizard, he was able to cast spells with his words. The frightened, the lonely, the broken, and lost: these were the ones who most easily fell under his spell. Leaving loved ones and possessions behind, they journeyed to the desert on a sacred pilgrimage just so they could stand by his side and learn from his teachings.
It came to pass that the wizard stood before his congregation one foggy morning and announced that the great hero had come to him in a dream. The hero whispered in the wizard’s ear, sharing with him divine instructions and repeating them over and over until they had been committed to memory. So the wizard kissed his wives upon their mouths, closed the oak door on his workshop, and was only seen by his most trusted knights for nearly two cycles of the moon.
When he finally emerged, the wizard had grown a bushy beard and held aloft a vial of magic liquid. What made this liquid magic was that it was actually alive. Tiny creatures, much too small to be seen, swam within the container and the wizard told his people how these organisms were actually bits of the angel Gabriel, who would cleanse the world with his fiery sword.
The magic liquid was then transferred, a little at a time, into other containers that were called cigarette lighters. Cigarette lighters had a little button that, when pushed, would cause fire to jump out of a hole on its top. The wizard’s special cigarette lighters, however, produced no flame. Instead, there was a small tab that could easily be pulled out. Once the tab had been removed, the liquid turned to gas and seeped out through a crack in the plastic that was thinner than a human hair. The gas then carried the pieces of the angel Gabriel into the air, where they could be brought into the body through breathe.
In this time, there were also giant metal birds that flew all over the world. The birds would land at nests where people, like you and me, would climb into their bellies and be carried away to distant lands. And it was to these nests that the wizard and his disciples went.
Instead of allowing the metal birds to eat them, however, they stood outside the nest and watched for people who had normal cigarette lighters that had stopped working. Using a decoy lighter to produce fire, they then swapped it out for one of the Gabriel lighters and told the weary travelers to keep it as they had many, many more. So in the course of a week, bits of the angel had been sent out to every kingdom of the Earth.
And that, dear children, is where the fucking fairy tale ends.
Tanner Kline crept through the forest with the stealth of a mountain lion. Placing one foot in front of the other, he was acutely aware of every brittle twig and dry leaf. The worn soles of his combat boots hit the moss covered earth heel first. His toes then followed suit in a rolling motion so smooth and practiced that the sound of his steps were no louder than the wind rustling the trees overhead. He breathed as slowly as he walked, pulling air through the cloth particle mask that covered over his nose, and then exhaled it through his mouth so measurably that the dirty cotton didn’t so much as bulge.
On cooler days, the mask was the worst piece of his uniform. The elastic band held it so snugly to his face that the metal band across the nosepiece felt as if it were grinding into his bones. In addition to this, the air within the mask always felt warm and moist, which lead his skin to itch in the places where the concave piece of cloth rubbed against his cheeks and chin. On this particular day, however, it wasn’t the mask he mentally cursed –it was the white Tyvek suit that crinkled like a tarp with every move he made.
Originally, the suit had been designed to keep chemicals from leaking onto the clothes and skin of workers unfortunate enough to spill a barrel of sulfuric acid or caustic. As such, the material was so tightly woven that not even the smallest drop of contaminant could seep through its pores. The inverse, however, was also true. The suit trapped body heat like the glass walls of a greenhouse, even within the shade of trees.
Tanner’s back and chest were slick with sweat and he knew he’d have to stop for water soon. But first he had to ensure the immediate area was clear: it simply wouldn’t do for him to unzip his naked body from the protective shell and take a long pull from the canteen slung over his shoulder only to have a Spewer come along. He’d be as defenseless as a baby bird with a broken wing, his entire body exposed to potential infection. As a Sweeper, it was his job to be cautious and methodical, to patrol the forests surrounding his settlement and eliminate threats to the community. Dying out here, in what should have been his realm of expertise, would be a dishonor that would taint his family for generations to come. So he had to be certain he was completely alone before he’d so much as pull the mask from his face.
He stalked through the clearing, circling the perimeter as birds chirped overhead, and clutched his antique thirty-ought-six in gloved hands. The wind whispered through the boughs of trees as sweat trickled down his spine. Even more than a drink of water, he wanted to feel that breeze on his bare flesh, to relish the coolness of evaporating sweat and let the stink of his body be buffeted away. When on patrol, he usually hoped to stumble across a Spewer; besides the swell of pride that accompanied a clean kill, there was a certain satisfaction that came with knowing he’d made the world a little safer for his daughter. He dreamed of a day when she could run and play in the fields without the escort of an armed guard, when she could just be free to be a kid. But, at least for now, he prayed that there was nothing out there but plants and wildlife.
From the other side of a dense thicket of underbrush, Tanner heard a scuttling sound and froze in place. He stood there for a moment, as motionless as the rocks jutting through the earth, and listened with his head cocked to one side.
“Rabbit” he thought. “Maybe a squirrel?”
Perhaps. But the forests were also the realm of the Spewers, which is precisely why settlements needed Sweepers such as him. They hid within the trees and hills like the savage animals they were, scavenging, hunting and poisoning the world by their very presence. Amassing in writhing hives of filth and disease, they rarely traveled alone. So if it was a Spewer, chances were good that more were close by.
Tanner pulled the particle mask away from his face just far enough to feel the relative coolness against his chin and lips. Behind the goggles that protected them, he closed his eyes and breathed in so slowly that it seemed as if his flared nostrils were analyzing every scent. There was the earthy, old vegetation smell seeping from toppled trees whose rotting wood was speckled with moss and the fan-like blades of mushrooms. A hint of honeysuckle and pine stirred by the breeze tickled his nose and he opened his eyes again.
Maybe it really had been nothing more than the wind shaking leaves and branches against one another as it wove through the forest Nothing more than Nature’s practical joke. But still ... he wasn’t convinced.
Tanner inhaled again, even more slowly than he had before. And there it was. Faint, but unmistakable. It was like the stench of a bushel of potatoes that had rotted to the point that dark gunk oozed from the shriveled spuds. It was the scent of infection.
Tanner’s heart galloped with the cadence of a runaway horse and he allowed the mask to snap back against his face. Flicking the safety off the rifle, he advanced, feeling as if he were moving in slow motion. The green fronds of ferns seemed deeper and richer now and he could make out the faint gurgling of a brook he hadn’t heard before. It was as if all of his senses had shifted into predator mode and he pictured himself as a tawny mountain lion slinking through the pools of light and shadow that dappled through the canopy of leaves.
Cutting straight through the underbrush wouldn’t work. Besides being so noisy that his prey would’ve scattered long before he reached the other side, the thorns that weaved through the thicket would also have pulled and ripped at his protective suit. Instead, Tanner skirted around the edge, each step as silent as a leaf falling to the forest floor.
As he grew closer, he heard something that sounded like sighing. The tremolo that vibrated the voice, however, destroyed any doubt that it could have been the wind. No, this sound was definitely made by a living creature. A Spewer.
Near the edge of the brambles, the stench of infection was so pungent that it seeped through his mask and seemed to hang in a thick cloud around his nose and mouth. Experience had taught him that this indicated multiple targets; a single Spewer simply wasn’t enough to produce a reek that intense. There had to be at least two, but no more than four.
He peeked around the corner of the bushes, his face so close to the vegetation that leaves tickled the fuzz on his cheekbones. And there they were –two Spewers, one male and one female. The dirty rags the savages used for clothes hung from the low branches of a sapling and their naked bodies were sprawled at the base of an evergreen.
The female lay on a bed of pine needles and her matted hair was tangled with leaves and small twigs. With eyes closed and legs spread, she cooed as the male Spewer thrust into her body with quick gyrations of his hips. Even though his back was facing Tanner, the man in the Tyvek suit could clearly imagine the bloodstained gums that would outline his yellowed, decaying teeth. He could picture the jaundiced tint to the eyes and the scabs and scars that pockmarked the face.
His stomach churned in a concoction of disgust and excitement and he rolled his head to one side as he pressed the stock of the rifle against his shoulder. Squeezing shut one eye, Tanner peered through the scope. Between the crosshairs, the Spewers were magnified to the point that bile shot through his esophagus and stung the soft lining of his throat. Choking back bitter revulsion, his muscles tightened as he made minute adjustments to his aim. His best bet would be to take them both out with a single shot, which shouldn’t be too difficult.
Through the scope, the Spewers appeared to be so close that it looked as if he could reach his hand and tap the male on the shoulder. He could see the greenish yellow pus within the stone-sized blisters that covered their bodies. The blisters were membrane thin and the pressure of infection made them pulse and throb as if tiny hearts were submerged within the cloudy liquid. Portions of the Spewers’ bodies were marked with deflated blisters that had yet begun to scab over; directly below these festering wounds, new bubbles of flesh filled with contagion and strained against the skin.
Filthy fuckin’ bastards.
Tanner took a breath. Just as he was about to squeeze the trigger, a blister on the male’s shoulder blade gave way to the forces that pressed against it. A pinprick hole burst through the center and a stream of pus arced through the air, splattering his back and the trunks of neighboring trees with the thick goo. Tanner instinctively winced and his stomach felt as if it were attempting to turn itself inside out as he watched the eruption lose its power. Now that the initial pressure had been relieved, the pus simply oozed down the savage’s back like a glob of watery mucus. Within days, new blisters would form wherever the infection had touched; they would balloon out, stretching the skin thin as more and more discharge gushed into the makeshift reservoir. And then they, too, would burst, beginning the cycle anew.
Think of Shayla. What would happen to her if she got near one of those things? If one of them spewed when she was playing or… .
The thought of his daughter was all it took. Before his internal monologue even completed, the disgust had been washed away with cold resolve. He held his breath and pulled the trigger.
The sound of the gunshot boomed through the forest and a flock of startled birds took to the air with a flurry of wings. The bullet tore through the middle of the male Spewer’s back and a spray of blood spattered against the female’s breasts. The shot should have pierced the male’s heart and went on to strike the female as well. But something had to have went wrong. As his body collapsed on top of her, her shrill screams echoed through the hills and valleys as she tried to squirm out from under her dead lover. One hand clawed at the ground, raking furrows into the earth with her fingernails, while the other pushed and shoved at the corpse pinning her.
Tanner stepped out from behind his cover and worked the bolt on the rifle. The empty casing spat out of the chamber as another round took its place and he peered through the scope again, lining the crosshairs up with the center of the female Spewer’s forehead. Her face was contorted into a mask of fear and her pupils had dilated to the point that only a thin ring of iris edged them. Her strained voice undulated in a series of short, piercing screeches as her legs writhed beneath the weight of the male.
Letting her live was out of the question. There was a chance the mangy bitch had already been impregnated, that her womb would eventually push out another dirty little Spewer to taint the world with its foul presence.
He squeezed the trigger again and the top of the female’s head disappeared in a spray of blood and bone as her body slumped to the ground. Now that they’d both been neutralized, Tanner allowed himself to breathe again, exhaling quickly as adrenaline surged through his body. Bagging a Spewer always made him feel as if the universe were smiling down upon him, bathing him a warm light that chased the tension from his neck and shoulders. He felt as if he could leap from mountaintop to mountaintop as if they were stepping stones, as if every scent, smell, taste, and texture had been specifically designed for his pleasure. He was alive and there were two less vermin in the world, two less threats to his daughter and community. To humanity as a whole, for that matter.
He lowered the rifle and smiled behind his mask as he watched the bodies for the slightest sign of movement. There was no chance that either one of them was still alive, but Sweeper training demanded that he go through this visual verification. After two minutes of observation, he’d finally be able to take off the suit and enjoy the water sloshing in his canteen. And he deserved it, damn it. He’d done a good job today and a reward was… .
Something caught Tanner’s attention. It wasn’t so much a sound or smell. In fact, everything about the forest seemed just as it had been moments earlier. No, this was more of a feeling – a cold certainty that puckered his ass and plunged him back into predator mode.
Someone’s out there.
He could feel the eyes piercing his soul, pinpointing him with a hatred so intense that it penetrated his white suit and bristled the hair on the back of his neck. The swell of pride that puffed out his chest dissipated as quickly as smoke in a windstorm, leaving him feeling exposed and vulnerable. The rifle snapped back to his shoulder and he ducked behind the trunk of a gnarled oak.
Pressing himself against the bark as tightly as the fuzzy vines that encircled it, he peered around the edge of the tree and scanned the forest. The carcasses of the two Spewers were still jumbled in the same heap he’d left them in, entirely motionless and definitely incapable of the rage felt beaming toward him. The forest beyond consisted of tightly packed trees on undulating, grass-covered knolls. Ferns and toadstools sprouted from the forest floor and mossy stones pushed their way through the earth like the crowns of enormous, misshapen heads. He watched the overgrown thickets, the deadfalls of decaying limbs and branches, and low lying shrubbery. Nothing moved.
The only sound was the thudding of his own heart as blood coursed through veins that felt as though they’d constricted into something no bigger than a pine needle. Tanner’s instincts screamed danger and part of his mind babbled that he should run, to just leave the dead Spewers to the insects and crows and bolt through the woods like a spooked deer. Somewhere out there, among the pristine flora, death awaited. He was as sure of this as he was that the couple he’d killed would never infect a settler again.
Taking a deep breath, Tanner tightened his grip on the rifle until his knuckles throbbed with the frantic rhythm of his pulse and repeated the Sweeper mantra in a trembling whisper: “I will do my duty to my family and community. I will serve mankind and cleanse the world of blight. I will lay down my life so that others might live. I will do my duty to my family and community….”
A Sweeper was not expected to be fearless. They were simply expected to do what needed to be done despite cold chills and a palpitating heart. To tilt the scales more toward fight than flight, the mantra was the first tool a prospective Sweeper was given. It was drilled into his head along with multiplication tables and the history of civilization. It was said, like a prayer, before bedding down for the night. It was whispered as a greeting to another day of life upon awakening. And it was effective. Within four repetitions, Tanner’s breathing had calmed to the point that he no longer felt as if the Tyvek suit were squeezing the air from his throat. By the sixth recitation, his hands were so steady he could’ve disposed of sweating dynamite.
I love you, Shayla. This is for you, princess.
With that thought, he stepped out from behind the tree to face whatever the Fates might have in store.
Lila stooped by the edge of the brook and looked into the clear water. About fifty yards downstream, the creek gurgled over rocky shoals, but it was calmer here. Minnows darted through the shallow pool like silver shafts of submerged light and a crayfish peeked out from beneath a rusted pipe. The sky was clear and cloudless and the willow by the bank reflected on the surface as clearly as if were growing upside down. She could also see herself there, semi-transparent, like a ghost that had become trapped in the gentle ripples that made her shift and distort. Her red hair was matted and tangled and her face was as hard and angular as the rocks which lined the creek bed. She studied the blister that bulged from the side of her neck with blue eyes, angling her head slightly to judge how close it was to eruption. A day, maybe two at the most. Within a week’s time she would have another crater on her skin, another scar surrounded by pustules that would soon merge into yet another discharged filled sac.
She’d have to remove her necklace, of course. The twisted braid of leather would rub against the blister and feel as though stinging nettle prickled her skin. She’d store the charm in a place of honor, somewhere she’d be able to gaze upon the gear-shaped pendant when she felt lonely or lost. It may not be as physically close to her heart as it was now, but the connection would still be there. She’d look upon it, thinking of Tolek as she ran the tip of her finger along the thin teeth of the cog. Like the other widows in the village, the medallion was a reminder that even though her mate had been taken from her, his spirit was still an integral component in the machine of her life.
Lila plunged her hands into the stream and her phantom image disappeared on the concentric waves that radiated from her wrists. Cupping her palms, she lifted them quickly, allowing the cool water to wash away the itch of newly forming blisters on her cleavage. The relief would be fleeting, but it also made the heat of the morning more tolerable. She doused the thin strips of cloth that served as clothing as well and stood with a frown.
The morning sun was almost directly overhead, which meant that Myra and Jarnell should have been back by now. She could understand one of them being late… but both? It just didn’t seem likely. No, something was wrong. She had the same nervous fluttering in her stomach as the day Tolek was killed and the forest suddenly seemed too silent. The creek babbled and the wind whispered through the boughs of tree, but no other sounds contributed to nature’s conversation. It was as if all the little animals had went into hiding, as if they sensed the same tense foreboding that wracked Lila and knew not to chirp or tweet.
Her eyes shifted to the long spear laying in the grass by her feet. Carved from a single piece of wood, that weapon had been turned on the lathe with such perfection that it was as straight as a sapling. Around the base was a decorative carving that looked like two intertwined snakes coiling around the shaft. The heads of the serpents, however, disappeared into thick strands of hair encircled the wood just below the sharpened tip. The hair was cut from the tail of a wild mustang, her first kill, and served several purposes. In melee combat, the swirling fibers disoriented opponents, making it hard to focus on the trajectory of the lunge. When the spearhead found its mark, the hair also absorbed blood and kept the smooth wood from becoming as slippery as a trout in her callused hands. But, most importantly, it reminded Lila of her standing: she was a hunter in the tribe of Clay, a warrior without equal… and that reminder helped her push her uneasiness to the back of her mind, freeing up space for more logical thinking.
She’d seen the way Myra and Jarnell looked at each other recently. The way their eyes twinkled like a moonless sky brimming with stars. The lopsided grins and playful teasing. Just the other night, in the flickering glow of campfire, Lila had noticed Jarnell mopping discharge from Myra’s back and shoulders with the same light touch Tolek had once used. The two were young and impetuous, obviously smitten with one another. Chances were, they’d veered off their assigned paths for a clandestine rendezvous. They’d be along soon enough. She was sure of it.
At that moment, an echoing boom roared through the hills and valleys as a flock of birds rose above the tree line a short distance away. Lila’s stomach felt as if it had been plunged into the cold waters of the stream and her breath caught in her throat. For a second, she was trapped between two worlds. Part of her watched the birds turn into dark specks against the blue sky. But another stood in the past, staring down at the jagged hole in Tolek’s chest as the wound alternately sucked and bubbled the blood that welled within it. She saw his hand reaching for her through the veil of time, quivering with the last of his strength before falling limply to his side.
The second gunshot snapped Lila firmly back into the present. The ghost of her late husband disappeared and she snatched her spear from the ground in a single, fluid movement as she broke into a run. Her leather sandals padded against the earth as silently as rabbit’s feet and the straps that wrapped around her calves fluttered behind her like streamers. She leapt across an outcropping of rocks, never breaking stride or stumbling as she bounded from one craggy stone to the next.
The direction the shots had come from was locked in her mind and the forest blurred by. Weaving in and out of trees, she sprang over fallen logs and ducked under low hanging branches. Her face was set in a tightlipped expression that narrowed her eyes and furrowed her brow with wrinkles. The entire time, however, her breathing was steady and rhythmic, as though the breakneck dash through the woods was no more strenuous than a leisurely stroll.
Her subconscious calculated distance and velocity without effort and when she neared the area where the shot had originated, Lila instinctively slowed her pace. No longer running, she slinked from tree to tree, staying low and quick with her hands firmly wrapped around the shaft of the spear. Her eyes took in the entire forest in a single glance, though the details looked slightly blurry. She’d relaxed her focus and allowed her vision to slip into what The People called Cougar Eyes. The flowering bushes, pine cones dangling from conifers, and bark rubbed away by rutting deer were of no concern. What she watched for was movement, for something that seemed foreign in the natural workings of the forest and stood out against an otherwise motionless backdrop.
The first thing she saw was a flash of white through a grove of trees about twenty yards to her left. As soon as her mind identified this anomaly, the minutia of the forest was thrown back into sharp focus. She knew where the dry twigs that would betray her presence were, which sections of foliage would offer her the most coverage if the man in white happened to look in her direction. Though her breath had slowed to the point that her chest didn’t even seem to rise and fall, she was acutely aware of the scents in the air. The strongest of these, she knew well. It was a metallic tang with a hint of saltiness and an odor that was unmistakable to anyone who’d ever known the glory of the hunt: blood.
More faintly, she could smell traces of body odor waft through the aromas of the forest and it conjured images of sweat and grime in her mind. But it wasn’t the unique scent of The People she detected. No, this particular smell was the one which oozed from the pores of the clear skins, the ones who called themselves Settlers and lived in small communities on the outskirts of overgrown cities. The ones who had made her a widow in the prime of her life.
She stalked forward slowly, her footfalls as soft as leaves falling to the forest floor as her grip on the spear tightened to the point that her fingernails carved crescent moons into the wood. As she inched forward, her target’s uniform resolved. She could see the silver tape that secured the wrists and ankles of the wrinkled, plastic suit to the boots and gloves. The straps of the mask and goggles wrapping around the hood of the garment. The walnut stock of the rifle cradled in his arms.
Tolek appeared in her mind again. His body fell in slow motion, each drop of blood suspended in the air and reflecting the morning sun in pinpoints of radiance. His spear tumbled end over end as sulfuric smelling smoke rose like a gray demon from the muzzle that had unleashed it. The man on the other side of the river had been dressed so similarly to the one who now ducked behind a tree that it almost seemed as if he’d been spat out by the currents of time.
A tremor quivered inside Lila and her teeth ground against one another like a mortar and pestle pulverizing grain. She imagined her spear running through the man’s gut so clearly that she could almost feel the spongy resistance just before the tip punctured the skin. He’d gasp and clutch at the shaft as it shredded muscle and ruptured organs, but she’d throw her entire body into the thrust, ensuring that it emerged from the other side with his entrails dangling like a prize from the barbs notched into the wood. Specks of crimson would speckle his mask as he coughed blood and she’d lean in so close that the hemorrhaging veins in his eyes would look as big as dandelion roots. With blood, bile and shit leaking out of his vile body, she’d allow the blister on her neck to erupt over his evil face as the final insult.
For Tolek. For all of The People you’ve murdered, for the tears of fathers, and the heartbreak of wives. For each and every life you’ve stolen….
Lila was close enough now that she could see the naked bodies of Myra and Jarnell piled upon one another. A pool of their collective blood seeped across the ground. Light gray lumps of tissue stuck to the spatter on the tree they laid under. They would never love again, would never laugh, or know the warm embrace of passion. Like so many before them, their lives had been cut short by one of the faceless executioners known only as Sweepers.
The man in white stepped out from behind the tree with his rifle shouldered, ready to unleash death at a moment’s notice. The fool didn’t even realize that the danger he sensed was so close. That it crept up behind him with intent just as murderous as his own. He looked forward, searching the woods with his eyes, but never thought to simply turn around.
The spear felt warm and heavy in Lila’s hands as she took another step forward. Within minutes, she would be close enough to strike. She would know the blood of her enemy and revel in his agony; the spirits of her brothers and sisters would sing ballads of her glory through the vast halls beyond the Veil.. They would finally be able to cross the Shining River and know the peace that only justice could bring.
Justice is not yours to take.
Tolek’s voice was so vivid in Lila’s mind that ,for the first time since she began stalking her prey, she paused. It sounded as if her husband were standing just behind her, leaning over her shoulder and whispering into her ear. His voice was calm, but stern. It was the same tone she’d heard him use countless times when reprimanding the children. But never with her.
He deserves to die, Tolek. You, of all people, know what his kind have done. How they stray into our lands to make widows and orphans.
The clear skin stepped forward as if he suspected the ground were about to crumble beneath his feet. Yet Lila could tell his caution was not born entirely of fear . He moved with the confidence of a hunter, of one who had just begun to fuse his spirit with that of the forest. His instincts were not as keenly honed as hers, of course; but his poise betrayed a skill that would be used to slaughter those who allowed their focus to waver for even the briefest of seconds. He would rob them of life, love, and happiness as easily as other’s might dress in the morning.
This is anger, not justice. There’s no glory in assassination, my wife.
Lila stared at the man’s back, picturing the exact spot that would allow her spear to pierce his heart. She could make it so that he was dead before he even felt pain. One swift blow, one well placed lunge, would be all it took. Myra, Jarnell, Tolek: they would all be avenged.
You are of The People and you follow the Way. If it’s redress you seek, take it to the Elders.
The voice of Tolek was right, of course. If there was punishment to be doled out for this settler’s crimes, it was not her decision to make. Only the Council of Elders had it within their power to proclaim guilt or innocence, to penalize or pardon. While her instincts sang the Blood Song so strongly that she felt its power surge through her veins, honor and tradition demanded a different path be taken. Killing this man would be no different than claiming that she was as wise and just as the Elders and that was a conceit she was not prepared to claim.
Lowering her spear, Lila stepped backwards as quietly as she’d advanced. Her eyes remained focused on the murderous interloper, but there was no fear of stumbling or giving her position away with an ill-placed step. Her mind had mapped every detail of the terrain as she’d stalked her prey and that inner topography now guided her departure, ensuring that each step was as sure and silent as a tree spirit.
Fate, however, had other plans for her. As she neared a cluster of oaks, a squirrel chittered overhead and the man in white spun around. For a moment, neither man nor woman moved. Their eyes were locked together like partners in a dance older than Time, each gazing upon the face of the enemy and wishing the other dead.
Lila knew she was too far away. Even if she hurled her spear with all her might, it would only barely break the skin. It wouldn’t penetrate the man deeply enough to keep from falling out, much less pierce any of his vital organs. He, however, had the advantage of an Old World weapon with a range even the greatest of The People’s hunters could not hope to match. So she did the only thing she could: Lila ran.
The gun shoot boomed out behind her like the angry rumbling of the Sky God and something whizzed by her ear so closely that she felt it graze her eye. Almost instantaneously, the tree beside her erupted in an explosion of bark, sending splinters of wood flying through the air as the hunk of lead burrowed into its trunk. Though she’d never fired an Old World weapon before, she understood the concept and adjusted her retreat accordingly.
Zigging and zagging, she ran erratically, allowing instinct to guide her movements. As long as he couldn’t predict her trajectory, his shots would not find their mark. As long as she was as unpredictable as a rabid fox, she would live.
Lila had hoped that the settler would be foolish enough to continue shooting at her, that he would deplete his ammunition and be forced to reload the antique weapon. For that would be all it took to transition from quarry into aggressor. One moment when he stood, defenseless and alone.
The man, however, wasn’t as stupid as most. As the forest blurred by, she heard him crashing through the undergrowth behind her. He burst through thickets and splashed through streams, cursed between haggard pants as a low hanging branch clipped him on the forehead, and made more noise than an entire herd of deer. But not once did he try to drop Lila in her tracks. Instead of wasting his shots, he simply pursued her, waiting no doubt for an opportune moment to present itself.
Ahead, Lila saw jagged crags of stone rising up from the earth like the walls of some great temple for a forgotten god. Unlike the forest, there was no green: the trees thinned out as they neared the base, devolving into scraggly bushes that looked as if their bark had withered away; grass turned to dirt and the dirt became something as hard and packed as the cliffs towering over it. The surface was covered with pebbles and Lila’s heels kicked up little clouds of dust as she followed a circuitous route through the center of the mountain.
She knew this place. The People called it The River of Life. Winter coated its peaks with snow and ice, which the coming of Spring then melted away. The rocks glistened wetly in the sun and runoff flowed down the precipices like slow-motion water falls. At the end of the journey was the gulch through which Lila now ran. A gully that once a year swelled into a river and quenched the thirst of seedlings struggling to take root.
This was a sacred space, one of those areas that perfectly illustrated what it meant to be alive and in the world. Its power wrapped around Lila like a protective cloak and she felt a shiver course through her soul as she ran. Whether she lived or died was of no consequence: the wind was cool against her face and hair, the ground was firm beneath her feet, and no one would ever inhabit this particular place in time again.
Rounding a bend, Lila leapt over a carpet of dried leaves that had no place being that far into the ravine. She hit the ground with her shoulder, clearing the debris entirely. Smoothly rolling so that she now looked back the way she’d come, Lila sprang to her feet again and raised her spear.
Breathing heavily, she watched for the man to come. The time to run was over. Besides, there was nowhere left to go; on all sides were nothing but sheer walls of rock, so treacherous and steep that even a mountain goat would struggle for purchase.
Ignoring the massive boulders surrounding her, Lila listened to his feet scuttle through gravel and the sharp gasps which accompanied each step.
He was close now.
“I am a hunter in the tribe of Clay,” she whispered, “daughter of The People and chosen wife of Tolek. Today I face my ancestors. May they always walk with me.”
So very close.
Gather at the feet of the Elders, brothers and sisters, and listen to a tale from the time of our ancestors. May they always walk with us…
It is said that before the Days of Tears, clear skins and The People alike were scattered like grain before the breeze. In these times, the cities of the Old World still strove to touch the sun but their stone pathways were layered with the bodies of the dead. Man hid in the shadows like frightened animals and offered up tearful prayers to the Old God, who seemed to have abandoned them at their time of greatest need. Without the blessings of their deity, they traveled through their defiled home like those who walk while still dreaming. The dark spirits who lurk outside the veil saw this and cast out a net which entangled their minds with fear and confusion and many were the ones who took their own lives in despair.
Not content with this, the dark spirits infested the decaying flesh of the fallen, seeping into the meat and causing vile liquids to leak from the mouths, noses, sphincters, and pores. As more and more spirits crowded into the empty husks of the dead, the stench of evil rose like an invisible cloud. It has been told that so great was the presence of the dark ones, their forms could be glimpsed, wavering in the air over the bodies like heat above a fire.
As creatures who walk between the worlds, this same stink also called Rat and Fly to the unhappy dead, who lacked even the earth to be buried within a mound.
“Man goes hungry,” said Rat, “but why should we? Is this not our home as well?”
“I agree.” Replied greedy Fly. “Let their stomachs know the pangs of hunger while ours are filled. They smashed my kind with implements of death and lured us into strips that were like sticky sap from which we could not escape.”
Rat nodded in eager agreement, crying out, “They crushed the skulls of my brothers and sisters with cruel traps and tainted our food with poison!”
“We owe them nothing.” Said Fly.
And so it came to pass that they gorged themselves upon the deceased. What the gluttonous pair did not realize, however, was that the evil contained within the bodies longed to feed upon the living, just as Rat and Fly did the dead. Carried on Fly’s wings and Rat’s whiskers, the evil took seed in the open wounds of man. Their injuries soon smelled of the grave and roots spread out from the afflictions. Intent on strangling the heart, red tendrils crept just below the flesh, growing in both length and heat with every passing day.
As with all things, the universe seeks balance. So it came to be that with Divine wisdom The Great Spirit planted Its own seed into the fertile minds of two men. First among these was a clear skin, called Homer Anderson among his people, upon whose head hair would not grow. The second of the chosen was John Redtree, he who is greatest among the ancestors, may they always walk with us.
Together, they gathered the tribes of man and a great exodus from the cities of the Old Word followed. Going to the forests and fields, they established a new city which was called, at that time, Hope. The clear skins tried to treat The People with bandages and poultices, as it was not yet known that we were Chosen and could not die from the same affliction which had killed so many. Together, Homer Anderson and John Redtree built homes for their people from scraps of the Old World. They gathered food and water and tried to ensure that none of their brothers and sisters would ever know the ache of hunger within their bellies.
Yet many were the mouths they had to feed and within the span of a moon their supplies were emptied. While their people ate grass like goats and deer, the fallen cities were plenty with food that had been left behind in their haste. So it was decided that men should go back into those dire, haunted lands and seek out the nourishment that was so desperately needed.
To protect themselves against the evil spirits who dwelled there, these men donned suits of white and affixed masks and goggles to their faces. Loading themselves into carts which required no animals to pull, they swept the remains of the Old World and returned with a great bounty.
After the food had been anointed with boiling water to bless it and drive away lingering spirits, it was declared it should be shared equally between all people. But the clear skins were like Rat and Fly and they cried out for more than their share, claiming that nourishment should not be wasted upon the dead but heaped upon the living.
And thus was yet another seed sown. Soon it came to be that clear skins feasted upon the endowment while The People looked on with hollow bellies. Angered by this, some among The People talked of taking the food by force and claiming the share that was rightfully theirs. Yet there were others who danced like birds for a single scrap thrown their way. These traitors to their own kind went to the clear skins, telling them of the plans, and in the dark of night the clear skins entered into the homes of The People, taking their weapons and leaving tears in their wake.
Even then, however, the evil which had seized the heart and mind of Homer Anderson was not satisfied. While our People did not die from disease, those who attempted to help us could not avoid their fate. The City of Hope again knew the pestilence which had driven them from the Old World and a cloud of fear spread across the land.
In these dark times, The People were driven from their homes and caged within pens whose walls were made of wire with metallic thorns. No more was even the smallest amount of food shared with our ancestors, may they always walk with us. They were left to eat the bugs which crawled through the mud and it has even been said that the hunger was so great as to madden the minds of men and lead them to the taste the flesh of the dead.
Angered by their treatment, there came a day when The People could take no further indignities. Though the metallic thorns ripped at their flesh, they advanced as one and the wire walls toppled before their might. With a cry like thunder, The People ran toward the homes of the clear skins, wanting only food for their bellies and water to cool their burning throats.
Yet it was not to be…
Tanner Kline felt as if his lungs were on fire. Every breath, every gasp of air, drove needles of pain deep within his chest. Part of his mind reeled at how easy that Spewer bitch made it look: she moved through the forest as if the logs and obstacles didn’t apply to her, as if she could pass through them like a phantom if she so chose. Bobbing and weaving, ducking and leaping, completely fluid and in control of every action… if not for the fact that her blood carried dormant poison, he could have almost respected this woman. But she did.
Like all Spewers, the disease ran rampant in her body, manifesting the symptoms of sickness without ever claiming its just reward. Which is what made them so dangerous. Left to their own devices, these savages could live until they were old and wrinkled, erupting with geysers of putrid death for years to come. Anyone who may have known why the Gabriel Virus didn’t outright kill them like it did so many others had died with the Old World. There were no answers to be found, no great mystery to unravel… there was simply the threat of infection and the pain of death.
Sometimes, Tanner bolted awake in the middle of the night with a sheen of sweat plastering the thin sheet to his body. He’d gasp for air as his hands scrambled in the darkness, seeking out the warmth of Shayla’s small body curled up beside him. The dream was always the same: his beautiful little girl marred with blisters, seeping infection and stinking of sickness. Tears streaked her face as she reached for him with trembling hands. Help me, Daddy… it hurts. It hurts, Daddy, it hurts so bad…
Which is why he had to ignore the stitch in his side that felt like a knife was being plunged beneath his lowest rib. Why he had to continue running even though he scrambled over the stony ground on legs that felt as if the muscles were about to snap like rubber that had been stretched too tightly. His little girl depended on him and as long as there were Spewers in the world, she’d never be safe. Never be allowed to simply be a kid. There would always be the chance that his nightmare would become reality.
Tanner skidded around a bend and suddenly she was there. The infected animal he’d been chasing was boxed in on all sides. Unable to continue her flight, she clutched her spear in both hands and her eyes were as cold and unfeeling as the gray stone that trapped her. Her body glistened with sweat and disease, the stink so overpowering that it seemed to waft from the boulders and rocks that huddled at the base of the cliffs . Maybe it was because of the chase, the adrenaline that must have surged through her body as she ran; or perhaps his senses had simply heightened to superhuman acuteness. Whatever the reason, it smelled as if he’d stumbled into an entire nest of savages and his eyes watered behind their protective goggles.
Stopping so suddenly that he nearly stumbled over his own feet, Tanner snapped the rifle to his shoulder. Dry leaves crunched beneath his feet and his heart slammed into his chest as if attempting to break free.
“It ends now.”
As his finger began to tighten on the trigger, however, Tanner realized something was horribly wrong. Rather than taking moves to defend herself, his prey simply stood there with a crooked smile on her face that lacked any true warmth. It was almost as if she possessed some secret knowledge. No fear or anxiety, nothing but calm composure.
He’d been so focused on the pursuit that he hadn’t seen what, at first, looked like vines snaking out from beneath the bed of leaves. He was peripherally aware of them now, of how they scaled the side of the cliff as if stretching toward the sun-warmed rocks overhead. Not vines at all, but ropes. Twisted and browned with age, they crept out from four sides and draped over rocks high above.
Four large rocks tumbled down the sides of the cliffs, dislodging smaller stones and pieces of shale in their wake. Each one was wrapped in the same rope he’d spied beneath the leaves and before Tanner’s muscles even had a chance to flex, his body was yanked into the air. Falling backward, the net which appeared through the shower of leaves kept him from crashing to the ground but his rifle tumbled end over end as it flew from his hands. Before it had even clattered against the hard ground, the net had cinched tightly around him. He swung back and forth like a pendulum, writhing within coarse webbing that seemed to tangle around his thrashing arms and legs.
From all sides, he heard trilling and whooping as Spewers rushed out from their hiding places. From behind boulders, rising up from darkened fissures in the face of the mountain; like roaches scuttling toward a crust of bread they surrounded him. The tips of spears jabbed through the gaps in the net, crinkling his Tyvek suit and tapping against the goggles with half-hearted thrusts. Tanner snatched at the weapons but the dizzying spin of the net left his gloved hands sliding ineffectually over the smooth wood.
How many were there? Seven? Ten? Impossible to tell with the rotation of the net and the way they darted to and fro.
“Hunters of the tribe of Clay!” The voice boomed above the din of hoots and cheers. A female voice that resonated with power. “This is not the animal which we thought we’d snare.”
Laughter rippled from below him, but at least the spears no longer tested the durability of his clothes. Now that they had begun to calm, Tanner twisted within the net and counted. Seven. Eight counting the bitch who’d led him into this trap. All of them seeping fresh pus and covered with the crusty residue of dried infection. He’d rip them apart with his bare hands if given the chance, would leave their primitive brains splattered against the rock as their disgusting bodies crumpled at his feet.
“This Sweeper,” the voice said more loudly, “killed Myra and Jarnell.”
The laughter cut off as quickly as if it’d been severed with a cleaver. He felt their eyes upon him, their boiling anger penetrating his suit like a raging fire. For the first time since he’d been snared, Tanner felt fear twinge his gut. He closed his eyes and pictured Shayla, patiently sitting by the window and watching for a father who’d never return. He’d failed her. Had failed his community. Humanity, for that matter.
“We were meant to flush out game and instead I stand before you alone. The spirits of our brother and sister demand justice. They cry for retribution. This… clear skin,” she spat the word as if it were a piece of rancid meat, “must be brought before the Elders. He must be made to face his sins according to the way of The People.”
The hunting party roared approval and Tanner took a slow, deep breath. The fear was now a knot that squeezed his intestines and caused his throat to feel as if it were closing shut. His muscles quivered with a tremor that seemed to originate somewhere deep within him and his eyes stung with the threat of tears.
“I’m sorry, Princess.” He whispered. “I’m so, so sorry.”
By the time they’d made it to the village, Tanner’s white suit was tattered with ragged holes and his body felt as if he’d been swept up in an avalanche. Arms, legs, back and torso – all were mottled with bruises that pulsed and throbbed as if miniature hearts pounded just beneath the skin. The plastic goggles had cracked and blood stained the particle mask. Behind the soaked cotton, his split lips felt so swollen he was sure they were on the verge of popping and teeth wiggled loosely in the metallic saltiness of his mouth.
They’d drug him the entire way, letting his body tumble and topple within the net as he bounced over uneven, stony earth. Briars that crept over the earth scratched at his clothes and skin, leaving perforated dots of blood that stung like pinpricks of fire. Across rocks and logs, pine needles and patches of poison ivy, never stopping for rest, never giving a moment of respite. It almost seemed as if he’d died back there within the cliffs, as though he were now suffering through an eternity of torment to atone for failing his daughter. Minutes and hours alike bled into an unending tapestry of pain, agony so intense and constant that he’d been forced to fumble with the mask in an attempt to keep vomit from being trapped against his face as he wretched and heaved.
By the time the hunting party finally stopped, the sun had set and the heat of the day had turned into the coolness of evening. Tanner felt dizzy and nauseous and everything he saw seemed to shift into multiple, wavering ghosts of the original image. Torches staked into the ground flickered in and out of reality while buckskin tents and lean-tos wavered like mirages. Even if they hadn’t been accompanied by transparent, shimmering phantoms it would have been impossible to count the Spewers that clustered around him. They murmured to each other in a wordless drone and the lull faded in and out of the high pitched ringing that filled Tanner’s skull.
Infected hands untangled him from the strands of the net with no regard for his well-being. He spilled across the ground like a carpet that had been unrolled, landing before feet that were so callused that they almost looked as though they sprouted from the ground. Unseen hands grabbed his armpit and elbows, pulling him roughly to his feet. Fueled by a revulsion that felt as if his skin were sloughing off the muscle, Tanner wrenched free of their grasp. He stood by his own by pride and stubbornness alone , teetering on legs whose knees threatened to buckle at any moment.
A sea of faces surrounded him like curious children staring at a snared beast and he glared at each one through glassy eyes, silently daring them to approach. Curiosity and fear rippled through the crowd as the collective murmur rose in volume and cadence. There were no sentences or individual words as far as Tanner could tell, just the excited chatter of a hundred voices blending into one.
As he stood there, a hush fell across the group and the ring of Spewers directly in front of him parted. In the orange glow of torchlight, three savages hobbled forward with bent backs and claw-like fists wrapped around gnarled walking sticks. Their faces were marred with deep wrinkles and looked as tough and tanned as old leather, contrasting sharply against manes of flowing, white hair. Two males, one female, each decorated with necklaces formed of bone, feathers, and cogs. As they entered the center, the ring of Spewers closed around them and Tanner fought through the waves of dizziness in an attempt to appear defiant and unafraid.
Night insects cheeped and peeped in the surrounding forest and an owl hooted in the distance, its forlorn question going unanswered. It was so silent that Tanner could hear the crackling of fire, the scuffling of feet as the tribe of savages shifted position.
“Why has this clear skin been brought into our midst?” The voice was like a raspy croak and came from the old female. She studied Tanner through her good eye, the other being clouded behind a milky cataract that contrasted with her dark skin.
The bitch he’d chased through the forest pushed her way through the crowd and bowed low as she rose one hand in a closed-fist salute. She held the pose like a woman frozen in time, her averted eyes staring at the tips of her feet.
“Lila, chosen wife of Tolek, the Council grants permission to speak.”
The woman rose then and looked each of the ancient Spewers directly in the eye as she spoke. While her words had the hushed tones of reverence, it was also tinged with a conviction that made each syllable seem like a proclamation.
“This man, this Sweeper from beyond the forest, has been brought for judgment, oh Wise Ones. He has slaughtered our brothers and sisters, has ushered them too soon beyond the Veil. This very day he has murdered by Myra and Jarnell, not far from the River of Life. I have seen their lifeless bodies with my own eyes and stand witness again him. I swear this by the honor of my ancestors, may they always walk with me.”
A collective gasp arose from the crowd and one of the male elders waved his hand toward the congregation as he stepped forward. His face was marked with the scars of infection, twisted into a mask of craters and blemishes; he studied Tanner through eyes that were watery and blue, perfectly veiling any emotion that may have stirred within.
“What have you to say for yourself, clear skin? How do you answer to these crimes charged against you?”
Tanner smirked at the old man and his back popped as he ignored the pain and straightened his posture. The crowd leaned forward and seemed to hold their breath in unison. Though his voice was nothing more than a harsh whisper, the silence was so complete that not a single word was lost.
“What would you do,” he asked, “if there was a rabid wolf in your village? Just let it wander around? Or would you kill it where it stood?”
The Spewer called Lila stepped in front of him with her nostrils flaring wide.
“These were not wolves.” She hissed. “These were my people.”
Tanner sniffed once and cocked his head as his chest swelled with bravado.
“They were a threat to my daughter.”
Lila’s head whipped forward, so close now that their noses nearly touched. With a brow furrowed by anger, her rancid breath washed over him as she shouted, “And you are a threat to mine!”
Hands pulled the woman away from Tanner, but her gaze remained linked with his. For a moment, the rest of the village faded into an indistinct blur: there was nothing more than Lila’s blue eyes, burning with a hatred matched only by his own, and the scowl that distorted her face into a nightmare mask hungry for blood.
“Why should we not find you guilty of the charges brought against you, clear skin? Speak now and sway our judgment if you can.”
These so called people were barbarians. Animals. Nothing he could say would ever change that. So Tanner replied in a soft, steady voice with the only words that seemed to matter: “I will do my duty to my family and community. I will serve mankind and cleanse the world of blight. I will lay down my life so that others might live.”
“Have you nothing else to say for yourself, clear skin?”
“I will do my duty to my family and community, I will serve mankind and cleanse the world of blight…”
“So be it.” The female elder proclaimed with a sigh. “In accordance with the way of The People, the Council of Elders commit you to the hands of Death. May your ancestors always walk with you.”
Tanner crossed his arms over his chest and looked up at the stars for what he suspected to be the last time. He only hoped the members of his community would ensure that Shayla knew her father hadn’t died without cause or reason, that she would grow up with a certain amount of pride for who he’d been.
“I will give my life,” he said to the heavens, “so that others might live.”
As the sentence was pronounced, Lila touched the cog shaped pendant dangling from her neck and allowed herself the hint of a smile. She could feel Tolek with her; his presence was like a warmth that spread through her bosom, a gentle tingling that cleansed her spirit of anger and resentment. After nearly two years, the justice his soul deserved was finally at hand and peace would be his.
“My husband,” she whispered, “it is right that you are here.”
She realized, of course, that in all likelihood this wasn’t the same Sweeper who’d slain her mate. This one, she believed, was a little taller. His shoulders were more broad and there was a different air about him, a pride that couldn’t be squelched by mere capture. When told he was about to die, he didn’t fall onto his knees and plead for his life. No tears streamed from his eyes. He simply looked into the sky and repeated the same words again and again in a voice she associated with prayer. If things were different, he would have fit right in with the hunters of the tribe of Clay.
Shame warmed Lila’s cheeks and she clenched the cog so tightly that it dug into her fingers. It wasn’t right. She shouldn’t admire the man who’d butchered Myra and Jarnell, shouldn’t afford him even the smallest bit of esteem. He was bloodthirsty and merciless, a killer whose heart held no room for compassion. Even now, with the end at hand, he was unrepentant. If allowed to live, how many more would he slaughter? How many of her brothers and sisters would fall before the might of his weapon? He was the rabid wolf, the deranged raider whose thrived upon bloodshed and tears. His death would be symbolic, a gesture that would not go unnoticed to all of The People who’d been cut down by his kind.
“Forgive me, my ancestors, for I have wronged you in thought, if not deed.”
Snapping her attention back to the ceremony, Lila realized that she had missed most of the official decrees. She’d been so lost in thought that she hadn’t even heard the appeals to the Great Spirit, the request for Her hand to guide the Blade of Judgment, for the blow to be swift and decisive.
The ring of people surrounding the clear skin shifted, closing in ranks so that they now formed two straight lines of bodies instead of a circle. Since she was the one who brought the crimes to the attention of the Elders, Lila took her rightful place by their side and held her spear high in salute.
At the far end of the corridor created by the rows of her people, a small figure appeared. Silhouetted by a campfire at its back, it walked forward slowly. Its hands were held in front of its chest, palms turned skyward as if in supplication, and as the shadow grew closer it became obvious that the Blade of Judgment lay across those tiny hands.
In accordance with the Way of The People, the blade was to be delivered unto the Elders by the one who’d known the least amount of years in this life. As this youngling eased in the flickering pools of light and shadow cast by torches, his features began to resolve from the darkness. His face was round and pudgy with red hair that swayed against the tops of his shoulders. A mask of freckles smattered the bridge of his nose and his blue eyes twinkled in the firelight like a pair of gemstones. At three and half years old, his pudgy body had not yet been marked by the infection The People carried within their blood. That would come later, when the hormones of puberty awakened the Gabriel Virus and forced the blisters to rise from the skin. But for now he was angelic and unmarred, an example of perfection in an flawed world.
As she watched him, Lila felt herself standing a little taller. With her shoulders thrown back slightly, she struggled to restrain the broad smile that threatened to creep across her face. He was so handsome and serious, the Blade Bearer, both innocent and regal at the same time.
“Our son.” Lila silently said to the spirit of her husband. “Asham will be strong and virtuous, like his father. He will bring us honor.”
The little boy walked so slowly that it almost seemed as though he feared moving too quickly would be an affront to the tribe. His eyes stared at the dagger in his hands, studying the shiny silver blade that disappeared into a hilt of polished mahogany, and as his feet shuffled along the dusty path the men and women of the tribe lowered their heads with his passing.
The drums had begun now. Slow and plodding, the deep notes echoed through the silence of the night. Whether intentional or subconsciously, Asham’s steps fell in rhythm with the beat. Each time his small foot struck the ground, a boom resonated so loudly that it seemed as if the very earth were quaking beneath his heels.
“It is right that our son carries the Blade.” Lila mused. “Tolek will be avenged and Asham will go into life knowing he has honored his father above all things.”
The Clear skin no longer looked at the sky. He glanced over his shoulder at the boy approaching him and Lila wondered if the man had made his peace. Had he given himself over to the Great Spirit so that he could find rest and respite when freed from this mortal world?
Again, Lila felt the warmth of embarrassment and she averted her eyes so that her son would not witness the dishonor on his mother’s face. Let this clear skin walk eternity with feet pricked by thorns and with maggots writhing in his hair; let him know what it meant to feel his body decay, to know the ravages of Time and never be free from the torment it wrought. He would wander the caves and mountains, shunned by all things, never to see the faces of his ancestors again. It was what he deserved, what he’d brought upon himself by leading a life of disgrace and infamy. It was just.
By the time Lila raised her eyes again, the boy had neared the clear skin. It would be soon. The time of reckoning was close at hand. Within moments, the drums would cease as the Elders took the Blade from her son; they would then walk to the murderous stranger and, with a final blessing, slit open his throat
Seconds before it happened, Lila tensed. It was almost as though she sensed the man’s intent, as if the universe had presented her with a split-second glimpse of things to come.
As Asham passed the prisoner’s side, the Clear skin sprang into a blur of movement. Within the span of a second, the man had snatched the dagger from her son’s palms and spun around. The little boy cried out and writhed like a snared animal, but the Sweeper’s strong arm pinned the child against his chest. With the Blade of Judgment pressed against Asham’s throat, the wild-eyed clear skin whirled in quick circles.
Lila roared and rushed forward with her spear at the ready as murmurs of panic spread through the congregation like a forest fire. Her advance, however, quickly ended when the stranger bellowed.
“Back! Stay back or I swear to God, I’ll kill him!”
As if to demonstrate his seriousness, the man pressed the blade even more tightly against Asham’s throat.
The child’s eyes pleaded silently to his mother and Lila pictured herself hurling her spear, the shaft sinking into this man’s throat so deeply that it pierced the back of his neck. But what if she missed? Rage trembled her hands and tainted her vision and judgment.
“Let him go!” she commanded. “He is a child. Have you no honor at all?”
“I said back the fuck off!”
Lila could see it in the clear skin’s eyes. The glaze of madness and desperation. Pupils wide and dark, like two black holes leading directly into the void where a soul should have existed.
He would really do it.
Even if it meant his own death, he would kill her child where they stood.
A long time ago, we were safe from the evil Spewers. Children like you played in the forests and swam in the streams without worry or fear. Even way back then, there were still Sweepers, but their job was to journey into the cities to search for food, weapons, and supplies. Everyone was happy and all of the Settlers lived in one, big kingdom called Hope.
Just outside of Hope was another, smaller, kingdom that had no name and this is where the Spewers lived. The Spewers, however, were not as happy as everyone else. Like piggies, they lived in mud and filth and spent their days yelling bad words at the happy settlers nearby. In the beginning, the people of Hope tried to be nice to them. They brought them bits of food that were left over from feasts and gave them old blankets and clothes. But when these nice people threw the supplies over the fence surrounding the nameless kingdom, the Spewers rushed to get them. Like wolves fighting over a scrap of meat, they turned on each other and, in their frenzy, the blisters covering their bodies burst so violently that it sprayed right through the fence and all over the people who had so thoughtfully brought them these gifts.
As we all know, this meant that the magic liquid the evil wizard created was now in the bodies of those who’d tried to help the ungrateful Spewers. Not knowing what to do, these people decided to keep it a secret, hoping that maybe things would be different in Hope and they would be spared the agonizing death contained in the Spewers bodies. But this, dear children, was the wrong thing to do.
The nice people got very, very sick but they still tried to hide what had happened to them. They shared food and water with others, they coughed and sneezed, and made babies with their wives and husbands. But, within days, they could conceal their secret no more: it was obvious to everyone that they were turning into Spewers themselves.
The king of Hope met with his most trusted advisors and talked long into the night. They still remembered how the evil wizard’s magic had spread through the Old World and were afraid for the people of their kingdom. Though it was not an easy decision to make, the King and his advisors called all of the Sweepers to them and gave them their instructions.
That night, the Sweepers went to the homes of those who’d been tainted by the Spewers’ evil poison. With heavy hearts, they ended the suffering of the sick, ensuring that no one else would be blighted by the evil curse that fallen upon their people. That, however, was just the first part of their plan, for the king and his advisors realized that in order for their people to always be safe, there could be no Spewers.
Before this could happen, however, there was a great crash and the entire kingdom of Hope rushed to their windows to see what had made such a horrible sound. Looking out over the fields, they saw in the moonlight that the walls of the kingdom with no name had fallen. Armed with sticks and stones, the hateful Spewers ran across the field of grass with murderous cries rumbling in their throats, intent on taking everything that the citizens of Hope had worked so hard to achieve.
The King of Hope was a wise man and he knew that the Spewers would pollute the pure blood of his subjects if they were allowed to breach the kingdom. His people would become sick and die and it would be just like The End all over again. He loved his people so much that he simply couldn’t allow this to happen, so the citizens of Hope took their scavenged weapons and opened fire on the Spewer army.
Even though many dark hearted Spewers fell to the ground, some actually made it inside the kingdom, where they bashed open the heads of innocents with their rocks and stole everything they could get their greedy hands on. The brave Sweepers scoured Hope, hoping to stop them before their toxins could claim the lives of other innocent settlers. But it wasn’t to be.
Even though the Spewers eventually realized they were fighting a battle they couldn’t win and retreated into the darkness of the forest, the ones who’d made it inside the walls of Hope had already spread their sickness to those they met. Once again, in the days to come, the infected had to be cut from the flock so that others might live.
By this time, the king realized that his people could not live safely as one large community. With so many people all in one place, the sickness easily spread among them and it would only be a matter of time before his subjects would all be impure. If allowed to continue, mankind would disappear from the face of the earth, never to be seen again.
This was something he couldn’t allow to happen. Calling his advisors again, he instructed them to go out into the world and build their own communities. Each would take a Sweeper to help protect them and the cities they made would be large enough to support themselves, but still small enough that contagion could be quickly stopped if it reared its ugly head. Also realizing that remnants of the Spewers still crawled through the forests, the king charged the Sweepers with the task of rooting them out. Once the last Spewer no longer threatens mankind, then all of the communities will rejoin into a single kingdom again and Hope will rule the earth.
And that, dear children, is why we live in scattered settlements to this very day.
The thunderous drums had been replaced with the frantic pounding of Tanner Kline’s heart. Though his body ached with every move, he knew the squirming child was his only hope of ever seeing his daughter again. So, he pushed the stinging and throbbing into the far recesses of his mind, allowing recklessness to surge through his system like flood waters from a burst dam.
“I’ll do it, I swear to God I will.” His voice sounded foreign, even to his own ears. He barked the words in a guttural rasp that bordered on slurring as they passed through his swollen lips. “Stay away!”
The crowd around him had initially surged forward, but now they shuffled backward. Their faces, though only glimpsed for a fraction of a second, beamed hostility as hundreds of eyes bore into his soul. The outrage rolled off them like heat. Waves of malice blasted over his body and his suit crinkled as the child thrashed and kicked. But the hatred burning the most intently came from the savage called Lila.
The woman looked as though it took all of her will to keep from lunging at him and ripping him to shreds with her teeth and nails. Her entire body shivered with pent-up aggression and wrath distorted her features, pulling her face into the long caricature of a demon. The eldest of the Spewers had their palms facing him, as if showing that they meant no threat, and they babbled in quick bursts of words that were lost on Tanner. It didn’t matter what they said: without his hostage, he was a dead man. He only salvation was banked on the hope that these savages valued their children as dearly as his own people.
He eased away from the Spewers but continued spinning in circles, more slowly now so that dizziness wouldn’t tumble him to the ground. At the edge of the village, and cloaked mostly in shadow, was the forest. Within its darkness, he just might have a chance. If he could make it into the trees then perhaps he could find his way back home. If nothing else, he would be away from these infectious animals and would have a moment to think, to plot out his next course of action.
The child sank its teeth into Tanner’s forearm, but the pain was nothing more than a discomfort compared to the torture of being drug through the forest. In retaliation, he squeezed the little monster more tightly, allowing the crook of his arm to crush the air from its lungs. Gasping for breath, the child opened its mouth again as Tanner continued dragging it toward the edge of the woods.
The tribe of savages followed him with faltering steps, keeping just enough distance between them so he wouldn’t feel threatened.
“Let him go! Face me with honor and die like a man, coward!”
It was that mangy bitch again. Something told him he’d have to watch her more closely than the rest. She’d already proven to be a slippery little harpy with that whole net trick. But he’d be damned if he played into her hands again.
“I’m getting out of here,” Tanner shouted, “and if anyone follows, this little bastard is as good as dead, you hear me?”
He was close enough to the forest now that he could feel its coolness against his back. His eyes darted from face to face, only to return time and time again to Lila. She stood in the forefront of the group with her knuckles white as bone as she clutched her spear. Perhaps it was born of stress, but the rest of the crowd had blisters erupting like tapped wells. Infection spewed into the air and oozed across their flesh, contaminating the air with that unmistakable stench.
But then darkness enveloped Tanner. The torches and campfires of the village were nothing more than a wavering glow glimpsed between the trees and the sky was blotted out by a canopy of leaves.
With as much strength as he could muster, Tanner hoisted the child up and tucked him beneath his armpit like a parcel. And then, with no clear direction or plan, he ran.
He had no doubt the Spewers would follow. It wouldn’t take long for them to realize he would never let the child go. Once enough distance had been put between him and the village, he’d have no more need for a hostage and they’d know this. So it was important to cover as much ground as possible in the least amount of time.
The problem was, the kid wasn’t content being a passenger on this ride. The little brat writhed and twisted, kicked his legs like a swimmer, and clawed at the slick fabric of Tanner’s suit. His voice, shrill with terror, cried out for his mother between blubbering sobs and his constant struggles shifted Tanner’s balance. The man stumbled and scrambled as he forced his way through thickets and the frenetic beat of his heart thumped painfully in his temples.
At night, the forest was like a dark and twisting labyrinth. Deadfalls and obstacles lay at every turn and it would be all too easy to get turned around. The last thing he needed was to come crashing through the undergrowth only to find himself right back where he’d started. Without the stars to navigate by, he needed something else. Something that could be used as a guide and assure he was headed in a consistent direction.
It was riskier to stagger blindly through the night than it was to gather his bearings, so Tanner stopped near the remains of an Old World house that was now nothing more than a mound of decaying wood within a brick-lined pit. He listened past his own haggard breathing, past the swishing of blood that seemed to fill his ears; ignoring the child’s cries and protests, he closed his eyes and focused.
He could faintly hear shouts in the distance, voices calling out to one another in the darkness, and they sounded as if they were fanning out. So he’d been right then. The Spewer Village had decided on pursuit. How long would it be before he glimpsed their torches? How long until the human net closed in around him?
He knew he’d move more quickly without the kid, but part of him insisted that it would be more dangerous at this point to go it alone. These savages moved through the wilderness with ease. Even if he did dump the little one, they’d swarm over him before long if he didn’t come up with a solid plan. So it was better to keep his prisoner for the time being… just in case.
So he had to ignore the sounds of the search party and allow them to become as unimportant as the chirping of insects. Nothing more than background noise. And then, just barely, he heard it: the sound of a river.
Using the rushing waters as a beacon, he darted into the darkness again, this time with purpose. Rivers provided water and fish so settlements often sprang up on their banks. Some of the newer ones were even experimenting with dams and water wheels in an attempt to return to the reign of electricity. If he could find this river, he’d be able to follow it, perhaps find allies and guns.
As the sounds of the water grew louder, hope welled within Tanner. Such a story he’d have for Shayla when he returned home, one which would even rival the history hidden within the fairy tales she so loved. The three other children in his community would gather around as well, each chewing their fingernails and leaning forward with round eyes as he told of the Spewer village.
By the time the soft earth of the forest turned into the loose rocks and sand of riverbank, Tanner had almost convinced himself that escape was a certainty. But now he felt that optimism fade like a lantern running low on oil. He could see the torches of the villagers now, bobbing through the forest like giant fireflies. And they were so fast, the savages: some of the closest ones looked like blurred streaks of light as they darted through the trees and he heard a voice, much too close for comfort, screech out what he assumed was the child’s name.
Behind him, the river roared like an angry god as large waves crashed over partially submerged boulders. The previous week, it had stormed so heavily that it seemed as though the deluge would never end. Torrents of rain had pounded against the tin roof of his sleeping quarters and the ground had become so saturated that every squishing step caused water to rise up within the grass. While the sun had dried the earth, the river still raged with after effects. It’s waters, even on a moonless night, were green and murky; toppled trees undulated on the white crested waves, hundreds of pounds carried effortlessly by nature and tossed about as if they were no more than splinters.
“Asham! I’m coming, child! I’m coming!”
The voice was close enough to be heard above the river and a cold certainty dawned upon him: he’d never be able to outrun them. Before the night was through, the Spewers would have his life and, despite his heroic attempt at escape, Shayla would be left an orphan. Unless…
Tanner whirled around and faced the river, watching how quickly the logs and debris were carried downstream. Even the fastest Spewer wouldn’t be able to match that pace. Of course, there was the chance that he’d be dashed against the rocks or pulled into the undertow. He could die out there in the raging waters. But staying ashore was a certain death. At least in the river, he’d have a fighting chance.
Turning around again, Tanner tossed the child onto the ground like a sack of laundry. His small head smacked flatly against a rock and the child’s eyes glazed as a low moan escaped through his throat. The kid was stunned, but if he was as resilient as adult Spewers that wouldn’t last long.
Kneeling beside the boy, Tanner took the dagger that was meant to spill his blood and held it against a bulging vein in the child’s neck. A hostage was no longer needed… .
But his hand refused to make the cut. Without the scars of infection and spurting blisters, the child could have easily passed for a settler. His skin was clear and unblemished and only residual stink from adult savages clung to him. If the child were bathed and the filthy loincloth replaced with honest to God clothes, the beast would almost be human.
But he’s not, part of Tanner’s mind urged, you know this. He’s a disgusting little animal that will grow up into a Spewer. He could kill dozens. Hundreds, even.
The child blinked rapidly, seemingly unaware of both his surroundings and the weapon held to his throat. He shifted slightly and, in a weak voice, muttered a single word: “Mommy.”
The torches in the forest glowed more brightly and seemed to getting larger. Within moments, he and the child would be discovered. Maybe he should just leave the boy on the bank. When they found him, alive and unharmed, perhaps they’d be content and give up the chase.
He’s not a child, you idiot. He’s a fucking Spewer. He may look harmless enough, but that won’t last. It never does. Would you want Shayla playing with this piece of shit? Would you want her drinking after him or using a pillow he’d laid his disgusting little head on?
“Asham! I’m coming… .”
For perhaps the first time in his career as a Sweeper, Tanner Kline had no idea what to do. But if he hoped to live, he knew he’d have to make a decision within seconds.
Asham was close. Lila knew this as surely as she knew the man would suffer for taking her child. It was almost as if she could sense his presence in the forest, drawing her to him like iron filings to a magnet. She called out his name again and again but whether or not he replied was of no consequence. All that mattered was that he knew she was out there, that he wasn’t alone and she was coming for him.
She should’ve killed that son of a goat when she had the chance. If she would’ve run him through when she first spotted him, none of this would have happened. Her child would be safe and happy, not being spirited away by a man whose heart was as small, cold, and unfeeling as a nugget of ice. But she had to think of The Way, didn’t she? She had to let tradition dissuade her from what she knew in her soul to be right.
“Maybe The Way no longer applies.” She thought. “Maybe the time has come for action. To stop being hunted and pick up our spears. To fight!”
This time the voice the voice of her late husband, offered no arguments.
From somewhere nearby, Lila heard the sound of the river. She imagined herself out there in the darkness: the hunter now the prey, surrounded and scared and knowing that death was on its way. She’d search out something familiar, something that would give the illusion of hope. She’d know there was no way those who pursued her could be on the far bank. The waters were too high and the rapids too turbulent. So they would close in on her from a single direction, a known direction… .
The murderous swine was heading for the water. He had to be. After all, it was what she would have done had their roles been reversed; and, while it was true that he was the very embodiment of evil, he was far from stupid. Which made him all that more dangerous.
For that reason, if nothing else, she would kill him this time. She would rend the flesh from his bones and show him his own intestines before allowing him to die. Even that would be too good for him.
When Lila broke through the tree line, she ignored the torrents of water rushing by. Instead, her eyes scanned the bank, looking for the slightest sign of movement or perhaps a flash of white from the man’s suit. But as far as the eye could see, there was nothing but the silhouettes of rocks and mounds of debris that had washed ashore from past recent flooding..
He had to be here somewhere. Her instincts told her to look more closely, to take in every detail as if it were the last time she’d gaze upon the earth. Sweeping the landscape again, she allowed her Cougar Eyes to crawl over moss covered stones and rusted hunks of metal that had washed ashore; like an invisible serpent, her eyes slithered along the contours of the river bank until they came to rest on what she’d originally mistaken for a large piece of driftwood.
For a moment, Lila’s heart forgot to beat. The moisture in her mouth evaporated as quickly as a drop of water on a glowing coal and the night air suddenly felt colder. In some ways, she was planted firmly in the here and now: she was acutely aware of how restrictive her necklace felt, almost as if it were cinching around her throat like a noose; she also heard the waters of the river gurgling and rushing with such clarity that it almost seemed they surrounded her on all sides. But at the same time, it also felt as if her consciousness had fled into the back of her mind, as if she were trying to distance herself from this dark riverbank. Her body was a shell and her spirit nothing more than a speck of dust within it.
Breaking through her paralysis, Lila ran over the jagged stones of the riverbank. Her usual grace had abandoned her, causing her to stumble and fall as her feet entangled themselves in another. Sharp rocks peeled back the skin on her knees but before blood had even begun flowing she scrambled to her feet again.
As she grew closer to the object lying on the shore, details began to reveal themselves. The mop of red hair, pale skin, and brown loincloth. His tiny, rounded nose and lips that seemed to perpetually pout.
Please no, please no, please Great Spirit, please please please….
Asham lay on his back with his hands folded across his chest, thumbs interlocked as if making the shape of a bird with his palms and fingers. His eyes were closed and he appeared to have fallen into a deep, sound sleep.
Falling to her knees, Lila flung her spear to the side and scooped her son into her arms. He hung limply in the cradle formed by her elbows as she pressed him to her chest and rocked back and forth. He was just napping that was all. He’d wake up with that special smile of his, would beg for a breakfast of venison when he knew perfectly well there was none. He would laugh and skip and play until it was time to sleep again, time to rest. She hadn’t really seen a smooth slit arching across his throat that looked like a flap of skin that had simply come loose. And the sticky blood covering the rocks was nothing more than a trick of the light, just a cruel trick, that was all. It had to be trick.
Lila felt, more than heard, the low moan building in the hollow void of her chest. She felt it resonate in the abyss, growing in strength as it spiraled through the barren cavity. Asham wavered in and out of focus as hot tears streamed from her eyes and she clutched him more tightly, intent on not allowing him to fluctuate out of existence.
She had no idea how long she’d sat there, rocking the lifeless body of her son while her voice broke and cracked through the words of his favorite songs. Time meant nothing. There was only the chill of Asham’s body seeping into her own warm flesh and the sound of the river, continuing on as it had for millennia.
Eventually, a callused hand touched her so lightly that it could have been a butterfly alighting on her shoulder. She jerked away and pressed her face into Asham’s red hair, allowing it to muffle her sobs.
“Lila… he’s gone.”
Her head snapped up and whipped around so quickly that tears flung from her glistening cheeks. Her eyes were red and puffy, but they flared with pinpoint glimmers of anger.
“He’s not gone! He’s not. He was taken. Like Myra. Like Jarnell. Like Tolek!” As quickly as her voice had risen in anger, it dropped to a hoarse whisper that was almost drowned by the roar of the river. “They will die for this. All of them. They will know what it means to lose a child. To lose a husband. Their pain will balance the scales. Do you see? Do you see, Tanta? We must have vengeance.”
A small group of people had clustered around Lila and the light of their torches made it look as if Asham’s eyelids were about to flutter open. Most of the tribe could not look directly at her, fearing the madness and sorrow that seethed within her gaze. They studied the rocks of the shore, watched the waters flowing by, or simply closed their eyes. No one spoke, so Lila repeated in a louder voice, “We must have vengeance.”
Tanta, a short man whose beard looked like a overgrown scrub brush, shook his head slowly. He tried to speak in calm, measured tones but the words faltered. “It is not The Way , Lila. The Council would not approve.”
“Damn the Elders!” Spittle flew from Lila’s mouth as the words burst forth. “They would have us sit and wait to be slaughtered like game. They would stand idly by while our children are left to die.”
“You are grieving, woman. You don’t know what you say…”
Lila scrambled to her feet and thrust her arms toward Tanta as if offering him the corpse draped across them. “This was my child, Tanta. My child. Where is the honor in this? Is this a noble death? An honorable death?”
“You must listen to… .”
“No!” Lila screeched. “You must listen. You all must listen.” She turned slowly and watched as the eyes of her brothers and sisters flickered between the ground and Asham’s body. “They will continue to hunt us. They will continue to strike us down. Passivity teaches them how to treat us. We are telling them this is okay. That our lives are theirs for the taking. But I swear before my ancestors… this is not okay!”
“Listen to yourself… you’re talking about suicide.”
“I am talking about war! With or without the Council of Elders’ blessing, I will wage this battle. Whether or not any of you stand with me, I will fight until the last of the clear skins’ blood has been drank by the hungry earth.”
Lila took a deep breath and looked down upon Asham’s face. She studied every feature as she would the forest floor, intent on locking it into her memory for all eternity. She would never forget what he looked like, would never struggle to recall a particular characteristic. He would be with her always.
“They will die for their sins, my sweet boy.” She whispered. “They will die.”
Gather at the feet of the Elders, brothers and sisters, and listen to a tale from the time of our ancestors. May they always walk with us…
So it came to be that The People lay staring at the sun while the blood of their bodies made mud in the fields below them. The weapons of the clear skins had cut our numbers by two thirds and John Redtree, he who is greatest among our ancestors, saw that to continue would mean the certain death of those still left alive. Gathering his warriors, he allowed The Great Spirit to guide them deep into the forest. They came to a vast lake where the waters were so clear that in the dark of night it looked as though the earth had captured the stars overhead and possessed them as her own. Here, The People laid their heads upon the grass and cried for their fallen brothers and sisters, knowing that they had passed through the Veil, never to return. It is said that for five days and nights their tears soaked into the soil and The Great Spirit was so moved by their plight that it took pity and delivered unto them a motherless calf so that they might fill their bellies.
Even with the coming of food and an abundance of water, however, The People were mired by loss and heartache and they knew not where to turn in these times of turmoil. As the Days of Tears moved on, John Redtree looked upon the disheartened tribe and anger blossomed in his heart like a rose in spring.
“You have nothing I want!” he shouted to the distant clear skins. “I reject you and your ways! From this day forth, The People and clear skins shall be like the rabbit and wolf, never again to live in peace.”
So great was his anger that he who is greatest among our ancestors (may they always walk with us) rejected the name that had been given to him by his father. From that day forth, the man known as John Redtree was no more, calling himself instead Jo’ree. Guided by The Great Spirit, Jo’ree taught The People how to capture the fish from the lake and which berries could be eaten from the vine without souring the stomach. Building shelter from the bounty of the forest, they followed The Way with each man, woman, and child taking new names as well.
It was thought that The People would live by the shining lake forever, but this was not meant to be. For the clear skins had sent their assassins into the world with evil in their hearts and minds. Once the harvesters of life, these white-suited Sweepers were now harbingers of death and The People were driven further and further from the lands that had always been called their home.
As with all things, The Great Spirit finally saw in It’s wisdom that the time had come for Jo’ree, he who is greatest among our ancestors, to part the Veil. Many were the saddened hearts who bid his spirit safe journey and it has been told that even the earth itself cried, swelling the streams and rivers to the point that hills became as islands.
With their great leader walking among the stars, dissension fell upon the minds of those left behind. Some wished to continue walking the path that Jo’ree had set them upon. Others wished to use it as a guide which they could, in turn, base their own teachings and doctrines from. Some wanted to commune peacefully with the earth and some wanted to make war against the clear skins for the indignities The People had been made to suffer. And so it was that the six great tribes were formed.
Yet it is said that Jo’ree still looks down upon us all from beyond the Veil, watching over his brothers and sisters, guarding and guiding us in all things. If, on a clear night, you turn your eyes to the heavens, you may be blessed to see a streak of light shooting across the darkness like an ember caught by the breeze. If this happens, brothers and sisters, then your heart should sing joyful praises, for this is the bursting of Jo’rees blisters and wherever it touches, new stars will form And you should live your life knowing that there is hope, that a time has been foretold when The People shall no longer be hunted, but will live out their days in peace and harmony with all things.
The setting sun cast the city in a diffuse, honey-colored glow that seemed to radiate from the buildings and people themselves. With dust hanging in the air so thickly that the street looked grainy, Tanner Kline stood on a wooden sidewalk and watched pedestrians pass by. They were covered nearly head to foot in frilly bell-shaped dresses, tight fitting breeches, capes, cloaks, top hats, and bonnets; bows and ribbons fluttered with their passing, yet somehow they all moved as if the heels of their polished shoes were cobbled from lead. No one turned to look at him. No one acknowledged his presence. It was almost as if he were a ghost standing in a silly little bowler hat and suspenders, condemned to observe the living without participating.
By his side was something he’d only ever seen in mildew bloated books. It looked like a large, wooden box that balanced on a single, spindly leg. A leather strap went from one corner of the padded top to the other, crossing over his shoulder like the lacy bags some of the women passing by carried. On the side of the box was a metal crank and, even though the workings were hidden within the scuffed and scarred wood, Tanner knew this handle would cause a barrel within the box to spin when it was turned. The revolution would trigger notes from pins and staples embedded into the barrel, a preprogrammed song whose tempo was dictated by the turning of the shaft.
“A barrel organ,” he thought, “which would make me the organ grinder.”
At that moment, Tanner realized there was a thin-gauge, silver chain looped around his wrist. His eyes followed the shiny links as they swagged down and attached to a small leather collar. This collar encircled a throat with blue tinged skin and attached to that neck was a young boy with red hair. Constellations of freckles dotted his nose and the boy looked up at Tanner with wide, blue eyes as sunlight reflected off the brass buttons of his red, velvet jacket.
Tanner give the chain a tug and the boy’s head pulled back just enough to reveal the slit in his throat. The gash almost looked as though it were smiling up at him and Tanner found himself wishing he had some peanuts with which to distract the boy. When a search of his pockets turned up empty, he knew he had no choice: he’d have to make the child dance to keep from seeing that hideous grin again.
Cranking the handle of the barrel filled the street with a sound that was like the music of a pipe organ that had been salvaged from the bricks of a toppled building. The tempo dragged and lagged, demanding that Tanner crank evenly more quickly to bring the song up to speed.
In response to the discordant music, the boy scooped a tasseled fez from the sidewalk and walked toward the street until the chain would allow him to go no further. With a slight bow, he danced an elegant waltz with an invisible partner, swirling among the lazy dust motes as if pulling them into his imaginary ballroom. This display, in turn, led a gentlemen with a particularly shiny top hat to flip a quarter into the air. Tanner watched the coin tumbling end over end, flashing in the sunlight as everything in the background faded to black.
There was the coin. There was the music. And the void bridged them.
As he watched, the coin changed mid flip into a bloated heart. The ventricles ballooned out with built up pressure, snapping veins and arteries like taut wires, as the muscle continued to swell. Once the size of a closed fist, the organ inflated larger and larger until the over-extended heart burst into a shower of smaller organs with a pop that sounded like distant gunfire: kidneys, intestines, lungs, pancreas, brains, and liver – all fell through the perfect darkness in slow motion clarity. Every wrinkle, every strand of sinew and glob of gristle was so defined that it was like gazing into valleys of meat and tissue.
Glancing down, Tanner noticed that the padding from the top of the box had inexplicably disappeared and he could now look directly into the instrument. Instead of the pins and staples of a barrel organ, silver cylinders with tooth-like spikes gnashed against one another. The spikes clanged abrasively and polluted the tune with a metallic backbeat that bordered on chaotic.
As he watched, the tumbling viscera fell into the box, where they were chewed and crushed and shredded between the whirring mechanisms. The ground meat was then forced into a slender tube that led to a spigot on the front of the box, where it oozed out of the tap like a long, bloody feces.
And then Tanner himself was falling through the void, rushing toward the hungry teeth while the organ played on.
Tanner Kline lifted his head from the ground as his body was wracked by a fit of coughing. Water gushed from his eyes and nose with the force of projectile vomiting as his fingers clawed at his throat as if he could scratch open an airway. Gasping for breath, he struggled to sit up and realized he was shivering so violently that his teeth chattered against each other. Drenched from head to toe, his face and tattered suit were coated with gritty sand and a chill radiated from within him as if his skeleton were made of ice.
Blinking away the tears in his eyes, he looked at the world through a shimmering veil. Dark trees blurred the horizon and he heard the rushing waters of the river behind him. There was another noise as well, so faint that he at first thought it was simply a remnant of the nightmare clinging to his mind. Cutting in and out of the river sounds were the slightly off-key notes of a barrel organ, cranking through a song that Tanner’s grandfather had taught him years ago: Blue Danube.
Tanner attempted to stand but a jolt of agony blazed through his leg. With a sharp cry he fell to the ground again and lay there, panting, as he waited for the pain to subside. When he felt as if he could move without throwing up, he crawled across the shore, inching his way toward a mass of driftwood that had become snagged in the exposed roots of a tree. His trembling hands wrenched pieces of timber free until he found a forked branch that was about the right size. Snapping part of the lower half over a rock, he placed the Y-shaped crook in his armpit and used the makeshift crutch to help him to his feet.
Now that he was standing, Tanner could see lights shining through the cluster of pines up river. The organ music had stopped, but he was certain it had come from the same direction . He was just as sure that the soft glow in the distance could be nothing other than a Settler community and he gritted his teeth through the pain as he hobbled toward it.
He would have his story to tell Shayla after all. She’d undoubtedly cried herself to sleep by now, her mind inventing myriad horrors to explain why her daddy hadn’t come home. Nightmares would surely follow, but within a matter of days she would be in his arms again and he would chase all the bad dreams away.
The thought of nightmares gave Tanner pause as the image of the boy rose like a ghost in his mind. He saw the silver chain as clearly as if it had been overlaid upon reality. The velvet coat and red hair. The gash in the neck grinning up at him, mocking with smug condemnation.
He was a Spewer. Plain and simple. It had to be done. For Shayla.
He also realized that someone would have found the body by now. And they would not be happy. As he stood there, thinking about that poisonous little bastard, the entire Spewer village could be scavenging the riverbank, searching for the child murderer who’d eluded them.
It’s not murder… it was self defense.
Still, unless he wanted to risk falling into their hands again, he had to get his ass moving.
Weaponless and alone, Tanner Kline trudged toward the light.
It had been three days since Tanner Kline drug his battered body to the gates of the community he came to know as Knoll. It was smaller than most settlements he’d visited in the past, comprised of five buildings pieced together from logs and various scraps of wood. The structures themselves lacked any real foundation and most leaned to one side so precariously it looked as though their tin roofs were about to slip off.. All in all, it was standard Settler architecture with the buildings clustered around a courtyard. The ground in this common area had been trampled underfoot so often that only sparse clumps of grass were able to push their way through the hard-packed earth. The entire community was surrounded by a wall that had once been mounds of Old World refuse; covered in dirt and seeded with grass it was the singular feature from which the community took its name.
Though the earthen wall was so high that Tanner had to scramble up the ramparts just to glimpse the forest and river beyond, he could still see the remnants of the Old World city from the courtyard. The crumbling towers rose in the distance like a forest of trees that had been snapped in half; ivy clambered over most of them so thickly that their steel skeletons were no longer visible, except for the occasional flash of sunlight glaring off the windows hidden beneath the leafy vines.
Earlier in the morning, Tanner had seen an eagle take flight from the top of the tallest structure and his eyes now scanned the blue expanse of sky, watching for the black speck of the great bird’s return. If he’d had his antique rifle, he was sure he would’ve been able to drop the creature mid-flight if it soared close enough. It would be nice to present the half a dozen residents of Knoll with a token of his gratitude before setting out for home. They’d welcomed him into their homes as if he were one of their own, shared their meager supplies, and helped nurse him back to health. Though his leg was still surrounded by an anklet of purple and green bruises, the swelling was mostly gone, thanks to their care. It was tender and warm to the touch, but within a day or two it would be healed to the point that his limp would be a thing of the past.
As he searched the sky for signs of the eagle, his eyes came across a column of black smoke to the south. The smoke curled into the heavens like a roiling pillar of soot attempting to poison the sky. It mushroomed out at the top, stretching dark tendrils towards clouds that seemed to instinctively flee from its touch.
Four, five miles tops. Tanner thought. Something about the smoke made Tanner feel as if the outer walls of his stomach rippled. Pressing his hands against his belly, he realized his palms were so clammy that they left moist prints against the green tunic one of the settlers had given him. Too small for a forest fire, too large to be burning brush… something’s wrong.
As soon as the thought passed through his mind, it solidified into certainty. Hadn’t Roger, the old man who played the barrel organ, said something about another community up river? Tanner was sure he had; and even though he’d never personally been there, he was just as positive that the smoke was coming from that settlement.
For some reason, the image of that Spewer bitch sprang into his mind like a cougar pouncing from a cliff . He saw her eyes, smoldering with a hatred that felt as though it could direct a concentrated blast of pure incineration at her chosen target; with her teeth clenched so forcefully that the veins in her temples bulged, her hair blew in a hot breeze like tongues of flame.
Shaking off the chill tingling his spine caused the vision of Lila to dissipate like the fog at dawn. Yet the residual feelings of unease left by her apparition remained and Tanner limped across the courtyard far too slowly for his liking. He wanted to run, to stand atop the grassy mound and scrutinize the forest for the slightest indication of danger. Because of his injury, however, he was forced to hobble forward at a pace that reminded him of the three-legged races they sometimes held in his home community and he longed to feel the comforting stock of his rifled pressed against his shoulder.
Jayme, the unofficial leader of Knoll, stood atop the grass wall in a wide-legged stance. His long hair fluttered in the wind as he raised a pair of field glasses to his eyes. Even though the wall was several feet taller than Tanner, the Sweeper could still see the man’s body stiffen.
“It’s them, isn’t it?” Tanner’s voice was tight and gruff, but Jayme never looked away from the smoke in the distance. “The Spewers. It’s those filthy beasts.”
“Can’t be sure.” Jayme finally mumbled. “Pretty sure the smoke’s coming from Willowglade. But maybe a cook stove got out of control and… .”
“No. It’s them… it’s her.”
The rest of the community had filtered out of the buildings and clustered behind Tanner silently. A man named Ashton stepped forward and placed his hand on Tanner’s shoulder. The man’s bushy eyebrows lowered, as if he were taking mental stock of their guest, and with pursed lips, he stroked his beard.
“You were a Sweeper, yes? In your home community?”
Tanner tilted his chin and straightened to his full height, ignoring the extra discomfort subjected upon his ankle.
“I am a Sweeper.”
“Fair enough.” The man nodded. “Not sure if you’ve noticed yet, but ours hasn’t returned since yesterday evening. It’s not like Charles to go this long without checking in.”
“I’ll go then.” There was no hesitation or doubt in Tanner’s voice as he blurted out the words. “Where are your guns?”
The conversation had captured the attention of Jayme, who looked down upon the gathered crowd like a shocked god. “Don’t be a fool, man… .”
“I will lay down my life so that others might live.”
“I’m not sending you out there!”
The force of Jayme’s words struck Tanner like a physical blow to the chest. He blinked up at the man and noticed how the field glasses trembled in his hand. Studying the deep lines etched into the Jayme’s face and the ashen pallor that leeched color from his flesh, Tanner realized the leader of the community was terrified. He’d seen something out there. Something which had shaken him so badly that his confidence had crumbled like the buildings standing against the skyline.
“We… we need you here, Kline. In case… well, in case something happens.”
The man’s unease was not lost on the people who looked to him for guidance. Their silence was shattered with a nervous babble of chatter, gasps, and a half dozen questions asked simultaneously. Even Ashton seemed taken back by the outburst, his jaw dropping open as he stood with his hand on Tanner’s shoulder..
Pulling away from the man, Tanner scuttled up the embankment on all fours, using his hands and knees to ease the strain on his injured ankle. The worn tread of the sandals covering his feet slipped in the dew-slick grass as his fingernails raked ragged furrows into the earth in an attempt to keep from sliding backward. Halfway up the small hill, he kicked the shoes off in a flurry of movement and was then able to reach the summit in a fraction of the time it’d taken him to arrive at the midpoint
While the sides of the embankment were covered with grass and clover, Knoll’s missing Sweeper had beaten a dusty path into the top of the ridge with his ceaseless patrolling. This dirt stuck to Tanner’s wet soles like gritty sand and protruding stones dug into his heels as he teetered to his feet.
Up close, the head of the community looked like a man who’d glimpsed an inevitable future and wished he hadn’t. His pupils were dilated to the point that the green irises surrounding them were nothing more than thin rings. He somehow looked slumped and tense at the same time, as if his body couldn’t decide whether to fight with everything it could muster or simply lay down and await death. Though it was still early enough in the day that most of the assembled citizens donned long sleeves or shawls, a tang of sweat wafted from Jayme’s body. He tried to meet Tanner’s gaze, held it long enough for his left eye to twitch twice, and then apparently found something of intense interest on his hands. He held them at chest level and turned them back and forth in front of him, as if comparing the callused mounds of his palms to the scrapes and scabs on his knuckles.
“I’m just a moisture farmer, Sweeper.” He said softly. “These people look to me for protection. For guidance. I’m… I’m just a moisture farmer, ya know?”
The statement hung in the air like an admission of guilt and neither man said a word, allowing the implications to sink in. Finally, Tanner placed his hand on the crook of the man’s elbow and squeezed so softly that it almost seemed as if he were testing the ripeness of a fruit.
“So be it, moisture farmer. Stand down.”
Jayme’s head snapped up and a shadow passed over his face. Tanner had seen the same look when weeding recruits from potential Sweepers for communities who’d lost their own. It was an expression of conflicting resolve and shame, of someone who wished they had what it took to protect their settlement but was also too keenly aware of his own shortcomings.
“Sometimes,” Tanner whispered, “being a leader means knowing when to hand over the reins. There’s no disgrace in that, friend. I’ll protect your people as if they were my own. I give you my word as a Sweeper. But, more importantly… as a father.”
Without another word, Jayme slipped the strap of the binoculars over his head and handed them to the man by his side. The moisture farmer’s head wasn’t nearly as broad as Tanner’s and the Sweeper struggled to adjust the old field glasses to accommodate his own eyes. The mount hadn’t been cared for properly and the mechanism was stiff, but as Tanner applied downward pressure while simultaneously lifting the sides, the span begrudgingly widened.
The rubber cups surrounding the eyepieces were hard and brittle, causing the bruise on Tanner’s cheek to ache; but this was a manageable pain so he slowly swept the binoculars across the landscape. At first he saw nothing but trees and field, marred by magnified scratches on the lenses. Except for the dark smoke curling above the forest, it could have been just another peaceful Summer morning. Tracking across a field of wildflowers brought his field of vision to the riverbank – and it was there that he saw what had had caused a once-proud man to deteriorate when faced with his own limitations. For what Jayme had seen, and Tanner now watched, was a young girl with a tear streaked face running as if a pack of wild dogs were on her trail. She was dressed in the traditional, long sleeved smock of a girl whose body had just started down the path to womanhood and her mouth opened wide, releasing a scream whose power was robbed by distance.
Tanner’s jaw tensed as his training rushed to the forefront of his mind.
There was no denying it now, no chance that the smoke on the horizon was an accidental fire or anything other than all out war. For the terrified girl was covered in fresh blood.
There was no hesitation, no regard for his own well-being or safety. He dropped the binoculars without thinking. Before they even hit the ground, Tanner Kline slid down the outer embankment and tumbled across the grass outside the relative protection of Knoll. Half-running, half limping, he shambled toward the girl, tempering the explosions of pain in his ankle with the calm familiarity of the Sweeper mantra.
Without the help of field glasses, the running girl was nothing more than a speck in the distance. Though she had looked several years older than his little princess, Tanner’s mind superimposed Shayla onto the memory of that brief glimpse. It was all too easy to imagine his daughter’s pigtails bouncing as she fled from the horrors that caused the spatter to stand in stark contrast against a face that looked drained of blood. The birthmark on her throat, the one which almost looked like a tiny heart, pulsed and throbbed with each palpitation of her carotid artery and he could even imagine seeing inside her, her real heart thudding like a frightened bunny.
As the girl in the distance grew closer, her scream grew louder. It was a continuous wail, so high pitched that it almost sounded like the squeals of rusted metal that echoed through the ruins of cities when the wind blew. He could see her now: strawberry-blond hair streamed behind her as she ran and her patchwork skirt was so tattered and ripped that part of it seemed to slide off her hip, revealing her underwear with no regard for decorum or modesty.
By the time Tanner scooped the girl into his arms, he realized that her screams weren’t the wordless shrieks he’d first assumed them to be. In fact, they were actually a single word shouted so loudly that her voice broke and cracked with the strain. With her head thrashing near his cheek and tears dripping onto his shoulder, Tanner’s eardrum felt as if it were being punctured with needles. Wincing, he tried to remind himself that whatever discomfort her cries caused could be no worse than what she’d lived through. For the solitary syllable that the girl yelled was the word no, repeated again and again as if her mind refused to come to grips with what she had witnessed and could make it all disappear if she only protested loudly enough.
Running with only his own body weight to support had been difficult enough, but the added deadweight of the girl made his ankle feel as if it were about to snap. Nor did he struggles help. Part of her mind must have insisted that she was still back in her own community, replaying the events over and over as her fists thudded against Tanner’s back and her body writhed and twisted like a headless snake.
“It’s okay.” He whispered in a ragged pant. “I’m a Sweeper. You’re safe, darlin’. You’re safe.”
His words did nothing to penetrate the time loop she was stuck in and by the time they made it to the base of Knoll, Tanner’s face was crosshatched with scratches and welts from the girl’s grappling. The residents of the community scampered over the grassy ring and pulled the girl away from him, assuring her repeatedly that everything was all right, that she was among friends and the nightmare was over. The worried furrows in their brows and the way their eyes flitted from the girl to the field beyond, searching for signs of the savages who’d done this to her, told a different story, however.. Tanner could tell these people didn’t believe their own words any more than he did.
The nightmare was far from over.
The nightmare was just beginning.
My father went a’sweepin’
across the fields of gold
with rifle by his side,
tall and brave and bold.
My father went a’sweepin’
across the savage land,
never glancing back
at my small and waving hand.
My father went a’sweepin’
while I stayed behind,
watching through my window
wondering what he’d find.
My father went a’sweepin’
among the trees and fern,
My father went a’sweepin’
Never to return.
“Life is not a clear and easy path, but is beset with brambles, thorns, and obstacles. Only through honor, strength, and wisdom may we hope to see the clearing beyond.”
Tanner Kline lay in the darkness and listened to the distant pounding of drums as he tried to focus himself. The steady, unfaltering rhythm had boomed through the night for hours and was starting to take its toll on the residents of Knoll. Just after sunset, the drums had begun. They echoed through the fields and resounded off the hills, making it impossible to tell how many there actually were, and the community collectively laid near the top of the ridge, their eyes peering over the apex as they watched for the first wave of the attack.
When there was no sign of a Spewer advance, they fidgeted in the grass and toyed with weapons that were more like refuse of the Old World. Knoll’s Sweeper had been either lazy or inept. Perhaps both. Much like the binoculars, the arsenal of this community had been neglected to the point that they almost seemed as dangerous as the Spewers hiding within the forest. Rust textured barrels that should have been smooth and slick, causing Tanner to discard many of the weapons with a disgusted grunt. If these deathtraps had actually been fired, they would have blown off the wielder’s hand. Or worse. To make complicate matter further, there was no organization to the ammunition at all. Shotgun shells mingled with .22 bullets which were scattered in a wooden box among calibers that didn’t match any of the firearms in Knoll’s armory. The settlement had probably traded for these in bulk… which was understandable. Ammo, after all, was a rare commodity. Not everyone had the skills or equipment needed to cast their own and poorer communities were forced to take what they could get. That being said, however, Kline could not excuse that fact that the unusable rounds had not been traded for more appropriate ones after the fact.
Not only was there the sad state of their defenses to contend with, but the drumming had also unnerved the residents to the point that they were turning on one another. It had begun with people stinging sarcasm in response to innocuous questions . That soon degraded into bickering which, after several hours of stress and tension, turned into full blown arguments. And the entire time those savages stayed far enough within the forest that the settlers only caught occasional glimpses as they moved among the trees. Always fleeting, always out of range… but definitely there.
During a scuffle over who would arm themselves with a pump action shotgun and who would use a derringer small enough be hidden by the hand holding it, Tanner had snapped. His voice boomed through uproar, shaming the residents into silence as he glared at each and every person.
“When you’re ready to stop acting like those fucking animals out there,” he’d yelled, “and start behaving like humans, come get me. Until then, I’ll be in my quarters. Just try to not fucking kill each other in the meantime.”
He’d eventually calmed to the point that the tension melted from his shoulders and now he lay on a cot, turning the events of the day over in his mind. The girl, whose name was Rosemarie, had been inconsolable at first, fighting and struggling against the very people who’d rescued her. With her blue eyes muted behind a glaze of shock, she’d screamed and cried and babbled incomprehensibly until Tanner smacked her sharply across the face.
“So many,” the girl muttered as the red palm print on her cheek faded, “so many. They were everywhere, all at once everywhere, with their spears and their knives, swarming over the walls. My mom… my mom, oh God, my mom… .” Her voice had rose in pitch as she stared at her gore covered smock only to drop back into a harsh whisper again. “Mommy… I should’ve… I should have done something. I should’ve done something, but I was scared, God I was so scared. So I just… ran. I ran.”
Tears glistened in the girl’s eyes and Jayme had stepped forward with concern obscuring the fear on his face. “Shhh. You did what you had to., It’s okay. Come on, girl. Mona here will help you out of these clothes, wash you up, and get you some…”
“Stay away! Don’t touch me! Don’t you fucking touch me!”
Tanner had seen it more times than a man should be allowed. Following a tragedy, survivors sometimes retreated into themselves, shunning even the most well intentioned acts of compassion. It was almost as if they secretly believed contact with the living would irrefutably sever their ties with the dead. The girl just needed time to adjust, to process the barrage of atrocities she’d been witnessed and try to come to terms with the fact that self preservation had overridden the desire to help her family and friends.
“Let her do it herself. Give her the clothes and show her where the water is.” His anger at the situation caused him to say it more gruffly than he’d intended, which led several settlers to pierce him with stares of condemnation “She’s no good to us now. She needs to calm down before we can learn anything useful.”
The time alone, it seemed, had done the young girl good. Though her face was still ashen and blank, she’d calmed down to the point that she could speak without breaking into tears. Being of the same age, Jayme’s daughter, Mona, had given her a fresh tunic and skirt. With the clean clothes and the grime and blood washed off, Rosemarie looked like an entirely different person. In fact, she looked so familiar that Tanner was certain he’d seen her before, most likely at one of the swap meets his home community sporadically sponsored. She wasn’t exactly pretty, but neither was she so plain as to blend into the background. Sharp and angular, hers was the type of face which momentarily captured attention by its character and definition alone. But, by the same token, the notice was only fleeting; within five minutes, she would be forgotten.
The Spewers had attacked just before dawn, she’d said, responding to Tanner’s questioning. From the east with the rising sun at their backs. A seemingly never ending stream of savages that quickly overran the entire settlement. But no, there hadn’t been any drums – the assault had come as a complete surprise.
To Tanner these details were important. It showed cunning on the part of the Spewer tribe. They knew the glare of dawn would blind the opposition while protecting their own warriors’ eyes; they also knew the only match to the superior weaponry of the community was an overwhelming show of force. With the column of smoke alerting others to what had transpired, they’d obviously been forced to change tactics. The drumming, no doubt, was a type of psychological warfare, meant to set the enemy’s nerves on edge.
All of this, however, was simply craftiness. Savages had no true intelligence, only a murderous instinct for death. And that would be their undoing. Certain that they would attack under cover of darkness this time, Tanner had instructed the rest of the community to ring the edges of their protective hill with distilled oil. Knoll had nearly a dozen barrels clustered near the tent which served as a kitchen and it had taken the help of everyone to roll several of the heavy drums up the embankment, with even Rosemarie offering to assist.
“You’ve seen enough warfare for one day.” Tanner had told her. “I can’t ask anything more of you, child.”
The girl had wrung her hands together as her eyes pleaded with him. “ But I’ve got to do something. I just can’t stand around. I have to stay busy, to keep my mind off… to keep me from thinking about…”
“What did you do before?” he interrupted. “In your old community. What was your primary duty?”
“I… I cooked.”
“Okay then,” Tanner nodded, “it’s settled. You cook while we prepare for battle. Deal?”
He’d smiled broadly at the young girl, hoping to melt away some of the sorrow etched into her face, but she’d only been able to manage a lopsided grin whose warmth never touched her eyes.
By the time night had fallen, the ring of earth surrounding Knoll was a blazing wall of fire and the buildings flickered in the orange glow. Certain that the savages couldn’t breach the defenses without reducing themselves to cinders, the community had filed to the kitchen area to fill their bellies. Rosemarie proved herself to be a capable cook and she’d shyly stroked the sleeves of her tunic while the others heaped praise upon her skills.
But that had been hours ago. With dawn fast approaching, Tanner knew a new stratagem would have to present itself. The barrels of oil wouldn’t hold out indefinitely and the discord that led to his self-imposed seclusion would only grow worse as tensions continued to build. By the girl’s telling, there were hundreds of Spewers lurking in the forest, which meant a direct attack against them was out of the question. There had to be some solution, something he was overlooking.
“Shayla, baby,” he whispered to the darkness, “Daddy’s coming home. I promise you, baby. I’m coming.”
A shuffling sound from the corner caught his attention and Tanner looked up in time to glimpse something moving in the shadows. Even though it disappeared like the remnants of a dream, he would have sworn on his oath as a Sweeper that what he’d seen was the flash of brass buttons on a red, velvet jacket….
In the morning sunlight, the black smoke curling from the mound of earth surrounding Knoll looked like the arms of a malevolent demon pulling the community into its embrace. The smell of burnt oil was so thick that the air itself felt greasy and the mouths of everyone within the compound were coated in saliva that had absorbed the scent. Only the toddler had found respite in sleep throughout the long night; everyone else had dark bags drooping beneath bloodshot eyes and faces that somehow seemed leaner than when they’d first welcomed Tanner into their fold. They shuffled about with sagging shoulders, mumbling only the most minimal of comments to their neighbors between stifled yawns.
Rosemarie already had the cooking fire blazing by the time Tanner checked in on her. She still had that sallow, lost look to her, like someone who’d awoken from a dream only to find reality was so much worse than anything her subconscious could conjure. She stirred the iron pot and stared blankly into the distance. The oil lamp that had provided light for her preparations prior to sunrise still burned uselessly on the table next to her and Tanner placed the revolver he’d been carrying next to it. Perhaps it was because he had a daughter of his own, but he felt a special kinship to this waif and wanted to do everything he possibly could to help ease the pain in her heart.
“We need to save oil, honey.” He said softly as he turned the knob and extinguished the lamp. “How are you doing? I know… it’s a stupid question. But sometimes it helps to talk, you know?”
The girl said nothing, choosing instead to crumble something that looked like dried leaves into the steaming pot.
“Okay,” Tanner continued, “fair enough. I just want you to know that I’m here. If you ever need me. We’re both strangers here, after all, so I figure we got to stick together. And I will get us out of this. Even if it’s just you and me. Anyhow, I’m getting ready to call a meeting with all the residents. You’re free to come, if you’d like.”
Rosemarie looked up from her cooking and studied him silently for a moment. When she spoke, her voice was so quiet that it was almost lost beneath the crackling flames. “I think I’ll just keep cooking. Can’t let it get too hot or it’ll ruin my secret ingredient. Everyone seemed to really like it last night and I’d hate… I’d hate to disappoint anyone.”
“You don’t have to prove yourself.” Tanner reached for her arm, but the girl jerked away so quickly that he put up his hands to show he meant no harm. “I understand. I really do. When someone’s been through something like you have, it takes time. Time to trust again. To allow yourself to be happy. It may seem like that day will never come… but it will.”
He waited to see if the girl would say anything further and, when she didn’t, turned to leave. He still wasn’t sure what he was going to say to the citizens of Knoll, but knew what they needed now was encouragement. Even if it was a lie, they needed to be told that all was not hopeless, that there was a way out of this.
Passing the building which had been his quarters since he’d come to Knoll, Tanner noticed Roger’s barrel organ leaning against the wall. Chill bumps crept over his arms and he froze like a deer who’d just heard a rattlesnake. Part of him wanted to pry the lid of the instrument up, to prove that the workings weren’t comprised of cylinders with metallic spikes; but there was another part that blanched at the very idea. Even though it made him feel foolish and silly, he was positive that if he peered into the organ, he’d see the body of a little boy wedged into the machinery. The child would look up at him with lifeless eyes before tilting back his head to reveal the smiling gash.
He was just a Spewer. Just another vermin needing exterminated. By the time Shayla is a woman, he’d already be infectious. You did the right thing, Sweeper. For the community. For mankind. It had to be done.
Pulling his gaze away from the organ, Tanner realized the fire along the ridge was sputtering out. He’d have to make the pep talk quick and send a crew back to the kitchen for another barrel. All it would take was a few moments, a window of opportunity where the savages could throng into Knoll. They settlers would be overrun and it would all be over.
As if on cue, the drumming from the forest picked up again. It was the same dirge-like cadence that had echoed throughout the night, pausing only for a few hours while those filthy animals did God knows what. Instinctively reaching for his waistband, Tanner squeezed his eyes shut and shook his head.
Tanner realized he’d left his revolver on the little table by the oil lamp. He’d been so preoccupied with comforting Rosemarie and mentally preparing for his speech to the residents, that he’d just walked off and left it. Thompson, the Sweeper who’d trained him, would have beaten him within an inch of his life for such a novice mistake and a flush of shame warmed his cheeks.
He trotted back to the kitchen as quickly as his limp would allow, only to stop so quickly that it was almost as if he’d walked into an invisible wall. For a moment, his mind couldn’t comprehend what his eyes saw. He stood in the morning sun with his mouth agape and brow lowered in confusion.
Rosemarie still stood beneath the fluttering canopy of the tent, but she was no longer the scared young girl she’d previously been. The blank expression was gone from her face, replaced with something that was a cross between grim determination and satisfaction. A cold light gleaned in her eyes and the corners of her lips were turned up in a smile.
But what caused Tanner’s stomach to churn was what the girl was doing.
The long sleeve of her tunic was bunched around her shoulder and the pot of stew had been removed from the fire. She leaned over it, squeezing a blister on her forearm that was the size of a crabapple. Pus squirted from the sac of flesh and the smell of infection blossomed in the air, only to be quickly overpowered by the scent of warm stew as she stirred it into the pot.
“What… I don’t…”
Her head snapped up in response to Tanner’s stammering and, for a brief moment, he felt the hatred radiate from her. It buffeted against him like a hot gust of wind and his eyes flitted from the deflated blister to the pot of food below.
Like a cloud passing over the sun, Rosemarie’s expression changed again. Here was the lost and frightened girl that he so badly wanted to protect, the orphan whom he’d considered bringing into his own family once they’d gotten out of their current predicament. So forlorn and vulnerable with those big wet eyes shimmering behind a veil of tears… But then she laughed and as quickly as she’d appeared, that young girl was gone. Stooping, she pulled a burning twig from the fire, stood, and used it to light the lantern again. Her actions were fluid and graceful without a single wasted movement.
“Rosemarie, what…what are you…”
“I’m not Rosemarie.” The girl giggled momentarily behind her hand before regaining her composure and Tanner it dawned on Tanner why she looked familiar. He hadn’t seen her at a swap meet at all. In fact, he hadn’t recognized the girl at all. Just her features. “I am Asha, child of the Tribe of Clay, sister to Asham, and first born of Lila, chosen wife of Tolek.”
Memories pounded Tanner’s mind like it was one of the drums hidden within the forest. He saw himself in the Spewer village with that infected bitch yelling in his face:
You are a threat to my daughter.
And you are a threat to mine!
The same nose, the same sharp chin and blue eyes… her hair wasn’t fiery like her mother’s, but for all intents and purposes this could have been a younger version of the savage who’d lured him into the net.
Another flash of memory: standing by the fire with the girl he thought to be Rosemarie:
I think I’ll just keep cooking. Can’t let it get too hot or it will ruin my secret ingredient. Everyone seemed to really like it last night…
Tanner felt as though he’d been sucker punched in the gut. His stomach churned and wretched and he struggled for breath as the full realization of the girl’s statement dawned upon him.
“And you,” she said slowly and clearly, “enemy of The People, murderer of my brother… you, clear skin, are dead.”
The girl tossed the lantern she held and the glass shattered against the nearest building as a wall of blue fire spread with a whoosh. The flames engulfed the flimsy curtains dangling in the window and crept across the ground, pooling around the remaining barrels of oil. She then scampered over the ridge behind the kitchen, whooping with a loud trilling noise as she disappeared over the rim and returned to her waiting people.
The entire time, all Tanner could do was watch. As if paralyzed by shock, he was peripherally aware of the fire, of how quickly the dry wood crackled and burned and how the tongues of flame leapt from the first building to the next. His muscles felt tense and tired, as if he were wound up and worn out at the same time, and the beating of his heart was as shallow as the breaths of air he managed to gulp.
They’d eaten it. All of them. They’d shoveled spoon after spoon of slow acting poison into their bodies, had gulped down infection and went back for more. Even now, the Gabriel Virus was spreading within him, replicating and mutating cells as it turned his own body into an enemy.
He could never hold Shayla in his arms again, never kiss her wetly on the cheek or tickle until her giggles gave way to gales of laughter. With the virus raging within him, he’d infect anyone he came into contact with. There would be no more games where they laid in a field and connected the stars, no more walks through the forest or even something as simple as holding her little hand in his own.
A single tear leaked from the corner of Tanner’s eye as he walked to the table by the cooking pot. Picking up the revolver, he flicked open the chamber for visual inspection.
The citizens of Knoll had responded to the column of smoke rising from their own community and he watched the six of them, even the toddler (who apparently thought it was playtime) running for water with which to douse the flames.
They’re infected too….
Six shots later, they were not.
Tanner stepped over the bodies of the dead, tossing the emptied firearm to the side and walked toward his quarters. The ground rumbled with explosions as flaming shrapnel from the oil barrels burst into the sky. The area he’d just left was now a wall of flame and the burning buildings crackled and popped amid the roar of the fire.
Slipping the strap of the barrel organ over his shoulder, Tanner Kline closed his eyes and turned the crank as the searing heat warmed his face. The conflagration crept slowly toward him, devouring everything in its path with an insatiable hunger. With dark smoke billowing into the air and the music of the barrel organ providing an off-key soundtrack, Tanner Kline made his final decision.
He would give his life so that others might live….
Music is a vital part of my creative process. It inspires me and plays in the background as I write, lending its rhythms and tones to the story I’m trying to tell. Apocalyptic Organ Grinder was no different and I would like to acknowledge some of the songs and artists which helped keep me motivated as the story unfurled before me.
“Paint It Black” - Firewater
“I Want To Be A Machine” - Pornophonique
“Ratamahatta” - Sepulutra
“Eraser” - Nine Inch Nails
“Cantara” - Dead Can Dance
“Future Fail” - Front Line Assembly
“Headhunter” - Front 242
“Ja’her” - Skinny Puppy
“Sanvean” - Dead Can Dance
About the Author
Named by The Google+ Insider’s Guide as one of their top 32 authors to follow, William Todd Rose writes dark, speculative fiction which often lends itself to the bizarre and macabre. With short stories appearing in various magazines and anthologies, his body of work also includes the novels Cry Havoc, Shut The Fuck Up and Die!, The Dead and Dying, and The Seven Habits of Highly Infective People, as well as the short story collection Sex in the Time of Zombies. For more information on the author, including links to free fiction, please visit him online at www.williamtoddrose.com.