Sloane watches the bird-like demon circle above distant ruins. The setting sun casts long shadows across the ruins of an old truck stop too. A line of blue light streaks across the sky in a line that seems to arc from horizon to horizon.
The energy discharge is nothing remarkable under the circumstances and else seems to be happening in the sky near the camp. With that conclusion, Sloane turns back to the rest of the Company. The soldiers sheltering there look out of place with their chain shirts, swords, and compound bows.
He thought, hoped, that the enemy wasn’t patrolling the air around here. But it hardly made much difference. If the enemy were about, the smoke from the cooking fire would have given away their location. This is why Sloane and some of the others wanted to wait until nightfall to light a fire in the old garage.
No one here probably knew what a garage was really for, but Sloane knew. He also knew about the vehicles that were serviced here. They had all seen rusting hulks of the old machines. Most of the soldiers seemed to have no interest, or to assume they were horse-drawn wagons of exotic and alien design. A few of the human recruits, too young to have ever seen a working car, accepted what they were without question.
The Collapse, whatever it was, happened so there wasn’t much use dwelling on it. Better to see how everyone else is doing – alert, resting, watching the sky?
Sloane turned his attention back to the bird-thing. Now it looked like a vulture, not a demon. That was too bad. Sloane was up for another fight. The impending end of his contract came to mind again as Sloane went inside the shelter of the old service bay. Well, contracts end. Not even magic can stand up to the power of budgets.
Sloane decided to take a break from philosophizing and have some dinner after all. There’s no one else at the big pot of stew, so the timing is perfect.
Movement in the woods catches his attention. Sloane looks out from the cover of an old prefab building that serves as company HQ. He can see a skinny, shirtless young man stumbling toward the camp through the woods. A guard has already moved to intercept the man. Some of the other soldiers in the unit notice the disturbance too; some men reach for swords or bows. They sit low fires, eating and drinking.
The man holds out a piece of parchment, which the guard snatches away. He looks at it blankly – probably can’t read. Captain Fallon is going out to check on things.
Sloane studies the man, who looks more calm now. He isn’t breathing hard. The guard doesn’t seem to notice anything unusual.
“Hmm...” Sloane shrugs and turns his attention back to his rabbit stew. Nothing much has happened in that are for weeks, so there’s no reason to worry about an unexpected visitor. A couple of the younger and more nervous guys did reach for their spring rifles. Probably sensible of them since they still don’t know how to judge just how much of a threat different things really are.
Sloane puts aside the empty bowl and stands up to go see what the conversation is about. The man seemed to be a runner from one of the forts.
After a minute there’s some quiet talking, then the voices become more agitated and loud. Sloane doesn’t recognize the language, now that he can make out individual words.
He decides to get up and have a look. He grabs his bow and quiver as a matter of course. You need to be prepared for action even in the latrine.
As soon as Sloane steps into the open his bow starts to glow red. Sloane instantly starts looking for something demonic or magical, and malevolent in the area.
What he actually sees isn’t that threatening. Around the near corner of the building, two soldiers are talking to a skinny, shirtless man who looks panicked and out of breath. The runner was the guy speaking in a strange language. No. Now it makes sense. He’s speaking a corrupted form of Spanish. Or, he just too out of sorts to make sense.
Sloane starts to get closer. The runes glow a little brighter.
The man stops talking, looks at Sloane and the bow. The two men who were talking to the runner turn around to look at Sloane. They clearly can see the glowing runes.
Sloane looks around while reaching for an arrow. He still isn’t sure if this new arrival is the demon or if there is something else about to pounce.
“Get back!” The two soldiers and the visitor aren’t sure who is is talking to and no one responds for a couple of seconds. Sloane is looking right at the visitor.
He takes a step back, and begins to change. The two men who were talking to him both back up and reach for their swords.
The demonic visitor is now more reptilian and cat-like hybrid than man now. The two soldiers rush the creature before it can finish changing.
“Ambush!” Sloane can’t see who said it, probably the guy on guard at the north end of the old service station. Sloane prepares to loose an arrow at the demon, but it moves to put one of the guards between them.
Before Sloane can move to one side and take a shot the demon gets around the guard’s slashing sword and knocks him into the brush with a backhand hit to the head.
“Demon! Check the perimeter.” Sloane doesn’t know who yelled out behind them. So, there might be two of them. His first arrow he shoots just misses.
Sloane notes the likely location of the arrow and runs to intercept the creature. An arrow from someone else hits it and does nothing. The creature pulls it out and tosses it aside without even looking.
The demon kicks the second soldier in Sloane’s general direction and snatches the man’s sword out of the air. The sword is magical, unlike the other man’s weapon. Sloane notes this fact too, without taking any time to analyze the meaning.
Sloane is almost in range to attack when the creature retreats toward the horses.
Sloane pauses to ready another arrow. The rakshasa disappears. The aura is still there, a faint humanoid glow that only barely stands out in the shadows.
The demon shape moves away from Sloane toward the trail into San Raphael. Sloane starts after the thing, then thinks better of it. He turns around to see three asuras coming out of the brush. They look like hybrids of dog and lizard, one of the common types. One asura jumps on the guard that the rakshasa had disarmed. Sloane backpedals and looses an arrow – it slides off the creatures armored skull.
The guard screams for second before the thing rips into his face.
A crossbow bolt, this one glowing dark red slams into the creature’s neck causing it to stagger sideways and try to stumble off into the brush.
The soldiers in the camp head into the forest. Those with magical weapons – Sloane knows all of them – lead the way.
Arrows and bolts fly. A couple of the soldiers go down, hit by arrows loosed by camouflaged archers out in the woods. Two of the soldiers double up on an asura who as stupid enough or bold enough to wade into camp swinging a scimitar.
A second asura, in crudely camouflaged leather armor, comes out of the brush and hurls a net at Sloane, who jumps back and drops his bow. The asura draws a sword and advances, seeming to try and take advantage while Sloane is off balance. An arrow hits Sloane in the side but barely sticks. Sloane swats it away a fraction of a second before he has to dodge the asura’s strike. He’s using the flat side of his sword for some reason.
A shouted command from a distant unseen demon comes from the nearby The few asuras Sloane can detect break contact. The one attacking Sloane backs off, grunts in what might have been frustration and ignores a bullet that hits him in the chest.
Then he backs up a few steps and runs. “Raid’s called off.” Sloane thinks. “No.” The voice is only in his head.
He hears yelling behind him but doesn’t look back. The rakshasa, now visible is ahead, running but not seeming to try hard.
Sloane starts to run after one of the asuras but turns back to look at the camp. The fight really looks to be over already.
He runs out onto a road nearly obliterated by time and past ruined vehicles quickly rusting away. As predicted the raiders are ahead, running deep into the old town. They’re not particularly fast and only have a short head start. Sloane starts to ease up when he gets close enough to make out details on the trailing creature’s outfit.
Sloane slows down to a fast walk and readies an arrow. The ruins and brush spread out to reveal a wide game trail leading between two buildings. The opening ahead looks like a wide street lined on the far side by more old buildings. To his left a long series of walls mark the remains of a series of townhouses. Sloane watches the windows and the way ahead.
A demon pops up in one of the windows and looses looses an arrow at Sloane, who ducks and shoots back. He hits it in the shoulder.
The creature howls and turns to run to the right, toward the town’s main street or whatever it used to be. Sloane pursues it into the street ahead. Rusty cars, weeds, bushes, and half-collapsed, half-burned buildings line the street.
Sloane jogs across the street and retrieves his arrow from a wood post. The creature he failed to kill is gone, but still close enough to elicit a faint red glow from the runes on his bow.
A faint call of “Get back here Sloane!”comes from far behind. Sloane senses some urgency and does head directly back toward the camp. The man looks up at him and tries to get his breath. A soldier kneels down beside Captain Fallon – an arrow protrudes from his chest.
Sloane jogs back to meet the main body of the company. They’ve all gathered outside near Captain Fallon’s body. At least the ones not dead, wounded, or tending to the wounded.
“What the hell happened?” A man with a crossbow approaches Sloane. The bolt in his crossbow is glowing dull red. Something is still nearby, within a couple of hundred feet, and still alive. If so, the thing won’t last much longer if it doesn’t retreat.
He looks over to one of the men who was sitting with Captain Fallon earlier – the name slipped Sloane’s mind because it was a new guy. “How many did we get?”
The man shrugs and looks around. “Who cares? Captain Fallon’s gone. We’ve got two others dead, four injured, and one missing. Why did you chase that creature?”
The reality is the excitement got the best of him. Sloane had never faced an actual rakshasa face-to-face and alone. That was wisely considered to be suicide by normals. Sloane was far from normal and this creature’s stupid mistake made it clear it was inexperienced and not terribly powerful. It was just too much temptation. “I don’t know. I guess I thought the action was almost over here.”
Sloane and a dozen other mercenaries, several with bandages, stand around in a small courtyard. Three more of the men emerge from the officers’ quarters. The subtropical sun is hidden behind thick clouds – a minor blessing given the late summer heat, but sometimes you have to take what you can get. Since Captain Fallon’s death and the apparent change of strategy, a change Sloane only heard about earlier in the day, mercenaries were not as important as they had been. Sloane’s company had been defending an area of the far north just beyond the river. The locals called it the Rio Grande.
What was coming down from the city’s war leader, was pretty predictable. After a few minutes of nothing at all happening, the imposing, brass-plated door to the Royal House opened. The two guards in their utilitarian gray uniforms snapped to attention. The were at least able to stay in the shade. Not being human, Sloane wasn’t sure if the
A doddering old council member appears in his authoritarian gray robe, unadorned wool that symbolizes dedication to fighting demons or something. Sloane ignored that part of his briefing. The man carries a piece of paper in one hand. Two clerks, dressed in gray cotton follow, each holding a large basket full of little scrolls.
“I will be brief gentlemen.” Good news. “The current situation requires us to reallocate certain resources, yourselves included. The recent losses sustained across the northern frontier...” He probably means Captain Fallon. “...we are not going to renew certain contracts. In fact, we are forced to release some of you early. These are your discharge papers.” He raises the stack of scrolls just a bit. “The papers allow you free passage through the portal and the rest of your month’s pay.”
The official’s minions come out and take the stack of scrolls. The two men proceed into the small crowd passing out “sorry, no more job” letters.
The clerk or whatever he is comes to Sloane, and hands him a scroll. Sloane opens it, knowing what will be inside. The letter entitles the bearer to just what the anonymous gray official said. Sloane was now, officially unemployed again. He did have free passage out of this dimension, and a voucher to use on the other side of the gateway.
The open gates reveal the main streets line of tightly-spaced steel and cinder block buildings. Grim-looking people hurry here and there, avoiding Sloane and the occasional man on horseback.
Sloane sees the two gate guards and turns to head toward them as they approach him. He figured he would be expected. “Good afternoon.”
One of the men nods but they don’t seem happy to see him. Sloane takes off his pack, mostly so he can watch them go through it. Idle curiosity really, since there’s nothing to steal and nothing to get him in trouble. They only take a cursory look at the pack’s contents.
“Your not taking anything you were issued then? No artifacts except your personal weapon? Nothing you were loaned while employed?”
Sloane shakes his head a couple of times, then makes a show of checking himself, is if there might be something on his person that he shouldn’t have. He shrugs and pulls at the loose-fitting gray shirt.
“Good enough.” The two soldiers step aside so Sloane can leave.
“Good luck.” He thinks they’ll need it if they insist on barricading themselves inside the fortified city while things run wild and free across what the locals called North America.
Sloane walks outside and heads toward a two-lane highway. The lane divider is still visible, though faded. Lack of foot and animal traffic has allowed dust to cover half the road surface though.
Sloane picks up the pace and turns off on a game trail that runs past the shell of a ruined house. With a little luck his backpack full of trade goods will still be there. The house is just ahead. Nobody’s around of course. If they were out they’d be heading in as nightfall approaches.
A quick look around suggests nobody’s watching him. Paranoia perhaps; how many bandits are really out here, 1 mile from the biggest military base on the planet. Well, the biggest one anyone there knows about. Faint voices come from far off, probably just some kids at one of the outlying ranches.
Sloane goes inside and makes straight for the corner. The roof has collapsed and been shored up with a few boards and homemade nails. Not Sloane’s work, but there was no sign of a resident a few weeks ago.
An animal howls somewhere to the west. A loud bird call seems to answer back. The type of bird isn’t clear. The creature just sounded like a coyote. Nothing to be concerned about...yet.
The decaying old backpack is still there behind the plywood. The two slim books wrapped in wax paper are still there along with the silver, gems, binoculars, and ancient steel knives.
A black bird flies high overhead. It is too high to look like anything more than a raven or maybe a vulture. The fading light would make it impossible to see any detail anyway. The bird circles over Sloane’s hideout twice and begins a third circle. Sloane comes out and looks up. The creature breaks off and heads north and an improbable speed.
Demon or mutant bird. Either way its time to move. The thing would have moved in instead of fleeing if it felt like having a go. Or, it was just waiting for him to fall asleep. Either way, the hideout is a bad place to stay.
Sloane jogs out into what may have been a suburban street, with the old backpack held out front and bow over his shoulder.
In a few minutes he reaches a row of concrete barriers with wood-framed wire fencing on top. The “wall” of the camp seems mostly intact. A rusty sign leans against the pile of rocks. That’s new. The camp was abandoned soon after the Collapse and probably well looted just after. Would someone be trying to tidy up the place? No. The sign reads “Zona Segura” and “Safe Zone” in smaller letters.
Not anymore. And there is no sign of a recent campsite or other renovation work. Almost to mock the sign, nature allowed some kind of bug-eating vine to grow around the sign. A fly was stuck on one of the flower buds. The buds look like blisters.
Sloane slows down to have a better look around. The sun has almost reached the horizon. A person out wandering around now would probably look for shelter for the night, at least a campfire.
Too early. Sloane begins to jog again making for the light forest a short distance ahead. Aside from the familiar ruins of some buildings and old motor vehicles there was nothing. No sign of the black bird again. Maybe that really was nothing.
Something not far ahead emits a screeching the likes of which Sloane can’t associate with anything natural. Another screech, much farther away, comes in response after a second.
Before he get a look at the creature in the forest, Sloane has the bow and an arrow in his hand. The bow isn’t signaling anything evil, so maybe just a strange animal.
“Come out here and play.” A shadow darts between clumps of bushes in the distance at just that moment. The hairless dog-like thing turns its back to Sloane and retreats into the forest.
Sloane replaces the arrow, slings the bow and jogs onward, coming in sight of the clearing where his unit was ambushed last week. The area looks like nobody’s lived there in years. Most places Sloane has seen that are in ruins seem to have hosted travelers or vagabonds, even a small village at some point. The last ruins he worked in, Nuevo Laredo or something, there was still a settlement of local humans. He and the others avoided contact. The villagers didn’t seem to get out much. And they weren’t curious about the pale, armed visitors either.
The air is warm and a bit muggy even though it is about an hour before sunrise; that’s a typical August morning in the southern plains. Alexandra watches her friends Marcus, Daniel and Eduardo get ready for an expedition of some sort. Daniel and Eduardo are more acquaintances than friends, though she suspects one or both want to get closer. She encourages their efforts because everyone needs to learn how to accept defeat and disappointment.
They were vague about what they were doing but whatever it is seems to involve leaving really, really early in the morning. If she can’t share in the adventure, at least she can watch them go and wonder what they’ll get into. Whatever it is, Tulsa must have something worth a four-day ride to see. Maybe just the first people they know to go there and look around is enough? She’ll ask when they come back.
All three men are gathered outside a small cinder block apartment building, near one of the neighborhoods few gas lights. Marcus and Eduardo are talking about a map. She’s too far away to hear what the conversation is about. Probably something boring. One can always think so anyway.
The three men mount up and head out of town. The main road that leads to the “fortress” if you go one way and out into the wilderness if you go the other way is just a block from the house, two blocks from Alexandra’s home. A man in a militia uniform stops them near the main road. Those are the only a few other people out in this neighborhood. Anyone who doesn’t have to be up now is sensible enough to be in bed.
Alexandra turns around and thinks about going back inside. No. Not much point. She won’t be able to sleep with work starting soon after sunrise. The house is hot too.
Marcus leads the group out of town past rows of shops and apartments, many of which date from before the Collapse. A few signs are still up, offering mobile phones and Chinese takeout. A candle or gas light is on above the mobile phone store.
The group pauses for a moment. Marcus points northwest. The first light of the sun is breaking over the horizon in the opposite direction. They head off in the direction Marcus pointed.
Alex turns to walk back to her apartment. Shouts indicate a commotion on the side street she’s approaching. A horse runs past.
Alex stops. She looks down the side street in tine to see a cart being dragged down the street by one horse. The cart is headed straight for her. She’s too slow to get out of the way in time. The edge of the cart clips her and knocks her down. The wheel of the loaded cart goes over her leg.
The two men working with the cart get the other horse under control. Alex is on the road, looking at her leg. The wheel hurt but didn’t seem to do any damage.
She looks around and sees that nobody was looking directly at her, except one of the men who was loading the cart and hooking up the horses.
One of the men, a scruffy, skinny old guy, sees her there and comes her way. Alex gets up and brushes off the dust. “I’m fine.”
She looks at her leg.
“I thought the cart ran over you! That’s what it looked like.′ He looks down at her legs.
“II pulled my legs out of the way at the last instant.” She looks at the curb – there is one formed by granite stones. “The wheel hit the curb and bounced.”
Alex turns and walks away without waiting for an answer. The cart did run over her leg and didn’t cause any real damage. It hurt of course. She expected to see a bruise later.Start writing here…