Chapter One -Dead World
I take another cautious step towards my brother—the wood creaking under the heel of my boot, causing me to wince. Ash’s copper eyes glancing back at me, shooting daggers in my direction.
Sorry, I mouth back, holding my hands up in surrender. Ash says nothing; he didn't need to. I knew what he was thinking without a single word passing between us. Right now, he'd be reciting from his 'Survival rule book 101' Rule four; curiosity will get you killed.
The fallen grunt bellow us, slamming itself into the tree again. Making the walls shudder. Neither of us losing our footing. I shove away my dough, focusing on my surroundings, on the task at hand. Lesson one, survive or die. Adrenalin pumps through my veins. I take a steadying breath, nodding. I was ready.
The light temporally blinds me as I move my tinted goggles into place. The dusty landscape surrounding us turned purple, and finally coming into focus, I peer over the rails of the treehouse, sizing up my mark.
A fallen grunt angrily paces the scorched earth 20 feet below us. A beast approximately two meters in height and weighing a good 900 kilograms, appearing similar to a bull in appearances, only more monstrous. It's leathery black hide, so dark it seemed forged from the darkest depth of shadows. Horns so sharp they could scour a man. Its back, shoulders and tail decorated with mean-looking spikes. A greenish shim to the tip of its tail, venom. Poisonous from the look of it.
Not giving it time to recover, I pounce. Launching myself onto the beast's side, my dagger securing my landing, by impaling the grunts back. Making it easier to avoid the deadly spikes.
The beast snarls again, rising up onto its back hoofs in an attempt to throw me off. But I manage to hold firm, fighting the urge to cover my ears.
Another click as Ash fires again, the bolt embedding itself in the Grunt right eye. It stumbles forward, breathing hard—the smell like rotten flesh and sewage water. I grimace, feeling my breakfast churn up inside me. Holding my breath, I realise my left dagger from between my teeth.
The grunt charges forward too fast for me to predict its motives as I latch on, trying to keep myself from falling. I look up too late to react, the grunt racing toward a tree. The beast bucks, causing my grip to falter; I fall to the side, Crushed between it and the tree. The air expelling from my lungs, yet somehow, I manage to hold on—the dead tree groaning from the impact.
It growls, ready to charging again. But this time I'm ready. From this angle, it was almost too easy to plunge the blade into its heart. Twisting my wrist to force it deeper, right down to the hilt.
The beast stumbling a few feet, its breathe labour and wet. Before finally collapsing. Its molten eyes were still open, the fire in its gaze seeming to flicker; one final wheezed breath escapes its snort. Then nothing. The only sound my own heavy breathing. Dead.
"I'm not dead," I shrug as if that was answer enough—Ash smirks.
"Please, like that would happen. I do all the work," I remark, grinning back at Ash. Being taken out by a grunt, although embarrassing, would have been a good death. There were fates far worse than dying. With no laws to govern the wastelands' survivors, people could be far more brutal than the fallen. Survival and greed made humanity crazy.
I nod. "The fallen are defiantly getting bolder if they are coming this far out," I consider, scanning our surroundings as if another fallen might be lurking in the shadows of the forest. The trees were dead, every single one of them, with no leaves hanging on their branches or dusting the forest floor. Many of the trees had cracked and hollowed from a lifetime without a drop of water. Several had even collapsed under their own weight. While others had charred black from the suns relentless heat. Bits of scrap metal and random junk litter the ground, among patches of crusty brown grass. A thick layer of dust hanging in the air.
I leave my brother to his butchery and instead make hasted gathering wood and starting a fire. Too risky to attempt during the bitterly cold nights when we needed it. But during the day, under the protection of the blistering sun, it was unlikely to draw attention.
We prep half the meat for curing, leaving it to hang by strings from the treehouse. The other half we cooked over the fire. Ash was surprisingly quiet as we worked; usually, he would be mid-lecture by now, detailing all the different ways I fucked up during the fight. Lesson twenty-four, there is always room for improvement.
But Ash's attention was locked on the fire as it held the answers to the universe.
"It's not going to cook any faster with you staring at it," I joke, causing Ash to jump, even though I hadn't been anything but silent.
"You did well today," He declares. The compliment utterly out of character, I frown.
"I've given you plenty of praise before, Sis," He counters, not meeting my gaze.
"Rarely, and it's usually followed with a list of 'suggested improvement,'" I point out. A smile tugging at my lips, Ash grins.
"And how could you have improved?" He prompts.
"Are you so lazy you can't even list them yourself anymore? Or is my big bad brother growing soft?" I tease, earning me a well-deserved shove off the edge of the log. I laugh.
"I can't always be here to look after you, you know? You're going to have to learn to be self-suffusion," Ash declares, shrugging his shoulders. I get comfortable on the floor, crossing my legs over and leaning back ageist the log.
"Oh really? And where exactly are you going to go?" I wonder. It wasn't as if either of us had any friends; we needed to watch each other's backs. It had always been that way, just me and Ash ageist the world. He was the only person I could trust, the only family I had left.
"I don't know, Zara. Maybe I find a girl and want to settle down, or something happens, and we get separated," Ash debates, rubbing the back of his neck.
"Unlikely that any girl would settle for your ugly arse," I tease. Ash goes to hit me, but I duck out of the way, holding my hands up to defend myself. "But on the rare, rare chance that you do manage to snare a woman. I'd still tag along," I assure him.
"What if I don't want you to follow us?" Ash counters. I raise a brow at him, almost as if to say, are you serious?
"You are my brother like I'd let you get rid of me that easily! I'd probably follow you to the gates of hell if I had too" I point out. Ash doesn't reply, busying himself by tending to the meat, a smile tugs at his lips.
We are quiet for a long while, while Ash sorts out the cooked meat and plates up dinner. It was a comfortable silence. Even though Ash hadn't replied to my words, I knew he would do the same for me. After 13 years of raising me alone in the wastes, our bond was thicker than blood; we were all each other had. Without Ash, I had nothing.
"Bottoms up," Ash teased, breaking me out of my thoughts. I take the wooden slab he offers me, my rations of grub meat and half a tin of soup stacked on top.
I groaned, taking a bite of the foul-tasting meat. My brother had brut it purposely in an attempt to take away the bitter taste. But it still tasted foul. I ate quickly, washing each mouthful down with the soup.
Without the label on the tin, I couldn't tell what flavour it was supposed to be. The taste was artificial and overly sweet, but at least it tasted better than then grub meat.
"We need to make another supply run," Ash stated after we had finished eating. I frown, looking over at him, with everything that had been happening recently, with the fallen turning up in the day and appearing outside their usual patrol roots. Now was not a good time to go wandering off into town.
"Can't we wait a week? Or a few days at least?" I debate. Ash sighs, rubbing his hands on his trousers, before finally meeting my gaze.
"No, it can't. The water is running low," He admits, rubbing the back of his neck. Ash looked drained, even with his eyes hidden under the goggles. I could tell he'd been contemplating the risk. Yet when I had last checked the stock, we still had enough water to last another week if we were careful.
I nod, not wanting to argue with him. Ash was older, wiser, and had taken care of me even when our parents no longer could. I owed him everything. So if he said we needed to take a trip to town, that's what we would do.
Supply runs were always dangerous, our local town was controlled by two rival gangs always fighting over turf, and they didn't take kindly to outsiders. Not surprising, people out here were unpredictable and couldn't be trusted. I'd learned that the hard way.
If we could have avoided the towns and other survivors altogether, we would have. But water didn't grow on trees; hell, nothing grew on trees anymore. It was a necessary risk, but after our last supply run, I was in no hurry to go back anytime soon.
"When?" I considered playing with one of my braids to keep my hands busy.
"Tomorrow," Ash declares, getting to his feet.