"I will only complicate you.
Trust in me and fall as well.
I will find a center in you,
I will chew it up and leave,
I will work to elevate you,
Just enough to bring you down."
--Recorded Wisdom of Before, vol. 3, Ch. 11
They had lived there between the mountains of the Range and the Dead Wastes since time before memory. Survived more than lived, but who was doing more than that After? They clung to the slopes of the Range like the growths that often appeared on the newborns before whatever decided such things took them. They survived and watched the mountains for trouble. Storms, mutants, or raiders always came from the mountains when they did come. Even then, it took getting lost to come across their little village. So raider problems were minimal and usually weak and malnourished by the time they ended up on their side of the Range. Except for the occasional dust or rad storm, nothing ever came from the Dead Wastes. Its devastation was so complete. So they watched the mountains and the slopes for trouble and they survived.
That is why they were not prepared when it came out of the Dead Wastes. By the time they saw the clouds and understood what it was, it was too late. It started as a cloud on the horizon, rising up out of that dead land. Too low to be a rad storm. Too big to be kicked up by raiders. Still the cloud rose from the hard pan of the scorched earth announcing that it was coming. Could it be something else? Something unknown? As the cloud grew closer it began to look like not one single cloud, but the union of many clouds. Like plumes of dust thrown up in warning. As they watched, they started to realize how many plumes there were and how fast they were moving. Most of the villagers thought it was impossible. That it was a storm, some fast moving horde of cyclone from the Dead Wastes. Everyone knew that no one could survive out there, so it was impossible to be men, right?
Ferrin knew. He knew and tried to tell them to run, to flee into the mountains. His hunters were out and they could find them and hide in the hills they knew so well until they passed. But you didn't survive easily in After. You did not survive at all, if you weren't able to hold onto what you have. So they stayed to face the thing that came on them out of the wastes.
It was their doom, Ferrin knew. Now with smoke choking his breath and stinging his eyes he pulled against the post across his shoulders that they had bound his hands to. The clouds rolling in from the wastes had resolved into machines. Machines that moved in fast, kicking up dust and dirt. Machines that resembled some of the rotting hulks he used to come across while stalking something in the hills. Or like the ones Ferrin had seen as a boy when his Da took him down to the edge of the wastes to a place he called the Boneyard. The bones were of once great machines his Da had told him. Machines from Before that no longer lived in their world. Ferrin had wondered at those bones of the ancient machines and what they must have been like when they lived. His Da did not know more than that they were all dead and gone. His Da was wrong, Ferrin thought as the machines circled the village; some on two wheels, some on four or more. Some had metal feet that rolled like a band under the metal hulk of its body. Some had no wheels at all and flew low over the ground. Those would send bursts of dirt from underneath as they slid over the ground. As they closed in it became plain that the Machines were driven by Men. The machines would have been enough to overwhelm the village on their own but the men had weapons as well. Guns. These too were something Ferrin's Da had taught him about. He had told Ferrin of when he had seen a caravan Strong use one to kill a great mutie beast. One blast from the small weapon had dropped the ravaging thing in a way that a thousand arrows or spears could not. With the guns and the machines it was over before it had even begun, and Ferrin knew that his people were doomed. These men from beyond the Dead Wastes were a different kind of storm. One far worse than any that his people were prepared for.
Ferrin had killed three of them. Damn his now twisted leg he would have had killed more before he felt the blow to his head and all went dark. Now he was on his knees, a post across his broad shoulders with his arms bound to it. He knelt and he looked at them. No storm from the wastes, and certainly not beasts. Men. Not Raiders either. They looked like the gangs of roving bandits with their mix of armor and leathers and weapons. Many had markings like Raiders as well. They had symbols and pictures on any exposed skin and often shards of metal piercing their faces in odd ways. They may look like Raiders, but no, these men were too organized and definitely not lost. They were cold and efficient as they finished killing anyone who resisted. Then they started to round up his people and separate them into groups. There was discipline here, and that was not lost on Ferrin.
Just then there was a commotion from the group of women and older girls. One of these men had ripped open Kali's dress and was touching her in ways that made Ferrin mad. Mad, but still watching and looking for the opportunity to strike. Ferrin had always taught his hunters to watch their prey. To learn their habits and movements and strike at the moment least expected. The commotion around Kali was a perfect distraction, and Ferrin tested his arms against the thick wooden post that he was bound to. It flexed against his powerful shoulders and he knew it was just rotten enough that he could...
A hush fell over the group of men, and they separated like water around an oar plowing through a calm stream. A new man strode through the space they created. Each man dropped to his knee, held his fist to his heart and reverently said "Dathan" as he passed. The men near the prisoners all did the same as soon as they saw the new man. Even the rad pig who had been engrossed with putting his hands on Kali. The new man strode into the center of the prisoners and stopped to survey the situation. Standing tall and confident this new man was dressed the same as the rest in functional leathers. If not for his demeanor and their deference to him, he would look like any one of these men. Yet he did not fit in. He had a face that seemed more used to smiling and laughter and was unmarred by markings or piercings. His eyes were alight with intelligence and understanding. Ferrin almost liked the man on appearance alone. There was a fire in this one that burned bright. The rest of these men were the moths hovering about his flame.
Dathan made a quick gesture and the men all stood as one. One of the men struggled. It was the one that Ferrin had smashed in the knee when he had been separated from the women and children. Dathan stepped forward and helped the man to his feet. Dathan gave him a gruff cuff to the back of the man's neck in a sign of respect. They exchanged a quick word and the hobbled man actually snorted out a laugh and gestured to Ferrin. Dathan looked over at Ferrin, and then his eyes fell on Kali, her full young breasts exposed. He walked across the open center of the village towards her. When she took a step back cringing, Dathan held his hands out wide and a gentle smile spread across face. The effect on Kali was immediate as she stopped backing away and let him approach. Ferrin was reminded of the predators he had seen that could calm their prey with their eyes just before they struck. Dathan stepped forward and, oh so gently pulled Kali's dress back up over her shoulders covering her exposed breasts. The look of gratitude she smiled upon him met with a warm smile in return.
"That is not our way my child." Dathan spoke and his voice was like a cool breeze on a warm day. He cupped her chin and ran his thumb along her cheek wiping away the tracks of her tears on her smoke grimed face.
"Derv?" Dathan asked and there was a slight change in his tone that Ferrin made note of. He believed it was lost on his own people but the men from the Dead Wastes all seemed to pick up on it as they tensed just that little bit. The name Derv belonged to the rad pig who had fondled Kali and he grasped that something bad was about to happen. He was standing right next to Dathan and Kali as he had only backed away a step when Dathan had approached.
"Y-Yes?" Derv stammered and turned to face his master.
Ferrin had spent all his life as a hunter. He had killed things often larger, stronger and faster than himself to feed and protect his people. He had taught all he knew to any younger that showed promise and who could help strengthen their people. In all his years Ferrin had only seen one other person move as fast as Dathan did at that moment. There was a loud crunch as the butt of a pistol smashed through Derv's jaw. The man fell like a stone before the blood that splattered from his face even hit the dirt. Dathan let the momentum of his vicious swing carry him in a circle. It was a controlled and deliberate movement. As he turned his eyes bore into those of the men assembled in the area. As his gaze swept through the crowd looks of awe and fear were left in its wake. When he completed his circuit Dathan stood over Derv. Blood was dripping from his hand and the pistol it held. Derv looked up at Dathan over the ruin of his shattered jaw. The fear that now permeated the center of Ferrin's village was nowhere more evident than in Derv's eyes.
"This..." Dathan's voice rang out as he raised the pistol.
The blast of the gun echoed off the hills and made Ferrin's people all jump. The shot ripped into one of Derv's feet, tearing it to shreds.
"Is..." Dathan's gaze moved over the men watching.
A second blast ripped through the knee of Derv's opposite leg.
The third shot hit the writhing man in his groin and he curled in on himself like a shim of wood in a hot fire. Dathan continued to look at his men gauging their attention. He was ensuring it was complete and undivided.
The fourth shot took Derv in the shoulder and sprawled him back in an arch as his body did not know how to move any longer. As Derv writhed in agony, Dathan looked from the eyes of his men down to those of his victim.
A staccato of blasts pulverized the chest of what was left of Derv. When the echoes finished reverberating through the hills Dathan looked back at his men.
"Now take him from here. When you do, look upon his face. He was one of us...our brother.” Dathan’s gaze rolled around the crowd of his men like a tangible wave of control. “We lost him because he lost himself. Look upon our fallen brother and remember him if you start to feel as if you are losing your way. Our way. We do not choose for others. They must be allowed their own choice. Our gifts of strength and resolve are there so that we can bring that choosing to others. Not so that we can force ourselves, our way, upon them. That is our path…our way...choice."
Several men stepped forward and lifted the body carefully, almost reverently. Dathan cradled the head of the fallen man and then lowered his lips to the forehead in a fatherly kiss. "I'm sorry that I did not guide you better my brother." His voice was almost a whisper.
Now Ferrin was certain of what was driving these men from the Dead Wastes and what was keeping them together. He also knew that he had to kill this man who brought these men from the Dead Wastes. All he needed was the chance. All his years of hunting had taught him that there was always a chance. You just had to recognize it when it appeared. So Ferrin continued to watch and prepare himself for the right opportunity. No matter how small.
The men cleared the body from the area and Dathan looked back to Kali who no longer looked at him with anything but fear. The expression he returned to her was one of deep sadness. The oddity of it struck Ferrin as he watched and waited. Something had been decided deep within this man and Ferrin was unsure if that was a good thing. Dathan had spoken of choice but Ferrin began to see that the choice may have already been made somehow.
Dathan moved away from Kali and swept his gaze over the assembled prisoners like a herdsmen taking inventory of his stock. His gaze settled on Ferrin and locked in place. Ferrin watched and calculated the distance as Dathan moved towards him. As he crossed the distance between the group of women and children to the village's men, he asked of no one in particular, "How Many?" When there was no response he added, "How many of our brothers did this one send down the path?" The limper spoke up then, "Three, sir." When this got a look from Dathan, he continued, "Ged, Brun, and Chek." Dathan winced as if from physical pain as he stopped in front of Ferrin. "I rode with Brun across that last stretch of the hell that is out there. He told me so many jokes I can't even think of them now. I laughed so hard with him I couldn't breathe." A smile ghosted over Dathan's mouth at the memories. The smile never reached his eyes as they bore into Ferrin. Ferrin returned the gaze, now certain he had seen this look in many a predator. As he met Dathan’s eyes, he remembered how he had killed each and every one of those predators.
"He had great jokes..." The limper agreed almost as if he was trying to break the silence that suddenly hung in the air.
"I'm glad you killed them." Dathan finally said in a low, plain tone.
When Ferrin did not reply he continued. "You have shown us their weakness. To be killed by an unarmed Older...it's disgusting." with this he spit on the ground just in front of Ferrin. The men around him all shifted at this. This man was not cocky, Ferrin could see. He was setting an example for his 'Brothers', setting an expectation for them. It was something Ferrin recognized because he did the same thing when teaching his hunters.
"You have a choice to make now Older." Dathan announced and then looked at all the men, women and children who were his prisoners. "You ALL have a choice to make." Ferrin noted that the men all stiffened that tiny bit again.
When Dathan started to speak his voice was low and yet it carried to all those around. It seemed as though even the wind and the crackle of the fires quieted down to listen. It was enthralling. "Those who came Before us burned the land, the seas and the very air. They burned everything that lived. They burned us, their children." Dathan stepped back and centered himself between the prisoners and his brothers. "Their fire was a poison. It was destruction. Whatever was Before was burned in their fire leaving us this...." he gestured to the world around them with his empty hand. Ferrin watched Dathan’s other hand, where Derv's blood was still dripping in slow, steady beads from the butt of the pistol. "What they have left us is broken. We are broken. Broken and burned." Dathan walked as he spoke and at this point was near the group of women and children again. He hunched down in front of Ero, a girl of 8 summers, meeting her at her own level. Ferrin flexed his arms again feeling the give of the rotted wood they had bound him to. He was becoming afraid that he would not be able to wait for the right chance. "It's scary isn't it child?" Dathan said with warm smile. Ero, unsure of what to do, nodded quickly while stepping back under the pressure of this man's gaze despite its apparent warmth. Dathan rose back to his full height and now raised his voice "You see? Do you see the fear we live in?" he said to all of the prisoners, his un-bloodied hand held out to Ero. He turned back towards Ferrin and crossed the distance in a few long strides. "Do you feel it Older?" Not expecting a response Dathan continued, "There is a new fire burning. Not fear. Not poison. No, this fire is rebirth. Renewal. A cleansing fire that will wipe away what those from Before left to us. It will let us start anew and choose our own path. Let us decide what we want to be and not what they made us." Dathan's predator gaze sweep over the prisoners. Capturing each of them in a way that was deeper than how his brothers had bound them. "We are that fire. We are here to burn the fear and the waste from you. To make you something new. To let you make yourself anew." He was standing over Ferrin now as he said "Your choice. Do you want to join us and be a part of the fire that will cleanse this world? Or do you want to burn away with the fear and the pain?" His eyes fell upon Ferrin and he holstered his bloodied pistol. "Lead the way Older. Lead these children to the path that will remake them. That will burn this,” Dathan again gestured to the village around them, “away and let them be part of the fire that remakes the world." Dathan's smile was warm and inviting. In that moment Ferrin saw this man laughing and trading jokes with his brothers. As Ferrin looked deeper he saw something else. Something that made him shiver and he made his choice.
The crack of the wood shattered the tense silence. Movement erupted between Ferrin and Dathan. Ferrin’s arms swung forward as the wooden post broke in half over his neck. It became two clubs tethered to his powerful arms. The clubs slammed together with a clap of thunder that dwarfed the cracks that had preceded it. Dathan's head would have been crushed like a rotten fruit had it been between those clubs. Ferrin was barely able to track the movement as Dathan leaned back just enough that clubs missed his head, and then spun away from his attack. As Dathan turned outside, one arm coiled around Ferrin's as they came together. Trapping them, Dathan spun and rolled along those arms blindingly fast. His other arm unrolled into the point of his elbow. Ferrin felt the elbow connect to the back of his head and thought he heard his own skull cracking. His arms were released but fell limp to his sides. The clubs now too heavy for him to lift dangled from their tethers. His broken head was pulled back and he felt Dathan's warm breath on his cheek as a ghostly whisper echoed through the pounding in Ferrin's brain. "A sad choice." He never felt the knife open his throat, just the warmth of his life's blood washing over his chest. The world faded from Ferrin and was dark.
Dathan lowered the body of the Older to the ground as the last bit of blood pumped from the neck. He remained on his knees, his hand on the large man’s back. “A sad choice,” He repeated. “May you find your way beyond the end of this path.” He looked up at his brothers. They had all moved forward as if to protect him, but it was over before they did any more than that. Now they all looked at him expectantly. For a moment the weight of it all settled down on Dathan. There was so much need in the world that it was overwhelming.
He cleaned his knife’s blade on the clothes of the Older as the man’s blood absorbed into the hard dry earth. Then he rose to his feet. Brushing the dust from his knees he looked over at the assembled prisoners. The anguish in their eyes at the death of the older was touching. To Dathan it was also disappointing. The choice had been made. The Older had made it for them all. He looked at the prisoners one by one, taking them in, memorizing their faces. So much loss, it made him long for the end of his own path.
Dathan waved over Kerl and watched him limp across the open ground. That Older must have been a hell of a warrior to leave Kerl with such a limp. When Kerl reached him Dathan put an arm around the man’s shoulder. He held him up as they started to walk away from the body of the slain older. Kerl was more stable with the support, but he was hardly able to suppress his anxiety at Dathan’s mood.
After a few moments Kerl interrupted the silence of his brooding master. “Sir?”
“I know Kerl.” Dathan breathed. “I just want to take a minute here before the reality of this sets in.”
They walked together in silence until they reached to edge of the village's center. Several of the buildings surrounding them were smoldering and others were burning. Smoke was billowing into the sky above them. Dathan stopped and looked up at the smoke columns curling into the heavens. “This isn’t what I wanted. You know that right brother?” Dathan asked, eyes still tracing the tracks of smoke above him.
“All those days out in that hell...I wanted to find rest here. Shelter. At least for a short time. We have work to do, Kerl. More work than you can imagine.” He looked back at the prisoners and Kerl saw the anguish in Dathan’s eyes. “This...” He gestured to the villagers surrounded by his men, “This makes me weary. They don’t see it. They don’t understand. Now they have made their choice.” Dathan turned to Kerl and again grabbed the man by his neck. Kerl returned his gaze, knowing what was to come.
“Conscript the ones who are useful. Burn the rest.” Dathan said flatly. He turned and walked away from Kerl, back in the direction he had come from. Kerl watched him go for a moment, and then turned back towards his brothers and the gathered villagers. He raised his hand and waved it in a circle. A simple gesture, but one steeped in meaning among these men. Before he brought his hand down and took his first steps forward, his brothers began.
Dathan walked back towards the hover tank he used as his mobile command center. He tried to suppress the sound of gunshots and screams.
The smoke curled up from the depression among the hills that Diana knew as home. She shifted her spears as she looked down from the rock outcropping into the valley below. At first the clouds rolling in from the Dead Wastes looked like a dust storm or worse a Rad Storm. When she realized that she could not make it back before the storm, she looked for suitable shelter. She found the outcropping that she was now perched upon. It was then that she saw the smoke. This was not a storm cloud from the Dead Wastes. It was fire. Whatever had come out of that burned land was now burning her home. Her hands clenched around her spear, and she gritted her teeth. Her choice was made as she leapt from the rock and started down the sloped hill into the valley at a full run.