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Synopsis

It is many thousands of years into the Earth’s future. A terrible cataclysm has left the earth divided by a band of flame and radiation called the Firewall.

Humanity has survived.

This is their tale.


Chapter 12

Field Observations

Antigua looked up as she pulled back the bloody tendrils of hair from her face.

She was hunched over one of the many carcasses that littered the dusty ground. The carnage was extensive. Pieces of flesh and odd assortments of limb and torso lay all around her. She had returned from the Southern Gateway to perform field observations of the various creatures that had succumbed to her blade, but her mini-map was blipping a warning that new movement had been detected within a five hundred yard radius of her scanners. At first she had ignored it, assuming it was another one of the many circling vultures, but the movement pattern no longer fit. It was approaching slowly and heading directly for her position.

She set aside the remains she was examining and stood up swiftly. In a fluid motion she mounted Argentum and settled into the saddle. The horse nickered softly as he came out of standby. She flipped on her visor optics and blinked swiftly to magnify her view. When she had identified what was approaching she paused for a moment to consider the best course of action. A second human male was approaching. His appearance was remarkably similar to the one she had just returned to the Gateway with. It occurred to her that her gore covered appearance might not make the best first impression. She decided to make herself scarce and observe him from a distance.

With a flick of her heels Antigua spurred Argentum into a canter away from the approaching man. She consulted her map and steered the horse to a position on the far side of a small outcrop. The elevated position gave her a perfect view that flanked his approach. Her intuition told her that he was probably searching for the same man she had found. He was dressed the same and she swore that his features were a match too. He had the same handsome ruggedness that had drawn her to the other man. It dawned on her that they were brothers, twins in fact.

The man continued to approach the killing field. He had not changed course to follow her. She had not been spotted. Suddenly, her mini-map blipped a new notification. Three more targets had entered the sensor range. The blips on her mini-map were following the same trajectory as the man. She tutted to herself. The situation was getting overly complicated.

He took his time approaching the pile of carcasses, clearly making an effort to approach unobserved. If it had not been for her motion tracking device she would not have been aware of his presence. He possessed some skill as a hunter, that much she was sure of. His skills were no match for her advanced technology, but she recognized and respected the qualities.

When he was within fifty yards of the scene he stopped. He clearly had not expected the devastation that lay before him. Antigua scrutinized his expression, trying to read his reaction. His eyes widened in surprise and she felt a small flush of pride that her handy work had elicited such a strong reaction. He waited a few moments, scanning the area carefully to see if anything dangerous was still prowling about. Antigua checked the current position of the other three players on the scene. They were advancing steadily and would probably reach him within a minute or two. She was tempted to call out a warning to the man but morbid curiosity held her tongue. She was interested to see how he dealt with the situation.

Satisfied that it was safe to continue his approach the man drew his sword and began creeping forward into the gruesome tableau. Every now and then he would use his sword to prod and poke at a particular piece of remains. The look of concern on his face spoke volumes and Antigua was now convinced of his purpose and his relationship with the man she had saved.

The man stopped suddenly, examining something on the ground. Using his sword he gingerly raised it up. It was a rough leather satchel. He quickly took it up, opened it and tumbled the contents onto the ground before him. She surmised that it belonged to his brother because he began searching amongst the corpses with renewed vigor. Antigua chastised herself for not having spotted it herself. The contents may have proved invaluable.

~

Sweden was distraught, he cast about, shoving gore splattered body parts around, looking for something, anything that gave a clue as to his brother’s fate. When it became apparent that he was not going to find anything his sense of panic began to abate and he allowed himself to relax. It appeared that his brother was not a part of the assorted remains.

He sat down. Fatigue was finally making its presence felt. He took a deep breath and leant back, putting his arms out behind him for support. His left hand came to rest on a blood soaked limb. He recoiled from the cold slickness of it and turned to push it away in disgust, but pulled up short when he realized that it was a human leg. His stomach flipped and the bitter taste of bile filled his mouth. The leg bore a leather boot that he recognized as belonging to his brother. He had cured the leather himself, cutting and stitching it for his brother. He had presented the finished pair to him on his eighteenth birthday.

Suddenly, there was a deep rumbling chorus of growls behind him. He turned in surprise and found himself staring into the terrifying maw of an enormous caver as it hurtled towards him.

“Oh shit,” he thought.

Sweden leapt to his feet and dove out of the caver’s path. He rolled swiftly and pulled his sword from its scabbard as the beast sailed past him, swiping at the space he had occupied. The cold steel of his blade sang as it emerged from the metal sheath. He turned to face his attacker.

His heart sank.

Three enormous cavers loomed over him. They were familiar with the painful bite of human weaponry and the casual grace with which this particular morsel held the blade made them wary.

Sweden eyed them nervously as two of the cavers separated and began flanking him. One moved quickly to his left while the other moved to the right. They were flushed, snorting and snuffling with eagerness. He stepped back quickly in an attempt to keep them from surrounding him. It was a futile action. Their monstrous gray limbs carried them far swifter than his did and they quickly had him surrounded. He knew he was in for the fight of his life.

“Why put up a fight, mortal?” The smallest of the three hissed. Its deep voice sibilating like the breath of a snake. “If you exert yourself, you will only spoil your flavor. We want you fresh and succulent for our Queen. She has… Delicate tastes.”

“I will cut off her head and fuck the hole in her diseased skull!” Sweden spat back sharply, turning swiftly from caver to caver as they closed in on him.

All three cavers chuckled at this. A curious, deep rumble that set Sweden’s teeth on edge.

“Oh she will enjoy playing with you, manling. Sucking the spirit from you will be like sweet nectar on her lips.” Said the largest of the three.

With that they pounced.

Sweden had anticipated the move and charged forward, rushing at the smallest caver. He leapt up and shoved a foot down onto the head of the surprised monster. His weight slammed the creatures jaw shut with a loud snap as he used the animal’s head as a platform to launch into a vault. He allowed his sword to trail behind him as he somersaulted over the caver. The blade scored a vicious gash across its head and back. The beasts momentum carried it forward as it crashed headlong into the dirt, roaring in agony. Sweden landed on to his feet and took off at a dead run with the remaining two cavers bounding after him, squealing with excitement.

Antigua took the opportunity to launch into the fray. She pushed Argentum to his full pace and charged at the still prone caver. As the caver was climbing back to its feet it spotted the robot war-horse bearing down on it. The animal screamed with rage and lashed out at the horse as it flew past it, but the scream was cut short by the soft thud of its severed head landing on the ground. Antigua’s blade had sliced neatly through the thick tendons, muscles and bone of its neck as she had swung it while riding past the creature. She turned Argentum back as the confused torso spasmed and writhed, still unaware that it was no longer alive. She leant down in the saddle and used the tip of the blade to spike the caver’s skull, lifting it up and placing it carefully in one of compartments in Argentums rump.

Sweden’s feet pounded the dusty earth as he put all his concentration and effort into pushing his legs as fast as they would carry him. He was oblivious to the downfall of the smaller caver but was quite conscious of the two larger brutes who were practically breathing down his neck. It crossed his mind that this may have been the same fate that had befallen his brother. Gritting his teeth he pushed himself harder. This was not going to be where he died.

The two remaining cavers bounded along behind him, unaware of the fate that had befallen their smaller cohort. They were too busy joyously running down their quarry.

Sweden swerved to his left and then quickly zigged back to the right. One of the cavers crashed to the ground having launched itself at the point it had expected him to occupy. The second caver checked itself and corrected course, not waiting for the other one to get back to its feet. Within moments it had closed the gap and with a deft flick at his ankle it sent Sweden sprawling face first into the ground. It slithered up over him, laying a thick gray claw on his back and pinning him in place. Sweden struggled vainly to free himself but the caver pressed down harder, bringing more of its weight to bear upon him. Sweden cried out as he felt the sharp stabbing pain of one of his ribs snapping in his chest. He stopped struggling as all the fight left him along with his breath. The caver sensed this and released the pressure. It flipped him over and lowered its massive head to meet his.

“Giving up so soon?” It hissed in his face.

The stench of rotting flesh on its breath made Sweden wretch. He closed his eyes and sent out a silent apology to his brother.

“I’m sorry,’ he thought, “I have failed you, brother”

What passed for a quizzical look crossed the Caver’s face. It had sensed Sweden’s apology. This was new. No human it had come across had ever been able to make heed. The special neurological bond that connected the caver hive.

“Perhaps you won’t be of interest to the queen, she prefers a little more sport from her dinner. No, I think a human that can heed the hive will be more interesting to the…”

The caver never finished the sentence. The tip of a sword burst through its jaw, stopping an inch away from Sweden’s eyes. He stared in disbelief as crimson blood began streaming down the blade, splashing him in the face. He shoved the caver to the side and rolled away as its enormous body slumped to the ground. He pushed himself up into a sitting position, wincing in pain as his rib protested against the movement.

“What manner of creature is this?” Antigua asked as she braced herself against the cavers head with her boot and pulled her sword free from its skull.

Sweden stared in disbelief.

“I, um… ” He was lost for words.

Before him stood a woman, taller than any he had ever laid eyes on, with hair so crimson it glowed like the hearth at ember-light. She was dressed in very unusual clothing. It was clothing that had more in common with the garb worn by camp whores who serviced the needs of the elite members of the Poan army. At least, that was his first impression. The longer he stared the more he got the impression that the outfit was more than just decorative. He began to suspect that, while it was certainly figure hugging and immensely attractive to look at, it also served a distinctly defensive purpose.

“It’s a caver.” He replied through clenched teeth. Speaking was painful. He suspected that there was more damage than just a broken rib.

“What are you doing out here? The hearthland is no place for a woman.”

“No place for a woman?” Antigua parroted, raising an eyebrow. She bent close to his face as she brought her syringe gun to his neck. Sweden spasmed sharply as the needle bit into his neck, flooding his system with anesthetic.

Darkness descended.

“You are the second man I have rescued from certain death. It seems it is no place for men either.”

She turned to the foul smelling caver corpse and gave it a cursory examination. It appeared vaguely humanoid. This was a curious development and would need more detailed examination. The head in Argentum’s rump would satisfy that requirement for now. With that, she picked the unconscious man up and lifted him onto Argentum. When he was securely fastened she mounted up.

“Good job hoss,” she said, patting Argentum on the neck, “Take us back to base.”

Argentum reared up onto his hind legs, pawing dramatically at the air with his front hooves before slamming them to the dusty earth and charging straight for the glow of the Firewall.

Antigua smiled to herself as the wind whipped her hair across her face.

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Bryn Jones

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