Scavenging the wasteland, Max and Spell stumble into the territory of a fearsome cult.
FROM THIS DISTANCE THE mark could have been dirt, or the scorch of a phosphorous gun, but it looked like the Twisted Heart. Max scratched at the stubs where his left pinky and ring finger used to be, as he crouched in the brush, wondering. The sight of the brand always set his fingers itching.
Max turned to make sure the girl had not wandered back onto the road. Spell, the ragged child stood amidst the weeds, her large frightened eyes staring out from a gaunt, dirt streaked face. Once more, he tried to guess her age. Older than five, but no more than seven. She was a weak and timid child, in truth a burden, but she had no one else.
The wolf mask scared the girl. It scared most children. Crafted from a wolf’s skull and spikes of black plastic it was fearsome to behold. But the real reason it scared her, Max knew, was it had once belonged to her father. He removed the mask and placed a single thick finger against his lips. Spell mimicked the gesture; she understood. Max smiled, his teeth strikingly white in his dark, leathery face. That gesture, the child did not return.
He turned away from the girl to have another look below. The complex was seated at the bottom of a basin. Max counted five buildings, with the largest of them in the center. It was nearly four hundred feet tall, with strangler vines and ivy twisting a third of the way up its length. Just above the vines there was ornate writing, but it held little interest for him; like most people, Max could not read. What was far more interesting was what may be inside.
It was the promise of salvaging a scrap of copper that had brought them this far from the relative safety of Rullytown. The rumors said no one had scavenged the ruins this far out. Max was starting to think he understood why. He looked back at the indistinguishable smear at the base of one of the smaller towers and absentmindedly scratched at his knuckles.
If the Branded Men laid claim to this place, there will be more here than copper, he knew. There would be plastic God Boxes, out of which the elders could draw gold, and platinum.
But if this is their place, you cannot trespass. They will take something...
He stared long and hard at the symbol below, squinting and trying to decide if it was the mark of the Branded Men. Minutes passed before he looked back to Spell. A memory of sparks flashing off stone came unbidden to his mind.
The girl looked terrified. “Leaving?” She whined.
“I’ll be back. But you need to wait here. Even if it’s days.”
“Days?” Dread filled her eyes.
In truth he did not expect to be that long, but children were impatient and he wanted to prepare her. “I’m leaving you the pack. There is enough food and water to last… or make it back to town if there is danger.”
Spell tried to plead further, but Max had once again donned the wolf mask, and the child knew there would be no use arguing now. He left her there as the sun was setting, and made his way for the tower.
His descent down the slope was slow and laborious. Carefully he crawled on his belly, through the twisted maze of dry brambles and stunted, thirsty trees. The tall grass and reeds covered the whole rim of the basin, and were well suited for concealment. There were thorns in the bushes too, they dragged their fine tips across his arms and hands but had little effect on his coarse, weathered skin. Max would need the cover of darkness for the last hundred meters to the tower. The stone ground surrounding the buildings had only a few tufts of weeds and nothing that would serve as camouflage. But the sun was going down, and he could wait until night before making the last leg of his trek. It occurred to him this place might not belong to the Branded Men at all. Their mark, the Twisted Heart, was sometimes hard to make out from afar. Nor had Max seen any sign of the Branded themselves. They never strayed far from what they had claimed. They were fiercely protective of their God Boxes, fearful that in the wrong hands they would unleash a second destruction upon the earth.
Max had no fear of the God Boxes. He was Cainia, a warrior. He had struck down a Wolfkind and claimed the mask. The Cainia knew whatever magic was left in the boxes was weak, decrepit, and not truly a god. But still, he was wary of the Branded men. They traveled in force, carrying phos-guns, and weaving wires through their flesh. When they had chanced upon him, alone last year they were amiable enough, until they noticed something in his mesh satchel. It was only a small relic; no larger than the palm of his hand, plastic on one side, shattered glass on the other, but for the blasphemy of carrying it, Max had been chastised. The Branded Man had needed five blows to completely separate the fingers from Max’s hand. The jagged stone he wielded had sparked on the last two strikes.
The sun was almost gone when he reached the end of tall grass, but at this distance there was still enough light to make out the Twisted Heart. Knuckles itching, Max unsheathed Matilda. The blade was something between a cudgel and a sword. A foot and a half of brutal iron that had laid a hundred men low. Weapon in hand, he hunkered in the tall grass and waited for full dark.
He decided it was time to press on when the moon had risen high in the sky. Looking up into its cold light, he recalled the elders saying men had gone there before the destruction, but as to whether or not they were still there, Max could not say.
Swiftly he crossed the open ground. Every chirping bug and rustling leaf was a threat. Max scanned left and right for Branded Men, but so far only the Twisted Heart on the building nearest to him showed any indication they might be close.
What had appeared to be debris from the height of the ridge, Max now saw were dilapidated motor cars. They had collapsed to the point of being little more than piles of rusted metal, but would offer at least some cover. He sprinted the last thirty feet, his moccasins whispering over the flat stones, and took a knee beside the closest car. The run brought a thin sheen of sweat to his shoulders and chest. It mixed with the dust on his skin and left him feeling prickly and anxious.
Across the yard a faint orange glow flickered within one of the collapsed building.
A fire, he knew.
Crouching lower into the darkness, against the ruined motor car, he watched. There was no longer any doubt the Branded Men were here. If they caught him now it was unlikely they would kill him. They may only take more fingers, or a foot for treading upon their ground. But the child... They would never permit him to leave the area unescorted, so he would have to choose between leaving Spell behind or leading them to her. Max could survive the wounds they would inflict, but even a finger could be mortal for the skinny child. The infection alone was a death sentence. It was decided. The copper, whatever treasures were within the god boxes, none of it was worth the risk. It was time to leave.
Gingerly he was shifting, preparing for the fleet sprint to the safety of the tall grass, when a shadow detached from the darkness not twenty feet away and stepped into the moonlight.
The Branded Man was tall, thin, his flesh bone white. On his bare chest the Twisted Heart was sketched in an intricate motif of tattoo and scarification. Wires, both plastic and alloy looped randomly through rings and studs in his nipples, ears, and the flesh of his torso. At his left hip, a two barreled phos-gun dangled from a lanyard. Though he had yet to notice Max, he was walking straight towards him.
Hoping for a chance to take the man by surprise (or better yet, avoid detection entirely,) Max began to go prone in the shadows, but the leg of his breeches rasped along the side of the rusted car, and the Branded Man’s head snapped up to attention.
Max was not graceful, but for a man of his short, stocky build he was extremely fast. Blade in hand he thundered out of the shadows. The other was faster. For half an instant night turned to daylight as the phos-gun discharged one of it’s barrels. But the shot went high and the Branded Man was not given a second chance. Through a shower of sparks Max lunged and swung his blade. Matilda struck hard on the gun’s grip sending wood, steel, and severed fingers tumbling through the air. The man dropped to his knees screaming, so Max lifted his blade with both hands and brought it down, smashing through skull and brain.
Panicked shouts were sounding from all sides. Some close. In the building to Max’s right, shadows scurried around the orange glow of the fire. A sudden heat bloomed on the side of his face, and he realized the phos-gun had set his mask on fire. With a gesture somewhere between annoyance and revulsion, he batted it off of his face and crouched low over the body of the man he had slain. The cool breeze on his face was soothing, and served to calm him slightly.
Out of instinct, and with hardly a look to see what he was doing, Max began to loot the body while he surveyed what was happening around him. The phosphorous had left a trail of smoke. It hung in the air like a ghostly finger pointing in the direction from which he came, but the wind was already dispersing it. Methodically he filled his pockets with ammo and bits of jewelry, all the while listening to the shouts of the Branded Men. They seemed to be coming from everywhere. There were at least a score of them. If there was ever going to be a chance to run, Max knew it would be now . . .
. . . and then he saw the flames.
The Branded Men had seen it too. Four lean shadows were running towards the slope where a brush fire was creeping, inexorably through the tall grass. The conflagration spread from the spot where the phosphorus round had landed and in no time flames were racing along the side of the basin. And then the inferno was all around him. There was a wall of fire between Max and Spell.
She’ll run, he thought. If she hasn’t already. She had the pack, the food, the water. It was three days to Rullytown, but she knew the way. And the same wall of fire that separated her from Max, was between her and the Branded. The girl would have a good start if any of them came looking… but Max knew they wouldn’t have any reason to do that.
The Cainia rose slowly and picked up the wolf mask. It was no longer burning, but the plastic and bone had melted into something twisted and monstrous. He put it on. In his hand, Matilda was wet and red. She glistened in the firelight as Max stepped out onto the open ground, a shadow amidst the flames.
When morning finally came, the air was rank with the smell of blood and smoke, and Max’s knuckles never itched again.