Chapter 84 - Night Raid

Greenland Outpost mobilized every soldier they could, including those who weren’t part of the outpost at all. A massive conscription campaign put a weapon in the hands of anyone who could fight. Stone was one of those wastelanders-turned-soldier.

He was in his early twenties, and like many denizens of the wastelands he didn’t have a proper name. Stone picked something he saw often as his moniker, and it turned out to be an apt description. As he grew Stone became as tenacious and unyielding as his namesake, eventually reaching his potential as a doughty soldier.

During his enlistment Stone was able to best two professional soldiers by himself, so they made him part of the wall’s defense. From that moment on he was a true warrior.

“You new?”

A craggy and unpleasant voice assailed him.

Stone saw an older man resting beneath a crenel, two massive black broadswords for weapons. One was in his hands and he ground its edge against a whetstone. Better than average leather armor protected his body and head. The armor seemed to have been personally customized and reinforced. Most discomforting, however, was the man’s hideous face. Half of it was caved in like he’d taken a hammer to the cheek. How was he still alive?

Stone nodded but didn’t say anything.

“Man as young and healthy as you… why’d you join up?” The veteran put his sword to the side and fished a rough hand-rolled cigarette from his waist. He put it in his mouth, lit it, and took a long drag. “Seems t’me life as a bandit’d be better. No one tellin’ you what t’do, go where you please... you’d probably earn more, but most importantly you’d pick yer own targets. Come across somethin’ stronger’n you, just run.”

Stone was taken aback by the strange man. “You don’t like being a soldier?”

“Soldiers are always facin’ the unknown. Even if you know yer gonna die, if the cap’n says fight, you fight. Followin’ orders, that’s the life of a soldier.”

“Doesn’t seem to me a bandit’s life is much better. They don’t even have a steady place to lay their head.” Stone objected to the grizzled warrior’s opinion. “The new leader said it, anyone who joined up has a place in the fort. All I’m looking for is a safe place to sleep.”

“Hrmph. The fort, eh? Gotta be breathin’ to earn that blessin’.” This time it was another soldier who spoke, a large and burly man with not a thread of hair on his smooth head. His weapon was an iron spear resting on his shoulder. “Maybe if it was Hydra leadin’ us we’d have a shot, but this woman? She was just one of his flunkeys. You even know who we’re fightin, kid? Sweepers!”

Stone continued to challenge them. “The new leader might not be as strong as the old boss was, but she’s got that banshee helping her. They already turned the place around. They say anyone who refuse to accept the new leader, the banshee shows up and snuffs out their life. If I were you I’d be careful what I say.”

The bald man clearly paid the warning no mind.

“A’ight now that’s enough, we’re here so no use yappin’. We’re all brothers now. We need to be smart in these dark times.” The veteran plucked the cigarette butt from his mouth and flicked over the side of the wall. His patchwork leather armor creaked as he rose and clapped a hand on Stone’s shoulder. “You an’ Baldy got night watch, I’ll bring the others ‘round for patrol. Holler if you see anything. Baldy, you look after the new blood.”

“Will do, captain!”

Night fell quickly. The oasis was enveloped in an unsettling silence.

Stone and Baldy sat across from one another, lit by the flames of a campfire between them that dispelled the chilly night air. They took turns talking and feeding the fire.

Baldy fished out a large biscuit and broke it in half. He handed a piece to Stone. “Night shift is long and tough. If you don’t eat you won’t keep up your focus.”

The biscuit was a jerky-like pulp made from smashed roots and stems, all coarse and bitter fiber that was no fun to chew. But at least it filled their bellies, and out in the wastelands anything that eased the hunger was appreciated. Who’d complain over taste?

“Thanks.”

Even this small piece of biscuit was worth a lot out here – more than a few people would kill for it. Your typical new recruit was not well-off and often went days without a meal.

With longing in his face, Stone spoke to his comrade: “The new boss has started to hand out all the food that was hoarded in the fort. Folks are getting more and more for themselves and their lives are improving. We’ve gotta beat these sweepers, not pay tribute – life will improve even more.”

Baldy, on the other hand, had never liked the new boss. What did that distant future have to do with anything, anyway?

Stone stuck a piece of the hard biscuit in his mouth, chewed it to soften it up with his spit then gulped it down.

A gust of wind blew particles of sand at them.

Pa, sand?” Stone scowled at the wind. The oasis was protected by ruins that kept the desert at bay, so where did this grit come from? Strange though it was, he paid it little mind as he continued his discussion with the older warrior. “How long have you been doing this?”

“Three years, maybe four. I forget.” The sound of sand whipping against the walls increased, filling their ears with rasping noise. Baldy sighed. “A guy like me with no real talent to speak of, almost forty… this is about the best I can hope for.”

Stone chuckled. “Come on, out in the wastelands making it to forty is an accomplishment. I hope I make it to your age. I’d be happy.”

“You’re young, you got potential.” Baldy shook his head, full of envy. “If you make it to my age you’ll at least earn a name for yourself here. You’ll be somebody.”

But Stone didn’t seem interested in such a fate. “Was Panther somebody? Snaketooth? They’re dead, even Hydra… ah, doesn’t matter how strong they were, they were still insignificant to the wastelands. Me, I just don’t want to starve to death. I just want to sleep somewhere safe and enjoy a woman from time to time. I’d be content to do that for forty years.”

The kid’s demands were a tall order. Wasn’t that the dream of every wastelander? 

Baldy was getting ready to ridicule him a little when he noticed the sand getting thicker. The grit was starting to affect his vision and the sound of it blowing against the walls made it difficult to hear. The sand was startling to sprinkle like sheets of rain, covering both of them in a thin layer of it. Their campfire was sputtering, barely keeping itself alight.

“What the fuck is all this?” Baldy had never experienced something like this. He picked up his weapon and rose to his feet then stuck his head out of the crenel to take a look. “Where’s all this goddamn sand coming fr- ahh!”

A shrill scream broke the night silence!

Stone was fiddling with the fire when suddenly he felt a warm spray skitter across his cheek like a spider. One moment he was listening to Baldy talk and the next his new companion was on the floor, limbs twitching. His eyes stared into the distance and his lips twitched, trying desperately to form words, but nothing but unintelligible syllables sputtered out. A hand ax jutted from between his eyes, half buried in his skull and deep enough to sever a third of his brain.

Sneak attaaaack!”

His scream changed the night from dead silence into chaos. He picked up his weapon and leapt to his feet with no hesitation, moments before the huge silhouette of a sweeper bore down on him. Its deadly hatchet was aimed right for Stone’s head.

Clang!

Stone held a sheet iron shield between him and the attack, whose impact shook and numbed his left arm. Without thinking he shoved the knife in his right hand deep into the sweeper’s chest. It cut into the mutant’s heart and caused blood to spew everywhere like a fountain. Stone wiped his face clean and ripped his dagger from the body.

Whoosh-whoosh!

Two sharp and ice cold crossbow bolts punctured his flimsy armor and jutted out from his chest. Eyes wide, Stone turned around and the charging figure of another sweeper filled his vision. He saw the glint of its ax aimed for his throat.

Stone’s whole world spun.

The young man’s head thudded to the ground and rolled off the wall. His headless body followed.

Thousands of sweepers were clambering over the parapets, slaughtering soldiers as they swept past.

The sweepers were of all sorts; from heavily armored wasteland rangers to emaciated things that scrambled on four limbs, seemed to defy gravity as they clawed at their victims with deadly talons. Some of them even had wings, and though they couldn’t fly they used the twisted appendages to glide on the evil wind into the outpost.

“The sweepers are breaking through! Stop them!”

The scarred veteran came rushing to the fore with a hundred warriors and suddenly the sounds of bowstrings, guns and clashing metal filled the air. No one expected the sweepers to climb over the walls in complete silence under cover of night. Most important had been this strange sandstorm that’d given them cover. Without it, this many sweepers would definitely have been discovered long ago.

The old veteran was certainly capable. He split several sweepers in half as they came before him, shouting orders as he charged forth. “Keep ‘em out!

Suddenly, a tornado appeared before them.

The veteran captain came to a dead halt. A tornado, here? He peered at the dervish that shouldn’t have existed and suddenly saw a figure hidden within. He couldn’t make out any details, but there was definitely a human figure inside the whipping winds. The stranger seemed to float above the ground and was clad in otherworldly armor. Two red eyes crackled like hellish lightning through the darkness.

Die!”

The veteran charged ahead, lifting a broadsword with both hands. The dark figure responded by flicking a finger, as though he was simply shooing away an irritating pest. 

In the midst of his headlong rush the veteran was unceremoniously blown apart. The grizzled captain became a cloud of dust on the wind, vanishing with the breeze like he’d never even existed.

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RWX's Thoughts

Comic Con and a certain upcoming ebook is taking more of my time the past few days than I had anticipated.  I'll try and get out the next three in a few hours!