Rob could sense that animals where near, it's just one of those things that happens to you if you grow up in the woods, fending for yourself.
The sound of twigs breaking was enough to make him jump, even though he was expecting it.
Rob slowly raised his bow, and drew an arrow from his hand, "you're not getting away" he thought.
Then, there it was, a buck, right in front of him.
It hadn't seen or heard him, not yet at least.
Rob took a deep breath, and pulled the arrow back.
He launched the arrow, piercing the deers' rib cage, not instantly killing it, but still quickly.
The deer threw it's self towards the path, but unluckily for the deer, turning to fast from the hunter was a mistake, the arrow was logged inside of its' left lung, ripping into its' heart.
"But how am I gonna get it back?" walking over and taking back the arrow.
Eventually he got back with the deer, which took a while considering his leg and the deer.
"So, who's hungry?" he said in a rather satisfied tone.
Looking at Rob and the deer he had dragged with him, the first thing Cat thought was how on earth Rob managed to pull that thing, especially since he was a very skinny guy. But then she said warmly "Well done, come on guys, lets carve this deer up and eat what we can. I'll cure the rest for further provisions."
The butchering didn't take long and Cat immediately went on to sew herself some hide gloves. Half an hour later, the deer was fully butchered and the choicest pieces were crackling over the fire. The entire group had assembled around the big cooking fire, all the others having been extinguished for the night. As they all started eating the grilled meat, Cat looked around and, seemingly addressing no one in particular, started.
"I think we should get to know each other a bit, seeing as we're in this for better or worse. You'll all have gathered what I made of myself in the last five years. I'm now one of Hatter's lieutenants and regularly do jobs for him. But before that, well, I knew a rather different life. I'm sure that, if it wasn't for Hatter, I'd be dead now."
Swallowing the lump that formed in her throat, she went on. "In this world, well, a girl's got to do what she can to get by, especially when she couldn't hide anymore. My parents were killed in a raid and my sister and I were taken by the slavers. Once we turned twelve, they started using us for their… entertainment. For the next three years, my life was hell, but my sister's got it even worse. She got pregnant and, weakened as she was, fell ill. over the next couple of months, she deteriorated and eventually died. Must have been one of the first victims of Blue Rot, but her death had one good thing at least. Many of the slavers got infected too and they were quarantined and eventually we moved camp. That was to be my blessing, as on the transfer, one night I was… needed again, I ended it right there and then. Killing that slaver, I knew I had to run for my life, and grabbing what I could, I started fleeing South, towards the DMC. For 16 months, I stumbled across the wastelands, knowing little of the world and even less about my surroundings. But I adapted quickly and picked up some useful skills from travellers who didn't want to kill me immediately. One day, about a month or two after turning eighteen, I serviced a thief, working for Hatter, pretty much like I am now. His name was Shadow, and unlike the others, he just talked to me that fateful night. I still have no idea why, but he took me in, taught me the tools of the trade and introduced me to Hatter." She broke off, a single tear running down her cheek. "He too died though, two years and three months ago. Just like my sister." Finding her composure again, she looked at the men surrounding her, trying to gauge what they thought of her in light of what she had just shared.
"How about you, what's your story?" she said, directed at their youngest member, Rob.Then she looked at them all again and said, "Actually, I want to know what you guys have been through, so anyone that wants to tell us about him, go for it."
Wanderer of the Wasteland
"Well, i guess i'll tell mine now", said Nails, slightly smiling.
"A forest child here. Spent most of my teen years in forests, this and other side of the US border. Had near-death experience when i was 6. Both parents died by the time i was 17. Had to survive, managed to do.
Lived on the shore of Atlantic several years, learned lots about how to build ships and boats. Then went to Great Lakes. Met some good people and some bad people on the way. One of good ones i've met - was a sharpshooter. Spent almost two years with him, learning how to shoot well, mainly with a rifle.
Then, lived at - and on - Great Lakes for years more, mostly alone. Good place to think, those lakes. There, i realized why humans are where they are now. See, evolution made us to care about ourselves, but not about whole ecosystems; then it gave us intellect. Intellect leads to our ability to overpower ecosystems, exploit them, ultimately - spend them. We exhaust large chunks of Earth life systems, and then, when Nature's life support fades, we make conflict between each other for small remains of food and water. This repeats again and again since Rome, i think, - with ever more destructive results.
If nothing is done about it, then our kind will cease to exist, in some decades or centuries. The only kind of man who can live on and on - is the kind which cares not about himself first and foremost, but about life, first and foremost. All life. About plants, animals, humans, insects, even bacteria. Some people say it's an utopia. But i say, it's the only way humans will last on this planet any much longer, in historical terms. To me, it's no question if it must be done; to me, the question is how it will be done, and how can i help to make it happen.
It'd be a hard change, though. Very hard. Because it contradicts human nature - our genes, instincts, the animal within us. Our ancient self, which, whenever pressed any much, forces us to fight tooth and claw, to kill and maim, if it helps "one" to live on. That's why no single man can hope to make any big differense. It has to be a collective effort. It should be one largest scientific project in history - much larger than Manhattan project. And so i am travelling around, looking for anyone who can understand, hoping to find - or perhaps, even establish, who knows? - a group, or a community, which would do what needs to be done: to change human being from an intelligent animal into an intelligent guardian of all life. Not for good looks, and not on any moral grounds, - but for man's own sake, as a species.
My "big time goal" doesn't remove the need to do what has to be done in order to survive personally, though. Don't mistake me for a hippy. I distinct very clearly between larger goals and minute needs. And, being dead doesn't allow to achieve anything, of course. And so, when there is the need, i fight and kill without a second thought.
Two months ago, i've been returning to these parts from Canada, and had really bad encounter with a group of dogmen. Crawled away with lots of bites and broken pieces in one of my legs. Sold nearly all i had to buy myself solid nanobot treatment - i think i had gangrene starting in that chewed leg of mine. It feels brand new now.
Then i looked for a job, to earn some cash and to gear up. I learned years ago how important good gear and supply is, especially for a sole survivor, so i needed to get some. A good friend gave me a whisper about Hatter looking for skilled people for some big job, and so i am here".
Nails stopped for a moment, scratched his butt, visibly enjoying it, and concluded: "I don't really expect any of you to share my view, to join my effort. And it's ok. Most people don't. And seeing Cat having tough time telling some real nasty things about herself, i sure felt i should tell about my own big thing. It won't do any harm, anyways. Feel free to think about it as a fairytale from a slightly insane forest dweller Nails, if you want... I don't mind".
Being done with his story, Nails went on to continue boiling more water and bark tea in his sauce pan. Barely visible smile was sometimes illuminating, for a moment, his otherwise emotionless face.
... our lifestyles, mores, institutions, patterns of interaction, values, and expectations are shaped by a cultural heritage that was formed in a time when carrying capacity exceeded the human load. (c) William R. Catton, Jr
"Well, as some of you already know, I was always in the forest, from birth, and I guess I might die there to"taking a pause.
"Like Cat, I have had a few... many hardships, When I was 14 my family home was burned by raiders, killing my mother, father, and dearest brother, Sam," the images flashed in his head, he hated remembering the incident.
"On the way to exact my revenge I learned a few things, like how the forest is delicate, the loss of one species could bring it down, this I learned from a hunter, after that I went back to the wild, all alone, I broke my arm, it wasn't that severe, and after it healed I was practically in the outer city when I got word that I was wanted, some how, someone found out about me," Rob looked a bit puzzled, he hadn't a clue who knew about him, maybe the hunter, but he had died a year ago, though he went into town enough, perhaps he had talked about him, for now he wasn't sure if he should talk to much about his past.
"And Nails, I don't think your crazy, your more of a wise man than that," he waited for the next to talk.
Eric's expression softened as he enjoyed a chunk of venison and listened to his companions over the staccato of the campfire. He found the experiences they were sharing very humanizing, despite their grim content. That was important; Eric needed to experience something that didn't cheapen and degrade the very notion of humanity, or this job would kill him.
After Rob's story, Eric remembered that he he was also expected to share. He was loathe to tell them about his happy, safe childhood, with two parents who provided for him through his adolescence. The contrast was obscene; they would certainly hate his guts!
Eric cleared his throat and reluctantly sat up. "I can't imagine how difficult those experiences must have been." His gaze flickered between Cat, Nails, and Rob. "I... don't really have a frame of reference. I grew up in Detroit- I mean, the walled part. The DMC." As the group began to pay attention, his diction became quick and strained. "My parents were computer technicians for a bank, so we always had shelter, we always had food, and I had the time and resources to learn how computers worked, and how the world used to work. Umm... Guns, plants, history, I like those things. I-it's incredible what people used to have and take for granted, you know? I think it's important to bring that stuff back, the parts that worked, anyway. And, um, I guess I got curious about what was beyond the walls, and I was getting kind of old to live with my family..."
That last point was especially embarrassing; these people had taken care of themselves since their formative years. He definitely hadn't meant to go on for this long, but Eric found himself incapable of shutting up. "... So I moved to the Sprawl and set up a crappy little stall and started dealing in computers and hacking services, and I guess word of mouth got me a job, and it's kind of funny, because I didn't think 'hacker' literally meant I-I would be expected..." Eric was hyperventilating and staring at the crowbar lying next to him. Then he looked pleadingly at Cat. Why did she ask him to do it? This wasn't a fun introduction anymore; Eric knew he needed to calm down. After closing his eyes and taking several labored breaths, he cracked an unconvincing, weak smile and brought his botched story to a close. "Anyway, I guess I'm here now."
Cat came to Eric's rescue, seeing as he seemed very uncomfortable. She put a hand on his wounded shoulder and said " It's ok, no need to feel bad because you didn't suffer any trauma. Hell, I'm glad we got someone normal around here", she chuckled at her own dark humour and then turned to face Silent. She didn't expect him to say or share anything, but she was curious as to his reaction to these stories, and maybe, she was wrong and he did want to share some of his past.
Sitting still, Alexander listened as each party member told the story of their past. Although he had not cared much for others in the past, in this instance, however, he had actually listened.
However, it wasn't out of sympathy or care that he listened, but for a much more unpleasant reason.
Atleast I wasn't involved...
Noticing the look that Cat had given him, Alexander gave a dismissive shrug as he abruptly stood up, intent on being clear of the conversation as quickly as he can, having finished the last piece of the chunk that was given to him.
Quickly walking away, he found a tree that was convenient for him to sulk by, as he stood intent on taking first watch.
Apparently, the story-telling part was over. "Hey Eric", - Nails' voice was rather dry, - "you pick yourself together, kid. You left the safety of DMC life willingly, this is no small feat. And you're young. What you don't have in foraging and brawling skills yet - you well compensate with your hi-tech skill. So stop imagining you're a weak link in the chain, and try to sleep well", - saying last words, Nails nodded so barely that only someone watching him with utmost attention could notice it. And at the moment, only Eric was watching him.
Nails picked up his duffle bag, and placed one rather large piece of cooked meat into his backpack. Few minutes later, Nails spoke to Silent: "Hey. Your silence doesn't surprise me none, but you heard my story, and everyone else's, too. You're our eldest. I ask you: give it a thought, and may be, write us a note some day - when you'll be done thinking, - about either your past, or what you think about mine, or about both, if you'll feel like it. Even a short one would do. Just to show respect to people, thing for thing, you know. Alas, your choice, of course".
Then Nails found a spot not far from the camp - about a dozen meters from the campfire, still within the natural opening their camp was in. It was a small natural pit there - merely a foot "deep". Using several branches and lots of leafy sprouts, Nails quickly made a small hut-like tent above the pit, keeping a large hole at the top of the structure. Then he moved all the bark, which remained from the pile collected earlier, to the tent. "I'll be boiling more bark tea and water, Cat" - he told, when she went in to ask what he's doing, - "and i don't want no light to give out our position, thus all the leaves".
Then he added, in whisper, so only Cat could hear him: "psst, if you will do what i proposed on the way to the forest, then feel free to do it yourself or, possibly, together with Silent. Rob is not in the shape to hop through night forest. I'll protect him and Eric here, if need be, while you're away".
Then he took a small smoldering branch from the campfire, and went under his tent-like retreat. His legs were not fitting in, protruding out of leafy side of the structure. Inside, with his backpack on one side of the pit and himself on the other, the tiny fire in the pit itself, and lots of bark at the hands' reach, - it was warm and full of wood aromas. Nails new that simply inhaling those - was helping his rib to heal. And he sure enjoyed it, too. Since chilhood, he was enjoying smells of various tree barks, tars, saps - with very few exceptions, none of which were present at this time.
Through the small hole in the structure, he observed the camp. Except when his eyes were needed, for a moment, to work his boils in the sauce pan, or to fill a bottle.
With Silent on the watch and Nails busy cooking, Cat decided that it would be best for them all to sleep. "I'll take watch with Silent, everyone else, try and get some rest. We have a lot of ground to cover tomorrow, and we'll better be ready."
Ten minutes later the camp was quiet, and Cat was looking out over the nearby tree line, searching for any movement. She knew that Silent, about twenty meters away from her, would do just the same. Time started to slow down and crawl, as they both watched attentively and tensely.
About an hour passed, without so much as an animal sound from the surroundings, but Cat wasn't going to let her guard down.
"It can't be much further now" Bruce whispered to Will. Ghoul didn't like the way they had their fixed command structure, but if it would help him get into the DMC, he would stay with the head hunters a while longer. They had been tracking a group of five for a bit over two days now, after Jasper, the fourth one in their pack, got a tip from a Junk yard vendor, about some old war criminal that had set off with the group.
"I don't understand this" Will answered, " we're right on top of the signal, their camp should be here". Ghoul couldn't believe their stupidity. "It's so obvious, they must have moved camp further up. Just look here for example, see that broken branch?", he pointed at a small twig that had cracked under a boot, "I'm sure they are just a bit further up." He hated their incompetent arrogance and blatant racism, but lucky for him, they had no idea what he was capable of. "What you say chink? Those tracks could be from anything. And what do you want anyways? Haelstein is a master marksman, he'll pick you off a mile away and all you got is your little sword. What you wanna spank him? Just like your masters did?" Ghoul could barely control his rage, but pressed out between his teeth "Go then, I'll find him myself you fools."
Leaving them standing, he headed up the direction their camp needed to lie, disappearing into the shadows well before the other three could process what he just did.
Cat scanned the area ahead of her, consciously using the edges of her field of vision to scan for any movement. The cells there were more receptive to movement then the ones in the center, an old trick she picked up from her days in the wild.
Suddenly, she heard the rattle of one of the noise traps. She snapped her head around and quickly walked in the direction of the sound. But when she got there, all she saw was a rabbit entangled in the string. Freeing it, she returned to her post, when suddenly, she realised that Silent was nowhere to be seen.
"So Nails, what was it like on the lakes, haven't been on them yet, but I hope to go someday, soon," said Rob, quietly waiting.
"I've been on Huron, Superior, and of course Michigan. Each is like a sea. Storms with waves some 25 feet tall or even higher, strong winds often, and lots of fish. Soft winters with heavy snow spells. Unlike the ocean, they freeze near shores during winter. Still, most of the year, having a boat is very useful; small sailing boat - even better. Some parts have lots of most dangerous predators on Earth - which is, humans, - but most of shores and lakes themselves are almost-no-humans space. I liked latter parts more than former ones".
Nails sighed, then continued slowly. "But those parts are not a paradize, Rob. Lots of people never went back from there. Most of them died, and noone knows how and where exactly. Thing is, many folks there get relaxed too much. Then one day, something nasty happen - and they're dead before they know it. Don't go there unprepared, and don't count on it being an easy trip, too".
"Here, drink some bark tea while it's warm. And then please go sleep, Rob. Your leg need it, you know. Sleep heals. Seriously. If anything bad happens, you'll hear my rifle talking, promise".
With the twists and turns he followed the trail that was presented. The previous tracks had been obvious, but now Ghoul was walking in the direction that looked relative to what was seen.
"This guy knows damn well how to cover his tracks..." He muttered.
The group's remarks still tugged at his mind. "What you say chink? Those tracks could be from anything."
"Shouldn't have told them where I came from either. Look like a local. Maybe." He thought idly. Yet again, it tugged at his head.
"I can't let this get to me. I got a task ahead of me." He repeated in his head.
He was examining the well-covered tracks. But the person left one thing unnoticed.
"There is a large number of missing berries and mushrooms, indicating that someone foraged them." He gave a half-grin. Baring his set of impressively intimidating teeth.
"And it leads straight to where I need to be."
A few minutes lead him hearing someone's idle conversation. At first it was doubtful, but then it became obvious when it was carried by the wind through the forest trees.
Soft, but definitely there. Maybe. Was it? He had to check.
In the distance he saw an old man leaning on a tree, he was about to close that distance when the group of hunters closed into this group.
He couldn't make out what they were saying but he intended to quickly close the distance if he was distracted.
In this twisted world, I found myself slowly vanishing.
Twisted World - A story from the Apocalypse
It's been a long time, but I'm back.
He heard it.
Footsteps. Something was moving. Slowly, it seemed, but deliberately.
Crouching, his ears and eyes peaked up as he listened closely to the surroundings, his eyes fine-tuned to spot the hidden crevices and creaks which a person could hide in.
And then he saw it. A flicker of movement. A shadow moved. The darkness seemed to shift temporarily. But even without knowing, he knew what it was.
The Hidden is my domain...it is my Elysium...and you will not fool me using it...
It definitely wasn't a deer. And it definitely isn't one of the more benign creatures. This was either a predator sneaking up onto him...
Or a person...
The movement had disappeared, the spectre seemingly melding into the darkness. But he knew better than to trust what his eyes told him.
Leveling his rifle up to where he last saw the shade, he backed up against the tree. With the efficiency of familiarity, he stilled himself. His breathing slowed, his limbs stiffened. Although he had hoped that he would look like the unmoving foilage long enough to get the drop, he knew that, if somebody was sneaking around, they've most likely already seen him...
His eyes scanning the surroundings, Alexander coiled his fingers around his rifle, ready to shoot at any clear flicker in the darkness that would give away somebody's presence...
"Damn it." Ghoul said in his mind. He knew the man spotted him. His careful movements suggested that.
He then saw the man slowly lift something up. It was a weapon no-doubt. Ghoul relaxed more, as he knew getting stiff would make unnecessary jerky movements. He adjusted the hood of his black cloak to cover his face more. Without it, he thought, he would've been detected already.
A breeze ticked across his cheek. soft, and inviting. That breeze turned strong enough to disturb the trees, causing them to sway.
He had a idea, move with the swaying of the trees. Hopefully the man will pass him by as a moving shadow caused by the swaying of the trees.
It started steady, he kept pace with the wind and trees, he knew he may be detected, but he hoped he didn't.
Cat could hear definite footsteps now. "What I'd give for Silent and his rifle right now? Where the hell is he?" Then, suddenly out of nowhere, she turned around right into a gun barrel.
"Hey doll, why don't you make this easy and tell us where we can find Haelstein?" their Leader said. He was a tall and tough man, with cold eyes and hard skin. Mercenary type. Then, Cat's eyes wandered to his belt, where she saw a long hunting knife and about a dozen or so small pelts.
Then it dawned on her, not pelts. Scalps. These guys where headhunters, and whatever Silent had done, they were out looking for him. Good thing he wasn't to be seen she thought. Then she said, out loud, in the hope that Eric, Nails and Rob could hear her "I have no idea who you're talking about. I don't know any Haelstein."
At that, the two other guys behind the big one tensed up under their leather jackets. "Wrong answer honey."
The voices carried on the wind. Alexander heard the commotion that had occurred back at the camp.
Risking it, he turned his head, noticing a group of men who had slipped past his guard.
A distraction for the guards, and the mob slips right in...
Whatever they were, or who they were after, it was clear their intention. The man at the front, a burly looking Mercenary sort, had held Cat at gunpoint.
He hadn't liked the Thief. Not by any stretch. He had more than enough reason to focus on the current threat. It was probably a distraction of sorts, and seeing as how it hasn't struck, he would've presumed that it was merely an inexperienced tracker merely causing sounds.
But he didn't want to bet on it. Yet, as he pondered his options, his prospects were grim. He could focus on this unknown threat and hope that Nails and the rest would handle those that threatened the camp right now. However, he was in the best place to take a shot and almost guarantee the Thief's survival.
He was running out of time. He did a quick scan of his current surroundings. Nothing...but it could just be waiting for the moment to strike...
But even as the wolf protects it's pack, it looks for itself...
Turning back towards the darkness infront of him, he continued his vigil, seeking out his hidden assailant.
Survival triumphs companionship...
That fraction of a second was all he needed.
Ghoul sprung into action easily closed the distance in one fluid movement, taking precaution on the vigilant eye of his prey.
He was right behind the tree.
His senses ran overdrive. He could have sworn he heard his heart beat, and feel his body temperature radiating warmth through the air.
He drew out his knife and pressed it gently against the man's throat. His left hand holding his chin up.
"Listen to me." He whispered. "Any movements and I will be forced to kill you."
"I'm pretty sure you're the one known as "Silent". Haelstein, is it correct?" He breathed for a moment.
"If you are, the group that are there talking to that girl, they're after you."
"I suggest you take this chance to escape." - With that Ghoul gently eased his grip and moved the cold blade away from the man's jugular vein.
It was an experience that most people would come out shocked. One that most would immediately submit to.
But Alexander was hardly most people....
With the mystery figure discovered, it seemed that, whomever it is, it did not seem to seek his immediate harm. However, decades of experience screamed at him, as he knew too well, immediate harm and eventual harm are different, and usually, vastly so...
Taking advantage of his victor's leniency, he held up his right hand, as his left hand held tightly onto the gun. With his fingers splayed open, he made a clear signal.
I am not going anywhere, lad...
This wasn't usual. He clearly had a vantage point over the others, and he was hidden well enough behind the tree that, even if he were to fire, the best that the hunters would have was a general direction.
Maybe, he mused, that this gentleman, whose voice seemed to be of Eastern Origins, wasn't as skilled in his particular field...but this wasn't a time for musing.
Inexperienced in Shooting from the shadows or not, he still does have the advantage of being able to attack first, and very likely, kill me.
Using his right hand, he pulled back the bolt, and unloaded his rifle. It was a gesture that was, more often than not, effective, swaying opinions in his favor.
And now, let's see if the rumors of the Honorable Eastern Men are really true...
Ghoul stepped back. Breathing slowly, he quickly sheathed his knife and put his hand on his Katana, ready to draw and slice if needed.
"Humor me this: If you intend to fight, why must you hide behind a scope?"
A grin flashed on his face showing a row of sharp teeth. Clearly amused.
He paused, he could feel the tension in the air. As if it was a steel wire straining under a massive weight, ready to give in.
"I trust that you are unarmed. I will leave you with this: Fire upon the large man's leg, make sure to wound him. I will take care of the rest."
He paused for a second.
"As I have done for you, I trust you won't kill me when my guard was down."
With that, he pulled his hood over his head and sunk into the shadows. Intending to ambush the hunters.
Nails heard Cat's words, and he heard she said them loudly. His heart raced. "She's probably taken hostage, probably some 100 to 150 meters from here, may be even less", he thought. "They asked her about Silent, apparently. But it could be a trick. Damn, even voice itself could be a trick - may be she killed Silent already, in the back, and is now trying to lure us in. Or may be it's a large group seeking us out. Or both, with Cat being the rat? Gotta hide till the dawn, then. The situation is too uncertain. At least, i know it probably was Eric's devices indeed - it's exactly that side from the camp... But what Cat's doing out there, eh. But then, she could be trying to lead them away from the camp, too"...
At the time Nails heard Cat's voice, his one-before-last pan of water was sitting above his tiny fire for some 8 minutes. During this time, Nails didn't look at the fire, knowing well that doing so would remove natural night vision ability of his eyes for some 10 minutes or more. In this sense, he was lucky.
He started to act, making all movements smoothly and silently. Without looking, he grabbed the pan's handle, removed supporting branches with the other hand, and placed the pan on top of his tiny flame. This killed the flame quickly, easily and silently. Then he pressed the pan down, gradually increasing the force of the push - pressing soot, ash and remains of half-burned bark into the soil, depriving oxygen to the fire, to ensure no spark would remain.
After that, he took out his wrench, and few longer strings out of his backpack. He kept the wrench in his palm, only putting it down when he needed to do something with the hand. He tied strings together, and tied one end to one of his boots.
Then he grabbed the pan, which was still standing where his fire was, and poured water from it right into soot and ash of his fire. Slowly. Once done with it, he crawled to the spot he knew Eric was sleeping at. Thankfully, Eric woke up without making any significant noise. "Tsss... Eric, Nails here", whispered Nails, - "i think Cat is taken hostage some 100 meters from here, i heard her loudly telling someone she does not know no Silent. Come with me, we need to defend ourselves. Don't stand up, just crawl after me, and make sure not to make any sound".
Then he crawled back to his position, went into his small tent, took off one of his gloves, and picked several handfulls of semi-liquid soot and dirt formed in the pit his fire was in, dropping all of it into his pan. With it, he went out, where Eric was waiting for him. Nails whispered: "Ok kid, this here pan has lots of natural night camouflage. Soot and sterilized by fire dirt mixed with water. Pick some and make your face and hands black now", while showing an example by doing so himself - except the hands part. Once his face was all feeling wet from a thin layer of black mud, he roughly wiped his hand off the grass and put back the glove.
Gladly noticing that his eyes are now able to see a bit more than before - barely visible shapes, forest countours, Eric nearby - Nails waited while Eric was done with their improvised warpaint, then whispered: "now i'll go to the edge of the forest opposite side from where i heard Cat talking. I need your help, to survive till the dawn. I want you to watch my back - into the forest, mainly. I will be facing our camp, rifle ready. We both would keep an eye to the sides. Whomever comes into the opening, will be visible under open sky, a dark silouette against the growth of the forest. We'll be hiding within the edge of the growth to avoid being seen. I will only shoot if i'm sure it's enemies, though. Don't want to hurt Cat, nor Silent. And Eric, you can see a bit better in the dark if you remain low and crawling, this is one of things i learned many years ago".
Nails looked around, not seeing anyone approaching him and Eric, then turned to him and continued: "If you don't want to join me, then just let go of the string and do whatever you want. I don't recommend it, though. Also, Rob's somewhere around, so if you can find him and then, if you two will join my position - after you'll go with me to know where it is, - then it would be great. Don't ever walk though. And tell Rob, if you can find him, not to walk, too. That's all. I'm going now".
Not waiting for Eric response, Nails started to carefully crawl to the opening's edge, opposite to the side he heard Cat's voice from.
Rob was about 1 yard from his original position at the little hut Nails had made, when he heard Nails talking to Eric.
better join em
Nails spotted Rob the moment he went around his leafy retreat. "So you heard me too, Rob. Excellent. Wait a sec, guys", he whispered. Turning back, he tied loose end of the string to one of main supporting branches of his tent. "Alright, if we'll need to attract their attention and lure them out into the open, this could help a bit", he explained to others.
"Please keep close and get the bow ready, Rob", he whispered when they arrived to bushes at the edge of the opening. Going in very carefully and hiding there while ensuring no noise would be made - took some time.
Ghoul zipped through the shadows, trying his best not to be seen.
When he finally was behind the three headhunters, he drew his Katana, and stood in a ready pose. The beautiful steel of the blade shimmered in the moonlight.
The one on the right was the shortest. Conveniently, this meant he could swing upward, and if he struck hard enough, he could cleave through the head and cut it clean off.
He was prepared to deal with the second one a split second later.
All he needed, was the signal to strike.
Cat was terrified. She had no idea why these guys would want Silent, but they looked serious. Suddenly though, she saw a shimmer in the shadows. A fourth one? But no, it made no sense, he'd be here with them. But who, or what, could it be? A smack across her face ripped her right back from her musings.
"I'm getting impatient doll, either you tell us where we can find Silent, or you're gonna be number 27 on my belt." With that, the Leader got his Knife out and threatened her with it.
Putting on the most innocent and frightened voice she could, Cat replied " I have no idea where he is. He travelled with us, but we ran into some trouble two days back, and he was gone since. He could be anywhere." At the same time, she drove one of her hands into her pockets, grabbing some of the loose screams and nails she used for the Noise traps. If this brute was gonna hit her again, he was gonna regret it, because now that he had pulled out his knife, his shotgun was no longer controlled, no longer a threat. Her "claws" would be though. She had to be fast though, it didn't seem like any of the others were going to help her, and in order to take on three guys, all of which armed to the teeth, she'd need to use the element of surprise wisely.
An odd gentleman indeed...Eccentric, maybe..
Loading an FMJ round, he took careful aim at the burly man. Remembering that Eastern man's request, however, he aimed at his knee.
Whatever he wants from you...he's getting it.
Aiming at a weakspot on his knee, he fired his rifle. Tearing through the Hunter's knee, he winced as the blood-curtling sound of his knee splitting reached him.
He didn't need to see to know what he's done. Quickly grabbing a JHP round, he loads the round into the rifle, as he brings his scope back up...
Cat realised what must have happened before she heard the bang. The guys knee in front of her burst into a million tiny fleshy bits and about half a second later, he went down screaming in agony.
Time stood almost still. It's what adrenaline does to you, and Cat was glad for it. With her leg, she deflected the barrel of the shotgun away from her, before spinning around the leader, taking careful stock of the two guys in from t of her. The one to the right was quicker to react and had already unslung his shotgun, about to level it with her head, as she quickly ducked way and used the leaders shoulder for cover.
He screamed even louder as the pellets tore through his flesh and with a lighting- fast spin, she turned away from the bleeding heap that just a second ago had threatened her and, using the time required to re- pump the shotgun, covered the distance between her and guy number two. Using him as a shield against the third guy, she ducked under his raising barrel and swept for his knee with her knuckleduster. Although she wasn't strong, the nails and screws burrowed themselves deep into his cartilage and she could hear a satisfying crunch, as she tore apart his ligaments.
Before she could react again though, the guy slammed her forehead with the shotgun stock, smacking her back onto the floor. Cat rolled quickly away, but when she looked up, she was facing both guys, one of them on his knees, levelling their shotguns on her. "This is it, she thought. This is how I die."
"Geez, too late for negotiations it seems... I might get a shot though", thought Nails, desperately trying to see through his scope.
Then the flash and sound of a shotgun happened. With trees and bushes obscuring most of the scene, Nails didn't see much, until few seconds later, clean picture of a shotgun barrel reflecting some moonlight appeared in his scope. "Our group has no shotguns" - this thought went though Nails' head in a tiny fraction of a second, as he aimed a bit to the right of the shotgun barrel. The moment he was ready to pull the trigger, shotgun turned and went a bit up, as if pointed at someone. Nails quickly adjusted, and pulled the trigger.
The JHP bullet hit the guy who was on his knees, ready to unload his shotgun point-blank to Cat. It went into his right shoulder, and through his body, literally exploding his right lung into bloody mess. He lost consiousness instantly, dropping like a sack of bones onto the ground.
"We'll kill every darn one of you, bastards, if you hurt the girl!" - shouted Nails, chambering another round. He was not sure if his shot took out his target, but he was sure rifle shots from two different locations would make their attackers think twice before killing Cat.
The sudden blast sharpened Ghoul's nerves, he could smell the gunpowder and blood through the air. His body was invigorated with a sudden new energy.
He brought the sword twirling around his head with both hands on the hilt while using his whole body as momentum to add to the strike.
He brought the blade to it's target - the neck.
He could hear the blade cleave through the flesh and bone. With the adrenaline rushing, he could sense everything in detail. The movement of everything was slowed down.
The blade gleamed in the moonlight, he could see and feel the blade steadily making it's mark on the target. The first few moments, it made sickening rips and a sharp crack as it sliced through blood droplets flicked off and glittered in the faint light. The smell of blood filled his nostrils mixed in with the scent of the forest.
The rush subsided and it was all over, his perception returned to normal as he watched the decapitated head slid off it's original place. The head dropped with a thump and the eyes blinked for a few moments then glazed over. Blood gushed from the wound and poured onto the ground when the body fell over, forming a thick red goop.
He brought the sword around his head again, but this time he flicked the blood off the blade. The blade still shimmered a deep crimson in the faint moonlight.
He stared directly at the deceiving woman, and displayed a full grin of sharp teeth.
"I haven't felt this alive in a while..." He paused and turned sideways. He kept both the woman and the trees in his peripheral vision. He then pulled out a red rag from his pocket to wipe off the remaining blood.
When it was finished he sheathed it and looked at the woman, and simply said this: "It's over now. You can ease up a little."
He turned his head slowly to the forest where he heard a man scream a threat to the now butchered group.
"Care to come out? I promise I won't bite." A when he said this, a small mischievous grin appeared on his face.
Muzzle flashes and thunderous reports assaulted Eric's senses, leaving his ears ringing and his sight blurry. His .38 was empty, and he was still too tired to discern what exactly was happening. Eric hugged the ground as tightly as he could and rummaged through his backpack, hoping to retrieve the sling in a timely fashion. After his inefficient scrambling, Eric rose to a crouch with the sling in his left hand, and the bloodstained crowbar in his right. He would fling the heaviest stone at his disposal at the next shotgun blast fired; that was the best he could do for the time being.
Cat was surprised when first one of the guys with shotguns collapsed as his lungs blew out, and then the second lost his head a moment later. She instinctively covered her face, but when she put her hands back down, she just saw a guy in a black cloak and with a katana look at her. She was somewhat disheartened by his wicked smile, but then again, it was all too common these days to find people who took joy in killing.
"I guess I have you to thank for still breathing… This one," she pushed Bruce with the tip of her boot, receiving a whimpering sound, "he's still alive. Whatever he did to piss you off, he's yours. But why save me? And who are you? Why are you here? I can't let you near the camp until I know more. Don't try anything either, you know there's at least one more person out there with a rifle, and you've seen what he can do."
With no more gunfire, Nails could hear an unfamiliar man's voice, and recognised most of words said. Then he heard Cat's voice, it was slightly louder than man's, and Nails understood all she said.
"Cat, glad to hear you're alive", he said loudly, knowing his words will reach both her and the stranger who spoke with her. "I'll stay in cover. I'm listening. I heard what you said to him, Cat. Hey you, stranger! Don't count on me, or my partner with another rifle, or others from our group to come out and meet you. I appreciate you've saved Cat's life. But may be you did it to save yours. I don't blame you, but i don't trust you either. You hear"?
Then he quickly whispered to Rob and Eric: "don't move, guys". Then continued in loud voice:
"I am sending two men from our group to flank you now. If you try something silly, you're dead. If Cat will allow you to our camp, i'll talk with you from my position. If not, i'll talk with you when it's dawn. This is the last loud words you hear from me, i don't want to make myself well heard around any much of this forest, anymore. We'll talk when i can speak in low voice... If you'll survive that long".
Then Nails turned to Rob and Eric, and whispered: "it was a bluff about sending you guys to flank him. Don't go out. Let's stick together. There may be more enemies. Crawling through night forest is a russian roulette, i don't want to have you killed".
Ghoul's head whipped back at the girl who asked him a barrage of questions. He ignored the man in the forest guessing that he's with her.
He faced her and said in a softer tone.
"You're welcome." He ended with a bow. When he was finished, his eyes wandered down to the whimpering man beneath him. He flashed yet another wicked grin, disregarding the attitude he showed earlier.
"Yes, i'm glad that you said he's mine. After all we're just going to have a little "fun" is all." He ended his sentence with a pause and a sharp crack from his right index finger, he popped it with his right thumb.
"But let me continue on your questions." His grin fading away as he focused to answer her questions.
"I saved you because..." He focused his eyes on her, glaring daggers. "...They pissed me off." He said with gritted teeth and clenched fists. "And I wanted to get back at them." He finished.
He breathed a moment and was visually eased. Then he was back to answering her questions.
"My name is Ghoul." He paused for a second. "And I was here with a group for a man named Haelstein. Now my group seems to be dead."
He nudged a corpse with his boot for emphasis.
He took a deep breath and offered his hand to help her up, stepping a bit closer.
But he didn't end it there, it was time for him to ask a question.
"I've seen what he can do. But let me ask a question... Have you seen the full potential on what I can do?"
He couldn't help but give another smile.
"I don't know if we can trust this guy, he seems,"Rob paused "well I don't know,"
Rob had whispered so only Eric and Nails could hear.
He slowly pulled off his hood to reveal his full visage, and not just show his grin that seemed to shine through the abyssal blackness of his deep cowl.
Ghoul's eyes widened the narrowed, he still kept his Cheshire grin.
"That look on your face, you nervous?" He covered the distance with a long stride, still wearing his smile.
"I can smell the tension in the air. I feel as if I have a gun aimed at my head, how exciting!" He teased.
"What? Denying a gentleman an offer to help you up?" He cackled afterwards. He was inside the camp now, dangerously close.
Ghoul still had his hand held out and instead of the deranged smile, he replaced it with a warm one.
"My offer still stands, you know." His was hand held out, waiting for a responce.
Cat reluctantly took his hand, and, once standing, crossed her arms in front of her chest, blocking Ghouls way. "That's far enough. You have to forgive us if we don't trust you, but we have enough people who can kill already. We don't need you."
That was strictly speaking a lie. If they were going to go up against whatever was in Camp Grayling, then they'd need all the manpower they could get. But then again, rather have a friend less, than an enemy more…
This guy… even though he betrayed the group he was with in a heartbeat… he seemed to have a sense of respect and loyalty. That, and his weapon gave her a pretty good indication of where this man was from.
Ghoul sensed something was off. He couldn't see the definite marks of a liar, but that was only because this woman seemed to be skilled at doing so. Yet something still felt off about the air she was giving.
His training as a ex-criminal told him so. Two hard years of intimidating witnesses and rival members, Two hard years of sniffing out rats among the organisation, Two. Hard. years. Of training and learning from the veterans in the underworld of the east...
They say knowledge is power, and Ghoul is one of those people who like power.
"Hmm." Ghoul said thoughtfully. "I feel you do not trust me..." He paused. "But I tell you, you shouldn't trust 'Them'"
He cleared his throat.
"But never mind that, you want answers right?" He inhaled deeply. "The rumors of Honorable Eastern men are true... I was raised by these rules as a child, and know full well of honor and discipline... But yes, sometimes you have to break these codes to do what is needed."
He paused to let the woman process what was being told to her.
"I could tell these were dishonorable men, and I resented being around them. Their purpose was to kill and take what is not theirs."
"The people I know full and well." He paused for a moment seeming to get lost in thought for a moment, then continued.
"I could smell the blood of the innocent, the gunpowder, the general evil and filth emanating from them... Then again, who hasn't spilled their fair share of blood? Who hasn't done their 'necessary' evil in this world?"
"It's the world we were all raised in, we all suffered in. No matter who you are, all walks of life has suffered, and I've come to realize that all of us are equal in a way that we all share similar experiences in this unforgiving world."
He stared at her for a thoughtful moment.
"Most have a purpose. It's what keeps us going, it's what prevents us from giving up."
"If you tell me your purpose, then why shouldn't I tell you mine?"
He ended with a smile that showed he was satisfied.
Rob cold hear the strange man talking, and was still pondering the question, and still found no answer, yes, he seemed honorable, but was he really a good person, only time could give him the answer.
Rob would try and keep his eyes on the man.
There was something soothing about the Assassin's voice, very smooth with a slight eastern tinge. Despite that though, Cat didn't want to take any chances… The guy liked to talk, but he didn't say anything in the "answer" he gave her. On the other hand, he did protect Silent and did help her. Although she still didn't trust him, there was a strange air of acceptance around her all of a sudden. She quickly snapped back though… She'd have to learn to keep her sentiment out of these things, she had to learn to be tougher.
"You can sleep over there by the tree. Just be assured, we have far more people, so if you do try and sneak up on us, well, we've got the men to keep you watched all night. Simply don't try it."
Cat was getting tired of this stand off. Maybe, by letting him sleep, she could discuss this with the others…
When he heard this he smiled heartily.
"Thank you for trusting me." He bowed. "You won't regret it, I promise." He finished.
He walked over to the tree the Woman said to sleep.
He quickly unpacked. He unrolled his sleeping pad and set down his bag placed his cloak down as a sheet to separate him from the pad.
He pulled a camouflage tarp out and a rope out. He wrapped one end of the rope to a tree and the other side to the one next to it.
He created a simple 'A' frame tarp shelter. His cloak and Sleeping pad served as a mattress and sheet. His bag was behind him, and his Katana was leaning on a tree, close by if he ever needed it.
He removed his heavy leather jacket and set it on the ground. next was his hoodie and long-sleeve shirt, and all that was remaining was a black undershirt.
He took his black hiking boots off and set them next to him. Comfortable, he tended to his sword. When he was finished, he meditated for 30 minutes and settled down to rest, moving comfortably into his jacket as a blanket and using his duffle bag as a pillow, he slept.
"You should kill them all. They're asleep! Slit their throats and gut them, HANG THEIR ORGANS ON THE TREES! FEED ME, I SAID. FEED. ME."
A maniacal voice screamed in his head.
"Don't listen to him, they have the other people keeping a lookout for you. If you try anything they will not hesitate to kill you. We want the DMC pass and nothing else. Remember that. After you get what you want, you're free to dispose of them however you like."
A serious and grim voice said, interrupting the maniacal one.
"They trust you, it's not like you to betray someone who takes a chance in trusting you. Are you not the honorable man you claim to be?"
A calm and authoritative voice said.
Ghoul's voice commanded.
"I'm in control here. We went through all this trouble to save them, might as well assist in their goals."
"And slaughter all that stands in our way."
"And achieve our true goal."
"And do it all with honor and discipline."
He continued his dreamless sleep. It was uncommon for him to control 'Them'. Nevertheless he was satisfied that for once in a while he had the silence of his mind versus the noise of the world.
It's been a while since he was at peace.
The night passed quietly, without any more disturbances. Cat rose, as usual, with the first ray of sunshine and started stretching out her muscles, getting ready for the trek ahead. About half an hour later, all the others were awake too and they all started packing together their belongings.
"Before we head off, what should we do with the bodies? And more importantly, they got body armour and three shotguns here, as well as more than enough shells. Also, Eric might find their tracking equipment, or some information about who exactly hired them. I do however want to get a move on as soon as possible… We're deep into Mutha territory here, and honestly, I don't wanna be anyone's little snack."
Ghoul pondered thoughtfully at the words.
His cloak softly swaying in the direction of the wind gave a calming presence to him, but possibly an ominous one to others.
"I suggest that we do what you said, in a sense."
"Maybe this "Eric" person should search the electronic equipment."
"I apologize, I don't know who is who as we were not truly introduced with one another."
He inhaled deeply in thought.
"Everyone who is experienced with firearms, and can handle a shotgun's recoil, should take it." He paused. "I prefer my sword, for I am not truly experienced with firearms."
He looked at the armor.
"It would be wise to give me body armor. Since I would be fighting up-close with an enemy, and you never know when they might do the dishonorable thing once they know they're bested." He gave a quick nod once, staring at the corpses.
"With this equipment however, I doubt some petty thug would best us."
He ended with a patient silence.
"I don't wont any guns, to loud, but some armor would be nice... considering the fight we had in the city," said Rob.
"As for the journey ahead of us, I suggest we move slowly," he paused "Move to fast and we might attract something,"
Rob wasn't much of a speech guy, but he somehow felt more... better than usual.
Rob paid little attention to this new man, but was intrigued by his apparel, and weaponry, Rob himself was somewhat gifted in the art of swordsmanship, but disliked the idea of a closeup fight after the one in the city.
Though he did want to befriend this man, get on his good side, maybe avoid something bad.
Grabbing a piece of body armour from the decapitated guard and collecting one of the shotguns and there ammo pouch, she then looked up at Rob's words.
"Rob, we'll move as fast as your leg allows… This territory is dangerous and the quicker we pass it or find a good place to shelter, the better." She felt sorry for him, as he must have been in pain, but this was not the place to stop and rest. Her maps indicated some areas in the vicinity though, that might be of interest to them.
Then turning to the man with the katana, she said "I'm sorry about the way in which we met, but I'm sure you'll respect our caution." Then, she introduced the man to their group. "I'm Cat, the leader of this merry band of adventurers. And who would you be?"
Nails had barely a few hours of very sporadic nap last night. His mood was grim.
While moving around the camp, getting close to Rob at some moment, Nails said: "Rob, you better take a shotgun too, much better than a bow, you know. And probably more shots, too".
Few moments later, seeing Cat questioning the new guy, he turned to him, waited for Cat to finish, and then spoke right after her - without pause, as if continuing her speech.
"I'm Nails. As i told you during the night, i have a few questions for you. I'll make it simple. I want you to tell us: first, how your group tracked us; second, why it tracked us - what these men we and you killed were after; third, what you know about what our group is doing at this time, and who sent us; fourth, who you work for; fifth, how you earn your bread - what you do for the living; sixth, why are you still here".
"I'll clarify the last one, for you. You are a stranger to us, and we demonstrated very well how quick we can kill. So you did. But you're alone, and we are five. You can't be sure that we won't shoot you dead on the spot and take your katana for a glorious can opener. It means you are willing to take the risk of staying with us. I want to know why".
If i'll see him lying, or if he won't answer, then i'll demand him to surrender his sword. If he won't do that, i'll see him go to the horizon at my gunpoint. If he won't do that too, refusing to leave, then i will kill him. It's enough we have Eric's device carrying a bug. We need no rat to join us. And that guy looks quite the type, with his all black clothing and mad talk.
Rob nodded and went over to one of the bodies, taking a shotgun.
Waiting for Nails to be done talking, "I'm Rob, now I have a pretty horrible past, and I can sense that you have had a deal of sadness to," Rob stopped, and stared at the man for about 30 seconds, as if trying to find out his past, his story.
"Questions, Questions." He said in a mischievous tone.
"I like talking about myself, but before I answer any of 'Your' questions, answer mine."
"Didn't your mother tell you about manners?" He chuckled softly.
"I also recommend you hold your tongue when speaking of the soul of my warrior spirit."
He ended tapping the hilt of his sword on his back, then bringing it down to his waist.
He made a grim face.
"But enough of that." He cleared his throat.
"To explain in detail, I was with that group because I needed a DMC pass. A pass I can acquire by capturing any high-class criminals and turning them in. I planned on turning these pigs right in here."
He nudged one of the corpses
"But back to the question. I honestly don't know how they tracked you. Their utter distasteful attitude left me out of the conversations most of the times. From what little I was informed of however, they were using some tracking device to find a signal one of the devices were broadcasting."
"The group was after a man named Haelstein, sound familiar?" He paused "The man has no interest to me, but to them it was important. Something about an old war criminal. But that's what I overheard."
"As for the third question... I just knew that Haelstein or... 'Silent' was it? - Was with a group. No information was given on your intentions."
He stared at the bodies
"I suppose the ones I worked for are beneath our feet... But on second thought, I guess you can say I am working for a DMC captain, as said before, getting a high-class criminal and turning them in for a DMC pass."
"'How do I earn my bread' was it?" He laughed.
He stared at the man for a moment.
"How humorous. But for your answer, I have been training in the way of the sword and martial arts for twenty-four years now."
"I've been trained in the most brutal ways possible in human warfare and bloodshed." He bared a half-grin of sharp teeth.
"I'm so effective I can slaughter all of you in fifteen different ways within four minutes. All your actions have a plan, and a countermeasure."
His eyes sweeped across everyone, focusing for a moment.
He then continued.
"So naturally, I was able to fit in as an Assassin, a 'Cleaner', and a smuggler working in the criminal underworld of the east."
"But I left due to personal reasons."
He blinked twice, as if to get the flashes of memory out of his eyes.
"You did demonstrate you can kill. But which one is better? I don't see you to be the dishonorable types"
His eyes flicked away for a moment.
"I could've easily slaughtered all of you, starting with Haelstein. But I didn't, did I?"
"That gives you a reason to trust me. But I trust you because my intuition tells me you need help with your journey."
"And why deny someone who can kill mercilessly and throw away when you don't need him?"
He looked at the ground and shaked his head disapprovingly.
"As I said, we all have our goals. Maybe when I help your goal, you can help mine?"
"You scratch my back, I scratch yours?"
He ended with a slow exhale.
Alexander dragged his sleeve across his eyes, wincing as his dried eyes stung.
Having stayed up all night, he felt the ravages of a sleepless night creeping up on him, as he did a mental check of his loot.
Having appropriated a loaded shotgun and a box of eight shells from one of the bodies in the middle of the night, he had spent most of the night keeping the shotgun pointed at Ghoul. And so he continued to do so, hidden behind a bush, close enough to hear the conversation and, should the winds turn, cause some grievous injuries with the shotgun.
Much as your skill is impressive, alas, you cannot dodge a shotgun.
Listening to Ghoul's answers, he felt a few familiar tinges rising up, listening to his boasts of his skill at murder, Alexander felt a rare tingle of emotion as he smirked, though it quickly disappeared.
So you didn't do your reading...
Recalling the images, they were a kaleidoscope of murder, death, blood and gore.
My name would've probably replaced the definition for "Deniable Operations" had I not lost my murderlust...
Rob stood, not moving.
Did he just say...talk about Silent?
Rob then tried to think of something ell's, but this would stay in his head for a while.
Slowly, he checked the bodies for some ammo, and luckily, the body he searched had 6 shells, he now had a total of 7 shells.