To the residents within the walled city:
Monsters are real.
I’m not talking the hypothetical monsters under the bed, or merely unkind people. I’m talking tangible, bona fide monsters. Like a scientist labeled a bunch of legs, each with a terrifying animal trait, then handed the collection to a toddler. The resulting creatures are running rampant throughout our world now.
I assume you, the people protected from these horrors, are simply unaware of the aforementioned facts, and that is why you refuse to acknowledge us. This letter is, first and foremost, a plea for help. Your gates are locked from the inside. We’re trapped out here, and many of those who’ve learned to survive these last 15 years are as feral as the monsters.
We don’t just need sanctuary, but your help in taming these lands again. I understand you retain the technology from before all this: antibiotics, heat without a flame, insulation. Any occupied building out here have become targets for monsters and the feral folk alike. For the sake of all the humans left in the world, please help us! You’ve stayed oblivious behind that concrete and barbed wire long enough, haven’t you?
My friend and protector grew up inside your city. He doesn’t think you’ll ever read this letter, much less do anything about it. But I haven’t lost faith in you all. I’m hoping you’ve simply been ignorant. Please, please prove him wrong.
The morning was just moist enough that it was hard to tell if it was a drizzle or the typical early morning dew. The tall pines dripped what they collected onto the campsite below, but its occupants were unaffected by the miserable weather. Or, more accurately, they were used to it.
Gabriel couldn’t help but think his friend as an odd one. Lauren was smarter and more well-read than anyone he knew, yet she had no trouble maintaining her faith in humanity. His experiences these last ten years – he had escaped the sheltered city five years after they’d erected the wall to keep out the monsters they’d created – continuously reinforced what experience had taught him to be true: people couldn’t be trusted, inside the wall or out.
Lauren was special, though. He refused to trust his heart to anyone else, but he had seen enough people die alone out here to understand that the “lone wolf” mentality wouldn’t cut it if he wanted to survive. He needed someone to watch his back, and meeting Lauren, she clearly needed someone to watch hers. She was as studious as she was clever, and would likely have made a lovely young bride by this point in her life, had she been fortunate – or entitled – enough to have grown up inside the city. Grateful as he was for her presence, Gabriel wished almost daily that she had grown up in a different era, far away from the world now.
“What if we hide it?” she asked, breaking the pre-dawn silence.
Gabriel glanced away from his view of their meadow to see her studiously weaving cedar branches for a fresh roof before the season’s rain would start. It wasn’t clear to him that he hadn’t imagined the odd phrase until she glanced up at him expectantly. “Hide what?” he asked.
“Your key.” Ah. He’d stolen it when he fled the city. Lauren had this insane idea to use it to get back in. It’d probably work, but even announcing they had it would bring raiders and clans down on them faster than a flying spider swarm.
“Or we could throw it in the center of the lake,” he offered. “That’d keep it hidden.” He wore it around his neck as a reminder of life that wasn’t centered around clawing for survival, and why he had chosen to flee the city. But Gabriel just wasn’t ready to be rid of it for good, so he kept wearing it.
“I don’t mean forever, she corrected. “Just until I can convince you to join me to the city.”
How many times did they have to have this conversation? “Lauren. The city will not help us.”
“Not if we don’t ask.” Paper was rare nowadays, but the resourceful young woman had managed to not only find some, but pen a letter to the city’s occupants. Gabriel hadn’t read a word in years, but Lauren rarely spent a day without a book in her hand at some point.
But telling her no wouldn’t help. “Fine.” The people in that city posed as much of a threat to her as the raiders or monsters out here. “You go, get yourself killed, and I’ll find someone less optimistic to watch my back.”
She set her work aside with one hand, fluttering the letter between them as she stood. “If you’re never going back, then why not give me the key.”
“No.” It was all that had kept him sane – kept him human – out here all these years. Now-distant memories of parents, a sister. All wrapped up in that little metal stick. Still, practicality told him she did have a point. “Where would you hide it that the feral folk wouldn’t find?” They were all nomadic out here. If the other humans got a hold of the key, they’d ransack the city and destroy the wall, like everything else they touched.
She stopped her advance. “Have you heard of the Red Ghost of Arizona?”
Gabriel had never even left his home state of Oregon. “No.”
“Late 1800s, after the Civil War. The people of Arizona had never seen a camel before. So when showed up with the rotting corpse of a Confederate soldier strapped to its back, they feared it. Called it a ghost.”
“What’s your point?” He asked, eyeing her sideways before scanning the horizon for threats again. All clear.
“My point is, animals continue living even if something is attached to them. And it’ll stay for as long as we need it to. The Red Ghost haunted Arizona for like a decade.”
“You want me to attach me key to a camel?” They were in the mountains, far from a desert worthy of the animal.
“Or a deer,” Lauren corrected. He could feel her watching him as he figured it out.
Gabriel’s companion named everything, including one of the deer who frequented their meadow below. Since having a deer invariably brought more, Gabriel spared the same one and hunted the rest, hence the name she had given it. “Judas?”
Lauren nodded. “He’ll come to you, but run from the raiders. Secure, mobile, and can’t be taken away.” Her hands went out, letter still flapping in her enthusiasm. “What more could you want?” she asked.
“Perhaps an inedible hiding place?” he countered.
She only seemed disheartened for a moment. “Right. Well, I’ll keep thinking.”
“You do –”
A thunderous crash shook the air, sounding from up the hill. No – not thunder. Not human, either.
Gabriel dropped his machete – it would be dangerous get close enough to use it against something that size. He needed his spear.
“Run,” he ordered Lauren, kicking mulch over the fire as his eyes scanned the horizon. No movement visible.
“I can –”
“Go.” he’s never forgive himself if she got hurt. Lauren was a good and faithful companion, obeying without another protest. She paused only to sweep up her bag before disappearing out of his peripheral vision behind him. She’d know where to meet him.
There – up the hill. A full-fledged charge from the car-sized monster, straight into a towering pine. The tree and its surrounding brethren quaked at the impact, answered by a sprinkling of water droplets to the forest floor. Gabriel held his breath, praying that the wrecking ball of a monster would do its thing and be on its way. Unlikely, he knew, as the breeze was at his back, carrying his, Lauren’s, and the campfire’s scent up the slope. Stifling the fire caused extra smells for that moment, but so long as the beast didn’t detect them in the next 30 seconds or so, their campsite might just be spared. These things hated anything fire, and even destroying buildings if they were occupied.
The monster was midway through gouging the forest floor in preparation for another charge when it froze. Damn. Gabriel watched as it slowly raised its head, stopping once the massive tusks and horn were parallel to with the forest.
Please lose the scent.
Its head swept Gabriel’s direction. He could only imagine the fury in the animal as huge clouds of hot breath huffed from beneath those tusks, visible even from this distance. There was no hiding now.
Gabriel threw his hands in the air, lifting the spear high, and roared as loud as the wet morning air would allow him to. He’d only heard second-hand that they could be intimidated away, but it was too late to hide now anyway.
If anything, Gabriel’s movements incensed the beast.
Survival out here had calloused Gabriel to most fear, but terror still clamped its hand around his lungs at the sight of the two-ton animal trampling shrubbery and sending mulch flying to get to him.
No. Gabriel wasn’t going to die here, and certainly not at the whim of an herbivore.
He only had time to plant the butt of his spear at the roots of a massive oak before the beast was walloping its way through camp to get to him. Gabriel threw his spine against the bark, lowering the fire-hardened point just in time.
With that much weight, it was impossible for the monster to stop in time. It ran into Gabriel’s spear, piercing the pectoral muscles and straight through to the heart.
Gabriel was nearly crushed by the mass of meat, and what little air he could find was saturated in the monster’s breath. Not as bad as a carnivore’s, at least.
His entrapment didn’t last long, however, as the beast pulled away, whipping in agony.
Gabriel was more than happy to drop to the ground to dodge the wildly swinging spear. Staying too long could end up with the fragile bones in his hand permanently crushed – or worse. Gabriel waited, face in the moist forest mulch, for the spear to whoosh overhead, then sprang up.
Before he could even get his weight under him, a tusk swung back the other way, slamming his gut with more force than a baseball bat. Already free of gravity, the blow easily threw him the short distance back into the oak. It felt like he’d jumped off a building to land flat on his back, paralyzing every function in his core, before the world shifted again, dumping him face-first into the forest floor again.
Gabriel didn’t want to move again. Some part of his brain begged him to get out of the monster’s destructive path, but that seemed to be the only thing functioning at that moment. His ears were next to recover, identifying the location of the beast to his left as it raged against the small shelter he and Lauren had built. It was likely reduced to splinters. If not now, then soon, anyway. Then it’d likely come after him once it finished.
A cry split the air, washing over every bit of information Gabriel was trying to gather. Not a cry of pain, nor one of any monster or animal he knew. A human cry. A war cry.
The beast stopped moving, as alarmed by the sound as he was. Gabriel managed to push himself up enough to turn his head in the direction of the sound. Lauren was mid-air, axe held high over her head. She ran out of sound just before landing on the brute’s back.
On impact, the monster returned its wrath. Gabriel could only watch as she hugged its back, praying she stabilized herself before the monster finished its work. Lauren kept one hand down, both knees resting her weight on the wide back and using her last limb to swing the axe into the monster’s neck.
The deafening roar stopped Gabriel’s heart but seemed to jump start his adrenaline. He had to help, and soon, or it would buck Lauren off. She was using all her might to yank her weapon free again. Blood gushed from the beast’s neck, matching the ooze pulsing from the log of wood in its chest.
The spear. Gabriel launched himself at it, grabbing and shoving it a couple inches deeper, Lauren’s axe falling again as he did. The creature didn’t know which way to turn. It lowered its head, and for a moment Gabriel thought it might be conceding. Then it changed direction, lifting its deadly horn Gabriel’s direction. He managed to sidestep, releasing the spear, but it still caught his right arm, gouging a line of blood in the flesh just below the elbow. In the heat of battle, he barely felt it.
He found the spear with his hands again, twisting and driving it as deep into the creature as he could. The massive beast started to give, stepping back as Lauren’s axe found the other side of its neck. Gabriel renewed his push, and this time it gave. Yes!
The monster landed on its rear, sending Lauren sliding away, axe still embedded in the side of its neck. Unable to force the spear any deeper into the creature, Gabriel pushed it sideways, stirring the insides. The beast’s rib cage didn’t give much room for movement, instead knocking it over.
It was done fighting. The monster landed on its side, massive chest heaving as it struggled just to breathe. Lauren popped up from behind the beast, intent on trying to dig her axe out from under it. Gabriel spied his machete – mercifully untrampled in the melee – and snatched it.
“Sorry dude,” Lauren said to the creature, more executioner than logger now. She swung, and Gabriel matched her, sliding the sharp edge across the tender neck of the beast.
A sudden quiet washed over them, interrupted only by his and Lauren’s ragged breathing. They’d survived another day.
Gradually Lauren’s breathing morphed into a slow laugh. When Gabriel glanced her direction, he was surprised to see her grinning from ear to ear, muck still clinging to the side of her face and hair.
“What’s so funny?”
At his question, her laugh burst forth in full.
“What?” he insisted. There was nothing funny about barely escaping death. Again.
“You fight like a girl,” she managed. Considering how much she’d done to take the beast down, it was practically a compliment.
But seriously? “You could have died!” he scolded, free to be angry at her foolishness now that the threat had passed.
“And you would have, if not for me.” She flicked a wet leaf from her hair before combing it with her fingernails.
“Better one than both of us,” Gabriel argued. “When I tell you to –”
“I think what you’re trying to say is thank you, so I will say you’re welcome.” She dropped her axe to her left hand, offering her right to him. “Stronger together?” It was their motto, born from when she had convinced him to let her tag along.
He had to admit he was grateful for her courage, and his life because of it. “Stronger together,” he agreed, taking her hand and shaking it.